52% intelligent. 9% modest. More monkey than bear.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

oh candy kisses and a velvet tongue...

Heavy Trash / Power Solo @ Bodega Social Club, 30th September 2008

I was first introduced to the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion at some point in 1994, when a friend played me "Extra Width" and I was taken aback by this raw, urgent sounding three-piece who seemed to have nothing less than a force of nature as a frontman. Barely a song seemed to go by without Jon Spencer screaming out "Blues Explosion!" or "Yay-ah!" between lyrics like some kind of demented Elvis impersonator caught up in the sheer joy of the noise his band were making. I thought they were great, and they certainly packed a hell of a punch musically. I never quite got around to seeing them live (these being my gig-attending wildnerness years), but I always rather fancied that this is where the band would make the most sense, with sweat pouring down the walls and a small, urgent crowd united by this sparse, basic and yet muscular rock music.

And so, when offered a "plus one" ticket by the Evening Post's redoubtable gig reviewer (thanks Mike), I jumped at the chance to see Jon Spencer and his new (to me anyway) band playing in the pleasingly tight confines of the Bodega Social.

First up were the Danish band, PowerSolo. They're another three-piece, and I think it's fair to say that it's not terribly hard to pick out their major influence.... they're a hillbilly, rockabilly version of the Blues Explosion. This, of course, is no bad thing, and the band make a very pleasing noise indeed. The drummer and first guitarist are relatively staid and focused on the music, but the singer... well, the singer is something else entirely: for starters, he has the mildly demented look of someone with an only very tenuous grasp on sanity, an impression which is readily reinforced by the glimpse of the huge tattoo on his chest, just visible through the open buttons at the top of his shirt. He gurns and he stares at the crowd, barking into his microphone and then, perhaps a little optimistically, asking us to step forward. We shuffle up a couple of steps, but are soon shrinking back towards the wall when he takes matters into his own hands and jumps off the stage with his guitar to work his way through the audience, at one point using the guitar as a sort of geiger counter, scanning people in the crowd and plucking out the appropriate clicking noises. He's a touch scary, but the band are tremendous value during their thirty minute set.

After packing up their own kit, PowerSolo are soon back on stage as the backing band to Heavy Trash, with the singer now taking up a double-bass. They are soon joined by Matt Verta-Ray (once of Madder Rose) and Jon Spencer (of Pussy Galore, Blues Explosion, Boss Hog and R.L. Burnside's backing band, amongst numerous other projects). Spencer straps on an acoustic guitar, but it's soon fairly apparent that little has changed in his musical world. The roots of modern rock music are pretty well established: the blues led to rock and roll, rock and roll led to punk and metal and on we went into modern rock music, with the perfection of the form arriving with Coldplay (*ahem*). Jon Spencer is a man who seems to have made this journey in reverse: he started out with the gonzo garage punk of Pussy Galore, went on to the bluesy rock grooving of the Blue Explosion, and now with Heavy Trash he appears to have gone even further back still to the golden rock and roll years of the 1950s. Looking at Jon Spencer, with the brylcreemed stack of hair on the top of his head (looking distractingly like a weird hybrid of Javier Bardem, Nathaniel Parker and Trigger from Only Fools and Horses), it's not hard to imagine him and his band sharing the bill with Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly and Johnny Cash on one of those all-star package tours that used to work their way around the USA, playing their latest hit singles to packed out crowds in small town theatres. Indeed, Verta-Ray readily admits that he grew up in Canada listening to old records almost exclusively, idolising Johnny Cash and ignoring modern music almost entirely. Indeed, he plays a Gibson ES-295 guitar in homage to Scotty Moore, Elvis Presley's guitarist. This music is the blues, it is rockabilly and it is early rock and roll. In itself, it is not terriby original. What lifts it up and makes it somewhat more interesting is Jon Spencer himself. Spencer is a dynamo; even when hidden behind an acoustic guitar, it is his heavily reverbed yelps and moans and screeches that lift the band and make them somehow more than the sum of their parts. This is made abundantly clear when Verta-Ray takes on vocal duties for a single song: it's pleasant enough, I suppose, but it really serves to emphasise what a live-wire presence Jon Spencer really is and how vital to the band. Without him, this band would be nothing much. With him, they are almost elemental. They're not really moving music forwards, but when heard live, this music makes sense and also makes you want to jerk about manically and to shout out "YAY-AH!" with Jon Spencer (who now shouts "HEAVY TRASH!" between lyrics, obviously). The band are tight too, and they need to be to keep up with Spencer and his almost completely incomprehensible and yet somehow heartfelt sermons to the crowd that suddenly burst from a low chugging backdrop to a frenzied whirl. It's tremendous fun, although Spencer does look as though he takes this nonsense very seriously indeed. At times Spencer almost reminds me of Jack Black, such is his larger than life, manic stage persona. For him though, I suspect, this music is no laughing matter.

They play for 90 minutes, and they are pretty rapturously received by a somewhat mixed crowd, containing as it does Brylcreemed and booted Jon Spencer-alikes, a goth with Robert Smith hair, a bald guy in a Cramps jacket, some Stray Cats fans, a guy with Iron Maiden hair, skin tight jeans and white trainers, and some young chaps working a look that seems to mainly involve tiny hats perched right on the back of their heads.

An entertaining evening, although I do wish that I had seen him play with the slightly harder-edged Blues Explosion.

Here's some clips of The Blues Explosion in full flight:


...and here's some Heavy Trash:

Dark Haird Rider
Way Out


Heavy Trash!


Verdict: 7 / 10


black horse apocalypse...

They can't prove a damn thing, of course, but it's widely thought on Wall Street that the current financial crisis was initially precipitated by someone on the Commodities Markets monkeying about with Frozen Concentrated Orange Juice (FCOJ) futures....

...or something scarily similar to that, anyway.

Winthorpe? Billy Ray? Just look what a mess you've made of the global economy.....

Beef jerky?


Monday, September 29, 2008

your house is waiting, your house is waiting for you to walk in, for you to walk in...

Are you ready for this?

I know this doesn't happen every day, and in fact probably doesn't happen anywhere near as much as it ought to..... but I'm about to eat my words and admit that I was totally wrong about something:

That family wedding I was obliged to attend on Friday?

That day off work that I was a little resentful to be taking?

That wing of the family that I was somewhat disparaging about?

The wedding list I was somewhat snooty about?

None of it was justified. I had a lovely time and actually found myself a touch moved at times.

Sure, some of the guests all too obviously came from the "Heat" and "Hello" school of celebrity style and had absolutely no idea of the distinction between attending a wedding ceremony in a church and going clubbing (one pair of yellow and black plastic platform shoes with six inch heels in particular had to be seen to be believed: the girl in question could barely walk, and they managed the not inconsiderable feat of drawing attention away from what looked like an attempt at a french maid costume)... but they seemed nice enough.

As usual, I also struggled a bit with the church ceremony itself. Although I chose to have a civil ceremony, I do understand why people like to get married in a church. In this case it seemed especially apt as the wedding service took place in the church of the little village near Bath where the Bride had grown up and where the bride's mother and her wider family had been active members of the congregation for many years. I also understand that lots of people derive a lot of comfort from their faith. Naturally, I respect that and I respect that people have the right to believe in what they want. I just find it all ridiculous. Even if I could accept the presence of a higher power who created the Universe and all that jazz, I fundamentally struggle to understand why we seem to think that this higher power wants all its worshippers to be in a state of perpetual grovelling. All the hymns and prayers seem to involve throwing ourselves at God's feet and generally sucking up to Him in the hope that He will see us right on Judgement Day. I don't really want to use the word "credulous" as that seems unduly harsh, but I simply cannot bring myself to see it all as anything other than a peculiar set of rituals. Still, that's the whole point of Faith, isn't it? I don't believe in God, so I suppose I'm always going to find the whole thing hard to understand, aren't I?

Putting all that aside though, watching the bride being walked down the aisle by her two brothers was still quite an emotional moment. Although I haven't spent much time with any of them in years, I've known the three of them since we were all very small and at one time (when we were both about 6) I was close enough to the bride that our families used to joke that we were a lovely little couple. Their father died about 12 years ago from an especially nasty and difficult to diagnose tumour in his digestive tract, and it was actually profoundly moving to witness how the remaining family honoured his presence during the day his only daughter got married. Her two brothers shared the role of giving away their sister, and just seeing them walking down the aisle with her emphasised the gaping hole that the death of their father had created in the day. The elder brother also did the first reading from Corinthians. He stumbled a little and got a few bits wrong, but he has some learning difficulties, so this was perfectly understandable, and far more important was the fact that he was standing in for his dad. In the post-Diana world in which we British are apparently incontinent with our emotions, it was moving to be hit by this very understated, but nonetheless very real emotion. Although he was technically only my dad's cousin's husband, I called this man "uncle", and I thought he was a lovely man. It was lovely to see him remembered like this.

We had the usual hanging around after the ceremony when we all transfer to the venue for the reception and get bossed around by the photographer for what seems like hours, but it was a lovely day and it was great to spend some time with my delightful 18 month old niece. My heart sank a bit when I saw the seating plan and realised we were all on the same table as the vicar and his wife, but I needn't have worried as they both turned out to be excellent company - the vicar was actually an interesting guy who had started out his career as a lawyer and had retrained only seven years before. They were also about to take a sabbatical to New Zealand and were very pleased to hear our hearty recommendation of the Quechua 2 second tent and our testimony as to how well it stood up to the torrential rains of the last few Glastonbury Festivals. The meal was also very nice, but it was the speeches that really blew me away: again, the father of the bride's absence was honoured, but in a very understated way. There was a small picture frame containing a montage of images of him with his family placed on the top table, and without any great ceremony, the family also lit a candle for him. Again, I felt his absence keenly during the speeches, with both brothers again standing in for their dad, and I got a real sense of how the family had been pulled closer together since his death, and a sense of how much they felt his absence on his only daughter's special day. I'm not ashamed to say that I was moved. The speeches from the groom's side didn't let anyone down either, and the meal was concluded by the groom producing a guitar and singing a song he had written for his new wife. This could have been cringeworthy, but in this setting and with emotions already running high, it pretty much brought the house down, and absolutely everyone on the top table was wiping away the tears. Yes, it's easy to laugh at things like this, and you might well be smirking reading this now, but the sincerity of the emotion on display was really very touching.

I didn't spend a great deal of time at the disco, but I did spend the rest of the evening sitting in front of an open fire with my wife and my parents, sharing a couple of bottles of Rioja with my dad. We don't really talk all that much, and when we do we often don't see eye to eye, so it was just nice to spend some quality time with him. Since his cancer and the removal of one of his kidneys, he doesn't really drink any more, but this was a special occasion, so it was nice to be able to raise a glass or two with him.

Cynicism be damned, it was a really lovely day and I wish them all the best. Hell, I even hope they get some proper mileage out of that stupid meat tray.

We stayed in Bath for the rest of the weekend, but I'll save that particular write-up for another day.... so stay tuned for the next exciting installment of my weekend:

> monumental architecture!
> butlers!
> spa treatments!
> squiffy shop owners!
> Bath's unexpected Alpine links!
> proper rugby shorts!
> mulberry factory outlets!
> moaning minnies!
> fudge!
> tone deaf posh buskers murdering "Hey There Delilah"!
> &c.

don't miss it.

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Thursday, September 25, 2008

to begin whipping dance of the dead....

Earworms of the Week

Yeah, so it's a day early. Well, today has been my Friday because I've taken the rest of the week off. The bad news is that I've taken the time off to attend a duty-wedding in Bath. Swings and roundabouts: not at work / at a tedious family wedding in the West Country. Never mind. At least it's a chance to catch up with my elder brother and his lovely wife and their adorable daughter (who is an excellent distraction tactic in the event of any awkward encounters with distant relatives.... "Look! A baby!"). We're staying at the reception venue on Friday night, but on Saturday we're booked into a splendid spa hotel and we're going to have a proper nice dinner and generally try to make a weekend of it.... C. certainly has an eye on the Mulberry Factory outlet, anyway.

And so to earworms. Genius may be good, but it'll never come up with a playlist like an earworms playlist.....

> "Graceland" - Paul Simon

I was listening to Paul Simon in the background last weekend as I pottered around. Obviously I know he's a brilliant songwriter, but it was this lyric that really caught my attention:

"She comes back to tell me she's gone,
As if I didn't know that
As if I didn't know my own bed,
As if I'd never noticed,
The way she brushed her hair from her forehead,
And she said losing love
Is like a window in your heart,
Everybody sees you're blown apart,
Everybody sees the wind blow"

That's beautiful, isn't it? That's proper poetry, that is, set to deceptively upbeat music. You don't get that kind of craftsmanship from the Pigeon Detectives, do you?

> "Bulls on Parade" - Rage Against the Machine

Take it from me that this sounds almost completely unrecognisable when rendered on the bontempi organ. Well. I say that, but even on that instrument it's immediately obvious that the band in question is Rage Against the Machine, but I was damned if I could have named this song in the pub quiz the other night. I knew that it wasn't "Bullet in the Head" or "Killing in the Name" or anything like that, but where I was able to pluck "White Man (in Hammersmith Palais)" from the depths of my brain the other week, I totally failed to get this one. Still, the half point we got for recognising the band turned out to be enough for the Shadowy Cabal to win their third quiz title in a row. They won a fourth last night, actually, although I stayed in with my wife and LB, Hen and Sarah sailed the ship alone. We're now so regularly in gold medal position that the third placed team went by the name of "The Shadowy Kebab". When you've got your own tribute team in a quiz, perhaps it's politic to stop winning?

Nah, cobblers. I'll be back next week.....

> "Child Psychology" - Black Box Recorder

I think this followed on from listening to the first Auteurs album the other day. I've just gone out and bought "Passionoia", and it's a good album, but somehow it managed to plant this song into my head... and it's still by far my favourite by the band. Sarah Nixey is brilliant, and no one does ennui quite like her.

> "Red Morning Light" - Kings of Leon

I know they've got a new album out this week, and it seems decent enough, but as Statue John and I drove to the supermarket last weekend to pick up supplies before the golf started up again, there was only ever going to be one choice on the stereo.... SJ thinks they peaked with this album and that they'll never be quite this good again. Me, I think that they've been getting better and better with every album. They're playing arenas now, and they're one of the few proper rock bands around. I for one am glad that I got the chance to see them in much, much smaller and sweatier venues, but I love the fact that a band like this can have the number one single in the UK, and I love the fact that the UK was the country that really got them first. Look at that video though. Is it wrong that I'm nostaligic for that hair and those beards?

> "Sequestered in Memphis" - The Hold Steady

It took them a little while to grow on me, but now that they've seeped into my head, I love that rambling, shambling, story-telling vocal style. They're often called the biggest pub band in the world, but they're clearly far more accomplished than that. They're playing in Nottingham soon actually, so perhaps I should make the effort to go and see them. Harry Potter's favourite band, apparently.

Well, Daniel Radcliffe's anyway... although as he's a fan of landfill indie, I'm not sure quite how much of a recommendation that is.

> "I Told Her on Alderaan" - Neon Neon

I first saw this on the Mercury Prize show the other day, and it just sank its teeth into my brain and wouldn't let go. Yes, it's a rather obvious Star Wars reference, but I'd like to think that I can't shake it out of my head because it is absurdly catchy, and not just because I'm a nerd....

You believe me, right?

I bought the album actually, and it's pretty good. Retro-synthy US-style 1980s rock dedicated to the Delorean. Nice.

> Theme from Airwolf

Were you aware that this sounds almost identical when played backwards?

Well, you do now.

> "Night Terror" - Laura Marling

Another one that I saw on the Mercury Prize show, although to be fair this is an album that I'd heard of a fair while before, but had never quite got round to getting hold of. Marling played this song on the telly, and I was absolutely mesmerised by her and by the song, so at the first opportunity, I bought myself a copy of the album. As I was putting my PIN number into the machine at Fopp, the guy behind the counter opined that he thought that Marling had been robbed.

"Well, I quite like the Elbow album, to be fair," I replied.
"Well, I do too, but I've been completely unable to take this album off my stereo".

I now know what he means. It's a beautiful record.

> "Lost Myself" - Longpigs

I'm not sure what got me thinking about the longpigs. I think it was a combination of Richard Hawley's performance on "The Fix" on the last Elbow album, and a decision to listen to "Coles Corner" as I read my book the other evening. Richard Hawley, of course, used to be in the Longpigs. I remember them from the first time around, of course, and I particularly remember their long run of succesful singles in those hazy Britpop days (the clip above it their performance of this song on TFI Friday. Remember that? When I worked at HMV, you could guarantee that every Saturday morning would see a steady flow of people coming in looking to buy whatever it was that they'd heard on that show the night before....).

Anyway. I didn't buy the album back in the day, but whatever it was that brought them to mind, inspired me enough to order the album for £5 off t'internet.... and it's a corker. A couple of songs remind me oddly of The Las, but there's some really good stuff on here, and it hasn't really dated either. A good band and a welcome rediscovery.

> "Blackened" - Metallica

I've spent a fair bit of time listening to "Death Magnetic", but although it's really quite good, it seems to have driven me back to the first Metallica album that I ever owned.... "...And Justice For All". I bought that on cassette, and wasn't really sure what to make of it for quite a long time before it finally clicked with me. It's full of long, intricate songs with multiple changes of pace. It's really pretty heavy, and it's bloody brilliant. I'd actually forgotten quite how good it was until I put it on in the car the other day, and after that surging, orchestral beginning, this song kicks in. It is immense. There's simply no other way that I can describe it, and I've been listening to it pretty much non-stop all week.


(my Genius playlist based upon "Blackened"?

The Trooper - Iron Maiden
Night Train - Guns N'Roses
Go With the Flow - Queens of the Stone Age
Paranoid - Black Sabbath
Suck My Kiss - RHCP
Renegades of Funk - Rage Against the Machine
Wave of Mutilation - The Pixies

Do I need to go on? Genius rocks!)

Anyway. That's it. Have a good weekend y'all.


Wednesday, September 24, 2008

let me stand next to your fire...

The first time that I looked around our house, after we had arranged our intial "viewing" with the estate agents, the very first thing that I noticed was the gas fire in the dining room. Obviously we'd be getting rid of that at the first opportunity, I thought. As is the way of these things, I did not do a damn thing about it until about three years later, when I finally got a gas engineer round to take it out and cap off the gas supply. It turned out that the old back boiler was still in there too, so that had to be taken out as well, leaving a gaping great big hole. Initially the hole was home to a church candle, but when we got the cat last year, we found it a pretty convenient slot for the pet carrier, having the dual benefit of being just the right shape to store it and at the same time preventing the cat from having a pee on the newspaper that lined the floor at the base of the chimney (as she occasionally did when she was a kitten). Well, it might have been a lurid shade of purple, but it was behind the dining room table anyway, so I didn't even really have to look at it, so....

There was a similar, albeit slightly smaller hole in the living room too. A poorly capped gas outlet revealed that there had once been a gas fire here too, but it had been removed at some point but never replaced with anything much. There was a nice polished slate mantlepiece here and some Victorian-style tiles around the fireplace, but there was no grate and the chimney was blocked rather crudely by a pillow that had been shoved up there at some point to cut out the drafts. We put some candles here too, and I stacked my old newspapers here in a pile before taking them out to the recycling bin.

Today, some five or six years after we originally moved into the place, we've finally had them sorted: both gaping holes have had grates added and, by the time I get home, should have been converted into proper, honest-to-goodness, fully functioning fireplaces. The gas-fire related metal caps on the chimney pots and metal linings in the chimneys have been removed, and should be all ship-shape and ready to lay a roaring blaze (using smokeless fuel, obviously. We're very much in a smokeless zone around ours, and all the better for it, I'm sure).

It's just about perfect timing, really. We're still technically in British Summer Time, but the sun, if it can be seen at all, is sitting very low in the sky, the nights are drawing in and it's been generally pretty miserable and cold for several weeks now. Yesterday we switched the central heating back onto timer for the first time in six months. All in all, I'm very much looking forward to curling up with a good book in front of a real fire. There is nothing quite so soothing to the soul as a cosy fire after another hard and pointless day in the office, don't you think?

Mind you, I'm fairly cold blooded and my metabolism is stoked up so high that I am perpetually cold even though my body is usually producing enough heat to boil a kettle. We had a new boiler installed the other day [WQ counters take note: A-Rated and 90-odd percent efficient, no less] and we are now the proud owners of a thermostat. As such, I am fully expecting that every day of winter will be a battle of wills with my wife as I turn the temperature right up every time I walk past, and likewise C will turn it back down when she passes by. If it was up to me, I'd have the heating on almost all year if I thought I could get away with it, and frequently have to wrap myself up in a fleece on the mildest of evenings. I've got a cupboard full of thermal base layers, and I run in them all through the summer, no matter what the temperature is outside. I was so cold on Monday evening I even dug out the beautiful wool djellaba that I picked up in Morrocco and wandered about the house with the pointy hood pulled up, looking for all the world like some kind of suburban jedi knight going about his domestic business.

So the thought of coming home to a nice fire??


.....assuming any of the heat gets out into the room past the cat, that is.


[* actually, and rather disappointingly, it turns out that we can't have a fire tonight after all. A quick chat with the fireplace people and apparently they've measured the grate wrong and haven't finished with the chimney pots yet, so we'll have to wait until next week. I might have to get my djellaba out tonight again after all....so if you're passing my street tonight, do look out for the sight of a mainly kitchen based Obi Wan Kenobi-alike preparing pasta with roasted vegetables and chorizo*]

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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

marchons, marchons....

Say what you like about the French, but I think you have to admire a society with a bureaucracy so well developed. Now that's the real mark of an advanced civilisation, isn't it? At this time of great global economic uncertainty, I think it is reassuring to know that there is at least one country in the world where a clerical job can still be found (or created) for almost anyone with the power to push a pen around a form and to tut authoritatively and impatiently and with just the right air of simultaneous impatience and resignation.

You may remember the shocking revelation that C's marriage to me is not formally recognised in France. My marriage to her is all kosher, but as a French citizen, it turns out that there were one or two hoops that she failed to jump through that would have made the union fully legal on French soil.

It's okay though, after an approriately long period of tut-tutting and barely concealed disapproval at her marriage to an Englishman, it turns out that we can do a lot of this stuff retrospectively. All we needed to complete was the following:

-> A formal request on behalf of the bride and the groom requesting a certificate of no impediment from the French Embassy in Vienna. One form each for bride and groom, obviously. Doing them both on the same form would be completely unacceptable. Naturally, completing the form requires that you provide the full names, addresses and occupations of both sets of parents. Pertinent information, I'm sure you'll agree.

-> A form explaining what pre-nuptial agreement (if any) was being put in place and listing any children.

-> A certified copy of the groom's birth certificate.

-> An official extract from the official translation of the bride's birth certificate (which must be specially requested and must be less than three months old... because you know, birth certificates are subject to an awful lot of change over time.

-> Proof of the bride's French nationality in the form of a certified copy of the Father of the bride's naturalisation papers (a copy that must be certified by a specific French official, not just any notary, you understand). This had to be provided even though the birth certificate above contains an official statement on the bride's naturalisation status.

-> A certified copy of the bride's passport and French ID card.

-> A certified copy of the groom's passport.

-> The registration number by which the bride is registered with the French Embassy in London as a French citizen abroad (...but that's a wholly different set of paperwork to get that sorted, of course)

-> Proof of residence in the form of an original (not a copy, no matter how certified it is) council tax bill.

-> A certified extract from the original Austrian marriage register.

-> Another official form, completed by the French spouse, requesting the transcription of the wedding into French and its entry onto the French register. The wedding certificate we have is in both German and French already... but that's apparently not good enough and an official French copy has to be made.

-> Two A5 envelopes (no other size of envelope acceptable)

-> International Answer Coupons (your guess is as good as mine) to a value of 3 Euros 20 cents.

Thank heavens that the bureaucrats were big enough to waive the normal requirement to publish the bans of the wedding in the French Embassy in Vienna for 10 days (what would they do if someone objected?) and they didn't ask for us to have the pre-nuptial medical that is compulsory in a French marriage....although they may yet ask us to attend the French Embassy in Austria in person for inspection.

Given that we actually got married in June 2007, I'd like to think that the last 15 months of paper-pushing has kept at least two people in full employment in the French embassy and in the associated departments that certify documents and produce the official forms working solely on our behalf.

God love'em. By way of contrast, to make the marriage legal in the UK, we didn't actually have to do anything at all. We could, apparently, provide a copy of the marriage certificate to our local registrar, but it's really not necessary and so we didn't bother. The Austrian marriage certificate (written in German and in French, but not in English) was also more than good enough for C to get a new British passport issued in her married name.

...and we wonder why there are so many unemployed people in this country, eh? Think of all those paperwork possibilities we're missing out on.

Of course, once all of this essential documentation has been processed and approved by the relevant authorities and our marriage is fully recognised in France, I will be fully entitled, as the spouse of a French national, to apply for citzenship.

Now, I imagine there may be one or two forms to fill in, but I'd assume nothing too arduous and certainly nothing that's going to stop me from reaching that particular nirvana, let me tell you..... Did you know that when you finally get awarded your French nationality, you are obliged to attend a ceremony where you are formally handed your very own Citizen's Clipboard?*



Monday, September 22, 2008

bright eyes...

I know what the highway code says, but I'm afraid to say that if a bunny hops out in front of me on the road, and as long as my spidey senses tell me that it's okay to do so, I'm going to swerve. That's all there is to it. I've hit a rabbit on the road before, either when I had absolutely no time to react, or when it simply would have been insane or suicidal to try to steer around it. Every single time it's happened, even if there was nothing I could do about it and it was my life or the rabbit's, I still felt awful. I know it's only a bunny, and I know that it's stupid to risk your own life and the lives of others by recklessly swerving around the road, but if I can safely avoid a bunny and thus avoid having that horrible feeling again, I will. It makes a horrible noise, for one thing.

As it happens, the A46 was pretty quiet when Thumper flopped out in front of me on Friday night, so my evasive manouevres wouldn't have caused anyone any distress. He was very cute, but with a home that close to a busy dual-carriageway and with an apparent death-wish, I don't fancy his chances of a long happy life and a carrot filled retirement on Watership Down.... but at least I don't have his death on my conscience.

Speaking of Thumper, have I ever mentioned that I've never seen Bambi? It's one of a long line of films that everyone says that I should have seen that I simply have not seen. ET? nope. Ghost? pfff. Close Encounters? Hmmm, there's the Dreyfuss factor to consider there. Dumbo? Pinocchio? Fantasia? No, although I have seen the Fox and the Hound, and it made me cry like a baby. Grease? Well, I've seen Grease II starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Maxwell Caulfield, and I just plain don't believe that the original can be any better than that. How do you improve upon perfection?

Telling me I simply *must* see any of the above is more likely than not going to make me more determined *not* to watch it. And seriously, I really do have zero interest in watching ET.

ETII, starring (hopefully)Angela Lansbury, Kenny Baker and Burt Reynolds? Well, now you're talking...!


I don't know about you, but I spent almost all of my weekend sat on a sofa drinking beer and watching golf.... at least 36 hours from Friday to Sunday. Even though Europe ultimately surrendered the Ryder Cup to the USA, it was still fantastic entertainment. I've been discussing this in a comments box with Cody over the weekend, but no matter how much I wanted Europe to win, there's not a shadow of doubt in my mind that the side that played the better golf won. I also think that after three European wins in a row, the last two with record margins, I think this is the right result for the future of the competition too. It was really good to finally see a US team playing as more than just a collection of individuals and showing some real fight and passion for the cause. Well done to the USA and roll on the 2010 match up at Celtic Manor. After watching him in the flesh at the K-Club in 2006, I was also really pleased that Jim Furyk took the winning point. He's played a lot of great golf in this competition, showed a lot of dignity and come away with absolutely nothing to show for it... until now. Good on him, I say, and well done the USA.

Europe to win next time though please....

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Friday, September 19, 2008

..... finally see what it means to be living

If I can just wrench my attention on this year's Ryder Cup to bring you the latest installment of earworms.....

Given that my head is omewhat awhirl today with "Steam" by East 17, of all things, perhaps it's for the best that someone else has stepped in this week with some proper tunes.....He guested earlier this year, but now he's back with a new selection. Ladies and gentleworms, without further ado, it is my great pleasure to welcome back a good friend of mine.......

Earworms of the week - guest editor #92 - Fiery Little Sod

My recent earworms have been entirely driven by the lack of iPod and the internal jukebox - no CD's, just a musical brain and random external influence ....

> Every Rose has its Thorn - Poison

This is obviously the rock version of 'every silver lining has a cloud' and benefits from a choral-like build up to its chorus

[ST's note - also one of the truly great moments in cinema history....]

> One Day like This - Elbow

blame the Mercury, but I have had my one day this year so am looking forward to the next one

> Symphony No.9 - Ludwig van Beethoven

quite simply one of the finest pieces of melodic music ever written

> Theme - The Flumps

before its time, this. It should be played to quiet riots and football crowds. The TV wall bit was quality too.

[ST's note: oh, now that's a beast of an earworm. I particularly like the bit where it all goes a touch mental and freestylee in the middle. Great tune. Right up there with Jonny Briggs]

> Fast Car - Tracy Chapman

Stopped at the lights on my bicycle and a car with open windows draws up next to me as this starts on the radio - fairly loudly. I know this song well and started mouthing/singing it. It was noticed by the passenger - who told the driver "watch this he's word perfect!" I was somewhere near "convenience store" before the lights changed. Impressed them. Made me feel good. Fine moment

> Always the Last to Know - Del Amitri

To be honest, I generally am. Musically it still rolls well with few wasted notes or words

> Duchess - The Stranglers

Just blame Keira and the bus stop adverts - however it is a fine example of a mighty band

> Kokomo - The Beach Boys (sorry Kermit, close but no harmonies and no cigar)

Not got on a plane this year......first year missed for about 11, good for the environment but not for the soul. If this place exists, sounds like it would do nicely.

> What do you want from Me? - Monaco

If God existed, this is what I would ask.

> I want you - Sophie B Hawkins

sorry folks, a little self-admittance this since the lady I should say it to won't be reading these pages, but you learn nothing if you share nothing so maybe someone else can tell me it should not matter......


so that's it, hardly ground-breaking yet at least eclectic - I still aim to have a boxful of sunshine one day if I get invited back.

Thanks Blog Boss. See ya 'round


Given that your selection last time featured some Mancunians (for Monaco this time around, read Oasis last time), a tv theme (for the flumps, read Paddington), some hair metal from c.1987 (for Poison this time, read Guns N' Roses last time) and your top act on either occasion was Sophie B. Hawkins...... are we to take it that your internal jukebox is stuck on some kind of thematic loop? Perhaps your brain has a fully-fledged "Genius" function?

Thanks for playing though mate. You're always welcome around these parts, and when I open that bottle of "One Chain Wrong'Un" later on tonight to drink in front of the golf with the two Johns, we will raise a toast to you.

Have a good weekend everyone (and go Europe!)

[Previous Guest Editors: Flash, The Urban Fox, Lord Bargain, Retro-Boy, Statue John, Ben, OLS, Ka, Jenni, Aravis, Yoko, Bee, Charlie, Tom, Di, Spin, The Ultimate Olympian, Damo, Mike, RedOne, The NumNum, Leah, Le Moine Perdu, clm, Michael, Hyde, Adem, Alecya, bytheseashore, adamant, Earworms of the Year 2005, Delrico Bandito, Graham, Lithaborn, Phil, Mark II, Stef, Kaptain Kobold, bedshaped, I have ordinary addictions, TheCatGirlSpeaks, Lord B rides again, Tina, Charlie II, Cody Bones, Poll Star, Jenni II, Martin, Del II, The Eye in the Sky, RussL, Lizzy's Hoax, Ben II, Earworms of the Year 2006, Sarah, Flash II, Erika, Hen, Pynchon, Troubled Diva, Graham II, Cat II, Statue John II, Sweeping the Nation, Aravis II, Olympian II, C, Planet-Me, Mike, Michael II, Eye in the Sky II, Charlie III, The Great Grape Ape, asta, Ben III, Earworms of the Year 2007, Cat III, JamieS & Wombat, Pynchon II, Briskate, Craig Cliff, Fiery Little Sod, Cody II, J, Yoko II, Rol, Lisa, Pollstar II, Joe the Troll, Eye in the Sky III, Jerry Cornelius, Stevious, Luke]

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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

un mosquito....

"....to which genus of mosquito?"

Paxman was already more than halfway through the question by the time we had changed channels.

"Anopheles," I said triumphantly.

The students were bemused and were only able to come up with "erm, Yellow Mosquito?".

"Nooooo," said Paxman, "Anopheles".

I was quite chuffed at that. We'd caught less than half of the question - and it was a difficult question too - and yet I'd come up with the correct answer. None of those clever minds from Southampton University had known the answer to that, and they'd had the advantage of hearing all of the question.

C. was less impressed.

"How many other genus of mosquito can you name?"

And thus was the bubble of my own self-satisfaction punctured before it had really had a chance to inflate. I ask you, there can't be all that many people who can name a single genus of mosquito... hell, C herself couldn't name a single genus of mosquito.... and yet she knew me well enough to know that I might not know more than one.

The fact that it was the right one was neither here nor there.

Pub quiz tonight. Well, you have to use your brain for something during the working week, don't you?

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

points of view...

News roundup.

I've just read an interesting article on the furore that Russell Brand managed to kick off when he called George W. Bush "that retarded cowboy fella" and made fun of chasitity rings at the MTV Music Awards the other day.

The author, India Knight, sums up the whole thing rather nicely, I thought:

"The whole episode is like a parable about the differences between the US and the UK: so much common ground and yet such oceans between us. It isn’t about whether you find Brand funny or not: there’s always the “off” switch. It’s about the peculiar contradictions that seem to define modern America: the love of free speech and pride in democracy, coupled with bottomless abuse for anyone who has the temerity to voice dissent. The devotion to the flag, in people who strike some of us as trying their hardest to make the world dislike America. The sanctification of sexual purity versus the insatiable appetite for porn. And, above all, the sanctimony."

Go read.


You know how I was saying the other day that surely the Republicans weren't daft enough to think that Hillary Clinton voters would switch their votes to McCain simply because his candidate for Vice-President, the vehemently pro-life Sarah Palin, was a woman? Well, apparently I was wrong: the latest polls seem to be indicating a 20 point swing towards the Republicans amongst white women since Palin's candidacy was announced. Surely it's not just me who thinks policy is more important than gender or colour or any other nonsense?


And lest you think I am focusing my incredulity entirely the USA, how about this:

TV Watchdog Ofcom has ruled today that an episode of "The F-Word" featuring Gordon Ramsey eating a puffin did not break the rules.

As the BBC reported:

"Ofcom received 42 complaints over the show which saw Ramsay "sky fishing" for puffins and eating its fresh heart. The regulator said the sequence was not in breach as it occurred in Iceland, where the puffin forms a popular part of the national diet. It also noted the birds were killed in a humane way with minimal suffering. Viewers had complained that the practice of killing puffins was cruel, the local tradition of eating their fresh hearts was offensive, and that, whilst not protected, puffins were a species under threat. However, Ofcom said that The F Word had historically contained items featuring the rearing, hunting or killing of a variety of animals for food, including those not usually eaten in the UK."

Get this from later on in the article though:

"In the same report, Ofcom also noted 31 complaints from viewers over a BBC News report about an incident in Jerusalem. Footage showed a Palestinian man ramming buses and cars with a bulldozer, killing three people and then the man being shot dead in the cab of the vehicle by an off-duty Israeli soldier."

31 complaints about some footage of humans being killed by a bulldozer and a man being shot dead and 42 complaints about a puffin being killed and eaten.

In Iceland.

In puffin hunting season.

Good God.


Monday, September 15, 2008

all I wanted was a sweet distraction for an hour or two...

I've always been a bookworm. My mum often fondly remarks that, growing up, I would never go anywhere without a book. One of my earliest memories is of trying to wade my way through "The Hobbit", and I used to love nothing more than the trips we would make to a nearby bookshop. It seemed a magical place to me, and since the advent of the internet and book megastores, I don't think they even really exist anymore. It was a tiny shop off the main market square of a little town called Olney, and it used to have a little room in the back, a nook, where they kept all of their children's books. Unlike bookshops today, it was built to be browsed and even had soft seats to better encourage children to flick through the books on offer. I loved it. To enhance your impression that this shop was from sometime in the late seventeenth century, it was just around the corner from a toyshop where the toymaker would actually craft his own toys, and from whom we had bought such wonderful things as a proper wooden castle for our toy soldiers and a propeller on a serrated wooden stick that you could somehow make turn around, if you had the knack, by running a smoother stick along the teeth. Imagine that. No X-Boxes or Wiis in them days. I loved the fact that when you did buy a book from that wonderful bookshop, perhaps using one many book tokens I used to get given for birthdays and for Christmas, you used to get given a lovely thick paper bookmark too, with an sketch of a dwarf with a quill pen sat at a desk. I doubt very much that either the bookshop or the toyshop are still there, but I still occasionally stumble across one of the bookmarks when thumbing through an old book on my own bookshelves, and it always brings back happy memories.

I was one of those kids who would even read in the car on journeys, killing the time on the long car journeys to see one set of grandparents in Plymouth and the other set in deepest rural Wales by burying my nose in some book or other. I wasn't immune to the car-sickness that this sometimes brought on, but I clearly considered the escape it gave me from the cramped backseat I shared with my two brothers to be worth the risk.

I wouldn't say that I was an especially discerning reader, and throughout my teens I'm afraid to say that I voraciously devoured all kinds of Sci-fi and fantasy books: Raymond E Feist, the Dragonlance books, David Gemmell, David Eddings. In spite of what you may think, some of those books are actually pretty good (I loved Feist's "Magician" series, and the Eddings' "Belgariad" and "Mallorean" books were fantastic). As I approached my twenties, however, I discovered books by twentieth century writers like Paul Auster and John Irving, and I began to rediscover the joys of the penguin classics, with Alexandre Dumas being a particular favourite. It's a statement of the obvious, of course, but with so many brilliant books out there waiting to be read, I sort of regretted having read the entire Dragonlance series (well, the first 9 books anyway). Entertaining though it was, I felt that perhaps I could have spent that time more productively by reading a little more widely. Studying English Literature at school had done its best to put me off the cream-and-black covered Penguin Classics, but I was now starting to discover that, actually, some of them were pretty damn good. More importantly, I also realised that I wasn't expected to like them all; that no one likes them all. Once I'd grasped that simple truth, any lingering inverse snobbery about the books I was supposed to read disappeared. From then on I was determined that I would read what I wanted to read, whether that be a Don De Lillo, a Charles Dickens or a JK Rowling.

So with that in mind, I probably don't need to explain to anyone why my reading list for much of the last six weeks consists of a whole bunch of comics. I don't need to tell anyone that they're actually all very good comics, and I certainly don't need to attempt to justify them by grandly referring to them to anyone and everyone as "graphic novels".... Although, if you haven't already been exposed to them, might I just say that Neil Gaiman's "Sandman" series is surely, in my opinion, one of the most remarkable, sustained feats of imagination ever captured any format? You know that already though, right?

I'm currently reading a collection of Ian Fleming's James Bond short stories, including the not-really-anything-like-the-films "From A View To A Kill", "For Your Eyes Only", "Octopussy", "Quantum of Solace" and "The Living Daylights" (my favourite so far is "The Hildebrand Rarity" though, which was apparently the basis for some of the superficial plot elements in "Licence to Kill", but is altogether more interesting). I had often read about how the literary Bond differed from the one portrayed in the films, but I wanted to form my own opinion and set myself the challenge of working my way through the novels in order. I'm a little under halfway through now, and paused to read this collection. I got off to a great start with the books when I discovered that "Casino Royale" was at least as good as the Daniel Craig film version, included the same hideous torture scene and that surprisingly the game of baccarat described in the book is much more gripping than the game of Texas Hold'Em they replaced it with in the film. The other books in the series that I have read so far, "Live and Let Die", "Moonraker", "Diamonds are Forever" and "From Russia With Love", bear far less resemblance to their film adaptations, but in every case this is because they are vastly superior. The books suffer a little from being products of their time, and some of the language used to describe the non-white characters is, to modern readers, a touch alarming, but they are cracking good reads. James Bond is also a much more interesting character than the one portrayed in the films: for all those pointless discussions about who is the best Bond, actually I don't think that any of them have got within a million miles of the one Fleming wrote about.

I've just read "Quantum of Solace". I have no idea what the forthcoming film with the same title is about, but the short-story is not actually about Bond at all - indeed, he only features as a guest at a dinner party listening to a story being told by the Governor of Nassau. The guts of the story are the Governor's story itself and doesn't even involve espionage of any kind or any kind of violence other than emotional. It's a fantastic piece of writing, and about as far removed from Roger Moore and a union jack parachute as it is possible to be. I like short stories generally, but these Bond stories by Fleming have so far been fantastic.

Ah, books are brilliant. I've still got a few Bond books left and several "Sandman" volumes waiting to be re-read, but I've a hankering for one of those Penguin Classics, and I think I might either go for a bit of Nabakov or perhaps "The Tenant of Wildfell Hall" next.

Well, there's nothing much good on TV and the nights are starting to draw in.....


Friday, September 12, 2008

oh so far to fall....

Earworms of the Week

> "Half A Person" - The Smiths

One of several songs on this list that appear to have been kicking around my head for the last few weeks. It's by no means their best song (although choosing to use "YWCA" instead of the more obvious "YMCA" is an example in miniature of what makes Morrissey a unique voice as a lyricist), but as I've already said, this is the song that first got me into The Smiths...whether you think that was a good thing or not is entirely up to you. I'm inclined to think it was a good thing. It is, therefore, certainly a song that changed my life.

> "Wired For Sound" - Cliff Richard

Make it stop. For the love of God, make it stop. It's been nearly three weeks now and this song just will not go away. Have mercy... for pity's sake. 'Nuff respect to Cliff for the (doomed?) attempt to have a number one single in a sixth consecutive decade. You have to admire his longevity, if nothing else. Well, that and his teeth.

> "White Man (in Hammersmith Palais)" - The Clash

Also in my head for three weeks, but luckily this one is not half so irritating as Cliff (I've always preferred "Devil Woman", to be honest). I prefer the version originally recorded by the Clash, but I have to admit that I've got a creeping affection for the Bontempi organ version by Nottingham's Mr Sex's Nana, as featured in the brilliant Left Lion pub quiz at the Golden Fleece the other week. He was good enough to send me a copy, actually. Nice man. They don't make bands like the Clash any more, do they?

> "Junk Shop Clothes" - The Auteurs

I listened to "New Wave" in the car the other day. It's usually "Showgirl" that gets me, but this time around it was "Junk Shop Clothes". It's a combination of the oddly clanky, steam-powered sounding music and the remarkable lyrics.

"Chaim Soutine never spent
A thrift shop dime
In his life.
Lenny Bruce never walked
In a dead man's shoes
Even for one night"

Well, whether or not Luke Haines can substantiate either one of those claims seems doubtful, but somehow it's the kind of lyric that epitomises the awkward cleverness of the band. It's a beautiful record actually. Famously deprived of the Mercury prize by a single vote in the year that Suede won it. Now, I like that Suede album, but I've listened to this one an awful lot more often.

Makes me think of Lizzy too. I miss her.

> "Celice" - A-Ha

I must hear the first ten seconds of this song about five times a week, as when I dock my iPod into speakers or accidentally start playing "all songs", this is the first song that comes up. Usually this is followed by a 'tut' of irritation and a quick spin for something else to listen to, but the other day I let the album - "Analogue" from 2005 - run through. It's really very good. Excellent, in fact. It perhaps tapers off a bit right at the very end, but in my view it's up there with almost anything else that they have done. It's wistful, melancholic and sometimes achingly beautiful. Highly recommended.

> "Is it Over?" - Gene

I saw Gene live several times, but the most memorable for me were either when they played the Melody Maker tent at the Reading Festival in 1994 and I had to stand and grudgingly listen to some unknown bloke called Jeff Buckley before they came on, or when I saw them touring their self-funded album "Libertine" and they played a half-full Rock City in a gig supported by a performance poet by the name of Selina Saliva (or something. Yes, she was shit). They were a brilliant band, of course. Much underrated, but I loved them from the first moment I listened to "Olympian" all the way through to the bitter end. "Libertine" pretty much was the end of the line for the band, but it remains a superlative piece of work. It's sophisticated, lush and full of songs of doubt, insecurity and infidelity. Of course, the world didn't care about that and it sold about fourteen copies. The world really wouldn't listen.

Yes, it was over.

> "Christobel" - Joan As Policewoman

Sparked by seeing in one of those interminably frequent emails from a ticketing agency that Joan Wasser was playing the rescue rooms in December. I've seen her performing before, in support to Rufus Wainwright, but I'd be quite keen to see her perform her heart-rending torch songs in a more intimate environment than the Royal Concert Hall. She has the most beautiful voice. It even holds up well when she sings with Antony Hegarty, which is no mean feat. After a week spent listening to Metallica, this was like having a sorbet between courses, and cleansed the palate nicely. Now that I'm cleansed, I might go and listen to Motorhead or something.

> "Stacey's Mom" - Fountains of Wayne

I think this is Rol's fault, and a passing mention dragged this song kicking and screaming out of the darkest cellars of my brain and into the forefront of my subconscious. Aided, I think, by associated memories of a crush that I used to have on one of my friend's mothers, and from there on to a mildly disturbing memory of a crush I used to have on Carol Jackson from Eastenders. Yes, that one. Bianca's mum. Married to Alan. Had a fling with David Wicks. Large number of assorted, ethnically diverse children. She had it goin' on.....

> "That Was Just Your Life" - Metallica

Toweringly brilliant, sustained assault that provides the opening seven minutes of the new Metallica album, "Death Magnetic" and heralds a startling return to old-school form. It starts with a heartbeat, but before long we're into pounding drums and intricate guitar solos. Riffola! YES! YES! Where have you been? Oh, how we've missed you. Nobody does this shit as well as Metallica. I've been using the album (thanks Mark) as the accompaniment to my runs this week, and although 35 minutes only takes me to about track 5, there is absolutely nothing better for helping you to pick up your knees and drag your sorry, complaining body around a run than this kind of crunching, grinding, driving beat. Metallica are back to doing what they do best of all, and I for one am very grateful. What was all that nonsense with therapists about anyway? Eh? Work out your issues through ROCK!

> "The Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver" / "The Fix" - Elbow

Worthy winners of the Mercury Music prize the other day and still the best gig I have been to all year. Elbow are ace, and Guy Garvey is the best, warmest and most inclusive frontman in the history of gentle, melancholic indie. "The Seldom Seen Kid" is another slow burner of an album to add to the three other beautiful slow-burning albums the band have recorded. I've listened to the whole album several times since they won, but two songs in particular have stuck. "The Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver" is the song the band played at the awards dinner. Not an obvious choice, but it's a lovely song and tells the story of how Garvey met a guy in a pub and discovered he was a tower crane driver. Initially it seemed like the best job in the world: well paid and with this fully equipped cab with a birds eye view of the world. A couple of pints in though, and it became clear that it was an awful lonely job and that everyone else on the site resented him because of his salary and his isolation and he was really very unhappy. Perfect material for an Elbow song, really. "The Fix" is a great duet between Garvey and Richard Hawley, and tells the story of two hardened gamblers and what they reckon is a dead cert, but somehow still seems doomed to failure:

"Too many times we've been postally pipped
We've loaded the saddles, the mickeys are slipped
We're swapping the turf for the sand and the surf and the sin
Cause the fix, the fix is in"

It's hard to resist making the link between Elbow and the characters in the song.... and after 18 years of struggling to make it, no one is going to postally pip them this time and the sand and the surf and the sin are theirs for the taking.

I'm very much looking forward to seeing them play at De Montfort Hall next month.

....and that's yer lot.

Have a good weekend, y'all.


Thursday, September 11, 2008

the reckoning....

As I'm sure you will have noticed, today is the seventh anniversary of the World Trade Centre attacks on 11th September 2001. Nearly 3,000 people died that day: terrorists, passengers on the four hijacked planes, people in the towers and in the pentagon, emergency workers, bystanders.... It was a horrible day.

As always, George Bush has his finger on the pulse and struck just the right note as the world remembers an event that it is still trying to come to terms with:

"The worst day in America's history saw some of the bravest acts. Since 9/11 our troops have taken the fight to the terrorists abroad so we do not have to face them here at home. Thanks to the brave men and women and all those who work to keep us safe there has not been another attack on our soil in 2,557 days."

I honestly don't know where to begin with that. The staggering lack of sensitivity and the tone of self-justification, even of self-satisfaction, is truly amazing, even for him.

Perhaps it would surprise Mr. Bush to know that the 2,751 people who died in Manhattan on that day were not all American. In fact, more than 90 nationalities were represented. The attacks may all have happened on US territory, but this was a truly global event and the tremors from those impacts reverberated loudly around the world, not least because of the American reaction. To focus on this as a purely American event completely misses the point.

There may not have been another attack on American soil since that day, but are we really so blind that we can't see that a direct consequence of the 9/11 attacks was the retaliatory (and often opportunistic) deployment of US military power in Iraq and Afghanistan and no doubt on a smaller scale in all sorts of different places across the world? As Bush spoke grandly of a "war on terror", someone had to pay. Perhaps you might now feel safe from the threat of global terror in Idaho or Missouri or Ohio or in Kansas, but I'm sure you'd feel a lot less secure if you lived in Kabul or Bagdhad or Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay. Hell, what about the 52 people who were killed in the attacks on London in July 2005? What of them? Is it only the deaths on American soil that are worth counting?

And then there's the wars: 3000 died on 11th September 2001, but between that awful day and today there have been between 87,387 and 95,373 documented civilian deaths in Iraq. They may have toppled Saddam Hussein, but have the US led coalition found the links to global terror that they were looking for? Have they found any weapons of mass destruction? Have they found anything at all?

In addition to all of those civilian deaths, there have been over 4,469 confirmed deaths amongst the Coalition forces, of which 4,155 are from the US military. Yes, they made the ultimate sacrifice and we should pay our respects to them, but what have those deaths achieved? Are we closer to world peace or further away?

It's not just in Iraq either: another 1000 Coalition military personnel have been confirmed dead in Afghanistan too, and the UN estimated that the total body count in 2007 alone was over 8,000, including at least 1,500 civilians. Terrorists, it seems, do not have the monopoly on killing the innocent.

Without in any way belittling the 3,000 people who died in the US on that day seven years ago, I would suggest that the cost of "taking the fight to the terrorists abroad so that we do not have to face them here at home" has been unacceptably high.

How narrow an interpretation of "home."
How broad a definition of "terrorist".

An awful lot of people have died since that day, some of them American. Whilst we should never forget those who died on that day in New York, at the Pentagon and in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, neither should we fail to remember anyone else, of any nationality, who has died since that day and as a direct consequence of it.

It would be a fool who suggested that all of those deaths in the 2,557 days since 11th September 2001 had somehow made the world a safer place.


Wednesday, September 10, 2008

...but I feel fine?

So, is that it then?

Are we still here? Have we survived the latest Big Bang?

It looks as though this charade will have to continue for a while longer then?

After all that worry. Honestly, what's the worst thing that can happen?

"Don't be afraid," my voice said. "No one is allowed to die more than once. The comedy will be over soon, and you'll never have to go through it again."

So why worry?

I'm with Kilgore Trout on this: "Life is no way to treat an animal."

What a ridiculous species we are.

Incidentally, what's the creationist stance on this? Should Genesis really read:

"In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.
And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
And God flicked the switch on a large machine and sent a beam of particles through a long tunnel and created the world in about 5 seconds.
He rested for the remainder of that day and generally took it easy for the rest of the week."

Perhaps it should.


Tuesday, September 09, 2008

one wave short of a shipwreck....

My recent brushes with neurology have shown me how much doctors know about the human brain, but also how much more they don't know. Technology means that we can now see inside the human skull, but any understanding of it that we do have is very much glimpsed through a glass darkly. Thanks to MRI scanning, I have seen what my brain looks like, but I don't feel any closer to understanding how it works. This has never been clearer to me than it is now.

About two weeks ago, whilst playing football, I noticed that the vision in my left eye was slightly cloudy. I tried to ignore it, but it's still a little less than two months since my surgery and my eyes will not have fully healed yet, so I couldn't really help but worry about it. Immediately after the first operation, I had been anxious that the quality of the vision in my left eye hadn't been as good as I had hoped, but as the weeks went by, it seemed to get stronger and stronger until the point where it was at least as good as my right eye. In turn, the vision in my right eye seemed to be a little more variable, and I was troubled somewhat by the way that light fractured as my pupil approached the edge of the smaller lens in dim light. After reassurance from the professor that my brain would learn to tune that out, I resolved to put my worries to the back of my mind and to just leave my brain alone to adjust to my new eyes. The cloudy vision was a bit of a worry, but I was determined that I wasn't going to just go running straight to the professor just in case my mind was playing tricks on me again.

A week later, though, and the cloudiness was still there... perhaps worse... and I could now feel a nagging sense of pressure behind my left eye too. I hadn't been given a handy fact sheet that might tell me what to expect from the operations, so I felt I had no choice but to email the professor and ask for advice. He emailed me back fairly quickly and told me that he would have expected my vision to have settled by now and that I should make an appointment to see him on Monday - yesterday. The wait for the appointment was only a few days but I found it difficult: I was really starting to struggle with my left eye and was finding it hard not to panic about what could be wrong. I resisted the urge to google, but my mind started to dwell on doomsday scenarios: what if the pressure in my eye was dangerously high? what if the lens needed to come out? what if? what if?

The day of the appointment itself I found myself able to put most of this from my mind because I knew I was seeing the professor that evening, but the vision in that eye seemed worse than ever and I developed a headache behind my eyes. I was nervous. The clinic was chaos, as usual, with twice as many patients as scheduled appointment slots, but as I had been slotted in myself, I felt I could hardly complain. I waited an hour and was then called in for the reckoning. The professor tested my vision in both eyes, he carefully and silently checked the pressures and he examined both the surface of both eyes and my retinas. Then he sat back and he gave his verdict: all the empirical evidence pointed to nothing being wrong. My vision was normal in my left eye and better than normal in my right, as it had been when I last saw him; the lenses were attached well and the pressure was good. There was perhaps a thin layer of cells on the stickier surface of the left lens, but this would have been there since the operation that inserted the lens and would be invisible to me. All good news, but why was I seeing a haze? Why was my vision cloudy now when it had been clear before? The professor had no answer, except to say that everything looked extremely good to him.

There are only two possible conclusions I can draw from this: the first is that the professor, one of the most eminent specialists in this field in the world, doesn't know what he's talking about and has missed something that is affecting my vision, or my brain is playing tricks on me.

It must be the latter.

As we drove home, I was both relieved and depressed: relieved because my eyes were okay, but depressed about the tenacity of my brain in hanging onto a haziness that probably wasn't really there. It occurred to me that the haziness had started to bother me at about the same time that I was starting to stop being bothered by the fracturing light in my right eye. In other words, my brain was tuning out one thing and fixating on another, or perhaps it simply inventing something to fixate on.

As you might imagine, this is really difficult to come to terms with. C. wondered if I had substituted fretting over my glasses for fretting over my implants, and she's probably right. But the fact that this is likely all in my head does not make it any less real to me or the symptoms any less bothersome. The bigger picture is great and I'm still really pleased that I had my eyes done and I've been delighted with the results. If I could go back in time, knowing what I know now, I'd make the decision to have it done all day long. I'm not so naive that I don't realise that if it wasn't worrying about my eyes, my brain would most likely still be fretting about the fit of my glasses or the scratches on my lenses or God knows what. I might still be fretting now, but at least this way round I can see the clock when I wake up in the morning. Of course, if I could stop my brain doing this, then I would stop my brain doing this. Apart from anything else, it is incredibly tiring and I just wish it would stop.

I'm actually pretty stress resistant: I don't really let the pressures and strains of the office bother me, and I am well able to take other assorted crises in my stride. It's the little things that really get to me, and frankly I'm beginning to realise that the obsession with little things is probably a manifestation of problems that I'm having elsewhere in my life. Quite what those problems might be, I don't know, but I do know that, whatever they are, I wish they would bloody go away so I can think about something else for a while.

Meanwhile, I've got some more drops for my eye (placebo, anyone?) and I'm trying desperately hard not to think about my eyesight in the hope that my brain will turn its laser like (over-)analytical focus onto something else less bothersome.

My analytical frame of mind is probably my greatest asset. Turns out it's something of a curse too, and that I'm a mentalist.

It's enough to drive you mad.

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Monday, September 08, 2008

sealed with a kiss....

I've been invited to go to a family wedding in a couple of weeks. It's on a Friday and in Bath, so it's more than a touch inconvenient, which is a bit annoying. Especially so given that I'm not close to any of the people involved, but when the invitations arrived, my father issued a three line whip and let it be known that my presence would be required.

My father doesn't have much family. He was an only child, and the only family connection of any sort that he still has is with his cousin - his mother's sister's daughter. I think I've mentioned this woman here before. How do I put this? In the nicest way possible, she's awful. The best example of this is when my dad decided to send her kids something different for Christmas. For years and years, with their christmas cards, my dad had sent each of his cousin's three kids a cheque for a few quid... nothing much, just a token fiver or tenner to show that he was thinking of them at Christmas. Now that the youngest of these kids was a strapping 25 year old, he decided that this was a bit daft, and decided instead to give them one of those charity gifts: he donated some cash to Oxfam and he gave them all "a latrine in Africa". Good idea, I thought, but apparently his cousin thought differently. She rang up on Christmas Day and she lectured my dad on how he was effectively taking the food from her children's mouths by giving them something as insulting as a gift to charity on their behalf. I couldn't quite believe my ears and still struggle to understand how she had the sheer brass to complain about something that she had absolutely no right to expect. She won though, because the following year my dad reverted to giving her kids a cheque instead. I would have given the ungrateful sods nothing, but my dad feels obligated to his cousin as pretty much her only surviving relative: her parents are both dead, her husband died a few years ago, and he feels a responsibility towards them that actually speaks highly of him and is far more than they deserve.

And so it is that my dad put his foot down and said that I was going to have to take a day off work and give up my time to go to this wedding in Bath. It's a family occasion and he expects me to be there. I can't help but think there's a subtext here, as I steadfastly did not invite any of them to my wedding last year. The seeds of this were sown back at my elder brother's wedding in 2004. I bumped into my dad's cousin when she and her mother were chatting to C. No sooner had I arrived, than she made a huge and completely pointless song and dance about how I hadn't formally introduced them to my lovely partner. Now, I always go out of my way to be polite to my relatives, no matter how tenuous the familial connection, just as I try to be polite to everyone...but I'm sorry, sending me a plastic belt for Christmas and a polyester tie for my birthday does not buy you the right to expect anything else from me at all. You have no say over how I run my life and you certainly not get to hector and chastise me over some pathetic imagined slight at an otherwise happy family occasion. It was no coincidence at all that when C and I got married last year, we only invited friends and immediate family: people who we wanted to be there to share our day with us. We did not issue obligation invitations to distant relatives who I otherwise had no connection or contact with. Getting married abroad probably helped, but I think that most people understood this....not everyone, I'm sure... but I think most people are capable and mature enough to understand that, first and foremost, a wedding is about the bride and groom and what they want. So we didn't invite by dad's cousin, we didn't invite her mother, and we didn't invite any of her children. They'd been invited (and attended) the weddings of both of my brothers, but I was damned if they were going to come to mine.

And so now I've been invited to the wedding of one of my second cousins, and I can't help imagine that the invitation is somehow a pointed one, as though they are demonstrating how magnanimous they are in overlooking my appalling snub of them from last year. This is doubtless my imagination, but my father does seem very keen that all of his side of the family make the effort to attend. Actually, I'm sure it won't be the end of the world. We've taken the time off and will attend the wedding and the reception on Friday, and we've also booked a nice hotel in the centre of Bath to make a weekend of it in what is, after all, a lovely town. If it makes my dad happy for me to be there, then ultimately I'll smile and put up with it.

Is it wrong of me to get all snobby about the wedding list though?

I don't know the exact history of the tradition, but I've always thought that wedding lists were originally a way of helping a young couple set up their first home together.... and they originated at a time when getting married meant that you would be leaving home for the first time. In that kind of context, you're going to need all the plates and gravy boats and things that you can lay your hands on, and gifts like that were probably most welcome. When C. and I got married last year, we'd already been a couple for the best part of 8 years, lived together for the best part of 7 years and we both had good jobs and earned a decent wage. We didn't really need anything. Yes, I suppose we could have wandered around John Lewis and put together a list of stuff we wanted, but we decided that we were simply more interested in having our friends share our day. If anyone really wanted to buy us a gift, then they could make a donation to a charity or "buy" some terribly worthy gifts from Oxfam - school books, fertiliser, goats, donkeys... that kind of thing (see how I avoid the use of the Oxfam's made-up word "funusual" in describing these gifts. My worthiness only goes so far).

In the event, we raised over £3000 for charity, which I was really very pleased about. Now, I don't expect everyone to have as high a WQ as we do, and I've got nothing in principle against couples having a wedding list - hell, it's a sensible way of making sure that you don't get 15 toasters from well meaning relatives - but looking down the bride and groom's wedding list for their big day, I couldn't help but shake my head in amazement. It was hosted by Debenhams for a start, which I know I shouldn't get all snooty about, but if I was going to have a wedding list held with someone, it wouldn't be with them... it also seemed to feature an awful lot of Vera Wang crockery. Well, perhaps they need a lot of crockery. Who am I to judge? I was a bit late to the list, so there wasn't a massive amount left on it, and perhaps all the really sensible stuff had already been snapped up, but one thing caught my eye immediately. To me, it was the kind of item that summed up the whole ridiculous and conspicuous expenditure associated with the modern wedding; it was the kind of item that can only ever be sold when couples are wandering around a big department store wondering what else they can add to their wedding list. I refuse to believe that any of these are sold to any other people for non-commercial use at any other time.

It was a Spiked Meat Dish.

It was £25, but I had to have it.

In the card that will accompany this gift, I have written that I hope they enjoy many happy roast dinners together, but if they use it more than once in their entire lives, then I will be astonished.

Perhaps it's something that they've always wanted, but I'm betting that it's far more likely that they only added it to their list because they were wandering around the store with a little handheld device wondering what else they could add to their list, and they scanned it on without really thinking about it, and probably without even considering that someone might buy it for them.

...Which, of course, is exactly why I did buy it for them.


Although, to be fair, it is fully dishwasher safe and comes "complete with protective covers for spikes", so it's really very practical.

In fact, perhaps I should get one for myself....?

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