Sunday, April 29, 2007

in-car micturition splash-avoidance product of the day

So you're in the car, at a rock festival, maybe at the theatre or in a job interview, or picking up an MBE from the Queen - anywhere where it's really not convenient or possible to just nip out for a piss. But, the thing is, you really really need one.

Well, help is at hand. No longer do you have to contort yourself in order to piss into a bottle, a process that has a number of drawbacks - for a start it's practically impossible if you're a girl, and you do also have to remember not to wake up some hours later with a raging thirst and greedily guzzle down the lot before remembering. It's no joke, I can tell you. Anyway, now you simply unroll your TravelJohn disposable urinal pouch, deploy the funnel attachment appropriate to your gender, and away you go, quite literally. They are available, along with numerous other useful travel gadgets, from the lavishly stocked Roaming Fox website. There is also an instructional video, for those in any way unclear about how the whole "pissing in a bag" process works. I clicked the link with a certain amount of trepidation, but actually it's all quite clean, no actual piss is involved. It's claimed that each pouch can soak up 28 fluid ounces of liquid, which I calculate to be just under a pint and a half - not bad, but realistically you'd probably have to be quite desperate before pissing in a bag started to seem like a good idea, and, well, you know how it is, once you start you can't stop.

I'm conscious of having said "piss" quite a lot over the course of the last couple of paragraphs; not that I'm apologising as that is essentially what those two paragraphs were about. But it just reminded me of a very minor claim to fame that I have, which is that I am one of a select group of people who have been told off for saying "piss" on BBC Radio. If the dates in the Cheeseracing News page are to be believed (and I'm sure they are) then it was May 2003 when Andy and I appeared on Bob Fischer and Mark Drury's Gobstopper show on BBC Radio Cleveland. Obviously you get a brief pep-talk before you go on, you know, keep it light, no swearing, etc. etc. Anyway, bearing this in mind, I waited until about the third or fourth word I uttered before saying "piss". They took it very well, though, and didn't cut us off or anything.

And while we're on the subject of cheeseracing - it's barbecue season, so get racing! And buy more thongs!

Friday, April 27, 2007

specific meat capacity

Pointless observation of the day which will enhance your life in no way whatsoever: musings on the heat retention properties of various kinds of food.

This struck me while I was eating a delicious plate of risotto for dinner this evening. Risotto appears to have interesting heat retention properties, in that it retains heat very well. Oh, sure, you serve it up in a big steaming pile and the outer layer becomes cool soon enough, but the inside stays volcanically hot. You find yourself having to keep stirring it around to let the steam out.

Contrast this, if you will, with pasta carbonara. This is proper pasta carbonara, mind, with the eggs and the cream, none of your shortcuts with the Philadelphia cheese and all. Delicious, but you plonk a big steaming pile of it on a plate, reach over to grab the tub of Parmesan, and by the time you come back to the plate it's cold. Stone cold, all the way through.

Speaking of food - hey! - we haven't done a recipe for a while. Here's one - ironically it's a kind of carbonara shortcut. This is, without doubt, the single dish I cook (in one of its variations) more than any other, by a factor of, well, several.

Dave's All-Purpose Creamy Pasta

Here's what you do. First, cook some pasta. I like linguine, 'cos it's quick and easy to cook - failing that, tagliatelle. Or, hey, penne, fusilli, whatever. Just avoid the two kinds of pasta I always avoid owing to their flawed design. These are: farfalle, because the pinch of the bow in the middle makes that area of the pasta shape cook more slowly than the outside, and conchiglie, because the shell shape makes some of the shapes turn up and float when you pour the water in, and you have to poke them down with a spoon. Anyway.....drain the pasta and run some cold water through it to arrest the cooking process and stop it sticking together.

Second, put some olive oil in the pan and cook some garlic. Then add the meaty ingredients. These can be pretty much anything; examples I've used include:
  • ham and mushroom
  • bacon and mushroom
  • chicken and spinach
  • chicken, chorizo and black olives
Then put in a grind of black pepper and a huge dollop of pesto. I tend to use up to a third of a jar per portion, but that's just me. You can slosh in some supplementary liquid at this point, such as:
  • a splash of balsamic vinegar
  • lemon juice
  • red wine
  • white wine
I tend to oscillate between keeping it simple and spartan, and sloshing in ingredients willy-nilly. Then put the pasta back in and stir it all around. Finally chuck in a big lump of mascarpone cheese, probably a couple of dessertspoonsful, and a liberal sprinkling of parmesan. Then eat. It's not a low-calorie dish, it should be pointed out at this point, but on the other hand it is delicious. And it takes no time at all.

Monday, April 23, 2007

I, for one, welcome our new cephalopodic overlords

While I'm here I must just plug one more Tim Kreider cartoon - this one. The man even shares my obsession with giant squids! He really is my new best friend. It's almost certainly racially suspect, but just try saying the line from the first frame ("He say he want brack rady! He say Japanese girr too RITTRE!") in the appropriate stereotypical accent, without pissing yourself. If you can manage it your humour-resistant bladder control is better than mine.

There's a link in the comments to some appropriate T-shirts, but it doesn't work. The ones you want are here and here.

album of the day

Floodland by The Sisters Of Mercy.

The whole Goth thing is a bit of a problem - that whole self-consciousness/wilful ugliness combo, the schizophrenic "look at me"/"don't look at me" thing; my usual attitude is: look, the grownups are trying to talk here - go and put some more eyeliner on. Suspension of disbelief is the key with Goth music. If you can't forget that these are ordinary blokes who live with their Mums and travel to gigs on the bus, then you won't get it. You've got to believe these are some world-weary leather-clad sex overlords who can talk Nietzsche to you while stringing you up in some sort of kinky bondage harness. Or so I like to think anyway.

I bought this album when it first came out in 1987, on the strength of seeing them performing This Corrosion on Top Of The Pops. I've since lost my original CD, but they've just re-released a remastered CD version with a couple of extra tracks on it, and the mighty Fopp had it for a fiver, so it seemed rude not to. It must be at least ten years since I've listened to it.

And you know what? It's pretty good. You get certain features built-in, for free, with any Goth album, specifically, that the songs will be primarily bass and drum-driven, and the vocals will be gravelly and monotonic. To be fair, this probably became a cliché after Andrew Eldritch made it his trademark here. The mighty opening of Dominion/Mother Russia sets the scene, there's a few slower atmospheric numbers like Flood I and Flood II with their watery imagery ("at the head of the river.....dream of the flood.....the water come rushing over"), there's the bouncy, rocky Lucretia My Reflection, which appears to be an ode to bassist Patricia Morrison (though she departed fairly acrimoniously after the album was released), and, most importantly, there's the massive Jim Steinman-produced 11-minute epic, This Corrosion. If you were to describe this as the Goth Bohemian Rhapsody, you wouldn't be far wrong. It is simultaneously an utterly absurd and ludicrous great wedding cake of a song and completely magnificent, with the New York Choral Society wailing away in the background like some Wagnerian Phantom Of The Opera-style undead zombie choir.

Eldritch went on to recruit a whole new band (apart from ever-present cyberdrummer Doktor Avalanche) for the next Sisters album, 1991's Vision Thing, which was much more rocky and guitar-driven, and, as I remember (I've lost the CD of this one too), also pretty good. And that was the last anyone heard of them in terms of official releases, though Eldritch continues to tour under the Sisters Of Mercy banner. Floodland remains their finest hour, though. Listen to it in the dark.

Alan Johnston

Alan Johnston bannerJust to register Electric Halibut's support for the BBC's blogging campaign for the release of their Gaza correspondent, Alan Johnston - click the image here for further details. The motives of those kidnapping journalists in the hope of spreading their message to the wider world seem confused at best, and dangerously irrational at worst. Let's hope the latest lurid rumours turn out to be unfounded, and that he's released unharmed, and soon.

the triumph of democracy over apathy a slightly grandiose title for a blog post, but there it is. I'm referring to the results of the first round of the French presidential election yesterday. It seems that either the French voting public was genuinely engaged and energised by the candidates on offer this time round, or that they were keen to avoid the debacle of 2002 when Jean-Marie Le Pen qualified for the second round of voting at the expense of the Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin.

Whatever the reason, voter turnout was a startling 84.6% compared with 71.6% in 2002, and what most neutral-ish observers would consider the "right" pair of candidates, Nicloas Sarkozy and Ségolène Royal, qualified for the run-off on 6th May. At least this way there'll be a meaningful second round, unlike last time where Jacques Chirac was guaranteed a landslide victory as soon as Le Pen qualified alongside him.

It'll be interesting to see where the unsuccessful candidates' votes go in the second round; you would assume that the Le Pen vote will largely gravitate to Sarkozy, despite the two men's mutual personal loathing. Where the Bayrou vote might go is a bit trickier. Not to mention the significant numbers (16% of the turnout) who voted for the various other candidates, including José Bové and his comedy moustache. Here's a picture (above) so you can compare it with Dick Strawbridge's from a few posts back. I think his startling resemblance to Asterix (also above) might have won him a few votes, as well.

Personally I hope Ségolène Royal wins, just because it would give the chauvinistic conservative status quo an almighty hoof in the family jewels, which would be quite amusing. There may be an element of me quite fancying her, in a quintessentially French older woman kind of way, as well, but I'm not prepared to comment on that.

This might be a good moment, also, to revive the hoary old quote which I've just looked up and seen attributed to Gore Vidal: "Any American who is prepared to run for president should automatically, by definition, be disqualified from ever doing so." Or, for French consumption: "N'importe quel français qui est disposé à courir pour le président devrait automatiquement, par définition, être éliminé de faire jamais ainsi." Well, "courir pour le président" probably isn't the right idiom, but it'll have to do. Sarkozy really really wants to be president; you can see it in his eyes. Some people might find this a bit alarming.

It's instructive to contrast the turnout with the turnout at the last two UK general elections - 61.3% in 2005 and 59.2% in 2001. That's what you get in a system (i.e. the French one) where every person casting a vote knows that their vote is going to count. Admittedly electing 650 MPs is a bit more complex than electing a single President, but the same principles apply. More here, if you want it.

On a completely unrelated note, this is my 147th blog post, and the World Snooker Championship started this week. Spooky, huh?

Saturday, April 21, 2007

bangin' 'toons

I'm mildly suspicious of grown men (and women, though, let's be honest, it is almost exclusively men) who read comic books, however adult-themed these books might claim to be, and however hysterically they might clamour to be categorised as "graphic novels" instead. So it's no use getting all Alan Moore or Neil Gaiman on my ass, it's not going to change my mind. I have similar sentiments regarding adults reading Harry Potter books as well, but I'll skip over that topic for a moment, mainly as I'm trying to keep this post relatively short and rambling-free as it's a sunny day outside and I want to get out in it.

My point, such as it is, is that while I disdain the cartoon form as a medium for great literary works, it is perfect for making short sharp satirical points. That's why most newspapers carry single-frame political cartoons on their leader pages, plus the odd multi-frame series like Steve Bell's If... (which I've never really "got") and Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury.

It's reassuring that these still have the power to cause shock and outrage, as Dave Brown of the Independent did a couple of years ago with his cartoon of Ariel Sharon eating Palestinian babies. Not to mention the storm in the Islamic community over the Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad (which I choose not to reproduce here partly out of a craven desire not to be fatwah-ed, but mainly because they're just not particularly funny - the greatest cartoon crime of all).

If any of these people ever saw Tim Kreider's work, specifically the series The Pain, When Will It End?, they might very well have some sort of seizure. And they should see it, because if there were any justice in the world, this guy would be the most famous cartoonist out there. He's a firm believer that no subject should be off-limits to humour and satire, a sentiment with which I profoundly agree. This means plenty of cartoons on such diverse subjects as sex, religion, Nazism, science, religion, the Holocaust, body piercing, and the cartoonist's own secret fantasies. Oh, and the ex-planet Pluto. It really is all tremendous stuff, and illustrates an important truth - stupid people are just depressing, while highly articulate and intelligent people (please do read the comments after the cartoons) pretending to be dumb are funny. It's not fair, but there it is. I also like the way Kreider caricatures himself (possibly unintentionally) as Sideshow Bob from The Simpsons after a radical haircut.

Friday, April 20, 2007

summer is in the air.....

...yeah, I know spring was in the air only a fortnight or so ago (just before the US Masters in fact), but things move quickly in this crazy post-millennial world of ours. So a matter of weeks later it's the start of the English cricket season - ergo, summer. Simple.

It's also the World Cup, of course, though it seems to have been going on forever. After tomorrow the interminable Super 8 stage will be over, though the last two matches (Australia v New Zealand today, and England v West Indies tomorrow) are irrelevant in terms of the semi-final line-up, though in certain unlikely circumstances (specifically, New Zealand thrashing Australia today with a substantial difference in run-rate) the "who plays who" situation could change. Most likely semi-final matches are Australia v South Africa, and Sri Lanka v New Zealand. This is (to a neutral observer anyway) the "right" line-up, as these are clearly the best four one-day sides in the world (India and Pakistan might have something to say about that, but they failed to qualify, so we'll choose to ignore them). That said I'd be extremely surprised if Ricky Ponting's Australians don't win the cup. Sticking my neck out, I'd say that the game they could lose is the semi-final against South Africa - if they get to the final they'll win.

Back to England - I see Duncan Fletcher has stood down as coach, which I think was pretty inevitable after the winter England have had. I think in general he can look back and be pretty proud of what he achieved with the team, particularly the period leading up to the Ashes triumph of 2005. He was unlucky to never be able to field the Ashes-winning Test team again owing to illness and injury to various key people (Vaughan, Trescothick and Simon Jones most significantly), and I think he was hampered by having a slightly too chummy relationship with his two captains, Nasser Hussain and Michael Vaughan; Vaughan's continuing presence in the one-day side is a symptom of this. I see also that Peter Moores has been installed as caretaker coach. I don't know much about Moores except that he was heavily involved with the Sussex team that's been so dominant in the County Championship recently - his lack of Test experience at either playing or coaching level may count against him when the big guns like Tom Moody and John Wright start expressing an interest in the job on a more permanent basis, though.

Nice to see Marcus Trescothick in the runs for Somerset, and Steve Harmison picking up a few wickets for Durham. We really need these two back in the Test team pronto. Mark Ramprakash continues to stack up runs at a rate of knots as well, though I suspect even he would have to concede his Test-playing days are over.

It's a strange quirk of modern cricket that while in the old days the pinnacle of batsmanship, membership of the 100 100's club, was the preserve of the finest batsmen of their time, men like Jack Hobbs, Walter Hammond, Don Bradman, Len Hutton etc., these days it's much more of a niche market because of the smaller number of county games, and the greater number of Test matches and the preparation time devoted to them. Specifically, entry these days depends on being a county run-machine who never quite cracked it at Test level - the two shining examples being Graeme Hick (already a member) and Ramprakash (87 first-class centuries up to the start of this season, I think he made one last week, and he made 115 for Surrey against Yorkshire today - spooky).

Thursday, April 19, 2007

thank you for not breeding

A glut of book-related posts recently, for which I apologise. Anyone who's not as quite lidderally bonkers about lidderature as I am might have found the whole thing a bit trying.

Here's something different, then. You're a concerned environmentalist. You recycle. You use low-energy light bulbs. Maybe you even knit your own tofu. But unless you're prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice it's all for nothing. And that ultimate sacrifice Oh, and all your descendants. Or so the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement would have you believe. That's VHEMT for short, pronounced "vehement" because, and I quote, "that's what we are". Well, that's one word for it.

Their website has a handy FAQ section with some great questions on it, all answered in an endearingly deadpan way, from the starter category like "Are some people opposed to the VHEMT concept?" to the slightly more Zen ones like "How do I gauge the depth of my ecology?" to the no-punches-pulled approach of "Why don't you just kill yourself?".

It's easy to mock, of course, as well as being right and proper and essential to do so. The funny thing is, though, that among all the barking lunacy (and I'm not totally convinced the whole thing isn't an elaborate wind-up) they talk more sense on a number of topics than those who are, in a very real sense, running the world. Let me offer you a couple of examples.

  • Population growth. Just to start with the obvious one. There are too many of us for the available resources (unless we all fancy going back to subsistence farming and perhaps owning the odd goat. Not keen? Thought not. Me neither), even if there aren't there soon will be at current rates of population increase. Global warming doesn't help either, in fact of course the two phenomena are inextricably linked; more people means more pollution, greenhouse gases, etc., and also more people living in areas vulnerable to the effects of global warming, like rising sea levels. None of which leads unavoidably to the conclusion that we should voluntarily wipe ourselves out, but just because their conclusion is bonkers doesn't mean there's anything wrong with the starting premise.

  • Contraception. Clearly if you're advocating the gradual phasing out of the human race you're going to have to advocate either mass suicide (not really a vote-winner), total abstention from sex (ditto) or contraceptive use. Hardly surprisingly, this is the approach they've plumped for. Contrast this, if you will, with the approach advocated by the Catholic Church, which continues to adhere to the position that contraception is inherently sinful, and, as if this wasn't enough, in some African countries to spread the eye-poppingly evil notion that condoms promote the spread of HIV/AIDS. Now who are the nutters?

  • Abortion. No method of contraception, however conscientiously used, is 100% reliable. VHEMT take what could be viewed as a commendably pragmatic view of this problem - equally it could be viewed as a view cynically in line with their ultimate aim - the end of the human race! (Insert dramatic orchestral stab here). Either way it's a lot more sane than the current goings-on in the US Supreme Court. Maybe Ruth Bader Ginsberg is being paranoid in seeing this as the first step on the right-wing religious conservative road to getting Roe v Wade repealed; I'm not so sure she is, though. I say: get Hillary in the White House pronto; she'll sort 'em out.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

the last book I read

Slow Man by J.M. Coetzee.

Well now, here's an irony. Having if not damned with faint praise then certainly expressed distinctly lukewarm sentiments towards one author's (Kurt Vonnegut) experiments with metafiction, I find myself reading almost immediately afterwards a novel which dabbles in a very similar area, somewhat unexpectedly.

Let's go back a step. This is, ostensibly and initially at least, the story of sixtysomething Paul Rayment, French by birth but long-since Australian by residence, who gets knocked off his bike while riding around the suburbs of Adelaide, where he lives, and injured so badly that one of his legs has to be amputated above the knee. A formerly active (if reserved) man, he withdraws into himself after the accident, spurning the concern of his friends as well as the offer of a prosthetic limb to allow him to walk again. He engages the services of a Croatian nurse, Marijana, who he falls in love with (or imagines he does), but she has a husband and children already.

So far, so relatively normal, except: Rayment is a sixtysomething fitness enthusiast and cyclist, resident in Australia (and Adelaide, specifically) despite not being born there; Coetzee is a sixtysomething fitness enthusiast and cyclist, resident in Australia (and Adelaide, specifically) despite not being born there (he's South African). So is Rayment meant to be Coetzee?

About a third of the way through the book, Rayment is paid an unexpected visit by an elderly woman who announces herself to be Elizabeth Costello, an Australian novelist, and a woman who seems to know a lot about Rayment and his predicament. In fact she recites to him, as a way of demonstrating this, the first lines of the novel, verbatim. Weird, huh? Those who know a bit about Coetzee's other books will know at this point that his previous novel was called Elizabeth Costello, and featured the same character, and will be feeling the narrative rug being pulled out from under them. So is her appearance here a physical manifestation of the authorial voice? To put it another way, is Costello meant to be Coetzee?

The answers to the questions posed at the end of the previous two paragraphs are, respectively: erm, maybe and erm, maybe. Costello urges Rayment to come out of himself and engage with the world, Rayment resolutely refuses to do so, his fraught relationship with Marijana and her son Drago continues, there's a sub-plot involving the (possible) theft of some antique photographs, but not a huge amount actually happens. It's significant, perhaps, that the main piece of action in the book (Rayment's collision with the car) happens a fraction of a second before the book starts - the first line has him flying through the air. Nothing as dramatic actually occurs within the pages of the book.

So on one level it's a story about caring and being cared for, love, old age, the desire to leave a mark on the world after you've gone, etc....and on another level it's a story about the author's struggle with his characters, the struggle to have them behave in interesting yet authentic and recognisable ways.

I see all that. I see, also, that it's beautifully written in Coetzee's trademark spare and precise way, and I sped through it pretty quickly. But is it as good as Disgrace, which is much more orthodox in structure, equally beautifully written, and in which plenty of interesting stuff happens?

No. I'd start there if I were you.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

album of the day

Genius: The Best Of Warren Zevon.

Ever seen The Colour Of Money? You know, Tom Cruise, Paul Newman, a sort of sequel to the (much) earlier Newman vehicle The Hustler, won Newman a belated Best Actor Oscar, a bit crap, Cruise as irritating as ever, etc., etc. One of Cruise's most self-satisfied and irritating bits, though, is when he dances round a pool table to the strains of Werewolves Of London, by, yes (you knew there was a point to these ramblings), Warren Zevon.

It's a terrific song, with its thumping piano riff and twisted lyrics, and falls into what I term Category 1 among Warren Zevon songs, these being the sardonic rockers, category 2 being the gently sentimental ballads. Category 1 examples: the aforementioned Werewolves of London, Poor Poor Pitiful Me, Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner, Excitable Boy ("He took little Suzie to the Junior Prom / Excitable boy, they all said / And he raped her and killed her, then he took her home / Excitable boy, they all said / Well, he's just an excitable boy"), Lawyers, Guns And Money, Boom Boom Mancini, Things To Do In Denver When You're Dead, Mr. Bad Example.

Category 2 examples: Carmelita, Reconsider Me, Searching For A Heart.

Actually there is a Category 3 as well: the slightly more contemplative songs written late in his career, the last few of which would have been written in the sure and certain knowledge of his own impending death from lung cancer (he died in September 2003) - ones like Mutineer, I Was In The House When The House Burned Down and Genius. Some of the rockier numbers are a bit lumpy and synth-heavy and 1980's in their arrangements, but the lyrics are pure gold.

Further thoughts: the album Mr. Bad Example included a couple of songs later used as the titles of works in other artistic media: Things To Do In Denver When You're Dead (film starring Andy Garcia, among others), and Quite Ugly One Morning (book by Christopher Brookmyre). Also - the list of great rock songs about boxing is a pretty short one, but Boom Boom Mancini is right up there. Actually I can't think of any others, apart from maybe Hurricane by Bob Dylan, and that isn't really about boxing at all. And, erm, The Boxer by Simon And Garfunkel, I suppose. And Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School is one of the best album titles ever.

Anyway, unless you want the 44-track retrospective I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, this is the compilation to go for. Nice set of sleeve notes by fellow substance-abusing wordsmith Will Self, as well.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

look at the Coch on that

Back in Cardiff at the weekend and revisited a couple of the places I visited back in December. This time it was a bit more of a full day out, though. Hazel and I got a local train from Cathays to Treforest, nipped across to the local cemetery which marks the access point to the Taff Trail (just here in fact), walked down the trail past Nantgarw to a handily-placed picnic table where we had lunch, then pressed on into Fforest-fawr and thence to Castell Coch. The rebuilding works have finished and the scaffolding has all come down since December, and it was a glorious sunny day so it was all looking very idyllic. We paid our £3.50 (each!) and had a look around inside - then we headed off down the hill into Tongwynlais.

Last time my timing of arrival at the pub was not too good as it was about 10:30 in the morning, and the place was shut; this time it was perfect as it was just before 4pm, so not only was the pub open, but it was just about to show the Grand National. So we sat around, watched the race, had a couple of pints, headed back down out of the village down the Taff Trail which hugs the riverside back towards the centre of Cardiff and caught the train back into town from Radyr.

Photos are available here. On the basis of the stretch of the Taff Trail we saw (about 8 miles or so, I reckon) I'd say it would be a lot of fun to cycle along, especially as the scenery would get a lot more spectacular as you head out into the country north of Merthyr Tydfil. Definitely worth reserving a summer weekend for!

Friday, April 13, 2007


This is a slight rehash of a topic covered in the comments to the Michael Dibdin article, but I think it warrants a mention in a "proper" posting. Another literary death this week: Kurt Vonnegut. Various obituary articles here: the BBC, and slightly more comprehensive ones in the Times and the Washington Post.

Needless to say Kurt Vonnegut was a far bigger deal in the literary world, both critically and comercially, than Michael Dibdin ever was, but I never quite got to grips with him in quite the same way. I read the book upon which the bulk of his reputation rests, Slaughterhouse-Five, and I've also read Breakfast Of Champions and Galapagos. I think you either instantly engage with and love the constant structural experiments and the self-referentiality or you find the whole thing leaves you a bit cold and yearning from some proper literary meat to chew on. I probably fall into the latter camp, which isn't to say I didn't find the books enjoyable, just that I wasn't fired with an irresistible urge to seek out and read any more of them.

After having a root around my bookshelves last night I discover I've also got one of his earlier ones, The Sirens Of Titan, though I've never read it. I'll get to it eventually.

Slightly bizarrely, I was inspired to read Slaughterhouse-Five after hearing it mentioned in the film Footloose, the classic piece of 1980's teen tosh. When you're a teenager anything that might have been banned somewhere sounds like the sort of thing you want to be reading.

Reverend, we have a little problem.
I heard the English teacher is planning to teach that book.
Slaughterhouse Five. Isn't that an awful name?

On a completely unrelated topic, I found myself watching It's Not Easy Being Green last night, the continuing eco-adventures of the Strawbridge family, featuring Dick Strawbridge, a man with a moustache you could lose a badger in. Well, I suppose it's not completely unrelated, as there is the moustache connection (see the Vonnegut picture above). Anyway, I couldn't help noticing that the incidental music featured the instrumental intros from two songs from Sufjan Stevens' brilliant Come On Feel The Illinoise album: John Wayne Gacy, Jr. and Decatur. Well done BBC. I'm almost tempted to write to Points Of View, except I don't think it's on any more.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

the last book I read

Aunt Julia And The Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa.

Interesting bloke, Mario Vargas Llosa - Peruvian novelist, one-time bosom buddy of legendary Colombian novelist and Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez.....their friendship ended in mysterious circumstances with a punch-up in a Mexican cinema 30-odd years ago; rumour has it there may have been a woman involved. He also ran for President of Peru back in the early 1990s and lost narrowly to Alberto Fujimori.

Anyway, back to the book.....although MVL's (as I like to call him) biography is relevant here, as this is a thinly disguised account of his own scandalous affair with and subsequent marriage to his Aunt Julia. The story of the affair and the couple's increasingly desperate attempts to find a way to get married despite the disapproval of the protagonist's parents is interspersed with the increasingly deranged soap-operatic radio serial scripts written by the protagonist's friend Pedro Camacho.

It's all highly entertaining stuff, though the ending is a bit odd - MVL did go on to divorce his Aunt Julia and marry his cousin Pauline, just as in the book. Pedro Camacho's descent into semi-madness is never adequately explained , though.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Michael Dibdin RIP

Sad to hear of the death of one of my favourite authors, novelist Michael Dibdin - he died on March 30th, but I only found out this weekend. The obituaries were in the midweek papers last week (including a comprehensive one in the Daily Telegraph and slightly shorter ones in the Guardian and Independent), but my local newsagent has been shut for the last couple of weeks, so my newspaper-buying has been a bit erratic of late. Thankfully it's open again now, though.

The obituaries all say that he died after a "short illness", which is usually obituary-ese for a heart attack (a "long illness" usually meaning cancer, by contrast).

He's most famous for the Italian-set Aurelio Zen series of detective novels, the last of which, Back To Bologna, I read just recently. Apparently there is one more in the pipeline which he completed before he died. I recommend the whole series, as well as the non-Zen novels Dirty Tricks and Dark Spectre, unreservedly.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

vulpine shenanigans #3

Following on from my fox-related post of a few days ago, I got back to Bristol on Easter Monday to find this handsome chap sunning himself in my garden. I went and got the camera, and he obliged by looking straight at me while I snapped him, and then getting up and trotting off once I'd finished.

Next week: I surprise a colony of tapirs in my airing cupboard.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Masters post-mortem + showbiz lookalikes

Well, not many people (me included) would have predicted Zach Johnson as the 2007 Masters champion, but he was a thoroughly deserving winner in the end. A couple of others could have challenged - Justin Rose was in it up to the 17th but a horrible drive put paid to his chances; Tiger Woods produced a sensational eagle at the 13th, but missed a makeable birdie putt at 14 and was left having to go for the green in two after a pushed drive at 15 and put an almost impossible shot in the water. Retief Goosen played very steadily and but for a couple of putts which refused to drop on 12 and 14 and a bit of appalling luck on 16 - when a tee shot which looked to be in hole-in-one territory stuck at the top of the bank in defiance of the laws of physics - might have nicked it. All in all a very exciting weekend though, and lots of European interest near the top of the leaderboard (Rose, Harrington, Casey, Donald, etc.) - though not actually at the top of the leaderboard, which is the only place that really counts. Just ask Tiger.

More importantly though, anyone watching the antepenultimate pairing of Johnson and Vaughn Taylor going round the course on Sunday must have done a double-take: surely this must be the celebrity pro-am section of the tournament? Otherwise what are Joaquin Phoenix and Matthew Modine doing playing a round of golf together?

Friday, April 06, 2007

double vulpine congratulations

Firstly to my fellow blogmeister Andy "Silver Fox" Browne who is now (as of last week) father to two daughters. Congratulations must also go to his wife Sara who, to be fair, did most of the work, Andy's involvement being, as I understand it, brief, yet pivotal.

Also many congratulations to my old friend Tony "Foxy" Fox who got married a month or so ago in New Zealand. Fascinating fact: Tony's wife Lianne is the only person I know (admittedly somewhat tangentially) who has a legitimate Wikipedia entry. The picture here is of Tony and Mario (another Antipodean escapee who now lives in Sydney) down on the Dorset coast in, slightly astonishingly (to me anyway), 1996.

Lastly, and I know this has seen some exposure on the internet recently, but I have to mention it because it is quite amusing - check out ex-Queen guitarist Brian May's website. I have to reproduce just a couple of quotes: one at the end of an article about animal testing:
I swear I will use all my influence, from now until I die, to try to turn the human race around...
Cheers, Bri. And one from a somewhat hyperbolic piece about John Lennon:
NEVER had anything been created like these works in the whole of History.
Crikey. And there's me thinking they were just some songs.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

spring is in the air.....

.....and I'm not referring to the mild and sunny weather we've been having recently (well, round these parts anyway), still less to any voodoo pagan ritualism involving cuckoos and snowdrops.

No, what I'm referring to is the fact that it's the US Masters this weekend - the first golfing major of the year. Not only is it a great and historic golfing tournament, but it's a riot of colour when the weather's good - as it usually is. Although if it isn't then they apparently park sun-lamps in front of the azaleas to ensure they're in full bloom when the TV cameras are on them, and if the weather's been particularly warm they pack them in ice to ensure they don't wilt over the weekend. It's the sort of thing colour television was invented for - apparently Nick Faldo was inspired to take up golf after sitting in his living room in Welwyn Garden City watching Jack Nicklaus win the 1972 Masters. Though as far as the passing of the seasons goes all it really proves is that it's nice and sunny in Georgia in April - not really much of a surprise.

My first US Masters memory is of seeing Jack Nicklaus win (his 18th and final Major) in 1986 - just as with the 1981 Ashes a fantastically tense and emotional finish that has, paradoxically, simultaneously kept me gripped to subsequent tournaments and mildly disappointed that most of them haven't been as good.

So who's going to win this year? What, you mean apart from Tiger Woods?

No, seriously. He's won something like 11 of his last 15 strokeplay tournaments, the course couldn't be better suited to his game, and he's got the wood (ooer) on every other player in the field, mentally. As someone once said about Nicklaus, "he knows he's going to beat you, you know he's going to beat you, and he knows you know he's going to beat you". Actually I've just looked it up, and it was JC Snead - who can probably be forgiven a touch of bitterness, as growing up playing against his uncle must have been pretty demoralising as well. If we leave Tiger aside, then it comes down to either another of the Big Five having a good week (probably Mickelson or Goosen), or one of the shorter hitters in the pack finding some absolutely miraculous form on the greens. Mike Weir was the last guy to do this, in 2003, so it can be done.

What about the Europeans? Well, those who have previous Augusta form like Olazabal and Langer are a bit long in the tooth these days, so you'd have to look to the younger contingent. It could be one of the Brits, which comes down to a choice between a long hitter capable of some streaks of sensational scoring (and equally some terrible ones) in Paul Casey, or Mr. Consistency in Luke Donald. I reckon Casey has the game, as long as he brings it with him. Otherwise it could be Henrik Stenson (pictured), the man who holed the winning putt in the Ryder Cup, though winners who haven't played Augusta several times before are rare. We could do with a European major winner, though - it's been seven and a half years since the last one, Paul Lawrie at Carnoustie.

While writing this I went and had a look at Doug's golfing predictions blog - turns out he's got some thoughts as well - if you're after a serious form guide I urge you to look there rather than at my vague ramblings.

Monday, April 02, 2007

album of the day

Chronicle by Creedence Clearwater Revival.

Another forgotten band - after The Rolling Stones and The Beatles these guys were probably the biggest band in the world for a year or two between 1969 and 1970. They had five US #2 singles without ever having a #1, which is apparently a record, while in the UK Bad Moon Rising was a #1 hit in September 1969, and later featured memorably in the man-to-werewolf transformation scene in the film An American Werewolf In London in the early 1980's. Not only that, but it was a John Fogerty song that opened Live Aid in 1985. Don't remember that? Well, Rockin' All Over The World by Status Quo is a cover of a Fogerty original from his debut solo album in 1975. Didn't know that? Well, there you go.

Fogerty is CCR, to all intents and purposes, no disrespect to the other three members of the group - principal songwriter, lead singer and lead guitarist. The Creedence sound couldn't be more simple, in stark contrast to the countless trippy psychedelic combos around in the late 1960's Creedence were devout primitivists - two guitars, bass and drums will do nicely thank you, as well as a bunch of songs influenced by country, blues and old-time rock'n'roll (Travelin' Band is a blatant Little Richard rip-off). Only a bit of electric piano and saxophone on the spine-tingling Long As I Can See The Light and a swell of Hammond organ on Have You Ever Seen The Rain? deviate from the standard formula; the rest is an awesomely tightly focused collection of 2 to 3 minute swamp-rock nuggets like Proud Mary, Bad Moon Rising, Green River, Fortunate Son (probably their finest moment) and Run Through The Jungle. Even when they unleash an 11-minute cover version of Marvin Gaye's I Heard It Through The Grapevine they somehow manage to pull it off - it ought to be horrible, but it's actually irresistibly funky, and Fogerty's gravelly howl is one of the great rock voices. It's only the later stuff like Hey, Tonight and Sweet Hitch-Hiker that marks a downturn in quality (and preceded the break-up of the band) - nothing much wrong with the songs, but they're much more generic rock and the voodoo magic of the earlier stuff has gone. That break-up preceded a series of mishaps for Fogerty whereby he lost millions thanks to Fantasy Records' accounting cock-ups and was then (somewhat bizarrely) accused of self-plagiarism and embroiled in lawsuits for some years, only returning with the triumphant Centerfield in 1985.

Apparently Bad Moon Rising is the source of a mondegreen - the last line of the chorus "there's a bad moon on the rise" is often misheard as "there's a bathroom on the right". And the crazy thing is, in my flat there is a bathroom on the right. As long as you're coming from the bedroom.

let me take you up the Hardknott Pass

I bought a Freeview box the other day - specifically a Philips DTR 210, £39 in Tesco in Cardiff. I could have got one for about £10 less, but I paid the extra for a manufacturer I'd actually heard of. Got it home, plugged it in, worked straight out of the box, bish bosh, sorted. Within an hour I was watching adverts for a toaster-shaped rotisserie delivered by a caricature fat Italian in a chef's hat. Apparently, if you can toast, you can roast. Genius.

Anyway, the reason I mention this is that this allows me access to a whole world of new channels, some of them rubbish (like the rotisserie channel, for instance), but some of them quite good, like for instance BBC4. On which there was an interesting documentary this evening about Alfred Wainwright, the Lakeland guidebook author. Anyone who's done any walking up in the Lakes will have come across the books; I've got a couple myself, and while they're exceptionally good as walking guides in their own right, they're also works of art.

It's a uniquely and quintessentially British story - mild-mannered accountant trapped in unhappy marriage seeks an outlet to a) escape from the wife b) wear himself out c) sublimate and suppress his sexual desires, and takes himself off (on the bus) in tweed suit and hobnailed boots to map every last inch of the Lakeland fells over a meticulously planned 13-year period. Then again if it hadn't been for old Alf's unfulfilling sex life there would have been no books, and scores of hillwalkers would be wandering around lost on top of Great Gable right now.

Anyone wanting to pay the ultimate tribute should note that AW's ashes are scattered on top of Haystacks in the western Lakes. Though he's probably been grazed up and crapped out by sheep multiple times by now. Still, it's what he would have wanted.