Sunday, 31 January 2010

At long last, a film review

Last week we went to see Avatar, so I'd like to give you all the benefit of my opinion and write a review for you all that encapsulates the piece.

It was long. Very long.

Sorry, what we're you expecting, Mark Kermode?

We'd finished a Cineworld large popcorn as the end credits rolled down - and that never happens normally. When we saw Frost/Nixon last year we'd left at least a third of the box for the cinema to recycle for the next screening throw away responsibly. So my empty box told me Avatar was long. At least two inches of popcorn longer.

I'd like to say something deeply prophetic about the 3d technology - either in favour or against - so that in 40 years time, when I've been proven completely wrong, people can regard my words and laugh. Like they do with that chap from IBM who said in the 1950's that there would be four computers in the world by the 21st century. But there was another aspect that I wanted to talk about instead.

They'd given us these smoked glasses for the 3d, blocky black plastic affairs. Actually, we paid 80p each for them, so when the message flashed on screen reminding us to hand them back in afterwards, a ripple of "Bugger that for a game of soldiers" went around the auditorium. Technically there is still a recession on, don't you know.

Another observation. About a third of the way through the film, when we were being enthralled by the Yes album cover where most of the action seems to take place, I had the overriding need to go to the toilet. Snigger if you will, youngsters, but I'm 40 this year and therefore have a bladder with the capacity of an eggcup.

Trying to judge when there was going to be a pause in the unremitting blue person on blue person action, I removed my glasses, got up from seat and looked at the ranks of cinema-goers behind me.

And paused.

It looked for all the world as if I was being stalked by 200 Roy Orbisons. Quite possibly the most spectacular thing I'd seen all day.

I'm not sure if that was James Cameron's intention, by the way.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

In which our hero takes a step forward

"Hmmm. I think we need to revisit your lacing strategy."

I was completely following the speaker of this sentence. Well, all the way up to those last two words, anyway. "My...lacing strategy?"

"Yes, you're getting too much heel-lift on the upslope."

"Erm. Ok then."

Accustomed though I am to arcane jargon, this was an unexpected conversation. I sighed and placed my trust in the Boot Man. I was in Go Outdoors, a camping/outdoor activity store on the outskirts of Coventry. Slightly concerned that I'd not actually done much in the way of preparation for my sponsored walk along Hadrian's Wall later this year, I had decided to adopt the approach of all men since time immemorial.

Stuff. Start buying stuff.

I was in the market for walking boots, but I was not feeling too confident. Go Outdoors had plenty of options - a whole wall full - but to my untrained eye it was all too much. I picked some up. They had names with lots of letters, like Japanese motorbikes. Carbon fibre inserts. Memorably, turning one boot over and staring at the sole, I saw the words 'Toe Zone' imprinted towards the front.

I don't know about you, but I do like to keep my toes at the front of any footwear I decide to don. It's like they'd read my mind.

So I was floundering. There I was, the overweight urban bloke in office clothing. I half-expected any passing staff to be cranking up Sneer Mode to level 10. I was far from my comfort zone and no amount of Trailfinder maps was going to get me back. Eventually, the Boot Man approached me. Embarrassed, I explained my predicament.

"No problem. Let's try some boots, shall we?"

I know how to try shoes out normally. Put one on, wander around for five paces, pinch to see if your toes are encroaching the toe zone (I've picked up the language already) and Bob's your uncle. But not this time. Boot Man reappeared with three ominous-looking boxes and a tray of hiking socks. Before I could say anything I was sitting down and he was bending down between my knees.

Don't worry. This doesn't turn out to be that sort of story.

What followed was a 30-minute flurry of nubuck, leather and eyelets.

No, I promise. It honestly isn't that sort of story.

I walked around the store. I climbed Boot Man's testing apparatus to see how much my heels would move going uphill. I walked back down to ascertain whether my toes were going to get scrunched up. We discussed lacing strategies (which is where we came in). The way in which you lace your boots makes a huge difference. Who knows this? I certainly didn't. Although I still feel a little silly calling it a 'strategy'. Never mind.

But the attention to detail was reassuring - after all, I'm going to be wearing these babies for six days non-stop. My feet are not going to be home to Baron Blister if I can avoid it.

Boot Man was infinitely patient, given that I was steering towards the 'value' end of their range. "Oooh, don't worry about those brands," he said, pointing to the scarily-priced-take-out-a-second-mortgage-ones on the upper shelf. "They're fine, but for your needs what you've got here will be absolutely fine. It's Northumbria you're walking across, not the North Pole."

Between conversations on lacing and waterproofing, Boot Man and I talked of other matters. Where to go locally to train. Mid-life crises. Things you find yourself doing when you consider your own mortality and the transient nature of life. But mainly it was about the boots.

"Thank you," I said, when I'd settled on a pair. "I'm pretty sure I'll be back when I need more stuff."

"Not a problem," he said, shaking my hand, "just take things a step at a time."

Who am I to argue with an expert?

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

200-word story #1


It was gradual, but inevitable. Thirty years at the breakfast table. The dimples that had charmed him as a younger man repulsed him now. The lilt at the end of each question that she’d found fascinating three decades ago just grated with her these days.

They’d smile at each other. All was fine on the surface. But they cringed underneath. Underneath was a swirling mass of regret. Wasted years and missed opportunities. Moving from passion, through acceptance, to the long dark autumn of cold, quiet contempt.

He slurped his coffee for the millionth time. She no longer flinched these days. Anyway, today was different.

“More coffee dear?” she asked brightly. She filled his mug, offered wordlessly from behind the newspaper, from a fresh pot.


It would take seconds, she told herself. Relatively painless, too. No need to make a fuss. Her passport was upstairs, next to the bank book. A few seconds unpleasantness, then Rio was ready and waiting. She sipped her Earl Grey like it was a Mojito.

A cough. Chair legs scraped across the floor. Thud. Over.

Her smile froze as her own throat began to tighten. Her eyes bulged. Oh no. Surely not the tea?

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Random Musings 2010

So here we are, for the third year running, with the random music challenge. Sorry. The Random Music Challenge. That's better.

Have a look at what I did in 2008 and 2009 to get an idea of the Challenge. It's really quite simple. Get your iPod or similar digital musical doohickey. Hit the 'shuffle' button. And write about the first five tracks that appear. No cheating - you can't skip the embarrassing ones. So if Steps comes up, you can't pretend it was actually John Coltrane.

Here goes:

1) Crowded House - Not the Girl You Think You Are

I'm a big fan of the Finn brothers as songwriters - they could do a phone ringtone and you'd be tapping your feet to it. This is a break from the stuff most people know from Crowded House - a Beatles-like singalong on first play but with dark undertones on repeated listening. I love a little wonky piano every now and then.

2) Kaiser Chiefs - Modern Way

I remember watching Live Eight on TV in 2005 and seeing Kaiser Chiefs take to the stage as openers at Philadelphia, singing "I Predict a Riot" in front of an estimated 750,000 people. London got the Killers, Brandon Flowers in silver lame and anthemic numbers. Philly got a bloke in a porkpie hat singing about his night out in Leeds.

3) Frank Zappa - Rubber Shirt

Anyone who can have albums entitled "Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch", "Lumpy Gravy", "Make A Jazz Noise Here" and "Sheik Yerbouti" (which this one is from) is alright by me. And the track names are even more entertaining. However, this one is a bit of instrumental wibbling, to be honest.

4) Temptations - Papa Was a Rolling Stone

Listen to those strings. Feel that bass. Get that wah-wah guitar going. And here comes the trumpet. Two whole minutes in before the vocals begin. And what vocals! Nerdy fact: Dennis Edwards sings that first line, and his father had actually died on the 3rd September, but it's a complete fluke as the song had been written independently from the group. The producer, on realising this co-incidence, got Edwards to repeat the line again and again in recording just to get the right level of bitterness in his voice. That's soul music. I can't imagine Justin Timberlake doing that, somehow.

5) Boards of Canada - Under the Coke Sign

One-and-a-half minutes of the same three notes slowly repeated again and again over the sound of a highway. I realise I'm not selling it in to you, but it's great, trust me. Boards of Canada produce electronic music using old analogue instruments, distortion effects and samples. Still not selling it in, am I? It's from their EP "Trans Canada Highway" and yes, as you've guessed, they're from, um, Scotland. I can't quite explain how this once long-haired rock-and-roller found himself listening to stuff like this. Variety is the spice of life, you know. OK, if it makes you happy, the sixth track would have been Van Halen.

Now it's your turn. Go off and get your five random tracks, and post them in the comments (or in your own blog, if you have one, with a link in the comments). I've shown you mine, now show me yours.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

New celebrity-based weight units to be introduced

A news story out this week mentioned a British angler who had caught a record-breaking carp the weight of Kylie Minogue. Really? The weight of the celebrated Antipodean songstress and memorable wearer of hotpants? Since when did we throw off the shackles of the boring old Imperial or metric system and move to a celebrity-based collection of weight units?

Clearly, Ms Minogue is pertness personified. However, at 95 lb in old money you can't measure flour in Minogues, not unless you're setting up in the bakery trade. It's a little unwieldy, to be honest.

You could go for centiminogues or even milliminogues, but that's getting a little close to that boring old metric system again. So perhaps we need to think about a smaller primary weight unit - the Troyer or the Villechaize, perhaps. We could go for the Culkin, but he's grown a bit since the 90's.

It's equally problematic when you move up the scale. We need to use a range of larger celebrities. Perhaps we can make it easier by choosing the right ones?

To weigh items that are massively variable in quality every time you look at them, you would need to use the Carrey. You can measure loud, shouty things in Blesseds. The possibilities are endless:

"I've got a consignment of really annoying things to deliver."
"How heavy?"

"Just over thirty Bonos."

I think I'm onto something here.

Monday, 11 January 2010

In just 52 easy-to-collect instalments

It's round about this time of year when all the magazine publishing companies start pushing their various wares on the telly. Collectively, they decide the great British public is ready to start doing something meaningful to expand their sodden minds. And so they bring out the partworks.

Although why 'something meaningful' has to include making a balsa-wood copy of the Cutty Sark, God alone knows.

Actually, I've just wondered. Are partworks a peculiarly British thing, or do people in other countries also get exhorted to spend an inordinate amount of money over twelve months in the forlorn hope putting together a colossally amateurish model of a steam engine or collection of DVD movies from some Z-list director?

It's particularly galling the way they start at £1.99 per issue at the beginning, then once they've got you hooked on their sweet, sweet honey, they shoot up to a fiver a pop. It's too late. You're committed. WH Smiths are holding the copies for you - how will it end?

Well, with a model boat, you pillock. What were you expecting, a Damien Hirst number?

There's certainly a wide range of partworks to choose from, each complete with free folder or binder to accompany the first issue. But there are still some gaps in the market. So, magazine publishing companies, I present below some ideas.
  • Toast: The Definitive History - over a mere 48 weeks this partwork builds into a stunning collection of grilled bread-based comestibles. Accompanying DVDs show the impact of toast on our culture and economy. Free crumb tray with first edition.
  • Diesel Pump - because there's a little bit of Vin in all of us. Be the first on your street to own the full collection of Vin Diesel classic movies. Thrill as you watch him in that one where he drives a car really fast. Be amazed as you see that other one where there are explosions. And he drives a car really fast.
  • Got Lint? - pocket lint and fluff is not just an irritant any more. Now it can be a fascinating and fulfilling hobby. Carefully build your collection every week over 18 months - it's going to be something that everyone at home wants to talk about!
  • TV Test Cards of Our Times - this 12-piece DVD set shows the evolution of TV test cards and patterns from the earliest days of broadcasting. From the BBC Type 'A' from the 1950s, to that spooky one with the girl apparently playing noughts and crosses against a doll, there's something for everyone in this beautiful collection. Each disc approximately three hours in duration, including director's cut and out-takes.
  • Lichen: The Complete Collection - are you a fun guy? Then take a look at our fungi! (And algae, actually). Each week you get to study a different species of this fascinating hybrid organism, until you complete the full set. Thrill as you get to observe Lecidella elaeochroma, which of course lacks the thalline margin but instead has a 'proper' margin the same colour as its central disc. Crazy! With over 17,000 species out there, you'll be collecting for the rest of your natural lifetime. Or until you get sectioned by your family members. Whichever comes first.

I tell you something - this stuff comes easy. I definitely want a cut of the profits.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

On thin ice

I really have difficulty writing about things that are way outside of my comfort zone. But given that my comfort zone consists of beer, meat products, obscure progressive rock acts of the 1970s and, if it's office hours, mortgages, perhaps I need to widen my niche.

And, by the way, 'widen my niche' is not a euphemism. Behave yourselves.

So, in this niche-widening vein, I find myself thinking about ice-dancing. I know. Colour me fabulous. This evening found me watching the start of the latest season of Dancing on Ice. The first episode is one mainly spent asking, "Who the hell is that, then?" as people nominally employed as actresses in TV shows you've never heard of stumble across a frozen surface with all the grace of the Albert Hall.

Like a significant proportion of male watchers, I am an unwilling participant in the Dancing on Ice phenomenon. As with the other examples of entertainment democracy - X-Factor, Strictly Come Dancing, Big Brother - I'm only vaguely aware of the programme because it happens to be on when I'm around. I really should ignore it, but I can't help it. It brings out the cynic in me.

This evening was a case in point. One of the contestants was told they had 'angry arms'. "You need your arms to show more emotion, but not anger," she was told. And I'm sorry. But this was too much for me. Arms? Angry? How does that happen then? I've had nearly 40 years conveying emotion using my face. Occasionally, very occasionally, I might have used a finger (or two) to communicate some of the baser instincts, but mainly I've used the face I've been given.

Apparently, however, I'm "thinking too much" about things. I don't understand the "emotion of performance". I need to be able to "connect". Either that, or I should "just shut up and continue farting about on the laptop."

Back to the comfort zone, I suppose.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Deep and crisp and even

It has been snowing. You can't miss it. You go out, it's there. Mainly on the ground, as is the nature of snow. Sometimes in the air, although that's generally a transitional state while it's on its way to the ground.

It's like Meteorology 101 here sometimes, isn't it?

But I've noticed that there are some common occurrences that seem to erm, occur whenever we get snow:
  • The weather people on TV and radio get very excited. It's very much "In your face, news readers! I'm the Daddy around here today." This soon fades away and the newscasters can continue to ignore them at team get-togethers and the office party.
  • The question "How many inches did you get last night?" is uproariously funny for about ten minutes.
  • The media will start to cover what is a fairly natural phenomenon in intricate detail, verging on hysteria. I've seen at least one national newspaper's online version doing a live blog on the snow today with breathless updates such as "8:10am - it's snowing! 8:25am - still snowing! 8:40am - bugger me, what's all this white stuff falling out of the sky?"
  • At least one reader will post a comment online stating how ridiculous it is for news outlets to be doing this. Of course, responding only encourages them, but this is an irony lost on everyone.
  • People from the north will say how pathetic those southerners are, getting all exercised about a little snow preventing them from going out to buy a cafe latte. Why, only last week, they'll say, they had to walk through waist-deep snow in Gripmundwicke, Yorkshire to get some milk. Straight out of the cow. You southern nancies.
  • Then someone will remind us how It's Not Like It Used To Be. Remember 1963 when we could go ice-skating on the Thames? And the schools never closed then, either. Coming next? Diptheria. You knew where you were with that.
  • Someone in Australia will say how it's a balmy 45 degrees in the shade over there.
  • Passing Canadians and Nordic folk will be heard laughing.
  • We ignore those people.
  • Driving tips will be given out. We all nod sagely when told to steer in the direction of a skid.
  • Around 90% of us don't actually understand what that means in practice, but are too ashamed to admit it.
  • Those who boasted about the superb handling on their rear-wheel-drive car for the previous 50 weeks are now manoeuvring like ducks on a frozen lake, driving around with firmly clenched buttocks and a thoughtful expression.
  • We tune into local radio during the morning commute, for the travel updates.
  • We realise just how bad local radio is and promise never to do it again.
  • Some people work from home. However, "Working from home," is, in some cases, code for "Playing computer games while sitting in their pants".
  • We are told that panic buying has started. We are informed that people are pushing trolley-loads of bread out of Tesco. So we all go and buy extra loaves of bread. Even the yeast intolerant are going mental for Hovis. Because we're like that.
  • Mind you, as long as the UK's supply of tea is unaffected we reckon we'll be alright.
  • Running out of ways to describe it in writing, media outlets ask us to send in pictures of snow. Pictures? Of snow? Really? Oh, OK then.
Some snow, this evening. Happy now?

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Back to life, back to reality

Tomorrow morning I will be getting up at ohmygod o'clock and preparing myself for a working day. This is most unfair.

It's that time of year again when the working masses, each of whom has spent the previous week or so on the sofa gaining girth like a giant redwood, remember that they have a day job and they'd better get out and do it.

By all accounts, this is one of the most depressing weeks of the year. It's to do with the shock return to the drudgery of work, allied to the end of the festive period and the arrival of credit card bills bearing numbers previously only encountered by NASA. Apparently it's enough to push otherwise stable people over the edge. I'm hardly surprised.

The Christmas and New Year period does bring around some odd behaviour itself, though, doesn't it? At what other time of the year do we think it's reasonable to answer in the affirmative to the question: "Ooh, shall we open some beers?" at 2.00pm? And we'll stay up until three in the morning to watch films unnecessarily. I'm quite certain that normal people in the middle of June, for instance, don't find it necessary to polish off a one-pound box of Quality Street while watching a broadcast of the Italian Job - a film that they already own on DVD.

The original one. The one about a Job, set in Italy. Just in case you wondered.

For 50 weeks of the year, it is considered wrong to indulge in this type of behaviour. But at the end of December we all enter this collective stupor. It doesn't even matter if you try to be productive; I went to work for three days last week, but it was that 'between-Christmas-and-New-Year' hinterland. There was the European Crap Food Mountain in the office, as all of us tried to empty our homes of the stuff. We had 36 mince pies to get through, a hundredweight of dry roasted peanuts, yet only two of us were in to consume it. The collection of Pringles tubes looked like a Soviet missile base seen from a distance. And I was suffering. Quite frankly I was operating strictly on autopilot for activities such as conversation. And breathing.

And so at the beginning of January we try to drag ourselves out of it all again. We attempt to shake off the group madness that has afflicted us all. We emerge, grizzly bear-like, from our caves, wriggle off a few sausage roll crumbs from our coats, and regain a sense of normality. Think of me tomorrow morning. Christ on a bendy bus, it's going to be hard.

Friday, 1 January 2010

Year Zero. And sod the pedants.

So then. 1/1/2010. The first day of a new decade.

The pedants will be out in force today, telling us - no doubt with a slightly adenoidal twang - that it's not technically a new decade yet. It's all to do with the fact that there was no Year Zero, they'll tell us. The first decade ran from 1AD to 10AD, they'll remind us. So the second one started at 11AD, they'll declare. As a result, decades, centuries and millenia all begin with a '1', not a '0', they'll proclaim.

And while they variously carry out all this telling, reminding, declaring and proclaiming, we will all carefully ignore them and carry on celebrating the beginning of a new decade*. Douglas Adams had the right idea.

Do you know what this must mean? For us to be marking 2010 as the official beginning of the decade, not 2011, we must have lost a year somewhere. I think it must have been 2004. Try as I might, I can't remember anything about 2004. Did it actually happen?

Although, thinking about it, the loss may not have occurred in one go. There are quite a few weekends that are, quite frankly, dead to me - perhaps they've finally accumulated into one lost year? It could happen, I suppose.

Anyway, let's assume that the Noughties are well and truly over. (And, by the way, who came up with that as a name? 'Noughties'? Was there a vote?) We are told that the ten years ahead of us are to be called the Teens.

Really? What does the decade hold if that's the case?

I predict the planet to be collectively suffering from immense anxiety as it undergoes confusing physical changes between now and 2013. Then, in 2014, the acne pandemic. What then? Will we all be painting our bedrooms black, listening to really bad music and wearing trousers with the crotch somewhere halfway between waist and knee level? Will there be a lot of heavy drinking from 2015, ahem, 2018, onwards?

Who knows? But it's thoughts like this that keep me awake at night. We might be on the edge of a new decade. But clearly I'm still thinking too much.

*PS - I celebrated the beginning of this decade at the house of one of the few readers of this blog that exist I've met in real life. And as she showed me the bookmark for this blog on her mobile phone with one hand, she operated a breast pump with the other. I should add that she does have a three-month-old baby. It wasn't that sort of party. Ironically, the pump made a sound like a herd of dairy cattle.


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