Friday, August 31, 2007

well bugger me

While I'm on the subject of Republican morality I must just mention this story in the Independent today, as it was referenced on The Panda's Thumb, by, erm, well, me, apparently. Good to see I'm putting the boot into the right people, even when I don't know I'm doing it.

The story also has all the classic elements of a Republico-conservo-religious scandal: respectable middle-aged pillar of the community, church-goer, family man, etc. etc. getting up to some really top-quality squalid furtive homosexual activity. Not that there's anything squalid per se about rampant gay sex, unless of course your whole political career and religious belief system is based on denouncing it as wrong and sinful. Ted Haggard and Mark Foley deserve honourable (if that's the word) mentions here as well.

do as they say, not as they do

Just a brief postscript to my vaguely US election-flavoured ramblings earlier - this Doonesbury cartoon from a few months back, which makes an obvious but worthwhile point about the Republicans' usual claim to be the party of aw-shucks honest-to-goodness downhome rootsy morality (religiously-derived in most cases, or so they would claim anyway).

And before we Brits start getting too smug and superior about it, David Cameron's latest musings on the subject of Family Values reveal a similar hardcore right-wing set of policies lurking under that cuddly "call me Dave" exterior. Gradually the matey disguise is peeling away to reveal the green scaly jackbooted sabre-toothed lizard beneath. Which is all quite amusing on one level, but let's not forget this bloke could, in a sequence of events I hope fervently will never come to pass, be Prime Minister of this country by 2009 or so.

incidental music spot of the day

Hocus Pocus by Focus over the closing credits of the new series of Saxondale. I haven't seen any of the second series beyond the 5 minutes plus credits I saw last night, but I thought the first series was quite good. Certainly above Tony Ferrino and Dr. Terrible's House Of Horrible on Steve Coogan's CV, though below the mighty Partridge of course. Refresh your memory here.

As for the song - well, it's nice to look back on those halcyon days (1973 in fact) when an instrumental built around a driving rock guitar riff broken up by occasional random passages of yodelling, flute-playing and spouting of strange Goonish gibberish can be a hit single (#20 in the UK, #9 in the US). Ah, more innocent times. Well, they were for me anyway, though to be fair I was only three at the time.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

vote godless bastard in 2008

The Hitch is on a book tour of America in support of his new book, and he's writing about it in his Vanity Fair column, with his usual panache. He does raise one interesting point, among many:
One day a decent candidate for high office will say that he is not a person of faith, and the sky will not fall.
Well, I wonder. My feeling is that that will happen around the same time as the Presidential candidates can have a rational discussion about abortion, something that seems a very long way off indeed. I strongly believe, for instance, that as sparky and intelligent a woman as Hillary Clinton has, in private, no time whatsoever for the sort of irrational horseshit that she's required to pay lip service to in public. One day she will, when asked a question in a candidates' debate regarding "faith", feel free to respond in the appropriate way, i.e. with braying scornful laughter and pointing. I'm not convinced that will happen any time soon, though, but I'm increasingly convinced that those of us not susceptible to the charms of unicorns or the Flying Spaghetti Monster standing up and saying so instead of being so bleedin' polite and tolerant is the best way to speed up the coming of that day.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

the last book I read

Eclipse by John Banville.

So: actor Alexander Cleave has an attack of stagefright and flees the theatre scene to take refuge in his childhood home in the country. There he finds down-at-heel local solicitor Quirke and his feral daughter Lily squatting on the premises, is pursued by his wife Lydia and reflects on his childhood, career and marriage and his strained relationship with his troubled daughter Cass, while being troubled by what appear to be occasional ghostly apparitions.

All of which is well and good, but largely this is a book that dispenses as much as possible with all but the bare minimum of plot in favour of a whole lot of internal reflection. And very beautifully written internal reflection it is too, in a chilly sort of way. You could certainly make the same criticism as I did some time ago of The Heather Blazing, which is that the central character is a bit too cold and unsympathetic to really engage with or care much about. And you need to care at least a bit to be moved by the moment when reality intervenes at the end and Cleave's apparitions are revealed (in his mind at least) to be premonitions of disaster.

I had a similar slight problem (i.e. technical brilliance accompanied by a slightly chilly forbiddingness) with the only other Banville I've read, The Book Of Evidence, which was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1989 (Banville finally won the Booker with The Sea in 2005). Not that I'm knocking books that are a bit "difficult"; I can read a Harry bleedin' Potter every day of the week, just as soon as my intellectual self-respect deserts me completely. Probably any day now.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

more moors

Expanded version of earlier post with a new link to the Yorkshire photos, as the first lot only seemed to upload partially. A few accompanying observations which may be of interest:

Sunday: The Spurn peninsula is (to me anyway) a unique and fascinating geographical phenomenon; formed by longshore drift and the constant washing of sediment down the coast from the soft shoreline south of Flamborough Head, then eventually, as the same process narrows the neck of the spit, completely destroyed and washed away every 250 years or so, only for the process to immediately begin again a bit further north and west of the previous spit. By this timetable the current peninsula should have been destroyed in around 1850, but various groynes and other strengthening activities have increased its lifespan by another 150+ years. But this is only delaying the inevitable; driving along it now you can see where the peninsula road has been constantly re-routed over the years. Some time soon, probably within a few decades, Spurn as we know it will be gone. And then in another century or so it'll be back. Permanent sand spits can be much much bigger, a couple of good examples are in the Baltic. So as long as you can speak Lithuanian you'll be fine.

Monday: We stayed at the campsite at Middlewood Farm - very nice, but a bit windswept if the weather's a bit damp and breezy, which it was. While it was a bit nicer, in the morning, we walked along the track of the old Whitby to Scarborough railway between Fylingthorpe and the bricked-up tunnel at Ravenscar, stopped at the old alum works for lunch and then headed back to Robin Hood's Bay for an ice-cream and a pint. Lots of plaques etc. referring to the town being the end-point of Wainwright's Coast To Coast Walk. You can even get a plaque of your own to take away with you, if you like, just in case you have the sort of friends who, after you've been away walking for a fortnight and return exhausted and mud-spattered, choose not to believe you unless you can produce an engraved souvenir plate of some sort. Frankly in those circumstances you might be better off investing in some new friends.

Tuesday: Whitby Abbey is quite atmospheric in the fog - seems somehow appropriate as this is where Count Dracula came ashore (in the form of a giant hound) in Bram Stoker's novel. There is a Dracula Experience in the town, which I was expecting to be some sort of museum of literary delights, but turns out to be some sort of ghost train ride with people clanking chains and making woo-woo noises. The lunchtime fish and chips was very nice, though.

Wednesday: The highest point on the North York Moors is Round Hill on Urra Moor at approximately 1490 feet. So naturally I wanted to go and stand on top of it; this proved less easy than you might imagine in thick fog on a fairly featureless heathery plateau. We found it eventually, though. We had a sadly abortive attempt at cheese racing in the evening - Morrison's cheese slices have sadly inadequate seam sealing, though, resulting in fatal leaking of cheese.

Thursday: We stayed at the campsite at Spiers House for the second half of the week. On Thursday we took the waymarked 9-mile walk from the campsite around the Rosedale valley, and extended it by a couple of miles to the New Inn at Cropton, which has its own brewery out the back! And the beer is very nice, though calling their basic ale Two Pints (two pints of Two Pints, please) is a little bit arch and cutesy for its own good.

Friday: The North York Moors Railway claims to be the most popular heritage railway in the country. After all, they've got the village out of Heartbeat and Harry Potter (Goathland aka Aidensfield aka Hogsmeade). Far more importantly, the local co-operative shop in Grosmont sells excellent steak pies.

things you should download off iTunes today

It's probably very much the outside scoop to those who are aficionados of The O.C., but I heard Imogen Heap's Hide And Seek on Jo Whiley's Radio 1 show the other day, and it's really very good indeed. The vocoder seems to have made a bit of a comeback in recent years, starting with the fairly unremarkable use of it in Cher's enormo-hit Believe a while back, but this seems a genuinely innovative bit of music. Here's a live version which is quite close to the original, and here's a slightly sparser one apparently filmed at a rehearsal for a radio show of some sort.

She's a slightly strange equine beauty as well; reminds me of Ronni Ancona a bit. She also has a blog, including regular video updates, which reveal her to be slightly posh and scatty if not (in the latest one at least) revealing much about the creative or recording process, though there's some good stuff about plastering and what she cooked for lunch, if that's what you're after.

I don't want to go down the heard-it-all-before route, while stroking my beard and sucking ruminatively on my pipe-stem, but Hide And Seek is not dissimilar to Shadows And Light from Joni Mitchell's seminal 1975 album The Hissing Of Summer Lawns. That song is also available for download from iTunes. One more thing: The Hissing Of Summer Lawns is the Joni Mitchell album most popular with the jazz-heads and the rock critics, but 1972's Blue is The One. Just thought I'd let you know.

Monday, August 27, 2007

grim up north? you decide

It's late, so I'll keep this brief - here are some photos from our trip up north last week, comprising:
A fuller summary of our exciting activities will follow, including some captioning of photos. For the moment: the big ruin in the fog is Whitby Abbey, the big ruin in the sunshine is Rievaulx Abbey. Any other large mossy crumbly ruined structures are probably me.

Friday, August 17, 2007

this is my last blog post

....for a week and a bit anyway, as Hazel and I are off on holiday for a week and I don't anticipate having internet access. We're off to Yorkshire, mainly camping on or near the North York Moors but starting off in Hull on Saturday - not because it's a spot of great touristic importance, but because we're going to a wedding there. Though it does have the Humber Bridge which is interesting if you like huge man-made engineering structures (and who doesn't?). Interesting related fact: it's entirely incorrect to refer to the "River Humber" as there is no such thing. The Humber is specifically the estuary formed from the outflow of the rivers Ouse, Trent and Hull (and a few smaller insignificant dribbly ones). So you can say "the Humber" or "the Humber estuary" but never "the River Humber". Remember that.

I'm trying to persuade Hazel that we need to detour between Hull and the moors to visit Spurn Head as I've always found it completely fascinating. I'm not sure she's entirely convinced. Seems to me like an excellent place to blow away a hangover, as well as hats, outer layers of skin, etc.

Photos and more detailed reports on places of interest to follow when I get back after the Bank Holiday.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

this blog certified BANNED in China

Bit of a badge of honour, really - Electric Halibut tells it like it is, doesn't take any jibba jabba from no jive turkey, still less from The Man, still less when The Man is some shady operative of the Thought Police in Beijing. Electric Halibut is down with the boys in Tiananmen Square, and feels their pain, except for the getting run over by a tank bit.

Anyway it's official - I'm banned in China. Clearly they can't handle the truth. Test your website here.

feel the warm thrill of confusion, that space-cadet glow

Brief footnote to the previous post: Doug and I went to Glastonbury in 2002 and Roger Waters was one of the headlining acts (mid-evening on the Sunday). The significance of a band featuring just one member of the original line-up that recorded The Wall playing songs from it, particularly the one (In The Flesh) that goes "they sent us along, as a surrogate band" wasn't lost on me, I can tell you. Now that, Alanis Morrissette, is ironic.

Even briefer footnote: Gerald Scarfe has a website featuring lots of artwork, including lots of Wall-related stuff. Have a look, it's really very good.

Monday, August 13, 2007

album of the day

The Wall by Pink Floyd.

This review will be in the form of a few seemingly unconnected random observations. Here goes:
  • Pink Floyd are bracketed together with Yes and various others in the group of bands that punk had to happen to act as an antidote to (Steve Jones famously wore an I Hate Pink Floyd T-shirt). If you mark the advent of punk at 1976/1977 then it's certainly true that Yes's popularity had peaked well before this, but The Wall was released in 1979, so.....oh, I dunno. I might have had a point there, but I've forgotten what it was.
  • Your clich├ęd progressive rock album has a small number of long meandering tunes on it; certainly something you could say of The Wall's predecessors Wish You Were Here and Animals, but actually The Wall is a series of quite concise songs (26 of them); Comfortably Numb at 6:21 is comfortably (you see what I did there) the longest song on the album.
  • Roger Waters' son Harry provides the child's voice at the start of Goodbye Blue Sky.
  • Another Brick In The Wall Part 2 is a perfect pop single (famously, the first UK number 1 single of the 1980s), and it's David Gilmour's loose-wristed funky guitar part that makes it. My old schoolfriend Mungo (no, that really was his name) was at the school that provided the kiddy choir.
  • The film is a bit of a mixed bag; obviously the songs are great, and Bob Geldof isn't bad in a blank-faced sort of way as the central character, but the live-action sequences are just an interlude while you wait for more of Gerald Scarfe's jaw-dropping animation to come along. This is Goodbye Blue Sky, and this is Empty Spaces.
  • It starts to get a little bit rock opera towards the end, round about the time of The Trial, not that I'm knocking a song which prominently features the word "defecate".
  • Comfortably Numb is another one of these vital-signs litmus-test songs; if this doesn't do the hair-on-the-back-of-the-neck thing for you, then get yourself checked out. The Scissor Sisters' camp disco version should, if there's any justice in the world, result in the perpetrators having their large intestines pulled slowly out through their ears with a crochet hook throughout eternity.
  • More than any other Floyd album this one features intelligent combined use of Waters and Gilmour's vocals - for instance Gilmour doing the lullaby bits in The Thin Ice and Mother and Waters doing the oh no, everything's fucked bits in the same songs, and of course Waters doing the verses and Gilmour the chorus in Comfortably Numb.
  • Roger Waters dominated Pink Floyd's output increasingly throughout the 1970s, and this album is largely his brainchild. The single dominant event driving the creative juices here is Waters' father Eric's death in 1944 - Another Brick In The Wall Part 1, Vera and Bring The Boys Back Home reference it directly, as does most of Pink Floyd's next and last album The Final Cut in 1983 and the unreleased track When The Tigers Broke Free which was included on the compilation Echoes in 2001. Those are your actual "issues", right there.

and another

Stephen Glover nails the slight weirdness of the case against Channel 4's Dispatches programme Undercover Mosque - unless the programme-makers spliced stuff together to put words into the Muslim clerics' mouths that they didn't actually say (and I'm pretty sure no-one's suggesting they did) then the accusation boils down to the programme-makers giving an unbalanced view by editing out all the non-inflammatory stuff about the mosque newsletter, how the fund-raising for the new roof was going and how fundamentally nice and adorable kittens and fluffy rabbits are, in favour of focussing on all that other stuff they just happened to say about beheading people, stoning homosexuals to death, beating and oppressing women, etc.

Either you have TV programmes that are 73 hours long, or some editing of footage is required; it's called journalism. I'm sure the police's motives were good, but there's a danger, post-Lawrence, of bending over backwards not to be seen to be racist to the extent that your collective head disappears up your collective arse.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

just a quickie

...the occasionally irritating but occasionally spot-on Charlie Brooker in spot-on mode in the Guardian yesterday on Richard Dawkins' new Channel 4 series The Enemies Of Reason.
If you've ever described yourself as "quite spiritual", do civilisation a favour and punch yourself in the throat until you're incapable of speaking aloud ever again.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

incidental music spot of the day

Led Zeppelin's Communication Breakdown from their first album on BBC3's The Real Hustle. There's a whole lengthy blog post here on the subject of how this show and the original drama Hustle are, to say the very least, somewhat morally suspect, but I restrict myself to the music, not least the bit where Robert Plant appears to shout "SUCK ME" before the frenzied guitar solo in the middle. Great.

Incidentally Robert Plant is featuring in the fifth Green Man festival at the Glanusk Estate near Crickhowell in the Brecon Beacons (here in fact) this coming weekend. If you're at at a loose end I'd seriously recommend going along; Plant plays on Saturday 18th but I'd suggest going along the previous night to see the profoundly barking Joanna Newsom and her crazy harp-wrangling antics. I'll be in Hull, otherwise I'd be there with you.

tonight's TV nuggets

I've just caught, pretty much by accident, an adaptation of John Wyndham's short story Random Quest on BBC4. It was fine, not the greatest thing ever filmed, but quite good. Starring Samuel West and the lovely Kate Ashfield, who I last saw in Shaun Of The Dead - since then she appears to have changed her hair colour from blonde to black (for dramatic purposes no doubt) and given up eating (presumably not). Seriously, love, eat some pies, you'll feel better for it.

It's nice, though, to see that BBC4 are still producing "serious" drama. The adaptation updates things a bit (the original story would have been published back in the 1950s) by slotting in a few modern references like Condoleeza Rice being US President. It's certainly not the most interesting of Wyndham's short stories, but it's an interesting (if much-used) premise, the whole parallel universe thing. I have the story in the collection Consider Her Ways And Others; I would suggest if you want a seriously good Wyndham parallel-universe story you should go for Pillar To Post in the collection The Seeds Of Time. And if you want a Wyndham novel, you should shun the better-known stuff like The Day Of The Triffids and The Midwich Cuckoos and read The Chrysalids. That's if you only want one; I'd seriously suggest reading all the above, plus The Kraken Wakes.

Friday, August 10, 2007

it really IS silly season all year round for these people

One of the things I like very much about The Independent is that it offers a broad range of views, some corresponding roughly with my own, some not. In many ways the ones that don't are the ones that are the most interesting; for instance I'm pretty sure the Indy only retains the services of Bruce Anderson to prevent its readership getting into a nice contented complacent liberal rut, a very valuable service. Seriously, you need a nice bracing bit of this:
Britain has the highest rate of single-motherhood in Europe, which is why we also have the highest prison population
occasionally, just to make the blood boil, while you imagine old Bruce sitting in his club in his pinstriped suit eating roast beef and spotted dick, guzzling claret and fulminating about the gays. It's good for you.

Dominic Lawson is another candidate, and he's surpassed himself this morning with a really tremendously incoherent article about religion. This is a man who knows where my buttons are, and isn't afraid to get in there and press away furiously. He starts off slowly with a bit of praise for his late brother-in-law John Diamond and for Richard Dawkins (who wrote the foreword for Diamond's last book Snake Oil), then veers off Sanity St. wildly, knocking bins over and everything, by invoking the religion-as-moral-framework fallacy and the "No True Scotsman" argument, throwing the Bible-as-metaphor fallacy smoke-bomb in after it, and then hitting us with the "god of the gaps" argument as we emerge coughing into the daylight. I'd like you to imagine, if you will, the old Family Fortunes double-farty noise after each one of those ingredients in what is a pretty rich and gamey logical fallacy salad.

Lawson's starting-point, before moving on to religion, was the rise of so-called "alternative" and "complementary" therapies (hence the Snake Oil reference), and another of our more reliable conservative wingnut columnists, Mad Mel Phillips, has had a slightly bizarre rant on a similar theme in the Daily Mail. The comments are great, particularly the one about "facts" from the bloke in Scarborough, though that one must surely be satirical. Mustn't it? More wide-ranging, though slightly less sympathetic comments (i.e. they're not from Daily Mail readers) can be found on Richard Dawkins' website (which reproduces the article in full) and on Pharyngula (which links to it).

Thursday, August 09, 2007

celebrity lookey-likey of the day

Former Empire Of The Sun (there's that JG Ballard connection again) child star and current scary method acting obsessive Christian Bale, and former SAS commando and current elephant shit-eating comfy hotel bed-occupying twig-whittling faux-survivalist Bear Grylls. Bale left and Bear right, as my co-pilot screamed at me over Dresden only the other day.

















The inimitable Aerial Telly has a good piece on Bear's latest Discovery Channel series Man vs. Room Service, oops, I mean Man Vs. Wild. As well as a slightly more deranged piece about the latest in the Brangelina saga that fascinates us all so much. Oh, come on, yes it does.

Also in the news: plans afoot for a film based on the life story and Olympic exploits of our very own Eddie "The Eagle" Edwards. You want a nutshell-sized explanation for Britain's lack of sporting success, not just in the Olympic arena, but across the whole gamut of other sports, compared to other nations with a much smaller base of sportspeople to select from like, say, Australia? Yes, lack of facilities and investment, of course. But I also offer you this story as a crystallisation of what's wong with our attitude to sport: the idea that it's a bit vulgar to try to win anything, that you should take it on the chin and not show how gutted you are when you lose, and most of all that the frankly embarrassing exploits of some gurning simpleton whose claim to sporting fame is coming LAST in two Olympic events is in some way cause for celebration. You think this film would have been made in Australia? Don Bradman, Cathy Freeman, Jack Brabham, well, maybe, but if their system had thown up an Eddie The Eagle he would quietly have been forgotten and never spoken of again. A lesson we should learn, and pronto.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

sinking a long one

I played golf this evening up at Woodlands in Bradley Stoke; shot 91 which was pretty good considering I hadn't played since about March. If I'd been able to putt at all and hadn't taken 9 at the last after dumping my second shot in a lake I might even have gone sub-90. Ah well.

I was watching golf at the weekend as well, as it happens, as it was the Women's Open Championship at St. Andrew's. There are a lot of lessons that the struggling amateur can learn from the ladies, not least that you don't have to be a great muscle-bound hulking brute or whack the cover off the ball to hit it a long way; rhythm and technique are far more important.

It's also undoubtedly true that a lot of the ladies do look very decorative in their golfing outfits; Paula Creamer (pictured left), Open champion Lorena Ochoa (pictured above), Karine Icher and the rest. So much so that you do get to feel a bit like you've got a permanent Albert Steptoe leer on your face after a while. I get the same thing watching ladies' tennis.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

the last book I read

The Inner Circle by T.C. Boyle.

You'll recall (if you've been paying attention) that I read a Boyle not so long ago - well, I was in an Oxfam shop shortly after that and I spotted this one, so I snapped it up.

In a nutshell, this is (like Riven Rock) a story based on true events, though in this case they're much more famous true events: the sex research of Alfred Kinsey, culminating in the publication of the celebrated (and notorious) Kinsey reports of 1948 and 1953.

The novel's (fictional) protagonist is John Milk, who is recruited to Kinsey's staff at the University of Indiana. Milk assists Kinsey with his early gathering of sexual histories, and is welcomed into Kinsey's trust (the "inner circle", if you will) to a slightly greater extent than you might imagine, specifically, to the extent of having sex with Kinsey's wife, Mac. Meanwhile Milk is conducting his own fledgling romance with Iris, a sparky and independent-minded woman who becomes Mrs. Milk.

As the volume of work increases more staff are recruited to the project, and they and their wives add further layers of complication to the sexual free-for-all that develops among the staff. Kinsey himself encourages this; as the project progresses its activities widen to the making of "educational" films and more abandoned sexual profligacy among the staff. This inevitably causes conflict with Iris's sceptical views about the whole project and the birth of the Milks' first child.

It's all highly readable, and - hey! - it is, to a large extent, about sex, so it's never going to be not interesting, but.....it's hampered by a fairly unsympathetic central character who is too in awe of Kinsey to resist his barmier urges, and it doesn't really go anywhere much. Boyle writes highly entertainingly, but I would say this isn't as good as Riven Rock. Apparently Drop City and The Tortilla Curtain are the ones, so I'll keep 'em peeled in the second-hand shops.