Friday 31 October 2014

Ambient Rock

I’m off on my travels again next week, this time a short holiday to Berlin. I’ve only been to Germany once, a visit to the Oktoberfest in Munich way back in 1983, when I took on German beer and lost spectacularly.

I thought that it was about time I revisited the country to practice my German again (as poor as it is), and I think it might be nice to start a tradition where I share some of my thoughts about music before trips, before sharing some photos and experience of my visit on my return.

I was going to post some music about Hallowe’en since it’s 31st October today, but rather than encourage something I don’t really believe in, I’ve decided to go to the other extreme and prove to people who hate rock music, that some of the loudest and most obnoxious bands (in their eyes anyway) can be a source of calming pleasure.

Here are five glorious rocks songs that you can relax to with a glass of wine in a candlelit room with your loved one in your arms.

Steven Wilson – Veneno Para Las Hadas

Regular readers will know that I am a huge fan of progressive rock maestro Steven Wilson. He seems to improve with every album, and while his music wouldn’t really be described as “heavy”, his band Porcupine Tree have produced some fantastic rock music. This particular track is from his first solo album called Insurgentes and is a beautiful, slow and mesmerising masterpiece.

Nine Inch Nails – Ghosts 1 – 9


Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails is another musical maestro in my view and his music forms a large percentage of my collection. A few years ago, he produced a double album entitled Ghosts I to 4, containing 36 instrumental tracks, nine for each Ghost part. This is the final part of Ghosts I and is a very pleasant little tune.

Foo Fighters – Still

I’m really looking to the new Foo Fighters album in November and I daresay it will have a dominant position in my car for the next few months or so. While the band can produce some magnificent rockers, they are very good at taking it easy and producing a mellow ambient song. In fact, this is one of my favourite songs by the band.

Black Sabbath – Fluff

People who hate rock music hate Black Sabbath in particular. Yet, if you had never heard of the band and listened to this song first of all, you would find it very difficult to imagine that they were the founders of heavy metal with Ozzy Osbourne at the helm. This is a beautiful song and shows just what great musicians they are.

Rammstein – Ein Lied (A Song) 

It seems fitting that the final song comes from a German band. Rammstein are controversial and sometimes very heavy. Yet they too can turn the volume down and produce a lovely little ambient piece. Again, if this was the first song by the band you had heard, you would have no idea of their reputation nor would you imagine there explosive antics on stage.

Anyway, I hope you like the songs and I shall return with photos of Berlin in due course.

Monday 27 October 2014

Scary Things

I read a quote recently that has, sort of, inspired me a little. Quotes don’t normally do that but this one has struck a bit of a chord.

The quote comes from Eleanor Roosevelt:

“Do one thing every day that scares you.”

The idea behind the quote is that a lot of people are quite happy sitting in their own comfort zone. Now while this may be absolutely fine for most people, the downside is that people tend to end up in a little bubble of coziness, reluctant to try new things to expand their horizons.

I’m not saying that is a bad thing at all. On the contrary, for most people, myself included, it is a good thing to live within your own harmonious world and be happy with that.

Looking at my own life, I have done some scary things but they have been few and far between. Moreover, in most cases I have had my arm twisted and not chosen to do these things to push myself – I’ve been pushed into doing them by other people.

Now I could quite happily just continue my life the way it is, but to be honest, there is a deep part of me that wants to step outside my comfort zone and, perhaps, try something every day that makes me feel uncomfortable or just plain scared.

I wonder, would something like that really make my life more interesting?

It’s tempting and a tiny voice is urging me to push myself to embrace this philosophy, but not for the reasons that you may think. I am not a Mr Motivator type person who wants to pour his soul into his career; the truth is that there’s not much of my career left when I think about it. I’ve been working within the rat race for thirty years with probably around fourteen years to go. It’s too late to drive myself to the limit, career wise – and besides, I am not willing to give 200% to somebody else (let’s forget the fact that you cannot physically give 200% anyway, which makes these bullshit merchants on shows like The Apprentice look utterly ridiculous anyway!).

If I were able to give 200% - or more accurately 100% - okay maybe 50% - then I would want it to be for me and my loved ones, not some corporate motivation machine.

So why is this little voice in my head telling me to scare myself every day?

It sort of started while I was revising a little Spanish vocabulary, a few weeks ago. As I sat there in front of my computer screen, cursing my failing memory when I couldn’t remember the Spanish word for knife (it’s cuchillo by the way), I had a moment when I started contemplating regrets in my life.

"What on earth are you talking about?" I hear you cry. "Just because you can’t remember a bit of vocab, you start thinking you are a failure."

Not quite, dear reader. I started regretting not attempting to learn Spanish earlier in my life. I am 52 years old and I have only been half-heartedly trying to learn this language for a couple of years.

My regret is that I didn't start to learn Spanish when I was 21. The reason why I didn’t, to be brutally honest, is that I was too scared to start. I learned French for five years at school and my head is full of French words that have embedded themselves into my brain – words that I can’t forget. And the reason why they are embedded into my memory is that I was forced to learn them.

When it came to Spanish, or indeed any other language, I was scared to commit myself to a proper course, to spending time immersing myself in a language instead of wasting my time doing other more mundane things.

Now, many years later, I am frustrated by the fact that I am not a polyglot. I love travelling but it would be so much better if I could go a foreign country and spend my time chatting to the local people in their own language instead of struggling with a pigeon version of the language gleaned from a phrase book and a dictionary.

Two years ago I started trying to teach myself Spanish and I’m getting there, slowly but surely. And now? I keep making excuses not to commit more time to the language, not to join a class and at least attempt to improve myself.

Fear plays its part. It is fear of the unknown and more than a little fear break out of my bubble. It’s easy for me to choose the easy option but my little voice is telling me that I should – perhaps about thirty years too late of course.

And if I had had more courage I would have started this blog a lot earlier than I did.

When I came across Eleanor Roosevelt’s quote, I suddenly thought to myself that perhaps it’s not too late after all. Maybe by challenging myself, I could actually have a bit of fun.

I’m not talking about doing big (and stupid) things, like climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge to scare myself absolutely shitless – I’ve done that and the only lesson I learned was that my fear of heights cannot be removed.

I’m talking about little things that are achievable but worrying to a person like me, somebody who is quite shy and loves his little comfort zone.

For example, walking up to a total stranger and starting a conversation might be very easy and not scary to a rampant extrovert, but to somebody like me who is cursed with shyness, that would be a scary thing to do.

Maybe join that Spanish class.

Or try to write comments on a Spanish blog – in Spanish!

Or video myself singing a song I love and publishing it on this blog (if nothing else it will make readers laugh) – actually I think some evil mates of mine might pay me to do that to make a complete fool of myself – so maybe not.

Or how about trying some new food? Actually, I have done that in Japan – and yes it did take me out of my comfort zone but I don’t regret it at all.

I’ll compile a list and see how I get on. I will not be taking suggestions – just in case my evil mates have anything up their sleeves – but you can suggest something if you like, dear reader, just for the amusement factor if nothing else.

And I may even write a blog post or two about it.

Now that would be scary.

Thursday 16 October 2014

The Hypocrite

I have a confession to make and it’s something that regular readers know already.

I am a hypocrite.

There, I’ve said it.

I’m not a total hypocrite and it isn’t a natural part of my personality. It’s just that, sometimes, I find myself behaving in a way that I criticise others for.

I have a few examples.

Probably the best example is the transformation that occurs when I get behind the wheel of a car. When I am not in the car, I am a reasonable and happy person who is friendly and approachable. I am the personification of patience and empathy.

Yet when I turn on the ignition in my car and start to drive down the street it’s almost as if somebody has given my brain an enema, flushing out all of the goodness. I sometimes mutate into a totally unreasonable and impatient arse. I am aware of this and try to stop myself but I simply can’t help it. It gets worse when I am in a hurry and when the roads are busy. The worst time is when I am driving to and from work simply because I am desperate to get the office to get started so that I can leave early, and then I am equally desperate to escape and get home at the end of the day and, to add to the trauma, I am stressed and keen to wind down with the cats and Mrs PM in my safe haven. To make matters much worse, I drive to and from work during the rush hour along with thousands of equally frazzled commuters.

When I pull up at a junction I expect other drivers to let me out as soon as possible, snarling at those who don’t. Yet when I am in a position to let somebody else out, I actually find myself talking to an empty car: “There is NO way you are getting out, sunshine!” I snarl.

See? A total hypocrite. It would be easy and generous to let a person out; I would probably only add another minute or two onto my journey.

I also look down upon boy racers, the type of person who likes to put his foot down and enjoy the speed of the car. Yet on an empty motorway (a rare thing in Britain) if I get the chance, I will put the peddle to the metal and enjoy the acceleration with my hypocritical horns growing out of my hypocritical skull.

I am equally intolerant of cyclists who pull out in front of me to avoid drains and potholes, slowing me down by another microsecond. Yet if I am on a bike myself, I find myself snarling at drivers who glare at me for doing exactly the same thing.

My dad used to say “Don’t so as I do; do as I say”.

I have lectured my sons on the dangers of excessive alcohol, knowing full well that when I was a student, I over-indulged on more than a couple of occasions.

My dad was the same; “Don’t ever let me catch you smoking,” he once said to me with a cigarette dangling out of the corner of his mouth. When I questioned this, he used the phrase above as if that somehow made it okay.

Other examples are my proclamation on this blog and to work colleagues in particular that I love to travel. Yet when asked to go abroad for work, I rant about how I am sick of going to site. You may forgive me for that though, because when I say that I love travel, I really mean that I love travelling for leisure and pleasure rather than going abroad to a place I don’t really want to go to, where I am expected to work long days with no time to actually go out and see the place.

I also rant about people who seem obsessed with their smartphones, choosing to fiddle with their devices instead of having a conversation with me. Yet I have been known to do exactly the same when my phone buzzes in my pocket. “Oh, it’s an email from Wally,” I will say grinning to my conversation partner who, in my opinion, would be justified in saying “You bloody hypocrite. Put that bloody thing away.”

I moan about the Royal Family hogging the news and the limelight but I am the first to pop to a street party when two of them decide to get married.

I claim to hate Mrs PM’s music yet I sometimes play the odd song that she likes because deep down I like it too.

To be honest, I think that everybody has a hypocrite inside them fighting to get out an embarrass them. I quite often get caught out but when I do, I am fairly honest about it and admit the truth, just as I have done here.

It doesn’t make me feel any better; it’s just a fact of life.

Are you a hypocrite, dear reader?

Have you any examples of your rampant hypocrisy?

Are you as bad as I am?

Monday 6 October 2014

The Wine Snob

I once bought a bottle of wine from an off licence (liquor store if you are American), and it cost 99p. It wasn’t the low price that attracted me to it, it was the name of the wine – something like Cheap Plonk – effectively stating exactly what it was – a very cheap bottle indeed.

It’s worse than that, dear reader, because I was taking this wine to a party. I can almost feel you shifting uneasily in your seat at the thought of my impending embarrassment at presenting the hosts of a dinner party with a bottle of red camel piss in order to contribute something to the drinks cabinet, almost certainly thriving under the addition of £20 bottles of fine wine from the other more generous guests.

Don’t worry – it wasn’t that kind of party. In fact, it was a normal house party full of drunken people, all consuming their own alcohol. The reason I bought the wine was because I was young, already half-caned and ready to drink anything.

My memories of the party are vague but I do recall having my first glass of my bargain booze and thinking “actually, this isn’t at all bad!”.

Fast forward to 1998 when I was in France with the family. In a supermarket, as you can guess, the choice of wine was huge and I found myself staring at rows and rows of wine trying to work out which one would complement a nice meal in the sun outside the apartment we were staying in.

I decided to try an experiment. I bought a cheap bottle of wine, again costing about one pound sterling, but this time I also splashed out and bought another bottle that cost around ten pounds.

My plan was to try a glass of each and see if I could tell the difference.

Let me tell you this, dear reader – they were both beautiful.

Now I can imagine a wine snob reading this and thinking:

“You absolute heathen! Your taste buds must have been burned off your tongue!”.

Wine snobbery is a similar ailment to pseudo intellectualism. Pseudo intellectuals praise vomit stains as wonderful art just to appear clever. Wine snobs praise expensive bottles of wine just to appear sophisticated or show off their wealth.

Of course, there are exceptions, but mostly I consider somebody who is willing to splash out a huge wad of cash on a bottle of wine at a fancy restaurant is just careless and/or slightly mad.

They are basically show offs.

Except, I am not impressed. I would be more impressed with somebody who bought the house wine to be honest.

I have a couple of rules about buying wine:

(a) In a supermarket, I only buy a bottle of wine costing more than £3.99 if it is reduced in price from £7.99 o £3.99.

(b) In a restaurant, I will never buy a bottle of wine costing more than my main course.

Restaurants make most of their money on wine. When you sit down at the table of a good restaurant, the first thing they do is present you with the wine list. When you open it, the price ranges from around the price of a main course to stupid money. And if you are unfortunate to be sharing your table with a wine snob, you will find that to only are they willing to spend their cash on the most expensive wines, they also speak utter crap.

There is no way that I want to spend £200 on a bottle of wine in a restaurant when I can get just as much enjoyment from a £10 bottle of wine. Think about it – the same drink but it costs 20 times more and the difference in taste will never ever be worth the difference in price, I don’t care whether you are a wine connoisseur or not. You may as well flush your wallet down the toilet.

Now I don’t mind people wasting their cash on expensive wine – that’s their prerogative. What I do mind, however, is the pseudo intellectual style bullshit that invariably pours forth from their mouths when they take their first sip of £200 wine:

“Oh my goodness. The bouquet of this wine is astounding; it’s the perfect combination of peach and cantaloupe, accompanied by a hint of cherry flirting with a gathering of blueberry in a two hundred year old oak casket. It tastes divine, like a tide of flavour from a heavenly ocean washing up on your tongue. It speaks to me; I’m getting banana, blueberry, strawberry with a hint of a rare Brazilian cherry found only the shores of the Amazon in an area of the rain forest untouched by human beings. This nectar is transporting my tongue into orgasmic ecstasy.”

What a load of old bollocks.

We recently went to a wine tasting event in Manchester, where we met three very famous wine connoisseurs from the television. As somebody who hates cookery programmes, I did not know any of them, but I am told that they are famous.

Perhaps you’ve heard of them. Oz Clarke, Olly Smith and Tim Atkin.

I shook hands with Oz Clarke as I walked in, thinking he was just the event organiser. I only discovered who he actually was when Mrs PM, a wine lover, bought one of his books. Basically, the event was very enjoyable and I was able to try quite a few whites, reds and ros├ęs, most of which were very pleasant.

At first, the words of the people offering the wine passed me by and as I sipped the wine, their words went in one ear and out of the other without my brain registering their words. However, as I got slightly more merry I actually started talking to them and asking them what was special about their wine. Some switched to wine snob mode and started talking about “ a hint of fruit salad with an undertone of mahogany” but I found that quite a few of them actually told me how suited to various meals the wines were, which was actually very interesting.

And as the event wore on, I wobbled up to the people and said “What’s your most expensive wine?”

Maybe my taste buds were numb but, to be honest, the top end wines didn’t taste much different from the cheaper ones.

So, what did I get out of the event, apart from proving all that I have said about wines?

WelI, I bought some cheese from a cheese company in Cheshire that experimented with different flavours. Yes that’s right – I went to a wine event and walked out with several pounds of weird cheese.

Nevertheless, I did enjoy how some of the wines complemented the cheese.

And that’s about as pretentious as I get:

“This lump of mature English cheddar complements this Sauvignon Blanc”.

Rest assured, dear reader – both were cheap.