Wearing tweed, obviously

We went for a walk in some bluebell woods over the weekend while visiting burge's aunt Jane. Gorgeous, of course, and other-wordly and fragrant and all the things that bluebell woods are.

This one is full of badgers.

There are large holes all over the place, under the trunks of trees and tunnelling into banks. The expanse of bluebells is broken by meandering paths that the badgers make as they bimble around. There are clearly lots of setts, and some of them must interconnect. It's a subterranean badger community. A badger village. Probably called Brockholes. At least, in my head it is.

'So,' I asked Jane, 'do you see the badgers around, then?'

'Not all that often,' she said, 'but one of my neighbours puts food out for them, so they come and go in her garden quite regularly.'

'Really?' I said. 'What does she put out for them?'

'Well,' Jane replied, 'they're very partial to a jam sandwich.'

Of course they are. Back in my head, they are sitting around a small table, eating jam sandwiches off china plates (probably serving themselves from a cakestand) and drinking strong tea from mugs. The grown-up badgers probably like damson jam the best, but the cubs always go for the strawberry.

I blame Rupert the Bear for this.

(I've just remembered that alasdair habitually uses 'badgers and jam' as a tag for links about amusing irrelevancies...)

Tube time again


He looks at me through the crystal ball and raises an eyebrow. To me, it descends and distends, refracted through the smooth sphere of glass.

There’s nothing remarkable about him. He’s tall, but not towering; his black T-shirt is stretched over his belly but you wouldn’t call him obese. His hair is past his collar but it doesn’t flow or cascade. His jeans are crumpled, but so are mine. I wouldn’t give him a second glance, except his arm is raised to shoulder height, bent forearm in front of his face, parallel with the floor; and in the crook of his elbow, perfectly still, is the crystal ball.

His face is calm, but not blank, looking straight ahead of him, watching the walls of the tunnels slip past. Look closely, and his knees are very slightly bent, allowing him to absorb the swaying jolts of the train as it descends down to Bethnal Green. The carriage is fairly busy — there are no spare seats — but there’s enough space for him to hold his position, a large black rucksack at his feet, and the crystal ball motionless on his arm.

One by one, his fellow passengers notice him and start looking at the ball, seeing themselves reflected and distorted in its surface. He acknowledges each glance with a tilt of the head, a widening of the eyes, a twitch of the cheek. A quirk of the eyebrow. But he never holds anyone’s gaze; never focuses his attention. Not even on the sphere. He just keeps it in his peripheral vision, perfectly still.

His hand flexes slightly, the muscles tensing and relaxing imperceptibly, and I realise that in fact he’s in constant motion, though too slight to see. It’s like the law of gravity has been revoked, just in one spot and for one object. He isn’t supporting the ball, it’s just hanging in mid-air, static and impossible, and he’s keeping station underneath it so we don’t notice; a scruffy acolyte of the Cult of Newton, maintaining the vital illusion that we’re all drawn downwards towards the core of the planet even when we’re below its surface. If he drops his arm, the air will yawn below the crystal ball and the spell will be broken: we’ll rise from our seats like astronauts, our legs in a loose crouch, our scarves and books and papers and MP3 players floating like weeds in a slow current.

In a smooth motion, he draws his arm across his face, and the ball, keeping position, rotates, traversing the rumpled fabric of his jacket sleeve. When it reaches his wrist, he flips his hand impossibly beneath it, and it somersaults, never losing contact with his skin, over his knuckles and the ends of his fingers until his palm is upwards, the ball resting in it. He moves his hand in a flat circle — or does the ball spin and move his hand? — and it orbits his palm, rolling across ball of thumb, heel of hand, outer edge and the pads at the base of his fingers. Then he flips his hand again and the ball returns to his elbow.

The carriage fills and gradually blocks the juggler from view; the crystal ball is the last thing to disappear, a wink of light or reflection of shiny metal marking its disappearance. When the crowd clears, after a few stops, man and globe have gone.

I let my hand fall into my lap. Just to check.

Back on the Tube again

Blimey, haven't done one of these for a while.

The man has a pregnant belly between his legs.

The resemblance is remarkable. The case is pear-shaped and swollen, reaching knee-high from the floor, with the curvature narrowing into a short neck that rises vertically then kicks back violently over the gentle bulge. Its surface shines softly, black and textured, with sharp shine of chrome hinges and catches standing out oddly against the man’s scruffy-smart clothing. An archaic form cradled within a modern carapace: a lute in a hard case.

The modern Bard sits comfortably, knees clasped tight around his medieval companion. He brushes some dust off the neck, flicks some debris from the steel binding of the lid. He’s young in an ageless way; soft eyes behind black-rimmed round glasses, short curly hair and a scrubby beard; clothes in muted colours and well-worn fabrics. Not the crusty hippy-patches and patchouli of a revivalist; not the studied academic look of the ancient-musicologist. He looks relaxed and unselfconscious. As easy, yet careful, with the lute as any commuter with a laptop bag.

An instrument full of melody and harmony, to make you dance, or laugh, or cry, long ago; he heads under the West End, his head full of the middle ages, inside a steel-and-glass tube, among the spangles and flashes of the fibre optics of the 21st century.

I write like...

According to this memey thing that everyone's doing, my cover features read like Margaret Attwood; my interviews tend to read like Dan Brown (oh, dear); my leader columns read like Kurt Vonnegut; and my blog pieces read like Vladimir Nabokov.

Yeah, right.

Photo weekend

Went on one of the London Meetup photo courses over the weekend, at the Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park. It's managed woodland and pasture now, with most of the gravestones gently crumbling away. Very atmospheric.

Twin angels

Headless hug
Kept taking photos on Sunday at the Festival Hall, to visit the Air Penguins and Air Jelly.

Air jelly



This weekend consisted of a 40th birthday party with a difference: a bunch of us went camping in Epping Forest. It was an intense experience.

You can stop groaning now.

The birthday boy is a mountain bike nut, and the forest is his regular riding ground. It took us about 20min to drive to the campsite, and for the benefit of those who don't know London, I live right slap in the middle of the suburbs. Because it's so close to the city, people tend to think that Epping's a bit fake; a tame forest.

Well, there aren't any bears or wolves or anything. But Epping's as real as it gets. Ancient woodland, a true relic of the Great Forest that covered the country before the Romans came visiting. Oak, beech and chestnut; bracken and fungi; birds and badgers. Yes, there are footpaths and bridleways, and it's managed woodland; but there's no plan, no plantation. Just lots of squirrels and people from Essex. Sorry about that.

The campsite is on the edge of the forest, and we were in a field where campfires are allowed, which led to some interesting evening chats. One of the party, an old friend of the birthday boy, we'll call Chester; a man who knows his outdoors. A twinkly-eyed fortysomething, Chester is the type who's always in a fleece and hiking trousers and looks perfectly at ease with that. He's seen the world, he's worked on farms in South America, and he knows the ins and outs of the public sector in the UK. And he has a bone to pick, it turns out, with Quakers.

'I really admire Quakers; they're dead sound, politically. Done a lot of good,' he said, having arranged the campfire for cooking and turned out a delicious cauldron of basque chicken. 'But I went to a Quaker wedding, and it was dull as fuck. Honestly! They do this extemporising thing, where they don't have any ministers or leaders, and nobody says anything until someone is moved to stand up. And then they just mumble on about something completely unrelated and it just peters out! I don't want to hear some platitude about Jesus, I want to hear about the couple who are getting married! I was gnawing my arms off!'

It got us thinking about minimalism, oddly. How the point of it is that it includes only what's necessary, but what's necessary is done really well. 'I can see the point of minimalism, and purity and all that sort of thing,' Chester said, 'but you have to get the bits that are there right.'

And so often, it isn't. Bad materials, shoddy workmanship, not the faultless craftsmanship that the philosophy demands. It's an excuse to cut corners, not to pare back to the essentials. Minimalist architecture should have a calming gleam. Minimalist literature should weigh the precise impact of every word and piece of punctuation (read Alan Garner's haunting and haunted Strandloper to see it done perfectly). Minimalist religion should go straight to the heart (and according to Chester, it doesn't). Minimalist music should have nothing out of place; every note, every word should contribute to mood and meaning.

And that brings me the Royal Festival Hall (minimalist architecture at its best, incidentally) and — naturally — to Seasick Steve.

Steve Wold doesn't look minimalist. He doesn't wear a plain black or white suit. He doesn't have metal-framed glasses. He's a scruffbag not far off 70, in a pair of jeans, a sleeveless yellow teeshirt whose faded logo once probably advertised a beer, a green baseball cap, blurry greenish tattoos up and down his arms, and a jutting grey beard. He plays sitting down; when he walks, it's with a bowlegged lope, slightly stooped. His guitars, battered and held together with tape and spit, are slung around his neck with string. Most of them have strings missing. One is a bit of two-by-four with a single string and a homemade pickup made from a can of corn.

Is it a pose? Partly. Seasick Steve probably isn't short of cash, these days; even though, in his mellow, hoarse Tennessee croak, he tells us that he still can't believe that people actually turn up to see him play. 'I left home before I was 14,' he tells us, in the middle of Doghouse Blues, reciting his story as he has over and over for the past five years or so. 'And there followed years of bummin' around, sometimes gettin' arrested, sometimes goin' to jail. And I don't have no schoolin', but I could always turn to a guitar, throw a hat on the ground for some spare change. And I'm gettin' that spare change now! Heh, only took 50 years.'

You get the feeling it's real with Seasick Steve. He's not like John Lee Hooker, a man who appreciated fine tailoring and was always immaculate, but would put on overalls and a workshirt to play in the UK because it's what the middle-class blues audience expected. Steve's not been on the road for many years. He's worked with big music names, as a studio engineer and a producer; he lives in Norway with his wife. But at heart, you feel, the romantic old hobo life, which frequently wasn't romantic at all, is still the biggest part of him. You can't imagine him with the beard neatly shaved and a white shirt and trousers. It'd be like Chester out of the fleece.

And then there's the music, and that's minimalism. Not the plinky-plonky minimalism of classicists like Reich and Nyman. Not the keening, pure machine minimalism of Kraftwerk and their descendents. Just a man and a guitar and an equally hairy drummer called Dan, stringing out the twelve-bar riffs, over and over, just like they did at the jukejoints back in the 30s. There's the Smokestack Lightning riff, chiming and chuntering like when Howling Wolf played it. There's a cascade of notes and chords straight out of glamrock; a chugging line from Marc Bolan, a flourish and a stomp from The Sweet. There's a quiet walking blues, sung to a woman from the audience whose boyfriend Steve had met that day in Soho and invited along. 'My name's Steve and I'm a staying man...'

You could probably write a thesis about the blues scale and how it links straight into our emotions. Is it something we've learned from hearing it repeated, over and over again, in different forms, in the music we grew up with? Or is it deeper than that? Does it link with something atavistic, deep in our hindbrain? But whatever it is, it's up there, pared back to perfection; an old man who doesn't seem old, loping and skipping up the aisle with a battered guitar, grinning at the willowy blonde dancing at the back from under the peak of his green baseball cap.

(The camping trip, by the way, has ended up with us buying a new tent that we can stand up in. And a barbeque.)

Attention, humans

My mate Gavin, who lives in Ethiopia, ran his first half-marathon on Saturday. Because he lives in Ethiopia, I don't know how he did, but I'm sure he got on well. Anyway, the charity he ran for, Kembatti Mentti Gezzima-tope (KMG - stands for Women of Kembatta Working Together), is a damn good one. They're a partner of the UK-based organisation WOMANKIND Worldwide. Gav explains:

"KMG is a non-profit, non-government organisation
(what used to be called a charity) who help girls in Sounthern
Ethiopia get a good education and therefore rise out of the Catch-22
of servitude and physical abuse. In particular, they can gain the
means to speak out against harmful traditional practices such as FGM
(genital mutilation, which is every bit as bad as its name suggests).
If you would like to know more about FGM, there is information on the
World Health Organization (WHO) website here.

So, your money directly boosts education for girls and helps them to
eradicate mutilation and its attendant health problems."

Gavin's over his target for fundraising already, but a target is just a target and this organisation needs more money. This is a hugely important feminist and human rights cause — two things which I know concern lots of people who read this blog. So, if you can, go to Gav's Just Giving page and load 'em up with more cash.

Ocelot of trouble

I had a day out of the office today; a relatively rare thing, as we're still short-staffed. But we got an invite from a group of defence companies to go to Millbrook Proving Ground to see a new armoured car, and these things are too good to pass up. How often do you get to drive an armoured car?

Millbrook's in Bedfordshire, not far from Woburn. It's one of the places car and truck makers go if they want to prove their cars can do what they say they will - so it's got a banked track where you can test out maximum speeds, it's got a network of roads through rolling countryside and woodlands where you can simulate different sorts of driving (they do a lot of movie stunt work there - the sequence in Casino Royale where Bond rolls his Aston Martin end-over-end was filmed there).

They also have what they call a severe off-road circuit. This is seriously rough stuff - huge gravelly hills, sections with big rocks, potholes, simulated mortar holes, roads that twist the chassis of the car. That's what they use to test military vehicles, usually. Tanks get stuck there.

Anyway, this is a big defence sector event, and all the military magazines are there. All the execs from the companies involved are there. It feels like virtually everyone is ex-military or possibly wannabe military. Lots of floppy or cropped hair. Lots of jargon being thrown around. If it hasn't got a three-letter acronym, invent one quick. Sample overheard conversation: 'So I was going to join the polo club in this village, and it was run by this retired brigadier. And I was a bit late for my first session, and this chap said to me "You're being a bit of a nuisance." And I wasn't having that. I mean, this isn't the old Army, where you could be rude to anyone who ranks below you.'

First off, we got driven around the offroad course in this new armoured car, which is called an Ocelot. Great big thing, high off the ground, enormous wheels with loads of clearance between them and the chassis. You can mount a turret on the top. It's shaped so that if a mine goes off underneath it, the blast goes sideways and nobody dies. It looks like this:

Inside, there are two seats up front facing forwards and four in the back, in pairs along the sides facing inwards. When you're sitting in those, you can't see out, so being driven over all this rough stuff was rather like being strapped inside a big, hot cocktail shaker. When you go over particularly bumpy bits you bash your head on the padded handles either side of the headrest. I felt slightly ill.

After lunch, we get a chance to drive the Ocelot. I had the second go, and sitting in the back of the vehicle was a senior execs of one of the companies who developed it. Retired Colonel, bloody nice chap. Wearing civvies but you can tell that he's never stopped wearing the uniform in his head. Strapped myself into the four-point harness, looked at the controls - automatic, handbrake on the side, lots of buttons. Instructor next to me gives me a few pointers - there's a turbo lag, so you won't accelerate as soon as you put your foot on the gas; there are the buttons that turn off the differentials so you're driving all the wheels, and so on.

And off we go. I've never driven off-road before; it's fun, but it's not easy. The rock run — 20 yards of big rocks set into a slight downward slope — jerks the steering wheel all over the place. There are huge concrete ditches set at angles across the road, so you have to lower each wheel in turn into them. You roar up hills and creep down them. The bit where you go through the big ditch full of mud is particularly tricky, because there are deep wheel ruts under the mud which send the wheels the wrong way, and you have to try to accelerate over them with the mud clawing at your tyres.

And all the while I'm being given instructions and rally-style directions. 'Get to the bottom of the hill, gas on, now floor it! Don't lift off don't lift off don't lift off and cover the brake! Brake! Bottom of the hill and left, left, left, move the steering wheel faster, left and right! Rightrightright!'

Fifteen minutes' drive and we get to the end of the course, and I'm hot and sweaty but feeling pretty chuffed with myself - got all the way around, didn't get stuck in any mud, and there were no yells of pain from the back.

And that's when I noticed the smoke coming out of the dashboard.

'Is that smoke there?' I asked, as calmly as I could.
'Oh, probably not,' the instructor said.
Then he looked down.
'Everyone out of the vehicle, please. Quickly as you can.'

There were huge clouds of smoke coming out of the vents in the bonnet.

'What did you do?' asked the ex-colonel chappy.
'I think I broke your armoured car,' I said.
He raised an eyebrow.
'Ooops,' he replied.

One of the other journos, an urbane chap who also writes for the Jaguar Owners' Club, sniffed the air.
'Smells like electrics, doesn't it? I hope it's electrics. If it's electrics, it's probably not your fault.'

The instructor and another ex-mil type were trying to get the bonnet open. They appeared to be having problems.

'It's definitely on fire under there!'

Big blast from a fire extinguisher, just as the on-site fire service turn up, sirens blaring, and leap out to unroll hoses.

'That's a little unnecessary, don't you think?' said the urbane journo to the ex-colonel.
'Leave them alone, they're enjoying themselves,' he said.

Another Ocelot turned up to give us a lift back.

'What did I do?' I asked the instructor, as he walked past me to talk to the other driver.
'Nothing; electrical fault,' he said.

I would like to emphasise that HE SAID IT WASN'T MY FAULT.

Back at the reception, I grabbed a drink and listened to a conversation over walkie-talkies concerning the whereabouts of the sodding recovery truck, as various people consoled me with reminiscences about the time they blew up the gearbox of an APC.

'It's certainly a worry and we'll report it in our faults dossier, but really, don't worry,' the ex-colonel told me. 'We'll find out what it was.'
'What happens if it was my fault?' I asked.
'We'll put the bill in the post, old chap. And we probably won't invite you back.'

Proper cup of coffee

Mainly for cairmen, but other coffee fiends might be interested...

Some time ago, while gazing around a little shop in Spitalfields, I spotted an unusual and very shiny device. It looked like the offspring of a lever-arm corkscrew and a citrus press, it had lovely curves, and as I might have mentioned, it was shiny.

"What's that thing up there?" I asked the assistant.
"It's a manual espresso press. It's called a Presso. Shiny, isn't it?' he said.

The idea is that it's an unpowered coffee maker, so it doesn't heat the water up for you. Most espresso makers generate pressurised steam to force the water through the coffee, but if the water is too hot, you extract lots of bitter-tasting compounds as well as the coffee flavour that you want. The Presso uses water from the kettle, so it goes in at 100° and cools as you use it, so the coffee brews at about 90°C, which is supposed to be the ideal temperature. Also, it uses much less energy than an electric espresso maker, and it doesn't get limescaled.

Unfortunately, the shop stopped stocking them soon after, but burge was fab enough to hunt one down and buy it for my birthday.

And it's still shiny.

See? Shiny

But how does it make coffee? I hear you ask.

It's pretty easy, and pleasantly ritualistic. First, you warm up the filter cup with hot water, then you dry it with some kitchen paper and put the coffee grounds in. You tamp them down with the back of the scoop (there's a knack to this that I haven't got yet), then you put the filter into the machine - it slots in and twists to lock, just like any other espresso maker.
You pour freshly-boiled water from the kettle into the cup on top, and raise the arms. You leave them there for 15-20 sec (I'm still experimenting with the time) for the grounds to infuse. Then, having remembered to put a cup underneath, you press the arms down slowly and hold them at the bottom until the coffee has emerged. Raise and lower the arms again, and Roberto is your Italian uncle. Knock back your coffee, wait until your eyeballs stop vibrating, then chuck the grounds away and wash out the filter.

And what you get is a cup of strong but very smooth espresso. It does cool down a bit during the process, so it's a good idea to start with a warm cup and make sure the filter is well-warmed. I've also not managed to make an expresso with any crema yet — the manual says that you can overfill the cup to increase the pressure when you squeeze the water through, moving the cup away as soon as your espresso dose comes out. But it does have the strength and velvety texture of good espresso, and even with the dark roast I'm using (organic Robusta from Kerala, courtesy of the wonderfully-named Baby Mathew) you don't get any harshness. A bit more practice to get the crema right and I'll be sorted.

It does make brilliant cappuccino and latte, though. You get a frother with the package — it's a clear, open ended tube with a plunger that pulls two perforated discs up and down, and you can make a dense froth in a cup of warm milk in 20sec or so. It makes a very creamy, but deceptively powerful drink. Andrea was buzzing for a good half-hour after a nice gentle latte yesterday.

(no subject)

I have returned! Of course, seeing as I've been so bad at updating this journal, most of you probably didn't know I'd been away. But I've been off in Kerala for two weeks, cycling.

Mostly cycling.

Also falling off a few times.

I don't recommend the falling off. Quite painful. And you should see the state of my left knee.

But Kerala is fab.

Long series of posts to follow, including elephant poo, invisible hornbills, enthusiastic locals and the oldest synagogue in the Commonwealth.