Friday, 14 October 2016

A Lament For Opeth

Back in the summer of 2006 (insert *OMG that's over ten years ago*) Alison and I had been going out for only a few months and would spent Friday and Saturday evenings either out at the cinema or typically in front of a DVD in my flat. It was during one of these hot July evenings that I popped on the Opeth Lamentations DVD, a two-part concern that was recorded shortly after their Deliverance and Damnation albums were released. As a music fan whose favourite bands touch on heavy rock and metal, I thought there was a fair chance that she would at least appreciate the softer more melodic pieces as means of introduction into the band. The first set comprised of the Damnation album plus Harvest and Alison loved it, commenting only on the length of their amazing hair (it was amazing). A short break followed whilst we refuelled our drinks and then they came out for set two: the heavy stuff from Blackwater Park and Deliverance, starting with Masters Apprentice. Never have I seen a more extraordinary reaction from someone in my life. Having been immersed in the ethereal beauty and calming majesty of their "clean set", the sonic onslaught that followed, complete with death growls and doom-laden riffs, was about as contrasting a sound as you could wish to hear. It was fair to say that Alison preferred the softer stuff, but was amazed nonetheless to experience the extremes of light and dark that is Opeth.

I had first seen Opeth back in 2004 when they played a Sunday morning slot on the main stage at the Download festival. I was tired and hungover so didn't really take much of it in, but they did seem tight, heavy and packed full of strange time signatures and other quirks so it seemed worthwhile investigating further. Several months later I purchased a copy of Blackwater Park which had been heralded as their "go to" album. It was an amazing listen; long progressive songs with atmospheric almost gothic themes, death metal growls and heavy riffs coupled with folk passages and soulful singing. It was the complete package. I then picked up Morningrise (a complete punt in a record store) and was blown away even further. The progressive synthesis was still there but the theme from this earlier record was more black metal meets medieval folk with a slightly grittier production. Every song was an epic, sprawling monster that demanded repeated play. On the back of this I bought their debut Orchid (similar style to Morningrise) and then the deliberately mellow Damnation album. At that point their latest record Ghost Reveries came out and yet again it was a winner. On the back of this I bought tickets to see them at the Carling Academy in Birmingham. Tickets were cheap and they ended up playing the third stage without a support band. I was somewhat disappointed that they played little of their earlier stuff (I wasn't familiar with albums three and four at this stage) but they still included some great songs including The Baying of the Hounds and Deliverance which was absolutely brutal. Yet again, the standout feature was the extreme contrast in styles from death metal to folk, from intense heaviness to melodic harmony and the way in which these sections interchanged was tight and deliberate. Moreover, Mikael Akerfeldt was a great frontman; unusually for a metal vocalist he refrained from the typical rabble-rousing shouts and actually spent the gaps making everyone laugh with what I would describe as a more typically British sense of humour (but then what do I know about Swedish comedy?)

It didn't take me long to purchase the remainder of their back catalogue and within a year of that gig I went back to see them, this time playing the main Carling stage with Paradise Lost as their support. The set that night encapsulated everything that is great about the band. It was a couple of nights before they recorded almost the same set at London's Roundhouse (exchange Bleak for The Grand Conjuration) with songs from every single album, starting with Ghost of Perdition and ending with Demon of the Fall. The pinnacle came after Face of Melinda when upon he described recording the Morningrise album with the intention of using lutes to replicate the sound of minstrels, before launching into The Night and the Silent Water (my personal favourite Opeth song).

As is always the case with bands, there is the danger that things will implode and that began to happen with both the drummer and guitarist departing prior to the recording of Watershed. In my view these were crucial changes to the line up as Peter Lindgren always refrained from soloing for the sake of it and contributed genuinely unique melodies to complement the vocal sections. Martin Lopez was arguably even more of a significant loss as few metal bands posses a drummer who intersperses Latin passages along with double kicks. As a consequence, Watershed was slightly underwhelming. There were some great moments on there: the Lotus Eater and Burden were unique and the last couple of tracks were very progressive, but otherwise it felt like some of the magic had been lost. No matter; I saw them live twice after that and their live performances were still intense, varied and their two new members were clearly growing into their respective roles, especially on older material which was still as tight and soulful as ever.

Heritage was a drastic departure but the organic, earthy feel seemed interesting and evoked memories of folk-horror movies from the sixties and seventies. Within that there were tracks such as The Lines On My Hand that were new and exciting and I got the impression that it was a bold way of exploring a different sound similar to their approach on Damnation. Of course it wasn't anywhere near as good as Damnation, but they couldn't be blamed for trying something different and it at least avoided the contract with better previous albums that they suffered from with Watershed. Pale Communion was an altogether better album as it flowed more consistently, but it did raise alarm bells that perhaps this new progressive rock approach was the new norm. Would he ever growl again? Would they insert heavy riffs again? Would their production continue in its path towards total murkiness? 

And so to Sorceress. I should make an effort to pull myself out of this self-indulgent love letter to Opeth, but there is a point to this lengthy retrospective. As a band three albums into their new style I think it is reasonably clear that the era of death and black metal has gone for good, which is fine, I get it. They are now older, its harder to pull off extreme vocals and probably even harder to remain unique and avoid repetition after so many albums. The bit I find harder to overcome however, is the gradual abandonment of the contrast between dark and light that I have spent so much time waxing lyrical over. Here, I am not talking about different tacks on the same album (Willow the Wisp is clearly folk whereas Sorceress is clearly doom fusion). I am talking about the contrasting dynamics within the same song. There were touches of this on Pale Communion, let down partly by the production and recording set up (the piano links in Eternal Rains were far too quiet in the mix and subsequently created a disconnect in the flow) but on Sorceress many of the tracks simply don't have the changing dynamics and if they do they don't make as much sense as earlier material. Critics point to the change in style towards progressive rock but let's remember that Opeth have always been a progressive band, the key element with their former material is that the metal roots allowed them to expand on a wider range of sounds. Layered on top of this is the ongoing issue with production; it is so bass heavy and congested that none of the instruments are allowed room the breath. As a consequence the passages seem chaotic and are difficult to engage with. Rather than to anticipate the next section, I find myself trying to make sense of the cluster of notes and chords and that detracts from the enjoyment of listening. I am convinced that this is deliberate; Mikel Akerfeldt has stated repeatedly that not only does he find metal boring these days, but he dislikes crisp production and prefers and organic sounding set up. The new Opeth is here to stay, but I can only wonder if he would have been better off creating a separate solo project. 

And to the present. I slipped in the Lamentations DVD a week ago and was immediately transported back to a period of my life that I recall fondly as well as a period of the band that I believe was the strongest. It confirmed all of the above; Opeth were so much stronger when they stuck to their roots and produced albums of progressive death metal with folk and jazz woven in. Brutality and sensitivity is a powerful concoction. New Opeth just is not the same and having re-watched Lamentations I now want to lament. 

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Mission Somewhat Accomplished #findpeterwhite

Last year I spent several months testing the effectiveness of social media in the modern age in order to attempt to rack down one of my childhood friends who has for many years remained anonymous (even on Facebook). To add complexity to the challenge, he had a reasonably generic name and given that we lost touch over twenty years ago, there was almost nothing to go on.

As such, I gave up on the mission, assuming that he had moved abroad, or changed identity, or more likely had not been aware of my efforts. Perhaps you have to be a famous celebrity in order to garner sufficient publicity, even in this age of open-ended user-generated content.

That was over a year ago. Last week, I happened to find myself immersed on Facebook messenger whereupon I noticed a message request that dated back to May from someone I did not recognise: "I know your Peter White." For the purposes of this blog, let us call her Monica.

What then ensued was a brief conversation (I apologised for my tardy response) in which I established that he is alive and kicking in Redditch and was informed of my best efforts by Monica who had happened on my blog and put two and two together, realising that she knew who I was looking for.

There is every chance that I will not hear from him; had he have wanted to say hello he would have almost certainly have done that by now. However, he apparently recalls much of what I detailed int he blog and most importantly, the power of the internet works for the good of mankind!

It is almost mission accomplished as I have (sort of) #foundpeterwhite 

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Summer Holiday Highlights 2016

So this time last year I was contemplating having spent the summer (as indeed I had the spring) slogging away on the new house, with the majority of my time apportioned to clearing the garden of slabs, trees, roots, stumps and the huge massed pile of rubbish that required two builders skips. My solitary week off had been decimated by poor health; firstly my own then followed by both girls having contracted chicken pox. Trips and days out were cancelled and the whole sorry thing became an exercise in hope with planning for the patio and garden work providing a solitary crumb of comfort in among the gloom of not actually being able to go outside, such was the state of our health and the state of the garden itself. Fast forward a year and much has changed. The patio and garden were completed in autumn and then spring what was a hideous, long-abandoned (and quite unsafe) jungle was turned via a herculean effort of hard graft and to put it bluntly financial investment into a clean, modern and quite attractive area in which the girls could actually play. Not withstanding the 4 week period in which we had to stay off the grass, it has proved a success, especially when the weather has been dry and many afternoons have been spent with the girls playing and actually gaining some value from the space. 



Following a week’s holiday to Wales, we’ve also managed to do some stuff. Despite the fact that the traffic on the roads in and around Kingswinford can be atrocious, there is the benefit that within an hour’s drive in any direction there are a multitude of places to visit and things to do. The problem with children comes when there is even the slightest age gap and especially when one of them is very young, as pushchairs and feeding are challenges in themselves. However, with Liv a year older, we’ve managed to find enough places in which they’ve both been able to cope “off the reigns” and it’s worked out fairly well. Here’s a quick breeze through some highlights...

Dudmaston Hall...
Just a twenty minute drive up the road and a nice freebie with the help of a generously-bequeathed National Trust pass, this was a scorching hot day and started with a headache and hayfever, so my hopes were not high. However, it’s a nice location, easy to park up with a small play area in the shade of some trees. We had a picnic then took a walk around the grounds, the designated path arching around some sort of lake or stream. Nice and photogenic. Slightly marred on the final leg when the pushchair was directed through an enormous cow pat and then had to crust off in the heat of the boot on the way back home…

Weston Park...
This is an old favourite – forty minute drive up past Wolverhampton. I would put this in the same bracket as Ragley Hall as it has a great combination of lot’s of open space and paths to walk pushchairs around, coupled with a massive play area for kids of all ages. This year they have actually invested in changing some of the set up; one of the tree houses has gone, there are some new trampolines and the zip line has been upgraded. I seem to recall having to turn around with Em last year owing to rain, so this was a step forward.

Arley Arboretum...
I originally took Em here last year for a children’s birthday party, my main curiosity being centred around the term “arboretum” and to this day I still can’t really fathom why this word needs to exist. Essentially, it’s an area of parkland with lots of trees (some of which are not indigenous – hence the fancy title), a couple of very well presented gardens (including one with a water feature) and a big play area. This year there was an Alice-In-Wonderland themed treasure hunt and we also managed to find our way to the centre of the maze. Aside from all of that though was the biggest highlight of Em being occupied for twenty minutes whilst Liv slept in the pushchair, allowing me to feast on a magnificent pot of tea and slice of coffee and walnut cake.

Eastnor Castle...
This was a complete punt; a shot in the dark. I’ve driven past Eastnor before but it was a bit further out and in fact ended up being quite a trek with the M5 still full of roadworks and the sat nav sending us into traffic jams on the way back. However, it was the best of the picks from the first week off I had as there were so many things to do. There are two really nice play areas – one with tree top walks and the other enclosed in a brick walled garden – a digger park, a huge maze that we got completely lost in (that thing when you hold your right hand does work if you want to escape) and a big dipped vale in front of the castle where you can eat a picnic. The castle itself is extra to go include (it looks medieval but is actually only Victorian, having been built in that style) but we avoided that and instead when on a long walk around the grounds and lake where there are more areas to play and an ice house to explore. For value for money and variety you can’t go far wrong.

Black Country Museum...
It seemed strange that for all the time we had been living in the shadow of this place we had never visited. Of course, we had both been quite a few times as children on school trips and such like, but Em had always seemed a little young for it. As such, we had a good day and noticed quite a few newer buildings and displays, though it isn’t cheap and there are a few queues in front of the more popular shops and buildings. I took a few pictures of the canal section where they filmed some of Peaky Blinders and even managed a sneaky pint of Mild in the Bottle and Glass Inn.

Ludlow Castle... 
Let’s save the best for last! The Bank Holiday Monday was portrayed as a “Family Entertainment Day, featuring Battle Heritage and the Heritage Cup.” Thinking it sounded great, we got up early to ensure we could park in what is notoriously a nightmare town to drive through. As it turned out, parking was cheap and easy, the weather was blazing hot and the day at the castle cost only £14. For that, we got to have a go at archery (Em managed to hit the target with the medieval bow), junior jousting, full combat, the treasure hunt and a tour of the medieval village. Lunch was a picnic, complete with hot pork roll, followed by a climb to the top of the keep. The highlight though was the Battle Heritage knights who put on an amazing show – firstly in single-handed combat and then later on in a team event where they went full pelt at each other, smashing their opponents down to the ground with swords, poles and axes. It was only due to a whinging two-year old who had had enough that we prised ourselves away before the end. Highly recommended.

Monday, 22 August 2016

What sporting events do you wish you could have attended in person?

Having enjoyed the Olympics (I tend to prefer it when Team GB actually perform well as per the last few Games verses say Atlanta when our medal haul was pathetic), I have naturally reflected on what the atmosphere must have been like and I get the sense that it paled a little when compared with London four years ago. The 2012 Games were packed out with huge demand for ticket ballots in almost all events – even the dull ones like Dressage. Given that at the time Em was not yet two years old, the idea of being able to attend was almost impossible in practice which meant that I didn’t bother; however, there were two things that did make me feel a little jealous of those who did. Firstly the cycling in the velodrome – the atmosphere was amazing and we won so much that it must have been the place to be. The second was the main stadium during “Super Saturday” with three GB gold’s coming in quick succession. It got me thinking, if I could go back and attend any sporting event during my lifetime, which ones would I choose and why?

Here goes...

Football... FA Cup Semi Final – Spurs vs Arsenal 1991 Wembley Stadium
This was very much a match of two differing perspectives in the run up to kick off. For Arsenal and the media, it was another inevitable step towards their expected double (the league was theirs and the rumours were that they had already been fitted for their cup final suits). For Spurs, the club was facing bankruptcy and likely to have to sell off their star players. The biggest of these, Paul Gascoigne, had single handedly taken them to the semi-final, but had suffered several injuries and was still recovering from a hernia operation that had been rushed through after the quarter final. Not only was he unfit, but he was requiring sedatives to get him to sleep the night before a match and was faced with the prospect of an £8.5m transfer to Lazio.

The decision to move the game to Wembley for the first time in the FA Cup Final’s history was not a popular one with the players or fans, but given the high level of demand for such a high profile derby match, it was deemed inevitable by the FA and ensured that over 80,000 people would attend, whilst millions more would watch on live television to see if Gazza would actually even make the team.

It was fortunate for Spurs and Gascoigne that the only man to have really managed his talents was at the helm. Knowing that his star player was capable of only 30 minutes high-intensity football, Terry Venables packed the midfield and ensured that he had enough ball-players on the bench to retain possession should the gamble come off. What he would not have anticipated was the contribution in return. After 5 minutes, Spurs won a free kick just over 30 yards from goal and with a helpful word in the ear from Lineker (“Just smash it”), David Seaman was beaten in his left hand corner by the greatest free kick ever taken at Wembley. Several minutes later, another sweeping move orchestrated by Gazza resulted in Lineker putting Spurs 2-0 up. Although he barely made it to half time, before being replaced by Nayim, his work was done and Spurs would progress to the final as 3-1 winners.

Football... FA Cup Semi Final – Spurs vs Arsenal 1991 Wembley Stadium None of the tragedy of injury, ill-discipline and destruction to come could have been contemplated by anyone who witnessed Gazza in that match and as a spurs fan who has since lost interest in football, I look back to that game and recall thinking that everything would always work out just fine. It rarely does in sport.

Cricket...5th Ashes Test – England vs Australia 2005 The Oval 
In what has to be the greatest test series in modern history, it all came down to the wire in South London on Monday 12th September 2005. Having battled back in the game on day four, with a 2-1 lead England simply had to bat out the final day in order to force a draw and reclaim the Ashes after eighteen miserable years of Australian domination. If the Aussies had managed to sneak a win, then even a drawn series would mean the Ashes would remain with the touring side.

England started solidly on 34-1, but the inevitable batting frailty soon emerged and with the Aussie bowlers going all out to attack, England lost a succession of wickets in the first session, with Flintoff being caught and bowled by Warne on the stroke of lunch to leave them 127-5 and facing a likely defeat. One man who had miraculously managed to remain was Kevin Pietersen who had been dropped by Warne at slip and survived a torrid spell to remain not out. With two sessions remaining, Ricky Ponting ordered his bowlers to launch an all-out assault on the remaining English batsmen, convinced that he could force the remaining wickets and have his batsmen chase down a small total. Shaun Tate and Brett Lee dually responded and, reaching speeds of 95mph they decided that if Pietersen was going to try and hit Warne out of the attack, they would try and kill him instead of taking his wicket. What ensued was the most exhilarating session of cricket I can recall: on one hand everything was at stake and it felt like the whole summer was going to come crashing down in a disappointing mess, and on the other we knew we were watching an remarkable and quite unique contest. Pietersen responded by outrageously hooking Brett Lee repeatedly off his nose into the stands in front of the gas holders on his way to a magnificent maiden test hundred and by the time England had been bowled out for 335, the game was beyond Australia.

The final roar that greeted the two umpires finally removing the bails and signifying the game’s end and the series victory would have been worth the admission alone.

Boxing...WBC Heavyweight Title Fight, Frank Bruno vs Oliver McCall 1995, Wembley Stadium
I have always been a fair-weather boxing fan so I cannot claim to have watched the majority of the great fights (not least because of the amount that Sky have charged over the past twenty years!). However, for sheer partisan joy of seeing your man finally make it over the line, this one surely makes it as a contender in the list.

Bruno had already had three failed shots at the title – twice in the 1980s (I recall his defeat at the hands of Tyson in his prime whilst at first school) and then again to Lennox Lewis whilst Tyson was languishing in jail. However, an unexpected opportunity arose in 1994 when Oliver McCall upset the odds and knocked out Lewis at Wembley Arena. He then defended his title against Larry Holmes and came back to the UK to defend it against Bruno. I stayed up to watch the bout and remember feeling apprehensive when nobody gave Bruno a chance – by all accounts McCall was a loose-canon who used to openly weep as he made his way to the ring, “visualising the victory ahead.” Of course, when he emerged with tears in his eyes the narrative was written that Bruno would yet again fail to win the title. 

However, knowing that with his massive physique a knockout victory was his only chance, Bruno threw everything at the man they called The Atomic Bull and despite McCall managing to stay on his feet, the points were all his up to the final couple of round. At that point, McCall suddenly sprang into life, realising that the points were gone and he would have to knock Bruno out to win the bout. Even watching it on the TV I could feel the road of the crowd as they willed big Frank to stay put and take the hammering and when the final bell sounded the outpouring of emotion was huge and a tearful Bruno was able to address the post fight interview having finally been made champion.

It wouldn’t last; in order to secure the McCall fight, Bruno had contractually agreed to defend it against Tyson who promptly came out of jail and knocked him out on his way to the Evander Holyfield bouts. But no matter, a title, is a title and at least Bruno would not fall into the Jimmy White Bucket. 

Rugby...2nd Test British & Irish Lions vs South Africa, 1997, Durban
I was tempted to put the 2003 World Cup Final down here, but as I was in Australia for most of the duration of that tournament and was able to watch the final in New Zealand, I almost feel like I should make the most of this hypothetical opportunity and choose another match from the annuls of rugby history...

Just because of the number of times I have watched the Lions DVDs and especially the 1997 vintage, I think this one has to be up there. I don’t care much for a trip to South Africa, but it must have been an incredible moment to have witnessed the second test of 1997. For context, the Lions were written off before the series began, with the Springboks having won the World Cup two years previously and having a monstrous pack of forwards who basically steamrollered opposition teams for fun (let alone touring sides hastily assembled from scratch). What they hadn’t bargained for was Jim Telfer coming in with his fire and brimstone team talks and the appointment of the abrasive Martin Johnson as captain. As such, the Lions surprised the Boks in the first test with Matt Dawson scoring the crucial try, catching their opponents unaware.

By the time the second test came around, the whole of South Africa were baying for blood and the Lions had to respond. I recall reading that Johnson and Lawrence Dallaglio gave each other a “look” after five minutes which acknowledged the ferocity with which the Boks had come out; for many it would be the most brutal game of rugby of the decade. Miraculously, the Lions managed to stay in contention, thanks in part to their opponent’s inability to kick their goals, but also the herculean defending from Richard Hill, Dallaglio and centre Scott Gibbs, who even managed to flatten the 21 stone prop Os du Randt. With scores level, it seemed inevitable that South African brutality would ultimately prevail, only for Jeremy Guscott to casually ping over the winning drop goal and clinch the series victory. I can almost smell the celebratory beer and barbeques every time I watch the highlights...

The Lions are not supposed to win; the odds are stacked against them and so it remains a miracle that the tour even exists in the modern era. We have to savour these experiences whilst they last...

Tennis...Wimbledon Final – Roger Federer vs Rafael Nadal, 2008
I should point out that I can’t really stand Wimbledon. I find it full of conceited arseholes who think it’s the centre of the universe, I hate Pimms (it tastes like fizzy Benolin), I don’t want to pay twenty quid for some manky strawberries and squirty cream whilst listening to lame schoolgirls cheering on a Scotsman who doesn’t even like England (“Andy, Andy, ra ra ra”). There’s also the horror of Sue Barker’s simpering grin and Cliff Richard’s sporadic rain-gap entertainment. The whole thing is a fortnight of misery wrapped up in a clich├ęd towel of despair. And then you throw in the fact that I don’t really like that style of tennis – serve, volley, serve, volley. The novelty of repeatedly thumping aces wears off after about two games and quite frankly I would far rather watch the French Open in which rallies are allowed to actually develop and the players are not going to be escorted off the premises for wearing their normal clothes.
The main reason I can’t stand it, however, is that in the modern age at least it has always favoured the dominance of the wooden, characterless robots to dominate. Those players for whom a big booming serve, a predilection to race to the net or drop onto their favoured forehand is their default setting always tend to reign supreme, as the conditions are stacked in favour of an orthodox fast, tight game. Ever since I can recall, the likes of Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker and Pete Sampras have consistently dominated, even when unable to win other major tournaments or execute other techniques. They don’t even need any personality – just keep their default game in check and Bob’s your uncle, two weeks later they get to fall to their knees whilst the engraver adds their name once more to the trophy.

Roger Federer had a better all round game than those players and was certainly a more talented and natural athlete, but let’s be honest, he was a bit of a wooden character and it did get a little dull seeing him win year after year. Which is why when Nadal began to challenge him it suddenly got interesting; a man who didn’t quite have the flowing serve but who had an awesome return game and who injected huge personality into his game; eeking out every point and never accepting defeat until the game had gone. When they met in the 2008 final, few gave Nadal a chance, having lost the previous two finals, but an upset looked likely when he went two sets up after a rain-delayed start. The second rain delay allowed Federer to regroup and win the third and forth sets to tie to match and one assumed that he would go onto win a sixth title. Just before eight in the evening another rain delay took hold and they finally came back ontot he court as the light began to fade. In near-darkness, Nadal threw his entire body into defending a barrage of break points (Federer converted only one of 13 break points on Nadal’s serve) and after nearly five hours of grueling tennis the Spaniard finally made it through.

I would have braved the huffling masses just to hear Federer whinge that it was too dark. Same for both of you Rog!

Athletics...1988 Olympics Mens 100m Final Seoul
Given that I have already chosen a couple of events from the London 2012 Games, I can afford to be rather more swashbuckling with my choice here, which is why I am going to return to the late eighties for this one...

As a child, I recall being mesmerised by the concept of speed. Who was the fastest man in the world? Was he faster than a car? That sort of thing. Seoul 1988 were the first Games I remember (I had one of the official brochures with their mascot in a storyline – don’t know what happened to that!) and the only thing I was bothered about aside from Daley Thompson was the chance to see a new world record. The line up for the final (now dubbed the dirtiest in history) was pretty amazing with both Carl Lewis and Linford Christie poised to take on Ben Johnson, who promptly blew them away, smashing the record which previously had evolved only in micro-increments over the previous hundred years. Perhaps if he had not raised his hand at the point of victory, it would have been even faster. Perhaps, if he had not been drugged up on Stanozolo, his bulging eyes wouldn’t have been grown yellow and he might have finished outside of the medals.

Still, it wouldn’t have been quite so spectacular. After all, it pushed the field to new heights – Carl Lewis finished second but broke the world record and was subsequently handed gold. Calvin Smith was the first man to break ten seconds and finish third. And of course, none of the spectators knew at the time that Johnson would be disqualified as that happened two days later. It must have been awesome to watch.

Snooker... World Championship Semi Final Alex Higgins vs Jimmy White, 1982 The Crucible
Snooker is another sport that I have gradually fallen away from as the character have drifted away (I blame Stephen Hendry for that). I also blame Stephen Hendry for Jimmy White never having won the World Championship, which is why I would struggle to put one of those disappointments in this list. Of course, I could have gone for the 1985 pot black final with Steve Davis and Dennis Taylor, but that again would belie the fact that I actually had little time for either of them. The two most colourful men to play the game in the 1980’s were brought together in 1982, where they contested a semi-final that would prove to be a pivotal and telling moment in their careers. For the twenty-year old Jimmy White it was the one he should have won and perhaps would have beaten Ray Reardon in the final (who know what further triumphs). For Alex Higgins, it would be a swansong as his personal life and career would nosedive soon after.

The match was of high quality throughout and by the end of the third session it was tied at 11-11, only for the younger White to move into a 15-13 lead in the final session. Higgins managed to pull the next frame back to 15-14 but then White pulled into a 59 point lead in frame 30 and most people watching assumed he was all but booked a place in what would be his first Crucible final. When he missed the next pot, Higgins took to the table to perform what could be described as either the greatest break of all time or perhaps the worst, depending on whether the measurement is that of success or technical proficiency. The reds were scattered along the cushion and the task was made even harder as Higgins made little effort to position himself on the next colour. As such, every shot became almost a shot-to-nothing (had he have pulled it off in separate single pots the lack of colours would have reduced the points to requiring snookers. Somehow, whether by accident, design or genius, Alex Higgins managed to clear the table with a break of 69 and level the match at 15-15, taking the final frame and with it a place in the final.

As with many of these events, the joy would have been in the ignorance of not knowing what would come to pass. The thrill would have been watching two snooker players in full flow without caring who came out on top.

Monday, 4 July 2016

Sore Losers...(and a window into my imagination)

What an overreaction from the self appointed intellectual left and the sore losers who voted remain. Still it continues, with hypercritical and blinkered Facebook posts, dull exchanges on Twitter and even a march in London to criticise old people for voting to leave. Perhaps if their poster boy had been someone other than the grotesque Eddie Izzard salivating over cheaper flights then things might have been different, but still...What an overreaction from the self appointed intellectual left and the sore losers who voted remain. Still it continues, with hypercritical and blinkered Facebook posts, dull exchanges on Twitter and even a march in London to criticise old people for voting to leave. Perhaps if their poster boy had been someone other than the grotesque Eddie Izzard salivating over cheaper flights then things might have been different, but still...

One thing that does annoy me is the looseness with which people are using the term democracy. I have seen it used as a term to essentially mean the desired outcome of their specific forms of utopia (I am a socialist, democracy is socialism - that sort of thing), something only young people can achieve, or something that you moan about if you don't get what you want (preferably on a protest march). In the purest sense of the word, democracy is genuinely illustrated by the referendum that occurred last week and yet this is lost on some of the more banana-republic-esque commentators who have splurged their bile in recent times. In order to explain why it is I feel this way, it is necessary to understand my thought process during every election or referendum, which is as follows...

When I vote I walk down the road from my house to Em's school and am filled with increasing resent and despondency. I have an idea of which box I am going to tick only to glance up and notice many other people making their way down the street in the same direction with the same purpose of casting their vote. I see a middle aged man and think he might vote the opposite to me. That cancels my vote out. I need to place my vote just to stop his having a positive impact on the count. Then a younger lady across the street might also vote a different way, putting my choice in negative credit (this phrase means something in my head). Couple more folk in front, some behind - what if they all vote a different way? I may as well not bloody well bother (I'm angry now!). Sod it, I'll walk back home and forget voting. Actually, no, the people need my view. I'll campaign for a different system, one where few people get the vote and we replace democracy with a benevolent dictatorship with me at the helm. Here, the fantasy really starts to take shape and all these people whose presence on the way to the ballot box are send packing. In place, I stand tall and triumphant, placing their votes on their behalf, happily steering the country in the necessary direction - that is to say the direction I feel it needs to be headed towards. No, no, don't thank me, it's my pleasure, happy to serve. Though, on second thoughts, why are we even voting? If the outcome is inevitable and the inevitability is me at the helm, then we can just do away with polling booths, vote counters and the whole damn thing. I'll just remain as I am, content in my capacity as Prime Minister.

Well, hang on. If there is no voting system, we don't need a choice, and if we don't need a choice then we don't need an opposition. If there is no opposition then we don't need a government. I don't need to be the Prime Minister because there is only one minister which is me, lord high minister of everything. But of course, I cant handle everything, I'm just too busy. There'll have to be some things I cut out. I cant make my speech from the dictators balcony to the cheering masses without my bodyguards flanking me...

And then I reach the polling booth and a smiling lady greets me, ushering the way in. Two tables of vote-counters take my ticket and give me the card. Everyone is pleasant and I snap out of the previous vision I had. Not only that but I feel guilty for the very thought of it. I vote, I go home and wait for the results. The results come in. Either way they show that the country isn't completely made up of morons and providing the Green Party doesn't get it's wish to allow fiver-year olds the vote, we'll be on course for a sensible future. Just imagine if anyone else had their fantasy come true of a dictatorship... the only thing worse than having myself in charge of the entire country is, god forbid, someone else.

People voted, it happened, blah, blah… but this is a strange thing. We are dealing (for once) with the consequences of people actually voting to change something. That very rarely happens. For the most part (and with fair reason), people typically elect to keep things as they are. There is a comfort to familiarity and moreover even if things do not go to plan it is dangerous to keep chopping and changing. In this case, however, the referendum came down on the side of change and we find ourselves suddenly scared by the reality of that. It happens if you leave your job – you hand your notice in and then walk away thinking “shit, did I just do that?” There is then a period of angst, reflection and perhaps even regret before the new job starts and you can transition properly into the new state. For Britain that will take some time as Brexit has not yet been triggered. However, consider this. What if we had chosen to remain (let’s say by the same margin). Would we have seen similar protestations and teeth-gnashing? Yes, perhaps to a lesser extent. But the point is that I can guarantee that many of those who in the end chose to remain having been wavering for several weeks would have immediately questioned their decision and felt a sense of remorse for not having had the courage of their conviction. How do I know that? Because it is the human condition: it is the way of things that we always have an immediate sense of regret over the choice we didn’t make. It doesn’t even have to be a regret. It is the process of coming to terms with the fact that both choices are not available and either consequence cannot be undone on a retrospective whim.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

I was going to write something like this... then something else happened

I went to bed around 11pm on Thursday evening. Perhaps a tad later. In any case, at that point it looked for all the world that the Referendum was going to be won by the remain campaign. Close - almost neck and neck even - but in the end it seemed that the early forecasts after the polling stations had closed were indicating that the UK was to remain in the EU.

Well, I felt depressed. As I have previously mentioned, I am a fan of Europe, but not the EU. I felt that there was something exciting and invigorating about the idea of stepping away from a failing system, abandoning the expensive and bureaucratic project and re-forging our path forward in the modern world. As the campaign went on, I felt that the official (and unofficial) leave campaign had won the crucial battles and had the weight of momentum with them. I felt that the country could actually do it. I felt nervous and excited... only... only for some strange things to happen in the final week. And as we hit the final few hours, it seemed that the country had lost it's bottle. That project fear, project grief, project intellectual left, project Richard Branson, project Eddie Izzard, project whatever had combined to sow sufficient doubt in the minds of voters, who had ultimately responded by backing the status quo.

Damn it, even I felt some nerves as I entered the polling station. Am I really going to do this? Do I really want to draw a cross in that particular box? Well, it was of course only a momentary doubt; rather like the doubt one has when handing in one's notice, putting a house up for sale, or deciding on whether to ask someone out for a date. It isn't an indication that it's the wrong thing to do, more of a confirmation of the significance of the decision. In these cases I think it's absolutely normal to feel nervous and to doubt oneself, after all these sorts of decisions require deep though, double-thought and extra treble-thought. Anyway, I came through and stuck to my guns. It seemed, however, that a high number of others had allowed their doubts to change their decision.

So there I was, feeling a sense of emptiness, a sad, hollow sensation altering my mood and creating a dark cloud that crept into my thoughts. This was the chance of a generation and we had bottled it! I sat in front of the television, opened up my iPad and began hammering words as the BBC and Sky News channels continued to blare out the inevitable predictions in the background. I typed frantically for around ten minutes before realising that I was just tired. Tired from the past few weeks of sleeping on the floor of the playroom (long story, separate story) but more importantly, tired of the whole Brexit thing. I just wanted to turn the television off and go to bed. Which is what I did.

I had little idea that I would be woken around six hours later by my wife to tell me that 52% of people had voted to leave the EU. Stiff-limbed and bleary-eyed, I spent several minutes digesting the live reaction on Twitter and then a few more minutes smirking at some of the more farcical comments on Facebook. The world had changed and, though the outcome had been the one I wanted to occur, it had come to pass in an unlikely and dramatic way.

But more of that to follow. I thought I would at least post those words I had started to pen the previous night. They are unedited, somewhat ranty and probably in need of a strong edit and more flow. They are as follows:


Project Grief. The new left intellectuals win. Out of touch celebrities win. The UK gets what it deserves.

So this is it, we as a nation have fouled up the most amazing opportunity in a generation to rid ourselves of this ridiculous and needless burden of the European Union. It was there on a plate and rather like Stuart Lancaster’s effort at last year’s world cup we have tripped, stumbled, fluffed our lines and collapsed in a pathetic heap right outside the door of hope, only to be swept away in a rubbish cart. It was close – boy was it close – but in the end we failed and it is one single point that matters: we will remain in the wretched thing until it (and or the UK) collapses.

It is easy to dissect why. Too many people lost their nerve at the final hurdle. The legions of rich businessmen, scared and self-interested MPs and out of touch celebrities helped to force opinion, helped along by the murder of Jo Cox and the way that piece of news was processed by the media. But in truth I blame the left and their cynical campaign of preaching that has infiltrated the soul of their country and claimed the centre ground of argument on this topic. The disperate group of people who vote for left wing parties such as Labour, the Greens and such like have all display such degrees of hypocrisy on the topic of democracy and democratic principles that I wonder where it leaves us with any future debate in this country on any topic.

Take the concept of the vote. They criticise the “first past the post” system (because it doesn’t get the results they would prefer), they talk about media bias (despite political correctness being the staple of mainstream media) and they talk about minority representation – women, gay people, faith groups and such like. However, when it comes to the idea of the UK remaining in the European Union, which is an unelected, undemocratic (and bureaucratic) system, led by white middle aged men (all of whom are on massive salaries), they are fully supportive of this principle. Why? Because they don’t like some of the people involved in the Brexit campaign, they hate the ideal of national pride, they are prepared to prostitute their principles for the titbits of policy at the table that match their ideals and they assume that anyone who has the slightest bit of concern regarding immigration must be racist.

Take the concept of immigration then. The United Kingdom, by comparison to most other countries (and certainly those in the EU) over-populated. To break it down further, if one looks at England within the UK, this has a population density higher than even Netherlands. Germany would need to take around 8-9 million migrations just to draw level with the UK, such is the extent of our population growth. The pressure on roads, rail, schools, hospitals, housing and public services is unsustainable. Councils cannot cope with existing cost structures. Road and transport systems are gridlocked. The NHS is creaking. And yet, if we talk about immigration being a cause of over-population, we are branded racist.

The flaw in the left’s “hold my hands over my ears and shriek lalala” approach is that it is of course possible that many of us advocating leave are not actually blaming immigrants. I for one do not. How can you? They are simply filling their boots, taking an opportunity that is presenting itself to them and gaining work where it exists. The blame sits partially with our government in allowing immigration levels to get to the point where our population levels are too high. To a greater extent it lies in the fact that the EU has free movement of people as a central and untouchable policy. This means that the masses will head towards the most attractive locations and that includes the UK (never mind the fact that we are much smaller by landmass than France and Germany). There are still those on the left who would then add that it doesn’t matter if our population density is high because we can still build on green fields and fill in the gaps that remain between cities, towns and villages until we create one huge, sprawling metropolis. These same people campaign to save trees, to stop roads being built and to stop fracking. Conversely they block nuclear power stations and champion hundreds of square miles of green belt land and shorelines to be littered with ineffective wind farms. They turn up in the mud at Glastonbury with their hippy banners and set up roadblocks by gypsy encampments. They don’t know what they want, other than the opposite of anybody not on their side.

We could of course look at the notion of terrorism, extremism and the recent discussion around hate and divisive politics. Over the past week on Twitter I have seen many lefties in outrage at the way that Jo Cox’s death has been covered by the media and in particular comparisons being made with the murderers of Lee Rigby a few years ago. However, one observation I have made is that the general reaction from many of these people in the aftermath of Lee Rigby’s murder was “these people do not represent Islam. Do not tar all Muslims with the same brush.” With Jo Cox’s killer it was “disgusting right wing divisive politics have caused this. Blame Nigel Farage. We must remain in the EU.” Hardly a balanced or consistent viewpoint and hardly a fitting conclusion. Moreover, even Brendan Cox has spent more energy in the week that followed using his wife’s murder to gain points in the remain argument. Cynical doesn’t even cover it. Hypocrisy doesn’t even cover it. I am convinced that somewhere out there is a secret stash of “How to be a Contradictory, Inflammatory and Irritating Lefty” books with a chapter dedicated to stock responses following major news stories. I’d love to get my hands on one...

We could then look at the economy. This idea that if by leaving the EU it means some short term disruption to trading and by extension our economy, it isn’t worth the risk. Really? Are we that short-sighted that we cannot stomach even a tony blip in the long-term interests of this country? Do we really think that Germany and France will stop exporting to us? Do we really think that these trade agreements are worthwhile? Do we really thinking that the economic value of the EU is greater than the US, China, Russia, India, the Far East, South America and others? Do we think that the scale and multiples of the EU actually even exist when one considers the countries likely to join in the future? Turkey? Albania? Do we really think that the single currency has been anything other than a disaster when tied into various economic lifecycles of countries so diverse in their socio-economic makeup, GDP and economic balance that all it is doing is requiring constant bale-outs? Well now, of course if you are left-wing you ignore all of this because the only things that matter from an economic standpoint is that we spend huge amounts of money on welfare, we raise taxes for anyone earning a modest income of higher and we burn effigies of Tory and UKIP MPs. I constantly read people posting about how “if Michael Gove and Nigel Farage are voting out then I’m voting remain.” Do me a favour – are we that bitter and twisted these days that we have to play a childish game of opposites just to score mind points against populist figures of hate? Isn’t that the very idea of divisive politics that lefties are against? Then we have the absurd “if we vote to leave then we vote for Nigel Farage as our next leader.” Hardly. For one, he isn’t even an MP. Secondly, I would question the need for UKIP to exist as a mainstream party if we voted out. Thirdly, the point is that you at least have the choice. You can vote for him and his party or you can vote for someone else. With the EU you don’t get a vote.

This referendum was always going to be close. In the end the remains won. But I’ll say this... there will be many people – in fact a huge number of those who voted remain – who in years to come will rue their decision. Perhaps they are young and with experience they will look back with regret. Perhaps they have children and they will have to look back and explain to them how they failed them. Perhaps they will suffer as a result of failed public services or a lack of housing. Perhaps they will suffer even greater economic hardships when the EU eventually collapses.

And I will have no sympathy. People of the UK – you got what you deserve.

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Sir Legolot’s Castle Part 3

I think it’s time for an update on the construction project of the year! The last time I posted, the front elevation of Sir Legolot’s Castle was completed, along with part of the ground floor and the base of the deeper rear tower. Over the past few weeks I have managed to add the second and third levels to the Lego spiral staircase and that rear tower is nearing its full height, so let’s get some pictures on show!

Here’s a guard at the foot of the new tower. The depth had to be modified and so is a little more rectangular than the front two towers in order to accommodate the staircase pieces (Lego spiral stonework was never even on the radar when I was a child – I can’t remember being so excited by a piece of Lego arriving!). The additional leg room has allowed a nice Norman arch to be built which adds to the aesthetics on the ground level.

The rear tower was raised in three efforts – each one focusing on the individual staircase piece to ensure it locked in at the bottom and top whilst having enough light and access. One decision I did make was to remove the necessity to have to disassemble parts of this new tower at a later date in order to lock into the next piece of wall. I therefore put in two hole sections that can be linked with a small pipe – that way I retain the option to open up the back when I finally get round to building it.

You can see from this image above that the access points are lined up to take the next piece of wall with large archways, whilst there are also arches going into the balcony walkway sections that lead to the frontal towers (in other words all levels will be accessible from one staircase). The balcony is still a work in progress but is supported from the outer wall via buttresses and by pillars in the inner court side. I've still to plan the final part, but the King and Queen will have a throne section and that will I think lead into a more ornate “roof style” tower.

It’s clearly still not completed as I’m struggling with the final turret that allows protection when walking out on to the top deck, but I’ll get there eventually…

Next task is to complete the turret then perhaps take a few months off to plan the rear wall, throne section and final tower (The "Eastern Section". Still, it’s starting to look really good!

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Why Are So Many Celebrities Socialists?

This is something that has grated me for quite a while and yet in recent times I’ve come to accept that if there is anyone in the public eye for whom I have an admiration – be it an actor, musician, comedian or artist – they are likely to hold left wing views. I should add for I continue that the very word celebrity is not one that I am a fan of because it tends to indicate someone of fame as opposed to someone who has actually achieved recognition via applied talent in their field. However, the term is now such an ingrained part of our language that a post like this is almost impossible to write without referring to the word. So be it, we live in a word of celebrities…I’ll sigh and get on with it…

Back to the topic at hand then. Typically, this concept has raised itself around the time of general elections, when for the past ten years or so we have experienced with growing frequency a plethora of celebrities wheeled out in support of their affiliated party, or similarly to condemn another party for their policies. Given the fact that I am at least economically inclined to vote for the Tory party in most elections and yet my entertainment tastes are often alternative, underground or at least eclectic, this means that I am faced with the uncomfortable scenario of people I like and admire telling me that I should vote for a politic party that I have little time for. I can of course turn a blind eye to this, but in more recent times, these suggestions have developed into a more aggressive form of persuasion; during the last general election there were a number of high profile cases where certain celebrities were suggesting that by voting for the Tory party I was in some way incredibly selfish, greedy and in part to blame for the misfortune of thousands of people.

Now, the purpose of this post is not really to justify my political tendencies. I have already indicated that I am economically inclined to vote Tory. That is not to say that I am a hard-line Tory or rigidly right wing. Or even always vote Tory. I often evolve my views, I am regard myself as a Libertine in many ways, and being married to a teacher means that I do have views that do not necessarily lend themselves to the core beliefs of the blue party. However, these are points that can be expanded upon at another time. The point here is that from a economic standpoint, there seems to be a predilection for many celebrities to endorse a socialist standpoint which often seems at odds with the lifestyle or wealth that they have accumulated and I find it curious as to how they can justify this juxtaposition.

The list is so exhaustive that I can cherry pick examples without too much effort, but the essence has remained for as long as time records. Go back to the sixties for instance and you’ll find actors of the caliber of Stanley Baker and Richard Burton being staunch socialists (the former being closely involved with Harold Wilson). Baker faced frequent criticism for being incredibly wealthy whilst maintaining a left-wing position on economics and sending his children to private school. He even considered moving abroad (he had a large villa in Spain) for tax avoidance but ultimately decided to remain as he would “miss Britain.” The gap between Baker’s beliefs and practice was clearly large and the same could be applied to Richard Burton, who did actually make an effort at articulating his thoughts on the matter. When it was put to him that there might be a slight contradiction in his views and the reality that he earned huge quantities of money for his roles in some of the blockbusters of the day, Burton replied, “unlike capitalists, I don’t exploit other people.” It was an interesting retort, but this comes down to the fact that he wanted a society in which everyone was equal in terms of pay unless they held a job by which they could claim not to have a hold over anyone else. And what could possibly constitute such a profession? Even the local plumber can money simply due to a lack of competition and therefore establish a monopoly with no barriers to his own pricing structure. Perhaps Burton should have spared a thought for his own profession and the fact that his vast earning power was at least in part down to the fact that people had to pay a set amount of money to see his films. I am of the view that he was a wonderfully talented actor with a supreme voice, but that it a subjective view and most people would at least consider him fortunate to have been able to succeed in a highly desirable and competitive profession (especially given his lack of professionalism and alcoholism). How dare he criticism anyone else for taking the opportunities that exist within the framework of society in order to pay the bills and provide for their children? Especially given that they are the people who are essentially paying his wages.

The frequency that these principles appear compromised and the comfort that the individuals appear to have despite this juxtaposition is the consistent factor. Of late, think Russell Brand and the fact that he quite candidly distances himself and his wealth from any conversation relating to socialism or even communism. Think Martin Freeman and his contribution to Labour Party election promotional collateral, despite the wealth his has accumulated from appearances in global movies with huge appearance fees and related image rights. Think Benedict Cumberbatch preaching to the masses from the comfort of his BBC contract at the expense of ordinary taxpayers. I could go on – the list is endless and relentless. For the most part, these are people I admire (not Brand I should clarify) in their professional capacity, but they all seem to draw a convenient line between their own comfortable and partially fortunate lifestyle bubble and the principles that they preach to those who do not have the opportunity to climb aboard their boat. That they do not even attempt to show any discomfort is perhaps indicative of the sheltered view of the world that actors have.

Of course, such hypocrisy doesn’t simply restrict itself to matters of economic principle. In the sixties and seventies Vanessa Redgrave was a member of Workers Revolutionary Party. Despite failed attempts at entering mainstream politics, she has campaigned for years on many “left-wing” issues – including that of illegal gypsy camps which have caused misery for hundreds of people caught up in their mess and anti-social lifestyles. "I'd be happy to live here with them, that's for sure," Redgrave declared, going on to describe Dale Farm as "a strong, wise, warm, gentle community." It was interesting that she perhaps wasn't talking about the homophobia, racism, sexism and misogyny that runs in the DNA of many of these communities, not to mention the violence towards those living nearby whose lives have been ruined. Also interesting to note her criticism towards the concept of housing travelers when she has put her lack of retirement down to having to pay off her huge mortgage towards an enormous house that one assumes she would not wish to be devalued by the close proximity of travelers. (Never mind, perhaps she could take a few of them in next time they're evicted.).

Almost all these examples are actors and actresses and perhaps it is the nature of their profession that dictates that they live their lives in fantasy, having gone from obscurity to wealth and fame in an instant and having bypassed the typical struggles that most of us go through in order to make economic progress in our daily lives. However, the principle is frequently observed in the fields of comedy (Eddie Izzard, John Bishop, Micky Flanagan, David Schneider, Stewart Lee, and so on and so forth) and music (almost every talented artist in the western world). Though a generalisation, it does seem to be a trend that reasonably bland, unadventurous, conservative or less quality comedians and musicians are the ones who either abstain from the debate entirely or perhaps even show a predilection for the alternative view; that perhaps capitalism is okay and people should carry on about their business without the need for an economic revolution. It is difficult to understand the link here, other than the fact that perhaps as part of their quest for taking a risk in the process of creating art, the left-wingers are more inclined to champion an alternative view, whereas those that play it safe are more likely to endorse what is seen as the status quo. That makes sense. What does not make sense is their inability to fathom how they can oversee the hypocrisy that ultimately discredits their own argument and ensures that people simply sigh and turn the channel over every time they appear during the general Election telling us to vote for Corbyn or the Green Party or whoever else might capture the hearts of the left-wing elite.

Perhaps a change of direction, a small tweak to the approach could be all it would take to actually embrace the stark realities of their economic prosperity and find a way to connect with the ordinary man on the street. However, even when this happens, it still ends up in a mess. Take Chris Evans recent statement that the top earners at the BBC have caused a funding issue. “It’s simple,” he stated. “It doesn’t take much to work out that you should pay people like me less.” Hmm, would a lower salary have convinced him to sign a deal to present Top Gear? Would he be prepared to ignore the pleas of his agent in the negotiation process? Did he actually offer to take the job for less money? No. Once again, the words ring hollow.

And so we return to my dilemma; art and politics. They forever remain two separate streams with one exception. This is why I am a fan of Jeremy Clarkson…