Monday, 30 March 2009

Hannah Scott and John Carden

I mentioned Hannah Scott when her debut album came out last year . Her new CD - a collaboration with John Carden, arrived yesterday, signed by the two of them without me asking and with a wee handwritten thank-you note from Hannah enclosed again. I find that really sweet; it's that precious moment when a band is teetering on the cusp of greatness, but still have time to appreciate you and take nothing for granted. When each order matters and they're grateful for every supporter. This girl is destined for big things, and it's a mystery to me why she hasn't been signed yet. She is like a butterfly beating her wings against the glass; any moment someone's going to open the window and then you'll need a telescope to see her.

'Falling into Spring' is an EP with just five tracks, but they're all crackers. It's maybe her register or the east coast accent that reminds me of Beth Orton (I know, her's is west), but this is lighter and less plaintive. I've never met these two and have no axe to grind, but I reckon I'm putting a good tip your way in suggesting you visit this link and have a listen. And if you like what you hear you just click the button and for the price of a pint or two the thing arrives in the post, and you can shoot a line to your pals and you have the sound for this summer's braais and a collector's piece to boot.

Saturday, 28 March 2009

Bean Beetles

A retiring little chap is
Platypus Cylindricus
Inclined to keep his head down,
Preferring not to mix with us.
He tidies up detritus
Avoiding any pain or fuss
Assisted by his mucker,
Agrilis Pannonicus.


Thursday, 12 March 2009


Nice Savannah has tagged me for a meme. The rules are to: put the link of the person who tagged you on your blog, include the rules, mention 6 things or habits of no real importance about you, tag six people adding their links directly and alert the tagged. I'm going to skip number six, but sincerely invite you to have a go anyway. And, so as to halve your boredom, I'm going to split my six into two; three today, three not.

1) John Peel (who like Darwin went to my school and didn't much enjoy it), collected bits of himself that fell off, like toenails and blisters, in a plastic container labelled 'Dad's Scrapings'. I'm not as bad as that, but I do hoard ephemera which is unlikely to have any interest or value unless my descendents go on saving them for another hundred years, which not being deranged they are unlikely to do. I'm talking train tickets and car tax disks and bad poetry and letters and instructions about how to cane chairs or discourage moles.

2) I doodle. After a phone conversation I find notes in front of me that I don't remember writing, but which weren't there before. They say things like, "Good morning ... some difficulty ... understand ... twat ... Marymarymarymary ... No", interspersed with flowers and strange, shaded shapes like erotic bricks. In my fifth and final degree year, suspecting correctly that I was 5% knowledge and 95% silver-tongued bullshit, my tutors asked to see my lecture notes. Since these all started off with a heading and a date, followed by about half a sentence that tailed off into a page of doodles, I had to pretend, suddenly not so convincing after all, that I'd left them on a bus. In fact, I came across some of my early literary efforts this week. The poems are rubbish, but the doodles must say something about the mental state of my 16 year old self. I'll paste a couple in and you can draw your own conclusions.

3) I have slight OCD leanings. For example, I find myself unnecessarily counting stairs, and it is not normal to know that there are 76 panes of glass in every window in Dunvegan Kirk (although the sermons were very dull). The Social Secretary and I are opposites, in that I like order; for example, the tools in my workshop each have their place and I could find them blindfold. In contrast, the SS hangs kitchen utensils in a different place every time, and seldom closes cupboards or drawers. It's a moot and much discussed point whether it is me that is obsessive, or she that is untidy. In looks and demeanour, however, she is Sinead O'Connor, and I am Shane MacGowan.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Avro Vulcan

Against all the odds it looks as if we might have the chance to see the mighty Vulcan fly again this summer. As of this afternoon and in the nick of time, a million pounds has been pledged to keep the aircraft flying this year. Over 90% of this has been promised by private individuals. In an economic 'perfect storm' which has made it almost impossible to attract commercial sponsors, this is the second time the public has come to the rescue. In 1993 the Vulcan seemed to have flown for the last time until, last year, XH558 took to the air again after donations helped to fund a refit.

I've blethered about this aeroplane before. It was designed by Roy Chadwick, designer of the Lancaster bomber, who began work on it in 1946. The first prototype flew in 1952, and 112 were built altogether. They were a mainstay of Britain's nuclear deterrent throughout the Cold War, although they were never used in anger until, already scheduled for retirement, they were hastily converted for conventional ordnance and used to bomb Port Stanley airfield in the Falklands War.

The three components of Britain's nuclear 'V' Force, The Avro Vulcan, the Vickers Valiant and the Handley Page Victor, sound like echoes of a past era, and it is hard to believe that the Victor, which first flew as a bomber in 1951, was still in use in the Gulf War. If, like Concorde - which emerged from the same era - the Vulcan does not look its age, the Victor looks like something out of Rupert and the Space Ship.

Carrying twenty-one 1,000 lb bombs per aircraft, the round trip of 8,000 miles in the Falklands' 'Black Buck' missions was the longest in history. To get a single Vulcan to the target and back required no less than twelve Victor tankers and a Nimrod, in a mind-numbingly complex pyramid of refuelling rendezvous, in which tankers refuelled tankers, that refuelled tankers that refuelled tankers. The Victor tanker which flew furthest itself required eight support aircraft.

It may seem profligate to spend money on this aircraft in the current recession, but once on the airshow circuit it could become self sustaining, and the cost of keeping it in the air compares favourably with Sir Fred Goodwin's annual pension. As an inspiration for young engineers the Vulcan is worth every penny. If you want to sign the petition seeking to persuade the Government to contribute something to keeping this aircraft flying, follow this link. To find out more about the last flying Vulcan and its display schedule, look here.

Amongst useless but jolly facts I learnt while writing this, are:

In 1956, when a pilot got its nose down too far, a type 1 Victor accidentally broke the sound barrier.

The Vulcan wowed the crowds in a display (which included a barrel roll) at the 1952 Farnborough Airshow, just 72 hours after its maiden flight.

The prototype Victor had to be transported by road to Boscombe Down for its test flight. Bulldozers were used to create alternative routes where the road was too narrow, and the aircraft sections were hidden under wooden framing and tarpaulins printed with 'Geleypandhy, Southampton' to make them look like a boat hull in transit. 'Geleypandhy' was meant to be an anagram of 'Handley Page', but the signwriter ballsed it up (I love it that, while we tried to hide the prototype from Soviet spies, we couldn't resist painting a darn great clue on the box).

Thursday, 5 March 2009

The Irresistible Glamour of the Average Town Planner

While his mother was away the neighbour's boy had a little problem with the wood-burning stove.

He was just leaving the house to drive his girlfriend - who is delightful - to the station, when he heard a noise like a Eurofighter cranking up for take-off at Saba. Looking up, he noticed that a turbojet on full afterburner appeared to have become embedded in the top of the chimney, casting an eerie glow into the night sky. Unlocking the house he entered the kitchen. Unopened mail, snackpots, decorative garlic plaits and smaller items of furniture were being sucked across the room into the stove door, which now resembled the mouth of a volcano on curry night. The cat had its front legs wrapped round the marble sculpture of two penguins that his mum did on a residential week in Tuscany. He quickly phoned the Fire Brigade, while his delightful girlfriend sat down with her laptop and began some coursework.

The Social Secretary and K happened to be driving nearby when they caught a glimpse of flashing blue lights, and stopped off to see the fun...the fun being firemen in rubber boots. (What is it with women and firemen? Why not women and town planners? What have firemen got that town planners haven't? Do firemen use Article 4 Directions and Section 106 Agreements? Do they have Rotring Rapidographs in all sizes from 0.1 to 0.8 and several seductive shades of black and burgundy? Can they quote the Use Classes Order or operate a Planimeter? Have they got felt tips? I don't think so).

When they arrived the neighbour's son was in the yard, adjusting his story. His girlfriend (who is delightful) was sitting in the car doing some course work on her laptop. Several of the firemen were 'well fit'. And they won't need to get their chimney swept this year, so there's always a silver lining (assuming it hasn't burned through).

(Incidentally the neighbour's boy's mum now knows about the cat poo on carpet tile frisbee incident, which someone accidentally let slip the other day. The passage of time and a bottle of South African shiraz softened the blow, and she forgave him).

Monday, 2 March 2009

From Zaftig to Aspie by DJ Kirkby

You cannot choose the moments in life which will become perfectly preserved in memory. They are accidents of mood and sensation. Each is a miraculous survival, a tiny treasure. From Zaftig to Aspie has many such moments. It is like opening a jewellery box and seeing the contents sparkle as they catch the light. The author has captured her childhood in Canada with a vivid freshness, giving it an immediacy which suggests that she has not forgotten how it feels to be young.

DJ Kirkby’s earliest memories read like scenes from a road movie, and her nomadic, unconventional home life might have today’s child welfare authorities blenching. There are shadows of poverty, of an unsettled family structure, cruelty from classmates and of sexual abuse, but all these are outweighed by the love of her free-spirited, hippie mother and the easy-going kindness of a loose circle of friends and relations. What emerges is a picture of a little girl who was different. Who preferred pickles to sweets. Who was trusting of animals and people, and unfazed by the weaknesses of human nature. For whom rock music and the scent of marijuana was more normal than playschool. A little girl who found riches in the woods and sea shore, and who grew into a creative, uninhibited, well-balanced woman. The author’s undiagnosed Asperger syndrome contributed to the trials of growing up, but also to her unique and colour-filled view of the world.

The anecdotal nature of the writing is complimented by the episodic structure of the book. No chapter is longer than ten pages; most are only two or three - but this in no way interrupts the flow of the narrative. D J Kirkby’s style is flowing and unfussy, and I was captivated from the outset. Sometimes the originality and aptness of a turn of phrase or choice of adjective stopped me in my tracks; this is practised writing, but it is not slick or formulaic. Her recollections are brought to life by their detail and precision – no dry account this, but a pointillist picture, a pietra dura mosaic in which shards of colour create a picture that is greater than the sum of its parts. Throughout, modesty and humour give the book an uplifting lightness. As D J Kirkby invites us, ‘Welcome to the story of my blunders.’

It is difficult to escape the feeling that all of us share some of the drives and constraints common to autism, and that diagnosis is a matter of degree. This is not to underestimate the difficulties that those on the autistic spectrum face, but it explains why we can relate to the author’s experience. This is not a book about autism; it is a book about childhood and adolescence in a richly unusual world in which, as we later discover, autism is both a hurdle and a gift.

Read it.

A Party to Remember

The last time I was at Penshurst was when my school performed Twelfth Night there, one wild and stormy January night, as the timbers creaked in the gale and a bat flapped around the minstrels gallery (the poet Sir Philip Sydney, whose home it once was, had been a pupil at the school, although we just missed each other by 400 years or so).

There was magic in the 14th century Great Hall last weekend. It was a clear, frosty night, so cold that each female guest was given a silk and cashmere pashmina on arrival, and a huge log fire was burning on the open hearth in the centre of the room. No new-fangled chimney nonsense, the smoke rose up into the church-like timbered roof, vying with the faint smell of mothballs lingering around Brother Tobias. The masqued guests, all dressed in black or white evening dress, drank champagne and mulled wine as jugglers and jesters wandered amongst them. At the appointed time our host's wife arrived, probably beginning to guess that some sort of birthday treat was in store, delivered to the door in a white coach pulled by two plumed shires.

We ate above the pantry and buttery in the West Solar, part of the medieval building and hung with elizabethan family portraits of gentlemen in doublet and hose and ladies sportingly exposing their left breasts in the interests of classical allegory.

The meal was to die for. I chose the beef - great slabs of filet mignon that melted in the mouth like meringue, washed down with the best of wines. And the waiting was the best I've ever seen; for each course and clearance the staff filed smartly in, their hands behind their backs. Each table was silently surrounded, a waiter or waitress to each guest. Then, at a hidden signal, every plate was placed or removed simultaneously.

At the end of the meal we were treated to this

It was a splendid surprise. The 'three waiters' really had been doing a bit of waiting, and for most of us unsophisticates it took some time to realise that it was an act at all. They were so good that they won a standing ovation.

And then on to a disco in a heated marquee, lined with black drapes and twinkly lights, to dance the night away to an Abba tribute band and a generous bar. I believe I may even have smoked...

This was the sort of party you never forget. In fact in our case it's the sort of party you never get invited to, and it was a joy to be there and forget the gloom and the recession for a few hours.