Friday, 12 June 2009

Things you see a lot of in Malawi: people pushing, or in some godforsaken cases, riding bicycles piled with logs, rsj's, bananas, coconuts and Christ knows what else - almost always at least 10 feet high; tiny children herding hump-backed cattle along roads that barely do justice to the name; a shit-load of empty buildings - some with corrugated iron roofs, many more with straw or tarpaulin, all held down with stones to prevent them from flying off; many of these are or have at some time been businesses - a legacy of Hastings Banda's deregulation of the economy. They are pretty much all closed their faded signage and once-gaudy paintwork all that's left. Brilliantly, the catchy name and strapline have made their mark on Malawi - the former ranging from the comically prosaic ("Up & Down Engineering") to the cutting-edge entrepreneurial ("New Ideas Electronics"). Straplines betray a charming innocence as yet unsullied by late-stage capitalism - "Muli Brothers Haulage - Slow, but Sure", "blend in with the trend that's in" on a ladies' fashion shop, "we always try to outdo ourselves" on a restaurant that basically serves only one dish.
Things you don't see a lot of in Malawi: old people. In four days I haven't seen more than a handful of people over 40. The average life expectancy here is 37 - a figure that takes some getting used to, but is noticeable by the fact that the roadside upholsterers and carpenters all have signs that say "Furniture and Coffin Maker". Death isn't so much cheap here as practically being given away as part of some macabre promotion.

Swathes of land are planted with either maize or tobacco - the former a hybrid strain not suited for eating off the cob but that is ground down to make mealy flour - the staple diet of a vast proportion of the population. On the drive up from Lilongwe to the farm near Bolero the native trees were gradually replaced by first fir trees and then imported eucalyptus, making the countryside oddly redolent of Australia. In the fir-tree areas, the disproportion between those areas already harvested and those that have been re-planted is stark, leading me to think that the principles of forestry management, and indeed most other types of management are a little way off.

What you see everywhere are people either sitting at junctions or walking between the towns and villages. I'm guessing only a tiny percentage of the people here, particularly out of the major towns, have jobs so walking or just sitting seem to be reasonable ways to spend the day. The walkers either can't afford, or have wisely chosen to avoid the minibuses that ply up and down the roads, waiting until they're full before leaving and then getting progressively more full as their journey continues. Watching one empty its load of passengers at one of the police checkpoints is like watching clowns come out of a Volkswagen - as if everyone's trying to break the record for the number of people in one vehicle. The other option is hitching - flat-bed trucks fly along the roads with people jammed into the back, sitting on the edges or even on top of the cabin with a cheerful disregard for Health & Safety that would make your average British bureaucrat weep with frustrated indignation.

Malawi has its own Highway Code, adding to or improvising a theme on the British one. Breakdowns, which are everywhere, are signalled occasionally by the standard red triangle, but more often with three or four groups of branches laid out in the road either side of the stricken vehicle. This works fine in daylight, assuming you know what the branches mean, but is less successful at night - branches lacking the distinctive reflective quality that makes such signs worthwhile. Although I guess if you've run over two or three clumps of branches in the road without thinking you might want to slow down, you deserve whatever's coming to you.

More idiosyncratically, indicators are used almost constantly, but virtually never to indicate the vehicle's about to turn. Indicating right can mean "I'm about to turn right" but more usually means "don't overtake me". Left can mean "I'm about to turn left" but its main meaning is "It's OK to overtake me". Given that out of the towns there are practically no turnings on either side of the road, it's usually safe to assume the latter meaning. Usually.

The mere fact that such a system exists is all the more cheering given that Malawi barely has highways that justify a highway code. While the main roads between cities are all tarmacked, the rest are effectively a series of axle-breaking potholes linked together by a lattice of red clay and rocks. If the life span here was any longer, nearly everybody could be employed as osteopaths to great effect.

Had I arrived here with just a guidebook and no local contacts, the last few days would have been entirely different. I'd have spent them on the beach at Nkhata bay and missed everything. Nkozi farm is 6 hours north of Lilongwe and is one of Africa Invest's biggest projects. 600-odd hectares of land at the edge of the plateau that marks the southern end of the Great Rift Valley. It's a couple of miles out from a village called Bolero and you can bet your bottom kwatcha that this wasn't what Ravel had in mind. Bolero is on my guidebook map but otherwise it has nothing to say about it. The country must be full of places like this. The markets in these towns tell their own story. A labyrinth of shacks selling a whole lot of not very much, but then not very much is what almost everyone has. What there usually is, in a grim reminder of the plethora of coffin makers is at least one stall selling second-hand boots and shoes. Lots and lots of them. Mind you, everything here is recycled, and usually in a much more straightforward way than at home. Bottles aren't crushed down to make road surfaces (although by Christ they could do with some) but are re-used as bottles. A crate of beer is a third cheaper if you return the empties in a charming echo of the England of my youth. Stacks and stack of tyres too - they're bound to fit something that limps by sooner or later.

If you'd never seen it, the Bolero Plaza conjures an inspiring image. A place in the centre of town where you can shop and then eat in its dappled courtyard, that has five designated car parks all within easy reach of the main entrance. The reality of this cathedral to consumerist utopia is slightly different. The whole place is about 30 square feet, but they do serve you a drink once you've bought your shopping. The car parks, each clearly signposted 1 to 5, hold a total of 1 car. It's true about the courtyard though.

Bolero's premier, indeed only, nightspot is the Malaika Sports Pub and Restaurant, although considering it opens at 6am and stays till the last person leaves every night of the week, perhaps nightspot is a misnomer. And it doesn't serve food. But it is most definitely a sports pub, in that it has a pool table in constant use (yep, from 6am)and a lot of pictures of Beckham-era Manchester Utd on the walls. The place is run by James, a genial, relaxed man of about 24 who claims to have been a professional footballer in South Africa. Something must have gone awry,.

Like every other bar in the country, the Malaika sells Carslberg in several varieties. Here, there's Green, Brown and Special Brew. People all over the world will recognise Green. Brown I've not seen before but it's a slightly sweeter beer and both come in at just under 5%. Special Brew isn't quite the same as it is in the UK, thank God. For one, it's sold in bars and not just off- licences near train stations. The livery's exactly the same but mercifully the whole thing's been downgraded from the 8% so beloved of the UK's unemployable to a still-competitive 5.7%. Perhaps the Danes, an eminently practical race, figured that to unleash an 8% beer on a country with already stratospherically high unemployment would be commercial suicide. Either way, Special Brew is popular here, and if a bottle didn't cost more than the average Malawian earns every day would doubtless be more so.

If your tastes stray to the exotic however - and by ginger mine do, there is an alternative (discounting the still-Carlsberg-brewed Kucha Kucha beer - its name translates roughly to "all day" but whether this is a nod to its cooking lager status, an exhortation based on the same or a combination of the two is unclear). In addition to western-style beer in more-or-less western-style bars, you could, should your constitution be up to it, have a crack at the fantastically-named Chibuku Shake-Shake which handily combines both a brand name and instructions and is Malawi's national drink. In common with other African "beers" it's made with maize, has the consistency of either gruel or liquidised wood-chip wallpaper depending on how charitable you;re feeling and is breathtakingly foul. The taste is both sour and noticeably alcoholic combined with a milky, cereal quality. The overall effect is akin to making porridge with four times the recommended quantity of sour milk and then adding a shot of cheap vodka. This unholy concoction is sold by the litre and James tells me it's not unusual for the connoisseur to get through ten or twelve litres in a single sitting. I don't know whether to be awed or appalled. I secretly think I'm both.

For a country that gives up such a lot of its land to tobacco, surprisingly few people smoke and those that do seem to prefer menthols. Anything to take away the taste of mealy flour I reckon. The hardy clientele at the Malaika had never seen roll-ups before and were intrigued by the idea, particularly the filters. They instantly assumed we were on the local grass, perhaps not the wisest idea since one of them was called Bright, was the local policeman and looked, if I imbue him with a gravitas that wasn't really there, boyish. The policeman don't just look younger here, they are - for reasons that should by now be obvious. It occurs to me that a policeman who can't tell the difference between tobacco smoke and grass smoke, particularly one called Bright, may have chosen his profession unwisely.

Talking of ill-chosen things, I'd brought a cigar with me, the idea being to smoke it in a suitably unlikely location - it being a suitably unlikely cigar (Hawaiian & flavoured with coffee). Justifiably, on its production at the Malaika Mobile Bar (or the back of Nick's truck), it was generally agreed that to be its owner I must be a very rich man. In Western terms, newly unemployed with no debts but no real savings, this is a laughable idea. From a rural Malawian perspective, my very presence there, and on something so trivial as holiday confirmed me as rich beyond the dreams of Croesus. Buoyed by a couple of hours on the Special Brew in the afternoon, and emboldened by memories of Cuban examples lasting for hours, I boasted that the cigar would certainly last all night and conceivably into the next day. Half an hour later, with an unravelling inch left between my chastened fingers, I was at least pleased to have been the subject of good-natured hilarity twice in one day. And it tasted a lot better than the Chibuku.

The farm itself is massive and grows a mixture of paprika, tobacco and maize. the current project is to irrigate the whole thing from the river that runs along one edge of the estate. This would be a big job by any standards but local conditions make it a Herculean task. Pump stations have to be built and, in at least one case, torn down and re-built, this time to the specifications provided. With such a massive level of unemployment, finding people willing to work is easy. Finding people trained and able to do the job is significantly harder. Malawi is a make-do-and-mend country and the ingenuity of the people to improvise effectively is astonishing. Unfortunately, this admirable attitude doesn't really cut it when confronted with state-of-the-art pumping equipment and the laws of physics. Eventually the whole farm will be irrigated, and then there's just the minor job of rigging in overhead electricity.

Dotted around the farm are the huts that serve as the farmhands' accommodation. Sometimes these are on the sides of the paths that criss-cross the farm, other times they seem to be right in the middle of the tobacco crops. They're usually made of dried mud or corrugated iron and in every case are heart-breakingly small. Suddenly I realise why there's always so many people walking on the roads or just sitting down. The concept of hanging out at home just doesn't exist here. The huts are just places to sleep and prepare food - there's no space in them to do anything else. One room, split into two areas is all these people have, which explains why every town, however small comes alive at dusk. Every market and trading posted is swamped with people for a few hours.

It's difficult to think of Lake Malawi as a lake at all. The "Calendar Lake" is 365km long and 52KM wide at its widest point. In other words, it's massive (Africa's third largest lake) and from any point on its sandy shore it looks like the sea. The fresh water is really the only clue to its true nature. At some points it's really astoundingly deep too - 200-300m in some places but apparently all the life is in the top. I've seen too many horror films to believe this for a moment. A vast array of chiclids inhabit the water, not to mention the occasional crocodile. Nothing lends a spot of snorkelling an edge of frisson like the knowledge that somewhere in the same body of water is a dinosaur that would view you the same way you view a chicken kebab.

The southern shore of the lake from Monkey Bay to Mangochi is fringed with plush apartments (although not so plush as to be immune from Malawi's endemic power cuts). Some, including ours, are fenced off from the beach. It's still a beautiful sight to come out in the early morning and see twenty metres of grass, ten of white sand and then limpid water as far as the horizon. The water warms up quickly too, from being bracing at 6am to warm and comforting at half 8. News of our arrival travels fast. By 7am on our first morning a mini-market has set up on the beach outside our gate. There are several stalls, all selling the same thing, in the way of tourist markets the world over. Here it's wooden jewellery; bracelets made from porcupine skin; elaborate reedwork tractors, cars, houses; some quite shoddy watercolours and an array of carved ebony. These last range from tacky fish with "Malawi" carved on them to sleek jewellery boxes and expressionist figures of warrior heads and women teaching children to walk. Each stall also has an ebony nativity scene for sale - unsurprising in this predominantly Christian country but a little jarring to see in the middle of April in 30° heat.

Cape Maclear used to be one of the big traveller congregation points in Africa, but from what I saw, the action's gone north to Nkhata Bay. There's still a lot of guesthouses but I mostly saw locals. Maybe they're all sleeping off last night's party, but somehow I doubt it. We eventually settle in a newly refurbished lodge at the souther end of Cape Maclear. A little surprisingly, this turns out to be run by a man from Cardiff. Taffia connections pay off and we get a discount on a catamaran trip out to snorkel around the islands. This is preceded by a brief encounter with Elephant beer ( so that's what happened to the UK Special Brew - scrub that earlier bit about the Danes)and a straightforward lunch given the predictably unpredictable Malawian twist. In this case, the cheeseburger has no sauce at all, but the accompanying side salad comes drowned in ketchup. It's these nearly-but-not-quite-what-you're-expecting touches that make eating here such fun. The catamaran trip is fun, no-one gets eaten by a crocodile and we see sea eagles swoop down to catch the fish the guy steering the boat has thrown onto the lake for just this purpose. Touristy, yes - but undeniably majestic to watch.

The trip back to the cottage is bumpy - the track to and from Maclear off the Monkey Bay road is an absolute shocker. We also need charcoal and the petrol station is closed so it's time to test my skills at the trading post. As it's sundown the place is buzzing and I've been out of he car a good thirty seconds before someone asks me what I'm after. Ten seconds later and it transpires that my good samaritan is Isaac, the guy who sold us fish this morning. He clearly has an aptitude for turning up at the right place at the right time. This morning, Nick had barely finished the sentence "Now all we need is someone to sell us some fish" when Isaac appeared in the garden with three dozen or so fish straight out of the lake. I bought ten for 1500 kwatcha, or about 70p each.

As an aside, "kwatcha" means "sunrise" in Chichewe and their constituent parts, tambale, mean "cock crows". So 100 cock crows makes a sunrise, which certainly gets one over euros and cents in the poetic stakes. I'm far from convinced that tambale actually exist. There are approximately 240 kwatcha to the pound, meaning one kwatcha is worth considerably less than half of one penny. Yet a one kwatcha coin is still minted, which surely must cost more to do than the finished coin is worth. Hence my suspicion about tambale.

Anyway, Isaac, the serendipitous fishmonger also knows where I can buy charcoal - from a lady whose stall appears to be the front yard of her house. Enough charcoal for a barbecue costs 40 kwatcha, or about 18p. Showing an admirable grasp of economics, I pay the asking price for the charcoal and then tip Isaac about twice that amount for helping me find charcoal in the dark - a task for which I would be woefully ill-equipped alone. The fish is good, if bony.

At the bus station in Mangochi I briefly feel like the whitest man alive. Dropped off outside so I can go to the Liwonde National Park while Nick, Tabs and Megan drive back to Lilongwe, I am instantly swamped by people asking me where I'm going. They all appear to be willing to take me to Liwonde and in common with everyone else are fascinated by the concept of roll-up cigarettes and assume I'm on drugs. Given the state of the minibuses I can see, I wish I was.

My Whitest Man Alive experience starts almost immediately. Ideally, I'd like to get a big bus, but there are none to be seen. When I tell the assorted bus boys in front of me that I want to take a big bus, they laugh and tell me the only one of the day went hours ago. Several people are trying to get me into their minibuses - it's the way that a lot of young men try and earn money so I have a crack at re-gaining some semblance of control and ask where I can buy a ticket. Hilarity ensues. I don't need a ticket. No-one ever needs a ticket; you just get on a bus and pay when you're on your way. After a couple more minutes of fundamentally misunderstanding the dynamics of an African bust station ( pretty lame really as the exact same system operates in Indonesia and I had no problem working it out there), one of the drivers decides to take the bull by the horns and says "Come with me, my bus is nice and it's leaving now. 500 kwatcha to Liwonde". What he neglects to mention is that his bus is clearly already full, but that doesn't seem to be a problem, particularly as a kid of twelve or so and his accompanying toddler are just pulled out of the bus to make room for me. This makes me feel uncomfortable for several reasons, not least because the twelve-year old was cramped in there and I'm about three times his size. I don't really have time to protest before being pushed into the minibus and we're on our way.

90 minutes later I'm still in one piece and at Liwonde Barrage bus station waiting for the transfer to Chinguni Lodge. Street food is now a cinch so it's samosas all the way and I pass the time chatting to a guy called Jim. He's 19 and good-natured, curious about me and England and it's while talking to him that the 37-year average life span really takes on a human dimension for me. The thought that he's got a decent chance of being half way through his life makes me feel unutterably strange. I give him 500 kwatcha when my lift arrives because I don't know what else to do.

Chinguni Hills Campsite was my second choice of places to stay but I can't imagine my original choice (Mvoo) being any better, just fantastically more expensive. By about £150 a night. It turns out that I'm the only person staying here ( it comfortably sleeps 100) so it seems my choice of activities may be limited. I'm informed by Pious, the lodge treasurer in Adamski spectacles that I can do a walking safari or a canoe safari, but not the driving or motor boat ones as there's only one of me and the latter two options need a minimum of three people.

After dropping off my bag at the tent and being surprised by a fantastic lunch, I opt for a walking safari. We see waterbuck, lots of impala practising their mating rites, a couple of warthog and a small group of velvet monkeys. I've never been a to a safari park but this feels like I imagine one might feel like - non-threatening animals at a fairly safe distance but this is the real thing. In a strange way, the reality feels more like a simulacrum than a park would. It's the only time in my life I can say I've even come close to grasping one of the fundamental points of French post-modernist thought. I wish I hadn't as it leaves me feeling uncomfortable in a vague but nearly tangible way.

The first night on the camp is very strange. Not only am I fed a 3-course meal that would comfortably serve two or three but I'm the only person here and there's no electricity. Consequently it's very dark, apart from the stars which are a revelation and the most I've seen in the sky in ten years. What it most definitely not is quiet. Apart from the constant chirrup of insects there is the extremely disconcerting sound of hippos grunting what sounds like feet away. Sounds obviously travel a long way but one thing at which hippos are rubbish is creeping up on people. At least, this is true on land. While the grunts sounds like they're coming from the next tent, there's no accompanying rustling - at least nothing that my untrained ears would think of as hippo-sized rustling.

The next day is down in my head as half reading and half canoeing - that being the only other option available to the sole occupant of the camp. But help is at hand. About an hour after my (again, 3-course) breakfast (where do they get this food from?) Lisa the manager finds me and tells me there's another guest now and she wants to go on a driving safari. If I go too and we split the cost of the third person we're on. So we're on. Rosetta turns out to be a lovely woman - a missionary from South Carolina who claims the Lord told her to move to Malawi and work as nurse in Blantyre, the country's second city. So she's deluded. But nice nonetheless. She is, as I predict, disappointed not to see lions ( I'm not even sure there are lions in Malawi) but we are both thrilled to see elephants. I'd been told they were close but didn't really expect to see them. We see about 15 or so. Paul the driver takes us off-track and gets us as close as he thinks is safe. One of them stares at the Landrover. It's by far the most exciting thing I've seen here. I'm also fairly convinced that my photos will turn out to be rubbish. We also see Kudu, as well as more impala, waterbuck and warthogs.

My canoe safari is scheduled for half two. I feel a creeping sense of trepidation for two reasons. Firstly, whenever I go canoeing I remember how much hard work it is - it's knackering. Secondly, I'm very scared of crocodiles. I feel a canoe, however brightly coloured, would not fare well against a prehistoric reptile with a bite that exerts pressure close to one ton per square inch. But if it's a canoe or nothing I'm fucked if it's going to be nothing so I pack my stuff ( taking care to leave ID behind should I get eaten - no, seriously), brace myself and head off. But what's that? Voices? Irish voices. A couple called Liz and Jody have just arrived and are keen to do something this afternoon. This opens a world of possibilities, if that world consists of the option to do a proper boat trip in a proper boat. It takes about a second for me to decide to ditch the canoe and go on a hippo safari with these guys instead.

We get a lift back to Liwonde Barrage and then a boat up the Shire (pronounced Sheera) River. This is much more like it. We're out from about half three so the temperature's perfect, there's the prospect of a short but spectacular sunset (this close to the Equator the sun shoots up at 6am and shoots back down again at 6pm) amiable company and there are hippos afoot. Travelling on the river is very relaxing and reminds me of Malaysia and leaving the Tama Nagara by the same method. The first half hour chugs by pleasantly if uneventfully. Then the guide points out something on the left and there it is, briefly. A pair of eyes, then ears, appear above the waterline. Gabriel the driver manoeuvres us into the reeds and suddenly those eyes and ears don't belong to a single hippo but to a whole raft of them. There's probably about 8 or 9 of them 30 feet away, all in the water but coming up for air and a good yawn. Why do hippos yawn so much? It's not like they do anything or are forced to get up early. Happily, their yawns are not contagious. Hippos are very odd to be around. They seem gentle but are said to be completely unpredictable. Needless to say, they're also huge. Just a couple of them could swim under the boat and capsize it if they wanted. Thankfully, they seem content to eat reeds, yawn, and have their own how-long-can-you-hold-your-breath-under-water competition.

The ride back to the barrage is peaceful and the sunset is glorious. I like the way that they're spectacular and short, like the sun knows that it's got all the tricks but doesn't stay around hogging the stage like a Vegas has-been. We see the eyes of a crocodile, but not the rest of a crocodile and that suits me just fine.

The next morning while I'm waiting for my ride back into Liwonde to catch the 7am bus back to Lilongwe, Rosetta offers me one of her family of carved wooden hippos. I accept, knowing that Tess will secretly be thrilled despite her protestations. The bus is supposed to leave between 7 and half past so I get there just after 7, congratulating myself on not only getting a big bus, but getting there in time to get a couple of donuts for breakfast. I am feeling less self-congratulatory at half nine, with the bus still sitting exactly where it was before, being filled with ever more people, bags, chickens, sacks of corn. I am impressed that even the swankiest-dressed ladies don't mind clambering over everything to get to a seat. I try and smile at everyone with whom I make eye contact. Usually I get about a 75% smile-back rate but on the bus it's closer to 50/50. The two people who sit next to me on the journey do not flicker from their expressions of blank indifference. One of them strokes a duck for the entire time she's on the bus. You don't get that on National Express.

When we get back to Lilongwe, I run the gamut of taxi touts at the bus depot, none of whom believe I've got a lift coming. A drunk kid comes up to me and says "give me money". I say no. He says "One day, I'll fucking kill you." I laugh, because I'm not sure what else to do, and it seems like a reasonable response to a man who looks like he'd have trouble tying his own shoelaces. He leaves. I eat a samosa that might be chicken or at a stretch, might be fish. Given how far we are from the lake, I hope it's chicken.

Once the rains stop on my last day I go to the central market. It's a huge, sprawling affair that straddles the river and looks like a Brazilian shanty town. I'm reliably informed that if something exists in Malawi, you can get it here. It seems to be split roughly into fruit & veg on one side and everything else in existence on the other. A lot of what I see is flip-flops and jumble. This isn't a tourist market at all - it's where the ordinary people come to buy their stuff, so walking around it, even dressed like a twat in a cagoule after the rains have stopped, no-one hassles me to come and look at their stuff or try and sell me rubbish souvenirs, although that's bound to happen later. After a while I come across a few guys selling sugar cane, and once I notice that, I notice it's everywhere. It's 20 kwatcha for a foot and a half so I get one and ask the guys to show me how to eat it. You strip off the bark and then chew on the soft middle part. You don't, or can't use your hands to do this. Once I've established that my teeth won't disintegrate during the stripping, it's delicious and then something interesting happens. Now that I'm eating what seems to be Malawi's national snack, people are interested in talking to me. A cobbler tells me that white people don't usually go around eating sugar, and applauds my attempt to get diabetes the local way. Just walking around eating it attracts attention, smiles and good-natured laughter. This makes me feel good, and the cane is surprisingly juicy and refreshing. I also manage to buy a several chindeche (like an African sarong) so my job here's done. I'm out of the market for five minutes before I'm approached by some guys who want to chat, smoke, and inevitably, sell me watercolours. I relent in the end, I'm out of here tomorrow.

Friday, 30 May 2008

The Wedding Present - Brighton 30/06/08

I've just got back from seeing The Wedding Present for the I-don't-know-how-many-th time and a very emotional experience it was too. 20 years ago, I travelled on a bus from my first college town of Plymouth to my hometown of Coventry to see them with a girl whose surname I can no longer remember; the rest I can recall vividly. Six hours or so on a National Express bus with a yellow underwater Walkman and one tape with George Best on one side and The House of Love on the other - a generation later and as soon as I hear Christine my immediate thought is Gloucester in the October dark seen through a wet window. A short stop at Bristol that made me feel homesick for the town in which I was born but had left at two.
The gig was at Coventry Poly, the girl a friend of my sister's with whom I had shamelessly played the cooler big brother card, but the band, well the band was the important part. George Best has kept me company my entire adult life, Bizarro live was about to acquaint me with tinnitus. No encores then, no encores now. Jumping for joy at eighteen has been replaced at nearly thirty eight by the ubiquitous gig-nod and tapping leg known and recognized by men old enough to know that the mosh pit promises nothing but a sprained ankle, a stitch and another futile promise to give up the gaspers.
What hadn't changed was the absolute, face-splitting pleasure of hearing the music. I cried for my dead friend, my old self and my old hopes, but mostly I just cried out of sheer bloody joy.

Thursday, 13 March 2008

In Rainbows – Radiohead

Never afraid to plough their own furrow, the ‘head. Record an album critically feted a decade later, throw away all the instruments that helped you make it, bombard the world with weird plinky-plonky political electronica, become a staple of “Have they lost it?” articles in the music press, go a bit quiet, come back with a balls-out fantastic record that you can have for free if you feel like it, look down beatifically at the world that doubted you knowing you’ve potentially changed the nature of transaction between recording artist and consumer forever. If any of this is ever applicable to Leona Jackson then SOB will eat his own shoes and go and live on Sark.

Lady Chatterley
SOB would have thought that Lawrence’s infamous proto-porn was suggestive enough, without filling the cast with French people but that’s by the by. Marina Hands gives an impressive performance as the titular aristo, which is more than can be said of the Mellors character, memorably described in the Observer as looking disarmingly like a young John Prescott. If that doesn’t put you off your morning tea and fig roll then potentially nothing will. The last version of this I remember watching starred SOB favourite Sylvia Kristel and this is an altogether coyer affair, to the relief of all concerned

As with David Tenant, the most surprising thing about James McAvoy is hearing him talk off-camera. Atonement provides an opportunity to showcase another of his range of English accents, here competing with Keira “Twice” Knightley – a woman with a voice so cut-glass it could be used in a Doncaster bar fight. This is that rare thing - a quality adaptation of a quality novel and, as sure as eggs is eggs will win a vanload of awards pretty much everywhere.

Now you’re talking. SOB’s favourite film of 2007 by a country mile is a wintry and wholly engrossing study of creativity, depression and the dark hinterlands where people’s ideals rub uncomfortably against their limitations. As Ian Curtis, Sam Riley is on screen for practically the whole film and if not for Toby Keppel’s scene-stealing turn as manager Rob Gretton, would have waltzed off with the film in his pocket. If you think you don’t like Joy Division, or black and white films, or biopics, then this extraordinary and strangely uplifting film will change your mind on all three counts.

America, not content with wanting to rule the world, also has scant disregard for the health of its own population. Medical insurance companies take so long to pay for treatments to which their policyholders are entitled, that sometimes the patients die waiting. These robust accusations can only mean one thing – it’s a Michael Moore film. While his sledgehammer tactics can grate after a while, (it’s a bit like having someone TALKING IN CAPITALS ALL THE TIME AND GOING CRAZY WITH THE EXCLAMATION MARKS!!!) it’s difficult to fault his intentions and his eye for a stunt remains undimmed. The one place under US jurisdiction where universal health care is free is, you guessed it, Guantanamo Bay so who better for Moore to take there asking for a doctor than 9/11 rescue workers shafted by their own system. Enlightening and depressing in equal measure.


For SOB, watching Tarantino’s half of Grindhouse is like being transported back to the teachers’ strike of the mid-80’s and days spent watching countless Betamax videos from a shop with a flexible attitude to age-ratings instead of revising for mock O levels. All your usual Quentin tropes are here – fast cars, pulp staples, dialog that practically crackles off the screen and the pleasant reminder that seeing an otherwise attractive girl in a tracksuit doesn’t necessarily mean you’re in Croydon

My Story by Lewis Hamilton

“This isn’t an autobiography,” said Lewis Hamilton the other day, demonstrating an admirable grasp of semantics. What it is is half price already so make sure those stickers are up to date. While SOB would like to award prizes for any stores arranging their copies in a starting grid formation and following the shape of the Interlagos circuit with a single copy of Kimi Raikkonen’s autobiography right at the end, unfortunately it can’t.

Greatest Hits by David Gray

Coffee-table classic ahoy! Around the turn of the millennium, hitherto-unnoticed head-wobbling troubadour David Gray released White Ladder. Once the nation’s dinner parties had adjusted, following the grisly death of Portishead’s Dummy, the rest of us were left to clear up the metaphorical dishes. Without David Gray, the unholy trinity of Blunt, Morrison and Johnson would never have troubled our collective consciousness. So thanks for that Dave. Fact: no one knows any other songs by David Gray except Please Forgive Me, Babylon and Say Hello Wave Goodbye. Only two of those are on here, along with twelve others that his mum would probably struggle to hum. Does any of this alter the fact that SOB has the aforementioned three songs on his iPod? Not one jot, and it would be an unwise man or woman to underestimate the sales potential of this Christmas-tastic compilation. Turn your collar up, get your hands in those deep coat pockets and get wistful, in a tasteful, middle-of-the-road styleee

Harry Potter & the Order of the Phoenix
Officially the most lucrative film franchise in history, Harry Potter reaches that all-important 71.4% completion mark. Absolutely all reviews are an irrelevance in this case, but keep you eyes peeled for inevitable TV news footage of large piles of this being burned by Christian extremists in the wake of Dumbledore’s outing. The prospect of real wizards burning copies of the Old Testament in protest at its content mercifully remains unlikely.

Playing with Fire by Gordon Ramsay

It’s big Gordon’s f****** life story! Follow the ups and f****** downs of Britain’s sweariest chef from the early days on the books of Glasgow f****** Rangers to conquering the world with a million Michelin ****s and all of the castigating of second-rate provincial chefs and advertising pretty much everything in be-f******-tween. Brilliantly, he’s chosen the same title for his autobiography as that other renowned hell-raiser Nigel F****** Havers

Song Remains the Same (Remastered) by Led Zeppelin

Hands up who won a ticket to get the Led out at the O2? Thought not. Here’s the next best thing - a fuller version of their legendary concert film now available for the first time, with extra tracks not on the original etc etc. If there really is a land of the goblins is this what it sounds like? Possibly. At the very least it’ll be the soundtrack to a few games of Warhammer down the local Games Workshop. Lazy, knee-jerk comedy? SOB’s got it in spades, but always raises a smile at the idea of the “greatest supergroup ever” game (this is pre-Wilburys for regular readers). Pick one singer, guitarist, bassist, drummer and one wildcard for your ultimate supergroup. The hands-down winner? Led Zep with Bez. As a PS if anyone out there hasn’t read Suzy, Led Zeppelin and Me by the bafflingly under-rated Martin Millar, then you should rectify that at the earliest possible opportunity.

Pirates of the Caribbean - At World’s End

SOB likes Johnny Depp. Versatile, interesting, plastered with tattoos plus he got to fire Hunter Thompson’s remains into space. If the Buddhists are right, can I be him next time please? Having lasted considerably longer than the roller-coaster ride on which it was based; the POTC trilogy reaches a climax of sorts. Part two lost more water plot-wise than Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa and it’s a bit of a muddle tying up the loose strands, but at least Orlando Bloom might go away now.

The Bourne Ultimatum

The impossible-to-dislike franchise reaches its third, and possibly final instalment. SOB is tickled by several aspects of this: He likes the fact that ultimatum, much like the preceding supremacy is meaningless and that it might as well have been called The Bourne Discrepancy for all the bearing it has on the plot. He also likes the fact that all three are cracking good action pictures that made Bond up his game correspondingly. Best of all, he likes the fact that Matt Damon is often feted as being unbelievably good looking when in fact he looks like a thumb with a face drawn on it in pen. Top entertainment all-round, the kind of film The Shooter can only dream of being and a bit like having a bag of sugar poured down your throat while someone reads a Desmond Bagley novel at you doing all the voices.

How To Fossilise Your Hamster / Does Anything Eat Wasps? / Why Don’t Penguins’ Feet Freeze?
“Put him in a prototype car at 150 miles hour and hope he crashes”, “yes”, and “just because”. These are three reasons why SOB is yet to be invited to guest-edit New Scientist, although hope springs eternal. More interesting, of course are the real answers and SOB is gratified that the thirst for knowledge among the public remains unquenchable in these days of “Strictly Come Embalming”, “I’m a Celebrity, Stop Nailing Me To This Burning Pig!” and their dubious ilk. Pausing only to lament the missed cross-merch opportunity of not selling real hamsters (something to do with the difficulty of validating genuine pet licences apparently) we present a proper knowledge hat trick and then sit back smugly.

QI Annual
Which leads me nicely on to this. Almost certainly printed too early to include a section comparing the taste of tramps’ ears in different London boroughs, but that shouldn’t put anyone off. By far the most cheering thing about the whole QI project is that were avuncular schoolteacher-to-the-nation Stephen Fry anyone else at all, he would be derided in that peculiarly British way for being “too clever by half”. That such derision doesn’t exist is testament to something or other, and whatever it is, SOB likes it.

Knocked Up
If ever a topic was ripe for hilarity, it’s the unwanted consequences of a drunken one-night stand! You’ll laugh at the ill conceived err, conception! You’ll guffaw as the guy denies all responsibility! You’ll split your sides as he’s chased by the CSA while the mother drops out of education to look after a mewling infant that, deprived of the stabilising influence of two parents grows up to be a maladjusted sociopath! (Editors note: SOB apologises for the mix-up in printing this review. If you think you’re alarmed at the change to the regular tone, spare a thought for the readers of the Daily Mail Yearbook 2007.

Saturday, 10 November 2007

Rather too slowly to be counted as anything other than a bandwagon jumper, I've finally got my arse in gear to assemble various different pieces of work in one place.

All of the below are reviews written for work, the only part of the job I enjoy. If I've actually seen the film or heard the CD I'm writing about, then I can't remember, but the general rule is no. It is, of course, easier to be rude about something, but the purpose here isn't anything other than to provide entertainment for staff working in the retail industry, and consequently in need of all the entertainment they can get. I often refer to myself as SOB here, as that's the name of the document in which these are published.


In a bit of inventive demography that deserves to have an award created just so it can win it, Blake fill the gap that no one knew was there. If G4 are too racy for you and Il Divo too Italian, then Blake are your boys. Close-harmony “pop” versions by four chaps who could’ve been designed by computer once the variables “can sing inoffensively”, “look like minor public school prefects” and “this’ll do until dad’s bank comes up with that job” had been plugged in. Parky, and a good few thousand of our customers are going to love this. Despite being as dyed-in-the-wool a rugby fan as you’re ever likely to meet, their version of Swing Low makes SOB feel a bit ill, let alone the cover of God Only Knows (not so much gilding the lily as cutting it’s head off, deep-frying it and using it to batter a dog). Laughably, they pretended they’d met on Facebook until that bit of PR was rumbled by the merest sniff of investigative reporting.

Clarkson Supercar Showdown

SOB is ambivalent about Clarkson. He gets paid such a fantastic amount of money for just mucking about that I should hate him, yet his undeniable way with words is endearing. He veers dangerously close to Littlejohn-style “hell in a handcart” hectoring yet there’s a sneaking suspicion he doesn’t believe half of what he spouts. This looks like a DVD about fast cars, a subject about which SOB cares little and knows less, but he’s well aware he’s in the minority. Someone should tell our Jez that “hands in/thumbs out” is a pocket stance with no credibility whatsoever, but it might be an improvement on the “baffled, palms aloft, what’s going on with this country?” look that adorns most of his

Drastic Fantastic – KT Tunstall

She’s being ironic, no? Light glinting on a glittery guitar, questionable cowboy/pixie boot hybrid, patented “rock chick” pose and a bloody awful font into the bargain. Yes, tonight Matthew, I’m going to be Pat Benetar, only without the sweatband. The existence of KT Tunstall is a fine example of entropy in action. Just as the question “What did happen to Sharleen Spiteri”? was vaguely forming in the mind of the public during a quiet Wednesday, up pops KTT to seamlessly fill the gap. A kind of Texas 2.0, if I can generalise wildly.

Rome Season 2

Whichever smart-aleck telly producer rocked up with the words “Cross Gladiator with Dallas and fill it with Brits acting their socks off” scrawled on a beermat that Monday has done alright in SOB’s eyes. Machinations a go-go, season 1 cliffhangers resolved, sex, violence, stone-cold psychopaths – Rome 2 has the lot and more. Some historical accuracy is obviously sacrificed for the sake of the rattling pace but then this isn’t a crammer and it might get more people to read Rubicon You’re bound to learn something via telly osmosis, even if it’s only that ancient Romans actually spoke like RADA graduates and if they wanted to swear they employed rather robust Anglo-Saxon phraseology, the language of love being ill suited to politically motivated familicide.

All The Lost Souls – James Blunt

James Blunt? JAMES BLUNT?? Did our forefathers die in vain? SOB is torn between giving full vent to his spleen and shrugging half-heartedly at the meaninglessness of it all. Nursery rhyme “love songs” with the emotional depth of a teaspoon and a justifiable reason for forcibly re-enlisting the ex-captain and dropping him over a war zone armed with nothing but a webcam, some peas and a t-shirt saying “Target Practice”. And that is without doubt the worst cover I have ever seen. James Blunt is one of Britain's biggest selling artists. No more words are needed.

In Our Nature – Jose Gonzalez

Contender for the title “The World’s Unlikeliest Named Swede”, Jose Gonzalez is back with his first CD since Borders’ favourite Veneer a year or two back. Just like the Hawley of last month, don’t expect any major departures in terms of style or tone, but that’s not a reason to doubt that this will be another low-key winner. Coming on like an Arctic Nick Drake is fine and dandy in SOB’s eyes, although the worrying trend for covering Massive Attack’s Teardrop continues, leading to the possibility that it’ll become the ‘90s version of Eleanor Rigby – the majesty of the original being perceptibly diminished by repeated re-interpretation. At the very least it’s less likely to make you want to remove your eyes with a spoon than Newton Bloody Faulkner’s version. Actually, I’ve just heard it, and it’s just as bad

I Can Make You Rich by Paul McKenna

Not content with making us all non-smoking beanpoles with no fear of spiders, Britain’s most unsettling self-help guru is back and promising us the wealth of Croesus. With his trademark intense-looking headshot and shades-of-omnipotence title, McKenna is less a man than a brand and this will sell by the skipload. Therefore this will work, but by degrees: it might make you a bit better off, it will certainly do no harm to the company accounts, but the copper-bottomed certainty is that it will make one Paul McKenna considerably richer than he already is, which is very. SOB waits in fear for the next title I Can Have You Killed. Does he still make grown men bark like dogs and eat onions?

Pictures / Katie Melua

“There are 9 million Katie Melua CDs in Beijing, that’s a fact, it’s a thing you can’t deny, like the fact that out the doors this CD will fly.

It makes you wonder, if the publics appetite, for balladry that’s trite, bordering on jazz-lite will ever tire

There are 42 shops in our estate, and a large proportion of, our customers will think that this is great”

Repeat to fade

© Two Cans of Special Brew and a Rhyming Dictionary Music Ltd


Or Sin City - The Thermopylae Years. Lurid, blood-spattered, and as historically accurate as Carry On Follow That Camel, 300 seeks to convince us that Spartans spoke with broad Scottish accents, the Men’s Health Abs Program is a lot older than we all thought and that Xerxes was 12ft tall and dressed like a drag queen show wrestler. Preposterous in the best sense of the word and LOUD LOUD LOUD

Best of Friends by Jools Holland

Now don’t get me wrong, I like Jools Holland. He’s an endearingly shambolic presenter, plays a mean Joanna and used to be in Squeeze, so top marks so far. Whether the world needs a compilation of duets pried from his earlier albums is debatable though. All the usual suspects turn up for a spot of identikit soulfulness, with sporadic splashes of trademark boogie-woogie. The soundtrack to a middle-aged regional manager’s dream party and a bit like a tape of Later….. with the indie bands edited out. It does feature everyone’s favourite chronic alcoholic and Colgate poster boy Shane Macgowan, a man who knows a decent duet when he sees one, so maybe I should just shut up, pop downstairs and hear it on the playlist like the rest of you.

Spiderman 3

Keats, as I’m sure I don’t need to tell anyone reading this, called autumn the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”. Well times have changed Johnny boy and “season of wrecked crops thanks to nothing but rain all bloody summer” might be nearer the mark now. So what better way to bring a little sunshine in than a superhero blockbuster? The addition of “comedy” sequences in one of the darker franchises makes for an uneven tone that raised a few purists’ eyebrows but, y’know, lighten up – it’s for kids and selling hamburgers. An element of plot fudging is probably to be expected by the second sequel, and introducing amnesia to cover it up is just plain lazy, but disregard that, disengage your brain and Bingo!

Still on Top – The Greatest Hits - Van Morrison

Contrary to astronomical orthodoxy, fading stars don’t die, they just release new “Greatest Hits” albums, despite not having had a recognizable hit since the release of their last “Greatest Hits” album. In Van’s case, this is about 18 years. On the plus side his voice could crack granite at fifty yards and some of his songs are genuine belters. Pity he stopped writing them years ago really. All the ones on this you know, you’ve heard too many times at unimaginative wedding discos to really like them anymore and the rest is from his later “twaddle” period. To include a head-meltingly bad duet with Cliff Richard but omit everything from the magisterial Astral Weeks is laughable. This will sell, make no mistake about it.

Long Road Out of Eden by The Eagles

It’s all gone a bit Traveling Wilbury’s again. This is the first studio album by the Eagles since 1742. Who knew they were still peddling their particular brand of sunny country-rock? Not SOB for sure, but then predictably I could never see what all the fuss was about with Hotel California. I guess you had to be there. Extra soft-spot points are awarded however, for Eagle-in-chief Don Henley having written top 80’s tune The Boys of Summer, guaranteed to have SOB listening to the roar of the metaphorical sports car of his youth disappearing over the horizon filled with fawn-eyed girls with sun-browned legs, a case of cider and the withered husk of his potential.

Raising Sand by Robert Plant & Alison Krauss

An altogether more intriguing prospect. We all know about Robert Plant – leather lungs, 70’s goblin fixation, blew The Charlatans off the stage at Isle of Wight in ’02 (maybe that’s just me). Alison Krauss, bluegrass stalwart and possessor of extraordinary coruscating voice, has a place close to SOB’s heart if only for her cover of the Temptations Baby, Now That I’ve Found You, as featured in unmissable Oz comedy The Castle. What’s this CD going to be like? No idea. In my store days, a gent came in quite flustered as he’d heard her on the radio and been so moved as to park his car practically on the pavement, dry his tears and rush into to buy everything we had by her. Now that’s a recommendation

Die Hard 4.0

Ooh, check out the bleeding-edge title. SOB can only assume that they’ve gone for this cos the film, like a certain operating system I could mention, has a crash of some sort every two minutes from the second you start it. Middle-aged wish-fulfilment a go-go, and impossible to take seriously. But not in a bad way.

Awkward Annie – Kate Rusby

The OOTW pendulum swings again this week, back to the bit marked Top Quality New Releases For Those Who Know Their Onions. There seems to be an EU directive that Kate Rusby should win every award she’s ever nominated for and the streak is unlikely to be broken with her new one. The usual mix of covers and originals, delivered in a voice scientifically engineered to make grown men cry. For the uninitiated, think a less wistful Kathryn Williams or an unimaginably less rubbish Norah Jones. Then double the class. Minus marks for annoying faux naïf cover art are outweighed by a big gold star for sheer quality. The CD equivalent of a cashmere kitten, only without the potential for allergies

Curse of the Golden Flower

This is the most expensive film ever made in China and can’t you just tell. In the way of Chinese cod-historical epics, Curse has a large cast of characters) involved in labyrinthine plots and counter-plots, family secrets, Oedipal flourishes and the kind of wire-work martial arts scenes that 5 years ago had us picking our jaws off the floor and these days has us idly scratching our knees and reaching for the fizzy cola bottles. Add in a sprinkling of mushroom poisoning, an enormous battle scene and the obligatory stunning visuals (in this case a carpet of chrysanthemums) and Bob’s your uncle, as they probably didn’t say during the Tang dynasty.

Harvest – Neil Young

It couldn’t last, loyal SOBbers, one week of genuine quality new release CD action and it’s back to the “classics” - every-home-should-have-one CDs at petrol station prices. Originally released in 1972, Harvest sees Young in country-folk-rock territory, a bit like if Willie Nelson adopted a falsetto voice and covered Aerosmith songs in a woolly jumper. Probably. As with previous weeks’ Rumours and Blue, there’s nothing I can tell you about this that you don’t know already so in the spirit of being back in primary school, let’s all just put our heads on our desks and have quiet time until the DVD bit turns up. Fingers on lips is optional but appreciated.

Notes on a Scandal

Isn’t that better? Something of a turnaround here as it’s the DVD providing the meat in this week’s metaphorical OOTW sandwich and a pungent, pastrami-style filling it is too. Adapted from Zoë Heller’s Booker-shortlisted novel, this manages to be both faithful to the source material and a decent bit of dark-hued entertainment in its own right. The piece is held together by a storming performance from everyone’s favourite Dame as the manipulative, detached yet oddly sympathetic Barbara, with strong support from Cate Blanchett (in ethereal, tortured mode) and Bill Nighy (in genuine class whatever role he’s playing mode). Add in a sharp script from Patrick (Closer / Peter O’Hanrahahanranhan) Marber and you’re quids in.

Lady’s Bridge – Richard Hawley

Now this is more like it – a proper new CD and a bona fide OOTW. There may be people out there who weren’t seduced by Coles Corner’s silken balladry but they’re probably all hanging out together in the woods somewhere drinking mud and as far as SOB is concerned, that’s where they can stay. Richard Hawley has a gift for melody and a way with words that in a sane world would make James Blunt eat his own head in envy and shame. Wisely taking the decision to stick with the formula so successfully realised on its predecessor, Lady’s Bridge is also suffused with sadness at the death of Hawley’s father, an emotional position well suited to Hawley’s Orbison-esque baritone. SOB, as may be becoming apparent, is a big fan, and will fight anyone who says different.

Pursuit of Happyness (2)

Life, as usual, gives with one hand whilst taking away with the other. The last in our series of available titles at pocket-money prices, this was gleefully put to the sword - sorry, objectively reviewed – in SOB w/c 7th May and the intervening weeks have done nothing to dull SOB’s ire. Those determined to find a silver lining in the No-New-DVD-OTW-Thunder-Cloud, will be gratified to learn that at least this spares you having to read a balanced, erudite, cinematically literate dissection of Mr. Bean’s Holiday – a film so bottomlessly awful that the great Jacques Tati wouldn’t so much turn in his grave as re-animate himself, remove his own femur and fashion it into a tennis racquet using Rowan Atkinson’s nervous system for strings. Oh.


Or, to put it another way, Mark Wahlberg has quality control issues. Choosing to follow up an Oscar-nominated turn in The Departed with this mishmash of derivative conspiracy theories and borrowed action tropes seems wilfully perverse. If you were to step into my imaginary movie bar and order a watered down cocktail of The Jackal (the remake), The Parallax View, The Recruit and Clear and Present Danger then I might serve you something like this, along with a list of clichés on a coaster for you to tick off. Crack sniper who’s turned his back on society? Check. Attempt on the President’s life? Check. Shadowy government agents who have their own agenda? Check, etc etc. Shooter includes dialogue along the lines of “Out of all the men alive on the planet, you’re one of the few who knows what to look for”, which should tell you all you need to know. SOB also ponders the wisdom of having the words “From The Director of Training Day” on the cover, as if that was an unassailable guarantee of thrills as opposed to a largely meaningless waste of ink. Still, that raw silk toilet roll doesn’t come cheap does it Mark?

Amazing Grace

In which Ioan Gruffudd swaps greying temples and a Lycra suit for a periwig and breeches to become William Wilberforce, abolitionist, and subject of William Hague’s recent biography. It also stars Albert Finney as John Newton, the former slave-ship owner who recants his ways and writes a song that SOB now can’t get out of his head. If you swap the words “slave trade” for “climate change”, William Wilberforce” for “Al Gore” and “stirring rhetoric in the Houses of Parliament” for “PowerPoint presentation in room 5C down the corridor”, you could easily draw parallels with our own time. Interestingly, in later life Wilberforce became addicted to laudanum. In today’s parlance, he was a smackhead, leading to the unutterably bizarre conclusion that he was the 19th century’s answer to both Nelson Mandela and Pete Doherty, all rolled into one.

Hand Built By Robots - Newton Faulkner

Every couple of years, someone seems to pop out of nowhere and rapidly become ubiquitous, leaving record company execs dribbling with pleasure and everyone else with the faintly disturbing feeling that they’ve fallen for it again. This year it’s the turn of the improbably monikered Newton Faulkner. For anyone unaware, and you will soon be in the minority, he looks like one of The Levellers (actually all of them), but sounds like Jack Johnson and uses his acoustic guitar as much as percussion as in the traditional manner. And, God help us all, he covers Massive Attack’s Teardrop in this fashion. Coming soon to both a coffee table near you and the soundtrack to a willfully zeitgeist-y twenty/thirtysomething drama, but even sooner to your in-store playlist, this should do really well for us, in the manner of Jose Gonzales and the aforementioned JJ. SOB is also proud to be the first to coin the phrase “David Gray for the dog-on-a-string brigade”

Jekyll Series 1

Sensing that the country was tiring of Yellow Pages adverts in which he plays a watered-down version of his own public image, James Nesbitt clearly decided to start acting again – so much so that he took on two roles at once. Putting a new spin on old stories can often be a tricky business and this one opts for conspiracy theories, gore galore and even the odd joke. What SOB finds difficult to believe is the twist that the good doctor has managed to hide his psychotically split personality from his wife and two children. Granted, Hyde might miss the fact that the dishwasher’s always used efficiently and socks on the floor are not tolerated, but surely Mrs Jekyll is keener-eyed (i.e. “Are those lips on your collar”?). At the very least she must have read the book at school…

One Chance - Paul Potts

In the fast moving world of current affairs, the summer months are traditionally known as the Silly Season. Real news takes a well-earned self-catering holiday on the Costa Dorada and the media is full of stories about recorder-playing pandas, sightings of the Virgin Mary in soup and atavistic local festivals (World Peashooting Championships, Witcham, Cambs this Saturday if anyone’s interested). It very much looks to SOB that the music industry is on the joke. Unless you count the re-release of The Levellers’ back catalogue, this is one of only two new CDs out this week. A former am-dram opera enthusiast and Carphone Warehouse manager made famous by the telly, this might be the nadir for CDOTW. For a brief second, SOB’s eyes lit up when he thought he had to review but the debut CD by Pol Pot. Alas, it wasn’t to be and that sound you can hear is me crawling under the desk to die.

Coast 3

Given that it’s called Coast 3, SOB can’t help thinking it should be subtitled The Revenge and carry the strapline “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the rockpool.” Ah well. Continuing the BBC’s policy of releasing factual documentary series on DVD within hours of the initial transmission date (see also Sandrine’s Paris, How We Built Britain etc) is this. Oddly, they’ve chosen a cover that looks like a how-to example in a Photoshop manual, leading SOB to question the wisdom with which his license fee is spent. Prepare to be humbled by the magnificence of Cleethorpes at sunset.

We’ll Live and Die In These Towns - The Enemy

Official CDOTW are thin on the ground these days but frankly, when there’s stuff this good around, who needs it? Hailing from the same town where SOB spent his formative years, bless them, The Enemy are already pumping out pop gems, being a bit bolshy and being featured in Observer Music Monthly. Which isn’t bad seeing they have a combined age of about 35. It’s enough to take a dewy-eyed SOB back to days spent lurking around the precinct in a Harrington jacket. They’re whole-heartedly doing their bit to widen the generation gap and that can only be healthy in SOB’s eyes, as he squeezes himself into a pair of skinny black jeans and orders another round of Bacardi Breezers.

The Illusionist

Honestly, you wait years for a film about fin de siecle magicians starring a preposterously intense character actor and then two come along at once. A few years ago, Ed Norton was tipped to be the next De Niro on the back of electrifying performances in Primal Fear and American History X. At the moment it’s looking like he’ll become the next Sean Penn instead, which isn’t nearly as enticing a prospect, but fingers crossed he’ll get over that. This bears up well next to The Prestige and sees Norton doing his mumbling/tortured bit to decent effect as the titular prestidigitator of his day, being doubted, and then hunted by a sceptical Austrian policeman. A noted method actor, Norton used the real David Copperfield’s eyebrows to fashion the goatee beard he sports throughout the film.

Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – The Beatles

It’s finally happened. SOB is lost for words but contractual obligations mean that the paragraph still gets written. While there isn’t a man, woman or child in the country who doesn’t know about this CD, the fact that we’ve sold over 3000 copies of this in the last 12 months alone means there’s still plenty of people who don’t yet own it. This year is the 40th anniversary of its release so expect even more publicity than it normally gets. In a spirit of cheerful iconoclasm, SOB thinks it’s hugely overrated and would gladly never hear it again. Does anyone actually listen to it anymore from start to finish or is it just something people feel they should own due to its unassailable position as a cultural cornerstone?

The Devil Wears Prada

The Setting: England. The Date: 1616. The grieving widow of England’s finest playwright makes a deal. In exchange for eternal life, Anne Hathaway, spurred on by the drunken ghost of Kit Marlowe, agrees to do Mephistopheles’ bidding. Bewildered, and slightly cowed by the fallen angel’s talk of silver screens and people 20ft high, Anne is nonetheless thrilled to discover that in 400 years time, not only is she still pretty darn cute, but that it’s so much easier to power-dress without all that hay getting everywhere. The devil smirks, brushes off his lapels, and goes home to watch the first season of Ugly Betty on DVD

Pan’s Labyrinth

Fairy Tales for Adults often fall into one of two distinct camps – the magical realist (see Company of Wolves) and the wryly knowing (see The Princess Bride – and then stop watching films because that’s as good as they get). No prizes for guessing which one this falls into, although it swaps the feminist theory of Wolves for political allegory and frankly eye-popping brutality in places. Previously responsible for Devil’s Backbone and Hellboy here del Toro combines the Franco allusions of the former with the visual imagination of the latter, and then turns them both up to 11. Not for the faint-hearted, ambiguous and adult in the best possible sense, if SOB had three thumbs, they’d all be up. Still not as scary as the Ms Kelly cover though.

Icky Thump – White Stripes

Again, not an official CD of the week but the biggest release of the week by some distance so it gets the packshot’n’gags treatment in the absence of anything proper. Judging by their appearance on Jools Holland a couple of weeks ago, two things are abundantly clear. First, the songs on this album are up there with the Stripes’ best and that’s high praise indeed. Secondly, Jack White is an astonishingly odd character, combining a pub fighter’s physique with a drag queen’s cheekbones, unnervingly beady eyes and an accent that comes direct from Gone With The Wind. Essentially then, the human equivalent of playing consequences, which is exactly what we want in a pop star, and as if that wasn’t enough this record also features bagpipes. Take that Enriqué Iglesias, or Eric Churches as you’re known back home.

Blood Diamond

In which Leo makes an unlikely pitch to be the new Meryl Streep, rocking up with an accent that says nothing so much as “I’ve had accent lessons” or more accurately “Oiv hid ixunt lissuns.” Set during the Civil War that engulfed Sierra Leone in the 1990’s, Leo is a smuggler; Djimon Honsou a fisherman. And SOB is a monkey’s uncle. In reality, this is a decent attempt to tackle a morally murky topic. While it obviously puts a Hollywood spin on the events that led to the Kimberly Process, making a serious film about a gut-wrenching subject without being too preachy is always to be applauded. Now where did I put my ruby-studded toothpick..?

Traveling Wilburys

This one might take some explaining to the under-30’s. The Traveling Wilburys haven’t released a record since 1990. This is for several reasons, the most obvious being that two of them are dead. “So what?” I hear you cry, “that hasn’t stopped The Who”, and you’d have a point. Except in this case the dead members are George Harrison and Roy Orbison, which can mean only one thing. Yes, we’re in Supergroup territory. Jeff Lynne (ELO), Tom Petty (sans Heartbreakers) and Bob Dylan were also in on the wheeze and the two albums they put out (Volume 1 and, hilariously, Volume 3) are collected here along with a DVD featuring interviews, clips and videos. Considering the sheer songwriting ability assembled, SOB couldn’t hum a Wilburys track if you pointed a gun at him, but that’s not the point. These CDs have been unavailable for over a decade and already the buzz is practically audible. In the words of the Music team “If you could slice this CD open it’d have Borders written through it like a stick of rock”. This shouldn’t actually be attempted. As an interesting coda, Supergroups were outlawed at the turn of the century on humanitarian grounds as all post-Wilburys attempts featured That Bloke From Ocean Colour Scene

Bruce Springsteen/War Of The Worlds/Genesis

Again there’s no official CD of the week so instead we proudly present The SOB AOR Summer Special Hat Trick (brought to you in association with Father’s Day). Three CDs are released this week that couldn’t be more Dad if they started sporting cardies and tapping twice on the roof of your car before you drive off. First up is Bruce Live in Dublin, radically re-worked but still Boss-tastic. Next, we have 1-disc highlights of War of the Worlds, which sounds a bit wrong – after all, would you have 1-disc highlights of Blonde on Blonde? Sign O’The Times? Tales From the Topographic Oceans? Ok scrub that last one. But bestriding them all like a Dad-rock Colossus is the mighty ‘sis. Jesus, He Knows Them and He knows they’re rich. All the hits, all the ‘sis. If enough people buy it, they might stay in Switzerland next time. Non-stereotyped Dads might prefer the Clash Singles album (see Buyers’ News), but they’re too good to make jokes about.

Music & Lyrics

Oh how SOB has waited for this day. Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore, the Rom-Com equivalent of the Bader-Meinhof Gang, together at last. He’s a washed-up pop star commissioned to write a song. She’s a “neurotic plant lady”, whatever that means. He’s got the tune but can’t think of the words. How will it end? This is aimed squarely at the Wedding Singer / Starter for 10 80’s nostalgia market and isn’t nearly as bad as its own promo sheet makes it sound. No Grosse Point Blank, but that should really go without saying.

Sweet Warrior – Richard Thompson

Teenage popstrels, bewildering Vikings and disco-posh are all very well, but what if your needs are broader, your hankerings more melancholic and your tastes more, well, beardy? Step forward everyone’s favourite beret-clad Sufi and Dave Gorman impersonator. With a pedigree going back 40 years, Richard Thompson is English folk royalty. Except he lives in Los Angeles. From Fairport Convention through the Richard ‘n’ Linda years to his career-autumn renaissance, the acclaim has rarely been anything other than universal and that won’t change with this new release. His most famous publicity shot has him playing a bar chord on a chainsaw. Parsnip wine anyone?

Trip The Light Fantastic – Sophie Ellis-Bextor

Not strictly CD of the week, but as there isn’t one officially, SOB can’t resist plugging this. Is it because she’s posh and points her finger while she dances? No. Is it purely out of nostalgia for her mum on Blue Peter? Well maybe a bit. Is it because she’s so shiny as to be practically laminated, effortlessly showing Jude Law in AI that this is how to look like an android, yet also capturing a kind of golden-age-screen-siren vivacity that makes SOB want a lie down and a cold flannel? Bingo.

Rocky Balboa

If the subject of the Rocky films were anything other than boxing, the premise of this latest instalment would be preposterous even by Sly’s standards. However, boxing it is and so the idea of a man old enough to qualify for a Stanner stairlift and a weekly visit from Meals on Wheels mounting a challenge for the world heavyweight crown is not only plausible but downright likely. Cue the dementedly grotesque spectacle of a 60-year old body builder attempting to re-live past glories and resurrect a career that’s been less than kind of late. Those of an allegorical bent may spot a parallel with real life.

Release The Stars – Rufus Wainwright

Normal service resumes this week, with the actual real proper and correct CD and DVD of the week. SOB blames the Bublé cover, on which the Quebecois crooner looks like a Thunderbirds puppet with half its face blown off. In contrast Rufus Wainwright appears to have opted for the only classical statue of Daffy Duck to promote his new set Release The Stars. Never knowingly under-produced, the big RW has apparently toned down the operatics a bit since the Want diptych, giving the vibrato the heave-ho and making the whole thing a bit more accessible. Baroque ‘n’ Roll, if you will.

The Pursuit of Happyness (1)

Will Smith’s transformation from cartoonishly non-threatening rapper to Hollywood’s equivalent of a National Treasure continues apace. This is the sort of film Morgan Freeman might have made 20 years ago, had he been possessed of considerably less dignity, talent and an unusually large gas bill that month. Inspired by a true story, it says on the cover, which translates as “nominated for an Oscar, you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, honest-but-downtrodden-guy-makes-good, cute kid, uplifting score, etc etc”. Erin Brockovich for blokes.

Volta – Bjork

Well that’s a hell of a cover even by Bjork’s high standards. What it sounds like is anybody’s guess but SOB hopes that the aural matches the visual and this is the sonic equivalent of dressing up in two-hundredweight of melted fruit gums. Never afraid to walk her own path, Iceland’s premier pop elf is back and this year’s one-word title is Volta. As likely to include a sample of yaks giving birth in a sensory deprivation tank as it is to include a pop gem like Big Time Sensuality. Take that Joss Stone.

Black Book

A tense and moving WW2 thriller from the director of Basic Instinct and Starship Troopers filmed in his native Dutch? Twenty years in the making, this is clearly a labour of love for Paul Verhoeven, so it’s only SOB calling it Anne Frank: The Showgirl Years then.

Favourite Worst Nightmare – Arctic Monkeys

What’s all this guff about “difficult second album” then? They’ve only been around for 18 months or so but Arctic Monkeys are unquestionably THE British guitar act of the decade, garnering critical acclaim and adoring fans the way other boys their age garner zit cream and rejections from Debbie in Home Ec. If the Foo Fighters’ guitar sound is a pint of Guinness (thick, creamy, grown up) then the Arctic’s sound is an alcopop Tizer (sharp, fizzy and liable to be spiked with something stronger if you don’t pay attention). This will be the sound of summer so don’t pretend you’re too old to enjoy it.

Miss Potter

Somewhere there’s a parallel world, where hedgehogs are the dominant planetary species and humans are farmed, run over and kept as pets. In this world, children’s books are correspondingly theriomorphic and the equivalent of Mrs Tiggwinkle looks like Renee Zelwegger. If anyone else has a better explanation for this inspired bit of casting, SOB would like to hear it. Thought not. Despite being ostensibly a kid’s movie, this has a frankly terrifying cover with Renee looking more like Lizzie Borden than Beatrix Potter. Maybe that’s what makes it a PG.


In the absence of even a halfway-decent music release this week (Avril Lavigne anyone?), it’s just the DVD. Adapted from the book by wunderkind Christopher Paolini, Eragon, has all you’d want from a film with a dragon including John Malkovich (phoning in his performance and thinking of the fee), Jeremy Irons (visibly gasping for a liquorice roll-up and thinking of the fee) and Robert Carlyle (not braining anyone with a pint glass) not to mention an improbably good-looking cast of teens and tweens, some of whom may already be battling rather more quotidian evils in true Drew Barrymore style

Our Earthly Pleasures – Maximo Park

Top new CD from the band everyone at SOB towers is calling The Futureheads It’s Still OK To Like. This feisty and melodic follow-up to A Certain Trigger boasts a clean and beefy sound, courtesy of erstwhile Pixies producer Gil Norton. Paul Smith’s witty, intelligent lyrics are made all the more affecting by being delivered in mellifluous Geordie, rather than drawling transatlantic. Catch them at a festival near you this year, effortlessly bridging the gap between Franz Ferdinand-style sharp dressing and 5-a-side Kaiser Chiefery

Night At The Museum

Ben Stiller, Ricky Gervais and Dick Van Dyke (!) star in this chilling political allegory of reptile revenge across time, where the bones of long-dead dinosaurs re-animate and prove that hubris really does lead to nemesis where man is concerned. Actually, no they don’t. This is CGI family entertainment at its best with a ready-made market at Easter time. Maybe not as much fun as One Of Our Dinosaurs Is Missing, but so little in life is. It does have a cool tachegram cover though

The Very Best of The Doors

If you ask SOB, it’s a bit of a cheek calling your first album “The Very Best Of” but that’s modern pop groups for you. This Los Angeles four-piece is squarely in the revivalist tradition, carting a sound that could’ve been minted in 1967 straight into the early 21st century and flogging it for all it’s worth. After just one listen it’s clear they’ve got a few corking tracks, but some others suggest the jazz fags are best left well alone (yes, Stoned Immaculate, I’m talking to you). The lead singer’s penchant for adopting the DJ “Choon” pose augurs well and his resemblance to portly thesp lothario Val Kilmer surely can’t do any harm either.

Casino Royale

Dun-duddle-undun-dun-dun-dun-dun-duddle-undun-dun-dun-DUN-dun-dun-dun-dun! Hokey, bloke-y and a little bit jokey, BOND IS BACK. After losing water, and then everyone’s interest for the last few years, Daniel Craig does a bang-up job of making the world’s favourite spy franchise relevant again, sticking a resolute two fingers up to those who doubted his credentials for the role into the bargain.

Wisely ditching the invisible cars and face transplants in favour of a grit-in-the-knuckle-wounds realism and a return to Fleming’s storylines (more or less), Casino Royale exceeded just about everybody’s expectations. This is genuinely the release of the year so far and as such has the OOTW spot all to itself. It’ll be all over FOS so expect it to sell at a rate that would make Auric Goldfinger consider a career in entertainment retail, if only for the product-placement opportunities

Neon Bible – Arcade Fire Arcade Fire generally garner the kind of critical acclaim reserved for God. Their debut CD Funeral was a mainstay of just about everybody’s “Best of the Year” lists – from the NME to the Sunday Times via Good Food magazine and What Toaster? If you haven’t heard them, they’re what Pink Martini would sound like if they spent less time in middle class cocktail bars and more time playing pinball with bikers. Sophisticated, engaging and so original they might as well have a patent, this is a connoisseur’s choice and no mistake. I saw them at a Dutch festival in the heady days of ’05 and they were awesome, although Health & Safety might have a word about the bloke playing a tambourine with his head. Oh, and it’s called Neon Bible, after a novel by unrecognized-in-his-lifetime genius John Kennedy Toole.