Monday, 31 January 2011

step into the vortex....

For some months now, I've been having trouble with my network connection. Initially, this was the result of a fault that was affecting lots of users in Nottingham and was (eventually) fixed by my broadband supplier (partially thanks to their excellent customer service on Twitter, actually). After that was resolved though, I began to have issues with my laptop dropping the connection and requiring the airport to be switched off for a few minutes before it would "see" my wireless network again. Annoyingly, this seemed to start after I did a software upgrade on my Macbook Pro. A quick google revealed it was a fairly common issue but not one with a simple resolution. Well, cheers for that, Apple.

I quickly got tired of this, and at Christmas, purchased an upgrade to Snow Leopard in the hopes that it would clear the issue up (although google also revealed that this was a long way from being the silver bullet to this particular problem and may have brought problems of its own). The upgrade was painless, and it seemed to do the trick for a while. Before long though, I was finding that my iPhone was also unable to connect to my wireless network from time-to-time, indicating that the issue resided in my airport itself. All I had to do was to restart the airport express that was broadcasting my network (a simple case of unplugging it and plugging it back in) and everything was fine again. Manageable, but annoying.

I don't think my home network is unusually complicated: the broadband cable comes into the house, goes into a modem. The modem is plugged into a router that splits the connection and acts as a hardware firewall. From there it goes to an airport express to create the wifi network, which is extended by an apple time capsule and a couple of other airport expresses that I use to stream iTunes to stereos around the house. It was a doddle to set up and has never really caused me any bother. The airport express transmitting my wifi is quite a lot older than the others and is operating on a much older version of firmware but cannot be upgraded any more. Was that the problem? I was loathe to take the whole thing apart as I just had a sense that it would not be a trivial matter to put the whole thing back together again.

On Sunday, I bit the bullet.

The small matter of 5 hours later, I had a network that was up and running.

I have no idea what caused the problem, but what I half-heartedly hoped would be a simple swap of the airport express transmitting my signal turned out to be a nightmare of lost internet connection, double NAT errors and DHCP conflicts and lost IP addresses. I work in IT, but I'm by no means a technical expert.... but once I'd started, what choice did I have but to plough on and try and make the whole thing work? I managed to get the internal network up and running again, but only discovered I still had no internet connection when I couldn't connect my kindle. That meant a whole lot more stress before I finally got it sorted by a combination of juggling IP addresses and remembering how to access the configuration on my router. I'm not exactly sure what I did that made it work, but I carefully wrote down all of the settings and put them in a drawer. 24 hours later, and it all still seemed to be up and running, even if occasionally I'm finding that I need to reboot stuff to make it pick up the new configurations (like when I tried to connect my phone to access the remote control for my iTunes). Now I have all my airport expresses up and running and streaming music, and the signal now being sent out by my timemachine. A much cleaner solution, I hope, with the wifi signal now being broadcast by a device operating on the newest version of the firmware.

What a palaver. Not only had I managed to railroad my own Sunday, but I'd managed to also completely derail my wife's plans for the day, and she was forced to go to Sainsburys without me and to go swimming without having eaten a proper lunch.

To celebrate getting everything working, whilst C. was at the supermarket, I pranced around the house with the vacuum cleaner whilst plugged into my noise-cancelling headphones and an old playlist on my iPod. It's positively eerie when you can't hear the hoover, I can tell you.......... especially when you can hear slightly muffled singing.

Technology, eh?

Friday, 28 January 2011

we might be laughing a bit too loud....

Earworms of the Week

"Something" - The Beatles
"New York, New York" - Frank Sinatra

Whilst not their very best work, "Something" is a pretty reasonable Beatles record.  I've always had something of a soft spot for it, anyway.  It's maybe a touch OTT, but I quite like the sentiments that George Harrison is trying to express here.  Expressing love in song is a bit like trying to catch lightning in a bottle, not that this stops everyone from trying, of course.  As well as featuring a guitar solo by Eric Clapton, it's a song that has the distinction of being about the only Beatles record that Frank Sinatra liked... well, liked enough to cover it anyway.  Second most covered Beatles song after "Yesterday", apparently.  Speaking of Sinatra, an artist that I don't particularly care for, we booked a trip to the Big Apple in March, so this song obviously sprang to mind.  Watch out Marissa, watch out Jane... we're coming for you guys.

"Chiquitita" - Abba

I may perhaps be the only person in the world who doesn't like Abba, but I was unfortunate enough to have this song lodge itself into my head for a distressingly long period of time.  Ten minutes would be distressing enough, but this was in my head for WEEKS. 

All together now, "chicken tikka you and I alone...."

"The Resistance" - Muse

Bonkers and playing at the gym when I went for a swim.  As they're usually playing something like Robbie Williams or some impenetrable dance shite, this was definitely something of an improvement.  It sounds a bit like "The Phantom of the Opera", doesn't it?  Or is that just me?

"Shake Your Blood" - Probot feat. Lemmy

They say that rock is dead (well, some people do....), but I think we all know that Lemmy is going to live forever, don't we?  I stopped at work today to peer over someone's shoulder to see what they were listening to on their iPod as they tapped at their computer.  It was an all star line-up of artists on Road Runner Records, Roadrunner United: not something I'd ever heard before.  "It's a bit loud" said the guy listening to the album, when he saw me looking... probably thinking that I wouldn't approve.  Needless to say, I did approve, and we soon bonded over a brief discussion about Probot in general and this song in particular.

"Lost and Found" - Steve Mason

As I mentioned the other week, Mason was the voice of the Beta Band and this is a song off his excellent debut album, "Boys Outside".  Inevitably, there are traces of the Beta Band in the whole album, but this is the song that reminds me the most of Mason's former band, with that sort of trancey-feel to the beat and the hypnotic tone to Mason's voice.  I listened to the album again the other day, and it really is fantastic.  Do go listen.

"The Intense Humming of Evil" - Manic Street Preachers

Somewhat inevitable inclusion, this one, given that I've used the lyrics as headers for posts twice already this week.  Peak-era Manics.  They've done lots and lots of interesting work, but nothing better than "The Holy Bible" if you ask me.  Not exactly a party-album, mind.  Not any party you'd really want to attend, anyway.

"Central Reservation" - Beth Orton

Running down a central reservation in last night's red dress,
And I can still smell you on my fingers and taste you on my breath;

I can't think of a dirtier, sexier lyric.  Can you?

"Summer Well" / "Lights" - Interpol

From Interpol's most recent album.  It's not as immediate or as chorus-laden as some of their earlier work, but it's really been growing on me over the last few months.  There's something wistful, almost elegiac about these records.  I like them.  Not cheerful, obviously.... but we are talking about records I like.  My music taste doesn't exactly make me mr. chuckles, am I?

"Only the Good Die Young" - Billy Joel

...well, I do like this record, and this is pretty cheerful, so perhaps it's not all doom and gloom in my record collection.  Although I'm not a big fan of the programme, I found myself watching Glee the other day.  C. loves it, you see.  It was a God special.  I rolled my eyes, naturally, but the first song they did was a version of this song.  Puck's version wasn't quite as good as Billy Joel's, I grant you.... but it wasn't bad.  It's such a good song, it might just be indestructible.  The rest of the songs weren't anywhere near as good, sadly, even the inevitable "Losing my Religion", but has there ever been a more unlikely place to hear an exposition on Bertrand Russell's "Celestial Teapot" argument than an episode of Glee?  Sweet grilled Baby Cheesus.  As Eddie Izzard said, if there's a Jesus, whatever happened to Asus, Beesus, Ceesus, Deesus, Eesus and Effsus?

Have a good weekend, y'all.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

agony's last edge...

I was reading in the paper at work the other day about the case of the 11 year old child accused of murdering his father's pregnant fiancee in Pennsylvania.  The murder is shocking enough, of course... but almost as shocking is that there are plans to try the child (now 13) as an adult so that he can be imprisoned for the rest of his life.  Apparently, only the US and Somalia have refused to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which rules out life sentences with no chance of release for crimes committed before the age of 18.  The child initially appeared in court with his hands and feet shackled.  It's a shocking murder, no question, but isn't the idea of doling out some kind of righteous retribution to a child somehow horrific too?  Isn't the way we treat our prisoners the mark of a civilised society?

It was lunchtime, so we had a little conversation about this around our desks.  Most people seemed to be appalled at the prospect that a 13 year-old child might be locked away in prison and the key thrown away; prison is for rehabilitation, right?  There was an exception to this rule:

"Prison is for punishment.  He's murdered someone.  His age isn't important.  They should throw away the key."
But he hasn't been tried yet.  Don't you believe in the concept of being innocent until proven guilty?
"No.  You're guilty until you're proven innocent."
But not everyone who is tried is guilty, are they?
"There's no smoke without fire.  If you've nothing to hide, you've nothing to fear".
"In fact, they had it right in the old days: an eye for an eye.  That's what I believe.  You kill someone and you should be killed."

I was appalled, of course.  Isn't it ridiculous to be so certain that the world can be painted into blacks and whites?  rights and wrongs?  I asked him what qualified anyone to make decisions of life and death like that and to be sure that they weren't killing an innocent.  He shrugged.
"I don't know.  I'm not a judge."

And there we have it: he was prepared to completely wash his hands of the responsibility for making decisions of life and death that his opinions were advocating, but was prepared to believe that SOMEONE was qualified and he absolutely had faith that they would make no mistakes.  Easy.  Job done.  The world's a better place and we can all sleep with our doors unlocked.

He's an intelligent man, but I find it very hard to understand views like that.  They're so.... naive.  I had a flashing image of him sitting in an office alongside a railway platform, supervising people as they sorted piles of suitcases and shoes as he stamped paperwork..... unquestioning about what was happening before his eyes because he was simply carrying out his job as efficiently as he could without questioning his superiors who had told him to do it.  For the second time this week, I thought about the banality of evil: "the thesis that the great evils in history generally, and the Holocaust in particular, were not executed by fanatics or sociopaths, but rather by ordinary people who accepted the premises of their state and therefore participated with the view that their actions were normal."

Today marks the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp. The gas chambers were blown up by the SS in January 1945 in an attempt to hide the murders perpetrated there from the advancing Soviet troops. On January 17 1945, the SS command sent orders calling for the execution of all prisoners remaining in the camp, but the order was never carried out. On January 17, 1945, Nazi personnel started to evacuate the facility and nearly 60,000 prisoners were forced on a death march toward a camp in Wodzisław Śląski. Those too weak or sick to walk were left behind, and these remaining 7,500 prisoners were liberated by the 322nd Rifle Division of the Red Army on January 27, 1945.

While under Allied interrogation, Rudolf Höss, commandant of Auschwitz concentration camp from 1940 to 1943, said that Adolf Eichmann told him that two and a half million Jews had been killed in the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau and about half a million had died "naturally".  Later he wrote "I regard two and a half million far too high. Even Auschwitz had limits to its destructive possibilities".   The likely death toll is probably somewhere between one and two million people.... an astonishing and horrifying number.

I know that the Second World War is now almost beyond living memory, but I was chastened today to remember that the liberation of Auschwitz happened less than thirty years before I was born.  We like to think of Nazism as an aberration that will never happen again, but the truth is that it very well might.  An estimated 2m people died in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979 under the regime of the Khymer Rouge, and about 850,000 people were killed in the Rwandan genocides of 1994.  Maybe they didn't quite have the industrialised efficiency of the Nazis, but surely they are a salient warning: we must not be complacent, we must be vigilant and make sure it never happens again.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

because you can't, you won't, and you don't stop....

I'm addicted to t-shirts.

Compared to some of the alternatives, I suppose there are worse addictions to have, I grant you.... but please don't underestimate the gravity of this compulsion. For starters, I've long since run out of storage space.

As my wife frequently points out, just how many t-shirts does one man need? It's not as though you can practically wear more than one or two at any one time, is it? But, as with any other addiction, the simple truth is that I just can't help myself. Even though I know, deep down, when I see that next really cool t-shirt and hear its siren call, that no matter how much I love it now, it will assuredly still end up in the bottom of a draw... I just can't resist.

I tried to have a clear out last night, but it's always the same: even if I haven't worn a particular shirt in at least the last 5 years, I will look at it in the bottom of the draw and remember all the good times we had and how we could still have those good times again.... but there's always a younger, prettier model that catches my eye when I get up in the morning.

In the end, I was ruthless with myself and forced myself to select about 10 t-shirts to be put into a pile to be looked at again in a few days to see if I can still bear to part with them.  That old Hatful of Hollow t-shirt, last worn extensively in early 2007? On the pile.  The World Rock Paper Scissors Society raglan that is at least a decade old and has clearly seen better days? On the pile.  That Detroit Red Wings Gordie Howe t-shirt, lovingly brought back by a friend from Canada that has always been far, far too big and has never actually been worn? On the pile.  It's a difficult process for me, and I've not even categorically decided that any of them are going yet.

But what can I do?  My head has been turned.

Let 'em riot. We’re Sonic-fuckin’-Death Monkey.”

I ask you, how can anyone not have that t-shirt in their collection?

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

you always mistook fists for flowers....

I had a dream last night that Britain was slowly becoming a fascist state; that we were under the spell of a government that was slowly stripping us of our rights and our liberties; that nobody stood up to say anything until it was too late and people were being marched off to death camps.

It's not too hard to work out where this came from: the three things I watched on TV before I went to bed.  The first was a news item about how the coalition government was planning to sell off Britain's national forests.  Apparently, more than 150,000 hectares of forest and other land owned by the state in England is likely to be sold within three years. Such a sale might raise £250m or thereabouts, but would put the continued survival of some of our ancient woodland under real threat from developers.  The government are apparently hoping that charities and volunteers will be able to take up the slack left when the Forestry Commission stops working on land no longer owned by the state.  It's a disastrous act of vandalism by a government who will apparently spare the highest earners and big business from tax rises whilst looking to rape our country's heritage and those who can least afford it.

That news was followed by a viewing of "The Counterfeiters". As wikipedia says, "It fictionalizes Operation Bernhard, a secret plan by the Nazis during the Second World War to destabilize Great Britain by flooding its economy with forged Bank of England bank notes. The film centres on a Jewish counterfeiter, Salomon 'Sally' Sorowitsch, who is coerced into assisting the Nazi operation at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp."  Much of the drama centres around the desire of the prisoners to stay alive whilst also wanting to sabotage the Nazis as much as they dare.  As one character says to Sorowitsch, it is the failure of people like them to risk their own lives by taking a stand against the Nazis that led ultimately led Germany to the death camps.  As always, it still shocks to see the brutality and inhumanity of a concentration camp displayed on the screen, even in fiction.  How can people treat other people like that?  How can so many people be so complicit to such an atrocity?

C. told me the story today of how she once visited Buchenwald with a family of Germans, including an 85 year-old woman who had lived in Weimar during the war.  In spite of the fact that the camp was built on a hill above the town, and was dominated by the massive chimney of the furnaces that incinerated the corpses of more than 50,000 people during the war, and more than 250,000 people in all passed through the camp, this old lady wandered around the remains of the camp murmuring that "we just didn't know".  They almost certainly did know, but did nothing.  How hard is that to come to terms with?

In a way, I understand: as the Nazi's gained influence, it was probably the most natural thing in the world to shrug your shoulders and, as they rose to power, to join the party and just get on with your life.  Who was to know what they were to become or what they would be capable of?  It's easy to be wise after the event, but if you were a clerk at the railway station, is it out of the question to imagine that you might be the one sorting out the suitcases and shoes of the people passing through on their way to the camps?  It's not as though you were the one killing them, is it?

All of these things came to mind as I watched "The Counterfeiters", and the ten minutes or so of "V for Vendetta" probably helped seal these thoughts in my head before I went to bed.  Is it any wonder I dreamed dark dreams?

I'm not seriously suggesting (even if my subconscious mind definitely is) that David Cameron is in any way comparable to Hitler or that England is on the verge of slipping into the clutches of a totalitarian regime..... but I feel as though I've had a fleeting insight into how these things can start.  They don't seem like much of a threat when they're elected, but before you know where you are, you've lost things you can never get back.  It might only be removing disability benefits and the funding for higher education, the slashing back of the NHS or the sale of our national forests today, but what will it be tomorrow?

Monday, 24 January 2011

ice cold....

Well, we're back.  Seven days spent skiing in the glorious sunshine of the Three Valleys in France.  And eating.  Mainly eating, truth be told.... mostly dishes made with cream and cheese and bursting with carbohydrate laden goodness.  Mmmm.  You can't beat a good tartiflette to warm you up and send you back out onto the slopes with a healthy glow and ready for an afternoon of skiing.  Well, it's either the food or it's that or a carafe of red wine.

Look, I know that most of the photos are going to look the same as the skiing photos I put up every year.... snowy mountains, me on skis..... but I'm going to put them up anyway.  At least I've got a new jacket this year, accessorised, I hope you'll notice, by a matching rucksack and a blue belt that really helps to tie the room together.

It didn't snow much when we were there, but one of the advantages of being in a resort as well developed as La Tania and the rest of the Three Valleys is that they know how to use the snow they have.  The piste was packed and hard, and sometimes made for challenging skiing, but it wasn't really icy and if there wasn't much powder about, at least it wasn't too brown or stony anywhere.

It was cold too.  It was nice enough on a sunny terrace, but out on the mountain itself, it seemed to get colder and colder as the week went on.  We only had one afternoon when the cloud closed in, but as we were waiting to get onto the cable that went up Caron in Val Thorens, we saw that the temperature was -17.  Needless to say, 1000m further up the mountain, at 3200m, it was colder still.   It was a lovely view and a good ski down, but nobody wants to hang around when they can't feel their feet or their hands and are worrying that their nose might be about to drop off.

Still, it's not as though we need much of an excuse to stop for a vin chaud, and it just so happened that we had a restaurant recommendation nearby.  You know you're onto a good thing when you order a plate of three Savoyarde cheeses and the waitress delivers it with a whisper, "I've given you four cheeses!".

She called me "Superman" too.  I think C, was unimpressed.  I swear I didn't say a word to her beyond ordering my lunch.  She was just being friendly.  Honestly. 

Lovely meal though.

Another good week of skiing then.  And eating.  And drinking.  A good week with some good company.  Exactly 12 months ago, our ski trip was the start of 9 months off work and travelling around the world.  That was fantastic, but I can honestly say that I didn't have the slightest worry about going back to work this morning.  Either I'm super-relaxed, loving my job or my perspectives have shifted a little in the last year.

Maybe it's all three.

The cat was pleased to see us when we got home though.  I don't think she likes the cat hotel....

Friday, 14 January 2011

you rise, you fall, you're down, then you rise again....

At this time of the week, I would trouble you with my earworms, but as that list would include "Agadoo", then it's probably best that I keep this particular list to myself......

...push pineapple shake the tree.

Sorry about that.

Anyway, I've got packing to do.  When I left work this afternoon, that was it for a whole week as, at a little after 4am tomorrow morning, we leave to go skiing in La Tania in France.  I'm going to try to ignore the fact that when I left work before my skiing holiday almost exactly twelve months ago, it was the start of a nine month sabbatical that saw us travelling around the world.

No.  I'm not going to dwell on that at all.  AT ALL.

Still, after four months back at work (which have actually been surprisingly good), it feels like high time I had a week off.  So, the cat's been dropped off at the cat hotel and the house is feeling pretty empty this evening.... C's gone to the gym to squeeze in one more pole dancing class before we head off for a week's worth of fairly intensive exercise....

I've even got a new skiing jacket this year, so you won't have to look at photos that could have been taken on any of my skiing holidays in the last five or six years.  Well, they will, in that they will include me and C on skis and a series of snowy mountains.... but at least my coat will look different.

I may still look like a Power Ranger though.

Now, if you'll excuse me, we have a DVD player in the chalet this year, so I need to make my selections.  "Anchorman" and what else?

See you in a week.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

saw death on a sunny snow....

I've been reading "Emma" by Jane Austen. Well, I say that I reading, but I've actually barely looked at since Christmas.  It's not a particularly challenging or difficult read, and yet I'm finding it quite heavy going.

I go through phases with Austen: I actually studied her when I was at University, and in spite (or perhaps because) I was constantly being told how pointed and wry she was, and how she provided an incredibly pertinent and witty commentary on the role of women in Nineteenth century England, I found her dull and not especially funny at all.  Alright, so "Persuasion" probably isn't her finest work, but I could not escape the impression that my lecturers were reading far, far too much into the source material.

That said, "Pride and Predudice" is a cast-iron classic, full of pithy dialogue and wonderful character sketches.  The story is mostly about Darcy and Elizabeth, of course, but the minor characters are just as well drawn and often much more interesting. The way that Mr. Collins is described is priceless - either sticking his nose haughtily in the air or acting like a pathetic suck up - and Mr. Bennett is surely one of the great literary creations.  Take this to his silly wife:

"If my children are silly, I must hope to be always sensible of it... This is the only point, I flatter myself, on which we do not agree. I had hoped that our sentiments coincided in every particular, but I must so far differ from you as to think our two youngest daughters uncommonly foolish."

I love the way that, even though it is not explicitly described in the text, you can see his weary eye-roll as he quietly sits and listens to the prattle from his wife and youngest daughters.

Yes, it's a great book (even if I still don't agree with my University Professor's belief in Austen's proto-feminism....).  I will finish "Emma" off at some point, but so far it doesn't hold a candle to "Pride and Prejudice" and it simply isn't compelling me to finish it off in a hurry.

Don't you just love it when you find a book so good that you read it at every possible opportunity you have?  One that you sit up late into the night to try and finish?  All books should be like that, but I find that very few are, and when you are reading one, am I the only one who finds themselves torn by the desire to get to the end and the desire to make the book last as long as possible?

I've just finished one of those books.

First published in 2004 as Låt den rätte komma in, "Let the Right One In" is the debut novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist.  It was, of course, made into a film in 2008, and the Hollywood remake ("Let Me In") was released in 2010.

I watched the original film a week or so ago, and downloaded the book onto my kindle almost immediately.  A couple of days later, I was done.  It might have helped that the coverage of the Fifth Ashes Test from Sydney started at around 11pm each night, so I had another reason to sit up late... but the truth is that I was only keeping half an ear on the cricket and was almost entirely wrapped up in my book.

Lindqvist wrote the screenplay for the film, so not surprisingly it's pretty close to the book.... but at the same time, without the film's need for brevity, the book is able to expand a lot more on the background to many of the characters, especially Eli, the vampire child, herself and Håkan, her adult helper. [don't worry - no plot spoilers....]

To be honest, this is one of those rare examples where the film surpasses the book.  The extra detail within the book is gripping, but at times it sinks into some very bloody horror.  This isn't a problem per se, but by stripping this detail out, the film is better able to allow the silences to speak for themselves, and allows the viewer's imagination to fill the gaps.  We don't know as much about Håkan, for sure, but that frees us up to wonder about his motives and to think about whether or not his past is Oskar's future.  The book is still gripping, and the relationship between Eli and Oskar is as captivating and heartbreaking as in the film, perhaps more so, but it simply isn't quite as good as the film.  Mind you, I'd still say that this is the best book I have read that was published in this millennium.  It's just that it's also probably the best film too.

Read it.  Highly recommended.... and if "Choke" by Chuck Palahniuk turns up in the post tomorrow, then "Emma" will just have to wait a little bit longer.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

well, I'm afraid it doesn't make me smile....

A new comedy programme made it's debut on the BBC the other day. "Episodes" received loads of publicity before its launch on Monday night: partly this was because it starred Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig, two very good comic actors with solid track records, not least with both appearing in "Green Wing". Personally, I can take or leave Mangan, but Tamsin Grieg is great and starred in one of my all time favourite comedies, "Black Books". Let's be honest, a programme starring those two would likely receive some sort of advance press coverage, at least in the UK, but the reason this one was featured all over the place was down to one simple thing, and they don't come much simpler than Joey Tribbiani: Episodes features Matt Le Blanc. "Joey" might have flopped, but it appears that the "Friends" connection (and Episodes was also produced by David Crane, one of the guys behind "Friends") was enough to generate enormous excitement.... at least amongst journalists like Caitlin Moran and others who cover ("squeal!") TV in the media.

I hadn't been planning to watch it, but it was on straight after another programme I'd been watching (a very good one featuring Ben Miller investigating the nature of temperature, actually), and I decided to give it a go.

I thought it was awful.

I know that the first episode of a new comedy programme is often a bit patchy as they work to set up the premise, and it may be that if I watched this one again after seeing the rest of the series, then perhaps I'd find it hilarious. As it was, it barely raised a smile. OK, so it was probably bold of them to restrict Le Blanc to about 2 minutes of screentime in the first episode, but that wasn't the problem. It just wasn't funny. In fact, it was annoying. The incidental music was intrusive; the characters had little or no chemistry (especially strange given that the two leads have worked together before to such good effect); the one-liners grated... I could go on. It was terrible. It featured a real-life car crash pretty early on, but frankly there was one unfolding before my eyes on the screen long before that.

The premise, if you're interested, is that a BAFTA winning husband and wife writing team are lured out to Hollywood to work on the US version of their hit show. Once there, it turns out that no one has watched their programme, and the US producers seem dead set on wrecking it by refusing to cast the ancient RSC type from the UK version of the show (played by Richard Griffiths) and replacing him with Matt Le Blanc. That's not an inherently UN-funny idea, but it was executed in a way that is perhaps hilarious to people who have had Hollywood wreck one of their programmes, but I'm not sure if it works for anyone else. Maybe it will get better, but I found Mangan and Greig's characters almost entirely, irredeemably unlikeable. Their snarky one-liners might work coming from the mouth of an American in a big US sitcom, but even in a Hollywood setting, they seemed oddly grating coming from someone as, well,  English as Greig. I smiled at the gag about the bath taking forever to fill, thus killing a spontaneous moment of passion, but not a glimmer after that. Ah, so the magnificent columns in your palatial house are FAKE. It's like everything else in Hollywood, right? I see what you've done there. The other characters were little better. Harsh to judge on the first episode, perhaps, but to me they were all no more than ciphers or caricatures.

Maybe it will get better as we get into it, but I won't be watching it to find out.

It is, of course, very popular at the moment to have a character playing a version of themselves: Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld have been doing it for years, after all. We perceive Matt Le Blanc in the terms of how we saw him as Joey Tribbiani, so I'm sure there's some comic mileage there for "Episodes"..... although quite how much remains to be seen.
By way of contrast, I very much enjoyed watching Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon playing versions of themselves in "The Trip", and finally got around to watching the last two epidodes that have been sat on my Sky+ for several weeks. It was subtle, understated and brilliant, totally unlike "Episodes" so far. There's no showiness here, only two guys who we THINK we know, sitting in a series of restaurants in Yorkshire, chewing the cud and playing with our perceptions of who they are and where the characters on the screen ended and the actual people began: Rob Brydon as the cheerful entertainer, never happier than when doing impressions, and Coogan as the darker, more troubled figure with delusions to being something greater than a mere entertainer or even comic actor, resentful at being introduced as "TV's Alan Partridge". I found the final scenes actually quite moving, with Brydon reunited with his wife and baby child and Coogan returning to a vast, showy.... but also cold and empty.... appartment looking out over the City of London.

Of course, it's very English of me to prefer the low-key comedy about insecurity to the one that is big and brassy and features a huge star, but if Episodes ends up being half as good as The Trip, then they will have done well. Based on what I've seen, I doubt they're going to make it, Matt Le Blanc's fawning press coverage notwithstanding.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011


I've always thought of myself as a pretty clean person.  I'm sure there was a phase in my early teenage years when I could probably have showered and changed my clothes more often, but I'm through that now and we're all good.

...or so I thought.

I took a couple of shirts back to John Lewis at the weekend.  I bought them a little before Christmas, and had been a little alarmed to discover that they had noticeably shrunk in the sleeves after only a couple of wash cycles.  What's the point in buying shirts with extra long sleeves if they shrink almost immediately? Easy care shirts?  Pah! 


I was initially greeted with great suspicion by the sales staff in the store.  It's true that I couldn't find my receipt, but I wasn't really after a refund, and I definitely wasn't trying to do them out of any money.  When the supervisor got out a tape measure and went in search of a new shirt to compare sleeve length with, I feared the worst.  As it turned out, not only had they shrunk, but they'd also initially been packed incorrectly and weren't extra long sleeved in the first place.  They swapped them with no further hassle, and everyone was happy.

Well, nearly everyone.  I left feeling a bit hurt and baffled.  In the course of examining the shirts, it became clear that one of them was "damaged" because it had a a dirty collar; a really crusty mark all the way around from one side to the other.  But...but...but.... I've only worn that shirt about twice... It's literally just been washed and dried..... I don't understand.  I can absolutely understand why this is a problem for a shirt I'm returning to a shop without a receipt, but I just don't understand why it's so dirty.

I shower at least once a day.  I use soap and everything.  How can I have such a dirty neck?  I'm pretty sure that this didn't used to happen to me.  Well, apart from when I was a skanky teenager, obviously..... but I'm clean now, damnit!

I feel hurt and... well... a little soiled by the whole experience.  Perhaps I'm not the person I thought I was.

Mind you, this story has a happy ending for one lucky customer: as I was trying on the replacement shirts, the dirty shirts were left hanging over a rail near the till.  When I came back out of the fitting rooms, one of them had gone.  Apparently some guy had wandered over, seen it, checked the collar carefully for size (but apparently not for soiling) and then walked off with it.  Mmm.  Quite the bargain, I'm sure.

Monday, 10 January 2011

mustn't grumble....

Saturday's run was awful. 

I'd woken up with a feeling that it was going to be tough, and had procrastinated accordingly.  Football on Thursday had been physically difficult; my usual swim on Friday night had also been a real struggle, using those upper body muscles that are most affected by my MS and are consequently the weakest.  It doesn't take a genius to add those warning signs together and to deduce that my usual 4-or-so miles before lunch on a Saturday morning might prove difficult.

Sitting it out was clearly not an option: being able to read the warning signs doesn't necessarily mean that I was going to listen to the signals my body was trying to give me..... besides, although it may sound counter-intuitive, but sometimes exercising when I feel fatigued helps me chase off the fatigue.  I don't know how that works, but sometimes it really does.  Perhaps the feeling of fatigue is self-perpetuating.

Anyway, after I'd got up and had my hair cut and wandered around the farmer's market, picking up some 24-month old Lincolnshire Poacher, some Old Spot sausage meat and a rare breed beef pie, I reluctantly headed home, pulled on my running kit and set off out of the door.

It hurt.

My feet were numb; my legs were dead; my hands were tingling and my shoulders were aching.  I hauled myself around 4.23 miles and almost every step seemed to take a real effort of will.

But you know what?  For all that it was hard, I still managed to run my normal route in 37 minutes and 18 seconds, at a pace of 8.49 minutes/mile.  Alright, so it's not a personal best or anything, and as slow as I've done in a while, but it's still more than two minutes faster than the time I managed on the same run this time last year - 39 minutes and 27 seconds at a pace of 9.18 minutes/mile.

It just goes to show that I'm a nerd and never happier than when I have a pile of statistics to analyse talk of my physical decline - especially by me - may be overstated. 

...besides, I like a good moan.  Facebook friends should look out for tomorrow's: I'm hoping to get out on a run at lunchtime, so it should be with you by about half one.

Friday, 7 January 2011

but then I know it's growing strong....

Earworms of the Week

"Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger" - Daft Punk

Like many a good earworm, this one crept into my head when I was listening to something completely different by the same band - in this case, the Tron soundtrack.  I like the new album, although it is unmistakeably the soundtrack for a film (a film that I have no intention of watching.  The original, as I remember it, was mostly confusing and entirely boring).  This is 'proper' Daft Punk.  It's not my favourite of their songs (that's probably still "Da Funk", just about, if only for the brilliant video).  Good record though.

"Black Mirror" - Arcade Fire

Another song that popped into my head when I was listening to another tune by the same artist, in this case "No Cars Go", which was playing on the radio when I drove to work this morning (Moyles being temporarily replaced by Zane Lowe is apparently enough to get me tuning back in again).  I downloaded the new Arcade Fire album the other day, and gave it a good old listen last night as I read my book and waited for the cricket to start.  It's very good.  I didn't really think that "Neon Bible" was all that, but it does feature some cracking songs, this one included.  As a band, I find Arcade Fire quite hard to love.   They get loads of critical acclaim, but there's just something about them that I don't warm to.... same thing when I saw them live.  Still, if you've got the tunes, then that's more than most, right?

"I've Been Everywhere" - Johnny Cash

Apparently Johnny Cash was the artist that I listened to the most last year.  Shame on you if that isn't true for you too! He is a legend.  The Last FM stats tell me that I listened to "Ring of Fire" more often in 2010, but if you'd asked me which of his songs had been most frequently on my iPod, I would have said this one.  We seemed to have it on all the time as we breathed the mountain air, man in the Rockies in July, for starters.  Johnny Cash might be my karaoke speciality, but I'm not sure I could quite manage to pull this one off.  I'm much more a "A13, Trunk Road to the Sea" kind of guy.

"Boys Outside" - Steve Mason

Steve Mason used to be the singer in the Beta Band.  Not surprisingly, this album sounds a little bit like the direction that his old band might have taken.  Of all the new albums that I downloaded at the back end of 2010, together with Plan B, this is the one that really stood out.  Not heard the album (of which this is the title track), then I strongly urge you to go and check it out.  It's not exactly cheerful, but it's entirely beautiful.  The Beta Band had some great tunes, but they never really put together an entirely coherent album, in my opinion..... Mason manages to get it right with his first solo attempt.

"29 Years" - The National

I binged on The National before Christmas and downloaded all of the back catalogue stuff that I didn't already know.  When listening to their debut album for the first time whilst sat at my desk in the office before New Year, I was slightly surprised to hear the following lyrics:

You know I dreamed about you
For 29 years before
I saw you

They're beautiful lyrics, sure, but they are also identical to the lyrics the band use on "Slow Show", recorded several years later.  Well, recycle, recycle, recycle, I guess.

"You Are the Blood" - Sufjan Stevens

Speaking of the National, I also finally got around to downloading "Dark Was the Night",  the compilation album that they curated a few years back to raise money for the Red Hot Organization that raises funds and awareness for HIV and AIDS sufferers.  As well as a song by The National, the album has contributions from the likes of Bon Iver, My Morning Jacket, Grizzly Bear, the Decemberists, the New Pornographers and this one by Sufjan Stevens.  I disliked "The Age of Adz" so much when I listened to it for the first time a while back that I haven't been able to steel myself to give it another try yet.  This song, however, I really like.  It's a cover and it goes on forever, but it has somehow sunk its way into my skull and won't let go.  It's a good album though, and if you haven't heard it, you should check it out.

"Les Champs-Élysées" - Joe Dassin

By her own admission, C is not much of a singer.  On the whole, she also prefers classical music to popular music.  I rather think she tolerates most of the stuff that I listen to around the place rather than actually liking much of it.  There is, however, one song that is guaranteed to make her sing along with abandon: this one.  It's cheesy as hell, but also brilliant.  If I was to chose an earworm of the year for 2010, then this one would be right up there for me.

"Stay Too Long" - Plan B

As I've said before, "The Defamation of Strickland Banks" was the album that surprised me the most last year, and it just keeps getting better and better every time I hear it.  This is the third track, and although I had been enjoying the album up to this point, this is the song that really unlocked it for me and made me really sit up and pay attention.  The genius of this is the way that the soul groove is so seamlessly blended with the rap that you barely notice the join.  I think I could listen to this song all day long and not get bored, although to do so would rather interrupt the flow of the album.  It's a fiendish earworm too....

"Sweet Caroline" - Neil Diamond

Speaking of weapons grade earworms.... you know you've got it bad when you are caught singing the same song out loud at your desk several times over the course of a single day.  And when that song happens to be something as cheesy as "Sweet Caroline", then you are really asking for some abuse.  I haven't actively listened to this in months, but for some reason I woke up with it in my head one morning and it didn't release me from it's grasp until I went to bed at the end of that day.  The trouble with being caught murmuring along to this is that it is pretty much obvious to anyone and everyone exactly what it is that you have stuck in your head.  I'm not ashamed of liking a bit of Neil Diamond, but singing along out loud at your desk on a Wednesday afternoon?  Really?

"Soul Limbo" - Booker T & the MGs

Do I really have to explain this one?  I've watched every single crappy England team we've sent to Australia since we last won there in 1986/7, some 24 years ago.  Every single one got pounded into the dust, culminating in the 5-0 humiliation the last time we were there in 206/7.    Not this time.  We've finally done it.  Oh sure, the team played brilliantly to achieve a comprehensive 3-1 winning margin in the series, but I reckon I've put in the hard yards too and feel like I've really earned this.  Truly a result to savour.  Great sport.

Have a good weekend, y'all.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

hey runner, what are you running from?

Perhaps it's a result of the cold I'm just shaking off, but my body feels pretty fatigued at the moment.  I had two days off from exercise before playing football tonight, but even before I started running around, I had a deep-set aching in my muscles and a distinct lack of energy.  By the end of the game, in spite of my usual thick wrapping of layers, gloves and a hat, I had also pretty much lost sensation entirely in my hands and up towards my shoulders.

It's true that I've had a few late nights watching the cricket recently, but I have a feeling that the fatigue is probably a result of my immune system being stoked up even higher than normal to fight off the cold I've had over the last couple of weeks, and now all those extra white cells are roaming around my body like ASBO kids looking for trouble. Besides, how can the cricket be anything other than inspirational at the moment, eh?

It's funny really; this latest bout of fatigue comes hard on the heels of C and LB talking to me about running the Nottingham Half Marathon again this year, and asking if I will join them. I've been slightly hesitant about agreeing.  It's not so much that I don't want to do it, it's just that I know myself too well.  No matter how much I tell myself that it doesn't matter how fast I run it, or if I beat the time I did in 2009, from the moment I sign up, I will be determined to do the very best that I can.  I will get a training schedule, and I will push myself to train hard and to be as ready as I possibly can be.  I run a fair bit now, but training for a run like that will double or triple my weekly mileage over the next few months. 

Plus it was bloody hard work last time too.  I got around in a little under two hours, and was delighted with my time, but found the whole thing quite an overwhelming and emotional experience.... not to mention absolutely knackering.  I'm exhausted just thinking about it.

I'm going to do it, of course.

In fact, I was actually wondering about whether I might enter the London Triathlon this year too (or perhaps instead of the half marathon).  It was whilst training for this event in 2005, you might remember, that I noticed any MS symptoms for the first time (I woke up one morning with a numb hand), and I was forced to drop out on the advice of my neurologist a couple of weeks before I was due to race.  My name was on the race t-shirt.  It feels like unfinished business. 

Who knows, perhaps it was the training back in 2005 that triggered the symptoms in the first place?  The MS was probably always there, but perhaps it was all those miles on the road and hours in the pool that forced that first relapse.  I was okay training for the half marathon a couple of years ago, but perhaps it's unwise to push my body this hard?

Who am I trying to kid?  It's punishing my body like this that makes me feel the least affected by MS.  No matter how hard I find it, it's when I'm out running that I feel the most free.  As I've said before, it's the day when I can no longer do things like this that I will really feel like my life has really taken a turn for the worse. 

Until that day, fuck you multiple sclerosis, I can and will do this and I won't let you stop me.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

another year over......

2010 was something of a strange year for me musically: I spent so much time away from home that I didn't really have all that much opportunity to keep up to date with many new releases, and I didn't go to as many gigs as I normally would.  All of this made putting together a top ten for the year somewhat problematic.  Still, I had a go for the annual list that was pulled together over at the Auditorium in the run up to New Year by our very own LB.

My ten chosen records are mostly pretty predictable, with a few late running wildcards from purchases I made right at the back end of the year.  I think they're all pretty good albums, but since I wrote the list I was inspired to try a bit harder to catch up with some new music and downloaded the albums by Arcade Fire, Band of Horses, Sleigh Bells and Steve Mason.  I also spent a bit more time listening to new albums that I bought some time ago, including the two mini-albums released by James and Vampire Weekend's latest.  All very good, and given more time and a fairer listen, I think several of them probably deserved to make the list (the Steve Mason album in particular is fantastic).

Still, for reference, here's my top ten albums of 2010:

10.  “Contra” – Vampire Weekend

2008s “Vampire Weekend” was a joyous affair, introducing us to the band’s glorious “Upper West Side Soweto” style of music, with delirious singles like “Oxford Comma” and “A-Punk”. “Contra” is perhaps a little denser and is maybe a little less immediate. Essentially though, Vampire Weekend are offering us a new album of much the same kind of stuff as last time. There’s some experimentation here, but not too much. And you know what? That’s okay with me. It might get boring if they haven’t moved a little further by the time they record their next album, but you know what? For now this will do just fine. It sounded pretty good as we drove across the Southern Alps in New Zealand, I can tell you that.

Listen to: I Think Ur A Contra

9. “Tron:Legacy OST” – Daft Punk

Perhaps it’s premature to include this album on this list, but I can’t resist it. I’m not even sure that I’m going to go and watch the film - as I remember it, the original was a confusing mess – but the soundtrack to the sequel is amazing.

I wonder who came up with the idea that Daft Punk should do the soundtrack first: was it the producers or the band themselves? The Frenchmen are such an obvious choice; it’s as though they only existed as a result of the first film and were born to soundtrack the second. Their whole robot “look” is perfect for outlining in blue neon, and the music they’ve always made is ideal for a film set inside a computer world (albeit I imagine there isn’t a guy in a dog costume with a ghetto blaster featuring in the film anywhere, more’s the pity).

I’m not really sure how to describe this album: it sounds exactly like a film soundtrack, but it also sounds exactly like a Daft Punk album. Does that work for you? Mind you, I should add too that, in places, it also sounds quite a lot like the Blade Runner soundtrack…. Perhaps inevitable with any synth-drenched film score.

Still. It’s an odd choice perhaps, and not a record that will be filling many dancefloors in the years to come, and I’m very much including it here on a whim, but it’s still a very satisfying string and synth-drenched listen. 22 tracks, few much over two minutes long and very clearly a film score. I’m not sure it should work or, even if it did, that I should like it. But I really do.

Listen to: Derezzed.

8. “American VI: Ain’t No Grave” – Johnny Cash

What an amazing journey. Obviously for Cash, whose amazing journey would make an X-Factor judge’s eyes water; but also for the listener. We’ve been with Johnny Cash what seems like every step of his amazing journey from the cotton fields of the Deep South to a disembodied voice from beyond the grave. Cash died in 2003, and released some seven years after his death, this album was always going to be a step too far for many people. Bit for me, the legacy is undamaged by the release of these tracks. When Cash recorded these lyrics, he was pretty close to death, and the listener might fancy that they can hear it in his voice; that reedy whisper is a ghost of the mighty bass it once was and every single note sounds like a struggle from a man literally at death’s door.

For some artists, that might prove to be more than the music can stand, but Cash somehow manages to rise above, and it almost seems that the weaker his voice becomes, the more authoritative his statements on life and upon death.

Make no mistake, this is probably the least impressive of all of the American Recordings that Cash made with Rick Rubin, but this still represents the culmination of a formidable body of work by an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime artist. A true one-off.

Listen to: Cool Water

7. “I Speak Because I Can” – Laura Marling

Laura Marling recorded her debut, “Alas, I Cannot Swim”, when she was 18 years old. Although it was a wonderfully fully formed and accomplished record for someone of her tender years, it drew a large part of its charm from its lack of guile. Take “Night Terror”: are we really supposed to believe that this tiny, slip of a girl would fight anyone, nevermind a nightmare? Bless.

Marling had reached the ripe-old age of 20 years old by the time “I Speak Because I Can”, and had already been the unwitting muse of a breakup record (the fantastic “The First Days of Spring” by Noah and the Whale) and perhaps also the inspiration behind one of the great success stories of the last 18 months (“Sigh No More” by Mumford and Sons). Was Marling going to be better known for the music she inspired from other people than for the music she produced herself?

In a word, no.

There’s no getting away from it: this is a folk album. Folk is fashionable at the moment, but for Marling it is no passing trend, but a way of addressing issues of love, sex, death, depression and heartbreak. With her lovelorn, heartbreakingly clear voice, she’s starting to be compared to artists of the calibre of Joni Mitchell and Nick Drake…. Prematurely, I would say (although remember that Drake only recorded three albums before he died), but another couple of albums like her last two and they won’t be far off the mark. She hasn’t produced a perfect album yet, and this certainly isn’t it, but she’s still so young and clearly still has so much more to offer. A wonderful album by a wonderful talent.

Listen to: Goodbye England (Covered in Snow)

6. “Plastic Beach” – Gorillaz

Their headline performance at Glastonbury this year may not have been everyone’s cup of tea, but I loved it. True, it probably helped that I knew who Mark E. Smith was and recognised Lou Reed as soon as he took to the stage for his four-minute cameo… but I thought that, for a cartoon band, Gorillaz made a surprising amount of sense as a live band. Once the ever-so-slightly tiresome pretext is dropped, Damon Albarn is freed up to really flex his musical muscles, helped by his famous collaborators, but rarely overshadowed.

Plastic Beach is a fantastic album by a band who have rarely sounded more coherent, even as the cameos become ever more diverse and more stellar. Snoop Dogg, Bobby Womack, Mos Def and… er… Mark E. Smith are all simply the icing on the cake of an engine that delivers a surprisingly coherent set of songs. Perhaps the album doesn’t have a standout single along the lines of “Clint Eastwood” or “Feelgood Inc”, but it’s their best album yet.

Listen to: Stylo feat. Bobby Womack and Mos Def.

5. “Hurley” – Weezer

There’s a Facebook campaign trying to raise $10m to persuade Weezer to retire from music because “Every year, Rivers Cuomo swears that he's changed, and that their new album is the best thing that he's done since 'Pinkerton', and what happens? Another pile of crap like 'Beverly Hills' or 'I'm Your Daddy'. This is an abusive relationship, and it needs to stop now.”

Well, it’s certainly true that 1996s “Pinkerton” remains Weezer’s critical highpoint, but it’s a little harsh to suggest that they’ve done nothing worth listening to since then. Not even “Islands in the Sun”? Anyway, whisper it quietly, but “Hurley” may just be the best thing they’ve done since Pinkerton. The cover glories in a picture of Jorge Garcia, Hurley from Lost, and the album pretty quickly settles down into what Weezer do best: quick, punchy power-pop that can all be timed at something less than 3 minutes. So, maybe the lyrics aren’t as good as we know the band are capable of, but this is a fantastic, fun sounding record. Hell, we even get a passable cover of Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” as a bonus track at the end of the album. What’s not to like?

The Facebook campaign, incidentally, has raised about $100. Weezer, true to form, have offered – if a target of $20m is reached – to do the “deluxe” breakup. I don’t think we have to worry too much.

Listen to: Memories.

4. “Interpol” – Interpol

Not many bands do atmosphere like Interpol. Tense and edgy on their majestic debut, “Turn on the Bright Lights”, Interpol have matured with each successive album, polishing their icy, detached style with an air of definite menace to greater and greater commercial success. Bono’s back injury may have put any plans the band may have had for world domination on hold (Interpol were the support on U2’s cancelled tour), but I’m not sure that stadiums are Interpol’s natural habitat. They’re creatures of the night for sure, and they need to be heard in dingy, darkened clubs (and they were good again at Rock City last month too).

Interpol will always likely be judged by the impossibly high standards they set themselves with their debut record, and in that respect, their fourth record falls short again. There’s no shame in that, though, and this is still a fine record with much to recommend it: “Memory Serves”, “Summer Well” and “Barricade” are easily as good as almost anything the band have done, and the album as a whole has a sustained atmosphere of bleakness and depression. Right up my street. Not as good a record as Interpol have done, but still a very fine record indeed.

Listen to: Summer Well.

3. ‘Postcards from a Young Man” – Manic Street Preachers

You could probably argue that Manic Street Preachers have been two completely separate bands in their career: in the early days, they were an urgent, wordy, punk band driven on by the slogans, lyrics and restless intelligence of Richey James Edwards. After Richey’s disappearance, they became a different band: a much more anthemic band writing wistful rock songs that gained them huge commercial success. Of the two bands, I have always preferred the edgier earlier work. “Everything Must Go” is a fine album, but for me “The Holy Bible” has always been their masterpiece.

Predictably, when the band returned to Richey’s lyrics for 2009’s “Journal for Plague Lovers”, I was hooked, loving the densely packed, elliptic lyrics of songs like “Marlon JD”, where every line seemed almost like a cryptic crossword puzzle packed with references and significance. “Postcards from a Young Man”, by contrast, is an album by the other Manic Street Preachers, a return to the more considered, audience friendly music of all their finest work as a threepiece.

I still prefer the other Manics, but there’s much to recommend this album: the band have now got nothing to prove to anyone. They’re comfortable in their own skins, and they sound it. This is a grandiose, sweeping album, drenched in strings and big gestures. Nicky Wire said he was aiming for a sound like “Heavy Metal Tamla Mowtown”. Well, I don’t know what that would actually sound like, but if it does sound like this album, then it sounds pretty good to me. I do wish Wire would stop taking lead vocals on songs though. We all love him to bits, of course, but he’s not half the singer that James Dean Bradfield is.

Listen to: (It’s Not War) Just The End Of Love

2. “The Defamation of Strickland Banks” – Plan B

I didn’t even think this album was worth listening to. Why would I bother with an album by a British rapper, no matter how well received it seemed to be? Plan B just didn’t sound like something I would be interested in, so I gave it a miss. In fact, I only listened to the album at all because of a song recommendation by the guy who sits at the desk next to me. Gary doesn’t really strike me as much of a music fan: he’s from Blackburn and he’s mates with a guy in Ian Brown’s band, but aside from a love of all things Manchester typical in a man of his age, he’s not exactly cutting-edge. I don’t know why, but he recommended that I listen to “Love Goes Down”. Conscious that I’ve been out of the country for large portions of 2010 and have missed loads and loads of good music, I reckoned I didn’t have much to lose by giving it a go.

Oh my goodness. This was NOTHING like I expected. I’d heard rumours that this was more of a soul than a rap album, but I didn’t believe it until I listened to the whole album. It turns out I had heard bits and pieces of it before, but would never in a million years have connected it with Plan B.

Odd though it sounds, the last time this happened to me was when the Streets released his debut album, and in spite of thinking it would be the last record in the world that I would be listening to, never mind buying, I found myself sucked in by the energy displayed in a single track that I heard playing in Selectadisc to the extent that I had to ask what it was and had my preconceptions of both the music and of what I would and would not like shatterered.

This album is staggeringly good. I’m sure it works beautifully as a concept album, with a story that flows from one end to the other, but to be honest I’m just revelling in each song as it comes. This isn’t rap, this is Northern Soul, for goodness sake. The surprise of the year for me. I love it.

Listen to: Stay Too Long

1. “High Violet” – The National

2007s “Boxer” is one of my favourite albums of the last ten years, without a shadow of a doubt. I was slow to latch onto The National, but once I found them, there was something about them that chimed with me almost immediately: I’ve always been a sucker for gloomy guitar bands, and Matt Berninger’s deep bass baritone seems to suit the mood almost perfectly. Where fellow New Yorkers Interpol have a singer who sounds like an undertaker reading from a legal textbook, Berninger has the bruised, weary voice of the hopelessly and perpetually disappointed romantic. I love it.

There’s no great progression in sound here, no great leap forward from “Alligator” or “Boxer”, the two amazing albums that precede this one. Perhaps the greatest achievement of the band is that this doesn’t seem to matter. They’re doing the same sorts of things that they were doing before, only better and with far, far greater intensity. These are personal songs, almost claustrophobically so, and the band aren’t compromising for anyone. This isn’t an attempt to be a BIGGER band, it’s an attempt to be a BETTER band, and I think they do such a great job that they may very well end up with both.

2010 was also the year where I finally got to see the band perform live. They’re a band to be listened to in a darkened room if ever there was one. Somehow though, even in the middle of the afternoon at the hottest Glastonbury anyone can remember, the band still pulled it off. Brilliant record. Brilliant band. One of the best.

Listen to: Anyone’s Ghost


Biggest surprise from that lot was definitely Plan B..... it just gets better with every listen.

And for fans of lists (i.e. me), here's what my Last FM thinks are my top played artists/songs/albums of the last 12 months.

1. Johnny Cash
2. The National
3. Vampire Weekend
4. James
5. Interpol
6. Elbow
7. Daft Punk
8. Eels
9. Fleet Foxes
10. Flight of the Conchords

1. "Ring of Fire" - Johnny Cash
2. "I've Been Everywhere" - Johnny Cash
3. "Les Champs-Élysées" - Joe Dassin
4. "Afternoon Delight" - Starland Vocal Band
4. "Ready for the Floor" - Hot Chip
6. "Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)" - Peter Sarstedt
6. "Oxford Comma" - Vampire Weekend
6. "The Fear" - Lily Allen
6. "New York State of Mind" - Jay-Z
10. "Handlebars" - Flobots

1. Johnny Cash - "The Man In Black"
2. The National - "High Violet"
3. Vampire Weekend - "Vampire Weekend"
4. Daft Punk - "Tron:Legacy OST"
5. Elbow - "The Seldom Seen Kid"
6. Band Of Skulls - "Baby Darling Doll Face Honey"
7. Vampire Weekend - "Contra"
8. Gorillaz - "Plastic Beach"
9. Fleet Foxes - "Fleet Foxes"
10. James - "The Best of James"

....Flight of the Conchords still hanging around just outside the top 10 of songs/albums too.  I'm so not bored of them quite yet.

[cautionary note: although interesting, this isn't an exhaustive catalogue of what I've listened too as Last FM doesn't catch everything]

Hmmm.  Interesting.

Anyway.  Now go and find out what LB and Bedshaped put in their top 10 lists for the year over at the Auditorium....

[/pointless lists] 

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

the blood that moves my body now covers the ground....

As is traditional, I spent a reasonable portion of the holiday season watching movies.  With the exceptions of "The Man Who Would be King" on Christmas Day (awesome) and "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" (which was exactly as disappointing as I remembered it being), I didn't actually watch any of these from the bumper festive TV schedules, but instead made use of the opportunity to watch some of the DVDs that I never seem to get quite get round to watching. Some of them I've seen many times before; others I was watching for the first time.  I like watching movies.

Amongst other films, I watched "In Bruges" (excellent, of course), "Trading Places" (the best Christmas film ever), "Wayne's World" (which was a landmark film in my life, but left C. entirely baffled as she watched it for the first time), "I Love You Philip Morris" (passably entertaining), "Scott Pilgrim vs the World" (alright, and certainly not terrible, but also really not all that), "Inception" (better when you don't fall asleep, but still pretty good when you do)..... and finally, last night, we got around to 2008's "Let the Right One In".

This is a Swedish film about an alienated young boy who befriends the strange and mysterious girl who moves in next door.  Through this girl, he discovers love and finds the courage to take revenge on the bullies who are making his life hell.

Oh, and the girl turns out to be a vampire.

The film was remade by Hollywood last year as "Let Me In", starring the boy out of "The Road" (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and the girl out of "Kick Ass" (Chloe Moretz).  I've not seen it, but I'm reliably informed that it's really very good indeed.  Well, if it's half as good as the original, then it's quite some film.

This film is brilliant.  I can't quite remember the last time that I watched a film quite this good.  A colleague at work was asking me today why I thought it was so good:

"Is it a horror film?"
"Not really"
"A thriller?"
"Well, what is it then?"
"Well, it's kind of a romance...."

It's achingly beautiful and unmistakably Scandinavian, with lots of Bergman-esque silences that allow the atmosphere to build in the oppressive concrete jungle of a snowy Stockholm housing project.  The performances by the two leads, Kåre Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson are exceptional.  Leandersson in particular is incredible: just 11 years-old when she was cast, her performance as Eli is a study in restraint and stillness as she conjures up the sadness and loneliness at the heart of the vampire child.  It's quite a hard film to categorise: there are some elements of bloody violence, and much of the plot centres around murder and Eli's need for blood, yet the centrepoint is the touching friendship between the two young outsiders as it grows and blossoms into something that might be love.  24 hours after watching it, I can't stop thinking about it.

I learned, when reading up on the film later, that it is based on a novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist, who also wrote the screenplay.  I wanted to read it, of course.....In the old days, I would have had to wait before I had an opportunity to get to a bookshop or for it to be delivered.  Nowadays, I was able to immediately download it onto my kindle and spend the next couple of hours reading it before finally heading up to bed.  It's gripping, with many of the themes touched on by the film explored in much greater detail, and so sad that it makes my heart want to burst as I read it.

Both film and book are highly, highly recommended, and I await the February DVD release of the Hollywood remake with interest.

Twilight, True Blood and all those other Vampires novels have left me entirely cold, but Eli has stolen my heart.

Saturday, 1 January 2011

friends are people who are not strangers....

2010 was an amazing year.

This time twelve months ago, I was slightly nervously anticipating taking 9 months off work and seeing a bit of the world.  We bought a digital photo frame a few weeks ago with the express purpose of filling it up with photos from our travels, and I finally got around to loading it up last night.

Looking through my photos from the last 12 months, it's clear that we've been to some amazing places: Hong Kong, Sydney, Tasmania, the Great Ocean Road, the Grampians, Adelaide, Cairns, the Great Barrier Reef, Brisbane, Christchurch, Dunedin, Mt Cook, Doubtful Sound, the Franz Josef glacier, Kaikoura, Abel Tasman National Park, Wellington, Rotorua, the Poor Knights Islands, Cape Reigna, Auckland, San Francisco, Cape Town, Etosha Game Reserve, the Okavango Delta, Victoria Falls, Glastonbury, Vancouver, the Inside Passage, the Rockies, Bangkok, Phnom Penh, Saigon, Hanoi, Halong Bay, Vienna, Berne......

We've been to some amazing places and seen and done some amazing things: I've learned to dive and then dived in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Vietnam; I've swum with sharks and with dolphins; I've seen penguins, albatross, sealions and seal; I've been stranded in San Francisco by a volcano; I've stroked a lion; I've jumped out of a plane; I've seen a bear in the wild; I've eaten a stir-fried tarantula........

But do you know what's really going to stay with me about 2010?

It's going to be the people we've met: reading the Gruffalo to Zach in Hong Kong; seeing my first shark whilst diving with Cheryl; being welcomed out of the pouring rain in Gympie by Deb and Jaimie and offered a proper bed as well as food, wine and a BBQ breakfast; thinking up nicknames and fiendishly difficult charades with Jane in the Okavango Delta; laughing with grumpy Monica over the washing up in the Namibian desert; learning over the course of four wonderful weeks in Africa that WE ARE THE PARTY; cooking chili with Cheryl in a hostel in Nanaimo on Vancouver Island before diving again; playing cuarenta on the night train to Saigon with Pete, Marissa, Orla and an amusingly drunk Steve; holding up name cards for the departed Eva and Sonia as we swam in Halong Bay; walking through the Vienna woods with Peter, Susie, Lili and Pauli; struggling up a Swiss Alp trailing in the wake of a mountain goat like Sina.....

It's been brilliant.... Not least because I don't think that C. and I have ever spent so much time together, for a long time stuck within a space no bigger than a rather compact campervan in the pouring rain of South Island New Zealand.  In spite of that, we managed to get to the end of the year with our marriage still intact (and actually, with precious few disagreements at all... barring the odd sulk.  But I'm allowed one of them once in a while, no?  I'm only human).


It wasn't even that hard going back to work in September.  Sure, it's not quite the same as jetting around the world and doing what you want, but it hasn't been all that bad.  It turns out that I actually quite like some of the people I work with too.  And they pay me.

As a result of our travels, as well as memories and a stack of photos, I've now got a whole pile of new friends around the world to correspond with.  In fact, we've already met up again with several of the people we met whilst travelling, and I hope that we will be seeing lots more of all of them.  I finally gave in and joined Facebook in May for the express purpose of more easily keeping in touch with the friends we made in Africa.  After years of stubborn refusal, it suddenly seemed like the most logical thing in the world. 

It's been quite nice to be home though.  As well as getting to rescue our cat from her sabbatical at her country estate and to bring her home, we've also been able to spend a bit of time with our friends.  We spent most of June in the UK, with the centrepiece being a gloriously sunny Glastonbury, but it's been great to spend a bit of time in our own house and with the friends that we've known for a long time, culminating in a fantastic New Year's Party last night with cocktails and cake.

2010 was a pretty good year for us.  If 2011 is anywhere near as good, then it's going to be fun.

Happy New Year.