29 April 2008

Grant-Lee Phillips

Grant-Lee Phillips
The Scala, King's Cross
27 April 2008

Indie fans of a certain 90s-era vintage may have fond memories of the US guitar trio Grant Lee Buffalo. One of the best multiple billing gigs I attended was at Western Springs in Auckland on 28 January 1995 - R.E.M. headlined, Crowded House were second billing, and opening the evening's performance were the most energetic band of the night, the young (then) Grant Lee Buffalo, with their razor-sharp rock chords and superb lead vocals from Grant-Lee Phillips himself. I quickly became a fan, and sought out their first two albums - the pretty, loping grace of Fuzzy (1993), which was once lauded by Michael Stipe as 'the best album of the year hands down', and the punchy indie pop noise of Mighty Joe Moon (1994). After GLB disbanded at the end of the 90s Phillips reappeared as a solo artist, releasing a series of albums including Mobilize (2001), a perfect collection of pop songs and ballads that received wide critical acclaim if not huge sales.

Last night's performance by Phillips at the Scala in King's Cross showed that he has lost none of his enthusiasm for music-making and none of his ability with the guitar or death-defying vocal ranges. He strode on wearing the shirt he's pictured in above, and with an unruly mop of hair that would do Richard Hawley proud. He proved a genial host to the crowd of 400 or 500, plucking song requests from the audience to expand the setlist, and was accompanied only by a sidekick on keyboards.

One highlight of the evening was his performance of Dixie Drugstore, a rambling New Orleans ghost story from the Fuzzy album with an electrifying falsetto chorus. Phillips quickly admitted he needed his lyrics book to perform it - 'there are a lot of words in that one!' - and joked, 'gather round now, chillun - grandpa's gonna sing you a song from the old songbook'. It proved to be a roistering boogie with a blinding honky-tonk piano solo, and at the end Phillips applauded his nimble keyboardist memory skills: 'that's only the second time he's heard that song!'. A high quality set of Grant Lee Buffalo songs from the 90s heyday also made an appearance, proving that Phillips has written some great material, and can still nail the stratospheric falsettos on the title track of Fuzzy, where Phillips sings the word 'fuzzy' as if infected with the spirit of rogue choral angels:

All and all the world is small enough for both of us
To meet upon the interstate waiting on a train
And just when those big arms lift up fall in love with no time to say it

I liked to
Now I'm fuzzy
I've lied too
Now I'm fuzzy

While people were shouting out song requests, I pondered the tracks I would ask for if I was the shoutin' kind (which I ain't). Aside from the ones he played, I have a real soft spot for the shiny pop multi-tracked harmonies and euphoric air-punching choruses of Spring Released from Mobilize ("Damn this floor is thumpin' spring released and / My little girlfriend's hanging light / I feel the blood rush pumpin' haulin'..."), and the jauntily perfect pop pastiche of The Whole Shebang from the Velvet Goldmine soundtrack (1998) - both deserved much broader fame.

We'll take the whole shebang
All or nothing, anything
Ecstasy's the birthright of our gang
We'll take the whole shebang
Free your heart of guilt and shame
Come and claim what's yours
The whole shebang

With his penchant for lyrical Americana and prowess with the acoustic guitar, it's a relief that indie fans were able to enjoy Grant Lee Buffalo as a middling-successful rock band, because if Phillips had been in thrall to the twang and become a hat act instead, his songwriting and performing talents would surely have seen him attaining a much higher profile the country genre. We can only be grateful that he was born in California rather than Tennessee!

(Earlier, the support act for the evening was Oxford singer-songwriter Richard Walters, who performed a selection of his delicate yet absorbing acoustic numbers to a positive response from the Scala audience. His blog profile says he imagines his cat singing like Stina Nordenstam, which is a good thing in my book).

Rock against racism

Love Music Hate Racism Carnival
Victoria Park, Tower Hamlets
27 April 2008

Thirty years ago in 1978 a group of musicians including The Clash and the Tom Robinson Band gathered for Rock Against Racism, a massive free festival in East London's Victoria Park to protest against the influence of the far right National Front. Yesterday a collection of contemporary artists collaborated with some veteran punks to put on another free concert for 60 to 100,000 Londoners, to raise awareness of the dangers of the suit-wearing far-right candidates of the BNP. It was a rock festival with a strong dose of union rally on the side, with union representatives speaking between each gig to remind concert-goers about the London elections on Thursday ('okay, we've got two minutes to fill before the next act, so let's do some more chanting...') The organisers also had friends in high places, with Morrissey donating a large sum at the last minute to cover the costs.

I caught a set by The Paddingtons on the smaller of the two stages, and then spent the remainder of the afternoon over at the main stage, fending off the rain showers and enjoying the slightly ramshackle set-list. Rapper Jay Sean wasn't really my cup of tea - I don't respond well to repeated faux-American exhortations to 'make some NOISE!'

Following him there was the slot that should've been occupied by a triumphant and possibly completely shambolic set by Babyshambles. But seeing as Pete Doherty is banged up, the slot was taken by his bandmate Drew McConnell and his side project band Helsinki, with many guests roped in. Poly Styrene, the former lead singer of influential punk outfit X Ray Spex, popped up to belt out her single, Oh Bondage Up Yours! ("Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard / But I think: Oh Bondage, Up Yours!") Back in the 70s Poly proved that daft punk wasn't a solely male preserve, and that gobby girls could get up on stage wearing ripped denim and safety pins to shout stuff too. And another minor legend, Jimmy Pursey of punk bovver boys Sham 69 (check out If The Kids Are United from 1978 if you've not heard it already) popped along to deliver incendiary vocals on a cover of The Clash's White Riot. Shortly before I had to leave the sun finally came out, eliciting cheers and much hand-waving from the crowd. I only had time to catch the very beginning of The Good The Bad & The Queen, featuring Damon Albarn (Blur, Gorillaz) and Paul Simonon (The Clash), but they sounded in good form.

Here's some pics and a rather jerky video of the crowd during the first GBQ number, which was marred by a poor sound mix. (They performed it again once the sound had been sorted out). Pics are: The Paddingtons, Poly Styrene, Jimmy Pursey, and Damon Albarn with Paul Simonon.

(Warning: audio is quite loud on this one)

Otene's first birthday

On sunny Saturday an impressive crowd turned up at Sam's mother's house in Purley to celebrate the first birthday of baby Otene. Or should I say 'toddler Otene', because he is zippy both on his feet and crawling now. What seemed like half the babies in London turned up with their parents, but their behaviour was exemplary and they comported themselves in a uniformly cute fashion. Otene enjoyed all the attention, grinning toothily when Happy Birthday was sung to him, and it goes without saying that the birthday cake baked by Sam the night before was Very Popular Indeed.

25 April 2008

British comedy film onslaught

A squadron of British comedy films has been released in recent weeks, signalling a strong complement for next year's awards ceremonies and making a positive statement of the health of the industry. But I wonder if their success will reach beyond the UK, given the relatively small promotional budgets of British production companies. Certainly in New Zealand we often miss seeing British films on general release, and are lucky if we catch them in smaller art-house cinemas on short runs. So if you like the sound of any of these films, keep an eye out for them. I've marked each depending on the ultimate test of how well a film travels: how likely I think they are to play at the Rialto in Palmerston North...


Director Mike Leigh is known for the bleak and compelling honesty of his kitchen-sink personal dramas, typified by superb and emotionally engrossing films like Secrets and Lies and Vera Drake. But with Happy-Go-Lucky he deliberately set out to make an optimistic film - one focusing on a free-spirited, outgoing single girl played by Sally Hawkins. The sunniness of the lead character is undeniable, and the departure from Leigh's usual fare is marked - you'll probably keep waiting for someone to contract cancer or fall under a bus. But no, this film does exactly what it says on the tin. Indeed, Channel 4 Film said: 'Leigh has made an infectiously joyous, life-affirming, beautiful film that is a long glass of refreshing water in a time of fetishised misery and fascination with pain in cinema. Happy-Go-Lucky sends you away transformed, purely happy - at least until you board a bus. He's made a film for film reviewers'. (RPN rating: High)

Three And Out

Starring Mackenzie Crook (Gareth from The Office) as a Tube train driver who's killed two passengers (through no fault of his own) in the space of a few weeks. While coming to terms with the deaths he discovers a little-known London Underground policy that if a driver has three 'one-unders' in the space of a month, they receive a huge redundancy package. So he sets out to find someone to be the lucky third. Most of the publicity surrounding the film, which was made in consultation with London Underground, has focused on the train-drivers' union's complaints and a picket at the premiere, which has led to a tit-for-tat war in the press. It remains to be seen if the movie handles the subject as sensitively as the makers claim it does, but pre-release reviews are generally positive. The Times said: 'as [the] plan reaches fruition, and a tube train thunders down a track towards a man that it may or may not demolish, Three and Out becomes a thing of eerie beauty, asking bigger questions about life, and about death, and leaving you in no doubt that it treats the reality of the latter with the utmost respect'.

Thing is, the trailer isn't that flash. And would it have been too close to the bone to use (Don't Fear) The Reaper rather than the overused Spirit In The Sky? (RPN rating: Middling)

[Edit, 9 May: Turns out this one didn't have legs. See Owen Gibson's report in the Guardian for an interesting analysis of the plight of the Britcom]

Son of Rambow

Set in the 1980s, this follows the quest of two young boys to remake a Rambo film using a video camera and a lot of home-made 'special' effects. The main character becomes completely entranced when he breaks free of his no-TV, no-movies Brethren mum (played by Spaced's Jessica Hynes) and watches Rambo for the first time. Taps into the rich vein of 80s nostalgia, but the BBC said 'beyond the belly laughs and sunny 80s nostalgia, this is a portrait of friendship which is truly tender and moving'. (RPN rating: High)

In Bruges

Well, this one's Irish rather than British. Some gangsters are forced to flee the nest and end up in Flanders, but lying low proves harder than expected for a bunch of crooks not used to blending into the background. It stars Colin Farrell and has been described by Thelondonpaper as 'funny yet disturbing'. (RPN rating: Chance'd be a foine t'ing)

Captain Eager and the Mark of Voth

Genre pastiches are hard to pull off, but this one has an excellent cast. Paying homage to low-budget 1950s B-grade sci-fi, the film boasts supporting actors Tamsin Greig (Black Books, Green Wing) and Mark Heap (Spaced, Green Wing). Reviews are middling: Time Out gave it three stars and said: 'Here, the budget was minimal (most of the sets were made of cardboard), the action is relayed totally straight and there’s a real sense that DaVison has a fondness for the material he’s sending-up. Many will find it tedious and obtuse, but if you can make it past the first half-hour, you shine to the shoddy CGI and dialogue that is constructed entirely from cliché'. (RPN rating: About as likely as this film winning an Oscar)

22 April 2008

Skirting the issue

An artist's impression of the event witnessed, with some liberties taken for dramatic effect. (Painting by Gil Elvgren, 1952)

One of the nice things about living in a happening place like London is that occasionally you spot a brief vignette of pure humanity that reminds you of the innate comedic potential of everyday situations.

On Saturday morning I was taking the brief District Line journey from Southfields to Wimbledon on my way to do some shopping. In the five minutes or so that the Tube train took to rattle to the end of the line I had a chance to scan the carriage for noteworthy sights. Normally there's nothing to report - just the usual pet peeves of people having pointless loud conversations on their face-sucking mobiles or emitting repetitive tinny Kiss FM shockwaves from their cheap earphone buds.

But as the Tube crawled alongside the Wimbledon platform an unusual sight caught my eye. Now, naturally it's inappropriate to stare at young women on the Tube, so of course I didn't look overlong; just long enough to confirm that yes, my first impression was correct. Here was a young woman who had... (da dum DAAA!) Forgotten Her Skirt.

For some readers this occurrence must bring back memories of school-years nightmares in which you wake up in class to find that certain pivotal articles of schoolwear are absent, thereby sets off gales of student cackling, heckling and finger-pointing, accompanied by the ever-familiar surge of teenage embarrassment. The old 'schoolyard in your undies' nightmare is one familiar to many.

Similarly, those of you who have lived in the more youthful parts of town will be familiar with the famous Walk Of Shame such as that observed by residents of Majoribanks Street in Mt Victoria, Wellington, whereby a flock of work-suited, hung-over and somewhat bedraggled souls try to make their way homewards on a Saturday morning after nocturnal escapades in another's bed. But it would be rather unusual to spot a WoS-er sporting the No-Skirt look. Indeed, in a town like Wellington it would probably result in witnesses emailing the Dominion Post gossip column.

This South London girl had managed to combine the two in an impressive attempt to achieve the maximum possible outbreak of nudging and winking amongst her fellow passengers. Before you start getting ideas, I should point out that No Skirt Girl was not in any danger of being arrested for indecent exposure. She had a perfectly respectable pair of black tights on over her black knickers. I bet she was thanking her lucky stars that she'd left her thong in the dresser on Friday morning.

As the Tube doors opened she bolted for the door and off down the platform, hoping to outrun the other passengers. This proved to be a tactical error, because this simply drew attention to her relative lack of lower attire for those fellow passengers following behind who had yet to notice the absence. Realising her mistake, she attempted to tug the tail of her top down lower, but rather than disguising the lack of said Skirt, this instead served as a kind of flag-waving banner announcing the general area in which interested passers-by could look if they wished to gaze upon the area in which a Skirt usually resides, but in this case was lamentably, unavoidably and inexplicably Absent.

As girlfriends nudged boyfriends, flicked their eyes No-Skirt-Girl-wards and muttered, "look, she's forgotten to finish dressing!", she quickened her pace to outdistance the dozens of other passengers, and tried to merge into the crowd. Only then did she realise her dilemma - to get out of the station she had to ascend a flight of stairs! Striding purposefully onwards, she deployed a complicated and high-risk two-pronged buttock obscuration strategy. With one hand tugging at her shirt-tail, the other hand pulled her wide leather belt down as low as possible to act as an impromptu and largely ineffectual modesty preserver.

In a flash (so to speak) she was gone into the Saturday morning Wimbledon throng, leaving only wonderment in her path. How had said Skirt parted company with its owner in the first place? Had she not thought to pop into Primark and buy a replacement? And in a city as fad-obsessed as London, did she not stop to think of the fearsome consequences of setting off a rage for venturing out on the Underground sans Skirt. The papers would have a field day.

Not that I'm saying it's a bad idea, mind.

Message Mr. Cleaver.
Am appalled by message.
Skirt is demonstrably neither sick nor absent.
Appalled by management's blatantly size-ist attitude to skirt.
Suggest management sick, not skirt!

- Bridget Jones' Diary, by Helen Fielding


16 April 2008

Into The Mystic

Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova perform an excellent acoustic version of Van Morrison's 'Into The Mystic', from his 1970 album 'Moondance'. Recorded at the BBC, 8 April 2008.

[Content may only be available in the UK, I suspect]

A Cook Strait tunnel?

You may or may not find this hard to believe, but I was pondering the idea of a tunnel under Cook Strait the other day. When I did the usual follow-up, plugging the words 'Cook Strait tunnel' into a well-known search engine, I found absolutely nothing. Well, there was this quick discussion on Public Address System, which is a good headline but nothing more. This spurred me into action. So, for no good reason other than to fill a void and secure my place in blogging posterity as (possibly, sort of) the first poster on the topic, here's a brief discussion of the prospects for a Cook Strait tunnel.

It's often mentioned that New Zealand has a similar land area to that of the United Kingdom, the country from which many Pakeha colonists originated. New Zealand has a land area of 268,000 sq km and the UK has 241,500 sq km. While the UK does have the outlying territory of Northern Ireland over the Irish Sea, most of the land area of the UK is easily accessible by road or rail. However, New Zealand is an archipelago split by Cook Strait and Foveaux Strait, which hampers communications and commerce and generally makes getting about a real nuisance. In my years living in Wellington I certainly bemoaned the lack of driving opportunities from the capital – it’s north or nothing – and the car ferries to Picton in the South Island are expensive.

Another island archipelago nation is Japan (land area 374,750 sq km), which is divided amongst four main islands. Japan has the advantages of having relatively narrow channels between its three southern islands, Honshu, Kyushu and Shikoku, and the considerable wealth required to connect those islands. Even the broad Tsugaru Strait between Honshu and the northern island of Hokkaido has been conquered by the 53km Seikan Tunnel, 23km of which is underwater.

New Zealand’s Cook Strait is the major break point in the New Zealand economy and the transportation network. On days with foul weather and high winds – and there are many of those days – ferries are held in port and aircraft are grounded, thereby shutting down the only links between the North and South Islands. The cost to business and travellers alike is high.

So I started wondering: has anyone seriously considered a Cook Strait Tunnel? Obviously it would be ridiculously expensive, perhaps beyond the ability of a small country to afford. But in practical terms, is it a workable proposition? The factors to be considered are distance, depth, geology and cost.


On this front, it’s good news! In theory, that is. Tunnels far longer than the width of Cook Strait have been in operation for years. The shortest distance across the Strait is about 22km from Cape Terawhiti on the North Island to Perano Head on Arapawa Island in the Marlborough Sounds at the top of the South Island.

When we look for examples in other countries, there are several tunnels longer than 22km. The Seikan Tunnel, mentioned above, tops the list. Next is the most well-known to New Zealanders: the Channel Tunnel linking England and France, which has a total length of 50km, of which 39km is underwater. This list shows seven tunnels – six rail tunnels and one road tunnel – longer than the 22km between Terawhiti and Perano.


Cook Strait has an average depth of 128m. Surveyors charting a course for the Saikan Tunnel found that the western neck of Tsugaru Strait had a maximum depth of 140m, so they sited the tunnel there. The English Channel is much shallower at its narrowest crossing though – only 45 to 60m deep. One consolation is that it’s certainly possible – the admittedly much shorter Eiksund road tunnel in Norway is the deepest undersea tunnel, reaching a depth of 287m below mean sea level at its deepest point. So a Cook Strait tunnel might have to be built at the cutting edge of engineering technology.


Here I’m on shaky ground, if you’ll excuse the pun. I can draw a straight line from A to B, but I can’t tell you whether the intervening material that has to be drilled through is good or bad. Given the environment of the strait itself, I can't imagine the rocks underneath it will be particularly easy to tunnel through. Not a particularly substantive analysis is it? Perhaps one of these bods might know something.


There's another factor that makes a Cook Strait tunnel quite challenging. While the narrowest crossing point is 22km wide, the topography of the terrain on either side of the strait is particularly rugged. If a rail tunnel to the South Island was considered, extending the Wellington railhead from the Thorndon station westwards to the coast would take the rail lines up steep slopes to residential Karori (which could certainly do with some livening up, but perhaps not from a busy freight line) and on through hilly terrain that would require numerous tunnels to pierce the ridgelines, which are aligned southwest to northeast.

On the other side of the strait it's just as tricky. Arapawa Island has the same steep hills to negotiate, and it would also require a tunnel or bridge across the Tory Channel to reach the South Island railhead at Picton. Blimey. Oh well, here's a nice picture anyway.


Okay, here's where the idea falls down. I suspect this will only ever be affordable in the far distant future when silver-suited engineers will lazily instruct a cyborg drill monster to go away and dig the tunnel, leaving them in peace to carry on the crossword in the digital Dominion Post.


I think as a result of this investigation into the prospects for a tunnel under Cook Strait the only thing we can be certain about is that I wouldn't have made a good engineer.

But don't get me started on the idea of a Cook Strait bridge... now that's an idea with potential!


13 April 2008


Last night there was an enjoyable gathering in Soho to commemorate my 'halfway to 70' birthday. (Sounds pretty scary when you put it that way, doesn't it?). Ten of us dined at Canela, a little Portuguese cafe, and then a a deputation went on to Karaokebox in Frith Street, which is cheek by jowl with the trendiest Soho nightspots like Bar Italia and the Groucho. In our private booth we had an entertaining singing session, which harked back to the halcyon days of the admittedly more rustic charms of the Taste of Korea booths in Willis Street. Felix excelled at her favourite, the Spice Girls' 'Wannabe', while Deb & Jude also did sterling work on Morrissey's 1988 classic 'Every Day Is Like Sunday'. My noble pals indulged me by letting me attempt a Bill Withers number while only possessing approximately 3 percent of the actual soulfulness of the singer himself. They also sat stoically as I fulfilled my long-held ambition to murder the legendarily stratospheric David Bowie vocalisations on the outro to Lou Reed's 'Satellite of Love' ('Satelii-ei... of Looooo-OOO-ooo-ooove...').

Thanks to all who attended for a fun night out on the town!

12 April 2008

Muesli on my sock

(Note: This is one of those blog posts that fills in the gaps of other arguably more interesting posts. So you’ll probably be wisest to outsource the reading of this blog to a contractor in Bangalore or something. Turn away now, those of you with low tolerance levels for trivia and minutiae).

The first day back at work after Easter in Napoli was marked with the traditional English religious festival known as the Feast of Holy Engineering Overruns. Railway engineering contractors who had promised hands on hearts that previous diabolical overruns and delays after public holidays would never be repeated, so obviously it was foolish to hope for anything better than slightly less diabolical overruns and delays. While rail delays were previously of little interest to me because I could take the Tube instead, it will come as no surprise to you that the Underground doesn’t extend to Chelmsford, where I now work. So my first day back was blighted by huge delays and marred by a legendary three-and-a-half hour slog to get to work. The best bit was the complete lack of information from the train operator at every step of the journey, presumably because no-one had the slightest idea what was happening. As it happens, on days like that no-one seriously expects you to even get to work, so by turning up at all you win brownie points. I only lamented the lack of plush sofas in our office, which meant I had nothing to punch repeatedly in frustration when I finally got there. And just thinking ahead – there are two more bank holiday weekends in May...

I paid a return visit to the comedy club in Greenwich with Steve & Helen after work one night for a BBC7 radio comedy recording of the sketch show Tilt, a mostly topical comedy revue with a talented cast of young comedians barrelling through quick sketches on newsworthy or just plain silly topics. Two favourites included an interview with Sir Alec Guinness about his new film role as The Incredible Hulk, playing opposite a villain called The Abomination, played by Nigel Havers (these luvvies, so multi-talented); and two Beatle fangirls dissecting McCartney song titles to discover hidden anti-Heather Mills messages. ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ was something along the lines of ‘Am Vex: Mills Lamer Shrew’. One of the comedians was the talented Northern lass Isy Suttie, who we’d seen perform the last time at the club. Here’s an interview from the Edinburgh festival – I love her accent!

On 29 March I braved the rather foul weather and the looming masses to head downhill to Putney, where the 154th annual Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge was taking place. Despite the surging crowds (half poshos, half Antipodeans) and the chilly rain (top marks to the miniskirted girl with red gumboots and bare legs) I enjoyed the occasion. Oxford were clear victors in the end, and I was able to take this shot from the south bank opposite Fulham FC, about a mile west of the starting line at Putney Bridge – Oxford are in the dark vests:

The next day was the first of British Summer Time: three cheers for that, said the soft Aucklander. Although to be fair it has been a mild winter in London by most standards. I decided to remind myself of a proper scary winter by going to see an ice sculpture that had been erected outside the Tate Modern on Bankside. It was an interesting idea, leaving it there to melt in a way that was hopefully going to appear aesthetically pleasing. Actually it wasn’t much to look at, but it did let me imagine London as it might’ve been in The Day After Tomorrow:

I crossed the Millennium Bridge to the north side of the river, and noticed that the Thames was at low ebb, exposing the pebbly shoreline. Having long enjoyed rummaging through the stony beaches around Lambton Harbour in Wellington, turning up polished beach glass and the occasional fragment of 19th century pottery, I thought I’d take a look at a much richer history of a city boasting a couple of thousand years of settlement. I was rewarded with an excellent haul of pottery fragments from the 19th century – or at least I presume so, because that was the last period in which durable pottery would’ve been regularly shipped up and down the river. But the best find was a rusty headless nail of some sort. (Don't get all excited now). I’ve had a look on the internet to try to date it, but I’m not sure what it was used for or how old it is. I think it’s handmade, and the lack of a head makes it look pre-19th century to me, but then what do I know about nails?

As I walked past St Paul's to take a bus back to the West End, the bells were ringing out in an impressive display that cascaded over the city and gave the tourists something to remember:

That evening I settled down to watch Anthony Minghella’s last production: the telemovie of Alexander McCall Smith’s The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. I was unprepared for just how charming it turned out to be. American singer Jill Scott was perfect as Precious Ramotswe, and the whole production was effortlessly entertaining and ultimately a joyful celebration of African life and a tribute to the spirit of optimism that imbues the books. The beautiful Botswana scenery will surely be seen again, although sadly with another helmsman, given Minghella’s recent death. A good way to finish on a high, and it could well make a transatlantic star out of Scott too.

I also went to see Juno in Wimbledon after work one weeknight, before it closed. I can see why it’s been so popular – it’s a top performance from the perky Ellen Page, and the comic touches are warm-hearted without being too saccharine… at least until the end. But by then you can allow them a happy ending, even if it’s rather shoehorned in. I initially described it as Napoleon Dynamite gets Knocked Up, which is a little glib but at least it permits me to indulge my penchant for italics.

There’s been a little socialising here and there too. Last Friday I met up with some former CC colleagues at the Pitcher & Piano in Kingsway for Alex & Philippa’s farewell drinks – they’re heading back to live in Perth. I was able to catch up with team-mate Estelle and hear about her interesting public affairs internship. The next night I caught up with Steve & Fiona at Borough Markets and had dinner back at their apartment with some of their pals.

I’ve already waxed lyrical about the splendid snowfall that blanketed London that Sunday, but I didn’t mention that when I was suiting up in my warmest gear to head outside I noticed that I’d managed to scrape some muesli from my breakfast plate right onto my warm fuzzy socks. Hence the title of this post. Not a life-changing moment by any means, nor a title that’s particularly representative of the past several weeks, but as I stand a fair chance of boosting my blog traffic both from Swiss people and from sock fanciers, I thought ‘why not?’

Later that afternoon I paid a visit to the V&A, having not seen the collections in ten years. I was surprised to find so much I’d not remembered, and spent several hours enjoying the collections. A particular highlight for me was the Cast Court – two huge spaces filled with 19th century casts of some of the best stonework of Europe and the British Isles. The hectic jumble of statues was appealing. On one side resided a stately copy of Michelangelo’s David posing in front of a cheery orange wall, while on the other a full-sized replica of Trajan’s Column (admittedly in two halves, one next to the other) loomed over the 10th century high cross from Monasterboice in Ireland. Jennifer, Hayley, Laura and I paid a visit to see this particular cross and its fierce carved Viking warriors on our Irish trip in 1997.

I’ll have to return to the V&A, and certainly sooner than 2018. Before I sign off, I should mention this story from today's paper, which I've reproduced in the VFE blog. Made me laugh, innit?


07 April 2008


There was an odd sort of noise at the bedroom window when I woke up this morning. It sounded a bit like rain... no, snow! I'd missed the only snowfall of the winter in London over Easter when I was in Napoli, but this was a real snowstorm. Big fluffy flakes were whirling around the tower blocks and encrusting the parked cars and foliage below, and the drifts were already piling up. Snow doesn't usually settle in London - it's too far south and there's so much concrete around. So this was a rare treat.

I rugged up and ventured out, crunching through the soft snow in my Dr Martens, heading for the Common to get some pictures. It was just like The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe out there - thick layers of snow on every leaf and branch. But it wasn't particularly cold - I was fine when I took my gloves off. In the centre of Wimbledon Common near the windmill dozens of families had gathered to build snowmen or take their kids sledding. Dogs were having a great time - I watched one spaniel puppy chasing snowballs for the first time: "Okay, I'll fetch it... hey, where's it gone? Oh, you've thrown another one. Cool! I'll find that one then. Hey, I thought it was here somewhere..." And another little pup was loving bouncing in and out of the drifts, his stubby legs pumping crazily. What a super morning in London!

03 April 2008


On the day before Easter, the Thursday of my first week in my new contract in Chelmsford, I set off for Heathrow with high hopes for an exciting trip to Napoli (Naples) in Campania, southern Italy. Of course I was taking something of a risk booking with Alitalia. Flying at Easter. With an internal transfer in Italy. Alitalia doesn’t inspire confidence these days, what with its fleet dominated by ancient McDonnell Douglas MD-80s that look like they were designed in 1959, and the derisory sum offered by Air France to buy the Italian flag carrier recently. (US$215m – which would buy you just one Boeing 747-400). By rights I should still be trying to get home. But actually the flights were fine – only a one hour delay on the leg from Heathrow to Milan Linate, but I had plenty of time to make my connection to Napoli.

But the impressive sight that greeted me when I tried to check in at Heathrow was a truly enormous check-in queue twisting out into the concourse, with only one desk open. The queue also sported a goth metal band, Fields of the Nephilim, a bunch of lively lads who were forever on the verge of queue-jumping to catch their flight. Being a thorough geek, I timed my journey to the check-in desk (sad I know): 58 minutes. But on the plus side the Italian girl at the check-in desk was decked out in that extra-smart green Alitalia jacket. So, to sum up Alitalia: typically Italian in that it wasn’t very organised, but partially mitigated by staff uniform hotness.

The flight quickly crossed the snowy Alps and circled down over the densely populated northern Italian plains. In the brief stopover in Milan – one of its aircraft hangars is crowned with a neon sign for Emporio Armani – one moment of weirdness brightened the day. As the crowd milled around the gate a soft ‘scuzi, scuzi’ emanated from the rear of the scrum. A woman dressed as a comedia dell’arte clown wearing a Chinese coolie’s hat emerged through the crowd, pushing an airport baggage trolley towards the gate. On the trolley another clown was dressed up as an Eastern mystic with white robes and turban, and seated on a suitcase in the lotus position. They didn’t try to board, they just moved through the crowd, while we all exchanged bemused glances. Could this be the perfect way to de-stress an airport experience? Should airports all employ a Designated Clown? (Not the creepy ones though – they suck).

A little over an hour’s flight south of Milan, Vesuvius loomed in the dusky distance, overlooking the broad curve of the Bay of Naples. My bag was one of the first off the plane, and all that remained was for the airbus driver to have simultaneous arguments on two mobiles before we headed into busy central Napoli. Apparently the city’s long-standing rubbish problems, with weeks of rubbish bags traditionally lining the streets and stinking up something chronic, had been solved a few weeks ago, when they were carted off… somewhere else.

At the short journey’s end I flung myself into the hectic array of hawkers and gawpers in the Piazza Garibaldi, and boarded a couple of slow metro trains to haul me up the steep slopes to the inner city suburb of Vomero, where my hostel was located. I noted the locals’ fondness for wearing aviator sunglasses whilst travelling on the dimly-lit Metro and applauded their gusto, if not their good sense. La Controra is an ultra-modern place overlooking a disused 18th century church, and it boasts a lot of nice touches that made it one of the best hostels I’ve stayed in. I particularly liked the clear resin floor tiles with toy soldiers, playing cards or Scrabble letters embedded within, and the rather sumptuous breakfast included in the price was welcome too.

My dorm only had one other inhabitant – Alejandro from Milan. A nice chap to chat with, but I immediately marked him as a earplug-piercing snorer. Best not to get too pally, in case I had to glare at him wickedly in the morning for disrupting my night’s sleep.


Oh, wicked glares were definitely the order of the day. Definitely. But fortunately I was up and out of the hostel early, so I didn’t have to chat with anyone - Alejandro particularly - in my poor sleep-deprived morning mood. The day had turned out clear, bright and blue-skied, in direct contravention of the BBC weather predictions. With the precious good weather in mind, I dashed for the train station to take the Circumvesuviano train around the bay to the outlying suburb of Ercolano – the modern-day name of the Roman fishing town of Herculaneum, which was obliterated by boiling lava and ash flows when Vesuvius exploded in AD 79. The incendiary onrush from the volcano rapidly extinguished the lives of all the remaining inhabitants, including more than a hundred who had gathered at the shoreline hoping to escape in the town’s boats or possibly praying for rescue from the Roman fleet at Misenum at the head of the bay. Their mummified bodies were discovered in 1982:

‘Like Pompeii, Herculaneum was a coastal town, the bulk of which was situated several metres above sea level; since it was buried far deeper than Pompeii after the eruption … it took many years of excavation to reach the lowest-lying areas along the shoreline. But it was there that 51 men, 49 women and 39 children mustered, perhaps hoping to use their boats that were stored under the arches to make their escape. And it was there they would meet their end’ (Alex Butterworth & Ray Laurence, Pompeii: The Living City, 2005)

On an excavated site of four hectares, it’s easy to get a feel for the town and its inhabitants. You enter on an elevated bridge perhaps 15 metres over the old sea level, and are immediately amidst the fine dwellings of the wealthy few who could afford a sea view. The richest homes boasted a colonnaded hollow square floorplan around a central garden with fountains and statues. Further from the old shoreline the die-straight cobblestoned streets pass shops, bars, bakeries and family homes. While many of the most beautiful mosaics and murals were chipped out and shipped out in the early days of excavation over the past couple of centuries, some still remain in situ – pale and wan reminders of the splendour that once adorned every surface. In the Hall of the Augustals sumptuous murals of gods and heroes shine from the walls [pic], while on a more domestic level, in the House of the Deer a small wall painting of a plate of nuts sits beneath a pane of glass. These works of art look like they were painted a generation ago – not two thousand years ago at the time of Nero and Saint Paul.

I spent two and a half hours in the lovely Neapolitan sunshine exploring every building I that was open, including the baths with their striking mosaic tile floor of Triton [pic], and this great household mosaic:

Splendid mosaic
Originally uploaded by eT le snap

I also happened upon a modern-day inhabitant of Herculaneum: a tiny green lizard sunning himself on an ancient rock wall:

Originally uploaded by eT le snap

Lastly, here's some views over the town:

Soon enough it was time to go, and I was starving too, so I found a local café and inadvertently ordered the first thing that I saw – tortellini con panna – only to realise that it was the single most boring dish on the menu. I sat chewing away, distracting myself by watching the traffic roar up and down the boulevard. A cool dude in the standard early spring uniform of jeans, puffer jacket and aviator shades kick started his Vespa, but then spoiled the with-it persona by making space for his pink-clad seven year-old sister on the seat behind him, before clattering off into the distance.

I boarded the train back to the city, and once there I paid a hefty €10 for a ticket to the National Archaeological Museum, which had a late night on. Sure, it was expensive and some of its key rooms were closed for refurbishment so I didn’t get to see the original Farnese Hercules statue (I saw a cast of it in Cambridge). But the rest of the museum was superb – a real treasure trove of mosaics, frescos, paintings and statues, most of which had been prised from the ashen turf around Pompeii and Herculaneum by questing spelunkers. The famous statues of athletes, forever striving for the winner’s wreath; a gladiator’s heavily ornamented helmet and greaves; intricate mosaics depicting feasts, gods, revellers and beloved pet dogs; and the once notorious Secret Cabinet, which contains the ruder side of Roman art – there’s nothing dramatically scandalous in this day and age, but once these works were seen as a threat to society’s morals and hidden away under lock and key. Here’s a relatively sedate example of nymphs engaging in some PG-rated nympho hijinks:

The grandest spectacle on offer was probably the Alexander mosaic from the House of the Faun in Pompeii – a vast depiction of a battle in which a proud Alexander (The Great) strives to reach and maim Darius of Persia. It is likely that the debauched Emperor Nero was shown this very mosaic when he visited Pompeii.

Downstairs the museum’s Egyptian collection was notable for its collection of curiosities, like a mummified crocodile, and a separately mummified head and bundle of feet. More prominent age-blackened toes peeped out of a theatrically-gaping mummy’s coffin – this chap could surely use a pedicure after all these years:

But the highlight for me was definitely the museum’s statue collection, which was grand in scope and high in quality. A massive bust of the sternly avuncular Emperor Vespasian guarded the entry corridor, and not one but two Aphrodites arose, mock-alarmed, from their imaginary baths. (The Romans were all very Carry On about female nudity). Surely Aphrodite would’ve learned to keep the door shut by now? One room was devoted to the hugely complex Toro Farnese statue depicting the punishment of Dirce, who was tied to a bull by Antiope’s sons, Amphion and Zetus.

But my favourite was probably much simpler – this 2nd century AD Roman copy of a 5th century BC Greek original statue of Athena. So regal and powerful, she:

Afterwards I returned to La Controra on foot and managed to get hopelessly lost for a quarter of an hour or so, walking high up the Vomero hill through rows of suburban apartment blocks. Every other shop seemed to be a hairdresser, full of female customers having an evening blow-wave, with the hairdresser often a male. By a process of deduction I finally looped back around and found the hostel, but I was certainly tired by all the day’s walking. There would be much more of the same…


Saturday started out grey but clear, but the glowering skies that developed later in the morning suggested it was going to be an iffy day. I got up early again and breakfasted quickly before heading back down to the train station to catch the Circumvesuviano further around the bay than the day before – Pompeii is about twice as far from Napoli as Herculaneum. I arrived at the site at around 10am, and it was a great feeling to finally be there in person after years of waiting. Then the task ahead became obvious – Pompeii is simply huge. The excavated area is something like ten times the size of the excavations at Herculaneum, and there are still 16 hectares of the city that remain buried and unexplored. Generations of archaeologists have built their careers working here and there’s probably several lifetimes more work to be done before the complete story will be told. So much of the western world’s fascination with antiquity stems from the discoveries made here since the 18th century.

I entered the city by the steep ramp leading up to the Porta Marina, which pierced the old city walls that had been constructed in the 6th century BC. Initially the crowds of other tourists were daunting, and I wondered if the whole site would be crawling with people. But the throngs were following a set guidebook path or being led by local guides, and had yet to make their way past the Temples of Venus and Apollo, the Basilica and the Forum, which are all close to the Porta Marina. Instead of following the masses I ducked down the side street now known as the Via delle Scuole and proceeded to roam through the many small neighbourhoods of Pompeii. The cobblestoned streets varied from wide main thoroughfares on which two carts could pass – some with the deep furrows cut by centuries of carts – to six foot wide alleys that would’ve been avoided by the locals at night-time without a bright flaming torch carried by one of the city’s ubiquitous slaves. Tiny shops rubbed shoulders with labourers’ dwellings and taverns, and artisans’ shops jostled with brothels, but most blocks also had a wealthy villa or two owned by the aristocracy or well-off freedmen who had succeeded in business. I did puzzle over the purpose of the tiny alcoves I saw in several places along the back streets – a single brick room barely wide enough for a doorway facing the street, with no windows or signs of internal furnishings.

Freed slaves often did well for themselves, as they had the mentorship of their former owners to boost their enterprises, but they could not stand for public office, which was the ultimate status symbol of Pompeiian high society. As Vesuvius erupted, burying the city, Pompeii was engaged in one of its traditionally vigorous election campaigns for city offices, and many of the city’s buildings are still marked with election graffiti, particularly those on main streets with high visibility.

‘Mostly … the message was simple and direct: the candidate’s name and the office for which he was standing, the identity of the endorser, together with one of a limited repertoire of abbreviated phrases of praise: VB, DRP, OVF. A good man. Reflecting the dignity of the Republic. I beg you to elect him’ (Butterworth & Lawrence, Pompeii)

Of course the election never came – the eruption put paid to everyone’s political dreams. It killed masters and slaves, guards and looters, priests and gladiators alike. Dotted around the city are the famous plaster casts of the eruption victims, which were formed by injecting liquid plaster into the ash cavities created when the remains of the dead decomposed away, leaving air pockets in the solidified layers. They are caught in the throes of painful and probably sudden death, but to see their twisted limbs and frightened faces grants them some small immortality that few of us will secure. And not just human remains either – in the old city granary beside the Forum there’s a cast of a Pompeii dog too. I also took a video from the western side of the Forum, so you can see the scale of the place.

As I’ve mentioned, many of the famous works of art from the walls of Pompeii’s villas have long been spirited away to museums and private collections across the world. But enough original work and copies exist to get a feel for the opulent environs the wealthy Pompeiians lived in. Some of these artworks may have been prepared to impress Nero when he visited the city - like this famous painting of Venus in one villa:

Pretty soon the skies opened and I had to resort to taking pictures with one hand whilst wielding my umbrella to prevent my camera getting wet. After four and a half hours of exploring I finally called it a day, weary and damp but elated at having partaken for one day of the lives of the first century city dwellers. And later when reading my Pompeii book I found the answer to the mystery of the tiny one-room alcoves: apparently prostitutes used them to take willing clients behind a curtain for a moment’s privacy out of sight of the busy gossip-filled streets of the vibrant and bustling city...

After emerging from Pompeii I still had several hours before dark, so I took the train to the far end of the bay to visit the resort town of Sorrento. It was pleasant to wander around and look at the shops (although one boutique selling Chuck Taylor stiletto hightops might be targeting the hookers of Italy a little too exclusively) but there were no great feats of architecture to report. So I returned to Napoli for some cheap pizza at the train station, and later I chatted to two Argentinian girls in my dorm and watched an Italian-dubbed version of the BBC’s excellent dramatisation, Pompeii.


Sunday began with even less auspicious weather than Saturday – black, black skies and the threat of a storm. After Saturday’s massive amount of walking I had developed ‘cobblestone heel’ in my left foot, which had also proved a nuisance in Andalucia. Cue a bit of limping for the rest of the day and a soupcon of feeling sorry for myself, mingled with relief that no-one I knew would see me hopping around like a poorly coordinated invalid.

I had hoped to take a ferry to visit the exotic isle of Capri, but this proved impossible: when I reached the ferry wharf at Mergellina the seaward horizon was a diabolical shade of jet, strong rain lashed the water and forked lightning was striking the bay at least once a minute. Not an auspicious day to travel the waters! So instead I used my metro ticket to visit the quiet fishing suburb of Pozzuoli (ancient Puteoli, where it is believed St Paul was brought to Italia); Sophia Loren grew up here. I walked past its crumbling coliseum and admired the ruins of the Temple of Serapis by the waterfront, which was fenced off for some impressive building work and therefore resembled an enormous construction site, and then after an hour or so I headed back to Napoli.

Once there, I took one of Napoli’s funiculars (like Wellington’s cable car, but flashier) up to the top of the city to view the art collections in the Certosa di San Martino, formerly a Carthusian monastery and now an excellent art gallery. The view of the city from outside was tremendous, with Vesuvius looming in the background. Note the beer bottle disposal methods of the locals (bottom right) – when your bus comes, chuck the bottle over your shoulder.

No pictures were allowed inside the galleries but the 16th century chapel ceiling frescos were superb. I did sneak a quick picture of one side chapel when no-one was looking (and felt guilty about it), but the main chapel was even more sumptuous.

One amazing exhibit was the (unphotographable) wax and cork nativity scenes from the 18th and 19th centuries, which depicted biblical scenes of astonishing complexity and beauty. I particularly liked the 20-foot high scene in which Mary and Jesus are just a tiny centrepiece to the huge array of townsfolk going about their daily business, chasing chickens, selling cows, carving wood, carrying loads and baking bread – but all the while a string of dozens of angels with fluttering gowns is floating down in pretty spirals from the heavens to sing the praises of the infant below.

In the open square at the heart of the monastery the stonework was adorned with a gentle reminder to the monks to heed not the beauty and glamour of the earthly vices, and remember that death comes to all. Fun chaps, those Carthusians.

Afterwards I walked down the steep streets to sea level, briefly running into the Argentinians again, and explored the city. I enjoyed roaming through the dishevelled streets of the old town, and came across the old Roman statue of the Spirit of the Nile, holding court at a tiny crossroads.

As it was my last night in town I treated myself to dinner in a proper restaurant. La Tana dell’Arte is a modern shiny white art café with plenty of signed showbills on its walls. I had a huge ricotta and sausage pizza and a small carafe of the house red and felt very pleased with myself. Although that might’ve had something to do with being able to sit down and relax after another day with a great deal of walking!


I scored a room to myself for my last night in the hostel, but the locals next door had a bongo-playing party, which curtailed the sleeping aspect of the night somewhat. I used my last morning in Napoli to explore more of the Centro Storico, the old town. It was a slightly chilly morning, but I was surprised when the light rain turned into a hailstorm, sending icy pebbles bouncing off the footpaths. It was quite good fun, actually. I entered into the spirit of it and ducked into a gelateria to buy a pistachio cone to enjoy, and then headed back out into the downpour. I made it my last mission in Napoli to photograph a Vespa in flight. Here’s a good one – a double-header including a Vespa and a Smart:

Eventually I checked out of the hostel and headed for the airbus and the flights back to England. I’d had a super break in Napoli and really enjoyed the feel of the place, and I relished the chance to visit some of the world’s greatest archaeological sites. Now I guess I’ll just have to plan another visit during a sunnier time of the year so I can visit Capri!