Thursday, 20 December 2012

My Top Ten Fiction Books Of 2012

In reverse order, my favourite books of the year - not all published this year but all them enjoyed in 2012.

10. Lionel Asbo, by Martin Amis

Amis's gothic Only Fools and Horses makes the list out of loyalty. This is a heavy-handed satire on our Land of Hope and Chaviness, a country Amis clearly despises: the high-rise hell-holes, snarling dogs, racist relations, cheating friends, ugly cities, miserable weather, rich man's football and all-consuming smartphones.

Highlighted Kindle Quote: "The champagne arrived in its steel bucket... 'Got a bigger glass? You know, like a beer mug.' Lionel grimly monitored the waiter's movements. '...Yeah, that'll do. Fill her up, boy.'"

9. Capital, by John Lanchester

An Instagram photo of modern, miasmic London. Anyone who lives here will recognise the characters who gravitate around a single street in the newly fashionable east end: the bored banker about to get the boot, the wide-eyed African teenager signed by Chelsea, the Banksy street artist visiting his dying grandma, the Asian family running the corner shop, the exploited Zimbabwean traffic warden, the Polish builder dreaming of going home, the east European child minder who feels the pain of losing a fully-loaded Oyster card. A half-hearted plot about major and minor terrorism almost gels them all but the thing that really does that is the greatest city in the world.

HKQ: "Humans make their own history, but not under circumstances of their choosing."

8. Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

I finally got round to reading this after the sequel won a second Booker. Wish I'd read it earlier. Brilliantly brings to vibrant life King Henry's VIII's entourage from 500 years ago as seen by Thomas Cromwell, the poor boy outsider from Putney (every great novel needs an outsider) who becomes the formidable court insider . We all vaguely remember the cardinals, dukes, royal wives and mistresses from school history lessons; Mantel puts fictional flesh on the mouldy old bones and makes you ponder with fresh eyes - not just on them, but on ourselves and our own lives.

HKQ: "You don't get on by being original. You don't get on by being strong. You get on by being a subtle crook."

7. Telegraph Avenue, by Michael Gabon

Rich nostalgia in a dense, present-day narrative about two guys whose San Francisco record shop is at risk from a bigger rival moving into their neighbourhood: vinyl records, blaxploitation movies, jazz music, Tarantino films, kung fu, a blimp, Six Million Dollar Man action figures, classic American cars and eight-track cartridges. Filled with the imaginary voices of Samuel L Jackson, Marsellus Wallace and Hong Kong Phooey. A blokeish novel about the forever-shifting relationships of fathers, sons, wives, brothers and friends.

HKQ:  "Fathering imposed an obligation that was more than your money, your body, or your time, a presence neither physical nor measurable by clocks: open-ended, eternal, and invisible, like the commitment of gravity to the stars."

6. A Possible Life, by Sebastian Faulks

A montage of unconnected lives beautifully written in a downbeat style that underplays the cataclysmic ephiphanies that assault all the varied characters; a war-damaged English school teacher, a child of a Victorian workhouse, an adopted Italian child devastated by a discovery, a love-shattered musician, a God-fearing French household servant. It's true that most of them end up thwarted, defeated and beaten by the life events that engulf them. But amidst the gloom, betrayals and loneliness beats the heart of all our possible lives.

HKQ: "I don't think you ever understand your life - not till it's finished and probably not then either. The more I live the less I seem to understand."

5. Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

My favourite kind of novel: time-shifting, full of different styles and points of views, all of them challenging our views of the world. Not just one book but six mini-masterpieces in one linked together through centuries by birthmarks, diaries and the burning human desire for justice and freedom. My longer babble about it is here. Looking forward to seeing the Tom Hanks film.

HKQ: "I woke up in the darkness with a mouth like Superglue. The Mighty Gibbon's assessment of history - little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind - ticker-taped by for no apparent reason."

4. Life Of Pi, by Yann Martel

The striking posters for Ang Lee's film version reminded me that this was another modern classic I'd never got round to reading. It's magnificent. A beguiling fantasy about religions, allegories and an Indian boy on a lifeboat with a tiger, a zebra, a hyena, an orangutang and rat. It opens with that famous fictional author's note saying this is "a story that will make you believe in God".

Give it a try, Dawkins.

HKQ: "I have nothing to say of my working life, only that a tie is a noose, and inverted though it is, it will hang a man nonetheless if he's not careful."

3. The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach

A serious-minded, warm-hearted read centred around US college baseball written in a style like Jonathan Franzen's with hints of John Irving and a homage to Herman Melville. More Friday Night Lights than Moneyball. Longer ramblings on it here.

HKQ: "You told me once that a soul isn't something a person is born with but something that must be built, by effort and error, study and love. And you did that with more dedication than most."

2. A Visit From The Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan

I recommended this Great American Novel to a lot of people this year. It's a book that polarises opinion. Some thought it was a collection of short stories that didn't work as a novel; others just couldn't make any sense of it as it jumps around through time. I thought it was fabulous. The dazzling, interwoven range of forms and authentic voices gravitate around a teenage band called The Flaming Dildos. If Goon Squad was a song it would be the sublime Do You Realize? by The Flaming Lips. My longer review is here.

HKQ: "One key ingredient of so-called experience is the delusional faith that it is unique and special, that those included in it are privileged and those excluded from it are missing out."

1. The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window And Disappeared, by Jonas Jonasson

The best book of this or any other year. A whimsical, uplifting and very funny Swedish yarn whose summary is in the title. Explosives expert Allan Karlsson, the most philosophical centenarian in fiction, walks out of his old people's home and almost immediately finds himself on the run from a drugs gang. But it's the unfolding tale of his one hundred years that delights: his accidental, history-changing encounters with Stalin, Mao Tse-Tung, President Truman and General Franco. A full life lived with two simple, admirable aims: do the right thing and enjoy a decent drink.

HKQ and Allan's inspiring summary of life: "Things are what they are, and whatever will be will be."

Sunday, 25 November 2012

It's The End Of The Word As We Know It (And I Don't Feel Fine)

I miss Word magazine. It was just about the only place where I could find recommended new music that I actually liked, some of it included on the accompanying CD, read meaty pieces on interesting music makers - new and old, find out more about the best TV, the coolest films, the books worth reading and all the other cultural with a small-c Stuff happening that I didn't know about.

Sure, it featured too many bearded men on the covers and the small-font article at the back every month was usually unreadable, but it was unique in content, tone and loveability. It led me to The Go! Team, The Mountain Goats, Cashier No. 9 and a weekend in a teepee that smelled of horses at the Cornbury Festival listening to the witless Scouting For Girls. The men in charge, Mark Ellen and David Hepworth, were a link to the Smash Hits days of my early teens and the Whistle Test days of my later ones. I bumped into Mark at the BBC Folk Music Awards in London a couple of years ago and pestered him for a few minutes about how much I enjoyed his magazine. He was pleasant and polite, told me a racey anecdote about my former Sky colleague Adam Boulton and left me feeling better informed - just like the Word.

When I moaned about its abrupt demise to a trusted friend and cultural commentator he recommended a combination of Uncut, Classic Pop and Mojo. So I spent £4.80 on Uncut's new issue. It should be a good barometer because it includes its favourite 75 albums of the year.

The cover is promising: everyone likes Man Of The Year Springsteen and it comes with a free CD. But check out the editor Allan Jones's letter with his own Best Of The Year selection and the heart sinks: "Bob Dylan's Tempest, John Murry's The Graceless Age, Japandroids' Celebration Rock, Neil Young's Psychedelic Pill, Pond's Beard, Wives, Denim, Beachwood Sparks' The Tarnished Gold, Jack White's Blunderbuss, Allah-Las' Allah-Las, Anaïs Mitchell's Young Man In America, Alabama Shakes' Boys And Girls, Neil Young's Americana, Slow Down, Molasses' Walk Into The Sea, Sharon Van Etten's Tramp, Elephant Mica's Louder Than Thou, Tame Impala's Lonerism, Calexico's Algiers, Dr John's Locked Down, Dexys' One Day I'm Going To Soar, Simone Felice's Simone Felice and Dan Deacon's America."

A quick trip to Spotify confirms that Bob Dylan's Tempest is fiddly-de-dee garbage. Two Neil Young albums - really? I'd prefer one by the former Manchester City striker with the same name. And Dexy?! Bloody hell.

Of the magazine's official top 75 I can live with Cornershop, Lana Del Rey, Springsteen, Jack White and I thought Orbital's Wonky was brilliant. The track Never is one of my most-played in 2012. It was on a Word CD.

So not bad, but if the traditional magazine format is letting me down, where else can I go? Spotify's new releases list occasionally throws up some interesting gems. The Paradise Edition of Del Rey's Born To Die, for example, features a decent cover of Blue Velvet. But I have no interest whatsoever in Rod Stewart's Merry Christmas, Baby or Pink Friday by Nicki Minaj. The desktop version has an app to find similar music to the stuff you like, but it doesn't work on the iPad or Sonos so it's not much use to me.

BBC 6 Music is pretty useful if you can sit through the DJ drivel about tweet-me-the-name-of-the-song-that-most-reminds-me-of-your-college-years drivel. Don't bother, we don't care. This morning, for example, they played a track called Joy from Tracey Thorn's new album, Tinsel and Lights

It's nearly always too early for Christmas songs but another visit to Spotify delivers a fabulous album of covers, including the marvellous In the Cold, Cold Night by The White Stripes. I've always liked Tracey and Everything But The Girl, even though Ben is a Man United fan. I once saw them at the conference centre in Harrogate that's traditionally used for the Lib Dems' annual fiasco. And the album with the kid peeing in the street on the cover reminds me of my college years.

This Is My Jam website is also pretty cool. Recommend one track at a time to your Twitter followers, complete with a link to audio or video, and follow other Jammers to find out what they're listening to. My brother's good at unearthing rocking indie boys with loud guitars - I can turn his recommendations into a playlist and chug it out on Spotify. Connect that baby to the wireless Sonos system and bingo - fill the room with the theme tune from Boardwalk Empire that you never knew was by the Brian Jonestown Massacre.

Books are trickier. The Economist has unexpectedly tipped some good novels - Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon was so superb I put in on Facebook. 

Highly recommend this: set today but full of vinyl jazz records, blaxploitation movies, Tarantino films, kung fu, a blimp, Six Million Dollar Man action figures (including Oscar Goldman), classic American cars, eight-track cartridges, San Francisco, imaginary voices of Samuel L Jackson, Marsellus Wallace, Tarantino, Hong Kong Phooey. A book about fathers, sons and friends.

Deborah's book club is also worth keeping an eye on. The Hundred Year Old Man Who Jumped Out Of The Window And Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson is magnificent; a contemporary, comic Odyssey through the 20th century's seminal moments with its history makers, framed by an unlikely story about a Swedish centenarian on the run with an elephant from a drugs gang and the the police. It's the Scandinavian antidote to those nasty Girl With The Dragon Tattoo books.

Word was always good at getting under the skin of the best TV shows. A community came together to read about The Wire, Mad Men and other cinematic American imports. Their series-link was always a bit hit and miss but then so is mine: Downton Abbey, Homeland, the hugely underrated Friday Night Lights on Sky Atlantic, Match of the Day, Seinfeld in HD on Atlantic (20 years old and still funny - even to 14-year-old Joe), The Daily Show on the Comedy Channel, Lewis, Quest Means Business, Jeff Randall on Sky News. Admittedly, some of those have more unviewed episodes than others.

It is possible, then, to keep across all the best stuff if you keep surfing, listening and watching but it doesn't half take up a lot of time. What we need is a one-stop shop that features it all and drops through the letter box every month. And I don't think it's called Uncut.

Anyone recommend anything else?

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Manhattan On Manchester City Matchday

It's not a perfect day. I'd rather spend it with you. Not such a perfect day.
But hang on, it's a pretty good route around Manhattan if you ever find yourself there for a weekend in late October.

Start: The Hudson Hotel, West 58th Street
Cool hotel. Very dark lobby, white furniture, HD TVs, long wait for the lifts. £299 per night plus taxes.
The view from the Time Warner canteen

1. West Side of Central Park
John Lennon is everywhere in New York. That image of him wearing a New York tee-shirt peers out from every souvenir shop around Times Square.
It takes about ten minutes to walk from the Columbus Circle entrance, through the amber and gold trees, dodging the joggers, the cyclists and multi-dog walkers, to the towers of the Dakota Building where he lived and died. It always reminds me of Tom Brook, the BBC reporter who was first on the scene when Chapman shot Lennon. We spoke regularly when Tom provided regular movie news for Liquid News. Never had a bad word for anybody. His moustache as pristine then as it was on December 8, 1980. I walked straight past Strawberry Fields, past the man selling Beatles badges, and then realised I'd gone too far and double backed. I was just pipped to the entrance to the little graffited memorial garden by a coach load of tourists on their own magical mystery tour. I left them to it and headed out of the park.
A Blurry Mary
The night before I'd been to see Mary Chapin Carpenter at the Lincoln Centre. She's a recent discovery to me and I can't get anyone else interested. I found her current album, Ashes And Roses, on Spotify's new releases and it stuck. The opening track, Transcendental Reunion, sets the tone: a singer-songwriter song about arriving at an airport on your own amid the happy welcomes and tearful hugs and just hoping your suitcase has made it with you. (I almost got Kevin Bishop interested when he was on Olympic duty at Heathrow for BBC news.) The concert was fabulous. And there was one of those weird coincidences: the oddly agitated, silently arguing gay guys who checked into the next door room of The Hudson just before me were there. There they were, fuming their way to the lobby bar while I sat nursing a couple of beers.
There is a tenuous Lennon connection. I was due to see Mary CC in London the previous Monday but had to return the tickets to the South Bank Centre because of this work trip. I found out that I was in New York at the same time as her final tour show and booked a ticket. Last week she played a gig in Liverpool with Shawn Colvin. Colvin tweeted a picture of Penny Lane saying how being in Liverpool always made her cry. Mary re-tweeted it saying, "I know!". I re-tweeted that saying, "Yes. Awful place." Hilarious. I'm from Manchester; it's in my DNA to dislike Liverpool. At Liquid, I persuaded a reluctant Tim Muffet to do an ill-advised mickey-take on Liverpool being made the European City of Culture - full of archive bin strikes and Derek Hatton. A local commercial radio station started an anti-BBC campaign. We ended up having to do a live one-hour apology show from the docks with Ian McCulloch holding court. Boris Johnson was caught out in the same way years later. Josh those jokey Scousers at your peril.

2. Times Square
Head straight on down the 7th Avenue skyscraper canyon past Carnegie Hall (old joke sticks in head: how do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice) and soon enough the neon lights and LED video screens welcome you to big brash Times Square. Never at its best in the daylight. Thronged with street performers and people queuing for theatre tickets at the discount booth.
Deborah and I went to see Patrick Stewart in The Tempest off Broadway 17 years ago, his English voice pristine among the American cast. He's from D's home town of Mirfield so we feel an affinity with Captain Jean Luc Picard of the Federation Starship Enterprise. We've also seen him a couple of times in London - in a one-man Christmas Carol (brilliant, but I'd done an early shift at GLR and nodded off before the end) and in a Cold War-style Macbeth in 2007 (he can act even when making a ham sandwich).

The Hershey's shop is the quirkiest building just off the Square; decorated with giant retro-wrappers and light bulbs, deliberately Willie Wonkerish. Their chocolate always tastes a bit odd - a bit off - to me but I stocked up anyway on some goodies to take home.

3. Empire State Building
Stroll across 42nd Street (even the street names have been turned into musicals) for a look round the artisan booths of Bryant Park. One specialises in nothing but different varieties of kettle corn. Go straight on through then right onto Madison Avenue. Now that's an evocative name. Reminds me of two things:
1. Kirsty MacColl's track from Electric Landlady. Johnny Marr on guitar. Kirsty was due to appear on Liquid a few days after she was killed in that motor boat accident. I was in the BBC bar when Steven Rogers came down to tell me. Quite shocking. I'd always liked her multi-layered vocal stuff right from There's A Guy Works Down The Chip Shop Swears He's Elvis and especially her version of Ray Davies's Days.

2. Mad Men. Fabulous show. Who wouldn't want to be Don Draper? No 60s atmosphere now, though. No sign of any ad agencies, curvy Joans or silver-haired Roger Sterlings. Just more skyscrapers. But then at 34th Street look right - and there's the daddy of them all. It may not be the biggest any more but the Empire State Building is still the coolest. So tall it gets misty halfway up. No time to go up now, though. Press on to Third and East 26th.

4. Mad Hatter Saloon Bar

The Manchester City outpost in New York is in a studenty bit of of the East side called Murray Hill. This is the bar where City fans gather on match days in Manhattan. City shirts, plaques and flags fill the gaps on the wall between the big screen TVs showing the Fox Soccer Channel. It's the bar where the man the Daily Mail called the "gaffe-prone" former City chief executive Garry Cook made an infamous trip in 2010. I heard about his visit and sent along a freelance NY cameraman for Sky Sports News. Cook, looking red-eyed and jet-lagged, told the packed bar that City would beat Man United in the League Cup semi-final and go on to win the trophy. Mass cheers. Then mass embarrassment a few days later when Rooney scored another last minute winner and City were out. I met Cook a couple of times and liked his confident can-do style. The last time I saw him he was disastrously inducting Uwe Rosler into the Manchester United hall of fame at a supporters' club bash at the Etihad Stadium. I wish I'd never booked that camera.

Today a dozen or so fans watched City stutter to a 1-0 win over Swansea. Cheers all round at the final whistle and then a bonus: the infectious City anthem Boys in Blue, written by Godley and Creme from 10cc and recorded by the 1972 squad. I left with a couple of $20 souvenir tee-shirts, humming the match-day classic all the way to Madison Square Park.

5. The Flatiron Building

Love that building.

6. Union Square

The weekend before Halloween and there were pumpkins everywhere at the Union Square farmers market. Always reminds me of Charlie Brown cartoons and autumn half-terms in Norfolk; one of those bits of Americana that travelled to England and arrived on the trick or treat doorstep with added menace. The boss in Atlanta had invited us to dinner at his house the previous Wednesday: like every other house in the avenue it was spectacularly decorated with spooks, skeletons and spray-on cobwebs. Looked great. Only royal jubilees seem to prompt that spirit in the UK.

7. Greenwich Village and Soho
Artists selling their images of Manhattan on the low-rise streets, historic colonial-style houses, lots of trees, busy bars around Washington Square, a relaxed and bohemian atmosphere, a film crew near Christopher Street shooting a scene with an actor banging on the bonnet of a yellow cab - easy to see why everyone wants to live round here.

8. The High Line
A disused elevated railway that's been landscaped and converted into a very popular pedestrian walkway.
View from the High Line
Not much to see but a pleasant enough stroll with glimpses of the Hudson river on the left. Like being on a city-centre seaside pier.

9. Madison Square Garden

Venue of legends on the inside. But an ugly oval mintoe on the outside. I sat in a bar next to a Halloween cowgirl and a fairy godmother and watched the college football on TV for half an hour. It was twilight and Times Square had switched itself on when I left.

10. Times Square at Dusk.

That's more like it. Familiar from hundreds of movies and American newscasts. I'd been to meet the guys at the Nasdaq stock exchange the day before to talk about using the venue for more live inserts into Quest Means Business.
They presented me with this simulated screen grab of my projection on the screens of the building. The brutal, 60ft truth; the camera never lies.

A 15-minute walk up Broadway, via a sandwich stop at a deli, and I was back at The Hudson. A Harry Potter film was on TV when I woke up.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

More Statins than Ecstasy. Review of New Order at the Brixton Academy, 2.5.12

JULY 1983: I went to see New Order for the first time. It was at The Hacienda and I was a 17-year-old sixth form student. Power Corruption and Lies had just come out. I loved that album. Among the songs I squashed up and down to were Love Vigilantes, Temptation, Ceremony and The Perfect Kiss.

MAY 2012: I went to see New Order for the latest time of many. It was at the Brixton Academy and I was with my 14-year-old son. They played all those songs and more. They were minus Peter Hook but apart from that if I shut my varifocaled eyes to block out Barney's big belly it could have been that summer of 29 years ago all over again.

They began with Crystal. Classic New Order. Stephen's thrilling drums pounding away, then Barney's indie guitar chords, then his faltering vocals singing generally random phrases building to a rousing, romping chorus. All of it backed by those stomping bass lines played by the young bloke who isn't Hooky and those sublime synthesiser layers played by the wonderfully immobile Gillian.

Barney does his dad dancing. So do I.

By the time Regret had given way to Ceremony the £4.80 plastic punnet of lager had gone and we threaded from our respectful position near the back to the sweatier edge of the dancing middle-aged hordes. More statin pills than Ecstasy tabs this time.

"Did you ever think you'd come to see New Order wearing a tweed jacket?" asked Joe. No. Nor with a teenage son taller than me.

With that TV you just don't care, sings Barney in Krafty with a K. These days they're not two-foot tubes but 50-inch flatscreens. The song's never sounded better.

Now True Faith, cunningly disguised like many on the night by a brilliantly unrecognisable, multi-layered intro, and accompanied by those classic, Michelin-man dancers on the video screen behind Stephen. Then a couple of duffers - I never liked Perfect Kiss with it's "pretending not to see his gun I said let's go out and have some fun" daftness. And 586 was ok in 1983 but nearly killed the whole thing stone dead last night.

But then they come storming back: Age of Consent, with it's over-and-over again lament of I've Lost You; a triumphant Blue Monday, which they miserably refused to play live 30 years ago; a thundering Bizarre Love Triangle; and then the best moment of the night - Temptation. Up down turnaround, please don't let me hit the ground. I did the up and down, didn't turn around, didn't hit the ground. But by now my tweed jacket was starting to steam. One of the great songs of all time.

At 10.49 after 80 minutes they bailed out. We snaked our way to the back through the grown-up, grinning Eighties indie kids to wait for the encore. They ended by going even further back into the youthful memories of the faithful. Sensational versions of Joy Division's Transmission and, finally, Love Will Tear Us Apart. No Hooky, no Ian Curtis but still, still, still.

By 11pm the rush for the Victoria Line was on. Unlike 1983, most of the punters had to be at work in the morning.

And Joe had to be at school.

Monday, 26 March 2012

My First Singing Chiffchaff of 2012

A Chiffchaff at Horsenden Hill in Perivale last year
Heard at 1.20pm today during a lunchtime 5k jog in the sunshine along the Grand Union Canal at Brentford.

Pretty much bang on schedule compared with recent years:

2011: Sunday, March 27 - London Wetland Centre, Barnes

2010: Sunday, March 28 - Thames path at Barnes

2009: Saturday, March 21 - London Wetland Centre, Barnes

2008: Saturday, April 5 - Wells, Norfolk

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Review of Religion For Atheists by Alain de Botton

Alain de Botton is the eloquently revolutionary antidote to the shrill, fundamentalist atheism of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.

Where those Godless superstars paint every believer with the whacky brush of Creationism, Alain takes a much more sympathetic view of the value of religion in a secular world while steadfastly refusing to believe a single goddam word of it.

The reader of The God Delusion pictures Dawkins as a puce-faced dictator about to explode with rage at the sheer idiocy of anyone who dares to believe in such mumbo jumbo. Religion For Atheists, in contrast,  stimulates the reader to have a radical think about their own beliefs in an intellectual, liberal and really rather British way.

I took part in a Waterstones twinterview with Alain de Botton last month. I asked him where he thought morality came from if it wasn't from God.

He tweeted: "I think morality is innate, a response to the need to live together in communities. This doesn't preclude amorality."

But if morality is innate, isn't the need to search for a god to provide an answer to why we're here also part of our DNA?

"I don't think so. I have never felt this need myself. I am a thorough atheist in this regard."

But what if Alain's wrong? Wouldn't it be spiritually safer, at the very least, to go with Pascal's Wager; the philosophy that the existence of God cannot be proved through reason, but there is so much to be gained from belief, that a rational person should simply wager that He does exist?

His reponse: "I love Pascal's writing: it's concision and its pessimism. I myself haven't been drawn to the wager, as an atheist."

But to Alain, non-believers should not deny themselves the religious traditions that churchgoers enjoy (or endure, if you're one of my kids). Aside from football matches and rock concerts, for example, church is just about the only place in Britain where it's normal to sing with strangers.

He tweeted: "I love hymns and carols: like many an atheist, the rituals of religion are deeply charming: why should we be 'outside'."

But what to do about the kids? The parenting issue is a particular bete noir of Dawkins. He insists there is no such thing as a Christian child, only a child of Christian parents. I think it's one of the toughest dilemmas facing liberal mums and dads of kids approaching school age. You naturally want them to have the best possible start in life and therefore to go to the best possible schools. It just so happens that in many places the best state schools are faith schools. You also want your children to make up their own minds about religion; but how can they do that if they don't get an education where religion is taught properly?

So parents with faith backgrounds tend to rediscover their lapsed religion when it comes to filling out the school application forms. When it's a toss-up between Grange Hill or a free Greyfriars, a weekly trip to Mass and a monthly bible reading doesn't seem too high a price to pay.

But what would Alain do? He tweeted: "I prefer to bring them up as sympathetic to belief but not believers themselves. That's my angle."

His views on what modern education can learn from religious sermons about the soul are some of the most memorable parts of Religion for me. Alain argues that universities should be focusing more on how to live, love and die than how to track narrative themes in 19th Century Russian novels.

"A university alive to the true responsibilities of cultural artefacts within a secular age would establish a Department of Relationships, an Institute of Dying and Centre for Self Knowledge."

And as an English Literature graduate of the late 80s, I recognise all too well the description of the  "culturally well-informed but ethically confused arts graduates aptly panicked about how they might remuneratively occupy the rest of their lives."

Another thing that believers have that atheists don't is a place to gather with others to profess their faith. Alain prompted a lot of raised eyebrows by proposing in his book a sort of church for the godless. But was he being serious?

"I was being totally playful, but it got out of hand. I am not planning any temple 'to atheism'."

And he also took issue with my tweeted suggestion that no secular building can match the moving, spiritual power of the world's greatest religious cathedrals, temples and mosques.

"Oh yes, for sure. The Houses of Parliament are rather stunning. Or Peter Zumthor's Baths at Vals, Switzerland."

Agreed. But they surely don't inspire awe in the way St Peter's Basilica or our own St Paul's Cathedral do. Perhaps the Taj Mahal mausoleum (semi-religious?) or the Treasury at Petra come closer.

The twinterview ended appropriately enough with me saying how much I enjoyed @alaindebotton's excellent  tweets. Everything from parenting to self-loathing is covered in regular treats of less than 140-characters. A favourite recent example: "Definition of a parent: an ordinary human whose significance you can't help but exaggerate: their evil, goodness, guilt etc." So where does he get his inspiration from?

"When it comes to tweets, nothing beats (Francois de) La Rochefoucauld, brilliant 17th century aphorist, a Twitterer before time."

That sort of easy-going erudition pretty much sums up why Religion For Atheists is such a good read. It's a fine-looking, black-and-white-picture-rich book with weighty, themed chapters divided into pithy, numbered paragraphs.

Most make you think; many make you smile at the same time - whether you believe in fairies at the bottom of our beautiful garden or not.

Monday, 20 February 2012

North Norfolk in February? You Must Be Mad

Weybourne Cliffs
So why do people go to to the North Norfolk coast in thick-grey-skied, wind-lashed, freezing February?

Is it because the cliffs at Weybourne look like a 70s Doctor Who planet? And if you walk along the top of them, dodging the wayward golf balls from the links, you get to a half-shutdown Sheringham? The town's best chip shop doesn't open again until March but the fishermen will stand on the beach all winter. And the ice cream from Ronaldo's tastes just as good for afters no matter how cold it is.
Weybourne Fishermen
Maybe it's because the Skylarks have just started to sing above those cliffs again. Trying to convince the sceptical numb-fingered that spring really isn't that far way.

Weybourne Skylark
Is it the miles of deserted, sandy beaches at Holkham? The notorious naturists don't seem convinced. Or the mobile coffee guy that boosts winter birder business by scattering seeds for the Knot, Dunlin, Black-headed Gull and, on a good day, Snow Bunting clientele of Salthouse?
Salthouse Dunlin
Does the food and drink make the 140-mile trip from west London worthwhile: traditional bhunas and bhajis at The Taste of India in Holt; perfectly charcoaled steaks at The King's Head up the road; a citrusy pint of Blackfriars Spring Tide from Great Yarmouth with sea views at the excellent Red Lion in Cromer; a real fire and pints of Woodforde's Wherry at another Red Lion beside the endless marshes at Stiffkey; hand-raised pork pies from Alexandra Howells' deli in Wells; a pint of Norwich-brewed 80 Shillings Ale at Camra's Norfolk Pub of the Year 2011 - the Windham Arms in Sheringham?

Keep those pints in mind on a 5pm no-sunset visit to the raptor roost at the haunting Warham Greens: ring-tailed Hen Harrier, a hundred-mile-an-hour Merlin and a couple of hunting Marsh Harrier are enough to tempt the triple-layered. Grey Partridge in the fields and Little Egret in the marshes keep it interesting.

And on the way home, at last, the chance of a Barn Owl on the main road through South Raynham.

We'll be back next February. And every month between now and then.