Tuesday, December 28, 2010

christmas spirit

Time for the ceremonial tasting of the Christmas whisky gifts. Santa emptied his bulging sack down my eager chimney to the tune of two bottles this year, so we'd best check 'em out.

Firstly, Sainsbury's Taste The Difference Highland Single Malt (an award-winner, no less). Now it may be supermarket-labelled, but we can say several things about this straight away; it must adhere to the official Scotch whisky rules, so it must really be a Highland Single Malt, i.e. the product of a single distillery in the region, and it must really be at least 12 years old. But which distillery? The label says it's been bottled for Sainsbury's by Ian MacLeod Distillers, who own the estimable Glengoyne Distillery. So is it Glengoyne? Well, Ian MacLeod also produce the As We Get It mystery pot-luck range of malt bottlings, as well as some stuff from other distilleries, so really it could be just about anything. Dr. Whisky reckoned an earlier MacLeod might have been a Blair Athol, but, well, you know, guessing is half the fun. Let's have a sniff.

Well, it's quite sweet and buttery, and maybe a little bit spicy on top, but not the sort of spice you stick in curries, the sort you get in cakes - you know, cinnamon, nutmeg, that sort of thing. Taste-wise it's pretty similar - the tasting notes on the bottle allude to some smoke at the end, but I didn't spot much. From that I deduce that it's not one of the lightly smoky West Highlanders, i.e. Oban and Ben Nevis. It's more like the Dalmore, though without being quite so rich and marmaladey. I suppose it could be a Glengoyne, though I have a feeling it isn't - it's certainly not that similar to the 10-year-old Glengoyne I had a bottle of a while back. In fact overall it's more like a polite Speysider (Cardhu, say) than one of the more hairy-chested Highlanders. Absolutely nothing wrong with it though.

That's the chalk done, now for the cheese - I also got (from my father) a bottle of Laphroaig Quarter Cask. Laphroaig is a bit of a whisky legend: Islay distillery, famously polarising in a Marmite-y sort of way, allegedly (though it's quite possibly an apocryphal story) allowed into the USA during Prohibition by being marketed as medicine or possibly disinfectant or toilet cleaner. Quarter Cask, as I understand it anyway, is a throwback to some older methods of whisky-making where smaller casks were used compared to the great big standard hogsheads - apparently the Ardmore is finished in a similar way. What with the basic physics involved here (surface area to volume ratio and the like) this should mean that more whisky is exposed to the wood.

It's still Laphroaig, though, so the smell is still like a physical assault: smoke, seaweed, Listerine, TCP, Toilet Duck, Mr. Muscle oven cleaner, latex gloves, car tyres, as well as some earthy vegetable stuff like lentils or cauliflower. Same with the taste, though it seems slightly woodier (as you might expect) and sweeter and less minty than the standard 10-year-old Laphroaig. It also seems a deeper brown colour; the standard bottling always seems to me to have a slightly greenish tinge to it. For all that most of that didn't sound very complimentary or appetising, I really like it, more than the standard one. In some ways the added sweet woodiness puts it somewhere between the standard Laphroaig and the Bowmore; I say this is a good thing.

Monday, December 20, 2010

non-hypnotic music to break up the catatonic state

Here's a bit more Beefheart for you: a BBC documentary from 1997, narrated, almost inevitably, by John Peel. Part one is here, and it's followed, as you might expect, by parts two, three, four, five and six.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

fast and bulbous

So it's RIP to the legendary Captain Beefheart, who died a couple of days ago. If you wanted to out-weird your friends when I was at university you needed to look no further than a copy of Beefheart's 1969 magnum opus Trout Mask Replica, one of the strangest rock albums ever recorded (it almost goes without saying that it was one of John Peel's favourite albums). I couldn't honestly say I've listened to the whole thing all the way through more than twice, but I do have a sneaky hankering to buy a copy now (my old tape copy has long since bitten the dust). I can say, however, that I listened many many times during my student years to the slightly more easily digestible 1972 album Clear Spot (available on Amazon in a single-CD double-issue with the inferior The Spotlight Kid, whose main redeeming feature is the growly I'm Gonna Booglarize You Baby, which may or may not be a paean to the joys of anal sex), which seems to me a perfect distillation of the Captain's trademark barking weirdness with some proper tunes.

You don't often hear Beefheart played, nor indeed even mentioned, on the radio, but funnily enough I listened to an episode of Desert Island Discs only a month or so ago on which poet and professional Northerner Ian McMillan chose the scary clanking and shrieking of Moonlight On Vermont from Trout Mask Replica as one of his eight musical items.

Here's a couple more clips: Sure 'Nuff'N'Yes I Do from 1968 and Upon The My Oh My (complete with slightly wanky Rock Critic intro from erstwhile Whistle Test presenters David Hepworth and Paul McCartney look-alike Mark Ellen) from 1974. If I were you I'd start with the aforementioned Clear Spot and 1967's Safe As Milk and take it from there.

there's snow escape from my snowscapes

Just a brief round-up of a few things:
  • I've applied an update to both the drink and mountain top photo galleries - and not before time as the last round of updates was over a year ago. Mainly photos taken since the last update, as you might imagine, but also a few older ones, mainly half-inched from Emma's online photo gallery. I'm sure she won't mind.
  • I've also added a few photos taken on a brief walk from the house over to Caerleon and back I went on yesterday. Everyone's been taking snow pics, and I'm not claiming mine add anything to the sum of human knowledge regarding things looking picturesque in the snow, but here they are anyway.
  • Finally, the results of the 2010 Bad Faith Awards have been announced, and this year's winner is Sheikh Maulana Abu Sayeed aka Rapey McRaperson, the Rapemeister General. For some reason a lot of people took exception to his views on intra-marital rape, the summarised version being that well, you married the bloke, so if you're not going to put out on a regular basis, like when he gets back from the pub on a Friday night with bits of kebab stuck in his teeth, you've got to expect a bit of a raping every now and then. It's sexual correctness gone mad.

Friday, December 17, 2010

insert chilly/chilli joke here

When conditions are harsh and wintry, as they are in Newport at the moment (the snow picture above was taken about half an hour ago) it's vitally important to ensure you've got enough spicy noodles to see you through till springtime. This lot should do it.

I note from my original internet noodles post that the unit price of a packet of noodles in July 2008 was 45p. As of my latest order this week that price is now 65p - so that's a price increase of 44% in just under two and a half years. So with that sort of galloping hyperinflation there's all the more reason to fill up your store cupboard with delicious noodles, sew yourself into your thermal underwear and batten down the hatches until springtime, whereupon you can emerge blearily, stretch, prise the tappen out of your arse and face the new year with renewed confidence and vigour.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

whatchoo talkin' 'bout, willis

I've just finished watching Sky Sports' highlights programme after the highly gratifying events of the first day of the third Ashes Test in Perth. Afterwards they did a bit of a round-up of the morning headlines in the Australian papers, complete with much crowing and general schadenfreude. Charles Colville expressed some bemusement at the headline in the Sydney Morning Herald, though, which read "The feeble and the damage done". Some sort of obscure Aussie cultural reference, he concluded. Well, not quite: I can only conclude that Colville isn't a Neil Young fan, or he would have spotted the reference to Young's 1972 song The Needle And The Damage Done, a grim lament for the heroin-induced death of guitarist Danny Whitten. It features on Young's most commercially successful album Harvest, better known as "the one with Heart Of Gold on it".

I would have thought Bob Willis, who was in the studio as a summariser, might have picked Colville up on it, though, as Willis famously added "Dylan" as a middle name (in addition to the "George" he already had) as a tribute to his musical hero Bob Dylan. A liking for Dylan doesn't necessarily imply a liking for Young, but they're in the same sort of ballpark. Incidentally the Sydney Morning Herald's original headline has now been amended to something a bit blander, so they obviously concluded no-one else was getting it either. Philistines.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

the last book I read

The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion.

It's 1984, and the USA is engaged in various murky covert operations in Central America. There's also a US presidential election campaign going on, which Elena McMahon is engaged to cover as a journalist. For reasons murky to everyone but herself (and maybe even to herself) she walks off the campaign in mid-swing and heads off to Miami to visit her father.

It seems Elena has some form in terms of unexplained sudden absences, having walked out on her now ex-husband Wynn Janklow and their teenage daughter Catherine a couple of years earlier for equally opaque reasons. One of the reasons she's decided to resume contact with her father is to bring him the news of her mother's death, but Dick McMahon seems more concerned with a deal he's cooked up with a strictly off-the-record arm of the US government to facilitate the supply of some arms to the Nicaraguan rebels. This is one of those One Last Big Job deals to set Dick up for a cosy retirement drinking bourbon and tinkering with his yacht, but it's scuppered by the sudden deterioration in Dick's health which threatens his participation. Seemingly for no better reason than because she can't think of anything better to do, Elena agrees to step in and take Dick's place - the job being to escort a planeload of arms to a military airfield in Costa Rica, meet the designated contact, pick up a million bucks and come straight back.

Needless to say it turns out not to be quite as straightforward as this - there's no-one waiting at the airfield with a convenient suitcase full of cash, so Elena has to get herself escorted to the nearest town, where she settles in at a hotel and waits for further instructions. These instructions take the form of the clandestine delivery of a fake passport in the name of Elise Meyer and a one-way ticket to an un-named Caribbean island, where Elena again books in at a hotel and waits for some news. Oddly, there seem to be a lot of Americans about, and few of them seem to be holidaymakers.

Gradually it becomes clear that there is going to be no payment for Dick McMahon's arms deal - all the clearer when Elena learns that Dick McMahon has died in a nursing home back in Florida - supposedly of natural causes, but if that were the case why didn't her contact mention it when she spoke to him? Feeling the walls closing in on her, Elena panics and flees the hotel, but with no passport she can't go far.

At this point US government troubleshooter, fixer, smoke-jumper and general can-do guy Treat Morrison steps in - called in to investigate after a panicked visit by Elena to the US embassy, he eventually tracks her down to the remote hotel where she's gone into hiding, at which point an unlikely romance develops. But just as there are things Elena doesn't know about, it turns out there are things Treat Morrison doesn't know about as well, in particular an assassination plot against a senior US diplomatic official on the island. The plot itself may or may not be real, but it provides a pretext for pinning responsibility for the plot on someone; someone who's proving an unexpected inconvenience perhaps....

Joan Didion is probably more famous for non-fiction, and political journalism in particular, than fiction, and this reads in places like a government report - much circuitous euphemism and jargon to skirt elliptically around unpalatable topics, repetition of key phrases, focusing on procedural minutiae rather than real moral issues, and a general tone of spooked paranoia - even though, to be fair, it turns out they are out to get you, in the end.

I can't remember a great deal about the only other Didion novel I've read, which was this one's predecessor Democracy, but the tone and central concerns were very similar, as well as the central characters - tough but brittle and remote female character who is elegant but tough in an Anna Wintour (or indeed Joan Didion) sort of way but, conversely, strangely susceptible to the charms of the slightly older world-weary guy who's deeply embedded in the system but at the same time has a heart of gold, both characters, paradoxically, being drawn together by their very coldness and remoteness. The difference, I suppose, is that in Democracy the central romance was played out over the course of the book and 20-odd years, whereas here it occupies no more than 20-odd pages at the end of the book and barely a couple of weeks by the book's internal timeline. The general paranoia and cynicism of all that's gone before being book-ended by effectively a tale of love at first sight seems like a slightly jarring change of pace, even if it does all ultimately end in tears.

Having said all that I enjoyed this greatly, though it won't be for everyone - there's a degree of metafictional detachment, as the narrator is a journalist piecing together the facts of the affair 10 or so years later - maybe it's even Didion herself? It also takes lot of words to describe a basically very simple plot that could be wrapped up in a dozen or so pages, though it does its circumlocutions in a very entertaining way.

The Last Thing He Wanted was published in 1996, and its immediate predecessor Democracy in 1984. In all Didion has published five novels in 47 years, and none since 1996, and she's now 76, so you may find that that's your lot. If so, and you want one and only one, I'd recommend Democracy.

celebrity lookeylikey of the day

It is my contention that stand-up comic and We Are Klang member Greg Davies is simply a freakishly giant version of Rik Mayall.

Monday, December 13, 2010

irony water

While buying some groceries in our shiny new Sainsbury's this evening I came across this product on the shelves with the washing powder and other cleaning products. I did a quick double-take as it looked just like a bottle of ordinary water - my initial assumption was that it was actually some sort of super-enviro-friendly Ecover-esque washing-up liquid made out of grasshopper spit and hemp or something.

But, on closer inspection, it turns out it's actually something called "ironing water", which is, as far as I can tell, water. Well, with just a dash of some nice fruity scent in it, to make all your freshly-ironed shirts smell of pomegranate. Which is pretty much exactly what I want my freshly-ironed shirts to smell of, let me tell you. Best of all, along with the pretty no-brainer usage instructions (basically "Pour into iron. Iron stuff") is this gem: "Do not dilute". WTF? It's fucking water! Is it homeopathic or something? Maybe dilution willl make it MORE POMEGRANATEY THAN YOU CAN POSSIBLY IMAGINE.

Sheesh. What a crock. But that hasn't stopped everyone else jumping on the bandwagon as well, Asda and Tesco included. To be fair to Tesco, they appear to be the only supermarket to mention what presumably is the point of the whole thing, such as it is, which is that it's distilled water with no dissolved mineral salts in it, and therefore it won't get the inside of your iron all limescale-y (though there might be a certain amount of pomegranate build-up). Even then they botch the science a bit by saying "contains no limescale" which isn't quite right - normal water contains no limescale, otherwise it'd be all lumpy. It's a bit like advertising Mars bars by saying "contains no plaque" - technically true, but not very helpful.

Monday, December 06, 2010

what a bunch of hunts

Nice of the BBC to keep me entertained by swearing like inebriated dockers as I sat in a traffic jam for an hour or so on the way to work this morning - I missed Jim Naughtie's Spooneristic mis-rendering of Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt's name on the Today programme, although I did tune in in time for the subsequent grovelling apologies. However, just in case late joiners were feeling left out, Andrew Marr repeated the slip on Start The Week, while attempting to refer to the incident during a discussion about Sigmund Freud.

The incident put me in mind of Nicky Campbell's problems (on Radio Five Live, I think) with the name of the West Kent Hunt - amusingly that incident was also compounded by attempting to refer back to it later and repeating the faux pas. It's always the Scots, isn't it? Well, to be fair the Americans seem to do it from time to time as well.

I'm sure Naughtie and Marr are high-profile enough not to be in any danger of suffering the same fate as Radio 4 continuity announcer Peter Jefferson, who was "persuaded" to take early retirement shortly after this on-air indiscretion. And he only said "fuck"!

Thursday, December 02, 2010

hitch slap

Say what you like about Christopher Hitchens, but he's certainly not wallowing in self-pity after the diagnosis of oesophageal cancer and its exceptionally grim prognosis a few months ago. In fact if anything he's stepped up his schedule, including an impressive but exhausting round of public debates with idiots, including Intelligent Design advocate Bill Dembski, ex-Prime Minister and increasingly scary orange bloke Tony Blair and philosopher, mathematician and massive gibbering cock David Berlinski.
  • Part 1 of the Dembski debate is here - turns out Dembski is an idiot. Who knew?
  • Part 1 of the Berlinski debate is here - turns out Berlinski is an idiot.
  • Part 1 of the Blair debate is here - turns out, well, you get the idea.
Here's a couple of interesting Independent articles from the run-up to the Blair debate - the first a really tremendously vacuous one by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (who has a bit of previous in this department), the second slightly more interesting.

A couple of further links I commend to you: an interesting recent Guardian piece and an interview of Hitchens by Jeremy Paxman for Newsnight. It's probably sentimentality at the prospect of his likely imminent death (and he does seem a bit more reflective and less polemical in these two interviews), and it's true he does talk a load of old cock from time to time, but I find myself finding Hitch increasingly cherishable - as his RationalWiki page says:
Christopher Eric Hitchens is what every self-respecting gentleman aspires to be, viz. a drunken, chain-smoking, atheistic, foul-mouthed, British smartarse.
On that subject here's Hitch on drink. Wise words. Incidentally the Hitchens caricature above is from this excellent series from Crispian Jago's blog.

letts go nutts

Here's some absolutely textbook fatwa envy (as previously observed here) that I spotted in a couple of different places this week.

Firstly Quentin Letts' Daily Mail review of Bill Bailey's latest stand-up show. Now Bill Bailey is about as benign and unthreatening a comedy performer as you could imagine; Christ knows what sort of an attack of the vapours Quentin would have on witnessing a Bill Hicks routine. Nonetheless once lovable hairy Bill has a few laughs at the expense of some old Caravaggio painting Quent feels the need to go off on one:
He may think himself wildly ­daring, but Christianity is hardly the riskiest target. Would he consider a ­routine mocking Mohammed? No. Didn’t think so. Yet that is arguably where ­comedy has some work to do, if it is truly to be considered radical.
Next, you'll no doubt remember the atheist bus campaign, and also the atheist billboards. All pretty gentle and polite attempts to push back slightly against the unthinking deference granted to religion in society, but nonetheless the targets for some really splendid lunacy from a number of quarters. Well, the venerable organisation American Atheists have produced a pre-Christmas billboard campaign and have paid to have the posters displayed at various prominent locations.


To be honest I think they could have taken a bit more trouble over the wording; it's a bit woolly and it's not entirely clear who it's aimed at. Atheists? Christians? The wavering in-betweeners? But, you know, whatever. It's more important that it's just proudly out there and visible to all. Although of course there are those who would rather it were not, this blogger for one:
...but to declare war on Christianity in the 21st century is hardly as daring as Silverman would like to think. Now, if he would like to try his hand at this sort of thing next year during Ramadan--now that would be a declaration of war that would be worthy of the name.
It's almost cut-and-paste identical to the Quentin Letts one, and indeed to most other examples of the genre. There is an amusing footnote to the Letts/Bailey fiasco which is that the frothing loons at Christian Voice (who basically comprise 2008 Bad Faith Award nominee Stephen Green and a couple of his mates) have picked up on the story - amusingly they're not satisfied with leaving it at complaining about the perceived religious imbalance, but decide on having a go at filling up the full irrational bigotry bingo card in one go.
Now if he took on the laughable idea of evolution, or took a sideswipe at abortion or feminism or sexual immorality, now that would be daring, but also a suicidal career move.
[...]
It could be argued they don't come much higher than Jesus Christ, but again, he is not likely to lose either his life or his livelihood picking on Christ or Christianity as he might if he took on Islam or homosexuality. That would be aiming a bit too high for Bailey.
Top marks.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

the last book I read

The Office Of Innocence by Thomas Keneally.

Father Frank Darragh is a rookie Catholic priest in suburban Sydney. It's 1942, so in addition to the usual presiding over mass, handing out communion and receiving confessions from bored housewives and furtive teenage masturbators, there are more serious concerns to think about, not least the very real possibility of a Japanese invasion. In the hope of preventing this from happening there is a sizeable contingent of American military personnel knocking around - trouble is, this situation causes a few problems in itself - mainly the same sort of problems the American GIs caused in Europe with their ready supply of nylons, chewing gum and cigarettes, the swines.

Here's an example of the sort of moral dilemma this creates: you're a young wife with a young child, your husband is away fighting and you've received word he's been taken prisoner. So with no guarantee you'll ever see him again, when an American officer takes an interest in you and casually lobs a few gifts around, do you play along a bit for the sake of the child, or rigidly guard your "honour"? Darragh's parishioner Kate Heggarty is faced with precisely this scenario, and while she's sufficiently troubled by it to consult her parish priest for advice, she's stubborn enough to refuse to guarantee that she'll favour rigid notions of right and wrong over pragmatism. So she's young, attractive, slightly tragic, and feisty with it, and Darragh finds himself drawn to her in a way not really appropriate for a Catholic priest. So he finds himself in an odd position when she is murdered, presumably by the aforementioned suitor.

Mind you, trademark Catholic guilt and anguish aside Darragh has a few other things to think about that don't necessarily tally with the standard teaching material in the Catholic seminary - a fellow novice priest who confesses to indiscretions with small boys and runs off to join the army, a black deserter who Darragh helps to bring to justice (though it's unclear just how just that justice will be) and a strangely amicable ménage à trois being conducted with all three protagonists living under the same roof. You know, it's almost as if the rigid and inflexible moral system taught in the Catholic seminary is hopelessly inadequate and ill-suited to the rich and spicy moral ambiguities and compromises of the real world.

As if this wasn't all difficult enough, religious and secular morality come into further conflict when Kate Heggarty's murderer (one Sergeant Fratelli) confesses to the crime - canon law dictates that Darragh can't pass on any of this information on to the authorities. Fortunately (in a way) when Darragh meets Fratelli in a dockside bar to persuade him to hand himself in and they're interrupted by a Japanese attack on the harbour, Fratelli takes it upon himself to try and strangle Darragh down a back alley, thereby giving himself away a bit and, once a rescue has been performed, resulting in his arrest and subsequent execution. Meanwhile Darragh, who has become intolerably boat-rockingly troublesome to the Catholic hierarchy, is sent away to recuperate and retaliates by enlisting in the army as a medical orderly and getting himself posted to New Guinea.

Like Our Lady Of The Forest this is a book whose message will inevitably be viewed through the distorting prism of one's own preconceptions regarding religion: is Darragh's escape into the jungle a much-needed period of contemplation and acceptance of the ineffable mysteriousness of God's purpose before joyfully returning to the fold, or the first stirrings of throwing off the shackles of the nonsense he's been indoctrinated with all his life? I know what I'd like to think, naturally. There are faint echoes of Graham Greene here as well, most obviously The Power And The Glory, though without quite the same level of agonised liquor-soaked moral complexity and despair. That it's a bit more strightforward than that isn't necessarily a criticism, though; this works as a pretty gripping wartime thriller as well, a sort of Antipodean Island Madness if you will.

Keneally is most famous for winning the Booker prize in 1982 with Schindler's Ark (later retitled Schindler's List to avoid confusing cinema-goers), but the only other book of his I've read is the earlier, angrier The Chant Of Jimmie Blacksmith (as mentioned in passing here and here).

all these death rays are affecting my poo

Strange goings-on in today's Daily Mail, you'll be not at all surprised to hear. This article tells us that after years of speculation the conclusive scientific evidence is finally in, and we are ALL GOING TO DIE OF HEAD CANCER if we keep up our oh-so-convenient wi-fi internet-browsing ways. Yes, the magic radiation wave thingies get into our heads and suck our brains out in a mysterious yet profoundly evil way not shared (for some unspecified reason) by other very similar forms of radiation like radio waves and, well, light and stuff like that.

You might at this point smell a rat, particularly at the journalist's regular protestations of being a Proper Scientist (actually he's an electronics engineer) and click on his name; if you do you'll find that the only other Mail article under his by-line is this very similar one from almost exactly a year ago. Interestingly this one carries a footnote that's absent from today's article:
Alasdair Philips is the director of Powerwatch, an independent organisation researching electromagnetic fields and health.
Riiiiight, OK. That'll be this Powerwatch, then - purveyors of electrosmog scaremongering and misinformation to the masses since, well, a while back. There's a whole slew of entertaining articles about them over at Bad Science, including details of some of the hilarious products they sell, including shirts made from "cotton electrocloth" and the fantastic BlocSock which is a sort of miniature sleeping bag you can put around your mobile phone to achieve the twin goals of shielding your brain from those nasty mobile phone death rays (that can penetrate bone but not cloth, apparently) and making whoever you're talking to sound like they're shouting at you from inside a sleeping bag. You can also get death-ray-proof window covering and paint, apparently. No tinfoil hats, unfortunately, but you can probably make your own.

That's all well and good, you may say, but what about a sober assessment of all the evidence for phone masts, wi-fi tower thingies etc. causing actual physical ailments in people. Well, OK, here it is: there isn't any. Nada. Zilch. Let's move on.

More interesting is how this reveals how some people's brains are just differently wired than others' - I'm not sure whether it's being conditioned by upbringing and education (or lack thereof) never to question any of your own assumptions, or being surrounded by people who just agree with you all the time (probably at least partly because it's in their financial and career interests to do so), but some people do genuinely seem to believe they can make things true just by really really believing in them, or by asserting them enough times, and seem to be genuinely baffled when reality (usually in the form of other people) intervenes.

As luck would have it the media spotlight (or at least a bit of it) is currently illuminating a perfect example of this: Gillian McKeith. Or, to give her her full medical title (and to resurrect a very old joke), Gillian McKeith. I haven't seen much of I'm A Celebrity 2010, but her behaviour on the show does seem to be that of someone whose perception of reality has been gradually corroded and eroded by choosing to lie to people, constantly, for a living. Needless to say she has some previous on Bad Science as well, and this most recent episode illustrates perfectly the failure of this type of person to grasp that they don't have the power to shape reality (even retrospectively) to suit their own agenda.

Lastly I point out with a certain degree of relish (and no particular originality; the Indy article linked above mentions it as well) the relative proximity in dates of birth of Gillian McKeith and Nigella Lawson (September 1959 and January 1960 respectively) and their sharply diverging views on what constitues a sensible dietary regimen. Now I'm not one of those who comes over all unnecessary about Nigella Lawson, and I've always thought those who did were exhibiting an unintentionally revealing desire to regress back to infancy and be smothered by mama's (or possibly nanny's) giant and comforting bosom, possibly while being fed treacle pudding and custard or something, in some disturbingly Freudian way. But it must be said that Nigella looks better on the sausages and cheesecake than McKeith does on the pumpkin seeds and alfalfa juice. Then again looking at Tupperware boxes full of other people's faeces would probably be a bit of an appetite-suppressant. You'd certainly skip the chocolate mousse afterwards.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

dam shame

We did another in our series of autumn walks last weekend, this time - having largely exhausted the possibilities of walks starting and finishing at Andy's place - starting from my place. We got the train from Newport to Pontypool and New Inn and walked back down from there via Llandegfedd reservoir and Caerleon. A nice satisfying 12.5 miles or so, the GPS-logged track of which (as captured by Andy, and expertly digitally stitched into a single image by me) can be viewed here.

A couple of other map-related points of interest: Llandegfedd reservoir was built in the early 1960s, so my 1948 Ordnance Survey map doesn't show it, as you can see below. I've included an intermediate map with the rough location of the reservoir outlined in blue (as for this earlier post about Wimbleball Lake in Devon).




As you can see, if you were to take a dip off the western shore near Sluvad Wood, you'd only have to descend a few feet before encountering the submerged remains of Pettingale village. I've no idea whether this periodically emerges from the waters in periods of drought, in the same way that Mardale Green occasionally makes ghostly reappearances at the head of Haweswater in the Lake District.

Anyway, as always, and despite it being a pretty grey and damp day, I took a few photographs, which can be found here.

prepare to peel back the skin and receive my purple majesty

Is it just me or is the name they've (they being Scottish vegetable wranglers Albert Bartlett) chosen for the new super-healthy purple potato a bit amusing, in a Finbarr Saunders sort of way?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

for relaxing times: drink some custard out of a shoe

Here's a nice little advert for the excellent Whisky Shop, a couple of whose branches I have visited, in Fort William and Oban - regrettably the nearest one to Newport appears to be in Oxford, which isn't very convenient.



It's a nice illustration of the simultaneous ridiculousness and invaluableness of whisky tasting notes - even the ones you don't agree with at least provoke some discussion, which is the whole point. I'm not sure about the "custard" for the Dalmore, for instance, though I can see the "leather" bit. I think it's much more like an old Chippendale writing desk smeared in marmalade. And I stand by "blowtorched corned beef" for the Bowmore, however much they might try to persuade me it tastes of grassy peat and peaches. On the other hand, the flaming Christmas pudding and seaweed for the Old Pulteney is pretty good.

Here's a couple of one- and two-item brief summaries for a few previous ones from my list:
Your other option whisky-ad-wise is to get some celeb in to whore himself out for a few shekels and a couple of free bottles of the vendor's product. If I were you I'd give Sean Connery a call, as he's got some previous with both Scottish blender Dewar's and, amusingly, Suntory in Japan, in a couple of ads very similar to the ones parodied by Lost In Translation.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

celebrity lookeylikey of the day

My records reveal that I haven't done one of these since ruddy February, so it's about time we did another. Here's stand-up comic and star of The Thick Of It and In The Loop Chris Addison, and Bad Science Guy and all-round media go-to guy for anything sciencey Ben Goldacre. Slightly mad hair and general air of skinny hyperactive nerdiness all round.

xenu seekers

Following yesterday’s glimpse into XenuCon ’07, I bring you an exclusive preview of David Miscavige’s speech from next year’s event, following some more revisions to the “tech”. Note that Miscavige’s 5-hour preamble (to rapturous whooping and applause) regarding a semi-colon in book 6 of the Mission Earth series is omitted to save space and time. And I don’t mean blog space, I mean LITERALLY THE VERY FABRIC OF SPACE AND TIME ITSELF, which would otherwise be destroyed utterly by some sort of thetan supernova. Anyway:
Miscavige: ...and so we see when we re-examine the text of New Dianetic Magnetokinesiology III: The Secret of NIMH we see that paragraph 3 from chapter 27 should actually be paragraph 26 in chapter 4. Imagine my embarrassment.

Audience: HAHAHAHAHAHA! PLEASE DON'T KILL OUR CHILDREN!

Miscavige: These revised texts are now available from Clambake Publications for only $49.99 per volume for each of the 37 volumes. Purchase is compulsory.

Audience: I'LL TAKE A DOZEN!

Miscavige: Your accounts have already been debited.

Audience: HURRAH!

Miscavige: And now a 3-hour lecture about acceptable clothing arrangements delivered in a tedious monotone.

Audience: BRING IT ON!

Miscavige: Basically everyone now has to wear their pants on their head. It's all in the book: New Horizons in Dianetic Electrohaberdashery 7: The Rise of The Machines. The newly revised version, naturally.

Audience: CONSIDER IT DONE!

Miscavige: You do realise I'm just fucking with you now? I could basically say pretty much anything.

Audience: MORE THAN LIKELY!

Miscavige: Ah, screw this, I'm bored now. No, wait, I’ve got an idea. Free Kool-Aid for everyone! Look at LRH while you’re drinking it! LOOK INTO HIS EYES!

Audience: AWESOME! croak.....
Well, we can dream. In the meantime Scientology continues to serve a useful purpose in demonstrating the absolute truth of Poe's Law, i.e. you really couldn't make this shit up. Except someone did.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

meet xenu boss, same as the old boss

I'm still fascinated by Scientology, I'm afraid, so here's a couple of video clips. Watch and enjoy them soon, before the lawyers have them removed.
  • Here's a longer version of the extraordinary Tom Cruise promotional recruitment video, complete with bizarre interjections about his important work giving away free nonsense books to schoolchildren and making his movie industry contemporaries buttock-clenchingly uncomfortable at awards ceremonies. There's also a hilarious award ceremony at some CoS gathering in 2004 at the end, wherein David Miscavige presents Cruise with the enormous Freedom Medal Of Valor or something similar. Actually it might be a normal-sized medal, since they're both small chaps. "So whaddaya say, we gonna clean this place up?", Cruise asks during his speech. A bit like the concentration camp guards did as they herded people off the trains into the gas chambers.
  • Possibly even more extraordinary is this immensely long video of a presentation by David Miscavige at a similar CoS event in 2007: I strongly recommend that you don't try and watch it all, because your cerebellum will turn inside out. However it's instructive to dip in here and there: basically it's a hugely protracted explanation of some editorial revisions to the standard Scientology "tech", aka L. Ron Hubbard's insane ramblings, which clarify and simplify LRH's true intentions, and also, purely coincidentally, mean that each and every Scientologist has to go and buy all the literature again at huge expense. Praise Xenu! The mind-boggling tedium of a madman describing, at interminable length, minor amendments to works of barking science fiction by another madman is almost hypnotic in short doses, but almost certainly fatal in large doses, so caution is advised.

I hope the videos have provided some entertainment value. That knock at your door is some Ray-Ban-clad black-suited goons from the Church of Scientology, here to re-orient your thetans.

Monday, November 15, 2010

incidental music spot of the day

Crime by whispery Swedish weirdstress Stina Nordenstam over the trailer for the series of Jimmy McGovern dramas the BBC are trailing heavily in the run-up to Christmas. My copy of And She Closed Her Eyes remains lost, sadly.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

change down aguirre, man

After the disappointment of seeing Wales fail to batter their way over the line for a match-winning injury-time try against South Africa yesterday, I kicked back for the less stressful task of watching Scotland against New Zealand. I was intrigued as to the story behind the name of All Black wing José Aguirre, though - the sort of Spanish/French combo not really being an obvious name for someone of Maori origin. Perhaps his parents were fans of the great 1970s French full-back Jean-Michel Aguirre? Or maybe they were film buffs and big Werner Herzog fans? Or Spanish Civil War enthusiasts?

Needless to say the actual explanation turns out to more mundane - his name is actually Hosea Gear, younger brother of Rico Gear. How disappointing.

Friday, November 12, 2010

the last book I read

The Ballad Of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark.

Into the humdrum late-1950s lives of the inhabitants of Peckham comes Dougal Douglas, hired by the textile firm of Meadows, Meade & Grindley to bring a bit of artistic vision into the lives of the firm's employees. Whether he achieves this particular objective or not is a bit of a moot point, but he certainly livens things up in a number of ways, few of them good.

For starters there are the various affairs being conducted in stereotypical closeted 1950s style by the boss Mr. Druce and Merle Coverdale, and also by Humphrey Place and his girlfriend Dixie. Not content with spreading mischief here Dougal also crosses paths with local heavy Trevor Lomas, as well as getting another job at rival firm Drover Willis. Despite overseeing an increase in absenteeism by a significant margin, and barely ever deigning to actually turn up to work himself at either of his employers' premises, Dougal manages to convince both employers that he's doing vital work.

So it appears that Dougal is some sort of minor imp or demon - an impression reinforced by the revelation that he has a couple of mysterious lumps on his head, remnants of some vestigial horns that he had removed at birth, according to Dougal, but if we've learnt anything by this stage it's never to trust what Dougal tells us. Eventually his corrosive influence spills over into provoking an actual real-life murder, and he decides it's time to move on.

Given what I've just described it's perhaps superfluous to say that The Ballad Of Peckham Rye is rather a strange book, but it is. You'll recall I alluded to Muriel Spark's work with reference to a few earlier books in this series by other authors (specifically William Trevor, Penelope Fitzgerald, Alice Thomas Ellis and Beryl Bainbridge); well, I think that while all these authors share a lot of characteristics, Spark is the oddest of them all. There's no sense in which any of the characters display any genuine affection for each other, nor inspire any in the reader; similarly while Dougal spreads a certain amount of mischief among the female employees there's never any suggestion of him getting his end away with any of them, nor indeed having any desire to.

I think of all the authors listed above Spark is the driest and most difficult to engage with, for all that her novels have a certain bone-dry black humour; by way of full disclosure I should also point out that the only other Spark novel I've read is Memento Mori which explores a lot of similar ground. This one is very easy to read, and very short (143 pages) and has a sort of devilish charm, but I just struggled to see what it was for. And being the arch-rationalist that I am, I wanted an explanation for Dougal's behaviour, i.e. was he just a troublemaker or the real honest-to-goodness spawn of Satan, a question that is deliberately left unanswered. And since Muriel Spark died in 2006 I can't even go and ask her. Bollocks.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

doggy style

You'll recall I predicted that there was still some scope for improvement in the various drunken antics engaged in by rugby stars (of either code). Well, while it could be argued that Australian rugby league star Joel Monaghan's misdemeanours didn't quite have the epic range and variety of Craig Gower's extravaganza of obnoxious threatening shitfacedness, being photographed engaging in a sex act with a golden labrador takes some beating. This link is SFW, this one (which contains the original photo) probably isn't.

a long walk off a short pier

This is probably old hat, but one of my Facebook chums posted it so I thought I'd nick it: go to Google Maps, click on "Get Directions", type in "Japan" and "China" as start and end points, and then check out journey stage 43 wherein they want you to liven up your long journey by re-enacting a scene from Waterworld (though without evolving gills or getting a treasure map tattooed on your back):


If you can't be arsed with all that, just click here. Other journeys of this type are available: apparently the distance between China and Taiwan is short enough that there's really no point going to all the palaver of starting up the old jet-ski and putting your helmet on, and you may as well just swim for it:

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

warseholes!

It's November, and so we need something to offset the general gloom and depression caused by the clocks going back, hoodie-clad feral ne'er-do-wells sticking fireworks up cats' arses and the impending cavalcade of fake jollity and saturated fat that is Christmas. So here's your opportunity to vote in the annual poll run by New Humanist magazine to determine the biggest contributor to irrational boneheaded fuckwittery in 2010.

I have to start by saying that the 2010 shortlist isn't quite as strong as last year's - this is partly because previous winners can't be re-nominated, so that removes the Pope from the running straight away.

The current front runners are Sheikh Maulana Abu Sayeed and Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi; I'm slightly surprised to see them neck and neck, though, since I can't really see "tits cause earthquakes" being as poisonous as "rape is A-OK with me, hell yes". As for the others I've remained resolutely uncharmed by the revelation that Ann Widdecombe dances like Humpty Dumpty, preferring to focus on her being a dreadful reactionary God-bothering old harridan. On the other hand, now she's no longer an MP she's less influential than she used to be (though she does write a tremendously loopy column for the Daily Express). Baroness Warsi is annoying as while I'm entirely down with the idea of more Asian women in positions of power within government, it's mildly discouraging that the most high-profile one is such a fucking idiot. Lauren Booth and Terry Jones are just loons without any real platform to cause genuine harm.

At the end of the day it's got to be Prince Charles, though, hasn't it? The jug-eared inbred cretin. And his shortbread is overpriced as well.

Monday, November 08, 2010

headline of the day

Well, it's not really a headline, but check out the caption under the picture here:

They seem to have fixed it in the original article now.

Friday, November 05, 2010

the last book I read

Demian by Hermann Hesse.

Emil Sinclair has the usual schoolboy preoccupations - getting his lunch money nicked by Teutonic Gripper Stebson-alike Franz Kromer, fallings-out with his parents, some of those icky teenage feelings, you know, down there, plus a good dose of existential angst, of course.

So when he meets charismatic fellow schoolboy Max Demian the stage is set for a bit of master/disciple hero-worshipping action, especially as Max kicks off their relationship by "having a word" with Franz Kromer. He also gets Emil to question some things he had previously thought to be sacrosanct, like the authority and infallibility of his parents, and the Bible stories he learns at school. Max is an enigmatic type who lives with his equally enigmatic mother, and drifts in and out of Emil's life over the course of the next few years, usually at moments of existential crisis.

No prizes for reading between the lines of Emil's feverish worshipping of Max, complete with much experimental artwork being produced depicting Demian in various heroic poses, and much arch talk of struggling with (and yielding to) one's impure desires. Clearly you couldn't have hot man-on-man action in a novel published in 1919, not even a quick cathartic handjob, but the subtext is clear enough. Or at least it seems to be at first glance, but then you start to wonder: does Demian really exist? As the book goes on there's more and more introspective self-realisation and analysis, including a swerve into some mystical Gnosticism and worshipping of the god Abraxas (of which more later). Eventually World War I breaks out and Sinclair and Demian are drafted (separately) into the German army, sharing a climactic (and seemingly valedictory) scene after Sinclair is injured by mortar fire which again throws some doubt on how literally all this is meant to be taken.

Clearly what we have here is a classic Bildungsroman, wherein a youg boy emerges from the cosy cocoon of childhood and innocence and struggles to get to grips with a world largely indifferent to his existence, and tries to tackle the Big Questions like: why are we here? what does it all mean? what about those feelings I'm having, you know, down there? The same sort of thing, in other words, as a whole catalogue of other novels including The Levels and The Catcher In The Rye, but dealt with here with much more of a mystical-philosophical flourish. It's shorter and (for all the Abraxas business) less weird and hallucinatory than the only other Hesse novel I've read, Steppenwolf. And for all that (as with pretty much all coming-of-age novels) the central protagonist could do with a bit of a slap from time to time, it's easy enough to read and well worth a look, as it throws a few interesting ideas around, even if a lot of them are well-steeped in quasi-Buddhist mystical bollocks, for want of a better word.

A bit of a trans-generic artistic linkup for you now - the reason the name Abraxas was familiar to me is that it's the title of psychedelic Latino-jazz-rock combo Santana's second album, released in 1970 and one of the signature albums I remember from my childhood (fuller list here). I was always intrigued by the quotation that appeared below the track listing and the list of musical credits:
We stood before it and began to freeze inside from the exertion. We questioned the painting, berated it, made love to it, prayed to it: We called it mother, called it whore and slut, called it our beloved, called it Abraxas....
This is from Demian, and I'd forgotten about it until the penny dropped while I was reading the book: spooky (or not, take your pick). Interestingly the W.J. Strachan translation in my 1972(ish) second-hand Panther paperback reads slightly differently:
I stood before her and the nervous strain made my blood run cold. I questioned the picture, accused it, caressed it, prayed to it, called it mother, sweetheart, whore and strumpet, I called it Abraxas.
Hesse was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946, so chalk another one up for that list as well.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

those goofy bastards

You thought this was just a bit of playful non-PC fun, right? Not so, according to this story. I'm not sure that cage allows enough room to dig and play. They should have fitted him with a leash instead.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

head over the water, on the Transporter

A couple more recent photo galleries for you:
  • The annual Swanage trip - a month or so later than usual this year, so we were even luckier than usual with the weather. The standard Saturday pub crawl had to omit the Purbeck, usually a focal point of Jägermeister consumption and pool competition, as it's still closed following a drugs bust earlier this year. We managed to work around it, though, by taking along a hip-flask full of Jag and having a ceremonial swig on the pavement outside. Incidentally the evil-looking cocktails pictured alogside the breakfast things are Green Bastards, which are made by mixing a shot of blue Bols with a pint of cider. Yum. The reason there's a picture of an Appletise ice bucket in there is that we were having a discussion about when it switched to being called Appletiser. Their website is a bit vague, but the answer appears to be 2001. The strange picture of the guy with the sword is taken at Kirkwood Park golf course, and portrays the proprietor in the guise of some sort of mystical democracy warrior; this is by way of publicity for his website. Have a look at some of the embedded YouTube videos if you like; if you're trying to gauge the nuttiness quotient you'll find the first mention of the Illuminati tucked away here.
  • We had a visit from Doug and Anna yesterday and to entertain ourselves we went to a couple of pubs up in Caerleon, most notably the Red Lion, which has nice London Pride, good grub and a nice big garden out the back with a gravelly pétanque area and a pub rabbit hopping around. The original plan had been to visit the nearby Roman remains, but we got a bit carried away drinking and playing pétanque and had to skip it. Instead we headed down to have a ride on the newly renovated Transporter Bridge, and very exciting too. It moves a bit quicker than you might expect, so the crossing only takes a couple of minutes, and it's free to pedestrians, so you can just ride to and fro all day if you like. The sign pictured shows the distances to the handful of other transporter bridges in the world. Anyway, we went across and back and then went to the pub again. We had intended to go to the Waterloo, which we've been to before to eat (and very nice too), but it was shut, so we went round the corner to the West of England instead, which despite the welcoming tone of their website I couldn't honestly say I'd recommend. Anyway, I took a few pictures from the bridge, which can be found here.

Friday, October 29, 2010

oh dr beeching what a naughty man you are

Here in Newport we're sooooo over the Ryder Cup. We're far more excited about the brand spanking new enormous branch of Sainsbury's that's opened up at Crindau, near junction 25a of the M4. So having negotiated the new traffic lights on Heidenheim Drive (aka the A4042) to get in via the main entrance I wondered if there was a sneaky back way in that might provide a short-cut. It turns out there isn't, or not a particularly useful one anyway, but while looking for an aerial photo on Google Maps I made the in hindsight fairly obvious discovery that Google's aerial view of the store is still of a big grassy wasteland. Which wasn't very helpful, but made me wonder: I wonder how regularly Google refresh the pictures on the aerial view and StreetView maps? And how would they know which ones need updating? Maybe they monitor new building works and the like and just send the car and helicopter round once the work's finished. Anyway, I'll monitor things and let you know when a new Sainsbury's miraculously appears fully formed on top of what was previously just grass and concrete.


What the cleared waste ground also reveals (via StreetView) is the interesting former life of what is now Heidenheim Drive as a railway embankment. Zoom in a bit and the brick architecture on top of which the A4042 now sits is instantly identifiable as a former railway. It's actually the former line between places like Cwmbran and Pontypool and now defunct stations like Newport Mill Street and Newport Dock Street. Defunct in this case for a pretty good reason, which is that there was (and indeed still is) another perfectly good railway line between Newport and Cwmbran, and two was felt to be a bit of an extravagance. In this case I concede Dr. Beeching probably had a point. The picture captures a fleeting moment between the warehouses that formerly occupied the site (and would have obscured the view) being demolished and the new Sainsbury's being completed and the whole historic edifice being covered with anonymous stone cladding (as it now is).

You can compare the line the old railway took with the line Heidenheim Drive now takes (and verify that they are the same) by looking at this old map and this new one.