Waitrose British Beer Promotion

October 16th, 2010

Between now and early November, Waitrose are promoting traditional, bottled British beer. It’s a bit difficult to tell whether it’s a blanket 2 for £3 over the entire range — only certain beers had shelf labels indicating they were in the offer but I managed to get it on two beers that weren’t explicitly advertised as being included.

I got 6 for £9 from their Thame branch — which is a good discount on their normal prices. While these normal prices are quite a bit higher than other supermarkets, very few will have a range as good as my examples show below. The Bengal Lancer is a superb IPA from Fullers, which I sampled on draught at the Victoria in Strathearn Place, near Paddington station in the spring.

Six of Waitrose's Best

Six of Waitrose's Best

Lurking on the right there is one of the most extraordinary labels I’ve ever seen on any product sold in a supermarket. It’s on a bottle of Skinners’ ‘Cornish Knocker’ — a bad enough name in itself. There’s some spiel on the label about knockers being friends of tin miners and so on but this detracts from the impact of the label itself. What is it suggesting? The mind boggles on all sorts of levels.

Skinners Cornish Knocker

Skinners' Cornish Knocker

The beer itself was very nice — a bit lagery in body and colour. Is that the point or are they going somewhere else entirely?

The Nihilism of ABUs

September 21st, 2010

One troubling facet of this country is represented by the legions of ABUs (Anything But United) whose motivation seems to be purely pessimistic, destructive and nihilistic. I can understand why supporters of another football club may dislike Manchester United but they seem absolutely the wrong club to be the recipients of blind, unquestioning, hateful negativity — although Alex Ferguson’s defensive truculence could invite dislike on a personal level.

Take the last two Premier League games — both have been described by commentators as classics (at least the second half of the Liverpool game). Against Everton both Fletcher and Berbatov scored goals that, as examples of fast-paced, one-touch football, were beautiful. Berbatov’s second goal against Liverpool was absolutely extraordinary. Most overhead kicks are opportunist attempts when a player can’t connect with the ball any other way but Berbatov’s was absolutely deliberate — he started with a perfect first touch, knocked the ball to the perfect height and dispatched it with incredible accuracy. Reina was rooted to the spot as he didn’t expect any sort of shot from a player with his back turned but the kick was so well placed he wouldn’t have saved it in any case.

I like Berbatov as, like Cantona, he gives the impression he isn’t really that interested in conforming to the expectations placed on footballers. He doesn’t run around like a screaming and putting in obvious displays of headless chicken shirt-kissing loyalty for ‘the fans’ — one pundit said he had invented football as a walking game and you imagine he might have a cigarette in his hand as he plays. As with Scholes, he doesn’t need the artifice — they produce a pieces of skill and vision that are at another level compared with everyone else and they shrug their shoulders and say ‘that’s what I do’.

Berbatov has a way to go before he can compare with Scholes who, sadly after he was scandalously wasted by England, is now becoming acknowledged as the best midfield player this country has produced. Some of the football that comes from the Ginger Prince’s boots is as awe inspiring as a great work of art — the 25 yard bullet against Fulham being one example. And all this is from a quiet, small, red-haired bloke who you’d hardly notice in the local pub.

I suppose the casual way that some United players produce flashes of genius might irritate some but that must be offset against the team’s astonishing capability to self-destruct — losing two farcical goals in injury time at Everton being one example. Almost as bad was gifting Liverpool a penalty and free-kick with two challenges that were almost comical in their clumsiness. United don’t need ABUs to detract from them — they’re very capable of doing it themselves.

Fortunately, against Liverpool United had enough time to show the quality which probably infuriates ABUs the most — their determination to keep going (something that is so ingrained that it’s shocking to watch performances when it has been lacking — such as the Champions League final in 2009 and the capitulation to Bayern Munich last season, although that was a great game). As Steve MacLaren once said, United never lose, they just run out of time.

This may also be a point that grates on the ABUs — an unwaveringly optimistic psychology. Alex Ferguson used to always maintain that United played better after Christmas. It’s beside the point whether this was actually true or not (it often wasn’t) but it maintained the belief that things would get better if you carried on trying.

It’s the kind of advice that’s often given to anyone aspiring to do something difficult — keep trying, perseverance is all. This advice is very difficult to disprove — if someone gives up they won’t achieve anything and a lack of success might be explained by the need to persevere more. For most football teams and people trying to demonstrate talent, an infinite amount of perseverance still probably won’t compensate for an innate lack of ability but it’s easier to attribute a lack of success to a failure of determination. Perhaps this is what’s at the root of ABUism — the frustration and emptiness that comes from a defeated realisation that they — or their team — will never achieve their dreams no matter how hard they try.

When Is A Pub Not A Pub

September 9th, 2010

…when it’s the Shoulder of Mutton in Wendover and it mysteriously decides that the whole pub is to become a private function room for a night. Last night two of us cycled to this picturesque small town at the foot of the Chilterns (now blighted by the prospect of the HS2 line ripping through the hills right at the end of the High Street).

We enjoyed a very nice pint of ‘London Pride’ in the White Swan then walked up the hill to the Shoulder of Mutton and breezed in, slightly underwhelmed by the choice of Old Hooky, Adnams Broadside and Courage Best. The barmaid told us ‘guys’ that sadly we couldn’t have any beer (not even if we sat in the garden to drink it) due to a private function — of which there had been no mention on the outside. Maybe she didn’t like the sight of my sweat soaked body — having underestimated the effort required to cycle up the hills on the way to Wendover. The pub is a massive Chef and Brewer with many rambling low-beamed rooms so it must have been some function.

There’s something deeply wrong about this to my mind — it’s bad enough when a part of a pub is sectioned off but a pub that excludes the public isn’t really a public house at all.

We then went on the King and Queen where we had the extraordinary experience on leaving of being described as ‘two gorgeous men’ by a lady of a certain age.

Buoyed by the compliment we sampled the wares at the Red Lion, George and Dragon and finished with a nice pint of Okells at the Pack Horse. Shame about the Shoulder of Mutton or we’d have done all the pubs in Wendover — although perhaps, on that night anyway, maybe we did visit all the genuinely public houses.

Wetherspoons in Aylesbury Are Like Buses…

September 7th, 2010

…you wait twenty years (well, seven in my case) for one to turn up, then two arrive at once.

For about ten years now Aylesbury has probably been the biggest town (pop nearly 80,000 in the 2001 census) without a branch of J.D.Wetherspoon. In June the company opened two pubs — both conversions. The Bell Hotel in the Market Square became The Bell and Chicago’s Rock Cafe (or whatever it was) on Exchange Street was converted into the White Hart, which is the more Lloyd’s No 1 of the two.

The White Hart is in a clever location it currently sits apparently forlornly looking out over what passes for an inner ring-road with just a closed-down furniture shop for company (at least the last time I remembered that’s what it was). But come November the new Aylesbury Waterside theatre is opening over the road and when all the barricades come down then hordes of intellectuals will come flocking down to the new cultural quarter down by the canal. Perhaps. But the White Hart shares the same development as the Odeon multi-screen and there’s going to be, eventually, a new shopping centre in the area and, we’re told, Waitrose is definitely on its way. So Wetherspoons might have been pretty shrewd in getting into this particular piece of real estate.

Inside the White Hart, Aylesbury

Inside the White Hart, Aylesbury

Wetherspoons gets a hell of a lot of flack from the bloody-minded, anal retentive wing of CAMRA types — almost all of it unjustified. The only thing they do that gets my back up is their policy of pretending there are more real ales available at any one time than there really are — the notoriously tiny ‘Coming Soon’ sign that perches on the pump clips of what are inevitably the most interesting beers.

I also admit that they can be chronically understaffed and if you’re unlucky you’ll have an infuriating delay in being served — something I’ve found at the Falcon in High Wycombe. But this is a corollary of their pricing — a bit like how Aldi and Lidl might trade off queueing time against discount pricing. It would be pretty churlish to complain about less than instant service if you get a good pint of real ale for £1.89 — or 5op less if you use one of your £20 of CAMRA members’ discount vouchers.

Wetherspoons do vary — the Falcon in Wycombe is now looking very shabby and in need of serious refurbishment — but they do put something of an objective quality reference point in an area’s pub stock. Put simply, if the best pubs in your area are Wetherspoons then the other pubs aren’t really up to much.

To take Aylesbury as an example. A few years ago there were no Aylesbury town centre pubs in the Good Beer Guide. Then Chiltern Brewery took over the King’s Head and Vale Brewery transformed the Hop Pole. Suddenly there were two destination pubs for ale drinkers and many of the other pubs raised their game.

Yet both the King’s Head and the Hop Pole aren’t cheap and so aren’t particularly threatening the trade of their rivals. The same can’t be said of Wetherspoon’s arrival. With really cheap real ale now consistently available it would be a shame if established pubs were undercut. The Queen’s Head is currently closed but this pre-dates the Wetherspoon arrival.

But it could be argued that, like the Hop Pole and King’s Head, Wetherspoons is also expanding the market, rather than cannibalising it. For example, I was in Aylesbury on Friday lunchtime and had a quick drink in the White Hart (surprisingly, it was non-alcoholic). I’d anticipated probably buying a sandwich from M&S for lunch, or similar, but at £3.10 the Wetherspoon ham, (free range) egg and chips (not many of them though!) was much better value for money.

Prices for beer are so high in pubs that people tend to binge on cheap supermarket beer before going on a night out to save money. If Wetherspoons, with cheap real ale, gets people into the pub rather than boozing on bland stuff at home then what’s not to like?

Is It All A Big Lie?

August 30th, 2010

The controversy surrounding the allegations of match-fixing (well, not actually match fixing, more like no-ball fixing) in the test match between England and Pakistan strikes me as potentially more hypocritical and deceitful towards the sports spectating public than the alleged offences themselves.

The partisan nature of sport makes it ripe for corruption. Supporters are so desperate to will on their teams that they will celebrate the most unlikely and implausible of circumstances as elements of drama — the missed penalties, the ‘inexplicable’ refereeing decisions (which are very explicable if looked at from a more cynical perspective), peculiar substitutions and so on.

Commentators and pundits almost make their living by walking the line between applying the language and analysis of fiction to events and emphasising that these events are opposite of fiction — where you must NOT suspend your disbelief. For watching sport to make any sense you must believe it is true. How often do they say ‘That’s unbelievable’ or ‘I can’t believe he did that’ or ‘miraculous recovery’.

This is why the indignant self-righteousness of the sporting establishment towards any suspicion of lack of integrity in sport — match fixing, positive drugs tests and so on — is so nauseating in that it primarily serves to protect the sporting establishment’s self-interest. As I wrote in a piece after a diabolical refereeing display in the last world cup: ‘almost all football journalists [could be viewed as] part of a self-preserving conspiracy to maintain the illusion at all costs of results being determined solely by honest endeavour on the pitch.’

Their reaction is hysterically two-fold: firstly demand the most draconian treatment for those suddenly-discovered rotten apples who besmirch the reputation of the great game; secondly, deny that the corruption goes any deeper than the individuals whose misdeeds the newspapers are confident enough to report publicly. Basically it’s a case of hang those out to dry who got caught and pretend nothing else has happened.

A scenario that suggested that certain sports were riddled with corruption and cheating would not be welcomed by anyone who makes their living from sport and their reactions to such allegations need to be judged in this context.

In this case, it’s quite curious that it was the News of the World that broke the Pakistan cricketing story — as Sky Sports have paid a lot of money to broadcast the test that the NOTW brought into question. In a world where people cast aside their bigoted prejudices and self-interests one might expect journalists from the BBC or Guardian to be praising this piece of investigative journalism. I wouldn’t hold my breath.

World Cup Predictions

August 30th, 2010

Two and a half months after the end of the most forgettable football World Cup — only memorable points for me were really the Dutch violence in the final and Lampard’s goal-that-wasn’t — I looked up Charlie’s prediction for the draw against the final results.

I think I did as well as most pundits. I got Spain as finalists and I got five of the eight quarter finalists — and two exact matches. Bear in mind this was probably the most unusual World Cup to predict with not only England playing calamitously but also France and Italy and the performances of Uraguay, Germany and Paraguay also were unexpected.

I expected both Brazil are Argentina to progress to the semis (but not the finals) so I think that gives me one over on many of the pundits who, Spain apart, always bowed to the big two Latin American sides. So that explains why I had Holland and Germany falling at the quarters.

I still think that had the Lampard goal gone in then England would have won that game and the Argentinian side were poor (even with the much over-hyped Messi) so I think England would have gone out at the semis against Spain. So one adjust for my hopeful bias towards an England win then I effectively picked the winners. I reckon I did as well as most of the ex-pros and anticipated more of the shock results than they did.

Why Do They Do It?

August 28th, 2010

It’s like the traditional spot the first cuckoo in spring competition but a lot more irritating — coming across the first ‘Book Early for Christmas’ outside a pub or restaurant.

Driving up to the Bucks County Show on Friday I spotted the first offending banner of the season hung outside the Horse and Jockey in Aylesbury. This was 26th August — fully four months before Boxing Day — that’s what I calculate to be a mere 131 days before the event itself.

I thought it was bad enough that I saw Trick or Treat pieces of junk on sale at John Lewis in Oxford Street on Monday — though that may be worse in some ways as those imported American Hallowe’en ‘customs’ are just a consumerist abomination — what’s wrong with Guy Fawkes night.

If I were a pub or restuarant owner I’d calculate that hanging prominent ‘reminders’ (does anyone need reminding about Christmas) outside the establishment before the August Bank Holiday is out would lose more customer by annoying people rather than generating bookings — surely only those organising large work celebrations book so early and they’d either have done it months beforehand, not in the middle of the school holidays.

Even though the likes of B&Q and Homebase seem to start hawking their Christmas decorations in September (to the extent they’ve usually sold out by December) I prefer to try and banish all thoughts of Christmas until after 5th November — despite being an unashamed enthusiast for all things seasonal.

Mind you, the weather last week, particularly the deluges on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, were more fitting for November (the thermometer outside my house read 12C yesterday afternoon). Perhaps someone at the Horse and Jockey woke up, took a look out of the window and hung the banner out in panic that they’d overslept by three months?

Minute Baguette

August 24th, 2010

I wonder if the proprietors of this sandwich shop in Aylesbury realised that there were two ways that their business’s name could be pronounced. I’m sure that the sandwiches they serve are of a generous size or maybe they’re going for the slimmers’ market?

Minute-Baguettes

Minute Baguettes, Aylesbury Market Square

And that letter m looks like it’s suspiciously escaped from a 1980s space invaders machine.

Underneath The Ivy

August 21st, 2010

Since I saw the video for ‘Wuthering Heights’ on Noel Edmonds’ Multi-Coloured Swap Shop when I was about 13, I’ve always loved Kate Bush – and I’ve just spent a solid day reading Graeme Thomson’s fairly new unauthorized biography ‘Under the Ivy’ while on holiday.

I found the book to be extraordinarily insightful into Kate Bush’s canon of work – clearly the author is a devoted fan  — but it’s also quite an infuriating and frustrating book in many ways.  The Bush family and close friends operate a bizarre sort of omerta – keeping a level of privacy that is so obsessive that it was only an indiscretion by Peter Gabriel two years after the event that put the news that Kate Bush had become a mother into the public domain.

So despite this book being the exact opposite of a hatchet job, there’s no co-operation from anyone in the Bush family or anyone in their direct sphere of influence – they speak but through the author’s incredibly diligent researching of contemporaneous press interviews, which themselves became more opaque with the few interviews to promote ‘Aerial’ as likely to discuss her home baking as any musical influences.

Although Thomson has interviewed many in the outer orbit, including record company executive, musicians, dancers and so on, one has the impression that their stories are not exactly candidly told. Only record producer Hugh Padgham admits to his time working with Kate Bush as not necessarily the most amazing and wonderful.

It’s a shame because the overt narrative of the book leaves many questions (such as what caused Kate Bush to break up with Del Palmer, her boyfriend of 15 years) but there are various suggestions that the author and interviewees know a lot more than they will share with the reader . The nearest the author gets to shedding  light on the reason behind the obsessive privacy is in reference to Bush’s requirement for complete editorial control over an edition of the BBC’s 2009 programme ‘Queen of Pop’– ‘sometimes it’s hard to tell what exactly it is that she’s afraid of’.

There’s a clear divide between the biographical detail, where the author is very keen to couch his words in a way calculated to be diplomatic and not to cause offence, and his comments on the music, which are rather opinionated  — he’s not afraid to say a track’s rubbish – even though he might be wrong (I think ‘Experiment IV’ is fantastic and I wish I had a copy). It’s almost as if the fairly brutal trashing of some of the discography is a proxy substitute for having his hands tied by non-co-operation and libel laws – ‘I can’t say what I think happened in her life story but I’ll damn well say what I think about the music’.

He takes something of the Ian MacDonald view (as in the book about the Beatles – ‘Revolution in the Head’) that there’s an arc in an artist’s career, peaking in the middle. As McDonald tended to bend the argument that Revolver and Sergeant Pepper were the apogee of the Beatles’ career then Thomson cites ‘Hounds of Love’ as the apex of Kate Bush’s.

I agree that ‘Hounds of Love’ is a fine album and one that has quite personal associations for me as its innate Englishness helped me deal with the culture shock of moving to California at the time it was released.

However, looking at the songs on the Kate Bush back catalogue, not so many of my favourites are from ‘Hounds of Love’. I made a playlist of my favourite tracks from the six of her albums that I had close to hand on ‘CD’ (excepting  ‘Lionheart’ and ‘The Red Shoes’) and found the following:

  1. ‘The Kick Inside’ has seven: ‘Moving’, ‘The Saxophone Song’, ‘The Man with the Child in his Eyes’, ‘Wuthering Heights’, ‘Feel It’, ‘Oh To Be In Love’, ‘L’Amour Looks Something Like You’ (the latter three make a stunning sequence).
  2. ‘Aerial’ (6): ‘King of the Mountain’, ‘A Coral Room’, ‘Sunset’ (mainly the first few seconds ‘Could be honeycomb’ – what a beautiful phrase), ‘Somewhere In Between’, ‘Nocturn and Aerial.
  3. ‘The Dreaming’ (5): ‘Sat in Your Lap’ (genius), ‘Pull Out the Pin’, ‘Suspended in Gaffa’ (ditto), ‘Night of the Swallow’, ’Houdini’.
  4. ‘Hounds of Love’ (5): ‘Running Up That Hill’, ‘Hounds of Love’, ‘The Big Sky’ (especially the 12” version – ‘That cloud looks like industrial waste’), ‘Cloudbusting’, ‘Hello Earth’ (possibly her second best melody)
  5. ‘Never for Ever’ (4) although it should get extra for its absolutely extraordinary cover art: ‘Babooshka’, ‘Delius’, ‘The Infant Kiss’ (her most stunning melody – it goes into unimaginable directions, rather like the lyrics), ‘Night Scented Stock’.
  6. ‘The Sensual World’ (3): ‘The Sensual World’ (IMHO her best track ever for multitudinous reasons), ‘Rocket’s Tail’ and ‘This Woman’s Work’.

Had I had considered ‘Lionheart’ then I’d certainly include ‘Wow’, ‘Symphony in Blue’, ‘Oh England My Lionheart’ and, probably, ‘Hammer Horror’. I’d also want to have ‘December Will Be Magic Again’ on any playlist at any time of the year (‘See How I fall’) – the only version I have is an 80s remix on a compilation with some detestable bongos added.  There are also a number of excellent B-sides like ‘Passing Through Air’, ‘Lord of the Reedy River’ and ‘My Lagan Love’.

I’d be tempted not to include anything at all from ‘The Red Shoes’ – any album with Lenny Henry on it really can’t be taken seriously, even if it is by Kate Bush – although, at a push, ‘Constellation of the Heart’ is quite jolly.

So my arc doesn’t have a pattern much at all – maybe a rollercoaster pattern in very quickly ascending the heights at the start, then dipping a little, building some more momentum, then plunging erratically into the doldrums before straightening out a little and levelling into some consistency towards the end. But what a ride!

Van Halen meets Cerrone meets Nu Shooz?

August 4th, 2010

The music in the video of Sebastien Tellier’s ‘Kilometer’ doesn’t really do justice to the remixed versions of the track, which are wonderful pastiches of late 70s/early80s disco. So I’ve found the Aeroplane Italo 84 Remix on YouTube and I’ll embed it below.

Right through the majority of the track is a high-pitched synthesizer riff that sounds exactly like Cerrone’s ‘Supernature’ — a sci-fi inspired track I remember on its own merits but according to Wikipedia was also the theme tune to Kenny Everett’s Video Show — all in the best possible taste.

There’s also a sort of plucked arpeggio guitar (or synth-guitar) riff, similar in some ways to reggae, which is very like the guitar on Nu Shooz’s classic ‘I Can’t Wait’.

What’s most arresting about the sound of the remix though is it seems to sample the synthesizer from Van Halen’s ‘Jump’ throughout — there’s a superb part when the synth is first introduced followed by a really ELO-Mr-Blue-Sky-like vocoder. And there’s lots of camped up panting which fits the theme of the original video.

It’s almost like a tribute to the most over-the-top electronic disco — the whole effect is a bit like Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’ meets all of the above.

Right Over the Top

August 3rd, 2010

Oddly enough I’m a great fan of chillout electronic music — at least the types that remind me either of classical music or 70s/80s disco. I’ve got quite a number of compilations — mainly Ministry of Sound. It’s amazing how often this sort of music is heard as the backing for television programmes — ‘Hayling’ by FC Kahuna was on the Panorama programme about Battersea Dogs’ Home last night.

The French seem to do well in this sort of ambient electro-chillout music — Air, who’ve made some superb tracks like ‘All I Need’ and ‘La Femme d’Argent’ are perpetually played in the background on TV — usually in irritating ten second bursts.

One that’s grown on me quite a bit is a track called ‘Kilometer’ by the interesting French artist Sebastian Tellier. It’s off an album called ‘Sexuality’ and a quick look at the video for the track (see below) shows the name is no co-incidence. I found quite a strange interview with ‘cult Parisian composer/producer’  on the Time Out website in which he comes out with quotations like ‘I’m very happy to live in the sexual society! Ha ha ! Because I love to watch and I feel very okay with the naked body of a woman, and so I want to kind of say thank you to all the people for sex…Before, I did some ’70s-type records, but I don’t want to have ’70s sex. Too hairy.’

Kilometer is a fascinating video but the version of the track used is a bit slow and uninteresting compared with the faster 70s disco pastiche that is on the Ministry of Sound Chilled II compilation.

It’s very visually interesting as he looks as hairy as a Dulux dog himself in the video — a sort of French Demis Roussos with sunglasses. The video itself is so over the top it must be a complete parody of the idea of the French louche love god — Tellier is enjoying the company of many young ladies who are parading around in their underwear — there are ample shots of womens’ bottoms. It’s a The dancing hot dogs surely and the toothpaste mean it cannot be serious.

Flooding Out The Wombles?

July 28th, 2010

I didn’t think much about Katie Melua when she first established herself as, what seemed to me, a fairly bland singer of twee songs, particularly the rather excruciating one about nine million bicycles in Beijing. She also had an association with the king of commercial bilge going back to the cheesy songs in Seaside Special in the 1970s and, of course, the Wombles – Mike Batt. I was surprised he was still around although I seem to remember him trying his hand at classical crossover music some time.

So I was amazed to hear ‘The Flood’ – Katie Melua’s recent single which seemed to have been designed preternaturally to include almost everything I like in a pop music track. The song is wonderful in just about every way imaginable – and credit is due largely to Melua’s new producer and writing collaborator on ‘The Flood’, William Orbit. I’ve liked Orbit’s work ever since I bought what was just about the first single he was involved with – ‘Fascinating Rhythm’ by Bass-O-Matic in the late 80s. He then went on to work on some of the most seminal music of the 90s – including the hypnotic ‘Pure Shores’ by All Saints and quite a bit of stuff with Madonna.

‘The Flood’ is an utterly schizophrenic track. The first couple of verses and choruses are a slow ballad sung over an adamant bass line and orchestral accompaniment. The chorus is fantastic: Katie Melua’s voice suddenly soars octaves above the chorus – demonstrating that she has far more than the few tones range of most pop singers. It’s slightly reminiscent of the sort of dramatic music that Kate Bush would make.

Then the song suddenly speeds up with the introduction of a folky-acoustic guitar into double time (something that The Beatles ‘A Day in the Life’ does for its final verse). For a glorious minute or so the track turns from something that could have been in a West End musical into a track one could imagine being played in one of these party-until-the-sun-comes-up Ibiza events. Everything in the production is used so economically and subtly – for example the distorted guitars and the muted brass backing the vocals from ‘turn up the light’ onwards. What’s most bizarre is the halting snare drum used on the off-beat to push the rhythm forward – very similar to the Beatles (again) in ‘Get Back’ –but also almost like a marching military band.

The vocals on the fast section are a complete contrast to what came before and comes afterwards. Katie Melua sings like some kind of cosmic oracle in (yet another Beatles echo) a vocal like John Lennon’s on ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’.

The lyrics are full of imperatives too, which helps the effect, ‘Don’t trust your eyes…Know in your heart…Turn on the light and feel the ancient rhythm.’ I’m particularly taken by this as Katie Melua looks a bit to my mind like Sarah Brightman did in her Hot Gossip days when the classic ‘I Lost My Heart to a Starship Trooper’ was released in the late 70s and I can imagine her belting out this section like a female character in ‘Blake’s 7’ (Servalan anyone?).

And then sung against the incantatory vocal is a counterpoint line of backing vocals – and I love songs that suddenly pull together two simultaneous melodies. These backing vocals echo the first, slower part of the song (‘Nothing is to blame’) which creates a fantastic tension.

I like percussion in a track and always feel that it’s consciously very underrated but plays a huge role in subconscious appreciation of a piece of music. ‘The Flood’ suddenly seems to collapse under the weight of the above mentioned tension in a massive crash of cymbals and bass drum beats – slowing the fast beat like a juggernaut and re-instating the previous ballad for a climactic ending. It’s brilliant – like some of the best classical music it simultaneously unites a seeming cataclysm with a serene calm.

It’s one of the oddest and most original pieces of music I’ve heard in a long time – and I can listen to it repeatedly and still enjoy it enormously.

I bought the album ‘The House’ – which has taken a while to grow on me and is filled with material that’s more conventional Melua style – pleasant, whimsical meditations about aliens and red balloons. The album has also had the Rick Nowells treatment on a few tracks. He’s a producer who seems to provide a certain type of female singer with sure-fire hits – starting over 20 years ago with Belinda Carlisle, then moving on to Stevie Nicks, The Corrs, Dido (‘Here With Me’) and (I think) Madonna.

There’s a track on ‘The House’ that’s almost comically Nowells – which might end up as a single. It’s both lyrically and musically ludicrous – it’s called ‘Plague of Love’ – and has an incredibly catchy chorus.

I’ve almost done a complete reversal of opinion on Katie Melua. From thinking she was a bland, MOR vehicle for a past-it Svengali, I now think, if you look carefully enough you’ll find she’s incredibly original and quite odd – and one of the genuinely subversive type of artists I most respect.

Mysterious Purple Crop Unmasked

July 19th, 2010

One attractive aspect of the Chilterns countryside is how the fields change colour — usually very imperceptibly from brown in the autumn, through to ever-deepening green in the winter (with autumn planted crops) through to spring and now they’re almost a bright straw-yellow, even the pastureland.

We’re also used to the sudden bright-yellow of the oilseed rape crop in mid-spring — after which the plants take on an untidy, wizzened green.

But in the last couple of years some fields have been turning a mysterious mauve colour. It’s very attractive but rather unsettling — what kind of crop is purple? While jogging along on the Wycombe Half Marathon yesterday I saw other people puzzling over a big field of the crop between Flackwell Heath and the M40.

The Mysterious Purple Crop Near Horsenden

The Mysterious Purple Crop Near Horsenden

I eventually found the answer after taking a walk through a field of these unknown plants between Horsenden and Bledlow. Seeing the plant close up it was apparent that colour comes from the plant’s bright blue flowers – the light catching the flower buds gives the purple appearance.

Bright Blue Borage Flowers

Bright Blue Borage Flowers

I knew it resembled something in my garden and I later managed to do a bit of researching on the web and happened to identify the crop as borage. This is a herb that can grown quite invasively in gardens and its leaves can be used in cooking. But what it’s grown for on a commercial scale is its oil. Borage seeds yield the highest concentration of Omega-6 oils of any plant – that’s the fatty acid that’s meant to be very healthy. Funny how the goodness of the Chiltern soil might be extracted and put into the little bottles that vitamin counter at Boots. There’s even a product that uses borage oil as an ingredient that is sold in Boots that is meant to increase female libido if it is smeared on the genital area — maybe a more interesting fate for a crop than being made into Weetabix?

A Summer ‘Tradition’ We Can Do Without

July 12th, 2010

I’m sure John Major in his rather risible but memorable speech about warm beer, long shadows on cricket grounds and so on from the early 90s would have included Morris dancing in his wistful list of unchanging Englishness (see the photo below of the Towersey Morris and Aldbury Morris Men performing outside the Swan, Great Kimble on 7th July).

Towersey and Aldbury Morris Outside the Swan, Great Kimble

Towersey and Aldbury Morris Outside the Swan, Great Kimble

That speech is a particular bug bear as beer should NEVER be warm — the belief that real ale is best drunk tepid has allowed bad landlords to get away with serving undrinkable crap. It should be cellar temperature (about 10-12 C) and it’s sometimes so difficult to keep it that way in unrefrigerated cellars that even usually reliable pubs might be wisely avoided in temperatures of the upper 20s and even 30s C of the sort we experienced at the end of last week and this weekend.

In fact, on our trip on Saturday to the Black Country, I had more than one pint in usually exemplary pubs that, while by no means bad, that certainly weren’t on top form. It’s not a problem we’ve really had to worry about over the last couple of summers but, in hot weather, if the beer comes out as anything like ambient temperature you know you’re likely to be in trouble — whatever rubbish John Major came out with years ago.

Know-Nothing Idiots

June 28th, 2010

This could be applied to the England players as well but is more appropriate to all the idiotic pundits whose collective self-loathing of themselves and the country immediately emerges after the sort of disaster that England suffered yesterday.

People are queuing up on phone-ins and message boards to come out with garbage along the lines of England produces inherently technically poor players who are only motivated by money. Total bollocks. Admittedly, Capello committed professional suicide by selecting some poor (Johnson, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Milner, Upson), underconfident (Green, Carrick, Heskey) and unfit (Rooney, King) players — and in the case of Barry a combination of all of those. Capello also made some idiotic team selections and substitutions.

Nevertheless, players like Rooney, Gerrard, Lampard, Cashley Cole, Lennon and Terry (and perhaps some others) are the among the best players in teams that include players who have shone in the World Cup. Brazil and Argentina contain players who are good but not head and shoulders above those they have played with in the Premier League — Heinze, Tevez, Gilberto Silva — and some who weren’t even good enough for Man City — Elano, Ronaldinho.

To say England as a whole lack technical ability is rubbish. Everything about the performance was psychological. The players were mentally weak — capitulating easily because, for some reason, they lacked any confidence. The defence was nervous and panicky, sat way too deep and the midfield dropped back accordingly — leaving the two up front isolated. There was no organisation or leadership on the field and certain players have to be held personally responsible — Gerrard’s performance looked like panic personified — he hit about three shots from long range in total alarm at having the ball anywhere near the goal.

And anyone who thinks the appointment of that referee — who has past form for exactly the same ‘errors’ — was just unfortunate chance is either totally naive or, like almost all football journalists, part of a self-preserving conspiracy to maintain the illusion at all costs of results being determined solely by honest endeavour on the pitch.