Thursday, February 28, 2013

Lush "Lovelife" [1995]

This was a friend's cast-off. It is maybe a bit unfair to review this as I have not actually listened to all of it, but I have heard enough. Maybe you dimly remember Lush? Their early stuff featured a lot of shimmery guitar stuff often combined with ethereal high-pitched lady vocals. This features none of that. I think it could maybe be described as their Britpop album, and it successfully manages to leave out everything that people liked about this band and instead give us a load of inconsequential songs about the Love Lives Of Women Today (or the love lives of women in 1995). It is all pretty inconsequential and will also be available from Oxfam in the near future.

Later - but then when playing my iPod through speakers a track called 'Last Night' came up on shuffle and sounded a lot more enjoyable in a wistful and somewhat sonically interesting way. So have I stumbled onto the album's one good track or does it just sound rubbish on iPod headphones?

An inuit panda production

Last Panda (follow this link, it features footage of a Panda playing with a snowman)

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

"I wrestled Rachel Unthank" - Part 2

continuing my frank account of a weekend spent singing with the Unthanks, on this occasion reaching the true and unabridged account of how I engaged in a bout of wrestling with Ms Rachel Unthank.

I mentioned last time that we went for a walk on the beach and then went to a pub. Read on for an account of what happened there.

That trip to the pub was probably one of the highlights of the weekend. It was a very nice pub and you know, what could be better than singing loads of songs than singing loads of songs while drinking beer in a pub? I was curious as to what the other drinkers made of it all, as I could imagine being a bit pissed off if some weirdoes showed up in my local to sing about some stupid bird on a raft. I think some people did evacuate the lounge for the music-free bar area, but those who remained seemed to enjoy it all. I was talking to one guy who was a farmer from a bit away who seemed rather amused by it all, even joining in with some tune that required people to knock on the table at certain points. There was also an old couple who looked like they might be tourists who gave the impression of being pleasantly surprised by finding themselves in the middle of the kind of pub sing-a-long that never really happens any more.

There was also at least one local who had just shown up in the pub because he knew we would be there, so that he could treat us to a song or two. The great tune he sang was this one called 'The Funeral Song', which starts off as a poignant tune sung by a young man whose father has just died, until we reach the chorus:

Till all his other wives came in, weeping down the aisle.
We had to send for extra chairs. They queued for half a mile.
They came from near. They came from far. They filled up every pew.
He must have been a Mormon and my mother never knew
Till all his other wives came back to share the Co-op ham tea,
And they bought a lot of kids with them that looked a lot like me.

It then continues in a rather "well-I-never" fashion.

Another great moment in the pub was the performance of some comical Percy French tune by sisters Jennifer and Anna. I also loved an Irish singer (whose name I think was Orla) singing 'Raglan Road', one of those songs that gets me every time.

Back in the farm, that evening after dinner we were treated to a small chamber concert by the Unthanks, at which they performed a number of songs. And after that it was fun and games and a free for all sing song. The first game was Face To Face, something that apparently arose in the folk clubs of the North. It sees two singers standing very close to each other, staring into each other's eyes, and then they sing. The first person to smile, laugh or stop singing loses. You are also disqualified if you start jigging around to the music. I fancied the idea of entering, but sadly I know no songs all the way through (a shocking admission) so I had to sit it out. The range of songs people used was quite fascinating - Jenny got to the final with something like the 'Hallelujah' chorus, while another guy did well with what sounded like a second division punk tune. Eventually a woman called Angeline Morrison won the coveted prize (a mug prepared by Becky Unthank).

The next competition was Finnish Sailor Wrestling. This has nothing to do with music. Rachel and Becky Unthank demonstrated. Basically, two people stand close enough to each other and try to push each other over, but you are only allowed make contact with the other person's palms. The first person to step back loses. So it is kind of like a stripped down version of Sumo and may not actually have anything to do with Finnish sailors, though I reckon it would be very difficult to do on the rolling deck of a ship.

I am not known for my skill at violent activity but I was quite keen to give this thing a go. However, it seemed to be only women taking part in it at first, and I did not want to be that guy who went up to wrestle with a woman (either I would win against her and look like a bully or she would beat me and I would look like a sap). Eventually one woman was up there who seemed to be able to handily defeat all comers, and it looked like she would win the Finnish Sailor Wrestling mug. But then this guy got up against her and after a rather aggressive attack he defeated the woman (whom we later discovered to be his wife).

Finnish Sailor Wrestling is decided on a last man standing basis, so this guy was now about to win the prize. Or was he? No, someone challenged him, and was swiftly defeated. Then my beloved took him on - but his aggressive tactics eventually wound her down. I could not take this lying down - anyone who beats my girl has me to answer to, so I went up to take on the swaggering bully*. At the very last minute I wondered if maybe, just maybe, I was heading for an embarrassing defeat, but even so I resolved to give this battle my all.

The champion had some slick moves, proving adept at keeping back his hands and then darting forward to make sudden attacks to push me back. But he was unable to unbalance me, and once I connected with him I pushed him over rather easily. HA HA HA HA!

That left me the reigning champion. I invited challengers in a manner that was meant to be comedically threatening but which maybe convinced people that they actually would be looking at broken limbs if they were to take have a go against me. Possibly to prevent me winning the tournament after a single fight, Rachel Unthank took the field against me, leading to the wrestling bout referred to in the title of this piece. As an experienced player she was a tough nut to crack, but in the end I was able to push her over. I was as surprised by this as anyone.

None dared face me after that, and so I won the mug that named me as the champion at Finnish Sailor Wrestling.
Finnish Sailor Wrestling champion

After that it was random sing-song time. George Unthank led this somewhat. He was good at pushing the ball around the room so that everyone got a chance to sing, even people who were a bit *shy* and so needed to be egged on a bit, while at the same time not forcing anyone to sing who did not want to. He did say that everyone should sing, implicitly echoing the Butthole Surfers with his comment that no one would be happy if they went home thinking "I wish I had sung that song last night". And nearly everyone did sing, including some who were obviously a bit *shy* and not too used to singing in public. I think I would have sung something myself… if I had bothered my arse to learn the words of any songs that would not sound ridiculous without musical accompaniment. So instead I chatted to the only other person present who did not know any songs - an acupuncturist from Cornwall. Now my ambition is to learn off the words of a few songs, with Civil War classic 'The Battle Cry of Freedom' being first on my list.

After a farewell workshop, Sunday saw us making our way off from Seahouses. My beloved and I arrived in Edinburgh where we had a series of adventures; these may eventually be detailed in future post.

*this guy was not actually a swaggering bully but it makes my victory all the more impressive if I portray him as one.

Some Links:

'All his other wives' (by a different singer than the one we heard)

Feeling Sublime (Face to Face winner Angeline Morrison has gone on to release a record, whose video you can see here)

Monday, February 25, 2013

"I wrestled Rachel Unthank" - Part 1

being a true and frank account of how I spent a weekend in the company of popular singing group, The Unthanks, having them teach me songs and oblige me to engage in activities including the aforementioned bout of wrestling with Ms Rachel Unthank herself, with descriptions of divers other occurrences and prodigies.

A Gentleman.

Yes, readers. The headline is true. But how did this event take place? The answer lies in the January of 2012 when my beloved went on a singing weekend with the Unthanks, an event at which they teach attendees songs and cook food for them. She liked it well enough to want to go back this year. In a fit of madness I agreed to go with her. The event takes place in a farm just outside the small town of Seahouses in Northumberland, near to the famous island of Lindisfarne and its ancient monastery.

I tend to forget that the Unthanks are not actually a household name. So for the benefit of readers who have never heard of them, let me recap - at the core of The Unthanks are two sisters, Rachel and Becky Unthank, with the line-up filled out by Adrian McNally (Rachel's husband), Niopha Keegan and Chris Price. Rachel and Becky come from a local family of folkies and I think Adrian also has form in that area, though he may also be classically trained and stuff.

The day we were due to arrive was a Friday, coinciding inconveniently with an apocalyptic fall of snow across much of Britain. We were flying into Edinburgh and getting the train down (Newcastle is closer but only Ryanair fly there and that cockfarmer Michael O'Leary is not getting any of my money). Getting to Edinburgh was unproblematic - the snow was falling far further south and there was no sign of the white stuff there though the city was rather cold. When our train pulled out of Edinburgh, though, it seemed like we were entering a new climate zone, with the fields already covered in snow and increasing amounts of it falling from the sky to replenish stocks.

Things really were starting to look alarming when we arrived in Berwick (the nearest station to Seahouses). We arrived at something like 5.10 pm and had a taxi booked for 5.30 pm, but as we came out of the station we were greeted by a worried taxi driver. "You're the people who booked the taxi? We must go now!" He was mightily afraid of being trapped out in the wilds by the weather.

As we drove off, the weather got worse. It was dark now, but the heavily falling snow was greatly reducing visibility. Soon it reached the stage where we could barely see anything at all, which was somewhat disconcerting. The only thing that really kept us on the road was there being a car a bit ahead of us whose lights we could see through the blizzard - as long as the driver pointed us at the lights we would probably remain on the road.

Thankfully, the weather lifted before the car in front either reached where it was going or drove into a ditch. We also received useful text message updates on which road to use from the Unthanks and from popular author Anna Carey (whose sister was in the car with us). So we arrived eventually, safe and sound, with barely a moment to throw our bags down before we joined the other singing weekenders.

At this point we were at something of a disadvantage, because they had mostly arrived a bit earlier and had done all their saying hello to each other. They had also already done their vocal warm-ups and started learning songs, so we had to dive in fresh. I must confess to feeling somewhat awkward and did wonder whether I had made another terrible mistake. I was wondering why I, someone who has not sung properly alone or with other people since leaving school, had decided that it would be a good idea to go to a singing weekend with people who know about this sort of thing. I was not even as big a fan of the Unthanks as I think everyone else present was. But I soldiered on.

Most of the time the songs were being taught to us by Rachel and/or Becky Unthank, but some of the more nautical tunes were served by George Unthank (their father) or Jim "Shanty Jim" Mageen, both of whom are in local maritime folk group The Keelers. I will now describe some of the songs we learned (using my commemorative A Singing Weekend With The Unthanks booklet as an aide memoire).

'Gower Wassail' - a song about going around in winter (possibly around Christmas) scabbing food and drink off people. Slightly mournful.

'Unst Boat Song' - we join the terrifying world of three part harmonies for this song from Unst, which was in the mysterious language of Norn, thanks to the Outer Hebrides' long period of Norwegian rule.

'The Bonny Fisher Lad' - this is about some young lady who has fallen in love with a fisher lad. It is surprisingly sweet and unmiserable, unlike other Unthanks tunes. By now these three part harmonies were seeming like no problem.

'The Young Banker' - We only sang the chorus for this, and here are the words to it:

Young banker he had such a handsome face
And all around his hat he wore a band of lace
Beside such an handsome head of hair
For my young banker I will go there

Apparently the banker in question is actually a navvy and not a gentleman who issues loans to people. This tune is rather jaunty so now whenever my beloved and I see some young fellow with an extravagant coiffure one of us says "Ah, the young banker".

'Sea Coal' - a proper whingey Unthanks tune about having to choose between buying sea coal (the cheapest and smokiest coal available) or food to eat. It also boasts a complicated three-part harmony and a delayed joining by the bass singers that at least one person got wrong every time.

'Pull down below' - 'Pull down below is a sea shanty of the call-response variety, which would probably have been a work song out at sea. As is often the way of these things, the lyrics are a bit irrelevant, but it does feature the great chorus:

Way eagle alley - pull down below!
Eagle alley in the valley - pull down below!

Pulling down below was obviously very important in the age of sail.

'Johnson Girls' - this was another sea shanty, again of the work song variety, with lyrics about how these Johnson Girls are mighty fine girls ("walk her round, honey, walk around!"). I think this might have come from the Caribbean and it sounded a lot like the chain-gang work song that starts off O Brother, Where Art Thou? It also reminded me a bit of the version of 'Black Betty' on Nick Cave's Kicking Against The Pricks, and not just because some of the lyrics are a bit rude.

'Chicken on a Raft' - the official hit of the weekend, at least here in Panda Mansions. It is another nautical tune, though not a work song this time. Nor is it a trad. arr., having been composed by one Cyril Tawney. Although not obviously a work song, it does have a call and response element, with every second line being "Aye oh, chicken on a raft!".

But what is this chicken on a raft? Well, according to Jim Mageen, it is a dish often served for breakfast in the Royal Navy of the past, being a fried egg served on fried bread. I feel that the Unthanks missed a trick by not serving it to us for breakfast, though when we subsequently had it back in Panda Mansions it was slightly underwhelming.

OK, maybe I do not actually need to list every song we learned. What else would you like to know about the weekend? What were the people like, you ask? Well, they were an interesting cross-section of society. I think they were disproportionately female but surprisingly even in terms of age distribution. While most people were involved in singing to at least some extent, there were a few people like me for whom this was all a bit new. All of the people I talked to seemed pretty nice, apart from [REDACTED].

When we were not singing we did a lot of eating and drinking. Adrian oversaw the food preparation, and tasty it all was too, with adequate compensation made for those of us with funny eating habits. There was loads of beer and wine we could drink too. OK, so we had to pay for the bouze, but it was pretty cheap and the beer was mostly local real ale (including on draft a variety never before seen outside the pub in which it is brewed, or something). We also went for a walk through the wintery landscape, down to the beach where we froze our nadgers off singing some of the songs we had learned. From the beach we walked to Seahouses and took over a local pub, singing more songs for the bemusement of anyone who had been planning a quiet afternoon pint.

But what happened in that pub? And when will we hear the details of this alleged wrestling incident alluded to in this piece's title. Alas, to find out you will have to come back tomorrow for Part 2 of I wrestled Rachel Unthank. Or click here.

Some Links:

I mentioned above the recording of 'Black Betty' by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Maybe you would like to read my review of the album from which it comes.

Chicken on a raft (possibly the world's greatest website)

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Hopkinsville's Bird Invasion

The town of Hopkinsville in Kentucky is in the midst of a bird invasion. For reasons that remain unclear but may be linked to global warming, millions of birds have descended on the town this winter. The birds - blackbirds and European starlings - are flying around in great clouds that blacken out the sun and turn the ground white with their excrement. Although the birds have not yet started to attack people, fears are spreading that their droppings could be carrying diseases that are fatal to dogs or people with compromised immune systems.

The Hopkinsville authorities are not taking this avian invasion lying down. A pest control company has been hired to deal with the bird menace, which they are attempting to do by scaring them away with sonic cannons and loud banging noises. It seems however that these measures are proving ineffective and simply cause the birds to move from one part of the town to another. The loud noises are also causing further distress to the town's dog population.

The Hopkinsville area is no stranger to bizarre invasions. In 1955 a farmhouse outside the town was menaced by what appeared to be goblin-esque aliens who had landed in a flying saucer (though debunkers have suggested they were actually Great Horned Owls).

More (birds)

Even more (aliens/owls)

An inuit panda production

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Red squirrels find a fierce new friend

The red squirrel has long been in trouble in Britain in Ireland, where the colourful little rodent has suffered from competition by grey squirrels. The alien invader greys have not been physically attacking the reds, but they have been out-competing them, thanks partly to a more powerful digestive system. The greys also carry a disease that is barely noticeable to them but lethal to the reds. The march of the greys has seemed relentless, and it looked like the reds would end up pushed away into remote areas, where they would make up precarious and isolated communities.

Now, though it seems like the reds are on a bit of a comeback. In Britain there have been concerted programmes to trap and exterminate the greys, which have helped red squirrel numbers bounce back. But the reds have also gained from a tacit alliance with another endangered animal - the cute but fierce predator that is the pine marten. These little fellows have been protected in Ireland since the 1970s and in recent years their numbers and ranges have started to increase.

Although not averse to eating red squirrels, pine martens rarely do so as the agile reds are hard to catch. The chubby grey squirrels, on the other hand, make for easy prey for the pine martens, and analyse of their droppings reveals that the little predators are munching their way through the aliens. The hope is that spreading pine martens further through Britain and Ireland will help the red squirrels by controlling the greys without the bother of all those trapping and extermination programmes.


Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Seal Pup Breakout!

Back in January, when it got got very cold and stormy, a six week old seal-pup decided it had had enough of the stormy water. So it climbed up a steep banking into the lorry park of Cairnryan ferry port in south west Scotland. To save the little fellow from being run over by trucks, he was put into the boot of a car. However, the pup did not like the enclosed space, so he dug his way out into the car and then watched out the storm from the car's dashboard.

The seal-pup has been named Smartie and has been building up his strength in Scotland's National Wildlife Rescue Centre, near Alloa, where he has also been making friends with other seals.

NOTE - normally it is very important not to try and pick up or interact with seal pups. Instead people should report ones that seem to be in trouble to their local wildlife rescuers and let the experts sort it out. In the case of Smartie, however, the Scottish SPCA advised the workers at Cairnryan to get the pup under cover as soon as possible, as he was in danger of being run over.

More BBC

Even more (Scottish SPCA)

An inuit panda production

Monday, February 18, 2013

Man beats off 4 attackers without dropping his chips

John Wood was walking back to his car from a fish and chip shop in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, when he was set upon by four assailants. The rapscallions informed Mr Wood that they wished to relieve him of his wallet. In this they were however to be disappointed. When the first two would-be muggers attacked Mr Wood, he disabled them with kicks to the knees. The third he fought off with one of his hands (while carefully holding onto his fish and chips with the other). The fourth assailant managed to stab Mr Wood with a screwdriver, but when Mr Wood wrestled the screwdriver from him the hoodlum beat a hasty retreat.

Mr Wood then drove home and ate his fish and chips. He later went to the hospital to have his stab-wound looked at. It has not proved life-threatening.


Sunday, February 17, 2013

Dogs are clever, discovers scientist

Science suggests that dogs are cleverer than previously thought. In particular, experiments into dog behaviour by Dr Juliane Kaminski indicates that they are capable of understanding situations from a non-canine point of view. Her experiment saw a human forbidding a dog from eating some food. Dogs were four times more likely to eat the forbidden food if the lights were turned off. Apparently the dogs understood that with the lights out, the human would not see them sneaking over to and eating the tasty food.


An inuit panda production

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Clever Cat Invests Wisely

Cats are not normally known for their intelligence, but Orlando is a cat is proving the doubters wrong. This astute feline has demonstrated a canniness when it comes to investing in stocks and shares.

The Observer newspaper had set up a competition whereby two teams were given £5,000 to invest in companies on the FTSE All-Share index, with the team having the highest valued shares over a year being the winner. One team consisted of professional wealth fund managers, the other a bunch of students.

Orlando also took part in this competition. He is not much of a team-player and so competed on his own. Orlando showed which stocks he wanted to buy by throwing his toys onto a grid representing the different companies.

At the end of the competition, the professionals had outperformed the students. However, the clear winner was none other than Orlando. The clever cat had played a long game, coming from behind in the last quarter to surge ahead of his bipedal rivals, finishing with shares worth more than 110% of the starting price.

It is not known if Orlando plans to pursue a career in financial investments. The Observer reports that he is unable to comment because of "a claws in his contract".