Thursday, 23 December 2010

What's so wrong with Fra-Bo?

What a strange time it must be to be Frankie Boyle. Maybe there's not much news to report beyond travel disaster across the country, but for the Daily Mirror to decide that its lead story should be its own outrage at Boyle's use of an racist term during his new TV show suggests that there was precious little else that was newsworthy that day. The Daily Mail has of course waded in, and has proclaimed itself to be just as outraged as the Mirror, if not more so. I suspect Frankie is pretty surprised at all the anger being sent his way. It really wasn't so long ago that he was very much the comedic flavour of the month. He's gone from one of the nation's favourite comics to being a national pariah in a few short weeks. Rarely do comedians stay fresh and popular for an extended period, but this must be one of the swiftest falls from grace ever. So what happened such that we all turned against Frankie (incidentally, myself included)?

My extensive research has involved a few seconds of thought, a quick read of Wikipedia and a ten minute viewing of Tramadol Nights on 4oD. I guess this means that I'm giving no more than my tuppence worth, but Jeremy Kyle has been doing that for years, and he seems to get recomissioned. Anyway, it seems that Frankie Boyle rose to fame first on Mock the Week, and was widely regarded as being one of the funniest people on the show. His style of humour was always designed to be shocking; he was one of those people who was genuinely amusing, though more often than not it felt a little wrong to snigger. Nothing was off-limits for Boyle, and his stock gags involved all sorts of taboo subjects. Nevertheless, people loved him, and there was much gnashing of teeth when he left the show.

He has since appeared on TV doing his one-man stand-up (his stock in trade), and has published an autobiography (whose title of 'My Shit Life so Far' is almost as bad as Russell Brand's 'Booky Wook'). Quite who cares to read this book is unclear, bearing in mind how little time he's spent in the nation's conscious. He's now got his own series, 'Tramadol Nights', and it's the material involved here that has got him into so much hot water. But wait a minute, isn't this exactly the sort of material for which he was so lauded on 'Mock the Week'? Of course it is; so what changed?

A few things actually: 'Mock the Week' involved 7 comedians each week, and so no-one monopolised the air-time and was hence over-exposed. The range of comedic styles ensured that there was something for everyone (there's only so much of Michael McIntyre's smug grinning face that anyone can take). The comedians managed to end up being raisins in a bowl of raisin bran: a real treat when they pop up. Frankie Boyle was the main beneficiary of the show's format, and his were the gags you tended to remember. Being shocking works so much better in tiny bite-sized chunks. In his new show, he's exposed for pretty much the whole time, and it's very clear that he's a one-trick pony. We've heard all the jokes before, or at least variations on them, and when one gets bored of these jokes, all you're left with is the offensive stuff, and that's what people have focussed on. We used to have a comedian who was funny and offensive, and people were willing to forgive the material, so long as the comedy was in there. He has now committed the cardinal sin for any comedian: he simply isn't very funny any more. The reason I was only able to watch ten minutes of 'Tramadol Nights' was because it was rubbish, not because it was shocking or offensive. The sketches were particularly bad, and whereas many of them had the kernel of a funny idea, they didn't have any wit or skill in the writing to back them up. Frankie Boyle also comes across as less than likeable, and here's another reason that the public and press have turned on him.

So bad luck Frankie - you haven't really done anything different. You've just proved the old maxim: one jelly baby from someone else's packet tastes great, but after a whole packet to yourself, you just feel sick. Mind you, Frankie would probably refuse to eat the black ones.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas...

...and if I hear that song once more in supermarket/garage etc, I shall skip Christmas, and get all Easter-ish on the nearest person by crucifying them. There's so much to dislike about Christmas: I'm not a particularly religious person, Christmas presents are great, but only when you're 8 (If I want something now, I'll buy it, thanks), Christmas TV is horrendous (Rick Stein's Cornish Christmas anyone? If I wanted to see a load of halfwit inbreds getting festive, I'd watch the Wicker Man or take a day trip to Corby) and I've never been a particular fan of being told how I have to enjoy myself because 'it's tradition'. I'm not sure why we've invented a tradition that involves eating more meat and root veg than should be humanly possible, before nodding off mid-fart in front of the Queen's speech with a little paper hat perched at a jaunty angle. I do like sprouts though, which is always a bonus come December. Even the bits I like about Christmas aren't particularly Christmassy; I enjoy spending time with my family, but TV, presents and Christmas jumpers aren't any sort of highlight.

But Christmas is a time for good cheer, and fun of all kinds, so I thought I'd take this opportunity to help people to skirt round the pitfalls of that most heinous of all Christmas traditions: the work dinner. Even the thought of it makes me shudder. It's doesn't matter if it's a team dinner, a department do, an office jamboree, the whole idea is to minimise the damage. It's never going to be good, but if you take into account these simple tips, it's likely to be manageable:

1. Always make sure you come out in credit cash-wise. This is pretty easy to do, so long as you assume that the bill will be divvied up equally. Pre-dinner pint? I'll have a mojito. A la carte menu? Have everything which says 'supplement'. Glass of wine? Make sure the bottles stay down your end of the table. Coffee? Yes, and a balloon of the 1969 Armangac. If you emply all of the above tactics, you'll come out in credit, but you may look like you're taking the piss.

2. Don't drink the House wine. When some office joker orders the waiter to bring a 'bottle of the House white and red', nip in with a choice of something that's actually drinkable for your end of the table. People will thank you for it.

3. Never allow anyone but you to divide the bill. People can't do maths: '£400, 10 people, that's, don't tell me, where's my phone?'

4. Never allow anyone (almost always women) to introduce the different tariff system. This is where you'll have different price points for the a. drinkers b. non-drinkers c. didn't drink much-ers. d. office juniors who don't earn as much, and would rather have been drinking MD 20/20 behind the megabowl anyway. I've been to a colleagues leaving do at Loch Fyne, and the bill was divvied up evenly. OK, so a pregnant wife of a new colleague had to end up shelling out £37 for a starter of mussels and some tap water, but she didn't have to come in the first place, did she?

5. Always offer to pay far more than you should first up. This is a typically male reaction to the bill, and acts as a partial antidote to point 1 (make sure you still end up in credit though). Typical male response to the maths in point 3 is to state 'that's £40 each', then to roll off 5 £20 notes, before flinging them theatrically into the centre of the table, stating 'that should cover me'. People will demand that you pick up the money, and you manage to look generous, without having to end up out of pocket. NOTE: you must be very careful here when dining with women. Men consider it vital to offer more than they should, though women see nothing wrong in resorting to coppers to make up the £38.21 that each person owes.

6. High risk this one, though someone always does it: don't pay. Why is it when the price per person is calculated, and everyone puts in just that little bit extra for tip, do we always hear the phrase 'we're £20 short'? Someone always has a big enough pair of cojones to avoid paying; you could be that person, my friend.

7. Amuse yourself by creating chaos. Most meals out now require a pre-order, but whoever is organising is unlikely to have brought the original sheet which tells them exactly who ordered what food. Your job is to order the most rank sounding starter, main and dessert, and then grab the nicest sounding ones as soon as they come out of the kitchen. Let someone else enjoy your nut roast and three bean soup.

8. Find a like-minded colleague, and give each other 3 phrases that have to be brought into conversation during the evening. I've yet to get in the Frankie Boyle line 'and at the end of the night, you couldn't tell what was poo, and what was chocolate', but there's something for you to aim at.

So there we are. Follow the above, and you'll be able to turn your work meal out into something more than a night to be endured.

And if you're wondering how to make sprouts taste nice, here's 2 ideas:

1. Pureed with double cream and sprinkled with crisp pancetta
2. Shredded and pan-fried in butter

Happy Christmas!

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Creative Juices

Richard Feynman is one of the greatest minds of the 20th Century. He won a Nobel prize for Physics in the 1960s; he was involved in the atomic bomb project at Los Alamos when only in his early 20s; he helped to compile the report which unearthed the reason for the disaster on the space shuttle challenger. That's all pretty impressive. Perhaps even more special than all this is the fact that he was a brilliantly clever man who was able to inspire every person that he talked to, from fellow Nobel-prize winning scientists to interested laymen. The Horizon documentary in which he is featured is the best programme ever made about science, and I challenge anyone not to find themself drawn in and fascinated by his view of the world. And yet there are things he claims to find difficult to explain: he states that at one time he was trying to explain to his father the emission of a photon from an atom as it moves from a higher state to the ground state. His father asks whether the photon was in the atom ahead of time, and he states that it was not, and it is the moving between 2 states that allows the photon to be emitted. He likens it to when his son told him that he could no longer say the word 'cat' because his 'word bag was empty'. We do not have a 'word bag', i.e. a finite number of words we can use, nor is the number of times we can say any particular word limited. The words are not in our bodies ahead of time; we form them, just as the photon is not in the atom ahead of time.

If anyone is still reading this, I think this is an example of why Feynman would have been such a brilliant teacher - his use of analogy is so good, which is why he can explain even difficult concepts to anyone who is willing to listen.

All this serves to introduce what I was really thinking about, and that is the limit to one's ideas and creativity. Is there a limit to this, just as we might have a limit to the number of times we can say the word 'cat'? I've been a teacher for 12 years (just starting my 13th) and it's a good job that I have moved around from School to School and between roles in these Schools. I've felt that each of my moves has co-incided with the time at which I felt my creativity in that particular role was on the wane. After 5 years as a Head of Department that my creative output was on a downward slope. I'd had a lot of ideas, but I'd rather exhausted them over a 5 year period. But it seems like I'm not alone. Many hugely creative artists (note that I'm not comparing myself to these people) seem to run out of steam after a certain amount of time: Paul McCartney once changed the face of British music, now he churns out instantly forgettable pop pap. You can include Mick Jagger here too. There's the notorious '3rd album' problem faced by singers/bands, and it's often at this stage that later songs just sound like less good versions of what's gone on before (hello Oasis). Salvador Dali was a real artistic original (though Bosch was doing the same thing about 450 years earlier), though when you look at Dali's work, the same themes/ideas come up time and time again. Francoise Sagan - wrote Bonjour Tristesse at the age of 19, and precious little of note afterwards, and there's many authors in the 'one masterpiece' club (Harper Lee, Margaret Mitchell).

Some ideas clearly run their course, and there's no need to keep flogging a dead horse, whilst others are cut in their prime, and leave you desperate for more (12 episodes of Fawlty Towers, and 100 of Birds of a Feather hardly seems fair). To keep being creative takes a very special individual, or ones that are able to reinvent themselves. I'm not sure that many would compare Leonardo da Vinci and David Bowie, but these are the two examples that came to mind first, and I do like to write these blogs in a stream of conscious-esque manner. Da Vinci is probably the greatest Polymath of all time, and he managed to remain creative all his life, and Bowie is one of those artists who seems to be willing to produce total tosh at times (Tin machine) in order to maintain his creative streak - this provides us with genius such as 'Heathen' and 'Hunky Dory'. Only one idea is needed to make us rich, but it's those people that retain the ability to be creative right through to the end that I find most impressive.

Here's some classic Feynman (may need watching twice!):

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Man of the People

I'll start with a 'snob disclaimer', in that the following musings are not intended to appear snobbish or judgemental, although I guarantee that they will.

I've just been staring, dumbstruck, at an X-factor medley of 'Shut Up' by Pink (I presume the irony was lost on the show's producers). It was worse than bad. The desperation in the performers faces bordered on the insane, as Simon Cowell smiled smugly like some modern day Pontius Pilate. There was a jovial black chap, a few pre-pubescent teens, a couple of pin-up boy-banders, some old fat woman and a mahogany-tinted man who looked as though he had been doused in cuprinol. This, I have since found out, is Wagner, which explains a lot of recent tweeting. When did TV stoop so low? Even the 'light channel', ITV, which has always pandered to the lowest common denominator looks to have hit rock-bottom. It's ostensibly an old-fashioned talent show, a la New Faces, except minus the talent. There's nothing original, bearing in mind that all the songs are covers, and the performers looks like a mixture of earnest School revue jazz-handers and working man's club lags. I remember Take That getting a whole load of stick in the early 90s because they played on their looks and were seriously stylised, but at least they wrote and performed their own music; they are now hailed as demi-Gods for doing so.

We seem to have lost all interest in the product (ie the music) somewhere along the way, and have become more interested in the process of making someone a star; this contrived manufacturing of an individual merely to sell records is exactly what used to be seen as a kind of cheating. The 'journey' of the wannabe star, the tough family background, the 'I've wanted this, like, forever' tearful speech. This is what we pay to see, because once we've got the star, we tend to forget about them (McManus, Sneddon, Parks, Gates, Leon something, anyone?, anyone?). It's a music show, but with little focus on the music. Get the song out of the way, and then let's boo or cheer the judges, depending on whether they chastise or praise. 'That's your best performance' (cheer), 'I didn't really feel that performance' (boo).

So no interest in music, and no interest in finding real talent. But let's examine the alternative. Let's say that we are after real talent, and we take the most original, exciting, dynamic musicians out there, and judge them against each other for a record contract on a saturday night. I'd hate it. Why? Because it would make ITV (or ITV1, now) credible, and I wouldn't have anything to rant about. I also don't want to see genuine musical talent being mentored, going up in front of judges and being told about image and choice of song. I'm interested in the music, not in the process that gets the music to the people. Real talent should come to the attention of people through the quality of the music, not through the over-blown production and stories of troubled childhoods.

There's also always something pleasing about knowing the masses are wasting their time with such tosh as X-Factor, whilst I'm watching something about British Art on channel 4. Orwell was fascinated by the working classes, and even noted a certain nobility in them. But even he said that 'the problem with the working classes, is that they smell', so man of the people he certainly wasn't. I loved chatting to a nice old couple in the pub last saturday, just before the Palace-Swansea game, but that was enough of a dip into working class life for me thanks, and I'd prefer to leave them to their X-Factor and KFC mum's night off bucket saturday night treat. If everyone gained some taste, and stopped watching Eastenders and Strictly Come Dancing, I wouldn't be able to feel superior in my niche intellectual interests. If everyone started listening to Nick Drake or The Smiths, I wouldn't be able to bemoan the lack of interest in proper music; I'm not sure we need a music show for people who don't like music, but if it keeps them happy on a cold winter night, who am I to criticise.

It's still better than watching Dean Gaffney eating a dessicated Kangaroo penis.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Sympathy for All

I have huge admiration for Gareth Thomas, the Welsh Rugby legend and ex-Lions captian. Rugby is the most macho of all sports (assuming one chooses to ignore the strong homo-erotic undertones), and he is the only openly gay man involved in the sport in this Country. Isn't that incredible? I'm not sure quite what percentage of the population is gay, though the 1 in 10 that gets bandied about regularly seems a reasonable place to start; this certainly makes the fact that Thomas is the only homosexual top-flight rugby player a statistical impossibility. He should therefore be lauded for his decision to make known his sexuality, even though it's fair to say that he did wait until his International career was over before telling the world. He also represents a fantastic slap in the face for all those who maintain the homosexual stereotype that begins with Kenneth Williams and ends not so far away with Charles Hawtrey.

As a sport, rugby perhaps has a more enlightened following than the nation's other great passion, football, and Thomas has been embraced by the rugby community for his courage and honest approach. This says much about the change in public perception over the last 20 or 30 years. Here's a story from the 1950s about how such revalations were treated: Alan Turing was one of the greatest minds of the Twentieth Century, and the man whose breaking of the German 'enigma' code may well have shortened the war by one or two years. He was homosexual, and was offered the choice between chemical castration and a prison sentence for his 'crimes'. He took the former, and committed suicide soon afterwards. There's no direct comparison to be made, and it's clear that prejudice exists wherever you care to look for it, but we do live in ever more elightened times, and the story of Gareth Thomas is generally one to applaud.

My take on this story altered slighty when I read an interview with Thomas in The Observer last Sunday. The article was essentially a good-news story, and focused jointly on the courage of Thomas and the magnanimous nature of the rugby fraternity. It also extolled Thomas as a positive role-model, a trail-blazer and an inspriational figure, all of which are undoubtedly true. His twitter account is unfailingly positive, and reveals a man with a real lust for life. The story does have a more tawdry edge to it however, and one that the article glossed over with a couple of short sentences. With such an inspirational story, why bother dwelling on the fact that Thomas' sexuality was apparently the worst kept secret in rugby, the fact that he married (and has children with) his childhood sweetheart despite his feelings for men, and that his hidden homosexuality led to many 'illicit encounters in Soho bars'?

This last revelation was brushed off with the statement that he was 'horrified at cheating on his wife, whom he loved deeply'. Really? Not that deeply, surely. I can't imagine much sympathy for him were he to have been discoved having illicit encounters in bars with women, no matter how much he professed to have been 'horrified' by the experiences. I'm sure it's not an easy conversation to have, but the idea of the 'I still love you, but actually I'm gay, and therefore I cannot remain married to you'-type conversation would surely be less hurtful that the 'I still love you, but actually I'm gay, and I made sure of this fact with regular sweaty sex sesssions in Soho, and therefore I cannot remain married to you'-type conversation. I'm all for enlightenment, tolerance and understanding the emotional journey, but one can become too 'right-on', and in one's desperation to appear liberal and forward-thinking, it seems that we can lose sight of the fact that there are other people's feelings that need to be considered. The Observer article was a pretty shabby piece of journalism, written in a completely one-eyed way. I agree with almost all of the sentiments, but it's only telling the part of the story it's interested in, and the part of the story that leaves out the mucky bits.

Sexuality is something that we cannot, and perhaps should not have to, control; but my sympathy on this occasion lies with Mrs Gareth Thomas just as much as with Mister. 'She now lives in Spain' was a far as a biography of her got to. Well I'm glad that's cleared up.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Young is wasted on the Youth

As a mild-mannered individual, there's really very little that winds me up. There's a whole raft of little niggles; people who describe sportsmen/sporting acts as 'world class' and people who look at the desserts first on a menu are just two, but I can live with that, and apart from the involuntary curl of the top lip, these gripes tend to pass me by.

I watched a little of the 'Toby Young sets up a Free School' programme last week, and despite the fact that I was only half watching, the man and his ideals really grated with me. The premise was that Toby (restaurant critic and occasional columnist/minor reality TV channel 5-based celebrity) had suddently become impassioned with the need to challenge the British education system, and felt that the Free Schools programme was the way to do this. In case you weren't aware, the idea behind Free Schools is that anyone can set up a School, so long as they make their bid to the Government, have a building, a curriculum and some teachers. They are supposed to be 'all-ability, state-funded Schools set up as a result of parental demand'. This is a classic example of the 'idea that sounds good when sold to the man on the street', but is in fact so flawed as to be laughable. It's a bit like the Labour ideal of 50% of people going to university, which sounds good until you realise that there aren't any more good jobs out there than before, except now people are required to get into heavy debt gaining meaningless degrees from the university of Luton before they are able to get out into the work place and get the same job/earn the same amount of money as they would have done before their 3 year life hiatus.

Anyway, Toby's point was that education has lost its way. Fair enough; in many ways it has. We could attack grade inflation, oversized classrooms, untrained teachers, the irrelevance of parts od the National Curriculum. Unfortunately, in the most myopic way possible, he decided that the reason it had lost its way could essentially be summed up by his own experience, which involved being un-motivated by teachers (no word of his own or his parents' responsibility), and achieving no real grades at all. Now most people would have said at this point that if the teachers were not motivating, we should look to either swap the teachers we have (not realistic) or invest money in making the teachers we have better (realistic, relatively cheap and emintently sensible). Incidentally, Toby, this is where the real problem lies, in the lack of quality in some areas of the teaching profession, and the lack of structure in the homes of many young people.

This may not have made such good TV however, so Toby's point was that we needed to re-structure the curriculum so that there was more rigour, and this included harking back to what he called a 'classical education'. Not sure if he knew what he meant by this, but it enabled him to sound knowledgable from behind his spcs. This also sounded suspiciously like the curriculum that a middle-aged man who had ballsed up his School career would like to go back to School to study, but this may be due to the fact that Toby has no experience of Schools, teaching, the education process, motivation of young minds or any research into what actually makes pupils want to learn.

No-one would ever allow the public to set up their own defence academies, or their own hospitals, thinking that having a passion and a misguided sense of what was wrong with the MOD or NHS would be a sensible idea, though with education it seems fair game. It's the equivalent of that bloke in the pub who spends all his time criticising the England team, claiming to anyone who will listen that all we need are 'real Englishmen with passion'. His pub team?

I did think that I might have been a bit harsh on Toby, so I went to his Free School website, which has a 7 minute clip of him on the homepage. This was his chance to change my mind, to prove to me that it was the education of the nation that he really cared about, rather than keeping his TV career away from channel 5. 'Motivation...classical curriculum...soundbite...soundbite...3 minute story about arriving in the wrong Welsh village...end'. Toby, drop me an email, and I'll speak to you about education. It's something I know about. You can then tell me all about celebrity come dine with me, which is something you know about. Let's not move too far outside our respective spheres of expertise.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Staying in Control

Since I started blogging I've had a go at food, sport, music and low-grade humour. I clrealy have a way to go before I've mastered any of them, and reading Malcolm Gladwell on the train today confirmed the enormous insurmountable chasm that exists between me and he. I'm not sure what makes him quite so good, but I'm pretty sure it's the fact (as I read in a review somewhere) that he makes you feel like you're the genius. He makes things that you weren't interested in seem interesting, and he makes things that you hadn't even thought about fascinating. I bet he'd make a great teacher, because this is all teaching is really about. If you can explain things to people, and develop their interest at the same time, you'll have done your job. When Arthur C Clarke said that 'when people are interested, education happens', he knew what he was talking about.

When people ask me whether they'd make a good teacher (most people seem to have thought about the profession at some point), I always say that all you need is the capacity to work hard, and you also need to be an interesting person. Since most of my friends are interesting people, I end up telling them that they'd make good teachers. It's not quite as easy as that, because there's a lot more paperwork these days (our litigious society has seen to that), and it can be stressful, and hard to turn off. If I ever thought that my friends were serious about going into the profession, I'd probably give a little more thought to the advice I gave, and the most important thing for any new teacher is this: stay in control.

The feeling of losing control of anything is terrifying (cars and bowels come to mind), but losing control of a class is about the worst thing that can happen to you during the School day. We all get by with a mixture of bluff and bravado, and with the realisation that the system only works if the traditional pupil/teacher relationship holds. We as teachers have complete power over the pupils, but this power is based on nothing at all. So a pupils wants to walk out, and swears at us on the way past? So be it (this never happens where I teach, but I'm sure it does somewhere every day). Power and control zapped in an instant. What keeps the pupils in their chairs is the illusion of power and no more. I am one of those teachers who has to be in control all the time, a control freak if you will. I had just enough of a taste in my early career of what it felt like to be on the edge of losing control, and I didn't want to go back there.

In reality, it should be quite easy. Pupils generally have no plan B, whereas we have the opportunity to have plan B, C, D and any others that are required. Easy enough to stay ahead? Maybe, but there's quite a few of them and only one of you, and you need to stay ahead of all of them. Pupils don't have a lesson plan, and it's our job to have a response to anything that may be thrown at us. Need silence? Have a 10 question spot test in the bag.

Now I work at an idyllic place; it's hard work, but it's control of a different sort that I thought about earlier today, and it's the control associated with management. What I liked about running a department was that it was easy to stay in control. You had your little corner of the School, your team of teachers and a section of the School population that committed to your subject every year. You could plan out your year; sometimes the admin got on top and it was enough just to keep up to date with everything and make sure that the ship stayed on an even keel. At other times, with no deadline pressures you had the opportunity to be creative, and the blue sky ideas could flow. After a year or two in post, you knew when it was time to baton down the hatches and get through the rough stuff, and when it was time to unfurl the sails and let the wind take you. Such is the joy of an academic department.

I have great respect for middle managers on the academic side, but that's a job I could do. Middle managers on the pastoral side have a whole different set of challenges. How do you stay in control? I'm not sure it's ever possible to do so. No matter how good and watertight the systems you put in place, they can be blown apart by one unpredictable incident, such as never happens on the academic side. Your job is reactionary, and no amount of pro-activity will ever make it any less so. For this reason (and I'm sure there are others) it's not for me. The thought that something (anything) could happen at any time is exciting, no doubt, but if anything is going to interrupt university challenge, I'd like to think that it's something I could have predicted.

Friday, 24 September 2010

The pleasure of eating

There's something about food critics that makes me unreasonably irate. I'm not sure why; maybe it's because of the apparent glee with which they condemn another knife-wielders dream, but let's face it, it's probably because they've got the job that many of us would kill for. A A Gill stands out as the worst offender, of course, not least for the fact that his opinion on the restaurant in question rarely makes an appearance before 75% of the column has been wasted down varied and waffly blind-alleys. He's like that infuriating teacher at School, who not only conisdered himself one of the few true intellectuals around the place, but also spent much of the time pontificating about nothing terribly interesting, before getting to the point around 5 minutes before the bell went. Giles Coren sounds ever more like the 'outraged of Tonbridge Wells', as if every restaurant that doesn't conform to his own ideal should be expunged from Christendom (see his savage assault on the mostly harmless Bombay bicycle club), and even dear old Matthew Fort has hurried into caricature with ever more limp series of Great British Menu. I'm faintly disappointed that we haven't had a GBM competition to make my weekend breakfast; everyone else seems to have had celeb chefs fight it out to cook for them. I seem to remember a bizarre version of a farmers' garden party was the last flogging of the tired idea.

Jay Rayner, however, is one that (until now) I've rather liked. Granted he looks like a cross between Captain Pugwash and one of Monty Python's Spanish Inquisition, but I can get beyond the farcical appearance, because he writes well, really cares about the food and is mostly spot on with those places he cherishes. This made his OFM article all the more bizarre last Sunday. I shall summarise briefly: food tends to be more exciting when the flavours are bold (ok, no problem there); great and memorable food should be an assault on the senses (hmmm, more odd, but I'll stick with you); the most exciting food should have a 'whiff of death' about it (Whiff of death? Now you've lost me).

His chosen 'whiff of death' vehicle was the andouiette sausage, which he was keen to point out that he loved, in stark contrast to his wife, who called it the 'poo sausage'. Now I'm a fairly adventurous eater, and never one to shirk a challenge, I've also eaten the andou. I ate it in the andou's spiritual home of Troyes, at the restaurant which specialised in the meaty morsel. I can safely say that it's likely to be the only time. For those who might be thinking of having one: dont. I believe that it's made from the lower intestine and colon of the pig, and though it is thoroughly washed before cooking, it retains a distinctly faecal smell. Close your eyes, and you may as well be chomping on a rubber textured dog shit. I had mine slavered in hot mustard sauce, but even as it came at me across the restaurant, the sausage the size of red rum's manhood hit me with it's special aroma from several metres away.

There's a story that an army once invading Troyes stopped to get some andou sausage just before a battle, and loved it so much that they downed arms and made peace. A likely story. One meal of that nature and they'd have slaughtered the whole place, and presumably the Town butcher would have been first up against the wall.

Jay may well like to eat poo flavoured chitterlings for dinner, and he may think this makes him more daring than the rest of us, but for a middle-aged man to try for lad points by extolling its virtues in a national paper just makes me think that if he were in the army, he'd be the first at the soggy biscuit.

I'm not suggesting we shouldn't be adventurous in our tastes. We should all retain an open mind when it comes to food, and should be prepared to try anything once. Some of the greatest culinary pleasure comes from the joy of discovering somthing wonderful to eat, and the memories are ingrained from that moment. This doesn't mean however that we need to take the macho approach of the hot-curry brigade, and look upon eating as nothing but a dare.

Anthony Bourdain's brilliant 'Kitchen Confidential' tells us this, in the immortal passage: 'But if I have once chance at a full-blown dinner of blowfish gizzard - even if I have not been properly introduced to the chef - and I'm in a strange, Far Eastern city and my plane leaves tomorrow? I'm going for it. You only go around once.'

Put that in your sausage skin, Jay.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Room 101

'You asked me once, what was in Room 101. I told you that you knew the answer already. Everyone knows it. The thing that is in Room 101 is the worst thing in the world.'

So says O'Brien to the emaciated and almost broken Winston Smith. The worst thing in the world to Winston turns out to be rats. He screams for it to be done to Julia instead, and in betraying her, he realises that he has given himself fully over to the party.

It may not be one of the greatest books, but it's certainly one of the most iconic, and much of what it has to tell us is relevant today.

The phrase 'room 101' has made its way into common parlance. It was after the number of Orwell's office at the BBC. Maybe this was his own personal hell, but for someone who spent a fair amount of time on the streets and in the muddy trenches during the Spanish civil war, there were a few contenders to choose from.

Do we all have a specific idea of our own personal hell, the recurring dream of which causes us to wake in a cold sweat; fear turns to elation as we realise the unreality of the horror?

I've got a few more years left on this planet, I hope, and until today I didn't have any vision of any personal hell. I hadn't expected to find one as I drove out to Peterborough, in the hope of buying a suit or two to replace my current crop, which are looking a little frayed around the pockets.

The next hour of my life will haunt me for some time to come, and my fingers are trembling over the computer keys as I attempt to explain the full grimness of the ordeal.

First stop: John Lewis. Hardly a gritty beginning, though this is a Peterborough John Lewis, and as such, though the store is at least sanitary, the people have a strange deathly quality to them. They peered out at me from under cromagnon brows, shuffling in anoraks through the aisles, searching for meaning in the discounted tie selection.

Having thought little of the fabric on offer, I decided to head to 'Suits You', home of a few labels, even though the store itself is a tad on the tacky side. They had a 75% off everything sale, which sounds good. One jacket I saw was discouted from £200 to £29, which is suggestive a company on its knees. This particular garment did seem to be big enough to clothe an entire Texan family. The racks sagged with cheap and nasty brands; I'm pretty sure that one of them was called 'Johnny English', which may impress the Hong Kong market, but did little to raise a smile. There were no suits on display, merely row after row of jackets up top, and the trousers beneath. None seemed to match. I was of the opinion that a suit was at least a two piece venture. The idea of a one-piece suit had me stumped; surely by then it is just a pair of trousers? I asked the manager (if such a place seemed to need one), and he seemed baffled to be asked if there were any matching jackets and trousers. 'Just find what you can' was his answer, which seemed to fit better as the answer of a soldier in Iraq who's just recevied an order to clear out, and fast. The place was packed, and as I shuffled out, the second to last words I remember were from one man berating a store assistant because he couldn't find anything for a fiver. The very last words were from a man who looked like he'd been hewn from granite (if you could tattoo granite). He looked me up and down, and asked if we sold shirts. We. Jesus.

Obviously this had exhuasted Peterborough shopping centre's selection of suit emporia, but I had noticed River Island just around the corner. I hadn't shopped in RI since the mid 90s, buy hey, it was cooler than Burton back then, and maybe they'd sell me a suit that came in 2 parts. They tried to. Sadly the RI suits were so shiny I could almost see my face in them. They were the sort of nasty shiny grey at which Mickey Pearce from Only Fools and Horses might have turned his nose. They did allow me to spy what was going on behind me however, and it seemed at first glance that an enormous ham in a white T shirt was singing to itself. I turned round to come face to face with the most obese child I have ever seen (most obese you've ever seen too). Global food shortage? of course there is; that kid's eaten it all. Somehow in my confused state I managed to part with £165 in RI. My purchases: a purple v neck, a jacket that looks like I'm a four year old off to a wedding in 1927 dressed as a sailor and a military style jacket that makes me look that even if I was military, I'd be the first to desert, and then be shot.

Keen to finish what I came to do, I spent a hefty £564 back in John Lewis (not sure what on, as I haven't dared open the bags yet). I think there's a tie that makes me look like an Open University lecturer from the mid-70s, but that can't have been more than twenty. Please?

With no word of a lie, I ran back across the bridge from the Queensgate shopping centre to the car park, stopping only to marvel at the unfathomably terrible music emanating from Heart 102.7FM's broadcast station (it really is the sound of Peterborough). I paid at the car park machine, which someone seemed to have urinated on (this is bizarre - who urinates on these, and cashpoints, and in lifts?), and fled.

Room 101? I found it. 90 miles North of London.

Monday, 6 September 2010

The Great Divide

Monday 6th September. 8pm. There's a decent battle occurring on BBC2 as Hertford College Oxford take on UCL in university challenge. The UCL captain looks like an unwashed Simon Amstell, and he's sitting next to a Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall clone (if Hugh decided to morph into Bill Bryson, and got stuck half way). This is the normal Monday night staple, but channel 4 seems to have unearthed something truly disgusting to rival UC. Some desperate x-list ex-big brother contestants are each attmpting to prolong their 5 minutes in the sun by appearing on a themed 'Come Dine With Me'. As low-brow TV goes, it's up there with anything Russ Meyer produced, and I suspect even Paul Ross would hang his head in shame at this tripe. Have there ever been two more polar-opposite TV programmes put up against each other? Has the nation ever been so divided into the haves and have-nots (brain cells, that it) by these two televisual ends of the spectrum?

Digression: I went to watch UC being filmed a couple of years ago in Manchester, and found out that the Jeremy Kyle show is actually filmed in the studio next door. Two queues had formed outside: imagine one to be made up only of twittering middle-class families, and the other to be make up of blue wkd-swilling overweight chavs, and you'd be pretty much there.

Back to my original point: these two programmes must have divded the nation neatly. We can therefore classify all people as type 1 (UC) or type 2 (BBCDWM), and ne'er the twain shall meet. The diagram produced would resemble two perfect non-overlapping circles; not exactly a Venn diagram for the purists. I wonder whether there are other such ways of dividing people so neatly, and I'm not talking about the obvious ones such as Lennon/McCartney, milk in first or not or marmite/not marmite.

1. Petrol. Not sure if there might be a little bit of overlap here, but people generally fall into the fillers (stop when the petrol handle flicks back) or neat totallers (stop when the price reads £30.00). It's always worth stopping early, as if you overfill, you get another chance to stop at £40.00, and so on. This of course all gets ruined when you buy a grab-bag of quavers and a can of low-sugar red bull.

2. Jumpers. People who take them off from the neck, and people who take them off from the waist. Definitely no overlap here.

3. Menus. Those who turn to the dessert list first, and normal people. The sign of a bad meal is that the dessert was the highlight. Nothing with fruit and/or chocolate can ever be that bad.

4. Blogs. People who write blogs when they have something to say, and people who write one simply because they haven't for a while, and are convinced their already-tiny readership will dwindle to nothing. Guess which camp I'm in?

I almost forgot, if you can't remember what a Venn diagram looks like, here's an easy one to refresh your memory:

Thursday, 26 August 2010

A Word of Advice for David Mitchell

Fame's a fickle thing. Many people manage to stay famous their entire working life; some by re-inventing themselves (Bowie), others merely by the fact that we can't really forget about them, no matter how hard we try (Princess Diana, and yes, I know she's dead, though I also suspect that most Mail readers think about her many times daily).

Fame comes late for some people; what did Richard Wilson or Thora Hird do before they were 60? Others find that fame comes to them early, and then leaves them just as quick; note the cautionary tale of Macauley Culkin, or Corey Haim (or was it Feldman?). There seems to be a real problem with over-exposure, and never was this more true than in the 1980s. The 80s spawned the Hollywood brat-pack, who churned out film after film in the latter part of the decade; then the decade ended, and the curtain came down on the career of Ringwald, McCarthy, Nelson and the twin Coreys. Incidentally, lest you think that this happened only in America, and only to glamorous people, the very same fate befel the 'never-sure-why-you-were' popular Tony Slattery. His brylcreemed side-parting and lavicious grin were rarely far from our screens, and then...nothing: he'd been whisked away as we heralded in a new decade.

Of course much of this instant fame followed by an similarly instant fall from grace is more about our inability to stick with something and our low boredom threshold than it's to do with any lack of talent on the part of the performer. We also don't like to see people at the top for too long (Kevin Costner), and we get bored of the same old face beaming out at us for too long. Some folk do have an uncrushable longevity about them (Forsythe - unfathomable, or Monkhouse - a legend), but most people come and go as we build them up just to sweep them back under the carpet.

And this is what I see immimently about to happen to David Mitchell. Maybe I've just been unlucky, but he does seem to be everywhere. What started out as a comedy actor playing a lead role in a funny original sit-com has now become: flogging said sit-com long since it went over the hill, writing an Observer Column, appearing on almost any panel show going and hosting a raft of 10pm-ish moderately watchable nothingish comedy gameshows that seem perfect for the 'it's not time to go to bed but I have nothing else to do' slot. He was undoubtedly funny in peep show (series 1-5), but that was largely because he was playing himself, and we identified with him; his vulnerability and insecurities were there for us all to see, and they were funny whilst at the same time making us feel better about ourselves. Now though he's gained confidence, and he's starting to take the piss out of other people. Surely this shouldn't be allowed; and we're giving him just the platform from which to do it, with his column, new-found presenting skills and occasional one-liners on mock the week.

Can it last? History is against DM, and my advice is not to over-expose. Get back to playing yourself in sit-coms, written by other people, and we promise to laugh, and mostly with you. Otherwise, you'll end up like Slattery. I wiki'd Tony S just now, to see what he's been up to in the last 5 years. Here's the sum total:

In January 2010, he appeared with Phyllida Law on Ready Steady Cook.

The future's not bright.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Making the Grade

It's A level results day, and the same lazy hackneyed news stories have been trotted out. I feel guilty for boring you with them, but if anyone has missed any of the following during the course of this day, you must have been living under a rock. Or maybe you were watching Trisha on 5.

We've had:

1. News footage of pupils opening their results. Some whoop, some cry.
2. Discussion on the news about grade inflation, and the fact that A level passes have gone up for the 28th consecutive year. This isn't news, it's just something that happens, like the sun coming up, or someone going to the toilet.
3. The 'scramble' for university places, a question of how much debt is accrued whilst doing a degree, the fact that graduates earn far more in the course of a career....

It's almost as if it's a public holiday for all TV and newspaper journalists, and they can re-print word for word the uninteresting waffle that they paraded out 365 days ago.

So are A levels getting easier? Are kids getting brighter?

Well, here's some facts. In 1980, 8% of all A level grades were awarded an A grade. In 2010, 8% of all A level grades were awarded an A*. When I went to Durham University in 1994, my offer was BCD, albeit for a pretty uncompetitive subject. Nowadays we have pupils rejected on AAB.

So more pupils get higher grades, this much is true. This isn't the pupils fault, and far too much vitriol is chucked their way by the older generation, who had it 'so much easier' in their day. No they didn't; granted, you had to absorb lots of information, which could then be regurgitated onto the answer paper before promtly being forgotten (how many 30-somethings can remember much about covalent bonding?), but in order to ensure that skills of complex communication and problem solving do not disappear from the workplace, papers these days need to test more than just rote learning.

We are preparing our pupils for jobs that do not exist yet. No-one wanted to be a nanotechnologist or web designer 15 years ago, because these jobs did not exist; it's the same with today's crop of pupils. They don't need to carry vast amounts of irrelevant information around in their head. We have google for that. They do need to know how to get by when presented with problems or situations with which they are unfamiliar, and that's the most important thing.

Another problem faced by pupils today is that it's so much more difficult to stand out. 30 years ago three A grades marked you out as something very special. Nowadays (and I'm talking pre-A*) there are so many pupils pushed up to this top end that it's difficult to differentiate, and consequently the upper-middle quality pupils get mixed up with the high quality pupils. Has the A* solved things? Of course not. Is a pupil who scores 90% significantly better than one who scores 85%? We did have a system where many pupils were able to secure their A grades and still have plenty of time for independent research, sport, music, drama etc. We are now rewarding the 't' crossers and 'i' dotters, and it's become more important to write like a markscheme rather than an intelligent human being.

Are pupils becoming significantly more able and intelligent? It would seem unlikely, and certainly not noticeably so in the last 30 years (a limited time period for human evolution). It's also interesting that they seem to be becoming more intelligent by a similar fraction each year. What is happening is that pupils are competing against greater numbers, in exams which generally fail to differentiate appropriately.

So we've confirmed that pupils have it tougher than many of those who criticise. But what about the other side of the argument? The side that justifies the increase in A level performace? This is the argument that it's actually the quality of teaching that allows for these increases; as teachers get better, so do the pupils they teach. It is fair to say that in recent years there has been a greater interest taken in the philosophy of education in Schools (largely in the state sector), and we are now starting to question how pupils learn rather than simply 'drilling and skilling', which is the bit we've become good at over the years. It's a fallacy to say that teachers have lead to this improvement however, and it's insulting to the pupils too. Many of the same teachers have taught exactly the same way for the past 28 years' worth of increased results.

How much do results even matter? Does it matter if someone who was capable of getting the grades for Durham actually ends up going to Manchester, or Birmingham? They might meet better friends there, have a nicer house, find a great tutor. In the end, there are so many variables, it's impossible to tell. I've taught many pupils who have achieved AAA in their A levels, and I knew they'd do just fine for themselves. I just wasn't all that interested in what it was they ended up doing. I've also taught some underachieving pupils, who failed to get the grades of which they were capable. For some of them, I really do wonder what they're up to, and for some, I know it'll be something impressive. They may not have shone academically at School, but they had something about them that told me they'd be successful. There's a bit of inner personal quality that can trump pretty much everything you've got written on paper. Would the people with the top ten best academic qualifications amongst my colleagues match with the top ten best teachers?

But back to the reporting of this total non-story: thank God for the recession, otherwise it really would have been groundhog day.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Face the Music (2)

Here it is, the long awaited second installment of my 'Top Ten Albums', this time from 2001 right up to the present day. The only feedback I had from my related post was that 'it was a bit dull' (thanks brother), so I've decided to listen to advice, and to improve things by justifying the choices, as well as putting a few thoughts down about music in general. Remember, faithful readers that these are the albums that I've listen to most regularly, rather than being those which I judge to be the best musically.

Just before the albums themselves, here's some ramblings. I hope they prove cathartic for me:
  • I don't actually seem to buy albums very much any more. Is this a bad thing? Not if you don't like masses of filler (Raw Like Sushi still has my vote for the greatest load of rubbish outside the singles), but there was something nice about listening to a singer/band all the way through the album, especially if there was some concept to the album (Mansun, The Streets). Concept. How pretentious. Sorry.
  • You will always be judged on the music you listen to. This is unfair, but it's going to happen. If you listen to Snow Patrol, you don't really like music, and your opinion on what's good or not is not worth listening to. You probably like elevator music too.
  • Why the argument about whether musicians write their own music or not? Why does it matter? Elvis didn't write his music, and he's pretty good. Granted, if the music is hugely emotional, and the performance is anguished, then you find out it's been written by a load of grey suits, you might feel a little cheated, but we don't expect actors to write the plays they appear in, and the same should apply to musicians.
  • You have a right to feel proud when a band you 'liked before they were famous' subsequently becomes famous. There is, however, nothing wrong with liking a popular band, and it's not time to ditch them for something more obscure just because some other people like them too. Coldplay are good, aren't they?
  • Why do so many bands now have the definite article in their names? I'm sure that we've reached saturation point on the number of 'The....' that are out there. Is 'The Drums' the worst name for a band since Hootie and the Blowfish, or is that just me?
Anyway, here's the music:

2001: Royksopp - Melody AM. From one's mid-20s, it's time to start thinking 'which music would go best with my sophisticated dinner party?'. Air and Zero 7 were early favourites, and I determined early to never go back to anyone who played Norah Jones, even if their basil parfait was to die for. After a couple of listens to Moon Safari, you can't help wanting the washing up to come a little faster, and the only time I went to see Air, I fell asleep. Royksopp seemed a whole lot cooler, and I stayed awake throughout their Somerset House gig.

2002: The Streets - Original Pirate Material. Is this the last album that genuinely didn't sound like anything that had gone before? I think so. Living in London at the time probably helped, and the beat on 'has it come to this?' always reminds me of the tube, in a good way.

2003: Goldfrapp - Black Cherry. 'Felt Mountain' is far better, but 'Black Cherry' still has its moments, and I did fall in love with Alison Goldfrapp one night in Hammersmith. So did Jez.

2004: Kasabian - Kasabian. The most swaggery bunch since Oasis, and just as exciting as Oasis when they kicked off. Coming from uber-sh*thole Leicester and still being good gains extra points. LSF, Cutt Off, Cluc Foot and Processed Beats would make it a good album even if only a couple of these songs were on there.

2005: Picaresque - The Decemberists. Must have been a pretty weak year. I like the Decemberists, and I don't care if the singer has an irritating voice, and they're not as cool as other such alt-country fellows, according to muso yank Ryan.

2006: Whatever people say I am... - Arctic Monkeys. Obviously. They were very exciting indeed, and if only for 'still take you home', the anthem of 2007's Ireland holiday, they deserve the vote.

2007: Cross - Justice. Not sure if I'm too old for this, but ever since phantom no.2 was used on channel 5's awful football Italia, they've had a hold over me. French music is cool these days. Who knew?

2008: The Age of the Understatement - The Last Shadow Puppets. The Arctic Monkey's chap's other band, and definitely more of a grower, even if it's not so catchy. Sounds a bit like the AMs meets Bowie, which can never be a bad thing.

2009: West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum - Kasabian. Kasabian's second album wasn't much cop, and they seemed to be a real one album wonder (at least in my eyes). I can't describe the sadness with which I watched 'shoot the runner' on the Friday Night Project, thinking how incredibly awful it was. WRPLA is even better than the debut album, and even though Noel Fielding was in the Vlad the Impaler video, it's still a great album.

2010: One Life Stand - Hot Chip. Only for 'I feel better' really, and I probably haven't even listened to the whole album more than once, but 2010's not even over, and I've had enough of this list, and you have too. Probably.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

But is it Art?

A few weeks ago, the new Government announced a £19M cut in funding for Arts Council England. Jeremy Hunt followed this up by binning the UK Film Council, since when we've had British film and theatre luminaries such as Sam West and Mike Leigh bemoaning these philistinic acts, and even aged Hollywood megastar Clint Eastwood has had his say; he doesn't like it either, incidentally. It's hardly surprising that in tough times this film funding quango has received the chop. It is clearly regarded as inessential, and a luxury, and in many ways it is. Farming in this country receives a significant amount of Government subsidy, and no-one would argue against this; we all do need to eat, after all. I can't think of another industry which is funded to a similar extent to the Arts, and many would argue that the industry needs to become self-sufficient. If exhibitions are put on, plays are written and performed, and films are made that people want to see, they will pay good money to do so, and the industry can be considered a success. The League football industry, for example, receives no funding from the Government; in one sense the opposite is true, and the expectation is that the clubs will give back something to the local community.

But what are the plays, films and Art that make the money? Here are some examples (off the top of my head admittedly): Titanic, Harry Potter, Spiderman, films with Will Smith, films adapted from Dan Brown, The Mousetrap, things by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Monet exhibitions, Dali on the Southbank. What purpose do many of these serve, save to while away a couple of hours of passive entertainment for the proles? They're certainly not pushing the boundaries, not making people think, not challenging anyone. They get massive backing because they are bankers. People know they are going to be successful. If nothing existed in the Arts but this, we'd continually be moving in a cycle of blockbuster films, the last night of the Proms and singalonga Joseph. Plays like Enron certainly couldn't make it to the West End, because no-one's going to take a punt on a play like this, it's simply too much of a risk. In fact, the play is brilliant; thought-provoking and entertaining at the same time. It informs, it educates, it keeps you gripped. This is why the Arts Council needs funding; it's to promote Art which otherwise would have no outlet. I have no interest in seeing funding for traditional art; if someone paints pretty seascapes, and sells them to people who want it on their living room walls, that's fine, but you have no need to be funded. So long as Government money is being used to fund ground-breaking, thought-provoking Art in any form, then hurrah for that. One might argue that producing something which few people might wish to see (or think they wish to see) has little point, but that view is discredited by the 'Enron' argument, which is a play that made it to broadway. Is the job of the Arts to pander to the public? Certainly not, otherwise we'd be piling money into the sort of tosh mentioned above.

Of course much of the problem lies with the fact that the Arts are seen as elitist in this Country, but that's more to do with the perception than the reality. There's no dress code for any theatre in London that I'm aware of, and top prices tend to plateau at about £60. You can often get a decent seat for around the £20 mark. Sam West was on the radio this week talking about his campaign to get a minumum wage of £400 per week for the actors in a recent Shakespeare. Compare this with a visit to Chelsea FC (or any of the top clubs). This is the home of the working class individual, and lacks the elitism of the Arts world. Here you pay around £60 for a ticket, and for this you get to watch people entertain who earn around £100,000 per week. Hasn't elitism been turned on its head? Football used to be for the people, but now it's for the people who can afford to shell out £1825 for a season ticket at Arsenal.

You could go and see the Moustrap about 50 times for that price.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Face the Music

Everyone's a fan of lists. Channel 5 in particular. List shows seem to have spawned from programmes such as 'I love 1973', and the public's love of nostalgia in general. They started with the ten best films, or albums, which seemed fair enough. Suddenly ten wasn't enough, and we moved into the top 100 best..., and the categories became rather more desperate too. I'm pretty sure I've spent a Sunday night watching the countdown of the 'Top 100 love scenes in family movies from the 1980s starring Molly Ringwald'. Whereas the original list shows meant that some pretty big decisions needed to be made, nowadays it's more tricky just finding enough examples to cram into the list. What's left to do? 'Top seven days of the week'? 'Top 100 colours'? I, for one, am on the edge of my seat.

This all acts as an introduction to this particular entry, which is a list about albums. Ten year's worth of albums in fact. Starting in 1991, purely for the fact that it's a palindrome, and for someone as 'curious incident-y' as me, that's where you need to start.

In a bid to remove all controversy, these aren't necessarily those albums that I think are the best of that year, simply the ones I reckon I've listened to most often. They're probably the albums that I liked most in each particular year, though I seem to remember that as an angsty 15 year old, music was one of the main ways that you fitted in, and if you carried round a vinyl copy of 'blood sugar sex magik' in an Andy's records bag, a reasonable amount of cool would be heaped upon you even before you opened your zit-encrusted mouth in front of a moderately attractive girl.

1991 - Nirvana, Nevermind
1992 - Tie: Pavement, Slanted and Enchanted and Sonic Youth, Dirty
1993 - Suede, Suede
1994 - Portishead, Dummy
1995 - Oasis, (What's the Story) Morning Glory? (of course)
1996 - Cake, Fashion Nugget
1997 - Tie: Prodigy, The Fat of the Land and Ben Folds Five, Whatever and Ever Amen
1998 - Neutral Milk Hotel, In the Aeroplane over the Sea
1999 - Moby, Play (and may I be forever damned for this, especially given the number of times I played porcelein)
2000 - The Avalanches, Since I Left You

What a very depressing list. I wasn't aware that I'd spent my time from the age of 15 to 24 desperately trying to fit in with the crowd, though my listening tastes would suggest differently. 1998 represents a high point, with 1999 the nadir.

When I've recovered from my despond, I shall compile a 2001-2010 list, which will hopefully be less predictable and formulaic.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

It just is cricket

I've just returned from my big sporting adventure of the summer, namely a weekend away in beautiful Worcestershire, playing cricket. Barring a possible guest appearance for Wroxeter CC up in Shropshire (Jamie, August 21st, 2pm, I know...), I have now completed my rigorous schedule for the summer. Cricket must be the only sport where you can end up weighing more at the end of the game than you did at the start (apart from perhaps the sport of competitive eating, but at least you're likely to vomit it all up at the end of the session with CE). On both of the days I played, I had breakfast, lunch and dinner, and I still managed to sandwich (excuse me) the most important of all cricket rituals into the day: the cricket tea. I could write a league table of Independent Schools based on their cricket teas, using my own School days as a reference (incidentally, St Edward's Oxford and Hailebury always came out at the top), and the tea is as integral a part of the day as either of the innings, and often informs as much of the conversation in the pub afterwards. Here's a quick run-down of the essentials:

1. Sandwiches/buns: simplicity is the key here, with ham and mustard and cheese and pickle being staples. Brie and cranberry is at the other end of the spectrum, and should be avoided at all costs (not due to calorific content, you understand).
2. Cake: ideally home-made by a rotund wife of one of the team stalwarts. Ideally one slice should be big enough perhaps not to sink a battleship, but at least to make sure that everyone's fighting to field at first slip for the second innings. Victoria sandwich and good old chocolate cake set the standard. Nothing with coffee please.
3. Waggon wheels/penguin biscuits/jaffa cakes: WW should be there to ensure that everyone can discuss whether they've got smaller over the years (actually it's more likely that your adult hands are bigger than your child hands). Penguin biscuits for the jokes (and because they're actually lovely), and jaffa cakes so that the team bore can attempt to start a conversation about whether they're biscuits or cakes. Tiresome.
4. Tea and orange squash: there should be a rule against drinking anything else. The orange squash should either be so dilute as to resemble a homeopathic remedy, or so concentrated that you can only remove it from your teeth with a toothbrush. Tea is the staple of the elder members of the team, though it makes us all feel manly.
5. Something that no-one eats: this may be the white chocolate biscuits, or the punnet of fruit, but there's always something that need to remain untouched, possibly to be given as a sacrifice to the cricketing Gods, much as the miners used to leave some of their pasty in the mines, or something...

Here are some things you should never serve:

1. Anything 'foreign': I found this out as I attempted to serve quesadillas to the good men of Wem last year. I was regarded with the suspicion that Texans reserve for homosexuals and thin people. Stick simple, cricket caterers.
2. Salad: even if this is served as part of a 'proper' lunch, with ham and new potatoes, the chances are that no-one will eat it. If you serve it, you will be regarded with the same level of suspicion as in point 1.
3. Gatorade/other sports drinks: playing in Shropshire division 6 (or likewise) is great fun, but you don't want to look like you're trying to raise the level of your game by that 1-2% that'll tip you over the 45mph mark on the speedometer. Best to look as though you're taking the game only a bit seriously.
4. 'Branded' crisps: for some reason, monster munch or wotsits just look wrong on the cricket tea table, unless of course you're playing for the under 9s, in which case they'll be lapped up before anything else.
5. Alcohol: there's always one peasant who feels the need to neck 3 cans of strongbow during the tea interval. This will not impress anyone, save the 2 straggley sunburned chavettes who've turned up in bikini tops and jeggings, and you probably had a pretty good chance with them back in 'Velvet' anyway, didn't you?

But what about the cricket, I hear you ask? We won one, we lost one, and it didn't rain.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

The land of the free

I've just spent the past two weeks in the States. I love America. So much so, Victoria and I were even discussing yesterday how we might go and live there some day. All of my London friends seem to be decamping to Australia, but much as I love Oz, it doesn't hold the same fascination for me as the 'greatest Goddamn democracy in the world, boy...'. America is much more a different Country to the UK than Australia, and Oz still feels almost colonial in places. The American language is totally different from English (or even Aussie English), and they do seem to like the Brits far more than the Aussies do (the lack of sporting rivalry and a greater propensity to forget the colonial past might have something to do with this). Anyway, here's a few reasons I like it so much:

1. Friendliness: American people are so much more friendly than any other Country I've been to. We've stayed for free on 89th and Park with the family of a friend (when I've never met any of the family before, and said friend was away at the time); we were then invited to stay with members of said family in Baku, Azerbaijan. I've been bought drinks all night by a chap I'd met five minutes earlier, ended up as the only non-Mexican people at a Mexican film premiere in Texas, sung karaoke with some chap from a Houston Astros game, been welcomed into an invite-only bar opening night in San Francisco, and been welcomed into a private booth for some Canadian chap's stag-night in Vegas (and Mike Tyson was in the booth next to ours, I kid you not).

2. Lack of Chavs: I'm sure there is an American equivalent to the English 'chav' or the Aussie 'bogun', but I've yet to locate it, or even to find a term for it. This was emphasised for me this week: I'd met only genuinely nice people for two weeks across the pond, but when it came to the flight back, I found myself sandwiched on the flight between four English Craig David lookalikes, who all sported the same nasty pencil beard and said 'man' and 'innit' a lot, and three tattooed Northeners, one of which carried a boxing bag, and whose girlfriend sported a rather meaty looking black eye.

3. Food: tricky one this. There are certainly pros and cons to the American love of food, but I think the Country just about comes out on top. Admittedly, just about all the advertising of food comes under the 'look how much MSG you can stuff in your face for $1.99', but whether it's high end or low end you're after, you can find something to satisfy anywhere. Uchi in Austin, Picasso in Vegas, Salt House in San Francisco, Etais Unis in NYC, Cochon in New Orleans, Artisan in Paso Robles all leave a pretty good high-end taste in the mouth. The peanut butter and bacon burger at 'Yo Momma's' was pretty memorable too, as is the 504 Ferrari pizza in RI. Sadly I can't remember the name of the Asian fusion place on 82nd street in NY where the conversation made me realise just how much in love I was. We'll go back there someday. Food, and the memories associated, are a large part of why I like the US.

4. It's a continent: And in saying this, I mean that there's something there for everyone. Much as you don't really need to go outside of France to find any style of wine you want, you don't have to go outside the US to find pretty much any holiday you want. Whether it's scenic, hedonistic, cultural or a mixture of all three or beyond, the fun is all there to be found.

5. Bigness: I like the fact that I can order one appetiser, and still the pair of us won't be able to finish it. One appetiser in Boston ran to four chicken breasts. That's supposed to be a starter for one person, incidentally. Nothing makes you feel as virtuous greed-wise as watching Americans eat their breakfast, brunch, lunch, dinner, supper, snack etc. All burgers are half-pound as standard, and the record on the 'big-boy' wall at Chunky's burgers in San Antonio is twelve of these half pound monsters (that's putting on half a stone in one sitting...). The cars are ridiculous: we drove a 5 litre Mustang last week, and still felt pretty pee-wee on the roads. The people in Texas look like they've been gone at pretty hard with a bicycle pump, and then have been melted into their clothes. But hey, if it makes you feel good about your weight, I'm all for it.

So where next? New York, of course, Chicago, Washington, NW Coast and my beloved Green Bay, to see the Packers.

Friday, 2 July 2010

Out of Africa

All of my previous blog entries have been written with a sense of calm. I've tapped lightly on the keyboard, whilst transferring my rambling thoughts from brain to screen. I wouldn't go so far as to say I've been impassioned to write this latest entry, but maybe I'm tapping just a little harder.

Here's the facts that have brought about this feverish state of mind: tonight, Ghana played Uruguay in the 1/4 finals of the World Cup. It's a 1/4 final that not many would have predicted, though it has a sense of importance: Uruguay won the first two World Cups, and Ghana are Africa's last representative at the first African World Cup. To put you out of your misery, in case you haven't seen: Uruguay won. On penalties. A harsh way to go for Ghana, certainly, but a 'fair' lottery. But maybe it shouldn't have gone to that lottery, because right at the end of the game, Ghana were awarded a penalty, which would have taken them through, had they converted it. Not just any penalty mind, but one awarded for deliberate cheating, when an outfield player for Uruguay (subsequently sent off) handled the ball deliberately on the line. Anyway, Ghana missed it, cue much gnashing of teeth and cries of unfair play.

Yes, it is unfair, but so was England's goal that was ruled not to have crossed the line, and so is any goal that is chalked off for an incorrect linesman's flag. But that's the beauty of sport. So much rests on key decisions, and often they are called wrong. It's human error, only this time it's from the officials, not from those on the pitch. Are the officials expected to be infallible? Of course not, they are only human, like the players. They make mistakes, but their impartiality is never called into question, and surely that's the most important thing. Sport is great because it throws up upsets, because the best don't always come first, because the story doesn't always have a happy ending. It's unpredictable, and that's often the best thing about it.

The script said that Ghana should have gone through tonight. That much is obvious. The African people were behind them, and the World outside of South America were behind them. But to pity them is to patronise them, and this is something that Africa has endured more of than most. If the situation was reversed, and a Ghanain player had handled on the line, Uruguay would have had the chance to win the game. The Ghanain player would have been lauded, and the World would have accepted it far more readily. There's no great sportmanship in football any more, because it's only partly a game, and the money and National expectation have placed it on such a pedestal that we have lost the sense of football as entertainment, and see it only as winning or losing, as justice being done or not. I've seen the Ghana players holding up mock yellow cards in an attempt to get the referee to book the players of other teams. They're no worse than the Uruguayans, or any others, but it's a sad indictment of what football has become.

Anyway, here's the solution: man handles deliberately on line, goal is awarded, man stays on pitch. Fair.

Just one further observation, and a pet hate of mine: the sense of 'deserving' in football. By this I mean the situation where a team dominates play, squanders chances, and ends up losing 1-0 to the opposition's only meaningful attempt on goal. You did not 'deserve' to win. Football is about putting the ball in the back of the net, and no more. If they score more than you, you deserve to lose, not win, because possession, shots on target etc mean nothing, apart from to Andy Gray and other football analysts. It's an odd concept, and seemingly unique to football. We love the sense of justice being done, and are up in arms when the perception is that this isn't the case. It's not solely a British thing, but it's most definitely 'not cricket'...

Wednesday, 30 June 2010

No more heroes

So sung the stranglers. They sung something about Trotsky getting an ice-pick in his head too; all very 'Basic Instinct', there's really nothing original about these Russians. Still, it's better than OMD singing about the atomic bomb, or Boney M's homage to Rasputin.

But back to heroes. I reckon that anyone when asked to name someone they consider to be a hero would be able to do so without a second's thought. We all have heroes; some last a lifetime, and others come and go. So how to define? Well, admiration must be a good start-point; either admiration for the person themselves, or for their achievements. Then comes the divergance: some people are heroes because we aspire to be like them, others we realise that we're never going to get close to, and these we tend to admire from afar. People we know would tend to fall into the former category, whereas famous figures might tend to fall into the latter.

For me, two from the latter category are David Gower and George Orwell. I've taken such an interest in both at one point or another that I actually do feel like I know them, or at least that I'd be comfortable in their company. Gower was the batsman I most wanted to watch as I grew up, and I didn't really mind that England were hopeless through much of the 1980s and early 90s, because Gower made it all worthwhile. An elegant 30 from Gower was worth a ton from the austere Victorian look-alike Graham Gooch, in my book at least. Gower never seemed to lose sight of the fact that cricket was entertainment, and he provided that in spades. The fact he was a hapless captain, enjoyed his wine, did the Cresta run drunk and 'buzzed' his team-mates in a tiger-moth bi-plane only served to make me admire him more. I could never aspire to play like that. Even at the very moderate standard at which I play, the elegance eludes me. Orwell is a writer who draws you in like no other, and his own passion, conviction, vision and dichotomous personality all come through strongly in all his writing. He'd hate to be thought of like this, as he believed that not a glimpse of the writer should come through in the story, but what did he know? I went on a solo pilgrimage once to Sutton Courtenay, the Oxfordshire Village where he's buried. He has a simple stone, marked with 'Eric Arthur Blair, 1903-1950', nothing else. There was no-one else there the whole time, and I got to spend some time with one of my heroes, albeit I was the only one gaining anything from this meeting.

Do I have any heroes from the former category? It's not a term I'd use readily. My friends aren't heroes of mine (perish the thought) and to use it for family almost seems to distance me from them. Admiration: certainly. Hero-worship: it just sounds a bit wrong to me. Having said that, we can find heroes in what people used to be. When my Grandfather died in 1998 (I was 21), his funeral drew in a whole lot of people that I'd never met. Nothing unusual in that, as I saw my Grandparents less regularly since I'd been away up North at university. Many of the crew that had flown Lancaster bombers with him during the war were there, which proved the strength of the bond that had existed between these men for over 50 years. Stories were told of heroic deeds that had been done by my Grandfather all those years ago, and suddenly the old man with the handlebar moustache, who used to serve up easy half-volleys in the garden and who tried to keep a lid on things as I smashed another plant pot with a clumsy sweep, became in my eyes the hero he had been to them all those years ago.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Beat the Budget

After my rantings about football and mindless TV, I thought it was high time that I started helping my fellow man, rather than use this particular medium merely to let off steam. Seeing as this is *emergency* budget day, which makes it sound all the more exciting, and there's a whole lot of belt tightening in the air, I've decided to produce my five point plan to help all those people most affected by VAT increases and other such things. I assume that all people who are poor fall into this category, so it's also my chance to feel good about myself by giving a few tips to those less fortunate than I (and you, because if you're reading this, you must have a computer, or a friend that has one, or you're in an internet cafe; hang on, that means you might be poor...)

Anyway, here goes:

1. Don't smoke. Smoking was last cool in the 1990s, when I smoked (coincidentally), and back then cigarettes were also about £2 per pack. Hanging around outside a dingy office block with four other drones, trying to light up with one hand and hold an umbrella with another doesn't make you look like the marlboro cowboy. Total saving: about a fiver a week.

2. Don't buy a lottery ticket. When the BSE crisis was in full flow, the chances of you contracting it from diseased beefy spinal cord was about 1 in 11 million - Government tag line: you've nothign to worry about. When the lottery first came on the scene, the chance of winning the thing was estimated at about 1 in 14 million - tag line: 'it could be you'. No it won't be. And you've got to sit through 40 minutes of Nick Knowles just to get to the numbers. And there is just as much of a chance of 1,2,3,4,5,6 coming up as any other combination. Except you'll only win about 75p even if these are your numbers. Total saving: a pound a week.

3. Don't put flags on your car. Even if they are free, and you only do it every two years, any effort you make to support your country, whilst instead looking like a total tit and embarrassing said country in the process is a waste of time, money, effort and all those minutes your mother spend squeezing you out. Total saving: Coppers per two years.

4. Don't buy ready meals/eat less food. Even the cheap readies from Iceland are relatively expensive for what crap goes into them. And incidentally, the way you do a dinner party is not to make five different frozen microwave meals, and then serve them all at once to your guests. 'What's for supper?' 'Well, you're having chicken Korma, but Mandy's having lasagne'. Even dinner party novices might smell a rat. If you do the cooking yourself, and don't eat like a Texan expecting the nuclear winter, you should be able to scrape a few more pennies together each week. Total saving: about a tenner a week.

5. Radio over TV. It's better, and you don't need a license. Radio has TMS, 6 music, bbc 7, radio 4 and Milton Jones. TV has Jeremy Kyle, Jim Rosenthal, James Corden and live from studio 5. No contest. Total saving: about 3 pounds per week.

Right - I make that just under £20 you could save with my 'beat the budget' plan. Which equates to about 6 large bottles of white lightning. And go on, my son, you really deserve it.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Rationality Versus Emotion

Rationality is defined by the free dictionary (I don't believe that I own an actual dictionary) as:

1. the state or quality of being rational or logical
2. the possession or utilization of reason or logic
3. a reasonable or logical opinion

This is pretty much what I thought it would say, but it's nice to start a post with some back-up. Emotion is perhaps the opposite of rationality, at least in the sense that when emotion takes over rationality is what it takes over from.

The big question for today is: can the two exist peacefully together? The answer (as a way of getting round to what I really want to talk about) is: where one examines this nation's love with football, certainly not. I do apologise for writing about football now for 66% of my blog posts, but I continue to be amazed by how seemingly intelligent rational people are able to lose control of their faculties when the conversation turns to the World Cup and England.

Now I'm not talking about the drivel that gets talked in the heat of the moment, when one's actually watching the game in the pub, alcohol clouding the senses as one wills England on to glory. I'm talking about the stuff that gets talked about in the aftermath, when the so called 'expert analysis' kicks in. The three most striking examples follow, and anyone that disagrees with me, please tell me why, because I'm currently very bemused of Oundle...

1. Fabio Capello: Two weeks ago he was flavour of the month. He was the man for England. He was discipline, strucutre, in control of the wayward, fun-loving, anything-shagging England footballer. He banned the WAGs, he dropped JT for his immoral escapades. Above all, he got England winning again. But England have now played badly for one, maybe one and a half games. Now Fabio is too controlling, he doesn't let the players express themselves, he puts them too much under pressure. For goodness sakes. These are exactly the character traits that we were praising him for ten days ago. Has he changed markedly? No, but eleven players have had a bad game, and something must be to blame.

Rationality 0 - 1 Sports reporters, TV news and people in pub...

2. The fan's money: how many more times do we have to hear about the fans, and in particular the fact that they've 'paid good money to be out here'. Of course they have. It's in South Africa, which is a long way away. I went to SA in February, it cost £900, and I had an amazing time. of course my ability to enjoy myself isn't controlled by eleven man that I'll never get to meet, but I digress...when I went to the most Southerly point, and it rained, I didn't complain to the Park Steward that I'd paid a lot of money to come out here; I was well aware that there was a chance that it would rain, and somehow I managed to cope. Why do these fans expect that because they have paid some money to follow England, it is a God-given right that England will win football matches? Here's a thought: in every game of football, there are two teams, and some of the Algerian fans may also have paid a lot of money to get there. Or maybe they paid less money, so we should win. By two goals. And if they come from closer in Africa, it should be three goals because they've hardly paid anything to get there. If, by some miracle, Scotland had made it to the finals, we should have a draw, bearing in mind that flights cost about the same from Edinburgh as London.

Rationality 0 - 1 England fans in SA...

3. Wayne Rooney's 'outburst': Now I'm not a particular fan of Wayne, the Granny-shagging tattooed scouser, whose face resembles a bucket-full of smashed crabs, but...his 'outburst', and the media frenzy that followed was absolutely non-sensical. The England team weren't very good, and so they got booed (incidentally, when a team get booed, does anyone actually say 'boo'?). Wayne replied 'nice to get booed by your own fans'. Sarcastically. And so he had every right to do so. Admittedly, some of these people had paid a lot to be out there, but when you've run yourself into the ground for 90 minutes, it must hurt to feel zero appreciation. He didn't swear. He didn't even shout. Passionate, yes, and that's what we ask for in our footballers. What did the cameras thing they were going to pick up, an apology? But that's what our Wayne has been forced to produce: a grovelling retrospective apology that everyone knows is meaningless anyway. Ludicrous.

Rationality 0 - 1 outraged England football-watching public

Anyway - here's the real thing. England aren't that good. We've simply got the best league in the world, and a few of our players are key players in some of the best teams in that league. But not James, or Johnson, or Carragher, or Lennon, or Barry, or Heskey, or Wright-Phillips, or Crouch. Simple. And rational. And we still might win. And then we can talk about it forever. And all have flags of St George on our cars. Don't get me started on that one...