Thursday, September 27, 2007


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the last book I read

The Colour Of Blood by Brian Moore.

No, not that Brian Moore, this one. It's the Irish pronunciation, Bree-an, rather than the more usual Breye-an; Moore was born and raised in Belfast and retained the Gaelic pronunciation for the rest of his life, despite spending most of the latter half of it in Canada and California. This threw me a bit of a dummy when I started the book as I assumed, when it introduced the principal character, a Catholic cardinal, that it was set in Northern Ireland. However, it's actually set in an unnamed satellite state of the former Soviet Union - somewhere like Ukraine or Moldova, we're invited to assume.

Cardinal Stephen Bem is the head of the Catholic church in this unnamed state, and survives an assassination attempt in the first couple of pages. Thereafter he's constantly on the run from a number of shadowy enemies - the Soviet-run secret police, a shadowy revolutionary group hoping to foment a revolution and a group of maverick churchmen sympathetic to the revolutionary cause.

Read as a straight adventure story with plenty of exciting pursuits and double-crossing it's very satisfying; needless to say there's some subtext regarding the conflict of loyalties between church and state, and what influence the former can have over the latter, particularly under a regime where dissent, however politely expressed, usually lands you with a one-way trip to the salt mines.

Subtext or not, it all builds to an exciting climax, with a bit of a last-minute twist. The book was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1987, but lost out to Penelope Lively's Moon Tiger, to which, having read both, I say: fair enough, really.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

plane crazy

Like many people I'm a slightly nervous flyer. But, to be fair, I always manage to get on the plane, though I'm usually a bit happier about it if I've managed to get myself outside a couple of drinks first. But, I have to say, the sight of a plane like this one (it's a BAE-146) might disturb my fragile equilibrium, regardless of how many Bloody Marys I've put away.

Why, you ask? Well, look! It's got the wings on the top! Oh, look, I'll explain. You've got your plane, right. Which has big old jet engines attached. And those engines are attached to the wings. So in a very real sense it's the wings which are the bit doing the actual flying; everything else is just along for the ride, as it were. Including the bit you, the passenger, sit in (i.e. the fuselage). And how are the wings attached to the fuselage? I'll tell you. Glue. No, seriously. Glue. Pretty strong glue, granted, not just a couple of dabs with a Pritt-Stick, but still.

That being the case wouldn't you rather be perched on top of the wing area, rather than hanging off it? I mean, imagine the glue fails. In the "on top" scenario, you're balanced on top, i.e. still potentially OK unless you go into some sort of nose dive. In the "hanging off" scenario you're plummeting groundward, still clutching your non-anaphylactic packet of faux-peanuts. And it's not even like the wings can fly blithely on to execute a perfect landing at Gatwick, 'cos the wheels are attached to the fuselage. In fact they're probably poking out of some orifice freshly torn in your mangled corpse shortly after the whole thing pancaked into the ground.

I should point out I have been on a BAE-146, once, in New Zealand, flying from Queenstown via Christchurch to Auckland with the good people of Qantas New Zealand. And we didn't die, so that was nice.

Speaking of glue, how is it that we can muster the awe-inspiring technology required to put a man on the moon, but we can't manage to prevent Copydex smelling of fish?

I appear to be utter-bollocks-intolerant

I am not a doctor, as you know. But I'm pretty sure even I can spot a couple of problems with the so-called science in a couple of the articles in The Independent today. Which is a shame, as I like the Indy very much, but this is just a bit embarrassing.

Firstly, Jeremy Laurance's article about some studies done on acupuncture and back pain in Germany. Note the headline: "Acupuncture is best way to treat back pain, study finds". Then note the numbers in the body of the article - conventional treatment: 27% successful, acupuncture treatment: 47% successful. Convincing? Well, superficially. But then they give you another figure, almost as an aside, and it's this one: "sham" acupuncture treatment (i.e. whereby they just stick needles in you at random rather than in the mystical Qi channels dictated by acupuncture technique): 44% successful. Now (and I should point out at this point that I'm not a statistician either) that suggests a fairly obvious conclusion to me, but it isn't the one in the headline, it's something rather less newsworthy concerning the placebo effect. A very interesting phenomenon, and arguably under-explored, partly because it raises some sticky ethical issues, i.e. the use of placebo techniques by "conventional" medical practitioners involves knowingly lying to your patients, something a lot of people have problems with. But proof of the statement in the headline? Nope, sorry. A similarly nonsensical headline can be found here, though to be fair the article itself does a better job of getting a grip on the reality of the results (i.e. it at least mentions the word "placebo", which is a start).

Secondly, an article about food allergies and intolerances (the original link here doesn't seem to work at the moment, but the same article is available in the Irish Independent). An interesting subject, though one where the blizzard of anecdotal evidence often obscures the actual science. Unfortunately the Indy contributes to the obscuring of science by wheeling in Patrick Holford as an expert, a man with a certain amount of amusing previous in this area, including tangling repeatedly with Ben Goldacre and David Colquhoun, as well as inspiring a blog exclusively dedicated to monitoring his output. A blog with lots of actual good stuff on it, though I'm not convinced the regular lolcats images inserted in the text (funny though they are) project quite the required gravitas.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

gonna need drugs. lots of drugs

At my advanced age you need a quiet night in on a Saturday once in a while. You can't be out going to Chinawhites with Sienna Miller every weekend, after all, you need a bit of "you" time. So I invested some of this time starting on the backlog of DVDs I've bought over the last several months and years and never quite got round to watching.

I was in the mood for something mind-bending so I chose the recent Philip K Dick adaptation A Scanner Darkly, starring Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr. and Winona Ryder, among many illustrious others. Some of whom are less recognisable than they might be, owing to the interpolated rotoscoping technique director Richard Linklater has used (essentially the same technique used in Ralph Bakshi's Lord Of The Rings adaptation and A-ha's Take On Me video, among others). Since the whole film is about drug use and the fracturing of reality and personality that it causes, the technique is suited to the source material almost perfectly, particularly the "scramble suit" that all the undercover agents wear to conceal their identities. It would probably be even better watching it while completely off your tits on acid, but I had to make do with a bottle of Chenin Blanc.

What I should have been doing was watching some of the films I've borrowed off people over the years, never quite got round to watching, and never quite got round to giving back either. At the last count these are:
  • Richard III, which I borrowed off Phil probably about 5 years ago. For a while there was a bit of a Mexican stand-off going on as Phil had my copy of Gattaca for quite some time as well, but he's given it back now.
  • Finding Nemo, which I borrowed from Layla about 3 years ago, and I've never watched. In fact I'm not sure I even know where it is any more. Unless she's reading this, of course, in which case I've got it in my hand right now. The DVD, I mean.
  • Good Bye, Lenin!, which I borrowed from James a couple of years ago.
Let me say now, with hand on heart, that I will watch and return all of the above very soon. Really.

your daily video clip smorgasbord

Couple of amusing video clips for you: firstly Bill Maher has a pop at religion, as well as, among other things, Phil Spector's hairdo. And you can never see that photo of Cristie Kerr kissing that phallic golf trophy too often - just to prove it, here it is again.

Secondly, far more amusing than Kathy Griffin's mildly amusing outburst at the Emmys has been the hilariously po-faced reaction from such bastions of moral rectitude as Fox News.

I'll tell you what's far more amusing then some mild political satire and some low-level baiting of god-botherers, though: swearing, and lots of it. So strap yourselves in for Postman Pat: The Sweary Geordie Version.

No particular need to view the various numbered related clips (you should see them along the bottom of the embedded bit above once you've watched it) in any particular order, I don't think, but do watch them all, as they're highly amusing.

Lastly, a cricket clip for you - Yuvraj Singh hitting Stuart Broad for six sixes in an over at the Twenty20 World Cup in South Africa. By a strange coincidence Yuvraj was the bowler when Dimitri Mascarenhas hit five sixes in an over during the recent England-India one-day tournament. If you're wondering how to pronounce "Mascarenhas" then say it as "massacre anus" and have a little chuckle to yourself as you do it. Then try saying "beer can" without sounding like a Jamaican saying "bacon". Thanks to Mr. Angry for that one.

That's it! Off to watch Scotland get massacred (though hopefully not anally) by the All Blacks now.

Friday, September 21, 2007

World Cupdate

Just watched the France-Ireland match in Pool D - not a great game, but very exciting, and a comprehensive enough victory for the French in the end. Nice to actually get to watch a game, the last couple having been on ITV3 which my two-bit chickenshit digibox doesn't seem to be able to pick up at the moment. Here's a few random nuggets gleaned from the first fortnight's action:
  • Underrated player alert number 2 - Damien Traille of France. Seems to have been around for years, but his howitzer right boot gives the French a whole world of options at inside centre, not least because they are a bit flaky at outside-half, and I'm thinking of Freddie Michalak in particular here. Gavin Henson fulfils a very similar rôle for Wales, when he isn't either injured or out of favour with the selectors. Then again you can understand the whole Charlotte Church thing being a bit of a distraction.
  • Speaking of Michalak, he can be a nightmare at outside-half, but he does have his moments; the try that broke the Ireland game wide open was a moment of utter genius. I still think David Skrela might induce less heart attacks among the French supporters, and possibly be more effective overall, though.
  • Ireland have been strangely terrible so far, and I've no idea why. Nonetheless French supporters will be cheering them on against Argentina next week, since an Irish victory might just allow the French to win the group and thereby avoid the All Blacks in the quarter-finals.
  • The All Blacks are undoubtedly awesome. But I wonder how much of them having been the pre-tournament favourites before every World Cup so far is a result of them having the best playing strip colour? There's something ineffably cool about black, after all.
  • England were terrible against South Africa last week; the Springboks won at a canter without really having to get out of second gear. England are unforgivably stodgy and unimaginative behind the scrum at the moment. Josh Lewsey and Jason Robinson have been the only guys who have looked capable of breaking the line - Wilkinson and Barkley may help against Samoa, though neither of them are exactly Barry John, but if their passing isn't spot on the Samoans, and Brian Lima in particular, will rearrange some ribcages, and could even win.
  • Mike Phillips of Wales has been a revelation both as Dwayne Peel's understudy and when he got a chance to start a game against Japan this week. He reminds me very much of Terry Holmes - almost like an extra flanker, though hopefully not as chronically injury-prone as Holmes was.
  • Stephen Jones and James Hook still pose a selection problem for Gareth Jenkins. I reckon the best arrangement is probably Jones at outside-half, Hook at inside centre, Shanklin at outside centre.
  • My quarter-final predictions: Argentina v Scotland, France v New Zealand, South Africa v Wales, England v Australia.
  • Based on that, my semi-final predictions: Australia v New Zealand, Argentina v South Africa.
  • And my final prediction, as in the last post: New Zealand to beat South Africa.

it's ineggsplicable

Eggs. The fruit of the chicken tree. We all know them, and some of us love them - the ultimate fast food, go to work on an egg, all that drivel.

Some of us don't love them, though, but do acknowledge their usefulness for a wide and diverse variety of culinary applications, from making pastry to quiche filling to pasta carbonara, etc. etc. The trouble is, I don't (I am one of these oophobes, by the way) make pastry or quiche that often, so if I buy a packet of six eggs and use, say, a couple for some pastry, I'm then left with four eggs I don't need, and by the next time I have a need for eggs they'll have long since gone sulphurously off.

So what's needed, quite obviously, is a little jar of dehydrated egg product which I can reconstitute carefully calibrated amounts of as required. Obvious, really - so I'll just pop down the supermarket and pick one up then. Oh, hang on, there appears to be NO SUCH THING. Why is this? For the love of God, why?

It turns out that you can get powdered eggs, both whole and separated into white and yolk, but they only tend to come in catering-size packages. Which is all very well, but I don't really need 500kg of powdered egg yolk, let alone an entire road tanker of the stuff. A small tub like the one pictured above would solve all my oophagic worries at a stroke.
I wonder if there's a bit of a stigma attached to powdered egg in the UK following wartime rationing, though the Bird's powder in the link appears to be egg "substitute" which is a bit alarming. Probably made from cornflour and asbestos or something like that. Well, in fact it's probably made from whatever they substitute for eggs in Bird's Custard Powder, as this contains no actual eggs. I'd assumed this was a side-effect of wartime shortages, but apparently it dates all the way back to when Mr. Bird invented the stuff in the 1830s, and it's because Mrs. Bird was allergic to eggs. FACT. Another factoid for you - novelist Fay Weldon was head of the copywriting team who came up with the "go to work on an egg" slogan.

incidental music spot of the day

Not really incidental music as such, as it's the soundtrack to the new Sky advert, but it's a cracking tune so I'm going to mention it anyway: Joy To The World by Three Dog Night. And they're still touring!

It might be my imagination but there seemed to be a lot of bands around the turn of the 1970s with slightly cryptic three-word names (ones where the first word was "The" don't count, for obvious reasons) - Three Dog Night, Average White Band, Grand Funk Railroad (Homer Simpson's favourite band!), Creedence Clearwater Revival, Barclay James Harvest, Bachman Turner Overdrive..........but hey, enough of my yakkin' - whaddaya say - let's boogie!

Thursday, September 20, 2007

for you Tommy, the English-language blog maintenance is over

There's a mysterious German takeover of Blogger in progress, it seems. I noticed a couple of days ago that some of the instructions below the comments boxes had switched to German ("Sie können HTML-Tags verwenden"), now it seems that the post-publishing pages have been infected too ("Blog anzeigen (in einem neuen Fenster)"). Which does at least yield the useful informational nugget that the German for blog is "Blog", which might come in handy.

I was wondering it it was just me, but various others have noticed it too. The last of those links suggests it can be fixed with some tinkering with the language settings, but I don't think I can be bothered. As long as my blog posts are now processed with ruthless efficiency it's OK with me.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

it used to be all fields round here, you know

Anyone else find maps completely fascinating? Especially old maps, especially where things on the ground have changed significantly since the map was published? No? Just me? Well, screw you, it's my blog.

This is a postscript to my inconsequential ramblings about last weekend. In the upstairs corridor of the pub we stayed in there was a framed map of the local area from, I would guess, the 1930s or so. It took me a minute or two to realise why I didn't recognise the landscape, and then I realised it was because there was no lake. My puny photographic skills were inadequate to the task of photographing a glass-fronted picture from close range in dim light, but as luck would have it I had a professional photographer on hand to help out.

Wimbleball Lake was constructed in the late seventies; some pictures of the construction can be found here.

Here's a snapshot of the relevant area on the current 1:25000 OS Explorer map:

Here's the same area in an old UK road atlas I've got, which I would date approximately at the late 1950s (no motorways, and Dulverton has a railway station, so it's definitely pre-1960s):

Here's the same map, with the present location of the lake sketched (pretty roughly) in:

Here's the expertly snapped old map from the pub wall:

This one has some contours on it which almost suggest the outline of where the lake would eventually go. Here's the same map with a rough sketch of the present lake location, just in case it's not obvious:

the last book I read

Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan.

Papa? Nicole?

Yes, we're in France, where Raymond and his precocious teenage daughter Cécile live a life of carefree hedonism punctuated by holidays on the French Riviera where they loll languidly around drinking champagne and having decadent affairs. During one of these holidays an old friend of Cécile's (long-dead) mother comes to visit and strikes up an intense relationship with Raymond. Cécile, fearing the end of her carefree existence, conspires with her young lover Cyril to prise the couple apart, with tragic consequences.

It's one of those novels which starts by recollecting some mythical golden summer from years past, a sure sign that some sort of disaster is in the offing. Sagan was only eighteen when she wrote the book, but it doesn't read like a sixth-form essay, possibly because it's too short (a fraction over 100 pages) to outstay its welcome. I suppose your perceptions are coloured by what you read last, as well, and it's quite nice to follow a big thick meaty one with something short and refreshing (as the actress said to the bishop), like a refreshing glug of wine after a big meal, before moving on to the next course.

Interesting tangentially-Sagan-related factoids: the title Bonjour Tristesse is taken from a poem by the French poet Paul Éluard, whose wife Gala left him to become the wife and muse of the legendary Spanish surrealist nutter Salvador Dalí. Also, Sagan (whose real name was Françoise Quoirez) took her surname du plume from a character in Marcel Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu, which I will get round to reading some day, honest. I've been training by eating madeleines, so that's a start.

pirate merchandise

Having trouble achieving an authentically piratical tone in your e-mails on International Talk Like A Pirate Day? Try plugging one of these into your laptop.....

shiver me timbers

I hope you've remembered what day it is today. If so try taking the Pirate Personality Test (see below).

You are The Cap'n!

Some men and women are born great, some achieve greatness and some slit the throats of any scalawag who stands between them and unlimited power. You never met a man - or woman - you couldn't eviscerate. You are the definitive Man of Action, the CEO of the Seven Seas, Lee Iacocca in a blousy shirt and drawstring-fly pants. You’re mission-oriented, and if anyone gets in the way, that’s his problem, now isn’t? Your buckle was swashed long ago and you have never been so sure of anything as your ability to bend everyone to your will. You will call anyone out and cut off his head if he shows any sign of taking you on or backing down. If one of your lieutenants shows an overly developed sense of ambition he may find more suitable accommodations in Davy Jones' locker. That is, of course, IF you notice him. You tend to be self absorbed - a weakness that may keep you from seeing enemies where they are and imagining them where they are not.

What's Yer Inner Pirate?

brought to you by
The Official Talk Like A Pirate Web Site. Arrrrr!

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

incidental music spot of the day

Jeff Buckley's Grace, the title track from his only "proper" studio album before he carelessly got himself drowned in the Mississippi in 1997, on Nicholas Crane's entertaining Great British Journeys series on BBC2. Fine album though it is, it's the astonishing cover of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah that seals the album's legendary status - well, that and him being dead, anyway. If you haven't heard it, sort it out, pronto.

the last book I read

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen.

I haven't read a real big doorstop of a novel for a while - Riven Rock was probably the last one that might qualify, but this is bigger (650+ pages). For all its thumping weight I zipped through it pretty quickly, though.

Enid and Alfred Lambert live in the fictional midwestern town of St. Jude; Albert is increasingly in the grip of Parkinson's disease and dementia, Enid is in denial about the whole thing, an increasingly difficult position to maintain in the face of Alfred's increasingly slender grip on reality, not to mention more mundane things like being able to make it to the toilet in time.

Meanwhile their three children have some problems of their own: investment banker Gary is an uptight control freak increasingly in the grip of depression and paranoid about his wife and children ganging up on him behind his back, chef Denise is simultaneously sleeping with her boss and his wife, and feckless Chip has been sacked from his cushy academic post, dumped by his girlfriend and is now doing PR for a shady character in Lithuania. Meanwhile Enid harbours somewhat unrealistic fantasies about getting the whole family together for one last big Christmas celebration in St. Jude.

It's one of those novels that starts off by sketching some brief details about the present, firing off into the past to fill in everyone's back-story, linking them all together as it goes, and then emerging back into "now" to tie up all the threads at the end. This can result in a bit of reader frustration as you wait to get the discursive bits out of the way and get on with what you feel, instinctively, is the "real" story. I had some problems in this area with, to name but two, John Irving's A Prayer For Owen Meany and Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex, highly entertaining books both, but in both cases by the time the back-story was out of the way there was only a handful of pages to tidy up before the book ended. Clearly this is a problem with my expectations, and them not being met by the books' structure, but there it is. The Corrections just about avoids this by emerging into the present in the nick of time to make you care about the stuff that, by the book's internal timeline, hasn't "happened yet", if you follow me.

Apparently this is grouped, by some at least, into a genre called "hysterical realism", along with a few other authors I'm familiar with; I can see the sense of the grouping to some extent, though I think the comparison with Thomas Pynchon is stretching it a bit. Franzen is actually interested in people in a way that Pynchon isn't, for a start, though I should point out that this opinion is derived from reading Vineland only and not any of Pynchon's other stuff.

Anyway, I digress. It's very good, and it'll take less time and effort to read than you might think. Give it a go. If you want a bit more analysis straight from the horses mouth, as it were, try this interview.

Monday, September 17, 2007

album of the day

Liege And Lief by Fairport Convention.

I don't care what you say, there's a shockingly limited range of subjects which are made the subject of songs in the pop/rock idiom these days. Yes, love, sex, bitches, being a playa, popping a cap in some brutha's ass, all that stuff, and that's all well and good, but what about:
  • getting press-ganged into the army, deserting multiple times, eventually getting shopped by your sweetheart, court-martialled and sentenced to death, only to be reprieved at the gallows by Prince Albert who just happened to be passing (The Deserter)
  • getting picked up by the local Lady Muck outside the local church and spirited back to the baronial castle for a bit of hide-the-mediaeval-saveloy, and proving yourself every bit the equal and then some of Lord Muck in every department, if you know what I mean, and I think you do, only to be confronted by the man himself, armed to the teeth and not best pleased, and messily slaughtered (Matty Groves)
  • wandering round amiably enough minding your own business only to be confronted by a bothersome raven handing out vague prognostications of doom (it's a talking raven, by the way) which you kill in a bit of a tantrum only to find that it was a shape-shifting version of your lady friend, who is now dead - ha! that'll teach you (Crazy Man Michael)
  • or being spookily impregnated in some unspecified way by some elfin type lurking in a castle whom you then rescue from being dispatched to hell by the evil faerie queen (Tam Lin)
On a more serious note (and I touched on this a while back as well) British folk music has a bit of an image problem, but at its best it's a uniquely spooky genre, for the obvious reason that a lot of the songs still being performed were written hundreds of years ago, when one's day-to-day concerns really were more in the realm of being raped and disembowelled by rampaging Scots, Vikings, etc., or at the very least starving to death or drowning in the village pond, rather than more superficial concerns like what colour lip-gloss to wear or which particular group of Premiership footballers to get spit-roasted by. Most of the songs here are electrified versions of traditional tunes; Tam Lin in particular is based on a Celtic folk tale of some considerable vintage, and also happens to be a rollicking electric folk epic driven by the late Sandy Denny's vocals and some aggressively choppy guitar work from the great and far-from-late Richard Thompson, who, astonishingly, was only 20 at the time.

If you're only going to have one Fairport album, make it this one. The only others you might need are its immediate predecessor Unhalfbricking for songs like Genesis Hall, A Sailor's Life and the Bob Dylan cover Percy's Song, and its immediate successor Full House (after Sandy Denny's departure), solely for the 9-minute Richard Thompson/Dave Swarbrick electric guitar/electric violin duel of Sloth, which I urge you not to die without hearing, lest your life be revealed, in the final reckoning, to have been a hollow sham of a mockery of a travesty. Don't say I didn't warn you.

just in case..... skip past the Blogger "welcome" page when on your way to post something, as I often do, and miss it, this is really quite addictive - a (supposedly anyway) live feed of pictures being uploaded to blogs. Click on a picture to be taken to the blog it relates to, or click on "show info" to see a brief synopsis - you'll need to read quickly though. Adjust the scrolling speed with the slider at the bottom, it's all fairly self-explanatory.

an apology, and some blokes with guns

I knew the title of the new Russell Crowe/Christian Bale Western 3:10 to Yuma rang a bell, so when it came up in conversation the other day I confidently asserted that it was a remake of an earlier film, though I couldn't remember who was in it.

I now accept that while I was technically correct and there was an earlier film version, the reason I'd heard the title before was that the source material for the film is a short story by Elmore Leonard, written way back in the 1950s when he was mainly turning out stuff in the Western genre, before switching to what he's most famous for, i.e. brilliantly sly and twisted crime thrillers. I plugged Leonard during a brief discussion in the comments for the Carl Hiaasen book I read a while back, but it bears repeating in a proper blog post, I think. Read Glitz, Bandits, Freaky Deaky, Killshot or Maximum Bob; better still, all of them.

The royalties will be rolling in at the moment (not that I expect he needs them) as apparently there is a film of what I think is his best book, Killshot, in production at the moment, and one of the similarly excellent Freaky Deaky as well.

Leonard books are popular source material for films for fairly obvious reasons, not least that he writes dialogue so brilliantly that you can just dump great paragraphs of it into the script verbatim - recent ones have included Barry Sonnenfeld's Get Shorty - not one of the best books, and a film you'll only like if you don't find John Travolta unbearably smug and irritating - Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown (based on the book Rum Punch) and Steven Soderbergh's Out Of Sight, which is probably the best Leonard adaptation of all, and features a brilliant central performance from Jennifer Lopez which makes some of her subsequent career moves (music, films, marriages) all the more mystifying. And she never returns my calls, the moody bitch.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

weekend fun

Just got back from a brief trip away to Exmoor with Hazel - Saturday lunchtime to Sunday lunchtime; less of a mini-break, more of a micro-break, really. Nice though - we stayed at the George Inn in Brompton Regis (here), stopped on the way there for lunch at the Bridge Inn in Dulverton (here - very nice pies), went for a pleasant late-afternoon walk around Wimbleball Lake and then went back to the George to sample some local beer (Dunkery Ale, which was new to me, as well as Exmoor Ale which I'd tried before).

Today we made our leisurely way back to Bristol via the coast road and Minehead, where we stopped for a quick look around. After a thrilling seafront game of crazy golf, we stopped off at the railway station (the terminus of the West Somerset Steam Railway) as there seemed to be some sort of commotion - turns out it was the 2007 Somerset CAMRA Real Ale Festival, no less. Featuring the splendidly named Tone Valley Jazz Band, as well as (more importantly) a huge range of beer, principally various excellent ones from the Cotleigh Brewery (based just down the road in Wiveliscombe). I should point out I didn't indulge myself in any of their excellent product (though I did pick up a souvenir glass - see picture on the right), but I know it well as they were heavily featured at the Buckland Dinham Real Ale Festival last year.

I took a few photographs, nothing very thrilling I'm afraid, but feel free to have a look.

Friday, September 14, 2007

I see dead people

A few significant names in the obituary columns recently, most notably Andy Roddick's mum Anita, and opera singer and part-time 40-ton pasta silo Luciano Pavarotti.

A couple you might have missed are:

Joe Zawinul, legendary Austrian jazz keyboardist, composer, collaborator with just about anyone who was anyone in the world of jazz over the past 40 years, and founding member of seminal jazz-rock outfit Weather Report, whose 1977 album Heavy Weather I played to death back when I was a student.

Michael Jackson. No, not that one, the man with what seems to me like the second-best job in the world (and if Scarlett Johansson's gynaecologist ever appears in the obituary columns I'll be sure and link to it here), sampling and writing about beer (and more recently whisky) for a living. The great service he did for beer enthusiasts and the brewing industry worldwide is to point out that brewing beer is a craft as complex and worthy of study as, say, winemaking, and the end product just as diverse, complex and interesting as the end product of the winemaking process (that would be wine, just in case you're not keeping up), and that it's only unwarranted snobbery that views beer as somehow inherently more proletarian.

Of course it's a fine line between the very good and important work that Michael Jackson did and the arran-sweatered, half-pint-mug-with-a-handle, Cornish-pasty-crumbs-in-the-straggly-beard, two-pints-of-your-finest-ale-stout-yeoman morris-dancing enthusiasts that give real ale drinkers a bad name, as witheringly accurately satirised in Viz's occasional The Real Ale Twats strip, more of which can be seen here and here. The fact that Jackson was a rotund chap with some slightly startling facial hair didn't help either. Another obituary by fellow beer writer Roger Protz can be found here, including the following Jackson quote which will do nicely as an epitaph:

No one goes into a restaurant and requests 'a plate of food, please'. People do not simply ask for 'a glass of wine', without specifying, at the very least, whether they fancy red or white, dry or sweet, perhaps sparkling or still ... when their mood switches from the grape to the grain, these same discerning folk often ask simply for 'a beer', or perhaps name a brand, without thinking of its suitability for the mood or the moment ... beer is by far the more extensively consumed, but less adequately honoured. In a small way, I want to help put right that injustice.

Thursday, September 13, 2007


Just so you've got plenty of time to rustle up an eye-patch from a piece of black card and some old knicker elastic, glue a stuffed parrot to the shoulder of your overcoat and practise brandishing a gold telescope and saying "yarr-HAAARRRRRR" a lot, this is advance warning of International Talk Like A Pirate Day, next Wednesday (September 19th). More info here, as well as here for UK residents.

It's a pretty self-explanatory festival, really, just involving, well, talking like a pirate. Hints can be found on the websites above, but broadly speaking think Robert Newton as Long John Silver in the classic film of Treasure Island, or possibly Tom Baker (pictured right) as Captain Redbeard Rum in Blackadder II, but definitely not Johnny Depp in the Pirates Of The Caribbean films (save that for International Talk Like Keith Richards Day, as soon as someone invents it).

So, if you work in a call centre, say, try amending your usual anodyne phone greeting to something like: "Yarrrr! This be Brian of the good ship Acme Insurance. How can I be helpin' ye this fine seafarin' day? A free tot o' rum wi' every policy, yarrr. You don't get that with the scurvy dogs at Direct Line."

There's a Bristol connection, for those that don't know, which is that the Admiral Benbow pub at the start of Treasure Island is generally accepted to have been based on the real-life Llandoger Trow down by the Floating Harbour, a pub which is very much still open today, though missing a couple of end gables after these were blown off by the Luftwaffe, the filthy swines. It's all been tidied up and made good now, though.

Plenty of piratical events are planned, both on the high seas (well, maybe) and for the more landlubberly inclined. Personally I'll be splicing the mainbrace, sinking a noggin of rum with a comely serving wench, and trying not to get keel-hauled (those barnacles really smart). Yarrr!

Sunday, September 09, 2007


Did a bit of sightseeing as planned: the Rocks Railway is, to be honest, a bit underwhelming as you can't see down the tracks to the bottom station because there's a World War 2 blast wall in the way (the tunnels were used as an air-raid shelter), but nonetheless interesting, while the caves are much more extensive than I'd imagined, and really quite impressive. Photos of varying quality (as I was aiming the camera in the dark most of the time) can be found here.

World Cup thoughts

In case you hadn't noticed, the 2007 Rugby World Cup kicked off on Friday. And with a bit of a bang as well, with Argentina turning over the hosts France 17-12, and deservedly so. Here's a few observations and some no doubt wildly inaccurate predictions.....


Comfortable enough in the end against Canada today, but they were far from great overall. The new slate-grey change strip is far from great as well. Gareth Jenkins will have a few selection headaches before the crucial game against the Wallabies, not least: does he try and start with both James Hook and Stephen Jones? If so, which way round? I'd be tempted to start with Hook at outside-half and Jones at inside centre, with Tom Shanklin (Wales' best player from what I saw today) outside them. They can always mix it up and swap positions occasionally. If we (as reason dictates we probably will) come second in Pool B then we'll play the winners of Pool A, which I'll stick my neck out and say will be South Africa, in the quarters. And then catch a flight home shortly afterwards.

New Zealand

Surely, surely, this will be New Zealand's year? There are only two ways I can see them tripping up - one is unexpectedly meeting France in the quarter-finals and France producing another absolutely miraculous performance like they did in the semi-final in 1999, the other more likely one is either Australia or South Africa producing an epic defensive performance and strangling the life out of them, like the Australians did in the semi-final in 2003 and the Springboks did in the final in 1995. I'm not putting any money on it, though.

The Rest

The bookies have South Africa as second favourites. I disagree. The Australians look like a better side than they were in 2003, and they've got a few players coming towards the end of their careers who are going to want to go out with a bang, including possibly the most under-rated player in world rugby, Stephen Larkham. The other thing about the Aussies (and indeed Aussie sportspeople in general) is there's absolutely no chance of them bottling it under pressure. They know how to win, by whatever means necessary. Do the All Blacks? The answer to that question will probably dictate who wins the tournament.

None of which means to say the South Africans are a bad side. They don't have the sustained excellence of the Wallaby back division, for instance, and their half-backs are not the greatest (though I wouldn't want to tell that to Butch James in a dark alley) , but on the other hand they do have Bryan Habana on the wing. As for the French, now is as good a time as any to trot out the "depends which France turns up", "can beat anyone on their day" clichés, but I suspect they're not quite good enough, and nor are England. Ireland may well be good enough, but historically they tend to flatter to deceive in this kind of big tournament. And Brian O'Driscoll will be the most-targeted player in the tournament, with the possible exception of Dan Carter. O'Driscoll also shares with Jonny Wilkinson an almost masochistic relish for diving face-first into rucks and throwing himself into tackles on 19-stone second-row forwards, which is highly commendable, but not always in the best interests of himself or his team.

My overall prediction? Fiji to pip Namibia 7-6 in the final.

No, only joking. New Zealand to beat South Africa in the final.

While you're waiting to see if I'm right, here are a couple of rugby-related lookey-likeys of the day: firstly the man who lifted the World Cup in 1995, Francois Pienaar, and macrobiotic tantric sex god Sting.

Secondly: Scotland coach Frank Hadden and Top Gear slightly-less-annoying-then-the-other-two-twats bloke James May. Stay with me on this one: you've got to ignore the hair, and focus on the smirk and the slightly jowly chops. No? Please yourselves.

new boots!

Meant to post this before going to Yorkshire, but forgot. Here it is anyway: a solemn moment - the passing of my faithful old Berghaus boots, purchased from Blacks in Bristol about 15 years ago and with many many miles on the clock. I think the double whammy of the Three Peaks Challenge last July and then the ill-fated Dartmoor trip in January finished them off. So I had to get myself a new pair - I chose a pair of fully Gore-Tex lined Salomon boots from the Kathmandu shop at the top of Park Street. And I got a free pair of socks! I wore them (boots and socks) for a couple of walks up in Yorkshire, and they're very comfortable. Just in case you can't work it out: old ones on the left, new ones on the right.

Bourne yesterday

Went to the Showcase cinema in Bristol yesterday to see The Bourne Ultimatum. And you know what? It's pretty good. Aerial Telly makes a couple of good points, in particular that for a so-called suspense thriler it's remarkably free of suspense - Bourne loses his memory in the first film, discovers in the same film that he's a former CIA assassin, and, erm, well, that's about it for suspense. The main suspense in the third film is, having discovered that he was, pre-amnesia, knobbing the Julia Stiles character (and why not?), whether Bourne will do it again before the end of the movie.

To its credit the film doesn't adhere to the standard secret agent thriller cliché in this department; to be fair it also delivers handsomely on the other half of the suspense thriller deal, i.e. the thrills. Shooting, fighting, car chases, CIA skullduggery (including a nicely weaselly turn from David Strathairn as the head of a covert CIA operation - yes, another one), bombs, murdering people with a towel in a shower cubicle, the works. It's also just slightly subversive in a sly sort of way; the general theme of unaccountable secret government agencies practising kidnap, assassination and torture outside the reach of the law, and this being something to be resisted rather than celebrated à la 24 or Bond, could be seen as a dig by British director Paul Greengrass at the USA of extraordinary rendition, Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. Or maybe not. Note also how shockingly Scott Glenn has aged since Silence Of The Lambs - I know it was 16 years ago, but still.

Friday, September 07, 2007

missed one!

....and it's one which ties the previous two posts together quite neatly: Secret Underground Bristol tells the story of lots of fascinating things which are buried under the streets of Bristol, including the two I mentioned in the previous post, as well as things like the River Frome which runs unseen under the centre of the city, and Pen Park Hole, a massive (60 metres deep) underground cavern situated roughly here. No chance of that one being opened up to the public unfortunately, as you'd be not so much "wandering round" as "plummeting to your death".

book 'em, Danno

Book-related (sometimes slightly tangentially) news that caught my eye this week:
  • The Klaxons winning the Mercury Prize. Personally I'd have given it to Amy Winehouse, but maybe the prizegiving committee felt that that would only have encouraged her to spend the proceeds on brandy and smack. Pies might have been a better idea - Aerial Telly agrees. The book connection is that their album (Myths Of The Near Future) and debut single (Gravity's Rainbow) are named after books - a short-story collection by JG Ballard and Thomas Pynchon's legendarily unreadable 1973 magnum opus respectively.
  • An interesting article about Ian McEwan in The Independent earlier in the week. I sympathise with objection 5 to some extent - fine though Atonement (now a film) and Saturday were (I haven't read the Booker-shortlisted On Chesil Beach yet - waiting for the paperback), I much prefer the slightly edgier early stuff like The Cement Garden and The Comfort Of Strangers, and I think his best books are the middle period running from The Child In Time in 1987 through Black Dogs up to Enduring Love ten years later.
  • Dawkins reviews the Hitch in The Times Literary Supplement. Apart from a few very minor caveats, guess what - he likes it.
  • Michael Shermer's Why People Believe Weird Things micro-reviewed in today's Independent. I think the evolution and persistence of irrational beliefs and what it reveals about the human brain's pattern-recognition capabilities, and the trade-off between the extraordinary cognitive leaps resulting in the invention of the wheel, the internal combustion engine and the Coco Pop and the brain's occasional tendency to eat itself, is an extremely interesting subject, certainly more so than debunking the beliefs themselves, which is a task approximately equal in difficulty to harpooning a walrus in a bathtub.

zowie Cavie

If you happen to be in Bristol this weekend you might be interested to hear that it's Bristol Doors Open Day tomorrow, when lots of places which are ordinarily inaccessible to Joe Q Public like you and me open their doors so us nosy parkers can have a good old snoop around. Too many places for anyone to visit all of between the hours of 10am and 4pm - barring of course Father Christmas, who can do every house in the world in a single night, and of course God, who is omnipresent, so in a very real sense he's visiting all of them right now - so you'll need to pick some sites of interest to you. I quite fancy having a look around Redcliffe Caves (pictured left) and the remains of the old Clifton Rocks Railway. See you there!

Monday, September 03, 2007

last one for a while, honest

I know that's too many in a row now, but John Humphrys in The Times is having a pop now as well. In a slightly less boneheaded manner, to be fair, but there is a sense in which the wishy-washy agnostics are more annoying than the raving evangelicals. And he does trot out many of the same nonsense arguments as Yazz, though he doesn't go so far as to assert (as she does, and I missed this one from the list in the previous post) that Richard Dawkins thinks raising a child as religious is worse than paedophilia. Do I need to point out that he says no such thing? I hope not. Anyway, the Pharyngula commenters have some fun with the Humphrys article here. And, just for a laugh, some George W Bush quotes on the subject of religion can be found here. Number 1 sets the tone:
I am driven with a mission from God. God would tell me, 'George go and fight these terrorists in Afghanistan'. And I did. And then God would tell me 'George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq'. And I did.

Are we frightened yet?

this really is absolutely tremendous

You know, I think Yasmin Alibhai-Brown has done what I was reasonably confident couldn't be done, and written an even more blitheringly vacuous and incoherent piece on atheism than the Dominic Lawson one I referenced in a previous post. And this article is quite a bit shorter than the Lawson one, so she's really had to get some high-octane claptrap in there. A few highlights:
  • love! you know, and the beauty of the sunset, the smile of a child, the smell of fresh-cut grass on a summer evening, yadda yadda yadda (much rambling deleted here), ergo, God.
  • atheists are fundamentalists too! Apparently.
  • Hitler was an atheist!
  • look at the churches! Aren't they lovely?
All this stuff has been vigorously and thoroughly debated many times over, so clearly Yazz hasn't been keeping up. Points 1 and 4 aren't worth responding to, but, for the record, point 2, despite being patently ludicrous, crops up often enough in the blogosphere to have a law (Blake's Law) named after it. If you followed that last link you'll see point 3 falls into the same category, though Godwin's Law is generally deemed to apply to any online argument, not necessarily one about religion. The Hitler/atheism link, just as a footnote, quite apart from proving nothing if it were true (As I pointed out in a much earlier post, he was a vegetarian too, so....what? Oh yeah, nothing), isn't. Actually the Wikipedia article entitled (amusingly) Reductio ad Hitlerum nails this particular fallacy more specifically.

a purple-headed mountain COVERED in chrism

I went to a christening on Sunday (though not the full-body version pictured here) - not only the third time I'd had to wear a suit in three weeks (I don't have to for work any more), but also the third time I'd had to go to church in three weeks (the other two were weddings). This does prompt a certain amount of conflict between my sincerely held (I trust that's obvious) views on religion, and more complex social instincts like pragmatism and the desire not to cause offence and to be, well, nice.

I might come back to that in a later post. This post is just to poke fun at two things which made me snigger to myself at the time: firstly that we sang All Things Bright And Beautiful, and that line about "the purple-headed mountain" always cracks me up, and seconly that the vicar did a bit of anointing with oil before the full dousing with water bit, and I happen to know that the oil in question (which is, incidentally, holy, thanks to some elderly bloke in a dress waving his hands over it) is called "chrism", which always provokes a bit of a Beavis and Butt-head style fit of chuckling. So, to recap: a man in a dress smearing chrism over small infants. Won't someone think of the children?