Monday, 29 September 2008

Martin Stephenson and Helen McCookerybook

To Whitstable on Saturday night, to see Martin Stephenson and Helen McCookerybook.

It was a beautiful, mild evening. We parked on Middle Wall and crabbed through Squeeze Gut Alley to the Horsebridge. On the beach and the sea wall near the Pearson's and the Royal Oyster Stores there were clusters of people standing with drinks and cameras, watching the sunset over the estuary, as if it was the tropics. We bought a drink and it was almost perfect and to complete the moment, to the SS's chagrin, I blagged a rare cigarette off a couple standing nearby. They wouldn't take anything for it, but wound up next to us at the gig, our new best friends (thanks Michelle; here's to Limerick and original sin!).

Helen opened, quickly winning over the audience. For Freight Train she pulled the promoter/sound man on stage to accompany her; he looked thrilled and terrified in equal measure, clutching a guitar as if it was a fig leaf and singing rather well. Martin Stephenson joined her for several songs too. It was the first time we'd seen Helen perform, beyond parties and people's sitting-rooms; she was confident and relaxed, and her set was flawless.

In the break we visited the bar and looked down from the Horsebridge Centre's balcony at the fizz of laid-back provincial night-life below. (I once wrote a design brief for new development in Whitstable. It suggested weather-boarding, seaward-facing gables, balconies and external staircases, and maybe someone read it, because much of the newer stuff has these and the town has hung on to its quirky character).

Martin Stephenson gave a stunning performance and provided a masterclass in audience-connection. The stage had been erected between the two doors, so that any comings and goings couldn't easily be ignored. And there seemed to be many comings and goings, individual and group. No one escaped Martin's quick (but malice-free) wit. A smiley man with protruding teeth sitting near the front had a magic phone which leapt repeatedly out of his pocket and clattered on the floor like a spawning salmon (we saw him later on an ancient bicycle, wobbling home down the High Street on the wrong side of the road, shedding things). In the front row a small boy slept on his mother's lap. When he woke near the end, tired and disoriented, Martin turned whatever song he was doing into Postman Pat and sang it right through in a magical little concert for one, and no child has ever smiled more widely (there is something strangely endearing in a rock musician knowing all the words to Postman Pat).

You can't pay an audience a bigger compliment than to give the impression that you are enjoying yourself and don't want to stop, and that's the impression Helen and Martin gave us.

Thanks guys.

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Across the Universe

I'd never heard of this movie (clearly don't get out enough) and only bought it on spec. We watched it last night and were completely blown away. Like Mamma Mia it is a love story woven round the music of one group, but it was in an altogether different league.

The cinematography, choreography, and sets were stunning, and the cast could actually sing. The plot and characterisation may be a spare - it is, after all, a musical - and the songs were sometimes crudely stitched in, but the political and cultural backdrop of the Sixties and the sensitively set Beatles' music gave it a gravitas which made MM look like a package holiday. This was 'Moulin Rouge' to Mamma Mia's 'Una Paloma Blanca'

Although the locations flit between Liverpool, Greenwich Village, Detroit and Vietnam, this was a British film through and through, from the Karl Ferris style false-colour palette, through the Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais screenplay, to the cameo roles of Joe Cocker, Eddie Izzard and Bono.

I wallowed nostalgically in the trippy, psychedelic sequences, and it's turned K onto Beatles' music in a way that fifteen years' of fogey parental promotion had naturally failed to do. This was simply a haunting, beautiful film. I only wish we'd seen it on the big screen.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008


Just in case you are in need of a lift, A Free Man in Preston's posts always work for me. If you haven't visited him for a while, read his latest post (see my blog roll).

An Imaginary Massacre and a Minor Miracle

There are many reasons for not blogging. This last week's was having a daughter in hospital with respiratory problems. Apart from our ordered daily schedule going to hell in a handcart, I kind of just lost the urge, choosing instead to tidy the workshop and a couple of sheds with an obsessive single-mindedness which suggests I may be pregnant.

K is back home now, having mentally machine-gunned a socially maladjusted male nurse; a patient with an amputated toe (or rather, without an amputated toe) who kept the mixed ward awake all night complaining of pain in his phantom digit; several senior hospital administrators prematurely promoted from the post room; and the limited linguistic skills of a Latvian drug nurse.

There were good things and bad things about her time there, although - this being Britain's leading C-Difficile hospital under Rose Gibb's appalling mismanagement (Ms Gibbs is now involved in a private consultancy with her partner, who also has a dubious hospital management history, seeking to provide advice on hospital management) - we'll count it a success if she doesn't come home with something she didn't go in with. The initial triage bit (if that's the right phrase) was excellent. Shutting down all systems for the weekend was not.

However, instead of muck raking, I've remembered a really heart-warming hospital story that happened earlier this year.

There is a delightful, diminutive lady near here, who lives alone in a little cottage. She was a nurse all her working life, never married and is now a cheerful and quick-witted 87. Earlier this year she caught a cold and it turned into pneumonia. Even as she recovered from that, her eyesight suddenly and rapidly deteriorated, threatening to steal away her ability to look after herself, let alone read or watch television.

A close friend and neighbour, herself 85, insisted on driving her to hospital, where for many hours they sat and waited to be seen. When, in the late afternoon as the place was pretty much closing up for the day, a consultant finally examined her, he said, "You have sudden onset cataracts. As you've waited so long, I'm going to operate on you right now".

And, in a little laser miracle, he did. Both eyes.

On the drive home, she said "I can read that road sign!"

And her friend behind the wheel replied, "Well I can't!"

I wish I could name the surgeon. But to have so disdained the bumph and procedure and procrastination of the NHS and restored this lady's sight and life on the spot seems a wonderful kindness.

Saturday, 13 September 2008

Ryanair - The World's Worst Airline?

I was having to fly quite regularly a few years ago, not for pleasure. This was just after the al-Qaeda shoe bomber, Richard Reid, had tried to destroy a Boeing 767 with plastic explosives and a detonator. I never saw any passenger make a fuss about the increased security which followed; we were all quite reassured to be shuffling barefoot through those snaking scanner queues.

There have been other terrorism alerts and foiled plots since. In 2006 an alleged bomb plot to blow up passenger jets bound from Britain to the United States using explosives smuggled aboard in hand luggage was uncovered, and security at airports was again increased. On this occasion Ryanair's CEO Michael O'Leary's response was to throw a hissy fit condemning the inconvenience of security measures. Ryanair reportedly threatened to sue the Government for compensation if airport security measures were not relaxed. Here was a company that seemed to put profit before the safety of its passengers.

Around this time O'Leary also ruled out joining the EU carbon emissions trading scheme. He is quoted as saying, "I am far too busy doubling Ryanair over the next few years to be joining any carbon emissions trading scheme." Nice.

Last month, in part of a private war with travel booking web sites, Ryanair stated that it would refuse to honour any online bookings unless they had been made through its own website. A spokesman for the airline said that it was trawling through bookings, identifying passengers who would be prevented from boarding. The Air Transport Users Council suggested that the airline does not want the travel trade selling on its fares because it makes money from other things it sells through its own website. The consumer watchdog 'Which' accused Ryanair of treating passengers (who were to be summarily turned away at the checkout with ruined holiday arrangements) as ''pawns'.

According to an exposé by the Sunday Times last month, Ryanair are now curbing the discretionary rights of pilots to request extra fuel, by imposing a cap on fuel safety reserves for its aircraft. An internal Ryanair memo, sent to pilots earlier this year, reportedly reveals that the company have insisted that any request by a captain for extra fuel should be the "exception", and refers to the normal limit being 300kg maximum reserve, providing about five minutes of extra stacking time for a Boeing 737. Although CAA guidance advises that sufficient fuel should be carried to cope with the standard stacking time of 20 minutes over busy UK airports, the company memo states: "Ryanair can statistically prove that 20 minutes' fuel is not required in LTN [Luton] or STN [Stansted]. Therefore it is not Ryanair policy to carry this fuel." Pilots are also refused extra fuel for observing altitude restrictions imposed by air traffic controllers.

Civil Aviation figures reveal that the number of fuel shortage emergencies in British airspace has doubled in five years. Under European rules, every plane must carry a "contingency" load of about 5% of a trip's fuel, and enough to divert to an alternative airport. Captains have a duty to anticipate delays from head winds, storms and re-routeing, and to request extra fuel to cope with this. Evan Cullen, a pilot with 19 years' experience and president of the Irish Air Line Pilots' Association, is cited as saying that commercial pressure on pilots to pare down the fuel they carry was compromising safety.

In response to reports that Ryanair pilots are condemning this move to restrict fuel safety margins as 'insane', an airline spokesman apparently retaliated that, "No pilot is allowed to fly with minimum fuel as these clowns claim," whilst admitting that pilots were allowed extra fuel only in "exceptional cases", and acknowledging that Ryanair had suffered a Mayday caused by fuel shortage within the last three years.

In 2007 Ryanair was voted 'the world's worst airline' for the second year running. A third of respondents in Britain voted the airline their least favourite, giving delays, cancellations, unfriendly staff, uncomfortable seats and poor leg room as the reasons (in one incident, Ryanair charged a man with cerebral palsy £18 to use a wheelchair).

Me, I can put up with a bit of rudeness and discomfort (although the company's proposal to allow use of mobile phones in flight is pushing it; aeroplanes are one of the few public spaces left where one is not subjected to the one-sided ramblings of loudmouthed prats, and about the only place you would be unable to escape them by any means). Compromising safety is another matter. I know I won't be flying Ryanair so long as it remains under the control of the ruthless and bombastic Mr O'Lairy.

Friday, 12 September 2008

A Case of Mistaken Identity

To meet a rail passenger at Kyle you drive down a ramp from the main road and turn round between the platforms.

On one occasion, while my father was waiting there in his white Vauxhall to collect my mother who had been shopping in Inverness, an elderly stranger tapped on the window and asked whether he might be taken to Carbost. It was only a few miles out of the way and my father, ever polite, said, "Yes, of course". The man opened the rear door and got in, placing a number of bags on the seat next to him.

Shortly after, my mother arrived. He helped her put her shopping in the boot, and she climbed into the front passenger seat, politely greeting the stranger and asking whether he had had a successful day. The old Highlander explained that he had been shopping in the new Tesco's, and then lunched in the hotel. They discussed how handy the new store was, and the bewildering choice there was compared to the Co-op in Portree.

After they had passed through the toll and crossed onto the island, she told my father about her adventures in Inverness, and he reported on his progress servicing the boiler.

As they chattered away, a silence grew in the back of the car (insofar as a silence can grow) until at length, in a pause, the Highlander remarked hesitantly; "This isn't a taxi, is it?"

"No," my father agreed.

It was a very embarrassed Highland gentleman who disembarked in Carbost, trying to proffer notes and thanking repeatedly for the lift.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Three Bad Smells

Smoke in a Jar

When I was about eight, playing with matches one day, it struck me how attractive smoke was as it curled and twisted in the sunlight. Deciding to save some, so that it would spiral prettily for ever, I lit a match under an inverted screw top jar, then sealed it.

Next time I came home for the holidays the smoke seemed to have gone, but when I removed the lid an unimaginably revolting, claggy, sulphurous reek of stale smoke burst out like the horrors of Pandora's box. It is still with me, a premonition of hell.


Nobody's favourite. Once, at that sensitive stage of adolescence when you think the world is a stage and that everyone is looking at you, I was standing at the starboard rail of the Harwich-Hook of Holland ferry, trying to look noble and intellectual. Unknown to me, a child had been seasick three hundred feet or so further for'ard, and its mother was attempting to clean it up with a paper hanky. As she tossed the vomit-sodden tissue overboard the wind snatched it and flung it aft like a guided missile. It must have been doing about 40 knots when it hit me, with the kind of resounding slap which only a soggy Kleenex connecting with a face at high speed can make.

Look noble after that, I defy you.

Abandoned Molluscs

Skye. We were strolling above the shore between Struan Beg and Rubha na h-Uamha one summer afternoon, making for a favourite bay. The sun was shining, the sky as blue as a jay's wing, and the light breeze bore the balm of heather and wild thyme.

We sensed the corruption before we happened on the source. First a hint of the fishmonger's slab, crab paste and kedgeree. Then something feistier, sea wrack and stale sex. As we descended the brae towards the beach it grew stronger, so that the very air stilled and darkened, and the oily swell recoiled from the black shore.

And there it was, perhaps the rankest smell on earth; an abandoned sack of whelks, suppurating in the August heat. Primordial juices ripened and fermented, metamorphosing and evolving. A mucilaginous grey precipitate seeped from the hessian; where it had pooled, the turf was dead.

Even in beauty there is corruption.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Roger Federer v Andy Murray

I suppose I ought to have been rooting for Murray last night. I went to bed instead, and woke to hear that Federer had won the US Open in style. I felt rather glad.

Federer seems like a pleasant, well-mannered, grounded sort of bloke. He has put time and money into being a UNICEF goodwill ambassador and into his own foundation for The Disadvantaged. He also likes cricket and football. Nice Roger Federer is like a lovely bun with icing on.

Murray, on the other hand, has the charm of a malignant malt loaf. His remark during the 2006 World Cup that he would be supporting 'anyone but England' did little to woo supporters south of the border (although it was a view shared by many Scots).

Like Murray, I am mainly Scottish and a quarter English. I feel most Scottish in England, and most English in Scotland, which may be the curse of all expatriates. My loyalty, though, goes to both.

Perhaps in a shrinking world it's okay to prefer the nice guy to the compatriate. What a difference that might have made to History.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Energy Saving Tips

There are an awful lot of holly berries on the bough this year, which is supposed to mean a bad winter (there is a saying in these parts, 'When hol'berries be rife, best cuddle a wife'.) And now that BT has stocked up on anthracite nuts, candles and paraffin before they run out, he can share his suspicion that when the Russians cut off our oil and gas supplies, we might experience the odd power cut over the coming months. These won't last long, because people will stop buying caviar and listening to Tatu, which should soon bring the Russian economy to its knees. In the meanwhile, BT has jotted down his top ten energy-saving tips which you may find useful.

Pop down to B&Q, buy a small pot of own brand Signal Red Gloss, and paint your radiators red. They will look so warm that you will be able to get away without turning the heating on.

Keep an empty hot water bottle under the bed. If taken short in the night, no need to turn on the lights and lose body-heat going to the bathroom; just use the bottle. It'll warm you for an hour or two afterwards as well.

Make your own organic, warming toothpaste; mix two tablespoons of bicarbonate of soda with an ounce of grated dried chilli peppers. Add a teaspoon of lime pickle and stir into a paste. Brush teeth and gums vigorously before bed. There's no need for a partner to snuggle up to with this hot number. Be careful to wash your hands afterwards.

Next time you go to the supermarket, ask for some empty boxes. Tell them that you are collecting for 'Warmer Homes for Wensleydale'. When you get back, move the furniture away from the walls and pile the boxes up from floor to ceiling. You'll be surprised at the difference this makes. The extra storage opportunities are a bonus.

On cold nights a cupful of table salt will stop the lavatory from freezing over. Antifreeze will also work, but be sure to flush well before use. (Always check that the pan is not frozen. If it is, a kettle of boiling water will usually resolve the problem).

Cling film is not an effective repair for cracked lavatory pans.

Marmite has unparalleled antifreeze properties. Squeeze some into your car door locks using the back of a teaspoon. It also makes a useful screen-wash.

In cold weather many foods require more energy to consume than they supply. Try to eat a high-energy, low mastication diet involving efficient calorific ingredients such as bananas, Yorkshire Pudding and Maltesers.

Anyone used to swimming in Britain will know that the water feels warmer on a normal, grey summer's day than when the sun is shining. This is because perceived body temperature is relative to ambient temperature. In winter ensure that you regularly lower your blood temperature with a generous intake of alcohol (you may not technically be warmer, but you won't care).

Dig out that old record turntable from the attic and attach a 3 volt bulb to the short pins on the power plug. Set the turntable to thirty-three and a third RPM and invite a friend to spin the turntable vigorously in an anticlockwise direction; this will provide sufficient light for you to top up your guests' glasses.

Monday, 1 September 2008

Parenting Skills

Bob: "You know how I was a bit of a problem child occasionally?"

His mother: "A bit?"

His father: "Occasionally?"

Bob: "Never mind."