Friday, 29 October 2010

there's one for you, nineteen for me....

Earworms of the Week


"Theme from Shaft" - Isaac Hayes

What can I say?  The facts speak for themselves: on the night when we all did karaoke in Ho Chi Minh City, this was the performance that the machine scored the highest all night.  98%.  Who's the black private dick who's like a sex machine to all the chicks?  Er.  Me?  You're damn right!

"All Along the Watchtower" - Jimi Hendrix

When confronted with the news this morning that some people had been queuing for Take That tickets since Wednesday, the Radio Five breakfast show asked who you would consider waiting that long in the cold for.  My immediate reaction: Hendrix.  I'm not sure why that was my first thought.  Basically, I'm not sure there's anyone I'd queue for like that at all, so I just went for someone dead, and he popped into my head before I even got as far as the Beatles.  The Smiths?  Only if I could see them as they were c.1985.  I'm not sure I want to see them reform.  Anyway.  This is a cracking song, of course.  Knocks the Dylan version into a cocked hat.  What a liquid, languid guitarist Hendrix was.

"Search & Destroy" - Iggy Pop & The Stooges

Whenever I hear this, I am reminded that I first heard the song as a b-side of "Under The Bridge" by the Red Hot Chili Peppers.  I still quite like their version, but there's no substitute for the Stooges, is there?

Theme tune to "Blackadder"

If I was talking about Dorothy Parker with the guys who sit around my new desk the other day, today I spent a good half hour discussing the Plantagenet family tree with the guy who sits next to me.  Amazingly, he started the conversation, perhaps little realising that I have a masters degree in Medieval History, and was hardly likely to leave his assertion that Richard III was the last Plantagenet unchallenged.  In my view, dynastically speaking, the Plantagenet line ended in 1399 with the death of Richard II.  The Lancastrians and the Yorkists both CLAIMED descent from the Plantagenet line, but only through a younger brother.  As primogeniture applies, I don't think that dynastically that counts.  The Lancastrians and the Yorkists were thus cadet (i.e. not descended through the first born son) branches of the Plantagenet line.  Henry VII also claimed lineage through the Angevin line, but as it was through his mother and via an illegitimate connection anyway, that definitely doesn't count.  Discussion of English history?  Cue the Blackadder theme tune - Edmumd himself related to Richard IV of England, of course.....

"Patterns" - Band of Skulls

As last year, I've been lining up albums to gift to my younger brother for his birthday.  Last year, I gave him things like Elbow and Maximo Park, but the real hit was Mumford & Sons, which sits proudly atop his LastFM charts.  This year I was thinking Mt.Desolation, "Bryter Layter" by Nick Drake, "The Greatest" by Cat Power and the Band of Skulls album.  Quite a bit of variety in there, anyway, and he's not heard of any of them.  I love that Band of Skulls album, and was listening to it again in the office, with the inevitable result that this song sank straight in and wouldn't let go.

"Today" - Smashing Pumpkins

Apparently Victoria Pendelton, the multiple gold medal winning cyclist on the Great British team, has "Today is the greatest day I've ever known" tattooed on her wrist.  She finds it inspirational, apparently, and a source of real strength.  She said she didn't have the next couple of lines put on quite deliberately:

"Can't live for tomorrow,
Tomorrow's much too long
I'll burn my eyes out
Before I get out
"

Possibly because there just isn't room on her wrist, or more likely because it all gets a bit depressing.   Great record, anyway.  Check out Billy Corgan in the video too.  Hair!

What lyric would you tattoo?  I was thinking: "I will be in the bar, with my head on the bar".  Either that or "RED WAR WILL FALL ON MY ENEMIES".

"Killing an Arab" - The Cure

The song that got me interested in the Cure.  Oh Meursault.....

"Hate to Say I Told You So" - The Hives

Their first, and still their best, song.  Is it me, or is this timeless?  It still sounds AMAZING.

"Infinite Dreams" - Iron Maiden

I don't know whether you've noticed, but quite often the earworms list I publish here on a Friday contains at least one song that I've used a lyric from for a post in the last few days.  Using song lyrics as your post headers when you are ridiculously susceptible to earworms thus becomes something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.  As I was discussing with Stef and the Reed brothers the other day, Seventh Son of a Seventh Son was always my favourite Iron Maiden album when I was a teenager, but when I listened to it the other day, I was very disappointed to find that the production has dated quite badly since 1988.  You listen to songs like "The Trooper" and "Aces High" and the classic Iron Maiden sound is present and correct and still sounds great.  For some reason, the song on this album haven't aged as well.  That said, this one has been stuck on a loop in my head for some time now, so it must have done something right.

"Taxman" - The Beatles 

I got back from work this evening to find a cheque from the Inland Revenue for some £973 and a few pence.  That 9 months I took off keeps on getting better and better.  Can I take another one, starting now?

Oh please? 

That's your lot, kids.  We're watching "A Haunting in Connecticut" with some friends on Halloween.  It was trailed on the "Adventureland" DVD we rented, and even the trailer was terrifying, so when it appeared on the checkout at the Coop for £4, C. snapped it up and proudly showed it to me when I got home from work that evening.  C. likes scary movies, you see.  I don't. 

I'm watching "Team America: World Police" tonight.  That's much more my thing.  Fuck yeah!

Have a good weekend y'all. 

Thursday, 28 October 2010

inspire me.....

the view at my desk: click to enlarge
 
The other day, I was hovering around waiting for my boss to show up for a meeting, when I happened to have a closer look at the desk of the director of our department. He's only been in the job a few months, but his desk makes it clear that he means business - he's got a framed quote by Winston Chuchill and everything.

Sure I am this day we are masters of our fate, that the task which has been set before us is not above our strength; that its pangs and toils are not beyond our endurance. As long as we have faith in our own cause and an unconquerable will to win, victory will not be denied us.

It's a quote that resonates enough to apparently form one of the mottos of the US Navy Seal special forces unit, but obviously a quote intended to inspire a beleaguered nation during the Second World War could equally well be applied to the cut-throat world of corporate Information Systems.

Me, I choose a different sort of quotation to provide me with the motivation to struggle onwards as I sit at my desk trawling through email:

Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp;
Guns aren't lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

When I moved desk a couple of weeks ago, my new neighbours asked me what it was. It's "Résumé", a poem by Dorothy Parker, I replied. Ah, they said. When I came back to my desk a little later, one colleague wasn't quite fast enough at closing down the window on his monitor showing that he had been on wikipedia looking up Dorothy Parker.

Every day's a schoolday, right?

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

me, I'm touchy....

I'm beginning to think that I should have trusted my instincts and never got involved with Facebook in the first place.

A friend of mine - well the ex-wife of a friend of mine that I'm still acquainted with mainly through Facebook, lovely though she most certainly is - put up a status update with a link to the news that a giant nine foot tall stag had been shot dead in Exmoor.  The killing was apparently legal, but that doesn't make it any less sad that such a magnificent animal was cut down for the sake of somebody's entertainment.  It's sad news, and the majority of people who responded to the link, me included, mainly made appropriately sad and regretful noises.  Except one person:

"I too was very sad to think some idiot shot him. The word idiot in french mean male not female Cannot imagine a woman would do that"

OK.  She's sad too, but what the hell is she going on about?  How is this about men, exactly?  We have no information on who pulled the trigger, and it hardly seems appropriate to be making sweeping sexist generalisations on the subject.  I couldn't resist.  I replied:

"Um. Not to change the subject, but as a man, I feel compelled to point out that the word "idiot" derives from the ancient Greek. In Athenian democracy, an "idiot" was someone characterised by being concerned with private and not public affairs (itself derived from a Greek word meaning "lacking professional skill"). People were born idiots and became citizens through education. It has nothing to do with being specifically a male thing beyond the fact that women probably didn't exist officially back then.
Just sayin'.
Women are as capable of handling a gun as men. Just google Sarah Palin for a picture of her holding up the bloodied head of an elk she had just shot
."

Nothing like a smart-arse, eh?

A reply soon came along.

"The point of the word iriot was thatin french an e is at the end for a female Je suis une idiote"

I am, by now, aware that I am engaging in an argument with a connection of a connection of a friend of mine.  This is hardly the time or place to waste my breath.... So I continued wasting my breath.  How could I not in the face of that?

"....I'm not willfully picking a fight here, but the female equivalent of the word exists in French, so I don't understand your point. A penis is a female word in french, and a vagina is male, so I don't really see where you're going with this.
Nor does it justify your sexism. I'm sorry the stag died, but I don't see how this is about men and women.
"

(I also apologised to the lovely lady whose comments we were hijacking to have this little dialogue.  And yes, I do realise that it's Le pénis, but to be fair, the slang words for penis are mostly female in french, and vagina is definitely male....)

I know it's pointless (and quite possibly rude) to get involved like this, but how could anyone resist that kind of provocation?  As well as being sexist, this person is just plain wrong.  If you don't pick them up when you see them, then who will?  And now I feel guilty because my lovely friend has felt the need to delete the post, probably because of the unexpected shitstorm that kicked off when some idiot hijacked the comments section to her post.

Yeah, so I'm thinking that maybe I should not be on Facebook at all.  Either that or just stick to posting up the statistics of my latest run.

I really am sad about that stag too.  What a pointless death. What a pointless argument too.  I sometimes think that I could pick a fight in an empty room.  With or without the help of the internet.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

infinite dreams....

OK. That's it. I can't bite my lip any longer. I have to speak out.

You know that advert with the monkeys attempting to make coffee? It's got Bill Nighy doing what is apparently his first ever commercial voiceover. He shouldn't have bothered: I hate it.

Why get upset about an advert, I hear you cry. Why waste your energy? Well, for one thing, it's already been criticised by animal welfare organisations:

The advert uses 16 individuals from five species from around the world and shows them climbing over the machines and breaking crockery in a brightly-lit studio. Five animal welfare organisations have come together to formally oppose the ad, and suggest that the use of nonhuman primate “actors” could even be in contravention of the law, dependent on views on the correct interpretation of Section 9 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006

Said Rachel Hevesi of Wild Futures:

“With the release of this new advert, we feel the need to reiterate our long-held concerns on the use of wild animals in entertainment. Whilst they are used in this way their welfare is severely compromised, and it has a knock-on effect to the trade in the primates as pets in this country.

We are appealing to COSTA to pull the advert and reconsider its stance on the use of wild animals in future campaigns. What sits particularly uncomfortably with us is that COSTA is one of the coffee companies whose products are endorsed by Rainforest Alliance. To carry this well-respected accreditation and then to exploit rainforest animals in the sale of its products is an issue that we have raised with Rainforest Alliance directly. We are awaiting a formal response”.

If it's true that they've been mistreating animals, then obviously that's bad. It is not, however, what upsets me. It's the tone:

Cut to a load of monkeys climbing over coffee machines:

"It is said, that if you give a room full of monkeys a typewriter each, then, in time, they will write the entire works of Shakespeare....so if we gave the monkeys coffee machines instead, would they come up with the perfect cup of coffee?"

Cue scenes of monkeys smashing up the coffee machines and generally making a mess.

"No.  Because great coffee isn't born of luck, it takes time and training to be an expert barista.  Not all coffees are created equal"....blah, blah, blah.

Right. First of all, it's not a room of monkeys given time, it's a single monkey given INFINITE time.

The infinite monkey theorem states that "a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type a given text, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare".

That infinity is important: the theorem illustrates the perils of reasoning about infinity by imagining a vast but finite number, and vice versa. The probability of a monkey exactly typing a complete work such as Shakespeare's Hamlet is so tiny that the chance of it occurring during a period of time of the order of the age of the universe is minuscule, but not zero. Having a roomful of monkeys at keyboards rather than just one does not improve your chances over an infinite amount of time, even if it makes for a better visual for your commercial, as the infinity renders the actual number meaningless.

Secondly - and more importantly - what part of the theorem do you not understand if you think that our monkeys could not, over the course of time, come up with the perfect cup of coffee? That somehow the perfect cup of coffee isn't down to luck.  Is it easier or harder to write the entire works of Shakespeare by chance than it is to make a cup of coffee, would you say? (even if you aren't providing the monkeys with Nespresso machines....) Actually, over infinity the chances of both happening are exactly the same, but both will definitely happen... although I'm betting that the perfect (now there's a subjective measure. Who decides what that constitutes? What qualifies them to decide?) cup of coffee is made before the complete works of Shakespeare are replicated. Can you imagine being the monkey who types the complete works perfectly bar one typo on the last page? "The Edn". D'oh! Close but no cigar, my friend. How about a consolatory cup of coffee?

So the advert is stupid and it annoys me. It's trying to be clever and I think it misses the mark. How do you think Costa staff feel about an advert that is essentially saying "drink coffee here, our staff are better at making it than monkeys". That's not exactly a ringing endorsement, is it? For starters, it invites an easy gag.... if you pay peanuts.... etc. Have you even ever had a better than mediocre cup of coffee in a Costas anyway?

Gah!

Inevitably, someone has actually tried to replicate the infinite monkey theorem using real monkeys (but presumably not infinity). Their conclusion?

"Not only did the monkeys produce nothing but five pages consisting largely of the letter S, the lead male began by bashing the keyboard with a stone, and the monkeys continued by urinating and defecating on it."

Given that we usually don't have an infinite amount of time to wait, let's hope that our baristas are at least a little more sophisticated than that in their attempts to make our coffee.

...And don't even get me started on the Curry's advert currently on the air featuring R2D2 and C3PO.  Why George?  Why?

Monday, 25 October 2010

I wasn't really sure what was going on.....


A little before we left for our trip to Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, I read a book review in the Observer.  It was an excellent review, and although I couldn't remember the name of the book, it stuck in my head because of the subject matter: it was about the Vietnam war.

Most of us are familiar with the Vietnam War, or at least we think we are. Platoon, The Deer Hunter, Full Metal Jacket, Hamburger Hill, Apocalypse Now... hell, we've all seen so many films about the Vietnam War that we all think we know it inside out.  Spending some time in Vietnam really shifted my perceptions of the war.  For starters, I learned that the Vietnamese, - who fought many wars before they finally gained their independence in 1975 - simply call this conflict"The American War".  It may be a conflict that made an enormous imprint on the American psyche, but to the Vietnamese, it's just one war amongst many as they struggled to be a nation.  The relics of the American War are all around: the GI Helmets that lots of people wear on their scooters, the assorted bunkers and the bits of military hardware you see littered around the landscape.  There are other legacies too, like the deformities that are the long-term result of the spraying of defoliants like Agent Orange by the US during the war.  It's a beautiful country, but it must be hard to visit Vietnam and not be aware of a war that only ended during my lifetime.

When I got home, my interest was piqued and I wanted to learn more.  As well as digging out some of those movies, I remembered that book review and decided I'd give the book a read.  "Matterhorn" is a 600 page novel by Karl Marlantes, a former US marine and a Vietnam veteran. The plot is easily summarised and wikipedia does it as well as anyone:

"The book is set in Vietnam in 1969 and is based on the experiences of Marlantes, who commanded a Marine rifle platoon. The novel presents an unflinching look at the hardships endured by the Marines who waged the war on behalf of America. It concerns the exploits of second lieutenant Waino Mellas and his compatriots in Bravo Company, most of whom are teenagers. "Matterhorn" is the code name for a fire-support base located between Laos and the DMZ. At the beginning of the novel, the Marines control the base, but later they abandon it. The latter portions of the novel detail the struggles of Bravo Company to retake the base, which is now in enemy hands."

You'll know from that not to expect to gain great insight into the Vietnamese perspective on the war from this book.  And you don't.  This is a story told entirely from the perspective of the grunts on the ground.  To them, the North Vietnamese Army are the opposition; they are to be respected as adversaries and perhaps even admired, but if you don't kill them, they will certainly kill you.  The NVA are an ever-present threat, but in lots of ways, they aren't even really the enemy: just as dangerous, perhaps even more so are a host of other things that play a much more prominent hand in the fate or the marines in the book: incompetent staff officers sending them out on impossible missions with inadequate supplies; the tigers that prowl the jungle the troops patrol, looking for an easy meal; the leeches; the simmering tension between white and black troops; ringworm; jungle rot; the mosquitos.... The bigger politics of the war are invisible and irrelevant to the grunts in the bush, and Marlantes doesn't even begin to try and address them.  Instead he focuses relentlessly on what he knows: the life of a 2nd Lieutenant thrown into combat with a platoon of soldiers and the day-by-day struggle to stay alive for a full 13 month tour in an environment where everything seems determined to kill you or get you killed.

That alone probably makes for an interesting read, but what marks this book out for me is that Marlantes apparently has bigger ambitions for his writing.  Our hero, Mellas, is a 21-year old Ivy League graduate with a jumble of confused motives for volunteering for combat service in a war he could easily have ducked.  He is initially ambitious to progress through the ranks, seeing what a good service record, perhaps with a few medals, commendations and press mentions might do for his career back home.   Very quickly though, he is introduced to the madness that is Vietnam, where there seems to be no logic why one man should live and another should die.

So far, so like every other Vietnam novel or film, right?

What is remarkable here is the sheer detail. You know that the author has been here: Marlantes was awarded the Navy Cross, the Bronze Star, two Navy Commendation Medals for valor, two Purple Hearts, and ten air medals during his time in the marines in Vietnam, and his authenticity stands out a mile.  It's relentless:

"The small E-tool burned his blisters and sores. He watched the blood and pus from the jungle rot on his fingers and wrists smear in with the mud and rainwater. He paused occasionally to wipe his hands on his trousers, not even thinking that he had to sleep in them. Everything soon had the same greasy consistency anyway, mixing in with the urine that he couldn't quite cut off because he was so cold, the semen from his last wet dream, the cocoa he'd spilled the day before, the snot he rubbed off, the pus from his skin ulcers, the blood from the popped leaches, and the tears he wiped away so nobody would see that he was homesick."

Reading this book immerses you completely into a world that the movies can only scratch the surface of.  It's incredible; it's harrowing; it's horrifying; it's moving..... you almost feel as though you are in the jungle with them.  When we were in Vietnam, visiting the tunnel complex outside Saigon, we were shown examples of the kinds of traps the NVA and the Viet Cong used to set for the American troops.  They were horrible.  One of our travelling companions told us that their dad had served thirteen months in Vietnam, and although he never so much as saw an enemy soldier, he spent every day of that tour hacking through the jungle in 40 degree heat, scared out of his mind he was about to walk into one of those traps.  Having seen those traps and walked in the jungle in that heat, I could hardly imagine what that must have been like.  Reading this book made me wonder all the more how anybody could stand it, nevermind a bunch of teenagers.

Mellas, our hero, doesn't get any answers and he soon gives up looking for them.  He never gets the satisfaction of knowing that his friends and colleagues are dying for any good reason.  He kills teenage Vietnamese soldiers and watches others dying in agony.  He knows they're not especially evil or even very different from the kids under his command.  At the level of the individual struggle between soldiers, both are killing each other simply to survive, not through any personal enmity.  Life becomes a struggle to survive and almost anything else is meaningless:

"No, the jungle wasn't evil. It was indifferent. So, too, was the world. Evil, then, must be the negation of something man had added to the world. Ultimately, it was caring about something that made the world liable to evil. Caring. And then the caring gets torn asunder. Everybody dies, but not everybody cares. It occurred to Mellas that he could create the possibility of good or evil through caring. He could nullify the indifferent world. But in so doing he opened himself up to the pain of watching it get blown away."

It's a brilliant book.  It won't teach you much you didn't already know about Vietnam itself, or even about the war as a whole, but it is an amazing journey into what it is to fight in a war.  I hope it's the closest I ever get.  It was a book that took 35 years to write, but the results are gripping.

Friday, 22 October 2010

this is our music, we love it loud...

Earworms of the Week

"Aces High" - Iron Maiden

Coincidentally, on a week when Bruce Dickinson gave the press a few easy headlines by flying the Liverpool Football team to Italy for a match, this song was already resident inside my head.  Classic Maiden, of course, with that fog horn voice, the military theme and the wailing guitars.  It's from 1984 but I reckon it's barely dated... well, perhaps that's because Iron Maiden have basically ALWAYS sounded like this.  As long as they have Bruce Dickinson on board, I imagine they always will - assuming he can find the time from his other job as the Marketing Director for the airline Astraeus.  Brilliantly, the press release announcing the appointment didn't even mention his other job: he was just Bruce Dickinson, experienced pilot. Yeah, like that's how he's known to his MILLIONS OF ADORING ADMIRERS.

"Knights of Cydonia" - Muse

This song is no stranger to this list, but I just can't resist its sheer ridiculousness.  The solo is worth the price of entry alone.

"Up The Junction" - Squeeze

After many years of abstractly liking the band, I finally got around to buying a greatest hits album for a couple of quid last weekend.  It's a bit patchy, to be honest, on first listen (perhaps the reason that they weren't more successful than they were).  When they're good, though, they're really very good indeed.  This record is brilliant.  It doesn't have a chorus as such, but it does have absolutely fantastic lyrics, including one of my favourite lines in a record ever"
"The devil came and took me from bar to street to bookie"
On the strength of this song, I think I can afford to be patient and give the album a decent listen, no?

Theme Tune from "Hawaii 5-0"

Probably no explanation necessary.

"Enter Sandman" - Metallica

BOH!

"Manhattan Skyline" - A-ha

A-ha are finally saying goodbye: they're on their farewell tour, and once that's complete, that's it.  Most people probably think that they disappeared years ago and haven't done anything of note since the 1980s, but actually they've been astonishingly consistent and their recent material has mostly sounded really good: "Celice", "Lifelines", "Foot of the Mountain".... all excellent songs.  I was listening to their Greatest Hits the other day, and was reflecting on what a damn good band they are.  Their sound was never overly 80s, instead sounding pure and crisp and relying on Morten Harkett's amazingly clear voice.  As a result, it sounds pretty timeless.  There are so many classics here, of course, but this one is rapidly becoming my absolute favourite.  It starts off quietly and reflectively before launching into that soaring chorus with the loud, almost discordant bit.  Lovely.  Yearning.  Angry.  Sad.  Beautiful.  Nice dot-to-dot video too.

"The Chain" - Fleetwood Mac

0:00  C. > "I don't really know all that much Fleetwood Mac"
0:01  T. > "Yeah you do.  I bet you know this one"
0:28  C. > "Nope.  Nothing so far"
1:15  C. > "Oh, hang on.  I suppose it sounds a bit familiar."
2:06  C. > "No, look I really don't think I know this."
2:24  T. > 'Trust me, you know this.  Just wait a minute...."
3:04  C. > "OH YES! I KNOW IT!"

"Sweet Jane" - Velvet Underground
"Metal Mickey" - Suede

Suede again, but this time nothing much to do with that fake realbanderson Twitter account (which, by the way, it turns out that the REAL Brett Anderson finds amusing. Thanks for the link Ben).  Suede are apparently reforming -- not with Bernard Butler, but with the line up from "Coming Up", when Suede actually had most of their commercial success.  Exciting news.  Coincidentally, I was listening to the VU on the way into work the other day, and I was moved to listen to "Sweet Jane" twice in a row.  It's an amazing record, the way it rolls along with Lou Reed's uncharacteristic whoops and "just watch me nows".  Awesome song.  The two in close juxtaposition remind me, of course, of one of my more eccentric gig selections at Glastonbury, when in 1993 I elected to go and see Suede in preference to seeing the reformed Velvet Underground.  In my defence, I was a huge NME reader at the time, and this was just before the Suede debut album came out.  It remains the only time I saw Suede live, and I was able to watch a bit of the VU as I walked back up to my tent somewhere near the farmhouse.  Of course, now it looks like I'm going to have another chance to see Suede, whilst Sterling Morrison is now dead and Moe Tucker is a supporter of the Tea Party movement in the USA.  Say it ain't so, Mo.

I'd make the same decision again, I tell you!  In an instant!

No.  I wouldn't.  I really wouldn't.

"I Was Made For Lovin' You" - Kiss
"Crazy, Crazy Nights" - Kiss

Stupid band, obviously.  Dumb.  Sexist.  Ridiculous.  Also: AWESOME.  The talky bit on "God Gave Rock and Roll to You"; Gene Simmons calling himself "Doctor Love"; "Strutter" in all its guitar hero awesomeness...... and then there's these two songs.  "Crazy Nights" actually brings tears to my eyes, for goodness sake.

I may be beyond help. (also, bonus points for the first person to post a link to that AWESOME picture of one of Kiss, in full makeup and a dressing gown, stepping out of a backstage festival portaloo.  Funniest photo ever).

Have a good weekend, y'all.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

baby, it's cold outside....

Although it was a pretty nice evening, there was some frost around this morning, so in anticipation of the cold drawing in as we played, I wrapped up warm for football tonight.  Most of the rest of the guys are still knocking around in short-sleeved football shirts, but I had one of my thickest long-sleeved running tops on underneath my shirt and I also wore my fleecy running gloves.  As you might imagine, I came in for a bit of a ribbing:
"What are you going to wear when it actually is cold?" etc.
The answer?  I'm going to wear more.  That's what I'm going to wear.  Wooly hat, full-length running tights under my shorts, additional layers.... you can bet I'll be wearing them all before the winter is out.

What can I say?  I feel the cold.  I don't know if I always have, but I certainly have since I lost a lot of weight a few years back.  My metabolism seems to be stoked up permanently high, and I'm told that I act as a veritable radiator, throwing out heat.  That works well for C, who is always nice and warm in bed, and for the cat, who likes to nestle up against my legs when it gets really chilly, but it does seem to mean that I'm always cold.  Even at the height of summer, I'll be out running in a long-sleeved thermal top - albeit usually a pretty thin merino one.

When my MS first began to manifest itself a few years ago, if anything, things have got worse.  It's generally thought that people with multiple sclerosis are sensitive to heat: too much exposure can lead to a flare-up in symptoms.  It even has a name: Uhthoff's phenomenon. It's because of this that people with MS are generally advised to keep cool, and you can even buy things like cool vests to help keep your body temperature down.  The heat doesn't generally seem to affect me, but oddly the cold does.  When I start to get cold, I begin to lose the sensation in my arms from the shoulder down, to the extent that my hands actually become painful and nothing I do seems to warm them up and to regain full function in my fingers.  When I get really cold, I also start to lose the ability to form words, and everything I say becomes a real struggle.  It doesn't even have to be that cold for this to happen.  Even today, when everyone else was happily running about in short-sleeves and I was all wrapped up, I began to feel the numbness in my arms and shoulders.  Even now, an hour and a long, hot shower after the game, I still haven't regained full feeling.  You probably won't be surprised to know that there's a medical name for this too.  Can you guess what it is?  Yup.  Reverse Uhtoff's phenomenon.  Do you see what they did there?

Funnily enough, although I'm often out running and go out in much colder temperatures when I do things like go skiing, it's at football that I feel this most often.  I'm not sure what it is about the game, but it's also football that I find the most physically difficult of all the exercise that I do.  I don't do anywhere near as much running in a game of football as I do when I'm out on a jog, but somehow I find the running that I do much, much harder.  Most of it, I'm sure, is mental.... I'm much better at running at a steady, controlled pace in a straight line than I am at stopping and starting all the time and running up and down a pitch.  And let's face it, I've never been much good at football anyway, lacking the basic control and technique that most people seem to learn when they're kids but when I was playing rugby (also quite badly, it has to be said).  I enjoy playing though, and I try each week to work as hard as I can and to not be too embarrassingly below the general standard.  Losing the sensation in my arms and the strength in my shoulders as I get colder definitely does not help.  The ribbing from the guys I can take, it's the fumbling around in my wallet for change that I can barely hold and losing the basic ability to form words that worries me.

It's only October too.  There's an awful lot colder weather where this came from. 

Rubbish.

I did score a goal tonight, mind....

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

I never made the first team, I just made the first team laugh....

There's an article on the BBC website today headlined "Do You Have a Wayne Rooney in Your Office?"  I presumed that this was going to be an article about someone who was anxious to move to pastures new in order to further their career ambitions, financial or otherwise.  Potentially interesting, I thought.  We usually have several of those passing through at any one time, on their way onwards and upwards to bigger and better salaries elsewhere.  Good luck to them, I suppose.

Actually, the article's not that interesting.  Instead, it breaks down the potential Wayne Rooneys in your office into a number of categories:

> Bringing the company into disrepute
> Underperforming
> Wanting to leave
> Feeling undervalued
> Asking for a payrise

Blah blah blah.

Bored yet?  I was.

It did get me thinking though: as I've worked in (more or less) the same place for a number of years without ever really distinguishing myself or seeking to move elsewhere, I'm clearly not the Wayne Rooney in my office.  But if I'm not him, then who am I?  My immediate thought was a player like Ryan Giggs: came up through the youth system and clearly content to spend his whole career in dedicated service to one club.  Hmm.  But then again, am I really ever likely to be regarded as one of the best players in the world and receive the honour of being voted footballer of the year by my peers?  Am I the kind of player that people will want in their Fantasy Football team? Will I receive much in the way of sponsorship or endorsements? In a word, no.  Reluctantly, I'm also forced to admit that, honest performer and hard-worker though I am, it looks too late in the day for me to receive International recognition now.   I may once have been a contender, but those days now look to be behind me.  I'm solid and reliable, but I doubt that I'd be the first name down on the team sheet.  In fact, I'm not sure that I'd make the bench.  Or the first team squad at all.

Hmm.

What does that leave?

Am I even on the groundstaff?

I hate this metaphor.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

open book....


The more that we travelled in the time we were off work, the better we got at packing.  We started out with fairly big bags of stuff and, over the course of the next nine months, slowly worked out what we did and didn't need to carry around with us.  By the time we left for Cambodia and Vietnam in August, we had this down to a pretty fine art and had smaller bags than most people on our trip had day packs.  One thing that remained constant, however, was the proportion of our bags taken up by books.  I'm fairly sure that C's bag for SE Asia probably contained as many books as it did t-shirts, and we didn't even take a guide book.  C. reads all the time whilst we are on the move, but between the two of us, we consume a fair old quantity of reading material.

In Australia, between the two of us, we carried The Magus by John Fowles, Little Dorritt by Charles Dickens, The Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, Interview with a Vampire by Anne Rice, a Charlaine Harris True Blood novel (C's going through a vampire phase, I think.  I blame Twilight), a couple of other paperbacks as well as the Lonely Planet for Australia and the Lonely Planet for New Zealand.  As you might imagine, they took up a fair amount of room and occupied quite a bit of space in the rucksack.  They're heavy too.  You can leave some behind as you go along, but with the best will in the world, even a paperback Dickens is a fairly hefty tome.

I'd been toying with the idea for a little while, but buy the time I got home in August and discovered that Amazon were finally launching a UK version, my mind was made up to buy a kindle.  Pretty much all my travelling was done by then, but the advantages of having an electronic reader that is small, light and can contain more books than a pretty substantial bookshelf had been made pretty clear over the preceding months.

I know that lots of people can't get their heads around e-books and can't imagine ever abandoning the printed word.  Well, you don't have to abandon traditional books, do you?  Just as the advent of the MP3 player hasn't stopped me buying CDs, I don't see that buying a kindle will stop me buying books.  The first book that I bought for my brand new kindle was a 70p version of the book I was already reading -- David Copperfield.  It was great, and 70p didn't seem prohibitively expensive.  I then looked at buying an electronic copy of John Irving's "Last Night In Twisted River", a book that I've owned in hardback since Christmas 2009, but had simply seemed too big to carry around.  The kindle price for that was more than £10, not much more than the hardback edition retailed for on the amazon site, so I decided against it (I see, however, that it is now just under £4....).  I liked the experience. 

David Copperfield is quite a big book, and although I liked reading the book and looking at the illustrations and flicking backwards and forwards to the complete list of characters, it was good to be able to have it on a much smaller and more portable format.  The text looked good on the screen too. Unlike an iPad (say), the screen on a kindle is not backlit and you can't read it in the dark.  This means, though, that it is far, far easier on the eye.  The resolution is astonishing.  When I first took the kindle out of the box, I thought it had a protective cover on the screen with a printed image on it and tried to peel it off.  It turned out to be a screensaver on the screen itself (as pictured above).  Reading is a cinch: you can adjust the text size, skip backwards and forwards easily enough, and there's even a built in dictionary that enables you to instantly double-check the meaning of a word as you read.  I was sold, and every book I have read in the last month, I have read on this amazing device (the battery lasts more than 2 weeks, by the way, without switching off wi-fi connectivity or anything).

One big criticism that people have is that this is nothing more than a glorified Amazon shopping basket; that you are tied to buy books from the online retailer in the way that many of us buy our electronic music from the iTunes Store and that this is a BAD THING.  Well, actually I don't really have a problem with iTunes and Amazon has always been my first port of call for online shopping since back in 1999.  Anyway, it's not true.

You might have heard of Project Gutenberg: this is a volunteer effort to digitize and archive cultural works, to "encourage the creation and distribution of eBooks."  Most of the items in its collection are the full texts of public domain books which the project tries to make as free as possible, in open formats that can be used on almost any computer. As of now, they have something like 33, 000 items in its collection, including the complete works of authors like Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Alexandre Dumas, all of the Brontes, Shakespeare, HG Wells, Oscar Wilde and many, many more.  Much to my delight, I have discovered that it is actually extremely simple to load a book from Project Gutenberg's collection onto my kindle.

1) You open a specific URL on the browser on your kindle.  http://bit.ly/gutmagic
2) This downloads a catalogue of links as a document onto your reader.
3) From this catalogue, you can search for titles you wish to read, and download them directly onto your kindle.
4) um... that's it.

I downloaded Jane Austen's "Emma" and Arthur Conan-Doyle's "A Study In Scarlet" at once, but I will be dipping back regularly to download more classics than you could throw a stick at.  All of them completely free.  That's my plan, anyway.

It's a fantastic device and that discovery just about makes it perfect.  I couldn't be happier (....although C. has been casting covetous eyes at it since day one and, as she's still deep in her vampire phase, is itching to download the latest Charlaine Harris.  That's one christmas present sorted, anyway)

All that stands between me and limitless free classics (assuming I can keep my wife off my reader, of course) is the 500+ page copy of "Matterhorn" by Karl Marlantes that I downloaded the other day.  It's a novel about the Vietnam War. 

Man, those leeches get EVERYWHERE.....

Monday, 18 October 2010

when the weather vane points to gloomy....


Last week, I heard the terrible news that Rob McElwee is no longer going to be presenting the weather forecast on the BBC.  It's all part of some cuts that are seeing McElwee, Phillip Avery (another favourite of mine for his almost 1940s approach to weather bulletins on the radio) and Tomasz Schafernaker move to back office roles at the Met Office.

Apparently, after 90 years of working in partnership with the Met Office, the BBC recently decided to put the contract for the weather out to tender.  The Met Office won it, but are now clearly having to make cuts in order to make any money out of the deal.  Presenters earn more money if they appear on air, and so three high profile presenters are making way.

Old school weather forecasters like Bill Giles are wondering if this is a further sign that the BBC are continuing their inexorable move away from presenting the weather seriously: using proper meteorological experts to write and deliver the forecasts and replacing them with nicer looking, younger and - crucially - cheaper presenters.

As former head of the team of weathermen at the BBC, Giles is clearly worried about this dumbing down.  He is, however, no fan of McElwee:

"While many people seem to like Rob’s quirky style, I think he is well past his best. I find his delivery irritating and condescending.  If he was to stay on air, he would certainly need training to stop him lowering his voice and petering out at the end of sentences"

Well, with respect Bill, that's a rather pompous way of looking at it.  I like Rob McElwee and I'll miss him terribly when he's gone.  He's been a familiar face on the telly since 1991, and in a world of autocue robots, his idiosyncratic presentation style is a breath of fresh air (with a chance of showers later on in the eastern counties).  This isn't just some monkey in front of a camera and an autocue, this is a guy with a sense of humour and a nice, wry delivery.  We have crappy weather in this country; it's not really much of anything.... never really wet, never really dry; rarely really hot and rarely really cold.  It changes a lot.  So we talk about it ALL THE TIME.  We can't rely on it being hot in summer or cold in winter, so localised weather forecasts are pretty important to us, and the people who deliver them to us become familiar figures:

As Joe Moran, a reader in cultural history at Liverpool John Moores University says in the Guardian:.

"I think the BBC forecasters become cult figures because they aren't trying to be personalities, and they are employed for their expertise.  It was the ordinariness of them – people like Fish and McCaskill were an antidote to celebrity culture. I also think the fact that the forecasts are unscripted is important – the personality of a forecaster, like Rob McElwee, comes through in a way that you just don't get with the glassy stare at the Autocue. It becomes more of a conversation with the viewer. I think McElwee's forecasts are little  masterpieces of concision and wry wit and complicity with the viewer."

It was bad enough that they changed the weather map to that awful scrolling around thing, but getting rid of McElwee?  In an anodyne, homogenized, autotuned world, this is truly awful news.  Apart from anything else, how can you not love someone who describes his hobby as finding enough time to have a hobby....apparently so far he has failed.  Sadly it looks like that situation might be about to change.

Be careful what you wish for, eh Rob?

Last winter was the coldest for 31 years with an average UK-wide temperature of just 1.5C (35F), down on the long-term average of 3.7C (39F).  As we slip towards November and the bleak prospect of Britain being gripped by another harsh winter comparable with those of 1939-42, surely we need all the expert forecasters and comforting asides in our forecasts that we can get?

Friday, 15 October 2010

I've got Ace Frehley. I've got Peter Criss....

Earworms of the Week

"Celebrity Skin" - Hole
"Smells Like Teen Spirit" - Nirvana


As I drove to work this morning, I had one of those serendipitous iPod moments when I was shuffled from Hole to Nirvana in beautiful moment.  "Celebrity Skin" is an awesome way to kickstart a Friday morning for starters, but the 1-2 punch is probably unbeatable.  As time goes by, I actually think I prefer the Hole record... it's unstoppable (and crucially it's a lot less over-exposed).  As I always say at this point, whatever else you might think about her, this song is proof positive that Courtney Love does have talent.   Even if, as everyone seems to think, Cobain wrote it, it's still an astonishing performance.
[as Cody Bones points out to me, nobody - apart from me - thinks that Cobain wrote this as he'd been dead for 5 years.  It's Billy Corgan who might have had a hand in it.  Good call Cody.  I'm an idiot. Great song though, eh? And yes, it is only a short step from sleeping with Billy Corgan to sleeping with Steve Coogan.....]

"Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da" - The Beatles

Something of a low-level earworm for me all the time, this one.  I don't even particularly like it.  I much prefer their more sophisticated stuff, man...

"Wake up Boo!" - Boo Radleys

Is there a better track one side one than this?  In a way, this song reminds me of Outkast's "Hey Ya": they're both incredibly upbeat sounding, but if you listen to the lyrics, there's a whole lot of sadder stuff going on beneath all that cheery sounding stuff.  Still a fantastic record, mind you, whatever all that stuff about the death of summer is really about.

"Queen Bitch" - David Bowie

I had "Hunky Dory" out the other day, and although there are a few painfully pretentious asides to microphone, basically it's a damn good album (of course) and stands up there amongst Bowie's very best. It's certainly much more immediate than his Berlin stuff, anyway. I nearly listed "The Bewlay Brothers" here, as it reminds me of a compilation tape my friend John made for me and posted to my hall of residence when I was a student. If memory serves me correctly, the same tape also included "Desolation Row" by Bob Dylan, so he was clearly going through a classic songwriter's classic albums phase, but I was all the better for it. Anyway, this song also features on the soundtrack to "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou", and it's a bit of fluff, I suppose (bipperty-bopperty hat?), but I like it.

"Lil' Devil" - The Cult


My first gig ever, of course, was by the Cult, around about 1988 when they were touring "Sonic Temple".  Apparently they're touring again (well, I say "they", but we're presumably talking about Ian Astbury and Billy Duffy here, plus A.N.Other bassist and drummer.)  I might go and see them actually.  I had their greatest hits album out the other day, and although they're clearly ridiculous and spend a lot of time singing the most crassly cliched faux-native American spiritual guff about shagging spirit witch women, they do sound pretty good.  This song, from the album "Electric", is where it all began for me, with the guitar riff followed by Astbury's "Yay-ah!".  Duffy, of course, grew up in Manchester and was the guitarist in the first band that enticed a certain Stephen Patrick Morrissey out of his bedroom.

"Ten Below" - James


I don't know, they disappear for years and years and years, return a couple of years ago to release a really good album with their classic lineup, disappear again... and then I come back from the Southern Hemisphere and they've released two mini-albums, "The Morning After" and "The Night Before" (do you see what they did there?).  They're both excellent.  Good band, James.  This song seems to be about the experience of being at boarding school:

"Calling from the payphone
Trying not to cry
Feel I am dying
Telling you I'm fine
You tell me it's the making of me
Well that's a fucking lie."

Yup.  Rings a few bells, this one.

"He Doesn't Know Why" - Fleet Foxes


I've no idea where the Fleet Foxes can go to follow up their first album.  More of the same?  Can they evolve their sound without losing what has made them so special?  I hope they can, but even if they don't, then I don't think they can ever ruin the memory of how perfect their debut is.  Several years down the line and it still sounds great.... timeless because it already sounds centuries old?

"Black and White Town" - Doves

Good band, Doves, but I never seem to listen to them enough.  I haven't even got around to buying "Kingdom of Rust" yet, in spite of the fact that I like everything I have heard from the album and very much enjoyed them performing live.  Perhaps that's the story of their career, right there.  Not surprisingly, when I dug out "Some Cities" this week, I enjoyed it very much and wondered why I don't listen to it more.

"Metal on Metal" - Anvil

If you haven't seen the documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil then you must.  It tells the story of a moderately successful metal band from the early 80s, influential and much-respected by their more famous peers, but who never took the next step that contemporaries like Metallica did.  What makes them remarkable is that they never gave up, and the documentary catches up with them, in their 50s, holding down day-jobs and still trying to make it.  It's sad and inspiring and uplifting all at the same time.  They're the underdogs who don't know when they're beaten and will keep on chasing the dream that seems to have permanently eluded them.  They also have amplifiers that actually go up to 11.  They're one louder, you see..... This is their most famous song, and it still sounds pretty good, if you ask me.  

"In the Garage" - Weezer

There's a facebook group, apparently, trying to raise $10m to get Weezer to stop. They are fans, apparently, but they are of the belief that the band have been ruining their own legacy since the release of "Pinkerton", their second album. That is a career highpoint, to be honest, but that's a little drastic. The band's view on this, is that if they ever do raise the $10m, then they'll definitely consider it. As they've currently raised $250, this seems like a long shot. I love this record, it's a salute to the geek and I love it. 12-sided die, X-Men namechecks and Kiss posters.... I love it.

Have a good weekend, y'all. I've definitely cursed myself by being so smug about my sense of perspective at work, by the way. Tough day today.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

because that's all that you've got left....

I would not describe myself as a naturally cheerful person. I'm analytical (to a fault), cynical, quick to criticise, pedantic, grumpy, obstreperous, cantankerous, touchy.... and basically not really someone you would ever describe as "happy-go-lucky".

....and yet in the time since I have been back at work, I've been called "smiler" twice and have been asked several times why I've been walking around with a permanent grin on my face.

Have I really? That doesn't sound much like me at all.

Work is as ridiculous, pointless and frustrating as it has ever been, but on the whole I haven't minded being back. Even after nine months away, spending my time the way I wanted to spend it, it really hasn't been all that much of a wrench dragging myself out of bed in the morning and spending five days a week wearing an ironed shirt and smart trousers.  I'd like to think that I always had a pretty good perspective on the role that work played in my life, and that I always understood that it was only a job and that it doesn't need to define me. I was pleasantly surprised to realise, however, on my return to work, that I had actually missed the people, and I found that I was genuinely pleased to be catching up with them now I was back. The work aside, there are lots of good people here, and the fact that we're surrounded by corporate inanities (the people as well as the policies) doesn't negate that. We sit in endless silly meetings discussing ridiculous demands, but that's okay...even when the ridiculous demands are being made of me. The key is to know that they're ridiculous and to try not let them affect you.

I'm hardly a zen master about it, but I'm getting better all the time. At least I can now look at a communication from our HR department that contains the Gandhi quote "become the change you wish to see in the world" with a smile and a sad shake of my head rather than an indignant, incredulous splutter (what are they thinking there though, honestly?)

I don't know why that would make me smile more, though. Maybe it's the realisation that work is funny ha-ha and not just funny peculiar. At least we're all in it together.

As some wise people once noted:

We All Know
That People Are The Same Wherever You Go
There Is Good And Bad In Ev'ryone,
We Learn To Live,
We Learn To Give Each Other
What We Need To Survive
Together Alive

(If the sentiment alone doesn't make you smile, then think of the video, never mind the musical crime being committed there....)

I'd highly recommend that everyone to try smiling at people more often, especially in a working environment.

It confuses them.

.....that being said, I should add that my somewhat smug-sounding equanimity has been sorely tested today.  My smile may have wobbled a bit, but I don't think I actually punched anyone in the face or kicked them to the ground.  Not outside of my head, anyway.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

colour blind....

As you might imagine, as part of the normal ebbs and flows of life in a big office, there has been a fair amount of staff turnover since I left at the end of January. Most of the people I worked with are still there, but several aren't, and (as often seems to be the case around the time of a restructuring) the office also seems to be filled with lots of new people on contracts for specific pieces of work.  I was introduced to one such new chap the other day, and we hastily set up a meeting to discuss something of profound importance to the future of the business, the country and quite possibly to the future of capitalism itself.*

*or not.

As the hour of our meeting approached, I wandered casually over to roughly the area of the office where I though this chap’s desk was, and hovered behind him as he tapped away at an email on his laptop.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” he said, turning slightly in his seat, “did we have a meeting? I’ll be with you in a second.”

....and as he said this, it dawned on me that this wasn’t the chap I was supposed to be meeting at all, but someone else who looked a little like him. Just at that moment of realisation, the guy I was meeting rescued me by coming over and taking me off to a table for our chat.

All perfectly understandable. An honest mistake that could happen to anyone etc. No harm done. After all, it’s easy enough to mistake someone you’ve only briefly met for someone else who sits in about the same part of the office, right?

Except... except.... the guy I was supposed to be meeting is black. The guy whose desk I had mistakenly stood behind is also black. They sit almost next to each other, they are of a similar height, and build and they both wear glasses. They look similar. Everyone made light of it, but I had an uncomfortable sense that we’d just shared a “...but you all look the same!” moment.

“It’s okay,” said the guy I was meeting, clapping his colleague across the back, “everyone thinks we could be brothers!” He then gestured at a black lady sitting just over the way. “At least you didn’t mistake me for her!”

Hahaha. Oh shit.

It was an honest mistake, but I thought it was probably wise to smile, apologise and head off quickly to our meeting. There was nothing else I could say that wouldn’t dig the hole even deeper than it already was.

I’ll get my coat.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

you and me always and forever....

Perhaps we've been going out for too long, but I increasingly find that C. and I have almost identical tastes in all things cultural.  We rented a few DVDs this week, but how would anyone know who had rented "The White Ribbon....

"A 2009 [German language] drama filmed in black and white, written and directed by Michael Haneke. The story darkly depicts society and family in a northern German village just before World War I. According to Haneke, the film is about "the origin of every type of terrorism, be it of political or religious nature.""

... and who had rented "Hot Tub Time Machine"?

"Four guy friends, all of them bored with their adult lives, travel back to their respective 80s heydays thanks to a time-bending hot tub."

By the same token, how would anyone know from looking at the Last FM account driven from the iTunes that we share who had been listening to Herbert von Karajan conducting the Viennese Philharmonic Orchestra in a recording of Mozart's Don Giovanni, and who had been listening to "Chocolate Salty Balls" by Chef from South Park?

We're truly a match made in heaven.

Monday, 11 October 2010

remedy for me, please.....

As winter approaches, the focus of our damn fool idealistic socialist disaster area of a health service (© US Republicans) turns toward flu inoculations. Hundreds of people die each winter from influenza in this country, and so the NHS makes the vaccine available, free of charge, to certain parts of the population. It’s mostly damage limitation, I suppose, as the health service would have to pick up the pieces of a nasty epidemic anyway, but still...it’s not something to be sniffed (or sneezed or coughed) at. Mostly, this offer applies to people over the age of 65, but as someone who suffers from a chronic neurological condition, I am also advised to toddle along each year for my inoculation. Apparently a dose of the flu might stoke up my immune system and trigger an attack on my nervous system. Well, as I definitely don’t want that, and as the flu is quite unpleasant anyway, I’m quite happy to have the jab. Last year it was actually two jabs, one for seasonal flu and one for H1N1. This year, I’m pleased to say, they’ve managed to incorporate the two vaccines together into one, so it’s just the one sore arm instead of two.

My doctor’s surgery was running a Flu clinic on Saturday morning, so I made an appointment and headed on over there first thing. I actually got there before the doors opened, and was a little surprised to see that there was already quite a queue forming outside. Rather than join the huddle outside the doors, I stayed sat inside my car listening to the radio. When the doors opened, I joined the back of the queue and went inside. After I had checked in with reception, I had a closer look around me: I was the youngest person there.... by at least thirty years. Not only that, but everyone in the waiting room appeared to be looking at me with barely concealed hostility.

Why’s HE here?

He’s YOUNG. What right does HE have to a vaccination?

How SELFISH.

It was as if there are only a limited number of vaccines, and that by having one of them for myself, an old person would have to go without... and that could only mean certain death. These old people knew that, for me to live, one of them was going to die this winter and THEY DIDN’T LIKE IT.

Luckily, my name was called early and I hurried into the relative safety of the nurse’s office before I could be lynched. I made it out alive, but only because the mobility of the over 65s isn’t all that good..... I think if I’d walked slower, then they might have got me.

Friday, 8 October 2010

For your love, nature has hemorrhaged....

Earworms of the Week

Unfortunately, some 4 weeks after I returned to the office, work is starting to catch up with me. Luckily I still seem to have enough time at my desk to stick my headphones on and to try and shut out the nonsense around me. Here’s this week’s wormers, anyway.

Sorted for Es and Whizz” – Pulp

I was reading something the other day that suggested that Pulp reforming was one of those things that we should hope never happens. I’m not sure I’d go that far. I imagine that if they ever did decide to go ahead with it, they’d be as good as they ever were. It’s not as though Jarvis was the youngest frontman in the world, is it? I saw them a few times back in the day, and they were always pretty good. This is from their Imperial Phase, of course. It’s an unconventional little ditty, and obviously got all of the tabloids worked up into a froth of indignation. I’m sure it still would if it was released today, actually. If anything, I imagine that the Express and the Mail would be MORE upset. Actually, this is the kind of record that we need. The X-Factor winner should release a cover of THIS.

All Shook Up” – Elvis Presley

Included purely because, when this song came up on shuffle, the lyrics made me laugh out loud:

Her lips are like a volcano that’s hot

Yeah Elvis, they’re exactly like that. You’ve totally nailed the simile there. THAT’S why they call you the King.

Take on Me” – A-Ha

I saw an article on the BBC website talking about the video as the band approach the UK leg of their farewell tour.  As well as being a brilliant, evergreen song, it’s a pretty memorable video too. How many other videos this old can you remember this well? It’s got to have a pretty strong case for being one of the most memorable videos ever made, hasn’t it? I’m seeing them on the Nottingham leg of the farewell tour, and I’m very much looking forward to it. Brilliant band who will be playing a greatest hits set. What’s not to like about that?

The Beautiful Ones” – Suede

I haven’t been listening to Suede, but for the second week running, they’re stuck in my head. I might have to unfollow that bloke on Twitter. He’s funny, and I quite like Suede, but we can’t have this every week, can we?

Feed the Tree” – Belly

Ah. I had “Star” as side 2 of a cassette that I had in my car in about 1993. I think “Modern Life is Rubbish” by Blur was on the other side, and I played it to death everywhere I went that summer. I really liked Belly, and I would very much have liked to see them live, although I never got around to it. My favourite song of theirs was always “Dusted” and I think it was probably “Gepetto” that got me interested in them in the first place. This is another fine record though. I have no idea why, but suddenly I’m thinking about how I used to listen to The Juliana Hatfield Three at about the same time. Must be a train of thought about female fronted rock bands. I used to love “My Sister”. Wow, there’s a record I haven’t listened to in a long time. She was gorgeous too. Wasn’t she supposed to be a virgin? Wasn’t that her “thing”? (even though she apparently dated Evan Dando of the Lemonheads). I seem to remember that I bought “Become What You Are” in a Virgin Megastore in Plymouth.... Why on earth am I wasting brainspace remembering stuff like that?
 

Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key” – Billy Bragg & Wilco

Finally ripped and included on my iPod, along with all the Soundgarden and Tindersticks albums that I own... six or seven albums in total. I haven’t got every CD that I own ripped onto iTunes, and I periodically find out what I’ve missed off when I have a sudden urge to listen to it when I’m sat at my desk or something. The Mermaid Avenue albums (from 1998!) were made by the Braggster (with the help of Wilco) when he was asked by the daughter of Woody Guthrie to have a go at putting some of her father’s lyrics from his archive to lyrics. Bob Dylan may have been a touch bitter about not being asked himself, but I think the results are pretty good. This is by far my favourite of the resulting songs, but the others a pretty good, and Billy still occasionally plays them live too, with this song sounding particularly good as he mucks about with his band as they play it, drawing it right out. “Ingrid Bergman” almost made the list this week too. Good albums, these, and I’m pleased that I’ll finally have them to hand all of the time and won’t have to rummage around for the CDs (more difficult now that my careful alphabetisation has been completely turned upside-down).

La Donna e Mobile” – Giuseppe Verdi

No idea how this got in, but I would like to at least credit myself with knowing the name to the tune. I tend to make up my own lyrics to it as I’m wandering around the house, serenading the cat as we both potter about. If woman is fickle (which is what the title means), then cat definitely is.

Newborn” – Elbow

Arresting opening lyric here. “I’ll be the corpse in your bathtub...” I listened to Elbow’s debut album again this week. It’s good enough, but it also reminded me how good a band they have become over the years. The release of their new album next year is worth putting in your calendar. They’re touring in March too....

The Cave” – Mumford & Sons

I listened to “Sigh No More” before seeing the Mumfords earlier this week, and I thought it was alright. Good but not amazing. After seeing them, I listened to the album again, and actually I thought it sounded a bit better, as if seeing the band live had somehow made songs I hadn’t previously paid all that much attention to make a bit more sense. This song is a good example: it’s never jumped out at me before, but it was a real highlight live, and I was able to approach it on record with a new found appreciation. I’m still not sure I understand why the crowd was quite so enthusiastic though....

Theme tune to Godzilla

As featured in the “Backwards TV Theme Tune” round in the pub quiz this week. I didn’t get it, but as soon as it was played forwards, I was able to sing the lyrics without even thinking about it:

Up from the depths,
30 storys high!
Breathing fire,
his head in the sky
Godzilla!
....and Godzuki!

Brilliant. I don’t remember if it was much good, and I never really liked Godzuki, but it had an AWESOME theme tune.

Mausoleum” – Manic Street Preachers

Classic Manics from “The Holy Bible”. As you might expect from that album, it’s not cheery:

Wherever you go I will be carcass
Whatever you see will be rotting flesh
Humanity recovered glittering etiquette
Answers her crimes with Mausoleum rent

Regained your self-control
And regained your self-esteem
And blind your success inspires
And analyse, despise and scrutinise
Never knowing what you hoped for
And safe and warm but life is so silent
For the victims who have no speech
In their shapeless guilty remorse
Obliterates your meaning
Obliterates your meaning
Obliterates your meaning
Your meaning, your meaning

No birds - no birds
The sky is swollen black
No birds - no birds
Holy mass of dead insect

Come and walk down memory lane
No one sees a thing but they can pretend
Life eternal scorched grass and trees
For your love nature has hemorrhaged

Regained your self-control
And regained your self-esteem
And blind your success inspires
And analyse, despise and scrutinise
Never knowing what you hoped for
And safe and warm but life is so silent
For the victims who have no speech
In their shapeless guilty remorse
Obliterates your meaning
Obliterates your meaning
Obliterates your meaning
Your meaning, your meaning

No birds - no birds
The sky is swollen black
No birds - no birds
Holy mass of dead insect

"I wanted to rub the human face in its own vomit...
and force it to look in the mirror"

And life can be as important as death
But so mediocre when there's no air, no light and no hope
Prejudice burns brighter when it's all we have to burn
The world lances youth's lamb-like winter, winter

The lyrics are strangely beautiful, in spite of being so bleak, and the buzzsaw tune is absolutely brilliant – highlighting again, if it needed highlighting, quite how much Sean Moore and James Dean Bradfield contributed to the band that always seemed to be more celebrated for the fierce intelligence of their lyrics.

And on that cheery note, I’m off. Have a good weekend y’all.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Europe, America, Winterland.....

If you're not interested in golf, then you might want to look away now. And with that, it's now over to Cody Bones, an old friend of this blog to talk about last weekend's Ryder Cup. We had a bet, you see... and this is one of the things that the loser has to do.

Take it away Cody.


Cody Bones Eats Crow

Golf... What do you think of when you hear that beautiful word. Is it Judge Smails in Caddyshack explaining that in in Scotland it's called Gaaalf, or might it be Kevin Costner, in that god awful movie Tin Cup explaining that golf is the one driving force in the universe, etc, etc. Me??? I think "When are we teeing off" "Do I have enough Cigars", and "for Christ sake I'm not riding with Don, I rode with him last time". As you can tell, I am somewhat of a golf nut, which is what brings us to the question of why in the world is some guy from Chicago guest hosting at Swisslet's place. Well, it has to do with something called the Ryder Cup. Every two years Europe and the U.S.A square off over three days of match play golf, and I don't think that there are many better sporting events out there for my dollar. Also, having a weakness for a small wager every now and then, I took it upon myself to contact ST, and a bet was quickly agreed upon. Well, I lost, the U.S. choked on Sunday and here I am writing my obligatory mea culpa. This was a great match with momentum switching back and forth from the first rain delay with the ridiculous rain suit fiasco, to the last match where the cup actually came down to Hunter Mahan vs Graeme McDowell. All I can say to ST, and the rest of Europe is "Well Played!!" Here's an offer for 2012. Sit Lee Westwood, and we will sit Phil Mickelson. Sound good???
[ST's note: swap a Ryder Cup legend for the losing-est player in US Ryder Cup history?  Dream on!]

On to the prize, ST and I wagered a hat, but this turned out to present a problem to me. I needed to find an hat that although obscure, would signify losing and Golf all in one fell swoop. Since this turned out to be impossible, I decided to split the difference, and send two hats. To signify losing, I couldn't think of a better gesture, especially being from Chicago, than to send a brand new Chicago Cubs hat. For those not acquainted with the history of the North Siders, it has been over a century since their last World Series title, trust me, it's painful. To signify Golf, I sent ST my Timberstone hat. Timberstone, nestled in the north woods of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan is one of Golf's gems, but so remote that I really only get to play there every few years or so when I trek up to my friend Mike's family place in the area for a guys weekend. So to ST, congratulations, enjoy the hats, and please remember that although the Cubs hat is new, the Timberstone hat has seen it's share of nonsense over the years, a little wash wouldn't kill it. Enjoy

--

Cody, you're a gentleman.  I have to disagree that the US Team choked last weekend, as the event went right down the wire to the last pairing of the last day's singles.  It's just a shame that the team's result should boil down to individual errors.... Hunter Mahan had the balls to offer to go out in that last match, and he's no more to blame for losing his match than (say) Phil Mickelson is for blowing 3 of his 4 matches, or Ricky Fowler is for dropping the wrong ball and forfeiting a hole that ultimately cost the US the half-point that would have been enough to win the match.  It's a team game, and I thought he USA -- underdogs, lest we forget -- played magnificently to take the match right down to the wire.  It's often said how much more the Europeans seem to enjoy playing team golf than the Americans, but I saw lots of signs here that this simply isn't true.  After winning their foursomes match, Bubba Watson and Jeff Overton, rookies on the US team, were asked if they had requested to play together.  Without a pause, Watson replied with a smile that, hell, he didn't even like Overton.  If they're comfortable enough to take the piss out of each other, then that's a sure sign that the team is bonding, no?  The way that players like Mickelson jumped to the defence of Mahan when he broke down into tears at a press conference after the match; the way that Jim Furyk reacted furiously when questioned about the team spirit and how much the US team cared.... these are all really promising signs for the US, and I think that the next match in Chicago in 2012 is going to be a cracker.

I've seen a lot of amazing sport live over the years, but the Ryder Cup remains special.  I wasn't at Celtic Manor last week, but I was at the K-Club in 2006 and at the Belfry in 2002, and both were brilliant.  Electrifying, even.  It's a special event, and the 2010 edition was no exception (I watched as much as I could).  I made the bet with Cody, and although he's lost and is graciously sending me a couple of hats, I'm going to send him a couple of hats too: a Ryder Cup hat (not in European blue, he'll be pleased to hear), and a cap from a sports team who play so close to my house that I can hear their crowd cheering.  I don't have to send them, but I want to send them.

Here's to Chicago in 2012.  Home town match for Cody.... I notice.

Thanks for the hats, my friend.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

I'll know my name as it's called again....

Mumford & Sons / Johnny Flynn & The Sussex Wit / Matthew & The Atlas @ Nottingham Rock City, 5th October 2010

It’s a year to the day since Mumford & Sons released their debut album, “Sigh No More”, but already it’s clear that we’re lucky to be seeing them in a venue as small as Rock City. Perhaps they’re not yet Arena big, but after drawing comfortably the biggest crowd at Bestival, a capacity of a mere 2,100 must seem like relatively small beer to a band on the rise. I was curious about what kind of crowd the band would draw, because the music surely has a wide appeal: they’re cool enough to be featured on Radio One, but harmless enough to also appear on Radio Two... a pretty wide constituency. My first impression was that there seemed to be a lot of girls present, but this was quickly superseded by the realisation that there were also an awful lot of checked shirts in the room, and quite a few flat caps and waistcoats to boot. Mumford fans, it seems, haven’t looked too much beyond the band for their fashion inspirations.

We arrive unusually early, and I therefore get a chance to check out both supports. As you might expect, both are draped in the cloak of the New Folk movement of which the Mumfords and Laura Marling (Marcus Mumford’s other half) are standard bearers. Matthew & The Atlas, indeed, feature both an accordion AND a banjo (I imagine that session banjo players are becoming hard to find at the moment). I have absolutely no idea how steeped the band are in the folk tradition, but I find myself getting increasingly irritated by them and can’t help but think of them as bandwagon jumpers. I don’t mind the folk sound, or even the mannered folk-singing style of the vocalist.... what I object to is the idea that they must draw their lyrical inspiration from the well of folk clichés and thus sound as though they come from the seventeenth century. It’s all mountains, melting snow, “my loves” and lots of references to nature. I don’t mind you sounding like a folk band, but why can’t you seek your lyrical inspiration from the modern world, or at least from universal themes? Marling and the Mumfords both sound folky, but their lyrics are not anywhere near as guilty of dealing in cliché. You could argue, I suppose, that the Fleet Foxes sing of little else but mountains and rivers and the natural world, but I would say that they at least bring soaring harmonies into the equation. Besides, they’re more medieval than they are early-modern sounding.

Johnny Flynn & the Sussex Wit are, if anything, worse. They have a much bigger sound than Matthew & The Atlas, and seem to draw from a much wider musical palate... but as a result, I can’t help but think that the folk stylings have been added as an afterthought because they’re fashionable. Perhaps I’m being unfair, and both supports may have grown up with a deep love of all things folk, but neither of them leave a lasting impression on me.

By the time Mumford & Sons hit the stage, the crowd has reached a fever pitch of excitement and explode at the sight of their heroes, who launch into a version of the relatively restrained album opener, “Sigh No More”. The band sound good, but I find myself looking around at the fervour of the crowd and just not understanding their reaction. There have been a number of bands over the years who I have loved unconditionally, most notably The Smiths. I’m sure everybody is the same, but these are the bands who you feel really speak to your soul and articulate the way that you are feeling. It’s clear from their reaction, that for lots of people at Rock City tonight, Mumford & Sons are that band. I just don’t see it.

Don’t get me wrong though, as they sound great. The album is decent, if not amazing, but it’s clear that in the year since it was released, they’ve become a formidable live band and the songs have grown, sounding much better now than they do on record. They sound fantastic, and the rapport between the band is clear to see. As a band, they’re also at that nice stage of their career where they’ve begun to taste success, but still remember what it was like to have nothing, and therefore to appreciate how surreal it is to be popular. Their overnight success, it seems, has been a long time coming: they’ve played Nottingham six times, they tell us, including gigs at venues like The Maze and Bunkers Hill, as well as the more traditional venues like The Social, The Rescue Rooms and Rock City itself. It's not as though they haven't done the hard yards.  They’re also comfortable enough with each other to have an easy banter with the crowd and with each other, with Winston coming in for particular abuse for his rat’s tail, goatee beard and new tattoo (which he's too shy to show us).

It’s clear from the crowd singalongs (to almost EVERY song) that there are a lot of girls here, but what really strikes me is that the Mumfords appear to be the soundtrack of choice for budding bromances.... and there are clutches of young men hugging each other, pumping their arms in the air, bellowing along as they bounce on the spot. It’s touching. The floor of Rock City – not a sprung floor – is literally bouncing. I’ve been to a lot of gigs in here over the years, but very few have enjoyed a crowd as up for it as this one. The band is good, for sure, but it’s still bizarre that a band like this should inspire such devotion.

The band play the hits “Winter Winds” and “Little Lion Man” early in the set, and the crowd settle down a little once they’re out of the way, but enthusiasm remains high throughout. Momentum drifts a little towards the end as we get a run of quieter songs, but the new songs they play sees the band pick up the mantle of a more traditional rock band with drums, electric guitar and electric bass guitar, and the pace is picked back up again. The new material sounds good, and clearly Mumford and Sons are not just going to disappear, even if they perhaps begin to cast off the “New Folk” mantle that has nurtured them.

It’s a good gig from a band surfing the crest of a wave. I begin by being baffled by the enthusiasm of those around me, but soon enough I’m absorbed in how good the band sound and how much they seem to be enjoying themselves (at one point we get introduced to the tiny toy animals that Marcus bought for each member of the band from the Early Learning Centre). I don’t think they’re the most amazing band I have ever seen and nor do I find their music life-changing or breathtakingly original.... but they are very good. For now, that’s enough (even if I won’t be reaching for a check shirt, waistcoat and neckerchief any time soon....)

My last word simply has to be in praise of the bass player's gurns everytime he approached the microphone to sing his harmonies.  Magnificent.  Truly a sight to behold.  There are folk faces, and there are FOLK FACES.  He was ace.

Verdict: 7 / 10

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

now the candle burns at both ends....

After a long weekend enjoying the Ryder Cup and the company of some of my oldest friends, I was naturally keen to try and undo some of the damage by taking some exercise at the earliest possible opportunity. A rain delay to the golf on Sunday meant I had the opportunity of a 4 mile run along the Oxford ring road in the driving rain. Even so, I was determined to squeeze in an extra swimming session on Monday evening after work to try and catch up on my exercise schedule. As it turned out, by about 4pm that evening, it was all I could do to physically keep myself sat upright in front of my PC at my desk, and as soon as I went home, I went to bed for a nap. I’m not very good at listening to the messages that my body gives me, but this time it shouted so loudly that I couldn’t ignore it. A swim, it seemed, was out of the question.

My usual weekly routine is to run on a Tuesday before injecting myself with my “might just maybe prevent future relapses in your MS, but equally might not and we’ll never be able to say for sure either way” medicine. As I usually wake up the day after injecting feeling as though I’ve been hit by a truck, I tend to take the day off exercise to recover. This week, I’m doing things a bit differently: as I’m out watching Mumford & Sons at Rock City tonight, I injected myself on Monday night instead. I might have been too tired to exercise on Monday night, but was damned if I was going to let Tuesday go past without punishing myself at some point, even if this meant going out for a run when I was feeling physically low from the injection.

And so it was, that at lunchtime today, I dragged myself out of the office for a run. It was bloody hard work too. I was tired before I started, but I often am and I pushed on in the expectation that I would get into my stride soon enough (or at least refuse to stop and just get it done). It was only when I was about a mile in and nearly fell over that I realised that my fatigue meant that I was dragging my left leg. This has happened to me before, when I was training for the half marathon last year, and it’s a clear sign that I’m pushing myself too hard. Naturally, I pushed on and completed all 4.33 miles of my run, pushing harder in the last mile to make sure that my average pace dipped down to 8.51 minutes per mile – slower than my last few runs, but still quicker than my old default pace. I stumbled a few times, but managed to stay on my feet.

For some reason my iPod, in theory playing a long playlist on shuffle, kept coughing up Metallica songs, interspersed by the odd track by Probot, Queens of the Stone Age or Iron Maiden. It can be quite hard to summon up the mental energy to keep picking up your knees and to keep your pace up, but there can be little doubt that listening to the likes of “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)”, “Ride the Lightning”, “The Frayed Ends of Sanity”, “The Clairvoyant”, “Shake Your Blood” and “First it Giveth” all definitely help.... Power songs FTW.


Hard work, though.

......Luckily all I had to do this afternoon was work.