Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Penny change etiquette

What's the best plan of action when you pay for something at a checkout and there's only a penny or tuppence change?

a) wave your hand, bark "keep the change" and stroll out with attitude.

b) wait patiently for it, even though you don't really want or need it.

Yesterday in Superdrug I purchased some Garnier Fructis and a Twix (together, they're heavenly) and there was only 1p change. I don't want to look like I'm trying to be flash by taking option (a), and yet the frustrations of option (b) are obvious. So I went for my Third Way, whereby I try to look busy at the checkout while they're getting the change. Taking ages to put things in a bag/rearranging them in bag etc. Then when they produce the penny I feign surprise, as if I wasn't really waiting for it and had even forgotten it was due. I know it's silly but if it works out OK it's fine. Problems arise though if they have to open a new little bag of pennies just to get one out for you, and you're waiting ages. Once you've taken the plunge of waiting for the penny you can't really suddenly decide you don't want it anymore and leave. Thus there's often an embarrassing standoff.

It can be a torment. Sometimes I deliberately pay over the odds just to make sure there's enough change to justify waiting for it, and maybe even holding out an expectant hand over the checkout. I think 5p is a good, basic amount that is generally acceptable to wait for without looking tight. I'd like to think there are others going through the same mental processes.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Televisual nadir

I've been bathed in nostalgia this week after discovering the repeats of The Crystal Maze on digital channel Challenge TV. At the risk of sounding like the kind of grumpy and tiresome "things were better in my day" old man I inevitably am deep down, they just don't make TV like that anymore.

Nowadays 'light entertainment' seems to consist of a multitude of mind numbing so-called talent shows, all identical in both their format and lack of intrigue. It's all about individuals hellbent on making themselves known for making themselves known's sake. Big Brother, Shipwrecked, X Factor, Any Dream Will Do, Grease Is The Word... where are the good old-fashioned shows that showcase the finest facets of humanity like The Krypton Factor and The Crystal Maze? Shows that combine athleticism, workrate, knowledge, and gracefulness in a heartwarming hubbub of on-screen achievement. Shows that weren't about getting yourself on the telly, but instead about documenting the evolution of mankind via participation in testing mental games such as landing a simulated plane safely or navigating a crystal through a little hole. You'd never know anything about the competitors other than their name and where they were from. There were no behind the scenes features where you see them having a bacon sandwich at home while their mother espouses their dubious virtues before a camera crew. The kind of understated self-regard of contestants in those shows is much missed in today's TV climate.

Plus, Richard O'Brien (Crystal Maze) and Gordon Burns (Krypton Factor) are the kind of hosts that just wouldn't get the big jobs in TV these days. They possessed far too much charm and charisma to be capable of introducting the next puppet from Walsall to murder a popular musical hit for a live studio audience. I pity the youth of today who are being raised amid such a drought of good TV entertainment shows. Even Gladiators had more charm and educational value than the shows on today (especially Jet).

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Stay With Me

I've been going through some quiet torment over the past few weeks. It heightened almost two weeks ago and has since become a dull, lingering ache in the back of my mind. I know posts about football in the past have caused some chagrin among the non-footballing-interest readers, but piss off, it's my blog. You lot can avert your eyes. Anyway, the problem I've been having surrounds the future of Mark Viduka, whose Boro contract is about to run out and he's stalling on signing a new one. I'm quite desperate for him to stay with us. Not least because he's a class act but because it'll be impossible for a club like Boro, in our current situation, to replace him with anyone as good. His form over the last season and a half - when he's, crucially, been fully fit - has delivered some of the finest individual performances I've seen from a Boro player. In the last game of the season at home to Fulham, he was inspirational, scoring two goals nobody else could score for us. It looks increasingly likely it was his last ever game for us.

When the squad did their lap of the pitch to mark the end of the season there was a bit of a chill in the air around me about the way he was waving to the fans. Was it a farewell? Taking photos of the crowd, blowing kisses, carrying his kids around, the lot. Then, when he was interviewed that night on Match Of The Day and he came out with some bollocks about astrology ("I'm a Libran and we like to procrastinate") my heart sank. It was the first time I'd really got a gut feeling that he was off. This was two weeks ago, the height of my inner torment, and I actually couldn't get to sleep because I was so agitated about it. I know it's pathetic... I'm 23 years old and lying awake worrying about whether an Australian is going to take £40,000 a week in wages from my team or someone else's.

But it rumbles on. He's on a beach in Australia now weighing up his options, presumably on a comedy sized set of scales constructed from plastic buckets. There's still a chance he'll be a Boro player next season. I know it won't be the end of the world or Boro if he's not, but I thought I'd just record my Wish For The Summer. There. Football post over, the rest of you can look back at the screen now.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Depressing statistics...

...but hardly surprising ones revealed last week about the record number of prescriptions for anti-depressants in Britain. It's a true sign of our times when several million people become reliant on Prozac and Seroxtat just to plough through their lives. It's the sad trend that's accompanying this individualistic, cut-throat capitalist society we're shoehorning all of our human capabilities into. And don't make the mistake of assuming the people receiving these thirty-one million prescriptions are just the outcasts who've failed to cut the mustard and so have withdrawn themselves to sit behind misty window panes, repeatedly punching themselves in the pancreas. Countless people (no stats here by the way, because I haven't counted, hence it being countless) function 'normally' on these things. People who are participators in the rat race are often the ones who need them most. 'Brutality is needed in capitalist society'... but failing that, there's always Prozac. It's one of the most damning indictments on the way humans operate that so many people are reliant on chemical aids to get through it. 'Success' in this world makes you more prosperous, more comfortable, but not necessarily any more satisfied or happy within yourself.

I think sanity is the ultimate prize we're all striving for in life - it's our only real purpose. But it's not actually that hard to master if you show some initiative and just value the right things in life. I value love (all-encompassing love, not the transient/jealous type celebrated by couples), peace, egalitarianism, and creativity. Of course, those who know me well will now be thinking I'm more into petty gambling, football, cups of tea, Bourbon Creams and Neighbours than any of the things I've just listed. But we all need our little distractions don't we.

You often have to travel through some degrees of insanity before reaching the distant, burning lights of sanity. This manifests itself in feeling misunderstood by, and disconnected from, most others in the world around you and what they value - but it's worth it. The truly sane have got the measure of their surroundings, seen them for what they are, and are going through a process of taking and leaving what they deem (a) valuable, and (b) tosh. Conversely, the ones without the objectivity to partake in such a process instead strive to just mould themselves to their culture, which requires their worst character traits to be propelled forth. All the vacuous perks that come with success in their working lives are far outweighed by a dissatisfaction - and depression - that looms in the distance. This is my coffee table philosophy written shortly before midnight on a Monday night. Please treat it as that.

Opportunity Nox

Visit Toby's new blog, the gig photographer whose entire career I kick started. For every photo he takes I get 5p. Kerching!

Friday, May 18, 2007

Never a frown with Gordon Brown

At least that's how his Labour style advisers would like it. Apparently he's gone through 'smile training' in a bid to make himself appear more palatable to the public as he propels himself towards becoming PM.

Much like firm and dry handshakes, I'll never understand this obsession with smiling. Do we really want our political leaders to be the types who grind out a forced smile every time they take to a podium? Does their appearance or apparent lack of warmth and friendliness have any bearing whatsoever on their ability to lead the country? It's nonsense. I'd be more inclined to view the kind of plastic smile that Tony Blair perfected over the last ten years as an offputting trait. It screams of insincerity and lack of trustworthiness to me. Give me a good statesmanlike scowl any day of the week.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Classic after classic after classic

Got home from Newcastle about an hour ago after witnessing the Manics. Absolutley fantastic, of course. I challenge anyone to cite another band with such a volume of absolutely classic songs across such a varied spectrum of styles. And to be so amazing live after all these years. Whatever they do on record, they're always fantastic live. They played Born To End and Sleepflower, neither of which I'd ever seen them do before. Plus humbling JDB solo acoustic renditions of Yes (wow) and No Surface All Feeling. Better head for bed now - I feel like I'm missing pieces of sleep.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Send Away The Tigers

I've had a few days to digest the new Manics album now, after patiently waiting until Monday's official release instead of downloading a leaked version beforehand. This makes it the first album I hadn't already heard the majority of before it came out since This Is My Truth... in 1998, and it was just nice to listen to a Manics album fresh for a change. They've billed it as a return to their natural and instinctive best, a rediscovery of what made them tick in the first place, and a shedding of what they've tried to become over the past few albums (hence the album title, a Tony Hancock quotation about dispensing with your demons).

It's certainly a completely different beast to Lifeblood. Much more raucous, embellished and at times even theatrical. Every song is immediate, and JDB has obviously been let loose with the indulgent guitar solos. He's slipped one into every single track. All in all it's better than what I was expecting would come next from them, and has some great moments. Your Love Alone Is Not Enough is an obvious belter. I felt like a proud father when it took them back to within touching distance of the top of the charts last week. I thought those days had gone altogether, but it's great to think they've reached the kind of platform again that might reel young teenagers in, get them into their back catalogue, and then influence them positively in the way I was ten years ago. There is hope in pop music yet.

Opening track Send Away The Tigers and Indian Summer both hit the proverbial spot, while The Second Great Depression might just be my favourite Manics song of this millennium. For me, these are the album tracks that sound like they came most easily to them, you can just tell. Although some of the faster, more rugged songs towards the end are decent enough and actually quite good fun, they don't sound altogether convincing. At times maybe even contrived. Mind you, there's a bit of a guilty pleasure in the shape of Autumnsong, an overwhelmingly cheesy stadium rock nugget of bounciness with Guns n Roses guitar all over it (taking a return to what made them tick in the first place literally, perhaps?).

It's quite funny how every Manics album is intended as a reaction to the last. This one is an antidote to the sweet, coffee table melodies of Lifeblood, which was a response to the directionless hodge-podge of Know Your Enemy, which was a raw riposte to the MOR arena sounds of This Is My truth Tell Me Yours, which was a melancholic diversion from the rousing anthems of Everything Must Go, which was a liberating break from the mental strains of the bleak The Holy Bible era, which was a reaction to the (botched) crack at the American market that was Gold Against The Soul, which was a more dry and powerful rock angle to the glamorous and ridiculous meanderings of Generation Terrorists. See? Eight studio albums, and never two in a row that sound the same. Obviously they're not what they were, but I for one am glad they're still around. I can't wait to see them for the tenth time at Newcastle Academy on Tuesday night - it's going to be splendid.

Some album tasters

Monday, May 07, 2007

Out on the wiley, windy moors

Bank holiday weekends are when we're all encouraged to do lovely stuff, and I've certainly done some lovely stuff this weekend. After a trip to Wigan on Saturday for Boro's final away fixture of the season [photo] - where we achieved a rare, rare win on the road - last night I went and camped at Blakey Ridge on the North York Moors in a tumult of gusty winds. It was a slightly different proposition to last summer's camping trip, which was in the middle of a heat wave and on a still, starry night. There were no stars to be seen this time, and the winds were so strong up there that we had to socialise within the confines of our haphazardly erected tents, drinking, eating cup cakes, listening to music, and toasting marshmallows. The conditions were by no means ideal, but we made the best of it.

Typical scene

The other satisfied campers were Welford, Ed, Lav and Laura. Not satisfied while putting up the tents though. The winds made it practically impossible, but being the intrepid, conquering types we are we somehow managed it against all logic. At one point the group's heads dropped but we didn't give in. One clever tactic was to position our cars to quell the impact of the gusts, which were so strong they made Welford look a bit of a twat [see what I mean?]. After an hour and a quarter freezing our faces off, we finally finished the job and made it inside the Lion Inn, a fine public house completely isolated on the top of the moors with the nearest village six miles away. My face had turned to rubber and my hands felt like shovels, but thankfully some food and drink put that right. They do great food in there, and I took the imaginative choice of the steak and mushroom pie with its array of flavours and breathtaking puff pastry lid. You really can't beat it, washed down with a few pints of Theakston's XB. At closing time we reluctantly retired back to the tents via the crosswinds of the campsite. This was a clash of great forces; not just Man vs Nature, but Resolution vs Hinderance and Alcohol vs Wind.

This morning we went for a delightful greasy English breakfast in the nearby village of Castleton, before engaging in a variety of exercise-based pursuits. Heads and Volleys, Crossbar Challenge, Swings, Climbing Frames... my body has not known such a workout for quite some time. The zipline was also very tempting but Laura was the only one deemed small enough to get away with having a go without infuriating the nearby parents [photo]. Other photos from this bank holiday festival can be found here.

Friday, May 04, 2007

People Like You

The council election results have provided a major source of relief in the lack of a splash made by the BNP. At the time of going to press (always wanted to say that) they're showing a net gain of one councillor across Great Britain. This despite their concerted push in strategically targetting the middle class in rural areas in addition to the seats where they've traditionally gained support, and fielding a record 754 candidates, more than double the number that stood last year. With voter turnout inevitably low in these affairs, the fear was that they would make great strides. Indeed, their own prediction was they'd pass the 100 councillor mark.

Well, they didn't. Aside from increased support in Wales and very nearly gaining a seat on the Assembly, they've completely stood still. Considering these mid-term local elections are generally when they're most likely to pick up the protest vote, they must be deeply disappointed. Maybe now all the failed candidates will find other things to with their time rather than politics. Maybe even returning to old hobbies like dressing up as German troopers and re-enacting WWII battles.

People Like You/Fascists Like Us - Voting BNP

'People Like You'. That was their heartwarming tag-line for this election campaign. It says it all really doesn't it. People like you, who like you if you're not unlike them, but like to dislike you if you are. I appreciate their semantics if nothing else.

I accept the BNP's role as a necessary evil in democracy. Having them as a legitimate (I use the word loosely) minority party helps with keeping tabs on the swirling current of racist and easily-led elements of the electorate. Refusing parties like the BNP any platform atall - as the Anti-Nazi League would have it - would only exacerbate the situation, especially given the general upturn in casual racism and xenephobia over the past few years. Let them have their say, show themselves up, and then drum them down even more - that's the way to do it.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

All Tomorrow's Parties

An enthralling weekend was had by all at ATP. It's certainly quite a surreal festival to go to, what with it being held amid the gawdy surrounds of a Butlins holiday camp having a capacity of just 6,000 people, all living in chalets and what not. It was extremely refreshing in comparison to other festivals I've been to. There was such a relaxed atmosphere all weekend, and the crowd was reassuringly free of idiots and scenesters. Just good, honest folk who genuinely appreciate their music, and crazy golf.

The laid back atmosphere means the artists can wander around the site freely all weekend (most of them tend to stay for the whole festival). Nick Cave was sighted multiple times, strolling about in his very sharp, snappy suit with his wife on his arm. There were also sightings of various members of Maximo Park, who weren't playing of course but had presumably just come along for the craic, and not to mention Joe Mangel from Neighbours (more on him later...). Even though it was strange being at a festival where all the bands play indoors in venues that are otherwise used for games of bingo and Red Coats kids shows, the surreal elements all somehow piece together to make perfect sense.

Our chalet for six comprised of me, Jimi, Jen, Kieran, Ali and Will and we all got on very well, which was nice considering it was a veritable melting pot of different social circles haphazardly thrown together. Me, Jimi and Jen went to school together, Jimi went to uni with Ali, who lived near Will, and Kieran was on my old journalism course. See.

The Music

First things first, Nick Cave. Except I didn't see him first, but I'm sure it's clear what I mean. What a stunning man he is, the undoubted highlight of the weekend. He was the initial reason I decided to go to this whole shebang, and it was the first time I'd be graced by a live performance from him. Aswell as the second, third, and fourth. This was because he played a solo set followed by a set as part of his new outfit Grinderman two nights running, which is technically four Nick Cave sets. I felt guilty by the fourth time because I'd become quite complacent about him ("oh look, here's Cave again"). In truth we were a bit spoilt, but he was excellent every time. He varied his solo set over the two nights and got through lots of classics like Red Right Hand, The Mercy Seat, Into My Arms, Weeping Song etc etc. I was quite surprised by his charisma and sense of humour, which made him all the more endearing. When he morphed into Grinderman things kicked off a bit more and he was charging about along the front of the stage spitting out all the lines. Great energy for a 49 year old. A true genius.

On the Saturday afternoon we were having a look round when we heard Grinderman soundchecking, and so tried to get in to have a look. They rattled through one song (Get It On) in full for a tiny crowd and, considering this was my first ever sighting of the great man, I was really quite enthralled. They sounded so powerful and it really whet the appetite for what lay ahead. Strangely, they had Bobby Gillespie on stage with them, pointlessly wriggling about with a tambourine in his hand and doing backing vocals every now and again.


Other main highlights of the weekend: Joanna Newsom played brilliantly for just under an hour. I'd seen her before but this time it was much more intimate as we entrenched ourselves near the front of a big crowd. Absolutely stunning, although it was bizarre watching her in what was basically a bingo hall. We were standing beside Paul Smith of Maximo Park, who was loving it, perhaps surprisingly. Felix Lajko, the super-talented Serbian/ethnic Hungarian violinist, did a thirty minute recital without even taking a break. He also played a zither, whatever one of those is, and it was baffling and beautiful. Low were also beautiful. They played alot of their new album, which is more of a slow-burner than the one I most like (The Great Destroyer), but really impressive nonetheless. I was very taken by Shannon Wright too, with her abrasive guitars and piano set against vocals not a million miles from PJ Harvey. Really good stuff. A few years ago she did an excellent album with Yann Tiersen, who was playing ATP too but I didn't see due to a scheduling clash with Nick Cave. Instead, Kieran and I took it upon ourselves to go and see him at the Bristol Thekla the night before the festival. This was a wise move because he turned out to be quite a big let down. Where you expect an enchanting feast of solo multi-instrumentalism, there is instead a full rock band recreation of his compositions that kills most of the intrigue. He only produced his accordian once and his violin three times, which was a pity. But still, it was good to tick him off the list and remove any regrets about missing him at the festival.

I saw lots of others too, but if I keep going this will be ridiculously long. But I will say that Cat Power was disappointing, Mary Margaret O'Hara was highly entertaining, it was too late when Josh Pearson played (more on him later...), Psarandonis was interesting, Spiritualized left me cold, and Dirty Three were mightily impressive and well done to them for curating the festival and putting together such a good line-up.

Interesting Incidents

#1: On Saturday morning the hot water wasn't working in the chalet, so me and Kieran hopped out of bed and went for a swim at Splash Water World so we could use the showers afterwards. After slipping into the pool filled with other skinny, pasty white indie types we encountered Josh Pearson (who we'd watched play on the Friday night and who has one of the biggest beards I've seen) enjoying the wave machine, alone. As more and more people joined the bobbing throng on the waves, he got more and more delerious, splashing his arms about and screaming his head off. This was quite funny. But then it progressed into a cult-like situation, with Pearson leading a whole crowd of discerning indie types in ecstatic choruses of joy and baying for the wave machine to be put on repeatedly, much to the amusement of the Butlins lifeguards. They put it on three times running, and I've rarely seen a crowd so united in delerium at 11.30am on a Sunday. It was quite a religious experience, and one of the funniest things I've ever seen. Maybe you had to be there.

#2: Joe Mangel from Neighbours (a.k.a. Mark Little)
At the risk of turning this into a Heat magazine column, he was there for the weekend, presumably thanks to the high quota of Australian bands on show. He seemed to be pissed-up the whole time and generally looked a bit miserable. But undeterred, I set about getting closer to the man behind my favourite character from the earliest days of my Neighbours viewing career. The man responsible for such extraordinary thespian feats as when Kerry Mangel was killed at the duck protest (must-watch YouTube clip). The way he falls in that water is brilliant. Anyway, when I asked him for a photo he seemed particularly concerned that it was taken on a proper camera and not a mobile phone. "You got a camera?" "Yes." "Not a phone?" "No, a camera." With this technicality cleared up the photo could proceed, and at the precise moment it was taken he was saying "this fucker's got a camera". It was amusing to hear Joe Mangel say this, which is why I'm trapped between two facial expressions in the photo.

"This fucker's got a camera"

#3: Impromptu Smiths disco
Walking back to the chalet on Sunday night drunk after attempted dancing at a rubbish little club night effort, we stumbled across a group of people dancing around a battery-powered stereo outside on the pavement. It was blurting out The Smiths' 'Hatful Of Hollow' album, and everyone joined in to This Charming Man and How Soon Is Now? . Gradually the crowd got bigger and bigger, only for the Butlins security to arrive and stop this Smiths-based illegal rave. What a brilliant way to end the festival though - an expression of pure humanity. Smiths fans prancing about in unison on a pavement, throwing our arms out in a Morrissey-esque manner and letting our necks go limp. I was in my element. You just don't get 100% Smiths discos any day of the week.

Here's a few snaps in an ATP photo gallery.