Thursday, 28 August 2008

Pushing tin

It's been quite a month for milestones. They come in groups, apparently. A little like buses, but perhaps without the social stigma.

Tomorrow is our tenth wedding anniversary. And they said it wouldn't last. Actually, they didn't. In fact, I'm not sure who "they" would have been in any case. Quite frankly, Katie and I have clearly done the rest of the adult population a big favour over the last decade by keeping each other suitably occupied and off the market.

In some countries we'd get a medal for this. That's all I'm saying.

Anyway, the tenth anniversary is officially classed as 'tin' or 'aluminium'. Given that my spelling of the latter is going to disenfranchise my friends across the Atlantic, we'll go with tin. Now I don't want to sound like an ingrate, but it just seems a little low-rent. At least we've moved on from those silly low-number ones, like the paper anniversary at year one.

Let me tell you, buying your other half an A4 pad is no celebration.

So tomorrow we've booked the day off work. We're going to a very nice hotel in Stratford which is half-timbered in a non-ironic way. I fully expect a portion of the afternoon to be spent at the Dirty Duck. Then we're nipping next door to see A Midsummer Night's Dream at the RSC.

For reasons I will expand upon shortly, this might well be the last bit of tranquility I get to experience for the next few weeks. Oh, the mystery.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Look ma, no mac...

I must be a crushing disappointment to you all.

By the way, it's not the first time I've said that in public.

Contra to everyone's advice, the replacement to the PC-that-is-no-more turned out to be yet another PC. I'm just not sufficiently wedged-up to pull together the eight hundred quid necessary for a basic iMac. There's a credit crunch on, don't you know. Anyway, I got a decently fast PC, all the software I need, and a fancy-pants wireless printer for £250 less than that.

I know. I'm a failure. As one of the continued Mac-less majority I cannot play hacky-sack, go snowboarding or grow interesting facial hair. And it means I'm having to negotiate the dickwaddery (qv) that is Microsoft Vista. My past years of home computing have clearly been incomplete without the right-hand edge of my screen showing an additional clock, a random slide show and an RSS news feed delivering, for some reason, local news for an American audience.

I guess I can't play with the cool kids just yet. But if anyone wants to know about industrial disputes in Ohio.....

Thursday, 21 August 2008

PC, or not PC?

Oh buggeration.

The big computer - the one upstairs that gets used for non-bloggy things - is officially on the fritz. Well, I assume it is, at least. The fact that it won't load up, preferring instead to emit a regular ticking noise from the direction of the hard-drive, confirms my suspicion. This is not good.

It's not good because my iTunes library is on it. It's not good because a lot of my photos are on there, too. But mainly it's not good because it might involve buying a new computer.

The expense is one thing. Given the choice between having the money in my account or in someone else's, it's a no-brainer. However, needs must when the Devil vomits in your kettle. In any case, the actual pain stems from the buying process itself.

I can't be the first person to have noticed that PC World is Pac-Man made real, can I? When you're just browsing the aisles, you can't avoid the ghosts, sorry, sales attendants, no matter which corner you turn. They're stalking you. Yes, you can indeed help me, callow youth. By naffing off until I need you. But when you actually want to buy something, it's like you've eaten a power pellet. They scatter to the four corners of the maze shop. Distress flares wouldn't attract their attention.

Let's say you manage to ensnare one of them, and get to the point where you've decided on a model. There must be some parallel universe where you simply pay up, take your box and leave. But not here. Oh no. For we must first talk about support packages. And extended warranties. What really gets my goat is the look they give you when you say no. It's as if it's the first time they've ever heard the word. The look says:

"I've been in this shop, man and boy, for five-and-twenty years. I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark, near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time. Like tears in rain. Time to die."

To which the response is, "Hang on, are you channelling Rutger Hauer's character from Blade Runner?"

I digress. Maybe I should buy a Mac instead.

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Bring on the trumpets

Occasionally, just occasionally, a TV advert will leave me open-mouthed.

Indeed, agape.

There are no other words.

Friday, 15 August 2008

Not what it used to be

It came to me while I was in the shower this morning. I often get my most profound thinking done whilst in the bathroom, surrounded by water. Perhaps my ancestors were dolphins or something.

Back to the shower. With a shock of realisation it came to me that today, August 15th, is a special day. Because on this date in 1988 I had my very first day at work. And I've had 20 unbroken years in gainful employment since then. Not for the same employer, it has to be said, although I have stayed in the same industry for those two decades.

Depending on your point of view, this marks me out as having either a commitment to the cause or a distinct lack of creativity.

As an 18-year-old, still awaiting my A-level results that would surely send me off to university, I sought out a job as a backstop, just in case. It made my mother happy, for starters. When the results came out, I could simply say "Sorry, but I'm off," to the boss and hightail it off for three years of beans on toast, cheap beer and The Smiths.

Given that my exam grades would have the seats of higher learning fighting over me like dogs over a pork chop, I cunningly kept this part of the strategy from my erstwhile employers. So that morning, Monday 15th August 1988, found me walking up Bennetts Hill in Birmingham, to start off as a trainee cashier/clerk for a building society. I think I'd got a suit from the Freemans catalogue. I'm not even sure that shaving was a daily necessity for me at this point.

Two days later I called my school for my exam grades. Looking back, this was a pivotal phone call - everything that has happened to me since is as a result of it. Those of you who've been paying attention and noticed that I mentioned 20 years unbroken employment in the second paragraph above can kind of guess how it went. Perhaps academia wasn't for me.

These days, not going to university is - in the UK at least - seen as being akin to having some sort of unspeakable medical condition. Eyebrows are raised, people talk about you in hushed tones. But I'm not entirely bothered. I was earning from day one, and for every one of my ex-classmates that eventually graduated and became a barrister I can point to a dozen-or-so more who simply ended up doing similar things to me - just three years later and heavily in debt.

So I knuckled down. I moved on from role to role. The past - even 20 years ago - seems like ancient history to me now. For instance, we'd think nothing of nipping over the road for a couple of pints in the Wellington pub at lunchtime, then coming back to talk to customers about their mortgages. We even slept in the office once, after a sudden and heavy snowfall that stopped all traffic and prevented us from getting home. Unthinkable in these more enlightened times.

After a few years I moved on. I changed employers. I later heard that the building society had sold their branch office and it was now a Thai restaurant - part of the conversion of the financial district to a leisure quarter.

The 18-year-old me probably couldn't envisage the 38-year-old. I'm responsible, by all accounts. I have a house and a mortgage. There are cars on my driveway. I'm married (yes - to a real woman - imagine that, youngster!) and know about wine and politics, gardens and furniture. Pensions are starting to be, if not interesting, then relevant.

When did I become an adult? How did this happen (and is it reversible)?

Perhaps it's best not to wallow in nostalgia. So instead, I'm taking my wife out to dinner tonight. And I happen to know a Thai restaurant in town that seems like the perfect place.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Sweet Home Alabama

I think I'm considered persona non grata in the various local blogger groups. It's because I generally don't blog about my hometown. Apparently, there's this rule that says if you're a Birmingham blogger you have to write about Birmingham.

Pfft. And tush.

Anyway, hopefully I can qualify for the time being, as Birmingham has featured the news in the last day or so, due to gargantuan levels of dickwaddery.

I realise I'm making up new words. Bear with me, folks. We're pushing the envelope.

A leaflet sent out by the Council to 720,000 householders here, praising us for our recycling efforts, featured a picture of Birmingham's skyline. But instead of Birmingham (West Midlands), someone managed to use a picture of Birmingham (Alabama) instead.

This displays dickwaddery on several levels. (I'm really pushing this 'new dictionary' thing, aren't I?) Firstly, are we really to believe that someone in Environmental Services sat up and thought: "We've saved a whole bunch of resources here, with our successful recycling programme. Why don't we celebrate it by producing tonnes of four-colour printing?"

And then, with irony circuits disconnected, and having decided to rape the planet's already limited materials, they give the design job to Gavin. Gavin's got qualifications and everything. He's a safe pair of hands, is Gavin. Unfortunately, he's too busy smoking B&H and watching Big Brother to actually do any work, so with the deadline approaching our Gav just scoots onto Google to find a Birmingham cityscape. Copy, paste, job's a good 'un. And no-one checks it. Nobody in the council (based in the centre of Birmingham, by the way) says, "Um, Gavin. This doesn't look like the view from my window."

And the initial reaction from the Council when they were found out? "Oh, this was just meant to be a generic cityscape." That just happened to be from a city with the same name as yours? I suppose if you're a spokesperson, simply saying, "We don't have the faintest clue what we're doing," isn't an option any more. I mean, it's even getting coverage over there, too. And I thought Fox News didn't do global.

Dickwaddery. You heard it here first.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

For the benefit of some readers: OMG....

Last week I mentioned that we were going to see Hamlet. Some of the responses - OK, all of the responses - made it clear to me that I couldn't really leave it there.

Well, I could have left it hanging, I suppose. But people from a place where you're legally allowed to bear firearms would have hunted me down and dispensed summary justice. Which is why I'm trying my hand at theatre criticism. I'm really not too sure if this will be definitive. Or any good, for that matter.

You don't need me to tell you that Hamlet is one of Shakespeare's more heavy-going works. There's murder, suicide, madness and pretty much the dysfunctional family from Hell.

While the RSC carries out transformation of the Swan Theatre on the banks of the Avon, performances take place at the Courtyard just up the road. I don't see this as an disadvantage - the Courtyard is very intimate, with the stage thrust out into the auditorium and surrounded by stalls on three sides. We were sat five rows from the front, putting us at eye-level with the performers.

I haven't seen much Shakespeare - yes, we studied it at school but that was different - so my concern was that I'd find it difficult to follow on stage. But I needn't have worried.

I want to make it clear from the outset that this was not just the David Tennant show. Of course, in the title role he's going to form a major part. I'll be honest - I've not really seen much of his TV stuff. Although his background was actually in this environment, I suppose he does carry a lot of baggage as 'that bloke off the telly'. But he was a captivating Hamlet - at turns moody, mad, petulant, morose, entertaining. He covered every inch of the stage. You're never actually certain if you want to be on his side or not. This is complex. As it should be. You've got to concentrate on it, but he makes this effort worthwhile.

Then there was Patrick Stewart. This rich voice, from a whisper to a shout, filling every bit of the theatre. He had presence in bucketloads. God, he was impressive. And, can I use the word in its original sense, awesome.

But let's not forget - this was an ensemble performance, with the entire cast pulling together to tell a story. I now see while the RSC is seen as the pinnacle for stage acting. And I have this only 45 minutes down the road. (Yes - tickets for A Midsummer Nights Dream at the end of the month have already been ordered. Can't beat a bit of culture, can you?)

There were no obvious Dr Who fanboys evident. Although there was one girl who was, rather loudly, telling her neighbour in the interval about all the Serious Plays she'd seen that year. As they were both wearing homemade "David Tennant We Love You" T shirts, methinks the lady doth protest too much.

This section is for City Girl and others who have a similar interest.

This is a modern dress production. At one point David Tennant is wearing jeans and a T-shirt. And the T-shirt rides up to show a perfectly toned stomach.

There, are you satisfied?

I feel almost grimy......

Friday, 8 August 2008

From the sublime to the cor-blimey

I was watching the opening ceremony for the Beijing Olympics this afternoon. Well, I say "watching". At certain points I was just sat there. Agape. And it's not every day I get to use that word.

Let me use it again, it might be a while before it gets another airing.


There was everything. Drummers. Thousands of them, in spooky synchronisation. Eight-thousand years of history, the Confucian past, the dynastic generations. Ancient scrolls and symbolism. Calligraphy and Communism. Terracotta warriors and jiggly girls in white knee-socks. (Something for everyone, there). A giant globe with vertical wire-walkers. Taikonauts. And the fireworks. Always the fireworks. OK, chaps, we get the point. You invented gunpowder. No need to rub it in.

Essentially it was a frenetic mix of theatre and spectacle. And as mad as a badger.

If I'm frank, I'll probably avoid the rest of the Olympics from here onwards, sport (or physical exertion generally) not exactly being my bag. But I can imagine billions of people enjoyed the show.

With one exception.

Could you imagine being the person with the responsibility of designing the London 2012 opening ceremony now? Basically, you've just been told to get cracking. And knowing the great British media's schizophrenic approach to criticism ("that was crap"/"look at the money you're wasting"), he's not exactly on solid ground.

What can he do that will talk about Britain? This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle, this earth of majesty, this seat of Mars, this other Eden. What can he put on, that speaks clearly to the global audience about the indomitable spirit, the bulldog courage, the chippy enthusiasm, this home of wit and wisdom?

Step forward, Chas & Dave.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

A fellow of infinite jest

Almost casually, Katie reminded me the other week that we're going out to the theatre again soon.

It was just one of those things that make up the overall pattern - Katie organised it months ago but with the normal run of work/sleep/holidays/sheer unadulterated panic it must have slipped my mind.

But really odd things have been happening. You know that scene you sometimes get in films, when our hero turns around slowly to find that something big - and I mean "this has its own postal code big" - has somehow crept up on him? Normally the director relies on a rapid zooming out so we can all nudge each other over the popcorn and remark, "What a tool...fancy not noticing that!"

Well, that's what's been happening. I'd noticed that some play was getting good reviews. But not just in the local papers. In the nationals. And not just in the theatre section either - on the front pages with full colour pictures. In fact, the play was getting extensive coverage in what people with far more A-levels than me would probably call the mainstream media.

Then Katie reminded me that this play - the one everyone seems to be going on about, the one that appears to be ever-so-slightly more than just a play - is the one we're going to see. Next week, in fact.

Yes, we're going to see the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Hamlet at Stratford-upon-Avon. Featuring David Tennant in the title role. Apart from being a Proper Actor (who started out doing this sort of stuff years ago) he apparently does a lot of running round darkened corridors in some other role and seems to have quite an effect on a significant proportion of the women I know.

Including one or two that read this blog. Good evening, ladies.

Here's a bit of a confession - Patrick Stewart is also in the production, as Claudius, and I'm actually a little more excited about seeing him treading the boards. I think he'll be nothing short of awesome.

Anyway, it was interesting to find out that the pair of tickets for which we'd paid about £40 would, if placed on eBay, find buyers willing to pay £400. Yes, I did think about it for a second. But we are still going.

And if I find anyone in the audience dressed as a Cyberman, I don't think I can be held responsible for my actions.

Monday, 4 August 2008

An opportunity you could not miss

Here's something exciting I'd forgotten to mention. The following email was awaiting me when I got home last week:


Hope all is well,

After coming across your Birmingham based blog I was wondering if you would consider writing a piece for Blahblah Radio. Blahblah has just launched a new motoring classifieds site, an alternative to Auto Trader called

This is becoming hugely success within the West Midlands area as it really has a local feel.

We would really like your support with this new service.

I’ll look forward to your reply.

Kind Regards

Ben O’Brien

I have replaced the original company name with 'blahblah', you'll have noticed. There isn't actually a radio station in Birmingham called blahblah. Well, not yet, although given that there's a TV channel here called 'Dave', nothing surprises me any more.

At first glance this seemed a potentially big deal. The radio station in question is quite well known in the local area, even if their music policy is wholly predictable ("7.15am? Justin Timberlake will be on in a minute. Like every other frickin' day this week....") and they currently seem to employ presenters with the personality of monkfish.


It seemed a little odd that a local radio station would operate a classified car sale site. And that they'd want some copy written for it. But I thought perhaps they'd want to develop it into some sort of information portal with related consumer articles. Let's forget for one moment the fact that my public writing covers subjects like Mr Muscle being done over by The Man. And swimming squirrels. Who am I to argue? Perhaps Ben has seen something he likes in all this white noise? So I replied, asking for a little more information. And got this in return:

Many thanks for your quick response, It's nothing major all we would like you to do is mention our new motoring site in your blog as we see your Birmingham based.
I'm not mentioning the use of the third 'your' instead of 'you're'. Because I think I've just thrown up a little in my mouth as a result of the unmitigated cynicism on display. I've since found out that he's approached a number of other local bloggers with exactly the same email. Clearly Ben's not checked what we write on our blogs. I suspect he's failing - quite heroically - to understand what blogging is about. Or else he couldn't give a dingo's kidney. He might not be bothered what I say about his new venture, just as long as I mention the URL a whole heap of times. The more websites that show it, the better his pagerank on search engines, I suppose. Perhaps he's a smart cookie after all, this Ben chap.

Not that smart, though. A little bit of searching shows that the nice friendly local site he wants me to promote has 5,333 cars for sale within 20 miles of my postcode. That nasty, national Autotrader website, however, shows 25,434 in the same area. So, in other words, I'd have to find something to write a long the lines of "why don't you all visit this hugely boring website that's only of use to you if you want to buy or sell a car, is linked for some bizarre reason to a radio station, and is around one-fifth as good as Autotrader?"

There is one blog that's singing its praises, though. A Live Journal blog. Owned and written by a certain Mr B O'Brien.

Ladies and gentlemen - we have clearly been witness to a marketing masterclass.

Saturday, 2 August 2008

It's a fish. No, it's a peach. Or is it a fish?

The funny thing is, we actually had a very good time, The Incident We're Not Talking About Any More excepted. Looking back on the last few weeks, there are a few things that spring to mind.

Concarneau, on the Finistere coast, is famous for the medieval Ville Close, a walled section of the town on an island in the bay and linked to the quay by a short walkway. But there is more to it than that. It also has a stand selling the best ice cream in the world. Let me repeat that for you. Best. In. The. World. The cognoscenti talk about it in hushed tones. "Enter the Ville Close," they'll say, as if imparting a national secret, "and go to the first stand on the right. Do not go to any other." At this point you're saying to yourself, "That's as maybe, but the ice cream at so-and-so's is pretty good." I am sorry. But you have to accept from now on that it is, at most, only the second best on the planet. The caramel variety, made with salted butter, is other-worldly. I was thinking about how I could marry the girl behind the counter, being that it would guarantee a permanent supply.

I think Katie was harbouring the same thoughts.

The stand is on the right. Tell them I sent you.

Without talking about The Incident We're Not Talking About Any More, I can confirm that there is usually an invisible force-field that surrounds all UK-registered cars in France. The locals sense that (a) the driver may not be looking the right way at junctions, and (b) any collision is going to involve paperwork from Hell - so they tend to give you a wide berth. Of course, if you spend 80% of your time there driving a French-registered rental car, you lose this bubble. I can tell you that van drivers are the same the world over. Burger-guided missiles.

Despite what P J O'Rourke says, the fastest car in the world is not a rental car when it's a small French diesel hatchback.

And the Peugeot motor company is out to get me. The Incident involved a Peugeot. The French rental car was a Peugeot. The one I swapped it for in England was a Peugeot. After dropping this car off at the Avis desk in Birmingham I got a taxi back home. A Peugeot.

I was pleasantly surprised at how good my French became. OK, I'm not quite ready to join the Foreign Office, but a couple of weeks practical experience works wonders. I haven't spoken French regularly for 20-odd years but I was getting along quite well conversationally by the end of the holiday. That's what our kids need if we want them to pick up languages. All those hours learning genders and declensions are never going to work. And there is a universal language for garage mechanics the world over. The shrug, the sharp intake of breath. Who teaches them this?

I have to kill one stereotype about the French. The ones we met were, by and large, lovely friendly people genuinely happy to be dealing with foreigners. Apart from the armed policeman, but that's par for the course, I suppose.

And there is no pain that can match the red wine hangover. OK, maybe childbirth. Perhaps. But really, if you buy Vin de Pays in a 5-litre box, you should know what you're getting into, especially if you demolish a significant chunk of it in one sitting. Nurofen just wasn't putting a dent in it.

Those of you who prefer pictures to words might like to look here instead.

(The title? That refers to La Petite Peche. Great food, superb atmosphere. Owned by people who, if they were any more laid back, would be practically horizontal. If you're in that neck of the woods, drop in.)


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