Monday, 5 December 2011

More Certain Than The Laws of Thermodynamics

Where there is desperation, the vultures will flock. 

Help us help you achieve your personal career goals.
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Do you lack energy? Here is some spiritual mumbo-jumbo that'll perk you right up.

Want to ACHIEVE? 
Because if you don't purchase our products you won't. And if you do, well we can guarantee it will happen at some point... maybe... 

In other news, despite nosediving overall consumer demand, sales of snake oil have skyrocketed since 2008. 

This is a personal appeal. 
Look, I'm just as much of a mug as the next guy, in fact probably more of one. I'm pretty polite in most public situations which means for the most part that I'm exactly the sort of fellow to engage in genuine conversation with chuggers, hustlers, even telesales executives.... 

I don't tend to buy anything either, which I guess is actually worse for them since they've basically just had a little chat and taken time out of their day for absolutely no reason. Oh well. I don't mind, I really don't mind salespeople at all. At the end of the day we're all selling something and they've probably got rent to pay as well. 

But if there is one thing that I cannot stand it is the language of self-improvement. 

You know the books. You've seen them piled high in train-station WHSmiths: Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Begin it Now: You Have a Purpose, The Secret (particularly odious), The Game...

My dislike of these actually goes beyond normal dislike. You might wonder after all, what is so wrong with trying to do better by yourself? Most behaviour is learned and habitual behaviour takes a concerted effort to undo and if a book can help with that then what's the point in complaining? 

Honestly. I believe that these books are parasites. They buy into the culture of self-esteem and lack of respect and revel in it. The writers are loftily pompous. "You too can be like me."After all, who really cares about the irony of a relatively rich person finding their income flagging and writing a How To Get Rich book to maximise some new revenue streams?

Be fair who wouldn't want to be like this guy?

If you want to read mindless platitudes then fair enough, but please don't be persuaded to exchange cash for it. You can get that shit for free. 

Actually, it's not even this that really gets my goat. 

What I really really object to is the way that this language has infected every aspect of our lives. 

The other day I spoke to a recruitment consultant (another non-job) regarding my CV. Ostensibly he was giving me advice on the layout and so forth, but actually he was trying to flog me his CV writing services. 

"So I see you've got experience with SEO?"
"Well, CVs are like SEO. You know how when you're trying to optimise google searches you have certain key words that you have to type?" 
"Yes..." (No. SEO is complete bollocks from beginning to end.)
"Yeah well the same with a CV, what I really don't see are those key phrases, the real punch, the real deal you know?"
"Yes" (No.)
"Exactly Jacob, couldn't have put it better myself." (What?)"But Jacob, what you really need is for me to book you in for a consulation. Jacob, let me book you in. I can see you need it, you know you need it. In fact, I can make a cast iron guarantee that with my process your CV will be that much better and you'll really start meeting those personal goals."
"I see."
"Jacob. You have a problem. If you didn't, you wouldn't have come here. Let me fix it."

I really don't want to break down the logical inconsistencies of LITERALLY EVERYTHING this guy has just said but nonetheless this sort of salesmanship, the leading questions, the switching of the persona, the appearance that the salesman is just another good guy (by the by why the fuck do I have to speak to this bellend as a requirement of the jobcentre? This is what happens when you contract out to private companies.)

It is the final sentence that really gets me, and it gets a lot of people too. 

It get's you because it is rooted in truth. 

You do have a problem.

You have a problem that you would like to fix otherwise you would not be there. BUT and please remember this BUT, that does not mean that you have to buy their products. 

Now it's true that you might see some improvement through reading through and using their services. What you will find though, is that there is almost certainly zero science backing up their methods and why is this? Because you've basically just splashed a pile of wonga on something that a long and honest chat with your closest friends would fix. 

You're paying money for common sense. Again, please see the irony in this. 

I have a problem that I would like fixed. I would like a good career, to have a whole lot more cash, to be considerably suaver, to look better in the colour blue, to have a stronger jawline, to have slightly clearer eyes etc etc etc

Haha suckers this is actually me, I don't need any of that shit.

Let's not pretend that by whispering a couple of mantras to myself and engaging in marketing bollockspeak I'm going to be any happier though. And neither are you. These people, they aren't here to help you. They love that you wallow in misery and the crash of 2008 set them salivating with joy. Their bank balances doubled and whilst you lay awake at night worrying about the cut of your jib, they snoozed peacefully on their bed of cash. 

You have to wonder, what sort of person is it that you're buying from? What kind of shameless sickness is it that makes a person actively attempt to profit from other peoples' misery? Think you're going to buy One Hundred Ways to Get a Mad Six Pack and Make Yourself Financially Successful now? No. 

Here's some personal development advice. Get happy yourself. Because these people couldn't care less.

Friday, 4 November 2011

The Old Lib

In 1935, George Dangerfield published a book entitled ‘The Strange Death of Liberal England’ explaining the decline of the British Liberal Party before and after the First World War. 

Whilst it is true that today, 75 years on the Liberal Democrats have staged a sort of comeback, the minority partner in a government lead (by all accounts) a liberal Conservative, the electoral success and the root of these problems are all well detailed in his book. The rise of unions, though now diminished have created a powerful voting block from whence Labour can draw from and in truth, the Liberal party of the early 20th century were nowhere close to evolving beyond a certain type of liberalism- an effete, rather paternalistic brand that could never capture the imaginations of the people when confronted with the firebrand tradesmen and their upstart Labour party or the backlash of the morally outraged Conservatives. Again, in many ways not much has changed. 

As a philosophy, Liberalism has never died. It waxes and wanes of course and is subject to only one absolute rule. It is always favoured in opposition more than government.

'Paddy Pantsdown' The Sun. Also a damn nice fella.

I’m going to hitch my flag to the mask. I am a liberal. That’s with a small ‘l’. I am an individualist and a crackpot and frankly I think it’d be a lot better if more people thought the way I did because then the bastards wouldn’t get away with so much. 

Anybody who has taken the most basic politics class knows this. There are two types of liberalism: social liberalism and economic liberalism. The former is often associated with left-leaning economics, compassionate statism, welfarism, social democracy or as some would have it- 'soft socialism'. The other side is economic liberalism. Taking their cues from absolute individualists, from Adam Smith and Gladstone to their logical conclusion in Hayek and Friedman these were the inspiration for Thatcher, David Lawes and an awful lot of post-Berlin Wall eastern Europe. 

I heard this woman once ate a child's skin. The child was cute and had big eyes.
No smoke without fire. 

Sounds confusing does it not? Almost as if these two sides were diametrically opposed? Seems like it makes a little more sense now that, given that both these groups existed within the modern Liberal Democrat party, they’ve been able to say pretty much whatever they liked pre-election and not have to worry about putting it into practice afterwards. 

Though I should not tarnish my yellow friends too much. Boris Johnson has referred to the Liberal Democrats as having a form of schizophrenia. Imagine what he must have felt when his boss David Cameron pronounced himself a liberal Conservative? 

Cameron can do this by the way . He can say ‘liberal’ because to a lot of the public that is synonymous with other lovely words like: nice, but in his mind I reckon he thinks he can absolutely justify it. I think he rather means those other liberals, Gladstone and Hayek who inspired his predecessor Margaret Thatcher to change this nation forever. Oh by the way, Maggie ain’t no Liberal. And neither is Dave. 

Perhaps I should not have diverged. My point is this, whilst liberalism as a philosophy is held by people who on the surface vary across the political spectrum, it is still a deeply founded vision and a coherent one to boot. 

To its core, liberalism is about individual rights. To an extent, both major political parties in the UK support individualism, to sometimes a greater extent they do not. Despite the Liberal Democrats hold on power, their dalliance with the Conservatives means that even under their eyes, illiberal legislation is passed. 

The ultimate difference between social liberalism and economic liberalism is this. To what extent does the coercive nature of government and the practices of unscrupulous business hinder the development and ultimately the freedom of the individual to live as they wish, to have a life of freedom, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?

Will Smith always seems like a happy guy. So happy he doesn't know how to spell happiness.
That's real happinuss. Har har har. I'll stop now.

Take for example Scandinavian social democracy and compare it to the constitution of the USA. I’m not going to go in to what is or is not corrupt about the USA, you have Michael Moore for that, or if you’re a little more sensible, your own research. But suffice to say we are all familiar with the limits of the scope of individualism in the USA economically. We also know though, that unlike here were community order offences are used as an excuse to block the demonstrations of poppy burners, far-right rallies and even basic protest by harmless old beardies, in the states anybody can pretty much say whatever the hell they like. It is often difficult for Europeans to get the 2nd amendment too, the right to bear arms, but for Americans it grows from the very soul of their being: the right of someone to defend themselves, raise their own family and live as they so choose. Of course it is more complicated than that. The USA was built on the back of thousands of slaves, her are elections hampered by special interest groups and her tolerance of alternative lifestyles is often tested. 

Sweden on the other hand runs a little differently. Unlike the USA, taxation rates are purposefully high to spend on a vast welfare state and the government owns an awful lot of infrastructure. Denmark even more so. Yet as happy and collectivist as lots of Anglo thinkers like to believe them to be (it is often hard for them to imagine differently in a world where politics is formed through the endless struggle of industry and class division), the Scandinavian nations are as nakedly ambitious, individualist and free trading as their transatlantic cousins. They keep their state manageably in check through a brutally open system of government where members of parliament are kept as open as it is possible for them to be and through their investment in the sciences and education, monoliths like Nokia and Ericsson have formed. Again, this is not the whole story. Nationalism is rife in Scandinavia, the state is often sluggish in its response and has tied its hands in investments it cannot wholly afford, though it should be noted nowhere near the level of most of the rest of Europe. 

Google Images says this is what Swedish people look like. 
Don't believe that brunette bird's from anywhere near Scandinavia though.

I’m going to be a dreadful fence sitter here and not come down on the side of either. Denmark rarely has to keep up on the big ticket items like a national defence, and it really is not worth expounding on problems with the USA. 

All people from Denmark look similar to this. 

Both of these nations are on my side in their own ways and since I’ve been such a fantastic fence sitter beforehand, I’m going to tell you straight up if you’re on my side. 

If you do not believe in freedom of expression, then you are not on my side. I’m not saying that you should feel free to be a dick... oh wait actually, I absolutely am. Feel free to say literally anything that comes into your head. A good amount, in fact most is complete nonsense but as I think I’ve made clear in my previous posts, that’s something to be celebrated or derided or both. 

Two. The moment you start dealing with people you’re going to make a few judgements based on them. That’s fine, but tell me what’s wrong with this next sentence. ‘Speaking as someone with an unconventional background I can see that your assumptions are bullshit.’ 

See what I did there? I basically just assumed that all people with ‘unconventional backgrounds’ whatever the hell that means think the same way as me. We’re all going to succumb to groupthink at some point, but if you decide that “as a man who is also a builder and a Russian I have the following opinion...”, you’re not on my big groupthinky side. Please, at least back that shit up with something else. 

Of course liberalism doesn’t deal with that intense joy that you find in being part of something together. One good experiment to test this is to sit underneath a television in a packed testosterone fueled sports bar and watch the strained faces of a hundred men collectively ejaculating over a particularly good goal.

What liberalism is good for, is in examining those eccentricities of character- those joyful little things that makes everyone just that little bit different to the next. It can create a mindset of incredible empathy because, if you don’t just relegate someone else to some group and assume that because of this they will behave a certain way, you might start assigning more complex human processes to them and who knows where that might lead...

This is just a little overview into the way I think of course. If you want to really run a state then obviously the choice I threw up earlier between libertarianism or social democracy is a big one, and one that I’ll go into at a later date in a post called something like ‘My Uninformed Views About How People’s Lives Can Be Made Less Shitty. Specifically Mine. Give Me Some Free Stuff.’

But for now, I'll say goodbye.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Probably the least funny post you'll ever see on comedy ever. In the world. Ever.

Did you hear the one about the argument between the dentist and the manicurist? They ended up fighting tooth and nail. 
Badoom- tssshhh!

Jokes are incredible aren't they? Not that joke. Never that joke. But jokes really are absolutely bloody great. I like to chuckle at them and frankly, if I could spend a good 30-40% of my time splitting my sides with laughter I reckon I'd be pretty much the happiest man on the planet. 
If you're suspecting that this might just be a rehash of my last blog post, well you're pretty much right except there'll be less crazy men and more of the old soul-searching bullshit. If you prefer crazy men then feel free to fuck off back to the last post. 

I met a guy in Africa once who called himself Wario, or Mario, or one of those characters anyway. He hailed from just outside Harare and liked to fish. This is all background gumph though because he basically had one characteristic: the most infectious laugh of anybody ever. He did it all the bloody time. He'd be talking about the size of elephants, or the taste of his beer and then he'd smile, throw his head back and give a hoot of extraordinary laughter. It was almost giggly in its childishness, but with the presence and clarity that can only come from an adult voice-box. He did it washing up, or driving his truck, or complimenting women, or scrubbing mud from his boots or even in the many confrontations with bribe-hungry police officers we met. We spoke as much as we could. His English was passable, he knew sentences and conversation but certainly his grasp did not extend to allegory or word trickery unless you explained the jokes to him. He didn't care if you explained. He would crack up exactly the same whatever happened.
Suffice to say he was one of the best people that I have ever met.

Interestingly, what we define as humour, the Japanese pretty much just accept as part of life. Their words ‘Tatamae’ and ‘Honne’, respectively the difference between reality as we understand it and reality filtered through what society expects of us. I actually got this from a humour site by the way, so all credit to them- but I thought it would be good if I could elaborate further. Apparently the Japanese don’t consider either of these realities any more ‘true’ than the other, they just accept it as part of life. That’s a very noble sentiment, and certainly if you look at a lot of UK fiction influenced by Japanese philosophy like Cloud Atlas by Merseyside author David Mitchell, you can see the power of following that kind of philosophy in literature. Personally, I actually like that we see the difference. 
Maybe it’s our history of class struggle, our straightjacketed Victorian past clashing with enlightenment thinkers, our history of literary jokers and satirists from the Swift and the scribelarians to the Pythons, but I’ve come to the conclusion that one of our greatest assets is our ability to look at ourselves and see the absolute ridiculousness of it all. 
That’s all very well, but let’s have a quick look at the Man Booker prize. Ok, we all know that the Booker is a piece of shit and nobody cares about it, but why in this new quest for readability or whatever, could we not at least have a few bits of comedy. After all, what do people like more than laughing? Or would that be pushing it too far? After all cynical sniping is all well and good, but something that actually brings genuine joy to somebody... 

We’re not talking simply about salesmanship either, though I think there’s a reason that the new Pratchett just cashed in on something silly like 400’000 copies, and this in the day when publishing is supposed to be dying a death. 

But I do think that overtly insulting swipes by authors like McEwan on the nature of comic novels are out of line. Just to rejig the old memories, he recently wrote an absolute piece of crap called Solar. A bunch of presumably soulless trainee accountants loved it so it still did OK. That and McEwan is “a good writer” (I do like some of his books so I’m not just being a prick for no reason) so he can pretty much do whatever the hell he likes these days. Just to rejig your memories, McEwan basically said that he didn’t like a lot of modern comedy because it wasn’t subtle enough and included to many ‘in your face’ jokes. 

That’d be the funny bits then. The bits that Solar completely lacked. And you know who’d agree with me? Shakespeare. Yeah, that’s right. 

In his refutation of the Marlowe conspiracy theory on the origins of the works of Shakespeare, Bill Bryson touches on one of the most important points (apart from the fact that Marlowe was y’know, dead), that Christopher Marlowe was about as funny as quantity surveying. No offence to quantity surveyors. 

Shakespeare was the master for two reasons: he could make us laugh and he could make us cry. Emphasis on the first. But more importantly he could do both. 

That’s why the following link is the best ending of any comedy series ever. 

Do you know what, I’m going to get off my high horse. Comedy awards are bloody ridiculous anyway. 

Though there is one more thing, there was this Englishman, Irishman and Scotsman who all went into a bar...

Monday, 17 October 2011

Ode to Joy.

Today I’m going to talk about two people who have brightened my day. It’s not that I have particularly depressing days. They’re actually not bad. But I’m doing one of those jobs right now. You know the ones that are being done in black and white by northern popstars in the 80s until they break it big. Except I’m probably not going to get big and neither are the majority of you. 

I’m not trying to get you down either. I’m just stating the facts. What I really don’t want you to do is take it to heart, because that’s all too easy to do. 

You see what happens to people who do. Those drudging, smirking Englishmen whose greatest delight is to proclaim out loud at how utterly shit everything is. It’s mainly Englishmen who are like this by the way. I’m not saying we’re a dour nation of downtrodden, entitled nincompoops, but we’re a dour nation of downtrodden, entitled nincompoops. 

One particular specimen, let’s call him Exhibit A because it’s more exciting than his actual name which is something like Dan Bread or Mr Stobbs or whatever, greeted me the moment I stepped into my office this monday morning nursing both a warm coffee and a sniffy nose. 

“Alright mate,” said Exhibit A whilst scratching his own anus. He might not have been doing that last bit. 
“Alright, I’m Jake,” I said, because I am.
“Yeah mate, you’re the other one.” he said. Obviously. 
“Yeah,” I said. 
Just as a by-the-by, today I returned from a week off and this lovely young man joined whilst I was busy not venturing outside of my lair and preparing the winter hibernation. 
“It’s shit here, isn’t it?” he said. 

Oh goody, I thought. I mean, I totally agree. My work fucking sucks. But why this means I have to spend my time talking about it to other people who hold the same opinion I don’t know. It’s not like one of those AA meetings. We’re not getting anywhere or gaining some sort of spiritual insight; we’re just making ourselves more sad. 

He took my lack of response to mean yes I suppose. That or he just really wanted to get what he had on his mind out. Kind of like when Jack Karoauc wrote ‘On The Road’ in three days... probably. 
“Just can’t engage my brain in this job, know what I mean?” he asked me. I knew exactly what he meant- we were connecting on so many levels. 
“Yeah, my last job I worked at Alton Towers doing those pictures you know, the ones on the rides. It was brilliant, just people, people, people you know. And it was interesting too. Lots of facts you know. Stuff you wouldn't think."

By this time I was nodding enthusiastically. What good friends were going to be. 

“I got a statistic,” said my new chum, “Did you know that like one in 50 birds get their tits out on the water slides? So every day you’re going to get at least one fit bird's knockers on cam.” 


“Yeah,” he said, “This is so shit.” 

I’m going to take an intermission here from my dialogue with a man whom I now suspect is in fact, a disgusting little goblin and who I am going to be working with over the next few weeks. 

By the way, he isn’t one of my two people. He actively ruined a little bit of my precious time by being a pernicious little prick. Yet I know how you can become like him. I’ve seen it. Seen it in my last job where, when asked if he was going to get back into his old hobbies my colleague replied, “What’s the fucking point?” The pursuit of happiness I suppose. The world of office work is a strange one, where people try so hard to keep a lid on their own personalities that you can almost physically see their brains attempt to shake themselves apart inside their cranium. The worst bit is when someone says something that even vaguely alludes to interest in an actual human activity. There’s an awkward silence, one that can last minutes and minutes. Then someone will bring it back to things we all know about such as, 
“So how about that rush hour?” 
And we can all joyfully affirm that yes, the rush hour is shit. 

This I truly believe is how monsters of people like Exhibit A are created. He was a man once and no more. Now he is but a moving sack of skin programmed to say occasionally racist things, complain about his salary and learn by rote the names of the Arsenal FC first XI. 

And this too is why when people come along with a little something else, a certain sparkle, that I remember how beautiful our human race truly is. 

Exhibit A had long ago slouched off, and I sat with my coffee waiting for the royal mail to arrive on my desk. I waited, suspense coursing through me, for I knew exactly what is coming. 

“JACOB!” hows a delighted little man as he bounded into the corridor, mailbag larger than him on his back. He is tiny, completely bald and always dressed in a t-shirt that clashes so beautifully with his luminous green postman’s vest that you often find that you can barely take your eyes away. 

He’s a sort of Manwell figure: his English almost certainly learned from a book and spoken with such enthusiasm and vigour as if every word was a song to be sung from the rooftoops. He is in short, the sort of man who should always be hired to deliver mail because for that one moment as he brandishes his booklet in your face for signatures, the world somehow makes brilliant multicoloured sense and even the dreary whitewashed walls seem just that little bit more colourful. 

All people are strange. You talk to anybody long enough and they’ll bring out some absolute gems. But is it not just refreshing that one man can just throw it right out there: their absolute bald-faced strangeness in the most honest way they can? 

It makes perfect sense that the mailman is not from England. 

But I should not do us down. For we cynics have another, arguably better weapon at our disposal: our never-ending willingness to unleash a snarky quip or two. 

I’m talking about my train driver. Picture the scene: London Bridge station at 6:10pm. It is rush hour and as a result TFL have decided to only use a short train to go through several of the busiest stations in London probably because they have run out of small possums to torture and need new sport. The sardine can... sorry that would be train that I am crushed into is full to the brim and people are still trying to force their way on in that awful passive-aggressive manner of millions of frustrated Londoners. The stench of sweat is intense. Outside it is freezing, but inside it is like an oven and nobody can move to take their coats off. Sweat and body odour mingle in the air like young lovers rutting to the music of influenza struck passengers coughing and wheezing their maladies into their fellow commuters. 

The driver is on the tannoy, “Ladies and Gentlemen, we are sorry for extreme overcrowding. Please stop attempting to board the train.”

He has a sharp, responsible voice. I trust this guy. 

“Ladies and Gentlemen, the train is ready to depart. Please move away from the doors.”
People are obeying him. He has authority. Wearily resigned and muttering whispered swearwords people step back from the human mincemeat that fills the carriage and the doors slide shut. I am pressed against big fleshy fellow wearing what smells like recently skinned cowhide and once again failing to love every minute of my existence until...

The train has been moving for a couple of minutes, slowing down and stopping every now and again just enough to make us scared that we’re going to have to spend even more time not awkwardly socialising with the creatures inches from our face. Then the driver gets on the tannoy one last time. 

“Well, we’re near enough Grove Park and the end is in sight. Once again, sorry for extreme overcrowding...”

He pauses. It’s coming. 

“Sorry guys, I should have said, if you wanted to ride on the top deck I’d have been happy to provide straps and harnesses.”

I snort right into the fleshy man’s face. 

That is what I love about our humour. However shitty things are looking there will always be somebody with a quick one liner because basically, screw everybody- a laugh is a laugh and laughing is a really fantastic activity to be engaged in.

People are incredible. 

I’m not saying we should all try and be totally ‘out there’ and ‘mad’. But in all seriousness, these two guys genuinely made life worth living and I can only wish that out there someone will here my call and act on it. 

I’ll finish up with a movie comparison for this is the best example that I now of. 
In the 1993 Michael Douglas movie Falling Down, one guy follows the Exhibit A road exactly and right here I’ll show you where it gets you. 

Yep. That is where you are headed. Right there. 

And you have to think, how can I avoid the ignomity of threatening to gat somebody over a fucking Wimpy’s? Well I’ll tell you. Right at the end of that movie there’s a bit where the protagonist has a big old showdown with the cops. It’s really dramatic and there’s lots of sneering and shouting and people screaming and stuff. But the best bit... the absolute best bit is in the crowd of onlookers, the crowd that watches as a policeman faces off to a man whom society has utterly broken, is an absolute lunatic of a man wearing nothing but pink hot-pants. 

I shit you not. 

Watch the movie, it’s pretty entertaining. And look for what I’ve told you. 

You don’t have to wear the hot-pants, but at least don’t be the middle-aged guy with the screaming wife, the threat of suicide and a psychotic tendency that comes from just missing a McBreakfast at your favourite stomach-filling shit shop. 

Monday, 19 September 2011

AMURIKA part 1

It's been a month or so since I arrived home from the USA and I cannot help but feel, time enough for my trip to have fully sunk in enough to write a little about.

The USA is a place both entirely familiar and yet still surprising at every turn. Perhaps it is because so much of my life has been informed by reference points from this country. New York with its iconic yellow cabs is eerily similar to the virtual world of Grand Theft Auto 4 and the place names: Brooklyn Heights, Long Island and Cypress Hill seem to float into being from the semi-mythical popular culture locations that have been pivotal in my formative years.

I really don't think it needs to be said that there is nowhere on earth like New York. Eddie Izzard once said that he wished the whole world were like Manhattan. I can't say that I fully subscribe to his view, but certainly if the world cannot be Manhattan then Manhattan can try and stuff itself with as much of the world as possible. The sights, smells and sounds of New York can be utterly overwhelming: the endless chatter and crush of tourists, the hustlers and pretzel sellers, the odd mix of vast corporate offices and homely side-street markets, the coca-cola store next to a homemade lemonade stand and the daredevil way in which New Yorkers happily step into the path of oncoming traffic. Even for someone raised in London, walking through New York is like being assaulted even if the only actual intimidation comes from the persistent stand-up comedy hawkers who throng the streets plying their trade in sub-par gags and utterly failing to see the irony in their chosen occupation.

I have just written a paragraph on New York and I fear that this post may descend into simply listing my trip, sentence by sentence in order. I started this post attempting to write about America holistically but this is almost certainly a mistake. If there is one thing that defines the USA is its astonishing difference. On the East coast I sampled the grand museums of Washington DC whilst living comfortably in suburban Virginia and taking a wander down to the falls at Potomac. I day tripped to Baltimore harbour and visited the Museum of Visionary Art, quite possibly the best art gallery I have ever visited.

The highlights of the first part of my trip:
- Empire Betrayal Day fireworks from a roof in Washington DC and the constant fear of death from rather less authorised displays going off in the streets around.
- Baltimore. A diamond not always seen by tourists. I'll admit it. I went because of the Wire, but Baltimore is a wonderful old town filled with fantastic food and incredible attractions.
- The falls at potomac.

I'll end this first post with a big thank you to the Crumleys. For some reason they felt that allowing me to stay in their house for a week was not an utterly dreadful idea. I am both surprised and extremely gratified. Thank you so much.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Couple of Tracks

So thought I'd share what I've been listening to this week. Not that I'll be doing this every week mind. Just y'know, when I can be bothered.

The first is an absolutely pounding slice of hip-hop courtesy of Childish Gambino. I'm pretty behind on what the heck is going on these days since I've been touring Africa. That and I'm a loser. This track is absolutely great though. And even if it wasn't, anybody who finds their rap-name in a Wu-Tang name generator and also enjoys a successful career as a writer for 30 Rock and as a stand-up comic gets my nod of approval.

Freaks and Geeks- Childish Gambino

On a completely different level, weren't you totally just sitting on your butt today wishing that Hard-Rockin Gospel music was the new electro? ... Oh. Right. Well screw you, I'm going to be recommending this anyway. They're basically a bunch of kids who really love Tom Waits, The White Stripes and John Steinbeck books. Naturally I think that they are incredible. Oh, and they're from Bath.

Pray On Me- Kill It Kid

Good Winter

Bon Iver 'Bon Iver' Review

I haven't done any reviewing in a little while, but as anybody who knows me will tell you, I am something of a Justin Vernon fanatic. 

Justin Vernon returns with an album that is both a natural progression from his debut 'For Emma Forever Ago' and its musical counterpoint. Just as 'For Emma's' defining theme was loneliness, 'Bon Iver' revels in its sense of multitude. Where before there was sparseness, 'Bon Iver' is densely layered.

Album closer Beth/Rest is the logical conclusion of Bon Iver's experimentation.  Overblown and swaggering to the level of Axl Rose it lies in stark contrast to the beautiful Re:Stacks of yesteryear. With 'Bon Iver', Vernon completes the transformation from isolated soul to textured multi-instrumentalist that we heard in 'Blood Bank'. Songs like Holcene and Walsh make use of distinct rhythmic sections and retro samples as well as autotune and dense layers of reverb.

Ultimately, the problem with 'Bon Iver' is that Vernon has released an album in a new destination, but seems confused as to where he has arrived at. It is not so much that 'Bon Iver' is a change of direction. More that it could have been released by almost any other artist this year. Stand-out songs like Perth have all the hall marks of classic Bon Iver, reverb-drenched vocals, delicate melodies and cute harmonies yet these traits are also those of Grizzy Bear, Cults and whoever the hell Brooklyn decides to churn out this week. And they would have done it a little better too.

Sure 'Bon Iver' is a pretty album. It paints lovely pictures of various parts of North America, but the tracks struggle to resonate with the subject matter. Instead Bon Iver plumps for nice sounding but nonsensical soundbites like 'Solar peace/ Well it whirls and sweeps/ You just set it'  (Hinnom TX). Lovely, but it doesn't mean a whole lot. Perhaps another comparison should be made. Where 'For Emma' was heartfelt, 'Bon Iver' is vague.

'Bon Iver' is not without interesting ideas. Holocene is sublime and Beth/Rest makes fantastic use of overdrive but tracks like Lisbon are pure filler. Luckily we have Michicant to remind us of Vernon's undoubted talent as a song writer. It is an ode to boyhood, bicycle bell and all. It is simple, playfully rhythmic and reverberates with a sense of loss and nostalgia.

'Bon Iver' is absolutely worth listening to, preferably several times. But after you have done that, listen to Re: Stacks and remember what came before.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Assante Sana

The local name for Victoria Falls is Mosi-o-tunya, The Smoke That Thunders. As with every major attraction in Africa, it is immortalised in a million post cards, sculptures, paintings and even its own beer ‘Mosi’ to the point that before arrival the traveller might well think that he has already been. These tiny snapshots daubed on card and relentlessly advertised across Zambia are, like everything I saw in Africa, nothing when compared to the mighty vision that greeted me on arrival.

Over 6 million years old, the Victoria Falls plunge down a face of basalt rock. The waters were high when we arrived, sending spray that could be seen from 30 kilometers distant. Imagine a giant garden sprinkler launching sheets of water (there is nothing so dainty of droplets here) hundreds of feet into the air. A quick walk along Victoria Gorge was wetter than most baths I have taken.

I have chosen to first (inadequately) describe Victoria Falls because it is iconic. I could have chosen almost anywhere. The sheer beauty of South-Eastern Africa is daunting. The open planes of the Serengheti, miles of flatness punctured by protrusions of rock. In the distance you can see entire storms brewing, unleashing and dispersing. The Ngorogoro crater: the red soil of Africa drags lush vegetation from the ground and feeds herds far as the eye can see. The Sahara as seen from the air, a scabbed skin stretched across the earth, smoothing itself into the cloudline and dotted with sidewinder-like dunes.

“It is a good place,” the man next to me on my flight to Nairobi assured me. Quite.

I am not one for nature. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I bore easily, that I am often hyperactive and find it hard to sit still. I have never before been able to while away hours simply looking at things. On the Great Rift Valley, no amount of time was too much.

Africa’s wildlife is on a par with her natural beauty. In these limited photographs I have tried to convey a small sense of what I saw. It is futile to say that these things must be experienced. We all know that.

In this case I have tried to convey a sense of my excitement. A distant shot of animals, partially obscured. The regularity and diversity of wildlife forced me to revise my photo-taking philosophy. That and I am a shit photographer. Pretty soon the only pictures to make the cut are this.

And this.

Elephants move absolutely silently. Their weight is dispersed over four solidly muscular legs giving them a lilting gait. Like ghosts they appear slowly, melting into being as they emerge from the undergrowth until they are suddenly so utterly there. Solid, powerful and slow they stare, registering every movement. Their movements are confident and relaxed. They know that nothing on this earth compares to them.

I have taken a fair few photographs of these. You can never have too many.

Oh an by the way, here is a male lion. They sleep for 20 hours a day. The females do the hunting. As far as I can tell they spend most of their time looking like utter heroes. I could absolutely get into that lifestyle.

I am keeping this blog-post concise since even with more description all I can honestly do is give but a vague impression of my visit. To anybody who is listening, I like to say that I have been to Africa. This is an understatement at best, and at worst an insult. This is not for some luvvie attempt to portray myself as having a social conscience. It is simply the truth. What I visited was a small part of the south-east of an unimaginably vast continent. I did not even begin to touch the west: Cape Town, Ghana, Angola or the North: Egypt and though when on a map they seem tantalisingly close, I know that even were I to spend a lifetime on the continent I would visit less than a single percentage of the sights worth seeing and meet even less than that of the people worth meeting.

Here are a couple of my favourite shots.

Oh alright alright. I admit it. I watched the Lion King when I returned.

By the way "Asante Sana! Squash banana! We we nuga! Mi mi apana!". That’s a real saying. It means, “You’re a baboon. I am not.”

Oh, and here is the greatest song of all time.

Monday, 3 January 2011

NFL Playoffs

It's January, and for probably less than a single percent of the world's population, that means gluing yourself to the television for some National Football League action. For the rest of the world, sorry but you're missing out. I'm going to bet that the average attention span for a European viewer, used to the quick action of soccer or rugby union will be something in the region of five minutes. Usually after this they will start playing absent mindedly, huff a little and then start saying things.
These things inevitably are, in no particular order:
"This is shit."
"Why do they keep stopping all the time?"
"Nothing is happening."
Or all of the above.
Usually during these times, oblivious to the chess-match played by warriors blaring from the screen in front of them they will go and make some snacks or generally mooch off to get on with their evenings. This is probably a good thing for two reasons:
a) If it is the former perhaps they can get you some snacks too. These games can go on a long time.
b) With them out of the room it leaves no room for comments like, "I could definitely take *insert name of 250ib, 4.4 forty yard dashing player*, look at all those wussy pads."
Seriously, as much as we aren't big on those damned yanks and their confuzzling hobbies, this is one to get into. My recommendation is to support a team in each game. American Football games can get hair-pullingly tense and given that every single play can go all the way for a touchdown, even teams with enormous leads can see them vanish in the last seconds of the quarter.
Although the games take a long time, the action is 'blink-and-you'll-miss-it' quick. The NFL is one of the fastest leagues in the world and the game is designed for those with lightning fast reflexes despite their size.
We are at the playoffs now, a crucial period in the year where the 4 divisional champions in the AFC and NFC conferences and two 'wild-card' teams play in a knock out tournament to crown the new AFC Champion and NFC Champion respectively. These two winning teams then play each other in the glitzy superbowl with the aim of becoming, the ambitiously titled "Champions of the World."
 I've included, for anybody reading a quick list of the teams involved and why they are contenders. Pick your favourite and get watching (games are streamed on, and you usually grab them on sky sports).
I'll start with the AFC and move on the the NFC in a couple of days.

1. New England Patriots

The pretty much undisputed best team in the AFC right now. The AFC East champions have been consistently incredible all year and best of all are doing it with a very young team. Under the experienced eye of Tom Brady, a dizzyingly talented athlete with a trio of superbowl rings and the ballistic ability of a high-powered sniper rifle, the Patriots have aimed for nothing less than perfection in everything: running, passing, defence. For a rookie fan wanting to know how this game should be played, the Patriots are the team to watch.

2. Pittsburgh Steelers

If the Patriots represent the skilled finesse of a fencer, the Steelers are the brutal power of a marauding viking. From the tough manufacturing town of Pittsburgh, the Steelers are a team you love to hate. They play nasty aggressive football, characterised by linebacker Troy Polamalu. Linebackers are the guys who try and catch opponents passes or tackle them before they get too far up the field and this is a role in which Polamalu excels. He loves to charge down quarterbacks, smashing them to the turf faster than they can blink and if he can't manage that, well, their dainty wide receivers are going to be in trouble if they even dare to get anywhere near the ball. Worse still, the Steelers have a big bastard of a quarterback. Usually these guys are quite easy to knock over. Sadly Ben "Big Ben" Roethlisberger is not. He's fucking massive and likes nothing better than to batter defenders whilst picking out that unmarked receiver to hurl the ball to. The Steelers are nasty bastards and if you're in it for the violence (let's face it, you are) then they're the men to see.

NB As number one and two seeds in the playoffs, neither the Pats or Steelers will be playing this week, they'll be playing the winners of the next lot.

3. Indianapolis Colts

Oh bloody hell I wrote a lot about the Steelers didn't I? Despite the fact that I hate them. Anyway, the Colts were snubbed for the Superbowl last year by young upstarts, the New Orleans Saints and despite having an incredible quarterback in the name of Peyton Manning, they've struggled to return to form this year. That doesn't mean that they are not formidable though: bad form for the Colts is the sort of finesse that your average Carolina Panther fan can only dream of. I wouldn't follow the Colts for two reasons though: one, they have shit uniforms and two, this is not their season. Still, if you want to be schooled in how to throw a ball or engineer a heart-attack inducing last minute comeback, Peyton Manning is your man.
They'll be playing New York Jets this Saturday.

4.  New York Jets
A bit of a surprise really, these Jets. Coached by Rex Ryan, the coach of the mighty Baltimore Ravens, the Jets have played their hearts out this season. They have a really fucking irritating quarterback called Mark Sanchez, but he's also really quite good so we can probably forgive that. The Jets main feature is that they are basically a big gang of nasty bastards who like to hit people really hard. Sadly in the AFC this does not make you unique. The Jets need to prove that they really have what it takes to be playing with the Patriots and the Steelers this year and earn their stripes.

5. Baltimore Ravens
There will be no bias in this paragraph. Except this little bit where I say that the Baltimore Ravens are incredible. Actually, they've been a little bit disappointing this season. Which is strange because they finished 12-4, their best ever record and have made the playoffs. All this goes to show though is the sheer amount of potential on this team. Their quarterback Joe Flacco has a cannon of an arm. They have runners who are small and agile like Ray Rice and runners who can smash shit up like Willis McGahee. They have speedy receivers, massive lineman and of course the defence. One of the most feared in the league, the Ravens will cause problems for any quarterback. Similar to the Steelers (though never tell a Raven that), the defence relies on the ball-grabbing skills of the speedy Ed Reed and the terrifying tackles of Ray Lewis, Tyrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata. On paper, the Ravens have everything: speed, aggression and power; problem is they haven't quite shown it yet. Will this year be their time to prove it?

6. Kansas City Chiefs
These guys put the "wild" in 'wild-card'. Nobody expected them to get far in fact, this is the first time they have made the playoffs since 1993. A cynic might say that they have been blessed with an easy schedule and a lackluster division. The Kansas City Chiefs should not be underestimated though. They might have gone down last week to the Oakland Raiders, but everybody expects them to have sorted whatever was wrong out in the playoffs. They have a fantastic running back in the name of Jamaal Charles. Most of all, they have a lot to prove.

So that's the AFC. An exciting clutch of the best teams in the sport, these playoffs should be fantastic.

Next up, the NFC and my picks for this weekends games.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

A Short Story

They were two conical hats, stalking from stagnant grass. Sickly odours of saturated fats and revelry drifted from the mess hall. The air wallowed in sound.

“Benite came to us by the sea,” said the first.
“The sea came to us,” said the second. He was the dryer of the pair.
“Do you think Ricardo will have much luck?” said the first.
“Not the sea,” said the second, thoughtfully, “The sea is salty.”
He bent over and picked up some of the sodden earth. It stayed, slouched into his palm and refusing to crumble.
“I said,” said the first, “Do you think that Ricardo will have much luck?”
“The sea is full of life too,” said the second, “Reefs. Plankton. Not this squalid swamp of weeds and gnats.”

They carried on like this for some time, exchanging chatter over the throbbing laughter cascading from the mess-hall. Soon, night was staggering into being, casting long shadows across the turgid earth. The pair moved on, oblivious. Here and there, they lit scented lamps to keep away the flies and snakes.

“How,” said the first, “Have you not acquired trench foot?”
The second shrugged, “Nor has Benite, or many of his closer followers.”
The first stiffened, offended. The buzzing of a swarm of flies, doggedly surging towards the light and smell of the mess hall filled the gap.
“You are not Benite,” said the first finally.
“Listen to that crowd,” said the second, after a while.
“They can be happy,” said the first, “The water is leaving and we can settle again. For you or I though, things will not change.”
“Only after Ricardo left,” said the second.
Then they paused, a full circuit of their slushy stomping ground nearly complete. A row of winking candles on stepping stones marked their path through the mire.
“Why did you not answer me earlier?”
“Benite came to us over the sea,” said the first again, “And the rains were gone. What did Ricardo offer but misery, trench foot and squalor?”
The second said, “Ricardo left to take the rains with him.”
The first said, “He still left.” A beat. “I do not think that he will have much luck at all.”
The second shrugged.
“For us, things will not change.”

They were growing cold. Night’s frozen fingers groped playfully at their necks and moisture was jostling for room with feet on the stepping stones. They lit the final lamps and slumped back to the mess hall, fending away flies as they vanished into the light and the noise.

The next day, after six years of rain the drought started.
Once again, the colony changed for good.