Monday, April 30, 2007

vanity shot

Me in San Jose. I love Apple Stores.

american beer

The first pint of beer I had in San Jose was a glass of San Francisco-brewed Anchor Steam Beer, which is a highly unusual, spicy lager/pale ale combo of real richness and taste. It's slightly less fizzy than a European lager, and a deep orange, coppery colour with a flat, creamy head. It's very malty and spicy, containing a strong hint of burnt caramel and biscuits, and has a strong, bitter aftertaste. Very crisp and extremely nice - my first job back in England is to hunt this down.

It perhaps helped that myself and Sam sat drinking it in the Californian sunshine.

Next up was a pint of Samuel Adams Boston Lager, which was similar in feel but lighter and less bitter, perhaps slightly more carbonated but retaining the rich hoppiness of the Anchor Steam. Rather sweeter and milder, and easier to drink, but much less individual.

Finally, last night I had a Sierra Nevada with my meal, but couldn't really place it or differentiate it from the drinks I had before - but will come back to it if I have another glass.

Assistant Blog - bringing you the most important news from America, as it happens.

chicago reading

Once I get through the customs and security at Chicago (shoes, coat, belt off), I find myself, having rushed prematurely, with space to explore. I'm dog-tired, but the aforementioned exhileration, until now dormant under the surface, springs joyfully to life and I dash down from the landing gate, having calculated I have thirty minutes spare, to Chicago airport's book shop. I bury my nose (metaphorically, just) in the strange scented, differently weighted books of America. First I rush to the fiction stand, to examine my favourite books in new, unseen editions, and then I spring back to the bestseller table.

I've heard various things about the US book market, and won't for a moment, on the strength of a couple of visits, years apart, pretend to know anything much about it. Friends from the US have told me how astonished they are, on British public transport, to see so many people reading books. On the other hand, standing in this Illinois bookshop, I'm taken aback by the quality of the top ten on offer; serious fiction by Philip Roth, books by Democratic party hopefuls and several tracts on the Middle East and Government policy. The new book by Dave Eggers, which is about a refugee from the Sudanese war, which I excitedly buy, is placed bang in the centre of the new releases table.

My heart thudding with excitement, relaxing in and exploring this enthralling shop, I forget completely my extreme tiredness and lose myself in a flurry of pro-Americanism, deciding that I can't live in England any longer and must move to the States forthwith. I rush back to the gate, book in hand, and throw myself onto a seat at a little bar sat beside it. A sign warns me that all customers will be ID'd, which send me into a jetlagged panic of amusement. The barman comes over, and, wanting to look dead adult, I splutter "A Bugweiser, please'.

He looks stern. "A what?"

"A Busweiger", I reply, all nerves and tiredness. I show him, pre-emptively, my ID.

perpetual motion

Myself and Sam, my friend and work colleague, just spent a few hours trekking around San Jose's Tech Museum of Innovation, which, fittingly, considering we are dead-hot in California's Silicon Valley, is all about computers and what not.

The museum, like all museums, is unremittingly ace; we watch an amazing film about the Louisiana wetlands in the imax cinema, then make turbines, design rollercoasters, look at old computer chips and ride (virtual) bobsleighs. Best of all, however, is a massive rolling ball sculpture by George Rhoads, which occupies us for a half an hour, examining the route of the tumbling billiard balls and plotting their trajectory, as well as attempting to capture the motion, on my slow camera.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

chicago breathing

The first time I get to breathe in America is gazing at a far-off city.

Eight hours into my journey, I walk like somnolent stranger through Chicago airport, unable to get to grips with the shifting timezones and thus unaware that I have plenty of time to get to my connecting flight. I'm dully aware that I can feel ripples of excitement expanding and contracting in my stomach, but the feelings are being suppressed and flattened out by the jetlag and my uncertainty of direction. I try hard to concentrate, and fail, then discover to my horror that I am in the wrong terminal building and must catch a train to another, but the unpleasantness of the realisation forces me to wake up and get a handle on things, and I discover to my relief that I have plenty of time to get to the departure gate.

I use my last dollop of nervous energy getting myself onto the train, and it is only circling the airport that I catch a breath, seeing, sitting like a dusty mirage in the faraway distance, the city of Chicago, which is breaking up from the horizon like a graph, a compact pile of skyscrapers taller than any other I have seen. That first breath is studded with excitement and intrigue, and inhaled by adjacent passengers, before we reach the terminal and I clatter silently along to the departure gate.

Friday, April 27, 2007

slurs, knights and ornamental ducks

Another consequence of going out last night was that I landed myself some ace blackmail material - a real beauty of a photograph, depicting Ali and Anita looking, erm, a little the worse for wear.

No, that description wasn't good enough. I must endeavour to do the image justice, even if I run the risk of slightly upsetting my good friends. They look, rather, like a pair of booze-fuelled, gurning harridans, alas.

This slur is mitigated, I hope, by the following qualification - that when they're not pulling stupid faces for my camera, they are both the picture of prettiness.

Either way, I haven't transferred it across to my computer, and may yet refrain from doing so as a gesture of good will (which may be needed considering that they will probably beat me up for the crude characterisation above) - but I do have a couple more photos to publish from recent weeks, so I shall do so. The second, with a brief explanation, will explain why Anne-Sophie has been amusing herself by posting comments on this blog reading 'NIGEL!!!' every other day for the last couple of weeks.

First up though, this modern take on St. George, modelled in plasticine, won us joint first prize in the George Quiz modelling round down the pub on Sunday - our first ever victory in that round.

Now for Nigel. A couple of weeks ago, encouraged by the weather, a group of us decided to have the first barbecue of the year on the beach - and had a really good time cooking sausages and haloumi and tossing pebbles about in the spring sun. The pound shop on Western Rd sells serviceable bbq kits for a ridiculous cheap, er, pound, which is excellent value - as were the ornamental plastic ducks which they were also practically giving away.

We bought one, christened him Nigel, and, as the sun began to dip towards the horizon, we set him free on the sea and watched him bobbing serenely out towards France. Pics below.

My suspicion is that he might have drifted into Iranian waters by now. Oh no!

Red Snapping

The Red Snapper is to restaurants, for my set of friends, what The Crescent is to pubs - in other words, we've somehow become fiercely territorial and unswervingly loyal towards it, simply by virtue of it being nearby, cheap, cheerful, reliable and, most of all, a bloody good fun place to go, even if doesn't do anything flash and suffers from inconsistent service. Last night I went with my fellow Snapper-afficianados Dan and Ali, who I always go with, and the lovely Dave, Anita and Stev.

The Red Snapper is a bring your own bottle restaurant, which is ace, except for occasions like last night, when everyone brought at least one bottle, calculating that someone else would neglect to. So when we sat down, surrounded by modest couples with solitary bottles, we had to sheepishly pile our seven bottles into the corner and resist the urge to open them all. Of course, as Anita well knew, we'd polish off the lot - after all, her and Stev calculated that it would be necessary to bring, such is the prodigious intake of Brighton's most recent emigrant, "one bottle for ourselves, and one for Ali".

We had fun in all the usual ways - glugging wine, comparing scars, singing rude songs about fraggle rock, getting accosted by phantoms from the past, and using the word 'slammers' in an innapropriate context. It was great. Today, however, my head hurts - but that may have something to do with another day of racing around at work: I even at one point today did the job I've been putting off for months - I did my expenses.


I'm off to America tomorrow, yay!!!

Thursday, April 26, 2007

the church of ant

Although I'm just about the only person who hasn't yet been to visit, my friends are all feeling green-fingered and organic at the moment, having helped Ant sort out his new allotment in recent weeks. Having started as just a patch of scrubby grass, it's fast becoming a veritable garden of Eden, only in Portslade.

The latest addition, as the photograph below shows, is a shed, although it has been swiftly converted, no doubt to Ant's fellow allotment-keepers' alarm, into a church. Ant is below, warding off evil.The church needs some work, obviously - we were discussing stained glass windows in the pub last night, and Ant needs to appoint people to their various positions. I was hankering after the job of second organist, so was surprised when Ant offered me an Arch-Deaconship. Although I will almost certainly take it, I am officially weighing up other offers, just in case he improves the offer and lets me do the flower-arranging, too.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

moving in esteemed circles

Seeing a policeman with a gun always freaks me out, especially when it's a big one. Walking up to the House of Commons yesterday, where I attended a meeting organised by Andrew over at B4L about political blogging, I clocked, turning into the security area, that strange sight of a young copper with a large gun hooked over his shoulder. To get in to the Parliament building, in these post-Otis Ferry times, one needs to go through a little portakabin and be patted down, as well as having bags and phones scanned. I'm used to this at airports but it's strangely disconcerting doing so before going into our house of elected representatives. Hilariously, they stopped Damian, up ahead of me, noting that he appeared to have a knife in his bag. 'Can we examine that, Sir', they asked, sternly. His swiss army knife was duly produced, fingered by the security staff, and returned to him. We were ushered into the building. Good to know that the House of Commons security people are thorough and mindful of potential stabbers.

Once inside, we dispensed with the necessary business of the evening and devoted our time, as swiftly as possible, to persuading the very impressive Tom Watson MP (who later announced, "if you'll excuse me, I have to go and support my government for a change") to let us into a House of Commons bar and start haranguing the inmates. We were duly led through labyrinthine corridors to the small, well-lit and exceedingly cheap Lords Bar, which was populated with a few MPs and groups of earnest young researchers, and which stocked House of Lords branded Port behind the bar. It is, needless to say, very exciting having a drink there, and I fought an urge to text every single one of my friends boasting 'I'm getting drunk in the House of Lords'. Alright, I did let one or two know...

Had a really good evening actually, and greatly enjoyed meeting some people I've known or known of online for years but never met in the flesh 'til now. The whole experience was very positive and while I'm probably no closer to returning my vote to the Labour party, I'm definitely considering faking it and joining Bloggers4Labour so that I get to spend more evenings in such illustrious surroundings.

I should mention, in case anyone thinks my loyalties are wavering, however, that it was still a wrench to spend an evening away from my beloved local, The Crescent, and although it cannot offer quite so much in the way of ornate decoration, the bar-stuff have nothing to fear from my flirtation with high society.

Monday, April 23, 2007

print, copy, send

Ugh, I'm having a frantic day, rushing from office to office and printer to printer getting things prepared for various impending meetings; it's got so I've almost turned off the part of my mind that notices things other than that which I'm concentrating on. I'm writing this, now, because I've just got to the point where I'm getting on top of things and can afford a moment's peace - looking down as I type I spot a cut on the back of my hand which I must have picked up dashing from pillar to post. And suddenly I feel a bit weightless and spacy, as if I might float away in the absence of the focus I achieved a moment or two ago. Then slow down once more - work based stress is either exhilerating or crushing, but I can't work out which. Actually, I'm exaggerating completely - but it's just nice to be back to using words, rather than print commands.

Friday, April 20, 2007

animal shapes

Everyone who has owned a pet has one thing in common - you can never be entirely cynical again. And you have to have a pretty hard heart to hear about another pet's death and not react with a surge of sentimental sympathy. My friend Dave recently had to cope with losing Outrage, his lovely dog of ten years, and has written a great post about it over at his Lever Pulled blog, which is well worth a read. I remember when my cat, Takis, died - I was about 17 or so and had had him for over a decade; he too had been getting increasingly ill over the course of his last year or two, but he died, not altogether untypically, because he choked on a bone from a bird he had thoughtfully deprived of life earlier that evening. I was at a party that night, and returned home to find him gone, totally unexpectedly. It was horrid, not least for my parents. Like Outrage, my cat had taken himself off to the garden - but he had returned for his last minutes, to curl up in my mother's lap.

I went to University a month or so later, and quickly - temporarily - forgot about my beloved Takis, caught up in the excitement of being away for the first time and able to drink all day. But back home, my parents missed Takis terribly. A month or so after that, I went home for the weekend, and saw exactly what they meant. The house was a lot quieter without him (and must have been quieter still with me away) but it wasn't just that - it was that a whole new empty space opened up in his absence. There was simply a cat-shaped hole in every room, below every bush in the garden where he had dozed.

Then, however, a strange and wonderful thing happened. I was sitting with my Dad on the back step on a sunny evening, one weekend, when we heard a scrabbling and a padding and looked up to find a beatiful, young black moggy strolling up to us. He lifted his head a little, as if to casually acknowledge us, marched straight past and into the house, and fell calmly asleep upon on the sofa. For the next three or four months the pattern was repeated every evening. He would turn up late afternoon, try to swindle my parents out of some chicken or cat biscuits we'd not got round to throwing out, and stay for an hour or two. He would clamber up onto my mother's lap, lay down, and then subtly reposition himself until he had inched up her torso 'til his forehead was practically touching her chin. At this point he would flatten his back, grab a tiny pinch of cloth from my mother's t-shirt, and start sucking, leaving a small round wet patch behind him. Anyone who hasn't owned a pet will, at this point, be thinking 'disgusting'.

Yeah yeah, but what do you know of love, say we pet-people...

A funny thing happened a few months later. Home for the weekend I realised that the sad memories of Takis had receded entirely, and only the happy ones remained. About a week later the little black cat, having helped my parents through that horrible period of their lives, stopped visiting.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

lunchtime walk

At lunchtime today I walked down Chichester canal to Hunston, a small village just outside Chichester - it was an uncommonly beautiful day - warm and still and bright. I couldn't resist taking a few photos with my mobile, although I always feel stupid doing this; standing by a length of calm water, cows basking in the sun, and I feel that I need a still image to record this, as though the memory, or the feeling, is not enough.

electrelane - no shouts, no calls

I was a little surprised when, in 2005, Electrelane released the lovely but unexpected sidestep that was their largely instrumental 'Axes'. It was a strange yet brave way of following their marvellous 'The Power Out', a sophomore record which brilliantly combined the krautrock pulse of their debut with Steve Albini's brilliant, menacing production and vocals by turns dismissive and swoonsome. This time - their new record, the wonderful 'No Shouts, No Calls' is out next week - they've made something more like the album I was expecting back then - a unique, subtle album with thrilling arrangements and an ear for pop which I was worried they'd discarded. It's a brilliant album, at times sensational.

Electrelane continue ploughing their individual furrow, getting better and better. All the key signifiers of their sound are present and correct - the spare bass and drums, slight guitar and piano melodies which sparkle amidst the gloom, and keyboards which hum and throb. Best of all are the vocal arrangements, where Verity Susman's slightly flat but endlessly interesting voice swoops and sighs, circling round Mia Clarke's harmonies like seagulls over a pier.

'To The East', the first single, is classic Electrelane; teardrop guitars, Moe Tucker drums and keyboards echoing under Verity's wavering falsetto. There's no Albini at the helm this time, but they've learned a lot from him - drums are kept sparse and pulse-like, space opening up under the harmonies. There's more confidence in Verity's voice too, although she continues to sound like she's singing just off-mic, almost as if she's rehearsing the take. Some people really can't take her voice, I know - but it's about my favourite in the game at the moment.

Two tracks really stand out. 'In Berlin' - the album was recorded there - is just amazing, riding in on an electric piano intro and brushed drums. When the beat steps up a gear the song begins to soar, Verity and Mia's operatic vocals mingling with a sudden, unexpected string section. It's one of a few moments on the record where the band build up a ethereal drone reminiscent of Slowdive or early Lush, but it's done not with guitar pedals or effects, just by meticulous arrangements. Amazing.

'Saturday' is even better. It starts with a delicate guitar intro. "I've got a photo from a long time ago", Verity sings "Put it in your pocket, hold it in your pocket", Mia replies. "I've got a ring that my grandmother gave to me", Verity sings back, inviting Mia's "Wear it on your finger, wear it on your finger". Suddenly the drums double their pace and a heartbreaking four note piano line appears from nowhere, making every hair on my neck and arms clamber to its feet.

The only other record I can recall as delicately arranged and finely tuned in recent years is the similarly restrained debut by The Good, The Bad and the Queen. Yet Electrelane rock like bastards at times, too - the joy is in discovering which element, at which point, they decide to conceal or reveal.

At their best, they are a band of an extraordinarily high standard - one of the best in the world right now.

Thomas Mapfumo

Regular readers will know that I've been writing a series of posts for Hii Dunia on African music of late - my post on Mali was, after all, reproduced here just a few days ago. Anyone who enjoyed that, or has an interest in the subject (or the most basic level of politeness, goddamnit!) is welcome to make me feel important by going over to Hii Dunia and reading my latest contribution - a post which purports to be about music and the African exile, but which is really just a potted biography of the excellent Thomas Mapfumo - a wonderful musician who provides a telling counterpoint to the disgraceful Robert Mugabe. In days to come, I'm going to continue with the exile theme, and write about musicians from Sierre Leone and Somalia. Keep your eyes peeled.

Here's the post about Mapfumo - and there's a quick extract below.

Thomas Mapfumo is one of Africa's most important musicians. Born in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) in 1945, he spearheaded the creation of a new musical style, Chimurenga, which updated the traditional Shona music of his nation and mapped it to the contours of rock instrumentation - rather than use thumb pianos for the distinct, chiming cyclical melodies, Mapfumo played electric guitar, and sang, to increasingly political ends, in his native language rather than in English.
Also relevent to this is Dan's post on Africa's Worst Leaders - which actually began life over here on Assistant Blog, but is now up on Hii Dunia too - take a look.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007


Jesus, at least 157 people have been killed in bomb blasts in Baghdad today. 157.

John Bolton, the neo-conservative who was formally the US's ambassador to the UN, was asked in an interview on Monday, "what right" did America have to impose its value system by force on foreign states.

He replied, "Try to stop us".

They are trying to stop you. Meanwhile, innocent people are dying, you fucking animal.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

songs for the week

1. Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars - 'Living Like a Refugee' : This is my favourite song of the year, so far; heartbreaking African reggae. ("You left your country to seek refuge in another man's land")
2. Arctic Monkeys - 'Fluorescent Adolescent' : I wonder if they'll be wilful again and hold back the new album's obvious number one, like they did last time? Either way, this is just brilliant. ("Oh that boy's a slag / The best you ever had")
3. Dinosaur Jr - 'Back To Your Heart' : Amazing hearing Lou Barlow back in Dinosaur, this rocks like Sebadoh meets Dinosaur meets Elliot Smith - ace. ("Breathe your air / cut my teeth / bones of a hypocrite that looked like me")
4. Le Volume Courbe - 'I Killed My Best Friend' : Sexiest, flimsiest track on the list - a minute and a bit of JAMC/MBV tinged acoustic pop. ("I killed my best friend / He was so early")
5. Electrelane - 'The Greater Times' : Is the new Electrelane their best album yet? Sounding pretty amazing so far. ("You say you don’t know what love means anymore / Since I found you I'm tearing down the walls")
6. Ola Podrida - 'Cindy' : Another good find from Dan - don't know much about this, other than it's dead pretty. ("She'll bring almost everything / except her wedding ring / cause she threw that in the sea")
7. Lemonheads - 'Let's Just Laugh' : One day I'll do one of these lists without a Lemonheads track on it - for the moment I'm still obsessing over this gorgeous anti-Bush rant/beauty from last year's eponymous comeback LP. ("I hope that you're tried and fried before you're finally fired")
8. Sebadoh - 'Kathy' : The new Dinosaur album has inspired a period of Lou Barlow obsession, and this is untouchable. ("Every anxious wave rode through / To find me lying safe with you")
9. The Young Knives - 'Kitchener' : Had this in my head all week after hearing it again at AS's the other night; a great Adam and the Ants rip off ("It's nice to be wanted / It's good to be useful")
10. Lone Official - 'Pony Ride' : Delicate Pavement-esque country rock ("Set off on a secret tide / A good friend is nice to have / When your makeshift raft washes out on you")

politeness and deference

I think I'm fairly polite by nature, probably because my parents brought me up to be - I remember once going to a school jumble sale with my mother and for some reason, as a girl called Beth walked by (at one point I remember, incidentally, writing some pre-adolescent graffiti to the effect that I rather liked Beth) I sniffed loudly, in a kind of 'I'm pretty cool' kind of way (no, no idea why I thought that was cool either), rather than say hello. I got roundly told off.

One of the pleasures of moving down to Brighton and out of London all those years ago was finding that it was normal, rather than rare, for people to say 'thanks' to bus drivers. Occasionally, often when there are kids on the bus, this doesn't happen, but I've noticed that if you're in the middle of a line of passengers departing and no-one in front has thanked the driver, if you do so everyone behind will automatically do the same. I don't believe all this bullshit about British values, but I like to think that politeness is a universal value, or at least it should be.

I say 'hello' and 'thanks' whenever I buy something in a shop. If it is Easter, I saw 'Happy Easter', too, and if it is Christmas I make a point of giving festive good wishes too. It's not actually deliberate, it's just habit now. If I pass an old person in the street and they don't look straight away, I always smile in a friendly manner. I have a slightly different smile, which is intended to convey friendliness and slight flirtation, for pretty girls - although I'd be mortified if I ever make a girl feel uneasy. I only smile in a friendly manner if someone catches my eye in a similarly open way.

Tonight, I did notice that I did something I don't normally do, which is after getting home and reading on my bed for so long after work that I lost the energy to cook, I walked down the road to buy myself a takeaway curry, and, on the way, did not just smile at a man who walked past, but I wished him a 'good evening'. I suppose the reason I did so was that he was dressed in ecclesiastical cloth - wearing a long robe with a large silver cross hanging around his neck. He was standing outside the church on Davigdor Road. I don't know why the fact of his holding a position in the Church made me more polite (or deferential) than I otherwise would be, but either way he grinned back and returned the greeting - which was nice.

I'm not religious, and by no means assume that everyone in the Church is a person of real benevolence (although nor would I ever assume the contrary), so it was a bit strange, but not at all unpleasant - in truth, I think I would like to be able to treat everyone this way, but like Mick Dundee, who once tried that very thing in New York City, I think I would quickly be dismissed as crazy if I gave it a go.

book meme of the day

I picked this book meme up from Ayaan:

Science Fiction, Fantasy or Horror? God, science fiction, I suppose - although I don't read any of the above, apart from the occasional attempt at one of Iain M. Banks' books. There are some books which I love which I would recommend to anyone who read science fiction, but which probably don't quite fit the genre: Kingsley Amis's amazing 'The Alteration' is one.

Hardback or Trade Paperback or Mass Market Paperback? I like hardbacks instinctively, but they tend to be too heavy. So probably paperback.

Amazon or Brick and Mortar? Bricks and Mortar every time; the experience of buying books online has nothing on the experience of leafing through a book and taking it then and there; it's a sensory experience which online can never rival.

Barnes & Noble or Borders? Borders. I didn't mind the Barnes and Noble stores when I was over in the US - but I'd take an independent bookseller over both any day.

Hitchhiker or Discworld? Death. Ok, Hitchhiker.

Bookmark or Dogear? Dogear, but done carefully - more to remember good passages than to keep my place, and a bookmark doesn't really cut the mustard once you've got more than one passage you need to mark.

Asimov's Science Fiction or Fantasy & Science Fiction? This question means nothing to me.

Alphabetize by author, Alphabetize by title, or random? Oh, totally random - I've never alphabetized anything, books or CDs.

Keep, Throw Away or Sell? Never throw away. Give to friends, ideally. I've made a lot of money from selling books to Brighton Books in the North Laine, however, so I can't rule that out.

Keep dust-jacket or toss it? Keep it of course! But I take it off if I'm reading the book on the go.

Read with dustjacket or remove it? Oh, I just answered that!

Short story or novel? Novel. I can't quite get on with short stories, although I admire the brevity.

Harry Potter or Lemony Snicket? Lemony Snicket, although not interested in either. There's something misanthropic in it that I admire over the Rowling books.

"It was a dark and stormy night" or "Once upon a time"? The former.

Buy or Borrow? Buy - I want to come back to books. There's always the option of borrowing books and not returning them, of course!

Buying choice: Book Reviews, Recommendation or Browse? Browsing - I read book reviews, but it takes seeing the book in the flesh to inspire me to buy something. If something's recommended I'd normally be able to borrow it.

Lewis or Tolkien? Again, I can't imagine any scenario when I would take either. Can I take Cecil Day-Lewis instead?

Collection (short stories by the same author) or Anthology (short stories by different authors)? Don't tend to read short stories, but I would probably take a well-chosen anthology of new writing rather than a collection, given the choice.

Tidy ending or Cliffhanger? I'm actually quite sentimental, so I like tidy endings. They needn't be happy, mind.

Morning reading, Afternoon reading or Nighttime reading? I do most of my reading late afternoon or early evening, on the way home from work. My favourite type of reading, however, is mid afternoon in the sun - but somehow I only seem to be able to do this on holiday.

Standalone or Series? Definitely standalone stuff. Sequels make my heart sink.

New or used? Whichever is the prettier, and the more sensual to the touch. That often means used, I find. Plus, then I don't have to stress about breaking the spine.

Favorite book of which nobody else has heard? Several books by the marvellous Pamela Hansford Johnson - 'The Humbler Creation' or 'The Error of Judgement' are incredible.

Top 5 favorite genre books of all time? Oh, I dunno. Ian Rankin's crime novels are good. Likewise 'Gorky Park' is a wonderful spy novel. In that area, there's lots to be said for John Le Carre's books. I have an embarrasing soft spot for Michael Chrichton's techno-thrillers.

Favorite genre series? Jesus, does whoever created this quiz not read real books? I dunno - can I count PG Wodehouse's Blandings Castle and Jeeves and Wooster books? Probably not. In which case Ian Rankin's Rebus series - but I don't really read genre fiction, so...

Currently Reading? Three books, see how clever I am!
- 'The Yacoubian Building' by Alaa Al Aswany
- 'Voyage In The Dark' by Jean Rhys
- 'For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and Their Enemies' by Robert Irwin

a small message

Can't get close to finding something meaningful enough to make writing about what happened at Virginia Tech worthwhile, so I won't go into it - but it was a tremendously upsetting and tragic event. I've just seen this, which took my breath for a moment - Kevin Cupp's twitter page is nothing remarkable - 'til you get to "Trapped inside of Pamplin, shooter on campus, they won't let us leave".

meet the quiz team

Keen Assistant Blog readers (you never know) and real-life chums will know by now that the epicentre, the very fulcrum of my week is the George Quiz on Sunday nights at, er, The George in Brighton's North Lanes, and Brighton's best pub quiz has been spiced up recently not just by a boost in attendance and an improved speaker system but by the introduction of the 'Champions of Champions League', whereby Mike exceeds his brief of counting up each week's scores and actually plots the various teams' progress over ten weeks. Although our team name tends to vary from week to week, our one constant is that we are expertly marshalled by the redoubtable Captain Natalia, so it's that name which, two weeks in, currently tops the Champions League:

Captain Natalia - 9 points
The Disappointing Sausage Roll Team - 4 points
Arse Pizza - 6 points
The Diggers On Tour - 5 points
The League Against Alternative Medicine - 2 points
The DIY Ramblers - 2 points
Alan's Love Asylum - 1 point
It's My Birthday, And I'll Quiz If I Want To... - 1 point

Given that, for so long as we're in the top three (if we go lower I might get grumpy and stop mentioning it), I'm likely to bang on about this repeatedly, I thought a quick introduction to the team - and their specialist subjects - might be in order.

Captain Natalia, 'The Guv'nor'.
The beating heart of the team, Natalia is our undisputed leader and rules over proceedings with an iron fist. If Natalia was deposed as leader, we would probably turn on each other, resorting to cannibalism.
Specialist subject: words of Spanish origin.

Andrew, 'The Politician'.
A man with a fact always at his fingertips and a mean cartoonist to boot (usually on other teams' papers), Andrew combines the guile of a Tony Blair with the underhand cunning of a Richard Nixon. Andrew is the Machiavellian genius behind our winning streak.
Specialist subject: Politics, maths and history. Just don't ask him to play darts.

Daniel C, 'The Flagmaster'.
Legendary in Brighton's Seven Dials area for his concentration and mental alertness, the Flagmaster is the peerless master of maps, the prince of peninsulas, and the recogniser of rivers. If it's in Africa, he can tell you the co-ordinates.
Specialist subject: All matters geographical.

Jonathan, 'Brains'.
So called because, er, that's the kind of derogatory name that all slightly self-important, show-offy smart-alec kids are given at school, 'Brains' is the jack of all trades and master of none, scattering overheard answers and wild guesses to the wind in the hope that one will stick, and doing his bit for the team by sucking up to Mike and talking about Dinosaur Jr while trying to look at the answers sheet.
Specialist subject: US indie rock from 1989-1992, stuff that was in The Guardian.

Victoria, 'The Scribbler'.
A devil with a pencil and notably intelligent, The Scribbler is not just an all-rounder but also the literary critic of the team, puncturing Mike's poorly phrased questions with a keen eye and lashings of poststructuralism. Always to be found with her head in a book, the Scribbler is 'write' about everything! Geddit?
Specialist subject: Literature, news and music intros.

Morgan, 'The Coder', AKA 'The Windsurfer'
Combining a brilliance with binary code with his athletic prowess, Morgan is a master of films and computer games, frequently saving our sorry asses in a movie round which, frankly, we invariably bomb without him.
Specialist subject: Outdoor sports.

Anne-Sophie, 'The Artist'.
The Artist has loftier concerns than mere quizzing, and, keen to apply her creative powers and obsession with animals, mostly just waits for the quiz to finish so that she can start handing round paper and pens so that we can play drawing games.
Specialist subject: Alsacian beer.

Chequers, 'Safe Hands'.
When all around start losing their heads, shouting nonsense and dribbling after too many beers, Safe Hands is the man to hold things together, staying focused and calmly sticking to the matter at hand. It's only his inquisitive mind that stops the team collapsing into chaos in round four.
Specialist subject: Film.

Dr. Dustin, 'The Professor'
Casting a professorial eye over the proceedings, the good Dr brings a philosophical eye to the quiz and a profound understanding of US geography and culture. More importantly, his presence gives Mike a chance to make some jokes about Americans.
Specialist subject: The beers of California.

Andy, 'The Channel Islander'
The Channel Islander's peculiar geographical origins give him a unique perspective on all things quiz - he is able to look on with a European's cool-headed detachment, and yet he is able to drink as fast and shout as loudly as any Brit.
Specialist subject: Rock.

Sam, 'Flash Gordon'
A priceless addition to the team, Sam is a font of knowledge on the subject of science and pseudo-science, dispensing secularist non-sequiturs and swatting away muddy thinking with enlightenment élan. He also knocks over pints a lot.
Specialist subject: Richard Dawkins, Walkers crisps.

Ant, 'The Kid'
New on the scene but slotting into the formation with consummate ease, the Kid is the enigma of the team - hard to predict, armed with knowledge beyond his years but easing his way smoothly into the swing of things. Big things are expected of this mid-season transfer.
Specialist subject: Too mysterious to have a specialist subject yet.

Think you'll agree we can't fail to win the league in the long run.

The Scribbler collecting this week's prize.

there's something about Mali

This post was written as part one of a series on African music for the ace development blog Hii Dunia (click here for details).

When talking about music in Africa, it is inevitably Mali that first comes to mind. The landlocked, flat country in the heart of West Africa has become synonymous with expressive, beautiful music with a capacity to cross over and win the hearts of Western enthusiasts. In the last seven years Malian music has swept all before it and threatened, for the first time since the early 1980s, to push African music back into popular culture in the UK and Europe. So why is the music of a land so arid so musically fertile? And where should the novice start?

When Ali Farka Touré died in March 2006, it was predictable that the world music community would greatly mourn the loss of perhaps Africa's greatest and most recognisable guitarist. What was slightly more surprising was that coverage of his passing extended far beyond specialist music magazines and into the main pages of the international press. Farka Touré's legacy, besides a run of stunning records, is that he carried the torch for Malian music. Yet he is not alone. Amadou et Mariam, Toumani Diabaté and Salif Keita all mine the rich vein of musical history in one of the world's poorest nations, combining artistic endeavour with critical and commercial acclaim.

Why so many wondrous artists? This is not an easy question to answer. A former French colony which is now one of the most politically and socially stable in Africa, Mali saw many of its finest musicians, like The Rail Band and Les Ambassadeurs decamp for the Ivory Coast in the late 1970s, driven away by the poor economic climate. Yet others, such as the extraordinary Albino folk singer Salif Keita, headed for Paris - and helped give root to a climate of cross-cultural exchange between states previously master and servant. They were joined in Paris by the likes of Nigerian drummer Tony Allen, whose own contribution to the development of international music - and hip hop - cannot be understated. In Paris Keita developed and updated the Mande sound, expunging the Cuban influence which had been dominant since the 1960s, and introducing - much to Charlie Gillet's distress - the sound of synthesisers. Inspired by the mande sound, Parisian record labels - and London's World Circuit - rushed to document these new sounds.

Back in Mali, and shortly to benefit from the rapidly rising profile of Keita and emerging stars such as the splendid duo Amadou et Mariam, who also served their musical apprenticeship with Les Ambassadeurs, the jeliya, or Griot, caste of Malian singers and storytellers (of which the wealthy Keita is not a member) built on the extraordinary legacy of their unique role in Malian culture. Most closely resembling bards, the Griots are wandering musicians and poets, who pass down their skills from generation to generation. They are endogamous, meaning that they do not marry outside their tribes, and as a consequence names recur as if they were enthusiastic recommendations - common and familiar surnames include Kouyaté, Kamissoko, Cissokho, Dambele, Soumano, Kanté, Diabaté and Koné.

By this time Farka Touré, still unknown outside Mali, got a job as a sound engineer at Radio Mali. Taking advantage of the opportunity to record his songs, he began sending out cassettes and Sono Discs were quick to release them. By 1994 he had been championed by Gillett, Andy Kershaw and - crucially - Ry Cooder, who recorded the groundbreaking 'Talking Timbuktu' with him. It was a revelation, although one which the level-headed Touré did not allow to obstruct his life. He returned to his home town of Niafunke, becoming mayor and concentrating on farming, allowing music to retreat into the background.

Yet the genie was out of the bottle. Touré was not the only musician with devastating talent in Mali. Record labels swiftly picked up on stunning albums by the likes of Toumani Diabaté, a master on the Kora (a 21 stringed harp-lute), Boubacar Traoré, another rootsy, blues-flecked exponent of the desert blues, and Touré's protegy, Afel Bocoum (who later collaborated with Blur's Damon Albarn on his well received 'Mali Music' LP). Despite the success enjoyed by these artists, in his later years Touré remained unconvinced that the youth of Mali (who in fact were more often engaged with the sound of wassoulou artists such as Oumou Sangaré) appreciated the Griot tradition sufficiently. Keen to put things right, he launched into a prolific late surge of recording activity which yielded perhaps his greatest material yet, notably his delicious collaboration with Diabaté, 'In The Heart of The Moon', and last year's final, peerless, 'Savane'.

Despite his death, 2007 is as good as time to listen to Malian music as ever. Amadou et Mariam, given a sprightly, pop polish by Spanish producer Manu Chao, are writing and recording the most heartfelt and gorgeous songs of a long career, and recent releases by Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni ba, along with a sparkling debut by Vieux Farka Touré, the son of the great man himself, promise great things. Best of all, it seems that Tinariwen, the strangest and most original of Mali's new bands, are on their way to bona fide international rock stardom. If things did go that way, it would be no surprise. Writing from the desert Tourag tradition, Tinariwen - who formed in the rebel camps of Libyan leader Col. Gaddafi - are the first band of their ilk to play the desert blues with electric guitars. Their astonishing sound, which combines hypnotic rhythms, call and response vocals and uncompromising guitar, sounds truly unique - primal and rebellious, leading to (fatuous) comparisons to the White Stripes and (perhaps legitimately) The Clash.

Touré is gone, but there is no need for despair - whichever twists, trials and challenges face this remarkable country, the music always survives. There's just something, it seems, about Mali.

original post accessible here.

Friday, April 13, 2007

the other dave

"Dave Rowntree was happy being the drummer in one of Britain's top bands. Then he had a mid-life crisis and joined the Labour party".

Blimey, couldn't you just have bought a plane or something, Dave!?

"I just woke up and thought, 'Fucking hell, where am I?' I was living in a big house in Hampstead with two cars and an aeroplane"

Oh, right.

It's quite interesting, this - Dave Rowntree, drummer for the lovely Blur, and friend of the anti-war crusader and 'blackest man in West London', Damon Albarn, is standing as a Labour candidate in the local elections in Westminster. Unlike Albarn, he's more of a political pragmatist than an idealist, but I'm pretty certain he's a good chap with his heart in the right place. In today's Guardian Patrick Barkham writes:

The contrast with Albarn is fascinating and, at first glance, bodes ill for anyone hopeful that Blur will ever share a recording studio again. But Rowntree says Albarn is enthusiastic. "He's very excited. He's a political activist. He loves to see other people getting stuck in," says Rowntree. "Damon is a pacifist. He has very deeply held views. His politics flow from that and you've got to respect him for that." The drummer doesn't want to talk about whether he agrees with Albarn on Iraq because he's standing in a local election. He sounds, for the first time, a bit like a politician. Then he changes his mind. "I want to give you an answer. I'm not a pacifist. I do think some things are worth fighting for."
Interesting stuff - it's a shame that he'll struggle to get elected in a safe Tory council.

kick me

I'd not heard of the Johari Window before, but Mike has flagged it up over on his Troubled Diva site and, as ever, I'm riding on my fellow bloggers' coat-tails.

It's a nice idea. The principle is that you pick five or six words to describe yourself and then ask others to do the same - you build up a map of how you see yourself, compared to how others see you. It'll tell you what you believe to be true but no-one else can spot, and what others can see which you can't. Cool. I've started one up - please feel free to have a go whether you know me in real-life or not, and be as honest as you like, I'm not bothered. Picking five or six words to describe yourself is actually quite hard to do, as you tend to click the words you want to be true before assessing whether or not they really are. Happily, the choice doesn't contain too many perjorative terms, otherwise I'm sure you'd all be clicking 'smart-arse', 'wimp' and 'ego-maniac'.

Click here to have a go - it only takes a moment.

Kurt Vonnegut

I've never read any Vonnegut, so it's a bit daft to write a post about him, but it's sad to hear of his death and to lose a writer of talent.

Looking at his wikipedia page, I liked the following; his eight rules for writing a short story. I have trouble with short stories - both reading and writing - but I'm tempted to try to conjure one up using his rules and see if it's an improvement.

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things -- reveal character or advance the action.
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them -- in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
Here's his Guardian obituary.

Midlake live in Brighton

It's always interesting, we were saying last night, to observe which songs bands choose as their intro music when they play live - it tells you a lot about them. So when we standing, overheating at the front in Brighton's Concorde 2 last night, waiting for Midlake to come on stage, we were entitled to feel a bit uncertain when the intro music made us argue over whether we were listening to Billy Joel or not. Much fun has been poked at the Texan indie-rockers for their AM-radio flecked vibe, and while references to Fleetwood Mac and REO Speedwagon are contrived, there's a lot of Steely Dan or, as Dustin pointed out, the Alan Parsons Project in their wistful, organic rock, as well as nods to hipper reference points like Neil Young, Radiohead and Grandaddy.

On record, they are delicate and introspective, so it's no surprise to find that their live show is measured and unshowy, save for a video projector and a bank of analogue keyboards that had me and Anne-Sophie purring and craning our necks. The band themselves were bearded, dressed for winter and quietly enigmatic, swapping instruments and each contributing sweeping vocals. Midlake are a band of considerable genius because they quietly navigate a different route through the warm sounds of soft rock, setting themselves apart with stunning harmonies and buzzing synthesisers, creating a sound which is somehow nostalgic, forlorn and celebratory, without sounding retro.

Their best songs were, last night, a real delight - it remains hard to pick out a better, more beautiful song in recent years than 'Roscoe', and 'Head Home' and particularly 'Young Bride', which rides a dazzling drumbeat, sounded lovely. Old songs fitted in just as well, showcasing a more analogue sound - in fact 'I Guess I'll Take Care' was fuelled entirely by vintage synths until Paul Alexander - complete with cap and Johnny Depp moustache - switched back to his bass. 'Balloon Maker' is one of their more recognisable songs, but suffers from comparisons; it sounds too much like a Flaming Lips song. A new song, however, which was very beautiful, more than made up for that.

Oddly, for a band who summon up all these references, Midlake are great because they sound like they have arrived at their sound completely organically, and it's perhaps instructive that they started out as students of jazz. More pleasingly - this is something I care more about as I get older - they were lovely guys, happy to stand around chatting and signing stuff afterwards. Dan, in particular - who grew a Midlake-inspired beard to commemorate the arrival in Brighton of his heroes - was grinning and sighing with satisfaction as the evening ended and we sat knocking back a post-gig beer in The Belle Vue, happy that he had successfully completed a long-term project of converting his friends to the Midlake cause. Mission accomplished.

Dan in a moment of Midlake-enduced bliss

Thursday, April 12, 2007

quick poll

I got my voting card through the post this morning, I'm pleased to say. Despite the fact that I've not been too happy with the actions of the politicians I've voted for in my life so far, I always get very excited around the time of elections, even if it's just the locals.

Anyway, I'm guessing that not a great many of my regular readers (of whom there are not, in turn, a great many) are intending to vote Labour, but I was wondering if anyone out there, like me, has been weighing up a couple of problematic issues:

(i) If we all vote against Labour and they get massacred in May, we hammer a further nail in the coffin of Gordon Brown, who I suspect many of us, even if we don't think we can vote Labour again, want to lead the party. We also make it more likely that Milliband will stand against him, and possibly win.

(ii) Looking further ahead, is anyone coming to the reluctant conclusion that it may be necessary to vote Labour again at the next general election in order to keep the Tories out?

I've asked this sort of question before, and was surprised to find people not at all inhibited about declaring their voting attentions in the comments box. That said, if you don't wanna reveal all, perhaps you could comment anonymously? I'd be interested to get an idea of how the land lies.

It should perhaps be pointed out for people who don't know my immediate circle of friends, that we live in Brighton, where there's less chance of a Tory victory, so we can indulge in a little more in the way of protest voting when the fancy takes us. All the same, you never know what you might end up with...


play nicely boys

This post, over at the An Unreliable Witness blog, is so good that it left Mike, who led me to it, fighting hard to resist "actual, physical, whooping". Yeah, me too, it's genius, and dead right, and as such I am signing up to the Unreliable Witness civility code forthwith, and displaying my badge with pride.

stop him

By now I'm sure that everyone has heard, and torn their hair out/had a good laugh (delete as applicable) at Mark Ronson's lame cover version of 'Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before' - the general state of bemusement has got to such a level that Ronson has been forced to issue a defensive statement suggesting that both Morrissey and Johnny Marr approve of his version. Hmm.

Well, I liked Simon's speculation over at No Rock and Roll Fun as to just how that endorsement got back to Ronson... very funny. Apparently Morrissey's manager played him the song down the phone. Then what?

Morrissey: "It's alright, but who the hell is that singing?"
Mozzer's manager: "He likes it, but wants to know who it is doing the vocals"
Ronson's manager: "He thinks it's great - and is keen to find out who the person singing the words is"
Ronson: "Morrissey approves of my version, and thinks the vocals are so brilliant he wants to know who it is who did them"
Ha ha.

cultural cringe

I've noticed that the term Insh'allah is used more and more by Western speakers, and I don't just mean by the likes of George Galloway, who uses it - I suspect - rather cynically to ingratiate himself with Muslim audiences. Hugh Sykes recently used the phrase on Radio 4 in a despatch from Iraq, saying "…and the Deputy Prime Minister will, insh'allah, be in hospital by now". Rather predictably, one of Melanie Phillips' correspondents complained to the BBC about it, as you can see in this entry from Melanie's nasty blog, but didn't manage to draw blood from a nonchalant editor at Broadcasting House. Elsewhere, I noted a young man use the term conversationally with a shopkeeper the other day - they may have both been muslims, but I got the feeling it was used as a gesture of friendship and empathy, although I may have been wrong.

Either way, I like the way it's used, although I think I'd be too self-conscious to use it myself - but it's probably predictable that I'd like it, seeing as I have a bit of a weak spot for Islamic culture and a wet liberal-lefty instinct to be as multicultural as is feasibly possible. When I was a kid, I was very proud that my father could converse with the kids he taught in patois. It's lucky that I spent my teenage years pretending to be a mod, or else I'd probably be a bloody hippy by now, my floors and walls covered in ethnic rugs.


Ugh, just had a horrible physical whoomphing feeling in my stomach, and a moment of hot-headed disbelief, which wasn't warranted - I saw on the internet that Terry Hall, the ventriloquist, has died, and thought for a second it was Terry Hall, the musician. There are fairly few famous people I really identify with, that have meant an awful lot to me in my life and whom I count, however irrationally, as heroes, but he's one of them, so for a moment I was really upset, hammering at my keyboard to check whether it was true. Thank goodness it wasn't, although it's a bit odd feeling relief that someone else has died.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

long spring days

Lots of fun and foolishness yesterday, in one of those lovely long spring days which go on much longer than they are supposed to. In the morning myself, Vic and Morgan helped Natalia move flat and indulged in a bit of casual breaking and entering, along with lots of jumping - from the raised airlift platform on the back of the van to the pavement (Vic cries "Morgan! your knees!") and then from the sliding door of Natalia's new room, which opens five clear feet above the patio, provoking another leg-wobbling drop. I rode Nat's bike up and down the road, having forgotten how much fun cycling is. I like the shape of girls' bikes (as well as the shape of girls).

Afterwards we rounded up the troops to the Battle of Trafalgar and ate heaving plates of food and sat in the sun; the central table in the pub garden is broken and buckled, so we had to balance it evenly on either side to prevent our drinks lurching across it everytime someone moved. When people did get up the table undulated as if in the tide. Of course, when I got up to go to the bar nothing happened, as I'm too thin and weedy to actually counterbalance anything much more than an adjacent packet of crisps.

Afterwards, I strolled over to Dave, Michi and Eleanor's flat for a soup dinner and buckets of wine. Michi's sister Andrea and her boyfriend Blair are visiting the UK for the weekend and are lovely, so we had lots of fun teasing each other, firing toy parachutes from the balcony and drinking (rather simplistic) champagne cocktails. Before long, myself and Dave's compulsion to drink faster than everyone else, combined with the good work we put in at the pub earlier, meant that we started talking rubbish and making stupid jokes, dishing out romantic advice (a hilarious notion, Dave has just broken up with someone and I have been single forever), hatching plans to steal chickens from a local farm, and shouting enthusiastically about inbred mice and animal testing - don't ask.

Afterwards we watched 'Flash Gordon', the film me and Dave made last year, and everyone accused me of going to private school because I have a bewilderingly posh voice like 'wot Tony Blair has. "I went to the roughest comprehensive in Laandon", I cried, exaggerating wildly and putting on the least effective cockney accent since Damon Albarn sang "It really, really, really could 'appen" in 1995. I didn't bloody well go to private school. But I admit I've got a stupid posh voice - I've spent too much of my life affecting to be Bertram Wilberforce Wooster and listening to Radio 4.

Friday, April 06, 2007

mobile phone word tapestry

Like everyone, I seem to spend all of time texting people these days, to the consternation of the old people who I occasionally see shaking their heads at me on the train, as if I am doing something morally suspect, or worse, modern. But the more you text the more you realise how hopelessly insufficient the little dictionaries are on mobile phones, so I thought I'd start a new meme for anyone that can be bothered to join in. From A through to Z, here's an example for each letter of the alphabet I've added a word for. Apologies if they all end up being swearwords.


So only V and Q still to be catered for. I'll do my best. Am I alone in finding that quite interesting? It's funny that I recognise a few words there that I use a lot. I'm wondering where and when I found it useful to mention 'thimbles' in a text, but there you go. Ali, Natalia, Dan, anyone else who's reading this - I wanna see your versions.

currently playing:

1. The Good, The Bad and The Queen - Doghouse (amazing funky afro-beat romp they left off the album - shame).
2. Stephen Malkmus - Real Emotional Trash ("It's that kind of night / Everybody blushes but no-one blinks to check the scenery".)
3. V/A - 'Choubi, Choubi; Folk and Pop Sounds of Iraq' LP (demented, vital music from age of Sadamm Hussein).
4. The Mountain Goats - Love Love Love ("Some things you'll do for money, and some you'll do for fun / but the things you do for love are gonna come back to you one by one")
5. The Horrors - Draw Japan (which sounds like a cross between British Sea Power, Birthday Party and the inside of Noel Fielding's head)
6. Field Music - She Can Do What We Wants ("I should have put my fist through the lock and said / Now leave me, it's easy")
7. Dinosaur Jr. - Almost Ready ("Come on, night / I'm almost ready")
8. Deerhunter - Octet (I believe I am legally obliged to call this 'sonic adventurism' - it's nice)
9. Bill Callahan - Diamond Dancer ("She was dancing so hard / she danced herself into a diamond")
10. Panda Bear - 'Person Pitch' LP (taking me a while to get into this but I'm really getting it now)

bank holiday and a six pack of beer

What a pleasure to find Brighton lit up and blue skied; I walked down towards the sea through St. Anne's Well Gardens earlier, pausing at moments to stand stock-still in the sun, as if being re-charged, and watched a puppy tearing through the flower-beds, scattering stems, petals, spring bulbs and clods of soil. His tennis ball, still too big for his mouth, thudded over to my feet and I threw it for him - it was soggy and stringy, much-gummed, urgh.

I'm picturing all those people on hot trains from London, heading for the beach. I know that Brighton is a seaside resort but you forget that, day to day, thinking it a town like any other, albeit one with a wayward gait. Bank Holidays remind you that it's something else altogether. I always feel ever so slightly like a party-host; glad that the evening proved popular, but a bit piqued that so many people turned up.

music in mali

As promised, I've written an article on the music of Mali for the ace Hii Dunia blog - the first in a series of looks at African music. Following here is the intro to the article and, first, a stab at a Malian music top ten (caution, emphatically not the opinion of an expert):

1. Ali Farka Touré and Toumani Diabeté - In The Heart of The Moon
2. Amadou et Mariam - Dimanche à Bamako
3. Tinariwen - Aman Iman
4. Ali Farka Touré - Savane
5. Salif Keita - M'Bemba
6. Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni ba - Segu Blue
7. Super Biton de Segou - Afro Jazz du Mali
8. Toumani Diabeté's Symmetric Orchestra - Boulevard De L'Independance
9. Afel Bocoum - Alkibar
10. Vieux Farka Touré - Vieux Farka Touré

If you're looking for a nice flavour of the country, Damon Albarn's 'Mali Music' is a nice collaborative overview, and, for a more challenging but vibrant entry-point, 'Bush Taxi Mali', from the, er, sublime, Sumblime Frequencies label, is a collection of amazing field recordings, incorporating street sounds and local radio as well as original performances. Amazing stuff.

From Hii Dunia, then:

When talking about music in Africa, it is inevitably Mali that first comes to mind. The landlocked, flat country in the heart of West Africa has become synonymous with expressive, beautiful music with a capacity to cross over and win the hearts of Western enthusiasts. In the last seven years Malian music has swept all before it and threatened, for the first time since the early 1980s, to push African music back into popular culture in the UK and Europe. So why is the music of a land so arid so musically fertile? And where should the novice start?
Well, the list above might help - otherwise, read the rest of the article here.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

unknown pleasures

Somehow I never saw Ian Curtis as a New Balance man, although I suppose that it's more plausible to imagine Barney wearing them. Well, either way, now on sale in Manchester... Joy Division trainers. Blimey.

(hat tip)

mansfield park

Prompted by Ayaan's short but accurate analysis, I thought I'd dig back a couple of weeks to give my thoughts on the ITV dramatisation of Mansfield Park, which collected some decent reviews, good ratings and won more praise for Billie Piper, all in the course of an evening. As Ayaan, over at her Of Shoes - And Ships - And Sealing Wax blog points out, there will never "be a good adaptation on Mansfield Park because people insist on changing Fanny completely", and this is true insofar as the ITV drama simply changed the whole point of Austen's novel. Piper plays Price as worthy but luminous, moral but essentially fun - this makes for an attractive protagonist and, genuinely, a good drama, but it doesn't stop it being wrong (wrong not in the perjorative sense, but 'innacurate'), the whole point being, in Ayaan's words, that Fanny is "dutiful and moral and nothing else".

This being TV period drama, however, the heroines have been eyebrow-plucked and the cleavages hoisted and, actually, rather a good job is made of making the whole thing look sexy and bright, quite an achievement for one of Austen's least glamorous books. The camera work darts and sweeps, ignoring long establishing shots for quickfire movement, which gives the on-form Piper and her (leaden) male lead plenty of opportunity to play with glimpses and glances at the edges of frames. Plotwise, there's plenty for Austen-addicts to gnash their teeth about - the whole Portsmouth section is excised, meaning that when Fanny's brother turns up there's no emotional tug worth bothering with, and the curse of the younger sisters, something which blights every Austen dramatisation, means that the siblings are sometimes mentioned, sometimes not - although at least they're not disposed with altogether. Michelle Ryan, meanwhile, gets to indulge in a little mischief behind a heavy curtain which would have made Ms. Austen's eye's water.

But shovelling a complex novel into a ninety minute drama as if it were a size zero dress means that one really has to come to terms with the fact that dramatic license will always overtake the integrity of the story. Once one has reluctantly accepted this (and I really would, incidentally, have liked ITV bring the same high production standards and liveliness to a proper four or six parter) it's perfectly easy to enjoy this slice of vibrant period drama. Northanger Abbey was similarly impressive the next week, and Persuasion, Austen's most rewarding novel, got good reviews although I haven't seen it yet. Either way, it's nice to see Austen back on prime time.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

dumb britain

"I've been trepanned. That's quite an interesting experience, especially for my brain surgeon, who saw my thoughts flying around my brain. I've got pictures of it, mate. They cut my head, brain, skull open, went in and pulled out the crap, and put some of it back again".
Lots of rubbish in the papers today, I note, about how Keith Richards supposedly snorted his dad's ashes with a line of coke. Drawn from his comment in a typically funny NME interview, it's made the cover of the Mirror and various other rags - it makes you wonder how the English dare criticise other European nations for 'lacking a sense of humour'. The comments are so self-evidently jokes and that fact has either been missed or glossed over in the search for a good headline. Given that Keith's old joke about having his entire blood system transfused in the 1970s still occasionally does the rounds, I suppose we can at least credit the man with being a master when it comes to managing and massaging his image; it's long been commented that away from the press, where Richards is reliably louche, spaced out and rather camp, he's far more articulate and straight-forward. Anyway, joke or no, I enjoyed the rest of his quotes, above and below, which I suspect are similarly mischievous.

"My advice is that [Pete Doherty] should shut the fuck up and leave her. Kate wants to play with bad boys, and she's done one, and then another one, and then another one. Badabing, badabang, badaboom. She'll live, the boys will die."

councillor blog shut-down

This is a bit surprising, and provides a solid indicator of how political blogs continue to be misunderstood. Right now, and until May 7th, if you go to the Brighton and Hove Councillors website - as you may very well do in the weeks preceding the local elections - to take a look at what councillors have been doing with their time as elected officials, you'll find the following message.

Temporary shutdown of this website
During the six week period prior to local and general elections, there is a ban in place on publicising the work of councillors to unfairly influence votes. Because of this, all of the pages and councillor blogs on this website are to be temporarily suspended until after the elections have finished.
I guess I can understand the thinking to an extent, but it seems to me that the time surrounding an election is exactly when the electorate need to be able to find about the people they may or may not elect - it's at times like this when you need to know just what, and who, you're voting for.

(hat tip to Jane for drawing my attention to this)

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

squirrels on mars

God, I love 'Life on Mars'. Gene Hunt is, this week, a suspect in a murder case and on the run, so he can't very well barge around the office like he normally does. But he needs 'the scent of CID' so Sam finds a way to disguise him. And in keeping with the show's marvellously surreal underbelly, he contrives to find him a massive squirrel costume. Now, I've said before that Philip Glenister's Gene Hunt is the best character on TV, but even I didn't credit Glenister as able to make a giant cartoon squirrel look bolshy. And yet with one step forward and a puff of the chest, there's a marvellous moment, less than a second, in tonight's show when Glenister's squirrel looks like the most likely aggressor on national television. Marvellous.

the apprentice

There really is no reality TV show which is too brain-scorching and lowbrow to reduce me to tears of sentimentality or cries of embarrasment, so it isn't that surprising that tonight, despite resisting for years, I relented and watched BBC1's Alan Sugar vehicle, 'The Apprentice'. My enthusiasm for non-ITV, non-Gillian McKeith/Nicky Hambleton Jones reality TV is embarrasingly keen, so I'm sure I'd have watched it a great deal earlier, were it not for the moments in my teenage years where, despairing at the eras of Gerry Francis, Christian Gross and George Graham (Spurs managers, all), I brightened up Saturday afternoons with chants of 'Sack The Board', all directed lustily at the man who was then less cheeky-cockney TV darling and more Tottenham Chairman and hate figure to the blue and white half of North London.

But Ali's post today, where she noted that there's nothing more reassuring than watching a bunch of self-confessed commercial boffins make "heinous business error after error", finally persuaded me to tune in. She's right, and it was well worth it. "I'm no bright spark", Ali says, wrongly, "so watching a quantum physicist fumble her way through basic common sense calculations whilst the rest of the team stood around and nodded was great". It was. In fact the sheer idiocy of the teams was priceless.

The mix-up over the milk quantities was particularly hilarious. Charged with selling coffee to the good people of Islington, the teams raced off to London's most, er, capuccino-y borough and, well, got off to a ridiculously ill-informed start. It didn't occur to them for a moment to seek out someone who actually knows about coffee, or knows about selling it. Brilliant. So one team buys the wrong coffee, the other the wrong quantities. No market research at all, brilliant.

The sales techniques are hilarious. Having bought much too much milk, they start selling it by the litre. "It's one litre for 50p", they say. "Or, two litres for a pound". Noticing that the prospective customer looks unconvinced, the sales monkey tries to think of another angle. "Or, four litres for two pounds". Genius. Battered, the poor guy buys some milk. "Have a fun milky evening", the seller shouts, as he shrinks away across the square.

Sugar should have sacked the lot of them, because if there was one person there with a sound business head he would have denounced his colleagues as cretins after about seven minutes, but instead they all charged cluelessly on, like blindfolded children. In the end, Sugar ended up seeming like he was being cruel to be kind, a cowboy putting down a horse with a broken leg.

I like his malevolent zombie sidekicks best. I fancy that they are undertakers, ready for when the team mates do turn on each other. They'll be on that corpse like greyhounds after a whippet.

As fun viewing as the show is, I'm glad I don't have much more than an ounce of the competitive desperation that all these business-muppets seem to thrive on. Ali could be voicing my own feelings when she notes that:

"This is an unadulterated forum for blame, backstabbing and humiliation to try and save your skin. In life you'll rarely bear witness to people stooping so very low for their own personal gain. In some ways, I admire their absolute dogged perseverance, but in others it's truly terrifying. I'm such a softy when it comes to work, 'ambition' and general 'go-gettery'. I have no qualms when people younger than me overtake me at work and it makes me feel queasy just thinking about putting myself in a situation where I'm pitting myself against someone so self-assured."
Actually, I don't mind the idea of going up against brash go-getters, but only cause I know I could wilt 'em with my passive, world-weary refusal to give more percentage of effort than is mathematically possible.

Monday, April 02, 2007

wildlife on my chest

Sunday, April 01, 2007

coming soon

Another trailer for some of my writing over on Hii Dunia:

"For many people, it seems, music remains the most accessible entry point to Africa, often culminating in a real interest in the culture, politics and history of the continent. Over the next few weeks, Hii Dunia will focus on some of the most rebellious, romantic, refined, and by turns melancholy and joyful music in the world. The first, publishing shortly, will focus on Mali".
That post should be up very shortly - in the meantime, here's the introduction from which the above excerpt was culled.