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Hoses of the Holy in the Parallel Universe

March 31, 2006

Tropical Much?

The weather continues to be remarkable, I think. Strangely tropical. We wake each morning to blue and sunny skies, and by later afternoon the skies are grey and it starts to chuck it down. It rains until late in the evening and stops, and then the skies clear overnight and we wake to sunny skies.

It's like The Truman Show, like someone's written a particularly unimaginative computer programme to control the weather.

March 30, 2006

Interview with Karen Traviss

A long interview with Karen Traviss over at Strange Horizons on her Wess'har books. She also has interesting things to say about how she became a professional writer, though some depressing thoughts on the British publishing scene:
My gut feel is that we're apologists in the U.K. and prefer to dress up SF in pseudointellectualism so that it's respectable. "My spaceships and dragons are more intellectually meaningful than your spaceships and dragons."

Good stuff on how her plots flow from her characters. Character is destiny.

Dubrovnik Appreciation

Just Jane's pictures of Dubrovnik caused a stray thought to wander into my mind.

What would jolly old England look like, eh? If we hadn't been bombed to buggery in the second world war? Was the general sense that the whole place had to be rebuilt in the 1950s and 1960s responsible for the worst excesses of Town Council Road Improvements etc (qv. Dunstable, which looked quite nice until the mid-60s).

I'll always associate the name Cricklewood with prefab houses, because when I was growing up, you could still see them from the train (from Luton into London). Which I guess means that there really were whole swathes of the country flattened by bombing, which created a general culture of Demolition and Improvement in the name of Modernity.

But somewhere (in another parallel universe) is there an England that still looks more or less how it looked in the 1930s? Probably not.

The State of Microsoft

Charles Arthur and Jack Schofield in Technology Guardian ponder the state of Microsoft:
Microsoft's challenge now is not to turn into the sort of slow, bureacratic company it tore apart - IBM. But that may be happening. 'The constant these days is reorganisation,' one Microsoft UK executive said last week. That's reminiscent of what IBM's employees used to say - that the company initials stood for 'I've Been Moved'."

It's interesting, isn't it, that the larger a company gets, the slower its internal workings become. There was a quote on the wall in my old office: "There are two kinds of companies. The quick, and the dead." I think it was that Intel bloke who said that.

The bigger the company, the more it turns inward, and the more concerned it becomes with internal politics, backbiting, and reshuffling. In a small company, one person can come in and have a huge impact, become an agent for change, and possibly success and growth. The company management immediately decide to use some of the profits from this growth to expand the efforts of this individual, throwing resources in, adding members to the team.

But the more people there are involved, the more resources they have, the slower the efforts become.

Even the Mac, which turned out to be the main thing Apple did for many years, grew out of a kind of skunkworks splinter group. The main project, viewed as a replacement for the original Apple II, turned out to be a dud (Lisa).

Stay hungry is obviously the message. All companies have their day. Microsoft still has a massive installed base, and if all those people eventually replace their old PCs with new ones running a new version of Windows, whenever that may be, I can't see MS going out of business. Stagnating, yes, but stagnation is what causes you to keep postponing your next major release.

Apple stagnated, in the late 90s, never quite getting round to shipping a new operating system, the so-called Copland project. in the end, they had to buy one in, and even then it took a good few years to get it ready for prime time. If it hadn't been for the dumb-shit enthusiasm of the Mac Moonies (people like myself) to put up with the Spinning Beachball of Death and other notable "features" of the early OS X, they might not have survived at all.

Big companies sometimes think that spinning off bits of yourself, demerging, as it were, is the way to go. But it's a lot of energy and expense to expend in internal re-organisation, energy that could be spent developing and shipping products. Actually, what you need to do is cut your customers loose. Apple frequently do this. "That's old," we're not supporting it any more." You have a serial port on your printer? Sorry. Your machine is over three years old? Tough titley, Mr Shitley.

As long as your revenue stream relies on a constant stream of "upgrades" and "improvements", a rigourous focus only on those customers who spend money with you on a regular basis is the only way to go. You have to cut loose all the so-called "enthusiasts" who buy once and spend 5 years complaining about being left behind. Legacy support will suck you dry.

March 29, 2006

Some Assembly Required

I just spent the afternoon assembling a tubular metal frame bed for one of the girls. From Argos, it's one of those high beds with a little desk and a futon thingy underneath, ideal for people like us who have titchy bedrooms.

It struck me, as I was putting the thing together, that it's one of the miracles of modern life that two cardboard boxes of stuff can ship all the way from China and fit together, with all bits present and correct. I'm not implying it's a miracle that the Chinese can do it, by the way, just that the confidence of the person who packed and sealed the red plastic bags of nuts and bolts, washers and screws, parts A to M, 4 @ 32mm, 8 @ 40mm, 7@ 60mm, 11 @ 70mm, etc., is completely miraculous when you think about it. It comes halfway round the world and there are exactly 11@ 70mm, with 11 matching washers, slightly bent in the middle to fit the curve of the bed.

I'm not even going to make a joke as to how confusing the red R and L stickers must be (standing as they do for Reft and Light), but it does seem remarkable that I got one left-handed piece and one right-handed, and not two the same.

I once bought a butcher's console from Habitat, and it came from Slovakia, I think, and that's the only bit of self-assembly furniture where the holes did not match up, where it was simply impossible to put it together as described. I'm used to making the odd mistake, thinking two pieces are interchangeable when they're not. I'm capable of undoing and doing it again to get it right, but in the case of the butcher's console, there was nothing I could do, and I was reduced to tears of frustration and rage. In the event, Habitat replaced it, delivering one that was fully assembled, so that had a happy ending.

But here's my question. Just how many times is it reasonable or normal to drop the allen key in the process of assembly? After whch point is it wise to consult a doctor to see if you've had a stroke or something?

Why employment agencies are the spawn of Satan, #162

Yesterday I was sent a job description by an employment agency that included the following words: "Background, sector experience and length of experience is not important."

I sent my CV, only to receive the following reply from the agency drone: "Unfortunately you do not have the right background to be considered for this position so I am unable to progress your application any further."

I don't see why I shouldn't name names and shame shames. The drone in question worked for the so-called Creamery (nice Flash web site, guys, you dumb shits).

Realising that I no longer needed to waste my time with these asswipes, I sent an email suggesting that they read their own job descriptions before fobbing people off.

March 28, 2006

The Dating Game

In a long, though apparently not "heartfelt" post, Damian at Pootergeek deconstructs the dating game and wonders why people think it's acceptable these days to stand someone up via text message.

I've commented on there that the Catch 22 of Dating is that it's easier to get a girlfriend when you already have one; also that single women are harder to pull than those already in a relationship.

There really is a lot cheatin' and lyin' and foolin' around going on. Such is life (and Country music).

I reached a tipping point in my late 20s, after years of practice, when the Chase became suddenly easier, and - give or take - I ceased to have the kind of trouble Damian's been having. I'm not smug about it. It's a truism that when you're single you wish you were in a relationship, but as soon as you are - well.

It's amazing what will work, as a chat-up line. I'm no foot fetishist, for example (really, no, I'm not), but I once noticed that someone I was with had really pretty feet. Most women, I think it's true to say, would be better served by sporting a pair of Doctor Marten boots rather than forcing the sight of their bunion-beset, calloused, crippled feet on the rest of us by wearing those slinky, expensive shoes. So I was a little surprised to note that J's feet were undamaged and, as I said, very pretty. I just said, "Nice feet," or something like that, and that was it, I was in.

If you think about it, the flip-side of being somewhat obsessed with shoes (to the extent that I am obsessed with gee-tars) is that a compliment paid to the foot will go as far as someone telling me they like my guitar playing. But I think it's really, really, important not to leave anyone with the impression that you only like feet, if you know what I mean.

Patty Loveless: Dreamin' My Dreams

Patty Loveless has had a long career, which has veered from traditional-sounding stuff all the way to commercial country pop and back again. A couple of years ago, she released an album of bluegrass material Mountain Soul, and this new outing, Dreamin' My Dreams is about halfway between top 40 country and pure bluegrass.

It shouldn't work, and there's always the danger of falling between two stools, but it kind of does. Work, I mean. She has a strong voice, in the high-lonesome style, certainly not as "modern" sounding as Trisha Yearwood and some others, but more than capable of carrying a tune and evoking strong emotions.

This set opens with a Richard Thompson song, "Keep Your Distance," which also features the venerable Albert Lee on guitar (he turns up on several other tracks, too). Other guest appearances include Emmylou Harris on the track, "When Being Who You Are is Not Enough," and Dwight Yoakam on the Delaney and Bonnie song, "Never Ending Song of Love." If that wasn't enough guests and references for ya, Ms Loveless also covers Steve Earle's "My Old Friend the Blues."

The sounds are predominantly acoustic - guitar, dobro, banjo, mando, fiddle - with some pedal steel, plus the odd bit of slide and electric guitar from Mr Lee. It's a nice clean, open sound, and a good strong set of songs. I don't think she'll ever reach the heights she reached with her version of Matraca Berg's "You Can Feel Bad" a few years ago, but this'll do.

Karen Traviss: The World Before

The third in her series set on or around Bezer'ej, The World Before continues where Crossing the Line left off.

Rather than feeling like a satisfying conclusion to a trilogy, this feels like a marker on the way to somewhere else, and there are indeed at least two further sequels to follow. It's difficult to say much about a 3rd in a series without spoiling earlier episodes, but suffice it to say that for those who have read this far, there are twists to the story that keep it getting more interesting.

For example, the humans who encounter the main aliens here, the Wess'har, learn to fear them because of their extremely strict environmental policies and their view that all beings have a right to exist without interference from others. In such a context, the proliferation of humans - even on their own planet - at the expense of other life-forms and the biosphere, comes to seem like an out-of-control infestation.

But it turns out that these Wess'har are a colony of softy liberal pacifist hippy environmentalists who left their home planet thousands of years before because they wanted to have even less impact on their environment than was culturally acceptable back home. The World Before, the place they come from, holds even more mystery, and needless to say, the home planet Wess'har turn up in this episode and seem determined to deal with the human threat by any means necessary.

There's a lovely moment in this when a Wess'har scientist resurrects a pair of parrots from a gene bank and finds them not only beautiful, but intelligent enough to learn speech. Now, think of the way parrots get treated and threatened and exploited in this wonderful world of ours and imagine what the Wess'har might think of us!

The question at issue here is actions vs. motivations. We all know about the Road to Hell, but the humans here encounter a species that doesn't care what you thought you were doing or what you wanted to happen. They make judgements based on actions and their consequences alone. There's no such thing as an accident, or collateral damage that is somehow excusable: you are responsible for your actions.

Another cracking read from Traviss, and can't wait for the next instalment.

bbc four

in the middle of april i will be attending a discussion group on the subject of bbc four. your licence fee money will be paying me £50 for the inconvenience, and i expect there will be hot beverages and an assortment of biscuits. if there is anything you want me to say, then post a comment. think of me as a conduit by which your opinions might be heard.


In common with many others, our County Council is being hit by strikes at the moment (over pensions), and I must say it's a bit of a blast from the past to have this sort of thing going on. My wife reports that the cleaners at her school are also up in arms because the company they were working for sold out, and the new owners have cut the hours (2.5 hours instead of 4) but are demanding the same amount of work.

In other words, they're trying to increase profits by exploiting their workers, and no doubt expecting to win tenders by bidding low. In my dreams, the cleaning staff would revolt, either making sure the contract was lost through poor performance (but this obviously doesn't happen as often as it should), or would resign en masse. Of course, this kind of thing almost never happens these days, which is another thing we can thank Mrs T for.

I have a history of activism, not out of any particular ideological stance, but because I'm made angry by exploitation and/or incompetence, unfairness, and plain old evil. I certainly torpedoed one of my careers by being a vocal opponent of poor management practice and deeply unfair situations.

There was a kind of madness inflicted the civil service department for which I worked. It involved counting post, which was their only way of measuring performance. As an officer, you counted the amount of post you had, with a second count of the amount over 14 days, and a third count of the amount over 2 months old. Over 14 days - in the mists of time - was considered Bad. Over two months was The End Of The World. Of course, in reality, you were lucky to get a zero count of over 2 months, and lots of over 14 days was standard.

Sound familiar? Sound like every other single target driven management practice in the history of the world? And what do employees know that managers can't quite get into their thick skulls? Targets don't work. Targets become the sole focus, and the quality of the work, the service to the public, and the efficiency of the operation as a whole goes down the toilet.

I stepped back from out-and-out activism at one point, but I quietly resisted the Counting Culture, as we shall call it. I never rushed anything. I took my time working cases and worked them properly so that there was no comeback. Everyone else continued to focus on the Count, which meant they stormed through their in-trays "getting rid" of stuff as quickly as possible.

A small example. Say you have a customer who is claiming a refund, and you need some information about, say, 18 months ago. At least 50% of the time it was probably possible to find this information out for yourself. You could look back through the file; or you could get off your arse and look through some other documents. But most people, in working the case, would send off a memo, and put the file away, flagged (in their dreams) to be looked at again in the magic 14 days.

What happened in reality, the file sat there for 14 days while the memo sat on someone else's desk for up to 2 months. 14 days later, the originator of the memo would send a reminder, which would also sit on someone's desk, and so on. In other words, a simple piece of information would generate - on average - three unnecessary pieces of work (the memo and the reminders) - which would in turn generate 3 replies (so we've added 6 to the original single Counted item, because nobody ever remembered that they'd already replied), not to mention the probably angry letter or phone call(s) from the customer who was waiting for a refund, or whatever. You get the picture.

The working method, then, created a burgeoning of work because of the focus on Counting. Setting targets actually multiplied the work six-fold.

On the other hand, I would look back through the file, find what I needed, work the case properly, and put it away for good. I came under pressure to work "as fast" as everybody else, but over time my in-tray miraculously got smaller and smaller. Fewer reminders, fewer replies. Instead of getting, say, 30 new pieces of work per day, I might get 10 or 15.

The culmination of all this came a few months before I left forever. It was the Counting Time and there was General Panic as it dawned on the managers that the situation was worse than ever before. Instead of revealing to the higher-ups how bad things were, two of the middle managers plotted together to go through people's work and actually throw things away. Into the Confidential Waste. I'm sure the reasoning was along the lines that inter-office reminders were simply reminders about something that hadn't been dealt with yet. So they threw away two sacks of the stuff. I must say, I can't blame them.

But ever since, I've not believed a single targeting statistic or other productivity measure. Because, as Dr House says, everybody lies. It's not rocket science, and yet our management class - from ministers on down - persist in these idiotic targets and measures, because for some reason they think it's easier than doing it properly.

It's not.

March 27, 2006

Pot. Kettle. Black.

MediaGuardian.co.uk | Broadcast | Ross joins Davina's critics:
Jonathan Ross joined the chorus of disapproval for Davina McCall's struggling BBC1 chatshow from the This Morning couch today, saying she seems uninterested in some guests."

Unlike Jonathan Ross, of course, who never fails to ask questions beyond the ONE thing that everybody already knows about his guest(s).

More tactile than a freshly carved stone otter

I've never owned an Alfa Romeo, but he's right. They are pretty.
The greatest sensation of speed afforded to ordinary man is not on a go-kart or a rollercoaster. It comes when you've got the cruise control set at 70mph, the traffic in front is stopping and momentarily you can't find the button to turn it off. In that hiccup of time it doesn't feel like you're doing 70mph. It feels like you're doing three times the speed of light.

That's why, in most cars, the cruise control off button is clearly visible and easy to use in a hurry. Not in the Alfa it isn't. It looks like one of the pieces from a game of Risk and it's mounted on a stalk just below and slightly behind the indicator.
So when the traffic ground to a halt on the M40 I bet the chap behind me was keen to know why I didn't slow at all and then, for no obvious reason, suddenly indicated left....

[But] ... it is exactly one million times better looking than a BMW 3-series. And with those triple headlamps, and perfect proportions, at least half a million times better looking than any rivals from Audi, Mercedes or Jaguar.
You can pootle around slowly but somehow you tend to drive the 159 very hard and very fast. But the engine, torquey, powerful and smooth though it may be, is not the best part of this car. That accolade goes to the steering. It's fast, sharp, more informative than the internet and more tactile than a freshly carved stone otter."

Blair admits mistake

UK Prime Minister Tony Blair has acknowledged it may have been a "mistake" to announce he would not be serving a fourth term in office.

You think?

March 25, 2006

Bye Bye Blackbird


Someone's budgerigar escaped and came into our garden to invite a blackbird to dinner. Unfortunately, the blackbird had a sudden heart attack. Luckily, the budgie knew CPR and attempted to revive his/her feathered friend. S/He tried with all the capabilities at his/her disposal for 4 minutes and then personally carried the blackbird off to the bird hospital.

I don't know what type of budgie it is, or which sex, but maybe Simon can help.

March 24, 2006

Posh Stationery

You can get posh paper, can't you? And posh envelopes. You can get nice paper for your inkjet that looks like proper posh paper too. I think it was in JP Donleavy's A Singular Man that Sally Tomson likes to flick the paper with her fingernail to gauge its quality from the resulting sound.

I love all that.

But you can't get posh staples, can you? You can have the nicest paper in the world, but you can't get staples in Lottery Winner's Gold. I guess you could use those old fashioned brass things, but they don't punch a very neat hole.

Water Wars Part Deux

This week on Five Live Breakfast, they've been talking about the namby pamby Southern water shortage and different possible solutions to it.

It was interesting to me that nobody mentioned the obvious one: stop building houses where there isn't enough water for the existing population.

The solutions they did talk about included building a Giant Pipeline From the North to the South, also known as Building a Giant Terrorist Target That Stretches From Yorkshire to Kent. They mentioned also the old one about towing icebergs, demonstrating the usual lack of joined-up thinking at the BBC. It won't be long before they're running a climate change feature worrying about the shrinking ice caps etc., but for this week they've quietly forgotten about that one, and gone back to the old 70s idea of towing an iceberg to the Kent Desert.

Smart. And straight out of Futurama. Nice to know Prof. Farnsworth is alive and well.

Oh, and lest we forget: solution #3 is seeding clouds with chemicals to make it rain, which we know works because the CIA do it at Glastonbury every year. This technique is also known as Stealing Rain From Other People Who Will Then Have A Water Shortage Instead.

The good news is that, after the coldest February for 10 years, we're currently in the coldest March for 20 years. What next? The coldest April for 30 years? The coldest August for 70 years? Etc. etc.

This week I've learned that the driest inhabited place in the UK is St. Osyth in Essex (went there on holiday once when I were a nipper) and the wettest is some village in - surprise! - The Lake District.

So the easy solution to this problem is obviously to build a million new homes in Cumbria instead of in the South East. What's wrong with that?

March 23, 2006

gay pet-o-meter

the channel 4 gay pet-o-meter has calculated that my pet cat bumface is 40 percent gay. test your pet's sexual prowess with the channel 4 pet-o-meter.

March 22, 2006

The Proper Stranger - remix

I always had a bit of a thing for Natalie Wood, especially in her 1963-4 heyday, when she was - fact! - among the world's biggest box office stars.

Quite an impressive CV, our Natalie. Miracle on 34th Street, The Searchers, Rebel Without a Cause, West Side Story, Splendour in the Grass, Love With the Proper Stranger... all before she was 25 years old. Not to mention, Sex and the Single Girl, which can be very funny if you're in the right mood. She appeared in films with (deep breath) John Wayne, James Dean, Warren Beatty, Steve McQueen, Robert Redford, Tony Curtis, and Jack Lemmon.

When she made Love with the Proper Stranger with Mr McQueen in 1963, they were the world's biggest box office stars. It's a great film, too.

Anyway, she was the inspiration for a couple of my early songs, this one in particular, which is another one from the 1984 sessions. You might enjoy this if you too like Natalie Wood. We had a lot of fun doing it, and Curly's lead guitar at the end is wonderful (he did it even better live).

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As BBC Five Live Drive is discovering as we speak, at least one of the headlines from the Chancellor's latest budget is a load of old bollocks.

He's whacked a load more tax onto the worst offending gas guzzling cars, and announced that the lowest-emitting cars will carry a zero rate of tax.

Wa-hey, you're thinking, I'll get a Toyota Prius. But no. Prius still costs £40 a year in tax. Only two cars actually qualify for the zero rate. One of them, a Honda, was discontinued two years ago. The other one, the Smart diesel, has never been available in the UK.

If there ever was a better illustration of what a bunch of lying shitfaced weasels this government is, I can't think of one. To have the naked ARSE to stand up in the commons and announce such a measure as if it was a Good Thing that people could actually take advantage of whilst knowing it was actually impossible, well hats off to Gordon. You truly are a worthy successor to Mr Loans-for-Peerages himself.


surfed upon it's me or the dog on channel 4 last night. that victoria stilwell can train me anytime she wants.

Karen Traviss: Crossing the Line

One of the most boring aspects of Science Fiction as it is filmed - for movies or TV - is the knee-jerk assumption that humanity is in the right. I'm so bored of the "threat to Earth" theme that it spoils my enjoyment. The greatest weakness of any SF film or TV programme is the production assumption that the audience will not be engaged unless somehow Earth and/or humanity is under threat. As such, there're never any of the real joys of SF - the creation of wonder, or the evocation of the completely alien viewpoint.

This is just one of the reasons to love Karen Traviss' City of Pearl and its sequels. Because although there are a handful of sympathetic human characters, the people you're rooting for are the aliens who are trying to deal with the peculiarly skewed morality of the humans they encounter.

This first sequel, Crossing the Line carries on the story where it left off, with former police officer Shan Frankland learning to cope with her new status as a carrier of an alien parasite that keeps her alive with miraculous healing powers, but also alters her DNA on a whim.

Shan sets up house with Aras, an alien who also carries the parasite, and they begin to deal with the politics of an alien society and the strained diplomatic relations with humans and other species, and the questions raised by disputed territory and a fragile but intelligent water-based species that cannot defend itself.

The issues are both environmental protection and interspecies morality, as incompatible cultures interact. This is a well-paced genre piece that highlights - for example - the horror of a vegetarian species (who consider all creatures to be "people" - intelligent or not) when they encounter meat eaters. More importantly, it's a cracking story with the ultimate heroine: Shan Frankland, a woman who is prepared to make huge sacrifices yet expects and receives no recognition.

In City of Pearl Aras executes a human scientist who dissects an alien child (one of the protected squid-like aliens) after being specifically told not to do such a thing. In Crossing the Line the stakes are raised even higher, as some of the humans commit horrifying acts which both beggar belief and have the sad ring of familiarity. The inevitable escalation is superbly told, and the climax is both shocking and exciting, setting up the next sequel, The World Before.

I've mentioned before that Traviss hasn't got a British publisher, a ridiculous situation, but thank goodness that the internet makes that kind of distinction kind of irrelevant. It's true she writes American-style SF, but she does so in a distinctly British voice, which makes for a refreshing read. Spot on!

Rolling Thunder and The Gospel Years

For me the 1975-81 period has always been the most fascinating period of the Dylan's career, but I'm never sure about these "totally unauthorised" type documentaries. Not necessarily a bad thing, but quite possibly a complete lack of interesting footage, which would make you feel cheated if you shelled out for it.

I rely on Patrische to inform me of the outcome.

March 21, 2006

Holy Crap!

It's the first day of Spring today, but we're still complaining about the cold. The grass isn't growing yet, but that didn't stop the council sending out the mowers in force today, because it's on their spreadsheet, innit?

Anyway, my brother-in-law just sent a selection of pictures of my wife's home village of Plancher Bas. A couple of selections are above. One shows my in-laws' back garden; the other one of the main roads. Got snow?

Some telly stuff

I was going to mention a couple of things that were on telly over the weekend. The first thing I was going to say, I watched Anger Management, which wasn't very good. I watched it not because it had Mad Bad Jack in it, or that other bloke, who seems to get a lot of work even though he's shite, but mainly because it had Marisa Tomei in it, playing YET ANOTHER put-upon girlfriend.

["Okay, so this guy's girlfriend, she loves him more than he loves her, and she's getting the worst end of the relationship. Who shall we cast, do you think?"

"What? Are you yanking my chain? Marisa Tomei, you dumb fuck."]

In spite of the fact that she has to play roles in which she has to use that smile, that, showbiz, smiling-through-the-pain smile, I do like Marisa Tomei. I think she's loverly. And she's almost exactly two years younger than me, so I would never forget her birthday, it being the day after mine.

The other thing I saw that I thought noteworthy was the episode of Las Vegas, which is I suppose 3 years old, being on Sky3 on Freeview, but new to me.

I quite like Las Vegas. It's not brilliant, and James Caan is dull as ditchwater, but it is trying to do something different. It's not doctors and it's not cops. It's not even gangsters. It's corporate, just like modern Vegas, and it's quite pacy, and there are some very foccy ladies in it, even an honorable Brit in the shape of Marsha Thomason, who I'd previously seen in that loud drama about women footballers.

Anyway, my point. Jean Claude Van Damme was in the episode. And aside from the slightly embarrassing (but probably contractual) line, "Biggest movie star in the world," (yeah, that's right Jean-Claude, that's why you're doing this), he was a good sport in a major way. Because he was playing himself but was killed doing a stunt he insisted on doing himself.

Normal TV guest star situation, especially playing themselves, you'd expect him to walk back in at the end, and it's all been a scam, but no. He was killed in the story, and at the end the credits read, "No Actual Jean-Claude Van Dammes were killed or injured in the making of this programme."

And that, in a nutshell, is probably why I like Las Vegas. But from an actor-ly point of view, isn't it considered to be bad kuck to play yourself and be killed in the story? It's just asking for the fickle finger of fate to poke you in the eye.

March 20, 2006

Operator, get me Weston-Super-Mare


In 1985, we made an EP, and this was one of the 4 songs on it. Only this is the original 4-track recording. Unfortunately, it's both me and John and vocals again (nothing against him, but just one of us would have been best). I prefer this original for two reasons.

First, we speeded it up for the EP, so we could fit two songs on each side. Mistake. Better to have sacrificed one of the 4 songs in order to do a better version of this, but we got greedy.

Second, although Curly (Mark Ridout) played a superb solo on the single, this original take was just awesome. The first little solo at just under a minute still takes my breath away.

By the way, Pete had painted "Time For Bed, Boys" on his bedroom wall, mainly to take the piss out of his older brother, because it was one of his sayings.

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Before/after noise reduction

I mentioned earlier today that I'd applied some clever noise reduction algorithms to some old 1984-era cassette recordings, and I thought some readers might be interested in hearing the difference.

I'm no expert, and I've just done my usual bang-up quick'n'dirty job, but I think the results are still impressive.

Here is a good sample of the hiss before (the sample is just 19 secs, so won't take all day to download):

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And here is the after. Prepare to be amazed. There really is some very clever software out there, which is easy to forget if you use Microsoft Word for any length of time.

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we've won a bronze in the egg and spoon

1. isn't this commonwealth games thing a little bit unnecessary? not the games, maybe, but the rabid coverage? i mean, who gives a flying fuck these days?

2. i saw this really old bloke on the telly the other night. he looked like a cleaned-up tramp. turned out it was steve ovett. i had to look three times.

3. when i was surfing the other night i came across a qualifying round for the 12,000 barleycorns. watching people run as fast as they can for ten seconds is beyond sport, quite surreal and idiotic. i like the bit afterwards when a camera has followed a face from the start right to the end, and you get the slomo sloshing about of features. they're usually really blowing, but this one guy could have been walking in the park.

4, as people get taller, the race will have to be made longer. all the races will have to be made longer, in fact. eventually, the 12,000 barleycorns will be "run" in one step. it will be all about lightning reactions. this is one of my pet theories, so i may have mentioned it before.

A Real Treat


My old friend and colleague Roger (akaRon Holdcroft) requested a digital copy of some of my old band's material, the 1984-vintage stuff. I wasn't sure whether it could be done, because I haven't kept any of it, nor indeed heard it for a good 15 years or more, but luckily Pete (pictured above with a double bass on one of the sessions) has some old cassettes.

So I did a transfer into Pro Tools, which was straightforward enough. I thought I'd also give the Sony Oxford Restoration tools a run, and got rid of the tape hiss without adversely affecting much else on the tracks (now that's some smart software!).

This is the second song we ever recorded. Like Natalie Wood.

I was always disappointed that we didn't manage to bring out the electric guitar a bit more in the mix. It was (I think) an old blue Fender Mustang that Pete had for a while, and we plugged it directly into the recorder rather than an amp, so I always felt it was a shame that the quite nice riff at the beginning of the song was more or less inaudible on the tape. Anyway, I've managed to bring it up a bit using yet more clever software.

The other singer was my old bandmate John, who left after we'd recorded a few, and I completed the rest of the songs myself. At the beginning, we were both inexperienced and nervous about singing on tape, and I suppose we have each other confidence. After he left, I got slowly better over time, but I was a bit tentative on some of the songs. I really don't like our two voices together - we're hardly the Everlys - but such is the nature of 4-tracks, that there's no going back.

Anyway, this was the kind of thing we were up to 22 years ago.

The fab three


Well, after a trawl through literally millions of photographs, I am unable to find a record of the 4th wall, the one featuring Macca, but this is the Ringo and John wall, the one I mentioned was visible from the moon.

My sister, the artist, is pictured, with a c.1980 hair-do.

March 17, 2006

George Lives


A while ago, I mentioned that as part of my teenage Beatles obsession, I had their faces painted on my bedroom walls. My sister (left in the picture above, next to my sulky younger brother) created the art installation, all in black and white, and I had, er, white carpet, and *cough*black sheets*cough*. I'm still looking for pictures of the other three, but here is what the George looked like.

John and Ringo (I think it was) were side by side on the wall facing the window. We used the John picture from the White Album photos. You could see the faces from all the way up on the Downs behind our house, and people used to stop on their Sunday walks and point.

They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

Earlier in the week BBC Radio Five Live's John Inverdale regaled us with some statistics provided by the organisers of this year's Cheltenham National Hunt Racing Festival.

  • Around a quarter of a million people were expected at this year's Cheltenham Festival.

  • Prize money totalled £2.87million

  • The official estimate of total on-course betting turnover during The Festival is £40 million - an average of over £2 million per race.

  • Off course, the industry estimate for betting turnover through the four days of The Festival is over £400m

  • In 2005, nearly £1million was dispensed by the 14 cashpoint machines around the racecourse.

  • 468 horses ran at the 2005 Festival, accompanied by circa 80 jockeys. Over 500 were expected for 2006.
Here's another statistic. In the first three days of the Festival, seven horses died.

Five of the seven died on one day, yesterday.

Three of the five died in one race, the fifth race on Thursday's card.

Cheltenham racecourse managing director, on Five Live this morning, denied the accusation that there have been too many horses entered in some races.

On the BBC web site he is quoted thus: "We have had a large entry for many races this season and I think that is a factor."

Here's another quote: "Money doesn't talk, it swears."

That Wilson Plot Thing

There are several strange things about the revelations in The Plot Against Harold Wilson, which was on BBC 2 last night.

First of all, does anyone think it's kind of odd that these extraordinary events - within living memory - were being presented in that most degraded of documentary forms: the drama documentary? Has the BBC sunk to such a low that the first thing they think of when faced with a story that beggars belief is what can we do to make this interesting?

Members of the British Royal Family (later assassinated by the IRA) offering themselves as possible leaders following a planned military coup? Not interesting enough.

Senior army officers meeting in secret to plan such a coup? Tanks appearing at Heathrow Airport as part of an anti-terrorism exercise which was possibly a full dress rehearsal for the coup? Let's spice it up a bit!

The British Intelligence services spreading deliberately false rumours that Harold Wilson, Marcia Williams, and Dr David Owen were Communists and Soviet agents? And then starting to believe their own falsehoods? Can we set it to music?

None of the above - and much, much more! - was deemed interesting enough by the BBC for a straightforward and hard-hitting documentary, or an outing on Panorama, for example. No, people aren't going to be able to sit through all that boring stuff, so let's make a drama-documentary. Yeah, we like those, because then we can get some ac-tors in, and one of them can wear comedy false teeth.

Some of the plotters and paranoid nutters who started Reggie Perrin style private armies are still alive, for chrissakes! But, no, we'll get that bloke out of The Likely Lads in. We might win a BAFTA.

Also and furthermore, if there was ever a more telling indictment of the British news media, from the BBC on down, it was the little issue of sex. Faced with revelations about MI5 committing burglaries against the British Prime Minister, about an atmosphere of paranoia so intense that people thought Number 10 Downing Street was bugged, with tanks circling Heathrow and a massive conspiracy of the privileged classes, the press decided to hit upon the one thing guaranteed to sell newspapers and distract everybody good and proper: the rumours about Wilson and Williams having an affair.

This was living history, and it's extraordinary to think of the context for all these events. A Labour government supporting the US in an unpopular war in Viet Nam, for example. People were on the streets, and the Beatles were singing about Revolution. The difference between then and now is that - in the late 60s - the British Establishment clearly felt threatened, feared more than Paris '68-style riots - and planned to topple Wilson before anything like that could happen.

Ted Heath's 70-74 government were also under siege, as workers took to the streets and the lights went out. This was a fantastically interesting period of history, relevant today because immediately the Tories got back into power in '79, they went after the unions for revenge, and completely crushed them.

It was class war, a war against the bogeymen, the commies in the unions, against socialism, against the people. And we all lost, and now everyone is paying the price, as we've discussed before.

March 16, 2006

It's the scare quotes

...that make this story from BBC NEWS: Men's beer belly 'days are over'. In the link I followed, it also said that men are 'no longer proud' to have a beer belly.

"According to the study, the body most men aspire to is that of England football captain David Beckham."

Well, always one to buck a trend, I can confess that the body I most aspire to is that of Lake Bell from the TV show Surface. Boom boom, as Basil Brush might say. And how did he end up with a show on CBBC?

Fuck it

I'll just take the original 8 tracks of this to the desert island with me. Less packing. Why would I want anything else? can you imagine how excellent an edition of Desert Island Discs would be if someone did that. "Yeah, yet another track from Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-erd, Sue. I just can't help myself."

If I could take just one? "Tuesday's Gone," of course. But secretly "Free Bird" as well.

Flawed premise

Last night I blubbed my way through Sleepless in Seattle, a deeply flawed film. It's got one of those song-filled soundtracks, for a start, which will annoy you if you let it. And it's also one of those films which features two stars who are supposed to have screen chemistry, except the plot of the film legislates against them being on screen at the same time.

You've Got Mail was better in this respect, because the plot demanded they should be in each other's company, with that love/hate thing going on. And Joe Vs. The Volcano, of course, was just strange.

Another film with the flawed "two stars" premise is Heat, in which DeNiro and Pacino have one scene together, I think. Big deal. What a waste of money and talent. Hoo ha!

The BBC tried to make a whole comedy out of two people who are meant for each other and never meet. Fucking hilarious.

Parallel Universe

I woke up this morning to the realisation that quantum theory is no longer a theory. That we are in fact already living in a parallel universe. Now, I have to wonder, when did the time-line I am on divide from the one I was previously on?

Evidence: tonight on BBC2, a documentary about how the British Intelligence services in the 1960s and 1970s were convinced that Britain's Prime Minister was a Soviet spy, and secretly planned to put Louis Mountbatten in charge of the country.

So that's when all was right with the world, and the British Establishment was bonkers paranoid with the security services running riot, accountable to nobody.

Then we had the Thatch years, and the controversy over Peter Wright's Spy Catcher, which I was always delighted to see on those South Bank bookstalls. This was in the early 80s, before the innernet, and yet they still couldn't successfully suppress a (pretty crappy) book. Reading it now, almost the most outrageous thing about it is the way in which a pretty ordinary, plodding civil servant technician type becomes Assistant Director of MI5. These are the people in charge of our security?

During the Thatch years, it's pretty clear that the time-line is solid. Michael Foot as opposition leader? Check. Neil Kinnock falling over on the beach? Check. The Sun newspaper rabidly against the political party that best represents its readers' interests? Check.

But now look at the evidence:

Several Labour Government ministers embroiled in financial scandals, swapping pension fund quantities of money around like it was so much spit. Mandelson (property loan); Blunkett (undeclared company directorship); Jowell (another property loan); even the Prime Ministrone himself (dodgy dealings over property again); and now the whole Labour Party is revealed to have accepted massive loans which the Party's own treasurer claims to know nothing about.

Plausible deniability? Or parallel universe?

More evidence: last night, a Labour government relied on Tory votes to push through legislation that proposes to carve up the education system into mini fiefdoms. What will follow, inevitably, is the usual money trough for contractors and marketeers, as schools waste money replicating efforts instead of pooling resources, and have to advertise themselves in order to fill places. Your local schools will become brands competing against each other in their efforts not to have to accept little Adam Deficit Disorder, and Harry Hyperactive, Stephie Stupid and Tara Teenage Pregnancy.

Personally, I thought I voted Labour in 1997 to stop the creeping application of dodgy market principles into inappropriate areas. It's one thing for the capitalists to waste money competing against each other over future DVD formats, but quite another when I see what I thought was my no-brainer local hospital taking out a 4-page colour wraparound supplement in the local paper to tell us all how great it is. What next? The primary school I live next door to, sending me a glossy brochure to tell me how wonderful (and convenient) it is?

It's a parallel universe, I tell you, and the division of the time-line has to have occurred the moment that John Smith keeled over and died.
Two months later Tony Blair became leader of the Labour Party by a landslide, beating John Prescott, who became deputy leader...

And the missing name is... Gordon Brown who might well have succeeded Smith as leader if Smith had lived and succeeded, if you know what I mean.

Gordon Brown is a proper Labour politician. You know: why have one rate of tax when you can have seven? That kind of thing. But instead of becoming leader he was stitched up by a Labour Pod Person and put in charge of the economy, where he can't do any real harm, because it's all out of his hands.

March 15, 2006

Mostly Listening to... 2st Century version

If you are an iTunes user, why not try The Holyhoses Country Sampler, which is one of those new-fangled iMix things on the iTunes Music Store? That link should spawn your iTunes software and take you into the Music Store, where you can listen to 30 second samples or buy the whole collection with 1 click. Or just email me and see if I'm feeling generous.

One thing you're guaranteed: I have immaculate taste! When I sold my old LPs at a car boot sale, people were drooling over them; they sold like hot wax.

Girls With Apartments In Nashville Joy Lynn White from One More Time
Send Down an Angel Allison Moorer from The Hardest Part
You Look Good In My Shirt Keith Urban from Golden Road
Georgia Carolyn Dawn Johnson from Room with a View
There Goes the Boy Cyndi Thomson from My World
Inside Out Trisha Yearwood from Inside Out
Me and the Radio Deana Carter from I'm Just a Girl
From Where I Stand Vince Gill from Next Big Thing
Love Ain't Like That Faith Hill from Faith
Find Another Fool Kelly Willis from Easy
Anything's Better Than Feelin' the Blues Martina McBride from Emotion
Let's Dance Sara Evans from Born to Fly
I Won't Die Alone Shelby Lynne from Suit Yourself
Southside of Lonesome Chely Wright from The Metropolitan Hotel
Time Well Wasted Brad Paisley from Time Well Wasted

March 14, 2006

National Ignorance Day

Week before last was National Book Day (or is it International Book Day? I can never remember... UPDATE: thanks to Marie, I realise why it seemed wrong: World Book Day is the correct name), but for some reason my kids' school decided to celebrate a week late, and so it went that on Thursday and Friday last week, the chillun were encouraged to turn up at school dressed as their favourite character from a book.

CJ made full use of her White Witch Narnia™ dress. Didi went, on Thursday, as the Bad Tempered Ladybird, and on Friday (since the school as a whole was celebrating Alice), she went as one of the playing cards, a popular choice. Didi's (quite cute) teacher was dressed as the White Rabbit, which wasn't as sexy as I might have hoped.

But there was something about the whole thing that really depressed me. I know I shouldn't let it bother me, but it did. There were too many kids in costumes unrelated to Children's literature, which I put down to a mixture of laziness and ignorance on the part of their parents. For example, there may well indeed be Star Wars books, based on the franchise, and I know that Karen Traviss has written some. I'm sure they're a riot, but they're not children's books, are they?

And while Spiderman and Batman might have been rebranded as literature for this age, it be adults who have so rebranded, and comic books are not children's books, no more than Winnie-ther-Pooh is a character in the Beano.

Given that the idea of the dressing up day was to celebrate books and children's literature, I really do think that parents could have (a) made more of an effort and that (b) the school might have been a bit clearer in excluding bog-standard fancy dress stuff based on popular Pixar films and the like. Given their age, if these kids haven't been exposed to, say, any of the following list:

  • Winnie the Pooh/House at Pooh Corner

  • Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass

  • Paddington Books

  • Moomin Books

  • Wind in the Willows

  • The Gruffalo

  • The Very Hungry Caterpillar

  • Horrid Henry

...I can't help thinking there's something seriously wrong. And I fail to see how allowing little Adam Deficit Disorder to come to school dressed in his Spiderman pyjamas encourages him to read, or to want to read, now or in the future.

St. Remy - the full mix


Mr Simon and Mr Roy have kindly contributed to the title track of St. Rémy. Roy sings some nice BVs, and Simon plays slide, lead, and banjo-axe. I hope I've done it justice in the mixing; this must be one of the biggest mixes I've tackled.

Drop me an email if you would like a CD of the whole album. Regular readers will not be charged.

Castpost is even more rubbish than usual, so: alternative download here.

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March 13, 2006

Ad Roundup

As a world-renowned marketing expert, it's up to me to tell you what to think about current adverts on the telly. So here goes.

In that pizza ad, the one where they crash their car and the pizza ends up all over the windscreen, do you think they go back to get another one, afterwards? Because, to be honest, it doesn't look very appetising.

Ask.com. In this ad, some smelly old slacker who needs a wash and a shave goes around cadging stuff off people. Kind of like the nightmare acquaintance you might have had at university, the one who never had any money and always seemed to turn up at mealtimes. Now is your chance to say what you should have said all those years ago: FUCK OFF!

SEAT Leon. In this one, some very frightening and freaky people try to scare my kids into buying a car. LEAVE THEM ALONE. THEY DON'T HAVE ANY MONEY, YOU SHITBIRD FUCKCAKES.

In the eBay ads, they neglect to use the original script, which informs you that attempting to sell your shit on eBay will expose you to the fraudulent, criminal, bottom-feeding scum of the universe, who will harass you and attempt to make your life a misery.

Audi RS4. In this one, they try to scare my children with spiders and cobwebs. ARE YOU ACTUALLY STUPID, YOU TWATS?

Red Bull features a bunch of idiots throwing themselves off Brighton Pier, or somewhere. The message of this ad is as follows: People who drink Red Bull are idiots. You see? It's all very clever.

That's all for now. Has anyone else noticed that the new Berliner-size Guardian is hard to fold, so that it's difficult to hide your embarrassment when you buy a copy? What's going on with that?

Confessions of a Loafer

Originally uploaded by mcmrbt.

Since getting my mixer last week, I've done a fair bit of baking. Rather than just do what I've always done, I wanted to experiment a bit, so I've followed a few recipes from the Allinson booklet, which are inspired/suggested by Dan De Gustibus. Crazy name, crazy guy.

Now, I don't know about you, but one of the things I learned very early about baking bread is that butter is not a good fat to use in a bread mix. Butter leads to bitterness and tears. Back in the old pre-healthy days, we used good ol' lard, which worked fine, but then we moved on to vegetable oil and olive oil.

But a lot of the recipes in the Allinson booklet call for butter. I suspicion that if you're using one of the overnight programmes in a bread making machine, you don't realise the slowing down effect that butter has on the raising of the dough.

When I was growing up, we wanted everything to happen as quickly as possible, so it was fresh yeast (the dried stuff isn't even in the same ballpark) and vegetable oil and so on.

So I was interesting to see if these bread-maker-era recipes would work for the old fashioned method, and they sort of do. I did a loaf using Allinson's "whole white" flour, which wasn't too bad. And then I followed the booklet recipe for a kind of corn bread - which is to say, not American-style cornbread, but a loaf of bread with some polenta in it to add crunch and texture. I have to say, that was fantastic when it came out of the oven.

But the texture of these breads, made with butter instead of oil, is more cake-like than bread like. I'm certainly not getting huge air holes, or squidgy, unappetising loaves, but the appearance and mouth-feel of them is more like a sponge cake than a loaf of bread.

So I'm not sure. Not unpleasant, but somehow wrong.

This morning, I tried Dan's "ultimate white loaf" recipe using the Allinson Baker's Grade. This involved doing a so-called overnight sponge, which is where you mix a small amount of yeast, flour, and water to make a wet dough that ferments overnight and I assume helps to start off your loaf the next morning.

This recipe included honey (instead of sugar, which is only ever optional anyway), and an egg yolk, as well as melted butter. Again, as you can see from the picture, it came out looking great, and is delicious. But it's more of a brioche type thing, what with egg and butter in it. And I can't help thinking that made with oil and water, it would be better still.

For a richer loaf, you always have the option of mixing milk and water as the liquid component, which gives you some of the richness of the butter without the cake-like results.

p.s. Also had a go at one of the recipes in last month's Waitrose Food Monthly: blueberry, pine nut, and white chocolate cookies. Now, they were fantastic!

March 11, 2006

The Conversation

This completes the album, I reckon. I'm going to call the set St. R�émy, for obvious reasons.

It was an exercise in stripping out words but keeping the meaning.

15-20 years ago, this was a short story, then a long poem, then a poem set to music (don't ask!). I thought I'd lost the manuscript a long time ago (no great loss), but having discovered it again, I decided to strip it right down, which is what this is. In the end, there's only a couple of lines from the original left in it, but it feels (to me) pretty true to itself.

I'm pleased with this, because the meaning of the refrain changes with each verse, which is the kind of subtle shift I've always tried to go for, but rarely achieve. I enjoyed myself playing the organ, as usual. How much is one of those Hammond things? Hours of fun.

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March 10, 2006

one hundred years of solitude (demo)

rob's been making some cracking recordings recently, i was blown away by simon's hot burrito, and they've inspired me to get off my fat arse and record something of my own. the trouble with pro tools, i find, is that it's simple, but complicated, to use. the only way i've managed to complete anything is to ignore all its wonderful features and treat it as something which records things.

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Lisa suggests that we now "fess up those albums that you actually don't like that much, but which you have flaunted to acquire kudos from your mates."

Honestly? I have never done this. I've never really had those kind of mates, for a start. Nobody was ever going to be impressed by the fashionability of my record collection. As Roy said when he visited recently, "I never quite believed you when you said you liked this stuff."

I have, however bought a lot of things that I thought I would like and didn't, but then so has everyone, so that's not a list. I've also recanted a few times, gone against my instinctive judgement and bought things (usually years after a phase) I'd always known I wouldn't actually like, trying to force myself to get into it. So here is my list of stuff that turned out to be over-rated, but none of it likely to impress any of my mates.

1. Gram Parsons - GP / Grievous Angel. After reading so much about him, I couldn't help but be disappointed at his annoying voice and plodding arrangements and, frankly, not-very-good songs.

2. Byrds - Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Ditto the above.

2. John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band - It's RUBBISH! Cheer up, John, it's not all bad!

3. Paul McCartney - McCartney - it's RUBBISH! Finish a song before recording it, will ya?

4. George Harrison - All Things Must Pass - *Yawn*

5. Bob Dylan - Time Out of Mind etc. - Sorry. No matter what people say, the Dylan had a beautiful voice, and I just cannot bear to listen to it when it's shot.

6. The Jam - All Mod Cons. My sole attempt to get into modern music, back when this was modern music. A bit of a con, I thought, because it was thin-sounding and full of filler.

7. Small Faces - a Greatest Hits set. Kind of liked it for a little while, but not.

8. The Rolling Stones - Any of their albums in the Brian Jones era. They had some good singles, but their long players left me cold.

March 09, 2006

Is it April 1st already?

If not, it's a bloody scary hairy mclobster monster from the deep blue sea. Run for the hills!

Still, it's always April 1st somewhere in the world.

March 08, 2006

Varsity Stroke? Oo Er!

In the Nicolas Cage classic Peggy Sue Got Married, there's a great scene when Kathleen Turner's character first arrives back in 1960 and greets her father – home from work – for the first time. He comes into the house pretending that there's something exciting going on outside, and drags his family out to see. He's bought a car. Turner dissolves into hysterics as the childhood memory rushes back: "Oh, Dad! You bought an Edsel!"

I'm reading a most enjoyable book called Brand Failures. It's so great to read a collection of anecdotes about how the high and mighty have failed - expensively and publicly.

I never get tired of the New Coke story.

But probably my favourite is the one about the Edsel, a story of hubris and cock-eyed market research by parent company Ford (Edsel was supposed to be a sub-brand of Ford rather than just the name of the car). The short version is that Ford produced a car that just didn't appeal to people. It looked weird - and not in a good way - and it appeared to cost too much (because it was launched too early in the year), and it had a stupid name. Edsel, people said, reminded them of the words pretzel and weasel.

Ford had done a lot of market research on the name, but ended up with so many suggestions that everyone just acquiesced when some arse-licking corporate climber suggested they name it after the boss's father (and Henry Ford's son) Edsel. Edsel: weird name for a car; weirder name for a son.

One of the craziest things Ford did was to recruit the poet Marianne Moore to come up with names. They wanted her to evoke a 'visceral feeling of elegance, fleetness, advanced features and design.' Here's what she came up with:

"Resilient Bullet", "Utopian Turtletop", "Ford Silver Sword", "Mongoose Civique", "Varsity Stroke", "Pastelogram" and "Andante con Moto".

Now, is it me, or isn't there quite a lot of metaphors for cock in that list? Was she having a laugh? Utopian Turtletop? What has four letters and can resemble a bald man pulling on a turtleneck sweater? Don't all answer at once. As for Varsity Stroke, I love it. Sounds like a fraternity masturbation contest.

At the time, the Edsel's front end was variously described as 'an Oldsmobile sucking a lemon', or a 'vagina with teeth.'

Something tells me that Americans in the late 50s were consumed with obsessive sexual thoughts, seeing erotic suggestion in everything. Funny stuff.

desert island thing

it slipped my mind, lisa's desert island disc thing. i thought about it a little bit last friday but it sort of did not compute. i am a child of the ipod, you see, and the eight song limit is a bit like thinking in old money. and funny thing, i couldn't think of eight songs. i only got to six then i was stumped.

1. i'd rather go blind etta james
this one is easy because it's my favourite song ever and i could listen to it forever and never realise the time, or get bored with it. there are about a million people playing on it yet it is wonderfully sparse and measured, beautifully arranged, angelic backing vocals, everything about it is perfecto. my favourite bit is where etta's voice catches a little in the middle of singing,

and the reflection in the glass that was held to my lips now baby reveals the tears that was on my face yeah.

that's poetry, that is.

2. mr walker wes montgomery
let me make it clear that i loathe jazz. i also loathe fretwankery. yet this song contains both, and it's fantastic. how can i put this - it's like the guitar playing sends out a fish hook on a line that sinks into my heart and the melody jolts my insides around all over the place. the song sounds like the theme to a chat show. i used to think i'd make an excellent chat show host, and this would have been the theme music to my show. on the island i will play this song and have my own imaginary chat show in my mind.

3. friction television
i used to put this on before i went out to have a good time, before i forgot what a good time was. it got me in the mood. on the island, presumably i'll be able to bang it out at ear-bleeding levels. it's just a fantastically ferocious guitar song with no bloat. it's the overdubs what really punctuate the song.

4. paper-thin hotel leonard cohen
leonard cohen, what a dude. this song comes from an album he made in the seventies and he doesn't like it - death of a ladies' man. what a title. he's got bad memories of it because phil spector produced it and held him at gunpoint. wouldn't let him leave the studio. i think some of the vocals are just guide vocals but i could be wrong. it's yer usual tasteless over the top spector production job, with little lennie's voice almost lost in the middle of all the chaos.

so this song, the conceit is, he's in a hotel room next to the room his ex is in. she's with her new bloke.

i stood there with my ear against the wall
i was not seized by jealousy at all
in fact a burden lifted from my soul
i learned that love was out of my control

oh my god it's so great. on the island, love would be out of my control. except for self-love, which i imagine there would be rather a lot of.

5. summerness melodie group
is it crap to include one of your own songs? i just love this song so much. i love the recording. it's perfect. it's a fucking classic. i really knew what i was doing the day i recorded this. i was visited by god, i think.

6. sleeping gas (live) the teardrop explodes
this is the teardrop explodes
coming to you
from club zoo
and it's december twenty-two
and soon it's gonna be 1982
it's gonna be 1982!
let's push forward
let's gatecrash
into 1982
when you come out of the club tonight
you may well be in a completely different year...

nine minutes and twenty-seven seconds of a drugged-up (presumably) julian cope making a complete tit of himself on stage while the band groove away behind him. he's just ridiculous yet seems to come out of it sounding so cool. it's got a lot of humanity in it and might help to distract me from my loneliness on the island. or exacerbate it, maybe.

that's as far as i got. i can't think of anything else. maybe 7. primitive painters felt. my life was a film, once, and i'd get up each day to this. it was another theme tune. and 8. the boy with the thorn in his side the smiths. i was the boy with the thorn in his side. how could they see the love in my eyes, and still not believe me? how could they hear me say those words, and still not believe me? eh?

Cover versions that are better than the originals

Ranting about film soundtracks and Kate Bush yesterday reminded me of two important facts. The first is that Kate Bush's version of Elton John's "Rocket Man" is miles better than the original. I had the single once, but I foolishly never kept it, probably concerned that my credibility had fallen off the bottom of the scale when I bought it.

The second important fact is that film soundtracks - even the annoying ones - are frequent sources of the new and improved cover version; the cover version that pisses all over the original.

A favourite of mine is Letters to Cleo's scorching version of Cheap Trick's "I Want You To Want Me" from the best film ever made.* I love that so much that I was actually surprised that Dwight Yoakam's completely countrified version is even better. Yoakam takes no prisoners, concedes nothing to the "I don't really like Country but I sort of like this" crowd. He yelps, he yips, he does everything but shout "Yeeeee hah!" There's glorious pedal steel guitar, awesome Hammond, and a rockabilly beat. It's fantastic. Cheap Trick? What-ever.

Nicolas Cage classic Honeymoon in Vegas included a couple of belters - covers of Elvis songs! Travis Tritt utterly nails "Burning Love", and I will forever prefer his version to Elvis' original. Amazingly, Wynonna did the same song for Lilo and Stictch and her version is better than Elvis', too. Just so you know I haven't completely taken leave of my senses, I would have to concede that Dwight Yoakam's version of "Suspicious Minds" isn't quite up to the original.

Sticking with Travis Tritt, he recorded a version of The Eagles' "Take it Easy" for a tribute album a few years ago (frustratingly not available on iTunes) that also outdoes the original - he's just got such a superb voice. Shame about the beard.

I've always thought that the Beatles' version of "Words of Love" was better than Buddy Holly's original, and "Rock and Roll Music" from the same album is probably the best Chuck Berry cover of them all.

While Trisha Yearwood never records any of her own songs, she has done a couple of proper cover versions, in that they were first done by the better-known originators. I would much rather hear her version of Springsteen's "Sad Eyes." Another Springsteen cover version which (just) improves on the original is The Band's take on "Atlantic City," and it's again frustrating that you still can't get their post-Robbie comeback album Jericho on iTunes.

I'll book-end this post with another Elton cover. I'm very fond of Tim McGraw's cover of "Tiny Dancer," although in its arrangement it's very close to the original. But it was recorded 30 years later and has Tim McGraw's voice on it, so I think it's better.

*10 Things I Hate About You

Fucking Shitfaced Student Loan Bastards AGAIN!!!???

Older readers may remember that last November I had a run-in with the so-called Honours Student Loan Company, which appears to be a front for the Sopranos.

In April 2004, I phoned the company and asked for a settlement figure. Paid it.

In November last year, they sent me a letter telling me I owed them £58. I don't know why, but when I asked for a SETTLEMENT FIGURE, they gave me the figure MINUS £41, which they proceeded to add interest to.


Last November, steam coming out of my ears, I decided that paying the £41 was the only way to get them off my back. I told them I wasn't going to pay the interest, though.

Today I got a letter, as I predicted back then asking for the interest, threatening to add some more interest. £16.94.

Holy Jesus fucking Christ on a shitting bastard mountain! WHAT DO I NEED TO DO TO GET THESE BASTARDS OFF MY BACK?? Do they want me to kill someone? Is that it? Do I have to assassinate the Capo of one of the other Families to clear my debt?

So I just phoned and shouted at them (I'll probably be arrested under the anti-terror legislation later) and they SAY they've closed the account, but I bet they fucking haven't.

March 07, 2006

Nostalgia Bulletin

Twenty-five years ago, I'd just left home and was living down in Kent, a long way from my school friends, who were still finishing their 'A' levels. It was a contented period of my life. No job, like now, my days to fill with writing and playing music, as now, and - best of all - loads and loads of letters from friends.

Some of the best were the most surprising, from the kind of people you didn't think would ever do such a thing. One girl, a fairly good friend of mine, used to write to me during the classes in which we used to sit together, so it was as if she was carrying on a conversation she'd have had with me if I was still there. She was someone I liked a lot, but way out of my league, the kind of girl who was – at 17 – dating professional footballers and wouldn't look twice at anyone without a sports car. But she was no bimbo, and her letters used to make me smile.

I'll tell you how much I adored her. We were on a school field trip, staying in a youth hostel. One night, before we all went out to eat, I was in the games room playing on a beautiful old pinball machine while everyone else got ready (me, I was sticking to my ripped jeans, of course). She came into the room, unplugged the pinball machine in the middle of my game and plugged in her hairdryer. Now, instead of getting annoyed or uptight about this, I didn't bat en eyelid. I just sat on the floor, leaned against the wall, and had a long chat with her while she was drying her hair. I can't think of anyone else who could have done such a thing and not annoy me. We were on some kind of strange level. She knew if she asked me I wouldn't mind, so she didn't bother to ask. Simple as that.

I've long ago lost them all, the letters – I've moved house too many times (which is something I just said for the second time today) – but in clearing a space in the loft for our new boiler I came across something I'd written in which I transcribed one of her precious letters. It still makes me laugh:

I’ve changed pen now for variety! Thank you for your letter, it was really lovely. You sound v. contented despite the seriousness of the content (a pun on words, there). That was nice of your sister to buy you a typewriter from Debenhams & I’ve sent your mum a caterpillar in the post. Pat says “Hi!” and asked how you were. I had a chat with Mr J about you – he’s so sweet and he thinks that although it would have been sensible to stick out another 4 months, it was best what you did as it would have been 4mnths of unhappiness and you are 18 now after all.

A.S. came top in History with 66% “oh did I come top, really – and I didn’t do any revision, what a surprise, I didn’t know I had it in me, perhaps I ought to do history at University, I wonder what marks I got for each essay – what a good overall average………..” !! God she’s a pain. I’m glad the hostages are free…

…Sorry my writing is so untidy but I’m feeling really sapped of energy and I’m as white as a sheet with pleasant black circles round my eyes. I haven’t even had any late nights – I’m probably dying of anemia or smthg. My nan is in hospital so I made her a crème caramel and a jelly. I also made my dad some coconut buns but I put too much of smthg in and they are 3 1/2 inches high (I measured them) with a diameter of 2 3/4 inches. They look like little cottages but I made my dad eat one and he said it was gorgeous. My brothers had 1 each too.

I still don’t know what I’m going to do when I leave school. I can’t think of anything except a barmaid, the woman on Play Away, or the woman on Holiday

Paula Bignell, I do miss you. Wherever you are, I hope you're doing something as rewarding as being the woman on the Holiday programme. You were born for it.

Just what is the most manipulative record of all time?

I was just watching telly, eating fish and chips tonight because of the gas people being here, and an ad came on for some kind of children's charity, and they were using that Kate Bush song, the one I thought was about childbirth, you know the one I mean, the one that makes you cry: I know you have a little life in you yet / I know you have a lot of strength left .

Far as I know this was originally written for the John Hughes film She's Having a Baby, where it was used to incredibly powerful effect in the scene where she, you know, has a baby, but I have heard this track used many times since in other things, usually when no babies are involved at all, often when someone just dies or something.

(Trivia note: surely, you're thinking, Ms Bush was a shoo-in for the 1989 Best Original Song Academy Award? Not. That honour went to Carly Simon for "Let the River Run" in Working Girl. Ah, remember that? No, neither do I. This fact tells you all you ever need to know about the Oscars.)

John Hughes was among those most responsible for the era of the song-filled soundtrack, the shortcut to manipulating the audience's emotions. Bush wrote her song after viewing the scene in the movie: correct. But mostly they just stick on any old thing (like, hey, that Kate Bush song), because they already know it's going to work. Feeling a bit sad today? How about some Coldplay?

I don't like watching things like The OC because the insistent soundtrack of song after song often actually drowns out the words people are saying. But that's all well and good, because rather than write an actual scene of actual dialogue, it's easier to just play a song. They did it often at the end of Lost (its major flaw) and do it in ER and all kinds of other things. Need to make people cry? Play the Kate Bush one, you know the one. Not appropriate? Who cares?

That's why I love watching The Closer (currently on More4, Thursday nights), because it has a proper (and bloody excellent) soundtrack, and they don't piss you around trying to find the shortest route to your tearducts.

What other songs are over-used in attempts to send us to the tissue box?


Originally uploaded by mcmrbt.

While I'm not working, I thought I might as well do the kind of cooking I don't get time to do when I'm home late in the evenings. I've been using a food processor (Magimix) for years, but I've become increasingly disenchanted with it, because of the shitty plastic bowl(s) and lid(s), that you have to keep replacing.

My mum always had a Kenwood Chef, but they aren't as nice as the Kitchenaid ones, and the choice of colours with Kitchenaid is fantastico.

Red was my wife's choice. I like the pale blue and lavender ones myself, or I'd have gone for yellow to match my Gaggia. But red is good.

Saved £50 on the price in the shops (e.g. John Lewis) at TheCooksKitchen. You have to watch for it: they do a clever thing with a discount if you buy in the next 20 minutes, which turns you instantly from browser to impulse buyer!

Scones! Cakes! Pies! Bread! I could do some or all of these things in the Magimix, but there was always that thing with the blade changing the consistency of what you were doing, and it's a pain to clean.

I'm planning a scone-based pizza - not because I think they're better than bread-based, but because it's something I used to have a lot when I was a kid (Doctor Who, Saturday evening telly, scone-based pizza); and because I've written about it in the past, a lot of people arrive at this blog looking for a recipe for one. Watch this space...

March 06, 2006

Without You (version)

This is me up to date as far as songs I've written this year go. I've been struggling to get the right tempo and feel for this one, and this is the third version I've done over the past few days, slightly more up-tempo than the previous.

There's no electric guitar or keys on this, just acoustic, mandolin, and bass. It's a short one, which will be even shorter because I will fade it out when I come to mix it properly.

Alternative download.

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Hmmm... Inexplicably, British Gas have failed to keep to their promised a.m. delivery time for our new boiler. This is so unlike them.

What could possibly have gone wrong? It strikes me that there must have been a complete breakdown of social order, or perhaps the delivery people have been in a terrible accident. Can someone outside the Buckingham area please confirm that the world has not ended?

March 05, 2006

The Good Stuff

One of the friends of Rullsenberg included something in her list of Desert Island Discs that got me thinking. It was Zinna Cyclamen who said, of Whitney Houston's version of a Dolly Parton song, "Sorry. But her technique is so perfect, I can't resist."

I can resist myself, and always prefer the technique of a great country singer to that of a gospel/soul type singer, if you know what I mean. I've never quite been able to put it in words, but I tend to think that the country singer pays more respect to the meaning of the words and let's the emotion come out of the song; rather than concentrating on the feeling behind the performance. One says, listen to this, and the other says, listen to me. Does that make sense? Apologies if not.

For me, there is one person to whom all others should bow when it comes to vocal technique.

A track I have on heavy rotation at the moment is Gimme The Good Stuff from Trisha Yearwood's recent release Jasper County (written by George Ducas, Hillary Lindsey and Angelo).

This is one of those numbers that is an object lesson in classic songwriting, with a superb arrangement and production (Garth Fundis) that turns the well-crafted song into something extra special. Needless to say, Yearwood's vocal is a lesson in something else - there's nobody who has her subtle control, power, and ability to make material her own.

The arrangement breaks down into 10 sections. You get the verse, the bridge, and the chorus twice. Then the middle 8, followed by an instrumental over the bridge; a final power chorus and then an instrumental outro.

The brilliance of the song is that each section is really quite short, so it just keeps changing, getting more and more interesting. The intro is around 10 seconds, the first verse another 18:

Black coffee and teardrops are all soaking through.
All over my pillow: ain't nothing new.

The bridge accelerates the song - quite a lot of lyric in just 8 seconds:

Something just crossed my mind:
I been feeling like love's a crime,
And if it is, well I've done my time.
I'm through.

("I'm through" is sung over a full-stop in the music - I'm a sucker for that kind of thing.)
And - always a good sign in the classic 3-minute structure - the first chorus ends around a minute in. Listen to the way she holds on to the final "good stuff" - just lets it hang there like Coyote before he realises he's gone over the edge of the cliff.

Then we get the second round of verse-bridge-chorus, but and this is where Ms Yearwood should make your jaw drop. There's something about the way she sings the lines of the second verse that makes tears spring into my eyes:

I've settled for too long, I've let the truth lie.
It's gonna keep trippin' me up, till I kiss it goodbye.

It's that little word "up". She gives it four or five syllables, singing it as a descending melody (tripping up in the lyrics, falling down in the melody). In the corresponding place in the first verse, she's just singing "pillow," which she doesn't do the same thing with at all. Seems easy until you try to do it yourself; it passes by in a couple of seconds, but it's what she's all about. She throws this stuff out like it's nothing, and she doesn't wail or gnash her teeth, doesn't drag on the tempo or get in the way of this fast-moving song.

It's glorious, anyway.

March 04, 2006

The Tammy Wynette of British Politics

All together now: "Stand as far as you can from your man..."

In other news, that crazy religionist Tony Blair will reveal himself on Parkie tonight to be more or less exactly the same as those fruitcake religionists who blow themselves up and try to kill us. Not to mention Mel Gibson, who has even more children. Are the Blairs some kind of Mormon-Catholic hybrid?

Half fruit, half nut.

I was watching a bit of that thing about Harold Wilson's last days in office last night. He went a bit nuts in the end, didn't he, although in his case being paranoid didn't mean that MI5 weren't out to get him. Mrs Thatch went a bit whackjob, too, although she was quite a long way over the edge to begin with.

I think it's fair to say that power corrupts, but also that high office makes you a bit mad. Dementia has set in. It's time for Cherie to distance herself from the fruitcake she married.

March 03, 2006


I love it when you're just playing stuff randomly and something comes on and catches you in just the right mood. Gretchen Peters is a great songwriter, but maybe not as well known as she should be. I absolutely love these lines:
former high school football hero
knocks on her door like the sweepstakes man
she says i'm a former high school zero
now you want to be my friend?

you're as dumb as a day old puppy
you ain't as pretty as you used to be
here's a quarter baby, go get lucky
put one in the slots for me - yeah"

And here's some serendipity: she's playing Milton Keynes this year.


Here's what I think I'll do.

I've been wondering about this for a long time, prompted in part by Marie's blog, and in part by my own career as a failed writer.

In the beginning, I did my own thing. It was frequently derivative in style as I was finding my voice, but it was often original, and there was plenty of it. But of course, in this world being original isn't always a route to success. For example, over the past 18 months, you stood a fairly good chance of getting a book published if it included a secret religious order, the holy grail, a code, or a renaissance character. Sort of like Alias, but without Jennifer Garner, and nowhere near as exciting.

I have no idea why that might be, fnar.

It's a killing irony that - until I realised that a certain top seller existed - I was working on my own thing that included a religious cult, holy relics, and all that guff. Not the grail, but the bones of a saint, and close enough. Fucking hell! As soon as I realised I was right in the middle of a trend, I stopped work immediately.

The tide went out on that one and didn't come back in.

Yesterday's Guardian had an article about self-publishing. This used to be called "Vanity Publishing", and it was something no serious writer ever considered. But we live in a different climate now. Everyone's a critic, and everyone's a journalist, and everyone's a novelist. Clearly, the publishing industry can't keep up with this.

We also live in a different economy. Vanity publishing was bad, because you paid x-amount of money and had x-number of books printed, all to satisfy your ego. But they never sold, and would end up being pulped or stored in your attic. It's the same thing with music: I made an EP, and the smallest quantity you could have pressed was 500. So we did 500, but we only really needed, say, 150.

These days, you can print on demand, so you can have 1 copy, or 100, or 1000, whatever. And if you sell a few thousand, then you might get some interest from commercial publishers, who have only ever been interested in the sure thing.

But then I thought: for years, I've been trying to please other people, to tone myself down, if you like, in my attempts to get my work acknowledged by the mainstream. But, duh, I don't need to do that. I can please myself, be myself, publish and be damned, but possibly reach like-minded individuals.

I once had a novel assessed by a reader at a regional arts council. The resulting report didn't exactly hammer the book, but mentioned that the lead character wasn't very sympathetic. And it shocked me, in a way, because I thought, oh, I'm supposed to have a sympathetic lead character, am I? I can't have an unreliable narrator, or a bit of a shit? Has this person read The Rachel Papers, even?

In my dreams, I'd be able to write genre fiction, one a year, bosh bosh, but I've always had a kind of quirkiness about me, and a lack of discipline when it comes to sticking to the programme. And - crucially - I'd feel like everything I wrote was copying something else I'd read.

(I'm being driven crazy by a bit of a Larry Niven rip-off [unacknowledged] in Peter F. Hamilton's Judas Unchained, but that's another story.)

In summary: we live in an era of please-yourself publishing, so I'm going to sit myself down and write something for myself, and maybe self-publish at some point.