Monday, 31 May 2010

To be a rock and not to roll

The admission I'm going to make may shock you. It might shake the very foundations of your belief in me as an intelligent, thoughtful person. It could indeed disturb you to the very core.

It's something I've kept from family, from friends. I've held it inside for so long that it's become a part of me. I can hold my tongue no longer. Here it comes. Don't judge me.

I don't agree with the opinion that says Led Zeppelin's Stairway to Heaven is a great song.

There, I've said it. I hope we can still be friends despite my clearly aberrant views. I suspect I'll have to surrender my membership of the Child of the Seventies Club, however. I shall hand back my tanktop.

Don't get me wrong, I am a fan of the afore-mentioned Zeppelin and most of their works. It's just that 'Stairway', probably their best known track, is not, in my opinion, their greatest work. For me, it's not even the best track on the Led Zep 4 album.

To a lot of people, in the last couple of hundred words I've done the equivalent of shooting Bambi's mother. People have asked for this song to be played at their funerals. Many have had that poster on their university bedroom wall - the one with the weird druidic figure and the symbols. I've heard of people having the final verse tattooed across their backs. I don't expect them to agree with me.

It's not as if it's a bad song. It really isn't, although there's a little too much flute at the beginning and the lyrics tick both of the following boxes:
Hippy [ ]
Dippy [ ]
However, it was the early 70's and so we must be charitable.

No, what really grates with me about the song is the mythology that's built up around it. Apparently it's being played on a radio station somewhere in the world all the time. Hopefully not the same station. Before I started writing this I googled the phrase I used for the title - just one line of lyrics from the song. It featured on over 99million web pages globally. 99 million! Folks, please. Its. Just. A. Song.

The problem is, most well-established bands end up with a Stairway in their repertoire. The one song that even non-fans know. The ones that hang around despite their best efforts to do other, better things. The ones that people shout out for at concerts. The ones that I bloody hate. Let's have some examples:
  • Queen - Bohemian Rhapsody. Good God, no.
  • Black Sabbath - Paranoid. It's like a heavy metal novelty track. Make it stop, please.
  • Deep Purple - Smoke on the Water. Gets you thrown out of a guitar shop in double-plus time.
  • Lynryd Skynryd - Freebird. Essentially it's Stairway but with more Jack Daniels and a longer solo.
  • The Who - Won't Get Fooled Again. Oh, actually I really like this one.
The thing is, I grew up listening to the bands above and still love, in a way that is rather scary, some 99% of their output. But they've all got a Stairway.

Right, I've opened up to you all. My undoubted heresy might be the undoing of me. If I actually had any readers left by now I would now be expecting a tirade in the comments. What can I say? It makes me wonder.

Friday, 21 May 2010

Pay Another Day

Bond strode purposefully towards the workshop, pausing only to cast his homburg at the hat stand in the corner with pin-point accuracy.

“Ah Commander Bond,” announced a voice from the doorway, irascible and hurried. “There you are at last. How good of you to grace us with your presence.”

Bond regarded the older man. “Good morning Q. What have you been working on for me this time?”

“Come on through to the Armoury, Bond, and we’ll see what’s what.”

Stepping through the threshold, Bond regarded the familiar low-ceilinged workshop. The white-coated assistants bustling around, weaponry clamped down for bench-testing, a low shape at the far end covered with a grey dustsheet.

“I see nothing much has changed, Q.”

“Don’t you believe it, 007.”

Bond raised a quizzical eyebrow as the Q continued.

“We’re operating in straightened circumstances, don’t you know.”

“Straightened circumstances?”

“Pay attention, Bond,” Q sounded exasperated. “Don’t you ever read the newspapers? There’s a financial crisis afoot. We can’t be seen to be spending willy-nilly, even at MI6. The papers would have a field day. Sometimes I wish the Cold War was still on.”

Bond wasn’t giving his Quartermaster the benefit of his full attention. Instead, he focused on a ballpoint pen held in a jeweller’s vice. “Hullo, what’s this?” he asked as he loosened the vice and held the instrument aloft.

“Hmmm? Oh, Bond. Please don’t touch that.”

“What have we here?” Bond waved away Q’s protests. “No, don’t tell me, let me guess. It’s a location finder. No, a laser device, perhaps. Or maybe some form of dart gun? What if I pull this switch on the barrel?”

“Then you will find that you’re writing with black ink instead of blue. Look, Bond, sometimes a pen is just a pen. Like I’ve been trying to tell you, times are hard.”

“Just a pen, eh? Well, I suppose it’s mightier than the sword,” Bond sniffed.

“We’re in a different world, Bond. You can’t act like you have in the past.”

“I suppose I can rely on my trusty firearm. My Walther PPK?”

“Sorry, Bond, that’s had to go. Do you know how pricey those things are? Here, you’ll have to use this instead,” he grunted as he heaved over a hessian sack.

“What’s in there?” asked an incredulous Bond.

“Honda 750 motorcycle chain. One of the most devastating close-combat weapons known to man. No, don’t interrupt me, Commander. Think yourself lucky. 006 has had to make do with a Super Soaker. 008 is getting a length of two-by-four next week. It’s the financially responsible way.”

Bond motioned towards the shape nestling under the dustsheet. “I see you’ve been working on some transport for me, though.”

“Ah, yes, we’re quite proud of that one. Stand on that side while I remove the covers.”
Bond allowed his eyes to rest on the bodywork. “ that?”

“That, Commander, is a Ford Fiesta. A 2003 model. We got a very good deal.”

“But what about the Aston Martin?”

“Have you any concept of cost, Commander? To say nothing of the insurance. You lost your no-claims bonus years ago – you’re not exactly the safest of drivers, Bond. The depreciation alone made M weep.”


“Now pay attention. The Fiesta gets good mileage, has plenty of room in the back and is actually quite nippy around town. Think of the Benefit In Kind tables.”

“But I can hardly pull up to the Ritz in Monaco in one of these, can I?”

“Ah, that’s the next bit of news,” said Q. “Overseas travel is a definite no-no at the moment, I’m afraid. Your next assignment is to Swindon.”

“Swindon? But I normally arrive at my jobs by seaplane or mountain pass. Tootling down the M4 just won’t be the same.”

“Bond, you’re going to have to face reality. Times are hard. We can hardly afford to have you swanning around the world, quaffing vodka martinis. We’ve had to make Miss Moneypenny redundant; her job’s now being performed by a Call Centre in Mumbai. If you don’t want to be next, you’re going to have to tighten your belt a bit.”

Bond’s steely eyes narrowed as he turned away. He was the best. In his time he’d faced down all enemies, from the Stasi to SMERSH, renegade nuclear scientists to megalomaniac media barons. But there was one thing he couldn’t beat. The Accounts Department. Were they trying to force him out? He turned back to Q.

“Do you expect me to walk?”

“No, Bond, I expect you to get receipts.”

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

On being grown up and responsible

Yesterday morning, at about 3:30am, my phone chirruped at me from the bedside table. Confused as only the suddenly-awake can be, I looked at the new message, put the phone back down and laid my head on the pillow.

But things had changed. The message was telling me that I had become an uncle. Well, if we're being accurate, it was actually informing me of the birth of brother number one's daughter, but you get the point. (On a related point, it is now technically impossible to buy anything coloured pink from shops in the Birmingham area. That'll be my mom's fault. Sorry about that).

So now what? I've never been an uncle before. What's the drill - do I have particular responsibilities to fulfil? And if I get my uncling wrong (that's the right term, isn't it?) do I get reported to OFUNC? Brother number two and I probably need to get our heads together on this one.

I'm tempted by the role of Fun Uncle. You know the deal - show up, get my niece all wound up, fill her with e-numbers and fizzy pop, then hand her back to her doting parents as they look daggers at me. I can be the one to tell her, when she's old enough to understand, about all the cringeworthy things her dad has done in the past. This may take some time.

At some point at a family event in the distant future, I will be required to dance really badly, mortally embarrassing the poor child. I think I've got this one covered.

The good thing is that I'll have an excuse to go and see kids' movies. It's considered bad form for grown adults to see Disney on their own. The bad news is that my niece may want taking to whatever is the equivalent of Hannah Montana in 14 years time. I know blood is thicker than water, but there are limits, you know.

Of course, there is a serious aspect to all of this. For instance, I'm reliably informed that uncles are supposed to be wise and fair. To provide advice and support to the child, to give moral guidance and help them navigate this difficult world.

Oh blimey. Pass the Pepsi.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

A stain on my character

We like to put people into categories, don't we? Gender, religion, social class. These are all important. But when it comes down to it, there are fundamentally only two types of person on the planet.

Spiller. And non-spiller. I fall quite heavily into the first group.

However hard I try, whatever I eat will do its level best to decorate my clothing. Thick sauces are the worst. Like a salmon drawn to the river source, anything that started out on my food will find its way onto me. It's magnetic attraction.

You can, if you examine my wardrobe, quite easily map out my dietary history. There are some things that a warm wash cycle just won't shift. The period when we went all Italian? Look, here's evidence of balsamic vinegar on my polo shirt. That Thai phase? I swear I can detect red curry paste on that sleeve.

Other people seem to be perfectly capable of putting food and drink in their mouths. Oh, how I envy these paragons of gastronomy, their clothing untainted by custards, gravies or stews.

I try to argue that it's some form of diet - after all, if the calories don't make their way into my system, they're not going to hit my hips. This doesn't wash with Katie. If you'll pardon the pun.

It came to a head last night. We were at a Really Quite Posh event. I was tuxedo'd to the maximum. Bow tie, dress shirt, the full shebang. Here is photographic evidence:

This photo is officially referred to as BME. Or Before the Mustard Event.

Despite the surroundings, the event and the formality, I spilled. Despite the fact that I was sat next to my wife and opposite my mother, I spilled. Despite the fact that I was wearing a quite expensive Daniel Hechter dress shirt, I spilled.

English mustard is surprisingly yellow, isn't it?

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Indecision 2010

Well, I'm confused. By all accounts, the planet is still turning. The country has not sunk beneath the waves. We're all alive. But we should be in crisis mode, we're being told.

The media are doing their level best to paint this whole hung parliament malarkey as a Bit of a Thing. Apparently, the various politicians need to agree to be nice to each other, go round to each other's houses for dinner and return the borrowed lawnmowers as soon as possible. And we're all doomed if they don't. It will get biblical. Riots, breakdown of society, the collapse of all commerce, cats and dogs living together as man and wife. You know the drill.

The Guardian newspaper is, as I speak, liveblogging from outside the building where representatives from the Conservatives and LibDems are meeting. ("Breaking News! They've called out for Danish Pastries! And what's this I see...flipcharts?") Other news outlets have hardly been any less hysterical. One paper has demanded a working government by teatime. I'm normally happy enough with scones, myself.

And at all times the rest of us appear to be both keeping calm and carrying on.

I was in London on Friday when HungParliamentGate (for that is undoubtedly what some pillock will call it) started to emerge. And yet things seemed as normal. The tube still ran, people still studiously avoided eye contact as they read their free papers, iPodding their way to the office. Italian exchange students still stormed up and down the train, knocking bystanders to one side with their completely unnecessary backpacks.

The newspapers would have depicted us storming Parliament, flaming torches and pitchforks in hand. but it all looked rather normal to me. Besides, this is England. We're all rather too polite and a little middle-class for revolution. Imagine the shouts:

"What do we want? Single transferable votes! When do we want it? As soon as it is convenient, if that's not too much trouble...."
"They may take our lives, but they'll never take our Tesco Club Points!"

That evening we went for dinner at the Duke in Richmond. People sat and ate, talked and drank. No-one seemed terribly exercised that evening. The table of bright young things in one corner, the group of blokes on the next table swapping jokes. According to the media, we should all have been earnestly discussing proportional representation. I was too busy with my saddle of lamb on a bed of roasted fennel, to be honest.

We drove home yesterday through a rainstorm. Nope, that seemed normal, too.

Today I visited my ninety-something grandmother in hospital, where she's recovering after a chest infection. Once again, normality prevailed. We sat and looked at the spring sunshine through the window. An orderly cheerfully bustled along the ward, dispensing tea in NHS-branded cups together with digestive biscuits.

People are just quietly getting on with things. Heaven help us all if the politicians find out.

Monday, 3 May 2010

It's my party

In a few days we’ll be making our way to the polling booths to make our mark and choose the next lot of middle-aged blokes in suits so that we can whinge about them for the following five years.

It’s democracy in action, they say. We can make a difference, people claim. Although I prefer to misquote The Who on this:
“Meet the new boss, virtually indistinguishable from the old boss.”
Many have expressed enthusiasm for a hung parliament. However I suspect some of this is down to the common confusion between the terms ‘hung’ and ‘hanged’.

So in this spirit of electoral excitement and, finding it difficult to detect much in the way of difference between the parties led by the Grumpy One, the Shiny One and the One Who Isn’t Either Of The Others, I thought it would be worth laying out my own manifesto. Apparently I’m too late for this election, but who knows where it may lead?

The Economy

It is often said of any incumbent Chancellor of the Exchequer that they couldn’t run a whelk stall. Therefore, anyone wanting to have this responsibility from now on will be required to have operated such an establishment, on the front at Skegness, for at least one summer season.
We expect the 2011-2012 Public Sector Borrowing Requirement to feature shrimps quite heavily.


The UK’s nuclear deterrent is a topic that divides opinion. Can it be right that at the press of a button we could turn a significant chunk of the world’s surface into a giant glass-topped coffee table? That doesn’t seem terribly British. However, some say that the power of nuclear weapons is in their deterrent factor. If enemy states believe we’re tooled-up, they treat us differently, even though we’d never really want to pull the trigger.

So, as long as people think we have these highly secret weapons hidden away somewhere, we’re safe. Why not just pretend, then? It’s not as if they’re on show, is it? Rather than spending £100 billion on new ones, we can just let everyone think we’ve got them and splash the cash on something else instead. We could mock up some pretty convincing invoices from Nukes ‘R’ Us if needed.

There is, of course, a school of thought that suggests this is exactly what we’re doing already.

Crime and justice

The following are to become classified as criminal acts:
  • Use of text-speak by anyone over the age of 16.
  • Incorrect use of apostrophes.
  • Failure to comprehend the meaning of the ‘Quiet Carriage’ on intercity trains.
  • Opening crisp packets from the wrong end.
  • Being Piers Morgan.
Minor driving offences to be punished by requiring the offender to drive a fuchsia pink Nissan Micra with flashing beacon for 12 months.

Science and Technology

It’s time for Britain to take its rightful place as a space-faring nation. We aim to have our orbiter taking off from Spaceport Droitwich in 2013, just as long as we can get a big enough milk bottle and stick to launch it from.

In other developments, we intend to provide funding for the development of the world’s first fully broadband-enabled custard cream biscuit by the end of our first term.

The Media

All newspapers will be required to print the disclaimer: “Some of this may be fictional” on the front page of every copy. Similar to current food labelling, they will use a ‘traffic light’ system to indicate the proportion of unfettered opinion, manufactured outrage and, heaven forbid, facts, within each issue.

The Daily Mail is to be reclassified as a comic.

Environmental concerns

The UK is blessed with constant prevailing winds and we aim to capitalise on this with the introduction of wind-farms across the country. We calculate that with enough of them in place, we should gain sufficient lift for the whole island to take off and relocate itself to the Mediterranean. This admittedly radical move might make the Euro-sceptics a little nervous, but it would make solar power more practical, as well as helping us all move towards a healthier olive-oil based diet.

Everyone wins.


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