Thursday, 11 December 2014

My Big Ten Books of 2014

London Pub Walks: The Counting House

The North by Paul Morley (2013)
"Oddly enough, in the first few years of the twentieth century, the Hyde Seals water polo team were the best in the world, three times world champions, but that fact has not infected the psychology of the town."
A sprawling, mad, brilliant, quirky, 600-page history of the North of England. So good it made me wonder why I ever left and reminded me why I did. A poignant, personal love story about the unique people and places that ultimately fashioned Morley into the best pop wordsmith of his generation. He makes Bill Bryson look like a lightweight. (In an ironic twist, I read most of this book while so far south that the water went down the plughole the other way round.)

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami (2007)
“People sometimes sneer at those who run every day, claiming they'll go to any length to live longer. But I don't think that's the reason most people run. Most runners run not because they want to live longer, but because they want to live life to the fullest. If you're going to while away the years, it's far better to live them with clear goals and fully alive then in a fog, and I believe running helps you to do that.”
I did a lot of running this year - two half-marathons, a couple of ten-mile races, a 15km cross-country around Wimbledon Common and all the solitary hundreds of miles of training along the Thames. So it was fascinating to compare my mental experience with that of Murakami. His is a downbeat, uplifting philosophical whimsy that will feel as familiar as a chafed nipple to anyone who regularly laces up a pair of trainers.

The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
“The loneliest moment in someone’s life is when they are watching their whole world fall apart, and all they can do is stare blankly.”
I re-read this masterpiece because both the kids were studying it at school and also because it's one of the novels Murakami talks about translating into Japanese in his running book. A timeless account of a messianic outsider shattering the shallow, double lives of the idle rich and leaving the battered survivors to pick up the pieces with faint and fragile hope. Every sentence is perfect.

The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis (2014)
“When the future looks back on the National Socialists, it will find them as exotic and improbable as the prehistoric meat-eaters.”
This could just have easily been called Carry On Concentration Camping. Only Amis could write a movingly comic novel about the holocaust. It's his most conventional book for years;  a three-way point of view narrative: the Jewish prisoner forced to gas his own people is the most distressing and the most unAmis; the nephew of Nazi propagandist Martin Boorman is an honourable man trapped in the wrong time and place; but the camp Kommandant Paul Doll is a classic Amis comedy monster. An impotent, raging, sadistic madman who unleashes some tortoise-smashing moments of pitch black slapstick to make the unimaginable compulsively readable.

Time's Arrow by Martin Amis (1992)
“Probably human cruelty is fixed and eternal. Only styles change.” 
I re-read this immediately after The Zone of Interest. It shares the same recurring theme of the inhuman horror of the holocaust summed up by concentration camp survivor Primo Levi: "Here There is No Why." The gimmick, you'll remember, is it's told backwards. A retired doctor in America is revealed to be a former Nazi - but the baffled narrator sees everything back-to-front. Tortured bodies are miraculously healed by Dr Tod Friendly as time goes into reverse, shattered lovers are made happy again by Friendly as the narrative backs into their first meeting. But who is this detached narrator? Perhaps the soul of Friendly himself. I still can't get it out of my head.

Words and Music by Paul Morley (2005)
"Kylie looks at me out of the side of her face. She is in profile but she is looking at me. She uses one of her eyes to defy logic. Her face is not smiling, which is quite an event."
As different to The North as the north is to the south. Kylie Minogue sets off to drive to a futuristic city she never seems to reach, pursued along the autobahns by Kraftwerk and joined in the passenger seat by a rogue's gallery of characters from pop music history. The conceit allows Morley to trace the history of modern music's outsiders and influencers, written in the style of a music svengali trying to baffle the world with erudite sleeve notes to an Art of Noise album. Dazzlingly pretentious.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (2014)
“The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life. I was turning into a hawk.”
I like hawks and I like the Brecklands of Norfolk, where it's set, so this was well worth a try. A woman mourning the death of her father returns to her childhood love of falconry to cope with the loss. But to enjoy this non-novel you've got to be an emotionally damaged, desperately miserable, deeply introspective self-obsessive who sees the world through the prism of an airport self-help book. I loved it. (Boom-tish.)

CAMRA's London Pub Walks by Bob Steel (2013)
"Reaching the road at the far end, bear left under the railway bridge at Turnham Green station, then across on the right, just beyond the corner, is the architectural highlight of this walk, the Tabard."
Never have 200 pages given so much pleasure to so many London drinkers. Steel details 30 tipplers' tours dotted all around the Capital listing the beers, the buildings and the booze-hound history. I've spent many happy hours this year discovering new favourites and revisiting old ones. As essential as an Oyster card.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (1989)
“What is the point of worrying oneself too much about what one could or could not have done to control the course one's life took? Surely it is enough that the likes of you and I at least try to make our small contribution count for something true and worthy."
Written twenty years before anyone had heard of Downton Abbey but now impossible to read without hearing the rich, sonorous tones of Mr Carson in your head.  It's a magnificent book - a post-war butler on a road trip to meet the only woman he nearly loved reveals a buttoned-up, emotionally-crippled, utterly wasted life of service to a British Nazi sympathiser. This is a man who carries on pouring the port with silent tears rolling down his cheeks while his father lies dying upstairs. Every page drips beautifully with dignified, inarticulated shame and frustration.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt (2004)
“Love doesn't conquer everything. And whoever thinks it does is a fool.” 
People have been recommending this to me for years so when The Goldfinch came out I thought I'd give it a go. It's horrible. I hated every character and everything they did. It reminded me of that nasty Alfred Hitchcock film, Rope - posh American students killing for fun and trying to get away with it. I honestly don't know why I bothered wading through the never-ending, pretentious tosh. Apparently, only 44 per cent of people who bought The Goldfinch on the Kobo e-reader reached the last of the 784 pages. I don't blame the rest.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

An Alien in the Away End

I was having a pint and a chat in Loftus Road before the Manchester City match when a fellow City fan in his late twenties strode over purposefully and said in his unmistakably modern Mancunian accent, "Just keep yer eyes open for the stewards while I 'ave a p*ss in this corner, will yer."

Two things: we were stood three paces from the entrance to the gents; and I didn't want to be standing in pool of urine behind me while I finished my beer.

So I blocked the path of the caught-short lad and said with a smile, "Hold on a minute, we're better than that. Don't go in the corner. It'll stink and make a right mess. The gents is right there. Do us all a favour."

There was a bit of a to-and-fro while the worse-for-wear bloke weighed up his options. Then he said, "What are you doing at this game anyway? You're not from Manchester. How d'you get tickets for the match?"

"I certainly am from Manchester," I huffed.

"Well you don't sound like it. Whereabouts?"

"I'm from Chorlton. And I've been going to City matches home and away since before you were born," I said, sounding exactly like the distinguished grey-haired gentleman that I am.

"You're not from Chorlton. I don't know how people like you get tickets."

This hilarious banter continued for a while before we tapped our plastic pint glasses together affably and he headed to the officially designated latrine.

Now, I haven't lived in Manchester for twenty years and doubtless my accent has had the edges knocked off it by decades of London. But If you asked me to say, "A cup of coffee and a bath bun, please" - you could probably tell that I grew up north of Cheshire.

But what is true is that I sound nothing like the youngish Mancunians who now follow City around the country. They have all adopted the comedy Manchester accent invented Definitely Maybe by Oasis in the mid-90s:

"Y'aright, ow's it goin? A'need some time in the sun-shee-ine. For f**k's sake, Citeh - get a grip. Yaa Yaa, you lazy c*nt - moove, moove. Navas!  Navas! You're sh*te, mate. Shake Mansour went t'Spain in a Lambergeeni, he brought us back a manager, Manuel Pellegreeni! London's a sh*thole, I wanna go hoe-m."

And I've left out most of the expletives in case my mum's reading.

When I went to school in Chorlton and Moss Side in the 70s and 80s, nobody I knew spoke like that. Not my mum and dad, my aunties and uncles, my schoolmates - nobody. There were rumours that voices had more of a twang in nearby Wythenshawe or way out east in Gorton, but my grandad was from neighbouring Drolysden - which is about a mile from the Etihad Stadium - and he sounded nothing like it. He sounded like a Mancunian northerner like the rest of us.

So what changed? The cult of Madchester music, the Hacienda, Shaun Ryder effing away on TFI Friday, Terry Christian on The Word, The Stone Roses at Spike Island, Oasis becoming the biggest band in the world, the Gallaghers becoming the loudest City fans in the world, Paul Abbott's Shameless on Channel 4 - they all very publicly amplified and exaggerated the way most Mancunians speak and it seeped through the city like the endless rain.

So much so that I sound like an alien in the away end. I'm taking my passport with me from now on.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Review of Morrissey at The O2, London, November 29, 2014

It was great to see him again.  His voice is as clear, urgent and mellifluous as ever. He looks good for 55, even with his shirt off briefly at the end. And a Morrissey show in London is always an exciting event.

But nope - Morrissey is not an arena man.

When you think arenas, you think Taylor Swift, Take That and One Direction. You think big stages, pyrotechnics, dancing girls and acrobats.

When you think Morrissey, you think stage invasions by spectacle wearers at Derby Assembly Rooms. You think small halls, intimacy and caustic asides. Maybe a carpet of red gladioli for those of us lucky enough to see the classic Smiths gigs.

But there he was at the old Millennium Dome, dressed in white like a baggy ghost from Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), telling us one word at a time how privileged he was to be there, laughing theatrically at our disease-ridden chickens, showing us videos of matadors being mauled and pigs being slaughtered for food. He'd even insisted that meat was off the menu in the posh boxes and hospitality areas.

Just in front of him, a dozen polo-shirted bouncers patrolled a six-foot wide security moat separating Morrissey from the thousands of apostles who'd come to touch as well as see. They routinely did their job until the encore, when disciple after disciple managed to storm the barricade and reach up for a grateful Mozzer touch as they were bundled away.

Morrissey went out of his way to kneel and low-five every one of these pilgrims to North Greenwich. He seemed as touched as usual that they'd risked so much pain for so little gain.

So why did he choose a venue where the vast majority of his tactile public were so ludicrously far away from him? Instead of a huge one-off, why not a few shows in a more intimate place, like Shepherd's Bush Empire or the Roundhouse, where Johnny Marr makes so much hay and arguably plays the better Smiths songs?

Frankly, Mr Shankly, maybe it's all about the money, which we know is infamously important to Morrissey, but there are brighter sides to life and I should know because I've seen them (but not very often).

"Remember me," he urged, "but don't remember my fate," he added cryptically, perhaps alluding to the recent stories of cancer scares, perhaps not. This is the man who rhymes T-bone steak with prostate, remember.

There was also time for some songs. The blistering opening of The Queen is Dead, complete with a photo-shopped big-screen monarch giving us both fingers, and a joyous Suedehead, giving way to the more lightweight, Hispanic TexMex of the recently-issued and instantly-deleted new album.

The pre-encore show ended with the bride being kicked down the aisle and the Texan drummer kicking his skins all over the stage. They were patiently set up again before the Big Finish - a triumphant, jumpalong Every Day is Like Sunday, instantly transporting us back nearly thirty years to rainy seaside days in Hastings or wherever.

It would be more triumphant still if Morrissey and Marr's constantly on-the-move tour buses found themselves in the same car park one night.

Sing me to sleep and dream on.

Friday, 28 November 2014

Review of James at Brixton Academy, London, on November 21, 2014

Sometimes, when I look deep into your eyes, I swear I can see your soul.

Sometimes, when Tim Booth smiles and gazes at the masses chanting those words over and over and over again in the final encore, I swear he must feel like a god.

Sometimes he lowers himself gently into their raised arms, a beautifully singing corpse delivered on by a human tide. Just don't ram your phone in his face for a selfie - he hates that.

Sometimes he dances his fabulous trademark dance, a jerking, neo-Mancunian marionette controlled by Fred Astaire, a salacious grin on his face, puppet strings in one hand, a tumbler of whisky in the other.

Sometimes he'll play new instant classics; Curse Curse, a tequila anthem of frustration that compares messy sex to a Messi goal.

Sometimes he'll play one of the classic classics: Come Home, the only pop song to turn a siren into a symphony; Laid, where the neighbours complain about the noises above but the singalong drowns them out; Hymn From a Village where book-reading is still so much more worthwhile. Ah, you think you're so pretty.

Sometimes there's a majestic fiddler, sometimes there's a bellowing horn blower, sometimes there are two outstanding drummers, sometimes there are none.

Sometimes Tim will stop dead in his tracks and appeal for total silence for a sensitive new song. Fat chance of that in Brixton. He sings an old one instead. Sometimes he puts his hand over his mouth and hollers like Tonto.

Sometimes the middle of a two-hour gig can lose momentum and many dash out to relieve themselves of £5.10 tins of Tuborg (Tuborg!).

Sometimes you leave a show wondering why they didn't play their biggest hit: we were gone, baby, gone with no sight nor sound of Sit Down. Maybe it's over-familiar but I bet Frank Sinatra never missed out My Way.

But I've been watching James live for thirty years now. They've got more songs, less hair and they're still hard to beat.


Sunday, 28 September 2014

Review of Peter Hook and The Light, Shepherd's Bush Empire, London, 27.9.14

Up down turnaround. Please don't let me hit the ground. Tonight I think I'll walk alone. I'll find my soul as I go home.

Up: you just can't believe the joy we did receive on hearing again some of the deftest pop songs every written, played live with such swaggering gusto. The low-slung bass guitar is distinctive, dangerous and in Hooky's DNA; now his son is on stage celebrating his 25th birthday by playing it the same baggy-trousered fashion.

This was a night of Low-Life and Brotherhood, the mid-80s albums when New Order were in their post-Blue Monday pomp. Live layers of digital drums, analogue drums, punching bass lines, swelling keyboards and uncomplicated guitar melodies.

Hooky stands centre stage these days, no longer whirling like an indie dervish stage-right of Barney. He looks good; craggy-faced, neatly-combed hair, well buffed in a black t-shirt, his restless right arm pointing imperiously over the bald and greying heads of the 80s kids hoping for one night only to forget they're nearly 50 with teenage indie kids of their own.

He blows into his mini-Melodica and the three-note blast of Love Vigilantes boots us back to an era of previous desert wars, a mini-drama about a returning soldier who's wife has been mistakenly told of his death. They don't write 'em like that any more.

Down: it's still a shell shock that there are two rival New Orders out there. The version that delighted us in Brixton a couple of years ago outnumbers this one in original members by three to one. And as it's much harder to recreate Barney's fragile vocals than Hooky's basslines, that version has the most authentic sound. But the Hooky version can do Joy Division like nobody else. His lower, rougher voice sounds much more like Ian Curtis when he opens the evening with a selection that includes the magnificent Isolation and She's Lost Control but not Love Will Tear Us Apart.

Turnaround: how bad can the fallout between them be? How can the mercurial Mancunians who created True Faith - a brilliant, crowd-delighting encore last night - and Temptation - another live triumph of machine gun bass lines and drum machine beats - have reached such an end? It's never too late to Perfect Kiss and make up.

Please don't let me hit the ground: New Order were always a singles band. Their Substance collection still sounds as fresh as a Weirdo. But some of their album tracks always had you reaching for the "next" button on those exciting new CD remote controls. We could have done without the seated performance of Elegia last night. It brought us all down and sent us scurrying to the bar.

Tonight I think I'll walk alone. Not me. Like Hooky, I had my son with me. He may be into Jungle and Arcade Fire but he likes Blue Monday as much as the next man. We didn't miss it, though. Overfamiliarity can breed malcontents.

I'll find my soul as I go home. Actually we found the 207 bus waiting outside the Empire after a three-hour triumph and hopped on to be home in time for the end of Match of the Day (Hull City 2 - 4 Manchester City). But there was plenty of soul inside that famous venue.

Nothing reminds you of a slug in a Sheffield bedsit, a ruddy-faced night at the Hacienda with your brother or spending your student grant on LPs like the soundtrack of the time.

And what a soundtrack it is.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

The Great British Beer Festival 2014: A Journey from Mauritius to Somerset

Thursday: Mauritius
Straight off an overnight flight from Mauritius to Heathrow. Through passport control, baggage collection, the wait for a cab, the entry queue at the Great British Beer Festival at Kensington Olympia. The unmemorable £7-a-pint taste of the paradise island's Phoenix Beer six thousand miles behind me.

But the biggest and best queue of all? The one to buy a half of Timothy Taylor's Boltmaker, the Champion Beer of Britain 2014. Twice in ten minutes I was asked by bewildered festival-goers what I was waiting for in that line stretching into infinity.

Turns out I was waiting for a taste of West Yorkshire. A taste of the River Worth flowing, careering, dashing through Bronte country on its way to somewhere else like the rest of us. A taste of Wuthering Heights, windswept moors and cobbled Haworth. A taste of the tiny Keighley newsroom of the Bradford Telegraph & Argus where I reported on local triumphs and tragedies a lifetime ago. A taste of Hovis adverts and derelict mills. A taste shared with the most beautiful girl on the Keighley News. A taste of the beginning of a love story that has lasted more than a quarter of a century. A taste that has produced two new vibrant lives, lived far away from the soothing, depressing, exhilarating Yorkshire Dales.

It's a taste worth savouring. A welcome win for Taylor's fifteen years after the last triumph for their magnificent Landlord. Champion.

A handful of handpumps away is another instagram of the past. Goose Eye Bitter, also from Keighley, this one tasting of plate-sized Yorkshire puddings at the Old White Lion Hotel in Haworth, the 300-year-old coaching inn providing four-star accommodation to the discerning visitor in 14 en suite rooms. And also, unexpectedly, a hint of liquorice.

Next, head over the Pennines via Todmorden to rolling, flat-plained Cheshire and Redwillow's sensational Directionless from Macclesfield. A silky, silver medal taste of the 71 mills that made the market town prosperous in the 19th century. A huge and delicious taste of the days when I reported on the Silkmen of Macclesfield Town FC for the Stockport Messenger. It was 1987, the year Postman Peter Wragg's non-Leaguers gatecrashed the third round of the FA Cup with wins over Rotherham and Carlisle before exiting at ugly, miserable Port Vale.

Not much seems to happen in nearby Stoke these days but they still remember Captain Edward Smith, the local man who steered the Titanic to disaster in 1912. So much so that the city's best brewery is named after his ill-fated ship. Titanic, brewers of the best Plum Porter in the land, has steered All Aboard bitter down the M6 to the festival. This is the taste of Terry Conroy and Stoke City's League Cup win over Chelsea in 1972. Bittersweet, well-rounded, spicey. It was all going so well until he hit that iceberg.

Next, I'll have a Fallen Angel, please, the fabulously hoppy gold medal Strong Bitters winner from Church End in Nuneaton. The beer clip shows a near-naked blonde angel sipping from a beer bottle, looking you straight in the eye like a distant relation of topless Lady Godiva horsing around in nearby Coventry in the 11th century. It tastes of Keith Curle's winner for Manchester City against Coventry at Highfield Road in 1992, completing a rousing comeback from 2-0 down at half-time.

Before you urgently flee this part of the Midlands, try Blue Monkey's Ape Ale from Giltbrook. As strong, lovely and complex as the border between Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, where closed coalfields give way to the glowering Pennines. A silver medal hangs proudly around this simian's neck.

All change at Crewe for a half of Offbeat's Way Out Wheat, which is cloudy and wheaty and can give you hiccups after a £7 lamb curry if you're not careful, but fully deserves its Specialty Beer silver medal. It tastes of early morning Saturday train journeys from London to Manchester.

Southwards again to the Midlands proper, home of the white heat of technology and Purity's Mad Goose, the big-hearted, wood-panelled flavour of the Balham Bowls Club in south London where it's a regular, welcome guest and a worthy Best Bitter bronze medal winner.

Look sharp, here comes Essex. Mighty Oak's Captain Bob is officially the second best bitter in the land. It's out of Maldon near Chelmsford, named after a Welsh-looking sheepdog, but tastes more like the New Zealand hops that luxuriate within. Perhaps worth a stop next time you're racing to the north Norfolk coast for a pint of Woodforde's Wherry at The Albatros.

Not many London medal winners this year, despite 52 breweries now mashing it up in the capital, but here is proof that the south can do proper beer when it puts its softy hands to it: Sambrook's Wandle Ale is the joint bronze Bitter winner. Named after the half-forgotten river that gushes and gurgles into the tidal Thames near Wandsworth Bridge. I jog over the Wandle next to the council rubbish tip most weekends, wishing I was drinking its namesake at the Princess Victoria round the corner in Shepherd's Bush. It tastes of caramelly rehydration sessions after half-marathon training sessions.
Friday: Olympia
I would have loved to revisit the special taste of Flowerpots Bitter, brewed in a village seven miles east of Winchester, the joint bronze medallist in the Bitters category, but there was none left. That's the taste of sunny Hampshire forever linked with old friends, an old school house, a country dream that died and a shaggy dog story set in a beer-garden campsite one summer night long ago.

So onwards with a heavy heart to deepest, darkest Devon, home of Dark & Light Milds silver medal winner Branscombe Vale, supplying quality brews to East Devon, West Dorset and West Somerset. It tastes of nothing, bland and boring after all that earlier excitement. Maybe that's what you need after such a neck-aching, heartbreaking journey towards the moors.

Final destination - the heart of rural Somerset and Cottage's Golden Arrow, a pale ale named after the luxury steam train that linked London with Dover for passengers heading to Paris from 1926 to 1972. The beer won a silver medal in 1997. It tastes of Ian Botham, Viv Richards and Eddie Shoestring.

The taste of Britain.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

The 25th Ealing Beer Festival Reviewed by Morrissey

It was hoppy in the haze of a drunken couple of hours under the screaming swifts, blue skies and flowering lime trees of sun-dappled Walpole Park. The sun beat down on a far-from humdrum town and the cool, marqueed casks delivered their nectar into pleasingly never-empty festival glasses. Good times for a change, and a meaty curry murdered. My new favourite beer festival. Park the car by the side of the road and let these beers smother you.

BLUE BEE, Tangled Up - 6% (Sheffield)
When you're Tangled Up in your mother's apron no-one talks about castration. Deliciously moreish. I won't share you, no. I won't share you. I'll see you somewhere again. I'll see you sometime, but I won't share you. 

BRAINS, Rev James - 4.5% (Cardiff)
A monkish monsignor with a mighty foam head. As natural as rain, it dances on the tongue again and again. Like a vicar in tutu, it's not strange - it just wants to live its real ale life this way.

BURTON BRIDGE, Damson Porter - 4.5% (Burton on Trent)
Under the iron Burton Bridge, we sipped. And although I ended up with sore lips, it just wasn't like the old days any more - it just wasn't like those days. Am I still ill?

COACH HOUSE, Blueberry - 5% (Warrington)
Light, delicate bitterness and frankly, Mr Shankly, it can play hideously fruity tricks on the brain.

DARK STAR, American Pale Ale - 4.7% (Partridge Green, Sussex)
America, your head's too big. Because America, your belly's too big. And I love you. I just wish you'd stay where you belong. Which is everywhere.

ILKLEY, Lotus IPA - 5.6% (Ilkley)
The taste of fresh, lilac moorland fields. Find it, find it, nothing more - the spoils of a sullen, misty moor. Over the moor - take me to the Ilkley Moor. With or without a hat.

JENNINGS, Cumberland Ale - 4% (Cockermouth)
There would be panic on the streets of nearby Carlisle if Jennings ever ran out of this superb golden ale. The Billy Tastebudd music it constantly plays says everything to me about my life.

KELHAM ISLAND, Riders On The Storm - 4.5% (Sheffield)
The rain falls down on this humdrum South Yorkshire town - this town can drag you down, and I should know because I lived there for three years. William, it was really nothing. It was your life.

MONCADA, Notting Hill Blonde - 4.2% (Notting Hill)
Here is London, home of the brash, outrageous and free. I sense the power - within an hour the power can totally destroy me, all around Sloane Square and other parts of West London. Busy, busy.

SONNET 43, American Pale Ale - 5.4% (Coxhoe, Durham)
I dreamt about this last night and I fell out of bed twice. It can pin me and mount me like a butterfly. Two pints, please. It's the bee's knees (but so am I).

TITANIC, Plum Porter - 4.9% (Burslem, Staffordshire)
You're the one for me, fatty, you're the one I really, really love. And I will always stay for another. Promise you'll say if I'm ever in your way.

TWICKENHAM, Naked Ladies - 4.4% (Twickenham)
In excess, makes some Naked Ladies bigger than others. And some Naked Ladies' mothers bigger than other Naked Ladies' mothers.

TWICKENHAM, Summer Sun - 4.4% (Twickenham)
Another sparkling sunny day so I'll meet you at the cemetery gates. Keats and Yeats are on your side, while Wilf Wild was one of the greatest managers of mine.

WINDSOR & ETON, Eton Boatman - 4.3% (Windsor)
So I broke into Windsor Palace with a sponge and a rusty spanner. She said, I know you and you cannot row. I said, that's nothing, you should hear me play piano.

XT, Apricot Pale - 4.3% (Long Crendon, Bucks)
The table is rumbling, my distended stomach is rumbling - the glass is moving! Ouija board, ouija board would you help me? P.U.S.H.O double F. And an X and a T.

SPRINGHERNE, cider - 6.something% (Ross on Wye)
Now I know how Joan of Arc felt, as the apple aroma rose to her Roman nose and her cider resistance started to melt.

I like it here. Can I stay?

Sunday, 1 June 2014

My week with Giant Ants, Static Cycles and Flaming Lips

Yes, Katie Melua, there may well be nine million bicycles in Beijing but at least a few more have left China and arrived in spectacular formation near Edgware Road. Or have they?

The stainless steel groupings that are the highlight of Ai Weiwei's exhibition at the Lisson Gallery may look like a big stack of bikes but they're minus the essential pedals, saddles, tyres, handlebars brakes, chains and fat bottomed girls that make the rocking world go round.

What's left are interlocking frames and spindled wheels crying out to be spun by the observer but frozen in the sort of high-rise parking bay that's destined to sit outside every London tube station as the trend for suicidal commuting gathers pace.

The wall-mounted version Forever 13, a reference to the brand of cycles that have been mass-manufactured in Shanghai since 1940, recalls those Chinese circus performers who form death-defying shapes above a single, cycling load bearer. They look like a huge Christmas tree decoration formed by criss-crossing Evel Knievels on pushbikes.

Elsewhere Weiwei playfully magpies Duchamps with readymade comfy armchairs, toiletries, darkly comic gas masks, handcuffs, coat hangers and taxi window-winders but with a twist: they're not simply found, signed and displayed, they're cast in jade or marble or hand-crafted out of glass and wood.

Best fact: the Chinese authorities insist on removing window-winders from taxis to prevent protestors from distributing leaflets from the windows at times of unrest. And Weiwei needs another pair of handcuffs like a fish needs a bicycle.

The creepy giant ants of Rafael Gomezbarros's Casa Tomado are the highlight of the Pangaea exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery. The ants are fixed to the wall but look as though they've scattered to hide in a corner as you've walked through the door. Very pleased that the ones who seem live in our bin are considerably smaller.

Downstairs Richard Wilson's fabulous 20:50 is truly awesome. The reflections in the serenely still sump oil of the room's columns, ceiling, windows and lights creates a strangely calming optical illusion of depth and angles. The lightly industrial smell makes you want to watch and linger longer than you'd thought you would. There's also a frisson of danger - imagine dropping your iPhone in that. Or falling in. You'd emerge like a seagull from an ocean spill.

On to Smith Square, London HQ of the European Parliament, for a seminar demystifying the results of last week's elections and the surge of the far right and far left. Prof Simon Hix of the LSE highlighted the surprising similarity in voting patterns between the UK and France; in young, multi-cultural London and Paris the anti-Europeans of UKIP and Front National failed to make much of an impression but in the rest of both countries they mopped up almost identical percentages of 25 and 27 respectively.

Prof Vernon Bogdanor, David Cameron's former teacher, said it all pointed to hung parliament in next year's General Election with the likely collapse of the Lib Dems from the onslaught of the typical UKIP voter: white skin, blue collar, grey hair. He described them as the left-behind, losers to the exam-passing classes surging ahead with globalisation.

Another LSE prof, Sara Hobolt, who controversially highlighted herself as the token woman panellist, pointed to a surge of younger voters turning to the far right in France and the far left in Greece - a protest at unemployment levels and rising immigration and the failure of the centre left to offer any credible alternatives.

Another factor in UKIP's success was Nigel Farage's gift for speaking in anecdotes rather than about political concepts and philosophies. Like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, he connects with voters by talking their language: being the only apparent English person sat on the bus, for example.

My favourite fact of the night, though, was delivered by Vernon: the number of Conservative, Labour and Lib Dem voters who think that the MMR vaccine is dangerous is 0%. The number for UKIP? 13%. Work to be done for the establishment parties.

Wandering around the Kenneth Clark, Looking For Civilisation exhibition at Tate Britain felt a bit like popping into an imaginary wealthy relative's mansion and staring in awe at his eclectic collection of astonishing art. A Henry Moore statue in the study, a Cezanne painting in the parlour and a Utamaro print in the kitchen.

My favourites, though, were the Graham Sutherland paintings, some commissioned directly by the great man of wartime art. Sutherland's crucifixion depictions are the centrepiece at our nearby Catholic church, St Aidan of Lindisfarne in East Acton, so there's a special connection. He captures the horror and the terror in a modern, epic scale. Better than an off-the-shelf sculpture any day.

The other highlight of the week was the greatest gig of all time - The Flaming Lips at Brixton Academy. Do you realise that everyone you know, some day, will die? Carpe that diem.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Review of The Flaming Lips at Brixton Academy, London. May 28, 2014

Make no mistake, this was the greatest gig of all time. Not just a gig - a shock and awe assault on the senses, a rib-rattling kicking by the Flaming Lips, the Dan Flavin Lips and the Flaming Yips.

Forget last year's unlistenable Terror album and that almost unwatchable, fit-inducing oracular spectacular, this was a towering return to form by the best live band of their or any other generation.

That's not a set, Brixton, it's an art installation. Strings of light raining, dripping and Roman Candling above the stage like a psychedelic version of Flavin's flourescent tubes. A vajazzling screen backdrop, blacking our eyes with Pop Art rainbows and horseplaying girls, stripped naked and dancing towards us like Andy Warhol's multi-coloured Marilyns, unleashed from the canvas to seduce us like the titles of a vintage James Bond film, strobe lights picking out the confetti exploding from the stage over the delighted, dazzled crowd.

And there's Wayne, resplendent in a lycra onesie and silver tinsel cloak, leading out a pair of performance artists in giant butterfly costumes, wings two small for their huge bodies in the style of the unnerving Heimlich from Pixar's brilliant Bug's Life movie. A giant David Bowie Starman figure hugging Wayne between the glorious opening minutes of the show - a medley from Yoshimi, She Don't Use Jelly - then enter two space aliens so big they bang their blow-up heads on the stage lights.

Yes, there are two drummers, the finest number of drummers in rock, wearing shoulder-length green wigs, thumping their instruments gleefully, making way only for Steven's peerless pounding on Race For The Prize, that celebration of the humanity of scientists sang delicately by Wayne between bouts of tinsel waving.

The party was pumping when pop's most charismatic frontman vanished then reappeared atop a ten-foot platform made of more video screens. Now he was back in the blue satin suit of last year, looking like a shaggy-haired Seventies David Essex, cradling that weird baby doll, the one that gave us the yips at the Camden Roundhouse last year, and reminding us that he's still the daddy calling the shots - the buzzing car-crash crunch of Terror selections beating us into submission beneath the laser searchlights.

The timeless themes of death, loss and, especially, LOVE run deep through all the face-punching pyschedelia of the Lips. They left the stage for the first time after A Spoonful Weighs a Ton with that beautifully devastating word pulsing on the giant screen and ringing in our ears for what seemed like half an hour.

Then they were back with the song that changed everything, Do You Realize??, the show-closer that sends the grizzled, grinning masses out into the early summer night with a smile, a glow and a feeling that everything just might turn out alright after all.

But not this time. Stop that dash for the Victoria Line right there. Wayne was back on top of his platform of LED light and, yes, those were the first unmistakeable harpsichord notes of Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds. Miley Cyrus sings it like a magnificent wrecking ball on the single version, but nobody does it better than Wayne. Plasticine porters with looking glass ties slam our fingers in the train doors in a singalong chorus that has never sounded more electrifying.

What a glorious climax: the best live band in the world paying homage to the best pop songwriting duo who have ever lived. Yes, it was that kind of night. The greatest gig of all time.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Summer's Comin'! A Springtime Playlist

I wanted to share this CD compilation that my friend Geoff gave me for my birthday. It's called Summer's Comin'! You won't hear most of it on 6 Music. These are my sleeve notes:

1. The Sun Has Got His Hat On by Kidzone. Reminds me of long, multiple-stop journeys in the Volvo when the kids were little and making ecosystems out of raisins, crisps and fruit juice in the lining of their car seats. It was all cassette back then and Shepherd's Bush was mainly fields. Opens with an excellent sample of a wren in full song.

2. Hawaii 5-0 by the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra. One of the great TV themes of all time. Don't remember much about the show but those pumping horns and pounding drums over the kayaking lunatics in the titles are tremendous.

3. Summertime by Sarah Vaughn. Porky and Bess, innit. Gershwin. All that. A song about summer that sounds like mid-winter. Reminds of the night at the Scarisbrick Hotel in the mid-70s when my Aunty Marjorie astonished a bar full of late-night drinkers by bursting into her own impromptu, note-perfect version. She should have been in Covent Garden not Southport.

4. Shine On by The House of Love. Loved this album when it came out in 1990. Reminds me of writing music reviews at the Telegraph & Argus in Bradford. An astonishing amount of vinyl arrived each week and sorting the wheat from the chaff became an overwhelming ordeal. That's when we got a cat to help. Cleo had two great ears and a lovely set of whiskers. We miss her.

5. Lovely Day by Bill Withers. Fact: Bill can hold a note longer than the total number of daylight hours on June 21st.

6. Midsummer Night by The Time & Space Machine. New one to me, this. A low-key mutter about everything being all that I want and all that I need over music straight from the verses of Lucy In The Sky with Diamonds. More golden leaves than green.

7. Long Hot Summer Days by Sara Watkins. Fiddlededee, why don't you. Many a weary pilgrim has set down his spotted handkerchief next to a midsummer bonfire and gazed at the stars with a song like this in his cider-addled head. What the Radio 2 Folk Awards were invented for.

8. Raining In My Heart by Buddy Holly. People used to say I looked like Buddy Holly - big quiff, glasses. It caused an incident at a wedding once when an aunty of the bride insisted on kissing me because it would be like snogging Buddy. The uncle of the bride didn't seem that convinced of the resemblance.

9. Dream Baby Dream by Bruce Springsteen. Wonderfully elegiac plea to a cheated lover building beautifully to a finale of swooning strings. The Boss unplugged.

10. The Clearing by David Crosby. Dischordant 70s-style acoustic guitar thumper that will be good when he finishes it. Hints of The Chain by Fleetwood Mac in the second half, conjuring images of James Hunt and Niki Lauda catching fire in speeding cigarette adverts.

11. Nature Springs by The Good The Bad and The Queen. All edge of the rim drums and percussion backing a slow tempo Damon Albarn vocal performance that can set the unwary listener strangely on edge. Whistling on songs always reminds me of Games Without Frontiers by Peter Gabriel. Whistling tunes and doing something mean in the jungle. Classic.

12. Sao Paulo by Morcheeba. Perfect soundtrack to a sunny afternoon in a hammock with a bottle of Goose Island IPA and half a dozen oysters. Imagine Groove Armada's At The River mashed up with Sade's Diamond Life and it's not nearly as awful as that sounds.

13. How Deep Is Your Love by the Bee Gees. Ah - Cromer Pier, Norfolk, August 2013. The Magic of the Bee Gees playing live. The sea under our seats at the end of the pier, the summer breeze rippling through the stick-on beards and trilby hats. Because we're living in a world of fools, oh yes.

14. Wakin' On A Pretty Day by Kurt Vile. A lovely, lazy croon over acoustic guitars and flickering drums, complete with an old school guitar solo for a middle eight. Sounds like Tennessee with the top down, the old man's beard threading through the trees, alligators on the side of the highway, our old friend Jack Daniels along for the ride.

15. Mind How You Go by Keane. The kind of big-hearted piano ballad that puts Keane right up there with giants of the field like Gilbert O'Sullivan and Ron Sexsmith. Be gracious with your life - tearjerking carpe diem advice to a child, a friend, a lover, the whole human race. The more we rush about the less we do. Excellent birthday food for thought for people in their prime.