Thursday, 30 September 2010

Mozart magic - the boy wonder's Bassoon Concerto

I don’t know my adagio from my lento but if there is a more beautiful piece of classical music than the second movement of Mozart’s Bassoon Concerto I would like to hear it.
The boy wonder wrote the piece at the age of just 18 in 1774. Sadly two Mozart concertos for the bassoon have been lost; this survives.
It must have been about 20 years ago when I first heard the concerto - or rather some of the slow second movement. Mozart's melody is sublime and the bassoon speaks with a human voice to the listener.
Perhaps it was a guest's choice on Desert Island Discs, because I wasn't in the habit of listening to classical music. I bought the recording the next day and I have been haunted by it ever since.
This link takes you to the programme notes produced by the Burgess Hill Symphony Orchestra, which admirably explains the structure of the concerto.
The video that tops this post is from a recording by the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra and the soloist is Donna Agrell.
I regret now my teenage rebellion, which resisted my late father's attempts to introduce me to classical music. But even my uncouth ears couldn't resist the voice of his favourite Kathleen Ferrier. Her What is life has been a pleasure for more than fifty years.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Ed Miliband blunders into Iraq minefield

New Labour leader Ed Miliband was wrong to condemn Britain’s role in the invasion of Iraq in the manner he did at yesterday’s party conference speech. I say this as one who supported the war up to the minute it became clear Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction were a fiction invented to allow George W Bush to finish what his father had started.
Miliband said, "I criticise nobody faced with making the toughest of decisions and I honour our troops who fought and died there, but I do believe that we were wrong. Wrong to take Britain to war.” This was mealy-mouthed by any measure.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Ed Miliband talks a good fight

Ed Miliband’s use of the phrase “new generation” ran into double figures in his first speech as Labour leader at the party’s conference today. The main thrust of his address to his immediate audience and to the country at large was that a clean break was being made with the previous Labour regimes of Iraq-stained Tony Blair and economy-tarnished Gordon Brown.

Monday, 27 September 2010

You know you're getting old when...

1. You can’t remember the last time you ran up stairs two steps at a time.
2. You have begun to slice dessert apples to make them easier to eat.
3. You use a magnifying glass to check the cooking instruction on food packets.
4. You use the subtitles function when watching television or DVDs.
5. You find spicy food starts to give you indigestion after a lifetime of curries.
6. You keep forgetting where you left your reminders list.
7. You are grateful getting to dawn without having to pee.
8. You discover the point of afternoon naps.
9. You complain jars are harder to open.
10. You find illnesses have become the main topic of conversation with your friends.

Friday, 24 September 2010


The long queue for the Louvre began in a cloister. The shade it provided made the contrast of the hot sun beating down on the square and the glass pyramid even more intense.
The Englishman and the girl didn’t speak until they stepped from the comparative comfort of the shade into the hot sun. It would be twenty minutes at least before they would reach the head of the queue.
“It’s bloody hot,” the man said. “Your neck’s red from yesterday.”
“Believe me I know.”
“Then why wear a T-shirt? You need something with a collar and sleeves.”
“I didn’t want the hassle of changing when we go back to the hotel for our bags.”
“The train doesn’t leave for hours. You could have changed in the ladies.”
“Just forget it.”
“I worry about you.”
“Well, don’t.”

The heat seemed to bounce off the square making the pyramid shimmer as though preparing for lift-off. The queue had been stationary for a few minutes before she spoke again.
“Why are we spending our last morning sweating like pigs? It will be a scrum when we get inside?”
“You can’t do Paris without visiting the Louvre. You’re the art buff. We should have gone on Tuesday.”
“It’s closed Tuesday.”
“See you do know all about it.”
“Then please don’t say laddish things when we get inside.”
“Like what?”
“Venus de Milo – she looks ‘armless.”
He laughed. “You used to think that sort of thing funny.”
“I still could.”
He looked around. There was a German family in front of them. Behind an elderly American couple. The woman was using a map as a makeshift fan.
“Why can’t we go to the doll museum instead?” the girl said. “It’s not far.”
“Because what? Didn’t you have a doll? No, big boys don’t have dolls. What do they have? Action Man? A teddy bear? Didn’t you have a teddy bear?”
“Just leave it alone. You don’t even like dolls.”
“How do you know that? You don’t know everything about me. I’ve still got my Barbie somewhere.”
“Trish, just shut up about dolls. Please.”
“Don’t get your boxers in a twist.”
“It’s not funny. I don’t think it’s funny at all.”

The girl took a small bottle of Evian from her shoulder bag. She offered it first to the American woman who looked unsteady in the heat. “No, thank you, hon, we have our own,” the old lady said.
The Englishman shook his head and the girl took a long swig from the bottle of water.
“I took the tests,” she said, “and you promised you would.”
“It’s not that easy.”
“It is too. You must have been practising since you were twelve. I’ll come along and hold your hand and anything else?”
“It doesn’t help when you make jokes about it.”
“What are you so frightened about? Maybe the little buggers are a bit sluggish. I had a lazy eye once.”
The man retrieved a second bottle of water from the girl’s shoulder bag, took a drink, and replaced it.
“Why open the other bottle? Mine’s still half-full."
“Don’t know,” he shrugged.
“It’s just as well I’m not fussy what I put in my mouth.”
“There you go again.”
“For God’s sake, Nick, loosen up. It’s only a test.”
“Why aren’t you happy with me.”
“I am. I am.”
“Then let’s get married.”
“Smart young people like us with bags of knowledge about everything have accidents – and then they get married. It gives the Best Man something to nudge and wink about in his speech. We haven’t had an accident in over a year.”
He looked at his watch. There was still another five hours before they had to be at the Gare du Nord.
“I’ll get the test done. I will.”
“Look, Nick, you don’t have to. Really. I don’t mind. Either way it won’t make any difference to us. It would just be nice to know.”
“Yes, you're right, nice to know.”
“And make no difference. I swear, you do believe that?”

They had been standing hand-in-hand in front of the Mona Lisa for a few minutes when the girl felt his grip tighten.

note. This short story stands no comparison but it did take its inspiration from Ernest Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants.GC

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Melvyn Bragg - an appreciation

Knowing how little you know about something is the first step in the acquisition of knowledge.
I listened mostly in complete bewilderment to the first in a new series of Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time on Radio 4 this morning. The discussion programme’s subject was imaginary numbers. It wasn’t so much highbrow as furrowed brow. I was lost within seconds but I stayed on for the full 45 minutes. Such is Bragg’s skill as a guide.
Underlying his work – and here I include his much missed television arts programme The South Bank Show – is the presumption his audience enjoy having their brains stretched.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Foot fetishism - a strange sole music

It’s foot fetishists rather than women’s feet that fascinate me. I can wax lyrical about most parts of the female anatomy. Not just the sit up and take notice bits but graceful arms, slender necks, cute knees, jewelled ear lobes and navels, dimpled chins, collar bones, shoulder blades, freckles, birth marks. But feet?
I love pretty feet. There’s nothing unclean about feet. At shared bath times in the increasingly distant past, my companion of the moment had having her toes sucked on the menu but invariably found it more ticklish than erotic – something it didn’t say in whatever sex manual I was reading at the time.
I include this intimate reminiscence to show I’m no enemy of the female foot.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Nick Clegg and David Cameron - joined at the hip for the next five years

Whatever the colour of your politics, if you live in the UK you should want to see a strong Labour party in the House of Commons. In the interests of democracy, it needs to be testing the (unelected) Conservative-LibDem coalition every step of the spending cuts to come.
This means Labour has to elect David Miliband as its new leader. Only he has the experience to stress-test Coalition policy – and the broad electoral appeal, which will be needed in five years time.
He can’t count on the Coalition falling apart before then. The speech of Nick Clegg, the LibDem leader, to his party conference yesterday pinpointed how he had provided what it had been lacking for 65 years – ministerial power.

Monday, 20 September 2010

British pubs - 10 tips to get the most from your visit

There can’t be any hard and fast rules about how to get the best out of a visit to a British pub. Their character can change hour-by-hour, day-by-day. A quiet nook at lunchtime can become a heaving beerfest at night; a Friday evening haunt for office workers celebrating the weekend can be a cosy, intimate bar 24 hours later.
But I do have 10 tips – admittedly personal and prejudiced though they are – which might help make your pub visit even more of a success. Here they are in no particular order:-

Friday, 17 September 2010

Read no further unless you have a strong stomach

Read no further unless you have a strong stomach. Today’s post regards my first overnight assignment as a young journalist when my body rebelled against the quantities of free booze I had greedily supped.
I was about 24 and had scraped a third in Sociology at a London Poly and was desperate for a job. I chased employment in personnel management and publishing however my preference was for journalism.
My politics was left of centre but I leapt at the offer of work on an industrial magazine attached to the CBI (a bosses’ confederation).
I got off to a good start. About the second week I was told to cover the conversion of a major steelworks in the north (I can’t remember where) from coal or ‘town’ gas to North Sea gas. Hardly Pulitzer Prize but suitable for a cub reporter.
The early start required that hacks journey up the night before. Details are hazy as I will explain later (there’s still time to check out of this) - I was probably drinking on the train and again at the evening meal.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Do you have a special romantic song?

Do young couples still have a special song, which they treasure through the years? Given Britain’s divorce rate Slap My Bitch Up might be more appropriate of the harmony to come.
My parents’ song was Billy Eckstine’s version of September Song, the video of which accompanies this post.
I’ve included a link to Frank Sinatra’s treatment, which incorporates the song’s lyrics on screen. His respect for the words, his phrasing is nothing short of magical.
The melancholy theme of September Song initially struck me as an odd choice of tune for a young couple as my parents would have been in the 1940s.
But it was wartime and I imagine living through the Blitz meant sudden death could visit them from the skies.
They must have had a heightened sense of the preciousness of life. Those of us now in the September of their lives should take heed of the song's sentiments.
The nearest thing my ex and I had to a special song was Leo Sayer’s When I need you. Back in the 1970s young love had got drunk together one lunchtime and bought the single on the way back to Passion Central.
It’s still a lovely song but in the light of events this link teams the Curly One with The Muppets.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Business leaders - the long and the short and the gross

We shall not see their like again – James Hanson, Arnold Weinstock, James Goldsmith, Tiny Rowland - kings of the business jungle who never blinked when eye-to-eye with City investors let alone their own boardrooms.
And probably a good thing too. They were indivisible from the British companies they ran and like politicians their careers, for the most part, ended in failure. They have all gone to face that Great Audit in the sky.
As a financial journalist for more than 30 years I got to meet these men when they were at the peaks of their empire building power. But none I could say was good company – they were too convinced of their own infallibility to engage with mere City reporters beyond the barest minimum.
Strangely I found the shorter the business leader the more fun he was.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Luke Angel's email - a lesson to all Presidents, parents, and drunk teenagers

I will be disappointed if the story about the British teenager Luke Angel being banned for life from the US for sending an abusive email to Barack Obama turns out to be accurate. This is how the story is being reported today in the UK.
I feel for the boy’s parents knowing that they have spawned an idiot son. But a life ban would not only be disproportionate, it would call into question what citizens in other democracies admire most about the US – its fierce dedication to freedom of speech as enshrined in the First Amendment.
It would be a rum do if the US Constitution prevented action being taken against a barmy pastor threatening to burn a stack of Korans yet allowed an inebriated youngster to suffer the lifetime consequence of a single night on the Bacardi Breezers.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Unions need to keep the public on-side in their fight to save jobs

Union leaders queued up at the annual Trades Union Congress in Manchester yesterday to pledge their support for joint strike action to challenge the Coalition’s proposed spending cuts. There was even a threat of “peaceful” civil disobedience from some militants.
We will now see a propaganda battle for the hearts and minds of the voting public.
The government has no clear-cut mandate for the savage cuts, which Chancellor George Osborne is expected to outline in next month’s spending review.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Labour has lost its way in the hunt for Andy Coulson's head

The Labour Party is in danger of overplaying its hand in its bid to embarrass the Prime Minister by forcing the resignation of his under fire spinmaster Andy Coulson.
So far no smoking gun has emerged to challenge Coulson’s position that he had no knowledge underlings were hacking mobile phones, while he was editor of the News of the World.
There are now so many separate inquiries the truth should surface quite quickly. Coulson will be shown either to have been economical with the actualité or having lost control of the newsroom. Assuming responsibility by resigning when the phone tapping row first broke, however, will count in his favour.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

An atheist's view of the Pope's visit to the UK

I hope Pope Benedict XVI is accorded a courteous state visit to the UK next week. Those who object to the man’s negative position on divorce, contraception, abortion, homosexuality, and women in the Church should still respect his position as a world religious leader.
Britain's Catholics have a right to celebrate the visit of the Father of their faith. It does come at a time when the country is strapped for cash but it is a cost that should be borne by the state in tandem with the Church.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Why don't children save?

Why didn’t I pass on to my children the savings ethic that my own parents instilled in me? Apart from the junk food I allowed, even encouraged, them to eat when they were young, this now gives me cause for reflection.
On the food issue the explanation is simple – we adults didn’t know any better at the time. The vanished savings legacy is more complicated.
The picture on the left is a moneybox similar to the ones given to me as a child. When it was full only a can opener gave access to what would have been my saved pennies and half-pennies.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

From Pamela Green to The Inbetweeners via Lady Chatterley's Lover

My recent post celebrating the life of nude pin-up Pamela Green and her contribution to the sexual awareness of adolescent school boys such as myself at the turn of the 1960s, has brought to mind the reading matter we were consuming encouraged by the same rampant hormones.
Ours was a boys-only school, which prompted our enthusiasm for literary stimulus. A mixed bag it was too. It ranged from a pornographic novel that one enterprising pupil rented out for a few pennies a night to an encyclopaedic tome by sexologist Havelock Ellis.
There were three books, however, which particularly caught our fevered imagination – and probably failed to deliver because there were many copies of each to be found later at the school’s charity book sales.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Satisfying sex, loose shoes and a warm bathroom*

Back in 1976 Earl Butz, US Secretary of Agriculture in the Gerald Ford administration, resigned after he made a nasty racist jibe which found its way into Rolling Stone magazine.
Asked why there weren’t more blacks in the Republican Party, he had replied, “the only thing coloreds are looking for in life are tight pussy, loose shoes, and a warm place to shit.”
Fast-forward to 1980 and the movie comedy Coming Attractions directed by Ira Miller later re-released as Loose Shoes. In what was judged an otherwise unremarkable comedy sketch film, which strung spoof trailers together, is a brilliant segment called Dark Town After Dark.
It is a faithful send up of black cast films of the 1930s. A Cab Calloway-like jazz orchestra leader - an all-singing, all-dancing David Downing – takes Butz’s mean words and turns them on their head.
A fusion of humour, irony, syncopated rhythm, and an overriding intelligence is in evidence and is as good a demolition of Butz’s racial stereotyping as I can imagine.
I hope you agree when you watch the following clip.

*Butz's snide remark as cleaned up by The New York Times in his obituary in 2008.

Friday, 3 September 2010

From Arnie to The Sun - 10 guilty pleasures

Arnold Schwarzenegger – I’ve always liked Arnie ever since 1977 and Pumping Iron. His tongue-twisting name and sense of irony somehow made his muscle-bound body appealing even to the bicep challenged like me. I’m too far away to judge him as a politician but, particularly, as a sci-fi hero – The Terminator, Predator, Total Recall – there is no equal.

Baths – I can imagine years from now wars being fought over water rights. But while recognising the green agenda and the need to conserve water, I’m not ready to embrace showers; at my age I need a warm place to think.

Chas & Dave – the Rockney duo Chas Hodges and Dave Peacock of Gertcha and Rabbit fame – seem to have been around forever. Along with Madness, Ian Dury, they are London balladeers. Dave retired recently after the death of his wife but a farewell tour is planned.

Eurovision Song Contest – it will never be the same now that Sir Terry Wogan no longer commentates but the show remains the annual high point of television kitsch.

Ice cream – as a diabetic treated by diet, ice cream is a treat I award myself only after a long walk. It has to be good quality and always in a cone – tubs are for wimps.

Jeans – after a working life dressed in suits, I’m now a seven day a week jeans man. I’ve been wearing blue denim for over 50 years. At 65 maybe I’m too old for T-shirt and jeans attire but I don’t now how to dress with the same comfort and practicality.

Naps – of the afternoon variety are still a novelty rather than a necessity but it’s nice to have a choice. – I enjoy a five-minute daily dose of inconsequential gossip even if I’ve never heard of most of Perez’s personality-targets – for example, who is Kim Kardashian?

Seaside pleasure piers – I know Brighton and Southend piers best.

The Sun newspaper – in London the Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid costs just 20p (30 cents), which makes it very disposable, and therefore a perfect 10-minute read for four or five stops on the Tube. The sports pages are excellent while the Page 3 topless stunner remains as sexy as cold porridge.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

The Imperial War Museum and The Holocaust Exhibition

To my shame I have only just visited The Holocaust Exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in South London. It was just as sad and disturbing as I imagined but what I hadn’t anticipated was the combination of compassion and scholarship, which managed to interweave the breadth of history with personal stories. The visitor is engaged intellectually as much as emotionally.
The exhibition is more than a memorial to six million Jews and the groups who became victims of the Nazi death marches and extermination camps. It captures the very best and the very worst of which human beings are capable.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Blair deepens Labour's wounds with brutal attack on Brown

One of the gob-smacking revelations to emerge from Tony Blair’s memoir A Journey is his support for David Cameron’s economic policy.
“We should have taken a New Labour way out of the economic crisis: kept direct taxes competitive, had a gradual rise in VAT and other indirect taxes to close the deficit, and used the crisis to push further and faster on reform,” writes the former Labour leader.