Thursday, December 24, 2009

Let steeple bells be swungen

E'en so here below, below,
Let steeple bells be swungen,
And io, io, io,
By priest and people sungen.

I can think of no finer Yuletide verse to recite in sonorous yet ponderous tones on a Christmas Eve.

Thanks and Merry Christmas to you all - readers, bloggers and especially commenters.

It's been a big year on Think of England. We have been binge-drinking and shooting, given up consumerism and retreated to the hills with Ed Will and Ginger to pick blackberries. We have encountered Paul Kingsnorth, Swineshead, Muggsy Spanier, Jase Rooney, Doc Johnson, a leisure centre manager and John Portsmouth Football Club Westwood, amongst a host of other characters. Critically, Brit Jnr entered the scene. We have partied with Black Lace, divided up the animals, rescheduled Radio 4, performed some thrilling Pavement Panto, scoffed some cupcakes and rewritten pop music history. We have been to the Windy City and the Guernsey Tomato Museum.

We have learnt nothing.

As ever, be good, listen to the Baked Potato and see you on the other side.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The greatest compliment

No Good Boyo’s meandering tale of social acceptance amongst çay-drinking Turkish tokers brings to mind the greatest compliment I have ever been paid in my life.

It occurred on the island of Crete, in a tiny family-run Taverna geographically but not philosophically close to the grim disco strip of Malia. Its keeper spoke fine eccentric English and he used it to complain in a lengthy but convivial sort of way about my compatriots and their behaviour on holiday. “Why you need get so drunk?” he asked as he brought out our bottle of enjoyably vile retsina. “Why you want get nakt? Why you want take clothes off in street and get nakt?”

I couldn’t honestly answer, and nor could Mrs B. We were both fully clothed and had no intention of getting ‘nakt’ in his street. While our starters were preparing he pulled up a chair to continue the theme. “Why you want shout? I not come to your house and SHOOOOOOUT in your street. Why you want do that?” He cupped his hands in front of his mouth and demonstrated, literally, the business of “SHOOOOOOUTing”.

I couldn’t help but agree with his gist, though I did make the observation that his own compatriots were more than happy to take money from mine in return for drunk-making liquors. He conceded the point with good grace.

I ordered up the special, which the Taverna-keeper - who had, I now noticed, extremely oily hair - kindly translated to me as “Chicken chops.” It was a platter of chicken thighs, wings and things cooked in some sort of oregano seasoning and was sublimely delicious. I have a weakness for chicken things anyway and attacked the plate with carnivorous greed, using fingers and teeth to pick off every last morsel til there was nothing but a heap of gleaming, decimated bones. The keeper took our plates back into the kitchen and then a few minutes later hurried back to deliver it, the greatest compliment I have ever been paid in my life:

“Sir! My wife, the cook… she ask me to tell you… She say, You really know how to eat chicken!”

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Black Pudding

The reason I do all of my gift shopping well in advance and largely on the internet is so that I can avoid such things as going into Bury town centre in the freezing sleet on the last Saturday before Christmas. This was the gist of the message I intended but in the event diplomatically decided not to convey with some force to Mrs B and her mother. Including Brit Jnr, there were three generations of females against me: the game was up before it started.

Having chauffeured them into the town I gave them the slip as soon as was reasonable and went off into the famed boxy warren of Bury Market in search of hot grub. Bury is black pudding country. I have nothing against black pudding per se, a small disc of the stuff is a very welcome addition to any hotel breakfast. But you wouldn’t want to eat it in the same sort of style and quantity as you would, say, a bag of chips. Would you? In Bury you would. The market includes a little quadrangle of hot black pudding stalls offering exactly that. A boy of about ten was wolfing forkfuls of his congealed pig blood snack from a paper plate. He looked cheerful enough.

I hurried on and found a pieman. Like most men in the Greater Manchester area he was small and had a wiry moustache. His pies were a pound each. I ordered a homemade bacon and black pudding one.

“What, don’t you want peas and gravy for another 50p?” he asked, in a tone that was both injured and incredulous. “No, just as it comes please,” I replied in my southern accent.

It was a good pie, I ate it on the way to a warm-looking pub called the Two Tubs. Had myself a pint of mild in a nook (I like to go native, within limits) and checked the cricket score on my mobile. At the table next to me a small man with a wiry moustache was drinking a pint and reading his paper in great peace, while behind, a group of quite irritating students from some Home County or other talked too loudly about travelling in Australia. Idly, I studied the bar menu. The £3.99 special was A Plate of Black Pudding, covered in Bacon and smothered in Cheddar Cheese. Now that dish, I thought, is not widely available down south.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The hills are alive

Last night I dreamt that Steve Buscemi had taken the Julie Andrews role in The Sound of Music. Fortunately he had a rich baritone voice, so even though he looked incongruous he pulled it off. Then this morning, in the opaque rise into wakefulness, the following verse came to me, fully-formed:

The hills are alive but the mountains are dead,
The oceans are Tory, the rivers are Red,
The forests eat cake but the trees all eat bread,
Here comes a chopper to chop off your head.

I'm not sure what this means - perhaps you can interpret - but I don't think it is related to the fact that I will be off-blog for a couple of days.

We're taking Charlotte on a tour of the northern relatives. She'll be signing bibs and spreading Christmas cheer and milky sick where'er she goes. Back Tuesday or possibly Monday.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

For Gaw

Rage against the machine

People who take these things far too seriously are campaigning to get Rage Against The Machine’s 1992 song Killing in the Name to the number one spot ahead of the X-Factor winner's single.

Fine weapon of choice, is Killing in the Name: a preposterous monster of a track driven by three giant riffs and culminating in the scream-a-long adolescent mantra par excellence: “F**k you I won’t do what you tell me!”

My sixth-form cronies and I, repulsive grungy scroats all, loved it immediately. At a school disco once we somehow persuaded the DJ to play it at headsplitting volume, instantly clearing the dancefloor of handbag-waving girls and their shocked chaperones. Tanked up on two pints of White Lightning cider we hurtled, hooting like lame droogs, into a circle of crazed headbanging. It remains one of my most cherished school memories. The DJ later got into fearful trouble for broadcasting the obscenities, it was said.

Well, it was a more innocent time, they always are.

When we left school soon after and went our separate ways Martpol and I regularly posted each other homemade compilation tapes (later CDs) of our musical ‘discoveries’, painstakingly sequenced and wildly eclectic. This only dried up in the last couple of years: the problem we have encountered being that we each appear to already own every album in the universe, and thus surprising each other is impossible. We’ve got richer as music has got cheaper, leading us to over-indulge, which is why buying stuff isn’t fun anymore and nor is making painstakingly-sequenced compilation tapes and when we gain we always lose so much. We could burn the malls and head for the hills but it’s bloody cold out there in December.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

England Have My Bones

TH White, author of the strange and indelible Arthurian sequence The Once and Future King, is also the author of a strange and indelible memoir called England Have My Bones. You can often find it in secondhand bookshops; if you see it, do pick it up.

It is ostensibly a diary of a year of country living in the 1930s, but I don’t think I’ve ever read a book in which so much is unsaid. White fishes, hunts, shoots ducks, learns to fly a small aeroplane and keeps snakes as pets. He does these things one at a time and obsessively, being the sort of person who needs to be the best at everything he tries. He sets arbitrary and very difficult goals because he wants the punishment.

White writes beautifully, a genuine master of prose so much in control that he can break the rules. He has a knack of composing perfectly-balanced sentences from those middling words which you think you know but would want to double-check in a dictionary if tested. This makes for a somewhat disorienting reading experience. For example:

The primaries of the plover buckled to the wind on the turn, like the tawse of a brogue. The pine clumps on the moors had dead trees in them, like the badger bristles on a tramp’s old chin. Then it began to rain. It was a Homeric east-winderly rain, as repeatedly described by the Southcotes.

He appears to be both vain and deeply self-loathing. This may be grounded in an unfulfilled homosexuality: one biographer described him as “a homosexual and a sadomasochist”, though his friend David Higham said: "Tim was no homosexual, though I think at one time he had feared he was...and in his ethos fear would have been the word." White is terrified of people and relationships and humiliation, but not of death. This becomes apparent in the flying section of the book and in an extraordinary ending in which he suffers a serious car crash. Warner said, "Notably free from fearing God, he was basically afraid of the human race.” In other diaries (England Have My Bones contains nothing so direct) White himself made the Morrissey-ish statement: "it has been my hideous fate to be born with an infinite capacity for love and joy with no hope of using them."

The odd thing is that all this comes through in what are, essentially, laboriously detailed descriptions of his hobbies. The effect is somewhat akin to finding a profound and melancholy meditation on the human condition in an airfix instruction booklet.

Monday, December 14, 2009


I’m finding it increasingly difficult to summon up the traditional Christmassy levels of cynicism and misanthropy. Instead I find myself looking forward to it all. New fatherhood is the only reasonable explanation. On Saturday morning we erected the tree (plastic, green, Wilko’s 2008 vintage) and I coated it in lights and tinsel and the other tat. I am profoundly opposed to ‘tasteful’ Christmas tree decoration. A tree should look like the Dame in a Dalek pantomime, or else don’t bother.

In the afternoon we dropped in with Brit Jnr on what can only be described as a Christmas soiree, mulled wine and canapé job, full of thirtysomething lawyers: women in wool and Ugg boots, men in stubble and jumpers, mostly childless but getting serious about thinking about getting serious about it. Brit Jnr, four months old now, was a huge hit – she always is a hit because she’s cute and lively and gives everyone a big grin when she’s passed around, allowing you to say “Ooh she likes you”, which is the most cockle-warming thing it is possible to hear in this cold universe.

From the soiree we popped into town so I could have a Weissbier and a Bratwurst in the Kraut Christmas market, which includes a temporary Booze-haus. The Bavarians have an impressive way of making plain wood and bare lightbulbs appear cosy, and Weissbier and Bratwurst is one of the great international culinary combinations, like crispy duck and plum sauce or lager and kebabs. They were real Germans, over for the season, including one unmistakeable glassy-eyed, razor-cheekboned Aryan Herr of the kind that we Britons still find a mite unsettling. This, I suppose, is what the BNP’s ‘indigenous’ people should look like, whereas in fact our white supremacists look like Nick Griffin, ie. three parts Norman, one part Welsh dwarf, six parts bullfrog.

At the bar two long-haired English biker types in middle age were standing, pleased as punch, downing Pilsner and singing along to the 80s rock so beloved of Germans and middle-aged bikers. They were playing air guitar to ZZ Top as we left. I was pleased for them, they looked like they’d found a spiritual home. Shame it was temporary but perhaps it will be back next year.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Two noteworthy advertising boards

Yesterday I spotted two noteworthy advertising boards, of the small freestanding kind that people put on the pavement outside their shops during opening hours, to tempt pedestrians inside. I think they might be referred to as “A-boards” in the boardmaking industry. Not that I have any great insider knowledge about advertising signage and boardcraft, though I have commissioned a display stand or two in my time including a rolling screen affair and a large colourful construction that was even more difficult to erect than a tent, and I’ve had a few fights with tents in my time, though the tent-construction element is amongst the least of my objections to camping, which are many and varied. Anyway, this is all very interesting but beside the point of this post, which was to report on these two noteworthy advertising boards.

The first board was outside the Wetherspoons pub in Kingswood. It advertised the fact that this weekend the pub would be showing the live X-Factor final on a big screen. Whether a communal X-Factor screening is a step down or up or merely across from communal football screening, I leave for you to decide.

The second and much more enjoyable board I spotted while driving through Whitehall, one of the least salubrious areas of Bristol. It was outside one of those eccentric higgledy-piggledy used-furniture/junk shops that you find in tatty urban areas yet unpenetrated by the chain stores. The sign was worn and handpainted. TEA CHESTS – SOLD HERE! it proclaimed boldly, proudly, urgently.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Learning the animals

Has it ever struck you as odd that the animals and their various noises are such a high priority when it comes to educating our young?

That the cow goes moo, the lion rooooar and the sheep baaa are invariably amongst the first things our children learn. And yet in day to day life most of us have almost no contact with animals other than as pets or food, or as pet-food.

On the other hand, I suppose that impressing upon one’s infant the news that the mortgage statement goes rustle rustle and the chip-and-pin machine beep-beep would lack a certain joi de vivre.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Deniers 2

I'll be busy today but, and this is of vital international importance, I have clarified my objections to "deniers" here.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

The Windy City

On 7 November 2000 I blew in to the Windy City. The Windy City is mighty pretty, reputedly, but I didn’t see much of it except for hotel conference rooms and office suites. This was a glimpse of the life of the globetrotting businessman who has visited every great city on the planet to feast his eyes upon Hiltons and airport lounges …We joined the navy to see the world. And what did we see? We saw the sea…

I had been sent to Chicago by Mark, the second of my objectionable employers, to steal ideas from the Yanks which we could then translate to the British market. Mark had largely built his fortune through this method. I was semi-accompanied by three accountants, one of whom was marginally less humourless than the other two - a fact I attempted but mostly failed to exploit to help pass the time when our flight was delayed by four hours at Heathrow. The most humourless was a woman in her late thirties. She’ll be almost a decade older now and I’ll bet it shows.

With typical unpredictability, Mark had booked us onto the cheapest possible flight (Air India: choice of curries, William Morris-style décor, interminable Bollywood movies) but into one of the most expensive possible hotels: the towering Swissotel Chicago, located downtown by the confluence of Lake Michigan and the Chicago River on the magnificently-named East Wacker Drive.

It was dusk when we arrived. 7 November 2000 was the day George W Bush won his first Presidential election and some faction or other of Illinois-based Republicans was having a party at the Swissotel. The lobby was full of their joshings and jabberings. We fought our way through to the check-in desk where I discovered that Mark had failed to pay for my room. There must be some mistake, I said. The girl smiled blandly and confirmed that there was no mistake. I gave her my lowly HSBC credit card, more in hope than expectation. I was twenty-three years old: I didn’t have enough credit for one night at the Swissotel Chicago, never mind three. The girl apprised me of this fact, blandly. I said nothing. Behind, the least humourless of the semi-accompanying accountants semi-smiled and produced his AmEx to rescue me.

Up on the 38th floor, it’s still the most unnecessarily luxurious hotel room I’ve ever stayed in: two obese American-sized beds, a bathroom bigger than the Bristol flat I shared with my girlfriend, and the whole of one wall a picture window. Even while reeling from the Bollywood flight and the check-in humiliation, I could appreciate it. That mix of rage, confusion, gratitude and resentment was a familiar state of mind throughout the eight or so years I worked for Mark.

Outside were the lights of Chicago’s blocky beauty. Mighty pretty, the Windy City - what I could make of it. Chi-town, the Second City, Sears Tower, the Wrigley Building, the Loop, the Board of Trade Building. Al Capone’s city. Obama’s city, though I didn’t know it at the time. Muggsy Spanier’s city. I didn’t know that either, though the human world is smaller and much more interconnected than is generally realised.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Poetry is rubbish 2: Impeach Duffy

Is it possible to impeach a Poet Laureate? Read Carol Ann Duffy’s 12 Days of Christmas effort and weep. This is probably the worst verse of a pretty shocking bunch:

bankers' profits fired in greed.

The second ring outshone the sun,
fuelled by carbon, doused by none.

Ring three was black gold, O for oil –
a serpent swallowing its tail.

The fourth ring was Celebrity;
Fool's Gold, winking on TV.

Ring five, religion's halo, slipped –
a blind for eyes or gag for lips.

Capitalism, oil, warmenism, s’lebs and some anti-religionism. Elsewhere there’s a lot of the old soldier-as-victim routine.

This is ‘poetry’ as a set of banal soundbites from the student section of the Question Time audience. It’s poetry about ishoos.

The Laureate’s job is to write about Britain. Britain is not made of issues, it is made of people and places and things and time. If you can’t find something worthwhile or memorable to write about in there, then don’t take the post. Anyone could write this kind of ishoos crap from outside the Laureateship. And they do, mostly as GCSE coursework.

Duffy is abusing the post. The Impeachment campaign starts here.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Noughties, craftivism

The Arnolfini art gallery emails me with details of an exciting new movement:

Craftivism is a participative exhibition responding to the resurgent interest in craft as it relates to socially-engaged art practice. It involves 14 projects developed by artists and collectives that work with craft-based traditions and activist practices, and who employ the tactics of 'craftivism' (combining crafting & activism) to question the prevailing codes of mass consumerism.

Thus making a wooden spoon becomes not just an act of making a wooden spoon, but a small, wooden spoon-shaped blow against the prevailing codes of mass consumerism. Uh oh, this is the Kingsnorthian interpretation of Ed, Will and Ginger. I don’t rate its chances. But that’s 2009 for you. Good grief we’re at the end of the decade already. The noughties started with a terrorist atrocity and ended with a credit crunch, neither of which has yet brought down America or capitalism. As Presuming Ed has so consistently pointed out, they have failed to paint it black. Some people can’t let it go; Jane Elliott was still hammering away at her forty-year-old idea while a black man was in the White House. More importantly, the noughties were when I got married and became a daddy. You’ve got to know your place. I thought the way Paul Kingsnorth handled the ribbing he got here was wise, good-humoured and, in an important way, very English. In fact, I told him this off-blog and we’re pals now. This is as it should be.

Two-thousand-and-nine was a sci-fi number when I was my daughter’s age. Strange to think it’ll all be in the past very soon, quaint and naive, a more innocent age. Remember the fuss about the wardrobe malfunction? And about the lascivious dancing on Ulysses S Grant’s grave? But what a great tune by which to dance lasciviously on a grave, eh?

So, a few weeks and then here comes another decade. Uh oh, uh oh, uh uh uh oh...

For Malty

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Aftershave 2: Time to musk up

Apparently, the other one in the cabinet is 'Pour Homme' by Givenchy, which is French for 'For Men' by Givenchy.

However, what I really need is to get me some Sex Panther by Odion...

For Muggsy

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Book Review: "Sweeper!" by Steve Bruce

Following a personal recommendation by The Old Batsman, I sought out a copy of Sweeper!, a slim, self-published thriller by the ex-Manchester United footballer and current manager of Sunderland, Steve Bruce.

Penned during the 1999/2000 season, while Steve Bruce was manager of Huddersfield Town FC, the protagonist of Sweeper! is one Steve Barnes, manager of the fictional Leddersfield Town FC.

From that information alone you will, I’m sure, already have an inkling about this novel. And you’d be right: it is one of the great postmodern, deconstructionist works in the British literary canon.

From the very first page, Bruce/Barnes questions the reader’s preconceptions about identity, as club owner “Sir Lawrence Brook” becomes “Sir Laurence Brook” within the space of two sentences. Snide thoughts that this might be a typo due to the lack of a proofreader/editor are quickly dismissed, as the sheer quantity of fundamental spelling inconsistencies can leave the reader in no doubt that they are perfectly deliberate. Not least, Leddersfield Town itself regularly transmogrifies into Leddersford Town. And back again.

Indeed, look carefully and you’ll see that Bruce’s challenging explorations of identity are prefigured by the specially-commissioned cover art, in which we see the real Bruce standing alongside his assistant John Deehan, onto whose image a (deliberately) crude moustache and hairstyle have been photoshopped. Thus, while Bruce/Barnes remains ‘real’, Deehan has been ‘fictionalised’ (in the book he is known as ‘Jock Durham’. Mostly.). But what is ‘real’? Again and again, Bruce/Barnes forces us to confront this question; and again and again, he denies us a clearcut answer.

Bruce’s control of plot and pacing is a masterful high wire act as he treads a delicate line between the direct and the elusive. Delivered in brutally minimalist, matter-of-fact prose (His office was comfortable. There was a computer on the desk.) which also serves as a witty pastiche of the Dan Brown school of writing, the story of a football manager caught up in the affairs of Israeli Nazi-hunters and fanatical kidnappers ought to be easy to follow, yet somehow Bruce contrives to baffle and confuse. By the plot’s ‘conclusion’ the reader will be none the wiser as to the motives of any of the main characters, nor indeed what any of them actually did, nor who they were, nor the significance of any of it to the subplot about Bruce trying a five-three-two sweeper formation for the match against ‘Burnwick’.

As one of the country’s most accomplished defenders in the early 1990s, Steve Bruce was expert at breaking up opposition attacks. He transfers these skills brilliantly to the page, wrongfooting the complacent reader at every turn. We are never allowed to settle as Bruce/Barnes frequently halts the narrative flow with lengthy asides about the technical specifications of his Jaguar motorcar, or some football grounds he has known, or his wife’s predilection for shopping. My favourite example, as we wait eagerly for Bruce to embark on a dangerous mission, is this pensée about breakfast:

I prepared and ate breakfast. My mother always impressed on me as a lad the importance of a good breakfast. I don’t go the full Monty: I can manage without a pork chop and black pudding. But I like cereals, followed by bacon and eggs. And toast with marmalade. All washed down with tea. That’s the kind of breakfast a man such as me needs.

Bathetic statements of the mundane, stark in their beauty, are sprinkled through the text like precious jewels woven into a tapestry: Then my mobile telephone rang. I did not curse the interruption. A mobile phone is a necessary instrument of modern business. And better still: It is a building more than one hundred years old. Built in the Italian style, someone told me. I wouldn’t have known. Architecture, like much else, is a closed book to me.

I cannot have been the only reader or reviewer to have found that phrase 'like much else' profoundly moving.

But these apparent non-sequiturs are of course the whole point: the ghastly, nauseous reality of the ‘ordinary’ – Bruce has been reading his existentialists! Sartre, Kafka, Joyce, Henry Miller: these are Bruce’s literary heroes and mentors. Yet by absorbing the approach of the modernist and postmodernist writers and taking it into new, common-man territory – that of Nationwide First Division football management circa 1999 – Bruce/Barnes democratises these challenging ideas like no other professional sportsman-turned-self-published novelist based in the north east of England of the last thirty years. The following extract, in which Bruce/Barnes faces the prospect of being shot, succinctly encapsulates the ethos:

The gun was level with my belly. So this was what it was like to die. There was no doubt I was going to die. And not even in Newcastle. Not even Premier League. In Halifax, of all places, with a club in the third division.

Thus Sweeper! confronts the reader with as chilling a meditation on mortality as you’ll find. Think of England rating: Five thumbs up!

For PZ Myers, the Yard et al

Tuesday, December 01, 2009


The other day I noticed that I have three bottles of aftershave in the bathroom cabinet, the youngest of which is at least four years old and the oldest at least ten. They are Tommy, Gucci Envy and I can’t remember the other one. They were all presents, obviously, and all are still at least seven tenths full*. I expect they are pretty much pure, unscented alcohol by now.

It occurs to me that I only use the stuff at black tie dinners and whatnot around the Christmas period, if I happen to remember.

So, does anyone understand aftershave?


*Reminds me of a time I asked a chap how far through a book he’d got. “Oh, five eighths,” he said immediately. I expressed surprise at such a mathematically-specific estimation. “Well I’ve read more than a half but less than two thirds,” he said, as if it was a completely normal sort of thing to say.

For David C