Saturday, 30 April 2011

Holiday Time

Haven't posted much these last few days; lots of work plus arrival of relatives with view to going off on holiday to a gîte in the Pyrenees this afternoon. Greetings to my new 'follower'! Thanks for signing up and I hope there's still enough of interest in the blog to keep any passing reader's interest until we get back from the mountains. It's going to be long breakfasts, rambles in the mountains, washing hands in clear streams and more than the odd bottle of Madiran, at least if I can get to the shops at some stage; we're going to be right out in the sticks, so any shopping is going to have to be planned like a military manoeuvre.

I'll let you know how it goes.

Monday, 25 April 2011

Spot The Difference I.

Moscow, November 1993. The place: GUM, Red Square, Second Floor, Shoe Department. Tuesday morning.

Me: Good morning. I'm looking for shoelaces.
GUM Employee:  That's my colleague. I only sell shoes.
Me: Do you have any shoelaces?
GUM Employee: Yes, they're in that box over there, under the counter.
Me: Could I see them, please?
GUM Employee: No, that's my colleague's department.
Me: But I can see them from here. Will you please sell me a pair of shoelaces?!
GUM Employee: No, I'm not allowed to. Come back on Friday afternoon.
Me: Do you know of anywhere else that sells shoelaces?
GUM Employee: No.

Toulouse, France, 2010. Accounts Department.

Me: Good afternoon. I need a stamp on this form. It's the same one as last year.
Employee: I don't understand it. It's not in French.
Me: I know, it's in German, but it's the same one as last year and the year before, and the year before that.
Employer: How do they expect us to understand it?
Me: They don't; it's standard issue. It's nothing personal. Please could you stamp it with the same stamp as last year so I can get it sent off?
Employee: You'll have to get it OK'd from downstairs
Me: I've already spoken to them. They sent me straight upstairs because they knew you'd done it before.
Employee: I don't understand it, though; it's not in French.
Me: Please just stamp it before I kill you.

OK, I made the last sentence up. Maybe.

(Slightly post-)Soviet Russia 1
France 1


Soviet France II

This was too beautiful for words. Mrs. F, the Fingernails and I went off to Jardin des Plantes this afternoon to enjoy the rest of a deliciously warm Easter Monday. As soon as we got into the park I was seized by a terrible urge to pee, so off we went to the public loo located next to one of the cafés. There seemed to be a little queue, but I waited my turn and then headed off to the handicapped cubicle, all of our urinals being cordoned off with red and white tape. 'No, Monsieur, you can't go there, you'll have to wait for the men's cubicle' bellowed a town hall employee, cigarette in the corner of her mouth (despite us being inside a public building). I looked round and saw the door to said cubicle opening. A man came out, leaving the way free for me. There was no lavatory seat, no paper and nowhere to either wash nor dry your hands. Still, there was a little tray by the door with a few coins in it, labelled MERCI. I would rather have chewed on my own vomit than put even a single centime in that dish.

The last time I saw that level of public inconvenience was in Moscow, twenty-odd years ago. No door, no paper, no sink, no soap, yet a very vocal dyezhurnaya, reminding me of appropriate behaviour. I had to wait until 2011 to experience it again, and that in one of the richest cities of a G8 nation.

There will be more 'Spot The Differences', because there are many more examples. Baby, I've not even started...

Spot The Difference.

The more I think about official France, the more I'm reminded of the Soviet Union. In fact, I'm going to start a 'Spot The Difference' series, where I will compare my own experiences of both countries to see if there is, in fact, any difference between them at all. I fell in love with Soviet Russia just as I have with France, so please don't think this is criticism; it is merely observation. The first comparison will involve shoelaces.

Soviet France

Will post soon on the latest manifestation of the communist ideal alive and well in 21st-Century Frogland. It involves public lavatories.

Oh Tranquil Office of Toulouse...

A couple of years ago, the half-wit socialists in Toulouse City Hall had what appeared to actually be a half-decent idea: the 'Office of Tranquility'. If you had some kind of noise-related or socially-motivated beef, this rather philosophical-sounding local government department (hey, we're in France, after all) would respond to your calls, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Noisy neighbours, street pissers and brainless vandals would all become a thing of the past as concerned citizens dialled the easy-to-remember four-digit phone number (I can't recall what it is) and got Mayor Cohen's caring vigilantes out on the street to tidy everything up.

Let's not forget that, despite Airbus and a host of other high-profile, big money investments down here, Toulouse remains a southern European city with a lot of behaviour to match: poor, irritable driving and unmotivated slanging matches to name but two examples. Bearing this in mind, Mr. Cohen's Office of Tranquility was never going to have an easy time. I'd oftened wondered how effective it was until yesterday, when I saw the first published statistics of its achievements. Proud they were, too; not to be found tucked away at the foot of page ten of the local rag, La Dépêche du Midi, these statistics have been printed on man-size posters and pasted up all over town:

Office de la Tranquillité: 300,000 appels en 18 mois!

 Is this really something to be proud of? That two-thirds of the urban population has, in the course of the last year and a half, been sufficiently motivated to pick up the phone and register its displeasure with one or more aspects of their daily life in this city? I'd be rather concerned if I were the mayor. Nowhere does it state how many conflicts have been resolved or what measures have been taken to reduce the number of concerned callers, like "Police execute four pavement-fouling dogs" or "Twenty-three taggers shot this week alone!". Without this type of information, the oh-so-tranquil-office will remain, for me at least, an utter waste of time. When you can't sleep because of partying students or have stepped in some wastrel's freshly-tapped urine the last thing you need is a sympathetic ear. What you need is a gun.

Happy Easter Monday.

First post for a few days, and that's a bit out of character since I decided to reactivate this blog after about a year of inactivity. The most remarkable thing to have happened here these last few days is the passion for Easter Eggs and Easter Bells around our neighbourhood. Just by our local Marché des Carmes there's an up-market chocolate maker, Pillon. Mrs. F 'popped' in on Easter morning to get a couple of gifts for our lunch hosts, only to find herself queueing for about 45 minutes behind revellers eager to deposit, almost without exception, three-figure sums on seasonal cocoa-bean products. They were meant to open at 9am, but the queue outside was so long by 8am that they opened, then. The average punter would lay down about €150 then head off to church. And yet all you hear about is how much less well-off everyone's meant to be, these days.

Lunch with our friends was nice and we rounded it off with a bike ride along the Canal du Midi down to Ramonville. Fingernail II was particularly impressive: a twelve-mile round trip at the age of five without batting an eyelid is pretty good by anyone's standards. The weather behaved itself and we realised we were just having a plain old afternoon out, just like everyone else.

Fingernail II still has a gippy tummy, but I'll spare you the details. This time next week we'll be in our gîte. Bliss...

Friday, 22 April 2011

Nantes is everywhere.

Reading this morning the awful story of the slaughtered family of five in Nantes, I couldn't help but think back to when my next-door neighbours in Manchester in the 1980's were all murdered in cold blood. The husband and father stabbed his wife and three-year-old daughter to death before slitting his own throat, an act witnessed by the first police officer to enter the house, following a 999 call made from where I was living. The mother's 18-year-old son from a previous marriage came home a couple of hours later to find his life stood on its head, before being taken away for questioning. He was, after all, the only one who could have provided any insight into his stepfather's motives.

The man was a bit strange. He was a schoolteacher, widely suspected - and correctly so - of having affairs with some of his female teenage students. Whether or not being found out led to his loss of control we'll never know, but to merely call him eccentric would have been underestimating his personality; there was something bizarre there that none of us could quite fathom. All this happened well over twenty years ago, but I remember it as if it were yesterday.

To Top Off A Perfect Day...

...we were treated to a bout of unwelcome nostalgia. At around 11pm there was a rather worrying sound from the Fingernails' bedroom. Fingernail II, who'd been feeling a bit under the weather all day, decided the time was right to projectile vomit the contents of her stomach all over her bed, pyjamas and the floor. All hands on deck, here we go again. Twenty minutes later and things looked better, even if the melody lingered on, so to speak. Hoping that good things weren't going to come in threes, Mrs. F and I went back to bed, only to be woken up at 12.50am by a similar sound to before. Yup, Round Two, a major clean of the bathroom floor this time, more clean bedding from the cupboard and a comprehensive mop of the bedroom floor. Surely there was nothing left inside her little tummy...?

4.24am. You've guessed it. Not so bad, this time, but a sleep-breaker nonetheless. Just to be sure we're going to get everything clean today, we've bribed our washing machine with the promise of Class A fabric conditioner and a roll in the hay with a tumble dryer. So far, he's keeping his end of the bargain.

I posted a few vomit-related rants a few years ago and realised this morning that the Fingernails hadn't actually been sick since that time. Sometimes it takes a little reality check like last night to make you realise how good things have been.

This one's for you, Keith; knowing how much you enjoyed the last lot!

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Another Perfect Day

From time to time I mention how important I think it is to be able to enthuse, child-like, over the simplest things. Well, this morning threw up another one of those delicious occasions. I pedalled off to my yoga class this morning at about 10.45 and, for a change, parked my bike on the other side of rue Alsace-Lorraine, currently an enormous building site as the pedestrianisation and beautification of Toulouse's emblematic thoroughfare progresses. The yoga takes place in the irresistibly-titled rue Fourbastard which cuts across rue Alsace-Lorraine to form a T junction with the also pedestrianised rue de la Pomme. The stretch of rue Fourbastard between these two other, larger streets is only about thirty yards long, but I realised this morning as I was padlocking up my Iron Horse that I'd never, in six years of living here, ever been down this little alley. Down towards the end I noticed a couple of little bistro tables and ear-marked them for a possible coffee visit after flirting with nirvana.

Yoga was, as ever, wonderful. I left the building to be greeted by brilliant sunshine warming my face and illuminating the stunning, ancient buildings which form the mediaeval mosaic of Toulouse's centre. I walked past my bike down to the bistro tables and, sure enough, there was a delightful little hole-in-the-wall lunch and coffee counter. A few young lads were sitting at the counter, drinking coffee and smoking, the other table was occupied by a young girl audibly amused by her voicemail. My noisette turned up on a little wooden tray with a chocolate and a pyramid of sugar. Right opposite was the shop Yves Delorme, which sells stunning interior requisites: bed linen, curtains etc. Next door was Gant, the clothing store. Nobody wandered by, the sun continued to shine and latin music drizzled enticingly out of the café's radio. The coffee was superb and I had the feeling I'd discovered a hitherto completely unknown back alley in Venice, or some such (not that that's possible, but you get the idea). I couldn't believe I'd come across something so gorgeous a mere matter of yards from the busiest street in the region. The café's called Papilles; it's nothing special, but it contributed to one of the most remarkable little moments I've experienced this year. Just when you think you know somewhere you discover five square metres of paradise for ten minutes. It won't be like that on Saturday afternoon, I'm sure, but just before lunchtime this Thursday, April 21st, it was the most beautiful place on earth.

God, I love this country.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Follow-up to 'A Typical Wednesday'

Forgive me, but this takes the cake. Mrs. Fingers asked our friend who didn't feed Fingernail I that fateful Wednesday, what the problem may have been. For your delectation, a transcript:

Mrs. F: "Did Fingernail I have lunch with you that day?"
Friend: "That was what I'd agreed with Mr. Fingers, but I asked Fingernail I if she'd eaten or not"
Mrs. F: "And what did she say?"
Friend: "She said she hadn't, but I didn't believe her. She had lots for tea, though."

For f***'s sake!!!!!!!! They walk amongst us!!!!!!! Only when you're a parent can this hit you in the solar plexus like a runaway Mike Tyson. Honestly, people don't deserve democracy; they should just be grateful if they're not victim to random sniper fire. For f***'s sake. Here endeth the lesson before I endeth their life.

Late Night Rant 'n' Ramble

I was thinking the other day about when I used to go to bed. When I was working in Hamburg in the late '80's to mid-'90's, I'd rarely go to bed before 3am, often even later. You finish conducting a show like Cats or The Phantom of the Opera and the last thing you're ready to do is put on some milk for a Horlicks and curl up under the duvet. You're out on the tiles, eating, drinking, meeting new people, laughing and generally p***ing your hard-earned cash up against a wall. We know it at the time but it never stopped us from doing it. Hell, we're still here, but I digress. Once you get out of the habit of perpetual late nights they become harder to cope with. Getting older doesn't help, either, but I'm sure if I were still single or childless I'd feel differently. Thank God I'm neither of the aforementioned; I love the fact I eat breakfast and dinner with my family nine days out of ten. There's no point in having children if you're not going to be there for them and that's why this business's relationship with families is, at best, ambiguous. Most of the people I work with are only around for a few weeks, Toulouse being just another port of call on their international itinerary. Many would love to have (or have had) children, few have taken the plunge; they feel they have to choose between a career and family. Some just do it and deal with the result; generally I've found that the more children an artist has, the more grounded and successful they tend to be, the upshot being they're also subsequently able to dictate their own terms, incorporating more family time into their schedules. I can think of a few off the top of my head.

The other obstacle to combining career and family is that you just don't get to meet anyone. If you spend your entire life on the circuit, the only people you'll meet are mirror-image ships in the night. The profession is so capricious that it would take a supreme effort of will or disenchantment with one's lot to throw it all in and base oneself somewhere for a relationship which may or may not work out, the fear being that one could fall comprehensively out of the loop whilst discovering that this person was not Mr. or Mrs. Right. It's a tough call and few risk it. It's the paradox that suffuses the entire profession: to really interpret music, works of genius we are privileged to represent, we need to live life to the full. That means learning, love, disappointment, rage, sublime joy, confrontation. In short, every emotion and human element known to mankind. When you have to master the technical difficulties of so many of these works destined to demonstrate the extremes of the human condition, you have to spend a vast amount of your day in isolation, learning, studying, discovering the why, how, wherefore and therefore of the composer's inspiration. Then you find there's no time left to live, to go down the pub, be rejected by the girl you've admired from afar for three years, get punched in the face by the bouncer or experience the random act of kindness from the stranger in the street. If you want to play Brahms properly, you need to have been treated like shit. Don't forget, this was the man who had to supplement his father's double bass-playing income in Hamburg by playing piano in brothels as a teenager. If that doesn't mark you for life, nothing will. Brahms never married, yet his music is bursting with suppressed longing. Go figure. You don't learn how to play that properly by adjusting your spectacles in a practice room and just getting the notes right. Mahler's wife was a talented slut who drove him crazy. Research that. Schubert, he of the thousand irrepressibly joyful melodic and rhythmic songs, chamber music, symphonies, sonatas and operas died of the clap, contracted from prostitutes. Mozart's passions were beer and billiards (good man). The music world is ridden with such personalities whose work requires us to take considerably more than one step in their direction in order to represent them adequately. How can we do that if we spend our lives holed up with nothing but their scores as company?

I'm not advocating that any serious classical 'method-acting' musician should start shooting up and dialling escort agencies, but the fact is that we need to trust our guts, too. We need to forget what we've been taught and just react to the score in front of us on a venal and feral level. Once we've felt a stirring in our loins, we apply the theory we know is necessary for the execution of said oeuvre, but our gut, our biceps, our tongue, our genitalia need to be as actively involved in its performance as our intellect.

Seems like I've got off the point a bit, but, then again, maybe not. It's about living it to the full. Those who shy away from the ultimate commitment end up selling themselves short artistically. Years ago, again in Hamburg (it all happened there, you see), a friend, Jutta, took me to task for not wanting to commit myself to a woman (I was still smarting after a particular episode in Koblenz). I felt the only way to survive was to protect my own feelings, ergo to not commit myself emotionally to anyone. Jutta put it very clearly: "Scheisse, Fingers, nein! Du musst das Leben erleben, selbst wenn es Dir weh tut. Hauptsache, Du empfindest etwas". Basically, she said I had to feel and experience life, even if it hurt. I tried taking her advice, but I still don't know whether I did or not.

The hours I didn't put in in the practice room I put in in the snooker hall, the bar, the pub, in the 'school of life'. Getting the better of the written note may take me a little longer than some other more studious colleagues, but when it comes to what's written 'between the notes', I give anyone a run for their money. Brahms is safe with me...

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Mario Balotelli

Am I alone in thinking that Mario Balotelli is a complete prick? Not content to rub the Greater Manchester Police up the wrong way ("Why do I have £5000 cash in my pocket? Because I'm rich, that's why") he now seems intent on trying to put one over on United, a superior team in every respect, just because they fluked a semi-final. He had previous in Italy (though appeared to be fairly provoked, it has to be said), but don't these nouveau riche scumbags ever understand the basics of living harmoniously in society? Reams have been written on the overpaid pond life that pass as athletes and entertainers on our screens and the situation only seems to be getting worse: talk of salary caps is idle; footballers' wages will not go down  as long as there are people willing to throw good money after bad, and their numbers appear legion. It would be too easy to evoke memories of players who have had to pursue new careers once their boots were definitively on the peg, but that's no more a reality for this and any future generation of Premiership players than the prospect of them acting as stadium tour guides à la Bobby Moore (yes, him) and Charlie George (yes, him, too).

It's not easy to disconnect from the unacceptable aspects of current football practice, but if we still love the game and wish to enjoy a decent encounter it's what we have to do. Either that or start following a lower league club. Actually, that's not such a bad idea...

A Fine Morning To You All.

It's mornings like this that make me realise how lucky I am to live in this part of a fine city. It's not that the individual elements aren't available elsewhere, it's just that we have them all within a 500-yard radius.

It's a glorious, sunny morning, not a cloud in the sky and already, as I write at 9.15am, up around 19°C. Fingernail I has a cookery course at school this morning, run by one of the other mothers who just so happened to have built up, run and subsequently sold an extremely successful cooking academy, now the property of a national catering company. After dropping off Fingernail II at her maternelle I picked up an array of apples, lettuces, kiwis, onions, radishes, leeks, beetroot and carrots from the thrice-weekly organic market in the shady square just in front of our building. The stallholders were, as ever, friendly, talkative and open. It's a simple pleasure, but one which sets you up beautifully for the rest of the day.

Still no sound from our new neighbour. I really hope she's there; if she is, it means we've got a pearl...

My Mum gets here next week, then we're all going to head off to a gîte in the Pyrenees for a week. Can't wait. Life is really very good at the moment.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Flat Earth News. There's so much to find out...

I've mentioned the book a few times; here's a link to the website:

Quite a read.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

German Operatic Regietheater?

A few years ago, an American opera singer/stage director put together this humourous list of points to observe when directing opera in the contemporary Germanic style. His identity has remained a mystery to this day, but anyone who's worked in that field either in Germany or abroad - for 'German' Regietheater is international - will recognise quite a few of the points. Enjoy.

1) The director is the most important personality involved in the production. His vision must supersede the requirements of the composer and librettist, the needs of singers, and especially the desire of the audience, those overfed fools who want to be entertained and moved.
2) The second most important personality is the set designer.
3) Comedy is verboten except when unintentional. Wit is for TV-watching idiots.
4) Great acting is hyperintensity with much rolling about on the ground, groping of walls, and sitting on a bare floor.
5) The audience's attention must be directed to anything except the person who is singing. A solo aria, outmoded even in the last century, must be accompanied by extraneous characters expressing their angst in trivial ways near, on, or about the person singing the aria.
6) Storytelling is always anathema to the modern director just as realistic, "photographic" painting is to the abstract painter. Don't tell the story. COMMENT on it! Even better, UNDERMINE it!
7) When singing high notes, the singer must be crumpled over, lying down, or facing the back of the stage.
8) The music must stop once in a while for intense, obscure miming.
9) Sexual scenes must be charmless and aggressive. Rolling on the floor a must here.
10) Unmotivated homosexual behavior must be introduced into the staging of the opera at least a few times no matter that it has no relevance to the opera.
11) Happy endings are intellectually bankrupt. Play the opposite. Insert a sudden murder or rape somewhere if at all possible no matter that it has no place in the opera.
12) Avoid entertaining the audience at all costs. If they boo, your vision has succeeded artistically.
13) Rehearse the performance until it's dead. Very important.
14) Any suggestion of the beauty and mystery of nature must be avoided at all costs! The set must be trivial, contemporary and decrepit. Don't forget the fluorescent lights! (Klieg lights also acceptable.)
15) The audience must not know when to applaud or when the scene/act ends.
16) Historical atrocities such as the Holocaust or the AIDS epidemic must be incorporated and exploited as much as possible. Also, the lifestyle of the audience must be mocked.
17) Colors are merely decorative. Black, white and gray only! If you must have color, let it be garish eye-watering primaries in huge blocks, Toytown style. And with vast coarse flowery prints for the costumes — and something bolder for the women. (Under the trench coats, of course. See article 18.)
18) The chorus must be bald, sexless, faceless and in trench coats. The ideal is a line-up of devitalized Uncle Festers. For a court audience or other aristos (axiomatically boorish sneering decadents, especially if the music implies otherwise) tail-coats are permissible, as are crowns, provided they are jagged card circlets.
19) If the audience is bored it's proof positive that this is art.
20) Props are items of junk piled in a corner of the set. They must be overused pointlessly, then dropped on the floor, loudly. Best done when the music is soft so as to call attention to it. Be careful to keep dangerous objects at the lip of the stage so the blindfolded dancers can kick them into the pit.
21) All asides must be sung next to the person who is not supposed to hear them.
22) The leading performers faces must be painted as a white mask to ensure no individuality or variety of expressions as opera singers can't act anyway. This is already a fundamental Brechtian technique to conceal a) the limited range endemic to actors being ideologically sound, and b) the stereotypical nature of agitprop material. Less obvious if delivered by a stereotype where it can then be called stylization, and hailed as genius.
23) Preparation is important for the director. Try to read the libretto in advance to make sure it doesn't interfere with your staging ideas. Not much harm in listening to the CD once, though that's not really your job.
24) Make the conductor feel useful though he's really nothing but a literal-minded hack.
25) The stage director must avoid any idea that is not his own. (This instruction is largely pointless as that idea is surely implied in this list already.)
26) A costume must serve at least two of the following criteria: a) make the singer look unattractive, b) obscure his vision, c) make hearing the orchestra difficult, d) impede movement, or e) contradict the period in which the opera is set (that last hardly worth mentioning).
27) Every once in a while, try to compensate for generating trash at the taxpayer's expense by producing an "opera for children." Nothing difficult here. Just have The Magic Flute performed around midafternoon by mediocre singers in an inappropriate setting, in a translocated staging, and by altering the story which you’ve determined is anything but suitable for children.
28) Hire your singers in the largest size possible, making every love scene look like a parody. Act surprised when no-one likes it, and afterwards declare in front of the press that contemporary audiences just don't connect with opera anymore, and that, further, more modernizing productions are needed.

More esoteric music-making.

Part Two of this week's New Age Concert Activity took place in a superb facility here in Toulouse, Espace Bonnefoy. The huge old converted former whatever-it-is, barn, shed, munitions factory or workhouse houses a media centre, an exhibition gallery, a concert hall and a branch of the town hall. Our show, Dialogue de la Mer took place in the concert hall. I say 'our show', but it really wasn't; 99% of it is the brainchild of Cathy, who variously choreographs, films, takes photos, makes sculptures, seeks out funding, sells the production around the country etc etc. It's her baby and her team of four girls (three other dancers and one singer) are the ones who shouild justly claim credit for its creation. Wasters like me just go along and play the five classical songs required and admire the choreography, for purely artistic reasons only, of course. It's a very peace 'n' love kind of show: there are modern dance improvisations, choreographed numbers, videos and diaporamas of undersea life, coral reefs and the like, a few classical songs about water and a bit of meditation at the beginning of the second part, in which the audience is invited to participate. This should actually have been made clear to them, as they seemed a little nonplussed as to why we were all sitting on stage in the lotus position while spacey, science fiction-type music drizzled out of the speakers. That was a long five minutes, I can tell you. It was funny to do two hippy gigs in two days, particularly as there was no actual connection between them. In addition to doing all the preparation and promotion, Cathy brings up two sons on her own. Hats off.

Maybe there'll be more of this type of concert in the offing for me in future. Doing these little gigs around the place from time to time is fun; you meet new people (not that I always really want to, but still) and get to eat a lot of biscuits. Neither tonight or last night had any complimentary bottles of beer or wine, but that's not the end of the world. It would be if became a habit, though. Note to self: Must stipulate refreshment requirements in future...

Friday, 15 April 2011

Manchester United v. Schalke 04, Champions' League.

This is going to be a humdinger. Schalke 04 is the ultimate working-class club, the team of choice of the submariners in Das Boot. Schalke is a suburb of an unlovely, (post-) industrial German city, Gelsenkirchen, the butt of as many teutonic jokes as Coventry or Doncaster are over in Britain. Still, Gelsenkirchen boasts world-class attitude and a Schlagfertigkeit amongst its populace that gives even legendary Berlin a run for its money. Schlagfertigkeit translates best as 'quickness at repartee', a rather clumsy definition and one which gives lie to the claim that German is an unwieldy language. Another wonderful example of the streamlined German language is Treppenwitz. This is the word, the joke, the remark or put-down which occurs to you one second too late i.e. just as you've left the party or gathering and are on your way downstairs (down the Treppe), the host's door having already closed behind you. German has these expressions in abundance; it's such a shame the language gets such a bad press in Britain. Anyhow, I digress.

Schalke 04, despite being located in a poor suburb of a now impoverished city, play in front of 61,000 people every home game. Fan organisations are heavily implicated in the club's decision-making process, ticket prices are a joke compared to the Premier League and the club enjoys the privilege of being everyone's second-favourite team, a bit like Newcastle United before Tony Blair decided to appropriate it for his own ends. Rudi Assauer was nothing like Freddie Shepherd, though, and even though he's gone, the current incumbent/owner (don't know him, sorry) can't have changed the club's direction too much; the fans wouldn't allow it. They're tied in with Gazprom but they're sponsored by a local brewery, Veltins (OK, where isn't there a local brewery in Germany?). Schalke 04 are basically like a working-class behemoth, their lack of trophies only adding credibility to their man-in-the-street credentials. They're a bit like Bayer Neverkusen, as they are cruelly nicknamed by some, but without large pharmaceutical support. Instead they get it from Russian gas, but that's another post in itself.

Manchester United sadly embody what many people feel is the ultimate in corporate sporting domination, but nothing could be further from the truth. You'd be hard-pressed to find another Premier League club where the manager still insists on graft, discipline, playing for the shirt, for one's own self-esteem and the name while countering global branding and Stock Market expectation. Sir Alex Ferguson deserves a medal for retaining the mentality of the Giggs, Scholes and Neville generation and passing on these values to younger players whilst surrounded by the likes of sheikh-powered Manchester City, Oligarch-funded Chelsea, perfidious Liverpool and newly-Americanised Arsenal. Countering the Glazer Family image in Manchester has not been easy, but one sees, year after year, that Ferguson builds teams based on traditional values, values that nullify transient current fashions in football funding. Long may it last, long may he reign. Fergie may have become a champagne socialist but his teams still play with working-class ardour, and that's all the fans want, even if their salary comes from consultancy rather than coal mines. As I said, this will be a humdinger. Passion will be at the core of the encounter. Let's be honest, which would you rather watch: Manchester United v. Schalke 04 or Chelsea v. Manchester City? Thank you.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Music and Yoga

Just got in from a very enjoyable little concert. A couple of singer friends with whom I did a recital in Austria last year asked me if I'd play for them in a little concert in a Yoga and Wellbeing centre just outside Toulouse. Hey, why not. The manageress is a friend and they exchange quite a few goods and services; the tenor is also a very good painter and exhibits his works on their premises etc. Playing the piano in a low-ceilinged, carpeted room is no big deal, but for singers it's like extracting your larynx with a rusty spoon. They sang wonderfully, though, taking care not to expect any acoustic return on their voices. The audience loved it, so we gave them a couple of encores. The whole thing was finished off with biscuits and fruit juice. It was a yoga + wellbeing centre after all...I was hoping there was going to be at least a glass of red, but there were Cadbury's Fingers, so all was not lost. We've got another one tomorrow night in the centre of Toulouse. It's an evening based on water: the songs we're performing all have water running through them and are punctuated by poetry readings and snippets of contemporary dance. I'll keep in the spirit and character of the evening by using these breaks to go and have a slash. It promises to be quite interesting, even if it's the type of event you usually stop doing after you turn 35. Apparently, in the interval the organiser would like the performers and the audience to indulge in five minutes of group meditation: eyes closed, lotus position, thumb and forefinger joined. Not sure what we're meant to think about (other than water) during this time, but I'll give it a go. Hell, they're paying me; I can afford to be open-minded.

Don't know how or why I'm being showered with Good Karma Opera Gigs at the moment, but it's funny they should come along just after I start doing yoga. Long may it last. It all seems so far away from one of my first gigs, playing for Julie Peacock at the Moss Side Darby and Joan Club in 1985. They had no piano, just a two-octave Bontempi organ, so I had to arrange Ivor Novello standards in the Shearing style on the spur of the moment. After we finished, it was time for bingo and dancing, third-age, Mancunian repartee ringing around the smoke-filled room. You had to hand it to them, these guys really knew how to party. They enjoyed the music, too, even if they weren't really sure why we'd come in the first place.

Life is cleaner, more regulated, more sanitised and less spontaneous, now. I'm not sure it's all good, you know.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Wayne Rooney apologises. But he shouldn't.

Wayne Rooney has, in a no-way-inspired-by-his-PR-Company-to-play-down-his-expletive-ridden-rant-to-mothers-and-toddlers-watching-MUFCvWestHam-on-Sky, has said he 'was wrong' to say what he did in front of TV cameras and that he 'accepts his punishment', stating 'it was just emotions'. Fair deal, but you already know my feelings on this subject. What spices the whole little episode up, though, is a story on the front page of the Telegraph website: Leading Actor's Gagging Order over Affair with Rooney Prostitute, which is much more like it. Some 'famous' actor, too terrified his wife might find out he'd been with a prossie, has succeeded in serving a gagging order on the press to preserve his anonymity. Presumably not only gagging on its own jokes, the Telegraph has its tongue planted firmly in its cheek for most of this article, later mentioning accusations that judges granted these orders 'by the back door'. It all smacks a bit of Private Eye c.1976, but that's actually no bad thing. The story eventually comes back to Rooney, saying that he had paid the lady in question, Helen Wood, and a certain Jennifer Thompson £1000 for a threesome in a Manchester hotel which, compared to having to fork out much larger sums to the FA for saying, sadly, not FA live on telly, can only be described as money well spent. No doubt his emotions came out that night, too. Our national scallies should behave like scallies, for that is what they are. Seeing them handcuffed with a cue sheet in front of some media presence like contrite monkeys à la Hugh Grant after his Divine night out on Sunset Boulevard appears a bit contrived, to say the least. After all, isn't it precisely this we loved so much about George Best, Rodney Marsh et al?

We all love a bit of cleanliness from time to time, but this perpetual need to be living in an inoffensive, sanitised society gets a little wearing, sometimes. No-one's perfect, and we all need to accept that imperfection is present in just about everything we say, think, observe, eat, drink and do. Let's embrace it, even if we do feel the need for a good shower, afterwards.

New Neighbour II

Apparently, she's also got four rabbits, but only two of them are making the journey to this building. I've never met her, but I'm sorry, she sounds insane. Just as long as she's insane and quiet, I don't care.

It's a fact of life: you never get well-balanced people living on a third-floor walk-up. It's as simple as that.

In praise of a local optician, Optique Rouaix.

I read a very informative yet depressingly familiar post in Sara Hague's blog, yesterday, basically about how a shop called Cocktail Scandinave (was that it?)  lacks even the most basic rules of customer etiquette. You'll find this quite a lot: the customer is, by definition, a pain, who should a) remember his or her place and b) get lost as quick as possible as the assistants have to get on with running a shop. We're a million miles from US Customer Service and, yes, I know how many Americans will take issue with this but you are still light years ahead of any other nation on this matter. German and French treatment of customers often used to resemble the following formula: 'I will acknowledge your existence when it suits me. You do not exist while I'm fiddling around here behind the counter and should you address me, I will ignore you. Remember you are only a customer and this is our shop'. Germany has made phenomenal progress in this regard in recent years, but larger French chains are still stuck in the Stone Age, I fear. Independent boutiques are another matter, but can also be no-go areas. Incentives to return or recommend various emporia are often non-existent or, at best, thin on the ground, and this is why I'd like to tell you about an optician in Toulouse called Optique Rouaix.

Optique Rouaix is an optician's located in Place Rouaix, near the marché des Carmes. The clue's in the title, I suppose. A friend of ours works there, but she was in hospital having a baby when I dropped my Persol sunglasses Mrs. F got for me over ten years ago, and lost one of the lenses. Not being a wearer of normal glasses, I went to the only place I'd heard of. Yes, they could fix it for me by tomorrow for €30. Super, deal concluded; off I went, only to return the next day to find out that the new lens hadn't actually arrived. Terribly sorry, will be ready tomorrow at same time. OK. Went back the following day, only to be told that they'd like to re-weld one of the nose supports as it was rather fragile and said technician would be arriving later in the afternoon. Would I like to borrow a pair of sunglasses to tide me over, it being a very sunny day? Yes, indeed I would. No hard feelings, see you tomorrow.

I rolled up to Optique Rouaix the next day and was presented with my sunglasses, gleaming and sturdy; they'd renewed both nose supports, polished the arms and changed both lenses, slipping a spare into the bag for me. In addition, they replaced my rather battered case with a brand-new like version, same make aswell, no less. The price? That's right: €0.00. They were so sorry for the delay they decided to go an extra mile and let me have the whole caboodle for free. So, instead of paying €30 for one new lens, I was given two new lenses, a spare, brand new supports, a polished arms and a brand new case for the princely sum of zero euros. Because they were sorry to have kept me waiting.

Now, this next bit is obvious to you and me, but it still won't have occurred to everyone in the trade, more's the pity: Optique Rouaix treated a customer with extreme courtesy and that customer is now going to tell everyone who cares to listen just how good that shop is, thereby probably increasing their trade. This is page one stuff, but Cocktail Scandinave certainly hasn't read that book, nor have so many other traders. The glorious part of all that is, once you find someone who understands how to treat customers you feel like getting down on your knees and kissing their feet. Or better. These little discoveries brighten your day and push up your seretonin levels. Everyday rudeness or indifference should just be countered with a shrug and pitying look. After all, people who are permanently dissatisfied or unhelpful have to live with themselves all day, every day; once you leave their shop you're rid of the problem; they're stuck with it and will nurse their negative karma all the way to the emotional gutter. Bless.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

A New Neighbour

I've a funny feeling in my stomach, and it's not because of the Château Coutinel. It's because we have a new neighbour upstairs. I started riffing on this a few years back when we got a small, young family of Syrian Kurds living above our bedrooms. It was murder, as their floor is not even remotely insulated, and our exchnges could have actually turned into homicide had they stayed any longer. They left and were replaced by a Turkish Kurd (no, they didn't know each other - my arse) who turned out to be very good, but still prone, as was his right, to come home from nightclubs at 4am and wake my entire family. It didn't happen too often, but often enough for me to contemplate manslaughter. He eventually moved into a two-bed flat in the Roseraie, but I bumped into him accompanied by a lawyer (yup, we live in 'Legal Street', here in Toulouse) recently. Judging by his embarressed expression and reluctance to engage in conversation, I can only assume he was on his way to a residency hearing, rather undermining his persistent claims that is papers were in order. I always found it strange that he never fixed up his letter box to receive post and that his boss, by his own admission, paid him cash, no questions asked. It's bizarre; you can talk to someone almost daily for two years, yet your suspicion that you're never really being told the truth will eventually be born out.

Anyhow, back to the point. This guy finally moved out in August, 2010, and his flat has lain deliciously empty since that time. The owners/agency renovated the bathroom and did some band-aid decoration in the sitting room, but the bottom line was that we had uninterrupted sleep for a number of months. However, a new tenant is in the process of moving in. Mrs. Fingers has met her: she's about 50, divorced, and has two birds, a dog and seven cats. She'll be up on the third floor with ten animals; God only knows how that's supposed to work. She's promised to be careful about how she walks about, but we'll see how it pans out with half of Noah's fucking Ark above our bedrooms. Apparently, she's very nice (they always are) but the floor is the floor and the agency stubbornly refuses to do anything about it. In the meantime, otherwise civilised human beings start behaving like Neanderthals because those who are responsible ignore their responsibilities. Anyone interested in more sordid details on this subject need only consult my posts starting in September 2008. I honestly hope it'll be OK, otherwise there will be blood.

Good News Bible

Despite nearly provoking high blood pressure from all the pinches of salt I've taken reading mainstream press stories, I take daily pleasure from my decision to subscribe to The Economist, a weekly news magazine that does actually seem to employ real journalists who represent a point of view. Having just read three mainstream articles on France's burka ban, which came into effect this morning, the version on The Economist's front page online provided more background and reasoned comment than all the others put together. In any case, the others were so similar to one another it's probably not too far-fetched to imply they were all culled from the same source, Reuters, PA, AP or APF. Even maybe Knight Ritter, if you're feeling generous. Flat Earth News can do wonders for your cynicism.

I'd like to pitch The Economist to you as a sort of Good News Bible. It's probably not the universal best in the world, but its reporting is excellent, in-depth and takes no prisoners. I'm not remotely business-orientated, I have CSE Maths (Grade 1, but hey, it's CSE), 'A' level Economics (Grade C) and no science qualifications whatsoever, but it still manages to grab me where it should. If a publication with that title can seduce a musician to subscribe, imagine what it could do for those with a more earthbound bent. Try it out. And, no; they're not paying me. Flat Earth News has, to date, not mentioned it (a compliment in itself), but I'm only half way through.

Jack Dee on Tattoo Removal

Jack Dee on Hospitals. And Barrymore.

Jack Dee on Homework

Monday, 11 April 2011

Alarming Statistics

You may or may not have read my post Great Loo Book. I was referring to The Economist's Pocket World in Figures 2011 Edition, which I bought off their website along with a couple of other erudite tomes, the Numbers Guide and the Style Guide, so I could calculate like a Cambridge prof and write like Aldous Huxley (yeah, right). Anyhow, the Pocket Guide has the most disturbing first five pages since Machiavelli decided to ingratiate himself with Lorenzo di Medici with his jolly little page-turner The Prince. Let's turn to Sex Ratios, shall we? It's common knowledge that males and females are present in more or less equal numbers in every country, but let's look at the top and bottom end of the ratio tables, starting with Greenland, which has 113 males per 100 females, followed by Bhutan with 111.4/100, Andorra 110/100 and China 107/100. The alarming thing about this is that Greenland is number 7 on the list. There are six Gulf States above them, starting with Saudi Arabia in sixth place with a ratio of 120.7/100, stratospherically ascending through Oman, Bahrain and Kuwait to arrive at the UAE with an eye-watering 203.6 men to 100 women, but topped, royally, by Qatar which has a mind-boggling 306.9 men per 100 women. I honestly don't know what conclusion to draw from this. Diet? Abortion? Why are so few girls born in these countries? Maybe it's better not to know.

Going to the other end of the scale, the ten lowest slots are shared pretty much equally between the Caribbean and the former Eastern Bloc. Either the men have drunk themselves to death (in the case of the European states) or, in the case of the Caribbean, have all married middle-aged German divorcees and gone to live in Frankfurt. Another possibility is that they've all grown beards and gone to live in the Gulf States. Whatever the reasons, Ryanair stag night weekends in Tallinn aren't likely to be in any danger any time soon. Cause and effect, maybe.

Other heart-warming statistics in this world, which has seen its population nearly triple in seventy years, is that the top fifty growing populations are all in the so-called developing world i.e. countries which can't support their own growth and the slowest (or shrinking) are, without exception in the old 'First World'. We knew all this, but seeing the numbers laid out in front of you is quite alarming. Pakistan, which started in 1947 with a population of 31 million is predicted to reach 335 million by 2050, the fourth most populous country in the world after India (1,614m), China (1,417m) and the USA (404m) by that time. The UK will have grown to 72m, Germany shrunk to 71m and France will have 68m, five million more than now. How the hell are all these people to be fed? Where will they all live? Will there be enough water? What wars will this overpopulation engender? It's almost enough to make me want to take up smoking again and shed this mortal coil earlier than scheduled.

Let's just cast a quick glance at the 'Growing Populations' rubric. The top fifty spots are, with the exception of Singapore, all in the Third World, the vast majority showing between a 2-3% rise between 2005 and 2010. Drum roll, cue Qatar, with a rate of 10.65%. Even Pakistan, with a rate of 2.16, comes in at n°48...

I don't know, but this whole thing seems unbalanced. Maybe it was ever thus; poorer countries have more children but their mortality rate is higher and life expectancy is considerably lower, ergo quicker human turnover. It seems we really can't have it both ways: a sparsely-populated world brought us a never-ending succession of wars, disputes and occupations. Now there is more wealth sloshing around disputes are fewer, cooperation is more advanced but space is scarcer, raising land and property prices and, hence, pushing up the cost of living for all and sundry. There's also less space to grow crops (especially since the Labour government decided to build on flood plains to house immigrants, at least in the UK). There's no simple answer. Basically we're doomed. Or f*****, whichever way you care to express it.

Jack Dee on Builders

Jack Dee on Local newspapers

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Ali G on Dangerous Drugs

Ali G in Northern Ireland. One for the Brits.

Ali G down on the farm. Unmissable.

Ali G writes a book.

Ali G speaks to Andy Rooney. And Andy Rooney is not amused.

Welcome Home.

A strange thing happened this evening, but here's the preamble: Apart from West End Shows, there's one musical question that Mrs. Fingers and I agree on one hundred percent: that baroque music is utter shite. By its very structure and harmonic perversion it can only appeal to people with severe social and behavioural disorders, so is, basically, a musical form to be avoided if you don't wish to end in the gutter with a restraining order and a syringe sticking out of your left eyeball. Fact. With this in mind, imagine my 'surprise' as I get home after rehearsal this evening, only to find sixteenth-century music playing on the radio. The Fingernails, seeing my expression, ask if everything was OK at work, if I was feeling 'tired' or 'grumpy'. Their concern is touching, doubly so against a backdrop of such aural pollution. "May I change stations?" I enquired, as politely as possible under the circumstances. "No", replied Fingernail I; "I really like it".

My elder daughter 'really likes' baroque music. I'm sorry, but how can anybody 'really like' that racket? It's a statistically proven fact that baroque music leads to delinquency and all these French ensembles with those fancy names like Les Cinglés d'Astrée, L'ensemble Connard and Les Marginaux de la Mélodie are just government social reinsertion programmes for the terminally unemployable. Fucked up your bac? Here's a sackbutt, get blowing; some self-anointed 'authority' will be round any minute to hoover you up and take you on tour. Sackbutts too difficult? Here's something that sort of looks like a 'cello but sounds like you're playing a wheely bin; the baroque era provides solutions a-plenty for those who've always wanted to be musicians but didn't know how.

I'm hoping Fingernail I's taste was conditioned, at least today, by Mrs. F, who admitted, after a somewhat trying afternoon, that the piece on the radio was 'just what she needed'. Knowing how the mere mention of a counter tenor can induce projectile vomiting in my dear wife, I'm prepared to cut her a little slack, but a wedge has been sneakily introduced in the musical listening habits of Château Fingers. This thin end needs to be ejected as soon as possible. Tomorrow morning it's either Richard Strauss or Dave Weckl at breakfast.

Ali G on Sex

If the others don't corpse you, this one will.

Ali G addresses Harvard - Part I

Ali G on Sex Education.

Make sure you're not in public when you watch this.

Ali G on Medical Ethics

Worth a few minutes of your time.

Ali G on Animal Rights

They take themselves so seriously, sometimes...

Ali G on Religion

I thought I was going to have a seizure near the end. Unbelievable.

Ali G on Parkinson


Ali G speaks to the Feds.

The FBI man was great.

Ali G meets Noam Chomsky. Yes.

I'll never work out how he got away with it.

Ali G on Feminism. Worth watching

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Ali G interviews Posh and Becks for Comic Relief

I'd forgotten how funny this was. For those who are new to Ali G (and that shouldn't be any of you), he's an incarnation of Sasha Baron Cohen, more widely known as Borat. This interview dates from 2006.

Mini Man Utd.

When your favourite football team is Manchester United you have to get used to being insulted by jealous fans of clubs that couldn't win the right to fart in the bath. You're accused, above all, of being a glory hunter, even if you started supporting them, as did I, when they were in the old Second Division (yes, that long ago) and had to wait decades before any other victory of note, save the odd FA Cup (which, it must be said, was worth something in those days). Finally, the glory days come; you stack up Premier League Titles, FA Cups, a couple more European Cups, the odd League Cup, some Interplanetary Knockout Trophy where you defeat a team from an island off the coast of Tonga to be crowned Best Team in the Universe©, at least until you fly back to England and, completely jet-lagged, lose at home to Stoke City or some such. You bask in your team's achievements and close your now triple-glazed windows to block out the insults of passing Liverpool supporters who can't get over the fact the last time they won any important domestic gong, moustaches were still a legitimate sign of virility on Merseyside. I'm purposely not mentioning their extraordinary 2005 Champions' League victory over AC Milan as it, quite frankly, doesn't suit my agenda. See what I've learned from Flat Earth News? Impressive, eh? Get your copy now 'n' all that, but I digress.

So, your main team is doing handsomely, but what about your home-town club? Not everyone was born within a Premiership striker's spitting distance of a major ground and those Arsenal supporters from Taunton surely also think fondly of their Somerset roots come Saturday afternoon. I happened to be born within a Cantor's wail of White Hart Lane, moved to Salisbury until I was six then spent my most formative years in that most anachronistic of settlements, a Labour stronghold in West Sussex. That's right, Not since Gordon Brown moved into Number 10, Downing Street, has an entity ever been so incongruously located. Still, the development of Crawley New Town was probably the last work of genius by any British Government. Half way between London and Brighton with its own industrial estate and its nose nestling warmly in Gatwick Airport's crotch, Crawley was and is a success story: Gatwick 'blossomed', at least in an economic sense, improved rail speeds meant that one could commute to London easily from any of its three railway stations and the Manor Royal Estate continued to provide work for just about everyone else. However, Crawley Town FC was as moribund as any non-league outfit; sandwiched between the capital and Brighton and Hove Albion (which were, for quite a time, reasonably successful, nearly beating...Manchester United in an FA Cup Final, no less), they were never likely to attract either interest or investment outside of the town's borders. They even almost went under twice in the last twelve years, but then things started to change. They hired a rather controversial manager who had been previously convicted of tax evasion or some such, then the owner miraculously found investors who provided the club with enough cash up front to make some significant lower-league purchases and start stringing some results together. Just as when the Glazer family bought Manchester United a few years ago, people began to clamour for a little more transparency in the matter of Crawley Town's new-found wealth and success. They refused to name their new investors, blocked enquiries and continued to win matches by fair means or, on occasions, foul. They started to be reviled as United were reviled, even if they were playing in completely different leagues in all senses. It was strange to have my favourite team and my sort-of home town club accused of similar skulduggery and the whole story took a further surreal twist when Crawley Town made it through to the fifth round of the FA Cup only to be paired with...Manchester United at Old Trafford on February 19th of this year. Supporters of other teams in the Blue Square Premier called on Man Utd to give Crawley a kicking they'd never forget while everyone else with a larger grudge against United than Crawley called for the opposite to happen. This was a fight between two school bullies, each one only garnering support by default. Crawley lost 1-0 to a United B/C team, their honour intact, many feeling they could have won it if luck had been on their side in the closing minutes.

The story doesn't finish there. Crawley today won automatic promotion to League Two, what we used to call the Fourth Division (go figure, those who aren't familiar with English professional football) and Steve Evans is already eyeing, as he should, greater glory in the future. My advice to any of you out there looking for a currently unfashionable team to support so you can brag in years to come as they parade a freshly-won European Cup that you 'supported them while they were still in the Blue Square Premier': go for Crawley Town. Take your fiancée to Crawley for a weekend and spend Saturday afternoon at the Broadfield Stadium; she'll never forget it, or allow you to, for that matter. In footballing terms, though, we have seen the birth of the next behemoth, and Crawley is its name...

Friday, 8 April 2011

Alan Partridge on Farming

A classic sketch where Alan replies to the Norfolk farming community....

Alan Davies II

When I was living in London in the mid-nineties, one of my locals, The King's Head in Crouch End, had a twice weekly stand-up night. I'd often go either on my own or with friends, squelch downstairs through the traditional pub carpet, get a pint from the bar, light up and listen to the MC playing a track from Lyle Mays Street Scenes. It was perfect intro music to what was, invariably, a superb evening's entertainment. Some acts were a bit scrappy, some marvellous, but the most remarkable occured one chilly Friday evening in November. I'd gone along to see an old friend from university made good, Rainer Hirsch, hoping to surprise him as I had done a few years earlier on a comedy boat moored at the Embankment. As luck would have it, Rainer cancelled but the ever-alert MC spotted Alan Davies in the audience and begged him to get up on stage and fill in. Poor Alan had, judging by his beer intake, not bargained on this, but gamely staggered on stage and gave us a fabulous set of new material he was preparing. It got an earlier outing than anticipated, but maybe that was no bad thing. As for Rainer, I finally met up with him again in Bayreuth, summer of 2010...

Alan Davies - Great Comedian

Great Loo Book.

If you're ever casting around for something to browse while you're sitting on the throne, I can heartily recommend The Economist's Pocket World in Figures (2011 Edition, of course). It's a goldmine of all those fascinating little facts we, as men, love to hoover up whilst locked away for a few minutes, replacing waste with wisdom. Here's a random sample: Cameroon has 39.8 people per square kilometre whereas Austria has nearly three times that amount. That means you're 66% more likely to bump into someone in Vienna than you are in Yaoundé. Or something. Anyway, Austria's fertility rate is 1.4 children per woman, whereas in Cameroon it's 4.7, so that means you're over three times more likely to bump into someone in Yaoundé as in...wait a minute. OK, here's another: 20.8% of the Irish population is under 15, whereas in Lithuania it's 14.6%. Ireland's population is 4.4 million, exactly a million more than their Baltic cousins and their women produce 2 kiddies each at the moment, as opposed to Lithuania's 1.3. All this means that Lithuania won't exist in a few years, so the Irish can take it over and use it to brew more Guinness. Lithuania could take a leaf out of Cameroon's book and get humping with a vengeance but that might take too much time away from  their thrusting to become a sort of Baltic Tiger. Ireland had a Tiger, too, a Celtic one. And look what happened there. Now, many of them have all the time in the world to push their country's fertility rate through the ceiling, so maybe the Lithuanians should forget about capital gain and just get shagging. I love these intellectual publications.

Nicolas Sarkozy and Franz-Olivier Giesbert

An amusing story in today's Telegraph recounts how the above-mentioned journalist described President Sarkozy's then fiancée, Carla Bruni, as a maneater, advising him not to introduce her to either his sons or any handsome men in a new book to be published soon. Sarkozy didn't take it too well, replying that he should 'smash his face in' and wondering what was 'holding him back', remarking to Giesbert that he probably wouldn't appreciate it if somebody described his wife as a whore who might well bonk his children before running off with the (handsome) milkman, type of thing. The rest of the article is less sensational; Giesbert goes on to describe Mr. Sarkozy as a man of 'great culture' blah blah blah. I suppose this passes for news, but seeing as Giesbert works for French weekly Le Point he's probably just benefitting from a little product placement in a colleague's publication. After all, this article, which made the online front page of one of our quality dailies, recounts a playground exchange between two grown men that happened in a foreign country four years ago. How many other more deserving news stories could have occupied that space this morning? How many shocking tales of incompetence on the part of the Social Services yet again go unreported in this global quest for inoffensive, soft 'news'? What can we do about it?

That's all for tonight.

Thanks for watching, folks; I'm off to bed. Brahms has accompanied me these last couple of hours and your ever-increasing pageviews have warmed the cockles of my little geographically-displaced heart. Read a few pages from the last few years if you have nothing better to do and drop a comment or two if you feel so inclined. Night night.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Beautiful Young Ladies attend the Grand National 2011

Thanks for this, Geoff. Sorry to everyone else:


I'm currently reading a book by Nick Davies called Flat Earth News, which describes, through exemplary research and massive detail, where the news we experience actually comes from, how it is selected and the machinations involved amongst the powers that be that ensure we only get to hear what we're allowed to hear. Unsurprisingly, it has never received the kind of exposure it warrants as it calls precisely those channels into question which are also instrumental in advertising literature. Still, thanks to the internet it's only two clicks away, but the biggest problem is hearing about this kind of publication in the first place. Without my brother tipping me the wink I'd still be in the dark.

Anyhow, I decided to use a couple of the techniques employed by the larger news agencies to see if I could increase traffic to my blog. Like I've already mentioned a couple of times, I started this blog in 2007 on a purely personal note, having lost a lot of memoirs to hard disk failure. Early posts were perfunctory and my enthusiasm would ebb and flow according to the season, my mood and what I happened to fancy doing at the sharp end of the evening with the Fingernails tucked up safely and the day's fatigue starting to invade my joints. Slowly but surely, people started to get in touch, saying how much they enjoyed the unmitigated bollocks I'd post every now and then and the blog even got an unprovoked, glowing review on, a blog by a certain Keith Eckstein that looks out French expat scribblings. By that time I'd not posted anything for over a year. I hadn't published anything in the Telegraph since the French smoking ban either, so my creative juices hadn't just been put on the back burner; they'd tumbled down the back of the stove without my noticing, doubtless hoovered up by passing vermin, chuckling into their manky whiskers at yet another Brit in Frogland who'd run out of things to say about strikes, kissing complete strangers and wading through industrial-strength piles of dog shit on his way to his meeting, which, as it happens, is cancelled because The Man is still in the shower at his mistress's house.

So what does all this have to do with my cynical attempts at manipulating my august readership, you may be asking. Quite a lot, as it happens. Just as a middle-aged man fondly remembering his first love, the traffic in the early days of French Fingers was a constant, reassuring trickle. I made no attempt to advertise its existence, told no-one of its presence on the interweb yet watched as word of mouse pushed the little audiomat to three, then four figures. A few days ago, I decided to set myself a target. Daily views had, at best, been around the 20-25 mark, so I decided to try to push that number over 100 within three days. That's quite a task when you have such a small readership but tonight, ladies, gentlemen and others, we're well over the target, and not just because I've peppered a lot of people I know with anonymous links to these pages; I know no-one in either Iran, Belarus or India, but they've contributed as much as anyone else to achieving this little goal. So how did it happen?

Keywords. I know virtually no-one who cares as much about football as I do, less about Manchester United, less still about Wayne Rooney. Yet my post on his projected ban outstripped all my other surrounding posts. Why? Because I opened the title with the words "Wayne" "Rooney" and "Fine". My "Talking Parrot" has been viewed a lot, but mainly because I sent people a direct link. Wayne's post still leads, despite my not having sent it directly to anyone I know. It appeared as fourth or fifth item on a Google search, so that must have had a lot to do with it. Strangely, I tried the same technique with my post on Jeff Thomson being my favourite fast bowler, but didn't have anything like the same success. The truth is, that Jeff's exploits and opinions thereon have been around for over thirty years; Wayne's potential fine was brand new, so anyone uttering those words was much likelier to find himself nearer the top of the pile. So it is in life, too. Right after France banned smoking in bars and restaurants at the beginning of 2008 (or was it 2009? I can't remember) I watched how they coped for a couple of days and submitted an article to theTelegraph and to a French expat paper, The Connexion on January 4th or thereabouts. They both wanted exclusivity on it, so I ended up writing another one for The Connexion which contained all the elements they liked but differed sufficiently from the Telegraph version that many of their faithful were also likely to read. The articles were quite good, but both benefitted from being the first on the block. I've submitted better pieces to The Connexion since, but have never had a reply. The Telegraph, generously, publish everything I send them, but that's another story entirely.

Without wanting to divulge too much about what's contained in Flat Earth News or how I've been able to coerce you wonderful people into reading on and between my lines, I'll close by thanking you for spending time on my patch. I do seriously suggest you read the book, though; there are second-hand copies in perfect condition available on Amazon for next to nothing. It's enlightening reading, depressing yet uplifting, depending on how you wish to view the information.

The Office IV - Funny Lines Collection

The Office III - Gareth's Fat Bird Problem

The Office II - Redundancies

More from David Brent & Co.

The Office (Original UK Version)

Just corpsed myself watching this classic again. Keith gets 'appraised' by David, his boss:

French Drivers II

Got some feedback regarding French driving standards, none of it positive, I have to say. Among the more repeatable words were always on the phone, never indicate, never look, drive up your backside...One pointed out that there were twice as many fatalities on French roads as on British ones, despite the French ones being distinctly less congested. I don't drive enough either here or there to really be able to comment and I think it'd be unfair to base any judgement I happen to make on driving in Crawley from 1978-80 and Germany from 1989 - 1995. When I do drive in France I take it easy, keep my distance and always try to keep my bottle of whisky out of sight of the speed cameras when we zoom past at 165kmh. After all, you do have to set an example to your children sitting in the back seat.

Extras: Ricky Gervais + Kate Winslet

Kate's a good sport...

French Drivers

There's a very good radio station here in France called RMC. They have a lot of phone-ins, sports shows and 'human interest' slots, not least one hosted every weekday afternoon by Brigitte Lahaie, a former porn star turned radio hostess. Each weekday morning you'll find Jean-Jacques Bourdin fielding calls, irate and otherwise, by denizens of this fair territory on subjects from immigration, gas prices, Sarkozy's behaviour, his competence, the state of the Socialist Party, road tax and the rest. You get the picture. Anyhow, this morning there was an announcement, coming, presumably, from an insurance company's prepared press release, that the French now drive worse than before. This caught my attention. How could such a thing be possible? in any case, before what? Before joining the European Union? Before Sarkozy came to power? Before they won the World Cup in 1998? Before you could actually use Gérard Dépardieu's nose as a desktop letter holder? Or just simply before Axa decided to release their current slew of data? Whatever the truth behind the story, my immediate thought was that this company wanted to make a public excuse for putting up their premiums.

Apparently, 75% of French ignore amber traffic lights (94% in the under-25's), one in 6 phones or sends text messages at the wheel and fifty percent of indications are rather more seating suggestions to other drivers than flashing lights on the corners of the car. In other words, according to the report: "The French have started driving badly, again". Road deaths were up 25% in January, 7% in February. Dangers on the road "don't frighten them any more".

I'm not sure the French drive any worse than any other nation hell-bent on breaking the law, but these figures do seem a little contrived (road deaths up twenty-five percenty in January compared to what? That time last year? A first-quarter average?). It doesn't however alter the most salient fact: the figures were based on a sample audience of 1000 people questioned, many of whom were only too willing to admit they'd broken the law. So where are these people now? Why haven't they been rounded up and shot? They've admitted their crimes but are probably currently sipping coffee on some sun-soaked café terrace, phoning their mistresses at 120kmh in a built-up area or performing handbrake turns in school playgrounds. Axa had the opportunity to dob all these crooks in to the police but instead chose to turn Queen's Counsel and use their information as an excuse to put their prices up for everyone else.

So where does this leave us? You commit a crime and now, in our touchy-feely, 'everyone's beautiful' world, you can take part in a survey and use your felony to 'improve' life for everyone else. Any crime is apparently OK, providing you admit it, recognise your guilt and prostrate yourself for forgiveness. People conducting surveys should be invested with the power to arrest their subjects and, if, necessary, use extreme force or even immobilise them with taser guns. In the event of the survey being conducted over the phone, SAS-style commando units should be ready to pounce, rather like in George Orwell's 1984, when Winston and Julia are taken by surprise in their love nest above the antiques shop. A dispensation to shoot to kill should also be considered in the compilation of certain surveys, like drug use, rap 'music' and TF1 viewing figures. This would also free the police up to concentrate on more important tasks, such as standing around watching people peeing up against my building and laughing (see previous posts).

A final Armstrong and Miller

This one's different, but hilarious nonetheless:

Wayne Rooney, Part III

In the end, he played well, kept his mouth closed, scored a peach of a goal and may have booked his team a place in the semis. I really, really wish the FA would just leave this kid alone and pick on some of the preening dandies from the oppostion, like Didier Drogda, for example. He didn't do anything wrong, he just bugs the s*** out of me.

A typical Wednesday with added insanity (at the end).

Anyone familiar with a French scholastic Wednesday will know, probably through experience, that you need to be pretty resourceful, particularly if you work. School's out at 11.30am and even though most places offer the possibility to stay on, have lunch and basically play on site until the parents come to collect their children, some places do not. There are solutions there, too, but generally parents drag their angels off to music lessons, pony club, gymnastics or the like. With Mrs. Fingers still translating and interpreting for her cementoid Mexicans it was up to me to organise the Fingernails' afternoon. Fingernail II was picked up by another mother from school and I picked up Fingernail I and walked her off to her violin lesson. The weather was fabulous, the conversation flowed; it's a moment I look forward to all week: just the two of us, out of the house, walking through the parks to the music school, chatting easily about whatever comes to mind. I was to drop her off at a friend's flat at 1.30pm where she would have lunch. I'd wanted to feed her before leaving but our host insisted she ate with her son, even if it would be a little later than he was used to. We met up at the appointed hour, I left my elder daughter and trotted further on down the road to work.

I picked her up later, only to discover later she'd had no lunch. Her host had expressed surprise that I hadn't fed her and - get this - instead of actually cooking her something, just gave her sweets. We went to get Fingernail II from her friend's house and by the time we got home Fingernail I was ravenous. I only found out she hadn't eaten when we were nearly home. I love this friend dearly but must make sure this type of misunderstanding doesn't happen again.

Dinner was vegetables, vegetables and more vegetables. Wonderful, you can't beat that food. Round it off with a couple of glasses of Château Coutinel and a Manchester United victory on TV and the evening is your personal plaything.

Lunch issue update: Mrs. Fingers spoke to said Mum about this phantom lunch, only to get the following response: "Yes, we'd agreed that Fingernail I would have lunch with my son, but when she said she hadn't eaten, I didn't believe her. Still, she had a lot for tea". No, I don't f****** understand it, either. I'm sorry, some people are just plain certifiable. End of story.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Ricky Gervais - The Racist Test from "Extras"

A brilliant couple of minutes from a superb series:

Chelsea v. Manchester United II

Wayne Rooney's 24th-minute strike ensured we beat Chelsea by the slimmest of margins. It's a victory, but a fragile one and Chelsea need only to pop one in oop north and we're back to square one. United certainly rode their luck at the end and were lucky not to concede at least one penalty. Teams are generally more fortunate when they play at home, and considering Manchester United's London fan base, this was as close to a cosy away day as you could get. Only playing Wimbledon away in the days of the Crazy Gang was more like Old Trafford on tour.

Chelsea v. Manchester United.

Forty years on and I'm watching these two teams thrashing it out, again. The venue is, as in 1971, Stamford Bridge and then, just as now, Manchester United have the upper hand. Whether or not it'll stay that way is still to be decided, but Rooney's opener off a superb assist by Giggs, in his turn set up by Carrick, was marvellous.

Just a few minutes to go until the second half starts. We'll see each other later. Give the lads a cheer in the meantime.

Christian Thielemann talks a lot of sense.

Just re-read an old interview with Christian Thielemann in Opernwelt. Never one to mince his words, his pronouncements on the continuing plague of Regietheater encapsulate perfectly the state of play wherever opera is performed:

Die Diskussionen, wer nun Regie führt, sind doch über die Maßen wichtig geworden; und auch die Kritiken beschäftigen sich zu über neunzig Prozent nur mit dem Regisseur. Als Dirigent stehst du da unten vier Stunden lang und wirst nachher in einem pauschalen Satz beurteilt – die Sänger manchmal nur mit einer Klammer, wäh­rend jeder umgestürzte Blumenpott auf der Bühne mehrere Zeilen lang auf seine Bedeutung hinterfragt wird. Das Ganze ist völlig aus dem Ruder gelaufen.

For the few of you who didn't understand, here's what he said in Queen Shakespeare's Oxford Vernacular©:

The discussions about who's directing have assumed too much importance; the critics, too, devote over ninety percent of their attention to the stage director. As a conductor, you stand in the pit for four hours and just get summed up in one general sentence - the singers sometimes only in parentheses, whereas, on stage, the significance of every overturned flowerpot gets a few lines to itself. The whole business has got out of control.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

The 1970's

Looking back over the last few videos I posted this evening, I realise that having been a teenager in the 1970's was more or less the best thing that could have happened to anyone, at least if you liked sport and pop music. Football and cricket were overrun with incredible personalities - the Aussies previously mentioned, the Chappell brothers, Barry Richards, Gordon Greenidge (OK, Hampshire was my team), Tony Grieg, Alan Knott, Derek Underwood, the West Indians, like Viv Richards, Andy Roberts etc; the list goes on. Tennis had Ilie Nastase, Gerulaitis, Borg, Connors, McEnroe, Roscoe Tanner. Hell, an Englishwoman even won Wimbledon in that decade (Virginia Wade, for any pagans there may be out there). Like any male teenager, I fancied Chris Evert and was mortified when she married John Lloyd. The varied palette of diversely-skilled tennis players sadly disappeared after the '70's and morphed into one all-round opposition killer for each gender: Pete Sampras for the men and Martina Navratilova for the, er, women. OK, they lost occasionally, but there was nothing like the variety of victors we'd been able to witness, before. On an overcast day, Roscoe Tanner's amazing serve would swing and spin and dispatch Jimmy Connors in straight sets; under different weather conditions there'd be another result. Gerulaitis would run Borg to five sets; a juvenile McEnroe would take a set off Connors; still basically a child, Tracy Austin took a game off Chris Evert. Behemoths now rule the game: Nadal, Federer and, until recently, the Williams sisters. Occasionally a Goran Ivanisovic would win a major tournament but there'd be nothing like the variety in victory you'd find in other sports. That's the power of the 1970's for you; I've just written about 200 words on a sport I've not followed for over thirty years.

There were so many different kinds of pop music in the '70's, too. Motown was churning out high-quality groups pretty much every month, most of whom, it appears, didn't survive longer than one single; there was Genesis, Yes, ELP, Mike Oldfield released Tubular Bells; there was Ska, Reggae, Blue Beat, Blondie, The Pretenders, The Who, Psychobilly, the lot. No crap Rap, either. As the decade started to wither we got Soft Cell, Regent, The Human League and, soon after, The Teardrop Explodes, Simple Minds, Spandau Ballet, to name just a few. Oh, what about UB40?

It was a great time to be young. Now it's a great time to be middle-aged as things are palpably so much worse we have a wonderful excuse to moan about everything, just like our age group is required to do. However, just when I feel like launching a tirade against rap 'music' or the computer-generated shite which passes for instrumentals, I either open one of my Wagner or Puccini scores or reach for a Donald Fagen CD and realise I have nothing to complain about. When you're young, you feel duty-bound to be mindful of every trend, have an opinion about all information. When you get older, you just don't give a shit, anymore. Don't like it? Don't listen. Simple.