Monday, March 30, 2015

incidental music spot of the day

The Dress Looks Nice On You by Sufjan Stevens in episode 7 of series 4 of Stella on Sky the other day. I'm a big fan of Stella, just as I was of Gavin & Stacey, though in both cases the whole comedy/drama/tears/laughter not-quite-one-thing-or-the-other thing won't be for everyone. The same could probably be said of Sufjan Stevens - I love it, but: whispery folky gorgeousness? or insufferably fey twee whimsy? It's a fine line. However, his songs certainly seem to be rich pickings for incidental music compilers; previous spottings can be found here, here and here.

Stevens' Fifty States project (of which 2005's Come On Feel The Illinoise! was the second instalment) now seems to be permanently parked. If this 2009 interview is to be believed he was never that serious about it anyway.
His Fifty States Project, which he announced in 2003 as an epic song cycle about every American state, hasn't quite got off the ground. It began with an album about Michigan, then came Illinois, but there it stopped. "I have no qualms about admitting it was a promotional gimmick," he laughs.
There is a non-state-related new album, Carrie & Lowell, out now. Generally well received but I haven't got round to sampling it yet.

Back to the original song: The Dress Looks Nice On You features on Stevens' 2004 album Seven Swans, an album awash with religious and indeed explicitly Christian themes. That it's still so great despite all that is a testament (YSWIDT) to the quality of the songs. Here's The Dress Looks Nice On You in concert - the clip doesn't specifically identify when & where it's from, but similar clips are supposedly from Austin City Limits in 2006, which sounds plausible.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

far canal

Funny what you notice when you're only half paying attention. I put the old Ford Focus in for an MOT today, and much to my forehead-slapping chagrin forgot to take my current book with me (no, it's a secret, you'll have to wait and see). So, faced with a half-hour wait, I was reduced to scouring the little table in the reception area at the MOT centre for reading material. Pretty slim pickings if you're not a fan of motoring magazines, but there was one item of interest: a slightly foxed hardback copy of Wales From The Air, with a foreword by Jan Morris.

Well, that'll do, I thought. Let's start at the beginning. Hmmm, that's odd....

You may be having difficulty reading the text on the left as it'll be a bit small. You may also be having difficulty reading the text on the right, but that'll be because it's in Welsh. Here's a larger version of the English text:

This is all very interesting, but the trouble is that the picture above isn't of the Pontcysyllte aqueduct. The Pontcysyllte aqueduct looks like this, and, as you can see, spans the Dee valley in glorious isolation without a railway viaduct next to it. I know this because I have been across it, in both directions, in a canal boat. This was on our canal boating holiday in April 2000 - here's a couple of pictures:

Both of these pictures show us travelling northwards across the aqueduct; neither of them features me, sadly, since I took them, but as a bonus you do get my mate Martyn doing the hilarious "falling off an aqueduct" pose.

The aqueduct pictured in the book is the Chirk aqueduct, a few miles further south. We went over this one a couple of times on the same trip, as previously mentioned here - note the (slightly higher) railway viaduct also featuring in the picture. The Chirk aqueduct crosses the River Ceiriog, a tributary of the Dee, which this page boldly claims to be the fastest-flowing river in Wales. 

As proof-reading howlers and basic failures of research go this seems like a pretty major one to me. I don't know if the pilots who took the pictures were given specific instructions as to what to photograph, or whether they just flew around and snapped anything that looked interesting and relied on the book people to label it accurately. Someone dropped the ball here in a big way, anyway. 

Thursday, March 19, 2015

up a gumtree

We've recently been having a bit of a rethink of the upstairs room arrangements in the light the impending arrival of our second child. What this basically means is that we have to provide some living space for this small person, ready for when he or she turns up, and consequently all the other stuff that formerly occupied the upstairs space has to be crammed into a slightly smaller amount of space. As it happens this provides an opportunity to consider whether some of the stuff we've got lying around is really necessary, or whether we're likely to ever make use of it.

Having concluded that there's some stuff that can go, we decided that we might as well try and get some money for it, so I created a Gumtree account and posted a few items up there. So far we've managed to get rid of, for modest amounts of money, but with the convenience of not having to dispose of them:
  • a double bed including mattress
  • a 5-way metal ceiling spotlight
  • an office chair
  • a filing cabinet
Just in case anyone's interested there's a very nice pair of Wharfedale S500 hi-fi speakers still available for a very reasonable price, though that may well be an attempt on my part to sell a product that no-one uses any more, since everyone's got their entire house networked into iTunes via their media server now. Well, I haven't, as it happens, but I expect all the kids have.

I was slightly apprehensive about engaging with Gumtree simply because it implied also engaging with, you know, people. And, sure enough, although the people who have actually bought stuff managed to get their act together enough to communicate clearly, find our house, and remember to bring the agreed amount of money and some suitable transport, I did get involved in a couple of clabby text conversations that I eventually abandoned as they clearly weren't going to lead anywhere useful. The only useful thing they did was provide a bit of baffled amusement, and it's in that spirit that I reproduce them here.

This one was about the speakers - the only sniff of interest they've generated so far, but not in a form resembling human communication closely enough for me to be able to close the sale:

This guy wanted the bed. He also really wanted me to deliver it, even after I'd told him I wasn't going to, though clearly not explicitly enough:

Once I've got it through an MOT, hopefully not at sphincter-tightening cost, I'm going to put the Ford Focus up there, so we'll see what utterly mental responses that generates.

the last book I read

Ravelstein by Saul Bellow.

Abe Ravelstein is an old-ish Jewish professor of philosophy, with a formidable academic reputation, and, late in life, a public and commercial profile as well after publishing a book of his potted philosophical insights to great acclaim and unexpected sales success - a sort of Brief History Of Time, but with fewer black holes and more philosophy.

Ravelstein isn't actually the narrator of this book, though; that job falls to his old friend and colleague Chick (we infer that this is either his surname or some sort of affectionate nickname). As the novel opens Chick and Ravelstein are in Paris discussing the possibility of Chick writing Ravelstein's biography, a job Ravelstein wants Chick to take on partly because he wants his old friend to cash in on the money-making opportunity created by Ravelstein's own unexpected fame and fortune.

We learn a bit (though not much) about the two protagonists' back-story - not much about how they met or became friends, but some detail about their personal lives. Ravelstein is gay and lives with his much younger lover Nikki, while Chick seems to be a serial marrier of younger women, dwelling a bit on his former wife Vela, an exotic physicist, and his current wife Rosamund, one of Ravelstein's former pupils.

Among all the kvetching some serious events happen: Ravelstein contracts AIDS (whether from Nikki or someone else is never really explained) and succumbs to a whole host of secondary ailments including Guillain–BarrĂ© syndrome, which result in his eventual death. Chick has a bit of a wrestle with his conscience about writing the biography, but then has events taken out of his hands somewhat when during a supposedly therapeutic Caribbean holiday with Rosamund he contracts ciguatoxin poisoning from a dodgy tropical fish platter, is taken ill, whisked back to the USA and comes perilously close to dying himself.

That's about it for narrative, as it happens. To be fair, narrative isn't really the point, the point being more the musings of two old Jewish-American codgers on the subject of death, human relationships, philosophy, and, well, just being Jewish-American. It's a fairly short book (230 pages, large-ish print), so we never get to know either of the protagonists especially well, so when the book ends with Chick, now just about recovered from his brush with death, basically saying: "What about that Ravelstein, eh? Crazy guy. But what a mensch." - we have to reply: well, I'll have to take your word for it.

Like Frankie & Stankie this is a book that makes more sense, in terms of understanding the author's motivation for writing it in the first place, once you know the closeness with which it parallels real-life events in the author's life. So clearly the Chick character is a thinly-disguised Saul Bellow, while Ravelstein is his friend Allan Bloom, whose book The Closing Of The American Mind is the model for Ravelstein's own bestseller. Chick's penchant for serial marriage to younger women mirrors Bellow's own (he was married five times) and Chick's most recent ex-wife Vela is presumably based on Bellow's fourth wife Alexandra, a mathematician.

This was Bellow's last novel, published in 2000 when he was 85 (he died in 2005), so it's not surprising that ageing, frailty and death play major roles. But while it's easy, given the real-life parallels, to see why Bellow cares about the characters, it's not that easy to see why the reader should. There's no faulting the quality of the writing, but if you want a Bellow from the three I've read I'd say Herzog is deeper and more satisfying, while Henderson The Rain King is more fun.

men with funny-shaped balls

Great excitement at Halibut Towers last weekend as Wales managed to hold off Ireland to win a thrilling encounter 23-16 and keep alive their slim hopes of winning the Six Nations Championship going into the last round of matches this weekend. Basically it boils down to either having to rely on a couple of unlikely results in the other two matches (specifically, France beating England and Scotland beating Ireland) or, more likely, having to beat Italy by a hatful of points (probably 40 or so) and then hoping Ireland and England win by relatively narrow margins.

Much hoopla in the aftermath of a heroic defensive effort from Wales, and rightly so, in particular much bandying around of the stat regarding their tackle count, which was quoted as being 289 after the game (37 of them by lanky long-necked lock Luke Charteris), but now seems to have been downgraded to 250 (31 of them by Charteris). Both of those are still apparently records (the previous team record being 208 by Italy against Ireland last year), but it set me wondering: who decides this stuff? Presumably there's someone who sits around watching the game and, in real time, or very nearly, logging when each tackle is made and by whom. Not only that, someone (presumably not the same person) is meticulously calculating how much distance each player has travelled with the ball, and there's also some more general logging of possession and territory stats. We have to also conclude that there's some scope for these things being revised after the game, presumably as a result of a post-match review deciding that some things that were logged as tackles weren't really tackles, and so on.

Anyway, as memorable a game as that was it perhaps doesn't qualify for the list I've just thought of, entitled something like: top ten Five/Six Nations matches I specifically remember watching at a specific venue, usually (but not always) somewhere other than my house.

Wales v France 1978

As I've said elsewhere, this was the first rugby game I can specifically remember watching, though it's almost certain that I'd watched several others before. We would almost certainly have watched it in our house in Three Acre Road, Newbury, here. It was evident even at the time (well, perhaps not to me, as I was only eight) that this was the end of an era for the golden Welsh generation of the 1970s: the last Five Nations match for Gareth Edwards and Phil Bennett, and what would have been the last one for Gerald Davies as well had he not been ruled out at the last minute by injury. Quite how much of an end wasn't immediately apparent as Wales won another Triple Crown (their fourth in succession) in 1979, and only missed out on a Grand Slam as the result of a one-point loss to France in Paris. Thereafter they won one further Triple Crown (in 1988) in the next 26 years until the Grand Slam year of 2005 (more on that later). A couple of other statistical nuggets: firstly this match was 37 years ago TODAY, and secondly, and perhaps surprisingly, it was the first occasion where two teams both with three wins out of three played each other in the final round of matches with the Grand Slam at stake. This situation was repeated in 1984, 1990, 1991 and 1995 in the old Five Nations and in 2003 after it expanded to the Six Nations.

Wales v England 1989

This was about the single high point of Five Nations watching during my university days, since the three seasons between 1989 and 1991 saw Wales lose ten games, draw one and win one (this one). This game (it finished 12-9 to Wales) was the last in a glorious sequence where Wales hadn't lost to England in Cardiff since 1963, a sequence that was firmly ended in 1991 when England won 25-6 thanks largely to Simon Hodgkinson's boot. I watched this on the frankly inadequate television in the TV room at Badock Hall, and my recollection is that Mike Hall's match-winning try was a bit of a chip and chase job with a somewhat dubious slap of the ball into the turf at the end which would probably have been disallowed in the modern era of TV replays.

Wales v England 1993

Another Wales-England match in Cardiff, another against-the-odds win for Wales, another chip-and-chase try, this time featuring Ieuan Evans outsprinting a snoozing Rory Underwood. 10-9 to Wales at half-time, and my main recollection of the second half is England camped in Wales' 22 trying to batter a way through and being repeatedly repulsed, the match eventually finishing 10-9 with no scoring at all in the second half. It does seem inconceivable in hindsight that all the pressure couldn't at least have manufactured a chance for Rob Andrew to have a pop at a drop-goal - maybe it did and he kept missing. Anyway, I watched it at my then-girlfriend Posy's flat in Shrewsbury (somewhere near here) - apparently she was rather concerned that I was having either some sort of seizure or a heart attack after the final whistle went. Actually it turns out that YouTube have the whole thing, so you can check my memory for yourself.

Wales v England 1999

Another Wales-England match, but despite being nominally a "home" game for Wales it was actually played at their temporary home of Wembley while the Millennium Stadium was being built (it opened later the same year). Glorious sunny day at Wembley, Wales hanging on by the skin of their teeth thanks to Neil Jenkins' boot, and then the glorious climax of Scott Gibbs thundering through for the decisive try, at which point the small Wales contingent among the horde of baying English supporters in O'Neill's Irish bar in Bath (it's called Molloy's now) erupted in jubilation. All except me, as I was unwilling to assume the conversion was a formality, even though it was Jenkins taking it. Fortunately it went over, and I was free to go a big rubbery one for a couple of minutes. Strangely, once I'd composed myself a bit the white-shirted brigade had drifted away rather than stick around and witness my protracted glee; can't say I blame them. The icing on the cake was that this marked the first of three successive occasions where the Celtic nations took turns to deny England a Grand Slam in the final game - Scotland did it in 2000 and Ireland in 2001.

Wales v England 2005

Well, you see the theme developing by now re. the usual opposition: no great expectations coming into this match after a championship whitewash in 2003 and two wins in 2004, but Wales dominated for long stretches and should have been well ahead. However, Charlie Hodgson's penalty in the 75th minute put England 9-8 up and it looked like another defeat was on the cards. But we'd reckoned without Gavin Henson and his golden thighs silver boots. I watched this in the Old Fish Market in Bristol with Robin and John and Hayley and various others, to whom I retrospectively apologise for shouting so much.

Wales v Ireland 2005

Last game of the tournament and one where I really should have been getting drunk in a pub somewhere. However a terrible failure of planning meant that I was running in the Bath half-marathon on the following day, and, not trusting myself to stay off the sauce if I'd been to the pub, I instead barricaded myself in my Bristol flat with some orange squash and an inflatable daffodil. The match was only intermittently tense as Wales were at one point 29-6 up, but frankly for a first Grand Slam in 27 years I was prepared to forgo a bit of nail-biting.

Wales v England 2008

We'd moved to Newport in January 2008, and we thought we'd celebrate by going to a pub to see the first game of the Six Nations. Not really knowing the area we ended up in the quaint and pokey surroundings of Langton's cafe/bar in the centre of town, watching a game where Wales got taken to the cleaners in the first half, and were at one point 19-6 down before two late tries gave them a cheeky 26-19 win, one that set them on the way to another Grand Slam. Judging by Google Street Maps' time-travel facility Langton's stopped being Langton's not long after we were there and turned into Johnnie Rocco's American Diner, and appears now to have been empty for a couple of years.

Wales v England 2012

Another pub, this time the Hanbury Arms in Caerleon, another desperately tense encounter with the deadlock finally broken with 5 minutes left when Scott Williams dispossessed Courtney Lawes on halfway and gathered his own kick to score. Extra spice was provided by the group I was with mainly comprising English supporters, and Hazel being no more than three or four weeks short of her due date with Nia. We had to promise the landlord that we wouldn't get too excited and induce any childbirth shenanigans - well, we failed on the first count but as it happened Nia stayed put for another six weeks or so, so that was OK.

Wales v England 2013

Another slight failure of planning, combined with the constraints of Ray's availability with his van, meant that we had to set aside the day of the game to build a garden fence, in what ended up being torrential rain. Having received occasional shouted score updates from indoors, when we eventually finished the job and came in it was still 12-3 to Wales with about 25 minutes to go. However pretty much as soon as we'd popped a tinnie and sat down the floodgates opened, Alex Cuthbert ran in two tries and wild celebrations ensued.

Honourable mention, though they're ineligible under my own self-imposed rules, should go to the first and second Lions tests in South Africa in 1997, both of which I watched in the Byron (also not there any more) on the Triangle in the centre of Bristol, where (for the first one anyway) I just wandered in after seeing the rugby on the TV through the window and realising it'd just kicked off. As with the 1995 Ryder Cup, part of the pleasure is the unplanned nature of the whole thing.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

there's a feeling I get when I look to the west

A couple of photo galleries for you, one associated with the couple of trips we took to London in late January as described here.

The other documents our short break in Pembrokeshire a few weeks ago (for, among other things, my birthday). We stayed in a little chalet at the Pembrokeshire Heritage Park, which is here just near Stepaside, or, as the blurb on the website says, "set in the idylic Pleasant Valley". Pity about the spelling, but you get the general idea. While you can in theory hire chalets in the park, they're mainly geared to selling them to people - we got the use of ours because it's owned by our showbiz chum Clare and she kindly let us borrow it for a few days.

We've done quite a bit of holidaying in Pembrokeshire in recent years:
In a shocking failure of internet maintenance, I seem to have neglected to blog any details about the log cabin/Pendine trip - all I can really recall about it is that we took a trip to the impressively huge Pendine Sands and the Museum Of Speed that's situated just behind it. Disappointingly, on the day we went JG Parry-Thomas' car Babs wasn't on display for some reason - this being the car that Parry-Thomas broke the land speed record in at Pendine in 1926 and was then killed in the following year. Equally disappointingly, the lurid and widely-circulated story about Parry-Thomas' death - that he was decapitated by a snapped external drive chain - seems to be now generally held to be untrue. What certainly is true is that Babs was buried in the dunes at Pendine after being wrecked and was then dug up in 1969 and restored. I also have a dim recollection of a slightly foetid pint of Bass in the Springwell Inn in Pendine village.

Anyway, back to the present day: things to see within easy reach (walking range with a 3rd-trimester pregnant person and a pretty energetic nearly-3-year-old, say) include:
  • the remains of Stepaside Ironworks (also known as Kilgetty Ironworks) right on the doorstep in the Heritage Park car park;
  • a walk down the path of an old railway to the beach at Wiseman's Bridge where there is also a pub, which we visited for a cheeky pint of Doom Bar;
  • a walk further along the same old railway route, including passing through three exciting echoey tunnels of varying length, to Saundersfoot. Saundersfoot is basically a smaller and quieter version of Tenby, with a nice beach and a couple of pubs, including the Royal Oak where we went and had some fish and chips and another pint of Doom Bar. The food was perfectly nice, though it appears they have been up before the beak for some hygiene infringements in the past. We suffered no ill-effects, anyway. 
  • Tenby Dinosaur Park! Like all nearly-3-year-olds Nia is nutty about dinosaurs, so we took her to see some a couple of miles west of Tenby, here. Not only are there a whole host of life-size plaster dinosaurs in their little woodland area (including Nia's favourite, the triceratops) there's an outdoor playground (bit wet the day we were there) and a big indoor "Dino Den" with lots of soft-play stuff and ballpits and the like. 
Photos can be found here. Meanwhile here's a soothing animated GIF of the tide coming in and going out again at Wiseman's Bridge.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

terry's all cold

This is by way of a brief RIP tribute to Terry Pratchett, who died today aged 66. I had a bit of a splurge of reading Pratchett's books 25 or so years ago which basically took in the first seven Discworld novels, which still occupy a small area of shelf space in my bookshelves, as you can see below.

Like Douglas Adams, Pratchett was first and foremost a comic writer, the weird fantasy universe he chose to set the books in merely being the one which most readily allowed him to explore whatever real-world topic he felt like satirising without having to laboriously conjure a different world into being for each book. I have to say that in my view the books weren't as funny or as interesting as Adams' books, but that's probably partly because Adams didn't write very many and Pratchett was ridiculously prolific, so there's the (probably irrational) sense of the ideas being spread more thinly.

Anyway, my recollection, which may be wrong, was that I bought the last two or three of my Pratchetts roughly as they were published in paperback (Pyramids was published in 1989), and, having read the last one, decided that that was all great, thanks very much, and they'd all been very enjoyable, but that I'd got the idea and didn't really have the urge to read any more.

As it happens my withdrawal from Pratchett-reading was well-timed, as having (up to that point) produced seven books in about the same number of years, Pratchett ratcheted up his productivity to the extent of cranking out another 26 Discworld books in the next 15 years, and eventually 41 overall, so that's an awful lot of reading I'd have been signing up for.

Pratchett is also famous for his advocacy for Alzheimer's sufferers, having been diagnosed with a rare form of the disease at an unusually young age, and also for the right to die (assisted dying, assisted suicide, call it what you will). He was also a vocal atheist and had links to both the British Humanist Association (their excellent tribute is here) and the National Secular Society. All of which makes him a good bloke in my book.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

power steering, central locking, cunted windows

Good to see John Inverdale keeping the BBC's end up in terms of regular inadvertent broadcasting of the c-word to the nation, continuing the rich tradition previously upheld by such national treasures as Nicky CampbellJim Naughtie, Andrew Marr and Jeremy Paxman. Inverdale (no stranger to the occasional on-air faux pas) blotted his copybook during BBC Radio 5 Live's coverage of the Cheltenham Festival.

It's interesting to compare how these on-air slips arise: the Campbell one was caused by the unfortunate proximity of the words "Kent" and "Hunt", the Naughtie and Marr ones by the unfortunate proximity of the words "Hunt" and "culture", and the Paxman one by a mispronunciation of the word "cuts". Inverdale, on the other hand, seems to have been a victim of indecision - having started to say "rose-coloured glasses", he evidently realised halfway through that "rose-tinted glasses" would be the more usual form of the phrase, with disastrous results.

Here's the YouTube audio clip - a slightly longer one is available on the Daily Telegraph website here, but be warned you have to sit through some advertising and, unforgivably, they blank out the key word, presumably to avoid giving the eightysomething retired colonels who comprise their readership a collective coronary.