Thursday, 30 December 2010

I'm on the hunt, I'm after you....

Last night, my football team - Wolverhampton Wanderers - moved from the foot of the Premier League table by beating Liverpool at Anfield for the first time in twenty-seven years.  It's fair to say that Liverpool are hardly the force now that they were the last time we won in front of the Kop, but yesterday's win still represents something of an upset.

The most important thing for Wolves was the three points.  We've been playing some good football this year but have failed to convert that into points.  Our manager, Mick McCarthy, has resolutely refused to make any excuses: it doesn't matter how many of our key players are injured or how unlucky we have been.  The league table does not lie, and after a home defeat against Wigan on Sunday, we were anchored to the bottom of the table and facing a real battle to survive.  The rest, as our no-nonsense manager said the other day, is "shit and caramel".  But we won last night and moved up to nineteenth place and within touching distance of the teams above us.  Mind you, the last time we won at Anfield, we finished bottom of the league, so let's hope that's not any kind of omen (although Liverpool also won the treble that year, and that's clearly not going to happen, so.....).


The thing that struck me about last night's result though, and the reason I'm writing about sport here for the second day running, is the reaction of many Liverpool fans to last night's result.  Liverpool have had a difficult season.  In the aftermath of the departure of Rafa Benitez and the change in ownership, results have been poor.  A team with aspirations of a Champions League finish in the top four are currently languishing in 12th position and are far more likely to be sucked down into a relgation dog-fight than they are to fight out it for glory further up the table.

Liverpool are one of those clubs though, aren't they?  Spoiled by decades of success, the fans seem to feel that they have some kind of a divine right to reside in the upper echelons of the league.  Not only that, but they are also expected to win with style.  In spite of the mess left behind by Benitez, the new manager, Roy Hodgson, has struggled to convince fans that he is the right man for the job.  Results haven't helped, but surely the reigning Premier League Manager of the Year, the man who took lowly Fulham to last season's UEFA Cup final, a man with a lifetime of management experience, including two spells with Inter Milan, deserves more than a couple of months to make his mark?  Not if you listened to the Liverpool fans moaning last night.  He's not good enough to be a Liverpool manager, you see.  By the end of the game, fans in the Kop were chanting the name of Kenny Dalglish, apparently thinking that in any way he would do a better job than Hodgson (who, for what it's worth, I think deserves a chance to make his mark, although I don't think the club deserve a manager as decent as him).  I heard a fan on the radio last night saying how a UEFA Cup Final was simply not good enough for Liverpool: they expect more.  That's such unmitigated nonsense.  Apart from anything else, if Liverpool come out of this season having reached "only" the UEFA Cup Final, they'll consider themselves fortunate.  I don't care how glorious your club's history: no one has a divine right to contest European Cup Finals.  You have to earn the right to be there through your results on the pitch.  End of story.

Wolves, you'll notice, barely get a mention in the analysis of the game.  They're almost irrelevant; an inconvenience who were there to be beaten and annoyingly went back to the Black Country with all three points.  As McCarthy said after the game:

"Most people's perception of Wolves would be, 'They are going down, they are bottom of the league and just been beaten at home by Wigan'.  They would think we would come here, sit back, get our arses slapped and our bellies tickled and go home with nothing.  But we decided we were not having that.  We would come here and have a real go, and fortune favoured the brave."

But it's not about how well Wolves played, is it?  It's all about the ongoing soap opera at Liverpool. 

Well, as I'm sure Mick McCarthy would tell them, you generally get what you deserve in football, and Liverpool got well beaten by a Wolves team who deserved the points.

Get over yourselves.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

history so long, so long, so long, so long....

Almost exactly 24 years ago, in December 1986, the England cricket team thrashed a demoralised Australian team at the Melbourne Cricket Ground by an innings and 14 runs.  Powered on by the runs of Chris Broad and the wickets of Ian Botham and Gladstone Small, England retained the Ashes in some style.  Not too shabby for a team who had been derided in the press for being unable to bat, bowl or field.

Since then, England have been resoundingly beaten on every subsequent tour to Australia: 3-0 in 1990/1, 3-1 in 1994/5, 3-1 in 1998/9, 4-1 in 2002/3, 5-0 in 2006/7.  The three test matches that we did manage to win in all that time were all secured when the series was already over and the Ashes long since won by the home side.

England finally managed to reclaim the Ashes in a home series -- just about -- in 2005, but thereturn series in Australia saw us battered 5-0.  We again won the little urn back in 2009, but retaining them in Australia was always going to be the real trick.  Australia don't very often lose home series against anybody, and it wasn't for nothing that the bookies had the Aussies as favourites before the series began.

I mention all this by way of context.  When you see the England thrashed Australia at the MCG last night, I think it's important to understand the context of the victory and to see what a huge achievement it really is.

Oh, sure, Australia are not the side that they used to be.  Great players have retired and, not surprisingly, have proved difficult to replace.  Ricky Ponting, the Australian captain, is the last remnant of one of the most dominant sides that cricket has ever seen: for much of the last 20 years, the likes of Mark Taylor, Steve Waugh, Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Adam Gilchrist, Matthew Hayden, Justin Langer et al have swept aside all before them.  Now, from that side, only a 36 year-old Ponting remains.

Having not won a live Ashes test on Australian soil since 1986, England have now won two in this series alone and, with one game left to play, there's power to add.  The (admittedly convincing) defeat at Perth aside, this England side have been markedly superior to their Australian counterparts in every single aspect of the game: we have the more potent, more disciplined bowlers; the sharpest fielders; the best spinner; the most obdurate and (Mike Hussey aside) free-scoring batsmen; the better captain and the better tactics.  For an England fan, raised on chaotic and humiliating defeat after defeat, the scale of our victory is almost too good to be true.  We have just won the Melbourne test by the margin of innings and 157 runs.  That's our largest win over the Australians since Jim Laker took 19 wickets in the Old Trafford Test in 1956.  Before this month, Australia had not lost a test match at home by more than an inning in 18 years.  Now they've done it twice in the space of three tests.  Records are tumbling.  Australia may be at a crossroads, but it's at least as much down to how well England have played as how poor a side they have now become.

Although I take no pleasure from seeing one of the great est players in the history of the game laid low - and make no mistake, Ricky Ponting is one of the finest players to ever pick up a bat - I feel no pity for the Australians.  I don't like to see a champion laid low (and Ponting has grown on me enormously since 2005, fronting up to each defeat manfully and making no excuses) but England have been the better side, pure and simple, and they thoroughly deserve to have retained the Ashes.  All the resounding defeats and humiliations of the last twenty years simply make this win taste all the sweeter.  Unlike many of the Aussie fans at the MCG on Boxing Day, unaccustomed to defeat and leaving well before the close of play, I've stayed and watched my team to the bitter end on all too many occasions, so it was great to stay up last night and watch England mop up the last three Australian wickets to win.  As history has shown us, you don't win in Australia very often -- and England have only left with the Ashes four times since the Second World War -- so best to make the most of it whilst we can....

There's one game left to go, in Sydney next week, and England still need to avoid defeat to claim the series win, even if the Ashes are secure. On current form, a 3-1 series victory does not seem out of the question.  As I predicted 2-1 back in November, I'd better go for a draw.

I apologise if you have no interest in cricket, but this win has been an awfully long time coming, and anyway, you may have to wait another 24 years before I bother you with the subject again....

Well done England.  Inspirational stuff.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

but baby it's cold outside....

In case it has escaped your attention (or if you are reading this from somewhere outside of the UK), it's freezing cold outside at the moment and it has been for what feels like weeks.  It looks entirely likely that most of the UK will be having an honest-to-goodness white Christmas this year, not one of those ones where the bookies pay out if a single flake of snow lands on the top of the roof of the Met Office (or whatever it is they usually do).

The satellite map above shows it pretty clearly: the entire country is in the grips of a deep freeze.  Indeed, it's one of Britain's coldest winters: Since 1900, only the Decembers in 1950 and 1981 have had such prolonged snowy periods. The trend for the last thirty years, until interrupted by last December's cold snap, has been for warmer, damper winters. These colder winters may well themselves be a statistical blip, but it looks rather like climate change is going to mean that we Brits should expect more winters like this in the future.  And no, please don't insert any Daily Mail-esque grumbles about "global warming" here.  OBVIOUSLY man is having a huge impact on our climate.  To suggest otherwise is to be obtuse beyond the point of stupidity.  The climate is subject to natural fluctuations, of course it is (there was a medieval warm period, for starters), but the scale and pace of change seems to be moving faster and faster.  Let's just hope it's not entirely irreversible.

Anyway.  I digress.

In all this cold weather, the focus of the media has been on the transport chaos that these freezing temperatures and this snow have caused: we've seen passengers sleeping in Heathrow waiting for their flights to be cleared; we've seen queues of several thousand people trying to get onto Eurostar trains at St. Pancras; we've seen cars abandoned on the sides of snow-swept motorways. Not surprisingly at this time of year, as people seek either to get to, or to get away from, their loved ones, coverage has almosy entirely focused on people inconvenienced by the snow.

As I nearly got stuck in Oxford last week, and C. was stuck in Lyons for 24 hours, I can understand exactly why people are interested in this stuff. Once we both made it home though, I have to admit that my thoughts turned elsewhere: to the people who are not as lucky as I am and do not have a nice warm house with a cosy fire, a lovely wife and a cat purring on their lap (or, more likely, stomping about complaining about the weather and demanding some of my tea).

With that in mind, I've made a donation of £50 to Shelter, the homeless charity. I can't send you all Christmas cards, but I hope that you'll consider this an adequate substitution.

Happy Christmas everyone.


On a completely different subject, at about this time of year, I usually start collecting votes for the Earworms of the Year rundown. To be honest, as I've been away for much of the year, I feel a bit disengaged from the whole thing. How do you feel? If I was to do it again this year, would you cast a vote for your top 5?

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

hot when you're cold....

One of the advantages of a hyperactive immune system is that I seem to be largely impervious to coughs, colds and other assorted sniffles. I used to rather smugly assume that my apparent resistance was down to my exercise regime and my consumption of fruit and vegetables.... but no, it's actually down to the fact that my white blood cells occasionally take a break from attacking my own nervous system to zap more legitimate targets into oblivion.

My weekly injections are designed to suppress my immune system in the hope that it will stop it from causing too much damage. There's some evidence to suggest that this might slow down the progression of the disease and thus flatten the graph of advancing disability that can be the lot of the multiple sclerosis sufferer. Well, some evidence that it might help is enough for me to decide that it was probably better to put up with the inconvenience and discomfort of a weekly injection into my thigh muscle than to do nothing and hope for the best.

The possible side-effects from these drugs can, however, be so significant that people end up feeling that the drugs themselves are worse than anything that their MS might throw at them and they prefer to do nothing and hope for the best. I inject Avonex, and the reported side-effects of this drug can include flu-like symptoms, splitting headaches, depression, muscle weakness, fatigue, anaemia and liver failure. I take a couple of paracetomol and a couple of ibuprofen before injecting, drink lots of water and inject in the evening so I can sleep through the worst of it. Luckily for me, the worst I usually get is to wake up the next day feeling as though I've been hit by a truck.... something which doesn't happen every week, and which is something that I can live with when it does happen. I certainly don't look forward to doing the injections each week, because it's not exactly fun and because it can make me feel pretty rotten. I also need to have regular blood-tests to check my blood counts and liver function....but on the whole, the chance that injecting this stuff might help stave off a relapse that could, say, take away the use of one of my legs or seriously affect my eyesight or something like that, is a chance I think worth taking.

Having said that, when I injected last night, I had been teetering on the edge of a cold for the last couple of days: I had a bit of a sore throat, a runny-nose and the feeling that something was brewing in my upper-respiratory tract. Nothing too much to worry about, but probably not ideal when you're about to pump yourself full of something designed to suppress the immune system. Sure enough, for the first time since I started injecting this stuff some 18 months, I had a troubled night's sleep. I woke up shivering and just couldn't seem to get warm. Ah, these must be the flu-like symptoms that people talk about. Whether the symptoms are the result of the medication or a result of my cold taking advantage of my artificially weakened immune system, I don't know. It doesn't really matter either, as whatever caused it, the end result is the same.

Although it's something that I'm aware of every single day of my life, relatively speaking, I'm mostly unaffected by my MS and can push it to the back of my mind. Every once in a while though, it gives me a little slap in the face to remind me that it's there and it's not going away any time soon.

And I've got a bloody cold. How do you people manage with these? They're so...irritating.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

road rage....

After the six inches of snow that fell on Friday and Saturday, my journey home from Oxford took me about twice as long as usual.... and that doesn't include digging the car out of the driveway.  The M40 was clearly in better condition for driving than it had been 24 hours earlier, but it was still somewhat polar, with the snow reducing traffic sometimes to a single lane and with abandoned cars littering the hard shoulder.

As the weather down there has continued to worsen, it looks like if I hadn't seized that opportunity to drive home on Sunday morning, I'd still be down there now, selling fine fragrance in our Oxford shop.... not that this would have been an entirely bad thing, it was a fun few days I spend doing exactly that last week, and I'd get to spend some more time with the excellent friends who live down there too.

Yes, it was an interesting journey..... but even that three-and-a-half hour slog through the snow was not a bit as stressful as the five minute journey I have just made from my front door to my osteopath.

My appointment was at six, so I escaped from work in time to nip home and change into a pair of jeans.  All I had to do was leave myself five minutes or so to wind my way through the back streets of the suburb where we live to my Osteopath's office.  I've made this journey at this time of day literally a hundred times and it's never been a problem.  Perhaps it was a combination of the time of year and the time of day; perhaps it was lunar eclipse; maybe the winter solstice.  Whatever it was, every driver on the road seemed to be behaving like an absolute arsehole.

Like most suburban towns, ours is made up of a load of residential streets that crisscross between the major roads.  Also like most suburban towns, drivers impatient to get home and reluctant to sit in queues of traffic at the lights will seek every opportunity to gain a few seconds by weaving their way through the residential streets.  Rat-runners are easy to spot: they're the ones driving through an otherwise quiet residential street far faster than anyone else.  Well, once you've made the decision to short-cut, something in your brain tells you that you have to push harder to make that short-cut worthwhile; you have to get ahead of those suckers queuing at the lights.

When I pulled out of the Grove this evening, I was confronted by two cars facing off against each other on our street, rat-running in opposite directions.  Neither wanted to give way.  I was sat out of their way, but didn't have the time to get caught up in their games.  I backed down the Grove to leave them room, and after staring at each other for a full thirty seconds, one of them blinked, pulled out of the way, and allowed the alpha rat-runner to speed of down the road.  After both had moved on, I set off for my appointment.  I crossed the main road and headed towards my osteopath's office - not rat-running, but taking the most direct route from my street to the residential street where the clinic is based.  At one point, where the road was lined on both sides by parked cars, I gave way to a car coming in the other direction.... like you do.  He didn't thank me.... and you aren't obliged to, I suppose.  But then another car pushed down too, followed by another ten.  None thanked me, all elbowed their way past me on their way from one main road to another, determined to make time by cutting out the traffic lights.  Some had to make a real effort to make sure I didn't have time to pull out before they got there.  When I finally got away, a few streets later, the same thing happened again.  Gah!

The whole journey only took five minutes, but by the time I reached my destination, I was furious at the basic lack of manners: I'm more important than you, so you can damn well wait.

Well, fuck you too.

Season of goodwill, my arse.

[/middle-aged rant]

Monday, 20 December 2010

hell of a hat....

On 7th July 2008, I ordered a hat.

On 20th December 2010, that hat finally turned up.

There's a perfectly logical explanation for this: it's a 100% beaver felt hat that has been handmade by a craftsman in Germany.  The craftsman makes hats for love and in his spare time away from his paying job and his family.  It's a long, slow process that involves many hours of painstaking labour, and each hat is a labour of love.

.....So I waited nearly two-and-a-half years for a hat.

And it's arrived.

And, to be honest, it looks a lot like my existing fedora:

...but trust me, it feels completely different.  My Akubra is a great hat, but comparatively speaking, it's as stiff as a board.  The new hat - an Adventurebilt Deluxe - is as soft as butter.  It's also darker in colour and quite a lot higher in the crown.  As beaver felt (as opposed to rabbit), it should also be incredibly durable and waterproof, the higher production standards notwithstanding.

I like it.

It's got a tiny little wrinkle on the brim at the front of the hat, where I think the hat has been clamped as the felt has been sanded down until it is smooth.  It's a tiny little defect, but one that shows that this has been hand rather than factory-made. 

Now I just need to wear it and resist the temptation to wrap the hat up in cotton wool when it has been built to withstand a battering.

In other hat news........ might remember that Cody Bones and I made a little wager about the outcome of the Ryder Cup back in October.  The prize for the winner was a hat.  I won.  Cody, gentleman that he is, sent me two hats.  In return, I promised him that I would post up pictures of the hats.  Well, I've had the hats for a while, so this is probably long overdue.

C. modelling a lovely Chicago Cubs hat, seamlessly adding another team of losers to my already extensive list that includes Wolverhampton Wanderers and Northamptonshire County Cricket Club (my rugby team - Northampton Saints - are, to be fair, top of the league at the moment and flying in European competition, so.....)


This one's a real beauty: the actual hat that Cody used to wear when he played golf.  All the way from Timberstone, Michigan.

Cody, you are a scholar and a gentleman.  I only hope you like the hats I sent you half as much.

...And later this month, I hope to be able to display an orange trucking hat from a Canadian lumber company.... the gift of a friend from New York who owes me a hat.  It really doesn't get any better than that.

You can never have too many hats, right?  Not with my hairline.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

everything's for sale....

It's the time of year where we all get encouraged - in the strongest possible terms - that it might be a good idea to spend a few days out in our stores working on the shop floor in our busiest trading period.  Most people in the office seem to do this somewhat relucantly, and drag themselves no further than the store down the road, meaning that every one of our shops within 25 miles of Nottingham is swarming with staff from head office who don't know their arse from their elbow, never mind how the tills work or where the children's mix and match 3 for 2 gifts are.

Me, I quite like it.

It's a good opportunity to get out of the office and to remind myself where the stuff I work on actually ends up.  I also spend a lot of time dealing with my "customers" in the office, and it's useful to be in front of some of the actual customers who buy stuff from us and who ultimately pay my salary. 

Besides, I need to be in Oxford this weekend anyway, so going down a few days early to have a few Christmas drinks with my friends in the run up to the annual party on Saturday evening is definitely no bad thing.

I try my best not to get in the way in the store.  I'm supposed to be there to help, so the worst thing I can do is to be high maintenance and require a constant chaperone.  I know some people who think that they should be spending all their time instore in the manager's office, mucking about on the PC.  I'm not proud, though: I'll tidy up the shelves, put stock out, pick up rubbish, print shelf edge labels, man a till, hand out baskets and gift guides to customers.... anything that the store thinks might be useful.

One year they they left me in charge of the haircare section.... people asking ME for a recommendation? Seriously?  OK then, if you're sure.....

It'll be a blast.

See you on the other side.

Monday, 13 December 2010

born stubborn....

I'm watching Queens' College Cambridge on University Challenge and I'm thrown back nearly 20 years to a time when I was applying to various universities in the run up to my A-Levels.  I was encouraged to apply Oxford or Cambridge: my acceptance would apparently reflect well on the school and on my parents, and I was apparently considered bright enough to give it a go.

Although I hadn't yet fully developed the chip on my shoulder, it was at an advanced enough state to make me resistant to the idea.  I was probably vain enough to want to be accepted for the kudos that might bring, but somehow objected to the whole principle of the thing.  Why should I apply to them?  I knew that I wanted to read for a History degree, and I already knew that I probably wanted to do the course offered at the University of Warwick - itself a perfectly respectable establishment - where I would get to spend a term studying in Venice.  Why the hell should I apply to Oxbridge?  What made them so damn special?

My father told me at this point that he had a friend who was an Admissions Tutor at St Johns College, Cambridge, and that he would be more than happy to talk to me about the whole thing.  I agreed, but instead of seeing this as a great way of getting into Cambridge, I thought the whole thing was some elaborate attempt to tell me how clever everyone at Cambridge University was.   I left convinced that this guy, an old pal of my dad with no agenda other than to do his mate a favour, had tried to impress on me how all his students were veritable geniuses and published authors.  In fact, that's all I can remember about our conversation, and by the time I left, I was seething with rage.

In a somewhat pathetic attempt at rebellion - TAKE  THAT! -  I applied to Oxford instead.... not applying to either of them was clearly not an option for me, you'll notice....  I knew nothing about the Oxford colleges and applied blindly (you get a choice of three on the application form, and I choose one randomly and left the others blank to be selected for me).  I also refused to sit the (optional, but encouraged as it gives the University more to go on than predicted A-Level results and your performance at interview) 4th term examinations.  Who the hell did they think they were?  They either took me as they found me or they could bugger off.  I was determined not to go an inch out of my way for their satisfaction.  It was my way, or the high way.

Guess which they chose.

I was interviewed, but not surprisingly, nearly everybody else there had done the 4th term exams and had applied specifically for a college rather than putting in an open application.  I was doomed and the whole thing was a pretty miserable experience.

I'm pretty sure that I did the right thing in escaping from many of my public school peers and going to a rather less elitist University.  I'm also confident that the Modern European and Renaissance History degree I sat at Warwick was at least as good as the equivalents offered at both Oxford and Cambridge, and a lot more interesting to me.  The four months I spent in Venice alone probably made the whole thing worthwhile.  I don't regret my decisions at all.  I'm pretty happy with where I've ended up and it's a waste of energy to think about what never was.

...but looking at these students on the TV this evening, I can't help but think about the sheer, willful, bloody-minded idiocy of my 17 year-old self to REFUSE to apply to a college where an old friend of my father, one who had been kind enough to grant me an informal interview in his rooms at college, was in charge of admissions.

You think I'm bad now?  You should have met me when I was 17.  What a prat.

Friday, 10 December 2010

writing prose, anything goes....

Earworms of the Week

"Pipes of Peace" - Paul McCartney
"Beautiful Boy" - John Lennon

"Pipes of Peace" was a number one single back in December 1983, when I was a wee swissling of 9 years old. It was common knowledge at my school, around about this time, that Paul McCartney was so rich that he was earning something like 50p a minute. It seemed an almost inconceivable amount of money to me (when, of course, it isn't really), but his music was everywhere, so maybe it was true. Mind you, at that point I almost certainly had no real idea that this was the same guy who was also in the Beatles - you know, the Yellow Submarine band - so perhaps it's best not to draw too many conclusions from that, eh? I think this appears on a few Xmas albums, which would explain why it has suddenly dropped into my subconscious (look at the video and the xmas link is not so hard to explain). The Lennon is easier to explain, and it's nothing to do with the 30th anniversary of his death either. The guy who sits next to me at work has a fairly young son, and he proudly handed me his iPod this morning so I could hear the song that he sings his lad to sleep with every night. Aw. Sweet. Not Lennon's finest work, but I imagine Sean likes to hear it and think fondly of his dad (I imagine that when Julian hears "Hey Jude", he has rather more mixed emotions: great song, sure... but it was written by McCartney, not his dad. Still, as Lennon says in the song, "Life is what happens to you when you're busy making other plans"

"Ernie - the fastest milkman in the west" - Benny Hill

The guy who sits on the other side of me (my weapon of choice in the zombie apocalypse, as it happens), was telling me today how his grandfather had this song played at his funeral. An odd choice, you might think, but he was a milkman by trade and was called Ernie, so.....

"Discotheque" - U2

I hated U2 with a fury at about the time that this record came out. Time has mellowed my opinion of them. It's hardly their finest song, but it's decent enough. I can listen to them without exploding with rage now too. I might even go and see them at Glastonbury next year. My 20 year old self hates me.

"I Don't Intend to Spend Christmas Without You" - Claudine Longet
"The River" - James Taylor / Joni Mitchell

For a while now, I've been collecting Christmas songs. I do it because I like Christmas songs, but I'm heartily sick and tired of hearing the ones that we always hear. Yes, so "Fairytale of New York" is a good song, but for me it has been ruined by being played to death. There are loads of brilliant seasonal records out there by people as diverse as the Ronnettes, Frank Sinatra, Sufjan Stevens, The Eels and Joseph Spence. The Joni Mitchell version of "The River" is one of my absolute favourites. It's clearly seasonal, but Joni is singing about something other than just a list of Christmas cliches. It's a good song, full stop. The Taylor version is also good, albeit not quite as good. The Claudine Longet song is a new one for me, discovered on the playlist that David Belbin kindly sent to me last year to refresh my collection of seasonal songs (I think he sends a CD out every year with his Christmas cards - which to my mind is a whole lot better than a family newsletter. Perhaps he includes one of those as well). I also like Christmas films, although here my tastes are a bit more mainstream, with my favourites being "Elf", "Muppet Christmas Carol" and "Bad Santa".

"Friday Night, Saturday Morning" - The Specials

I actually came to this song via Nouvelle Vague, but this is the classic version of course. I love the wistful tone to Terry Hall's vocals, as though the whole thing is viewed with a certain detached sadness, ennui even, as though it was happening to someone else.

"Vienna" - Ultravox
"Amadeus" - Falco

The one song leads to another in my head, tied up in my mind as they are with Austria in general and Vienna specifically (and both were played at our wedding too). Ultravox came first this time; specifically that echoey bit at the beginning. Falco followed soon after, along with a mental image of an Austrian of my acquaintance doing the whole rap everytime he hears this. I think all Austrians of a certain age can do that. I don't think they can help it.

"Back in the Saddle Again" - Aerosmith

Worth it just for the opening bit as the music builds up and Steven Tyler starts singing. "Rocks" is a damn good album. If you only know Aerosmith from Armageddon, then you hardly know them at all. Back in the day, they were an awesome rock band.

"Anything Goes" - Cole Porter

Hands up who hears this and suddenly finds themselves transported to Club Obi Wan and a routine involving some chinese dancing girls, a dragon, and a guy with a fedora using a big gong to escape from some goons who are shooting at him as he tries to escape with the antidote to some poison he's swallowed? It surely isn't just me?

Oh, and for followers of that facebook meme, here - in all their unedited glory- are the first 15 songs that came up on my iPod on shuffle.

> "Words Just Get In the Way" - Richard Ashcroft (sounds like that awful Ronan Keating cover of "When You Say Nothing At All")
> "Roadkill" - Pulp (from "We Love Life")
> "Where I Fall" - The Reindeer Section
> "Got the Shakes" - James (from "The Morning After the Night Before")
> "Born of Frustration" - James
> "Cheer Up Boys, Your Makeup is Running" - Foo Fighters
> "Join Together" - The Who
> "Disco 2000" - Nick Drake Cave (yes, that Nick Drake Cave and yes, that Disco 2000)
> "Make For This City" - James ("The Morning After the Night Before" again.... what are the chances with 12,091 songs to choose from that I get 3 James songs out of 15 on shuffle?)
> "Garden" - Pearl Jam
> "Night Flight (Live)" - Jeff Buckley ("Live At Sin-e")
> "Year of the Boomerang" - Rage Against the Machine
> "Greetings to the New Brunette" - Billy Bragg ("How can you lie back and think of England when you don't even know who's in the team?")
> "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" - Keane & Faultline (From the second "Help" album)
> "Drifter" - Iron Maiden (from "Beast Over Hammersmith", the live album)

Make of that what you will.

Have a good weekend y'all.

Thursday, 9 December 2010


This afternoon, my boss asked me to have a quick look online for an article that was published over the weekend focusing on self-checkout tills in British stores.  Dull subject for a newspaper expose, no?  It's hardly up their with the fake sheikh's finest, is it?  Anyway, it apparently said that ours were the worst in Britain. As we are the team that is responsible for the development of most of the kit we have instore, including the self-checkout tills, we were naturally interested to have a look at this, so I did a quick piece of googling.

I didn't find that article, but I did find another that caught my eye as it mentioned our company and touched on another area that we look after. Apparently, the police have stopped prosecuting shoplifters, and so big companies like ours now have to take alleged offenders through the civil courts to pursue £150 of damages. It wasn't really a very interesting article, and neither was it the one I was looking for, so I was about to move on when the comments caught my eye... the first comment in particular:

"In some ways some countries have the right idea... cut off the hands and make the shame the families....dam we not allowed to that with Human Rights, what about putting them in stocks and us having a fun day humiliating them... dam again Human Rights what about just stopping any benefits and letting them starve....Human Rights? So what about just finding out where they live, and letting the neighbourhood know they have a thief..after alll why stop at shops... the old lady or gentlemen on their own are a equal target to these low life trash...who ar to bloody idle to work for a living like the rest of us...spoilt brats who the earth would be better off without"

Well, thanks for those considered views, Pat in Norfolk (and, amidst all other errors of spelling and punctuation, I love the capitalisation of "Human Rights"). There were 95 other views published too, but as I assumed they were likely more of the same, I left them to boil in their own vitriol.

Have you guessed the newspaper yet?

As someone remarked the other day, if Chris Morris were to invent a newspaper, I'm pretty sure it would look exactly like the Daily Mail.  It's so ridiculous, it must be a satire, right?

Wednesday, 8 December 2010


I like chess.  It's one of those games that is both extremely simple and infinitely varied.   I hadn't played it for years, but was prompted to download an app onto my phone after reading something in the  newspaper at the weekend.  You can get all sorts of incredibly sophisticated games in the App Store, of course, but chess just seemed like one of those that would work well in the format and help to while away the odd dull moment.

Indeed, the game itself is very well realised, with all sorts of options around online play, computer opponents with differing skill levels, puzzles, video tutorials and all sorts.  There's one fundamental problem though: I'm crap at chess.

Like cryptic crosswords, this is one of those things that I think I ought to be good at, but actually I'm really bad at and can never quite understand why.  Even worse: it's something that other people think I should be good at too.  When I was at school, I was once made captain of the chess team on precisely those grounds.  I got to travel with the team to a nearby school and matched up against their captain, presumably their best player.  I promptly tried to do the only thing about chess I could remember: I went for checkmate in 12 moves (or whatever it is).  Not very surprisingly, I was foiled, but was somehow still in a good enough position to kill him off in about 25 moves and within 5 minutes.  He was nearly as startled as I was by what was clearly a fluke. 
"Best out of three?"
"No chance, mate"
So we sat there, waiting for the other games to finish in awkward silence. 

Needless to say, I promptly retired from competitive chess with a career record of 100%.

I enjoy chess.  I like the history around it and the way that various sequences of play have names and a well documented history of who used them and when.  I watched, fascinated, when the British Grandmaster, Nigel Short, was taken to the cleaners by Garry Kasparov in 1993 (an event that took place in London and was - hard to imagine now - televised).  I even took the trouble to learn a few tactical rudiments... although I can't remember any of them now.  Something about lines of power across the board?

I remain useless, as each game I play against the computer on my phone tells me.  Maybe it's down to practice, but I seem to suffer from a blindness to the most obvious moves.  No matter how cautious I think I'm being, suddenly the computer.... on level 2 out of 10.... will take my queen in a move I have singularly failed to anticipate.  Never mind.  There's a backwards button, so I move back a couple of moves and try something else  My queen is saved, but the reprieve is only for a move or two, and inevitably I am swiftly crushed.  It's most dispiriting.  Chess is supposed to be about thinking through the various options and carefully weighing up a strategy several moves ahead of play.  I want to be good at this.  I remain annoyingly bad, and it bothers me.

I'll keep trying to see if I improve at all with practice, but the chances are fairly high that my offended intellectual vanity will lead me to delete the application from my phone and from my life in a fit of pique in the fairly near future.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

already dead....

Is it just me, or is it suddenly all about zombies?

For the last year or so, you've been unable to move for vampires; whether they're the type that sparkle in the sunlight and agonise about sex before marriage, or whether they are the sort that will hump anything that moves whilst chugging back bottles of a branded blood substitute. Sure, there might have been the odd hunky werewolf hanging around the place from time to time, but when it came to the undead, basically vampires were IT.

Except now they're not.

Suddenly, you can't seem to move for zombies. Yeah, so they're not as cool and mysterious, they're not as well dressed - preferring rags to designer duds - and they tend to lurch around aimlessly with a look of confused sadness and a skin tone that is less pale and interesting and more green and decomposing.... you wouldn't exactly describe them as sexy, would you?  Not exactly something that you'd file in the "Dark Desires" section of Waterstones, are they?

....but zombies are suddenly everywhere you look. Zombies are pretty much as back to basics as the undead get: you don't hear much about zombie family politics, do you? Nope. Zombies wander around looking for flesh to eat. That's it. It's not big and it's not clever, but there you have it. Zombies are HOT HOT HOT.

Maybe I only think this because I've been watching the Walking Dead, the HBO serial starring Egg off of This Life, and every commercial break seems to bring another advert for a new zombie-based computer game, so zombies are somewhat on my mind. I was thinking that perhaps TV and movie executives have seen the success of all things vampire and have been looking for the next big (undead) thing. But maybe zombies aren't back in fashion at all. Perhaps they've never been away. They're not really terribly complex creatures, and I thought everyone knew about zombies, but my wife has been displaying some alarming gaps in her education as we've sat watching the telly. "Do zombies only eat living flesh?" She asked as our hero rode into a deserted Atlanta on horseback towards the end of the first episode.

Um, yes. It's what they do.

"They're not going to eat that horse though, are they?"

Um.... it's either him or the hero of a major new HBO series in its very first episode, which would certainly have been a bold move.

"Oh no! Not the horse!" she cries as our hero crawls underneath a nearby tank and leaves his erstwhile trusty steed to have his guts pulled out and passed around by the feeding zombie swarm....

I think she's getting the hang of it now, although I still reckon she needs to do a bit more homework.

A new series of True Blood starts in the UK in January, and judging from the trailers, they're introducing Werewolves to the cast..... C. is very excited, of course, but how passe is that? Vampires AND Werewolves? Yawn.

Zombies. I'm telling you. It's zombies you want (although I doubt that even Eric would go there. Jason Stackhouse? You know, I actually think he would.......).

Monday, 6 December 2010

I'll show you how God falls asleep at the wheel.....

You might remember that the vicar in my parents' village is one of those Church of England clergymen who styles himself "Father", opposes the ordination of women and likes to hold confession in his (Anglican) church.  Catholicism without the Pope, in other words.  Whereas Catholics believe that the bread and wine actually turns into the body of Christ at communion, it is C of E policy to believe that the host at communion only symbollically changes.  Father Gary, needless to say, officially subscribes to the C of E view, although "let's just say that if I spilt some, I'd have to burn the carpet...".  Yeah.  He's one of those.

He's also a member of "Forward in Faith", a bunch of Church of England clerics who want to take their toys (and their wives and, apparently, their churches and parishoners too) and rush back to the welcoming bosom of the Catholic Church where they'll be safe from the unthinkable prospect of women in the church doing things other than cleaning the church and arranging the flowers.

An idiot, in other words...,.

Anyway, we were visiting my folks this weekend, and as I sat drinking my cup of coffee after my run on Sunday morning, I happened to notice the latest copy of the Parish newsletter.  Naturally, I was unable to resist picking it up and having a good old read.

The main thrust of the editorial is a farewell to the local bishop, who is moving on.  After a general "thank you and goodbye", Father Gary quickly moves on to the real heart of the issue:

"I regret, especially, that the synodical structures of the Church, dominated as they have been by a liberal mindet that has set itself against compromise, have brought about the situation that talented and prayerful folk have felt they no longer have a home.  The General Synod (the Church of England's Governing Body) voting against the express wishes of the two archbishops in July will have proven the straw that broke the camel's back."

By "set against compromise", the weasel is referring to this vote, where the General Synod rejected a plan put forward by the archbishops of Canterbury and York.  They proposed that a female bishop would have full authority in her diocese but "in practice refrain from exercising" certain functions in a parish which objected to her.  A "complementary bishop" would be appointed with independent powers, and the powers of the two bishops would "co-ordinate".

In other words, in an attempt to hold the Church of England together, the Archbishops were prepared to undermine the authority of any female bishops by allowing anyone who objected to them to have an alternative bishop in the same area they could follow instead.  Nonsense.  If you're going to have female bishops - and why shouldn't you? - then they have to be exactly the same as any other bishop, don't they?  If people don't like equal opportunities meaning that they might have a coloured boss, they don't get to have a parallel white boss they can report to, do they?

And by "liberal mindset that has set itself against compromise", you mean that these liberals steadfastly refuse to come round to your peculiar point of view? Whereas, obviously, you've been as flexible as you possibly can be, yeah?  Idiot.

He concludes:

"Meanwhile my vocation remains unchanged and undimmed: to try to live out the faith of the apostles and the undivided church of the first millennium, as the Church of England has received it, and to proclaim afresh to this generation the Good News of the Kingdom.  We have worked hard at this together and it is imperative that we continue this work."

Right, so you're basically saying that you're happy to be in the Church of England as long as it's like it was in the days before the Reformation - i.e. Catholic.  More specifically, as long as there are no women.  Anywhere.  Looking at him at the annual village wine tasting on Friday night, I don't think he has a great deal to worry about from women as I can't imagine any would want to go near him.

I'm atheist, so really this has nothing to do with me at all, but it still annoys me that people like this can so glibly alienate members of their parish - like my mum - who enjoy the community of the church and who don't really see what would be so terribly wrong about female clergy.  The last thing they need is some self-styled "High Church" vicar with a public contempt for women and a desire to railroad his small rural parish with Catholic rituals.  It also annoys me specifically because I have a friend who is in the clergy and who is intelligent, capable -- far, far more capable than a self-satisified, self-righteous prat like "Father" Gary -- and who would, no doubt, make an excellent bishop.  The fact that she is a woman should have nothing to do with it whatsoever.

My dad, on the other hand, laps this shit up.

Friday, 3 December 2010

whoops, there goes another year. whoops, there goes another pint of beer.....

Photo of Billy @ Rock City from David Baird, who had these online before BB had even left the stage.

Billy Bragg @ Nottingham Rock City, 2nd December 2010

I think I've now seen Billy Bragg performing live something like a dozen times - more than anybody else.  Considering he's usually just one bloke with a guitar and a not-all-that-good singing voice, I never seem to find him boring.  He's been quite visible in the British media over the last few years, and is something of the left-wing rent-a-quote, what with his campaigning against the BNP in his home town of Barking, or urging everyone to vote tactically to keep the Tories out.... to steal a line from the Manic Street Preachers, Billy Bragg is just a "big nosed c*nt", isn't he?

Well, he'd probably agree with that assessment, on the whole.... but actually he's a whole lot more than that: he's a singer, he's a poet, he's a soap-box speaker, a stand up comedian, a tireless campaigner and fundraiser (his Jail Guitar Doors charity is brilliant - and he's going to HMP Nottingham at some point today to deliver six guitars that the charity bought with money raised when he last performed in the city).  Above all though, he's an idealist.  He sees the best in people and doesn't want to ever give in to despair or to cynicism.  The world might well be a crappy place, but Billy Bragg is one of those people who will never stop believing that we can do something about it.  That is why I love him.

He talks a lot in his set.  He always does.  I don't think he can help himself.  Tonight he talks about the defeat of the BNP in Barking in May; he talks about cynicism and how he feels as someone who campaigned both for Tony Blair in 1997 and for the Liberal Democrats in 2010; he talks about the banking crisis; he comments on the World Cup 2018 decision ("well, at least we now know what David Cameron looks like sad"); he chats to his fans; he tells us how he used to listen to the BBC world service when he was on tour, but how the internet has changed all of that.. he talks a whole lot.  In fact, he talks so much that you almost wish he would just shut up and play some damn songs.  Almost.  It's part of his charm, and I think he knows it.  We're an easy crowd.  He likes Rock City.  He played a gig here on the night that the Conservatives were thrown out of power in 1997 and has fond memories of the place.  It's an old school venue that he says "still smells of piss and bleach".  He likes Nottingham too, and spent his afternoon looking for the hall where Nottingham University students are staging a sit-in to protest the raise in tuition fees.  He wants to show them his support, of course he does.  Sadly for him, it takes him some time to realise that the hall in question isn't actually in Nottingham town centre at all.

He does play some music too.  He opens his set with "The World Turned Upside Down" pretty much as soon as I've walked into the venue and got myself a beer, and through the course of the next 90 minutes or so, he plays his usual mixed bag of old songs, new-ish songs (many from the play "Pressure Drop"), a bit of Woody Guthrie, and he even treats us to a Christmas song that he's just written and is performing for only the second time.  Billy Bragg has several songs that bring a lump to my throat.  I've heard him play many of them many times before, but the effect is always the same.  I simply can't help myself.  "Levi Stubbs' Tears", the amazing "Tank Park Salute", "The Milkman of Human Kindness" and, of course, "New England".  It's a simple act, and it hasn't changed very much over the years: he's just one man and his guitar, fired up by seeing the Clash at "Rock Against Racism" in Victoria Park in 1978 and determined to try and make a difference whilst basically singing about girls who won't so much as look at him.  As his merchandise says, love him or hate him, there seems to be no getting rid of him.  Long may that continue to be the case.  I've seen him perform better sets in front of bigger crowds, but he's still fantastic value.

I know he's not everyone's cup of tea, but to me he continues to be a legend and an inspiration and I'm already looking forward to the next time I see him play.

Verdict: 8 / 10

Thursday, 2 December 2010

little saint nick....

I've been on Santa duty unusually early this year.  You might remember that, for the last five years, I have had the heavy responsibility of being the pen of Father Christmas for two young girls... the daughters of a colleague of mine.  Every year, towards the end of December, my colleague would bring in the letters (complete with pictures) that her daughters had put in the chimney for Santa, and my job was to write the replies.  Mostly expectation setting, but with a hefty dash of Christmas magic thrown in too. 

When I started, I hadn't quite appreciated that this was going to be a job for life... but the kids loved it, and they began to check the handwriting of everyone that they could.  The very fact that they could not identify the writing on those letters became de facto evidence of Santa's existence.  In fact, so great did the handwriting obsession become, that I was very quickly forbidden from allowing any of my handwriting to appear before their inquisitive eyes: all Christmas cards and postcards had to be written by someone else as they absolutely could not be written by me.  I love it.  It's great to see the world through the eyes of a ten year-old child every once in a while.

We had to be a little more organised this year: the family moved to Australia, but as the kids have apparently been avidly checking the handwriting of all their Australian relatives, it seemed that demand was still high.  So I had to dig out my special Santa pen and ink a little earlier than usual in order to (comfortably) make the post in time to reach Australia before Christmas.  My (now ex-)colleague had to be more organised too... getting her children to write their letters and then going through the whole process of explaining that no, Santa didn't have a supplementary base at the South Pole but that yes, he would be paying a visit as usual.  Ellie, the younger daughter sounded very enthusiastic and she had also drawn a picture of Rudolph pulling Santa in his sleigh. The letter read:

Dear Santa,

This year I would like to be given.....

The Guinea - Pig Family. And plese can I have a karokie CD  Some new slip on shoes, A Solvanian family cotage and some surprises.

I hope you can get all of these. Thankyou Thankyou Thankyou if you can
Lots of Love
PS I am exited about you coming!

(bless her.  Completely seperately, she also enquired through her mother how our cat was getting on in all the snow!)

Santa's reply was also enthusiastic:

Dear Ellie

Thank you for such a lovely picture and letter.  Every year your pictures get better and better.  Rudolph looks fantastic!

It was very exciting for the collection fairy to go all the way to Australia to collect your letter and I am very happy to have you on my Australian route this year.  The reindeer especially enjoy travelling to Australia as they get to spend some time with the kangaroos.

I hope your new family gets along well with the other Sylvanian families.
I wish you a very Happy Christmas in Australia and I hope you enjoy all your presents.

Lots of love
from Santa

PS The reindeer were very well behaved with your pets and only took a little bit of their food

 Hannah, the elder daughter, nearly at the age where she perhaps doesn't really believe any more, was a little less chatty and excited.  The sketch on the front (pencil) looks like flames reaching up to ignite 3 stockings labelled M & D, Ellie and Hannah.  Her letter read:

Dear Santa
please can I have a
nice shoes
and some earings 4 christmas
Merry Christmas

As her mum wrote, "sigh.  I can't help but feel that the magic wasn't quite in the air.  Still I guess I should be glad that she at least plays the game for Ellie's sake."  (I think she was told that if she didn't believe, she didn't receive....)

Santa's reply was measured:

Dear Hannah
thanks for your letter.  Its nice to know that you still keep in touch as the years go by.
I hope your presents meet with your high standards and that you have many happy days of shooting ahead of you.
Enjoy your second ever Christmas in Australia
Lots of love

PS any chance the chimney could be cleaned for next year?

All safely in the post as of this morning, with some labelled gift-tags and with the envelope studiously addressed by the guy who sits behind me at work and the Christmas card written by my wife.

I'm not big on lots of things about Christmas, but this bit of it, I love.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

like a drifter I was born to walk alone....

Alan Fletcher and the X-Rays @ Nottingham Walkabout, 30th November 2010

Was it really five years ago that I last went to the Walkabout, largely out of curiosity it must be said, to see what Dr. Karl Kennedy off of Neighbours sounded like performing in a band? Apparently it was. Time flies, eh? He was great. I didn't really know what to expect, but what I got was a much-loved character from a much-loved soap opera performing largely covers in front of an ecstatic crowd.

Truth be told, not much has changed since then: we're all a bit older, and the crowd is quite a lot thinner, but Alan Fletcher a.k.a Dr. Karl is still in Neighbours and is still performing at Walkabouts across the UK during his summer break from filming. The support band is apparently the Trent FM houseband, and once their bassist finally makes it up the ice-stricken M1 (the keyboardist never makes it), we are treated to a set of appalling karaoke covers. It's bad enough that they massacre their way through songs like "Summer of 69", "Freebird" and "Sex on Fire", but when they slaughter "Mr. Brightside", there can't be many people in the room who don't want the band to just stop. Apart from anything else, the singer is awful. His inability to hit the notes is bad enough, but his complete and utter lack of irony or self-awareness in his performance is frankly awe-inspiring. Awful. They are, however, notable for having perhaps the smallest drumkit I have seen outside of Rock Band (actually, it might actually have been a Rock Band drumkit....)

Fletch, of course, is well aware of what he is. Let's be honest: he's 53 years old, for the last 16 years has had a nice cushy job in one of the world's most popular soap-operas, and during his summer holidays, he gets to play the rock star in front of screaming crowds of adoring fans. Alright, so there aren't that many people in the house tonight, but the ones that are here are very, very enthusiastic. He plays a set of enduring, sing-a-long classics mixed in with a couple of his own tracks. What's not to like about that? He's living the dream. He clearly knows the whole thing is ridiculous, but everyone has a good time, so where's the harm? It's just a bit of fun.

The backing band this time around are called "The X-Rays", and appear to be mostly made up of young British musicians instead of his usual band, The Waiting Room. They're pretty good. The setlist is different to last time, but is very much more of the same: Livin' on a Prayer, Glamorous Indie Rock and Roll, Here I Go Again, Champagne Supernova, We Are The Champions, Use Somebody, Chasing Cars, Let's Dance to Joy Division, I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor (The Arctic Monkeys were apparently in the rehearsal room next door to Fletch when he warmed up for his 2005 tour in Sheffield).... all delivered with great gusto and with a smile on his face. THIS is how you do a set of covers - support band please take note. It's a fun night. Maybe it's not quite as good as the first time, but it's still a whole lot of fun (although I could have done without his rhythm guitarist's awful "rock" singing on "Chasing Cars", even if the other guitarist's version of "Livin' on a Prayer" was AWESOME. What a record that is....). "Susan", sung to the tune of Smokey's "Alice", is a show-stopper, of course ("Susan? Who the fuck is Susan?" etc.) .

Goodness, Susan and Dr Karl have been through an awful lot, haven't they?

Fletch gives it everything. Even when he's finished singing, he makes it clear that he'll do his best to shake hands, sign autographs and pose for photos with every single person in the room if necessary.

A very entertaining night. Fletch is a legend.

Verdict: 7 / 10

last night I dreamt....

....that someone had given me a Cliff Richard Greatest Hits album for Christmas.

Now, I like "Wired for Sound" as much as anyone, and I know that amantadine can give you nightmares, but this troubles me.  It really does.

Perhaps I've been watching too many zombie programmes.