Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Hit Me

The beers might be small and expensive, but at least in Norway the drugs come in lemon.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Mixing Your Messages

On Sunday the Observer reported at length the tale of one of its reporters out on the booze in Reading, which, I suppose, is one way to dull the pain of being in Reading, and how they were each sold 32 units of alcohol (the equivalent of a large bottle of whiskey each) by the same barmaid. The story took the tone of a sermon about how the drinks and pub companies are unashamedly fueling the drunkeness on our streets.

The trouble is, the point was somewhat undermined by the following advert, which was placed directly under the story. And yes, I am aware that this entry is directly above a rant concerning the loss of my local pub.

Marlborough Sounds

My local pub, the Marlborough House, has recently changed hands. Where it was once run by a local couple it's now in the hands of Pub Master appointed manager. I used to love walking the hundred yards from my front door to the pub. There was always a small collection of locals in varying stages of intoxication, one of whom I once saw directing traffic on the Abingdon Road at about 12.30am. It was very much a locals pub, and when you walked in the door for the first time a whole lotta faces turned to look. The pub was fortunate enough to have a cricket team. In my first match for them I knocked up 67 and in the second I managed 39 and that was enough to get me accepted as a local. The pub had a sufficient collection of memerobilia to be tasteful, and upstairs there were the mandatory pictures of dogs playing snooker and poker.

Last night Chris and I walked in. As I opened the front door the barman got a shock and was forced to take his feet of the table and his eyes away from the telly. There was no one else in the room and nor was there anything on the walls. Chris and I asked for a pint of 1664. It took the barman about ten minutes to pour the pint. We took a table in the corner, although we could have sat anywhere, except, of course, at the table with the telly on it. The beer was off. We chatted, we knocked the pints off and we left, resolving not to come back.

I need a new local.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Go South Young Man

Hullo now from Oxford. I've now returned from a week of bliss in Tromsø. Aside from (although maybe because of) the frighteningly expensive cost of eating and drinking there, I had a great time. The reason for being there was to attend the ACTIF conference and give a paper on a flood-forecasting system that my lovely friend Emma had written. Due to the same reasons that she couldn't present the paper that she had written for the conference I went to in Australia, again I was forced out of my comfortable life in Oxford but this time instead of it being the searing heat of Australia I was driven north to the frozen wastes of the Arctic.

Life is hard sometimes.

The ACTIF conference was largely a academic/bureaucratic affair on the uncertainty in flood-forecasting (think our inability to predict where and how much rain will fall with much confidence, for example) with limited scope for applied case studies, which was where I came in. The obvious question that comes up a lot is 'why on earth was it is in Tromsø?. By the way, it is not 'Tromso' but 'Tromsø' when you pronounce Tromsø you need to turn the ø into a quick 'er' sound, and not an 'o'. For a start Tromsø is a lot less frozen than you think it is. In fact, its coldest recorded temperature (-18C) is warmer than that recorded at Benson (-20C), which is about a mile from where I work. But the principal reason that it was held in Tromsø was that this is where one of the organisers lives. I can't say I was that upset about it.

Tromsø is quite simply magnificent. Hell, here's a picture. It's the view from the room that I spent five nights in:

I miss this view.

A lot.

The country pulled together people from about 25 countries, including the UK, NZ, the USA, Columbia, Oz, Denmark, Italy, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Holland, Belgium, Germany, Belarus, Iran, Rumania, the Czech and Slovak Republics, Slovenia, Ukraine, Russia, China, Italy, Spain... There were only about 100 delegates, so from many countries there was only one delegate. This made for a whole lot of meeting and greeting. The beautiful thing about this was that almost everybody was up for it. As we all nursed and bemoaned and laughed at our £5 'pints' (pints a way to generous a word for the 400mL glasses I was served) the ice, as it were, was broken. I knew a couple of people, darren and Paul, from work, and there were two Belgian girls, Severien and Siegi, that I had never met but have dealt with a lot as they are clients of my companies. Then there was Albrecht, the Dutchman who organised the last ACTIF conference (see here for my coments on that one - where the hell does a year go?), and he had a colleague Micha, and with that we had the bones of a drinking posse. On the Sunday night we managed to add Brummie Tim and Jan, a colleague of the Belgians.

Come the brewery tour that wasn't (a long and dull story - essentially the £40 that we each paid only covered entry to the brewery, a meal and a half glass of wine that Darren, using his authority as conference organiser and indignation at being ripped off, managed to turn into a 'pint' of beer), and the realisation that some of had unwittingly eaten seal and/or whale as part of the meal (yes, that is a legitimate part of the diet up in those parts), those of us left started wandering the streets of Tromsø in search of a pint that cost less than £40 and didn't come with a side of marine mammal. By this stage we had picked up the Dutch Maaike, the lovely and engaging Anna from Sweden, and the ever-so-quiet but very pleasant Markus from Finland, as well as 'three missed planes' Dave from the UK Environment Agency.

It's hard to put into words, but the vibe in the group was really nice. There were no knob-ends of people, no-one dominated the conversation, and we all seemed to become good friends, despite having met in quite odd circumstances. If I could bottle the vibe and live off it I would. About the way I can think of describing it that it is like crawling into bed and listening to the rain on the roof and feeling all snug. And that probably sounds naff, but that's how it feels. The following night we added a trio of Italians, and another dutchman and all talked about nothing and nursed pints in Skalvern, a pub that had seemed to become my local (I went there three times in five nights). the group photo is below (the names are for my benefit so I don't forget).

Cinzia, 'three missed planes' Dave, Anna, Markus, Moi, Brummie Tim (but he's behind the pole and you can't see him), Darren, Albrecht, Micha, Severien, Jan, Luc and Enrica. Siegi, who is expecting had long since offed to bed. To the right (and out of shot) is a bunch of loud-singing-glass breaking Norweigans who seemed to being singing an Arctic version of Bliss, the New Zealand drinking song. Ja-ja-ja-ja-jah-ja. Forget about the last one, get yourself another. So long as you have the deed to your house and a promise of your firstborn when you attempt to buy a round, that is.

By the time I managed to get round to presenting my paper the following day, and, with the belief that even though she hadn't got my desperate email for prayer that Jane would still have prayed in hindsight, it went really well. It was not really my goal but I seemed to make my audience laugh several times (try to remember, Richard, that this is a academic conference and not new-faces in Tromsø comedy scene) and I was complemented on my paper by several random people. Nice. And with that, a first multinational contingent made a dash for Tromsø airport (a surprising amount of flights - about a dozen 737s each day - come in to Tromsø each day, and most of them are full, which isn't bad for a city of 60,000). This time the group was comprised of myself, the two Italians girls, a Chinese man living in Holland, a Columbian living in Spain, and (you can't make this stuff up) an Ethiopian living in Norway. This group was a brilliant way to end the conference. We all sat at the airport and laughed some more.

By the time we landed at Oslo, it was down to just Cinzia, Enrica and myself, as we were all staying in Oslo that night. Despite it being 10.30pm, the three of us wandered the streets of Oslo to find food (no Scandanavian Airlines - budget or traditional - serve food for free to the Economy classes). This required dodging all the prostitutes that were on every street corner and offering a variety of goods and services to ageing Norwegian men. This just seemed desparately sad. Almost all of them were African women and it didn't take much to wonder at the pimps who no doubt ran them and the journey they must have taken to get to Oslo. With one last 'pint' I escorted the girls to their hotel (what a gentleman) and then ran the gauntlet back to mine.

Tromsø: what a fantastic place. Beautiful, but like any great place it is the people that make it so. Thanks to everybody who made it so, be they Belgian, Swedish, Dutch, Danish, Italian... or be they Jim, Matt, Tom, Jon or Jane who prayed for me, or a Canadian-Czech guy in the blogosphere who encouraged me. Life had been hard before I left. I'm not saying it isn't anymore, but I needed to have an experience like this.

Did I see the Northern Lights? Did I Bollocks.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Go North Young Man

Goddag from Tromsø. That would be in Norway. At the top part. NORTH of the Arctic circle. I am here for a conference; I am speaking on Wednesday. I learnt the other day that the definition of the Arctic Circle is that it is the line of latitude above which there is at least one day that the sun never dips below the horizon, i.e, the line of latitude that marks the midnight sun. It also marks the point of the all day darkness in winter, for the pessimists in you.

Theoretically it is also a place where you can see the Northern lights. That would also require a little less cloud in the sky...

It's a beautiful place - there will be photo's to come later in the week when I get home - and a weird mix of suburbia and barren wilderness. Out my window at the Rica Ishavshotel I can see the sound, the bridge, snow capped mountains with waterfalls and the amazing Tromsdalen Church, or Arctic Cathedral.

Before the business side of things here started, I spent Saturday walking round the island alone, ok, not alone but with a stuffed cow (long story), and asking God a few things. I think I found a few of the questions I need to start exploring (that will make sense to Matt, Jim, Patrick, Tom and pretty much no one else till I write more), which was useful.

Tonight (fifteen minutes from now), I am off to Macks, the world's northern most brewery. Although being the northernmost anything here is a little bit taken for granted. I am sure the world's most northernmost stuffed cow is in my room. And in actual fact, there is a brewery in Murmansk, Russia, that is further north.

More to come when I return from the brewery. At NOK59, or £5 a pint, it's very likely I won't be under the influence. This would be an expensive place to get drunk...

Monday, October 10, 2005

An Epistle to the Oxfordites

The following is from a friend of mine. It is a very late letter from last Christmas. Due to his request for anonymity/paranoia that the feds will get him I have removed any reference to him. He shall hence be known as Mr K.

Every Christmas letter should be written in this style.


Mr B.
You jammy bastard. I do not know how you managed to time it, but your card made its way to me on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, damn your britches and damn your duck pond! I of course look the complete prat as I never sent you one. Until now. And it doesn’t support a charity but I am a complete prick and stand to inherit a small share of a small forest so I am as keen as an Asian in a karaoke bar and insist that as much paper be wasted as soon as possible, as fast as possible, where ever possible.

I regret to inform you that my loot was neither large, nor shiny nor made in Japan this Christmas past. Some of it did fold, but there were far less zeros than there should have been. In fact the loot this year was rather light, I trust the same cannot be said for you. However I am more than happy to report that the beer was cold and the food plentiful. The belt has been let out more than one notch and this occurred well before 4:30pm on Christmas Day. I am delighted to inform you, sir, that in my new position as a CLERK I was rather spoilt as far as wine, beer, food and lunching went. In fact I have had three rather pleasant and relaxed business lunches and one dinner in the past four weeks in some of the best eateries that CITY 1 and CITY 2 have to offer. All completely over rated and utter wank fests but there you are. Shipping companies really seem to like us. Don’t know why.

Do not hurry home for summer Christmas’ sir as they are wet and windy and not the ones that make up the memories of your youth. If one is going to be cool and wet at Christmas, one may as well stay in England. Trust that you had a white Christmas. Ours was verging on grey.

New Year’s was a complete write off. We won’t even go there. Nor was there a day at the beach with cricket, as the weather has stayed consistently wet and I hate getting sand out of various wrinkles and crevices that seem to creep up on you when your back is turned or as you pluck hair out of your nose.

I trust that your mooching paid dividends especially as far as snogging went and that you took suitable precautions if you weren’t being too fussy. I hope that you haven’t caught anything too new nor too exciting. Trust that the slam poet in Prague was … well… slamming and the beer flowed freely and without much fuss. Trust that you have seen ‘Team America. World Police’ because it is damned hilarious and worth a watch after a beer or two… with a port chaser.

The force is with us… always.

Happy Freakin New Year. (Where’s my jet pack!!?)

Mr K.

PS Guess who got a ‘shot’ chess set for Christmas? (Courtesy of Mr and Mrs X). I await a chance to match drunken wits against you sir upon such time that fortune favours us both and smothers us in the ample bosom of favourable timing.

Sunday, October 09, 2005


For the sake of completion and humility I am going to keep this post up, but I've decided I don't hold the opinion below all that tightly. I'm also willing to accept that I might be wrong and that Jim (read the comment below) is more likely to be more informed.

Flakey? Moi? Yup.

Go to the Wikipedia entry on DDT. When you get there read the section on the environmental effects of the pesticide. In particular, read the piece on the effects on humans. Surprising, huh? Then go and read the section on the effect that DDT has on malaria.

So DDT might kill a few fish, but think about the number of human lives it would save.

Battle Scars

On the road that I drive down to get access to my house, one of these is often parked. Apparently it is 1.94m wide, which is an arse in the narrow streets where I live. Last night it was illegally parked and came close to preventing access to my street.

I feel an almost irresistable urge to kick it whenever I see it. Perhaps if I do the owners will appreciate it because it will look like they have actually taken the car off road once in its life. And do you think that when Toyota named this beast Amazon they had any sense of irony?

Thursday, October 06, 2005

High Fidelity 2

Ok, so we made the tape. I broke some of the rules. There are two by The Go! Team (but we knew I would do that, didn't we?) and two in the middle by Taylor Mali.

The complete track listing is:
Ladyflash - The Go! Team
Welcome Home - Dave Dobbyn
Good People - Jack Johnson
Dry the Rain - The Beta Band
Call Me Names - The Specials
Superstylin' - Groove Armada
All the Way to Reno - REM
Amen Omen - Ben Harper
The Impotence of Proofreading - Taylor Mali
Playing Scrabble With Eddie - Taylor Mali
Fake Plastic Trees - Radiohead
I Believe - Stevie Wonder
Lost in the Plot - The Dears
Evil - Interpol
Everyone's a VIP to Someone - The Go! Team
Redemption Song - Bob Marley

I figure it's a reasonable slant on what I'm about. Had to leave out the eleven minute live version of Sultans if Swing, Danny Solis' One Match Fire, Coldplay's What If, Tears for Fears' and Groove Amarda's Pharoahs and a whole lotta Eels 'cos to really appreciate them you have to listen to the whole album.

And there is a nice comedic spoken word break in the middle, which I suspect will annoy more than amuse....

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

High Fidelity

My friend Grace has asked me to make her a mix tape. As soon as she suggested it I thought of the movie (ok, and book) High Fidelity, where record shop owner Rob has to assemble a mix tape for his then girlfriend:

To me, making a tape is like writing a letter-- there's a lot of erasing and rethinking and starting again. A good compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do. You've got to kick off with a corker, to hold the attention...

I like music. I am almost always with it, when I work I indulge, and quite frankly, I almost always use it in the definition that I create for myself. Right now I'm listening to Pop Art by the Pet Shop Boys (they write the best pop music and Pop Art has great minimalist album art) and exulting in the news that Jack Johnson is coming to the UK in March. I am hypocritically intolerant of overly manufactured music, submerge myself in fine lyrics and can air-guitar every note of Dire Straits live album Alchemy. I like a lot of my collection, but are willing to accept that there are too many greatest hits (the Stone Roses, Bob Dylan, the Jam, Bob Marley and Neil Diamond spring to mind) in my collection, especially where those collections are the only body of work by those artists, and there are a few too many lemons (TWO albums by the Corrs, but then they do look good, and Orbital's The Altogether, which I could not get into despite loving Illuminate, which I heard in a CD shop in Auckland in 2000). There are two hundred plus albums in there and I have to get fourteen songs down. This is a lot of pressure here. It's like a little window on my soul. I gotta be true to myself but I've also got to make a balanced tape that she will actually want to listen to. Man, I hope she likes this...

I'm thinking about that opening corker, and I'm thinking The Go! Team's Panther Dash. I'm also wondering if there is some room for some of Taylor Mali's poetry, who incidentially is coming to Oxford next month just to compere a Hammer and Tongue slam. How sweet is that? then I'm thinking some Frausdots and the Beta Band's Dry the Rain. But the rest of it, blimey, that is going to take some thinking...

Usefully the web is crawling with stuff about this process and there are some instructions on making a mix tape here.

Monday, October 03, 2005

You think you know who you are. You have no idea.

Tonight I took my hat and scarf for their first winter outing. When the woollen coat comes out we know we're in trouble.

The reason for the outing was it was cold out and I wanted to go see the movie Crash at the Ultimate Picture Palace. The last movie I went to was Downfall (grim, but Bruno Ganz was astonishing as Hitler) and that was in March. I'm kind of avoiding talking about Crash because it is a movie that has hit me hard. Maybe it is because I am a white middle class man and what happens in this movie is so beyond what I experience that this movie is so powerful.

The movie is an exploration of the interactions between the Black, White, Hispanic, Middle Eastern and Asian cultures in Los Angeles and the prejudices that inevitably arise. There are moments in the film that made me sit bolt upright and there were moments in the film when tears were a mere blink away. The movie pieces together five concurrent stories and as these five stories move in and out of each other there is the odd convenient coincidence.

Damn, I think I'm sounding like a movie reviewer.

So I'm going to stop that and try to explain just what it has done to my head. It has made me acutely aware of some of my prejudices. This is not to say that I should put myself over the rack because of this (the movie points this out) but also it endeavours to explain the origins of some of those, as well (for me) revealing some of the origins of the fears and prejudices that exist within the other cultures that the film explores.

Amidst all the corruption, depravity, despair and hopelessness of the characters, from the fall of the beat cop, the powerlessness of the senior cop and the prejudice of the DA's wife, there is also the possibility for a character to experience reformation. God (with a capital G), may there exist such hope and such openess in real people.

This film has not left me with a feeling that the world will heal itself, but instead it shows that within the lowest parts of the human experience there remains a hope that humanity has the capacity to prevail. But it is not so naive to state that all people will rise to the moment, and that we are all fallible and that sometimes there are tragic mistakes.