Thursday, December 28, 2006

albums of the day

A lengthy period of home maintenance at Halibut Towers tonight; some heavy duty washing up, cooking and then a bath. All of which offered ample opportunity for some musical appreciation, and it turned out to be Folk Night, to a certain extent anyway.

Little Lights by Kate Rusby.

British folk music has a dodgy reputation in a way that American, French, Bulgarian, etc., etc. folk music doesn't. Mention it and an image of bearded, arran-sweatered, morris dancing, half pint of mild swilling, finger in the ear, banjo-playing blokes like Keith out of Mike Leigh's Nuts In May pops into your head.

And this is all a bit unreasonable, really, because this is tremendous, Kate Rusby's voice being very much the focal point of the whole thing, particularly the charmingly unaffected way she lets her native Barnsley accent show though so that she renders "my" as "me", "up" as "oop" and "love" as "loove". As a general rule of thumb the slower and sadder the songs, the better they are, in particular Let The Cold Wind Blow (which appears at first glance to be sung from the perspective of a dead lesbian, which is unusual), Who Will Sing Me Lullabies and Matt Hyland. And anyone who isn't reduced to a blubbering wreck by My Young Man's story of a devoted wife nursing her coal-miner husband through chronic respiratory illness (which may or may not have been pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis) should probably have their pulse and other vital signs taken urgently. The only false note on the album is struck by the cover of Richard and Linda Thompson's Withered And Died; not that there's anything wrong with this version, just that the original is so instantly definitive that unless you're going to reinvent it as a death metal anthem any sort of cover version is a bit superfluous.

Time (The Revelator) by Gillian Welch.

Similarly, American "country" music has had a bit of a bad reputation which it's only now recovering from, thanks to the so-called "" movement, of which this, Ryan Adams and many others would be considered a part.

Really, "Gillian Welch" the album-releasing entity is a duo, Gillian Welch herself and her partner and musical collaborator David Rawlings. Their previous two albums Revival and Hell Among The Yearlings are well worth investigating, but this is The One, if One is what you're looking for (I'd recommend considering buying them all). The previous two weren't exactly lavish big band affairs, but this strips things down to the bare minimum, specifically (for most of the songs anyway) Welch and Rawlings' acoustic guitars and harmony vocals, and not much else.

Like the Kate Rusby album, this works best on the slow, stark numbers like Revelator, April The 14th Part I and Everything Is Free, where you get the full benefit of some interestingly twisted lyrics and David Rawlings' jaw-dropping acoustic guitar playing. I guess a reasonably good indicator of whether you're going to go for this or not is: the last track is a funereally slow guitar and vocal number called I Dream A Highway which lasts a little over 14 and a half minutes. If this sounds intriguing to you, carry on. If it makes you want to run for the hills, you might be better off with something else. If you're in any way interested, though, it's an absolute steal at £4.97 on Amazon. Go on.....

The Trials Of Van Occupanther by Midlake.

Not strictly, or even loosely, a folk album, but two out of three ain't, as they say, bad. It's always nice to discover things which don't get heavy rotation on Radio 1 or get recommended to you by friends; you feel as if you've had to work a bit for them. This was buried in the middle of a 100 Essential Tracks of 2006 in Q magazine, I downloaded Roscoe (the opening song on the album) from iTunes, and bingo.

A lot of comparisons have been made between this and clasic 70's "soft-rock" like Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles. I don't think that's quite right, though the opening bars of Roscoe do sound uncannily reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac's Rhiannon. Flaming Lips have been offered up as a comparison as well, but this is much more rooted to the earth than those particular space cowboys. It's probably a vocal thing; both Tim Smith and the Lips' Wayne Coyne have more than a little Neil Young about them. But the funny thing about this album is not how it sounds like other people, but how unlike anything else currently on offer it sounds, not just musically but in the frankly peculiar lyrical department as well; it's all concerned with log cabins, settling in the woods, hunting, etc.

Roscoe and Young Bride are the best two things here, as head-noddingly melodic and at the same time head-swimmingly peculiar as anything you'll hear. The rest is of a similarly high standard, at least until the last few tracks, which tail off a bit.

This is what independent music is all about, though: stuff which seems to exist outside of any context or precedent, stuff not written to slot into any particular marketing demographic but because the people concerned just felt like writing it. It's almost enough to restore your faith in human nature, or it would be if Take That and Westlife weren't numbers 1 and 2 on the album charts at the moment. Oh well.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

the last book I read

The Nature Of Blood by Caryl Phillips.

Caryl Phillips is a black author from St. Kitts, and (I gather) much of his earlier work is informed by the black experience among white-dominated society. This book extends the theme of tribalism and belonging a bit wider, in that it is mainly concerned with the persecution of the Jews, either by the Nazis during World War II, or in the Venetian ghetto in the 15th century. There are additional strands concerned with Othello's time in Venice and Cyprus as commander of the Venetian army, and with post-war Israel.

The shadow of Primo Levi's If This Is A Man hangs heavily over any novel seeking to deal with the reality of the Nazi concentration camps, and perhaps wisely the main focus is on the protagonist Eva's experiences after her liberation. There are a couple of interludes giving background detail about the subject matter developed elsewhere in the book (e.g. Othello, Venice) which feel unnecessarily didactic, as if lifted from an encyclopaedia; the well-informed reader might feel patronised at these points. As a meditation on belonging and outsider-dom it's very powerful, though, the final chapter bringing the story into the present day and reinforcing the point that these themes repeat themselves endlessly through history, try as we might (or not) to learn from the past.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

baby shower

The latest list of the most popular baby names (i.e. for 2006) has just been published. I don't have any earth-shattering observations to make, other than the following:

- firstly, and fairly trivially, the girls' names list seems significantly more chavvy than the boys, particularly when you get down into the 20's and 30's. Madison?

- Secondly, and more importantly, there's a fundamental problem with some of these. This one seems to affect the boys more than the girls: 3 of the top 10, numbers 1, 5 and 10, as well as 15 and 16 of the next 10. Of the girls, 10 and 13 definitely, as well as arguably a few others (a lot more girls' names end in -y or -ie which makes it more difficult). And the problem is: these are DIMINUTIVE forms of names. Jack is a diminutive form of John, Harry of Henry, Charlie of Charles, etc. etc. You don't christen someone Charlie, you christen them Charles (an actual name) and let nature, their family and friends take their course - which might very well end up with them being called Charlie. There's much made here, among other places, about the new names being charming throwbacks to bygone days with people being christened Alfie, Freddie and Archie, etc. Well, let me tell you how many kids were christened Alfie, Freddie and Archie a century ago - none. Alfred, Frederick and Archibald, yes, undoubtedly. Why does this bother me? I don't really know, to be honest; I suppose it wouldn't bother me if I thought a conscious decision was being made to go for the diminutive form rather than the "proper" name - I'd like to think that, I really would, but it's not true, it's just ignorance. I'm pretty sure I'd rather kids were christened Fifi Trixibelle or Moon Unit than Katie or Charlie.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

two whales in a train

I went to Cardiff today. Partly just to have a venue for Christmas shopping that wasn't Bristol, i.e. either Broadmead or, God forbid, Cribbs Causeway, partly because I wanted a couple of things that (without giving the game away) I'd be more likely to get hold of in Cardiff, and partly because I wanted to have a bit of a snoop round a couple of places from my murky and mysterious past.

Firstly, Whitchurch. My grandmother lived here for many years: she died in 1989, and she'd been living round the corner (ish) from our house in Newbury for, I reckon, at least 2 or 3 years prior to that, so I probably hadn't been to the area for over 20 years. We lived there briefly (for about 6 months, I think, somewhere between 1970 and 1972) and visited regularly thereafter, when we weren't abroad. My recollections are (it's the red-brick house on the left), without checking with any old photos: the round-topped wall at the front is the same, but it used to have a thick hedge immediately behind it, there was also a large tree at the end of the hedge by the gatepost, and that wooden porch is new. If I can scan in a similar view from an old photo I'll post it here, just for comparison. I would have taken a couple of further photos today, but as you can see there are a lot of cars around even for about 10 o'clock on a weekday morning. I got the impression the odd net curtain was twitching as I was lurking around in a suspicious manner taking photos. I expect the Neighbourhood Watch interfering old busybody hotline switchboard was lit up like a Christmas tree. To be fair, though, I was naked.....

Secondly, Tongwynlais. Back in the 19th century (and before), my ancestors - specifically my paternal great-grandfather and his predecessors - owned a pub (The Lewis's Arms - it seems to have lost the possessive bit over the years as it's just the Lewis Arms now) in the village. In fact I believe the legend goes that my grandfather was born in the bar there, presumably not during opening hours or that could have been rather messy; it would certainly have put you off your ploughman's lunch. And it's still there - the bright yellow paint job is new, though:

I got from Whitchurch to Tongwynlais by walking up the disused railway line from Coryton where the suburban commuter line out of Cardiff ends, and then hooking up with the Taff Trail as it tracks the Taff riverbank before striking off up the hill into Tongwynlais and towards Castell Coch. You can see the castle from the road by the pub, but one of its distinctive turrets seems to be covered in scaffolding at the moment. That wasn't why I didn't go up the hill to see it, though, I just couldn't be bothered.

Assuming we survive the Dartmoor trip, we'll be looking for another challenge to do later in the year (when it's a bit warmer, ideally). I reckon a cycle trip up (and possibly back down) the Taff Trail is a good candidate. It's about 55 miles one way, so you could do it over a long weekend pretty comfortably, I reckon - you could escape at the top end by cycling from Brecon to Abergavenny and catching a train back.

say what?

Got a couple of photos from today's exciting voyage of discovery in South Wales to post in a bit, but that might have to wait until after some serious pizza-eating. In the meantime here are a couple of interesting quotations to mentally masticate on:
The essence of science is that it is always willing to abandon a given idea for a better one; the essence of theology is that it holds its truths to be eternal and immutable. To be sure, theology is always yielding a little to the progress of knowledge, and only a Holy Roller in the mountains of Tennessee would dare to preach today what the popes preached in the thirteenth century.
- H.L. Mencken
Every normal man must be tempted at times to spit upon his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.
- H.L. Mencken (again)
If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
- Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

And, via a link* of some considerable tenuousness, a fact of the day for you - Liechtenstein and Uzbekistan are the only two doubly landlocked countries on earth, i.e. they are landlocked, and surrounded by other countries which are also landlocked. FACT.

[* Solzhenitsyn's novel Cancer Ward is set in a hospital in what was then the Soviet Union, and is now Uzbekistan. Interesting, huh?]

last one today, honest

....cos I mean to go to Cardiff early-ish tomorrow and I need to sleep. But I followed a couple of links and found this earlier today, and I really have to share it. Imagine all the things you can't possibly say on a blog, or at least not on one that your work colleagues/girlfriend/mother might read. Be warned that there is any amount of sedition, blasphemy, profanity etc. as well as some explicit images here, so you might want to exercise some caution as to when and where you click on the link (and, if you're my mother, don't do it at all). It is mainly just ridiculously funny, though.

Monday, December 18, 2006

sloe, sloe, noodle, eel, sloe

Firstly, another plug for a local Bristol business: the very wonderful Kin Yip Hon Oriental supermarket on St. Thomas Street down near Bristol Temple Meads railway station. A veritable Aladdin's cave of pan-Oriental goodies from green tea to tinned fried gluten (whatever the heck that is). I mentioned this because I bought a job lot of the Shin Ramyun noodles (pictured here) a day or two ago. These approximate pretty closely the sort of spicy noodles I used to get in South Korea back when I was living there (roughly between the ages of 5 and 6 and a half), and they're great. Hot though. Which reminds me of an interesting linguistic fact I picked up during my other 18-month sojourn in a foreign country (Java, between the ages of 8 and a half and 10): the Indonesians have two words for "hot"; one (panas) meaning hot as in temperature, and the other (pedas) meaning hot as in spicy. Is that not a highly sensible arrangement, precluding an awful lot of explaining, particularly in a tropical country with a tradition of spicy cuisine?

The other food item pictured is a tin of roasted eels, which looks interesting, though I haven't felt quite robust enough to tackle it yet. Fascinating eel fact: uncooked eel blood is toxic.

Right, that's enough food, let's move on to drink. In the run-up to Christmas I decided to decant one of the jars of sloe gin I prepared a couple of months ago. Normally 3 months would be the optimum storage time, but this batch of berries was very ripe, so I thought I'd do one jar's worth early in order to a) have some for Christmas, and b) have some to put in the hip flask for Dartmoor. So - step 1: rig up the jelly bag (you may remember this from the apple & mint jelly post a while ago) above a large bowl and decant the contents of one jar into it, berries, twigs, dead sparrows and all. Then scoop the resulting filtered liquid out and bottle it up. This first jar made one full 500ml bottle, one full 250ml bottle, and the beginnings of a 750ml bottle, out of which I had a quick tot, just to check things out.

Mmmmm......delicious. No, it actually was, despite my comical facial expressions here. I reckon the rest, when I decant it in early February, will be even better.

Oh my lack of God!

Funny - I was just surfing around for some rational science-based blogs on the internet earlier, and finding some as well, in among all the sex-based ones. In fact while I'm on the subject here are some which should be, to all right-thinking people, an oasis of good sense among all the barking nonsense out there in cyberspace, and, regrettably, in the real world as well:
  • Ben Goldacre's Bad Science blog
  • the James Randi Educational Foundation's website, including the always amusing (and still unclaimed) One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge
  • Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy website, including an amusing evisceration of the "the moon landings were hoaxed" theories
  • Pharyngula
  • The Island Of Doubt
  • Richard Dawkins' website: lots of good stuff on here, including an interesting series of clips of RD lecturing in promotion of his book The God Delusion in Lynchburg, Tennessee. I'm not sure I'd want to be pointing out the absurdity of religion in the heart of the bible belt like that: say what you like, he's got balls....
....anyway, what I was building up to saying was: after an afternoon doing this, I tuned in to Channel 4, purely by chance, in time to catch most of Rod Liddle's programme The Trouble With Atheism. Which seemed to me, though I may be slightly biased, to be a load of badly argued, intellectually lazy and dishonest bollocks, which trotted out all the usual nonsense arguments which I really can't be arsed to recycle here because it would be like shooting fish in a barrel (well, OK, two of them are: 1) atheism is a belief system as much as religion is, and 2) if Darwin's theory of evolution were to be disproved, that would in some way be a blow against science and for the existence of God), but most of them are neatly summarised here. Now I know that Rod Liddle is a polemicist and provocateur, and that's his job, but really: atheism is bad because Hitler was an atheist? Well, Hitler was a vegetarian too, and, if certain famous wartime songs are to be believed, of the monorchic persuasion (there is some dispute over whether this is actually true). Are we suggesting that not eating meat or having badly fitting pants are inherently evil as well? Maybe we are.

As a bracing breath of fresh air to blow away all of this woolly old flannel I suggest a repeat viewing of Jonathan Miller's excellent BBC4 (and later BBC2) series Atheism: A Rough History of Disbelief, and also reflecting on the incident during Richard Dawkins' Channel 4 programme The Root Of All Evil? where pastor Ted Haggard ran Dawkins and his film crew off the front lot of his enormo-church in Colorado Springs for suggesting, as I understand it anyway, that he and his children were descended from "animals" - specifically, reflecting on it in the light of the highly salacious subsequent revelations about Haggard's crystal meth-fuelled relationship with a male prostitute. Not that any of this has the slightest bearing on the science vs. religion argument, it's just very very funny.

One last link before I move on to a far more upbeat food & drink-related post: a collected page of Richard Dawkins quotations, just to annoy Doug among other reasons: the simple uncluttered rationality, good sense and clarity of thought here makes you want to weep, mainly because you just know no-one who really needs to take notice of it is in any way susceptible to reasoned argument.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

getting hands-on with a futon

This is mainly for Hazel's benefit, really, though it may be of interest to anyone with a futon fetish. Hazel bought a futon on eBay: click here to relive the frenzied excitement of the auction. Anyway the seller delivered it (dismantled) this afternoon, and was also kind enough to show me how to remantle it (no, I know, that's not a word). Many thanks to Peter for his assistance.

It's now in my spare room awaiting re-dismantling and subsequent re-remantling in Hazel's flat in Cardiff, once she moves in early next year. Here's a photo:

exciting blog news

You may or may not have noticed that the blog looks a bit different today. That's because I've re-skinned it, so to speak, by changing the template from the previous Snapshot, which was starting to get a bit pastel-y for my liking, to the bold new Rounders 3. It's bold, it's new, it's now, it's happening, it's relevant, it's asking pertinent questions like "isn't that plain blue header area a bit dull - wouldn't an image of some sort perk it up a bit?". And it's right, but I haven't got time to worry about that right now, I'm a busy man.

I've also, while I was tinkering with templates, registered with and installed Google Analytics, a free website monitoring tool from those nice kind multi-millionaires at Google. So now I will get regular reports telling me who's reading the blog, and where they came from (or, alternatively, blank reports telling me I really am just howling into the void. We'll see...), though not, sadly, where they live.

I've also just watched a TV advert for Senokot followed immediately by an advert for Immodium. So now I don't know what to think....

crying, while eating, but not praying, in front of a wooden computer

Things that caught my eye while reclining on the sofa, with a hangover, reading the Independent on Sunday this afternoon:

Ever looked at your computer and thought: well, this is all very well, but if only the whole thing, keyboard, monitor, mouse and all, were made entirely out of wood. And not just any old wood, what I'd really like is a choice of woods in a variety of shades and finishes. Or maye a nice polished grey stone finish would be better? We've all been there. And now there's somewhere you can go to indulge your wildest ligno-technological fantasies: here. I fancy a piece of finest Bubinga, about which the website has this to say, according to Google's translation facility anyway:
Singular PC keyboard from substantial Bubinga. Alternatively as PS/2 or USB variant available. Manufactured - as it offers us nature - from a piece massif wood. This master achievement is reflected in the continuous grain process over each individual key again. For highest reliability the proven micro switch technology from the house Cherry provides. Whereby we you a long life span to guarantee can. We load you our 26 different wood sorts your favorites to select.
So that's all pretty clear then. Incidentally the website doesn't specify any prices (if you have to ask, you can't afford it, presumably), but you should apparently expect to pay around £2,500 for the full set in wood. If you want the full set in bright green malachite then your guess is as good as mine.

Anyone who knows me knows my views on religion: don't panic, I'm not about to go off on one here, that can wait until I'm less hungover. But a vexed question for people such as myself is: what do we call ourselves? Atheist is fine, some people prefer humanist, personally I've never seen the need to worry about it all that much. Some people evidently do, though, so they presumably thought long and hard about what name to come up with. And what did these presumably intelligent people decide to call themselves, so as to be able to promote and explain their views to the world? Wait for it.....the Brights. Can you imagine a name more calculated to make anyone not immediately sympathetic to the cause switch off, fly into an incoherent rage, start lobbing fatwas around, etc.? Not that I'm suggesting goading the religious is necessarily a bad thing, nor that there isn't an inverse correlation between degree of religious belief and intelligence, but do you really expect to be making lots of new friends when your organisation's motto appears to be "We're cleverer than you - and we know it"? Not very bright at all, really.

Lastly - what the blinking flip is all this about?

Saturday, December 16, 2006

album of the day

Exile In Guyville by Liz Phair.

Here's a question - which is more difficult to do: lengthy symphonic prog rock stuff with massively complex and orchestrated arrangements, or punchy pop/rock songs with sparse instrumentation and only 3 minutes or so to make your point? I don't know, is the answer, but I ask the question to draw a contrast between this album and the Yes album which preceded it.

The female singer-songwriter has a long and proud tradition, but generally it's a tradition of slightly kooky acoustic guitar-strumming (Laura Nyro, Joni Mitchell, etc.) or rampantly kooky piano-bashing (Kate Bush, Tori Amos, Fiona Apple). In the classic four-piece rock band idiom it's quite unusual - I suppose Chrissie Hynde is the obvious forerunner, but even she was never this sexually up-front and aggressive. Anyone with an aversion to liberal use of four-letter words beginning with F and C (song titles like Fuck And Run are a bit of a giveaway), as well as lines like "I want to be your blow-job queen" might find some of the songs here a bit of an ordeal. Which is not to suggest that it's done for shock effect - there's a piercing intelligence at work here, both in the lyrics and in the arrangements of a limited set of instrumentation, from the basic rock numbers (6'1", Help Me Mary, the aforementioned Fuck And Run, Divorce Song, Stratford-On-Guy, Strange Loop) to the sparser numbers like Dance Of The Seven Veils, Canary, Girls! Girls! Girls!, Shatter and Flower (which contains the most eye-wateringly blunt lyrics on the album).

It's sadly predictable that, despite a rabidly enthusiastic critical response, this proved a bit rich and gamey for the wider record-buying public, as did its under-rated and equally lo-fi successor Whip-Smart. Like many genuine innovators it fell to those who came after and were able to produce a more commercially palatable version of the template to really rake in the megabucks. In other words: no Liz Phair, no Alanis Morrissette, though I accept that some might not view this as a bad thing.

This is a YouTube clip of Liz and small band performing Divorce Song - the clip dates from some promotional activities around the time of the release of her self-titled fourth album (which would make it 2003-ish), I think. That's a rather foxy denim mini-skirt and knee-socks combo she's sporting there, as well.

Friday, December 15, 2006

strangely similar slapheads

I was reading the sports pages in The Independent earlier this week after Alan Pardew was sacked as the manager of West Ham, and I couldn't help noticing the picture of the new Icelandic owner of the club, Eggert Magnusson, the man who presumably wielded the long knife and sealed Pardew's fate. And somewhat appropriately, because he is the spitting image of the psycho mountain weirdo from Wes Craven's original The Hills Have Eyes film (i.e. not the inevitable recent remake), a man also known for wielding long knives and sealing people's fates. And then eating them and making maraccas out of their skulls, very probably.

Another bug-eyed baldy weirdo resembling the bloke out of The Hills Have Eyes is the famous (now retired) Italian football referee Pierluigi Collina. So much so that my friend and fellow bloggist Andy sent a message to him via the Contact page on his website enquiring, politely, whether they were in fact one and the same person. No reply, sadly, although in an unrelated incident Andy's entire family were murdered shortly afterwards by a gibbering bald psychopath with an axe. And a whistle.

I've just looked up Pierluigi Collina's Wikipedia entry, and rather disappointingly it mentions the THHE baldy bloke resemblance. I suppose it was a bit unreasonable to expect no-one else to have noticed.....anyway, decide for yourself using the handy comparison below:

more stuff!

Probably the penultimate instalment of the lengthy saga of kit-buying for the Dartmoor trip. There's only so much stuff even I can justify buying. I say "penultimate", though, because I've still got to buy a large rucksack - the biggest one I've got is 45 litres, which sounds a lot but really isn't anywhere near big enough. Oswald Bailey do an 85-litre one for what seems to me an absurdly small sum of money, so I reckon I'll get myself one of those.

Anyway, on with the latest items of interest:

Clockwise from bottom left: some mini-karabiners (handy for attaching things to your rucksack for easy access), an assortment of bungy cords of varying lengths (ditto, as well as stopping them rattling around), an Energiser head torch with white and red light capability (7 quid from Wilkinson's including batteries - bargain), 8 metres of nylon rope (not sure what this will be for, really, but it sounds useful), a foil emergency blanket and an emergency whistle. Just in case I need to attract any sheepdogs, or pipe someone aboard a ship while we're out on the moors. You never know.

Next: I never go anywhere outdoors without my Trangia (well, if I'm just popping out to the shops I usually take a chance and leave it behind, though one of these days that is going to end in tears). It is an absolute classic piece of design, and great for all manner of weather as it doesn't blow over or out. The only problem is that it runs on methylated spirits. The reason this is a problem (and it's not a huge one) is as follows: firstly if you're going away for any length of time you need to take quite a bit of fuel with you, and secondly it's increasingly difficult to find shops that sell it. I think shops are a bit nervous that people are going to buy meths and then sit around outside on the front step swigging it, or feeding it to tramps, or something. The old-fashioned hardware shops still stock it, but they're increasingly hard to find as well. This might be a good moment to plug the one near me, Bishopston Hardware, which is a veritable Aladdin's cave of screws, reversible flange grommets, nipple grease, lawnmower parts, etc. etc. No idea if they have meths, but I bet they do. However, when I asked for a phased plasma rifle in the 40-Watt range, the cashier said "Hey, just what you see, pal", so they don't have absolutely everything. But then who does? The meths pictured (along with my 0.6 litre Sigg Brenstoffflasche) was purchased at a similarly rustic hardware shop in Dursley (or possibly Cam) just before we set off on our Dartmoor training walk a few weeks ago.

Lastly but by no means leastly, some Bovril. Very important to have a beefy drink capability while you're yomping across frozen tundra.

I didn't realise that for a couple of years Unilever had removed all trace of actual beef from the recipe because of fears over BSE, thereby turning it, effectively, into the dreaded Marmite. Apparently this was also done "to make the product suitable for vegetarians and vegans". Huh? Anyway, I checked the label and my jar (modelled here by Father Christmas, just to get you into the festive spirit) has a whopping 43% beef extract in it, so that's OK. Incidentally Father Christmas is not accompanying us to Dartmoor, though he should in theory be used to the prevailing weather, what with living at the North Pole.

There is another bit of kit I forgot - I also bought a tarpaulin for a quid from Warehouse Direct, who I think I may have plugged before, but no harm in doing it again, as they're very good. The picture shows the tarpaulin and the Trangia in use - this is us brewing up some lunch round the back of Hetty Pegler's Tump. Mmmm....noodles.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

television reviews, if you want them

I feel strangely compelled to share some rambling and directionless views on a few things I saw on the television recently. This is part of my bid to get the BBC to offer me a job as the new Clive James or Ludovic Kennedy, though ideally without being as fat and bald, or dead, respectively.

Actually, I've just checked, and Ludovic Kennedy is apparently still alive - I do beg his pardon, unless of course he's died while I've been writing this.

Look Around You

BBC2 have been re-running the first series of this recently. I mention this only to point out that a) it's brilliant, and b) there is an interesting and instructive contrast to be drawn between series 1 - a tightly focused spoof of schools science programming in quick 10 minute episodes, and series 2 - a slightly less focused spoof of science programmes in general, and Tomorrow's World in particular, in more orthodox comedy show 25-30 minute episodes, and considerably less brilliant. The lessons from all this being, I suppose: just because you've had one great idea doesn't mean you can have another, and greater creative and editorial freedom and a bigger budget don't necessarily make for higher quality output.

Oz and James's Big Wine Adventure

Couple of things annoy me in a sort of low-level way about this one, though not enough to prevent me from watching it occasionally: firstly it's one of those reality TV "road trip" kind of programmes which invite us to buy into the whole idea of these two crazy English eccentrics tooling round the country in a Jag, camping in vineyards, sampling wine, having other assorted crazy adventures, etc. etc., conveniently forgetting that there's a 20-strong film crew following them around all over the place, a director demanding re-takes, etc. And I bet they don't really spend the nights under canvas at all.

Also, it's perfectly obvious from watching Top Gear on an occasional basis (as I do) that James May is actually a highly intelligent and cultured bloke in a way that his two co-presenters aren't, but he seems to have taken it upon himself to be a sort of Clarkson-lite (or Diet Clarkson, if you will) for the purposes of this programme. For comedic purposes no doubt, but it's mildly depressing seeing an obviously intelligent person pretending to be a knucklehead to appeal to the masses.

Which is not to say that I think his criticisms of wine poncery are unjustified, far from it. I bow to no-one in my love of wine of all kinds, but there is an awful lot of flannel talked about it - indeed talking flannel about it is now a thriving industry employing people such as Oz Clarke to enthuse about how this particular bottle of Chateau Aznavour tastes of recently-vacated nun's bicycle saddle. The most recent episode was a case in point: a lot of long-winded talk about terroir, which when it comes down to it is a fairly easy concept to grasp: the physical characteristics of the place of the wine's origin have an influence on how it tastes. Well, duh, as they don't say in the Languedoc. This is hardly a concept unique to wine - real ale production, a process with a lot of parallels to wine production, is another good example. That's why uprooting and relocating breweries seldom works; sadly the recent demise of the Smiles brewery in Bristol is a good example. Brewery bought up and relocated to Walsall, beer was never the same, punters stopped drinking it, pubs stopped selling it, brewery closed down. If we were as proud and fiercely protective of our real ale brewing traditions as the French are of their wine industry (and we should be), this sort of thing wouldn't happen.

Too Big To Walk?

I confess - I watched this for two reasons, neither of them very edifying or reflecting on me very well: firstly I was reclining on the sofa with a glass of wine and it was the best thing (of a fairly ropey bunch) on the TV, and secondly I had a sort of appalled fascination after seeing a couple of teaser clips earlier in the evening.

To be fair it was slightly less appalling and exploitative than it looked like it was going to be (imagine my disappointment!), i.e. a bit more concentration on the people involved rather than lingering close-ups of wobbly sweaty flesh (though there was a bit of that too). Needless to say anyone watching would spend a lot of their time shouting at the TV at the level of self-delusion, laziness and just, well, morbid fatness being displayed by the participants, but even among the parade of lard there were some interesting personality contrasts - particularly between Vincent from Brighton (32 stone, painfully self-conscious, completely dominated by his mother on the evidence of their brief phone conversation shortly before he opted out of the challenge and went home, probably gay - do I assume too much? Possibly) who you couldn't see getting out from under his weight problem without some serious therapy, and Adam from Newcastle (22 stone, bluff and beardy, positively keen on the whole outdoor challenge by the end) who seemed so relatively well-adjusted you couldn't quite understand how he'd got himself in such a state to start with - though his wife's penchant for serving up deep-fried lettuce can't have helped.

The Paul O'Grady Show

Not something I watch very often, I hasten to add; there's only so many couch-bound interviews between nondescript ITV soap stars and an ageing Scouse transvestite I can stomach. I was off work the other day and it was on immediately after Deal Or No Deal, so I watched a bit of it. I only mention it because Billie Piper was on, and she seems to be sporting a kind of slightly demure, severely bespectacled, but slightly sexy schoolmistressy look these days. I like it; even if she does still look just a little bit like David Coulthard. In a dress.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

album of the day

The Yes Album by Yes.

I'm well aware I'm on dodgy ground here. Despite some recent artists releasing albums of a vaguely "prog" nature (most obviously Radiohead and, more recently, Muse) progressive rock still has a bit of a dodgy image, conjuring up images of Rick Wakeman and his capes, banks of keyboards and The Six Wives of Henry VIII On Ice, and Peter Gabriel dressed as a sunflower. And Yes, being the poster boys for the whole progressive rock movement, get the brunt of the criticism.

But....this is a great album. It's the first "proper" album by the fully-formed line up, released early in 1971, and for all that it displays all the hallmarks of prog rock (toe-stubbing key and tempo changes in mid-song, multi-part "symphonic" songs, or, to put it another way, lots of unrelated songs glued together at random), the overwhelming impression is one of sheer manic unbridled energy. You can hear this in the introduction to the first song Yours Is No Disgrace; crunchy guitar riff from Steve Howe, steaming organ from Tony Kaye, and then Chris Squire's bassline driving things along, despite playing about four times as many notes as most bass players would deem appropriate. Even the trademark lyrical nonsense from Jon Anderson about "shining flying purple wolfhounds" can't put a damper on things. The multi-part Starship Trooper is the best thing on the album, mainly because of Steve Howe's hypnotic space-rock guitar instrumental Wurm which takes up the last three minutes or so. Jon Anderson's A Venture is the album's weak spot, a bit whimsical for my taste, but the nine minutes of Perpetual Change finishes things off in style. In most ways it's the most orthodox rock song on the album, but even then they can't resist throwing in a squelchy polyrhythmic synthesiser and drum interlude about five minutes in, just to make absolutely sure no-one can do anything as frivolous as dance or tap their feet along to it.

This is the high water mark of Yes's career - the next album Fragile sowed the seeds of their doom by allowing each band member an individual "showcase" song to show off as they saw fit. It was a short step from there to Tales From Topographic Oceans (one album, two LPs, four songs), capes, King Arthur on ice, etc. But if it wasn't for this, punk would never have had to happen, and the course of popular music, and indeed popular culture, might have been very different. So.....think on.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

assorted observations

I went up to visit my parents in Herefordshire at the weekend. I took Hazel with me (well, we met up on the way) for the obligatory Meet The Parents weekend. Luckily no-one set fire to the house, lost the family cat, sprayed the contents of the septic tank everywhere, broke someone's nose playing volleyball in a swimming pool, etc. Surprising, as it's all so easily done. There are some photographs, but the gallery area appears to be inaccessible at the moment, so it'll have to wait. I'll put a link up as soon as it's back; you'll have to make do with the miniature image here for the moment.

As it was Sunday there were the obligatory engineering works on various parts of the railway network, in particular the Welsh Marches Line between Hereford and Newport, and the Birmingham - Bristol main line. So I had a slightly circuitous rail journey home, specifically from Hereford to Worcester Shrub Hill, and then from there via Gloucester to Bristol. Fascinating railway station fact: Gloucester has the longest railway station platform in Britain, at 1975 feet. The second longest one is in Cambridge; the longest one in the world is in Kharagpur in India at 3517 feet. No idea what it's for.

Zara Phillips appears to have won the BBC Sports Personality Of The Year award. Fair enough I suppose; I didn't really have an opinion as it was a bit of a grim year for British sport. It probably should have been Joe Calzaghe, but they don't give the award to boxers unless they're a) heavyweights, b) lovable showbiz-friendly types like Henry Cooper and Frank Bruno and c) heroic plucky British failures who never actually won anything proper - like Henry Cooper and Frank Bruno. Third place went to gymnast Beth Tweddle (pictured) who is undoubtedly a fine athlete, though she could also, to quote my friend Mario, eat an apple through a letterbox.

Friday, December 08, 2006

dugongs do not eat biltong; that would be wrong

Before anyone points out the obvious, dugongs (and their larger cousins manatees) are of course herbivorous, subsisting largely on sea grass and kelp, as well as the odd helping of zabaglione. In fact sirenians (i.e. dugongs and manatees) are the only herbivorous aquatic mammals on earth. FACT.

Which provides an interesting control experiment: if these big leathery buffoons taste "fishy" then it must be the extensive seawater marination that does it. Unless sea grass tastes of fish, of course. Does that mean land grass tastes of beef?

A lives in B, eats C, tastes of D

Consider this:

Humans (carnivorous ones like me anyway) eat a variety of other mammals and birds. The vast majority of these species are herbivorous (I'm taking care not to fall into the anthropomorphic trap of saying "vegetarian") ones. Now this may be because humans don't relish the taste of carnivorous animals, but it's more likely to be for the very sound evolutionary reason that a small puny caveman wielding a javelin and chasing a lion is highly likely to get eaten instead of ending up with a plate of juicy lionburgers. To put it another way, those who did have a taste for carnivorous flesh and an overwhelming desire to hunt it got taken out of the gene pool early on, leaving the gazelle-eaters to inherit the earth. So we tend to focus on things like:

  • Pig
  • Sheep
  • Cow
  • Rabbit
  • Zebra
- etc. etc. It's very much the same story with birds: we eat the nice placid harmless ones like:

  • Chicken
  • Goose
  • Guinea fowl
  • Partridge
  • Pheasant
  • Ostrich
- but not the stroppy sharp-beaked ones like sparrowhawks, eagles and vultures who would have your eye out as soon as look at you. Actually, there is another good reason we don't eat vultures: they smell of wee.

Now (I'm working towards my point, though it might be a minute or two yet): we also eat fish. And while some fish no doubt browse on seaweed and other non-meat products like watercress, tofu, sponge fingers, that sort of thing, most of them eat other fish, or at least other sea creatures like krill, shrimp, etc. etc. And fish taste of, well, fish.

So my question is: given that there are a substantial number of both mammals and birds which live in the sea (or near it, in the case of the birds) and eat, predominantly at least, fish, two questions spring to mind:
  • Why don't we eat any of them?
  • What do they taste like?
I have a feeling there are some people up in the Faroe Islands somewhere who eat puffins, but apart from that I'm not sure I can think of a seafood-eating bird or mammal that humans commonly eat. I guess the Inuit probably chow down on the odd seal from time to time, and the Japanese probably fry up the odd whale steak as a by-product of their whaling activities, for "research" purposes of course, hem hem.

So does piscivorous mammal taste of mammal, or fish? And if, say, porpoise tastes of fish, is that because it eats fish, or because it's been marinated in seawater its entire life? To put it another way, does fish taste of fish because it eats fish, or because it is fish?

I think I see a gap in the market for:

Dave's Dugong Deli and Diner

While you're touring the Great Barrier Reef, why not stop in at Dave's and sample some delicious dugong? These big blubbery oafs aren't called "sea cows" for nothing - no, it's because you can cut them up into steaks and chargrill them over a barbecue. Enjoy a medium rare dugongburger as the sun goes down. Also available: manatee madras, whale rarebit, walrusdorf salad.

Speaking of dugongs, have a look at this, it's quite amusing.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

album of the day

A Camp by, erm, A Camp.

File under: pleasant surprises. I was never a big fan of The Cardigans, inoffensive as songs like My Favourite Game and Erase/Rewind were - maybe that was the problem. This, being as it is the first solo album by Cardigans lead singer Nina Persson, is a different kettle of fish altogether, though.

The first obstacle you have to get past before listening to it, though, is the name: I can't think of a band/album name more calculated to kill your sales stone dead. I mean, I understand she didn't want to be seen to be trading on her fame with The Cardigans, and to have people discover the album on its own merits, but at least have a name people can pronounce. Is it "A Camp" as in a large area with tents in it, or is it "A Camp" as in the one before B Camp (sort of like the A Team, perhaps). In either case, what does it all mean?

Get past that slight annoyance, though, and what you find within is a quirky collection of country-pop-ish numbers. Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse fame produces, and brings his usual bag of tricks with him: weird ambient sampled noise, tape hiss and crackle, bizarre instrumentation ("chamberlin", "jupiter", "orchestron" and "magic genie" were all new to me). It's the slower stuff that works best, like Frequent Flyer, I Can Buy You (the single), Song For The Leftovers and Silent Night. Add in a few judiciously-chosen cover versions like Restless Heart's The Bluest Eyes In Texas to balance out the slightly lumpier up-tempo stuff like The Oddness Of The Lord, and you've got something far more complex and satisfying than anything The Cardigans ever did.

Inevitably this means it sold a tiny fraction of an album like Gran Turismo, though. Paying too much attention to sales figures is the first step to owning a large collection of Westlife and Daniel O'Donnell albums, though, so be warned.

Monday, December 04, 2006


Just thought I'd share this as I had no particular expectations that it would work, and it actually turned out quite well.

I'd had a couple of tins of condensed milk in my pantry (I really do have a pantry; it's great) for a while - I bought them after reading that you could turn it into caramel/toffee by heating the whole tin up in a pan of boiling water. There are recipes on the internet (an example is here) which recommend this approach, but I wimped out in the end for two reasons:
  • The recommendation is to boil the unopened tin in a large pan of water for 2 hours. I couldn't be bothered to wait that long, especially as there was a recipe on the tin which recommended just heating up the contents of the tin in a saucepan on top of the stove for 5-10 minutes.
  • I was mildly concerned (particularly given my chronic absent-mindedness) that I would allow the contents of the pan to boil dry and arrive back in the kitchen just as the tin exploded in a hail of red-hot metal shards and flayed the living flesh from my skull, which I imagine would smart a bit.
Anyway, with that in mind (and feel free to try the tin-boiling thing if you like) here is an approximate recipe:

Dave's Instant Death Caramel Cheesecake
  • A 10-inch flan tin (one with a press-out bottom - ooer missus - is good)
  • Two 400g tins of condensed milk
  • One 250g pot of mascarpone cheese
  • Half a bar of chocolate (take your pick; I used Green & Black's milk chocolate, which is great, apart from the temptation to scoff the lot instead of cooking with it)
  • One packet of Hob-Nobs
  • Ground ginger
  • Ground cinnamon
  • Butter (200g or so)
Melt the chocolate in a bowl over some boiling water. Melt the butter, crush the biscuits (in a sealable freezer bag with a rolling pin is a good way) and add them to the butter with a good pinch of ginger and cinnamon. Press the resulting goop into the bottom and up the sides of the flan tin, and stick it in the fridge for half an hour or so. Meanwhile....put the condensed milk in a saucepan and heat it for 5-10 minutes, stirring constantly (this is very important or it will stick and burn; not quite as bad as having the very flesh stripped from your bones by flaming shrapnel, but not good nonetheless in recipe terms). It will darken a bit and thicken up. At this point dump all the cheese in, take it off the heat and stir like a maniac. Put half of it into the base (which you've gone and fetched from the fridge in the meantime), spread the melted chocolate over the top, then spread the other half over the top. Bung it in the fridge for a couple of hours, and you're done.

A note of caution if you're on some sort of macrobiotic vegan diet - this is one of the sickliest desserts in the world. It's also not recommended if you have a family history of congestive heart disease or angina, as it will scoot over to your aorta and park itself there until you die. In fact I wouldn't go so far as to recommend it to anyone, purely for legal reasons you understand. It is, however, delicious, as long as you don't mind it being the last thing you'll ever eat. Pictures follow.....

Friday, December 01, 2006


Crazy coincidental footnote to my ramblings about Kate Rusby in the previous post: it is her 33rd birthday today. Cue wibbly-wobbly Twilight Zone music......

album of the day

Music From Big Pink by The Band.

I wasn't alive in 1967, but it was the year of the Summer Of Love, of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Are You Experienced?, and assorted other general purple paisley psychedelic stuff. Not that I am in any way knocking either of the albums I've just mentioned, but they are both very much of their time. Whereas Music From Big Pink must have gone completely against the grain of the times - it's raw, rootsy, folky, all the things Sgt. Pepper isn't, for instance. Music legend has it that it was after hearing this album that Eric Clapton decided to break up his psychedelic blues-rock power trio Cream and concentrate on more low-key stuff (Blind Faith, Derek & The Dominos, his early solo work).

Generally bands like to have a bit of arresting up-tempo scene-setting opening an album - not here though, MFBP opens with the horribly curdled sound of Robbie Robertson's guitar fed through a Leslie speaker which opens the funereal Tears Of Rage. A few more up-tempo numbers follow, including The Weight, which was featured in Easy Rider (though it wasn't The Band's version), became a minor UK hit single and remains their best known song. Later highlights include the ghostly Long Black Veil, Chest Fever's steaming Phantom Of The Opera-style organ intro, the original version of This Wheel's On Fire (co-written by bass player Rick Danko and Bob Dylan) and Richard Manuel's haunting falsetto rendition of Dylan's I Shall Be Released. It's all strangely timeless, in the same way as modern folk artists like Gillian Welch or Kate Rusby. Outside of the recording studio these people obviously live perfectly normal modern lives with kettles, digital watches, etc. etc., but listening to the music it's hard not to picture them in some sepia-toned scene, walking along behind an ox-drawn plough strumming a banjo.

Clearly it's an exercise in shooting fish in a barrel to bemoan the state of modern popular music, but this was a top-30 album (its follow-up, the eponymous "sepia" album, went top 10) which included the following (this is Long Black Veil in its entirety):
Ten years ago, on a cold dark night
There was someone killed 'neath the town hall light
There were few at the scene, but they all did agree
That the man who ran looked a lot like me

The judge said: son, what is your alibi
If you were somewhere else, then you won't have to die
I spoke not a word, though it meant my life
I had been in the arms of my best friend's wife

She walks these hills in a long black veil
She visits my grave where the night winds wail
Nobody knows, nobody sees
Nobody knows but me

The scaffold was high, and eternity near
She stood in the crowd and shed not a tear
But sometimes at night, when the cold wind moans
In a long black veil, she cries over my bones

She walks these hills in a long black veil
She visits my grave where the night winds wail
Nobody knows, nobody sees
Nobody knows but me
That's three short verses and a couple of choruses that tells a whole story; a masterpiece of lyrical concision. And it's not even The Band's song - it's a country standard written back in 1959.

Speaking of Kate Rusby, as I was, I watched a small amount of Jennifer Saunders' new sitcom Jam And Jerusalem the other day. Nothing much to say about the programme itself, which irritated me in a similar way to The Vicar Of Dibley, but the theme tune appeared to be a cover of The Kinks' The Village Green Preservation Society sung by the divine Ms Rusby. Those crystal-clear Barnsley vowels are unmistakable. She seems to be making a bit of a bit for world domination at the moment, as I seem to remember her releasing a duet with Ronan Keating earlier in the year. Which doesn't sound a very appealing prospect to me, but anything which brings her to a wider audience must be a good thing.

laughing like a....

Following on from my last post: fascinating Nick Lowe fact: his midle name appears to be "Drain". Is it just me, or is that slightly odd?

lists of the day

Today's list is a short one. Anyone who can find a legitimate third entry for this list wins my undying respect and gratitude.

Two-word answers given to questions by showbiz celebrities which are themselves the names of other showbiz celebrities, whether real or fictional:

When Michael Stipe was asked to explain R.E.M.'s reasons for agreeing to sign a major-label deal with Warner Brothers in 1988, he replied "Bugs Bunny". [Translation: well, artistic freedom, worldwide distribution, etc. etc., obviously, but it was mainly for the money. Does anyone want a go on my new yacht?]

When David Crosby was pulled over by the police in the late 1980's and asked why, among the crack pipes and assorted other drug paraphernalia in his car, he also had a loaded gun on the passenger seat, he replied "John Lennon". [Translation: I'm out of my tiny mind on crack and booze, and I need a liver transplant. Can I have yours?]

Actually, here's another one:

Retaliatory record release naming following an accidental name-drop in the title of an original record release:

Shortly after David Bowie released his album Low in the late 1970's, Nick Lowe responded by releasing an EP called Bowi (pictured).

Following R.E.M's (you can spot the connection) release of their album Green (pictured) in 1989, Chicago-based band Green responded by releasing an album called R.E.M.