Pulp Diction

I listen to BBC 6Music of a morn as I find Shaun Keaveny’s foolishness a great way to interest me in the new day.  After the departure of the Togmeister, I did have a brief breakfast dalliance with Radio 3 but eventually I was captured by the Keaveny charm. Perhaps worryingly, over time I have found that I am beginning to enjoy the music as well which, I suppose, can only be good for my ‘street cred’ – as long as it’s a fairly indie street.

This morning the BBC were plugging an interview which Steve Lamacq was due to conduct with the members of the once, and recently re-formed, popular 90s beat combo, Pulp.  Mr Lamacq’s slightly eccentric speech patterns meant that the ‘plug’ made frequent reference to the band’s reformation, rather than the more usual re-formation pronunciation one might have anticipated.  As a result, I found myself picturing Jarvis Cocker pinning 95 theses to a church door in Wittenburg (or, perhaps more likely in Sheffield – a city sited on seven hills, much like the spiritual heart of the Holy Roman Empire).   Still, good to know pop music will no longer tolerate the sale of indulgences.

I await the counter-reformation with interest.



Twitch was the name of the class hamster (now long gone to his – or her – eternal reward) when I was in the infants, way back in the very early seventies (19, not 18).  I clearly remember being the small child who came up with the name (which was then chosen from a short-list by a first-past-the-post vote) – however, many years and quite a few intoxicants have passed me by since then, so my memory may not be an entirely reliable record of events.

However, in this case I am creating (or-recreating) a verb from the noun used to describe a bird-watcher of the more obsessive variety.  I’m not obsessive (well, not in this area) about watching our feathered friends – but do rather enjoy it as they can be rather entertaining.  I’ve also never really out-grown my role as a very minor brave serving under Big Chief I -Spy, and so still become over-excited when I spy a species new to me – though I no longer keep a record of the points.  A quick web search indicates the books are still going and are now published by tyre-giant Michelin – most famous for their I-Spy book of restaurants.  A sign of the times is the fact the once lowly house sparrow is worth 15 points – far more than would have obtained in my youth.  The books also seem much glossier than I remember.

Last week I spotted a barn owl – though it was just before elevenses and nowhere near a farm building, so I do wonder if it counts as it failed to deliver on either half of its name. Which reminds me of the question of the sound made by an unobserved tree falling in a forest – though, despite the nonsense you may have heard on QI, this does make a sound. Sound is a periodic disturbance in the pressure or density of a fluid produced by a vibrating object.  As a result, a falling tree will only be silent if it falls in a vacuum – in contrast, falling on a vacuum will be noisy and could well break Henry.

In Wales, I saw my first goosander – which is a gloriously silly name, but apparently limited to the old world, in the US they use the perhaps more descriptive but certainly more boring appellation ‘common merganser’.  I also spotted – and was almost hit – by my first sand martin as it swooped over the Afon Mawddach after its insect prey (I should perhaps make clear that I was not in the Afon Mawddach – my boots are waterproof, but I wasn’t stress-testing them – but was standing on a bridge over it).

Finally, in this orgy of bird-spotting I saw my first corn bunting – so much nicer than the modern plastic variety – in the same field that I had earlier seen the related yellowhammer.  Surely a presenting gig with Kate Humble can only be days away…

The Return of the Whetted Knife

As I am sure you will know, this was John Masefield’s description of the wind in Sea Fever – a poem memorably parodied by Weekending in a critique of Sellafield way back in the sea frets of time (which you will recall gust with plutonium dust in that Cumbrian town).

Wind has been much on my mind over the last few days, and not as a result of any gastric infelicities on my part.

In my last couple of days in Wales I experienced – and in large part enjoyed – some really serious wind speeds when at altitude (so probably wouldn’t count if the wind has its own Stout-sponsored book of records).  I decided that this wind, in my then role as a hiker, should be classified as “bracing” – though in my role as cyclist, my views would have been rather earthier (and could lose this blog its family-friendly rating).  This did cause me to wonder where “bracing” might fit on the Beaufort Scale – I’m thinking somewhere in the force 8 to 9 range (at least for relatively modest temporal exposure). Certainly, the wind was sufficient to render a middle-aged man entirely cobweb free.

The wind seems to have followed me home, as it has been rather breezy of late in South Cambs – and today, rather excitingly, really quite wet (though my green plastic rainwater depository does not quite runneth over, it’s close).  Last evening involved both wind of the outdoorsy, fresh air variety and that of the instrumental (wood and brass).  Cycle rides bracketed a fun time with CUWO (the Cambridge University Wind Orchestra) introducing me (within a range of delights) to a whole new side of Shostakovich – the wholly unexpected cheerful one.  The wind orchestra (or band) is much under-rated – or at least was by me, until I went to a previous CUWO gig on the sole basis that it was very cheap – and perhaps slightly mis-named as it included percussion (one item of which was a grand piano) and a double bass.  As a result, I fear the pieces would be beyond all but the strongest of marching bands – luckily CUWO had a stage and chairs, only the percussionists were required to move.  Very enjoyable and uplifting it was, or it was until the second half when the more conventional (or at least, string-heavy) orchestra which is CUMS II (sharing many of the forces of CUWO) gave us Rachmaninov’s Isle of the Dead which is a very fine piece, but not exactly cheerful.

I have decided that I ought to take up a wind instrument (and not just the descant recorder), they are much more portable (as well as much cheaper) than a harpsichord.  I’m leaning towards the woodwind as they are more neighbour-friendly for those of us living a semi-detached existence – and don’t appear to need such frequent draining of the player’s saliva (or perhaps their wielders are more subtle about it?).  The piccolo seems too small for my hands (and pitched rather too close to the aforementioned descant recorder), and whilst a wonderful-looking and sonorous device the bassoon (or worse, the contrabassoon) seems to have a somewhat limited repertoire.  The cor anglais does have an amusing name, but I’ve only seen it buried in a very full orchestra, so it seems to be oboe, clarinet or flute (very much the Cetacean of the woodwind world) for me.  The big question is thus what sort of reed (if any) should I opt for?  Am I too old to master the double reed?

The Weight is Over

Upon my return from the land of my fathers (well, fore of them at least), my weight had risen to 13st 1lb – which might suggest the influence of Ms Antoinette was stronger than that of Ms Andrews. However, my body fat was down to 9% and my waist seems diminished (well, my trousers have descended to a position more commonly associated with the young and foolish than the foolish of my advanced years, unless constrained by belt or braces).

I think this means it is going to be tricky to use my weight variation as a proxy for a rain gauge.  I blame my body adapting to walking up (and down) steepish gradients rather than cycling on the (mostly) flat for the confusing results.  Still, it did permit use of a dodgy pun in the title – so I consider the whole project a success!

A Degree of Insecurity?

As I was wending my (rail)way back across the country I was struck by signs on Wolverhampton station identifying it as the home of Wolverhampton University.  One wonders where else people would expect to find Wolverhampton University, if not in Wolverhampton?  Other university towns I passed through did not feel the same need to emphasise that their eponymous university was sited as would be expected.

Cambridge station does mention that Cambridge is home to Anglia Ruskin University (but makes no mention of the much older institution of higher education with which it shares the city), but this does seem to offer information which is not entirely obvious.

Perhaps the signage reflects insecurity on the part of the burghers of Wolverhampton: they want to make clear that their city boasts a university.  I think I’d boast about being the site of the UK’s first automatic traffic lights (which does make me wonder if there were older, manual traffic lights elsewhere?) or the birth place of “Iron Mad” Wilkinson – but each to their own.

There is (at least) one thing which links the universities mentioned on Wolverhampton and Cambridge stations – they’ve both been through quite a few names over the years (rather like British Leyland and Sellafield).  WU is on its fourth name since the “Wolverhampton Mechanics’ Institute” was formed in 1835 (though only the seriously mature traveller would still be seeking the WMI), while ARU which started life as the Cambridge School of Art back in the 1850s is now on its fifth name. Perhaps the railways are being used as an attempt to strengthen the current “brand identity”.  I’ll need to visit more “university” towns to see if my theory of nomenclature evolution holds more generally – it should be easy enough to contrive a trip through Hatfield…

Desperately Seeking Signal

Wales has significantly more varied topography than the environs of Sawston and at least one of the reasons for this is down to the underlying geology – at home, crushed dead sea creatures (or their skeletons – the reticulated pseudopodia have, sadly, mostly been lost over the aeons) whereas here igneous and metamorphic rocks (where any original material has been subjected to some serious heat and often pressure too).

This conjunction of factors leaves the wire-free modern world struggling in mid-Wales.  Finding any viable mobile phone signal is a challenge – my greatest success so far was some 450m up the north face of Cader Idris where I had full 3G service and maximum signal strength. (I probably had access to 100% of the bandwidth too, as there were very few other potential users around – unless sheep are on 3).  Sadly, I am unable to report on the signal at the summit, as the clouds descended to 500m, and my ascent was cut short – I climb for the views, rather than the purely to boost my gravitational potential energy.

Any sort of relief can block mobile signal, but I suspect the local rocks may exacerbate this effect.  My holiday gaff is stone-built (and the stones look local to me, and why would you import grey stone when you can’t move for the stuff?) and whilst it has wifi provided, its range is limited to a single room – the walls block any broader distribution of high frequency radio waves.

Talking of grey stone, I can understand why the Welsh would use this abundant local resource for construction (in years gone by, the unfortunate impact on wireless surfing was, presumably, unknown) but it does tend to make the local towns and villages rather grey – some might say dismal or depressing, especially in the wet (though, I feel it gives a real sense of place).  What I find harder to understand is the local predilection for applying grey pebbledash (worse even than the more common brown variant) to so many modern dwellings – which only adds to the encircling gloom.  Why not permit a little colour?  Even the red of a few un-pebbled bricks would add a colourful accent to most local metropoli.  Aberdyfi does have a few brightly painted buildings – perhaps trying to get a starring role in a new CBeebies series (those old Balamory tapes must wear out, or date beyond utility, one day) – but this is very much the cheerful exception.  Come on Wales, pay the extra for a colour license!

But, back to the plot.  In flatter lands (as opposed to the setting for Edwin Abbot’s most famous romance), young people seem rarely to look away from their mobile phones – largely ignoring their current surroundings and companions.  How, I wondered, do Welsh children cope?  Do they spend all their leisure hours, huddled against the wind and rain, halfway up a local mountain communing with their e-friends?

Earlier in the week, I went north using the amazingly cheap local trains (of the Class 158 DMU, rather than heritage steam variety – which do cost an arm and a leg).  I do worry about the financial viability of Arriva Trains Wales with such inflation-busting fares – maybe the quantum effects experienced on my journey here allow them to achieve economies, with a single super-posed DMU simultaneously providing the rolling stock for multiple services.  Both journeys were shared with local youth travelling to, and then from, their places of education – and so I could see signal-free young people in action.  They seemed happy and well-adjusted and quite willing to talk to their physically proximate companions (and, indeed, the guard).  I think employers should be made aware of this pool of young people with a viable attention span – with Welsh youth in charge, I would feel much more confident in the funding of my pension in my twilight years (and, no, moody vampirism is not my post-retirement plan).

Ignored in Ireland

Our hero visited the Irish Republic last autumn: taking in Dublin, Newbridge and Cork on the tour.  Not so much as a column centimetre in even a local, free paper to mark his visit.

An elderly lady from SW1 visits Dublin and she’s all over the papers and television.  Where did I go wrong?  Should I have worn a hat?  Taken an embarrassing spouse?  Trust me, I wouldn’t have left that pint of Guinness to go to waste!  (Though I’m not sure I could have endured the Westlife and Riverdance “entertainment” the poor old dear had to face – revenge is truly a dish best served cold, much like gazpacho).

I’m off to Vienna soon, meeting folk who should be considered representatives of the state (well, 51% so at any rate), so I need your tips to ensure my foreign travel obtains maximum press coverage…

Fleet (Fire)fox is…

… useless, or at least very unhelpful in the guise of its fourth version upgrade.

No blog yesterday, not through any cake-related incapacity on my part but due to a Firefox-based issue with my surfing equipment (making this Acer Aspire One my board, log, gun or fish – I’ve got all the lingo!).  Firefox has been bullying me to upgrade from 3.6 to 4.0 for some time to make my computer safer from internet-borne unpleasantness.  This bullying moved on to replacing an ever increasing area of each webpage with a “reminder” – so I finally weakened and gave in to the pressure (I know, never the correct response to a bully – I should really have tried to tackle the low self-esteem issues that were driving Firefox to become a bully in the first place).

The upgrade was very successful in reducing the risk posed to my Acer from the internet, by completely preventing me from surfing at all – I was, to use the vernacular, blown-out – so I suppose I shouldn’t complain (but I’m going to anyway).

I did, eventually, manage to resurrect version 2.0 of Firefox which, presumably, hugely increased my risk of wipe-out – but did allow me access to the net.  Using this dangerous surfing method, I found hints as to how to get Firefox 4 to actually run – which required more low-level Linux than I have ever used before (in fact, I haven’t used such low-level programming since I wrote in 6502 Assembly Language as a teenager – no I wasn’t a geek, everyone used Assembly Language in the early eighties).  To make the necessary changes, I had to be a super-user – a role which fortunately required no lycra (obviously my chiselled physique would look great in it, but I hadn’t brought any with me to Wales) and allowed me to keep my under-crackers on the traditional (for me at least) side of my trousers (though, as it’s you, I will admit that topologically it is quite hard to define a “side” for trousers).

Still, after several hours of superhero activity (only imagining I was clad in skin-tight lycra with a giant “U “appliqued to the chest – well, I think the Linux terminal would count as a virtual world so the dress-code must be imaginary.  One plus four “i”s would be an obvious leg wear choice), I did finally manage to restore a functioning and recent version of Firefox (4.0.1) but by then was too drained by my exertions to blog.

So, to help explain the title, I spent much of yesterday evening suffering from the Helplessness Blues (how street/indie am I?).  But now, I’m stoked.

Surf’s Up!

Toe Story

I find myself in Wales without a bicycle (or a unicorn, but I don’t have one of those at home either – though I quite fancy my chances taming one, subject to availability), and so am reduced to shanks’ pony (or nag if you’re Scottish) for my personal mobility.

Whilst arguments derived from the theory of evolution are often applied way beyond the point at which they become nonsense, I do use one to support my preferred walking footwear.  I posit that my feet (whilst things of beauty) are of basically the same design as those of my ancient ancestors – back even before homo sapiens.  The fossil record has not preserved any shoes worn by homo erectus, and so I theorise that my feet did not evolve to wear brogues.  On a more personal level, almost the only good thing about wearing shoes is the joy to be obtained when they can finally be taken off – and this is rather akin to the “joy” experienced when you stopping banging your head against a wall (so, probably better not to start at all).

Some do espouse the barefoot lifestyle, but I’m not keen on dirty feet and fear the transition could be quite painful as my feet “toughen up”.  So, I sought a solution which kept my feet clean and protected from sharp objects but which otherwise maintain the barefoot experience.  My answer is the rather curiously-named FiveFingers (which seem to refer to the wrong set of phalanges).  These provide just enough “shoe” to protect my soles, but still allow a “natural” gait.  The name comes from the individual toe-pouches in the shoe providing a separate home for each of the wearer’s toes – much as a glove provides a separate home for each finger (a traditional shoe in this view, is the analogue of an oven glove).  As a bonus, FiveFingers never need polishing – I just stick then in the washing machine with the rest of my laundry.

I use them whenever possible when walking outside (indoors, barefoot is fine) and very comfortable they are too.  They do attract a degree of comment (occasionally positive) as they are a rare sight (in Cambridgeshire at any rate) – but I take this in my stride!

But, sometimes when I ride Bayard of ten toes, I cannot use my FiveFingers:

  • In snow or frost,  my feet would get terribly chilly;
  • For business meetings, I have yet to find a “formal” FiveFingers model; and
  • Hiking – especially on boggy ground – can leave a pair of FiveFingers swamped

which sadly leaves me forced to go abroad conventionally shod.  In the first two cases, I am generally walking only shortish distances (though airports can involve quite a route march) – but it is in the third case where my feet take the most punishment.  My hiking boots are pretty good, but are still of a conventional design and my poor pedal extremities object to their unfamiliar confinement.  I need the folk at Vibram to develop a FiveFingers model suitable for hiking in these (sometimes) soggy islands (they do have good hiking options for drier spots) – and some formal-wear would be nice too!

Cake Walk

Safely ensconced at Glandwr Mill, it would seem that the title of this post does not create quite the dialectical opposition I had previously suggested.  My first two days in Cymru have each yielded both a fine walk and an excellent cake.  As a result, I can confirm that T H Roberts remains the cake connoisseur’s cafe of choice in this part of the world.

The rain, for which Wales is justly famed (and which my Sawston garden sorely needs), does serve at least two very useful purposes.  This morning’s downpours permitted a guilt-free lie-in and lazy morning (neither of which will be delivered by tomorrow’s sunny prognosis).   When the sun came out this afternoon (I’d always suspected something, you never hear mention of a girlfriend), we discovered it had also re-charged the local rivers so the Torrent Walk more than lived up to its billing – some seriously raging waters and evidence (for the more fanciful rambler) of a game of Pooh sticks played by local giants (I suppose there might be a more prosaic explanation for the tree trunks in the river – but I’m sticking with whimsy).

Tomorrow’s itinerary does not allow an excursion into Dolgellau, so any posts tomorrow night could see our hero going through the cake equivalent of cold turkey.  What this will mean for the quality (or even quantity) of any material produced is hard to judge…