Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Prague spring: the diary of a trip

Sunday 1st February

There’s a kid on our plane dressed in a Robin Hood outfit. Not quite as random as it might sound given that we’re flying from East Midlands Airport, but still troubling – I was under the impression that outlaws weren’t allowed onto flights. Security obviously leaves a lot to be desired.

Arrive at hotel, and take one look at the minibar price list to discover I’ll be able to realise my dream of clearing one out without having to take out a massive bank loan. This is going to be a good holiday.

Our first meal – decent pizzas in a restaurant for less than £3 each. With a typically English ineptness we struggle with the Czech word for 'Thank you', written ‘dekuju’ but pronounced very very differently, believe me.

On the Karluv most (Charles Bridge) over the River Vltava. Huge neon signs on the side of a tall building proudly proclaim it to be "The Biggest Music Club In Middle Europe".

Discover that most of the traffic lights click and clack to inform the blind when it’s safe to cross. They’re going to take some getting used to, though at least the blast of fetid air from the tube station makes us feel right at home.
Monday 2nd February

Turns out the street our hotel’s on isn’t called Staropramenna for nothing – by complete chance we happen to be staying right next door to the Staropramen brewery. Can things get much better?

In Bohemia Bagel café, which conjures up thoughts of poetry, absinthe and sexual debauchery until I realise that the region of the Czech Republic we’re in is called Bohemia. A poster on the wall advertises the Museum of Communism with a picture of some armed guards and the slogan “Pray we don’t catch you in another museum”. J tries a glass of grog, one of the local speciality drinks. It’s hot, sweet and alcoholic and, as the name suggests, leaves you feeling like you’ve been hit over the head a few times with a baseball bat. Even in Eastern Europe it seems there’s no escape from Coldplay or Staind.

The High Baroque style St Nicholas Church in the Mala Strana district. “Incredibly grandiose”, according to the leaflet – and it speaks the truth. Statues, gold and elaborately painted surfaces everywhere, it’s possibly the most ludicrously OTT building I’ve ever been in. The church’s pride and joy, Karel Streta’s impressive Passion Cycle paintings are exhibited up on the gallery, figures emerging out of the blackness of the canvas – but I find myself marvelling at the incredible amount of marble all around, and wondering how many kitchen worksurfaces it might make for homes in Surrey. Then the thought occurs that perhaps it’s just a veneer, and the whole place is actually made out of plywood.

Pradsky hrad (Prague castle), huge and imposing on the hill overlooking the river. St Vitus Cathedral, within the castle walls, towers over it all. In the drizzling rain the gargoyles which jut out high up on the pillars vomit water down onto our heads.

Puppet shops. Lots of them.

Everywhere seems to be licensed to sell booze. This might just be the best place ever!

Our first taste of Czech lager, Pilsner Urquell served up in 500ml measures in glass tankards for around 60p – heavenly. A quick glance over the pub menu alerts us to the following delicacy, in the hors d’oeuvres section: “Rough plank – cakes of cheese, blue cheese, soft-centred cheese, soft-dried cream cheese, 2cl of gin”. No, I can’t tell you what it tastes like, because as alluring as it sounds we decide to give it a very wide berth. Strange, that.

Restaurace U Certa (The Devil’s Restaurant) in Mala Strana. Having drunk Czech, we’re now at last eating Czech – delicious beef goulash and bread dumplings follows a huge helping of salmon as, rather curiously, The KLF’s ‘Last Train To Grand Central’ plays on the radio behind the bar.

Although ‘dekuju’ is still causing us great problems, we have managed to learn two equally important words – ‘pivo’ meaning beer, and ‘pivnice’ meaning pub – and consequently feel that we now have a basic grasp and working knowledge of the language. Next to the restaurant is a pivnice that serves up Budvar for little more than 50p – fantastic.

Upon returning to the hotel, J remarks that the receptionist “looks like a serial killer – but not in a bad way”. Apparently, it’s something to do with the fact that he has the top button of his shirt done up but isn’t wearing a tie.
Tuesday 3rd February

On Karlova, just over Karluv most in the Stare Mesto district, we spot the first “My brother / friend / dog went to Prague and all I got was this lousy T-shirt” T-shirts. We manage to resist the temptation.

In the beautiful Staromestske namesti (Old Town Square), wowed by the Astronomical Clock on the side of the Town Hall and the awesome twin-towered Gothic Tyn Church which rises up ominously like something out of ‘Dracula’. We sit and take it all in, nursing cups of fiendishly strong Turkish-style black coffee that, when accidentally spilt, bronzes our hands like fake tan. A bunch of bumbling shaven-headed Geordies pass by, looking very lost indeed.

The Art Nouveau Obecni Dum – glitzy, but nothing compared to St Nicholas Church.

Lunch in Café Imperial, which, with its grubby exterior but impossibly grand mosaic ceiling and tiled columns inside, recalls the faded splendour of a seaside hotel. I’m convinced a bearded Jack Nicholson is lurking somewhere, waiting to break through a door with an axe. Serenaded by classic 50s rock ‘n’ roll, I am presented with a stuffed pork steak and a baked potato smothered in staggeringly potent garlic mayonnaise.

In Josefov, the former Jewish quarter. The walls of the otherwise austere Pinkas Synagogue are covered with the names of the 77,297 Czech Jews who perished in the Holocaust, while upstairs glass cabinets display pictures drawn by some of the children who lived in the Terezin ghetto camp, most of whom met their death in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Outside we wander around the Stary Zidovsky hrbitov (Old Jewish Cemetery), where thousands of gravestones cluster and list unevenly like broken teeth. A sobering experience.

Raining again. A man sat in the street fishing through a drain grille suddenly starts barking. We pass Erotic City, an emporium which, its windows boast, caters for “gay, piss, sandwich, fist, anal”. Lovely.

Vaclavske namesti (Wenceslas Square), at the centre of the Nove Mesto district and the modern hub of the city. With the enormous neon signs perched on the rooftops and the smell of synthetic French fries everywhere, it’s just like Piccadilly Circus. One look is enough to convince us we don’t want to come back again.

I’m becoming increasingly aware of the Czech love of books – small independent bookshops (Knihkupectvi) are everywhere, their window displays filled not with pastel-coloured chick-lit slop or Andy McNab style testosterone-‘n’-guns-fuelled romps but with the works of Czech structuralists.

A nice quiet drink in Staromestske namesti – at least until the Hare fucking Krishnas arrive. Tyn Church, lit up in the darkness, looks even more impressive. I imagine bats wheeling round the turrets and spires, occasionally sweeping down into the gas-lit square to feast on the blood of unsuspecting tourists.

U Karlova Mostu pivnice. Having had a hole blown in my head by the nuclear strength horseradish sauce that accompanies my smoked sausage starter, I recover sufficiently to tuck away half a pig and gulp down some refreshing lager which douses the flames.

Never thought I’d say this, but I’m happy to be in an Irish theme bar, the reason being that J J Murphy’s is showing highlights of the Middlesbrough v Arsenal League Cup match. What’s more, the TV’s on mute and there’s a ZZ Top album playing on the stereo. Doing our best to avoid the awful American teenagers upstairs, we get through a couple of glasses of Staropramen and discover that the Patron Saint of Miners and Gunners is called St Barbara. Don’t ask me where or how this discovery was made, I don’t remember.

Walking home we pass a shop with a special Valentines Day offer in the window – a pair of green boxer shorts adorned with bees wearing sunglasses. I decide they wouldn’t suit me. J makes mental note to get up early the next day, sneak out and buy them for me. Mercifully, suffering from a bit of a hangover, she forgets.
Wednesday 4th February

Not so merciful is the fact that even foreign TV audiences appear to have ‘My Hero’ inflicted upon them. My sympathy for Greg Dyke wanes somewhat.

It’s not every day you see a dog wearing a neckerchief cross the road.

It’s not every day you see a dog being carried around in a shopping bag.

Stepping inside St Vitus Cathedral is like walking into a huge stone fridge. Work on the huge Gothic monstrosity began in the fourteenth century but wasn’t completed until 1929. Presumably during the intervening 600 years Sunday services were held in an enormous mobile caravan.

Sitting on the banks of the river. A couple of swans advance menacingly on a couple with a baby in a pushchair, but before things turn nasty and arms get broken, the couple beat a hasty retreat.

Another mindblowing Turkish coffee in the classy Café Slavia, decorated in the Art Nouveau style and situated opposite the Narodni divadlo (National Theatre). A picture on the wall depicts a man suffering from absinthe-induced hallucinations – away with the green fairies.

Back in Staromestske namesti, wondering whether we’re slowly becoming anaesthetised to the architectural beauty all around us. I’d hate to live in a city like this and become unappreciative or indifferent to my surroundings. Then again, perhaps the numbness is due to our second glass of hot wine.

Yet another fabulous meal. Thank fuck we’re leaving tomorrow, otherwise we’d seriously start piling on the pounds. We both realise we’re going to be paying for food and drink with gritted teeth when we get home.

Malostranske Pivnice, our first experience of a genuine Czech pub, is filled with locals rowdily downing drink after drink. I carry on with the pivo but J opts to try the local firewater Becherovka, a spirit made of medicinal herbs which tastes a bit like Aftershock Red and is served in a 40ml shot glass with a handle. I’m slightly taken aback when, at the end of the night, J is borne off across the pub by a man who looks like an off-duty lumberjack and good-naturedly invited to kiss his mulleted friend.

Mullet Man has inadvertently tracked us down to another pub. More lager and Becherovka.

Vomit (not mine).
Thursday 5th February

Checking out of the hotel, we discover it’s only cost us £15 to almost completely empty the minibar. Fantastic.

Given that so much is made of Franz Kafka’s connections with Prague, the museum dedicated to the author is bizarrely hard to find. He died of tuberculosis at the age of 40, and the last photo taken of him depicts what looks like a prepubescent schoolboy dressed in a man’s suit, shoulders crumpled with the weight of the world.

The old Trade Fair Palace, which now houses the city’s Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, is an enormous concrete building away from the tourist area which looks like a factory and which used to be a shopping centre of sorts, complete with restaurants and cafes, until its conversion. Works by the likes of Picasso, Klimt, Miro and Warhol sit alongside the outlandish recent creations of conceptual artists which, in taking abstraction to extremes, can only impress as material artefacts and not as depictions of anything. Much of it IS indeed impressive (though we’ll gloss over the huge pictures of a naked woman being covered in goats’ entrails), but after a couple of hours it becomes exhausting trying to take it all in and we leave having seen only a fraction of the works on display.

The horror of not being able to embark upon another Czech lager drinking spree sinks in – but then I know the flight home would be even more horrific were I to allow myself a few farewell tankards.

Sat in the departure lounge depressed to be leaving, I realise there is one consolation – no more having to stomach the Eurodance cover of Alice Cooper’s ‘Poison’ which seems to have dogged us everywhere we’ve gone.
Quote of the day

"Writing is a deeper sleep than death. Just as one wouldn't pull a corpse from its grave, I can't be dragged from my desk at night" - Franz Kafka
Know Your Enemy #37

"A beaky-nosed, cack-faced, false-titted, thick as pigshit, scheming, bad example, manipulative, foulmouthed, prickteasing, sensation-seeking, life-ruining nonentity of a scrubber."

Jordan's clearly not on Birdman's Christmas card list.
Sadly there weren't any fireworks


Shit shit shit.

Shit shit shit shit shit.

I've just discovered that Explosions In The Sky played at Nottingham's Rescue Rooms last night. Yes, the same Explosions In The Sky whose latest LP The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place ranked very highly indeed in my 2003 end-of-year list. And I fucking missed the gig. If that won't teach me to pay more attention to the local gig listings, then nothing will.


Monday, February 09, 2004

Silence is golden

Apologies in advance to Angelo, but I'm so pleased to see that that poisonous little fuckwit Ken Bates has been gagged by new Chelsea chief executive Peter Kenyon. Personally I'd like to see him go the whole hog - bind him, gag him and chuck him into the Thames wearing a pair of concrete boots. Anyway, now that he'll no longer be sounding off and upsetting people in his programme notes, he's free to concentrate on standing holding a fishing rod, or whatever it is that white-bearded garden gnomes are supposed to do.
Rising tide

I've only just discovered this today, but Nottingham's very own Seachange have signed to the eternally cool Matador label and release their debut LP Lay Of The Land on 8th March. Heartening news for the city's scene following the unceremonious dropping of Six By Seven by Mantra, and good news on a more personal front - the sextet feature Simon Aldcroft on drums, a former schoolmate of yours truly and fellow alumnus of Nottingham University's Impact magazine like myself and Olav. A real shame I've made other arrangements for this Friday and so won't be able to see their homecoming show in support of Pretty Girls Make Graves at the Rescue Rooms.

Sunday, February 08, 2004

Normal service resumes

Back from Prague, somewhat wider around the waist than normal, to discover that SWSL has had its 10000th visitor. A modest achievement, given its inception back in September 2002 – but an achievement nonetheless. Thanks for all your support and comments. Might 20000 hits by the end of the year be a realistic expectation?

There’ll be an anecdotal diary of the Prague trip posted soon, as well as the return of usual schizophrenic fare. In the meantime, best wishes go to SWSL blog-buddies Kenny, who’s suffered a bad fracture of the arm, and Alex, whose granddad recently passed away.
Window of (missed / wasted) opportunity

So, the transfer window’s closed – time to assess the incomings and outgoings at St James’s.


Carl Cort (Wolves, £2m)
A loss of £5m, but we were still perhaps lucky to get even £2m for the injury-prone striker. Showed great promise early on, but just couldn’t seem to get himself fit and force his way back into the frame.

Nolberto Solano (Villa, £1.5m)
My view remains the same – absolutely fucking stupid decision.

Nicos Dabizas (Leicester, free)
Served us well, but it was time for Nic The Greek to move on. Thus far he’s hardly done much to shore up a leaky defence.

Gary Caldwell (Hibs, free)
Decent young central defender no doubt sick of being loaned out and so sought a permanent move.

Lomano Lua Lua (Portsmouth, loan)
Another stupid decision, particularly given the sale of Solano – he could have offered some real trickery and pace on the right side of midfield, and as a striker he looked very sharp in the African Cup of Nations.

Michael Chopra (Forest, loan)
The young prodigy loaned out again, hoping to build on the experience of his spell with Watford last season, where he scored five goals including four in an incredible 7-4 win at Burnley. I just hope Sir Bobby hasn’t got any intentions of letting him go permanently.

Stephen Caldwell (Leeds, loan)
Talented central defender and brother of Gary, Stephen Caldwell’s a potential star – but not, it seems, for Newcastle. If any one of Woodgate, Bramble or O’Brien pick up an injury, who exactly are we going to turn to? And if we’re prepared to let him go now, why did we fight to secure his services with a new year-long contract in the summer when his old deal expired?

Tony Caig (Barnsley, loan)
Third choice keeper who's hardly had a look-in since arriving, due to the fitness and form of both Given and Harper.

Bradley Orr (Burnley, loan)
Promising central midfielder and reserve regular. It’d be nice to think that, following the likes of Ameobi and Hughes, homegrown talent will continue to get the chance in the first team, but in the meantime a spell in Division One could prove helpful in assessing his ability.


Michael Bridges (Leeds, loan)
A local lad, yes, but do we really need a striker who can’t get into a doomed side rooted to the bottom of the league, who’s been injured as long as Carl Cort, and who hasn’t even scored in the Premiership since 2000? The answer is no, not if we have the likes of Lua Lua and Chopra available in reserve. As with several of the outgoings, this makes no sense.

And that’s it. No-one else. Despite rumblings in the press and the occasional official reference to specific players, we find ourselves facing the second half of the season with no Stephen Carr, no Alan Smith, no Nicky Butt, no Eidur Gudjonssen, no Diego Tristan. Instead of strengthening the squad for the fight for fourth place, we seem to have decimated it, and for reasons which aren’t immediately apparent (certainly not football-related, though, surely?). Contrast this with the Big Three, who’ve gone out and splashed the cash on Saha, Reyes and Parker, and in the process widened the gap between everyone else. Infinitely more galling, however, is the fact that our transfer dealings could be so grossly inept while a club like Spurs managed to find £7m to prise Jermaine Defoe away from West Ham – that’s a snip for a player who’d be an asset in any Premiership squad, including ours, and it should turn out to prove a very astute bit of business. All in all, then, a dismal month of bafflement and disappointment for the fans, at least off the pitch.

At least things are still grinding forwards slowly on it - we managed to follow up a 1-1 draw away at Birmingham with a 3-1 victory at home to Leicester, and, combined with other results, that’s been enough to edge us into the all-important fourth spot, though we’re only ahead of Charlton on goal difference. We really ought to have left St Andrews with all three points and not just the one, but stupidly allowed Stern John to equalise Gary Speed’s first-half thunderbolt in the last minute – another draw that could and should have been better, and consequently another result we could come to rue by the end of the season. Then came Leicester, in disarray and freefall after the 5-0 thrashing at home to a Solano-inspired Villa. Despite a slow start, the outcome was never really in doubt – it only worried me how long it took before Ameobi got the first goal. It was also pleasing to see Jenas making an important goalscoring contribution from midfield in Robert’s absence – it was his first strike for ten months, and some compensation for the lacklustre displays of recent weeks. We should really have been more ruthless and taken the chance to improve our goals for column, but in the event sloppily allowed Leicester a consolation, predictably scored by old boy Les Ferdinand.

As far as the league table is concerned, then, we’re finally where we want to be come the end of the season – but we’ve got a real fight on our hands to stay there.
Know Your Enemy #36

The amusingly named Ferdinand Mount on Peter Hilton’s book ‘Baudelaire In Chains: Portrait Of The Artist As A Drug Addict’ in The Sunday Times:

Charles Baudelaire was not a very nice person. He shamelessly sponged off his mother all his life, torturing her with accusations of hardheartedness and refusing to forgive her for marrying his stepfather, the blameless General Aupick. He betrayed his friends, sneered at his half-brother, patronised and brutalised his mistress, scrounged money for opium and brandy and blamed the rest of the world for his misfortunes. Yet whatever circle of hell he may currently be roasting or freezing in, I do not think that he quite deserved the attention of Frank Hilton.


Friday, January 30, 2004

Czeching out

Sorry to announce a temporary hiatus in postings here at SWSL - I'm shortly off to Prague for a week with a very special lady to sample the delights of the local fare (ie lager, and lots of it).

You can console yourselves with the thought that I'll be back soon, but I'm sure you'll all get on just fine without me.
The immaculate conception

Tuesday and - for me (and others) - the NME Awards Tour show at the Birmingham Piss-Weak Lager Academy. Four bands on the bill, but the night very definitely belongs to just one of them.

It isn't The Von Bondies. On this evidence there's a growing feeling that their moment has passed, their star having been at its highest point when I last saw them, in this very venue in August 2002. Of course, they'll probably go and sell loads of copies of new LP Pawn Shoppe Heart just to spite me now, but stuff like this should sound great live and the new material just doesn't do it. All I can do is stand around expectantly waiting for 'It Came From Japan' - not a ringing endorsement of the set as a whole.

It isn't Funeral For A Friend, who, by virtue of being A Young Metal Band, have pulled in the mascara'd black-T-shirted fourteen-year-olds like flies to shit. The appeal's not hard to see - with tracks like 'Bullet Theory' and 'Juneau' they've got the heaviness for the metalheads, they've got the haircuts and vocals for the emo set, and they're less goofy and more cool than Hundred Reasons. Quite why vocalist Matt makes a big deal about announcing they're from South Wales I don't know - they couldn't sound much more American if they tried.

It isn't even The Rapture, who improve with every sighting (this being my third). Whereas once the set was a challenging and occasionally uncomfortably bumpy journey to the tremendous finale of 'House Of Jealous Lovers', it's now a wild and wonderful ride which takes in weird guitar rhythms, saxophone galore, balls-in-vice vocals, throbbing house gems of the dark ('Olio') and light ('I Need Your Love') variety and even a couple of potentially chart-friendly singles ('Sister Savior' and 'Love Is All' - the latter is rightly getting released on its own). 'House Of Jealous Lovers' isn't even the final act - there's more. And it's all good.

No, the night very definitely belongs to Franz Ferdinand. They might have had the misfortune to end up with the first slot, but that doesn't deter them in the slightest. It's great to see a band who came across as loveable but eccentric sell-nothing arty geeks back in August looking so naturally at home on the Academy's stage, buoyed by the knowledge that they've got a corker of an LP just waiting to be unleashed. The opening trio of songs - 'Shopping For Blood', 'Tell Her Tonight' and the ever-marvellous chart-scorching single 'Take Me Out' - are as clear a statement of intent as you'll ever hear, that statement being, "We have come for your ears and your stereos". Let's get one thing straight: they ARE the new Strokes, if only in the sense that they're the most precociously well-formed band to appear since Julian Casablancas and company came into view. Parading almost mathematically perfect songs like 'Better On Holiday' and 'Darts Of Pleasure' on stage, they're like a newborn baby freshly emerged from the womb clutching the proofs for a new law of physics. They really must put something in the water up there in Glasgow...
Stupidity reigns supreme

Go over to Casino Avenue right now, and you'll find Inspector Sands bemoaning the sale of one of his beloved Charlton's best players. Here, you'll find much the same thing (though without any vitriol levelled against the player in question).

Let's get things perfectly clear. In the middle of a season when it's imperative we get ourselves back in fourth spot to avoid any kind of long-term slide, the decision to sell one of our most experienced, creative and well-liked players, not to mention the best crosser of a ball at the club, is unforgivably stupid. To sell him to a rival Premiership club, Aston Villa, is even more stupid. And to sell him for the absurdly small sum of £1.5million is stupider still. Whether you look at it in football or business terms, it doesn't matter - it just doesn't make sense: he'd be a useful asset in any squad, and the money we've received for him is hardly enough to fund the signing of an adequate replacement. The whole sorry affair has left me shaking my head in disbelief, and for the first time in quite a while I find myself seriously questioning the judgement of the manager.

How Nobby Solano must be feeling I can't imagine. To have given your all for the club, knuckled down in a way that precious few of the expensive foreign imports have over the past few seasons, scored goals, never complained about being unceremoniously hauled off around the 70 minute mark week in week out whether or not you're playing badly - and then to be let go as easily and cheaply as that. A tremendous servant for Newcastle United, and he ends up getting treated like shit. Disgraceful.

So, so far we seem to have taken the opportunity afforded us by the transfer window to weaken the squad, not strengthen it. What of the players being linked with the club? Well, the Stephen Carr deal has been on the cards for ages, and would be a decent one for the club. Ditto Michael Bridges - but with Bellamy and Ameobi back to fitness, do we really need another injury-prone striker? We've just got rid of Carl Cort, for fuck's sake. And what about Alan Smith? If he could curb his temper I'd like to see him at the club, either in Nobby's position on the right side of midfield (where he's been playing for Leeds) or, if he could learn to score goals, up front - but it looks like Leeds have bailed out just enough water to save the sinking ship in the short term. Hopefully we'll be there with a small dinghy if and when he decides to jump ship...

Anyway, back to stupidity. It's even spread abroad, our mercurial talent Lua Lua getting himself sent off whilst captaining the Democratic Republic of Congo in the African Nations Cup. A rash wave of the leg, a disgusting feigning of injury by the opposition player, and he was off. Host nation Tunisia went on to win 3-0, and after two games Congo are out.

Lua Lua could conceivably get a try-out in Nobby's old position, but apparently Ambrose will be starting on the right side of midfield for tomorrow's game at Birmingham. Not only does that mean that Bobby's got a lot more faith in him than I have, but it presumably means that Dyer continues upfront at the expense of the fit-again Bellamy and Ameobi when he could be moved back into the centre with the disappointing Jenas dropping to the bench. Of course, it won't matter a jot to me who plays if we win. But at the end of a dismal week - for Nobby, for Lua Lua, for the fans - a win is what we need.
From Littlehampton, with hate

Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to South By South East, the joint blog of SWSL associates and residents of Littlehampton Chris and Jamie. These guys are sick, twisted and most of all very very funny. Safe for work, but perhaps not safe for your mind. You have been warned.

(Thanks to Olav for showing me where to get down with the sickness.)
Feel good hits of the 30th January

1. 'Lord, Let It Rain On Me' - Spiritualized
2. 'Take Me Out' - Franz Ferdinand
3. 'Love Is All' - The Rapture
4. 'Steam Engine' - My Morning Jacket
5. 'So Close' - Six By Seven
6. 'The Union Forever' - The White Stripes
7. 'It Came From Japan' - The Von Bondies
8. 'Cannonball' - The Breeders
9. 'Growing On Me' - The Darkness
10. 'Improper Dancing' - Electric Six

Tuesday, January 27, 2004

I’ve seen the light

As regards Spiritualized, I mean.

But first their support act, local luminaries Six By Seven.

Me and Six By Seven go back a long way. We first encountered each other in May 1999 at the Ballroom in Nottingham, where they were supporting Fugazi. Since then there have been numerous rendezvous, including a thrilling gig in celebration of the Social’s first birthday in 2000 and a fabulous performance at the Leeds Festival in 2002.

There was the very frosty interview at the Boat Club in October 1999, when for a while it looked like giant frontman Chris Olley was about to make mincemeat out of myself and my partner-in-crime (or at least partner-in-self-indulgent-student-journalism) Olav following an ill-advised line of questioning.

There was the drunken night in The Rig in June 2000, when a pilled-up Chris tried to pull one of my friends while another spent half an hour trying to get keyboardist James Flower to hum the theme tune from ‘Murder She Wrote’ with him (incidentally, the latter friend, already very much the worse for wear, went home at the end of the night, drank the best part of a bottle of gin and climbed into a fridge – but that’s another story…).

There have been sightings of various band members at an assortment of gigs in the city, including …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead and The Flaming Lips, plus the surprise pleasure of being served in shops by James on several occasions – first in Waterstones and then in Fopp.

Theirs has been a turbulent history. Having started off as a five-piece, they’re now down to three – Chris, James and drummer Chris Davis. Guitarist Sam Hempton left some time ago (and is in the crowd tonight), but this is the first time I’ve seen them without bassist Paul Douglas. How would they cope without that throbbing propulsive bass which is practically their trademark? Even more to the point, how would they cope with being dropped by their label Mantra after three critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful records?

Well, the answer is by concentrating on new material in which the keyboards are more prominent, and by playing only a handful of older tracks for which the lack of bassline isn’t obvious (‘I.O.U. Love’, ‘So Close’, ‘European Me’). The new tracks aired tonight, including recent Fierce Panda single ‘Bochum (Light Up My Life)’, don’t have the pissed-off snarl and bite of their second and third albums (The Closer You Get and The Way I Feel Today), nor are they a return to the mesmeric prog-indie of their debut, The Things We Make. Instead, they’re pushing in a direction they’ve only hinted at occasionally before, all spiralling keyboards and looped grooves and thumping drums. One sounds like them laying claim to ‘Pounding’ by Doves and making it their own.

If I’ve got any reservations, it’s only because a bassist gives them more strings to their collective bow, and because music like this conjures up the idea of loads of people packing the stage – certainly, splendid as it is, gargantuan debut single ‘European Me’, which closes the set, might have benefited from sheer weight of numbers. On this evidence, then, the new slimmed-down Six By Seven aren’t trimmed of fat, leaner and hungrier, but a little bit more lightweight, a bit of their muscle wasted away.

Great to see them back, though - they’re still a damn fine band, and I can only hope that their forthcoming LP Down Here On The Ground finally secures them some serious recognition. If I’m sick of writing about “Nottingham’s best-kept secret”, then I’m sure they’re even more sick of hearing it.

So, anyway. The light. I’ve seen it. And it’s damn well nearly blinding me - literally and metaphorically speaking. At one point I’m convinced the insane strobing effects must be scorching my retina beyond repair – but I just can’t avert my eyes from the Rock City stage.

Until fairly recently I thought Spiritualized were decent but consistently overrated. Then I got a copy of Amazing Grace which, despite the schizophrenic and jarring ordering of the tracks, was just beginning to sink its claws into me. And now – this. First of all, everything, absolutely EVERYTHING taken from Amazing Grace and played tonight sounds incredible, far superior to the recorded counterparts. They basically have two types of song: smacked-up garage rock bruisers that feel like an alleyway brawl with The Stooges and The Rolling Stones – opener ‘Electricity’, ‘She Kissed Me (It Felt Like A Hit)’, ‘Never Goin’ Back’, ‘Come Together’, ‘Cheapster’, ‘This Little Life Of Mine’ – and heavy-lidded space-gospel songs which build to a suffocating and overwhelming intensity before eventually relenting, sedated and spent, and which sound like divine salvation even when they’re about damnation – ‘Hold On’, ‘Lord, Let It Rain On Me’, ‘Oh Baby’, ‘Let It Flow’. Both types shine a harsh and unforgiving light on the likes of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, who suddenly look like shallow posturing charlatans.

True, it wouldn’t be hard to parody a Spiritualized song – just chuck in a few lyrical references to God, Jesus, needles and veins (oh, hang on, we’re back to BRMC again…) – but there’s a blackened and charred wit lurking in and behind many of the couplets which diverts the songs away from a gloomy slide into maudlin self-pity, and a fascinating interweaving of the light and the dark, the sacred and the profane, in everything they do. Jason Pierce isn’t interested in fads but in a sort of timelessness. His songs have a tremendously rich sense of musical history, a vintage quality that seems neither forced nor contrived. A quietly authoritative band leader, he conducts his musicians on stage (six besides himself – all together, in terms of sheer physical presence, they look like Six By Seven should do, by rights), facing them rather than the early-thirty-something parka-clad congregation.

The mammoth and majestic set ends with a pure fucking noise freakout and all-out strobe assault that’s like Mogwai and The Velvet Underground self-combusting together on stage. It’s January, my first gig of the new year, and already it’s a serious contender for top spot come the end-of-year lists. Amazing. And graceful. The bar has been set obscenely high.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am currently floating in space.
Bruno delivers the knockout punch

The Fourth Round of the FA Cup. What a time for “the new Zidane”, Bruno Cheyrou, to find his shooting boots. Admittedly he’s finally started to live up to his reputation in recent weeks, with important goals away at Chelsea and Wolves. But to strike twice against us was cruel. We might not have done enough for a win, but we could have sneaked a draw and a replay at St James’s, particularly given a strong first half showing.

After encouraging results recently away to notoriously troublesome opposition (namely Southampton and Man Utd), we might have been forgiven for thinking we could settle another score by coming away from Anfield with a victory – but those hopes took a very early blow when Cheyrou scored in the second minute. Thankfully, Robert was on hand to rocket home a free-kick two minutes later to even things up – his 11th of the season, making this his most prolific campaign in a black and white shirt to date. But unfortunately we couldn’t capitalise on having a slight edge in the first half, and in the second Liverpool, buoyed by the return from injury of such key players as Owen, Gerrard and Carragher, wrested control away from us and then scored a decisive second. Even still, Shearer could have snatched the draw late on, had it not been for Dudek’s acrobatics.

So, now we can concentrate on the League and the UEFA Cup etc etc. All fine and well, but we had a much better chance of success in the FA Cup. Oh well, at least it wasn’t a disgrace, unlike last year’s lame Third Round exit at the hands of Wolves. I just hope that the race for fourth place doesn’t go to the wire, with us needing a win in our last game of the season – it’s at Anfield…
Oh, that? It’s the B-side to the new Yo La Tengo single…

Don’t you just love small independent record shops? You know the sort - you walk in to find the staff are busy flaunting their good taste and gleefully experimenting on their guinea-pig customers with some obscure new gem, just waiting to see if anyone comes up to the counter to ask what it is. Even better if they manage a sale. Over the years I must have ended up making at least a couple of purchases that way, though I couldn’t tell you which albums they were.

In Tempest (Birmingham) today, I’m not sure what it was - I cruelly denied the staff the satisfaction of telling me - but it sounded like Les Savy Fav gone REALLY spastic, the kind of music that would make Steve Albini cream his pants at twenty paces and, thankfully, a million miles from what you’d get in Virgin – sickly gloopy slush that oozes from the speakers and curdles in your ear. Like Dido.

Friday, January 23, 2004

'God Save The Queen'? God save us, more like

When the rumble in the jungle is all over, Peter Andre - who wants it shouted from the rooftops that he's working with Timberlake's producers - would like to collaborate with his fellow 'I'm A Celebrity Twat' contestant John Lydon. What kind of delusions is the man suffering from? Oh yeah, the sort that lead him to believe that he's talented and that his appearance on the show can relaunch his pop career. The poor misguided fool. I'd pay to watch Lydon tell him to fuck off in his own inimitable style.

(Thanks to Cat for the link.)
Music is my aeroplane

How prophetic. Although I made a point of noting my disgust at the glorification of suicide in last week's NME, I'm not the first to trace the unfortunate coincidence of that issue and the death of Hope Of The States guitarist Jimmi Lawrence - Leon and Kenny got there first. But it seems the band themselves are equally appalled, as well as saddened - in a statement, they say: "we would ask that this awful event not be co-opted as a glamorous 'rock 'n roll' death. We will forever believe this was not supposed to happen and our dear friend would hate to be thought of in this way". I'm imagining, with an extreme amount of pleasure, Conor McNicholas writhing around in acute discomfort. Quite where this leaves Hope Of The States is unclear, but I for one hope the album sees the light of day, for Jimmi's sake. The world needs a pocket-sized Godspeed!.

On a very different note, congratulations to Franz Ferdinand on reaching the heady heights of #3 with their fabulous second single 'Take Me Out'. I'm not about to launch into some Stereophonics / Virgin Radio-esque spiel about how it's nice to see "proper" music in the charts for once, but I am glad that the song, which is full of mainstream appeal but which could so easily have sunk without trace, has been recognised for what it is. It's also good to know that after years of sterling work promoting some very fine bands (Pavement, Sebadoh, Clinic, Royal Trux and Hood amongst others) without much in the way of payback, their label Domino might be at last reaping some financial rewards. It's all left me wondering whether the band will still be first up on the NME Awards Tour show when I catch it in Birmingham on Tuesday.

The hottest thing on my stereo right now is The Coral's Magic & Medicine. I think I might have underestimated quite how good it is - thanks to Leon for pointing out the Doors echoes, and getting me to think of it in a different way! You never know - I might have really got to grips with it by the time their new album comes out...

Also on heavy rotation is My Morning Jacket's It Still Moves - without doubt a grower, and sublime in patches although in others it's a bit workmanlike and unnecessarily drawn-out. The band have just announced that they've parted company (amicably) with Johnny Quaid and Danny Cash, but replacements are already lined up.

Good news on the gig front - Spiritualized (whose Amazing Grace has also been getting a fair few spins of late) have just announced they'll be supported by local heroes and close friends Six By Seven for Monday night's gig at Rock City. Might just have to grab myself a ticket now - I'm intrigued to see quite how they do things now that they're down to a three-piece, bassist Paul Douglas having recently left.

Opening the Metro on Wednesday, I was slightly bewildered by the sight of a review of the new Sophia LP People Are Like Seasons, their first release on the City Slang label. I saw them supporting Mogwai at Leeds Metropolitan University in November 2001, and they were pretty decent, reminding me of the mournful and criminally underrated Codeine, but unfortunately my enjoyment of their set was impeded by the fuckwits I found myself standing next to, who were shouting at them to get off stage.

Congratulations to Sarah, who will be swapping the bright lights and delights of south-east Northumberland for Greece, having bagged a place on the Large Carnivore Project. Presumably this really WILL involve talking to wolves. Sounds a bit daunting to me - make sure you get all your limbs insured before you go.

Best wishes to Inspector Sands, who was mugged on his own street earlier this week and left battered and bruised. Glad to hear you seem to be getting life back to normal, and I hope the increasing likelihood that you'll not be losing your beloved Scott Parker to Chelsea before the end of the month will help speed your recovery!

There's a marvellous post over on Little Red Boat about the supposed connection between depression and the necessary inspiration to write which treats a contentious subject in a thoughtful and yet typically witty way. Congratulations to Anna for her nomination in the 'Best Use Of Houmous' category of the Bloggies - but where were all my other nominations, eh? No No Rock 'N' Roll Fun, no Troubled Diva, no Fluxblog, no Creepy Lesbo, no The Remote Part (Agnes's photography just gets better and better) - surely some mistake?!

Not to mention the omission of LondonMark, who has responded to missing out on the Bloggies and the Guardian awards in the only way he knows how - by producing even more superb writing, this time in the form of some 'How to...' guides which suggest he's a man after my own heart and has been cultivating a natural, healthy and curmudgeonly dislike of the general public. It can only be a matter of time before this blog gets the recognition it so richly deserves.

"The other Mark" has been out and about, observing and detailing the misfortunes of others with a mischievous glee: "the girl sitting opposite me on the train was sick in a carrier bag. It was a WHSmith's bag, in case you're wondering. When the ticket inspector came round she thought she'd lost her season ticket and started crying, proclaiming it 'the worst evening of her life', a long black streak of mascara running down her cheek. She'd shut the handle of her bag in the door so couldn't look in it properly. While she stood up and searched through her coat pocket, her boyfriend held her bag of sick. Aah, young love".

Meanwhile, Kenny sticks the boot into Paul Abbott's much-lauded new C4 series 'Shameless': "It's not that 'Shameless' is bad or unwatchable TV, but it's far too obviously derivative to deserve the blanket adulation it's receiving from the hacks. It's a glorified soap with the odd f-word here and a flash of tit and bum there to help disguise it as a 'flagship drama'. Is British TV really getting that bad that we have to pretend to be excited by this? Come back 'Cold Feet', all is forgiven". However, if I might be so bold, "shameless" is how one might describe the way Kenny has allowed his regular 'Mason & Dixon' Watch slot to slip quietly away - c'mon, let's have some more! You've got a public service to provide - I want to know what I'm letting myself in for before picking it up...

... and finally, thanks to Bob and Nicholas for the linkage - much appreciated.
Animal magic

I was told in a text yesterday "Carl Cort talking to Wolves". My reply? "Well, he certainly does doolittle"...

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

All the rage

Having never read any Salman Rushdie before, I'm not quite sure how to assess 'Fury'. The story - convoluted as it is, and related with a fair amount of skipping back and forth in time - is of Malik Solanka, a retired professor born in India, educated in England and now resident in New York. A dollmaker, he has made a vast fortune from a character called Little Brain who from humble beginnings has mutated into a planet-gobbling monster. Solanka's flight from England was precipitated when he found himself stood over his wife Eleanor and his son Asmaan in the night with a kitchen knife in his hand. However, even in America he finds there is no escape from the anger which builds up inside him.

The problem with 'Fury', for me, is that, impressive as the writing is at times, it just tries to do too much at once. As an exploration of fury, of the unfathomable rage that can spring from even the pettiest incidents, and as a depiction of modern man's intolerance and violence, Rushdie's novel is frequently compelling:

"What was true of him, [Solanka] found himself thinking once again, might also be true to some degree of everyone. The whole world was burning on a shorter fuse. There was a knife twisting in every gut, a scourge for every back. We were all grievously provoked. Explosions were heard on every side. Human life was now lived in the moment before the fury, when the anger grew, or the moment during - the fury's hour, the time of the beast set free - or in the ruined aftermath of a great violence, when the fury ebbed and chaos abated, until the tide began, once again, to turn. Craters - in cities, in deserts, in nations, in the heart - had become commonplace. People snarled and cowered in the rubble of their own misdeeds."

But at the same time it is a vividly-drawn portrait of pre-9/11 New York as a buzzing, seething metropolis and, in broader terms, an attempt not only to take the pulse of America but to offer a perceptive cultural critique:

"Americans were always labelling things with the America logo: American Dream, American Buffalo, American Graffiti, American Psycho, American Tune. But everyone else had such things too, and in the rest of the world the addition of a nationalist prefix didn't seem to add much meaning. English Psycho, Indian Graffiti, Australian Buffalo, Egyptian Dream, Chilean Tune. America's need to make things American, to own them, thought Solanka, was the mark of an odd insecurity. Also, of course, and more prosaically, capitalist."

Passages like this, pithy and intelligent as they are, are rather unsatisfactorily shoehorned into the narrative as thoughts attributed to the central character (remove the words "thought Solanka" above, and what have you got?), when what Rushdie evidently feels a burning need to say would be better suited to a non-fiction essay or series of essays dissecting America in sociological and sociocultural terms. Similarly, the fact that Solanka is a dollmaker allows Rushdie to speculate on themes of control and power, particularly with respect to the nature of fiction (the character Little Brain escapes from the control of her creator, much to his chagrin, while it is revealed that Solanka and his associates all have "back-stories", just like those he creates for his dolls). As it is, all this material, while intriguing in itself, tends to impede the narrative in a way that damages the overall effectiveness of the novel. While Solanka himself is a fascinating character, he's essentially just a vehicle for Rushdie to expound and explore his ideas, and the other characters (Eleanor and the two women who come to occupy central places in his life, Mila Milo and Neela Mahendra) are for the reader almost incidental, as are the relationships between the characters.

Add to this the fact that the ending is strangely rushed, and that Rushdie's fondness for cultural references becomes rather overwhelming (as does the rather smug and self-conscious epigrammatic cleverness of some of his phrases), and I have to conclude that 'Fury' wasn't the masterpiece I was hoping for. If it doesn't quite work as a novel, it's because there's just too much going on at once - that said, though, much of it is still well worth reading and on the whole very well written. I'd always rather come up against too many ideas than too few.

*Following a recommendation from Loaf, I'm now reading 'Money' by Martin Amis. Never let it be said that I don't listen to my public!
On a wing and a prayer

There's no doubt about it, Monday's 3-1 win over Fulham at St James's was as important as they come. If we're going to stay in the running for the final Champions League spot we have to take our chances and beat our closest rivals. The difference between the teams as suggested by the scoreline is about right, I think - we could have bagged a lot more than three, but then had Fulham been more incisive up front, with our old boy Saha on the pitch rather than en route for Old Trafford, they could have reaped greater rewards than Davis's strike for some sharp passing and slick approach play, much of which was channelled through their Geordie captain Lee Clark, still fondly remembered on Tyneside.

Our defending was, on the whole, sound. Woodgate continues to prove his worth, and even came close to scoring - a feat that his central defensive partner Andy O'Brien managed after just four minutes to set us on our way. However, what really made the difference between the teams was our aerial ability and some superb crosses. Robert put in several great balls, hit a couple of fabulous shots and capped a fine performance with a spectacular overhead goal, his tenth of an increasingly impressive season, while on the other flank Solano also underlined his importance to the side for Bobby's benefit with some neat passing - we really do look better with two wingers, or at least midfielders who like to play out wide (that can't be said of the likes of Dyer, Viana or Bowyer). For once Shearer wasn't on the scoresheet, but the other old-timer in the side Speed notched an important header.

So, still unbeaten in 2004 - this is the sort of form we desperately need to keep up. Ultimately, though, we have to accept even at this stage that that still might not be enough - Charlton, four points ahead of us, are on a great run of form and show no signs of slipping up. They're the ones in pole position - and Liverpool move back above us if they succeed where Man Utd failed and beat Wolves at Molineux tonight. Let's just hope lightning does strike twice, eh?
Pretty vacant?

So, John Lydon is to appear on the forthcoming series of 'I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here'. The question is: appalling betrayal of everything he supposedly stands (or stood?) for, or shrewdly taking the system down from the inside? You decide. At least he'll make it watchable, the sour-faced old provocateur that he is- a fact which, of course, suggests it is the producers who will inevitably win the game of who's playing who.
Where's Whitley Road?

In the last couple of days one of my most recent discoveries, Whitley Road, seems to have disappeared into the cyber-ether without a trace - a source of much disappointment, because not only was it a good read, but it was also a pleasure to find another Toon-affiliated blogger out there. So, Damo, I hope the hiatus is only temporary - leave me a comment or drop me an email.

There's also upheaval over at Ulterior, one of my most regular reads. Razorhead, hopefully you'll resurface sometime soon - please let me know where!
Quote of the day

"I'm not proposing Bush=Hitler, but I would proffer the notion that the Bush Regime is more or less implementing the same type of 'you disagree, we silence you' mentality made famous by the Hitler Regime. A leader, among other things, is an icon; a representational figure for a consortium, the power elite behind the slogan-covered backdrops, who influence the decisions made by the figurehead ... I'm glad I'm not living in a country where car bombs are killing 20 of my fellow citizens, and hi-tech helicopters (and other aircraft) can be shot out of the sky by portable missiles. Yet. It doesn't really qualify as 'improved living conditions' to me."

Bob Mould, writing on his very own blog.

(Thanks to No Matter What You Heard, Parallax View, Alex McChesney Dot Com, Wisdom Goof, Largehearted Boy and Wherever You Are for all pointing me in the right direction.)
You WHAT?!!

Hey you! Yeah, you! You, who stumbled across SWSL after entering such things as these into a search engine:

loudest human fart records
virginia woolf mogwai
fundraising pie throwing ingredients
words to chimpanzee song
scousers from newcastle
andy fordham naked

Listen up, and listen good: SWSL does not cater for your sick, twisted little minds. Be off with you.

Thursday, January 15, 2004

Welcome! Willkommen! Bienvenue!

The latest blogs to find their way onto my blogroll and into my heart:

Crumbling Loaf
Via Chicago
Wildly Inaccurate

Fine reads one and all - spread the word, kids.
A measure of how far NME has fallen #537

On the front cover of this week's issue:

"Live fast, die young! Dead rock star glossy pull-out!"
Feel good hits of the 15th January

1. 'Take Me Out' - Franz Ferdinand
2. 'Stop' - Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
3. 'In The Forest' - The Coral
4. 'No, Not Now' - Hot Hot Heat
5. 'Strays' - Jane's Addiction
6. 'Roses' - Outkast
7. 'She Kissed Me (And It Felt Like A Hit)' - Spiritualized
8. 'The Wagon' - Dinosaur Jr
9. 'Favours' - The Delgados
10. 'Hole In The Head' - Sugababes
Know Your Enemy #35

"It's a home movie. It's the most self absorbed narcissistic movie since, well, 'The Virgin Suicides'. Rich people! Oh they're so funny with their troubles! It's as if they really think J D Salinger is literature!"

Crumbling Loaf on 'Lost In Translation'.

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

"We all realised we were leaving confusion and nonsense behind and performing our one and noble function of the time, MOVE"

When I told a friend recently that Jack Kerouac's 'On The Road' was sitting on my bookshelf as yet unread, he laughed and said I'd better read it quick before I get too old - so that's just what I did.

The novel details "the raggedy madness and riot" of the lives of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty as they travel, beg, borrow and steal their way across America from coast to coast in search of excitement and kicks. It's not hard to see why it's been quite such an influential and inspirational book, chronicling as it does the joyous recklessness of youth in post-war America in such breathless prose that the reader is swept up in the tumult of it all, the characters' restlessness and openness to new experiences in which to delight, even in the face of poverty and deprivation.

More than that, 'On The Road' is a powerful statement of the American love affair with the car, as a metaphor for freedom, and of the obsessive lust for exploration and for wide open spaces. As the title suggests, the road itself is perhaps the most potent metaphor for freedom - the emphasis firmly on the journey and not the destination, which doesn't matter because there isn't any real end point to it all anyway: "What is that feeling when you're driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? - it's the too-huge world vaulting us, and it's good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies".

Of course it would be easy to be cynical about it all - it would be easy to trace the going-to-Goa-to-sample-the-culture-and-take-drugs-and-thereby-"find-yourself" gap-year rites-of-passage bollocks back to its beginnings in this book, and some might argue that to call it "an exploration of personal freedom, a test of the limits of the American dream" (as the back-cover blurb of my copy does) is to dress up the sprawling, brawling antics of a bunch of wasters in inappropriately grandiose finery. But this can only come after - when you're actually reading the novel you can't help but absorb and become immersed in the manic energy of it and its characters.

Well worth a read (if you're still young at heart) - and not least because the passages about jazz are brilliant pieces of music writing.
The big read

As has been the case for the last few years, one of my aims for 2004 (I wouldn't glorify it as a resolution as such) is to read more for pleasure. This time I'm determined to do it. I'm already well on the way to finishing Salman Rushdie's 'Fury', and I've got a great pile of books waiting to be looked at (the consequence of buying books faster than I read them):

Virginia Woolf, 'The Waves' / 'The Years'
Martin Amis, 'Money'
Don DeLillo, 'Underworld'
Salman Rushdie, 'The Ground Beneath Her Feet'
Ian Rankin, 'Resurrection Men'
Philip Roth, 'Portnoy's Complaint'
Bret Easton Ellis, 'Glamorama'
Saul Bellow, 'The Adventures Of Augie March'
Thomas Pynchon, 'Mason And Dixon'
Julian Barnes, 'Flaubert's Parrot'
Jonathan Frantzen, 'The Twenty-Seventh City'
Frederic Beigbeder, '9.99'

Jon Savage, 'England's Dreaming'
Melvyn Bragg, 'The Adventures Of English'
Kurt Cobain, 'Journals'
Ziauddin Sardar and Merryl Wyn Davies, 'Why Do People Hate America?'
John Simpson, 'A Mad World, My Masters: Tales From A Traveller's Life'

Ultimately I want to get through them all, but in the meantime any suggestions on what to read next?

(And yes, Kenny, you were the inspiration behind my recent purchase of 'Mason And Dixon' - the fact that it was available as slightly damaged stock for 99p in The Works was merely the icing on the cake!)
Containment breeds contentment

It might not have been a win, but it certainly felt like one. After several wretched displays against Man Utd we finally got it right and left Old Trafford unscathed with a 0-0 draw - and it could have been even better.

The problem in the past seems to have been that we've had some kind of inferiority complex which has meant we turn to jelly as soon as we step out onto the same pitch as them. Other sides seem to raise their game and throw everything into it, even if they ultimately get beaten, whereas in the recent past we've just rolled over meekly, fawning at their feet. Paul Scholes was probably looking forward to this fixture like a little kid waiting for Christmas, and van Nistelrooy's face probably lit up like he was about to get a carrot and some sugarcubes.

But with Woodgate once again an assuring influence, and a battered, bloodied but unbowed O'Brien standing tall alongside him in central defence, we managed to keep a third consecutive clean sheet. Of course it helped that their attack was unusually blunt, apparently incapable of slicing through us like the proverbial knife through butter that I was fearing (and, it has to be said, expecting). It was never as if we were clinging on, either - our passing was, if anything, sharper than theirs, JJ hit the bar with a thumping header and, had we had a little more self-belief going forward, we could have taken advantage of their disinterestedness and humbled them.

There's been a lot said and written about the penalty incident and referee Paul Durkin's later admission that he got it wrong - suffice to say that while I applaud the fact that he confessed to making a mistake rather than holing himself away in his dressing room, there WAS contact between Howard and Shearer and it WAS a penalty and the decision could have robbed us of a famous win. Of course penalties awarded to the opposition at Old Trafford are about as common as magnanimous comments from Fish-Eyed Ferguson - it's quite telling that the last player to score a penalty against Man Utd on their own patch was Ruel Fox, for Norwich back in 1993...

Having said all that, though, we were very lucky that Durkin ruled out Silvestre's "goal" - there was little wrong with his challenge on O'Brien, and no immediate complaint from the defender. A Man Utd victory would have been thoroughly undeserved - as it was, a single point was scant reward for a fine team performance, especially given Saturday's results for Charlton, Liverpool and Fulham.

Nevertheless, that's three games unbeaten - long may 2004 continue in the same vein.
One hundred and eighty!: Norse power

How quickly a week passes. Congratulations to Andy Fordham on his triumph in the Embassy World Darts Championships - a very popular winner, not least because his opponent in the final Mervyn King is a bitter, grumpy tosser. It's unusual, to say the least, to find a sportsman at the absolute top of his game who looks like a cross between a redneck extra from 'Deliverance' and the Stay-Puft marshmallow man from 'Ghost Busters', but there's no denying Fordham's a fine darts player, and a bit of a legend with fans and fellow professionals alike. Thanks also to Andy for providing the first unmissably gripping bit of TV of the New Year - his sensational comeback from 4-2 down in the semi-final to beat reigning champion Raymond Barneveld 5-4. It was enough to make me want to seek out the Queen's Arms pub in Woolwich, which he runs with his wife, just to shake his hand.
Is it just me...

... or is the setting for 'Midsomer Murders' a Daily Mail reader's wet dream? Lush green countryside, huge manor houses, country pubs, morris dancing, unlocked doors and not a black face in sight.
Quote of the day

"If there were a few more clipped ears, there'd be a lot less gun crime."

Norris in last night's 'Coronation Street'.
It was the dead of night when the coffin creaked open...

... and out stepped Mike, unable to resist posting his end-of-year lists. Eclecticism is the word.