Monday, February 27, 2006

Dark Starbucks

It's taken me a couple of days to get this down, but Friday morning I was en route to an oh so exciting conference at a hotel in central London when I stopped for a coffee. I had endured a long journey on the tube, and although it was bitterly cold outside I didn't want to rush on in as that would mean making small talk with my colleague who was also attending - and I don't particularly care for that I was forced to take refuge in a Starbucks coffee bar.

Anyway, I'm sat down with my latte with vanilla - I must concede, this was pretty good stuff, and the caffeine, which I'm not supposed to have, kept me awake all day - quietly failing to make much progress with the crossword when I suddenly recognise the opening chords of a record I like. None other than 'Sugar Magnolia'. Now, my fellow 'heads, you will appreciate like me that this is by no means the best version of this song, and there is much debate as to what is, and I personally think it's the weakest song on 'American Beauty' as it stands, and that was the version we got, but it's better than the whingey balladeers we were getting for our money that morning, I can assure you. However, I supped up and left when we later got 'Crocodile Rock'... But it was a little ray of sunshiney daydream to get me going.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Sue Barker

I'm watching the Winter Olympics, again, because the alternatives are 'somewhat limited', as Lee Majors' agent once described his client's acting abilities. One channel offers me Trisha Goddard (who? I hear you ask) and 'Britain's Psychic Challenge' - if they're psychic, let 'em figure it out - and then there's the West Wing, which has become a good reason to amend the US Constitution to make it one term and one term alone, Mr. President, and that will be the end of your presidating. I'm quite keen to let rip on the music front, but I wish to be particularly loud, and having told the neighbours to stop playing football in their front room it might be a bit naughty to subject them to a series of Hawkwind albums, although the sonic experience that is 'Brainstorm' will not do anyone any harm, merely clear the mind for what matters, namely more Hawkwind. Anyway, figure skating is the Beeb's offering, gosh, what larks, and more of the paternalistic prattling of Barry Davies, but before that we were treated to the enthusings of Ms. Barker. Now, from once being the pin-up of British tennis, and indeed a winner of a Grand Slam tournament (on an aside here, it occurred to me last night, over dinner, that Andre Agassi has a taste for women with large noses, consider Barbra Streisand and Steffi Graf, yeah? Although I suspect it was Ms. Graf's thighs that were the winning factor there....), whilst having escaped the shadow of Steve 'Mr. Professional - what a wonderful days sport we have in store for you, smile, unctuate' Rider, Sue Barker is increasingly looking like Keith Richards. But most importantly, why have the BBC spent good money taking Steve Cram and Colin Jackson to Italy to commentate on winter sports? Why not take people who actually know what they're talking about. And why are we getting interviews with Duran Duran?

On a good note, escape from the BBC's less than perfect coverage of the Olympics - as well as Duran Duran they keep showing re-runs of TorvilleandDean in Sarajevo, rather than sport which is happening now, puts me back on the laughter trail with Larry David. Which is good. Jeez, I really empathise with that guy. Probably more than any tv character I've ever seen.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Picasso, pictures, plinths and pints

Having arranged some well-earned respite from the meeting-mania, I decided that I ought to put it to some good use, and that meant visiting a gallery. So I took the tube to Piccadilly Circus, then meandered down towards County Hall with a view to perusing their new exhibition of Picasso - all rare and exciting stuff, apparently - of which more anon. I know it's a fair old walk, and that I could have got the train down to Embankment or Charing Cross or Waterloo, or even Westminster, but I quite like the walk, and it does me no harm, seeing as how I'm a fat, and generally lazy chap (definitely chap, I'm told), to stretch my legs, and besides I had promised myself some reward later...and I'd already had a face-full of brekker at a favoured greasy spoon near here, "breakfast number seven, bubble not hash, tea and toast, ta". I'd sat on the train as far as Piccadilly plugged into some sounds and having the odd chuckle as I read the paper (Telegraph, natch, where else does one look for upmarket ladies?) but knew that the walk was what was needed. Anyway, I was wandering down Haymarket when I became aware that the ball-and-chain was buzzing. Is there no escape? Then down via Trafalgar Square and Whitehall, past the adoring hordes craning their necks for a glimpse of His Tonyness the Holy, demonstrating his faith in his policies of freedom and liberty by keeping the lumpen proletariat at ever-further distance behind increasing quantities of fence, barrier and weaponry. To Parliament Square, and a quick shake hands with the demonstrators there, not because I agree with them but because you have to admire them for gaining permission to demonstrate at all, and then onto that wonderful place which is Westminster Bridge.

When you get through the onslaught at the road crossing, through the mayhem of the souvenir stand by Boadicea ( I know we call her Boudicca now, I went to school too) and the hot dog trailer, then you can get across the bridge itself. Jimmy Saville, or at least, a five foot six lookalike in white blouse, white trainers and kilt, was setting up to busk with bagpipes, and I hurried along. To County Hall.

There followed some negotiation with the two nice ladies at the counter as to my intention not to look at the Dalis, I only wanted to look at the Picassos, so they only charged me the additional £3.50 to get in, which I think is really kind of them, and I went to get an eyeful of the pictures and ceramics and tapestries. It has to be said that a large number of the pictures are prints, which is perhaps a little naughty, but as I'd not spent a lot to get in I can't beef, and there were some beauties. I loved the ceramics, the pitchers with owls, and there were a number of pictures, one of a nude face down on a bed, oh the simple way he captured the beautiful curves, and the print of the two lovers kissing...and the tapestries, wow, what colour. Anyway, you can tell, I got my moneys worth, and more.

So what next? A plan had formed, I haven't been pub crawling for a while, seeing as the Greek Genius has put the mockers on my old mate alcohol, and the days of rampant dipsomania are probably gone forever, so I thought a tour of some unknown watering holes, with a discreet half in each should make it an afternoon to enjoy, complete with the paper and crossword. First stop, back in Whitehall, was the Red Lion. Nice, definitely a boozer, only the presence of panini rather than sarnies to suggest a poshness which was undermined by the stickiness of the woodwork where many a pint had been spilled, and the beer was fine. Then on, up Whitehall to another pub, the name of which escaped me, and which by its faceless non-descriptness will probably not trouble me again. On the way up there, I was amused by the presence of a bloke walking around with a placard proclaiming the presence of a nearby hamburger shop (they're not restaurants, are they?). But that's not a threat to public safety, so that's alright then. Anyway, whilst in this faceless pub I did get into a conversation with two guys from Defra, one a civil servant, one a scientist, and was delighted to discover that they too are victims of the e-culture at work. They too are expected to respond instantly to e-mails, and form opinions without the benefit of reading the report put before them, without the consideration required, and to advise a numpty ignorant minister on a subject. No room for thought, then. So it's form an opinion, and justify it later.

Onwards up to Trafalgar Square, and a slow stroll around the lions avoiding the tourists photographing one another clambering all over the great cats and ignoring the big man on the top of the column. I took the opportunity to have a good look at the Fourth Plinth, as I was in an artistic frame of mind, which is currently occupied by Marc Quinn's 'Alison Lapper Pregnant', and decided that it is art, and it is beautiful. I believe that there are those who've suggested it was about time public art celebrated disability, and that there are those who think it is distasteful to make a show of it. To all - Trafalgar Square is a monument to a man with one eye and one arm. Anyway, I like Mr. Quinn's sculpture, but I like the use of the plinth in rotation even more, so let's keep it like that.

Now for a serious quandary - to stop off at the Chandos for a swifty, or to press on up to the Bear and Staff? Press on won the day, and I was reminded of why I like that boozer - it's convenient and cheap. There was a young bloke in there with his dad, discussing whether to buy a bus or a van. He was in a band, and they were obviously just starting to get gigs which involved serious travelling, but which did not involve serious money, so my quandary over which pub seemed a bit small, really, and I wish him well, whoever he is. I didn't ask.

Across the road to the Porcupine, again cheap and convenient, but a little, well, grubbier, really, but they do have Barnsley chop on the menu, and you don't see that as much as you might, and as I was supping on my half of bitter, I was engaged in conversation by a man who turned out to be Czech. He wanted me to help him find an employment agency somewhere, I was unable to assist, but he then carried on telling me what great stuff Guinness is. He really enthused, non-stop, jabber jabber jabber, I'd never thought that it was that good. But then, if I did, I'd have been drinking it instead of bitter, no?

Next, a couple of the second hand bookshops, to purchase a book for my sister, and a book for my brother-in-law, and then a traipse around the new bookshops to find a book for me. The reading group which I belong to wants to read a book called 'The Road Less Travelled' by M. Scott Peck. I eventually found it in Self-Help. Oh the irony; I joined the bookgroup because my shrink suggested it would be a good idea...

The rest of the evening was spent zigzagging across Soho, from the Carlisle Arms to the George (a shed) to the Blue Posts and thence to the Crown, via that old standard, the Ship. I was stood next to a bloke in the Blue Posts who was telling his friends that he had just come off the 'phone to the wife of a colleague; the colleague had been killed in a rta that morning. The man did seem a little distressed, he was struck by the complete randomness of it, the unpredictability, the chance, and the sudden devastation left around it. I could empathise. I hope they recover, more, I hope he doesn't just desert his friend's family.

In the Crown there was a young couple kissing. It seemed to close the day after the Picasso. They too were as oblivious as a painting to being watched, totally self-absorbed.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Opening Ceremony

The Opening Ceremony of the Winter Olympics was performed last night. I have to say, I'm not sure what all that sort of thing is for. What purpose does it serve? I can appreciate the need for a parade of the athletes (is any event where there is a subjective scoring of Artistic Content a sport, however athletic the participant?), but the rest of it? Ballet dancers with masks? What is that all about? It looked like a particularly expensive and incoherent edition of It's A Knockout. And, those of you, like me, rash enough to have the telly on with all this, will have enjoyed the lounge bar ramblings of Barry Davies and enthusiastic chirrupings of Hazel Irving as 'commentary' on all this. Now, whilst I must confess a certain warmth towards Ms. Irving, although nothing more than being well-disposed towards her, it was like a headgirl ingratiating herself with a deputy headmaster, who's in his position on the grounds that he's been kicking around longer than anyone else in the common room. Davies got more and more banal as the evening went on. I was watching on the off-chance that something exciting might happen, and was gone within half an hour. The clincher was when, as the Italians used a quote from Dante to set the tone for the event, Davies started gurgling on about London's staging of the Olympics in 2012, and, with Daily Mail-like indignation, suggesting that to quote 'Henry V' would probably be considered politically incorrect. No, Baz, just inappropriate - the aim is to extol the virtues of the Olympic ideals, and, however beautifully written, a partisan view of history is not really the way to do that, not to the athletes of over 150 countries whom we hope will visit and compete. I'm sure Shakespeare has more to offer.

I say 'we hope' will visit. I don't really want the Olympics to come here, and the reasons are many. Firstly, I don't like not being asked. Those unlikely bedfellows Lord Coe (former Chief Of Staff to the Leader of HM Opposition), Tony Blair and Ken Livingston, pursuing an ego trip which will be paid for by a surcharge on the council taxes of Londoners who are already paying a surcharge for Ken and his GLA, the value of which is debatable (grrrrr ggnnnnn foam foam foam at the mouth with seething uncontrollable rage at the...)

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Kurrant Affairs

Some things I've learnt and considered over the past few days.

Whereas I've never though very much of Mark Oaten, at least I now know that that particular activity is technically called coprophilia.

Is the gaoling of Abu Hamza a success or a failure for Tony Blair and Charles Clarke? Surely it demonstrates that there is sufficient law to achieve their stated aims, without adding their 'Religious Hate' stuff? Which suggests, to the cynic, that there may be more than meets the eye to their agenda. (Consider the ever-changing reasons why we really want and need an ID card scheme, oh yes we do, and I'll put you in prison if you don't, at undetermined cost and with even more undetermined regulation and accountability.) Now, it's not my intention to frighten people here, so please, sleep easy tonight, knowing that we're all that little bit safer in a country where the Government has rapidly centralised power, the Prime Minister has fully exploited the Royal Prerogative, where the right to trial by jury is now being eroded, where the accused's previous record is put before a jury (only the prosecution can ever gain from that), and where you can now be locked up without charge, trial or recourse to a lawyer of your choice. Because you present a threat. But not such a threat that there's sufficient evidence to prove it. Because if we had that evidence, we'd have you in front of jury, wouldn't we? Oh, and if you don't like any of this, you can be arrested for protesting your distaste, because that is terrorism.

It's happening folks, and I feel just as hopeless and helpless as you. So let's not all be fighting each other, 'cause that's just what the bastards want.

And, because we need something to cheer us up, and 'cause I just can't stay away from things lovely, check out this lot - paintings.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

samedi soir

What the 'kin 'ell is going on, it's Saturday night and I'm not out, or Alright For Fighting (by the way, the last Elton John record of any quality was a b-side, on the reverse of 'I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues', and as for Candle In The Wind, feel free to judge the lyrics for yourself, now that we've all calmed down from the mass hysteria that possessed the nation, and absolutely nothing has changed at all other than a man and a woman who love each other got married), no, I'm sat here streaming my pearls of something for you to enjoy and perhaps even comment upon. Still, I do have the pleasure of listening to some hot lick selections from the record collection, and rediscovering some old friends. And also, I'm approaching another birthday, and there are always those couple of weeks of purdah while I consider the ageing process and my progress in life, or rather lack of it. Seethe, seethe.

The most obvious consequence of now being well beyond thirty is that whereas I once had hair like the late Marc Bolan, complete with cascades of natural curls and ringlets - I knew women who were forking out forty quid and more to have hair like mine - I now look like Grunt and Phiw Mitchell. There's no evading the baldness, so it's "Number four, please", and enjoy the first cup of decent tea in weeks. The consequence of the tea is that I won't sleep for hours yet; the Greek Genius' first recommendation to me was to give up caffeine, as it was having some serious and unrecognised [by me] effects. Firstly, I had a tremor like Ozzy Osbourne on a bungie. Secondly, I was getting more wired than a telephone exchange, and was snappier than a crocodile on the rag. Thirdly, it was beyond a crutch. I couldn't account for the amount of tea I was drinking - I estimate it at a gallon a day, but to be honest I'd lost count by 10am, and the sixth cup at work, I was lining them up, and that's on top of the pot of tea I'd drink when I got up. I kid you not. Caffeine withdrawal is dead easy, much easier than fags or booze, but the headache is awesome, believe me. And it's harder to avoid tea than gin. And now, if I have a cup of tea or coffee, I won't sleep for hours. But the Genius always insists on offering me a coffee when we meet. Ha ha. Anyway, the tea at the barber's is some compensation for the fact that my hair is now a source of sadness to me, when once it was just so beautiful...

Enough wistfulness. I went to the pub the other night, which is something I rarely do; working in a boozer for two and a half years has made me very choosy about where and with whom I drink; and it turned out to be a terrific experience. I took some associates to a place fairly close to where I live, and we were in their early evening before we went for a Chinese - we took him by surprise - and we doubled the numbers in the place. Well, everyone got their tipple and was making wry and oh so clever comments about the decor, whilst I was noting the presence of the late and aforementioned Mr. Bolan on the stereo. Well, the barman strolls over to our table, and puts down two bowls of Wotsits and salt 'n' vinegar, compliments. Nice! Then, as I'm getting down to getting pally with one particular associate and associated assets, pointing out to her that my experience of this particular hostelry was that the music is always ex-chellent, mostly because it is in essence a lift of my collection with a few bolt-ons to cater for the masses - such as the Smiths, to which she was tapping her toes, and recalling that teenage gloom which I exorcised with a completely different set of vinyl - when the same barman comes over and asks if we have any particular preferences on the music front - so I comment that I know he has some Creedence Clearwater and lo, we are Travelin'. How often does that happen? Most places, it's an earfull of shite; Best 80s Dogwank Party Album Ever, The Very Best of Simple Minds (that's a long album, then), &c; and it's blasted at you at such a volume as the staff can't hear what you're ordering at the bar, so you're leaning across like Quasimodo in an effort to tell them what you want, and find out how much cash they want, but this was so different. Loud enough to be heard and enjoyed, quiet enough to allow conversation of a discreet nature. Ah, a pleasure.

Much like the supper which I have just partaken of. My special Chicken Liver Fricasse. Or as they might say in some parts, 'Frahd Chickin Lehvers, boy'. Take one generous knob of butter or marge, and over a low heat soften half an onion, which you've slice real fine, and grind in a good bit of black pepper. Then whack up the heat and chuck in a handful of livers, which have been coarsely chopped, and as it all sizzles and crackles, keep 'em movin', and add a few drops of tabasco sauce. Once they've greyed, perhaps have a poke at 'em with a knife or fork, and as they've stopped bleeding that's the time to add the magic ingredient, which is something red and garlicy from Nando's, and as it all fries up and starts to darken and the sauce thickens and you get those lovely tangy bits round the pan, finish off with a good fistful of cashew nuts. Still stir for a couple of mins, savour the smell, then scrape it all into a bowl, making sure you get all the juice, and serve with a slice of [ideally bitty brown] bread. Parfait, mes amis. Then for pud, a small tin of pears and some upmarket ice-cream.

Is it a wonder that I'm a right old porker?