Tuesday, January 2, 2018

let's hope the next beats the last...


2018 is a marathon year, with the London Marathon already looming large in the diary.... less than 110 days to go already....so apparently we’re now the kind of people who prioritise a good night’s sleep and a double parkrun in the morning over celebrating the arrival of the New Year.... which is exactly what we did on New Year's Eve, shooing our dinner guests out of the door before 11pm and making sure that I was all tucked up underneath my duvet less than fifteen minutes later.

A lot of people in my office are mystified as to why anyone would want to be up early doors to run one parkrun at 9am on New Year's Day, never mind two... but genuinely it was an enormous amount of fun with lots of our friends and a lovely, fun run atmosphere.  It's probably not for everyone, but apparently it is for us. I loved it.  My younger self is horrified that I prioritised my running over my drinking, but that's his problem.

Anyway.

Here are 9 pictures of things that made me happy in 2017.  Thanks for being a part of it.  Running features quite heavily, just as I imagine it will in 2018, with lots of races already booked and the marathon programme underway.  My legs have been getting stiffer just recently, and I've just been prescribed a muscle relaxant to try to ease them off as I sleep. Rather than encouraging me to think about stopping running, actually this encourages me to keep going.  I might not be as fast as I would like, but I rather think that it might be very difficult to start going again if ever do stop.... it might come to that, but we're not there yet and there's a few more miles left in me yet.

Thanks for all your love and support this year.  2017 was a pretty rubbish year, all things considered and I'm not sure that any of this would be possible without the support of our friends... whether they be near or far, online or in person.

May each day of 2018 be better than the last for you and for yours.

Let's try to keep on keepin’ on for another twelve months, eh?  Why not?

Happy New Year.

Friday, December 22, 2017

now years have gone by and we’re all so much older...

You might remember that I'm a big fan of Christmas music, but not a big fan of the same old songs we hear every single year. With that in mind, here's my seasonal playlist for you to enjoy. I've shared it before, but it changes a bit year to year, depending on what I discover, old or new.

There was a real run of great albums around 2011/12 with "This is Christmas" by Emmy the Great and Tim Wheeler, "Funny Looking Angels" by Smith and Burrows and the gorgeous "Tinsel and Lights" by Tracey Thorn, but it feels like I haven't had anything really good since.

This certainly isn't a comprehensive list, so if you've got any suggestions to add to the playlist..... fire away. Try and avoid the obvious ones if you can!

It's hard to choose a favourite. Predictably, I like the sad ones: River by Joni Mitchell, Joy by Tracey Thorn or This Ain't New Jersey by Smith and Burrows.

What's yours?

Spotify

Amazon Music

Compliments of the season to you and to yours.  See you on the other side.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

the beauty in the spark...

It was the last day of Hanukkah yesterday, and I listened to a man on the radio his morning (he was a writer from the Jewish Chronicle) discussing how his family didn't celebrate Christmas at all because it's not a Jewish festival.  Apparently, there's some concern that the Jewish festival of lights - which generally takes place around November/December time - is in real danger of being swallowed up entirely by Christmas, with Jewish children and parents under pressure to take part in the all-consuming traditions of  the Christian holiday at the expense of their own customs and exchanging presents and so on.  This chap was saying that he enjoys carols and the lights and things, but he's Jewish, so tries not to get too caught up in Christmas.

It got me thinking: I'm atheist, although brought up in the Christian tradition.  I don't believe in God and have no desire to worship anything or anyone, but I very much enjoy this time of year.  Late December is a time when people seem to be generally just a bit softer around the edges than they are the rest of the year. Perhaps it's just that most people have been out on the sauce, but I prefer to think that it's a time of year that has people thinking about their friends and family and other people who are near and dear to them, and this smooths off a lot of our prickles and edges as we huddle together in the depths of winter. I like the lights (be they for Hannukah, Diwali, Christmas or whatever) and I like the songs (well, some of them) and I like much of the rest of it too.

As Tracey Thorn sings in "Joy"

"It's because of the dark
We see the beauty in the spark"

It's no coincidence that pagans celebrated at this time of year too. (Yes, OBVIOUSLY Jesus was actually born on 25 December and it JUST HAPPENED to be an existing festival).  People like a party in the depths of Sister Winter.  Can you blame them?

I don't believe in God, but I do exchange presents and I do wear a Christmas jumper and I do eat mince pies and have that extra glass of booze.  The fact that this all happens around a Christian festival is neither here nor there to me... although I suppose that's an easy thing for an atheist to say. Is it much harder for someone brought up in the Jewish faith to hand presents over when it's part and parcel of a different tradition?  I think back to when I used to help primary school children with their reading on a Wednesday morning.  At this time of year, most of the pupils I would be reading with were the children of Jehovah's Witnesses from the Kingdom Hall over the road.  Why was I reading with them? Because assembly would now mostly consist of singing carols in the run-up to Christmas, and their particular brand of religion wouldn't allow them to take part in that. I always thought that was a really hard sell to a small child, and I imagine that many Jewish children also find it difficult that they don't get Christmas presents.

Carols are overtly religious, I suppose - even if the Holly and the Ivy demonstrates just how much the Christian religion adapted pagan rituals... the rising of the sun and the running of the deer? Where's that in the Bible? - but presents?  Does the ritual of exchanging gifts at Christmas really have anything to do with the Three Wise Men?  And Santa?  Where does Jesus stand on Father Christmas? It's a constant source of irritation to me that otherwise sane people seem to get genuinely excited at the first time they see the Coca-Cola "holidays are coming" advert on the television each year, and that traffic grinds to a halt when the truck visits our town. They really do seem to think that Father Christmas as we currently imagine him was an invention of a corporation rather than a reflection of the red and white bishop's robes worn by Saint Nicholas in the Fourth Century.  You can buy Coca-Cola Christmas jumpers, of course.

So Christians didn't invent the party at this time of year, but frankly, what does Christmas really have to do with their tradition any more anyway?  Remember that Donald Trump made a huge song and dance in his campaign about how his administration wasn't going to be messing around with any of that "Happy Holidays" inclusive nonsense.  Oh no!  Christmas was coming back in a big way and political correctness could go hang.

Well, guess who made a point of saying "Happy Hannukah to our Jewish brothers and sisters" the other day? (read the full statement here: you won't be surprised to learn that it's entirely crass and tactless).

I suppose that I can understand why some people feel that their own traditions are under threat, and why that Jewish chap on the radio was worried about the erosion of Hannukah traditions.... as John Lennon once sang:

"Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace..."

And, lest we start thinking about what can be so wrong about children dreaming about receiving presents at this time of year, remember what Lennon went on to say:

"Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people"

Lennon was a damn fool idealist, of course.  Ha!  World Peace?  What are you jabbering about, man?  Still, how about we just try and live our lives for the next week or so by the prime directive: don't be a dick.  That's basically what all religions boil down to, isn't it?

We can at least try that, can't we? Even if it's just for the next few days until the turning of the year.  Who knows?  Perhaps 2018 will be the year we finally make it stick past the end of December.

Monday, December 18, 2017

I-C-E...


As it was a little bit warmer this morning, I wrapped myself up in a few less layers for my bike ride to work.  Although I'm generally a bit nesh and feel the cold, I've actually not been too bad this year... I've been mostly running in shorts and have only worn leggings for my bike ride over the last week when it turned really cold. Maybe I've lost more sensation than I thought.

Still, today felt a bit warmer, so I left a couple of layers at home and set off at about 06:45 as usual.  It's been absolutely gorgeous at this time of the morning recently, and today was no exception: crystal clear skies with a sliver of moon and all the stars on display, with dawn just barely brightening the furthest edges of the eastern horizon.

It might have been a little less cold, but there was also still clearly a pretty hard frost on the ground.  You're pretty vulnerable on a bike at the best of times, but ice is a particular menace: once your wheels start to slide, you're on the ground before you've had a chance to react.  I'm never a particular speedy cyclist, and it sometimes feels like I'm being overtaken by old ladies with baskets on the front of their bicycles.... but on days like this, I cycle even more slowly than usual.

My commute is a little under 4 miles, and it's mostly along cycle paths and away from traffic.  Usually, that's a good thing.  Today? Well, on icy mornings, there's a lot to be said for a gritted road.  Less than a mile into my ride, I cross the river Trent on a pedestrian suspension bridge at the Embankment.  It's has ridged wooden slats on the main span that always seem to catch the frost.  I'm always super careful along here, today that meant riding along at about 1mph.  I still overtook a lady doing about 0.5mph, but both of us were being very cautious in the pre-dawn light.  As I eased down the ramp on the other side, I contemplated my turn left onto the road.  I always take this slowly anyway, because I'm afraid of coming off and shooting out into traffic.  There was no traffic at this time of the day, but I applied my brakes and slowed down even more.  I made it around the corner, but as soon as I applied power to my pedals, my wheels slipped out from under me and I was down.

Apparently, no matter how careful I thought I was being, I clearly wasn't being careful enough.

As I lay on the side of the road deciding how I felt about this with my wheel spinning comically in the air on my bike beside me, my mental inventory of my limbs was interrupted by the lady I'd overtaken asking me if I was okay.  Um, yes.   I think so.  I'd hate to have been travelling any faster, but I seemed to be bruised and grazed, but otherwise alright.  I thanked her again when I cycled past her a couple of minutes later.  Apparently, the council put a man on that slope later on in the morning to warn people about the black ice down there because lots of people had been coming off their bikes (well, they could also try gritting it....that would be cheaper than manning it for a couple of hours, wouldn't it?).  All things considered, I guess I was lucky to escape with a slow-motion tumble and a couple of grazes.

As this happens at least once a year, I keep a roll of plaster in my desk drawer at work for exactly this reason (and it never fails to amaze me that I can have big grazes on my knees and elbows even though the layers on top don't seem damaged at all.  Friction burns, I guess.

Still, given that I've cycled over 1,000 miles to and from work this year, and I think this is my first fall...maybe this was coming.  Some people look out of the window at a frost and decide to get the bus to work.  I do not (because I'm stubborn and stupid, as we all know).  Well, it's a few more interesting scars to add to the pile, if nothing else.

I might walk the bike down that slope tomorrow though, eh?

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

new car, caviar, four star daydream...


Arnold Schwarzengger’s disembodied head has just made me £615.

Although aware of PPI, it never really occurred to me that I might have a claim until I watched an advert featuring the aforementioned head on tank tracks, urging people to put in their claims as the window closes next year and the banks will be off the hook.  Apparently, the Financial Conduct Authority have seen millions of people flooding to their website and making claims since their £42m advertising campaign started.... although you might argue that £42m makes it a very expensive stable door, and that an Authority like that might be better served by actually regulating the banks effectively in the first place.  But anyway....

When I first took out a credit card, back in 1997, it came with a card payment protection insurance policy. It was annoying because I never asked for it, but it was only a couple of quid a month, and as it was my first credit card, I wasn’t really sure if it was something that I needed or not. So I left it. It seemed to be a fairly amorphous kind of insurance. Ostensibly, it was to help me out in the event that I couldn’t pay my bill, but it also seemed to offer lots of other services too. At one point, they sent me a key ring and some stickers to put on stuff, so that if they ever got lost, then they would find their way back to me. It annoyed me, but not enough to actually get around to cancelling it (which, every time I looked into it, seemed harder than it ought to have been). Apparently, it ultimately took me until 2005 to cancel the damn policy, which I think is when I binned the credit card.

I'd long since assumed that this was my own inertia that caused this and that there was no one to blame but myself, but then I saw that advert caught a couple of months ago and it was Arnold Schawarzenegger’s disembodied head shouting at me that finally got me off my (metaphorical - I remained seated throughout) arse and looking at the website of the financial ombudsman to see if I maybe had a claim.

One 16 (sixteen!) page form and a long conversation with a claims assessor from HSBC later, and the result is an offer of settlement of a little more than £615. The statement that came along with the offer showed that I had paid a total of £218.58 in premiums over the time that I had the policy (that's approximately £2.30 a month!), with the rest made up of lost interest and things like that. Given that I wasn’t 100% convinced that this was PPI in the first place or that it was significant enough, this is all something of a bonus.

I wouldn't normally be shouting "where there's a blame, there's a claim" from the rooftops... but this is the banks we're talking about, and who really feels sorry for them? That couple of quid a month really niggled me for EIGHT YEARS.  Not enough to actually do anything, but.... you know.

This definitely counts as sticking it to THE MAN, right? In the most middle-class way possible, but still sticking it to him, one PPI claim at a time....

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

pretty vacant...


There's an episode in the most recent series of Curb Your Enthusiasm where Larry is introduced to the fiancee of his manager's daughter. This guy, we're told, has served in the US army in Afghanistan. As everyone before Larry is introduced to this guy, they each make a point of saying how nice it is to meet him and thanking him for his service. When it's Larry's turn, he just says "Hi, how are you doing?". Everyone stares at him in horror, and the ex-serviceman has to leave because he is so upset. Larry, of course, cannot and will not accept that he's done anything wrong. He's already been thanked for his service by all of you, why do I need to thank him too?

As the episode aired here in November, it was impossible not to draw the comparison with the increasing fuss people make about the poppy and making an ever-more-ostentatious show of "respect". Not wearing a poppy doesn't mean you don't care about the sacrifices others have made in time of war; not thanking someone for their service doesn't mean you aren't thankful for it, only that you don't feel the need to parrot out an automatic response... so automatic that it is stripped of any real feeling. Are you saying you're grateful because you are grateful or because that's just what you say.

I have a real bug bear about this in the office. Most of the people I work with are in their twenties. We knock along pretty well, in the main, but whenever I ask the simple question: "You okay?", I almost always get the response, "Yeah, you?"... except it comes out as "yeahyou", all one word.

I think it's a millennial thing.

What annoys me about this is not so much that they're asking me if I'm okay, but that their tone of voice and speech cadence changes slightly as they reply to indicate that they're neither really answering my question nor giving me a real answer. It's a totally automated response, and I'm none the wiser at the end as to whether they really are okay or if they're genuinely interested in knowing if I'm okay too.

Or perhaps it's just me and there's nothing at all wrong or unusual about that and maybe I'm just turning into Larry David.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

the summer of the soul in December...


I was very excited to hear the news that The Muppet Christmas Carol would be receiving a cinematic re-release this December.  Whilst I can't honestly say that is my absolute favourite seasonal film*, it's a film that brings back some very happy memories and holds a special place in my heart.  Besides, has Michael Caine - who plays Scrooge entirely straight, with no regard to the fact that the vast majority of his co-stars are muppets - ever been better in all his long and illustrious career?



It's in the singing of a street corner choir
It's going home and getting warm by the fire
It's true, wherever you find love
It feels like Christmas

Irresistible, right?

Well, as I was talking about this with my team at work, whilst Jack was very enthusiastic and wanted to look up when screenings were on in Nottingham, the girls in the team were entirely indifferent.  In fact, most of them hadn't even seen it.  "It's a boy's film", said Alice, dismissively.

Wait, what?

As a man, perhaps it's my privilege speaking here, but I would never in a million years have The Muppet Christmas Carol down as a boy's film.  It's hardly Die Hard, is it?  We spent the next few minutes doing a sampling of all the people around our desks, and indeed..... most of the girls hadn't seen it and thought it was a boy's film, and most of the boys were fairly enthusiastic about it.

Say it ain't so!

Of course, the whole concept of there being "boy's films" and "girl's films" is nonsense, but if you allow the concept, then surely Muppet Christmas Carol would be nowhere near the top of anyone's list.  Even amongst seasonal films, it's nowhere near the top, is it?

I'd be fascinated to hear what you think.

Oh, and guess what I'm giving every single member of my team as a Christmas gift.

---
* Elf**

** or maybe Bad Santa***


*** probably Trading Places.****


**** Just don't talk to me about Love Actually.  In my view, that's a vile, cynical film where every single male character behaves as though they don't have an ounce of respect for any of the women.  Ugh.  

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

jumble sales are organised and pamphlets have been posted...


Billy Bragg @ Nottingham Rock City, Saturday 18th November 2017 (Bridges Not Walls tour)

I think, of all the people I've seen and all the gigs I've attended, Billy Bragg is the artist I've seen the most often.  Starting at Bristol on the Mermaid Avenue tour in around about 1998, I've probably seen the old boy play at least twice as many times as I've seen anyone else (probably Iron Maiden, if you're interested... but just maybe Thunder, who seemed to support everyone back in the day).  I even saw him four times at one Glastonbury, each time on a different stage and with a completely different set.  It's his Leftfield sets that I remember the most fondly: initially on a Sunday night in the smaller tent just down from the Hare Krishna and then on a Friday or a Saturday night (depending on how big the Pyramid headliners were - he always tries to play against the biggest bands so that the other acts at the Leftfield don't have to).

I remember one hot Sunday night -- 2002, I think -- when Billy played with a completely blank setlist and took requests all night. It was so hot that evening that the security (in the Leftfield, these are always Union staff) passed back so much water into the crowd that every single person in the tent had at least one plastic cup and most people had two.  Good times.

I think I can honestly say that I've enjoyed every single one of all these gigs.  Some are better than others, of course. He's not a nostalgia act and regularly releases new material (he makes a point tonight of saying that he's definitely not part of the December nostalgia touring circuit and that this tour ends on 30th November).  Not all of these newer albums have been classics.  Your mileage may vary, but I would say that my heart tends to sink a little bit when he plays some of his newer, country and western tinged material.  For me, it's just not as good as his "classic" material. That said, I really enjoyed the album of train-based songs that he released with Joe Henry last year.

Tonight... well, he plays a good, 2-hour long set and plays loads of his absolute classics - some on the same guitar he recorded them on, even if "the green monster" is doing his back in.  Is it the best I've ever seen him?  No.  Is he good?  Yes, he is. Rock City is packed and you can tell that we're in the mood, right from the off, when we sing along to every word of opener "Sexuality".  Most people just do the backing vocals, apparently ("Sweden!").  Hmm.  I don't know about that, but we're definitely in good voice and keen to hear what he's got. He's playing pretty much alone, which is how it should be for Billy Bragg... backed occasionally by CJ Hillman on pedal steel and once (on "Shirley") on the Rickenbacker. "If he's Johnny Marr, then I'm afraid that must make me Craig Gannon".  Oh, I do love a nice, obscure Smiths reference.

We have some new songs too: "Saffiyah Smiles" is dedicated to Saffiyah Kahn, the lady who confronted a neanderthal on a recent EDL march in Birmingham with a smile and was captured in a brilliant photograph that shows pretty clearly where he real power lies here.


"King Tide and the Sunny Day Flood" refers to the floods that happen in Florida when the water table rises, causing surges of water even when there hasn't been a storm.  It's a fairly obvious warning about global warming.

Both of these are more successful than "Full English Brexit", an attempt to try and understand the fears of the people who voted Brexit... which means well (something that is often said about BB himself and his political interventions) but mostly just sounds patronising.

There are covers: "I Ain't Got No Home in this World Anymore" (originally by Woody Guthrie), "Why we build the wall" (originally by Anais Mitchell) - both of which I've heard him play before, as well as older BB standards, "The World Turned Upside Down" (originally by Leon Rosselson) and "Power in a Union" (Joe Hill).  Bragg's been changing lyrics around as long as I've been watching him play: he messes about with "Sexuality" and "Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards" is a joy tonight as he chops it around to make it even more relevant.  I'm not at all sure about taking on Bob Dylan's "Times They Are a'Changing" though.  Some things are better left well alone, I think.

But, you know what?  At least he's trying to keep things interesting... for himself and for his audience.  If he just came out and played "Life's a Riot", "Talking with the Taxman about Poetry" and "Brewing Up with Billy Bragg", I'd be delighted... but would I keep buying tickets to see him play?  No, I don't think I would.

Have I seen him play better? Yes, I have.  But tonight was still a pretty good way to spend a Saturday night.

To be honest, I'd come and listen to him just talking for two hours.  I don't agree with everything he says, and just occasionally he can sound like a well-worn record repeating the same well-rehearsed rants.... but it's becoming increasingly rare to hear a humane voice of reason like this in a world of spouting idiots.  Still, as he'll freely tell you himself (and has the merchandise to prove it), he's like marmite: some love him, some hate him.

Let's cherish him whilst we've still got him and he's still touring, eh? Roll on the next time.

VERDICT: 7  / 10

David Belbin also reviewed this gig for the Post, and you can read the extended version of that review here.


SETLIST: sexuality - the warmest room - I ain't got no home in this world anymore - accident waiting to happen - the man in the iron mask - saffiyah smiles - must I paint you a picture? - Levi Stubbs' tears - king tide and the sunny day flood - shirley (greetings to the new brunette) - why we build the wall - milkman of human kindness - I keep faith - power in a union - full english brexit - the times they are a'changin' (back) - waiting for the great leap forward - a new england
(he played 'the world turned upside down' and "st swithin's day" towards the front of the set too, neither of which appear on the setlist... )

* I was reminded of Billy by the character Korg in the recent Thor film.  Not physically, you understand (Korg is huge and made of rock), but because he's kind and softly spoken and because, as he says,  "I tried to start a revolution... but I didn't print enough pamphlets". 

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

a lovely bunch of coconuts...


There's a lovely chap at our local parkrun: he's in his eighties now and has volunteered nearly 200 times without ever once feeling tempted to go around the course himself.  He's an absolute institution and everyone who comes along on a Saturday morning to walk, run, jog or volunteer at our parkrun loves him.  He marshalls the part of the course we call "the split", where, first time around, runners turn left and then, later on, turn right with a couple of hundred meters to the finish.  We've actually now officially named the split after him and given him some specially personalised signs so that every runner can thank him by name as they go past him.

As a member of the core parkrun team for the last couple of years, I've been lucky enough to get to know this chap quite well.  He's a cheeky sod too, and has particularly taken to teasing my wife at every possible opportunity... pointing her back around the course when she approaches the split for the second time, instead of directing her to the finish.  This week, he directed me into a space as I arrived and then held his hand out for five shillings, which he doubled when he saw my wife was also in the car.  That kind of thing.  He's a lovely guy.

Just recently, he's been particularly kind to me: he knows that I had an operation in the summer that stopped me from running for a while, and he's made a real point of coming up to me every week since and asking me -- quietly - how I am, and telling me to look after myself.  I didn't really think anything of it other than the fact that he's a gentleman.... until last weekend.

Last weekend, as he was quietly enquiring after my health, he went on:
"I had a friend who had a testicle removed, you know.  It took him a few months to get back up to speed. You look after yourself!"

I can't help but wonder exactly he's heard about exactly what I had done over the summer.

Still, his heart's in the right place.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

I got news for you baby, you're looking at the man...

You know you've arrived at work when you're the guy that your boss's boss entrusts with a call at a quarter to six in the evening with an important mission.  The fact that she knew that I would almost certainly still be in the office is neither here nor there; I was definitely her go-to person; someone that she knew that she could absolutely trust in a crisis. 

And now that crisis was here: her boss's boss  - so my boss's boss's boss's boss and one of the most senior people in the company - had lost his iPad and thought he might have left it on his desk. Would you mind going to check?

I checked.  It wasn't there.  Whilst I was there,  I also took the opportunity to have a little spin in his fancy chair... something that didn't go unnoticed by those of my colleagues still in the office, who immediately began hurling abuse about my delusions of grandeur.

I didn't care.  I was on a mission.  Not quite from God, but almost.

This isn't just any iPad we're talking about here, you know.  This guy doesn't even bother with a laptop now (actually, he doesn't even know where it is).  His iPad is everything.  His alpha and omega.  To lose it is unthinkable.  He must have been in pieces on his way back to London, barely holding it together.

Hmm.  So, if it's not on his desk, where might it be?

My boss's boss had a suggestion.  Apparently, le grand fromage thought there was a chance that he might have left it in the old executive toilets at some point that morning.  Worth a look?  Well, why not? Now, these are fancy toilets: the kind that have oak panelled traps, marble all around and ashtrays over the urinals (I'm not even joking about that).  If you're going to leave your iPad anywhere...

So I looked.... and there it was, an iPad mini sat on the marble fittings near the sinks in a sky-blue case tucked underneath a little moleskine notepad (lined, not squared like the cool kids use) and (cheap) pen.  Perhaps if it had been a squared notebook with a better pen, someone would have had it.  Still, it was still there.

My boss's boss was delighted.  So too, I have no doubt, was her grateful and relieved boss's boss.

As I locked them away in my draw, I marvelled again at what a thrilling and fulfilling job I have.

What a rush. 

I'm worth every penny they pay me and more.  Definitely.

Living the dream.