Thursday, 31 March 2011

my aura smiles and never frowns....

Although he's been in office since January, until this week, it had entirely escaped my attention that Jerry Brown had been re-elected as the Governor of California. It's his third term in a job he last vacated in 1983.

Naturally, this news immediately summoned an earworm that dates all the way back to 1979, and Brown's second term in office....

Could we see Jello Biafra's nightmare vision of a hippie-fascist regime finally become reality in the Golden State after all this time?

Mind you, it's been 25 years since Morrissey wrote "The Queen is Dead", and we're still waiting on that one too.

little whispers circle around your head...

As the financial year ends, I'm finding that the usually serene progress of my working day (**ahem**) is being somewhat interrupted by the sour inevitability of year-end performance reviews. A particular favourite of mine is the 'consistency forum', where the senior people in my department try to objectively compare the populations of each grade to decide who has exceeded expectations, who has met expectations and who has fallen short, based upon a combination of what people have achieved over the year and their "behaviours".

Yeah, I know.... behaviours.... Unfortunately, the outcome of this forum is important because it determines the size of any pay rise or slice of bonus that we get, not to mention any chances of advancement.  Objectivity is, of course, impossible. I'm not even sure they really even aim for it, to be honest, as each manager tries to get their own people into the top right hand "exceed" box at the expense of everyone else.

When it comes to the "behaviours" score, in particular, perception is king. Your customers might all think that you are the best thing since sliced bread, but that's not as important as the impression you've made on the colleagues who are judging you. You are supposedly only being ranked on your performance in the last twelve months, but in practice, this is cobblers: there's no time limit on the judgement these people have made on you and there's certainly no objective measure of any change. 

Take me as an example: coming out of my consistency forum this week, I was told that although my behaviours had improved markedly over the last six months, I was still scoring slightly lower there because of the months before that.

Um. But I've only been back at work for six months after taking most of last year off. So, what am I being judged on, exactly?

I actually did quite well in my forum, and yet they've still managed to find a way to piss me off.  I well understand that, over the years, I've probably more than earned the perception that people have of me, and I'm sure my boss went in to bat for me.  What annoys me is not so much that people haven't bothered to look closely enough to revise their opinions - that's a fact of life - but rather that I am being judged by those opinions.  I suppose that's a fact of life too, eh?


One other piece of feedback I got out of my consistency forum was that I am apparently "intellectually intimidating". I'm not sure what I'm supposed to do with that, to be honest. Is that something I should be actioning?

Is it even a criticism?

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

just breathe in the air and blink in the light...

Noah and the Whale
Bowery Ballroom, New York - 21st March 2011.

I was supposed to be going to see Elbow at the Nottingham Arena on St. Patrick's Day, with tickets purchased months and months ago.... and then a trip to New York intervened. To say I was devastated would clearly be an exaggeration: I've seen Elbow many times before and I'm not really a fan of arena gigs in the main, preferring where I can to see bands in a more intimate location. I wasn't going to cancel the trip, or miss the prospect of a night out in the Big Apple on St Paddy's Day, but I was a little disappointed to miss out on seeing one of my favourite bands play. I'll see them at Glastonbury in the summer, for sure, but still....

It was some consolation, when Marissa, one of my New York friends, told me that she was due to watch Noah and the Whale at the Bowery Ballroom whilst we were over visiting. She hadn't heard of them, but was accompanying a friend and wondered if we wanted to tag along. Well, yes.... obviously I would. I probably would have gone along to see almost anyone, as I love the idea of attending a gig in New York, but as it happens I was delighted at the chance to see Noah and the Whale. I bought "Last Night on Earth" at the same time as I picked up "Build a Rocket Boys!", and I much prefer it. Experience has taught me that Elbow albums are slow burners and tend to get better and better with every listen, but at the same time, Noah and the Whale really seemed to have pulled a classic out of the bag.

The band's last album, "The First Days of Spring" was something of a downer of a record. It's really good, for sure, but as it details the aftermath of Charlie Fink's breakup with Laura Marling, it's a little bleak, to say the least. Stark and sombre: I think it's fair to say that the poor lad was heartbroken. When I saw the lead single off the new album was called "L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N.", I did for a moment fear that he wasn't over it and that we were going to get more of the same, and wondered how much more I could take. Well, I was wrong: this is a completely different record altogether - a whole lot more cheerful than "The First Day of Spring", without ever slipping into the rather more twee whimsy of their debut, "Peaceful, The World Lays Me Down".

When I asked Marissa where the Bowery Ballroom was, she responded "In Bowery", which I didn't find all that helpful, to be honest.... but it turns out to be a small neighbourhood in the southern end of Manhattan Island with East 4th Street and the East Village to the north, Canal Street and Chinatown to the South, Allen Street and the Lower East Side to the east and Bowery Street and Little Italy to the west. Or more helpfully, a relatively short subway ride from where we were staying. It's actually quite a compact venue, with a capacity of a shade under 500 people, although it looks bigger. Physically, in terms of Nottingham venues, it's something like a cross between Rock City and the Rescue Rooms: about the same size as the latter, but with the floor and balcony of the former. It has a better bar too, both downstairs beneath the venue and in the main hall itself. In Rock City you have to put up with Tuborg, at the Bowery you have your choice of several drafts, including Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Magic Hat #9. Mmmm.

There's no getting away from it: the members of Noah and the Whale look entirely like they are the products of the English Public School System. There's nothing wrong with that, per se, but there's just something about that particular brand of floppy hair that screams of a private education... and that's before Charlie Fink starts speaking ("Are these guys some of yours?" Jane asks me at one point as Charlie mumbles, brittanically, into the mic....). They shuffle onstage a little sheepishly, but as soon as they start to play, things start to come to life. Fink himself is a fairly static presence on the stage, but it doesn't matter because the bassist, Urby Whale, is a blur of activity, flicking his long blonde hair and, in his movement, more than making up for the stillness of the rest of the band. They sound good too: songs like "Tonight is the Night", "Give It All Back", "Just Me Before We Met", "Waiting For My Chance to Come" and "Life is Life" -- all of the new album -- all sound fantastic.

21st March is the first day of spring in England though, so it is only natural that the band also play large chunks of their second album. It sounds good, but Fink is a smart enough performer to read the mood of the crowd and to insert an unscheduled, more up-tempo song into the setlist as he senses that "you guys really want to dance". It works. The set is reasonably short, with the band finishing with "L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N." and "5 Years Time", and then they are gone. In spite of being mildly irritated by the Irish guys standing behind me who seemed to have no interest at all in the band and every interest in their own witless conversation, it's a fantastic night with a band who really seem to have found their sound. Marissa left wanting to get copies of all of their albums, and considering she didn't even know who they were before the gig, that's got to be a good sign, right?

A week after the gig, and I'm still listening to "Last Night on Earth" about twice as much as the Elbow album.... it's really good.

A fantastic night.

Verdict: 8 / 10

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

shining light....

The clocks moved forwards this weekend and British Summer Time began. It never fails to amaze me how many people think it's suddenly worth remarking now how much lighter the evenings have become, as though shifting the clocks forward by an hour has absolutely nothing to do with that. Still, there's no denying that the longer evenings are welcome.

As I was driving home at about 7pm last night, the streets seemed to be filled with runners, many of them women.  There are always a few runners around each evening, for sure, but the lighter evening seemed to have dragged an unusual number out of their winter hibernation.  I actually quite like running in the cold and dark of winter, but then I've also started running wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the logo "Punish Me", so perhaps that's just me and everyone else prefers the warmer weather.  Weirdos.

Longer, lighter, warmer evenings are clearly much more conducive to getting your trainers on after work and heading out for a run.... if only because the lighter skies mean that it's probably safer too, which would explain why there seems to be more ladies out for a jog. Another possible explanation is that we're entering Race for Life season, the series of 5km runs just for women organised by Cancer Research UK to raise money for their work. There are a couple in Nottingham this year, but the first one is in May, and it seems eminently possible that some of the new joggers out on the roads are starting their training for that. Hey, whatever works... not only do these races raise enormous amounts of money for a great cause and help to remember the victims and survivors of cancer, but if it gets people out and running, then that's good too, right?

I managed to find time to go out at lunchtime today. I've felt pretty fatigued after a long weekend and my legs haven't entirely felt as though they belong to me so far this week, but it was a beautiful warm, sunny day and I was happy to get away from my desk for an hour. I actually ran pretty quickly too, coming in at an average pace of 8.01 minutes per mile over the whole 4 miles, dipping under the 8 minute mile barrier on miles 1 and 4 (I always seem to dip in mile 2... no idea why).

It hurt like hell, and it was actually quite hot, but it's nice to know that you're alive once in a while (and...luckily for me... I don't suffer from Uhthoff's phenomenon: the worsening of neurologic symptoms in multiple sclerosis when the body gets overheated from hot weather, exercise, fever, or saunas and hot tubs. Could you imagine a life without saunas?)

Monday, 28 March 2011

concrete jungle where dreams are made....

The view to Central Park from the Top of the Rock

You're probably sick to death of hearing me talking about New York now, but I promise that I'm almost done now.

 Atlas bows before St. Patrick's on 5th Avenue

Compared to previous visits, I suppose that we didn't really do all that much stuff in the five or six days we were in the city. One of the great joys of the time we took off from work last year were the friends that we made as we travelled around the world. We're still in touch with people that we met in places as far apart as Cairns, Cape Town and Bangkok and they now give us plenty of excuses for further travel as they live in places like Costa Rica, Bern, Vienna and...erm... Stockport. Of course, it's the New Yorkers that we met whilst travelling that made this trip to NYC so special. We met Jane in Africa and Marissa in SE Asia; one is a 20-something law student and the other a 30-something teacher. I don't suppose they have all that much in common apart from the fact that they live a few blocks apart around 8th and 9th Avenues in New York, but each was the heartbeat of our trips to those countries and both were kind enough to be willing to share their city with us when we came over.

Jane and Bella stay warm in the Park

We landed on the afternoon of St. Patrick's day and the plan was, of course, to head over to a bar. Much to Jane's amusement, the bar picked by Marissa was one just by her law school campus, and one she was liable to be drinking in on any given Thursday night anyway. In spite of all of the "Kiss Me, I'm Irish" t-shirts, with an Irish grandmother, I was probably the most Irish person there (somewhat less Irish when watching the rugby on Saturday, I might add).  Still, if nothing else, we discovered that, in spite of liking none of the constituent ingredients, C. is a big fan of Irish Car Bombs. Jane is doing a summer placement in Belfast this year, and I did feel honour bound to tell her that she should probably take care before ordering that cocktail in some of the bars she might find herself in..... We crawled to bed at something like 04:30 in the morning and thanked our lucky stars that we didn't have to be up and teaching by 8am.... hats off to Marissa for having the stamina to do that, and for having the foresight to have planned that all her classes would be doing worksheets all day.

Peace, y'all

So we spent our time in New York hanging out with our friends and going to the kinds of bars where they knew the bar staff and to the restaurants that they wanted to try. It was nice. Jane was looking after her parents' dog, so we spent Sunday morning grabbing bagels from Barney Greengrass's famous Upper West Side Deli for brunch and then walking Bella in Central Park.... it was a beautiful crisp, sunny day, and just the sort of thing that New Yorkers actually do. We almost went to see a show, but unfortunately Matt Stone and Trey Parker's "Book of Mormon" was still in previews (just the idea of them doing a musical about that makes me laugh), so we went to the cinema instead to watch "Limitless" (is it meant to be a comedy, by the way? I couldn't quite see it in any other light....).

Empire State of Mind

We also went to the Bowery Ballroom to watch Noah and the Whale play on Monday night. They're a British band, and I'm pretty sure I could easily watch them play over here, but it somehow felt special to catch a show in New York. Review to follow at some point, I suppose.  It's a great venue, anyway: sort of like a cross between Rock City and the Rescue Rooms.  Better beer, mind - I was on Sierra Nevada draft.  Something of a cut above the piss they serve in venues here.

Contemplating Ad Reinhardt's use of shades of black at MOMA / Looking for the remote

We did do some touristy stuff - ironically because Marissa was keen: we popped into MOMA to have a look at the Andy Warhol film exhibition (and to remind myself how much I dislike Picasso.  Cardboard guitar? Pfff); we went on an art tour around Rockefeller Plaza and then checked out the view from the Top of the Rock; we went for a 5 mile run in Central Park and watched the runners going through in the Half Marathon. The route starts in Time Square and loops back around Central Park... maybe next year? We even almost went to Ellis Island, but decided instead to do a bit of shopping in the Village.

30 Rock

As an unexpected bonus, on our last morning we stumbled across Alec Baldwin, Tina Fey, Tracy Morgan and the rest of the cast filming 30 Rock in Central Park.  The production crew had gone to the trouble of piling snow around the park, so it was perhaps a little ironic that it snowed for real the very next day....  I also got to hang out with Chris Lowell, a friend of Jane's, although to be honest his celebrity is completely wasted on me as I've never watched Private Practice.  Marissa does though, and was a little taken aback when the guy we were waiting for turned out to be a guy in a show she watches.  He was nice, for what it's worth.

Dempsey & Makepeace: Reloaded

It was all very relaxed.

Jazz hands panic before the lego wookiee at FAO Schwartz

I've never fancied living in London, but New York I reckon I could do. It's a cool city and I have some very cool friends who live there.

Friday, 25 March 2011

the sadness will never go....

We were in Madrid in September 2001 when we heard that the World Trade Center had been hit.  We were in a bar near the Bernabeu stadium as we killed time before catching the night train to Barcelona.  The plan had been to watch a bit of the build-up to the Real Madrid game against Roma in the European cup, but obviously there was only one thing on the television that afternoon.  Amazingly, Real Madrid played that night, and we watched a bit of the game in the waiting room at the train station, but it was both horrific and surreal watching as the jumpers started to throw themselves out of the windows of the towers as the fires burned.

I first visited New York in the Spring of 2004.  I was working, so didn't have much time to explore the city, but the absence of those towers was still very keenly felt in the city.  When I visited again in 2008, I had a bit more time, but C. and I consciously decided that we weren't going to make the trip down to Ground Zero.  I was curious, of course, but it felt somehow prurient to make a special trip there.

This time, nine-and-a-half years after the attack, we went. 

Our friend Marissa works in a school nearby, and last Friday we went down there to pick her up and she wanted to go to Ground Zero, so we went. 

It's a construction site now, with things slowly returning to normal and the new tower already rising 30 or so storeys into the sky.  There were lots of people there, of course: many simply passing through on their way back up towards Midtown from the financial district.  There were also lots of tourists.  Is it just me, or is it still a bit weird to see people posing for photos against the new building with their thumbs up?  Too soon?  Will it ever be appropriate at a place where 2,606 people lost their lives in such an appalling way?

As well as being a building site, this is also a shrine.  The new building will incorporate two memorial pools, but there is still plenty of other stuff around the place.  The church of St Peters faces the new building and was a refuge in the immediate aftermath of the attacks for survivors, rescue workers and volunteers.  You can still see the scars on the church pews where exhausted rescuers lay down for some rest with their equipment belts still on, and there's an altar there with messages from the families of the victims, some whose remains have never been found.  It's intensely moving..... and yet there's also something uncomfortable in the atmosphere.  It's full of tourists taking pictures, which doesn't help, but there's something else too.  For want of a better word, I'm going to call it grief porn.  It's not that they're wallowing in the tragedy and the deaths, particularly; there's just a distinct lack of humility about the place.... odd in a church, I thought.

For me, the reality of the tragedy and the sacrifices that lots of rescue workers and ordinary people made, is enough.  How can you fail to be moved when you read about workers coming into the church for a meal and a rest with smouldering boots and then heading back out to the pit for another shift?  The volunteers who thronged to the church to provide these workers with food, care and comfort were clearly doing a good thing.... but boy, don't they want to tell you about what an amazing thing they did.  Do I need to read a volunteer reporting, second-hand, how rescue workers used to say to them all the time that they would come to the church, covered in blood, and receive a hug? The solidarity showed by emergency forces across the world for their colleagues in New York when they sent in their badges was a nice gesture.  Do I need to see the cassock that someone made out of them and wore to carry out services for the volunteers?  Casualties included the citizens of more than 50 countries, so do I really need to see the names of the survivors on a poster made up to look like the American flag?  No.  Nearly 90% of the deaths were American nationals, and the attack took place on US soil, but it wasn't called the World Trade Center for nothing.

New York is a fantastic city, and ten years after the 9/11 attacks, the wounds are still fresh and the cabs still have stickers calling for "No Mosque at Ground Zero". 

For all my mixed emotions about what we saw, I'm glad we went.  It was very moving....but I don't think I'll be going back until the new building is finished and the scars are a little more healed.  The physical ones in the ground, anyway. 

Thursday, 24 March 2011

big time....

So, on Tuesday we were in New York, stalking watching Alec Baldwin, Tina Fey and Tracy Morgan as they filmed 30 Rock in Central Park.

Alec Baldwin, shortly before he announced to the whole crew that "She licked his hand!"

Today... well today was my first day back at work.  I was hoping to just keep my head down and get through unnoticed, but my boss wandered over to my desk at about 08:30.

"Do you want to meet David Cameron and Nick Clegg?"
"Um.  In what context?"
"They're visiting today and I wanted to know if you wanted to meet them."

I have no idea why he chose me.  I thought I was perceived as being a bit difficult, but it turns out that they think I'm presentable enough to be wheeled out in front of the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minster.

They even put me right in camera shot, just in front of the Royal crest.  I've been on the news and everything, apparently (I am on the BBC website!  Look!  I is proper FAMOUS! UPDATE - they've changed the camera angle on the bbc now, but I was in the Evening Post.... just about.  Still famous!).

It was an open question and answer session, and I suppose I could have asked anything.  The questions were disappointingly (but predictably) tepid: the NHS, the budget, Libya, the high speed rail link from London to Nottingham and the improvement of the A453.... stuff like that.  I was itching to ask something a bit more interesting: how they feel about the fact that the company they were sitting in was registered in Switzerland and paid very little UK tax; how Clegg felt as a smoker about the rise in tobacco duties in yesterday's budget; to test Cameron's supposed knowledge of The Smiths; to ask why we were so interested in human rights in Libya when we're so disinterested in similar abuses in places like Zimbabwe (that's an easy one...).... anything but the bland half-volleys that were being dutifully served up by an obedient audience, unwilling or unable to upset an audience made up largely of senior executives.  I reckon even Cameron and Clegg must be bored of sessions like this and might relish a more interesting question.

But I didn't say a word.

Alright, so -- as you can see in the photo above --- I've perhaps been a little distracted by the guy off to one side with the unnaturally black hair styled into an elaborate and bouffant brush-over (he looked both unbearably self-satisfied and entirely ridiculous, but he's apparently one of our senior group executives.  What do I know?).  But I kept my mouth shut throughout.

In my head, I was sticking it to The Man, but externally I was largely composed and only slightly sardonic-looking.

I must be getting all executive in my old age.

(New York was fabulous, BTW.  More on that anon.).

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

crosswords and a flight to JFK...

Well, as it's been a good six months since I was last out of the country, we're well overdue a trip, no?  Tomorrow we're off to New York for a few days.  I've been there before, both with work and for pleasure, but this time is going to be different: we're going to be spending our time with some actual, genuine New Yorkers.  We met Jane whilst travelling in Africa in May last year and Marissa whilst travelling through SE Asia.  Bright, sparky and slightly edgy: both were the life and soul of the party and I'm pretty sure that wasn't a coincidence.  I'm very much looking forward to spending some quality time with them both.  They haven't met each other yet, but they live a few blocks apart and will be meeting in a bar near the Lincoln Centre tomorrow night.

That's St. Patrick's Day. 

In New York.

What could go wrong?

See you on the other side.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

kick off your sunday shoes....

At the end of September last year, I was busy trumpeting the arrival of a new pair of running shoes. You don't need to be a runner to appreciate that this is probably the single most important piece of kit you will buy: running is a high impact activity, and the right trainers can make all the difference to avoiding injury and making the whole running experience as painless as possible. Well, it will probably always hurt - that's sort of the point - but the right shoes will help minimise the shock of running on your body....

They say that you should replace your running shoes every 500 miles or so, but about ten days ago, I was forced to replace mine after a mere 177.42 miles. The reason? they were hurting my feet...and that can't be right.  Right?

I've worn shoes from the Asics 2100 range for much of the last ten years, initially buying a pair after having my footstrike analysed on a pressure pad to see what kind of support I really needed. My last shoes were 2150s, the latest update (at the time), and as I'd had no problems before, I assumed that these would be fine too. It usually takes a while for a shoe to mould to your foot and to adjust to the way that you run, but after more than 150 miles in these ones, I was finding that there was often blood on my running socks, and I was starting to curl my toes as I ran to prevent chafing on the top of my feet (even when wearing properly cushioned socks). Not good. I'd read some reports saying that the 2150s had not been a successful update and lots of runners were reporting foot pain, but here was proof positive. I don't run an enormous amount of miles each week, but if I do the half marathon this year, I'll be ramping up my training soon, and it would be madness to do this in uncomfortable shoes.

New shoes, then.  Not the hardest decision.

Because I've worn Asics for so long, but would now be changing brand, I thought it was probably time to have my running style analysed again to make sure I bought shoes with the right level of support (apparently Asics have already released a 2160 to replace the 2150, but for me the damage has been done and I wasn't going to risk £80 on another pair of shoes that might not last the distance).

At Sweatshop, I was put into a pair of trainers with "neutral" support and put on a treadmill. As I ran, I was filmed from behind and was then able to look in slow motion at how my feet hit the ground as I run. It's quite an eye-opener. As an over-pronator, I knew in theory that I bring my foot down on the outside of my heel and then roll my ankle across, but watching it happening is something else... every time my foot strikes and rolls, it looks as though I'm going to break something (especially with my left foot, which seems to roll harder than my right). It's a very common running style, apparently, and easily fixed by a pair of shoes with the right level of support - but it looks weird and painful when viewed in slow-motion.

The sales assistant pulled out some suitable shoes, and I selected the pair that felt the most comfortable (Brooks Adrenaline GTS 11s - top tip: always pick a running shoe with a big number after it, as it often indicates a brand with a long history). I then hopped back on the treadmill to be filmed, and watched how these new trainers almost entirely eliminated the roll in my footstrike. How clever is that? Plus I now have a pair of trainers with a non-Newtonian fluid in the sole that will start out soft and pliable but will get harder as impact increases, so it provides support according to how hard I hit my foot into the ground. Sort of like custard.

Actually, what do I know?  Maybe it *is* custard? Feels good, so I'm going with that.  Might as well be.  Whatever works, right?

Monday, 14 March 2011

cha-ching cha-ching...

FIRST YORKSHIREMAN: Aye, very passable, that, very passable bit of risotto.
SECOND YORKSHIREMAN: Nothing like a good glass of Château de Chasselas, eh, Josiah?
THIRD YORKSHIREMAN: You're right there, Obadiah.
FOURTH YORKSHIREMAN: Who'd have thought thirty year ago we'd all be sittin' here drinking Château de Chasselas, eh?


I was at the gym on Friday night, relaxing in the sauna after another good swimming lesson.  As I was sitting there, getting a good sweat on and luxuriating in the glow of my twanging muscles, I was joined by some kids.


FIRST YORKSHIREMAN: In them days we was glad to have the price of a cup o' tea.
SECOND YORKSHIREMAN: A cup o' cold tea.
FOURTH YORKSHIREMAN: Without milk or sugar.
FIRST YORKSHIREMAN: In a cracked cup, an' all.
FOURTH YORKSHIREMAN: Oh, we never had a cup. We used to have to drink out of a rolled up newspaper.
SECOND YORKSHIREMAN: The best we could manage was to suck on a piece of damp cloth.
THIRD YORKSHIREMAN: But you know, we were happy in those days, though we were poor.


Well, I say kids, but as they were all clearly attending one of the local universities, they were all probably in their early 20s.  They'd been in a spin class and were discussing how hard they had been worked and planning what they were going to do later on that evening.

What struck me first was how posh they sounded.  They weren't deformed posh, but they were well on their way, and sported the kind of floppy hair that I immediately associate with the products of the English public school system.  Maybe Nottingham University attracts that kind of student.  I don't know.  I've lived here for nearly fourteen years but have never really felt the need to make a study of the student demographics before.


FOURTH YORKSHIREMAN: I was happier then and I had nothin'. We used to live in this tiny old house with great big holes in the roof.
SECOND YORKSHIREMAN: House! You were lucky to live in a house! We used to live in one room, all twenty-six of us, no furniture, 'alf the floor was missing, and we were all 'uddled together in one corner for fear of falling.
THIRD YORKSHIREMAN: Eh, you were lucky to have a room! We used to have to live in t' corridor!
FIRST YORKSHIREMAN: Oh, we used to dream of livin' in a corridor! Would ha' been a palace to us. We used to live in an old water tank on a rubbish tip. We got woke up every morning by having a load of rotting fish dumped all over us! House? Huh.
FOURTH YORKSHIREMAN: Well, when I say 'house' it was only a hole in the ground covered by a sheet of tarpaulin, but it was a house to us.
SECOND YORKSHIREMAN: We were evicted from our 'ole in the ground; we 'ad to go and live in a lake.
THIRD YORKSHIREMAN: You were lucky to have a lake! There were a hundred and fifty of us living in t' shoebox in t' middle o' road.


... and then it struck me: their accents were hardly the issue.

What the hell were these students doing in my gym?  Student membership is something around £40 a month.  When I was a student - admittedly some time ago now - that was the weekly shopping budget for a house of four people.  But have you seen students shopping now?  I used to buy value bread and baked beans and lots and lots of baking potatoes.  Today's students seem to stock up on premium lager, exotic fruits, fresh pasta and fresh tuna steaks.  When I was a student, my tuition fees were still paid by the government, and although I got a modest allowance from my parents (in lieu of a grant), I was still forced to get a job if I was to avoid going into debt.  I'm proud to say that I left University without any kind of an overdraft at all.

I know things are different now, and students are forced to go into massive debt simply to pay their tuition fees.  Does this mean their attitude towards money has changed?  If you're going to be £20,000 in debt, why not £30,000 or £40,000?  Throw some more Stella into the basket.  Why not?  If they don't have to drink Hoffmeister, as I did, then why would you?


FIRST YORKSHIREMAN: You were lucky. We lived for three months in a paper bag in a septic tank. We used to have to get up at six in the morning, clean the paper bag, eat a crust of stale bread, go to work down t' mill, fourteen hours a day, week-in week-out, for sixpence a week, and when we got home our Dad would thrash us to sleep wi' his belt.
SECOND YORKSHIREMAN: Luxury. We used to have to get out of the lake at six o'clock in the morning, clean the lake, eat a handful of 'ot gravel, work twenty hour day at mill for tuppence a month, come home, and Dad would thrash us to sleep with a broken bottle, if we were lucky!
THIRD YORKSHIREMAN: Well, of course, we had it tough. We used to 'ave to get up out of shoebox at twelve o'clock at night and lick road clean wit' tongue. We had two bits of cold gravel, worked twenty-four hours a day at mill for sixpence every four years, and when we got home our Dad would slice us in two wit' bread knife.
FOURTH YORKSHIREMAN: Right. I had to get up in the morning at ten o'clock at night half an hour before I went to bed, drink a cup of sulphuric acid, work twenty-nine hours a day down mill, and pay mill owner for permission to come to work, and when we got home, our Dad and our mother would kill us and dance about on our graves singing Hallelujah.


But seriously..... £40 a month for a gym membership when they probably all have access to the University gym, right?  Is that not a ridiculous luxury?  I hate to sound like one of Monty Python's Yorkshiremen, but these kids don't know they're born.


FIRST YORKSHIREMAN: And you try and tell the young people of today that ..... they won't believe you.
ALL: They won't!


I blame the Government.  Like the man said:

"O tempora, o mores! Senatus haec intellegit, consul videt; hic tamen vivit, vivit?"

Ah. Good luck to them, I suppose. They're the future, right?

Friday, 11 March 2011

Every junkie's like a setting sun....

Earworms of the Week

Lurpak butter advert ("flight of the bumblebee")
Tescos advert "Every little helps"

Adverts: they're designed to get stuck in your head, so obviously they're prime earworm candidates.  These two have been particularly sticky over the years and have both been bothering me this week.  Douglas, the little butterman with the trombone keeps popping back into my head, with his version of "Flight of the Bumblebee" being nearly up there with the Jonny Briggs theme tune.  Nearly.  The Tescos theme is the classic jingle.  I can't find a clip of it, but it's the little sting at the end of the tune that used to play through all of those Jane Horrocks "Every Little Helps" adverts.  It's been in my head for LITERALLY weeks.  Arggghh.

"Lily the Pink" - The Scaffold

Lydia Estes Pinkham was very much a real person who created a tonic that was supposed to relieve the symptoms of menstruation and the menopause.  The active ingredient?  Alcohol.  Just the ticket, I should think.  Insanely catchy, for sure.

"The Opener" - The Courteeners

Sub-Oasis shite, you would think.  Hyped to the eyeballs a couple of years ago, and probably not worth a damn on the basis of their debut album.  Do you know what though?  Have you listened to "Falcon", their follow-up album?  Against all my expectations, it's really good.  Great lyrics, good tunes, an avoidance of cliche.... it's well worth a shot. 

I miss the city I love but I've been having an affair
With L.A and New York, Dundee
And Doncaster if I may dare
Of course I do, of course I do
But I was meant for this place, and I was meant for you

See what I mean?  They're GOOD lyrics.  I still want to call them "The court-ee-ners" rather than the "cor-tinas" though.  That's just the way my brain sees it.

"Don't Talk (Put Your Head on my Shoulder)" - Beach Boys

The Beach Boys were the band chosen for my especially dull contribution to this week's report.  I hesitated before using "Good Vibrations", I must admit.... but in the end decided that a stupid report and the disaster in Japan have very little in common.  This wasn't one of the songs I chose, but it's been in my head all week, and it's beautiful.  This is off "Pet Sounds", but I really need to dig out and listen to "Sunflower" and "Surf's Up" again.  Great albums.

"The Imperial March" - John Williams

You know.  Just because.  Let's go with the classic version, but don't forget the Fader Gladiator version.

"Regret" - New Order

I have a LOT of New Order on my iPod.  They're not my favourite band, but I have a generous friend who is keen to share his love of them (thanks Mark).  I know they're famous for lots of their earlier stuff, but "Republic" was an album that I did own.  I bought it when I was a first year student and had it on the b-side of "Modern Life is Rubbish" on a tape in the car that I listened to all one summer.  This is by far my favourite New Order song.  Not just on that album, but EVER.  Seriously.  I love it.

"Fallen Angel" - Elbow

No, I haven't bought the new album yet... but I have been listening to their wonderful back catalogue.  I've listened to the last couple of albums fairly extensively, but it's a real joy to dig out their first two albums.  They're less immediate, but they've burned slow and bright over the years and sound as good now as they ever have... if not better.  I'm supposed to be seeing them with LB on Thursday next week.  It's in the kitchen calender and everything.  Sadly, that's also the day that we're flying to New York, so I won't be there.  OK, so it's hard to be too cross about missing even that gig when I'll be on my way to see some friends in the Big Apple, but I am still a bit upset.  They're playing Glastonbury, I believe, so that will have to do.  Fantastic band.

"Black Steel" - Tricky

Is it bad that I much, much prefer Tricky's version to the Public Enemy original?  Maybe it is, but it's also true.  I like the original, but the cover just rolls along with real power and menace and I've loved it since I first heard it as a student and didn't realise it was a cover.  More rock and less rap, I guess.  Awesome lyrics though, and they're all Chuck D's own.

"The Needle and the Damage Done" - Neil Young

I heard Laura Marling covering this song on the radio the other day.  Her version was good enough, but really it just made me think how beautiful and powerful the original is.  Marling's version is worth a look too though.  Neil Young's a legend, isn't he?  Cantankerous old bastard, but at least he hasn't lost his voice in the way that Bob Dylan has.  Is it bad to say I've always preferred Neil Young anyway?  Even back in the day?

That's it.  Have a good weekend, y'all.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

erase and rewind....

I've been rumbled. My figleaf of anonymity here has been whipped away: a simple google search for the phrase "sweaty jazz trumpet" has led the monumental pain in the arse who sits next to me at work all the way here.  I looked across at his screen just as he was pondering the coincidence of finding the exact same phrase online (although actually, I nicked it from Steve Lamacq anyway) and commenting on how funny-looking the guy was in the picture at the top-right hand corner of the page.

Tits.  I hadn't realised he found the phrase quite so enticing.  Certainly not interesting enough to google it, FFS.  Who would do that?

I thought he was taking the piss and had recognised me immediately... but in the end I had to get him to scroll down the page a bit further to look at the photos further down the page before the penny finally dropped.   I suppose I could have left him guessing, but it seemed so painfully obvious that it was me that remaining silent seemed fairly pointless.

"Why Swisslet?" was his first question.
"To stop people at work randomly finding their way here via google"

I'll probably have to delete everything now and start again somewhere else lest all of my secrets are revealed to my colleagues at work.

....Pfffft. As if I ever say anything interesting enough on here to be worth hiding.

So. A big hello to GJ everyone. He has a kind of tourettes for bad jokes and has given up crisps for Lent. Welcome. Knock yourself out.


Knock yourself out.

Do it.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

hollow man....

There was a break from the normal routine today: instead of having a day off exercise and heading to the pub quiz (where we're defending champions, naturally), I took myself off to the gym to run through my swimming drills in advance of my next lesson on Friday.

The swimming was fine.   I don't usually go to the gym during the week, and although the car park was busier than I'm used to, the pool itself was reasonably quiet.  I was able to chug up and down following the set of drills that my instructor has given me to help me work on my stroke.  It's pretty hard work, but it's very gratifying to have something to focus on in the water apart from the relentless counting of lengths.

I don't know whether a different crowd frequents the gym during the week, but my goodness the changing rooms were full of people admiring themselves in front of the floor length mirrors.  For sure, you always get a certain number of people preening themselves and carefully teasing their hair into a state of artful dishevelment, but on a Wednesday night the place just seemed to be full of them.  There were people of all shapes and sizes nakedly - and, indeed, nakedly - checking themselves out and stroking their musculature approvingly.  Honestly, if they had another pair of lips, they'd be kissing themselves.  Everyone has a certain amount of vanity, but to stand in front of a mirror in a public place blowing kisses at your own reflection?  Surely not.

We're men; manly men; we're hunter gatherers; we roam around the forest looking for fights.

What happened to us?  How did we become so lost?

Now, if you'll excuse me, I must just go and moisturise before the chlorine dries out my face completely.  They have moisturiser at the gym, but it's just so coarse that I prefer to use my own....


Tuesday, 8 March 2011

almer matters....

It's International Women's Day. Let's not dwell on the rather depressing fact that the readers of Metro have voted no less a person than Leona Lewis has been named the most influential woman to live or work in London in the last 100 years -- above such no marks as Virginia Woolf, Rosalind Franklin, Millicent Fawcett, Emmeline Pankhurst, Mrs Thatch Kate Moss.

Instead, allow me to take you back to a story from my school days, some twenty years ago. I went to a mostly all-boys school... I say mostly because girls only turned up in the sixth form, at which point they were hopelessly outnumbered and generally regarded as oddities by all the boys; at best to be tolerated, but mostly to be roundly abused. The sight of 13 year old boys walking behind 17 year old girls making loud coughing and retching noises was sadly a common one on the streets around my school.

It was a rather strange environment, and not one that I think produced a particularly healthy attitude towards women amongst those impressionable boys. I was certainly somewhat emotionally scarred by the experience, and went off to University almost entirely unable to hold together a meaningful conversation - never mind a full-blown relationship - with a woman. To be honest, that only really changed - if it really has - when someone decided, in the face of all the available evidence, that I was worth persevering with.

Reader, I married her.

Anyway, if I found the whole process emotionally damaging, can you imagine what it must have been like to be one of the girls? Some were accepted immediately, of course, because they were deemed pretty and hung out with the rugby team. Many others were outcasts from the start, judged without mercy from the moment they arrived on the basis of their looks. All were subject to the immature whims and casual abuse of a majority of idiot boys who outnumbered them in almost every situation by about ten to one. I'm still friends with a girl I went to school with, actually, and to this day I am in awe of the strength of character and resilience she showed to make it through a full two years of this bizarre environment and to emerge (relatively) unscathed.

One thing above all others sticks in my head. There was a uniform code of course: the boys wore jackets and ties, and the girls wore similar... with the obvious difference that the girls wore skirts. There were rules, of course, about the length of skirt. The rule was that a skirt should be knee-length i.e. long enough that it would touch the ground if you were kneeling. Most girls would - by choice and possibly out of a very sensible desire not to draw attention to themselves - wear long, flowing skirts that reached their ankles and practically touched the ground. Rules, of course, exist expressly for people to test them, and there were girls who liked to push the boundaries.

You know how the rule was enforced? If any master -- almost all men -- felt that a girl was wearing a skirt that was too short, he would call them over and make them kneel before him to see if the hem touched the ground. Yup, you heard me. In front of everyone, they were made to kneel.

Twenty years down the line, the school is fully co-educational and I'm sure things are completely different. That image has rather stayed with me though as rather summing up the whole antiquated, misogynist and unthinking attitude of my alma mater.

Alma mater; nourishing mother. How richly ironic that phrase is.

Monday, 7 March 2011

like a coin that won't get tossed....

Today I reach the grand old age of 37.

To celebrate, I got up, made a pack lunch that included a cheese roll, a tuna roll, some carrots and a pack of Frazzles and I went to work. Later on, I plan to have my tea in front of the telly and to read my book. It's just another day.

....well, to be fair, it's not been just another day: to mark the occasion, C. baked me a bunch of cakes to take into the office to share with my colleagues (sour cherry and chesnut brownies, pear and ginger muffins and a Viennese poppy seed cake - all delicious, obviously). And after I've had my tea, I'm going to go out for birthday drinks with some dear friends.... so perhaps not quite like every other day, but still reasonably sedate.

Frankly, that's just the way I like it.

I keep catching myself saying things that prove that I'm old. I genuinely do not understand the point of those saggy-arsed trousers that cause people to walk with a waddle and to show their pants. They ARE ridiculous, but every time I say as much, I'm acutely aware that I'm showing my age. Why on earth should a 37 year old man understand those trousers? I'm pretty sure that the only thing weirder than a 37 year old man "getting" those trousers would be a 37 year old man *wearing* those trousers....

Still, as Dylan Thomas said:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

...but as Thomas himself was said to have died of an "acute insult to the brain" after drinking 18 straight whiskies, I think it's fair to say that he practiced what he preached (he was only 39 at the time, mind, which hardly seems like the close of day to me...although perhaps in a couple of years, it will).

Why just accept ridiculous trousers? I could let them go with a shrug, but they are ridiculous and as long as I'm alive, it's worth saying as much.  Age has got nothing to do with it.

I remember, at some point in the 1980s, working out how old I was going to be in the year 2000 and being appalled at how OLD 26 was.


I like Tom Baker's approach to ageing: "The older I get, the older old is".

37 is no age.  I'm not dead yet.

Friday, 4 March 2011

dancing in the disco, bumper to bumper....

Earworms of the Week

Theme from Star Trek - Maynard Ferguson
Main Title theme from Bullitt - Lalo Schifrin

Well, I've already rambled on about the Jazz flute solo contained within that beautiful version of the Star Trek theme, so I'll say no more.  Suffice it to say that the phrase "sweaty jazz trumpet" has rapidly become the euphemism of choice in my office.  The Bullitt theme is a different kettle of fish entirely.  Steve McQueen was, of course, the very coolest man alive.  Shifrin's great achievement here is that he has almost managed to capture that cool in the medium of sound.  Mmmm.  Good earworm, that.

I Vow To Thee My Country

Well, it's a hymn, which is not a very good start for an confirmed atheist like me (well, that's a slightly unfortunate turn of phrase, isn't it?  Confirmation? Atheism?  Not the easiest of bedfellows....)  I can't even remember where this came from, but it's probably a consequence of watching the rugby on the telly last weekend.  Twickenham is a slightly strange place: I love the games themselves, but the stadium is in a very posh area near Richmond, the people who go to rugby games are often they type of people who wear strawberry coloured cords and Barbour jackets, and there's a long association with the armed forces, leading to a very visible presence by people like Help for Heroes.  It's a strange enough place to have adopted a slave anthem like "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" (is there a song that ought to be less likely to be sung by people wearing strawberry coloured cords?), but any hymn with a vaguely nationalistic theme, like this or like "Jerusalem", are also pretty commonplace.  Well, it's been in my head. I'm not happy about it, but there you go... just like I'm delighted by England's success, but less so by the way that my team, Northampton Saints, have lost every game since the Six Nations began.  I hope you're enjoying the use of our best players....

"She's Lost Control" - Joy Division

It's now started conjuring images of my wife losing the Sky remote, which I'm fairly sure isn't really what Ian Curtis was going for, but it's a great record nonetheless.....

"Sloop John B" - Beach Boys

Last week, I included song titles by the Smiths in my weekly report.  This week, I went for Billy Bragg (Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards, The World Turned Upside Down & Greetings to the New Brunette.  Yeah, I'm pretty proud of that last one....).  Next week: the Beach Boys.  And yes, this song was in my head before I decided that.  Coincidence?

"City With No Children" - Arcade Fire

I like this song, but it really seems to be on the 6Music playlist, as I seem to hear it every single time I get into the car.  Given that, on the way home from work this evening, I also heard "Reasons to Be Cheerful" and "I Am the Resurrection", then it's probably a price worth paying.  Steve Lamacq is twice the DJ that Shaun Keaveny is, mind you.

"Ashes to Ashes" - David Bowie / Warpaint

Warpaint were recommended to me last night by a guy I play football with.  I had a listen when I got home, downloaded the album and got hooked on their David Bowie cover shortly afterwards.  To be honest, I need to listen to the band a lot more before I really make up my mind on them, but damn Bowie was good.

"Helplessness Blues" - Fleet Foxes

Gorgeous.  Of course it is.  I can't wait for the album.  I've also been charmed by Robin Pecknold on Twitter, where amongst other things, he's been musing about how the British snack market can sustain so many artisanal crisp makers and how English signs are so much more wordy than the ones he usually sees in the USA.

"I Am the Resurrection" - The Stone Roses

My friend John is 37 today.  He's now living in the Hague, and so I haven't been able to celebrate our birthdays together, as we usually do.... but I've called him grandad (a whole 3 days older than me, people....) over email and he's responded as graciously as always.  Heard this song today, and as always, it made me think of him.  Happy birthday, old boy.  Remember what Tom Baker said: the older I get, the older old is.

"Where's Me Jumper" - Sultans of Ping FC

Stupid, and yet also brilliant. Knocked out of Steve Lamacq's indie disco world cup by The Strokes' "Last Night".  There's no justice, right?  Competition won by the Stone Roses, incidentally....

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

Thursday, 3 March 2011

too much ain't enough....

A recruitment consultant rang me at work the other day.  He was brief and to the point, saying that I had been recommended to him by a couple of people for a job he was recruiting for, and would I mind sharing my mobile number so he could call me back.  My usual instinct in these circumstances is to panic and put the phone down, but C. has patiently explained to me that it does no harm to talk to them and to find out what they've got on offer. I gave the guy my number and then got on with my day.  I've been enjoying work recently, but where's the harm?

That evening, I had a good conversation with the recruitment consultant.  The job on offer seemed a reasonable next step from my current one, and it would be a hefty pay increase of something like £20k.  The catch was that the job was in Leeds - nearly 80 miles each way, door-to-door. 

I flat out don't need the money and I certainly don't need the hassle.  I like working 15 minutes from home; I like that my whole day doesn't have to be about work; I like that I can pop home if I need to.  I'm not rich, but I've learned that I'm rich enough and that other things are more important.  £20k is a lot of money, and I'm well aware how lucky I am to be able to afford to turn that sort of cash down, but double that still wouldn't really be enough of an incentive to move.  That and I fatigue easily now, so long days commuting are probably not a good idea either.  I wasn't really ever tempted.  Still, the consultant asked me if I would agree to an informal chat with the prospective employer, on the understanding that I'm not on the market.  Why not?  Where's the harm?  It's good to learn that you still have desirable skills, if nothing else. 

Next day, I took a call from the IT Director of this other company.  It went quite well, I thought, although of course it essentially turned out to be a job interview and not just an informal chat after all.  How naive of me to think otherwise.  I haven't heard anything since then, although as I made it clear to the recruitment consultant that I wasn't interested in moving, that's hardly surprising.  My job, amazingly enough, has been quite a lot of fun recently, and although I know I could earn a lot more money elsewhere, I actually don't want to move.  It never hurts, of course, to let your boss know how much someone else values your services.... (although: mental note.  When asked your salary expectations for a job you're not that interested in?  Pitch higher.)

My boss, it turns out, was strangely interested in the details of the recruitment consultant who had contacted me.  It was the same one, of course, who had been chasing him for the same job as the one that was being offering to me.... only he was being offered it at about £20k more than the level it was being offered to me.

Tsk.  Recruitment Consultants, eh?  If you can't trust them, who can you trust?

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

only going forward, still can't find reverse....

The Jazz flute is a much underrated instrument, I feel... especially when coupled with a really sweaty trumpet playing the theme tune to Star Trek.

Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to present for your listening pleasure... Maynard Ferguson.

I think you'll find the Jazz Flute solo kicking in at around 1m50s...

Mmmm. Nice.

...and whilst we're on the subject, here's comic book guy doing the Shatner Evolution.

No, I don't really know how my brain works either. I just tend to roll with it, to be honest....

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

tender age in bloom....

When I left work this evening, I needed to get a bit of a wriggle on if I was going to make it to my appointment with the osteopath on time.  Naturally, because I was in a bit of a rush, my usual route home along the ring road was completely backed up, and when I went the other way, I found that the Embankment had been closed to traffic and I would have to take a detour through the Meadows.

For those of you not familiar with the geography of Nottingham, the Meadows is an inner city area just south of the city centre and alongside the river Trent.  I think it's probably fair to also say that it also has something of a reputation as being one of the less salubrious parts of town.  In common with lots of similar areas in similar towns, the Meadows was originally built at the turn of the century to house the workers from the factories and railways in the city.  The oldest buildings are quite handsome Victorian terraces, but at some point during the 1970s, some genius decided to bulldoze loads of those buildings and to engage in a bit of modern town-planning, sticking up newer buildings in precincts.  If the intention was to spruce the area up, then it didn't work: the newer buildings have aged far less well than their Victorian predecessors, and the precincts and the underpasses around them quickly became no-go areas. 

I'd hesitate to call the area a ghetto, but it is one of the poorest areas of the city and apparently has some of the lowest rates of educational attainment in Nottingham.  I used to walk through the central precinct when I worked in the town centre and walked to work in the morning, but I would never walk back through it at night.  It was that kind of a neighbourhood.

Recently, it seems that things are starting to change though, and one of the bonuses of being forced to take a detour to drive through the area is that you get a good look at some of the improvements.  I suppose it doesn't sound like much, but as I rushed through on my way to make my appointment, I really do like to look down some of the streets of old Victorian terraces and see all the flowers.  The locals, it seems, are keen to take back the streets, and you'll often find that every single house has a box of flowers outside, all the way down to the end of the road.  It's a lovely sight, and one for which the residents regularly win awards.  It's nice to see people taking a pride in their neighbourhood.

I still wouldn't drink in some of those pubs, mind.....