Monday, 29 August 2011

Unlucky for some

This morning found us driving through the Buckinghamshire badlands, returning from an overnight stay after helping friends celebrate their wedding.

As I concentrated on giving stern looks to the drivers of various Nissan Micras seemingly welded to the middle lane of the M40, Katie gently slumbered in the passenger seat. And I let my mind wander.

On this morning, precisely 13 years ago today, I was struggling with a neckerchief-type arrangement and looking suspiciously at the frock-coat I was about to wear. I think a wing-collared shirt was involved, too. I don't normally wear clothing that involves hyphens. But it was the morning of my wedding day. I should have thought myself lucky. Katie was having to wear a headdress that would attract attention from Amnesty International if employed in less-enlightened countries.

13 is an inauspicious number, they say. But I feel lucky. I'm lucky to have spent the last 13 years married to someone who puts up with me.

Let's face it, I'm no George Clooney. I have the waist of a Giant Redwood. When concentrating, I sometimes forget to breathe. I can be a moody bugger at times. Sorry, make that "I am" and "always". I get frustrated at Sainsburys when they have a "10 items or less" aisle, audibly correcting one of the country's largest retailers on their poor grammar. ("10 items or fewer" in case you were wondering). I snore. Seriously, I sound like someone kick-starting an Airbus when in bed. I spend way too much time staring at the screen of a computer.

And it has to be said - I am, from time to time, extravagantly flatulent.

But despite all that, I've found someone who accepts all my faults. And this morning, waking up next to her in the Smallest Hotel Bed in Christendom, I felt as lucky as I did 13 years ago.

Love you K. But as I'm not too good with words, I'm getting a little help from The Man:

Monday, 22 August 2011

A slight technical issue

It's never a good idea to be assigning inanimate objects a personality. I've never been a fan of giving cars a name, for instance. The same goes for items of computer hardware. However I've been sorely tempted by my wireless router over the last few weeks.

Wireless routers are (when they work) indistinguishable from magic. You can be there, sitting on a sofa some considerable distance from your internet connection, and yet you're getting wonderful experience after wonderful experience delivered to your warm lap.

I realise now how that sounds. Never mind.

But it's only when the technology fails that you realise how entitled you've become. The magic stops working and you're left bereft, stomping up the stairs to press various reset buttons, pull out power leads and count to 30. Life is so unfair.

That's been me for the last fortnight or so. While She Who Must Be Obeyed has intelligently reverted to simply opening a book and enlarging her mind, I've been stomping like a brachiosaur who's annoyed at the lack of ferns.

I'm just trying that out as a metaphor. I'm not sure it's entirely successful.

A few days ago I realised that there was a way out. This is actually a two-router household. My ISP sent me one out of the blue about 18 months ago. I didn't like to contact them and ask why in case they realised their mistake and asked for it back. My wireless saviour has been collecting dust in the spare room all this time. And this is where I thought some mind-trickery might work.

I got the new router out of its box and immediately the old one started working again. At least it did for a few hours, then it dropped its connection once more. So I started reading the instructions aloud. Full service again.

I marvelled at this turn of events for a few days, until tonight. Nothing would work. I got the quick installation wall-chart out for the new router. Nothing. I unravelled the ethernet cables. Not a thing. I even read the warranty card. My wi-fi was no-no.

So I took a deep breath. But before pulling the plug I tried one more thing. It's hard to describe in words, but perhaps the following video will help to explain. Just replace the Austin 1100 with a Belkin F5D wireless router. And replace the branch with a D-Link installation disc:

Thursday, 18 August 2011

An open letter to Abercrombie & Fitch

Dear Mr Abercrombie and Mr Fitch

Hello. I'm sorry to write to you out of the blue, so I'll try to keep it brief. I'm not exactly in the habit of writing to fashion brands. But you've been in the news recently, so I suppose you have to expect unsolicited letters from the general public.

I read today that you were offering to pay some tv personality money to stop wearing your clothes in public. I must admit I had no idea who this Michael Sorrentino chap was. Although anyone who is seemingly happy to call himself "The Situation" is quite possibly a bit of a cockwomble, I suppose.

I do know a little bit about Abercrombie & Fitch, though. I went into one of your stores once. To this day I'm not entirely sure why, but there you go. You seemed to be having a problem with your lighting at the time - in fact the main source of illumination appeared to be the teeth of your staff.

Your staff. Let's talk about your staff, shall we? They're a piece of work, and no mistake. The chap who was idly sorting out t-shirts, for instance. He had the jaw structure of a Greek god and looked like he'd just stepped off a catwalk somewhere. He looked at me and I could almost hear him wondering whether we were the same species.

It's quite something to be made to feel inferior by someone who is clearly younger than several items of my underwear.

Then I looked at some of your clothes. That's quite some mark-up going on there. I hope you're making sure the people stitching your logos onto the otherwise normal-looking hooded tops are getting a decent proportion of the cash you're asking. Ninety-four quid. You're practically redistributing the wealth.

I went to speak to a young girl behind the cash desk. I think I made her nervous. Sorry about that. I don't think I acted in the way she was expecting. I know. Weighing 18 stone means I should be jolly by default, I suppose.

So here's the deal, chaps. I am not in your demographic. I get that. I am so far away from your natural demographic that I'd need sherpas and satnav to even get close to it. I don't even know what 'preppy' means. Is it something to do with bowling?

Anyway. I'm the wrong side of 40, as is my waist and BMI. The last time I was even remotely toned, Madonna actually was Like a Virgin. That's a long time ago, I know. You really don't want people like me mucking up your brand, do you?

So stop messing about with this Situation bloke. Get the chequebook out, fellas, or I'm going to be wearing your stuff in public. You think that a brand can't be damaged by over-exposure? You might want to give your friends at Burberry a call.

Look forward to hearing from you.

Unfashionably yours,


Tuesday, 16 August 2011

I get up, I get down

People aren't going to be queuing up to ask me for a lift over the next few weeks. To be honest, I'm not normally surrounded by would-be passengers, but for the time being my motoring solitude is even more guaranteed than usual. And I blame Danny Baker.

Yesterday evening, I'd finished all the work I was due to do and was about to leave the office. I was off the clock and there were few colleagues around. I had a quick look at Twitter before departing. (Before you ask, it's @fatboyfat. Thank you). I give you this detail: 1) to give you some narrative to the story, 2) to build some dramatic tension, and 3) so that anyone from work reading this doesn't think I was dossing about on social networks when I was supposed to be working.

One of the people I follow is the fore-mentioned writer, journalist and radio presenter. And he had tweeted the following set of seemingly random words:
@prodnose: Yesterday a morning came, a smile upon your face. Caesar's palace, morning glory, silly human race, If the summer changed to Winter...
As I say, for most people - and I suspect that includes about 99% of you reading this - this just seems like the deranged rantings of someone with only a passing relationship to sanity. To an extent, you might be correct. But for me, and a very small group of others, it completed a mental circuit. For these aren't just words. They're lyrics.

"Yours Is No Disgrace" is a song by Yes, from their cryptically entitled 1971 album, The Yes Album. At a mere seven minutes long, I like to think of it as one of their more accessible, radio-friendly tunes. The sort of thing you could whistle to yourself while performing menial tasks involving livestock, perhaps. The snippet shown above is actually quite lucid. It goes on to include lines such as "Battleships confide in me and tell me where you are, Shining, flying, purple wolfhound, tell me where you are."

There was a whole lot of inhalation going down in '71.

For those of you who haven't yet closed their browser in disgust, I can admit this; my name is Phil and I am a bit of a Yes fan. I know. More to be pitied than anything else, I suppose. Admitting a liking for this is right up there with having a passion for Morris dancing, steam traction engines or arcane practices involving latex. I couldn't care less.

So, as I read those words yesterday evening, I thought to myself: "It would be quite nice to have this on in the car going home." Now I've come out to you, you're assuming I've got it really bad and cart a whole load of progressive rock CDs around with me. But you'd be wrong. That way lies foolishness. And as I walked to my car I realised that my only hope was the very very  old and crotchety iPod I keep in my glove box.

This was my first iPod, bought many years ago when we were all still suitably impressed by the concept. A white brick, with a click wheel  and monochrome LCD screen. It's not my main iPod. ("Ooh, look at him with his two iPods," I hear you say). It has sat in my car, unused, for ages. It's endured the freezing cold of winter, the stifling heat of what passes for summer. My understanding of technology was enough to convince me that it was going to be, to coin a term, buggered. 

But no! I connected the leads with trembling fingers and it worked straight away. There I was, marvelling at the mighty 20gb of really dodgy music I possess. Time to do some rediscovering.

Last night we had "Yours Is No Disgrace" at full volume, followed by "Awaken" - 20-odd magnificent minutes of, well, magnificent oddness. I got goosebumps at the end of that one, and I suspect there are about 12 people on the planet that would understand. This morning we had the Close to the Edge album (from which we also get the title of this post).  I have found that one track can get me most of the way along my 20-mile commute. Value for money, you see.

Then this evening we got "The Gates of Delirium" and "Sound Chaser" from Relayer. These tracks are close to unlistenable, you might say, were you to encounter them on a dark night. There appears to be hand-to-hand combat going on in the first track, whilst the bassist, drummer and guitarist seem to be having a heated argument in a locked wardrobe throughout the latter. It's dense, borderline impenetrable.

It's bloody marvellous. But until I get bored, you probably wouldn't want to be a hitch-hiker.

It seems I have contrary tastes. I like things that others absolutely hate, like sweaty Stilton, peaty whisky and marmite. To this list we must add very strange - and deeply unfashionable - music.

Good. Let's hear it for weirdness.

Saturday, 13 August 2011


The last few days have been deeply depressing and I didn't really know whether it was something I felt qualified to write about. The level of disorder in England - and my own home town of Birmingham - has provoked sorrow, grief and anger.

These aren't concepts normally covered in what is meant to be a light and fluffy blog filled with whimsy and nonsense. And, to be honest, I'm a little removed from it all, in my middle-class, middle-aged, suburban supreme isolation. The nearest I get to urban deprivation is Tesco's own-brand breakfast cereal.

But as I sat watching the updates on Monday and Tuesday I saw how people were reacting. Status updates on Facebook are amazing, aren't they? You get to see everyone's immediate thoughts. And then there are comments on blogs, Twitter posts and the rest. People were scared and angry.

Me? I felt all of those emotions, too. I love my country. England is a still a great place to live. We get along, by and large. What we've seen over the last week or so is, in the main, unrepresentative. But it happened, and we need to be grown-up about it and look into why it did.

Some things are inalienable. I hardly think I need to say this, but for the avoidance of doubt I will anyway: what we saw happening on our streets was criminal activity. No ifs, no buts. The people responsible for it need to be found and should face the full force of the law.

But at the same time as there was panic on the streets, there was a clash between those expressing opinions from behind keyboards the length and breadth of the country.

At one end of the spectrum we had people clamouring for action. I saw comments asking for armed troops on the streets and, even further, a shoot on sight policy. Hang 'em high. Crack some skulls. Let's see our streets running with the blood of  rioters. It will make a point.

This country thankfully doesn't have many examples to draw from, but it is a fact that we don't have a great history when it comes to armed troops on the streets.

The lurch towards martial law is something we've seen and condemned in other countries. Is it really something we want here? Norway saw 92 people massacred recently and vowed to learn lessons. We lose a few branches of JD Sports and want to embrace death squads.

I mentioned earlier that there was a spectrum of views. At the other end, we saw people quick to make a political point. These riots were a form of protest, it was said. It's about the Tory cuts. Somehow this is a continuance of the uprisings we've seen in North Africa already this year - people joining up to make a point against an unpopular government.

I'd have some sympathy with this view if it wasn't for the fact that this activity didn't appear to be aimed against the instruments of State; rather it was directed towards retailers. Last time I checked, Richer Sounds wasn't a government department. And many that bore the brunt weren't even very corporate; it was the local newsagent, 24-hour minimarket, family-run furniture store.

So I can't subscribe to the 'protest' point of view either. I fall somewhere in between these two extremes. It's not easy having opinions that don't fit into the normal left vs. right arguments.

One thing we have to do - and this seems to be a deeply unfashionable view - is to learn from this. I say it's unfashionable because many of those baying for punishment believe that looking for explanations is the same as condoning violence.

It really isn't. If your house floods, you look for reason why, to prevent it happening again. Trying to explain the flood isn't condoning water.

What seems to be clear is that there is a section of society that doesn't act in the same way as the rest of us. It's not just a question of poverty - not every poor person was out nicking TVs. People are growing up in environments where the normal boundaries don't seem to apply. Education isn't attractive. Role models might be thin on the ground. The corrosive influence of gang culture is ever-present. Tribal finger-pointing and desk-banging rhetoric won't solve this.

Instead we should consider the words of Tariq Jahan, whose son was amongst three young men killed by a hit-and-run in the heat of the disorder earlier this week. I am proud to share a city and a country with him.

It's not easy. I don't know what the answers are. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

The water of life

There are two types of people in the world: those who drink whisky and those who do not.

It should be relatively easy, if you wanted, to move from the non-drinking group to the drinking one. What happens in many cases, however, is that someones first taste of whisky puts them firmly into a third set, the "what-the-hell-is-this-how-can-you-drink-that-for-fun" group.

As a result of this, there are a lot of bottles of whisky sitting quietly in people's drinks cabinets, unopened and unloved. Gifts from unknowing relatives, unwanted raffle prizes, perhaps. But beware. They have all the malevolence and capacity for damage as an unexploded bomb. Because they're in the hands of the inexperienced.

You might be round at a friend's house. Everyone is happy; good food has been enjoyed and perhaps some modest drink imbibed, too. It's getting a little late.

"No more beer," you say, "I'm feeling a little full of liquid."

"Well, we've got some whisky," they might say. "Perhaps a little tot?"

You thank them for their kindness but shake your head politely.

"But we never drink the stuff," they say, "it was a gift from Uncle Bernard/Auntie Elspeth/etc." And they show you the bottle.

The bottle. This is where you should avert your eyes. But you don't. You see that it's a very reasonable 18-year-old Glenfiddich single malt. A good £40 or more per bottle. This is not your normal cooking whisky. Before you're able to stop yourself, you hear your voice, as from far away.

"Oh, go on then, thanks. Maybe just a little one as a night-cap. Straight up, no ice please."

Your guests' generosity is mixed with their gentle ignorance of the power of the stuff. This is, if you'll pardon the pun, a lethal cocktail. A tumbler is found and before you know it, you're being faced with, well, quite a lot of whisky. You're a responsible drinker - well aware of what a healthy weekly alcohol volume looks like. It's just a little worrying to be seeing it all in one glass.

It would, of course, be monumentally rude to refuse. After all, what would Uncle Bernard or Auntie Elspeth think? And it is the 18-year-old stuff, too. It is quite lovely and you see that it would have been a shame to waste it. Trouble is, having manfully made your way through, you're then much less likely to be able to make any comprehensible objection when your ever-kind hosts top it your glass once more.

Which they will.

This might explain why you subsequently find yourself rummaging through the kitchen cupboard for Nurofen at 6am fervently repeating the mantra "Ohgodohgodohgodohgodohgod".

I love my friends. That's why they're my friends. They're fun to be with, supportive and kind. They have excellent whisky, too. They also read this blog. Ahem. But there is nothing, and I mean nothing, as dangerous as a non-whisky-drinking friend bearing a bottle of the good stuff.

Let my head today be your lesson for tomorrow.



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