Thursday, 31 December 2009

A New Year Homily

Well, this is my 71st and final blog post of the year. While I try to steer clear of too much that may be better placed in a diary or book of homespun philosophy, today I'm making an exception.

It's normal at this time of year to reflect on the year that's gone. For some of us, this can often lead to feelings of moroseness as we question what we have (or haven't) achieved. This year, however, I feel more positive than most.

Over the course of the year, with a little help from some friends, I've started to make some changes that, in course, should bear much fruit. I've made steps to getting my finances more in order, I've taken more time to do things for myself and I've developed various friendships. I've also enjoyed blogging and - importantly - reading other blogs.

There are a lot of things I'd still like to do - including working on a novel - but 2009 has, in many ways been a year of preparation. 2010 also promises to be a year of change - of which more in due course - and I hope to be building on the foundations laid this year.

Anyway, before this becomes too much like Thought for the Day, only one thing remains: to wish you a Happy and Prosperous New Year.


Wednesday, 30 December 2009

A Taste of Things to Come

It's good to be finally getting my finger out and blogging after the Christmas break - although I can't help thinking I should have done this yesterday!

I had a break away for Christmas, visiting my family, although I ended up in bed for half the time I was there with a touch of flu. This was particularly frustrating as, apart from the occasional snuffle, I rarely get ill and can't remember the last time I had something that floored me.

Anyway, am back to almost normal now! And am back with a pile of new books and DVDs. You can expect reviews and mention of some of the following in the weeks and months to come:
  • One City - a book of short stories by prominent Edinburgh writers
  • Planet Earth - the complete series on DVD
  • Andrew Marr's Making of Modern Britain and History of Modern Britain DVDs
  • The Nation's Favourite Poems - I'll be using it as a source for my Anthology series
  • The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
  • Butterfly Brain -Barry Cryer
  • I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue - Live on Stage - a DVD recording featuring the late Humphrey Lyttelton
  • The Book Thief - Markus Zusak
  • Anne Enright's book,
  • The Gathering
  • Fermat's Last Theorem - Simon Singh
  • Child 44 - Tom Rob Smith
  • A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro - one of my favourite authors
  • Devil May Care - Sebastian Faulks writing as Ian Fleming
  • How Fiction Works by James Wood
So, a nice little pile of books and DVDs for me to get my teeth into!


Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Driving Home for Christmas

Today I'm driving home for Christmas and for all my usual humbug that my work colleagues have had to contend with for the past couple of months, I'm really looking forward to it.

I'm not taking my laptop with me, though, so while I'll have computer access, I'm not sure if I'll have much chance to blog. So, in case I don't get a chance to say it on the day:

Merry Christmas!


Monday, 21 December 2009

Books of 2009 - Part 3

This is the final selection of mini reviews of the books I've read this year. These are all from the second half of the year when my reading rate went down considerably.

The Liar by Stephen Fry - A wonderfully constructed novel, written with the deftness of touch that you'd expect from Fry. With autobiographical elements, the book traces the public school and university life of Adrian Healy, recounting the events that led him on a continental tour with his professor, Donald Trefusis.

Firmin by Sam Savage - This was a fantastic story told by the eponymous hero - who happens to be a rat. His mother made her nest in a bookshop, and Firmin stays when she dies and his siblings leave. He develops a relationship with the shopkeeper who is facing the immanent closure of his store. Can Firmin do anything to help?

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wolstonecraft - Unfortunately I never got finished this. One for next year now.

The Whole Day Through by Patrick Gale - I really want to read Gale's "Notes on an Exhibition" but picked this up as a special offer. Taking place over the course of a day, this is a story about missed opportunities and regrets. The main characters are former lovers meeting by chance after many years - but each carries their own baggage, expectations, commitments and competing demands.

Paddy Clark Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle - Doyle expertly writes from the point of view of 10 year old boy. In what is almost a stream of consciousness, the narration jumps from one subject to another in the way children's conversation often does. A vivid picture is created of the Ireland of the 60's and the families and community that it created.

The last two books completed were Transition by Iain Banks and Northern Lights by Philip Pullman - click the link at the bottom of this post to see my thoughts on them.


You can see more book reviews, including the previous two Books of the year selections, here.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind

For my latest contribution to my series of poetry posts, I was looking for something wintry and Christmasy... Unfortunately all the Christmas poems I found were a bit twee, so I've gone with the wintry theme - most apt given the current cold snap.

It's a deceptive piece. There is a jolliness and levity to the last four lines of each stanza which belies the underlying message - the weather isn't as bad as lost friendship and most friendships are false.

Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind by William Shakespeare
(from As You Like It, Act II, Scene 7)

Blow, blow, thou winter wind,
Thou art not so unkind
As man's ingratitude;
Thy tooth is not so keen,
Because thou art not seen,
Although thy breath be rude.
Heigh ho, sing heigh ho, unto the green holly;
most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly:
Then, heigh ho, the holly!
This life is most jolly.

Freeze, freeze, thou bitter sky,
That dost not bite so nigh
As benefits forgot:
Though thou the waters warp,
Thy sting is not so sharp
As friend remember'd not.
Heigh ho, sing heigh ho, unto the green holly:
most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly:
Then, heigh ho, the holly!
This life is most jolly.


For more poetry related posts, follow this link.

Christmas Poetry - Bonus Post!

Aside from my main post for today, I wanted to post this. Deacon Blue is one of my favourite bands and this song, although obscure, has been one of my favourites for a long time. The musical arrangement of it is quite stripped down, and the lyrics really have to shine!

Christmas and Glasgow by Ricky Ross

He was lying in the half light
Of Christmas and Glasgow
Thinking and talking
Talking to St Enoch about
Christmas and Glasgow
Drinking and talking

And the sweet smell
Of the Kelvin Hall Circus
And the sweet smell lingered
Of her perfume and kisses

He needed to take one step
He was taking one step back

She knows the only danger
Of Christmas And Glasgow
Is you love too much
And she's thinking of years
At Christmas and Glasgow
When it meant too much

And walking in frost
Down in Cowcaddens
And the sweet smell
As they were lost in the garden

She needed to take one step
She was taking one step back

They could hear choirs, those heavenly choirs
Choirs of angels, those heavenly choirs

They needed to take one step
They were taking one step back


Saturday, 19 December 2009

Northern Lights

Early this week, I finished the fantastic Northern Lights by Philip Pullman. It is the first book of the His Dark Materials trilogy, touted my many as being a superior rival to the Harry Potter books. It's been on my "to-read" list for years and having been given it for my birthday I thought it was about time to actually read it. I can't believe I waited so long.

Set in a parallel universe, the plot centres on Lyra, a child who is cared for by staff at a college in Oxford. After overhearing a lecture by her Uncle, and a series of mysterious kidnappings, Lyra gets sucked into an adventure to find a missing servant boy.

The novel is populated with well drawn characters - the staid scholars of the college, the mysterious Mrs Coulter, the colourful Gyptions and a mighty armoured bear. The universe is familiar yet subtlety different with the exception of daemons; all the human characters are accompanied by an animal form (the daemon) - separate but interdependent - linked with an invisible bond.

Aside from the excellent writing - Mr Pullman scores several points over Ms Rowling in that regard - the novel is a gripping yarn. Not afraid to deal with violence and death, the story builds to a climax which simultaneously creates a bridge to the second novel. Indeed, Pullman expertly interweaves the story arc of this novel with the beginnings of the arc for the trilogy as whole.

Although nominally a Children's novel, it deals with big themes of identity, institutional (e.g. state or religious) control and philosophy. While I had some quibbles on elements of the ending, these do not distract much from my enjoyment of the story or the novel as a whole.

Is it better than Potter? While the writing is better, and the overall story arc more explicit from the outset, I wouldn't want to make a call in that regard. It's significantly different and more involved. Where Potter is escapism with dark themes throughout, this book is more about the ideas and themes themselves. You can still escape to Lyra's Oxford, though, and I recommend you do.


Friday, 18 December 2009

Lost in Translation

I've just found a fantastic video clip of BBC Scotland's Jim Spence attempting to interview Dundee United's Slovakian Goalkeeper, Dusan Pernis!

Enjoy it here!


Thursday, 17 December 2009

vlog 2 -More About Me

A tongue in cheek post to tell you more about me...

Comments and more either/or questions welcome! My first vlog is here.


Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Books of 2009 - Part 2

Following on from this post in which every two line review was three lines, here is the next batch of the books I have read in 2009.

Look Who It Is by Alan Carr - I've never been much of one for Biography, especially not Celebrity Autobiography, but this was being sold by the book man at work, and I thought it might be worth a giggle for a fiver. The tone of the book was very much as you'd expect, and it was an enjoyable enough read - especially for fans of the self-styled "Tooth Fairy".

The Crow Road by Iain Banks - As mentioned elsewhere on this blog, I am engaged in an exercise of re-reading all my Banks' books. The Crow Road is a family epic, telling the story of three generations of the leading family in a small highland town. While things may seem respectable - if tragedy prone - on the surface, below the facade things are far from normal...

Complicity by Iain Banks - My first Banks and still one of my favourites, even if I'd forgotten how graphic some of the violence is - indeed, for my money it is a more graphic novel than the much more widely read The Wasp Factory. It tells the story of a journalist investigating a series of bizarre tortures and murders. Not one for the squeamish!

The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels - For a political tract that was published over 150 years ago this was, in relative terms, quite straightforward to read, although the various prefaces to subsequent editions with which my edition was furnished became a bit repetitive and unnecessary. For those interested in the politics of the left, and how practical communism has differed from the theory it is well worth the effort.

omewhere Towards the End by Diana Athill - Quite simply a fantastic book. Athill is 92 and facing the end of life square on. She writes about the lessons life has taught her with a light and magical touch. Whether discussing sexual conquests, relationships or the imminence of death, she does so with wit, charm, candour and the wisdom of her years.

Angels and Demons by Dan Brown - I read this in anticipation of the film coming out but then never went to see it. As with The Da Vinci Code, for which this is the template, Brown tells a ripping yarn in short, moreish chapters. It's easy to be snobby about the quality of the writing itself but this does exactly what it says on the tin. That said, it'll be a while before I brave another of his books!

erwhere by Neil Gaiman - Having read Good Omens - Gaiman's collaboration with Terry Pratchett - I finally got round to reading one of his own books. Set in the fantasy world of "London Below", inhabited by the people who have fallen through the cracks, this is a quest novel in which our unwitting hero battles for something which no one has previously achieved - return to normal life in London Above.

So that's the second batch - a third and final batch soon!


Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Simon's Cat - Snow Business

There's a new Simon's Cat video!

For my previous posting on Simon's Cat, and a link his website, click here.


Sunday, 13 December 2009

Sports Personality of the Year

I wasn't actually going to post tonight, but have decided to post this quick blog, linking to a couple of previous posts.

Having had a lovely evening watching The X-Factor and recording Sports Personality of the Year for future viewing, I have just discovered that Ryan Giggs won and not Jenson Button as I expected and had hoped.

Although I appreciate Giggs' talents and his professional approach to football, as well as the fact he seems not to court as much publicity as many other footballers, I felt Button's superb achievement in gaining the F1 World Championship was the British sporting highlight of the year.

My thoughts on Button can be read here. Congratulations are also due to Jessica Ennis who came third.


All my sport related posts can be found by clicking this link.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Books of 2009 - Part 1

As regular readers will know, one of the things I enjoy most is getting stuck into a good book. I try to make sure I read everyday, although on occasion the habit slips. I'm currently on my 20th book this year - more than last year, but less than I'd aimed for.

As it's approaching the end of the year, this is the first in a series of posts with two line reviews of the books I've read.

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett - Previously ambivalent about Bennett, I really enjoyed Untold Stories. The Uncommon Reader is an extended short story about the Queen developing a reading habit when she discovers the mobile library for the Palace staff. While inoffensive and enjoyable enough, this ultimately lacked any substance.

The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama - Written when he was a Senator, this book covers a number of major issues in American politics. Obama writes with a clear and direct style, a refreshing understanding of American political history and context and most importantly a recognition that view issues are as black and white as a two-party system often portrays them as.

Lyttelton's Britain by Iain Pattinson - The late Humphrey Lyttelton chaired Radio 4's I'm Sorry I haven't a Clue for over 40 years. Latterly, the opening monologues in which Humph outlined the history and attractions of the host venues became one of the trademarks of the show. This book collects these monologues (essentially a series of one-liners) together and is a fantastic light read which I shall be dipping in and out of for years to come.

The God of Small Things by Arundati Roy - A fantastic and worthy winner of the Booker Prize. A family saga set in India, it is beautifully written with almost poetic qualities. This beauty does not get in the way of what is a intriguing story in the way that some literature can. Roy evokes the culture and atmosphere superbly and I'm sure I'll get more out of this book on repeat reading.

The Salmon of Doubt by Douglas Adams - Having read this previously, I enjoyed re-visiting it for the first time in a few years. The Salmon of Doubt was one of the titles given to the Dirk Gently novel Adams was working on when he died. This book brings together some of the completed chapters of that along with various magazine articles, lectures and interviews.

A Most Wanted Man - John le Carre - I've wanted to read a le Carre for years and never quite got round to it. I received this, his latest novel as a Christmas present, so was keen to see what I thought. A political/security services thriller, it didn't set the heather alight for me. I do still want to try an early Le Carre, though!

So, that's the first 6 - another instalment soon!


Friday, 11 December 2009

Church Going

Today's post is another poem in what is becoming an anthology thread. I've chosen the Phillip Larkin poem "Church Going", which I studied at school, but have not read for some years.

It's a poem about faith - both personal and collective. The narrator professes no faith of his own, and after visiting the church is unsure of what he has gained from the experience. He speculates on what will happen when churches become obselete - will a collective superstition remain, and what will replace this when it too dies. In effect, he draws parallels with the way various pagan and pre-christian believes have become part of ongoing folk-lore and suggests a similar fate for the Church. Finally, he returns to focus to the present and what draws him to visit churches at all. The overall sense is an unreconciled marriage between appreciation of the position the church used to hold in society and it's lack of meaning to him as an individual.

Of course, you may have your own thoughts on the matter, so feel free to comment below.

Church Going by Philip Larkin

Once I am sure there's nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence,

Move forward, run my hand around the font.
From where I stand, the roof looks almost new-
Cleaned or restored? Someone would know: I don't.
Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few
Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce
"Here endeth" much more loudly than I'd meant.
The echoes snigger briefly. Back at the door
I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,
Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.

Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
When churches fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep
A few cathedrals chronically on show,
Their parchment, plate, and pyx in locked cases,
And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.
Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?

Or, after dark, will dubious women come
To make their children touch a particular stone;
Pick simples for a cancer; or on some
Advised night see walking a dead one?
Power of some sort or other will go on
In games, in riddles, seemingly at random;
But superstition, like belief, must die,
And what remains when disbelief has gone?
Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,

A shape less recognizable each week,
A purpose more obscure. I wonder who
Will be the last, the very last, to seek
This place for what it was; one of the crew
That tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were?
Some ruin-bibber, randy for antique,
Or Christmas-addict, counting on a whiff
Of gown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh?
Or will he be my representative,

Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation - marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these - for whom was built
This special shell? For, though I've no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.


For more poems in my anthology, see here.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Virtual Gallery - Mezzanine

Yesterday I heard two art related items on Radio 4. The first concerned Frances Bacon and whether his Masochism had an impact on his artistic output. The suggestion was that Bacon's best work was when he was with his lover George Dyer, who was described as a Sadist.

The second was a review of a play exploring the creation of Mark Rothko's paintings for the Seagram Building, a commission he subsequently pulled out of. he subsequently donated 9 of the works to the Tate Gallery, where they arrived on the day he committed suicide.

It struck me that works from these two artists could work well in the same space, and so I've hung the following paintings in a Mezzanine space in the gallery.

From top to bottom:

Study for Portrait, Frances Bacon, 1957
Black on Maroon, Mark Rothko, 1958
Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne, Frances Bacon, 1966
Light Red over Black, Mark Rothko, 1957

The Bacon item can be found here - just scroll down the running order to 0845 while the Rothko piece is the first item on this programme. I suspect these links may only work in the UK, and for a week after broadcast.


Click here for other rooms in my Virtual Gallery.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Blogs I like (part 1)

After yesterday's introspective post, here's a selection of links to 3 blogs I've been enjoying lately.

See Haiku Here is a site featuring the work of a Haiga artist. Haiga is the pictorial representation of a Haiku poetry, and some of these are fantastic. Have browse - I'm sure you'll agree!

A Sort of Contrived Eloquence is the daily blog of Taunton-based comedian, Chris Stokes. Aside from jokes, he paints a picture of like as a jobbing comedian - it's not all fun and games either!

The final pick for this batch is Carwin's Closet. This is a blog by a 17 year lad in California, relating his experiences in coming out to his family and friends, amongst other random stuff. I'm not normally a fan of this sort of blogging, per se, but I've found his posts to be quite engaging.

Hopefully you'll find something that takes your fancy. If not, you can always hang around here for a while, or take a chance on the "next blog" button at the top!


Tuesday, 8 December 2009

10 things...

Inspired by my friend Stephen's series of posts listing "100 facts" about himself, I thought I'd do something similar. Here are, therefore, 10 random facts about me. Some are trivial, some less so, but they might add some flesh to the bones in the profile to your right.

1. I can't think of 100 facts about me - indeed, I find it difficult to talk about myself at all!
2. I think I'm allergic to crab meat.
3. I once did a parachute jump for charity.
4. I have been blogging for 5 months today.
5. I love architecture, and took classes in architectural appreciation at Edinburgh Uni.
6. My favourite artist is probably Dali.
7. Until I left home at 17, all the houses I had lived in where within 1 mile of each other.
8. If I had the money, I would open a restaurant.
9. I once applied for Big Brother.
10. I had a giant poster of Kylie on my bedroom wall as a kid.

So there you have it - an eclectic mix of facts with no discernible logic or reason. Make of it what you will - and pray I don't decide to do a follow up post! Andrew

Sunday, 6 December 2009

5 on the, ehm, 6th - December

This is my belated entry to my friend Stephen's 5 on the 5th feature, where people take 5 pictures on the 5th each month and post them online.

This month, Stephen's suggested theme was 'signs' and I had a couple of ideas which never came to fruition, for one reason or another - mainly due to being away Saturday morning, and having a houseguest for Saturday night. One idea, of photographing various signs on my way home yesterday, was snookered by a dead battery in my phone!

So, here I am on a Sunday morning posting 5 photos based on what I had to hand. The result? The title pages of various signed books I have.

You can see more of 5 on the 5th here, and my previous posts are here.

Thursday, 3 December 2009


As you may know I love reading although at times other things seem to get in the way and I don't get through books as fast as I'd like. I've had this experience over the past couple of months but a couple of days ago I finally finished Transition by Iain Banks - here's a brief review:

14 years ago, I read "Complicity" by Iain Banks. It's a darkly comic novel about a journalist who is drawn into investigating a series of bizarre (and graphic) tortures and murders. So began my love of Banks' general fiction. (For those who don't know, Banks writes contemporary fiction as Iain Banks and Science Fiction as Iain M Banks).

I followed up Complicity with The Wasp Factory (Bank's first novel, and a very highly recommended read) and gradually worked through the rest of his books. Having caught up and read them all, I'm now re-reading them, slotting in his new works as they come. And so to Transition...

My anticipation for this book was tempered with some trepidation. Banks' last two fiction books - 2002's Dead Air and 2007's The Steep Approach to Garbadale had failed to impress me. The latter was particularly disappointing as advanced publicity seemed to suggest he was back on form. Had the magic touch deserted Banks for good, or could he produce something in keeping with his reputation?

Transition is set on a series of parallel worlds, all of them earth-like, some more developed than others. An organisation known variously as The Concern or l'Expedience has discovered and harnessed a drug-induced ability to "transition" between these realities. As many of the realities are slightly more developed versions of others, the effects seen on the leading Earths can be averted by changes in a lagging versions. The Concern exists to manage these benign interventions.

At least, that is the message given to those in "Open" worlds where most people are aware of the multiple realities and existence of The Concern. Those in Closed worlds have no such awareness and are therefore at the whim of the decisions of the central council.

The novel revolves around a power struggle between Madame d'Ortolan and Mrs Mulverhill. d'Ortolan is the dominant figure on the council and has her own ideas about the purpose and intent of The Concern. Mulverhill was a senior member in the Transitionary Office who feels The Concern has gone to far. The central narrator is former pupil of Mulverhill's who acts as a Transitionary acting on orders from the council. His interventions range from saving lives to taking lives.

As with some of Banks' best works, he is not afraid to play around with the conventional structure of a novel. The story is told through a series of different narrators, who by turns advance the story and relate the history of the concern and the central characters. Gradually these come together, although as with the best books and films, there are still some questions at the end.

So, what did I think? Well, it isn't the perfect novel; there are some ideas that are introduced and not developed - one of the realities is in the grip of a threat from Christian Terrorists. There are also, perhaps, too many narrative strands. The character of Adrian, who is in some ways a standard Banks' character, could have been introduced through the narrative strand of Mrs Mulverhill, for example. While it does have flaws, though, none of these are fatal.

Overall, it is an enjoyable read set in a series of strange, yet often familiar, realities. Once the book establishes it's rhythm of alternate narrators, it is also an easy read (albeit with some uneasy passages). While some of the political and social issues may not be explored fully, the book does, ultimately, have a satisfactory feel of justice prevailing.

When I read a novel, I would normally decide on completion whether it is a book I would want to re-read, and therefore keep, or whether it is bound for Oxfam. Had this been a novel by any other author, I suspect I would keep it, which is not something I'd have said for either Dead Air or The Steep Approach to Garbadale. On that measure, therefore, I am happy to recommend it.

Where does it come in relation to Banks' other work, though? Well, laying aside the question as to whether this belongs in the Iain Banks or Iain M Banks canon; I think it's his best book since A Song of Stone, and possibly earlier. It's certainly an easier read than A Song of Stone, which is written entirely in the third person.


Click here for more posts related to books.
For more about Iain Banks see here.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

The Muppets do Queen

Last week one of my friends posted this on their Facebook profile. It is, quite simply, fantastic. Enjoy!

See more of the Muppets here.