Chris Harris's Blog Archive: July 2011

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July was a very busy month for me, and it meant I had more to write about than usual. As a result, I ended up producing the largest monthly blog since I started writing them back in 2003. I saw a heroic number of live bands that included both some old favourites and some new discoveries and I took plenty of photographs of them all.

I drank some red wine, lots of beer, and far larger amounts of coffee. I did some gardening. I had a holiday. In the middle of all that there were a couple of nights where I felt like I got a half-decent night's sleep. But I still managed to find the occasional item of interest on the web. It's all here, so read on...

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31 July 11 (permalink)

AND RELAX

I'm not planning on doing much today. Yesterday I spent the whole afternoon working on the outside of the house, trying to get the Virginia Creeper that grows over the front of the building under control. It's obviously been a good year for climbing plants, as the creeper had negotiated the gutters and was making its way on to the roof. A few years ago Alan Weisman brought a book out about what would happen to our structures if the human race disappeared called The World Without Us. Take it from me - when you spend half a day fighting back rampant vegetation you begin to see the point he was making in a different light.

As usually happens when I start a job like this, one thing led to another. After removing all that greenery from the house I set about cleaning the windows, which isn't something I do particularly regularly and they were badly in need of a wash. To get at some of the windows I had to get the hedge trimmers out; by the time I'd finished the green bin was full, and I had to get the step ladder out of the garage and climb into the bin to squish the cuttings down enough for everything to fit. When I moved the bin back to its usual resting place it felt like there was the best part of a hundred kilos of stuff inside it - it was heavy.

I was dripping with sweat and aching all over by the time I'd finished, and the experience underlined the fact that I've got to the point in my life where I'd really be better off paying someone else to do the big maintenance jobs rather than attempt them myself.

IT'S THE FUTURE

Last night I was able to watch a live stream of an event taking place on the other side of the River Severn, where the Green Gathering festival was taking place in Chepstow. I'd thought about going in person, but then realised this would be the third festival I'd be attending in three weeks, and I'm too old to keep up with that level of excitement!

Thomas Dolby played an excellent set that included a track - Spice Train - that's on his new album The Map of the Floating City, which comes out in October. As TMDR pointed out during his performance, it's the first album to have been recorded entirely using renewable energy at his wind- and solar-powered recording studio in a converted lifeboat, the Nutmeg of Consolation. Mr Dolby had a new band playing with him at the festival, and from their performance you'd never have guessed that he's only been working with him for a week. I'm sure it helps when two of the three guys backing him up run a Thomas Dolby tribute band called the Pirate Twins, though...

It's funny how quickly we get used to the technological marvels that surround us these days. It was only after I'd shut down the live stream that I realised how extraordinary that would have been to my younger self - if I'd told the twenty year old version of me that I'd be able to sit at home and watch a live gig filmed on video cameras that could fit in the palm of your hand, stereo sound and all, as it took place in the middle of a park on a Saturday evening, for free (and - most importantly - without my television set being involved at all) I doubt very much that I'd have believed me. If I'd then added that the infrastructure for doing this was installed and run by people who didn't work for any of the television companies, using technology that was cheap and widely available, and transmitted to my home over the telephone line, I'm sure I would have been met with utter disbelief.

Actually, I did try using my television set; I wanted to see if my Mac Mini could handle the live stream and throw the picture up on the big screen, but while the audio stream sounded fine, the video side of things failed dismally. The Mac could only manage a frame rate of one every few seconds, so I switched back to the PC which was giving a picture as good as a TV signal. The Mac's been neglected over the last few months (as evidenced by the fact that I had to re-pair its Bluetooth mouse and keyboard when I switched it on) so maybe it was sulking. I'll fire it up in a little while and make sure it's running okay - I might not be great at strenuous gardening tasks these days, but I can still deal with the majority of IT issues I encounter!

MORE MUSIC

The results of my annual post-festival music buying spree have started arriving, and I've been enjoying listening to albums by Eels and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. In both cases this has confirmed what excellent bands they are. My selection of music from artists I'd not heard before also contines to land on the doormat; I have yet to listen to Anna Calvi's album, which arrived yesterday, but I'm looking forwards to sitting down with a glass of wine and savouring it.

However, my obsession with the Fall continues to influence my listening habits more strongly than anything else. With ten of their studio albums down, I'd say that The Frenz Experiment is probably the most accessible. It features the excellent Hit The North as well as their cover version of There's a Ghost in my House and it ought to be a part of any discerning listener's collection.

I've listened to Mark E Smith's work enough now to have developed favourites; Carry Bag Man from The Frenz Experiment nearly made it to the top of my list, but it was beaten by How I Wrote Elastic Man. It's a diatribe against a public which resolutely fails to understand the meaning behind a writer's most successful work to the point where, when they talk to him about it, they can't even get the title right. That's why Smith sings "How I wrote plastic man" throughout the song, although in best YouTube tradition most people seem to have missed the point entirely. It has a riff that barrels along, and a spartan, echoing production. I only realised how important the production was to the song when I heard someone else (Baddiel and Skinner, no less) cover it without attempting to get the atmosphere right.

AND FINALLY

I must go and see Cowboys and Aliens. The Wild West, and flying saucers: what's not to like? It's also the 40th film in which Harrison Ford's performance is credited (he's appeared, without acknowledgement, in several other films). To celebrate, Chip Zdarsky has drawn portraits of Ford's character in each film.

28 July 11 (permalink)

BEST PHOTO YOU'LL SEE THIS YEAR

Belated thanks to Steve Owens for tweeting about this extraordinary photograph of the space shuttle Atlantis returning to Earth, taken by the crew of the International Space Station last week. You're unlikely to see a more striking picture this year, I reckon.

BOLDLY GOING

Oooh! Airbrush legend Chris Foss - the artist most responsible for getting me obsessed with the many and wonderful worlds of science fiction - has a new book out. You bet your sweet bippy I will be getting a copy.

It was his covers for the Panther paperback releases of Edward Elmer "Doc" Smith's Lensman series of books back in the 1970s that set me off. They featured huge, bizarrely shaped and frequently brightly-coloured vessels blowing up evil-looking asteroids or negotiating clouds of interstellar gas. I'd never seen anything quite like it before, because before Chris came along, there really wasn't anything quite like it. I can even remember the price of those books, they stuck in my memory so vividly. The first one cost me seven shillings (that's 35 pence) and I still have it.

Ever since then, Chris Foss has been a huge influence on science fiction in all its forms and his name crops up in association with an extraordinary number of projects. These include Superman, Alien, and a collaboration with Alejandro Jodorowsky on a proposed film of Dune that, while it never came to fruition, has passed into legend.

READY TO RUMBLE

The rather spiffy weather website Raintoday.co.uk tells me there's a 9% chance of rain here this evening. It doesn't feel like it; the weather has been muggy, humid and hot all day and it really feels like it's going to start thundering at any moment. Maybe the storm will break later this evening - we could do with some rain.

27 July 11 (permalink)

THE JOYFULNESS IS OVER

So my holiday has been and gone. To compound the misery, on Monday night I came down with a stinking cold: sore throat, runny nose and constant sneezing. I lasted just a day back at work: I feel terrible and I phoned in sick this morning. Then I went back to bed, and eventually woke up at one in the afternoon. I still feel rough.

Is it Friday yet?

MASSIVE

As I suspected it would, this blog has already broken all records as the largest of all time, and the month's not over yet. Can I break the 150 kb mark by Sunday? I reckon so...

PURPLE PROSE

The winners of this year's Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest have been announced. I last blogged about the competition inspired by the opening words of Charles Bulwer-Lytton's novel Paul Clifford back in 2007 but as this year's overall winner is the shortest sentence on record to achieve such a distinction, I thought it was worth mentioning again.

25 July 11 (permalink)

HOME RUN

It's Monday morning, and I'm glad to be home. I got back from Finchley to Charfield in 2 hours and 5 minutes and by 9 am I'd washed the car and put it back in the garage!Today is the last day of my holiday, and I will be spending it doing yet more laundry, cleaning up the house, playing some music, and generally chilling out.

FOOTSORE

One reason my feet were aching became clear when I got home - I discovered I've got a fresh crop of verrucas on my left foot. It's been a while since I had any but I still had a tube of remover in the bathroom. Hopefully they'll clear up quickly; I hate the things.

24 July 11 (permalink)

ANOTHER DAY IN LONDON...

Understandably I was so stoked after yesterday's experiences that I hardly got any sleep - I was just too excited. I must have dozed off at some point, though, as I eventually woke up around eight in the morning and stumbled down to breakfast. Strong coffee and a small danish pastry were not enough to block out the troupe of noisy kids so I eventually retreated to my room and got my act together for day two. I set off a bit later this morning, and after last night's return journey and getting the map application working on my phone I had a much clearer idea of where I was going. It was a pleasant walk and there was more sunshine around than yesterday, but with enough of a breeze to take the edge off the heat.

This morning I was down to £20 in my wallet and despite looking for cashpoints on the way home I hadn't found one. Instead when I came to Queens Avenue I set off down Fortis Green Road where I got some cashback at the local Sainsburys. Of course, as I walked back up to the roundabout at the top of Muswell Hill I walked past two ATMs not 100 metres off the route I'd taken last night.

Given my experience with the food at the festival yesterday I'd decided to have an early lunch - this consisted of a bottle of water and a sandwich from Sainsbury's followed by a large, damn fine latte and a very nice slice of carrot and raisin cake in Caffè Nero. After that, I felt ready for anything!

I'LL BE YOUR MIRROR: DAY TWO

And so I started day two. First off were a band I've been listening to for several years, another bunch of musicians that I first heard on Radio 3's Mixing It show. Godspeed You! Black Emperor from Montreal are not your average band, and their description in the festival programme had me laughing out loud:

Not what you were expecting?

I can think of very few bands who sound less like Rush or ELP than GY!BE. As you may have expected from a band who take their name from a documentary about a Japanese motorcycle gang, their sound is rather unusual. Their set was played with hardly any lighting on the band, just a selection of moody and atmospheric films.

The Anatomy of Melancholy

Individual GY!BE pieces can last a quarter of an hour or more; crescendos and diminuendos following each other resulting in an immense wall of sound that is most definitely not for the faint-hearted. Like Foot Village yesterday, the band arrange themselves on stage in a tight horseshoe, walled in by encircling amplifiers and speaker cabinets. This means that it's only the folk at the very centre of the stage who get to see anything of the band - for everyone else the performers are obscured, shadowy figures. In contrast to Foot Village, though, this actually suits GY!BE's image. Their set lasted for two hours, and I lasted for about an hour and a quarter. During that time, the band had not spoken a single word to the audience.

After the intensity of GY!BE's set, watching the LA band Liars in the Great Hall came as something of a relief. They seemed to fit in at IBYM far more comfortably than they had when I saw them at the Mute Records event at the Roundhouse in May and they seemed to be having a good time.

Liars

But for me, today was all about the next event to take place in the West Hall: a showing of Carl Theordor Dreyer's epic 1923 silent movie The Passion of Joan of Arc with a live performance of Adrian Utley and Will Gregory's new orchestral score. Yes, this is another Portishead (and Goldfrapp!) side project...

Joan

The Passion of Joan of Arc is an extraordinary film, shot almost entirely in close up. On the big screen the actors' faces are exposed with an almost brutal lack of sympathy. Maria Falconetti's performance as Joan is quite rightly cited as one of the greatest movie performances of all time - it is impossible to tear your eyes away from her when she appears on the screen. The music does a great job matching the epic quality of the film, too - there were three harps on stage for the performance. I'd doubted I'd sit through the whole performance because I'd struggled with GY!BE's set but I was transfixed until the closing credits has disappeared off the screen. It was a quite remarkable way to spend a Sunday afternoon and if you get a chance to see this performance I recommend you take it.

After all that intensity I decided to take some time out in the sunshine. It was an absolutely lovely day today and even though the security team were being as ridiculous as yesterday, everyone seemed to be in a good mood. For goodness' sake, I even saw Warren Ellis from Grinderman hug someone! I queued up for a box of chips to keep me going - and just doing that took half an hour out of my day, which was far too much, I thought - but eventually I made my way back inside to see Swans play in the Great Hall.

Swans

Swans are another band who know what playing live is all about, and again I found myself comparing them to the space rock bands of the 1970s. All the bands over the weekend had been playing at impressive volume levels but Swans in particular made me glad I was wearing earplugs. The drums were earth-shakingly loud. As I mentioned on Flickr, Swans take about two minutes to lay down any particular track but they'll then take a quarter of an hour to stop playing it. They were obviously having a whale of a time and the audience picked up on the fact.

But then it was time to move into the West Hall and get right at the front for another of the reasons I'd bought a ticket for the festival.

Alan Moore and Stephen O'Malley

This was only the third time that Alan Moore and Seattle-based guitarist Stephen O'Malley had performed together, but you'd never have known it. With a video backdrop showing the fever-dream, black and white animation Heaven & Earth Magic made in 1962 by Harry Everett Smith, Alan Moore read out a work that was ostensibly about Smith while O'Malley (once one of his amps had been replaced) provided a vast range of sonic accompaniments on the guitar. It was striking, hypnotic and riveting and it left me more convinced than ever that Mr Moore, apart from being a national treasure as evidenced by his appearances with Robin Ince and Professor Brian Cox on the Infinite Monkey Cage programme on Radio 4, is one of the greatest living creative forces at work in the UK.

And his coat was absolutely bloody wonderful.

After that, I was wondering whether Grinderman could compete, but I needn't have worried. Nick Cave was in fine form and they ran through a splendid set of material from both Grinderman albums.

Full tilt

It was quite something to see a large chunk of the audience not singing along but going "Bzzz! Bzzz! Bzz! Bzz! Bzz! Bzz! Bzz!" when the band thundered through "Honey Bee (Let's Fly To Mars)." Mr Cave's interactions with the crowd were as endearing and original as ever and once again I was ruing the festival format when at the end of one song he suddenly thanked us for coming and bade us goodnight. We wanted more, but it was not to be.

The Telescopes were playing an energetic set in the West Hall, but by now the weekend was beginning to catch up with me and I was content to sit by one of the doors connecting the two halls together and listen from outside. This wasn't just from me being old and tired; it was also partly a reaction to the overwhelming number of dickheads in the audience. There were people having loud and protracted conversations, oblivious to anyone else who might have preferred to listen to the band. There were kids with mobile phones shooting video of themselves in the audience, complete with lights on their cameras so they could get a better picture, which of course dazzles you if they happen to point it at you. And, of course, there are the people who while they are walking past you, suddenly decide that the ideal spot to watch the remainder of the concert is from six inches in front of your nose. But life's too short to spend it arguing with idiots. Far better to just walk away.

So it was that I stayed much further back for Portishead's set this time, but as a result I got a better view and I reckon the sound was better, too. The visuals were, of course, mind-bendingly good.

Did I mention the visuals?

The visuals in the rest of the building weren't too shabby, either: while I was listening I suddenly noticed the pattern on the ceiling caused by spotlights from the outside of the building shining through the Rose Window.

Through the Rose Window

Portishead's set wasn't exactly the same as last night, but they still managed to play all my favourites. Having said that, things didn't go entirely to plan tonight. For some reason the band just couldn't get the intro to one song right. It stumbled to a halt when the drums were supposed to come in and they'd started five times before giving up and moving on to something else. Later on in the set Beth referred to it as the evening's comedy section; the good mood of the day remained and she eventually jumped down to the front of the audience and was running backwards and forwards shaking hands and getting high fives. I really hadn't expected her to do that!

As curators of the festival it was of course Portishead's privilege to take an encore and that's what they did, coming back for a final couple of numbers.

"Thank you for coming.  We hope you liked it."

And then that was it as far as the Great Hall was concerned. There were other acts still to play - I would quite like to have seen Caribou play the West Hall - but by now I really needed to sit down, chill out and rest my aching back, so I decided to head for the hotel.

So that was my first ATP festival. It was a great experience on the whole, but I'd need assurances that they will improve the organisational side of things before deciding to go to another one.

I left Alexandra Palace at 11 o'clock and started walking back to Finchley, but soon realised how much more tired I was compared with Saturday night. In fact, I was knackered. My feet hurt, my back was aching and I knew I had at least another 90 minutes walk ahead of me, so I caved in and started looking for a bus stop instead. A 102 night bus came along pretty quickly and a quarter of an hour later I was back at the hotel. I hadn't expected to get to bed before midnight but I was very glad when I did. I made sure I took a couple of painkillers first, though!

23 July 11 (permalink)

EARLY START

When I walked into the hotel's reception area this morning, the TV was showing the horrific news from Norway - with a death toll that had leapt to more than 80. Shocking. After that, I really didn't feel much like eating breakfast, but I had a bowl of cereal and some peculiar-tasting orange juice. The hotel doesn't really have a restaurant, and the breakfast room was a serve-yourself affair that was overrun by lots of noisy kids, so I beat a hasty retreat as soon as I could.

I'd decided I'd try walking to Alexandra Palace as I really need to get more exercise than I do. The festival literature said that wristbands would be available from 11am and the doors would open at 12. From the map it looked like the venue was only a couple of miles away, but I didn't know the area so I allowed myself plenty of time for the walk, and headed out before 10. For some reason my phone's map application wasn't working so for navigation I was relying on a printout of the area from Google maps. The Henly's Corner roadworks that had caused such a problem yesterday meant that I was on a diversion as soon as I walked out of the hotel, and it soon became apparent that the North Circular Road does not include a pedestrian thoroughfare. I was lost within ten minutes, wandering across playing fields and "gardens of rest" in an attempt to locate the road I needed. Eventually I found myself way off course, back on the north (and therefore wrong) side of the North Circular and approaching the A1000 so I followed it south and eventually picked up the road I'd been aiming for in the first place.

At least it was a nice day. The sun was shining and the blue sky was a welcome contrast to last weekend. By the time I'd walked along Fortis Green and reached the top of Muswell Hill I was ready for a coffee, so as soon as a branch of Costa appeared I made a beeline for it. Suitably refreshed by a large latte and a danish pastry, I walked back outside and noticed a branch of Caffè Nero immediately opposite. Now, Costa Coffee is OK, but I really like Caffè Nero's stuff. D'oh!

A few hundred metres down Muswell Hill I found the entrance to Alexandra Park and left the hustle and bustle of London on a Saturday morning behind. I'd not been to Haringey's finest park before. There were squirrels and magpies and jays all over the place, and there were lots of people out enjoying the sunshine, although by now there was a fair amount of cloud building up. Then I walked round a corner, and the Palace came into view.

Ally Pally

Ally Pally was built in 1873 - another example of Victorian fondness for public buildings devoted to education, recreation and exhibitions. The Palace was intended to serve as the north London counterpart to Crystal Palace in the south. Sixteen days after it opened, it caught fire and the building was almost entirely gutted. Undaunted, the owners set about rebuilding it and it reopened a couple of years later; a charitable trust was established in 1900 to ensure the venue remained available for the free use and recreation of the public forever. Its long association with the BBC began in 1935 when the corporation leased some of the building and the transmission tower was erected. The Palace was the centre of the BBC's activities until 1956. I can remember watching the news in July 1980 when another massive fire gutted the building. It reopened in its present form in 1988. And, of course, its association with the BBC continues: the Doctor Who episode The Idiot's Lantern was filmed there a few years ago!

When I got to the Palm Court entrance, it was bang on eleven o'clock, so I'd estimated my journey time perfectly, which I was rather pleased about. There were only half a dozen other punters waiting, though - and we were outnumbered five to one by the security folks. Things progressed very slowly. Wristband exchange didn't start happening until after noon - and it was another half an hour at least before the doors opened. But eventually I made my way inside and the festival began...

I'LL BE YOUR MIRROR: DAY ONE

The first thing I did when I got inside was head for the bar. I'd been walking for more than two hours so I felt I deserved a beer. However, after one sip I vowed it would be the only beer I bought at the entire festival: it was revolting. Why do festivals find it so hard to get beer right? Fortunately it's much harder to ruin cider, and there was plenty of that available.

First up in the West Hall were a band I'd missed at Latitude - The London Snorkelling Team. There are a couple of friends of friends in the band and they have a strong Bristol connection, hence their selection by the festival's curators, Portishead. I've blogged about Tom "Dr Syntax" Haines and Chris "CB Turbo" Branch before, after I heard their morris-dancing cover of Bjork's "Army of Me" on the late lamented Radio 3 show Mixing It. Sadly it turned out that trombonist Pascal "Rivethead" Wyse couldn't appear today because he'd injured his hand, but the guys got things off to a cracking start, even if to begin with the band's MC wryly observed that they and the audience were heavily outnumbered by the bar staff! Once their OHP had loaded, they were off and running...

The London Snorkelling Team

Their show was not what I'd been expecting at all. It was fun, playful and eccentric stuff. In his white lab coat Ed Gaughan introduced the shenanigans as if we were attending a university symposium on Craggy Island. He had a clipboard which he consulted to see what the setlist was. He was careful to manage our expectations from the outset, too: "Remember, these aren't professional musicians. They're not even amateur musicians. They're chemists." He went on to dedicate several songs to the bar staff. Mark and Tom Perrett's OHP visuals were a key part of the goings on, and when they put up a slide with a four channel mixing desk (each slider labelled with the musician's name) the band reacted as the controls were changed. This was particularly amusing when the "horse" switch was activated. There was a slight glitch when the OHP overheated and turned itself off (the perils of having a plush velvet throw draped over the flight case it was resting on blocking the flow of air through its cooling vents), but they'd soon got it working again to cheers from the onlookers. The LST prove that humour can belong in music and by the time they'd finished their set they'd got a good-sized crowd watching them. I'm sure they'll be cropping up on your radar again before too long, so keep an eye out for them.

Next up were DD/MM/YYYY (or "Day Month Year" to you and me) who delivered an eclectic set of 8-bit musical goodness. They have a Portishead connection, of course: they've released a split single with Geoff Barrow's BEAK> project. I could hear snatches of video game samples in their work, underlined by back projections of malfunctioning Nintendo video game consoles. As they played, a couple of huge mirrored inflatables were batted around the hall by the audience and these ended up on stage several times. The whole thing made for a really fun atmosphere.

Day, Month, Year

After DD/MM/YYYY finished their set, it was time for LA band Foot Village.

Foot Village

If I'm honest, I'd have to say I was less impressed by this band. Their work consists of drumming and shouting (occasionally using a megaphone). Now I don't have a problem with this - you don't need lots of musical instruments to make interesting music - what irritated me was that the way the band were set up on stage was very much geared towards their own experience of each other's performance. They all face each other, they all perform for each other and quite frankly as a member of the audience I felt like I'd become an irrelevance. They weren't the only band to do this over the weekend, and in each case my response was the same: "You're not interested in involving me in what you're doing? Fine. I'll go see something else." And I did.

I headed out on to the "food court" set up on the terrace at Alexandra Palace and was confronted with a breathtaking view south over London. You could look across to the Thames Estuary in the east, the Dome and Canary Wharf to the south east...

The view to the South East

...and the city and The Shard to the south:

I'm in London!

I got a hot dog from one of the food court vendors, but it was particularly unpleasant. The trouble with being at Latitude so recently is that the food vendors there are so good and anywhere else is going to be a profound disappointment by comparison, but this was borderline rancid.

Wiping the disgusting ketchup from my fingers, I tried to head back inside through the door I'd just walked through, only to be told I had to go to the other end of the terrace instead. The "security" at ATP were heavy-handed in the extreme and just plain tedious compared with Latitude. They kept imposing one way systems to control crowd movement and would then arbitrarily change them, so the route you followed half an hour ago was "no longer allowed." It was like some particularly malicious game and by three o'clock in the afternoon it had passed beyond tedium and was becoming distinctly annoying.

There was nowhere to sit except on the floor, and security were continuously going around telling people off for getting in the way. Now that I'm over 50, I just don't do standing up all day any more. I need somewhere to sit and rest my aching back! I walked back into the foyer, to sit in a quiet empty space and catch up with the messages on my phone to be told by not one or even two but three security goons I was causing a "hazard" and told, pleasantly but extremely firmly to move. To whom I was in danger of causing a hazard wasn't clear, as there was nobody else about. I heard of cases where someone bought a bottle of water inside the venue, walked outside, and then had it confiscated when they tried to get back in because bringing stuff in from outside "wasn't allowed." It was clear that the idiots were in charge - but as they were large, overbearing idiots with muscles that very clearly announced you were going to be ignored if you were stupid enough to attempt any sort of rational discussion, what are you going to do?

It was also painfully clear by this point that there weren't enough food outlets inside the venue. Large queues had built up and it was taking twenty minutes to get served at one point. But festivals are all about having a captive bunch of consumers, of course - why allow people to bring in food from elsewhere when you can charge them extortionate prices for rancid sausages inside? Some organisers at least go through the pretence of making an effort as far as food provision goes. ATP hadn't even bothered with that - when I went back later, one of the painfully limited number of food stalls wasn't even open.

Eventually I found a door that security decided I was allowed through and made my way back into the building, where I found somewhere selling decent coffee and that took most of the taste of the hot dog away. In the Great Hall, the first band of the day on the main stage were just getting started.

BEAK> were formed in 2009 by three Bristol musicians including Portishead's Geoff Barrow. As the band's website explains, they work to very strict guidelines when writing and recording their work, working live in one room and recording with no overdubs or repair, only using edits to create arrangements. As a result their stuff is live and exciting and genuine and I really liked it. They had a large crowd right from their start, and I got the impression that this was a new experience for them: "We usually only play to about twelve people."

"We usually only play to about twelve people."

They probably wouldn't thank me for saying this but their music reminded me, above everything else, of "Space-Ritual" era Hawkwind in their glory days. It was thundering, trippy, visceral stuff that demanded you moved in response. One of the problems with the tight timescales at festivals is that bands play limited sets of material and I was really disappointed when these guys had to stop, as I could have quite happily listened to them play for another couple of hours.

As I sat at the side of the Great Hall waiting for the stage to be cleared and the next act to come on, my phone chimed. It was a text from Matty: "Christ, Amy Winehouse is dead." I couldn't believe it, but a quick skim of the web confirmed it. She was only 27 - the age, as many have pointed out, when Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison, Cobain and many others all died. There is something very dark about the music industry in the way that it uses addiction as a way to publicise and market self-destructive artists. Maybe it doesn't overtly encourage such behaviour, but it does little to intervene in a process that so often leads to an early grave. That needs to change.

I always feel uncomfortable about an industry that knows it will continue to make money from an artist's work, and it's easy to believe that there's an element of it being less effort (and therefore more profitable) to let the more tortured souls die and keep flogging their existing body of work, rather than make the effort of getting the artist help and therefore ensuring they remain alive and healthy enough to create new recordings. The press, of course, are profoundly hypocritical when something like this happens, as the glee with which they reported her many meltdowns can have done nothing to help her mental state. Over the last few days, the only article about her that I've read which I actually found both truthful and moving was written, of all people, by Russell Brand. His piece in the Guardian has tempered my poor opinion of him considerably.

After thoughts like that, I really needed to see an act that was upbeat, bouncy, and full of energy. And by a strange coincidence, that's exactly what I got...

Doom

Daniel Dumile is better known by his masked stage persona Doom. I loved the album he did with Danger Mouse a few years back and I was delighted when he did several tracks from it. He has such a distinctive voice, and together with his accomplice (whose name I didn't catch) he had the crowd at the front bouncing up and down and generally having an extremely good time. Which was just what I needed.

By now it was half past six, and I headed back to the West Hall to get a space right at the front of the stage for the band who I knew were going to be the high point of the festival for me:

The Stage is Set

Yes, I was so excited I was taking pictures of the stage before the band even appeared. The Books are from Vermont, and if you've been reading my blog for any length of time you'll know that they've been a bit of an obsession of mine since I first heard them on Mixing It back in 2005. They are a band that I never thought I would get to see live, so when I found out they were playing the festival I bought a ticket without hesitation.

The Books came on stage at 6:45. Nick Zammuto and Paul de Jong were joined by the multi-instrumentalist Gene Back, who played guitar, violin, keyboards and even Nick's bass, depending on what song they were performing.

Nick Zammuto of The Books

Paul de Jong of The Books

Gene Back

The Books at Ally Pally

As you can see, video plays a big part in their stage show. Nick ran the whole thing off a Toshiba laptop and the presentation style is based on the Playall DVD's main menu. They played a lot of material from the latest album The Way Out but we also got Tokyo and Take Time from The Lemon of Pink, Smells Like Content and Be Good To Them Always from Lost and Safe, Classy Penguin from Playall and I'm sure many others that I've forgotten!

I was amazed how much swapping of musical instruments was going on - all three guys are virtuoso players but Paul de Jong's cello playing was a real stand-out (even if it was often quite low in the mix from where I was standing at the other side of the stage). I was delighted to see the band get a really good reception and there was a lot of press interest: at one point there must have been a dozen photographers in the pit at the front of the stage, but security shepherded them away so the rest of us could have an unobstructed view. The Books's set was over much too quickly, and despite shouts for "more" from me (and others, I hasten to add!) that was it. I'd have been quite happy to go home there and then, but the evening wasn't finished yet.

Back in the Great Hall PJ Harvey, looking resplendent in an all-black outfit and a black feather headdress was already on stage. As I made my way forwards she put down the autoharp and picked up a "map" guitar...

PJ Harvey

Now I have a profoundly unscientific and irrational theory based on nothing other than forty-something years of experience of popular music which states that any artist who plays a "map" guitar will be something particularly special. After all, other users of the instrument include Joey Burns of Calexico and David Lindley. I can now add Polly Harvey to this list, as she was brilliant. Most of her set consisted of songs from her latest album, and they were songs to get you dancing and thinking. Wonderful stuff - and how can you not appreciate music being played in a setting like this?

What a setting

I'd decided to make my way closer to the front for Portishead, and I found myself in a prime spot when the lights went down and the "P" logo appeared on the giant back projection screen behind the stage. The audience roared with approval and the opening strains of Silence rang out. They then went on to play three of my other favourite tracks, one after another: Mysterons, The Rip, and Sour Times. The sound they got was impeccable - the drum sound in particular was one of the best I've ever heard. Next, the band rattled through Wandering Star and Machine Gun, which is absolutely overwhelming live.

Sunrise

In fact, it all got a bit too overwhelming; it all felt very claustrophobic and I decided it was time to move further back. I felt a little better when I got to the rear of the great hall, but I decided I should get a drink and headed to one of the quieter bars in the Panorama Room, where there were stalls selling CDs, t-shirts, and even vinyl albums! I noticed that all of the albums by The Books were on prominent display, and then I noticed the guy running the stand, who was watching me checking out the vinyl. I was more than a little surprised to realise it was Nick Zammuto of The Books. I had a long chat and tried not to be a complete fanboy, but I think I failed. :-)

I was geeking out about bass guitar and when Nick told me what tuning he used for the hammering-on section of Smells Like Content it immediately became clear why I'd never managed to figure out how on Earth he was playing it! I raved about the Gregory Whitehead production of Bring Me The Head of Philip K Dick that he'd worked on, and he told me that Gregory had been instrumental in convincing him that The Books were a band that he could take on the road, so I am profoundly grateful for that. I mentioned that I'd worked out where a fair few of the samples on the albums had come from and Nick said that a couple of years ago he'd actually received an email from Mal "How're you doing today?" Sharpe thanking him for sampling him. Nick said he's also working on a new project which will include a new drummer, so I will be very interested in hearing what that sounds like. I bought a copy of The Lemon of Pink on vinyl which Nick very kindly signed for me.

There was absolutely no way I was going to top that as the high point of my first day at the festival, and as Portishead finished their set I decided it was time to head back to the hotel. Ninety minutes later I was back in my room drinking a bottle of extortionately-priced fruit juice I'd bought from the machine in the foyer - I managed to find my way back without getting lost once.

That was quite a Saturday.

22 July 11 (permalink)

SPREAD THE WORD

It seems that my photo of Mark Thomas at Latitude has come to the attention of the man himself, as he tweeted about it, as did trombonist Nathan Hamer!

ON THE ROAD AGAIN

If I'd thought this through I probably wouldn't have organised a long car journey on the day the schools break up for the summer holidays, but I did - which is why I found myself crawling around the M25 this afternoon doing a couple of miles an hour on my way to north London. The amount of traffic on the roads was staggering, but I had the radio to listen to - which was fine, until the news of the horrifying events from Norway started coming in. Norway is a lovely country. I've visited it several times and the people I met there were without exception warm, friendly, good people; it was difficult to take in the level of the atrocity that was being perpetrated against them. As I sat in yet another traffic jam on the North Circular Road, I was listening to the reports in despair. By the time I parked at the hotel and switched off the radio, I felt numb.

WELCOME TO FINCHLEY

I was staying at a hotel on Regents Park Road in Finchley. The room was okay and the view out of the window took in the roadworks which had caused so much congestion on the North Circular as well as the arch of Wembley Stadium off in the distance. After settling myself in I decided I needed to go for a walk to clear my head a little, see what Finchley had to offer, and get something to eat. Finchley looks like an area in transition. There are lots of houses being gutted and modernised with front gardens full of builders' rubble; there are cars parked on the road that have accumulated their own drifts of grit and dirt around tyres that can't have moved for months; there are abandoned pubs and closed-down shops on the main street; and the uneven pavements and tree roots make walking a bit of a challenge for the unwary pedestrian. Maybe it was the environment or maybe it was the events of the day getting to me, but I found myself wondering how quickly I could get some food and retreat back to my room. In the end I saw a branch of Subway ahead so I got myself a submarine sandwich for tea, then walked back to the hotel. I couldn't face watching the news on the TV so I had an early night. Tomorrow's going to be an extremely long, busy day.

21 July 11 (permalink)

ARRIVED SAFELY

While I was at Latitude I found myself wondering if the Dawn spacecraft had arrived safely or not - and in a rare moment where I could get the Internet on my phone in a muddy field in Suffolk, I was delighted to find out that it had achieved orbit. It's taken four years of gentle cruising through the solar system with ion propulsion engines to get to its first destination, the asteroid Vesta (which is the second-largest object in the asteroid belt).

Ion propulsion is radically different from chemical propellant rockets, which burn through their fuel at a prodigious rate. The Space Shuttle's main engines generated over two and a half million pounds of thrust, but they burned through all their fuel in a few minutes. Dawn's engines generate less than half an ounce of thrust - but they run continuously. It might take Dawn four days to accelerate from a standstill to sixty miles an hour, but Dawn can keep those engines running for weeks, months, years. They use an electrical field to accelerate ions of xenon gas to a speed of approximately 30 kilometres a second. Newton's third law of motion states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction - so the high speed of the exhaust means that a spacecraft can end up travelling in the opposite direction ten times as fast as a spacecraft that uses chemical rockets. That's what Dawn has been doing since it launched in 2007 and on July 16th, Dawn wafted slowly into orbit to be captured by the asteroid's extremely weak gravity. It has already beamed back some close up images of Vesta, which NASA has described as "looking like a punctured soccer ball" some 330 kilometres across. Vesta has an uneven shape like this because its gravity is so weak it hasn't been able to pull it into a sphere.

Dawn will spend the next year studying Vesta, but its travels are far from over. Just over a year from now, on July 27th 2012, it will fire up its engines once again, escape Vesta's feeble pull and leave orbit - something that to my knowledge no interplanetary spacecraft has ever done before - to start another mammoth journey to the dwarf planet Ceres. Ceres is the largest object in the asteroid belt; like Pluto, it's classed as a dwarf planet, and it should prove at least as interesting than Vesta.

HOME AGAIN

I spent most of yesterday doing the laundry and uploading photos to Flickr. Today I spent pretty much the entire day blogging my adventures over the past week. It's now going up for 11pm and tomorrow I'm off again; I picked up my tickets to the I'll Be Your Mirror festival from the sorting office this morning. That will give me even more material for this month's blog, which is already shaping up to be a complete monster. Stay tuned for more musical adventures!

19 July 11 (permalink)

R'N'R

Tuesday's been a pretty quiet day. Dad and I were going to have a chinese takeaway this evening but neither of us had realised that the takeaway in Holt is closed on Tuesdays. Instead Dad dug a couple of Mr Otty's marvellous pies out of the freezer and we had those instead. Even better!

I haven't brought my netbook with me, so the blogging will have to wait until I get home. I didn't even bring my big camera, so I have spent today just dozing and reading. It felt rather good.

HOMEWARD BOUND

I left Dad's place just after eight and made my way home across the fens. As I drove down the B1098 between Welney and Chatteris, I caught sight of something out of the corner of my eye, and realised there was a barn owl flying alongside the car. I slowed down to watch it, and it kept alongside me for a hundred yards or so as it hunted along the banks of the Sixteen Foot Drain. It was the closest I've ever got to a wild barn owl, and it was lovely to see.

I stopped off at the big Tesco in Huntingdon to refuel and get milk and croissants for the rest of the week, then got back on the road. It was very quiet, and the rest of the journey was completely uneventful. I was home by half past twelve on Wednesday morning and the front of the car is plastered in dead insects!

18 July 11 (permalink)

LATITUDE: AFTERWARDS

I didn't have the greatest night's sleep but it was comparatively late - half past seven - when I woke up this morning. Last year I'd been on the road home for an hour by then! When I poked my head out of the tent it was windy, but not raining. By the time I'd dressed, packed up the tent and dragged all my gear back to the car it was after ten, and I then spent another hour or so queueing up to get out of the car park. The tracks were all pretty treacherous, and the Z is as skittish on thick mud as it is on snow - not a pleasant experience. At least my car was moving; every ten minutes another AA van appeared to render assistance to a breakdown in the car park. Eventually I reached the A12, which was solid southbound. I turned north and nipped up to Wangford before driving down to Reydon and Southwold for coffee with GMH. It was nice to catch up with her and Uncle Dougie and at long last I have finally managed to deliver this year's photo calendar!

I took things slowly on the way back to Dad's place, and arrived in High Kelling at 3. He'd gone out with Miffy so I sat in the garden drinking a bottle of water and listening to the birds singing. It was very restful!

REFUELLING

In the evening Dad and I headed over to Edgefield for supper at The Pigs. I'd heard good things about the place and I've been keen to try it out for quite a while. I wasn't disappointed, either - the place has a friendly, family atmosphere, they serve Aspall's cider, and the food was superb. Dad and I both had a starter of Cley Smokehouse prawns followed by their belly of pork with black pudding, crackling and bacon beans as a main course. Dad finished off with a glass of port while I demolished their Pimms crush strawberry sundae. It was easily the best meal out I've had since I went to the Fat Duck a few years ago. Dad enjoyed himself, too.

17 July 11 (permalink)

LATITUDE: DAY FOUR

I had a relatively good night's sleep - I only woke up a couple of times, which was quite an achievement given the amount of noise going on once I took my earplugs out. The folk group had started up again, and it didn't sound any better in daylight.

I headed over to the Comedy Tent to start the last day of Latitude (as I normally do) by listening to Marcus Brigstocke and the Early Edition crowd, but I couldn't get near the place. I'd heard there were 35,000 people at Latitude this year, and those extra couple of thousand all seemed to be milling around outside, standing on tables and packing the whole Comedy area to the gunwhales. There have been quite a few events this year where there were just too many people wanting to watch - the festival really needs to sort out some larger tents. Disappointed, I mooched over to get my breakfast of haggis, tatties and neeps but I was so early the stall hadn't even started serving! At least the rain had stopped temporarily, so I sat on a bench for a while and watched the world go by. Latitude is a great place for people watching, and there are all sorts of characters about. Some people I recognised from previous years; there's one guy who wears shorts, a tweed jacket and a top hat who is as much a regular fixture at the festival as I am. This year cosplay appears to have taken hold: I saw one chap dressed up as a character from Gerry Anderson's Thunderbirds...

Calling International Rescue

I got my haggis, but they'd run out of whisky for it. Feeling a bit grumpy, I headed off to the Obelisk Arena bar and got myself a pint of cider before settling down to wait for the Kolacny Brothers and the Scala Choir. I bought their "On The Rocks" album a few years ago after seeing them perform a choral version of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" on one of the satellite TV channels I pick up and I love both their choice of pieces to cover and their interpretations of them. There's something very unusual hearing pop songs sung by a bunch of extremely attractive young Belgian women with perfectly elucidated lyrics, although it can be a little disturbing when the song involved is something like Radiohead's Creep.

The audience is listening

They sang it today, as well as versions of Marilyn Manson's "The Beautiful People," Coldplay's "Viva La Vida," and an astonishing rendition of Prince's "When Doves Cry." But the song that made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end was their performance of Peter Gabriel's "Solsbury Hill." It gave me chills, it was joyous, and uplifting and I felt my grumpiness evaporate on the spot. And when they finished with the Stereophonics' "Have A Nice Day," lo and behold, the sun came out and everyone was smiling.

Although I'd wandered off to see what else was happening I was drawn back to the Obelisk Arena by the sound of someone giving an electric guitar a thorough workout. It turned out to be Anna Calvi, who wields a mean Fender Telecaster - and she's another act who I've gone from "heard of" to "big fan" as a result of hearing live at Latitude. I was very disappointed when her set finished.

The rain started up again, and I wandered across to the Literature Tent which was absolutely rammed solid for a performance of Louis de Bernieres's "Sunday Morning at the Centre of the World" narrated by the author himself. I stood outside in the rain to listen, but there were so many performers involved that not all of them were mic'd up and this rather ruined the effect. When the play finished I made my way inside for Mark Thomas's "Extreme Rambling" show. Martin White had put together a Klezmer band called the Dead Sea Midnight Runners for the occasion, and they set the scene admirably.

Extreme Rambling with Mark Thomas

I've seen Mark Thomas before, and he's always a mesmerising bundle of energy - but today's talk, in which he described how he walked the entire length of the 750 km "separation barrier" between Palestine and Israel was so utterly compelling that I completely forgot about seeing Iron and Wine and stayed for the whole hour and a half that he was on stage. He's a born storyteller; if you get a chance to see him do this live, don't miss it. If you can't see the talk live, he's written a book about the adventure and I will definitely be getting myself a copy.

After Mark Thomas finished I managed to catch up with Martin and deliver his disc of photos and videos; task accomplished, I headed up to the Word Arena for Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark.

OMG it's OMD!

I'd never seen OMD play live once in the more than thirty years they've been going, and after watching them play Latitude I've realised how much of a grievous omission that's been on my part. They were there to have a good time, and their enthusiasm was infectious. Thirty seconds into their first song I was clapping along with everyone else, and after five minutes I was dancing like a loon. Tellingly, I knew every track they played. Andy McCluskey has a nice line in self-deprecating humour: "The good news is that the bad bass playing has finished. The bad news is, that means that the bad dancing can begin!" He wasn't kidding, either - he made my dancing look good. "That wasn't dignified when I was in my twenties, and I'm fifty two now," he told us. Paul Humphreys got to sing too, of course - and we were all singing "Forever Live and Die" along with him.

Forever Live and Die

Even by the standards of the Word Arena OMD got a rapturous reception, and they really didn't appear to have been expecting such a positive response. "Do you guys want a job? We'd like to take you to all of the other festivals we play," Andy said. By the fifth track everyone in the band had huge smiles on their faces and when the sound guys signalled that it was time to stop and get off stage, they ignored them completely and played "Electricity" for us instead. OMD were very definitely one of the high points of my entire Latitude experience.

I stuck around afterwards to hear the Swedish singer Lykke Li. She's been making quite a name for herself recently, and when the lights went down and the smoke machine started up I could see why.

Lykke Li

Looking at the photo, you're probably expecting her music to have a distinct goth flavour to it, but it wasn't at all. It was very tribal, featuring lots of drums, but also with elements of electronica and soul all set off by her very distinctive voice. She had a tough act to follow coming on after OMD, and to be honest I thought her stagecraft was a bit by-the-numbers, but she's still young (she's 25) and to be fair the acts I was comparing her with have all been around for decades. The audience loved her, though - and she seemed to enjoy herself.

As the time counted down to 21:30 I ambled across to the Obelisk Arena again to wait for Suede to hit the main stage. Their intro tape was a bizarre combination: it started out with "Bodies" by the Sex Pistols and segued into Philip Glass's Pruitt Igoe from the Koyaanisqatsi soundtrack album. It's difficult to think of a more mismatched pair of tunes and I found myself wondering what on Earth they were thinking playing them. I was none the wiser when the band appeared on stage, either. I very rapidly left them to it and walked back to the Word Arena to see Eels.

Eels

Rob introduced me to the music of Eels a few years ago and I was really keen to see them live. Frontman Mark Oliver Everett (better known as E) is one of rock's more enigmatic characters. His beard is a little less wild than it used to be, but it has spread to the rest of the band like some hypertrichotic meme; Eels definitely took the award for the most hirsute band at the festival. If I had to describe their current sound I'd say it's a cross between ZZTop (continuing the beard allusions) and The Blues Brothers and it sounded great. I wasn't at all surprised when Robin Ince pitched up next to me - he's a huge Eels fan too. E's rejoinders at the end of each song started out as single words ("Refreshing!") but the Word Arena worked its magic once more and he was eventually moved to comment: "English audiences have a bad reputation for not showing the love, but you are definitely showing the love tonight, Latitude!" Hell yeah.

And when Eels left the stage, I realised that I was pretty much done for another year. I finished off this year's Latitude Festival sitting down with a cup of hot chocolate near the Literature Tent and watching the world go by for a little while, but then it was time to wade through the mud and head back to the tent. Parts of Henham Park were the consistency of soup by this point; I wonder how long it will take for the place to recover and the grass to grow back?

16 July 11 (permalink)

LATITUDE: DAY THREE

When I woke up this morning I could hear the rain falling on the roof of my tent. Yesterday's good weather was a temporary glitch, and the traditional British summer had returned with a vengeance. Andre Vincent was running things in the Literature Tent this morning, and he'd come prepared for the worst of the weather...

Comedy Gold

First event of the day was one of Latitude's regular fixtures: Wordtheatre, in which an impressive array of fine actors read a selection of short fiction, most of which has been or is about to be published in the Sunday Times magazine. The event is produced and presented by Cedering Fox, and I have a guilty admission to make here: one of the reasons I go along every year is to see how many times Ms Fox will "adjust" the microphone stand for the speakers as they come on stage (a process which frequently takes several minutes and which often requires the sound man to come out and put things back to how they were before). This year she excelled herself and did it for every single artist who was appearing. But the sound delays were worth the wait; this year the speakers were Tom Riley, Juliet Stevenson, Julian Sands, and Dame Harriet Walter.

There were a few heckles this year; the News International brand was proving a little too toxic for some sensibilities, but on the whole the audience were a good-natured bunch. After the Wordtheatre readings concluded I left the Literature Tent and headed over to the Comedy Tent to see Robin Ince again. He can be a rather splendidly grumpy git when he wants to be, and he was in fine form today.

Robin Ince in the Comedy Tent

Having a small child has also provided Robin with a wealth of new comedy material, although I suspect Archie may not thank him for sharing some of it when he grows up! After Robin had finished his set, I made my way up to the Word Arena. As I approached, a very familiar song burst out of the tent: Stand and Deliver! Adam Ant was one of the acts that I really wanted to see this year, and he didn't disappoint.

Adam Ant rocking like a good 'un

He rattled through his greatest hits and sounded pretty damn good. Introductions were laconic and good-natured - "This one did quite nicely, too" he commented before launching into "Goody Two Shoes." Quite a topical song, given the further machinations going on in the Rupert Murdoch's disintegrating empire at the moment...

After Mr Ant had finished I headed over to the Obelisk Arena for They Might Be Giants. If you've read this blog much over the past eight years you already know I'm a big fan of the band, and their set at Latitude was one of only two gigs they're playing in the UK this year. When they came onstage, Flans spoke to the audience before they played a single note of music. "We'd like to play this first song for a friend of ours who has gone missing," he said. "It's called 'Why Does The Sun Shine'..." I watched most of their set with my niece Lela, who was there with a bunch of her friends. I can't believe she's started going to gigs - I felt very old! To start with the audience's view of the band was somewhat obstructed by the television cameras, as you can see...

John L. and John F.

Flans eventually spoke to the guy and he rather hesitantly moved his camera to the side of the stage so the rest of us could see. TMBG rattled through some of their better-known songs - we got Birdhouse and Istanbul, of course, as well as Clap Your Hands and Alphabet of Nations. From the new album we got Can't Keep Johnny Down, followed by Damn Good Times, The Mesopotamians and Fingertips to finish, but I was delighted when, in the midst of the proceedings, the Avatars of They appeared!

The Avatars of They on the Jumbotron!

Only a band as eccentric and wonderful as TMBG could hand over a portion of their set to a pair of sock puppets. The Avatars Of They performed Shoehorn With Teeth ("an oldie but goldie") from the Lincoln album, which had me whistling and cheering. It got plenty of laughs, too. The weather couldn't put a damper on things, even though it rained for most of their set. The band clearly hadn't been expecting such crap weather: "We didn't even bring coats," said Flans. "And we live in New York; we know what proper weather is like."

"We didn't even bring coats."

I should explain a little bit about "Fingertips" because it's one of TMBG's more bizarre works; on the Apollo 18 album it's split up into multiple tracks and each of them lasts for no more than twenty seconds or so. The idea was that you could play the album on shuffle and each chunk would act as a sort of musical interlude. Played live, it's a bit of an in-joke for the fans and I could see a few people frowning as they tried to figure out what the hell was going on. But the triumphant ending ("I walk along darkened corridors!") had everyone applauding regardless. There were shouts for an encore, but sadly there was no time.

After TMBG wrapped things up I went to get something to eat and ended up with pie and chips from one of the many stands set up in the middle of the park. But I was back in the Obelisk Arena in pretty short order for Seasick Steve. Steve Wold has become a bit of a fixture at Latitude. This is at least his third appearance, and you can still see him wandering around the festival as an ordinary punter; I saw him several times over the weekend. This year, he'd brought John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin with him...

JPJ and Seasick Steve

There is absolutely nothing false about Seasick Steve. In an era of manufactured pop and the spawn of Simon Cowell and his ilk, it's a delight so see someone who is utterly authentic and down-to-earth. He's very much one of us. When it started raining during his set, he first of all apologised, then climbed out to the front of the stage area so he could stand in the rain and get wet along with us. I loved the fact that all the precious pop acts like Hurts would be on stage with their bottles of water while Steve took the occasional swig from a bottle of Wolf Blass Yellow Label. I loved the fact that one of the guitars he was playing was made from two Morris Minor hubcaps and a broomstick. But the best part of his set came when he told the audience, "I need a girl to sing this next song to." The audience cheered. But Steve realised they'd misunderstood him. "No, I mean it. I need a girl." And with that, he climbed down to the front of the audience, and found one.

"Don't look at them, I'm singing for you."

As I left the Obelisk Arena after Seasick Steve had finished, I caught the sound of Bellowhead playing the Word Arena. Folk music is absolutely tailor made for festivals, and there are few folk bands as good as Bellowhead. They were excellent, and once again, the audience was lapping it up. Their energy was infectious; I went from "heard of them" to "big fan" in the space of a single song. I only wish I'd been able to see more of their set.

After Bellowhead finished I got myself a drink and went back to the Literature Tent to hear Latitude regular Esther Freud being interviewed by Josie Rourke. I try to listen to as many writers as I can during the festival; it's amazing how people's approaches to the creative act differ. After Esther went off stage, Andrew Smith gave a short talk about his book "Moon Dust" and then read the passage in the book which describes Armstrong and Aldrin's descent to the lunar surface while NASA footage of that self-same event was projected on the screen next to him. Even though I know the story by heart, it was gripping stuff.

Andrew Smith: Moon Dust

When Andrew Smith went off, the very entertaining Eric Lampaert bounded on stage to keep things going. I reckon he was the best MC I have ever seen in charge of proceedings in the Literature Tent. I'm not sure exactly why he ended up roleplaying his version of "Attack of the Killer Tomatoes" with a small child he dragged out of the audience, but it made perfect sense at the time.

Roleplay

Eventually the technical side of things got straightened out and Robin Ince returned to the stage to introduce a fellow uncaged monkey, the "stand-up maths guy" Matt Parker.

Paths of the Ancients

Matt rattled through the highlights of the set he'd done at the Colston Hall, but it was considerably more polished - he'd dropped the bit where he tells you what the last number of a bar code is going to be and wound several threads together to deliver a final punchline which got a well-deserved laugh and a round of applause. He was followed by Dr Andrea Sella from UCL, who gave a fascinating talk about carbon dioxide, complete with things exploding.

Double Science: Dr Andrea Sella

Dr Sella pointed out that when CO2 is dissolved in water it forms carbonic acid, and the acidity of the world's oceans is increasing; worryingly, it's reaching the point where corals are beginning to struggle to lay down calcium carbonate to form new reefs. He demonstrated this by dissolving some dry ice in a large tube of water with litmus solution in it - the colour change was quite striking, as were the clouds of fog bubbling out of the top of the tube. When Robin came back on stage he kept a healthy distance from it!

"I don't know what that's going to do so I'm staying well away from it."

After Dr Sella we welcomed Helen Arney back to the stage for another song...

Helen Arney again

This was the third set I've seen of hers this year, and I really like her stuff. She has a lot in common with They Might Be Giants, as she shows that it's possible to write witty, intelligent and entertaining songs about unexpected subjects and dammit, she's working very hard at making science cool again. Which is exactly how it should be.

After the science proceedings wound up, I wandered across to the Obelisk Arena to see Paolo Nutini, but although the band were playing some accomplished ska it really didn't do anything for me so I headed back to the Literature Tent to catch a couple of songs from Martin White. Martin does all these appearances in his spare time; he has a day job, and he'd written a song about it called In The Evil Castle.

"In the Evil Castle"

As I listened to the words, I realised: I work in an evil castle, too. One of the reasons I love coming to Latitude is that for a few days each year I get to hang out with people who share my sensibilities, and there's lots of thought-provoking stuff to see and do. It's a lot like the WGB in that respect, and I know many wigbers who would love this place. One day, I'd love to exist in that sort of environment full time but for the moment I get my fix when I can. Martin's office sounds even worse than mine, though - a long story about how he compensates for not having Internet access at work by using Microsoft Word as a pretend web browser and internet messaging client culminated in a positively groan-inducing punchline. It was great!

After that, I headed over to the Waterfront Stage where the Compagnie Des Quidams were scheduled to perform their exoplanets ballet, but the rain meant that the open air stage was too dangerous for the dancers and the act had been cancelled. By now it was after 11 o'clock and while there was still lots going on I was fading a bit, so I decided to call it a night and headed back to my tent. The approaches to the festival were deteriorating quite badly and it was extremely muddy. The organisers had done a fair job of laying down wood chips in the worst affected areas but large stretches of the way back to the tent were just quagmires of thick, cloying mud. So much for me telling everyone how well-drained the place is!

I was obviously more tired than I realised, as I set off down completely the wrong path in the campsite and didn't notice until I'd nearly reached the perimeter fence. I had to cut through a maze of tents to get back to my pitch, but I got there eventually and after taking a couple of painkillers I wrapped myself up in a fleece and my sleeping bag and fell asleep relatively quickly (and by that, I mean it took me less than an hour to nod off). I managed this even though a bunch of lads in a nearby tent obviously fancied themselves as a folk group complete with almost-in-tune acoustic guitar; they were "performing" until well after one in the morning. Earplugs and eyeshades will definitely be essential festival equipment for me from now on.

15 July 11 (permalink)

LATITUDE: DAY TWO

My second day at Latitude dawned dry and clear, even if I was feeling a bit below par from lack of sleep. A coffee soon perked me up and I was ready to start the day properly. This morning's events kicked off with a session of double science in the Literature Tent.

Double Science with Robin Ince

In previous years, Robin's stint in the Literature Tent has revolved around the atrocious books he finds in charity shops. It's very amusing, and I have a copy of Robin Ince's Bad Book Club which he very kindly signed for me at Latitude last year. But over the past year, Robin's Infinite Monkey Cage project with Professor Brian Cox has really taken off. I was lucky enough to snag a front row seat when the resulting Uncaged Monkeys tour hit Bristol in May (with Professor Brian Cox, Professor Bruce Hood, Matt Parker, Simon Singh, Ben Goldacre and Helen Arney), and it was terrific fun. So Robin has adopted the science format for Latitude, and the verve, energy and sheer bloody joy with which he approached the session this morning was a joy to behold. Richard Feynman was involved, of course. But Robin had also got a great couple of guests with him: first up was Dr Adam Rutherford from Nature Magazine.

Dr Adam Rutherford

Dr Rutherford was there to talk about the Space Shuttle, which at that moment was orbiting somewhere overhead on its last ever mission. He played us a rough cut of this awesome video which he'd commissioned using music from the band 65 Days of Static and which uses footage from every single space shuttle mission.

Then Robin introduced a familiar face from the Uncaged Monkeys tour: Helen Arney.

Helen Arney

When Robin started off the morning's session, he'd challenged Helen to write a song about a staple of his previous Latitude appearances: The "Killer Crabs" books by Guy N. Smith. Well, fifteen minutes later she'd done it, and she performed it for us on the ukulele. Not only did it deliver a sound environmental message, it was quite touching, too!

There was a queue a hundred metres long to get into the Film and Music arena to see Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, so I abandoned that idea and went to buy some haggis, tatties and neeps for lunch instead. Suitably refreshed, I headed over to the Obelisk Arena to see Edwyn Collins. He'd got a first-rate band with him that included Paul Cook on drums and a promising young vocalist by the name of William Collins...

Edwyn Collins (and William!)

Once again, it was a delight to see Edwyn back up there on stage where he belongs and a joy to hear him rattle through Falling and Laughing (is it really 31 years since it was first released as a single?), Rip It Up and Girl Like You as well as material from his latest album Losing Sleep. I really wish they could have played for longer, but when they left the stage I headed off to the Comedy Tent to catch one of my favourite acts: John Shuttleworth.

John Shuttleworth

Graham Fellows's alter ego has matured into one of the UK's most well-loved comedy acts and the audience loved every minute of it. We got "Two Margarines on the Go" "Ken's Bad Wind" and "Austin Ambassador Y Reg" of course, and the younger people in the audience were encouraged to sing along to "Smells Like White Spirit." The trouble with the comedy tent is that the acts don't get a particularly long set, so with a rousing rendition of "Pigeons in Flight" to finish, John left us cheering for more. Ken Worthington should be very proud of his star artiste.

After that, I headed off for something a little more raucous. Yann Tiersen is probably best known in this country for his work on the soundtrack to Jean-Pierre Jeunet's magical film Amélie, where the accordion and toy piano are the most prominent instruments to be featured. However in recent years Mr Tiersen has, in the words of a friend of mine, "gone all heavy metal."

Yann Tiersen

Not only was there a considerable amount of ROCK! in evidence, but I also detected a fair bit of electronica as well. There were plenty of synthesisers and the resultant sound really got the air - and the crowd moving. I really enjoyed it.

The next act I caught was Ryoji Ikeda in the Film and Music arena. The day before I arrived at the Mute Festival back in May, my fellow Wigbers had gone to a special event which featured Mr Ikeda's Datamatics. Peter reminded me this month that there would be a performance of Datamatics 2.0 at Latitude, and it was right at the top of my list of things to see at the festival. When I made my way inside the tent, Asif Kapadia, the director of Senna was showing clips from the film and answering questions. I was really sorry to have missed the rest of the interview, as what I saw was fascinating. When they wrapped things up, the place almost completely emptied and I was able to grab a seat at a table right at the front. I kept expecting the place to fill up as Ikeda started to set things up on stage, but the tent remained disappointingly empty. Datamatics 2.0 is a glitchy electronica composition that is intimately coupled to the presentation of screens of computer data. It's pretty far outside the musical mainstream, but I really enjoyed it. I'm afraid to say that when the performance concluded, it was met with stunned silence.

I made my way back up the hill to the Word Arena and mainstream composition. Mr Lyle Lovett and his band, all impeccably dressed, were waiting there to deliver some perfectly-crafted music all the way from Austin, Texas.

Mr Lyle Lovett and his band

You can always tell the really good musicians, because they're the ones that make everything look easy. These guys delivered a set that appeared to be effortless. Having said that, each solo was met with a roar of approval from the crowd, and that spurred the next soloist on to work a little bit harder. You could watch them raise their game as the set continued, but Mr Lovett was in total control of things, reining them in when appropriate and nodding approval at the whole deal. By the time they got to their last number there were smiles all round, me included.

I'd heard a lot of good things about The Vaccines, so I stayed in the Word Arena to see what they were like but to be honest they didn't do anything for me. Instead, I headed back to the Obelisk Arena to catch the end of Paloma Faith's set, which sounded great. She looked very fetching in a feather headdress, too!

Last year I'd been very impressed with David Morrissey's stint as an interviewer when he talked with the director Stephen Frears. He was back again this year, talking to the crime writer Mark Billingham. It was an interesting chat and the idea of writing as performance seemed to have plenty of heads nodding in the audience.

David Morrissey talks to Mark Billingham

I headed over to the far side of the lake and the Waterfront Stage for the stargazing session being run by Steve Owens. A cloudy sky meant that there were no stars to look at, but a projector was wheeled out, screens assembled, and he gave us a very interesting talk on exoplanets - planets that have been discovered orbiting other stars. There are well over 500 confirmed exoplanets at the moment, and what a curious menagerie they are. Many of them orbit their stars in a matter of days, closer in by far than Mercury lies within our own solar system.

Steve Owens and the biggest stars at the Latitude Festival

Steve had got some great visuals, which really got over how exotic some of those other systems might be. The image on the screen in the photo above shows two red supergiant stars - Betelgeuese in the constellation Orion and Antares in the constellation Scorpius. At the scale of that image, he explained, the sun would be represented by a single pixel; the orbit of Mars would fit inside Antares. I really enjoyed the talk and when Steve asked me this week if he could use my photo on his blog, I was happy to oblige!

After the talk had finished, last night's complete lack of sleep finally caught up with me so I headed back to the tent. I totally crashed out - in fact I didn't wake up until seven o'clock in the morning, which is the best night's sleep I've had all year. How about that?

14 July 11 (permalink)

HOLIDAY TIME

Every July I take some time off work and head over to East Anglia for some rest and recuperation. Last night I drove across to Dad's place in Norfolk and arrived just after midnight. It was a decent trip; rising fuel prices have had a noticeable effect on the amount of traffic about. Perhaps because of this, there was far more wildlife about: lots of rabbits, a bunch of roe deer, two muntjac deer and two barn owls. I stayed up chatting to Dad until half past two in the morning, drinking a glass or two of wine and catching up on what's been happening in the village (Dad always supplies extensive details about such things). We talked about the latest developments in the News International scandal too, of course. That seems to be getting worse and worse, and I told Dad I was beginning to think that we'll be having a general election in a few months.

LATITUDE: DAY ONE

Last year I got to the festival site early and while I managed to park without any fuss, I spent an hour and a half queueing up to get my wristband. This year I thought I'd leave things a bit later so the queues could die down a bit. I left Dad's at about 3pm and drove down to Suffolk without any trouble but it took an hour and a half to travel the last eight miles from Beccles to Henham Park; at least I could sit in the car and listen to the radio. Once I'd parked the car, there was hardly any queue to get into the campsite, and I'd soon got my pitch sorted out and the tent set up.

As I walked past the Literature Tent, Robin Ince walked by, so I was able to give him a DVD of photos from the last four Latitude Festivals which I'd promised him on Twitter. He'd spent the last few days at a TED conference and from what he said it sounded like he'd had a pretty amazing (and rather overwhelming) experience.

The festival site has been tweaked a fair bit this year - the Word Arena had been moved east and the Obelisk Arena expanded in size. The result was a subtle disruption of my sense of direction, as things weren't in exactly the same places as they had been on previous occasions and I kept on walking out of what I thought was the "front" of one tent only to realise I was standing at the side. The most noticeable change this year was the appearance of the Electric Hotel, a three storey building with a bar on the ground floor and a performance space on the floors above which spectators watched from outside whilst sitting in deck chairs and wearing headphones. The building was weathered and grimy, looking for all the world like it had been there for twenty years or so, but last year it didn't exist.

The highlight of this evening's events for me was a talk given by a long-time hero of mine: the graphic novelist Bryan Talbot.

Bryan Talbot

Bryan talked about the anthropomorphic tradition in comics - in other words, the use of animals in roles that would be fulfilled by humans in real life. He'd worked dozens of references into his Grandville books, in which the hero (a Detective Inspector Lebrock of Scotland Yard) is a badger. I was particularly amused when he pointed out that Rupert the Bear's father can be seen cutting a hedge in the background of one frame as Lebrock investigates a murder in the village of Nutwood. After his talk, Bryan was signing books and he very kindly drew a sketch in mine. It's thirty years since he first signed a book for me (back when Forbidden Planet was in Denmark Street off Charing Cross Road), and if you'll forgive the pun it was good to see him drawing an appreciative and sizable crowd at the festival.

Back at my tent, I really struggled to get to sleep. To start with I was much too hot; as the night progressed it got colder and colder and I eventually dug out a fleece to wear inside my sleeping bag. I don't think I got any proper sleep, I just dozed fitfully from time to time. I guess it was a combination of all the coffee I'd drunk today and excitement at being back at the festival again, but I was very disappointed I couldn't get a decent night's rest.

12 July 11 (permalink)

WHOA (1)

Star Wars Fleet Commander. I want this on the wall of the living room in my next house.

WHOA (2)

If you live in the US, you may call him G. I. Joe. Whatever; over here in Blighty we have always known him as Action Man. But it's fairly safe to say that whatever he's called, this is not the action figure you thought you knew.

THIRTY YEARS ON

Probably the best photo I've seen taken at Friday's shuttle launch was a recreation of another photo taken at the first launch, thirty years earlier. It's very sweet.

SILLY BEYOND MEASURE

Rammstein's Du Hast done, in full-on a capella style, by the Viva Vox Choir. I'm still giggling about this one now.

PHYSICS SUPERSTAR

Thanks to Robin Ince for alerting me to the fact that there are two new books about about the late Professor Richard Feynman on the way. The reviews in the New York Review of Books make for fascinating reading, not just because they concern one of the finest and liveliest scientific minds of the 20th century, but also because they were written by one: Freeman Dyson, who is at least as great a hero of mine as Professor Feynman.

Dyson is the guy who suggested we could travel to the outer solar system (and then perhaps on to the stars) in a massively robust, battleship-sized spacecraft with a propulsion system that consisted of chucking a stream of small atom bombs out of the back and detonating them.

He's the guy who suggested that sufficiently advanced civilisations would need to collect as much of their star's energy output as possible - by dismantling their solar system and building a spherical shell around the sun with the material. Even if Dyson later pointed out that a solid sphere would be a mechanical impossibility, the concept has remained a staple of science fiction novels and TV shows for more than fifty years.

But more than that, Dyson is the sort of guy who, when asked to comment on an idea, will sit down with a pencil and paper and map out all the practicalities before letting you know whether or not it'll work. And whatever he tells you, you should pay attention: you don't get to work at the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton for half a century without being something extraordinarily special. Right now, with all the crap I see on the news - most of it the result of the people in charge working for their own short-term gain rather than the long term common good - we desperately need more people like Professor Dyson around. We all know that the people in charge should be seeking the advice of people possessing common sense (and distinctly uncommon intelligence) and acting on it. So why doesn't the government know it?

11 July 11 (permalink)
Würzel 1949 - 2011

I was very sad to hear that Mick Burston, better known to Motörhead fans everywhere as Würzel died at the weekend. He was 61; it sounds like the cause of death was a heart attack.

Würzel joined Motörhead in 1984 after Brian Robertson left the band, and he remained as guitarist (sharing six-string duties with Phil Campbell) for 11 years, playing an essential part in creating some of the band's greatest albums (in my opinion) including Orgasmatron and Bastards. In recent years he joined the band onstage at gigs, and had been putting together material with a new band, Leader of Down at the time of his death. There was a touching obituary in the Guardian this morning.

RIP, Würz.

10 July 11 (permalink)

ALL PART OF THE EXPERIENCE

It's been quite a weekend, one way and another. The twins came down for the beer festival on Friday night but after standing in a field all evening, poor Ruth ended up in A&E when an allergic reaction to something triggered an asthma attack and her boyfriend Will called the paramedics. Fortunately she was fully recovered by Saturday afternoon and they've all returned safely to Solihull. It was good to catch up with them all, even if it was a rather hectic 24 hours. I hope their next visit will be a more laid-back one!

SUMMER PURSUITS ONCE AGAIN

Trips to hospital notwithstanding, we all agreed that Friday's beer festival had been worth attending. It was the 16th festival they've organised at the Chipping Sodbury rugby club, and the 15th I've attended but I still get asked if I've been before when I arrive! The weather this year wasn't that great, and it had been tipping it down off and on for most of the day. We arrived kitted out with waterproofs and wellingtons, but in the end the going was pretty firm underfoot, even if the sky looked rather threatening...

Soggy Sodbury

So, what did I drink? There was (of course) another fine selection of beers to sample, and although several old favourites were available I was focusing on stuff I'd not tried before. I ended up trying a half of each of these:

Okay, there were a couple of beers that I had tried before in that list. I will never pass down the opportunity to drink Side Pocket for a Toad because it's one of my all-time favourites, and it hasn't disappointed me yet; Bearly Literate, because it's a great beer; and Skullsplitter, because you can't not drink it, can you? Conwy Brewery is Ruth's local brewer, and although I found the Honey Fayre (4.5%) that Ruth had was a little too sweet for my taste, the Celebration was a very good ale. Dark Side of the Moose was the real find for me, though - intensely dark, full of deep maltiness and an almost porter-like finish. Lovely stuff, and another Welsh beer! Likewise, Over The Moon was also very dark, and nobody who tried it could believe it was only 3.8%. It was very, very tasty. I'll definitely be watching out for those again.

WHAT'S NEXT

I got about three hours' sleep on Friday night and ended up in bed by 11 on Saturday night after having a grand fry-up at teatime. It did the trick: I had a very good night's sleep! Today's been much quieter and I've spent it getting my camping gear ready for next week's Latitude Festival. Yes, it's that time of year again when I head over to Suffolk to get my annual fix of music and literary goodness. Apart from spending lots of time in the Literature Tent, amongst other things this year I'm looking forwards to seeing Edwyn Collins, K T Tunstall, They Might Be Giants, Seasick Steve and Iron and Wine on the main stage, John Shuttleworth in the comedy tent, and Richard Curtis, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon chatting together and Ryoji Ikeda performing in the film tent. It's going to be epic!

MEANWHILE...

There's been plenty going on that's been blog-worthy in the rest of the world, too - I just haven't got round to writing about it. I was sorry I missed seeing the space shuttle launch live on Friday afternoon; as the weather forecasts released by NASA earlier in the day gave only a 30% chance that they'd be go for launch I was rather hoping they'd scrub the launch until today, when I could pay proper attention. Never mind; Atlantis got away safely and it docked with the ISS at just after 4pm BST this afternoon.

Much has been said about the activities of News International this week and however disgusted I might feel about the whole thing there's little I can add. I'm sure that even more things will come to light in the next few weeks and I'm even more sure that none of the revelations will show anyone in a good light. Will it change anything? Of course not; given how pally the Prime Minister is with News International, I don't expect Rupert Murdoch's empire to be inconvenienced in any meaningful way at all.

As for his poor minions, that's a different story.

3 July 11 (permalink)

UNRELENTING STRUGGLE

This lunchtime I finally succeeded in installing service pack 1 for the 64-bit version of Windows 7. It's been a long, hard and extremely tedious slog. Yes, I know that it's been available for months as an optional download, but this week was the first time that I've seen it flagged as an important, you-need-to-install-this update.

On my first attempt, Windows Update told me that it had "installed successfully" and my system needed to reboot. Great, I thought, that was nice and simple. I restarted everything, only to be told as everything booted back up that actually, the update had failed and the install would be reverted. Try stopping all other running programs and trying again, Windows suggested helpfully. Fair enough - so I closed down Firefox, BOINC and the game of spider solitaire I was playing and had another go. Exactly the same thing happened. Try downloading this helpful little piece of software, Windows told me. So I downloaded a hotfix (all 313 Mb of it) which claimed to solve most Windows Update problems, and ran it. After the hard disk had whirred for 10 minutes or so a dialogue box popped up telling me the hotfix had completed successfully. Rashly thinking that this sounded like I was making progress, I tried the update again. Still no luck, of course. It was now going up for 2am and I was getting pretty peeved, so I gave up and went to bed.

When I got up this morning I started working through Microsoft's other suggested fixes. Microsoft suggested I disable my anti-virus software - I did, but exactly the same thing happened as before. The next suggested fix was to run the troubleshooting agent in Windows Update, which found two problems and duly fixed them. Great, I thought - now we're making progress. I should have known better; they had no effect on the problem I was having. By now I was working my way through the solutions listed on a Microsoft web page that the failure dialogue box linked to. The next suggestion there was to run the updates in safe mode, but I'm sure you'll be even less surprised than I was to discover that this made no difference at all.

By now I was getting annoyed at the amount of time I was wasting. Eventually I clicked through to a hyperlink at the bottom of the original error dialogue box that just said "details". That showed me a text string reading "error_sharing_violation x80070020". Google searches on this were less than helpful. Nevertheless, I managed to deduce that if the problem was to do with a sharing violation, something must be opening the update at the same time as the installer. Wait, hadn't I disabled my anti-virus software? Well yes, I had, but apparently the software I use (Avast!) thought that this was a sufficiently bad idea that it had ignored me and kept on running regardless.

Strong measures were called for - after completely uninstalling my anti-virus software I had another go. You've guessed it: the update installed without a hitch. And what an update it is; the Windows boot screen started scrolling through over 100,000 fixes to the registry and various system files. I went off and made myself a cup of coffee while it worked through that little lot and when I came back it was still going. But eventually, some thirteen hours after I first clicked on the "install updates" button, I finally got my machine running under service pack 1. Can I tell any difference? Not so far.

And when it booted up, what did it tell me? Windows update had found a further two updates that I now needed to install. Somewhere out there, a Microsoft software engineer is having a laugh...

NOT SO SWEET DREAMS

Needless to say I was so wound up last night that I slept really badly. The fact that rail engineering work was going on in the village didn't help matters, either. Several times in the middle of the night I was wakened by the sound of a train honking its horn to warn the maintenance crew. I appreciate the need for safety, but at 4am that's taking the piss.

It's got to the point where I need to take a break and just get away from it all for a while, so I have some holiday booked this month. I've been preparing, too...

GET READY

I popped up the road to Attwooll's this afternoon to get a new rucksack in preparation for this month's travels. After last year's Latitude festival, my old one was completely trashed - when I lifted it out of the tent one of the handles came off in my hand - but as I'd had it for ten years and it had accompanied me on a number of adventures including a trip to California, it really didn't owe me anything. I always end up going to Attwooll's as their staff are helpful and friendly and their prices are considerably lower than the big camping shops in town. I got exactly the sort of thing I was looking for, complete with much sturdier handles. So now I think I'm all set; let's hope the weather will be kind this year.

2 July 11 (permalink)

SATURDAY MORNING

Rather than watching interminable cooking programmes on the telly I'm sitting here enjoying Andrew Collins and Josie Long's show on BBC 6Music while I start another month's blogging. As a result, this hasn't been a particularly productive session as their show is so interesting I keep stopping to listen to what they're doing instead of concentrating on my writing.

MR PEEL WON ME OVER

Thanks in no small part to 6Music, my musical boundaries keep expanding and I've found myself been listening to albums by The Fall a lot recently. There is a link: the band's original bass player was 6Music DJ Marc Riley (of Mark and Lard fame).

Mark E Smith and his colleagues have been a fixture on the music scene for around three and a half decades, but it's only in the last couple of years that I've started to understand exactly what it was that made John Peel rate them as the best band of all time. Before then I suspect that I was like a lot of people who know the band's name and can identify their frontman Mark E Smith on sight (when he crops up in Twenty Four Hour Party People it's not so much a cameo appearance, more a record of an essential part of the fabric of Manchester; he's just there) but the only song I could have sung you of theirs was Hit The North. After reading a couple of books on John Peel I decided that this would not do and resolved to find out more. The first album of theirs that I bought was their debut studio album: Live at the Witch Trials. Although the title might lead you assume that this is a concert recording, it isn't; it was recorded in a single day in a studio in Camden. In retrospect, that should have given me a clue about Mark E Smith's approach to music. Assumptions have to go out of the window when The Fall appear, because Smith really isn't interested in the audience's expectations or what anyone else is doing - he has a very personal vision of what he wants to achieve, and convention be damned. As a result, Fall records are utterly, gloriously distinctive things.

John Peel notwithstanding, that's probably why The Fall don't play music that you hear very often on the radio. It can be dense, dark and brooding one moment and then slap you with a throwaway line so utterly unexpected that you find yourself laughing out loud. The playing can be ragged, the vocals can be so low in the mix that they fade in and out of intelligibility but it all works. I have to say that I wasn't really prepared for the experience when I sat down and listened to the entire album in one go for the first time, but it was enough to make me a convert.

It also left me in a contemplative mood. The technology of the Walkman and the iPod can make listening to music an intensely personal experience and an act of intentional isolation. It wasn't always like this. When I was a teenager and a new album came out, that first listen was often shared with friends, all of us concentrating together as the music played on my old Garrard turntable (or eventually my first music centre with the height of new technology: stereo speakers!) I can still remember the shock my mate Phil and I experienced the first time we heard the orchestral stab at the beginning of Yes's "Owner of a Lonely Heart" - something so utterly and completely alien that we had to start the LP again just to make sure we'd really heard what we thought we'd just heard and not just a glitch caused by the stylus skipping across the pristine vinyl. These days when I sit down to listen to music I do so on my own - and there are few albums these days that make me want to grab my muso friends, plonk them down in an armchair, crank up the music system, and tell them, "you have to listen to this!" But I suspect that if my younger self was in charge of things right now, I'd be doing it with Fall albums.

This week I've been listening to Hex Enduction Hour, the album that (so the story goes) was so completely anathema to commercial interests that it put paid to the band signing a potentially lucrative Motown recording contract. And thank god for that; I can't imagine things would have ended well if they had signed. In a typical piece of Fall incongruity, the track Hip Priest off this album ended up being used at the climax of The Silence of the Lambs. I've got a lot of listening ahead of me; The Fall have released nearly thirty studio albums, and I suspect I will gradually work my way through most of them in the next few years. No doubt I'll be blogging about them as my journey of discovery continues; I'll keep you posted.

KEEP WATCHING THE SKIES

Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy blog over at Discover magazine has some interesting video from Hawaii which shows something extraordinary in the island's night sky. The general consensus is that it's caused by the blast as a Minuteman III missile's third stage separates; it's the strangest thing you're likely to see this week, so take a look.

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