Monday, December 20, 2010

Albums of the Year, 2010

Bonnie Prince B and his funny folk.
The following are in no particular order, a glance at previous years’ lists having confirmed that allocating a number next to any one album results in an arbitrary ranking of no long term significance. Fewer ‘reviews’ this year too, as finding fresh rhetorical ways to convey a pleasure in what are often the same bands (reflecting an increasingly static taste) becomes an annual challenge I’m losing the will to confront. Also, when I read a year-end list at a worthy, knowledgeable website like The Quietus, I get the feeling that, in any case, I’ve probably been listening in all the wrong places. Or maybe there really is nothing much of note released nowadays that can impress a mid-life indie-pop. After all, my favourite release of the year isn’t on this list because it was the boxed set re-issue of the entire Orange Juice back catalogue from the early 1980s, Coals To Newcastle. So it’s a rough Top 11, followed by a list of secondary choices.

Bonnie “Prince” Billy & The Cairo Gang - The Wonder Show Of The World (Drag City)
Another year, and another wonderfully realised record of melodic narratives cloaked in raw, emotive beauty. Track to try: Troublesome Houses.

Sun Kil Moon - Admiral Fell Promises (Caldo Verde)
Shhhhhh... Soothing gorgeousness now comes with sporadic flamenco guitar riffs. But they work wondrously, as do most things created by a man in a perennial audition to play the soundtrack to Eternity. Track to try: Third and Seneca

Gayngs – Related (Jagjaguwar)
A gift box of styles and surprises built on a glowing fire-bed of compelling hooks. Track to try: The Gaudy Side of Town

Phosphorescent - Here’s To Taking It Easy (Dead Oceans)
Wins the award for least agit-prop album title since Black Lace’s last party LP. This record also more than makes up for the absence of any Jason Molina/Magnolia Electric Co. output this year, though it’s inspired enough by the latter to stand alone as an Americana landmark. Track to try: Los Angeles

Laura Veirs - July Flame (Bella Union)
Seventh album of fluttering, quirky brilliance could even be her best yet. Track to try: Life Is Good Blues

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Books of the Year, Part 2 - Non-fiction

Some books,
 earlier today.
I used to read nothing but novels. Then I veered in the other direction, until I realised that much as I enjoyed biographies and history books, I could never remember much about them once I’d finished. So now I mostly read fiction again, and the non-fiction I pick up is only stuff that I really, really want to read. And that’s why this list is shorter than the Fiction list. And why I don’t know as much as I should do about important historical events, but I can tell you the names of all the albums that The Raincoats released on Rough Trade records.

Document and Eyewitness – An Intimate History of Rough Trade by Neil Taylor (Orion Books)

Clearly you’d have to be more than interested in British indie-pop in the late 70s and 1980s to get much out of this. But the anecdotal rewards are deep if The History of Rough Trade would be your chosen specialised subject on the fading leather jacketed saddo’s version of Mastermind. Once you’re past the ponderous intro (and I’d rather have had an index than the footnotes), the stories and their characters take you right back to a time when you didn’t have to give a shit about anything besides drinking, music, and appearing to know what you were on about (I gave up on that one in the end).

Books of the Year, Part 1 - Fiction

Not yet a Kindle convert
I’m usually about three years behind current releases, but due to a more conscious effort to read The New York Times Book Review (rather than putting it in a pile to be ‘read later’ - another phrase for ‘recycling’), and a couple of nice presents, I somehow managed to read a lot of novels this year that actually were published in 2010. Before this thrilling news completely overwhelms you, let me get on with recommending them, in approximate order, and adding a sample quote from each book that may lure you to further exploration:

Salvation City by Sigrid Nunez (Riverhead Books)

I like post-apocalyptic books, if they’re not too apocalyptic. This book takes place in a tiny southern Indiana town after a flu pandemic has wiped out millions worldwide, and follows Cole Vining, a 13-year-old orphan of liberal, urban parents, in his new life with ex-alcoholic, self-appointed Pastor Wyatt and his kind but ill-educated wife. Despite all the anguish of death, separation and relocation, the likeable but complex kid still has the hots for an unattainable 16 year old, and that keeps him as mentally busy as multiple other conundrums of faith and fate. Beautifully written.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Comics, Tuck And Cricket

Boys are easily pleased.
Can you ever take the little boy out of the middle-aged man? Would you ever want to? Last night, with the kids in bed and Mrs. Pop out on the lash with her mates (at least that’s what she told me), I did what I always do when left to my own devices and reverted to a much younger version of myself. I found a live stream online of the second test match from Adelaide, and sat down to watch several hours of uninterrupted cricket. But that wasn’t all. I had my comics too – the latest issues of Private Eye and the wonderful Groundtastic magazine. And my tuck – a health-defying combination of cheese and onion crisps, Lindt milk chocolate, and Tyrconnell Irish single malt whiskey. Oh, and some indie-pop as well, of course. The latest Sufjan Stevens album provided the soundtrack. Only deep fatigue finally forced me away from my amusements and up to bed.

Today, Mrs. Pop headed abroad on business travel. The kids are back at school tomorrow, so they will need an early night. With two days of the test match left, I wonder what I’ll do this evening? Maybe contemplate further the fact that, after three and a half decades of generic life experience, there’s not much difference between myself aged ten, and myself aged 45. We men are really not all that difficult to please.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Great Suburban Traditions: Number 10 – The Leaf Blower

I often complain that suburbia’s too quiet, even though the human desire for silence and inertia is the main reason that suburbia even exists. And just because it’s quite, that doesn’t mean it’s peaceful. In autumn especially, semi-urban dwellers seem able to tolerate a profoundly jarring kind of noise annoyance – the almost ever-present, soul-gnawing monotone of the leaf blower.

Yesterday, on a beautiful and still Sunday afternoon, and in a rare show of decadence, we were sitting in a friend’s hot-tub enjoying the end of the long weekend, casually chatting and, as it happened, quaffing Moet Chandon as the sky around us slowly changed colour behind the silhouettes of spindly, naked trees. It should have been perfect, but a couple of gardens away someone had decided to take out their anger and grief at another Redskins’ loss by clearing the garden of leaves. We got to enjoy his motorised penile extension’s buzz-saw growl and the olfactory consequence – wave after wave of gasoline wafting across the fence.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Throwing Memories

David Narzico, by an amateur photographer

I'm reading Kristin Hersh’s memoir Rat Girl, which is just the book to take you back to 1985 in Rhode Island and Boston, inside the head of a funny, sassy, precocious teenager diagnosed as bipolar and writing some of that decade’s most thrilling, frightening music. It’s also prompted me to unearth the photograph above, my one and only experience of trying to take ‘proper’ pictures at a concert.

It shows Throwing Muses drummer David Narzico at the Town & Country Club in March 1991, the month that Hersh’s band released their stunning album The Real Ramona. My friend and chronically untidy house-mate Tim Bradford was working for Amateur Photographer magazine at the time, and was always bringing home new cameras to try out and abuse. We took along one each, and smuggled them in to the venue, then edged our way to the front. The cameras must have looked fancy, because people kept making space for us, like they thought we were real photographers. That the above picture was my best shot testifies to the fact I didn’t go on to make a career out of it (nor anything else, for that matter).

Friday, October 08, 2010

The Vinyl Comeback

Slithers of plastic in
cardboard sleeves. Mmmm...
It’s not often that middle-aged bores welcome prevailing trends, and when we do they’re usually revivalist in nature. That’s why the comeback of vinyl is to me the perfect atavistic riposte to my daughters’ way of collecting music by pressing a single button on a computer. After years of watching my favourite record and second hand shops close down one by one, my tender heart is fortified by the sight of the expanding LP sections in the few worthwhile remaining DC area music outlets. These are heavyweight, artfully manufactured items of beauty to be handled like precious antiques. They’re way too dear as well, of course, but you pay for what you value, and they could be just what the surviving emporia need to remain in business.

And so I’m slowly ceasing to buy CDs and switching back to vinyl instead. You get the MP3 download coupon into the bargain, so if you’re really anal, you never have to actually play the LP, you just preserve it. But that’s not right. When records were prematurely written off two decades ago, we purists tediously cited the ritualistic joy of carefully removing the record from its sleeves before executing with immaculate precision the act of dropping the needle on to the opening grooves. Even those of us who’ve developed the shakes find that our hands become miraculously steady when faced with this hushed ceremonial moment.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Liberation Of Punishment

Readers who can be bothered to scroll down the page will find an entry from June telling of my heroic endeavours to defend football referees via a letter to The Washington Post. Back in March, I also wrote about the trials of referees like myself dealing with loud-mouthed parents and coaches who love to combine a borderline unhinged psychosis with an ignorance of the game’s laws. You may notice that I never criticised players in all this. That’s because I still step out on to the field to play at weekends, equipped with fading fantasies about the extent of my visibly diminishing footballing capacities. And because, in this role, I can still have the odd problem with a poor referee.

Like yesterday, for example, when I received my first red card in 36 years of playing. I reckon I’ve taken part in maybe 700-800 games without being ordered off the field. I’m overwhelmingly level-headed – if I’m the captain I tend to rush over to a hotspot to calm things down. If I’m not the captain, I’ll stand back with an air of detached superiority, perhaps shaking my head in the manner of one who knows so, so much better.

Friday, September 10, 2010

More Ways To Spend It

The last time I wrote about the How To Spend It supplement in Mrs. Pop’s Financial Times, I made a predictable assault on the easy target of high-end luxury goods. Clearly the editors read this blog, as they seem to have stopped aiming the glossy sheet merely at multi-millionaires, and have factored in the ridiculously rich as well. Several items featured in today’s edition will cost you less than four figures (the Gentlemen’s Tonic Mayfair Shaving Set is just £150, for example), and the cost of telling the time is down too – while last December’s featured timepieces showcased a £1.6 million wristwatch from Jaeger-LeCoultre, this month’s Bell & Ross rose gold Power Reserve Watch (on an alligator strap – this watch was hunted) is almost given away at £14,300.

Help for those burdened by cash
But what the September issue lacks in preposterously lavish material goods, it more than makes up for with unblushing pretension. First up is a Q&A interview under the moniker The Aesthete, with literary and talent agent Caroline Michel, whose “clients include Jeanette Winterson and Simon Schama”. Impressed? I was, once I’d googled the latter and found out who he was. You don’t know? He’s a university professor of art history and history, you moron.

What was the last thing that Ms Michel bought and loved? “A pair of early-19th-century French naïve flower paintings, after being driven mad by the desire to own a Van Gogh when I was at the recent exhibition at the Royal Academy.” One does get driven mad by the desire to own a Van Gogh, doesn’t one? Drives one absolutely fucking crazy.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Reality Python

Where John Cleese answers the phone
Mrs. Pop phoned our favourite Tex-Mex restaurant the other night, Uncle Julio’s Rio Grande, to ask for a table. They don’t take reservations, but you can phone before you set out and put your name down to avoid waiting around outside on the pavement.

It was seven o, clock, and she asked if we could get a table at 7.45. No, she was told, you have to phone half an hour before you want your table. We’re about to set out on our bikes, she said. Could you please just put us down for 7.45? It’s not easy to use a cell phone on a bike. No, it has to be half an hour before. She should call back in 15 minutes.

What about 7.40, asked Mrs. Pop, always keen to compromise (except in the odd domestic matter)? No, it has to be 30 minutes. Okay, she said, if it has to be 30 minutes we’ll go for 7.30 and pedal really hard.

Sorry, said the girl, there are no tables free for 7.30. The earliest I can get you a table is 7.45.

Yes, that will do nicely, thanks.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Half-Arsed England And The Missing Kidney

Stodge for the English soul...
I spent six weeks this summer in my native England, but feel that the visit can best be summed up by one lunch time in a café in Settle, where I ordered steak and kidney pie with chips and gravy. Not the kind of food you’d want on a summer’s day, you might think, but this was an English summer’s day - outside it was chilly and raining. Okay, so not the sort of food you’d want on any day if you wanted to live a long and healthy life, but English food has a gray, relentless attraction to those who grew up with it, culinary merits aside. It’s always as bad and as good as you remember.

“How was your food?” asked the polite waiter. “Well, I ate the steak and kidney pie with hope in my heart right up to the very last mouthful, but I never found the kidney,” I replied. This was a big mistake. In England, when invited to pass an opinion on something, you must be too polite to tell the truth. Only afterwards do you bellyache, at length but safely out of earshot. It’s not the done thing to cause offence. “That’ll be six pounds 50,” was the indignant response. No urgent enquiries to the chef asking why the hell he’d served up a steak and kidney pie with no kidney. No generous discount or free dessert. Not that you’d want an English dessert, even for free. Dumping jam sponge with custard on top of steak and kidney pie with chips and gravy (even allowing for the absent kidney) would be the gastric equivalent of the bombing of Dresden.

I left the café feeling bad for having complained about the missing kidney. I was the intrusive foreigner who’d offended local sensibilities. In America when you complain, there’s usually compensation if you bitch long and hard enough. In England, after decades of mediocre government, the forgotten imperialists expect everything to be half-arsed. We stayed in a faulty cottage which had the most rudimentary equipment – blunt kitchen knives, cupboards with no backboards, power cuts when you used too many electrical items at once, loose shelves, a stereo and a TV remote control that didn’t work, and not one but two semi-functional barbeques. There was so much to complain about we didn’t know where to start, so we didn’t bother. Didn’t want to make a fuss. After a day or two you get used to it.

On our second day there we watched the half-arsed England football team lose to Germany in the World Cup, looking like they really couldn’t be bothered to play at all. Then the half-arsed weather set in – cool days, cold nights, a surplus of grey clouds, and the inevitable downpour on the day we took the kids to Blackpool. Another day I was on a train from London to Leeds and missed my connection to Settle by a minute. “When’s the next train?” I asked. Three and a half hours. “Why didn’t you hold the connection?” Different train companies, grunted the man at the Leeds station information desk, adding by way of further explanation, “Privatisation.” Even our excuses for things not working are half-arsed.

Since coming back to America, people have been asking me, “Did you have a good summer in England?” It was fantastic, I assure them. Because I’m not one to complain.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Dear Washington Post...

I had a letter to the Washington Post published yesterday, defending football referees from the hysteria of coaches and temporarily deranged parents. I had two separate editors contact me to check that I was the real author of the letter, and a third to ask me if I was okay with the edited version. I asked them kindly to split the final sentence into two, as I had in the original version, and received a one sentence reply: It shall be done. It’s reassuring to know there are still thorough, conscientious sub-editors around in the age of quick-fire Twitter garbage.

The gap between the original article I was responding to and the printing of my letter was a good old-fashioned 12 days. I took the time to craft a considered response, and the paper took the time to weigh up whether or not it was worth publishing. In pre-internet times, anyone wishing to disagree with me would have had to make the same effort. But now, thanks to the internet, we have that worldwide forum for the witless, the ‘Comments’ box, which allows a revered organ such as the Post to boast the following on its website:

“I find most ref’s to be self-grandiose – egotistical – self proclaimed infallible social rejects. Most can’t take any criticism on or off the field (in the game or in their personal lives). They think they can do no wrong and burst into fits of outrage and indignation when their authority is questioned. Thank god for the sports that have instant replay – look at the NFL and how Ref’s have gone from GOD’S to HUMAN. Nope don’t see too many shouting matches at the big league level anymore, DO YAH?”

That’s from Post registered user kparc, a slouching 58-year-old male from Leesburg, Virginia, who intellectually smites referees the world over with this searing psychological assessment. Kparc has now had his say, and millions of self-proclaimed infallible social rejects (come on, you know who you are) should cower and note how he brilliantly used BLOCK CAPS to get his point across and win the argument. That kparc has not yet worked out after 58 years how to write plurals without a possessive apostrophe should in no way detract from his credibility as a social commentator. Thank the GOD’S for the DEMOCRACY of the web, EH?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Owl Of Delight

Many creatures have crossed my path while out jogging over the past few years. Dozens of chipmunks, deer, red foxes, rabbits and a handful of black rat snakes. While out running in Florida I even stepped over a dead aardvark. But today was the best. A barred owl flew just a few feet in front of me, then landed on a tree branch and stared, radiating cool wisdom. I stared back, while jogging stupidly on the spot. I haven’t seen an owl in the wild since I was 12 years old, and never from this close up.

A sparrow, likely protecting its young, tried to mob the owl, but it was dismissed with a perfunctory flap of a wing. I kept staring, but didn’t want to outstay my welcome. So I turned my back on the bird and continued running, shouting out loud, “Wow! Fuck! Wow!” Occasionally, even a 44-year-old house-dad gets to burst out through his wrinkled, weary cynicism and enjoy a moment of wide-eyed astonishment. Magnificent.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Save The Herbert

Smiling Herbert, on the left

He’s a bit of a herbert,” we used to say of a certain type of young male back in the 80s. It’s hard to qualify exactly what we meant, but perhaps the best way to sum him up was ‘good-natured moron’. Someone not too bright, but harmless. You’d see one in every gang of skinheads. The band of knuckle-walkers would be trying to look all hard and terrifying, and right in their midst, spoiling everything, would be the grinning idiot. He was only in it for the larf, and if all his mates had been mods or stamp collectors or members of the Egerton Forstal Croquet Club, that’s what he’d have been doing too.

It’s been years since I spotted a herbert, but to my delight I crossed paths with one yesterday afternoon. I was waiting to sneak out of the back streets and in to the usual depressing stream of commuter cars on Connecticut Avenue. A battered white non-brand vehicle was toiling along the inside lane, coming from my left, and there in the open window on the passenger side, was a young herbert. He was staring me in the eye, and then he raised his finger to me, for no apparent reason than perhaps an immediate, instinctive dislike of graying suburbanites looking to merge with traffic. I stared back at him. His face began to betray some uncertainty. “Why am I showing this bloke the finger?” could have been the thought process, if ‘thought process’ was a possibility beneath the close-shaven head bone. His hard stare began to crack, and then it broke into a mindless grin. In that second the inner herbert was unmasked.

Sadly he and his chauffeur were subsumed by the Beltway traffic before I could catch him up, flag him down, and then swap details so that we could maybe meet up and talk about the dying art of herberticism. Still, I’d long since assumed that herberts were extinct, like sincerity and the ivory-billed woodpecker. To see a face bearing a cheerfully shit-eating smirk of vacuity completely made my day.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Great Suburban Traditions No. 9 - Badly Dressed Men

You see them only at weekends. After the effort of suspending all residue of wit, spontaneity and character from Monday to Friday in order to blend in with their fellow faceless professionals at the next desk, the white suburban male is sufficiently sapped of energy that he can only succumb to the worst manifestation of sartorial defeat. And so, while cowed into carrying out the chores his wife claims to have been doing all week (when in fact she was at Book Club talking about the area’s top 250 delis), he dons the universal uniform of the bedraggled dad – baseball hat, over-sized t-shirt, and crumpled knee length khaki shorts, all supported by depressingly brown loafers or sandals.

Badly Dressed Suburban Man’s identity is then boiled down to two basic items. 1. The sporting allegiance proclaimed on his baseball cap, which is generally worn backwards until the age of about 35, then turned front on to hide a receding hairline and to avoid skin cancer. 2. The name of a college on his t-shirt. He didn’t necessarily go to that college, but no one’s going to be interested enough to ask him if he really is a Duke graduate or not, so he can get away with it. Sometimes the t-shirt is just blank. Navy blue seems to be a favourite, as it can disguise the summer sweat a little better. The main thing is, it shouldn’t under any circumstance match the shorts, but that’s not a problem. After all, what actually goes with beige or pale grey?

You’ll see masses of them listlessly operating shopping trolleys, wandering the mall in a daze, or standing on the sidelines of a sports game automatically yelling, “Good job, buddy!” approximately once every sixty seconds. In the right hand pocket of their shorts is a Blackberry, which they fondle to remind themselves of who they really are on week days. The money maker, the main man. Although the wife has forbidden them from taking the Blackberry out and pretending to be reading important e-mails, they surreptitiously caress the keys, thinking that the weekend does at least have one saving grace – it makes going back to work on Monday morning more of a relief than a duty.

This passive assault on fashion hasn’t changed one jot in the 11 years I’ve lived here. You can admire its stasis in the same way that you might happily occupy a few hours by watching a tortoise walk in circles. You could even claim that its progenitors are, albeit unwittingly, involved in a collective statement against the fickle transience of mutating trends. Or perhaps it’s a collaboration of housewives dressing their husbands down to stop them looking hot to potential predators. The husbands acquiesce for the sake of a quiet life, and because hell, just because a t-shirt’s 20 years old, doesn’t mean you can’t still wear it, right? What's more, you can jump in the pool and drown yourself without ruining a good shirt.

More Great Suburban Traditions:
No. 8 Going To The Mall
No. 7 Cocktail Hour
No. 6 Grocery Shopping
No. 5 Limited Guilt
No. 4 Asexuality
No. 3 Dog Crap
No. 2 Neighbourhood Watch
No. 1 The Piano Recital

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Screwed Up Girls Are Sexy

That's the title of just one of the truist tracks on the incredibly limited new Dark-Eyed Juncoes CD 'Love To Make You Cry', released this week on the world's most unmarketed label, Paper Wasp Recordings. It also includes the group's first ever song in German, three brain-bending instrumentals, and a few unseemly mental leftovers channelled through randomly fiddled-with synthesisers.

Four tracks are available here for preview. Make sure not to annoy your friends by sending them the link.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

'Small Town England' by Tim Bradford

Friend of Bandy
It’s a bad job when your friends bring out a book and you can’t even get around to plugging it on your blog. Not that a mention on here has been historically proven as a shuttle ride to the bestseller list. But still, Small Town England by Tim Bradford (published by Ebury Press earlier this month) is not only a book by my oldest mate, it’s principally a memoir about the time we grew up together in Lincolnshire during the years 1978-1983. I feature throughout as a character called Bandy (I wasn’t called that, but it’s a fair description of my legs), perhaps more generously portrayed than I deserve given that I was a feral, foul-mouthed, deeply insecure adolescent who thought he was right about everything, apart from when the lights went out or I was drunk, when I thought I was probably wrong about everything, and that I would never, ever get a girlfriend.

I am hailed in the acknowledgments as a person “whose memory is a spectacularly efficient database of facts, anecdotes, football scores and mundane events.” You’ll note there’s none of the useful stuff in there, like geographical data, chemical symbols, mathematical formulae, an encyclopaedic knowledge of the English Civil War, or the correct way to mix and shake 101 head-crushing cocktails. Somehow, my memory evolved into a vault of useless clutter that I’ve never bothered clearing out to replace with something new, functional and up-to-date. So if something goes wrong with this computer, I won’t be able to fix it, but I can tell you all about the day I watched Lincoln City beat Northampton Town 5-4 in 1977. This at least made me a valuable oral consultant on several incidents described in the book, but now that period has been documented and illustrated by Tim, the call for my services could well be facing a barren stretch.

Why, you might ask, would anyone want to read about what it’s like to grow up in a small town in Lincolnshire between 1978 and 1983? It was interesting to me, because I was there. I’ve yet to meet anyone who wasn’t there, but who’s had the chance to read the book, so it’s hard to say how wide the appeal might be. The author is of course highly entertaining in the way he describes and illustrates all the crappy little bands we were in and the terrible gigs we played, and all the times we got drunk and ran away from fights and got crushes on all the wrong girls, and that the experience of being snared as a teenager in a dull country town is broadly universal. You can’t wait to leave, but 25 years later you can’t help but return with a little retrospective insight to take a look at all the mistakes that helped set you off on the path to nowhere.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Concert Irritants No.1: 40-Something Pogo Dancers

I had an inner dialogue slamming backwards and forwards in my head on Friday night as I watched The Wedding Present perform their ‘Bizarro’ album at The Black Cat. The music was all buzz-frenetic brilliance, but it wasn’t quite distracting enough to take my mind off the half dozen or so men who formed a midlife mosh-pit just in front of me.
Voice 1: Oh Christ, look at those sad bastards in their 40s trying to pogo dance.
Voice 2: Ah just relax, it’s a Friday night, they’re trying to have a good time.
Voice 1: Yeah, but they’re nearly all bald, and they’re taking it way too seriously, like this is 1976. I mean, the original Wedding Present came more than ten years after punk. No one pogoed to The Wedding Present even back in 1989.
Voice 2: Shut up, you miserable bastard, just enjoy the concert.
Voice 1: I am enjoying it. Except for these idiots. One of them just barged into me. I don’t mind that on the football field when I’m steeled for it, but he could have spilt my beer.
Voice 2: Do you want to make something of it?
Voice 1: Maybe. Especially with the balding wanker in the brown leather jacket bouncing up and down wearing that self-conscious, shit-eating grin like he’s on the bouncy fucking castle at Chuck-E-Cheese.
Voice 2: So you’ve never danced badly when you were drunk?
Voice 1 (ignoring Voice 2): And look at that lass there, she’s really learning something about her boyfriend tonight, isn’t she? Lucky she’s into him enough to pretend that she finds it really charming that he dances like a psychotic gibbon trapped inside a popcorn machine.
Voice 2: Maybe she really does. And maybe you wish that you weren’t too uptight to just let go and freak out without a care about what other people around you might be thinking.
Voice 1: Maybe you could shut up and stop spoiling my enjoyment of moaning about other people at the concert. Ah, look at that, how sweet - one of the twats fell over and the slap-headed wannabe hard man helped him to his feet. Almost like a real mosh pit.
Voice 2: You’re going bald too, you now.
Voice 1: Wrong. We’re going bald.
Voice 2: Oh Christ, am I really part of you?
Voice 1: Yes, we came together and we’ll leave together, whether you like it or not.
Voice 2: What if I want to dance?
Voice 1: But you don’t, really. You want to have another beer and stand here slouching and bellyaching. It’s what we always do.
Voice 2 (quietly): But maybe we could just try…
Voice 1 (to barman): Is this all you have on draft? Bloody crap selection...
Fine band, great night. Apart from the odd moaner.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Daffodil In The Dirt

I mooched over to my compost bin yesterday with the idea of starting to think about fertilising my herb garden. There growing inside was a proud, solitary daffodil. It would be an insult to nature's cycles to disturb it, and so I have the perfect excuse not to do any outside work until its bloom has wilted. Viva spring.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Insultingly Bad Thief

I regularly portray our neighbourhood as an existential vacuum bereft of all human activity, life and character, but I’m really just trying to keep property prices high by hiding the fact that it’s a criminal hot-bed. Here's the truth - last night I accidentally left my car open, and what do you know, some audacious larcenist took advantage during the night and pilfered my supply of quarters from the little compartment between the two front seats. Naturally I feel violated, and have just come back from six hours of counselling with the Montgomery County Police Department’s Victim Liaison Officer. But when she'd refused for the seventh time my impassioned plea to be gagged, handcuffed to a chair, and thrashed with her leather-bound portfolio outlining the sixteen stages of post-crime trauma, I decided to cut my losses and leave.

Given that apart from the odd shuffling dog and its owner there is rarely anyone stalking our streets after dark, I was surprised that someone had spotted the giveaway raised lock knob, and then bothered risking a look inside. I’d guess the perpetrator was a criminal virgin, likely aged 14-16, who impulsively stuffed his or her pockets with quarters, then panicked and ran – there were still a couple of bucks in silver left behind, and he or she didn’t bother to close the door. I only hope they spent it wisely on cider and cigarettes.

Like most teenagers, my petty thief has no taste. Insultingly, they ignored all the CDs in the car – Lucinda Williams’s throaty classic Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, Swedish dance goddess Annie’s poppy Don’t Stop, and the beautiful new Midlake release The Courage Of Others. Another survivor was Bizarro, The Wedding Present’s 1989 second album. I borrowed this off my mate Kenneth, because we’re going to see the band next week at The Black Cat, and they’re playing the album in its entirety. The CD was in his basement when his house burnt down a couple of weeks ago, but as we were touring the wreckage he found it in his football kit bag, and it still plays fine. Now it’s survived a double calamity - smoke-stained, and possibly fingered by a felon, but nonetheless bravely cranking out gritty northern English indie-pop on a perfect east coast, spring afternoon. Message to today's youth - if you're going to be a sneaky, snivelling little crook, at least nick something decent. If you don't know which is the best CD to steal, just knock on the door and ask.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Football Field - Where Parental Screams Come True

Swearing at football on the television from the safety of your armchair is all very well, but there’s no substitute for absorbing a little abuse yourself and getting some cardiovascular exercise at the same time. To this end, I recently took the necessary exam, and am now qualified to blow loudly on a whistle and give a stiff-arm salute without fear that my German in-laws will think I’m taking the piss out of their history.

A few dozen games giving vent to my latent authoritarian streak have confirmed what I always suspected about youth football - there’s nothing wrong with the players, just the parents who watch it and the coaches who coach it. When I played as a kid, you rarely heard from either. The parents were either absent, or quietly observant, and you learnt to tune out the odd hysterical mother until her mortified son banned her from watching. The coaches told you their thoughts before the game, at half-time, and afterwards. This was your 90 minutes of escape from the class room and parental oversight, when you had the chance to run free and express yourself with limited instruction.

Nowadays, children’s lives have to be micro-managed, while many parents and coaches think they absolutely need to be centre stage, all the time (although needless to say, it's the loud ones you notice most). To rescue football from this intrusive plague, I plan to develop a range of referee’s products that will aid in cleansing the game of its brash, loudmouthed egos who think they have the right to control every move of a child’s recreational time. They are as follows:

For the linesman on the spectators’ side of the field
*A luminous shirt that will, when pointless parental shrieking reaches a certain volume, automatically flash the words SHUT IT NOW! And (prevailing winds permitting) trigger an emission from a capsule blasting out a noxious gas that will force them at least 20 yards back from the touchline. The display will alternate with questions like Have You Ever Read The Laws Of The Game? or You’ve Never Actually Kicked A Ball In Your Life, Have You? Or, Do You Really Think Repeatedly Shouting KICK IT HARD Qualifies As Useful Advice? (I’d add some qualifying labels at the end of these too, if this weren’t a family blog.)

*A Retractable, Idiot-seeking Flag that will fly sharply backwards out of the linesman’s hand and poke in the eye anyone who claims to have spotted an offside while standing 40 yards behind the play. Or who insists on telling you that the throw-in should have gone the other way. Or who yells for a foul just because their kid fell over or got tackled. The flag will zip back into your hand quicker than the human eye can see (I have Spiderman’s people working on this), thus saving you from litigation, while disabling the irritant for the remainder of the game.
For the referee:
The pocket-sized Bench Blaster will despatch any raging coach who encroaches on to the field of play back to his or her bench with a single zap. The Deluxe Model will coat them in an adhesive substance to prevent them from standing up or opening their mouths for the remainder of the game. And the Platinum Model will implant a microchip in their brains containing a copy of the FIFA Laws of the Game. Ad slogan: The Bench Blaster - Because Sometimes A Red Card Just Isn’t Enough.

There have been many advances in the science and philosophy of youth coaching over the past two decades that I would certainly have benefited from as a teenager, but I definitely missed the memo that said shouting at kids will make them better footballers. When you shake their hands at the end of the game, you always like to tell them that they played well. But you also feel like adding, “Could I just apologise for my generation too?”

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Infidelity And Armageddon

You scratch my blog, I’ll scratch your yours – over at Sweet Sinner Gwen’s (nice title – sounds like a Marc Almond song), I’m engaged in a discussion with my newest follower (I now have a total of three, which means my goal of making this blog Bigger Than Jesus still has a way to go) about monogamy, infidelity and open marriages. It’s far more interesting than the mundane bitching you’ll find on here, so head on over and join in the fun.
Meanwhile, I bumped into an ice sculptor called Steve the other day at Café Caribou in Bethesda. He told me he’s working on an educational video for YouTube that will use a slab of butter and a chunk of ice to explain how the Arctic Circle’s ice is thawing from within, and that global warming is happening much quicker than we think. Basically, we’ve two more years before the floods come and we head to hell or the hills, depending on our preferred destination. It fair cheered me up.
After he’d outlined the coming collapse of society, we chatted about my career as a football writer. His parting words: “Enjoy the World Cup – it’ll be the last one.” Good news for the winners, though – they’ll be eternal World Champions.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Failed Examiner

The first thing some people do in the morning is swear at an alarm clock, but at least you can quickly silence the beep, and it only happens once a day. I reserve my slander for the telephone, because the chances of it being someone I actually want to speak to are around one in twenty. It’s rarely, or never, a publisher offering me a six-figure, five-book contract, or a magazine editor proposing a fat freelance deal for an article I could write off the top of my head from the safety of my desk (“Yes, we’re looking for a piece entitled 50 Things To Bitch About Before You’ve Even Left The House”). If it’s not one of my daughters’ class mates calling to find out what their biology homework is, it’s a pointless marketing survey (“We were wondering, How often do you field annoying phone calls just as you’re preparing dinner?”), or a guilt-edged inquiry about your willingness to contribute to the Veteran Fireman’s Retirement Fund, with the unspoken issue hanging over the conversation of just how rapidly an emergency response vehicle might make it your front door should you choose not to make a contribution.

You can tell a junk call because of a slight delay at the other end (they’re usually calling several people simultaneously), and the fact they always ask for my wife, whose simple surname they hopelessly mangle because it’s foreign. Mostly I hang up straightaway, but this morning, for some reason, I asked them what they wanted. I’m so glad that I did. It turned out they were from The Washington Examiner, a daily paper owned by reclusive billionaire Philip Anschutz that is occasionally delivered to our front door, at no cost and certainly not at our request. They wanted to know what I thought of it.

Here’s an example of the slant in last Thursday’s edition, which I’ve just fished out of the recycling pile. The editorial attacks House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for having the temerity to be a tough Democrat. Stop Kicking In Our Doors, Madame Speaker says the headline, illustrated by a picture of her looking like she’s about to hit someone. The main story is about a transgender aide suing Montgomery County Council under an anti-discrimination law she helped draft – the newspaper’s main front page headline ‘Transgender sues under her own law’ is inaccurate, missing as it is the word ‘aide’, while the story itself is 99 per cent unfounded insinuation. A page of ‘Crime & Punishment’, with pictures of two wannabe tough looking crime reporters standing with their arms folded, relishes both the crime and presumably the ensuing punishment by perniciously linking separate issues with headlines like Police: Illegal Immigrants Raped Alexandria Woman, and Panamanian Murderer Caught, Lived Off Federal Subsidies. Columnist Chris Stirewalt devotes several hundred words to criticising President Obama because he seems “gloomy”, a result of “the desperate spectacle of the president’s effort to impose his health care plan on a defiant electorate.” Two more pieces on the Politics pages talks of Obama being “off message” on health care, and House Democrats “working desperately” to pass health care reform, topped off with a commentary from David Freddos on What Obamacare Has Already Done For Massachusetts (everyone’s as good as dead up there already, apparently).

That’s the health care reform bill that was passed yesterday, despite all this stunningly objective journalism. So, what do I think of the Washington Examiner? I’m so glad you asked.

“You mean that crappy right wing rag you keep tossing on to my property? I’d rather you didn’t, thanks. It goes straight in the trash. Your paper’s a disgrace. It’s verging on the fascist. So even though I know it effectively means you can’t even give your shitty paper away, I’d be really grateful if you stopped delivering it and we can all make a saving on the waste paper.”

“Are you a subscriber to the Washington Post, sir?” the caller wanted to know. Subtext: “Yeah, well that’s the kind of thing I’d expect to hear from a communist, America-hating Post reader.” Though the Post is a paper I almost cancelled when it ran an editorial supporting the Bush invasion of Iraq (but I like to know the weather, and read Get Fuzzy).

“Yes, I am,” I said with as much pride as you can muster for subscribing to a daily paper. And I should have added, thanks for letting me have my say. Your call has made my day.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Oasis Lock-In

Bethesda’s Organic To Go sandwich and salad bar only has one toilet, but the management has devised an ingenious way to make sure you don’t stay in there too long. Hardly had I locked the door one lunch time this week when the nasally strains of Liam Gallagher began to sing ‘Wonderwall’, prompting me to ignore the graffiti (‘Organic girls do it naturally’), stop plucking my eyebrows, and get out of there as swiftly as possible to return to the handcrafted comforts of my spinach and arugula wrap.

In those few seconds of panicked entrapment the profound inanity of the lyrics struck me: “I don’t believe that anybody feels the way I do about you now.” That’s less a heartfelt, melody-encoded entreaty and more like a desperate, whiny plea on his knees, a clumsy call for mercy that any good woman would meet with a deft swing of the right boot to the odious, gutter-sucking singer’s miserable maw. I’ve no idea why it’s taken me 15 years to realise why I hate this song. Perhaps it was the proximity of the bog and the sound of waste water being flushed to oblivion. Ah, that’s better – now I feel culturally purged.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Thou Shalt Not Overtake A Cop

I was told at Sunday School that “God is everywhere”, and though I stopped believing that at around the same time I stopped believing anything else I was told, I learnt on a short trip to the US South last week where the phrase came from. There’s just no escaping the entity down there. “They’re commandments, not suggestions!” a reproachful sign in Mount Airy, NC, informed us. This was a sign at a petrol station. “Fear of God is the only path to wisdom!” barked an apparently very angry preacher on the radio. GDS ARMY read a number plate on a pick-up truck in Roanoake, Virginia (Great Deity in the Sky?). In a restaurant in Asheville, Tiger Woods appeared on a TV screen, prompting a man at our neighbouring table to remark, “That man’s gotten lost on the way to heaven.” Though looking at some of the women he’s been involved with, you might argue that he’s been there and back already.

Christian morals don’t necessarily mean Christian behaviour. I was idling along the I-40 just before Hickory, NC, cruising in the fast lane on a perfectly clear day, driving in a perfectly safe manner, when I passed a state trooper. Yes, I overtook a cop. Yes, I am that stupid. Though I should add that I was going at about 65.1 miles per hour in a 65 mile per hour zone, and by the time I saw him hidden in the line of traffic, it seemed too obvious to slow down and pull in behind him. So I drove carefully past, moved in ahead of him after indicating, and at that point state trooper Christiansen of F Troop, District 5, North Carolina, excitedly activated his flashing lights and pulled me over. Then he kept me and the family waiting for 25 minutes while he returned to his vehicle to write me out a ticket (I have a long surname).

It wasn’t the $25 fine that bothered me, it was the $130 “court costs” that he slapped on top. Out of state number plates are an easy revenue-raiser, because state trooper Christiansen of F Troop, District 5, North Carolina, knows as well as I do that I’m not going to show up in court on March 19 in Newton District Court, six hours drive away from home, to contest the fact that I was speeding. We all know you shouldn’t get smart with cops, because while you are undoubtedly smarter than them (even idiots like me who overtake them), they have several ways of compensating for their stupidity, most of them involving guns, electronic stun-sticks, handcuffs, lies and cold cells with hard stone floors. So it was probably good that by the time I’d taken in the enormity of the fine, he was striding back to his car, and therefore I didn’t have the opportunity to congratulate him on his fabulous detective work and his incredible, crime-cracking acuity at hunting down a hardened felon like myself, accident-free in almost 30 years of driving but surely about to cause a multiple-car pile-up if not for state trooper Christiansen’s absolutely brilliant intervention.

Or to say to him, “Goodbye state trooper Christiansen, and as we like to say in Germany, Geh ficken, Du doughnutfressendes Arschloch!” (translation: drive safely, and I hope you enjoy your lunch).

Monday, February 08, 2010

Weather Event

We had three feet of snow at the weekend, and the power was knocked out for two days, but that didn’t stop me from having my ritual English breakfast with bacon, eggs and hand made Lincolnshire sausages. Not to be denied my weekly quota of artery-choking lard, I cleared a tunnel to the grill, liberated it from the snow, lit summer’s leftover coals, and sent the aroma of sage, garlic and slaughtered swine across the silent winter gardens (see picture). The bottle of genuine Worcestershire Sauce featured in last week’s exciting blog entry dribbled its stuff and added the final touch of low cuisine.

A gust of wind above three miles per hour is guaranteed to throttle the electricity in our infrastructurally challenged neighbourhood, so it was no surprise that we were thrust into darkness once the most widely publicised snow storm in meteorological history had set in on Friday evening. Our power company, Pepco, was brilliantly prepared, at least in linguistic terms. Callers to the firm were greeted with a message informing them that following the “winter storm event”, it was impossible to predict when power would be restored, but that this was likely to be a “multi-day event”. Sort of like those big weddings that well-to-do families in the south like to stage when they’ve placed their daughters with a chinless but appropriately loaded heir from the food processing industry. Here’s how Pepco’s “multi-day event” played out:


Evening: Welcome to the winter storm event! No power


Morning: No power. All guests to gather by the log fire for body temperature enhancement event

Afternoon: No power. Cold buffet event by the fire

Evening: No power. Guests to form huddles to prevent hypothermia event (will continue until morning!)


Morning: No power. Element-defying English breakfast event. Guests/neighbours no longer exchanging cheery quips about the weather conditions

Afternoon: No power (apart from two-minute burst of electricity at 3pm to raise your hopes of imminent warmth). Extended snow shovelling event

Evening: Power returns! Event over. Enjoy the last half hour of Super Bowl

Pepco’s message also advised its customers to “take appropriate action” in the face of the power outages, though it didn’t offer specific suggestions. I hope that at least one customer responded to this by seeking out the home of the PR stooge who thought up the phrase “multi-day event”, torching it, and then warming their hands on the embers. Otherwise known as an arson event. It wasn't me.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

More Saucy Stories

There are not a lot of things I’ve stuck at consistently down the years aside from drinking, swearing at other road-users, and maintaining a hardcore belief in the superiority of my musical taste. But I’ve been a proud user of Lea & Perrins’ Worcestershire Sauce ever since my Mum suggested over breakfast one morning a few decades back that I split a Lincolnshire sausage down the middle and sprinkle it with the dark, acidic condiment. Now I can’t make a soup or a stew without a vigorous shake of the brown bottle to add a touch of English flavour. Those of you who know English cuisine may argue that there’s no such thing. And if it wasn’t for Worcestershire Sauce And Marmite, you’d probably be right.

So anyway, I was on my customary trawl through Safeway this morning and found that the supermarket chain has dared to produce its own brand. Not only that, the Safeway Worcestershire Sauce was less than half the price of Lea & Perrins. How different can they be, I wondered? A checklist of the ingredients showed them to be more or less identical, although Safeway’s version had slightly less sodium. Lea & Perrins, on the other hand, does contain chili pepper extract. Would this mean the Safeway version was safer? It was excuse enough – brand loyalty trumped financial considerations, and I stayed true to the company of my native land that has consistently served my palate so well down the years.

In case you’re wondering why in the name of jumping Jesus I’m telling you all this, it’s because some people simply do not realise the daily dilemmas faced by stay-at-home-pops. It’s not all perusing the paper followed by morning coffee and six-way interactions with tag teams of willing housewives, rounded off with an afternoon nap in front of the Premier League or an Argentine soap opera. There are hard domestic decisions to be made, and you have to be on your toes if you’re not going to waste the entire morning hanging around the aisles, blocking the way for diligent but surly shelf-stackers, or getting sidetracked by old ladies’ demands for you to reach up to get them a can of pureed okra soup. Even now, I quake ahead of presenting the daily accounts to Mrs. Pop this evening after dinner, in which I stutteringly justify the extra outlay born of my steadfast adherence to the UK firm.

But as she docks two dollars from my pocket money and sends me to my room, I will tell her, “Darling, in these troubled, flavour-challenged times, a man must stick by his choice of sauce. Not every nation has produced a striking combination of vinegar, molasses, anchovies and tamarind concentrate. And it ill befits me to stoop so low as to purchase a cheap, counterfeit version made in a country that hypocritically chides the Chinese for breach of copyright laws. Tomorrow, presented with a hotpot of simmering Irish stew, you will thank me.” If I can get all that in before the bottle is cracked down upon my balding head.

But if this turns out to be my last post, be sure that I’ll have died a happy man, swooning on a snatched final mouthful of Lea & Perrins’ finest product, mixed with tiny shards of brown glass and honest red blood from a shopper of high principle.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Going Home Via Rome

“What were you doing in Italy?” the accusatory customs officer at Boston Logan International Airport asked me last night as I re-entered the United States. I could have given any one of three answers.

Answer one: “Ah, you know, I just thought I’d stop off there for a few hours to see the Colosseum, take in a Serie A game at the Stadio Olimpico, sip an espresso at the Piazza Venezia, flirt with a Francesca or two, stroll the Via Condotti and pick up my spring fashions, pop in on the Pope and put him right on a few ecclesiastical and socio-political issues, degust a plate of artichoke ravioli at La Pergola rooftop restaurant topping the Hilton on Monte Mario, and then retire to my five-star room with an Alberto Moravia novel. I mean, what else would an international man of leisure like myself get up to there?”

Answer two: “Thanks to the weather, massive airline incompetence, and the staggeringly pointless new security measures introduced by your government since a martyr-fixated half-wit sewed semtex into his breeks, I was diverted to the Italian capital for the privilege of sleeping for three hours at the airport hotel, three security checks, having my luggage vandalized with the lock and zip ripped off - though, strangely enough, no Fiumicino baggage handler was interested in pilfering my soiled shreddies, snotted hankies, bottle of Maggi sauce, Christoph Biermann’s ‘The Football Matrix: The Search For The Perfect Game’ (in German), a Serious Drinking vinyl LP, or a four-DVD set of Ken Burns’ PBS documentary on the history of Jazz - and then standing for six hours in the airport terminal, watching pigeons fly around the cafeteria while security officers frisked assorted Category One risk passengers, such as wheezing pensioners, or soccer senoritas with their two-year-old kids. It was fun, I tell yer, though don’t let it stop you aggressively tossing out questions as I enter the fourth and final leg of this soul-sucking two-day trans-continental quest to lie down in my own bed.”

Answer three: “I was diverted to Rome on my way back to Washington DC from Germany because of the bad weather in Europe. Sir.”

Answer three is the correct one, unless you want to be slapped to the floor for an intestinal scan, enforced contortion, and indefinite incarceration. Uniforms have a knack of curbing my sarcasm, so I made it through by resisting a descent into wit’s allegedly lowest manifestation. The rest of the family, sent via London and Toronto, straggled home too in the end, although my battered suitcase - held together with duct tape and shrinkwrap - is still missing, along with the precious contents described above.

Mind you, I’m still extremely miffed that no Italian was interested in nicking my Ben Sherman shirt.