Saturday, January 23, 2010


I took this photo a couple of months back in St Neots, Cambridgeshire, and didn't do anything with it. In truth it was a bit washed out and I immediately filed it as one to forget. But flicking through my photos earlier I wondered if a bit of digital manipulation might improve it - and sure enough I think it's quite a nice shot, now. It's all about the glee on the face of the little girl, I think. Feeding the ducks, of course, never becomes boring, as far as I'm concerned.

Friday, January 22, 2010

uncontrolled aggression

Last night I was sat reading my book on my journey home, the train idling at a quiet platform - when I saw out of the corner of my eye someone running alongside the train. I heard his feet land heavily on in the carriage as he leapt through the closing doors, and then his bag land heavily on the seat opposite mine. He slumped after it, not red-faced but out of breath. He was young, handsome, in his mid-twenties, with long hair and a close-cropped, fashionable beard. The train pulled away and he began a familiar mime; patting his pockets, shifting in his seat, flipping open the lid of his canvas bag. It’s a spectacle I put on myself near enough every morning when I see the ticket-inspector approaching, wondering where I’ve put my railcard.

His movements shifted up a gear. I recognise that, too. It’s not just in a different pocket. It’s not here. I left my wallet on the bedside table, my telephone at work, my book on the bathroom floor. He began to search frantically, repeatedly, replaying the sequence as if he were a caged animal obsessively retracing a route. I fought to restrain my mouth from twitching into a smile, not because I took pleasure in his discomfort, but because I know the feeling all too well, and sympathised. Then he brought his fist down hard upon the plastic table, and swore. His bag, now thoroughly searched, turned inside-out, he flung hard into the adjacent seat. He swore again. And again. That flicker of a smile had long since disappeared and I tried to immerse myself in my book, shrinking backwards in my seat. Great.

His temper did nothing to abate. He thumped the table again, and punched his bag. He tilted his head back and let out a volley of curses. I began to wonder what he had lost. He pulled a mobile phone from his pocket and held it to his ear. So, not that. A moment later, he was talking, hissing, words tumbling out. His opening conversational gambit was “I’m really fucking angry”. His wallet, I suppose, or an iPod. House keys? He kept swearing.

As he muttered on, still occasionally slamming his head back into his head-rest in frustration, I fluctuated between interest and revulsion. It was a remarkable display of petulance from a grown man. It made me think how controlled I am. Over the years I have lost a quite absurd number of vital or expensive things, from spectacles to mobile phones to expensive gadgets. I don’t recall ever doing more than closing my eyes in frustration and musing over how careless I am. I honestly don’t think this guy was far from punching a wall. Or someone else. His girlfriend, if that’s who he was talking to on the phone, must have moments when she really wonders at his capacity for aggression. I’m not saying I don’t understand temper, and possibly he’d just had the worst day of his life, but it was incredibly unappealing.

In the end I learned from his call that he was upset because, running for his train, he had pulled his ticket from his jacket pocket and unknowingly dropped a £20 note on the station platform. I got off the train ten minutes later, glad of my even temperament.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

obama in trouble

Massachusetts! Of all the states to go Republican, I would never have guessed it would be that bluest of East Coast states. Extraordinary, extraordinary and terrible. Obama has to face up to the first, catastrophic, humiliating defeat of his political life. And there goes his senate super-majority, and any hope of the Healthcare bill passing in its current form. Christ.

What does all this mean for Obama?

Firstly, it’s pretty much what I’d be calling a disaster, if the horrific events of Haiti over the last week hadn’t reminded us all exactly what a disaster looks like. Ordinarily, a defeat at this stage of the cycle (a year in to a new Presidency which has been mired, through no fault of the incumbent, in economic collapse) would not signify so very much: governments often lose by-elections, especially during recessions, and the loss of one seat may negate Obama’s super-majority (he needs 60 out of 100, rather than 51, to pass significant legislation) but the Senate still has a healthy majority of Democrats.

But the unusual, feverish world of US Politics is stranger and sadder than that. Obama may only have lost one seat, but the current Republican party is more partisan than any in recent history, and is completely, unambiguously opposed to co-operation or compromise. Once upon a time, the GOP was a broad party representing many hues of the right – but now it is a cantankerous, disciplined beast which is entirely resistant to every law, no matter how good, or how moderate, the Democrats propose. For as long as students of contemporary politics can remember, the Democrats had, in Ted Kennedy, the best deal broker in global politics. Even if he was still there, though, he’d be hard pressed to come to an agreement with a solitary Republican. They intend to bring Obama down by obstructing absolutely everything he does. Now that Scott Brown has Kennedy’s seat, they can do that. It’s a real mess.

And if the Republicans can win in Massachusetts, they can win anywhere – all of a sudden, there’s no such thing as a safe seat in US politics.

Now, clearly this is awful news for Obama. He’s going to have a real job on in confronting and turning around this deeply discouraging turn of events. But he has to do more than just negotiate his way around this vast obstacle – he has to confront his own failings and the fact that his own mistakes helped make this happen. A year in to his presidency, it’s clear that he’s tried hard, and any liberal would take his policies over those of his predecessor in a heartbeat, but errors have been made.

Firstly, I don’t think that anyone, anywhere, had any premonition of how incredibly hard the healthcare battle would prove. In retrospect, with the economy in the state it is in, it’s probably the case that he should have left it alone until the economy picked up again. That’s a bitter admission for anyone who believes that the provision of universal healthcare is a fundamental duty of government, but the last year has proved that it is so. The opposition (for this goes beyond the Republicans) has been ruthlessly efficient in attacking the plan, organising and protesting, taking in many ways their cue from the ceaseless, senseless hounding of Clinton which they perfected in the 1990s. Obama, in contrast, has been passive, slow to make his case, and too detached from the process. He has caved in too often, and not taken charge of the situation.

The real problem has not been the bill, but the process. On the one hand, the bill has been repeatedly, robustly attacked by the American right and the conservative media, to the point where fallacious speculation about its’ contents have been repeated as fact. On the other, Obama has entrusted Congress to draft a bill in precisely the same long, slow, argumentative, concession-heavy method that it always has. A year later, the bill is almost broken – universally misunderstood but no longer universal; the public option is gone and what is left, though a dramatic improvement on what has gone before, falls way short of expectation. This is not the ‘new politics’ that Obama promised. It is the old politics, done badly. Obama’s inability to influence and drive Copenhagen was cut from the same cloth. America’s new President promised change. The change from Republican policy is to be warmly welcomed, but the greater drive to change the political process, and to change American society, has stalled.

So, what he does do? Try to push the healthcare bill through in some further weakened form? Scrap it and start from scratch? Scrap it and forget it?

Well – America isn’t Haiti and this isn’t, yet, a disaster. Worse politicians than Obama have survived blows more damaging than this, and he has plenty of time to prove that his prescription for America is worth taking. But he has to respond to this quickly – prove that he can keep going when a blow is landed and swiftly adapt his game. If the healthcare bill is dead, it may even be a good thing – the bill as it was was looking cancerous, something that might infect everything he did from this point on, and to have lanced it now may ultimately work in his favour. What he needs to do is affirm his priorities (it’s the economy, stupid), get on track, then come back and find a way to fix healthcare afresh. That means bringing to the table a bill which the American people understand – healthcare reform is an argument he can yet win. But right now he needs to be quicker, clearer and more direct on the issues that the electorate care about.

He’s down but a long way from being out. The next few months might define this Presidency.

working from home

Read more of Siobhán's ace comics here.

introducing the sarcmark

Brilliant. Read on.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

gorillaz, stylo review

If you've not heard it yet, 'Stylo', the new single by Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett's subversive, always-interesting pop project, Gorillaz, is all over the internet today, and you owe it to yourself to track it down forthwith. Whisperings about the forthcoming LP, 'Plastic Beach', imply it will be a typically dynamic, eclectic affair, boasting guest spots from Snoop Dogg, Mark E Smith, Lou Reed and many many more.

Albarn has dropped some interesting clues about where Gorillaz is headed over recent months, hinting that his new songs have roots in his abandoned stage project 'Carousel', and that the Blur gigs in the summer persuaded him to revisit his vocals for the LP and abandon his recent usage of guide vocals, preferring instead to sing more directly. The title of the LP suggests that, lyrically, a recurring theme will be the environment, one of Albarn's current passions (he recently told Paul Morley that the two things he is most passionate about are "the effects of our waste and the healing properties of Africa").

But for all that this is interesting, the most intriguing thing about the band - apart from Hewlett's wonderful drawings and Albarn's staggering musicality - remains the dichotomy between Damon's critique of manufactured chart music and his self-evident, not at all contradictory, love of pop.

'Stylo' expresses this perfectly - built on a platform of thudding beats and a persistent, electro bass line, it may feature a stunning, deeply pretty melodic line from Damon, but it also completely lacks a conventional chorus, providing instead a terrific, unhinged hook vocal from Bobby Womack. It sounds stranger, more challenging than previous Gorillaz records.

But it is also easily the most catchy thing Damon has done in years. The bass line alone is stunningly memorable, and the jewel may be Mos Def's short, rhythmically perfect verse in the closing stages. The whole thing swaggers and shines.

It's too early, of course, to say whether it'll engage daytime radio and the general populace in the same way as previous Gorillaz singles, but for me it's superior to every single from the last two LPs with the exception of 'Dare'. And if it IS successful, Damon's genius will have been to have crafted a perfect, vibrant pop single which harks back to the bassy, vibrant electro of early Compass Point (think Grace Jones or Tom Tom Club) and the euphoria of late 80s house music, but which is in no way nostalgic, formulaic or predictable.

In short, I think it's one of the best things he's ever done. And elsewhere? There's really no one, creatively, anywhere near him.

darren hayman on spanish tv

This is charming, although at times really hard to watch - Darren Hayman is asked a set of challenging questions live on Spanish television. It's funny to watch how a Spanish critic struggles with Darren's very English self-deprecation. There's clearly an expectation that music should be a flamboyant, romantic art, and an supposition that Darren will be able to talk fluently about it in that light. He does his best, but his face is a treat when he is asked "would you say that you had been unfaithful to music, or has music made a cuckold of you?".

Great stuff.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

tory education proposals

David Cameron's comments on education, made yesterday, offer refreshing hope that there remains a slim chance that the slick, electable Tory party he manages will still slip up ahead of the next general election. It's a cliche to say it, but they remains absolutely hopeless at policy, even if they have done a creditable job in opposition (hardly difficult, given Labour's ongoing implosion). Cameron's absolutely ludicrous comments, which argued for what he himself called "brazenly elitist" changes to the education system, were perhaps the least thought-out or helpful ideas he's yet floated. That hope is, however, counterbalanced by a heavy sense of dread. This is what the Tories will be like if they win the next election.

The plan, in case you missed it, is to make teaching "the noble profession" (I thought it already was) by restricting government funding to graduates with a 2:2 or higher, and only paying off the debts of graduates from a narrow pool of "good universities". We can expect this pool to exclude all the perfectly good ex-Polytechnics in this country, many of which are - incidentally - at the forefront of scientific and technical education; a completely unnecessary measure.

There are so many things wrong with this.

Firstly, and most obviously, we have a teacher shortage in this country - it has been so for many years and to miss this point is crazy. I'm fully behind any politician, even a Tory, who places education at the centre of policy-making, but to ignore the realities of the market when launching new initiatives smacks of ignorance, high-handedness or laziness. We need more, not less, teachers - and which University they studied at is almost entirely irrelevant.

Even if you buy the premise that having attended Brighton University, or possessing a third class degree, is an impediment to becoming a decent teacher, Cameron's comments are profoundly misleading. Only a tiny proportion of graduates entering the teacher training system have a third class degree in any case; only 3.7% in 2007-8. But Cameron's comments imply otherwise, and the effect will surely have a demoralising effect on existing teachers, who must suffer yet another politician implying they are no good at their jobs. From the way Cameron launched this pathetic scheme, one might conclude that there are rafts of poor teachers with bad degrees out there. But it's rubbish - this scheme aims to redress an imbalance which doesn't exist.

Chris Keates, general secretary of the Nasuwt teaching union, has commented:

"Teaching will never generally be recognised as the high-status profession it is while politicians keep making announcements which implicitly or explicitly denigrate and cast doubt on the quality of teachers currently in service.

"Nothing is more demoralising and demotivating than constant announcements of strategies to attract the 'best' teachers. They imply that those in post are somehow sub-standard, and the bar for entry has been set too low."

As the above implies, Cameron's comments are not supported by evidence. We already have a vigorous evaluation system within both Secondary and Tertiary Education (indeed, the Labour government deserve very little credit for their relentless promotion of QAAs and the ubiquitous Offsted), but the Tories have not made use of the statistics these bodies collect. Where is the data that supports their argument? Instead, they make misleading references to other, very different, education systems which we should want to emulate. Cameron said:
"Finland, Singapore and South Korea have the most highly qualified teachers, and also some of the best education systems in the world, because they have deliberately made teaching a high prestige profession.
They are brazenly elitist – making sure only the top graduates can apply. They have turned it into the career path if you’ve got a good degree"
These comments mean nothing at all. Finland is an exceptionally strange, and self-serving, comparison to make, for Cameron is using an example of an education system which thrives for a completely different set of reasons, and reasons that Cameron's party would never endorse. He's being very selective indeed. I'll quote Unity, from the Liberal Conspiracy blog, verbatim here, if I may.
1. Finland has a wholly comprehensive education system. There are no grammar schools or other selective institutions, to speak of. Finland’s comprehensive schools are expected to take in pupils, irrespective of their personal background and the skills, abilities and aptitudes they possess on entry, and adapt to each individual pupils’ needs.

2. Teacher training courses are massively oversubscribed and, typically, accept only 10% of applicants. Studies looking at the positive outcomes generated by of the Finnish system invariably pay little or no attention to the quality of applicants for teacher training courses. What they focus on is the quality of Finnish teachers on leaving university to enter the education system.

3. All Finnish teachers are required to complete a Master’s degree in either education or a teaching-related subject and all are treated as pedagogical experts.

4. On taking up a teaching post, Finnish teachers are afforded a significantly greater degree of latitude and pedagogical autonomy than their counterparts in the UK.

5. Finnish teachers are expected to teach and, for the most part, are left alone to get on with the job of teaching with little or no outside interference from the state, politicians or even parents.

6. Finland does have a national curriculum, but unlike the UK, their curriculum covers only the general subject matter to be taught, not how it should be taught or how long should be spent on each topic, and teachers have a considerable say over the content of the curriculum.

7. The Finnish system does not make use of national tests or examinations – teachers are trusted to assess pupils’ performance throughout the system based on the individual student’s classwork, projects, portfolios and teacher-generated examinations.

8. Finland does not make use of school league tables, nor could it given the lack of national tests and examinations. School outcomes are measured, but only using data drawn from sample-based surveys and this is only published at system level

9. School exclusions are also unheard of in Finland because they’re not permitted by law – once a pupil enters a school, it’s the school’s responsibility to educate that child whether they (the school) likes it or not.

10. As you might imagine, in a system of that kind, non-teachers (i.e. school governors and local education authorities) have far less authority over schools than is the case in any other OECD country.
I don't mean in highlighting all this to imply that the Finnish system is perfect, but the above self-evidently is illustrative of an education system which resembles ours in name only. For Cameron to suggest that the high standards of Finnish education could be replicated in the UK purely by virtue of restricting the pool from which we draw teachers is downright ludicrous.

If we're agreed that right now, less than 5% of new teachers have third class degrees, are we prepared to conclude that this sub-5%-category are the worst teachers? Only Offsted - or the teachers' own pupils and colleagues - can tell us that, but I'd be surprised if anyone was happy with that assumption. The Guardian, here, gives one example of a highly-rated teacher who would be excluded under the Tory proposals - I'm sure there are plenty more.

Academic rigour is plainly not the key characteristic required of an educator. Perhaps it is at Eton, where class sizes are small and disruptive elements long since factored out of the equation, but at a normal secondary school, with a wide range of students, enthusiasm, patience, clarity and empathy are the most important things. I couldn't tell you, in retrospect, whether the teachers at my school were intellectual powerhouses, but I can tell you this: the majority of them were good, motivated, lively educators who understood children.

Francis Gilbert is excellent on this in today's Guardian:
"If you don't have the right personality, you'll suffer in the bearpit of today's classrooms. In my experience, there are four types of teacher who are effective: the despot, the carer, the charmer, and the rebel. And none of them, in my experience, requires an upper-class degree.

[...] But the crucial point here is that none of these teachers learned their skills by getting a good degree: they learned them on the job. All could ­improve by watching other good ­teachers in the classroom and learning from their techniques."
Do we only want educators who breezed through the academic system, often propped up in some respect by pro-active parents, financial security and/or private education? Or do we want teachers who understand the difficulties that many children face, from struggling with complicated concepts to lacking motivation.

A teacher who has, in his or her life, sometimes struggled with academic success is someone that can be a considerable asset - a role model and a friend to students who need guidance. Indeed, we must also consider that the academic heights reached by a 21 year old are of comparatively little significance when the average age of students training as teachers "is mid twenties to early thirties", and so much life experience can be brought to bear in such a role.

There are, in fact, already two people who are excellently equipped to decide whether people will be suitable teachers - the PGCE course supervisor who recruits would-be teachers, and the headmaster who ultimately (if they qualify) will employ them. Let's leave these experts to make their informed decisions, and concentrate on more pressing issues, such as funding, class-sizes and (loosening the Government's stranglehold on) curriculum.

The idea that Cameron's comments - and education strategy - will encourage the growth of teaching as a 'noble profession' is plainly absurd. But it's more disturbing than that, because it suggests that the Conservative Party has not learned any of the lessons one might hope they had from watching Labour's management of education over the last 13 years. There are a great many things that might be improved upon by a new government, but the evidence suggests that the same old prejudices preoccupy the Tories. How long before the conversation moves away from "elite teachers" to "elite pupils", and we see the return of grammar schools?

At the end of Gilbert's excellent article - which is worth reading in its entirety - he concludes thus:
"Instead of demoralising teachers with his ill-informed comments about what makes a good teacher, Cameron should commit himself to putting proper money and time into training the existing teachers in the system. Instead of paying for the training of a "brazen elite" of graduates, he should improve the wages of all teachers so that we are all treated like an "elite". His current policy, if implemented, won't improve the standards of teaching, and will instead further dishearten an already deflated profession".
I can't improve on that.

Monday, January 18, 2010

simon armitage

When I was a teenager I used to listen religiously to Mark Radcliffe's Radio 1 show, and I remember being staggered and delighted that he regularly found time to include poetry in his format, and wish I still had all the tapes I used to make of Simon Armitage reading his own, and others' poetry. I vividly remember an occasion where he read the poems of Charles Simic, and think it was a real turning point in my developing love of literature.

Here's Simon Armitage reading 'Snow Joke' back in 1991. If anyone knows of an audio archive of his poetry, please do let me know.


Loping carefully down snow-covered pavements; watching My Sad Captains play a set of melodic, fine tuned indie rock; playing with my friend Claire's cat; watching the trains negotiate through the bad weather; Curly Hair live at the Freebutt, everything perfumed with Xmas; constructing stop animations from the window at work; watching adults and children throw snowballs; gasping at the lovely, sonorous sound of Foxes! live; admiring cat-leaps on Boxing Day; talking shit at parties; lunch with my friends; housebound in Brighton; surrounded by my favourite people; watching the new year land.

This was my December.

Thanks to Claire for the idea!

cats (and their dykes)

Spotted while out shopping in Kemp Town this weekend; marvellous.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

the consolation of town planning

Sometimes a whimsical observation you read stays with you for days; this was the case with one of Wendy's recent posts over at her Wendy House blog. It was only a light-hearted quip on her part, but it struck me as the kind of playful, sudden thought that shouldn't be mistaken for a hackneyed one. I've heard the phrase 'relief road' a million times, but somehow never quite noticed it's charming quality. Wendy writes:

Here in the UK we have roads who’s whole purpose is to provide relief, relief Roads.

The pleasingly named Rose Kiln Lane is a Berkshire relief road. Roads that provide relief. A very pleasing idea.

Having a stressful day at work? Then visit Rose Kiln Lane to find relief.

Nothing more to it than that. But the phrase has stayed with me. If only the government really did build infrastructure designed solely to console.

Incidentally, I just bought Anna Minton's 'Ground Control: Fear and Happiness in the Twenty First Century City', which I think will be an interesting read, and I hope to blog about it in the future. The Guardian review of the book, which alerted me to its existence, begins:
The important thing about a castle is not that it is comfortable, but that it is secure, which makes the Englishman's proverbial urge to live in one rather bleak. Against whom are we fortifying our homes, if not one another? We pretend that our property obsession is a lifestyle choice, but it could just be misanthropy: worshipping the private retreat out of distaste for being in public. If so, the problem stems from bad policy as much as national character. The British approach to managing urban space is utterly wrong, according to Anna Minton in Ground Control. Successive governments have conspired, Minton argues, to create environments that make people suspicious of one another. That makes them miserable. We are one of the saddest, loneliest peoples of Europe.
Sounds like it might be fascinating.

running from camera

A nice little link from the ever reliable GromBlog; this is the Running From Camera blog.

"The rules are simple: I put the self-timer on 2 seconds, push the button and try to get as far from the camera as I can."


Friday, January 15, 2010

currently listening

My listening habits for the first couple of weeks of this new decade are, frankly, more 1975 than 2010, but never mind. Here's what I've been listening to recently.

1. Townes Van Zandt, Live At The Old Quarter, Houston, Texas LP. Van Zandt may have been, in his doctor's words, "an acute manic-depressive who has made minimal adjustments to life", but it's the conventionality of his music that I love rather than its idiosyncrasy. On the face of it, he's an orthodox singer-songwriter in the country-folk mould. But his records have a wonderful mixture of gravity and humour. Wildly unappreciated, but I think this recording of a live set from 1977 is his very best record, and worth treasuring.
2. Big Star, 'The India Song'. As an Andy Hummel contribution, this is probably one of the least lauded Big Star numbers, but I think it's beautiful - Big Star were ace.
2. Gillian Welch, 'Elvis Presley Blues' (from her Time (The Revelator) LP). This is the song that launched me on this week's retro direction - a lovely, idiosyncratic bit of Americana I first heard on Jarvis Cocker's new 6 Music show.
4. Bobbie Gentry, Touch 'Em With Love LP. I was inspired to dig back to this late 70s country/soul hybrid courtesy of the lovely Beth Jeans Houghton, whose inspired folk reminds me much more of this than anything made in the 2000s.
5. Mary Hampton, 'Honey' (from her My Mother's Children LP). Creepy, quiet, Brighton folk. I saw Mary live a couple of months ago and she played a song to the percussive sound of the audience rattling their housekeys. Awesome.
6. The Dream Syndicate, The Days of Wine and Roses LP . Apparently this lot were part of LA's 'Paisley Underground' in the early 80s. That sounds awful, but the song is lovely, prefiguring the notion that one day Robyn Hitchcock and Peter Buck would hitch up and work together.
7. The Mantles, The Mantles LP - this is great stuff, just really simple, reverb-drenched indie, garage-formed psych. Good stuff.
8. Pérotin, Beata Viscera - caught a snippet of this amazing Gregorian choral music in Terence Davies' marvellous 'Of Time and The City' and had to seek it out. Beguiling stuff.
9. Lucinda Williams, 'Maria' (from the Happy Woman Blues LP). I know, more country-rock. But listen to it; it's gorgeous - "damn the pain and damn those restless days".
10. Younghusband, 'Younghusband Says Relax'. Still can't stop listening to this wonderful, post Lemonheads/Teenage Fanclub indie. My favourite single from 2009, by miles. A real slacker anthem, too - "Don't feel sad / I do / and I'm guilty of an anxiety relax".

OK, and I'm going to try to do Spotify playlists when I do this in future. Here we go then. Click to open:
Spotify playlist for my current listening, Jan 15th 2010

I promise next week I'll listen to some hip hop or something.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

money makes the world go round

Strange going ons in the world of football. For those of you who have no interest; you're missing out - this is a peculiar and interesting season for a number of reasons - the big clubs are struggling, the smaller clubs are contracting and expanding, playing rich, rewarding football on the one hand and spitting out managers on the other. Adapting to face new commercial realities, and creaking under the weight of the grim hold that capitalism exerts on the game.

And old certainties are no longer quite so certain - I can no longer find it in myself to hate Sol Campbell for leaving Spurs all those years ago, for example, and I find myself inwardly applauding the dreadful Joey Barton for claiming that footballers 'are knobs' on Radio 4, of all places. Grand old clubs like Man City, Portsmouth and Notts County, meanwhile, have futures which are suddenly, truly, completely unknowable. Glory or bankruptcy.

This isn't the prelude to a review of the year in football or anything; just a few notes before I sling off a couple of interesting links I've encountered in the last few weeks. The first concerns the afore-mentioned Portsmouth, for whom every moment seems a drawn-out agony, for all that (actually) they have an OK team, who play nice football. Their problem is not that they look dead-certs for relegation (actually, that's the least of their problems) but rather that they tried to compete with the big teams financially and messed it up, before taking the hand of the first person who promised to clear up the mess without checking him out properly first.

If anyone wants to formulate an argument about capitalism ruining football, they should board the train to Fratton. Jamie Jackson, writing for the Guardian, delivers a damning indictment of Portsmouth's profligacy.

John Utaka was Portsmouth's record signing when he joined from Rennes in July 2007 for £7m. In two and a half years, he has become their record waste of money.

Utaka has started 31 Premier League games and scored seven times in all competitions. Since claiming five of those goals in his opening season the Nigerian's form has declined disappointingly. This season his highlight was scoring against Hereford United in the Carling Cup five months ago. Despite Portsmouth's well-documented problems – Avram Grant has only 17 outfield players, and is operating under a transfer embargo – Utaka has started only twice in the league, back in August. Not only was Utaka rejected by Nigeria for the Africa Cup of Nations that starts tonight, he did not even get into the 32-man preliminary squad.

Portsmouth are debt-ridden and threatened with administration. Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs served a winding-up petition on the club just before Christmas, and Portsmouth cannot find the £10m required to lift the transfer embargo. Utaka, meanwhile, continues to enjoy the rewards of his four-year contract on a barely credible £80,000 a week. If he stays to the end of his term, the total cost to Portsmouth will be about £23m. That would be enough to secure their immediate future.

If that tale of excess isn't enough to momentarily divert you from the small pyre of wicker bankers which you are absent mindedly building at your desk, a slightly more jolly tale from Manchester, where at Man City, meanwhile, things could not be more rosy since they shacked up with their own - somewhat more credible - Saudi sugar-daddy, and made the decision to sack Mark Hughes.

Football being football, they elected to do so in an entirely dishonourable fashion, and earned the condemnation of many in the game for their methods, but, football being football, they've won every game since (under the stewardship of the handsome Roberto Mancini), so everyone has forgiven them. Except for Mark Hughes, presumably.

Even I've fallen under the spell of Mancini. He's just so sophisticated. Look, here he is bemoaning the food culture at his new club. He wants the players to eat better before they run out onto the pitch.

"I will calmly make corrections to what they eat before matches," City's manager told the Italian newspaper Corriere dello Sport. "You need more chicken, pizza, carbohydrates. As well as a glass of wine, which isn't being served."

Brilliant! He wants his players to eat pizza and drink alcohol before they play!!! I love this man. When his time comes, I hope his petty, fickle, nouveau-riche employers treat him better than he did his predecessor.

And, more importantly, last night's game between Liverpool and Reading was just fantastic, fantastic stuff - a genuinely deserving smaller team, a huge team in a state of crisis, and a great finale. Here's Dan, rather pleased with Reading's performance.


I've lost my copy of 'Money' - how did that happen? Looked everywhere for it. Bah.

Now that I am proper adult, and only occasionally a sulky teen, I can say it. Some of the above books are not very good. Ten years ago, I'd have sooner shaved my head than admit it.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

and still the snow

Tuesday, January 12, 2010


I don't really get the whole Lord of The Rings thing, personally - what little affection I have it for it springs from childhood memories of listening to The Hobbit on cassette (although I never got through it), and the animated film from 1978, which scared me senseless when I was young. The Peter Jackson remakes were OK; involving and exciting in parts but desperately over-long and ever so reverential.

But! I am enjoying Natalie Podrazik's Hobbited Blog more than I can say. Natalie is, unbelievably, just about the last person on Earth who knows nothing about Lord of The Rings, and is thus blogging her first encounter with Bilbo Baggins et al from a position of complete innocence. Her bewilderment and good humour make this an essential winter read. I hope she sticks with it longer than I did those blasted audiotapes.

Here she is getting frustrated with Gandalf.

First of all, Gandalf leads his trusted peers to the woods and proclaims that he's not going in there with "you people". He YP'd them! His own crew!

"It is no use arguing. I have, as I told you, some pressing business away south; and I am already late through bothering with you people. We may meet again before all is over, and then again of course we may not."

Who called this mission to order? Gandalf. And he's ditching the crew. Sup with that? What about wolves? What about trolls or goblins? He took the wicked swords AND the horse from bear-man and made everyone else return their ponies, and now he wants them all to march into a deep dark forest and maybe he'll see them on the other side. Can they walk around? Yeah, but its hundreds of miles, Gandalf says. Hmmm, how does that phrase go, again? "F*** you. No smiley." I think that's it.

By the way, just remembered that I had two goldfish called Bilbo and Baggins when I was a kid. Over the years, however, their names evolved into, er, Fish 1 and Fish 2. There's another example of me not giving Tolkein due reverence. Fish 1 lived longest but then developed some kind of weird growth and got all listless. Those were dark days.

Friday, January 08, 2010

jonathan ross and mark kermode

Do I care that Jonathan Ross is leaving the BBC? Well, of course not, given that I hardly ever watched or listened to his programmes, but I mind a little in the sense that the baying, myopic tabloids which made such a prolonged and nauseous protest against him have been handed their victory.

I actually think that Ross is a very talented and likable presenter - although by no means flawless - and he has been treated very shabbily by the BBC over the last couple of years. He should have walked when they made him pre-record his radio show.

Either way, his parting does create one point of interest - and that is whether the BBC will appoint the one obvious, deeply intelligent, stand-out candidate to replace him on Film 2010 or, well, or someone that isn't Mark Kermode. He would be a fabulous appointment - he's already responsible for one of the best podcasts, if not the the best, that the BBC make, and would, I suspect, immediately transform BBC1's flagship film programme from something I never watch, to one of the best programmes on TV. I hope they do it.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

snow day redux

Still more snow in the UK and, after a quiet day yesterday, Brighton is finally getting its share; we had a dusting last night which was swiftly diluted by the rain, but this morning the snow is falling thick and fast and settling sloppily on the roads. I find watching the snowdrops from my high window utterly transfixing.

Went out for a quick trot around the park earlier, glad that I chose to invest in a pair of proper waterproof boots, and took a couple of photos. Now I'm back at my desk sorting through work chores and waiting anxiously for the moment when I feel I've done enough to allow myself the reward of dashing out to build a snowman.

Monday, January 04, 2010

sunset over my office

the architecture of dreams

I've never been inclined to analyse dreams, or read too much into them. There are people, I know, who think they have great significance, that they are the key to unlocking great mysteries of the mind, or that they have a strange, totemic significance for the future. I don't think any of those things, nor do I spend much energy thinking of them. Most of my dreams are vivid, realistic, meandering, and easily forgotten; often within moments of waking.

A dream, for me, has no significance but as an insight into the odd physicality of the mind - I like to think of dreams as surges of leftover creativity and power. A light-bulb doesn't go cold the moment one turns it off, and nor does the mind. Once we drift into sleep I like to think of our brains throbbing on, unharnessed, no longer dictated by logic, until the detritus of the day is worked through.

What I do find amazingly interesting about dreams, above all else, is the incredibly lucid architecture they summon up. Take the dream I remember from last night:

It was set on the grounds of a University campus. It started in the canteen, where I was eating. From there, I moved through to a foyer and entered a newsagent, where I flicked through magazines and through a box of second-hand books which were on sale. I picked up a bundle of four books, which were banded together, because they were all academic studies of the band Bloc Party (of whom, incidentally, I'm not a fan, so I don't know where I dredged that up from). I then walked out to the open air and boarded a bus, heading off campus. I sat upstairs. A girl noticed my books and asked what they were.

Nothing there is interesting or insightful, but when I awoke, I awoke with an incredibly keen memory of the landscape I created. As an editor of academic books, I spend a lot of time on university campuses, so their layouts are familiar to me. I could have picked any one of thirty or forty campuses I know well in which to set my scenario. But all day I've been remembering, visualising the architecture of my dream-memory and I am sure of two things. Firstly, it was incredibly real (although it is a memory shot from a single angle, as if cinema), and secondly, it was a landscape of my own design. Bits of pieces of it no doubt constructed from real memories, but the overall picture was original. A place I've never been to, and to which I can never return.

I'm just flabbergasted, when I think of it, at the fact that when we dream we are able to imagine with such incredible, complex detail. I could draw a map of the dream and it would - and this is the depressing bit - probably represent the most concerted bit of creative imagining I've performed, awake or asleep, in 2010 so far.

How weird, and how exciting,

Saturday, January 02, 2010 yearly roundup monitors most of my listening habits, being plugged in as it is to my ipod, my iphone, to iTunes and to Spotify, so it only falls down when it has a hissy fit or else I'm listening to the radio or to vinyl. Like a lot of these services which track your habits, it's faintly dispiriting when you use it to look back at your tastes. The following list is my most listened to artists of 2009 - some are surprising, some are blindingly obvious. Can't help wishing the list was a bit more esoteric or interesting, but there you are.

1. Blur, 307 plays
2. Emmy the Great, 195 plays
3. The Wave Pictures, 153 plays
4. Field Music, 127 plays
5. Noah and the Whale, 126 plays
6. Bat for Lashes, 114 plays
7. Blue Roses, 112 plays
8. Edward Williams, 103 plays
9. Simone White, 84 plays
10. Graham Coxon, 81 plays
11. Pavement, 79 plays
12. Peggy Sue, 75 plays
13. The Zombies, 74 plays
14. Julie Doiron, 72 plays
15. Beth Jeans Houghton & The Hooves Of Destiny, 68 plays.

Friday, January 01, 2010

once in a blue moon

Last night was notable not just for being the start of a new decade, but also because it offered a rare opportunity to see a blue moon; the rare sighting of a 13th full moon in a calender year. Doesn't happen often, and, while it's no different to any other full moon, it somehow felt like a priviliged, mystical moment to be eyeing it as I walked home from Dan's party at four in the morning.

To all reading who I've not spoken to in person over the last 24 hours - Happy New Year.

dogs in snow

I often link to The Grey Area, but usually neglect to mention that one of the main reasons I read it is because it features, alongside lots of interesting links and hugely acerbic commentary, some extremely beautiful photographs, as often as not focused on the author's two dogs, Little Mouse and Alfie. They're normally wonderfully sharp and focused; but I like this less clear shot just as much.

Click here to see the original post.