Come To Dust to Contort Yourself

IN comparison with the ground to be covered across the next nine months or so, the last week has not covered too much distance.

What’s a couple of trips to Bristol, one to Cardiff, a couple of nights out, more shopping (and spending) than you’d normally get me doing in many months compared to 39 weeks travelling overland around Africa?

And what is the relatively short sprint (albeit a considerable distance between musical styles) from Boards of Canada to James White and the Blacks in comparison to the inroads that trip will make into the A-Z rattle through my iPod?

But both musically and elsewhere, it has been a week of covering an awful lot of ground as two journeys – or, at least, sections of them – have neared their conclusion.

For the A-Z, we are entering the final stretch of the C section, almost to the point where D is looming into view and the desire to get through the final 100 or so tracks forms a type of “are we nearly there yet?” mentality – especially as number 2,000 heralds the entry into the home straight ahead of the new letter.

Away from the music, the journey has been through a success of daily to-do lists as the road to heading off to Africa has seen the miles clocked up at an alarming rate.

The final leg of that journey kicked off after leaving work and – once the effects of a later than planned finish to my leaving do had worn off – has seen a lot of jobs ahead of departure chalked off the lists where they have been sitting for some time, waiting for the short spell before the off when getting ready for it has become my full-time occupation.

Those preparations will be covered in more detail in another post (this one coming first purely by chance), but they have now reached the point where, if the call came through saying the trip had been moved forward a week, it would not be a major problem.

The Hold Steady
The Hold Steady

One last shopping trip in the morning for a final few essentials (socks, pants, toothbrush, you know the sort of thing) and all that is really left for the trip is to work out how to cram what currently covers my bed and the best part of two shelves in a cupboard into my newly-repaired rucksack and newly-delivered shoulder bag.

Packing out of the way (and the plan is to pair that with working out how to use my new GoPro camera, so look out for a video on how – or how not – to pack for an overland journey and, if in a charitable mood, you might also get to see my attempts to work out how to tie my new bandana) and the final few days before departure will be given off to packing up my flat.

All of which will be done to the soundtrack of my iPod as the race is on to get through those pesky Cs before leaving (the daily chunks of listening to them on the drive to and from work having to be replaced by other methods).

There’s also a chunk of newly-downloaded ABC tracks to catch up on after an afternoon spent getting my iTunes up to date with new albums, books and, courtesy of the vouchers which made up my leaving present, all five series of The Wire downloaded for re-watching on the road.

Weezer and Half Man Half Biscuit’s new albums will play a major role in that chunk, after The War On Drugs lead the way through the last batch of C songs, courtesy of four tracks starting with Come or Comin’.

But musically, this week has belonged to The Hold Steady.

They may have only cropped up once on this leg of the journey, with Constructive Summer, but they were responsible for one of those trips to Bristol to catch them at the Academy.

Not my favourite venue and, to be honest, the evening had started with a touch of “can we really bothered?” syndrome, but well worth the trip it was as they played a storming set mixing up new stuff with a healthy sprinkling of their back catalogue.

Where White Denim, also in Bristol, felt the need to add any number of flourishes to each track and stretch them almost to – and sometimes beyond – breaking point, The Hold Steady trimmed away any unnecessary flourishes and raced through tracks at a healthy clip, building as they went and heading off before outstaying their welcome.

They wrapped things up joined by support band The So So Glos – who were so-so – for a cover of American Music by The Violent Femmes, who popped up again on my iPod with Confessions, just as the second trip to Bristol (another spot of pre-journey shopping) merged into a sprint along the M4 to Wales to make a meeting with my account manager at the bank on time(ish). Thought it might be a good idea to go through some of the more bizarre transactions that lie ahead in the next nine months.

Elsewhere, The Beatles contributed three versions of Come Together – Primal Scream and Spiritualized chipping in with songs of the same name – while there were two versions of Elastica’s Connection, The Concept by Teenage Fanclub (from their excellent, fairly recently rediscovered Bandwagonesque album), Company In My Back by Wilco and Coming Home from Richard Hawley, someone who has never truly grabbed my attention but is making his mark whenever he appears on this trip.

Shack contributed Comedy, Pulp added Common People and regulars The Lemonheads (Confetti) and New Order (Confusion) popped up again.

As did Complete Control by The Clash, with which my brother in law kicks off his birthday each year.

There’s worse ways to mark getting older.

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A Charm, A Blade to Clint Eastwood

“You mean you forgot cranberry too?”

AND, with the words of The Waitresses’ Christmas Wrapping, the A-Z iPod blog returns from its Christmas break.

Yes, it is only October, but with alphabetical needs overtaking the constrains of the Gregorian calendar on this journey, Christmas popped up heading down some country lanes through Somerset on a glorious early autumn day.

It wasn’t quite Christmas In July (Sufjan Stevens’ offering to the festive selection box) and a lot of it was not even that festive – especially Christmas In Nevada from Willard Grant Conspiracy, which popped up twice and is welcome any time of the year – before The Waitresses wrapped it up with the first real jingle of bells.

That musical detour was excusable. After all, it is just following the rules laid down for the journey.

Far less excusable are the Christmas decorations which have already been hanging from our office ceiling for more than a week.

The view from my desk. In October
The view from my desk. In October

The reason, so we are told, is to inspire the advertising department as they start turning their minds towards sales for the festive period (even though most of them spend very little time in our office any more), but generally only serves to confirm the reputation of editorial as rather less full of Christmas cheer – at least until the seasonal drinks are broken open a lot nearer the actual date.

The decorations’ arrival prompted two responses from our section of the office – either tweeting pictures with exclamations of horror at the early onset of tinsel or digging around desk drawers for the lights and tinsel which were tucked away on Twelfth Night, if only to wrap around the screens of less enamoured colleagues the moment they stepped away.

It also prompted a revival of a long-standing argument with a colleague over the merits of The Waitresses’ festive evergreen – he hates it, while its mix of a good tune, Christmas cheer and healthy dose of cynicism puts it high on my (admittedly short) list of Yuletide favourites (alongside, rather obviously, Fairytale of New York, the more wilfully obscure I Want An Alien For Christmas by Fountains of Wayne and the more recent double entry from Smith And Burrows, When The Thames Froze and, particularly, This Ain’t New Jersey).

In years gone by, such an early onset of decorations, the seasonal aisles which have started to pop up in supermarkets, the first hints of Christmas adverts in the paper and, particularly heinous, the start of the X Factor, would have had me moaning as loud and long as anybody (it was more loud and brief this time round), but this year is not going to be a normal festive break.

For the first time in many years, my Christmas plans remain a mystery.

It will be somewhere in Africa. West Africa to be more precise. And the current provisional itinerary has us crossing from Sierra Leone to Cote d’Ivoire on Boxing Day, so a repeat of the last Oasis Overland Trans-Africa trip’s Christmas Day on the beach in Sierra Leone – complete with pig on a spit – is a possibility,

But anything involving that part of the world is subject to change at the moment.

Wherever we end up, it will be only my second Christmas spent away from the family – first at my parents and, for as long as memory serves now, at my sister’s with the brother-in-law on cooking duties.

The last one was, probably, 1987 when Christmas lunch was eaten in an Austrian mountain restaurant on a school ski trip.

Schruns, Austria. Not that we could see that far.
Schruns, Austria. Not that we could see that far.

December 25 was the only day on the entire trip when the sun came out and we could actually see where we were going – the reduced vision at one point leading to a group of us taking a wrong turn, heading off piste and facing a bit of a drop off the garage roof we were somehow standing on.

Visibility was bad, but not bad enough to mask how big a drop it was.

Skiing trips followed the Christmas breaks for many years – mainly because the first week of the new year is genuinely cheaper – which meant two festive traditions.

Firstly, Boxing Day meant a swift return to work to compile the day’s sporting news and results and free up time off over new year, while, less welcome, the big day provided a signal for my back to go into spasm.

Twice it went while sat at the table for Christmas dinner and left me barely able to get up. It was not, as my sister would probably claim, a way of avoiding the washing up. It bloody hurt and, despite being much better at handling the warning signs, still does when it goes again.

So regular was the Christmas backache and the ensuing rush to get me back on my feet for skiing, my osteopath rang in advance one year to suggest booking an appointment for the day they returned to work. It was needed.

The other annual preparation for a skiing trip was the compilation of some C90 mix tapes, which almost certainly included some of the tracks in the lengthy latest section which carried us from Phosphorescent to Gorillaz.

The Clash London Calling Tower Theater Show 3/6/1980Leading the way in this latest batch of songs were The Clash, who popped up with four different tracks – Cheat, City of the Dead, Clampdown (twice) and Clash City Rockers – while Sufjan Stevens appeared again with the classic Chicago and The Hold Steady (next on the live gig list later this month) surfaced with two versions of Chips Ahoy!

There was two outings as well for Christine by House of Love, a band which never really won me over totally, despite what my companion on many of those skiing trips thought of them. The same can be said about The Smashing Pumpkins and several friends. They contributed Cherub Rock (the Smashing Pumpkins, not my friends).

And there were returns from frequent visitors The Wedding Present (Cherez Richku Cherez Hai), Billy Bragg (Cindy of a Thousand Lives, among others), Arcade Fire (City With No Children) and Echo and the Bunnymen with the epic Clay.

Seasick Steve gave us Chiggers, a cautionary tale of dealing with little bitey creatures.

Let’s hope that’s not one that comes to mind too often come Christmas…

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Ballad of Helenkeller and Rip Van Winkle to Basic Space

And all the grown-ups will say: “But why are the kids crying?” And the kids will say: “Haven’t you heard? Rik is dead! The People’s Poet is dead!”

JOURNALISTS have a strange relationship to death. Do not believe all you read, we are not all heartless monsters who simply don’t care, but the reaction to news of people dying could often come as a bit of a shock to outsiders.

Timing plays a big part – as does just how desperate we are for a front page splash.

Can’t remember too many cheers when news of a death broke (certainly not to rival the ones which greeted the news of Piers Morgan being sacked at the Mirror, but we were in the pub so there was some liquid amplification), yet there has definitely been  a few clenched fists of triumph and strangled cries of “YES” as the search for a big story comes to an end.

That sounds terrible and in nearly quarter of a century in this job – albeit largely watching on from the safe distance of the sports desk or a step removed on subs – dealing with delicate situations and grieving relatives has (almost) always been handled with the utmost sensitivity.

But when news, as it often does with celebrity deaths, breaks close to deadlines, practicalities take over with the job of presenting the story to the best of our ability in a very short time.

My first experience of this came when news of then Labour leader John Smith collapsing at his home broke perilously close to morning deadline (back in the good old days when evening newspapers were put to bed on the day they hit the news stands).

Hurriedly, as we dug around for scant information, two front pages were created – one of which would never see the light of day and one of which could well be totally out of date before it even reached the printers. Time for reflection or sorrow had to wait until after that edition had gone (the sad final news arriving just before deadline).

News of both the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret broke moments after the South Wales Echo’s Saturday night sports edition – the Pink – had headed off to the printers, although we managed to stop the presses (the only time I have managed to shout that in action down the phone) long enough to at least get them on the front of some copies.

Time was not much of a factor as a young reporter on New Year’s Day 1995.

Nursing a hangover having just wandered in during the afternoon to wrap up the holiday sporting action, there were only a couple of us kicking around the Gloucester Citizen office when a photographer wandered over to the sports desk (the duty reporter was out) and suggested putting Ceefax on (that ages this tale).

The top story was simple: “Fred West Found Dead In His Cell”.

Any hopes of a quiet afternoon were instantly dispelled as the phone burst into life. Over the course of a few hours, my role started as the sole source of contact to chasing down reporters across the country, digging through the archives and, eventually, the one who gets sent out to look for food.

Most celebrity deaths are not that dramatic, but at least a couple of them produced a common newsroom response – silence, followed by journalists working out from their colleagues’ reactions as to who had the recently deceased in the office’s version of a Fantasy Death League.

Once common in newsrooms, Cardiff’s version was known as the Coffin Club and involved picking a 11-strong line-up governed by strict criteria, complete with a mid-year transfer window – whoever picks the most celebrities who die over a year scoops the pool.

The black humour involved fits in well with journalism and you did not want to be in my team in one of two winning years when a record seven of my picks shuffled off this mortal coil – the winnings paying for one of the predecessors of the iPod we are currently working our way through.

In all those years, however, a few deaths have prompted a stunned silence and not prompted much in the way of joking for a while (one eventually sparked a lot of joking, but it took a little while to recover from the news).

The first was John Peel, which rocked a newsroom largely populated by blokes of a certain age, while the other came this week with the news of Rik Mayall’s premature demise.

Mayall was, as much as Marr, Morrissey, McCulloch or any number of jingly-jangly indie guitar bands, a huge part of my teenage years.

Twelve years old when The Young Ones first aired, it was instantly the talk of the school – trouble was, it just wasn’t on in my house. My mum had heard about this show and there was no way we were going to watch it.

Until, several weeks into the run, she was out for the night, my Dad was upstairs working and there was nothing else on my elder sister wanted to watch. The TV choice was mine and what it showed was something which had me wide eyed with astonishment.

Party remains one of the finest episodes and although half of the gags went straight over my head, it was unmissable from that point in. He was ours, something our parents just did not get. Yes, there was a lot of nob and fart gags, but it was performed with such energy and refreshing vitality.

Eventually, worn down by a succession of Rik impressions – complete with snorts – and endless quoting, my mum caved in and eventually sat down to watch an episode. Disgusted as she was – remember her being appalled by Vyvyan eating a dead rat – she was also enamoured by this electric presence and, for years to come , “Hands Up Who Likes Me” could reduce her to giggles.

It now looks bit dated at times, but can still happily sit down and rewatch old episodes of The Young Ones when they pop up, just as the music which soundtracked that time (roughly as mainstream chart stuff was being shunted aside for more alternative fare) still crops up encouragingly often.

The latest run through my iPod – from The Moldy Peaches to The XX  – features a few from roughly that era. Four versions of Bankrobber (one by The Clash, two live from Joe Strummer and a cover by someone called Hawksley Workman), Barbarism Begins At Home by The Smiths and three versions of The Band Played Waltzing Matilda by The Pogues (who also managed to upset my mum).

The journey from Ballads… saw John Murry’s lovely Ballad of The Pajama Kid pop up twice either side of another track due to two different spellings (Pyjama), while we careered through a great little bar crawl – Barefoot by The Cadbury Sisters, Barfruit Blues by The Hold Steady, Barney (…And Me) by The Boo Radleys, Barstow by Jay Farrar (who saw live the night before England won the Rugby World Cup, meaning it is all a bit hazy) and Bartering Lines by Ryan Adams.

It all would have added up to a glorious run of tracks if it was not soundtracking both Mayall’s death and Hereford United being kicked out of the Conference into… well, who knows at what low level they resurface in some shape or form

Not a good few days.

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Antistar to Ashes of American Flags

THE past week has been dominated by departures – one expected but with a string of problems, the other unexpected but with a hint of better times ahead (well, hopefully).

Both have taken up the bulk of my time, thoughts and conversations, over the last few days, meaning this entry has been delayed and taken us a fair bit further along my A-Z journey through my iPod.

Departure number one saw the tenants leave my house in Cardiff.

Installed four years ago while the house stood empty on my overland journey from London to New York (helped by a string of calls and e-mails between Cardiff and China which had the agents trying endlessly to calculate time differences), they remained as my return to the Welsh capital was shortlived.

April_Skies_(single) Even as their latest contract ran out, that was one issue ahead of heading to Africa which looked simple – they sign another one and worries about paying my mortgage were sorted. That was until they announced out of the blue they weren’t signing and were moving out.

And move out they did, seemingly by grabbing a few bits and pieces, walking out the door and heading to pastures new.

At least, that’s how it appears, judging by what they have left strewn across the uncleaned house and unkempt garden, sadly bereft of a few pieces of my furniture which seem to have walked out of the door with them.

The constant amending of to-do lists for Africa, this blog and life in general has been replaced by a to-do list for sorting out the house, but only after a few very deep breaths to calm down.

As well as anger, their actions and attitude in leaving the house in such a state totally amazes me – how can anybody not be consumed by embarrassment to leave somebody else’s house in that condition?

When the time comes later this year, my flat will be attacked from all angles by an array of cleaning products and, bar a few dusty bits and one or two difficult to access places in the bathroom, it is already in a pretty presentable state.

Having just about calmed down from a trip to confirm what the agents had told me – via a journey that included an almost hour-long traffic jam in Chepstow, of all places, which helped scoot the A-Z journey along at a healthy pace and past the 400 mark (Apple Blossom by The White Stripes) – the second departure crept up on us on Monday morning.

The sacking of Nigel Davies as Gloucester’s director of rugby was not totally out of the blue – after all, the season has disappointed from start to finish and Saturday’s closing defeat at relegated Worcester was, frankly, laughable as the Cherry and Whites mixed touches of genius with splashes of ineptitude.

While the loud-mouthed bloke behind me at Worcester will not be alone in celebrating Davies’ departure (his main reason being that the outgoing boss is Welsh), his reading of the situation was remarkably misplaced and badly informed.

This, after all, was a man who only realised in the second half when he could see the names and numbers on the players’ backs that he had been slagging off the wrong player for 40 minutes while claiming that flanker Matt Kvesic had only made about three tackles all season and should be sold. His tackle numbers actually put Kvesic fourth in the entire league.

Personally, with reinforcements arriving, my opinion was that Davies deserved time next season to shape what is finally his squad – not short on talent this term, but lacking in depth and, at crucial times, leadership and direction – probably until the Six Nations at least.

But, having made the decision, the board were right to act quickly – stay or go, this could not drag on all summer.

And they now need not only to find the right man, but the right structure. Davies spent a lot of time during the season working on bringing in those signings and, from a distance, that was time Gloucester needed him sorting out the problems on the pitch – two jobs, one man just didn’t add up.

Of course, this poor season (and when we have had bad seasons before it was, unlike this one, largely expected) coincided with my first season ticket in four decades of watching rugby at Kingsholm, the first time when playing, working, travelling or living away did not keep me away from Castle Grim for long periods.

Fellow fans will be delighted that being in Africa for most of the season will mean no renewal.

So, that’s the background to the last few days, what has been the soundtrack?

wilco-ashes-of-american-flags-dvd-338-300Starting with the new longest so far (Antistar at Massive Attack comes in at 19.41, but more than half of that is largely silence bar a few background beats), we have seen classic first  entries by The Housemartins (Anxious), The Jesus and Mary Chain (April Skies, which a friend once tried to teach me the bassline to, without success) and Lloyd Cole and the Commotions (Are Your Ready To Be Heartbroken?).

Also popping up for the first time – and blowing away a few emotions on the drive back from Cardiff – were At The Drive-In with Arc Arsenal while Prefab Sprout’s Appetite gave a more gentle first touch from their Steve McQueen masterpiece (the first side of which is almost flawless) and A-Punk by Vampire Weekend slipped from the opening track of the whole countdown on a previous attempt to somewhere near 400.

Arseholes, The Shirehorse’s much preferable version of Robbie Williams’ Angels, provided a rather different direction while The Clash and Joe Strummer have different readings of Armagideon Time.

To wrap it all up on a high note, Wilco provided two versions (live and original) of probably my favourite song of theirs, Ashes of American Flags.

And blasting that out on the drive home from work was enough to provide a great end to a testing few days.

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London Calling

Original posted on London to New York blog, March 20, 2010

AFTER months of planning, wading through a to do list that expanded at the same rate as my bank balance diminished, at least seven rounds of farewell drinks and even the appearance of my vacuum cleaner, we are on the road.

Officially, we are not on the road until far too early tomorrow, but we’ve crossed our first border, so that’s good enough for me.

And we did it in a style we are about to get accustomed to – on a bus. The National Express from Cardiff to London and a less than salubrious bed for the night in Earls Court.

Catching the bus from Cardiff
The crowds came out to wave us from Cardiff – or to watch Wales v Italy

Let’s just say the hotel (and that’s a charitable term) was picked for two reasons – it was cheap and it’s just a couple of minutes walk from the tube, which will come in handy in the morning as we have to get on the first District Line tube at 6.39am to make our way to The Embankment and our first meeting with the other inhabitants of the bus.

One of the most common questions we have faced over the last few weeks – who are the other people on the bus?

The simple answer is, we just don’t know. We don’t even know how many others are on the trip.

Finding out is all part of the adventure and large chunks of tomorrow – when we head out of London to a cross channel ferry and an evening in Bruges – will be taken up with finding out about each other.

Apologies in advance for forgetting anyone’s name over the next few days.

We do know a little bit about a few of our travelling companions from the trip’s Facebook page. Nick and myself appear to be somewhere in the middle of the age range between teenagers and pensioners. Not sure which group we will end up with.

The other main question in the last few weeks – apart from “What are you drinking?” and “Is it your round?” – has been “Are you excited?” or its illegitimate brother, “Are you nervous?”.

The answer has changed a bit each time, but has generally been an adaptation of “a bit of both really”.

There has barely been time to be excited or nervous over the last few weeks.

About 10 days ago, that to do list was getting seriously worrying. It just didn’t seem to be shrinking.

Following the example of my organised work self – as opposed to the totally disorganised, “don’t do today what you can put off til tomorrow… or beyond” part of my being which takes over when not working – the list was split up into daily lists which, for the first two weeks, just weren’t getting completed.

As well as sorting things out for the trip, there was also my house – still up for rent at very reasonable rates if anyone wants anywhere to live in Cardiff – to deal with, not to mention squeezing in all those last hoorahs in the pubs of Cardiff.

Then, suddenly, at the start of this week, the list suddenly got a lot shorter, the trees got out of the way – thanks to the nice man who cleared my overgrown garden – and the woods could be seen again. By Friday afternoon, the search was on for things to do.

But, even at the list’s longest, it was never stressful. In fact, I’ve rarely felt so relaxed or, in recent times, slept better – bar one horrible night which combined the aftermath of a throat infection and escalating panic over the non-appearance of my Chinese visa – and the main feeling, certainly this final week, has been wanting to get on the way.

The throat has cleared up, the bags are packed, the Chinese visa turned up after a phone call to confirm I was no longer a working journalist and, finally, we are on the way.

And we’ve already had our first culture shock.

That there London’s a bit different isn’t it? No self-respecting pub in Cardiff or Gloucester would need two oiks to ask for the France-England Six Nations to be put on the television.

And surely nobody in Cardiff or Gloucester would ask how long a half lasts in rugby or argue that England’s try should not have been allowed because the ball first hit the ground short of the line.

That he was not shown the error of his ways is a clear indication of one chilled traveller…

Links:
Google Map – What Lies Ahead

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