Wednesday, January 31, 2007

reasons to be cheerful

A couple of brief points of interest:
  • Thanks to Andy's heroic efforts the photo gallery is now back up and running; I've just uploaded a few grainy pictures (taken on my mobile phone as the camera was on the blink) from James' stag weekend. I've got a bit of a backlog of stuff which I'll upload when I get time.
  • This is, remarkably (to me anyway), the 100th post I've made to this blog. I am raising, at this very moment, a glass of delicious Banrock Station Shiraz Mataro in celebration. I suggest you pop down to Sainsbury's, where you can purchase a 3-litre box of it for £12.99, and do the same.

the last book I read

Back To Bologna by Michael Dibdin.

This is the tenth book in the series featuring Michael Dibdin's Venetian detective Aurelio Zen. They're about as far from Hercule Poirot as you could imagine, though.

I think it was Graham Greene who used to subtitle his books "Novels" or "Entertainments", just to give the readership some idea what to expect - a similar categorisation might be useful for the Zen novels, from the properly gritty and bloody ones (though still leavened with the trademark wit and keen observation of Italian eccentricities) like Dead Lagoon and A Long Finish (these two are the absolute pinnacle of the series, for me) to the more farcical ones like Cosi Fan Tutti. Back To Bologna is very much in the latter vein, and it almost feels as if Dibdin only decided to make it a Zen novel at the last minute, as the supposed main character is hardly in it. It bowls along very entertainingly, though, for all that (or maybe because) it's pretty lightweight stuff; I zipped through it in a couple of days. I'm not sure this is the best place to start if you're new to the Zen series; you're probably better off starting at the beginning (Ratking) and working through them in order.

The non-Zen Dibdin novels are well worth checking out as well, though they're all over the place stylistically: Dirty Tricks is a hilariously black comedy (adapted rather limply for TV with Martin Clunes a little while ago) and Dark Spectre is an equally black and relentless American-set thriller - these are the two to start with. That gives you 12 books to be going on with. Don't say I never do anything for you.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007


My friends James and Hayley are getting married at the end of February, so as is traditional at these times we took the groom-to-be away last weekend for the traditional bout of ritual humiliation and drunken regurgitation. Actually I think we were pretty kind to him on the humiliation front, beyond making him drink some fairly unpleasant concoctions.

We stayed up at Stenson Hill Farm, which is about 5 miles south-ish of Derby, and is perfect for housing large numbers of people as it has more bedrooms and lounging about areas than you could shake a stick at. The red circle on the map denotes the centre of the postcode area; the place is actually the couple of buildings directly above that, above the railway line, to the left of where it says Stenson Fields. Here's a picture:

In addition to sitting around the house drinking beer and playing snooker (well, we were standing up for that) we managed to get out of the house on a couple of occasions: firstly to go to the Bubble Inn just down the road (it's the PH by the red circle on the map) - big place, food fairly bog-standard pub grub but quite nice, Shepherd Neame Spitfire on tap, so no complaints from me. Apparently it's called the Bubble Inn because the lock outflow which comes out into the Trent & Mersey Canal under the bridge by the pub makes a distinctive bubbling noise. Or so it says here anyway - there are a couple of photos of the pub as well. Then on the Saturday we went over to Tamworth to watch the mighty Tamworth FC aka The Lambs play Crawley Town. Crawley won 1-0; if you want a fuller report there's one on the club website. I don't think the slightly breathless tone of the report fully conveys the truly soul-destroying dreadfulness of the game - on the upside the polystyrene cups of Bovril were pretty good, and apparently (though I didn't have one) the pies were OK too. Which is the main thing, after all. One slightly amusing innovation that I hadn't encountered before is the sponsorship of all the match announcements by local companies, e.g. (seriously): "The fourth official has announced that there will be at least four minutes added time. These extra minutes were brought to you by the West Bromwich Building Society".

A good time seemed to be had by all, even James, even after being forced to drink four cans of Carlsberg Special Brew on Saturday evening. The experience took it out of him a bit, though, as the before and after pics below show:

Monday, January 29, 2007

look at the slip roads on that

It's amazing what you can be reduced to looking up on the internet when you're bored.

Out of the window of the office where I work I have a panoramic view of the Almondsbury Interchange which is where the M4 and M5 cross. It's a complex junction, pretty busy at morning and evening rush hour, but rarely totally gummed up.

So far so relatively mundane, you might think, but you'd be wrong. It turns out there is a whole branch of civil engineering, planning etc. and needless to say several websites dedicated to motorway junctions, and apparently this one is a particularly sophisticated example of the genre - so much so that there are only two others like it in the country, one at the far eastern end of the M4 where it meets the M25, and one at the junction between the M25 and the M23 on the way down towards Gatwick Airport.

Now that is, if not exactly Absolutely Fascinating, then at least Quite Interesting. Isn't it? No? Please yourselves.....

Friday, January 26, 2007

help, help....I'm being Actively Denied

This interesting article appeared on the BBC website a couple of days ago. For those of you who can't be bothered to follow the link, basically the US military have prototyped a device which sends out a tightly-directed beam of electromagnetic radiation which, if a human happens to get in the way, causes a painful but not lastingly harmful burning sensation. Wikipedia has a typically informative article as well.

A couple of observations spring to mind:

  • There are some splendidly sinister US military-industrial phrases here: it's an "Active Denial System" intended to induce the "goodbye effect" by use of "non-lethal technology". I fully expect Dick Cheney to be personally directing it into the eyes of small children for reasons of "national security" within a year or two. Either that or accidentally setting fire to his friends with it while trying to shoot down some ducks by roasting them in flight.
  • It's apparently non-harmful, just highly uncomfortable. Well.....if you're intending to use it for crowd control, isn't it a bit counter-productive to be telling people that? "I say, Hamid, my skin appears to be burning." "Not to worry, Abdul old chap, it's just a non-harmful heat ray." "Fair enough then, we'll continue smashing the infidels. After you with that petrol."
  • What if it goes in your eye? Surely a direct hit on the cornea causing your aqueous humour to boil might conceivably be non-"non-harmful"?
  • Couldn't you ward off the effects with something as low-tech as, say, a dustbin lid? And what if you used a mirror? Could you blow up the truck the ADS was on?
  • Surely there are some civilian uses as well? Just leave a meat pie on the window sill when you set off for work in the morning, give it a blast of Active Denial power when you pull into the drive later, and hey presto, a piping hot dinner ready and waiting for you. Imagine the convenience of being able to defrost a chicken from half a mile away.
  • This article has a couple of interesting revelations: firstly that there is a publication called Microwave News, "a leading newsletter on non-ionizing radiation". Sounds fascinating. And also that the US Air Force Research Laboratory have a department called the Human Effectiveness Directorate, which sounds pretty scary. If they've gone to the trouble of euphemising it like that, you just know there's some dodgy stuff going on with stirrups and electrodes in a concrete-lined bunker somewhere in Area 51.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

fungi to be with

The Independent are currently running a campaign highlighting the absurd quantity of packaging put on the most basic of items of food by the major supermarkets, including Tesco and Asda. Well, I went to Somerfield on the way home from work this evening, and I have a packaging-related gripe as well. Take a look at these mushrooms. Nice tasty open-cup chestnut mushrooms, but, hang on, take a closer look at the packaging.....yes, apparently they're "ideal for cooking". Well, that's nice then. As opposed to sticking up your arse or whittling into the shape of a flugelhorn, I suppose. Do we really need to be told this? Maybe we do.....

This is Doctor Who saying....bollocks

A while ago BT introduced a facility whereby you could send a text message from a mobile phone to a landline and it would be automatically translated into a voice message. This in itself provided much potential for amusement, since the voice used was a slightly prissy electronic-sounding female voice, just begging to be used to recite the most foul and degrading filth.

However, BT then came up with a stroke of even more sublime genius - getting the legendary Tom Baker to provide a complete set of sound samples so that his voice could be used for a limited period in early 2006. Inevitably, someone captured a whole catalogue of clips of varying degrees of scatological outrage and put them on a website. And here it is. You'll need sound-reproducing facilities on your computer, needless to say.

One of the clips on the "random" page links to a page of Personal Ads from the Framley Examiner - this is also highly amusing, as are any of the other pages you can click on at random here. It's a sort of more British, more Pythonesque, less political version of The Onion.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

album of the day

Fear Of Music by Talking Heads.

It's always nice to revisit stuff you used to listen to when you were much much younger and realise just how brilliant it is - it makes you realise just how right you were all the time, no matter what everyone else said.

This is a good example: I got into Talking Heads after buying the single Road To Nowhere after it was a hit in 1986, and gradually worked my way back through the back catalogue to the start of their career in 1977. My very brief summary of their career goes like this: the first album is OK, and the last 3 are OK too, but the sequence of four in the middle that goes More Songs About Buildings And Food, Fear Of Music, Remain In Light and Speaking In Tongues is where the magic really happens. And Fear Of Music is The One, if that's as many as you're after - the received Rock Critic wisdom is that Remain In Light is The One, but I disagree; Fear Of Music marks the bridge between the punky New York white-boy quirkiness of the early albums, and the massive polyrhythmic Afro-funk collective they turned into later on (watch the DVD of Stop Making Sense to see what I mean). And it has proper songs - for all the greatness of the next two albums, a lot of the tracks are just grooves with lyrics stuck on top, not songs. Whereas Fear Of Music has I Zimbra, Cities, Life During Wartime, Memories Can't Wait (covered by Living Color - remember them?), Heaven (covered - bizarrely - by Simply Red; I know you remember them) and the splendidly deranged Animals: "animals think they're pretty smart: shit on the ground, see in the dark". Great stuff.

And...just to plug Amazon again, not that Jeff Bezos needs the money: all four of these albums are available for £4.97, so you can have all four classic mid-period Talking Heads albums for less than 20 quid. If I didn't own them all already I'd be in there like a rat up a drainpipe.

the last book I read

Justine by Lawrence Durrell.

This is the first book in the four-volume Alexandria Quartet, published in the late 1950's. As far as I understand it the first three novels in the quartet (Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive) tell essentially the same story (or at least describe essentially the same series of events) from three differing points of view, while the fourth (Clea) takes place later and presumably brings the strands together in some way. Apparently this is some sort of literary nod to Einsteinian relativity theory (three dimensions of space and one of time, if you follow me). Hugely celebrated at the time, its critical reputation (and indeed Durrell's in general) has suffered a bit since, but you think of famous sequences of novels and you think of this, along with A Dance To The Music Of Time and of course A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu, neither of which, I should point out, I've ever read. And it was only 70p in the Amnesty International bookshop on the Gloucester Road, so I couldn't not buy it, really.

At the simplest level Justine is about the narrator's (never named here, though it apparently later transpires that his name is Darley) experiences of life and love during his time in Alexandria, and in particular his doomed relationship with a local Jewish woman called Justine. A whole host of other characters drift in and out of the narrative (presumably to crop up in greater or lesser detail in the other volumes), no-one seems to actually do anything as mundane as hold down a job (Darley is nominally a teacher, but doesn't seem to do much teaching), there's a lot of languid lolling about in bed with other people's wives, and not a great deal actually happens, at least not until right at the end of the book.

None of this actually matters, though, as action and excitement isn't really the point here either. Durrell apparently intended the sequence to be a meditation on "modern love", but I'm not sure that's really the point either. The point, if there is one, is just to dive into the lush sensuality of Durrell's prose (he wrote a lot of poetry as well, and it's a fine line between the two sometimes) and luxuriate in stuff like this (these are just from the first two pages): "a sky of hot nude pearl", "the lime-laden dust of those summer afternoons", "light filtered through the essence of lemons", "brick-dust and the odour of hot pavements slaked with water". If it is a love story then the city itself is the object, not any of the fairly unengaging characters who populate it. If all this sounds massively pretentious to you, then I would say: yes, that is a criticism that often gets levelled at these books, and it's not one that I'd necessarily disagree with. I enjoyed it, but Bravo Two Zero it ain't.....

Monday, January 22, 2007

ah, the great outdoors.....mind that hole.....bugger.

Well, that didn't exactly go according to plan.

Day 1: Train from Bristol to Exeter, bus from Exeter to Okehampton, all on time, no problems. We headed out of Okehampton up the East Okemount river valley onto the moors - as soon as we got above about 250 metres it started to drizzle, but that was hardly a surprise. Up onto the moor proper we turned off up past Rowtor and West Mill Tor up towards Yes Tor - very windy and wet by this time which hampered our progress, but we made it eventually. It was almost impossible to stand up by the trig point at the top of Yes Tor (619 metres, 2031 feet) but we clung on long enough for a couple of photographs and then headed off south towards High Willhays. The summit here (621 metres, 2037 feet, the highest point on Dartmoor, indeed the highest point in England south of the Peak District, where by a strange coincidence I'm off next weekend) is on top of a big flat rock which you have to scramble up onto - having done this we headed off sharply as it was starting to get dark.

By the time we got down into the West Okement river valley where we were intending to camp it was pitch dark (we had torches, fortunately). We discarded the idea of trying to camp in Black-a-tor Copse as it was very rocky and all a bit Blair Witch Project at that time of night. We managed to find a flattish area to camp in (roughly here), got the tents up, had some food and then went to bed (it was about 9pm by this time).

Unfortunately the weather was getting worse - the tail-end of the storms that had wrecked a cargo ship near Sidmouth (a few miles to the east). Most of the night was spent sitting inside the tents trying to hold them up while the wind and rain tried alternately to batter them flat and rip them out of the ground.

Day 2: After the pounding we'd got during the night, things had calmed down a bit by the morning, in fact there was just the hint of a few rays of sunshine (scant consolation after a night with no sleep). So we packed everything away and set off.

The plan was to head for Princetown, about 10 miles to the south, but it soon became apparent that we were progressing a lot more slowly than expected. There were a couple of reasons for this: the torrential rain during the night had made the ground very boggy, and Andy had fallen in a hole while scouting for camping spots the night before and twisted his leg, which had stiffened up badly during the night. After a bite of lunch and a crisis meeting here we decided that we needed to try and get off the moor before Andy stopped being able to walk at all, so we decided to head for the nearest road, which turned out to be here, still about 4-5 miles away. We dosed Andy up with some Nurofen and several large slugs of port and brandy from my hip flask and set off.

Luckily there was some mobile phone signal so Andy was able to phone his sister's boyfriend to arrange a pick-up. Even more luckily, Steve heroically and selflessly agreed to delay his dinner and come and get us - if he hadn't, we'd have probably had to walk another few miles to either Lydford or Mary Tavy to try and find somewhere to stay. Steve dropped us off at Taunton, from where we caught a train back to Bristol.

So.....not quite the triumphal march into Ivybridge on day 4 that we'd planned. Can't be helped - we'll go back and do it again some time. Give it a few weeks for all the gear to dry off, though.

Anyone who's been keeping up with the mobile blog will notice I've nicked the two images here from it - we'll collate all our various photos shortly and I'll post a link.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

just in case... want to keep up with our crazy Dartmoor adventures from the comfort of your padded La-Z-Boy with integral pizza phone and lager chiller, you might want to (with the other hand) try one of these links:
  • Andy's mobile blog: postings may or may not be done (with pictures - maybe) on an occasional basis, depending on whether or not there's any mobile signal where we are. The coverage maps for Orange and O2 suggest we might be in luck - we'll see.
  • The Dartmoor webcam: this one is situated near Two Bridges, which we'll be near on Saturday afternoon if all goes to plan. If we see it we'll wave, or moon, or something. At the very least you should get an idea of what the weather's like (if someone's arse isn't obscuring the view).
Let's hope we don't meet the legendary Beast of Dartmoor while we're out there. Although if the sighting statistics are correct, there's a 4.2% chance it's a coypu, in which case we're probably fairly safe. And if the photo here is to be believed, it could well be something as blood-curdlingly terrifying as a tree-stump, or a discarded bin-bag.

Chances are the weather will keep the savage beasts away, anyway.

ladies and gentlemen: mis-syllable lack

I was, purely by accident you understand, watching a bit of the Take That concert from the City of Manchester Stadium the other day (a lethargic Sunday afternoon on T4, I think), and they did, among many other songs, their legendary early hit A Million Love Songs. This is what we in the music business call a classic "bad salad", and it reached the dizzy heights of number 7 in 1992, pop pickers.

But there's a problem. Gary Barlow must have been kicking himself to find he'd written some lyrics, and some plaintive piano backing, but that one didn't quite fit the other, particularly in the all-important chorus area. So what does he do? Rewrite one of them to fit the other? Hell, no. Just shoehorn an extra syllable in the chorus so it sort of fits, and then release it. Their target audience of confused pubescent girls and raging homosexuals is hardly going to care, after all. So the chorus ends up being rendered as:

A million love songs-uh later
And here I am trying to tell you that I care
A million love songs-uh later
Here I am

Here's another one from back in 1990 (a number 1 hit too, God only knows how). Remember Sacrifice by Elton John? Another "bad salad", video (and single cover, see left) featuring not much of interest except one of the last of the series of bizarre hats Elton used to wear before the hair weave, and a classic bit of "oh, that'll do" lyric-writing (though of course, to be fair, they're Bernie Taupin's lyrics, not Elton's) in the chorus:
And it's no sack-er-ifice
Just a simple word
It's two hearts living
In two separate worlds
But it's no sack-er-ifice
No sacrifice
It's no sacrifice at all

Last two "sacrifice"-s deliberately untouched as he sort of sings these properly. The damage has been done by then, though. And by the fact that it's a truly dreadful song.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

1982 - sunspots I reckon

Let me know if you see a pattern emerging here:

Snooker: World champion 1981, 1983, 1984: Steve Davis, the undisputed world number one and the man the crowds loved to hate (supporting the underdog as ever). World champion 1982: maverick drunken Celtic "people's champion" Alex Higgins.

Darts: World champion 1981, 1983, 1984: Eric Bristow, the undisputed world number one and the man the crowds loved to hate (supporting the underdog as ever). World champion 1982: maverick drunken Celtic "people's champion" Jocky Wilson.

Tennis: Wimbledon champion 1981, 1983, 1984: John McEnroe, the undisputed world number one and the man the crowds loved to hate (supporting the underdog as ever). Wimbledon champion 1982: maverick non-drunken possibly of Celtic descent "people's champion" Jimmy Connors.

I was pretty pleased with this observation when I came up with it the other day. There's only one problem with it, on closer observation of the facts: Eric Bristow didn't win the world darts championship in 1983, he lost, famously, in the deciding set of the final to the unseeded Keith Deller. I should know this, because I watched the whole thing live on TV (though admittedly I was only 13 at the time). Two things stick in the mind: firstly Deller used, uniquely I think, spring-loaded darts, i.e. the point retracted into the shaft (ooer missus) on impact with the board, and secondly he won by hitting a 138 checkout after Bristow had spurned an opportunity to go for the bull, and instead played what he though was the percentage option and hit 18 to leave himself double 16 next shot. Unfortunately he never got one...

Two more fascinating darts facts before I drop the subject until next year: Eric Bristow was rumoured to have six toes on each foot, and it was speculated this helped his balance at the oche, and secondly Jocky Wilson was (and is) married to a Scottish-Argentinian woman called Malvina, which caused a certain amount of friction around the time of his first World Championship win in 1982, as it coincided with the Falklands War. Rather like being married to a woman called Dresden or Luftwaffe during World war II, I should think.

Shipham-shape and just south of Bristol fashion

Robin and I decided on a last-minute Dartmoor training hike on Sunday, as it was a nice day, so we (the two of us, and Robin's girlfriend Alison) went over to Cheddar Gorge. Well, actually we parked up in a little village called Shipham here, and walked south-east along the West Mendip Way which eventually brings you out at the eastern end of Cheddar Gorge. Slight moment of deja vu on the way as we inadvertently crossed the path of a walk we did back in September - luckily, as it happens, as we were able to redirect another group of walkers who'd made the same elementary navigational error that we'd made at the time.

Then we walked up onto the clifftops at the south side of the gorge, tested out Robin's new compact meths-powered camping stove (basically a smaller version of my Trangia) by heating up some soup in it (that's what I'm drinking in the photograph) and then started down towards Cheddar village.

At which point it started to get quite slippery and muddy, and I lost my footing and did a highly balletic (though perhaps not as graceful as Darcey Bussell) splits routine, gently stretching various ligaments and coaxing several leg joints into new and interesting shapes, with the accompaniment of various crunching and twanging noises - imagine the sound made by an upright piano being thrown into a skip. My left hip is a bit sore today, but I don't think any major structural damage has been done, luckily.

Then we walked back up the road from Cheddar to Shipham - bit of a sting in the tail as it's uphill almost all the way. You could probably make this last leg (no pun intended) a bit more interesting as there are some footpaths, but we were a bit pressed for time at this point.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

albums of the day

Two more for my inadvertent "great forgotten albums of the 1990s" collection.

Doppelganger by Curve.

I think I eulogised at some length about Toni Halliday in an earlier post, so I won't go on too much here. This is an excellent proto-industrial rock album, though, very much in the vein of people who would come along later and make it big, most obviously Garbage.

If there's a complaint it's that it's all a bit one-paced, which I suppose is another way of saying that most of the songs sound very similar, but in a good way: thunderous drum machine and bass backing, grinding guitar and sultry female vocals all buried in a rather muddy trademark early-90s production (though to be fair the producer Alan Moulder was having a relationship with Toni Halliday at the time, so it wouldn't be totally surprising if his mind wasn't fully on the job - mine wouldn't have been). Standout tracks are Horror Head and particularly the pulverising Ice That Melts The Tips. Shirley Manson was obviously listening closely.

Peggy Suicide by Julian Cope.

Say what you like about Julian Cope, but he is completely bonkers. This doesn't always manifest itself in a good way, musically speaking, but the twin concerns of man's destruction of the environment and Margaret Thatcher's destruction of Britain focused his mind enough to produce this wildly eclectic and sprawling double album. Like many double albums it's a bit patchy, and the best songs are concentrated in the first half of the album, but there's no arguing with the first 8 songs from Pristeen to Drive, She Said in particular. The withering anti-Thatcher diatribe Promised Land, the 8-minute psychedelic guitar epic Safesurfer and the nearly-hit single Beautiful Love are the best things here, but it's all the product of an endearingly unhinged mind.

This is another one that's absurdly cheap on Amazon: £4.97 again. It's almost more expensive not to buy it.

Fascinating Julian Cope fact #1: my friend Clare and her friends used to stalk him when he lived in Tamworth in the mid-1980s. Luckily he was probably too whacked out of his gourd to notice.

Fascinating Julian Cope fact #2: he has published a couple of well-received and only slightly bonkers books on ancient Stone Age sites of interest, The Modern Antiquarian and The Megalithic European, and he currently lives near Avebury.

Thursday, January 11, 2007


Speaking of darts, as I was, I'm struck by the slightly spooky resemblance between England darts captain and current BDO championship favourite Martin "Wolfie" Adams and my good friend and fellow bloggist Andy "The Silver Fox" Browne. I wonder if they are by any chance related?

Tuesday, January 09, 2007


I've been off work with a cold for the last couple of days, so consequently I've been watching a bit of the BDO World Darts Championship on the BBC. There's no getting away from a couple of obvious truths when it comes to darts, specifically:
  • it's a game of great skill requiring nerves of steel
  • most of the players look as if they'd have a heart attack running for a bus
- the second of which may be what keeps it from being a huge ratings winner, i.e. it's not a "sexy" sport, though on the other hand it couldn't be better suited for television (very much like snooker). The other problem, sadly, is that there are two rival versions of the World Darts Championship, the BDO (the original championship) and the PDC (which broke away in the early 1990's). No prizes for guessing that it was all about money and broadcasting rights; trouble is that we now have the situation where there are two World Championships which happen within a few weeks of each other in December and January, one (the PDC one, broadcast on Sky) featuring undoubtedly the greatest darts player ever to walk the earth, Phil Taylor, and the other (the BDO one, on the BBC) featuring a whole host of worthies from around the world, including, until last year, the only player to challenge Taylor for the status of world's best, Raymond van Barneveld. Since Barneveld's defection to the PDC (and his dramatic win over Taylor in the 2007 PDC final) the BBC have had to drop their slightly amusing policy of never alluding to the "other" world championship during the BDO coverage; they've even mentioned Taylor's name a couple of times. The point is, though: is the BDO winner's achievement cheapened by not having to face the world's best player? Undoubtedly. Is Taylor's remarkable achievement in winning 11 PDC championships (to go with the two BDO titles he won before the split) cheapened by not facing 50% of the world's best players on the way? Undoubtedly.

There's a wider point about television interference in sport to be made here. There was a lot of stand-up comedy mileage made out of what demands the American TV broadcasters might make before the 1994 FIFA World Cup - quarters instead of halves for more ad breaks and cheerleading, bigger goals, etc. etc. - but what happens when these demands are allowed to go unchecked can be seen by simply watching the Super Bowl every year, or, if you prefer, in a couple of weeks. Or, worse, still, wrestling, though I'm not sure this was ever meant to be serious. Any sport where short-term money-grabbing takes precedence over the sport itself to the extent of rival championships will suffer in the long term. Look at the ludicrous situation boxing has got itself into - with the IBF, WBA, WBC, WBO and doubtless a few others there's a title fight (with pay-per-view facilities on whichever TV supplier has the relevant title-giving authority in a headlock) every week. Cricket was in danger of going the same way with World Series Cricket in the late 1970's, though long-term disaster was averted by the award of broadcasting rights to Test cricket proper to Kerry Packer (which was what he really wanted in the first place).

Darts seems to be on the up at the moment - given that the original split was prompted by a slump in TV coverage and prize money, what better time for the rival organisations to agree to a fully open and unified World Darts Championship? Just imagine the bidding war for the TV rights....

album of the day

Dust by Screaming Trees.

One of the greatest and yet most neglected of the early-90's Seattle grunge bands, probably because they weren't really a grunge band at all. Then again who was? If you mean those who rode in on the coat-tails of Nirvana, well....Nirvana were a pop-punk band very much in the vein of the Pixies (Kurt Cobain was on record as saying that he was afraid Smells Like Teen Spirit would be written off as a shameless Pixies rip-off), but their successors were either rubbish metal bands in ripped jeans (Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots), excellent metal bands in ripped jeans (Soundgarden) or vehicles for insane guitar virtuosos (Dinosaur Jr.). Screaming Trees fitted into none of those categories. Their classic bluesy, trippy, psychedelic rock sound is more reminiscent of Cream and Led Zeppelin than any of their contemporaries; you wouldn't be totally surprised to turn this CD over and find that it was released in 1971 (actually it was 1996).

The Zeppelin connection is instantly apparent on the opener Halo Of Ashes; lots of swirling Middle Eastern strings, sitar and guitars with Mark Lanegan howling away over the top - it's not the most instantly appealing of introductions, but stick with it and the sequence of songs which follows - All I Know, Look At You, Dying Days, Make My Mind, Sworn And Broken - is pretty much faultless. Witness, Traveler and Dime Western aren't quite up to that standard, but show off Lanegan's extraordinary voice to good effect, and the closing Gospel Plow is a nicely cathartic blues-metal blast to finish with. There really isn't a duff track on the album. And anyone who doesn't get the hair standing up on the back of their neck on hearing the stinging guitar break two and a half minutes into Make My Mind will have to sit back, take a long hard look at themselves, and conclude that they fundamentally just don't like rock music very much.

This is another one that's ludicrously cheap on Amazon - £4.97. Chicken feed for one of the great rock albums of the 1990's.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Himmel! Aiieeeeee..........

This will be utterly pant-wettingly hilarious to you if:
  • You ever read those square-jawed war epics in comics like Hotspur and Victor when you were a kid
  • You ever defaced a work of comic art with Tippex and a biro for scatologically comic effect
  • You remember Sergeant Johnny Death from Viz
  • You have a mental age of about eight
  • You aren't my mother
If you fulfil all those stringent criteria click here. Don't say you weren't warned, though.

it's a curse

What is, you ask. Well, I'll tell you: the ability to see both sides of an argument. The less charitable critic would say: the inability to decide what you really think. Actually, that's not true, in each of the examples I'm about to give I know exactly what I think, but I can understand others holding other points of view.

Example #1: the execution of Saddam Hussein. Just to start with a nice uncontentious one. Here's what I think about capital punishment: it's wrong. No ifs, no buts, no exceptions. And that means that it's as wrong to judicially execute Saddam Hussein, a man undoubtedly responsible for the 140+ killings back in 1982 that he was convicted of as well as countless others before and after that they couldn't (or didn't need to for sentencing purposes) pin on him, as it would be to execute, say, that little girl in the pink cardigan who sang There's No-One Quite Like Grandma. Not only that, but a more sensitive occupying power would have also recognised the symbolic power of executing him on the holy day of Eid and maybe held off for a week or so, and would have been a bit more careful about allowing people to just wander in carrying mobile telephones and video the whole thing for the benefit of YouTube viewers. I'm not going to post a link here, in case you're wondering. You can go and find it yourself easily enough, but you might want to ask yourself why you're doing it.

However.....the whole point of the US occupation of Iraq is to move towards a situation where the Iraqis have control over their own affairs, by virtue of having a democratically elected government. One of the first steps towards doing this was to have the Iraqis handle the execution. Plenty of other countries in whose affairs we not only don't see fit to intervene, but have positively chummy relationships with, carry out capital punishment, for example Japan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and China, the last two as the tip of a whole scary iceberg of human rights abuses to which the western world chooses to turn a blind eye, for various reasons. And, of course, the good old U.S. of A. Just for information, the most execution-happy states in the USA are Texas, Virginia, Oklahoma, Missouri and Florida, with Texas alone accounting for over a third of the judicial killings carried out in the country since 1976. So watch your step.

So what's the answer? A hands-off "well, it's their country now"? Let's not forget that a constitutional democracy in the Middle East would be pretty unique, with the arguable exception of Israel, which of course qualifies in many people's eyes as as much of a do-gooders' experimental state as the new Iraq. Or further heavy-handed interventionism, which many would argue is how we got into the sorry state we're in in the first place. And if we get all "ethical foreign policy", to quote the late Robin Cook, about it, don't we then have to have a quiet word with the other countries mentioned above? Tricky, huh?

Example #2: If I understand this story correctly, the Exeter University Evangelical Christian Union has been suspended from the societies' guild for requiring that members sign a "statement of religious belief". Well.....obviously you don't want the Real Ale Society putting up a banner saying "No Jews", but surely there are certain entry restrictions which are implicit in the name of the organisation, and there's therefore no harm in codifying them a bit more explicitly? I mean, would the membership of the Cliff Richard Appreciation Society be affected if the members were required to sign a declaration that they really liked Cliff Richard? No. It'd be the same blue-rinsed brigade, smelling of mothballs and piss, as it would have been before.
Ditto the Ku Klux Klan if they'd put the "No Blacks" thing in writing. They weren't exactly queueing up to join, you know. And you have to ask: who in their right mind would choose to try and join the Evangelical Christian Union if they didn't have "religious beliefs"? Why would you do that? Trying to smash the system from within perhaps - in which case, lie. As long as you're right then there's no danger of going to hell anyway.

On the other hand if you're making the rules it's a bit more tricky; your first stab might go: no restrictions on membership of University societies. Your second stab might go: no restrictions on membership of University societies, except where these restrictions are deemed to be implicit in the name or stated purpose of the society. Your third stab might add: oh, but no societies whose name or stated purpose contravenes the law of the land, i.e the Lady-Skinning Serial Killers' Book Group will have to go.

Example #3: Once upon a time there was a Pakistani cricketer called Yousuf Youhana. Now Yousuf Youhana was a stylish and attractive middle-order batsman with a healthy mid-40's average in Test cricket, but a bit of a reputation for being flaky and inconsistent when the going got tough, giving his wicket away at inadvisable moments, etc. He was also unusual in being a Christian in a team of almost exclusively Muslim players.

Towards the end of 2005 Yousuf Youhana publicly converted to Islam (although he had apparently privately embraced the change of religion some time previously) and adopted the new name Mohammad Yousuf. Almost immediately he started scoring runs like they were going out of fashion, specifically: pre-conversion, 4272 runs at 47.46 - highly impressive; post-conversion: 2130 runs at 92.61 - phenomenal. In the course of this he broke Viv Richards' 30-year old record for the most Test runs in a calendar year (1710, set way back in 1976) with 1788. Oh, and he grew a beard (see picture).

Now much has been made, not least by the man himself, of the role his new-found faith has had in all this, specifically that he has a single-mindedness and dedication that he didn't have before, as well as a new target to dedicate his achievements to (he prostrates himself towards Mecca on the pitch every time he scores a century).

So what is an atheist to make of all this? Clearly any rivalry or switching between religions is a discussion on the same level as "my imaginary friend's better than yours", but wouldn't it be a bit churlish to dismiss the new-found inner peace and serenity and all that sort of stuff? And from a cricketing perspective it's clearly had a startling effect; would I really be objecting if someone as mentally flaky as, say, Steve Harmison suddenly embraced the teachings of the prophet, grew an Abe Lincoln-style beard and started bowling somewhere in or near the neighbourhood of the stumps as opposed to firing the ball straight to second slip? Maybe not. But I think my happiness at that turn of events (motivated by my desire to see the England cricket team do well) shouldn't be confused with my desire for people to think straight. I think it was George Bernard Shaw who said: "The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one."

My personal view is that the religion thing is less relevant than people have suggested; it's just a case of a good batsman having a great year. And if one wanted to be churlish one could point out that not a single one of those 1788 runs was scored against the world's best Test team, Australia.

what a bunch of tw@s

I visited At Bristol a short while ago, and a highly worthwhile visit it is too; Hazel and I went along at 4pm or so just to fill some time as it was raining, and we ended up getting chucked out at 6pm without having quite got round all the exhibits. We were in the Explore section which strikes me as the most interesting, but each to their own, obviously. It's not cheap, mind you, at something like 9 quid a pop, but there's lots of interesting "hands-on" stuff for overgrown kids like me to amuse themselves with.

My only quibble, and it might seem trivial, is with the logo they've chosen for the whole operation - here it is on the right: seems innocuous enough doesn't it, but have a closer look. You see what they've done? And I say "they" as this is a classic example of something designed by a committee: obviously the original idea was to use the internet/e-mail "at" symbol, but then some sort of horrible fudgy compromise happened and we ended up with the nonsense we can see here. I can hardly bring myself to point out the fundamental absurdity of it, but it is - essentially - this: if the assumption is that the target audience knows what the swirly-tailed @ symbol represents, then the insertion of the extra "t" is superfluous, and more than likely just irritating, and if the assumption is that they don't, then why bother with attaching the swirly tail at all? Is it any wonder I get these terrible headaches?

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

things I learnt at Christmas

1) Be very careful with those toilet bleach/perfume blocks, the ones that you hang over the side of the pan so that they catch the flow from the flush when you pull it and wash some nice blue bleachy goodness down the pan. Should the flimsy plastic hinge-y hook attachments attaching it to the rim of the toilet bowl give way or become dislodged for any reason (seismic activity, sunspots, a misdirected jet of urine, that sort of thing) then all manner of drainage-related misery can ensue. And I know, because....I was there. Yes - December 24th, Christmas Eve, my sister Emma and her husband Ray's place in Reading, a seemingly innocent toilet with a toilet block seemingly securely attached. But, at some point during the evening, the block got flushed down the toilet. Not necessarily a problem at this stage, but unfortunately no-one noticed, and shortly afterwards some, erm, other solid matter got flushed down and, well, that was that (blockage represented by the red blob in the diagram on the left). The whole plumbing system backed up and there were me, my Dad and my brother-in-law Ray sticking coat-hangers up the U-bend, hosepipes up the sewer outflow, etc. etc., without much success. By this time the, erm, "organic matter" had been got rid of, so we were just resigning ourselves to a "no solids" Christmas and a pre-dinner trip to the pub on Christmas day to form an orderly queue for the facilities when Ray, who has shorter arms than Dad or me, managed to get his arm up the U-bend sufficiently to get the plastic blockage out, to rapturous applause and cries of "now wash your hands" from all.

2) If you are investigating a toilet blockage of this kind and you have to get the manhole cover off in the back garden to investigate the outflow channels, and it's dark, and you suddenly have the bright idea of fetching your camping head torch so you can see better, don't stride purposefully back across the yard and plummet screaming into the manhole, thereby not only nearly breaking your ankle, but also scraping off a yard or so of elbow skin on the garden fence.

Next week: how to get crumbs out of your toaster with a fork.