The most realistic story ever told.

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Whisky Nerds and their terrifying birds

For some reason whisky folks pop up from time to time in photos engaged in practices relating to Falconry (& associated disciplines).  It seemed silly not to gather them in an album.

A great man

My Dad passed away on November 7th following a short and fairly unexpected battle with cancer.  We had his funeral on Friday the 14th and though we’re all sad that he’s gone, everyone’s been saying that they thought it was a beautiful and celebratory service for a generous and warm man, and it’s only a shame that he couldn’t be there to see it – if the tribute speeches hadn’t made him well up with emotion, then the fact that around 300 of his family, friends and colleagues squeezed into the room to be part of the ceremony surely would have.

Along with my aunt & uncle, 2 of Dad’s best mates, and his financial adviser, I was asked to say a few words for him and several people have requested a transcript.

We have the entire audio recording of the service, so if anyone who wasn’t able to make it would like to listen to it please get in contact with me and I’ll give you the download links.

wbls_bullscanteenBill Standing

4th July 1946 – 7th November 2014

Dad’s illness came as a shock to us all: I was sitting at home in Bristol on October 17th when I got a text message saying that he had something he needed to tell me.

Here we are now, 4 weeks later with Dad gone and us reflecting on his life, and my question to myself preparing this was: How well did you know Bill?

It’s a tough question, because though I’d looked around at him my whole life it wasn’t until the last moments that I think I really saw him. It was quite challenging given his oftimes obstreperous nature, but in writing this I’ve learned a great deal – both new, and old.

The relationship between fathers and sons is one of the great frontiers of modern psychology. Though you’d never describe Dad & I as being particularly close, we both felt a very strong emotional bond. I moved to England 10 years ago and we’d generally talk on the phone about once every 6 months – with the dialogue usually sounding like something from a Samuel Beckett play. Dad always wore his emotions on his sleeve, and every time I came back to visit Adelaide from the UK when it came time for me to board the plane home he’d hug me and well up with tears. We used to rib him because he also burst into tears at the end of watching The Karate Kid on video, too. However when he told me about his cancer I cried for about 3 hours, and came back to be with him & Mum as quickly as I could.

In talking with family & friends in the last few days it became clear to me that one of the reasons for our disconnect was that though born in the Baby Boom, his values were very much those of his parents’ generation. Family comes first, and provide for the future. He was very devoted to his family – both immediate, and extended. A devoted husband, and very devoted to his mother, our granny, Winifred. Being Poppa to Harper in later years was his absolute pride and joy. He was the brother of Michael and Vikki, brother in law to Bob, uncle to Simon, Monique, Bianca, Jenny, Aaron, Leanne, Sharon and Natalie, and cousin to a network of cousins so vast that there’s no way we could name them all. But yes – Family comes first. Provide for the future.

His values were often glaringly different to what his peers had moved on to, which made him quite the enigma.

As a son you like to feel like you’re making your own way, striking your own path – though he never told me directly, Mum said that he was very proud of Tim & I for forging our own ways forward.

At the age of 22 when I had my first software development job I came home one night and he sat me down at the dining room table with a piece of paper and imperiously demanded I tell him how much I was earning. I defensively made up a number and he started drawing out a chart – “Right, so after tax that’s about this much, so you need to put away $X in voluntary super contributions, and private health insurance will be about $Y, and then you need to save this much a week…”, and having just found the buzz of my first ever salary and seeing it disappearing before my eyes I shouted “What in the hell for?!”, and he looked at me confusedly and said, “To provide for your retirement!”. I said, “Great! So I’ll live in the lap of luxury provided I don’t starve to death by the age of 25!”.

He was a very decent man – honest, trustworthy, driven by integrity, and followed the rules to a tee (much to the amusement and frustration of some of his contemporaries). That seems like something one might easily gloss over – however as a role model for growing lads I think it’s put us in good stead.

As we’ve heard and know, Dad was a chap interested and engaged with the world and people around him, and as well as a lengthy career teaching Tech Studies he was also heavily involved in the Sturt and the Bridgewater Bulls Baseball clubs, the parents committee up at Torrens Park Scout Group and also Netherby Kindergarten & Unley Swimming Club, he played cornet in a band for a time, played and umpired football, played golf, lawn bowls, ten pin bowling, worked part time at Mitre 10, and helped run the Technology Teachers’ Association and the Pedal Prix.

Quite a busy guy, and so sometimes my main awareness of what he was doing when he wasn’t thundering down the corridor at our place to issue instructions to us or flicking the bathroom lightswitch on and off to signal that he’d decided we’d been in the shower long enough was from hearing stories from various mates I’d met through Scouting who’d been taught by him: “Ah, is Mr Standing your DAD?”. Cue the inevitable story.

To this day when someone greets me, “Good morning Mr Standing”, I reflexively correct them – “No, that’s my Dad’s name”.

Dad retired from teaching at the age of 58 ½. There had been a staff session at the end of that year with an educational psychologist, who had told them how you had to relate to the kids and behave more like them in order to get them to engage and learn. Dad put his hand up and said, “What about teaching them values? Are you telling me I can’t teach them the values, manners and conduct that my parents passed on to me?”. He packed up, left all his teaching references and materials at the school, came home and said “The teaching’s gone.”. And retired, able now to enjoy the life he’d worked so hard for.

So what have I learned about my Dad over the last few weeks?

It’s fair to say that he was always conscious of a bargain. I hate to think what effect his passing will have on Cheap as Chips at Mitcham will have on their bottom line. Mum said that they very nearly didn’t get engaged as a result of Dad’s thriftiness – she wanted him to get a pair of fitted black trousers from Fletcher Jones for their engagement party, and exasperated he said “But I can get THREE pairs for the price of those!”. Mum said “If you don’t go in there and get a proper pair of trousers, we’re not getting engaged”. So we’re all glad she won that round.

Dad also had a penchant for bright colours and for hats: something which seems to have made its way down my branch of the DNA. Tying these 2 things together, I can’t help think he’d be envious of my outfit today, not only for its obvious visual appeal but also because I got it for 50% off at Harris Scarfe.

In the short piece I wrote for Facebook to announce Dad’s passing, I mentioned that he was a man with 4 sheds – to me that’s very important. In trying to make some sense of life in a world without Bill Standing I stood in shed 2 and looked around and realized that everything in there was a work in progress, an artifact of a past endeavor, or to be repurposed or put to use at some future point. There are things out there that the knowledge of how to use has been lost to the thoughts and ken of mortal men.

In your home you display the things that you think are important. Dad’s office was in Shed 1: it could’ve been in the house but he preferred the shed. Whether it was for space, for proximity to the fridge, or the solitude we’re not entirely sure but if ever there was an archetype for the bloke and his shed, it was Dad.

If you look around that office, you won’t find an ego wall. You see photos of family and friends, his certificate from the Premier for service to the Pedal Prix, and his nomination for Australian of the Year in 2009. It wasn’t important to him whether he won – but it meant the world that someone had nominated him.

If you come and visit the Standing Ranch, take a look around and let it sink in – Bill did nearly all of that. He helped build the extension on the back of the house, and built the carport (both of which are still as structurally sound as they were the day they were put up). He designed, planted and maintained the gardens through a variety of incarnations and was an avid fruit & vegetable cultivator. He looked after the lawns, and then when he couldn’t be bothered mowing the entire thing he built the fence across the back yard so he didn’t have to look at it. He built most of the furniture in the house, from the telephone stand made of Burmese Teak that he’d reclaimed from an old milk churn in Byron Bay, to the beautiful rolltop desk he made at trade school. He installed carpet, dried fruit, had a small business making denim aprons to sell to high schools, fashioned things from metal (he won 1st prize at the Royal Adelaide Show for the silver tea set he made), he’d develop & print photographs, and he maintained and ran a seemingly never ending fleet of cars.

If you’re prepared to accept the idea that there’s such a thing as a renaissance that’s non-cultural, Dad truly was a genuine Renaissance Man.

One of his best friends who may be in the room said, “Bill wasn’t a bloke interested in cultural sophistication”. That’s not to say he was a complete philistine. He loved music from all parts of the spectrum (albeit nothing GOOD like Beatles or Led Zeppelin that we were interested as reappropriating as teenagers – what 14 year old can impress their schoolmates with the collected works of Neil Diamond?). Folk, rock, classical, jazz… He got very shirty with me when as a 16 year old I nicked a couple of the cassettes from the 32 piece copy he’d acquired of the recording of Beethoven’s Symphonies by Karl Bohm and the Berlin Philharmonic – not that he ever appeared to listen to them.

He professed to being a huge fan of Charles Dickens, and in the early 1970s bought the splendidly bound collected works in green you see in the top cupboard at our place. Last year when Mum & Dad came to visit me we discussed seeing some Dickens stuff in London, and he said “I’m looking forward to starting reading some of those now that I’m retired”. Dad had been retired 9 years at this point.

So I mentioned the devotion he had to his family – which very much covered current relatives, but genealogy was very much a passion too. He’d done extensive and active research into both his side of the family (Boehms and O’Connors), and Mum’s family (Walls). He had an almost tangible appreciation for the history of it all.

During Mum and Dad’s visit to Europe and the UK last year Dad experienced an absolute life highlight: travelling to the Menin Gate in Ypres (memorial of the first World War) to see Great Uncle Herman’s name on the honour roll. You can see in that picture the pride, excitement and joy he felt in being able to do that. In his trip diary it says “7th of October: BIG DAY TODAY!”. He told me with pride in his eyes, “I’m only the second person to have gone and seen that.”


Also on that trip they travelled up to a place just outside Liverpool called Wallasey to visit the house where Mum’s father lived and was born – a pilgrimage of sorts. I got a phonecall at work that afternoon from Dad, saying “Do you have a copy of your Grandfather’s birth certificate to hand? We’ve found the street, but we didn’t write down what number”. I’m baffled by the idea that you’d travel to the other side of the planet with singularity of purpose and not write down where it was you were meant to be headed. Anyway Dad knocked on the door of the place started talking to the woman who lived there, and were put in touch with an old lady round the corner who was a local historian, and spent the afternoon getting a wonderful bit of context and detail to the story. In hindsight, I’m very glad that I had a copy of the birth certificate stored online, and didn’t just make up a random house number.

Dad would happily talk to anyone and everyone – if he didn’t immediately know him, he’d generally win them around. “Hello, you’re so and so aren’t you? Or are you related to them?”. If they weren’t, then the discussion would soon go somewhere. Or in Europe it’d be “Is that an Australian accent? Where are you from?”. For someone who didn’t think he had any friends we were constantly amazed (and often bored as small children) at how long it would take us to get through Rundle Mall on a Friday night as Dad randomly ran into people from past or present and stopped to talk to all of them.

Another very important time in Dad’s life was the cruise to Fiji they went on in April 2013. They visited some schools on the island, and Dad had read that you could take money or things to donate to make their lives easier, so he rolled up with great bags full of pens and other stationery – collected from endless conferences and functions.

On the boat Dad would also stay up late listening to the musicians & talking with them, and befriended Waisale – a young man working on the cruise ship. Mum & Dad have more or less adopted Waisale as a son, and were delighted to fly him to Australia for Christmas, and gave him a guitar, a laptop, and a tablet. Make sure you’ve got your tissues ready, because to go with the slideshow in a minute we’ve got a song about Dad that Waisale’s recorded, and I’ve heard it 10 times so far and I think I’m down about 6 litres of salt water so far.

Mum & Dad also took 3 days to look around Fiji and went to another resort, and befriended Tonga: a barman at the resort. It was a hard life, and Dad was very proud to be able to help him out with minimal inconvenience to himself, but A$50 and it’d paid his childrens’ schoolfees.

So we now have extended family in Fiji as well.

Speaking of Fiji, I don’t know how many people know but Dad’s got a fountain named after him there. At the resort he was walking along playing Angry Birds or something, and managed to walk & fall face-first in the fountain – phone floating listlessly across the surface. Mum phoned the resort to ask something and said “Hello, this is Robyn Standing – you might not remember us, but my husband Bill and I stayed there, and…” and was cut off by the girl saying “Oh! Bill from the fountain?! Yes, we remember you – we’ve just had a staff meeting, and we had a vote, and we’ve renamed the fountain “Bill’s Fountain” in his honour!”.

We’ve all got our favourite Bill stories – from his persistent going down the street in his gardening clothes (much to Mum’s chagrin), and the unorthodox sight in the early 70s of Dad walking their Siamese cat around the block on a leash, through to his penchant for burying bizarrely large sums of small change in the back yard.

I’ve been talking about Dad for 10 minutes now and feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. We could talk for hours – and I hope that you will come up and do so afterwards either here or at The Edinburgh – and we’d not stand a chance of covering the life of this unique and extraordinary man.

The morning after Dad’s passing my eyes sprang open at 6:30am and I thought “That tree on the front path needs trimming –we’re going to have a lot of visitors over the next few days!”, so I pulled on my pair of lairy tartan shorts, an I LOVE FIJI shirt, and some lime-green Crocs and went out trimming. Suddenly I stopped and looked at what I was doing, and realized – maybe we weren’t that close, but we’re very, very close.

Bye Dad. We love you, and we will miss you.

Let’s raise a glass to The Gunmakers

Saturday September 6th 2014 was an important day.  I was away at Maltstock in The Netherlands (one of the best whisky festivals on the planet), but my mind was frequently on a little back-street pub in Clerkenwell – The Gunmakers.  For on that day was the farewell party of Jeff, the landlord, having sold the pub on to new owners.

The first I heard about this was in a tweet on August 27th.



Our host & landlord, from about that time

My first visit to the place was the 28th of August 2008: notably, a Sunday, 5 years & 364 days earlier.  For some time I’d been following a number of beer blogs, and the first I’d check would be Stonch’s Beer Blog.  The author held forth a wide range of opinions (the blog closed in 2010 [EDIT: and reopened in Oct 2014!]), among which were the day to day musings of someone managing a London pub, and given his dedication to quality cask beer it seemed an excellent place to try to find and visit.  Not wanting to cross the streams of blog life and real life, he kept the location of the pub under wraps – however a bit of sleuthing and joining the dots and I found myself with a booking for Sunday lunch.

The Gunnies became my “local” from there onward, and it’s been a rollercoaster of a ride.  For starters, only briefly have I ever lived “locally” (and there’s quite a lot of pubs between Russell Square and Eyre Street Hill), but Jeff had cultivated something quite special there – a Local Pub right in the centre of London which you’d happily cross town to spend the evening at, with an ever changing but reasonably consistent cast of regulars.  There was the daytime crew (including the notorious Peter The Bike, and also the well-dressed Peter The Pint), and then after changeover you’d find Matty Lad, Mothmun, PJ, Rossy, and with luck you’d be treated to an appearance by Whitbread.  Loudly declaring his regular customers to be “Arseholes”, it was almost a badge of honour for Jeff to refer to you as a “key arsehole”.  Or in Daveyhaste’s case, “a stripey shirted arsehole”.  Being from a proper pub background from up north, Jeff seemed driven to make his pub the environment that he’d like to spend time in: almost an extension of his living room (for a time, this was literally the case, too).


I’ve spent a bit of time in such establishments, so I feel qualified to say this: the place really was a masterclass in running a pub.  The staff were always an engaging lot, and stuck around for a decent length of time so you didn’t feel like you were having to remember new faces every week.  Jeff said that he wanted people who were interested in doing a good job, but not the kind of people who had no ambition beyond working in a pub.  In no particular order, there were Holly, Sally, Alex, Neusha, Shalome, Sascha, Leo, Simon, Mulligan (never really figured out if he worked there or was on loan from The Betsey), John, Ferenc, Charlotte, John’O, Eddie, and chefs Quinny, Lara, Sebastien, and Manuela.  And it certainly wouldn’t be uncommon to see any of them back drinking at the Gunnies of an evening (or, in the case of the opening party for Jeff’s new pub – The Finborough Arms – co-opted into working for the night).

Curiously, my Sunday roast there – whilst one of the best Sunday roasts I’d had in London – was the last time they did it: being a Clerkenwell backstreet boozer, there wasn’t much about in the way of foot traffic, so it really was a weekday pub.  Except for when Jeff announced the return of the Sunday roast.  And then its demise 2 weeks later (“I remembered how much I hated opening on weekends”).

Described as a mercurial chap, Jeff wasn’t afraid of making changes to the setup of the pub.  Crisps disappeared from the bar, in favour of Proper bar snacks like nuts and pork scratchings.  One night upon requesting a bag of scratchings, Daveyhaste was informed by Alex that “We don’t sell those any more – Jeff’s decided that they’re vulgar”.  A regular fixture of the menu was the Gunnies Burger, which mysteriously disappeared in favour of more rarefied (and always excellent cuisine).  Gone too was the bowl of chips: a decision which we could never figure out if he’d made on economic grounds, taste & decorum, or just because he liked confounding the ever-insistent patrons… or a mix of the three.


Ever a fan of the food there, many was the night I took people in for a bite and a pint.  And many was the night there was some reason the kitchen wasn’t working.  I’m informed that this was pure bad luck on my part, but there was definitely a string of 4 or 5 consecutive visits that ended this way.  One of which was my introduction of my mate Big Pete to the place, and on that night Jeff was heard to be bemoaning the cost of maintaining the massive espresso machine occupying the entire end of the bar – when he sold maybe 4 or 5 coffees a week.  We suggested maybe getting rid of it, and after some discussion/argument/musing/diversion, Jeff’s eyes lit up and he said, “Do you know what, Jason?  I’m going to sack that thing off!  We never use it anyway!”.  And that was the end of the coffee machine.

19931_466457970690_8115638_nTypically a bustling place, the only three times I’ve served beer in London was at The Gunmakers.  Once was towards the end of a Christmas season evening, where the staff were all busy so Jeff asked me to pull a pint for the chap waiting and some remarks were made about my natural beer-pouring action and the aesthetic attributes of the pint: right up until I passed the beer across to the gentleman, caught the base of the glass on the top of the swan neck, and doused the bar and the left hand side of the gentleman in beer.  Once during one of the sporadic beer festivals I was put in charge of the bar in the back room (much to my bewilderment), but my favourite was one evening whilst I was waiting for Dave to turn up, and Jeff had gone down to the cellar to change over the Guinness keg – leaving Sally to man the bar.  The pub phone rang, and she answered, engaged in some confused dialogue, then with an intense gaze pointed at me and said “You – YOU’RE in charge!”, before high-tailing it down the stairs.  She emerged some minutes later giggling copiously, where followed the landlord, now wearing a dark blue jumper and soaking from hair to waist – it transpired that after fitting the line clamp he’d hauled the empty cask out and caught it on the line, disengaging it and spraying litres of the black stuff all over the cellar.

ws_wall2The primary reason that a pub tenancy earns an obituary this long though is that it was instrumental in what’s been a pivotal life development for me – whilst participating in a Meet The Brewer session hosted by the former community website Qype (where I had the privilege of meeting the nicest bloke in the brewing industry, Andy Moffatt of Redemption), I got talking with a chap called Andy about my love of whisky.  The conversation burgeoned into a plot, and with the blessing of Jeff and the use of his upstairs room (“The VIP suite”), Whisky Squad was formed.  Our beloved home til July 2013, it was brilliant to briefly create a blip on the whisky nerds’ radar where people could reliably turn up to the pub on the first Friday of the month and have access to an incredible range of esoteric whisky, following another Whisky Squad session.  The redevelopment of the upstairs room from its moody plushness into its lighter minimalist incarnation, and then Jeff’s conversion of the “back room” back into a beer garden meant that it was no longer tenable to hold tastings up there – however Jeff’s support, patronage, and occasional words of wisdom were an invaluable part of the formation of our club.  The M.O. of the club’s changed a little, but I’ll never forget the formative sessions – such as making the group stand up and face the back of the room so they couldn’t see what whiskies we’d brought, because we hadn’t thought to wrap the bottles up in paper yet.

gunniesbeersFirst and foremost though, the reason the pub became a Must See on any self-respecting beer nerd’s itinerary was because of the Real Ale.  You could safely try any one of The Gunmakers’ regularly rotating cast of casks and be reassured that this would be a beer in prime condition.  On trips to other pubs joy would turn to anguish as I’d see a beer on that I’d had at the Gunnies, only to taste it and realise that perhaps their cellarkeeping practices weren’t quite on par with what I was used to.  Jeff’s arrangement with his pub company meant that he had a free hand in choosing what beers to stock, which was fantastic for we happy patrons – periodically there’d be regulars and guests, or sometimes it’d be on full rotation.  When we started in there Timothy Taylor’s Landlord and Theakston’s Old Pecuiler were regular fixtures.  Harvey’s Sussex Best featured often, then the Landlord disappeared and we got Purity Mad Goose, or Hopback Summer Lightning.  The lager taps had Staropramen and Guinness, then Meantime Helles became house lager (and signalled the beginning of the endless conversations about how “No, we don’t serve Carling”).  Then the lager taps went altogether, and then against all probablility a massive white Budvar font appeared in the bar corner… to disappear again some time later.  We had plenty of Geordie beers such as Mordue offerings (mmmm… Workie Ticket) and Big Lamp, Double Maxim and Tyne Bank.  Periodically we’d be faced with a lineup completely of London breweries such as London Fields, Redemption, Portobello, Sambrook, Windsor & Eton.  And other times there’d be a round assortment of all sorts – and always excellent.

Almost no visit by people from foreign parts to London was left unmarked by a trip to the Gunnies.  For about 3 years running I managed to convince my office to have our team Christmas dinner there, and 2 of those years we went separately as a group of friends as well.  Friends, or partners in the circle, wouldn’t even bother asking “Which pub?” after a while – for us, the Gunmakers was our Winchester.  In the event of zombie outbreak it’s where I’d definitely want to be – if only in the hope that Whitbread was there and could instruct us on how best to deal with zombies.  Always a convivial joy, whether seated in the Abdomen (the back “room” where you could convince yourself you were in the sun if there wasn’t too much crud on the bit of perspex cover you were under – I never really went out there after the “garden conversion”, TBH), wolfing down a steak in the Thorax (the raised middle section with the comedy 2-step access which caused so many near-concussions on the lintel), or fast & loose conversation and putting the world to rights in the Head (by far the prime seats of the establishment – not least for quickest access to the bar, but also to keep tabs on the assortment of characters coming & going).

There’s so much more I could say, but nobody’s died after all.

So the pub’s still there & we’re keenly waiting to see what the new management will do with the place.  Perhaps it’ll be excellent.  Anything’s possible.  But a chapter has definitely closed.

As to why Jeff’s sold the pub – who knows.  Maybe he got tired of it after 5 years?  Maybe some heavies finally caught up with him after something that happened during his days back as a lawyer in Prague?  Maybe he needed the cash, or maybe he’s selling the pubs to buy a railway station or water works (Monopoly humour).  But the good news is the beer excellence and unmistakable vibe will live on for now down at The Finny.

So, in tribute, it simply leaves me to say…. To the Gunmakers:




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The final instalment of Owl Stretching Time

Monty Python.

I got to see Monty frigging Python perform, live (almost)*.  Twice.


Where to begin on a story like this?!

This really is the thing that started it all for me.

This really is the thing that started it all for me.

At the tender young age of about 10 whilst killing time in the Victorian town of Elmore my brother and I availed ourselves of about the only method we had at our disposal to pass the time – hiring videos from the video library at the shop up the road. We had several days to kill, and we watched a LOT of movies. And then, I spotted a title which I’d vaguely remembered hearing my cousin Aaron describe as being “the funniest thing ever”: Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

I remember being vaguely amused at the shennanigans whilst missing the point entirely, as kids often are/do. But I clearly remember seeing God declare the Quest which Arthur and his knights were to carry out, followed by an angelic trumpet fanfare – and I stopped the tape and implored my brother, “Did you see that?! Did they really just stick those trumpets up their bums?!”. Several attempts at rewinds later (the VHS machine wasn’t up to much) I confirmed that this was indeed the case, and began to hoot with delight as I realised that Monty Python were a different animal to comedy I’d seen before (in my vast 10 year old experience).

We all knew John Cleese from Fawlty Towers, but the rest of them weren’t very familiar – and then a couple of years later I saw Time Bandits, and behold some of the same faces popped up.

Ryan & I: two impressionable brains, crammed with bloody Python scripts.

Ryan & I: two impressionable brains, crammed with bloody Python scripts.

Year 7 at school came about and for music lesson where we were allowed to play a song we’d brought from home, while the rest of us were trotting out selections from Smash Hits magazine or our parents’ John Farnham records, Stefan turned up with “I Bet You They Won’t Play This Song On The Radio” from Python’s “The Final Ripoff” album. This was a turning point, and shortly borrowing Python albums from the South Australian State Library to try to soak up every bit of it I possibly could became a mainstay. Throguh highschool we’d memorise and quote swathes of the stuff at each other – Ryan and I having a particularly gruelling contest in Year 9 where the object was to see who could recite the largest chunk of The Final Ripoff album (double cassette) in sequence without missing any… I got halfway through Side 1 of Tape 2.

Monty Python references and silliness entered every facet of my growing up life – no event featuring dressing up as knights was complete without a group of solemnly moving monks belting themselves over the head with planks.

At my mate Alex’s birthday he’d hired the video of And Now For Something Completely Different, and his Mum rolled her eyes at the jubilant hooting and screeching at a bunch of 13 year olds on a bigger buzzhigh than had they been stuffing themselves with sugar.

When I went to the USA in 1996 to work at Summer Camp I was in WalMart buying some cassettes to entertain my on the long trainride across from Philadelphia to Los Angeles and discovered that the copy of Monty Python’s Contractual Obligation Album which I’d purchased contained the actual sketch which on Australian copies had been “omitted on legal advice”. NEW PYTHON! It wasn’t very good, but it was TREASURE!

Likewise, at the age of 18 or 19 the discovery of the fact that Monty Python had recorded a video of sketches performed phonetically in German for German TV (as the Pythons didn’t speak conversational German) it felt like admission to a secret club of sorts. The material from Monty Python’s Fliegender Zirkus was never going to be casually bounced about at a pub or campfire, but having seen it made us feel like scholars.

Long discussions were held about whether the version of a sketch from the TV series recording was better than the ANFSCD film, or the audio tapes, or even the Live At The Hollywood Bowl concert. And this was all well before the arrival of YouTube.

Upon moving to the UK I remained quietly optimistic that there might be a chance to stumble across a cast member or two – then success, as I went to a film screening featuring talk by Michael Palin. A couple of years later there was a world record attempt at getting the world’s largest coconut orchestra together – attended by Jones and Gilliam.

The back of a Pythonic bonce.

The back of a Pythonic bonce.

And lots of coconuts.

And lots of coconuts.

A while later there was an event at the Southbank Centre with Palin and Jones in conversation… and still John Cleese remained the elusive one… until he took the Alimony Tour around the country and we got to see him from the third row in Oxford! Eric Idle remained my last unbagged Python, although the best spot “in the wild” was seeing Terry Jones having a pint in Highgate one afternoon while I was waiting to meet my mate Dave.

And then the reunion show was announced – and, unintentionally, I got to go along twice.  When ticket sales were announced my mate Billy and I declared that it was our solemn mission to go to this show – then watched in horror as the first show sold out in 45 seconds.  And then the 5 further shows sold out within the hour.  And then by a mixture of dedication and fluke Billy managed to bag some tickets to the final night!  So imagine how delighted I was when m’chum Dan informed me that my birthday surprise was a ticket to the first night of the Monty Python shows.

From a life of Python, to actually having the chance to see them perform so many years later.

This is the thing about the Python reunion shows: the idea was for a bunch of 70+ year old giants of comedy to come together and perform material that they’d splurged out into the world 50 years previously. To re-live some of the moments and give the fans a chance to see their heroes, live, delivering the lines that come to our lips quicker than the national anthem, the lyrics of a Beatles song, or the Lord’s Prayer. And, unashamedly and transparently, to make a big pile of cash**.

The show was utterly, utterly wonderful.


Michael Palin’s career options.

I realised about 20 minutes into the first half as Terry Jones appeared to be reading some lines from a card that it must be a bit surreal for the Pythons, because though many of the fans had been living, breathing, and quoting this material for years that they themselves possibly hadn’t performed some of it since it was recorded for broadcast.

As predicted, the show was chiefly built of sketches involving people sitting around talking – with lengthy interspersed segments of video footage of some of the more nimble stuff of yesteryear (can’t imagine the lads getting through a performance of the Fish Slapping Dance, or the Batley Townswomen’s Guild Recreation of the Battle Of Pearl Harbour), and also a troupe of young, flexible & precise singers and dancers whose every arrival on stage made me think in a Kenny Everett voice “And now… HOT GOSSIP!”***.


And now… Hot Gossip!



The selection of material for the evening was as gloriously hit and miss as the content of an average episode of the TV series: we were all delighted that classics like Four Yorkshiremen, The Lumberjack Song, Argument, and the Dead Parrot sketch were on the list. There was the mildly baffling inclusion of a fairly unenthralling Blackmail game show segment (including irrelevant “star” cameos by Stephen Fry and Mike Myers the nights I was there – as if MONTY FRIGGING PYTHON needed any star power to lift their game!), and an amusing but torturously long viking chorus to conclude the Spam sketch, the concluding non-event of a song of Christmas In Heaven (never their strongest piece, I felt), and the oddly popular but again I felt poorly executed Spanish Inquisition (although it was a treat seeing Terry Gilliam enter through the doors each time with a run and a great leap). The thing that really impressed me was the choices of some of the “lesser known” pieces, such as The Penultimate Supper****, or Gumby Flower Arranging (gleefully carried out by Terry Gilliam in Gumby getup).

Individually the performances were engaging & delivered with impetus – Eric Idle probably did the heavy lifting for the evening with lots of musical input. Jones delivered his bumbling bluster albeit with less of the Welsh excitement and passion than he used to. Palin still plays nice guy as well as dispelling naivete from time to time. Gilliam is clearly the most energetic of the bunch and took great delight in capturing the few on-stage moments he could grab (never a main fixture of any of the sketches) with his trademark grotesque. And of course John Cleese… well. We’d often describe certain line delivery as “typically Cleesian”, which sort of summed up a combination of bewildered/incredulous and annoyed. As Cleese has aged (and gone through a few wringers, both psychological and matrimonial) his voice has taken on a more venomous, scratchy quality – and this added a certain dismissive testyness to some of his lines, which I enjoyed immensely. During the Whizzo Chocolate Assortment sketch, when Jones says “But what about our sales?”, Cleese (as Superintendant Praline) looks away as if there’s anything more interesting going on at the minute and declares “Fuck your sales.”. A brilliant Cleesian gem of a moment.

There wasn’t a great deal of full-ensemble work, but there were nice moments where performers worked together. By far the best chemistry was between Palin and Cleese in their Lion Taming, Argument, and Dead Parrot/Cheese Shop moments – the last particularly being a point of much ad-libbing as you know this IS a routine they’ve trotted out time after time: in a way a neat bookend to the opening Yorkshireman (Idle) remarking “Who’d have thought fifty years ago that we’d still be sitting here doing Monty Python?”.

We were evicted from our hole in the ground.

We were evicted from our hole in the ground.

The shows weren’t a complete re-hash of old material: many, if not most, of the songs had gotten a bit of a polishing (I don’t know for sure if this was Idle working alone), but I Like Chinese had some different verses, Every Sperm Is Sacred featured some new stuff (and made great use of the full-stage Hot Gossip group), and excitingly Isn’t It Awfully Nice To Have A Penis segued from Noel Cowardesque monologue into a 3-part chorus with the inclusion of 2 new verses about vaginas and bums. Progress indeed! Again, the only songs that really didn’t work brilliantly were the overly long Spam sequence (with a Python-bereft stage full of vikings singing pointlessly about how much they liked spam – the players in the sketch having now left stage) and the Christmas In Heaven closer.

The opening of the second half was a masterstroke, with a woodland creatures/faeries stage piece expectation being set which spun on a dime to become a full stage belter of Sit On My Face. And singing that at the top of one’s lungs along with 14,000 other people in a venue in London was definitely one of life’s rare treats.


You should’ve seen the choreography…!

But for my money I think the highlight was the unexpected sight of Terry Gilliam in dinner jacket and y-fronts suspended from the ceiling singing “I’ve Got Two Legs”, before the amazingly visual treat of his stomach exploding and dangling guts. One of the world’s finest conceptual and creative directors, having a moment of delightful silly fun in front of a capacity crowd.

This man is one of the world's foremost arthouse film and opera directors.

This man is one of the world’s foremost arthouse film and opera directors.

I’m still not 100% sure how The Spanish Inquisition sketch segued into The Universe Song (perhaps one of the most Pythonesque bits of sketch linkage in the show, by virture of their having been a refrigerator on stage in one sketch which Eric Idle could enter to stage through for the song), but I definitely enjoyed the post-song video inclusion of Professor Brian Cox critiquing the numbers featured in the song, only to be mown down by the electric wheelchair of Professor Stephen Hawking. And on the final night an oddly positioned spotlight into one of the side-boxes revealed the presence of Professor Hawking at the gig! Let that thought settle in for a second – Professor Stephen Hawking, one of the greatest minds of our time, bought a ticket to the Monty Python gig.

In closing I’d refer to comments by people on how the whole thing was a sad, cynical, cash-grabbing unfunny waste of time: I think those people missed the point. This was never going to match the buzz of discovery as your 13 or 14 year old self discovers a new Python recording or film that you didn’t know about before. This was a group of – it’s not going too far to say it – Legends, coming together after many years of not working together to perform their comedy together for a final time. Monty Python isn’t about the last performance, it’s about the body of work they produced – and if that hasn’t been great, then why do so many thousands of people feel compelled to memorise and quote it at each other the world over? The sociopolitical landscape which informed the writing of their material has changed completely, as has the basis of the rest of the comedy industry: and yet these silly sketches still garner new devotees (as evidenced by the spectrum of ages at the O2 gigs).

In the documentary and in various interviews and statements various Pythons have said that this show would be the last time they would ever perform this stuff together – I guess now that they’re all over 70 (and each ridiculously busy on their own projects) it makes convergence far more challenging, and this was definitely a great celebratory high note to go out on*****.

Good work, lads.



  • My album of photos on Flickr from the gig is here.  There’s a lot of shots of the video screens, but it was hard not to be drawn to them and we were sitting at the far end of the arena so getting closeups was a little challenging.
  • Wikipedia has its typically dynamic take on the sequence of the evening over at their entry entitled “Monty Python Live (Mostly)“.  Jeez, those guys know how to party.
  • There’s a very good documentary on YouTube about the leadup to this show with loads of interviews and behind the scenes material.  If you’ve got 45 mins to spare, I highly recommend it.
  • Thanks very, very much to Dan and to Billy for somehow managing to get these tickets.

* By which I mean almost all of Monty Python are alive – seeing Graham Chapman ceased being a viable option in 1989.

** According to a documentary I found later on YouTube the need for big piles of cash was in part brought about by a lawsuit involving royalties for the musical Spamalot between the Python team and a producer who worked on the original film of Holy Grail, and also Cleese’s divorce. The team had a meeting about what they should do financially and another producer friend of theirs kept saying, “One show at O2 and you could pay for all of that”.

*** later I’d learn that these dancers were indeed choreographed by Arlene Phillips, and so my Hot Gossip guess wasn’t too far wrong!

**** whilst never part of the Flying Circus TV series, this one has turned up in live shows from time to time and to me is one of the great showcases of excellence of timing (event though – as with many Python sketches – it lacks a cohesive ending). “The Last Supper was a significant event in the life of our Lord. The Penultimate Supper was not. Even if they had a conjuror and a Mariachi band!”. Brilliance.  On YouTube here.

***** And underlined somewhat conclusively by the showing of a titlecard at the end: Monty Python. 1969-2014.

Phones 4 me. Smart phones, apparently.

About 5 years ago I put together a sort of retrospective of all of the mobile phones I’d ever owned along with my thoughts on each, and judging by the web stats it’s a topic that lots and lots and lots of people are interested in reading about.

The main gamechanger in phones has been the development of the touchscreen, and where the race used to be towards the smallest phone possible now the idea is to get the largest yet most robust screen around whilst still being sensible enough to hold alongside your head.

The last phone I listed there was my at-the-time pristinely new iPhone 3G, and it occurred to me the other day as I was struggling to cram podcasts onto its miniscule 16gb of storage that there have been a few phones pass by since the arrival of the iPhone, and that it would be silly not to capitalise on the opportunity to get a blog post out of it at the *very* least.

So, picking up where we left off…

  1. Work Phone: O2 XDA Atmos – This was a phone very much thrust upon me by my employer at the time.  The whole company was kitted out with them, and being a Microsoft Gold Partner we very much bought into the whole Microsoft corporate solution bit.  The phone ran a version of Microsoft Office for productivity on its Windows Mobile 6 operating system, which I’d already sworn I’d never use again.  As luck would have it this was a self-solving problem insofar as the frequency of program crashes made it nigh on impossible to transfer a document onto the phone, and once it was there there was a vanishingly small possibility you’d ever be able to successfully open the thing.
    atmos-623-80The presence of a hardware keyboard seemed an initial boon, however it didn’t take long to realise that every single button contact in that keyboard was a potential new point of failure.  In this case, the catalyst to that failure was the interface between the phone and the contents of a bottle of Evian… but it was never really right to begin with.The other thing I hated about that phone was that as with most new hires in a corporate, your number is recycled from a previous employee, and this led to me getting some incredibly disturbing text-based banter from the previous guy’s contacts.  I tried to let them know that this was no longer his number, but that’s not always possible when none of the keys in your hardware keyboard are working because some berk’s spilled water all over it.
  2. HTC Desire: It’s really difficult to overemphasise how much I liked my iPhone.  However after a few years of having it (including the ongoing battle about filling the memory up to the brim with allsorts, spending ages and ages re-encoding video to watch on it, and the steady creep of applications out of the scope of an older HTC-Desire-1model’s capability) it occurred to me that I was still paying full tote odds on my monthly plan for the thing even though it had gone out of contract some time ago (at least 12 months).  Android phones were the big new thing on the horizon, and I liked the sound of the openness of the platform.  So it was sort of out of a kind of enraged spite that I ditched that phone provider (who outright refused to “come to the party” on a new contract, despite my having been a customer of theirs for 7 or 8 years) and signed up for a shiny new HTC Desire Android phone.Such an impressive bit of kit!  With so many possibilities!  And DESKTOP WIDGETS!  Why stop what you’re doing and start up another app if all you want to do is look at a piece of information?!  Unfortunately the versatility of this new frontier was also its own Achilles’ Heel, as the designers elected to only fit the thing with 576mb of memory – so you’ve the promise of all manner of software to improve your life and that of those around you, but only room to install 3 things on the thing at once.  Provided you don’t need to upgrade too many things.  The ONLY way to get around the memory limitation was to install apps to the SD Card rather than the internal memory, but under the provided operating system this wasn’t possible – so I had to install the Cyanogen custom ROM on it, which I think made a difference, but ultimately it was like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.
  3. HTC Desire (work phone): the day I took delivery of the HTC the IT Dept in my office were busy researching what phones to get to replace the O2 XDA, and the arrival of this smooth, sleek pebble of a thing was of much interest among them.  They borrowed it for a couple of hours for a quick testdrive, and 2 weeks later a box of 120 of the things turned up at work.  By then I hadn’t quite gotten sick of mine, but quasi-amusingly I now had 2 of the damn things.  Latterly this became useful in that I was able to install apps to my phone and do any web browsing on the work one – a quirk of having barely any memory to work in was that once your browser cache filled up the phone more or less ground to a halt, so at least keeping the work phone reasonably clear meant that I could browse 5 or 6 web pages before having to manually clear the cache rather than doing it on an almost page by page basis.  Happily I never went over my monthly data use cap on my personal phone – typically because the thing just could NOT figure out how to jostle things around in memory in order to connect.  Simple.
  4. desire-s_2_2HTC Desire S: resorting once again to eBay I picked up the slightly beefier cousin of the Desire, the Desire S.  Not a huge difference between them other than the removal of a weird “optical nipple” on the front, general ensleekening, and a memory bump.  Oh, and the key thing was that the operating system now natively supported installing (“some”) apps onto the SD card rather than the internal memory.  When it first arrived it was like having a ball&chain removed, and once again I could DO STUFF with my personal phone.  Same processor though, same camera with same craptastic design which meant the glass lens protector was almost permanently smeared with skin oils so that all photos took on a dirty, bland soft focus effect.I think at one point I installed a custom ROM set on my personal one of these, too.
  5. HTC Desire S (work): As night follows day, so too the IT Department at work went with my next phone selection as well.  Not as much use this time as web browsing seemed to work ok after the spec bump.  Both phones’ cameras were still greasy & crappy though.
  6. Google Nexus 4: Following a tipoff from a family member about the cheap availability of the Google Nexus 4 and unable to continue with the farcical performance of the Desire S by this stage, in June 2013 I continued along the Android route with the massive-screen-presenting Nexus.  Loads of memory (although no SD card, irritatingly), and for the first time I can ever recall an ACTIVELY GOOD CAMERA!  Now of course my phone photo gallery is more or less an endless parade of whisky bottles from tastings we’ve held, interspersed with borderline-amusing signs and typos, and things which in the heat of the moment I thought I might blog about and then never got around to.  Quite frankly, if this phone had a battery life longer than about 40 minutes it would be the perfect bit of kit for me.
    nexusIt works well as a wifi to 3G hotspot (provided it’s plugged in to a power source), it appears to make phonecalls sensibly most of the time, the web browsing works, the email functionality works…  and after a year of use it seems to perform as well as ever, and the screen still seems large & clear enough not to start coveting other phones.

So there we are – that was riveting, wasn’t it?

What’s the next thing?  Inevitably it’s got to be 4G – although plan prices for the much faster connection are still a bit ouchy.  Looking at current offers the Samsung Galaxy range seem to be the heroes although it’s not immediately apparent how one of these would benefit me over the current arrangement.  Prices for new ones are in the £500-600 range, and there’s something galling about paying as much for a telephone as you would for a laptop.

Especially comparing that against my $20 Nokia 2010.

The Nokia Lumia range looks innovative-ish with their rather robustly specced camera features, although it’s a Windows mobile and though I know the OS has completely been reinvented since the HTC Tytn days, I still don’t trust it.

The only conclusion I can draw really is that you – dear reader – don’t need to be put through another phone-related retrospective now until 2020.  Hooray!

Well, it’s been ten years and maybe more since I first set eyes on you.

me_boboOn this day, 10 years ago, I landed in London.

I landed without a plan, other than wanting to do something a bit different with my life.

Lots of things have changed for me.  I own property.  I have a magnificent lovely girlfriend who I’ve been with for nearly 4 years. I can snowboard.  I’m not connected with the Scout movement at all.  I have a red hat. I run a whisky tasting club with over 400 people on the mailing list, which has held nearly 90 tasting sessions.  I’ve visited 21 countries that aren’t Australia which I hadn’t been to before, and every county in England. I have loads of awesome British and European friends. I’ve been within touching distance, and a couple of times met, idols of mine like John Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam, Robert Plant, Dawn French, Bobby McFerrin, Graeme Garden, Tim Brooke-Taylor, Ade Edmondson, Nigel Planer, Rik Mayall, Terry Jones, Bill Oddie, Patrick Stewart, Lenny Henry and Geoffrey Robertson QC. I buy Apple laptops. I’ve seen lots of bands that I love, and lots of bands I’d never heard of – notably (for me) Spinal Tap and also Pink Floyd. Many of my friends have kids now – sometimes several. I’m a British Citizen.

20140502_200533Lots of things haven’t changed. I like beer. I hoard things under the optimistic notion that it’ll be less painful to reacquire them if/when I need them than it will be to haul them around the place with me or put them into storage. I like wearing ridiculously coloured trousers. I have a vague feeling I’m not in the right line of work. I love meeting & connecting with new people. I don’t feel like I miss my friends and family because my life is full of richness and part of that is when I get to reconnect with them. I have loads of t-shirts. I don’t care if the glass is half full or half empty, because I drink from the bottle. I find myself gravitating towards the organising end of extracurricular groups I get involved in. I don’t do anything sensible regarding exercise. I have loads of awesome Australian friends. I don’t trust – or pay any attention to – weather forecasts. I’m not very sensible with money. I write blogposts with no sense of where it’s going to go and feel like I ought to probably start out with a conclusion in mind. I’m usually late. I tend to live in a house for about a year and typically stay in a job about the same time. I don’t have a plan.

It’s tempting to gaze at milestones and ascribe significance to them, but the milestone’s not important – it’s just a reference point for measurement.

Sometimes there are interesting points of serendipity or chance – for instance at the end of the month I’m moving to Bristol, nearly 10 years exactly after moving to London – but then the human brain has evolved to become very good at finding patterns.

Everyone’s life should have changed a lot over the course of 10 years.

Still, as irrelevant as the milestone is – it doesn’t mean I won’t point and say, “Hey look, a milestone!”.

Nope, no conclusion in sight.  I think Eric Idle (the only remaining Monty Python member I’ve not seen live, but that’s set to change come July) summed it up best:

A weekend of whisky in Scotland? What could be better than that?!

I had a lot of fun in 2013.  Amid some career uncertainty and a few testing times, life flung at me the assortment of utter excellence and fun which I’ve come to really like about it.  I know in days of yore I’d blog about a good deal more of it, however those days are gone which either means I’m having more fun than I used to, or I’m typing a lot slower these days.  But rather than try to articulate the entire year, there are 2 highlights that I’m particularly proud of.

IMG_2640One of the things I did last year that’s eaten up a chunk of my “spare” time was to co-organize a whisky tasting festival in Scotland, back in July.

For the last few years I’ve been going to a whisky weekend festival in The Netherlands, called Maltstock. For a whisky enthusiast it’s brilliant – like-minded people bring all sorts of interesting whiskies out to share with each other, and you get all weekend to chill out, relax, and enjoy things at your own pace. And probably about 2 dozen times I’ve found myself in conversations featuring the sentence, “Do you think something like this could work in the UK?”.

Best way to find out is to give it a go, really – and thus Dramboree was born.

Pushed into being largely by the efforts of my Glaswegian chum Jonny McMillan, the idea was to get a place that could accommodate the right number of people, get them all to bring a bottle of whisky or 2 to share, and put together some extra tasting workshops to keep things interesting.


8 months of planning & stress came to fruition however when the 35 of us gathered at Dunolly House in Aberfeldy, shaking out the travel-cobwebs with a cleansing beer prior to the first of our tasting workshops. P1030393Magnificently, Jonny had arranged for Francis Cuthbert from Daftmill Distillery to present a selection of his whiskies to us – the theme was looking at differences between whiskies distilled during summer, versus those distilled in winter. What was equally fascinating about this session was the world-first nature of it – Daftmill (a self-sufficient farmhouse distillery) are yet to bottle any of their whisky, and this would be the first tasting of their spirit held outside of the distillery walls!

The bunkhouse accommodation would best be described as “cheap & cheerful”, with the focus being on keeping costs down to enable people to attend without bankrupting themselves. It was observed a couple of times that it’s easier and cheaper (for those of use who’ve been to Maltstock) to get from London to a small town in The Netherlands than to get to Aberfeldy.

BOb_2gMCIAEvOS4As if the first workshop wasn’t enough to get excited about – the next session was a tour through a selection of older whiskies (1960s, 70s and 80s bottlings) led by Angus MacRaild, of Mulberry Bank Auctions. Many of us don’t get the chance to taste these gems from the past – it’s always a fascinating opportunity to see how perhaps distillation & aging policies have changed over the years. And to have Angus there in part as a whisky historian – discussing many of the aspects of production which we may ordinarily take for granted. At one point the whisky tasting transformed into something between a debate and a standup brawl about marketing techniques and approaches then-and-now, and as an event organizer it was marvelous to see such an engaged group of participants!

Saturday’s programme comprised a special “behind-the-scenes” tour and warehouse cask sampling at Aberfeldy Distillery, led by Stephen Marshall of Dewars: a definite highlight of the weekend, and an experience impossible to repeat.


Melanie Stanger from Campbeltown’s famous Springbank Distillery joined us after lunch for a tasting of a selection of cask samples featuring some interesting wood-finishes, and showing that Springbank (along with its other whiskies, Hazelburn and Longrow) is a quirky little force with many strings to its bow.

OK, it's not University Challenge...

OK, it’s not University Challenge…

A slight wrinkle in logistics (what first-time event ever goes smoothly?) dinner was delayed a little, so the final organized tasting workshop of the weekend was moved forward, and what we’d thought would be a Feis Ile 2013 session (featuring 6 whiskies we picked up on Islay this year at the festival) became an unforgettable quiz/charades/physical challenge/whisky tasting hybrid, thanks to the ingenuity and inventiveness of those chaps from The Whisky Lounge, Eddie Ludlow and Joe Clark. Maltstock may have the most famously nerdy whisky quiz in the world, but they’ve never had the spectacle of Jonny McMillan trying to mime “Porteus Mill” to a table of very confused teammates.

P1030458It’s impossible to report on the amazing fun of Dramboree without waxing lyrical about our utterly splendid evening meal: provided and prepared by the, frankly, awesome folk from Master of Malt. Ben Ellefsen*, upon hearing of our intent to run this event, phoned up and COMMANDED me that he would be doing barbecue – and were I to do any less than shower the meal with superlatives would be to under-do it in terms of justice. Malt-teasers Jake Mountain and Miss Cat Spencer did an absolutely prime job with those ribs, pulled pork and other barbecue treats. Not a dry eye in the house, nor a surface free of BBQ sauce.

Less an “organized” workshop but still a brilliant part of the weekend was the random appearance of “Dr Sam’s Midnight Drams” – a couple of very curious and tasty contributions by Balvenie’s global brand ambassador, Dr Sam Simmons. There’s something deliciously appealing about the idea of a secret tasting at midnight, when nobody’s noticed that the clock we’re all timing ourselves to has stopped at 11:56.

296267_10152984931495693_874371165_nBut to highlight the tasting workshops would be to ignore the immense and diverse selection of whiskies which people brought along to share on the Dramboree Tasting Table! When we suggested that people bring a bottle to share I’ll confess I had no idea that they’d come to the party like this!

The whole concept centres around the idea that as a whisky enthusiast you’ve probably got a few bottles on your shelf which you’re just “waiting for the right moment to open”. And so by gathering a wodge of friendly folk as interested in whisky as you are, we tried to create just that occasion! There was weird stuff. There was prestigious stuff. There was museum-grade stuff. There were whiskies just great for drinking, and many more to inspire conversation, reminiscence and debate. The only shame of it really was that there wasn’t more time to explore them all – and we had a whole weekend!

As an event organizer, this couldn’t have gone better. As a whisky enthusiast, this couldn’t have gone better. A fantastic crew of people in a great little location sharing their passion and enthusiasm for one of their favourite hobbies. Our small group had people coming from as far afield as Bristol, and indeed The Netherlands – all leaving with a great buzz and babbling questions about when we’d do another Dramboree!

It’s possible to get caught up in endless platitudes, however real kudos for the success of the weekend genuinely do need to go to Jonny – his impetus and industry made the event the success that it was. Rarely have I worked with someone with the same commitment and drive.

And what are we planning for Dramboree 2014? Well, have a look at the website.

Screen Shot 2014-02-14 at 01.10.10

“What was the second thing?”, you presumably ask?  I’ll get to that soon…

* Customarily Ben’s surname is spelled incorrectly in blogposts & magazine articles, and loath as I am to abandon this rich seam of tradition, quite frankly his name deserves to show up correctly in google searches in connection with such meaty majesty**.

** It also deserves to show up in connection with slightly suspect phrases, like “meaty majesty”.

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That’s better.

Not *much* better, mind you.

It’s with a fairly monotonous sense of regularity that I find myself pondering why nothing in this country seems to work properly.  So if you’ve got the stomach for reading on you’ll see a(nother) good illustration of the sort of thing I mean.

I’ve had a phone contract with a company – let’s call them “Purple” – for a while now.  When I signed up for it I owned my phone handset, and I just needed a SIM plan with a reasonable data allowance.  The plan I signed up for gave me – among other things – an allowance of 500mb of mobile data a month.  As it happened, that was more than enough when I had my HTC Desire phone, as its onboard memory was so appallingly small that you couldn’t browse more than 2 webpages or read 3 emails or tweet twice before its cache filled and rendered it impossible to connect.  Upgrading to the HTC Desire S gave me some brief respite from this, however my affection for it waned as the touchscreen started malfunctioning and clicking on stuff I hadn’t clicked on, as well as the cache filling up and rendering me unable to view anything online.  But in the peak of its workiness I averaged about 300mb a month.

A few weeks back I stumped up the quids for a shiny new Google Nexus 4 phone – a new device full of promise, and vastly improved internet capability.  The result being that last month even though I’ve throttled everything back as far as practical and keep a watchful eye on things with data monitoring apps, I used just over 600mb, and this month I’m up to 550mb, with another 4 days left in the billing cycle – truth be known I hit 500mb about a week ago, and have kept the damage minimal by spending most of my time indoors and not using my phone.  Debating the merits of all that is a whole separate issue, but the relevant point of this is that I need a plan with a chunkier data allowance.

Weighing up the options around, I decided that one company – let’s call them “Sturgeon” – had the best plan to suit me: primarily because it includes Unlimited* data, unlimited phone minutes, and unlimited text messages.  All for about a fiver a month less than Purple charge me, and hopefully without their occasional text messages offering me cheap tickets to gigs that they mistakenly think I’m interested in.

After last month’s bill in fact I’d decided it time to jump companies to the more relevant plan, so I hopped onto the Sturgeon Mobile website and signed up for their phone plan, and I was delighted to get their confirmation telling me that my SIM card would arrive in the post shortly.

Asking Liz very nicely to keep her eyes on incoming post for this wondrous arrival, my enthusiasm waned as the reality that “shortly” probably meant “within 10 working days” set in, and so 11 days later I found myself at our Bristol flat with no sign of any SIM card.

Mobile phone shops are an ever-present fixture of all shopping areas in the UK – one shudders to think how many phones some people go through in a year to necessitate there being so many.  Nevertheless, my logical analysis of the problem was that if there was some delay in the processing of my order then perhaps the happy chappies at my local Sturgeon Mobile store would have access to the system and be able to give me a more concrete answer.  Or, better yet, they could cancel my online order and issue me with a SIM card in store.

Stop laughing.

After explaining my situation to the scruffily-bearded youth with the obligatory short sleeve shirt & shiny tie (it’s SO hard to resist saying “You’ve got red on you”), he tapped away at the keyboard and then informed me that there was no record of my order in the system.  I showed him the confirmation email, and he agreed that that indicated I’d placed an order, and his suggestion was that I call customer services.  Up until that point I’d been convinced that the primary purpose of shop staff was to provide a service to the customers, and applying pressure to this definition he reluctantly agreed to let me use the shop phone to call the 0845 number (rather than incurring charges on my Purple phone contract).

FFUUUUUUUUPredictably the Customer Service operator was as useful as a mint-flavoured suppository, however they were able to confirm that though my order had gone through the system, no account had been created and therefore no SIM was on the way.  It occurred to me to ask how long I would have waited before being given this information (it’s possible that some people apply for a new mobile phone account and then having done that just happily keep on using their old one safe in the knowledge that that’s another task off the To-Do list), but figured it more prudent to get straight onto a workaround, and within about 15 short minutes of discussion were able to conclude that I could apply for a SIM in store without fear of being double-billed.  He also agreed that the service I’d received was substandard, but due to me not having a Sturgeon account, he was unable to credit me with any sort of refund by way of apology.  Mmm… minty…

So, Mr Shiny Tie agrees to sign me up for the SIM plan which I was looking for, and asks his youthful assistant to take care of business (him having instantly become too busy with something – not that I was complaining, as youthful assistant was quite smiley and helpful).  She asked me all the questions someone would ask through the course of a phone account application, until we got to the credit check part.

“You did say you lived at number 32, didn’t you?”


“Hmm.  According to this, it doesn’t exist.”

“I can assure you, it does.  I slept in it last night.”

She beckoned me around the other side of the screen, and sure enough in the “credit check” part of the process there was an Address Finder screen which resolves your street number and postcode to an address for matching & fraud prevention purposes.  It’s something which every bank application, online shop, government agency, and… oh, I don’t know, EVERYTHING uses.  Only according to this piece of software the address which all of my bank accounts, my driving licence, mortgage, etc. doesn’t exist.  Flat 31 does, although the people at Flat 33 will be equally distraught to know that they’re homeless too.

The girl (who had an excellent name, it has to be said, but I’m not telling you what it was) looked exasperated for a second, then started tapping away at something else, and looked puzzled.  “The address exists on the Royal Mail website”, she said. “As indeed it does in real life”, I added.  “Is it a new flat, perhaps?”.  “Well, the building was put up in about 1900”.

She phoned the call centre and explained the conundrum to someone there, then started nodding with semi-certainty, scratching notes on a pad and saying “riiiiiiiight”, before hanging up and looking at me with an expression that said “Please be prepared for the fact that this answer is going to be of no use to you whatsoever”.

The source of the problem is that my address doesn’t exist in the 3rd party credit checking software that the Sturgeon application screen uses.  Therefore in order to be able to place the order, the customer needs to contact the 3rd party software vendor and correct the problem.

Yep, that’s right.  In order to get a phone contract, I have to contact a credit checking software vendor – which will no doubt involve navigating their departmental and telephone structure, and explaining the problem to an unknown quantity of confused call centre staff – to ascertain why my perfectly legitimate address doesn’t appear in their database, and then have that corrected.  Whether this subsequently means contacting Sturgeon Mobile and being put through to the software team that looks after version refreshes to make sure that THEIR system can see my address too is as yet unclear.

Optimistically I phoned the 3rd party provider to discuss the issue, but found myself quickly routed through some option panel menus to be ultimately dealt with by someone who didn’t look after an area relevant to my question, and they proved their resilience in getting back on-script no matter what the customer tried to say to them by insisting I register on their website for my free credit check, or I could order a postal copy from them for only £3.  I tried arguing that there were certain problems in ordering a postal copy from a system which doesn’t think your address exists, but now was clearly not the time for facts or logic to enter the discussion.

Quite why it’s not possible for someone at Sturgeon to follow this up in the pursuit of acquiring another customer is a bit of a mystery to me – presumably they’ve already worked out that if a customer can’t be signed up within 10 minutes then it’s not cost effective to get them on board.  It still doesn’t answer why my online application went through to completion & I was issued with email confirmation though.  I can only surmise that the reason they didn’t write to me to tell me my order had been cancelled is that they can’t, because my address doesn’t (apparently) exist.

Any suggestions?

* “unlimited” here presumably means that it’s subject to some sort of limit, although background reading on the topic suggests that it’s not going to become problematic until I start hitting 3-4gb a month.  So, can’t wait for that episode in the saga…

Pete the Conk(eror)

In Soho, the walls have noses.

I’d heard a few times from cab drivers and London trivia goons about there being a nose in Admiralty Arch, and that – for example – as part of The Knowledge exams that cab drivers take they’re told to drive from somewhere like “The chimney on the bridge to the nose”… which you wouldn’t be able to do unless you had a particular level of insider information, or were unusually observant.

Stories about the origins of this nose seem to vary wildly, from being a spare nose for a statue of the Duke of Wellington, to being a replica of Napoleon’s nose which people on horseback could tweak on the way past.

I’d never seen it myself because I kept forgetting about it and when I did remember (usually in a cab) we didn’t know which of the 3 arches it was in, and be assured that whilst in the throes of London traffic it’s not easy to spot a life-sized nose from a moving vehicle.

Cut to a several months ago when I was having my first ever listen to the utterly brilliant podcast from the Londonist website – Londonist Out Loud, presented by N Quentin Woolf.  Londonist is a fantastic site for anyone who’s interested in London, and contains all manner of interesting information of all sorts: be it historical or contemporary, news, reviews, or anything and everything else*.  This edition of the podcast featured a couple of Westminster tour guides – Jo Moncrieff and Pete Berthoud – and Julia from The Star Cafe.  The thing which caught my attention was Pete talking about a walking tour he periodically leads, entitled “The Seven Noses of Soho“.

SEVEN NOSES?!  Could there really be SEVEN?!

The only way to find out seemed to be to sign up for this tour & go find out!  And so on a nice sunny Saturday that’s exactly what we did…  Liz, Hannah, Paul, and Hannah’s parents & I met up with Pete, and spent 2 hours of our afternoon on what was an absolutely fascinating and group-customised walking tour.

We spent the afternoon meandering around some of the alleys and byways of Soho, being pointed out various Interesting Things by Pete, and every now and again he’d stop the group and say “Let me know when you’ve found it”.  He’s certainly calculated the best way to playfully frustrate a group of people, in that regard.

It’s totally ridiculous – several of the noses are located in places which I’ve frequented over the past 8 years (including one I *know* I’ve stood next to for about an hour) and never noticed before.  Is it the brain’s self-censorship mechanism that prevents us from seeing/remembering these noses?

It’s not just noses though – prior to the tour Pete asks if anyone’s got any special interests, so our tour takes in some interesting fixtures of rock music history, some Marx Brothers trivia, a few architectural notes & highlights (including Soho’s reluctant Art Deco carpark), other non-proboscial bits of sculpture hidden about the place in plain view, and loads more – all delivered by Pete’s easy-to-get-along-with manner.  And it’s certainly not just wandering about going “Oh look – a nose!  How odd!”.


I recall Pete saying something about him being the descendant of Huguenots, but don’t remember whether the undergrad-quality joke about “huge nose” was played at the time.  Would’ve certainly been relevant, and before anyone says anything I’d like to point out that I’m sailing fairly close to the wind in the big nose stakes.  With a humungous spinnaker, yes.

Beak comparisons aside (ooh, just thinking – I don’t recall their being any noses on Beak Street – missed a trick there…), I’d thoroughly recommend any of Pete Berthoud’s walks, and intend to get along to more of them as soon as my schedule permits.  He combines an inquisitive & interested mind with the ability to tell you all sorts of things you didn’t know about London without making you feel stupid for not knowing it.  His “Oddities of Strand” and “Hidden Mayfair” walks call to me particularly, so maybe there’ll be some info about those on these hallowed pages some time “soon”.

And no, I’m not telling you where any of the other noses are.

* I wasn’t going to wax overly lyrical about Londonist at this point, but it’s one of my favourite Londony websites, and the podcast is similarly wondrous.  All sorts of facets about London, by people who live in London and are interested in London.  Might’ve mentioned before, but yours truly featured on another episode of their podcast, talking about whisky and morris dancing (2 separate topics, that is).


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