Friday, 29 April 2011

life is very long, when you're lonely....

That photo was taken back in the summer of 1981, when that 7 year-old boy was excited as anyone about the Royal Wedding.  I don't remember watching the ceremony itself, but I do remember the celebratory cardboard and tissue paper top-hat that I made at school to mark the occasion, and I remember the big party that we had in the garden of the local village pub.  There was bunting, and the whole village came out to celebrate the fairytale wedding.  There were lots of party games, and I won the obstacle race.... as I recall, it involved climbing over hay bales and crawling under stuff.  My prize was a packet of Chewits.  Well worth the winning, I think you'll agree.

Of course, everyone knows how that particular fairytale turned out.

I must admit, I've been a little taken aback by the fuss and flag-waving that has accompanied the wedding of William and Kate.  Perhaps I'm being naive, but I sort of assumed that Diana had taught us that marrying your prince isn't always all it's cracked up to be.  This new royal couple seem to be cut from a very different cloth: where Diana was twenty years old and blinking shyly like a baby doe, Kate is 29 years old, has a decent degree and has been together with William for something like eight years.  Perhaps nothing can really prepare her for life from now onwards, but I suspect there's more to her than glossy hair, good teeth and a mother who used to be an air hostess.  William may be starting to resemble his father more and his mother less as he gets older, but for all that he was born into a protective royal bubble, he is markedly different to his father and seems altogether more worldly-wise, wary of what happened to his mother, no doubt.

I wish them luck and happiness.

That said, I wouldn't be distressed if we scrapped the whole unhappy institution of the monarchy entirely.  The news has been full of people waving their flags and fawning on about how wonderful this all is and how no other country in the world could pull off pageantry like this and how it makes you proud to be British.  Actually, no it doesn't.  I don't object to people choosing to sleep out in the streets to catch a glimpse of the royal procession as it goes past, but I certainly don't understand the impulse. It's not the monarchy that makes me proud to be British, it's things like the NHS.

Johann Hari puts his finger on it:

"In most countries in the world, parents can tell their kids that if they work hard and do everything right, they could grow up to be the head of state and the symbol of their nation. Not us. Our head of state is decided by one factor, and one factor alone: did he pass through the womb of one particular aristocratic Windsor woman living in a golden palace? The American head of state grew up with a mother on food stamps. The British head of state grew up with a mother on postage stamps. Is that a contrast that fills you with pride?  No, it’s not the biggest problem we have. But it does have a subtly deforming effect on Britain’s character that the ultimate symbol of our country – our sovereign – is picked on the most snobbish criteria of all: darling, do you know who his father was? Kids in Britain grow up knowing that we all bow and curtsey in front of a person simply because of their unearned, uninteresting bloodline. This snobbery then subtly soaks out through the society, tweaking us to be deferential to unearned and talentless wealth, simply because it’s there".

The monarchy enshrines the idea that some people are born better than other people.  Getting excited about the fact that a simple "commoner" can marry into this does not change or conceal this fundamental truth, rather it highlights it.  I turned the radio on this morning, and after about sixty seconds of listening to 5Live talking in awestruck tones as the guests arrived at the Abbey and everyone awaited the arrival of the bride, I switched over to 6Music to listen to Huey Morgan playing records by Black Grape, Stevie Wonder, Tina Turner and the Fleet Foxes.

I wish no harm to the Queen or to her family.  Privileged they may be, but when I see this 85-year old, I can't help but think that she's trapped in a cage of her dedication and service to her "duty".  It might be a gilded cage, but it's still a cage.  She's been Queen now for something like 52 years, so perhaps she knows no other life, but she surely wouldn't be human if she didn't occasionally yearn to live a more normal life and to escape the drudgery of her duty to her people that barely allows her to take time off sick.  I'm sure lots of people will snort at that and wish they were trapped in a similar cage, but would you really?  I also quite like the Duke of Edinburgh: he's often thought of as an anachronistic old curmudgeon, but he's also the man who, when Wills and Harry were about to be refused the right to walk behind their mother's coffin in 1997, said that if that's what they wanted to do, then he would damn well stand at their sides as they did it.  At a time when the Windsors were apparently afraid of the reaction of the crowd to their perceived guilt over Diana's death, that's the very human reaction of a grandfather and not of the patriarch of an Institution under threat.  For that, he perhaps deserves some respect for the man he is... but not deference because of what he represents.

I popped out at about 11am this morning to buy a coffee and to run a few errands: the streets were eerily quiet, as though it was 7am on a Sunday morning.  Lots of shops were closed, and the ones that were open were a little startled to see me, sometimes scurrying out of the back room where they had been watching the ceremony on the television.  It was 2 for 1 on commemorative mugs and bags at Connaught House though, so my New York friends will be pleased....

Good luck to the newly married Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.  I wish them health and happiness.  I just won't be out waving my flag and singing the national anthem in their honour.  If you are doing exactly that, then good luck to you too.  You can doff your caps and tug your forelocks at whoever you like.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

ticket to ride....

The London Olympic Stadium at Stratford

After an application window of some six weeks, the opportunity to apply for tickets to the 2012 Olympics in London closed on Tuesday night. They were supposed to close at one minute to midnight, but an entirely predictable surge in demand at the very last moment meant that they ended up accepting applications until about an hour after their original deadline. The organising committee is bullishly expecting most events to (eventually) sell out, so anyone applying for tickets does so knowing that they are likely to be entered into a ballot and hope they get lucky and get at least some of the tickets they were hoping for.

Here's the thing though: because you don't know what you are going to get when you apply, the temptation is to apply for loads of tickets and hope that you get some.... but if you get them all, then you risk being landed with a huge bill for tickets (and you have to submit your payment card details when you apply).

There's been a bit of fuss about the whole process, and I heard Martin Lewis (money saving expert man) frothing on the radio on Tuesday afternoon about what a ridiculous, unfair system this was (and he's done the same on his website too - try not to read the comments). He seemed to think that this was the worst possible way that it could be done and that it was somehow unfair.  "Anti-Consumer", apparently.
Surely the hot ticket at any Olympics?

Well, look....there are lots of things about this to get annoyed about: the fact that the only online payment method is Visa (a premium sponsor, although you can pay in cash or by cheque); the fact that we will have our accounts debited for the tickets we are lucky enough to get hold of a full month before we know what those tickets are actually for.... but I don't think that the ballot system is one of them. Martin Lewis wasn't offering up an alternative system for distributing tickets, but I hardly think that any "first come, first served" system would have been an improvement on a 6 week window that gives you plenty of time to think about what you want to apply for. Apart from anything else, this is not a new invention that we have put together just for the 2012 games. When we went to the 2004 Athens Olympics, we had to apply via a ballot then too. Can you imagine if all the tickets went onsale at 9am one morning? Every single person, whether they were trying to get tickets for the 100m final or the Women's Weightlifting, would all be on the phone or on the internet pressing f5. This isn't like Glastonbury (and crikey, that's bad enough), where everyone is essentially making the same transaction for a single event, this is whole set of events on different days and in different venues, with multiple different pricepoints. I defy anyone to come up with a way of applying for tickets to an event of this size that is as well organised and simple to use as this one. Do people really need to be reminded not to apply for more tickets than they can afford?

Best sporting event I have ever witnessed - watching Pinsent & the coxless 4 win gold in about 5cm

The organisers even seem have gone out of their way to set up a way of exchanging tickets that will take eBay profiteers out of the equation: their will be an exchange site online from around January time (so long before any actual tickets are sent out to be resold for profit) that will enable tickets to be sold and exchanged for no more than their face value. I agree that there will be six months between forking out for all the tickets you have been allocated in the ballot and the ability to shift any excess, but at least you'll have a fair chance to shift the tickets you don't need and to have a chance at getting hold of other tickets you do want. You will be competing with other fans and not with people out to make a profit. Time will tell if that works or not, and the Athens games certainly had an unofficial -- but tolerated -- ticket exchange market that most certainly was for profit but enabled people to get to the events they wanted (we ended up with some Japanese Olympic Committee tickets for the velodrome, if memory serves me correctly). I'm sure the same will be true of London too, but I don't think it's fair at this stage to scream blue murder about the ticketing system.

Not yet, anyway.

I'm lucky: I have a group of friends who are very motivated to get to see the games, and they've spent a lot of time over the last few months pulling everyone together and working out the best possible application strategy. We've got a spreadsheet and everything, AND we had a conference call to finalise who was applying for what.... As a result of that planning, it was a cinch for me to go onto the site and to carefully pick out the tickets that I needed to apply for. In fact, the site was much easier to use than I was expecting and actually helped me to increase my chances of tickets by allowing me to put in a range of prices for the tickets I was interested in. It undeniably also helps that we're financially able to put in a big ticket application between us, knowing that it won't be disastrous if we were to get everything we apply for. Whatever we are lucky enough to get, we can be reasonably confident that we will be sitting with friends, thanks to a coordinated application.  I also won't waste my breath whining about what I don't get: it doesn't take a genius to work out that with a capacity of 4,000 and likely hundreds of thousands of applicants hoping to see some British medals, a few people are going to miss out on watching the cycling in the velodrome, to pick just one example.  If you want to watch everything, get a really big telly.

 making friends in Athens 2004 after watching Kelly Holmes' 1st gold - note the random Germans at the back

With a bit of luck (and there have been three times as many applications as there are tickets available), I'll be able to spend a couple of weeks next August with my friends watching (amongst other things) some athletics, archery, rowing, sailing, tennis, horseriding, gymnastics, cycling and....yes, women's weightlifting.

I loved going to the games in Athens, and I'm looking forward to London 2012 too, whatever tickets we might end up with.....

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

we didn't light it, but we tried to fight it....

As we drove home from Heathrow airport yesterday afternoon, we listened to the radio and heard how Syria had erupted into violence. The Syrian human rights organisation Sawasiah said at least 400 civilians had been killed during a month of protests including at least 35 in Deraa since Monday. It said 500 people had been arrested in the past few days, and the BBC were running an interview with a protestor who claimed they were risking death by speaking out.

It's awful, of course, but our main emotion was one of relief: C's mother was due to be in Syria right now, but after several weeks of umm-ing and ahh-ing, had cancelled her trip (at the cost of her deposit) a week or so ago. The violence that we heard being reported utterly vindicated her decision, and made us very glad that she had decided not to travel after all.

The British foreign secretary, William Hague, also featured in the news, making a statement in Parliament about the crisis:

"Syria is now at a fork in the road," Hague told MPs. "Its government can still choose to bring about the radical reform which alone can provide peace and stability in Syria and for the long term, and we urge it to do so. Or it can choose ever more violent repression, which can only bring short-term security for the authorities there. If it does so we will work with our European partners and others to take measures, including sanctions, that will have an impact on the regime."

His statement made me feel uncomfortable. When I was present at a Clegg & Cameron question and answer session in my office a few weeks ago, Nick Clegg made the point that we should feel pretty terrible as a nation if we sat back and watched as Gadaffi butchered his own people.... a sentiment that I agree with entirely, even if the Libyan rebels currently being shelled in Misrata might wonder exactly what that sentiment is actually worth. The situation in Syria is different to that in Libya, of course, and I think it is broadly a good thing that Hague is speaking up and adding his voice to those putting pressure on president Assad's regime

..... But I can't help but wonder at our motivations here.

We send our jets to Libya to enforce the "no fly" zone; we speak up about the need for the Syrian government to stop brutally repressing their own citizens; we helped to "liberate" Iraq from Saddam Hussein; we have troops in Afghanistan helping to prop up the western-approved regime.... all well and good. But what about all the places we don't speak up about? Where were our strong words and military aid to places like the Sudan or Rwanda? Or Nigeria? People are being killed and repressed all over the world every day. If Hague's stern words already sound a little empty to the people of the Middle East, imagine how his silence must sound to those suffering torture, persecution and repression somewhere not appearing on the Foreign Secretary's agenda.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

it fades to the distance...

 the registry office where we got hitched.  Not bad, huh?

Now that the weather looks to be picking up a bit, it seems almost a shame to report that we're about to pack up and head out to Austria for a few days.


But given that Vienna has some of the finest cake in the world, is close enough to Bavaria to have a decent beer culture, should be hotter and nicer than it is here and (above all) is home to some of our very best friends in the world..... it's not going to be all that much of a wrench to spend Easter away from Nottingham.

We've loaded up on salt & vinegar crisps and cosmetics (for Susie), whisky (for Clemens), shortbread biscuits (for Susie senior), comic books (for Pauli), a set of London Underground expresso cups (for Peter), assorted Jack Wills bits and pieces (for Lilli)... and we're just about ready to go. We're not planning to do much whilst we're there, apart from catch up with our friends, relax and try to unwind. I'm about 30 pages into "The Game of Thrones", 800 pages long and the first in a set of (so far) 5 books... so I should have plenty of reading to be getting along with.

Exactly twelve months ago, we were supposed to be returning home from San Francisco after a trip of a little over three months that saw us taking in Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand before heading home via a short stop on the west coast of America. Eyjafjallajokull had other plans for us, and the ash cloud kept us grounded in San Francisco for a couple more days yet. In the end we made it home okay, in plenty of time for our departure to Cape Town and a three week trip through Namibia, Botswana and Zambia. Of all the travelling we did in 2010, that was probably my favourite trip, and the one where we made some brilliant friends. We'll actually be catching up with Monica from that trip whilst we're in Vienna, which will be great.... we'll be able to have a good natter with her about the trip we've just booked to go to Kenya and Tanzania in September this year.

It's funny: I've been back at work now for nearly 9 months, and although it's been hard work, it's been very soothing to look back on what we did in 2010. Far from being a source of stress that I'm stuck in an office when I was roaming around the world last year, it's actually been a great source of comfort. We had an amazing 2010, and now I've got another fantastic trip in the diary to look forward to.

Have a great break everyone, and see you on the other side for some apoplectic ranting about the forthcoming royal nuptials.....

Monday, 18 April 2011

forget you....

I've got a padlock just like this one.  I've had it for more than five years and use it exclusively for securing my locker when I go to the gym.  In all that time, I have never once changed the combination.  In fact, I don't even know the numbers that make up the combination - instead I have long since committed to memory the configuration the buttons need to be in if the lock is to spring open when you slide the catch at the bottom.

Except on Friday evening, I forgot.

I'd just been swimming for 45 minutes or so, and had a sauna and a quick shower before returning to my locker.  I reached for my padlock, and my mind went completely blank.  I didn't panic at first, because I most often open it up without even consciously thinking about it.  I pressed a shape into the buttons, and it didn't open.  I tried another.  It didn't open.  After 30 seconds of this, I was starting to worry.   I was wearing a towel and a pair of flip-flops and I was carrying my swimming trunks.  This was hardly ideal clothing to go and find someone to help me with my locker.

I paused for a moment, took a deep breath and tried again.

This time, the locker opened.

I probably shouldn't spend a great deal of time thinking about this, and I should probably put it down as "one of those things".  Being an analytical sort, obviously I haven't been able to stop myself from picking the incident apart.  To my mind, there are only two possible conclusions:

1) I was having a "senior moment".  I'm 37 years old, and these are only going to happen to me more and more often as I slide into decreptitude.

2) I was experiencing a cognitive difficulty that could be associated with my MS.  I've spoken about this before, and indeed actually ended up being assessed by a neuropsychologist to sit some tests to act as a baseline on my mental performance.  Losing my marbles is one of my greatest fears, and it was the fact that I had started to forget little things - like the names of some people I knew at work - that caused me to mention it to my MS nurses in the first place.  Perhaps forgetting -- albeit temporarily -- the code to my padlock was another example of that?  That was my first thought as I stood in front of that locker, I have to admit, and it scared me half to death.

Neither MS or the onset of senility is particularly enticing, to be honest, but whereas the one happens to everyone, to some extent or other, the other would be a reason to really hate MS.

....or it could simply be a moment's absent-mindedness and I shouldn't pay it a moment's thought.

Anyway, I remembered the code in the end.  That has to count for something, right?


Friday, 15 April 2011

I'm too full to swallow my pride....

Earworms of the Week

A little later than usual, perhaps, but I've just been on an 80-mile round trip mercy mission to rescue a 7 year old and her father, sopping wet from the log flume, after they lost their car keys at Drayton Manor Park and Zoo......

The usual assortment of shit this week, although I have very little idea how most of this found it's way into my head.  What I do know is that I've been driving everyone who sits anywhere near me mad by singing much of this lot out loud.....

"I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of my Hair" - South Pacific

Look, I've never even seen South Pacific and I don't have any hair.  How this one found its way into my head is going to have to remain a mystery, as I haven't got a clue.  Great song though, no?  Apparently, washing your hair on screen didn't have the same effect as it did onstage in the original music, because EVERYONE washes their hair on film.  So there.

"Happy Days" theme tune

Well, it's catchy alright, but again no clue as to why it was in my head.  This song actually makes me think of the video to Weezer's "Buddy Holly", where of course the band are digitally inserted into an episode of Happy Days.... presumably before Fonzy literally jumped the shark and the whole series went down the toilet.

"Future's So Bright (I Gotta Wear Shades)" - Timbuk3

I remember taping this when it was played in the Top 40 back in the day.  1986, ladies and gentlemen... and when I heard it on the radio on the way back from work the other day, it actually still sounded pretty good.

"Black Horse & the Cherry Tree" - KT Tunstall

This popped into my head when I was swimming this evening.  As always when this song crops up, I have to mention how amazing KT Tunstall was when she performed this as a virtual unknown on "Later...." some years ago.  She was completely on her own, and built the song up, bit by bit, recording samples as she was going along to layer the track.  It's on the link above, and it's well worth watching.  Why it popped into my head in the first place, I have no idea.  Good song though, eh?

"Children of the Revolution" - T-Rex

 I don't like T-Rex.  Shallow, superficial nonsense.  Wrote a few decent choruses, but that's about as much credit as I'll give him.  Alright, so this is a pretty reasonable riff.  BUT THAT'S IT.  I heard "The Laughing Gnome" on the radio this evening, and that's a better song than this.  Possibly.  Plus, I love the story that, when he was on his greatest hits tour some years ago, Bowie had a phoneline for fans to vote on what song he should play.  "The Laughing Gnome" won, every night.  He didn't play it once.  Pah!  Spoilsport.

"The Birds" / "One Day Like This" - Elbow

Guess which band provided the song titles that I used in this week's report then? I used "Starlings", "Leaders of the Free World" and "Neat Little Rows".  So neither of the two songs that subsequently got stuck in my head. Go figure.

"No One Knows" - Queens of the Stone Age

Sunday night at Glastonbury?  Sorted.

"The Wombling Song" - The Wombles

... and probably my favourite act on the whole Glastonbury bill this year. Paul Simon? Morrissey? Don McClean? U2? Coldplay? Beyonce.... you can keep'em.  It's all about the tidying up (as anyone who has seen the litter devastation of the festival will be able to confirm).  I used to have a tape of Wombles songs, including a nice little number about Madame Cholet (" sweet as cafe au lait").  You can't argue with the theme tune though, eh?  Mike Batt might have made a fortune out of Katie Melua, but this is the proof of his genius.

"Sweet Disposition" - Temper Trap

Yeah, so it's been out for while and has been used to soundtrack a million montages, but I finally got around to buying it last weekend.  You know I was talking the other day about songs that you hear that sound like nothing else you've heard?  I think that this is one of those songs.  I have no idea if the Temper Trap album is worth having (and it seemed to be well reviewed on Amazon).... but the beauty of the internet is the ability to cherry pick, and so I did.

"So Lonely" / "I Can't Stand Losing You" - The Police

Here's the thing: there are other songs here, but in truth the only things that have really been stuck in my head all week have been songs by The Police.  I used to have "Outlandos D'Amour" and "Regatta de Blanc" on cassette, but I had a sudden craving last weekend to listen to The Police again, and no other band would do, so I downloaded a £3 greatest hits. I'll be honest, by the time we hit songs like "Synchronicity II", "King of Pain" and "Tea in the Sahara", then pretentious Sting has taken hold and the results are increasingly painful...."Russians" is no more than a particularly extended tantric sex session away, when we'll learn whether or not the Russians love their children too.  Mind you, the writing's probably on the wall when he's banging on about "that book by Nabakov" in "Don't Stand So Close To Me".  Far better on songs where he's talking about your girlfriend's brother being six feet ten or nobody knocking on your door, for a thousand years of more.  Simpler times.  Happier times.  Better songs.  Anyway.  Stuck in my head ALL WEEK.  Totally unshiftable.  My apologies to my colleagues.

At least it wasn't "Walking on the Moon" sung in a cod reggae accent.  "Neil Armstrong? Walking on me face.  Buzz Aldrin? Walking on me face...And then the third one, the spaceman, walking on me face.  All on the surfaces and looking at all the stuff... that the moon has got to offer."

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

Thursday, 14 April 2011

some people call me maurice....

This evening, I went to a stand-up comedy gig at a venue about 10 minutes walk from my house.  To be honest, until today, I didn't even know that this place was a comedy venue.... but apparently this is their first gig.  It always used to be the social club for the employees of one of Nottingham's most famous companies, and although they sold it off a while ago, it still seems to be full of elderly guys drinking mild and playing snooker.  Nothing wrong with that, of course.... but not a natural crowd for some alternative comedy, you would think.

As the first gig in a new venue, tonight's show was completely free.  The car park was full when I arrived, but it turned out that I was the first person to arrive for the gig, even though doors were at 6pm, and I walked in at about 19:50 with the show due to start at 20:00.  The room slowly filled up, although it never got more than half full, and was probably the strangest crowd I have ever seen, with the youngest people in the room by far the performers and their friends, and everyone else a pensioner taking advantage of the offer of 10p off a pint of mild in the Lounge only.

I expect the performers feared the worst, and the compere certainly tried his best to get everyone warmed up, but with little response.  It's not that people weren't interested, but that they were only laughing politely, and that there weren't enough people in the room to gather a critical mass of laughter to really light the place up.

The first comedian was a confident performer, but the response he got was pretty muted, and although I thought he was okay, I think he was glad to get off the stage.  Next up was a girl whose set consisted of a series of quickfire one liners and gags in the style of Jimmy Carr or Tim Vine.  I thought she was amusing enough, but I personally prefer a set where the comic tells you a story, and where they can refer back to things they said earlier and build up a bit of a rhythm.  When you rely on one-liners like this, the pacing is much jerkier.  She got a better reaction from the crowd, but I think that was mainly because the volume of gags was much higher, and if you didn't like one, then another would soon be along.  Not groundbreaking, but entertaining enough.

After a short break, and the arrival of a few more pensioners allowed out for a pint after their tea, we continued with the real reason I was there: LB's second ever stand-up gig.  I missed the first one, but when he tweeted about this one, I knew I had to be there.  I don't know how he was feeling, and he seemed calm enough, but I was nervous.  It almost doesn't matter what the audience's reaction to your set is, because having the balls to stand up there in the first place is something that I don't think I will ever have, and I take my hat off to anyone and everyone who does.  As it happens, LB is good at this: his delivery is confident, and because his material was about things that everyone knows something about - The Grand National, The Royal Wedding, the Olympics - there was something for the audience to latch on to.  I'm sure he would have much preferred a crowd that whooped and hollered - who wouldn't? - but although they weren't incredibly vociferous, I thought that they were more than politely amused and that in his short-ish set, he built up quite a lot of momentum and goodwill.  Really good.  Not just better than I was expecting, but really promising, I thought. Calm, confident and in control.  Also, funny.

Quite how good LB had been was immediately brought home by the next act on, who started their set with a joke about "yawn rape".  Now, bearing in mind that I was probably a good 20 years younger than the average age of the crowd, and I didn't know what that was, I'm not sure he was on a particularly firm footing to then move onto a gag about "bum rape".  It went downhill from there.  He did a nice thing a couple of times where he paused, fractionally longer than was comfortable, before remarking that "there's usually a bigger laugh there".  Unfortunately, by the second time he did it, I realised that he wasn't joking, and he ended his set early, storming off and calling us all wankers, which seemed a bit much.  It makes you realise though that this is an extremely difficult thing to do: standing up in front of a room full of strangers and making them like you and laugh at your jokes.  LB did it, this guy did not.

Best heckle of the night was when one of the acts following LB mentioned that he came from Ripley in Derbyshire, and one of the old gents immediately shouted out "Cock Inn".  After a fractional pause as he took this in, the comic was then able to confirm that in fact there was a pub called the Cock Inn in Ripley, and that this was probably the best, and most specific heckle he's ever received.

An entertaining night in front of a potentially very awkward crowd.  LB did himself proud.  Respect is due.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

libraries gave us power....

There's an interesting article in the Guardian today reporting on the American Library Association's list of the books that people tried to ban most often last year. As always, it's an excellent opportunity to sneer at the stupidity of Americans, condemning books that they probably haven't read for all sorts of ridiculous reasons. The top book for 2010 is a case in point: "And Tango Makes Three", a picture book telling the true story of a chick adopted by two male Emperor penguins at New York's Central Park zoo. Reasons given for trying to ban it? homosexuality, religious viewpoint and unsuited to age group. Ridiculous, right? The list also includes "Brave New World" (Insensitivity, offensive language, racism, sexually explicit) and "Twilight" (Religious viewpoint, violence).

This year's list is mostly made up of more modern books (read the full list here), but last year's list included classics like JD Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye", Alice Walker's "The Color Purple" and Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird", and don't even mention "The Origin of the Species"..... Insert your own snarky remark about idiot Americans here (and the comments below the article are, of course, full of exactly that: remarks about how these people should be complaining about the Old Testament, how the only complaint you should be making about "Twilight" is how badly written it is etc. etc.)

One word of caution though: almost as an aside, the article mentions that the ALA made the list up based on 348 reports of efforts to remove books from America's shelves in 2010, down from 460 the previous year.

Um. 348 reports? In a country with a population of more than 300 million people, we are making judgements on a whole nation based on a sample of less than 400? How narrow-minded does that make us? (also, how do you even get a top ten list out of a sample that small? Way to create worldwide publicity for libraries... go the ALA!)

On a similar subject, you might have heard about the US publishing company that was re-issuing Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn" (first published in 1884) with the 200 uses of the word "nigger" replaced with the word "slave" to make it more "acceptable", also removing the word "injun" whilst they were at it. Before we all start frothing at the mouth about that, it's worth noting that the Guardian also published an article today reporting that - contrary to what we might have assumed - a Harris poll of 2,379 American adults taken in March found that 77% were opposed to the change, with 59% strongly opposing it. Conservatives, moderates and liberals were all equally likely to disagree with the change, according to the survey, while 80% of white adults were against it, as opposed to 71% of Hispanic adults and 63% of black people polled.

That's another lazy assumption about Americans squashed then.

Well, although the poll also showed that 56% think that no book should be banned completely, to be fair, 34% did say that children should not be able to get books with vampires in from school libraries (not even Dracula?), while 41% also believe books that include witchcraft or sorcery should not be available in school libraries.) I wonder what a similar survey taken in the UK would say. Particularly if run by the Daily Mail.

Incidentally, when was the last time you were in a library? I popped into one last May, I think, and I didn't borrow a book (although C. did). I'm horrified at the thought that the current Government is threatening to shut them down, of course, but I have to say that I don't really use them myself any more.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

same old song and dance....

I do not have, by any means, an encyclopaedic knowledge of music. I sometimes even wonder whether I genuinely love music, or if I just set about relentlessly acquiring it. I surely have more music on my computer than I can reasonably listen to (36.8 days of continuous listening, apparently, and I haven't even bothered to rip everything in my collection.  I discovered I hadn't done "Automatic for the People" the other day....). So much music, and yet I keep adding to it. I download MP3s and buy CDs, and each one is relentlessly swallowed into the gaping maw of iTunes. If I don't make a note of them, whole albums can disappear before I've ever really get around to giving them a proper listen.

When I flick through my library looking for something to listen to, how often do I settle onto the same old familiar names? Even if I avoid that trap by setting up a playlist, I often catch myself just listening to the same playlist on shuffle, over and over again. It takes that little bit of extra effort to browse a bit deeper and to pull up something that might be lodged just a little below the surface. This week, I've been doing a lot of reading instead of watching the telly, and it's been a real delight to do so accompanied by things like "Hunky Dory" by Bowie or "After the Gold Rush" by Neil Young.

One thing I've noticed as I get older is that, when I listen to a piece of new music, I often find it easy to hear its influences. That's not always the case, of course, but neither is is all that surprising when it does happen. I suppose I'm probably long enough in the tooth now to have heard the influences the first time around, perhaps even those same influences heard second-hand in other bands that then influence the next generation along (I'm not quite at the point where I'm the oldest person at the gigs I go to, but it can't be far off!).

I'm not entirely sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing: on the one hand it's kind of satisfying to be able to listen to some new music and to be able to pull it apart, but on the other hand, doesn't that knowledge rob you of a slice of the pleasure you get when you hear an amazing piece of music for the first time and it sounds like nothing else on Earth?

I think I've always -- within certain boundaries... classical music remains a mystery to me -- been musically curious; when I heard that such and such a person was an influence on a band I liked, I was the kind of person who wanted to seek out that influence as it was a way to discover more music and to try and understand. I suppose it might also be the historian in me, wanting to drill back to the source. I like to ask questions, and I like the fact that listening to Nirvana led me back to Neil Young and to David Bowie. (By the same token, do you think that Beady Eye are at all influenced by the Beatles? Tee Hee. Even their moody photographs look like they're trying to be Rubber Soul....)

That said, when I heard a song on the radio the other day, all I could hear was a Smiths pastiche with a singer who wasn't Morrissey and a guitarist who wasn't Johnny Marr. It wasn't a terrible song, I suppose, but I couldn't get past the fact that it wasn't anywhere near as good as The Smiths. When I got home, I googled the song, fascinated by who had created this song so nakedly in hock to one of my favourite bands. Slightly held back by a mondegreen that led me to think the lyric was "the trouble with Tiny...." (and wouldn't that be a Morrissey-esque lyric?), I eventually discovered that the song was "I Remember Moonlight" by The Crookes (with the lyric, "The trouble with time is...."). The Crookes may be an excellent band, but in my head they have already been marked down as inferior to the bands that came before them.  They may be excellent, but I will always prefer to listen to The Smiths. 

That's not to say that I can't still be thrilled by a piece of new music, or by a something that wears its influences on its sleeve (I think I heard, amongst other bands, a bit of Tom Petty, of all people, on the new Noah & the Whale album...).  I was only reflecting this morning, when I heard the new song by the Arctic Monkeys, that "I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor" had me dancing in the shower when I heard it for the first time as it leapt out of the speaker of my radio and grabbed me by the throat and shook me.... it's just that.... ack. I'm old. And no, since you ask, I don't think the Arctics have managed to do anything as good as that first single thus far... certainly not the new song, anyway. 

As a sidebar to this, early on into my career as a music reviewer for the Leftlion, I find myself typecast: in this month's issue, I review the second album by Nottingham punks, Verbal Warning. For next month's issue, I've been assigned the forthcoming album by Derby's Fixit Kid, described by the music editor as "punk, rock, hardcore".

Bring it on.... although I bet they sound like the Buzzcocks*.

* they don't....

Monday, 11 April 2011


I was really enjoying Duncan Hamilton's biography of Harold Larwood right up until our hero set sail for Australia in 1932. It's strange that the very series that made Larwood's name (for better and for worse) is where things start to go downhill for the book, but there it is. I was gripped by the story of the making of one of the greatest fast bowlers to play the game, and how he climbed out of a Nottinghamshire mine and into the England Test side, but as soon as Larwood reached the very apex of his career, I felt Hamilton's story went off the boil. Perhaps it's because the 1932/33 Bodyline series is one of the most heavily raked over in cricket history, and perhaps Hamilton decided that if he couldn't add anything to what had already been written on the subject, perhaps he should just skip on. It's no better in covering Larwood's return to England and the aftermath of the controversy that left Larwood marginalised and embittered. I realised I was starting to struggle with the book and decided to take a break.

I heard Martin Millar mentioned by Robin Ince on Steve Lamaq's show on 6 Music last week, referring to his books as being the next step on from Nick Hornby's "Fever Pitch" and implying that they were the book of choice for someone who was serious about their music. I was intrigued, and looked him up.

The book I looked at had an introduction by Neil Gaiman, which is a pretty good start, but it seemed to be a story that was less about music and more about fairies living in New York. Well, that's not a deal-breaker for me, as I love Gaiman's books on similar themes and have a long history of reading fantasy books from the Dragonlance series (which I devoured when I was a teenager), through David Eddings, Raymond E. Feist, Terry Pratchett, Tolkien (of course) and on to Susannah Clarke's "Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell" (which also deals with fairies). Intrigued, I researched further on Wikipedia, and discovered that Millar has also written a series of detective novels under the pseudonym "Martin Cross" and set in a distinctly Ankh-Morporkian world of elves, orcs, dragons and barbarians. On a whim, I downloaded "Thraxas", the first of the series, and the winner of the 2000 World Fantasy Award.

It was great, and most importantly, it got me through my Harold Larwood induced blockage, and I ripped through it in less than a day.

Our hero, Thraxas, is a drunken, overweight, middle-aged detective who finds himself caught up in all manner of political intrigues and conspiracies. It's clearly not high art, but the characters are drawn with real zest and humour and the plot just zings along. It's the first book in a series of 8 (so far), and although I moved straight onto Millar's own "The Good Fairies of New York" rather than the next Thraxas book, I imagine it may be some time before I finish that Larwood book off.

Being set in an entirely imaginary world, Thraxas doesn't feature much in the way of contemporary music references, but "The Good Fairies of New York" has so far featured plenty of references to the New York Dolls and the main characters were exiled from Fairy partly because of their desire to weave Ramones songs into their traditional folk music.  Promising.  I also see from Millar's blog that the Runaways are the favourite band of one of the characters in another of his books.  Although they're not set in a record store, there seems to be a strong musical thread in his books and I like that a lot.

As literature goes, it might not be on that Facebook Times list of 100 books you should read before you die, but then as Dan Brown's "Da Vinci Code" is included on that list, I'm not sure quite how much of a recommendation that really is....

Nevermind the setting; there's something magical about losing yourself entirely inside a book.  I'm off to do just that.

Right now. Perhaps with a cup of tea.

Friday, 8 April 2011

whatever happened to the boy that I once knew?

Earworms of the Week

James Bond Theme - Monty Norman
"You Know My Name" - Chris Cornell

It's been a bit of a bumper week for earworms... my head has been churning them out, and I've made a bit more of an effort to write them down.  Lots of theme tunes, for some reason... starting with a bit of a James Bond theme.  Well, with the James Bond theme itself.  Usually credited to Monty Norman, but I believe that was a bit of a sore point with the great John Barry.  Still, it's an absolutely classic.  Not timeless, exactly, as it does in truth sound a little bit of its era.... but none the worse for that.  The Chris Cornell theme to Casino Royale popped into my head a little later in the week of its own accord.  I was browsing through the "Purchased" playlist on my iTunes, and this was actually straight after the song that I went looking for, and I left the stereo on until it was finished.  For lots of people, it's not a classic Bond theme, but I like it.  Both as a Bond theme (it's the surging brass bits) but - more importantly - as a song in its own right.  Great rock voice too.

"Voodoo Chile" - Jimi Hendrix

It's famous for a reason.  No guitarist, before or since, sounded anything like this.

Theme from Parkinson
Theme from Terry & June
Theme from the muppet show

Ah, and so into a run on 1970s tv theme tunes.  GJ, who sits next to me at work, deserves some credit for these (and if I don't give him any, then he'll be on here demanding it...).  Terry & June featured in this week's pub quiz in the backwards round, but the others arrived when I was sat at my desk.  The Parkinson theme is a classic of the genre, of course.... although now I come to think of it, I can't remember if we started singing this tune before or after GJ's terrible Michael J. Fox joke.  Before, I think.  The joke made me laugh, but it is shockingly poor.  Shame on you, GJ.  All classic tunes that have stood the test of time though, eh?  You can't argue with the Muppet's theme, can you?

"Popcorn" - Gershon Kingsley / Hot Butter

Kingsley did it originally, but it was made famous by Hot Butter.  The first electronic / techno hit in chart history, apparently.  Whatever.  You can't beat a good moog instrumental, that's what I always say.

"If I Can't Change Your Mind" - Sugar

"Copper Blue" came out when I was at University, I think (yeah, it was the NME's album of the year in 1992, so it was my first year).  The chances are that I probably played this on the my show on University Radio.  Whatever.  This was the kind of era when I was listening to the Lemonheads, "Modern Life is Rubbish" era Blur, Belly and debut album period Suede after emerging, blinking, from my long years in the heavy metal wilderness.  The reason this song works is the tune, pure and simple.  Listen to it now: it's a great pop song.  You could give this song to almost anyone and it would sound great.

"Hash Pipe" - Weezer

Speaking of heavy metal, the riff on this record -- by a famously weedy indie band -- is muscular to say the least, and the record enjoys at least one magnificent "UH!" by Rivers Cuomo.  You have to be pretty resolutely contrary to come up with a song this catchy and then give it a name that is going to immediately alienate you from the mainstream (in the USA at least).  LOVE them for that.

"After the Gold Rush" - Neil Young

There's a lovely article on the Guardian today about the songs that make you cry.  Rosie Swash picks this one, and reading her reasoning had me reaching for my iPod to give it a listen.  It doesn't make me cry, but it is a beautiful song.  I was asked by my boss this afternoon if I was in a bad mood, and I had to reply, "I'm listening to Neil Young.  How could I be in a bad mood?".  Lovely song.  "I was lying in a burned out basement with the full moon in my eyes."  Not too shabby that, as lyrics go.

"Who's in Control" - British Sea Power

They're a bit willfully awkward, aren't they?  In spite of being nominated for the Mercury Prize a few years ago, they're still almost deliberately non-mainstream, with their plus-fours and with all the bits of tree and things that they like to decorate their stage with.  When they get it right, though, the tunes speak for themselves.  I love "Waving Flags", and by the second time I heard this record on 6 Music this week, and found myself singing along, I knew that this one had stuck too.

"She's Lost Control" - Joy Division

Speaking of control.... my favourite Joy Division song.  As I've mentioned before, I try to pick a band each week and then slip the titles of their songs into the weekly report that I have to write.  During a fire alarm break from a meeting, one of my colleagues came up to me and said he'd clocked how I used The Smiths the other week (I've also used the Beach Boys and the Manic Street Preachers, to name two), and he asked if I could use Joy Division this week.  His wish was my command.   Although I couldn't use this particular song (can you imagine?), I was able to squeeze in "Transmission", which pleased me greatly.  Well, you have to keep yourself entertained during the working day, no?

The Shangri-Las - "Remember (Walking in the Sand) / Leader of the Pack

"Is she really going out with him?".

"Leader of the Pack" is probably their most famous song, and it's ace of course.... (even if it makes me think of the Rocky Horror show) but the song that's been stuck in my head above all others this week is the beautiful "Remember".  This version has been stuck in my head, but the first time the song came to my attention, was when Aerosmith did a cover at some point in the 1970s.  I went through a big Aerosmith phase around the time "Pump" came out, and slowly worked my way backwards through their catalogue..... but this week it's been all about the Shangri-Las.  They're probably not even in the top division of all-girl groups, but I love the atmosphere of this recording nonetheless.  Melancholy.  Right up my street. 

So.... bumper edition of earworms over.  Enjoy your weekend.  The forecast is good, I hear.....  stay classy, y'all.

BBQ's for everyone!

Thursday, 7 April 2011

can't stop...

I've accidentally upped my exercise regime.

I'm supposed to be careful about how much I put my body through, but in my defence, it wasn't really supposed to work out like this.  It started when I began to have swimming lessons a couple of months ago.  My intention was only to try to become a more efficient swimmer.  The muscles in my arms and shoulders are the most affected by my MS and are both weakened and vulnerable to muscle wastage.  Most of the exercise I take is centered around running, and although that's great, it doesn't do much for the muscle conditioning of my upper body.  I do some exercises as I get out of bed on three mornings every week, but if I was going to swim, I wanted to make sure I was getting the maximum benefit from my effort.

As it turned out, I was hardly using my arms at all in the water; whirling them around whilst my legs put in most of the effort.  A little bit of coaching and I could already feel the difference just in quite how tired my arms and shoulders were when I got out of the pool.  I was given some drills, and with the incentive and the focus given to me by Lucy, my instructor, I quickly found I was swimming some 1500m+ every time I got into the pool, and I was using up one of my two rest days in the week to squeeze in another session.  My overall mileage in the pool each week probably more than doubled.

In addition to this, my boss expressed an interest in doing some running at work.  He's trying to shift some weight, and has been doing stirling work throughout the winter months by cycling the 40 minutes each way between home and work.  The weight is coming off, but he was wanting to do more.  I generally go out running every Tuesday lunchtime with another of my colleagues.  In that session, we push each other reasonably hard: left to my own devices, I tend to run slower in my second mile and faster at the start and end of a run.  My colleague is the reverse, and so we act as a spur to the other to run a little faster and harder.  Although keen to encourage my boss, he didn't want to muscle in on that session and force us both to run slower.... so we added a session on a Friday lunchtime.  We only go out for a little over three miles, and we generally run a good minute per mile slower, but it's more than enough to get a bit of a sweat on and to feel the burn in my muscles.  I already swim on a Friday night, so that's a double session day..... which I'm really feeling when I go running on a Saturday morning.

As I say, I need to be careful and listen to the signals my body is giving me.  I forced out 6 miles on Saturday, swam 1900m on Sunday and was subsequently exhausted on Monday.  I ran on Tuesday lunchtime, but it was hard and, given that I was injecting that night, I decided that Wednesday was a day off.

The injection often leaves me worn out, and indeed, I was barely able to get out of bed on Wednesday morning and needed to take one of my pep pills before 10am.  Sometimes it's as important to rest as it is to exercise.

I didn't feel too bad at football today.  Not great - I always find the stop-start nature of football much harder than the rhythm of running - but my biggest problem was the deep, needle-shaped bruise extending into the muscle of my left thigh that I could feel every single time I took a step.

Stupid body.

Am I going to rest tomorrow?  No.  Of course not.  I'm going to go running with my boss at lunchtime and then have a swimming lesson in the evening. 

I might be stubborn, or I might just be an idiot, but I'm not dead yet.  Until you die, live.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

I got chills....

I can't really think of a single concrete justification for needing one, but I am finding myself strangely drawn towards the new iPad.

When the original came out last year, I played with one for a while in an Apple store in San Francisco. It surfed the internet nicely enough, but it seemed a little heavy in my hand after even a couple of minutes use. I loved my iPhone, but the iPad seemed like a really cool device that didn't really have a compelling raison d'etre, and Apple seemed to be hoping to find one post-launch.

I saw one in use a few months later, on our trip to SE Asia. One of the guys we were travelling with would use it to read books and to edit the photos and videos he was taking as we went on our way around Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. I get the video editing bit (although I'm also pretty sure that it could have waited until he got back home, and that his friends could have lived without daily Facebook video updates) but I don't really see the iPad as a practical e-reader. This guy took his iPad to the beach one day, but he found that it was both too hot and too bright to practically use the device. Marissa's kindle was fine in the same conditions. When I got home, I wanted a kindle, not an iPad. I know a kindle doesn't have as much capability as an iPad, but it's a whole lot better at doing the one thing that it's really designed to do..... Mind you, on the flight on the way home, when the only film showing on the big screen was "Furry Vengeance", I suddenly understood what the iPad is for when I trudged wearily down to back of the plane and saw someone curled up in their seat underneath a blanket, with their iPad propped up in front of them, watching a film of THEIR choosing.

So, now the new one is out. I played with one in an Apple store when we were in New York the other week, and the new model seemed a lot lighter in the hand. I browsed the Guardian website, and it was great.... as an iPhone user, it's not the biggest leap of the imagination to find the interface on an iPad an entirely intuitive way to navigate around a website.

I'm sure they're great, but what would I use one for really? They seemed to have plenty in stock, but I still didn't want one.

Not two weeks later, now I'm back in the UK, where prices are the same in £ as they were in $ in New York, and where it's impossible to get hold of one anyway.... suddenly I find that I kind of want one.

I'm not saying I'm going to rush out and buy one or anything.... I'm just acknowledging that something in my head has changed. I can't rationalise it, but it's there.


Tuesday, 5 April 2011

I make the fire but I miss the fire fight....

So Wayne Rooney has been banned for two games for his foul-mouthed tirade into a pitchside camera as he completed a hat-trick in Saturday's match against West Ham.  He apparently accepts the charge, but not the ban.  Like all things in football, this seems to have stimulated an enormous amount of debate, with people arguing the toss from every conceivable angle.  Quite why anyone would seem surprised by this, given the form of footballers in general and Rooney in particular, is something of a mystery to me.  Earlier this season, another England international, Ashley Cole, accidentally shot a student with a .22 air rifle at Chelsea's training ground.  He got away unpunished.  These people, it seems, do not have to abide by the same rules and standards as the rest of us.

I'm pretty sure we already had a pretty good idea of this fact, however... so can anyone really say they were genuinely surprised by any of this?  Seems pretty par for the course to me.

I've been reading a biography of Harold Larwood, the great English fast bowler from the 1920s and 30s.  Times, I think it's safe to say, have changed.  Larwood was the son of a miner and spent several years down the pit himself before earning a contract with Nottinghamshire.  His first contract to play cricket was actually for the same money as he earned down the mine, and did not include expenses for kit and travel, but Larwood took it all the same as a way out into the sunlight from the darkness, the sweat and the danger.  He was the son of devout methodists, and he barely even drank when he started playing.... although this soon changed under his Notts captain, Arthur Carr, who was something of a bon-viveur and convinced that a fast bowler could not work without copious amounts of beer to fortify him.  A "Nottingham Sandwich", a fast bowler's lunch during a game, was apparently beer - as many as four pints - and a couple of cigarettes, perhaps accompanied by some cheese.  Did Larwood get into any trouble as a result of this; thrown out of any nightclubs; involved in any fights or caught with antique prostitutes?  No. He went out and took hundreds of wickets.

Larwood, incredibly for a fast bowler (even at the time), stood a mere 5'7" and weighed 11 stone, and yet he was one of the fastest bowlers who ever lived... probably comfortably exceeding 100mph, and he was unerringly accurate with it.  A blow from a ball he delivered was said to have an impact of some 2 tonnes, which given that batsmen barely had adequate padding, never mind a helmet, seems a remarkable statistic.  Larwood was uncommonly good, then, but he always made it clear that he only became this good through application and hard, hard work.  He had been down the mines and he knew that if he didn't put his heart and soul into his job as a professional cricketer, then he would be back down the mines in a flash.  He wanted something else from his life and he was prepared to work for it.  He also apparently never forgot where he had come from, and tried never to do anything that would make his family or his friends or his former colleagues down the mine ashamed of him.  He was a real hero.

Harold Larwood is, of course, infamous for his role in the 1932/33 Bodyline Ashes series, when "Leg Theory" bowling designed to curb the runmaking of Don Bradman threatened to bring down the entire British Empire.  It seems almost incredible now, less than a century later, that this could be true, but it really happened.  Imagine what those guys would have made of Wayne Rooney or Ashley Cole.  Larwood was made the sacrificial lamb for the Bodyline series, and as well as bowling himself into the ground during the series (at the end of a day's play, Larwood would ring blood out his socks and the soles of his feet turned black - he was never the same player again), he was never picked for England again and eventually emigrated to Australia.  Shamefully, he never really received his due and was shunned by the English cricketing community as a punishment for something that was not even against the laws of the game.  He was amongst the very best players this country has ever produced, and yet got almost nothing for his efforts.

Rooney may or may not turn out to be a great player yet, but it seems unlikely that he will go to his grave ungarlanded and counting the pennies.  If he has any humility, it is well hidden.

We had a better class of hero in them days, son.

Monday, 4 April 2011

every cowboy sings his sad, sad song....

About halfway through a 6 mile run on Saturday, I was running along a canal towpath when I suddenly felt a sharp pain in my left foot. At first I thought I had somehow got a stone in my shoe, and was cursing the need to stop for a few seconds to fish it out. It was one of those days and one of those runs: a run and a swim on Friday afternoon meant that I had precious little energy and the run was already something of a slog with three miles still to go. My pace was steadily slackening off, and about the last thing I needed was to waste a few precious seconds fiddling with my shoe. A quick glance downwards revealed that I had bigger problems than a stone in my shoe: I had a small hawthorn branch attached to my foot and had, in fact, trodden on a thorn (like the one pictured above - ouch).

I stopped and kicked off my shoe. The thorn had, in fact, gone right through the sole of my shoe and buried itself into my foot, just below my middle toe. It didn't actually hurt all that much, and it wasn't bleeding, so I just carefully picked it out and went on my way... grumpy about the fact that my new running shoes now had a hole.

Once I got home, a closer look at my foot revealed that the thorn had actually gone quite deep into my foot. There didn't seem to be any fragments, and there still wasn't any bleeding, but quite a bruise was developing. Ouch. But what about my shoe? Your running shoe is your most crucial piece of gear and I'd gone to some trouble to make sure that I'd got the trainer that was best suited to the way that I ran. How could I be sure that a thorn wouldn't fatally compromise the support of the shoe? I wasn't keen to write off the money I'd spent barely two weeks before, but I would rather buy a new pair of trainers than to potentially do myself a mischief by running with one damaged shoe.

But what could I do? At lunchtime on Sunday, I went to the Brooks UK website, found the "contact us" link and sent them an email:

"Hi - I bought a pair of GTS11s a few weeks ago, and they've been great. Quick question though: I was out running yesterday and managed to stand on a large thorn that went all the way through the sole of the shoe and into the ball of my left foot. I'm basically okay, but was worrying about whether or not this could have compromised the support/cushioning the shoe is giving my foot. Apart from the hole, they look ok, but I don't want to risk hurting myself if something has been damaged and it affects my gait. Have you got any advice?"

To be honest, I wasn't expecting much. It was Sunday, for starters, but what was I expecting them to do? They were hardly going to offer to replace the shoe, were they? Well, nothing ventured, I suppose. If they only gave me peace of mind, then it was worth doing.

A couple of hours after I sent my email, I had a reply:

"Oh dear - glad you were not injured along with the shoe! I have forwarded your query to our Sales Manager who will know the answer to your question. He will be back to you just as soon as he can"

Not too shabby on a Sunday, I thought. As well as trying to get an answer to my question, they actually seemed concerned about my foot. It got better. A couple of hours after that, I received this email:

"Hi Tim. Don't worry, the thorn won't have damaged anything. The midsole material "biomogo" is a solid foam so the splinter won't cause any problems. The GTS11 also features our new cushioning called "DNA" which is also a solid compound so won't be affected. You should get many happy miles out of your shoes still. Enjoy the training"

You've got to admit, that's a pretty speedy turnaround and also a pretty thorough answer..... and it was a Sunday, to boot.  I was impressed.

So, Brooks Sports (Martin and Reina especially): I salute you!

We're quick to moan when we get bad customer service, so good customer service is worth flagging up, I reckon.  Anyone googling their way here wondering about Brooks' Running Shoes and/or their customer service... both are great.

Still no reply from their (US-based) Twitter feed though.... I suppose you can't have everything.

Friday, 1 April 2011

we're making our own way out....

Earworms of the Week

"California Uber Alles" - Dead Kennedys

See below.  Still a magnificent record, mind.  That opening is both menacing and a weapons grade earworm.


"Alouette" is the french word for skylark, apparently, and the song itself is about plucking the feathers off one of these lovely little birds.  In the lyrics, the singer is informing the bird that they will pluck its head, nose, eyes and wings and then tail.

Alouette, gentille Alouette (Skylark, nice skylark)
Alouette, je te plumerai (Skylark, I shall pluck you)
Je te plumerai la tête (I shall pluck your head)
Je te plumerai la tête (I shall pluck your head)
Et la tête (and your head)
Et la tête (and your head)
Alouette (Skylark)

And this is a song that we actively encourage our children to sing.

French Canadians are weird.

*update*  I've been reminded why this song was in my head: it's all down to GJ, who also knew what the song was describing.  Credit where credit is due, eh?  I think it's the Mensa anthem.... along with the Okey-Cokey, obviously.  Those in the know - Mensa members foremost among them - all realise that the okey-cokey IS what it's all about.  Sir Clive Sinclair told them.  Very good GJ.  As you were.

Theme from Bergerac

Ah, why aren't there more tv programmes about Jersey-based detectives with ambiguous relationships with jewel thieves and rich friends called Charlie Hungerford?  Forget Midsomer, John Nettles should be making more of these.  Great electric guitar work with French stylings around the edges.  Do you see what they did there?  Channel Islands?  France?  Nice.  Mainly inspired by the fact that we call one of our colleagues "Bergerac" as he looks a little like a fat John Nettles.  Completely coincidentally, a still from the credits subsequently appeared as a question in the pub quiz too, which was nice....

"Heart of Glass" - Blondie (jazz version)

Not the traditional version, you understand, but a jazz version of my own composition.  I'm not quite as pleased with this as I was with the Reggae Police version of "Roxanne" ("you don't have to put on de red light").  Mind you, as the reggae Police brought the rhinos out to play WITHOUT FAIL whenever we sung it in Etosha National Park in Namibia, that's hardly surprising.  I have to be quite careful how I use it in the UK.  I'm not sure a whacking great big rhino would be all that welcome in Market Square in the middle of Nottingham.

"I Wanna Be Like You" - King Louie

I think that this one springs from either the little mouth trumpet solo that King Louie does in the middle of this song, of the bit where Balloo goes "I'm gone man, solid gone" and keeps doing a little scat even after everyone else has stopped..... I think I was on a bit of a scat jazz theme this week.  Mmmmm.  Nice.

"Wannabe" - Spice Girls

Nearly 15 years after my spell working in HMV York and an enforced period of listening to this album, over and over again FOR WEEKS AND WEEKS, I can still pretty much remember every word.  Imagine my delight when this popped into my head.  Gah!  A friend of a friend of mine used to date Mel C, as it happens.  Apparently they used to ask him if he fancied a beer after their game of footie, and he used to make his excuses and say that he had to go to a movie premiere with the missus.  No idea if they're still together, but the thought used to make me chuckle.  She was my favourite.  Not in THAT sense, but because she seemed nice.... perhaps only relative to the others, but still.

"Cars" - Gary Newman

Best keyboard riff ever?  I don't even like cars much and I enjoy this song.  I also quite like Top Gear, although I do think that it's probably jumped the shark a bit recently, and the scripting of those stunts is becoming ever more obvious.  The car stuff I can take or leave, obviously.  Nor did I care who the Stig was.  James May is my favourite there, probably.  He's the one I'd have a beer with, anyway.

"End of The Century" - Blur

I think that Blur's performance on the Pyramid Stage a couple of years ago was the best I have seen in all my years of attending the Glastonbury Festival: it was both emotionally draining and intensely satisfying.  They are a band I've loved for years, but had never actually got around to seeing live.  They were amazing.  "Tender" is probably the song that stays the longest in my memory from that night, but this little corker - which I hadn't listened to in ages - was also a real standout.  It seems ridiculous now that Blur were ever compared with Oasis.  There is no way in a million years that the Gallaghers could ever come up with something as interesting as this.  No way.

"Neat Little Rows" - Elbow

The jury is still out on the new album for me, but history tells me that Elbow albums are growers, and this album is growing on me slowly.  "Leaders of the Free World" is still my favourite though.

"Give It All Back" / "L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N" - Noah & the Whale

... on the other hand, I just can't stop listening to the new Noah & the Whale album.  I'm hopeful of getting my hands on a couple of tickets to their gig in Nottingham in 6 weeks or so, but in the meantime I seem to be putting on the album every time I get a spare minute.  "Give It All Back" is a slightly gauche song about a band that Charlie Fink formed when he was still at school.  It's short and a bit awkward, and I'm not entirely sure why I love it so much, but I really do.  "L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N" is a belter though; a bona fide classic.  I can't stop listening to it.

and that's your lot.  I've a weekend of sleeping, running and swimming in front of me, so I'm going to get right on with that (well, I took my boss out for a run at lunchtime and had a swimming lesson this evening, so mostly I'm just going to be flopping out in front of the telly with a beer, but you know what I mean).

Have a good weekend, y'all.