Sunday, 29 April 2007

That's some organist

Sometimes, a news item just makes my mind boggle:

A church organist was found dead inside a giant plastic bag attached to a vacuum cleaner in a bizarre sexual act gone wrong, a Teesside inquest was told. The body of Ian Kemp, 48, was found lying in the foetal position, naked with his hands and feet bound. The vacuum cleaner was still on. An open verdict was recorded.

Friday, 27 April 2007

Au Recherce Du Tonks Perdue

In another cruel change to my morning lifestyle - wake up, turn on radio, read Foxtrot calendar, wonder why wife is still snoring - XFM have replaced Lauren Laverne as breakfast DJ with Paul 'Tonks' Tonkinson. Now one of the great things about XFM is that they have taken people who were mediocre in their first career - Laverne, Iain Baker (go on, admit it, Kenickie sucked and Jesus Jones were just Mike Edwards' ego trip), Richard Bacon, Shaun Keaveny - and turned them into half decent radio DJs. A sort of media alchemy, turning shit into, if not gold, then something at least more fragrant (though the jury is still out on Keaveny).

With the risibly-named Tonks, the system has broken down. They've taken a very funny stand up comedian and turned him into the most boring man on radio. His show is one long very lame joke, interspersed with the odd funny listener comment. Which he needs, because XFM have suddenly turned him into the least entertaining person on the airwaves. Which, in a world where Chris Moyles still breathes, is something of an achievement.

The End Of The Dance

This is a sad time. A few days ago I learned through the good offices of The Dilbert Blog that one of my favourite cartoon strips is coming to an end, at least as I know it.

I have long been a fan of Foxtrot. It's a gentle story of an American family, interspersed with oddly surreal moments. I realised a long time ago that, no matter how often I raved about it, it was just too American to get a run here in the UK, but that didn't stop the writers of the sitcom Our Family ripping it off wholesale for their early episodes.

Now, cartoonist Bill Amend (pronounced in typically ridiculous US style as 'Ay-mond') has decided to drop the daily strip cartoon and run Sunday-only strips. This is an incredibly brave decision. When cartoonists decide to retire a strip is is usually because, no matter what their stated reason, they have made more than enough out of the strip to never have to work again. Gary Larson could retire The Far Side on the back of huge book and merchandising sales. Bill Watterson and Berke Breathed never licensed Calvin And Hobbes or Bloom County, but both made enough through book sales around the world to give up on them. (It's true - every Calvin t-shirt you see is a fake). But it is hard to find a precedent for what Amend has just done.

On the other hand, Bill Amend has never done what you would expect. How many cartoonists nowadays would pull their strip's website because it was distracting them from the drawing? How many would close a mail service named after one of their characters? In these and many other ways, Amend has always bucked the trend.

So however much I will miss reading about Roger, Andy, Peter, Paige and Jason - and however much the likes of Pearls Before Swine may take the piss - I find myself hating Amend for what he has done, but admiring him for doing it.

Thursday, 19 April 2007


Great doctor. Pain in the arse to have next to you at bingo...

God's worried

An unusual event occurred a couple of weeks ago. I found myself without a new book to read. This hardly ever happens. I am not a voracious reader by any stretch of the imagination, but I do usually have one or two books on the go at any one time and, because I am a fairly slow reader who buys books in bulk, there is usually a reserve supply for me to tap into when I finish one. Somehow the system broke down and I had to turn to the bookshelves for something to read.

The book I chose is a strange little one. It's called 'A Little Light Worrying' and is best described as a very short collection of the works of a cartoonist called Mel Calman. He was the front page cartoonist for the Times for many years, back in the days before the Times went tabloid and shunted the cartoons - and therefore the brilliant Jonathan Pugh - onto an inside page. Calman died suddenly in February 1994, suffering a heart attack in the Odeon cinema in Leicester Square. His last cartoon was of a man in a hospital bed, reading a newspaper saying something like "NHS in crisis" and with the caption "Looks like it's sicker than I am". You can read more about Calman - and indeed a whole host of cartoonists - here.

Calman was known for two characters. One was a worried little man, such as the one depicted here. The other was God himself, who was basically a celestial version of the little man. I can't link a picture here because I simply cannot find one anywhere on the web, but perhaps the most famous of all Calman's cartoons showed God lying on a psychiatrist's couch, saying "I'm not as omnipresent as I used to be".

Coincidentally, as I was reading this book, the Church of England published yet another document wondering where their congregations had gone. The combination of the two made me think. I've never made any secret of the fact that, every now and then, I like to go and mither God on what, technically, is his day off. But the problem is that the times at which I can do this in any sort of formal way simply are not made for a 21st century way of life. This is the schedule in my parish:

8am Holy Communion
10am Sung Eucharist
6.30pm Family Service

Those are times which have not changed since the Industrial Revolution. They are times suited to an agrarian economy. They take no account of modern life, where people work later hours, work at weekends and no longer have anything like as much leisure time.

Similarly, each service is at least 90 minutes long. Do most people have 90 minutes to spare like that in a week? Is there anything going on which could not be compressed into, say, 30 minutes? How many hymns do you need, for God's sake - literally, in this case?

I don't know what Calman would have made of all this, but I reckon God would be much happier if people were having a word for less time more often than trying to fit in around a system that hasn't changed since electricity was discovered. So here's an idea for the CoE (and indeed any other denomination): Why not have shorter services at times when people are on their way home? Forget 90 minutes on a Sunday, why not have three services on weeknights as people are on their way home from work? I bet you far more people can manage one or two visits at the end of the working day than can get out of the house at sparrowfart on a weekend. You never know, it might make God less worried.

(Yes, I know that "God's Worried" was a book by Roger Woddis. Thanks)

Wednesday, 18 April 2007

Musing on Glastonbury

The recent scramble for Glastonbury tickets prompted me to watch the movie at last. Not bad, more of a documentary than anything. The one thing that really made me think was the footage of some of the travellers who used Glasto as a refuge after the Battle of the Beanfield. What do such people do now that the festival has fallen under the gimlet wallet of Vince Power and the Mean Fiddler?

And then one of them lit up and started talking about commercialisation. Hmm. Let me see. 'Rizla' is a brand name. 'Soap' isn't...

Friday, 13 April 2007

How fatal are you?

I'm not one for blowing my own trumpet, but over the past few weeks I have realised just how lucky I am. Not for all of the usual reasons - fantastic wife, wonderful family, decent job and home - but just because of how little real sorrow there has been in my life. Yes, like most people my age I am now clean out of grandparents. Pretty close to running out of family members entitled to put 'great' before their title, too. But aside from that? Two uncles when I was younger than 10 and didn't really know them, and a Godfather I hadn't seen for 15 years about a decade ago and that is about it.

What made me think of all this? Well, my parents are moving to a smaller house and insited on returning a whole load of things to me. These included not only some old school photos, but my 18th and 21st birthday cards as well. Looking through the names made me realise that a surprising number of those people are still around now. Three people from school, four from university, a former work colleague and someone who played for one of my old cricket teams and that, to my knowledge, is that. Which is not bad over all of the years. Every 3.25 years someone I know gets it in the shorts. I reckon that is a lot less than a lot of other people.

Unlike many people I know, I've still got both parents on the planet (Dad's connections to reality are a little strained at times, but this is more to do with him being a academic than anything else). My three siblings are still alive, although God knows I've been tempted to change that at times. Basically, everyone I care about has managed to stick around to be cared about. I hope that nothing changes that. In the meantime, consider this: However much I annoy you, it seems that, statistically, its very unlikely to kill you.

Thursday, 12 April 2007

Of wine and crepuscular things

It's not very often that I get to combine two of my passions. Wine has long been an interest of mine, right from the time I left university (my first 'proper' job was with Oddbins). Some might say that meeting my wife at a wine tasting was taking things a little to the extreme, but at least we started out knowing that we had something in common.

Owls, on the other hand, are a much more recent thing. Not to the extent of travelling around and seeing how many different species I can see, but just in the sense of an interested and slightly educated observer. If you want to head on down to the Hawk Conservancy in Andover, you will find a number of owls sponsored by very generous wedding guests of ours.

The two don't cross over very often, so I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I had accidentally picked up a bottle of wine which did just that. Altano, from the Douro region of Portugal, is a fairly light red wine, made by a famous port producing family. You can read more about it here, although nowhere does the site explain just why the bottle comes covered in Scops owls. There are two owls on the label, one on the cap and one on the cork, and those are just the ones I have found.

It's the cork that is important. You see, it is a real cork. Made of cork oak. Not a plastic one, or a screw top. A real, genuine, owl-friendly, cork. Which is great, because one of the biggest threats to owl habitat is the current fashion for Portuguese and Spanish winemakers to use anything other than real cork to seal their bottles with. Owls in these countries tend to nest in cork oaks, and if no-one wants the cork, the oaks don't get planted. So the next time you need a bottle of red, get yourself some Altano and do an owl a favour.

Saturday, 7 April 2007

Hallowed Hall

Whilst I am ranting about cricket, I want to mention Andrew Hall. Cricket fans will know who I am talking about. For those who don't, Hall plays for South Africa. He's a bowler and sometime batsman, although the former is definitely his strongest suit.

That said, he took part in one of the most heartrending events I have seen on a cricket field. South Africa had only one wicket left. Hall had scored 98 runs. Batting with him was Dewald Pretorius, a batsman so inept he only took a bat with him because he would look even sillier without it than he did with it. Hall stole another run. Up to 99, one run away from a first century in a Test match. But he needed Pretorius not to be out to the next ball. Which he was. What did Hall do? He laughed. The man had played for his team and had taken a run when a run was to be made, rather than decline it and face the next ball. He had trusted a team mate, even though he knew there was a huge risk that the team mate would let him down. And he still smiled.

Andrew Hall will never be a star player. Yes, he's a bloody good cricketer, you don't get to play for your country - any country - without being one of those. But he will never be a Flintoff, a Warne or even a Graeme Smith (thank God, we already have one too many of those). But he's a good team man who knows he is not the most talented in the side, but who tries to always do what is best for the side, even at the expense of personal glory. Give me eleven Andrew Halls rather than one Jacques Kallis every day.

A well known fact about Hall is that, before he became established as a Test player, he was twice the victim of robberies back home in South Africa. Although he was never seriously injured, he was shot in his bowling hand in one of them, which happened whilst he was withdrawing cash at a cashpoint. This kind of thing is why I regard South Africa less as a desirable holiday destination and more like half a million square miles of suicide note.

How not to run the world

American sports get a bad press over here in the UK. American football's just rugby for lightweights who have to play in body armour, right? And baseball is just rounders for grown men?

Well, no, actually. All the protective stuff in American football came about because the game became so high impact, the Goverment threatened to ban it if they didn't make the protection mandatory. And if you think that Jason Robinson is good, try watching any pro running back in action. Some of them make Billy Whizz look slow.

But whatever you say about American sport, they know how to put on a spectacle. Can you imagine them fvcking up the Superbowl? Getting slightly over-excited by a stray nipple, yes, but actually organising it so that no-one turned up? Likewise the World Series - which, for the record, is named after a newspaper, not because it is the final of the world championship. Nope. When the governing bodies of US sports put on a show They. Put. On. A. Show.

All of which makes the International Cricket Council's abject fucking up of their own World Cup all the more unbelievable. How can you have a competition in the West Indies, home of huge enthusiastic crowds and equally large and enthusiastic spectators and not make a success of it? After all, this is the country where spectators have been known to refuse to pay to enter grounds, claiming that watching cricket is a human right.

Simple answer: Set ticket prices so high that the locals cannot afford them. Ban musical instruments from the ground. And bringing your own drink. In other words, ban all of the things that make cricket in the Carribean so special, then price the tickets so high that few of the people you want to be there can afford to be there. I mean, how moronic can you get? The offical logo of the competition features spectators singing, dancing and playing instruments AND YOU'VE BANNED THEM!

The ICC has long been regarded as a joke by most serious cricket fans. It exists solely to make money, irrespecitive of the damage it does to the game by over working it's star players and out pricing it's fan base. As soon as a serious issue, such as the Hair Affair or the whole shambles in Zimbabwe rears it's head, the ICC runs screaming. But to balls up your own tournament takes something really special. I do hope they are proud, because who would've thought that cricket could learn something from the Americans?

PS I don't disagree with the baseball comment?