Friday, December 30, 2011

Singing out for Christmas

So, that was Christmas 2011. It always goes so fast, after such a long build-up. Still, it was a nice one this year, with mild weather, plenty of cocktails and nice dog walks with the family. My brother and I spent some time noodling around on the guitars and piano too, and even got around to bashing out a Christmas song, after discussing whether or not it was that hard to actually write one. You can take a listen to our efforts in the embedded video below. Enjoy, and roll on the New Year!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

A short review of all the books I read in 2011

Another year, another collection of books read. I must be getting slower as I read fewer than in 2010 which was in turn fewer than 2009. Or perhaps I'm reading longer books.

Anyway, a short few lines on each one, with links to previous and longer reviews I wrote during the year where relevant.

1. Do Not Pass Go – Tim Moore

An enjoyable and mostly entertaining jaunt around London looking at the history of the creation of the Monopoly board and an insight into how each major square has evolved since that time.

2. Why England Lose - Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski

An engrossing read on that perennial question of why the England football team are no good, and it was refreshing to see that we're not just useless in our inability to "get stuck in" but also due to our utter lack of technical capabilities.

3. Nocturns – Kazuo Ishiguro

An underwhelming series of short stories from an author I normally enjoy. Each one seemed too flippant and throw-away to capture the interest and all lacked a plot strong enough to remain in the memory.

4. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet – David Mitchell

A fantastic novel, set in isolated Japan during the 1700s when its sole contact with the outside world was an artificial island used by the Dutch as a trading outpost. Probably the best Mitchell of the lot.

5. Notes from a Big Country – Bill Bryson

A slightly tiresome serious of columns collated into a book that sees Bryson riffing on the craziness of the US of A.

6. The Hours – Micheal Cunningham

Seen the film so read the book: very clever and engaging.

7. In Europe – Geert Mak

Some 900-pages of Europe's history told by a journalist travelling around the continent at the turn of the millenium. A long-slog but great insights and anecdotes throughout.

8. Chemistry for Beginners – Anthony Strong

A clever idea of a novel told through science papers (and diary extracts), that started strongly but the plot was slightly woolly and was about 100 pages too long to really sustain the interest.

9. Why We Run – Robin Harvie

A nice, philosophical take on the notion of running, by a chap who regularly runs 40-miles each weekend. That's a lot. It felt strained at times, though, as if the quotations from the great philosophers that he uses were found beforehand and then each chapter moulded to fit around them.

10. The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim – Jonathan Coe

Coe always tells a good tale and this one was no different but it just wasn't quite strong enough in any direction, either the characters, the plot or the attempts to show the madness of the world modern (See: What a Carve Up!), as his others, but nonetheless it was enjoyable.

11. The Picture of Dorian Gray  - Oscar Wilde

On purchasing a Kindle I went on a free-classic-book buying spree, with this the first work I downloaded. As witty as you'd expect and surprisingly gothic too.

12. Robinson Crusoe – Daniel Defoe

Man trapped on island and the subsequent adventure he has. Good fun.

13. Treasure Island – Robert Louis Stevenson

I just kept hearing the voices of the muppets in all the relevant characters having seen the Muppet's version so often during my childhood but the original work still contains plenty of excitement.

14. The Jungle Book – Ruyard Kipling

A collection of stories, rather than a single tale, which contains some elements that went on to form the bulk of the famous film, but is different in many ways. For instance, Sher Khan is killed by a stampede of wildebeest organised by Mowgli - inspiration for The Lion King?

15. Inverting the Pryamid – Jonathan Wilson

A detailed look at the evolution of football tactics of which I still find amazing that the first formations were 2-3-5. Madness.

16. Reading like a Writer – Francine Prose

Reminded me of being back at university but it was interesting to look at some of the reasons why the best writers are just that.

17. The Corrections – Jonathan Franzen

Finally got around to some Franzen. Engrossing and moving in places but the story of Chip going to Lithuania just didn't work for me at all.

18. Trouble on the Heath – Terry Jones

A load of rubbish. Read in a day, found it lying around, waste of time.

19. To the River – Oliver Laing

Another semi-philosophical book akin to Why We Run in essence, using the writer's affinity with Virginia Woolf and the river Ouse to contemplate her relationship with rivers, the writings it inspired, its role in history and beyond. Quite beguiling in places.

20. I’m Feeling Lucky – Douglas Edwards

Man joins small internet start up called Google, the rest is history. A bit dry in places as Edwards worked in the marketing area but nonetheless still a great insight into the madness of a company that grows from nothing to world's biggest in a few years.

21. The Good Man Jesus and the Scroundrel Christ – Philip Pullman

Pullman proves he's quite a good writer once again, with a clever take on how Christ became the cult figure he is today by stealing the thunder of his more humble brother Jesus.

22. The Atlantic – Simon Winchester

A nice read on some of the history of the Atlantic, the people around it and it's role in human history. Some chapters were a touch week but most offered some interesting insights and anecdotes on the cold, wide ocean separating half the world.

23. Freedom – Jonathan Franzen

After one Franzen, another. This one was, for me, not quite as good as The Corrections but an interesting, clever, damaged novel with a motley collection of characters going about screwing up their lives in unique and odd ways.

24. Player One – Douglas Coupland

A nice antidote to Franzen's endless words, with this short, fast-paced thriller taking an interesting idea that the world reaches its peak oil production and subsequent mayhem ensues. The idea only five people would be an airport cocktail lounge in a major US airport seemed a tad odd but there we go.

25. The Valley of Fear – Arthur Conan Doyle

A classic bit of Holmes, with Doyle using his two stories in one trick. First he sets up and the solves  the mystery while the second half gives the back story of how the amazing turn of events came about in a sleepy English resort. A lack of Holmes in the second half is a let down but the story was interesting enough.

26. How to be Good – Nick Hornby

Another quick easy read, which took a cleverish idea and ran with it as far as it could before becoming too ridiculous. I liked the character of Katie and thought the ideas of charity and the lack of relationships with neighbours in the streets in which live for years on end were well played out, but it's hardly a Great Novel.

27. A Film by Spencer Ludwig – David Flusfeder

Not sure what I really thought about this one: on one level a simple, fun road-story about a father and son: the father dying, the son a sort of successful film director but also a bit of a failure at life. But, while it flowed nicely, I couldn't shake the feeling the author was trying a tad too hard all the time. I appreciate that's a bit woolly but that's the only way I can describe it.

28. The Sisters’ Brothers – Patrick DeWitt

One of my favourite books of the year: a beguiling, lyrical and engrossing story of two murderous brothers heading to San Fran in 1851, the height of the gold rush, to commit, well, a murder. The historical setting let DeWitt paint some great scenes (one brother discovering toothpaste for the first time, shooting a bear that was killing his horse, meeting a mad prospector by a river), while the story is suitably engaging and strange to keep you hooked throughout. Recommended.

29. The Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes

The Booker Prize winner and a very clever novel. Short but concise and at times reading more like Barnes musing on life than a novel, but the plot is nevertheless well structured and keeps you guessing until the end and beyond.

30. The Steve Jobs biography – Walter Issacsson

Read for work but I enjoyed this on a personal level too as there's no doubting the impact Jobs made on the world, whether you liked him or not. Jobs comes across as a huge tyrant but one who knew what he was trying to achieve and more often than not he succeeded, with almost those on the end of his tongue-lashings also revealing that their time working with him was some of their best working days.

31. Perfect Rigour – Masha Gessen

A study of a reclusive mathematician who proved the Poincare Conjecture was not a book I thought I would enjoy but Gessen tells the story as a writer first, rather than as a great maths genius (as she is too). This helps make the tale of a genius from Russian surviving the random machinations of Soviet Russia to become a great mathematician working in the US, going on to solve one of the world's most complex maths problems then reject the $1m prize a fascinating read.

32. And God Created Cricket - Simon Hughes

A slightly tiresome read, as Hughes adds a lame joke to the end of every other paragraph charting the history of cricket from Ye Olden Days to The Present Day. There's some nice colour and interesting anecdotes throughout, but the Ho-Ho sarcastic tone is too wearisome to be enjoyable.

33. Guns, Germs and Steel - Jared Diamond

Probably one of the first academic (or semi-academic) works I've read since university, this is an interesting and thought-provoking work examining the reasons why Europe and to a lesser extend Asia became the world super powers (of the last 500 years), rather than the Africas, Americas and Australia.

Diamond's argument is, roughly, that a combination of temperature, the abundance of animals and plants fit for domestication and the availability of certain materials, and a resistance, or lack there of, to disease spread by these animals, helped these areas of the world develop at a faster, more technologically advanced rate, than those without, which lead to an unfair balance when they first came into contact.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Cyril Hartley Moore

History is a fascinating subject. I should know I studied it for three years at university so it makes me something of an expert in the field. One of the most interesting areas, on an individual basis at least, is that of the family tree and the lives of unknown relatives. Certainly the success of shows like Who Do You Think You Are? is a clear indication that people discovering the stories of their family prove highly popular.

As such it was with great interest I received an email from a current family member with information on some research he'd done into my great grandfather's brother Cyril Hartley Moore. Through some clever emailing and tracking of information to Canada he'd been able to reveal a bit more light on his life, and the fact it was actually cut short in 1901 in the Boer War when he refused to surrender to overwhelming opponents:

"The Boers succeeded in cutting off the retreat of a small party of ten men he commanded. Three times the enemy called on him to surrender, but on Lieutenant Moore refusing to do so, he was shot through the heart," reads the report of his death.

Refusing to surrender three times despite clearly being beaten and ending up shot through the heart certainly sounds like the behaviour of someone in my family.

Overall, while I'm not going to cry about it (unlike the folks that go on the BBC show who the producers must surrounded with onions to produce the money shot), it's a fascinating and bizarrely profound insight into the life of someone who, while dimly related to me, is nevertheless part of my family's lineage and make-up.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Wimbledon skies

I moved to Wimbledon at the start of October from Putney. It's a very nice area (although no The Thames running through it, shame) and it has some ridiclously massive houses which all have four cars in their gated-off driveways: one 4x4, one sports car, on estate and one "runaround", which is mostly a very new Mini.

I quite enjoy wandering around the streets, just to nosy around the area and discover any shortcuts and while doing so snapping some pictures.

This leads me to the chance to post this picture up that I took which I was quite pleased with for capturing the multitude of colour Autumn always presents.

Booker books and the Kindle

I decided to join the modern world recently and read two of the Booker Prize shortlisted books I picked up during an enjoyable sojourn in Cornwall.

The Sisters Brothers: This didn't win, but it was very good. Set in the Gold Rush era of the US and charting the journey of two murderous brothers, one with a conscious, the other without, it was a lyrical tale of odd characters and beguiling set pieces that was both engrossing and readable. Sometimes it felt like you were reading a movie script such as the short but elegant descriptions and brief dialogue and I wouldn't be surprised if it was turned into a film if the book achieves enough commercial success.

The Sense of an Ending: The winner and you can see why: dense, cleverly structured and very well-written, it's a sad reflection on memory and the damage people do to one another without ever knowing how or why. At times it read a touch like a man just thinking about life rather than a story, but the plot is sufficiently engrossing (and actually pretty dark) to keep you hooked throughout.

Both of these books, it should be noted, were also beautifully produced, with lush page textures, aesthetically pleasing fonts and great cover designs, a testament to the beauty of books over Kindle and their ilk (one of which I own and enjoy using). It made me think that books and e-book readers are not rivals at all but complementary systems of reading and it's merely a matter of preference to which device you choose for which book.

For example, before these two books I read the Steve Jobs biography, which in hardback is a huge, weighty brick of a thing, but I downloaded it to my Kindle and it was a joy to devour as it was so easy to carry around and read on the tube as I rattled around London. But the real books described above were improved some 10-25% (if you can quantify such things) but having the physical, well-designed thing in my possession to touch and hold.

One of my favourite books of all time, the non-fiction Leviathan by Philip Hoare was a similar such book, my love of which was undoubtedly enhanced hugely but the sheer beauty and craft of its physical design. Reading it on a Kindle would have been a hollow experience.

Monday, October 24, 2011

A few book reviews

In classic fashion, here are a few more book reviews from a series of novels I have read since Freedom, in order.

Player One - Douglas Coupland: An enjoyable, fast-paced thriller set during a mini apocalypse after the world reaches its peak-oil limit, that takes place solely an airport cocktail bar. The four major characters use the experience to reflect on life and what their lives have meant, as well as their own failings, all while trying to stay alive during the period of intense civil unrest that the oil crises causes. Enjoyable and quite unique.

The Valley of Fear - Sir Arther Conan Doyle: I've always been a bit of a Sherlock Holmes fan, I'm not entirely sure why, but the chance to read a ripping yarn of his always goes down well, and this was no different.

The first of the story is classic Holmes, with the highly confusing case solved with wit and resilience, while leaving his intellectually inferior companions utterly in the dark. The story then settles you down for the second half, in which we hear the back story that caused the events in the then present-day.

I never like it when Holmes disappears for the entire second half of a book, as he's the best thing about the stories, but it's a good tale and told well-enough as the central protagonist of the story relives his time in the Wild West where he helps bring an evil gang of vicious men to justice by infiltrating their gang as one of their own.

A Film by Spencer Ludwig - David Flusfeder: An interesting and different story of a son and his very ill, fragile father going on an impromptu road trip from New York to Atlantic City. The relationship between the two characters was well imagined, and the change in their roles from child-adult to adult-octogenarian was well told and full of pathos. Some odd scenes in the book didn't quite gel for me - the father accidentally winning thousands of pounds at backgammon - but overall an enjoyable read.

How to be Good - Nick Hornby: I was after something light for a trip to Berlin that involved a 4:45am start, so this seemed perfect and indeed it was. It's a fun little tale, told with enough zip to keep you engaged with and some nice idea based around society, neighbourliness and consumerism that's only peppered lightly throughout. Hardly a classic or a must-read (what is?) but nonetheless a  fun, easy, light-hearted read.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

What you can achieve in a twenty-one hour day

OnWednesday I had the pleasure of enduring a twenty-one hour day for work – this involved rising at 4:45am and getting to bed at 1am. In this time I flew to Berlin, drank several beers, wrote a lot of words, and even managed to compare car insurance while sat at the airport.

The day started early, as mentioned, and involved a quick taxi ride to the airport, followed by a zippy trip over the Atlantic and into Berlin, in which time I read 120 page of How to be Good by Nick Hornby. It has been good so far.

Then we arrived and were taken on a whistle stop tour of Berlin, mostly by coincidence, as the coach taking us from the airport to the event happened to go by the Brandenburg Gate and several pieces of the Berlin Wall.

I then did plenty of work – including two videos, a review and a news story, phew – before eating some currywurst mit kartoffelen which was sehr tasty, although my fumbling attempts at GCSE conversational German were thwarted by instant replies in perfect English from the chefs serving the food. Curses.

From there it was back to the airport with the company of four other journalists for our 9pm EasyJet flight home. Except this being life, the plane was delayed by one hour and forty minutes, meaning we had some five hours to kill at Schönefeld airport – one of those small, shed-like airports which only servers the cheap airlines.

Still, we made the best of it and imbibed on German beers and some surprisingly good burger and chips from "Cindys", the airport's own knock-off McDonalds, where the nice manageress took pity and kept the kitchen open just long enough to feed us.

We chatted about many topics: our envy of the world presented to baby boomers, the best mobile phone and some of the recent films we'd seen, and I also managed to message several friends, read all the day's news and consider the best car-protection deals.

Sometimes I get these flashbacks to another point in my life and wonder how I would react if I was shown a snapshot of where I have ended up at certain points in the future.

I sat there, in the bright, harsh lighting of the airport departure lounge, sleep-deprived, drunk, and fed up with EasyJet, longing to be back in my new house in Wimbledon, and wondered what the 21-year-old me would have made of the scene, when he stepped off the train in Paddington in 2007 to start his London life.

Eventually, the plane left, we had the Obligatory Crying Baby the entire way, I fell asleep for ten minutes, awoke startled and confused by the light below me that I realised was London and soon enough we landed.

A 45 minute taxi journey home later and I was wearily climbing the stairs into my flat, and thinking that perhaps I don't need a car after all – I find all this traveling far too tiring.

Clapham Common 10km post-race thoughts

Long, long time readers will remember in 2009 I ran the Richmond10km in 42:20 minutes, setting a then personal best for my 10km abilities. Since then I’ve always wanted to try and go sub 40 minutes - you know, just because.

I entered the Clapham Common 10km, which was promised as a fast, flat race, perfect for breaking your PB by a friend, and after my entry in March was delayed due to a broken toe, I finally got back the fitness and stamina to  use my deferred entry for October’s race. 

So, last Sunday, while Australians and New Zealanders drunk themselves into oblivion in bars around the Clapham area, I and some 400 other fitter souls took to the start line at the Clapham bandstand. 

My attempts at sub 40 minutes were easily out done by the chap at the start line promising to go sub 34 minutes and within 100m he was storming head and eventually broke the course record in 32 minutes something or other - terrifyingly impressive. 

Me, though, I pounded on and kept up the pace I needed to hit to break my target, although by the fourth kilometre was conscious I was falling ever-so-slightly behind too, so kept having to ramp up my speed, before easing off, which isn’t the best way to do it really.

The course itself was not actually that conducive to a fast speed, either,as it was  annoyingly twisty and turny, and filled with stragglers from the 5km that set off before the 10k runners, which led to some annoying moments trying to pass on the corners. 

The fact it was two laps of the same course was also irritating as psychologically you know there’s nothing new to look forward to and you have the same dull course to do as you start the second lap.

I came through half way at almost dead on 21 minutes, one minute off the pace, and not looking forward to my second lap, especially with the heat of the day now bizarrely hot, considering it's October.

I tried in vain to make up that errant minute but it’s very hard to run the second half of a race faster than the first and although I managed to about break even and I only managed a disappointing, but respectable, 42:52 to finish 26th. Not even a PB.

I think I needed to have done more speed training around the roads of Wimbledon and it shows that perhaps my performance at the more hilly Richmond course really was at the height of my fitness, some two months post London marathon.

Still, it was fun to do and now I have the latent fitness for 10kms I can train harder specifically for the sub 40 minute barrier, rather than the distance of 10km first and then hope the speed is there afterwards.

While writing this blog my girlfriend asked me why I wanted to write a blog about running a 10km – the answer is that I don’t really know, I just find it interested to document the experience of the race. 

I know not many people read this blog really, but hopefully those that do, or stumble across this post, might find something to interest them – the internet is too big anyway, so one more blog entry hardly matters anyway does it?

Monday, October 10, 2011

Freedom? Yeah, right

As promised, I downloaded and read Freedom by Jonathan Franzen over the last two or three weeks and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. It's a strange story considering it runs for some 600 pages: in essence nothing more than a bunch of people's lives, how they mess one another up, and they all reach some sort of vague conclusion of happiness, or something like it, come the end. It would be hard to sell it to a commissioning editor if it wasn't Franzen and his name behind it, I suspect.

Yet, the characters are wonderfully defined, their backgrounds and histories real and well imagined, their interactions with one another laced with enough disappointment and anger to help you identify, care and empathise with them, or be repulsed, sickened or shocked.

There are some weighty themes going on too. Environmentalism, vapid consumerism, the endless waste of the west, the me-first culture of North America, all clearly targets of Franzen's own world view given voice in the character of Walter Berglund.

While probably not quite as good as The Corrections, which had more humour infused throughout while I found the character of Joey hard to believe in places - flying to Paraguay to buy scrap truck parts for a contractor with a $300,000 loan sitting over his head, aged 20? - Freedom is certainly worth most of the heavy praise it generated on release.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Why Fox should cancel The Simpsons

The Simpsons was one of, if not the, greatest TV shows of all time. It was smart, funny, moving, charming, enjoyable, intelligent yet simple and always managed to create stories that were a fantastic combination of the sublime and the ridiculous.

Yet, over time this quality has, perhaps not surprisingly, ebbed, and not flowed back.The writers have clearly run out of plot ideas of what to do with a bunch of character stuck in the same age groups and have used up almost every idea they could possible use anyway.

The news Fox may have to force the stars of the show, the actors voicing the characters, to take a paycut makes me think they should just can it altogether.

I always remember seeing the episode where Lisa convincesBart and Homer they have leprosy and so they get themselves sent to an island retreat to be cured and thought, for the first time, "well, that was a load of rubbish". 

 The film was the first time in a long time I felt I was watching The Simpsons again. It wasn't incredible, but it was funny, and it had the characters acting as their true selves, not as their caricatures, which is often how they are now portrayed.

Homer has gone from one of the greatest comic creations of all time to something of a boarish oaf who shouts and screams a lot without much redeeming qualities. He is hard to like in many episodes and does things far beyond his character's former, realistic, comedic boundaries.

If you ask me, Fox should just cancel the show and have done with it. It has nothing to prove to anyone and there's more than enough quality in the first eight to 10 seasons to ensure the show remains a classic that future generations will plough their way through on DVD or through online streaming that no-one will, for once, think any less of Fox for pulling the plug.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Villas, smarter Londoners and books in bed

Today is official the last day of summer. Yeah, I know, ridiculous right? It's September 21 and only now is it technically autumn, despite it clearly being cold enough to have justified booking a villa holiday and high-tailing it out of here for about three weeks now.

As I said before, though, I like autumn a lot. It's full of colour and change and enjoyable days in the calendar: Halloween, Bonfire Night, that Christmas thing which seems to be as popular as ever. All in all, it's not a bad time of year.

One thing I've always thought about the autumn/winter season in London is just how much smarter Londerers looks during the colder months than in the summer.

From now on long, smooth winters coats, elegant scarves and fancy gloves are the norm and baggy, ill-fitting, garish t-shirts, shorts and flipflops are mercifully hidden away for another 6-9 months of the year.

I've been fruitlessly trying to track down the medium sized version of a great winter coat I saw in a TK Maxx that only seems to be stocked in the large. Curses.

One other nice thing about all this is that you can spend more time curled up inside with a good book, too. There are few finer things in life than lying in a bed on a cold, blustery day with an enjoyable piece of writing that you can plough through as the weather howls impotently outside.

I once read the entire novel The House of Sleep by Jonathan Coe on one such day, and it was bliss. Recently I've been doing likewise (pre and post rugby world cup matches) with The Atlantic, Ocean of a Million Stories by Simon Winchester, a man who's led a very interesting and varied life as a journalist and writer.

It had a lot of interesting historical, social and maritime facts, stories and topics within its 400+ pages and although not the best non-fiction book I've read of recent years, it was certainly an enjoyable yarn.

For anyone that's had more than a passing interest in the great, grey slab of water that lies off the coast of Cornwall and churns and thunders unstopped until it reaches, by turns, Canada, the US, Mexico, Brazil and Argentina, then it would come with a hearty recommendation from yours truly.

Ah, the sunny climes of Brazil and Argentina, it's enough to make you book that winter summer holiday without a thought for the price.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Little known histories

There are so many stories from history. To many to ever be remembered. But here's a fascinating piece of maritime history I read about today. This extract from Wikipedia says a lot:

At 9:04:35 AM, the cargo of Mont-Blanc exploded with more force than any man-made explosion before it. The ship was instantly destroyed in the giant fireball that rose over 1.9 kilometres (1.2 mi) into the air, forming a large mushroom cloud

The force of the blast triggered a tsunami, which rose up as high as 18 metres (60 ft) above the harbour's high-water mark on the Halifax side. It was caused by the rapid displacement of harbour water near the blast, followed by water rushing back in towards the shore.

Captain Haakon From and most of the crew that were on the bridge of the Imo and on its decks were killed by the tsunami. A black rain of unconsumed carbon from the Mont-Blanc fell over the city for about 10 minutes after the blast, coating survivors and structural debris with soot.


When you're young the idea of a sleepover is incredibly exciting. The chance to stay at a friend's house, or have them to yours, is the stuff of "Please mum, pleaseeeee" for years. Yet, even as a child, once the hallowed night has taken place, there's something mildly disappointing about the whole thing. It's just sleeping somewhere else, really, but not as well and coupled with waking in a strange, alien world, of if it's at yours, with a bunch of friends you wish would leave sharpish as they're driving you crazy.

Growing up, such events are obviously far rarer, but the night buses and the early closing of the tube mean that crashing on on good friend's sofa post night out, or after a wine and US Open tennis 2am evening, is preferable to a two hour journey with drunks and weirdos across the city from north to south.

Even so, waking at 7am having had a terrible night's sleep, miles from home, facing a day of relentless yawning, you can't help but wonder if you would have been better off risking the nightmare buses after all. 

It's disappointing how quickly sleep becomes an important part of your life, your thoughts, and defines your ability to function. Not in an active way, an "I must go home to sleep soon" controlling way, but a passive, next day "why did I go to bed so late" moan, that becomes ever more frequent each year, the days of going out til 3am and suffering no ill effects the next day long, long gone. And don't even get me started on two to almost three day hangovers.

Or maybe I am just a wimp. Thoughts?

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

The changes of September

Throughout life, until at least the age of 21, life changes every year in September. From a young age it represents a new school year with new expectations, challenges, events and so forth. Then it's university starts, and each year throughout not just a new term but often a new house and housemates to boot.

Since then I, like many others, seem to have stayed in the September to September housing cycle, each month representing a different location, a different set of housemates again, this time though we are professional, clean(ish), and wealthy (compared to former student selves at least).

Not only that, but during September autumn marks its arrival: leaves fall, evenings darken, temperatures drop and the combination of personal change coupled with seasonal change always infuses the month with a sense of, well, possibilities. Of new beginnings and new opportunities. A chance to use the darkness and the cold to get more things done, to enjoy snuggling in pubs or taking brisk walks across moors, heaths, parks.

There's also a loosening of that sense of guilt that rare hot summer days bring. That sense of urgency to do something, to make the most of it. A rare autumn day filled with sun is a luxury, something to fritter away with quiet surprise and enjoyment that we have been afforded an day of warmth and sun.

The angles of the sun throughout this time of the year are wonderful too: lasting just a few weeks but offering a unique combination as the sun tracks from its zenith to the nadir, changing each and every day to offer different shades, tints and hues of sunsets and sunrises, skies and clouds.

I think for all these reasons September may be my favourite month.

Putney sunset as September begins

Monday, September 05, 2011

Bob Dylan, Buenos Aires and Rhyming Dictionaries

Bob Dylan has so many songs it's ridiculous to try and pick a favourite. But it's still fun to highlight moments from his canon from some of the lesser known songs.

For me, Brownsville Girl and The Groom's Still Waiting at the Altar are two songs that will never feature in a Best Of, but would make my top 20 without question, maybe top 10.

Groom's Still Waiting...has a brilliant edge to it, the entire band sounds like they're only playing the second or third complete run through of the song having been introduced to it by Dylan during a late night session. Every guitar line sounds partly improvised, a guitarist jamming rather than recording The Take. Furthermore, it contains one of my favourite Dylan verses and indeed rhymes of all time:

Cities on fire, phones out of order,
They're killing nuns and soldiers, there's fighting on the border.
What can I say about Claudette?
Ain't seen her since January,
She could be respectably married 

Or running a whorehouse in Buenos Aires.

That rhyme, January / Buenos Aires is just sublime, especially with Dylan's delivery. It's so well constructed too, the entire verse leading to that rhyme - it's not a rhyming dictionary job that's for sure.

You can listen below.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Books update

Since reading The Corrections I have read a couple of other books recently the first of which was To The River by Olivia Laing. A nice, meandering book about the joys of rivers, water, walking and literary it was, as you can imagine, right up my stream.

It charts a walk Laing takes along the Ouse from its source to its estuary, while taking in the nature, history, society and literary background of the surrounding area. It reminded me of a slew of books that seem to becoming more popular now that use a central subject or cypher around which the author ruminates on various topics. The best examples of this are Philip Hoare's Leviathan, but I also read a similar book in Robin Harvie's Why We Run.

For anyone familiar with the area, or keen to read an interesting take on a river talk and Virginia Woolf it would come with my recommendation.

Second was I'm Feeling Lucky by Doug Edwards, a recounting of the adventures of a mid 40s man taking job number 59 at Google, in the days when it was an unknown start-up. There's plenty of techno speak in there, but also human angles, insights into one of the world's biggests companies, and personal stories to interest the more casual reader, although you'd have to have some base, underlying interest in Google, to make it all the way through. I may do a fuller review for work too, seeing as it's about technology.

That takes me to 21 books for the year, still way off the 51 and 47 I achieved in previous years, but I put this down to reading several very long works this year, mostly In Europe by Geert Mak which took my about six weeks.

Mo Farah winning the 5,000m

Earlier this year I was sat in a restaurant in Hong Kong. I was exhausted, hungover, jet-lagged and hungry. Despite this I felt compelled to try and convince two of my dining companions that running races are genuinely fun when the topic reared its head.

I can see why those who have never strapped on some trainers and tested themselves against the road, the elements, distances and indeed others, would possible view running as a staid, dull sport, but those who have done it, particularly those who race, understand it is so much more than that.

Watching Mo Farah sprint to victory having already run 4,800m in South Korea earlier today I was reminded of this, having myself just laboured to a measly 2km around the streets of South West London. The hit of adrenaline you get as you storm towards the finishing line, over any distance, is like nothing else. I play football and tennis but the buzz from running, particularly as you near the finish line, is better than these sports for a sense of exhilaration you rarely experience in day-to-day life. That runners high you so often hear about.

I once finished 17th in a 10km in Cornwall. It was a hard, wet, muddy, cross-country route, but come the final 200m I found myself neck and neck with some club runner from Newquay. I thought I had the measure of him coming into the final stretch and so started to kick for home, pulling a few metres ahead, then I sensed him coming back at me, no doubt determined to prove his credentials. He was on my shoulder.

We matched each other stride for stride. I told myself I would not let him past me, I would beat him. I dug in again, pushing harder again, and once again pulled away by a few meters. We were barely 50m from the line. The crowd of friends and families that had come to cheer on loved ones noted our battle and cheered louder as we hurtled into the finishing gate. He was closing again but I dug deep and held him off to claim 17th, rather than 18th.

Utterly meaningless of course, but at the time, in the moment as it happened and the glow afterwards, it was exhilarating, and of course exhausting. He shook my hands afterwards and we congratulated one another on a great race.

That moment, more than the London Marathon or other races I've run, always reminds me of why running really needs to be experienced before it can be judged, why my two associates in Hong Kong where so wrong to laugh at the suggestion running can be fun and it's why watching someone like Mo Farah sprint to the line to claim gold for Great Britain is so exciting.

Me post marathon with Will.

When John Gray and Karl Marx collide

I've always liked John Gray, he writes in a nice style of grand statements peppered with historical facts and quotations that augment his argument very convincingly.

His piece on the BBC about Karl Marx and why maybe his views of capatilisms inherent instability is being recognised more widely is exactly that. Worth reading.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

English Summer Rain, always the same, such a pain…

What on earth has happened to this summer? I know we complain about English summers a lot but this one really has taken the biscuit. The damp, soggy biscuit. It's enough to make you want to hightail it to an airport, grab some travel money and go somewhere sunny as quick as possible.

We're always surprised that the English summer is such a washout but it's always the same. It's clear the geographical layout of the nation, after millennia of glacial drift, has positioned itself in a way that makes it damp, cold and dreary and there ain't nothing we can do about it.

August and September are usually better, though. In fact September is usually one of the best months of the year with long, lush days of warm sun, billowy clouds and latent heat which the UK population goes crazy for, knowing the winter - cold, bleak, dark and filled with the X-factor – is just around the corner.

I remember a September night out in Angel oop North London a couple of years ago that was utterly crazy because everyone out seemed to be going out of their way to soak up the last great days of the summer; people chatting away, drinking merrily, sitting on pavements and in parks basking in the rays.

This short lived summer obviously gives us some benefits, though. We don't need to siesta to escape the sun, and er, that's it. Oh well, better dig out the coats, scarves and gloves soon, be winter again soon.

Well there's another positive, actually. Us Brits look much smarter in winter attire then we do in our hastily thrown on, quick-the-sun's-out-let's-get-a-tan, summer clothes that are always ill-fitting, outdated and, let's be honest, slightly ridiculous.

Still, before that happens, best get some travel money, the passport and the suitcase and escape to wherever the sun is shining.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

The Corrections

I've heard a lot about Jonathan Franzen, mainly since Freedom came out last year and garnered absolutely rave reviews from all and sundry. Since then I've been itching to read some of his works, but decided I would plump for The Corrections first as a) it was written before Freedom so chronologically makes more sense and b) it was given a 1% better rating over Freedom by a trusted friend who's read both.

So I downloaded it to my Kindle in 12 seconds or so, which was cool, and began my digital odyssey. It is a great book, as I'd been lead to believe, full of wonderful writing, clever set pieces, wit and characters that are wholly real in their contradictions, lack of resolve and general hatred at everything, everyone and themselves.

If that sounds depressing then in one respect it is, as you're treated to the inner monologues of people that are by turns deeply unhappy, dysfunctional, self-loathing, and riddled with disease.

Yet there is more to it than this, with characters displaying humanity too, realising their errors, trying hard to rectify them, perhaps failing, perhaps growing, but all immensely human.

It also offers a view of the world as it's changed from the middle of the century towards the end of the century, as the US shifted from a manufacturing world, to a service world, from a world of make do and mend to unashamed rip and replace, a world where money sloshes around with ridiculous ease yet never seems to end up in the hands of anyone but a few wealthy individuals, where random violence and illness are never far from the surface.

Perhaps the only bit where it falls down is the way the character of Chip seems to so nonchalantly travel to Lithuania to get involved with gangsters when he's a university academic. The coolness with which Franzen describes his life there seemed slightly unrealistic, but it's a minor point in an otherwise absorbing tale of how family life, and the structures that support it, can never be erased, forgotten or changed, no matter how hard you try.

Freedom next, at some point in the next month or so.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Thoughts on the end of The Sopranos

Sometimes I go about in pity for myself, and all the while, a great wind carries me across the sky.

So, that was why everyone was so hung up on the end of The Sopranos. Did Tony die or did he not (he, did if you ask me)?. And, the oddest thing, I felt so sad when I realised that. A man who cheat, stole, murdered and much more - it did me in. The idea, unseen, of his death, of his family’s grief, actually made me upset in a way little other, if no, literary or cinematic work that attempts to manipulate that in you has before.

Of course, 83 episodes of following a character around and you’re bound to reach a state of like, respect even, for them – even if they are the head of a ruthless mafia crew in the suburbs of New Jersey. You can’t make a character that’s nothing but evil: the character has to have empathy, understanding, insights, abilities (to take control, to save the day, to outsmart all his rivals) that endear you towards them, and be set up in a situation where you at least understand the way they behave, even if it’s abhorrent.

Tony spends his life surrounded by grief, by misery, stuck in a world where an emotional response is lower than a murderous one – Johnny Sack never recovers respect after crying at his daughter’s wedding when the feds come to take him back to prison having spent just six hours at the event. The hook for The Sopranos comes by sticking Tony in counseling to see the toll a life in the mob can take and its impact on a standard family, while countering this with the extreme violence of the 'work' he's in.

Life is a stress of unimaginable strain, one that obviously causes human responses to close down: horror, fear, respect for life all seems to be dulled, or missing. It reaches like tentacles, the wives seems unaware - although clearly aware - of where the wealth comes from, the children too aspire to the status of their fathers (mostly) fully aware of the awe they too could command in that position: but most end up dead.

Come the end in that amazing final scene, Tony is sat, back with his family again, having presumably won through again, this time a civil war between the families of New Jersey and New York, to retain his status, but he has learnt nothing, never realized it can never end without death or jail, and it looks like death for our hero.

It’s bleak, relentlessly so: family members are killed off for behaving incorrectly, for being stuck in impossible positions between loyalty to loved ones and the FBI demanding information or the risk of jail, for aspiring to a position already occupied.

Tony cheats death once, but he will not do it again. We know this, we cannot see a way out for him, we will it – why, he’s despicable? – but we know it will not work. Then, the end, nothing, blackness, a shock cut to black, the music abrupt, ending, dead.

The realisation of what Meadow sees as she arrives, of what the others must experience: it’s setup and foreshadowed with wonderful writing, setting and camera work: sat in a glorious boat on a beautiful lake discussing the end, which comes as is expected.

Writers’ know what they’re doing, it’s premeditated, planned and executed like a hit.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

What a life

One of my favourite musicians is Bruce Springsteen, ably enabled by his epic E Street Band, including the excellently-faced Steve Van Zandt. I saw him in London twice and both times and Bruce and Steve (sounds so simple like that) were having a whale of a time, alongside the now sadly departed Clarence Clemens.

I've been watching The Sopranos since about February, ploughing my way through the entire box set and have reached the final season now, and it still freaks me out to know that Silvio Dante, Tony's consigliere is the same man.

I mean, is it not enough to be a guitarist in one of the greatest and most enduring live bands of all time, that you then need to act in one of the greatest TV show's of all time? Ridiculous.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The spitefulness of TFL

My girlfriend sometimes calls me a grumpy young man when I begin ranting and raving about my dislike of various things, and perhaps in some ways she's right, but my contempt for TFL often feels entirely vindicated.

Two examples from this week:

At Piccadilly Circus the electronic board proclaimed a train was one minute away. We stood there for at least five minutes before it arrived, and then it was utterly packed and getting on was basically impossible. It took two more trains before I was able to board. Why claim a train is one minute away when it isn't?

This morning, at Leicester Square there was a large poster board at the top of the escalators that said "On June 3 TFL and the British Transport Police conducted ticket inspections of travellers at Leicester Square at found X number of passengers fraudulent tickets and X passengers without tickets. £75 was gathered in fines".

This whole thing is idiotic.

So TFL are proudly warning all travellers through the station that all their checks – which included manpower from the BTP for goodness sake – raised a total of £75! Should they be pleased by this? They're boasting about £75? It's pathetic.

What a shocking waste of time, energy and resources that surely could be applied to more useful, meaningful tasks. The BTP in particular should not be deployed in this way, what a hateful thing to do – is that why people become police officers, to facilitate the fining of travellers on the underground to return £75 in revenue?

Also, what' the point in the board? As a warning to travellers, a deterrent? What for? If people try to skim the system then they will regardless and no fines (a total of £75! ha!) will stop it.

The only people that actually suffer are legitimate travellers impeded on their journey because of stupid ticket checks or who, probably due to genuine reasons of forgetfulness or mistakes, forgot to top up or have the wrong Oyster Card on their person, but are ruthlessly fined merely because TfL can – despite running a service at a level that passes as nothing more than competent.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Treasure Island, the Jungle Book and muppet voices in my head

I read Treasure Island recently, as part of a mini-drive to read some old classics (facilitated by my Kindle which makes such books free!) and have to say it was very enjoyable – you can certainly see why it’s such a classic.

What was amusing for me was that as I read the book, with character Hawkins, Blind Pew, Billy Bones and of course Long John Silver turning up and performing their dastardly piratical deeds, was that every character took on the look and sound of their Muppet Treasure Island equivalents, having seen the film on numerous occasions when I was a child.

Of course, Long-John and his famous “smart as paint you are lad” line was Tim Curry, but for the rest, such as Smollet, we have Kermit the Frog, and Squire Trelawney as Fozzie Bear and so on, which made for some odd voices in my head during the commute to work in this truly dreadful summer we’re having, as ever.

After that it was The Jungle Book, which interestingly is actually five stories, with Mowgli, Shere Khan, Baloo and Bagheera merely the first of these five stories at the start of the book and it differs in many ways to the film – Baloo is far more serious, and Mowgli causes the death of the evil tiger by leading a wilderbeast stampede upon the tiger in a ravine, from which there is no escape.

Of course, again, the movie from my childhood had conditioned me to hear the voices of the characters in a certain way, so despite Baloo trying to be serious, I just heard the scat-loving comedy character of the film.

The other stories concern a seal leading his kind away from evil men, a mongoose killing snakes to protect a family, a young boy witnessing a midnight elephant rave and then a bunch of military animals discussing their role on the battlefield, and why each is braver than the other (with strong pro-empire overtones about doing your duty and the importance of a system and the rule of order).

It was a very enjoyable read, though, and nice to have finally read some Kipling, having eaten so many of his cakes too.