Friday, December 29, 2006

25/12/06 Christmas (not ruined)

By Christmas, stories about Christmas being ruined by a deadly, killer fog had long since stopped filling the TV and newspapers. It seemed Christmas might happen after all.

Christmases at my parents involve far too much food, far too many presents and far too much time watching TV. They're great. It's nice to spend time with whatever of the family is around and catch up on British TV. It's also a time to reflect that 2000 years ago a small child was born who would grow up to be a very popular speaker and change the course of history through being deified by his followers. In time these followers kidnapped the date and trappings of a pagan festival to celebrate this event and this too was kidnapped by the world of commerce. We should always take time to remember this, the magic that is Christmas. Merry Christmas everyone!

Sunday, December 24, 2006

24/12/06 Christmas Eve

Some more last minute shopping to get those last few gifts. All of the towns around where my parents live seem to have one thing in common. Every other shop is a charity shop. From Oxfam to Help the Aged to Wieners without Schnitzels, every charity is represented. I don't really know why there should be so many but one thing is for sure, January is probably the best month for receiving second-hand things to sell.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

23/12/06 Christmas back on track

Being an atheist and reluctant consumerist who dislikes unnecessary ritual and detests shopping, Christmas isn't exactly my thing. It's a time for Children to get spoilt and toy manufacturers to get richer. In many ways my ideal Christmas would be to drink myself into the New Year with a few like-minded fellows at Bar Humbug. It is not to trail desperately around shops where every surface has been draped with tinsel. Unfortunately, Bar Humbug does not exist and at Christmas, no store is allowed to trade by law unless every surface is covered in tinsel.

My second choice for Christmas would be to spend it at the airport entertained by clowns.

Friday, December 22, 2006

22/12/06 Christmas Postponed

The strain of working, packing, travelling and shopping seemed to finally catch up with me and stole most of my energy. That on top of somehow pulling some chest muscles between Amsterdam and East Hoathley. None of this is in any way related to the ageing process, okay.

So instead of travelling up to London, which was proving to be complicated anyway from this part of the world, I hibernated for an evening.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

21/12/06 Christmas Ruined

The newspaper and TV stories are full of how Christmas has been ruined by the fog. It seems for everybody the day will be completely ruined, even though by my calculation only a small % of people will be travelling at this time. In fact logically most people will have a Christmas as normal this year and should not be affected by it and even those who do suffer, they should still be able to be where they need to be in time for the day itself not to be ruined. But if both the newspapers and the TV agrees Christmas will be ruined by BA cancelling flights then I must be wrong and have already started to burn the presents I have already bought.

Had a pleasant visit from my There-is-no-God Child and her mum. It's great to see that although we all lose energy as we get older, it can be passed on to one's children.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

20/12/06 Schiphol, Gatwick, Sussex

Christmas was definitely in the air this morning. Ordinary things were talking much, much longer than usual and people were already bubbling with that most Christmassy of emotions, anger. In fact, I've never seen so many short-tempered people squeezed into one place. The reason, other than the proximity to the dreaded day, was a romantically seasonable layer of fog that stretched across the British countryside. Because of this, planes to and from the UK were subject to delay and / or cancellation. And to ease people through this was the good, old Dutch customer service.

In Dutch, customer service is an oxymoron. It exists only in tourist haunts and the odd up-market shop or restaurant. Elsewhere, if it is the barmaid's cigarette break, you'll have to wait for your beer or if something you brought is broken, then (a) that's a shame and (b) why are you bothering the person who sold it to you with this?

Ironically, in the run-up to Sinterklaas and Christmas nearly all shops will wrap ANYTHING you say is a present. They take their time and wrap it properly, and better than I ever could. It seems incongruous but actually its very annoying for the people behind them in the queue. I am sure they only do it as a way to work without actually having to serve a customer. I know I would.

There were obviously a lot of Brits waiting for flights, for whom bad temper is usually just under the surface but then again only usually emerges as muttering or saying something sarcastic or ridiculously lame but indignantly. I remember being stuck in a crush in London slowly filtering out of a station at 8:40 am when someone seethed, "I'm trying to get to work." I had to bite my tongue not to say, "really? I'm here for fun." It wouldn't have helped.

But also there seemed to be a lot of Americans. Americans tend to have even more anger bubbling away, plus have the added annoyance that they are spoon-fed good (and often over-the-top) service back home so that the Netherlands can be a bit of a culture shock. A land where "Hi, I'm Candy and I'll be excited to help you today," translates to "Yes, what?"

We managed to get checked in after first joining a queue that turned out to be the wrong one after we grilled a man handing out pieces of paper with ambiguous instructions. The queue was for people with connecting flights and they were not a bouncy bunch. The same guy went did some giggling and got the self-service check-in computers to work so that we could get to the slow-moving Fast Drop-in desks. I think because the word 'fast' was above them, people were even more frustrated, even though their flight was delayed by two hours and so they had plenty of time. After this passport control was a doddle (easy).

I must point out that there were not nearly the number of people and not nearly the same depth of emotions as experienced in the British airports where for a few days before Christmas they whole thing came to a crashing halt and people had to hang around in tents in the freezing cold. And instead of paying for heating, they hired a few street performers to go around and cheer people up. When you're cold and pissed off the last thing in the world you want to see is a juggling mime. I don’t know what they were thinking. So actually we had it pretty good in comparison. Especially as we were ourselves very laid back about it. It was 5 days until Christmas, after all.

Very recently, Europe brought in new security regulations. As with previous ones they don't deal directly with security and are more designed to (a) make it look like security has been stepped up and (b) give the little men in big uniforms at the security desks more specific instructions to follows. Probably so they don’t have to spend so much money training them.

For example it wasn't clear why the tube of hand cream left in the luggage was dangerous and had to be gleefully thrown away by a glorified night-club bouncer where as had we remembered it was in the bag and put it in one of the sealable plastic bags it would have been safe. The only explanation the guy had was that those were the rules and laid a piece of paper in front of me explaining what the rules were but probably was very vague on how actually the rules help make things safer. When I threw the piece of paper away, it got placed back in front of me with great purpose. I should have been glad something had a purpose.

I have a theory that the level of X-rays has been increased many-fold in the machines and can now turn small quantities of liquid radioactive if they are not put in the lead-lined bags provided. That's my theory as not much else makes sense.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Party Off

One of the great things about the Internet and the proliferation of camera phones is that where as once you would always be half wondering "was it really THAT bad?" when some celebrity scandal breaks, now you just go to YouTube and wait and see. C.f. the case of Michael Richard, the performer famous as the Kramer from Seinfeld and now as he of the racist tirade. Because the press needs its scandals and would much rather act aghast than analyse, an ambiguous or even satirical remark can easily be trumped as a racist/sexist/homophobic/heterophobic/pressophobic tirade.

In this case it was not like this at all. This was a tirade in the purest sense of the word. It's horrible. The abuse is way over the top for people allegedly talking during your show, which is annoying, but can be dealt with better and is usually a sign that your act is not going well. In fact in the videos which only start during the tirade, he doesn't look like a man whose act is going well. However there is ONE funny thing said on the videos. It's by one of the guys walking out: "That's why you're a reject, never had no shows, never had no movies: "Seinfeld" that's it!"

Monday, November 27, 2006

Party On

A few days ago, the Dutch voted for a new government. The Dutch have a sort of proportional representation which results always in a coalition. Which I am all for. Coalitions prevent one party inflicting too many short-term changes in the name popularity or self-service. It avoids the problem of meglomaniacy where one leader can surround himself with Yes-ministers. Despite what it seems, it is not the place of government to change things (unless it is clearly needed) but to manage the country and keep it going. With a single strong party, there are always new laws to suit they own, temporary popularist notions.

This election saw a few changes to the power structure. The Christian Democrats are still the strongest and so Jan Peter Potterlijk is still likely to be in charge. The Socialist Party made great gains showing a general shift to the left which was also indicated by the loss of all remaining seats for The Party for Sympathy Votes for Pim Fortuyn. In their place, the Party for the Animals got two seats. It's nice to know in these times of concerns about integration, immigration, religious freedom, people still have some time to care about sheep, cows and tiny little dogs.

One party that didn't get any votes is The Party for Brotherly Love, Freedom and Diversity (PNVD) which wants to allow inter-species relationships and to reduce the age of consent to 12. Even the newspapers call this the Paedophile Party. It is hoped the votes for Party for the Animals were not from people thinking they were voting for the PNVD.

Coalitions take time to form, so we are still waiting the outcome.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Travel: 21/10/06 - Prague

Czech Out (Sorry, couldn’t resist)

Having checked out, we had breakfast at a place just over the road called Bohemia Bagels which is a real upmarket backpacker’s place, which is suitable given that we pretty much managed to keep on the tourists tracks our entire time here. There you can get unlimited coffee and great bagels for a few cents each.

After this we gathered our belongings and dragged them to the metro, passing on the way the theatre showing Golem the musical. The Golem is a tale of the old Jews of Prague about the time a Rabbi created a creature from mud in order to protect the Jews. In true Dr Frankenstein style, this playing God backfired and the monster ran amok. It’s now a musical ( although for a Jewish tale, it’s odd how in the logo the cross seems to be towering over it. Maybe it’s drawing our attention to the fact that Christianity is also a monster created by misguided Jews.

Again the metro and bus were very easy and there was very little waiting around. The tickets you buy have nice gold designs on them to stop counterfeits, but must mean they cost more than 80 cents you pay for them. It must be one of the easiest airports to get to despite having to change.

The flight was not too busy and fortunately Schiphol wasn’t too disorganised when we arrived. Of course we had a 20 minute taxi from landing to where the bus was waiting, and of course the bus from there rode over the kerb on its way to the terminal, because that is simply the route the bus has to take.

And we never did find out why there was a Church of St Paul at the Laundry. I guess it relates to the old carol...

While shepherds washed their socks by night,
All seated round the tub,
The Angel of the Lord came down,
And said, “Give mine a scrub.”

Maybe we’ll never know.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Travel: 20/10/06(2) - Prague


One thing that had been bothering us was the fact that every art shop, every bridge-side artist, every souvenir shop… all sell pictures, cups and sculptures of cats. Images of cats are every where in these shops, yet in the time we have been here, we have not seen a single one. How can the art establishment be so obsessed with an animal that is not there? There is a story there, we were sure. One clue was that many of them were in a particular style, with a crescent-shaped head. There was indeed a mystery afoot.

We climbed back up to the castle to check out one exhibit that sounded good. It was about alchemy, amongst other things. There was, however, no sign to it, but we found the building easily. The door was shut and unmarked, but was not locked. Inside, there was no mention of alchemy, the exhibit was announced as being about warfare. The box-office was closed, so we wandered by it and up the stairs to come to a glass door behind which several curator-type people were having a meeting. Probably about why the unsignposted exhibit was not doing well. Or to query the wisdom of turning the golden alchemy exhibit into a base-metal one about war.

On our way out of the castle, we noticed the history museum had closed too. Museums must be having a hard time. The toy museum seemed to be doing okay, though. We went back to the bridge via a different route than before and dropped in at the Kafka Museum Bookshop. The shop was bright and spacious, which seemed a little incongruous. Surely a dark, oppressive room would have been much more the thing. However the eagle-eyed, old woman in the corner eyeing everything you did was a nice touch. In went to buy a copy of The Castle, but there were at least three different translations into English alone and there seemed no choosing between them, nor reason to pay so much for such a book, so I left empty handed.

We stopped for coffee in the place next door and it turned out to be another in the Ebel chain. Here was the spot for a Café Metamorphosis or The Coffee Trial. The coffee was well earned as we hadn’t had any all day. After a huge bowl of latte the size of a soup, we crossed the Safe-Pocket Bridge and headed for the Jewish quarter.

It was Friday and getting dark so the functioning synagogues were busy with people celebrating the weekend. The main one had an armed bouncer on the door, and a few other heavy people hanging around the street. I recalled from the paper that there had been threats recently against Jewish targets from some terrorist faction.
Just down from the New-New Synagogue is the Old-New Synagogue. It’s a beautiful old building from the middle ages and looks more like a fort than a place of worship and has that haunted look.

Old-New Synagogue or Home of the Munsterbergs.

We scurried around for a bit to try to find stamps before we discovered that post offices here stay open late. We’re used to post offices considering themselves banks and opening for a few hours a day just so no one squats there.

Dinner was at our previous first choice, the Newtown Brewery, thanks to us reserving a place or, rather, getting the receptionist at our apartments to reserve. When we arrived the place was empty downstairs but reasonably busy on the indoor ‘terrace.’ So we wondered if booking had really been necessary, but when we left the place was packed again.

The food was typical Czech fare as in the other bars we had eaten. Plenty of meat; bread and potato dumplings with everything; some nod to other vegetables in the guise of sauerkraut or similar. All the menus we have seen so far have had a weight indicating the amount of food (or meat) you get next to each dish. This is the best menu idea I have had in a long time. Really avoids those annoying times when you order two dishes and find you have food in front of you for the whole bar.

The beer was good, too. They brew their own there, as the name suggests, and both the light and dark were tasty if a little weaker than others beers we’d had.

The downside to the place is it is on the tourist chart. Busses of Germans arrived while we were eating. On the plus side, they have a live accordionist playing while you eat. I think this is a plus. They seemed to think so. However he didn’t come over to our area and we only heard him, not see him.

Before we came here, we only knew one Czech guy. He is called Frantičak and now lives in Hong Kong. To me the name Frantičak is rare and exotic. In the Czech Republic, most of the men are called Frantičak. The accordionist in Novometský Pivovar was no exception.

Eventually, because we were tourists and these sorts of things send out tourist homing signals, we found ourselves back at the Racist Clock Square and decided to celebrate the start of Shabbat with a beer or two there on one of the several heated terraces provided for that purpose. They seem to be provided for tourists as no Czech-speakers seem to use them. The reason is clear when the bill comes. Having spent a few days getting used to Czech beer prices, it was a shock to suddenly find yourself paying airport prices.

In Prague, the real criminals are not in the metro which seems very safe, they are not on street corners, they don’t even appear to be on the Charles Bridge where they’re supposed to be. No, my friends, in Prague the criminals are running terrace bars on the Old Town Square.

Rip Off Square, Rascist Clock and Superspired Church.

We finished our drinks, soaking in the rich tapestry of accents around us, and then had a final night time wander around the area. We even cleaned up one mystery. In one art/tourist shop we saw a bunch of artworks of multicoloured cats many with crescent heads all by one artist, one Rosina Wachtmeister. She is very famous for these cute sorts of cats but seems to have no connection with Prague other than artists here are obsessed with her work. There seems to be no story of cats being carted off. Now the only mystery is what’s the story behind the Church of St Paul at the Laundry.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Travel: 20/10/06(1) - Prague

Return of the Saints

Today wasn’t such a late start and began with a mission of food. We crossed the Pickpocket Bridge, which we are thinking of renaming as we haven’t seen hide nor hair of a pickpocket nor felt the rough touch of rogue fingers on our personals. I guess our fervent scanning for such ne’er-do-wells put them their guard. Pity as everyone else who has been here seems to have story about this sort of thing. I don’t even have the satisfaction of saying, “a petty pilferer picked the pocket of pickled Peter in Prague.”

Today’s levity was provided by some old guys playing jazz.

Czech Republic has a very enthusiastic navy for a land-locked country.

In the meantime, we have discovered that St. Goliath is in fact the patron saint of Czechs, St. John of Nepomuk who was thrown in the river and drowned by Wenceslas IV (not the good one). The good one, however, does appear several times. But apparently he’s not a king but a duke and not called Wenceslas but Václav. Personally I think there has been a mix up as I don’t know how a Good King Wenceslas could be confused for Bohemian Duke Václav. The duke made Christianity the state religion so it’s up to you to decide whether he was a good man or not. Wenceslas/Václav is depicted on the bridge at least twice and in none of these statues is he shown going out on the Feast of Stephen.

Other saints on the bridge include St. Jude of Thaddius, the patron saint of hopeless causes. It’s nice that if your cause is hopeless, you still have a figure to give you... well not hope, obviously, but I guess someone to moan at. Spiritually.

There’s even a patron saint of the godforsaken, apparently. Although what good a saint is going to do if God’s given up on you, I don’t know.

Saints here seem to be of the shepherd type (carrying a staff or crook) or the TV-repair type (carrying an aerial). This is presumably to reflect the old and new values we attribute to saintlihood.

Statues of an angel (l), shepherd (r) and TV repair man (c).

After the bridge, we climbed the steep road that goes up beside the castle, which was not nearly as steep as the one that goes up directly to the castle which has steps of Exorcistic proportions. There we located, as recommended by the local paper for non-locals, a Vietnamese Buddhist restaurant. Who’d have thunk it?

Inside was one of the most peaceful eating environments in the world. Soothing smells, music and half-light. It was the perfect time to renounce the meat and beer that generally constitutes the Czech diet. We had healing teas and overdosed on vegetables. It was one of the most calming, reflective and indeed healthy meals I’d had in a long time and we finished it up with some exquisite Halva. I left with an inner contentment but a serious need for a coffee.

As we were in that area, we meandered over to one of the city’s many monasteries. This one still (or rather again) partially in use, but also partially converted into a gallery and library. Not to mention a restaurant and a museum of microscopic wonders, but the latter was closed alas so we sulked off into a nearby park which has a maze at its centre. After about 30 minutes of rambling, we checked the map. Lonely Planet maps often have the feel of having been drawn late at night by two stoned Australians, but it was soon clear we had missed our intended target. In fact we were now back near the castle. We decided to give up on the maze. After all, if you can’t even find a maze, the last thing you should do is go into one - you’ll never get out.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Travel: 19/10/06(2) - Prague

Boiled Sweets

Over the river is Prague Castle or Hradčany or Hardcandy if you look at it quickly. It’s a large, imposing affair on a hill overlooking the city, not unlike the castle in Kafka’s The Castle. It’s big. We didn’t go into any of the buildings, just wandered around the enclosed area.
As all good castles should, this one features its own convent and a toy museum. It also has a huge cathedral in the middle, complete with some of the most disgusting gargoyles protruding from it. Ugly, dog-like creatures some of them, other more human but with vast tongues hanging out. One or two were playing lutes. As has been previously established, the lute is the instrument of the pagans and evil-doers, a little like today’s electric guitar. These ones only needed white face paint to resemble a Kiss concert.
Gruesome Gargoyle

Kiss, Live in Prague

More Gargoyles

At the main entrance to the castle are those ceremonial guards that stand still for hours on end and display much more skill at it than those human statues although the public treats them quite differently. Despite the fact the human statues are not trained to kill.

Atop the gates, are some more statues. These depict saints engaged in Extreme Conversions. One holds a club aloft over the head of a sinner, the other is about to stab a second. None of this door-to-door pamphlets for these guys.
Human Guards dwarfed by violent saints

We wove our way down from the castle in the royal gardens. Built on a steep hill, they are layered and maze-like, connected by narrow steps. Partly restored by HRH Prince Charles (not wuite sure what he did exactly), it is a perfect place for a secret royal assignation. As said to Catherine on one of the secluded benches, this is exactly the sort of place a king would seduce a parlour maid. “Something like that,” she said. “Or perhaps where a queen would seduce a stable boy.” Something like that.

One of the garden areas is definitely in the French style (think of a bonsai Versailles). Here there was a fountain of a man astride a three-headed, water-spouting fish. As you’d expect he was just about to convert one of the heads to Christianity with big fat golden club.

Eight most common things to see in Prague

1. Marionettes
2. Black-Light Theaters (sic)
3. Churches
4. Russian Dolls
5. Absinthe
6. Chess Sets
7. Pictures of Cats
8. Cannabis Vodka

Gutenabend, eh

For dinner we tried a second time to get into last night’s first choice. We failed: again it was full. Popular place. We ended up, after a walk, eating at U Provaznice, a popular (mostly with tourists and ex-pats, I think) bar and restaurant. It translates as “At the Rope-maker’s Wife’s” and relates to the wife of a rope-maker who seems to have opened this or some other pub in order to meet men while her husband was away selling his rope. He came back found her at it and used some of his rope making skills to fashion a noose for her.
They had dark beer on tap, which was nice, and typical meat-heavy Czech dishes.

We shared a table with three jolly Swiss postal workers who made me think Switzerland must be the Canada of the German speaking world, covered as they were with Suisse/Zweis caps and the white cross on the red t-shirt emblem. I think I might start calling it the maple-cross. Or I might not.

After dinner, we caught the chiming of the Racist clock again, but this time in a better position to see the saints go marching by. Did I want to be in that number? Well I was. Saint Peter jerked by carrying a key.
Racist Clock: in action at night

On our further strolls we discovered the whereabouts of the fabled Sex Machines Museum but it was a little close to closing time and a little pricy to see instruments of pleasure that look like instruments of pain as well as all those devices of frustration: chastity belts, etc.

We also bumped into a drunken Irishman. What are the chances of that? He was looking for the fabulous bar of the end of the rainbow, or to be more precise, Harley’s bar, where apparently people eat fire and (according to the poster we saw later) men drink tequila out of the navels of young women. Anything to sell you smaller measures, I’d demand mine from the navel of a fat, old man.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Travel: 19/10/06(1) - Prague

Church Trail

We had a long lie in to plan and recuperate, and to settle into our apartment. Eventually, we set off in search of the real Prague or at least an experience we could consider being real enough. We decided to follow one of the suggested walks in our borrowed guide from 7 years ago. I often get the feeling that Lonely Planet routes are written quite late in the day back at the hotel by stoned Australians.

We touristed in circles for a bit trying to keep to the route. After seeing some of the various façades of Prague - you name an architectural style and you’ll find a great example of it here - we went for coffee.

Café Ebel is a pleasant, well-run coffee house in a touristic courtyard, Týn Court, I think. It seems to cater mainly for foreigners as its German name should have suggested. But the coffee was great, if a little strong for my tastes (it is in most places outside the UK), and the quiche and soup very tasty.

On the same court is the Hotel (and Café) Metamorphosis. Any cockroaches found there are just past guests, I would assume.

Chasing the trail for a bit longer revealed a few more churches - Pragians used to be very religious before communism took over. Communism doesn’t like people to believe anything except its own tenets. In that respect it’s just like any other religion.
Door featuring sculpted Jesuses

We were just in time to catch one of the must-see tourist attractions of Prague - The Racist Clock, more usually known as the Astronomical Clock. Every hour, Death, the skeleton, rings his bell and a parade of saints marches by open windows. Its racism comes from its depiction of greed as a Jewish moneylender (which has since been altered to look like a drunk, it seems) and pagan invasion as a Turk who appears to be holding a lute.

The clock itself is a mass of dials, arms and even a sun to indicate where the sun is in the sky. For 1490, it’s an amazing piece of technology. And it still works, even if it is a little difficult to see what the time actually is. But that's okay, as the tower also has a regular clock face so you know when the Astronomical Clock will chime.
Racist Clock: Jew minutes to Turk

We eventually crossed the Vltava river at the famous Karlov most or Charles Bridge. Every guidebook, every previous visitor, every instinct we had warned us that on this bridge pickpockets operated. We were on our guard and so busy looking for pickpockets and their ilk, that we barely noticed the austere statues that line the bridge. They are all very religious and depict various Christian figures and episodes. There are saints doing saintanic things; Christ bleeding on the cross flanked by a couple of Marys; Saint Goliath carrying the tiny Jesus on a cross to safety.
Hanging out with Jesus

St Goliath carries Jesus away from the stone-throwing Davids

It would be quite disconcerting to have to walk across the bridge twice a day every day. It’s calculated to make anyone feel pious. However, some levity was provided by a man playing jolly tunes on an organ and a marionette playing guitar. And on the way back, a man was playing glasses filled with water making an intriguing, atmospheric soundscape something like an avant-garde film soundtrack.
Guitarist Marionette

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Travel: 18/10/06 - Prague


Schiphol is an airport overreaching itself. You can tell this when instead of strolling out of the shopping area and along a gantry to the plane, you have to walk five miles along ever narrowing corridors until you leave the airport and walk for three minutes to your plane.

The plane for Prague leaves from gate D06, not so far to walk to, but it seems 13 other flights also leave from gate D06 and so it is divided into sub-gates A to M. As it happens, gate D06 is not really a gate but a bus terminal.

The busses that run from Bus Terminal D06 to the various aircraft are run by Connexxion who were the bane of my life in Leiden until I got a bike there. Now all I have to do is avoid the buses, but that’s easy as they don’t run all that often. Our bus took us all round the D06 building; it barged in front of a minor traffic hold-up, riding over the kerb as it did; it drove past a large part of the terminal, past the works area where they store the bits needed for extending the airport to make it even more complex, past the carpark for contractors, past the container depot complete with horse boxes; finally, it drove round a junction near the perimeter and into the KLM overflow airpark. There we were herded onto a Fokker.

Air travel used to be glamorous; then it became easy; now it’s just cheap.
It’s nice to know Fokkers are still being made and flown. They have a great comedy name that far surpasses even Heinkel, Boing, Hawker-Siddeley. Plus the original Mr Fokker was a Dutch designer, albeit one who made his name designing aircraft used by the Germans in Wold War I.

A Fokker almost like the one we flew on.

Prague is one of those cities you assume everyone has been to except you. People always seem to have tales of its beauty, its romanticism, its pocket pilferers. So it’s good to finally go. It’s a city preserved by communism and now mobbed by tourists. It was the home of Kafka and is dominated by a huge castle. I couldn’t help but wonder how often people do turn into cockroaches there.


Living in the Netherlands it’s easy to forget that countries aren’t naturally flat. All natural countries are very uneven and the Czech Republic has a great, varied landscape.

Coming into land, I was surprised by one thing: the number of pools I saw in people’s back gardens. I don’t know why I was surprised. I guess it didn’t fit into my notion of what I expected the place to be like. yet, people are people and many of them will want pools, thus if those people have the money for a house in the green bits around a city, they can afford a couple of chaps to dig a hole, paint it blue and fill it with water. I guess it comes from the assumption that even in former communist countries, luxuries are frowned upon. I was also vaguely surprised at the brightness of the colours as if I had expected everything to be dulled, or even only in black and white.

Prague airport doesn’t suffer from being overextended. It has the feeling that it has room to grow. In fact it was positively quiet that day. I don’t know to what gate we arrived, but it certainly wasn’t T406-K part 2/B (behind the coke machine). We had a tunnel from our plane to the terminal just like in the old days.

There are plenty of taxis at the airport, of course, but when you can sample the local public transport all the way to the centre for 80 cents, there's no point in paying a vast multiple of that to a criminal in a car. And the local transport is amazingly tourist friendly, even down to the helpful people in the ticket office whose time spent on showing us what we have to do must have cost more than 80 cents.

The bus wound its way from the airport carrying a few newly arrived travellers (and pretty much no tourists except us). It picked up considerably more people travelling home from work and school, but the bus never got jam packed. The display had both Czech and English and announcements for tourist stops are announced in English, which on ours was only the end of the line (and the start of metro line B) where we were efficiently told by the voice to “please leave the bus.”

The start/end of the metro B line is very convenient for Ikea and Tesco. Tesco is quite established here, but it seems to sell everything rather than just concentrating on food as it does in the UK.

The metro is modern and the stations airy and new. We had barely a few minutes wait for one. It was not very crowded for most of the trip and the relatively simple announcements and clear metro station signs made navigation easy. It also helps that the station names are all very different. Zlicín, Luka, Cerný most - they all have different letters and lengths so even if you had no idea about European languages, you can know when you are not at the right stop. I guess I had been dreading a metro system where stations read like: Gwar, Gwor, Gwor, Gwur, Gwr, Gwãr (Nub), Gwãr (Nib), Gwãr (Neb), Gwaar (end of line, please change here).
Ornate Façade


We had gone for an apartment as it was cheaper than the hotel’s Mr Michelin had recommended. Ours was very close to the old square and you certainly get a lot more room than in a hotel room, which would be great for a longer stay. After regaining strength, we wandered the streets in search of food. We walked past shops selling Versace, Louis Futons, etc. It seems Prague is a great place to go for designer clothing. One shop we did not recognise was New Yorker. New Yorker is the place to go to get your bling and especially your clothes and accessories that already have a lot of bling on them. I wasn’t sure exactly who shopped there, but there seemed to be a couple more people in there than in the Versace shop. I.e. a couple.

We picked up a copy of The Prague Post, probably the largest and best-written expat newspaper I have ever seen. Far better than Amsterdam’s fledgling efforts.

After a good wander, we found the place we were looking for, Novometský Pivovar (or První Novometský Restauracní Pivovar to be fully accurate or Newtown Brewery), but alas it was full.

Czech wait staff make Dutch wait staff seem helpful and attentive. it makes you realise that the Dutch look meaning, “What? Can’t you see I’m on my cigarette break?” is actually a lot closer to the American “Hi, my name is Candy and I’ll be sexually energized to take your order” than you think.

Our second choice was packed full due to a concert by an oompah band. Could we have found a place to stand, we would have stood out for not knowing the words.

Eventually we found a suitable location and the barman reluctantly admitted there may be some spaces downstairs. Whether we came in and increased the prosperity of his establishment he didn’t care. In fact I think he’d rather we didn’t. We went downstairs and found a darkish corner in a reasonably full, bright cellar.

Czech food is big on meat. They like to fry big lumps of it and wash it down with ample beer. Even breakfast can be like this. This is why Czech men are so big and hearty. It doesn’t explain why Czech women seem to wear Versace and Louis’ Futons.

At U Zeleného Stromm, we had big meat dishes, mine with both red and white sauerkraut, which was actually the first sauerkraut I’ve ever had that tasted good. I had always assumed it can only be horrible or at best, just about bearable. It was all washed down with a couple of steins of local favourite Pilsner Urquell, a solid tasty beer with more body than most lagers.

After such a huge meal, we had to do more walking to ease it through our systems. We passed what appeared to be Prague’s red light district. In fact it may not have been all of it as it was just two women leaning up against a post wearing New Yorker outfits. Now I know who shops there.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Lowlands 2006 - pt6 Bits I forgot

One unexpected joy at Lowlands was the Oxfam area, selling good food and warm feelings to one’s fellow man. It seemed to cater for those Lowlanders who had not only seen and done their twenties, but the T-shirt was getting a little bit faded too. It was noticeable that those in their 20s and below seemed happiest satisfying their hunger with deep-fried minced horse intestines, those in their 30s and beyond seemed to prefer food not swept off the slaughterhouse floor. (Actually, I’m doing an injustice to the other food stalls at Lowlands, some are pretty damn good for festival food, although you could still get deep-fried minced horse intestines, I’m sure.)

One thing the Oxfam people did was the Oxfam breakfast bag. It was basically a morning food parcel for a small price. It was then I realised what was going on. Somehow, someone had convinced Oxfam with all these tents and people looking the worse for wear that this really was a refugee camp.

Friday, October 06, 2006

The planet Slatturn

Due to being quite busy at work, the start of the new improv season and my computer suffering from a dizzy disk, I have had scant chance to update this column / iBlog thing. But something has come up to make me break my silence and put digit to keyboard.

It's not the fact that Pluto is no longer a planet, although this does disturb me. Intergalactic wars have been fought over less. I worry that Plutons will take exception to us saying that their home is not big enough to be called a planet and send in their fleet of spaceboats (they're probably not big enough to be spaceships) and try to destroy us with their Big-Pop Device.

It is also not that American Military Intelligence reports that the Iraq war has only increased the terrorist threat to America, because the only answer to that statement is a big resounding "duh!"

No, it's that Paris Hilton now sells her own drink, which only came to light as far as I am concerned when she tried to have it sold at Oktoberfest, the German celebration of everything Beer. Apparently it's champagne in a can. It's apt, I guess: something rich looking like something cheap and everyday. However, I had expected it to be some sort of cocktail. Perhaps part vodka, part cocaine, part bit-part actor. Actually, let's make that this month's competition: If you have an idea what would be in a "Paris Hilton" (cocktail), please enter via a comment. Winner gets a trip to the Paris Hilton at their own expense.

In our soft-porn, voyeuristic society (that's not a complaint by the way), Miss Hilton is the perfect star. She can afford to look cute most of the time despite not being naturally so (see early pictures); She leads the sort of life of ease and (p)leisure most of us dream of; and she is more than willing to fall out of whatever she happens to be half wearing at strategic intervals. In short, she's the slutty rich girl next door. "Next door" of course being "on the internet."

Not sure exactly what my point was, but it's good to be back.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Lowlands 2006 - pt5 Monday / aftermath

Monday comes around far too quickly at Lowlands, and with it the prospect of packing your current world into a cumbersome rucksack and of even more of the Lowlands’ national pastime, standing in line.

Last year we were one of the last to leave our field and it’s quite sickening to see the stuff that’s left behind. Gazebos, tents, tarpaulin, bags of food, bags of garbage, more gazebos. It’s like the refugee camp had to suddenly move on. We even left our 17 Euro gazebo behind, because it soon emerges 17 Euro doesn’t buy you a gazebo that will last more than one weekend. But I took my tent and tarpaulin, despite the fact the former did leak slightly during the rain, but then it’s always done that.
We trudged back to the car, pausing only for an hour to queue for coffee, and then a further 20 minutes for a bottleneck. After the latter, we wandered past the queue for the busses. It went on and on and on. Once again we praised the idea of going by car this year.

The line out of the car park fed slowly, but at least it moved (which it doesn’t always), and actually the journey back was much quicker than expected.

About a week later, I opened up my tarpaulin to lose the dried dirt, etc and found that we had brought back an unexpected souvenir of the weekend. Tucked inside was a little toadlet who had tried to make a bid for safety from the mud and oppressive greenery of Biddinghuizen. He looked fine despite having been folded in tarpaulin for several days, but refused to move. I called him Iggy Frog in the hope he was just waiting for a name to move, but it didn’t seem to help. I left him in a dark corner of the balcony, near some water. He still didn’t move, but I assume he was alive because he was Iggy Frog and therefore indestructible. In fact he was probably happily humming to himself such Iggy Frog hits as “I Wanna Be Your Frog,” “I Am Phibian” and “I Wanna Be Your Frog.”

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Lowlands 2006 - pt4 Sunday

As with last year, the local economy based on beer allowed for a little bit of entrepreneurship by the temporary subjects. Glasses and trays collected could be redeemed in local currency. That is two trays or ten glasses could be redeemed for one beer. It means that many people supplement their festival funds by going round picking up discarded glasses. It meant also that others supplement their festival enjoyment by tying string to glasses and pulling it away the instant someone went to grab for it. I saw this last year, but this time at least one person bought a fishing rod for this express purpose.

Due to the lack of sun on this Sunday morning, we were not forced out of bed ridiculously early by the tent doing an oven imitation. This did start to happen, but a touch later than usual which allowed us to lose less sleep than we would have. Throughout the morning, clouds were forming and stories were reaching us of flooding in Amsterdam with the storm heading this way. I am not sure how these stories travel, but it seemed to go round the campsite. In the end there were a few downpours, some of which were quite violent, but it was much better than the stories of Amsterdam submerged in water would have lead us to expect.

And on the third day, there was rain.

The rain meant venues were often much more crowded than they normally would have been, especially earlier on. The clouds were quite fast moving and after each downpour, there was often a patch of sun, which gave most bands a point where they could claim to have brought the sun out. Although the sun only really emerged properly ironically during The Twilight Singers, adding more evidence to the fact that Greg Dulli is God. Should you require any more, that is.

ﺃForward Russia! are another batch of Siouxie-esque art punkers at full speed. What is it about Siouxie and the Banshees? Are they back in? Are they back in on fast forward? ﺃForward Russia! are all about numbers. Their song titles are simply numerical. However they don’t play them sequentially, as can be seen from the track listing of their first album:
1. Thirteen
2. Twelve
3. Fifteen
4. Nine
5. Nineteen
6. Seventeen
7. Eighteen
8. Sixteen
9. Seven
10. Fifteen
11. Eleven
(I assume they realise Fifteen is there twice, but I would understand it if nobody realised.)
I am aware this is the sort of thing I would do as a joke, but I am entrutherating. Ask Amazon if you don’t believe me. Not only this, but at least one song involved two members of the band counting, I don’t know the name of this song, and even if someone told me I’d forget because I have a terrible memory for numbers.
Because of the vocalist’s screaming style and the uniform all-out attack approach to the songs, and of course because of their titles, the songs all tend to blend into one. I suspect this is a deliberate nod towards Stalinist communism where all songs are created equal and those that stand out are removed from the band’s repertoire. I expect somewhere there’s a band called ﺃSiberia! who play all of these memorable, dissident songs. After all, what happened to Eight and Ten? Only later I realised the perfect heckle for the band is something like, "I am not a number — I am a free song!" But they’d probably just laugh at me.
But it sure was highly entertaining to watch them enthuse and it was certainly a very energizing way to start the day.

ﺃForward Russia! blur into the white of the lights, aptly enough.

Because we were taking it easier today, there was a lot more of hanging around the same tent rather than traversing the whole ground several times a day and killing our legs just for a few minutes of another band. This is how we came to hang around for Broken Social Scene. These Canadians are another 70s soft rock band with art rock tinges. They have two drummers and had up to 10 people on the stage at one point. I don’t recall any of their songs, but did recall that their idea of audience participation involved throwing things for the audience to catch. When a kiwi splattered into the back of the tent, a few water bottles were thrown until one was caught which apparently meant the sun would emerge soon.

Broken Social Scene keep it all together.

We popped out for a bit to catch The New Generation Big Band (actually we popped out to see Pete Philly and Perquisite, but they seemed to have not showed up). NGBB play genial jazz soul with some relaxed rapping that would have worked amazingly well on sunny day, which unfortunately it wasn’t at the time. And for a ‘big band’ seemed to actually have fewer members than Broken Social Scene.

The Kooks (which they seemed to pronounce ‘Kinks,’ not that they sounded anything like them, or perhaps they said ‘Keeks’) filled their tent aided and abetted by a rather hard downpour of rain. Actually they more than filled their tent and despite the terrible weather, a veritable throng thrung outside the tent to catch an earful of them. The Kooks play fresh, energetic rock. Sometimes they were somewhat Free-like and occasionally had a touch of the old Clash. Enjoyable even from just outside the tent with the whole of the rain from the tent dropping onto the top of your hat, down your raincoat and onto your trousers.

For those of you who don’t know, here is brief history of rock: In the 1950s rock and roll gelled from elements of blues, folk and whatever else was lying around; it ruled the world for a bit; transformed into rock which fragmented into so many different forms from AOR to death metal; a few notable groups emerged such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Extreme Noise Terror some of which did very well; in 1986 The Afghan Whigs formed and rock history ended.

Okay, this isn’t completely true because rock history has since been torn in two when the band went their separate ways. Lead singer Greg Dulli went on to form The Twilight Singers and to continue writing songs about the murky side of love and dark days of despair.

Starting out with some of the more rocklich numbers from the new album, the set soon proved to be one of the most polished of the festival. Mr Dulli loves to squeeze in other people’s lyrics when he’s singing his own song. For example, this time he slipped in a snatch of Shine On You Crazy Diamond as an introduction to one number.
A lot of people in the tent were clearly fans from the Afghan Whigs days, but there were also a few there to catch a glimpse of the great Mark Lanegan who came on for the middle section of the gig, sang a few songs of his own, and of other people such as Marvin Gaye. He was in great, gruff voice and his presence was statuesque. When he left, with as little fuss as he’d made walking on, I wondered, can it continue now? But it did. Greg’s soulful, jaded yet hopeful, voice is what the band is about. The gig built up until Greg slipped in his final homage in the last number, by slipping in a good chunk of another band’s song. The song, If I Were Going by The Afghan Whigs. It actually brought a lump to my throat. Best set of the whole festival, but then I’m somewhat biased.

The Twilight Singers with Mark Lanegan save the world. Greg Dulli’s head must be white in all pictures for contractual reasons.

The moment when Greg Dulli was beamed down from outer space to perform for us. (Do tell me if I take this fan shit too far.)

After the highs of The Twilight Singers, we hung around for Morningwood. Morningwood are a light-hearted student band who are a cross between 1980s heavy metal and new wave. They are a huge amount of fun. To themselves. I’m sure they went down a bomb at their own university ball. We wondered off to eat.

Even my mum has heard of The Arctic Monkeys. They get a lot of press with their age, their distrusting attitude to fame and they’re sardonic Northern humour. A serious percentage of the campers turned up to see everyone’s favourite school band.
I saw them last year and thought although they played well, and have some top tunes, they were a little blasé and failed to live up to the hype - which is exactly what they keep saying, but nobody believes them. It was going to be interesting to see them in a huge tent. The audience was pretty frenziedly for the Minkeys from the start. In fact I realised where these extra 5,000 Brits were from - they were part of the Minkeys’ loyal following which thinks nothing of travelling anywhere in the world to see them. Even if they do play exactly the same every time. The Minkers don’t go in for too much messing with their songs. Whereas older bands might try out a new arrangement or something of an old classic, the Munksters don’t have old classics as they’re 17 and only wrote the songs a couple of years ago. I only really noticed one song where they seemed to veer from the album version and extend a little.
But with the rambunctious support already there to cheer them on, the band could have just phoned it in and still gone down well. I’m not sure they didn’t.

In juggling the need to eat and rest and the need to experience every musical offering there is, there are always going to be casualties. It soon emerged that to eat AND see Muse was not going to work. Something had to give. Muse I am sure are a great band live - a kind of nu-metal Queen - but they are not a plate of noodles when you’re hungry. Plus having escaped the mud around the Alpha tent, wading all the way back through didn’t seem appealing. I assumed Muse would forgive my absence. I seem to have forgiven their absence from my CD collection.

Whilst eating, we caught a little of Belle and Sebastian. Lots of people whose musical taste I respect have been into Scotland’s Belle and Sebastian, yet I have completely failed to be taken by them. I think I find the coating for their thoughtful pop songs just a wee bit too sugary. Plus they have a stupid name. So not knowing hardly any of their songs, for me the gig was like being at another family’s wedding. Pleasant - it was nice to see people having fun - but it was hard to get involved. No doubt serious B&S fans enjoyed it and swayed themselves into a frenzy.

There was another time to strut our so-called stuff on the silent disco floor before the groups divided into those demanding bed and those demanding the party continue for more hours than a single night could possibly hold. Following the second camp, but knowing soon we’d be with the first, we went to Bravo tent. Here they played hard-edged, gilt-leaved, hand-pumping trance. You know the kind of music that goes thump thump thump thump thump thump thump thump thump only broken by the occasional Weeerp. Actually now I think about it, sometimes it veered towards hard-chair techno-bap, which goes thump thump thump thump thoomp thump thump thump thoomp only broken by the occasional Wooerp.

The music was hypnotic; the images on the many screens hypnotic; in fact even though I’d only had a few beers all day, I was feeling mesmerised. The place had the feel of a cult, with welcoming, smiley people as you entered and everyone facing front towards the priest behind the twin-decked pulpit. Preaching the word word word word word word word word word word word.
Actually, with everyone dancing facing forward in an energetic way - often similarly to the person next to them - it looked like an attempt at mass hypnosis through aerobics.

One girl near us was going through a range of emotions. Presumably aided by some emotion-enhancing substance. Ordinarily she was quite friendly, but when someone tried to collect glasses or trays from the floor, she went mental and destroyed them. I am not sure what her beef was with the practice, but I suspect she considered it unsuitable behaviour in a church. Or mass aerobics tent.

We soaked up some of the at at at at at at at at at atmosphere and then wondered slowly back to the tent with some tea brewed by hippies.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Lowlands 2006 - pt3 Saturday

Today I realised that these 5,000 extra people who came to Lowlands were all British. There are sooo many Brits here compared to last year, and you can’t walk a few yards without hearing a British accent. It’s getting to be like Amsterdam.

The day got started with Emo pioneers Hawthorne Heights, a band who pretty much created the template for Emo, which is Goth’s teenage daughter who “didn’t ask to be born!” Successful Emo bands only usually have one album as after that they have girlfriends and have moved out of their parents’ home. The band gave a good performance to a moderate group of waking campers.

During the hunt for food we caught a few snippets of Psapp’s pleasant, jazzy soft pop but unfortunately settled within earshot the Bad Karaoke area, where people deliberately sing badly to bad pop songs. It was torture and I really felt for the poor souls who have to work underneath who had to listen to it all hours of the day.

After eating it was time to catch some of industrial pioneers Ministry, commendably performing their originally sequenced hits with a live band; and very faithful reproductions they made. It feels odd to describe the heavy wall of sound that is Ministry as nostalgic, but it was. There was a time I was quite into this sort of thing and I still maintain there are few better songs to throw yourself around the room to than Jesus Built My Hotrod. The Third-Reich style banners and the microphone stand resembling an ornate metal pulpit gave the effect of a cult preacher, ministering down to the “Lowlands motherfuckers.” For those of you who don’t know, the word according to Al Jourgensen, is that the world is diseased, corrupt place and we are all going to die at the hands of those in power. However, if your hotrod happens to have been built by Jesus, you might have a little bit of fun before you go.

Cool wandering saxophone man.

We were a little late for Be Your Own Pet, which meant we only saw a couple of songs. BYOP’s sets, like their songs, are very short and highly energetic. They make me think of Siouxie and the Banshees with the speed set to 11 (instead of 4). They seem to do the thing BIS wanted to do, but BIS failed miserably.

We then wobbled around the silent disco for a few minutes before the next appointment: The Raconteurs. With an impressive lineage, it is no surprise much is talked of The Raconteurs. They play stripped-down 1970s rock with Deep Purple and even The Who moments.

Dirty Pretty Things were next. They play what I imagine Pub Rock (as in the precursor to punk) to have sounded like, but I was far too young to go into pubs at the time. We then wondered down to catch some of The Streets, which to some is urban poetry and others off-key, mis-scanning rapping. They were finishing up their set with an audience participation bit and most bands sound arrogant when they’re doing that, so I am unable to say if the band are actually as arrogant as they’re supposed to be.

The next big appointment was with one Iggy Pop, grandfather of punk and crazy old man of the pop world. Iggy gives his all at gigs, rolling on the floor and throwing himself about the way 60-year-olds shouldn’t be able to. Iggy still can fling himself around like a 20 year old and although the performance was spirited, the songs tended to blend into each other. There really wasn’t much variety in the way they were performed. So much so, most people didn’t notice he did “I Wanna Be Your Dog” twice. Woof woof.

Prize-winning photo of Iggy Pop performing one of his many blurry hits.

After listening for a short while to crazed folk punksters Gogol Bordello from a distance, I took my leaden legs home to bed, forgoing the slapstick extroversion of the silent disco.

Tentscape at Night.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Lowlands 2006 - pt2 Friday

Lowlands is a strange world where the local currency is based on the price of a beer. Like venues such as the Heineken Music Hall (in Amsterdam) you cannot pay with cash or PIN, you need to pay for tokens (with cash or PIN) and then use this to buy things. This of course is a scam and often touted as to prevent theft, although it’s not clear how. The plastic chips are generally easier to loose than cash - in particular notes and thus not spend or redeem. Plus as it’s a foreign currency; you have that same holiday thing where the money doesn’t seem completely real so to some degree you don’t think as much about the cost of things.

This year through inflation of 5% in the country of Lowlands, or perhaps due to a strengthening of the Euro against the Lowlands Token, one token now costs 2.10 Euros. One beer as ever costs one token, and everything else is calculated as a multiple or multiple and a half of this. It seems that drinking is what determines the local economy, and actually this is not far from the truth.

Lowlands is the perfect place to familiarise yourself with the backs of people’s heads.

On arrival at the entrance to the main area, there was of course the obligatory queuing, but it was relatively quick moving. If you compare the above with last year’s picture, you’ll see they went to the expense to rearrange some of the pictures.

Lowlands seems to like to open with a bang and this year one of the first bands was Wolfmother. Take Led Zepplin and Black Sabbath, feed them a few tinnies and you’ll get Wolfmother, Australia’s homage to 70s hard rock. I sent one of my cub reporters there and she spent the rest of the festival shouting “Wolfmother!” at every opportunity, even to other bands.

We caught a few minutes of Mews, I mean Mew, who are a bit like Muse with a chunk of Keane thrown in, before heading over to catch some Matisyahu. Matisyahu is Hasid (rock) reggae. It was well done to an enthusiastic crowd although I was very disappointed he never said “Jarweh” or something like that the entire time I was watching. Others in the Hasid Reggae genre are: Shabbat Ranks, Job Marley and, er, Israel Vibration. Golan Heights are not actually part of this scene; they were sequestered by the genre.

Matisyahu! gezondheid!

After that, we hung around to catch a bit of Razorlight who are The Boomtown Rats with Strokes moments. Although I seem to be the only one who thinks they sound like The Boomtown Rats.

A lowlands cloud. (If you squint very hard, you can make out The Boomtown Rats.)

The Dead Specials, I mean 60s, were enjoyable with their take on ska. Always nice to be reminded of The Specials, The Clash and all that.

The Dead 60s, Live in 06.

After this, there was some more wandering. On the way, we passed:
- Blue Grass Boogiemen who do exactly as it says on the label. Are they from Alabama? Arkansas? You ask. No Utrecht! So I guess it should be pronounced bogiemen.
- Opgezwolle, Dutch Hiphop (or nederhop) pioneers. Seems that everyone copies them pretty faithfully.

The Veils were next. They invoke a simplified Cure and have that penchant for slow ballads that Coldplay and Keane have rejuvenated, Although they are a few degrees jollier.

Bloc Party were a treat. It has taken me a while to warm to them, but with time and then with this confident performance, I am now quite enamoured. It’s fair to say they are aware of the Wedding Present, but aren’t we all.

Bloc Party partly blocked by perpendicular pole.

The next band we literally strolled by were Gorefest. This is a great name: You know what you are getting. No one goes to see Gorefest wondering if they’re going to be like the Carpenters. Unless you are thinking of the kind of carpenters who work with human flesh rather than wood.
Our wandering then took us to the tent currently occupied by DJ Shadow. DJ Shadow outputs a cacophony. A diverse yet well matched cacophony with things such as sped-up samples of Arctic Monkeys, sped-up samples of scratches and sped up samples of people singing. I guess we caught the up-tempo part of the set.

And then there was Placebo. I saw Placebo many years ago, when they were on their way up. I went to see one of the support acts, Strangelove, who had a fair gig, but everyone had to admit Placebo rocked the joint. Now they have even more great songs to fill a show with. The weather was still pleasant and so we could watch the majority of the show from the banks on the side of the Alpha tent, which was a great way to end the gig portion of the day.

This shot of Placebo live is actually up for a rock journalism photography award and is one of two shots shortlisted to be the next cover of Rolling Stone magazine.

Me and Catherine.

After the bands have packed up and gone home or to sleep in their diamond-encrusted caravans, most of the venues start punmping out music to various themes. The one that took our fancy was entitled “Never Mind the British.” The night touched on punk, new-wave, Brit-pop, Merseybeat and glam rock as well as many others. The evening bubbled along, veering from genre to genre; occasionally hitting dodgy ground but at least bearable until You’ll Never Walk Alone came on and many of us decided to go home. I can understand now why the song is called You’ll Never Walk Alone, because everyone leaves at the same time.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Lowlands 2006 - pt1 Thursday

Once again it’s that time of year when some of us get the urge to leave this refinement behind us and live like pigs for a weekend. It’s festival time. This year was my third time at Lowlands and last-year’s group of fresh-faced newbies is expanded by even more newbies and a few oldbies who we didn’t know last year.

As ever, arrival at Lowlands is discouraged as much as possible. The logistics of getting 55,000 people into a few fields with all their cars/tents/bikes/caravans/rucksacks produces every year horrendous blockages that last for hours and hours. Getting people into Lowlands is like flushing stones down the toilet. Sure it’s easy to throw a handful down and flush them away, but you try pouring a few buckets in. You soon end up with a flooded bathroom and an angry mother. Not to mention hours of endless flushing hoping to unblock the system. This year was unusual in that it sold out. Normally it doesn’t quite. In fact 5000 more tickets were sold than last year. That’s another 5 whole buckets of stones.

After last year’s Joycean epic of a wait before the gate, there was a definite inclination to go by car this year and several groups did. Our car arrived early to sit for a few hours in the queue of other cars that arrived early. However, waiting in the afternoon in or around a car on a nice day beats hands-down standing in the dark in a huge throng of people. Humour was kept to a good level. Most of us in the dispersed convoy had been in the terrible wait of ’06 and no complaints were permitted from either the newbies or those who had come late last year and not experienced the Ulyssean queuing.

Eventually, having blocked the road for a few hours, there was movement and the cars crawled and lurched forward and after another few hours we were in the car park.

Of course Lowlands wouldn’t be Lowlands without this queuing. It’s the initiation ceremony that brings you closer to everyone. It’s like Glastonbury without the mud. After a queue to be processed - a thousand times quicker than last time, but still not quick - there was the long trudge to the far camping area where we had arranged to meet and assemble our camp.

It was so nice to arrive on a sunny afternoon with hours of light with which to pitch your tent, rather than arriving tired, pissed off and hungry in the dark as happened last year.

Arriving early also made you realise that we were only borrowing this home for the weekend. Our arrival caused the mass exodus of the field’s usual inhabitants. Several
Fleeing toads were helped to the fence and many perplexed insects had to be shown that the tent was not their domain. One lucky girl (Lidwien) was even blessed with a visit from a field mouse. It rushed into her tent to escape the construction, but soon fled to avoid the screaming. It made the safety of Dave’s tent and was not seen again.

This year, given the larger group it was decided that the centrepiece of our encampment would be a gazebo. And thanks to Blokker, The Netherlands’ fledgling Walmart, a 17 Euro gazebo was procured by Dave, the group’s chief purchaser. It proved a winning buy and kept many an early morning gathering dry as we waited for coffee to be brewed.

Sleeping is always tough the first night. Especially for those of us who haven’t camped for a year - since the last Lowlands in fact; for those whose back and shoulders have been aggravated by rucksacks filled with tents, food and rain gear; for those who try to sleep before the rest of the field stops partying and passing round the “Lowlands Wave¹.” But eventually sleep rested it’s leaden balloon on us all and we all managed a few hours downtime before the sun started heating the tents up.

¹ = Where one part of the field cheers and this cheer is passed around the fields in the manner of a vocal Mexican Wave.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Call 911

A story reproduced here recently from the Washington Post claims that 70% of Americans know the year that the attacks of 9/11 took place. That is remarkably few considering it was only 5 years ago and it seems to be the event the US is now defining itself by. Of this 30% it was not clear how many didn't know the date 9/11 occured. As we in Europe all well know, 9/11 occured on the 9th of November.

Monday, August 14, 2006

It’s not Holland

Some people get a little upset when you refer to The Netherlands as Holland. You can understand this. Holland is actually only a small part of the Netherlands - the over-populated bit that contains Amsterdam, The Hague and Rotterdam. It's a bit like calling France Normandy or Germany Bavaria.

It's rarely the Dutch who get upset, actually; it's more likely to be pedantic foreigners. These people ignore two things:
1) The Dutch themselves often use Holland to mean their country as well because they are practical people and in many other countries that's what people think the country is called. Check out the back of the Dutch national football team's shirts. It says “Holland.” If the Dutch were going to get annoyed about any international reference to them, it is more likely to be to the word Dutch, which owes its origins to those of the word Deutsch.
2) The Dutch too are guilty of this sort of thing. They often refer to "Engeland" when they mean The United Kingdom. This is just the kind of thing which annoys the Welsh and Scots, so I am now wondering if those who complain the most about this are Welsh or Scottish. I will do a survey and put the results back up here.

And another thing. Why is it called The United Kingdom when they all seem to hate each other? I guess "United" means a group of things that are forced together yet don't really get on all that well. Like the "United" in The Former USSR and in United States. Hmmm.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Vier Fietsen – the Fear of Feet.

I have currently 4 bikes. This may seem a little excessive, but it can easily happen in a city where bikes are a more essential, every-day item than an umbrella. Let me explain.

First of all, there is my old bike. This was a reconditioned, second-hand bike (as most of mine tend to be) that I bought from a shady guy in an otherwise not too disreputable shop. Bits of the bike started failing a few months later culminating in the pedal-brake becoming permanently engaged less than a year later. As it’s now generally a bit tatty, it’s not worth getting it fixed and I will salvage what is useful and give the rest to a nearer bike shop.

Bike number 2 is the replacement for this. It’s a superior bike and bigger so better for my legs and back. It is known colloquially as my Amsterdam bike. This is because bike number 4 is my Leiden bike. Obtained to allow me to shun Leiden’s infrequent bus service on those days when it is not doing the famous Dutch pissing-with-rain thing. Bike number 4 is even bigger and better than bike 2.

Before bike 4 was purchased, obviously there came bike number 3. This was originally bought from a girl at work who was leaving to be the Leiden bike. Unfortunately three things made it unsuitable and it has remained in my flat ever since: 1) its complete lack of mud-guards; 2) the fact it is a 15-gear mountain bike in a country where there are no mountains; 3) it looks brand new and expensive and so will survive on the streets precisely a matter of seconds.

So if anyone wants a mountain bike... suitable for someone who lives out of the city, who has a garage to store it in and who lives near a mountain or at least a hill. Buy now and I’ll throw in a free rusty frame, formerly known as bike number 1.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Out of the Book Closet

The Newspaper today reported two things entirely separately without making any reference to their being linked.

1) Saturday was the Gay Parade along Amsterdam's Prinzengracht. This as avid readers will know is one of Amsterdam's most colourful spectacles - a huge carnival-like procession of brightly-decorated boats manned and wimminned by some of the most eager-to-dance crews to ever sail the seven canals. The headline concerned itself with the fact that there were about 100,000 less spectators than last year.

2) Sunday was the annual book market in Deventer, possibly the biggest one in Europe or even the world, but certainly in the Netherlands. This year there was a record number of visitors, 130,000 to be approximate.

To my mind, it seems that 100,000 people decided not to go and watch the amphibian fun and frolics of the Amsterdam gay community, but instead went to look at a lot of dusty old books. Is this an indication that the world is becoming less sexually-orientated

and more bookish? Should next year’s Gay Parade be called off and replaced by a Lesbian and Gay Book Faire? In ten years will sex be replaced by a “Golly good read”?

We’ll just have to wait and see. I’m reading what seems to be the world’s second longest book, which I guess would be tantamount to tantric sex. However, next year I will still go to the Gay Parade and not Holland’s biggest Book Market, but it sounds like I might be on my own. But then, I'll still have Ulysses to finish.

The Original Hollywood Ending of Gladiator OR "I'm Spartacus!" "Me too, that's awesome!"

The UN Piece-keeping Force

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Burning Britches

For those of you who didn’t know, my girlfriend is American, which is a constant reminder of how our two countries are divided by a common language.

I knew about the usage of different words to mean the same thing: pavement vs sidewark; bumper/mudguard vs fender; potato vs double extra mega-fries. I was also prepared for the odd pronunciations: we say tomato they say tamaida; we say lieutenant (pronounced leftenant, of course), they say lootenant; we say aluminium, they say aloooooominum.

What I hadn’t expected was the use of the same word to mean different things. In particular suspender! This was highlighted when one evening Catherine mentioned a girl that had been wearing red suspenders and I was confused and surprised that as a white-blooded man, I had not noticed a girl wearing bright red suspenders. Until I remembered that suspenders are what Americans call braces, as in the things that hold up your trousers (or pants as they insist on calling them), rather than the thing that holds stockings up.

It gives a whole new connotation to the common joke, when told by an American:

“Why do firemen wear red suspenders?”

I can only assume because all that wolf-whistling at girls from the fire station window is just a cover.

PS: for those of you who don’t know the joke and can’t guess it from the information I’ve given above, here is the fully internationalised / internationalized version:

Q: Why do firemen wear red braces / suspenders?
A: To keep their trousers / pants up.

Next week: why Britons should avoid phrases such as “I’m desperate for a fag?”

Monday, July 31, 2006

Epic Reading

I am finally reading Ulysses (by James Joyce). It’s a book that has been on my to-read pile for a number of years, along with quite a few others. This pile isn’t a real pile, it’s a virtual pile. If it was a real pile it would possibly be as tall as I am, but it’s not. It’s actually a scattering of books amongst my shelves and boxes. In some ways it is surprising I haven’t passed this book under my eyes before. It’s a classic work by an author whose other works I have enjoyed. On the other hand it is not surprising it’s been on the ‘pile’ longer than other books for several reasons:

1. It is 900 pages long!
To my thinking, books should be somewhere between 100 and 200 pages long. Any more and they had better be bloody good to be worth so many words. Whilst there are books in the third world (novelty publications section) that are positively starved of words!
2. I had hoped to complete both of Homer’s The Odyssey and The Iliad before I started on this one.
The Odyssey I enjoyed with its over-blown dramatisation something akin to modern journalism. But The Iliad, despite being translated by the same guy, and supposedly written by the same guy, just bogged me down and is currently on the virtual on-hold pile. The same pile that The Lord of the Rings has been on for 20 years. This is despite the fact I had enjoyed JRRT’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Hobbit. Mind you, I have now seen the first Lord of the Rings film and consider myself to have served my time and can probably move this book (actually, these books) books to the ‘life’s too short’ pile. An easy task as I don’t actually own a copy. So in fact they are on the virtual ‘my flat’s too small’ pile.
3. Have you seen how long it is?
The last horrendously long book I attempted was Harry Potter and the Siege of Troy, or whatever the fourth book was called. But that was written for adolescents and parents of small children and so was a very easy read.

So far the book is going well, but have that problem with all long books where you don’t look like you’re making any progress for the first few hundred pages. Keep checking here and over the months I’ll update you on the progress of my own odyssey into the mind of Mr Joyce. If all goes well, I may get up the confidence to dive into War and Peace. And if that works out, I’ll rent the video of the porn version, Whore and Piece By Layo Toolstoy.

Please do let me know what you’re reading.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Travel: ‘PENALTY CHARGE NOTICE’ follow up

Many of you may recall my run-in with the man from Westminster Council who hid in bushes and jumped out to slap fines on cars. Well I had a reply from those lying, thieving sons of hound-dogs, and all I can say is that NOW I am calm.

The summary of their letter was that my claim had been “fully considered” and that from their remote ivory tower (they’re not even based in Westminster) they have decided to still demand money. Because of the way these scams operate, I can either pay £50 now, or pay £100 after two weeks. If I wanted to contest this blatant criminality, I could only do it once the demand for £100 was received. It is received by the Owner of the vehicle - a car hire company. Now, full of righteous indignation - I had been lied to by the bush-lurker and the letter blathered on about ‘space being at a premium’ despite the fact there was a vast amount of space that day, a bank-holiday Sunday - I decided to see if the hire company would let me fight it.

Unfortunately, everyone wants in on the ‘PENALTY CHARGE NOTICE’ scam. The car hire firm upon receipt of one of these things, pays up and then forwards the cost to me PLUS A £30 ‘ADMINISTRATION COST.’ Jesus! Is everyone some kind of filthy, cheating scumbag?

With this in mind, the only course open to me was the following:
Step 1. Pay up the £50 pounds but in so doing, perform
Step 2. bend the ear of the poor customer service bod who answered the call and make sure they put something in any note3s field.
Step 3. Write a letter so snotty, it would have to be wiped with a hanky before it could be read.

However, the professional con-artists at Westminster Council know what they’re doing and step 2 was thwarted by the fact Westminster Council has an automated service for receiving payment - no human interaction necessary. And they canny scammers don’t even give you an option such as “Press 8 if you wish to register your indignation at our unethical money-making practices.”

Step 3 is in progress and I am currently snorting marshmallows in preparation for the letter, which I will include here when it has been complete. Providing it doesn’t spontaneously combust out of its own sense of indignation.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Travel: Monday, 29 May 2006: Agley

When the best-laid men and the best-laid mice compare plans, there is (or was) a thought in certain Highland parts that they can aften ‘gang agley.’ ‘Gang agley’ is mouse for ‘up the skirting board’ and can be compared to the human, ‘going pear-shaped.’ As in the example, “I married a supermodel, but she’s gone pear-shaped.”

The intention was to pop in - on the way to l’aeroporte Gatwique - on old friends of mine and their two kids. Liz and Shaun had independently been two good friends when one day they upped and married each other. Since then they have started producing bright and beautiful babies.

Alas their assumption was that myself and The Lady Catherine would be up at the crack of dawn. And my assumption had been that we would speed through the roads that yesterday we crawled through in the other direction and have enough time to have a cup of tea before we dumped the car back with the rental firm. Naivety on both parts.

In fact, we were lucky to get to the airport before the time they shake their heads at us.

Gatwique - or Wique de la Gat as the French call it - is smaller than the metroports of Schiphol and Heathrow. Yet it too is getting a bit flabby round the waist. Flights to Amsterdam leave from what is politely called Gates 114-119. It’s an outhouse / extension of the main terminal connected by a bridge into which is constantly piped bird song. This is despite the fact birds avoid airports and the plentiful sucking-skinning tubes that adorn most of the planes there.

Wasn’t it Rabbi Burns who said, “The best-laid nests of birds aft gang ajet?” Or something like that.

Travel: Sunday, 28 May 2006 (4): The Funny Side

After the seven trials of seven brothers, or whatever the myth is, we made it to the venue. Most London comedy venues are either upstairs in a pub or they are downstairs in a pub. This one was downstairs in bar I would describe as trendy, that is large and characterless. It was a reminder, after a few days of drinking “real ale,” that in more popular places the bitters tend to be simply lagers with a little colouring and flavouring.

The space was a great one for comedy. A long cave-like room with a bar at the back so that it doesn’t interfere with the stage. You’d be amazed how many times the bar is almost in the way of the stage or so close that anyone ordering a drink or cleaning glasses disrupts the comedian.

First up was Gordon Southern, a consistent comedian (based on one performance) who had the crowd from the word go. He was followed by John Gordillo, who is one of those comedians whose ideas are often better than the realisation. It made him less consistent but he did well and I expect does great with highly intelligent audiences. Not to denigrate the audience this night. They were pretty smart for a bunch of drunken Brits.

The headliner was Jason John Whitehead, a Canadian who for a long time has been running around these shores. He was late due to driving in London, so John Gordillo filled in for a bit. Jason John Whitehead’s act is that of a drunk Canadian in awe and bemused at thing British. It’s a good stance to take here. And I am sure if the audience had been more forgiving for his tardiness and he had had more time to mentally prepare himself rather than being stuck in traffic, it would have gone a whole lot better. As it was the Bank-Holiday audience was up for it and enjoyed it but not as much as it had earlier.

When the audience has left and the first two comedians had gone home or onto their next gig, the organisers could start breathing again. It was time to head out and have a final beer or two. Now, in my absence, I am sure I had been told that there was now 24-hour drinking in the UK. As a result of this, the sleasepapers had predicted drunken riots on our streets 24-7, under-age girls drowning in seas of vomit, etc. But you try finding a bar open after 11 pm. We couldn’t. Sure it was a Sunday, but it was a bank holiday, thus of a similar status to Saturday. Where is the 24-hour beer culture? Where are my riots? Where is the sea of vomit? Tsk.

The return journey was uneventful. A medium length tube ride followed by a very short bus ride to get to the half-closed station and finally a brief walk to get to the hotel where we collapsed in out 4-star wardrobe.

Should you wish to go to a The Funny Side show, check out:

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Travel: Sunday, 28 May 2006 (3): Grey Anatomy

Getting around in London is one of the main problems I have with the city. It’s vast, over-filled and there are always bits of the transport infrastructure that are bunged up or just plain broken.

Driving is nearly always a bad idea except late at night.
Buses are plentiful and their redness likens them to the life-blood of London However London is grossly overweight and smokes heavily so that clotting and coronaries are frequent.
Black cabs are expensive and tend to be driven by people for whom Margaret Thatcher was a liberal.
Minicabs are driven by murderers, rapists, hijackers or if you’re very lucky merely someone without a driving licence and with no idea of the geography of London.
The underground on the whole is pretty good, if a tad expensive. It goes to most places and is quite efficient when it is running. Mostly it is running, but every now and again there is a hiccup. Because of the colour and general cleanliness of the underground trains, the underground could be considered the intestines of London. However London is a bizarre body where the intestines are a much better way to get around than the bloodstream. Unfortunately there are definitely times where the system gets very constipated.

Today it wasn’t constipation causing problems but surgery. Surgery on a busy section during a bank holiday weekend. Lancaster Gate was finally having some repairs / renovations, probably first recommended in the 1940s. Quite possibly the gasmask cupboard was having a new door fitted or something like that. Consequently, the station was open... but it was closed. I’ll repeat that: it was open... but it was closed. That is, you could walk in and buy tickets but not go down to the trains and actually use them. If you made a move towards the barriers, one of the four-or-so London Underground Ground Staff (LUGS) hanging around there rushed over and told you the station was closed. After a while, they cottoned onto the idea of telling people before they went into the station and bought a ticket. Fortunately London’s transport systems are a little bit integrated and if you bought an underground ticket there is often provision to use them on buses, especially when chunks of the intestine is blocked or being operated on by the good doctors at Laing. Anyway we had a travelcard each which works on any public transport. Thus we were able to hop on one of the intermittently frequent buses to the next working station.

All this happened after we were already one hour late so we were not very “chuffed” as they say. Eventually, after riding the underground, which has not changed one bit in the 5 years I have been away, we arrived at Covent Garden, Tourist Market and collection point for London’s street performers.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Travel: Sunday, 28 May 2006 (2): London Fine

After a long lunch, it was time once more to hit the road. This time to head for the sprawling metropole of London. We made good time until we hit the confines of “Greater” London and then I remembered everything I hated about driving in that huge car-trap. From then on things took twice as long as expected. There’s just too much traffic in London and too little space between the traffic lights. It wasn’t clogging up, just running slowly and of course the fact that in London there are four traffic lights for every person, or so it seems. It was a bit of a surprise as I was expecting the streets to be empty as everyone was in Brighton. Clearly the people heading to Brighton were not from South London.

We had booked a hotel at the last minute, realising the folly of not staying in London for that night only once we had arrived in the country. We booked on Actually we nearly didn’t book it as we were not given any details about where the hotel was exactly or what it was called until we had booked making it seem very dodgy. All we knew was its approximate location, cost, its facilities and the number of stars. Only upon coughing up the readies did its name and address get revealed. It turned out to be a 4-star student halls with rooms that were fully equipped if a little small. But as it was just somewhere to crash out, all it needed was a bed anyway, but you do get used to hotel rooms of being a certain size.

In the time it took to check in and swoop the stuff up to the room and fly back down to put the car somewhere more legal, – a matter of a few minutes – a uniformed henchman of the local council had shot out of hiding on his motorbike and was already producing a written demand for money from his Fine-o-matic and had already added his α to it.

It took me a few seconds to realise he was producing the aforementioned ‘PENALTY CHARGE NOTICE’ for my vehicle which had been there for no time at all. He must have been hiding in the bushes just down the road or under a pebble.

I explained that I hadn’t been in long and was in part asking where I could park. But once the Fine-o-matic has printed a ‘PENALTY CHARGE NOTICE’, there is nothing a mere Pouncing Form Printer can do. To placate me, he lied that I could call the number on the ‘PENALTY CHARGE NOTICE’ and have it cancelled. In fact I had to write a letter, which is
here. I’ll let you know if I hear back.

I was somewhat annoyed by this incident, but didn’t really blame the hiding motorcycle guy. I know how those jobs work. The guy is paid per fine placed regardless of if they are overturned or not. So swooping out of the undergrowth to slap a fine on a car that is still warm makes sense to the guy than hanging around and seeing if this is really the car or a parking offender or not. The council, of course, sets the rules. They make them simple so they do not have to employ skilled traffic wardens with the patience and experience to assess the situation correctly rather than taking on kids with motorbikes who slap a ticket on anything that doesn’t move. I blame the “arms-length,” dumbed-down world we live in.