Monday, 29 November 2010

driving down the highway through the perfect sunny dream....

Sad news from the world of cinema today: Irvin Kershner has died aged 87 after a long illness.  He was best known, of course, for directing The Empire Strikes Back...... and it's probably worth remembering that it wasn't by accident that, of all the Star Wars films, that's the one that has by far the best performances from the cast.  Kershner had a background in the theatre and he actively encouraged his leads to improvise their lines.  The results, I think, can be clearly seen on the screen.  George Lucas was (and is) obsessed with the mechanics of his films and the need to bring his "vision" to life, usually focusing on the special effects.  Kershner, I think, understood that he could bring the film to life simply by giving the actors room to breathe.

Star Wars had featured some painfully wooden exposition (as an exasperated Harrison Ford majestically complained to George Lucas at the time, "You can write this shit, George, but you sure can't say it....").  The performances in ESB, in contrast, are much more natural, and all the actors seem a great deal more comfortable with each other and with the dialogue.  The most famous example of this, of course, is when Princess Leia tells Han Solo that she loves him and he replies with the immortal line, "I know".  It's the best line in the whole film (and perhaps in all six films) but it's also perhaps the most human.  Yet, if George Lucas had his way, it would have been cut.  As Kershner himself said in an interview with Vanity Fair:

"There was really only one disagreement [with Lucas]. It was the Carbon Freeze scene when Princess Leia says, “I love you.” Han Solo’s response in the script was, “I love you, too.” I shot the line and it just didn’t seem right for the character of Han Solo. So we worked on the scene on the set. We kept trying different things and couldn’t get the right line. We were into the lunch break and I said to Harrison try it again and just do whatever comes to mind. That is when Harrison said the line, “I know.” After the take, I said to my assistant director, David Tomblin, “It’s a wrap.” David looked at me in disbelief and said something like, “Hold on, we just went to overtime. You’re not happy with that, are you?” And I said, yes, it’s the perfect Han Solo remark, and so we went to lunch. George saw the first cut and said, “Wait a minute, wait a minute. That’s not the line in the script.” I said ““I love you, too’ was not Han Solo.” Han Solo was a rebel. George felt that the audience would laugh. And I said, that’s wonderful, he is probably going to his death for all they know. We sat in the room and he thought about it. He then asked me, “Did you shoot the line in the script?” I said yes. So we agreed that we would do two preview screenings once the film was cut and set to music with the line in and then with the line out. At the first preview in San Francisco, the house broke up after Han Solo said I know. When the film was over, people came up and said that is the most wonderful line and it worked. So George decided not to have the second screening."

Credit to Lucas for sticking with it in the end, I suppose, but his initial instincts give an inkling into why the Lucas directed Star Wars prequels are so clunkingly poor.

Irving Kershner, 1923-2010.  RIP.

In other sad news from the world of film, it was announced today that Leslie Nielsen has died, aged 84.

He's probably best known by most people as Lt. Frank Drebin from Police Squad! and the Naked Gun films, and as the Doctor in Airplane! ("Yes, and don't call me Shirley"), but he had a long acting career dating back to 1948 (apparently he screen-tested for a leading role in Ben Hur), and it was only really after "Airplane!" in 1980 that he became what Roger Ebert dubbed, "The Olivier of spoofs" .   He could be brilliantly funny, of course, and surely not many peope did deadpan as well, but as time went on, it seemed to me to be a career of diminishing returns.

Perhaps instead of remembering him for "Dracula: Dead and Loving It", we should cast our minds back to 1956 and his role in the legendary science fiction film, "The Forbidden Planet".  Nielsen played it entirely straight in his role as Commander Adams in what was essentially a reworking of Shakespeare's "The Tempest" set in space, but it was an incredibly influential film in the sci-fi genre (catching the eye of Gene Rodenberry, for one) and stands up pretty well, even today.  Better than "2001: A Space Travesty", I'll wager.....

Anyway.  Leslie Nielsen, 1926-2010.  RIP.

Dr. Rumack: You'd better tell the captain we've got to land as soon as we can. This woman has to be gotten to a hospital.
Elaine: A hospital? What is it?
Dr. Rumack: It's a big building with patients, but that's not important right now.

In very different ways, both contributed to my film education as I was growing up, and the news of their deaths today has prompted me to take a moment to remember them.

As you were.

Friday, 26 November 2010

but it's truly, truly a sin....

Earworms of the Week

 "My Sharona" - The Knack

Best.  Intro.  Ever.

"Bigmouth Strikes Again" - The Smiths

"The Queen is Dead" was played in full on BBC Radio One on Wednesday this week as part of Zane Lowe's Masterpieces series.  As I was out at the Interpol gig, I haven't got around to listening to all of the "making of" stuff that they will have broadcast before they played the album.  It's a classic, of course, but it has never been my favourite Smiths album.  If you don't count "Hatful of Hollow" (which some people don't), then that honour belongs to "Strangeways Here We Come".  Don't get me wrong though, TQID is an amazing album with some amazing songs.... not least of all this one.  People think that The Smiths are a miserable band, but they are doubly mistaken: firstly because Morrissey may sound doleful, but is actually often very playful; secondly because of Johnny Marr's masterful guitar work, of which this song is an excellent example.  Morrissey tends to grab all the focus with his attention-seeking lyrics, but check out that guitar work.  I've said it before, but the older I get (and the more solo albums Moz releases), the more I appreciate what Johnny Marr brought to the party.

"Don't Sleep in the Subway" - Petula Clark

I haven't listened to this in years, but if you thought that all Petula Clark ever did was "Downtown", then you really need to wrap your ears around this.

"Yeah Yeah Yeah Song" - Flaming Lips

The Flaming Lips as a whole, I don't really get.  This song, however, I absolutely love.

"Babies" - Pulp

Do you know what?  After all these years, I'm not exactly sure what these lyrics mean.  I get that Jarvis is being all pervy and voyeuristic.... but I'm a little confused about what he's doing to who.  It's a great song, obviously, and probably the song that first got me really interested in Pulp.  But you know, those lyrics could be clearer.  Very much looking forward to seeing this lot at Glastonbury in 2011.

"After Hours" - We Are Scientists

They're playing Nottingham this weekend, and although I won't be in attendance, they're always tremendous value as a live act.  I remain fonder of their first album, and their second album has never really hit the spot for me.... but...but... this song is amazing.  I can't quite work out if I really love this song because of the amazing video, or if I just like the song.  It's a good song, sure, but the video is astonishing.  Hmmm.

"Scoundrel Days" - a-ha

One of the first albums I ever owned, and yet when I hear the title track played live for the first time last weekend, it took me a little while to place it.  Personally, I thought Morten struggled to hit the highest notes in this when he sang it last Sunday night, but perhaps I'm mistaken.  Well, I wouldn't want to have any of his fanclub hunt me down and kill me for suggesting such a heresy.  It's a great song though, and a fantastic album too.

"Between the Wars" - Billy Bragg

This song keeps on coming back.  When it popped up on my iPod on the way into work this morning, I just knew that I had to buy a ticket to his gig at Rock City on Thursday night next week.  So I did.  I've seen him at least ten times before, probably more than any other single artist, but I'm still excited about seeing him again.  That's good, right?

"PDA" - Interpol

Not my favourite song off their debut album (that's probably "Obstacle 2"), but it's a cast iron classic.  It also sounded awesome when they closed their set with it on Wednesday night.  It wasn't their best live performance, but they were still pretty damn good, and that debut album is right up there.

"Pale Blue Eyes" - Velvet Underground

Yes, yes.... so choosing Suede over the reformed Velvet Underground at Glastonbury 1993 probably wasn't my wisest gig choice.   I don't know if they played this or not, but it's an incredible song.  Lou Reed is certainly not the purest singer in the world, but he is an incredible vocalist.  Listen to the bruised vulnerability as he sings this song.  Amazing.  I wonder where he would get if he turned up to an X-Factor audition.  Past the first round, do you think?  Do you reckon that even if he performed this, anyone on that panel would look at him twice.  Hmm.  It's not exactly the kind of song they're going to give to this year's winner, is it?  And to be perfectly honest, in my books, that's perhaps no bad thing.  I like this song just the way it is, and I doubt anyone else could do it any justice.

And to think it took the VU some 25 years before their records began to sell in any numbers.  Shows that most people have ears that are painted on.  Painted on, dammit!

Have a good weekend y'all.  I'm mostly going to be sleeping.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

when the loving that you've wasted comes raining from a hapless cloud.....

Interpol @ Rock City, 24 November 2010

Well, I think it's fair to say that there's quite a contrast between Interpol's crowd and the audience that went to see a-ha at the Arena on Sunday night.  A-ha's crowd was, with the best will in the world, largely filled with ladies of a certain age dressed up to the nines or wearing tour merchandise.  The Interpol crowd, by way of contrast, seemed to be full of hipsters.  You know the sort: dark clothes, big framed glasses and a look of general disdain.  I listen to bands that don't even exist yet.  That kind of thing.  Well, perhaps I'm exaggerating.  But only a little (and they attracted a lot more girls than you might think too).  For once, I was attending a gig on my own.  My wife, bless her, on the drive into town, described Interpol to Hen as follows:

"As The Smiths are to the Beach Boys, Interpol are to The Smiths"

I think she means they're depressing, although when Hen relayed that anecdote to me when I joined them at the pub quiz after the gig, my first reaction was to try to explain how, actually, The Smiths are playful rather than miserable.....but anyway.

I love Interpol, but it seems I'm in a minority amongst my friends.  Ah, to hell with it; I don't need someone to hold my hand at a gig, especially if they're not going to enjoy it.  I occasionally go to the cinema on my own, and that's not really much of a drama either.  In fact, it's something of a guilty pleasure as you can completely lose yourself in what you are watching without needing to worry about anything or anyone else.  So I went on my own.

Rock City used to be a sweat box.  I can remember a Queens of the Stone Age gig when sweat was literally dripping off the ceiling and running down the walls.  At some point after that, they changed the air-conditioning, and suddenly from being a really hot venue, Rock City became positively chilly.  When I arrived last night, it was positively freezing, as the doors at the back were open to allow the crew to lug gear on and off the stage.  I know that, as a band, Interpol have a certain froideur, but this was ridiculous. Still, as it was pretty full, when the doors were finally shut and the band took to the stage, it soon warmed up.

Interpol's debut album, "Turn on the Bright Lights" is a masterpiece, described by Pitchfork as "...wrought with emotional disconnection and faded glory, epic sweep and intimate catharsis... Loss, regret, and a minor key brilliantly permeate jangling guitars and rhythmic and tonal shifts".  Their three subsequent albums, whilst perhaps not touching the same artistic heights, have seen the band grow to become pretty commercially successful, albeit not quite to Kings of Leon levels (I saw the two bands playing Rock City days apart back in 2004.  KoL are now filling stadiums and Interpol are still at Rock City).  Mind you, success can also apparently be measured in the price you can charge for tickets: last night's show were almost as much as the tickets I have bought to see Elbow at the Arena (although, to be honest, given a choice between the two venues, I would rather go to Rock City any day of the week).  They're successful up to a point then, sure, but Interpol still strike me as something of a marmite band - you either love them or you hate them.  The reason?  It's Paul Banks' singing voice.  I once read somewhere that he had a voice that sounded like an undertaker reading from a legal textbook, and I've not been able to shake the image out of my head.   It's utterly unique.  When coupled with a slightly awkward lyrical style (sample lyric: "I promise to commit no acts of violence, Neither physical or otherwise, if things come alive..."), I think it's fair to say that Interpol are not going to be the next U2.

The now sadly defunct Stylus Magazine once mocked Interpol's lyrical atrocities on their first album at length:

"Among the atrocities found among Interpol’s debut album Turn on the Bright Lights are dumb metaphors, forced rhymes, horrible similes and some of the worst uses of personification you’ll ever witness ...."

I'm usually the kind of guy who pays attention to lyrics, but with Interpol, the clumsy metaphors and horrible similes seem to fit with Paul Banks' undertaker's voice and the chiming guitars.  I like them.  I can't help it.  I'm just drawn to doomy guitar bands.

Every other time I've seen Interpol perform, the band have been wearing dark suits with red ties.  Tonight, Banks takes to the stage wearing jeans, a lumberjack shirt and a beanie.  Also missing is the band's original bassist, Carlos Dengler, and his polished Peter Hook impersonations and pseudo-Nazi uniform stagewear.  The changes don't stop there either: they sound different, too.  It takes me a minute or two to work out what it is, but then it dawns on me: the new bassist -- Dave Pajo -- has a looser, funkier style of playing, quite in contrast to the usually clipped and clinical sound that I was used to and I thought defined the band.  The rest of the band seem to have responded, and the result seems to be, weirdly,  a slightly funky Interpol.  Imagine that.  Actually, it sort of suits them.

Banks isn't a great talker; he exchanges a few pleasantries with the crowd, but basically just concentrates on the music.  He looks like he's enjoying himself, which always helps, and the band sound good, too.  Daniel Kessler is an excellent guitarist, but one of the things I notice as I watch the band is that, as well as singing, Banks actually contributes his fair share of lead guitar.  They are powered along too by Sam Fogarino's crisp drumming style and Pajo's loose-limbed bass.  They play a pretty mixed set, with the new songs like "Summer Well", "Barricade" and "Memory Serves" standing up pretty well alongside classics like "Evil", "Slow Hands", "NYC", "Rest My Chemistry", "Narc" and "PDA".

The new songs sound good, too.... they're touring a decent album.... but for me the set loses pace in the middle.  I wouldn't say that the quality dips particularly, I just think that they lost impetus after they played the 1-2-3-4 punch of "Slow Hands", "Evil", "NYC" and "Barricade".

Still, they finish strongly, ending the set with "PDA"... an awesome song.... and I think that everyone leaves happy.  I know I do.  Good band.  Great venue (thankfully not burnt down)

And I got to the pub before the end of the quiz too.  And we won.

Verdict: 7 / 10

(there's another - somewhat less charitable - review of this gig here.  Worth a read, although I think it's possible to enjoy a gig without jumping up and down, and where I was standing, everyone seemed to be quietly enjoying themselves, singing along to most of the songs)


Say Hello To The Angels
Length of Love
Summer Well
Rest My Chemistry
Slow Hands
Leif Erikson
Memory Serves
Not Even Jail


The New


Those Top 10 Terrible lyrics in full - from the original article by Andrew Unterberger and originally published in Stylus on 22nd October 2004.  The website is now gone, and I've found this on the google cache, so I republish here with love and respect to the original. 

10. "I wish I could eat the salt off your lost faded lips" (“Obstacle 1”)
In the first of lyricist Paul Bank’s many stabs at some semblance of romanticism, this is among the worst flops—plus, he should be licking the salt off of said lost faded lips, not eating it. No one eats salt.

9. “"I'm gonna pull you in close / Gonna wrap you up tight / Gonna play with the braids that you came here with tonight" (“Obstacle 2”)
Banks tries to sound like a sexual predator of some sort? I mean, I guess promises/threats to “pull you in close” and “wrap you up tight” might be kinda sexy, but playing “with the braids that you came here with tonight” gets Banks no points. Girls are sensitive about these sorts of things.

8. “She says brief things, her love’s a pony, my love's subliminal" (“Leif Erikson”)
On their own, none of these lyrics would be too terrible—well, of course, except for the pony one—but when combined, they’re a classic Banks dud. “She says brief things”—ok, I guess that could be considered nice. “Her love’s a pony”—uh, I guess everyone likes ponies. “My love’s subliminal”—oh, OK. That explains everything.

7. "This is a contest, this is a bracelet, this isn't no intervention" (“Say Hello to the Angels”)
Well, I must admit I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have my heart set on some sort of intervention, but I guess I’ll settle for the contest and bracelet.

6. “"Well she was my catatonic sex toy love-joy diver" (“Stella Was a Diver and She Was Always Down”)
Halfway through the most incredibly heart-rendering scuba diver love song this side of The Sounds of the Sounds of Science comes this lamentation—a deeply felt ode to Stella, Paul Banks’s “catatonic sex toy love-joy diver”. Now catatonia was never too much of a priority for me in life partners, but maybe Stella was just that good a sex toy.

5. “Because friends don't waste wine when there's words to sell" (“Obstacle 2”)
No kidding? Huh.

4. “The subway, she is a porno" (“NYC”)
It’s not the (admittedly awkward) subway / porno comparison that upsets me about this one, it’s the reference to the subway as a “she”. This sort of thing should be reserved for sea captains’ ships and military dudes’ AK-47s. Banks is just being way too presumptuous here.

3. "Her stories are boring and stuff / She’s always calling my bluff” (“Obstacle 1”)
“Obstacle 1” hurts me deeply, because it would be such a great song without lines like this one. Perhaps the most obviously forced rhyme in indie rock history, the use of the “and stuff” filler phrase still stuns just as much today as it did two years ago. If it wasn’t for the fact that the “she’s always calling my bluff” line is kind of cool, this would certainly be the worst line on the album. What were you thinking, man??

2. “My best friend's a butcher, he has sixteen knives / He carries them all over the town at least he tries / Oh look it stopped snowing" (“Roland”)
The first line to “Roland” isn’t so bad I guess—some silly lines about a butcher friend of Banks, who sort of kind of maybe tries to set Roland up as a working class hero figure with that “he carries them all over town / at least he tries” line. But then, for some reason, he gets distracted by the weather and remarks upon how it has stopped snowing. It’s like Banks was in the studio singing “Roland”, and upon reaching the end of the line, glanced out the window and was so stunned by the fact that it had stopped snowing (?), that he had to remark upon it in song, forgetting that the mic was still on. I can just picture the producer later realizing it was still in the song and going to cut it out, but Banks interrupting him, saying “no, leave it. It’s natural.”

1. “"I feel like love is in the kitchen with a culinary eye / I think he's making something special and I'm smart enough to try" (“Obstacle 2”)
Oh man, is this one a monster. Once again Banks tries his hand at romanticism with doomed results, bizarrely personifying love as a chef “with a culinary eye”. This surreal loverman act of Banks’s (“I feel he’s making something special and I’m smart enough to try”—sexy!) makes this line the worst one in a song full of throwaway lines. And what’s more, it appears to have become the sort of precedent for a new batch of romantic atrocities in the form of Interpol’s second album, Antics, with lines like “you make me want to pick up my guitar / and celebrate the myriad ways that I love you”. Well, Mr. Banks, you’ve certainly left us with quite a few here.

Yup.  Pretty bad, I agree.  But I like'em.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

gabba gabba hey!

The latest round of one of sport's oldest rivalries begins tonight: at around about midnight, UK time, the first ball will be bowled at the Gabba in the First Test of the 2010/11 Ashes series. For cricket fans, it's an exciting time.... for an English cricket fan especially, these are exciting times. I've grown up watching Australia pounding England in the cricket. The competition dates back to 1862, and before the 1989 series, it was pretty even with 87 tests won by Australia, 66 by England and a further 74 draws. Between 1989 and 2005, there was a prolonged spell of Australian dominance: of the 43 matches played, Australia won 28 to England's 7, with 8 draws. All bar one of those England wins came when the series had already been lost.... With that in mind, the wild celebrations that greeted England's win in 2005 are perhaps understandable - even if we then got hammered 5-0 in the next series to be played in Australia.

England are the current holders of the Ashes, having won the series in England in 2009, and for the first time in a long time, are -- weirdly for a long-time fan of English cricket -- entering the series as favourites... largely because Australian cricket is in an unusual state of disarray and seems to still be finding its feet since the retirement of a whole generation of all-time greats, including Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Steve Waugh, Adam Gilchrist and a host of other match-winners.

Before anyone gets too carried away though, here are a few cautionary statistics:

England have only won 3 of the last 26 tests in Australia since 1986/7 (when England last won the Ashes there)

England have lost 10 of their last 11 tests in Australia.

The First Test will be played at the Gabba in Brisbane, and no visiting side has won in Brisbane since Viv Richards' great West Indian side in 1988.

Since Len Hutton's England side did it in1954/5, no side has lost a test in Brisbane and come back to win the series (Hutton went on to win three more tests and the series).

It seems that there is no such thing as a poor Australian side in Australia, and Ricky Ponting, one of the greatest batsmen ever to play the game, will be keen not to become only the third Australian ever to captain 3 losing sides in the Ashes (the last one ended up being embalmed and buried in England). I would stay up, but when I did for the start of the much-anticipated series in 2006, it was only to watch Steve Harmison deliver the first ball directly into the hands of Andrew Flintoff at second slip..... and then watching through my fingers for the next hour as they tore us to pieces. A sign, sadly, of what was to come in the rest of the disastrous series as England were mercilessly annihilated.

Still, until last summer, England hadn't beaten the Australians at Lords since 1934... Warne and McGrath are gone now, and records exist to be broken.

Come on England!

2-1 to the visitors.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

back chat....

You might think that it's inconsequential, but Twitter has just saved me the best part of £200.

I'll tell you for why.  About a week ago, I returned some stuff I'd bought from Wiggle, the online sports shop.  I posted the package on a Saturday morning, and by Monday I received an email telling me that they had given me a full refund, including the cost of the postage back to them.  I was impressed, but it only reminded me of a refund I'd been chasing elsewhere for the best part of six months.

When we were in Auckland, way back at the very beginning of April, I bought myself a pair of Teva  Wraptor sandals.  The big attraction was that they were closed toe, but it was an added bonus that they had a clever drainage system in the sole that meant that they were excellent water sandals too.  When we were in Africa in May, I wore little else.  They were great.  Unfortunately, the grill over the drains in the sole seemed to be made of some sort of nylon fibre, and after a couple of weeks of wear, they started to give way.  Not too big a deal, you'd think, but it now meant that things could now poke up through the hole and into my foot.  Not great, especially not for a shoe that had effectively only had about 15 days of wear.  I decided that I'd ask for my money back when I got home.

Given that I'd bought them in New Zealand and would be returning them in the UK, I thought that this might be a problem.  I sent an email via the website explaining the situation, and my hopes weren't much raised by the subsequent response I had from an obviously Indian-based call centre with a non-Teva specific email address.  Great, a call centre that handled several companies all at the same time.  I was expecting to be frustrated.  To be fair,  they handled the query about as well as could be expected and I successfully managed to arrange the return of my damaged shoes -- with the receipt -- for inspection prior to a refund if they were found to be faulty.  I sent them back, but heard nothing.  So I chased.  And I chased.  And I chased.  After a little while, I ended up talking on the phone to someone from Belgium who confirmed that they had received my shoes and agreed to a refund, and now asked me to fax my credit card details to someone in their finance department (they weren't allowed to take them over the phone).  Fine.  Nothing.  Not even anyone to confirm that they had, or had not, received the details.

I chased again, eventually getting a response from the USA that told me to create an account on their website as it was the only way that they could process the refund.  I quickly did this, but then got nothing at all for weeks.  I sent more emails, but by now I had stopped getting even the standard "we will respond to your message in the next 24 hours" standard response.  It was now November, and I was starting to get seriously annoyed.  What was wrong with these people?  How can they make it so hard for me to get my money back when they'd actually agreed the refund?  In my innocence, I had thought that might be the hard bit.  I wasn't going to give up, but did wonder what my next move should be.

After Wiggle processed my refund so quickly, without really thinking about it, I put up the following tweet;

"@ have refunded me inside 2 days for a faulty product where @ have so far taken 6 months. Just so you know."

Much to my surprise, I was quickly engaged in a conversation with whoever runs the Teva Twitter account, and before long they were chasing me to see if I had heard from their customer service team.  Less than a week after that initial tweet, I had an email from an actual PERSON at the parent company behind Teva (Deckers Outdoor Corporation), saying:

"First I would like to extend my sincere apologies for the mishandling of you return for your Teva product.  I have been in touch with our return department in Wincanton and have gotten the information on which product has been returned. They have stated that you sent back a pair of the men’s Wraptor’s. I will be processing the return for you in the amount of $125.00 USD [which is more than I paid in the first place]

I will have the business department process this right away.

Also because of all the inconvenience this has caused you I would like to offer you a replacement pair of shoes at no cost. Please reply to my email directly and let me know what you may be interested and I will take care of that for you.

Perhaps it's coincidence, but I can't help but think that it is only because of the intervention of whoever runs the Teva Twitter account that this has happened.  Nearly six months of trying, and it's a throwaway message on a disposable medium that gets me my money back.

Still, credit where credit is due.... Teva have taken a bad news story and pretty much completely turned it around.  The free pair of shoes is a nice touch, don't you think?

Yeah, alright... Twitter is still pretty inconsequential, I agree....But amidst all the trivia, spam marketing and celebrity chitter-chatter, it's not entirely useless.

Monday, 22 November 2010

wave goodbye....

a-ha @ Nottingham Arena, 22nd November 2010

It's only a little over twelve months since I last saw a-ha.  I've always had a soft-spot for them, and "Scoundrel Days" was one of the very first albums I ever owned.  Even so, I wasn't really expecting all that much from the 2009 version.  They were amazing: without a doubt one of the best gigs I've seen in years.  At that point, the band had already announced that they would be splitting up in 2010, so when we saw that there would be a Nottingham date on their farewell tour, it seemed something of a no-brainer.  OBVIOUSLY we'd be going to see them again.

One year down the line, and if anything my appreciation of the band has grown.  After enjoying the NIA gig so much, I found myself listening to their greatest hits album more and more, and, having long since lost my original cassette, I was lucky enough to be given a copy of the "Scoundrel Days" CD for Christmas by a very thoughtful little miss LB.  It's a fantastic sounding album, even today.  No question: I was very much looking forward to seeing the band live again and hearing those amazing songs performed live by the band one last time.

Tickets were expensive -- double what I've paid to go and see Elbow in the same venue in March -- and perhaps as a result, the arena was not full and there were reasonably large swathes of empty seats.  In contrast, the NIA last year, one of only three UK dates the band played in 2009, was absolutely packed on the back of a top 5 album, "The Foot of the Mountain".  Perhaps it's too soon for them to be touring again?  No, surely that can't be it... not when it's a farewell tour?  Still, the fans that were there -- and it was still a decent crowd -- were clearly well up for it: the lights dimmed and it was immediately clear that there were a lot of very excited women in the crowd.  Unfortunately for my eardrums, one of the most excited appeared to be sitting directly behind me.  When she wasn't shrieking at high volume, she was whistling right into my ear.  I bet she bought one of the £15 hardback souvenir programmes..... and good luck to her.  I've seen worse value for less at Arena gigs in the past, after all.  The tour was called "Ending on a High Note", and the merchandise was extensive enough to allow fans to buy one last souvenir to remind them of the band, without being overwhelming: no shower-curtains and coasters, but you could purchase mugs, iPhone covers, some delightful tasseled winter woolly hats, mugs and a decent selection of t-shirts.

To be fair, a-ha are one band it's definitely worth screaming at: for guys in their early 50s, the band look amazing.  They've weathered astonishingly well over the years.  If Take That look like this in 10 years time, they'll be doing alright.  Harkett has always been a fantastic looking guy, of course, and with those cheekbones, it's hard to go too far wrong, but the other two actually look better now than they did in the 1980s.  They take to the stage, wave at the crowd and launch straight into "The Sun Always Shines on TV".  It's a great song, but now I'm worrying that they're going to play exactly the same set as I heard at the NIA a year ago.  Well, many of the backings on the big screens are the same, but as they accompany specific songs, that's hardly surprising.  In fact, I'd be amazed if the setlist to the average a-ha gig has varied by much more than 25% since 1989, simply because there are lots of songs that they simply HAVE to play - many from their first two albums.  With that in mind, I think they actually do a really good job of mixing things up, with a little acoustic interval and a few of their less obvious songs.

They sound fantastic.  I thought I heard Harkett struggle to reach the notes on "Scoundrel Days" early in the set, but I must have been mistaken, as he's flawless for the rest of the gig, effortlessly hitting the most ridiculous of high notes.  I can't really improve on what I said about them last time:

"At one point the huge screen behind the band shows footage of a rising swell in the ocean, and for me this is how a-ha sound: they're widescreen and windswept and Harket's voice is sometimes as pure and lonely as a gull calling across an expanse of ocean; they're open and desolate like tundra..... they're utterly defined by their success in the 80s, but even their oldest and most famous songs do not sound in the least bit dated".

Well, perhaps that prose is a little purple, but still....

My one criticism, and the reason I didn't enjoy this gig as much as the last time I saw the band, is that it's all a little bit bloodless.  The fans are well up for the gig, of course, but they seem to be rather more upset about the forthcoming breakup of the band than the band do themselves.  Harkett has never been particularly forthcoming with his audience, and he seems to spend most of his time fretting with the sound guy about his right ear-piece, or hiding behind a huge pair of sunglasses and not engaging with his fans.
"I love you Morten!" one fan screams, pausing before optimistically adding, "Do you love me?".
Paul barely speaks, and so it is left up to Mags to do all the talking, which basically consists of thanking the fans for 25 amazing years.  Fair enough, but although they're very good, this lack of emotion stops this from being an amazing gig.  Then again, perhaps it's hard to criticise the band for being the embodiment of their cold, clear sound.  They're an excellent band, and sounding as good today as they probably ever have (2009's "The Foot of the Mountain" sounds great and easily stands comparison with their biggest hits from the 80s). How many other bands who have been around this long can say as much?  Certainly not the Rolling Stones.

They finish with "Take on Me", of course.... ending their last ever gig in Nottingham, and one of their last gigs ever, quite literally, on a high note.  The shrieking girl behind me is in tears.  A good show by a fantastic, legendary band.

Before you go, be sure to read LB's review of the gig in the Evening Post, where some bright spark of a sub-editor has tried to get him into trouble by pulling out this quote as the headline of a very fair and balanced review: "Morten Harket is one of the least charismatic front men in pop".

Set List:

The Sun Always Shines On TV
Move to Memphis
The Blood That Moves The Body
Scoundrel Days
Stay On These Roads
Manhattan Skyline
Hunting High And Low
The Bandstand
Forever Not Yours
We're Looking For The Whales
Butterfly Butterfly (The Last Hurrah)
Crying In The Rain
Minor Earth Major Sky
The Swing Of Things
Summer Moved On
I've Been Losing You
Foot Of The Mountain
Cry Wolf
The Living Daylights
Take On Me

Verdict: 7.5 / 10  
(and also, I think, the first gig where I - together with my companions - have all appeared on the big screen.... several times)

Friday, 19 November 2010

and when she gets into your head, you know she's there to stay....

Earworms of the Week

Theme from Supergran

"Stand back Superman, Iceman, Spiderman. 
Batman and Robin too
Don’t wanna cause a fracas, 
but BA Baracas, have I got a match for you.
She makes them look like a bunch of fairies.
She’s got more bottle than United Dairies.
Hang about - Look out! For Supergran."

All caused, I think, because I went to work today (it's Children in Need, so we could dress down.  Yes, I did wear my smart casual compromise cords...)  wearing my Superman t-shirt.  

I can't even think when Supergran might last have been on.  I certainly can't remember when I might have last watched it.....

"Good Morning" - Debbie Reynolds, Gene Kelly & Donald O'Connor

I was in a a grumpy mood with my wife over breakfast, but in an oddly good mood by the time I got to work.  Go figure.  Still, I was clearly in a chirpy enough mood to have this bright-eyed, bushy-tailed little number zinging around my head.  I sang it to the guy who sits next to me, much to his surprise.

Theme tune to Chucklevision

I can remember a conversation around the campsite at Glastonbury one night after the main bands had finished, when we seemed to talk at great length about the Chuckle Brothers..... but quite why the theme tune to a programme I have never knowingly watched is in my head, I don't know.  They're getting a bit long in the tooth these days, but they're still very much in the entertainment business today.  They're terrifying, aren't they?  And we let them entertain our children?  Not unsupervised, I hope.

"The Trooper" - Iron Maiden

Popped up on shuffle as I drove the car to work one morning.  It's a brilliant record at any time of the day, of course.... well, I think so.  Not sure my wife agreed as we shared the ride into work.  Well, it is my car....

"Wake Up" - Rage Against the Machine

Another -- perhaps far more aptly named -- song that popped up on the early morning run into work.  This song is used to great effect over the end credits of the first Matrix film, but for me it's all about that suddenly-very-heavy sounding, choppy bit of guitar about 3m 18s into the song.  Just before the inevitable "UH!".  Great record.

"Montage" - Team America: World Police

I've taken to singing this when I'm watching TV and anything remotely approaching a montage comes on. 

The hour's approaching, just give it your best
You've got to reach your prime.
That's when you need to put yourself to the test,
And show us a passage of time,
We're gonna need a montage (montage)
Oh it takes a montage (montage)

Show a lot of things happening at once,
Remind everyone of what's going on (what's going on?)
And with every shot you show a little improvement
To show it all would take to long
That's called a montage (montage)
Oh we want montage (montage)

And anything that we want to go from just a beginner to a pro,
You need a montage (montage)
Even Rocky had a montage (montage)


Anything that we want to go from just a beginner to a pro,
You need a montage (montage)
Oh it takes a montage (montage)

Always fade out in a montage,
If you fade out, it seem like more time
Has passed in a montage,

Awesome.  I might have to give up and just download the soundtrack.

"Notorious" - Duran Duran

Nope.  No idea.  I am seeing a band that made their name in the 80s live on Sunday night, but it's A-ha, not this lot.

"Someone Like You" - Adele

Now, I'm not a massive fan of Adele.  I don't dislike her, or anything, I just wouldn't say that she was the kind of thing that floated my musical boat.  Not surprisingly, I didn't even know she had any new material out, nevermind make a point of watching her when "Later with Jools Holland" was on live on Tuesday night.  I was just hopping around the channels, and as it was on, I stopped to see who was on.  Arcade Fire were the lead band (meh), but Adele was on just afterwards, with this song.  With very little accompaniment (just a piano), playing a song I've never heard before, she was AMAZING.  Credit where credit is due.  Incredible performance.  You should watch this link.

"Glory of Love" - Peter Cetera

To be fair, this song probably doesn't sound at its best when rendered on a bontempi organ, as heard at this week's pub quiz (did I mention we won?  With a record-breaking high score?).  It still sounds pretty bloody amazing though.  Theme tune to "The Karate Kid", of course, but surely a brilliant song entirely in its own right?  No?  LB knows all the words, obviously....

"Molly's Chambers" - Kings of Leon

Back from a time when the Kings of Leon had truly appalling haircuts and eccentric facial hair, but when their music was a whole lot better.  This song packs - for me - so much more of a punch than almost anything that they've done in the last 5 years.  They might be massive now, and good luck to them, but they used to be much more interesting.  It's not that I don't like their new stuff (although the Eagles-lite album covers I could do without), it's just that I think they peaked with their second album and it's been diminishing returns ever since.  Not financially, obviously.  Apparently "Use Somebody" is a very popular wedding song.  I actually couldn't even tell you what it sounds like.  And don't get me started on "Sex on Fire", either.  Gah!

Right, well as I'm off to do the Children in Need call centre in 90 minutes, I'd best be leaving you to get on with your weekends.  If you fancy making a donation, then give them a ring on 0345 7 33 22 33 and you may just get hold of me.  They take most of their money online now, so although I'll be there until 2am, I'm not sure how busy we'll be, as it seems to get quieter and quieter with each passing year.  Still, after that I'm up early and off down to Twickenham to watch some rugby.  Hurrah!

Have a good weekend, y'all.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

holding on for tomorrow....

I probably should have heeded the warning signs when I was out running last night.  I usually run on Tuesday, inject and then rest on Wednesday when I'm often feeling at my most vulnerable physically.  For one reason or another, I wasn't able to go out on Tuesday, so I was determined to go out running before the pub quiz last night, come hell or high water.  It went quite well and I felt pretty good, but my left thigh - the one I'd injected into the night before - was pretty numb throughout, and I had little sensation in the ball of my right foot.  I pushed on through, running at a pretty respectable pace of 8.35 minutes per mile -- almost as fast as I get, and likely powered by a timely play of "Africa" by Toto on my iPod to put a bounce in my step at about the halfway point.

I felt okay today and was looking forward to a run around at football tonight.  It just didn't happen.  I'll be the first to admit that I'm not the best player in the world, but today I had nothing at all.  When I went to run, I had nothing in my legs, and as the game wore on, I gradually lost sensation in my arms from the shoulders down.  Even an hour after the game and after a long, hot shower, I still haven't recovered full sensation in my arms or hands.  It isn't even that cold.  In fact, it's positively mild out, and I actually considered taking off one of my several thermal layers before playing.  As it turns out, apparently I wasn't wearing enough.  Or, more likely, the way that I'm feeling hasn't got much to do with the outside temperature.

I hate it.  There's not a great deal I can do about it, but I hate it.  I hate feeling this vulnerable and this useless.

Part of this will be down to the fact that I played football the day after running, and I took a lot of the oomph out of my legs, but I'm also forced to admit that it is also at least partly due to my MS.

The injections and their side-effects I can take; the numbness and pins and needles I can handle; the weakness in my upper body I can live with (and today I was brushed off like I wasn't there in every single 50:50 I challenged for).....well, I've never exactly been rippling with muscles.... The fatigue though; the feeling that my tank is empty and that my body can't respond to my brain's instructions, is something else.  I hate reaching the end of a game and struggling to operate my fingers enough to reach into my wallet for the money to pay.  Horrible. I'm 36 years old and I don't want to feel this vulnerable.

Tomorrow's another day, but more than anything else it is moments like these when I feel most depressed about my condition.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

hot legs....

I've started wearing tights under my trousers.

No wait! It's not like that.  They're compression tights, you see, so it's okay.  Right?  That's okay?  Like everyone else, my legs often ache after exercise.  Sometimes they even hurt.  Sometimes, after a long run, they hurt for a couple of days. 

My MS affects the way that I feel my muscles, and so not surprisingly it affects the way that I feel the ache in my legs after a run.  It's hard to explain, but as well as feeling the stiffness from a run, I also generally feel a bit more wobbly on my feet after exercise.  It's as though I can't quite feel the ground underneath my feet and have to be a bit careful as I take a step.

Although I knew that compression clothing can apparently help relieve muscle fatigue after exercise, it wasn't until two people mentioned to me within 24 hours that it really seemed to work, that I decided I might have a look.  Both people used compression socks, but as I get a lot of my muscle stiffness in my thighs, I thought I'd opt for tights. 

Perhaps this wouldn't have surprised anyone who'd given a moment's thought to the concept of muscle compression, but they're pretty tight.  The size chart suggested I should buy medium, but when I pulled them out of the box in the changing room, they looked minuscule.  Still, nothing ventured.....

They're brilliant.  I wear them for recovery after exercise, and they really do seem to help ward off the fatigue in my muscles, and - most importantly from my point of view - they seem to make me a little surer on my feet in the aftermath of a run.

Well, I say that's the most important thing, but secretly I've also discovered that I actually quite enjoy the feel of a pair of lycra tights underneath my trousers.  It's my little secret and it feels good.

Is that really so wrong?  It's therapeutic, dammit.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

hemmed in like a boar between arches.....

Don't care about how they met.
Don't care about how he proposed.
Don't care about when the wedding is.
Don't care where the wedding might be.
Don't care how much it costs (austerity wedding, anyone? anyone?)
Don't care what she might wear.
Don't care what he might wear.
Don't care who gets invited.
Don't care what they have for dinner.
Don't care where they live.
Don't care if she might be Queen one day.
Don't care if he might be King one day.
Don't care how middle-class her parents (are or are not).
Don't care what the Queen thinks.
Don't care what Diana might have thought.
Don't care what the press think.
Don't care what the public think.
Don't care what people overseas think.
Don't care what she thinks about joining the Royal Family.

I just don't care. 

Can we move on now?

Her very Lowness with a head in a sling
I'm truly sorry - but it sounds like a wonderful thing....

Monday, 15 November 2010

put it behind you......

Star Wars has been a big part of my life.  I'm too young to remember it properly, but apparently I was taken to see the original film at some point in 1977 or 1978 when we were on a family holiday in Guernsey.  I do remember queuing in the rain outside the Electra Cinema in Newport Pagnell to watch the Empire Strikes Back, and I can remember distinctly counting down the days waiting for Return of the Jedi to be released.  Like most boys of my age, I collected the toys.  I've still got them, I think.  Whenever I got on my bike to nip down the road to spend the day during the holidays with my best friend, I'd always pop a bag on my shoulder with my figures in.  I've still got the Millennium Falcon and most of my figures somewhere too.  We used to have a copy of the original film on betamax tape, recorded off the telly at some point between Christmas and New Year.  I watched that tape so often that, even today, I can still tell you at what point the ad breaks kicked in.  It was one of the older cuts of the film too, the one where Luke throws the grapple and misses, and when I watch the film today, I still don't really understand why they took that scene out of subsequent versions of the film.  It wasn't to be the only time that Lucas couldn't resist tinkering with the films.

My interest waned a little as I got older, but by the time I was studying for my Masters, the original films were on their way back into the cinemas as the Special Editions, and my old VHS tapes of the trilogy were in high demand and, in the way of men who are refusing to grow up everywhere, it didn't take much for me and my friends to regress to our childhood and start collecting the action figures again.  Personally, I collected them for the fun of it, but one of my friends was absolutely convinced that lightning would strike twice and that his un-boxed figures (he bought two of each, one to play with and one to keep in pristine condition) would one day be worth a fortune.   Righto.

When the Special Editions came out on VHS, I bought the films again.  And when they came out on DVD, because I'd left my original tapes with an ex-girlfriend, I bought them again.  For the life of me, I couldn't understand why Lucas had felt the need to tinker with the films.  The tidying up of the special effects.... maybe.  But why add that pointless scene between Han and Jabba?  The replacement of the original human actor with the giant slug we knew and loved meant that the scene was fatally flawed and required distraction tactics as Harrison Ford circled the actor and had to be cut out and lifted over the tail of the now inserted CGI slug.  Also, what was the problem with Han shooting Greedo under the table?  Why change the scene so that the bounty hunter gets an unconvincing shot off first?  Has there been a better "We're not in Kansas anymore" moment than when we met Han Solo in the Cantina and see him shoot someone in cold blood under the table?  No one even bats an eyelid as he throws down his money and apologises to the barman for the mess... but not the killing.  Why change that now?  Wasn't the whole point of Han Solo that he was a bit of a scoundrel?  Why water that down now?

In spite of these doubts about George Lucas and his "vision", the prequels were looking like they were going to happen, so I got to get excited all over again about the films.  I can remember seeing the trailer for The Phantom Menace for the first time and marvelling at the reveal of Darth Maul's double-bladed lightsabre.  It was like I was an 8 year-old boy all over again, counting down the hours to the release of a Star Wars film.  As it happened, I went on holiday in Florida before The Phantom Menace was released in the UK, so pretty much the first thing that we did when we got off the plane was to head to a cinema to watch it.  Initially it was a thrill to watch the Jedi in the prime, using their lightsabres to cut through closed doors, but then, jetlagged and then bored by the podrace scene, I fell asleep.  The more I thought about it, the worse the disappointment became.  The acting was generally awful: Jake Lloyd was bad enough, but we knew that Ewan McGregor and Natalie Portman were capable of better.  And what the hell was Jar-Jar Binks?  And all that crap about midichlorians and virgin birth?  Ugh.  Horrible.  Two-and-a-half decades to think about it, and he came up with this?

I watched all of the prequels in the cinema, obviously, in spite of growing concerns about Lucas' judgment in casting the woeful Hayden Christensen in the pivotal role of Annakin Skywalker.  It wasn't all bad, and there was a certain satisfaction in the slow-burning political drama of how Palpatine seized power and how the Jedi fell..... but it certainly left a lot to be desired.  I can hardly watch them.

You can't argue with the box office, I suppose:

Star Wars IV: $798m
Empire Strikes Back: $534m
RotJ: $573m
Phantom Menace: $925m
Clones: $648m
Sith; $848m

...never mind all the merchandising and DVD sales (yes, I bought them all)

Of course, George Lucas likes to claim that his vision for this cycle of films right from the very start.  Maybe he did.  Who knows?  I'm inclined to think that he didn't.  There are too many inconsistencies: why would he have hinted at the attraction between Luke and Leia if he had known that they were brother and sister when he made Star Wars?  Why would Kenobi refer to Darth Vader as "Darth" in their duel in the first film?  Surely he would have known that this was his title and not his name?  And so on, and so forth.

I watched a documentary at the weekend: "Star Wars: The Legacy Revealed".  Over the course of 90 minutes and interviews with academics and the likes of Newt Gingrich and Nancy Pelosi, I learned how these films draw on references as diverse as Homer's Odyssey and Illiad, Shakespeare's Hamlet and Milton's Paradise Lost.  It's about a hero's journey.  How he has issues with his father.  How he finds mentors to guide him and a quest to follow.  Blah, blah, blah.

Yes, the Star Wars films follow several archetypes of storytelling from across the ages.... but are you really telling me that Lucas was referring to all these eminent sources consciously when he was a 33 year-old film maker putting together "Star Wars" in 1977?  No, of course he wasn't.  He just wanted to make a film in the tradition of the serials he used to watch as a child.  He was more influenced by Flash Gordon than he was by Aeneas.  To claim otherwise is to be guilty of over-thinking it.

He got lucky... but there's nothing wrong with that.  Star Wars is still an amazing film and that first trilogy made an indelible impression on my childhood.  For that, I thank him.  For the rest.  Hmm.  For me, any myth there was in the story has been wiped away by what has happened subsequently.  Ah, good luck to him (especially if he gives half his fortune away to charity, as he has pledged).  One of the happiest guys I ever knew was a developer I once worked with who got a job working for ILM at Skywalker Ranch.  Talk about a dream job for a geek, huh?  Lucas brings happiness to guys like him and to kids who think Jar-Jar Binks is brilliant.  At the end of the day, what's wrong with that?

You can take this shit too seriously, right?

Yeah.  You're right.  I guess I still do.

Friday, 12 November 2010

where the dogs of society howl....

Earworms of the Week

"Patterns" - Band of Skulls

There are quite a few repeat offenders in this week's list.  I haven't had a whole lot of time to sit and listen to music, so I think a few songs that have been sitting just below my conscious mind for a few weeks have started to surface of their own accord as I've been busy scooting about the office ineffectually.  I've only had the Band of Skulls album for a couple of months, but already I think it's a keeper and they're pretty much at the top of my list of bands to see live.  Perhaps at Glastonbury, eh?  As long as they're not up against a reforming Pulp, then we should be fine, eh?  This is my favourite song: there's something about that girl's voice that I really, really like.  They're often compared to the White Stripes, but Meg probably wishes she could sing like this.

"Champs Elysees" - Joe Dassin

Parked in my head a few month ago thanks to the soundtrack to "The Darjeeling Limited", and it's pretty much taken up residence.  It probably helps that it's a song that C. grew up with, and every time she hears it, she immediately breaks into song.

Tu m'as dit "J'ai rendez-vous
Dans un sous-sol avec des fous
Qui vivent la guitare à la main
Du soir au matin"
Alors je t'ai accompagnée
On a chanté, on a dansé
Et l'on n'a même pas pensé
À s'embrasser

All together now.....

Aux Champs-Élysées
Aux Champs-Élysées
Au soleil, sous la pluie
À midi ou à minuit
Il y a tout ce que vous voulez
Aux Champs-Élysées

Cheesy, bit good.

"Mr Brownstone" - Guns N' Roses

Back in the day, this was probably my favourite song on "Appetite for Destruction".  In 1988, together with Aerosmith's "Pump", that album was hardly off my stereo.  It's packed full of quality songs, of course, but there was something about this ode to heroin that really caught my ear.  I wouldn't say it was my favourite song now ("Night Train", probably), but it's still pretty good.  What the hell happened, eh?  Tell me that, Axl.

"Can You Tell" - Ra Ra Riot

As introduced to me by Mandy a few years ago as part of her shuffleathon CD.  It comes to mind at this time of year because the theme of the CD she sent me was as a soundtrack to her NaNoWriMo novel from that novel.  Very good it was too, albeit this was the standout track for me.  I've done NaNo a couple of times, although the last time I just vomited out 50,000 words in about 15 days, so I'm not sure if I really want to count that.  It featured talking animals in the city of York, as I recall.  Mandy does it every year, and she's well underway now.  A little behind schedule, but I'm sure she'll pull it back and then spend the next few months working up what she's got into a proper story.  Not that I'm jealous or anything.  Good song, incidentally.

Theme tune to "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"

My favourite ever "get" in the "Backwards TV theme tunes" round at the Leftlion quiz.  I've not seen the show recently, but for some reason the theme tune has lodged itself in my head.  Something to do with the guitars, I expect.  It's usually about the guitars with me.

"Au Suivant" - Jacques Brel

Prompted by a Twitter conversation between @Aravis and @Lazygal about "Seasons in the Sun" and whether or not they were talking about the Terry Jacks (inferior, saccharine) version, or the (much better, caustic) Brel version.  It got me thinking about Brel, and as per usual, this is the song that popped straight into my head.  Usually I think of the Alex Harvey version, which I love, but this time my mind settled on the original.

"Bodies" - Robbie Williams
"Greatest Day" - Take That

Nope.  No idea.  I don't even really like "Greatest Day", even though I often hear it being hailed as a modern masterpiece.  It's all a bit meh for me.  As for the Robbie Williams, I had to look up what the song was actually called, as the bit I had stuck in my head is where he goes:

All we’ve ever wanted
Is to look good naked
Hope that someone can take it

No idea why.   I had "The Road to Mandalay" in my head the other day too.  Go figure.

"Waiting for the Moving Van"- David Ackles

Wistful. Melancholy. Maudlin.  Love it.

"Follow the Yellow Brick Road" from The Wizard of Oz
"Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" - Elton John

I've been doing a bit of process definition work in the office.  For no good reason, I've termed the "ideal" path (which is sadly something of an exception) as being when we "follow the yellow brick road".  As the company is rather fond of abbreviations and acronyms, for my own entertainment, I've called this "FTYBR".  Amusingly it appears to be sticking.  If it makes it all the way, I may try and make sure that the launch publicity calls the department "The Friends of Dorothy", and see it that sticks too.....

That's your lot.  Have a good weekend, y'all.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

out of routine....

I suppose you might say that I'm a creature of habit: I like to do certain things at certain times.  Exercise is a great example: I like to run on a Tuesday before I inject, play football on a Thursday, swim on a Friday night after work, run on a Saturday morning and swim on a Sunday night.  It's not a routine that's set in stone, but I do feel slightly uncomfortable if I'm forced to deviate.  I'm mildly particular about other things too.  I like to eat a pizza express pizza on a Monday night, for instance.  If we eat sausages, it's usually on a Thursday night.  It's not a big deal if I don't (and tonight I'm having pie....mmmmm), but I definitely seem to like a little routine in my life.

I don't really have the same sort of rituals in my working life, although every day is a battle not to eat my pack lunch before about 11:30 in the morning (after which it's fair game).  I take a bag of chopped carrots, celery and cucumber to try and distract myself from my sandwiches and crisps.  It doesn't always work....


Since I've returned to work, one of my old housemates has started working in the same department. As he lives just round the corner from us and because we're now a one car house, I've slipped into the routine of sharing a lift into the office with him and leaving the car for C. to use as she pleases.  Pretty much every working day, I get up at about 7am, if it's a Monday, Wednesday or Friday, I do my upper body strengthening exercises, then I shower, dress, make my pack lunch, have a fresh coffee and my breakfast and get myself ready for my lift at 8am.  By 8.15, traffic permitting, we're generally in the office and taking it in turns to get a pot of coffee on.

Yes, I'm aware I'm sounding more and more autistic with every sentence I write. 

I quite like getting into work comfortably before the working day really starts at 9am.  I can clear off a few emails, have a few quick conversations and generally get myself ready for the start of any meetings I might have.  Car sharing has been great at the other end of the day too, as it means that I'm forced to get ready to leave the office at about 17:30, and certainly no later than 18:00.  It's a good discipline, and it's got me out of the habit of casually working long hours and leaving the office at 19:30 for no really good reason.

C. started work on Monday.

Not surprisingly, as she mostly works in the same building now as us, she has joined our little car share.  Why wouldn't she?  We've worked in the same building before, but we've generally avoided car sharing in the past because we work slightly different hours: I generally start my day a little earlier, and we both had unpredictable finish times.  It didn't really work.  We didn't try very hard to make it work, it's true, but rightly or wrongly, we settled into the routine of using both cars.  This time around, we only have one car.

The first few days of our new car share worked fine: our friend was driving and we just had to make sure we were ready by 8am.  When my friend and I had that away day on Tuesday, C. just biked into work.  It was all good.  This morning, though, Keith made his own way into work because I play football on a Thursday night and needed my car.  Although she would be sharing a lift back with Keith, it obviously made sense that I took C. into the office with me.

As usual, I was ready to go by about 8am.

C. took a little longer, and it was gone 8.15 by the time we were both in the car and ready to go.... at which point C. hopped out and ran back into the house, coming back clutching a belt.

Now, I know that people are made differently.  Where my whole morning routine is focused around getting ready to go to work and then leaving, C. tends to get other things done: things that I would leave until I got home, she will tackle up front.  She might empty the dishwasher or the washing machine, for example.  Both are tasks that I am really grateful that she does.  Absolutely I am.  She will also, for instance, take a little longer over her hair and appearance than I will.  Again, perfectly understandable.  She also, it should be said, always makes me my coffee. 

....but all the same, the delay -- caffeine fix notwithstanding -- made me a little grumpy.  It wasn't even that I had anything much to be at work for.  My first meeting was at 9am.  I just wanted to leave at 8am and was ready to go at that time.  I hadn't actually bothered to say that this was my deadline to C, but every minute spent waiting after I was ready felt like an hour.

Naturally, after we did leave, we hit traffic.  We might have hit traffic anyway, but clearly - in my head - we'd hit THIS traffic because we were running LATER than planned.

"You're very quiet."
"Who's this we're listening to"
"The Stooges" ('search and destroy' - great morning music or what?)
"I'm sorry I took so long to get ready"

Mature response, I'm sure you'll agree.

We parked up, went to out separate desks, and that was that.  I wasn't really cross, and already I was laughing at myself to my colleagues, but I'd got grumpy with my wife because my unspoken routine had been disrupted slightly. 


Of course, when I rushed out of the office this evening into the cold and the dark to get myself off to football, I managed to lose my car in the car park.  I was forced to ring my wife and ask if she could remember where we'd parked when I was stropping about in the morning.  She was very gracious, of course.  She didn't even laugh in my face or ANYTHING.

She's a keeper.  I'm just an idiot.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010


A letter was published in this Saturday's Guardian.  It was sent by some British veterans and it raised some interesting concerns about the Poppy Appeal.  I'll quote it in full:

"The Poppy Appeal is once again subverting Armistice Day. A day that should be about peace and remembrance is turned into a month-long drum roll of support for current wars. This year's campaign has been launched with showbiz hype. The true horror and futility of war is forgotten and ignored.
The public are being urged to wear a poppy in support of "our Heroes". There is nothing heroic about being blown up in a vehicle. There is nothing heroic about being shot in an ambush and there is nothing heroic about fighting in an unnecessary conflict.

Remembrance should be marked with the sentiment "Never Again".

Ben Griffin (Northern Ireland, Macedonia, Afghanistan, Iraq)
Ben Hayden (Northern Ireland, Macedonia, Afghanistan, Iraq)
Terry Wood (Northern Ireland, Falklands)
Ken Lukowiak (Northern Ireland, Falklands)
Neil Polley (Falklands)
Steve Pratt (Dhofar, Northern Ireland)"

Interesting, no?

I know I write about this every year, but I find Remembrance Sunday very moving.  There's something so dignified about seeing the ever-dwindling crowds of quiet, noble veterans wearing their medals as they lay wreaths to their fallen comrades.  It makes me think about the enormity of the sacrifice that many of these people made all those years ago and how much we owe them.  Of course, when we think about those sacrifices, we generally think about the two World Wars, and especially of the trenches in Flanders during the First World War.  With the death last year of Harry Patch, the last surviving British veteran of the Western Front, it's hardly surprising that the British Legion is trying to update our image of the work that they do to focus on more modern wars.

What appears to have drawn criticism is the way that the British Legion appears to be openly suggesting that we support "Our Brave Boys" in the unpopular wars our soldiers are currently fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.   As the Guardian reported:

The veterans' letter organiser is Ben Griffin, a London ambulance driver who served nine years in the Parachute Regiment, including in Afghanistan and Iraq, before refusing to return for a further term of service because of his concerns about US military tactics.

He said: "We are concerned that people are trying to take ownership of the poppy for political ends. It is almost as if they are trying to garner support for our boys and any criticism of the wars is a betrayal.

"That is not what the poppy was all about to start with: it was all about remembrance and peace: never again. The government should be supporting these casualties: they are their liability, not the British Legion's."

Does that chime with you?  It certainly does with me, and to hear a veteran like Ben Griffin expressing a concern like that is actually something of a relief.  Without wanting to criticise Help for Heroes themselves, there is a growing sense trailing in their wake that all of our soldiers - volunteers in a professional armed force, lest we forget, not conscripts - are all HEROES, and that any criticism of the wars they are fighting is somehow a betrayal of them and the sacrifices they are making.  Even being seen without a poppy at this time of year is like spitting in the faces of our brave lads (cue the tiresome and predictable criticism of Jon Snow for continuing to refuse to wear a poppy when he reads the news, just as he won't wear any other charitable symbol....).  Nicky Campbell described on Radio Five last week how he was accosted by a member of the public after filming a piece to camera at an outside location and was roundly berated for not wearing poppy..... for a piece that was not going to be aired until April next year.  Snow calls it "Poppy Fascism", which is a deliberately provocative way of putting it, but it's hard to deny that he has a point.  Perhaps, as Guy Winters suggested in the Telegraph, we should put it into the wider context of something we might call "Grief Fascism": as a society, we are becoming insistent that not only must we grieve, but we must be seen to be grieving.

Now, I don't doubt the sacrifices and bravery of our troops in Afghanistan, but to support them should not mean that we are uncritical of the wars they are being asked to fight.  Nor should a lack of support for our wounded be implicit in the absence of a poppy on my lapel (although let's also not forget that the Government should be playing more of a role in the support of our veterans.... it shouldn't be left to charities to look after them and their families.)

As the numbers of surviving veterans from the two World Wars dwindles (and it's 65 years now since the end of the Second World War), it's hardly surprising that the Royal British Legion should seek to draw our attention to the needs of the veterans of more recent conflicts.  As they rush to get The Saturdays to launch the 2010 Poppy Appeal and try to get people to put two minutes of silence to the top of the UK Singles Chart* perhaps they should remember the quiet dignity of those veterans at the Cenotaph each November as they remember their fallen comrades.

*or as they report here: "Oh boy, David Tennant is looking yummy in his suit isn't he?! Yes, yes we know, it's essentially two minutes of not very much noise-wise at all but... it's all in a good cause, and it's very powerful stuff. The fact that David Tennant looked so hot also swayed us into posting the 2 Minute Silence trailer clip. Oh boy, what we wouldn't give for him to be back in the Tardis..."

As an aside, have you seen the TV advert for this year's Poppy Appeal?

Is it just me, or is that a ridiculously lingering cleavage shot on that young widow about 30 seconds in? Presumably it's a bad thing that this is now all I can remember about that advert....?

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

silk suit, black tie, I don't need a reason why....

I had a team building session at work today.  A "launchpad", according to the invitation.  The venue was in a church's conference centre (yes, they are that kind of a church).  As their website says they "are passionate about seeing God's kingdom spread throughout Nottingham".  From what I could see from the venue itself, this seemed to consist of some groovy religious type paintings around the place.  I took some photos so you could enjoy them too.  After resisting an early temptation to attend the "modern discipleship" course instead, I tried to swallow my cynicism and get on with the day.

It was alright.  We're in the middle of a lot of restructuring at the moment, so really it was about getting us altogether as a team and reinforcing a few things about becoming "world class" and that kind of jazz.  Our new director (who joined the company just before I left and has been in place for about a year now) is from Yorkshire, and one of the things I've noticed is that there are now a lot of Yorkshire accents about the place.  In fact, as one clip they used illustrated, it's all become a bit Yorkshire Airlines.  Perhaps that explains our new tagline:

"Breakthrough by doing different".

I'm not sure that's in English, and I'm pretty sure it only makes sense when said with a Yorkshire accent.

The session was, I thought, a bit light on content and I felt that some of the sessions were done on the hoof and without any proper preparation.  They did, however, pull out a pretty good guest speaker: Sir Clive Woodward, the coach of the England side that won the Rugby World Cup in 2003.  I knew he was coming in advance, and was worried about how much he would big up his own role in the development of a side that had several world class players in it when he took the reigns.  After winning in the World Cup, after all, Woodward hadn't made much success of coaching the 2005 Lions or at Southampton Football Club.  Actually, he was good.  Not only did he not speak about himself too much, but he didn't talk about rugby all that much either.  He talked about the role of the individual in the forming of a team, and I thought he was pretty interesting.  His basic thesis is that talent alone is not enough to succeed: as well as talent, you need to have the ability to learn, toughness under pressure and the will to win. Interesting, and illustrated with examples from outside of rugby.

As well as talking about the role of the individual, Woodward spoke about teams themselves, using the team he knew best as an example.  Amongst other things, he told us about"Teamship", the rules that the England team set for themselves and committed to live by: things like punctuality, interaction with the media, use of phones and BlackBerries and dress code.  Apparently these are the little things that it's easy to agree in advance and can make a huge difference to how the team behaves and responds, bringing everyone together or driving them apart.

This last one made me laugh: dress code.  He was talking about how the players decided they weren't the kind of team that wore flip-flops in restaurants, but that wasn't what made me laugh.  On the invitation to the event, dress code had been specified: smart casual and not business formal.  Now, I think technically we don't have dress code at work, although in practice, people either wear suits and ties, or like me, a smart shirt and trousers but no tie.  If I didn't wear a suit to work, what on earth was the difference between business formal and smart casual?  I asked my boss, but he said it was the same as what we all wear normally.

"Then why specify a difference?"
"I don't know.  Does it matter? Wear smart casual."
"So does that include jeans? Or are we talking corduroy?"
"Why are you asking me these questions?"
"Why do you employ analysts if you don't expect them to ask you questions?"

At the end of the conference, we were asked a few questions and asked to provide instant, snapshot feedback using the red and green cards that were on our tables.  One of the questions asked if we thought that the session had provided us with a greater understanding of the direction the organisation was taking.  I didn't agree.  I thought the day had been useful up to a point, but that it left lots of important questions unanswered.  In fact, I wasn't even convinced that it knew what the questions were.  Several people on my table seemed to agree, but were muttering things like "grit your teeth and hold up green".  We'd been talking about moral courage all day, so I decided I would hold up red.  I wanted to know more and I wanted to be involved in the discussions that will shape my role going forwards.  Rolling over and saying everything was fine with a green card wouldn't be honest.  I held up red.

I was the only person to hold up red.

Everyone looked at me.

It may have been my imagination, but I think I saw some people sadly shaking their heads.

Monday, 8 November 2010

fish on....

I'm not religious. You've probably noticed. I am fascinated by religious history and architecture, and studied both extensively as part of my masters degree, but I do not believe in God. This lack of belief does not seem to affect the awe I feel when I look around a Medieval cathedral and feel the centuries of devotion that went into its construction, not does it lessen the respect I feel for people like Martin Luther, Matteo Ricci and Francis Xavier; people whose devotion led them to carry out astonishing things. They believed in God, and their belief drove them to achieve incredible feats. That I do not believe in God does not make those achievements any less impressive.

The US Mid-Term elections and the rise of the Tea Party in the US have brought some loopy Christians to the fore: people like Christine O'Donnell who genuinely seems to believe that masturbation within a marriage is somehow an act of infidelity. This isn't a uniquely American phenomenon either: only the other day, we had reports of groups of Christians outside the Marie Stopes abortion clinic in London, proudly saying how they had talked at least 20 girls into keeping their babies, and that abortion was murder and could never be justified even in cases of rape or incest. We have a growing number of faith-based schools (like those - allegedly - in the Emmanuel Schools Foundation in the North East) who teach that they Bible is literally true and that the world was created in six days a little over 4,000 years ago. It's not so much that I have a problem with children being taught about the theory of Creationism, what's objectionable is that it's presented as of equal value to the theory of Evolution, which is based upon mountains of scientific evidence. Both are theories, sure, but do we seriously believe that they're both equally plausible? Without even touching on their arguments around birth control and homosexuality, I think it's fair to say that some Christians have some pretty objectionable views, at least to my liberal mind.

It is a huge mistake, however, to take the extreme views of a minority and to try to apply them to the majority. I know lots of committed Christians, including my own father and a friend who is in the clergy, and many of the views expressed above would be as abhorrent and irrational to them as they are to me. I must say that I've never really understood why some Christians feel so threatened by Evolution. Why should a belief in God mean that you have to believe in the literal truth of the Bible? Does it really matter if Genesis is literally true, and that the world was created in six days, or if it evolved slowly over hundreds of millions of years? If you believe in an all-powerful, all-seeing deity, could you not stretch to see evolution as part of His ineffable plan? People always like to quote Leviticus, of course, as being literally true: man shall not lie with another man and all that (Leviticus 18:22). But then again "Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard." (Leviticus 19:27) or "They (shellfish) shall be an abomination to you; you shall not eat their flesh, but you shall regard their carcasses as an abomination." (Leviticus 11:11). If we're not supposed to tolerate (male) homosexuality (no mention of woman lying with another woman, you'll notice), are we also supposed to stop shaving and never eat prawns?

Anyway. Most of the Christians I know are as rational as you or me, in some cases much more so. They just choose to believe in God and I choose not to. They don't try and force God on me, and I don't try and force my atheism on them. I like and respect them and their beliefs, and I hope they do the same for me and mine.

Which brings me to this.

You're probably familiar with the Ichthys: the fish symbol that people display on their cars as a symbol of their Christianity (sometimes with the word "Jesus" in the middle)

I've just got myself one of these.

C. spotted one on another car, and it made us both laugh, so I looked them up and bought one for myself.  It's a fish with feet and the word "Darwin" in the middle. It's playful, for sure, as it's clearly a parody of the Ichthys, but all it is intended to do is to publically display that I believe in evolution (I'd love to think that goes without saying, but apparently it doesn't any more). I'm proud (probably to a fault) about my rationality, and I'm not ashamed to display it. Together with my other car sticker, it's also a pretty public display of my atheism. I don't have a problem with people who do have a religion as long as they don't try and force their beliefs down anyone else's throat. I trust they will do me the same courtesy. Plus, it makes me laugh and -- judging by the reactions I've had so far -- it makes my fellow drivers laugh too. People talk about the rise of a new and vocal group of atheists (the Catholic church was full of it when the Pope visited the other day, but apparently the Jehovah's Witnesses are also -- somewhat ironically -- doorstepping people about it). Pretty much by their very definition, you'll struggle to organise atheists into anything other than the most amorphous grouping. It would be like herding cats. Like religion, atheism is an individual choice. Just as people are free to believe, we are also free to not believe. My lack of belief is not threatened by your belief; can you say the same?

There's due to be a census in 2011. In 2001, along with something like 390,000 other people (more than said they were Sikhs, Jews or Buddhists), I marked in the religion box that I was a "Jedi". It was funny, but apparently we can all either be safely excluded from analysis or - even worse - marked down as having some kind religious belief. This time around, I am going to be ticking the "No Religion" box. I unambiguously want to be recorded as not having a religion of any kind. These numbers are used to justify things like funding for faith based education, and though I have no kids, I want no part of that.