Thursday, 13 November 2014

The Rat Race

It's 18:24 on the 12th November 2014 and I’m at London Euston.
I’m standing as near to directly underneath the platform display boards as possible, whilst still being able to crane my neck upwards to spot the exact nanosecond the “-” in “Platform -” changes to a number. Experience tells me the number will be somewhere between 8 and 11 and I am positioned appropriately, perfectly even as the bronze statue of Matthew Flinders is touching my right shoulder, shielding me from the throbbing masses.
Thanks to an earlier signal failure at Leighton Buzzard, the 18:29 to Northampton is in serious danger of being late. As a result, the concourse closely resembles what I can only imagine an anti-anti-capitalist rally would look like and with every passing second, more bodies add to the throng.
Six inches to my right. Grey suit. White shirt. Blue tie. My Nemesis for today.
I know what he’s thinking - he’s thinking what I’m thinking. Or is he thinking that he knows what I’m thinking? So in reality, I’m thinking that he’s thinking that I’m thinking that I know what he’s thinking and now my head hurts.
Either way, we both have the same goal – door 4, front facing, double seat – and now it is very much on.
Around us gather thousands of monochromatic, frowning faces. Tightly packed, shoulders touching as though the 100% wool to 100% wool physical contact of their expertly tailored Saville row suits provides an emotional bond that somehow makes up for missing little Jimmy's first words.
"Where dada?"
Almost 49 years to the day since Gottleib’s famous anti-Vietnam war march on Washington DC (where, if my history serves me correctly, he was upstaged by a rousing, albeit largely unheard, oration from a Mr F. Gump). This mass of humanity stands here, commanded instead by the shiny bronze figure of, my new neighbour, Matty Flinders.
It's not a coincidence that Mr Flinders finds himself in this esteemed position of power. Having been heralded as the explorer who founded and named Australia, it is only right that such a great man be responsible for many others' expeditions to lands as far flung as Cheddington or even the fabled Long Buckby.
But wait, nameless traveller? Is that? Is that Jennyyou can hear and see? Rushing through the masses towards you. Promising to relieve some of the frustration caused by Jenkins from the "Digital & Technology" team (IT is such a passé title for a department these days) and his claims that the recessionary resource squeeze on his department has moved his bandwidth status to “DEFCON 2”, putting at risk the pre-stage gate 1 scoping exercise pivotal to the imminent execution of your most important, most bonus defining KPI?
No. Not Jenny. Butterworth. Maxwell Butterworth.
Maxwell Butterworth, Senior Vice President of JP Morgan's Forex derivatives trading division is a man who laughs in the face of convention. With his Ginola-esque wavy hair, light blue suit, salmon shirt and royal blue stripy (yes, stripy, for the love of God) tie would leave it totally forgivable for one to mistake his gaudy, non-conformist appearance for an ageing, fictional, female hippy.
But that doesn’t explain the voice. A deep, sultry female voice that somehow combines the silky smoothness of Galaxy chocolate with just a hint of gravel. You can feel the sexual tension in the air, particularly evident from the brokers and their thick pin-stripes as they begin beating their chests like a martini-infused Matthew McConaughey. It’s unsurprising, really, as this is the only semblance of female contact these alpha-males have had since Trixxxy provided the lunchtime entertainment for them and their most important Middle Eastern clients.
But there’s something more in that voice. Something monotone, digital even.
“The Train Now Arriving at Plat…”
Time slows to a crawl. 2,000 eyes dart up to the departure board in perfect unison and read the all-important number.
Blue tie and I instantly know that our dreams of optimal seating are over. Our eyes almost meet, in a taboo shattering display of madness. Almost, but we’re not that naïve and quickly refocus on the task in hand.
The herd of charcoal wildebeest explode into life, throwing more elbows than Fashanu in a Wimbledon kit as the pinstripes bellow the “Awooga!” war cry synonymous with the days when the aforementioned Fash had more of the speed, strength and heart to be a winner.
The surge is irresistible, ploughing through the filthy casuals in the queue for Upper Crust with unstoppable force on our way to the delayed London 18:29 Midland Service to Northampton now arriving on platform 13.
Then I spot him. A slightly taller Clint Howard doppelganger, blessed with the serious expression and horn-rimmed glasses that give him a much more academic and studious aura than his Hollywood counterpart. Clearly, he’s a slow disembarker from the neighbouring inbound train service, I spy him as he reaches the top of the ramp that leads down to the promised land of platform 13.
This man does not live in a world where physical and athletic prowess have been responsible for his survival to this point. I am willing to bet that his sleeveless green cardigan and blue checked shirt, coupled with baggy brown corduroy trousers is in no way hiding the body of a Greek Adonis underneath. I’m very was worried, panicked in fact at how this is going to turn out for him.
He stops. Frozen in place like the statue of the great Matty Flinders, just squishier. My pulse quickens and I quickly correct my course, anticipating the opportunity to securing a better seat on the train as many of those in front of me clatter into and subsequently trip over the unfortunate man’s lifeless corpse.
However, Instead of a bloodcurdling scream, cower of terror or even the passive-aggressive “excuse me” that would have formed my strategy were roles reversed, the strangest thing happened.
Instead, the man relaxes and stands up tall. He smiles. Actually cracks a smile, letting the crowds part around him. In this testosterone fuelled life-or-death environment of fight or flight this dude is Chilled. As. F*ck.
Looking back now, it was almost as though he was encased in a beam of light from the heavens – standing out through a colourful contrast of dirty green sweater vest against the charcoal suits backdrop. Almost immediately my shoulders relaxed, my pace slowed and I felt the unfamiliar feeling of the corners of mouth twitching upwards. This fraction of a second of simple humanity had shattered the bubble I had encased myself in. It and changed the way I saw the world at that moment, away from a place where the only thing that mattered was how to get home as quickly and angrily as possible.
Could this have been one of those pivotal moments in life? The ones that inspire you to start dreaming again, start writing again or change your whole outlook on the world?
At the time, I didn’t think that moment could have been any more poignant, but I was quickly proved wrong.
Out of his brown cords came his left hand. In his left hand was some kind of foil package. A 19g bag of Wotsits, the “multi-pack pack, not for resale” text clearly illustrating that this pack was no an impulse purchase but transported lovingly from home for just such an occasion.
Did this pioneer of social rebellion settle for your standard Wotsits? Would this man, one of the last true renegades of our times, conform to the “Cheesy Flavour” stereotype of the Wotsit paradigm?
Heck no. But you already knew that didn’t you?
The maroon accents of the pack quickly told me what I’m sure you’ve already worked out. This man dines only on Prawn Cocktail flavoured Wotsits. He scoffs at “Cheesy Flavour” and, in my mind, I am certain sure that his full confectionary repertoire consists only of BBQ Hula Hoops and Worcester Sauce Walkers – even Pickled Onion Monster Munch is too run of the mill for this man.
As I watched a second snack popped nonchalantly between his teeth, it dawned on me that this was more than just a fundamental shift in my outlook on life. It was more than a stark reminder that my view of the world had been muddied by the sheep around me.
This man was, and now is my hero. He gave the middle finger to the man and then commanded him to “swivel” via the medium of a well-placed fishy snack.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

I'm calling from you baaank...

Just to be clear - the plight of genuine Syrian refugees is pretty unpleasant. I did check that this was a known scam through the magic of Google before responding...

A few days ago, I received an email from a lady called Safia from Syria. It sounded legit so I decided to reply. Below is the email conversation to date (I have changed her email address for security purposes).

Date: Mon, 17 Dec 2012 15:52:46
Subject: <no subject> 
I'm am safia hassan from syria,I have a business proposal that will benefit
both of us please get back to me on my private email for
further details. Safia

 I decided to reply. 100% sarcasm free.

Date: Mon, 17 Dec 2012 17:24:49
From: <myemail>
Subject: Re:
Dear Safia,
As a long time viewer of BBC's Dragons Den and graduate in management studies from the University of Life I am always interested in business proposals, especially given the thrust of today's world towards global commerce between stable political nations. 
I have heard Syria is beautiful at this time of year and would love to visit one day. 
You have also caught me at an excellent time in my life - I have recently received wonderful news. 
I have won first prize in the annual Ghanaian lottery and once my administration fee of £500 has cleared I shall be the beneficiary of more than $10m dollars. 
As a sound and cautious investor, I would love to use a portion of this money to invest in new multinational ventures - provided they are good propositions of course! 
All I ask is that you tell me of the idea and provide some identification so I can confirm you are who you say you are. A signed photograph would be ideal, preferably with a local landmark in the background. 
One other thing. In her majesty's Great Britain, we pride ourselves in our formal communication. As such, I would ask that all future communications begin with "Dear Bobmeister2k" and end with "Yours faithfully / sincerely / truly / obediently etc." as otherwise I may deem your emails to be impolite. 
I look forward to hearing more of your proposal. 
Yours subserviently, 

She left me hanging for a couple of days, I feared I would never hear from her again, but then the magic new email sound...

Date: Mon, 19 Dec 2012 09:51:24
Subject: Re:
Assalamualaikum my dear friend i pray my message meet you and your family in good heath as you join me to pray of the peace of the Syrian people,Like i told you before i am a Mother of two children and i am from Syria i am Islam i dot want to disclose my family name for now because of security reasons and for the safety of me and my children but you will understand and know more about me in my nest email if i receive good response from you after you read this message,please i need your trust and help because of the situation going on in Syria this is why i need some one to help me and my children into a better future in a truthful and holy way and to be my partner in this subject,i got your email address from Google check for emails the reason why i am contacting you is that i need your assistants and partnership and by so doing you will be high reworded i need who can help me receive my family funds that i want to transfer out of where is been deposited to a safer place and to receive it on my behalf because of the situation in Syria and what has happen to me i want to leave Syria to a safer place Syria is no longer safe for me and my family after all that has happened to us this funds it is not a stolen items or for the government of Syria the funds belongs to this family do not think of any evil or have any doubt over this issue i mean what i am saying and is true if you are willing to be my partner i will be able to give more informations to help you and i assure you of your safety because no one knows about this Funds except my late husband and i promise to reword you as you willing to partner with me.this all i can tell you for now and i hope you understand and work with me in a right and trustful way.if my message is clear to you i want you to send me some informations about you for further  conversation. (1)your full name (2)your nationality (3)a mobile number i can call you on.i shall call you to discus more about this issue with you on phone if i receive good response from you,
thank you.

Apologies for the wall of text - I felt I should leave formatting unchanged. I responded quickly, I could hardly contain myself.

Date: Mon, 19 Dec 2012 15:41:29
From: <myemail>
Subject: Re: 
Greetings Safia,

Thank you for your email. Whilst…

  • Your failure to send a photograph of a local landmark as requested 

  • Your failure to begin your latest correspondence with “Dear Bobmeister2k” as requested 

  • Your failure to end your latest correspondence with “Yours faithfully / sincerely / truly / obediently etc.” as requested 

  • Your assertion that you told me previously of your two children when this is clearly not the case 

  • Your unwillingness to tell me your family name even though your email comes up as from “Safia Hassan”
…could suggest (to a more cynically minded person) that this email is a non-personalised, pre-prepared email sent out to anyone who replies to your first email, I am a man of faith and believe your heart to be true. Especially, given your assurances that your funds are “not stolen item” and that I should “not think of any evil or have any doubt over this issue i mean what i am saying and is true”. 
In fact, the “automated” feel of this email instead suggests to me that there may be other suitors that you are in discussions with that think they have chance of getting their grubby mitts on my “reword”. Much like something that would significantly benefit the grammatical correctness of your email, I will be the one who is “reworded”. I will prove to you that I should be the one to take care of your fortune. 
Firstly, however, let me congratulate you on the longest single sentence I have ever read. Your complete disdain for the full stop and liberal spattering of unnecessary capital letters and commas shows an artistic flair that I can truly relate to and really helps me to sympathise with your cause. 
Now, let me explain to you why I should be the one help you in your quest for a safe haven for your fortune… 
  • I have recently won the $11.3m jackpot on the Ghanaian lottery. Once the £500 “admin fee” cheque I have written to the Ghanaian Lottery Commission (GLC) clears I will receive these funds. Because of my unimaginable wealth, I will be a very trustworthy custodian of your monies and not tempted to add them to my sizeable personal fortune 
  • I have two full collections of the Natwest pig piggy banks. This collection includes 2 x Sir Nathaniel Westminster, 2 x Lady Hillary Westminster, 2 x Maxwell Westminster, 2 x Annabel Westminster and 2 x Woody Westminster. As you can see, this is a full double collection. Why is this important you ask? Firstly, it shows a commitment to a banking institution throughout the 1980s and personal liquidity and solvency across this period. Secondly, these ceramic creatures would be perfect for housing your monies, keeping them distinct from my fortuitous fortune 
  • I have 93.3% a positive feedback seller rating on my eBay account and am well on my way to my “Blue Star”. The only reason this is not 100% is because “bluemagoo473” claimed that the 47 crayon Crayola set I sold him was insufficiently sharpened before posting. Well, that idiot should have read the small print. It was clearly in the small print. I hope he burns. 
  • I own a small container shipping business with premises on the Port of Tyne (near Newcastle). Not only can I funnel your money through the accounts of my business upon receipt in order to “clean” it, but I have also historically used one of my shipping vessels to ferry people from their motherlands to find refuge in my fair country. In fact, if we conclude this business quickly enough I may be able to offer you and your family passage on my next inbound vessel – you may even get to meet Mr. Nigel from the GLC!
I have no doubt that having read the above you will conclude that I am the best partner for your venture. As a show of faith I have included my contact details below: 
(1)    Full Name: James Wilson Vincent Saville
(2)    Nationality: British
(3)    Telephone number: +44208 7438000
I look forward to hearing from you. Please note that the phone number I have given you is my work line and they can sometimes be a bit cautious in putting you through to my desk. If you have trouble, please email me. 
As I requested before – please send me a photo of you, ideally next to a local landmark. 
Yours concomitantly, 

Please note that the phone number is not mine - it's the switchboard at BBC television centre. Worry ye not, the very next day she was back in touch!

Date: Mon, 20 Dec 2012 11:39:30
Subject: Good wishs from your friend Safia
Assalamualakum dear <myname> 
Thank you very much for you response to my email as you have choosing to help this family believe me you will never regret it.doh my letters are very long please take time to read it,i am sorry to send you this message is not to bother you but please i am in need of your help and partnership i am the wife of late Ayman Rahaj saad who was killed by the Bashar al-Assad military they shot my husband right in front of me in our house in Homs because he deflected from the Bashar al-Assad Government after much killing on protesters they killed my husband and claim he was a rebel My husband was never a rebel he was a hard working man a good father of two children he was only asking for the justice of the people before his death he was working with the Syrian Government.the reason why i contact you is to seek your assistant in this issue i have funds deposited with a safe keeping company in two boxes it was labeled as family valuable antiques/treasure because we dot want to disclosed what we have in the boxes to the company as cash we only told them is our family belongings so they can help us move it to Saudi Arabia where we have plan to move to before the death of my husband.this plans came up when we saw the way the crisis was going we have already made plan to live the country to Saudi Arabia before my husband was murdered.At the night they killed my husband, me and my two kids run out of the house from the back door into the street of homs where a lot of killing take place that night thanks to the Red-Cross worker who found us and take us to a refugee Camp in Syria/Turkey border where we have been living for almost 1year and 6 months now.Please I need you to help me because the safe keeping company where we deposited our boxes has stop operation in Syria because of the international sanctions on Syria by the international community the company have write to notify me to come and receive my boxes with them because the company has finally closed down their office in Syria and they have move out of Syria.due to my situation i am in a refugee camp i can not travel any where to receive my boxes from them because they left Syria and i can not ask them to send the boxes to me here in a refugee camp it will not be safe of me to receive the boxes here because there is no where i can keep the boxes here with me in a refugee camp where i have thousands people around me this is why i need you urgent help to stand and help me act on my behalf to receive the boxes for me.i have the document of deposit with me that show i and my family are the right owner of the deposit so you need not to worry about any problems or risk in helping me. 
Insha allah this funds belong to me and my husband is not for the Government of Syria or for any one i guaranty you of your safety I am willing to give you %25 of the total funds of 9.2millons Dollars if you are willing to help me secure the funds into your country where i can be able to plan a new future for me and my family and invest our money in a good investment i will let you own 20 percent shear in any business we invest in i shall sign all required documents needed for you to contact the security company and act on my behalf as my family member.As soon as we receive our refugee status from the united nations me and my two kids will move to live in your country because Syria is no longer safe for us any more Please i seek your honesty and trust to help me i dot know you but i believe this is happening for a good reason i also send you a copy of me and my children Refugee id card and i also want you to send me your ID card or passport copy and tell me few things about you so i can be sure of who i am dealing with because i am still very careful on who i talk to because those who kill my husband are still after my life because they know i have the document and information's they kill my husband for so i am been very careful giving out information to who i am not sure of i will wait to receive you information before i can be totally free to deal with you ,thank you so much once again for your care and consign about this family and i want to remind you this issue is not one of those scam message you receive you from those evil people looking to cheat other people you can go to the security company your self and solve the issue there if you are willing to help me and you must not forget to send me your id card it is very important i want to be sure of who i am dealing with.thanks
Yours faithfully

The superbly crafted refugee cards were a beautiful touch. The jaunty angle applied to the pictures to make it look as though they were scanned rather than made in MS paint was a particularly nice touch...

Date: Mon, 20 Dec 2012 20:12:10
From: <myemail>
Subject: Re: Good wishs from your friend Safia
Dear Safia, 
Firstly, your thank you for attempting the correct greeting and ending in your last email. Whilst your intent was noble, the execution was somewhat lacking. Typically “yours faithfully” is only used when addressing a letter to someone who’s name you do not know. By now you know me well, like family in fact, so you should have ended your email with “yours sincerely”. 
Nevertheless, it is wonderful to hear from you again! I hope you are well and that your extended stay in Turkey has done little to dampen your spirit. 
I love Turkey, it is a wonderful country with fine cuisine and even better weather! 
I say fine cuisine, but one has to be careful with sweeping generalisations. I once visited a kebab emporium called “Abrakebabra” in Tipperary in Ireland (not sure how I confused Ireland with Turkey at the time, but that’s another story) and left with a €5 less than I came in with, a full belly and a tapeworm whom I named “Alvin”. Alvin sadly passed away just a few months ago – so I can empathise fully with the loss of your husband. 
Anyway, that’s by the by. As you can see from my attached passport photo, I have been to Turkey not once, not twice, but thrice in recent years. I trust that this photograph will suffice in terms of proof of my identity (that is my thumb in the photograph). 
I must confess that my only real problem during my numerous visits to Turkey in the past has been the unreliability of internet connection in even the swankiest of hotels. I am glad that your current residence at the refugee camp has excellent internet facilities as well as a means to scan the clearly legitimate ID cards of you and your family. 
Now down to business. As an avid watcher of Dragon’s Den, I know that big Theo would turn in his (as yet unfilled) grave if I were to accept your first offer. So I am going to make you a counter offer. 
I would like to ask for: 
  • A 30% handling fee – that is 5% more than your initial offer and; 
  • 51% of any business that we invest in (rather then the 20% currently offered) – I am always cognisant that I must own a controlling stake in any business venture I enter into. This is not negotiable. 
So, you now have the proof of my identity that you asked for and I have made my terms clear. If these are acceptable to you I would be delighted to continue with this arrangement and would love to know what the next steps are. 
I am also very happy to hear that you are not one of those evil people looking to cheat other people – this does a lot to put my mind at rest. 
I look forward to hearing from you. 
Yours faithfully, 

And that is where the story takes a break for now - hopefully there will be a part 2...

Thursday, 29 November 2012

A Letter to Tony Woodley...

Today I encountered three things that annoyed me to do with public transport.

First, someone kicked me out my seat on the train because they had reserved it. I sat in the empty seat immediately across the aisle.

Secondly, someone decided that the best time to find their Oyster card was as they stood in front of the barrier. It was at the bottom of their handbag.

Finally, and this broke the camel's back. I had to walk home from the tube because there was a bus strike. Below is a genuine email I just sent to Tony Woodley, Executive Office of Unite. Let's see if he replies...

Dear Tony,
I write to you in a state of coldness, I hope you excuse any spelling mistakes that result from my shivers. Sadly, today I had to walk for almost 15 minutes as a result of a lack of buses. More importantly, I was forced to utilise London's underground. As a man of relatively short stature and a severe case of gralmitophobia this was clearly a cause of great distress.

I must say I am not fully up to date on the reasons for today's industrial action but can only assume that it boils down to something along the lines of "We. Want. More. Money" (similar to the great Canadian strike of April 2008 regarding the allocation of America's "Internet Money" - source:

Notwithstanding my lack of research into the subject, I can conclude that the action is contrary to the best interests of this great nation. You see, the best case scenario from your perspective is that a pay increase is granted to your members. This has two results:

Firstly, this creates an artificial imbalance in the labour market - with labour demand artificially suppressed below equilibrium levels by a shift in the labour supply curve. The end result? Further pressure on overall employment levels or increased unemployment amongst those who are not part of your "club".

Secondly, and more importantly, any pay increase will have zero bearing on real incomes as any wage increase feeds almost immediately into inflationary pressure and prices increase offset any rise in nominal incomes. Sadly, this is not demand pull inflation consistent with the oh so needed real economic stimulus (i.e. driven by resource scarcity resulting from increased demand) but cost push inflation, which is completely divorced from any true economic recovery.

This inflationary spiral will quickly land upon the desk of Merv, who will be rapidly required to send a telegram to big Dave to inform him of the sorry state of affairs - inflation above target with no concurrent real growth. This would only lead to a rapid hoik of the base rate being hungrily translated into mortgage rates by the banks you so often (and often rightly) demonise.

Then what do you have? A fragile economy, people clinging on to liquidity through cheap mortgages and outstanding credit which suddenly rocket as a result of inflation. Mortgage and credit card defaults soar and you are left with a huge portion of society left bankrupt and unable to afford even public transport. As demand for bus journeys fall, Arriva is forced to cut back on staffing numbers, and your members are left being paid significantly less. Zero in fact.

I said there were two points. Actually there are three. My neighbour Steve deals in fixed rate derivatives. He is more leveraged than a private equity backed MBO. He has a small Chateau in Bordeaux, A Peruvian monastery, 2 Ferraris and a chalet in Val D'Isere. His current cashflow would be unable to afford a 5% base rate so he would likely have to let out the flat next door. People who rent are typically noisy and unpleasant and I would rather avoid this if at all possible.

Thank you for you understanding and I look forward to a reconsidered view of industrial action in future. You will be pleased to know that this furious typing has warmed my hands up significantly.

Kind regards,
Lethargic Invective (Obviously I actually signed by real name)

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Goodbye Cruel World

It is with great sadness with which I bid farewell to this cruel cruel world.

Goodbye to all the cruel irony.

Cruel irony that pairs the sweet nectar of an aged single malt with the agony of the morning after.

Cruel irony that pairs the aroma of a summer meadow with red eyes and a 6 month sniffle.
Cruel irony that pairs the sublime taste of oysters with uncontrollable vomiting when visiting a school friend you haven't seen in years who suggests a "local special" oyster lunch.

Cruel irony that pairs the appeal and amusement of the whole concept of irony with stupid people unable to comprehend or correctly use this concept, whilst still insisting on calling it irony.

Cruel irony that places a black fly into your Chardonnay.
Anyway, enough about Irony. The biggest irony of all is that I don't want to end it all, yet have brought the end upon myself.
I've spent a good chunk of the last 28.5 years investing in life. I've invested in education. Invested long hours into the lower rungs of the career ladder. Invested in a house. Invested in relationships and now it's payback time.

Thankfully, the investments have started paying off - I got a pretty good job thanks to education1; work less hours for more money than I used to thanks to investing time in corporate politics and (to a lesser extent) working hard2; pay bugger all on a mortgage due to my timely purchase and prudent remortgaging3; and should shortly be reaping all the cooky-cleany-lunchmakey-sexy rewards that come with marriage thanks to 11.5 years of relationship investment4.

Quite frankly, now I should be cashing out these investments and living the high life - jetting off on Safari to Kenya, or to a private villa in Zanzibar, staying in Ice Hotels, jumping off high objects and lighting cigars with £20 notes - all of this before I am forced to succumb to the obligation to do my bit to reverse the dumbing down of society and pass these "grade A" genes onto the next generation.

Instead, four men, men I considered friends. Best friends. Family. Are conspiring to take this from me. You see, this is no suicide note. Far from it - I am quite fond of life these days. This is a cry for help, an accusation, a note from beyond the grave to highlight the murderous actions of these so called "Best" men.
Tomorrow I embark on my stag weekend. I know nothing, except to be at Heathrow for 7.15am and to fear for my life.

So if this is the end, I regret nothing...

...except for selecting four best men instead of one. That was pretty stupid.

1 and a lot of luck
2 and a lot of luck
3 and a lot of luck
4 and a lot of blackmail material

Friday, 15 June 2012

On the origin of the species

Tell me. Seriously. Who doesn’t like daffodils? They're awesome

Daffodils bring back happy Summer memories from my childhood. Memories of a round-faced little me (complete with Dame Edna style giant round spectacles) romping through the grounds of a manor house (that had been transformed into my Dad’s place of work) with my angelic blonde brother in tow.

We selected only the finest Daffodils – not yet opened but always with a fully bloomed, healthy set of peers so to give them the best chance of growing up to be the same (that’s right, even six year old me had an inherent grasp of probability and genetics).

Throughout the Summer our house was emblazoned with yellow. It was great.

However, in a travesty that would never be allowed in the modern molly-coddled society, my negligent parents never instructed me nor my brother to, at all costs, avoid eating the daffodils.

They never told me that daffodils were poisonous. They never told me of the risks of abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhoea or (worst of all) loss of appetite that could come from eating daffodils.

I am truly blessed to still be here today given all of the opportunities to eat daffodils that have confronted me over the years.

Or am I?

Alternatively, Is it actually the case that because I was endowed with (debatably) more than a full gnat’s goblet of common sense and an IQ that miraculously stretched out of the single digits that I decided that eating flowers, pretty flowers that are there to look at and smell, was a bad idea?
Given the plethora of Daffodil Poisoning advice websites and recent news stories such as this1 you’d think this trend warranted one of those apocalyptic-disease-pandemic Hollywood films (or at least a series of 24). Supermarkets genuinely had to attach multi-lingual “do not eat” labels to daffodils in order to contain this deadly phenomenon.

Whatever happened to natural selection? Why do issues like the daffodil one and signs like these even have to exist?

Throughout the ages (unless you believe in a literal interpretation of the bible, or scientology etc.) natural selection has promoted survival of the fittest. If it’s been good enough for the past few billion years, why are we trying to resist it now?

There’s quite often a theme in object of my invective. Stupidity, incompetence and ineptitude figure pretty damn regularly and this is the reason that the “death of natural selection2” scares the bejesus out of me.

Here, I am going to artfully sidestep all arguments involving social class, religion, politics, the education (and in particular higher education) and stick to the cold hard statistics3

Quite simply. Intelligence is genetic. Statistically, the number of progeny is inversely proportional to intellect (i.e. stupid people have more children). Thus, the average intelligence of the population is being diluted.

Peoples is done getting stupider.

It’s for this reason that whenever one of my friends or colleagues (assuming they are intelligent of course) announces impending child-based emburdenment I am not just happy for them but also happy for me.

To these fine folk I say “Go forth saviours of tomorrow and reproduce!”

“Let it be known to your young - and their young that follow - that they are of a dying breed and it is their duty pass on genes that society has forgotten!”

1OK. OK. I get that this was mainly caused by cultural differences with the local Chinese population, Daffodils being placed near produce in stores and Daffodils looking like a Chinese cooking herb but give me some artistic license here please?!?

2Technically “the death of natural selection” is completely the wrong way to look at it. Natural selection involves the survival of those who adapt best to the environment that they are in. What has actually happened is that our societal environment has developed in such a way that it has eradicated certain selection pressures that would otherwise exist. Namely, there are fewer and fewer selection benefits of intelligence.

3As provided by the music video for Korn’s “Evolution” and the (terrible) 2006 movie “Idiocracy”. An Indisputable pair of statistical sources if ever I saw them.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Mudding and Scumbags

Scumbag Steve and Good Guy Greg - Tough Mudder Style

Get me with my "memes". Totally down with the kids, that's me.

I suppose this is kind of the sequel to "Running and Sine Waves" from back in October. I wrote about how I'm happy to live through short sharp bursts of effort, interspaced with periods of indulgent lethargy to recharge. I also spoke of the wonders of lycra running trousers, but that's beside the point.

Last Saturday was absolutely one of the bursts - me and three mates took on (and kicked the backside of) the innaugral Tough Mudder UK held in Kettering. Sadly, this time, the man-giant to lycra ratio was far from optimal...

Over the years I've learnt that a large proportion of people are, for want of a better term, assholes1. This applies in particular to large groups of blokes and particularly in particular to large groups of blokes attempting to show off in front of their peers and / or act like "the big man".

As I awoke on Saturday morning at 7.45am (Yes, that's SEVEN FORTY FIVE AM. On a SATURDAY) I began my physical and mental preparations for the 12 mile, obstacle filled death run that lay ahead of me. Physical preparation was 2 bananas, bottle of lucozade and a lot of stretching. Then came the mental side:

"Just remember. People are assholes. Assholes make you angry. Angry people get injured or hit things. Neither of those are good outcomes. Practice zen like calm. Ignore the assholes"

I repeated this to myself. Over and over and over again. Then. And only then. Was I ready.

After I arrived and signed in, I was certainly not disappointed by the Mudder population. There were more team T-Shirts than a Ryanair flight to Magaluf. The equivalent of the "Wigan Wife-Beating Club", "Thames Valley University Bukkake Society" and "Liverpool FC Supporters Club" (the worst of the lot) were everywhere I looked; equalled in number by the shirtless, bodypainted or "more tattoo than man" brigades.

But the potent combination of my steely mental preparation, the group warm-up and the amusing middle aged man in the start pen (intent on pushing his own - terrible yet brilliant - brand of americanised "hoo-rah" motivational rubbish) combined in a perfect storm of ridiculosity that cause my brain chemistry to flip.

The assholes didn't annoy me, they were quite simply hilarious. More than that, they were my team mates, my comrades and we were all after the same goal.

Then, the countdown began and before I knew it I was swept along in a sea of testostorised beefcake (with just a sprinkling of lady spartan) towards the first obstacle...

Tough Mudder 2012 - UK

Incidentally (although clearly not thinking about this at the time) the Tough Mudder inventors have come up with a ridiculously good business model. Take 10,000 people paying somewhere betwen £70 and £100 to take part (all paid 6 months before the event - not a bad working capital cycle). Add to that another couple of thousand spectators at £10 or £20 a pop. Throw in parking at £5 a car and a couple of lucratvie sponsorship deals and bam - you get some rich Mudders Funders.

Anways, back to the running. From the very first sprint, a number of my co-combatants lived fully up to expectations. Play fighting, swearing, pushing and barging past me - I even heard two guys discussing the most subtle way of ditching their slightly larger compatriot so they could finish in a faster time (this is not the aim of Tough Mudder).

This lack of team spirit was absolutely tipified by the actions of many on the biggest (12ft high) Berlin Walls. A true Scumbag Steve moment. These walls need teamwork to get over - if you're only 5' 10'' like me anyway. You need one or two men to boost you up and someone on top of the wall to grab your arm and help you to the top. Once you're up, grab the next guy (always grab the next guy!) and away you go. The number of people flipping over the top without even a cursory "thanks mate" was ridiculous.

Not our race - same walls

But then, on the second of these walls, something incredible happened. One Steve transformed right in front of my eyes into a Greg...

The second person of a two man team found that his "team-mate" had already flipped over the top and sprinted off. He tried desparately to run and jump up the wall - again and again. The look of genuine shock on his face when we got to the wall and offered him a leg up was astounding - as if he had never even considered this was a possibility.

He reached the top of the wall, every fibre of his being aching to be on his chavvy little way, but he stopped. He reached down and helped the first of our team up. This was the second greatest moment of the day.

I said before that "a number of my co-combatants lived fully up to expectations". This was true, but the number that did was completely overshadowed by those that didn't. The Timmy Mallet lookalike's chants in the start pen genuinely seemed to be taken to heart by at least 80% of the people on the course - "leave no mudder behind".

I was pulled out of rivers, pushed up mud-filled plastic tubes, applauded when running past groups of people waiting for their more portly compadres to catch up and high-fived for my technique down the slip 'n' slide. This made the whole experience more "fun" than "tough" (though don't let the organisers hear you saying that...).

Just as the wall tipified the bad, the giant half-pipe - a 16ft, slippery slope after 11.9 of the 12 miles had been completed - tipified the camaraderie and teamwork involved.

The Halfpipe

You stand at the bottom of this thing - watching people run up, slip and promptly faceplant into the plastic and slide limply back down - and think it looks impossible. It does.

You take a deep breath (you've just got out of freezing cold water following "walking the plank"), brace yourself, then sprint, sprint a bit harder, keep sprinting and hold out your arms (don't jump for gods sake). Then, if you're lucky (Really lucky as I was) The Rock's more athletic stunt double will catch you and haul you up to the top of the halfpipe.

It was then it dawned on me. It's not the people trying and failing to run up the halfpipe that makes this a spectacle. It's the tens of people lying on the top, having just run 12 miles and completed 20 obstacles, that stick around grabbing other people and flinging them up to join them that make this the best obstacle of the lot. There were shed loads of Good Guy Greg's up there.

And so came the best moment of the day. After about 10 minutes, the two of our team who had got lucky managed to catch and haul up the third. There was just one teammate left. Just him and his completely gripless trainers. To be honest, after 15 minutes I was starting to think he wasn't going to make it, but he gave it one more go. I'll never know how, but this time he ran a little bit harder. We caught him, dragged him up and the feeling was immense.

But that wasn't it. We looked at each other and it was clear we were all thinking the same thing - "just one more". Thankfully the next guy must've weighed around 8 stone. We almost threw him over the back of the halfpipe. Job done.

Just a swift jog through a forest of 10,000 volt (apparently) live wires and we were done. Knackered, freezing cold and feeling a little bit guilty. Guilty because I'd assumed everyone would be like the 20% that actually were Steves. They weren't. I know full well without at least a couple of Gregs (other than my teammates) the whole thing wouldv'e been a whole lot tougher, and a whole lot less fun.

1I in no way exclude me and my friends from this generalisation of people being assholes, in some circumstances I certainly fall into categorisation.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

One Track Day

One track days

It always starts the same way. A song hits the iPhone, probably heard it 1,000 times before. This time, it’s different. Somehow it’s just that little bit more awesome. It’s possibly the single best song you’ve ever heard. Well, that day at least.

The song finishes – 3 little presses on the headphone remote and it starts up again. It’s just as good as before. Better in fact. Three little presses. Screw – this, “repeat one”…

Before you know it, it’s a One Track Day.

As a man with the attention span of a 2 month old puppy (and a tendency to make more mess), it shocks me that I can listen to the same song over and over again for a day, or even days at a time. Whether its numbing the tedium of an excel spreadsheet (Gimp! Gimp! Gimp to the beat!), blocking out the rest of the world on the bus or getting me through that last mile of a Sunday run – sometimes one song is all you need.

So, in a departure from my usual lazy ranting, I’m going to use this post to keep a record of these One Track Days – when and why did they happen and why are the songs just that damn good?

The plan is to update this post over time as more of these days happen – stay tuned for updates.

lostprophets – Last Summer

lostprophets - Last Summer (Live at Reading Festival 2007)
I was actually there for this, bang in the middle of the pit - it was awesome
"Top marks for the sitty down jumpy up thing"

Uni was over, I’d just moved into a flat with a particularly lucky lady (who’s still hanging around). I bought my first contract phone (a Samsung D800 – a brick. Later I lost this phone, ironically, at a lostprophets concert).

My D800 was the first mp3 device I owned – with a whopping 80mb of inbuilt memory – enough for one whole album. That album was the lostprophets’ second album, Start Something.

It was a sunny October morning back in 2005 and I was in the first month of my first graduate job. Striding along Regent’s Canal towards the Angel tube station on my way to another 14 hour session of making rich people richer, Last Summer came on.

Yes, it’s a good song, but it’s not even in my top 3 ‘prophets songs. That morning it just sounded a little bit different. The opening guitar tones hit me like a punch in the stomach that set off two competing impulses. First, pangs of longing for that week at uni after my final exams a few months earlier. Then, a burst of un-jaded enthusiasm and energy along with the desire to attack the day to come, and all the spreadsheets it would bring.

Repeat was hit, and this was my first One Track Day.

Brand New – Sowing Season

Brand New - Sowing Season

A good buddy (who incidentally I have not seen for far too long, must fix that) has the most ridiculous knowledge of music. I was getting sick to death with my narrow music collection at the time so I asked the young lad for a few albums that I should listen to. He came back with what can only be described as an incredible collection.

Futures by Jimmy Eat World. A brilliant album, Work is still a favourite today – but it never quite made it as a One Track Day.

Never Take Friendship Personal by Anberlin. Currently one of, if not the band I listen to most – but more on these guys later.

From Here to Infirmary by Alkaline Trio. The only one I never got into – just too punky for my taste.

Decemberunderground by AFI. Totally not my kind of music. Totally loved it – doesn’t really get a look in these days.

And finally, The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me by Brand New

This was the first of the albums he suggested that I got round to listening to. Track 1, Sowing Season – started off slowly, very slowly – I thought of Radiohead (it sounds nothing like Radiohead) and I wanted loud dammit. You’ve failed me! Oh cruel world! Buddy, what have you done? What is this rubbis…

Then it kicked in.

Then it got played over and over again.

That album has some incredible songs – You Won’t Know, Not the Sun, The Archers’ Bows Have Broken and, best of all, Jesus (which still gets played lots today).

In 2007 I saw them in the tent at Reading. The second most disappointing band I have ever seen live (after the Chilis at that same festival – they may as well not have turned up). The singer broke into a self-indulgent monologue about how we should love each other, recounting a story that sounded awfully like Joey’s “when I was hiking through the foothills of Mount Tibidabo” pick up line before giving a half-arsed rendition of a couple of songs. Ah well, at least the recorded stuff is good…

InMe – Soldier

InMe - Soldier (Live at the Islington Garage - December 2010)
Had to include this even though not best recording - I was there!

Inme - Soldier

If there was an award for the most “One Band Days” of any artist – InMe would take it without a shadow of a doubt. I don’t usually have favourite anythings, but this is my favourite band.

There was no special event, no special memory here – it was just the first time I played through the Daydream Anonymous album. I generally dislike every new song or album when I first hear it (not in a “I prefer the old stuff” / “the book is better than the film” pretentious kind of way mind you – songs just tend grow on me). Not this song. No growing required.

After the distinctive mechanical whir, Soldier started playing and it didn’t stop for about 3 days straight. It’s one of those songs you just know before you’ve ever heard it – perfectly written with more energy than a colony of Duracell bunnies in mating season and more heart than 106.2.

Incubus – Dig

Incubus - Dig

Next month I am finally going to see Incubus live. I will be truly gutted if they don’t play this song.

This one I remember clearly. I was listening to Light Grenades whilst walking home from Highbury & Islington tube after a day that was in dire need of the rage spoon (sadly, it hadn’t yet been invented). I was properly peeeeesed awf with someone at work – I don’t remember why - but it was still light outside so I can only assume it was for something that was about to happen over the next few days rather than something that had happened that day (otherwise I’d have been in the office until much later…).

All of a sudden, I snapped out of my rage and heard the line:

“We all have someone who digs at us – at least we dig each other”

Rage vanished, and a smile came back as my head was filled the incredible soundfield I only get from that song. I can’t really explain what I mean by “soundfield” other than it feels more like the music is in my head coming out into my ears rather than being pumped in by my headphones.

Silversun Pickups – Growing Old Is Getting Old

Silversun Pickups - Growing Old Is Getting Old

More than just the name of my “30 before 30” blog (shameless plug1), this song is inextricably linked to one of the best 6 month periods of my life – 2009’s trip around the world.

Silversun Pickups are Another band recommended by my musical guru friend and are typified by one of the most unique voices – “The Girly Man” as so beautifully named by my fiancée (although sadly not spoken in a mock McBain accent). This is the only one track day so far shared by anyone else.

Back in November 2009, we’d hired a convertible in Port Douglas (Oz) to drive up to the rainforest at Cape Tribulation. OK, it was a crappy blue Vauxhall Astra convertible, but that’s not the point. We crashed out in a wooden hut hostel room and stuck Swoon on the travel speaker. The smooth baseline starts off as almost soothing but, without changing, builds and builds until the guitar lands and the snare joins in. I’d never describe a song as “intense” but that’s the word that comes to mind.

Dave McPherson – Before I Even Had You

Dave McPherson - Before I Even Had You (Live)

Friday January 7th, 2011. Questions were asked. Answers were given (in the affirmative) and now there’s some kind of important day coming up on the 18th August this year.

The other involved party and I rarely agree on music. Very rarely. She like the pop, I like the metal. Well not “real” metal, more 80s rock and / or borderline emo rubbish.

However, a young Essex lad by the name of Dave McPherson changed all that. By day as the lead singer / guitarist of InMe he unleashes punishing yet melodic riffs towards unsuspecting cochleae, but by night he will folk you senseless with his acoustic guitar.

The man has a ridiculous voice – he can seamless switch from wailing like a banshee to softly hitting the highs, all without annunciating a single letter “t” in the true Essex fashion. It’s one of those voices that recordings don’t do justice and has to be heard live.

It’s for exactly that reason we asked him to play at our wedding (and for some unknown reason he said yes!). I am still fully expecting it not to happen due to a scheduling conflict but it would be simply awesome.
Shortly after booking I did a youtube scan – looking for covers he’s done before and some of his own stuff that he could sing on the day. Pre the release of The Hardship Diaries, Before I Even Had You could only be found online (or on a ‘live in concert’ CD). I stumbled across it and stayed stumbled. No point me trying to describe it, just listen!

Roxette – The Look

Roxette - The Look

Back in March of this year my work team did a 30 mile tandem bike ride for Sport Relief. This was clearly a ridiculous idea from the start. Unless, of course, we had tunes. So armed with my cub-scout square lashing skills, a shoelace and an Altec Lansing pocket speaker I fashioned the finest helmet-blaster the world had ever seen.

The only thing that could possibly go on such a playlist would be selected classics from Now That’s What I Call Music (numbers 1 through 80 inclusive). It was there I rediscovered The Look.

It wasn’t until the Friday after the cycle that The Look got it’s day. Out the door of the office at 5pm sharp, the sun was beaming down and I had a night of London’s finest comedy to look forward. But first – Cocktails! (The Chilli Martini at Sophie’s Steakhouse in Covent Garden is one of the finest inventions of our time).

Sadly, nobody – not even my “half day” school teacher fiancée – could meet me before 6.30pm that evening so I had some time to kill. Sat with the tourists in a Covent Garden Starbucks I started my Roxette binge. I bounced round the streets with a stupid grin on my face near-dancing round the irritating street performers, pickpockets and Maxwell’s flyer distributors.

After about the 10th play of the song, I started to have a long intellectual thought debate with myself – one that I am still to resolve…

At precisely 3:10 (just after “and I go la la la la la”) I am unsure if there should be one more beat before we “na na na na na”. I will take it upon myself to one day edit the extra pause into the song. Then I’ll know. I’ll know for sure.

Coheed and Cambria – Pearl of the Stars

Coheed and Cambria - Pearl of the Stars

A few weeks back, I figured I ought to make a start on my wedding speech. The task of pitching a speech somewhere that makes the bride’s friends both laugh and cry (“do both” – not “both friends”, she does have more than two friends), reeling out a list of thankyous, and pre-empting the incoming character assassination from the best men (the downside of choosing four) and then delivering it to 100 people is daunting to say the least.

I stuck on some tunes for a bit of inspiration. Bad idea. My ipod is mainly filled with angry music – Coheed and Cambria are (is?) no exception. Tracks like Apollo I: The Writing Writer with romantic lyrics such as…

 “So cry on bitch, why aren’t you laughing now?”

…don’t exactly put one in the correct mindset to write a sonnet.

Then Pearl of the Stars came on, by the same band. His voice is, again, completely unique. The song is simple and beautiful – no other way to describe it. I stopped trying to write the speech and just stuck it on repeat – all afternoon, all the way home on the bus, then I demanded that the lovely lady listened to it on my AV system. Twice.

I did in fact consider stealing a lyric for the speech…

“I’d give you everything – if only I’d have known you’d take it. But you don’t. Cause you’re you. That’s why I’ll always love you”

…but only for a second. Cause not even I am that cheesy and besides, stealing song lyrics is lazy lazy lazy.

Anberlin – Dismantle.Repair.

Anberlin - Dismantle.Repair

I told you they’d be back! Anberlin have actually had a couple of One Track Days to their name. The first was Adelaide – it’s happy, simple pop-rock tune that woke me up on the bus and proceeded to get me through a morning of detailed P&L modelling (aaah, Project Ellsbury).

But that’s not the song in the heading now is it? That’s a whole different story…

Last weekend was the 5th annual May Bank holiday lad’s extravaganza. Barcelona was this years’ victim. In a break from tradition, night 3, the Sunday night, was hit almost as hard as the other two. I awoke Monday morning to head to the airport, my internal organs pickling in Absolute ChamBulls2 and having had less sleep in three nights than empty bottles produced in one.

I collapse onto my oh-so-comfy easyjet seat (yes, sarcasm) and adopt “the position” – headphones in, hood up, wire tucked down collar and into my iPhone in my pocket as I flagrantly ignore requests to “turn off all electrical devices”.

I want some chilled music – so Anberlin is the obvious choice. On it goes and off I doze…

Shortly after takeoff Dismantle.Repair. starts up – the first soft chord progression oscillates from left to right ear and I dropped a bit deeper in my seat,  on the verge of slumber. Then the bridge kicks in (“things are going to change now, for the better”) – I’m well aware I’m awake, but still relaxed as the chorus is nowhere to be seen. Instead, the next verse rolls calmly through, with just a hint more urgency in the drums until “the orchestra plays on”. Then the bridge is back. Damn you bridge, I’m trying to sleep here (“things are going to cha-aaaaa-aaange”).  I know what’s coming next.

The chorus lands and instantly I’m wide awake – “Hands like secrets are the hardest thing to keep from you” (what a line). Dancing around in my seat - I can neither confirm nor deny if there was air drumming. I cursed the song for stealing the four minutes of z’s I was planning.

It was OK though, as soon as the song finished I fell fast asleep. Woke up on touchdown (as usual).
The One Track Day with Dismantle.Repair. was in fact two days later – on my return to work. It was one of those days where everything went wrong. With not enough relaxing done on my arrival home I was landed back at work onto a fan-full of excrement. Deadlines piled up on deadlines whilst my head was working at no more than 50% power.

The song played non-stop between 9am when I sat down and 7pm when I finally left the office and kept me going through the day. It got played all the way home as well…

Enter Shikari – Gap in The Fence

Enter Shikari - Gap In The Fence

I’ve always wondered if anyone else gets the same sensation as me. It’s this…

You’ve been feeling ill for a few days then all of a sudden that day comes when you’re feeling only a little bit worse than normal. The adrenaline rush I get that morning from the fact I’m no longer feeling quite as bad makes me more hyperactive and smiley than I am on my best days.

I’ve learnt that Enter Shikari can push this even further – make the high even higher. I’ve used loads of their songs to do this (I sound like a junkie...) – Hectic has worked, as has Wall (the lyrics to this song are stupid, yet genius) heck even the self-titled track Enter Shikari has been used on occasion. Today though, I chose Gap in the Fence.

I have to say, the fact a bunch of lads from St Albans of all places (home of the wealthy yummy mummies who have snagged themselves some London City folk) spend most their time writing self-indulgent rants complaining about the injustices of today’s capitalist society, the lack of class equality and the constrained monotony of today’s society amuses me no end. Thankfully, they write some cracking tunes to go with it.

Gap in the Fence is absolutely one of these. It is an absolute Epic (no not as in “lolcats iz epic winz”, epic as in epic, big, the real meaning of the word). The first 2 minutes and 1 seconds are the closest a song sung by a man with his voice could ever get to beautiful. The lyrics – centred around from breaking from routine and doing something different (with a spattering of “we want equality”) – hit home today given the inception of my 30 by 30 list the day before1!

The build from 2:02 to 2:31 into the dance samples is one of their finest and the song would be great even if it stopped there. It doesn’t. The last crescendo from 3:26 when the guitars growl back in is nothing but unadulterated epic win.

1Shameless plug - go and visit
2 A potent yet tasty combination of Absolute Vodka, Champagne and Red Bull – hence the name