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Mum’s Trip

In July 2015 my Mum was scheduled to fly over from Adelaide and stay with us here in Bristol for a couple of months, because it’s nice to get away – especially in winter.

bathroom3In May 2015 one morning I woke up and immediately knew something was wrong, and confirmed my suspicion by discovering that Liz had slipped over whilst clambering into our rather perilous bathtub/shower arrangement, whacking her head on the side of the tub and installing what can only be described as a Mighty Bruise on the inside of one of her thighs.  Which none of you will have seen.  Once concussion had been ruled out, we quickly surmised that this arrangement would not be suitable for Mum’s visit, and so our up-til-now hypothetical schedule of works was accelerated sharply and our bathroom – at vast expense – was duly gutted and remodelled with a rather splendid walk-in shower which we’re absurdly happy with, and which we were happy to report via telephone dispatches was now ready for guests to enjoy.

2 days before Mum’s departure flight I got a Facebook message from a mate of mine who lives across the road saying that I’d probably better get in contact.  It transpired that Mum was walking into the house with the shopping, and – despite having repeatedly safely negotiated the front step without incident for the last 40 years or so – on this occasion managed to trip over and break her right shoulder.

Needless to say, the UK visit was off in favour of some time in hospital.  The story which follows was actually quite a protracted one, and not mine to tell – sufficed to say that Mum managed to at least not spend much of the winter at her house, instead alternating between hospital, her friend’s house, hospital again, a recuperation ward, a rehab centre, and finally 6 months later following a second operation and a fairly sizeable painkiller prescription – back home again.

We’re happily relieved to report that she’s more or less back to normal life in Adelaide now – albeit requiring a little extra assistance on some tasks while she gains mobility in her arm again.

And we got a nice new bathroom out of it.

bathroom1A

And the *excellent* news is that in 2016 – almost a year after the intended timeframe – we were delighted to receive Mum into our home to visit us for 4 weeks.  Not quite as long as we’d planned initially, but it was wonderful to have her live with us and we managed to sneak in a few adventures while she was here…

But I’ve a feeling that’s a story for another time.

The media roll-call of 2015

In break with last year’s effort, I thought maybe February would be a good time to go through the process of my annual Film, Book and TV roundup.

Initially aiming to get this written up in January, I found myself thinking “But, who cares?”. And then remembering the reason I started all this blogging malarkey was really for my own benefit – so in order that I’ve got something to reminisce on at some point, lets press on.

Books

Last year I set myself a challenge to read more than 5 books, given how pitiful my reading effort was in in 2014.  I’m baffled to say that for someone who loves reading and has quite a bountiful To Read shelf, I failed in my challenge.  Substantially.  According to the list, I read 3 books last year (4, if you count the Maureen Lipman biography I carried around with me for 6 months for no tangible gain).  So, 3, really.

  • Steve Jobs (Walt Isaacson) – The famously voluminous and uncompassionate biography.  Brilliant as Jobs may have been, it really painted him as a massive deluded asshole.  It’s kind of a shame to read really.  I know the trend is all for warts & all portrayals and getting to the real heart of the person.  And yeah, Jobs made a couple of incredibly well-timed lucky calls.  But reading the stuff about his crazy perfectionism, tantrums, and vanity project factories…  one can’t help but wonder how he didn’t get the shit kicked out of him years ago.  Well written, but jeeeeeeezus.
  • So, Anyway (John Cleese) – THIS BOOK WAS MAGNIFICENT.  An autobiography written in Cleese’s speaking meter: so much so that if you know his cadences well enough you can imagine it as an audiobook.  And don’t think that didn’t cause some sniggering on the train periodically.  Totally excellent.  I think I’ll read it again, as a matter of fact.  Has snippets of sketch material among it too, such as this bit (about 35:07 in) from Cleese’s book tour:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KnpY46lOTX4
  • The Wood Fire Handbook (Vincent Thurkettle) – having become the owner of a working wood-burning stove it seemed sensible to do some research into best practice for using it.  Sadly I think the best thing this book could contribute would be a way of starting the thing off.  I like the chap’s name (I’ll bet he says “WASSAIL! Well met, stout fellow!” a lot), but in an age where we can buy pre-cut kiln-dried hardwood online and have it delivered it seems that much of the information in this book is on the redundant side.  Oh god, and his website‘s got Comic Sans on it.

Films

Didn’t really keep close track on this stuff, either.  Having moved into a new home in January and then spent most of our spare cash doing it up or fixing it we spent a lot more time staring at the gogglebox than we previously have, to which end I kept forgetting to take notes of what I was looking at.  However here’s the few that did garner a scribble.

  • Snowpiercer  – dystopian future story about a socially-stratified train (plebs at the back, rich ppl at the front) that hurtles around the world at terrifying speeds.  Mainly predictable tropes but this is all about the execution, which is great.  And there’s an awesome axe fight in it. 👍
  • Thunderball – mid-60s Bond film which seemed to feature a lot of snorkelling.  I think I fell asleep in it.
  • The Drop – Slow paced film with James Gandolfini and Tom Hardy.  Seemed like the arty “payback” film for Hardy playing Bane.  👎
  • Before I Go To Sleep – Nicole Kidman’s Groundhog Day.  Thriller that gets a bit creepy but worth staying awake for. 👍
  • The Look of Love – Seems my fascination for biographies has moved into film, which in this case was essentially Alan Partridge being Soho club-guru Paul Raymond.  By which I mean it felt like Steve Coogan going into autopilot. 👎
  • Behind The Candelabra – Biopic of Liberace starring Michael Douglas, which again is time I could’ve spent doing something else.  Perhaps I was tired of uncomplimentary biography by this point (having waded through the Jobs book already). 👎
  • Taken 3 – Liam Neeson and his disaster prone family on another outing where he’s singled out and a lot of people get beaten up and/or killed.
  • Exodus: Gods and Kings – The Ten Commandments reboot but without any of the redeeming features that will see it repeated on TV for years and years to come.  I feel like I’m missing the point with a lot of these, but just being “spectacular” doesn’t really do much for me.  Although I liked Snowpiercer, so , go figure.  This film is a biblical epic which feels like it’s actually 2000 years long. 👎👎
  • I Know That Voice – documentary about voice actors put together by John DiMaggio (aka Bender from Futurama) showing a glimpse into a fascinating world.  Also, features loads of very famous voices and there’s a huge giggle factor in seeing the voices come out of a 3-dimensional face rather than the usual 2D source. 👍
  • Jurassic World – rehash of the 90s franchise where they get the band back together, but man messes with nature (err?) in genetically modifying a dinosaur to please the crowds, and combine this with a series of cost-cutting measures imposed on science by the corporate reality, and you end up with lots of opportunities for serious people saying “This is the ONE THING we didn’t want to have happen”.  Still sorta fun though.  And no Jeff Goldblum, so that sucks. 👍
  • The Scandalous Lady W – incredibly raunchy period piece.  Sort of Game of Thrones meets Jane Austen, in what’s basically a vehicle for Natalie Dormer to get BBC viewers all hot & bothered.
  • The 33 – probably shouldn’t count this given how far we got into it.  Borderline insufferable during the setup, because the screenwriters heavyhandedly telegraphed pretty much every element of every character’s motivation/fear (“Just one more trip down the mine before I retire”, etc.).  Somewhat insensitively all I could think of was the joke, “How do you rescue 33 Chilean miners?” / “Juan by Juan”. 👎
  • Mad Max Fury Road – fired up immediately after The 33, and could not have been a more stark counterpoint.  This is a film which doesn’t bother trying to explain anything about the world in which it’s set (which is pretty frigging harsh, surreal, and non-intuitive from an audient’s perspective).  It just gets on with it and drags you along at high speed.  It’s over the top, spectacular, and brilliant. 👍 👍
  • Star Wars: The Force Awakens – of course I went to see this in the cinema (twice).  There’s no point going into lengthy writeups about this as it’s all been observed already, however my brief summary is that I broadly enjoyed it (moreso than the prequels, less than the originals).  I was VERY impressed that the main characters straight out of the gate were not white males.  I realise there was plenty of squandered followup opportunities, and also that if you look into it for any length of time there’s substantial plot holes and/or shortfall.  This film did definitely cement Lucas’s place as the Artist (just a rough patch in the 90s) – the original voice among all imitators.  👍
  • The Maze Runner – promising Hunger Games/ Lord of the Flies style film which put me right on the cranky foot when they brazenly abandoned story time and opted for declaring a sequel AND a second sequel right at the first real call of junglers. 👍
  • Spectre – I don’t claim to be a huge Bond fan, but thinking back I believe I’ve seen all of the Daniel Craig ones in the cinema.  This one was a bit wandery but had some really nice set pieces.  Overall it lacked a bit of internal consistency/logic which I found distracting.  But then it’s worth remembering that it’s only a bloody film.
  • Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation – Don’t watch this within a month of a Bond film, I guess is the lesson here.  It really felt like the MI franchise – which started as exagerrated action/thriller – realised that the space was too crowded and was done better by others and so transformed into pantomime/farce.  👎
  • Ant Man – possibly the most enjoyable Marvel film so far although I can never really get on with that bloke who’s in it.  Y’know, the boring one with black hair who isn’t Vince Vaughn.  That guy. 👍
  • Birdman – not so much of the superhero, but a very interesting and unusual film, with Michael Keaton getting out his proper acting chops.  What a dude. 👍👍
  • PITCH PERFECT 2 – this film is utterly ridiculous, and brilliant. And we’ve watched it about 14 times. Kind of like Glee meets Best In Show, but without nearly as many mawkish emosh cliches as Glee and the arrangements/choreography tend to the silly rather than pandering.  The absolute highlight of it for me is Birgitte Hjort Sorenson playing the leader of the German a capella group Das Sound Machine.  So many lines in this film!  And disturbingly catchy tunes.  And MASHUPS! Argh.  What’s not to love? 👍👍
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1jA1KN3D2gU

Although after all that it’s probably relevant that the very finest film I saw all years was this masterwork in which ham goes up an escalator.

TV

In addition to switching from a Serviio media server setup in the old flat over to a Plex setup plugged into a Roku 3 to ensmarten somewhat elderly telly, we now also have a fair selection of streaming options available to us, which has meant digging right in on the TV series (or what USED to be called “box sets”, back when you needed physical media for this sort of carryon).

  • The Wire Seasons 2, 3, 4 and 5 -a real catch up on a bygone classic, and what a masterpiece.  David Simon’s increasingly bleak delve into the coexisting drug and police cultures in Baltimore, with each season told through the eyes of a different sector of society. How I didn’t get around to finishing this years ago I’ve no idea, but it’s brilliant. 👍👍👍
  • Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll – Denis Leary vehicle about a has-been/never-was’s rock band, revitalised by his it-girl daughter’s singing. 👍
  • Silicon Valley S1 & 2 – brilliantly observed sitcom focussed around tech startups with quirky characters and some really good stuff.  Cruelly funny in parts, and it’s got RUSS HANNEMANN!  What a guy. 👍👍
  • Game of Thrones Season 5 – well, we were never gonna NOT watch it, right?  Another great season although I kinda felt that the last 3 episodes were gratuitous, and broke from otherwise solid storytelling throughout the rest of the whole series.  Some very memorable moments, and it’ll be very interesting to see where Weiss and Benioff take this. 👍👍
  • Between – I only included this because we got 5 episodes in before this one revealed itself to be a humungous polished turd of a show. Normally you can tell within one episode (or, in the case of Marco Polo, 8 minutes).  Between was about a US town stricken with some virus that kills everyone over the age of 22. Who cares how it finished. 👎
  • Fortitude – very interesting drama set in Greenland with some really good acting and a compelling mystery plot weave. Haven’t actually finished it yet but it’s worth a look at, though it’s not quite the Nordic Noir that I was hoping for or expecting. 👍👍
  • House of Cards Season 3 another seemingly safe TV bet, although it was pretty hard to believe Machievellian puppet master Francis Underwood’s transformation from cool & collected chief whip into trapped idiot President. We’re really hoping that the season 3 arc was pitched for dramatic contrast and that it hasn’t gone from being must-watch tv over to post-Sopranos character-centric tedium. 👍
  • Aquarius – David Duchovny stars as an authoritarian Vietnam vet cop in this piece centred around Charles Manson and cop/community tensions of the time. Duchovny’s character still channels a lot of Hank Moody, though confusingly right wing at times. 👍
  • 1864 – epic-scale Danish series centred around the Second Danish-Prussian war in Schleswig, following a girl’s diary from the time and seeing cross-timeline weaving.  A bit self-indulgent in parts, it’s still a solid watch and has a few faces from the Scandi TV rollcall (Soren Malling, Pilou Asbaek, Sidse Babette Knudsen). Kind of like a period Band of Brothers where everyone’s from Copenhagen. 👍
  • Breaking Bad seasons 1, 2 and 3 – I must be the last person in the English-speaking world to have not grappled with this one yet, but I managed to knock over the first 3 seasons of this story of the high school chemistry teacher who turns drug supplier to pay for his cancer treatment and support his family.  I’ve been warned that it gets darker and bleaker as it goes and I think I’ve just started to see signs of this.  I love the moral ambiguity, and its characters are mostly fairly strong and possible to empathise with because you can see how they’re acting the way they do in order to make the best of their situations.  Really looking forward to finishing this off in 2016. 👍👍
  • Grace and Frankie – interesting dramedy centering around the wives (Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin) of a pair of lawyers (Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston) who realise that after years of working as law partners that they’re in love and move in together.  Grace and Frankie are totally opposite kinds of people but have nowhere else to go so both live in their shared beach house.  It’s mostly harmless fun and not too mawkish but it’s yet another show where the protagonists all come from wealthy backgrounds and it’s assumed that everyone’s got enough money to do whatever they want.👍
  • Last Week Tonight – probably should’ve mentioned this last year, although it’s not the same as the others.  Last Week Tonight is a weekly political/news satire show helmed by John Oliver, one half of the team from my favourite comedy podcast. Each week he points his beady little eyes at some aspect of life or politics in America and reframes the argument with the aim of highlighting and/or exposing how ludicrous/bad/extreme/nonsensical the situation is, and it’s absolutely brilliant.  For a comic who didn’t get nearly the recognition he deserved over here (prior to his stint on The Daily Show there’s barely a whisper of him on The Guardian website, but now people breathlessly paraphrase his episodes), he’s really making the most/best of the opportunity and exposure he’s got in the US, and it’s all just excellent.👍👍👍👍
  • Schitt’s Creek – Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara bring back their Christopher Guest-style improv relationship in this decent sitcom about an urbane family of former billionaires forced to move to a town which Levy’s character (Johnny Rose) bought as a joke.  👍
  • X Company – atypical WW2 special ops taskforce who are paired with an unusual field agent with perfect memory and unique personality aspects.  It’s compelling enough to keep clicking through new episodes. 👍

So that list didn’t include the substantial number of shows we never made it past episode 2 of (or, typically, episode 1 of*).  There’s loads of new content being pushed out over the internet every day, and as a side note it’s totally feasible not to need a TV licence any more!  About the only thing that holds us back from is watching Saturday Kitchen.  But given we can hook up the iPlayer through the Roku and watch it on Sunday it’s hardly the end of the world.

That’ll do for now.  I wonder if I should start including lists of podcasts** as well, now that I’ve gotten THAT sorted out too?
* or, more typically, minute 10 of episode 1 of

** the Featured Image for this post, by the way, was based on my plan to look through my Facebook pictures and pick out the first one that had me holding/reading a book or in proximity to a TV.  And there weren’t any.  At all.  So wearing headphones was the closest thing to media consumption I could find.  So I guess I’ve GOT to summarise the damn podcasts next time, eh?

So the thing is, we’ve been really busy!

2015 has been interesting for me – it felt like I didn’t have much at all in the way of spare time or spare money with which to do stuff.  That’s not to say that we didn’t have any fun, but the time really rocketed past & seemed to be just, well, full.

About this time last year we moved into our lovely new house.  We’ve been pretty busy making changes to it and eradicating the beigeness that was here when we arrived.  As we approached the end of our first year here I thought it might be nice to take some comparison photos, and now perusing them I think it’s more apparent where a large wedge of that spare time went.

Hopefully the before/after overlay tool thingy here works – if you drag the handle to the right you should see the “before” shot, and dragging it left swaps to “after”.  You’re mildly intelligent – you should be able to figure it out (assuming it’s working). Continue reading

The stuff I pointed my eyes at in 2014

Mid-March isn’t too late for a 2014 roundup, is it?  It’s still the same financial year… and I’d hate to break the chain now that I’ve done this for 2011, 2012 and 2013!

So, with that, here’s the 2014 Media Lists. With a rudimentary thumbs up/down system, just for giggles.

Books

I did absolutely bugger all in the way of reading in 2014.  This could be in part due to my rediscovery of various games on the iPad (and subsequent brain decay as a result NOT PROVEN), but having moved to Bristol I now spend far less time on public transport*.  There was something about the London bus/tube trip which really promoted getting out a book for a quick read.  Also last year I announced with excitement about having downloaded the Kindle app for the iPad and how this was going to revolutionise my reading input: utter tosh, it transpires.  Of the 5 books I managed to read this year, only 1 was on the Kindle.  So nanner nanner boo boo to that theory.  The thing is – once you’ve got the iPad out and it’s likely to be a short journey, it’s only Self Discipline that stops you firing up a game instead.  Or, a feverishly compelling book.

  • Peat, Smoke and Fire (Andrew Jefford) – utterly, utterly splendid book about the island of Islay, capital of the Western Hebrides and producer of some of the most delicious and distinctive whiskies in Scotland. While Islay has a huge whisky focus, the book talks about much more: interleaving chapters on each distillery with a chapter on another aspect of the place, such as history, botany, wildlife, geology, and soforth. 👍👍
  • Man Walks Into a Pub (Pete Brown) – I’m not the first to describe Pete Brown as the Bill Bryson of beer writing.  It’s a lazy comparison: in fact I enjoy Brown’s books far more, and he’s a generally more upbeat fella to read.  This book (his first) is a gripping social history of the Pub, and its place in British society.  It starts with the inception of the idea of alehouses, taverns, inns and the clear differences, takes the reader through drinking history and the industrial changes over time, all couched in the writer’s relaxed & amusing vernacular.  It’s where I learned that the Canadian bloke who invented the pop-up toaster was also responsible for the wave of lager which nearly decimated the UK ale industry.  I’ve a good mind to read this again when I get a chance. 👍👍
  • Phoenix From the Ashes (Justin Ruthven-Tyers) – I bought this book from the author at the Islay Whisky Festival this year having met he and his wife a couple of years before.  It’s the tale of how they lost everything when their house burned to the ground and then decided to build a boat and live on that, learning how to sail as they went.  I don’t know what I was expecting but there was certainly no theme or narrative arc to the piece – instead providing more of a series of blog articles or anecdotes about things that happened along the way.  Mildly amusing but not compelling, I kept wondering how much money this bloke must’ve had stashed away prior to embarking on the adventure or what it was he was doing in between anecdtoes to pay for it all.  But that’s possibly a proletarian shoulder-chip. 👎
  • Them (Jon Ronson) – When I try to picture Jon Ronson the face my brain keeps giving me is Louis Theroux, which is probably because they both wear glasses and get involved in the “going to live with a certain group” gonzo thing.  In Them Ronson is getting to know various “fringe conspiracy theorists” (hard to come up with a better label), such as people infiltrating the Bilderberg Group, or the Ku Klux Klan.  As with his other books he does a great job of giving the reader an idea of just how rich the light and shade of life’s rich tapestry goes. 👍
  • Cheeky Monkey (Tim Ferguson) – a practical guide to sitcom writing techniques by former Doug Anthony All Stars member Tim Ferguson.  And incredibly well-referenced book, full of exercises for the reader to complete if that’s what they’re after, which breaks down comedy TV into component parts to understand how the storytelling works and for the budding writer to use to craft better scripts.  As with any single author’s take on a topic like this it’s not necessarily canonical (I’ve spent time in storytelling workshops with Deborah Frances-White and Tom Salinsky which equally capapbly split ideas up in different ways), however with a couple of these “methodologies” on board you’d be off to a good technical start! 👍

Movies

  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows I & II    – I felt I needed closure on this bit of escapist wand-waving malarkey, and it’s fascinating to compare these with the first film to see the development of teen angst.  Couldn’t help wondering what the principal cast were all going to do next (should they ever need to work again, that is).  I very much enjoyed the “adult cast” of Proper Actors who make up the complement in these films too.  Great! 👍
  • A Hijacking – Following our interest in all the Scandi series of late I thought this film starring a couple of the actors from Borgen might be worth a look.  It’s really been impressed on me that with subtitled films there’s a great deal of artistry in the translation and it’s crucial that whoever’s writing the titles needs to accurately convey the dialogue, maintaining the light and shade of the original, without being so wordy that you spend the whole time reading and not looking at the actors.  This fell just short of the mark: a story about a merchant ship taken by Somalian pirates and the owning company’s response. 👎
  • The Wolf of Wall Street  – The “must see” of early 2014.  I was baffled at how anyone could possibly be celebrating the antics of Mr Jordan Bellfour as newspapers would have you believe.  This piece was an incredibly well-shot disturbing look into the depravity, ego, and carnage of the financial sector through the story of one man’s journey.  It made me think of Liars’ Poker (also a must-read), and if anything helps to support the view that life is just unfolding chaos, because no divine power with any sense of moral code would ever let these orgies of greed and deprativy take place. 👍
  • Burn After Reading – I’m perpetually fascinated by the Coen Brothers, because their films rarely fit into any one genre on their own let alone providing much of a cohesive front as a suite.  This was a quirky and irritatingly odd film involving a spy losing documents and the ensuing web, which is crashed into by a romance/divorce plot and an inept extortion plot: all masterfully carried by a great cast (Clooney, Malkovitch, McDormand, Pitt, Swinton). 👍
  • Warm Bodies – Another film about zombies, this time playing on the idea that zombie plague can be affected by love.  Y’know, boy zombie has crush on girl and implausibly manages to convince her that he cares rather than the usual terrifying thing of trying to eat her brains.👎
  • The Running Man – absolute diamond-studded solid-gold nostalgia classic which in my mind bore countless similarities to The Hunger Games.  Upon re-watching this I realise that I should have left it in the Fond Memory Vault.  Although it certainly upholds many of the derisory statements my mother used to make about the acting talents of one Mr A. Schwarzenegger.👎
  • The Dallas Buyers Club – I’m normally very skeptical about Performance films where Actor Of The Day goes through Physical Modification to convincingly carry off Performance and be certainly in line for an Oscar.  I more often than not leave the cinema wondering if I’d missed something, because it seemed that the film was all about the performance and not the story.  Not in this case! 👍
  • The Man Who Wasn’t There – Off-kilter Coen brothers film (redundant statement) noir featuring Billy Bob Thornton and a gaggle of the usual suspects in a story about a barber who kills a man having an affair with his wife. 👍
  • Zodiac – serial killer thriller which I was interested in purely because it had David Fincher’s name attached to it, and I was all excited about The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and House of Cards at the time. 👍
  • The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug – Another overly long and embellished Hobbit film which I watched primarily out of completism, with a hint of optimism.👎
  • About Time – Fun Richard Curtis film about a time-travelling posh kid; a slight twist on the Groundhog Day principle in that the time travel’s voluntary, and the ongoing time flow isn’t carbon-copy.  So, nothing like it, really. Although it does have Bill Nighy, which immediately makes it awesome. 👍
  • Kung Fu Hustle – bizarre Hong Kong kung fu action/comedy, which I couldn’t possibly try to sum up or even interpret the plot of.  I remember it had a weird ass-kicking landlady in it, and fundamentally it was a series of fights.  Probably good for a lightly-hungover Sunday when you won’t be capable of processing anything meaningful and won’t be to upset to not recall anything about.👎
  • The Secret Life of Walter Mitty – the romcom film with Ben Stiller not being a dick.  Photo processor for a magazine gets sent negatives for the cover shot and instructions to use one as the best photo, but the negative’s missing, so Stiller chases around the world trying to track down the photographer who took it, discovering all sorts of things about himself, etc. etc.  Not a bad flick! 👍
  • Anchorman 2 – I don’t know why I had such high hopes for this given how puerile I found the first one… it’s just the first film wormed its way into my cultural tapestry via repeated references by other people.  Borderline amusing.👎
  • American Hustle – ALL I remember about this was that Christian Bale had one of those 1970s bald on top, long hairstyles.  I think they were all con artists.  Seemed a good premise, but I couldn’t stay awake.👎
  • Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer – Not the worst Avengers film I’ve seen (yet). But had that bullshit “almighty dark force” deus ex machina thing going on. And there was a tachyon pulse.  Or something. 👎
  • Admission – Tina Fey as an admissions officer for Princeton, bending the rules for love interest. Etc.  Bullshit! 👎
  • The Book Thief – Excellent piece about a refugee in WW2 hiding with a compassionate family and taking on a Jewish fugitive.  Geoffrey Rush again being amazing. 👍
  • Runner Runner – Direct-to-video shite with Justin Timberlake getting caught up in some casino nonsense.  Not a great career move for Ben Affleck.  And not a wise investment of 91 minutes. 👎👎
  • Gone Girl – Having soiled our brains in Runner Runner, Ben Affleck totally redeemed himself with Gone Girl: a psycho thriller about a domestic violence investigation that really kept us on the edge of our seats. 👍👍
  • Edge of Tomorrow – The Groundhog Day trope returns again, this time in a “Starship Troopers meets Groundhog Day starring the squid things from The Matrix” film.  At the risk of sounding like a miserable tit, the thing I enjoyed the most about this film was the idea of Tom Cruise getting repeatedly killed. 👍
  • A Million Ways To Die In The West – now, the critics didn’t really like this spoof Western starring Family Guy’s Seth McFarlane, and Liz found it a little tedious too… but for some reason it really hit a spot with me and I watched it once on the flight to Australia and then twice again on the way home.  So much happy.  Quite why I was so rapt at the idea of Charlize Theron sticking a daisy in Liam Neeson’s arse, I don’t quite know. 👍
  • The LEGO Movie – it’s tricky for me to be objective about a film centred around a wildly popular and successful toy which has steadily flexed its marketing muscle over the last couple of decades, tying in with key entertainment properties and platforms.  Harmless enough stuff, but I felt it was an incredibly calculated film designed to get maximum recognition and quotability, probably with the help of many, many focus groups. 👍
  • Guardians of the Galaxy – a film I picked from the in-flight offerings on the way back from Australia, and by weird coincidence starring the same actor as the film I’d just watched.  Quite enjoyable space comedy/action. 👍
  • The Prince – Hard to know whether this or Runner Runner was the worst film I saw this year.  Probably this, because we got to 15 minutes from the end, and Liz switched it off, shouting “Oh, who GIVES a shit!”.  Hard to know how Bruce Willis and John Cusack got talked into this one. 👎👎👎👎👎
  • The Hobbit part 3: The decline of Peter Jackson Battle of the Five Armies – Again, an exercise in closure which tested my patience to its limits.  Pondersome and fractious storytelling was the key problem with this effects-driven romp, and you got the feeling he was thinking “Fuck it, I’m done now.  I’m rich anyway.”.  The thing is, where the title basically says that the main point of the film will be a fight, you know you’re in for some non-storytelling.  I think the nail in the coffin for me was when Billy Connolly turned up as a cameo dwarf king.  When the hell did Peter Jackson have to resort to that? 👎👎
  • Pride – nice British film about a Gay & Lesbian alliance in London supporting a group of striking coal miners in Wales, and the inevitable cultural friction inherent in such a pairing.  More Bill Nighy, and a selection of other names.  I think I picked this one because we’d been watching The Wire and I liked the idea of seeing Dominic West speaking with a British accent. 👍
  • Saving Mr Banks – Another film selected based on a castmember from a series we’d enjoyed, this time Bradley Whitford from The West Wing.  I quite enjoyed the idea of Emma Thompson playing an obstinate English author refusing to bow to the pressures of Walt Disney.  Excellent film. 👍
  • RED – Having seen the sequel to this some time ago it seemed sensible to find out what the opening gambit to the tale was, and though not quite as much fun as RED 2 I still very much enjoyed watching the adventures of Bruce Willis, John Malkovitch, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman, Ernest Borgnine and selected other “has-beens”. 👍
  • Gangs of New York – This I picked out purely on the strength of the fact that one of the producers is a mate of mine through Soho Whisky Club.  THough critically acclaimed enough I found this one a bit hard to get into.  It certainly featured loads of big scale fights, but perhaps the thing that toppled my interest the most was that it had Daniel Day-Lewis wearing an implausibly (though probably period-correct) moustache.  Made me think of There Will Be Blood, which I also missed the point of.  Oh well, I’m sure it’s a good film. 👎

TV Series

One of the reasons I think we saw fewer films this year was because of our increased interest in TV series, which ultimately soak up loads more time.

House of Cards US 1 & 2 – Oh.  Hehehehe… Whoa.  So, in 2013 we mainlined The West Wing, and then to keep up with our fix of political intrigue moved on to the Scandiwegian “Borgen”.  And so to the much darker and more Machievallian progression, House of Cards.  Probably the best thing about this show for me is the theme music – the foreboding, underground/underhand bassline that so captures the iron-fisted-Southerner-in-gentlemanly-velvet-glove masterfully played by Kevin Spacey.  Reading up on it, comparisons were drawn between Frank Underwood (and the original UK incarnation, Francis Urquhart) and Richard III – and I wondered if perhaps the idea for this had been conceived as a consequence of Spacey’s by-all-accounts triumphant turn as the twisted tyrant at The Old Vic some years ago.  Or maybe it was just more wishful thinking that I’d been able to see that too.

Just get a load of that theme music:👍👍

  • House of Cards UK 1-3 – Completist that I am, I felt I now had to see what it was that the US series had been based on, and how such intrigue and malfeasance might play out in a post-Thatcher Britain.  I was utterly transfixed at how much Blair’s “Cool Britannia” had transformed Britain from what was portrayed here to what I discovered upon arriving in 2004.  As a result of the social norms of the time I felt the UK series seemed a little campy, although simultaneously more ruthless. 👍  But ultimately it’s hard to take too seriously when its contrasting theme tune went like this:

  • Game of Thrones 1-4 – Having already seen these, this was the first time I’d started from the beginning as I introduced Liz to them.  Just luscious.  Great production values, great story…  not too tongue in cheek but not TOO earnest (e.g. Lord of the Rings and its endless “BEHOLD! The [noun] of [person]!” type bollocks).  Fantastic performances, even with the ropey accents.  Roll on April 2015 for Season 5!! 👍👍
  • Madam Secretary – Tea Leoni doing a great job in a more West-Wingy style White House show, somewhat more focused on the travails of a working mother.  I simultaneously marvel at what a comprehensive job they’ve done styling her to resemble Hilary Clinton, and also at the amazing transformation that’s made her utterly compelling, versus her completely irritating turn in Jurassic Park III. 👍
  • The Bridge 1 & 2 – More Nordic Noir, this time focussed on a join police investigation between Danish & Swedish cops following the discovery of a body straddling the halfway line on a bridge between the two countries.  Rich characterisation and psychological plotlines, and utterly, utterly compelling.  This series was the move which prompted me to buy a DVD player. 👍👍
  • The Wire S1 – Going back and revisiting boxed sets from years gone past, we ripped into The Wire.  Again, rich storytelling and characterisation with great plots and a wonderful ensemble. 👍👍

It’d be easy to set a goal to read more in 2015, so that’s exactly what I’ll do.  I hereby challenge myself to read more than 5 books in 2015.

* he says, whilst typing on a laptop on Yet Another 2.5 Hour Coach Journey

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.”

bigday

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.

gunniesfinal

stonch

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).

gunniesnight

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.

gunnieschiptweet

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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WHEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEY!

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Jason’s Cinema and Literature Roundup for 2013 AD

As the early months of the year now almost dictate (in that I’ve done it twice now), it’s time to look back over the list of films/movies/motion pictures (as you prefer) I’ve seen and books that I’ve read, and reminisce, summarise, and highlight just by how much I missed the point and/or artistic merits of each.

Don’t panic – this shouldn’t take too long.

  • Taken 2 – I’m not 100% sure how I wound up watching this given that I’ve not seen Taken 1, but it was an action romp about retired CIA agent Liam Neeson and his implausible but at least less-accident-prone-than-Kim-Bauer daughter played by Maggie Grace in a far less hot role than on Californication.  It turns out the director’s name is Olivier Megaton, and that’s probably my favourite thing about this film.  Really made me think, “Man, what would *I* do if Albanian criminals kidnapped my wife and I in retrobution for me killing the leader’s son after he kidnapped my daughter?”.  If I were Liam Neeson, I’d have just used my gnarly Jedi powers.
  • Argo – Great story about the weird but true story of the rescue of US agents during an Iranian hostage crisis in 1980 by a secret op in which rescuing agents assembled a cover story of scouting out a location to film a scifi blockbuster.  Brilliant stuff, and Ben Affleck totally on form as director and star.
  • Hot Shots – One post-Saturday night Sunday morning we revisited this early 90s comedy staple: it’s got to be one of my favourite films (although, I don’t suppose it featured in my Top Ten list in 2009) filled with Airplane-style lunacy and a relentless pace of stupid gags.  This was the film that made Cary Elwes very difficult to watch indeed in SAW later in his career (“Kent, your nostrils are flaring.”).  I could probably quote the thing from end to end.  “That is the whitest white part of the eye I’ve ever seen… do you floss?”, etc.
  • Thor – My attempt at engaging with the Marvel Studios film stable: I’d have used a different 4-letter word for the title of this.  I really, really like Viking mythology (enough to name our Rover Crew after it, anyway), but putting a god in as a superhero’s just bloody ridiculous. And then, having embraced the magic & nonsense of having gods & powers, they make the Bifrost bridge (linking the mortal plane with Asgard) a piece of technology!  Just bullshit.
  • Captain America – slightly less offensively stupid superhero film, which I mainly watched because my American mate Ryan’s obsessed with the Captain.  I’ve no doubt that to someone well up on their superhero trivia this was a great steaming pile, but I didn’t hate it anywhere near as much as Thor.
  • The World’s End – long-awaited conclusion to Wright, Pegg and Frost’s Cornetto Trilogythis film follows a group of middle-aged ex-schoolmates brought back to their rural town by their former “charismatic leader”, and made to go through the motions of doing a pub crawl.  I really enjoyed this, because not only was it a gagfest in the vein of the other 2 films in the trilogy, but I enjoyed watching Simon Pegg convincingly playing such a reviling(/as well as pitiable) character, and thought they did a great job addressing the theme of not moving on.  Possibly the weakest film in the trilogy, but the gap is nowhere near as big as the gap between Star Wars and Return Of The Jedi.
  • Hyde Park on Hudson – there may have been loads going on in this historical piece about Franklin Roosevelt, but in my mind it’ll always be “the one where the old bloke got his cousin to give him a handjob”.  Possibly just a badly assembled film.  Bill Murray watchable as ever though.
  • The Lone Ranger – 2013 was a real bumper year for me watching shit films.  I thought I’d give this a go on our flight over to South Africa on the strength of the fact it had Johnny Depp playing another character piece, but it very quickly became obvious that that was the strength of the argument for having made it in the first place.  The veil of sleep overcame me several times throughout this film, so I have no recollection of what it’s about but I feel strongly that instead of being called The Lone Ranger they should’ve called it The Film Which Stars Johnny Depp With A Bird On His Head.  Distracting, that bird.
  • RED 2 – I didn’t go into this with high hopes, based on the other films I saw on that flight, but RED 2 was a surprise win.  Ridiculous ensemble action piece about a bunch of retired top-level spies coming together to thwart one of their old enemies threatening to destroy the world, framed against a fish-out-of-water story between Bruce Willis and his post-retirement civilian wife (Mary-Louise Parker, wonderfully kooky as usual).  I would imagine this nonsense didn’t win any awards, but for me it sits in alongside with Hudson Hawk in the list of highly enjoyable stupid Bruce Willis films.
  • Romance and Cigarettes – quite offbeat piece which I wanted to watch purely on the strength of it having been written & directed by John Turturro.  Steelworker James Gandolfini has affair with Kate Winslet and it’s discovered by wife Susan Sarandon, using frame-breaking musical sequences to flesh out the emotional side of the story.  Odd.  Good.  Odd.
  • Jack Reacher – Ding dong, more cinematic crap!  I’d been tipped off to this by my mate Rodney as to how bad this was, but still worth a look.  Probably the issue here was that the film had been based on the books (which I’d never read, but finding this out one feels compelled to do some research), and one of the key things about the character of Jack Reacher is that he’s 6 foot 5.  Quote from film PR at the time: “Reacher’s size in the books is a metaphor for an unstoppable force, which Cruise portrays in his own way”.  What next – a one-legged man playing Tarzan?
  • Gravity – in a complete reversal of the poor film choice trend, we saw this at the cinema round the corner from my house and my immediate response was a big Keanu-style “WHOOOOA!”.  Thoroughly gripping (to the point of white-knuckling) all the way through, the story of Sandra Bullock floating around in space was so captivating it even took my mind off the fact it was Sandra Bullock.
  • World War Z – second white-knuckle film in succession here: this is probably not a film you’d describe as a romcom.  A post-zombie apocalypse story with Brad Pitt playing a UN specialist trying to find any way of neutralising the zombie plague threatening humanity.  Utterly terrifying combination of the relentless march of the undead, and the exponential viral nature of the infection, but also because the zombies here were the single-minded freakish able-to-run starving scavengers (such as in Charlie Brooker’s Dead Set) rather than the more traditional slow shambling sort: giving you far less time to aim a shotgun headshot, for starters.
  • Much Ado About Nothing – Shakespeare in modern clothing, and proof once again that the text of communication’s not the important thing.  Well-directed Shakespeare is once again proven to be totally accessible.  Nice backstory that this film was Joss Whedon’s wife’s wedding present to him (allowing him to film this rather than go on holiday for their anniversary like usual – and wouldn’t it be nice to be able to go on a holiday that cost even a small film’s budget??)
  • Clash of the Titans – Seeing 3 decent movies in a row was an obvious anomaly, and in many ways this remake of the campy 1981 cult classic was more than an antidote.  I have no idea – ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA – what possessed me to watch this.  My notes at the time say “Steaming shit of a polished turd. Dire script, OTT effects, no character sympathy whatsoever”.  So that’s hardly redeeming, is it? It was broadly amusing that the central story idea was that of Perseus trying to save his village, called Argos.  Why didn’t they just order a magic sword out of the Laminated Book Of Dreams?  It could’ve been called Clash of the Accents – another fantasy piece demanding authenticity by all of its actors putting on ridiculous brogues, presumably because that’s how people in mystic worlds used to speak.  Liam Neeson basically put over a foilwrapped Billy Connolly.  Ralph Fiennes must’ve said “for that money, I’ll just do Voldemort”.  And Mads Mikkelsen just keeps looking around with an expression saying “What am I doing here?”.
  • Elysium – WHY ARE THE PEOPLE RUNNING THE FUTURE SO DAMN STUPID?!  By the time that this dystopian future piece set in 2154 comes around there will have been COUNTLESS films and books warning evil empress figure Jodie Foster about the dangers of the rich elite ruling relentlessly over the downtrodden colony of plebians.  The peasants ALWAYS revolt.  Oh wait, is that an allegory hovering gently into view?
  • The Net – When you’ve seen this many shit films, why fight it?  Sandra Bullock – an expert computer expert – finds herself at the sharp end of computer identity fraud, immediately prompting the question “Why didn’t they send her hurtling off into space in this film instead?”.
  • Coffee and Cigarettes – I got this to watch because after Romance & Cigarettes I knew that there was another film mentioning tobacco in the title that I wanted to watch, and for some reason my inner prat figured it must of been this one because it had Jim Jarmusch’s name attached.  I didn’t finish this though – felt like watching a series of improv scenes done by non-improvisers where they had to act out a miscellaneous few minutes which must feature mention of coffee and of cigarettes in it.  I found it painful.  Like being at a staging of a play based on a famous movie where you know that the audience are all waiting for the lead actor to inevitably say, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn”, or, like, whatever.
  • Thank You For Smoking – spin doctor for Big Tobacco shows alternate world view and some great reframing of an argument, in a piece with a great collection of characters.  I spent most of it wondering where I’d seen Aaron Eckhardt before, but noticed William H. Macy’s excellent portrayal of an over-inflated nervous shit.  I think this was the tobacco reference I was looking for.
  • Catching Fire – having quite enjoyed the first volume of the story of Katniss Everdeen & friends, this film started kinda painfully as an obvious sequel (“Oh no, even though we won our freedom by participating in the cutthroat Games, the evil President Snow has found a loophole to make us go back in there AGAIN!”), and ended in a tragically unsatisfying non-ending which basically screamed YOU HAVE TO SEE THE THIRD FILM IN ORDER TO GET CLOSURE ON THIS!  One chap leaving the cinema behind us was vocally less impressed than we were…  like, from all the way inside the cinema to out through the mall and over the road.  He’s probably still bitching about it.  As Liz pointed out, it more or less followed the book – including the end – exactly, so shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone who’d read them.  It made me think a lot about what a great job Peter Jackson did with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, in shuffling some events about in order to ensure they had 3 distinct, satisfying films.

I also read some books, after moving to a house which was located 2 tube rides from where I was working.  I think Britain will always maintain its intellectual reputation so long as it has decent public transport and people have to travel forever to get to work and back.

Part of the reading bit was me finally catching on to the idea that I could run a Kindle app on my iPad, thus providing me with a thin justification for having bought it in the first place.

  • A Game of Thrones / A Clash of Kings / A Storm of Swords / A Feast for Crows / A Dance with Dragons / The Hedge Knight / The Sworn Sword / The Mystery Knight (George RR Martin) – I read these – no, devoured them – purely as an extension to my love of the TV series.  As one of those people who came to the books after having watched the first couple of series I can’t tell whether I missed anything by having not done it the other way around…  however the TV production is so rich and has such great production values that I don’t think it detracts at all.  I was initially very impressed at the way Martin would kill off characters (in a reversal of the sort of suspense 24 never has, because you *know* Jack Bauer has to survive til the end of the day, at least), however this gave way to tedium towards the latter books as you sensed the author thinking, “Oh bollocks, now I’ve got to quickly paint some rich character backgrounds to make people feel upset when I kill these ones off too”.  Great stuff.  I hope he finishes this story before he collapses of a massive heart attack.
  • Billionaires and Ballot Bandits: How to Steal an Election in 9 Easy Steps (Greg Palast) – serial investigative agitator & pest Greg Palast (whose work I adore) lays out a trail for how US elections were rigged by way of discounting key votes in the interests of big business.  Thoroughly frustrating stuff, because you can’t bring it up in conversation without sounding like a paranoid consipracy nut, and I have a tendency to bore people stiff when faced with the argument “Well it’s not like my one vote will make any difference” which crops up around election time, as I would more than likely feel compelled to lecture people that they’re right but not for the reasons they think.  Making me sound like a paranoid conspiracy nut.  I thoroughly recommend that people read Palast’s books though.
  • The Princess Bride (William Goldman) – utterly excellent book which I selected on the basis of the utterly excellent film, which takes the device of a story of a story being told  and takes it to another level with the author’s interjections and biographic style.  I didn’t think there was any way this story could’ve been made MORE awesome, but this book does it.  And naturally it was impossible not to imagine the characters as acted in the film, and again luckily this was fine because they did a fantastic job and avoided things like casting Tom Cruise as Fezzik (Fezzik’s size in the books is a metaphor for an unstoppable force, which Cruise presumably would portray in his own way).
  • Code of the Woosters (PG Wodehouse) – my first ever Wodehouse book, prompted in part by my cousin’s fascination with the oeuvre.  Ridiculous and delightful, and I love that the only person in the world alive who talks like that was one of the people in the lead roles of the much-loved TV adaptation.  The story’s paper-thin, the details totally ridiculous, but the whole thing comes across as fanciful and loveable.
  • The Psychopath Test (Jon Ronson) – having enjoyed some of Jon Ronson’s other investigations this one about understanding what exactly a psychopath is and to what extent are these traits manifested out in the world was very interesting indeed.  Descriptions of studies, processes and clinical trials in psychiatric treatment were particularly terrifying and reinforce my view that once you’re in you’re basically screwed.
  • The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (Stieg Larssen) – another book I read after seeing the movie, making it impossible for me not to visualise Daniel Craig as the protagonist of this despite in-book descriptions not really lining up with that.  About the only flaw I could find in this intrigue piece about a maligned journalist hired to uncover an industrialist family’s dark secret (aided by the eponymous girl, a socially disconnected computer hacker) was the author’s tendency to focus on unnecessary descriptive detail.  As a quirk goes though, pretty minor.  Great stuff!  Could barely put it down.
  • The Case of The Pope (Geoffrey Robertson QC) – Geoffrey Robertson is one of my heroes.  A decent, articulate, very intelligent lawyer – he first came to my attention when I was about 12 or 14 with his series of televised “debates” called Geoffrey Robertson’s Hypotheticals screened on the ABC, in which he would construct a fictional world featuring and shaped by the opinions and stories of the panel of guests assembled, and Robertson would deftly juggle the balls of the story, prompting each panellist to expose morally rigorous beliefs and then twist the story such that they were forced to make conflicting choices based on that moral rigour.  This book is a tightly constructed case of arguments about why the Pope – specifically at time of publishing, Pope Benedict XVI – had to answer for the crimes against children carried out by members of the Catholic church.  In the balanced and referenced discussion he describes the nature of the church’s secret internal disciplinary processes and how these directly contributed to further offending and harm, the coverups, the highly secretive internal processes, and dispelling the legitimacy of the Pope’s claim to being able to avoid prosecution as a result of being a Head of State.  Whilst making me feel physically sick in many places, this book was just brilliant in terms of its depth, thoroughness, avoidance of any sort of polemic, and tendency to avoid hyperbole and stick to the bare facts of the argument.  The bit where Robertson shows that the Vatican’s claim to statehood is based on a treaty between the then-Pope and Mussolini, which no other countries anywhere were party to (and therefore an invalid international treaty) was just bamboozling.  WHY do people put up with this crap?  I wish I were capable of even one percent of Robertson’s intelligence, probity and clarity.
  • The Girl Who Played With Fire / The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest (Stieg Larssen) – following up from the previous book, I was unable to get the story of my head and had these sent straight to mi Kindle instead of working through the not inconsiderable stack of other books I had queued up.  Expanding impressively on the psychological weirdness of his previous story (and with Ronson’s findings still eerily fresh in my head) I devoured these two books similarly, about the just & righteous Blomkvist, and the shadowy and tortured Salander.  Compelling stuff, to say the very least.  Having read in an article somewhere that Larssen had a penchant for basing characters on figures from his real life, the conclusion to the third book made it quite clear who Blomkvist was based on, and suggested that had the author not died shortly after presenting his 3 manuscripts that maybe they’d have been a bit more closely redrafted/edited.  For instance, upon buying herself a new apartment and deciding to furnish it, Salander’s trip to Ikea is meticulously documented in the book – reading like a catalogue – with more or less no story relevance for the remainder of the two books.  But I think I find it comforting to read things that are both flawed and brilliant.

So there we are!  If anything, we’ve learned that I’m still crap at selecting films, and that my 2 sentence summaries are starting to creep out of control.

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!”.

pete-berthoud

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).

 

Beer steps

I’m usually pretty cynical about the effect of online petitions, however one turned up in my inbox this morning through the form of a blogpost by the excellent beer writer: Mr Pete Brown.  The matter in question is that of the UK’s “beer duty escalator”: a tax measure implemented by the Labour government in 2008, whereby an annual increase in duty on beer is pegged at inflation plus 2%.

Pete’s post describes in better words than I’ve got at my disposal what effect that has on the middle tier of the brewing industry – large multinationals have economy of scale and global markets to play in, and small brewers get tax relief – so the mid-sized brewers (and this effectively encompasses all of the larger real ale breweries) are left facing this creeping tax increase.  But the article talks in percentages and as we know that’s easy to lose sight of, so I thought it worth working through an example to illustrate the way in which it’s hurting the brewers.

To make the numbers easier, lets assume that our model beer is 5% alcohol by volume, inflation sits at 4%p.a., and in 2008 this fictional beer cost the brewer 70 pence to produce (taking into account all materials, overheads, admin, and an amount of profit).  The duty on alcohol in 2008 was £14.96 per hectolitre percent.  My maths here might be a bit on the dodgy side, but what it looks like is:

Year Brewer cost per pint Duty/pint Net price Net+VAT Actual change/yr Cumulative Percent of tax
2008 £0.70 £0.42 £1.12 £1.35 0.481418791
2009 £0.73 £0.45 £1.18 £1.41 £0.06 £0.06 0.485158349
2010 £0.76 £0.48 £1.23 £1.48 £0.07 £0.13 0.488914727
2011 £0.79 £0.51 £1.29 £1.55 £0.07 £0.20 0.492687354
2012 £0.82 £0.54 £1.36 £1.63 £0.07 £0.28 0.496475647
2013 £0.85 £0.57 £1.42 £1.70 £0.08 £0.35 0.500279012
2014 £0.89 £0.60 £1.49 £1.79 £0.08 £0.44 0.504096845
2015 £0.92 £0.64 £1.56 £1.87 £0.09 £0.52 0.507928531
2016 £0.96 £0.68 £1.64 £1.96 £0.09 £0.61 0.511773449
2017 £1.00 £0.72 £1.71 £2.06 £0.09 £0.71 0.515630966
2018 £1.04 £0.76 £1.80 £2.16 £0.10 £0.81 0.519500439

So of a 35p per pint increase between 2008 and 2013, 15p of that is the brewer’s cost price and the other 20p is taxes & duty.  Of the 15p increase the brewer receives, we have to assume that their profit margin is growing at the rate of inflation – effectively, profit-neutral (and the only way a brewer can earn more is to sell more volume – no problem with that). The real difficulty from the above comes with the fact that inflation is calculated based on a “basket of goods” calculation with different weightings for different goods, so the real input price change for the brewer may be above the rate of inflation (e.g. bad harvest year and malt goes up £20/tonne instead of £4/tonne).  If the price per pint duty increase is publicised (as it typically is), then public expectation is set for a price rise at a certain level: if the brewer’s costs rise above the inflation rate then they can choose to raise their cost price in line with their costs, or sink it in their margin and keep their cost price in line with inflation.

I *think* what I was trying to illustrate there was that with the “escalator” tax, assuming all other things remain equal, the percentage of the final price which is tax climbs – along with the actual amount being paid in to HMRC.  There’s also a slight problem in that beer is one of the items used to calculate the rate of inflation, so if the price of beer to the consumer rises faster than the rate of inflation, it will contribute to pushing up the rate of inflation.

Come to think of it, I’m not sure if writing all that helped or not.  Go to Billy’s blog and read what he said about it… might make fractionally more sense.

Or just go and sign the petition.

UPDATE: As Jeff at The Gunmakers pointed out, and as did Billy, e-petitions aren’t a foolproof way to get your cause heard.  Whilst having 100,000 names on a petition is a way to ensure that an issue makes it to a party discussion of some sort, it doesn’t guarantee that the issue will be debated in the house.  In addition to signing an e-petition, writing to your local MP to request an Early Day Motion also raises awareness of the issue (again, Billy’s blog post helps with easy ways of doing that), and this sort of “clicktivism” doesn’t replace the need for face-to-face lobbying in whatever form you can arrange it.

The mid-month mo update

It’s just past the middle of Movember, and you’ve had to endure my constant pleading for funds for a couple of weeks – so I thought I’d treat you all to a glimpse of how this year’s sub-nasal adornment is going…

After an initial gestatory Chopper phase, I brandished the precision tools this morning and the result is something which I’ve grown fond of addressing as “The Colonel”.

Thanks to your combined generosity so far we’ve managed to crack the £500 barrier, which is EXCELLENT!  As I mentioned previously if I can raise £1000 this year (and at the minute that means I only need another 49 people to donate a tenner each!), I’m going to shave my head.  I was a little surprised that some of the more vindictive of my friends hadn’t dropped large donations to ensure this happened quicker…  maybe they’re losing their touch?

The reason for these donations is to raise money and awareness for mens’ health charities – in this case, The Prostate Cancer Charity and the Institute for Cancer Research – which I feel are very important and the work that they do is fantastic.  It’s not just about me collecting donations from you guys of course: we’ve got a Movember fundraising whisky tasting coming up next week which I’m happy to report is fully booked out, and as well on the whisky front Master of Malt are selling their special Whisky4Movember Glenfarclas bottling of 9yo cask strength whisky for £39.95, with £10 from each bottle going towards Movember.

I’ve assembled a bit of a photo collection below of other friends of mine who are doing Movember this year as well – I just worked out I’ve donated about £260 to other people partaking in this shennanigans, which explains why I can’t afford to eat this month.

If you’ve not made a donation yet, then there’s still 13 days to go – anything you can spare at all would be greatly appreciated!  You can donate at my MoSpace:

mobro.co/jasonbstanding

Thanks so much, and keep the MOmentum going!

 

 

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