Saturday, 31 January 2009

Jack's Back! (from punk to tweed on a bycycle)

Perfect bikes and Rock n' Roll!

A quick peek at the comments left on the Bike Show's website will confirm the untarnished joys that this radio show has brung, and continues to bring to an international audience of avid listeners. Jack Thurston has a relaxed, measured and disarming delivery with which he effortlessly manages to peel away the layers of stories from his guests, and a unique blend of music punctures these words and ambient sounds of the bike world to great effect.

In the first episode of the 2009 Winter/Spring season we are treated to a bike ride down the wild Northumbrian coastline, and as it happens, my old stamping ground. Highlights include conversations round a crackling campfire, nestled in the dunes of the long, wide, and empty stretches of sand south of Holy Island, waves breaking and Skylarks singing in the background.

One man and a dog and Daniel Start, author of the best selling travel book, 'Wild Swimming', accompany Jack on this mini adventure of the coves and headlands of North East England.
Not forgetting the spine tingling delights of Marlena Shaw, belting through the track, 'Let's wade in the water'.

The mighty Jack also links us through to Flicker, to view some astonishing photos of a recent tweed bicycle event that was held on the streets of London. As crisp as a warm fresh bank note, extravagant, tailored and downright flamboyant!

These chaps dress to impress, and my God!, what gorgeous bikes. This is a shameless display of pristine hand built craftsmanship, Brooks saddles a go-go, and for the sheer fun of it, false handlebar mustaches, flying goggles, funky coloured tights, and a giant tweed flag!

My first ever podcast download of the 'Bike Show' was a hugely enjoyable episode featuring an interview with Johnny Green, the ex road manager of punk band 'The Clash'. With infectious enthusiasm he conveys the thrill of an 'access all areas' roller coaster ride with the most famous road race in the world, the 'Tour de France'.

He signs out his stint in the Bike Show's hot seat with a final musical choice, the La's classic track from 1988, 'There she goes'. Introducing this perfect slice of sixties era pop, he crows, " the La's have one great record, and that's it, but ain't that enough?"

I saw the La's live back in the day, as they say, in a small club in Newcastle called the 'Riverside'. 200 sweating youngsters blinded in a tight electric moment in history, hands on the shoulders of a stranger in front of me, a stranger's hands on the back of my shoulders, the crush and the heat created by a multi headed, multi limbed beast leaping up and down, the clean waves of raw Rock n' Roll breaking over spot lit cigarettes, wet hair, torn t-shirts, seasick beer and grinning faces.

Can you remember that time? Spilling out into the dark, fresh air and sodium streetlights, feeling your damp sweaty t-shirt chilling against your back, ears ringing, body prickling with a buzz of satisfaction and a head swimming on a float of beer. Value, no words, just music and the sound of feet walking home.

Monday, 26 January 2009

A little bit of Spring every day

It isn't even February yet, but in a still moment on a mild day, when the cracks appear above us and the clouds tear themselves apart, a gentle warmth releases the scent of Viburnum and Wintersweet into the air, and already beneath our feet the pale time lapse shoots of Spring are pushing upwards towards the light. Spays of Viburnum 'Tinus' lift the spirits even in the rain, Great tits have been singing their hearts out for a few weeks now, and in the last week or so the Coal tits have been beaming out their cheerful song from high exposed perches in the mature conifers.

Swallowed by the low amber brilliance that embalms every branch, feather and building come 3pm on a clear January day, clouds of busy gnats dance above the lawns. Scattered crowds of nodding Snowdrops are just beginning to freshen up the unmade ground and even the mornings are getting lighter. I can't wait to change my route to work, taking my bike along the river instead of the busy road, past the houseboats chuffing woodsmoke through the water break and the Willow leaves, my 'ding dong' bell singing joyfully along to the rhythmic swish of the rowers blades.

It may be an early call, call it late winter desperation, but I say bring on Spring!

I've just had a text from my fiddle playing mate, Jessy. It looks like she may have managed to rustle up some extra musicians for our 'Compost Man' event, and there is a large stack of dried Aster stems drying in the tool shed which we will tie together for the fire. Tickety boo!, makes me want to share this video with you.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Supergirl no.37-Mystery in a bottle

The mysterious Superwoman snags the cover shot in Supergirl no.37

What is it with New Krypton? When this storyline kicked off we were all worried about the pacing, how on earth were they going to tie up the loose threads after a slow start? As the final issue of the story arc hit the stands it became clear that the margins had melted away to reveal a New Krypton planet hastily created just off Earth, t'other side of the sun.

I get the impression from what I have read that most people were pleasantly surprised by a successful wrap up to the New Krypton arc. So, here we are with Supergirl no.37. Her title is flying off the comic store shelves, a mysterious Superwoman has everyone second guessing, red herrings may have been sown, Supergirl is still riddled with self doubt and Alura is nuts, totally nuts! I for one hope we go for quite some time without knowing who Superwoman is and let us have more red herrings.

Should the absence of Superman from Action Comics be a bad thing, should his return to space cause a fall once more in readership? What we have here, judging by the latest issue of Supergirl, is the potential to make the Super titles a must have in 2009.

Can DC pull it off? Yes, tell a good story, don't labour it with slabs of historic continuity, keep it fresh, develop the supporting characters, everyone loves a good mystery, throw in some punches for good measure, and what you could have here is series of truly thrilling page turning floppies that should fly off the shelves faster than Superman can travel from Metropolis to New Krypton. I hope that I don't have to swallow hard and regret my enthusiasm, but thanks to Supergirl the sun is shining on all things Kryptonian.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Compost Man delayed.

For those of you who were waiting with baited breath for the Compost Man One Day Festival, the update that I have for you is that plans are afoot for a little get together of friends to mark the fertility of our 2006 vintage compost, on the 6th of February. Hopefully music shall be played, drink will be drunk, the seal of the compost crown will be breached, silly warm hats will be worn, a compost man will be set fire to and hopefully it won't rain on our frivolities. If musicians fail to emerge from without then we may have to resort to Mongolian nasal droning, or discordant wailing, to raise the slumbering spirits from the depths of the compost heap. If the fire won't light then I dread to think what unplanned activities we may have to resort to. You never know this may just catch on!

Monday, 19 January 2009

Coffee house observations

No matter how short the visit or however pressed for time I may be, I love hanging out in a coffee house. I 'm not sure how many there are in Cambridge, maybe I should do a coffee bean count, dare to break the weekly routine and seek out and destroy as many cappuccino's in as many coffee houses as this University town has to offer. Many would disagree that Starbucks and Cafe Nero count as the genuine article, but on a weekend trip into town, this is usually where the lovely Mrs.K and myself end up.

This weekend we had a supersonic 15 minute cappuccino before stepping back on the treadmill. Well that is to say that I spent 10 minutes in a long of line of thirsty shoppers waiting for a much loved and looked forward to shot of caffeine. Almost everyone seemed resigned to the fact that service is rarely less than 5 minutes away in a culture where instant gratification comes as standard, isn't it?

Anyway, I took my place at the back of the line behind two happily nattering women, I caught up on their news of burst water pipes, new shoes and the latest goings on in the Big Brother household. It was at this point that I started going out with the tide, or was that out the door? In fact the glass door was keeping my butt cheeks icy cool, because to save myself from intruding on their not so private chat I had to press myself up against the exit and double up as Cafe Nero doorman.

Already I was seeing the bigger picture. The coffee and ambiance here is so desirable that customers are prepared to wait longer than is comfortably exceptable, there are only two people serving, one of whom is a 'Trainee Barista', and even though the coffee is good, the term Barista is stretching it a wee tad.

Okay, coffee now coursing through the veins and Mrs.K off powdering her nose, I was taking more of an interest in the workings of the house. For a kick off, I had to clear away the fall out from previous visitors to our table, I hate that! It's a recurring irritation to me that no matter how busy or not busy these places are they still can't manage to clear the crap off the tables, how hard can it be?

The poor sod who has to mop the floor and empty the bins looks like he/she is running on year old batteries! And who can blame them, what is the incentive? In America there is a tipping culture,it's a case of you scratch my back and I will scratch yours. As far as I am aware a team of waitresses and bar staff will be tipping out the Bus boy(the guy who clears the tables),15% of the tips that they make on the night. The wages are low but the tip incentives are high.

So my theory is that it's not the employees fault. I wouldn't mind tipping if it led to shorter lines at the till and a clean table to sit down at. And when I say tipping I certainly don't mean the stealth tip that gets added to the bill regardless of how good the food, drink and service has been. Over and out... of coffee, could someone get me a top-up?

Wednesday, 14 January 2009


It's the evening before we are due to return to Britain after holidaying with relatives in Denmark, my parents were concerned about the weather forecast, which was threatening gale force conditions in the North Sea. It was touch and go whether the boat would sail, but in the end it did.

As we Sailied into rough waters, an uncomfortable situation was about get much worse. Going by normal schedules this crossing should have taken about 26 hours, in this case we were at sea for two days! How can I begin to describe what it is like to sail through a hurricane force 12?

Well, one thing that probably worked in my favour is that I was very young, so it never crossed my mind that we wouldn't make it. What follows are snapshots of a sea crossing from hell. Rows and rows of sick bags hanging from the hand rails everywhere, I remember walking, or trying to, as the boat pitched and rolled violently, staggering towards me was a man desperately searching for an empty sick bag, he was out of luck as they were all full.

The doors onto the outer decks were locked shut with heavy chains, the Duty Free was no more, bottles of wine, spirits and perfumes were smashed across the floor and the air reeked of alcohol.

Announcements were being made advising passengers to retire to their cabins, looking out of the saloon windows, that's the third set of windows down on the front of the ship(look on the photo at the top of the previous blog entry), all that could be seen were huge waves breaking above us. My sister and I shared a top bunk and we proceeded to stuff ourselves with Licorice Allsorts, I didn't like the coconut centers so I poked them out.

During the night I fell out of bed due to the movements of the ship, my Dad said the ship's engine was making terrifying noises, maybe it was because the propeller wasn't spending much of it's time in the water. Going to the toilet I became aware of a commotion in our corridor, the ship's doctor had been called to attend to someone who had caught their foot in a cabin door.

As the boat limped into Harwich, my Dad sat listening to a roll call of license plates of the vehicles that had been damaged on the car deck. The list was a long one and his face was ashen grey as he focused on the announcement, wondering whether our car would be next. It only became apparent after we had disembarked that we had literally come within a degree or two of capsizing.

What ever happened to the Winston Churchill? Well it was while I was researching for these last two entries that I found a website detailing it's life in service and eventual death on the 'Beach of Doom' in India. You can read up on that story here.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Distant ships passing

M/F Winston Churchill, on a calm day! You could buy beautiful little die cast models of the boat in Duty Free. I had several, all of them now lost. Oh!, if only I had realized what their sentimental worth would be thirty years down the line.

Recently Chris Priestly wrote on his blog about the after effects of sailing and the feeling that even several days after disembarking, you are still rocking and rolling on the open waves. I told him that he was too young to be considering going on a cruise, well I take it all back. In the web trawling that accompanies nearly all my blog entries I came to the conclusion that traveling by boat and crossing the world's oceans is a wonderfully romantic thing to do. Not only that, Chris also gave me an idea for the blog. So why my change of heart? Well, you have to go back to the 1970s and just a mere creeping into the first half of the 80s to find out. Crossing back and forth through the choppy waters of the North Sea was the unmistakable chalk white fleet of DFDS, the Scandinavian Seaways ferry company. For me, as I am sure it was for many children, the boat journey was a mini holiday in itself, and I spent many enjoyable hours on board ship going to and from Denmark visiting relatives in the school holidays. My sister and I were practically fizzing in the back seat of the car as we drove up the iron ramp into the cavernous belly of the ship, the wheels squeaking on the car deck, tail lights flaring and the overwhelming smell of diesel as we piled out of the car, grabbing our hand luggage and tins of travel sweets as we went. In the main concourse, passengers studied the 'You are Here' signs on their way to the their cabins, and large groups of blond haired Danish scouts laughed and mucked about, sitting against huge rucksacks on the floor. The freedom of the ferry was almost too much to bear for a young person, so while the parents settled down to a G&T in the lounge, cracking the spines of brick thick novels, the youngsters were free to explore. Plush carpeted interiors, chrome hand rails, snow white starched linens, wood paneled walls and the bright glass display cabinets in Duty Free.

Pushing open the heavy port holed doors that led you out onto deck, you had to watch your step as you crossed the steep lip into a sudden blast of wind that fussed your hair with salt spray and caught the door, slamming it shut behind you. Standing at the rail feeling the pulse and vibration of the ship's engines rising up through the soles of my feet, I'd stare into the green and white froth of the North Sea as it flexed it's muscles against the hull. Life boats hung an arms length away, which always gave me queasy daydreams until the booming black and red funnel shocked me back to reality. I can't actually remember ever being that bored on these crossings, I spent a great deal of time on the video arcade machines playing Space Invaders or pushing fist fulls of pennies into the one arm bandits. Card games in the lounge, endless rounds of naughts and crosses, hangman, and for me on my last trip in 1983 there was the lure of the seabirds, I dream't of seeing Albatrosses, Petrels and Shearwaters, but in the end I had to satisfy myself with Gulls and Gannets as no amount of wishing and staring out across the waves was going to make those mythical feathered creatures leap out of the pages of Peter Harrison's guide to the seabirds of the World. In a day or two I will recount a hellish journey spent aboard the M/F Winston Churchill, and fill you in on what has happened between then and now to this iconic ship. More to follow...

Friday, 9 January 2009

Last train to iPodville

Count yourself lucky, I was going to subject you to a blow by blow account of every track that shuffled through my earphones today, but as it happens my wife, Mrs.K, has spared you that excruciating experience. But you don't get away with it that easily, for I have an obsessive need to share with you some of my ipod's personal picks for 09/01/2009. Working through one of our long herbaceous beds, cutting back Asters in a thick mist and a finger biting haw frost I had the likes of The Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra, The Doors, Nick Drake, Tom Petty&The Heartbreakers and The Monkees for company. I was in Fopp, the local record store yesterday afternoon browsing through the cheap cd's. I love this store, it's got temptation galore written all over it. It actually nearly closed it's doors for good last year when the company went bust, due to online competition and having too many stores Nationwide. I think HMV bought the Cambridge branch, please correct me if I am wrong. Anyway, the cheap cd's were £5, then they became £3, now they are having a clearout sale starting at £2! I hope this isn't a case of store closing mark II. I bought three Frank Sinatra albums for £5, I was tempted to buy more cd's but stopped myself, pointless really because I will be back in there this weekend.

Already uploaded into the bright beating heart of my pod, they take their chance in the shuffle function lottery. At the moment my pod is going through a Nick Drake phase, playing the tracks from his 'Bryter Later' album, this will go on for atleast the next couple of months until it gets tired of him. I often think of Nick, a favourite late night listening choice in bedsit land, the tortured soul of Folk who took his own life at a very young age. He was a student of Fitzwilliam College, the college next door to ours.

The Monkees gleefully bounced their way through 'Don't Listen To Linda' from the album 'More of The Monkees', the perfect antidote to todays freezing conditions. I am constantly surprised by how fantastic and probably overlooked The Monkees are. In my childhood I used to watch the super saturated reruns of the 60's Monkees TV show, a kind of American version of our very own 'The Goodies'. I had freaky experience outside Sainbury's Supermarket in town a few years back when I spotted Mickey Dolenz walking down the street with a small group of people, he was really tall and I came over all weird, I stood on the pavement with a carrier bag of food, unable to connect with reality, it was a classic goldfish moment, I was dumb and slack jawed and I silently mouthed his name to myself as he disappeared from view. I can still remember snapping out of the spell and looking around to see if I was the only one who had noticed him, I have a spooky memory for faces and his is unmistakable. The Doors snaked their way through 'Riders on the Storm', I had the urge to skip this one, but after about a minute in I had fallen victim to the slinking organ and the moody delivery of the 'Lizard King'. What must it have been like to have seen The Doors 'live'? You can breath out now, it's almost 12.30am on the 10/01/2009, another day of music in the gardens and another 86 tracks behind me, now you can see what Mrs.K saved you from. As I write this the late night Jazz master, Thelonius Monk is bringing precedings to a close. Good night everyone.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Shiver me timbers!

Hydrangea Aspera, dried or alive it holds it's show value.

What a beautiful day! Agreed it was very cold, but it was a dry cold with no moisture in the air and crisp blue skies all day long. Just one brief gripe about last nights television, I was watching 'Three Men in Three Different Boats', or something along those lines, and Rory McGrath was really winding me up. They've been heading for the Scilly Isles to catch the Autumn bird migration, and Rory who claimed to be a borderline Twitcher arrives on the Scillies without any binoculars! That guy's not even a borderline birder, in fact in this case he's a fully fledged twit!! Okay I feel better now I've got that off my chest. It won't be long now till we start the big winter tidy up, working our way up through the college cutting back all the herbaceous perennials and mulching as we go. We do try to leave this job till as late as possible, as the tidy look can feel a bit clinical and also when the plants die back they take on a muted brittle beauty that hides a busy ecosystem beneath, a scattering of seeds keeps the birds happy. Greenfinch, Dunnock, Song Thrush, blackbird, Chaffinch and Golfinches are all easily flushed from last years dried growth.

Whilst the ground is hard and frozen it's best stay off the beds and grass, so today we tackled an area of open ground that we want to grow a mixture of soft fruit and vegetables, removing tree stumps by hand using spades and a mattock is exhausting, but warm work, and of course at the end when all the roots have been chopped, torn and splintered in the final push you can strike a triumphant pose over the felled beast, like Phil's doing in this photo above. As the sun dipped below a loose skim of milky cloud, a marmalade glow torched the bare trees and a couple of unexpected Snipe zig- zagged overhead. In the lee of a darkening slab of Yew our finger ends prickled with cold, signaling the time to load up the tools and head back to the Bothy. As we crossed the footbridge by the orchard my eye caught sight of the half moon, a single scoop of shave ice that made me feel hungry.

Monday, 5 January 2009

Patience is a virtue.

Wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox)

One of the best things about returning to the gardens after Christmas break is the chance to stick my nose into a cluster of Wintersweet blooms. Only just coming into flower just before the holiday it is now throwing all caution to the wind, flaunting it's frilly, strongly perfumed blooms in the cold air. We have a mature specimen at the college front that reaches out over the wall of the skinny Rectory garden, the scent wafting invisible magic spells on passers by. If you want to propergate this heady winter shrub then you may need a bit of patience, layering is the best method, although they can take up to two years to root. For the seriously patient, ie if you've reached a state of blissful enlightenment where time itself has ceased to be, and every breath you take is a Universal one, then you could try sowing the seed. Its easy to germinate, but will take about seven years from this point to flowering, if you're lucky! Failing that you could buy one from a nursery or garden centre, but that would be cheating, and why deny yourself 'YEARS!!' of anticipation. Do yourself one favour though, if you don't have one, scan all the West and South facing front gardens in your area, head out to a National Trust property, trespass if needs be to get a big lung full of its perfume before the winter comes to an end.

Saturday, 3 January 2009

Let's talk sport.

For the purpose of this blog, let us quickly and relatively painlessly go through the motions. I won't beat about the bush, at least not just yet, though habitually that is what will happen eventually. I have virtually no knowledge of International or County cricket, I did go to a prep school many moons ago, I did play it, I was a fairly decent bowler in my pre- teens and I had a full set of cricket whites and I loved the shoes. I have almost zero knowledge of football either. It does help at drinks parties though, to be able to connect with your fellow man on a shared piece of sacred turf, comparing wins and defeats, discussing the attributes of the players, the vagaries of the British weather as regards to play, happily number crunching over a few cold beers. And here is my downfall, for whatever reason, or whoever neglected or failed to make sure that a full grounding of sports knowledge was included as an integral part of my upbringing, here I am at 41, a social cripple of the male species unable to touch base at the most elemental level in the Universal crucible of sport. In little groups of pigeon footed men I have curled a clammy paw around a glass of wine whilst nodding and shaking my head with much conviction, hoping that my thin disguise will hold. It's hard to find anyone who cares a jot about the planet Kandor and where New Krypton is heading?, what is Alura's next move?, will she use some of Brainiac's technologies against Superman and Earth's assembled army of Superheroes? All will unfold in two weeks! Sorry, it slipped my mind for a moment, we were talking sport weren't we? In my early school days I played Cricket, Rugby and Tennis. The cricket field was a short walk from the school and so we trouped off along the road by foot in crocodile fashion, dressed in our cricket whites. On one occasion our headmaster spun his shiny brogues to the edge of the curb at the sight of an oncoming hearse, following suit we all stood facing the road. Under stern instructions we removed our caps and so the hearse slowly passed a long line of boys, heads bowed, caps pressed against our chests in a show of respect for the dead. Whatever was on my mind at the time, one thing is for certain is that my attendance on the cricket field was a reluctant one. During the next couple of hours I would be putting all my efforts into avoiding being at the receiving end of the cricket ball. This hard leather weapon could easily inflict pain as far as I was concerned, so I would bowl and duck if necessary, opt for a deep fielding position and pray for a lack of activity, pass the time chatting, watch the girls play tennis on the courts behind or absentmindedly scan the short turf for Pied Wagtails, this being something that I was far more interested in anyway. On the rugby field as well I tried to avoid contact with the ball, preferring instead to make half hearted attempts at tackling. Possession usually ended with the biggest lad in the school pile driving you down into a slurry of mud and ice, and you could always tell which of the boys sucked at sport, they stood around on the field with their hands pulled half way up inside their sleeves, laces loose and trailing behind them, marbled legs purple with cold and a mud streaked frozen grimace on their face which said, "Please make this stop!" The changing rooms were no better as they usually consisted of a small cluster of concrete huts in the middle of a field with communal showers. Clouds of steam, wet socks, a stench of Wintergreen ointment and the off chance of being towel whipped waited for you at the end of an uncomfortable hour of sport. The best bit for me was the bus ride back to school, as the warmth slowly crept back through my bones a series of Horse Chestnut branches would thud and crack against the windows and roof on the upper deck as the bus jolted through a series of overhanging trees. I wish I could translate the foreign language of sport and converse fluidly in its eloquent tongue, but faced with a copy of Wisden, the bible brick of cricket, its mustard yellow dust jacket staring back at me from the shelves and floors of guest toilets up and down the dale, all I see is a need to be proficient in at least one sport. So, 2009, for me will be a baptism, the year I cleanse my soul and wash away all my sins and transgressions and pick up again the only sport I ever enjoyed. No it just isn't cricket. What lies before me is an empty court, a tennis racket and the chance of a few free tickets to Wimbledon, and yes, I am serious!