Saturday, December 22, 2007

shame in being disliked

However hard one might try - and I do - it really isn't possible to be friends with everyone.

As anyone who has read their fair share of comic books will tell you, there's no shame, no shame at all, in having a nemesis or nemeses. It's best to keep the numbers down if possible, but occasionally even the most open minded and cheerful of folk develop - to their discomfort - a deadly enemy.

So it is with me. Just a friend of a friend, and it's not someone to whom I hold any particular grudge, it's just someone I worked out a while ago doesn't much like me, and whom I, on principle, likewise decline to admire. So we rub along just fine, ignoring each other and casting the odd dismissive glance, and that is that.

Except last night I had a whole sequence of odd dreams. Seriously. One featured me driving a jeep over a valley of dead bodies. I know. Another had me as a university lecturer, except I kept skipping lectures. The third, most disturbingly, was one of the nicest dreams I've had in ages. And all the pleasure derived from the fact that the drift of the dream was that, oh, despite it all, I finally made friends with my nemesis.

It was wonderful. First off we sat reluctantly at either end of a table, casting disgusted glances at each other. After a while we started talking, grumpily acknowledging each other's jokes. And it finished with us arm in arm, striding through the streets of Brighton as the best of friends. It was genuinely a lovely dream, and a tremendous relief to sort that difficulty out, because believe it or not I really hate the thought of being disliked or thought ill of.

And then I woke, basking in the glory of having turned things around. I felt really, really, flat to discover not just that I never sorted this awkward relationship out, but worse, I still think, despite it all, that we will never be friends. What was weirdest was that the warm feeling I had developed in the course of the dream was really hard to shake, so I had to keep reminding myself, all morning, that the person in question has repeatedly treated me in an unfriendly fashion, and has not - yet - earned anything more than an open mind and a bit of patience.

All the same I find my resolve thawing. Why are dreams so hard to dismiss?

Thursday, December 20, 2007

xmas thoughts

I find it odd to think that I'm spending Christmas in Brighton rather than with my family - this time of year is all about ritual and expectations met. Not doing the traditional family thing provokes a mixture of emotions - excitement, concern, regret and relief. Most of all there's the confusion over to what extent one should attempt to recreate the normal Christmas experience. Instinctively I want all the usual trimmings, even those that I don't much savour. But perhaps now is the time to establish a new set of festive rituals, and banish sprouts, and other things, forever.

What I do know is that while I will miss my family, I'm inordinately excited at the prospect of spending the Christmas holiday with my friends!

winter in cambridgeshire

It's incredibly cold at my parents' house in Cambridgeshire; we seem to be one step short of snowfall, where everything has taken on a kind of faint white hue, as if seen through a filter - a long fog has been hovering all morning. Only the cat can handle the cold, and is sat determinedly by the river outside, preferring solitude to company and warmth. She has a temperament midway between romantic, it seems, and bleak. I'm with her on one thing, however - it's beautiful outside.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

cash machine

I had to get some cash out last night and stood, bloody cold, outside the Co-op in Seven Dials waiting for my turn at the cash machine. In front of me stood a kid, perhaps twenty years old, who was pulling hard on a cigarette and kept glancing back towards me as he used the machine. I rocked back bored on my heels and tried to take my mind off the cold by concentrating on the music on my iPod. Then I noticed him saying something to me.

"Sorry mate?", I said, removing my headphones.

He looked at me crossly. "I said do you wanna stand any closer?" he hissed.

I looked at him, suddenly aware that he had a shaven head, clenched fists and a tough, angry little face. He could quiet easily, of course, have beaten me up, and I wondered for a moment if that was a possibility. I opened my mouth to apologise for looking over his shoulder, despite the fact that I hadn't been.

And then I laughed at him in a really condescending manner.

"I don't wanna know your PIN number, mate", I said, still laughing. He glared at me and called me a tosser. And oddly, I just chuckled and returned to my iPod. He narrowed his eyes at me, and walked off.

I say this only because I don't normally have a reputation for facing down trouble. Ooh.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

younis mahmoud

There's an excellent article by James Montague over on the Guardian website today. It begins:

"Last night, when Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite - better known as Kaka - strode up to the podium in Zurich to collect Fifa's world player of the year award, there were few dissenting voices. After all, Kaka had lead Milan to the European Cup and Club World Cup. But how would Kaka have performed with the constant threat of assassination and kidnap, with the spectre of sectarian violence against his family hanging over him, with his country in flames and with the pressure of knowing that his position as captain of the national team constituted the only glue that held his homeland together? For overcoming these barriers, and thriving on an international platform, there was an even better candidate for world footballer of the year: Younis Mahmoud, the captain of the Iraqi national team".
A really fascinating article follows; Mahmoud is, for the moment, playing in Qatar - immigration rules have so far prevented him playing in Europe. I hope he does, and continues to be an important figure in Iraqi football, when he does. He has much to recommend him.

"It doesn't matter what I am," he says when I ask which of Iraq's triumvirate clans he comes from. Depending on who you read, he is either Shia, Sunni, or Kurdish. "Above all else, I am Iraqi."

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

happy wednesday

Oh god, look at this Mondays reissue - Pills 'N Thrills remastered and reissued with a bonus DVD of every video the band issued. Oh!

There's a double disc reissue of Bummed too! It's got Vince Clarke's remix of WFL on it! Oh!

I love you, Shaun William Ryder.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

gordon ramsey and the fish and anchor

Another week goes by and once again I find myself unable to resist writing about Gordon Ramsey's Kitchen Nightmares; it is the best programme on TV right now by such a distance and it just gets better and better. And writing about it is incredibly easy as all one really needs to do is cast one's mind back and quote a few choice swearwords and staple them to a narrative which cruelly pinpoints some of the episode's moments of pure idiocy.

This week, like me, Gordon is in Cardiff, and he's having fun with the welsh language, finding ways to mangle native words so that they can be cheerfully pronounced 'queer' and 'cunt-a'. At the Fish and Anchor, meanwhile, Mike and Carol might just be the most colourful characters in the show's history - which is obviously saying something. Mike may not be English, but he's the archetypal British Bulldog - a squat, small-eyed skinhead softened by rolls of fat. Gordon fancies himself as a bit of a hardman too, as we know, so he makes a point of utilising his winning way with an introduction. "You're Mike", he says. "I didn't know you'd be so short".

Mike runs the Fish and Anchor with his wife, Carol, and swiftly explains that he's not messing around; he's after a Michelin star and has a method that surely can't fail - he only cooks from famous chef's recipes, proudly showing off a three feet high pile of cookery books. Not that he can't cook himself; he quickly informs the camera that a friend of his ate at Claridges recently and said the food he cooks is better than Gordon's. Not just that, in his internet guise as Michael Jones, he's been telling the world the same thing

How best to illustrate the short-fall in his self-mythologising? Well, the food he cooks is shit and his twist on a Madhur Jeffrey curry utilises Uncle Ben's stir-in sauce. Oh dear. The real entertainment, for once, is not in watching Gordon filling him on his failings, but rather in the way Mike interacts with Carol. Their hosting method is, frankly, amazingly original; not only do they get stressed and angry, they actually scream and yell at each other, completely forgetting there are customers present. When the customers do complain, they react furiously, instructing them to "fuck off and don't come back". The customers, completely astonished, are too outraged to fight back. Unbelievable.

Poor old Gordon, for once, similarly can't keep up - sure, he contributes his usual volleys of "come on big boy" and "fuuuuck me", but he can't really complete with Carol's language, which is peppered with phrases like "I've had a titful", and "I don't give two shiny shites". He's frankly flabbergasted, but, in fairness to her, recognises her televisual potential and makes sure he picks a fight at the first opportunity, amping it up so that her reaction is as extreme as possible. All the same, her response is predictably entertaining. There's a wonderful moment when she stalks back into the restaurant hissing "fuck off" repeatedly at her husband. Moments later she is trying to justify her sudden rage. "I just don't like being told to 'fuck off'", she says. Wow.

Like all good reality TV, however, the success of the show depends whether the horror can be tempered by some real progress, and in this case Mike, at least, tries his hardest. He's not the brightest of lads, but he seems to be aware of this. "I'm going to listen to Gordon", he says, "and absorb it like a sponge, as much of it as I can". I fear that he won't be absorbing that much.

Except that he does, revealing that he has Italian heritage and responding well to Gordon's suggestions. He reinvents himself and the restaurant accordingly. He even stops arguing with Carol. And his enthusiasm is really heartening - "I'm just going to cook what's in myself", he says, tapping his torso with a podgy finger. Gordon must have quietly dissuaded him of this, however, as his subsequent cooking doesn't seem to contain either lager or lard.

My favourite moment of the show was the scene when Gordon exploded in frustration, dressing down his hosts with a typical display of invective. As Charlie Brooker pointed out in the last episode of his recent series of Screenwipe, reality TV shows are always carefully edited to ramp up the tension in every scene, no matter how ludicrous they invariably are. At this moment, however, with Gordon in full flow, the cameraman allows the shot to track to the right, and there we find two teenage waitresses collapsing in silent hysterics.

Ironically it's one of the waitresses who rescues the show, too. Having tried to teach his charges an awful lot in a short period of time, the first night threatens to completely fall apart until a waitress does exactly that - she slips and falls and is badly hurt. Food goes off the menu and filming stops. The urgency of the show naturally takes a hit and it's a while before everyone gets back on board - in fact, it's a month later, and by then it seems that Gordon's words have sunk in a little. The restaurant is transformed, no longer a battleground and a veritable success. Despite describing Carol as a dragon, it's clear that Ramsey likes them and seems genuinely pleased that it's not just the restaurant that's been fixed up, but also the couple's relationship. As an hour long documentary, and as a piece of entertainment, it's another success.

Great stuff. Keep an eye out for the repeats.

new joos

Pitchfork are carrying some information about a new Silver Jews album. Whoo-hoo! It's going to be called Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, and has been recorded by the touring Joos - in other words, sans Malkmus. Still, it'll be fucking brilliant, even if we have to wait 'til April '08. According to Dave Berman, "the music is never hard rock".

That is good, for I will never listen to hard rock.

More info here.

spiritualised and the futureheads

I'm just about to go and get dinner, and too hungry to wait for a couple of downloads to finish in order to hear the following tracks, but I'm pretty sure I'll be able to recommend them once I've got back and can listen to them with a full stomach. Both courtesy of the awesome Bradley's Almanac - both got to be worth a listen.

First up, if you click here, you'll find that Brad has uploaded an entire and very appealing looking acoustic Spiritualised gig. I'm sure - from his endorsement - that the whole set is good, but the particular jewel that caught my eye was a cover of Daniel Johnston's marvellous 'True Love Will Find You In The End'. No direct linking here, or you might not visit his site - but go and collect.

Secondly, click here and you'll be whizzed back over to Brad's site, where he is hosting a new Futureheads song - you need to scroll down a bit to find it. He says "it's a rocker, with no dramatic shifts in style, and still ace. It's got the stop/starts, the harmonies, the punch". So I think I'll like it, and you may too.

If you don't visit Bradley's Almanac regularly, do.

laptop club / monster engine

I meant to link to this a week or two ago, after my friend David pointed it out to me, but didn't get round to it. Here then, is the Laptop Club. It's a lovely project, one where a bunch of kids, aged around seven to nine, have designed and drawn their own laptops; the results, which give clear indications of the children's interests, are really fascinating. It makes me realise how out of touch I am with children - having had precisely no contact with them, for the most part, since I was one - and how they ask for features I couldn't possibly have predicted.

A lot, for example, include buttons labelled with animal names. It took me a few seconds to realise that these must refer to digital pets. Elsewhere there are buttons labelled 'toys', 'ringtone', 'shopping' and, more than once, the rather mystifying 'special'. It hammers home how integrated computers now are into children's play routine. Additionally the extent to which social lives are now complemented by online activity is truly staggering. I was 19 years old before I first emailed someone. Lots of the kids include buttons prioritised with the names of favourite friends, with buttons for bebo, myspace and messenger too. It's interesting how so many of the children sideline the actual alphabet keys, stuffing the letters into uncomfortable corners, leaving space for gaming and web-related buttons. That's to be expected, I suppose.

The button that I thought most interesting was 'private', which obviously has become an issue for children sick of their parents' understandable interest in their online activities. 'Secret' is used too. Amusingly, one child squeezes in both 'firewall' and 'cookies', which is an indication of how technologically literate kids are now.

All this aside, I genuinely like the design of these things - apart from the fact that they are so lopsided, they actually look reasonably intuitive. I suspect that kids really would get something from these laptops that they lack with the standard keyboard layout. How nice it would be to see someone actually making a couple of prototypes. Of course, the one laptop per child machines are designed for kids, but I'm not much familiar with that design yet. Anyway, these drawings are most interesting, I think.

Meanwhile, and on a not entirely dissimilar subject, have a look at this, 'cos it's glorious. Dave Devries is an artist who specialises in redrawing children's doodles as fully realised monsters. Amazing stuff. Some examples below, from The Monster Engine...

sparks moving up and down a wire

Here's a short, sentimental and intriguing little comic, via Pete. It's by Terry Wiley. There's something wistful and energetic about the idea, which counterbalances the cuteness, for me. I like it a lot - one sample panel below. Click the link above for the rest.

Monday, December 03, 2007

the cardiff maze

I'm in Cardiff for a few days and, sick of pounding the streets of Britain's university towns looking for decent pubs, I decide that instead of hunting for hours, I will call in at the first pub I see, buy a drink, sit down, and read my book. I am prepared for it to be dank and dark, or louty and lousy. I don't mind at all. I pick a pub at random and stroll to the bar.

"Hurray", a gang of middle aged man shout, as I approach. "Hurray".

One of the men is dressed like Richard O'Brien in The Crystal Maze. He rushes forward and shakes my hand. "Welcome", he cries.

Actually, I don't know what he cries. For nearly a minute my linguistic adaptability, in the face of this heavily accented Welsh tirade, absents me entirely. My genial host babbles incoherently. Slowly, I begin to pick up the rhythm.

He turns me around and presents me to his friends, six or seven men at the bar. "Hurray", they shout. I go red, probably. "Have a drink with us", one of them, cries. I kind of shake my head in terror, trying to be polite. Rattled, I order a pint of something called Reverend James Best Bitter, smiling in a slightly insane fashion.

My hosts want to know my name. I stammer an introduction. Where are you from, they ask. Brighton, I tell them. At this point they all pretend to have never heard of Brighton, which throws me for a bit, then inform me that it's "an awful long way to have come for a bit of shopping".

"I'm here on business", I tell them, sounding like a prat. "I'm a publisher".

"Oh, a publisher", Richard O'Brien nods, pointing to his friend. "He's a publisher, too, you know".

The friend comes over, nodding, and tells me he works in a distillery.

"You're Geoff", one of them cries. "Yes, Geoff!!", the others chorus. I start to wonder where my pint is. To my immense relief, it arrives, and I retreat nervously to a table and begin to read. When the party leaves ten minutes or so later each comes past my table and shakes my hand, telling me I'm "a good lad".

I end up smiling, squirming, and wondering if I have just been heartily welcomed to Cardiff or just been royally taken the piss out of. I'm glad they've gone, and glad I met them.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

parallel lives

As I've probably indicated before on Assistant Blog, I'm really a massive fan of BBC4; I think that something like 70% of my viewing comes from that channel, and I think it's worth making the point that the majority of those shoes (Comics Britannia, The Genius of Photography, Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe, some recent stuff on Ian Rankin) are, far from being highbrow intellectual toss, massively enjoyable.

I've been meaning all week to write about 'Parallel Universes, Parallel Lives', a fantastic documentary that aired last week, but I've not had time and - as you might have noticed - I've been quite lazy when it comes to blogging recently, which is really annoying me but I'm just not quite getting around to it.

I suppose I might just not mention it, but the thing about BBC4 is that it's great for repeating stuff, so it's not too late the programme if you keep you eye out. The show recorded the efforts of Mark Oliver Everett, who is better known to you and I as E of the ace pop group Eels, to belatedly find a way to relate to his deceased father, an eminent scientist who had little to do with his rock musician son.

I found the show immensely moving and beautifully filmed, well worth watching and exactly the kind of programming, simultaneously complex and accessible, that I love. Here's Ben from Silent Words Speak Loudest, whose description of the show is dead on.

"The journey wasn't always easy - E's discomfort and trepidation before listening to a collection of old tapes left lying in boxes was palpable, but it was poignant when he pressed play and heard his father's voice talking physics with his childhood self bashing away on the drums in the background. Inevitably, what with E being a bit of a prankster, there were laughs along the way (most memorably when the man who once dressed as the Unabomber for an album cover expressed his amazement at getting clearance to get into the heart of the Pentagon), and I was left thinking that there's a bit of father in the son, if you look at E's intense observation of the minutiae of life and appreciation of the enormity of the cosmos and our insignificance within it."
Here's the link to Ben's post. Go read.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

cats and men live in endless bliss

Oh, this is just too cute/daft/hilarious for words. From today's Guardian:

"The last time I saw Zelda was in the summer of 2001. We had taken her on holiday and she was staring at me from a woodpile in front of a barn - but her eyes betrayed no sign of recognition. I meant nothing to her any more, even though, for the past 12 years, she had been a big part of my life, and my partner's. Her illness, which caused epileptic fits, was eroding her eyesight and destroying her brain.

Kay and I never saw Zelda again. We searched the neighbourhood, asking farmers if they had seen a plump, skittish, epileptic but adorable tabby. They hadn't. We consoled ourselves with the thought that she had disappeared to die alone, as pets do. I still think about her. Then I heard about, a new website offering bespoke songs for "your loved one", with prices starting at £19.99. I thought it was time to give Zelda the memorial she deserved. Or to get Jim Littlewood, the musician who runs the service, to do so on my behalf."
Excellent stuff from Stuart Jeffries, although I don't suppose he can take credit for the final lyrics:

"The first verse went: "Though the world keeps turning/ One thing stays the same/ I think of a love so asymmetric/ When I hear Zelda's name." And the chorus: "There's a rose that has lost all its petals/ And a lark that has forgotten his song/ In a world of change and imperfection/ Zelda's sweet smile will linger on." The second verse was a little less lyrical: "When my partner's sister Debbie/ Brought her home from the Blue Cross I knew/ We would stay forever/ In a heaven made for two."

I must say I had some misgivings. Cats can't smile, can they? What would Kay think about me spending eternity in a heaven made for two, not with her, but with a cat? What was all that stuff about larks and roses? And anyway, did I believe in a transcendental realm away from this "world of change and imperfection" where cats and men live in endless bliss? To be honest, not really."
Click here to read the whole article.

I am five years old

Ooh, I just noticed that Assistant Blog is exactly five years and one day old. Blimey.

Accordingly, and in order to find out what the rest of the year will bring, I just looked up "typical five year old behaviour" to see how the blog will pan out in months ahead. Here's what to expect.
The typical five year old...

May learn to turn somersaults (should be taught the right way in order to avoid injury).
Demonstrates fair control of pencil or marker; may begin to colour within the lines.
Cuts on the line with scissors (not perfectly).
Understands concept of same shape, same size.
Recognizes and identifies coins; beginning to count and save money.
Asks innumerable questions: Why? What? Where? When?
Eager to learn new things.
Vocabulary of 1,500 words plus.
Tells a familiar story while looking at pictures in a book.
Recognizes the humor in simple jokes; makes up jokes and riddles.
Produces sentences with five to seven words; much longer sentences are not unusual.
Speech is almost entirely intelligible.
Enjoys and often has one or two focus friendships.
Plays cooperatively (can lapse), is generous, takes turns, shares toys.
Participates in group play and shared activities with other children; suggests imaginative and elaborate play ideas.
Shows affection and caring towards others especially those "below" them or in pain
Generally subservient to parent or caregiver requests.
Needs comfort and reassurance from adults but is less open to comfort.
Has better self-control over swings of emotions.
Likes entertaining people and making them laugh.
Boasts about accomplishments.

If the above list is anything like a good summation of this blog (which, oddly, I think it is), then I'll be happy.

Thanks very much to everyone who has read, and continues to read, this thing. To the next five years....

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

seabear, 'the ghost that carried us away' review

I'm in deep mourning for the summer at the moment, feeling resentful at the grey skies and downright furious about the cold, so it's a pleasure to be able to endorse a record like Seabear's endlessly warm and glowing 'The Ghost That Carried Us Away', which is a positive antidote to the encroaching darkness. I've been listening to it a lot these last couple of months, having picked it up on a whim on my only visit to the new Rough Trade shop in Brick Lane, and felt a review was due, not least because I'm assuredly not the only one feeling dispirited by the changing of the seasons.

Seabear, who hail from the musically adventurous and productive hotbed of talent which is Iceland's Reykjavik, have created a charming folk-pop record which rings with warm acoustic guitars, brushed snares, pianos, glockenspiels and strings. It doesn't make me think of summer, in fact, but rather calls to mind those bright but chilly autumn days when everything seems to be enveloped in a rich red-brown saturated glow. Sindri Mar Sigfusson, who leads the seven-piece, possesses one of those dreamy, gentle voices which blends perfectly with music which seems somehow both supremely contented and yet delicately mournful.

Second song 'Cat Piano' is the first hint at something really special; a gorgeous love song which glides by on a bed of banjos, harmonica and glockenspiel, while Sindri coos "some nights I swear there was magic in the air". 'Libraries', which follows it, is more upbeat, dominated by a vibrant drumbeat, but no less romantic, positively dripping with stunning melodies and pastoral imagery, all "rabbit holes" and "salty sea". The key lyric is adorable and sad, provided you can cope with a little cutesy;

"My little bird flew away from me,
She made her home in a broken tree.
You're breaking branches on your way down
To someone new to throw your arms around".

The LP's key track follows (and yes, the album is, sadly, a little front loaded) - 'Hospital Bed' is a work of delicate, downbeat loveliness, and continues the vein of imagery which recalls the beauty and strangeness of nature ("so grab on hold to the spider's neck and ride out of town"). A couple of minutes in the song explodes with a crisp beat and a stunning Americana string arrangement. A sleepy Sindri seems hardly to have noticed, whispering "like a rabbit in a human-skin coat, you'll dance in the yard". No idea what he's on about, but the effect is exhilarating. I'm a sentimental sort so it's no surprise to find my throat catching as the song spirals to it's delicately-wrought instrumental conclusion.

Thematically and musically, it's hard to tell a lot of the songs apart on this record. Only the pause separating 'Hospital Bed' and the wistful 'Hands Remember' persuades me that I'm listening to two different songs, but that shouldn't undermine the beauty of either; the latter track retains the sweeping strings and elegiac tone, as well as a moment of soppy sentimentality when Sindri croons "I can't wait to feel brand new, I can't wait to meet you again... friend". 'I Sing I Swim' recalls the ultra-melodious songwriting of Belle and Sebastian and delivers an ominous lyric, given how I feel about this record; "make way for winter's eerie glow".

'Owl Waltz' heralds the arrival of a more subdued tone, and the second half of the album suggests that the band have responded to the soporific demands of their own songs. Album closer 'Seashell' picks up the pace a little bit, providing an upbeat close to a record mostly content to sit and stare at the red-skied horizon. One hopes that for subsequent releases Seabear will consider setting themselves more varied challenges, but this veiled criticism belies the fact that 'The Ghost That Carried Us Away' is one of the brightest, best realised records of the year. Recommended.

logical cross-dressing

There's a very interesting interview over at LabourHome with John Cruddas, the faintly rebellious Labour MP who many agree invigorated the contest for Deputy Leader earlier this year, even if he didn't win it. I for one have been disappointed by the fact that we've not seen more of Cruddas since Brown took over - he's far more rational and sensible than the likes of Tony Benn, and a politician I genuinely admire, not just for his left wing principles, but for the fact that he clearly regards public service as his single consistent priority. In short, he cares. He's also a lucid analyst of the current political scene:

"Cross-dressing is a logical consequence … If Tony Blair was still Labour leader, Nick Clegg had become Liberal leader and Dave Cameron was leader of the Conservative Party it’s almost physiologically they’re all merging into one. But that doesn’t just drop out of the sky. That is the deductive product of the political system we have. I think the BNP in Dagenham or Respect 4/5 miles down the road are part of the same reaction to that that ever precise political positioning because it reflects the disenfranchisement of the people who are disenfranchised because they don’t have power in that system."
He's good on tuition fees, too, which is a subject I've changed my mind on over the years, not least because I spend so much time talking to academics and visiting universities:

"That was the first time I voted against [the government] because I thought they had an approach to higher education that was just extraordinary, absolutely extraordinary. It was all about this is a rational economic investment ’cos you go and get more money out of it in the end ’cos you get a better paid job. Oh is that why you go to university? I didn’t. I was on the rebel benches on that vote, 2003. Dreadful. It had a very precise view of knowledge right and it was a very utilitarian approach to the world which actually I always thought was a hallmark of the right."
Read the full interview here.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

half of a 1000 albums

I love lists, particularly of books and records, althought it's vital not to take them too seriously. A case in point is the current 1000 albums to hear before you die feature running in the Guardian, which is a mostly great list of mostly great albums, yet is packed with glaring ommissions.

That really isn't the point, however, and it's a great starting place for people who want to hear new stuff. So, working through from A-M, which is as far as they've got so far, I've drilled down to find three albums from each section - one that I know and unreservedly recommend, one that I've heard of (often from a band I already love) but never managed to hear, and one that is completely new to me, but which sounds interesting.

Any opinions on the listed records much appreciated:

-A- (here)
Love it: Amadou & Mariam - Dimanche à Bamako (2005)
Heard about it: AR Kane- 69 (1988)
New to me: Rabih Abou-Khalil - The Cactus of Knowledge (2000)

-B- (here and here)
Love it: Breeders - Pod (1990)
Heard about it: Big Star - Radio City (1974)
New to me: Peter Brotzman - Machine Gun (1968)

-C- (here and here)
Love it: Coldcut - Journeys by DJ:70 Minutes of Madness (1995)
Heard about it: The Chills - Heavenly Pop Hits (1994)
New to me: Ce'Cile - Bad Gyal (2007)

-D- (here)
Love it: Dinosaur Jr - You're Living All Over Me (1987)
Heard about it: The Durutti Column - The Return of the Durutti Column (1978)
New to me: DAF - Gold und Liebe (1981)

-E- (here)
Love it: Brian Eno - Another Green World (1975)
Heard about it: 808 State- Ex:El (1991)
New to me: 801- 801 Live (1976)

-F- (here)
Love it: Fun Boy Three - Fun Boy Three (1982)
Heard about it: Fugazi - 13 Songs (1990)
New to me: The Fugs - The Fugs' First Album (1965)

-G- (here)
Love it: Gastr del Sol - The Serpentine Similar (1993)
Heard about it: Green On Red - Here Come the Snakes (1989)
New to me: Robert Glasper - In My Element (2007)

-H- (here)
Love it: Happy Mondays - Bummed (1988)
Heard about it: Harmonia - Musik von Harmonia (1974)
New to me: Michael Head and the Strands - The Magical World of the Strands (1998)

-I- (here)
Love it: Inner City - Paradise (1989)
Heard about it: Ice T - Power (1988)
New to me: Abdullah Ibrahim - Water from an Ancient Well (1985)

-J- (here)
Love it: James - Stutter (1986)
Heard about it: Daniel Johnston - 1990 (1990)
New to me: Victor Jara - Chile September 1973 Manifesto (1998)

-K- (here)
Love it: Steve Reich - Different Trains/Electric Counterpoint (1990)
Heard about it: The Knife - Silent Shout (2006)
New to me: Stan Kenton - City of Glass (1995)

-L- (here)
Love it: Lemonheads - It's a Shame About Ray (1992)
Heard about it: Lo'Jo - Au Cabaret Sauvage (2002)
New to me: Linx - Intuition (1981)

-M- (here and here)
Love it: Michael Mayer - Fabric 13 (2003)
Heard about it: Joe Meek and the Blue Men - I Hear a New World (1960)
New to me: The Moments - Love on a Two-Way Street (1997)

pepsi challenge update

Right, yesterday I boasted that unlike some, I would be able to taste the difference between Coke and Pepsi. So today I picked up a can of each (yes, my life really is this exciting) and carried out no less that three taste tests, each a few minutes apart.

Here are the results:
Round one: Initial taste of the first drink was that it was incredibly sweet, but still very nice. I pegged it as coke and tried the second, expecting it to be sweeter still and not so nice. To my surprise, it tasted exactly the same, although with a slightly more sugary aftertaste. So I concluded it was Pepsi, and opened my eyes. It wasn't, it was Coke. WRONG.

Round two: Just couldn't tell them apart this time - no discernible difference. Again, looking for the sweeter option to identify Pepsi. In the end, more or less by chance, decided the first can I was holding was Coke. Opened my eyes. Nope, it was Pepsi. WRONG.

Round three: Really trying this time; swilling each around my mouth and looking for differences. In the end I just couldn't spot any. Decided I was holding the Pepsi this time. I think you can guess where we're going here. I was WRONG again.


Weirdly, when I can see that I'm drinking Pepsi, it tastes sweet and cheap. When I can't, it tastes just like coke. This just backs up the power of branding, I suppose, but I'm genuinely surprised I can't tell the difference.

At present, if a shop only has Pepsi, I plump for a different drink altogether, 7-up or Lucozade, so loyal am I to Coke. God. Does this mean that in future I won't turn down Pepsi and will abandon my preferential treatment of Coca Cola?

I know this sounds utterly insane, but I don't think so. I still feel like I don't like Pepsi, even if I have just proved that this is not so.

Annoyed I did that test in the first place now.

Monday, November 19, 2007

xkcd webcomic

This web comic, via Gromblog, is really just a little too geeky for my taste - when joke punchlines contain references to CSS decrypters and data transfer protocols I tend to find my attention wandering. That said, there are some crackers there too; take a look.

Here's a couple of samples.

pepsi challenge

I've just been watching Mark Thomas's excellent Dispatches documentary on Coca Cola, which was been both intriguing and engaging. Towards the end, Thomas, who likes Coke better than Pepsi, takes the Pepsi challenge, and does a blind taste test. Surprise surprise, he can't tell the difference between them, despite his stated preference.

Now, I'm well aware that this is what happens to a lot of people when they do this; despite their prejudices they can't tell which is which. Which got me thinking, could I detect the difference?

My girlfriend drinks Pepsi and I drink Coke (when she's not drinking gin and I'm not drinking beer), and whenever I have some of her chosen beverage I recoil, telling her it's too sweet, sickly, horrible. She in turn will drink coke only under duress.

So, I'm gonna give it a try tomorrow. Unfortunately right now I'm sat in a hotel room (with no mini-bar) so can't do it now, unless I brave the cold and go out to get some (no chance). So I'm blogging this now to force myself to do it tomorrow. Not least because I'm all enthusiastic now, and tomorrow I'll look at this and think, why did you think that was interesting?

Sunday, November 18, 2007

transcending the genre

There's a nice interview with Ian Rankin in today's paper. The Guardian's Lynn Barber is always good at this type of feature, although I find it slightly odd that she chooses to end her article with a reminder that Rankin is "a very good crime novelist, but he's not Dickens". A slightly sour note that surprised me. That apart, it's well worth a read. Here's an extract, an interesting insight into how he views his books.

Which does he consider his best novel? 'Black and Blue was the breakthrough; that was the first time I felt I knew the guy and I could do more with the crime novel than just solve a mystery. Then last year's The Naming of the Dead about the 2005 G8 summit; I reread it recently and I thought, "There's nothing in there I would want to change." And it got these fantastic reviews, you know - "Almost transcends the genre" - and sold very well, so I'm truly happy with that book. Exit Music is much quieter, more elegiac and was quite hard to write in some ways because of that.'

Here's the full article.

Friday, November 16, 2007

eels and the mighty boosh

My fellow Brighton blogger Anna Pickard writes for the Guardian today and sticks her neck out to say that she is only mildly impressed with Noel Fielding and Julian Barratt's BBC3 comedy 'The Mighty Boosh', a fairly unusual position to take on a show that really does tend to polarise opinion. I can kind of see why people might find it too knowing and faux-quirky to get along with, but, oh, I love it regardless, and although I was mildly disappointed with series two (apart from its maginificent final episode) I've been very excited about the fact that it's back for a third run.

Unfortunately I was out last night failing to win the Brighton Web Awards, so I missed it but set the video, and this evening I sat down to watch it. First impressions... well, it's hard to see how hardcore Boosh fans could be disappointed, although it must all be faintly mystifying for a newcomer, much less massively annoying for Booshophobes.

The best aspect of the new series, which is now set in a shop in Shoreditch, is that Fielding and Barratt seem to be concentrating more on the two-handers which made the first series such a joy, giving Howard and Vince ample time to trade lines and riff off each other. Their obvious delight with language is fundamental, and a run of jokes concerning Howard's small eyes work a treat, as do some super jokes which play on the contrast between the ultra-vivid Vince and the relatively conservative Howard, who proposes to make a fortune with his camoflage elbow patches.

Their world is endlessly inventive, lacking all continuity and led by whichever flights of narrative fancy they choose to spin. Vince's 'celebradar' is a hilarious idea, a machine which allows him to track the activities of indie musicians via tagging devices. There's one wonderful illustration of Vince's charming and childlike worldview, where he describes his target market as 'cool people [and] 15 year old girls'. Vince's appeal lies in the fact that he sees no difference between the two.

After all the verbal gags, the duo also attempt to retain the bizarre saturated look and feel of the second series. So the show, having started gently, soon gives way to a psychedelic and colourful carnival of a plot which takes in eels, stag dos, prostitution and, er, a popstar named Pete Neon who is part indie kid and part flamingo. It's all utterly absurd, a bit ruder than usual, and great fun, particularly as the Boosh include colourful cameos for many of their stranger past creations.

The whole thing is rather uneven and hardly densely plotted, but the sheer fun of it, plus some amazing jokes, sees the show through. The pinnacle arrives in a bizarre musical hallucination which sees Howard shrunk and made to dance with a Burlesque dancer inside a hat belonging to 'The Hitcher', one of Noel Fielding's more outrageous characters. As ever the set design and music is singular and engaging, and the whole thing reverberates with enthusiasm - which makes it a pleasure to watch.

Looking forward to episode two.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

ebbsfleet united and my football club

Part of me thinks this myfootballclub initiative, where 50,000 football fans have paid £35 to buy a controlling stake in – and make day to day decisions affecting - an English football club, is built upon an idea that could go terribly wrong. It’s not so much that I think the notion of fans owning a club is poor; indeed, far from it, I think it’s a super idea. It’s rather that I simply can’t think of any practical way that the investors could be as well informed as the current management of the club in question. Under the rules, fans will be able to decide everything from transfer targets to the formation and starting eleven. It appears to be styled on a massive version of Football Manager, the computer game that convinces every user that he or she is qualified to run a football club, when of course they’re not.

Nevertheless, it seems that a deal is in place to buy a controlling interest in the Conference National team Ebbsfleet United who, despite an unfamiliar name, actually have a long history in football, if you trace them back via Gravesend & Northfleet FC to the two original clubs who merged in 1946 but existed independentally as far back as the 1890s. Based in Kent, the club has a small support but a promising team, and are currently sitting 9th in their division, which isn’t bad at all.

Only one division below the Football League, the club seem like a decent choice for a couple of reasons; their physical location, which is slap bang on the new ultra-fast Eurostar line from St. Pancras, and the league they play in, which is (unlike lower divisons) national rather than regional, making it easier for investors to make it to away games right across the country (including one, Crawley Town, which is near me, which is great).

As that last sentence indicates, despite my misgivings, I have bought into the project and paid my fee. Apparently as much as £700,000 has been raised so far and that will be enough to allocate club manager (now restyled ‘Head Coach’, and presumably none too happy about it) Liam Daish transfer funds in the transfer window (which is more than he’s had previously). A new ground is a possibility and, well, who knows? It might just work.

Oddly – particularly since I like football management games – I don’t think I’m likely to take an interest in voting on team selection and stuff like that. It would be impossible for me to do so, when I’m extremely unlikely to see the team play regularly, and I suspect the same is true of most participants. I’d like to see the first action the members take being a vote to defer selection to the manager, with no more than input from the online investors. How are we to assess at a distance, for example, a player’s morale or physical fitness?

Equally, I’d like to see some representation on the board of the club’s real fans – ie those who watch them every week and actually have some real understanding of the team and the level they play at. I can’t imagine them being all that happy about their club being snaffled from under their noses.

So involvement on decisions is not something that motivates me. No, rather my interest stems from the appeal of a scenario where a tiny club, playing to half-empty stands, will suddenly acquire a vocal and loyal support. I’m a strong believer in the concept of football fans (this is a terrible cliché, sorry) being the 12th man on the pitch, and it excites me to think of this incredible invigoration of support.

When I was a kid I used to go and watch Barnet FC (who in those days were at the same level as Ebbsfleet) play every other week for a season or two, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. The idea that football is only rewarding at the highest level is absolute nonsense, and I remember my year or two supporting Barnet with as much affection as the time I used to go (with my next door neighbour, Michael) to go and watch Tottenham Hotspur play at White Hart Lane.

Sadly, football has become a terribly expensive hobby and that as much as anything has meant that I’ve not seen a football match since I was about 14. Admittedly, I’m nowhere near as passionate about it as I was when I was a child, but if the My Football Club project encourages a broad section of people, local or otherwise, to engage with a small, inclusive club again, then I think it’s a brilliant idea.

Just don’t ask me who should be playing upfront.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

brain picking

This drawing comes courtesy of Siobhán - she drew it last night. I like it very much.

burial, untrue review

Untrue by Burial is the sound of electricity bouncing around my head on the train journey home; if you told me I'd find a record in the latter half of 2007 which knocked me sideways and staggered me, which I immediately identified with, I'd have given you money it wouldn't be a dark, haunting dubstep record which buzzed with bass and provoked dizzying, nostalgic recollections of a scene – rave – which isn't even in my realm of experience. But yeah, it's marvellous, and utterly in tune with how I feel, which is really odd.

Why, well, because of when and where I listen to it, I think – it's the kind of record that would have sounded utterly out of place in the summer, but the clocks have turned and so far it's inhabited me during the dead hour which is my journey home from work, sat heavy lidded on an impossibly bright train staring hard out of the window at the rapidly darkening sky, which tonight is all black horizon and purple clouds, bisected by a thin stripe of orange-pink.

The record is ghostly and terrific, a familiar palate of sounds spun into a delicious soundscape; snatches of heavily processed soul vocals, synth washes and those delightfully crunchy, other worldly beats, constructed from gunshots and the sounds of empty bullet casings clattering to the floor. On several occasions its hands-in-the-air melodies transport me back to a fictional place in my past, and I remember myself on a dancefloor I've never stepped on. Most of all it just clatters through me and mirrors my mental state, sounding foggy, dreamlike and faintly exhausted at the end of a long day, with all the reverberations of the preceding hours still possessing me, snatching through my consciousness like the sudden, distant vocal samples on the record.

Oh, wow, it's a really tremendous record, and I'm just in love with it.

brighton blogs of the week

I've been reading local blogs a bit more recently, as the Brighton Web Awards have piqued my interest. Brighton doesn't seem to have the most vibrant blogging scene, but if you value small observations and listening in to conversations, you'll always find things that make your ears prick up. Here's a quick guide to what I've been reading this week then, courtesy of the fine city of Brighton and Hove.

Over at Chicken Yoghurt, Justin has finally decided that he's had it with Facebook and has 'deactivated' his profile. A friend of mine did the same thing a while back but has recently come back into the fold, so perhaps Facebook are operating a one-in/one-out policy. Justin writes:

"It makes me laugh that there are thousands of people out there who are screaming at the tops of their lungs that they’d rather go to bed with John Prescott than submit their details to an ID card database, but there they are cheerfully fessing up to their political affiliations, educational histories, reading and viewing habits, what they’re doing at the weekend and all the rest on a ’social network’ which is, get this, AN ENORMOUS BLOODY DATABASE."
Céline, on her Naked Translations blog, has a go at translating a passage of Sebastian Faulks' marvellous 'Birdsong', in tribute to Rememberence day. Céline, a french person living in Brighton, makes a thought-provoking observation that hadn't previously occurred to me. She writes, "This is a day that unites my birth country and my adoptive country through shared history". Which is, of course, very true.

There are always lots of good photos up at Brighton Daily Photo, as you might expect, but I was particularly taken by this one, which does justice to our lovely seafront.

At Mulled Whines, Phil is setting out his stall as a Brighton fashion icon. He's clearly readying himself for the time when he moves in more celebrated circles...
"What it also means, of course, is that I could be the subject of a tabloid exposé at any time. When my fellow twig-thin icon of style, Victoria Beckham, bought a bit o' Bitton last year, it made all the papers. So at the very least I should command a couple of lines in The Argus. And let's face it, she and I have so much in common."
Abi, over at his Zigzag Wandering blog, has spotted a parakeet in Stamner Park - I find that strangely fascinating, which is perhaps evidence of my advancing years. Yet it's not that surprising, apparently; it seems Brighton has a history of exotic finds. Abi says:
"Hollingbury Woods was once [1970s-90s] the home of upto 20 breeding ring-necked parakeets which made text books on the subject. These gradually dwindles and disappeared after the nesting tree which stood on a slope by the children's playground fell over one windy night.
Last winter, there was a bit of excitement in Waldegrave Road near Fiveways when a pair of green parrots with yellow faces arrived in the street regularly feeding on fruit of a particulalry abundant crab apple and the seed etc put out by residents. They stayed several weeks and were reported and photographed in local magazine 'The Fiveways Directory'. After disappearing for a few weeks they reappeared with a third bird in tow. Whether they had bred or not remains uncertain, but their residency this time was shrt-lived. As far as I know their present location or fate remains a mystery - as does their origin."
Lastly, and perhaps most entertainingly, Anna over at Little Red Boat has, she says, a "broken valve between brain and mouth" and so declares, surprisingly, that she wishes she had a beard. Click through for a typically funny and engaging post, if you fancy it. Here she is on that wistful frame of mind which makes her declare such wants.
"But it's not just a mood, it's a mood that fizzles in a certain little vague-valve in my chest, and then bubbles up to my brain, where it strikes me that it's a lovable thing to have out there, in the world, so I have to say it out loud. And whoever happens to be with me never knows where it's come from, they just know that I've said it. I don’t care what they think of it though. Because I've said it out loud, and it's important that I voice un-planned things sometimes because that's how I work."
I love blogs.

vote assistant blog

There's one day of voting left in the Brighton and Hove Web Awards; if you've not yet done so please do consider voting for Assistant Blog in the best personal blog category. You can do so by clicking on the icon below. Thanks!

unger on the house of bush

There's a really fascinating conversation recorded on Wikipedia today between Vanity Fair journalist David Shankbone and author Craig Unger, whose new book, 'The Fall of the House of Bush', looks like essential reading. They touch on loads of thought-provoking subjects and Unger - who is already pretty unpopular in neoconservative circles - is relentlessly interesting. His insights into the politics of the Bush administration are fascinating, if terrifying.

Here's the full interview. I've pulled out a few choice quotes, below.

On the education of George W. Bush:
"First, George W. Bush was not the favorite son by a long-shot. Jeb was, and even Neil was ahead of them. But in 1994 you had George W. and Jeb running for governor of Texas and Florida, respectively, and exactly the reverse happened of what people expected: that George would lose and Jeb would win. The opposite happened. In 1998, George wins reelection and suddenly he’s a two-term governor of a very visible state who has positioned himself for the Presidency. He knows nothing about foreign policy. He had only left the country one time, which was to visit his daughter in Italy. He had no curiosity about the world. Bush Sr. decides they have to educate him about it, so they bring in Prince Bandar and Condi Rice and begin a series of seminars. They are thinking the old guard—by that I mean Brent Scowcroft, Condi Rice, James Baker,Colin Powell—will take charge; that is not what happens at all. In late 1998 the neocons quickly move in, and you have Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz and Elliott Abrams making semi-secret trips down to Texas."

On Bush Sr's reluctance to speak out against his son:
"I’m wary of psychoanalyzing [Bush Sr], but I believe they don’t discuss [the war]. He’s come forth several times and said, “Look, why don’t you talk to Scowcroft or James Baker” and he kind of leaves it at that. The Iraq Study Group report did have some earmarks of anger venting . Scowcroft actually goes to Egypt and Saudi Arabia to get their support of the Iraq Study Group plan. He also goes to Condi Rice, who is the last person from that world who seems to have real access to Bush, and talks to her about it. She seems to sign on and at one point she says something like, “Well, when do you think we should do this?” and Scowcroft says, “Not we, you.” She never really does anything; she never stands up. She has become an enabler for the neocons such as Wolfowitz, who have convinced Bush to believe that we have to democratize the entire Middle East, topple Saddam, and only then can we deal with the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Of course, that’s absolutely disastrous".

On why the Neocons are willing to pursue such dangerous and high-risk policies:
"I’m not sure I have a good answer for that, but I can say they are REAL ideologues. It’s worth going back to their history and a lot of this stuff is toxic, third-rail stuff. David Brooks attacked me as a conspiracy nut. The point isn’t that the neocons had this weird Communist conspiracy or anything like that, but that they were trained ideologues and trained in ideological battles and sectarian disputes. They purge people who disagree with them and work in an echo-chamber environment where they don’t admit any facts that contradict their preconceived ideas. You see them operate as this ideological cadre. They purged people in the State Department who were part of the Realist crowd, and I go into that. They’ve had the same ideas for thirty years."

Chilling stuff. But what a great article.

Monday, November 12, 2007

kaki king

Anyone else catch Kaki King on Jools Holland a week or two ago? I mentioned it on this blog a few days ago, and downloaded an old LP, but until now I'd not got round to checking out her stuff on Youtube. I'm glad I did, as there's a bunch of great performances, including the Later performance that caught my eye, and some truly dazzling guitar playing. The clip below is, alas, cut short, but it's super stuff.

Am I alone in being really impressed? I don't normally go for guitar virtuosos (even pretty ones) but something about her loose, rhythmical and non-showy style really appeals.

wriggling child

As Siobhán indicates over on her art blog, we spent some time this weekend in an art shop in Cambridge, and I was surprised to note that canvases are not quite as expensive as you might think. We picked up a few very small ones which were only a couple of quid each. Later that day I picked up a pen and started idly sketching on one, quite forgetting that I'm not used to drawing with a view to adding paint, and soon realising that what I'd drawn was not really well suited to the medium. In the end I just added a layer of paint in the background, but enjoyed mucking around with real canvas regardless. Next time I'll try something more ambitious.

After I'd drawn it my mother took a look and said "oh, you can draw, can't you, I never thought you could". She says this every time she sees me do a drawing! I don't blame as her I used to kick up a terrible fuss about doing my art homework, and always leant more towards books. But I have always liked drawing, making collages, tape covers. Talking with Vic in the pub last night she repeated her observation that she thinks I could - and perhaps should - have done more art, maybe even studied it. Dunno about that, but anyway - interesting.

spelling bentley

on lines in the sand

A while back I scribed for another blog an ultimately unsucessful attempt to convince people that I was right to have a passionate hatred for the mimsy and twee pop group Belle and Sebastian. Arguing against a fan, with our respective arguments put to the public vote, I was roundly (and probably deservedly) defeated.

Still, reading this on Carrie Brownstein's blog, Monitor Mix, I'd like to think that she'd have voted for my argument - I'd certainly vote for hers...

"For myself, the line in the sand is neither of the aforementioned. My deal-breaker is preciousness: when the music is a tiny, baby bird that needs us to be nurturing and respectful, otherwise it can't spread its wings. I like quiet music, folk music, solo artists--it's not a matter of volume or numbers, but it is a matter of art being able to stand on its own two feet. I don't think music needs to be coddled, no matter how delicate or soft it sounds. When a band or singer makes me go "awwww," as I would at the sight of a newborn child, then that is a band that needs a pacifier not an amplifier. Other indicators of preciousness include, but are not limited to: matching old-timey outfits; mumbling, soft-spoken stage banter that trails off and is quickly followed by a cutesy smile, which for some reason garners huge cheers from the audience; being so nervous on stage that someone in the crowd has to yell "you can do it!" or "we love you" (exception made here for child performers); asking people to lie down on the floor for the next song; and any audience sing-along or participation so complicated that it needs to be explained BEFORE the song starts. When I am at an overly precious show, I am often filled with contrarian, immature urges: suddenly banging a gong, stepping on a whoopee cushion, or knocking some vegans together to start a mosh pit. I think what bothers me the most about preciousness is that it takes good form and reduces it to good manners, and turns performance into charade. I have no trouble taking music seriously or considering it special, but I don't need to be instructed about why it is"

Saturday, November 10, 2007

boosh is back

Mighty Boosh, how I have missed you.

It's back on Thursday, and I can't wait. Here's Noel Fielding in today's Guardian, rueing the lack of glamour on British telly:

"I hate EastEnders. I call it Glass Smash Face Aids. I cannot bear it. It's all egg sandwiches, council tax bills and heroin needles. It's grotesque. Why are people fascinated by that? It's shit for your eyes. Whatever happened to fantasy and escape and colours and beauty?"

This is Noel Fielding dressed as a panda.


Wednesday, November 07, 2007

cats and shops, cats and pop

Assistant Blog frequently tries to come off all enthused by and informed on subjects like politics, pop music and poetry, as you'll have noticed, but really my interests and ambitions in life begin and end with the goal of cat-ownership. I think cats are the best. So here, more for my own amusement than anything else, is a picture of a cat. Aaah. It comes from my new favourite blog, Working Class Cats, which collects photos of cats who live in shops. Amazing.

Continuing the cat theme, I'm not the only blogger who is easily diverted. Poor old Carrie Brownstein, late of the utterly magnificent Sleater-Kinney, only gets through a few paragraphs of the first entry on her new blog, Monitormix, before getting sidetracked.

"The other day I was driving home and saw a boy in his early twenties walking along the sidewalk. He was wearing a gray trench coat, combat boots, and a backpack, and he had a medium-haired black cat on his shoulder. It always worries me when people carry their cats around in public. It's not as bad as the woman in North Portland who brings a mini pony with her to the coffee shop, but it still makes me uneasy; it's attention-seeking, and I am forced to spend the next few hours wondering how someone trains a cat to do that. But what kind of music does a young man who is a human scratching post listen to? I might guess Peter Murphy or Tool or My Chemical Romance, but I have no idea. These are some of the questions I want to answer. I want to find out why people are drawn to certain songs, genres, voices, or instruments.

Let's start with this question: If you carry a cat around on your shoulder when you go out, or a bird, or a lizard, what music do you listen to?"
Sadly, I've never been able to convince an animal to travel around with me in this way, but if you have you might want to pop over to Carrie's blog to give her some feedback...

lovely mural in san francisco

I'm a massive fan of murals, and saw some of the best I've ever seen in San Francisco - it's not exactly surprising given the counter-cultural bent of the city, but from Haight to the Mission there are some dazzling works. Particularly taken, then, with this new one, via Boing Boing. It's located in the colourful Balmy Alley, and is really great.

rich man votes tory shocker

He's not exactly the most popular footballer in the country, but he does have one of the biggest wage packets. Which is perhaps why everyone's favourite rotund midfielder, Frank Lampard, has come out as a Tory. What a coup for Cameron! According to the man himself, who was lucky enough to have a one-to-one meeting with Mr Cameron, "I had a really good chat with David. As a footballer I don't want to get involved with the campaigning thing but I am a Tory and I really like David Cameron."

There's more - one of his 'friends' added: "Frank has got some very strong opinions on the way the country should be run. People tend to think of footballers as being a bit one-dimensional but Frank takes pleasure in talking about big social issues when he has guests round to dinner. He's bright and engaging. The Tories would do well to be associated with him. He's clearly a role model for younger voters to get interested in politics."

There goes the last of my remaining sympathy for him at the harsh treatment he gets from England fans...

Monday, November 05, 2007

rivalry amongst friends

Returning to information I hope you've acted on by now - Assistant Blog has of course been shortlisted in the Brighton and Hove Web Awards. So, alas, has my chum Dan's lame international development blog, Hii Dunia. We're both doing a good job of pretending that we hope the other wins, whereas in fact our rivalry is deadly and potentially friendship-destroying.

Dan drew this for my facebook page. I think it's basically the best thing ever.

Vote for me, or Dan, here.

firework show

Just got back from watching the fireworks at Dave's flat. Each year one of the best local shows is held at the Sussex County Cricket Ground, and for quite a few years now I've paid the fee and gone and stood in the cold watching the colours exploding above me. As of last Autumn, however, a cheaper and warmer option has presented itself in the form of Dave and Eleanor's flat, which is on the fifth floor of a building just adjacent to the cricket ground. A good placement on his balcony ensures a terrific view as well as easy access to the toasty radiator just inside the door and the deep sofa beyond.

Tonight's display was terrific. We stood in a line in the faint rain glugging mulled wine and watched a succession of parallel detonations in red, white, gold, blue and green. Cascading fountains, frenzied scribbles and thunderous explosions, culminating in a furious and intense volley of vivid red fireworks which burst low and exhaled long gulps of sulphurous smoke which seemed to sit on the horizon and hang ominously as if digging into and eroding the walls of an invisible lung. The final set of explosions occupied the whole sky, cracking and purring above us. The whole thing lasted thirty minutes and barely thirty seconds went by without eliciting a round of admiring murmurs. Amazing stuff.

currently listening to...

1. Robert Wyatt - Comic Opera LP: Yes, yes - still awesome.

2. Kaki King - Everybody Loves You LP: Caught Kaki King on Later With Jools Holland this week. Siobhán laughed lots at her name. We both marvelled at her unbelievable guitar playing.

3. Distance - My Demons LP: Sparse, mauling dubstep. Bassy.

4. Steve Malkmus - 'Maggie's Farm' (from I'm Not There OST LP): I don't think I'd like this much if it was anyone else - but I'm a sucker for Malkmus's voice, period.

5. Skull Disco: Soundboy Punishment LP: Brilliant, heavy dubstep compilation mostly consisting of tracks by Shackleton and Appleblim - thanks to James for drawing this one to my attention.

6. Ghostface Killah - 'We Celebrate' (from The Big Doe Rehab LP): Available over at Pitchfork, and predictably great.

7. Mum - Go Go Smear The Poison Ivy LP: Atmospheric, innit.

8. Bruce Springsteen - Magic LP: After the more serious and introspective Springsteen of recent years, it's good to hear him reigniting a bit of his legendary energy.

9. Royal We - 'All The Rage' (from the Royal We LP) : Enjoying the none-more indie stylings of this Hefner-style glam fest.

10. Burial - Untrue LP: Alright, I've only heard one or two tracks from this, but about to listen to it properly and I just know I'm going to love it.

enoch is back

Should I feign surprise that in the brave new world of this 21st century, in an England where politics is irreversibly dominated by the liberal collosus which is Dave Cameron - the man who has single-handedly banished intolerance from the newly touchy-feely Conservative Party - the likes of Nigel Hastilow continue to evoke the name and the policies of the hated Enoch Powell? No, I shan't - it really couldn't be more predictable.

A day or two after Hastilow - who was a prospective parliamentary candidate for the Tory party - published his ill-conceived article and came very close to endorsing the racist demagoguery of Powell, the journalist and would-be politician has been hauled over the coals by the fearsome Caroline Spellman and has handed in his resignation. The Tories, meanwhile, are exposed once more as precisely the 'nasty party' that Theresa May warned them they were becoming.

What makes this story interesting, of course, is not that yet another Tory is so bone-headed as to once more open this familiar can of worms, nor that Hastilow will be a great loss to the electorate (he won't), but rather that the fault line between Cameron's leadership tone and his own supporters is once more so clearly highlighted. Over at Conservative Home the mood is predictable - lots of people willing to criticise Hastilow for poor judgement but very few willing to themselves decry Powell's speech. Why? Because they believed him then and they believe him now.

Plenty of Labour voters do, too, I suspect, and Liberals also. But the relationship between Conservatism and xenophobia goes far deeper than any comparable links in the other British parties. People 'become' Labour because they appreciate their links with the working classes, or because they admire their liberalism, or because they support social justice. There are certainly racist Labour voters, but it's very hard to imagine that they became Labour voters as a consequence of their attitude towards foreigners. Yet for a great many people their dislike of immigration (just like their dislike of Europe) is a central plank in their identification with the Conservative Party. Cameron tries hard to convince us that this bond is broken. This plainly isn't so.

In the office today I had a long chat with a (tremendously nice) Tory, who has campaigned and stood as a Conservative candidate, and while he shook his head that Hastilow so openly stood up for Powell, he was quick to reassure me that "what he said in public is exactly what every Tory says to core voters on their own doorsteps". For him, mentioning the 'rivers of blood' was a huge tactical mistake, and a misjudgement because the country has so clearly moved on from Powell's speech in '68.

But even in that context, he told me that "what Powell said was acceptable in public then, but it isn't now". This kind of myopia is typical of the modern Conservative, because it fails to appreciate – indeed it blindly refuses to remember - that what Powell said in '68 was so far from acceptable then that Ted Heath immediately sacked Powell from the cabinet. The world has changed, yes, but not from a world where racism was acceptable to one where it is not.

The world has changed in the sense that Powell's words (which were just as unnaceptable then as they are now) have been proved to be not just inflammatory, or insensitive, or politically unsound, but profoundly wrong. Cameron must do more than just persuade the country that he understands this. And he has to do more than persuade the country that his fellow-travellers in the Tory party feel the same. He must actually bring about this change. And this is an impossible task.

The Tory footsoldiers don’t want to change. And every time someone does what Hastilow has done, and every time Cameron condemns them for it, they will make his battle all the harder and his sinking yet more inevitable.

Friday, November 02, 2007

ramsey back in brighton

I'm a big fan of Gordon Ramsey's Kitchen Nightmares; the sweary scot is fantastically good entertainment but more important by far is that when he puts his time and energy into helping ailing businesses he does so with generosity and enthusiasm, even if it's all obscured beneath a fizzing layer of invective.

The first episode of his new series aired this week, and found him back in Brighton, which has provided him with rich televisual pickings in the past, having done his bit in helping transform the South Lanes' Momma Cherie's into a workable business. This time he was in the heart of Kemptown, helping out former actor Allan Love's fast-sinking fish restaurant, which was beautifully placed and yet run with a kind of keen stupidity which would have you tearing out your hair if you knew the man - not least because he swiftly revealed himself to be a man incapable of taking criticism or advice. Which makes you wonder why on earth he had volunteered to take on Ramsey.

I rather suspect that watching reality TV is a bit like watching The Weakest Link; the second you tune in you instinctively know all the answers. Real-life is a lot more complicated, of course, and the likes of Allan Love never seem to understand the kind of things which you just know Ramsey is going to say, which can be broadly summarised thus:

- Use local produce if you can.
- If it's not local, at least make sure it's fresh
- Simplify your menu and keep the prices down
- Redecorate so that the place looks either dead modern or dead old-fashioned.
- Stop serving stale and possibly life-threatening molluscs.

Oh, and to that you could probably append:

- If your chefs are arrogant, lazy, care-free good-for-nothings, sack 'em.

But a consequence of Ramsey's charisma, however, is that he can swiftly remedy the above ills and rescue dismal restaurants without even having to dispense with (too many) employees. He turns the most sullen or saturnine of staff into compliant kittens. And even when the proprietor is as maddening as Love, who spent most of this week's episode ordering Ramsey off the premises, it's genuinely touching when things start to work out.

Gordon Ramsey's Kitchen Nightmares is a good advert for reality TV; engaging, transformative and dead amusing - nine times out of ten by the time he leaves the restaurants he tackles you end up thinking 'I'd like to eat there'. Unfortunately there remain many joyless eateries in this country; you almost wish he'd give up the rest of his commitments and go full-time.

oh how I've dreamt of taps

Regular viewers of Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe (best programme on TV by a mile? oh yes) may, like me, have become rather bewitched of late by the short animations provided by David Firth of; they are vivid, disturbing and hilarious. Can't get enough of them.

Siobhán has just reminded me that before the Screenwipe stuff aired she showed me some videos on the web by the same author. So I've just been revisiting the hugely disconcerting world of Salad Fingers; there's one below. It's rather uncomfortable, yet weirdly mesmerising.

brighton web awards

I'm pleased to note that Assistant Blog has been shortlisted in the Best Personal Site and Blog category in the Brighton and Hove Web Awards. Hurray. That means you can vote for me to win if you wish. Please do.

Here are the shortlisted blogs; I should probably point that out Dan over at Hii Dunia deserves your vote as much as I do. But that doesn't mean you should vote for anyone except me.

the shortlist
Assistant Blog (you're reading it)
Brunswick Blog
Hii Dunia
Jason Kitcat
Wellies With Wings

Good luck to the other bloggers!

Vote for Assistant Blog here.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

making merry with noise

I'm not writing so many songs at the moment, mainly because I've only got so much time and I've been focusing on other things. But a few weeks ago I was suddenly struck by the desire to sit down with my computer and guitar and plug in my 4-track without a song to play or any real intention of writing one. So what ensued was basically just five minutes of fuzz and echo and I'm neither proud of it nor embarrased. My fondness for the track, instead, derives from the pleasant memory of recording it, remembering that after ten or fifteen minutes of plugging in my guitar I was sat in the middle of the floor banging a glockenspiel with one hand and detuning a handheld radio with the other. Occasionally, if I remember rightly, I leant across to flick on the portable airpump which came with my camping mattress.

I tell you all this only so that you can adjust your expectations accordingly.

The song, if that is what it is, follows.

Assistant - Shapes (home demo) [4.51 mins, 4.4mb]

ronson on browne

Going up against a medium or a psychic should be, really, childs play for any journalist or documentary maker; it doesn't take a Dawkins to work out the extent to which they play upon people's insecurities and exploit them. So I could probably do a web trawl and link to a dozen articles which make for fun and furious reading.

Few journalists are as good as Jon Ronson, of course - so I was particularly pleased to see him taking on Sylvia Browne in the Guardian last week, even if it meant him enduring a pretty awful sounding cruise to get close to her. Like all of Ronson's writings, it's worth a read. Here's an extract. It's safe to say that Browne was not really much enamoured with her ironical British interviewer...

I jump ship in Athens, two days early. I miss Sylvia's final lecture. The next day I receive an email from Cassie, the German fan who went off her after she was rude in the shopping arcade. "Please call me!" she writes. "Sylvia talked so harsh about you! I wrote everything down she said!"

I phone her.

"You have no idea what that woman said about you yesterday!" Cassie says. "She got up on stage and said to the audience, 'Are you guys enjoying the trip?' And everyone yelled, 'Yeah! Whooh!' And then she said, 'Because I heard that some of you aren't enjoying the trip.' And she launched into this huge attack on you! She said, 'I had an interview with this pale little man and he said I was rude to some of you in the shopping arcade. You must have seen him around. He's a creepy little worm ...' She said you were a worm and a creep and a dark soul entity. She just went on and on about you. It lasted for about 20 minutes!"

"How did the audience respond?" I ask.

"People didn't know where the hell this was coming from," Cassie says. "A few of them said to me afterwards, 'I didn't pay 4,000 euros to listen to someone go on like that.' "

All this proves one thing to me. Now I know for sure that Sylvia isn't psychic, because I don't have a dark soul at all. I have a very light soul.
Read the rest of the article here.


As keen readers in recent months will have noticed, I've been slowly trying to incorporate some more drawings into my output here at Assistant Blog, and have been wanting for a while to start using my computer to help me present some of these sketches. Over the last few days I've done a few scrappy line drawings which I was keen to colour on screen rather than using pencils, so this evening I downloaded a free programme, LiveQuartz, and had a play with adding some bits of colour to a scan of the original. Here are the results, which aren't band for a first attempt, I don't think.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

manchester (wagon) wheel

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Whitelocks, Leeds

A slightly overdue post, this, but I thought I'd take a break from blogging about Brighton in order to dodge backwards in time and reflect a little more on my recent trip to Leeds. In particular, to laud one of the best pubs I've ever been to, the wonderful Whitelocks, which is located down a narrow lane in the centre of the city.

I shan't bore you with a history lesson, but... oh alright, but just a quick one. A listed pub, Whitelocks (which was originally called The Turk's Head) was first granted a license in 1715, and while it may have changed a fair bit since then, it retains the essence of a proper English public house. It's dark, ornate and friendly, serving a wonderful selection of cask ales, beautifully decorated, and pulsing with life as if it were the very heart of Leeds. Although if the wall murals outside are anything to go by, it is a Leeds which is greatly changed.

Sitting with a pint of ale one afternoon on my recent trip I was interrupted by a passing customer, who needed me to move a chair so that his wheelchair could continue through the pub. Engaging him in conservation, it transpired that he had drunk in the pub after the war, and he was visibly touched to see that so little had changed. Despite his advanced years, he was as sharp as a needle, looking for ornamental details and signs of permanence and finding plenty to delight him. He had been an artist and explained that he had drawn the inside of the pub from exactly where I was sitting. I was moved and happy to be sat in a place so tangible and real, so resistent to change.

I heartily recommend a visit next time you're in Leeds.