Thursday, May 31, 2007


The more observant among you will have noticed a few cosmetic changes of late: I've finally got round to sticking an image up in the banner area, and I've also finally got round to rejigging the links list. Have a browse around, it all comes with my personal recommendation, though obviously no liability for any injury or offence or extreme sexual arousal incurred while viewing the websites in question. One of which is of course the great and noble sport of cheese racing. Just to get you in the mood for what I feel confident will be a great summer of cheesy mayhem, here's a picture of a cat with a cheese slice on its head. Unfortunately the heat given off by the average domestic cat isn't sufficient to melt a cheese slice to the degree required. Try a barbecue instead.

the voices in my toaster told me to write this

I was reading The Independent on the bus on the way into work this morning, as you do, and I read this article with interest. It was in the "environment" section of the paper, but it's a science-y story. And I thought to myself, Ben Goldacre's going to have a field day with this. And I was, as usual, right. The article reproduces the original text pretty much in full, so skip that bit if you followed the first link.

There's been a lot about this whole "electrosmog" stuff and the symptoms it supposedly causes recently, not least on Panorama a couple of weeks ago, a programme which gets the Goldacre order of the boot here. As he says, the symptoms people describe are no doubt very real and very distressing, but them ascribing a cause to them proves nothing. Furthermore those studies which have been carried out in anything resembling a reputable and scientific way have shown no link between what's loosely termed "radiation" and people's symptoms.

However, if you do come over all peculiar walking past a mobile phone mast or a microwave oven, and you'd feel a bit ridiculous in a tinfoil hat held in place with a couple of crocodile clips, you could always try the Qlink pendant, for a very reasonable 70 quid; note the very decorative but entirely functionless pseudo-printed-circuit thingy on the front. Other snake-oil based products are available here.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

well, that just about wraps it up for God

I was thinking of writing a blog post on the subject of the death of Jerry Falwell, who represents a subject close to my heart (regular blog-watchers will groan as they recognise the scraping and grunting sounds of me hauling myself up onto a favourite hobby-horse), the rank fetid cheesy evil of corporate religion in the USA and its sinister tentacly insinuation of its interests into the political arena, despite, ironically, the USA being one of the few places where the separation of church and state is explicitly enshrined in the constitution.

Then I noticed that someone had done it for me, and bugger me if it wasn't my old mate Christopher Hitchens. A man whose views (on the Iraq war, to name but one topic) don't always coincide with mine, but who can always be counted on to entertain, if only to watch his awe-inspiring articulacy and intellect wrestle to the death with his unabashed penchant for heroic public drunkenness on a variety of talk shows. It's hard to believe those who invited him to comment on Jerry Falwell's death on CNN and Hannity & Colmes expected him to assume a respectful (and, as he points out, entirely hypocritical) speak-no-ill-of-the-dead tone, but if they did then they got disabused of that notion pronto, with both barrels. He's got a certain amount of previous with Sean Hannity, and if I'd been Hannity I'd have been slightly wary after being skewered pretty mercilessly first time round. And he wants to cancel Christmas! You've got to admire his massive clanking brass balls, if nothing else; to go on TV in the most overtly religious (not to mention heavily armed) country in the western world and say: this so-called Reverend you're all eulogising was a fat stupid evil bigoted charlatan and fraud and we're better off now he's wormfood, and if that sounds a bit insensitive to his surviving family and friends, well, fuck 'em, takes a certain amount of chutzpah, or possibly just a couple of carafes of Château Lafite Rothschild.

Well worth linking to this article as well, and reproducing this nugget from it:
Civil society means that free expression trumps the emotions of anyone to whom free expression might be inconvenient.
Amen to that, if you see what I mean.

albums of the day

Been away all weekend, so there was a mountain of washing up to do when I got back, enough for two albums in fact. So here they are. I have some ranting to do shortly, so I'll try and keep them brief and to the point.

A Ghost Is Born by Wilco.

Kenny Rogers and Glen Campbell I can take or leave; same goes for Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, really, but the stuff that gets loosely grouped as I really quite like - see my earlier posts on Gillian Welch and Ryan Adams. It's a tradition that goes back to the late 60's and early 70's and bands like The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers as well as more obvious candidates like The Eagles - though it was generally called country-rock back then.

Anyway, this is where Wilco (which is really just singer-songwriter-instrumentalist Jeff Tweedy plus a rotating cast of hired hands) started out with early albums like AM and Being There; by the time of A Ghost Is Born, though, they'd started to mutate, Incredible Hulk-like, into something rather different. The opening track At Least That's What You Said illustrates the transformation - it starts off as a whispery acoustic number, but halfway through some rude Neil Young-esque electric guitars batter the studio door down and drag the song through to its feedback-laden conclusion. Later tracks like Hell Is Chrome and Handshake Drugs perform a similar Jekyll-and-Hyde trick, while the standout track Spiders (Kidsmoke) comes from somewhere altogether different - a hypnotic 10-minute Kraftwerk-esque pulsing synthesizer groove punctuated periodically by a massive descending rock guitar riff, just to break things up. It's great. No, really.

Bubblegum by The Mark Lanegan Band.

After the austere dusty folky-bluesy tone of Field Songs (also the subject of an earlier post) this is a lot more robust, in an industrial rock sort of way (hence the newly-acquired "Band" in the title, presumably). Actually it's all a bit Tom Waits, particularly in the slower, starker numbers like the opener When Your Number Isn't Up; it's all gravelly vocals and strange clanking percussion, like someone beating a badger to death with a lightning conductor in a graveyard. Generally the slower numbers work best, ones like Wedding Dress, Bombed, Strange Religion and Morning Glory Wine. The faster ones like Methamphetamine Blues and Sideways In Reverse aren't quite so good (though the shouty collaboration with PJ Harvey on Hit The City is great), but really, One Hundred Days (which is a bit dreary) excepted there isn't a duff track on the album.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

the last book I read

We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver.

I have, in a very general sense, a bit of an aversion to doing what I'm told. In the literary arena this translates to a disinclination to read what Oprah's Book Club, Richard and Judy's Book Club, Mrs. O'Goebbels down the doctor's surgery, etc. tell me I should be reading, just because simply everyone's reading it, my dear. And another thing: book groups. I know a lot of people find them to be a useful spur to read regularly, as well as a handy social lubricant, but I can't imagine something I've less interest in than other people's opinions of a book. If I wanted to know what you thought of it, why would I bother reading it?

Anyway, the point is, this is, thanks to its slow-building word-of-mouth success and winning of the Orange Prize for fiction in 2005, a classic Book Group Book, which prejudices me, totally unreasonably, against reading it; basically the same impulse that prevented me reading Captain Corelli's Mandolin, though I stand by that decision unreservedly.

But, well, eventually it seemed intriguing enough for me to pick up; it being part of a 3 for 2 offer in Waterstone's and my receiving a £10 book token for my birthday were contributing factors as well. And, well, I have to say I was quite impressed.

Briefly (and I should point out that a few plot spoilers follow if you haven't read it, though it's a less plot-driven book than you might imagine), Eva Khatchadourian reflects on the life of her teenage son Kevin in a series of letters to her estranged husband Franklin; the reason for her reflection being that a few days before his sixteenth birthday Kevin killed seven of his fellow high-school students and two members of staff with a crossbow. Eva's visits to Kevin in prison punctuate the narrative flashbacks.

The crux of the plot is this: Eva never liked Kevin, and became convinced the feeling was mutual at the earliest possible stage when Kevin refused to latch on in the designated manner when she first attempted to breast-feed him. His father, Franklin, on the other hand, doted on him constantly. Eva became more and more convinced that Kevin's mediocre achievements at school despite his obvious high intelligence, the contrasting personalities he presented to her and his father, the petty humiliations he visited upon her (his refusal to accept potty-training until the age of six, his habit of masturbating within earshot, and indeed sight, of her in his teens) were evidence of an innately malignant and evil personality. Thus, in a way, the climactic massacre was pre-ordained at birth by Kevin's sociopathic personality.

The trouble is, of course, that Eva is the archetypal unreliable narrator, so we're invited to speculate how much to doubt her account of things, and therefore to consider the nature vs. nurture argument, i.e. is Kevin the way he is, and does the things he did, because of an innate evil, or did he start out as a blank slate and become poisoned by Eva's coldness and lack of love towards him? The narrative provides no firm answers.

There are a couple of late plot twists, the first of which shouldn't be a surprise to anyone who's been paying attention, the second offering just the hint of some possibility of redemption for both Eva and Kevin.

The continuing relevance of these considerations is emphasised by the fact of my reading this book a scant few weeks after the Virginia Tech massacre - there's much talk in the book of spree killers like Kevin having a bit of an internal copycat rivalry (Kevin scoffs at the amateurish antics of the Columbine killers, despite their trumping his overall death toll). Needless to say any analysis of the reasons for these regular murderous rampages has to touch on American gun laws (or the relative lack thereof), and sure enough they are insane. The question is, is criminalisation of gun possession (leave aside the undoubted fact that no US government would dare try it, despite the whole "right to bear arms" thing being based on a slightly squinty one-hand-over-the-eye reading of the Second Amendment anyway) likely to help? My view is, probably not: the cat's out of the bag now, and it's grown too big (not to mention heavily armed) to fit back in the bag. It's not just the guns anyway - Canada has a gun policy of broadly similar liberalism, but nothing like the gun-related death toll that the USA has. It's something to do with what Hunter S. Thompson called "that dark, venal, and incurably violent side of the American character"; he was talking specifically about Richard Nixon, but there's a sense in which it's relevant to the whole country, particularly under the current administration.

Comparisons with gun law in the UK are interesting to some extent, but there's a limit, and there are certain practical reasons for this: one of the joys of the outdoor life in Britain, even in the wildest bits (the Scottish Highlands, Dartmoor, etc.) is that however harsh the terrain, you're not at any point going to get devoured by carnivorous animals, unless the frankly implausible Exmoor Beast stories turn out to be unexpectedly true. In America, well, certain parts of it at least, this (bears, cougars, wolves, etc.) is a very real possibility, if not for you personally then for your livestock. In these circumstances owning a great big gun starts to seem like a more necessary and practical proposition. None of which makes it sensible for suburb-dwellers to be sleeping with a semi-automatic under their pillow, just that there's slightly less distance to travel from reasonable possession to unreasonable possession than there is in this country.

Maybe Chris Rock is right and the answer is to give out guns willy-nilly (as happens at the moment, pretty much), but just to make bullets really, really expensive.

Monday, May 21, 2007

the man who REALLY runs America's George Clooney

Interesting article in the Independent today about Donald Rumsfeld - it appears that the secret of longevity in the political arena in the US is just an unshakeable faith in your own rightness and a bull-headed refusal ever to admit to being wrong about anything. Along with the usual willingness to trample on people, betray your friends, sell your own grandmother, etc. Very interesting little sub-story about the changing dynamic of Rumsfeld's relationship with his former employee and current Vice-President and all-round cartoonish pantomime villain Dick Cheney, as well.

What's even more interesting is this photo from 1975, when Rumsfeld was White House Chief of Staff (Cheney succeeded him): Cheney on the left, Rumsfeld on the right.

There are a couple of interesting things to note about this: firstly, have a look at Cheney's eyes. That's the sort of look that lizards give to small unsuspecting insects shortly before shooting the big prehensile tongue out and gobbling them up. Secondly, hang on, that isn't Donald Rumsfeld at all - it's George Clooney in Good Night And Good Luck!

Sunday, May 20, 2007

iLike iTunes, iDo

I love my iPods. In fact I've got two. This sounds like I'm building up to some sort of crude sexual innuendo, but it is in fact true. And I love iTunes as well, as it means that, with the appropriate headphone-jack-to-phono-plugs adaptor gizmo, I can run the stereo in the lounge off the laptop, DJ stylee, and have access to my entire CD collection without having to leave the sofa.

It appears iTunes also flags up certain tunes as having explicit content, in the same way as some CD packaging does, thanks to the slightly sinister efforts of Tipper Gore and the PMRC back in the 1980s. I downloaded a song the other day that came flagged as having explicit content; the offending song was Little Star by Swedish weirdstress Stina Nordenstam. Now I used to have a copy of And She Closed Her Eyes, which I bought in about 1994/1995 on the strength of Mark Radcliffe playing Little Star repeatedly on his late-night Radio 1 show (I'd like to make it clear this was before it was used on the soundtrack to Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet, just to head off any accusations of bandwagon-hopping). Anyway, I lost the CD, but had the urge to hear the song again. Sorry, that wasn't a very interesting anecdote.

When I paid my 79p and downloaded it I noticed it had the EXPLICIT flag on it (see below).

Now this struck me as odd, especially as the lyrics don't appear to contain any naughty words. Just in case you're thinking it's the word "hell" towards the end that's to blame, that isn't actually part of the song, it's just a mystified inability to translate, or even transcribe, the Latin segment attempted (almost certainly wrongly) here. Now it could be that this section is actually an impassioned plea from the saucy Messalina to her husband Claudius to take her roughly up the Appian Way, as it were, while oiled eunuchs fan her with ostrich feathers and feed her olives, but it's more likely just a recipe for risotto or something. Maybe they felt simply being Swedish was a sure-fire sign of moral degeneracy.

Friday, May 18, 2007

flog erections, as they say in China

Much has been written, by, among others, me, about the French elections. Needless to say things didn't go quite as I'd hoped they would, as Nicolas Sarkozy defeated Ségolène Royal fairly comfortably in the second round run-off - though the age-group breakdown of how the votes were cast is interesting.

One thing which is, perhaps, a cause for optimism is Sarkozy's relative youth. France is a country which has been governed by old men for the last quarter of a century - Jacques Chirac, the outgoing president, is 74, while his predecessor François Mitterrand was 78 when he stepped down. In fact the last man to become president while younger than Sarkozy was Valéry Giscard d'Estaing who was 48 (Sarkozy is 52) when he was elected in 1974. Giscard d'Estaing is also interesting for having a name that sounds like someone twanging a woman's knicker elastic - the pull-back with the index finger on the "Giscaaaaaaard" and the release on the "D'EstAING"!

Sarkozy is clearly playing on his perceived youthful virility by being photographed going out jogging in the Bois De Boulogne with his new Prime Minister, François Fillon. Whose wife, interestingly, is from Llanover near Abergavenny, about 20 miles from where my parents live.

And speaking of spouses, one of the unspoken issues of the election has been the relationships between the two protagonists and their respective spouses. Sarkozy's story is the more juicy and interesting: his wife Cécilia having a very high-profile affair with another man a couple of years ago, a reconciliation, then another apparent split during the last stages of the election campaign, only for her to turn up at his shoulder for his acceptance speech the other day.

Now you might argue that this is all tittle-tattle and irrelevant to the serious issues affecting the presidential campaign, but it's interesting to note, as the article above does, that Sarkozy's language became notably more confrontational and intolerant during his wife's absences; the infamous remarks about clearing young criminals off the streets of the banlieues with a Kärcher pressure-washer were made during her absence. I'm not sure the personal and the political can be divorced (so to speak) that easily (as the stringent French privacy laws seem to assume); life is a bit more messy and inconvenient than that.

Ségolène Royal's home life is of interest as well, since her long-term partner (and father of her four children) is Socialist party chairman François Hollande. There were rumours of conflict after the election campaign was over, hardly surprisingly since Hollande himself could very well have put himself forward as a Socialist candidate, but decided to step aside in favour of his partner. The late-night chats over a mug of cocoa after the elction defeat must have been interesting.

the dog's bollocks

Balderdash & Piffle is back on tonight. As this article astutely observes, there's something just a little bit smug and annoying about it - in fact Richard Stilgoe even made a brief appearance in tonight's programme, which sort of proves the article's point. They are, however, quite right about Victoria Coren. They say vixen, I say minx. It's a fine line, though.

presto! bistro fiasco

There's a chain of bars stealthily taking over Bristol, building by building. They're called "The X Lounge" where X is a short word ending in "o". So far there's The Deco Lounge in Clifton, The Tinto Lounge in Horfield and The Porto Lounge in Fishponds. Arguably just a little bit poncy (and they don't sell proper beer, dammit), but all very nice inside; quite a nice place for, say, a hungover Sunday brunch or something like that.

Anyway, I'm sure they've got big plans for future expansion, so they'll be needing a few ideas for names for all these new establishments. So here's a few suggestions:

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Oh Lordy

First Test match of the 2007 cricket season starts today. No time for a full pre-match analysis, just to observe that the Lord's groundsman seems to be called Mick Hunt, which strikes me as a little bit unfortunate. Less so than if he'd chosen the diminutive form Mike instead of Mick, but still....especially if you say it with a bit of a Geoff Boycott-esque Yorkshire accent.

Still, at least it's not Hugh Janus, or Phil McAvity.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

eek! whine.....

Once again my strange trombone-like powers enable me to influence the course of human history by the power of my mind.

No sooner do I put up a post about exotic meat products, including horse and foie gras, than Gordon Ramsay's F-Word do a whole bit about Janet Street-Porter hanging around outside Cheltenham Racecourse barbecuing horsemeat and offering it to passers-by. High in protein, low in fat, chock full of omega-3 type stuff, tastes a bit like beef, what's not to like? Well.....apparently, eating horsemeat is really bad, or so the people at PETA would have you believe - at least I assume that was the point of yesterday's manure-dumping stunt. Eating cows, sheep, pigs, etc. is apparently OK, or at least OK enough for them not to make a fuss about, but start carving delicious lumps off old Dobbin and you've crossed the line, it would seem. Honestly. If these people ate a few more burgers, perhaps they'd be able to think straight. There is a certain woolly-headedness about the anti-foie-gras arguments, as well. Which isn't to say I'm convinced it isn't a bit cruel, just that I'm not convinced that giving geese liver disease before killing them is significantly more cruel than just killing them. They end up dead either way, after all.

I do think there are a few things we could be eating more of - how about squirrels, for a start? Not much meat on a grey squirrel, but there are plenty of them. I expect it's probably a bit like rabbit. Maybe it could be branded as "tree rabbit" to bring the punters round. And I seem to remember reading that there was a campaign afoot to start trapping muntjac deer, which are considered a pest in some parts of England, and selling the meat. I expect it's quite nice - I'd certainly give it a go. Garnished with some horse jerky and foie gras. And washed down with the blood of an animal rights activist. Oops. Have I gone too far?

Oh, and goats. We should eat more goats. Especially these goats. I mean, they'd be easy to catch, after all. I might give the Vibrating Bum-Faced Goats a miss, though.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

album of the day

Songs From Northern Britain by Teenage Fanclub.

Aaahhh, the Fannies. There's something very warm and cuddly and comforting about them that just brings a big warm goofy smile to the face. It's perhaps stetching a point a bit to compare them to the Beatles, but there is a sense in which they are similar - three main songwriters (Norman Blake, Raymond McGinley and Gerry Love) who each sing their own songs. And that's the key to their albums, really - if you get one where all three are on form, then you're in for a treat. To give an example, their most recent album, Man-Made, had some great Norman Blake songs, but Gerry Love's contributions were a bit uninspired. And it's Gerry Love who is the key to the whole band, really; most of the lead-off singles (Radio from Thirteen, Sparky's Dream from Grand Prix, Ain't That Enough here) were his. It was mixed a bit weird as well; the glorious three-part harmonies were buried in the mix for some reason.

Anyway - this one is a cracker, all three being on top form. The only Fannies album which is better is its immediate predecessor Grand Prix, but it's a close-run thing. You've got Norman Blake's strumalong numbers like Start Again, I Don't Want Control Of You and Winter, Raymond McGinley's slightly more twisted rock numbers like It's A Bad World, Planets and I Don't Care, and Gerry Love's Byrds-y janglers like Ain't That Enough, Take The Long Way Round (which sounds like the best and catchiest bits of about 7 or 8 other tunes all spliced together) and Mount Everest (which is very reminiscent of Gene Clark from Thirteen, as well as other slow-building guitar epics like Neil Young's Cortez The Killer).

It's a constant source of amazement to me that the band weren't hugely successful; in fact this album was pretty much the high-point of their career, commercially (it reached #3 in the UK charts) - it's even more galling that the unforgivably bland and weedy Travis, peddling a far greyer and less interesting version of the Teenage Fanclub sound, were, for a while at least, massively successful.

I remain hopeful that there's more to come from the boys from Belshill; certainly they remain a hugely entertaining live act. I'm pretty sure that Teenage Fanclub and R.E.M. are the only two bands I've ever paid money to go and see more than once (I'm excluding free-for-alls like Glastonbury here): R.E.M. at Wembley Arena in 1990 and at Cardiff Arms Park in 1994, and Teenage Fanclub at the Anson Rooms in Bristol in 1992 and again in 2001.

Monday, May 14, 2007

War Is Peace; Freedom is Slavery; Ignorance is Strength

I've just watched tonight's Panorama special about Scientology - now, it's fair to say that even before seeing this the very mention of the word was enough to bring me out in hives, but I have to say seeing this pushed me over the edge. It's one thing to read about their deeply sinister and repressive practices, another to see them in action. Much has been made of the video clip of reporter Jon Sweeney losing it pretty comprehensively with Scientology attack dog Tommy Davis, and to be fair it is pretty amusing; that said, anything short of punching the evil smug little shit's teeth through the back of his head qualifies as heroic restraint in my book.

The trouble with Scientology is that it's almost too easy to mock - founded by a hilariously mendacious charlatan and self-mythologiser who pretty much made up the central belief system as he went along, basing large chunks of it on his ropey science fiction output (the space-based DC-8s are the most hilarious bit, but it's all good), the paranoid secrecy and aggression shown to anyone attempting to investigate the organisation, the shameless preying on the weak and impressionable (I myself was given a Dianetics "questionnaire" by an attractive young lady in Bath a few years ago - if, having looked at it, I'd had any urge other than to wipe my arse on it, I might have been in danger of being suckered in), the rabid hatred of psychology and psychiatry - not perfect or infallible sciences by any means, but it's not hard to see Scientology's problem with them, what with their clear purpose being to clear the mind of obstructions to clear thinking; no shit, Sherlock, as they say.

Anyone who knows me will know that I have a similarly visceral aversion to pretty much any organised religion; I'm not sure this is quite the same, though. Which is not to say that the basic methods aren't the same: make unhappy and vulnerable people feel bad about themselves, claim to sympathise and that your ways, and your ways alone, can provide a key to a happier life. The difference, and it's arguably a pretty small one, is that I do (reluctantly) believe that the senior mullahs in the Islamic church, for instance, really do believe in the stated tenets of their religion. It is inconceivable to me that anyone admitted to the central "secrets" of Scientology can actually believe any of this shit, but it's my firm belief that this really isn't the point; the point is to provide the most flimsy of bases to claim "religion" status for the organisation, with all of the tax breaks and legal immunity that provides. It's gratifying that most European countries have, thus far, taken a commendably robust no-bullshit attitude to all this nonsense.

I have a hopelessly romantic and optimistic view of humanity; we really are the pinnacle of evolution (so far at least), with these great big brains of ours, but just occasionally they can lead us up blind alleys, or even more occasionally right up our own arses. Nonetheless I remain convinced that any repressive, controlling and secretive regime will eventually implode under its own pressure; you could say I adhere to Winston Smith's view rather than O'Brien's and the Party's - "a boot stamping on a human face - forever".

As a species we are better, more special and more unique than to get caught up in this evil, life-denying claptrap, and the sooner we come to that realisation the better off we'll all be. Well, apart from Tommy Davis, and Tom Cruise and John Travolta and various others, but you'll forgive me if I don't see them as part of our glorious rational future. In fact the sooner they get into their intergalactic DC8 and fuck right off, the better.

Hmmmmm. Well, I seem to have coughed up a bit of a bile-soaked furball over the last few paragraphs, but I feel better for it, and that's all that matters. Anyone wanting further Scientology information could do a lot worse than call in at Operation Clambake, or have a look at this (be prepared for some disturbing images, though), or a debunking article from 1968 - we really do never learn.

fact of the day

America. Big, isn't it? I mean, for the purposes of this little anecdote we're only considering the 48 contiguous states (i.e. excluding Alaska and Hawaii), but it's still on the biggish side. Put it this way, you wouldn't want to have to paint it, not in a weekend anyway, not all 7,881,925 square kilometres of it.

Slightly surprising, therefore, is the fact that the highest and lowest points in the contiguous states, the continental USA, Mainland USA, the Lower 48, whatever you prefer, are, respectively, Mount Whitney and Death Valley. The surprising bit is that they are a mere 76 miles apart. Interesting, eh? No doubt there's some sort of mileage to be made out of the mileage from Whitney to Houston, as well, but I don't think I can be bothered.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

I see dead things....

Latest round of photographic evidence of my deeply dull and futile life:
  • a few photos of the Easter weekend at my Mum & Dad's place - mainly just eating and drinking and burning stuff.
  • photos of a walk I did from Bradford-on-Avon to Bathampton a month or so ago. We'd arranged a poker night over at my friend and cheese racing colleague Andy's place in Bathampton, it was a nice sunny day, so I thought I'd make an afternoon of it. Got the train to Bradford-on-Avon (8 quid single - bargain) and then walked up the Kennet & Avon canal towpath to Bathampton, passing all manner of interesting canal architecture on the way, including the Avoncliff and Dundas aqueducts. Texas hold 'em, since you ask. I'd never played before, but it went OK. We were only playing for small stakes, and I only lost about a fiver, which wasn't too bad.
  • some photos of last weekend in Reading - Hazel and I went over to meet up with Doug & Anna and go to the Reading Real Ale festival. We managed to achieve all of our stated objectives, except, erm, going to the Reading Real Ale festival. We just went to the pub instead, which, in a very real sense, comes to the same thing, if you think about it. Apologies for the interminable series of me & Hazel pulling faces at the end; Doug went a bit snap-crazy in the pub.
  • some photos of Hannah & Mark's wedding in Bournemouth last weekend. In addition to getting an invite in our own right, Hazel was on wedding photographer duty for this one, so needless to say some far superior photos were taken, but these are mine, for what they're worth.
On a completely unconnected note, may I recommend the completely fascinating Weird Meat blog - partly for the wonderfully diverse range of bizarre dead stuff (and some that's not actually quite dead yet), and partly for the hilariously brainless ranting comments from the fluffy bunny brigade: OMFG WTF u ate a dog! u suck dude, etc. etc. As a pathetically unadventurous comparison I've eaten a few interesting dead things, mainly while I was in Africa, but also in France where they'll eat pretty much anything:
  • deep-fried caterpillars, which may or may not have been mopani worms, it was hard to tell. Not quite as disgusting as you might imagine, sort of nutty - at the same time I'm not going to be elbowing anyone in the face to get to another plate of them.
  • kudu - a large gazellesque creature
  • warthog - bit like wild boar, which is, in turn, a bit like pork
  • crocodile - nice. Flaky like fish, but more meaty. I'm going to cash in the "tastes like chicken" get-out-of-jail-free card at this point.
  • zebra - bit like horse
  • horse - bit like beef. I had it barbecued, and it was sort of steak-y.
  • foie gras - not the pâté, the real thing. Morally highly dubious, no doubt, but goodness me it's delicious. I had it in riverstation down by the docks here in Bristol a few years ago.
  • calves sweetbreads - I have no idea whether the ones I had were thymus glands or pancreas, but they were OK. Possibly just because they were sauced up with a load of Puy lentils and washed down with a gallon of wine in a dingy Parisian restaurant.
So there you go. I'm not counting the obvious things like rabbit, pigeon, goat, etc. - surely everyone eats those? I'll let you know how tomorrow night's dog soufflé goes.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

the last book I read

The Memoirs Of A Survivor by Doris Lessing.

Well, this is all very strange. We're in a large city which we are invited to assume is London, after some unspecified catastrophe and the gradual unravelling of civilised society (though some sort of governmental apparatus remains). An unnamed woman lives alone in an apartment in a larger complex of apartments. In quick succession a couple of strange things happen to her; firstly she discovers a strange netherworld which she can gain access to by walking "through" her kitchen wall, secondly she is entrusted with the care of a young girl, Emily, and her strange cat/dog hybrid pet companion, Hugo.

The never-named narrator's experiences behind the wall feature what seem to be scenes from Emily's early life, in addition to some scenes of a seemingly random nature. Things continue to deteriorate in the outside world, Emily acquires a boyfriend who leads a ramshackle gang of youths, things are further complicated by the arrival of a group of feral children who seem to be devoid of any sort of civilised moral instincts altogether (there are grim intimations of cannibalism and other horrors throughout) and Hugo becomes a sort of symbol of the struggle to remain civilised as the children plot to capture and eat him. Eventually the real world and the shadowy parallel world behind the wall come together in a surreal and, frankly, slightly baffling climax.

I've read a few Doris Lessing books before, and this one mirrors some themes developed in the others: a slightly paranoid sense of powerlessness, of circumstances being controlled by a shadowy group of "others" (dealt with much more explicitly in Shikasta and the rest of the Canopus in Argos series, and, in a more straightforward way, in The Good Terrorist), the richness of the inner world of the imagination, and the blurring of the boundaries between it and the "real" world (this is the theme of the powerfully weird Briefing For A Descent Into Hell - probably the best of the small subset of her work that I've read). Apparently a lot of her 1970's output was informed by Doris Lessing's involvement with Sufi Islam, this period includes all of the books mentioned above (with the exception of The Good Terrorist, which was written in 1985). (Strangely enough Richard Thompson who featured briefly in a recent post was also an adherent of Sufism.)

Doris Lessing apparently described The Memoirs Of A Survivor as "an attempt at autobiography". If that's the case then are we to assume that in addition to the "folding" of time that enables the narrator to see scenes from Emily's childhood, that perhaps some further "folding" of time is going on to enable the narrator to witness herself as a young woman - i.e. that the narrator and Emily are the same person? And what are we to make of the ending, with its exotic fantasy world of flourishing wildlife, giant iron eggs, and space and time seemingly collapsing in on itself? Search me, guv. But for a book of less than 200 pages it's a powerfully rich and strange experience, and I'm of the opinion that being baffled from time to time is good for the mind.

Monday, May 07, 2007

just a quickie...

...amusingly named estate agents.

I didn't know, until a few days ago, that the character Hotblack Desiato in Douglas Adams' Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy books (specifically, The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe) was named after a London estate agent.

Which is a pretty amusing name. It's not as good, however, as the one I saw when I was in Reading this weekend - if you live in the Reading area and you've got a house to sell, why not put it in the hands of the good people at Vanderpump and Wellbelove?

Friday, May 04, 2007

first will and netstatement

Should I be hideously slain in a bizarre blogging accident before I've got round to putting together an actual proper will, here's what I want my grief-stricken friends and family to do.

First, donate all my useful organs to medical science; I won't be needing them any more. Corneas, kidneys, heart, organs of Corti, islets of Langerhans, toes, earlobes, you can take it all.

Then take my flayed and ravaged corpse and torch, I mean cremate, it.

Then scrape all the ashes together, stick them through a crusher to get the big lumps out (crematoria really do do this already, you know), and put them in a bowl.

Then make them into pills. Now I'm in two minds about how to do this: my first thought was to use an old-fashioned pill-press to make them into aspirin-style tablets, but then I thought it might be easier to make them into capsules (as per the image on the left). Do this in such a way as to end up with a pill for everyone attending the memorial ceremony.

Then, at a suitable point during the ceremony, everyone pops the tablet in their mouth, lifts the ceremonial glass of water to their lips, and glugs me right down.

What better send-off into the afterlife than to be ingested (and subsequently excreted) by your friends and loved ones? Plus, charcoal is good for the digestion, so I'd be doing everyone a favour as I passed through their alimentary tracts in a mysterious way.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

album of the day

Solid Air by John Martyn.

This is regularly voted, somewhat euphemistically, one of the great "chill-out" albums of all time - what people mean by "great chill-out album", of course, is "great dope-smoking album", and I wouldn't necessarily argue with that. The eponymous opening track, in particular, with its gurgling bass and tinkling keyboard fills and Martyn's trademark slurred, velvety vocals is like sinking into a warm bath. Which is ironic, because it's actually a song of brotherly concern about Martyn's close friend and fellow folkie Nick Drake who (unless the conspiracy theorists are to be believed) took his own life the following year (1974).

Over The Hill and I Don't Want To Know are more orthodox jazzy folk numbers, while the bluesy I'd Rather Be The Devil showcases Martyn's innovative use of the primitive Echoplex echo/delay unit - yes, you could, if you wished to do so, blame John Martyn for the guitar intro to U2's Where The Streets Have No Name; that might be a bit harsh, though. Of the remaining tracks, Go Down Easy, May You Never and The Easy Blues are in the acoustic folkie mode, while Dreams By The Sea and the Man In The Station are in the harsher experimental jazz-folk-blues mode. They're all terrific, though, particularly if you're, hem hem, "chilling out" at the time.

This was the second album (1971's Bless The Weather being the first) in Martyn's purple patch which lasted from about 1971 to 1977 - the others being Inside Out (mind-bending experimental jazz-folk), Sunday's Child (a return to more orthodox orthodox folk songs) and One World (recorded in Jamaica; more pop and reggae-influenced). One World also includes Small Hours, a 9-minute dead slow jazzy improvisation recorded outdoors beside a lake with Canada geese taking off squawking in the background; sounds ghastly but in fact your life is an insubstantial and hollow sham and mockery until you hear it, preferably in a darkened room while, hem hem, etc., "chilling out".

There was a fascinating BBC4 series about musical mavericks and innovators a year or so ago, and one of the programmes was about John Martyn, featuring various clips from his 70's heyday and contemporary interviews as he was about to go into hospital to have his leg amputated below the knee. Fascinating in particular to contrast this programme with the one that immediately followed it about Richard Thompson - Martyn the drink-fuelled maverick and Thompson the ascetic Buddhist (and contributor of mandolin to Over The Hill here). The irony is that a lot of Martyn's output (though not Solid Air, which is actually pretty disciplined in its own way) provokes the wish that he'd apply a bit more discipline and structure to what he's doing, while a lot of Thompson's output (particularly recently) makes you wish he'd let his hair down and unleash the guitar a bit more. I guess you can't have it both ways.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Tihs for ew, oh satahw

Today's subject of interest: names of people or places that look and sound as if they've been written down backwards by accident.
  • Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan - surely that should be Nag O'Drepiy Yatpecer?
  • Remote atoll and US nuclear testing site Eniwetok - surely Kotewine? Maybe the blast knocked the name the wrong way round. Yes, that must be it.
  • BBC Creative Director Alan Yentob - Private Eye have been calling him "Botney" for years.
  • Peruvian vocalist Yma Sumac - there was a persistent rumour that she was actually an American called Amy Camus, apparently not true.
  • Legendary Czech athlete Emil Zatopek - but he was always Lime Kepotaz to his real friends.
Any more?