Faux Food and Cambridge

Last weekend I had a visitor from London come and stay with me in my humble serviced apartment in Cambridge, and we went for a wander into town. Parts of it were nice, mostly those parts you could only look at through heavy iron railings unless you were a student at the university. We wandered across a sheep field which some daft sod had put in the middle of the city, then down by the river where I watched people playing on boats that were in dire need of an outboard motor. If this was in Thailand they’d have mounted an old V8 truck engine on propeller shaft and they’d get where they were going quicker than the current arrangement which requires a long pole and a hipster telling lies about what they’re sailing past.

Cambridge is probably nice in the summer but it didn’t do a whole lot for me. It seemed to do a lot for China though, as a third of its population was there taking photos. The good news is I’ve found a bluegrass jam session and bought a second-hand guitar so I could join in. I went along last night and had a great time. There were two or three professional fiddle players there, and I got them to play Soldier’s Joy, an old civil war tune which you can hear a superb rendition of between 6:14 and 8:49 here:

Our jam sessions in France often lacked a fiddle, and it’s not quit the same without one. It appears the banjo is the rare instrument in Cambridge bluegrass circles, whereas we had plenty of them in France. Good job I brought mine with me, then. All I need to now is learn to play it properly. Sadly, this group only meets once a month so I might have to look for another one.

The one thing I am really missing about France is the food. Boy, the food in Cambridge is bad, bordering on inedible. In the early afternoon on Saturday we got hungry so found a pub and asked them if they served food. They said they didn’t, but the barman recommended a place on the edge of the city centre where he said the food was excellent, especially the burger. We went there and ordered the burger. It was tasteless and came on a plate beside a huge, wrinkled lettuce leaf which looked as if it came off a rhubarb plant. Whoever was masquerading as a chef that day had put on top of it large dollops of thousand island dressing, coleslaw, and ratatouille all in a row. What effect he was going for, and what national cuisine he’d drawn his inspiration from, I have no idea. The chips, which were extra, had been fried in oil which should have been chucked out a month ago. The next day we tried another pub. I ordered a piece of chicken which the chef had tried to make taste of something by piling bacon and barbecue sauce on top of it until its thickness was doubled. My companion ordered a pie the size and shape of a half-brick and about as edible.

Now I know what everyone’s going to do. They’re going to list all the amazing places one can eat in the United Kingdom and how with a little effort involving a week of research and driving to Dundee, I can get a perfectly good meal provided I don’t mind booking in advance and paying through the nose. So let me say yes, I know you can get good food in Britain. The problem is you have to know where to go. You can’t just wander through any random city, spot a joint, and go in and expect something edible. But in France I did just that for 6 years, including in Paris. I’d just walk into the first place I stumbled across and 99 times out of 100 it would range from good to superb. I never looked up anywhere and ignored recommendations, and I frequently ate in the tourist spots in Annecy. It seems in Britain I’m going to have to maintain a list of recommended eating spots and avoid anywhere else. As soon as I’ve got my own flat sorted out – a plan which has hit a small hiccup – I’ll start cooking for myself again.

It’s not all culinary doom and gloom, though. We have a canteen at work which, while not of the same standard as that of an oil major in Paris, isn’t bad at all and is absolutely free. They even have puddings with custard. It’s like being back in school and I’m there every lunchtime.


A Test of One’s Character

Okay, it’s a Friday morning so rather than be a smart-arse about something in the news I’ll instead tell a story.

Back in 2001 or 2002 a friend taught me three chords on a guitar – sufficient for a full career in most genres – and I decided I wanted to learn. To that end I borrowed a classical guitar from my father, then later bought a cheapish Yamaha acoustic, on which I practiced chords. I realised the best way to maintain motivation was to learn one or two songs all the way through and sing along, so that it at least becomes fun. Within a few months I learned two songs – The Carter Family’s Wildwood Flower, and Charlie Feathers’ Man in Love – and played them to death. Gradually I added to what could loosely be called my repertoire, and in August 2003 I moved to Kuwait for the best part of a year where I had very little to do other than surf the internet, read books – and play the guitar. It was during this period I got the hang of the chord shapes, but never really learned to strum, and was mainly playing an approximation of a Carter Scratch style.

In June 2004 I moved to Dubai for 2 years, and for long periods my guitar would turn into an ornament, resting untouched in the corner of my living room. But there were still occasions when I’d practice, and I was still enjoying the odd session of playing and singing when I moved to Sakhalin in September 2006. I played a fair bit there, trying to improve, and learning a lot more songs. By now I was hooked on bluegrass, a genre I’d gotten into in Kuwait after falling in love with the soundtrack to the film Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? which spurned a revival in old-time and bluegrass music worldwide.

My position in Sakhalin was a bit of an awkward one: I was 29 years old and the General Manager of a company which had a thousand men on site an hour’s drive away, a few dozen of whom were grizzled expats, mostly Brits. To say they were not overly impressed with this inexperienced yet noisy young man swanning around in a comfy office in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, the regional capital, while they toiled away at useful work in the mud, snow, and ice on site went without saying. I made things worse by, on my first night, unintentionally blanking one of the site supervisors, a man by the name of Rick. Rick was a Londoner in his forties, a proper swaggering cockney who was powerfully built and had a tongue sharper than a surgeon’s scalpel. If there was a derogatory remark to be made, an opportunity to take the piss, or a joke to be cracked, Rick was on it in a flash. Rick came to the swift and early conclusion that I was a bellend, but fortunately I spent so little time on site in the first year it didn’t really matter.

However, at some point I started interacting more with the site team and, because I respected them and was prepared to listen and ask nicely for things, they were never openly hostile and within a short time actually quite liked me (although I don’t think they ever changed their opinion that I was an office-based loafer). Rick used to take the piss mercilessly, but having been at boarding school, served as an army cadet, hung around Royal Marines, worked on a Manchester building site, and grown up the youngest of four siblings this was like water off a duck’s back. In truth I found it amusing, and it’s better than being ignored.

Around Christmas 2007 some of the attractive young Sakhalin Energy employees decided they were going to recreate Calendar Girls by making a calendar of 12 of them semi-naked. The middle-aged working class blokes in my outfit decided they’d do the same thing, with echoes of The Full Monty. To this end they asked that I take the photos (they knew I had a decent camera) so we all met on a snowy hill overlooking the construction site. Each bloke stripped naked and struck a silly pose, covering their meat and two veg with some object or other. What it lacked in elegance and eroticism it more than made up for in terms of team-bonding, and the entire process was absolutely hilarious. When all 12 men had been photographed, one of them said: “Oy Tim, now it’s your turn. Get yer kit off and stand over there, we’ve all done it.” I’d get naked for fun on the Underground at rush-hour (did I mention I’d hung out with Royal Marines?) so I did what was asked and joined in the fun. I can’t remember who took the photo, but Rick thought it would be highly amusing to lock my clothes in his car. There I was, in minus twelve, bollock naked except for a hat, with my clothes locked in the car and Rick and the others rolling in the snow laughing. Unfortunately for Rick, he’d left his work gloves on the bonnet: lovely, new, fur-lined calfskin work gloves his wife had given him as a present. Seeking shelter for my important parts, I stuffed them into one of Ricks’s gloves and proceeded to strut around. This had two effects: it made everyone laugh even louder, and Rick to unlock the car door. I think he threw the gloves away.

Anyway, by the next summer I’d become pretty good friends with Rick, who was by then living in a company-built house on the edge of town. One Sunday afternoon I was round his place when I saw he had a guitar, so I picked it up and started playing whatever I knew. Rick had just started learning and was happy to find someone else who played, and suggested the next Saturday I bring my guitar around and we could jam together. He suggested he invite a couple of the Filipinos from site, who were wonderful musicians, order some pizzas, and make an evening of it. I liked the sound of this, so agreed. But the following Wednesday I got a call from Rick.

“Tim my old son, things are getting out of hand,” he said. “I’m having to turn people away.”

“Turn people away?” I said. “From what?”

“Timmy Unplugged, of course! Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten! So many people want to hear your concert I’m running out of space. I might have to start selling tickets!”

Rick had stitched me up like a kipper, and told the entire site team that I would be putting on a guitar show for them at his house. Now by this stage I knew a few songs, but the downside was they were as obscure as they come and nobody would know them. This might help mask a poor peformance, but nobody would be able to sing along and help me out. I’d be on my own. The other, much greater, problem was that I was absolute shite. Despite the amount I’d played I could not strum or pick very well, nor sing. I had no natural talent whatsoever and what meagre progress I’d made was a result of sheer bloody-mindedness. Believe me when I tell you I sounded absolutely awful, cringeingly-so, like something you’d see at a junior school talent contest where participation was obligatory. Now everyone on site knew this because Rick had told them, which is precisely why they wanted to come. This would be a chance to see someone make an utter fool of himself. Bear in mind all but three of these guys lived in huts on site in the middle of nowhere, so any opportunity to come into town, drink, and have fun was seized upon.

I thought about pulling out, but decided I couldn’t, something to do with pride and tackling a problem head-on. I turned up at Rick’s house on the Saturday evening to find it absolutely packed, basically the whole site team from supervisor upwards. All the expats from the office in town were there as well, basically everyone in the company who knew me. As I walked in an almighty roar went up, and everyone started slapping me on the back. I put my guitar in an upstairs bedroom and spent the next hour drinking in the kitchen and living room with everyone else. As time went by I hoped maybe everyone would forget about my playing and just enjoy the party, but before too long one of the supervisors said “C’mon Tim, time to get the show started, don’t you think?” Everyone within earshot roared their approval, and I trudged up the stairs to fetch my guitar. I sat on one of the beds, shaking with nerves, trying to remember what I would play and how. Within a minute a loud, synchronised thumping came from below, followed by chanting: “Timmy! Timmy! Timmy!” Then I heard Rick below out: “He’s getting into his stage clothes!” followed by a gale of laughter.

I grabbed my guitar and went downstairs, greeted by a deafening roar. Everyone was packed into the kitchen cheek by jowl, leaving a tiny space at the foot of the stairs in which sat a single, solitary, empty chair. I sat down, and the place fell absolutely silent. And I started to play.

And boy, it was awful. Charlie Feathers’ Man in Love, picked with shaking fingers, sung in a flat voice while looking at the guitar strings. But when I finished, everyone cheered so hard the roof threatened to come off. “More!” they cried. I did six songs in total, each with missed notes, buzzing strings, trembling voice, and forgotten lyrics. Nobody cared, they loved it. This was real entertainment! After each song they cheered, and after the final number someone thrust a drink into my hand, and the party continued as before. Throughout the night a steady stream of people came up to me individually and whispered words to the effect of:

“Well done Tim, I can’t believe you actually did that. You didn’t let Rick get the better of you, good on you. I couldn’t have done something like that, no way.”

I never did become a true part of the site team, but after that night they always made me feel welcome. Looking back, it was one of my proudest moments.


The Bigotry of Low Expectations

Via the comments at Tim Worstall’s I found this article which, if it had been written as a parody, would have made the author a genius:

I’m a young Indigenous man from the south coast of New South Wales.

While growing up, I was faced with a different kind of racism.

I have always been proud of being Aboriginal, but people have always told me that I’m not.

They would say that I’m too white and I have red hair — and that these features mean I can’t be Indigenous.

Adam Piggott did a good post back in July on the Australian Aboriginal industry which allows pasty folk with dubious claims to Aboriginal ancestry to access monies, privileges, and programmes intended to assist genuine Aboriginal communities out in the bush. US Senator Elizabeth Warren did much the same, claiming Cherokee ancestry in order to land an affirmative action place at Harvard Law School, so it’s not just an Australian thing. Is this kid in the article Aborigine? Well, if Linda Sarsour can call herself black I guess he can be anything he likes. He’s not easily dissuaded, anyway:

But luckily, I’m not very good at listening to people who tell me things that I don’t want to hear.

The options in front of this boy are wide indeed, ranging from politician to corporate manager to divorced woman. But this is the passage that really stood out:

So, straight away I think of a way to show my Aboriginal background either through art, didgeridoo playing, language, stories, culture, and Aboriginal songs and dances.

I’ve created artworks for my friends and family and I’ve taught other students how to circular breathe while playing a didgeridoo.

When I was in Melbourne some government body or other put on a display of “Aboriginal culture” in Federation Square and advertised it all over town. I guessed in advance that it would consist of a bunch of primitives sat around bashing drums while metropolitan white folk looked on as if they were visiting a zoo. Child-like art would be on display wrapped in copious quantities of mumbo-jumbo. I passed by one Saturday afternoon and sure enough, that’s exactly what it was. A more patronising exhibition I couldn’t imagine, and it must have been soul-destroying for any Aborigine who aspires to be something more than a museum piece for liberal whites. Any who did would find ginger palefaces have crowded them out and, to rub salt in the wound, are now boasting about how they’ve learned the didgeridoo and circular breathing. What is absolutely certain is the urban elites don’t want these Aborigines getting off their knees any time soon or – horror! – turning up to live next door. Which is why they keep reminding them that their place in Australian society is as little more than curios, and an excuse to keep the guilt-industry motoring along on taxpayer cash.

I mentioned drums earlier for a reason. One thing supposedly right-on palefaces like to do is marvel at dark people’s “sense of rhythm”. Nobody would be interested in an Aborigine – or an African – who’d learned the violin, clarinet, or piano (none of which require rhythm, of course); all they want to do is see them whack drums in an ethnically-authentic fashion while marvelling at their supposed natural talent. South Park covered this brilliantly here:

I had occasion to stumble into some anecdotal evidence on this topic. A friend and colleague is from Jamaica but her daughter – whose father is also Jamaican – grew up in Scotland. My friend can dance as all good Jamaicans can; alas, her daughter is absolutely hopeless and has no sense of rhythm whatsoever. It seems dancing in a Caribbean manner is dependent on growing up in the Caribbean rather than genes or skin-colour. Fortunately my friend, who holds a Masters in Engineering and a PhD in something similar, grew up in an environment where education, self-sufficiency, and genuine achievement were considered more important than “keeping it real” as defined by wealthy, privileged whites; she also believes her daughter’s education is more important than her lack of dancing ability.

Maybe one day Australia’s Aborigines will enjoy such an environment, too?


Cover Songs Done Live

One of the fun things about going to a rock concert, or watching one on TV or YouTube, is when the act on stage does a cover of a song that they’d never play in the studio. Back in May 2003 I saw Bruce Springsteen play with the E-Street Band on his Rising tour at the Old Trafford cricket ground, and it was brilliant. But I remember it most for his playing Seven Nights to Rock, a classic rockabilly song first recorded by Moon Mullican.

I think I was the only one in the entire crowd who knew this song, thanks to a pal of mine who got me into rockabilly at an early age including some rather obscure stuff.

It turns out Springsteen plays this song a lot. Here he is playing it in Paris in 2012:

So there we have Bruce Springsteen covering Moon Mullican. And today I found this video, which is Warren Zevon singing Poor Poor Pitiful Me live in New Jersey in 1982 before launching into a cover of Springsteen’s Cadillac Ranch. There are some wonderful moustaches and mullets on display.

I first heard Poor Poor Pitiful Me when I was in the Patagonia store in New York last September. I Shazamed it, and wondered how I’d never heard this song before. That’s the beauty of music and YouTube: there is always something new to discover.

For those who might be interested, Linda Ronstadt did a studio cover of Poor Poor Pitiful Me, which is arguably the more famous version.

I prefer Zevon’s, though.


Chap Hop

Via this piece in The Federalist, I came across this video of somebody taking the piss out of British DJ Tim Westwood via the medium of posh rapping, otherwise known as Chap Hop. I rather like it.

(For those who don’t know, Tim Westwood is the white, middle-class son of an Anglican Bishop who made a career for himself in the world of rap, hip-hop, and RnB partly by changing his accent.)


Chuck Berry

I must have been about ten or eleven when I first heard a Chuck Berry song. It was night time and I was supposed to be sleeping, but I was listening to a handheld radio belonging to my brother through an ancient earpiece that had been in the family since way before I was born. It might have been the John Peel show – I certainly listened to him in that manner around the same time – but I can’t be sure. The film Back to the Future had passed me by, thanks to living in a town without a proper cinema and a household without a television, so that night under the covers was the first time I heard Johnny B. Goode or indeed any other Chuck Berry song.

I loved it. I spent the next year or two trying to catch it again on the radio (that was basically what you had to do back then, unless you knew somebody who owned an album; music on demand was another two decades away). A few months later my sister somewhat pointlessly told me the song had just come on but she’d switched station and only after she changed back did she hear the DJ say what it was (she knew I was waiting to hear it again). Listening to music was a very different experience in those days.

At some point in the early ’90s my father went to Dubai for work, at a time when the Emirate was little more than a pirate haven and they’d not even bridged the creek yet. It was known as a place where you could buy knock-off albums on cassette, and my Dad came back with an armful including one calling itself “The Best of Chuck Berry”. I got hold of it in short order and listened to the whole lot in one go, and quickly found there were songs I liked much more than Johnny B. Goode. Two of my favourites were Sweet Little Sixteen, which the Beach Boys effectively copied to make Surfin’ USA; and Sweet Little Rock and Roller. The latter is still one of my favourite songs of all time, mainly because it brings about a feeling of unquenchable optimism. The cascading intro is simply superb.

I also loved Promised Land, a song about a young man making his way coast-to-coast across the USA and overcoming various obstacles while remaining happy and optimistic (there’s that word again), set to the same rhythm (as I found out later) as The Wabash Cannonball. When I first met my now long-term friend from South Carolina in the summer of 2000 as I was idly driving through his neighbourhood, I told he and his friends that I had heard of nearby Rock Hill because it is mentioned in a Chuck Berry song. None of them knew what I was talking about, and they laughed. Elvis Presley covered Promised Land while, ironically, Berry was sat in jail and going precisely nowhere and it is his version which was used in the film Men in Black. There is also a superb version by Johnny Allen with a magnificent accordion solo played by Cajun musician Belton Richard.

There were other songs I liked just as much. I was already extremely familiar with You Never Can Tell by the time Pulp Fiction made it famous; Let It Rock is a wonderful little song about a railroad work crew getting in the way of a train. I was never that much of a fan of his more established songs, such as Brown Eyed Handsome Man, Maybelline, and Too Much Monkey Business; I generally preferred his less well-known stuff.

I remember being somewhat surprised when I was in my early teens to discover Chuck Berry was still alive. If somebody had told me he’d go on for another 25+ years, I’d never have believed them. All of the rock and roll legends belonged to an era so long before my time that they all seemed dead, but Chuck Berry survived. I took the time to read up a little about the man himself, and by all accounts he was a bit of a dick. He did three stints in jail: the first for armed robbery when he was a teenager, then again in 1962 for breaching the Mann Act when he took a 14-year old girl across state lines, then once more in 1979 for tax evasion. Unlike many black musicians of the era, Berry was not from a disadvantaged background. As Wikipedia tells us:

Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Berry was the fourth child in a family of six. He grew up in the north St. Louis neighborhood known as The Ville, an area where many middle-class people lived at the time. His father, Henry, was a contractor and deacon of a nearby Baptist church; his mother, Martha, was a certified public school principal. His upbringing allowed him to pursue his interest in music from an early age. He gave his first public performance in 1941 while still a student at Sumner High School.

He was also a very canny businessman. While other musicians, particularly poor blacks, were being fleeced by their record companies, Berry insisted on money up front and was careful never to sign away all his rights. Given he was working with Leonard Chess, who was known for his ruthless business practices, one must assume that Chuck Berry knew how to look after himself. Unfortunately there was a downside to his penny-watching ways: Berry shunned the use of a professional backing band and would often turn up in a town a day or two before a concert and hire local musicians to accompany him on stage. Some of his live shows are obviously mind-blowing, but all too many of them were compromised by Berry’s unwillingness to take on a proper backing band. Even Berry’s own individual performances suffered: I have a friend who saw him live in Manchester 20 or 30 years ago and he was an embarrassment, dropping notes all over the place and clearly not up to the task. I’ve heard others say similar things about his live performances in his later years.

There is no denying that Chuck Berry was probably the biggest influence on rock and roll music, and without him we might not have had The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and countless more. Everyone will be singing the praises of Chuck Berry following his passing at aged 90 yesterday, and the accolades will be thoroughly deserved. He really was brilliant.

When various music greats died last year – David Bowie, Motorhead’s Lemmy, George Michael – I didn’t say much, mainly because I wasn’t a fan of their music. That’s not the case with Chuck Berry. I’ve been a Chuck Berry fan for as as long as I’ve been listening to music, his upbeat tempos and lyrics providing me with a hope and optimism of a world outside the miserably wet corner of Wales I grew up in, bored senseless. There will be lots of people jumping on the Chuck Berry bandwagon over this next few days: I’m not one of them. I liked his music for real, always did, and always will.

Thanks for the music, Chuck.


Top Trolling

I confess that I found this amusing:

Ryan Adams has talked about the night he cracked on stage when a concertgoer heckled him by calling for him to sing Bryan Adams’s Summer of ’69.

Writing in the New York Times, the singer-songwriter remembered the gig, at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium in October 2002, when his acoustic performance was interrupted over and over again by one person, culminating in them shouting for Summer of ’69 during an a cappella performance of the song Bartering Lines with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.


Maybelle’s Guitar

Via Tim Worstall, this bollocks in The Guardian:

Cate Le Bon: ‘Guitars were inspired by female bodies. Why are they uncomfortable for women to play?’

One of the biggest guitars out there is the Gibson L-5, a model which dates back to 1922 and is akin to a cello. Here’s Maybelle Carter playing hers:

If only she’d had a smaller guitar designed especially for women!



Chicago Boyz has put up a post about calumny, which is a word you don’t hear much these days but appears to have been in common use historically.  According to the Webster’s, calumny is:

1:  a misrepresentation intended to harm another’s reputation

2:  the act of uttering false charges or misrepresentations maliciously calculated to harm another’s reputation

The Chicago Boyz post was brought to my attention by Samizdata commenter DOuglas2, who mentioned it in the context of the recent (but seemingly temporary) banning of Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit from Twitter.  I can think of numerous examples – the hounding of Tim Hunt being the one that immediately springs to mind – of calumny being alive and well in the modern world, assuming it ever went away.

I’ve known this word, and what it means, since I was about 20 purely because I was, and am, a fan of Rossini’s opera The Barber of Seville.  Act I Scene II provides probably the best description of calumny there is in an aria – La Calunnia – sung in bass.  It’s worth a listen.