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.