Friday, September 30, 2011

Hot Hot Hot

Only in the UK could they seriously write in a news report that "...temperatures soared over 21 degrees (70f)"

It reminds me of a UK newspaper headline that Alistair Cooke used to enjoy telling Americans...


That'll be just under 23 degrees C then.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Anarchy in the Ukelele

I went to see The Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain last night.

It would be easy to dismiss them as a novelty act but they are far from it. These are real and talented musicians who obviously love their instruments. It's interesting to see that the ukelele comes in several forms (soprano, tenor, concert and others) and one of which, it has to be said, sounds and looks remarkably like an acoustic guitar disguising an electric bass which they called a bass ukelele.

They create brilliant and complex arrangements of mostly well known tunes, add some humour, some singing, some good old British eccentricity and just put on a great show.

I've never heard a better cover version of Anarchy in the UK by The Sex Pistols, as rearranged for eight ukeleles (or possibly seven ukeleles and an electric bass). They also did Life on Mars by David Bowie, Teenage Dirtbag, Le Freak by Chic, Pinball Wizard, Teenage Kicks, Smells like Teen Spirit, as well as some classical rearrangements. They did one piece by Saint-Saëns which was quite beautiful but I cannot find it online.

They've been going for 26 years and have toured the world so, as I said, this is no novelty act. One of the pleasures of watching them is the thirty or so seconds at the start of each piece where you just can't quite place the tune they're about to play and then the audience somehow collectively recognises it and everyone in the room smiles and laughs.

Check out their version of the spaghetti western classic, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, complete with vocal harmonising, which they also performed last night. Listen all the way through and trust me, you will be singing along by the end of it.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

More Herculean than Olympian

As London gears up for the Olympics - still almost a year to go yet it is more hyped than a syringe full of Mexican jumping beans - I heard this morning on the radio about a marathon competitor in the 1904 St. Louis Olympics.

Andarín (Felix) Carvajal was a postman from Cuba who lived his entire life in poverty despite being a celebrated amateur runner.

In order to get to the Olympics he begged on the streets of Havana for the price of his passage to New Orleans arriving there six months before the start of the games. Despite never having left his native country before, and speaking no English, he spent the next six months walking, running and hitchhiking the 600 miles (1000 kilometres) to St. Louis, sleeping rough along the way, labouring for money and living off fruit from the trees and whatever else he could find.

Arriving at the starting line and despite the 35 degree heat because of the 2:30pm start time, he was dressed in woollen trousers, a linen shirt, street shoes and a felt beret. There was brief delay where he was convinced to cut off most of the legs and sleeves to his clothing and the race began. It was run in brutally hot weather, over dusty roads, with horses and automobiles clearing the way and creating dust clouds. “He won the sympathy of the crowd in the stadium and raised his hat each time he passed the stand,” the St. Louis Republic reported.

As the race began, he took the lead but finally, overcome with hunger having not eaten for forty hours, he stopped to eat some apples from a tree which gave him a strong stomach ache. He still managed to recover and finally finished the race in fourth place. Hailed by the international press for his determination and amiable manner, he returned to Cuba a hero and resumed his mail route. He never appeared in international competition again.

Now that is the Olympian spirit.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Where I Live

I live in a little patch of North London called Crouch End. You can tell I like it because I use the affectionate term "patch" to describe it. This is what people in London do.

It's a quirky (there I go again with those terms of affection) little area which, because it lacks a tube station, means it's unheard of by many people in the rest of London.

Over the years the area has had a few brushes with fame. Stephen King wrote a short story called Crouch End after visiting a friend who lived locally portraying the area as a portal to some sort of demonic underworld. It was later dramatised for television.

We've had a few famous residents over the years and continue to retain a small smattering of mostly domestic celebrities.

One of my favourite ex-residents is Ho Chi Minh who was said to live here in the early 20th century during his time working in a London hotel. I'm not sure how much of his future political outlook was gained from his time here - not a great deal I suspect.

A locally famous and possibly apocryphal story concerns Bob Dylan. Bob, whilst on tour in the UK (Bob is always on tour) decides one day to go and visit his good friend Dave Stewart who had a recording studio in the area for many years. Bob gets into a taxi and tells the taxi driver to take him to an address on Crouch Hill but the taxi driver inadvertently takes him to an address on the similarly named Crouch End Hill. Bob knocks at the door and asks the woman who answers if Dave is at home. Coincidentally, a person called Dave (who is a big Bob Dylan fan) lives at the house but Bob is informed by the woman that Dave is not at home right now but he's welcome to come in and wait until Dave gets home. The woman is unaware of Bob's legendary and global stature and just assumes this is a friend of her son who has called by. Dave duly returns home and is informed by his mum that Bob Dylan is waiting for him in the front room and is currently having a cup of tea and a biscuit.

Saturday, September 10, 2011


I'm currently reading Hitch-22 - the autobiography of Christopher Hitchens. It's rather a heavy read at times but he's a serious man and an acute observer. The cons of ploughing through sections about student politics of the left are far outweighed by the pros of his other observations.

I'm just reading about his time as a budding journalist on London newspapers of the early seventies. The British press has been making the news as opposed to reporting it for some time here in the UK. The scandal of the UK wing of the Murdoch media empire hacking into the voicemail messages of absolutely anyone they could in an attempt to trawl up a story is well documented.

A particulary sordid aspect of this activity was that whilst those journalists were melodramatically reporting stories about child murder victims in their newspapers, they appeared to be simultaneously doing their utmost to hack into those same victims' mobile phone messages in at attempt to spice up their storyline.

Christopher Hitchens writes about the contempt and indifference of many journalists to the plight of people in stricken circumstances (this was over thirty years ago) and observes how compassion or sympathy for victims was rarely allowed to get in the way of a good story.

When visiting the homes of distressed families, journalists would travel in pairs. When invited in and courteously offered a cup of tea, one journalist would join the family member in the kitchen to "help" whilst the other journalist would rifle through the family possessions or try to steal photographs of the victim.

The unofficial motto of the foreign correspondents' desk, when travelling abroad to visit war-torn or other riven societies was "Anyone here that's been raped and speaks English?" Plus ca change it seems.