Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Babies' first Christmas...

... and didn't they do well? Finchley Memorial Hospital may seem to show fewer wards, fewer patients, by the year, but this Christmas Day our carol-singing trip was happily predictably longer than usual, as the two new arrivals to the team became instant, smile-inducing stars of the show.

Not that the patients were the only ones making the most of my two new nephews - the clock was ticking agonisingly away until l'il Kim's Boxing Day flight with his mother Jessie and grandmother May to meet the grandfather he hadn't yet met - fully fair enough, though it denies us his special company for a long three months now...

Still, he certainly seemed to enjoy this final full London-day 'til springtime:

And we'll certainly miss his array of outfits, too, all swiftly knitted by May, wool whirled into vivid shape swifter than a shake of a, er, lamb's tail...

Hopefully something special of the day has stuck in Kim's four-month-old mind (and Harry's, one month older and maybepossiblyperhaps wiser... or not) - while the mountain of babygrows, cuddly creatures, zipbopwhirr-ing toys should keep them distracted awhile - even if at times the boys found the wrapping paper more intriguing, even actually appetising...

See you in Spring, Kimmy, we'll miss you in the meantime - maybe by the time he returns, he'll be able to crawl/walk/talk/in English/in Mandarin/eat with chopsticks/explain Confucianism...

Or just remember the rest of us, that'll do just fine for now, and then...

"All the best, Rigsby..."

"Happy Christmas - and a... er... er... God, my writing's getting worse every year..."

Having avoided almost all TV this Christmas (save for seeing Rageh Omaar embarrass himself and his profession on Celebrity Mastermind, upon which the endearingly-severe Sir Ranulph Fiennes also suggested Bill Clinton's Vice-President between 1995 and 2001 was "Lewinsky"...), today's line-up on ITV3 was a temptation too far: yes, after utterly-missable afternoons devoted to On The Buses and the over-familiar Two Ronnies, today was a glorious Rising Damp Day.

The Christmas special, in which (Rupert) Rigsby manages to shut himself off from the world - and his own self-sent seasonal greetings card - until a bitter Boxing Day, is a festive favourite of mine, alongside Blackadder's Christmas Carol, Harold's predictably futile attempt to escape alone, and abroad, from Harold for Christmas in Steptoe And Son, the Christmas episode of Bottom ("All-Gold, Frankenstein... and Grrr"...) and the inevitable Only Fools And Horseses...

One of my best Christmas gifts was a second-hand-shop-bought copy of Leonard Rossiter's 1981 book, The Lowest Form Of Wit, an in-depth study and celebration of sarcasm. The dust jacket promises "specific advice on how to treat bank managers and, notably, how to be sarcastic to foreigners and yet be understood"

Some might say that, in the battle to plumb the lowest depths of wit, sarcasm gets a run for its money from punning. Both are just fine by me, but punning at least is (reasonably) painless (again, some might well disagree...)

As Rossiter writes:

"Sarcasm is cruel, there's no denying it. To some it gives the same vindictive pleasure as thumping a rival at school in the back when he's pinned to the floor by half a dozen others. To others, perhaps, it gives the delicious sensation achieved by whacking a squash ball into an opponent's fleshy thigh, and watching the small white mark."

Excellent. Just a little bit of a shame that the first page I opened at took relish in Lyndon Johnson's descriptions of one of his now-dear-departed successors:

"Gerry Ford is a nice guy, but he played too much football with his helmet off."


"Gerry's the only man I ever knew who can't walk and chew gum at the same time."

Quickly followed up by a sucker punch quotation from Bella Abzug:

"Richard Nixon self-impeached himself. He gave us Gerald Ford as his revenge."

Ouch. Witty while caustic, yes - but sarcastic? On first glance perhaps Rigsbys', sorry, Reggie Perrin's, sorry, Leonard Rossiter's book will be more a compendium of general wit and put-downs rather than purest sarcasm, but it has certainly, admittedly diverted me already from the (fascinating) hardback I already had on the go, Frederick Taylor's expansive The Berlin Wall. They should make a tasty cocktail when back on the commuting beat next week - little-and-large, light- and heavy-weight.

RIP Gerald Ford, by the by, not that I have any strong feelings either way on the man, other than affection for his portrayal in The Simpsons as the Homer-befriending, clunkily charming antidote to mean old bad neighbour George H W Bush.

"Say, Homer - do you like football? Do you like nachos? Well, why don't you come over and watch the game, and we'll have nachos? And then, some beer."

Ford was actually born Leslie King (to a Leslie King Snr), only for his mother to give him the name Gerald Ford after her second husband, his stepfather, Gerald Rudolff Ford. What is it about US Presidents, they can't even tell the truth about their own names...?

Clinton, after all, was the surname of Bill's stepfather, not his natural dad? Had he kept the name he was born with, history books may now tell of 42nd US President Bill Blythe.

Oh, and his running-mate Lewinsky, of course.

As Rigsby might witheringly moan: "Stop the world, I want to get off..."

Sunday, December 24, 2006

"Slippin' and a-slidin'..."

Now Mark Ramprakash has deservedly won the BBC's latest Strictly Come Dancing series, the second cricketer to do so after Darren Gough last year, surely there's only one man who should be topping the producers' hitlist to take part next time around..?

After all, he should soon have a little more time on his hands (and feet). Yes, that's right...
Would Shane Warne please step onto the dancefloor...

"You are what you love, and not what loves you back..."

I'd completely forgotten, until just now, that my favourite album of 2006 was actually released in 2006. If you know what I mean. That is, it came out back in the dim, distant days of last January, yet seemed to have been a constant pleasure in life for so much longer.

Ah, January, usually the dog-days of quality record-releasing, as music companies hunker down and save their finer releases until the post-Christmas purse-tightening (or, indeed, New Year discounting frenzies) have eased a little. But this was the month that brought my personal favourite, not to be topped again in the following (almost) 11 months - and, no, it wasn't by the Arctic bleedin' Monkeys. "I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor", yes, has a thrilling riff and momentum, and the rest of the album is vaguely refreshing after a fashion. But it all gets a little samey after a while (the sound, and the furious hype...), and the lyrics a little too easily, er, pastichable after a while ("There's a bird by the bar, she's looking well nice, got a Burberry jacket, and a Smirnoff Ice..." Or something...)

But, anyway, no, my vote, for what miniscule shred it's worth, goes for the gorgeous Rabbit Furcoat by the, well, gorgeous Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins: more reflective and country-soul-some than her day-job with the indie-tastic (and rather good, too) Rilo Kiley, and all the more affecting. Bonus points for a wonderfully offbeat choice of song to cover, "Handle With Care" by The Travelling Wilburies. But perhaps the highlight is the stirring "Rise Up With Fists", a slow-burning anthem of downbeat yet still-defiant belief in... something, someone, oneself, just about strong enough.

A lot later in the year came a bit of an unexpected pleasure. Not that The Beatles can usually ever be anything but reliable pleasure, but with all the early-year talk of Love in the context of its accompanying cirque-du-soleil-style light-the-lights spectacular, a teasing four-track taster this autumn indicated plenty of tender love and care had gone into mischievously, yet thoughtfully, mixing and remixing many of the polished versions and unpolished demos, often jarringly and not-so-jarryingly together, creating new sounds of surprise and wonder from such familiar old favourites. The new "Octopus' Garden" was a revelation, a lot richer and not nearly so hokey as the Abbey Road chunter-along, while "Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite" sounded even more compellingly nightmarish with its deranged fairground organ interlaced with those doom-laden guitar chimes of "I Want You (She's So Heavy)". Stand-out track, though? "Get Back", played fairly straight - oh, but for the "A Hard Day's Night" ker-chang that introduces it, swiftly followed by Sir Ringo's drum solo from "The End". From then on 'til the end of the track, it's pretty much as you were. And what's wrong with that anyway?

Oh, but for more really, really new recent Beatle-ing (and even more of a pleasant shock), Sean Lennon's Friendly Fire would probably have taken the not-at-all prestigious prize as my album of the year, a toppermost-of-the-powerpoppermost ten-track confection, showing a much lighter touch than his earlier, grungier and then experimental efforts - and yet seeming a lot more substantial at the same time. His voice is reedier and more fragile than his father's (who he?), and the instrumentation at times gossamer-thin - and suiting such delicate melodies ideally. Stand-out track: a tie between "Parachute", the sweetest little suicide pact song since "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out", and the Marc-Bolan-curiosity-resurrecting "Would I Be The One".

Was it really ten whole years since we first heard from "Em in the place who likes it in your face, we got G like MC who likes it on a...?, Easy V doesn't come for free, she's a real lady - and as for me? Hah, you'll see..."? Ber-limey, so it appears to be. Whatever happened to them, anyway? Well, this time a decade ago the lovely Emma Bunton seemed to take a starring role in Christmas number one "2 Become 1", and while she may not have celebrated the anniversary with the Strictly Come Dancing prize, my fellow Woodside Park-er produced another underrated beauty of a swoonsome Sixties-ish album, Life In Mono - extra credits for the title track, a lovely cover of my favourite song by horrifically under-rated and under-remembered late-Nineties indie-electronica act Mono. The stand-out track, though, is surely "Mischievous", this year's winner of the Natasha Bedingfield "Hyperbowl" Award For Embarrassing Mispronunciation Utterly Redeemed By An Irresistibly Poptastic Tune.

Another female artist straight outta Finchley (though she seems to insist, these days, upon being straight outta Camden), couldn't be more different otherwise from delectable Emma, though Amy Winehouse may well be much spicier than Spice. Having been underwhelmed by what I'd heard of her first album, and frankly a little frightened by some of her recent appearances on TV and in the papers, Back To Black a stunning - if stern - corrective. What. A. Voice. And songs of aching quality, too. The divine Dusty never demanded "What kind of fuckery is this?" Well, not in song, anyway. Stand-out track, though, has to be the gutbuster "Rehab". "They tried to make me go to rehab, I said no, no, no..." And anyone who dared to try again deserves to be sectioned themselves...

Back to the sweetness and light, I think - and a pair who pass now for elder statesman and woman of a just-about-off-mainstream movement for whom jangle is massive: Matthew Sweet and ex-Bangle Susanna Hoffs, who followed the triumph (well, I love it, anyway) of her band's 2003 comeback Doll Revolution with Under The Covers: Volume One. Okay, so a set of Sixties standards may not seem the most ambitious project, and you can't really go wrong with such solid-gold good'uns as "And Your Bird Can Sing" and "Who Knows Where The Time Goes"? But, this is just a joy, all the way through, with a little more light, shade and quirkiness than a similarly-principled effort by Dolly Parton this year (not that that's not also very, very... well, nice. Hm, the NME, here I come...) Stand-out track? Well, "And Your Bird Can Sing" is always exhilirating, even The Beatles' Anthology 2-featured fiasco that dissolves into hysterical giggles, and The Jam's slightly ham-fisted effort. But the hypnotic ringing guitar of "Different Drum", plus The Hoffs' creamy-butter-dripping-over-hot-toast vocal, just about does it best for me.

For something slightly more bizarre - well, utterly bonkers - Brazilian band CSS and their international debut album Cansei de Ser Sexy, have rarely been off my iPod in recent weeks, especially the manic single "Let's Make Love And Listen To Death From Above" - that line alone, as mumbled then barked out by singer Lovefoxxx, enough to stop anyone in their tracks then send them careering off in a dizzy-making dance to top anything Mark Ramprakash could come up with. The weirdly-inflected English lyrics are so startling, they make fellow South American Shakira sound as mundane as the Stereophonics by comparison... Stand-out track: of the album, maybe of the year - as above...

Phew. A bit of straight-up English indie guitar music may be what's needed next, and while Larrikin Love (especially "Six Queens"), The Young Knives (ditto "Loughborough Suicide"), The Holloways ("Generator") and even some band called Babyshambles (okay, "The Blinding" was just an EP, but poor old Pete hasn't sounded so coherent since The Libertines) had their charms, my choice might just have to be Boy Kill Boy and Civilian, an energetic outfit ("outfit"? oof) of whom I know little but approve a lot, especially the, er, stand-out track "Back Again", which lurches lustily between little-monster riffs and impassioned melody.

Similar could be said for The Long Blondes, a Sheffield female-fronted band whose album Someone To Drive You Home is a little more direct and swiftly-palatable than that by the same city's more (in)famous Jarvis Cocker (or just Jarvis, as he seems to be termed these days - either way, his album's still slowly growing on me). The Long Blondes, spiky stabs of guitar cutting under Kate Jackson's desperate yelps, sound a little warmer to me than the sort-of-similar, also-but-not-as-good US band The Gossip. Perhaps explaining why the American band's frontwoman recently topped the NME's annual, er, "Cool List". Though maybe not. Anyway, stand-out track? "Only Lovers Left Alive", probably. I just like it best.

Moving on... and further north, this time to Glasgow, The Fratellis, with debut album Costello Music, come on a little like a Scottish Supergrass, all pogo-worthy big choruses and happy little vignettes of eye-(or-ear-)catching characters, and bigger verses, and even bigger-er choruses again... and while they're not all actually called Fratelli (nice for a bassist, in this case Barry, to claim a little glory for a charge and give a band a name), they are all alarmingly young and yet, when the tunes are quite so terribly, terribly catchy, even precocious youth can be forgiven. Bah humbug. Stand-out track: "Chelsea Dagger" should be the dazzling-est, even if already-forlorn efforts to sing the chorus as "Martin Jol, Martin Jol, Martin Jo-o-o-o-ol" seem deservedly doomed to failure at the Lane (the song's title doesn't really help). But "Vince The Loveable Stoner", while not so far a single, certainly should be. But what do I know...?

After all, I thought Australian band Jet were ludicrously over-wraught, dangerously Darkness-esque pomp-rockers based on their debut album, and showcase single "Are You Gonna Be My Girl?" Yet follow-up Shine On even outdoes The Feeling for guilty-pleasure-worthy Seventies powerpop-plundering, and it sounds superb. Plenty of reviews have compared the album to Oasis (good Oasis, that is), but it puts me more in mind of Wings-era Macca - and, as we all know, Wings are only the band The Beatles could have been...

Hang on, though. Actually, I've just realised that was the 11th album I've nominated for my top ten (maths never was my strong point - nor was keeping things concise), so I'm sorry, Jet, I'm going to have to relegate you to my "Ooh, So Close" band of, well, bands that deserve credit but just failed to make the cut: please help yourself to some nibbles in this hospitality room alongside the ever-reliable Ron Sexsmith (Time Being being as deft and adept as ever), James Dean Bradfield (The Great Western whetted the appetite wonderfully for the next Manics album), Cat Power (The Greatest, maybe not actually the greatest, but a sumptuous, bittersweet treat all the same)...

Oh, and as more fleeting delights, I was delightedly drawn to "LDN" by Lily Allen, "Over And Over" and "Boy From School" by Hot Chip, "Hips Don't Lie" by Shakira (the video to which seemed to be on German TV non-stop while I was over there last summer, and very mesmerising it consistently proved too), the lusciously sorrowful "My Mirror" by Tina Dico, "Young Folks" by Peter Bjorn and John, "Backstabber" by The Dresden Dolls, "Cheated Hearts" by The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the intriguingly noodle-some "Herculean" by The Good The Bad And The Queen, the startling "Promiscuous" by Nelly Furtado, "Get Yourself Into It" by The Rapture, and "The Needle Has Landed" by Neko Case.

Actually, I adored the whole swooping beauty of the Neko Case album, Fox Confessor Brings The Flood. That should really have been in the top eleven, I mean, ten.

Hmm... can I start again?

Oh, and the long-long-long-delayed new Luke Haines album is apparently out now, too. Ah, sod it - that'll have to go into the running for the 2007 award, 12 months from now.

You read it here first. Just don't let me forget, okay...?

"How very interesting..."

Blogging etiquette suggests that once "tagged", you should really respond, even if deep-lyingly snobbish instincts harrumph that "me-me"s aren't really for, well, me. But since I haven't done one for a while, since "tagger" Toxic is a fellow (today-suffering) Spurs fan, and since, well, it's Chriiiiistmaasss, here goes...

Five things you may, and I emphasise may, not know about your correspondent...:
* I live on the same road as one of Spike Milligan's blue-plaque-d former homes.
* I once sent (while a young child, obviously) a picture I'd drawn, to whatever Tony Hart's show was called at the time, only for a response suggesting Tony was very impressed, but unfortunately there was no room in "The Gallery" for it, and here are some postcards of Morph, angry Chaz and Mr Bennett as so-called consolation. Huh.
* I've been (undeservedly) reported to the Press Complaints Commission three times, and (deservedly, though I would say that) won a hat-trick of vindications.
* I trained for six months to take part in the first - and, so far, only - London's Fittest Firefighter challenge, in Covent Garden four years ago. And finished last. Though all the rest had the advantage of being proper firefighters.
* The same year, I abseiled down the Crystal Palace Tower. Okay, that isn't quite true. It wasn't the actual Crystal Palace Tower with which you might be familiar, but a 15-storey apartment block that happens to be in Crystal Palace Park.

Not quite a contractual obligation, I know, but I feel better getting that done and dusted. Well, marginally, anyway.
Anyone that now wants to "tag" themselves similarly, please do feel free...

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

"That 'joke' isn't funny any more..."

It's so-and-so as you've never seen them before...!

No, it's not, it's just another tedious Alison Jackson attempt at... art? comedy?, by having, yes, a fuzzy photograph of a hardly-look-a-like or two in supposedly shocking circumstances or poses. And here they are again, coming to a struggling newspaper page three near you for no reason other than... well, I dunno.

Someone please take a stand and say, no, this just won't do - no more fawning newspaper or magazine articles, no more exhibitions, no more hour-long TV tributes, that ultimately, unwittingly say more about Jackson's depressing obsession with frivolous celebrity-culture than wider society's.

She gets to mock both the c'lebs and us plebs, and do it again and again and again - stuffing her face with cake while, barely smearing the cream and crumbs from her chops, holding out her plate for more, more, more...

"Now I'm free, free falling..."

The legs don't so much buckle straight off, as start to quiver and shiver and wobble... and warn of the collapse to come. The too-too-cloying warmness starts to spread its way from the collar, quickly, up to the forehead. While patches of white begin to close in either side of the eyes, clouding, clouding...

And this is the worst bit, the realisation, the knowing just what's about to happen, and the desperate inability to fight it...

And I'm down. And being helped up. And it can only get better from here, the worst is over - that is, the bit just before it's over.

And this time I'm being shuffled from Tube carriage to platform, two concerned commuters eager to pour water down my throat, sit me down, escort me somewhere, anywhere to first aid and sort-of "safety". But I know I just need a few minutes crouched up against the wall and I'll be fine-ish enough, again...

Hmm, not the best way to start the working week, blacking out on a Monday-morning rush-hour train. But, well, I feel sort-of strangely used to it, as comfy as can be. Not that it's happened for, ooh, probably about two years.

The worst time was also on the Underground, albeit staggering up an escalator at London Bridge, coming away from a Monday night football match at Spurs. I'd been feeling perfectly fine (I think we'd just about sneaked a scrappy win, an' all), and it was only as I alighted from the Victoria Line train onto the platform, en route to the overground link, that I started to feel, well, woozy.

Once onto the escalator, those white lights started crowding and clouding in, and I felt suddenly scared. Not only did I know I was about to pass out - already staggering and clawing at the air and losing my footing and seeing only dimly-shrouded ticket machines too, too far ahead of me - but at about 11pm, I was vaguely aware enough to realise I'd doubtless look little more than a foolish, faltering drunkard, no one to assist or sympathise if they knew what they thought they saw...

Someone, I managed to virtually crawl through the barriers, just in time to reach the blast of cold winter air outside, stripping off my coat, jacket, almost even my shirt to bracingly chill myself and come to. And, then, instead of the wind, all I could feel wafting deliciously over me was relief, and I was smiling again, and suddenly back on my way back home.

That must have been the first fainting fit for about five years, the only previous one coming as I lifted myself up a little too abruptly from a few minutes crouching and peering at books on the bottom shelf of a Birmingham Waterstone's. Then, clump. Rocked back onto the hard floor, suddenly seeing those querying faces flat above me, arms helping me up, and a burning sense of embarrassment as I scurried away as fast as my gradually-rejuvenating legs could carry me.

Then again, at the time I was hardly eating well at all - eating, at all - and taking a kind of pride in such, and symptoms of associated weakness and weariness, so it didn't seem quite so baffling.

The recent-years topples have been a bit more bemusing, not least the humiliating sway and slump while quizzing the father of a Sussex man on trial in Australia for allegedly plotting to blackmail Russell Crowe. After a weekend of trying to trace the family, I finally found the dad at his mechanics' workshop, where he was brusquely chatty enough but hardly happy about it all, and our business was just about politely, strainedly through when I started to feel the temperature rising, the legs going, the notebook dropped, I don't want to fall, I don't want to fall, please no, just get through, ah here I go...

And, to be entirely fair to my unwilling interviewees, the people there picked me up, laid me back, called paramedics, and only eventually, reluctantly, wryly-grinningly sent me on my way back to the office to write up a (slightly more restrained and sympathetic) piece when I'd assured all I was fit enough again to go my own way.

My doctor took tests, told me a low blood pressure, or a rather-restricted explanation of postural hypotension, might be to blame, and just to, well, get on with things...
And, until yesterday, that's what I was doing.

Ah well, I dunno...
Maybe time to return.

Or maybe it's the random, entirely-unprovoked slamdunk into the corner of a car roof administered by a baseball-bat-wielding taxi-rank thug way back when, perhaps that has something to do with it...
Well, at least it's an anecdote for another day. Possibly.

Until then, this fuzzy head is heading to bed...

Sunday, December 17, 2006

"Oh I say it's tough, I have had enough..."

I've said it before, and I shall say it again (Yes. You certainly, tediously have - Ed.): you can keep your fairytales of Noo Yawk, or "It's Chriiiiiistmas" Sladeisms - the finest, most emotive festive pop song of all is...
You just can't beat a lyric like:

That is, a Christmas classic that very nearly wasn't a Christmas song at all.

Oh, and which I dutifully massacred tonight, at The Dignity's final pre-Christmas Sunday-night-is-music-night Night, along with "Blue Christmas" (and, er, less festively, The Feeling's Supertramptastic "Fill My Little World" and my own notatalltastic "The Morning After"...)

Well, I got through 'em all, and the Jona Lewie closer, eventually realising the whoops and cheers from the corner were more to do with the folks on the foosball table than my own renditions and reception...

Ah, if only I'd had the appropriate, accompanying Sally Army band for said "Stop The Cavalry"...

Ah (again), that reminds me... Perhaps it was sound enough, how I managed to (just about) remember all appropriate lyrics, when for the past nine days the only songs heading relentlessly around my head have been "A Bushell And A Peck" and "Follow The Fold" from Guys And Dolls, nine days after oh-so-belatedly seeing the West End production with EastEnders rapist Trevor in the strangely-under-singing Sinatra role, an understudy looking like Stephen Mangan in Marlon's, hugworthy ex-Emmerdale redhead Amy Nuttall banishing all pretty thought of Jean Simmons and Nineties-teen-obsession Samantha Janus a-choo-choo-chooing sexily as Miss Adelaide...

Ah yes, the Sally Army. Might have done mightily fine tonight, but perhaps I have finally banished "Follow The Fold" from mind (".. stray no more. stray no more - put down the bottle and we'll say no more..."...? Hm...)

I realise I haven't kept up to my own schedule and reviewed my own, latest-before-tonight's-latest-one gig, at the Fiddlers Elbow a few Sundays ago (not actually Kentish Town, more Chalk Farm but even perhaps, that magical Camden...) Well, it went okay, and I got through a few old songs, a few hesitant new'uns, and covers of "Every Night" by Sir Macca, and "I Must Be In Love" by The, er, Rutles...

And a good-ish-enough time was had by all. I hope. Should really head back there, in fact, at least for the stunning and friendly Russian barmaid, and maybe for such bands as whose names were pasted over the walls (alongside my own, happily-correctly-spelled) including the appallingly-titled Conspiracy Of Flightless and the intriguingly-monikered Drink-Fuelled Violence...

God bless us, every one.