Saturday, October 04, 2014

How About Thinking for Ourselves?

This latest atrocity, the beheading of Alan Henning by the Islamic State, is another example of concentrated barbarism carried out under a religious banner.
The fact that world leaders have condemned it is good. The fact that religious leaders have condemned it is also good. However, the way some of these religious leaders have condemned the killing is, in my opinion, not so good.
To say this act is “contrary to the teachings of the Qur'an/Bible/Torah/Vedas/etc and that it is a crime against religion x, y or z is not so good.
If you need to go scrabbling through an ancient text to find out whether beheading someone is a moral or immoral act, then there is something seriously, seriously wrong with you.
I am sure the IS would argue that they are only following the words of their religious book whereas other religious leaders are interpreting these words differently or incorrectly.
And this is the problem when you tie your moral values to some “infallible” sacred text of yours. You are going to be confronted by stuff you don't like and so you have to start interpreting the text, but then there are other people who see that text in another way - and then there are people who hold a completely different text to be holy and infallible and who think yours is just a load of tosh.
We humans know intrinsically that killing others is wrong, that killing others in a barbaric way is..well, barbaric. We don't need a fucking book to tell us this.

As a first step, how would it be if we consigned all these conflicting, holy, sacred, infallible religious texts to the literature bookshelf and started accepting that we need to derive our moral code from our own basic common human values...?

Thursday, June 21, 2012

And in Other News...

...I have a brain! And here it is (well, slices of it)

That is just SO WEIRD!!!!!

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Evil in the Cutlery Drawer

Singers are hypochondriacs (ah, here I must insert my standard "joke", sorry: I don't know what hypochondria is, but I'm sure I've got it...). They are hypochondriacs about their voices - which is fair enough, seeing as their voices constitute their livelihood. But there is something deeper too; a singer's voice is an extension of his or her being, it's like an extra limb or an extra faculty which defines their essential identity. If you are a singer, losing your voice is equivalent to a footballer losing a leg, or an artist going blind.

If you don't believe me, ask a singer!

In fact, you can ask me...

YOU: Neutron, is it true what is written above?


So, having established, by elementary Socratic logic, that, if all singers are hypochondriacs about their voices and I am a singer, then I am a hypochondriac about my voice, I can then add that, being a guitar and bass player, I am also, and for the same basic reason, paranoid about fingers; cutting fingers, bruising fingers, breaking fingers, losing fingers...

There is a knife, in the kitchen. A bread knife, a very efficient bread knife. This knife knows it is too good to be a mere bread knife. This knife has ambitions. It longs to cut more than just bread. It thirsts. It thirsts for blood. This knife oozes malevolence.

The first time I saw this knife, I knew we were destined to be enemies. And so it has proved.

We had some early encounters, some sparring matches where this knife revealed its intentions to me. It would slip, accidentally, from a thick crust and swish towards my hand, it would slice through a pretzel more easily than I expected, bearing down on my palm.

"Why did you keep on using it???" you ask in perplexity...

Well, quite simply it was the best bread knife and there is that thrill of slicing effortlessly through a loaf of heavy, dark Bavarian bread which would normally need half an hour of sawing with a boring standard bread knife. To quote Herodotus, the father of history, "great deeds are usually wrought at great risks", or, more briefly, "no risk, no fun".

The inevitable happened, about a year ago. I had become less vigilant, familiarity had bred contempt for the bread knife - I was slicing, someone spoke to me, I was distracted, I looked away and it struck! Slicing into my index finger...brown bread and red blood!!

This taught me to be on my guard whenever I was slicing, but meanwhile this knife has become devious. It has gone underground and may have received schooling from Al Qaeda knife terrorist cells.

It's yesterday evening and I am clearing out the dishwasher. Plates here, glasses there, cutlery in the cutlery drawer. I start to put in the knives and forks and notice that the middle section of the wooden cutlery tray has come out. It fits into slots in the other sections. So I press it back into its slots, only to notice that the front side has also slipped out of its slot. I press down on that side with my thumb, waiting for it to click into place when suddenly there is a cold searing pain in my thumb...

The bread knife. This bread knife of evil has managed to conceal itself between the front side of the cutlery tray and the side of the drawer, blade up!!! So, as my thumb presses down on the wooden front of the tray, the steely blade presses up thirstily into the flesh of my thumb and pierces it mercilessly, slicing joyously through the skin and sending a shockwave through my body.

This is one of those moments when time runs s l o w l y and you seem to think a thousand things in a millisecond, "whichthumbisit, isitmyfingeringhandormyplectrumhand, whenismynextgig, whichinstrumentdoIhavetoplay, isthecutinthemiddleorattheside, canIstillplaytheguitarwithaplaster..."

The bread knife is now confined to a separate cupboard, but I sense the final battle is yet to be blade out...

Monday, February 13, 2012

And on the Subject of Good Words/Phrases...

See temperature at top of screenshot

We have now had over a week of double-figure minus degree C temperatures here in Deepest Bavaria, all thanks to a Russian high (if that's a high, I'd hate to experience a low). The most minus last week was on Monday with a stinging minus 20°C, plus the gentle breeze chill factor = -27°C. I missed my tram that day and decided to walk the 4 km to the lesson I had. This was an error. It was like pushing your way through a rarified form of ice. The air felt frozen solid.

Now, I mentioned "bleak" last time but that wouldn't have fit in this case. However, there is a fine expression in German for this kind of cold, klirrende Kälte.

Translated into English you have something like "freezing cold" or "biting cold" but klirrende Kälte has much more going for it. First of all, there are the alliterative Ks which lend each word an onomatopoeic "crack" and then the double R in klirrende which, if you roll them slightly, elicit a similar effect to the universal human vocalisation for cold "brrrrr!!"

Klirrend normally means "clashing/clattering" so it also gives the cold an acoustic value - the coldness of crystal shattering on a cold stone floor - I suppose "clattering cold" or "jangling cold" would sort of approximate it, if we said that, but we don't. And anyway, klirrend even has something slippery and skiddy about it when you pronounce it; your tongue slithers from the front of your mouth to the back and then forward to your teeth again...

So, great descriptive expression, "klirrende Kälte".

As far as I am concerned though, to be rather more Saxon about this, this cold weather can fuck off!!

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Bleak, bleak, bleakity bleak. If ever there was a morning which defined bleak then this was it out in the railway-bus exchange suburb Feldmoching...a thin layer of evil snow, leafless, lifeless puny newly planted trees, white tower blocks with feeble early-morning lights dimly glowing through some of the windows, cloudy anonymous sky, cold air...well, not just cold, more like fucking freezing air... -15°C and a little whiplash of wind to chill that minus 15 to minus goodness knows what...

Bleak is a good word though; only 5 letters but so's a good-value word - there's a whole load packed into that one little syllable.

If you're British and a product of my generation, or one before or after, you probably made the acquaintance of bleak in the Xmas carol "In the Bleak Midwinter" when "frosty wind made moan, earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone..." Aye, that's bleak alright...and made tangible at 7.00 in the morning by a little insignificant suburb in Deepest Bavaria.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011)

I wrote here about Christopher Hitchins having been diagnosed with oesophagal cancer, well, he has now sadly succumbed to this evil disease.

It's hard to believe that the great voice is now still, that the mind so erudite and acerbic, profound and witty is gone, the brain, so crammed full with learning, literature, history and experience is now just so much meat.

I think the only other occasion when I was so moved by the death of someone I had never met was when John Lennon was shot in 1980. And maybe it's for the same reason.

Reading Hitch or listening to him speak, you had the feeling that you knew him. He was honestly stating his truth with incredible eloquence and facility - maybe you agreed, maybe not, but you knew where he stood.

The above is a short compilation (credit: SETH - YOUTUBE - THETHINKINGATHEIST) of some great Hitch moments, but I would urge you to search the web for more.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Life is Life

We gathered on Friday at a beautiful funeral service on a beautiful day to pay our respects to Helmut and take our leave. There were over two hundred people there and I am sure many more would have liked to attend. Helmut's parents were there, his sister, his wife, his children, his best friends, his work colleagues. Some of us spoke, some played music; we all shed tears and then smiled, laughed and grieved.
It was a celebration of Helmut's life but also a celebration and an affirmation of life itself. A confirmation of how precious it is, how good it can be, of how tenuous our grasp on it is, how it can vanish from one heartbeat to the next; a kick up the backside to get those things done which we really want to do, to get those things said that we really want to say, a reminder to make sure that those we love know that we love them.

Monday, November 28, 2011

See you, Helmut...

I'm trying and failing to reconcile two concepts or entities: Helmut and death - the two just don't go together in my head. And yet, in harsh, uncaring reality, sadly, unbelievably, they must.
I first met Helmut in 1983. We were expecting our first child and being in deepest Bavaria, far from grandparents, had decided to look for a couple in a similar position to share a house with, and share the experiences of parenthood. We met a few couples but hit it off with Robin and Helmut. We found a house where we could share the ground floor, living room and kitchen and where we would each have a floor for ourselves with bedroom, bathroom and children's room.
Amazingly, given that we had only met via a newspaper advert, and seeing that I am a cantankerous bastard who doesn't really like people at the best of times, it worked really well, and we ended up living together for 7 years, by which time there were four and a half kids, Andy, Nicky, Michelle, Biddy, and Christopher on the way.
I went to football games with Helmut, he introduced me (as anti-sport-playing as you can be) to squash, a game I came to love, we shared jokes and stories, he was honest and straightforward, generous and helpful, simply a really nice guy who loved being alive and who knew how to enjoy life. In thousands of little and big ways Helmut touched and enriched the lives of people around him.
Well, now Helmut is gone, he is dead, in the blink of an eye the finality has enfolded him; Helmut and death are one. We are using the past tense for him, we are speaking about a funeral for Helmut - a what?? A funeral?? For Helmut???
And I don't know what to say, I don't know how to grasp it.
Everyone is helping, everyone is grieving, everyone is doing their best to help everyone else but now everyone also bears an empty, black, Helmut-shaped hole inside them.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Sevvie; Oh howe are the myghtie ouerthrowen

The Sefton Arms Hotel was once a proud drinking establishment, built on the very entrance to Aintree Race Course and less than 50 yards from the train station which was named after it, "Aintree Sefton Arms". The hotel would reach its apotheosis each year during the Grand National racing meeting.

It was also our local pub, the place where my mum and dad spent almost as much time as they did at home. (There was also, just 20 yards along Warbreck Moor, the Queen's Arms but that was 20 yards too far and its only claim to fame was as the punch line of the joke which the regulars would tell, "what do we have in common with the Prince of Wales? We've all had a drink in the Queen's Arms!")

The Sefton was a big rangy pub with rooms upstairs for racing punters to stay and rooms downstairs, snugs and lounges and the bar, where various groups would gather to chat or play cards. As a kid I passed it thousands of times on my way to the bus stop; of course I never went in, there were no children's rooms in them days.When I finally was old enough to go in, more or less legally, I managed to go in about 5 times.

Then they knocked it down.

In a fiendishly mocking way it rose again from the ashes as a grim parody of its former self. The new version of the Sefton Arms was thrown together on the site of the old stables; the spot where the old pub had stood became a mere car park. Locals, still shocked by the destruction of their beloved old stately drinking hole, referred to the new incarnation, not unfairly, as "the Rabbit Hutch".

Still, it was a pub and sort of ok and, as soon as the locals drifted slowly back in again, it became a relatively cosy Rabbit Hutch.

For me it became important because I spent many an hour in there with my dad, drinking pints of Higsons - and on more than one profligate occasion, copious rounds of gins & tonics - and I can hardly imagine the place now without the sound of my dad's voice telling me his stories of the war or of his days in the Wine & Spirits trade (you could hear the capital letters when he said "Wine & Spirits"). We talked philosophy, family history and basically set the world to rights as the pint glasses emptied inch by inch, swallow by swallow.

It was also the place where my dad and I drank our last pint together and I still recall vividly how the conversation skirted with intense awkwardness, an awkwardness we had never had before, around the subject of what we both knew was his imminent death. How I wish I could rewind that conversation and broach the subject with him; there was so much left unsaid.

I had lots of great nights out in the Sevvie with my best mates Dave and Neil, other nights when I was trying out a diet and drinking bottles of Carlsberg Special Brew instead of Higgies because I thought I'd be drinking less as the bottles were small, and ended up totally pissed having drunk 3 times more than usual precisely because the bottles were small.

Uproarious nights, drunken nights, cosy afternoons, smoky Christmas lunchtimes, stories and laughs, sadness and jokes and a good few diced-carrot pukes in the bog - everything a local should provide.

I did a few stints there as a barman too, when I got to know the serious drinkers in the bar and their idiosyncratic habits: Bokker, the failed alcoholic boxer who, at closing time, would regularly buy a bottle of the cheapest sherry to have for breakfast, George the toothless mild drinker who would grip the bar fiercely with both hands and rock back and forth and who nearly had a fit one day when someone was standing at his place on the bar, Dominik, the social security bandit, who knew the system better than the civil servants, holding court with his band of dole-fiddling cronies, Harry the papers, Eric the train driver and Jimmy Fish the busman.

In the mid-nineties, by which time many of the old regulars had suffered their final closing time, the Sefton was "renovated", the old lounge bar was moved, the room where the beer tanks and coolers had been was converted to a Family Room. A beergarden was plonked on the edge of the car park. The pub got emptier, the intimacy leaked away, the tables got stickier and the beer flatter.

It became a dump.

I would go in for nostalgia's sake when I was in Liverpool visiting my mother while she slowly died. I even had a very pleasant night in there in 2007 with my older daughter Nick.

Then it closed.

Then it opened again, not as the Sefton Arms but as "The Red Rum Bar".

The concept was: renovate, renew, refill with new young moneyed punters - the reality is that it is even more of a dump; the punters are pale, battered-looking, bronchitic drunks. The atmosphere is that of a pub caught in a time loop where it is always 10 minutes after drinking up time.

It was there I watched the footy on Saturday, drinking, to my shame, pints of Fosters (they advertised Marstons Pedigree outside but when I ordered a pint I was told, "sorry luv, we donave da any more).

At one point in the second half one of the drunken wraiths creaked to his feet and shouted, "how are the mighty fallen!" I don't know, why or who or what his words were directed to but as my dad often used to say - only a few yards from that very spot - "there's many a true word spoken in a pub".

Saturday, October 29, 2011


It's probably quite fortunate that people pronounce DIY as "dee, eye, why" and don't say the actual words the acronym is made from -oh, hang on, it's not an acronym is it? Because you don't pronounce DIY as "diy", but it's not an abbreviation what is it?

I could look it up for you but, well, DIY!

And indeed, that is my point - if people didn't go around saying "dee, eye, why", they would be saying "do it yourself" and even if this is said in a totally neutral tone, I just can't help hearing a sort of sigh or groan at the start, an emphatic expletive somewhere in the middle and an exclamation mark or two at the end, which turns it into something more like, "(Ah,) do it your (fucking) self(!!).

Anyway, it just happened that I was looking idly in the Internet for loft insulation; no real reason except the fact that this old house in Liverpool radiates as much heat out of the back windows and the roof as the profligate of a nouveau riche family of suns.

We have a B&Q and a Homebase just round the corner here, but I decided to check the Wickes website first and duly found rolls of loft insulation with different thicknesses and different other-qualities-which-everyone-knows-about-and-I've-never-heard-of, and then I saw the price next to the picture of a roll: £36.99

"That's not bad," I thought to myself, but then I saw the sort of small print next to the picture, "buy 1, get 3 free!"

This kindled the avarice in my tight-fisted auld bastard heart (can a heart be tight-fisted?) I mean, whatever it is, a "buy 1, get 3 free" offer should quicken your blood, shouldn't it? Well, my blood was quickened and so I jumped into the car and sped off to Wickes. Now, cases like this of rash enthusiasm are normally followed shortly after by a little cool skepticism, so, on the way, I started thinking about it.

"Buy 1, get 3 free" is a bit too good to be true, isn't it? Must be a catch...maybe the quality is rubbish...maybe 1 roll is actually 4 narrow rolls together and so you end up having to buy 4 for the price of 4...maybe the material has been discovered to be dangerous!! Asbestos poisoning...maybe, maybe...

I wandered into Wickes, feeling totally out of place as I always do in these places, surrounded by weird machines for hitting and cutting stuff and strange materials for sealing or covering other stuff and people who knew-what-it-was-all-for, and found the loft insulation material section. There, indeed, was roll upon roll of loft insulation and signs everywhere saying "buy 1, get 3 free" It's no use, I'll have to ask...

I loathe asking staff questions in these places - always assuming you can find a staff member; they all seem to recede from you at increasing speeds whenever you need one, like Hubble's galaxies, blue-shiftedly racing away from our own Milky Way.

However, I succeeded in cornering one member of Wickes staff, who had been determinedly on his way "somewhere" but hadn't seen me lurking, and I blurted at him, "this 'buy 1, get 3 free' offer, does it mean one of these rolls counts as 4 or what?" "No, mate, you get 4 o' dem big rolls..." "Ah, and which, erm, thickness would be..." Too late, I made the mistake of looking away from him and when I turned my gaze back he had already dematerialised and been beamed up to a different section of Wickes space.

Meanwhile, two other lads - customers - had arrived with a trolley and they were also checking the rolls, and looking at the offer.
"I'm a bit wary too," I said to them.
"Yeah, a'know, mate, bu'rar John said dese are berrer dan B&Q!"
"I'm just not sure what thickness..."
"Well, am gettin' dese tin ones, cos it's for a rented 'ouse, bu' ye myraswell get the tick ones if it's for your 'ouse."

Right, bloody well will! do I get them to the cash desk? Ah, trolley. Where are the trolleys? Outside. Went outside, got a trolley and trundled back in. Loaded four rolls onto the trolley and trundled to the cash desk. How am I going to get them home!!??

"I'm not sure if I'll get all these in the car."

"S'oright, mate, jus' bring 'em back in, if dee don' firrin de car."

Trundled to the car (rented car). Hmm.. jammed 2 in the back seat. And now?

Brainwave! Fold down back seats!

Brilliant! Jammed them all in. Drove home.

Dragged them into the hall. Mission accomplished!

All I have to do now...