Tuesday, December 28, 2010

christmas spirit

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 20, 2010

non-hypnotic music to break up the catatonic state

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

Sunday, December 19, 2010

fast and bulbous

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

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

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

there's snow escape from my snowscapes

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

Friday, December 17, 2010

insert chilly/chilli joke here

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

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

Thursday, December 16, 2010

whatchoo talkin' 'bout, willis

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

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

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

the last book I read

The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

celebrity lookeylikey of the day

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

Monday, December 13, 2010

irony water

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

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

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

Monday, December 06, 2010

what a bunch of hunts

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

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

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

Thursday, December 02, 2010

hitch slap

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

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

letts go nutts

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

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

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