The Obscurer

Category: Reviews

The Obscurer Awards 2010

Let’s rattle through these shall we?

  • Single – I’m pretty poor at getting into new music, but I like to think that I get there in the end. My occasional listens to either 6Music or Radcliffe and Maconie on Radio 2 tend to do the trick and top me up, and that was the case with Fleet Foxes’ Mykonos which I stumbled upon at the start of Adam & Joe one Saturday, and which was handily the first song they’d played that day and so instantly re-accessible via listen again for a week. Seven days later I was still humming it incessantly and so decided to buy their splendid album. Mykonos is a swooping, swooning piece of timeless folky-beauty that feels like it could have been written in any era but which fortunately for us was written in the current one, and hopefully the Fleet Foxes can build on their impressive start at give us more of the same in future.
  • Album – Doves also got off to an impressive start in their career, but after a bit of a stumble with their patchy second album they returned to top form with 2004’s Some Cities and continued last year with Kingdom Of Rust. The title track was an early single and suggested that the new album would be Doves-by-numbers; certainly the boys aren’t exactly branching off in a different direction here, they’re staying comfortably in their comfort zone, but personally Doves-by-numbers suits me down to the ground. So many good songs that it’s hard to pick out individual highs, although if I had to pick one stand-out track it would be the stunning 10:03, one to turn up loud and which I would love to see them play live.
  • Book – Tim Winton’s Breath, or breathe as I keep pronouncing it, was a book that Simon Mayo’s book panel were so effusive in praise of that I snapped it up the minute I saw the paperback version in the shops. It’s a very easy read, drawing you in from the first page as the narrator recounts a period in his teens when he and his mate, both of whom would spend their days engaged in risky stunts, are befriended by a local surfer, and the book follows the trio as they push their skills to the limit as they compete against the waves, themselves and each other. Friendship is severely tested by events, jealousies and the surfer Sando’s girlfriend, and throughout there is a tone that tells you it isn’t going to end with everyone happily sharing a beer together. While reading this book it owns you completely and the quality of the writing is simply wonderful; surfing, like skiing, is something I think of as being for other people, but Winton’s descriptions make you understand the exhilaration you must feel when catching a big wave. An exquisite work; the only problem is that it’s so good that I’m reluctant to give his other books a go as I fear I’ll be disappointed.
  • Film – Bolt is a sort of animated anthropomorphic Truman Show where the eponymous dog believes he has super powers, when in fact he stars in a television programme about a hero dog. Cocooned in his fantasy world he breaks out when he thinks that his owner – and TV show co-star – is in danger, but once in the real world he gradually realises that things are not what they seem. In many ways it is a retread of some earlier Pixar themes; Bolt, like Buzz Lightyear, has to get accustomed to the fact that he is not what he had assumed he was, the cat Mittens knows what it is like to get left behind as children grow up, like Jesse in Toy Story 2, and so on. There are better animated films about but it’s all mildly diverting, and the only film I saw in the cinema last year. Hold on, though; wasn’t Bolt released in 2008? Oh bugger. But I think I only watched it in 2009. Does that count? I dunno. Oh forget it.
  • Sport – I’ve already mentioned the First Ashes test at Cardiff, and I’ll stick with that for my sporting moment; a perfect example of Test Cricket, as tense a sporting occasion as I can imagine, and the antithesis of the supposedly more exciting Twenty20 as, on the fifth day, England’s last two batsmen, unconcerned with actually scoring runs, were instead hell-bent on just hanging on to their wickets as the final overs ticked away. Unforgettable, yet something that England seemed to be making a habit of in the recent tour of South Africa.
  • TV – The funniest TV moment of the years has to have been on Noel’s HQ, with Noel Edmonds completely losing it on national television (albeit on a Sky 1 programme that no-one watches). It looks like an appalling show, one designed to take each spurious pile of cack from the tabloid agenda to make it appear that Britain is going to the dogs regardless of any real evidence, and to uncritically present such bollocks as fact in front of a baying mob. Specifically, on this clip Noel featured the story of an injured soldier who had been denied planning permission for his family to build a new adapted home for him on their land. There may be something in their complaint, although the local authority did say they were happy to speak with the family to try to resolve the problem; what really seemed to get Edmonds’ goat through was a council spokesman’s refusal to appear on Noel’s HQ because it was what he described as an “entertainment show”, a statement that drove Edmonds into a fit of apoplexy while the audience for this programme dedicated to keen investigative journalism booed and waved those massive foam hands in the air, just like we used to see on World In Action and Weekend World Gladiators and Robot Wars in their pomp. What an oaf. (For genuinely good television, I really enjoyed Red Riding, The Street and the Doctor Who special The Waters Of Mars.)
  • Radio – I’ve never read John Irving’s A Prayer For Owen Meany, although I’ve always fancied it. So when Radio 4 adapted it for The Afternoon Play early in 2009 I decided to save myself the bother and to listen to its five parts. It was a brilliant and moving production; the always excellent Toby Jones was excellent as Owen and the typically dreadful Henry Goodman was excellent as the narrator John, as we entered the world of their peculiar friendship which endures despite an incident in which Owen hits a baseball which strikes and kills John’s mother, and which assists Owen in thinking that his life is part of some divine plan. Owen is also beset by a recurring dream in which he believes he knows the time and some of the circumstances of his own death, but not the where or why other than that it will be part of God’s plan. An ominous inevitability then hovers over the piece until the final act and the full picture is revealed, at which I shed some tears for a few minutes before packing my daughter in her pram and left to collect my son from school, drying my eyes as I did.
  • Blog – Although I had read a few of his posts before, 2009 was the year I really began to read Anton Vowl’s Enemies Of Reason regularly. Anton specialises in taking some old toss from a newspaper and ripping it to shreds, exposing it for the duplicitous, disingenuous or outright deceitful load of nonsense that it is. It would be easy to criticise this as shooting fish in a barrel as we all know how bad the papers are, but Anton is a hugely likeable writer and finds endless variation in describing the papers’ failings, often finding just the right words in doing so. And it is all done with the most honourable of intentions; it doesn’t take much to show the Daily Mail up for the hateful rag it is, but Anton stresses how he doesn’t just hate the Mail, he would like it to thrive and be good, and seems genuinely sad that it isn’t, a magnanimous attitude which has affected my own views on our actually-existing media. He is also something of an evangelist for the idea that, while many journalists may often look down their noses at “mere bloggers”, in fact the best bloggers have nothing to learn from and much to teach their professional counterparts, and Anton himself is a great advert for that line of thought. Recently Anton stated he would be branching out a little more, covering issues other than the media’s decline, and that is certainly a journey I will follow him on.
  • Castle – Although I’ve been to Falmouth a few times – munching on a pasty in The Waterman pub overlooking the harbour, estuary and St Mawes is a regular treat – we’d never been to Pendennis Castle, but we remedied it last summer. Our trip coincided with the August Bank Holiday and it was an exceptional event; just £20 bought our family entry to two jousts, a juggler, a performance of medieval music and the finest falconry display I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a few. Oh, and the small matter of having the run of Pendennis Castle itself, of course, with its many rooms and ramparts and staircases, all great fun for an inquisitive six- and two-year old and their aging dad lagging behind. Extraordinary value for money, so much so that we’ve decided to join English Heritage as a result (which, along with our existing membership of the National Trust means that there aren’t many old wrecks left in the country that we haven’t got covered, and I think we more or less own Stonehenge and its immediate vicinity outright).

Right, that’s that. I don’t think I’ll bother with this crap next year. But then I say that every year.

Tasting Notes

I drink too much. Far too much, you could say, and you’d be right. Some, though not me, try to counter this problem by making a New Year’s Resolution to stop drinking, or to at least cut down. But that’s difficult, when you’re dying for a pint after work, or fancy a cool beer on a hot day. So what do you do? Perrier? Kaliber? Oh fuck it, you say, let’s just have a beer. Just the one. And then…

One of my big problems is that I really love the taste of beer, which is why the aforementioned Kaliber is out of the question. As a kid I was always baffled when my mates moaned about the taste of beer, saying it was disgusting but, if you wanted to get drunk in those pre-alcopop days, you just had to get it down you. Were that mad? Beer’s lovely, I thought. From sipping my dad’s home-brew stout while watching the Five Nations Rugby Union, to passing around a sneaky Roughneck flask filled with the contents of one of those diddy cans of Heineken one school lunch time (which, amazingly now, I remember as tasting impossibly bitter), I’ve been hooked on beer; but more on the taste than on the variable effect. So, finding a drinkable low- or non-alcohol version of the fine beverage was always going to be tricky.

But not impossible, as I found out during the course of last year, and one of my many concerted efforts to cut down on the booze. So if you’re struggling with your New Year’s abstinence and certain that trying a Kaliber will almost certainly turn you to drink, here are my top choices for low-alcohol drinking; drawn, in fairness, from a not very wide sample.

  • Bohemia: 0.0% abv. This is the one that started it all off, a chance purchase that I was delighted to discover was not only not disgusting but was in fact actually quite pleasant. The first thing I noticed was that it doesn’t smell nasty, with that vulcanised rubber scent I had found with other alcohol-free brews. Instead it has a lighter, almost floral smell, and the taste itself I can best describe as exhibiting a subtle “lager flavour”, with a slightly bitter malt finish. Unlike most alcohol-free beers that pride themselves on being made in the normal manner but with the alcohol (and flavour!) removed at the last minute, Bohemia is brewed so that no alcohol is produced in the first place. The result, I guess, is more a beer-flavoured soft drink, which rather than trying and failing to taste like a real beer instead gives you something that is reminiscent of beer, rather in the way that cherryade is reminiscent of cherries without quite tasting like a cherry. But that’s fine by me as it’s still nicer than some regular lagers; Robinson’s Einhorn, I’m looking at you. Bohemia is especially good on a sweltering day when you could murder a cold one, or with a spicy curry or a chilli where it successfully fools me into thinking I’m having a real beer (until I finish the curry, that is, when the illusion is shattered and I tend to bail out). Bohemia is widely available in most supermarkets – Morrisons, Sainsbury and Tesco certainly stock it – and you can buy it in 33cl bottles and cans.
  • Erdinger Weissbrau Alkoholfrei: 0.5% abv. Bohemia is great if you fancy a swift half, but what should you do if you’d like a longer drink, perhaps a few beers while watching Top Gear on Dave Ja Vu? Well, I’d rather go to the pub myself, but if for some unfathomable reason you actually like watching Top Gear on Dave Ja Vu and want to accompany it with a few alcohol-free beers, what then? Well the clue is that I’ve started this paragraph with the words “Erdinger Weissbrau Alkoholfrei”, as that is the beer I would suggest. It comes in a decent-sized 50cl bottle, and for the benefit of non-German speakers is an alcohol-free wheat beer. First impressions aren’t encouraging; opening the bottles reveals that familiar Kaliber-like smell, and when poured into a glass it froths up unnaturally in a manner unlike any normal beer. An inauspicious start, then; but once it has settled down it looks much better, being reassuringly cloudy, and the taste, I reckon, could easily be mistaken for that of a real beer, a nice premium larger. You get a hit of sharpness at first, initial grapefruity-citrus notes, which then gradually give way to a smooth, mellow, and genuine wheat-beery finish. Very pleasant to drink at anytime, and it is certainly one I can enjoy a few bottles of in its own right, rather than something I’d take as a grudging alternative to the real thing (unless I want to get shit-faced, of course). Just when you think it can’t get any better you find that it’s even brewed in accordance with the Bavarian Purity Law of 1516, contains a mere 125 calories a bottle, is isotonic, apparently, and is rich in unspecified vitamins. What more do you want (except alcohol)? Erdinger is available from Tesco and The Alcohol Free Shop, and this entry would have a red “Best Buy” star on it, if I could be bothered.
  • Bernard Free Amber Beer: 0.5 abv. But what if I don’t like lager, you ask? Well, then I’d say that you need to pay better attention because I’ve already told you; then I’ll take a deep breath and again refer you to the words in bold at the start of this paragraph, because Bernard Free may be just what you need. It smells and looks like the real deal straight off, like a genuine dark Czech beer, which is pretty much what it tastes like; it has a delicious mildly-bitter nutty taste, a slight hint of burnt treacle, and just a lurking of liquorice. Very nice indeed. So nice that just as you’re thinking you’ve found the perfect alcohol-free winter ale the taste suddenly fades away to a watery nothingness and you realise it doesn’t have much depth to it; the answer is to take another swig, I guess. This wateriness may be the reason why I found that a bottle at the back of my fridge had actually frozen solid, so I tend to leave it in a cool corner of my kitchen instead. Still, the flavour is very nice while it lasts, and is an interesting alternative to the above lagers. You can buy it in 50cl bottles from Tesco; it actually won an award in the 2009 Tesco drink awards so I suspect it may be exclusive to them, but you may find it elsewhere. I haven’t, though.

So, they’re my three favourites so far, but it is just my opinion, and you may well disagree. I know people who like Beck’s Blue, for instance, and while it does taste impressively authentic it is just a bit unremittingly hoppy for my tastes. Others rate Cobra 0.0%, but I personally file it alongside Bitburger in the Kaliber bin with all those other unreconstructed alcohol-free beers. I’ve also had a couple of bottles of Holsten in the pub when the designated driver, and they seemed okay; but in truth I’ve had too few to give an opinion.

My main reasoning in writing this post was to a) fill up some space on this almost-forgotten blog, and b) tell people who’ve never looked at alcohol-free beer for years – not since they feel Lawrie McMenemy betrayed them over Barbican – that this stuff may deserve a second look. And there is much more to explore than those mentioned here as The Alcohol Free Shop website makes clear, with many more varieties of beers and a huge selection of wines also. And I for one feel far more virtuous tipping a load of Bohemia empties in the recycling; even if, to the casual observer, it still probably makes me look like a piss-head.

So, what will you be drinking tonight? Fancy a wheat-beer? Interesting. But will it be a brain-rotting, sclerosis-inducing Hoegaarden, or an alcohol-free, low-calorie, not to mention vitamin-rich Erdinger? Well, speak for yourself, but as I’ve a tense football match to get through I’m going to hunker down with a crate of full-fat Stella. Don’t look at me like that. I’ll be good tomorrow.

The Obscurer Awards 2009

After last year’s Obscurer Awards I received a polite email from an inquisitive PR researcher enquiring into the nature of the awards and asking if I would like them to be included in their listings publication. For this to happen they would need a little more information: When are the awards announced? For how long have they been going? How much media attention do they get? Could I provide the names, numbers and email addresses of an events organiser, a pr contact and for somebody who deals with sponsorship queries? Are any sponsors involved and if not, is this something I would be interested in?

I didn’t have the heart to respond, but to pre-empt any similar enquiries this year the answers are: sometime after New Year, when I can be arsed to get around to it; this is the fifth year I have managed to be bothered with this self-imposed chore; I get upwards of 3 page views a day, and although FeedBurner suggest I have around 30 reader I’m sure they pluck that figure from mid-air; my hard-working, conscientious and megalomaniacal character means I alone am the events organiser, pr contact, sponsorship director and brew maker; and since ditching Google AdSense a while back I currently receive no sponsorship, although I am receptive to any offers involving Chunky KitKats.

And so to business.

  • Single – “You don’t really care for music do you?” squawked Alexandra Burke as her massacred version of the classic “Hallelujah” was trebucheted into the Christmas Number 1 slot. She was referring to herself in the second person as she did so, no doubt, and in trying to inject as much emotion as she could into the song she inadvertently bled it dry, leaving a truly beautiful and powerful song an ugly cadaver on the slab. She’s not alone. It’s a commonly held view that the music charts are more about business than music these days, but I can’t agree, mainly because I barely notice what goes on in the charts anymore. There was a time when I avidly sought out and snapped up new tunes, when I felt passionate about music, where I would regularly be seen leaving HMV with an armful of vinyl. Nowadays music must sneak up and catch me unawares. I’ll take a liking to a song used to advertise the forthcoming BBC drama season, say, or that features in the background of a scene on TV, or which I overhear in a pub, and via a Google search and a trip on YouTube I discover that I like Arcade Fire, The Fratellis or The Magic Numbers. It shouldn’t be this way, but it is. And last year not much sneaking up on me was done. I’m perhaps overlooking a load of great music, but the only thing that really took my fancy was The Last Shadow Puppets’ “The Age Of The Understatement, a cracking song that was almost a manifesto for their album of the same name, leaving you in no doubt that you were going to get a recording choc-full of ’60s style film-theme type songs with swooping strings and stuff. The song has been criticised as being a rip-off of Muse’s “Knights of Cydonia”, but I personally think it’s better (and all the better for not being called “Knights of Cydonia”) and while the album itself is a bit formulaic, if a formula works who cares? In fact, around five tracks into the album I do kind of go “alright, I’ve got the idea now” and I lose interest, but there are no such concerns when listening to a single, and The Last Shadow Puppets is a worthy side project while we await the next Arctic Monkeys release.
  • Album – I was confused when Radcliffe and Maconie started pushing the Elbow song “Grounds For Divorce” on their Radio 2 show. Sure, it was a fine enough song, but wasn’t it bound to be a one off? I’d heard Elbow before and dismissed them as playing a sort of sub-Coldplay mush. But I was wrong (I was confusing them with Athlete, I think). The follow-up single “One Day Like This” was just fantastic, a glorious, swooning epic of a song, and at my wife’s bidding we bought the album The Seldom Seen Kid while on holiday in Caernarfon. It was a particularly fine time to obtain such an atmospheric album, and I think I will always associate the opening notes of “Starlings” with our first listening to the album in the car on the coast road back to Llandudno, driving in the lashing rain, past the crashing waves and through those tunnels hacked out of the rock. As such “The Seldom Seen Kid” joins a select group of what are to me instantly evocative recordings, such as the first Stone Roses LP, where the opening of “I Wanna Be Adored” always transports me back to that snowy day when I bought the vinyl in Leeds. Back to “The Seldom Seen Kid”, though, where there are a positive welter of standout tracks with an uncanny ability to move; “The Loneliness Of A Tower Crane Driver” effortlessly evokes a feeling of floating on high within its first few opening chords, while on “Bones Of You” the marriage of characteristically poetic lyrics, crashing syncopation and sudden mood swings has the power to takes you away from wherever you are to wherever you want to be. I know I’m far from alone in recommending this record – it’s won the Mercury Award for one thing – but it was a pleasant surprise to find an album of such depth so late in the day, and when I wasn’t really looking.

    Another thing. Elsewhere, I believe Oasis released an album? I did hear the first single from it and I thought it sounded so workaday at to beggar belief. It’s not that it was bad, just very average; but so average that I began to call into question my avid youthful devotion to the band. Were their earlier songs really any better, or just different, less familiar sounding? I can’t be sure. Perhaps they were always pretty average, it’s just that they purveyed the right brand of averageness that caught my interest and the mood of the times. Whatever; they can’t take away my many happy memories of those early days, even if in the end they appear like that proverbial oasis, the kind that ultimately turns out to be a mirage.
  • Book – Among the books I read last year I think only one was actually published in 2008, that being William Sutcliffe’s “Whatever Makes You Happy”, and it is a solid work, a return to the more comic style with which he made his name after the deadly serious (and excellent) “Bad Attitude”, and as with all of his novels it is well worth a look. I also began reading and enjoying Jasper Fforde’s “Thursday Next” books, wonderfully silly and inventive crime novels set in the 1980’s, but an alternative 1980’s where the Crimean War is still being fought, Wales is an independent republic and the hero is a detective who investigates the kidnapping of characters from classic works of fiction. Fforde’s first book was a great fun read once I’d finally got around to finishing Hayek’s “The Road To Serfdom”. Hayek’s book somewhat surprised me, actually; it is often quoted as a sort of Libertarian handbook that shows how any minor move towards socialism can only be the thin end of a slippery wedge towards totalitarianism. In fact the book provides loads of examples of what Hayek considers justifiable state intervention but which many a Libertarians could consider state intrusion, and much of what he says is in fact little more than statements of the bleeding obvious, albeit statements that probably weren’t bleeding obvious and which needed saying back in the 1940s. As someone who considers himself to be broadly “of the left”, but who never understood why controlling the commanding heights of the economy was considered a good idea, there is much to agree with here; where Hayek fails in my mind is in too lazily conflating mild socialism or social democracy with collectivisation, and in predicting that restricting economic freedoms through, for example, nationalisation, would lead to dictatorship, which we all now know didn’t happen. A good book, but one I feel is very much of its time. My favourite book, however, was Paul Auster’s “The Invention Of Solitude, in particular the first part of that work entitled “Portrait Of An Invisible Man”. In it Auster ruminates on his father, as he engages with the task of sorting out his father’s affairs following his death. While some books are great to dive into and race through, here you want to read it slowly, to take everything in, to savour every word. The turn of phrase, the way Auster pulls out just the right word, it’s like reading a masterclass in creative writing. Sometimes, when reading a book, I may feel that, with a good headwind, I could write something nearly as well. With Auster you know you can never even come close, such is his genius. In one interview reprinted in “The Red Notebook” Auster talks of how “whenever I complete a book, I’m filled with a feeling of immense disgust and disappointment. It’s almost a physical collapse. I’m so disappointed by my feeble efforts that I can’t believe I’ve actually spent so much time and accomplished so little. It takes years before I’m able to accept what I’ve done – to realize that this was the best I could do. But I never like to look at the things I’ve written. The past is the past, and there’s nothing I can do about it any more.” If this is true, and the books on the page are a shadow of the books in his head, then I shudder to think how good those imagined books really are.
  • Film – Once more, this category is a complete waste of time. Last year, however, I did at least watch one film at the cinema, and so, by default, the best film of the year is Easy Virtue. It was alright; an adaptation of a Noel Coward play set in a stately home in the ’30s, wouldyoubelieveit. Decent acting, a decent script, it nicely filled the gap between a trip to The Black Bull in Coniston and our tea at The Angel in Bowness during a brief weekend in the Lakes without the kids. It’s a BBC Film, so will probably be on telly in a few months, so watch it if you like.
  • Sport – The Olympics, and the strangely competent performance of the UK team, probably dominated this year of sport. From a personal point of view, City becoming the richest football club in the world – or at least, the football club with the richest owners – sticks in the mind, as does the reaction from some to the effect that “how dare City think that they can just gatecrash the Premier League’s top table by spending loads of money just like the teams currently at the top have done I mean don’t they know their place”, and the widespread schadenfreude that we have so far failed to set the world alight (I can sympathise with many of the concerns expressed about too much money ruining the game; just not when they are made by United and Chelsea fans.) But the sporting moment that really made me sit bolt upright was at the tail-end of 2008 watching “The Big Fat Quiz Of The Year” on Channel 4 which featured an interview with Steve Mclaren on Dutch TV. In case you missed it it’s all there, with the Dutch interviewer speaking perfect English to a Steve McLaren who inexplicably starts talking in a cod-Dutch accent. Okay, you may say, he’s been in Holland for a little while and perhaps he’s picked that up a bit of the accent, and perhaps when it looks like he’s grasping for the English equivalent to a Dutch word he’s really speaking slowly to assist the Dutch interviewer. But why speak in pidgin English as in “Liverpool or Arsenal…I thought maybe one of them we would draw”. Why say “we are, what you call, underdogs?” as if he is a Dutchman using an unfamiliar British phrase in the presence of a Briton. It’s a very odd performance; the Steve McLaren roadshow rumbles inexplicably on.
  • TV – “Outnumbered” made me laugh, “Little Dorrit” kept me gripped following a slow start, “Simon Schama’s American Future” educated me and “Doctor Who” remained essential viewing, even if the ratio of brilliant to below-par episodes seems to be increasing. But in common with others it was Frank Cottrell Boyce’sGod On Trial that stands out for me. I missed it at first showing, as an annoying three-way clash on the telly confounded even my Humax PVR, but for once I was grateful for my daughter’s wayward sleeping habits as I was downstairs comforting her when the repeat came on the Sign Zone. As it was, then, I watched the whole thing over the shoulder of the person doing the sign language, but it didn’t seem to blunt its power. It is very much an old school television play, of the sort we used to get weekly on Play For Today but which are now few and far between. Largely set in a single room in Auschwitz, the play is based on a true story of a group of Jewish prisoners who decided to judge whether or not God was guilty of having broken his covenant with the Jewish people. The talent-packed cast features many stirring performances as the two sides of the argument are probed and pulled apart, but throughout it all there is a sense of anticipation as Antony Sher’s character sits silently taking it all in, until he finally speaks, so bringing his devastating analysis to the situation. Overall it iss an all too rare example of what television can do.

    Two other things. In 2008 television lost two very different characters in Jeremy Beadle and Geoffrey Perkins. Among his huge contribution to television comedy, I will mainly remember Perkins as the co-writer of “Norbert Smith – A Life”, the fake documentary starring Harry Enfield as the eponymous actor reminiscing with Melvin Bragg over his long and varied career. I’ve mentioned before that I feel it was Enfield’s finest hour, and shockingly that post is one of only a handful of sites listed when you Google “Keep Your Hair On Daddio”, the others being Wikipedia and IMDB. “Norbert Smith” is also unavailable to buy on DVD, and even a VHS copy will set you back £25 on Amazon (although I still have my copy taped off Channel 4). This is frankly a disgraceful situation, and one that should be sorted out immediately in Geoffrey Perkins’s memory.

    Jeremy Beadle had a lesser effect on my TV viewing, but I applaud him for a particular edition of “Chain Letters” he hosted back in, oh, 1987 or something, that I watched with my Mum one afternoon. In one round, one of the three contestants was given a four letter word – say “cone” – and asked to change one letter to make another word. The contestant had to say which letter of “cone” he wanted to change and the other two had to guess what the new word would be. The premise was simple enough; change the letter that gives you the most options to make different words; the more words you can make, the more words your opponents have to choose from, the less likely they will be able to guess the word you have chosen. In “cone”, then, it would make sense to change the “c”, since that means you have the option to choose “bone”, “done”, “gone”, “hone” and so on, a huge set of words to pick from, and the odds on your opponents guessing the same word are somewhat slim. What you definitely don’t want to do is to change a vowel, as usually that means you will only be able to change it to another vowel, so giving you a maximum of four other words to pick from, and so increasing your opponents’ chances of guessing to a healthy 25%. Anyway, in this particular episode, and against all common sense, the contestant proudly announced that he wanted to change the “o”. My Mum’s jaw dropped, I just stared in disbelief. Eh!? What?! Unless “cene” and “cune” are words (and my spellchecker is telling me they aren’t) then the contestant could only chose to change the “o” to “a” for “cane” or to “i” for “cine”; two options only, giving his opponents a 50% chance of guessing correctly. But it was Beadle’s reaction that was a peach. “I don’t believe it!” he spat contemptuously, all professional bonhomie forgotten. In the event, one of the other contestants went for “cane”, one went for “cine”, and Beadle composed himself to commiserate with the ill-fated fool and politely explained to him where he had gone wrong. But Beadle’s initial reaction was a refreshing one, a rude reaction for sure but one that spoke of a very human fallibility, the sort of thing even then you felt would have been edited out and which definitely would nowadays, to preserve that unreality that it seems is so essential on TV. For allowing us that uncharacteristic glance behind the curtain – and for that alone – I thank and think kindly of Beadle.
  • Radio – This year’s award goes to Radio 4, all of it. Well, most of it. I had been a regular listener to Radio 5 Live – it was certainly my default station – but after two consecutive days of listening to the moronic imbecilic ravings of utter ignoramuses being given both airtime and credence by Victoria Derbyshire on her mid-morning phone-in show I questioned what the hell I was doing and decided to make a list of all the things that were still worth listening to on the station. When I’d finished the list read “Simon Mayo…” and that was it. Why, then, was I still listening to 5 Live? As it happened I was already aware of some of the fine programmes to be found over on Radio 4, having swapped “Drive” for “PM” and “Breakfast” for “Today” some time ago, but I was somewhat scared about making that final decisive switch, to cross that particular Rubicon; because what happens if you switch on Radio 4 and it is in the middle of some boring play, or broadcasting a tedious documentary about Parmesan cheese? But since taking the plunge and dropping the increment from 5 to 4 I haven’t looked back and my fears have proven unfounded; many of those plays are excellent, for example, and the half hours devoted to Parmesan cheese, sea salt or cider on “The Food Programme” are a pure joy. In fact, since making the leap I’ve discovered that the very eclectic sense of the unknown, the fact that you often don’t know quite what is coming next, is part of the appeal of the station. Sure, there are some pretty hit-and-miss comedies, but even then the World Service is only a click away on a digital radio, and put together these two radio stations seem to be making a lone rearguard action in the face of an increasingly pathetic and tabloidesque media (Channel 4 News’s utter capitulation here by increasingly engaging in brainless, headline-hogging fuckwittery has meant I have also stopped watching it in the last year).

    The BBC in general and BBC radio in particular was under the cosh last year of course, yet rather than complain about Nicky Campbell’s 5 Live Breakfast debacle being extended by an hour people seemed instead to get worked up by the Ross / Brand affair, wherein an extended joke went badly wrong, but where ultimately the only legitimately offended party sought an apology that was duly issued and accepted. For me the continued idiocy of the media’s collective outrage over the affair shows just how valuable the BBC still is, despite its many fault. However, a mischievous part of me has decided that I would like to join those who want to see the corporation abolished; to give me time to read more books, to shut the whining yaps of the Mail et al on at least one subject, and so I can have a laugh as the existing commercial media outlets suddenly have to compete for that dwindling pool of advertising revenue with a newly privatised BBC. Then let’s see how good an idea scrapping the licence fee seems to them.
  • Blog – One happy by-product of the Ross / Brand affair was that in suspending Jonathan Ross from his Saturday morning Radio 2 show I began to listen to Adam and Joe on 6 Music instead. What has that got to do with blogs? Well, not much really, other than to say that last year I finally “got” blogs audio equivalent, podcasts. I could never really see the point of them before, but when Andrew Collins and Richard Herring started putting one out early last year, as a fan of the pair I decided to give it a go. Loyally I would still say that the weekly Collings and Herrin podcast is my favourite, being exactly 1 hour, 6 minute and 36 second of humorous and explicit musings on the newspapers, homeopathy, the Mitford sisters and Richard’s curious sexual proclivities; but since losing my podcasting cherry I have also enjoyed Stephen Fry’s more irregularly published podgrams, where he talks on all manner of subjects usually by way of mentioning Oscar Wilde, and the aforementioned Adam and Joe’s weekly effort which is the edited highlights of their 6 Music show minus the music, and which always has me in absolute stitches. The Mark Kermode film podcast is also great if I get waylaid and miss his Friday appearance on the Simon Mayo show, and my son has taken to the CBeebies Best Bits effort with gusto. The result is that I now see a point to the iTunes store (subscribing to podcasts there seems to be the easiest way to stay up to date and ensure you never miss an episode) and I have single-handedly given a boost to the consumer electronics industry by buying an iPod shuffle for the car (rather than continually having to borrow my wife’s) and a Pure Evoke Flow internet radio for the home, to simply listen to both podcasts and those many fine Listen Again programmes from Radio 4.
  • Castle – And finally a new category this year, since my son is of an age when he often wants to visit castles; or rather visiting castles is one of the things we have decided to do with him since he enjoyed Edinburgh Castle so much the year before last. This year we’ve visited Conwy and Caernarfon, wandered outside Durham (which was closed for university graduations) and driven past Pembroke. I’m sure there have been others, but I can’t think of them just now. The view of Conwy Castle as you approach it is particularly spectacular and memorable, but overall I think Caernarfon takes the prize; its great hexagonal towers hugely impressive from the outside, and while inside it is at first strikingly similar to Conwy there is far more exploring to do, with great fun to be had climbing up towers, along walls and across bridges. Shame we never saw Barnaby Bear, though. Caernarfon itself is a crackingly picturesque walled town and we’ll definitely be back, though hopefully in better weather than the constant drizzle we endured last year.

The Obscurer Awards 2008

Firstly, my apologies if this site is intermittently running slow for you; I have looked into the problem and have narrowed it down to being something to do with computers. If you find it annoying then pity me, because all my WordPress admin stuff is running just as slowly. Hopefully it will resolve itself in time, but for now my only option seems to be to grin and bear it.

Secondly, welcome to the contractual obligation that is the Obscurer Awards. When I first did one of these, some three years ago, it seemed like a great idea. By last year is had become more like a chore, but something inside me still makes me want to write this rubbish, even if no-one wants to read it, so I will just try not to waffle on quite as much this time around, although I will probably fail in that endeavour. Any road up, here we go.

  • Single – Arctic Monkeys/Brianstorm. For me the year’s best single should be more than just a good song, but something you hear all over the place and that is not simply the latest track released from an already familiar album. This makes picking my favourite single tricky as I hardly ever listen to chart music. My largest dose of the stuff comes around May when I tend to go on holiday someplace that has a pitiful medium-wave reception and I end up listening to more Radio 1 than I would choose. Fortunately last year my holiday in Cornwall more-or-less coincided with the release of the Arctic Monkey single that preceded their 2nd album Favourite Worst Nightmare, so there was much singing along in the car to Brianstorm as we pootled to Praa Sands and Mousehole. And a very fine thing it is too; not as good, perhaps, as their more recent single Teddy Picker, but a muscular number all the same that dispelled any understandable fears that the Monkeys would be a flash in the pan. Meanwhile, Brianstorm’s evil twin was Jamie T’s Sheila, which I heard far too many times on my holiday; a painful number sung in the sort of mockney drone you associate with an alumnus of Reed’s School. But hopefully I won’t have to endure that crap ever again.
  • Album – Radiohead/In Rainbows. This is a far easier category to award, as there were a number of good albums out last year. The aforementioned Arctic Monkeys LP showed a nice developing sound, while Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible, if lacking the other worldly brilliance of their debut Funeral, was still an excellent collection of songs; but I think Radiohead’s album pips them all. I have already covered In Rainbows in some depth here, so suffice it to say that a few months on I can now put names to all the tracks and I am still listening to it regularly. Christmas also brought the £40 discbox featuring a second CD with six further tracks, all of which could easily have made it onto the album proper. They really have spoiled us this time.
  • Book – Magnus Mills/Explorers Of The New Century. When I finally, finally finished the Mao biography, I began a new regime of trying to read at least a chapter of a book a day in order to make inroads into my reading backlog, and it has been a great success. Of everything I have read Magnus Mills’ latest novel stands out. Written in his usual spare style, and in a tone reminiscent of his novel Three To See The King, it was great to be back in Mills’ strange and unsettling world as we discover the story of two groups of adventurers setting off with their packs and mules to see who can first reach the Agreed Furthest Point. Wonderfully bizarre as usual, it comes as a shock around three-quarters of the way in as the truth about the mules hits you like a thunderbolt, and the whole piece becomes that bit darker. Stiff competition, but I think this slim tome is Mills’ best novel yet.
  • Film – Pan’s Labyrinth. Every year I apologise for not having seen any of the previous year’s films, and this year is no exception. So I’m going to cheat by picking a film that was actually released right at the end of December 2006, which is as near as dammit last year, give or take, so I’m having it. Anyway. The story of a young girl who escapes into a fantasy land to get away from the cruel reality of her life with her stepfather, an army captain whose job it is to crush the resistance in the early years of Franco’s Spain, Pan’s Labyrinth manages to be both magical and brutal, a stunning tale that is visually magnificent, and which stays in the memory for days after you have seen it.
  • Sport – Manchester United vs Chelsea: FA Cup Final. Commonly regarded as the worst FA Cup Final for some years, the reason I have picked it as my sporting highlight is because of what it represents. In the lead up to the match all the talk in the media was about how epic the match would be, with the nation’s two top sides battling it out at the new Wembley. I personally wasn’t that bothered; what with United and Chelsea having so dominated the league all season I had no enthusiasm for the game. Little did I realise I was not alone. I was in Sennen on the day, and decided to pop to catch the last 10 minutes of the game at the Old Success pub; coincidently, I had watched some of the previous year’s final at the same pub. On that occasion the place was choc-a-bloc with people watching Liverpool defeat West Ham; this time the place was deserted, apart from a couple of blokes and the barman. Not exactly scientific I know, but for me it seems a striking example of how football’s trend towards monopoly means that the sport seems to be losing its way and its grip on the imagination, even while the media, clubs and FA continually talk it up.
  • TV – Frontline: Afghanistan. Much as I may moan that the telly is shit, I still end up with loads of stuff on my PVR that I have to wade through, and at this time of year as I try to pick a favourite I realise just how much good stuff there is amongst the dross. I should say a special thank you to In The Night Garden and Pokoyo, the Calpol and Calprofen of children’s television, for their hypnotic effect on my daughter, who can go from screaming teether to compliant angel in a blink of an eye the moment they come on. Elsewhere I enjoyed Channel 4’s anniversary, re-showing A Very British Coup and Dennis Potter’s interview with Melvyn Bragg; Flight Of the Conchords deserves praise for being the best new comedy show in ages; Screenwipe and TV Burp still beautifully mock the medium that feeds them; and Doctor Who continued its erratic but generally fine form – I thought the Christmas special was crap, but one episode in particular, Blink, was the best bit of drama all year (and which, if you read this in time, you can watch tonight at 7pm on BBC3; failing that, you can borrow my son’s DVD.) But for me the stand out piece of work was Vaughan Smith’s film for Newsnight as he was embedded with 12 Brigade of the Grenadier Guards in Afghanistan as they went on an operation with the new Afghan army in Helmand province. Newsnight’s films can be quite hit and miss, coming as they do from a variety of sources, and I had no expectations when I started watching the film, but I was soon gripped as I witnessed what the troops out there have to deal with. It was humbling stuff; and you can watch the whole 16-minute film here.
  • Radio – Radcliffe And Maconie. Mark Kermode’s demolition of Pirates Of The Carribean 3 on Simon Mayo’s show is one highlight of last year, but the combination of Mark Radcliffe and Stuart Maconie on Radio 2 has given me a great listening alternative between 8 and 10 of a weeknight. I don’t know how they came together, and in fact they often aren’t together as one of them may be on holiday or covering another show, but either way they are always good value. A highlight for me would have to be the serendipitous moment when I turned on the radio just as they started playing Madder Rose’s Beautiful John, a song I hadn’t heard for years but still love, made all the more special for Mark’s admission that he only played it because he stumbled upon the LP while clearing out his records. It jogged his memory, and in turn mine, as it took me back to when I first heard the song, at a time when I would alternate between Craig Cash on KFM and Mark Radcliffe’s old evening show on Radio 1. So that’s rather neat, isn’t it?
  • Blog – Chase Me, Ladies, I’m In The Cavalry. Late to the party as ever, Chase Me Ladies was just one of the many blogs that I had heard about but never read, until I came across it one day and realised what I had been missing. Harry Hutton has a wonderfully wry sense of humour and each brief and pithy post is a joy; what’s bloody typical is that since I have become a reader he posts less and less frequently, but when he does it is well worth the wait.

I Want A Rainbow Nation

I didn’t pre-order my download of Radiohead’s new album In Rainbows because I didn’t want the frustration of receiving my username and passcode weeks before just to be frustrated on the day when the website inevitably crashed under the weight of so many hits and downloads. So as it was I just popped along yesterday morning on the off chance, swiped my credit card through the honesty box, and a few moments later I was listening to my favourite band’s seventh studio album. And a good job I did it that way too; when I checked the website later in the afternoon it was running as slow as a pig. By nighttime it was down completely.

And? Well on first listening In Rainbows is just fantastic. It kicks off with the sort of scattergun staccato drumbeat intro that tells us we’re in welcome and familiar territory, before settling down into an opening track that at times sounds like Doves, at other times seems reminiscent of late Talk Talk (which can be no bad thing) and that soon had me jigging around my kitchen (not what one expects from Radiohead. Or from me for that matter.) From there on in it seems quite the most instantly likeable Radiohead album since OK Computer, which may or may not be a good thing; with Kid A it took me a while to work out what the hell was going on, but it is now probably my favourite Radiohead album, while Hail To The Thief was more immediately accessible, but repeated listening revealed that after a great start it sags at about the quarter-way point, before picking up majestically towards the end. Overall, though, and interestingly considering the unconventional way it has been released, In Rainbows sounds more like one complete, flowing album rather than just a collection of individual songs bunged together as Amnesiac and (to a lesser extent) Hail To The Thief seemed to me. Often sounding pared down and minimalistic, and with more use of acoustic instruments than I rememeber previously, In Rainbows is not a radical shift or quantum leap as Kid A or OK Computer were, but it is rather a wonderful continuation of the unique brand of music Radiohead have been exploring down the years. Best of all, there appears no equivalent of “Treefingers” or “Fitter Happier” present to make you leap instantly for the skip button.

As is often the case with a brand new album it can be difficult to pick out your favourite songs at first, it can take time to isolate the individual standouts track from the album as a whole, not least of all because being without a CD cover to peer at and pore over while listening makes is harder to associate each song with its title at first; squinting at the LCD display on my MP3 player without the backlight doesn’t really do it. But perhaps it’s just me; I still find it takes me longer to become familiar with CDs today when compared with the old vinyl LPs of my youth, where you could play side one to death before gradually discovering and falling in love with the second side. Ah, the ceremony of easing the precious record out of the paper inner sleeve you have been studying on the bus all the way back from Woolworths, holding the delicate black vinyl horizontally between your fingertips, carefully reaching forward while blindly trying to locate the pin in the centre of the turntable and placing the album flat down, then gently resting the stylus on the spinning disc, the buzz and crackle as the needle seeks the groove, then the anticipation, the waiting for the new sounds the pristine recording will reveal. I miss it all, I really do.

Much has been made of the unusual way this album has been made available, for people to pay as much or as little as they like for it, and I think it could make an interesting study for a psychologist or perhaps a sociologist (I don’t really know the difference) to question what motivated each individual to pay what they did; as you have to provide your contact details prior to downloading I’m sure it could be arranged quite easily. Take Justin’s embarrassment in saying that after listening to it he is “now quite ashamed at the piffling amount I paid for it” while Swiss Toni excuses paying nowt because he felt he was owed after shelling out £30 for a crap Radiohead gig a few years ago; “debt paid, I would say” he concludes. I imagine an erring on the side of caution instinct predominates; better to pay too little and feel guilty than too much and feel like a fool (and where because you have chosen the price yourself you can’t even displace your grievance by complaining that you’ve been ripped off.) For myself, I paid a rather insulting £1, that with the 45p admin charge means it cost me about as much as my first 7” singles when I was a kid. My motivation was simply that, as I still like to own the tangible product, I reckoned I would eventually want to buy In Rainbows when it comes out on CD, and I’m damned if I’m going to pay full price twice for something I could get for free; at the same time I wasn’t sure I would like the album enough to stretch to the £40 being charged for the special discbox set. £1.45 seemed a fair down payment to sample what was on offer.

And so what was the upshot? Well after listening to the album several times I liked it so much that I went back onto the website (hence how I know it started running slow and finally crashed later in the day) and eventually, this morning, I went and ordered the £40 box set anyway. So I’ll get my 2 sides of vinyl after all (well, 4 sides actually) and another collectors’ item to continue my run of Kid A (with the hidden pamphlet in the box) Amnesiac (which came in the form of a “damaged” library book; even more damaged now after my young son ripped off the front page a few years back) and Hail To The Thief (packaged to resemble a town plan map). This means that it will be the third consecutive Radiohead album I possess that won’t fit in my CD rack. Hoorah! Is it sad to still be a bit of a record collector at my age? I think so, but at least The Boo Radleys have split up, so that particular pressure to purchase everything they ever released in every possible format has eased.

If you haven’t already downloaded In Rainbows, then I do recommend it. Sure, as a fan I’m biased, but this time what have you got to lose? Even if you don’t trust me, when was the last time you could guarantee value for money when buying a brand new album, or indeed anything? If in doubt just get it for free; go on, I’m sure they won’t mind.

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