Sunday, September 30, 2007

wenger on english football

"English football is in extraordinary health. And I believe it has preserved its spirit - up to now - while improving its quality. It is now the football that is the most-watched and best-loved in the whole world. And now it finds itself handed an even greater responsibility: how to continue improving the quality without losing its soul. It's the challenge which we face today and it requires an enormous amount of vigilance."

In an ideal world I suppose that I would be an entirely reasonable and fair person, free of tribal prejudices. I would be able to cheerfully admit that Noel Gallagher of Oasis, for example, is an extremely witty and clever person, worthy of my respect. Or I'd acknowledge the skill and intelligence of Arsenal's manager, Arsene Wenger, who has managed his club with enviable clarity of purpose and some distinction for a full decade. But, ah, it's so hard to do. Bah.

Nonetheless, his interview with France Football magazine this week - reproduced in the Guardian - is frank and interesting; just the kind of thing the reasonable and fair version of myself would recommend. So, you know, you should go read it I suppose.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

exit music, by ian rankin

I've never read much crime fiction, always been rather inclined against it, but I've come to feel the same way about Ian Rankin as I do about John Le Carre - he's a simply brilliant novelist who happens to write in a genre I seldom otherwise enjoy. My lack of knowledge on the subject either inhibits or releases me, depending on whether you think someone ought to be (over)educated in the subject if they deign to offer an opinion. Is he a good crime writer? I don't know - I don't know what crime readers look for. I imagine they look for complexity; hidden motives, double meanings, cryptic scenarios. But not, perhaps, complexity of emotion - crimes are solved but how often is the protagonist changed? Don't all crime novels begin and end at the same fixed points?

I don't know enough, so I have to judge Ian Rankin not by his contribution to the genre but by his success as a writer. I don't read his books to find out whodunnit. I read it because if indeed character development is discouraged in crime writing, Rankin breaks these rules. John Rebus, the central character of Rankin's ongoing (and hugely popular) cop story, is a real character, larger than life. And Rankin's writing, though not pretty, is bloody good, the Edinburgh he summons on the page startlingly vivid, the stories complex in both senses.

'Exit Music' (which follows Rankin's tradition of using a song name for a title - in this instance Steve Lindsay's) has received more press than most because it is Rebus's swansong. Set in the same week that Alexander Litvinenko clings to life in a London hospital, 'Exit Music' finds John Rebus struggling to hold on to his job (which is, in turn his life) in the last week of his police career. Due for retirement, and still possessed with the burning desire to see off his great adversary, Big Ger Cafferty, Rebus finds himself once more immersed in a case and once more operating outside the rules.

Rankin's recent Rebus novels have taken pains to locate the DI's adventures in the context of contemporary events, and 'Exit Music' proves to be no exception. Indeed, combined with the drama of Rebus's disintegrating career, this allegory of modern Scotland almost relegates the plotline to a backseat. Rankin sets out to address, in his final Rebus novel, the spectre of an independent Scotland, finding key roles for SNP ministers and national bankers alongside the requisite drug addicts and gangsters. With independence increasingly likely, Rebus finds the establishment jockying for land, power and influence, confirming his intuition that after all these years chasing the underworld, the overworld too has its share of corruption, violence and intrigue. Topically, he introduces to his cast of suspects a motley collection of Russian diplomats and ogliarchs, who he suspects are implicated in the murder of a Russian dissident poet, recently found dead outside an Edinburgh car park. With politicians, financiers and police chiefs urging him away, Rebus does what we can always rely on him doing - he gives chase.

Far more crucial, however, is the fact of his retirement. He is, we are told countless times, 'on the scrapheap', about to be given his 'jotters', finished. Rankin's moment of genius is to take him off the case - only when he is suspended and removed from the familiar surroundings of Gayfield Square, is Rebus able to embark upon the mental journey which has escaped him throughout Rankin's novels - dissasociation. Not that Rebus lets slip his obsession with Cafferty, or his determination to put away the murderer, but the final third of the book finds him battling the demon that he has always come up against - himself. Still a strange, utterly convincing combination of belligerant misanthropist and hero, Rebus ends the book in a way that none of us - least of all himself - could have foreseen. In a book which often opts for reflection and regret over violence (Rebus even gets away without a beating in 'Exit Music', when did that last happen?), Rankin conjures up a magnificent close to this most satisfying novel, Rebus pounding, punching and pumelling to the last. His role in this final book is so all-encompassing that I have to remind myself to say that Siobhan, for too long his sidekick, is a fully realised and very dynamic character too. Well worth a series of her own, you might say.

Over eighteen novels Rankin has written a crime series which is far more than the sum of its parts. It's a body of work which provides a fascinating alternative history of modern Edinburgh, a series with a hard, powerful moral centre, a set of books which are invariably hideously involving, even if they're not all that poetic. Most of all, of course, it's a deep, deft and masterful portrait of John Rebus - a flawed, bigoted, loveable bastard, and one that a lot of people, I suspect, are going to miss.

Monday, September 24, 2007

worst president ever

I spent a bit of time tonight deleting old draft posts which I never got round to posting. I quite like this one, which is just a photo really - snapped while I was in San Francisco earlier this year, so here it is, six months on. It still stands, after all.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

hanging basket with stones

Saturday, September 22, 2007

robyn hitchcock at the end of the road

Seeing Robyn Hitchcock at the End Of The Road last week was a privilege. Over the last twenty five years his brand of whimsical, psychedelic pop has been gradually refined to the point where now, despite his advanced years and shock of white hair, he is arguably making better music than ever before. At the End Of The Road his show, only one performance off headlining the second stage (which tells you a lot about the excellent music taste of the festival organisers), was one of the clear highlights of the weekend.

Performing with Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones (don't let that put you off) and his niece (who plays the saw), Hitchcock was debonair, dry and - musically - absolutely phenomenal. As befitting an artist who has written a song called 'I Like Bananas Because They Don't Have Any Bones' his songs are frequently charming and hilarious, but they're equally moving, the currents of emotion carried by the idiosyncratic frailty of Hitchcock's voice.

At the same time, his playing surprises me by being exceptionally fluent and able (I don't mean that I didn't expect him to be talented, merely that the naivety of his sound often masks the musicianship). Classics like 'I Often Dream of Trains' are impossibly beautiful, at once childlike and mature. The newer material, much of it originating from his sessions with Peter Buck last year, stand up admirably.

As I said earlier, I left feeling privileged - many artists delight, but only a few really reach out and touch you. Hitchcock is a master in this second category.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

nearby children #2

I went down to the doctor's surgery in Kemptown after work today and got the bus back up to Seven Dials. As I sat down upstairs I found myself behind a woman with two young kids, girls of around seven or eight, I guess.

Girl A: I used to have a parrot!
Girl B: A carrot?
Girl A: A parrot. I kept it in a cage.
Girl B: What happened to it?
Girl A: It escaped.
Girl B: Was it an english parrot?
Girl A: It came from abroad but I kept it here. My mum didn't know I had it. When she came in the bedroom I put it in a box.
Girl B: Didn't she hear it talking?
Girl A: No, because I put lots of boxes on it.
Girl B: (looks sceptical)
Girl A: I went into the garden and caught 21 worms and put them in a mug and brought them in and then she ate them all and then went outside and tried to find some more.
Girl B: (looks horrified)
Girl A: This morning I trod in the cat food and didn't wipe it off my shoe.

At this point, with a great deal of regret, I had to disembark.

nearby children #1

Waiting for my train to be announced at Brighton station this morning, I note that two young families are standing nearby, two mothers and their respective children, one boy, one girl. The children are quiet, inspecting each other suspiciously. But one is more reluctant to speak than the other. One of the mothers moves off to WH Smith to get a paper.

The boy addresses the little girl. "I'm eight. How old are you?"

She greets his question will shy silence.

"You're eight too, I can tell", he says.

The mother intervenes. "Oh no", she says, "she's not even six yet".

The boy furrows his brow.

"She looks eight", he muses. "How old is she, then?"

"She's five".

At this point the little girl, by now looking thoroughly mortified, edges around the back of her mother, hiding. But the boy peers round.

"Five?", he repeats, as if thinking about this for a moment.

"Have you got a boyfriend?", he asks.


blog terminology, TV chefs and iPhone killers

A quick catch up on stuff I've read recently and recommend:

Like me, Pete Ashton (and Stuart Feeling Listless before him) get irritated by misuse of the term 'blog' - as in "I liked that blog on Scout Niblett the other day", where clearly Assistant Blog is a blog and that post was a post. Fairly obvious, I would have thought, but if you're still confused, here's Pete's Taxonomy of Blogging.

Over at his New Statesman blog, Simon Munnery is on typically fine form. He's talking about TV chefs this week.

Chefs always use 'the finest ingredients'. Isn’t that cheating? Shouldn’t a great chef be able to create a decent meal out of mediocre ingredients? Where do chefs get off anyway taking the credit for food; they didn’t make it after all - they only heated it up, chopped it and slapped it on a plate. Food behaves according to the simple equation I have devised below:

Food + Food = Food

What a chef creates on a plate is a collage, not art. Then again, writers rarely invent words, and painters seldom manufacture paint, so I’m wrong. Sorry.
More celebrity bloggers now - it's good to see Stephen Fry entering the blogosphere, and amusing to note that his is probably the most techy blog I've read in many moons - still good fun though (as you'd expect), and very interesting to anyone interested in the iPhone and its various competitors:

Of course, this essay, if it can be described as such, is a response to the rise and rise of the SmartPhone, as most publicly trumpeted a few weeks ago with the arrival of Apple's iPhone. I am not here to laud or review that device however, it has had enough publicity and I really want you to believe that, Apple addict as I am, my eyes have always been open to the virtues of anything good, exciting, functional, elegant, pleasing to use. In fact the real precipitating reason for writing this is the fact that within three weeks I have bought/been sent, aside from my iPhone (which, yes, I dearly love), three soi-disant 'iPhone killers' - the HTC Touch, the Nokia E90 and the Sony Ericsson P1i. While I don't intend fully to review, road-test or benchmark each device (as if I could, anyway), I do want to share my thoughts about where these devices appear to be going.
Interestingly, while we're on the subject of Apple, I was talking to a friend this morning who informed me that on receipt of a brand new Nano yesterday, he discovered that - utterly ludicrously - it is only compatible with Mac OS X v10.4.8 or later. The same goes for all the new iPods, even the shuffle. So if you're thinking of upgrading, that's worth bearing in mind.

Lastly, this is naughty, but good - it allows you to download any music up on myspace as a low-quality (but listenable) MP3. Just enter the site address in the search box and it'll provide you with direct links to each song. You can even do it for my band, if you want.

get assistant songs at myspacegrab

Right, that's me for now - my train is about to pull in to Chichester.

breaking a few eggs

Surprised to see that as of this morning Chelsea are managerless - goodness me. Despite his many off-putting characteristics, I'm going to miss Mourinho a lot - who else is going to give us quotes like this?

"The style of how we play is very important. But it is omelettes and eggs. No eggs - no omelettes! It depends on the quality of the eggs. In the supermarket you have class one, two or class three eggs and some are more expensive than others and some give you better omelettes. So when the class one eggs are in Waitrose and you cannot go there, you have a problem".

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

cavtat by hand

news about peoples' favourite bands

My favourite band is Blur. There's been much talk, almost all of it from Alex, suggesting that Blur will be getting back togther, Graham included, this autumn. So far I've not actually heard anything from Graham himself that it's on. Until now.

Speaking to NME.COM, Coxon suggested that the reunion now depended on Blur frontman Damon Albarn.

"Dave, Alex and I are all talking. I talk to Alex the most. But there's four individuals in the band," he said. "We're all really busy, but there's definitely a week [when we're going to record].

"I'm just raring to record," he added. "But anything could happen. An alligator could come out of the Thames and eat the Tate Modern while I'm in it, or a mosquito could come and kill us all."

When asked what the new Blur material would sound like, Coxon joked, tongue firmly in cheek, that "there would be ten tracks, recorded on a 16-track, and all the songs will have loads of guitar on them."
British Sea Power are Anne-Sophie's favourite band. They release their new EP, 'Krankenhaus?', on November 20th. Back to the NME:

The EP was recorded in locations ranging from "sub-zero Montreal" to "the summery forest of the Czech Republic," frontman Yan told Spin.

He said it touches on several themes, including 'nature in all its glory' and 'technology, booze, drugs, girls and history'.

The 'Krankenhaus?' tracklisting is:

'Down on the Ground'
'Straight Down the Line'
'Hearing Aid'
'The Pelican'
Good stuff - looking forward to that.

Lastly, Scout Niblett is Siobhán's favourite musician. Her new LP is out on October 15th. It is, rather marvellously, called 'This Fool Can Die Now', and features four duets with Bonnie Prince Billy. You can listen to some of the tracks on myspaz. And look, here's the acer than ace artwork! Cool.

We saw Scout Niblett at the weekend and she was predictably amazing, taking such evident joy from the noise she makes. Her performance was tremendously affecting - alternately heartbreakingly delicate and crunchingly noisy. When Siobhán got back to Brighton she wrote Scout this short letter on her journal. I endorse its contents entirely.

Dear Scout Niblett,
I love you. You sing songs about eggs and driving (two of my favourite things), When the drums come in on 'Hot to Death' I start flapping my arms, jumping up and down and grinning at strangers!, you break into a massive grin everytime you launch into a noisy bit of one of your songs, and you make my eyes go a bit watery when you sing the more quiet ones. Even though I have seen you play quite a few times now, you have never failed to delight me,
Love Siobhan Britton, Aged 22 and a half.

Mister Wonderful

Good to see that after a medium length abscence, Daniel Clowes is busy again. The comic book artist responsible for, amongst other things, Ghost World, has a new 20 installment comic running in the Funny Pages of the New York Times.

The first part of Mister Wonderful is available as a PDF here.

And according to the Laughing Squid, there's a film project on the way too. Ace.

Hayman, Watkins, Trout and Lee

One of the unrivalled festival highlights at the End of The Road this weekend was an impromptu gig by Darren Hayman's rather shambolic yet loveable quartet Hayman, Watkins, Trout and Lee, which took place a couple of hours after the former Hefner man's main set, and delighted a small congregation of people willing to risk missing the first couple of songs by the Brakes, who were readying themselves on the main stage.

The band, who, rather confusingly, no longer contain either Trout or Lee (their places having being taken by Dave Tattersal and Dan Mayfield), play a rather joyful, whimsical take on bluegrass, incorporating a great deal of audience participation and good humour. With a couple of songs to go, Hayman noted that "I think we might just get away with it. As you can probably guess, we don't have much in the way of bluegrass roots. You might find rather more indie in our record collections". At one point Hayman sings, "I was born in Alabama, raised in Bermondsey".

Not much one for earnest traditionalists, then, the band still kick up a storm with some rolicking tunes, serious playing and the kind of wry lyrics for which Hayman is justly revered. Not for the last time this weekend, meanwhile, Tattersal (who besides his central role in the Wave Pictures, also turned up with Hayman twice and Herman Düne once) contributed some glorious guitar lines.

On a weekend packed with good music, Hayman, Watkins, Trout and Lee contributed a short, light-hearted set, a merry diversion along the way. For all that, I think I saw more grins per note than I did at any other show - which is a pretty sure sign of success.

Some videos, then, courtesy of Dan.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Left With Pictures

One of the main things that I hope I took away with me from the End of The Road festival this year was an appreciation of the fact that my days of carefully structuring and regimenting my time around particular events are behind me. I think I'm more relaxed than I was a few years ago, happier to just take things in my stride, and the festival was a good reminder of that. Although there were several bands I planned to see this weekend, as often as not I missed them, usually because I was somewhere else, or just happy sitting outside my tent with a book. The sense that I had to extract maximum value from the festival just went absent, and I wandered round, happy, content with the fact that I didn't know what was round each corner.

As a consequence, some of the best stuff I saw was stuff I didn't expect to see, or had never even heard of. On Sunday afternoon, still sleepy after an indulgent nap, I bought a pint of Butts Barbus from the Bimble Inn, and wandered around to the local stage, where I had heard The Twilight Sad would later be playing an extra show. When I arrived, however, and sat on the extraordinarily soft, fine grass inside the tent, I watched another band taking the stage, and becoming increasingly weary with the time it was taking to set up. Eventually, with the drums still under construction, the lead singer, a tall, slim chap with a white shirt and a narrow tie, picked up his guitar, stepped off the stage, announced his intention to start playing without any amplification, and introduced the band.

Left With Pictures, it turns out, earned their place on the End Of The Road bill by virtue of winning last year's 'Folk Idol', a tongue-in-cheek version of Pop Idol run by the Local (which, when not putting on bands at festivals, functions as a club and music promoter in North London), wherein contestants are required to don false beards and play two folk classics, before the audience decides the winner. It's little wonder that the band cleaned up last year, as their music, whether performed acoustically in front of the stage or amplified on it (the band took up their places once the drum kit was assembled) is wistful, diaphenous and enchanting. Classically trained (not that I care about that) the band's delicate arrangements and soft harmonies recall the likes of Steely Dan, Field Music, My Life Story and Richard Thompson, whose lovely '1952 Vincent Black Lightning' they closed with, having once more clambered from the stage and performed with quiet precision amongst us.

Sharing vocals and creating subtle arrangements awash with violin, melodica and keys, Left With Pictures's fragile but unpretentious pop belies their confidence. "There are two songs to go", their singer tells us at one point, before adding, correctly, "and they're real fucking beauties".

gnome chomsky

Return from the road

Just back from three nights camping in Dorset at the splendid End Of The Road festival, and am tired, happy and achey. On arriving home I immediately flung myself into a profoundly necessary and delightful shower, and am now slowly recovering on my bed. The festival was super - great bands, good weather, a small crowd of friendly, cheerful people and a really beautiful site, in the grounds of Larmer Park. We spent much of our time not chasing from stage to stage but sat in folding chairs reading our books and admiring the view, eating burritos or walking through paths which were shared with hooting peacocks by day and laced with fairy lights after dark. We drove home this afternoon, sticky, greasy-haired and grinning. Plenty on the music, and some nice photos, to follow.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

cavtat remembered

I've just realised, now that I'm back in England and distanced from lovely Croatia, that, despite writing a glut of pretentious or smart-aleccy posts about my trip away, I never really got round to describing Cavtat, so I'll attempt to do so now, although you'll almost certainly glean more from the accompanying photos than from my prose.

Cavtat, twelve miles south of Dubrovnik, is just about the most southerly town in Croatia, situated right down on the narrow strip of coast which hugs the neighbouring countries of Bosnia-Hercegovina and Montenegro. It's a very beautiful town, situated on a strikingly beautiful wooded peninsula with a beautiful bay on either side, cool clear water in each case studded with passive white boats. Both bays operate as harbours, but the main one, which sits in front of a small and impossibly ornate terracotta town, is lined with trees on one side and a picturesque promenade on the other, which is populated with charming bars and restaurants, and a couple of attractive waterfront Churches. This larger harbour, which buzzes with activity each time one of the little boats arrives taking tourists to or from Dubrovnik, just up the coast, is also currently home to several enormous, gleaming yauchts, each scarcely smaller than the town's two big hotels, which, admittedly, are fairly monstrous in a functional 1970s style.

For beauty - not that sitting in a quayside bar sipping beer is not to be encouraged - the visitor is best off leaving the promenade and climbing up the narrow lanes into Old Cavtat, which is less tourist resort and more the very picture of Medditeranean beauty - cobbled streets lined with pine trees and blossoming flowers lead up to a green precipice overlooking the Adriatic, upon the top of which is perched a mausoleum, heavily scented and shockingly solitary, even if it is only a couple of hundred metres from the town centre. Clambering down, the peninsula is circled by a sun-drenched path, skirting the sea, which is accessed not by sandy beaches but from the rare stone bathing platforms that extend into the water alongside huge and jagged rocks. Despite the lack of conventional beaches, the water is incredibly clear and still, if not quite as warm as the more Southerly resorts in the Meditteranean. And perhaps most impressively, at least during the week I was there, the sunsets over the harbours are quite beautiful.

Combined with lots of fresh fish and the fact that Dubrovnik is just around the corner, it's little wonder that Cavtat is blossoming as a tourist destinaton. I'm not sure that I would go there in preference to the nicer resorts of Italy or Greece, but it's a lovely place and, frankly, when work are paying, a pretty fine place for a business trip, too. I'd probably recommend seeking out a villa rather than the rather depressing hotels, but that aside, if you get the chance, go.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Portland - indie rock mecca?

I never need much persuasion to write about either Steve Malkmus or Portland, one of my favourite cities on the planet, so this article in Slate magazine is an obvious read - although the author manages to somehow write about a bunch of people (Malkmus, Sleater-Kinney, Modest Mouse, Spoon) and a city that I love in a way that makes me shrug. Nevertheless, it's definitely interesting that such a vibrant artistic community has centred itself on Portland, so the article is worth a read.

More interesting is the reaction of Brian Libby, who blogs about architecture in Portland, and seizes on some of the more interesting passages of the article (where the author discusses not indie rock but the broader cultural identity of the city) to wonder what implications such a creative renaissance might have for the built environment in Portland. He merely poses the question rather than asking it, but I'd be interested - as a fan of the city - to see how Portland changes in years to come. Will it expand, becoming more of a big city, or become increasingly refined and artistic? Or will a few hip musicians, artists and architects ultimately have little bearing on the city in years to come? All interesting things to ponder.

Monday, September 10, 2007

goalposts in croatia

Saturday, September 08, 2007

first name bonanza

Sorry, one more football-related post, but this one will take your breath away. Again, courtesy of the Guardian blog, which observes that, after a late substitution,

"We've got a team of 11 first-name-surnamed players all playing in position," writes Aron Darmody. "James, G. Neville, Terry, Ferdinand, A. Cole, J. Cole, P. Neville, Gerrard, Barry, Johnson, Owen."

beer and football

I had a pleasant evening tonight, sat in the bars of Cavtat, having a beer and watching the football on the bar TV. It's odd watching an England match in a public place where no-one cheers if they score. Of course, they don't ordinarily score, but they did tonight, three times. Goodness.

Some young Croatians came and sat next to me at one point, and did that thing that young people on mainland Europe do occasionally, which unnerves me profoundly. They don't drink. Worse, they drink fruit juice or coffee. Breakfast drinks.

Despite this, they joke and laugh and give away every outward sign of enjoying themselves. They even seem comfortable with members of the opposite sex, sober. This isn't England, I think. And these aren't children - they're nineteen, twenty, perhaps even older. I feel like an alien. These kids are zombies. I mean, I've seen Christians doing this, back home, but this lot look like ordinary people. I console myself by wondering if they are Christians in disguise.

Spooked, I order another beer.


I'm sitting in an internet cafe in Cavtat at the moment, on my final night in Croatia. Just about to dash off and see if I can find a bar that is showing the England match. I notice from the Guardian site that it's just about to start. I liked this description of the national anthems from their match blog:

There's a very strange arrangement for the Israel one, which is being covered by what appears to be the Israeli version of the Cocteau Twins. I've never before heard an anthem performed at a football match after which it could be argued there was far too much flanger on the guitar. Very strange.
It sounds amazing!!

dancing with partners

When you go on holiday, especially on your own, I think there's always a part of you which hopes that you will make friends with someone, perhaps even have a passionate holiday romance. I am not in the market for the latter and have spotted quite early on that my hotel - and the town of Cavtat in general - aided by the time of year and attendant weather, is not a magnet for young people and in any case, most people here are Italian, German or Eastern European. And for the most part about five or ten years older than me. I've also been at work most days, and getting reasonably early nights as a consequence. Pah.

So although I'm not really on the lookout for friends, it's nevertheless hard to extinguish the idea that I might bump into someone I'll get along with. And so - or perhaps co-incidentally, I find myself scanning the faces of my dining companions, say, or fellow guests. In this way certain faces become familiar, and I quickly find that I keep running into one particular group of travellers, who are also staying in my hotel. The two men of their party are very unexceptional. Perhaps 40,42, with sensible, brown, neatly trimmed hair, slim builds and spectacles, they strike me as two mild-mannered Falkirk town supporters on a much-needed work jolly - an impression compounded by the fact that the first time, in passing, I hear them speak, they sound Scottish.

They are sitting adjacent to me on the hotel veranda where they and their two companions - and I - are making the best of the hotel buffet. I notice them because the two women they are dining with are appreciably younger, blonde and dressed up. I notice them rise and walk into the restaurant, leaving the two men outside, and it is now that I swear I hear - or rather, imagine I hear - one say to the other, "are they actually eating anything?".

This sentence seems to make a lot of sense as although the two girls' plates remain laden with food, they return a moment or two later with a plate of dessert each - cakes and watermelon - which they demolish with a hitherto unseen enthusiasm, leaving their main courses untouched.

The girls - here you can probably see why they really caught my attention - are in their early twenties, quite provactively dressed, and in the case of the shorter of the two (and to a lesser extent her friend) very pretty indeed. I wonder what they are doing with such drab men and consider, partly because I at this point think the men British when these girls are plainly Eastern European - that on some level the factor which might have brought these two couples together is financial.

That's not to say that I immediately concluded, oh! they're prostitutes, but it seemed more than likely that they were a couple of local girls enjoying the attention and hospitality of a pair of hopeful - and comparitively wealthy - British tourists. That's interesting, I thought, and not much more than that.

Oddly, the next time I saw them, the mystery... well, it didn't deepen nor necessarily become more explicable. But I was surprised to conclude as I stood next to them at the hotel bar, that the Scottish accents - and probably the use of a language which I could understand - was an act of projection on my part. Although I couldn't place the language, they were clearly from Eastern Europe, after all.

Of course, none of that really alters the incongruity of their relationship, for the more I saw them the less alike they seemed, the men plain and serious and the girls heavily perfumed and carefully styled. Or I'm being unforgivably judgemental, I suppose.

Except that their body language continues to interest me. From what I can see, they talk chiefly to each other - that is, the man to the man and the woman to the woman. The men seem businesslike, aloof and curiously unconcernd with their partners. If that one overheard phrase was indeed imagined, it remains strangely apt. It's possibly to detect some level of pride in their postures, but also a kind of judgemental air, as if they are constantly assessing the worth of their investment.

The women, in contrast, are secretive, always in consultation, and frequently exchanging bored looks. They clearly come as a pair. When the two men do pay attention to them, their attitude is plainly proprietorial. But perhaps, I think, this is simply the way that men are with women.

In the end I feel slightly uneasy in myself taking interest, wondering why these people are together - it is, of course, none of my business, and I worry that I'm projecting some notion of bartering, ascribing value on the girls, which they doubtless would resent. Perhaps I do them all a gross injustice. But I do know, and I can tell whenever I look at them all together, that however they all got here, they are not in love.

Friday, September 07, 2007

the news from afar

It's funny following the news from afar - one tends to consume it in fragments and sudden chunks, a three day old paper, or a glimpse of BBC World while you're getting changed for the pool. So most of my thoughts about news items are similarly bitesize and unfit for public consumption. Gordon Brown is now appointing people who were forced to resign for being racist by the Conservative Party. Blimey. Kate McCann is now a formal suspect. Whatever next? Bush intimates that progress might be made with North Korea. Ooh.

Hang on, that last one did grab my attention, actually. It's interesting that with neoconservatism and 'liberal intervenionism' being all but discredited, and Rumsfeld's goons all but gone, Christopher Hill's diplomatic 'surge' is actually making some progress. Perhaps if Bush hadn't stopped talks underway under Clinton, we could have done this years ago.

It's still really freaky watching Bush play the statesman though. And backing things that he would once have categorically opposed. It makes you wonder, has perhaps, after all this time, his experience led him to reconsider some of his instincts and examine other methods? Is he putting his days as a crass buffoon behind him and refashioning himself as an attentive student of global politics?

It's a nice thought, but considering he today referred to APAC as OPAC, I think it might be a little unlikely.

lynch and penguins

Over to Sam, who is in Shanghai now... His blog-posts are now so reliably brilliant that I'm going to have to stop linking to them soon. If his blog, My Brain Can't Make Me, isn't in your favourites list yet then I dunno what more he can do.

An exerpt from his latest post, then. Click here to read the real thing.

Shanghai exhausted the last of my traveling energy, leaving me is something of a slump. Unlike its cultured and self-content brother Beijing, Shanghai is a grasping, aggressive city perfectly willing to sell any soul it had for the fastest buck. All the hyperbolic descriptions ring true; there is no doubt that Shanghai is transforming at a spectacular pace, and I'm sure that this will eventually bring trickle-down benefits for the multitudes, but it is still depressing to witness the wholesale erasure of whole swathes of historical buildings to be replaced with tasteless steel and glass monstrosities. I plodded through the usual tourist attractions, the sterile hotel-like aquarium with its unimaginative presentations and procession of inmates, including particularly forlorn penguins and seals. They were incarcerated in a grim arctic simulation, hidden deep in the bowels of the cavernous complex, bathed in cold, florescent light as if David Lynch had turned his hand to wildlife documentaries.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

more on the booker

From the distant Adriatic coast, a few thoughts on the booker shortlist. Well, firstly, despite the inclusion of Ian bloody McEwan, it's well chosen. I was really pleased to see the likes of Catherine O'Flynn on the longlist, but in the end most of the six shortlisted books are, well, bloody good novels, in the scheme of things.

Here's the shortlist

Darkmans, by Nicola Barker
On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan
Mister Pip, by Lloyd Jones
Animal's People, by Indra Sinha
The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by Mohsin Hamid
The Gathering, by Anne Enright

I'm not up to speed on all of them yet, so I will reserve judgement except to say that of the four I've read one looks like a clear winner (Anne Enright's 'The Gathering', which has just the right amount of gravitas and beauty) and one is my favourite by such a long way that it surely doesn't stand a chance of winning! That book is Indra Sinha's 'Animal's People', upon which I have a post brewing, so I'll save the superlatives for now.

I am prepared, incidentally - once the library get the damn thing in - to be dazzled by 'Darkmans', but until then it's Enright or Sinha all the way. And we'll leave why Gerard Woodward wasn't on the longlist 'til another day.

croatian currently listening

Okay, well, this isn't what the people of Croatia have been listening to this week (they've been listening to Bon Jovi), but it is the stuff I've mostly been sampling through my ipod.

1. Prodigy of Mobb Deep - Return of the Mac LP
2. Happy Mondays - Olive Oil (from their Squirrel and G Man LP)
3. Sonic Youth - Rain King (from their Daydream Nation LP)
4. Young Knives - Walking On The Autobhan (from their ...Are Dead LP)
5. Blitzen Trapper - Wild Mountain Nation LP
6. Numbers - Now You Are This LP

Play any songs from these records in the future and, I hope, for a moment I'll get a real, however fleeting memory of Cavtat, which is all I want in a record, and a good way to hold on to a holiday (alright, work trip).

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

local flavour

I don't mind making mistakes so long as they are, if not universal, commonly made ones. Who of us, after all, has not supped a pint of Cypriot-brewed lager on an orange skied coast and exclaimed "this beer is fucking gorgeous. It's Cypriot beer for me from now on".

Exactly, all of us.

Sitting in bars on a similarly idyllic range Croation beaches and harbours, I've knocked back plenty of Lasko this week, and enjoyed it hugely, hugging the thick pint glass to myself in the afternoon sun. I had a long day today, however, and thought to myself, 'I'll just grab a couple of beers from the supermarket and drink them in front of BBC World in my room'. So I bought 2 cans of Lasko Pivo, branded 'Zlatorog', the beer which I think I've been drinking with abandon all week in the cheerful Adriatic sun.

God Almighty!

It took about six reluctant sips and a good deal of sniffing to work out what exactly this particular Croation beer brought to mind. Taste? Good old fashioned vinegar. Smell? Much more interesting - I eventually pegged it, incredibly accurately, as soy sauce. Unbelievably, unforgivably bad. Wow. Straight down the sink.

Will I drink more of it by the harbour during my lunch break tomorrow? I wouldn't bet against it.

indie kids

Oh, I really couldn't resist posting this. Anne-Sophie drew it on my facebook page last night! Thank you Anne-So, I love it!

the rain before it falls, by jonathan coe

Jonathan Coe's written output to date has established him, to my mind, as probably the funniest living British author outside of the inevitable Howard Jacobson, and his best novels, 'The House Of Sleep' and the wicked satire 'What a Carve Up!', are absolutely laden with hilarious observations and savage wit. Later books have adopted a less satirical and more nostalgic tone, but not by sacrificing the jokes.

In Coe's now novel, 'The Rain Before It Falls', however, Coe has done just that, and written a short, powerful and deeply serious meditation on that most essential of subjects - adults raising children. The book is built around a simple premise - the aged Rosamond, who has watched three generations of her family tear each other apart, sits alone in her flat with a bottle of whisky and a bottle of pills. Before she takes them, she sits in front of a tape recorder and describes, in careful detail, twenty family photographs for Imagon, a blind girl she has not seen for twenty years, but whose life, just like her mother and grandmother, is crucially intertwined with her own.

Coe's simple, weighty prose is, despite the difficult subject matter, a pleasure to read, shorn of jokes though it is. Like Iris Murdoch, he writes about plain life in such a way as to uncover painful and philosophical truths and affect the reader greatly. 'The Rain Before It Falls' is a sombre, delicately-wrought tragedy, and a fine read.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

i hate wasps

I have done a deal with the wasps of Croatia. When I eat, I pull out one morsel of food, a slice of tomato, perhaps, and lay it at the furthest end of the table. Upon this the wasp may feed to its heart content, as long as it leaves me alone. The wasp with whom I struck this deal was fair and just and kept his side of the bargain. Good.

Later wasps are either unaware of this pact, or paying no heed. Little fuckers.

climbing upwards

If you travel to a Mediteranean paradise, a beautiful village perched on the Adriatic, and spend your time sat content in restaurants and beach bars, tapping your foot into the pool, here is what you will discover, here is what you will come to know: some things, a little, not much.

For two days this is pretty much all I do, whenever I have free time. I grab a cold beer and drink it in the dead breeze, laughing along with my book. I feel a kind of welcome relaxation which is the peacefulness of doing and thinking nothing.

A bit later, I wander the streets of Cavtat looking, in vain, for a shop which will sell me a pencil (I neglected to pack one). On a whim I turn up a stone side street and start clambering away from the line of restaurants and bars along the harbour. I climb upwards slowly, examining the stone floor and walls, the wrought-iron gates and doorways, the terracotta tiles neatly stacked in their rows. I pass a turned over boat, with its cracked blue livery and encroaching moss, and a wasteground which is brick-strewn and uneven between two sets of goal posts which are limp and near collapsed.

And as I climb higher I experience a very real and satisfying sense of peace which is carried on the greater breeze bringing the scent of pine needles and the sound of insects and perhaps scampering lizards. Eventually I am climbed high enough to see the bay and observe that the harbour and the hotels, the beach bars and the shops selling souvenirs are no more than the outward facing frontpiece of the town, the skin stretched across the forehead or the smile. The churches reach upwards and find new elevated grandeur. An inaudible but nevertheless tangible hubbub seems to emenate from every house, whispering of real lives, school and roof repairs. The tree stumps and stones and broken bricks team up to knock me suddenly for six.

Up I climb until at last I reach a church, elevated way above the town, and an ornate and quiet cemetary. The plastic bouquets break the monotony of the colours; terracotta, green and grey. I stand watching the sea, truly happy, drawing air in. This is what you discover and what you come to know, I think, when you go a bit further.

I look down at my feet and see something which looks like a carved acorn, only bigger, and stoop to pick it up, turning it over in my hand. I look up at the trees and realise after a moment that it is a pine cone which has dropped too early, still green, still unfolded.

I hold it for a monent as if it were a prize, then pick my way back down the steep path, past cacti which are hot and splayed open like starfish. In a tree someone has hacked a gash into the trunk with a knife, exposing a fist of rough-hewn, papery strands of bark, which make me think of my notebook and writing some of this down. I press the premature fallen pinecone, stiff and cool, into the hole which the blade has cut, and leave it sitting there, perfectly, as I descend, reaching into my backpack for some water, my notebook, and my pen.

Turning a corner, the sight of a fat guy pissing against a tree only slightly impedes upon my reverie.

international sex guide

I'm not really a veteran of internet cafés. Because I never used them when I first used to use the internet, I never got used to the idea and have always subsequently viewed them as rather curious, borderline mucky little dens, where foreign students send homesick missives or requests for cash, or men look up the local brothels. This is doubtless unfair, and I'm pleased that the several internet cafés in central Cavtat offer me a valuable way of getting online, seeing as the wireless broadband at the conference I'm attending is, rather typically, not working.

However, when I logged on, just now, obscured behind a raffia screen and immersed in the sounds of Bon Jovi and Mr Mister (courtesy of the café stereo), I clicked on the google search function in the toolbar and it automatically unfolded to reveal the previous incumbent's searches - all of which were titled things like '', or 'croatian strip clubs'.

So perhaps I was right after all.

Monday, September 03, 2007

airshow in croatia

I saw an amazing sight today. When I was finished at the conference centre this afternoon I walked back to my hotel and slid into the cool but peaceful sea for a dip, lying back in the water and watching a couple of small yellow planes dipping and swooping in the brilliant sky above me.

I returned to the beach, ostensibly to read my book, but found myself, possibly aided by the tiring swim and the beer I'd swiftly consumed, drifting into a bit of a reverie, idly watching the lone cloud in the sky, which had drifted in from the horizon and cloaked itself around an overlooking hill.

I'm not sure how long I sat there looking at it before I realised that I was watching a forest fire. Nor how long it subsequently took to realise that the little airshow I was admiring was serving a far more important purpose. The little planes, like swift wasps, were looping the bay, dipping down to the sea to guzzle up tons of water, before looping wide and dropping their cargo explosively over the flames. I sat watching, amazed, until all that remained of the inferno was the dead steam of the doused embers. Remarkable.

sonic youth at the london roundhouse

On Saturday night myself, Siobhán, David, Ant and Andrew headed up to London to watch Sonic Youth playing their third and final night of 'Don't Look Back', where they are performing their frankly astonishing 'Daydream Nation' album beginning to end.

Camden's Roundhouse is, as I discovered for The Good, The Bad and The Queen's debut live show at the Electric Proms last year, a super venue for an event performance. And the arrival of SY to play a lovingly nostalgic but typically inventive set of old songs is certainly event, considering the band, now in the late 4os and mid 50s, are not generally much given to looking over their own shoulder.

But 'Daydream Nation' is an album worthy of reconsideration, and SY, for all that they were initially resistant to doing this, look like they are relishing the chance to revisit such awesome material. Their fans, too, feel much the same - this was a night of thinning hair and broad, broad grins.

You can't really start a set with a better song than 'Teenage Riot', meanwhile. The first three songs, in fact, go by in a dizzy, ecstatic blur - the opener is all buzzy guitars, that incredible riff sounding richer with age. 'Silver Rocket', meanwhile, reduces the front fifteen rows at this rather staid venue to a frenzied mosh-pit. 'The Sprawl', with Kim's charismatic rasp and shimmering guitars, is even better.

For these songs, Sonic Youth showcase a stunningly organic method of revisiting these wonderful memories - within minutes they begin clashing their guitars, indulging in bursts of white noise, breaking down the songs until they are unrecognisable, drifting along freely with only the band's spectacular but disrespectful musicianship to guide them. Then, suddenly, as if from nowhere, the simple, awesome riffs at the centre of the originals reappear and the songs return amplified, energised, even more welcome than they were before. This delicate sleight of hand, combined with their almost telepathic intuition, makes for truly awesome pop music.

Having been pushed back from the front and disconnected from my friends, I suddenly go into a bit of a mid-set lull, uncertain if it is the band or myself who have turned off. Keen for a bit of space, I move too far back and find that I've untethered myself somehow from the experience. But only a song or too later I find Siobhán, who has survived longer than I down the front, and we retreat around the edge to a better viewing point.

From now the gig just gets better, reaching the unbeatable at regular intervals. A few words about the band members themselves - they delight me beyond my expectation. Kim Gordon is 54 and the coolest woman, bar none, in rock. She looks amazing, to speak plainly, slim and elegant in a cool dress, rocking out with her bass one minute and windmilling and shimmying the next. Her voice, a brittle tool, sounds incredible. And she's perfectly complimented by Thurston Moore, the eternal teenager, who is still slim and too tall, still happy whirling his guitar round his head and leaping to and fro. Still hidden behind that head of hair.

As for Steve Shelley, his drumming retains every iota of the power and precision it has for the last 24 years. Lee Renaldo, the only member of the band who seems to have aged at all, plays guitar with the dazzling inventiveness and confidence of someone who's just about the best guitarist in the world, which - give or take J Masic - he probably is. Surprisingly his songs stand up best tonight, perhaps because they play better to the strengths of the 2007 SY.

After an incediary 'Eliminator Jr' the band return joined by Pavement's effortlessly supercool bassist Mark Ibold, who prowls around the stage like a grinning iguana, his hair tucked girlishly behind his ears. Songs from 'Rather Ripped' follow before the band are joined by Chris Corsano, who accompanies them on an inspirational, feedback shredded 'Expressway To Yr Skull', which leaves the room breathless.

Still achingly brilliant, still having fun, still making people have fun - I end the night feeling pretty fucking honoured to have seen Sonic Youth play. And you can't ask for much more than that.

first impressions

My first impressions of Croatia are too vague for a coherent post, I think. Flying in along the coast last night the first thing to note was the country's surprising hilliness. Although the cobalt blue sea hugs low, picturesque villages, a matter of feet behind the terrain climbs up into curved, ragged hills. The ground is also greener than I had imagined, tall fir trees combine with palms to clothe the land around the coast. Flying over Dubrovnik itself reveals a beautiful, terracotta patchwork. I look forward to exploring it later in the week.

In the meantime I am in Cavtat, ten kilometres south. My hotel is comfortable but fairly monstrous, an ugly block perched on the seafront. But the view is wonderful - a deep looking sea, outcrops of land around the bay which pinch in like a lobster's claw. The town of Cavtat is beautiful and relatively unspoilt, save for a pair of enormous boats parked ostentatiously in the tiny harbour. Last night I walked in and watched a Dalmatian chorus group, their low, clear murmur making the hairs stand up on the back of my neck, mingling with the sound of water lapping at the harbour.

Today, alas, I go to work.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

facebook is CIA

en route to dubrovnik

Because I fly about for work every now and again, I'm now so familiar with the procedure for checking in and passing security at airports that it's a quick and painless procedure. So long as those in front of me are similarly savvy.

Just now I was held up coming through the baggage check system because a woman in front of me was repeatedly setting off the alarm. She must have been seventy years old, an aged and rather befuddled woman dressed, bizarrely, like a gereatric air hostess. Her husband stood by, his face twitching in annoyance. He was wearing an electric blue boating blazer. She had several big plasters on her arm and vivid brusing to her face and chest. It was a strange sight.

"Are you wearing jewellery, madam?", she was asked.

"Fine welcome for a foreigner", she replied, and obligingly removed about a ton of heavy gold jewellery, stepping back through the machine. It buzzed again.

Several further permutations of jewellery removal were then performed, over the course of ten minutes, until the woman was at last free of her hefty gold burden and, presumably, fine to go through. Not that the machine would stop buzzing. Her husband's irritation seemed to have been replaced by a look of weary familiarity.

"Do you have any metal plates or medical pins?", she was asked. She stuck her chin out and demurred.

I stood shuffling from shoeless foot to shoeless foot, wondering what would happen. There seemed no way through. Eventually a portable gizmo was brought out and the problem was, hilariously, traced to her, erm, suspender belt.

I darted through security without a hitch. Waiting for my plane now. Whee.

sex machine / elaine is a dyke