Wednesday, 14 December 2005

Unsettling, isn't it?

My thoughts often turn to the concept of "settling down" with someone, probably because I seem to find it so hard to do. To me, even the use of the word "settle" seems to imply that this might not be a desirable thing to do..... settle... seems to suggest "put up with" or "make do". I don't want to put up with something or someone, and I certainly don't want to make do with someone just because I haven't yet found anyone better. But then maybe that's what settling really is: the realisation that, although not perfect, the person you're with is as good as can be expected or hoped for.

I think the thing that worries me most though is the thought that if you settle down with that special person and then someone or something better comes along, undoing that settling process is going to be a difficult and generally unpleasant process... so maybe that's another ingredient of the settling process, the ability to close your eyes to the world and be so pleased with what you've got that you stop noticing everything else around you. And don't start telling me that you've met the one person in the world who is right for you, I'm not sure I buy into that. Do you know how many people there are in the world? Are you really trying to tell me that you couldn't be just as happy, or even happier, with someone else?

The upshot of all this rambling is that I don't want to settle for something that's just okay or even good, I want something with someone that is brilliant. I accept that it might not be perfect - what is - but I need to be able to feel that I've done the best I can in life, and that includes all matters of the heart. Maybe this is why so many people in the UK are leaving it longer and longer to get married, or at least one of the reasons... and maybe it's also why even now, when I'm as close to settling as I have ever been, my roving eye is still lighting upon uncharted waters and I'm still wondering, "What's beyond that horizon?"

Thursday, 10 November 2005

"War - what is it good for?"

As Remembrance Sunday draws near here in the UK, thoughts inevitably turn to war, past and present. Earlier this week, a two-part BBC series called "The Last Tommy" began, focussing on veterans from the First World War. These centenarians talked with honesty and emotion about their experiences, vividly describing the terror and oblivion of trench warfare, the apparent insanity of "going over the top", as tens of thousands of men were slaughtered in just a few short hours to gain a couple of hundred yards of territory. There aren't too may WW1 veterans left, and I applaud the BBC for documenting their experiences in this way.

Thoughts also turn to more recent conflicts, notably the war in Iraq. Whatever your opinions are on the reasons and supposed justifications for this war (and I certainly have my opinions, as you may have read elsewhere in this weblog), the shock and awe of Bush and bLiar have certainly illustrated how much warfare has changed. Trench warfare has been replaced by long-distance combat, where G.I. Joe can take out the enemy without even getting his boots dirty. I'm not saying this is a good or bad thing - I have no military experience so I wouldn't presume to judge - but somehow it brings the smaller acts of this war, like car-bombs and suicide attacks into sharper, more horrendous focus.

"War! Huh? What is it good for?" asked Edwin Starr. We all know his answer to that...

Monday, 17 October 2005

When the world is running down...

Is it just me or are natural disasters becoming more frequent and more severe? I try to tell myself that there were just as many hurricanes, flash floods, tornadoes and so on thirty years ago as there are now, but somehow that doesn't ring true. Maybe it's just that the media are more adept at reporting such extremes of nature these days; the world is certainly a smaller place than it was in the 1970s and even '80s. Or maybe it's just that we're all more environment-conscious these days, so Hurricane Xanthe battering some Gulf province we've never heard of gets reported in much greater depth than would have been the case in years gone by...

...or maybe it's just that the cumulative effect of too many years' global warming has pushed the planet's delicate equilibrium so far out that when it springs back, it does so with monumental force. If so, how much further do we have to push before the inelastic point is reached, and equilibrium is unrecoverable? I've mentioned this before but I'll mention it again - please take a look at the CRed carbon reduction campaign.

And before anyone writes to harangue me, I'm not trying to pin the earthquake in Pakistan on global warming - I'm just talking severe weather-related events here. I don't believe there's anything to show global warming influences plate tectonics... but I do believe massive pollution and unsustainable deforestation have screwed the climate. I'm not sure what will come first, half the country's roads being flooded as water levels rise or fossil fuels running out - either way, at least domestic pollution will drop somewhat.

Footnote: "When the world is running down you make the best of what's still around" is a very catchy (if excessively titled) song by the always-excellent Police.

Tuesday, 11 October 2005

C30, C60, C90, Go!

I embrace technology. I'm interested in gadgets. I work in IT... so yes, I'm a tech-head, geek, nerd, whatever. Somewhere in the dim and distant past I even worked in an independent hi-fi store. So you'd think I'd love the speed and efficiency with which CDs can be ripped and MP3s encoded. And, to a certain extent, I do. But there is one drawback, one caveat, one proviso, one bugbear, one problemo - the joy of compiling a compilation tape has been lost.

Tape? Cassette tape? Am I mad? Yes, I know that tapes degrade, oxidise and eventually wear out. Yes, I know that the sound quality does not stand up in our digital world (although a decent Metal tape with Dolby S noise reduction comes pretty close to a budget CD player - see, I told you I used to work in a hi-fi shop). But a compilation tape... a mix tape, if you prefer...

These days, burning a CD takes just a few minutes. With media-playing software, you can juggle MP3s into just about any order you like and quickly burn or transfer that playlist to the medium of choice. But with tape, everything was different. Building a playlist required a pen and paper. Putting the desired tracks in order was a complex balancing act that involved weighing up a pleasing or meaningful sequence of songs against the running time of each track, to make the best use of the 45 minutes you had on each side of the tape. Nothing worse than having to fast-forward to the end of a side before turning over, right? And even when you'd finally worked out a time-sensitive and aurally satisfying running order, you then had to invest the time in actually doing the taping. It might take ten minutes to burn a disc but recording a 90 minute compilation tape, with changing records, cueing up and releasing the pause button, could take three hours or more.

And what of splicing tracks, or fading out? Seguéing tracks together required careful use of the pause button, timing and a fair amount of luck - trial and error was the name of the game, but it could be done, and oh, how satisfying it was when you got it right. Fading out? How many times have I slowly wound down the Recording Level knob whilst counting to myself? Cross-fading though, that was always beyond the realms of domestic hi-fi. So hurrah for the digital revolution... these days, tracks can be edited with astonishing results using free software on a basic home PC, all at the click of a mouse. Any idiot can do it... but the art has been lost.

Because of the time and effort that went into making a really good compilation tape, giving someone a mix meant something. Making a tape for a friend meant "these are songs that I like - you might like them too because we're mates". Making a tape for a girl meant "I want you to think I'm cool" or "I want to seduce you with music"... or, most often, "look how obvious I'm trying to make it that I like you". And what pleasure could be gained from making a tape for yourself! Sometimes, with careful planning and a stroke of luck, the perfect compilation would emerge, and do sterling service on the car stereo for the next six months.

I still have a number of compilation tapes knocking about. I even keep one particularly good mix in the car "for emergencies", i.e. when I'm sick to death of the CDs in the autochanger. Others are gifts from people that mean so much. I'll never play them again because they're becoming so frail, but I'll never get rid of them. The sight of them with their hand-decorated inlay cards is enough for me to remember the thought that went into them, the emotional investment that was made. But I do recognise them for what they are: relics of a bygone age, the 20th Century. Nowadays the whole product can be done and dusted in minutes, digital inlay artwork included - some homespun discs could even be passed off as commercial products, which makes me a bit sad. I can't argue with the fact that technology has made compilations easier to make and more professional in quality but there's just no fun in it anymore. No more will I spend a blissful weekend planning and recording a perfect C90 and never again will I be able to give someone a compilation that says "this is how much you mean to me".

Footnote: Nick Hornby covers the importance and complexities of the compilation tape somewhere in the middle of his excellent book High Fidelity, whilst "C30, C60, C90, Go!" was a single by the short-lived and archetypical Eighties band Bow Wow Wow.

Tuesday, 13 September 2005

Not so smart, these Smarties

Nestlé have, in their time, done lots of things to lots of people that have hardly endeared themselves to the campaigners of the world. You don't have to do too much rooting around on this thing we call the Internet to read about some of their decidedly unfair trade with coffee producing nations, for a start, and I'm not even going to talk about them and baby milk. Closer to home, and on a more personal basis, some years ago they bought Rowntree Mackintosh and promptly closed the chocolate factory that perfumed the air of my student days with its sweet Yorkie aroma. But now they have gone too far... they've messed around with Smarties.

Smarties come in tubes! Everyone knows this! The plastic lid can be flipped off with your thumb (this can look quite cool with practice)! The lid has a letter of the alphabet embossed on its underside, so you never know what letter of the alphabet you're going to get until you leave the shop! People collect the lids, striving to complete their collections of every letter in every colour! Rare lids even change hands on e-Bay! If you put the lid back on an empty tube, then thwack the tube suitably hard, you can propel the lid across the room! If they remove the lid and the cardboard bottom from a tube, kids can pretend they have a telescope! And best of all, Smarties lids make excellent emergency guitar plectrums!

Enough exclamation marks. As I hope you can tell from the previous rant paragraph, I rather like the traditional packaging of Smarties, the British sweet that was a regular treat in my childhood and an Easter Egg banker in my adult years. The whole sturdy-cardboard-tube, plastic lid and cardboard bottom assembly had a certain reliability to it that appealed to me as a kid and resonates with the older me. When you've eaten the sweets, you can disassemble the packaging, make things out of the tubes and collect the lids. What could be better?

According to Nestlé, a flimsy hexagonal package with integrated cardboard flip-top, that's what. Whatever were they thinking? At the risk of being accused of getting emotive on this subject, let's first consider the practical issues: the new, hexagonal Smarties tube top doesn't stay closed. I know because, in a fit of curiosity, I bought a packet; after eating my first Smartie, I closed the integrated flip-top and put the packet safely in my fleece pocket. Half an hour later, I fancied another sweet so I unzipped my pocket and took out... a handful of loose Smarties. It seems the new lid only stays closed if you do not move or touch the packet in any way! All I did in that half an hour was walk for five minutes and then sit on a bus... and that was enough to scupper the collective genius of the finest Nestlé design brains. Or maybe their accountancy brains, for surely this is a cost-saving exercise. The old Smarties tube comprised three separate pieces of cardboard that had to be assembled on specialist machinery, together with a plastic lid. The new hexagonal packaging is pressed out of a single piece of insubstantial card and then glued down one side. Still the Nestlé marketing people assert that this is about innovation, not profits... but what do they take us for, really? That argument is about as robust as the new packaging it has been dreamed up to support.

Okay, now it's time for the emotive issues. People collect Smartie lids! There's probably even a proper name for such people (stop making up your own jokes) that has a Greek stem with -ist stuck on the end. What are they going to do now? And kids used to play with the empty tubes; as well as the pretend telescope mentioned earlier, who hasn't blown down a tube like it was a miniature trumpet or, better yet, a Lilliputian didgeridoo? Now all kids will be able to do is complain that they've lost their sweets when the new packaging steadfastly refuses to stay closed.

So what can we do about all this? Probably not very much. After all, we're dealing with the same company that took our beloved Opal Fruits ("made to make your mouth water") and rebranded them as Starburst (made to make you want to poke a Nestlé executive with a stick). The reason for this crime against another of our cherished childhood reminiscences: global brand consistency. This is also why Marathon bars are now Snickers and Jif bathroom cleaner is now Cif, but those are not Nestlé crimes. But let's get back to saving Smarties tubes - several online campaigns and petitions have already begun that I urge you to support. There are also numerous anti-Nestlé organisations that you can think about, but take care with these in case you inadvertently sign up with an organisation that's a little more extreme than you'd thought. As for me, I fully intend to register my disgust by writing to (and possibly phoning) Nestlé, and you can too - here's the address and other contact details:
Nestlé Customer Services
P.O. Box No 203
YO91 1XY
00800 63785385 (from the UK and RoI)
In the USA, a groundswell of public opinion forced Coca-Cola to backtrack on a recipe change in the mid-1980's, so maybe there's hope. Somehow though, I can't see that level of resistance to change here in Britain; instead, we'll just stiffen our upper lips and get on with retrieving the Smarties that have escaped their new packaging and are lying loose in our pockets. Only Smarties have the answer, the old advertising slogan used to say; that may be so, but they don't have decent tubes any more, and that's a shame.

Monday, 5 September 2005

Ralph, Piggy and Jack on the Bayou

What Hurricane Katrina has done to New Orleans and the surrounding area is astonishing; it has, as one newscaster so succinctly put it, killed a city. Equally astonishing is how lame, slow and generally inadequate the response has been from George Walker Bush and his merry men - it seems hard to believe that this is the emergency response from the world's only super-power, the richest, best-resourced country in the world.

For me though, the most astonishing thing has been how little time it has taken for law and order to break down or, more accurately, for civilisation to decay. Looting, violence, rape, gun fights and who knows what else have descended upon New Orleans in a way that I suspect not even the hardest of hardened cynics foresaw. But then anyone who has ever read (or seen the film adaptation of) William Golding's Lord Of The Flies will tell you that no matter how many well-meaning Ralphs and Piggys there are, you only need one Jack for everything to cave in... and then you're only a mob-chant away from "killing the pig".

Wednesday, 31 August 2005

"An inability to sleep"

With those four simple words is how the always-excellent WordWeb describes insomnia, and you certainly couldn't argue with the accuracy of the definition. It's just that somehow that brief, almost dismissive description hardly seems to do insomnia justice. This is, after all, a "condition" (or, as I prefer to think of it, "experience", since conditions quite often have cures) that can have a phenomenal and debilitating affect on a sufferer. And yes, I am on the kind of bad run at the moment where three hours sleep is considered a very good night.

Don't worry, I'm not going to drone on about all the obvious problems of insomnia: lethargy, irritability, sallow eyes, stifled yawns, the loneliness of 4am... and oh, did I mention the lethargy? STOP!!! I said I wouldn't drone on. After all, I am resigned to how insomnia affects me, and am truly grateful that I can go weeks or sometimes even months without a problem. What riles me though, particularly when (as now) I am having a prolonged period of "an inability to sleep", is other people's reaction. As you might imagine, the insomniac is familiar with a lot of trite responses, from "have you tried counting sheep?" and "just close your eyes and try to relax" right the way through to "you're not switching off your mind properly" (yes, really) and "I've got one of those airline eye-masks you can try if it helps". Yes, so have I. I've got a whole drawer of the sodding things, none of which helps in the slightest. But it's not the trite responses that rankle either - however inane, such comments are only meant to help.

What really rattles my chain is those people who feel they have to jump on the bandwagon, and regale you with tales of their "bad night". Night! Singular! And "bad" as in "I went to bed at two o'clock and had to be up again at 7.30." And as if that wasn't bad enough, such people often feel the need to say something along the lines of "I haven't been sleeping very well lately..." and then just let their voice tail off, as if this allusion to insomnia somehow makes them interesting or mysterious. Or, as is the case with one of my colleagues who is about as much an insomniac as I am the Prime Minister, some feel that a claim of insomnia gives them an excuse for being irritable, stroppy and unfocused at work. The aforementioned colleague also plays the insomnia card because he associates it with eccentricity and genius, and that is how he is desperate to be perceived.

Sigh. It's 4am. I would say "I'm off to get some sleep" but instead I'll just say that I'm going back to bed. Good night all.

Wednesday, 10 August 2005

Book snobbery

The release of the latest Harry Potter book has inevitably rekindled the debate about adults reading children's books. Ask yourself, quickly before you read any further, what's your view on this matter?

As a younger man, I felt almost obliged to read serious fiction, the intellectually challenging themes of which I viewed as some form of self-improvement. I still hold the self-improvement aspect to be a truism... I just no longer feel obliged to plough through weighty tomes. The turning point for me was Whatever Love Means by David Baddiel. Now this is a brilliantly written, adult book with adult themes of love, adultery, betrayal, illness and death. Although I found it to be a real page-turner, I wondered if I was reading it out of morbid fascination. Despite Baddiel's roots in the world of comedy, I found myself feeling depressed after reading this - it is not a funny book. Shortly after that I gave the first Harry Potter a try, just because I wanted to read something that was fun and had an optimistic last chapter (okay, I admit it, I wanted to see what all the fuss was about too).

And that's the point, surely; reading books should be fun, regardless of what age the reader is. So what if that middle-aged, suit-and-boots opposite you on the train has his head stuck in Harry Potter and the Next Derivative Installment? Even if he does feel the need to buy the adult-cover edition, he's enjoying himself - who has the right to criticise that?

That said, if you are an adult who has taken to browsing their children's bookshelves, you needn't constrain yourself to the latest offerings from J.K. Rowling or Philip Pulman. Seek out The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon. Read that and tell me where you draw the line between adult and children's literature.

Equally, there are those books that we read when children that we can enjoy again, not only because they are well-written, engaging stories but also because of the memories they evoke in us - reading the Chronicles of Narnia or most (but not all) of Roald Dahl's work certainly transports me back to a simpler time. Maybe that's the truth behind the phenomenon of adults reading kid's books - sure, the book has to be good enough to keep the pages turning, but the real appeal is in being, for that half an hour on the train at least, a child again. Life was so much simpler and happier then - who wouldn't want to pop back for a while?

Speaking of books as we are, I'll conclude with a couple of recommendations - for adults who prefer "grown-up" books, try Rough Music by Patrick Gale, easily the best book I have read this year and superior even to the similarly-themed and much-lauded The Corrections by Jonathan Frenzen. And if you're a kid who's starting to find that you can read Rowling et al on auto-pilot, try Watership Down by Richard Adams which you can read again and again and again and again and again... and get more from it every time.

Sunday, 10 July 2005

Heroes and villains

For the second time in a week I am writing about London. The bombs that brought havoc to the capital last Thursday have claimed, at the time of writing, 38 lives. 700 more were injured, some seriously. The lives of all those affected will never be the same again.

Whilst watching the news last night, a friend kept voicing her disbelief. How could they (the presumed terrorist perpetrators) do this? Why do they feel entitled to strike at innocent civilians? What do they hope to achieve? She couldn't understand why, in her own head, she couldn't rationalise the bombers' actions. But, as I pointed out, you cannot rationalise the irrational, explain the inexplicable or justify the unjustifiable. The presumed terrorist culprits must have such a distorted world view - only in their own deluded minds is such action justified.

In my younger days, I naïvely believed that there was some good in everyone. Sadly, the last fifteen years has scoured that optimism out of me. I'm pretty sure nobody reads this 'blog, which gives me the confidence to assert that there are people out there in the world today who are scum, plain and simple. People who blithely presume they have the right to make other's lives miserable, without recognising that they have moral and social responsibilities too. When, exactly, did human rights start to outweigh human responsibilities? This is why so many town centres are no-go areas on a drunken Friday night. This is why so many children today believe they can do exactly what they want, whilst their parents (incredibly) blame their schools for not raising them properly. This is why violence is a way of life on our streets, and people like you and me are too scared to intervene when it flares up for fear of an assailant pulling a knife (or worse). And this is why a crazed, brain-washed fundamentalist has no qualms about getting on a train and blowing up scores of innocent commuters.

But I'm sick of writing about the villains. I want, instead, to heap praise on the emergency services. Police, Fire, Ambulance... like our armed forces, they give a feeling that, despite being under-resourced, they are the best in the world. The professionalism they showed in dealing with terrible situations, in a manner that conveyed calm to the public, was immense. Hospitals staggered under the load they were suddenly asked to bear, but bear it they did. And what of the famed British stiff upper lip? Much has been made of how Hitler couldn't bring London down, despite a continuous aerial bombardment during the Second World War, and that Osama Bin Laden and his buddies wouldn't succeed either. Times move on, cultures change and people change; the time of the stiff upper lip has probably passed. However, there was a tangible atmosphere of "let's just get on with it" last week, as people walked miles home from central London, or jumped on a bus as they began to come back into service, or made plans for getting to work today. Doctors and nurses, firemen, commuters... there were lots of heroes on the streets of London last Thursday. As long as they continue to outnumber the villains, there is hope for us all.

Thursday, 7 July 2005

Higher, faster, stronger

So London has won the right to stage the 2012 Olympics. This is stupendous news, and I am already looking forward to getting (or trying to get) tickets for anything and everything.

Of course, if you're a regular reader of this 'blog, you'll know I have a tendency to be a bit pessimistic sometimes. So as not to disappoint then, what worries me about the Olympic bid? Well, this is the country that built the London Eye (well worth a trip) but couldn't have it ready to take passengers by the somewhat immoveable due date of 31st December 1999. We're the country whose plans for a new national stadium at Wembley are stuttering forward, fantastically over budget. We're the country who built the Millennium Bridge over the Thames, then had to close it again because it wobbled. We're the country that designed and built a fancy Diana Memorial Fountain, then had to close, redesign and finally restrict its use because no-one foresaw that water running over smooth concrete might be a tiny bit slippery...

So do you see what I'm getting at? It was all very well last year pouring scorn on the Greeks as they desperately tried to get everything ready in time for the Athens Olympics. It may well be a very different story in seven years time when the microscopic scrutiny of the world is upon us instead. Maybe I'm conveniently forgetting a whole host of national project management successes, but it just seems to me that we don't have a very good track record of delivering big projects on time, to budget and completely to specification.

Still, you have to admire the way Seb Coe and his team have turned the London bid around. When he first got involved, we were third or even fourth favourite to land the Games, yet look how things turned out. Maybe there is hope then, that just this once we Brits we be able to organise the proverbial excessive-consumption-of-alcohol in a brewery. If I'm still 'blogging in seven years, I'll let you know.

And finally, let's hope that the London 2012 team have a detailed post-Olympics plan in place too. Many of the Athens facilities have not been used at all since the closing ceremony there, which is especially depressing since the Greeks are saddled with huge debts from staging the Games in the first place. Maybe we should take a look at Sydney to see how this should be done: what was the Olympic village in 2000 is now a residential suburb rather than the husk that the Athens site threatens to become. Fingers crossed for Stratford in London's East End then - it could certainly use the regeneration. You can't help but feel that if the Olympic Commission parked their chariot of fire there at the moment, when they returned to it they'd find a couple of the wheels missing.

Wednesday, 6 July 2005

Live8, G8, desper8...

Last weekend, the great and the good rallied around to raise awareness of third world poverty by staging a series of rock concerts around the world. The BBC kindly broadcast the day's proceedings to an eager viewing public. Certainly it was an amazing spectacle: Paul McCartney, U2, Dido, REM, Keane, Travis, Razorlight, Robbie Williams and The Who were all excellent entertainment. Pink Floyd made men of a certain age get moist-eyed just by all turning up together. Other acts, including the much-lauded Coldplay, were below par in my book. Ms Dynamite spoiled the token appearance bestowed on her by squealing between two otherwise decent songs. Snoop Dogg's "mother-loving" exhortations provoked much hilarity with yours truly, and apparently many (300+) complaints to the Beeb. And everyone proclaimed their adoration for Sir Bob Geldof, some to the extent that you wondered whether they wanted to have his children. So everything's okay then, right?

Well I'm not so sure, to be honest. There's certainly no doubting Geldof's good intentions, and those of us who have supported the cause will at least be able to look back in years to come and say they tried to make a difference. I just wish I felt more confident that we can make that difference. Africa's problems stem far beyond simple poverty: corruption in government is rife in many countries; the healthcare burden of AIDS and HIV is tremendous; the infrastructure and supporting industry necessary to support the proposed increased in fair trade is patchy; civil unrest within and between territories is common. Then there's the question of whether the West has the right to impose its view of trade, healthcare, infrastructure and all the rest on such a different culture... or rather, such a huge collection of different cultures.

There's also an issue on which I feel sure I must be over-simplifying. The figure of 30,000 people dying needlessly every day makes my head spin. Clearly this is appalling. But let's just suppose, for one second, that G8 acquiesce to all of the Live8 campaign's demands, and that those 30,000 people don't die every day. In a week, 210,000 will have been saved. In five weeks, over a million will not have perished. In a year, that figure ramps up to over 10 million. This is clearly a good thing; no-one should die for simple lack of the money or means to support themselves. What worries me is that these impoverished areas don't have the means or infrastructure to support their current populations; how are they going to support 10 million more? And 10 million more the year after that? Are we just pushing back today's problems to a time in a few years when the basic survival needs of a larger population can no longer be met, in the same way that those basic needs cannot be met for today's poor? I don't know, maybe I am over-simplifying.

Finally, why isn't the G8 the G9? China is booming in every way: population, trade, industry... and carbon emissions. Okay, so the derisory figure of George W. Bush has attracted much criticism (though not enough from within his own country) for taking the US out of the Kyoto Agreement on climate change, especially since the States contributes a staggering 22% of the world's carbon emissions. By contrast, the whole of Europe contributes 12%, so we're clearly right to deride Bush for such lunacy. But China contributes 13%, a figure that looks certain to rise given the need for the immense Chinese population to play catch-up, racing through the same industrial and cultural follies that the West stumbled through in the latter half of the 20th Century. So why isn't China taking a seat at the G8 table and discussing these weighty issues? Why aren't there nine men in a room?

But I digress. Live8 is a noble cause and we have to try to make poverty history, even if you're as sceptical about our chances of success as me. I urge you to register your support for Sir Bob and his merry men at now.

And if you're as concerned as I am that ours is the generation that will be remembered for polluting our planet irretrievably, please take a look at the CRed carbon reduction campaign.

Friday, 10 June 2005

The Men Who...

Last Thursday, I had the good fortune to see a Travis gig. It was a wonderfully low-key affair; they had been drafted in to play the Isle of Wight festival as a last-minute replacement for Morrissey. Having not played live for a while, they needed to play a warm-up gig. So it was that they came to be playing to a crowd of maybe 1500 in a provincial university. And what a gig it was.

Most of the crowd had come hoping for a "greatest hits" set, and weren't disappointed, with nearly all the band's singles getting an airing, including "Sing", "Side", "Turn", "Driftwood", "Re-offender", "U16 Girls" and more besides. We were also treated to the first public performance anywhere of a new song, "Closer", and, during the encore, a cover of Morrissey's "Everyday Is Like Sunday". For me, and probably many others, the highlight of the evening was Fran's solo acoustic rendition of "Flowers In The Window". With the PA and monitors turned off, it was just a completely unamplified Fran and his guitar... plus the crowd for the choruses, of course.

As you can tell, I was very impressed with the whole show. Fran was very chatty with the audience, there was no merchandising or heavy-handed security, and the encore concluded with a rousing, sing-along rendition of "Why Does It Always Rain On Me?" to send the crowd home happy. This gig is a new entry in my "top five gigs I have ever been to" list, so I am more than happy to sell Travis to you... you can find lots of good stuff from them on Amazon right here.

Tuesday, 24 May 2005

The BBC: is this the beginning of the end?

Yesterday, hundreds of BBC staff went on strike over proposed cut-backs and inevitable redundancies. Even high profile figures like the lovely Natasha Kaplinsky made the effort (although not going to work doesn't technically constitute a great deal of effort). I doubt that Ms Kaplinsky was outside Broadcasting House with a placard in her hand, but I digress.

The thing is, if the great and good at the BBC are worried enough to down tools, so to speak, then things must be bad. When was the last time you can recall the Beeb's scheduling being disrupted by industrial action? No, I can't remember either.

The BBC (or British Broadcasting Corporation, to give it its full moniker) is, for my money, the greatest broadcasting agency in the world. Okay, I obviously seen every alternative globally, but I've been to enough countries and watched enough TV to know that the Beeb is pretty special, and should be treasured. Okay, so we have to cough up an annual license fee but compare the outlay of this to the spiralling monthly costs of a Sky TV subscription. Then consider all the new digital channels the BBC has launched (TV and radio) to supplement its existing output. Add to this the fact that, "due to the unique way the BBC is funded", you can actually watch a film on the BBC without being interrupted by adverts (bliss). And as if that wasn't enough, the BBC also provides, in my view, the greatest one-stop website you'll find anywhere - the volume and breadth of content is phenomenal.

So yes, I am obviously a fan of the BBC. As such, I am somewhat concerned about any plans to "streamline", "rationalise" or "modernise" the Corporation, and you should be too. Such buzzwords are often euphemisms for "muck up" or, worse still, "irreversably damage". So don't moan if your usual newsreader is off-screen for one day: support and understand their industrial action. Cherish the BBC: watch its programmes (easy, given the celebrity-obsessed dross on ITV), try out the new channels, explore the website. There's nothing else like it anywhere in the world, and you'll miss it when it's gone...

Sunday, 22 May 2005

What's going on?

Okay, so I haven't written much lately. I guess I am in danger of going the way of so many other 'blogs... the novelty wears off, writing becomes onerous, the journal dies a death. But I've been busy, that's all. Laptop time has been at a premium. Still, I've managed to find a few minutes to write about the events of the last few weeks, and it seems the theme is... what the hell is going on?
  • Tony Blair is widely held to have lied to the "Great" British public so that he could take the country to war, acting as George Bush's lick-spittle in a conflict that was as much to do with oil as it was WMD and regime change. Still he is comfortably re-elected as Prime Minister with a bigger majority than I recall John Major ever enjoying...
  • Abigail Witchalls gets a knife stuck through her neck in an apparently motiveless attack whilst taking her toddler son for a walk in a sleepy Surrey village...
  • Television schedules are filled with inane dross like "Celebrity Wrestling" (notable for its lack of actual, Big Daddy-style wrestling) and "Celebrity Love Island"...
  • Some guy that no-one's ever heard of turns up at The Crucible Theatre and walks away with the World Championship trophy. If it's that easy, I think I'll have a go next year...
  • Top pop poppet Kylie Minogue, someone that all men of a certain age (like me) feel that they've grown up with, is diagnosed with breast cancer just a few weeks short of her 37th birthday...
  • Arsenal and Manchester United, two of the biggest clubs in world football, can't manage a goal between them in 120 minutes of normal play in the final of the world's biggest knockout competition, the F.A. Cup...

Honestly, it's enough to make you question your own world-view. Life is becoming unpredictable in a way that I'm not sure I like. In fact, it's not so much "what's going on" as "whatever next?"

It's reassuring, then, to realise that some things are less random. After weeks of the media stoking up expectation, the UK entry went into last night's Eurovision Song Contest with the nation convinced she was going to win. Never mind the fact that the song didn't actually go anywhere and was so unconventionally structured. Our Euro-playmates are certainly not ready for such, ahem, sophistication. Needless to say, we trailed in third from last and, if not for Ireland giving us eight points, we would undoubtedly have collected the wooden spoon. Some things never change... thank goodness.

Thursday, 28 April 2005

Adapt and survive

I recently bit the bullet and finally bought a digital camera. This doesn't mean I have abandoned my trusty old SLR - that will come out of retirement any time I need to take 'proper' photographs. The digital camera is great though, but I do have a gripe (didn't you just know I would). The camera has a mains adaptor for charging the battery, naturally... just like my mobile phone... and my PDA... and so on. All these items of digital jewellery have mains adaptors, yet none of these adaptors are interchangeable. Even when the kit is of the same brand, as my camera and phone are! The upshot of this is that I end up with a spaghetti tangle of cables competing for space around my power outlets, cluttering my desk and taking up valuable space around the house. Surely it is not beyond the wit of man to develop a standard for mains adaptors that manufacturers could all adopt. Look at TV aerial cables, hi-fi interconnects and even conventional power outlets. All of these are standardised, so why can't mains adaptors for today's digital goodies conform to a single standard too?

Call me an old cynic if you will, but I suspect the reason is that there is a healthy market in accessory sales and bespoke, brand-specific products. If these adapters were interchangeable, our beloved electronics corporate giants would never sell another one... and the mark-up on accessories like these is staggering. As ever, it's all about the £/$/¥...

Right, I'm off to see if I can untangle enough wires to charge up my camcorder...

Wednesday, 6 April 2005

I take it all back...

Last month I wrote at some length regarding my concerns for the new version of Doctor Who. Well, two episodes in I find myself in the happy position of wanting to take it all back. Much has been written about the general excellence of Christopher Ecclestone; still more has been said about the exuberant brilliance of Billie Piper. Now Ecclestone is always good value and Piper, despite being somewhat lantern-jawed and over-doing the Estuary English, is very watchable. But for me, the real hero of this comeback is Russell T. Davies.

Davies's scripts sizzle with energy, pace and wit. The tempo is high - whole stories are comfortably resolved in 45 minutes - and the dialogue (mercifully not simplified for the kid-laden target audience) is crammed with loads of subtle jokes aimed squarely at adult viewers. So thank you Russell; I was very worried about my childhood TV memories being slaughtered - instead, I find myself making pleasurable new, adult ones instead.

Now here's hoping the imminent big-screen version of "Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy" is half decent too...

Monday, 21 March 2005

The Premiership 2004/5 - substance over style

I'm a football fan - that's soccer for any North American readers. I'm not obsessive about it - I don't plan my year around the fixtures list, for example, and I don't own a replica shirt (though I do have two club t-shirts). I've been to quite a few games this season though, and have been lucky enough to watch current champions Arsenal and champions-elect Chelsea. Both were impressive and both ran out comfortable winners against my team. This year's title race is effectively over already, with Chelsea so far ahead it's not true. The only way they're not going to win is if the entire squad is struck down with bird flu. This is all very nice for the success-starved Chelsea fans, who've had to wait a very long time to win the league, and arguably it's good news for the media and the FA, since the Blues have succeeded in breaking the two-horse race dominance of Arsenal and Manchester United. But it is good for football?

Don't get me wrong, I'm an admirer of Jose Mourinho, he seems to be a class act, and I suspect the recent histrionics he's been displaying are calculated to deflect attention from his squad as they pursue the Premiership and Champions League. And, undoubtedly, his teams get results. But is it good for the spectator? As I've said, I've seen Arsenal and Chelsea this season. Arsenal played incisively with skill, pace and creative flair. Chelsea played incisively with skill and pace. Sure, Chelsea still pulled the opposition apart. But with Arsenal, even the opposition fans applauded some of their play, it was so good. Yes, Chelsea did everything they needed to do to win comprehensively. So did Arsenal, but they were far more entertaining. At the time of writing, Arsenal are 13 points behind Chelsea.

So is this indicative of a trend towards substance over style in English football? Bolton Wanderers, an unfashionable team with comparably limited means, are challenging for a spot in next season's UEFA Cup. How have they got to this lofty position? By "winning ugly" - lots of players behind the ball, long punts upfield, classic route one football. And at the other end of the table, the converse is true. As I write, the three teams in the relegation positions are the same three teams that were promoted last season: Norwich City, West Bromwich Albion and Crystal Palace. Palace play attack-minded, committed football, and have a genuinely exciting player in Andy Johnson. I can't say too much about West Brom, having not seen them much this year but if their 4-1 win at the weekend is anything to go by they must be doing (or trying to do) something right. As for Norwich City, much has been said and written about them, both by opposing managers and the media - the prevailing theme seems to be that they are a team that tries to play attractive, passing football, whilst maintaining a friendly, well-organised club. Norwich are rock-bottom in the league, seven points from safety and with only three wins to their name thus far this season. For a club that won last year's old Division 1 title with such ease, this is disappointing. Much has been written about the gulf between the Premiership and the Championship, and the relegation status of last year's promoted teams would seem to support this. But to me, it also seems that teams with substance will triumph over teams with style. I hope, for the sake of the game, that Norwich somehow escape relegation and continue to ply their entertaining trade in the top flight. But I fear the odds are against them, as panache is forced out of the modern game with the advent of a "win at all costs" mentality. If substance really has triumphed over style, then the beautiful game will get a little less beautiful every year.

Monday, 14 March 2005

If you're a Timelord, you can make a comeback whenever you want

I find myself with mixed feelings regarding the imminent comeback of Doctor Who. Sure, Christopher Ecclestone is an excellent actor (Our Friends In The North being one of the greatest pieces of television I have ever seen) and Billie Piper also shows great promise (see the recent updating of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales). Crucially, bubbly blonde Billie gives the new show the same Dad-appeal the old series had when Louise Jameson paraded around in not too many clothes during the Tom Baker era's post-Grandstand Saturday afternoon slot. Add in the blue police box, scripts by the acclaimed Russell T. Davies and a comeback for the Daleks too (although I always preferred the Cybermen) and everything seems to be in place.

So what am I worried about? Well, I'm not convinced that today's kids are going to buy into Dr Who in the same way that my generation did. Despite the best efforts of the BBC, I feel fairly confident that most kids will be able to find better visual effects in their PlayStation2 and XBox games. As for being scared by hordes of freakish aliens, will 21st Century teens hide behind the sofa at the sight of an actor in a knobbly rubber suit? I hope so, but I doubt it; I doubt even primary school kids will be peeping through their fingers. Why? Today's kids are so much more shockproof than we were and is it any wonder, given their televisual diet? So the fear-factor is out.

So too is the oddball appeal, I fear. Jon Pertwee had frilly shirts, a velvet blazer and a classic car called Betsy. Tom Baker had a floppy hat, Jelly Babies and the world's longest scarf. Peter Davison always looked like he had either just come from the cricket pitch or was just going boating, plus he had question marks on his shirt collar. Ecclestone's Doctor wears a leather jacket... so let's hope he has some, as yet undiscovered, curiosity value, something cool or bizarre, or preferably both. At long as he doesn't have visible tattoos...

I guess my biggest problem though is that this feels like tinkering with my childhood. Dr Who was finished, allowing us all to grow up and look back at it with a kind of lazy nostalgia, mistily reminiscing about Sonic Screwdrivers, Gallifrey and K-9, before debating who was the "best" Doctor (Davison by a nose, for me). But now it's back, thus forcing us to re-evaluate what has gone before, maybe even face up to the fact that a lot of it hasn't aged very well. Although the Dalek's might have looked cool, it's time to admit they were rubbish. A sink plunger is not a scary weapon. Being outwitted by stairs is not cool.

So that's it really, another childhood memory brought into sharp focus, another sorry realisation. So will I be watching when the new series starts in a couple of weeks? Of course I will! And not just because of the aforementioned Dad-appeal either! But I'll be doing so with a wry grin, as I inevitably recall the somewhat puzzling schoolboy crush I had on Tegan, the Doctor's Australian air stewardess assistant... sigh...

Tuesday, 8 March 2005

Great Britain? Think again...

Shakespeare, Newton, Darwin, Churchill... Stonehenge, Canterbury Cathedral, Edinburgh Castle, The Angel of the North... The Lake District, the Cornish Coast, the Norfolk Broads, Snowdonia... few would argue that Britain has a heritage, culture and history that is unsurpassed. It's easy to look back at the past and feel a warm glow at being part of a nation that has done so much, given so much.

Think again. Instead of looking back through such red, white and blue-tinted spectacles, take a look through your window at the Britain of today. Take a walk down any provincial high street. What do you see? Gangs of teen thugs, studies in ignorance, loiter on street corners, their every characteristic designed to suggest menace. If you are lucky, they will content themselves with a bit of mindless vandalism, or using their numerical strength to be intimidating. A bit of verbal abuse aimed your way, perhaps. Dare you say anything back? Of course not. At best you will be vilified for abusing their human rights by telling them to behave. At worst they will be carrying a knife.

A trawl through any mainstream newspaper will yield further evidence. Just last week, incredible as it may seem, a two-year old died in Glasgow after being shot with an air rifle. Yesterday, the BBC News website informed us that Police were questioning a man about a missing 34-year-old building society worker after a woman's body was found near an airfield. Such stories are no longer shocking to Britons, it seems - this story came below such "important" news as Virgin Radio offering 3G mobile phone services and Manchester United missing two players for their next Champions League match.

Perhaps such problems are inevitable, given the cartoonish nature of violence in Hollywood's TV and film offerings, the supposed credibility afforded to gun-crime by gangster rap, and computer games wherein success is dependent on aggressive "play". Sadly, the problems in Britain's streets don't stop with violence and anti-social behaviour. Soaring teen pregnancy rates, rampant compensation culture, a justice system that can legitimately favour the criminal over the victim, an education system that is hamstrung by bureaucracy and on obsession with quantitative testing, a health service that is as likely to make you sick as cure you (when you finally get seen, that is)... I could go on...

... so I will. This "green and pleasant land" is anything but - compare our recycling rates with, for example, Australia (something like 12% of all rubbish is recycled here, compared with something like 60% down under). This tiny country, with its burgeoning population, can ill afford more land-fill sites, let alone the ecological catastrophes that are commercial incinerators. What's more, an aged and failing public transport network has led a situation where the only viable solution to the nation's transport woes is just to build more (and wider) roads. That, together with John Prescott's absurd house-building plans, mean that this fair nation of ours is in the process of being tarmac'ed over.

And what has become of the British public? It seems that every other person one meets is like a character from "Little Britain" or "Wife Swap" and, incredibly, finds no shame in this. Worse still is the number of people who are quite happy to act in a self-centred, ignorant manner and do so without so much as a second thought. By way of an example, I challenge you to take up a vantage point in any British high street and time how long it takes for you to see someone littering. Quite often this will be done in clear sight of a waste bin. If you're feeling brave enough to take issue with the offender, prepare yourself for the inevitably profane response. Society as a whole has become so obsessed with its rights - "I have the right to do whatever I like" - that it has completely neglected the concept of personal responsibility. Who's to blame? I don't know, to be honest. Directly, parents who are more concerned with their own lives than being responsible parents, perhaps. Indirectly, 18 years of right-wing Tory rule may have bred a "me, me, me" culture. The increasing globalisation, specifically Americanisation, of mainstream Britain is another factor, perhaps. Maybe the media should take some of the blame, for establishing the cult of celebrity as a new religion, and disseminating its pathetic gospel. Whatever the cause, I fear it is too late for Britain; too large a proportion of its population seem happy to embody everything I've outlined here, favouring their rights over their moral responsibilities because it's easier and provides more instant gratification.

Great Britain? Don't make me laugh. If not for family and friends, I would leave tomorrow.

Tuesday, 1 March 2005

Despair and Microsoft... for once, unrelated!

If, like me, you work in a corporate environment with motivational posters on the wall, you may enjoy the products offered at, guaranteed to provide minutes of fun. Sadly, these products are commercial offerings, being offered for cold hard cash. Of course, there's nothing to stop you (except copyright, naturally) browsing the pictures, doing a "Save Image As..." and then e-mailing them to all you friends...

On a slightly different note, Microsoft comes in for a lot of stick, not just from the committed anti-Redmond brigade. Well I'm not going to jump on that bandwagon. In fact, I'm going to sing their praises, for kindly Mr Gates has released a free anti-spyware tool... and it's magnificent! This may be because MS just bought a company who make a good anti-spy product, rather than develop it themselves, but there you go. Either way, I recommend you download MS AntiSpyware at your earliest convenience. As well as finding and cleaning ad/spy/malware, trojans, keyloggers, etc, it also offers real-time protection to stop IE and the operating system being interfered with. Plus it runs nicely alongside such stalwarts as Ad-Aware and Spybot Search and Destroy without any problems or conflicts. So... download it, install it and use it.

Saturday, 26 February 2005

The greatest films in the world... ever!

On a recent company meal out (you know the sort of thing, where you give up your leisure time to socialise with people you're normally paid to hang out with) I found myself in something of a conversational conundrum. After copious amounts of wine and beer, the conversation descended into the kind of pseudo-serious debate that I thought I had left behind at university, many years ago. The subject? What is the best film of all time...

To me, this was patently a ludicrous subject. How can anyone, by any objective measure, identify a single "best" film? I think a few of my colleagues were in agreement, but alcohol was flowing in such Bacchanalian quantities that, whilst waiting for dessert, we went around the table and everyone named their favourite film.

Surprises? None of the men named any "Godfather" films, or "Raging Bull". "Citizen Kane" didn't get a mention. Neither did any of the films that you would expect people of my age range (late-20s/early-30s) to have grown up with, like Star Wars or ET, though Back To The Future was acknowledged. In fact, very few films made prior to 1990 were cited, with the exception of "It's A Wonderful Life" and "Gone With The Wind". As the act of going round the table made its inevitable way towards me, I began to wonder if people were actually naming their favourite film or just the first good film that came to mind, or even whether they were trying to score pretension-points by naming an obscure or arty film. As for me, I went for "Cape Fear" in the end, and was surprised to be asked by a number of people whether that was the Gregory Peck/Robert Mitchum original or the Nick Nolte/Robert DeNiro remake. Much as I enjoy the original, I went for the remake (stunning performances from all four leads, amazing quotable dialogue, terrific camerawork...).

The next morning, to distract myself from my hangover, I reconsidered my choice. It turns out I have lots of favourite films, of different genres or for different moods. Sometimes a film doesn't even have to be especially good to make my shortlist - it need only evoke a warm memory of the first time I saw it. Anyway, to draw this ramble to a close, here's a random selection of films I heartily endorse (in alphabetical order only) for the aforementioned variety of reasons. My favourites? Well, some... but ask me again in a year or two and I'll probably come up with a quite different selection...

Tuesday, 22 February 2005

'Blogging on...

Everybody else is blogging, so why shouldn't I? Well, one reason would be that most blogs are poorly written and interminably boring, and mine will almost certainly be no exception. I'm not going to let that stop me though, so apologies in advance.

Of course, another reason is that most blogs either turn into personal diatribes against someone or something, or peter out after a few days/weeks/months. With this in mind, I promise to:
  • restrict this blog to thoughts, observations and recommendations
  • not try to write every day so that I quickly get bored and abandon the whole thing
  • do my best to be at least remotely interesting to other people

So, an observation. Is it just me or are British weathermen so worried about being blamed for something that they issue "severe weather" warnings at the drop of a hat? Maybe they're all worried about being the next Michael Fish (UK weatherman who famously assured the nation that the hurricane of October 1987 wouldn't hit - he's been taking stick for that ever since). Last night, our meteorological friends were warning of 4cm of snow overnight. Where is it then? I awoke to the merest dusting of the white stuff, so light that it reminded me of icing sugar atop a Victoria sponge cake. No day off work for me then... As an aside, the unexpected clemency of the snowfall didn't stop two cars coming together right outside my house this morning. How easy it is to be caught out by an ungritted road.

Right, enough of that. Just got time to squeeze in a quick recommendation. One of the most useful things I learnt at university was how to spin a pen around my thumb (I know, it was some course). You can learn how to do this too, by visiting - trust me, once you start you'll never hold a pen in the same way again...