Monday, 21 December 2009

Crimbo Choons 4, 5 & 6

For my next selections for my top Crimbo tracks, I've gone down the slightly more mainstream route. These three songs are solid Christmas compilation CD fodder that you're more than likely to hear as you walk into a shop/cafe/funeral home over the festive period. But that shouldn't take away from them as selections of top quality Christmas songs.

Jona Lewie - Stop The Cavalry

The Waitresses - Christmas Wrapping

Chris Rea - Driving Home For Christmas

So, why have I grouped these three together? And, more importantly, why have I selected them at all? Without doing a detailed analysis of each song, here's a few points that relate to all three songs. Firstly, they're all most definitely festive, but they also sound like "proper" songs too. Lots of Christmas music gets caught up in novelty or twee-ness, but all of these actually have some substance to them. True, The Waitresses song is somewhat cheesy, and the Chris Rea track is very cheesy, but they maintain a credible level of cheesiness which is all the more acceptable when coupled with Christmassiness (which is now unofficially a word).

Secondly, the Christmas factor in them is more subtle. The songs aren't actually about Christmas, but use Christmas in telling their story. Jona Lewie wishes he could be home for Christmas, but isn't actually there yet; The Waitresses are actually telling a modern love story over twelve months that culminates at Christmas; Chris Rea is driving home for Christmas, but like Mr. Lewie previously, he hasn't reached it yet. The relative subtlety in the use of Christmas in the songs sets them apart from all the songs about reindeer, Santa and mistletoe you hear for the rest of the festive season. But at the same time, they are actually related to Christmas (which some other Christmas songs, weirdly, are not).

And lastly, they are, for want of a more descriptive word, jolly. They bounce along putting a smile on your face. They're not sombre or serious (although Jona Lewie's track does have a somewhat serious undertone, but not in a way that takes away from the celebratory mood of the song, largely provided by the brass band sections featured throughout the song). Another key element that some Christmas songs sorely lack.

So, there we go. In the last of these entries, which will come sometime before Christmas Day itself, I'll round things off with my all-time best and worst Christmas songs. Until then, keep enjoying the Crimbo choonage.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Crimbo Choons 3: "Jingle Bells"

The Brian Setzer Orchestra - Jingle Bells [Instrumental Version]

For me, Jingle Bells as a traditional Christmas song sits there with all the other traditional Christmas songs. I like it, but that's about as far as it goes. Traditional Christmas songs are an integral part of what Christmas has become for many people in the modern day, but many of them have been around so long that any festive image or sentiment they may contain has become faded and cliched to the point of them becoming almost meaningless.

The Brian Setzer Orchestra's instrumental version of Jingle Bells completely wipes out any of this. Setzer injects life and fun into the well-worn tune transforming it from just another Christmas song into a rocking, swinging, brash and cool rock & roll big band number. The whole piece from start to finish is infectious, building to an irresistable finish that simply blows you away. Never has Jingle Bells had such attitude and swagger. Just awesome.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Crimbo Choons 2: "A Merry Jingle"

So, what do you get when you mix together Thin Lizzy, The Sex Pistols and some traditional Christmas ditties? Well, this...

For some reason, A Merry Jingle by The Greedies (a one-off band made up of members of the two aforementioned bands) really hasn't caught on as a mainstream Christmas track, and I honestly don't know why. Maybe it has just a bit too much of a hard rock sound. Maybe it doesn't have the same cheesy value as more popular Christmas tunes. Or maybe it's just never received enough exposure to really grab people's attention. Who knows. But it's a track, thanks to my dad, that has been part of every one of my Christmases since I was very little. It brings back a lot of memories and it's one of those Christmas songs that, when I hear it, signifies to me that Christmas really has arrived. Listening to this song has become as important as eating my first mince pie of the year or putting up the Christmas tree. So, that's the first reason why it's on my list of top Crimbo choons.

Also, it just rocks. You've got a combination of two of the most legendary rock groups bashing out a medley of We Wish You A Merry Christmas and Jingle Bells as if this might be the last Christmas they get the chance to do it. It's simple but very effective, and whilst falling firmly into the novelty cash-in pile of Christmas singles, it's neither nauseatingly commercial nor excruciatingly awful. As I said before, it just rocks. So stick a Santa hat on and bang your head to the festive beat.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Does your granny always tell yer that the old songs are the best...?

I've wanted to do an entry on Christmas music for a week or so now. I've started writing one a couple of times now, but each time when I read back what I've written it just sounds, for want of a better phrase, wank. So I'm biting the bullet tonight and just going for it. I love Christmas music; it's one of my most favourite things about this time of year. Christmas music has produced some of the most memorable songs ever written. It's also produced some of the most painfully awful words and music of all time. As with a great many things, I have opinions to share on the subject of Christmas music, and I intend to share them here song by song in the run-up to Christmas.

The first Crimbo song I've chosen to share is one introduced to me fairly recently, and is an absolute festive corker:

I could write a huge long analysis of why this is such a brilliant Christmas song. I could go into great detail about the musical credentials Bob Dylan brings. But I don't need to. I defy you to listen to that song and not start smiling and wanting to dance around in a Christmas frenzy. It's just that awesome.

So, keep reading for more Christmassy musical type musings.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

A Serious Problem

So, I found out a few days ago that the latest Coen Brothers offering A Serious Man is playing at neither the Vue nor Odeon cinema near me, due to it receiving a limited release across the country. This being a film that I've been looking forward to seeing for quite some time, I'm now placed in a frustrating set of circumstances with several options, all of which are not exactly ideal:

1. Wait until the film is released on DVD and then rent or buy - not really an option I'm willing to go for, as I don't want to wait for another few months to see it. Seeing as the DVD doesn't even have a release date yet, we'll move straight on to the next option...

2. Find somewhere further afield that is showing it - not entirely out of the question, as the most geographically viable venue I've found at the moment is Birmingham, and with Christmas shopping on the horizon a shopping trip to somewhere like that is potentially on the cards. That said, if Crimbo pressies don't require such a trip, it's still quite far to go and see a film. The alternative in this category is to wait until I'm down in London again to see it, as the film appears to be playing in several cinemas in and around London. I'm not going to be in London again for around a month though, so this could be ruled out simply due to time being a factor - the film may no longer be playing by the time I'm there.

3. Acquire it by "other means" and watch it - against my principles and likely to be inferior in quality, ultimately leaving a bad taste in my mouth and a niggling little weevil dancing in the pit of my stomach. But, with options 1 and 2 not exactly leaping out at me at the moment, I can't pretend I'm not tempted.

4. Wait and see if it's released at a later date at one of my local cinemas - not unheard of, but definitely not an option that I can rely on in any real way at the moment. It could happen, in which case I'll be happy, or it could just as easily not, in which case I'll be thoroughly annoyed.

So, those seem to be all my options at the moment, with unfortunately the easiest solution currently seeming to be number 3. Ultimately, it's just a thoroughly annoying position to be in, and one that I am flummoxed about facing in the first place. Not only has A Serious Man received exceptionally positive reviews all round so far (which in turn just makes it even more annoying that I can't see it at the moment), but also the last two Coen films - Burn After Reading and No Country For Old Men - have been huge successes both critically and at the box office. So why has their latest offering received only a limited release?

Anyway, if anyone has any advice or any options I haven't considered, I would be happy to hear either. For now, I'll go back to muttering under my breath about limited releases and the general unfairness of it all.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Review: "Hamlet 2"

Flat and uninteresting characters flounder through a lifeless script for the vast majority of a film that had the potential to follow in the footsteps of such great teen Shakespearean adaptations as 10 Things I Hate About You and (to a lesser extent) Almereyda's version of Hamlet. At times Steve Coogan seems as though he can't actually believe he's been reduced to a film of this low quality, although at others he genuinely seems to believe that what he's doing is worthwhile, which is almost more disappointing. His character is that of a pathetic loser, a washed-up actor who never made it further than dodgy bit parts and ad work, and who now rollerskates to work as a drama teacher. The character type is not a million miles away from that which made Coogan a household name in the UK, Alan Partridge. But whereas the humour of Partridge came from the idea that he was oblivious (or chose to be) to the way in which the rest of the world perceived him, Dana Marschz is a loser who seems not only to know that everyone else thinks he's a loser, but also believes he's a loser himself, ultimately making him an uninteresting and unsympathetic protagonist. Even when the half-baked explanation as to why Marschz rollerskates to work is revealed, by this point you care so little for the character that it falls completely flat.

Catherine Keener is wasted and seems to simply be going through the motions in a subplot that is almost entirely pointless. Playing the wife of Coogan's character, it's not so much that you can see where their relationship is headed from their very first scene together, but more that you never believe for a second that these two people would ever marry in the first place. The one plot device it throws up is certainly not worth the scenes devoid of both life and humour we have to sit through with Coogan, Keener and David Arquette's Gary. Other key plot points in the film - Marschz's winning over of the difficult pupils dumped upon him at the start of the film, and his surreal relationship with a young pupil seemingly unconnected with the story in any other way - are simply forgotten about or frustratingly ignored.

Ultimately the film never knows what story it's telling. After over an hour of ploughing away with the tedious and painfully unfunny life of Coogan's character, it realises that the focus should have been on the play he is creating, which, from what we see of it, whilst not being a comedy masterpiece seems ten times funnier than anything we've been subjected to thusfar. The film's use of one of Shakespeare's most lauded tragedies in both title and plot sum up the film as a whole. There are vague attempts at tying the themes to those found in Shakespeare's Hamlet (father-son issues with the main character, the play within a play/film), but they always come across as half-hearted and, in the end, pointless. Why have the film share the name of the overblown and farcical production created by Marschz's character when this feature of the film is largely glossed over until the final act? Even though the film realises that its actual focus should have been Marschz's play and not Marschz himself all along, bringing with it some genuinely funny moments and songs, this realisation comes far too late to save what is overall a poorly written and acted film.

"Because you are young and full of questions, and that is the best thing of all."

I read my first Terry Pratchett novel when I was 7. It was Wyrd Sisters and it was a little beyond me at the time, but I enjoyed it and understood enough to know that it was a parody of Macbeth. My next encounter with Discworld was aged about 10, when Mum bought me The Colour of Magic as an audiobook. From then on, I was hooked.

In recent years, I've been disappointed with his later offerings in the Discworld 'verse. Going Postal and Making Money seem to me to be particularly limp additions to the canon. I wasn't even particularly enamoured of The Truth. Moist von Lipwig comes across like a recycled version of William de Worde and both of them just seem to be there to annoy Vimes who is a great character but getting overused. He was even dragged into that hellhole of a novel, Monstrous Regiment, to try to salvage that disaster (it didn't work).

Of the more recent Discworld novels, I rate Night Watch and Carpe Juggulum. I also liked The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents and The Wee Free Men. Since the latest of those, TP has written another five Discworld-based books, none of which I've been especially grabbed by. The Wintersmith in particular, I found as dull as ditchwater. Time was, that when a new Discworld appeared in the shops, I'd buy it instantly and wouldn't rest until I'd devoured every page. I've asked for Unseen Academicals for Christmas but am expecting to be underwhelmed.

So I was pleasantly surprised last Christmas when a present of Nation from a friend was one of the most enjoyable books I had read for a long time. When I noticed that the National Theatre was staging an adaptation, I was determined to go. Last Saturday, I went with my sister and three others to see the stage version penned by Mark Ravenhill and put on at the Olivier Theatre in the National Theatre complex on the South Bank. Before I disappear up my own superlative, I would just say that anyone living in London and able to see this production should do so.

The basic premise of the book (and the play) is an English girl shipwrecked on a south Pacific island during the heyday of the Empire finds that the only other person on the island is a teenage boy, the sole survivor from his tribe following a devastating tsunami that also caused the shipwreck. Despite having nothing in common, they band together and attempt to form a new society, which grows as survivors from other surrounding islands make their way to the larger one, which was previously The Nation. There were some alternations to the plot as I remember it, mostly to do with amping up the backstory of the main villain to make him more sympathetic, rather than just a dangerous psychopath. All in all, they cram in a lot of what happens and nothing jarred too much with my recollections of the book.

I've struggled to find other reviews of it, and most of the ones I have found have been negative. However, they have picked on things that I hadn't really thought of (though I did think at the time 'grass skirts are incredibly cliched as a depiction of what a "native" would wear'), but if you want a counter-balance to my over-the-top fangirl squeeing, look here.

I loved this performance. I thought the acting by Gary Carr as Mau, the island boy, Emily Taaffe as Daphne and Jason Thorpe as ship's parrot Milton was particularly well done. The supporting cast were also good. But the main reason I loved this production was for the look of the thing. The Olivier Theatre is a very versatile performance space and I'd seen impressive productions there before, but not one with three giant fishtanks acting as backcloths. The effects used when people dive into the sea or are attacked by sharks were really visceral and convincing and added great depth (hur hur) to the proceedings. Having someone "swim" among waving blue sheets is somewhat oldschool. Having them tumble gracefully through the air suspended behind a massive tank of water really raises the level of the world you're creating.

Another nice touch was the personification of death as one of the island gods, Locaha. It changed depending on which character death was speaking to and swapped between various actors. It was a good reinforcement of one of the story's main themes, the fact that one day, we will all die.

As for the adaptation itself, the thing I liked the most was the use of Milton, the parrot, as a device for recalling the comments of characters and regurgitating them at embarrassing or particularly telling moments. Almost everything he said, apart from the memorable "Is a frog's arse watertight?" was a repetition of something said by someone else. It helped signpost the story for people who hadn't read the book and helped you keep track of all the characters, and there are certainly a lot of them.

For me, this production had everything. It was funny, intellectual and engaging and ran the gamut of spectacle from the gore of shark attacks and on-stage cannibalism, funerals with zombie overtones to awkward romance and poking fun at English pomp and customs. There is also plenty of God-bashing for the atheists among you and while this point was a bit laboured at times, Pratchett and Ravenhill relent enough to allow some room for doubt on the issue so you don't feel too preached at.

I found the end of the book incredibly sad but, at the same time, right for what it was trying to say. Seeing it actually acted out on stage, I nearly cried. (NB. This should not be used as a barometer of how moving it actually is, I cried at The Lion King, what can I say? I'm a wuss.) The play captured this moment faithfully and I left the theatre buzzing out of enjoyment, as did my companions.

So yeah. Go see :D

Thursday, 12 November 2009

The House Of Elliott

After being intrigued by the adverts for it during half term week, I finally got to watch Channel 4's The Event: How Racist Are You? this weekend. The concept of the exercise that the programme purported to demonstrate seemed fascinating: demonstrate to members of the public how it feels to be discriminated against by using eye colour instead of skin colour as the discriminating factor. By choosing this as the factor by which people are segregated, and making those with blue eyes the people who are deemed inferior with brown-eyed people being placed in the position of power, the exercise attempts to place white people in the position that non-white people often inhabit with a mixture of whites and non-whites in the position of the discriminators.

But the focus of the show was not quite what I had expected. What I had prepared myself to watch was simply a playing out of this scenario from beginning to end. What I got was something somewhat different. The exercise itself was certainly one focus of the programme, and it was fascinating to see how different people from different walks of life responded to the situation they were put in. But the primary agenda for the programme was its presentation of the person who came up with the scenario, and who has been putting people through the experience for around forty years, Jane Elliott. Elliott is shown in a number of different lights: innovator, educator, activist and bully to name just four.

In the end, I couldn't decide how the programme wanted me to feel about Elliott. Sporadically footage is shown of her work over the decades, beginning with her as a classroom teacher in the USA in the 1960s where her experiment began, which seems largely to be there simply to inform, rather than to condone or condemn. Krishnan Guru-Murthy sits with two experts (I forget their nams and exactly what made them experts, but they seemed credible enough) watching footage from the current experiment and commenting upon it throughout the show. This generally seemed to me to add credibility to what was being carried out, as explanations of Elliott's techniques and exercises are analysed and backed up with psychological and sociological references.

However, as the programme wore on, things seemed to turn against Elliott in more ways than one. Firstly, the participants in the experiment being carried out for Channel 4 did not behave in the way expected when compared to how the experiment has played out numerous times before. Essentially, several of the blue-eyed and the non-blue-eyed participants conformed to what Elliott wanted them to do, going so far as to sabotage some of the exercises rendering them worthless. A number of reasons were put forward for why this was, with the main being the fact that this experiment was being carried out in Britain, whereas previous experiments had been done in countries such as the USA, South Africa and Australia - essentially Britain did not historically have the same form of overt racism (according to some on the programme) as these countries, and coupled with the collective British psyche, this meant the exercise could never take off in the same way. By the end of the programme, it seemed to me that Jane Elliott was essentially being cross-examined, maybe even attacked, for her methods, her demeanour and what she is trying to demonstrate through the exercise she has created. Murthy's closing interview with her seemed to be primarily trying to undermine and belittle everything she stood for, but Elliott stood firm and maintained her dignity and integrity, and for that she further gained my admiration.

The issues raised by this programme I could write about for pages and pages, but I won't. Essentially, my feelings towards Elliott at the end of the programme were largely positive. Whilst she may seem unconventional and at times harsh in her methodology, I agree with her that it is pretty much essential in producing an effective recreation of the reality of racism. If the participants had the choice of which "side" to be on at the start of the exercise, then the effect would be greatly reduced (as one participant candidly states, she was never given the choice to be a black woman, it was assigned to her at birth, along with all of the prejudiced baggage that potentially comes with that role in society). Some of the participants seemed incredibly blinkered from what racism actually is (comparing the prejudice a skinhead may receive to that which a black man may receive is simply naive; to reject the valid point that a skinhead can choose to grow his hair to change, which the black man cannot do, is fairly mindboggling) and refused to see what the exercise may be able to help them understand. The programme makers seemed to sympathise far more with the viewpoint of some of the participants than of Elliott, whereas I felt precisely the opposite.

However you respond to it, there is no denying however that this was an incredibly worthwhile and thought-provoking programme, and I would urge others to watch it and see how they respond to what they are shown.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Review: "I'm Not There"

If you were to ask me what I'm Not There is about, I'd probably have found it easier to answer that question before I'd watched it than after. How do you explain a film that on the surface is a biopic of Bob Dylan, but in so many ways, once you look closer, is anything but that? How do you explain that one person is played by six actors (specifically, five actors and an actress) but that none of them are actually meant to be that person? And how do you explain that, despite it being one of the most meandering, unforgiving and frustrating films you've seen for a long time, it's also a finely crafted and truly satisfying piece of cinema?

Well, I'm going to give it a try. I'm Not There presents the viewer with six stories which in some way represent an aspect of the life or work (or both) of one of the 20th Century's most influential songwriters and musicians. My knowledge of Dylan comes almost entirely from the fact that my parents are both big fans of his music. Whilst I haven't become a complete Dylan devotee, I have a serious appreciation for his work and find his near half-century-long career fascinating, even if my knowledge of the details of it is somewhat scarce. But it wasn't just to find out more about Dylan that I wanted to see I'm Not There. Possibly even more so was the adventurous format in which the film is crafted. As soon as I heard the (in hindsight, slightly erroneous) idea of six people playing Dylan in the film I was eager to see the final product.

The film sets itself an incredibly high bar and gives itself a great many opportunities to fall down. Whilst I'm Not There is not one hundred percent successful in everything it achieves, it is most certainly an admirable achievement. The cast's performance as a whole is of an incredibly high standard. Looking first at the six "Dylan characters": reliably strong turns from Christian Bale and the late Heath Ledger; Ben Whishaw gives a raw and unnerving performance as Arthur Rimbaud, feeling somewhat underused; Richard Gere gives a possibly surprisingly understated and emotional turn which benefits from being focused upon in the film's second half; Marcus Carl Franklin does well in a demanding role, but his character possibly receives more focus than is necessary; but it is Cate Blanchett who delivers the stand-out performance of all six, and indeed the film as a whole, as the Dylan character who is the most recognisable Bob Dylan both in deed and, maybe surprisingly, in appearance - Blanchett's turn as Dylan in all but name is a powerhouse from start to finish, fascinating and excruciating at the same time, but always mesmerising and scene-stealing. The fact that a male character is played by an actress is never distracting, with Blanchett's feminity only giving the character further depth and enigma. The supporting cast do so well, although they are always playing a firm second fiddle to whichever incarnation of Dylan shares screen time with them.

The dialogue is at its best when at its most organic; upon researching the film after seeing it I was unsurprised to find that many parts were taken or based upon Dylan's own writings, and it is these parts that shine the brightest in a strong overall script. The film's structure is probably the point at which it could have fallen or flown most of all, and the end product is ultimately subjective. Either you'll be taken in by the unconventional and arty methods employed by director Todd Haynes, or you'll feel entirely alienated by them and find the film an exercise in tediousness. I, for the most part, fall in the former camp: whilst I eventually found the film's execution to be refreshingly uncompromising and original, it took me over an hour to truly feel comfortable with what I was watching, and appreciate exactly how to take it all in.

The film is sprawling and meandering, and at times does feel unnecessarily slow. But any film that sets itself such a herculean task is almost inevitably going to miss the mark slightly here and there. On a second viewing, knowing exactly what I'm letting myself in for, the film may feel tigher as a whole. That said, whilst I did find it frustrating viewing at times, the eventual payoff in the film's closing scenes made me glad that I'd stuck with it. I'm Not There is certainly a film that requires a decent level of commitment and concentration to watch properly, but it's certainly worth the effort giving a fascinating and unique cinematic experience. Even if you know nothing about Bob Dylan's life, it's still most definitely worth watching.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Review: Rich Hall

We went to see Rich Hall this evening, in Croydon (and what an inviting place it is - I can't imagine why we all don't spend more time there), and personally I had a very enjoyable night. Hall's relaxed style and ease of interaction with the audience, combined with his musical numbers made it feel like more of a chat show than a barrage of one liners, but the effect was nevertheless highly entertaining.

The first half of the show was Hall's banter with the audience, ranging from writing to hiking and to the expected comparisons of American and British culture, and while a lot of the act was light, there were a couple of punchy lines to catch you off guard. The second half was then taken up with Hall's alter ego, Otis Lee Crenshaw, who treated us to some fine country music, backed by a very able band, including some old favorites and some international drinking songs.

The two hour show flashed by very quickly in the end, and if I had one quibble, it would be that I wish there had been more. This was the first time I'd seen Rich Hall live, and he certainly comes across as a confident, relaxed stage presence, and a very funny performer.

Monday, 2 November 2009

X = ?

As I am a "fan" of Derren Brown on Facebook, I receive notifications when he updates his blog. I enjoy reading what he has to say, as Brown comes across as an intelligent and free-thinking individual through what he writes. The subject matter for his blog today however surprised me somewhat: Brown revealed his passion for The X Factor. As I've had to experience in some way this show since it began earlier this year, I was intrigued to see what Brown had to say. The majority of the blog post, whilst written in Brown's usual charming and witty style, is pretty much an account of his appearance on the ITV2 companion show The Xtra Factor; his opening paragraph, however, is one of the most keenly observed descriptions of the show I've ever read.

I'll let you read it for yourself, as there's little point in me simply regurgitating it here. Most of what Brown talks about I can empathise with a great deal, even though he considers himself a fan of the show whereas I would probably label myself more of a passive and cynical (and piss-taking) recipient. At the end of the paragraph, Brown states that he "[loathes himself] for moments when [he wants] someone kicked off the show, or for sharing in an ounce of that hostility". I think this is something that pretty much anyone would become part of if they were subject to the "reality" that The X Factor shoves in your face. You forget that the contestants ultimately are just people, as they become heroes, villains, underdogs, victims - essentially they are boiled down to the stories that can be told through them, rather than who they actually are and, more importantly, whether they truly offer something worthy of winning a singing competition.

Just before I finish, I also found it fascinating that Brown even related elements of The X Factor to the things that he is well known for. Comparing the public phone vote to a massive event of misdirection is an inspired idea.


The latest comic from xkcd is just excellent. I love seeing very specific aspects of films brought out in interesting ways, and these graphs are a brilliant example of this. I'd take the whole thing or pretty much any of the sub-graphs as a poster (only the 12 Angry Men one requires the others to make sense), and I'd buy the Primer one printed onto just about anything.

Because, you know, no one can get enough Primer.

Ebb and flow

About three weeks ago, my grandmother died. It happened while I was in Prague. She was 98 and had wanted to be dead pretty much ever since my granddad died 11 years ago. But there was never anything wrong enough with her to cause her to die. Then, earlier this year, she had a fall in which she injured her eye on her walking frame. She lost the sight in that eye which, along with her deteriorating balance, led to further falls. She never broke anything, but each one left her more confused, more disorientated. Just that little bit more uncertain. She also got infections which kept needing antibiotics and hospital treatment.

After the eye incident, which happened around May, she moved into a home. I only saw her there once, as I was moving house and a couple of weeks before she died. She seemed happy there. It was a beautiful house and she had a large, airy room, with many things in it that made it her own. We left her with a picture of my sister at graduation and a music box I had bought her in Austria which had been forgotten in the move. She seemed happy there, she knew who we were and who she was. I wish she could have died there.

The previous weekend, I had visited her in hospital, and the contrast couldn't have been more heartbreaking. She hadn't known where she was, who she was, who I was or what was happening. I wasn't sure she could even see me. I had to leave her bedside for a few minutes to go away and cry. She was so much worse than the last time I'd visited, it was devastating.

But that last time I saw her, she was herself again and even though, despite what I wished for her, she ended in hospital, I hope she managed to hang on to that as she went in.

The funeral was last Thursday and came the day after the funeral of a colleague at work who died of prostate cancer. I didn't know him particularly well but went to the funeral. He had always been friendly towards me and had helped me out with several stories. We were allowed out of the office for the afternoon, I had the day off work to go to Nana's funeral. It was odd. There was a lot of traffic on the motorway. I always wonder at times like that where are all these people going? I can explain the lorries, they're freighting, but the cars? What are they doing? The traffic was worse on the way back, especially around Milton Keynes, but I was leaving at about 5pm. Two funerals in two days made me think. I know death is all around us all the time. But on the way there, I couldn't help thinking "How many of these people are also going to funerals?"

Sunday, 1 November 2009

The loneliness of the long-distance blogger

So, with Mr. Telford not submitting an entry to this blog yesterday, I am now the last remaining "runner" in the blogathon. With yesterday's entry, I managed a full month of daily blog posts. Now seems like a good time to take a look back at what the blogathon has been like so far.

In all honesty, most days I didn't have an idea of what to write about until time began running out and I had to produce something to stay in the race. That said, some of the entries produced from this possibly foolish method of blogging I have been quite proud of. I would certainly say that at least a third of my entries in October have been worthwhile. Some may disagree, giving a higher or lower fraction, but that of course is a personal choice; if you have no interest in whatever I blogged about on any given day, then you're unlikely to be keen to read an entry written about it. I can feel this getting somewhat unfocused, so I shall move on.

Telf stated that daily blogging "certainly became more of a chore than a creative exercise for [him] towards the end". I've certainly felt that way at a couple of points over the last month, but not to the extent that I've wanted to give up the challenge. In a way, being the last person left in the blogathon is reinvigorating and a little bit liberating: I want to continue on to see how far I can go, but I also won't feel quite so crestfallen if there is a day where I would struggle to write something and choose to end my run of daily entries.

Lastly, my reflections on the blogathon as a whole. Has it been a worthwhile exercise? I would say definitely yes. Even if for most of its duration it had only two participants, it has certainly done its job in galvanising the writers here to become a little more active than they have been in recent months. There's been a definite increase in material here from those not attempting the daily post challenge, which is brilliant to see. This place feels a lot more alive than it has done for quite some time, and I for one have found it hugely satisfying to read everything that's been written here over the last few weeks. I too hope that the activity continues here even when the blogathon has lost its final participant.

But for now, I'm going to continue looking back over the seventy-eight entries that made October 2009 the busiest month in this blog's history, and see if I can think of something worthwhile to write about here tomorrow.

Happy new month

Congratulations to Bambi on posting on halloween, and thereby going one day further than I could. I think a month is a good time to draw the first blogathon to a close - it certainly became more of a chore than a creative exercise for me towards the end. I hope, however, that it has helped to spur people into a blogging mood, and that the descent into inactivity will not be immediately repeated. I'll certainly try to keep posting on most days, not because I feel I have to, but because I want to, with the odd missed day not feeling like a failure.

Hope you all enjoyed halloween, however you spent it, and look forward to hearing your thoughts and opinions throughout November...

Saturday, 31 October 2009


Hallowe'en was never a huge event in my childhood; partly due to other family occasions falling at the same time, partly because Guy Fawkes Night was celebrated more overtly, and partly because it just wasn't seen as anything particularly special.

But in my adulthood it has taken on more meaning, partly of my own choosing, partly thrust upon me by society. This Hallowe'en, having largely escaped it in recent years, I had the experience of "trick-or-treaters" coming to my door. Now, whilst I'm not so curmudgeonly as to not go along with the tradition, my feelings towards trick-or-treating is now much more clean-cut: it is essentially glorified begging. The children in question come to your door, ring or knock, utter a three word phrase as half-heartedly as they like and expect a reward for this. If the treat in question was issued for particular effort in the costumes, and this was something understood by the children going from door to door, then I wouldn't mind so much. But some of the children I had to hand out sweets to this evening hadn't even bothered to dress up (unless they had decided to dress as chavs or, in one case where the costume consisted of a scarf covering the child's lower face, a petty criminal). A few even decided that it was okay to trample over our front lawn to peer gormlessly through our front window at the carved pumpkins that resided therein. In principle I would have given them nothing at all because of this. In practice they received one sweet each instead of two. The reason? If you don't "treat", you run the risk of a "trick", which usually consists of some form of vandalism. So maybe I was wrong to compare trick-or-treating to begging. In some ways it's more like blackmail. Give me some sweets for doing nothing or I'll damage something belonging to you. Maybe I'm one of the less tolerant people when it comes to trick-or-treating, so I'd be interested in the views of others, but to me it seems like a deplorable practice that either needs to be dragged up to an acceptable level or got rid of completely.

Anyway, that was my Hallowe'en low. My Hallowe'en high was for the first time attempting some proper pumpkin carving, as mentioned previously. Not just hacking a lop-sided face into the side of a hollowed out fruit, but actually trying to make it look good. And I think I did pretty well. I certainly enjoyed it, and it's something I'll definitely look forward to doing again this time next year.

My pumpkin carving effort, with the help of a carving kit with patterns. I followed the pattern for a skull for the most part, but also improvised a bit. For a first attempt I'm pretty impressed with how it came out.

Friday, 30 October 2009

Review Round-Up 8

As I've watched three films today (one at the cinema, two on DVD) I felt that a return to my review round-up format would be a good way to get my thoughts down about them all without rambling on too much. So, yeah.

Fantastic Mr. Fox
Delightfully quirky in style and delivery, but not as satisfying as many of Wes Anderson's previous films. The star-studded voice cast are very strong, most probably the film's strongest point. George Clooney's delivery of the eponymous mammal's voice is particularly great, playing off some of Clooney's previous film characters, in particular Danny Ocean, to wonderful effect. Michael Gambon is also great hamming it up as Farmer Bean. The script is sound, although the stand-out Anderson-style moments feel too few and far between. The story, whilst enjoyable, feels somewhat slow in places and unfocused in others. Overall a worthwhile and enjoyable film, but we are still waiting for a truly masterful Dahl film adaptation.

Made Of Honour
Predictable and ridiculous rom-com. The premise is weak (womaniser Patrick Dempsey falls in love with his best friend Michelle Monaghan; she then gets engaged to a Scottish bloke and makes Dempsey her "maid of honour") and the jokes that come out of it are even weaker ("Oh, he's a man doing something a woman should be doing! Isn't that hilarious?" "They're mistaking him for a gay man because he's doing something a woman should be doing! Isn't that hilarious?" "Look! They're Scottish! Isn't that hilarious?"). The characters are one-dimensional, painfully stereotypical and just plain irritating. Very bad in almost every way.

Quantum Of Solace
This is almost a "re-review" as I've finally watched my DVD copy after seeing this at the cinema. Still comes across as more gritty and less humorous than you would expect from a Bond film, and never to my mind reaches the levels achieved in Casino Royale, but once you get past these factors, Quantum Of Solace is a very strong film in its own right. Daniel Craig and Judi Dench continue their incredible portrayals of Bond and M respectively, and the supporting cast are all strong even if there are no standout performances. The story is complex and requires concentration to get the most from it, but on a second viewing this is less of an issue, which allows you to take in more of the film's details such as the fabulous action sequences and the tight and clever script. A terrific continuation of the Bond franchise reboot, if at times feeling somewhat transitional between Casino Royale and the film that will follow this one. Gripping and well-made throughout.

Fashion passion

A few weeks ago I was riding in the back of a car with a board pen in my pocket. During the course of the journey, the pen lost its lid and leaked into my jeans, causing a reasonably large black mark on the pocket area. It also stained the jeans of the person sitting next to me in the car, leaving a similar mark on his jeans.

In conversation with him, last weekend, I discovered that he had thrown the jeans away, and today I was asked whether I intended to get a new pair. I'm genuinely confused by this concept - the stain does not detract from the usefulness of a relatively new pair of jeans in any way, and I really cannot see a reason to replace them simply because of a cosmetic imperfection.

So, how do you deal with your clothes? Would a stained pair of jeans be replaced, or not? How much damage does a piece of clothing need to take before you'll stop wearing it? I would certainly err on the side of keeping rather than replacing something, assuming that it still performs its role, but then I tend to place less weight on appearance than function. What do others think?

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Tumblin' dice

Hayley and I were invited to dinner last night at the house of a couple with whom we are friends. Dinner was lovely, and the occasion was a good chance to catch up for four people who all have time-consuming careers. After retiring to the living room for after-dinner drinks, a board game was proposed. Our hosts explained that they'd had the game introduced to them fairly recently by a relative and had enjoyed it so much they had been waiting for opportunities to introduce it to other people. A board game wasn't something that Hayley and I had been expecting to play, but we were intrigued and willing to give it a go. We were both very glad that we did.

The game in question is called The Settlers Of Catan and it is simply the most fun board game I've played for a long time. The best way to describe it is as something of a cross between Monopoly and the computer game Sid Meier's Civilisation as there are clear comparisons with both. That said, the game plays unlike anything I've ever played before. As the rules were explained before we started playing I was thinking "This sounds really quite complicated, and not the kind of game I want to be playing after a few glasses of wine", but I couldn't have been more wrong. Whilst the gameplay can become intricate and the dynamics of the game complex, playing the game each turn is actually relatively simple, and both Hayley and I managed to get the hang of what needs to be kept in mind and aimed towards in order to win early on in our second game, after having the first to find our feet. The game ultimately feels very well balanced; it's not too tricky to introduce someone to the game and get them to understand the basic concepts, but it's also a game which isn't afraid to come across as intelligent. I can imagine a game between a few seasoned veterans being fascinating to watch as a masterclass in trading, management of resources and making the most of a given set of circumstances.

I would recommend The Settlers Of Catan to pretty much everyone. Hopefully someone writing on this blog at least will look into it, because it'll give Hayley and I people to play against once we've got hold of our own set and had a bit more practice.

Men-tally unstable

We watched a programme tonight on channel 4 about Katie Piper. Katie was an aspiring model who broke up with her boyfriend a year and a half ago after he raped and assaulted her in a hotel room. In response, he organised someone to throw sulphuric acid into her face, blinding her in one eye, and destroying her career and life in a moment. Recently, after a long legal battle, the attacker and the boyfriend were both given life sentences. Obviously a horrific story, and the documentary does a good job of showing the long term psychological damage caused to Katie by the attack, with her unable to leave her parents house for months, and clearly shaken by every stranger she comes into contact with.

Today, footballer Marlon King was jailed for assaulting a woman in a bar when she rejected his advances. Although the magnitude of the assault is clearly less in this situation, there seem to be remarkable similarities in the actions of the men in both stories. A sense that they had a right to the affection of the women, and a descent into an almost unreal and uncomprehendable fury when their expectations were dashed. It seems to portray both men as living in some sort of fantasy world, in which they believe that they can and should have everything and everyone that they want, and that for the world to deny them something or someone is unfair and unreasonable. It also seems to show that the reaction of both men when denied what they wanted/expected was to punish the parties denying them it, as though they were so unable to come to terms with a universe in which they were wrong that they needed to physically demostrate their clear superiority.

I don't really have anything else to say about either case, except that I find the actions and mentality of the men involved totally baffling.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009


If you haven't heard of MLIA (My Life Is Average) then I can't blame you, I only recently heard of it and only just went to the actual site.

The concept is that anyone can post something average which happened during their day and have it voted on in the hope that it reaches the front page, which is all rather boring and average as internet concepts go.

It's relatively interesting and has some good, if not slightly above average things posted on it, or maybe my averageness is just that bit more average than the rest of the world.

Anyway the feel of the site is pretty nice and the stuff by the site owner(s) is pretty witty and friendly. Having posted my rather crappy and self referential post I was presented with this message.

"Good Job!

You have successfully submitted your lackluster story. Did you think you were going to get a prize or something? How about a cookie?

Well, whether you like it or not, you now have one, and it will prevent you from submitting again for the next five minutes. Go back to your average life- don't just stare aimlessly at the screen until that time period is up. "

I think this is pretty cool, it took me a couple of seconds to clock what was being referred to in the last paragraph, but when I realised it made me marvel ever so slightly, so thought I'd best post it somewhere on the grounds that MLIA

9 things that happen when you have a jaw full of novacaine

I had to go in for some fillings today (I've basically given up on having good teeth - I brush and floss and mouthwash, and it doesn't seem to make a difference), and so had the unenviable combination of large needles, small drills and bits of scaffolding all jostling for position in my mouth. Having been zapped with three shots of numbing-juice (after two I could still feel the agonising pain of having my tooth grinded away with metal implements), I can now reveal the following truths:

  • you develop a pronounced lisp.
  • you become incredibly paranoid about accidentally biting bits of your own mouth - to the point where you stay permanently open-mouthed.
  • you lose the ability to suck back saliva into your throat, meaning that it collects in the bottom of your mouth, unless you happen to be standing around open mouthed, in which case it drools out.
  • you gain an incredible insight into how society reacts to people who drool and lisp.
  • you become unable to spit to clear the saliva.
  • attempting to spit causes saliva to spray upwards, rather than outwards. Specifically, upwards into your nose.
  • touching your own chin and lip is like touching a piece of meat, unless you have stubble, in which case it is quite indescribable.
  • everything in the bottom half of your face becomes frustratingly numb, followed by annoyingly tingly, followed by so-painful-that-you-wish-it-was-either-of-the-other-two-again.
  • sneezing becomes a surreal experience.

Information Super-Heffalump

The internet, when it first became popular, was dubbed the "information superhighway", and this is a moniker which is still used from time to time today. It's one that I occasionally question, as for every website of a newspaper or corporation, there are websites such as Facebook (which has nothing to do with "information" in the intended sense really) and YouTube (which, whilst being a great outlet for certain forms of information and entertainment, is also crammed full of crap). And then, occasionally, I find out about something that I simply wouldn't have been able to if the internet didn't exist.

A short while ago I was researching something on Wikipedia (I actually forget what that something was, but never mind, it just goes to show how gripping what I ended up finding out about was), when I came across, in the "See also" section, a link to a page about an elephant called Topsy. Topsy lived in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries and was put down after killing three people (at least one of whom seems to have been incredibly cruel to Topsy and so, in my opinion, had it coming to him). It is the method and circumstances surrounding Topsy's execution that are so fascinating. Topsy was executed by electrocution in a similar way that a person would be executed in an electric chair. But the most fascinating part of all is that Thomas Edison decided to film the execution, calling the resulting film Electrocuting An Elephant.

At this point, I was incredibly curious about the whole story, and wondered if Edison's film had made it onto YouTube. A quick search later showed me that it was not only available, produced several results of varying degrees of quality, with the best two here and here (N.B. - The film is now available to view directly on the Wikipedia page, but at the time it wasn't and it's a pretty small video, so the YouTube results are still very much worthwhile).

My morbid curiosity led me back to Wikipedia and to the stories of other executed elephants, in particular Mary, also put down for killing a person (and again, a person who treated her cruelly), who was hanged from an industrial crane. I think it's the fact that even though both Mary and Topsy's deaths happened only just over one hundred years ago, but feel so alien to anything that we would be likely to see in today's society, that make their stories so engrossing. It's almost impossible to imagine what seeing either of these events would have been like, and even watching Edison's video requires at least some suspension of disbelief for me.

In returning to these pages to write this entry, I've also come across yet another elephant-related practice that I'd never come across before either, which is almost the opposite of the previous subject: exectution by elephant, where someone is sentenced to execution through literally being crushed and gored by an elephant.

So, quite a morbid post in many ways, but why have I chosen to share all of this? Well, as I said, all of these pieces of information would have almost certainly remained unknown to me if not for the internet. I don't necessarily need to know about elephant execution, but I'm glad that it's something that I was able to find out about. In particular, I'm pleased that I've got to see a film shot by Thomas Edison, as that's pretty cool in itself. I'm fairly certain too that, without YouTube, I would never have got to see that film clip either. So sometimes, despite all the shite you have to wade through to get to it, the internet is still a superhighway of information.

Anyway, to round things off nicely with a YouTube-and-elephants flavour, and to end on something slightly less grim than elephants being killed, here's an incredibly trippy Disney clip:

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Ten things I've learned today

I've been busy travelling for and celebrating my dad's 50th birthday all day today and have therefore had pretty much no time to come up with anything really worthwhile to blog about. That said, here's some cop-out bulletpoints about "what I've learned today":

  • People who can be bothered to pay for an iPod but can't be bothered to fork out twenty quid more for a decent pair of earphones, instead opting to use the crappy white earbuds that come with their shiny trendy MP3 player, really really irritate me.
  • Booking a seat on a train does not necessarily guarantee that seat being reserved for you on said train (especially if the train seats have been "downloaded wrong"...)
  • The longer you are away from London is directly proportional to the amount you notice other people not looking where they are going whilst walking quite fast towards you.
  • The state of being exactly half the age of one of your parents is kind of odd but also kind of cool.
  • Taking a risk on the selection of a birthday present is stomach-churning during the unwrapping, but incredibly rewarding when the present turns out to have been a very good choice.
  • It's always great to open your parents' fridge and see lots of food that is generally more expensive than what you buy, not paid for by you and almost certainly entirely available to you.
  • Seeing your old room completely "de-you-ed" is always slightly strange (but when your old room is as small as mine is, it's always satisfying to know you now have much more space to call your own).
  • Playing with your parents' dog makes you realise how much you want a dog even though there is no practical way that you could possibly own and look after one at this stage in your life.
  • Having one of your favourite restaurants close down in one year is like losing an old friend; having two close down is simply devastating, and makes you want to plan trips to those that are still open as soon as possible.
  • Feeling like your family and your girfriend really do like each other, rather than just exchanging niceties, is a lovely feeling indeed.
Not a brilliant entry, but there you go. I promise to put in one-and-a-half times my normal effort tomorrow to make up for it.

Questionable Time

I managed to watch some of the infamous recent episode of Question Time today at lunch, and I'll hopefully watch the rest tomorrow. While reserving my judgement of Nick Griffin until I've seen the whole thing, I think I can safely make the following points about the programme itself:

  • It seems skewed absurdly towards soundbites - each person gets to say what they want, with the moderator not keeping them to the question at all.
  • The format is confused, with much of the input from the audience being dismissed with "we'll get to that in a minute" or "I want to focus on this point for now".
  • Points come and go with no in depth analysis because there is no time for it, and therefore there is no requirement to back up arguments with justification or evidence. When Nick Griffin said "My grandfather was in the RAF, I am not a Nazi", no one stopped him and asked whether there was actually any kind of logical connection between those two statements, and whether in fact his actions and deeds might have more influence on our view of him as a fascist than the actions and deeds of someone who happened to be related to him.
  • With six panellists and several questions, each panellist only gets a minute on average per topic (and often not even that). They barely have time to get to the crux of their argument (assuming they have one) before someone else butts in, or they are cut off by the moderator.
  • Because the questions are unseen, panellists can come off as very knowledgeable through having the right information to hand by chance, and can seem very unconvincing if they don't. Hence the appearance of the panellists in response to the questions can have little to do with the validity of the positions they hold, and much to do with how well they've judged the possible questions.
That'll do for now - it frustrates me when watching it that so many possible arguments go unsaid, and so many loose ends are left without analysis. I accept that there must be some sacrifices made for the sake of entertainment, but I think too many have been made for this format to have much use for formulating opinion.

Monday, 26 October 2009

They did the mash

This blog post comes in two parts. Firstly, my reflections on Telf's state of the blogathon address. Essentially, I pretty much feel the same as him. At times I have something that I've decided upon to write about here, but that generally takes me a couple of evenings to properly put together. At other times, I've found myself racking my brains for a topic both interesting enough and that will provide enough material for me to write about. Like Telf, I've used news stories as starting points on several occasions, but usually dismiss them after realising my entry will simply be a rehash of what is already there and add nothing worthwhile or original. My personal goal for the blogathon was to pass one month's worth of daily blogging, and as I'm close to achieving that I hope that I will succeed in that goal. Past that I will just see where things take me. The purpose of this blogathon was to regenerate interest and inspiration in those who read and contribute, and surveying what's been achieved since the start of October so far, I would say that that's been done. When daily blogging becomes a chore rather than a challenge, that is when I'll throw in the towel. But I'll stop knowing that my efforts have been worthwhile and with a fresh view to blogging a lot more regularly, even if not every single day.

Part 2 of this blog is slightly more of a cop out, but does relate to something that I've been interested in for a while. I've mentioned here my passion for the mash-up quasi-genre of music, and have demonstrated some of my favourites in the past. There are those DJs who take the idea of mash-ups one further, and mash not just music but people. Cassetteboy is probably the most prolific and proficient in this field. He has released several albums of material that bastardises everything from Jeremy Clarkson to the Harry Potter audiobooks. Most of it is hilarious, but also demonstrates a keen ability to manipulate sound, particularly speech.

Recently, Cassetteboy's efforts have moved into the realms of visual mash-up as well as audio. Here's two of the best, firstly one with a contemporary political flavour:

And secondly, some focusing on middle class reality TV:

I think the second one is a particular comic joy, and very well put together. Enjoy.


Having been instructed in no uncertain terms that my situation as a man precluded me from doing a post on moon cups (and what a post it would have been), I shall have to resort to a meta-blog:

Twenty six days is an impressive stretch of blogging, and despite a couple of close calls, myself and Bambi are both still in with a chance of getting to the big first-month checkpoint. I've certainly by now hit the inevitable lack-of-creativity barrier many times, and it is getting harder and harder to find inspiration in the evenings. While I have a number of subjects I'd love to write about at length, they are not subjects that fit easily into a 30-minute gap in the evening. Hence I have to work on them for a couple of nights in a row, but with a new post needed every day, and work/evening activities being hectic, I constantly find myself at 11pm with no quick ideas, and with exhaustion setting in like a heavy coat.

I've tried to think of a gimmick - picking a random wikipedia entry and blogging about it every day, or blogging about the most-read news item on the BBC, but all too often, I feel like I would just be churning out some meaningless garbage about how car-bombs are bad and sunshine is awesome. So, if anyone reading this has any particular requests, or any particular preferences (based on my history of posts), speak now, or prepare for a whole raft of car bombs vs. sunshine type posts.

Ditch the tech

Having recently moved house, I'm in the process of slowly unpacking and re-ordering my life and simultaneously trying to get rid of some of my accumulated clutter. It's a depressing task, made even more onerous by the fact that I know there's a room full of stuff waiting for similar attention at my parents' house in London.

They, quite understandably, want me to vacate my old bedroom of my belongings to the point where it can be used as a spare room. There's quite a lot of stuff there. Most of it, I don't need, but it has sentimental value. As a compulsive hoarder, I build up collections of such material with worrying speed. I officially left home two years ago and already I have A4 plastic files of concert tickets and postcards to do with ex-boyfriends and bags of birthday cards from people I've known less than 12months that I'm already sentimentally attached to. Today, I became emotional over throwing out a set of flashcards I made to revise my Chemistry and Physics AS and A2s. That was at least seven years ago. I say "became emotional", I didn't cry, but I had to agonise for a good seven minutes or so over whether I was going to keep them. I knew from the start of the wrangle that I probably wasn't, but it was still a wrench to throw them in the bin bag.

But the main problem I'm having is what to do with my old tech. I have leads that I don't know the function of. I have bits of encased wire with what look like small crystals attached to the ends. I have a USB cable that is a duplicate of the one Telf gave me when he lent me his external hard drive. But I've never owned such an external hard drive. I did have a CD writer, but its cables were black, not white. I have what appears to be an extension lead - it has a USB port at one end, the other is a USB plug. I have a mini disc player. I have an adaptor for a make of Samsung phone everyone in my family stopped using about five years ago. I even have floppy discs. Though I suspect the plug-in USB drive I had to read them is somewhere in London not Shropshire. I even found my old 35mm camera that my grandparents gave me. My grandmother died almost two weeks ago. I don't even know if you can still by the batteries it requires, let alone the film, but given the nearness of her death, I'm not ready to get rid of it.

And I don't know what to do with the rest of this stuff. I don't want to just throw it out. It seems like it could, should, be recycled. But where? The best I've been able to come up with is the dump, but that doesn't seem much better. It's just throwing things away in carefully sorted piles.

The main thing I'm concerned about is the minidisc player. I think I got it as an 18th birthday present. I don't think I really knew what they were, they were just the latest thing at the time. If I'd known much about it, I don't think I'd have asked for one. From the little I've gleaned since owning one, they were more professional pieces of kit for people working in radio than anything with much mainstream crossover. I don't recall artists ever really releasing albums on them. The only thing I've ever used mine for was to listen to compilation discs I'd made or had made for me by friends or boyfriends. My stereo plays minidiscs, but it also plays CDs and tapes. I still have the compilation discs. I don't want to lose the songs on them. At least one is a demo by an ex-boyfriend's friend's band and couldn't be found anywhere else now that I know of, at least not easily. I don't like the song that much, but to get rid of it goes against my hoarding principles. What's even more puzzling is what to do with the blank minidiscs I have. They are in sealed packaging. I will never use them. I burn people CDs if I want to make them compilations. But throwing out something brand new feels like sacrilege. And I can't really give them to a charity shop? Can I?

Let me know t'interwebs. I want to ditch some of this tech. What should I do?

Sunday, 25 October 2009


Those of you who frequent this blog on a regular basis will know that there are many TV adverts which, for want of a more eloquent phrase, irritate the tits off me. Advertisers now, more than any other time, seem to be very good at making adverts that are very bad. That is, specifically, very bad in the way they are produced, acted, scripted and conceived, and not necessarily bad at advertising their product or service; in fact, many of the adverts I have pulled apart on this blog probably do that job very well, as they've been so annoying that they've stuck in my brain long enough for me to remember what they were advertising. But they've pissed me off, and that's the main thing.

But there are adverts out there, believe it or not, which I do enjoy. They stand out as prime examples of adverts that are well made, acutely observed, or just fun to watch. And seeing as I've devoted so much time here on the adverts I hate, I thought it was time to redress the balance talking about some that I like.

My current favourite series of adverts on TV are the Barclays Bank adverts. I've enjoyed all the ads Barclays have made in this series, but these two in particular:

(Click here for the second one)

Now, why these adverts in particular, when there are so many that grate on me enough to write about them on the internet? Well, there are a few reasons. Firstly, Stephen Merchant. The voiceovers he supplies on these adverts are just great. Merchant is both witty and talented and his part in the ads gives them a fresh feel, fits in well with the rest of the adverts' content, whilst at the same time feeling genuinely "Merchanty", i.e. he hasn't sold out his own values and personality in order to make a quick buck on a bank advert.

Merchant's voiceover work also leads nicely into my second point, which is the way the adverts have been conceived. Barclays have put together some incredibly successful postmodern bank adverts. They've recognised the cliched ways that banking has been advertised over the years, rolling out extended metaphors for safety, security, easy access to savings and all the other things customers want from banks. They've then taken these ideas and created overblown, extravagant versions of them. So we get a woman chasing piggy banks around her garden as if they've all escaped from her house, an unseen armchair inhabitant firing rubber-sucker arrows at walking safes and a man attempting to cultivate giant pound coins in his garden. But Barclays have put just the right amount of tongue in their cheek with each one to make them neither pompous nor pathetic, but acutely observed. Merchant then slips his own cutting asides and humorous observations on what's happening into his "scripted" voiceover to tie the whole thing together.

Some simple adverts on the surface, but when investigated further they offer a lot more than at first glance and reveal some shrewd writing and directing that is seen in TV advertising all too rarely today. I'd be much happier watching commercial channels if there were more adverts of the Barclays, standard and less of the brain-numbingly dire Kingsmill Confessions level of advertising. Shudder.

Wedding bells and bulletpoints

Firstly, many thanks to Martin for posting on my behalf yesterday - I was aware that timing might be tight, but in the end I had no opportunity to post at all, and so I am delighted that he was able to step in.

My absence was caused by my presence at the wedding of one of my very best friends, a wedding at which I was given the honour of being allowed to ush. This involved wearing the snazziest suit I have ever worn, wearing a buttonhole and a cravat for the first time ever (both together and seperately), stacking a huge number of chairs and driving a car covered in duct-tape-grafitti and decorative cloth (and hence a car with no rear or side visibility).

It was a hugely enjoyable experience, as I'm sure you can imagine, and also a hugely tiring one. My dull, analytical and pseudo-intellectual thoughts on weddings in the abstract will have to wait (I can hear your sighs of relief already), as instead I offer some random wedding-related thoughts:

  • The reception is the perfect place for a pub-quiz-style quiz - lots of people arranged already into teams (tables), with lots of waiting around while food is served/retrieved.
  • Modern technology can provide really amazing moments, such as the newlyweds taking their first dance in front of a projector screen showing photos from the ceremony, or speeches punctuated with videos and photos for emphasis.
  • There is no greater thrill than to arrive at your table to find that alongside the bottles of wine for your fellow diners, there is an 8-pack of diet coke on your seat, just for you.
  • The fun of vandalising the wedding car can be reduced for you when it is your own car (or worse, when it is not your car, but you have been entrusted with it), and for others when the owner of the car is standing there saying "don't do that" whenever anyone tries to do anything fun...
  • If you are the father of the bride, do scan your speech for anything that could possibly be interpreted as innuendo, and however into your daughter-as-car metaphor you are, don't tell the assorted friends and family that she "has been round the block a few times" and "can be a bit of a screamer if you can get her up to full throttle".

Hope everyone else had as good a weekend as me. :)

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Significant others, definite articles

Tonight, I'm guest blogging for the Telf, as he's otherwise engaged.

I want to weigh in on the debate that's been taking place here over 'the' versus 'a', in particular when referring to the/a person you love. The story so far places Bambi on the more romantic, sympathetic and, some would say, pragmatic side of the debate facing off the Telf on the more logical, analytical and, perhaps, clinical side. My feelings (as usual, for a fence-sitting, wooly liberal) fall somewhere between the two.

I would have no qualms, were I in a relationship, with referring to my boyfriend as 'the man i love'. This seems only right and fair, assuming monogamy. To refer to this person as one of a collection belittles the commitment and love between us. However, as a jaded single, I would not be caught saying 'when I meet the man I love', despite my occasional hopeless romantic episodes. Somehow, that seems too certain, too Ally Macbeal. It also seems to presuppose some ideal - 'the one' - which seems absurd. So far, each new partner has taught me a few new traits and personality aspects I find attractive and shown me one or too off-putting ones as well. If there is an ideal for me, I certainly don't know what it is.

Essentially, I doubt I will only ever fall in love once, ever again, so it seems at the very least inaccurate. Also, at least currently, I have no partner to offend or undermine with such a statement.

So, as midnight approaches, and the Telf's blogathon score hangs in the balance, I leave you with two things. The assertion that either article is acceptable, everything depending on context and that the whole thing would irrelevant if English weren't so bloody picky anyway.

Blogathon score: vicarious.

The Nick of time

As something of a follow-up to my entry made during and directly after this week's edition of Question Time which featured BNP leader and MEP Nick Griffin, I'd like to bring under the spotlight this article written for The Times by one of Griffin's fellow panellists on Thursday night, Bonnie Greer.

One of my observations on Thursday was that I found Bonnie Greer to be a highly intelligent and interesting person, and her article confirms this viewpoint further. Greer's article gives one of the most balanced and sensible views on how Griffin's appearance on the show should be taken. She essentially reminds us that, whilst being presented in the context of a forum for debate, Question Time is ultimately a TV programme, and as such any analysis or comment upon it should regard it primarily as that, even though four of the five panellists were politicians. This, to me, seems the most logical way of dealing with the show and its ramifications. It was not held in parliament, but in a TV studio. It's a TV show about politics first and foremost and a political debate a distant second. Past guests, who are often very much "flavours of the month", confirm this.

Greer then goes on to state how she thinks the show should be seen as the start of a new wave of recognition for exactly what type of person Nick Griffin is. Again, I am inclined to agree with this viewpoint. Many seem to have viewed this week's Question Time as the culmination of the BNP's climb to being recognised as a legitimate political party (I would say that them winning two seats in the European parliament was probably a slightly bigger step than an appearance on BBC One, but never mind). Instead, it should be seen as the beginning of a new chapter, and not a particularly positive chapter for Griffin and his party. Whilst some may see Question Time as legitimising the BNP by giving them a platform, I personally see it as the BBC recognising that the legitimacy ship has already sailed (I refer again to their seats in Europe) and starting the process of toppling the BNP from the level to which they have somehow managed to climb. As Greer so eloquently states:

"By exposing the two-bit rhetoric of [Nick Griffin's] position, Question Time has shown that the emperor has no clothes. Now the long debate can begin. This long debate was never meant to be held on Question Time."

I couldn't agree more. Instead of seeing Griffin's appearance as a defeat for decency and accepting that, people should be using it to bolster the huge amount of weight the BNP have against them. Griffin on Question Time was not the end, but the start of a renewed campaign against them. I hope Bonnie Greer remains at the front of that campaign.

Friday, 23 October 2009

The internet remembers all

I nearly missed the deadline today - lots of stuff going on, most importantly a very important wedding for which I will be providing an ushering service. So if you hear alarming ushing noises from the direction of Barnes tomorrow, do not be concerned, it will simply be me discharging my duties.

In the meantime, I can provide only a reminder of possibly the internet's most important rule: If you put something on the internet, be prepared for people to read it. Even if you think it is private, personal, hidden or deleted, it is there, and if it is embarrassing, expect it to turn up at the worst possible moment.

Possibly even more important than that is the rule that if you try to stop something from spreading on the internet, it will only spread faster, fueled solely by the fact that the spread is undesirable to someone else. Yes, in oh so many ways, the internet is like an attention seeking child.

So, your friends are currently taking screenshots of your facebook page to send to Lamebook, and those embarrassing Twitter updates you thought you deleted are still there via Tweleted. Another victory for freedom of information over personal privacy. Hurrah for modern life!

On an unrelated not, I love SMBC, and this is one of the funniest comics they've had to date.

Video nasty

I've spoken on here about my appreciation for music videos when they are done well. Music videos can be inspired as well as awful, and at their best they are works of art. Music videos also give bands and directors a chance to create something really, well... odd. And I like odd. Here's a few of the ones that stand out to me as particularly weird.

Monkey Drummer - Chris Cunningham & Aphex Twin

Wonderfully odd, refreshingly simple and original, and certainly creepy in many ways. The combination of the organic and the mechanical is something that, when done well, can still produce genuine chills for me (and, I believe, many others) despite the technological age we live in. It's also fun to draw comparisons to the Cadbury's drumming gorilla - he stood out on TV, but compared to the robo-bonobo above our Phil Collins-loving primate seems positively ordinary.

Donkey Rhubarb - Aphex Twin

Another one from Richard D. James, a.k.a Aphex Twin. James' music videos are always something special in a disturbing and oddball way, but at the same time feeling like highly crafted and original works. James has a tendency to use his own face, complete with twisted and unnerving grin, throughout his videos. This one is no different, turning our lovely teddy bears into something plucked from a nightmarish version of CBeebies.

Black Hole Sun - Soundgarden

Being fifteen years old now, some of the effects in this video do come across as a little dated. But I don't think the overall effect is diminished at all. Wonderfully kooky with some genuinely disturbing images, Soundgarden's video presents both a critique and a tribute to the American life and American values. Despite all the surreal barbecues, the giant dogs bathing with women and images of the Apocalypse, it's the grinning plastic-style faces of pretty much everyone in the video (not including the band) that freak me out the most.

Closer - Nine Inch Nails

Everything about this one is just strange and unnerving. Like a compilation of shots from some LSD-fuelled version of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, excerpts from long lost science videos and a snuff film, the whole thing oozes gothic atmosphere. If I had to choose one thing that freaks me out the most, it has to be the mechanised heart strapped to the chair right at the start. I believe there's a version without the "scene missing" screens with more sections that couldn't be shown on television, but at the moment I can't find it. I can't imagine how much weirder it could get though.

Don't Let The Man Get You Down - Fatboy Slim (video here)

This one's less overtly odd, but every time I see it I just find the whole thing very uncomfortable and think it's put together in a masterful way. The end is just chilling, so make sure you watch until the very end.

And just to finish...

The Salmon Dance - The Chemical Brothers

Because singing fish are always odd, as well as great fun.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Mr. Griffin Goes To London

I decided to do an entry about Nick Griffin's appearance on Question Time about three minutes after the programme started. Interesting to see how well it leads on from Telf's entry directly before this one. As the show is still very much in full swing, I'll give some of my observations thusfar in bullet point form:

  • As I expected, the BBC has made sure it is well-armed to make sure those who are outraged at Nick Griffin's appearance on the show are somewhat appeased and not given further ammunition against the BBC. Griffin almost immediately began declaring himself as a person wronged on a number of fronts, in particular by the papers and by other political parties. I'm glad that the shows researchers have given David Dimbleby an arsenal of quotations by Griffin that he can't dispute.
  • To my mind, Nick Griffin seems like a fairly unintelligent man, but not too bad a politician. His evidence is continually coming from flimsy or vague sources (such as "many scientists" and "online" to name two that have come from Griffin in the last ten minutes). He is very able, however, when faced with a point or a question which he doesn't want to directly answer or tackle, to respond with an attack on another party to deflect the attention away from his own views.
  • I'm glad that some time has been dedicated to showing Nick Griffin, and the BNP as a whole, as a fairly loose example of a political party that is roundly disliked by the the vast majority of people in the studio, both panellists and audience. As expected, a few members of the audience are there in support of Griffin and his organisation, but this just serves to show that things are not being presented in a totally one-sided way.
  • I'm glad that a significant portion of the show has been given over to other topical issues, such as the Jan Moir article on Stephen Gately, and points which are directly questioning or criticising the other parties that are present.
  • Bonnie Greer seems like a wonderful and intelligent woman who I'd like to find out a lot more about.
  • Griffin is being asked about all the issues coming up throughout the show, and so is truly being treated as a panellist and not a punchbag. In my opinion, he's not holding up well, either seeming vague on the issues being presented or simply just riling many people further with needlessly agressive views.
  • Overall, after seeing the show, I'm glad Nick Griffin was allowed on. He was given an equal standing from the start and allowed to argue his way down from that level by himself throughout. True, he was criticised a great deal, but he also offered out a fair amount of criticism , and so to me it never seemed like an unfair situation. Basically, Griffin came across as the blinkered idiot he is, who just happens to know how to twist a conversation.
  • BBC One must be wetting themselves over their viewing figures this evening.
  • Political debate? For the most part. Putting Griffin in the stocks? Not as far as I can see. Publicity stunt? Definitely.
That might be a bit all over the place, so I may follow up with a more structured entry tomorrow. But hopefully that's got across my take on the event at the time/soon after it happened.

The time for questions is now...

I'm out of the house tonight, so won't be able to watch Nick Griffin on Question Time, but I will certainly be watching it as soon as possible after the event. David Aaronovitch has written a great piece about the situation, pointing out some things to keep an eye out for, and giving some suggestions as to what the panellists could focus on.

I particularly agree with his second point: the BNP leader being present is not the point of the programme, despite that being its most newsworthy aspect. He should be treated as any other guest, and be expected to give his views on all the issues raised, whether or not they involve his areas of particular rhetoric. I would almost love to see a programme in which immigration and race does not come up, and he's forced to mumble on about the environment or the economy without being able to crowbar in any sort of message of his own.

Point four is also important, and if he manages to walk the tightrope of decency, and avoids saying anything inflammatory, it is important to avoid throwing the first stone. If everyone attacks him from the off on everything he says, then any real moments of controversy will fail to stand out, and he will continue to play the victim card.

So, I look forward to seeing what kind of questions come up and how Griffin responds to the opportunity to express his views to such a wide audience and whether any of the points in Aaronovitch's article come up.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

The joy of SEW...

... SEW being Simple English Wikipedia. SEW describes itself as "using simple English words and grammar" and being for "children and adults who are learning English". It's a pretty good idea in general. But accessing it as someone who isn't a child or an adult who is learning English can be fun too, especially when accessing some of the pages on complex concepts and ideas. Some of my favourites...

SEW on quantum mechanics:
"QM explains how certain very small things (around the size of atoms) behave. The main things studied are called subatomic particles and electromagnetic waves. Quantum mechanics uses mathematics, much of it is very hard mathematics. QM is important to physics and chemistry."

("very hard mathematics" just makes me smile every time I read it)

SEW on philosophy:
"The ideas in philosophy are abstract, which means that they are 'things that cannot be touched.'"
(I just love the definition of an abstract idea - "Don't you be touchin' them ideas, boy, them's abstract ideas!")

SEW on 9/11:
"People in the group al-Qaeda took control of four airplanes and crashed three of the airplanes into buildings in the United States on purpose."
(This just sounds like a child's account of something that happened in the playground when they've been asked by a teacher what happened)

SEW on Shakespeare:
"He wrote plays about history and tragedy and he wrote comedies"
(Sounds like its been lifted from a GCSE Literature essay which received a low grade)

SEW on evolution:
"The earth has been around for a very long time. By doing research on the layers of rock we can find out about its past. That kind of research is called historical geology. We know that living things have changed over time, because we can see their remains in the rocks. These remains are called "fossils". So we know that the animals and plants of today are different from those of long ago. And the further we go back, the more different the fossils are. How has this come about? Evolution has taken place."
(Imagine Charles Darwin saying this to The Pope and it's even better)

As I said, I'm all for the idea of what Simple English Wikipedia is for, but it's still good fun to imagine its definitions being said slowly and patronisingly to a particularly thick person. Some of the entries do feel genuinely over-simple almost to the point of inaccuracy, but as ultimately we are dealing with a wiki then that's to be expected. If anyone finds any more gems on SEW please share them.