Sunday, February 07, 2016

Another year of books

So, these posts seem to get later every year.  Ah well.  If anyone was actually waiting for it, here's the list of books I consumed in 2015.  Pretty much every one a winner.

Amanda Palmer The Art Of Asking
Nick Catford Secret Underground London
Neil Gaiman The Sleeper And The Spindle
Randall Munroe What if?
Harriet Tuckey Everest: The First Ascent
Stuart Maconie Never Mind The Quantocks
George R.R. Martin A Feast For Crows
John Lanchester What We Talk About When We Talk About The Tube (The District Line)
Alistair Maclean The Way To Dusty Death
Phill Jupitus Good Morning Nantwich
George R.R. Martin A Dance With Dragons: Dreams And Dust
George R.R. Martin A Dance With Dragons: After The Feast
Lucy Wadham Heads And Straights (The Circle Line)
Jen Campbell The Bookshop Book
Alistair Maclean Breakheart Pass
Miranda July No One Belongs Here More Than You
Andy Frankham-Allen Companions: Fifty Years Of Doctor Who Assistants
Jasper Rees I Found My Horn
Kitty Ferguson Pythagoras
Simon Okotie Whatever Happened To Harold Absalon?
Sarah Henshaw The Bookshop That Floated Away
John O'Farrell A History Of Capitalism According To The Jubilee Line (The Jubilee Line)
Mark Forsyth The Unknown Unknown
Mike Gayle His 'N' Hers
Julie Gardiner The Blitz

Caught By The River On Nature
William Leith A Northern Line Minute (The Northern Line)
Deborah Cadbury Chocolate Wars
Genevieve Cogman The Invisible Library
Anna Hughes Eat Sleep Cycle: A Bike Ride Around The Coast Of Britain
Mick Conefrey How To Climb Mont Banc In A Skirt
Brian Viner Cream Teas, Traffic Jams And Sunburn - The Great British Holiday
Julian May The Many Coloured Land
Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart & Jack Cohen The Science Of Discworld IV: Judgement Day
J. B. Morrison Frank Derrick's Holiday Of A Lifetime
Sophie Neville The Making Of Swallows & Amazons
Dave Gorman Dave Gorman's Googlewhack Adventure (Abridged)
Jon Ronson The Men Who Stare At Goats
Camila Batmanghelidjh & Kids Company Mind The Child (The Victoria Line)
Julian May The Golden Torc
Warren Elsmore Brick City: Lego For Grown Ups
Florence Williams Breasts. A Natural And Unnatural History
Melvyn Bragg The Book Of Books
Margalit Fox Riddle Of The Labyrinth: The Quest To Crack An Ancient Code
Dan Brown Inferno
Richard Mabey A Brush With Nature
Magnus Anderson & Rebecca Levene Grand Thieves & Tomb Raiders – How British Video Games Conquered The World
Philippe Parreno Drift (The Hammersmith & City Line)
Charles Schulz Waiting For The Great Pumpkin
Julian May The Non-Born King
Charles Schulz Snoopy's Thanksgiving
Magnus Mills A Cruel Bird Came To The Nest And Looked In
Jerry Brotton A History Of The World In Twelve Maps
Julian May The Adversary
Peter York The Blue Riband (The Piccadilly Line)

Lemmy with Janiss Garza White Line Fever
John Scalzi How I Proposed To My Wife: An Alien Sex Story
John Scalzi An Election

Probably not as much "diversity" as might have been hoped for after this post about attempting to widen out horizons, although things look better when you realise that Julian May is female...  The favourite of the year was Sophie Neville's account of the making of the Swallows and Amazons film - I have always loved the film as much as the books and so wish they had made more.  Hopefully the forthcoming new adaptation will lead to sequels (although I am not holding my breath, and am worried about plot changes I have seen bit of).  Oh, and although we got to meet Sophie at a screening of the film a few weeks after I read the book, it would still have been my favourite of the year.

I've still got one book left from the Penguin box set commemorating 150 years of the London Underground, and the second tranche of Julian May's Pliocene/Galactic Mileu saga to read but otherwise no plans for particular authors or subjects this year.  Just whatever is on the shelf and takes my fancy.  (Which can be interpreted as me trying not to buy too many new books this year and cut down on the unread ones I already own, but the chances of that working are slim).

Friday, January 15, 2016

Sounds Familiar

What, where did the time go?  For now let us just say that the depression came back and hit me like a hammer, to the point of having to take time off work to change medication and generally get back to reality (hello side effects, hello fresh scars from a spot of self-harming, hello therapy once more).  I might write more about that another time, but let's think of better things for now and look back at my top tunes of last year.

Here's the obligatory word cloud:

I don't suppose there will be many surprises in there for people who have read these posts before but some favourite releases and old favourites to note...

Of albums released during 2016, I can't speak highly enough of Iron Maiden's Book Of Souls, Public Service Broadcasting's The Race For Space and Anti-Nasty League from Pop Will Eat Itself.  About as different from each other as any three random discs could be but all played multiple times and loved equally.  And the second tier of newness belongs to Motorhead (RIP Lemmy), The Darkness Slayer, Thunder and Kim Boekbinder.

I also went to my first gig in far too many years when we went to see Ginger Wildheart on his Songs & Words tour.  OK, so that was a mix of spoken word and acoustic excerpts rather than the full-on rawk experience but it was still a damn good night out and I am so looking forward to the accompanying book and DVD which will hopefully be with us soon.

Being a fan of the comedy song, we also went to see Richard Digance at the newly re-opened Spa Pavilion here in Felixstowe.  We've seen him several times over the years, but this time he brought a support act - local lads the Broadside Boys.  Suffolk-centred folk and a real joy to encounter.  I'm looking forward to catching them again somewhere in the county this year.

If I had managed to stay at work for November and December I would have finally finished the epic in-car listening through of all CDs by artists I only have one disc by.  Not driving to work every day rather put paid to that, but only a few left to go before I dig into discs by artists I own two albums on CD by!

The amount of listening I did in the first month when I was off can be counted on the fingers of one hand.  Losing the will to stick an album on (and indeed the ability to stay focussed long enough to listen to a whole disc) was possibly the hardest thing for me to get through - music is such an integral part of my life.  I'm back with tunes all the time now, and it is such a relief.

Looking forward to 2016 we have new albums from the Wonder Stuff, CJ Wildheart, Love Zombies and the Dowling Poole already pre-ordered with Hey! Hello! Too and Megadeth also on the way.  Hopefully it is going to be another corker of newness and we will see if I can find some new to me oldies as well.

Friday, September 04, 2015

The new Friday feeling

And thus the habit of nearly 30 years is ended by the whims of the record industry…

Ever since I was old enough to understand the concept of album release dates and been able to find them out, Monday has been THE day.  It must have been somewhere around 14-15 when I started actually buying music magazines and perusing every page rather than just glancing through them in the library or newsagent if someone I knew was on the cover.  Up to then I would have just bought new music when I happened to see it (Or make a note of it for Christmas and birthday lists).  But getting an album or single the day it came out and thus being among the first to hear it was a thrill to make starting a new week of school/college/work somewhat more bearable.

After school walks or bike rides in to town (Welwyn Garden City) to visit Our Price or Woolworths or an outing to Stevenage or Hatfield for variety or school clothes giving an opportunity to visit the independent shops there.  Or their branches of OP and WW.  Heck, Hatfield even had an enormous Woolco store where I distinctly remember obtaining the Belle Stars album on cassette.

College bus journeys back to halls/shared houses taken via the town centre (Derby) to stake out Way Ahead, Woollies or HMV.

Mid-morning wandering in to town (Felixstowe) to pop into Ian’s Records or yet another branch of F.W.’s empire during the summer after I graduated when I was unemployed (and handy that I had to sign-on on a Monday so was forced into town once a fortnight).  And then dropped back to lunch time when I got a job in town.

Promotion to Ipswich bringing with it the variety of another Our Price, HMV, Virgin, John Menzies, Woollies and most importantly Compact Music.  They were a wonderful independent that gave a voucher with every disc purchased.  Collected enough of them for several free albums over the years.

A couple of years in Newmarket with yet another Woollies and another indie I can no longer remember the name of (last time I looked it was a branch of Costa).  Woollies again in Stowmarket with a back-up ASDA, and then back to Ipswich where I have been ever since and the options have whittled themselves down to just HMV.

But always, that Monday journey to obtain the eagerly anticipated or the unexpected surprises.  The scrutiny of sleeves and booklets and reading of lyrics and credits while eating lunch or in stolen moments during the afternoon.  The building anticipation on the journey home.  The first crackling kiss of stylus touching vinyl, the clunk of the cassette player or the whirr of the CD player and then the sounds themselves.  Something to discuss at school/college/work the next day.  A joy to be repeated daily or a disappointment to try and find the good in until the next batch of newness arrived.  The re-arranging of shelves to fit the new arrivals in.  Even the addition of entries to a database - all elements of the start of the week.

And now we have to transfer that feeling onto a Friday, with the weekend beckoning - full of its own entertainments and putting off the Monday drabness that new music helps to dispel.

I'll enjoy today's purchases over the weekend I'm sure but it just doesn't seem right.  (And before anyone wants to get pedantic yes, I know the Motorhead came out last week but I was off work and enjoying a day in the garden with MrsB).

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Building therapy

After a minor joke around my birthday time I am currently revisiting a childhood obsession with Lego.  I’ll be the first to admit that I never stopped being interested in the wee plastic blocks (as the presence of a couple of newspaper freebies and numerous individual minifigs around the house will prove) but not to the extent that it has been filling my spare time of late.  I can’t recall a first set, it was just something that was always there when I was growing up – the toy of choice in most circumstances.  Having Danish ancestry must have been a plus point in the accumulation of the stuff, and I do recall that some of our sets were inherited from cousins (and the uncle in that case worked for Shell which must explain why we have so many petrol station pieces!) but for many years it was top of the Christmas and Birthday lists.  Being the older of two brothers meant I must have had a bit longer on the pure play level than might be normal but I can’t be sure on when either of us bought our last childhood kit either (although there are some great web sites out there giving dates sets were released where I could work it out if I could be bothered).  We definitely visited Legoland on Danish holidays in 1980 and 1984 and I know I bought some on that second trip, but after that things get a bit hazy.  The last I recall is sorting it all out into categories in separate ice cream tubs for storage in the loft sometime before we moved to Felixstowe in 1989.

Although not building anything in the years following that, I kept pace with what was available through the simple expedient of working for Argos.  All those deliveries and sales passing through my hands meant I was up to date with everything new until I finally escaped from retail in 1998, and even then stayed in touch through the catalogue as Joan didn’t leave there until 2006 and we still picked one up every six months after that.  When the bagged single minifigures started appearing in the shops I resisted but finally succumbed around series 3, and there I was back in the collecting game again.  OK, only the people and the freebies mentioned above but still it began to nag at me.  And as it was the 21st century starting looking at the odd fan site on the web and sought out photos on flickr (and started taking some pics myself).  Then last year while we were in America I gave in to temptation in a larger way in the Lego store at Disneyland with the purchase of the Back To The Future set.  Which was great fun to build, and introduced me to a whole load of techniques not officially employed back in the good old days.  I blame watching the Lego movie on the flight over!

So, when I couldn’t think of anything I fancied for my birthday (see depression post below) I suggested my brother should go up in the Parent’s loft and find me a technic set to build.  He ended up getting the whole lot down and all the tubs are now sat in my study, calling out to me every time I pass the door.  When I brought them home there was some discussion  about passing them on to the offspring of a cousin (said cousin having split from his wife and now needing a set of toys at each home) but I’m not sure I’m ready to give it away just yet.  If nothing else I wanted to know exactly what was in those tubs and reminisce unashamedly for a while.  Which has nicely coincided with a couple of tv shows about Lego and adult fans and the launch of a magazine or two.  Not that I have bought any of those, but they are interesting to flick through.

Up to now I have built a couple of ancient (and presumably inherited) sets from the days before the minifig was invented (a bus, naturally, and a Shell station) all the space sets I can find pieces for and tonight will see me finish off the technical stuff.  I suspect I will then work my way through the classic town sets and all the older bits I can work out from the bricks that remain.  30 years on from my last recalled construction binge I am having the time of my life and it seems to be providing me with the therapy others are getting from all the adult colouring books flooding the shops.  Disappointed that we have managed to lose a few bits along the way but there you go.  Nothing I can’t improvise around.

And we are having a day trip to Legoland Windsor next week as well.  Must not let it take over my life, but it will keep me amused for a few more months yet.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Coming up again

I’ve been wanting to write this post for a couple of weeks now, but have been a bit scared to do so in case the act of writing it destroyed the mood.  But it is something I want to get out in the open so here we go. 

I think I am now safe to declare that I am coming out of the worst six or seven months of mental turmoil I have experienced in the last 15+ years.  It really has not been a fun ride in my head of late but things are pretty much back on an even keel now, and even if nobody else ever reads this I want to record a few thoughts so I can look back on this in future if I feel myself sliding again.

My main problem is anxiety and dwelling on the past rather than straight depression, but one leads to the other in my case and in this instance I know the exact trigger that set it off. As readers may know, I deal with bus stops, shelters etc. in my day job and over the last couple of years we have done a load of work in Ipswich. Both bus stations refurbished, new real time information system and other stuff. And I have also been getting new bus shelters and enhanced bus stops done across the rest of the County as well. All during a time when I have basically had no help – my team member was seconded to another role and it was over a year before we were allowed to replace him. And that has taken three attempts with the first person refusing the job in the end and the second failing his probationary period (basically wasting six months trying to bring him up to speed). So to say I was under a bit of pressure would be an understatement.

Then when we got to the Christmas works break imposed on us by the town centre people there was a big fuss in the media about how the project was running late, important bits weren't working and so forth. A lot of that concentrated on the real time system to the point of the local radio station interviewing people at one of the bus stations and pointing out the one screen that wasn't working and ignoring the rest that all were doing fine. Being the kind of chap who takes things to heart, this sent me spiralling off the deep end and by the time Christmas itself came around I was in a real black place.

I'm not really sure how I got through Christmas as I just wanted to run and hide most of time. This will sound terrible, but I guess it helped that Joan had a bad tooth over the festive period. Being able to focus on taking her to the dentist a couple of times and having her to worry about managed to draw my focus away from me. When I went back to work in the New Year I knew I had to do something about it.

So, I went to see my doctor and got my anti-depressants upped, and took the step of seeking out some more help through our occupational health service. I had had some counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy back in 2000 last time I had a real flare up, so I knew it would help, but admitting to myself that I needed it was one of the toughest things I have ever done. But my word it helped, six sessions over a couple of months with a really great bloke and I'm close to feeling normal again. Some of the hardest conversations I've ever had – the sessions left me physically as well as mentally drained at first while I poured things out. I'm still reviewing bits of them a month or so later and trying to look for the positives.

One thing that has become clear to me is that I function best with plans and targets – and not just in the work environment. When we have a week off I like to think about things we could do, places to visit and so forth and am terrible at just taking each day as it comes. For example when we hit the states last year I had spent hours on the web looking for things to see near our hotels, places to check out when we had free time and so forth. And it didn't matter to me at the end that we had done hardly any of them as the holiday was well structured anyway, but going into it without a plan to fall back on gave me the creeps. I'm the same every weekend – I need to think about when we will go shopping, if we can take a day trip or whatever. Just waking up on Saturday morning with nothing on the agenda scares me! I feel like I flounder around and waste the day without something to aim for. So telling myself that I want to sit in the sun and read a couple of days in advance is much easier than just deciding to relax and do just that on the day.

We have also stopped paying attention to the local press, as they seem to delight in pouncing on the smallest mistake or problem whilst ignoring many of the great things that are being done.

I had planned to write more than that when I started this draft a couple of days ago, but can't now recall what so instead I shall drop in something I wrote after the fourth session which sums up a lot of how I felt.

I am sitting at a desk, in an office, in an average building in an ordinary town and I wonder why I am still here. I am not the oldest person in my team, but I often feel I ought to be as I have been here longer than anyone else. They make a joke of it when new people join us: “oh, he's part of the furniture” they say. And I wonder which part.

I have been trodden on by the ambitious as they make their way into jobs I have better skills for, so maybe I am the carpet. But does that count? Is a carpet really furniture? So maybe I am a chair – certainly I feel the weight of days sitting on me sometimes. And I have saved many an overeager manager from hitting the floor when their plans have gone awry.

Or perhaps I am a desk – holding paper and pens and computers. The tools we all need to meet our objectives. But no, most days I am a filing cabinet – or in these modern times a data server. Overflowing with images and information. Most of it forgotten, but there to be dragged out when needed. Yes, that must be me, Been here so long that I have seen it all before and stored it away, ready to share and help when the others meet a problem for the first time.

And now someone else has a question for me, and of course I know the answer. But maybe this time the file will be encrypted. Let them find the password to unlock my potential and then, perhaps, I can be me again.

Make of that what you will!

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Reading for reasons

Reading this blog post (and the original article mentioned) about diversity in reading material recently got me thinking about how my choices away from the straight/white/cis/male author arena stack up.  And as I have the last few years-worth of reading handily listed in posts here it is clear I’m not doing very well!  It does get a bit better when you throw in the Selected Shorts podcasts as I have been downloading and listening to them for a couple of years, and they do cover a good spectrum of gender, ethnicity and (presumably) sexuality of authors in the stories they present.  But then, this is not something I have ever really thought about before and has certainly never been a factor in choosing what to buy and read for me.

I’m not sure why though.  When it comes to non-fiction I guess there aren’t that many women writing about the history of bus services or fighter planes or some of the other subjects that fascinate me but that doesn’t mean I won’t be looking out for them from now on.  Of course in some areas it is going to be decidedly tricky to be more diverse -  the fact that nobody other than straight white men went to the moon makes it hard to read an autobiography outside that category and I’ve not seen any books about them from the female perspective either.  But there have been female and coloured astronauts since then so one of those must have a book out there.  And I have got Lilly Koppel’s “The Astronaut’s Wives Club” sat on the shelf waiting for me to pick it up.  Indeed I have actually done two ladies in my non-fiction this year already (Amanda Palmer – The Art Of Asking and Harriet Tuckey – Everest) and have a couple more in the waiting pile.

However, one thing I don’t often do in non-fiction reading is seek out other books by the same author unless they are on similar subjects or again look interesting.  For a (s/w/c/m) example – Charlie Connolly has written about the shipping forecast, Elvis and walking in three books I really enjoyed, but also about football in which I have no interest so will never delve into.  But I am going to be more pro-active here in future, especially when I find a non-fiction writer of the gay/coloured/female/trans (not necessarily all at once!) persuasion I enjoy the works of.

Fiction-wise I guess I have done better over the years, as I do enjoy female writers.  Anne McCaffrey, Jean M. Auel, Julian May and Katherine Kerr are particular favourites in the fantasy/sci-fi field, and as the basic unit of book there is the fat trilogy (often with many more than three books) there have been years they have dominated.  But when it comes to different ethnicities etc. I again admit to falling flat.  Mind you, I’d read two or three of his books before I discovered Mike Gayle was black, so there may be other surprises on my shelves.  But, despite listening to the short stories from Selected Shorts, I have not dashed out to buy anything from any of the authors featured other than those I was already a fan of.  Some of this must be from wanting the written equivalent of comfort food from my fiction.  I have heard tales of growing up black in the south, or as an oriental woman transformed into a mutant silkworm or whatever, but haven’t always found them enjoyable.  I think this is partly linked to my depression in that I see racial or religious strife on the news, and don’t want that when I’m trying to escape for a few pages.  In the same way that I know enough of the history of domestic service in the UK to never want to watch Downton Abbey, I am OK with a chapter or undercurrent about it in a history of country houses but wouldn’t want a story set amongst the occupants of such a home.  (Heck, I struggle with servants being abused in fantasyland castles, but then I’m already accepting dragons and wizards so I know it is not real people suffering).

So the question is, am I going to challenge myself to only read books by non-white/straight/cis males for a year?  Answer, no.  But I am going to attempt to mix things up more.  The main reason for this being that I have already set myself the challenge of not buying any more books until I’ve got through a significant percentage of my unread collection.  And I know most of that will not pass.  But then I don’t have the same issues with books by w/s/c/m authors that others do so avoiding them is not a way of improving my life or avoiding uncomfortable things.  But who knows, when I do let myself start buying books again, perhaps things will be over a much wider spectrum…

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Sound system

Oops. February already.  Still, finally written the 2014 music post...

No list of all the records enjoyed in the year (and I will still call them records even if they were nearly all CDs or MP3s) but the cloud does cover all the artists I heard a whole album by and represents their frequency of earhole assault. Much of the explanation for this can be found in last year’s post on music so I’m not going to repeat it now. Suffice it to say that the “single CD” quest is about to reach S and I have finally got more CDs by King’s X courtesy of the wonderful “original album series” box set of their first five which I received for Christmas. So expect them to appear at a reasonable size in next year’s cloud!

Other than regular trawls through Amazon, HMV and various charity shops for discs to plug holes in my collection – especially the MIND shop in Ipswich (I still cannot fathom out why people would choose to get rid of some of the CDs that end up in there, and then come home with me) – I have actually gained a bunch of genuinely new tunes this year rather than ones that are merely new to me. So we will start off with yer actual albums of the year, then newly discovered enjoyment before a round-up of old favourites that I just had to listen to.

And to immediately contradict myself, we will start off with not an album at all, but a series of digital singles. Rather than a new album through a Pledge campaign, Ginger Wildheart went for it with his GASS project, releasing three new songs (and a couple of older demos) on to the world every month. We still have a couple of months to go but so far every track has been a winner. They offered three tiers of membership - £30 got all the music in electronic formats plus access to the web site with podcasts, videos, Q&A pages, diaries and other writings and loads of other stuff. £60 added a t-shirt and some other goodies, while £90 enabled meet and greets before shows. I have only gone for the music and definitely feel I have had value for my money. They are planning to keep it all live online after the year is up so anyone interested can still fork out the £30 and get all the music on one go.

Some of the tracks are going to get a CD release as part of his new Pledge offering. This is for a sort of autobiography told through the stories of the songs since the dawn of the Wildhearts along with an acoustic DVD which will do much the same. This could well be a highlight of 2015 for me, but we'll address that later in the year!

Wildhearts sidekick CJ also put out a solo album (Mable) in 2014 and is my favourite release of the year. Some real killer guitarwork, catchy choruses and magical melodies drew me in and won't let me go. If you want to pick it up from his Bandcamp page I can also highly recommend previous album “13” and his work with The Jellys.
Sticking with the extended Wildhearts family, sometime bassist Random Jon Poole (also a feature of Ginger's solo band) and occasional keyboard player Willie Dowling also produced an album as “The Dowling Poole” via Pledge music. Bleak Strategies is fascinating, although I will be the first to admit that I haven't listened to it enough yet to fully appreciate it. As part of the pledge package they also made available Jon Poole's solo and God Damn Whores albums and Willie's Jackdaw 4 discography. Having considered those before but been short of cash I was glad to get them at a good price and have enjoyed them as much as anything else I've heard this year.

Having had two great new albums this way was fab (not to mention the others obtained off the back of them) but part of me wishes CJ and Willie had teamed up for a new Honeycrack opus instead...

Other Pledge campaigns I backed were from Ricky Warwick (two albums – one electric and one acoustic, both enjoyable), Tony Wright (superb acoustic solo debut) and Pop Will Eat Itself (an e.p. rather than a whole album, but hopefully a good taste of what is to come this year when they do release a new full-length platter).

Going down the normal route through shops, I also really rated Mark Chadwick's second solo album Moment. Distinct enough from his day job with the Levellers to make it worth doing. The new Mark Lanegan, Kasabian, Kaiser Chiefs and Linkin Park albums entertained in the ways I expected them to, and then there was U2. I've listened to it once so far and am still undecided. Never mind the delivery method, I've liked them for years so was just happy to hear something new. But am not sure if it is any real change over what has come before.

New out in 2014 from bands I adore, but not yet purchased, we have the new AC/DC and Gong albums. Hopefully more to say on those soon!

Not new in 2014 but getting their first listens from me I particularly enjoyed Anthrax's Worship Music, Public Service Broadcasting (thanks to Rigid Digit for the introduction to them) and some stuff I took a punt on from charity shops – Ben And Jason, Detritus and Three Corners.

So this year I am eagerly awaiting the new Thunder, Paul Miro and Prodigy and we will see what other surprises fate brings my way.