Sunday, December 13, 2009

WHEN DID YOU LAST LISTEN TO A CD ALL THE WAY THROUGH?

Or maybe I've developed the attention span of a goldfish.

I’ve finally got round to loading some of my CDs onto my smart-phone. Actually, it uses Windows Mobile 6.1 as an Operating System, so actually it’s not that smart at all. But that’s another story. The good thing about the phone is it can take a 16Gb Memory card, and you can get just about the whole of my music collection onto something about 15mm square, which is a bit scary if you think about it for too long.

Paired up with a decent set of headphones (Sennheiser PX-100s, for the anoraks out there), I can immerse myself in music anywhere. And very nice it is too, on occasions. Yes, I know a few of you in the rest of the world have been there for ages, but some of us need a little time to make the change. That’s my stance anyway. I won’t tell you what my childrens' slightly different opinions of this dilatoriness are down to.

But it got me thinking. I am of the analogue age. Recorded Music to me started with 78RPM shellac discs. They played for a maximum of 4 minutes or so, and if you wanted to listen to, say, a classical symphony, you were up and down, to the record player, like a Bride’s Nightie to turn the record over, and 4 minutes later, you did it again. Somewhere in my archives, I have a complete recording of Handel’s Messiah which is on, I think, 13 records – that’s 26 sides.

Then some clever soul in around 1948, I think in Columbia, came up with the Long Playing record - the LP. This was quite simply, a miracle. You could get around 25-30 minutes to a side, and because it was made from new fangled vinyl, the surface noise was almost inaudible and the frequency range capable of being played was (compared to the 78s), immense. The Hi-Fi industry was born, and mad (and not so mad) inventors in England particularly produced amazing pieces of electrical gear and loudspeakers to listen to the new LPs on. 50 years ago, they sounded stunning, and still do. Look up companies like Leak, Rogers, Radford, Quad (Peter Walker), Thorens, Tannoy, Spendor and Bowers and Wilkins if that sort of thing turns you on.

But the medium was still Analogue. Some people today still think the latest vinyl LPs sound better than their equivalent CD versions. I’m afraid my ears no longer allow me to decide, but the issue is still open to debate. What that does tell you is the sound then was pretty good. I’ve still got a couple of Classical recordings (Decca and Deutsche Grammaphon were the two companies that led the way in recording quality) which stand comparison with anything produced since – and they were released in the mid 60s.

On another tack, it’s interesting to wonder how this LP technology affected the way music (and Pop Music, in particular) was actually written. Because you put the stylus in the groove at the beginning of the record, and it wound its way unchallenged through the groove sequentially, it was quite difficult, and frought with the potential to damage the record significantly if you got it wrong, to skip tracks. You listened from Track 1 through to the End of Side 1, turned it over and then listened to the other side, again starting at the beginning of Track 1 on that side. So composers and singers had to give considerable thought to the order in which the songs appeared on the disc – even to decide what song they wanted to finish Side One on before you got up to turn the disc over. The format also forced singers and songwriters into a 50-60 minute collection of songs to put on one record. The prolific guy who had 80 minutes of songs to sell was not too welcome at the record studios in those days. One and a bit records didn’t go down too well with the suits in charge even then.

All of which thought came to me when I started to listen on my new fangled machine. When was the last time you actually listened to a CD from beginning to end, without skipping a track, or even thinking of Fast Forwarding to miss one you didn’t quite fancy? I don’t mean the live concerts, the “Greatest Hits” collections or the concept albums (The Wall, DSOTM, Tommy etc), but a common or garden standard collection of pop songs.

I sat down last night to think how many of the albums I possess which would stand this test. Where every song (not just most of them, but all of them) were ones you wanted to listen to. That’s what we had to do 40 years ago, and I’m not sure that the simple ability to skip, jump and reorder a digital version into whatever sequence you want today makes the artist think as much about what is on the record as they needed to back in the dark ages of the vinyl groove, and the stylus.

Anyway, for me the list so far isn’t that long. It doesn’t mean that they necessarily include the best individual songs ever – That’s another list! – but these LPs or CDs are the ones where every song hits the button with me – no weak links, fillers or make-weights.

As they say, in No Particular Order -

Fleetwood MacRumours listen to the angst in the words
Steve WinwoodTalking Back to the Night the man has a great and unique voice
Wings
Band on the Run – I know it’s heresy, but I like this more than any Beatles record
AbbaThe Visitors - a very dark album - Abba for people who don't like Abba. Assuming, that is, you get the one without the added Extra tracks which are very definitely Division 2. They left them off the first version for a very good reason – they’re not good enough.
EnyaWatermark she flows all over you like a warm Irish Coffee - very haunting
Michael Jackson
Off the Wall I think it's his best album
Stan Getz and Charlie BirdJazz Samba fabulous creamy sax and brilliant guitar playing
Roxy MusicFlesh and Blood perfect 1980s pop
Simon and GarfunkelBridge Over Troubled Water Only Just! There’s one track that only marginally scrapes through - the rest though is stunning
Bryan Ferry - Dylanesque Dylan's lyrics still lacerate, provoke and intrigue - some of his imagery is remarkable, and Ferry puts a more laidback 2006 spin on them. At least he can sing!
Gerry RaffertyCity to City one of Pop music's most under-rated singer/composers

Now that lot probably gives any psychiatrist worth their salt enough informatio to form a very clear view of the utter Middle of the Roadness my musical spectrum, and possibly my life spans. Let’s hope I don’t ever need to apply for a job again.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

LITTLE RED ROOSTER AND LADY JANE

Sometimes you catch something on TV, usually late in the evening, which is quite unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. About 10 years ago I caught a programme on what was later to become the Sky Arts channel.

Now I am quite a fan of the ballet. For many years, we were Subscription Members of the Birmingham Royal Ballet, making several trips each year up to the Hippodrome in Birmingham to see them dance. It was always an excellent evening, and sometimes an amazing one. When people hear that you’re a fan, they sometimes look at you a bit sideways, as if there is a slightly disturbing side to you they didn’t know before.

There’s nothing like that actually. I just love the simplicity of the medium, the power and the gracefulness of the dancers, the wit and inventiveness of the choreography, the beauty of what’s played out in front of you, and the way an enormous range of emotions can be evoked simply by a movement or a glance.

So, back to the TV. It was a ballet programme, and I recorded it to watch later. The title of the piece was “Rooster”, and it turned out to be a ballet set to 7 or 8 Rolling Stones songs. It starts out with a guy – the Rooster – who is quite simply a chicken in a suit. He moves and struts around JUST like a Rooster, and you can’t take your eyes off the way he simply becomes the animal. The ballet is actually all about the battle of the sexes, and there is some amazing choreography in it.
I’ve lost the video now, and have often looked around to see if anyone ever put out a DVD of the film I had recorded. They haven’t, so until this evening I’ve had to rely on my memory to replay in my mind.

Typing “rooster” into Youtube, which rather pathetically had not occurred to me for 10 years, threw up this clip. It’s the first 8 minutes or so of the 25 minute performance. The sound on it is none too good, but that's the early Stones for you. You may think I’m turning a bit odd when you look at it, but I think it’s a tremendous piece of work, and as an introduction to modern ballet for people who would never be seen anywhere near one, it’s a great start.



All we need to do is get the company who danced it (I think they were Dutch) to search through their archives, and make a DVD of it, and I will be a slightly happier man for the rest of my life.

Anyway, give it a go, let go of your prejudices, and when you’ve seen it, tell me you didn’t like it. Just a little bit anyway.

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Friday, December 04, 2009

SEHWAG DOES IT AGAIN

Once again, I’m glued to the TV watching two of my favourite cricket teams in action – India and Sri Lanka. They are playing the last of three Test Matches in Mumbai in India. It’s hot and humid, and Sri Lanka have just been bowled out for just under 400. Not a bad score.

Except my favourite batsman, Virender Sehwag, is opening the batting for India. He has made a few false starts so far this year, although he did get 131 in the last match. Today, he made complete amends, and showed why, when he is on form, he’s the most exciting batsman in the World. He opened very gently for him, scoring only 15 off his first 31 deliveries. Very unlike him. But that was a bit like “Light the blue Touch Paper, and Retire”.

Suffice it to say, he batted for most of the day, and gradually turned the screw on the Sri Lankan bowlers in a display of utter professional batting. He ended up smashing a Not Out 284, scoring the fastest 250 ever seen in Test match Cricket’s history. If he scores another 16 runs he will stand as the only player ever to score three Triple Centuries in Test Matches.

ON HIS WAY - ONE OF HIS 7 SIXES

He plays with a ruthless attack, with defence being the last resort. It was clear today that he wanted to hit Muralidaran, particularly, out of the game – which he did stupendously. You simply can’t place a field which will restrain him, and one suspects that around 17 men would be needed in the fielding side to slow him down when he’s in this sort of mood. Unfortunately, the rules only allow 11.

Tomorrow is another day, and India are already 50 ahead of Sri Lanka with 3 days left. They will plan to bat all day tomorrow to remove any chance of Sri Lanka even thinking of winning. Sehwag scores at such a rate that any team he plays for can get themselves in a winning position very quickly. I would love to see him get another 100 and beat Brian Lara’s 400 runs record, but that’s a really tall order. Apparently, he has a bad back. Imagine what he’d be like if he was fully fit!


HAVING A BREATHER AFTER SCORING 250

The TV recorder is on for 4 in the morning. I can't wait.
Pictures by Associated Press.

Friday, November 13, 2009

DISPOSE OF THIS AEROPLANE RESPONSIBLY

I’ve decided to collect some of my images together and publish them in book form to be given to friends and family. I want to use one of the many on-line “Photobox” type set-ups where they offer a system which allows you to upload your pictures and text into one of their book templates. You pay them money, you wait a few days and they send you back your photos in a nicely bound book. Simple.

Except that, having a degree of perfectionism about me in this sort of thing, none of them quite offer the layouts which I actually want. And since there are still parts of me that haven’t progressed beyond the “I want it EXACTLY as I want it, not how you want me to have it” phase, I’ve decided to do it myself and do all the page set ups at home, and send them the pages as finished products, thereby bypassing their templates. Simple, once again.

So I purloin a very fancy, Industrial Strength Desk-Top Publishing Program, called Adobe InDesign, which is, in the English vernacular, the “Bees Knees” of Desk-Top Publishers. The Rolls Royce of DTPs. So, off we go on the learning process to get to grips with it all.

Into the minefield again. We have all learnt the ways of myriads of machines and gizmos in our life, but the number of these I have had in my life where the Instruction Manuals are models of clarity, simple to read, easy to understand, logical in their thought flows, and capable of answering the questions the new user can’t fail to ask, in a precise and succinct way, can be numbered on a single hand – and one with the odd finger missing as well. Why is it so difficult to explain simply and logically what a product does and how it does it, without the reader needing to have been a founder member of the product’s design team to understand it?

It may, of course, be me. I may just be thick, stupid or hard of understanding, loose of thought, incoherent where logic is concerned or incapable of understanding simple instructions. I might be, but I’m not.

I have a degree in Aeronautics from what is currently the 5th best University on the Planet, I have an Accountancy qualification where, during one of the many exams we needed to pass, I came 3rd out of 3,845 other aspirants, and I have a reasonable understanding of how the UK Pension system is currently constructed. Ignoring the fact that the last claim may in fact be the most impressive of the three, this is not written to indulge in a bout of personal “halo-polishing”, merely to show that intellectually, I’m not useless.

So, what is it about Instruction Manuals? Why do they fail to do what they are there to do ie INSTRUCT?

There is, of course, a fundamental “Catch-22” in all this. The guy who writes the Instruction Manual needs to know himself exactly how it all works, otherwise he can’t possibly impart the information to someone else. Except that he then needs to write it for someone who knows absolutely nothing about the thing he knows everything about. It’s the difference between being an expert in a subject and being a good teacher in that subject. In the same way that Architects should be forced to live for a year in the houses they design, and aircraft designers should be forced to be part of the crew when their baby takes to the air, then Instruction Manual Writers should have to man the telephones in the call centres answering the calls from confused customers of products they’ve designed. They'd soon learn.

When I at University, we were taught in our last year by a few Post-Graduate Students, who probably knew more about what they were talking than anyone else in the world. Except they had no clue whatsoever how to impart that knowledge to anyone else. What was “obvious” to them, as they admired the acres of equations they had just scribbled on the blackboards around them, was, at least to this poor soul, NOT in any sense “obvious” at all. George Bernard Shaw said “those who can, do; those who can't, teach”. He might have been a really clever guy, but he got that bit completely wrong. The ability to impart something well is a completely separate skill which is just as important as the ability to do the same something in the first place.

I can recall buying a computer a few years ago and the Instruction Manual’s first words were “Switch the machine on”. Could I find the switch? Could I hell. It was cunningly recessed into the base of the machine, accessible only if you turned the thing over. You ring the Manufacturer up to explain your problem, and are met with a “Yes, you’re not the only person who’s asked that question”. Oh well, that’s all right then.

The person who’d written the Instruction Manual knew perfectly well how to switch it on: he just couldn’t put himself in the place of the poor soul who didn’t so failed totally in his job.

If I look back at Instruction Manuals and Text Books which I have laboured over in the past, there is only one where I thought “The guy who wrote this knows his subject perfectly, and he also knows perfectly how to impart his subject to a pupil.” His name was Captain Smith, and he wrote the Tax Manual for my Accountancy Course. It was the model of simple, connected, flowing logic, with nothing being assumed that hadn’t been explained earlier, each fact or subject building seamlessly on the previous ones, so nowhere did you look for the missing page which covers the bit of the subject where otherwise the “leap of faith” needed to occur. The result was he got me through the subject, and I found out later that in the Army, where he taught the subject, he had never had a student fail. It was a cheap looking book typed rather than type-set, and you’d walk straight past it these days to the glitzier, shinier ones on the shelf, but as a model of excellence in its sphere, I have known no better.

The problem today is compounded by the complexity of things. The last camera I bought was a Nikon D300. It is a quite remarkable piece of technology/engineering, and I admire it unfailingly. As a tool for taking pictures, it has transformed my photography. It is quite, quite brilliant.

BUT, its Instruction Manual is 310 pages long. And that’s just the English version, it’s not one of those multi-language jobs we get these days. I doubt if there is one person on Earth who has read every word in it. The only saving grace is that the machine is so intuitive in the way it operates that the Manual is almost superfluous. I mean, 310 pages! My life has a finite span, and 310 pages is just too much.

Discussing this with a friend, the other night, he said that the Instruction Manual for the Avro Lancaster Bomber used in the Second World War was available in print. So, off to Amazon, and guess what, there it is. It has 532 pages, and that’s the complete Operating Manual for the Aeroplane, hydraulic and electric circuits and all. Everything.

THE FRONT COVER

Some wag apparently wondered how they could cram the whole of the information needed to operate a complex State of the Art Bomber from the Second World War into 532 pages, when the new DVD Recorder they had just bought needed significantly more pages. His response was that the Lancaster Manual did not need the longish section his DVD recorder manual had on how to dispose of the Product safely, and also, for the Lancaster, the German and Japanese translation sections were not needed.

Nice.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

WORLDS BEST PHOTOGRAPHERS No 5 - JANE BOWN

Are YOU in for a treat. If you’ve not seen this lady’s work before, these are some of the best portrait pictures you will find anywhere.

Jane Bown worked for “The Observer” newspaper in England for 60 years, and currently an Exhibition of her life’s work is being shown in London. 100 of her pictures of the Great and the Good, and perhaps some of the Not so Good since 1949 are on display.

She is a very self effacing photographer and it is quite likely you will never have heard of her. That’s one reason why she takes such excellent pictures. With people like Annie Liebovich, it's hard to avoid the thought that the image is more about the person behind the camera, than the one in front of the lens. This lady is very different.

Portrait photography is not easy at all. First, even if you know the person well, you have to get that person to sit for you - we do know who we're talking to here, don’t we, by the way? Actually, before that, you have to have an idea of what that person is like, so you know what it is about the person in the portrait, you’re trying to bring out.


Getting people to relax, and “be themselves” sounds all to simple. It isn’t. A few people can do it, most can’t. Even when you know the person well, picking up and pointing a camera at someone brings up the shutters (no pun intended), and the “interview” face comes on, with the person you really want to photograph disappearing.

Photographing celebrities is different. They are used to being photographed, many even welcome it, so that bit is not the problem. The problem is photographing the real person, not the image that the person wants to be seen by the camera. The reality is that we have no idea what someone like Richard Nixon or Marilyn Monroe was actually like. We rely on their own writings, the writings of others, pictures, conversations and snippets from their friends and enemies and those who just “knew them” to flesh out the view of that person in our minds. Always, the distortions which these Third Parties, intentionally or unintentionally, overlay on the reality give us a picture which can only be an interpretation. It takes a special person to begin to slide behind the mask.

This applies to all portrait photography. Everyone, especially the person with their hand on the shutter button, has an angle, a view and an opinion - it's inescapable. The degree to which you’re looking at the real person, or the photographer’s spin on the individual in front of the lens is impossible to deduce. In the end, I believe in the end it’s a simple matter of belief, if you don't actually know the person in the image - if you think it’s the person, then it is.

Jane Bown’s style was to work very quickly, capture the immediate essence of the person in front of the lens, and disappear. There’s a very revealing short video of a Channel 4 interview - http://link.brightcove.com/services/player/bcpid1184614595?bctid=45769473001 - with her a few days ago, explaining how she took her pictures. Certainly, early in her life, she often had little idea who the people the “Observer” sent her to photograph actually were. Even later on, in the Nineties it was “Who’s Jarvis Cocker?”, which may not have pleased him too much, but at least it meant the guy got treated as much like a normal person as possible. Perhaps that’s why there’s an overwhelming sense of naturalness about her pictures which is so refreshing.

A few words from the interview tell us a lot, when the interviewer asks her about her approach to the subject -

Bown - "Light .... Get you in a good light, so that I can see your eyes ... Pause ... Look into them ... long pause .... And that's it really."

Interviewer - "The eyes are the most important bit ..."

Bown - "That's all .... Eye to Eye ..."

Here’s another link - The Complete Jane Bown, A Lifetime in Photographs – just click on the Gallery tab - which takes you to a slideshow of the 100 images in her Exhibition. I think it’s a remarkable achievement, and shows her to be at the very top of the pile of Portrait photographers in the last 50 years.

A few of these are shown below.

JOHN LENNON


RICHARD HARRIS


MY NAME'S HARRY PALMER - MICHAEL CAINE


BJORK

She is in a wheelchair and has stopped taking pictures now, but when I look at her body of work, she made a unique record of her times, of the Good and the Bad, the Beautiful and the Not so Beautiful – in immediate and fresh Black and White images which will stay in the mind for a very long time.

What a legacy.

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DARK SIDE OF THE MARS

Just occasionally, you wake up, completely unaware that your life is going to change, and change seriously before the day is out. All too often these days as the years pass, it’s not something good. But yesterday, I had one of those life-changing days which left me on a real high.

Going about my business, causing offence to no-one, I went to the local shop to pick up my newspaper, and –

THE DARK MARS BAR IS BACK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!



A RARE SIGHTING - AN UNOPENED ONE

You have no idea how important this is in my life. I don’t eat an enormous amount of sweets, but once in a while, I get hooked on one particular brand, and gross overload consumption, on a semi-industrial scale, ensues.

It’s really quite pathetic, but if that’s the worst thing I do, well ……

The fiendish Marketing Men from Mars (that’s the Mars in Slough, not the one on the way to Jupiter) first dreamt this product up about 10 years ago. I remember buying one in a petrol station, and consuming it on the way home from work. I think it was called the Mars Midnight then – very soft lights and “Would you care for a nightcap, my dear?”.

Its dark, slightly grown up chocolate taste mingled with a fluffy and light nougat, much whiter than normal, complemented by a layer of soft, squishy caramel. I thought it was definitely a confection for those people with taste, refinement, class and a rare touch of discrimination - the Mars Bar for the Connoisseur in fact. They are definitely to be eaten with your little finger crooked daintily in the air, not wolfed down in two bites or heaven help us, consumed in the (alleged) Jagger/Faithfull style.

So I binged on them, and became a hopeless addict. And what did the bastards do then? They took it off the market without a by-the-by, or a hint of a bit of prior notice. Suddenly they just disappeared. I’ve never been into drugs or that sort of thing (Alcohol’s not a drug, it’s a vital food, necessary for the efficient functioning and smooth operation of my body) but over the next few days I felt exactly how I imagined a crack addict must feel going down the “cold turkey” route. I drove around town looking for out of the way little shops who might have been left with a bit of unsold stock. But no luck. It was almost as if the fiends from Slough had driven round every shop they’d sold them to and taken all their unsold ones back in to captivity, just to torment me.

Not a pleasant time in my life at all.

And then, about 4 years later, the things reappeared. I don’t know why. They just did. Is there someone in Mars who enjoys irritating their customers, Mars Bar Teasers in effect who get there kicks seeing grown men driving around small rural shops late at night looking for non existent bars of chocolate. I think it’s all a bit sadistic personally.

Anyway, I am not one to make the same mistake twice. I came up with a personal Worst Case Scenario, and assumed that this time, it might also only be in the shops for about four weeks. So I bought two boxes of the things and salted them away as Strategic Stocks, hidden away from prying eyes, in a location that would go with me to my grave.

Except of course that this totally missed the point. They did indeed strip the country’s shelves bare of the infernal things again after a few weeks, and I sat back with the luxurious thought that I was safe from their actions. Two boxes, at 24 per box is 48 units of pleasure. 48 units of pleasure at 2 per day means 24 days ie 3 and a bit weeks. I don’t recall the details now, but I suspect that my re-addicted state probably resulted in me mainlining on more than the planned "One with my Morning Coffee and One with my Afternoon Tea strategy". There was possibly an "Oh I’ll just have another one before I go to bed" bit of the plan that I may have forgotten to include. So, a couple of weeks later, they’d got me again. And this time there was the added personal guilt and inadequacy of trying to outwit them and failing so dismally.

Anyway, this time it’s going to be different. I’ve checked on the website and it’s a “Limited Edition” on sale for four weeks. Why the hell do they do this? Nastyness for its own sake? The whole point of sweets and confectionery is to give people instant pleasure, so where is the need to behave in such a despicable and unpleasant way? Is it just to show a small section of the population that Multinational companies are all powerful, and just don’t you forget it? I’m not a litigious person, but I'm sure most liberal minded Human Right Lawyers (is there any other sort?) would advise me that a test case in Strasbourg was a winnable proposition.

I think there’s two weeks to go. My local shop has 4 boxes in store, and I’ve also scouted around to find secondary, back-up sources of supply. I’ve measured the size of the box, and done a 3-D space review of my fridge to investigate the close packing capabilities on the shelves. If, without being noticed by the lady of the house, I get rid of the non essentials like Milk, Butter, Vegetables and the other fripperies, I think I can get around 1000 inside. Unfortunately, the boxes will not fit vertically in the door bins, so the 15 bottles of wine currently in them there will have to stay. Maybe I can live with that.

At a strict ration of 2 per day, this will last around 1½ years, which is better than the previous 5 and a bit weeks, but still not long enough to span the four years or so enshrined in Mars’s devilish Product Cycle.

Apart from buying some additional shelving in the coolest part of the garage, for additional overflow storage during the winter, I’m worried that this 2½ year gap is unfillable. I could consider planning on One per day, rather than Two, splitting each one up in the morning into two halves, but I’m not sure the early morning will-power needed for that strategy to work, would be strong enough.

Perhaps my children, who live quite close, or some well meaning friends, might squirrel some away for me. Except, most of them are quite partial to the taste as well, so when I went to collect them, it’s quite possible that they may have “disappeared”, a bit like the “Angel’s Share” in a Whisky Distillery.

All this means that it’s already beginning to look a bit like being on the 10th day of a two week holiday, when the thoughts of the end of the holiday begin to crowd in on the unalloyed “Away from it all” pleasure you’ve felt up until then. The Dark thoughts.

Ah! Dark Thoughts. Excuse me. I’ve just got to go to the fridge. I might be some time.
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Friday, October 23, 2009

IT'S ONLY A GAME

Regular readers may possibly have noticed that I have a rather unhealthy interest in Cricket.

Pause for Groan – but, although this little piece is related to cricket, it isn’t really. It’s about a man who plays the game at the highest level, and the way that greatness sometimes brings problems to blight someone’s life seriously.

Marcus Trescothick. He currently opens the batting for Somerset, and he’s pretty good. Actually, he’s bloody good. One of my absolute favourite players. 33 years old, he played for England for many years, and was a key part of the England team which won the Ashes in 2005 – Player of the Year in fact.

I don’t recall a better opening batsman in the country in the last 40 years. I suspect, for the first few years of this century, his was the first name the England selectors wrote down when they selected their team, apart from the captain. Actually, given some of England’s recent captains, I’m not sure that the captain’s names got written down before him that often, but that’s another story.

Trescothick played some stupendous innings for his country, and amassed 5,825 runs during the 6 years he was in the England team. To put that into some sort of perspective, only 10 men have ever scored more runs than him, with Graham Gooch’s 8,900 topping the list. None of the 10 above him played for their country for less than 12 years amassing their totals, and some of their careers actually lasted more than 2 decades. His rate of scoring must be the highest ever.

His style of play is very individual. He does not move his feet as the purists say you (or he) should. He has exceptional Hand/Eye co-ordination, and when you watch him, he seems to have all the time in the world to stop the ball in mid flight in his mind, examine what it’s doing, decide on his shot and then play it. An English Virender Sehwag – and that’s a compliment of the very highest order. He’s a big, solid man – 6ft 3in – and he hits the ball very, very hard, but with a slow, almost languorous, even contemptuous swing that looks so simple, but is so effective. You only have to look at the bowler’s face when Trescothick gets his eye in. They know they’re in for the equivalent of a sporting execution. There are very few players who you’d run to the TV to watch if you heard they were batting, but he’s absolutely one of them.

IN FULL FLIGHT, PLAYING FOR SOMERSET

But ….. there had to be a but. When he went out to India in 2006 to play Test Cricket out there, he was found collapsed and sobbing his heart out the Dressing Room. He came home under a media driven secrecy cover. “It’s a bug”or “Family problems” were some of the media's explanantions. Speculation about his marriage, the reasons were many – and all wrong. Trescothick didn’t help because he tried to cover it up, probably from a shame viewpoint. The truth was that he had clinical depression, and it had finally exploded. Why? Perhaps being a long way from home, or playing for England, or something else. Who knows?

SOMETIMES, A PICTURE SPEAKS A THOUSAND WORDS

Two years later, and after several failed attempts to return to the world cricket stage, it’s still there. He wrote a very moving and honest book about it all (called “Coming back to Me”) which takes you through the awful build up to his breakdown, and its consequences, in painful and gruesome detail, a book which gripped me totally and won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year in 2008.

He still played on for his county through all this. England missed him dreadfully, and some well meaning but wrong people clearly tried to get him to return to Test Cricket, because he had left a gaping hole which is still quite unfilled. Thankfully he decided that his health was more important than any cricket match, so he concentrated on playing for Somerset. And in 2009, when you look at the Batting performances of all the hundreds of County Cricketers in this country, guess whose name is at the top. He scored the prodigious total of almost 3,000 runs this year – mind boggling - and he looked as relaxed as could be doing it.

A couple of months ago, with Somerset taking the World Stage in India for the Champions World Twenty20 League Series, he agreed to go and represent his county. You watched him with a good deal of trepidation and, rather depressingly I for one immediately felt from the start he was not the man you’d seen playing County Cricket in England during 2009. Out of sorts, timing all over the place, and not scoring any runs. Lo and behold, the “black demons” had come back, and he had to fly home prematurely, probably for the last time. How very sad.

He clearly wants to be back on the world stage, otherwise he wouldn’t keep subjecting himself to the ordeal, but the time must be here where he realises that “That was then, and this is Now”. I suspect he’ll now put it all behind him and just play county cricket for a few more years. I also suspect that he’ll stay right at the top of the County averages when he does that. Lack of pressure, and being comfortable with yourself.

A real crying shame for England, but for those of us who watch County Cricket, I, for one, think I’m in for a real treat.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

THERE ARE NO FLIES ON ME ....

First post for quite a while.

It’s not that there’s nothing in my mind worth rabbiting on about. At the moment, it’s more like the antidote to “Mastermind” – I’ve started but I haven’t finished anything for a few days. My computer is littered with bit of this and bits of something else. Things like the revival of the MP’s expenses issue and the way it’s always the little things in life which cause the real damage, or a piece on the two men, Ponting and Hurley, who photographed the Scott and Shackleton Antarctic expeditions so brilliantly ninety years ago, or a bit on Humphrey Lyttleton, jazz player, writer, and the best quiz show host EVER, or even one on the ramifications of the Report on the MG Rover "Phoenix Four" fiasco, or the rather sad story of Marcus Trescothick, and a couple more besides. They’re all there in embryonic form, some struggling for survival and some blossoming nicely.

But they’ve not been finished, so the blogger’s equivalent of the Deafening Silence has invaded the 42at60 pitch for a couple of weeks.

Explanations over, this post now goes from the sublime to the Gor Blimey.

I’m sitting down this morning with a cup of coffee and a biscuit, or more accurately two biscuits. Now one of my less impressive habits is that of dunking these things. My mother taught me that it’s not done in polite society, a bit like picking your nose and flicking the results at one's host or wearing brown shoes at a funeral. So, since I’m on my own, and, as far as I can see, nobody is staring through the window, I decide that these biscuits are definitely going to be eaten sinfully and impolitely - dunked in fact.

I can’t believe how sad I am writing about all this in so much detail but they are the excellent, slightly burnt, caramelly, crispy little ones you get in a decent restaurant, individually wrapped with your coffee - the biscuits the word "Moreish" was invented for. Although I am not a pig, I have been known to eat a complete packet at one sitting. Actually, I can remember starting out on the second one!

Now the skill (yes, it is a skill) in dunking biscuits is all in the timing. The depth of immersion is related in a complex, non linear fashion to the time it’s in the liquid. Also, the thinness of the biscuit, the temperature of the liquid, the relationship between the biscuit's volume and surface area (I'm sure Aspect Ratio and Sweepback Angles may play their part as well here) and, if I recall correctly from my youth, the Angle of the Dangle, all interact to mean that the time it must stay in the liquid is almost impossible to compute. I suspect, empirically I have to say, that there’s probably a Square/Cube Law in their somewhere if you could but do the maths properly. Probably a good subject for a PHD Dissertation at one of the UK’s many second class universities. At least the experiments would be enjoyable. Talk about generating a hunger for learning.

But this morning, the human mind swerves past all this maths, avoiding the complexities of the dynamics of cantilevered structures flexing at close to yield points, the divergent thermodynamic properties of randomly wet materials under severe loading and the aerodynamics of bluff, rough surfaced objects at low airspeeds and in turbulent airflow conditions – do I hear the need to consider the Reynolds Number of a moving Ginger Nut anywhere? - it really is not a simple thing, all this. We aficionados rely on a lifetime of hard earned biscuit dunking experiences to avoid needing to address and solve these awesome scientific issues.

Practice teaches us, to within about a second, just how long to leave it in the coffee, so the maximum amount of liquid has been absorbed, but leaving the biscuit at the very edge of its operating envelope, just capable of being transferred to one’s mouth without that sickening spludge of sodden carbohydrate falling on newly washed and ironed shirt. The more skilled of us can repeatedly pull this off, and we know the inner pleasure behind the slight supercilious sneer we give when some less experienced practitioner tries to copy, and falls at the first. Without polishing my halo here, if dunking biscuits was an Olympic sport, I’d be putting my application in to be the England team Manager.

Anyway, I’m just savouring my second (and last) biscuit, when I taste a really crunchy bit – somewhat like the currants you get in an (undunked) Garibaldi biscuit.

Except of course, as I realise almost instantaneously but just too late, that there are no currants in the caramel biscuits I’d been munching on. Signal from Brain to Mouth - stop chewing NOW and investigate. This is a "Code Red". A finger leads the investigation and soon provides the answer.

Half a fly.

Further investigation reveals that the matching half is nowhere to be found, leading to one distasteful (in both senses of the word) but inevitable conclusion. As an ex-scientist, I considered the alternatives and immediately rejected the idea that this particular fly had previously just been chopped neatly in two by person or persons unknown, followed by an immediate parabolic free-fall into my cup of coffee. The reason being that I was on my own, otherwise I wouldn’t have been dunking the biscuits in the first place, would I? It’s not polite, I've told you that already. Pay attention.

So, the irrefutable whereabouts of the rear end of this recently dismembered creature became, in an instant, quite clear to me. I certainly couldn't see it but I knew precisely where it was.

Yes, I know this isn’t polite either but, Uuurrrrgggghhhh!!!

I don’t know why (the maths – statistics and probability theory - is hugely against it), but I could not resist an involuntary swirl around in the coffee with my index finger to see if its nether regions were still swirling around in the brew. I even pondered whether the recently deceased fly had perhaps been a member of a suicide pact, which had, like lovers jumping off the Clifton Suspension Bridge holding hands, or legs, as they met a watery end, resulted in another fly ending its life at the same time in the same Espresso. But No. The phrase "We enter this world alone, and we leave it alone" applies to flies as well as humans.

Oh Dear, sorry about all this rambling, but al least it proves to the outside world, if nothing else, that I’m still around.

I don’t know if anyone has ever coined a saying – “There’s only one thing worse than finding a caterpillar in your salad, and that’s finding half a caterpillar.”

If they haven’t then, I claim authorship.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

ACCENTUATE THE POSITIVE .....

Just occasionally, one sits back and looks at the way life is going. What's important, and what's not so important, or at least not as important as you once thought it was. A few months ago, I was employed (albeit on a One Day per Week basis), and a visit to the plant where I had been part of a team which had started the company some 15 years ago, was the highlight of my week.

Then the company, obviously lacking the firm direction I had given (!) since a medical “incident” 8 years ago, culminated in the Administrators being called in. About 95% of the workforce, including yours truly, received one of those “Dear John” letters which mark a turning point in one’s life – except mine was addressed “Dear Sir” which did not please me overmuch. Although I am aware there were reasons for it, it does not seem right that no-one could bother to ensure that they even called you by name when writing such a missive. For the first, and probably the last time in my life, I had been made redundant.

So what now?

As it happened I remained as a Trustee of the Company’s Pension Scheme, and the only noticeable change to my situation was that previously the Company paid for my efforts in this direction, whereas now it has involutarily become a Voluntary activity. But it remains a strange feeling to see oneself as unemployed.

Fast forward to tonight. It’s a Saturday evening and I’m sitting here pondering Life, the Universe and Everything. Great things have happened in our family in the last few days. My younger daughter has give birth to a little baby, the fourth of our grandchildren and the first girl in the family. She is of course the most beautiful creature on the face of the Earth, and everyone is doting on her unmercifully.

We are very lucky as a family in that both my daughters and their families live very close to us. A very pumped up John Daly could hit a Drive and a pretty decent 7 Iron in two different directions and each Second shot would land in one of the girls’ gardens. We can walk to both of their houses, and, in a situation like now, it is so much easier to help with what needs to be done. Given that much of it all is “Venus” rather than “Mars” stuff, my function is to look after the house and minister to our dogs while my wife is out on Grandmother duty. But the closeness of the extended family makes this all a good deal easier to orchestrate than if we all lived in different parts of the country.

It does of course have reciprocal benefits. My elder daughter, especially, is a very good cook, and tonight when I was sitting at home, one glass of wine to the good, watching the cricket from India and feeling like I couldn’t really be bothered to get up and make a meal, the phone rings and the gist of the message was that there was a portion of Shepherds Pie, and a chunk of Apple, Blackberry and Raspberry Crumble going a-begging if I wanted it. It took me about a minute to scoot down there, replete with plates and bowls to dish it all up onto. Talk about perfect timing.

It’s a pretty good form of symbiotic family co-existence. I keep a running tab for a sort of informal “Meals on Wheels”, paying, on a course by course basis for what I’d normally pay to construct a meal on my own. This pays my way, and salves my conscience regarding sponging off my children, which would never do. It also means that I don’t have to bother to cook occasionally.

On the other side of the coin, my daughter doesn’t have to worry about using up the left-overs from a meal, and, in spite of not wanting to accept money from parents, is forced to receive a tiny additional amount of revenue. Oh, and I get to eat some excellent meals. There’s probably a decent Carbon Footprint benefit somewhere, except I can’t be bothered to think where. I can’t even begin to see the first sign of a downside to all this.

Anyway, when I got there, my daughter explained that she was going to the cinema tomorrow with her two children to see “Up”, the new 3-D Pixar Cartoon. Now, ageing though I may be, I find most of these film to be absolutely brilliant and very witty - in my humble opinion, future Classics in the making. I’d read a couple of reviews about this particular film, and it seemed to get 5 Stars from most of the reviewers, so I piped up to say that I’d love to go along. So tomorrow, I’m off shepherding my two elder grandchildren to the local cinema, where we’ll no doubt hit the Popcorn and Pepsi, and quite possibly the Ben & Jerrys, stand, as part of the afternoon’s entertainment.

All of which makes the general problems of the world seem a fair distance away. It doesn’t mean they’re not there, because they are. Closer to home, a great friend’s Father in Law has just died, and another friend is recovering from yet another operation a few days ago. We’ve just been through a difficult period where one of our dogs has had a major operation and we wondered for some time about the outcome.

But, and this is the only reason for writing this piece tonight, it’s nice occasionally to see the other side of the coin.

Monday, September 28, 2009

TIME TO GET OUT THE ENGLAND FLAG

I take it all back. England CAN play One day Cricket.

Sometimes Life moves in circles far too mysterious for me to understand. Over the summer, our cricket team (just) managed to win back the Ashes against Australia – the most intensely contested set of games any England Cricket team ever plays. But if you strip away the media hype that surrounded it, what we saw was a Third rate England team just scraping home over a Second rate Australian team. Over the Five game series, we watched 25 days of 8 hours a day where the thing that turned the series England’s way was about 5 or 6 hours of absolutely marvellous periods of play, with Flintoff, Broad, Anderson and, God help us, Panesar doing the honours on England's behalf.
England can thank their lucky stars that Mitchell Johnson didn’t fire on all cylinders until well into the matches, and Brett Lee, Australia’s best bowler, missed out through injury. I suppose England would counter that by saying that Flintoff was a developing injury train wreck as the series went on, and Pietersen missed most of it as well, and that counterbalanced the Aussie problems, but it was a close run thing.

But, we did it.

The we went on to play what to me was the most pointless series of cricket games I’ve ever watched – a 7 match set of One day International games which dredged the bottom as far as I was concerned in terms of excitement and pleasure, and provided a perfect definition of the word “Anticlimax”. The team managed to lose the series 6-1, winning the last match almost as a consolation. Both teams palpably did not want to be there, and it showed in the cricket and the attitude and demeanour of both sides.

You couldn’t help but conclude from their dismal showing that, from a One day Cricket perspective, England were a team of No Hopers. Panic set in immediately after the end of the 6-1 drubbing, with England hopping straight onto a plane to South Africa to take part in a short Knock-Out ODI World competition against the seven best sides on the Planet. South Africa, India, Pakistan, Australia and Sri Lanka stared us in the face, and with most of that lot being expected to beat Australia, let alone England, it was hard to see how we weren’t going to be anything other than slaughtered, taken apart, smashed and beaten very conclusively and very embarrassingly.

Oh Ye, of little faith. Tonight, we are two matches into the series and have played what to me are the two best sides in the world, Sri Lanka and South Africa. And we have beaten them both. Not just beaten them, but imposed ourselves on them in a manner I can’t recall an England One day side ever managing before. They played quite superbly.

What on earth was in the meal on the plane over to South Africa?
The batsmen who let the side down, actually and metaphorically, during the ODI matches against the Australians have come to the party in a way that borders on the unreal. We’ve just seen, against South Africa, the host nation and favourite for the Championship, Owais Shah smash a fabulous 98, Collingwood, playing at 4, hitting a very responsible and exciting 70-odd, and Eoin Morgan finishing it all of with a stupendous 67 off 34 balls. It was a glittering performance, and I go to bed tonight with my chest puffed out on their behalf more than a little bit!

Almost the best bit for me however occurred in the first match against Sri Lanka, my favourite team in the whole tournament. England were playing them in their first match after the Australian debacle, and can have had no idea what sort of outcome awaited them. They must have had a real feeling of foreboding at the start of the match, having just watched Sri Lanka thrash South Africa, the favourites.

During the Sri Lankan innings, there was a mix up in the middle which resulted in one of the Sri Lankan batsmen losing his wicket after an accidental collision. The England Captain called him back to the wicket when he was walking off, a move which will endear Strauss to me, at least, for a very long time.

He didn’t have to do it, most of his colleagues didn’t agree with what he’d done, and it sounds like after the match he had more than a bit of a bollocking from Andy Flowers, the England Team Manager. But, as a real demonstration of old fashioned fair play, at a time when the consequences were potentially fatal to England’s cause, and when it would have been far easier to let the guy leave the field and accept the wicket gratefully, it takes some beating in my view.

Good on you Mr Strauss. And what’s more, the cricketing Gods must have agreed with him, because the batsman was immediately out in the next over.

And then England won the match.

And tonight, they’ve just won the next one against South Africa.

So perhaps there are mystical things afoot here – things about which we know not. It does make a very pleasant change from people on a rugby field trying to gain an unfair advantage by chewing on fake blood capsules to get a late substitution onto the field, or Formula 1 Team Managers plotting to get one of the racing drivers in their team to crash deliberately into a wall to gain an unfair advantage.

These things should not go unrecognised, and I hold up my glass to Andrew Strauss for having the balls to do what he believed was right.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

CHESS IS A FUNNY GAME

25 years ago, the world watched for something like 5 months as two Russians played innumerable chess games until they’d both got frazzled and worn out. Kasparov and Karpov – one the old, solid player, and the other a young fleet footed (in chess terms) pretender.

In so far as chess ever took centre stage in the world, this must have been its Finest Hour. I almost became enthralled with what was going on.

THE COMBATANTS

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The passion soon went away for me and the only other time the flame has ever really reflickered since then is when, in 1997, IBM built a computer called “Deep Blue” to play Garry Kasparov. Rather surprisingly, the PC Blue beat Kasparov 2-1 in a Six match series.

I don’t suppose I’ve thought anymore about Chess until this morning when I read that the two Russians are starting a rematch. Given the way the world has changed over the last quarter century, it's not surprising that the format of the current duel is very different. The contest now is 12 matches only - four semi-rapid and eight rapid games — over one week. I have to say that I’d never even heard of these Chess equivalents of Cricket’s Fifty Over One Day International or 20-20 style of game. But the way it works is a semi-rapid game last 25 minutes, with five seconds for each move, while a rapid games runs for only five minutes, with two seconds for moves. It seems a million miles from Chess as they played it in 1984, but life moves on, and even Chess players today are blessed with a reduced attention span.

Now, fast forward, with a bit of a jerk, to the subject of cartoons. I have said before that, on balance, Cartoonists seem to me to be the sanest class of people on the planet, and that a Government fronted by them would probably run the world more effectively than the mob we've got now.
I suspect the cartoonists vent their prejudice and anger on the blank piece of paper which becomes tomorrow’s bit of humour in the newspapers, and this results in a clearer mind afterwards.

As soon as I remembered the Man vs machine Chess game of Kasparov vs the IBM PC, a picture came into my mind of a cartoon I saw at the time. It was in the Daily Telegraph by that genius of the genre – Matt.

This man consistently produces the best cartoons I know. Always understated, he bases them on seemingly gentle drawings of a middle class, rather grumpy and somewhat down-trodden and weary English couple facing the absurdities of life in a semi-resigned way. Except he hits the absolute bulls-eye in a situation, or a combination of concurrent but different issues, in a way that amazes me. He never seems to have a off day - always On the Money. So I started to look around for this one from about 12 years ago. It has stuck in mind over all that time.
Good, isn't it?

THE INCOMPARABLE MATT'S VIEW OF DEEP BLUE

Sunday, September 20, 2009

... AND SOME ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS

It comes to us all – watching our parents decline and die. I know it’s the Order of Things that one generation is taken over inexorably by the next, but it’s still one of the more depressing things about life when it happens. Sometimes the end is brutal, and quick. Sometimes, it’s still brutal, but long drawn out.

In my mother’s case last February, aged 91, she finally succumbed to Dementia which had been gradually destroying her for the best part of 13 years. Anyone who has been through this situation will know the problems all too well - the guilts and the fears we face as these diseases take their grip and extend their hold, turning someone you knew into someone you don’t know, and into someone who doesn’t know you, or anyone else for that matter.

In this country, it’s not made any easier by the obstacles which people have to overcome to get the State, in this case, the local Primary Care Trust Hospital to accept its obligations and fund the hospitalisation/Nursing Home costs which are an inevitable result of the way the disease takes its toll. When she died she had just about used all her money paying to keep herself alive – a quite inappropriate situation to be put in when you’re in the state she was in.

A couple of weeks ago, we ended up in the National Newspapers, and giving interviews to local Radio and Regional Television. We are fighting our (or more accurately) my mother’s corner to try to recover costs from our local Primary Care Trust Hospital for Nursing Home fees which my Mother spent as the Dementia which blighted the last 13 years of her life turned her into someone needing 24 hour Intensive nursing care.

When you strip out the smoke and mirrors, the rules are simple – if you end up in a Nursing Home because medically, rather than socially, you need the sort of care only they can provide, then it is, or should be, funded by the State. That seems to be the simple position. Except, of course, the State does not always seem to stand up and recognise its liabilities. It certainly didn’t in my mother’s case, or at least it hasn’t yet.

The really bizarre situation however is that, if we lived in Scotland, this would not be a problem. Care there for the over 65s is free, and not means tested, in Scotland. If she had lived over the border, then all the financial issues she has suffered would not exist. Weird, but true.

It’s only when you start to delve into this seemingly divisive state of affairs that you realise just how much difference there is between people in Scotland and people in England when it comes to the availability of what to most of us would seem mainstream social benefits to which all of us, or none of us, should have access.

My simple, untutored mind says that we live, like it or not, in Great Britain, a Union – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Monies are allocated annually by Parliament to cover social needs and you would like to imagine that the allocation of this vast amount of money each year would be controlled and dispersed by our elected representatives in a fair and equitable manner across the four countries in the Union. But when you start to poke and prod, what you come up with is not what I imagined I’d find.

I am not an expert on all this, but a little delving throws up a disturbing set of anomalies –

The British (not Scottish, British) Government allocates somewhere around £2,000 per head more to everyone who lives in Scotland compared to an English person. Given that there are about 5 million people in Scotland, this means a total of £10 Billion EXTRA given to Scotland.

Presumably because of this, the Scots are able to have a far more relaxed approach to the provision of expensive life-saving drugs than the English. Drugs which are available through the National Health in Scotland, can only be made available in England if you buy them yourselves. Unfair? You decide.

Scottish university students get free education, whereas in England, you have to pay your tuition fees. This applies even if the Scottish student is studying at an English university. Unfair? You decide.

Nursing Home care for the elderly in Scotland is free, whereas, as in my mother’s case, she has up until now, had to pay her own fees. Unfair? You decide.

If you look at State spending in Scotland, it represents almost 60% of all spending, a figure which is at the top of the list in Europe. And who pays disproportionately for it all – yours truly and 50 million other English people.

Now I have no quarrel with State spending as a concept, although I think overall it is way too high. But I can see no reason why a deprived area of English cities like Bradford, Manchester or Liverpool (and trust me there are some very deprived areas in those cities) has less of a claim on the public purse than Glasgow. But that’s how it is.

I also don’t think this leads to me being branded as a racist. I love Scotland. I am married to a Scot, and half of my family for the last 45 years have been from North of the Border. Mind you, just to balance it up, I think their cricket team is even worse than England’s, and also their cooking is not high up my list of World Class Cuisine. I mean when was the last time, apart from being in Scotland, that you voluntarily went into a restaurant specialising in Scottish cooking? Exactly.

The English and the Scots however, have always had a love/hate relationship with each other. Maybe it’s the fact that the Scots think they lost out in running the country in the 16th and 17th Century by the James/Mary Queen of Scots episodes, and like the Irish they’ve never forgotten it. It is an unpleasant fact that England perpetrated some dastardly deeds to all of them in the following two hundred years, but we’re 200 years further on now, and you’d like to think that the “Look what you did to us in 1745” style of argument was something that could be moved on from, sitting here in 2009. But it seems not.

So the devolution thing, particularly in Scotland, rolls merrily along. Since 1997, they have had their own parliament, (built, I suspect, at a 10 times cost over-run, using English money). The issue of “Scottish Oil” being the salvation of the Scottish economy seems to be the battle-cry of the Nationalists up there, but it seems that the maths just doesn’t make sense. If you hypothetically “give” them all the revenues from the oil – and you shouldn’t, because a proportion is in English territory – then they still would run an enormous deficit, which would require a severe cut in Scottish state spending to start to balance the books. And anyway, who paid for all the enormous investment to extract the stuff in the first place?

But why is it like that? This whole issue ends up back at what is known in UK politics as the “West Lothian Question”. To my untutored mind, this is a major political issue which seems never to get any significant airplay in the political life of England, and, for the life of me, I can’t see why. First asked by Tam Dalyell in Parliament in 1977 it simply, but rather devastatingly wonders -

“For how long will English
constituencies and English Honourable members tolerate... at least 119 Honourable Members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland exercising an important, and probably often decisive, effect on English politics while they themselves have no say in the same matters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?”

If that’s not a good question, I don’t know what is.

The situation is actually worse that that for the following reasons.

It takes about 15% fewer votes to elect a Member of Parliament (to Westminster, London remember, not Edinburgh) for any Scottish constituency than it does for an English one. So the Scots probably have about 15 more MPs than they should be entitled to.

The Scottish MPs can vote on everything in the UK Parliament, whether the issue at hand affects Scotland at all. There have been serious and large issues, Foundation Hospitals being one, which only affect England where, if you stripped the Scottish MPs votes out, would have not been approved by Parliament. That’s a serious issue.

You might have thought that the Scottish MPs would at least have had the decency to abstain in such a situation. A few did and do, but many don’t.

We have two Scotsmen running the UK, and by inference, English affairs - Messrs Brown and Darling, both of whom are MPs for Scottish Constituencies. If it was to be decided that Scottish MPs should abstain from voting on purely English affairs, which seems eminently reasonable to me, then we would have the quaint situation where the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer of Great Britain had no say on these matters. Perhaps the simple answer is not to have a Scottish Prime Minister or Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Oh, and just as a by-the-way, you might also like to check on the ancestry of Anthony Charles Lynton Blair, the UK’s Prime Minister from 1997 until 2007. He talks with an English accent, but don’t let that fool you.

It strikes me that the Scots are quite happy sitting on their hands on this issue, since I’m sure they feel they’re getting a great deal form the 50 odd Million people South of the Border.

One of the most telling answers to this debate came from Lord Irvine, the Lord Chancellor, in 1998. He said apparently that the best answer to the West Lothian Question was to stop asking it.

Just to understand where this particular gentleman is coming from, his full title is Lord Irvine of Lairg. Lairg is a small village in the county of Sutherland in the very north of Scotland.

So, in the hallowed words of Mandy Rice-Davies – “Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he.”

I’m not too sure how I’ve got round to this point – chewing over the structure of the UK Parliament, and, to me, the unbalanced and inappropriate power that Scottish people and Scottish MPs have over purely English affairs, and the way that no-one seems even to consider it to be an issue worth a decent debate at a political level.

Perhaps I should have moved to Scotland and then the issues my mother has had to face would simply not have existed.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

TWO LOOSE CANNONS SILENCED

Occasionally, the Obituaries in the newspapers trigger me off – most of the people who are rewarded with a half page or so tend tomake an interesting read, but once in a while I’m brought up with a bit of a start, when someone who’s made a real impact on me throws off this mortal coil.

A day or so ago, there were two – Keith Floyd and Patrick Swayze – who hit the headlines, for all the wrong reasons. Floyd was definitely one of my favourites, but hidden behind the two full pages on each of these two guys was another full page about someone much less well known, but someone whose output had left its indelible mark on me – Troy Kennedy Martin.

Keith Floyd was one of those people who you always expected would not make his “three score and ten” – alcohol and tobacco playing a very central role in his life. He was a “bit of a lad” before the idea of a “bit of a lad” had been coined, but, at the same time, this was balanced by his fabulous incompetence with money, which proved his undoing all too frequently.

Via his cookery programmes, he single-handedly turned me into someone who looks on cooking as one of the real pleasures in life. His series “Floyd on France” hit all the right spots with me – the location, the food, and his exciting, irreverent, chaotic and witty style of delivery masking a wide and deep knowledge of his subject. Yes, there were others before him, Delia, the Craddocks, the Galloping Gourmet (Graham Kerr), but Floyd resonated with me like no others.

KEITH FLOYD AND THE DRAGON MAKE A MUSHROOM OMELETTE


I suspect he was a bit of a bugger to live with – he got through four wives, one to whom he proposed within a few hours of meeting her. Definitely his own man, how can you not like someone who irritated masses of Scandinavians when he was doing a series on their cuisine, by whipping up a meal of Flambéed Puffins, a protected species in Norway.

And the clincher for me was his lifestyle in Kinsale, Ireland. Most of us make do with a dog or two. He apparently had four dogs, five cats, 58 rare Breed chickens, 12 geese, a pair of swans, two Jacob Sheep. one pony, six beehives, 77 goldfish (why 77?) and 12 Vietmanese potbellied piglets.

A real Maverick.

Now, Troy Kennedy Martin – who he?

Another maverick, I’m afraid. A scriptwriter for film and TV who in 1962 started the police series “Z-Cars”, which singlehandedly destroyed the cosy mould of the “Dixon of Dock Green” style of cop show we had been watching up until then. He introduced the policeman as a fallible individual, one who did not always behave impeccably towards his family, and who often broke the rules on the job. He wrote the screenplay for the Michael Caine film “The Italian Job”, and as the author of that perfect line “You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off”, then he could go to heaven on those few words alone.

But the reason he’s getting a send off and a doff of the cap from me is a TV series he wrote in 1986 – “Edge of Darkness” – a 6 part thriller about the messy mix of government, the politics of Plutonium and the nuclear waste industry, and faceless multinational corporations. I’ve waxed lyrical about it here before, but suffice to say it’s dark, dense, atmospheric, enigmatic and very, very imaginative. Even the music, written and played searingly by Eric Clapton still haunts me.

ERIC CLAPTON PLAYING THE THEME MUSIC - HOW ABOUT THE HAIR?


One of the best TV series I’ve ever seen. After “Edge of Darkness” his life descended into family and financial chaos. And after it, he hardly wrote anything of note again, although apparently, just before he died he had just finished a 6 part series for my favourite American channel, HBO, on Global Warning and called “Broken Light”. Let’s hope.

For anyone interested, I’ve just noticed that early in 2010, there’s a film of the series coming out. Mel Gibson and Ray Winstone starring. Mmmm.

“Edge of Darkness”, “Tutti Frutti”, “This Life”, “The West Wing”, “The Wire”, and coming up on the rails “The Sopranos”. Forty years of fitful viewing throws that lot up as my “Best Ever” list. The order moves around a bit, and the odd new one arrives, but none of them disappear.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

CHEATS NEVER PROSPER

It’s odd how one single action can make you realise just how starkly something has changed from how it used to be to how it is now.

Formula 1 Motor Racing - is it a Sport or a Business?

Discuss.

Well, after yesterday’s explosive meeting in which three high ups in the French Renault F1 team (Nelson Piquet Jnr, the driver, Flavio Briatore, Renault Team Principal and Pat Symonds the Renault Engineering Director) were found guilty of deliberately causing a crash so that team driver Fernando Alonso could win a Grand Prix in 2007 tells you (or at least me) absolutely that the days of it being a sport have gone for ever. I’d suspected that Business had triumphed over Sport in F1 circles for many years, but this removes all shadow of doubt.

The power of Money, the pursuit of Power, and the pursuit of the Ego have won and once again the corrosive destruction of something you thought may still have had a whiff of residual purity in it, leaves a pretty nasty taste in my mouth at least.

I suspect that all sports push at least some of its participants to test where the start point of the Unfair Advantage lies. Sometimes an injection of money buys it. Better training facilities, more aerodynamic swimsuits, more powerful engines, the time to spend more hours at the sport, and less earning the money to pay for the improvement, lighter bikes, more coaching and support skills – the list is pretty endless. The drugs issue is another side of this, where personal improvement is bought at who knows what cost to the body or the mind of the participant. Yes, these people get the immediate accolade, although it must feel to them, on the inside, like cheating at Patience or Solitaire.
Yet they still do it.

Motor Racing has always had the issue of Cheating/Unfair Advantage sitting under the surface fighting against the genuinely Great Driver or the Genius Car Designer, and it has often been very difficult to work out who sits where. As far back as 1952, the French firm Gordini neatly solved the power deficit problem they had by putting a 2.5 litre engine in their car at Reims in France in the Grand Prix Race wher the maximum engine size was 2 litres, and promptly won.

Racing teams used to regularly swap the numbers on their cars to ensure both team drivers qualified for the race using the best car available. Teams have been known to poke out a pit board from their pit to break the timing beam in front of their car during Practice to move them up the grid a few places.

It all seemed a bit of a joke then. But, nowadays, there is so much money involved in the sport, the “fun” bit is long gone, and to my eyes, so has much of the sport. It’s all deadly serious and, very definitely, not played for laughs anymore.

But although there are a few occasions where people put their hands up and do the “Fair Cop, Guv” bit, I am left with the suspicion that the cheating and “advantage taking” remains not far under the skin. I am nowhere near the sport, but even I am aware of a few examples over the last 15 years or so where my eyebrows were raised (to varying levels) at what individuals and organisations seemed to be prepared to do in the name of winning a race.

Such situations, fairly or unfairly, seemed to follow Michael Schumacher about, one reason why, great driver though he undoubtedly was, he does not qualify in my eyes as a great human being. In 1994, his Benetton team broke the rules in the electronic systems on his car. A few lines of deftly hidden code in the software controlling his traction control system seemed to bestow an amazing power to get his car off the start line better than all the others. Benneton also apparently had an amazing way to get fuel into the cars more quickly in pit stops, by using an illegal tubing system which gave them a few seconds advantage. His Team Manager in those days – Flavio Briatore.

When under pressure to win World Championships, Schumacher was not above running his rivals off the road. He did it in 1994 by driving Damon Hill off the road, and did it again in 1997 with Jacques Villeneuve, both of whom would have won the World Championship had he not done so. He did something similar in 2006 at Monaco, where, on a narrow circuit, Pole position is critical, by the simple expedient of stopping his car in the middle of the track to prevent Alonso from having the chance of matching his own time.

Honda, in 2005, (now Brawn – and leading the World Championship as this is written) were caught with a secret fuel tank built into their car, allowing them a weight advantage to be used during the races. None of the other teams made much of a fuss about this, and the suspicion is that several of them were doing the same thing, and a bit of frantic redesign was the immediate order of the day in several Grand Prix Design Offices.

In the last couple of years, spying to get hold of data about opponent’s cars has raised its head on a few occasions. Trusted individuals, high up in Team A, have been found extorting crucial data about next year’s cars from members of Team B. McLaren were fined $100 million (not a misprint) in 2007 for allegedly extracting technical secrets from Ferrari via a design dossier passed over on a couple of CDs. There are strong rumours that Toyota, a Japanese team who has spent fabulous sums of money in Formula 1 with singular lack of success to date, was involved in something very similar, although that seems to have died a death.

None of this is nice, but none of it puts lives at risk. It is a statement of the blindingly obvious that Motor Racing is dangerous. No-one would watch it if it was totally safe. When cars crash, physics and maths take over, and the human element in it all gives away total control of the outcome to fate, sometimes with fatal results.

People try to make it as safe as possible, but “as safe as possible” is not “Safe”. Even this year, the son of John Surtees who won the World Championship in 1964, was killed racing when a tyre came off another car and hit him on the head. In Formula 1 this year, Felippe Massa had his skull broken and hasn’t raced since, by a spring which broke off another car he was following. Accidents happen, and happen unpredictably.

Here, with Nelson Piquet Jnr, we have a driver, apparently offering to crash his car at the most opportune point in a race to allow his teammate, Alonso, to modify his race strategy, and win the Grand Prix. On the basis that Renault are formally not contesting the issue, and the fact that the Team Boss and its Engineering Director have parted company with the French firm, as of today, the only conclusion that can be drawn is that they all colluded to arrange a crash in the race, presumably for financial and “glory” benefits. The fact that Piquet’s actions could have resulted in a major accident involving himself, the other drivers and the spectators at the venue seems not to have worried them. Terrifying.

He seems to have done it to try to curry favour with Renault. He is the son of a previous World Champion, also named Nelson, who was a seriously good driver in his time, and you can imagine the parental pressure to live a father’s life again through his son here. Nelson Jnr had definitely not been a success, and was fighting for his racing life with Renault when the alleged incident took place. Unfortunately, Nelson Jnr was not a great driver – he wasn’t even a good one as Grand Prix drivers go, so presumably panic took over.

He has now totally destroyed any driver credibility he may have had, and two of the Great and the Good in the sport, Briatore and Symonds have also been destroyed. No-one, I imagine will feel much sorrow about Briatore, but I am genuinely surprised and amazed that someone like Pat Symonds would have got involved in such a thing. He came across on TV as an honest and upstanding individual with a considerable degree of integrity about him. Perhaps it was the pressure from the Corporate bosses to succeed, or perhaps he wasn’t quite as straight as his TV persona suggested. I simply don’t know.

But it’s yet another example of the erosion of the simple belief in sport that what you are seeing is people striving to their utmost within a given set of rules to be the best there is. It’s very corrosive, to me at least, and the next time I see something magical happen on the Sports TV screen, I will find it difficult to avoid the nasty little cynical thought niggling in the back of my mind that someone has pulled a fast one here.

And I really don’t want that.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

WE’VE LOST A MEMBER OF OUR FAMILY

What is it about dieting? It’s now classified as an infectious disease in our family. One member started about 6 months ago, and over the last few months, everyone in a position to do so, ie one of my daughters (the other is 4 weeks away from giving birth), both of my Sons in Law, my wife and myself have had the weight reduction bit between our teeth.

In total, we’ve lost a little over 10 stones, ie 140 pounds – the weight of one of us. Hence the title of this piece.

It’s weird how it all takes hold. I’ve been around 12 stones (156 pounds for those living in the far flung outposts of the Empire) for most of my life, but, over the last year or so, it has gradually crept up, evidenced by that imperceptibly increasing but very real amount by which one needs to breathe in to allow the various zips and buttons to be secured. There comes a point where another meal of the current size and calorie content will cost a fortune, because it will entail a visit to the shops to buy a complete new wardrobe one size larger.

And that for me was the final straw. Take yourself in hand boy, get a grip and stop troughing.

If you go on at someone to lose weight, it simply doesn’t work. It has to come from within. If you go on one of these fancy diets, that is only a temporary measure. As soon as you reach your desired weight, you revert to the previous regime, and off you go, or more accurately on it goes again.

I’m very much not a diet expert, never having subjected myself to the strictures of one during my life. So I use simple logic - at least that’s what I think it is. The fewer calories you take in, given a constant rate of metabolism, the more you will use your internal store of energy, and the more weight you will lose. I have no desire to eat Cabbage soup, and fart like a trooper for the rest of my life, and a diet of strict protein, like an Atkins one, would set me hallucinating for a warm, buttery croissant within days.

I have almost zero self control in these things, so it had to be something my weak-willed-ness could cope with. Anyone who can eat a complete packet of biscuits at a sitting the way I could, needs everything on their side to make it work.

So, try to cut out the mid morning “this”, and the mid afternoon “that” (if you're into Winnie the Pooh (and you should be), the "Little Smackerels"), try not to go too mad with the clotted cream and strawberry jam scones (with butter of course) and keep to around 1900-2000 calories a day. You can even get away with a couple of glasses of wine in that if you do a bit of advanced calorific planning.

It seems totally unfair that, metabolically speaking, as you get older, your body needs fewer and fewer calories to maintain any given weight. What spoilsport thought that one up? As the years roll on, our minds start to go (Why am I standing with the fridge door open and a toilet roll in my hand?), our skin gets more rugged (not good for the fairer sex), our joints stiffen up at the same rate as other parts get less stiff (for my sense of self esteem, I put that one down to the medication!), and generally it all gently unravels. You’d think that, as a little bite sized consolation, the Great Dietician in the Sky would allow you to consume more calories each day. But No.

So my infernally clever Japanese weighing machine, which instantly calculates my Body Mass Index, whatever that is, and my optimum calorie intake tells me that I need something around 2,700 per day to stay as overweight as I am, and gives me a target. I don't think the Japanese have a sense of humour. Since each pound of weight loss needs 3,500 calories NOT to be injested, then, the maths tells me, aiming at 2,000 per day will result in a loss of a bit more than 1 pound per week.

10 or so weeks later, I am 13 (actually 13.4 – to me, the 0.4 is quite important here) pounds less heavy. My clothes now fit, and actually the ones which you use as a last resort as the weight creeps up, now fall off me with a very satisfying “splott” on the carpet. So Memo to Self - don’t wear those when you go to the supermarket, as the other customers might get the wrong idea when you’re bending over in the veg section selecting a cucumber.

I feel significantly better as a result of all this. Some of it is psychological, the result of setting out to do something I didn’t quite know I could keep up. And some of it simply physical. Just lift a large bag up that weighs 14 pounds, and imagine having to carry it around all the time. You really shouldn’t be surprised, but I was.

And I now feel I can manage to stay on the regime I’ve come up with. Last night, I even had a gargantuan portion of Daughter-cooked (and hence excellent) Shepherds Pie last night, and went to bed thinking that, as I leapfrogged onto the scales this morning, I would be in for a rude awakening. I weighed less that I’d ever done this year. Perhaps there are no calories in a meal cooked by someone else.

My confusion is immense, but I don’t care. I was going to say that "The Proof of the Pudding is in the Eating", but you'd probably think I was going for a cheap laugh, so I won't.

Monday, August 24, 2009

ISN'T SHAMPOO A FUNNY WORD?

The Kangaroo Paw flower is a very attractive plant. It has even been selected as the floral representative for Western Australia, so emblematic is it. It is so named because in its unopened form it looks, surprise, surprise, like a Kangaroo’s Paw. Simple really. Except that I’ve never studied the paw of a Kangaroo.


Its medicinal benefits, I have to say even at my advanced age, have bypassed my attention and awareness for greater than 60 years. Still you live and learn.

I was showering away this morning, and grabbed the bottle of shampoo to wash my hair. Purchased, I submit in my defence, by the other person who lives in my house, it was called “Aussie – Mega Shampoo”. No, I don’t understand either.

The small writing on the front of the bottle soothes me with the vital information that it “cleanses without the build up that causes the hair to droop.” That will be very handy, since, following a session with Shirley, my hairdresser late last week, there isn’t one hair on my head longer than a quarter of an inch. The longer we talk, the more she cuts my hair, and we had a very long conversation last Saturday about me being on the television and radio during the week. And as I kept talking, she kept cutting. Hence the virtual baldness.



The front of the bottle goes on – “Hair will be bouncy and clean”. Mmmmm, I think not. Clean, perhaps, Bouncy – no bloody chance. It looks like a less frenetic Shane Warne, and I don’t think that’s much of a compliment, since I last described his hair as looking like an explosion in a Mattress Factory.

Anyway, off we go. We squeeze some out. I have to say this is the first time I’ve had a really good look at it. I know this is a family website, but the only way I can describe it uses an analogy that involves the description of the colour, texture, and, I suspect, feel of the contents of a well used condom. Ugh!

And I’m just about to rub it vigorously into my beautiful recently coiffured follicles! And then, even worse, into those hairs about 30 inches nearer the ground which don’t see the light of day quite so often. Yikes.

And I’ve got it all on my hand.

Things are going from bad to worse now.

So I turn the bottle round to see what’s on the back. Something, I idly anticipate, about the tender process where nubile Australian lasses gently masticate the Kangaroo Paw flowers between their toes to extract the delicate juices, mix it with rare and beautiful herbs and spices, and add a touch of soft soapy something or other, so they can then ship it all off to a gratefully waiting collection of ardent customers on the other side of the world?

Ah well, you know there had to be a problem didn’t you?

The really small print on the other side tells you what’s inside the bottle. Now, call me old fashioned, but this lot sounds like something that would result from Macbeth’s Witches being seconded to the Development branch of the Iranian Nuclear Bomb Team.



I did Chemistry to a reasonably high level when I was at school, but none of the names (alright, I agree not “Aqua” or “Sodium Chloride” – why in heaven’s name do I need Salt in my shampoo?) meant anything to me. There were 31 substances – that’s the only word I can think of here – in the bottle apart from the “Aqua”. And two of the really scary ones were not even allowed a name using alphabetic characters.

We had CI 19140, and CI 14700. Shades of Agent Orange here. Actually that’s nearly right, because when later you Google them, you find they are colourants which as far as I am aware can be dangerous if injested, ones we try really hard to avoid our children getting anywhere near. And I’m about to smear the stuff all over my most sensitive parts.

So I’m standing there wondering what to do and thinking evil thoughts about the Australians. Is this a subversive act by some miserable Australian gits to get back at those Pommie Bastards who sent them over to the other side of the world as penalties for their crimes two hundred years ago, as well as, at the same time, anticipating a 2-1 England win in the Ashes at the Oval?

And then you read the even smaller print, and down to earth we come. This potion – Eye of Newt and Toe of Frog etc. is actually produced in England by a company whose Head Office is in Weybridge in Surrey, a sleepy town where I spent three years of my education learning about aeroplanes.

Just to make my day, I suppose someone will now write in to say that Father Christmas doesn’t exist. Perhaps I should do what the manufacturers ask in the smallest print on the bottle.

"... Put pen to paper. We like getting letters, no-one does it these days, and it makes us feel special."

Yeah, Right.