Thursday, 25 March 2010

All the news, for £1?

Some of my regulars may be thinking it's all gone quiet over here? So here's an update. Since my last blog about my fantastic musical evening out, I've been contacted by three of the four musicians, who all seemed glad I enjoyed their music so much. I once wrote about REM at Ipswich football ground, and Michael Stipe never bothered to get in touch. Meanwhile Colchester United have gone five games, with only two draws and three defeats - hardly promotion form. It is believed that the players are still earning small fortunes every week.

And talking about fortunes, today I hear that the Independent newspaper has been sold for £1 to a Russian. The last time I bought a copy it costed me over a pound for a single copy, and he's bought the whole company for less. Surely they might have got a bit more on e-bay?

I have been very busy at work, promoting national Walk to Work Week in Colchester. I'm trying to use newer media, and have been busy with another blog with 28 postings recently, so at the moment I don't have as much appetite to spend even more time here. Pop in and have a look at what I've been scheming, and do please join our facebook group "colchester walk to work". It's all about reducing traffic congestion, achieving smaller carbon footprints, and tackling the obesity epidemic (blush!).

We have picnics, a new map, talks, lots of different walking events and a photography competition. If any of you are Bench Monday participants (example above), send me your pictures and I'll use them on my walking site. Stroll on. Thanks.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

A road too far

I am a person who sometimes rides a bike. I do not like the label "cyclist". I have been associated with all kinds of cycling for many years, but to me the machine is only a means to an end. What I really like is being outdoors, exercise, seeing pretty places, peace and quiet, hills, self sufficiency, cafes and cakes, maps, the weather and seasons, simplicity, and a bit of a challenge.

Despite my protestations, people do see me as a "cyclist", even though on most occasions I wear completely normal clothes and ride a three-speed utility bike. Sometimes people send me bike related jokes or novelties, and I like to think I accept them with good grace. Recently my lovely pal Mark loaned me "Discovery Road" by Andy Brown and Tim Garratt, thinking I would enjoy a book about two guys who cycled round the world, had lots of adventures, and came back enlightened by the wisdom gained on their epic trip.

Well no, not really. As with many of these travel books, they make me feel inadequate, when actually I'm quite happy enough with the adventures I have. With their, "you haven't lived until you've seen such and such a place by sunrise", while philosophising with some wise 118 year old peasant who's never been more than 5 km from home. I feel that they sneer at people like me who choose to live in comfortable suburbia, and get their kicks at home or fairly nearby.

In 2004 I cycled 1053 miles from Land's End to John o'Groat's, on a route of my own, following the high land wherever possible. That's me above, at Loch Ness, wearing some natty clothes that help motorists see me, although I was on very quiet roads almost all of the way. Clearly I didn't find any undiscovered tribes, or get my celebredee friends to help me raise £125,000 for charidee, but I did find out a lot about the places I went through, and discovered some things about myself that I quite liked.

I read the first 15 pages of Discovery Road, and put it down, for good. I've got my own life to lead, and my own adventures to celebrate.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Dead Rat Orchestra v Brighton and Hove Albion

I don't get out much, of an evening. And this week I had two choices. On Monday night Colchester United v Brighton and Hove Albion at the Cuckoo Farm Community Stadium, and on Tuesday Dead Rat Orchestra, Eric Chenaux, Reverend Simpkins and Dim Goddess performing music at St Peter's Church on North Hill.

So what to do? The football costs about £17 to sit in a a freezing windy stand, and watch professional footballers earning £1000+/week, charging around for 90 minutes and hoofing the ball up in the air. I've been to hundreds of matches, and studies I've made at the University of Life show that 19% of games are excellent or good, 43% are average, and 38% are poor or appalling. I have no connection with Colchester United, except that I've supported them for 44 years.

The music tickets were £5, for a pew in a freezing cold church, for four acts, giving two and a half hours entertainment. I knew little about the artists, but it sounded interesting. My live music experiences are that 35% are excellent or good, 47% are average and 17% are poor to appalling. I have a slight connection in that I had met one of the Dead Rat Orchestra nearly four years ago at an ante-natal class, and his wife is a facebook pal who writes funny stuff about family life, takes great pictures, and is always friendly to me when our paths cross.

I plumped for the live music. The football turned out to be 0-0, and from what I've read Colchester were lucky to get nil. Less than 4,000 turned out on a cold night, even though the U's are fourth in the league.

So how was my evening? All the clues suggested a concert of "interesting" music, and I feared some cacophony of random noise, especially from DRO. First up was Dim Goddess, pictured above, a woman accompanied by harp. Now I can only take so much harp, but I was enchanted by her playing and singing - a wonderful set. It was so cold she had to stop on occasions to rub her hands and restore feeling, before resuming playing. The church was heated, in the sense that horizontal pipes ran along the aisle, giving heat only to passing mice, with no warmth reaching our willing musicians. She finished with her interpretation of W B Yeats' poem, The Stolen Child, which she dedicated to Alexander McQueen. I knew this piece as my least favourite track on one of absolute favourite albums, The Waterboys' Fisherman's Blues. She stripped out the fiddle-dee-dee Irishness and delivered an earthy elemental interpretation. Marvellous.

Next up was Reverend Simpkins, playing the mighty church organ from the loft. He started with some Bach, which I adored, and this led into his interpretation of the Velvet Underground's Jesus, a simple and very powerful song I know well. Running through some originals which I enjoyed, he then played the Beach Boys' God Only Knows, my absolute favourite BB track. Using the colour of the church organ, and a fair stab with his single voice, at the harmonies of the BB's composition, it was so uplifting. By this time I was wondering if the whole evening was tailored to my personal musical taste. More originals, including a song about Helena of Colchester. Hurrah for celebrating our town in song - you don't have to sing about Wichita or San Francisco for romance.

Eric Chenaux was on next, shuffling up to the front, wearing a flat cap, scarf and overcoat, looking slightly like Bill Bryson. He immediately went into a very fast bit of jazz-style acoustic guitar, and I feared a set of Derek Bailey-type improvisations. But I think he literally was warming-up, and Eric soon settled down into a series of melodic songs, using folk, jazz and blues styles. With some beautiful pauses, unaccompanied singing and very creative instrumental breaks, I was absolutely spellbound by Eric's music's content and performance. Despite the cold I was enchanted by the tales he was telling, his beautiful soft voice and delivery.

Last of all came the Dead Rat Orchestra, a three-piece using classical musical instruments, found objects, electronics and an array of percussion. Two very bearded guys, heaps of kit and a beardless one on amplified violin. Having listened for decades to Edgar Varese, Captain Beefheart, Can, Sigur Ros, The Velvet Underground, Frank Zappa, Faust and Charles Ives, I was quite prepared for any noise they wanted to throw at me. The DRO's sonic journeys were easy enough for my ears, with some wonderful lyrical violin, at times almost English pastoral in style. The pieces included some slow paced vocal sounds building up layers, and some fascinating sounds of metal pieces falling on the church's stone floor. The audience was enraptured by the exploration of noise, music and silences from the Dead Rat Orchestra.

An excellent evening's entertainment, the art keeping me warm in the freezing building. The audience hugely appreciated the show, the only shame being the low attendance. With around fifty in the crowd it doesn't take Stephen Hawking to work out that these talented musical people were earning something rather less than the footballers that were paid to kick the ball up in the air, on a pitch three miles north of the church. I guess the musicians are the same as the footballers; they love their game. I hope the musicians at least get some satisaction that they had a very appreciative audience; more than can be said of the football crowd, from what I've read.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Romulus, by Sufjan Stevens

Every now and then a piece of music grabs me and I can't shake it off. Here's "Romulus" from Sufjan Stevens' album "Michigan". A very touching tale of a son's relationship with his elderly mother. (And really absolutely nothing like me and my mum.) This is my favourite track from an album I'd highly recommend.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Swifty's bike is like Paddy's shovel, and a cure for insomnia.

At the beginning of the week we had seven adults' bicycles at Swifty Towers. Five, I look after, and are used for different types of cycling. (You don't actually need this many bikes, but you know how it is....).

The sixth bike is my daily workhorse, and the seventh is the sixth's twin. The first five are maintained so that they are reliable when chosen, but six is the most used, gets lots of misuse and receives no TLC. Whatever the weather, I use bike six; and with its chain guard, hub gears and simplicity, it doesn't ask for much attention. Since I last serviced Bike Six I've done the same mileage as four Tours de France, and the pros are only half the weight of me, my bike and luggage.

(The next paragraph is fascinating only to people like me, and if you are a regular person it will send you to sleep, no matter how alert you were before reading so far. So if you want to cure insomnia read on, otherwise skip the long paragraph, and read the short summary after it. Back to the story of bike six maintenance.....)

But six has been clanking ominously for over a year, the chain had started jumping, and it had become so bad that I had to act. First, I gave the chain a good oiling, then I moved the wheel back to take up the slack. I then found that I had five broken spokes (yet it was still plenty true enough to ride) and I had no spare spokes to fit, so I swapped with the wheel from bike number seven. Then I had to change the tyre and inner tube. The chain was still jumping, so I scrapped six's worn chain, and used seven's. But I couldn't get the tension constant, so I checked the bottom bracket, and found it extremely worn, even by my "let's get the last scrape of marmite from the jar" standards . At this point I decided it would be easier to jump horses and use frame seven and its chainwheel, axle etc. So more stuff was transferred, including pedals. But one of seven's cranks was slightly bent, so I used one of six's. Then I had to get seven's brakes working, the lighting moved from frame six to seven, and the panniers moved over too. So what started as an oiling of the chain became an all-day epic, especially as the test ride showed that bikes 6 and 7 weren't quite twins, as one crank caught on the frame's chain stay. Hitting the frame with a hammer at exactly the right point to make a tiny dent in the tube, we now have a fully functioning bike.

So what was expected to be half an hour's maintenance, turned out to be a day's tinkering, and bikes six and seven are now one. Yes, we were all at sixes and sevens. Bike six has had so many changed parts it's like paddy's shovel, with almost nothing original. And the bike collection's size after today? Now we are six.

A small pile of scrap parts, and a "new" workhorse, now in service and likely to be left to fend for itself for several years. It feels good to have had the last miles out of the old steed; hopefully there's many more miles left in the rider....

Monday, 1 March 2010

"They'll be dancing in the streets of Raith tonight"

Football fans around the world love Scottish teams for their quirky names and strips. The famous quotation about Raith Rovers was made by BBC Scottish commentator Sam Leitch, after a big Raith Rovers victory in the 60's. But they won't be dancing in the streets of Raith, as it's not a town, the Football Club are based in Kirkcaldy. I met a guy from Kirkcaldy whose name was Graeme, but he pronounced it the Scots way "greem". He was impressed that I knew how to pronounce his hometown's name - something like "kerr-coddy" I'd say. He paid me the compliment that I was he first Sassenach he'd met who'd got it right.

So what's Kirckcaldy famous for, as well as Raith Rovers? Well these days I guess it's the connection with Gordon Brown; he's their MP. I'm starting to feel sorry for him, as I always was a sucker for the "poor dour Gordon" image. For years a steady hand steering the UK economy, while smiley Tony Blair becomes a world statesman; then Tony goes, Gordon takes over, we never find the weapons of mass destruction, the world economy dives and people are getting bored of Labour, so dour Broon gets treated by the media like a dead man walking.

Sometimes I rail against the media, as they seem to decide when a PM's time is up, regardless of whether or not the PM is doing a good job. I remember feeling sorry for John Major in a similar situation in 1997. I would rather the people decided for themselves, rather than be told what to do by the media.

I have listened to BBC Radio 4 a lot today. There's lots about Broon the Bully. Now forgive me for sounding old fashioned, but I wouldn't be surprised that any civil servant working at 10 Downing Street has a stressful job, whoever's in charge of the country. If you want a comfy cozy workplace where everyone's touchy feely sensitive, and it's OK to lay back and listen to the whoosh sound of deadlines as they whiz by, then maybe they should work somewhere else? (Obviously if there are later revelations that GB really is a terrible bully I'll retract this viewpoint.) Then there was a story about a conservative funder/supporter's non-dom tax status. Ho hum.

Later on there was discussion about budget cuts in the public sector, that all parties see as inevitable. And it appears that these parties ALREADY have spending plans/cuts that they would implement after the General Election. However none of them are saying what these plans are NOW, when we might consider what we think of these plans, and inform our decisions about who we want to vote for in the General Election. All we have to go on is speeches with some empty rhetoric about principles and priorities, efficiency savings and quangos, but no details of what any party will actually do. And the reason given, when questioned about what would happen post election, was that this detail would confuse the electorate at this stage.

As in many aspects of life, we have become infantilised.

So here we are, we have the media telling us whose time is up, three similar main parties who seem reluctant to say what they will actually do if in power, and an electorate that has become indifferent to the whole democratic process, apart from the Oldies.

So, come the general election, how will we make our choices? Given that the media and the parties have infantilised the electorate, could the saviour be the internet? Looking at the part the www played in the election of Obama, maybe there's some hope that we can get a new kind of debate, and more people voting from the 18-40 age bracket?


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