Monday, July 28, 2014

sainsbury's giveth and sainsbury's taketh away

Thanks to Google StreetView's splendid time-travel facility, I can now demonstrate what I was talking about here by showing you the view across the scrubby wasteland to the old railway embankment (featured in the image attached to the original post) from July 2008, and the view of the roundabout at the bottom of the new approach road to Crindau Sainsbury's from August 2012. Feel free to convince yourself that they are from the same viewpoint (or as near as possible given the reorganisation of the road layout) by orienting yourself using the distinctive white house in the middle right of the two pictures.


Here's another pair of views (2008 and 2012) of the same thing from a different angle, and here's the view from up on the former railway embankment, now Heidenheim Drive, in 2009 and 2012. Note that the aerial view has been updated too.

Contrast this glorious march of progress with the same process happening in reverse for the former city centre Sainsbury's branch on Wyndham Street just a mile or so down the road - bustling in 2009, derelict in 2012.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

welcome to the piggledome

If you clicked on the photo gallery link in the last post, you might have noticed that once you get to the end of the golf-related stuff there are some other pictures not obviously related to what's gone before. These are some pictures of the In The Night Garden Live show that we took Nia (and some of her cousins) to see last week.

To be honest Nia's interest in watching the TV show has waned slightly of late, although we still generally have it on in the 6:20-6:50 slot just to provide a marker for the segue into story time and bedtime, so I was a bit concerned that she wouldn't be all that keen on the stage version. My fears were unfounded, however, as once she'd got over a bit of initial nervousness about the pre-show darkness and noise she was absolutely beside herself with excitement, and has been telling everyone she meets all about it at high volume ever since.

The show we went to was in Cannon Hill Park in Birmingham - basically it's presented in a sort of mobile inflatable big top which they just pack up and move on to the next venue. It was all quite well done, to be fair, though I was ready for some human conversation and an ice-cream by the end.

scouse of the driving fun

Since my lovely wife managed to snag some tickets for the final day of the Open Championship as an unexpected but very welcome birthday present earlier this year, we found ourselves off to Liverpool last weekend, which as it happens is a city I'd never been to before. That being the case we decided to make a weekend of it and spend Saturday doing some touristy stuff before heading off to Royal Liverpool on the Sunday morning.

So, as you can imagine, this involved stuff like having a look at the Cavern Club, the Liver Building, taking a ferry 'cross the Mersey and all that sort of stuff. That will no doubt be tediously familiar to you, so here's a couple of slightly more tangential facts about the local area:
  • While the Mersey between Liverpool and Birkenhead is criss-crossed with a couple of road tunnels and a railway tunnel, you have to go a surprising distance inland before you encounter a bridge, or more accurately a pair of bridges, spanning the narrow bit of river between Runcorn and Widnes, as well as the Manchester Ship Canal which runs alongside the river at this point. So far so meh, you might say, but until 1961 there was another bridge on this site, known as the Widnes-Runcorn Transporter Bridge. Now you'll be aware that in Newport we have one of only two working transporter bridges in the UK, and the one that makes a claim to be the largest operational one in the world, although the one in Middlesbrough makes similar claims - it all depends which measurements you're talking about. Anyway, the Widnes-Runcorn one was older and bigger than either of the remaining ones, but was crushed by the ruthless utilitarian jackboot of progress, mostly because as fascinating as transporter bridges are, it is an extraordinarily slow and inefficient way of getting traffic across a river, which would be why they never really caught on. The stubs of the approach roads and some of the buildings remain, everything else has gone.
  • Needless to say there are a gazillion establishments named after Beatles songs or other Beatles-related stuff. On just the walk through central Liverpool on Saturday I spotted establishments called Imagine, Rubber Soul, Glass Onion and Eleanor Rigby. No doubt the whole city is riddled with them.
  • We did a quick on-foot tour of the city's two cathedrals - as striking as Paddy's Wigwam is it's Giles Gilbert Scott's monumental Anglican cathedral that really catches the eye. As with the bridges it really depends which measurement(s) you choose to use, but by some measurements this is the largest Anglican church in Europe. It's certainly pretty impressive (and huge) close up, anyway.
  • The stripy knitted tree-warmers we found on Park Lane on our way to the Anglican cathedral were apparently put there as part of the Liverpool International Street Art Festival. This activity is known as "yarn bombing". As things with the word "bombing" in them go, this is one of the nicer ones.
  • While walking from one cathedral to the other we came over all thirsty so we stopped for a pint in the amusingly-named Ye Cracke on Rice Street, which didn't look like much from the outside but turned out to be a little murky spit-and-sawdust gem complete with the inevitable "John Lennon once drank here" claims but also (more importantly) a very delicious and refreshing pint of Hopsack from the Phoenix Brewery in nearby Manchester. 
On to the golf. Luckily we had a beautiful sunny day to walk the course, so we made the most of it by arriving fairly early (about 9am) via the excellent Wirral Line rail link which deposits you at Hoylake station no more than 10 minutes walk from the course entrance. Having availed ourselves of a coffee and bacon bap combo from the tented village we set out onto the course. Fortified by that, as well as the lunch we'd taken with us and a couple of pints of Stella from the on-course bars we managed to get round a good number of the holes and park ourselves in a couple of good spots where we could a) get a good view and b) try to get on television. Our best chance of that was probably on the fourth green, where members of the last two groups (Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler) chipped back onto the green from right under our noses, on the ninth where we found a good spot to recline with a pint and a sandwich and on the twelfth where none other than Tiger Woods hoicked his second shot wildly into the crowd only about ten yards from where we were standing. I keep meaning to watch back some of the coverage on the BBC iPlayer and see if I can spot us, but I haven't yet and I suspect I never will.

Unlike at the PGA Championship at Wentworth there isn't really any standing room around the 18th green, so you have to make a decision early on whether you're going to try and see as much golf as possible out on the course and then take your chances later, or try and bag a seat in the stands 3 or 4 hours before the leading groups come through and just stay there for the rest of the day. We didn't fancy this second option very much, so we watched the last couple of holes from the bar area in the tented village, on our way there nearly getting run over by a golf cart carrying none other than Samuel L Monkeyfighting Jackson to some VIP viewing area or other.

Speaking of the PGA Championship, I believe I'm right in saying that, slightly surprisingly, Rory McIlroy is the first man to win it and the Open in the same year, just as Martin Kaymer was the first to win the Players Championship and the US Open in the same year a month or so ago.

Anyway, photos (the golf ones being mostly grainy mobile phone camera shots as technically photography is prohibited on championship days) can be found here.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

gene therapy

I note that it's something like eight years, back in the very earliest days of this blog in fact, since I last enthused about Gene Clark's 1974 album No Other. And I need very little encouragement to enthuse about it, since it is one of the most remarkable albums of the 1970s or any other decade for that matter.

The specific catalyst for this post, however, is my discovery of this video of a concert at the Music Hall Of Williamsburg in New York in January of this year, wherein an assortment of members of various hipster-ish bands re-enacted the entire album in its original running order. A recipe for some sort of horrific car-crash, you might think, but actually it genuinely seems to have been done with a good deal of care and love, and the results are for the most part pretty splendid, especially given that the album's sound wouldn't have been the easiest to reproduce in a live setting (Clark himself never attempted to tour in support of the album on its original release).

My personal highlights are the two songs featuring Fleet Foxes' front-man Robin Pecknold, Life's Greatest Fool and Strength Of Strings, partly because they showcase the stupendous female backing vocal ensemble. I must also mention From A Silver Phial, not so much because Hamilton Leithauser makes an especially memorable job of the vocal but because it remains one of my favourite songs. It's a pity that the high-definition video doesn't include the encores, as then I could have linked to a better-quality version of Victoria Legrand's spooky version of Clark's Hear The Wind, but it's still worth a listen.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

house of the tiling fun

When we moved into our current house in June 2010, it was with the knowledge that there would be a few things we'd want to change around the place. I think unless you're moving into some sort of pristine showhome or you're a gazillionaire and you've designed the place down to the last detail, from the cocktail bar and recreational ball pit in the conservatory to the cocktail bar and recreational studded sex harness in the bedroom, then it's likely that you'll at least want to apply a lick of paint here and there to freshen things up, even if you're not knocking walls down.

Our predecessors (the male half of whom - the previous occupant of my shed - is now sadly deceased) had been in the house for 30-odd years, and some of the decor was obviously of similar vintage. That weird shiny vinyl wallpaper with the swirly patters or the bumpy embossed stuff is all a bit 1970s - indeed so, I would argue, is the whole concept of wallpaper. So that had to go from a couple of places, as did the strange chain attachment hanging from the ceiling in the spare bedroom. Aha, you'll be saying, the recreational sex harness. Well, maybe, but the story we were told is that my male predecessor was a former amateur boxer and that it had at one time been the attachment for a punch bag. You may choose to believe that story or not as you wish.

Anyway, not to get ahead of myself, here's the order in which we tackled the various decoration & renovation tasks. Where there is a link on the room name/description this will take you to a photo gallery.

1) second downstairs reception room - this was the first priority as it was intended to be Hazel's client reception & album viewing area and would enable her to relinquish the separate office space she was renting for this purpose at vast expense. Bit of wallpaper stripping, a lick of paint and some new light fittings, nothing too major.

2) the master bedroom - second priority as my wife refused to allow me to erect my IKEA bookshelves until we'd painted the wall they were going to sit in front of. Wallpaper stripping and painting mainly - sounds simple but it's an absolutely gargantuan room with lots of fitted cupboards, so it was all a bit fiddly in places.

3) the spare bedroom - this room featured possibly the most bizarre decor in the whole house, as most of one wall had been given over to wall-to-ceiling cork tiles for who knows what purpose - thankfully my fears of finding my predecessor's mother-in-law walled up behind it proved groundless. Less thankfully they were an absolute bastard to remove and necessitated getting the wall where they'd been replastered afterwards. There was also some furniture which had been fitted flush with the wall and floor by removing the relevant sections of skirting board and carpet, thus also necessitating complete replacement of both. And then there was the recreational sex harness as mentioned above.


4) what is officially one of the two small bedrooms towards the back of the house, and had been my "office", but was then designated as Nia's room (or "the baby" as she was then, as she hadn't been born when we started) and so needed to be converted. The usual de-wallpapering (some particularly horrible grey swirly vinyl stuff) and painting, plus converting the cupboard containing the boiler and water tank into a storage cupboard for baby clothes via an ingenious removable shelving system of my own design.

5) The garden. The first of the really big tasks, and the one I'm retrospectively most proud of. The garden was in a bit of a state as my predecessor had planned to build a one-storey extension at the back of the house, and had done various ground clearance activities in preparation for this as well as building a low breeze-block wall with various wire wall ties protruding from it. The bits that weren't a horrible sharp concrete and wire-based death trap were a jungle of buddleja and various other invasive plants. The impetus for this was - again - having Nia and being aware that once she was properly mobile she'd need access to a garden that wasn't going to rip her face off as soon as she set foot in it. So what we did was:
  • tidy up the smashed concrete driveway by extending it to the back door and putting some nice neat brick edging on it
  • remove about a quarter of the decking area to increase the area available for putting a lawn on - on removing the decking boards it turned out that a lot of the superstructure was rotten anyway, so it would have had to go one way or the other. Under the decking was a 4-inch thick layer of concrete that I had to hire a breaker from the good people at HSS (which happened to be about 50 yards down the road) to smash up, and under that was a foot-high layer of loamy soil that probably hadn't seen air or daylight for about 30 years.
  • cover up the ugly breeze-block wall by facing it with some nice big railway sleepers that we got from the timber yard in Crumlin. We decided to extend the sleepers down the side wall to make a sort of long low bench when we discovered that the lawn level was in danger of being below the bottom of the wall, and that the wall didn't seem to be sitting on any meaningful foundations.
  • fill up the areas enclosed behind the railway sleepers to make some raised beds for planting vegetables in.
  • use the earth from under the decking to level the rest of the garden up in preparation for making a lawn.
  • dump 6 tons of topsoil onto this area and then lay some turf on top of that (in what turned out to be freezing temperatures and torrential rain)
  • put a child-proof fence around the edge of the decking area to avoid any plummeting incidents
  • extend the side wall upwards by about 3 feet by putting a fence on top of it
I'd never done any hard landscaping of this sort before so I was extremely grateful for the assistance of my ex-brother-in-law Ray, who'd offered us his expertise and assistance in "tidying up" the garden as a wedding present back in June 2011, without (I suspect) quite realising what he was getting himself into.




6) the downstairs bathroom. This is located in a little brick lean-to structure at the back of the house, the best theory for the original purpose of which that I've heard is that it was probably the coalshed. That would explain the obvious bricked-up door on the outside wall, and the fact that the current entrance door from the utility room appears to have been knocked through at a later date. Anyway, it's handy to have a downstairs bathroom, but this one was a bit delapidated and contained a rather manky shower cubicle as well as a ragged hole where our old boiler used to be (it's now been replaced by a much smaller one in a cupboard in the kitchen). I hadn't planned to segue straight from finishing the garden into starting the bathroom, but then the shower packed up necessitating a bit of emergency plumbing (basically cutting off and capping some pipes) and that seemed like a good moment to start a bit of general demolishment.

So what I did was:
  • rip out the shower cubicle and its floor tray
  • smash all the tiles off the wall and floor
  • brick up the hole in the wall where the outlet flue from the old boiler had been
  • get a man in to relocate some of the pipework, specifically the inlet pipes for the wash-basin and the shower, replace and skim the ceiling and install a new window to replace the old rotten one
  • attach battens to the external-facing walls and then plasterboard them (among other things allowing concealment of the inlet pipes)
  • do the same for the internal walls but by sticking the plasterboard directly to the walls
  • concrete in the shower waster pipe so as to allow a "wet-room"-style floor tiling arrangement (i.e. by building a slight slope into it)
  • build a brick plinth for the wash-basin to stand on
  • build a stud wall to enclose the future location of the "back-to-wall" toilet cistern
  • seal and waterproof plasterboard and floor in preparation for tiling
  • tile the floor (preserving the slope towards the shower drain but also ensuring that the door could still be closed and that there wasn't a step between utility room and bathroom for people to trip over)
  • install the toilet and cistern
  • tile the walls
  • build a cupboard where the old boiler used to be
  • install the washbasin
  • tidy up, make good, etc.
  • christen the toilet by having a big shit in it


So, in my mind at least, that concludes major DIY operations in and around the house for the foreseeable future. That doesn't mean that I can put my feet up completely, as there are numerous other bits of more mundane maintenance that need taking care of: some broken guttering needs replacing (which I'm going to get a man in for), the roof on the porch by the back door is somewhat leaky and rotten, I need to put some more shelves up in the shed, and the side wall could do with repointing. No rest for the wicked....

Sunday, June 22, 2014

incidental music spot of the day

The opening bars of White Room by Cream over the opening moments of the Radio 4 adaptation of Philip K Dick's Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? at 9pm yesterday evening. I caught the first 20 minutes or so of it at the end of a long drive back from Derby, long enough to also catch a snippet of Jimi Hendrix's Voodoo Chile (Slight Return) later on as well.

Two filmic links, firstly that Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? was the basis (with the usual liberties taken with the plot) for Ridley Scott's classic 1982 film Blade Runner, and secondly that the canonical use of Voodoo Chile (Slight Return) in film is towards the end of Withnail And I as the two protagonists return to London. Get in the back of the van!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

the last book I read

Metroland by Julian Barnes.

Chris and Toni are a couple of 16-year-old schoolboys in suburban early-1960s London. In addition to the usual teenage pursuits of malodorous spottiness and relentless wanking they also cultivate some slightly more cerebral ones, mainly scoffing at the stupidity of their school contemporaries, despising the bourgeois sterility of their parents' lives and fantasising about heading off to France and being bohemian poetic types, France being the centre of all that is arty and revolutionary as well as containing lots of knowing Gauloise-toting French girls who are gagging for it.

We then jump forward to 1968, and Chris has realised at least part of his fantasy by being in Paris, on the flimsy pretext of writing a thesis about French theatre. He's soon enthusiastically pursuing the other half of the Paris fantasy as well, by meeting sultry French girl Annick and persuading her to relieve him of his virginity. So bound up is he with cashing in on the sex thing at every possible opportunity that the seminal events of May 1968 rather pass him by, something he's slightly embarrassed about in hindsight, particularly since Toni reminds him about it constantly.

The last part of the novel happens in 1977 - Chris has settled into his own version of suburban sterility and tedium, or so Toni would have him believe anyway. Married to Marion, the clever, down-to-earth English girl he met towards the end of his time in Paris, father to a young daughter and occupant of a steady job and a nice house, Chris certainly seems to have embraced the whole bourgeois middle-class thing with a vengeance. So why is he so happy? And is Toni really as scornful of Chris' lifestyle as he purports to be, or is he just jealous?

This was Julian Barnes' first novel, published in 1980, and follows many of the standard rules for first novels: most importantly, write about what you know. The bits describing Chris' childhood are supposedly reasonably close to being autobiographical - Barnes certainly did grow up in suburban north-west London, and the close ties with France are real, Barnes being if anything more celebrated as a novelist in France than he is in Britain.

It's pretty short (176 pages in my Picador edition) and less experimental than some of Barnes' later stuff, Flaubert's Parrot and A History of the World in 10½ Chapters in particular. It's very good on the business of how bright, slightly smug teenage boys act (and I know, because I used to be one), and raises some interesting questions about how youthful idealism mutates into a strong desire to do nothing more than just hang out with your wife and kids. It's fairly slight, though, and as with the rest of Barnes' books one ends up perhaps admiring the cleverness of it rather than really engaging with the characters. I would recommend the pair of love triangle books Talking It Over and Love, Etc. and the darker, slightly Ian McEwan-esque Before She Met Me. Barnes won the Booker Prize in 2011 for The Sense Of An Ending, having been nominated three times before - I think there may be just a hint of a lifetime achievement award being handed out there, just as for some other past recipients.

Metroland won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1981, as did A Good Man In Africa. The usual list can be found there. It was also made into a film - starring Christian Bale and Emily Watson among others - in 1997.

Monday, June 16, 2014

mapsolutely fabulous

Inspired by this quiz in the Guardian last week - which you should go and do first; I got a distinctly average 7/10, and that was aided by a couple of lucky guesses - I've harvested a few pictures of maps from some (fiction) books on my bookshelves. These are in no particular order, and I'm not promising that I've captured every book I own that contains a map, but as it happens this quick skim yielded a nice round ten pictures, so here they are. Have a look (click for embiggenment) and see if you recognise any. If it helps at all, four of these are from books which have featured in this blog - I have omitted the obvious one, Riddley Walker, since I've reproduced the map here before, and that would be too easy. Answers in comment #1, unless someone beats me to it.

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