Wednesday, March 31, 2010

sieze the day

When we went over to New York for my birthday I recall standing around in the duty free shop at Heathrow salivating over the huge selection of single malt whisky available at knock-down prices (and not only that, most of them were litre bottles compared to the normal 70cl) but thinking: well, I don't want to be lugging around a couple of litres of whisky for a week, so what I'll probably do is buy some at the equivalent store at JFK on the way back. Needless to say on the way back the duty free whisky selection was piss-poor, comprising a shelf of Johnnie Walker Red and J&B and that was about it. Denied!

So when we popped over from Birmingham to Waterford last weekend for a long weekend of golf (at Waterford Castle) and Guinness I decided to pounce upon the pretty decent selection in the Birmingham duty free shop, knowing that Waterford Airport was likely to be little more than a shed (and so it proved).

What I ended up with was a litre of 12 year old Dalmore for the princely sum of £35. Not only does this work out at the equivalent of £24.50 for a 70cl bottle, but I've yet to see Dalmore in any high street shop or supermarket.

Dalmore is a Highland whisky; now it's arguably a little early in my whisky-sampling career to be making sweeping statements about where my favourite whiskies come from, but from what I've sampled so far I'd say the Highland region probably has the lead over the others: the Oban, Royal Lochnagar, Glenmorangie and Ardmore come from here, and if you include the non-Islay islands then that brings in the Talisker and the Highland Park as well.

What makes Highland whiskies so great is the balance between the sweet sherried friendliness of the Speyside region to the east, and the spiky pugnacious antiseptic smokiness of the Islay region to the west. Sure enough the Dalmore has the best of both worlds: a lovely rich dark colour, a good solid whiff of almonds and butterscotch, and more of the same when you taste it, as well as something a bit more dark and complex. There's some smoke, but it's not the eye-watering bonfire smoke you get with, say, Ardbeg, it's more toasty and leathery than that. A bit reminiscent of a cigar at New Year, without making you feel quite so sick afterwards.

If this isn't my favourite of the ones I've tried yet (the Highland Park probably just shades it) then it's pretty close; this is bloody marvellous stuff. The chunky bottles with the antlers are pretty cool too.

everything is available (except the money)

I got this e-mail a couple of weeks ago:
Subject: Mrs Elizabeth Etters

From: alan.armitage@bt.com

Sent: 12 January 2010 01:31:38
To: ellizyetters@mail.com

I am Mrs Elizabeth Etters, a devoted Christian. I have a foundation/Estate uncompleted {valued at USD 2,142,728.00 Dollars} and need you to help me finish it because of my health, Everything is available. Please contact me for more details on my private mail: elliz_etter@live.com

thank you.
I thought: that sounds great, but doesn't she have some family she can give the money to? And $2.1 million isn't that much, really; I mean it's only about £1.4 million at current exchange rates. Frankly I don't get out of bed for less than £2 million of non-existent internet money. And who is this Alan Armitage? Maybe he's the faithful family lawyer or something. Then today I get this slightly longer missive:
Subject: PLEASE DO NOT IGNORE
From: Elizabeth Etters (info@acess.org)
Sent: 31 March 2010 06:49:43
To:

Dear Friend,
I am Mrs. Elizabeth Etters from Kuwait, married to Late Engr.W Etters, who worked with MULTINATIONAL OIL COMPANY COLE GAS EXXON AS A DRILLING RIG SUPPLIER in Kuwait for 19 years as a manger and a share holder before he died on the 22nd August 2008. We were married for twenty four years without a child. He died after a brief illness that lasted for only 4 days.

Before his death, we deposited the sum of GBP 2.1 million Pounds with a bank in London with my name and this fund is presently with the bank awaiting my disbursement as beneficiary. Recently, my Doctor told me that i would not last for the next Eight months due to cancer problem. Having known my condition I decided to donate these funds to an organization or good person that will utilize this money in good faith. I took this decision because I don't have any child that will inherit this money. I kept this deposit secret till date. All i need right now is your sincerity and details to prepare the required document to be sent to the bank making you the sole benficiary of the said funds, i.e my next of kin. this must include your full names and country address

I don't think i will need any telephone communication in this regard because of the confidentiality of this transfer. Upon your reply to my private email: {elizabethetters2009@live.co.uk}, I shall direct you on how to claim the funds.
Please get back to me as soon as possible.

Yours Truly,
Mrs Elizabeth Etters.
OK, so we've cleared up the issue of family, as her husband is dead. It would have been better if instead of being Engr. W. Etters he'd had some form of teaching qualification, and hence been B.Ed. W. Etters, but I digress. And the money seems to have magically become £2.1 million, which is nice. I don't know about "utilize this money in good faith", though - I was just going to spunk it on sports cars and cake.

So I was just about to enquire how to claim my money when I discovered the offer may not be as completely legit and above board as it appears to be. Imagine my disappointment. According to this website the sums offered range up to $60 million and above, so frankly I feel a bit insulted by the size of this one anyway.

apocalypse now

It's hard, shiny, about nine inches long, and I've got it in my hand right now. No (good guess though), it's the DVD of The Complete Apocalypse, containing the 1982 ITV series and the 1986 film, as well as some extras including, rather intimidatingly, an in-depth analysis of the series in the form of a 150-page PDF document; I can't promise I'm going to get round to reading that any time soon, or at all. It's pleasing to find out that it does actually exist in DVD format, after the slightly frustrating trailing and subsequent non-appearance back in 2007.

That brings to three the number of previously unavailable classic TV comedy series I've influenced the DVD re-release of simply by sitting here and thinking about it quite hard (Absolutely and Tutti Frutti being the other two). What shall I think about next? Perhaps 1982's Richard Briers and Hannah Gordon vehicle Goodbye Mr. Kent, just to see if it's really as rivetingly creepy and awful as I remember it.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

master baiter

There are a number of things which are funny about this series of outtakes and bloopers from American fisherman and TV presenter Bill Dance's shows, firstly there's really nothing funnier than seeing fully clothed people falling into water (the battery incident at 1:25 or so is priceless), but secondly it's amusing and fascinating to see how a God-fearing Tennessean good ol' boy can avoid swearing at moments of high stress. This is the result of years of indoctrination and practice - it takes iron discipline not to say them nasty cuss words or take the good Lord's name in vain when you slam a pick-up tailgate on several hundred dollars' worth of fishing tackle and snap it in half. Examples of alternative phrases I spotted during this series of clips and the many more available on YouTube (check the sidebar) include:
  • MAN ALIVE!
  • SONNY JIM!
  • GOOD NIGHT!
  • DADGUMMIT!
  • OH MAN....
  • GOL-LY!
  • OH GOOD GOSH!
  • AW SHOOT....
  • WHOA NELLY!
  • AIN'T THIS A FINE HOWDY DO!
I don't care what you say, though, it can't be as satisfying as bellowing OH FUCK MY ARSE at the top of your voice. He even manages not to swear when he plants a fish-hook into his own face, though his composure does slip briefly when he gets hit in the face by a camera jib arm.

the last book I read

The Infernal Desire Machines Of Doctor Hoffman by Angela Carter.

So there's this guy, Doctor Hoffman. And he has these machines. And what they do is project hallucinatory images over vast distances, but not just images that can't be touched, this is your actual interfering with the fabric of reality on some level that can be felt, touched, held, eaten, had sex with, etc. In an unspecified country (which I think we're meant to infer is in Latin America somewhere) the Minister charges one of his deputies, Desiderio, with the task of seeking out Doctor Hoffman and destroying him and his machines.

The trouble is, with all this mucking about with reality going on it's hard to tell what's real and what isn't. And who do you trust? And who is the mysterious Albertina who keeps cropping up in various disguises? As Desiderio embarks on his ill-defined mission he soon falls into a series of increasingly surreal adventures: calling in first at a nearby town to investigate the unexplained disappearance of its mayor, he stays the night at the mayor's residence, casually has sex with the mayor's sleepwalking daughter and is then forced to flee with the police in hot pursuit after she turns up dead the following day.

Taking refuge on a boat with a group of river-dwelling natives, he soon finds himself betrothed to their nine-year-old daughter. Gradually it becomes clear that the betrothal is just an elaborate ruse to have him served up cannibal stylee as the centrepiece of the wedding feast, so he escapes. Next he falls in with a group of Moroccan circus acrobats who in addition to performing many mind-boggling and physically implausible feats of skill and daring (taking their own heads off and juggling with them, that sort of thing) are partial to equally mind-boggling sexual feats, as Desiderio discovers when he is anally gang-raped by the entire troupe in their caravan.

Recovering in a secluded cave, Desiderio returns to the town only to find it, all its inhabitants and the entire circus have been washed away by a flash-flood. After being rescued by a mysterious European Count and his manservant, the group embark on a strange journey via a brothel populated by human-animal hybrids before ending up at sea and being shipwrecked on an African island where there are more cannibals (what are the chances?). This lot manage to boil the Count to death in a big cauldron before Desiderio and the manservant escape.

To no-one's great surprise the manservant turns out to be Albertina in disguise, and she leads Desiderio into even stranger territory as they encounter a race of centaurs. So far, so Gulliver's Travels, although Albertina's prolonged gang-rape by the entire herd of male centaurs is a detail Swift chose to leave out for some reason (much to Gulliver's relief no doubt). As Desiderio and Albertina are about to be sacrificed in some bizarre religious ritual they are rescued by Doctor Hoffman's helicopters and taken to his castle.

Having left Gulliver's Travels territory we segue straight into The Wizard Of Oz as Desiderio meets the fairly grey and unremarkable Doctor Hoffman who gives him a tour of the castle and his anti-reality generating apparatus. It turns out this is entirely powered by a whole room filled with ranks of copulating lovers; the Doctor's ultimate plan is for Desiderio and Albertina to finally consummate their love for each other and send out a final overwhelming wave of sex power to destroy the world, or something like that. I was strongly reminded of Viz's Doctor Sex at this point.


Anyway, at the last possible minute Desiderio rebels against the fate planned for him, accidentally kills the Doctor and then rather more deliberately kills Albertina, shuts down the machines, restores reality and escapes back home to be greeted as a hero. His feelings on the subject are rather more mixed, probably at least partly because he never actually managed to get his end away with Albertina. The depiction of sex in the book is very strange - Desiderio never consummates his relationship with the nine-year-old river girl Aoi (though he does manage a perfunctory quickie with her grandmother in the boat's galley), no-one seems to actually get laid at the brothel and Albertina keeps Desiderio waiting until they get to her father's castle, presumably to ensure an overwhelming world-destroying gush of pure sex power, though possibly also because she was smarting a bit after the whole centaur rape thing. Even the massed coupling in the Doctor's sex farm is a pretty mechanical and joyless business. Most of the sexual encounters that actually happen in the book are rapes - Desiderio by the acrobats, the Count's manservant (actually Albertina in disguise, don't forget) by the Count and then Albertina by the entire starting line-up of the Grand National.

Criticising Angela Carter books for being a bit weird is a bit like criticising the Pope for being Catholic, though, so you really just want to go with the flow. If you do you'll find it a uniquely surreal experience; nobody else writes quite like this. Or rather wrote, as Carter died of lung cancer in 1992 at the age of 51. I've only read one other Carter novel, Love, which at only 120 pages is little more than a short story. In fact I think Carter is one of those writers (JG Ballard is another) whose powerfully concentrated strangeness is probably best served by the short story format anyway: as good as TUDMODH is if you only want one Angela Carter I'd say you probably want the 1979 collection The Bloody Chamber.

Friday, March 26, 2010

news headline of the day

Well, actually it's the by-line under it that makes it funny. You literally couldn't make it up. Unless someone has. Thanks to an eagle-eyed SYB commenter for spotting it.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

children by the million sing for alex chilton

Sad news about Alex Chilton, who died last week aged 59 - one of the great unrecognised rock'n'roll mavericks. Chilton's death means that both of the key songwriters who made up Big Star are now dead, Chris Bell having been killed in a car accident in 1978.

As I said in my previous post, the CD you want is the one containing their first two albums #1 Record and Radio City, though some are very attached to their ragged and chaotic third album as well.

Here's a live version of Big Star's classic Thirteen from 2008, here's a cover version by Garbage featuring the lovely Shirley Manson, here's Paul Westerberg doing his old band The Replacements' tribute song (titled, strangely, Alex Chilton) in 1996 and finally here's (audio only) Chilton and Big Star fans Teenage Fanclub doing a gig together in Glasgow, also in 1996.

a seemingly pointless exercise

A quick anniversary to acknowledge: March 17th (last Wednesday) was not only St. Patrick's Day, but also the second anniversary of my passing my driving test. Big fat hairy deal, you might say, and well, perhaps. The two-year anniversary is significant to new(ish) UK drivers, though, as the Road Traffic (New Drivers) Act of 1995 dictates that if you clock up six points on your newly-issued licence within two years of getting it, then it is revoked and you have to sit the test again. And don't think that going through all that rigmarole means the points drop off when you get your licence back, because they don't.

So it's a bit of a weight off the mind to have seen that two-year period elapse without clocking up any points at all. This doesn't mean that I'm now going to be speeding along at a hundred miles an hour through school playgrounds or anything, obviously, as I am a conscientious and careful driver. Conversely, my clean licence doesn't necessarily mean that I have never exceeded the speed limit, ever, anywhere. I'll say no more than that.

Other things you have to wait a bit after passing the test to be able to do are:
  • hire a car - generally a year
  • drive abroad - also generally a year
  • drive certain types of larger vehicle (e.g. large vans and minibuses) - two years
  • instruct learner drivers - three years

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

bonely erect

Saying you watch Only Connect on BBC4 for the fiendishly entertaining quiz puzzles is a bit like saying you read Playboy for the articles: it may be true, but no-one will believe you. But, while I acknowledge that lovely foxy Vicky is a bonus (stop it), it really is true that the quiz element is brain-melting enough to pique my interest. And now you can play the wall bit from the middle of the show online - try it, it's quite good.

Just about the only other quiz show I think is tricky enough to be any good is University Challenge (Paxman's supercilious snortings at incorrect answers is an extra source of fun); I bemoan the demise of the excellent Fifteen-To-One on Channel 4 (which was axed back in 2003) which was just about the only other one worth watching in recent memory (though its late-afternoon time slot made it a bit tricky to catch regularly if you had an actual job). William G Stewart's rather humourless tone and constant banging on about the Elgin Marbles was a bit bizarre, though.

That said he was knobbing Laura the voice-over lady ("three down, twelve to go: Laura, please....") on the quiet throughout (eventually marrying her), so maybe he was a bit more animated offstage. Trousers down, pants to go: Laura, please....

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

milk, milk, lemonade

Another interesting snippet on the Today programme this morning: the last segment featured a brief interview with Gregory Zuckerman, author of a book about the global financial crisis, and hedge fund guru John Paulson in particular.

All very dull to me, to be honest, but when John Humphrys questioned why large organisations like the US Government hadn't been as far-sighted as Paulson had been, Zuckerman made reference to them having "drunk the Kool-Aid" regarding the safety of sub-prime mortgages, credit default swaps and all the various other arcane and incomprehensible shuffling around of virtual money that was going on. At this point Humphrys expressed some tweedy codgerish bafflement as to what the phrase meant, and so Zuckerman had to explain it to him.

I found this rather strange as I was under the impression that the expression was pretty widely used to denote blind acceptance of dogma, unquestioning following of leaders, that sort of thing. Examples can be found in these articles about such diverse topics as Hillary Clinton, the Australian army, football in Detroit and the Second Vatican Council.

As the link says the expression originates from the Jonestown mass suicide in Guyana in 1978 when Jim Jones persuaded his followers that the best thing for them to do would be to drink the poisoned Kool-Aid his acolytes had kindly provided in a big metal bathtub, with the inevitable result of over 900 deaths.

I suppose since Kool-Aid isn't (as far as I know anyway) sold in the UK it's more of an American expression, so maybe hanging out on the internet makes one more familiar with these things. John Humphrys and Justin Webb were still chuckling away about it as the programme ended, anyway.

Friday, March 12, 2010

franz kafka, who died fatally to death in 1924

There was a brief piece on the Today programme on Radio 4 this morning about the dispute over the surviving manuscripts of Czech novelist Franz Kafka. I don't really have an opinion about the issue, other than to say that I couldn't quite see what Israel's claim to the manuscripts was based on, other than their original guardian Max Brod having lived in Tel Aviv for the latter part of his life. Anyway, like I say, I don't have an opinion and I can't be bothered to do the research required to have one. Instead I was struck by the first line of the report, which went like this:
"Franz Kafka, who died of illness in 1924...."
Wait a minute - died of illness? What does that mean? And bear in mind this was a recorded piece, it wasn't Jim Naughtie or John Humphrys stumbling over a live link or anything like that. So they must have listened to it and thought: yep, that all sounds A-OK to me. Obviously we could do the 2 minutes research required to look in, say, Wikipedia and discover that he (most likely) died of a combination of tuberculosis and malnutrition, aggravated by chronic headaches and clinical depression, but nah, let's just go down the pub. I mean, granted, it's not one snappy single cause, but still no excuse for something as clunky as they ended up with. Most people die of illness in one way or another, after all; the ones that don't die of some trauma like being in a plane crash or having a piano dropped on them, anyway.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

jocularity

Time for a couple of additions to the blog sidebar - firstly let me commend to you the splendid and multifarious cornucopia of cartoon delights to be found within the ornate and bejewelled portals of David Malki's Wondermark.


Among the artistic wonders concealed within (examples of the artist's favourites among his own work can be found here) are such uncategorisable marvels as the genre fiction generator, an automated version of which can be found here. Here's the synopsis of my next novel:
The Psychopunks

In an ancient one-way spaceflight, a young idealistic revolutionary stumbles across an otherworldly portal which spurs him into conflict with a sneering wizard, with the help of a female who inexplicably becomes attracted to the damaged protagonist for unstated reasons and her wacky pet, culminating in a fistfight atop a tower.
Sounds great. Also great is chemist Derek Lowe's occasional series Things I Won't Work With, an entertaining account of some nasty reagents that the industrial chemist occasionally has to handle, and carefully too lest they flay his face off, turn his eyes inside out, boil his lungs to smoking tar or just vaporise the whole lab into a foul-smelling steaming crater of death.

Finally there's McSweeney's Open Letters, a slightly Onion-esque series of, erm, well, open letters to various people and things. Hard to explain, but check it out, it's quite amusing. Heck, let's put a link to The Onion up there as well (actually I thought I already had one, but apparently not).

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

albums of the day

By my calculations we haven't done an album of the day post since my shockingly unimaginative choice of Rumours back in May 2009, so you'll no doubt be positively incandescent with anticipation to know what I've been listening to recently. Well, lots of stuff, including some cheapo purchases of old stuff off Amazon of a mildly embarrassing nature (Jethro Tull, anyone? No? Well, what about Yes, then? Please yourselves). To avoid further embarrassment I'll restrict myself to new stuff - here's a selection:

Only Revolutions by Biffy Clyro.

It's awfully easy to put albums out and affect not to care too much about whether anyone buys them or not; indeed a pose either of studied shoegazing inarticulacy or more aggressive rock'n'roll disdain is de rigueur in some quarters. So it's quite refreshing to hear an album that's an unashamed bid for world domination, and this is it. The Biff have been around for a while, and have built up a nicely fanatical cult following with their quirkily complex rock tunes. For this album they've largely ditched the time signature smart-arsery for a series of HUGE rock tunes with HUGE choruses featuring some trademark Scottish wide-mouthed bellowing (see also The Proclaimers), to some consternation from the purist fanbois. But, you know what - fuck 'em, because this is mostly great. Like many albums it's slightly front-loaded with the good stuff, the opening trio of The Captain, That Golden Rule and Bubbles set a standard that only Mountains of the rest of the album quite lives up to, but it's all good. And full marks to Simon Neil for singing in an authentically chewy Scots accent and not going all mid-Atlantic on our ass, even if it does make for an experience uncomfortably reminiscent of Big Country from time to time.

Them Crooked Vultures by Them Crooked Vultures.

There's a tenuous link with the Biffy Clyro album here, as Josh Homme provided some guitar contributions to Bubbles (no idea which bits were his), and here he is again moonlighting from his day job with Queens Of The Stone Age to hook up with Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters (and previously Nirvana, and briefly Queens Of The Stone Age around the time of Songs For The Deaf) and John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin.

That makes for a potentially pretty classic power trio sort of set-up, and the sound is pretty much exactly as you'd expect from three rock monsters moonlighting from their day jobs - heavy, pummelling, bluesy, sludgy riff-rock shot through with some dark humour. What you don't get is much variety, but as always if you want light and shade, acoustic ballads, harpsichords and the like the Cat Stevens section is over there. Opening track No One Loves Me & Neither Do I sets the tone, Mind Eraser, No Chaser and New Fang up the tempo a bit and thereafter it's a mix of the slower, longer ones like Elephants and Spinning In Daffodils and the slighly catchier stuff like Scumbag Blues and Bandoliers. You could be forgiven for not really noticing a difference, though. Here's a clip from Jonathan Ross's show followed by a rendition of Mind Eraser, No Chaser, and here's New Fang from the Reading festival in 2009.

Man From Another Time by Seasick Steve.

Here's another case in point - all Seasick's albums sound pretty much the same, and indeed most of the songs on Seasick's albums sound pretty much the same, as songs performed by a grizzled old bearded guy with a two-string guitar will tend to do. In case two strings is a bit elaborate for you, here's Diddley Bo, wherein Seasick makes do with just the one.

The Courage Of Others by Midlake.

This is the much-anticipated follow-up to 2006's The Trials Of Van Occupanther, an album so garlanded with critical praise that it would have been easy to be too intimidated by expectation to put out a follow-up album at all. But, finally, here it is.

In a way you could be forgiven a bit of disappointment on first listen - this is a much more folky, one-paced album than its wildly eclectic predecessor, and there's nothing as rockily catchy as Roscoe or Head Home here. But eventually you come to appreciate that this is a band settling into their own sound and not feeling the need to crack out the euphonium and the Jew's harp on every track just for the sake of it. And there's nothing as spookily gorgeous as Acts Of Man or Fortune on Van Occupanther, great though it is. Incidentally the visuals for the Fortune clip are from legendary German nutter Werner Herzog's documentary film The White Diamond.

last night I dreamt of some Playdoh

While we're on the subject of music, I see my submission of misheard Madonna lyrics to the Kiss This Guy website has been published. Check it out.

incidental music spot of the day

Second apperance (here's the first) for You Think I Ain't Worth A Dollar, But I Feel Like A Millionaire by Queens Of The Stone Age, this time as the background to that Battlefield: Bad Company 2 computer game advert they're running constantly on TV at the moment. Here's a rockin' live version of the full song from Later with Jools Holland. While I'd say generally the band haven't really missed Nick Oliveri that much (Josh Homme being the creative mastermind anyway, as well as lead singer and guitarist), this is one song that's just not quite the same without him, Josh Homme's more mellow vocal style not really measuring up to Oliveri's psychotic shrieking.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

hip replacement

Just a quick and tangential follow-up to my earlier whisky-based post: we were out on the golf course (and latterly in the pub) on Saturday, and naturally we each took a hip-flask with us to fortify ourselves while out on the course.


Mine had the dregs of the Ardmore in it, which is good hip-flask whisky as its peaty assertiveness makes it ideal for outdoor consumption. Andy had Bowmore Legend in his, which is not dissimilar to the Ardmore in terms of peatiness, but with a bit more of a trademark Islay minty Listerine and coal flavour to it. Nice, though, as was the bottle of 10-year-old Tullibardine that we got out of Andy's whisky cupboard for a quick snifter before walking to the pub. The Tullibardine is a typically smooth and mellow Speysider, a bit like the Tormore. I don't think you can get this specific bottling any more - the distillery has had a bit of a chequered history including several periods of closure, most recently between early 1995 and late 2003, which presumably means there are "gaps" in the cask stock. The current range can be found here.

My hip-flask is a pretty bog-standard Gelert one, but if that's a bit low-rent for you, or just doesn't hold enough liquid, why not try a Growler? Their standard flasks come in two-pint, four-pint and eight-pint (i.e. a gallon) sizes. In theory they're designed for beer rather than spirits, but there's no reason why you couldn't put a gallon of whisky in one. Just don't drink it all in one go.

If you need something a bit more discreet, how about a tippling stick? Now you can maintain your outward appearance of a Beau Brummell-esque debonair man about town while getting discreetly pissed at the same time.

tears on fresh fruit

Easy to say after the event, but you can see it coming with some people. Actually maybe "hear it coming" would be more accurate; just as the self-inflicted deaths (shocking though they were) of Kurt Cobain and Elliott Smith were in some ways telegraphed by the tortured quality of the music they'd been putting out for the preceding few years (and, to be fair, by a couple of previous unsuccessful suicide attempts in both cases), the death (by self-inflicted gunshot) a couple of days ago of Sparklehorse frontman Mark Linkous was perhaps not totally unexpected if you were at all familiar with the albums. Actually "frontman" is a bit of a misnomer; Linkous was Sparklehorse, just parachuting in backing musicians as and when required.

The weird thing is that Linkous had already died once, for about five minutes in 1996 in a London hotel room, after an ill-advised cocktail of Valium and antidepressants (and who knows what else) caused him to collapse in the bathroom with his legs trapped under him for 14 hours. When the paramedics who eventually found him lifted him up, the release of toxins from his trapped legs caused his heart to stop. While the doctors managed to save his legs, he was obliged to wear leg braces for the rest of his life, and claimed to have spent the two years following the accident in a morphine haze.

The accident happened between the release of the two Sparklehorse albums I own, 1995's Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot and 1998's Good Morning Spider. I'm not sure you'd necessarily know that from listening to them, as they're both an eclectic mix of fuzzed-up country-pop Americana like Hammering The Cramps, Rainmaker and Happy Man and the spooked whispery folky stuff like All Night Home and Painbirds. Maybe there's a slightly higher proportion of the latter on the second album, I suppose. Great as the songs are, Linkous' genius lay in the freaky twisted production techniques he layered on top of them - distorted vocals, shortwave radio static, vinyl pop and crackle. (That last link has some embedded video in it, as does this one.) Linkous was in demand to squirt freaky oil over some other artists' output as well, notably icy Swedish temptress Nina Persson on her solo album A Camp.

Your best course of action at this point is to snap up the two albums mentioned above, which I recommend unreservedly. I can't speak for the other two official Sparklehorse albums It's A Wonderful Life and Dreamt For Light Years In The Belly Of A Mountain, but I gather the quality levels were pretty consistent.

Monday, March 08, 2010

called up for jura service

One of the problems with trying to democratically consume one's whisky collection without favouring any one particular bottle is that this strict rotation policy occasionally results in finishing two or more bottles in quick succession. So having finished the dregs of the Glenfiddich Caoran Reserve a couple of months ago I now find myself polishing off the last couple of drams out of the Glenmorangie and the Oban in relatively quick succession.

The upside of this is that it gives me a ready-made excuse to do a bit more snooping around for bargains on supermarket booze shelves, and sure enough while making a quick trip to my local Asda I discovered that they had the 10-year-old Isle of Jura whisky on sale for £17 (it's normally upwards of £25). Ker, and, furthermore, ching.

The Isle of Jura is a fascinating place, if you like your fascinating places pretty wild and hairy and inhospitable - George Orwell finished writing Nineteen Eighty-Four in a cottage on the island in the late 1940s, shortly before succumbing to the tuberculosis that killed him a couple of years later (I've no idea whether the Jura weather was a contributing factor, but it wouldn't surprise me). While Orwell was living on the island he and his young son were almost drowned in the infamous Corryvreckan whirlpool which lurks in the narrow channel to the north of the island. Jura was also (in 1994) the venue for the infamous stunt whereby the artists formerly known as the KLF burned a million quid.

Islay aside, there aren't many Scottish islands that have distilleries on them, in fact there are four: Jura, Mull, Skye, and Orkney, which have one each (well, Orkney sort of has two). If you share my particular set of enthusiasms then you'll be interested to know that the only two islands which have both a distillery and at least one Munro are Skye and Mull.

Anyway, the whisky. Because of Jura's proximity to Islay (barely a mile at their closest point) you might expect a big aggressive peaty poke in the eye, but what you actually get is something a bit more reserved. It has the same slightly salty rubbery smell that the Oban has, but whereas the Oban tastes of all that stuff as well (and very nice too), the Jura is very light and sweet and heathery when you taste it (with perhaps just a distant whiff of smoke in the background). In fact the mismatch between smell and taste is slightly peculiar, which is not to say there's anything wrong with it. It's perhaps a bit polite to be as memorable as its near neighbours, though - while I'm not the biggest fan of the really peaty Islays, there's certainly no mistaking them for anything else, and the same goes for the Oban, too, though in a slightly friendlier way. So I suppose I'd say it's nice rather than massively startling or memorable, though for 17 quid you can't go too far wrong. I like the flask-y bottle, as well - a bit like the Highland Park, but squashed in the middle.

Friday, March 05, 2010

disorientated and naked - we've all been there

After the flurry of sordid sexual revelations about senior England footballers in recent weeks, it's good to be able to report that rugby is keeping its end up, as it were, as well. It's interesting to reflect how the nature of the offences committed mirrors the intrinsic character of each sport: the footballing misdemeanours tend to be ill-advised encounters with glamour models in swanky London hotels, speeding in and/or crashing expensive cars, that sort of thing, whereas the rugby ones tend to be largely tales of drink-related carnage, public nudity and lavatorial antics. A couple of absolutely prime examples just in the last fortnight or so:

Andy Powell's golf-buggy drink-driving exploits are pretty amusing, though not so much for the player himself now he's been dropped from the Wales squad by Warren Gatland and banned from driving for 15 months.

Even better is the story of Sydney Roosters rugby league player Nate Myles, who was heavily fined after an incident which has apparently became known as Dumpgate. The official NRL statement summarises far more succinctly and amusingly than I ever could:
Shortly after 8am on Sunday morning Myles was apparently disorientated and naked in a hotel corridor and attempted to gain entry into the room of a family who was leaving their accommodation. A short time after his entry was refused and the family had left he was found to have defecated elsewhere in the hotel corridor and was later discovered in a fire escape.
Both of these indiscretions pale into insignificance in comparison with the alcohol-fuelled form-sheet of former Australian rugby league player and current Italian rugby union outside-half Craig Gower, though. Between exposing himself to an Irish backpacker in a bar in Sydney in 1999 and starting a brawl in a nightclub in the same city in 2007, he produced a possibly unsurpassable display of depraved drunken misbehaviour at a charity golf event in 2005, the edited highlights of which include:
  • groping the daughter of former rugby league star Wayne Pearce
  • threatening and chasing Pearce's son Mitchell
  • subsequently vomiting over him
  • streaking around the resort
  • driving a golf buggy across the greens (possibly while still naked, I'm not sure)
  • subsequently crashing and wrecking the buggy
  • holding a butter knife to the throat of a local radio personality
  • eventually being thrown out of the resort by security
Textbook stuff; it's possibly only spoiled by his not having had a big steaming shit on the carpet, or the 18th green, or the bonnet of someone's car, or something like that. I suppose at least that leaves some scope for improvement when the next generation of drunken meatheads comes along to pick up the baton. Records are made to be broken, after all.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

dick meet

A brief footnote to the previous post: you might remember from this earlier post that I claimed to have met Dick Francis once, and indeed I have. It was in very similar circumstances to the Sebastian Faulks meeting, in that it was at a book-signing session at the bookshop in Newbury where I used to work during university holidays. This particular session was to promote Francis' 27th novel The Edge, so it would have been 1988 or 1989. The Edge isn't one of his best books, to be honest; set on a trans-Canada train ride with various murky characters it's all a bit sub-Murder On The Orient Express. The general pattern (in my view, anyway) is that the further the books' setting and plot was from the world of British horse-racing, the weaker they were - The Edge, Slay-Ride (Scandinavia), In The Frame (painting, Australia), Trial Run (Russia) and The Danger (kidnapping) all suffer in this respect. Anyway he seemed a nice enough old codger who didn't require a ludicrous rock star rider or a steady stream of groupies, just that we provided a glass of red wine for the signing and kept it topped up throughout.

Since I was an impoverished student at the time I couldn't afford to be shelling out on newly-released hardback novels, so instead I got Francis to sign the three paperbacks I bought to complete my (at the time) full collection of his novels: the aforementioned Slay-Ride, Trial Run and Smokescreen. Here's a sample:

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

over beecher's, over the water jump, through the pearly gates

Here's a slightly belated blog tribute to Dick Francis, who died on Valentine's Day.

It would have no doubt been a source of slight irritation to him that most people's abiding memory of his first career as a fine and fearless jump jockey would be the much-replayed clip of Devon Loch doing whatever it was he was doing 40-odd yards from the finish of the 1956 Grand National while in the lead. My favourite theory is the one mentioned in the Guardian obituary - an overtightened girth strap resulting in a build-up of gas and ultimately an explosive fart which blew him (i.e. the horse) off his feet.

His second and far more lengthy career was as a writer of short and efficient thrillers based in and around the world of horse-racing. As I own 33 of them I consider myself entitled to offer some opinions: they were all written to a very similar formula, generally an economical 200 pages or so, always in the first person, the protagonist generally being an undemonstrative type with hidden reserves of steel which are called upon at various points, and generally having an occupation involving some special skills which he is able to make use of at some point to foil the wrongdoers. It's fair to say some are better than others; as with a lot of authors the earlier stuff has a higher proportion of winners - if you were to read Nerve, For Kicks (the first Francis I ever read and still probably my favourite), Forfeit, Enquiry and Rat Race from his pre-1970 output and then restrict yourself to Whip Hand, Reflex, Twice Shy, Longshot and Comeback from the later ones then that would probably be enough for most people, and highly enjoyable too.

There was a bit of controversy late in his career over how much of a collaborative effort between Francis and his wife Mary the books were; why this should matter in terms of one's reading enjoyment I'm not sure.

nibble my crisp mellifluous flange

There's an interesting article on Language Log from a week or so ago which examines the strange and persistent trope of citing cellar door as the most beautiful, aesthetically pleasing, evocative (take your pick) phrase in the English language.

Naturally we've all got our own list, mine including words like mellifluous, flange, plinth, halibut (natch), vermifuge, nibble and crisp. The point with these is to try and divorce the meaning of the word from the basic phonetic pleasingness of the sound - difficult to do with words like scrofula, chlamydia and holocaust, admittedly. If you don't even attempt to do that you end up with the sort of jaw-droppingly banal list that this survey ended up with. Apparently the most beautiful word in English is mother; gag me with a spoon, as the kids used to say in the 1980s.

Anyway, most places that cite cellar door in this context append some vague "studies show" or "linguists have found" weasel words to the claim to try and legitimise it a bit, but its origins are somewhat murky, as the original Language Log article and this blog post make clear. It seems that JRR Tolkien is largely responsible for the trope's continuing persistence, perhaps not surprisingly as he was into vaguely faux-Celtic-sounding placenames (Gondor, Mordor, etc.) and cellar door sounds a bit like one of those. As if to prove the point Ursula Le Guin invented a place called Selidor in her Earthsea trilogy. And of course there is Celador the TV production company, purveyors of such delights as Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? The phrase also crops up in the film Donnie Darko in what could be an insignificant aside or could be The Key To The Whole Mystery; your guess is as good as mine, frankly. Anyway, the important thing is that T-shirts are available.

I'll steal a link from the Language Log comment thread and leave the last word on the subject to Emo Phillips:
When I was a kid my parents used to tell me, "Emo, don't go near the cellar door!"
One day when they were away, I went up to the cellar door. And I pushed it and walked through and saw strange, wonderful things, things I had never seen before, like... trees. Grass. Flowers. The sun...that was nice...the sun...

Monday, March 01, 2010

so good I blogged it twice

Here's a few "what we did on holiday" New York notes for you. Needless to say with a few variations in my own inimitable idiom what we did on holiday in New York is what most first time New York visitors probably do, so if you find it all deeply tedious and predictable then I apologise. Move along, nothing to see here. If you're sticking around you might want to view the photo gallery in conjunction with reading this.
  • We booked flights with KLM from Heathrow to JFK, but via some crazy code-sharing business I don't claim to fully understand we ended up actually flying with Delta. No complaints, mind you, apart from the general one of not enjoying being on an aeroplane at all, anyway. In fact I hadn't been on a flight outside short hops to various European destinations since flying to New Zealand back in early 2001. As it happens this flight (despite being around 7 hours each way) was less stressful in some ways than the short hops, for a few reasons: firstly there was complimentary booze available, in particular some very generous plastic tumblers of red wine which I guzzled several of, and secondly they had the little TV screens in the back of the seats in front, which have the flight information (altitude, airspeed, etc.) and the little map available, which I find oddly reassuring for no doubt highly irrational reasons. There were also various TV shows and films available, from my perusal of which I can tell you that the TV series 30 Rock and Californication (neither of which I'd seen before) are both quite good, as are the films Up (Pixar's latest) and District 9 (giant alien prawns land in Johannesburg!). I found The Informant! a bit baffling, though, though to be fair we were well into the return flight by then, so it might have been the wine. Further in-flight entertainment was provided by Delta having the campest male cabin staff in the world (a hotly contested title as you can imagine) - my personal highlight of the whole trip was when the cabin steward who was handing out drinks leaned in close to the slightly gormless giant blond bloke across the aisle from me and told him that he looked just like he'd always imagined Howard Roark, the protagonist of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, would have looked. A more blatant invitation to head aft, as it were, and join the Mile High Man Love Club I cannot imagine.
  • Anyway, having arrived in New York we headed for the apartment we'd booked via the apartment-booking portal Holiday Velvet. Cue a slightly farcical series of attempts to locate someone who knew where the keys were - fortunately the very helpful French bloke who ran the bistro underneath the apartment block (on West 51st Street, near the intersection with Eighth Avenue) managed to let us in.
  • It was snowing quite heavily the next day so we decided to go and have a look round Central Park. After we'd done that for a while we decided we were bored of being snowed on, so we headed back down Broadway - purely by chance we noticed that the Ed Sullivan Theater had a sign up advertising tickets for The Late Show With David Letterman, so we put our names down on the list. A certain amount of mildly farcical (though mercifully indoor) queueing later we had our tickets, with only a pep talk from some horribly cheery assistants and a bit more queueing to endure before we got inside and sat down. The show we saw was the one featuring Sir Ben Kingsley and Mary J Blige and which is available on YouTube in five parts which I'm going to call parts one, two, three, four and five. We're somewhere in the middle; see if you can spot us.
  • The following morning the snow had stopped and the sun had come out, so we decided to use the tickets we'd pre-purchased for the Empire State Building. Not much new to say about this, so I'll restrict myself to recommending that you get there early (before 9am) to avoid excessive queueing, and that unless (like me) you have a mania for getting to the highest point of things then the views and photography opportunities are actually better from the outdoor gallery on the 86th floor than from the indoor one on the 102nd floor. Oh, and watch out for giant apes.
  • The Chrysler Building is in a lot of ways a more interesting building than the Empire State Building, but it's not open to the public. It was, however, the venue for the utterly fantastic monster movie Q The Winged Serpent in 1982.
  • A few words about drinking: generally it's not cheap, though obviously fluctuations in the £/$ exchange rate have a significant effect on this. Head west beyond Eighth Avenue into Hell's Kitchen and it gets cheaper - Rudy's Bar and Grill on 44th Street and Ninth Avenue in particular is well worth a visit, and they give away free hot dogs (you have to buy a drink, though, obviously). Other places we liked were the Blind Tiger on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village, the Ear Inn in SoHo, and the House Of Brews (warning: they do have their own website, but it keeps crashing my browser) literally right opposite our apartment in West 51st Street.
  • Obviously you've got to sample proper New York food: highlights include a hot meatball sandwich in the Majestic Deli on 50th and 7th, cheesecake in the Ben Ash cafe on 7th Avenue, a lox and cream cheese bagel in the Cosmic Diner on 8th Avenue and a Reuben (essentially a huge open sandwich with sauerkraut, pastrami and melted Swiss cheese, with a side order of potato salad, just in case that wasn't enough) and lots of freshly squeezed orange juice at the Morning Star Cafe on 2nd Avenue. We did go posh for my birthday when Hazel took me to the View revolving restaurant at the top of the Marriott Marquis on Broadway. As I recall the food was excellent, though we did piss on our chips a bit by having a few beers in the House Of Brews before going out and then a bottle of champagne before dinner, so by the time it arrived (with a bottle of wine) we were hammered. Oh well.
  • We went to see a basketball game at Madison Square Garden - the New York Knicks against the Chicago Bulls. All quite exciting, though the Knicks lost 115-109 in the end, which was still slightly better than they'd done the previous night. Madison Square Garden fact: it was built on the demolished rubbly remains of the impossibly magnificent architectural grandeur that was Pennsylvania Station. The resulting storm of protest ensured not only that you'd never get away with anything similar today, but also ensured the survival of certain specific New York landmarks, notably St. Patrick's Cathedral on Fifth Avenue, which you'll see from the photos on the linked Wikipedia page has gradually been surrounded over the last century or so by higher and higher neighbours. It reminds me of the Crimson Permanent Assurance.
  • You need to pre-book for the cruise round New York Harbour that takes in the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island if you want to avoid lots of queueing and possible disappointment. There is also an airport-style security check at the quay before departure and another one before they let you inside the statue once you're on the island, so be prepared to queue either way. You can go up the winding staircase to the top of the statue, but they limit it to small groups and you seem to have to book several months in advance, so we had to content ourselves with going to the top of the pedestal on which the statue stands and looking up her skirt.
  • You'll know I have a bit of a fascination with bridges, and suspension bridges in particular. To indulge me we went for a walk over the Brooklyn Bridge from Manhattan to Brooklyn, and then back over the Manhattan Bridge from Brooklyn to Manhattan. New York's various suspension bridges have held the title of world's longest many times over the years: the Brooklyn Bridge from 1883 to 1903, the Williamsburg Bridge a bit further up the East River from 1903 to 1924, the George Washington Bridge over the Hudson between Manhattan and New Jersey between 1931 and 1937 and the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge between Brooklyn and Staten Island between 1964 and 1981. Other bridges are available: the Bayonne Bridge between Staten Island and New Jersey was the longest steel arch bridge in the world between 1931 and 1977 and was also the bridge that got blown up at the beginning of the Spielberg/Cruise War Of The Worlds film a few years ago.
  • There isn't really much to see at Ground Zero, but you sort of feel you have to make a pilgrimage anyway. Building work progress can be monitored here.
  • The Staten Island Ferry is completely free, and thus represents one of the best sightseeing bargains in the city. But I don't really want to see Staten Island, you say. Well, that's OK, because you can just cruise across the harbour looking at the sights on the way, get off the ferry, turn round and get straight back on again, and come back. Round trip time is about an hour, and, just to recap, it's free.
  • The Museum of Modern Art is worth a visit, if you like, erm, modern art. Which reminds me, we had two celebrity encounters during the trip: the first one was BBC journalist and occasional Newsnight presenter Gavin Esler at Hammersmith tube station. No sign of his new "violinist vixen lover", though. The second was Usual Suspects star Gabriel Byrne in the cloakroom queue at MoMA. Looking a bit old these days, but then again he will be 60 in May.
  • We made a brief pilgrimage to the Dakota Building on 72nd Street, venue for John Lennon's murder in 1980 as mentioned in my previous book review. I gather Yoko Ono still lives there, but she didn't pop out to say hello or anything.
  • I was looking through my iTunes library to find a suitable New York song title for some inspiration for the title of this post. Not sure about inspiration, but the songs I own starting "New York" are: New York by Cat Power, New York City by T.Rex, New York Minute by Don Henley and New York, New York by Ryan Adams with its video which was shot just four days before 9/11.

start spreadin' the news

A longer post to come when I've got a spare moment, but in the meantime here's a gallery of photos from our recent trip to New York. It's quite large, as you might expect, so you'll probably need to plan a break for a cheese scone and a wee at some stage.