Friday, 30 March 2012

Our Dieselpunk Present

Kings Cross right now is like a vast pre 1939 industrial landscape being rebuilt and renovated into something seriously 21st centry,  on such a scale that in an ironic bit of circularity it starts to resemble the future of Things To Come (1936).

The pre Easter heat wave we are having is kicking up a lot of dust in the perpetual development of Kings Cross, giving York Way a bronzed chromium sheen. Facsination for the austere Art deco world of the 1930s in the 2012's  I believe is called  deiselpunk.

Here are some pics

Just up the road from the development, the disused York Way tube station closed in 1932

Still from Things To Come

View from Kings Place third floor

Kings Cross new concourse exterior (opened last week)

Kings Cross interior

Kings Cross Parcel Room, the newly renovated bar

St. Pancras behind more Kings Cross exterior

Not relevant but included anyway: on the way home, the Scala, still a spiritual home

Another bonus in the area, Pret a Manger York Way is full of gorgeously moody spanish girls, not as friendly as the French Pret crowd in Croydon but unlike La Linnea in actual Spain you do feel their apparent moodiness is a cultural militancy rather than genuine dislike (one thing I've come to learn, when the French and Spanish do dislike you they won't bother to hide it - in that respect you can't fault them for honesty). I'm being very harsh actually, they are moody but unearingly friendly and professional and I eat there virtually every day (I have to be careful what I say on this blog after The Lukins friends and family read that previous blogpost..)

I am going through a bit of  1930's fascination at the moment (hence lots of Pret a Manger) sparked by another podcast..

the only historian, or even aspiring historian, to you use the phrase 'freaked out', what he lacks in professionalism and accuracy he more than makes up for in enthusiasm.
He seems to be sourcing so many books it is hard to keep track (Dunkirk Fight to The Last Man is one) but at least he is picking the right material, he plugs them relentessly and you can't fault his effort.

What really saves him in my eyes is the coverage of the fall of France in 1940. It comes without any of the cheese eating surrender monkey guff you might expect from an Anglo perspective. The French Army did not run away in 1940. The worst of that army shamefully was exposed to face the sharpest point of the Blitzkrieg and the Germans drove an entire army through that hole at unbelievable speed, to gut the real Allied forces before they were even aware what was happening. The Panzers moved so fast even their own general staff were unnerved by their progress, it is hardly surprising the veterans of WW1 could not cope.

This much I already knew, but the podcast fills in the poltical detail in the French Government and makes it imediate and fascinating. The Fall of France was not not just an inevitable pathetic collapse it was a real tragedy of lost opportunity, like the Spanish Civil War in fast forward, with every single setback exploited to the full by the enemy and every atempt to fix the situation playing into the hands of those who ultimately would be happy to work with the Nazis. What that does to the national consciousness I would hate to think but if the defense of Britain in 1940 were somehow to depend on say, the force that failed to defend Singapore, we might be a little less ready to ridicule.

In 1939 the French Army was still considered the best in the world, and the French Republic it protected was a beacon of civilisation and stability. Six months later, by the sumer of 1940  was a lost world, all gone in a chromium dust storm of fast moving events and poltical treachery.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

New Years Day on Exmoor

Because I'm anticipating the trip back.. A pic from a favourite New Years Day activity on Exmoor, walking up to Watersmeet from Lynton (sometimes listening to Pink Floyd's UMMA GUMMA)

Don't delay gratification - William Gibson's Zero History

I've just finished Zero History, the final novel in William Gibson's espionage marketing trilogy. 

I delayed finishing to savour Zero History and I regret it. I should have powered on through, forgotten about the rest of my life and stayed in-mode, with my prose perception tuned to William Gibson's dissonant portrayal of reality and characters. As it was, I got distracted. Lost my edge.
The tight surreal descriptions of surroundings that make for such great poetry-punk in describing Gibson's contemporary 21st century really get frustrating when describing action scenes. When Zero History briefly turns into cyber-SNATCH at the end the need to read every paragraph twice stops being clever and quickly gets irritating.

The re-introduction of great characters from Pattern Recognition is a let down and although the characters from the near impenetrable Spooky Country are much better shown here they are continually undercut by a new boyfriend or new henchman appearing from nowhere to save the day.

As with the other Hubertus Bigend novels, Gibson's need to keep introducing minor characters is a real irritation, especially at the expense of great characters you would rather hear a lot more of. The Molly Millions of Zero History is Heidi Hyde, the drummer for Hollis Henry's defunct band, Curfew, who is consistently funny throughout and makes you wish the novel had been less about fashion espionage and more about eccentric ex-rock band members adjusting to life in normal society.

The more the arcane characters of Blue Ant (the accidental SPECTRE of ad agencies) and Curfew recede into the background and the more convenient romantic foils feature (I did not believe in Gareth or Fiona for a second) the less interesting Zero History became. The director or Blue Ant lets his daughter have a career as a dispatch rider in London? I'm not sure I would have believed in something like that in Neuromancer let alone the supposed reality of contemporary London.

Still, aside from the characters and the action which are problems common to the rest of the Bigend trilogy, Zero History has moments of real dazzling imagination and poetry. Reading most of Zero History was a real pleasure. More and more with Gibson the actual plot and characters are receding into the background behind the poetry of mundane detail. Less and less influenced by Philip K Dick and Ridley Scott, he's becoming more like Brett Easton Ellis and Ballard. 
Cabinet, is virtually a character in itself

I particularly like this, which fits easily with my experience of life:
Milgrim, speaks of Bigend's personal philosophy
He believed that stasis is the real enemy.. Stability is the beginning of the end.. we only walk by continuing to fall forward
It also gives us a fresh look at London from a foriegn perspective. WG is obviously obsessed with the retro-fit in London and Paris, and has never hesitated to tell us the the nationality of every person we meet - still influenced by the multinational Los Angeles bequeathed by Ridely Scott and Sid Meade in Blade Runner.
Gibson created another world out of that, The Sprawl, and the similarly other worldly and deliberately obtuse nature of his prose is hard but rewarding work to adjust to. It is just possible that had I not deplayed my pleasure to savour the book and stayed in mental WG mode to read straight through to the end I might have enjoyed a lot more.

In one chapter he makes more of an Ekranoplan than Sebastain Faulkes does throughout the entire of Devil May Care, which now I think about it was the last thing I finished. Maybe I should stick to Ekranoplan related fiction.
So, despite delay, I was feeling pretty good about actually finishing a book in pretty good time. 400 pages in two weeks. 

Then I hear, back in Parracombe, Peter Goode has finished the new Neil Stephenson ('his 'pattern recognition'), REAMDE, 1040 pages, in two days. "Very good, bit too much gun touting for my personal taste, but very readable, great characters I think and fun plotlines."

  • Portions of this blogpost previously appeared in a drunken rant 24/3/12
  • The automating line spacing and formatting in Blogger continue to be a mystery to me. If I formatted documents like this as part of my job I would be taken out and shot.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Where I live... in Beatle's Yellow Submarine

I've had a frankly surreal couple of years including working in Gibraltar, coming back to Exmoor in the middle of a Winter apocalypse,
then driving my car from there to Gibraltar.. and then driving it back (via the Arctic Circle)

then I got a job in Whitehall
then I got a job at the Guardian

(and started this blog)

possibly the flat out wierdest thing of the lot,
was being told when I got back to Parracombe
by a local mystic/wasted teenager

that the village in Exmoor in which we both live, was featured very briefly in a montage of British holiday postcards in Beatles YELLOW SUBMARINE (see below)

At 4min 11seconds in Part 3 (linked above).

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Thanks, Sir Nicholas Ridley, for the Falklands War

Following on from the carrier blogpost, this is a great, fair, article about the Falklands including detail I didn't know, such as the Argentinians built Stanley airport...

I also didn't know, but am hardly surprised to find, that the spark for the conflict in the 80s can be traced to infamous Thatcher goon Nicholas Ridley, generally associated with the term NIMBY  (among many other classics which belong only  in the imagination of Daily Mail readers)

from the article above

That November, Margaret Thatcher sent a Foreign Office minister, Nicholas Ridley, to the Falklands to sell the deal.

Falklanders have long memories, especially for perceived betrayals, but Ridley's visit is remembered with particular bitterness. Ridley was a self-confident, not particulary empathetic minister, the kind of Whitehall figure some older Falklanders do mocking impressions of to this day.

Fowler attended a public meeting with him in Stanley: "It was fairly late in the evening. He was being heckled. He got cross. And he said, 'If you continue with this intransigence [against leaseback], on your own heads be it. We will not be sending a gunboat.' "

Less than 18 months later, Argentina invaded. For this reason, the Thatcher government is less fondly recalled in the Falklands than British conventional wisdom would have you expect. "It was her mismanagement of the situation that caused the invasion," says Mike Summers, one of the islands' eight elected politicians. In Stanley, there is a street called Thatcher Drive, but it is short; H Jones Road is longer.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

The Lukins.. The Water Rats...

Damn near perfect day yesterday, bit of blogging, bit of great computer game, lots of great book (Zero History now near un-putdownable, not had that with a WG since Neuromancer)

Rounded off with a trip up the road to a pub Rich recommends called The Water Rats, which seems to be the Intrepid Fox of the 1950s interior wise. Apparently Teddy Boys used to hide razors in the rim of their hats and do people across the face You can really see that happening in there..

Anyway.. the middle band on was The Lukins, who I'm delighted to find were from Plymouth and I must look out for them (sorry about blurry photo). Generally great poppy metal I thought was more "the new Garbage" than "QOTST molested by Blondie" on their myspace page.. until their last song which opened up like vintage Paranoid era Sabbath. Aside from being generally all round competent and like able they showed off some great songs, the only dud was actually a cover, a metal version of Cliff Richards Wired For Sound which you have to give them at least balls for trying.

They actually played the audience as well, a very underrated skill in band terms.

This was highlighted by the next band, Carlito (from Kingston), who I think in terms of musicianship were way ahead of the Lukins but got into an instant sulk at the small crowd in the Water Rats and hid their mood very badly. Perhaps too much fizzy pop beforehand. Britpop in fred perry shirts turned up to 11 is never going to be my thing but they could have won me over if they'd shown half of the humility of The Lukins. This might be a consequence of playing to audiences in the South West of course..

To follow on my blog from yesterday on the way London is going, I'll refer you to two albums about London both featuring the same songwriter, one written in 1994, one in 2007, with sharply different moods.

For all the mindless excess suggested in Parklife it is a mostly fun experience, suggesting the freedom and opportunity (seemingly) available in London in the mid 90s.

In stark contrast, The Good The Bad and The Queen, released supposedly at the peak of the Naughty Noughties just before the crash, is full of Dickensian squalor and doom. I wonder it it influenced PJ Harvey's Let England Shake, both seem to draw a parallel to the Britain of a century ago.

We should probably all be in Plym with The Lukins....

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Pharaohs of London

I listen to music at work and occasionally the two fit perfectly.

Last year I was working the middle of Whitehall for the Department of Energy and a particular album of music fit like a glove and it's only after the next London stint has started and I've stayed here at length that I've come realise why.

I'm not to into Philip Glass, (only really got into him via his versions of Heroes and Low) but  Akhnaten  is awesome. A fantastic operatic soundtrack to ominous reading of the inscriptions around the Pharaoh's tomb, ending with the sad little notice given to tourists, it was very weirdly appropriate listening in the middle of the English white marble Vatican city of civil service bureaucracy. 

Lately I've come to realise that London is in a wider sense starting to resemble ancient Egypt. Not in climate terms obviously. But in social mobility terms.

The non-domicile tax status provided by successive British governments (that we now know have been terrified of the media elite) have made London the preferred haunt of the 1% of the 1%. 
A British Monaco? Sounds good? 

Aside from further completely isolating London from the nation of which it is supposed to be the capital city, and as a Northerner I probably feel that more than most, it also creates a creeping unease with some of the scum you are sharing the pubs and environs with.

This morning over coffee Akhnaton came on as I read this..

.. which prompted me to blog today

Friday, 16 March 2012

The Altered States of London

Good week so far.. experiencing the mini-Scala revival of Ken Russell Forever at the HQ of the new Scala activities, The Roxy Bar and Screen (beneath The Shard, where the pic was taken). I became a member at the weekend just in time for their double bill of ALTERED STATES and Russells take on BARTOK.

Both excellent.

ALTERED STATES, is I remember, a very strange ken Russell film and I think some of the younger audience were a bit surprised by it. Instead of crazed nuns, OTT sex and art horror the movie plays now more like the cusp between Kubrick and Spielberg. It is incredibly sober and well put together for a KR film with a magnificent oscar nominated soundtrack by classical composer John Corigliano and dialogue written by Paddy (NETWORK) Chayefsky from his book.

KR could be brilliant with his actors and the central romance angle to Altered States is very strong. Seen from then, in the early 80s, dominated as it was by the incredible effects sequences, we compared the movie with Doug Trumble's BRIANSTORM and AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON. Seen from now it is the brilliant characters carved out by William Hurt and Blair Brown (among others), which stand out and make it closer to the human Goldblum/Davis tragedy within THE FLY of later that decade.

On a big screen in HI-DEF ALTERED STATES would be amazing and would stand comparison with 2001. Those who like a bit of humanity and characterisation may even prefer it.

BARTOK was one of Ken Russell's rarely seen BBC Monitor documentaries on the Hungarian composer Bela Bartok. Long classical black and white music videos, this initially looked like hard going but eventually came good (perhaps because I recently visited Budapest and really liked the place). Highlight was KR's video for Bartok's BlueBeard. Bluebeard leads his wife down to see his final terrible secret -- through a stylised 70s building (New Zealand House apparently) to her eventual doom. Looked amazing even in crackly black and white.

After six months of not finished a book I am tearing through William Gibson's Zero History at flank speed. Much easier to read than Spook County (previous one) it is perhaps because London 2012, Hubertus Bigend and Blue Ant suddenly seem a lot more real and believable. Got into a great routine listening to the magnificent LL show every day. I must be in a good mood, I quite like the sound of the new Paul Weller album.

The Guardian has me doing a hi-tech Time Team archaeological dig looking for and collecting old documentation.

From the new flat I'm house-sitting on Grays Inn Road I'm reading. writing, updating my blog playing good computer games and getting out and about - where am I finding the time for all this?
(TV in flat is broken)

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Unfinished business

I never did it but always wanted to set off for Glastonbury Festival at the crack of dawn listening to this....

One more reason to go back someday I guess...

Tuesday, 13 March 2012


In case you have missed the latest on the fiasco which is the Royal Navy's new aircraft carriers: the word is that the cost of converting them use to the more effective (hugely delayed) US aircraft will be so much that the Admiralty may reverse its earlier decision and go with the inferior version of the same plane. OR - quelle horreur! - use the French plane which is available now, and that will probably end up operating from them anyway...

It is likely to make for a fascinating Easter budget statement.

If you thought you knew how much the new Royal Navy carriers have cost the UK budget, you are probably wrong. Originally budgeted at £3 billion, now at 7, likely to rise to an eventual 12, the real cost of disastrous budget decisions on this subject going back to the 1960s has been closer to £30 billion, plus the lives of hundreds and British and Argentinian servicemen and a long running international dispute which poisons Britain's relations with the entire of South America.

The first of the Queen Elizabeth Class carriers is due for launch next year without any aircraft. The preceding class of ships, the much smaller but Illustrious class, have just been scrapped early due to budget issues, leaving the Royal navy without any carrier capability for nearly a decade. While this happens the other Royal Navy carrier veteran from the Falklands War, HMS Hermes, will continue to serve, as it has done for decades, as
 INS Viraat, the flagship of the Indian Navy until 2020.

What happened to the the management and procurement of the Royal Navy's assets to allow billion dollar assets to be sold and scrapped while their even more expensive replacements sit useless for years?

In the 1960s The Royal Navy had six carriers, all laid down just after World War Two, all in various states of refit. The two major assets where the 50,000 ton Audacious class carriers, HMS Ark Royal and HMS Eagle, capable of flying the biggest baddest jets of the era, the supersonic Phantom II. The others, of which 
HMS Hermes was one, were half the size at 26,000 tons but considered useful as helicopter platforms. The plan was to replace the larger ships with one or two large but easy to use ships, codenamed  CVA-01 , and keep one or two of the smaller ships for the Royal Marines.

Unfortunately the fleet flagship, the 
Audacious Class Ark Royal, was an infamous lemon, an expensive money pit who spent more time in dockyards being fixed than at sea. Her sister, HMS Eagle, was much easier and cheaper to run but had missed a crucial upgrade to her flight deck in the 1950s (cost cutting already).

When the inevitable decision was taken to scrap both Audacious Class ships, Eagle had just finished a refit, was considered to be in excellent material condition, estimated to be at least ten years live left in her. And, as the subsequent carrier of Hermes has proved, estimates on the life of aircraft carriers have since proved to be hopelessly pessimistic.

Hesitating at the decision to replace the larger carriers with the new 
CVA-01 design, a decision was taken shortly after to abandon all Royal Navy operations East of Suez and to scrap the entire carrier fleet.

Such was the political stigma of "aircraft carrier" in the UK budget at the time, a form of replacement, the compromised anti-submarine Invincible Class (including a new Ark Royal) was only ordered as "through- deck cruisers". Of the others, HMS Hermes and one sister ship were retained for use by the Royal Marines as helicopter platforms.

With the even further scrapping of RN resources in Thatcher government's defense budget of 1981 the military dictatorship in Argentina decided this was a signal to re-occupy the Falklands. Previous UK governments had directed a nearby RN frigate to sail around the islands in times of tension. In failing to do this the UK government most responsible for the political failure of allowing the conflict to start reaped historic political benefits from the war which followed. The withdrawal East of Suez was forgotten as a whole new requirement South of Suez was discovered.

 Approximately a thousand deaths later, with a new disputed base to be defended 8000 miles away, with HMS Hermes dragged out of retirement and HMS Illustrious dragged out of a sale to Australia, carriers become a fashionable subject again within budgeting terms and new long term planning began on their replacement.

HMS Hermes, thought to be beyond her useful life, was sold to India in 1986 to become INS Virrat.

Illustrious and her two sister ships sailed onto two decades of semi usefullness with their tiny air group (12-18 short range, subsonic, Harriers) attracting criticism for their limited capability, until a straight budget decision in 2010 between them and a 40 year old RAF relic from the 1970s resulted in the entire Harrier force being scrapped to allow the UK to keep the Tornado (a very hard but correct decision as the RAF role in the Libyan uprising proved.)
Figure 2 HMS Illustrious size comparison with US carrier

Meanwhile, as INS Viraat, the old Hermes, a contemporary of the old Eagle and Ark Royal but half the size, sails on as flagship of the Indian Navy. The Indians had bought a Russian carrier, the Admiral Gorshkov,  to replace her but having found problems with the Russian ship (a similar hybrid compromise to the Illustrious class) the Indians chose to keep refitting the old ship and she is now set to continue until 2020, by which time there will be no spares left for her aircraft. Hermes will then have served for 60 years, when her original estimate was 20.

British naval experts, who seemingly prefer shiny new ships with half the capability of the old, would scoff at the Indians for sailing around in ships of that age, but the Indians  are practical enough to realise something that has also occurred to the US Navy. An aircraft carrier does not have to be stealthy, fast, economical, pretty or even rust free. It is a floating air base. All it needs is to be big enough and mobile enough. For this reason apparently ancient designs, even for the limitless resources of the US Navy, work just fine. USS Enterprise is due to be retired in 2013 after 51 years of service. 

Another factor to be included in these early years of the 21st century, when discussing the usefulness of carriers, is what their actual effective use would be. How much real danger are we expecting to put these ships in? In a world of 'power projection' and flag waving are such vessels, of whatever age, really going to be thrown into the sharp end of a modern conflict? Might some future UK government feel constrained to justify the expense of a new carrier by actually using them? The previous RN carriers were protected by 14 frigates and 20+ destroyers. Today we have the bright and shiny Type 45s. But there are only 6 of them (and currently we can only afford to equip them with one type of missile)

The two new carriers, The Queen Elizabeth Class are named Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales. As has been mentioned elsewhere the previous HMS Prince of Wales was a modern capital ship of another era sent into a hostile zone without adequate support to make a strategic political statement. She then faced state of the art weapons and was sunk (along with HMS Repulse) with huge loss of life. It was a loss of naval prestige in the East which the RN never recovered from and which led directly to the original decision to scale back East of Suez.

Of course, to avoid being wholly pessimistic, we could play the historical game another way, and say the previous Queen Elizabeth Class served with huge distinction in both World Wars and were arguably the most cost effective weapons ever ordered by a British government. The decision to order the deployment of Prince of Wales and the decision to order the Queen Elizabeth super dreadnoughts were both taken by the same man, Winston Churchill, underlining the difficulty ordering and deploying weapons from another era.

Nevertheless, to get the cost of the new carriers in perspective let us put it alongside the budget decisions that followed on from the original carrier savings in the 1970s.

Starting with the most heinous losses.

£3 Billion +
255 lives (649 Argentinian)
Six ships sunk
plus permanent state of cold war in South Atlantic and ever worsening relations with South America

ILLUSTRIOUS CLASS "aircraft carriers/through deck cruisers"
Three built, entered service by 1981, all scrapped by 2014
£0.8 billion+

Two ordered
Original estimate £2 Billion
Likely to be £12 Billion
Cost and type of aircraft currently unknown, ships unusable until 2020

The cost of the much reviled CVA-01, cancelled in the 1970s is estimated at £100 million, a bargain in today's terms but impossible to justify in the climate of the time. (More difficult decisions for politicians: the decision to scrap the carriers in the 70s was taken by the man who later have to beg for help for the financial bailout from the IMF, Dennis Healy.)

Seen with hindsight the real disaster was to scrap the assets available at the time. It was estimated that a fully modern refit of HMS Eagle (twice the size of Hermes) would have cost £5 million. The cost of continually refitting the carrier since, in a method similar to Hermes/Viraat, is unknown but likely to be less than completely re-inventing the industry, expertise required to operate modern fully capable carrier aircraft for the new carriers after an absence of 35 years.

The US Navy is due to help the RN re-acquire these skills and it is from this direction that we have the most compelling argument to go ahead with the carriers, and not necessarily because we actually should use them. Much of the pressure to get the new carriers came from the US tired of footing the bill for European defence and acutely aware it is the only nation currently deploying large carrier task forces. Regardless of the actual usefulness or obsolescence of the new RN carriers this is the best reason for acquiring them.

In a world were anything from satellite weapons, cyber warfare, nano-technology and drones could be decisive in a future conflict, and the UK has little to no capability in any of these areas, the billions spent on the carriers actually is billions spent on keeping the UK, and Europe, some way underneath the US hi-tech defensive umbrella.

And speaking of Europe, it is again here where the carriers make sense in a larger international context. Operating alone as only as part of a massively cut down Royal Navy the new carriers would be an exceptionally juicy target. However, along with the likely French carrier contribution, and protected by the significant and effective naval assets provided by the rest of Europe they will likely be the core of EU naval defence for at least the next 30 years. 

In this context the initially surprising thought of flying French aircraft from the British ships actually makes sense, and it would perhaps balance some of the idiotic lack of common sense that has plagued the issue of Britain's carriers for the last 40 years. The real cost of the new carriers has been in lives and is a result of vacillation and short term thinking. Having made a hard decision to build and pay for the new carriers let us make sure we get the most from them for as long as possible without needlessly expending them - or their crews.

From the budgetary perspective of 2012 ordering the new RN carriers looks insane. From the international political perspective of future generations the investment in securing our allies across the Atlantic and in Europe is priceless. Whether our allies would agree that defending Europe includes the South Atlantic is another matter.

Each of the new Royal Navy 65,000 ton super carriers will sail into action with a crew of 1600. Hopefully the only sacrifice made on this issue is the financial one we have to make now.

BLAST FROM THE PAST : Bikes in 1996

I've been riding on the wilds of Exmoor for a couple of years now and although now  I'm coming to terms with the breathtaking hills, razor sharp bends and slimy roads there is still plenty to worry about. The Readers Ride featured in Aprils BIKE ("Devlish Devon") is referred to in our house as Fireblade Alley and come summer I would seriously suggest leaving the locals well alone ! That I can deal with them at all is because I learn't a few tricks previously on this route…..

The St. Albans – Chilterns TT Safari

The sheer variety of roads on this route, which crosses the borders of three counties, make it the nearest thing to the Isle of Man within half an hour of London. And the TT doesn't doesn't go through a safari park….

Start in St. Albans by the Roman Verulamiam. Do Ben Hur impressions in the millennium old theatre before taking off down the road and taking a left at the roundabout towards Dunstable and Redstone. (A1583)

From here the roads get about as close to Union Mills on the Island as you're likely to get in the South East, spiced with the odd roundabout to keep the road on your toes.  When the road crosses beneath the M1 and becomes the A5 it passes through Markyate (rumoured to be an old hang out for the Knights Templar) before a turning on the left by a pub announces the route to Whipsnade. Wack open the throttle as you reach the hill, it'll be your last chance for a while.

Quiet sweet villages and Hertfordshire countryside herald the approach of Whipsnade safari park, marked by a weedy looking gate across the road that wouldn't bother a Meerkat. Drive past Whipsnade Safari Park – Meerkats make crap pillions. They always lean the wrong way.

You're now descending down from the series of hills that contain Ivinghoe Beacon. As a famous local high spot the Beacon you might think is a great place for a pilgrimage in the middle of the night to sort your life out and watch the sun come up. Speaking for myself the only thing I found when I tried this was a whole new way to lose your helmet – I tripped over a tent in the dark and it rolled down a hill. Took me hours to find.

 Hurtle past the long line of fencing that keeps the penguins from ravishing the countryside in their heat-stroke insanity. The fencing isn't that effective actually – while looking for access to a giant chalk lion cut into one of the nearby hills a friend of mine broke into Whipsnade's wallaby enclosure by mistake.

But I digress.

Easy on the twisty steep hill, plenty of change downs, some real nutters around here. At the bottom fight the impulse to go tearing off into the Bedfordshire Veldt and turn almost back upon yourself, back up, hugging the base of the hills towards Dagnall and Ringshall.  (B4506) This gorgeous country road winds into a National Trust enclave of the Chilterns and there are some interesting surprises hidden away in the woods if your are willing to explore. If you just want to rattle the sound barrier on your Hayabusa you'll find the roads a bit twisty but with the odd hidden straight equipped with a generous sound proofing of lush English forest.

Woh ! Half way along the final straight don't miss the sudden right hander into the deepest bit of forest – towards Aldbury. If the Merc you've just overtaken flashes you mid turn fight the impulse to chase them up the road to Northchurch, which misses the best bits and is rather dull. (Even when you're trying to honourably extract yourself from a staggeringly pointless road rage incident)

Aldbury, a perfect site for lunch, looms out of knowhere. Comforting and vaguely sinister in a way only English villages seem to be, I'm convinced Aldbury is the basis for the Chiltern village in James Herbert's "The Ghosts of Sleath". The too-tranquil pond in that dominates the place is a dead give-away. The monstrous black Speed Quattro I was given to test by an Internet magazine was luckily out of there before it got dark… (During writing this a friend confirmed that Aldbury was often used as a Location for sixties spy drama's such as The Avengers and The Prisoner)

The road keeps twisting through some golden countryside before reaching Tring. An odd place with its own 19thc equivalent of Whipsnade Safari Park in the shape of Tring Zoological Museum. Here the Meerkats and Penguins are rather less animated however, this being one of the best taxidermy collections in the country.  Ahhh Planet of The Apes. Now that was a movie.

Similar freakish monstrosities can be found at the Trings bike dealer but if you get a demo on one of the (new) Laverda's stay off the next set of roads unless a washing machine on spin is your idea of a good time…

………Because the A41 back to Hemel is a relatively new and unused road is so straight it's always what I thought an Autobahn would be like. The previously mentioned Speed Quattro (that's an old Hinckley Triumph Speed Triple but with a 12000 engine, a speedshifter and exhausts from a B52 courtesy of Daytona Motorcycles in Ruislip) ate this road up and you're almost wishing this could go on forever when Hemel appears suddenly .

Hemel is usually pretty congested actually but does feature the famous Magic Roundabout and quite a good Bike Breakers. I say quite good because the staff have this annoying habit of making you stand at the counter and making you explain endlessly until you say the word "thingy" before they offer any assistance.

After the awesome confusion of the Magic Roundabout the sudden turn off to St. Albans on the right takes you from the worst of Hemel and out onto some interesting backroads which lead back conveniently to the Verulamiam.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Sunny Sunday in London

Yesterday, to check out likely route for pub event at end if month I walked from Farringdon to Southwark and back. Still quite rough from Friday night but if you  end up ordering cocktails in a bowling alley (Bloomsbury Lanes) you deserve all you get...

Sent from my iPhone

News Quiz USA

Isn't The US version of News Quiz "Wait Wait.. Don't Tell me?"

If Lewis Black is doing this instead of Sandi Toksvig I would expect it to be a lot more profane and bloodthirsty than the UK version and way WAY too brutal for US poltical satire (on radio anyway - NPR? you must be joking)

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Leicester was quite boring...

.. people were lovely but the town was a bit lacking (quite 'Detroit') and my mind often wandered.. 

I was explaining to a young spurs fan the other day how Tottenham might yet do well this year - as Manchester City haven't spectacularly collapsed in a while.

He scoffed at the suggestion. This was a new City, full of talent organisation and resolve instilled by their Italian manager Roberto Mancini

It's true, they are packed full of talent and a bankrolled by a family than controls apparently 10% of the worlds remaing supply of oil. it is only a matter of time before they conquer every arena in football. But they still remain Manchester City and it is in their DNA to have at at least two more Biblical screw ups on their way. Roberto Mancini's cool italian will just trail off into disbelief, because when the wheels next come off this giant panjandrum a soundtrack by Henry Mancini will sound more appropriate.

My young friend only had memories that go back to Newcastle United level fuck ups and collapses.  When that great Geordie Circus starts to go wrong (King Kev and its sequel) it has a real element of tragedy, like a good Woody Allen film. When City goes wrong it's like a Naked Gun sequel directed by Cecile B Demile.

(see Alan Ball, theatre of base comedy etc etc)

How, from here, does this team, which thrashed United 6-1 at their most recent meeting go wrong?

Well the characters are all their waiting for the storyline to coalesce around them. A large collection of the best players from second tier teams that have won nothing are sprinkled liberally with some timeless comedy genius. Headbanger matrial artist Nigel De Jong, who tried to kick a Spanish players head off in a world cup final, serial sulk and Mutley look alike Carlos Tevez, ex footballer turned millionaire sofa pilot Wayne Bridge.

And Super Mario, who it is actually very difficult to wish ill of as his antics have apparently captured the hearts of even United fans.

The fugitive Italian is misunderstood in Italy apparently but 100% understood in Britain's north west. 'Daft' probably translates into Italian as 'mentally ill ' but in large parts of what was Lancashire it is a valid lifestyle option, in the way that 'dandy' or more recently'Sloan' might apply in London.

Mancunians love Mario Ballotelli because they have known and loved his like before. George Formby, Norman Wisdom, Frank Sidebottom.... Bez.... All cool in a particular Lancastrian style that looks so appropriate to Super Mario you would think Franny Lee discovered him doing keepy uppy football tricks in The Pheonix club.

It will be a tragedy for Ballotelli when his team blows up, with a great comedy fart noise, in some future football final but he is essentially a great player as well as a comedian, and the real laughs at that point will come from the uncomprehending stare and gestures of Mario's straight man and manager. Much of the Norths existenial meaning and Manchester City's place in the cosmos will be lost until "Bobby Manc" learns what Daft is.

(I feel compelled to add that the aforementioned 6-1 thrashing started with a brilliant goal from senior Ballotelli)

Sent (direct from the drunken notes) of my iPhone

J-Rock just off Electric Avenue

No photos remain of the trip to see BO NINGEN + Sekaiteki Na Band + Teta Mona at the Windmill in Brixton but suffice to say it was a great venue and a great night out.

Bo Ningen was the headliner, a raving psych guitar band. I actually preffered
Sekaiteki Na Band, a slightly more garage band outfit with some of the best lead guitar work I've ever seen. Teta Mona was fun.

At no point was I bored throughout any of the bands and would go a long way to see them again. I am a confirmed J-Rock fan (or maybe it's just reignited - see the review of Shonen Knife in my ancient Reading review on here somewhere)

Picture is of Electric Avenue packing up from the Overground station

Slivers of Today

The Guardian is making me feel like Alf Garnet, or at least, another relic from another age, Austin Powers. In my futile over-friendly first week I almost jumped into a conversation about the foyer (see above) with a remark about the aesthetic desirability of a couple of Fem-Bots in furry bikinis to really complete the scene, but then considered the audience in The Guardian office and wisely (for once) kept my mouth shut.
Being in your mid 40s is mostly plusses. Personal fixations recede into the background, everything is much more chilled and in perspective. You do your own thing and enjoy it a lot more etc etc. This is all partly because The End is just over the horizon and you want to get as much in as possible.
However there is an inevitable Slowing Down and the challenge of the 40s is handling that without completely giving up and metaphorically climbing into the coffin decades early.
On a physical level a good friend got me into running, which I now do at a very low level (ten minutes jog around the block) as often as I can. Makes a huge difference phyiscally and mentally.
(Thanks Kathryn).
Attitude is vital. With the world and the media getting seemingly ever more remote it is a real effort to not give up and turn into a bitter and twisted old fart railing at the world from the sidelines. With this in mind I've been keeping an eye on what exactly is pushing me down that route and how I can slow it down.
What is the main thing turning me old before my time? Radio 4's The Today Programme.
Don't get me wrong, I love it. Funny, smart it is just about the best current affairs show on any channel anywhere and makes me proud to be British. When I was in my 30s it made me look forward to growing old. "Old people can be that cool! Awesome! Can't wait to get there"
The Today Show really is a British instititution, as wierd as the The Shipping Forecast , but apparently as powerful as the admiralty. You wouldn't say it makes you glad to be alive but it does make you glad to be British. 
I know its setting an attitude in my head. Private Eye is the same. A daily route of waking up to one and reading the other on the lav is preparing in my head a bitter, cynical death march to the grave. The presenters do their best but the news content tends to create a mood of suicidal anger before you've even set off for work.
So, now I've moved temporaily into my London pad on Grays Inn Road (full report next time, if I have't been moved out) I found a radio tuned to a different channel and have just stuck with it. Another big help was a trip to see three fantastic J-Rock bands.. BO NINGEN + Sekaiteki Na Band + Teta Mona in a fantastic venue, The Windmill Brixton.. completely re-ignited my interested in live music. (Thanks Richard)
The music radio station is BBC Radio 6, which at least in the morning (before LL), turns out to be at least as aggravting (Shaun Keaveny, what a p**k) as The Today Show, but here is the big reveal - morning radio is meant to be background noise. It's meant to be barely audible content that isn't distracting you from getting your shit and your head together for work. You shouldn't be ranting at Thought For The Day beacuse you should be brushing your teeth.
The Today Show is really for people whose 'Today' probably won't involve leaving the house.
So how do you enjoy Today without it turning into a daily sliver of death taken just after you wake up from sleep? The answer, not for the first time recently, is podcasts  (see my last post). You can ingest Today in little doses via the Best of Today podcast, and like Rasputin with Cyanide, you can slowly build up an immunity.
Ohh yes. you're thinking ...Mid -life crisis? They said that when my hair started thinning in '89, they said that when I bought the Triumph Trident in '94, they said that when I got the TT in 2008. I've been living in a perpetual mid-life crisis for over 30 years...It's what keeps me interested