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

Friday, August 28, 2009

with your hands on your head or on the trigger of your gun....

Earworms of the Week

> "My Star" - Ian Brown

Ah, King Monkey! He couldn't carry a tune in a bucket, as anyone who has had the misfortune to see him live will be amply able to confirm, but he definitely has something about him. For starters, he was in one of the best British Bands ever, and that has to stand him in pretty good stead, and whatever his voice might be like live, on record he can be just about perfect. You want proof? Look no further than "I Wanna Be Adored" or "Fool's Gold", where that mumbling, shamanic chant of a voice really comes into its own. Some of his solo stuff is pretty reasonable too. I've no idea why this is in my head, particularly, although I did see a picture of the man himself in a magazine the other day reprising his appearance in Harry Potter (in the pub on Diagon Alley, reading "A Brief History of Time" and stirring his coffee without touching the spoon). This song was on a compilation tape that a friend gave me in about 1998 that I listened to when driving a colleague to a meeting in Wellingborough. He asked me to turn in down when this came on. Make of that what you will, but I like it. Military mission to Mars? Whatever you say, Ian.

> "Knights of Cydonia" - Muse

I'm not an especially big fan of Muse, I must say. I like the idea of them, and at their best they're pretty bloody good, but I really struggle to listen my way through a whole album. All that pseudo-classical symphonic nonsense really starts to hurt my head after a while. Still, credit where credit is due, and the solo on this song is just fantastic. You need a lift when you're out running sometimes, and this track was just the ticket for me the other day when I was about halfway through a 12-mile run and feeling the burn. There's a reason this is on Guitar Hero, you know.

> "Magnificent" / "Get On Your Boots" - U2

I wasn't the least bit tempted to buy "No Line on the Horizon" when it came out, but a colleague presented me with his copy the other day when he was raving about their live show in Cardiff. I really ought to give it a listen, apparently. I got about halfway through before I took it off and put on The Clash. I should probably say now that I quite like U2. It took me a long time to be able to admit that, but they slowly wormed their way into my brain and turned a pretty fierce loathing into a grudging respect and onwards to actually buying their records and seeing them live. The problem with this, and with their last couple of albums generally, is that the standout tracks are almost completely lost amidst a whole lot of turgid, over-emoting drivel. In my opinion, anyway. And even that is lost by the chronic over-exposure of that unbearable attention seeker, Bono. I like the band and I have a fair bit of time for the causes that Bono espouses, but I'm becoming increasingly less tolerant of having him hector me and am really starting to find their heart-on-sleeve-isn't-life-beautiful plods interchangeable. They're still capable of decent stuff, but I fear that for me it's getting lost amidst everything else about brand U2.

> "Killing in the Name" - Rage Against The Machine

I was reading Tom Morrello talking the other day (on Twitter, actually) in tribute to Les Paul; he was saying how he'd used a Gibson Les Paul on a few RATM tracks, mainly as overdubs, and quite a lot when in Audioslave. This was one of the overdubbed tracks he mentioned, and as chance would have it, it popped up on my iPod this week too. Well, I'm not sure what part chance has to play in the matter when I'm running more than 20 miles a week and I've been listening to the same playlist for weeks, but anyway.... it's a brilliant song this. Swearing has rarely been used to better effect on record.

> "Bulletproof" - La Roux

I can take or leave this whole "new-80s" thing that's happening in music at the moment, to be honest. I wasn't that big on this sort of thing the first time around, and I don't really get why people who weren't born the first time around are now picking the sounds and the fashions with such enthusiasm. Still, I do like this record, so.....

> "Ruby" - Kaiser Chiefs
> "Push It" - Salt n'Pepa
> "Build Me Up Buttercup" - The Foundations

"Ruby" is the earworm that will not die. It's been years now, and it's still going strong. Still, as someone pointed out to me when they heard me moaning about it, I should worry... their daughter is called "Ruby", so they can never, ever escape. The only possible cure is to try and find an earworm more virulent. My standby on these occasions is usually that Foundations record, but this chap suggested I try a touch of Salt n'Pepa. Not bad, but the relief was only temporary, and then the universe conspired to drop first "Never Miss a Beat" and then "I Predict a Riot" into my head. I'm learning to loathe the Kaiser bloody Chiefs, I tell thee....

> "All Hell Is Breaking Loose Down At Little Kathy Wilson's Place" - Wolfsbane

Another one for Des, this. Wolfsbane were a sadly much overlooked metal band from Tamworth, probably most notable for featuring future Iron Maiden singer Blaze Bayley on vocals. I loved them. Their records always sounded like they were recorded for about 12p, but they probably were. This song is based on the 1953 B-movie, "Invaders from Mars", which I discovered one night when watching the film on telly and wondering why the plot elements seemed so familiar. The album was about 20 minutes long and I loved it to bits. It's on my iPod, but I'm almost afraid to listen to it in case it's crap*. Aw, it's probably always been crap. That was part of the charm.

*actually, it sounds okay. Just click the link.....

> "Guns of Brixton" - The Clash

I've really got into The Clash recently, and was given a whole pile of their albums by my brother-in-law - a long-standing fan - for Christmas. I've been listening to "Live from Shea Stadium" in the car all week, and when this popped up in the bontempi organ round at the LeftLion pub quiz on Wednesday night, my fate was sealed and the song stuck. Credit where credit is due, it was C. who spotted the track first and won us the point... all those years listening to it through the wall from her brother's bedroom obviously paying off. Brilliant, brilliant song. The coolest bassist ever?


And that's your lot. We've a long bank holiday weekend to look forward to here, so I'm planning to do..... nothing. Hurray! Have a good weekend, y'all. It's a long way to the Christmas holidays from here, so let's make the most of this one, eh??



Thursday, August 27, 2009

you've got to dance, little liar...

I woke up yesterday morning to the distinctly unwelcome sounds of John Prescott holding forth on climate change. I have an unpleasant feeling that he watched Al Gore on "An Inconvenient Truth" and had the dawning realisation that washed-up deputies do sometimes have the chance to completely relaunch themselves and to restore their reputations with the public. Instead of finding his own topic, it appears that Prescott decided that the simplest thing to do would be to nick Gore's idea and bang on about the environment. Who knows, perhaps it could make him credible again. Relevant. Cool, even.

To be honest, I can't really remember what he said. Frankly I was too astonished. This is a man who, more than any other, symbolises the fall of the Labour Party: he's a former ship's steward and trade union activist. His presence in Blair's front bench personified the link between old Labour's working class roots and New Labour's modernising middle classes represented by the likes of Tony Blair. Unfortunately he was apparently unable to keep his hand out of the cookie jar, his fist to himself or his dick in his trousers. To hear John "two jags" Prescott lecturing me on climate change was quite a difficult pill to swallow.... particularly as he seemed to be trying to lay claim to founding the whole movement, banging on about how he swam up the Thames to present some sort of petition to Thatcher. Very impressive, but given that, since then, this man has used his official car to travel a few hundred yards down the road, it's not really very credible. He went on to say how he abhorred violence and cautioned the Climate Camp protestors not to go down that road. Right, advice on non-violence from a man who once punched out a guy who threw an egg at him. Spare us. And whilst you're at it, you might like to modify your tone of smug self-righteousness too.

Whilst he's busy reinventing himself, we learn that Prescott has apparently also become something of a web 2.0 icon, although he admits that he sometimes dictates his Tweets.... because, y'know, 140 characters is a bit of a chore. I'm sure there's lots more to the new John Prescott, but frankly I've long since stopped caring enough to find out.

Do these people think we're stupid? Do they think that just because they say something with authority, it makes them authoritative? Do they think that we've all got the memory of a goldfish and will magically forget all of their past indiscretions as they speak, mesmerised by the magic in their voices? Of course they do. Of course they think we're stupid. Perhaps we are stupid. Why else would we give these people, who long ago sold their principles and their ideals down the river in the pursuit of power, a chance to wake me up in the morning with their fatuous waffle and insincere bandwagon jumping bullshit.


Wednesday, August 26, 2009

one bad apple....

I'm having a bad Apple day.

You might remember that I thought my much loved 60gb iPod was going to die back in May this year. The screen went all funny and it started behaving a bit unpredictably. The old boy seemed basically okay though, so we carried on regardless. I therefore wasn't expecting any problems when I reached for my trusty MP3 player to maybe shut out the office with a bit of Rage Against the Machine as I tried to concentrate on some tedious document or other. Imagine my surprise and annoyance, then, when I turned the thing on only to find that it was completely empty. The menu structure was there alright, but there appeared to be not a single piece of usable content. Given that I synced it only a couple of days before, I was a little bemused.

Nevermind..... I had a plan b: my iPhone. I picked up my phone and started to think if I had any RATM on there or perhaps some Audioslave. I pressed the 'home' button, and nothing happened: the screen remained resolutely blank. Now, this has happened to me once before, about a month ago, when the phone has gone from registering an almost full battery to shutting itself down without warning with a completely flat battery. Annoying, certainly, but not catastrophic. Except, of course, the charging cable that I take everywhere with me was in my other jacket. Luckily for me, enough people now have iPhones that I was able to plug in at someone else's desk. It's not really very good though, is it? I've only had the bloody thing 13 months, and the least you'd hope is that you can rely on it.


I can charge my phone, but what am I going to do about the iPod though? Several attempts to reset and sync it have failed, and I think it's dead. Not having an iPod at all is clearly not an option, but should I buy a new iPod immediately? There's only one hard drive iPod with a decent capacity left now: the 120gb Classic. Should I just buy that? Apple are secretive about their product launches at the best of times, but the iPod range is probably due an upgrade and there's a Mac Expo next month. Should I hang on and see what they have to say? There's apparently a chance they may just can the classic range entirely and force everyone to buy a new iPod Touch. Given that I already have an iPhone, and I like to carry my whole music library around with me, that's not all that appealing an option for me.

Dilemmas, dilemmas.

To be fair to apples though, I did have a very nice Granny Smith with my lunch, so it's not all bad news....

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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

I am tired, I am weary...

I seem to be developing bags underneath my eyes; bruised, black smudges pointing obliquely outwards from the inside corner of my eyes towards my cheekbones. They rather serve to make me look sallow, sunken and tired. I think this may largely be because I *am* sallow, sunken and tired. They might always have been there, I suppose, obscured from my attention by the glasses that I used to wear. I rather think, however, that they're new and that they're a product of my age, my exercise regime and too many late nights.

I'm not really taken with them, but I hardly think I'm metrosexual enough for eye lotions. Perhaps I'll simply have to get used to looking tired. I *feel* tired most of the time, so why not?

Coming hard on the heels of some very late nights at the weekend, I'm sure that the twelve mile run I did last night won't have much helped, but it did include two moments that brought a massive smile to my face and a spring to my weary step. The first was when I turned around at the six mile point just as "Knights of Cydonia" popped up on my iPod. That guitar solo is preposterously joyous. The second moment came soon after, at about the seven-and-a-half mile mark, when I saw a man walking a ferret along the canal towpath. It was a perky looking thing, with bright white fur and wearing a natty looking harness. Its owner offered me a cheery good evening as we passed, and the thought of them kept me amused for at least another mile in the darkening evening.

There was a little bit of a chill in the air by about 8pm, and I'm rather afraid that summer might be over.

I was quite pleased with my splits for this one:

climb (ft):

It's a very flat run, as you'd expect alongside a canal, but what stood out for me is the way that I ran at a pretty consistent pace all the way through. It certainly didn't feel like that, as for the last five or six miles, my legs felt like lead. I discovered that, even though I was feeling tired, if I picked my knees up and upped the pace a bit, it didn't make me feel any worse.... hence the slightly faster times around miles 7-10. I suppose it just goes to show how much of running is mental as well as physical. At this sort of pace, I should think I should finish the race a few minutes over two hours. If I give my body a chance to recover in the run-up to the race, so that I actually get to the starting line feeling fresh, perhaps I'll be able to run a bit quicker. Who knows?

As you probably already know, C. and I are running the half marathon to raise money for the MS Society. We're hoping to raise £1000, and any money you can spare is gratefully received. You can sponsor us here.

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Monday, August 24, 2009

I'm happy, hope you're happy too....

I've been watching cricket for a long time now. I have been unlucky enough to actually be present in the ground to watch Australia retain the Ashes three times at Trent Bridge: 1993, 1997 and 2001*. I've seen Shane Warne dancing with a stump on the pavilion roof twice. It's a good job we won the game there in 2005 as I'm not sure the old timbers of the building could take any more of that kind of strain.

There was no Trent Bridge test this time around, and no Shane Warne, but I was lucky enough to get hold of a pair of tickets for the fourth day of the last Test match at the Oval. The series was nicely poised at 1-1 going into the game, and the England selectors resisted the calls to give Mark Ramprakash one last hurrah at his home ground. Having seen him charging down the wicket in Nottingham towards the close of play on the Friday Ashes Test in 2001, completely ruining my Saturday by his inability to resist Shane Warne's taunts, I was pleased I wouldn't be seeing him playing in a game of this importance. I wasn't sure about Jonathan Trott, making his debut in this game, but surely he couldn't be as catastrophic and negative selection as the 39-year old Ramps.

The terracotta urn containing the Ashes is only 6 inches tall, but England and Australia have been fighting over them since 1882, and it remains the single greatest prize for an English cricketer.

When England finally won it in 2005, for the first time since 1986/7, it was a cause for national celebration. Over-celebration, many would say, but after such a long period of Australian dominance, it was simply joyous not only to win the Ashes, but to win them in such an incredible series.

After a 5-0 thumping in Australia in 2006/7, there can't have been too many people who gave England much of a chance this summer.... but we did it. We went into Sunday needing ten wickets to win. That was all we needed to do to bring the Ashes home. It wasn't exactly plain sailing, and the Aussies fought like...well.... Australians, but at a little after 6pm, when Graham Swann took the wicket of the superb Mike Hussey it was all over.

We had regained the Ashes.

And I was there. I saw every ball bowled; every wicket fall and -- best of all -- I saw the England captain, Andrew Strauss, lift that famous old urn.

I've been lucky enough to have seen some brilliant sport: Allan Donald and Michael Atherton at Trent Bridge in 1998; the amazing Ashes test in 2005. I've seen Europe winning the Ryder Cup at the Belfry in 2002 and at the K-Club in 2006. I was in the Olympic Stadium in Athens when Kelly Holmes won the 800m. I was at the rowing lake at Schinias in Athens when the Men's Coxless Fours, led by Matthew Pinsent, won the gold medal by the tiniest of margins.

How does this day compare to those? I'm not sure. All of those were fantastic in their own way. As a big cricket fan though, and having suffered through 20-odd years of awful, heartbreaking England performances, actually being present in the ground when we won the Ashes was pretty bloody special.

Let's hope we can enjoy the win without gloating, eh? There's little less attractive than winning without dignity and then wallowing in that win instead of looking forwards. For what it's worth, my favourite moment of the day (winning aside) was when the crowd gave Ricky Ponting a massive standing ovation both to and from the wicket. He was booed at Edgbaston, but he was shown an awful lot more respect here for what he's achieved. It's no less than a champion like him deserves.

It was a very good day.

*actually, Australia held on for a draw in 1993 - the first test match I ever went to go and watch live - to keep the series score at two up with three to play. Needless to say the Aussies won the remaining tests that mattered to win the series 4-1. It just felt like they retained the Ashes that day when we failed to get Steve Waugh and Brendon Julian out.
I had a nice day though, eh?

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Friday, August 21, 2009

he's the hairy handed gent who ran amok in Kent....

Earworms of the Week

> "Master of Puppets" - Metallica
> "The Trooper" - Iron Maiden

I like rock music. I like running to rock music. It probably won't come as much surprise to learn, then, that as my mileage has increased in the run-up to the Half Marathon, I've been listening to lots and lots of heavy metal on a playlist a I plod my weary way around the place. I've been listening to Muse, Foo Fighters, Queens of the Stone Age, Probot, Rage Against the Machine, AC/DC... but above all, I've been listening to Metallica and Iron Maiden. There's something about the driving drum beat and the screaming guitars that makes me pick my knees up and run that little bit faster, no matter how tired I am or how much I've started to drag my feet. It also, it must be said, makes the whole process somewhat less boring. When you're out for ninety odd minutes, with nothing much to think about but how much you're hurting, you take all the distraction you can get..... Is it poor form to wear an iPod on the day itself, do you think?

> "Shoot the Runner" - Kasabian

Damn those gibbons, but I'm finding some of their music damn near impossible to shift from my brain. Perhaps this one is a plea for mercy from a tired athlete in training? Or a desperate cry from a despairing full back as the player he's supposed to be marking leaves him for dead?

> "Caribbean Moon" - Kevin Ayers
> "Stranger in Blue Suede Shoes" - Kevin Ayers

I was introduced to Kevin Ayers courtesy of Mike's Shuffleathon disc from last year, and was curious enough to get myself a collection of his work. It's not something I like to listen to every day, but just once in a while it hits the spot perfectly. For some reason, I seem to find his cod reggae "Caribbean Moon" stuck in my head, when it's pretty far from his best song.... but it is absurdly catchy and there's not a whole lot I can do about that (great video too). "Stranger in Blue Suede Shoes" is much more like it, and it a rambling tale of a man who walks into a bar. Puts me in mind of Stan Ridgeway's "Camouflage", for some reason....

> "Money" - Pink Floyd
> "Free Money" - Patti Smith

In my head for fairly obvious reasons, I would say. The Floyd song is probably the more famous (and marvellously covered by the Dan Reed Network, if memory serves me correctly. Des will be able to confirm, I'm sure...). I prefer the Patti Smith song though, as I love the way the song works its way up from a whisper to a gallop and then eases itself back down again.

> "Cheek to Cheek" - Fred Astaire

A colleague of mine at work was disgruntled about something this week, and asked me who he should escalate to. I suggested the Head of Delivery, who happens to be a sikh. My colleague, also a sikh, dismissed the idea. "No, I don't want to be accused of the whole Sikh-to-Sikh thing". Now, this statement had two immediate effects on me: the first was to wonder what on earth the sikh-to-sikh thing was. Was it like the masons? The second was to plant that wonderful Irving Berlin song into my head.... only with sadly altered lyrics and an unfortunate mental image of two sikh gentlemen waltzing around the office together.

> "Romeo & Juliet" - The Killers

A great song at the best of times, but this is a really, really good cover version and one that I've heard twice in the last week. Once was when I chose it on my iPod in the car, but the other time was a lot more random when it popped up on the radio. Good song.

> "Afternoon Delight' - Starland Vocal Band

C and I took out 4 DVDs last weekend: The Wrestler, Valkyrie, Doubt and Revolutionary Road (can you guess which two I chose and which two C chose?). All good films, I thought, but none are exactly upbeat. As we finished off the last, Revolutionary Road, on Tuesday night, my mind drifted off into the thought that I actually really like Will Ferrell films, Anchorman in particular. I've been toying with the idea of buying myself a "Stay Classy, San Diego" t-shirt, and that thought after watching all those excellent but downbeat films pushed me over the edge and I hopped online and placed an order. Is it geeky? Probably. But 60% of the time it works every time.

Sky rockets in flight?
Afternoon delight.

If you don't think this song is the greatest song ever, I will fight you. That's no lie.

> "Werewolves of London" - Warren Zevon

It was listening to Kevin Ayers that planted the seed that I should listen to some Warren Zevon next. The two are loosely associated in my mind because they sound similar-ish, at least in terms of their singing voices. Zevon wrote lots of good songs, of course, not least "Raspberry Beret", but it's this one that stands out a mile for me. Ahhhh-hoooooh!


And that's your lot. I'm off to Oxford this evening and then onwards to watch England hopefully regain the Ashes at the Oval on Sunday. In the meantime, may I point you in the direction of our Just Giving page in the hope that you might see your way towards making a donation....? We're running the half marathon to raise money for the MS Society of Great Britain. Thanks to all who have given money so far - you've been very generous and your generosity humbles me.

Have a good weekend y'all, and stay classy.


Thursday, August 20, 2009

if you know when to take them....

At about 07:30 this morning, just as I was about to get into the shower, there was a loud bang on the front door. Cursing, I quickly grabbed a towel and ran down the stairs to see what was going on. I unlocked, opened up and cautiously peered out from behind the door - after all, who wants to be confronted at that time of the morning by a semi-naked man? It was the postman, of course, clutching a small plastic envelope. I scrawled my signature approximately on his little digital screen and took the delivery. I opened it up, and was stunned by what I saw: it was short letter with a cheque stapled to the bottom.

The cheque was made out to a sum that equates to about 3.5 years salary.

Tax free.

My mind flashed back about five or six years, and I could see myself flicking through the brochure that came with my critical illness insurance. Let's look down the list of conditions and see what I could maybe tolerate in order to get a payout: obviously you don't want something nasty like cancer, but could I lose a limb? An eye? All good fun, and then I filed the paperwork away and thought nothing more of it. Who really thinks that there may come a time when they will be diagnosed with one of the conditions on that list? Who would really want to be?

To be honest, I was only dimly aware that you might be well advised to take out life and critical illness insurance when you take out a mortgage. Getting the mortgage itself was a big enough step for me. Luckily for me, I was well advised, and my very diligent and professional financial advisor made sure that, as well as getting an excellent deal on our mortgage, we signed all the necessary paperwork and got ourselves properly covered. In fact, I'm not sure I can ever thank LB enough for his foresight.

....And now my critical illness policy has paid out. Without any great fuss or fanfare, my insurance company has paid up the full amount less than a month after they received my claim form, at a stroke making all the inconvenience of that lumbar puncture worth the bother.

I stared at the cheque for a few minutes. Then I sat down and stared at it some more.

Then I went to work.

Then I came home from work and after a game of football and I stared at it again.

That's quite a lot of money.

That money is not consolation or compensation for having multiple sclerosis, but it does offer me financial security. More than that: it presents me with some new options and opens up some interesting choices. I have MS, but at the moment I'm still relatively unaffected. Who knows what will happen tomorrow, or in a year's time, or in five years time.... that's was true before my diagnosis, but somehow the present feels all the more precious to me. Every mile that I run, every game of football that I play (even ones where I feel rubbish, as I did tonight)... it all feels like something to be cherished because I really don't know how long I will be able to play. I'm not worried about my future, really. Good job really, as there's not a damn thing I can do about it. I might be one of the 'lucky' MS sufferers who are barely affected by the condition throughout their lives. I might not be. No one can tell and there's not much point worrying about it. I do wonder, however, if I really want to spend my the bulk of my time sat at a desk doing a job that is hardly the passion of my life.

Surely there are much better things I should be doing with my life? I want to go to Australia again; I want to go to New Zealand; I want to go back to South America; I want to travel in Africa and to go on a walking safari; I want to learn how to scuba dive; I want to see whales and dolphins and sharks; I want to see lions and tigers and elephants; I want to travel around the great cities of Europe and to see the works of the Great Masters and the soaring cathedrals. There are so many better things I could be doing than sitting at my desk as a tiny cog in the wheels of a big company. Perhaps this money is my opportunity to get out and do some of those things whilst I still can.

The big question, I suppose, is whether or not I am brave enough to seize that opportunity.


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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

and you've got the face on....

When I was about eight years old, we did a test in our biology class to see how many of us could roll our tongues - apparently it's a genetic thing, and not something that everybody can do. I couldn't do it. About half of the class could do it, but I wasn't one of them, no matter how hard I tried.

For some reason, when I was a teenager, I tried again. This time it worked. Now, the ability to roll your tongue is not really anything much to write home about, and it doesn't really have much practical use, but I still felt elated by this. I'm not sure that my late development in the field of tongue rolling exactly disproves the genetic theory (unless I'm a member of the X-Men with an especially rubbish mutant power... take that Magneto!), but it gave me a bit of a kick to suddenly discover that I could actually do something I had assumed would forever be out of my grasp.

I've always been able to wiggle my nose. I don't know how I do it, but I can make the damn thing twitch like a rabbit. Again, it's not a skill with any great application, but it does seem to make people laugh, and was always a good secret weapon to be able to unleash in any staring contests I happened to find myself in.

A little while after discovering that I could roll my tongue, I discovered that I could raise each of my eyebrows individually. Finally! A talent with a practical application, and one that opened up a whole new world of sardonic facial expressions. Looking back, it was probably a discovery that played a critical role in the formation of my personality in those teenage years. This was a skill that required a little practice to master, but it felt like an investment worth making, and I'm still collecting the dividends today with every barely discernable and yet unmistakeably sarcastic flicker of disbelief I make in tedious meetings at work.

I thought that perhaps that would be it. After all, I had been amply gifted already with a tongue I could roll, a nose I could twitch and eyebrows I could arch independently. What more could I possibly ask for?

Well, just last week I discovered that I could wiggle my ears.

Will this never end? Are there other, still greater talents awaiting my discovery?

Much more of this and I'll be considering an entry into Britain's Got Talent.....

[a loud klaxon sounds]

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Monday, August 17, 2009

'cos your crystal ball ain't so crystal clear.....

I heard the other day that you ideal job is likely to be the thing that you wanted to be when you grew up. Apparently, so the theory goes, when you were young, you didn't have to worry about the practicalities of living, working or earning money. So when you thought about your future, it was not constrained by reality, so you believed you could do anything.

Fast-forward to your life now, and if you're unhappy with your career and have ever given any thought to a total change of direction.... then that first childhood dream could be a good starting point to finding fulfillment.


I'm pretty sure that I didn't grow up wanting to be an IT Consultant. Does anyone? My doctor father and nurse mother tried to influence my career choice at an early age by giving me a toy medical kit, but I wasn't having any of it. In fact, the first thing I can remember really wanting to be is a motorcycle policeman. I had a plastic helmet with goggles and everything that I used to wear when I rode around my bike.

Is it too late for me to apply for the California Highway Patrol, do you think? Can I be soundtracked by this? (as opposed to this....)

What did you want to be when you grew up?

Why did we ever decide to be anything else?


Sunday, August 16, 2009

all aboard and we're hitting the road....

9.10 miles in 87 minutes. At that pace, the half marathon should take me a little over two hours - not that I'm aiming to do more than just get around the course. The way my legs are feeling at the moment, I'm not sure I'm exactly going to pick up speed over that last four miles or so....

C's out doing a 10km loop now as part of her training schedule.

It's hard work this, you know. Tonight I'm going to be especially dedicated if I'm going to undo all the goodness of my training at the BBQ I'm attending.....

Should you feel so inclined, you can sponsor C and me here. We're hoping to raise £1000 for the MS Society, and every penny will help us towards that target.


Friday, August 14, 2009

I'm hooked and I can't stop staring....

Earworms of the Week

Short and sweet this week, I reckon... assuming I can remember how to do short and sweet.

> "Ain't Got No / I Got Life" - Nina Simone

Something of a hardy perennial of an earworm this one. I don't know if Muller are still using this to advertise their products, but if they are, it would certainly go some way towards explaining why it's always buzzing around in the background. Whatever. It's a pretty decent song, and the lyrics just get more and more ridiculous.

"I got my arms, got my hands, got my fingers,
got my legs, got my feet, got my toes,
got my liver, got my blood..."


> "Don't Fuck With Me" - Love/Hate

This one's for Des and for the Pollstar. I've no idea if anyone else but the three of us remember this lot of hopeless early-90s hair metallers, but we used to find this song hysterical.

"Do unto others as you'd have others do unto you
Don't fuck with me and I won't fuck with you

They don't make'em like this any more. Their first album was actually quite good, as I recall.

> "Bye Bye Badman" - Stone Roses

It's the 20th anniversary of their debut album, and as you might imagine, there's been a fair amount of coverage in the press about them. I haven't gone out of my way to read much of it, but obviously saw enough of it to make me want to dig the album out and to give it a spin. It's good, innit? I love the way it starts with an almost pastoral refrain and then really kicks into a groove. Please don't reform.

> Theme to "Sex and the City"

Yeah, so I sat and watched an episode of this the other day for the first time in years. It was the one with the rabbit. Not the fluffy kind. Anyway. It looked a bit dated with all that big hair and the sisters-doing-it-for-themselves kind of vibe (with the rabbit? quite literally....), but it was passably entertaining, although I did manage to find the off-button before the second episode in the double-bill got much past the credits. Don't judge me.

> "Man Ray" - Futureheads

A good band that went right off the boil. I haven't listened to them for a while, but for some reason the chorus to this song found its way into my head.

"Touch yourself, touch yourself, touch each other, black and white
Touch yourself, touch yourself, touch each other, black and white
Touch yourself, touch yourself, touch each other, black and white
Touch yourself, touch yourself, touch each other, black and white"

Always good live, this one.

> "Chicken Payback" - The Bees

One for Statue John. Catchy, and now apparently being used to trail programmes. What happened to the Bees? Are they still around?

> "Fight For Your Right To Party" - Beastie Boys

To be honest, I prefer the original of this, with the thumping guitar by that bloke from Slayer and produced by Rick Rubin.... but it actually sounds okay when played on the bontempi organ in the Nana round at the Left Lion quiz too. This is a great song, isn't it?

"Your pops caught you smokin' and he said "NO WAY!"
That hypocrite smokes two packs a day!
Man living at home is such a drag
Now your mom threw away your best porno mag (Busted)"

We won the quiz, naturally. Mainly down to Keith recognising the theme tune to "The Flashing Blade". Played backwards. Having crap like that in our heads is the reason why we men don't remember anniversaries....

(bizarrely covered by Coldplay here....)

> "There Are More Questions Than Answers" - Johnny Nash

Instantly recognisable when Nish played it at his "bit of a disco" at the quiz the other night, but I had to think long and hard why it seemed so familiar in a different version. The answer? It was used as backing music for one of the rounds for A Question Of Sport. Ah. That's it.

> "Baby Got Back" - Sir Mix-A-Lot

Um.... do I need a reason?

"I like big butts and I can not lie
You other brothers can't deny
That when a girl walks in with an itty bitty waist
And a round thing in your face
You get sprung, wanna pull out your tough
'Cause you notice that butt was stuffed"

Shakespeare himself surely never wrote a more efficient and expressive rhyme.

Stupid but irresistible and absurdly catchy.

And that's it (how would you follow that anyway?). Have a good weekend y'all and stay classy.


Thursday, August 13, 2009

take it to the limit one more time....

This isn't an easy thing for me to admit, but I'm struggling physically a bit at the moment. I'm running the Robin Hood Half Marathon in a few weeks time, and I've been trying my best to keep to a training programme. After that enforced two week break where I was flat on my back and unable to stand up, nevermind to get out the door for a run, I have something of a feeling of needing to do some catching up. I'm reasonably active most of the year, but over the last couple of months, my mileage has been steadily rising. Last Saturday, I did some hill interval running: 1 minute running up a steep hill, followed by 1 minute running down the hill, repeated twelve times. This was followed on Sunday by a nine mile run. For the last few miles of that run, the muscles in my legs stiffened up appreciably, and in the last mile, I actually started dragging my left leg a bit. Not good, but probably the result of three separate factors coming together: the layoff, the increased mileage and my MS.

I rested on Monday, but went out on a five mile run on the Tuesday night. This was perhaps a mistake: my muscles were still very sore, and it was something of a struggle to drag myself around (although I did, of course... still managing to clock in at 9.22 minutes per mile, below my nominal goal of 10 minute miles). I rested again on Wednesday, but went swimming this evening. This is usually the one form of exercise that I do that keeps the muscles of my upper body moving and hopefully helps to stave off wastage. With the increase in my running, I haven't been as often recently (I only went today because I couldn't get to football), and this evening I could really feel the stiffness across my shoulders as well as the lingering soreness from my runs in my legs. It was really hard work and I think I'll have another day off tomorrow before going back through the whole cycle next week.

The half marathon is on 13th September, and I'm looking forward to it. Between the two of us, C and I are hoping to raise £1000 for the MS Society - a cause, of course, that is close to my heart. I should be aerobically fit enough (my standing heart rate is something around 40 bpm), but I'm starting to worry if I'm going to be physically up to it. My willpower is good, I know that: I'm more than capable of dragging myself out for a run in any weather and more-or-less however I'm feeling. This is different though; I don't think that this is something that I can (or should) be pushing through; that dragging foot is a sign of the physical limits of my body that I'm going to have to learn to respect, no matter how hard or inconvenient I may find it. This is not an especially easy pill for me to swallow, and it makes me feel the thing that I fear the most: lessened by my condition. It also inevitably makes me to wonder how much more of this I'm going to have to learn to cope with..... something nobody can answer simply because there are no certain outcomes.

Of course, all these things are relative, and I'm very aware that although I may be having a few problems at the moment, there are people far worse off than me. I'm worrying about the impact a 9 mile run had on my body; some people can barely make it out of the front door unaided. I'm very aware and very grateful for what I still have.

Even so.... I don't like feeling limited.

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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

.... and what you're looking at is the master plan

The football season is already upon us, and the Premier League kicks off this weekend. I've just spent hours and hours pulling together an almost completely hopeless and ill-informed preview of the season over on Cheer Up Alan Shearer. Mystic Meg I am not, so do go and amuse yourselves at the implausibility of my predictions. Besides, I haven't the energy to write anything else after that marathon.

Before you scoff, do please try to remember that it's actually a lot harder than it looks. Just so I can get my excuses in some ten months early, I might also add that the Premier League looks very, very average this year - outside the top four or five clubs anywhere. I reckon there are three distinct tiers:


within those pockets, I reckon anyone could finish almost anywhere... and actually the bottom two tiers are pretty much up for grabs too - you could almost as easily finish 6th as 16th.

Who'd be a pundit, eh?

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to have a long lie down and to think about the make-up of my Fantasy League Team (which oddly, given my predictions for the league, I'm usually quite good at).

...and lest we forget it's still summer, I've some pondering about the make-up of England's top order for The Oval too. Ramprakash? What short memories people have. In what way does Ramps' track record make you think that he stands up to pressure any better than Ian Bell or Ravi Bopara? In 50-odd tests, he averages 27..... If I was a selector, I'd be beating my way down to Somerset, cap in hand and hoping that Banger will consider a one-off appearance.

But enough sport, eh?

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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

the future's so bright....

As I went out running this evening, I found myself squinting into the evening sun as I dragged my limbs, still aching from Sunday's 9 miler, around the Embankment. Why had I decided to run without my sunglasses on? I love wearing sunglasses and I almost never go running without them. I even have a pair that I use especially for exercise. It might have gone past seven by the time I set out, but it's not winter here just yet and there's still good daylight to be had long into the evening. What was I thinking? I almost never go anywhere without sunglasses. I'm very attached to my sunglasses.

I think there are two likely reasons for this attachment. The first is that, for thirty years of my life anyway, I wore glasses. I didn't get my first pair of prescription sunglasses until I was in my late teens. If you've ever seen the prescription sunglasses on offer as the "free pair" when you buy a pair of specs, you'll know that the choices are extremely limited and the styles generally unflattering. I began to wear contact lenses with greater regularity from my mid-20s onwards, and it wasn't long before I bought myself my first pair of proper sunglasses - a pair of Oakleys from a shop in Padstow. In fact, the very same pair that I still wear when I'm out running. I was thrilled with them and wore them almost as often as I wore my contact lenses. I've been wearing sunglasses like that ever since, even more so since I had my eyes done last year. It might be old hat to all you people lucky enough to have perfect eyesight, but the thrill of having a proper pair of (relatively) stylish frames with excellent lenses was like a revelation to me. It's a thrill that's never really worn off, and even though I no longer need to wear glasses or contact lenses, it's still the freedom to wear sunglasses when I want (along with the ability to see my watch on the bedside table) that gives me the biggest kick.

The second reason? I like the feeling that people can't see my eyes. Perhaps this is another fallout of wearing glasses for so long, or perhaps just because I'm a bit shy, but I like to hide behind my sunglasses: pretty much every pair that I own are big wraparounds with pitch black lenses. I can see out, but you definitely can't see in. Part of the reason I like to wear sunglasses when I'm running is that I want to keep the pain on the inside. I don't want anyone to see my eyes lolling about in my head as I drag my sorry body around the place, and somehow I think that sunglasses make the whole process look effortless. It's a bluff, but it's a bluff that somehow makes me feel better about myself and perhaps makes me run harder. A double-bluff, perhaps. Even if the only person I'm fooling is myself, then it's still worthwhile.

I might risk looking a bit of a prat walking around on a mildly overcast day, but I not sure I care. Lest you think I'm a complete moron who wears his sunglasses ALL THE TIME, I should add that I do have limits: the sun has to at least have the potential to show it's face, otherwise the sunglasses will stay at home. Even when the sun is shining, I will always take them off when I'm indoors and usually when I'm talking to someone. I'm not one of those people. At least I like to think I'm not.... maybe I am? I don't wear sunglasses to look cool, I wear them because it's still the thrill for me that I can wear the sunglasses that I want when I want to wear them. They make me feel free. It's a small freedom, I know, but I hope I'll never get bored of it.

Regular readers here will not, I'm sure, be surprised to hear that I like to spend my time fretting about possibly invisible scratches on the lenses......

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Monday, August 10, 2009

guilt by implication, by association....

A historic judgement was made the other day that could remove the fear of prosecution from people travelling abroad to help relatives seeking an assisted suicide. I've written about Debbie Purdy before. To plagiarise myself:

"Debbie Purdy was diagnosed with primary progressive MS in 1995; she can no longer walk and is gradually losing the strength in her upper body. Her condition is only going to get worse, and if/when her condition becomes unbearable, she would like her husband to accompany her to a clinic in Switerland where she can end her own life in comfort and with dignity. Her dilemma, and the reason that she is going to court, is that she would like her husband Omar to be by her side on the trip, but it is not clear in British law whether or not he would become liable for prosecution on his return to the UK for assisting in a suicide."

The Law Lords have now unanimously ruled in Purdy's favour and the Director of Public Prosecutions has been ordered to immediately draw up a policy that would spell out when prosecutions would and would not be pursued - in other words, providing people like Purdy with the clarity they need to help them make their decision.

I'm not going to get into the rights and wrongs of this case, although instinctively I feel that I agree with Matthew Parris:

"I can’t tell you how simple I find these arguments: so simple that I’ve hardly bothered to write about the issue. Suicide is the greatest of human freedoms, underwriting all the others, for it gives us the possibility of defying every thing and every one there is. The possibility of suicide is what makes life voluntary and each new day an act of will. No wonder the faith community gnash their teeth at suicide. God Himself, if He existed, would gnash His teeth at suicide: the supreme act of defiance, the final raspberry. The knowledge that I’m here by choice, that every breath I take I take by choice, injects into my soul a transcendent joy. That we can let go whenever we want is for me the deepest sort of thrill. People should be able to choose. Obviously. And if they choose the end but seek help with the means, they should be able to. Obviously. End of argument."

Parris actually goes onto say that he is opposed to legalising assisted suicide - on the grounds that this means that someone has to officially decide who can, and who cannot, die:

"It is one thing for the State to decline, at its discretion, to prosecute someone who has killed without authority. It is quite another thing for the State to issue an authority to kill. We do best, I think, to stay on that first, more limited, ground."

Interesting, but the rights and wrongs of assisted suicide are not what has caught my attention most about this whole debate. Oh no. Perhaps not surprisingly, as a sufferer myself, I've been dismayed by the way that the coverage of the debate is presenting Multiple Sclerosis. MS, according to every single news report that I have seen, is a disease so awful that you will want to kill yourself. If you have MS, then your life is all downhill from here. MS will strip you of your mobility, your dignity and then it will kill you.

I know that this isn't the main thrust of these stories, but it is the - perhaps unintended - insinuation. Coverage like this will surely only help to reinforce people's existing misconceptions of MS. They're bad enough already: remember that poll the MS Society carried out back in April?

"Almost half of those surveyed in the poll couldn’t guess how many people in the UK have the condition, and of those who did answer, 80 per cent underestimated the true figure. In fact, only six per cent were able correctly to identify that there are more than 85,000 people in the UK with MS, making it the most common, disabling neurological condition affecting young adults. Just under half of respondents to the survey couldn’t name a single symptom of MS, while only a quarter realised that it’s a disease that mostly affects people aged between 25 and 34, when a diagnosis is most likely to be made. Around 40 per cent (two in five) of respondents assumed a diagnosis of MS meant a lifetime in a wheelchair, whereas just 20 per cent of people with MS rely on one. Alarmingly, six per cent of people attributed MS to ‘public health issues’ such as obesity, poor diet, smoking or germs. Some respondents even thought MS led to brittle bones, bad teeth, phlegm and loss of appetite."

Worse yet, can you imagine how you would feel if you read all this kind of coverage of MS at a time when you were just being diagnosed with it? You're likely to already be feeling pretty vulnerable, but how is seeing MS being linked so closely with all this coverage of assisted suicide going to make you feel? Not great, I would think.

I have MS. It's not something that I advertise, especially, but neither is it a secret. If someone asks me about it or, as they did today, asks a few direct questions about why I had a lumbar puncture, then I'll tell them. My symptoms are not obvious: I don't use a walking stick or a wheelchair and I'm still able to go running and to play football, but when some people - not all by any means - hear that I have MS, I can almost see their preconceptions slotting into place before my eyes. People do not really know what MS is. Why would they? Until I started suffering the symptoms and it became a possible diagnosis, I didn't really know anything about it either.

I'm probably being oversensitive, but is it too much to hope for that we might perhaps have been able to have the same interesting debate about assisted suicide without focusing on Debbie Purdy's particular condition? Or perhaps to have an explanation of what Primary Progressive MS is and that there are different types of MS and that every case is different? That there's no certainty of outcome? That almost no one actually dies of MS and that the average lifespan for someone with MS is almost (almost!) the same as for everyone else?

Is that too much to ask for?

In a word: yes. I'm sure it probably is. Lest we forget, you can probably also subsititute the "MS" in every sentence above with the name of any other disease or condition. Can we manage to be sensitive about all of them all of the time do you think?


Whatever next? Insisting on having a footnote on all meeting minutes indicating that the chairman could be a woman as well as a man and that the title doesn't necessarily denote the gender of the occupant? Well, it's either that or just calling them "the chair" or "chairperson" and that would just be silly........

It's political correctness gone mad, I tell you.

Perhaps this is where the internet really comes into its own. The newspapers and TV coverage may be painting a story one way, but if you're interested enough to go and look up Multiple Sclerosis on wikipedia, you'll find a really well-written and informative article. I know that not all wikipedia entries can be trusted, but this one has been pulled out as being one of the very best, and it's a great place to start. There are some very good information sites run by people like the MS Society, but there's also a whole world of more personal information contained within blogs (like this one), community sites (like this one) and even on dear old Twitter. I'm not bigging myself up here especially, but I know that I have taken great comfort from reading about and sharing other people's experiences. The process of being diagnosed, deciding what drugs to take and how to inject them, what to ask my neurologist, what a lumbar puncture will be like.... priceless human contact that all helps to dispel the uncertainty and to create a feeling that you're not in this on your own. I'm not setting out to preach, but if anyone happens to google their way here looking for information, then maybe, just maybe, they will be comforted and informed by what they read and might just have some of the bad juju of misinformation and ignorance dispelled.

...or they'll just learn a load of useless crap about whatever transient fluff is passing across my monkey-brain at any given time.

One or the other.

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Friday, August 07, 2009

Ich heiße Superphantastisch!

Earworms of the Week

To be perfectly honest, some of these earworms have been kicking around for a couple of weeks now. Still, waste not want not, eh?

> "Remedy" - Little Boots

She was many people's pick at the start of the year to be the sound of 2009, but to be honest, Victoria Hesketh hasn't made all that much impact on me. I also get the distinct impression that her whole electro-pop 80s schtick (one of the tracks on her album is a duet with Phil Oakey, for heaven's sake! How much more 80s can it get?) has been somewhat upstaged by the 2009 Mercury Music Prize nominated La Roux. Still, this one has managed to worm it's way into my head.

> "Secret Lemonade Drinker" - R Whites Lemonade advert

I've no idea how this got into my head, but was astonished and dismayed to discover that C. had no idea what I was talking about. Obviously, I dashed directly to YouTube to show her what she'd been missing out on by growing up in France. She tried hard to look interested, but all she really wanted to know was how the advertising agency came up with that particular idea to sell lemonade. She wasn't even that bothered to discover that it featured Elvis Costello's dad either. Dear oh dear. It was, and remains, a classic advert. At least she knew who the Smash robots were.

> "Dude (Looks Like A Lady)" - Aerosmith

I think this is fallout from the shocking discovery that their asteroid monstrosity is apparently the most popular choice for wedding first dances. Surely this number would be far more appropriate? Good song too. "Permanent Vacation" was the first album of their comeback from the drug addled oblivion that had followed (well, overlapped) with their 1970s pomp. From there, I went back through their back catalogue and discovered some real gems in albums like "Toys in the Attic" and "Rocks" and songs like "Mama Kin", "Sweet Emotion" and "Dream On". Better was to come, too, with "Pump" coming out shortly afterwards. The "comeback" is still going strong, but they're not quite the force they once were, even if Joe Perry and Steven Tyler still look preposterously youthful for their years (Tyler is 61 now, amazingly).

> "I Swear" - Boyz II Men [WMG appear to have stamped on all the YouTube clips to this song, so it looks like you'll be spared at least....]

An awful record and a weapons grade earworm. I spent almost all of Saturday last week in the pub in Birmingham town centre after the cricket at Edgbaston was rained off for the day. It wasn't the nicest pub in the world - I think it was a Wetherspoons - and as soon as this song came on over the PA, within seconds I knew I was doomed to have this rotating around my head for at least the next few weeks. Drivel.

> "Three Times a Lady" - The Commodores

You might have already gathered that I'm not the biggest fan of slushy songs. In the main, I find them impossibly contrived and often quite cynical and cliche ridden. This song may be all of those things, but Lionel Richie is a legend of course, and that makes all the difference. Plus, of course, I can't quite shake the image of the band, with their silver flared jumpsuits and massive afros, from my head when I hear the song. I'd love to see R Kelly dress like that and manage to be taken int he least bit seriously.

> "The Great Escape" - We Are Scientists

What better band to listen to when running up and down a hill for half an hour than We Are Scientists? Usually I run listening to something a touch heavier (run to Metallica and it's as if you have Satan himself on your tail), but this week I just fancied something a little different. Mind you, it's hardly folk music, is it?

"They're breaking both my hands
They're breaking both my hands
And telling me to
Take it like a man
And take it like a man
Well fuck that"

Good stuff. Anything to take my mind off the fact that I still have a few more circuits of the hill to go before I'm done....

> "My Girl" - Madness

I was rescued from my despair at the nation's supposed favourite first dance records by the heartening news that the readers of this blog, at least, have somewhat better and less predictable taste. Between us, we've chosen records by the likes of The Cure, The White Stripes, Lou Reed, Bob Dylan and Depeche Mode. Hels opted for this song, and it's hard to argue really. They're one of my all-time favourite bands, and this song managed to bring a tear to my eye when I saw them at Glastonbury at the back end of June. What man doesn't know the feeling expressed here? I like to stay in and watch tv on my own every now and then. Who doesn't?

> "Lola" - The Kinks

Another potentially brilliant wedding first dance. I saw the Kinks at Glastonbury in 1993, and even though they were plugging a new album ("Phobia"), they still managed to be brilliant, with this song as a predictable highlight. Ray Davies is, or at least was, a lyrical genius. C.O.L.A. cola.

> "Viva la Vida" - Coldplay
> "Leaving on a Jet Plane" - John Denver

A happy memory of our recent houseguests was their tendency to burst into song and to sing in nice family harmonies (I also have a very fond memory from our last trip to Vienna of them all bursting into song as "Africa" by Toto played on the radio). Vienna is a city with a tremendous musical heritate (Falco, for starters....) and the two kids have music in their blood. Their talent can easily be discerned either by watching them take to "Guitar Hero" like ducks to water, or when Lilli discovered that C's guitar was in her room, and almost immediately picked it up and began to play some Coldplay. Our last meal together came to an end on Wednesday night when Lilli played us a lovely version of "Leaving on a Jet Plane", with the rest of the family joining in on the chorus. It actually works very well when approached in the style of a female singer-songwriter in the Joni Mitchell mould, and there wasn't a dry eye in the house by the time she'd finished.

> "Darts of Pleasure" - Franz Ferdinand

Lilli and Pauli spent much of the week trying to teach me how to speak German. I'm not much of a student, but they very much seemed to enjoy the attempt. My lasting memories will be learning the German for "cheeky monkey" (frechdachs) and the persistence of this song as an earworm... driven entirely by those lines at the very end of the song:

Ich heiße Superphantastisch!
Ich trinke Schampus mit Lachsfisch!
Ich heiße Superphantastisch!

Champagne and salmon? Hmmm nice.

It's been a lovely week. What a shame I have to end it back at work and with England struggling in the cricket.

Have a good weekend y'all and stay classy.


Thursday, August 06, 2009

I hate to wake you up to say goodbye....

For the last seven days, C and I have been playing host to the most delightful Austrian family. These are the same guys who pretty much single-handedly organised our wedding in Vienna a couple of years ago, so it's really been the very least that we can do to put them up for a few days and to spend some time showing them around our country. Actually, it's been a real pleasure having them around - it's hard not to have a ten year old boy and an (almost) twelve year old girl around the place and not have it brighten your day. Not ones as well behaved and charming as these two, anyway....

They arrived 11 days ago, but spent the first few days of their holiday in London, doing stuff like looking at the Tower of London, riding around on an open-topped bus and things like that. I went down to join them on Thursday last week, and we spent the afternoon in the Science Museum at the Wallace and Gromit exhibition they've got on at the moment (the highlight of which was when we spent a good half an hour making plasticine models of a Frankengromit and a punk rock guitar playing pinocchio). We then all got the train back to Nottingham and spent a couple of days doing things like pottering around town (Susie and Lilli were very taken with the shopping in town, which is apparently quite different to the kind of thing that they get in Vienna), trying out archery at the Robin Hood Festival in Sherwood Forest and learning some circus skills and watching the fireworks at the Riverside Festival.

I spent the weekend in Birmingham watching the Edgbaston Test Match, but Pauli is very keen on sport generally and was very keen to learn as much about cricket as he possibly could. On Friday morning, I spent the hour or so before play started trying to explain the basics of the game, and then when England took two wickets with the first two balls of the day, I spent much of the rest of the day trying to explain that it wasn't always like this, and usually you have to wait a lot longer to see anything happen. There's not much cricket in Austria, I shouldn't think (actually, it seems that there is), but I think the bug took hold and I did everything I could to help it take hold by sending Pauli home with a real cricket ball, which he thought was the coolest thing in the world ever.

On Tuesday morning, the six of us piled into my dad's stylish Hyundai Trajet and drove up to York. We'd borrowed it for this very purpose, so that we could all travel together in the one car. I spent much of my childhood sitting in the back of a Fiat Strada, shoulder-to-shoulder with my two brothers, being driven the long miles to visit my grandparents in South Wales or in Plymouth. Quite why my dad waited until we'd all left home before he buys a people-carrier, I really have no idea. Still, it was undeniably useful. In York we walked along the walls, had a quick look at the King's Manor where I studied for my Masters degree, and wandered around York Minster. There is a lot of monumental architecture in Vienna, of course, but much of it is from the Baroque period. York Minster is in the gothic style and as a Protestant Church is quite a lot more austere.

I regret the fact that the Church have felt the need to put in turnstiles and to charge £6 per person for admission... as I looked at the people in their baseball caps and eating their ice creams, I couldn't help but worry that the admission fee encourages people to treat this magnificent building in the same way as they do any other tourist attraction... but it remains the most splendid, light and airy building, and it always manages to lift my spirits. I'm not in the slightest bit religious, but I am a historian, and I am always moved by the thought of the sheer effort involved in putting these buildings together. I hate that Nottingham has nothing like it.

After admiring the street theatre next to the Shambles, we hopped back into the Trajet and headed up to Durham. As well as being a charming town with another magnificent cathedral, our trump card here was that we were going to be spending the night in an actual, honest-to-goodness Castle. The rooms of University College Durham might not be much to write home about, but the building itself, especially when seen through the eyes of a ten year old, is splendid: all crenelations, wonky staircases and creaky doors.

I prefer York Minster, but even I had to admit that Durham Cathedral isn't too bad - and has the enormous benefit of not being as overrun with tourists as York.

Those Prince-Bishops really knew where to build a church, eh?

A short stop at the seaside to have a paddle in the North Sea, and we were back to Nottingham and then on to Luton airport this morning to send them home.

I'll miss them. Of all the things we've done together over the last week, I think the ones that the kids will remember the most will be the simplest: playing football in the park, leaving their bedroom doors ajar in the hope that the cat will pay them a visit in the night, teaching me German, learning English tongue-twisters ("Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled pepper...."), playing Guitar Hero (they're from a very musical family, so it wasn't long before Pauli was playing "Strutter" on hard with his eyes shut.... literally) and having a ride in my mini. The two kids think we're the coolest people they know, which perhaps tells you a lot more about Vienna than it does about how cool we are, but it's a lovely thought. It's been a great week and, whilst it's nice to have the house back to ourselves, it definitely feels a touch empty tonight.

It was a touch like living with the von Trapp family at times though, and they serenaded us at dinner last night with a version of "Leaving on a Jet Plane", led by 12 year-old Lilli on guitar. Not a dry eye in the house.

Come back soon please.

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