...and I'm still finding interesting things to blog about, such as fifteen things you might not know about coffee. This month smashed my record for the largest blog since I started writing it, seven years ago. It's been a very eventful month with all sorts of things going on, as you'll see below. This weekend has been much quieter. Too quiet, in fact; I don't appear to have any access to the World Wide Web at the moment. Saturday evening is never a good time to surf the web around here as my connection slows to a crawl but this evening it's seized up completely. Left to my own devices, I've been trying to come up with one or two appropriate comments to round out the month and I've been failing dismally. All day I've been lethargic, sluggish, finding it difficult to concentrate.
I think the solution is to drink more coffee, hence the caffeine theme to today's links. I love coffee. When I went on my photography holiday to France last year, it wasn't wine I brought back, it was coffee - as many different brands of espresso as I could track down. I brought a lot of espresso back with me and it's all long gone.
I bought my current espresso machine back in February 2007. It's a Gaggia Evolution, and when it works right it makes a very good espresso. The problem is that it very rarely works right. In fact it's really temperamental and I only manage to get good results about one in every ten attempts. The rest of the time, it dribbles out a pathetically weak drink with no crema to speak of, or the nozzle gets blocked and it sits there making whining noises but no espresso, or it doesn't froth the milk properly. Furthermore, it dribbles water into the cup while it's heating up and when you remove the holder after making your coffee, make very sure you've relieved the pressure by venting steam through the milk frother first, or you'll blow hot coffee grounds all over your kitchen worktop. I keep telling myself that it's time I bought a better machine. I find myself eyeing the commercial models I see in bars and restaurants, wondering where I could fit them in my minuscule kitchen. The really good ones have their own water supply plumbed in, and I wouldn't know where to start with that. Never mind; I think the coffee I made just now has started to kick in.
There's a rare interview with Kevin Eldon in today's Guardian. You might recognise him as the guy parodying Agent Smith in "Back", the first episode of Spaced's second season; he might ring bells as a quarter of Bill Bailey's ludicrous Kraftwerk tribute band; possibly you heard him singing and playing the guitar on Look Around You; perhaps you listened to the CERN podcast where Professor Brian Cox gave him a guided tour round the LHC with Simon Munnery or maybe you saw the overwhelmingly earnest poet Paul Hamilton giving readings at the Latitude Festival. Wherever you know Kevin Eldon from, you'll know just how witty and entertaining his work is. If you're going to Edinburgh for the Fringe, his act should be first on your list of don't-miss events.
Kids, if you're going to play a prank on your teacher, you'd better do some hard creative thinking first, because you're going to struggle to outdo Scott Bur's students at Gustavius Adolphus College in Minnesota. They wrapped everything in the associate professor's office in silver foil. Nice.
I stumbled across an interesting item on Wired's UK website a couple of days ago about a very clever combination of origami, magnets and actuators that its inventors describe as programmable matter by folding. Sending an electrical current into a tiny sheet of plastic makes it twist itself into a number of different shapes, including a boat and a tiny plane. It's not going to help you turn your car into a giant robot just yet, but it's a fascinating start...
The speed of light and the gravitational constant are not constant over time; the universe experiences phases of expansion and contraction; time and space can be converted into each other, and mass and length are similarly interchangeable - at least, they are according to a paper by Wun-Yi Shu at the National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan. Oh, and the cosmology he's proposing also does away with the big bang, the big rip or the big crunch, and dark matter. To say that this has got the blogosphere stirred up is putting it mildly.
Jack Horner, the paleontologist who was the inspiration for Sam Neill's character in Jurassic Park, has been in the news again this week. Working with John Scannella at the Museum of the Rockies in Montana, he's come up with the astonishing theory that the well known dinosaur Triceratops is actually the juvenile form of a much less well-known dinosaur, Torosaurus. As Triceratops matured, Horner and Scannella suggest, the size and shape of its horns and its crest changed significantly and the bony frill on its skull became elongated, developing holes. They point out that the only specimens of Torosaurus that have been discovered are all mature adults; the most well-grown specimens of Triceratops have skulls which show thinning at the spots that correspond to the holes in Torosaurus's frill. It's a lovely, robust piece of work and it could have tremendous significance for the science: if these two seemingly different species are actually the same animal, what other species of dinosaur might also turn out to morph from one to another in the same way?
I'm feeling pleased with myself this afternoon as I've finally figured out why my the bluetooth kit in the car wasn't making calls on my iPhone. The solution turned out to be blindingly simple: once the phone repeated the name of the person I wanted to call, I had to say "dial" to confirm that I wanted to place the call. As I haven't been doing this, the phone kept saying "cancel" to inform me that it had timed out waiting for a response. Once I'd figured that out, the car told me "the number is dialled," and I was able to make a call perfectly.
Moral of the story: make sure you read the instruction manual thoroughly. Duh.
I was very sorry to hear today that the UK Film Council is to be shut down. The organisation was created in 2000 to provide financial support to the UK's film industry and it provided backing for over 900 British shorts and full length movies including Girl with a Pearl Earring, This Is England, In The Loop and Mrs Henderson Presents. However, I found the news particularly sad because the UK Film Council also helped to fund for the renovation of my local cinema, the Electric Picture House in Wotton-Under-Edge, as part of the Digital Screen Network initiative. As a result, the EPH has a high-end digital projection system that can show the latest movies in 3D. I saw Avatar there, and the picture quality was stunning.
For the moment, I'm taking the council's enforced demise as evidence of just how serious the country's financial situation is - but I'll reserve the right to change my assessment should it come to light that other, more profligate public bodies have escaped the axe...
Lots of hilarity this morning over the headlines sparked by rock band the Kings of Leon, who were forced to abandon a concert in St Louis after pigeons in the auditorium started crapping on them.
Further comment would be superfluous, wouldn't it?
Today was my first day back at work after a week and a half's holiday, and by 2pm I was completely knackered. That may have had something to do with the fact that I spent a large chunk of yesterday beating the back garden into shape. It was a good year for rosebay willowherb, at least as far as my little plot of land was concerned. In amongst all the weeds I found a couple of sprigs of holly; I've replanted them somewhere they can grow without me needing to dig them up.
One thing completely absent from my garden this year is slugs. I have a sneaking suspicion that this little fella and the rest of his family may be responsible:
It was only a baby; I left it a few scraps of raw bacon in case it was feeling hungry, and in the morning both it and the bacon had disappeared.
I got home just after midnight after a really easy drive home - there was far less traffic on the M5 than I'd expected. With some judicious use of cruise control I got the trip computer to read 31.3 miles per gallon, which I was very pleased with.
Once I'd put the car in the garage, it took me a fair while to raise the house from its week-long slumber; I couldn't get the boiler's pilot light to come on until I'd spent half an hour twiddling knobs and pushing buttons. It's the original boiler that was installed when the house was built and I've been thinking that maybe it's time to get it replaced. When I finally got round to climbing up the stairs and going to bed I weighed myself in the bathroom, and was surprised to discover that not only had I managed to avoid putting on any weight while I was away, I'd also managed to lose a few pounds. Result!
After nodding off some time around quarter to three you'd have thought I would have managed to sleep until at least 11am, but no - I was awake by half past nine this morning. Rather than lying in bed I got up and headed over to Steve's Shop, where I bought a paper and a couple of pints of milk, so now I'm set up for the rest of the weekend. I've uploaded my festival photos to Flickr and now I need to give the blog a final proof read before I upload it in all its glory. This month has already broken my record for the largest file on my website, and there's still a week left to go...
There wasn't much tidying up to do this morning, as I'd put two loads of crockery through the dishwasher last night. The fridge is full of leftovers, although considering the amount of food we had yesterday morning I'm surprised how much we managed to consume. Janet and Vic arrived at 9:30am to collect Mary, and once they had loaded up their car, the three of them headed back to Lytham. As all the remaining schools break up for the summer holidays today there's likely to be a lot of traffic, and I don't envy them that trip at all. At lunchtime I checked the travel news, and the jams for the M4/M5 junction were stretching back as far as the exit for Bath at junction 18.
The weather was still changeable, and we got a heavy shower around lunchtime. I did a few more odd jobs around the house for Mum and Dad, spraying the lilies by the front door with bug spray, putting up a bird feeder on Mum's bedroom window, and setting Mum's chair lift back in the bath. It's remarkably easy to take in and out - it only takes a couple of minutes. Knowing that will make life easier when we all congregate there again next month, as it's quite difficult to take a shower with the thing installed. In the afternoon my parents went for a snooze, so I did too. To my surprise I went out like a light - Mum said I was snoring away for a good half hour or so. When I woke up we set about trying to eat our way through yesterday's leftovers. We managed to empty a few more bowls and plates so those went in the dishwasher. I am really going to miss the convenience of the thing when I get home, but there really isn't space in my kitchen for one. It's back to the plastic bowl in the sink and a bottle of fairy liquid for me, I'm afraid.
I left High Kelling at 8pm. I'd left leaving until later in the hope of avoiding the holiday traffic, and it turned out to be a wise decision. There were still lots of caravans on the roads, but most stuff was heading the other way. It was only overcast by the coast, and once I left Holt I was driving in some late evening sunshine. It was lovely. However, a constant pattering on the windscreen mystified me - what was causing it, if the skies were clear? When a large moth smeared itself across the windscreen directly in my line of sight, I realised the noise was being caused my hundreds of insects that the car was obliterating as I headed into the west.
By sunset I was approaching March on the A141 and the petrol gauge said the car's tank was still over 1/4 full. I filled up at the Tesco garage in Huntingdon again; at this point I remembered that I'd still got my phone set to airplane mode and when I switched it back on I got several texts and voicemails. I checked them all before I set off again. Once I got on the A14 I was able to set the car's cruise control and bimble home at a relaxed pace with some chilled music playing on the autochanger. As I left Brampton an owl flew over the car, which was a fitting end to a lovely week in East Anglia.
It's Mum's 83rd birthday today. The house was full; David and Cathy arrived with their children in the morning, and Annabelle and Ed arrived with theirs in the afternoon. Combined with Mum and Dad, my Aunt Mary, Mary's daughter Janet and her husband Vic that meant there were 16 of us for tea. Things went well, and Mum was delighted to see everybody.
The bench I glued yesterday appears to be fixed, as it was rock solid today. I had to bring another bench in from the back garden so everyone could get a seat, there were so many people around. I also retrieved the sun shade out of the garage and slotted it into the middle of the table - although there was a lot of cloud around, the sun was very strong when it came out and I could feel my skin burning. We had to move inside before teatime, though - for the first time in over a week, North Norfolk got a decent amount of rain and it was accompanied by thunder and lightning.
At Mum's party I managed to reduce a room full of small children to squeals of helpless laughter thanks to an application I bought for my phone called Talking Carl. It uses the phone's microphone and speaker to record people and then play back their voices at a higher frequency, as if they were breathing helium. The kids loved it. Not bad for 59p, really.
It was a dreadful shock to open the pages of Dad's Daily Telegraph this morning and read the obituary of Robert Sandall, one of the most extraordinary and gifted music writers this country has ever produced. If you've read much of this website you will also know that Mr Sandall used to present Radio 3's programme Mixing It, which provided my weekly fix of new, experimental, obscure or just plain strange music for 16 years until it was despicably cancelled in 2007. Together with Mark Russell, Robert Sandall was responsible for much of the ridiculous growth of my CD collection over the past couple of decades and the two of them have had a profound and permanent effect on my musical development.
Robert Sandall's taste in music was truly eclectic and even when his co-presenter played something he didn't like, he would always provide a witty and educated insight into his reaction to the music. Sandall and Russell introduced me to many of the musicians whose work I cherish deeply, including (but by no means limited to) such luminaries as Calexico, Ergo Phizmiz and Tom Waits. I always hoped that someone at the BBC would see sense and bring back the programme, but now that chance has been lost forever. We have lost one of the most distinctive commentators on the music scene, and my musical world has been left considerably diminished.
Robert, I will be thinking of you as I listen to my music on the way home tomorrow.
Today was a much more low-key affair. Janet and Vic took Mum shopping in Holt, I did various odd jobs around the house like moving bookcases (which disturbed an enormous spider that was living underneath) and sorting out things for Mum. The weather was still good and we were able to eat outside on the patio at the front of the house. I am still being bitten by a variety of insects, and I keep catching myself absent-mindedly scratching at some new bite every hour. I've been taking anti-histamine tablets, but I think the main problem is that I'm not eating enough garlic - that usually sorts the little buggers out...
Dad mixed some Araldite and I set about repairing a bench in the front garden that was coming apart. The wood around the hex bolts used to secure the arms to the back was disintegrating, and the dowels had worked loose as well. I managed to clean it all up and after coating the surfaces that would be in contact with glue I stuck it all back together, stood the thing on its end and left Dad's toolbox on top to apply pressure to the joints while the glue sets. If that doesn't fix it, I don't know what will.
When Mum got back we sat in the garden for a while, and as we talked at the bottom of the garden the green woodpecker that I've heard calling just about every day since I got here flew right over our heads. It was lovely to see.
I drove into Holt this evening to get some money from the cash point and pick up tonight's tea - fish and chips with mushy peas, all bought from the chip shop in Bull Street. I haven't had fish and chips for ages, and it tasted really good. Tonight I'm sure I will sleep really well.
My sister came over to visit this afternoon - I haven't seen her family since Easter so it was lovely to catch up with them all. Annabelle and Ed's youngest daughter Zoe has grown up a lot since I last saw her, and she is now talking. In fact, she already has a prodigious vocabulary! We spent the evening sitting outside eating and chatting; it's so nice to be able to chill out like this.
I woke up this morning at about six o'clock and lay in my sleeping bag for quarter of an hour or so listening to the peace and quiet. Although a lot of people left last night, the campsite was still quite full but it didn't sound like anyone was in much of a hurry to leave. The sun was already beginning to warm the tent up, so eventually I got fed up of lying there sweating and started getting my stuff together. Once I'd deflated the air bed and packed away everything I could find inside the tent, I stumbled into the sunshine and took the tent down. It was much easier than putting it up, and I had the whole thing packed away in a couple of minutes. It was easy to find the car using the GPS application on my phone - the days of wandering round car parks for hours trying to find your vehicle are long gone, and I'm not sorry to see them go. I was back on the road before 7am; trundling through the Suffolk countryside in a nice warm car listening to Radio 3 might not be very rock and roll, but I enjoyed it. Being able to sit in a comfortable seat for the first time in four days was most welcome, too.
I'd got through Norwich before 9am and took the B road back to Holt. North of Norwich, there was very little traffic about at all, although I did get stuck behind a couple of tractors. I was back at Mum and Dad's by 10. Mum's sister Mary greeted me as I unloaded the car - she's staying here for the week as it's Mum's birthday on Thursday. It was lovely to see her again - I haven't seen her since Christmas.
The first thing on the agenda once I'd got my stuff sorted out was a bath. Despite the showers over the weekend the ground in Suffolk had been very dry and I was covered in a rich, fine black dust. That's one thing about camping out for a few days: you really appreciate the comforts of home. I felt much better after a long soak and a change of clothes, and I threw a weekend's worth of dirty laundry in the washing machine.
So that's Latitude done and dusted for another year. No doubt I'll be heading over there next year to do the whole thing again. If I do, I will of course write up the experience here.
It didn't rain during the night - or at least, if it did, I didn't notice it - and when I poked my head out of my tent this morning the day was bright and sunny. It was after eleven when I got into the festival area, and the crowds were already building up. I headed straight to the Comedy tent to see the Early Edition crowd who were already well into their review of recent news. Well, I say they were reviewing the news, but the main subjects being discussed were Phill Jupitus's addiction to Marmite and Marcus Brigstock's uncontrollable cheese habit. Prompted by André Vincent, Marcus admitted that he had once consumed an entire Stilton cheese in one sitting. Now that's impressive. When the Early Edition crew wound things up I wandered over to the Literature tent, where Sebastian Faulks was talking about his book A Week in December, but before I'd been there for five minutes, a burst of guitar wafted over from the Obelisk arena, and someone began to sing... You could see heads turn all across the festival site, it was like something out of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. And as each person turned round, they were saying the same thing: "that sounds like Tom Jones..."
A couple of minutes later I was in front of the main stage along with thousands of other people to see the man we'd all missed on Thursday night. Dressed in a light grey suit, Tom Jones had returned to give another performance of material from his latest album. I was delighted. The sun was shining, and he was in fine voice. Even though he steered clear of his traditional material, his performance went over extremely well - and why not? The man's a living legend. As Mr Jones himself pointed out, the songs he had chosen to perform were the ones he used to sing with a certain Mr Elvis Presley back in the Las Vegas days; why shouldn't he put out an album with them on? I hope the reception he got at Latitude will silence the critics and music company executives who suggested that he'd made an unwise career decision in going back to gospel and blues songs. It didn't sound unwise to me - I thought they sounded great.
When Tom Jones finished, I trotted across the bridge and into the woods to see Martin White and the Mystery Fax Machine Orchestra once again. The "In The Woods" stage is a lovely affair, erected amongst the pine trees on the estate. There's a great vibe to the place, and people were sitting on the ground chilling out nicely, even if we were all getting covered in dust. The MFMO ran through much the same songs that they did on Friday night, and they were joined on stage by Robin Hitchcock for one number. Again, it was great fun although Martin had to restart the Hair song three times after forgetting the lyrics: "I can't help it, I've been living in a tent for three days!"
After the MFMO's set I ambled back to the Word Arena to see Jamie Liddell. He's another artist that I first heard on Radio 3's wonderful (and sadly defunct) programme Mixing It and I'd heard great things about his live performance. "Old skool" Liddell involves the man setting up loops of his own voice on a laptop, then singing over the top. The end result is extraordinary, and I was chuffed to bits to finally see him do it live on stage. I got right to the front, too. But Mr Liddell wasn't alone - he had a phenomenally tight band of musicians with him and they ripped through a selection of jazz funk numbers that had a serious groove going.
I stayed for the whole set - it was another one of the festival's high spots for me. When it finished I sat in the Obelisk arena for a while to enjoy the sunshine and listen to a set by Mumford and Sons, who reminded me most strongly of The Men They Couldn't Hang and The Pogues. They got a good reaction from the audience, and I heard people talking animatedly about their set several times over the course of the rest of the day.
I was hungry by now, so I went back to the Mexican food stall I'd visited the day before and got myself a large and very tasty bowl of chili, then trooped down to the other end of the park and sat in the shade outside the Cabaret tent listening to Des O'Connor (no, the other Des O'Connor) before heading over to the Lake Stage to see Glasgow's Mitchell Museum. They're definitely a band to keep an eye on and I enjoyed their set a lot. I sat in the sunshine, watching the band but also people-watching. Latitude is still a festival where artists and audience can mingle comfortably and in the space of five minutes I saw Raissa from The Mummers, Gabriela from Rodrigo y Gabriela and Bret Easton Ellis walk by.
Mitchell Museum were followed by Bristol's own indie pop band Wilder, who I'd made a point of seeing, not least because a friend of a friend is their road manager...
They were very good indeed, with an interesting mix of synth pop and rock (and I'm not just saying that, they really were). They're still very young, but they already have songwriting chops that put older bands to shame. Watch out for them, because I reckon they're going to do well.
When Wilder finished I went back to the Comedy tent to see tonight's headline acts. I got there just before Simon Evans took the stage - he's another of my favourite comedy acts that I discovered thanks to the Latitude festival. I'm sure he had more hair the last time I saw him, but he now sports a buzz cut remarkably similar to my own. Like Miles Jupp, he's decidedly upper class and completely unapologetic about it. His wit is dry and acerbic, and he went down very well.
Mr Evans was followed by one of the legends of stand-up, the American comedian Emo Philips. He's a bizarre character, long and gangly limbs waving around continuously and forever plucking at his clothing and hair. To be honest I found him far more creepy than funny, although he does have a great line in jokes of what I call the "cognitive time bomb" variety: he'll say something that sounds mundane and simple, until your brain finishes parsing the sentence - at which point your mind does a backflip over the weirdness and you find yourself laughing in confusion. But there weren't as many of his choice one-liners as I thought there were going to be, and the way he interacted with the younger people at the front of the audience made him come across like some seedy, dodgy distant uncle. He may have the chops - you only had to look to the side of the stage to see how many of the other comedians were hanging around to check him out, and the Comedy tent gave him the biggest round of applause of the day - but a lot of his act seemed to be built on very dodgy ground. Creepy, very creepy.
After that it was back to the Word arena. I was hoping to see The Coral but the stage crew seemed to be having a lot of problems and things were running very late. In the end I only caught about five minutes of their set before I had to duck out and make my way to the front of the Obelisk arena. I was there for my favourites, Rodrigo y Gabriela. If the truth be told, the fact that Rod y Gab were playing this year was one of the two reasons I bought a ticket (the other reason being a certain poet from Salford). The people next to me in the crowd obviously hadn't seen them before and when Gabriela started the percussive accompaniment on her guitar, you could see their eyes widen in disbelief. "How is she doing that?" one of the women asked incredulously.
They have no backing band, and a minimalist stage show - just white strobes and a couple of backdrops which were dropped at certain points in songs - and that serves to focus attention on the music. They held the audience transfixed. Rodrigo had the crowd split into three sections, clapping against each other to produce an accompaniment to the music. It was fiery, soul-stirring stuff and I enjoyed it immensely. You could tell they did, too.
When they finished I stuck around to see a bit of Vampire Weekend. Live, they sound much more polished than their debut album and the introduction of sequencers and synthesisers has broadened their sound tremendously. It was difficult to drag myself away, but there were a couple of other acts I wanted to see that were on at the same time. Grizzly Bear were playing the Word arena and as I entered, the place was almost in darkness apart from a single low row of spotlights behind the band.
Out of the dark came a great wall of sound; their stuff is haunting and catchy and it was great to see them play live. I really should have stayed for the rest of their set, but the pull of the Literature tent was too strong. When I got there Keith Allen (who is as well known these days for being Lily's dad as he is for being the enfant terrible of the new wave of British comedy back in the 1980s) was introducing New Order's bass player, Peter Hook. They talked about the Madchester movement, about Ibiza, about the Hacienda (Hooky reckons that little adventure cost each participant something on the order of sixteen million quid), about Tony Wilson (who appeared to be the principal reason why the Hacienda cost them all that money) and much more besides. I'd have loved them to talk more, but Keith and I both wanted to head next door to the Poetry tent, where the main reason I wanted to come to Latitude this year was about to take the stage.
I first saw John Cooper Clarke at a gig in a dive somewhere on Manchester's Oxford road some thirty years ago. The support act back then were the Duritti Column; even then he'd made quite a name for himself. On stage he cut a striking figure: beanpole thin, wearing a tightly-fitting suit with drainpipe trousers, jet black hair backcombed into a towering crest, and a long, aquiline face lurking behind the biggest, darkest and coolest pair of shades ever to grace the stage. When he finally appeared on the Poetry stage tonight, I realised absolutely nothing has changed: age seems to have passed him by, and the Bard of Salford's trademark laconic, sneering drawl was still as strong as ever. I suspect that his youthfulness may be down to time travel: JCC commented that he didn't want to miss Blondie's performance, which actually took place at Latitude a couple of years ago. Perhaps Johnny had a Tardis tucked away somewhere in the woods at the back of the stage...
JCC had quite rightly been given a hero's introduction, and to start off with he regaled us with examples of less flattering introductions he'd received in the workingmen's clubs in days of old. The crowd ate it up. He bombarded us with some of the worst jokes I've heard for years, so awful that people (including me) were groaning out loud. Then he launched into Hire Car, hurtling through it at breakneck speed. More one-liners, then more poems.
He told us about the challenge he'd been set when visiting Limerick in Ireland: "There isn't a rhyme for Limerick. Trust me on this, I'm a professional; I've done the research. The closest I've found was 'turmeric'". In the end he came up with a limerick that didn't rhyme at all, and he recited it for us.
We were told about the history of haiku, and JCC recited his first ever attempt at the genre:
"To convey one's mood
In seventeen syllables
Is very diffic"
The audience cheered even more loudly. There were more jokes:
"I'm still in litigation with Warner Brothers over the misrepresentation of their 1983 movie, the Neverending Story..."
Finally he started to wind things up: he gave us Beezley Street. But he wasn't quite done.
"That was then," he said "This is now. All right ladies and gentlemen, we've been back there. We've done the makeover." Urban regeneration had reached Manchester so "for your ease and convenience" he'd written a sequel - Beezley Boulevard - in the same metre as the original poem and with the same acerbic wit well to the fore. He finished to wild applause, wished us well and a safe journey home, and left the stage. The audience was hooting and hollering for more, and finally he appeared on stage again. As an encore we got - what else - the poem that featured on the TV show The Sopranos, Chickentown, introduced with:
" I performed this on TV in the eighties. Now I'm being sued by the people who operated the machine to beep out the expletives. They reckon I gave them repetitive strain injury..."
It was an excellent show by one of my favourite artists; every now and then you get to see a performance that is really special, one of those gigs that you talk about for years afterwards, and JCC at Latitude was definitely that special for me.
But the night wasn't over yet. I trotted back next door to the Literature tent, where one of Latitude's permanent fixtures was singing one of his pun-laden songs...
Latitude wouldn't be Latitude without Peter Buckley Hill. I'd been wondering where he was all weekend and I was delighted that I'd finally managed to catch up with him. He has to be the most affable person at the festival, and he's a firm favourite with the twins as well as with me - a couple of years ago Ruth sent me a text during Blondie's performance which simply said
"Watching Blondie, standing next to PBH!"
Sadly he had a very short set, but Robin Ince began bringing out a lot of the other Latitude regulars for a final round of songs and by the time Robyn Hitchcock appeared, the stage was absolutely full:
PBH managed to find somewhere to stand on stage amongst that lot and the night drew to a close with a rendition of the Hokey Cokey. The audience were marshalled into a circle and joined in the dancing and singing, throwing cushions at each other. Finally, Robin Ince summed it all up for us:
"We started with a joke about Heidegger and ended with the Hokey Cokey. It's been that sort of festival."
Indeed it had. The performers left the stage, the lights went down, and it suddenly struck me that that was it for another year. I made my way back to my tent wishing that it could all have gone on longer; a couple of weeks, maybe...
The day started with heavy showers. I slept a bit later today, reasoning that if I left things for a while, the queue to get in would have died down a bit. It was also time to brave the festival toilets, but I did so during a heavy downpour, which got rid of the queues and damped down the smell a bit - the toilets had a roof, so I didn't get too wet. My plan worked, too - I only had to queue for ten minutes to go through the security checks and get into the festival site. By the time I'd got myself something to eat, there were patches of blue sky breaking through the clouds, but nevertheless we clearly hadn't seen the last of the rain...
I wandered around for a while, just taking in the atmosphere of the place. There were many more people around compared with yesterday and the stalls had, of course, put their prices up for the weekend crowds. I'm pretty sure there were several thousand more people there than last year. Trying to use my phone for anything other than phone calls was a complete non-starter as text messages were taking hours to arrive and there was no data bandwidth at all. Tweetdeck wouldn't even get past the handshaking phase, let alone make any API calls. There were queues everywhere I looked. After the events of the previous couple of days I was beginning to wonder whether the festival was getting too big for its own good; several times I walked up to tents that were so packed it was impossible to see what was going on.
Eventually I found myself inside the Word Arena for the first band of the day, a band from Los Angeles called Chief. They were really good - a four piece, with drums, bass and two guitars. All four musicians contributed to the vocals. I'm a sucker for four-part harmony singing and these guys knew how to arrange songs to show their voices off to best advantage. They reminded me of the Byrds quite a bit.
They were a good-natured bunch too, explaining that they'd been told beforehand what a great festival Latitude was to play. They were clearly delighted with the reception they got, even though it was very well deserved. I stayed for their entire set, getting right down to the front. A group of young kids at centre stage were chanting the band's name, and when the band finished playing the drummer climbed down off the stage and presented them with the drumsticks he'd been using. Chief were definitely this year's discovery of the festival for me and I'll definitely be getting to know their work better.
After Chief's set I wandered over to the Obelisk arena to have a listen to the Welsh band Race Horses, but I'm afraid they didn't do anything for me. To be honest, I couldn't figure out why they weren't playing the Word Arena and Chief were playing the main stage. The guys in Race Horses are all very young, and their music was riddled with clichés. I'm sure their songwriting skills will improve as they mature, but after seeing how the Californians do it, their harmony singing sounded a bit weak. Instead I headed back to the Literature tent where Hanif Kureishi was talking to Lola Perrin about his book (and the subsequent TV series) The Buddha of Suburbia. He was an interesting, considered and erudite speaker; the conversation ranged from life in Bromley to what he thought the principal character in the book would be doing nowadays (probably acting in a cult TV series after a spell in rehab, Mr Kureishi thought). He read out excerpts from the book, explained how he'd shaped the characters, what their background was, and gave a genuinely fascinating insight into the writing process. Great, I thought - I can spend the afternoon doing this, getting great tips about writing. I was excited, because Mr Kureishi was followed by another fascinating and distinctive writer, Bret Easton Ellis. Amongst other things, Ellis wrote Less Than Zero and American Psycho, two novels that expose the seamier side of contemporary American culture. He's obviously a very gifted writer. Unfortunately, within five minutes of his appearance on stage chatting with the journalist Miranda Sawyer, I'd also discovered he appeared to be a shallow, egotistical twat. He didn't want to talk about how he'd written his books as it was all in the past and therefore too boring. He was much more interested in relating stories of the bender he'd gone on in London prior to attending the festival ("I really needed a nasal decongestant afterwards, you know what I'm saying?") which was probably intended to impress us but which I suspect was only of interest to a small proportion of the audience. I could be wrong - you might have found him fascinating - but I left them to it and wandered off elsewhere.
Back in the Word arena, Paul Heaton took the stage. As they started the first number, his guitarist's rig disintegrated, first buzzing loudly and then fading away to silence but they soldiered on, playing the song with just drums and bass as road crew frantically swapped out guitars, leads and pedals. The song actually worked quite well without any guitar. As Jonny Lexus and his roadie struggled to resurrect the guitar sound, Paul was less than sympathetic and encouraged the crowd to boo his guitarist as loudly as possible (a trick, he subsequently explained, that is a great strategy at festivals for drawing in an audience who, expecting to hear cheers rather than boos, are almost guaranteed to come over to find out what all the fuss is about.)
This was all very good natured, but I felt really sorry for the guy. I've always liked Heaton's work from the Housemartins and the Beautiful South, and his solo stuff is just as quirky and witty. Like Chief, he was limited to a very short set - just thirty five minutes - and like them he made the most of it. The band gave a hundred per cent once the sound came back, and they sounded great. They even managed to fit in an epic eight minute work at the end of the set from the new album, which really got the crowd going. It was a shame he didn't get more time.
When Paul Heaton finished, I had my first real dilemma of the festival - I wanted to see James, but the Comedy tent won out as both Kevin Eldon and Rich Hall were scheduled to appear. I got inside just before Andi Osho took the stage, and settled down to an hour or so of top-flight comedy goodness. Ms Osho was very funny, particularly when a small child right at the front of the audience started treating the show as an opportunity for his own brand of performance art. Her scripted material was funny, too; she got a good response from the crowd. She left the stage to be replaced by Kevin Eldon, who ran through a very short set in which he sang songs and accompanied himself on the guitar. One song about the relative faults of vinyl and CDs was very funny; I've never heard anyone sing a song that mimicked a CD skipping before and it sounded really convincing!
Mr Eldon was followed by the headline act, Rich Hall. He's one of the finest comedians on the circuit these days, but he's also written and presented a number of documentaries on aspects of American culture for the BBC and I've got a lot of time for him. I've seen him live several times, not only when he appears as Rich Hall but also as Otis Lee Crenshaw, and in both roles he has a carefully cultivated stage persona which can be quite intimidating. He is exasperated with stupidity in any form and woe betide the heckler who thinks he's going to get the better of him: trust me, it ain't going to happen. He certainly wasn't going to take any shit from a small child in the front row and put him down rapidly and forcefully. Maybe a little too forcefully - when the kid got upset, he let the mask slip a little as he was obviously genuinely concerned. In fact, he seemed to be in a particularly good-natured mood: if you've seen him live you'll know that he picks a member of the audience who he goes back to time and again, asking their opinion on various subjects and finding out a little about what they do. This information is then constructed into an ad-libbed song; tonight's victim was an aerial fitter. Half way through the song Mr Hall had got himself so backed into a corner trying to come up with an appropriate rhyme that he burst out laughing. At the end of his slot he thanked the audience, saying he hoped that they would enjoy the rest of the festival. In response he got a standing ovation.
That was the end of proceedings for the day as far as the comedy tent was concerned, so I went back to the Word arena to catch Noah and the Whale. They were okay, but to be honest, as I write this up I can't remember one distinctive moment from their set. I left early, as I wanted to be in the cabaret tent nice and early to be ready for Ward 'n' White's Karaoke Circus. I got there early, to be confronted by some boy band called the Midnight Beast performing to a backing track and being generally uninspiring. Their audience was jumping up and down enthusiastically and cheered for several minutes after they finished before filing out. As a result, when I got into the tent the place reeked of sweaty teenagers and I backpedalled outside as fast as I could. The first members of the Karaoke Circus crew who appeared on stage turned visibly green and disappeared again. All the sides at the tent that could be opened were opened to let some fresh air in. Eventually the air cleared enough for us to go back inside and the fun could begin.
Karaoke Circus is a simple concept: a live band accompanies special guests and members of the audience as they belt out a selection of contemporary classics. It's become something of a cult phenomenon in London and tickets sell out incredibly quickly so it was nice to see what all the fuss was about. I can see why it's so popular, because it was riotously good fun. The whole thing has a certain cabaret feel, because it's introduced by a couple of clowns in full circus gear. They lend a faintly sinister air to the whole thing, particularly when they're being lit from the footlights...
We got renditions of Life on Mars, Delilah, Stand by Me and Elbow's A day like this from the audience; Robin Hitchcock thundered through A Day in the Life (with the audience providing the 24-bar crescendo at the appropriate points), Kevin Eldon sat on the steps at the front of the stage and sang Your Song rather sweetly, David Cross and Ben Miller performed Under Pressure and Phill Jupitus belted out a couple of songs. The young lad who picked the Elbow song turned out to have absolutely no ear for music whatsoever, and he was off key by several semitones. You could see the look of disbelief spreading across the faces of the band as he massacred the first verse. To ease the audience's pain, Phill Jupitus, Rufus Hound and Jo Neary joined him on backing vocals. Each performance was of course assessed by the Baron, who must have been in a good mood as he found them all - even our Elbow fan - absolutely enchanting. It was a hoot.
By 9pm I was inside the Film and Music tent waiting for Mark Lamarr to introduce one of the bands in the God's Jukebox slot that he curates. It was my favourites from last year's festival, The Mummers. They seemed to be having lots of problems getting the sound sorted out and most of the band were already on stage, playing their instruments so the sound desk could get levels sorted out. As a result they started a good fifteen minutes late and unfortunately this ate into their set rather drastically. They still delivered a great performance, and played a lot of stuff from the album including my favourite track, Wonderland.
When they finished their set and Mark Lamarr tried to introduce the next act, the audience quite rightly gave him a fair amount of stick - but it was no use, we didn't get an encore, so I gave up and headed for the exit.
By this time I was getting hungry, so as Belle & Sebastian wound up their set I found a Mexican food stall and got myself a chicken burrito. It was delicious. I also bought another bottle of water and drank the whole thing in about five minutes flat. Last year I think one of the reasons why I suffered so much was that I let myself get dehydrated. This year I've been able to last out until well past midnight without feeling the need to go and collapse in my tent. I'm sure the fact that I was drinking well over a litre of water a day had a lot to do with this. I spent the next hour wandering around the site, checking out what was happening down at the theatre tent (it was full, and I couldn't get in) and Giant Robot (they'd run out of cocktails, so I couldn't buy myself a mojito). Feeling a bit disgruntled, I returned to the Literature tent and listened to readings by Scarlett Thomas and Rachel Trezise, who are both very good young writers. Sixteen Shades of Crazy, the book Rachel was reading from, is about the lives of a bunch of rock and roll wives in south Wales and listening to the passages she read out in a lilting Welsh accent made me want to order the book on the spot. In any other circumstances I'd have rushed to the signing tent and bought a copy there and then, but I didn't because one of my favourite writers was next on the bill. When I first read China Miéville's Perdido Street Station it left me completely floored. It's an extraordinary work and I was keen to hear him read from Kraken, his latest book.
He didn't disappoint, and when the reading had finished I went straight to the signing tent and bought a copy. I asked him whether he'd ever been tempted to revisit the world of Perdido Street Station - it's so richly imagined, there has to be potential for some more stories about the place. I was delighted to hear him say that yes, he had - and when the time was right he'd be doing just that. He signed my copy of Kraken with the dedication "Surrender to the tentacles..."
Miéville is an imposing figure in real life, hip, cool and very, very intelligent. He'd even managed to intimidate the MC for the evening, a stand-up comedian called Mark Olver who I'd developed an intense dislike for even more rapidly than I had for Bret Easton Ellis that afternoon. Olver couldn't have been more of a contrast to Miéville: he was was an arrogant, patronising and shouty little berk who had been particularly rude about Scarlett Thomas's reading. Her brother had provided accompaniments for her with a laptop, which produced some rather trippy ambient drones that I really liked and which I thought complemented the words perfectly. Olver made it clear that he didn't, making a snarky comment along the lines of "I'd really like someone to provide that accompaniment for me. It wouldn't matter how boring the stuff I was saying was, it would sound cool." Nice, eh?
Olver then went on to introduce Miéville in a particularly patronising fashion, saying that he'd never read any of his stuff but he'd heard that some people apparently liked it... You get the idea. The crowd were most definitely on the side of the authors and they rightly and righteously gave him a considerable amount of shit. I joined in the boos and catcalls and I felt quite justified in doing so - Olver was deeply unpleasant and his attitude jarred strongly with the spirit of the festival. If I was organising next year's festival I'd make damn sure he wasn't invited back.
Never mind. Bearing my signed copies of both The City and The City and Kraken, I made my way happily back to my tent and after reinflating my air bed and taking couple of painkillers I fell asleep without any trouble at all.
I slept remarkably well considering I was in a tent. I was woken up around 6am by the sound of rain falling on the canvas; it was loud enough to wake me, even though I was wearing earplugs. The rain soon stopped and I dozed for a few hours, finally getting up around 10am as the sun came out and the tent began to warm up rapidly. I cleaned my teeth, loaded up the backpack once again and made my way towards the arena. Getting in was even worse than it had been the previous evening, and it took nearly three quarters of an hour to get into the main site.
It was still windy, but at least the weather was starting to clear up by the time I got into the main arena. I started off the day by heading over to the Literature tent - but you'd probably guessed that already. Robin Ince was running his Bad Book Club and reading some of the most preposterous passages ever committed to print out loud. He had a new favourite, from a Mills and Boon romance called Vets at Cross Purposes and the unusually specific pharmaceutical references had the audience in stitches. Afterwards he sat outside the tent and signed copies of his new book; it would have been churlish not to buy one, wouldn't it? It's a fun read, although I noticed that the book Robin is sitting on on the cover has been changed - the original book would no doubt have been one of Guy N Smith's "Crabs" books.
After that it was time to nip across to one of my favourite food stalls from last year and got myself a bowl of haggis, tatties and neeps (with a dash of whisky on top). It was delicious. Full of Scottish food, I wandered back across the arena to get myself another coffee and as I walked past the Literature Tent, Ben Goldacre was on stage - a surprise, as he wasn't advertised in the programme at all. I sat down to listen. Ben brought us up to date with the latest on Gillian McKeith. It was very interesting, but I probably shouldn't repeat any of it here!
Suitably caffeinated, I spent the next half hour wandering around the site and generally chilling out. In the Film and Music tent they were showing a documentary about Islamic punk rock, an interesting combination if ever there was one. However the film came across as being little more than an ego-boosting exercise for one of the bands and as they were scheduled to perform immediately afterwards (what a surprise) I decided to wander off somewhere else.
That ended up being the Comedy tent, where I caught Seann Walsh (very good) and Miles Jupp (one of my favourites from last year). Mr Jupp approaches stand-up in a similar manner to Simon Evans, in that they are both distinctly upper class with a dry, acerbic sense of humour to match. Jupp told the story of being employed to provide the voice for a computer game. He admitted that he was not very good at the game, which (he said) led to the realisation that he found himself to be not just annoying, but also extremely patronising...
It has to be said that a lot of the acts this year were repeating the material they used last year, but in many cases it is particular jokes or routines that have made them famous. It must be a difficult decision for any performer to make: do you stick with the particular selection of material that made you popular, or abandon it in favour of new material and risk alienating the audience? The trouble with trotting out old favourites is that if you're not careful, you'll find yourself condemned to repeat it until your dying day. Developing a completely new act each time you go on tour is a time-consuming and difficult exercise, but some of the artists I've seen abandon set routine altogether and run their act based on the audience's response, stream-of-consciousness contemplation, the day's papers, or just plain out-and-out weirdness. We'll get to most of the above in a day or two.
After my infusion of comedy I wandered across to the Sunrise arena, where Lissie was just finishing her set. I should have got there earlier, as it sounded pretty good. I was there to catch I Blame Coco, but unfortunately the weather had other ideas. The wind had picked up and despite being sheltered by the trees, the tent was in danger of collapse and had to be evacuated. When I overheard security telling someone that it would take a couple of hours to make everything safe I realised there wasn't much point hanging around. As I walked back across the bridge I wondered what other disappointments this year's festival had in store for me - I wasn't in a very good mood, for some reason.
Things picked up fairly quickly, though. I caught a pretty decent set in the Obelisk arena by Texan band Spoon - let's face it, I'm a sucker for any band that features someone with the surname Eno in it, even if this was Jim rather than Brian. After they finished I headed over to the Word tent, where the Feeling were taking the stage - and suddenly, my mood lifted and this year's Latitude felt like a proper festival again. The Feeling are a great, non-nonsense pop band, and their songs are criminally underrated in my opinion. The rapport they had with the crowd was awe-inspiring. They had each half of the audience singing call-and-response with the other. When they finished each track, the applause was deafening. They didn't hang about, either; like Chrissie Hynde a couple of years ago, they knew exactly what the audience was there for and they delivered it impeccably. The Feeling are also one of those bands where almost every song they play makes you think, "Oh, I know this one..." Having said that, they also treated us to a song or two from the new album they've been working on and I will make damn sure I get a copy when it comes out. The Feeling were the first band of this year's festival to rate 10 out of 10 on the Chris-o-meter. Job well done, guys.
How to follow that? Well, I fell back on my tried and trusted approach and headed back to the Literature tent where Arthur Smith was reading excerpts from his autobiography. This year is the first time I've seen people on stage with someone providing translation into British Sign Language. Mr Smith was accompanied by an interpreter called Carla, and after some good-natured ribbing he got down to reading from his book. However, he had to stop several times as the signs that Carla was using were making him giggle - particularly when he started talking about farting! Arthur is one of those raconteurs I can listen to for hours, and I was genuinely sorry when he ran out of time. He was followed by the Wordtheatre group, who gave a number of poetry readings around the basic theme of sex. The readers were an interesting bunch, too - including Ben Miller from Armstrong and Miller, John Schwab, and David Soul who was making a welcome return to the festival. They were to be followed by Brian Cox (the Hannibal Lecter one, not the Wonders of the Universe one), but his train was running late and I wanted to see the Mystery Fax Machine Orchestra, so I baled out.
The Literary Salon tent turned out to be incredibly small - it was quite difficult to figure out how Martin had managed to cram quite as many musicians into one end as he had, but after he'd persuaded the people in the tent to stand up we all managed to squeeze ourselves inside.
It was great fun: The MFMO went through some old favourites and introduced us to some new songs for good measure. It's not every day you get to listen to a waltz about a possessed accordion or a paean to the nutritious delights of hair, but tonight we got that chance. And lo and behold, the audience were suddenly standing nose to nose with the lead singer of Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine. Jim Bob had brought his guitar, too and together with the orchestra he treated us to a beautiful rendition of Angel Strike. This was another act that I could have watched for the rest of the evening, but soon they too had run out of time so we all filed out of the tent into the night.
I headed back to the Literary tent to hear Jon Ronson talking about his latest book, which deals with the subject of psychopaths. Considering his last book, The Men Who Stare at Goats, dealt with the new-age antics of the Whole Earth Battalion, I was wondering how he could possibly top it, but the story he told that night about an inmate at Broadmoor Hospital, how the decision is made whether any given person is mentally ill or sane, and then threw the Scientologists into the mix, I realised he wasn't going to have any trouble on that front at all. Jon Ronson was followed briskly by more from Robin Ince, who introduced Kevin Eldon in his persona as the eager (if slightly rubbish) poet Paul Hamilton. Last year I think a lot of people thought he was for real, but from the conversations I could hear around me it was clear that this year everyone knew who he really was. It was very funny, but by the time he'd finished and Pappy's Fun Club came on stage I was flagging a bit. I left them to it and headed back to my tent.
There were some police handing out flyers in the campsite. The previous night one festival-goer had been raped in the woods nearby. What a dreadful thing to happen at such a family-oriented event; there always seems to be someone out to spoil things. Latitude has always felt like a really safe festival. In the four years I've attended it, I haven't seen a single fight or altercation. Everyone has always seemed to be there for the same reason I was - to have a good time, listen to some good music, and have my mind stimulated and expanded. Clearly that hadn't been enough for someone. Reading the flyer left me shocked, angry, and then very depressed. Tired and aching, I took a couple of painkillers before bed and went out like a light.
I left Mum and Dad's place at about 3pm and drove down through Norwich to Suffolk and the Sunrise Coast. Although the schools haven't broken up yet, the roads were pretty busy and it was fairly slow going until I got on to the B1127 at Beccles. After that, it was plain sailing to Wangford. I was glad I wasn't trying to make my way up the A12 from London, though. The traffic reports talked about slow traffic pretty much all the way up from Saxmundham and Yoxford. I was a bit wary once I pulled off the main road in to Henham Park as the car doesn't have much in the way of ground clearance, but I managed to negotiate my way down the tracks and across the field to a parking space without catching anything on the ground. I made sure I took a GPS fix before I left the car. I didn't fancy losing it!
I lugged my rucksack and tent to the end of the queue, and joined in the festival shuffle. The queue was moving (in itself a vast improvement on last year, when nothing moved for a good three quarters of an hour) and didn't appear to be quite as long as last time, but then the security guys directed us to another gate which was nearer and which had just opened. Ten minutes later, I'd got my festival wristband and was inside, picking a spot to pitch my tent. Pitching was interesting; although it wasn't as windy as the forecast had warned, the tent did its best to imitate a kite and I was in no danger of breaking the record for the number of seconds it takes to put one together. I was glad I'd bought the big groundsheet though - the floor of the tent itself was quite thin and the extra layer smoothed out the majority of bumps on the ground. In half an hour I'd got the tent tied down, the air bed inflated, and the place looked comfortable enough to spend a few days in. I loaded up my backpack with all the things I didn't want to leave in an unattended tent and headed off to the arena. Sadly, access to the arena is something that Latitude's organisers still haven't got right, and I had to queue up for quite a while so that someone could perform a completely ineffective bag search and let me in.
As always at Latitude, my first port of call was the Literary tent. Robin Ince was already on stage, reading from one of his favourite "bad" books, one of Guy N Smith's notorious Crabs books.
He was in fine form, but he had to compete with wailing police sirens as a perfect copy of the Bluesmobile from The Blues Brothers was driving round the site, plugging a musical presentation of John Landis's movie that was taking place in the Film and Music tent. It was followed by a motley assortment of state troopers, soul brothers in pork pie hats, nuns, and country and western fans, all of whom were clearly having a whale of a time. When Robin finished his slot I went for a walk around the festival to see what was on offer. Pretty much all the food and drink stalls were the regulars, and the only significant change I spotted from previous years was that the Comedy tent had been moved further away from the main stage (the Obelisk arena); it had changed places with the Film and Music tent. A new area has been added this year called the Faraway Forest, which had been set up in the woods beyond the Children's area. This was to be the stage for a number of "happenings" over the course of the festival, and it had been lit with a selection of powerful spotlights that gave it quite an atmospheric appearance. Directly opposite was another new addition - a bar and restaurant called Giant Robot. You had to book in advance to get a seat, which isn't really in the festival spirit, but I must admit I was rather tempted by their special mojito offer - ten quid for a jug of the stuff, yum.
In previous years Thursday evening at Latitude has been a pretty low-key affair, and the festival left things until friday before properly getting going. This year things were very different, and the first of the big names took to the Lake Stage at 7:30pm on Thursday evening. Nigel Kennedy now lives in Poland, and he'd brought along a band composed of Polish musicians:
Together they treated us to a selection of big band numbers from the 1930s and 40s in the style of Duke Ellington or Count Basie. Naturally enough the selection of pieces focused on arrangements that allowed Kennedy's violin playing to shine, but the whole orchestra sounded excellent. Nigel Kennedy's an odd bird - he still has the spiky hair and there were many references to his favourite football team (he proudly displayed his socks, one claret, one blue) and the introductions to the music were liberally sprinkled with profanities. This made me feel more than a little uncomfortable; I don't think he'd realised just how many children there were in the audience. Having said that, I reckon that any kid over the age of seven who watches more than an hour of television a day would probably already know all the cuss words he was using...
By the time Nigel Kennedy had finished the wind was beginning to drop and it was getting dark. After getting myself a coffee I went for another wander and had a look at the light shows that had been set up - there was a mysterious plastic globe full of smoke that changed colour every few seconds, but which didn't really seem to do very much. As I stood there wondering what it all meant, I heard a bit of a commotion coming towards me and from out of the woods came four giant, glowing white figures. These were the French street theatre group Compagnie des Quidams, and they were making their way around the whole festival, blinking on and off in the darkness. They were followed by a crowd of children who were captivated by the spectacle.
When the glowing men disappeared into the darkness I headed back to the Literature tent, where Phill Jupitus had joined the proceedings. Robin Ince was encouraging his guests to read out excerpts from their favourite bad books, accompanied by Martin White on the accordion and Steve Perry on trumpet. I sat and listened for a while but a lot of the passages were the same ones that people had read in previous years. At 11:30 or so I decided to wander over to the In The Woods stage where Tom Jones was going to appear and sing songs from his new album, but clearly everyone else at the festival had had exactly the same idea. The place was rammed, and security had closed the area off to stop it getting overcrowded. There's only room for a couple of hundred people in front of the "In the Woods" stage and the organisers had grossly underestimated the number of people who wanted to see Tom Jones perform. I mean, this is Tom Jones we're talking about: didn't they realise how popular he is?
Thwarted, I wandered back to the Literature tent and saw the evening's acts through to the end. As I left the arena, Martin White walked past me and I said hello. He greeted me by name, which threw me for a moment because it was the first time we've met in real life - the only conversations we've had have all been on Twitter! He reminded me that the rather excellent Mystery Fax Machine Orchestra would be playing in the Literary Salon tent tomorrow, and he revealed that they'd have a guest vocalist: Jim Bob from Carter USM. Excellent! Then it was time to stumble back to the tent, take an antihistamine tablet, spray myself with insect repellent, insert my earplugs, and crawl into my sleeping bag. Ahhh, festival living: roughing it in the great outdoors.
Just to rub things in, as I lay in my sleeping bag I could clearly hear Tom Jones singing his heart out, off in the distance. It took me a long while to get to sleep...
It's nice to be on holiday. It's also very nice to be in Norfolk. I spent today getting ready for the weekend's camping, driving over to Fakenham to pick up a few essentials such as bin liners and bottles of water.
The weather has been pretty changeable, but there are lots of aircraft about. I heard a helicopter clattering about in the field at the back of the house, and when I went into the back garden to investigate I discovered it was an Apache. They're an impressive sight with the big radar dome fitted on top of the rotor blades. This one wasn't as close as one I saw last year, which was pretty much in the back garden with me. An RAF Tornado shot over the house a bit later on, and there were other jets roaring around in the distance. If you're at all interested in aircraft, North Norfolk is a great place to spend a few days.
The weather forecast for the festival wasn't promising, with warnings of strong winds in the south and the possibility of gales. That's not what you want to hear when you're going to be spending the next four days in various shapes and sizes of tent...
Today I took my first long trip in the car, driving across to Mum and Dad's place in Norfolk. I managed to pack everything I needed into the boot, which is considerably smaller than the one in my last car. The Z performed very well, and it's a real pleasure to drive. The driving position is very comfortable, much better than the Celica. I discovered from reading the manual that the radio boosts selective frequencies when road and engine noise build up, and after a while I found I could tell when it happened - the bass frequencies ramp up above 50 mph or so. I had Radio 2 on for most of the journey, listening to Stuart Maconie and Mark Radcliffe, and the music sounded great.
I was getting well over 30 miles to the gallon on the drive over - which was a welcome surprise as most of the reviews of the car I'd read say it delivers about 24 mpg. Getting to Norfolk takes about half a tank, but I called in at the Tesco garage in Huntingdon to top it up, just in case. The cruise control came in useful once the roads quietened down a bit, but when you're travelling at constant speed you start to realise how many people speed up when you overtake them. The roads were pretty quiet; the schools haven't closed for the summer just yet, and I made good time, arriving before midnight.
I didn't see too much wildlife on the way over - the only notable animal was a muntjac deer I saw standing at the side of the road between Chatteris and Downham Market. I was hoping to see some barn owls, as there are a couple of spots that I drive through where I've seen them more than once. The weather wasn't really suitable for owls, though - it was windy, and it kept trying to rain. It seemed to be good weather for moths and insects: when I got to High Kelling the front of the car was covered in dead bugs. Eww.
A few months ago I blogged about the possible existence of a companion star to the sun, an object which has become known as Nemesis. On Slashdot today I came across an arXiv blog post which presented a statistical analysis that, the authors claimed, shows that extinction events happen on a regular basis every 27 million years. They describe their results as showing a "clear sharp signal over a huge length of time." They then go on to suggest that this regularity means that extinction events are unlikely to be caused by the close approach of an undetected companion to the sun because regular close approaches would affect its orbit, leading to changes in the return period and therefore changes in the periodicity of the extinctions. Although this appears to disprove the existence of Nemesis, the authors don't have an explanation for what else might be doing the triggering. All this assumes that there's a regularity in the first place, of course; that assumption is a little too big for me.
Even a cursory examination of the graph makes me wonder how anyone could conclude there's a periodicity in the data at all; it's all over the place. I can't see the clear, sharp signal that they describe. The comments on the blog page don't mince words, either: one begins "Bad research, worse article." Even the resulting Slashdot discussion has been more sceptical than usual, although it's probably deteriorated into a discussion of Bruce Willis movies by now.
However, the point of all this is actually a very positive one: it shows the absolute essence of the scientific method. In science, saying that something is true is not sufficient to make it true; you make a claim, and people are going to call you on it. You've got to defend your statements against a review conducted by your peers and if your evidence isn't enough to back up your case, it's going to get thrown out.
And if you make a truly extraordinary claim like this, you'd better make damn sure you have really good evidence to back it up; it doesn't look like that's happened here. Score one for science!
Meanwhile, elsewhere on arXiv I learned that we may all be living inside a black hole. The evidence for that claim? Beyond me, I'm afraid...
I was sorry to hear of the death of Harvey Pekar yesterday. He was one of the big names in American Comics. His work - a chronicle of an ordinary, if rather grumpy life rooted in contemporary American culture - has been illustrated by such luminaries of the comics world as Robert Crumb, and Alan Moore. He was famous enough for Hollywood to make a biopic about him: named after the comic book for which he is best known, American Splendor. The film starred Paul Giamatti as Pekar and came out a few years ago. I liked how the movie blended fiction and reality together in the best comics tradition - Pekar appeared in the film as "Real Harvey", a name that summed him up well.
Last night I slept like a log, and didn't wake up until after 6am. That made a refreshing change after still being awake at 3am on Sunday morning. Overall, in fact, I had a really good weekend. After posting the blog on Saturday I spent quite a while talking on Skype with my brother Andy, who will be visiting the UK next month. I watched the Uruguay vs. Germany game, too - a much better affair than last night's bruising extravaganza. On Sunday I went out for a drive in the car, did some shopping at the mall and had brunch in the Caffe Gusto there, and picked up one or two bits of camping gear I needed. Then I settled down to watch the World Cup final...
Paul the psychic octopus correctly predicted the outcome of last night's match. That means that all seven of his predictions for the World Cup were correct. Although some fairly simple maths tells us that the chance of this is a fairly manageable 1 in 128, the reactions in the press have ranged from "it's no big deal" to "give him a job at the Bank of England." I thought he did pretty well, and it has to be said that his antics have provided welcome relief during a tournament that's been sadly lacking in world-class football.
There was little sportsmanship in evidence this year, either. The overall impression I got of the teams was that winning at all costs was far more important for them than how they played the game. The oppressive atmosphere stifled any attempt at flair. Last night's final was undoubtedly the nadir of the whole affair - it managed to be relentless, brutal and yet boring at the same time. However much my recollections might be clouded by nostalgia, I don't remember the game being quite as physical when I used to watch it as a kid. "You have to remember that football is a contact sport," said one of the BBC's commentators. Contact, yes - unarmed combat, no. I can't imagine anyone like Geoff Hurst or Gordon Banks resorting to kung fu, can you? The semiotics of the instant replays have been interesting, too; coverage has focused on grinding close ups of players planting their boots into someone on the opposing team rather than any celebration of skill or technical wizardry.
After being exposed to more football over the last fortnight than I normally watch in a season, I've come to the conclusion that the sport has become a thuggish, nasty little game where fair play and a willingness to stick to the rules will just get you stamped into the turf. I'm sure a lot of this has to do with the outrageous amounts of money involved, but I guess we need to take some responsibility for the deterioration, too, because we continue to lap it up. Even if it leaves a nasty taste in our mouths.
I'm working my way through Colin McRae: DiRT2 on the PS3 at the moment. It's a vast improvement on DiRT, owing far more to Codemasters' track racing extravaganza Racedriver: Grid. I'm over 50% of the way through the game and my favourite car is still the 350Z, which should not be much of a surprise to anybody.
This week something felt different about the game, and it took me a while to figure out what it was. Eventually I realised that the posters at the side of the tracks were advertising the new film Predators. The only other game I have where I've actually noticed in-game advertising is Burnout Paradise, and most of the posters in Paradise City these days are references to the alter egos of the guys on the development team. This is the first time I've seen an advert that tied in to the immediate, real world and I have to admit it's left me feeling a little spooked. Advertisers clearly think it's here to stay and, don't forget, the Obama campaign placed ads in Burnout Paradise and elsewhere in support of his very successful presidential bid. So far, advertisers seem to have grasped the idea that in-game adverts need to be relevant and not detract (or distract) from game content, but I doubt that this situation will continue forever. Someone's bound to prioritise revenue over the gaming experience before too much longer. I wonder how long it'll be before the first outcry over an inappropriate advert reaches the press?
It's July, which means that it's time for the South Cotswold Beer Festival once again. I met up with the usual suspects last night and we all headed down to Chipping Sodbury for the opening session of the 15th festival. This year I didn't even bother taking a sweater - the weather was wonderful and the skies stayed clear. Everyone was standing around in the sunshine enjoying the beer and listening to live music, and even when the sun went down, it stayed warm. I didn't take a camera with me this year, but I did have the iPhone, so here's something that I took as I tried out the Hipstamatic camera app on the main marquee...
As always, I was looking for beers that I'd not sampled before, but I found a few old favourites as well. What did I try this year?
- Tabatha the Knackered (6%) by the Anglo Dutch Brewery
- Mercian Shine (5%) by the Beowulf Brewery
- Mexican Bandit (4.1%) by the Caledonian Brewery
- Honey Buzzard (4.5%) by the Cotleigh Brewery
- Hedgemonkey (4.6%) by Glastonbury Ales
- Cocker Hoop (4.6%) by Jennings Brewery
- Severn Seas of Rye (4.4%) by the Severn Vale Brewing Company
- Tom Long (3.8%) by the Stroud Brewery
- Jaipur IPA (5.9%) by Thornbridge Hall Brewery
The Anglo Dutch Brewery's Tabatha the Knackered was the outstanding beer of the evening as far as I was concerned. Described in the programme as "a very pale Belgian-style beer with a hint of coriander" it was a light, wheat beer of the tripel type, and it was eminently drinkable. We've come to describe beers like this as "stealth beers" - the sort that you can happily drink all evening without noticing how strong they are until you try to stand up and realise your legs don't work any more. Now all I need to do is find a pub round here that serves it so I can see how it stands up (pun intended) to a proper session.
The Jennings is an old favourite - I couldn't pass up the opportunity to reacquaint myself with it. Sadly there aren't too many pubs round here that stock beer from the Lake District; I need to travel further north for that. I'd really like to try the Thornbridge Hall IPA with a curry: the flavours would complement each other perfectly. In complete contrast, the Caledonian's Mexican Bandit was described as being "brewed from lager hops and pale malt with a twist of natural lime" but I couldn't even get through a half pint of it. The lime note just meant that it tasted strongly of washing up liquid and it's not a beer I'd want to try again.
The minibus dropped us back in the village at midnight and I staggered home to bed. This morning I woke up with not a trace of a hangover. The delights of real ale, indeed.
The photo of the beer festival above showed up as result number 5 when I googled "South Cotswold Beer Festival" less than two minutes after I uploaded it to Flickr. That's either very impressive, or more than a little bit disturbing!
All that beer meant I had a decent night's sleep for once. That was a welcome respite from what's been a very tough few days for me. There were two nights this week where I was still awake at three o'clock in the morning. At least that meant that when the milkman delivered my milk I could put it straight in the fridge and yes, the milkman delivers at 3 am. I don't know why I'm having such trouble sleeping at the moment. It might be the warm weather; even though the temperatures here haven't been anywhere near as high as they have further east, it's made things pretty uncomfortable. I'm also on a diet at the moment; while it seems to be working, I've woken up once or twice craving biscuits or chocolate, and I don't have any in the house!
The cover of last week's New Scientist magazine was devoted to one of DARPA's latest research projects: a flying sub. It's not a new idea. If you're old enough to remember the 1960s you might recall a television series from Irwin Allen called Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. They had a flying sub that was launched from a bay on the underside of the Seaview, its mother ship. As with many of Allen's productions, expensive real-life props were replaced with models that seemed utterly convincing when I was seven years old. Part submarine, part flying saucer, the Flying Sub was a striking looking ship but I wouldn't have liked to be a passenger: "landing" consisted of smacking into the sea, nose first, at several hundred miles an hour. I loved the look of the thing. In the absence of any official tie-in toys, I ended up building many versions of it out of Lego over the years.
By the 1970s, designers seemed to have got a better idea of the dynamics involved in operating an aircraft that could travel under the water, and Gerry Anderson's series UFO featured a flying sub called Sky One. Nobody mentioned the effects of thermal shock that the turbines would have been subjected to; dousing a running jet engine in the Atlantic Ocean is not recommended, but the thing looked damn cool. This was back in the days of Polaris missiles, remember - we knew that missiles could jump out of the water and fly away, because we'd seen it happen on the TV. Derek Meddings and his team obviously worked hard to give their footage of Sky One launching a realistic feel and the results are leagues ahead of those achieved by Irwin Allen's FX team. The new designs don't have the cachet of their fictional counterparts, but they may end up becoming a reality. The part of me that's still seven years old wants you to know that this is very, very cool.
I'm about two thirds of the way through Charlie Stross's latest novel, The Fuller Memorandum. It's the third in his Laundry series and I reckon it's the best thing he's written to date. Len Deighton meets H. P. Lovecraft with a bleak, dark world view that's far more sober than its two predecessors. There are still gags galore (I particularly liked the Langford Death Parrot) but there's an undercurrent of existential dread washing around your ankles, even as you sit there chuckling. As soon as I've finished typing this I'm off to finish the book. And then I'll be jonesing until he gets round to writing another one. Highly recommended.
You might remember last December that, thanks to Jack Womack, I blogged about the hydrogen bomb test that the United States conducted over Hawaii back in 1962. Yesterday I found out that NPR have an article about the test on their website, with a video that includes footage I hadn't seen before as it's only just been declassified.
Watch the video and pay close attention at around 1:17 in; as the commentator says "Here's another view, this one from the ground" you can see what appears to be a jet of excited particles being emitted by the blast. It's clear that the bomb didn't explode equally in all directions and the image looks very much like the sprites created above thunderstorms to me. Fascinating stuff, but let's hope they never feel the need to do it again.
When Rob and I visited London last week to see They Might Be Giants we walked along the South Bank of the Thames from London Bridge to Charing Cross Bridge and I found myself wondering how long the area would survive with rising sea levels. There are some beautiful buildings right next to the river, and a lot of them are built on ground that isn't that much higher than the current level of the Thames. The Thames Barrier is supposed to hold back rising waters until 2070, but what happens after that?
One possible vision of the future can be found over at BLDGBlog, where they have a feature on architect Anthony Lau's design work for a floating city sited in the Thames Estuary circa 2030. The presentations, models and graphics are a rich visual feast and while I'm not sure I'd want to live in a conurbation that looks like it's come straight out of Waterworld, it's a fascinating idea. You can see more at the accompanying Flickr set but even that isn't big enough to show the detail that's gone into the work. I'd really like to see Lau's designs in more detail.
I am less than impressed with the couriers that the Latitude Festival have selected this year. At the beginning of last week they tried to deliver my ticket, but I was out. They left a card on the doormat explaining how I could either drive eight miles down the road to pick it up from the Post Office, or use their website to arrange another delivery. I went on the website and arranged for a redelivery on Thursday and stayed in all day, waiting. Nobody turned up. When I rang them the next day, I found that not only had they not attempted to make a delivery, they had also failed to leave the packet at the Post Office in the first place - so if I'd decided to go and collect it myself, I would have had a wasted journey. The ticket, I was informed, was now being held "at their secure facility" in Bristol, and would I care to come and collect it? No I wouldn't - so they delivered it today instead.
Mind you, it was after 1 pm when they turned up. I had to wait on my doorstep for five minutes while the courier's electronic organiser rebooted before I could sign for the damn thing. I'm really not impressed.
Technorati appear to have fixed their registration form so that it doesn't reject web pages where the "www" doesn't appear first in the URL, so let's give it one more go... R9PXASBYWJNF
Update: Success! They've emailed me to say that my blog has been "claimed." I'm not sure that finally getting the blog listed on Technorati will change the amount of visitors I get here, but the achievement of getting through the arcane system they have for registering sites is satisfying enough for the moment.
The folks at the campaign for Brian Blessed on my Satnav are just over a thousand members away from their target. If you're on Facebook and you haven't joined the group yet, please do - I'm not kidding when I say that having the option to be given directions by Brian Blessed is the one thing that will make me cave in and buy a satellite navigation system.
After last month's bumper blog, things have been a bit quieter today. Nevertheless, there's a lot happening this month so expect full service to be resumed in the not-too-distant future!