Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The Long Way Around

Mt. Snowdon in the Mist 2012
This isn’t going to be an easy Blog post to write, not because it’s going to involve big words or complicated ideas, but rather because it involves my emotions.  After stumbling across the tail end of the Brighton marathon on Sunday, I had an increasingly persistent feeling that I really wanted to sign up and be a part of it.  And so I did.  Next year I will take my place amongst the runners on the 9th April 2017 and have a go at running the most iconic length of race there is.  It’s a daunting thought, the longest I have every run is about 10km and the marathon is over 40km long. 

I started to think about the reasons why I really had to do the race.  I wanted to raise money for charity – sure, and the choice of charity was easy this time.   I’ve opted to run for Cancer Research, and you are very welcome to support my effort by making a small donation.  I’ve chosen Cancer Research this time in memory of my mum, who died from lung cancer over ten years ago (December 9th 2005) and for my many friends and family who have been lost prematurely to cancer or a related condition.  I’ve listed a few below, so their names might be recorded, but there were others whose names don’t spring to mind.  So that part of my decision was clear, but there are many other ways to raise money, or simply donate, to charity.  Why was I so keen to set a difficult target for myself and push myself to achieve it?

Part of the answer lay in something that happened a little while back in 2012.  For my wife’s friend Sophie’s 30th birthday celebration, a group of us set out to climb Snowdon.  It was a long and tiring day, some parts easier than others, and when we approached the summit the view was shrouded in fog.  But all the same, I realised I was feeling an emotion that I hadn’t felt in a long time, happiness!  It took me by surprise, I hadn’t even realised that the feeling had been missing, but it had been for a long time.

From roughly 2000 onwards I had suffered the loses of close relatives and friends, more even that just those taken by tumours there were even a couple of suicides (one friend, one client).  I had started the period sadly, but as it wore on and another death was announced, I found myself increasingly numb.  I guess it’s a kind of defence mechanism, you can’t mourn everyone - you’ll bury yourself in an overwhelming weight of emotion.  So I shut down.  By the time my mum died and my long-term girlfriend left me, I had nothing left to give.  I felt sad, sure, but I didn’t cry, and I didn’t laugh anymore.  I found it hard to feel anything about anything.  The long walk up Snowdon reminded me of what I’d lost.  But those kinds of achievements are hard to come by, you can’t climb Snowdon every day, and if you did it would probably start to lose its inspiration.  So I continued to live in my cocoon, but I'd been reminded that the feeling was possible and that I would never forget.

And that is what came into my mind when I considered running the marathon.  The thought that I might chip away at the stone wall and get another glimpse of the sunlit uploads.  Not just happiness though, but a real sense of achievement.  Being part of a group, pushing themselves and trying to do some wider good at the same time.

Oh that, and if I’m ever going to do it, I need to crack on before my knees give up. 
It’s a cliché to say that life is about the journey but, for me, it's always better when you take the long way around.

In loving memory of Margaret Callow, Andy Hewitt, Stevie ‘Normal’ Simmons, Auntie Pearl, Tim O’Brien, Auntie Jill, Auntie Mary and many others.  Safe journey.

PS Feel free to mention your own friend or family member in a Comment if you wish.  My thoughts are with you all.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Captain Slow, My Captain (a slightly ranty open letter to James May from a fan)

Glacier, Patagonia - December 2014
Dear James May,

You don’t know me, and I don’t know you.  But I am familiar with your work (you are welcome to Google mine, such as it is) and, for the most part, I love it a bit.  Sorry, I mean I love it to bits.  Your Toy Stories series brought out hitherto repressed nostalgia in tearful sobs, your boozy tours with Oz Clarke left me thirsty for road trips of my own.  But most of all your recent The Reassembler series reminded me of all that was good, and some of what was a bit silly, with engineering and design of the past.

It strikes me that you are the kind of man who thinks fondly of a time when we didn’t just throw things away when we were bored of them; instead we repaired, recycled or reimagined them.  You probably even remember a time when a person in a white coat (and possibly a cap) driving an EV delivered milk packaged in a re-cycled container to our doorstep and then took the empties away to recycle again.  Perhaps you, like me, wail in despair that a time when firms used to get paid to have their rubbish taken away and recycled is not our present nor our future, but a dimly remembered past.

Anyway I’m rambling, my reason for writing this letter is not really to do with any of that.  Instead I am worried for you, and the way future generations will think about you, and this is mostly because of another part of your work with about which I am feeling increasingly queasy.

I can’t claim to be a fan of the motoring programme, but I have been mildly entertained by it at least four times in the past.  I can’t bring myself to watch it anymore though. Even if I could afford an Amazonion of my own, I wouldn’t tune in.  And just to be an equal-opportunities offender I won’t be watching Chris Evans’ offering either, although in classic passive aggressive style I will probably read about both new shows in The Guardian and tut under my breath.

Permit me to explain why I feel this way.  Recently on returning from a rather splendid holiday in Chile I was intrigued to watch your latest offering filmed in Patagonia. But the more I watched the more I found that the sight of rusty metal (other materials may have been involved) boxes driven by the internal combustion engine churning and guffing their way across one of the most beautiful parts of the world left me feeling rather sick.  The thoughts of miscellaneous vehicular body parts and fluids being dumped willy and, more than likely, nilly, in this paradise were really all too much for my lily liver.  I won’t even go into political nonsense, but trust me; it didn’t make me feel any better.

It began to dawn on me, that for me this represented a kind of nadir. The very bottom scrapings of the barrel for this dangerous, smelly, polluting and inherently, mind-numbingly selfish fossil fuel powered personal transit unit, or car, as I guess everyone calls them.

Worse was to come! I began to imagine a dystopian future when our children and their children look back at the excesses of our age from the flooded ruins of Miami and/or London and wonder just exactly what the frack we were thinking.  I cannot imagine that re-runs of shows featuring vehicles being driven over beautiful, unblemished countryside (or just round and round in circles to no good purpose) will be looked on with any sort of delight.  I genuinely think they will gaze with the sort of horror we now reserve for the casual sexism and racism of 70s TV.  My expectation is that the people that participated in all this frivolity will end up pariahs of a sort - emblematic of everything that we failed to prevent.  Made all the worse by appearing to be having a good old guffaw in the process.  I confess I care little for how they think of Clarkson, The Hamster or even the ginger usurper, but for some reason, I do care about how they choose to think about you.

Frankly I have no idea if you are a climate change denier, I know you have an electric car and prefer hydrogen based alternative fuels.  It’s my belief you consider yourself a man o’science, so perhaps not.  But in a way it’s irrelevant whether you believe or not, climate change is here and it’s not going to be a barrel of laughs.  So for the sake of your reputation and behalf of all of us in the age of unparalleled waste perhaps you would consider putting your unique skill set to a different kind of use?

We need to see radical change in the space of barely half a generation: we need to break our addiction to plastic, eat less meat and master alternative ways to produce our energy (fortunately beer consumption levels can probably remain at roughly the current level).  I think that the UK is perfectly placed to achieve that with our mix of creativity, engineering and scientific expertise plus the kind of self-deprecating humour that will be needed to coax the bored and disinterested into playing along despite themselves.

We may never be leaders in manufacturing again, but we can lead the world in these new technologies and, whisper it softly, perhaps even drag the rest of the world kicking and screaming along with us.  Ideally we need to make reuse and recycling sexy, or failing that at the very, very least: funny.

And there, Captain Slow, my captain, is where you come in.

What could possibly be better to get the next generation of young (and not so young) engineers, architects and inventors off of What’s Snap or Facepalm or whatever and into coming up with clever solutions to real (and urgently needed) problems than, dare I say it, a TV Show.  Hey, let’s go wild - maybe a mini-series.

Hopefully I’ve laid out a pretty good case (see above) as to why you should be the man to front it or, if you’re really not up for it, perhaps Guy Martin is at a loose end?

Will you, at least, have a think about it?

The future might be very thankful.

Yours sincerely,


PS I am available for a pint any time to discuss this more, lovely boozers in my neck of the woods dontchaknow.

PPS Don’t suppose you have Guy Martin’s email address laying about anywhere?

Saturday, April 09, 2016

In The Black Heart of Camden - Bella Loka

It's been a while since I last saw Tea and David Boothby performing as The New Root, and a lot of water has gone under the bridge since then.  They moved to Camden and left the old Bristol band behind them.   Last night I schlepped up to the The Black Heart in Camden in order to see their new outfit - Bella Loka - playing live.  I'll admit I was a bit apprehensive as The New Root were one of my very favourite combos and their live gig at The Bull & Gate was one of my all time favourite gigs.  So what would this new pared down version, basically a duo plus backing tape, match up to the supreme sound of The New Root?

Well I need not have worried myself, from the opening notes of Alive I was in music heaven.  Bella Loka are one of those acts who just can't put a foot wrong in my book.  The music is tight and visceral, strains of Radiohead and Talking Heads fronted by angular guitar lines and Kate Bush-esque vocals.  This new outfit has grown an on-the-money drummer and well conceived and impressive video backdrops in front of which to play.  When the images from the projections match the shapes of the actors in front of them it's a truly wonderful experience.

Bella Loka's music aches to be launched into larger spaces, they are a stadium band pushing at the black walls of this small venue.  Of all their tunes it's the very last track, a wonderfully re-worked New Root classic - Breathe Slow that most demands to be released.  It's angular, edgy and in-yer-face to the point of almost knocking you off your feet.  Its a kind of soul music on steroids, a truly 21st century rock music that lacks for nothing in power and noise.

My own favourite tracks came early on: Well Done and Rise Up are cracking power pop tunes, but in a way it was the whole effect from note one to note the last that made this gig so impressive.  I could happily have listened (and watched) another hour or more and not been tired.  Like a much loved album, when the needle gets to the end of the groove you just want to pick it up and put it back at the start... again and again and again.

Could they have improved anything?  Well I wouldn't mind seeing David in something other than a black tee-shirt, but you can't really go wrong in a venue like this.  On bigger stages he'll need to find a way to be seen, but that's for another day.  For now the only thing that would have made this truly perfect for me would have been a Bella Loka reworking of American Tale, but that's just picking at nits.

After their set I stuck around to watch a little of the next band.  Sure they were loud, and tight and the tunes weren't unpleasant (the lead singer had a very tight cat suit, so that's not bad either) - but they just didn't have what Bella Loka had in spades, and that's soul.  Or Mojo if you like, their songs really are about something.  There is a depth and emotion that you can't fake, and that works just fine for me - every time.