Thursday 31 December 2009

Best of the decade: music

It's December, so everyone's suffering from listitis. Top tens, top hundreds, top thousands, top trumps, Top Gun. Lazy writing but so enjoyable to browse through. This decade has seen my musical tastes change and diversify - there's no point in even trying to remember everything for a "top 10" so here, in no particular order, are a few of my favourite things of the decade as far as music is concerned. By the nature of the piece, I will no doubt use a few too many superlatives and lashings of praise: from a literary standpoint I apologise, from a musical one I don't - these moments are worth it. I write this as the last day of the decade whizzes by on a five hour tran journey...

Kurt Wagner's Nashville outfit have been around for years, but some of their work this decade has surpassed even their previous output. Lambchop are everything that a great band should be - timeless, consistent, challenging. Wagner's idiosyncratic singing (and unique lyrics) sum up the band - nowhere better than in their 2006 LP Damaged which Wagner wrote following a cancer scare. The Guardian's review compared it with Marvin Gaye and Joy Division in the first sentence; it's an extraordinary listen. If that can be surpassed, however, it's the wonderfully uplifting "Up With People" from 2000. Jockey Slut described the Zero 7 remix as "making something perfect even better". I'd say stick with the original; perfect's good enough for me.

(Isn't it a great video!)

The first Sunday Afternoon at Dingwalls reunion, 2006
I was far too young to go to Gilles Peterson and Patrick Forge's original Sunday Afternoon at Dingwalls club sessions in the late 1980s so when I heard that there was to be a one-off revival in the original venue, it was inked into the diary. The room was packed with sweaty, now mostly 40-something dancers going ballistic to Miles Davis, Johnny Lytle, Airto Moreira, Sahib Shihab and much more. The jazzdance bangers played early on were in nosebleed territory; as the "night" went on, we got more and more anthems. Several hundred people singing along to "Skindo Le Le"? I never thought I'd experience that.

Kurt Elling - Man In The Air, 2003
The man can do no wrong. Elling is the undisputed king of male jazz vocalists at the moment, with all due respect to Jose James. His peerless album from 1997, The Messenger, is an all time classic already and after a couple of middling efforts, one could be forgiven for wondering if he would reach those heights again. With Man In The Air, Elling notched up a far more ambitious, and ultimately equally satisfying album as The Messenger. There are few original tunes; instead, Elling's vocalese takes centre stage, on a range of tunes from over the years, accompanied by a trio plus top vibes man Stefon Harris, who's a safe bet for top tunage. He takes on Weather Report, Herbie Hancock and Grover Washington originals with thought-provoking, often ambiguous lyrics; while the title track, an original tune, is strong modal fare. There are two highlights of the album, however, which elevate it to premium status. Firstly a stunning anthem in opener Minuando - a Pat Metheny original which after a shimmering 3-minute start lets rip with a glorious hook..."Already been as high as Kathmandu - ready to go as far as Timbuktu." The tempo increases, the solos fly by and Elling's countertenor returns for a jubilant final chorus. Then his boldest move of all: to cover "Resolution" from John Coltrane's legendary A Love Supreme. It's a bold jazzer who takes on any of the tracks from this LP but Elling, a man at the top of his game, proves he is more than worthy of the task. A wonderful album - now WHY have I still not seen the man sing live?

Zero 7 - Simple Things, 2001
When all's said and done, this edges it as my album of the decade. Maybe it's the memories I associate with it (first year student hangover music) but when my friend Duncan burned me a CD copy of this I was hooked straight away. It's a perfect blueprint for an album: there's consistency and direction throughout, with the tracks hanging together beautifully as a collection, but with outstanding individual tunes: "I Have Seen", "Destiny" and "In The Waiting Line" are as good as anything we've seen this decade. The choice of vocalists is important: Sophie Barker and Mozez blend in perfectly with the lazy-days production. But perhaps the finest moments on the album are from Sia Furler, who contributes vocals to "Destiny" and the heart-wrenching "Distractions". Bugz In The Attic did their best to ruin the latter track with a horrible remix, but forget that one - stick to the original.

Matthew Herbert Big Band, 2003
"Maverick" is a word that will always be used to describe Matthew Herbert, but I prefer "restless". Once merely a leftfield electronic innovator, he experimented with more and more techniques of musical production that put him in in a post-Cageian category. A techno anti-hero, his music varies from sublimely relaxed electronica (Bodily Fuctions LP) to unlistenable (The Mechanics Of Destruction). Chris Morris himself would be proud of the ridiculous genres (microhouse, anyone?) that have been invented by over-eager journalists to describe Herbert's work. But his talent - under whatever moniker he decides to use next - is past debate.

When I first heard rumours of a "Matthew Herbert Big Band" project, my tail started wagging uncontrollably. When the album dropped, I was ecstatic. Words cannot describe how I felt the first time I gave it a listen.

The principle is: take a large big band directed by Pete Wraight and including stellar individuals (Dave O'Higgins for example, whose album in collaboration with Jazzcotech, Fast Foot Shuffle, deserves a mention here); add Herbert's compositions and arm him with a sampler (his self-governed "PCCOM" prohibits and lazy sampling, however, and all samples are naturally occurring); throw in a few top vocalists (Dani Siciliano, Arto Liondsay); put them in a cauldron, add a hefty dose of magic, and serve. The result: a heady blend of soulful big band horns, with offkilter drums and noises (typewriters, books being closed). The lazy opener "Turning Pages" is a highlight, as is hypnotic closer "Stationary"; however, for me the star turn is that of Jamie Lidell, who contributes "Everything's Changed".

I made the trip up to Newcastle in April 2004, ostensibly to see my girlfriend, although "coincidentally" the MHBB were playing live at the Newcastle Opera House (a lovely warm, velvety building). Front stalls seats were a bonus. The band were nicely dolled up and Herbert himself appeared through a hole in the floor kitted out in full white tie and tails. The gig was pure theatre: from the opening moment where Herbert drank a cup of tea, then struck the cup with his teaspoon, sampled the sound and away we went with the sampler - to the inevitable politics where Herbert sampled the sound of newspapers being ripped up: "I normally to this with the Mail, but today I've decided to go for the Daily Express" (the Express had just confirmed their support for the Tories that day).

The Big Band's repoertoire includes a version of Herbert's sublime accordion-led "Cafe de Flore" - deservedly his only crossover success and to be found on many an Ibeefa-chillout album - a live version of which from the QEH I include below. There was another album in 2008 and the band still perform gigs, including a date at the Roundhouse earlier this year - but nothing can compare to that initial magic when the concept was first born.

Oh, and forget Robert Downey Jr: Matthew Herbert is the spitting image of Sherlock Holmes.

Sufjan Stevens
Another unique musical brain. Ambitious, too: my money's against him creating 50 albums, one for each state of the US, but moments like "Illinoise" and parts of the Christmas album justify Stevens' inclusion here.

Mumford & Sons, 2009
Sigh No More was an album I hadn't even heard of until I started a new job in October this year; with the luxury of Spotify in the office, we heard it a dozen times a day at its peak. A brilliant example of thunderous folk-rock, every track is memorable enough to be called an anthem while "Little Lion Man" was perhaps the best tune of 2009. Can't wait to see them at Shepherd's Bush Empire in the spring.

Berlin Philharmonic at the Proms, 2006
I managed to blag sitting in the Queen's Box (only plebs call it the Royal Box!) for two Berlin Philharmonic concerts, for nothing. Given that, at time of writing (December 2009) the Berlin Phil's two RFH gigs in 2011 are complete sell-outs, this was a blag indeed. Simon Rattle conducted an orchestra whose playing is so lush and perfect that at times I almost cried out for a little more edginess in the Mozart, but Brucker's seventh symphony, and works by Colin Matthews and Debussy, were sensational. Not for every day, but playing of this quality is out of this world.

Lily Allen
A performer on top of her game. Surprisingly, my highlight of Glastonbury 2009, she is the queen of British pop music and has the confidence to match. Her catalogue includes a whole host of irresistibly catchy, sunny, quirky, sample-heavy reggae-ish hits. With that slightly anti-establishment attitude, trashy dress sense and great looks, she's got the whole package and is a true star. Oh, and she is the ultimate example of what the internet can do for musicians.

A ropey Youtube video this one, but I thought a little slice of that electric Glastonbury performance was worth including. Believe me, at the point where it went all drum & bass (about 2 minutes into this clip), the Pyramid Stage arena went nuts!

Brian O'Kane, from 2006
Young Irish cellist who I had the privilage of being able to watch on multiple occasions in the last few years. His technique was raw to begin with but his musicality outstanding; last I heard, his tone was much more polished, but the energy and depth of his playing were unaffected. His Bach playing shows the signs of maturity of top musicians thirty years his senior; his performance of the Rachmaninov sonata is electrifying. Watch out - this guy is up with the very best I've heard.

Messiaen's Saint-Francois d'Assise, Edinburgh Festival 2001
I've loved Olivier Messiaen's music for years so the chance to see his rarely-performed opera Saint-Francois d'Assise played live in concert was a dream come true. There's a reason it's rarely performed: the resources required are vast, and it's not exactly a crowd-puller. The whole conception is on an enormous scale - it kicks off with a five-minute chorus of birdsong, played on about ten xylophones, and this grandiosity is typical throughout the five hours.

Messiaen's later work is difficult to listen to, and Saint-Francois is challenging too - the coimposer's unparalleled attention to detail and ambitious structures mean that it's a complex work throughout, but with the religous fervour, spiritual ecstasy and profundity typical of Messiaen. It's impossible to describe without using sweeping generalities. At times the tempo almost grinds to a halt - there is a half hour passage where time itself seems to be suspended. The piety of the saint, brilliance of birdsong choruses and power and love of God are interspersed throughout, with several leitmotifs used. The final chord - an attempt to portray the glory and power of God in one note? - goes on, and on, and on, gaining in volume until you think it might make the whole hall explode. A very special moment.

I visited Westinster Abbey for the first time in 2008, Messiaen's centenary year, to see an Ascension Day service with Messiaen's glorious L'Ascension performed. It's a work whose accessibility takes nothing away from its beauty and it's astonishing to think Messiaen was 23 when he wrote it.

Myspace and the internet music revolution
Myspace. iTunes. Spotify. MP3s. Musical blogs. Filesharing. Youtube. Message boards. Suddenly music is global again - anyone can listen to anything, regional boundaries are transcended. Phenomena like Lily Allen need no comment from me. Talking of message boards...


What started out as a bunch of jazz and techno geeks and Gilles Peterson groupies extended into one of the most lively places on the internet for musical - and all kinds of - discussion. If you don't know the board, don't read this, just go there; it's a unique place. Record collectors and fans with a voracious appetite for music chew the fat over all kinds of music, with no holds barred. I've been an active member since the (fairly) early days and have made loads of friends and met people to go to gigs with. The Fun Your Ear sessions, an irregular night where Brownswood heads play tunes to each other (don't call it a club night!), are the stuff of legend. Other special moments included one contributor's (Ade P) 40th birthday party, in a scout hut on Hastings beach, which started out as a kids' party (complete with goulash) and slowly morphed into a full on raveathon by the seafront (complete with banging techno, and a techno/disco set from Luke Skyywalker which if released would be among the best mix albums of the decade. Talking of mixes, Weegee's Voices mix is superb - definitely worthy of inclusion here.

Cinematic Orchestra - Everyday, 2003
2003 was the year when discerning musical heads began to realise there was a difference between naff tippy-tappy Compost electronica-lite nu-jazz, and a breed of heavyweight producers driving the boundaries in a way not seen since the electronic revolution of the 90s and probably since New Wave in the 80s? The Cinematic Orchestra were among these heavyweights. Their Everyday LP is universally revered so little comment is required from me; perfectly judged arrangements, beats and tempi, along with not a little compositional talent from Jason Swinscoe, make up the album. However, while many critics saw the whole album as universally good, I felt that the flag-waving "All Things To All Men", with UK hip hop godfather Roots Manuva delivering an unusually excellent turn, stood head and shoulders above the rest of the LP. I'd go further than that now: it's one of the tracks fo the decade. Bar none.

It's a shame that the Cinematics weren't more prolific at delivering work that lived up to their moniker, but their soundtrack to Dziga Vertov's extraordinary1929 silent film Man With A Movie Camera is enough to leave me hungry for more of the same. It contains fragments of some of their finest previous work, with a lot more new material besides. It complements the celebration of the Soviet industrial revolution perfectly.

So, this is The Man With The Movie Camera. About 2'30" in, it segues nicely into a little bit of the Cinematics' remix of Nils Petter Molvaer's "Vilderness".

The jazz revival of the 90s continues...
The revival of the 1990s, from the Young Lions to M-BASE to innovators like Kurt Elling and Stefon Harris, already mentioned, took jazz out of the 1980s doldrums; in the new century, the quality of new music has increased exponentially. To mention a few: Esbjorn Svensson's (RIP) trio E.S.T (I turned down the opportunity to see them in tiny Henry's Cellar Bar in Edinburgh around the turn of the century; a few years later they were playing the 2000-capacity Usher Hall in the same city; a fears after THAT, Svensson was dead); Robert Glasper, making jazz cool to a hip hop generation again - particular mention should be made of his mashup of Radiohead's "Everything In Its Right Place" with "Maiden Voyage"; and Jose James boldly taking on the mantle of spiritual jazz supremo (with apologies to Dwight Trible). Special mention must be made of Jane Bunnett, one of my favourite jazzers, who produced several good albums, highlights of which included two tracks in particular: the raw "Conga Blue" and beautiful "Black Is The Color". As an aside, having brought up Radiohead cover versions, I should also mention Pete Kuzma & Bilal's brilliant version of "High And Dry", another highlight of the decade.

Back to the jazz, though, and it's in the UK that the best innovations have come. Andrew McCormack, Matthew Halsall, Acoustic Ladyland, the Polar Bear collective, and Robert Mitchell have all made jazz fresh and exciting. Other influences are apparent throughout: classical, dance music, hip hop, the nu-jazz movement and club scene. But the jazz shines through.

Two pianists, in particular, rise to the top. Neil Cowley - who I praise elsewhere in this essay - has a brand of Michael Nymanesque rich minimalism which is at once accessible yet deep. His Loud, Louder, Stop album contains ten consistently excellent tracks, with the single "His Nibs" the best of all (click the link to hear some samples). King of UK jazz though is surely Gwilym Simcock; the classically trained pianist writes music that is challenging and deep, but beautiful at the same time. His suite performed at the Proms in 2008 with the BBC Concert Orchestra, was perhaps the best example yet of the usually unhappy marriage of true jazz with true classical music. I only heard it on the radio, but a great concert.

Jazzanova - "L.O.V.E and You and I", 2001
The German producers were responsible for some of the great remixes of the decade (Heritage Orchestra, Shaun Escoffery, Masters at Work), a patchy, sprawling album, and an internationally successful sound and label. The "Compost sound" sold records by the bucketload across continental Europe, with scores of imitations of their "jazzy" (ugh) loungey sound. With few exceptions (Truby Trio - "High Jazz", Koop - "Summer Sun"), these imitations were atrocious.

Much has been said of the nu-jazz scene but, while responsible for some bossa-lite guff courtesy of Nicola Conte and his cronies, this clubbier sound found its way to Finland where live outfits like the Five Corners Quintet came out with driving dancefloor jazz reminiscent of the very best of the Blue Note sound.

But back to Jazzanova. The In Between LP, while inconsistent, had its moments, including some great remixes by others (Bugz In the Attic transforming "Mwela, Mwela" into a pounding club anthem, Domu's brilliant knob-twiddling on "Soon", various housey versions of "That Night"). But the opening track, "L.O.V.E and You and I" set the tone for the whole decade of music to come with some outstanding use of sampling combined with live electronic and acoustic sounds. The Five Stairsteps' "Something's Missing" is the most prominent sample but there are others in the track, plus great keyboard work on top of a hip hop beat, with a David Friedman vibes solo to finish things off. The result: a masterpiece and while I'm not a fan of sample-remix culture, this track, at least, shows me that not ALL sonic thieves are talentless.

In fact, "Summer Sun" should have a section to it is. A genuine anthem.

Fertile Ground - Black Is..., 2004
Pete Collins' Baltimore collective have been consistently excellent since their inception, with their particular brand of energetic power soul/jazz. Navasha Daya's idiosyncratic vocals add something extra. Black Is... is a strong LP - every one of the six tracks a winner. From the driving soul of "Another Day" and "A Blues For Me", to the ultratight funky afrobeat of "Spirit World", it's a top album - but the stunning closing track, the spiritual jazz of the title track, clinches it to make it one of the albums of the decade without a doubt.

THIS! @ Bar Rumba - the nights when Irfane - "Just A Little Lovin" was new... (2002)
I had heard about the That's How It Is! club sessions at Bar Rumba before I was a student, in the days when I first heard Gilles Peterson's Worldwide sessions. When I went as a first year student, I had some of the hapiest nights of my life. I was new to all the music and it opened up new worlds for me. The packed, dark, sweaty club was throbbing until 4am every Monday night, with Peterson, Ben Wilcox and Raw Deal layng down a mixture of top quality Latin beats and uptempo jazz-housey sounds with hip hop, drum & bass (there was always a "drum & bass half hour" at peak time), techno, and some mellower soulful sounds to finish with.  had some killer nights there around this time, dancing to tunes like DJ Gregory - "Damelo" and Masters At Work feat Roy Ayers - "Our Time Is Coming" (Jazzanova remix). But one evening, a new tune was dropped. And rewound. And dropped again. And dropped a third time. It was an instant winner. A killer vocal sample (which later transpired to be Sarah Vaughan), some wickedly simple production work which gave the track its unique "skipping" sound, and...that's it. 3 minutes of instant dancefloor mayhem. It was huge on the radio, it was huge with the DJs (only bootlegs ever appeared, until a watered-down official version was released without the sample), but most of all, it was huge at THIS! Some folks turned up their noses at it after it was hyped so much, but that takes nothing away from it when it was fresh.

Older heads nod sagely and say "I was there" when talking about the Paradise Garage and Electric Ballroom backintheday; I'm proud to say I was a THIS! disciple when it mattered.

The Heritage Orchestra
A monumental project which must have had some mean fundraising and dealing to achieve, the Heritage Orchestra is a frustrating project that could achieve mighty things that could be laid down as classics for decades to come, but seem too often to make wrong decisions and get caught up in mediocre affairs. The concept of a full orchestra playing jazz-classical-beats fusion is a winner from the start. After what seemed an age, an album appeared - it's not quite the classic it could be, but in "Sky Breaks" and "Tell Me Stories", the only two vocal tracks, they have two of they anthems of the decade. Jazzanova's remix of "Sky Breaks" sees the German masters back to their very best, stripping out the orchestral sounds and doing their own thing.

Live, they have been tangled up in some dodgy projects. The Concerto for Turntables and Orchestra by Gabriel Prokofiev (grandson of...) was well conceived but poorly executed - it's a very, very dull composition, and I was frustrated in that first half at the Scala. In the second half, however, the Heritages turned to something rather different: taking on the Warped sounds of electronica masters Plaid. This was what they were made to do: lush, full instruentation, gorgeous melodies, fantastic. Next year's Southbank gig, with John Cale of Velvet Underground performing his Paris 1919 album in full, already has "gig of the year" stamped all over it. I'll be there.

UK female soul generation
Echoing the sounds of Erykah Badu et al from across the pond, a new generation of female soul singers with lush, honeyed voices started to sprout in this country. Tawiah has delivered great things; there's the gorgeous Andreya Triana (who managed to upstage headliner Jose James at Cargo: she was brilliant live); but queen of the scene is Natalie Williams, whose Secret Garden LP, with plenty of crossover appeal, is a real winner, including top tracks "Butterfly" and "This Girl". Her finest moment, however, came in collaboration with the top drum & bass producer of the last few years, Nu:Tone, with a killer track entitled "System". Drum & bass isn't QUITE dead yet!

I'm not really in a position of authority to comment on Domu, since I know many people who know the man personally and all the ins and outs of his work over the years, whereas I'm merely an armchair dabbler. What I can say is that of what little I've come across myself, he shines brighter than any other electronic producer out there. For me, the broken beat scene was all about twisting rhythms until breaking point and Domu did exactly that. The highlights for me: the 2004 Enter the Umod LP - in particular the midtempo syncopation of "Tromboline"; and his remixes (particularly the vocal one) of the rather mediocre original of Jazzanova's "Soon" from the aforementioned In Between  LP. Since the broken beat movement waned Domu produced slightly more conventional soulful house sounds, ran a label and was an insightful commentator - but his exploration of beats music with almost no on-beats, and liquid electronic sounds from the height of the broken beat scene which, in its heyday, contained someof the freshest sounds of the decade. Latterly he wrote a blog which was highly regarded (I never checked it) but recently became disenchanted, and to my knowledge has stopped both producing and writing. A great loss.

Three great oldies that got a revival through sampling
Locksmith - "Far Beyond" [Basement Jaxx - "Red Alert"]

Johnnie Taylor  - "What About My Love" [Shapeshifters - "Lola's Theme"]

Labi Siffre - "I Got The..." [Eminem - "My Name Is"]

Leonard Cohen live at the Pyramid Stage, Glastonbury, 2008

[the following is taken from a post I wrote on the Brownswood message board in 2008. A bit raw, but I decided to leave my enthusiasm unedited]

It hit me properly on waking up. I woke, sweating and uncomfortable, surrounded by strewn underwear and sodden waterproofs, when the sound of a female voice came from a few metres away:

“…no, that wasn’t Nostradamus, it was Sigmund Freud…”

And I knew I had arrived, and dozed off again. Where else in the world could you wake up in the middle of a field at 8am and overhear a conversation like that?

This was my first experience of a festival of ANY sort – and I was told “if you go for the first time, make sure it’s Glastonbury” with knowing smiles. My mate and I stocked up the car – 120 cans of lager between two of us to last four days, plus wellies (titter: Microsoft Word autochanges “wellies” to “willies”) and a wheelbarrow – and picked up a couple of girls we’d recruited over the internet (bit of an early result here as they were (1) great fun and (2) quite easy on the eye).

Nobody’s interested in the journey down so suffice to say when we arrived, I was overwhelmed. The place is VAST. It’s not a festival at all; it’s a city, completely devoted to people having a good time in WHATEVER way they please. It caters for absolutely everything. All ages, shapes and sizes (though not colours: on many an occasion I looked around my field of vision and observed that there were NO non-white people anywhere to be seen. I would say AT LEAST 99% of the punters are white). The only thing in common was the fact that everyone wants to have a great time in some sort of way – more often than not, this incorporates getting completely smashed.

Heavy rain on Thursday night gave us the mud experience which just isn’t fun, no matter what anyone tells you. It’s a bloody ordeal. Caught the Levellers who put on a good show although, due to the fact that it was the only big gig on that night, plus the rain, meant that the tent was dangerously overcrowded which was nasty. Also wandered into a small chilled tent called the Elemental Tent and caught the lovely Hannah Atkins who plays various instruments, mostly piano, and sings, sampling herself and building up multi tracks, a la Andreya Triana. Very nice, although not massively memorable. She was then joined by two other girls on vocals (and a shoddy drummer) and this was better (not sure what they call themselves as a band). A wander round Shangri La with another wasted mate and I got to bed at a sedate 4am.

To all you hardened festival goers this is all old hat, but getting into the swing of a place that literally parties 24 hours a day (with a lengthy overlap period between people going to bed and getting up) takes a bit of getting used to. But get used to it I did. Routine: stagger blindly out of tent at a very early hour, queue at length for revolting toilet, get back to tent circle, root around in the detritus under the gazebo for a half-opened tube of Pringles from two days ago, consume Pringles – augmented by chocolate and cereal bars – realise that it’s 10am and getting a bit late, reach out hand in opposite direction and crack open can of nasty session lager, stock up bag and pockets with cans to punish liver therewith, and head outwards with boldest foot forwards.

It takes a while to realise the true essence of Glastonbury: if there’s one thing Glastonbury is NOT about, it’s music. We listened to Radio 1’s highlights show afterwards, playing “all the best new bands” and commented that this doesn’t present a representative view of the festival in the slightest. Not only is there more to life than a load of rock and indie bands, but actually you could have an incredible time without hearing any music at all, such is the variety of performers and experiences on offer. Some of the street performers were brilliant/bizarre: a couple of blokes sitting in the sunshine, giving Test Match Special-style commentary on passers by; a 12 foot kilted giant, with giant dog; a madman with briefcase which emitted bloodcurdling growls at intervals, scaring kids and monged-out ravers alike.

So, the music: once you realise that it’s impossible to even scratch the surface, that you’re going to miss a lot of great shows and that it’s better to be having fun with people you like at an average show than gritting your teeth on your own and battling through crowds to a show you want to see but nobody else does, then you get along fine. I kicked off with the Cuban Brothers who were great fun (I’d seen them before, but my mates were Hermanos Cubanos virgins). Chilled out for a bit to escape the rain serenaded by Horsemeat Disco DJs – great stuff, loved it. Caught a tiny bit of KT Tunstall, who is pretty tidy, but the music’s a bit, well, I can’t actually remember any of it so it was either the fact that I can’t work my ears and eyes at the same time or that she’s just a bit dull. Caught the Sons & Daughters after that. Now maybe I’m showing my age and the fact that I don’t listen to guitar based music any more, but do all indie bands at the moment sound exactly the same? The sound du jour seems to be upbeat 4/4 pop songs with irritating harsh guitar riffs. Horrible, horrible. To be fair, the Sons & Daughters were pretty good as a live outfit.

Then it was off to the Ting Tings who I knew nothing about other than that there’s a lot of hype. So much so that the John Peel tent was completely packed and we had to listen from outside; the sound just doesn’t penetrate outside and they were hard to hear. From what I could hear, I thought they were great: entertaining and eclectic. Trotted off to the Jazz World stage to catch the Fun Lovin Criminals where I learned an important lesson: don’t go off to see bands you thought were great 10 years ago and assume they’ve still got it. It was a very, very plodding show, musically mundane, and they didn’t “get” the crowd. The hits were great, of course. Then it was off to the Dance Village to catch Roisin Murphy (cracking show, although the music was incessantly bangin’) and afterwards, Fat Boy Slim who was a bit of a guilty indulgence for me. I’d never seen him play before and had always wanted to. From the word go, the crowd went NUTS. He could have played anything he wanted; as it was, it was good oldfashioned thumping house and beats – nothing groundbreaking but all good fun. Hardfloor – “Acperience” got dropped at one point, which I spacked out to; and obviously, all his own hits got played in a capella form in one way or another (“Right Here Right Now” over “Born Slippy” for example; not subtle and I’m sure I heard that exact same combo in the radio years and years ago but sod it, who cares when it’s such a good show?)

We headed down to Shangri La again and found a few bars to drop into and explore. At 1:30 it was time for one of only three bands that I had written down in the “definite” category on my itinerary – Hayseed Dixie. They were terrific – country versions of heavy metal classics, as well as some of their own material. The rocked the house. Really funny banter too.

Went with a mate up to the Stone Circle to see the sunrise and realised we’d missed it – it was properly light. It’s supposed to be “the” place to go for the sunrise but all there is there is a load of crusties lighting fires, beating drums and getting monged. We looked at each other and said, “We’ve drunk 15 cans of lager each and we’re both completely sober. Let’s throw in the towel and go to bed.” So we did.

Up three hours later and after steeling myself for a #2 (you never forget your first time) and the essential Pringle breakfast (and winning a tin whistle jam session with one of our bunch: result) managed to drag quite a few people down early doors to the Jazz World stage for the Neil Cowley Trio. Very few people there – it was just too early, I assume – but we sat down with breakfast and chilled. I thought they were terrific, after overcoming early minor technical problems. Had a quick chat with Neil afterwards (top bloke), and got a t-shirt and CD signed (the album’s a need for anyone currently dithering). I wonder if they’d ever played a sound system even half as loud before? Very, very good set. Jazz for the 21st century, the improvisation isn’t there but the spirit certainly is. Rich and luxuriant harmonies, Michael Nyman-like, in a way (that’s meant to be a compliment!). If you like “Goldwrap” by Esbjorn Svensson (RIP) then you’ll love this. Technically brilliant pianist too, with a tight band doing some nice rhythmic stuff. From there, it was a long walk back to the car to stock up on more booze (note for next year: pay the extra tenner and get a heavy duty wheelbarrow that has the luxury of a tyre and a body that doesn’t break when you put any weight in there). Caught the tail end of the Raconteurs – solid stuff. Then in a large group we wandered round to catch Simian Mobile Disco DJs. We were a bit battered by this point and didn’t even notice that they were on until halfway through the set. Pretty disappointing – bland beats. I know this stuff is oh-so-now and played in East London twatteries everywhere but I thought it was wank, to be perfectly honest. After that it was off to the other stage for Hot Chip. We were battered by this point so judgement might be slightly affected, but we all thought they were a bit naff as well. Truth be told, we weren’t really listening though.

Then came the Great Decision of the weekend: to Jay-Z or not to Jay-Z? Rumours abounded about Beyonce and Coldplay turning up. In the end the group split. Those who went said it was a sort of seven-out-of-ten show. I opted to stay at the Other Stage for Massive Attack.

Massive Attack’s performance was epic and utterly brilliant. They made an iffy start by getting political: within seconds of walking on and with reference to competing with Jay-Z, they said “everyone says that hip hop shouldn’t be at Glastonbury…well that’s just a bit fucking racist.” Stunned silence: bitterness is not the order of the day at Glastonbury. From then on, however, the show was monumental. Blending their hits (storming versions of “Teardrop” and “Karmacoma” in particular) with some lesser known tunes, combined with brilliant visuals and all in all a tremendous live show.

Ended up with a mate wandering along when we picked up four random scousers – two blokes and two girls. They had no idea what to do so we tagged along together and went to Shangri La again. Wandered into loads of places; found ourselves stumbling into the Jungle Drummer live (ace) and then onto some tiny place where everyone was absolutely wasted. It was only there that I realised these guys were banjaxed on sweeties themselves; my mate disappeared so I ended up raving the night away with them, drinking all their alcohol which they didn’t want and talking to loads of caners. All good fun. I ended the night walking one of them back to her tent and chatting until 8am. Utterly, utterly twunted.

When there’s serious lash to be had, however, there’s no time to be mucking about with sleep or feeling sorry for yourself, so within four hours I was up again, a bit disgusting as I’d fallen asleep on top of a half eaten peanut butter kit kat chunky in my sleeping bag and was minging. Voice gone, we grabbed some tea in the Park whilst listening to some dub in the morning sunshine (perfect) and got pissed again. Very pissed, very quickly. Caught Mark Radcliffe’s folk band, the Family Mahone, who were great fun. Most of the crowd were old and sedate; we were drunk and lairy. Much dancing was done. Amazing scenes.

We ended up at the Pyramid Stage where I ended up staying for the rest of the day – about 8 hours. Got the end of John Mayer (not bad, not my thing), all of Neil Diamond (cracking show), and then Goldfrapp who were chilled out to the point fo horizontal, and a bit vegan, but perfect in the circumstances. It’s amazing when you look at the programme of Glastonbury, you think “Eh?” to some of the programming on the major stages, but the programming is perfect.

Then came Leonard Cohen.

I’d had lots of great moments thus far but no Moments. Leonard Cohen was an hour-and-a-half long Moment. Quite simply put, it was the most stunning gig I’ve ever had the privilege to watch.The man is an absolute master (and the coolest man on the planet) – had the crowd eating out of his hand. The songs are gorgeous, he played them all super-slow with lots of organ backing and almost no drums, and as the sun went down and he went into "Everybody Knows", “I’m Your Man” and then “Hallelujah”, I broke down. I actually spent most of the gig looking backwards; it’s hard to put into words, but the sight of 50,000 people smiling is quite simply the most beautiful and wondrous sight I’ve ever seen. I spent all of “I’m Your Man” watching a grizzled, bandana-clad gent holding his braided 10-year-old daughter in his arms and they rocked softly from side to side and I just stood there with tears pouring down my face and no shame. Very, very special and a performance I’ll never forget. The man is so humble too – he greeted the rapturous applause at the end of each song with a simple “Thank you so much” that came from the bottom of his heart. A quasi-religous experience. Incredible.

This is, perhaps, the least satisfactory Youtube video ever - but sadly Cohen refused to allow any TV coverage of the gig, so clandestine filming from the audience is all that exists. Watch, in particular, the glimpses of sunset and smiling faces: some things lin life are priceless. This evening was one of them.

Edinburgh's Silver Man: why he goes into Room 101

Princes Street. Edinburgh. The most magnificent major shopping street in the world? Maybe, if you keep your neck turned so you constantly face southwards. Snow-covered volcanic rock with a castle growing out of the top, with anorexic faux-medieval buildings in support, all overlooking a green valley? Superb. Then someone shouts "watchwhiryirgawn" as, not looking where you're going, you crash into the crowd whiling away their time watching The Silver Man.

Edinburgh folks will know what I'm on about. The Silver Man is cut from the same stock as the human statues and squeakers that infest tourist traps the world over. But he decides to set himself up on the single pavement on Edinburgh's busiest street, and single-handedly create a bottleneck.

It's not his awful bleep-techno-lite CD soundtrack played from his stereo (it's better than the atrocious bagpipe music blasted out from the Sikh-run tartan "buy William Wallace's actual claymore here" shops that are the only places who can afford Princes street rents these days. It's not his once-you've-seen-two-minutes-you've-seen-it-all moonwalking writhing (c'mon, I'd outdance him in a heartbeat). It's the sad, patheric faces of tourists and pasty-faced besprogged teenagers alike, who think they're being entertained. So sorry, Silver Man, you get my bullet.

Oh, and did I mention the fact that it clogs up the bloody pavement?

Monday 14 December 2009

Where has this sudden surge in female electropop come from?

I'm not really au fait with pop music any more (I haven't been since roughly 1999 to be honest) but after years of the charts being dominated by either awful, awful bling-clone hip hop with atrocious vocal hooks from the likes of Chris Brown, N Dubz and various Eminem proteges, or cheesegrater voiced tight-trousered indie bands with harsh guitar lines and two-step "jaunty" drums (hello, Arctic Monkeys; hello, Libertines), things have taken a rather abrupt turn in the last 12 months. Because the charts seem to be dominated by female artists, with an interesting edge to them, who can actually sing.

Lily Allen is the queen of British pop. I saw her at Glastonbury this year and she had utter star quality: a woman at her absolute peak, enjoying every minute of performing, with a hefty catalogue of wonderful, idiosynchratic songs, lyrically and musically some of the best we've had in the last decade. She is glamourous in the extreme - "alternative" without Camden griminess, just the right level of gobbiness, and a consummate performer. It was a wonderful gig.

But Allen has been joined by a rather trendier set of female performers who have taken pop music in a whole new direction with their brand of electropop. And it's a revelation.  Take Florence and the Machine for starters. Somewhere in between trance, disco, rock and operatic pop, it's a unique sound and my colleague reports that Florence's Brixton gig last night was tremendous. The Veronicas' wonderful "Untouched" - anthemic in a Calvin Harris sense but much more powerful - is easily one of the best songs of the last couple of years; the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' dancefloor friendly punky upbeat sounds are still all the rage and Little Boots is also on top of her game.

The "sound of 2009" clearly pays homage to the new wave sounds of the 1980s. But there's more - the androgynous, polysexual aspect of new wave culture has returned - but with female protagonists. For Frankie, Annie and Chris Tennant, we have a new breed - perhaps invoking the post-punk spirit of Debbie Harry. La Roux, for example, the alterego of Elly Jackson, describes herself as "well androgynous" - her neutral face (alt.gorgeous? I think so) while Katy Perry's lyrical flirtations with bisexuality tapped into the current climate.

However, the queen of the hypersexual, polysexual electropop world at the moment is undoubtedly Lady Gaga. Her costumes - which Westwood, McQueen and Gaultier would be proud of - are spectacular and help create a unique performing persona which perhaps masks a rather simpler soft centre (on Jonathan Ross a few months ago she just came across as weird and not very bright). At the heart of Gaga's package, though, is a string of blisteringly good pop tunes - reminiscent of Cher perhaps, but more pop than electro. Catchy, feelgood, lyrical...a far cry from X-Factor generated dross. I get wound up by her attention seeking as much as the next person God, the girl can belt out a tune, and at least she's turned music into a performing art form again. I hope burlesque artists can be inspired again.

Thursday 3 December 2009

Incompetent, greedy RBS wasters need to get a grip on reality

So the RBS directors are playing hardball over bonuses. Now, I actually had a lot of sympathy for Fred Goodwin. He was turned into a national pariah for destroying the world which Gordon Brown had to go and save (ah bless). To be honest, in his position as the most hated man in Britain, I'd have taken all the pension I could muster and hopped off to Spain to enjoy the rest of my life, as well; it's not like he single-handedly ruined the financial system, although to read the papers, you think he did.

This is different. RBS want to pay £1.5bn in bonuses to investment banking staff. And the directors are throwing their toys out of the pram - threatening to quit if the government vetoes it. Sorry lads: you don't call the shots any more. You've had your opportunity to run things, and blown it. Now, it's a case of put up or shut up.

Vince Cable, as usual, has called it right. The government should accept the resignations of the directors. If ever there was a tainted CV, it was one which says "RBS Director" at the top. And that's what the whole issue is about: retaining talent.

Paying decent salaries in the public sector is most certainly an issue, because talented people can earn multiple times their salary by making a move to the private sector. So I can understand the BBC's massive salaries (for executives, not on-screen talent; moving from BBC News to ITV News is unlikely to get you a pay rise). But apart from a lucky few, all the banks are skint; and moving abroad is an empty threat. There are plenty of talented people who would jump at the chance to do twice as good a job as the current crop of bankers, for half the money. The goalposts have shifted; it's time the bankers had a good look at themselves and look up "bonus" in the dictionary while they're about it. A bonus is a reward for outstanding performance. Judging from the catastrophic mess created in the last few years, "outstanding performance" has been thin on the ground recently. The bankers can quit their whingeing and get on with their jobs.

Oh, and one final point: the amounts of taxpayers' money going into inept bankers' pockets put the odd thousand here and there claimed by Tory MPs for their duck houses into the shade. I wish the media would put things in perspective sometimes.

Tuesday 1 December 2009

It's a small world

Orwell would have been proud. If I write a little post like this, then those experts at Social Media Library will get a little bleeping noise in their inbox thanks to Google Alerts. In fact, this blog will doubtless find its way into the Social Media Library at some point...and then everything I write will be archived, analysed and rated. Powerful stuff.

Yes yes, of course I work there, but it tickles me that I can write a private blog post and hours later get an email pinging in my inbox telling me all about it.

Monday 30 November 2009

A new website address

It was there, it was 6 quid. It's quite handy having an unusual name sometimes - you can snaffle up bits of internet with your name on easily. So - I have a new web address for this blog which is; the original blogger URL ( will still work fine.

The only thing left now is for me to actually write some stuff. Ball's in my court, then.

Tuesday 6 October 2009

A tourist in Wembley: something I wrote a few months ago

I actually wrote this in December last year, never got round to putting it up though...

The idea sprang into my mind as I brushed away the cobwebs of a three-star hangover (in film review speak: there were moments where it asserted itself, but hardly memorable). It being a while since I had the time to do so, I indulged in all the essential pursuits of the lone hungover male (shuffling around in tracksuit bottoms, yesterday’s boxers and Moroccan slippers – check; copious scrotum scratching in front of Saturday Kitchen and Sky Sports News – check; bacon sarnie, cup of tea and, joy of joys, the discovery of a leftover microwaveable choccie pudding – check). Selflessness not being one of Eoghan’s greatest virtues, I was desperate to find something to take the place of Christmas shopping, so I was relieved to remind myself that I’d been meaning to have a poke around Wembley for some months.

The arch of the stadium dominates the skyline for miles around, but upon exiting the tube station one is confronted by the sleek, elegant behemoth of the structure itself. Corporate messages and pseudo-inspirational guff (Bobby Moore this, Beckham that) are everywhere, and the vast swathes of huge glass windows give an uncomfortable feeling that behind each one is a skipload of prawn sandwiches accompanying the signing of contracts with backs turned to the on-pitch action, but it’s an undeniably beautiful monster.

A 20 minute walk takes you into Wembley proper – which at first sight seems like any other north London suburb – all the usual suspects. Wandering down the high street, a human crosswind nearly blew me off my feet; I flailed around, grabbed onto a lamppost and managed to escape the tempest of bodies – which, from a safe distance, I ascertained was the swarm of locust-humans piling into the Woolworths closing down sale.

Death came even closer as I leapt unwisely in front of a bus en route to the haven of an Oxfam. A Jonathan Raban book on his travels in the Mississippi looks brilliant after only a few pages – and contains the phrase “inefficient pornography” which was worth the price alone. This was joined by a small Madhur Jaffrey compendium, a cocktail book and some Shakespeare (Twelfth Night). Then it was time to peruse the records, and with my digger hat on, I wondered what the casual observer would make of my haul which consisted of Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto, a High Contrast drum & bass 12” and…Rick Astley. The shopkeeper remarked that there were more through the back and would I like to take a look; I nearly hugged him when I found the very un-chazza Urszula Dudziak’s Magic Lady (with “Samba Ulla”) for 59p, as well as Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis.

The real reason I was in the area was to visit Indian London. I had a vague idea – from past information gleaned from my friends Sanjiv and Paul and a short googling session – that Ealing Road was the place to go, so I sallied forth in that direction. The High Road meanders along, with pound shops and mobile fascia stores aplenty. I was impressed by the spectacularly vulgar suits sold in a local tailors; a gold tailcoat, I’m sure, would look fantastic on a pair of shoulders originating from the subcontinent, but the thought of one adorning the fragile frame of yours truly is just too horrific to bear. Although, I must say, I’m sorely tempted.

Wembley is, apparently, the most un-English area in London; more than half its residents were born outside the UK. I’m not an expert on the subcontinent, but from what I could glean from shopfronts and restaurants, there are a lot of Gujeratis and Sri Lankans around. It has a very different feel from, say, the Edgware Road. The latter has a romance about it – just by watching the groups of men chatting over shisha until 2am at the outside tables, you could easily imagine yourself drifting off to Beirut, whereas in Wembley one is still undoubtedly in London. In truth, wandering down the Ealing Road, I had expected the stretch of shops and restaurants to be larger, but contented myself to wandering back and forth along the street, taking in the sights, from the stunningly gorgeous girls behind the counters of the jewellery shops to the amusing sign over a shop proudly announcing Fireworks: Buy 1, Get 2 Free!

Food shops, however, were aplenty, and I visited several. Of course, I had to give the impression that I was on a buying mission and not a mere tourist, so I loaded myself up in each one. The first thing that surprised me was that Indian shops are not dominated by spices. In fact, although you can pick up enormous bags of fennel seeds, turmeric and cumin very easily, there were some spices conspicuous by their absence (I didn’t spot and mace or saffron, for example, all day). On the other hand, literally scores of different kinds of flour and ground pulses adorn the shelves of every place; First I entered a butchers. Staying true to my mantra to never pass a lamb’s heart without buying it, I also picked up some stewing mutton, and fennel seeds and garam masala which I later saw identical bags for half the price elsewhere. I drank a carton of a mango drink which slipped down nicely, although I’ve never been a massive fan of mango juice.

There are plenty of small shops and takaway joints selling both savoury and (especially) sweet snacks; when I saw a takeaway offering 3 dal wada for £1, my spirits rose. These were not dissimilar in texture to falafel, but had a delicious sweet, nutty, spiciness and I wolfed them down. Next up was a trip to one of the many cash-and-carries, where I emerged with cumin, whole coriander seeds, fenugreek and mustard seeds. I was thirsty again from the dal wada, and despite having an inherent dislike of coconut milk, was seduced by the thought of “when in Rome” and bought a can of the stuff, which had a little water and sugar thrown in to make a drink.

At the first sip, I was pleasantly surprised: it was pure and refreshing and, injecting myself with stereotypes and easing my imagination into fourth gear, I was able to imagine myself on a Goan beach, pouring the nectar down my throat. This reverie was cut short by the angry snarl of an old woman with numerous shopping bags, whose path I blocked. Sadly, the drink rapidly lost its appeal and the sudden appearance of lumps with the texture of feta almost made me deposit the aforementioned bacon sandwich, pudding and dal wada into the gutter.

Undeterred, I found my way into another shop where I filled up with all kinds of junk with which to clutter up the kitchen (any advice on what the hell to do with tamarind paste gratefully received). I was about to turn for home when on a hunch, I decided to explore a little further down the Ealing Road and, sure enough, the beating heart of Indian Wembley revealed itself past the houses. Vast cash-and-carries with rows of beautifully arranged fresh vegetables, street stalls selling sweet potato curry surrounded by youths consuming the same. There was no sign of either of the restaurants I was looking for as recommended by Paul and Sanjiv, though; any ideas, chaps? I plumped for the undisputed king of supermarkets, VB & Sons – a vast Lidlesque affair with row after row of sauces, pulses and spices. I emerged with some chapatti flour (no, I don’t know why either), cornflour, and dried coconut milk, the latter with an unpromising Nestle logo.

In VB, I’d say there were about 200 people shopping; I did a quick scout of each aisle and concluded that I was the only white face. London it might be, but this was another world. I was enlightened – the happiest I’d felt for a while. On the face of it, this was a walk around a grotty London suburb; for me, though, it was a micro-holiday, a few hours of forgetting everything else and getting lost in the atmosphere. The bus back to the tube station sailed past McDonalds and screaming police vans and my romantic blinkers were reluctantly ripped off.

Sunday 30 August 2009

Real British food: up with the best

The problem with comparing national cuisines is that too often people just miss the point. The great foods of the world aren’t the banquets; they’re not the restaurant dishes. Rather, they’re the peasant dishes, the street food, the things Mama made when you were small.
On that count, British food is up with the the best of anywhere. But you have to be selective with what you choose.
Ask your average Joe “what is the quintessential British dish?” and you’ll get “Roast Beef and Yorkshire pudding” trotted out time and time again. The problems with RB&YP are manifold. For a start, it’s not universally eaten. These days it’s more often served in pubs than at home (more on pub grub later); Yorkshire pudding isn’t always served (and when it is, its usually out of a packet); and it’s not particularly unique (Britain isn’t the only place roast meat is eaten). Far more importantly, perhaps, it’s just not a great dish. Yorkshire pudding itself is both unique and delicious, and therefore a British classic, but the most British aspect of a Sunday roast is, perhaps, the traditional appallingness of the vegetables. Putting RB&YP to one side and considering the “Sunday roast” more generally (a tired, middle-class tradition if ever there was one), apart from some accompaniments, there’s nothing British about it.
It’s the “veg” part of the “meat-and-two…” that strikes fear into the hearts of the Frenchies, and practically anyone else who drums up clichés of awful British cooking. Boiled carrot. Boiled sprouts. Boiled cabbage. Boiled peas. Boiled broccoli. You get the trend? All served with no seasoning whatsoever, cooked to within an inch of their lives and sitting, limply and sadly, swamped in gravy. Only the mighty roast potato can hold its own.
As a side note, the exception to the “boring roast” rule is Christmas dinner which is a world-class affair, but even then it thrives from occasion rather than cuisine. The sprouts-and-chestnuts combo perks things up, but it’s all a prelude to Christmas pudding (of which more later).
I swore to myself that when I wrote this I wouldn’t get bogged down with the Sunday roast, so instead I wanted to think about what THE great national dish would be. There are some criteria which I think are vital for something to be a truly national dish:
1. It must be unique to that country, or at least have an association so strong that when the name is mentioned, the country instantly leaps to mind.
2. It must be accessible. The ingredients have to be easily obtainable, not over-expensive, and perhaps most importantly, it must be easy for unskilled cooks to concoct.
3. It must be universal – geographically (not a speciality so regional that only a couple of counties consume it) and it must be something that’s eaten regularly by young and old, working class and middle class.
4. Ideally, it should be a dish to be proud of and worth celebrating.
There’s only one obvious answer that fits all these criteria, for me. It’s the BREAKFAST. Our true national dish is surely the fry, the “full English”, the all-day breakfast. It’s universal across Britain and Ireland, eaten regularly by all (the Breakfast transcends class divisions), easy to do at home, indeed it’s a highlight of many people’s weekend. Whether it’s (apologies in advance for resorting to clichés) working men in a caff having an all-day fry on their break from the site, or 2.4 children family having their breakfast with the Sunday papers, it remains an institution.
One of the great things about the Breakfast is that it can be as simple or elaborate as you like. The basics: bacon, fried eggs, toast (preferably white, and usually out of a packet…bread isn’t a British speciality) and a drink, normally tea; coffee just doesn’t go with grease.
Then there are the sundries, which it would insult the reader’s intelligence to go into in detail, but for the record must be listed. Sausages – unlikely to be of great quality, but the next-most-essential participant after bacon and eggs; fried mushrooms; grilled tomato; baked beans; black pudding (a truly magnificent dish on its own but sadly less common these days); hash browns; chips; orange juice.
I’m not well travelled at all, but when I go abroad what I like best is to ignore the flashy places, the tourist traps and the gourmet stuff, and head for the local joints and the market stalls. In Marrakech, my second favourite meal was at a market stall on the main square, the Jamaa el Fna.  This square (it’ll be the one on the postcard from your sister) is heaving with stalls selling excellent ranges of meatballs, sausages and so on – but not a single Moroccan to be seen eating there. My girlfriend and I picked out a stall populated exclusively by Moroccan men – there were only two dishes on offer: a bowl of bean gruel, or cow’s head. I regret to report that neither of us had the stomach for the head and opted instead for the gruel – an uplifting, warming dish, served with the ubiquitous mint tea – which had a ratio of one large box of sugar cubes to every pot.
In a similar way, it’s the caffs of Britain where our culture really lies, and the Breakfast is the dish of choice there. My weak efforts are shameful in comparison to Russell Davies’s wonderful eggsbaconchipsandbeans blog which says all that has to be said. Whether chips have a place in a Breakfast is a mater of debate, but it’s a minor quibble with such a fantastic piece of work. It’s a labour of love and the enthusiasm he projects is something to die for.
The sandwich
Again, it ticks all the boxes: universal, accessible and definitely British. It’s so universal, in fact, that it’s easy to wolf one down without noticing that you’re eating it; I mean, when was the last time a sandwich was the highlight of your day? (I know the answer to that one actually – it was the last time I had a roast lamb sandwich, with Yorkshire pudding, roast spuds and mint sauce as well as various other trimmings, at Fuzzy's Grub).
The twin pillars upon which the reputation of the sandwich stands are the ham sandwich and the cheese. Not being a huge Cheddar fan, cheese sandwiches have never appealed to me personally – but I’ll never underestimate their importance. Throw in a bit of pickle, and you have the Ploughman’s. The ham sandwich has become terribly debased but a good thick slice of ham with a touch of mustard – sandwich heaven.
Spare a thought for a couple of sandwich oddities: the cucumber – part of that bastion of the bourgeoisie,  Afternoon Tea, of which more later – and the jam sandwich, sadly a dying breed.
Then, of course, let’s not forget the bacon sandwich. As Nigel Slater points out, you need white bread from a packet for this one. Margarine, bacon, a small squirt of ketchup or brown sauce and there you go. It’s a distant cousin of the Breakfast. The all-day-breakfast-sandwich is a bit contrived for me and gets marked with a big Fail.
Britain is a country that loves carbs in general in serious quantities. In Ireland it’s the same with an even heavier slant towards the potato, but this side of the water, we get through a load of bread, rice, pasta, and potatoes in various forms. The execrable boiled, the glorious roasted, mash (especially with sausages), and of course chips. Fish and chips isn’t a dish eaten at home but is an institution. Crunchy fluffy chips, light batter on the fish, please. Oh, and can I have mine from Edinburgh, with sauce. If you don’t know what I mean, then get up to Edinburgh. But I’m at the risk of drifting into regional specialities here. Whilst on the subject of carbs, another fatty way to get our calorific intake is through…
The pie
The pub classic. Now pub grub is a relatively recent phenomenon; pubs used to be for drinking (and smoking) in, and if you could get hold of a pickled egg or packet of pork scratchings you were doing just fine. For better or for worse (better, I reckon) you can get a meal in most pubs, although most places reckon they can get away with charging restaurant prices for distinctly under-par food. Central to pub food is the pie & pint. Meat pies are as English as you can get – everything from the Cornish pasty through to the pork pie. All are gluttonously decadent. None are healthy. All are enjoyable. A special mention to something which I’ve never tried but is next on my list – the classic East End “pie & mash” with liquor on the side. Manze is acknowledged as the best place in London to get your pie & mash – need to take a trip there soon.
Many countries don’t “do” desserts. The Italians manage pannacotta and panettone. The Germans have various tasty pancake things. Even the French struggle, with tarte tatin, crème brulee and a handful of others. But I don’t think any cuisine celebrates sweet things as much as British.   Puddings! Cakes! Pies! Sweetmeats! Visions of tea parties and picnics, of jelly-and-ice-cream birthdays, of chocolate decadence. British desserts are simple and delectable. The plain cake is the cornerstone of our desserts: good old-fashioned Victoria sponge, from which so many good things stem. Then there’s apple pie. Scones with jam and clotted cream. Talking of cream, there’s strawberries and aforementioned. Bakewell tart. Lemon meringue pie. The list goes on, and on, and on. Other countries may think that cheese is a sophisticated end to a meal, but that’s only because their desserts are rubbish. Long live the British dessert.

What of other classics? Many are bastardised versions of foreign dishes. Our huge immigrant population makes this country one of the most exciting places to live in the world, but sadly our acceptance for low standards means that those immigrants don’t always produce great food themselves. Tikka masala may be hailed as “the true national dish” but ultimately tikka, Chinese takeaways and rubbery pizzas are just poor imitations of great dishes from elsewhere.  Debased versions of foreign cuisine are not British cooking at its finest. Rather, the old traditional dishes, the universal home-comfort favourites, are timeless and on a par with any bouillabaisse or paella.

Tuesday 28 July 2009

Hype, masters at work and bleak brilliance: three West End blockbusters

Hamlet (RSC, dir Gregory Doran, Novello Theatre) **
Waiting for Godot (Theatre Royal Haymarket, dir Sean Mathias) *****
Hamlet (Donmar Warehouse productions, dir Michael Grandage, Wyndham’s Theatre) ****
2009 has been the year of the classic megaproduction. Rarely can there have been so much anticipation surrounding a Hamlet, let alone a Godot. Would the productions themselves withstand such hype and scrutiny?
The RSC Hamlet (**) , perhaps better known as the David tennant Hamlet, was perhaps the most eagerly anticipated Shakespeare production EVER – certainly in my lifetime. Tickets sold out for the entire London run in a matter of hours. As a result, I found myself queuing one freezing January morning at 5am on Aldwych, for one of the day seats that were held back.
Queuing for returns and day seats is a particularly British pastime and one which always brings the same characters together, time after time. There was the woman at the front, with picnic hamper and shooting stick, who had sat on her own for four hours until the second person in line arrived. There was the bright American student, who prattled on, brightly, about nothing in particular in a loud voice which had just the right tone to pierce whatever defences I attempted to put up as I made manful efforts to sleep on my haunches. It was an incessant noise and I would have pleaded manslaughter on the grounds of both self defence and diminished responsibility. There was the silent, anorexic male, reading Dostoyevsky. There was the matronly type, offering tea and sandwiches to all around her. There was the plummy type in her sixties, who discussed all things theatrical with her neighbours, until at one point she came out with “Oh reaaaaaly? What an absolute fucking bastard.”
Workers, clubbers and homeless alike looked on, wondering why such a motley crew of middle class (mostly) fiftysomethings would sit in freezing drizzle at the crack of dawn. There is little to keep one amused. Sandwich delivery vans, all from firms with punnish monikers (“The Well Bread Sandwich” and the like), provided the bulk of the entertainment. Apart from that it is a long, hard slog to 10am.
These were the hottest tickets in town. Seeing the Doctor Who Hamlet was like getting tickets to the Governor’s Ball after the Oscars. This was real deal gold-dust business. But what of the performance itself? On paper it was an embarrassment of riches. Not just Tennant, but Patrick Stewart too; and the kitemark of an RSC production. Surely nothing could go wrong.
Personally, I was sorely disappointed, but it must be said that I was in the minority. First things first, let’s get Tennant out of the way. He hammed everything up, he leapt and gurned, contorting his face in his trademark way. He was never Hamlet; he was always David Tennant doing Hamlet. He has the misfortune of a very distinctive style, and thus it is always hard to shake off the feeling of watching the actor rather than the part. He was not helped by a production that attempted to inject humour at the most inappropriate places while missing obvious jokes in the text; as a result, is had a disjointed, uncomfortable feel, while making Tennant look as if he was going for cheap laughs half the time. The second half picked up well as the action intensified, but I still came away slightly short-changed (as the day seats were a fiver, perhaps an inappropriate choice of phrase).
The supporting cast were mixed. Patrick Stewart, as the Ghost and Claudius, was understated and had suitable grandeur without being spectacular. Penny Downie as Gertrude was majestic; she was terrifyingly powerful and the bedroom scene with Hamlet was electric. Also of particular note was Edward Bennett as Laertes.
As soon as word went around that the two veteran giants of the Shakespeare-Hollywood crossover, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, were joining forces to do Waiting for Godot (*****), there was only one word in my head: unmissable. Of course, like the rest of the world I had seen them together for a few fleeting moments in the X Men films, and despite the CGI that was enough to make me realise that the two of them had the potential to create something very, very special together.
Never having seen Godot before, I went with a light heart: I knew that it might well be something that I wouldn’t enjoy, but I also knew that if these two couldn’t make it work, then it could simply be written off as a piece for which I don’t have the intellectual capacity.
McKellen and Stewart were, simply brilliant by virtue of the fact that they managed to put the real star of the show to the fore: Beckett himself. Their considerable acting skills and Sean Mathias’ directing ensured that far from being a play consisting 4301of two old men talking about nothing, it became a wonderfully uplifting journey through static  - or cyclical, depending on which way you look at it – time. Simon Callow’s brutal and grotesque Pozzo provided horror and light relief in equal quantities, while the bizarre Lucky (Ronald Pickup) was distressing to watch. As for the leads themselves: they eked humour out of every line. It was a production full of pathos, but ultimately uplifting: two men in the twilight of their lives, watching time tick by, but making the most of every second of their lives by enjoying each other’s company. A better depiction of friendship I have never seen before. The production also seemed to emphasise just how Irish the play is: men talking about nothing, for days on end, and yet remaining  stoically upbeat about the future (with lashings of healthy cynicism thrown in). The best was left until last: the vaudeville curtain call, with bowler hats the stars of the show, was a wonderful way to leave this magnificent production.
Michael Grandage is without doubt the director du jour and having seen his Donmar-on-West-End-residency productions of Ivanov and Twelfth Night, as well as his superb Othello last year, I had high hopes for his Hamlet (****). For those who hadn’t been to the RSC version, there was a feeling of going off to Bristol University having missed out on Cambridge: probably a decent experience, but not the unforgettable, lifechanging affair that seeing David Tennant might have been.
By contrast to the RSC’s patchy effort, this  jude_lawwas a simpler affair: a Jude Law tour de force. Law, a much underrated Hollywood actor in my opinion (his performance in Closer is the highlight of a superb film), covered a vast range of emotions and philosophies throughout, but always emphasising the confusion and self-doubt that the Prince feels. Whether berating those around him for their moral flimsiness or demonstrating Shakespeare’s exquisite existentialist soliloquies, Law engaged with the audience from the word go and never let up.
It occurred to me that perhaps Law was projecting a little of himself into the part; he has always been an enigma, with rumours of a cold heart where women are concerned and just the other day was pictured lashing out at a photographer. I wondered if he had managed to put himself not only in Hamlet’s shoes, but in his mind as well.
The production was based purely around highlighting the Prince’s inner turmoil. Action and humour were downplayed – indeed, this was a bleak, almost elegiac performance at times. Some of the action was inadequate; there was not enough tension towards the end (partly because Law’s titanic philosophical effort in the first half had been so exhausting) and of the supporting cast, only Matt Ryan as Horatio was convincing, providing a strident foil to Law for Hamlet at his most positive: in true Love.

Sunday 14 June 2009

A Ryanair Reverie

“In the event of an emergency, oxygen masks will drop from above your head. Insert 10 euro and breathe normally…”

With a turbulent bump, my daydream ended abruptly. Hostesses Kayleigh and Anna wandered listlessly by, clutching menus and scratchcards with expressions of hope rather than expectation, although I may have mistaken them for indifference. The Ryanair Experience was in full swing.

It begins at a grim park-and-ride in the middle of the rectum of the country which on polite maps calls itself Luton. Train tickets now do not automatically include the price of the 5-minute bus journey which follows; cue exasperated arguments between travellers and bus driver – the latter, in a rather Continental style, conducting his business with an elaborate shrug.

Luton Airport itself needs no further introduction. Suffice to say that the signs for “priority queue” amused me; one customs man sitting doing nothing while the other queue stretched ever longer. One does not pay pennies for a flight and then expect the kid glove treatment. Enforced discomfort is the norm.

A man with Beckham 7 England shirt was in the midst of an argument with Unsmiling Customs Official Number 3. The latter did not consider himself uptight, as Beckham 7 insinuated. At the fourth time of asking, Beckham 7 admitted that he “might” have told the previous androgynous official that he had a bomb in his luggage. Tongue-lashing taken and looking suitably chastened, he wandered through, muttering about “can’t take a joke” and “yerrhavinafackinlarff” in the same sentence, which seemed rather ironic to me.

The bag weighing ceremony is done with equal seriousness. Ryanair doling out arbitary meanness for no apparent reason, the weight limit is 15kg for checked in luggage as opposed to the customary 20 (Easyjet feels like comparative luxury) and even hand baggage is weighed – none of the usual “if you can lift it with one hand, then it’s hand baggage” malarkey, and at £10 a kilo outsize charges, it’s not surprising they pay close attention. Everything about the Ryanair Experience is about making money: hard squeezing, wrenching, sell-your-grandmother money making. From the moment one steps onto the plane itself, the sales attempts are persistent. Reports that there will soon be charges for toilets, wheelchairs and online check-in are depressing, amusing and unsurprising rolled into one.

Ryanair represents the New Ireland. 20th century Ireland was all about living up to the stereotypes of pot-holes in the road, subsistence economies, vague incompetence and general innocent niceness. The 21st century Ireland is a ruthless, profit making, beEuroed nation perfectly personified by Michael O’Leary’s behemoth company. This is a country where quality of life is now much better than the UK, according to a 2004 study. And yet if the country as a whole follows its leading airline, much of its soul will be lost.

Sladjana’s mesmerising dimple came close to tempting me to buying a scratchcard (for “charity” – presumably the Michael O’Leary Fund) and the smokeless cigarettes (“Are you desperate for a smoke?”) got me chuckling, but my hands stayed firmly in my pockets. And in truth, the cabin crew’s hearts were not in their work. Their expressions were neutral and resigned, immune to the whines of their customers. I wondered whether working as a flight attendant was like living as a woman under Sharia law – repressed, discouraged from displaying any personality or human nature, living as an object. Only at one point did the facade waver: when the woman next to me expressed outrage at a £5 charge for a single slice of pizza, Sladjana was apologetic and almost humble, branding the price “ridiculous”.

As for those customers, the British Holidaymaker Abroad was the order of the day. Aside from Beckham 7, there was the bloke in the fluorescent pink t-shirt, oh-so-trendy straw hat and bleached blond hair. Oh, and a bleached blond goatee, the accessory du jour of any self-respecting metrosexual. His clothes and hair were probably emitting enough radiation to power a two bedroom house. His girlfriend, meanwhile, had spent hours in the gym to achieve a fine pair of pins – her appearance sadly spoilt by poor genetics resulting in a prominent beak-like nose. A yummy mummy asked her daughter brightly "Can you see the fields, darling?" The child looked down over the fields. "No", she said, sweetly and happily. Most British of all was the sudden rush to the door as the flight was called. I sat comfortably in my seat, halfway through my chapter, for another 25 minutes until the doors were actually opened, “priority boarders” (both of them) took the pick of the seats (not a case of chicken or fish, but emergency exit or toilet) and run-of-the-mill Budgetites piled in behind. My own seat seemed the same as any others, but with the added satisfaction of the extra time not queueing.

On landing there was a fanfare and a plastic Scottish recorded voice (one of those clichéd “reassuring” ones proclaimed that once again we were on time. Since when a service provider actually providing adequate service merited a brass fanfare I don’t know, but O’Leary’s empire redefines doublethink and the bar is ever lowered as the British Holidaymaker Abroad lowers his standards likewise.

As for the emergency oxygen, my theory was, fortunately, never tested. But should we make an “unlikely” landing on water (wasn’t the Hudson miracle just that, a miracle?) it will not surprise me if I am greeted in future at the emergency exit by Sladjana’s dimple inviting me to make a contribution upon exit.

Wednesday 3 June 2009

getting started

This could be the start of a beautiful journey. Of course, I'll mostly be talking to myself, but there's nothing new there. For the man and his dog who might be reading this, expect sporadic ramblings on (in no particular order) politics, football, music (bits and pieces), theatre reviews, marketing, and the occasional essay on a day out doing nothing in particular. It'll be fun.

For instance - right now I'm in a political mood, with the European elections tomorrow; the Labour party is wilting (Gordon Brown seems like Canute at the moment) and the expenses row (what a horrible word "row" is) continues to dominate the news. What odds something startling happening? Mandelson in power? A deal with the Lib Dems? Electoral reform coming back onto the agenda? Who knows...