In-tents Preparation

SAT on the corner of my screen at work is a Post-It note with two numbers scrawled on it which are updated each morning.

It started a couple of months ago at 100/82 and has marked the daily countdown to heading off to Africa and, 18 days earlier, my last day at work.

When that first Post-It note was stuck there, those were pretty big numbers and there seemed loads of time to work the way down the list of things which needed doing before both had reached zero.

But, all of a sudden, the numbers have tumbled down to 36/18 and the clock is starting to click loudly.


At times, a glance at what is still left to do is enough to provoke mild panic attacks – especially when the daily to-do list has been forsaken in favour of lying on the sofa watching the Ryder Cup.

But at others, the mood is pretty relaxed. Those 18 days – minus a couple set aside for watching rugby, saying a few farewells and recovering from what that may entail – will be pretty much split in half, one week preparing for Africa, one week packing up my life at home.

That last task, essentially moving out of my flat and finding a new home (temporary, permanent or consigned to the rubbish tip) for its contents, will be reserved for the second week, leaving my remaining spare time and that first week to getting sorted for Africa.

Much of what remains to do involves kitting myself out and, given the limited space available and the amount of gear already on the shortlist to travel with me (particularly with all the added cables and plugs) the shopping list will need to be strictly rationed.

End of a long journey - start of an even longer one
End of a long journey – start of an even longer one

The bulkier bits of kit are sat on the sofa, waiting to be taken down to Oasis HQ in the morning (hopefully considerably quicker than the traffic-jam laden journey down to their Open Day and my first encounter with one of their trucks).

While the sofa is not designed for sleeping on, those pieces of kit have been assembled with the simple idea of making a good night’s sleep a priority over the coming months – while a fair amount of discomfort ahead is no major concern, being comfortable at night is one things worth pursuing (hence a decent pillow will be top of the shopping list once we have flown out and met up with the truck in Gibraltar).

And so, with the emphasis more on learning how to pack it away than set it up, my Sansbug mosquito net/tent, airbed and sleeping bag saw the light of day together for the first time in my sister’s garden.

Setting them up was pretty easy – although suggest my lung power may need some working on to inflate the air bed every night – and, with a bit of jiggling, packing it all up was not too bad.

That is until it came time to fold up the Sansbug. Several viewings of the instructional video and the instructions made it look fairly simple and it probably is. Let’s just say, it took a few goes to “Use your right hand to fold the top down to the ground and inwards, so it stays put against the ground” and, as it suggests, “have my right hand free”.

To say nothing of having the whole thing folded into three discs resting on each other.

Not hiding under the table. Far from it.
Not hiding under the table. Far from it.

But we got there eventually, much to the delight of my sister’s Labrador, who had taken one look at the new green arrival as it sprung up in his garden and hid under the table, peaking out from under the seat.

Labradors are unlikely to feature too heavily on the journey around Africa – there is more to worry about with some of the creatures than him opting to go to sleep sprawled across my lap – but suggest some of my fellow travellers may opt for a similar hiding routine as one of their number struggles to fold up his home for the night.

They may be even more keen to hide as my latest shiny new toy is given some early outings.

The camera debate has been going on for a while. My little idiot proof point and shoot is unlikely to do justice to a lot of what lies ahead, but there’s a reason it was chosen in the first place – it’s idiot proof.

The guy in the camera shop was ever so nice, ever so helpful and explained everything the camera could do and – more importantly – what it could do for me. At least, think he was because it made absolutely no sense and the only thing that really stuck in my head was the price and how much precious space it would take up (especially among all the other shiny electrical mod cons and accompanying cables).

So the point and shoot stays, but now it is paired with a GoPro video camera.

That didn’t break the bank and won’t take up too much room. Unfortunately, that does not hold true about the stuff which goes with it and proved impossible to resist.

So that’s all ticked off the list, along with a Ghanaian visa application (although there remains that feeling of trepidation until my passport in which it sits is safely back in my hand) and every day off in the last few weeks has kicked off with an appointment to get pretty much every part of my body checked out, scraped, pummelled and tested.

Osteopath, doctor, dentist, hygenist and opticians have all had their say as a plan to hold me together for the next year and allow me to see some of the most amazing places on earth – to say nothing of the succession of jabs which have made their way into my arms (just the one more this week, along with a final decision on malaria treatment).

The opticians beckons again in the morning to collect new glasses and decide on which contact lenses come with me – the daily disposals they want me to have, the monthly ones which have served me well for 20-odd years and which are stockpiled in one of my cupboards but are deemed old-fashioned and need daily attention or the weekly ones which only have to be touched once every seven days.

Decision time has not been helped that the test pairs they gave me have not been tried out that thoroughly. My excuse? They are not the right prescription so it is pretty difficult to read anything.

And how are you supposed to follow tent folding instructions if you can’t read them?


Cassandra Geminni: A Tarantism to Charlton Heston

SIX months after this part-epic, part-ludicrous journey through my iPod began and we have reached a biblical landmark – the momentous number 1,539.

History has largely ignored the figure 1,539 – the most interesting things which appeared to have happened that year are the first horse race at England’s oldest racecourse, Chester, Henry VIII contracting to  marry Anne of Cleves and Hernando de Soto introducing pigs into North America.

And 15.39 is normally about the time in the office when people start looking at their watches and wondering if another cup of tea is really enough to get them through to the end of the work day.

Whether he is wearing a vest is unknown...
Whether he is wearing a vest is unknown…

But on this A-Z musical odyssey, Stump took the revered number 1,539 spot with their quirky 80s indie classic Charlton Heston which marks – at least until some more tracks are added – the 10,000 to go point.

(The landmark almost went, and perhaps technically does, to the equally-deserving Charlotte Street by Lloyd Cole and the Commotions – and who can go against a song with the opening line “I was looking for a rhyme for the New York Times”? – but Cedarwood Road from the unwanted new U2 album sits up in the cloud, appearing only in faded grey in my iTunes and not at all on my iPod. And long may it remain that way.)

When this journey started, there were 11,235 tracks sprawled out in front of us and quick calculations had it taking a minimum of two years.

Since then, 304 non-U2* tracks have been added – it has been a fairly barren spell in terms of buying music, although expect a bit of an influx of new stuff in the six weeks before departing for 10 months on the road in Africa, when it is all likely to go very quiet on that front.

And that two-year minimum looks incredibly optimistic. With the current rate equating to roughly 3,000 tracks a year, that comes in close to four years – although there’s some long days on the road plugged into my headphones lying in wait for the next year.

So what other lessons have we learned over the past 1,539 tracks?

First, there’s a lot of stuff on my iPod which has passed me by, been ignored, somehow forgotten or simply overlooked. It has been great to rediscover tracks and their accompanying albums or to hear, sometimes for the first time, stuff which has been downloaded but ignored in favour of other new music picked up at the same time.

The majority of the A-Z journey has taken place while driving, while listening at home has then been the chance to investigate the stuff which has pricked my fancy along the way.

Sadly, there is also some stuff which has me shaking my head as to how it got there (although, slave to the rules, it has to be listened to).

Hence, The Cave by Mumford and Sons made it into the latest batch of tracks, courtesy of a brief (and mistaken) early thought they may be worth listening to during the loading of the iPod for a previous journey.

Perhaps not the place for Mumford and Sons. If anywhere is...
Perhaps not the place for Mumford and Sons. If anywhere is…

Annoyingly, as my laptop somehow became the main source of music, it seemed to be one album which several members of our group requested – although the elderly Russian woman in the carriage next to us on the Trans-Siberian railway seemed to have some taste when she complained about it being played too loud. Or at all. Hard to say.

The second lesson is that it is a mistake to look ahead to see what is coming up.

If there’s nothing that catches your eye, the whole thing can become a bit of a drag as you just try to get through the apparent barren spell. But if you spot one or two classics in the middle distance, they always seem to be a little bit further away than you thought and you are too busy waiting for them, rather than taking in the musical scenery as it hoves into views.

Besides, the song you have been waiting for will be gone far too soon. Far better to sit back and let it come as a pleasant surprise (that is when a working knowledge of what is in my collection has not already provided a few big clues as to what lies ahead).

The third discovery is that there’s a strange sort of “are we nearly there yet?” mentality which comes into play as you near the end of each letter.

The final 100 or so tracks become a bit of a burden as excitement grows for a brief arrival at the next destination and the fresh impetus provided by heading out on to the path through the next letter.

And the final lesson is that, six months in, this remains a good idea. It’s been fun, providing a real focus to my listening habits, as well as triggering plenty of memories and tales to tell in this blog (although really should start writing some of them down).

The Mars Volta
The Mars Volta

A previous attempt to do this – on a much smaller iPod and, with it, much smaller collection – hit the rocks when the five-song (A-E) Cassandra Geminni suite by The Mars Volta somehow blocked the road ahead.

For some reason, listening to this great block from the experimental half of the great At-The Drive In (who popped up in the latest section with Catacombs) seemed like too much of a task and the whole thing ground to a halt.

But this time, the whole chunk Geminni experience passed on a drive to work and we headed through a largely vintage section from acts we have seen before – early REM with Catapult, Sonic Youth from their best spell with Chapel Hill, The Lemonheads with Ceiling Fan In My Spoon, the mighty Sugar with Changes, Ceremony from New Order and The Wedding Present’s fine cover of Cattle and Cane (for some reason, no sign of The Go-Betweens’ original).

The Smiths’ just missed out on number 1,500, an absent e meaning Cemetry Gates had to slot in behind Cemetery Polka by Tom Waits, while we had two outings for The Cure, Charlotte Sometimes and The Caterpillar.

Both Cure tracks took me back to my teenage years – when they were one of the few bands the disparate musical clans in our sixth form could agree to listen to – but for all of The Caterpillar, my mind was occupied by a snatch which sounds remarkably like Light & Day/Reach For The Sun by The Polyphonic Spree.

We’ll get there. Eventually…

*Just as this paragraph was being written, I Will Follow by a very young U2 (ie back when they good) came on the radio. Why couldn’t they just leave that early stuff as their legacy?

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The Top 15

GOT challenged on Facebook over the weekend to post my 15 top albums.

It has taken a while as candidates were moved in and out of the final list and my own criteria for selection. Does longevity count or has an album from the last couple of years got enough miles under the belt? And is it just about the music or does the memories or time of my life each album represents count as much?

In the end, limiting each artist to just one entry – otherwise there would be several multiple albums – the shortlist came down to around 25. Eight of those were straight in, the albums which need to be listened to from start to finish and are saved for the right moments, while the remaining contenders were shuffled around for the final list.

Some of my favourite artists are missing, the likes of Billy Bragg because no one album really stands out although several entered the early debate, while others have failed to deliver more than the one classic album.

And so, with a little taster of each, here is the final list (until the inevitable change of mind, probably somewhere in the next 24 hours):

Relationship of Command – At The Drive-In

Ocean Rain – Echo & The Bunnymen

Psychocandy – Jesus & Mary Chain

It’s A Shame About Ray – The Lemonheads

Deserter’s Songs – Mercury Rev

Nevermind – Nirvana

Doolittle – Pixies

Steve McQueen – Prefab Sprout

Reckoning – REM

The Bends – Radiohead

Heartbreaker – Ryan Adams

The Queen Is Dead – The Smiths

Dirty – Sonic Youth

Copper Blue – Sugar

George Best – The Wedding Present



C’mon Kids to Cass and Henry

USEFUL things learned this weekend:

  • The Somerset town of Frome hosts a seemingly very popular agricultural and cheese show each year;
  • The fields which host the Frome show can seemingly only be entered through one single gateway, approached by single carriageways with no way for drivers not heading for the show – heaven forbid – to take a fast track round the waiting traffic;
  • If Google Maps gives directions which take you anywhere near Bath, ask for an alternative route;
  • Drivers in and around Bath rarely get out of second gear.

This was not the sort of valuable information that was the target for a trip down to the head office of Oasis Overland for their open day ahead of the overland Trans-Africa adventure – the first chance to explore one of their trucks (home for much of the next year), meet a few of my fellow travellers and chat about our preparations and what lies ahead. More of that in an upcoming post.

But all those lessons were learned on the 85-mile journey from Gloucester to the rural Somerset and Dorset border.

To be fair, avoiding anywhere near Bath is something that was already known, but given the additional, longer route meant heading down the southbound M5 car park, the decision was made to take the suggested best route which came with a target travel time of two hours five minutes.

End of a long journey - start of an even longer one
End of a long journey – start of an even longer one

Building in a little extra for those Bath problems and a breakfast stop for fuel – both for me and the car – that schedule should have had me rolling into the Oasis car park just about the start time at 11am.

Instead, having travelled around 25 miles in around three hours at one point, it was almost 1pm before the welcome Oasis sign finally hoved into view.

Thankfully, the return journey was much better – the three miles around the Frome show taking five minutes, as opposed to an hour – despite yet another cramp-inducing spell standing on the clutch and the brake negotiating my way around Bath.

But let’s look on the bright side – so many hours sat in my car provided the perfect chance to make major inroads into the C section of my iPod.

Inside a week and a single blog entry, we have rattled off almost a quarter of the C tracks and reached the point where – albeit with a decidedly smaller collection – this iPod challenge ground to a halt when first attempted a few years ago.

From the Boo Radleys’ call to arms to The Von Bondies (track number 1450), the Bs have headed off well into the distance as the miles were logged up via a trip down the west of North America (if not in the west of England).

Starting in the Pacific north west, Oregon’s The Decemberists provided two versions of The Calamity Song to send us over the border to Canada and two versions of Calgary – the original from Bon Iver and a cover by Juliana Richer Daily.

My couple of visits to Calgary have been synonymous with cold. Remember that scene in Cool Runnings when the Jamaican bobsleigh team recoil in shock and pile on all their clothes as they walk through the airport doors to be assailed by the extreme cold?

What they don’t show is the affect that cold – way, way below freezing – has on you, the first being that my nose all but froze itself shut. They also didn’t show passengers being forced to wait for their bags to be unloaded off the plane as the luggage compartment had to be defrosted before they could open it.

We headed back into Calgary from our base in Banff on our second ski trip to the Rockies to watch an ice hockey match, passing a lorry which proudly proclaimed it was refrigerated to -20°C. All a bit pointless when the temperature outside was around -45°C and enough to limit our excursions outside the next day to KFC for breakfast and the bar round the corner for pretty much all our other needs.

It was a fair bit warmer on my, to date, sole trip to California.

That was far too brief a visit – albeit more than enough to position a return visit high on the bucket list – but we had a decent stay in the Golden State musically speaking as John Murry and The Wedding Present (three times apiece), Gomez and Mazzy Star all popped up with songs named California, while Billy Bragg and Wilco teamed up for California Stars among others namechecking the state.

The US road trip was taken on by a variety of other artists – if not in subject matter, but a succession of bands and singers from around the 50 states.

There were three versions of The Breeders’ classic Cannonball (as excellently covered by Courtney Barnett in The AV Club’s always interesting Undercover series), while Kim Deal featured heavily twice more on Caribou by Pixies.

There were also two more appearances from Mark Kozelek, this time in the guise of Sun Kil Moon – both Carissa and Carry Me Ohio strengthening the view that my life was so much poorer without him in it for so long.

Thankfully, my life has had Sufjan Stevens in it for a while – he contributed Casimir S Pulaski Day – while REM (Camera and Can’t Get There From Here) and Ryan Adams (Call Me On Your Way Back Home) have been a big part of it for many a year.

Flying the flag for the Brits were The Clash (Career Opportunities and Card Cheat) and The Sundays with the still wonderful Can’t be Sure.

Which all made sitting in a car for that long just about bearable.


Burgundy to Byrd Joel

IT has been a week of three major events in the A-Z iPod Challenge – one a landmark, one a long-anticipated arrival and one dropped in from on high regardless of my thoughts on the subject.

One received absolutely no coverage – until now – one has earned a welcome amount of column inches and one was designed purely to snatch as many headlines as possible (which it certainly achieved).

And while one brought a slight sense of accomplishment and fresh impetus on a long journey, one has meant a brief detour off that journey – so far into what looks very welcome territory – and the other is just really, really annoying.

The landmark was the end of the Bs on this lengthy meander through my digital music collection, all 766 of them taking the total so far up to 1,315. Still some way over 10,000 tracks to go.

It was a pretty quick sprint from Warpaint to Red House Painters to usher us towards the border with C, which will currently take 684 tracks to cross en route to D, but there were still some pretty notable stop-offs en route.

A rash of Burn tracks was topped off by three outings for Burn Baby Burn by Ash, while Billy Bragg delved way back into his archives for another of his regular appearances with The Busy Girl Buys Beauty and Lambchop spearhead a surprising number of Butchers with two versions – one live – of The Butcher Boy.

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Hammersmith ApolloThe Boo Radleys supplied their “shoegazing shit with trumpets” (their words, not mine) with Butterfly McQueen from their career high Giant Steps album, the first side of which lasted pretty much exactly as long as my commute from Yate (the type of place referees come from, according to Half Man Half Biscuit), while Nick Cave provided his sublime reading of By The Time I Get To Phoenix.

And as The Stone Roses waved us farewell with Bye Bye Badman, there was quick diversion to mop up the A and B songs which have crept into my iTunes collection since we went past their spot in the order.

Gruff Rhys popped up three times in that selection, which also included two outings apiece for Protomartyr and The So So Glos, one for Morrissey and more evidence that both Conor Oberst and Hiss Golden Messenger need exploring further at some point in the future.

And there was also an outing for Am I Safe, which made its way into the line-up as part of the second major event of the week – the release of the new, self-titled album from Ryan Adams.

Ryan AdamsA new album from Adams has, for a long time, not been that exciting, partly because of the sheer weight of his output (even after slowing down considerably over the last few years, this is his 14th album in as many years) and the fact he has only fleetingly matched the sheer brilliance of his first two solo outings, Heartbreaker and Gold.

But this one, partly because of that drop off in productivity and partly due to rumblings of a real return to form, has attracted a fair amount of attention with lead single Gimme Something Good (a radio regular on my US road trip) serving up enough promise to suggest that its own request may be heeded.

Too early for a full verdict, but the signs are good – not Heartbreaker good, but very few things are – and major in-roads into the Cs will just have to wait.

As will any attempt to even contemplate listening to the new U2 album – the third, unwanted, unsolicited arrival this week.

BonoApple’s deep pockets  paid paved the way for this slice of kindness in the public glare when they could just as easily have done something we actually wanted – like donating some cash to all those good causes St Bono is always campaigning government figures to use our tax money on.

Or the Irish government could use his tax money. Or maybe not, as this wonderful article from Quietus explains.

What Bono seemingly struggles to understand is that large chunks of the half a billion people who were being gifted his latest slice of self-aggrandising, instantly forgettable music by numbers don’t want it. And some us object to having it forced into our personal collections.

Make it free to download, sure. People can choose to have it. But thrust it upon us, no thanks.

It all creates a problem for the A-Z Challenge. The rules, imposed by my own sense of doing it right, mean these tracks have to be listened to. There’s some rubbish on this iPod, you’ll get no argument from me on that, but nobody put them there but me.

The simple answer is to delete it, but like burning books, there’s something wrong with deleting music – even U2. That’s why there’s a couple of CDs in my collection which are hard to explain – not bought by me but please, never look in the Os – but simply can’t be thrown out.

This reaction to U2 would have been very different back in my teens.

Those early albums shone brightly in my early, burgeoning collection. Introduced to them by Live Under A Blood Red Sky, their earlier work followed that into my collection, along with The Unforgettable Fire, a War T-Shirt, a Christmas present copy of their biography and a lunchtime cycle from school to buy The Joshua Tree on the day of  release.

Even went to see them on that tour in Cardiff and if those early tracks come on in a bar, you will still find me singing along.

But then came Rattle and Hum, Achtung Baby and Bono’s conversion from rock singer to self-important, preening saviour wrapped up in a pair of expensive shades, the cost of which would probably go a long way towards making poverty history (something we can all agree on).

He is, however, subject of a great, probably apocryphal tale.

“Every time I click my fingers, somebody dies,” he earnestly states from the stage, rhythmically clicking his fingers.

“Well stop clicking your bloody fingers then,” comes a shout from the crowd.

And please  stop polluting my iTunes.


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