Saturday, February 28, 2004

Quote of the day

"I am from a generation that is very artefact oriented. For me, holding a record, the graphics, the cover, the liner notes, the spending time, has as much relevance to it as the music. I don't understand the Internet and the urge to download."

The thoughts of an anonymous record shop owner, as quoted on No Matter What You Heard - comments which struck a real chord with me.

It's been lamented everywhere that the skill behind structuring the tracks of a record into an arresting order is one which is going to disappear as the popularity of downloading and burning individual tracks grows, and the iPod phenomenon continues to spread. Personally, when I get a burned copy of an album it just doesn't feel complete, like the real (often overpriced) thing - even when the artwork and liner notes are nothing special, they still complete the package. When it comes to music, I'm definitely "artefact oriented" - not least because (Luddite that I am) I like to have music in tangible form, but also because (as Kevin has commented on NMWYH) searching out CDs demands the (albeit enjoyable) investment of time. Downloading might open the way for exposure to a whole host of new bands you wouldn't otherwise have ever heard, but if that's all you did it would take the pleasurable effort out of accumulating a record collection.

On the subject of cover art / packaging, what are your personal favourites? In terms of packaging, off the top of my head I really like the hologram-effect ridged case of Tool's Aenima (the inlay booklet for Lateralus is cool too), and the Constellation label can usually be relied on for excellent attention to detail - the latest A Silver Mt Zion LP is particularly good. Any Radiohead album (particularly the last three) without the artwork and inlay booklet just wouldn't be the same.
Required reading

Last night I saw the Reduced Shakespeare Company's production 'All The Great Books' at the Birmingham Hippodrome - triumphantly daft and populist but not in itself much more than an hour and a half's worth of decent japesome entertainment. The show takes the form of a crash course in the novel, with the audience cast in the part of a remedial class who desperately need to get a grasp of the material to pass exams.

From a personal point of view, for a comic performance it was surprisingly worrying - because it brought home the unforgiveable gaps in my knowledge. I left not with tears still running down my cheeks (as some did) but feeling rather ashamed, and equally determined to plug those gaps. My reading needs to step up a gear.

On a related note, I've added (at long last) a set of author links to my sidebar - thanks to Glamorama for some of the URLs. Incidentally, Ballard afficionado Mike has posted some thoughts on his latest book 'Millenium People' - well worth a read.

Books and reading habits have also been the subject for discussion for Invisible Stranger, who (amongst other things) laments Martin Amis's recent loss of form.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder

Over on Troubled Diva, Mike's set a mammoth quiz about his blog archives with the promise that if every question is answered correctly he'll return to the blogging fold. Go on, hold him to it - he's obviously itching to start writing again.

Best post of the week: LondonMark's LondonMark X Guide to post-date "back home for a cup of coffee" etiquette.

Thursday, February 26, 2004

This is an Oslo

Yet another away draw, and again it could and should have been so much better.

This time Norwegian outfit Valerenga provided the opposition in the first leg of our UEFA Cup tie. Having grown in confidence throughout the first half, we went in at the break 1-0 up thanks to a superb Bellamy volley, his third in three games since returning from injury. It looked like we were set up to go on and win comfortably, even without the likes of Shearer, Robert and Dyer, who were all rested.

But then Valerenga came out and really stepped up a gear, and suddenly we couldn't cope, the back line looking jittery as usual when put under pressure and only some last-ditch challenges preserving the lead. The equaliser was coming, though, and they certainly deserved it when it arrived. The rest of the match was fairly even, both sides wasting further chances to win it.

The sad fact is that we were unable to beat a side that only narrowly avoided relegation from the Norwegian top flight last season, and who hadn't played a competitive match since the end of the domestic season last November. Even taking our rested players into account, we could and should have done much better.

Still, to look through rose-tinted spectacles for a moment, the pitch was terrible, and at least we didn't lose and came away with an away goal and a platform to build on next Wednesday. A far cry from some of the Champions League performances of last season, though.
"I have always felt I should be an amputee"

The internet really is a weird place, and this article is the most bizarre thing I've come across in some time. It's all about a phenomenon which has been labelled 'apotemnophilia' - the condition of being attracted to the idea of being an amputee. Some people actually go through with surgery in order to fulfil their desires. So, going out on a limb or just armless fun? Either way, it costs an arm and a leg. OK, enough...

(Thanks (?!) to Steve for bringing this to my attention.)
Get into the groove

A couple of gems over at Stylus at the moment: Dom Passantino takes a look at his favourite Half Man Half Biscuit lyrics - my favourite has to be the snippet from 'The Light At The End Of The Tunnel (Is The Light Of An Oncoming Train)'; and Andrew Unterberger takes a hatchet to The Rapture's Echoes LP - the loss of 'Open Up Your Heart' and 'Love Is All' would upset me, but perhaps it would be for the best.
You WHAT?!!

A selection of recent referral subjects for which readers have alighted on SWSL:

star wars parody sunderland
j low twat
hare krishna campaign watford
paul durkin needs a proper smack
gay men in mud leather and sludge
beyonce farted while singing live

Oh dear.

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Smog on the Tyne

Saturday's win over the Smoggies might have been tight and scarcely deserved, but right now it's the points that matter - especially after our recent run of throwing away victories on the road. That said, we'll have to improve on this sort of performance to stay in fourth place, and to stay in the UEFA Cup.

The victory owed quite a lot to luck, as we equalised Zenden's first-half opener through a tap-in by Bellamy which followed a horrendous cock-up between Ehiogu and Schwarzer, and then scored a decisive second through Shearer when Southgate made just enough contact with Darren Ambrose to warrant the award of a spot kick. Even then, we had to hang on as the Smoggies were denied a late equaliser by an offside flag - and given the current confusion over the laws of the game, it could easily (and infuriatingly) have been given.

I for one was relieved (above anything) to send Steve Maclaren and his big red face back down the A19 with nowt, but there are problems that need sorting out sooner rather than later. Dyer needs to buck up his ideas again - quite simply, Gary Speed is being forced to do far too much just to stem the tide in central midfield. The Woodgate-less defence again looked shaky, too - fuck knows how we've gone 15 games since conceding more than a single goal (though the last time we did, we did so in style, going down 5-0 to Chelsea). They're all decent players individually, but lack the cohesion and confidence that Woodgate seems to inspire in them.

So, a fortuitous rather than a hard-fought win, I think, especially considering the Smoggies last away trip yielded three points at Old Trafford. If we're going to hang on to fourth place, we need to have the stomach for the fight - and at the moment I'm not entirely convinced we've got it.

Inspector Sands will, I'm sure, be disappointed but not surprised to learn that I was celebrating Brad Friedel's unexpected last minute equaliser for Blackburn against his beloved Charlton with almost as much zeal as our own result - only for substitute Claus Jensen to pop up and do his best to spoil our, and Friedel's, day. Something tells me this one's going to the wire.

A special mention too of the Sunderland fans who spoilt the minute's silence in memory of John Charles before the Mackems' game at Cardiff by singing anti-Welsh songs. Well done lads, your lack of respect only galvanised Cardiff's determination to give you a sound thrashing: Peter Thorne has been quoted in the Western Mail as saying, "I looked over at their fans and thought to myself, 'We're gonna really turn you lot over'." A 4-0 drubbing was then duly administered. The Cardiff supporters taunting their Mackem counterparts towards the end of the match with chants of "Are you Scotland in disguise?" was a nice touch, too.
Feel good hits of the 24th February

1. 'That Great Love Sound' - The Raveonettes
2. 'One Caveat' - Qhixldekx
3. 'Needle In A Haystack' - The Velvelettes
4. 'Six Barrelled Shotgun' - Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
5. 'Teenage Riot' - Sonic Youth
6. 'Negasonic Teenage Warhead' - Monster Magnet
7. 'Toxic' - Britney Spears
8. 'Two Librans' - The Fall
9. 'Overload' - Sugababes
10. 'Miss Jackson' - Outkast
Quote of the day

"The power of accurate observation is often called cynicism by those who don't have it." - George Bernard Shaw

(Courtesy of Blogged.)

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Blogwatch: in brief

As expected, there's a detailed minute-by-minute review of the Brits on No Rock 'N' Roll Fun, but other bloggers have also passed comment on proceedings. Vaughan, for instance, grumbles about the fact that the whole shebang made him feel his age: "These days, I'm the sort of person who would probably tell a gangsta rapper that it's actually spelt 'gangster', and advise him that he would have learned to spell properly if only he had stayed at school rather than hanging out in the hood with his homies".

He also has some choice words about the Duran Duran hit medley he was so looking forward to: "All I could hear was the sound of shiny, glistening '80s pop being made over - or done over in a pub car park, to be more accurate - into a lumbering rawk noise".


Anna's away for a while, but is updating with some Little Red Boat highlights - most recently, her attempt at writing children's fiction.

Jon introduces readers of his Rogue Semiotics blog to the quite horrifically dire poetry of Lib Dem MP Paul Marsden.

Good luck to Invisible Stranger, who is hoping to get himself a free lunch.

And finally... No new posts on Parallax View for some time now. Hope your arm is on the mend, Kenny - I for one am missing ya.
It's official: music is getting good again!

Alexis Petridis from Saturday's Guardian on Franz Ferdinand and Scissors Sisters, shining beacons amidst a sea of chart shite. I wonder how many such articles Mr Petridis has written in his time - there's an awful lot of cheery optimism in there. Fantastic as they are, I'm not sure that Franz Ferdinand possess truly messianic appeal, and the message that art rock will save us all is rather hard to swallow.
Burn, baby, burn

A request by the manufacturer of 'haemorrhoid relief products' to use Johnny Cash's 'Ring Of Fire' in an advert has struck a bum note with Cash's daughter.
Quote of the day

From The World, Backwards:

"I don’t want to pretend that I’ve been waiting all my life to work in some job that a robot could do just as well, I don’t want to say a bright 'Good Morning' to my co-workers and discuss the weekend’s Telly and the state of the housing market. I don’t want to listen to Virgin Radio. I don’t want to listen to anything where the DJ spends more time telling you about which minor celebrities they were drinking with last night and how wacky wacky wack they all were than playing music. I don’t want to see or hear another advert, ever. They make me pukey. I don’t want to help anybody make a profit.

I don’t want to listen to the opinions of people who just get on with it. I don’t want to hear another word from anybody who thinks the way we live now is acceptable. I certainly don’t want to hear anything from idiots who like bad art for stupid reasons. I don’t want to be told it’s not worth wasting energy getting angry. If you can’t be angry about the empty stupidness you live amongst then you just add to it all. The crushing weight of well-fed cattle who stay self-satisfied right up to the moment that the bolt-gun spears their skulls.

Monday, February 16, 2004

Sympathy for the devil

Martin Amis's 'Money' is at the same time a brilliant and deeply disturbing read. As a portrayal of the excesses of its central protagonist John Self, a vain and hedonistic would-be film director with an insatiable appetite for food, booze and pornography, the book is a wicked jet-black satire on the virulent greed of the 1980s London and New York of Thatcher and Reagan, far more searing in its power than Tom Wolfe's 'The Bonfire Of The Vanities'. But what often makes reading 'Money' such an unsettling experience is also what sets it apart from similar fictional critiques.

Self is not only the novel's central character but also its narrator. Everything is filtered through his consciousness, the reader left unsure of the reliability of his word. The fact that it is a first-person narrative allows Self to recount his adventures and misadventures in his own voice. For the most part he comes across as a loveable rogue not too dissimilar to Kingsley Amis's Jim Dixon, who uses his sly charm to put an amusing and self-deprecatory gloss on his personal misdemeanours:

"My travelling-clock told me eight fifteen. I leapt out of bed feeling full of fight, really tiptop, apart from the sweats, the jerks, the shivers, a pronounced dizziness - and a sensation, hard to describe and harder to bear, that I had missed my stop on the shuttle and was somehow due yesterday at the next planet but one."

"In the next booth I caught a quarter's worth of film with a sylvan setting: the romantic interest of the piece focused on the love that flowers between a girl and a donkey. There she was, smiling, as she prepared to go down on this beast of burden. Ay! The donkey didn't look too thrilled about it either."

"I had three handjobs yesterday. None was easy. Sometimes you really have to buckle down to it, as you do with all forms of exercise. It's simply a question of willpower. Anyone who's got the balls to stand there and tell me that a handjob isn't exercise just doesn't know what he's talking about. I almost had a heart-attack during number three."

"Morning came, and I got up... That doesn't sound particularly interesting or difficult, now does it? I bet you do it all the time. Listen, though - I had a problem here. For instance, I was lying face-down under a hedge or bush or some blighted shrub in a soaked allotment full of nettles, crushed cigarette packets, used condoms and empty beercans. It was quite an appropriate place for me to be born again, which is what it felt like."

Not only are such passages laugh-out-loud funny (and the value of 'Money' as a profoundly comic work shouldn't be understated), they also serve to seduce the reader into a fondness for a character who, if presented more objectively by a third-person narrator, might come across as a degenerate, self-destructive and conceited waster with precious few redeeming features. Having beguiled his way into the reader's affections, Self seems to relish the opportunity to cosy up to him or her, using direct address and maintaining the same jovial and chummy tone of friend to friend at all times, with results which are on occasion brutally striking:

"I've hit women. Yes, I know, I know: it isn't cool. Funnily enough, it's hard to do, in a sense. Have YOU ever done it? Girls, ladies, have you ever copped one? It's hard. It's quite a step, particularly the first time. After that, though, it just gets easier and easier. After a while, hitting women is like rolling off a log."

"So then I tried to rape her. In all honesty I have to confess that it wasn't a very distinguished effort. I'm new at this and generally out of shape. For instance, I wasted a lot of time attempting to control her hands. Obviously the proper way to rape girls is to get the leg question sorted out and take the odd slap in the face as part of the deal. Here's another tip: undress before the action starts."

Moments like these aren't simply about cheap shock value: rather, they suddenly alert the reader to the fact that they've been duped, unwittingly drawn in to Self's world to the extent that they now find themselves implicated, complicit in his narrative confession and, by extension, in the events themselves. As a reader you might reject his rape advice, but you can't quite shake the feeling that by condoning and exonerating his thoughts and actions before this you've somehow encouraged him into the belief that, as a trusted confidante, you might be receptive to his suggestions. The instinctive reaction is one of disgust (perhaps, appropriately enough, self-disgust), but even here in the offhand casualness of Self's admissions there is an appalling kind of comedy.

These issues of sympathy and revulsion are at the centre of Amis's novel. At one point Self openly confesses his need for the reader's sympathy, and yet it is highly debatable whether he ever actually gets it. 'Money' resolutely refuses to conform to the standard demands of the tabloid literary critic and the default expectations of the majority of the reading public - there is no wholly sympathetic character, there is no-one with whom the reader can "identify" and empathise, possessed by the conviction that he or she "understands" them and their thoughts, feelings or motivations. Books like 'Money' resist this sort of facile approach that impedes any other response, and that is perhaps what makes it particularly unsettling.

The author himself steps into the novel, invited by Self to rewrite the script for the prospective film. More than simply a clever and fashionable bit of postmodern window-dressing, this metafictional device is used to make a serious point. The Martin Amis character reflects on a couple of occasions about the nature of novel-writing and in the process offers some telling comments on what 'Money' is about and how to read it:

"'Is there a moral philosophy of fiction? When I create a character and put him or her through certain ordeals, what am I up to - morally? Am I accountable.'"

"'The distance between author and narrator corresponds to the degree to which the author finds the narrator wicked, deluded, pitiful or ridiculous.'"

In a beautifully comic touch, the bored Self interrupts the Amis character, unaware of his status as a fictional creation and thus of the relevance of such musings to his own situation. This concern with the responsibility or otherwise of an author for his or her characters recalls a similar metafictional passage in John Fowles's 'The French Lieutenant's Woman', and also with a brief piece on Bret Easton Ellis which appears in Will Self's volume of journalism 'Junk Mail'. In novels like 'Money' and 'American Psycho' a sense of distance between author and narrator is essential for the satire to work; but all too often the two are confused, and the author consequently found guilty of the crimes perpetrated by the characters or implicitly endorsed by the narrator. Of course, this is unforgiveable as it denies the imaginative and creative aspect of fiction. In 'Money' Amis drives a wedge between author and narrator and also forces the reader to contemplate and reconsider the way he or she has approached the novel.

A superbly written book, 'Money' is provocative in all the right ways.

(Thanks to Loaf for the recommendation.)
"Have you ever heard of a great punk band from the 80s called The Shaven Cocks? Great!"

How galling it must be for all the rest. I mean, if the limited edition it's-not-really-their-third-album Nightfreak And The Sons Of Becker really is The Coral dicking about and not really taking things seriously, then they're an even more special band than I've previously given them credit for.

What on first listen seems an uneven 28 minute long hotpotch of half-finished ideas soon reveals its true worth as very nearly the equal of the two albums to have gone before. Though there perhaps isn't the killer single that both The Coral and Magic And Medicine possessed ('Dreaming Of You' and 'Pass It On' respectively), what you have to realise is that there are enough genius ideas here, whether half-finished or otherwise, to make other bands very jealous indeed.

In musical terms, as the album title might suggest there's a latent psychosis lurking in some songs ('I Forgot My Name', 'Auntie's Operation', 'Migraine') and a sinister gloom hanging heavy over others ('Song Of The Corn', 'Keep Me Company'). But, perhaps surprisingly, tracks like 'Venom Cable' and 'Sorrow Or The Song' lollop along with a loosely funky gait, blessed with lithe and fluid basslines, and 'Grey Harpoon' even sounds like a stab at mainstream r'n'b influenced pop. All pointers for what is to come, I hope.

Lyrically they're as charmingly daft as ever - fans of tracks like 'Simon Diamond' and 'Talking Gypsy Market Blues' won't be disappointed. Witness the following: "She'll want your sympathy / She'll never let you be / Sniffing at your food / Before it's even chewed" ('Auntie's Operation') and "Doctor doctor, tearing my hair out / Doctor doctor what's it all about? / I feel nervous and I'm feeling sick / My body's shaking and I'm shitting bricks" ('Migraine').

Without doubt the most ceaselessly inventive and artistically restless band we've got. Thankfully that aesthetic restlessness also manifests itself in the desire to keep writing, recording and releasing gems of records.

The Coral are also influencing my reading habits - having just finished Amis's 'Money', I was going to move on to 'Filth' by Irvine Welsh, but decided it might be wise to take a break from the dirty rotten scoundrels and spend some time with Dylan Thomas's 'Under Milk Wood' instead.
Feel good hits of the 16th February

1. 'I Forgot My Name' - The Coral
2. 'Jacqueline' - Franz Ferdinand
3. 'Take Me Somewhere Nice' - Mogwai
4. 'Who's The One' - Wheat
5. 'Perfect Lines' - The Promise Ring
6. '88-92-96' - Six By Seven
7. 'The Diamond Sea' - Sonic Youth
8. 'Roadrunner' - Jonathan Richman And The Modern Lovers
9. 'She Don't Use Jelly' - The Flaming Lips
10. 'Cat Claw' - The Kills

Friday, February 13, 2004


D H Lawrence, 'The English Are So Nice!'

The English are so nice
so awfully nice
they are the nicest people in the world.
And what's more, they're very nice about being nice
about your being nice as well!
If you're not nice they soon make you feel it.

Americans and French and Germans and so on
they're all very well
but they're not really nice, you know.
They're not nice in our sense of the word, are they now?

That's why one doesn't have to take them seriously.
We must be nice to them, of course,
of course, naturally -
But it doesn't really matter what you say to them,
they don't really understand
you can just say anything to them:
be nice, you know, just nice
but you must never take them seriously, they wouldn't understand.
Just be nice, you know! Oh, fairly nice,
not too nice of course, they take advantage
but nice enough, just nice enough
to let them feel they're not quite as nice as they might be.
Profligacy doesn't pay

How many more times will we throw away invaluable points this season?

Just as was the case with Birmingham, it looked as though we were all set to avenge a 1-0 home defeat by Blackburn with a reversal of that scoreline on their own patch - and then we let in a late equaliser. What matters is not that, as at Birmingham, it would have been a win we scarcely deserved on the balance of play, but that we seem incapable of doing what teams with our aspirations should be able to - namely, holding out to win games even when we're not playing particularly well.

Blackburn's home record this season has been very poor, and we really ought to have capitalised on that. Bellamy got our goal, marking his return to the first team from long-term injury in style - though he was also subjected to some brutal and bizarrely unpunished "tackling" from that thug Lucas Neill, who doesn't seem to have learnt to control his behaviour following the infamous Carragher incident. Though he gave his all, as always, Shearer's failure to find the net again is giving cause for concern, as is the state of our Woodgate-less defence - solid with the former Leeds man at the heart of it, but nervy and jittery when Bramble and O'Brien line up alongside each other. Blackburn's equaliser came five minutes from time, new boy Jon Stead scoring from a Paul Gallagher cross that Dyer should probably have cut out

It's now six consecutive draws away from home. On the one hand, that suggests we're tough to beat. But on the other, we need to take our chances and start putting together a sequence of wins - though Charlton's challenge appears to be fading of late and Fulham are slipping out of the reckoning, Liverpool have leapfrogged us by beating Man City and Villa have suddenly hit a rich vein of form. Most frustratingly from the point of view of a Newcastle fan, of course, this run of form has coincided with the arrival of a certain Peruvian winger, as the Villa-supporting first caller on Wednesday night's Radio 5 Live 606 phone-in was quick to point out...
"C'mon now Aidan, no pissing in the sink please"

The discovery that the West Indian shop round the corner from my house sells the near-legendary Glaswegian alcoholic beverage Buckfast has prompted the idea for a Chemikal Underground theme party. Come as your favourite member of The Delgados, Mogwai or Arab Strap; spend all night swigging from bottles of Buckfast while describing it as tasting like "pish"; maintain a consistently high level of swearing (say, every other word, at least) or face ejection; take part in Aidan Moffat Karaoke - you get the picture.

I'm not even entirely sure what "Buckie" is - I think it's dirt-cheap sparkling wine, but maybe Alex can clear it up.

UPDATE: It seems that, despite its dubious associations with Glaswegian neds and scruffy pissed-up indie types, Buckfast is a type of wine made by monks in Devon (thanks to Alex for the link).
Red wine blues

Last night was spent in the company of some nice red wine and lager watching a cracking video double bill of 'The Big Lebowski' and 'Happy Gilmore' - Adam Sandler's finest hour, anyone? A thoroughly enjoyable evening, but what's worrying is that, as I get older, drinking even a relatively modest amount of alcohol of an evening almost invariably results in a hangover, and one that takes a significant bite out of my day. After a major session the hangover often swallows my whole day, and even now, at midday, there's a nagging little headache that's still nibbling away. I know I'm not the first person to notice this unhappy change in themselves, but right now that thought doesn't really offer any consolation.

The more observant amongst you may have noticed that I've finally got round to sorting out my sidebar and thus removing that long-winded blog description which I gather was a pain in the arse for referral logs. Sorry about that - I appreciate you indulging me in my ignorance. Anyway, the plan is to change the tagline every now and again - but I'll probably forget...

Welcome also to the following new additions to my blogroll:

Hold My Life
Rogue Semiotics
Teaching The Indie Kids To Dance Again
The Whole Wide World Of Fat Buddha!
Is it just me...

...or does Geremi look like a cross between Shrek and Sloth from 'The Goonies'? It's something to do with those ears.

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.