Tuesday, 31 May 2011

The distant echo of faraway voices boarding faraway trains...


I'm not in London very often, so I don't travel on the Underground more than a handful of times every year.  But I have travelled on it: I've travelled on it in rush hour at both ends of the day; I've travelled on it last thing at night; and I've travelled on it with the tourists at every other point of the day.  I've travelled on it drunk and I've travelled on it sober.  I've slept on it and I've smiled at strangers on it.  I wouldn't claim to be an expert, but I have never - as far as I can remember - felt particularly threatened on it.

I don't much like it, and I'm mildly in awe of those people who can remember which end of the platform they need to stand at to be in the right point for the exit at the station where they're getting off (I get lost in Oxford Circus all the time), but I've never been frightened.   I'm sure bad things happen on there all of the time, but I haven't seen them.

I mention this because I travelled on the Paris Metro a couple of times over the weekend: once to head across town from Gare du Nord to Gare D'Austerlitz to catch the train across to Orleans on Friday evening, and the same journey in reverse on Monday afternoon.  Nothing bad happened: we trekked across from platform to platform and waited for our trains, but on both occasions, I felt vaguely intimidated.


I'm not sure what it was.  It may have been the fact that I didn't really know where I was going and had completely abdicated responsibility to the journey to someone else.... but to be honest, that's true when we're in London too.

Perhaps it's the language.  I speak French, after a fashion, and I'm fairly sure I'd be able to struggle my way through enough of a conversation to get from A to B... but it is undeniably a little bit intimidating to be surrounded by people babbling away in a language that I only partially understand at a speed where I can barely make out a single word.... and yes, that's sometimes true in London too, and it doesn't bother me there.

Perhaps it's all of these things.

We might not like to admit it, but France and England are pretty close, both geographically and because of all our shared history.  A French statesman, seeking to flatter Lord Palmerston, told him, 'If I were not French, I Would wish to be English.' Palmerston apparently smugly replied, 'If I wasn't English, I would wish to be English.' (illustrating, at a stroke, why all French people might be well justified in hating us all....) In spite of this closeness though, it can feel pretty alien... at least it certainly does to me on the Paris Metro.  People even look different: both ethnically and physically.  London is a melting pot, of course, and even if you discount the tourists, the history of Britain has been defined by successive waves of immigrants.  So has the history of France, but the immigrants have often come from different countries.  Many people travelled to Britain after the Second World War from the Caribbean or the sub-continent or from East Africa.  Many people moved to France, at the same time or perhaps a little later on, from West Africa and North Africa.  The ethnic mix is superficially similar, but the immigrants in France look very different and have different coloured skin, different clothing and different languages.  To my eyes, it seems more unfamiliar to see someone with very dark skin wearing African traditional costume than it is to see someone with slightly lighter skin wearing a sari.  I don't have a problem with either, but the one is a much more familiar sight to me than the other and I suppose that as a result I'm more comfortable with it.

Never mind skin colour or traditional clothing, even people in more traditional "western" clothes look different to me.  It was hot in Paris over the weekend and people were wearing shorts and t-shirts.... but in England where people might be wearing baggy, shapeless shorts with cargo pockets with an un-tucked t-shirt, the French seem to like wearing straight line, chino-style shorts with tucked in shirts or polo shirts.  Not so very different, but different enough that you notice.  Ladies too seem to dress slightly more formally and wear slightly dressier outfits to work.  The cliche would say that the French are more elegant than their English equivalents; perhaps thinner and more expensively dressed.  Maybe, like many generalisations there's a little truth in that, or maybe they're just the ones that caught my eye, but people just look different somehow.  Same same, but different, as they would say in Vietnam, with a shrug of the shoulders.

I don't know why all of this might come together to make me feel slightly intimidated as I stood on the platform in Gare Du Nord waiting for the RER train to come along and take me to the airport, but it did.  I felt alien and out of place.

What I am sure of is that it definitely says more about me than it does about anyone else.  I'm not saying that different is not bad, it's just.... different.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

the seaweed is always greener in somebody else's lake....

Sometimes a day can best be summed up by a photo.  Today, that photo is this:






Yup.  Today was definitely Fish Balls.

Luckily it's a long weekend, so we're off to France tomorrow afternoon after work (and a whole damn day of three year planning which - yes - absolutely is as dull as it sounds.  Maybe worse).

The forecast in France is for excellent food with a good chance of wine.  This is good.  No: this is necessary.

See you on the other side people.  Stay classy.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

and so it goes, and so it goes....


It's World MS Day today.

*blows tiny party horn*

The purpose of the day - and of MS Week in general - is to raise awareness of both the condition and the charities that help support sufferers. As the MS Resource Centre puts it, "100,000 people in the UK are currently diagnosed with MS and countless more are affected by it. MS Awareness Week will hopefully spread more understanding of this life altering disease and more compassion to those whose lives are affected on a daily basis".

It's really hard to describe how having MS feels - not least because it's at least a little bit different for every single person who has it.  That doesn't stop people trying, and I've put one of them at the bottom of this post, below the video....

The thing I find about stuff like this is that it doesn't really describe the things I feel.  Yeah, sure.... I know a few of those symptoms all too well, but.... well... it all sounds a bit whiney to me.  I realise that I'm lucky enough to hardly be affected by my MS at all: I took part in a huge survey of people with MS this week, and for almost every question about how it affected me, I was able to say that I was able to do most things the way I had done them before.  There are plenty of people for whom MS has completely turned their lives upside-down, and it is not as simple as having a positive mental attitude.  I'm acutely aware of how lucky I am, and of what may (or may not) await me.

Perhaps, as relatively unaffected as I am, it's easy for me to say, but I have multiple sclerosis and there is nothing I, or anyone else, can do about it.  I have a choice: I can let it take over my life, or I can carry on with my life regardless.  Maybe if and when my condition deteriorates, I might change my mind, but as of now I don't see that as a difficult choice at all.

The footballer, Eric Abidal, may play for Barcelona in the Champions League Final on Saturday, mere months after surgery to remove a cancer that was threatening his life, never mind his playing career.  It's an amazing story, and I was really taken by something he said in an interview, published today, about how his experience had changed him:

"I now know how to differentiate between what really matters in life and what doesn't, I have sold my cars because they are pointless. When you play football you can buy whatever you want but, when something bad happens to you, you realise that [material possessions] are worthless. Now I will invest my money in hospitals, in helping children, in good causes.  I have changed a lot. You only have to look around to see what is happening in the world: wars, children dying of hunger. There are more important things in life. Football is small and unimportant alongside that."

I'm not about to start my own charitable foundation or anything like that, but being diagnosed with something like MS can give you pause to stop and look up at the world around you.  I love running and swimming and all the rest of it, perhaps even more so now that it's harder than it was before... but if I wake up tomorrow unable to do any of it; perhaps even unable to see or to get out of bed, then I hope I'll find something else to keep me busy instead.  Life goes on.

When they ran the first World MS Day in 2009, they produced a video.  I've posted it here before, but I think it's fantastic: being diagnosed with MS is a scary thing..... but it's categorically not a full stop; it doesn't have to be the end of the world.




Well, I think it's inspiring anyway.
---

Here's that thing I found online:

Understanding MS

When we say we can't do something because we don't feel well, put yourself in our shoes by using the examples of our symptoms below

What You Can Do To Understand:

Painful Heavy Legs: Tightly apply 20 lb ankle weights and 15 lb thigh weights then take a 1 mile walk, clean the house, go shopping and then sit down - how are you feeling?

Painful Feet: Put equal or unequal amounts of small pebbles in each shoe then take a walk. If we are mad at you we would prefer needles to pebbles.

Loss of Feeling in Hands and/or Arms: Put on extra thick gloves and a heavy coat then try and pick up a pencil. If successful stab yourself in the arm.

Loss of Feeling in Feet and/or Legs: Ask a doc for a shot of novocaine in both of your legs and then try and stand up and walk without looking like the town drunk. Hopefully you won't fall down.

TN (Trigeminal Neuralgia): Take an ice pick and jam it into your ear or cheek whenever the wind blows on it, or a stray hair touches it. If you want something easier to do, get someone to punch you in the jaw, preferably daily.

Uncontrollable Itching: Glue or sew small steel wool pads to the inside of your shirt, pants and undergarments. Wear them for an entire day.

Tingling: Stick your finger in an electrical socket - preferably wet.

Tight Banded Feeling: Put 12 inch wide belt around you. Make it as tight as you can and leave it there for the entire day. How’s your breathing?

Injections: Fill one of our spare needles with saline solution - saline won't hurt you. Give yourself a shot every time we do a shot.

Side Effects from the Injections: Bang your head against a wall, wrap yourself in a heating pad, wrap your entire body tightly with an ice bandage then finally treat yourself to some food or drink that's gone off.

Trouble Lifting Arms: Apply 20 lb wrist weights and try and reach for something on the highest shelf in your house.

Spasticity: Hook bungee cords to your rear belt loops and rear pant leg cuffs then for your arms hook bungee cords to your shirt collar and cuffs on shirt sleeves. Then go dancing.

Poor Hearing/Buzzing in Ears: Put a bee in each ear and then put a plug in each one...Bzzzzzzzzzzzz zzzzzz

Balance and Walking Problems: Drink 100 proof alcohol and then sit and spin in an office chair for 30 minutes. Now get up and see what happens.

Urgently Needing to Pee: We put a 0.5 litre remote controlled water bag and drip tube in your pants and point out 2 restrooms in a crowded mall. Then we tell you that you have 30 seconds before we activate the water bag (by remote control) to get to a restroom. Just for spite we may make that 20 seconds without telling you.

Bizarre and Inexplicable Sensations: Place tiny spiders on your legs or arms and allow them to periodically crawl around throughout the day.

Pins and Needles: Stab yourself repeatedly with needles all over your body.

Dizziness (Vertigo): Sit on a gently rocking boat all day and all night and take several walks around the deck with your eyes closed.

Fatigue: Stay awake for two full days to induce incredible fatigue and then cook dinner, clean the house, walk the dog and see how you feel. Please do not compare MS fatigue to you being tired from only a few hours of sleep - it's not the same at all.

Cognitive Function (Brain Fog): Take a liberal dose of sleeping pills but stay awake. Try and function properly and think clearly. To make it even more real (without killing yourself of course) take the sleeping pills with a small sip of wine.

Bowel Problems: Take a 4 day dose of an anti-diarrhoea medicine followed directly by a 3 day dose of stool softeners. Repeat for a minimum of 3 weeks. At the end of 3 weeks sit down on a hard uncushioned chair and stay there till tears appear.

Burning Feeling: Make a full pot of boiling water and then get someone to fill a water pistol with the boiling water and shoot it at you all day long.

Intention Tremor: Hook your body to some type of vibrating machine. Try and move your legs and arms.....hmmm are you feeling a little shaky? You are not allowed to use anything fun for this lesson.

Buzzing Feeling When Bending Head to Chest (L'Hermitte's): Place an electrical wire on your back and run it all the way down to your feet, then pour water on it and plug it in.

Vision Problems (Optic Neuritis): Smear Vaseline on glasses and then wear them to read the newspaper.

Memory Issues: Have someone make a list of items to shop for. When you come back that person adds two things to the list and asks why you didn't get them. When you come back from shopping again they take the list and erase three things and ask why you bought those things.

Foot Drop:Wear one swimming flipper and take about a 1/2 mile walk. Nothing else needs to be said for this one - you'll get it.

Depression: Take a trip to the animal shelter everyday and see all the lonely animals with no home. You get attached to one or more of the animals and when you come back the next day you come in while they are putting her/him asleep.

Fear: Dream that you have lost complete feeling in your feet. When you wake up you wiggle your feet, and they don't move. Think about this every night, wondering whether something on your body won't work the next day when you wake up.

Swallowing: Try swallowing the hottest chilli pepper you can find.

Heat Intolerance - Feeling Hot When it's Really Not: You are on a nice vacation to Alaska. It's 35° outside and 65° inside. Light a fire for the fireplace and then get into it. Once you have reached about 110° tell me how you feel. Even a person without MS would feel bad.

Now add all of the above symptoms - welcome to our world!

Finally... after subjecting yourself to the items above, let everyone tell you that you are just under a lot of stress, it's all in your head and that some exercise and counselling is the answer.

We don’t want pity – we just want understanding!

---

See what I mean? Sounds whiny to me.  Some of that fits they way I feel, but not all of it, and not all of the time. 

As Kurt Vonnegut said: "Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward".

I have MS. So it goes....

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

we don't stop, you can't stop....

"Can we tempt you back to run Nottingham?"

Eight little words in an email that make it sound so easy; a stroll in the park. 13.1 miles. 11th September. How hard can it be? I've done it before, after all....

I'm going to do it, of course. Even though I say I haven't made up my mind and I haven't formally entered, I'm definitely going to be running the damn race. For all my procrastinating, I know myself better than that. The chances are that you probably know me better than that too. My rational brain is telling me that I should be cautious; that although I seem to be running as fast now as I ever have, my endurance seems to be dropping away and I'm really struggling to run much more than 4 miles in one go. I'm exhausted by the thought of all the additional mileage that I will have to take on in the build up to the half marathon.

But since when has my rational brain had anything to do with it? My rational brain also tells me that the time I managed in 2009 (1hr 56 minutes and 52 seconds) is neither here nor there. The time that I run this year is irrelevant and it will be all about the money we raise for the MS Society.

Yeah, right.

Like there isn't a part of me that will be ENORMOUSLY disappointed if I don't break 2 hours. Rationality has got nothing to do with it.

It's MS Week this week, and Wednesday is World MS day. 100,000 people in the UK have been diagnosed with MS, and countless others - family, friends, carers - are affected by it too. The aim of this week is to spread awareness and understanding of this life altering disease. I'm not going to be baking cakes or dressing in green or blue or whatever colour your chosen MS charity suggests on Wednesday or anything like that, but if I can help the MS Society to continue to fund fantastic, worthwhile projects like the brilliant MS Nurses by running a little race through Nottingham in September, then I damn well will.

My prediction? PAIN.

Monday, 23 May 2011

take the world in a love embrace....


On her way into work on Friday morning, C. catapulted over her handlebars somewhere near the park and ride and suffered a mild case of concussion. With hindsight, perhaps I could have chosen a better day to bring up my plan to start learning how to ride a motorbike. We sold both of our cars before we started travelling at the beginning of 2010, and when we got back it just seemed ridiculous to have two cars at all: we live in the same house and most of the time we work in the same building. We’d always previously used the excuse that we tend to keep slightly different working hours, but frankly that was feeble. Besides, whilst we were away, one of our best friends and near neighbours started working in the same building too, and lift-sharing suddenly seemed viable. We bought one car, and for the last 9 months, this arrangement has worked pretty well. There have been a few occasions where the lack of another car has been mildly inconvenient but nothing more than that. It’s been fine.

So why the sudden desire to learn to ride a motorbike? Well, it was actually C’s idea in the first place: right from the start, she thought that getting a scooter or something would be a great way of having a simple, cost-effective alternative mode of transportation. My dad will be having kittens at the very thought of it. He spent 20-odd years as the on-call medic for a large section of Northamptonshire, Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire, including a large stretch of the M1. Even in retirement, he never travels anywhere without all of his medical kit – including a defibrillator – in the back of his car (could you imagine having the skill to do something but not the equipment to do it? That’s a pretty heavy responsibility….). In that time, my dad has seen more than enough to know that, as a motorcyclist, no matter how good a rider you are, you are unbelievably vulnerable.

I can understand his reluctance to see any of his sons on a bike: how many dead motorcyclists would you need to see to be against the idea? Still, the idea of having a little run-around has been growing on me for a little while. You know, just something to pop around town in. It’s not like I’d ever be using it to cruise down the motorway. As well as being practical, I thought perhaps it might be fun too.

When I mentioned it to C. on Friday, mild concussion notwithstanding, she thought it was a great idea. Of course, it turns out that she’s been thinking about a little moped. As it happens, I think I’d look absolutely ridiculous on a scooter, so I was thinking more in terms of a small, geared (but low powered) motorbike. To be fair, as I’ve only ever ridden a scooter once or twice on holiday, and I’ve never ridden a geared bike at all, I don’t really know what I want, but I’m curious enough to try to find out.

So, I did a bit of research to find out what was required, and was pleasantly surprised to find the “Get On” website. As well as having loads of useful information about the qualifications you need to ride a bike on the roads and the kit you will need, it also offers a one hour “trial” ride, absolutely gratis. You get to learn about the bikes and you get to spend a bit of time being coached in how they work and having a go to see how you get on. Sounds like a brilliant idea, and about an hour after submitting an enquiry on the site, we were all booked in to have a go just around the corner from us at the beginning of June. If it all goes to plan and seems like fun, then we can simply take the next steps towards qualification and onwards towards a massive, mid-life crisis Harley-Davidson from there.

My dad will seriously kill me though. He really is. If I haven’t been able to tell him about my tattoos yet (and I’ve had one of them for 8 years), how on earth am I going to bring this up?  I could always blame C., I suppose....

Friday, 20 May 2011

our lips must always be sealed....

Earworms of the Week

Total Eclipse of the Heart” – Bonnie Tyler

Look, I don't know where this came from either, and I can't say it's really the song you want to be caught humming under your breath at work either.  At least I wasn't actually singing it out loud.  Well, I wasn't singing it out loud until I was caught, and then when the game was truly up, I just went for it.  It's an enduring record, isn't it?  Turn around....

Smells Like Teen Spirit” – Nirvana

Voted the second best album cover of all time in a poll this week, apparently.  "Dark Side of the Moon" is iconic, I suppose, but is it better?  I'm not sure I agree.  I'm not saying that the Nirvana cover is the best, just that I'm not convinced that the Pink Floyd is better.  Nice to see Iron Maiden and Rage Against the Machine in the top ten though.  My favourite?  Off the top of my head, how about "Horses" by Patti Smith?  Love that picture.  This is such a powerful record.  The baby on the cover?  He's 20....

Bad Moon Rising” – CCR

Another song I was caught singing in the office.  Well, not so much singing as approximating the guitar intro.  Spotted, impressively to my mind, by the older gentleman sitting almost opposite me at work, who has never previously shown the slightest inclination in getting involved in our musical discussions.  As I always say when thinking about this song, impressively used to soundtrack the first transformation scene in "An American Werewolf in London".  Great record.

Piano Man” – Billy Joel

Billy Joel is never all that far away from my subconscious.  I don't listen to him as much as I used to, but I retain a soft-spot a mile wide for the man.  Still one of the best gigs I've ever been to.  This isn't my favourite of his songs by some distance, but it's a classic, innit?

Feel Good Inc.” – Gorrillaz

Prompted by our Director of Stores addressing the whole of our office building and constantly using the phrase as he spoke: either in the context of a mission statement "to champion everyone's right to feel good" (whatever that means. how do you measure it?) or when remarking how the company's annual results had made him "feel good" and should make us "feel good".  Were we "feeling good"? etc.  He must have said those two words about ten times in a two minute talk.  Is it any wonder I ended up earworming this?  They should have just played it and kept him in his box for another time.

Suzanne” - Leonard Cohen

It's the lyrics. They're amazing.

And Jesus was a sailor
When he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching
From his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain
Only drowning men could see him
He said "All men will be sailors then
Until the sea shall free them"
But he himself was broken
Long before the sky would open
Forsaken, almost human
He sank beneath your wisdom like a stone
And you want to travel with him
And you want to travel blind
And you think maybe you'll trust him
For he's touched your perfect body with his mind.

Best ever?  Maybe they're not even the best Leonard Cohen lyrics.

Dr Baker” - The Beta Band

Rob Gordon: I will now sell five copies of "The Three EPs" by The Beta Band.
Dick: Go for it.
[Rob plays the record]
Customer: Who is this?
Rob Gordon: The Beta Band.
Customer: It's good.
Rob Gordon: I know.

50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” - Paul Simon
Keep On Loving You” – REO Speedwagon

Both played in Nana's bontempi organ round at the quiz this week.  The Paul Simon in particular took some getting, starting as it does with that brushed drum work.  The Speedwagon, of course, was pretty much obvious right from the start, and it's one of those ones where the pub just spontaneously started singing as the chorus kicked in.  Great records both.  I'll be seeing Paul Simon at Glastonbury this year, but I saw the Speedwagon, of course, on the date of my first wedding anniversary....

Give a Little Love” – Noah and the Whale

I think I've been a bit unfair on their debut album, to be honest.  I've been calling it twee, and although it's probably not as good as the material they've released on either of their subsequent two records, it's actually still a pretty good record.  There are a lot more songs worth listening on here than just "5 Years Time".  This song was a real standout for me at the gig the other night.  It's one of those gigs that's got better in my memory as time has passed.  Not as good as they were at the Bowery Ballroom in March, for sure, but I'm remembering less about the tossers in the crowd and more about the band, which can only be a good thing, right?

Resistance” - Muse

Crazy, silly band, but a remark by Steve Nixon on twitter the other day had me reaching for the band's last album.  Steve was busy recommending that I check out the new album by Danger Mouse, and I will, but we ended up talking about running music: agreeing on Iron Maiden and Muse, but with me pointing him in the direction of Metallica.  You'll have to let me know how that works out for you, Steve..... I have very fond memories of being about halfway through a 12 miler on the run up to the 2009 Robin Hood half marathon when "Knights of Cydonia" popped up on shuffle.  I was absolutely knackered and still had a good 6 miles to run. but the guitar solo had grinning like a fool and picking my knees up all over again... and as it was playing, I saw a man out walking a ferret.  They were awesome at Glastonbury last year too, and when I listened to the album again last week, it was even better than I remembered it being.  Awesome.  Thanks for inspiring me to dig them out again, Steve!

That's it.  Have a good weekend y'all.  Big sporting weekend for my teams: Northampton are playing Leinster in the European Cup Final tomorrow, and Wolves are looking to hang onto their place in the Premier League in a game against Blackburn on Sunday.  Squeaky bum time.....

Thursday, 19 May 2011

you get what you give....

You might remember that, earlier this year, I went off on a bit of a rant about how I was being spammed by the Red Cross.  A worthy charity, no question, but every new piece of correspondence they had with me only served to make me less likely to donate to them.  That seemed ridiculous, and I have been meaning to tell them so ever since I wrote that post.

I finally got around to it yesterday:

To whom it may concern.

I have been donating to your charity, in various different ways, for several years now. I believe that you do some amazing, worthwhile work that provides help to the people across the world who need it most. It is because of the high regard that I hold your charity in, that I feel I need to give you some feedback about some of the communications I have been receiving from you recently.

I understand that in the current economic climate, where money is tight for many people, it is getting harder and harder for charities like yourselves to raise the money they need to do their work. There are hundreds of charities competing for our attention, and there is a part of me that understands why you feel you need to adopt more and more aggressive tactics to keep the donations coming in. Over the last six months or so, it has got to the point where every contact I have with you is actually making me LESS likely to donate to you. I’ll give you two examples:

1) I received a phone call soliciting money from me – as a known donor – to help with the relief effort after the recent Pakistani floods. I tend to give money online, and I didn’t appreciate the phone call, but the caller was aggressive and would not take no for an answer. They wanted to know HOW I’d donated elsewhere, and did I not realise how much money they needed as people were dying. I understand this, but I do not like being harangued in my own home, especially when I already give money and did not solicit the call. The caller tried to convince me to commit to a direct debit. Surely I could afford a couple of pounds a month? Perhaps I could, but why does no not mean no? At the end of the call, the caller then told me how much their fundraising target for the red cross was, and how much of that his agency would be keeping. I don’t remember the figures, and I’m sure it’s all standard, but it seemed like an awfully large slice of my donation dollar, especially when they did you no favours at all as representatives.

2) I regularly receive mailings from you. These often take the form of big, fat envelopes containing some sort of item: a pen, badges, tea bags…. The idea is, of course, to get me to donate more money to you. A letter I can understand – although actually I don’t like receiving them and never donate as a result of them, but why send me all the other stuff? How much more money does that cost you to send me two (actually horrible!) teabags? Maybe it’s only a couple of pence, but it looks awful. Better no post at all – especially as I’m an online donor.

I hate the hard sell. You are a good charity doing important work, but I have started to dread contact with you and now don’t even bother opening the mailings.

I thought you might like to know how I felt.

Regards,

I submitted that via their website, fairly convinced that I was going to get a response, and genuinely interested to hear what they had to say.  I didn't have to wait long.

Thank you for your email and your valued feedback to our recent appeals. Please accept our apologies for any annoyance caused.

As a charity we have a responsibility to raise as much money as possible to continue our life saving work. However we will always closely monitor each of our fundraising appeals to ensure that they are cost effective and raising the levels of income that we would expect. Presently we are very proud to say that for every £1 spent on fundraising we raise £4.50 in return.

With regards to our telephone fundraising, our fundraisers are expected to follow our code of conduct at all times, and we will always log and follow up specific complaints, especially if the fundraiser has used an aggressive tone or generally misrepresented the British Red Cross.

In our letters of appeal we have found that enclosing small inexpensive gifts increases response rates, often by around 26% which as we are sure you can appreciate it is a significant amount. Our mail packs on average cost around 80p and this includes the cost of postage.

Of course we do appreciate that not all of our supporters like to be approached in the same way, and it is never our intention to upset or annoy our supporters. Therefore when we are made aware of a supporters preference we will be sure to update our records to indicate this preference.

I will be more than happy to amend your records to show that you do not wish to be contacted, or perhaps if you prefer only by email in the future? To do so please provide me with either a reference number or your full address and postcode.

If you have any further questions please do not hesitate to let us know and we will be happy to help. Once again please accept our apologies.

Best wishes,

So.  A fulsome response.  It's interesting that every pound spent on fundraising raises £4.50.  That's great, as long as you subscribe to the view that the ends justify the means.... and as long as you believe that the return of these pressure sell tactics will be at least as good for the foreseeable future as it clearly is in the short-term.  If I'm typical of the type of person who donates to charities on a fairly regular basis, then surely it's flawed: I'm now much less likely to donate to the Red Cross in the future, and will certainly never donate to ANY charity that tries the hard sell on me.  By losing me (and people like me), how much have they lost in the longer term?

It's also interesting that mailings with small gifts, like pens or teabags, cost about 80p each (including postage) but increase the response rate by about 26%.  Presumably, although the email doesn't specify, that means donations.  It's hard to not to agree that this seems like a pretty good return on investment, although of course the counter-argument is that if every mailing cost 40p (or even nothing, if they sent me emails instead) instead of 80p, then they would have saved money that could perhaps be better used elsewhere.

Still, on the whole I'm pleased: I'm pleased that I finally took the trouble to tell them what was on my mind (triggered, it must be said, by another pack of junk mail from them this week); I'm also pleased that they responded so quickly and with such a full and informative personal response (with an actual person to reply to).  They've gone back up in my estimation.

A bit.

Emails only, please.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

What you share with the world is what it keeps of you....


Noah and the Whale @ Rescue Rooms, 17th May 2011

Let’s get this out of the way right at the start: there are few things more annoying in life than people who spend good money on gigs to stand there talking all night. They have to talk loudly, of course, because otherwise they can barely hear each other speak over the music. The Rescue Rooms can be a cracking little venue if you’re standing in the right place, but last night’s gig was sold out, and we found ourselves standing quite near to the doors at the back. There was a little clutch of people standing on the ledge near us who spent literally the whole set laughing and chatting. The hate rays sent out by the people around them meant that they knew they were irritating people, but apart from making sarcastic “shhhh-ing” noises at each other, it had no impact. Bizarrely, given their lack of attention to the band, they actually seemed to know most of the lyrics to the songs being played, but were determined that the band should be no more than a backdrop for their conversation. Perhaps even more annoying were the people who pushed their way out of the crowd before the encore to stand just outside the main doors. The idea, presumably, was to be able to watch the encore but to be able to make a speedy getaway. Quite why they had to stand there chatting loudly to each other as the band came back on and started to play, I don’t really know. Noah and the Whale seem to attract a fairly quiet and undemonstrative crowd at the best of times, and lots of their songs are quite downbeat. Somehow this just seemed to make the background chatter all the more evident.

Gah.

The Noah and the Whale gig that we saw at the Bowery Ballroom in New York in March this year was one of the highlights of my trip. It was great to get out to one of New York’s iconic venues, but it was also good to be able to watch the band performing songs from an album that was already fast becoming favourite. I loved “The First Days of Spring”, but the songs dwell on heartbreak and, although good, are not exactly uplifting. By contrast, the songs on “Last Night on Earth” are significantly more upbeat without reaching quite the levels of twee that can be found on the band’s debut (which, in spite of that, is still pretty good). Fink’s songwriting has improved though, even if he has clearly been listening to a lot of Bruce Springsteen, Lou Reed, Tom Petty and – I think – Deacon Blue. He doesn’t have the best of singing voices, and tonight – as C. pointed out to me – he seems to slide into every song, reaching for the right note, but the songs themselves are good. Where the last album was very much about personal heartbreak, this one seems to be full of stories, with each song seemingly telling a different story. L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N. is a good example, telling us about Lisa and about Joey, linking their apparently unrelated stories together with a gloriously uplifting middle section about facing up to the end of a life well-lived. It’s probably my favourite song so far this year, and there’s something about that middle bit that raises the hairs on the back of my neck.

I bought the new album at the same time as I picked up Elbow’s “Build a Rocket Boys”. I *like* the Elbow album, but I must have listened to “Last Night on Earth” at least ten times as often and, with nearly half the year gone, it’s looking like a pretty strong contender for my album of 2011. Live, the band are good: they reproduce their songs accurately enough, but I do find them a tiny little bit bloodless: going about their business without much movement and without much interaction with the crowd (Fink apart, who tells us that he played one of his first ever professional gigs in Nottingham, earning £50 for a £30 outlay on the ticket north, and at least makes a bit of an effort to engage). Their songs probably don’t help: they play a quite different set – at least in terms of the order of the songs played – to the one they played in New York, but they still have the same fundamental problem: a significant chunk of their material is quite significantly downbeat. Whichever way they cut it, it seems hard to pick up much momentum with the crowd. The result is compromise: they don’t seem to commit as fully as they might to the slower songs, perhaps conscious of the chatter in the crowd, but the bouncier songs still contrast a little too strongly, especially when they are grouped together towards the end of the set. “5 Years Time” and “The First Days of Spring” are both excellent songs, but played together (even with “Tonight’s the Kind of Night” in the middle), the change in pace and atmosphere is quite abrupt. The one is tailormade to be played in the sunshine at a festival, but the other is the kind of song to be played in the evening, alone with a bottle of wine. It’s quite a jump in mood.

Still, even when standing right at the back, annoyed by some of the crowd and wondering about the pacing of their set, they’re a band I very much enjoy watching. I’m listening to the album again today, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if I find myself watching them for the third time in as many months at Glastonbury in June.


Verdict: 7 / 10

Setlist:

Intro (Paradise Stars)
Give A Little Love
Just Me Before We Met
Blue Skies
Give It All Back
Love of an Orchestra
Life Is Life
Jocasta
The Line
My Door Is Always Open
Wild Thing
Rocks and Daggers
Waiting For My Chance To Come
Shape of my Heart
5 Years Time
Tonight's The Kind Of Night
The First Days of Spring
Encore:
Old Joy
L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N.

(the setlist at the Bowery, for comparison, was Blue Skies, Tonight’s the Kind of Night, Give a Little Love, Give it All Back, Love of an Orchestra, Life is Life, Just Me Before We Met, The Line, I Have Nothing, My Door is Always Open, Wild Thing, Rocks and Daggers, Shape of My Heart, Waiting for My Chance to Come, First Days of Spring, Encore: Old Joy, L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N., Five Years Time)

Mike's review of this gig for the Evening Post is here.

Monday, 16 May 2011

what you got cooking?

You can't beat a good beef casserole, can you? When I was growing up, this -- ideally served with rhubarb crumble and custard to follow -- was pretty much my favourite dish. To this day, if there's a vaguely beef stew-type recipe on the menu, you can be reasonably assured that that's what I'll be ordering: goulash, boeuf bourguignon, hotpot...whatever, that's what I'll have (unless there's pie. You also can't beat a good pie). When I go to visit my parents, there's a better than even chance that my mum will have cooked me a casserole.

Funnily enough, even though I like to cook, it's not really a dish that I have ever prepared myself. Back in February this year, the Guardian ran an article on beef stew with dumplings in their "best ever...." cooking series. I don't know if you've ever seen them (and last week they did chile con carne, so it's well worth a look - I'll definitely be trying their 'no tomato' chili), but this is where they take a classic dish, try a number of variations and then come up with their definitive recipe. The comments below the articles are usually pretty good too, with readers offering their own tips and advice for cooking the dish in hand.

The discussion on the best ever beef stew seemed to largely focus on which cut of beef to use, in the end coming down firmly on the side of shin. The meat can be pretty sinewy, but when slow cooked for a long period of time, this sinew breaks down and helps to add depth and thickness to the gravy. There was also some discussion about whether or not beef stock or stout was the best liquid to add, concluding in the end that a mixture of both worked pretty well.

I saved the recipe, but it wasn't until I was at the farmer's market on Saturday morning and saw some Aberdeen Angus shin on sale that I actually decided I should give it a go. I love slow cooking dishes, and prepared this on Saturday evening to eat for tea on Sunday (like chile, this is one of those dishes that tastes better on the next day, and can there be a more satisfying meal to end the weekend?).

The texture and flavour of the shin was delicious as the meat dissolved right down into the sauce, but I'm still convinced that this can be improved. I seem to remember that Nigella uses anchovies in her beef stew recipe, and they disappear in the cooking but help to add a depth of flavour. I'll be cooking this again, but now I've done it once, I'm inclined to experiment around the edges a little.

I should cook more often. It's very therapeutic to spend some time in the kitchen preparing a meal with a glass of wine whilst listening to a bit of music.

----

If you're interested, here's the recipe. I thought the dumplings needed longer, and so simmered the last bit for an extra half hour or so, and I subsituted swede for turnip, but apart from that I made the dish as is (well, it looked a bit dry, so I added an extra 200ml or so of Guinness and a drop more beef stock too):

Perfect beef stew

Serves 4 – 6

800g shin of beef
2 tbsp flour, seasoned with salt and pepper
Beef dripping, butter or oil (I used butter)
2 onions, sliced
300ml beef stock
300ml stout
1 bay leaf
3 sprigs of thyme
2 carrots, peeled and cut into chunky slices
2 small turnips, peeled and cut into chunks (I used swede)

For the dumplings:
100g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
50g suet

Small bunch of chives and parsley, finely chopped

1. Trim the beef of its outer sinew and cut into large chunks. Toss with the seasoned flour to coat. Heat a heavy-bottomed casserole or pan on a medium flame and add a knob of dripping or butter, or a couple of tablespoons of oil. Brown the meat in batches, adding more fat if necessary – be careful not to overcrowd the pan, or it will boil in its own juices – then transfer to a bowl. Scrape the bottom of the pan regularly to prevent any residue from burning.

2. Once all the meat is browned, add some more fat to the pan and cook the onions until soft and slightly browned. Add them to the beef and then pour in a little stock and scrape the bottom of the pan to deglaze it. Add the beef and onions, the rest of the stock and the stout, season, and add the herbs. Bring to the boil, then partially cover, turn down the heat, and simmer gently for two hours.

3. Add the carrots and turnips, and simmer for about another hour, until the meat is tender enough to cut with a spoon. Leave to cool, overnight if possible, and then lift the solidified fat off the top and bring to a simmer.

4. Meanwhile, make the dumplings by sifting the flour into a bowl and adding the rest of the ingredients and just enough cold water to bring it together into a dough. Roll it into 6 dumplings and add these to the stew. Partially cover and simmer for 25 minutes, then check the seasoning of the gravy, and serve with steamed greens.

I'm always interested in tips if you've got any you'd care to share. Proper soul food.... at least it is for me, anyway.

Friday, 13 May 2011

call me delilah then, I wouldn't care....

Earworms of the Week

That’s Amore” – Dean Martin

Some earworms are elemental; they are eternal; sometimes they leave you alone for a while, but they're never very far away.  Sooner or later, possibly when you least expect it, they ambush you and then stay stuck inside your head shouting for an indeterminate period of time.  Perhaps they never really leave.  Yeah.  That.  It doesn't help that I don't fully know the lyrics to this song.  Sure, we all know that bit about the moon hitting the sky and the ting-a-ling-a-linging... but what about the gay tarantella?  What they hell is that?  Is that a thing, or am I mishearing?  Why is he a lucky fella?  Is he gay as in happy or just, you know, gay?  Looking it up has answered some of those questions, but by no means all.  I bet Dean Martin knew better than to ask.  He just sang what he was told to sing.  Lucky fella.

Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats

We used to have a tape of the cast recording of the musical "Cats" in my mum's car when I was growing up.  I've never seen the musical performed, but I seem to know most of the songs backwards.  Bustopher Jones was probably my favourite, but for some reason this popped into my head this week.  This is kind of a creepy theme, especially when it recurs in the score later on in the musical, and it used to freak me out a bit.  Why this week?  Who knows, although I did wake up this morning to find a contented cat asleep on my feet and a dead bird on the doorstep, weirdly intact apart from a drop of blood on its beak.  A gift, I suppose.  Thanks cat.

You Can’t Hurry Love” – Phil Collins

I *think* this one comes from seeing someone wearing a Phil Collins t-shirt when I was out in town the other day.  I don't own any Collins, I don't think.  Figure of fun, for good reason, but he has been involved with one or two bona fide tunes (yes, I am including covers...obv... and anyway, it's this version of the song that stuck).

Caroline Says II” – Lou Reed

"Berlin" is not Lou Reed at his most arm-wavingly catchy, is it (and this about someone being beaten up by their lover)?  Atmospheric, though.  C. has been away in the USA all week, and I've been spending my evenings sitting upstairs ploughing my way through book 3 of the "Game of Thrones" series and listening to as much back catalogue sat on my iTunes as I can.  Now playing "Horses" by Patti Smith.  Not a whole lot more upbeat, but a whole lot more fun as an album than Lou "Smiler" Reed's.  This is a great song, though, to be fair....

War Pigs” – Black Sabbath

I was chatting to a sikh colleague of mine at work the other day, and he was revealing an unexpected past as a drummer in a rock band.  Turns out that he's a big fan of the Sabbath.
"Ah, funnily enough, I was listening to their first album only the other day.  You can't argue with Paranoid, War Pigs and Iron Man, can you?"
"Well, actually I preferred their later stuff... with Ronnie James Dio."
"You're dead to me now".

Seriously... Dio-era Sabbath?  Pff.

Shout out to the Faith No More version of this song too...which is actually where I first heard it.

I Was Made For Loving You” – Kiss

Big, stupid, face-painted rock music FTW!

Hate To Say I Told You So” - The Hives

Big, stupid, non-face painted, Scandinavian rock music FTW!

On A Rope” - Rocket From the Crypt

Big, stupid, non-face painted, retro-styled, less than 3 minutes long US rock music with trumpets and stuff FTW!

Town Called Malice” – The Jam / someone who sounded like Kate Nash

Well, I'm claiming that it's the Jam version that's stuck in my head... but the plain fact is that it was the Kate Nash-style version that put the song in there in the first place.  You know the feeling: hear a song over the PA; recognise the song as one you enjoy; realise that it's not the version you know; realise with a terrible sinking feeling that it's being butchered by someone who sounds like Kate Nash.  Argh.

Unknown Soldier” – the Doors

Another result of my "listen to more music from the depths of iTunes as I read" campaign.  A good one, I'm sure you'll agree.  Listening to the Doors (and to a lesser extent listening to Lou Reed, especially the "New York" album) reminds me of spending a lot of time with a guy at school who I came to dislike quite a lot as we got older.  Still, we had some good times listening to songs like this when we should have been studying.

Sim Sala Bim” – Fleet Foxes

Love, love, love the new album ("Helplessness Blues") by the Fleet Foxes.  Of course, as it's more or less more of the same as on their debut, I suppose I was always going to.  Perhaps it's the Medieval Historian in me, but I love the travelling troubadour/wandering minstrel stylings of the Fleet Foxes.  Oh, and their harmonies.  Especially their harmonies.  They sound like no one else and are instantly recongnisable.  It's a fantastic album, and I've been listening to it more than anything else over the last couple of weeks.  All the songs are good, but this is the one that's caught my ear the most.... I think it's the way the phrase "sim sala bim" sounds so evocative and conjures up (appropriately, given its origin as a nonsense magic word like "abracadabra") images of magic and the far east.  Beautiful song.  Very much looking forward to seeing the band again at Glastonbury.

...and that's your lot.

Well, nearly.

I leave you with this:

For over two decades, Kenobi has been the Jedi rebellion’s leader and symbol,” the Lord of the Sith said in a statement broadcast across the galaxy via HoloNet. “The death of Kenobi marks the most significant achievement to date in our empire’s effort to defeat the rebel alliance. But his death does not mark the end of our effort. There’s no doubt that the rebellion will continue to pursue attacks against us. We must and we will remain vigilant at home and abroad.

Geeks get something of a bad name, but this is the funniest riff on the death of Osama Bin Laden I have yet seen.  Check out some of the comments too... as "Yoda" says, "Until body I see, belive it I will not".

Have a good weekend, y'all.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

walk on...


Congratulations are due to my little brother, who completed a 40km hike across the South Downs on Saturday to raise £1,087 (so far! you can still sponsor him on that link....) for MS Research.

You might remember that he did something similar about 12 months ago, when he walked Offa's Dyke to raise money for the MS Society.

What happened next was a cruel irony: as he says himself:

"Back in April 2011, I walked Offa's Dyke (a 177 mile National Trail) in aid of MS Society after a family member, after several years of symptoms, was diagnosed with MS. During the challenge, as I talked to people about the condition, it moved me just how many people's lives have been affected by MS. Since completing that challenge, I began to experience symptoms, and was diagnosed with Relapsing Remitting MS in December 2010".

So, raise money for an MS charity...develop the symptoms of MS.  Life's a kicker, isn't it?  I sometimes describe any fundraising I do for the MS Society as "my self-interest charity", and I guess my brother is now in the same boat.  Still, with the current Government of the UK looking to make slashing cuts to the National Health Service, including a likely cut to the funding of the MS Nurses, these charities need the money more than ever before.

My brother has just started injecting himself -- today! --with the same beta-interferon 1a that I've been using now for the last couple of years.  I hope he reacts to it as well as I have, but it can definitely be a little overwhelming at the start when you receive all of that equipment and are faced with the prospect of stabbing yourself in the leg with a needle that's about two inches long every single week for the indefinite future.

I was, however, amused to see him tweet:

"Apparently I am not the first idiot to lock my sharps bin within 5 minutes of receiving it!"

Um.... no, definitely not the first idiot to do that.  Ahem.  In my defence, how are you supposed to know that pushing the bit that says "push" down will lead to final closure?  They don't tell you that kind of stuff.  Of course, it takes a special kind of idiot to do the same thing several times, but I was at least able to offer the advice that they're usually possible to re-open with a bit of patience and a pair of kitchen scissors....  

Well done.  Pretty good effort all round, I reckon.  On behalf of our people, I thank you! I may be shaking the virtual collecting tin myself over the next few months as I'm thinking of doing the Nottingham half marathon again in September.  Steel yourselves.  You have been warned.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

hand me down....

In any large company, it is critically important to keep a tight reign on budgets whilst also understanding the investment you need to make over the next few years if you are to stay ahead of the curve and continue to grow your profits. We spend a lot of time in my company building three year plans, working up business cases and developing technical roadmaps so that we know exactly how much money we will be spending on new developments and innovations. There’s a benchmark figure that various analysts like Gartner and Forrester have calculated for the percentage of its total profit a “world class” company will be spending on IT, and we build our budgets around making sure that we get the maximum possible return from that investment.

That’s the theory, anyway.

Here’s what happens in practice: I have a meeting with my boss and he hands me a piece of paper. On this piece of paper is a scrawled, handwritten note. The note was written by the Chief Executive of our UK business when he visited a store. He passed the note on to the Director of IT, who passed it on to the Head of Retail Delivery, who passed it on to my boss, who passed it on to me.

“Can you look at this and get back with an answer by the week commencing the 6th June?”
“What is it?”
“It’s an idea that the Chief Executive picked up on a store visit and he wants to know if it’s feasible”
“What does it say?”
“I don’t know. No one can read it.”

And that’s the thing: the note is almost completely illegible. It says something about label printers, and that’s about all that can really be made out. Someone along the chain of people who has received this note has made a half-hearted attempt at a translation, suggesting that “tea rocki” translates as “the team reckons”, and rendering “myll jtt” as “many thanks”, but apart from that, it’s a bit of a mystery.

….and now it’s landed on my desk.

I actually think it’s a good thing that our chief exec goes on store visits, and that when he hears suggestions from the staff there, he takes them away and tries to do something with them. I have no problem at all with that. What I don’t like so much is that this note has been passed down, hand to hand as if it were some holy relic, through all of the tiers of management in my department with not one of them troubling themselves to ask any questions about what they were actually being asked to do, where it sat in our plans, how we would pay for it, or even if we were the right people to be looking at this stuff. They just smiled, nodded and made it someone else’s problem.

As it turns out, I have been able to make an intelligent guess about what the note is talking about, I do know what to do with the suggestion, and have scored some easy brownie points by taking immediate action (as, presumably, all the people above me in the chain will also do when they relay the good news to the person above them, perhaps neglecting to mention who came up with the answer).

THAT’S NOT THE POINT.

And anyway, I've now laboured the point about this piece of work so much that any question of brownie points has disappeared, to be replaced by irritation and exasperated eye-rolls all round.

Pfff.

My brilliant career FTW!

Monday, 9 May 2011

goodbye dry eyes...

Notes from the Departure Lounge:


John Maus died over the weekend at the age of 67 after losing his battle against cancer. The name might not mean much to you, and it's possible that his stage name of John Walker won't reverberate that much louder to your ears.... but Maus was the founder member, guitarist and original lead singer of the Walker Brothers. The band was subsequently, and more famously, fronted by the honeyed baritone of their bassist, Noel Scott Engel.... that's Scott Walker to you and me.

Scott Walker is probably my favourite singer of all time. As I've said here many times, I love the way that he turned his back on a life of proto-Beatles pop adulation to write and perform songs of existentialism and death and Brecht and Brel covers to an increasingly baffled teen audience; an audience that, not surprisingly, soon deserted him for less complicated pleasures. Scott Walker's later career has seen him become a virtual recluse, producing an album at a rate of less than one a decade, chasing a muse that seems increasingly bleak and inaccessible and, famously, uses things like a side of pork as a percussion instrument. All a pretty far cry from the golden years of the Walker Brothers. Songs like "Make it Easy on Yourself" and "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine (Any More)" are certainly melancholy, but that lush instrumentation and the golden voice meant that the band reached an audience of millions.

Knowing the direction that Scott Walker's career took, it's tempting to see John's role in the band,together with drummer Gary, as being nothing more than supporting musicians who got very, very lucky. There's a scene in the Scott Walker documentary, "30 Century Man", where the band are sitting enjoying tins of brown ale and talking about why they're in the band. John and Gary talk about the money and the girls; Scott looks straight down the camera, unsmiling, and says that he's in it for the music, and I believe him. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was "musical differences" that broke the Walker Brothers up in 1968. They reformed successfully with "No Regrets" in 1975, but the different agendas of the band members were laid bare on 1978s "Nite Flights". There are 12 songs on the album, and each member of the band contributed four. The first four were by Scott, and they are a clear signal of the direction that was to shape his subsequent career: dark, oblique and featuring a song ("The Electrician") that seems to be about torture. The jump from that into far more conventional "The Death of Romance" by Gary could scarcely be starker.

Of course, for all that their might be more than a grain of truth in that assumption about the roles played within the band, John tells a different story in his version:

"I was always the leader of the band. I was the one who said, 'Let's do this, let's do that.' I spent a great deal of time making sure that the group would make incredible music. Most people don't realise that it was I who chose the songs that would become The Walker Brothers' biggest-selling singles..... I was aware that things had changed a lot: Scott had become the lead singer of the group... Now that he was singing lead, I enjoyed the opportunity to create some unusual harmonies, something I had never done before. We knew that we each had an important role, and felt responsible to each other, with one goal in mind, which was to make good records that were unique for the time."

It's also worth nothing that John recorded a version of Jacques Brel's "If You Go Away" in 1967 (it's the title track of his album of that year).... Scott recorded his much more famous version for Scott 3 a whole two years later in 1969......

RIP.

 
On the same day that John Maus died, we also lost Severiano Ballesteros at 54, which is no kind of an age at all.  Lots of people have written about Seve's life and his genius for golf, so I will do no more than to refer you to this article, written a couple of years ago by Bill Elliott on his friend.  Well worth a read.

RIP Seve.

Friday, 6 May 2011

still just a rat in a cage....

Earworms of the Week

"Out of Time" - Blur

I've loved Blur more or less since the very first time that I heard "Modern Life is Rubbish" when I was a student.  I went off them about circa "The Great Escape", when they were massive, but the whole Blur vs Oasis thing was never really much of a debate for me (although, oddly, I've seen Oasis live a few times and only saw Blur when they played Glastonbury in 2009).  By the time they released this song, Graham Coxon had gone, the band were on their last legs, and their audience was leaving in droves.  I really like it.  They recorded it in Morocco, if memory serves me correctly, and I love the loose-limbed bass on this song (even though I have an enduring dislike of Alex James, surely the most hated man in cheese).  Damon Albarn also does regret so well.  Good song.

"Dear Prudence" - Siouxie and the Banshees

Well, it's not my favourite Beatles song, and I'm not even sure that this is the best version of the song that I've heard.... and yet still the power of the song is enough to ensure that one listen to it and it's been in my head for the rest of the afternoon.  Are you happy now GJ?  Are you?

"Autumn Almanac" - The Kinks

Ray Davies was busy declaring in an interview this week that he was "easy to love, but impossible to live with".  Well, maybe so, but his songbook is almost without comparison.  This isn't even one of his most famous songs, and I suppose the recording of it sounds a little dated, but I just love the way he puts words together.  Proper genius.  How many other songwriters would use the word "Almanac"? Nevermind doing it in a way that harks back to the England of yesteryear....?

"Romeo & Juliet" - The Killers

I adore this song.  Obviously, I discovered it through the Dire Straits version, but this week I have been very specifically earworming this version.  It's faithful, but it's also abundantly clear that it's Brandon Flowers singing and not Mark Knopfler.  I love the lyrics to this song, and it always takes me right back to a happy day when we skiied down from La Rosiere into Italy, where it was playing over a huge PA, and where we had a splendid, boozy lunch for absolute buttons before wobbling our way back over the mountains in the gathering gloom on unsteady ski legs.  A good day.

"Tennessee Stud" - Johnny Cash

This song very specifically reminds me of being on an overnight sleeper train in Vietnam from Hue to Hanoi.  We were armed with Jim Beam, Smirnoff, a pack of cards and a tiny speaker.  Marissa didn't have much Johnny Cash on her little computer, but she did have this and a few other songs.  Another happy memory.

"Aquarius / Let the Sunshine In" - 5th Dimension

Worth including purely for the lyric

"Mystic crystal revelation
And the mind's true liberation
"

and the mental image of Steve Carrell and Cath Keener frolicking through a meadow.

"Why Don't We Do It In The Road" - The Beatles

Peter didn't believe me that Paul McCartney was capable of something as downright dirty as this song, so obviously I had to play it to him.  Possibly my favourite Beatles song inspired by watching monkeys fucking in India.  Slightly spoiled by the thought that Macca was probably thinking of Jane Asher when he wrote it.   Have you seen Jane Asher?  Do you imagine this is something she would ever consider?  Me neither....

"November Spawned a Monster" / "Interesting Drug" - Morrissey

I was listening to "Bona Drag" the other day, the collection of songs from Morrissey's early solo career, and was struck by how much good stuff there is on here.  Yes, obviously we all know about "Last of the Famous International Playboys", "Every Day Is Like Sunday" and "Suedehead".... but "Piccadilly Palare", "Hairdresser on Fire", "Ouiji Board, Ouiji Board"... all clearly showcase Moz's talent.  Even here, you can see how much Johnny Marr is missed, but they're good songs nonetheless.  The sensitivity in "November Spawned a Monster" still almost brings a tear to my eye, with Sinead O'Connor wailing in the background.... "Interesting Drug", as well as Kirsty McColl's lovely backing vocals, also brings to mind a mondegreen every time I hear it:
"There are some bad people on the right...."
Well, David Cameron for one, eh Moz?

"Tonight's the Kind of Night" - Noah and the Whale

From my most-listened to album of the year by a country mile.  I'm seeing them again later on this month and very much looking forward to it.  Yeah, so perhaps there's more than a touch of Deacon Blue in here, but since when was that ever a bad thing?

"Surfing on a Rocket" - Air

I've taken to reading my book in my cave of an evening, often listening to my stereo.  One night, at about 11pm, I was wondering what to put on that wouldn't jar with either my mood or my reading, and settled on Air.  It proved to be a masterstroke.  I've not listened to them much recently, and decided on the spot that this was something that I really should remedy at once.... a resolution that was somewhat spoiled when, a couple of nights later, I popped on "10,000 Hz Legend" at about the same time of the evening and it jarred horribly.  Hey ho.  You live and learn.  Nick Drake usually soothes away problems like that.

"Here Comes the Rumour Mill" - The Young Knives"

Have they got new stuff coming out?  I could have sworn I heard them on the radio the other day.... They seem to be unfairly overlooked, if you ask me.  Perhaps they look a little....eccentric... but you just go and listen to this album and tell me that they're not one of our most dynamic and interesting bands.

"Bullet with Butterfly Wings" - Smashing Pumpkins

It's not been a great week at work, to be honest. Is it just me, or do the short weeks after a bank holiday sometimes seem like the longest and most difficult to deal with of the whole year?  Well, anyway... apart from an incident this afternoon where I found myself reaching for my headphones to blow away my irritation with a little "Death Magnetic" at high volume, I've not had a chance to listen to a lot of music at my desk to soothe my troubled brow.  I did get to listen to "Siamese Dream" though.  Now, I know lots of people absolutely adore this record, but I've always seen it as overlong, a bit pompous and quite whiny.  Well, it seemed to suit my mood this week, anyway. 

"Despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage
Despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage
Then someone will say what is lost can never be saved
Despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage"

Yeah. You tell them Billy. Me too. You and me both.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

complete the motion if you stumble....

Well, I should have known better.

Not two days ago, I was busy bragging about my iron will and my astonishing exercise regime and the sub 8 minutes/mile pace of my run:

"I was absolutely shattered, but doesn't that just go to show that - for me at least - FEELING fatigued isn't necessarily an indicator of actually BEING tired. I'm not saying it's a simple case of mind over matter, because I'm sure it's not as simple as that, but I nearly didn't go out running at all today because I felt tired and a bit wobbly."

Me and my big mouth.  Blah, blah, blah.... I'm so amazing*.  Etc.
(*in another irony, I've just submitted my first blog post to the MS Society on more or less exactly this subject.... haha!)

I had the day off exercise yesterday, but in spite of that, I woke up today feeling a bit bandy-legged.  As I knew I was due to be playing football later on, I very nearly took one of my Amantadine "pep" pills to give myself a bit of a physical lift.  I've been taking them -- irregularly -- for six months or so, but I haven't yet made up my mind if they actually make any difference or not, and I only really take them if I'm feeling particularly fatigued.  I decided not to take one today, mostly because I don't want to take them just for the sake of it, and because I believe my own mantra that feeling tired doesn't seem to be the same thing as actually being tired.

Except, it seems, sometimes it is.

At football tonight, I had nothing.  I'm not a very talented footballer by any means, but tonight, in addition to my usual lack of ability with the ball, I wasn't even able to run.  For some reason, I find the stop/start, up/down nature of football much harder than the simple, monotonous slog of running or swimming.  Tonight I was absolutely hopeless, even by my standards, and by the time I got in my car to drive home, I was so tired that I could hardly lift my arms above my shoulders, in spite of the fact that I'd barely run hard enough to break a sweat.  Before I got home, weirdly even my head felt tired and somehow sensitive to touch.

I find this very frustrating: I simply do not understand why I can be physically capable of running perhaps as fast over any distance as I ever have, but 48 hours later -- after resting -- I barely have the strength to run from one end of a 5-a-side pitch to the other.  Of course, nobody understands why MS works like this, and if the most eminent neurologists have no idea, then why would I?  Not that knowing that makes it any easier to cope with.

They say that one of the most common outcomes of an MS diagnosis is depression.  I'm still pretty lightly affected overall by my MS and I do my very best to keep a positive outlook towards this condition....but when I feel like I do tonight, I can well understand why some people are overwhelmed by feelings of despair.  I am not there yet, by any means, but there's something terrible about the feeling of helplessness you get in the face of these symptoms and the knowledge that this is a progressive condition with no cure.  It's easy to dwell on that, no matter how hard you try not to.

Still, no point wallowing in self-pity, is there?  I'll pack my running kit as usual to take my boss out for a trot at lunchtime tomorrow, and as long as I have no ill-effects from that, I'm also planning to go for a swim after work.  I know it sounds crazy, but I'll feel much worse if I do nothing.  It may sometimes be difficult to exercise, but it makes me feel better to try.

Go figure.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Und es war in Wien....


Now, I'm aware of the Easter Bunny, obviously.... but I'd kind of always assumed that it was one of those American things that was slowly but surely creeping its way across the Atlantic and infesting our older, wiser European cultures.  Turns out I was wrong.... this has been a very big deal in what used to be the Holy Roman Empire since at least the 1500s.  It's also, I found out on Easter Day this year, still a pretty big deal in Vienna.


At a certain point in the morning, after drinks have been served but before dinner, we are all summoned out into the garden.  Gifts have been hidden all over the place and everyone -- no exceptions, not even guests -- have to go out and hunt to see if anything has been left for them.

Some are hiding in plain sight, leaning up against flower pots and the like.


Others are tucked a little further out of the way.... up trees and behind bushes.  One salami even finds its way behind a supporting strut to the garage roof.  It takes a while, but everything is eventually discovered.


I think it's fair to say that everyone gets something that they like: Clemens gets a whisky.....


...and C. gets 1.4kg of chocolate.

It's a nice way to spend a day, surrounded by close friends and their family in sunny Vienna.


Whilst we're there, we also take the opportunity of a return visit to the zoo at Schönbrunn.  I first read about this zoo in John Irving's "Setting Free the Bears", where the plot revolves around a plan to free the bespectacled bear.  When I first visited, ten years ago, I think it's fair to say that the place had seen better days.  The cages were beautiful and ornate, but what was acceptable 100 years ago is not acceptable for a zoo now.  The poor bears, when I saw them, were in a tiny enclosure and were pacing neurotically around the perimeter of their cage.

Things have changed, I'm happy to say. There are still some beautiful, ornate buildings, but they are mainly now used as cafes and things.  The animals now have large, roomy, state-of-the-art enclosures, and as a result look a whole lot happier.  I'm not entirely comfortable with the concept of zoos, especially since I've seen many of these animals in their natural habitats now.... but it's definitely an improvement.  I particularly liked the polar bear relaxing in a dapple of sunshine, but the zoo also has (amongst other things) tigers, cheetah, a very fat looking leopard and a beautiful black panther.


I also quite liked some of the native fauna that was on display.

The big cats had just been fed when we arrived, so they were in their enclosures snoozing, and you could view them from behind glass.  We turned around from admiring the leopards as they twitched and ran in their sleep, to find a rather smaller (but no less magnificent) domestic cat standing behind us.  You can't pet the leopards, of course, but the cat was not so reticent and happily took the adoration.


 The reason for our visit?  We were catching up again with our friend Monica, who also lives in Vienna.  We first met Grooves on our trip to Southern Africa that started almost exactly twelve months ago today, on 1st May in Cape Town.  We saw some pretty cool things on that trip through Namibia, Botswana and Zambia - it was probably the best trip we did last year.... but the best thing about it was the friendships that we made.


so.....Gums, DJ Tash, Sparks, Bones, Meters, Baby Max, Grooves, Dark Horse, HRH, Sarge, Screamer, Bullitt, Snappy, Swampy, Spike, Danger, Timon, Waffles, Tigger & Silverfox (one word, no hyphen - and congratulations to you guys on your new arrival too!), Cupcake, Dr Zhivago, Robin Hood, Buck, Boss Lady and Chuck Norris..... Miss you guys!  I can't believe it's been a whole year.

We've just booked a two week trip to Kenya / Tanzania, travelling in a similar style, for September this year.  If it's half as good, it will be amazing.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

the tough of the track....

I'm tired.

As usual, I've only got myself to blame. Perceived slothfulness and gluttony during our Easter trip to Vienna (which included 2 runs through the hills and vineyards above Grinzing, as well as a long-ish walk in the Burgenland near the Neusiedler See) meant that I threw myself back into my routine with a renewed vengeance when we got back. We landed last Tuesday, and after dropping our bags off at home, we headed straight out to the swimming pool. Since then, it's been swim, run, swim, swim, 6 mile walk, run, swim, run. In fact, tomorrow will be my first day off exercise since Easter Monday.

Generally speaking, I've felt pretty good. My swimming has got to the point where I'm really starting to feel like the lessons are paying off and I'm getting the hang of the proper technique. As a result, I've been happily trawling up and down the pool, often using a drag float and paddles to really work my arms and shoulders. The running has felt a bit harder, and although I'm planning to attempt the Robin Hood half marathon again this year, I'm suffering a bit of a crisis of confidence about my endurance. I generally run about 4.25 miles at a time and probably about 12 miles a week in total, , but I've been feeling pretty weak and wobbly in the legs, and I'm not at all sure that my body is going to be able to handle a ramp in the mileage. As it is, I've been getting to the end of the day - a day in which, apart from exercise, I've done little else but read my book and watch snooker - I'm falling asleep in my chair and am fast asleep long before my wife comes up to bed (the cat seems to love this new development, and has been getting properly settled on the bed as I sleep, leaving C to work her way around her as best she can when she tries to claim a bit of duvet. That cat is a bed hog and a duvet thief!)

Obviously, if my body is sending me signals that it's tired, then there's only really one sure-fire way to address that: to rest. Clearly, that's not going to happen as long as their is breath in my body. I brought all my running kit into the office today, and although it's a beautiful day, when lunchtime came around, my legs were feeling distinctly fatigued, and I considered - briefly - whether or not it might be a better idea to give it a miss, or to perhaps have a gentle stroll instead.

...but I went running. Of course I went running.

I had Runkeeper running on my phone as usual, and the first update after one mile told me that my average pace was 7.47 minutes per mile. That's pretty quick for me. It's not unusual for my first mile to be my fastest, but even then I'm usually a lot closer to 8 minutes/mile pace. On a good day, I usually average about 8.15-8.30, and when I'm really fatigued, that pace can slow right down to 9 minutes/mile or even beyond. I was fully expecting to slow down. I felt pretty good overall, but legs felt weird, and my feet weren't feeling the ground very well, even on the Tarmac path that runs alongside the canal. The second mile marker (often the slowest part of any run that I do, for some reason) told me that I was still averaging under 8 min/miles. I kept going, consciously trying to keep my pace up, but also conscious that I was starting to tire. I turned the corner by the weir and joined the path alongside the river heading back towards the office. By now I was starting to struggle, and I could feel myself slowing down. Surely now it was a case of damage limitation to my average pace.... I've idly thought about trying to average the whole run in under 8 minutes per mile, but the closest I have ever come - with a sprint finish! - was 8.01.

Mile marker three clocked in and I was now averaging 7.57 mins/mile.

Dammit. By now I was really feeling it, but that was close enough for me to grit my teeth and pick my knees up for one last effort over the final mile.

It hurt, but I clocked the final mile and finished with an overall average pace of 7.57 minutes/mile, covering the whole 4.04 miles in 32.07 (that's 4.56 mins/km).

Mile 1: 7.47mins/mile
Mile 2: 7.59 mins/mile
Mile 3: 8.06 mins/mile
Mile 4. 7.58 mins/mile
last little bit: 6.33 mins/mile

I was absolutely shattered, but doesn't that just go to show that - for me at least - FEELING fatigued isn't necessarily an indicator of actually BEING tired. I'm not saying it's a simple case of mind over matter, because I'm sure it's not as simple as that, but I nearly didn't go out running at all today because I felt tired and a bit wobbly. 

Still. I'm bloody well having a day off tomorrow.

Reckon I've earned it.