Tuesday, July 30, 2013


A quick word on the demise of JJ Cale, who died aged 74 at the weekend. He's one of those guys people know more through his songs being covered by others, so here's a few you might remember:
  • Eric Clapton's covers of both After Midnight and Cocaine, in both cases fairly close approximations of the originals with some of the subtlety sucked out
  • Lynyrd Skynyrd's rocked-up version of Call Me The Breeze
  • Spiritualized's trancetastic Run, which is basically a sneakily renamed cover of Call Me The Breeze
  • Santana's somewhat more histrionic version of Sensitive Kind
  • basically the entire career of Dire Straits, though I don't know that they ever specifically covered a Cale song
Cale's own versions of his stuff are the ones to go for, though, as they've got a shuffly laid-back charm that sounds easy but evaporates when anyone else tries to reproduce it. If one were in the mood for strained metaphors one might say that JJ Cale is the Anne Tyler of swampy country-flavoured rock music: simple on the surface but with more going on the closer you look. Like Tyler there is a certain uniformity to it all, so you probably don't need the whole oeuvre unless you're particularly fanatical, not that Cale (who was by his own admission not a big fan of hard work anyway) put out albums all that frequently, or not after his 1970s heyday anyway. If you look at the list you'll see the aversion to effort extends to album titles as well: while he managed to rouse himself to picking a single-word title for six of his first eight albums (arguably seven of nine depending how you interpret the hyphen in his ninth album Travel-Log), his fifth, eighth and tenth albums are called 5, #8 and Number 10 respectively.

I own the two late-70s albums Troubadour (aka the one with Cocaine on it) and 5 (aka the one with Sensitive Kind on it); if you have his first album Naturally (aka the one with Call Me The Breeze on it) as well, that would probably do you.

Here's a few for you: a late-70s performances of After Midnight, Boilin' Pot and Cocaine, and an acoustic rendition of Travelin' Light from the mid-90s.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

royal spoil

Last one for the moment, I promise: one of the other things I've experienced in the course of general Facebook discourse illustrates quite neatly the way in which reflexive reverence for the royal family is very like reflexive adherence to religion. You can imagine, based on the blanket coverage even in the usually more sensible corners of the UK media (and top marks to the Guardian for offering a "Republican" button to switch it all off), how much inane royal baby chatter there's been on Facebook lately.

That's mildly irritating to me, but understandable and fine and I don't get all aerated about it - people can post what they like, and I'm not the Facebook police, after all. But I do demand that the same courtesy be extended to me if I wish to post an update or a comment mildly dissenting from the mass fawning and forelock-tugging. However, the usual reaction is a sort of tutting "why are you spoiling it for everyone?".

The religious parallel, which I hope is clear, is with things like the atheist bus adverts, where a general background noise of public goddism is deemed to be the default, but any overt reference to atheism, however mild, prompts a spate of mass swooning and pearl-clutching. It's the sort of (possibly willed, possibly unconscious, I don't know) blindness to what's around you every hour of every day that's the target of this hoary old parable:
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says "Morning, boys. How's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes "What the hell is water?"
That specific wording is from this series of quotes from David Foster Wallace's This Is Water, which is a transcript of his commencement address to students at Kenyon College in Ohio in 2005. As usual with DFW it's a bit verbose and convoluted but has some good stuff. It's available in book form, but best to watch and hear it as originally delivered, I think.

last refuge of the scoundrel

I should point out that while the conversation referenced in that last post was a pretty good stab at filling out the Unthinking Deference To Unearned Privilege Bingo card, other royalist tropes are available. Off the top of my head a couple we didn't cover are:
  • they do a lot for tourism! Look at all the Americans visiting Buckingham Palace. Because of course a) literally everyone who visits Buck House gets a personal audience with the Queen and b) literally no-one visits the palaces at Versailles or Schönbrunn any more now they aren't inhabited by your actual living breathing royalty.
  • they seem like nice people! and they've just had a baby! WHY DO YOU HATE NICE PEOPLE!? AND BABIES!! I'm sure they're lovely. And I'm delighted that all is well with the baby, just as I'm generally disposed not to wish ill upon any other pair of randomly-selected prospective parents that I don't know from Adam. Actually, I say I'm sure they're lovely; what I actually think is that I'm sure they're achingly dull in person to the extent that you'd have to chew your own lower limbs off if you ever got stuck in a room with them, but on the other hand they're both blandly attractive with nice teeth, which is the main thing. I think we can all agree that Prince Charles is an idiot, though. So much so that when Liz finally pops her clogs I think we should take the homeopathic approach to the succession; maximum royal power will be achieved by successively diluting the number of monarchs until it is at an infinitesimal and indeed undetectable level. 
To be fair, I find the fact that Charles (a known crank about a wide variety of topics) is a big supporter of homeopathy to be less worrying than that Jeremy Hunt, someone who is specifically paid to know better, is as well. A homeopathic concentration of Conservative politicians in positions of power would be highly desirable as well.

william, it was really nothing

I had an educational exchange of views on Facebook last night which helped to crystallise some of my annoyance about the acres of uncritical blanket coverage devoted to the arrival of the royal baby. In fairness to the media, it is the silly season and there is literally fuck all else to report, except David Cameron's laughably ill-thought-out and undemocratic attempts to police the rude bits of the internet. More on that later, perhaps.

I take the view that if you put your ill-considered views on the internet you are personally responsible for any public ridicule you receive, and furthermore if that ridicule causes you personal offence or discomfort then you should consider re-evaluating those views. I certainly willingly submit my own ramblings on this blog, on any topic, to those rules. That plus having redacted the names of the protagonists (except my own) clears my conscience regarding reproducing the Facebook exchange here. I do so not to poke fun (well, maybe a bit) but to illustrate the ticking-off of various Royalist Bingo boxes.

I hope it's legible; Blogger's image reproduction options remain a bit shit, unfortunately. I've labelled a few points that I think are of interest.
  1. first appearance of the "if you don't have the monarchy, you'll have President Blair; IS THAT WHAT YOU WANT" trope;
  2. not really sure what this is about; yes, there are other rich people in the world, and some of them may well have come by their riches by dubious means, but not many of them are heads of state. In any case this is a blatant "look over there" argument;
  3. a variant on number 1; get rid of the royal family and the only choices are a US-style presidency or Zimbabwe-style anarchy. Personally my preference is for something like the Irish system whereby the President is pretty much a ceremonial role, with the ribbon-cutting and the state openings of parliament and the like, but can express opinions freely. My affection for this system is no doubt tied to my affection for the current Irish president Michael D Higgins, who I think is a pretty splendid bloke. Here he is just shooting the shit on a talk show in a casual way, a way you couldn't really imagine Lizzie Windsor doing, and here he is in slightly more combative mode (to be fair, a year or so before he became president) ripping some Tea Party guy a new one. 
  4. argumentum ad populum. If 51% of the population don't agree with an opinion you hold, you are apparently not allowed to express it.
  5. I presume that this is a reference to the Crown Estates; obvious points in relation to this are that firstly the monarch's claim to these inheres in their office as monarch, and not in their person, so it's a moot point what the position would be if the office got abolished, and secondly it's another "look over there" dodge. To put it another way, I'm allowed to say "cancer is bad" without having found a cure, and in a similar way I should be allowed to say "hereditary monarchy is bad" without having a specific roadmap for its abolition. 
  6. argumentum ad populum again
  7. this is a whiplash-inducing oscillation between two positions, firstly the PRESIDENT BLAIR position from #1, but also the entirely contradictory position that the monarch wields no political power anyway. Well, if that's the case it doesn't really matter who does the job, does it? or even if the job exists at all?
  8. I couldn't resist throwing the God thing in as a bit of chum in the water. I have literally no idea where this came from though, or what it's meant to mean;
  9. Well, that was asking for both barrels;
  10. And a bit of passive-aggressive bullshit to finish. 
I should say, in the interests of full disclosure, that there were a handful more comments after the point where I've cut the thread off, but none of them particularly relevant to the topic. As I've said before, the subject of the monarchy is quite a good litmus test for people you thought were just regular people; express the mildest dissent from the default position and some of them will lose the plot in a pretty spectacular way.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

the last book I read

The History Of Love by Nicole Krauss.

Leopold Gursky is knocking on a bit, probably eightysomething. He's a retired Jewish locksmith, who came to New York from Poland (the bit of it which is in modern-day Belarus) after surviving the Holocaust.

Alma Singer, on the other hand, is just starting out in life. She's fourteen, and having to juggle coping with a widowed mother and a younger brother who thinks he may be the messiah (or more accurately one of 36 of them), and also the beginnings of those troublesome sticky feelings, you know, down there.

Two parallel narratives, you say? Well, then there must be a thread connecting them that enables things to be all brought together at the end in a satisfying manner, amirite? Well, possibly, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.

Firstly, Leopold's back-story goes a bit like this: back in Poland/Belarus he was in love with a girl called Alma, and wrote a book for her. Not easy hauling a manuscript around while you're hiding from the Nazis in a coal-bunker, so he entrusts it to his friend Zvi Litvinoff until things have cooled off and he can reclaim it. The hiding-in-coalsheds period lasts longer than anyone could have imagined, and by the time it's over Zvi is in South America and Alma has headed for New York, both of them assuming that Leopold is dead.

Not so, however, and Leo soon heads for New York himself to be joyfully reunited with his love. Trouble is, in the intervening couple of years Alma has got married to and had a son by another man. Not only that, but before doing all that she had given birth to another son, this one being the one she was unwittingly carrying when she and Leo parted. Alma and Leo remain in occasional touch, but Leo isn't able to have any sort of relationship with his son, Isaac, still less reveal the truth of his parentage.

Back to Alma (the younger one) now: when her father was courting her mother he gave her a copy of a little-known book called The History Of Love by Zvi Litvinoff which he'd bought in a second-hand shop in Buenos Aires. Back in the present Alma's mother is working on a translation of the book into English (from the original Spanish) at the request of (and financed by) the mysterious Jacob Marcus.

With half a mind to trying to engineer a romance between her mother and Jacob Marcus, Alma decides to research the real-life Alma as portrayed in the novel. This leads her to the real-life Jacob Marcus, who turns out not to exist but instead to be an alter ego for Isaac Moritz, Leo and (the older) Alma's son, a famous writer in his own right but, unfortunately for Alma, just recently deceased. Alma leaves a note at his house, which is picked up by Isaac's younger brother, who calls her house to explain that Isaac knew the novel's true authorship (i.e. Leo, later plagiarised by Zvi Litvinoff after he'd decided Leo was dead). Alma's brother answers the phone, and decides to engineer a meeting between Alma and Leo in Central Park, the tentative beginnings of which mark the end of the book.

There's a sub-genre of fiction to which The History Of Love belongs which can be broadly titled Writing About Writing; sub-sub-genres of this include epistolary novels (like We Need To Talk About Kevin and Restless), and also novels that feature (fictional) works of fiction as key plot points. That second sub-sub-genre is the relevant one here; the trick here is that depending on the requirements of your plot you've got to persuade the readership that the work you're providing snippets of in the text is either a) awful or b) brilliant. Again, the latter is the relevant one here, just as it was in, say, The World According To Garp (which contains several supposed extracts of Garp's writings). The former is represented by things like the awful bodice-ripper romances that Annie Wilkes forces Paul Sheldon to write in Stephen King's Misery. Either way, it's a hard trick to pull off convincingly. This entertainingly grumpy review of the novel makes the pithy point that "If the book-within-a-book were really so terrific, the author would have written that book instead."

My view, for what it's worth, is that this is generally very good, but a bit uninvolving in that we don't really get to know anyone well enough, mainly Alma Singer, who is the most appealing and interesting character. That's mostly because of the digressions into writing about writing, but also because as the novel goes on there's a need to bring all the plot strands together, and also because the novel is just quite short. Because of this the tragic circumstances of Leo's escape from Europe and doomed love for Alma never really bite as hard as they probably should, and the neat resolution of the plot feels a bit, well, neat. You perhaps find yourself admiring the neat clockwork-y precision of the plot's construction at the expense of really engaging with the messy reality of the lives being portrayed. Or maybe that's just bollocks; who knows?

Interestingly, as I only discovered after finishing the book, Nicole Krauss is married to Jonathan Safran Foer, a celebrated novelist in his own right (in fact he is probably more famous than her). Not only that, but their respective second novels (this is Krauss's, Safran Foer's is called Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close) share a startling number of similarities in plot and general construction. That link reckons that Krauss's novel is "strikingly superior to her husband's", though, so I've evidently, if unwittingly, chosen wisely.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

stop that racket

So, Wimbledon, belatedly. Actually, if I can just get you to imagine some sort of summary/analysis thing complete with plaudits for Andy Murray (who I think is wholly admirable, just in case this all sounds a bit grudging) here then that'll save me actually having to write it.

Let's go off on a tangent instead. Now it used to be said that Wimbledon and the French Open were the two niche, "specialist" events on the Grand Slam calendar (the other two, now that they've settled down into being hard-court events, providing the level playing-field) - the French favouring the relentless baseline sluggers and Wimbers favouring the serve-volley merchants. As it happens if there's one thing that the recent success of Murray, Djokovic and Nadal (and even Roger Federer) at Wimbledon proves, it's that this is really no longer true, and that these days Wimbledon is a sort of quirky sub-division of the hard court season. Look back at the list of winners and you'll see that the last "proper" serve-volleyer to win the Wimbledon men's singles was Goran Ivanisevic in 2001. Nonetheless I felt obliged to do the research and find out what the stats say is the most "specialist" event of the four. The way I translate that is: here's a list of all the winners of each of the Grand Slam tennis tournaments in the Open era (i.e. since 1968) who never won any of the other Grand Slam tournaments.

Australian Open
  • Mark Edmondson (1976)
  • Roscoe Tanner (Jan 1977)
  • Vitas Gerulaitis (Dec 1977)
  • Brian Teacher (1980)
  • Johan Kriek (1981, 1982)
  • Petr Korda (1998)
  • Thomas Johansson (2002)
French Open
  • Andres Gimeno (1972)
  • Adriano Panatta (1976)
  • Yannick Noah (1983)
  • Michael Chang (1989)
  • Andres Gomez (1990)
  • Sergi Bruguera (1993, 1994)
  • Thomas Muster (1995)
  • Gustavo Kuerten (1997, 2000, 2001)
  • Carlos Moya (1998)
  • Albert Costa (2002)
  • Juan Carlos Ferrero (2003)
  • Gaston Gaudio (2004)
  • Pat Cash (1987)
  • Michael Stich (1991)
  • Richard Krajicek (1996)
  • Goran Ivanisevic (2001)
US Open
  • Manuel Orantes (1975)
  • Patrick Rafter (1997, 1998)
  • Andy Roddick (2003)
  • Juan Martin Del Potro (2009)
So the numbers are: Australian Open 7, French Open 12, Wimbledon 4, US Open 4. Actually I think there's a case for saying that the French is even more of a statistical outlier than that makes it sound, because the Australian Open has only really been regularly attended by the top players since the late 1980s - for instance Bjorn Borg only ever played in it once, Jimmy Connors twice and John McEnroe twice during his Grand Slam-winning years. Cut down the qualifying period to since, say, 1990 and the numbers become 2, 8, 3, 3. I also strongly suspect that the US Open figure may come down as I think that it's highly likely (injury permitting) that Juan Martin Del Potro will win more Grand Slams.

As a further tangent it's interesting to note that while the French Open has been played on clay throughout its lifetime, and likewise Wimbledon on grass, the other two have had a more varied history: the Australian Open was played on grass up until 1987, and on various flavours of hard court since, and the US Open was played on grass until 1974, on clay from 1975 to 1977 and on a slightly different kind of hard court thereafter. Honestly, make your minds up.

Monday, July 15, 2013

limited parking available

As I've said before, Newport isn't the obvious city of choice if you're looking for somewhere to live or visit - off the top of my head Barcelona, Sydney and New York might be ahead of it in the world pecking order, plus maybe one or two others I haven't thought of, but it does have a few things going for it: it's a handily-placed transport hub for both road and rail, and it's got some interesting industrial history, including the splendid Transporter Bridge.

That said, the city centre is a dilapidated concrete disaster where I seldom venture, despite various mooted urban redevelopment projects, the most recent of which centred around the thousands of well-heeled American tourists who were going to pop in for some shopping between sessions of the 2010 Ryder Cup. However, as was entirely predictable, the golf crowd preferred to lounge around in their out-of-town hotels, get periodically bussed in to Celtic Manor for the golf and then jet back across the Atlantic without having gone anywhere near central Newport (and thus avoiding being stabbed up and robbed).

What Newport also has in its favour is some interesting city parks, little green oases which are all the more pleasing for being in sharp contrast with their surroundings. All cities have these, to be fair - my previous place of long-term residence, Bristol, has The Downs, Brandon Hill Park, Windmill Hill and the Oldbury Court and Ashton Court estates. While Newport doesn't have anything to compete with the grandeur of The Downs, there are a few little gems if you know where to look. Here's a few that I've found on my travels over the past few years:
  • Tredegar Park - this is in a couple of parts, firstly the area around Tredegar House, which has some nice grounds, a lake, and is the venue for the weekly Newport Parkrun which I have been unwise enough to struggle round a couple of times of a Saturday morning. The second bit is the wilder section just to the north (accessible via a gate off Bassaleg Road) which includes the Gaer hillfort
  • Belle Vue Park - just round the corner from our old house, this is a pretty Victorian park with some interesting trees and some grassy areas; quite hilly though. 
  • Beechwood Park - just round the corner from our new house, this is a pretty Victorian park with some interesting trees and some grassy areas; quite hilly though. Spooky, huh?
  • Glebelands Park - tucked away at the end of a single-track road just by junction 25 of the M4, this is quite an extensive grassy area in the crook of the elbow in the Usk where it turns from flowing west to south to cut through central Newport. It's cut in half by the elevated slip roads for junction 25a, and contains the remnants of an old miniature railway, a glimpse of the unimaginably glamorous glory days of which can be seen here
  • Coronation Park - this is the venue which prompted this blog post when I was there on Sunday for a dog show. It's a long story, but basically Hazel was there in a non-dog-related capacity and I thought I'd take Nia down for a look around. Anyway, it's quite a nice little spot (though like Glebelands Park tucked away down an unpromising-looking road), next to the river and just a few yards from the eastern end of the Transporter Bridge. The bridge's eastern cable anchorage is at the park's north edge (my vantage point for the photo above). 

Thursday, July 11, 2013

you kinchie devil

I don't get to buy, let alone drink, as much whisky as I used to back in the pre-bairn disposable income glory glory days, but just occasionally a bargain presents itself. And so it was this week when my local Morrisons were knocking out Glenkinchie for 25 quid a pop.

Glenkinchie is a Lowland single malt, a pretty rare breed these days. The only other one readily available in supermarkets is Auchentoshan. There's also the recently revived Bladnoch, and a couple of new ones that haven't officially produced any whisky yet.

Lowland malts are traditionally very light and mellow, with some of them (Auchentoshan claims to be the only remaining one) triple-distilling their spirit, uniquely among Scotch whiskies, though it's standard practice for Irish whiskey.

Dip in for a sniff and you get some magic markers, a bit of citrus-y lemony stuff and just a smidgen of custard tarts. Taste and it's surprisingly "hot" (at 43%) for something so apparently mellow, but you also get more lemon and custard creams and something that might be bananas.

Talking as we were of triple distillation, I thought a useful contrast might be provided by comparison with Bushmills, a bottle of which I was kindly given either for Christmas or my birthday, I can't remember. This one is a bit paler than the Glenkinchie, and much more estery (i.e. the magic markers again) when you have a sniff; it's sweeter too. Have a swig and it seems simultaneously sweeter and thinner, though you do get a bit of mouth-puckering astringency if you wait a bit.

I retain a soft spot in my heart for Bushmills, since it's the first proper single malt I actually paid my own money for, as recently as 2008, but I'd have to say that the Glenkinchie is the more interesting whisky; it's light and biscuity but deeper and darker and more complex as well. Even then, and as fine as the Glenkinchie is, it's up at the polite end of the spectrum as far as I'm concerned, my taste being more for the big hairy-chested Highlanders like the Clynelish and the Oban and the Ben Nevis. But it would be a shame for Lowland whisky to disappear, and while I'm sure Glenkinchie are doing OK (protected as they are by being part of the Diageo stable) there really are a very small number of distilleries left; same goes for the Campbeltown region which has even fewer.

Saturday, July 06, 2013

the last book I read

My Summer Of Love by Helen Cross.

It's the mid-1980s, and we're somewhere in Yorkshire, where 15-year-old Mona lives in a pub with her father, sister and stepbrother, her mother having died of cancer a couple of years previously. Not much to do apart from obsessively play the fruit machines and surreptitiously get pissed, or at least not until Mona starts to earn some pocket-money tending to a horse owned by posh middle-class types the Fakenhams and gradually becomes aware of their daughter Tamsin.

Tamsin has troubles of her own - her parents are on the verge of splitting up, and her older sister Sadie has died of anorexia. With her parents away and rattling around the big old country pile by herself, Tamsin invites Mona over to stay. Well, two fifteen-year-old girls in a house together, you can imagine the consequences: much eating of unsuitable grub and raiding of the drinks cabinet, wild fantasising, protestations of undying love and friendship and a little light lesbianism. Some darker stuff too, though: a bit of vandalism and the beating-up of Tamsin's father's girlfriend Nina, and the setting-up of Phil, slimy local photographer and serial seducer of young girls, as a suspect in the disappearance of local girl Julie Flowerdew.

As summer flings do, this one comes to an end, as Tamsin's father returns, as does, rather unexpectedly, Sadie, who turns out not to be dead after all. Disillusioned with Tamsin's lies, Mona returns to the pub, only to find that Phil has topped himself in his car. As Tamsin and her stepbrother PorkChop catch up with her, the stage is set for a final act of violence.

The summer of 1984 really was exceptionally hot, and it's a well-worked literary trope that this sort of weather encourages both simmering sexual tension and occasional cathartic acts of violence, both of which are present and correct here. The whole thing of friendship and innocence curdling and going rancid in the sun is pretty well-realised, as is the furious intensity of teenage female friendships and the speed with which they unravel. That said this sort of black comedy is pretty hard to carry off, and I'm not sure this is quite well-written enough to do it totally convincingly. Also, any book which sells itself with a pair of scantily-clad jailbait-y milky thighs on the front cover and the clear implicit promise of some ferocious girl-on-girl action within had really better deliver, and what we get here is a bit half-hearted and perfunctory. But, if you're interested, it's on page 156 of my copy.

My Summer Of Love was made into a film in 2004, starring among others the rather lovely Emily Blunt as Tamsin, one which appears to take a number of liberties with the plot of the book.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

celebrity lookeylikey of the day

Wimbledon hero and quarter-final escapologist Andy Murray in trademark self-excoriating square-mouthed bellow-y pose, and Garrett Morris in Larry Cohen's amusing 1985 horror film The Stuff, in getting-turned-inside-out-by-carnivorous-yoghurt pose.

No need to shell out for The Stuff on DVD, just in case you were going to, as the whole movie appears to be available on YouTube. If you just want the bit where Garrett Morris turns into a yoghurt dispenser, here it is. Larry Cohen also directed the considerably better (but still quite silly) monster movie Q The Winged Serpent (as mentioned in my New York roundup here, since it features the Chrysler Building prominently).