Sunday, January 31, 2010

Keeping You Regular!

Today's soundtrack:  Spiritualized - Ladies and Gentlemen we are Floating in Space

D'you know, it's been a long time since I've given you a recipe, so let's put that right today.  As the snow descends yet again, I think we could do with a rich, winter warming casserole, do you not think?

So I give you the Beef, Guinness and Prune Casserole.

No, come back, it's great, honest.  Even if you think you don't like either Guinness or prunes, you'll love this.

Start off a couple of hours before cooking by soaking a pack of prunes (about 250g) in enough Guinness to cover.  You will probably be left with half a can or so of Guinness - I suggest you drink this straightaway.

Start your actual cooking about three hours before you intend to eat.  Cut up a couple of pounds of stewing steak into chunks and coat with some seasoned flour.  Fry in oil in a big stew pot until the meat has browned, then take the meat out of the pan and put on a plate to one side.

Chop a couple of onions and fry off in the oil and meat juices left in the pan.  Add a pack of button mushrooms, unsliced.  Then slice three or four carrots and a few sticks of celery and add those to the pan.  Finally chop some garlic finely and add to the pot.  Stir and fry until cooked through and browning.

You'll probably be getting a bit thirsty by now so I suggest you open another can of Guinness and have a slurp (or two).

When the veg are sizzling nicely, return the meat to the pot and stir in until mixed through.  Then add your prunes, along with the Guinness they've been soaking in.  Add more Guinness, sufficient to just cover the meat and veg in the pan.  Drink any Guinness left in the can.

Leave to simmer on a very low heat for at least two hours, until the meat is cooked through, stirring occasionally to ensure the casserole doesn't stick.  By this time all the prunes should have dissolved and the sauce should have thickened to a decent gravy-like consistency (due to the flour you coated the meat in at the start.  You did coat the meat in flour, didn't you?).  If the sauce is too thin, thicken with cornflour.  Alternatively, if the sauce is too thick, simply add more Guinness, remembering to drink any that is left over.

Have a quick taste.  The sweetness of the prunes should have nicely counteracted the bitterness of the Guinness, but if it's still a bit bitter for your taste, add a teaspoon of sugar.  When no-one's looking.

Serve with rice or baked potatoes.  If you're posh, serve some broccoli or another green vegetable on the side.

You'll probably have loads left over, which is a good thing as the tastes do improve still further if re-heated the next day.  Or stick it in the freezer.

BLTs on mini Ciabattas for lunch today as well.  Oh my.

Spiritualized are providing the woozy soundtrack to this cold Sunday morning here - Ladies and Gentlemen... is a great album for slipping on in the background and drifting along to.  Which is the point, really.  When first released, this in-no-way-influenced-by-drugs album was available in blister pack form, the CDs packaged like a box of pills, complete with instructions ("Spiritualized is used to treat the heart and soul.  For aural administration only.  Use only as directed by a physician.  Keep out of reach of children").

All I want in life's a little bit of love to take the pain away.

Friday, January 29, 2010

iPad - huh? What is it good for?

Today's soundtrack:  The Silver Seas - High Society

Absolutely nothing?

(with apologies to Edwin Starr)

Now obviously, I've not seen an iPad yet, although I've been following the build up (and the post-launch disappointment) with some interest.  Many of you will know that I have been known to indulge in Apple products from time to time - although without ever being tempted down the Mac route.

So what is the iPad good for?  According to Steve Jobs, it is intended to sit in that space in between the mobile phone and the laptop that is currently filled by the rapidly-growing netbook market.  That is to say, something that is extremely portable, that will carry out basic computing tasks (primarily centered around web access, media playback and email) and that does so slickly and intuitively.  In addition, the iPad is 'taking on' the other area of rapid gadget growth - the 'ebook' reader - through the iBookshop that was also announced this week.

And - to be fair - all the indications are that the iPad will do these things very well.  But will it do it better than the alternatives that are already out there?  Also, if (like me) you already have iPhone, netbook and laptop (and desktop) - do you still need an iPad?

Let's consider the evidence.

What can the iPad do that your iPhone (or, indeed, your iPod Touch) can't do?  Not an awful lot, really.  It just does it on a bigger screen with marginally more functionality.  But can you slip it into your pocket?  Err, no.  For certain apps, the iPad is just too bulky as well.  For instance, I have a very nifty shopping list application on my iPhone.  You input your shopping requirements, and tick them off as you go round the supermarket.  Easy with the phone, just a bit clumsy with an iPad.

Oh, and it doesn't make phone calls either.  Or take pictures.

So it ain't going to replace my phone anytime soon.

What about my netbook?  Would the iPad replace that?  What can it do that my netbook can't?  Both can play songs and movies.  Both can carry out general 'office' tasks.  Both can be used for surfing and emailing.

But my netbook can also be used for making video calls - it has a webcam built in.  My netbook can do two (or more) things at once (for example, check emails while surfing, or do instant messaging.  Or listen to internet radio).  The iPad can't - it can't multitask.  Nor can it print directly to a printer - wired or wirelessly.  Nor does it have the ability to directly import files etc via USB - there are no built in USB ports.

My netbook has 160gig of memory - the most the iPad has is 64g.  Which is not augmentable via USB sticks for the reasons outlined above.

Oh, and the iPad has no built in keyboard - you can either tap onto the screen, like your iPhone, or use a bluetooth keyboard, or buy the separate keyboard that has been designed for the iPad - the existence of which is surely tacit acknowledgement by Apple that the on-screen alternative is not ideal?

Finally - my netbook cost less that two hundred quid - less than half the cost of the cheapest iPad.

So it's not going to replace my netbook either.

Now - if I had neither phone or netbook - would I then be in the market for an iPad?  Well no, for the reasons outlined above.  It's not a phone - so you need a phone in any case...and the netbook does more, better.

So to the final category.  Is the iPad merely a better, more fully functioned eBook?

Well it probably is, actually.  The big USP of the dedicated eBook is the use of 'electronic ink' - displays that are supposed to be easier on the eye than a typical LCD screen and which use far less battery power to drive.  But they are monochrome only and take an age to refresh when you turn the 'page'.  The iPad displays in colour, is very responsive and does an awful lot more than your average eBook.  Also, the cheapest iPad is almost exactly the same price as the equivalent Kindle.

The argument about e-ink versus LCD remains - but I am not persuaded by the eyestrain claims made in favour of e-ink.  Like most of us, I spend hours at work or at home staring at LCD displays and rarely suffer from any form of eyestrain.  Whilst the e-ink screen may well be easier on the eye, I do not believe the 'hazards' of LCDs are as big as they have been made out to be.

So.  The iPad.  Not an iPhone killer.  Not a netbook killer.  An eBook killer?  Well maybe.  But then there is another alternative to the eBook called the Paperback.  Robust, easy on the eye and easily portable. I know what I'd rather read...

IMPORTANT CAVEAT:  All the above has been written without actually seeing, or holding, an iPad.  Once I have done so, I reserve the right to discard everything I have written above and to covet the iPad as, indeed, I have done with just about every piece of kit Apple has produced, ever.

And so to today's soundtrack.  I doubt many of you will have heard of The Silver Seas, but High Society is a thing of rare beauty, referencing the Beach Boys and the wider Californian/Laurel Canyon scene whilst remaining completely up to date.  Despite these reference points, the band actually hails from Nashville - although any pure (or alt) country styilings are difficult to discern.

This is great - 'The Country Life' recorded in the studio back in 2005.

Monday, January 25, 2010


Today's soundtrack:  Richard and Linda Thompson - Pour Down Like Silver

So, as the Staines contract draws to a close, it's time to take stock and look for the next role.  Strangely, I don't feel 'unemployed' any more, rather 'between contracts' - hence the obscure Ian Dury reference in the title above.  Better an Inbetweenie than a Doley!

Still, needs must, so I'm back signing on again.  This time round, it's Chester rather than Warrington.  So I can hang around with a better class of doley once a fortnight.  If, indeed, it comes to that.  There are a couple of contract opportunities floating around that might turn into something tangible, although both are back down in the South East.

In the meantime though, it's back to life/back to reality in the Cheshire Plains - and back to blogging as well.

The Staines work was good fun, and has given us a little bit of welcome breathing space, and has given me the appetite to do more work in this vein - at least until the permanent jobs start appearing again.  Up to a point, it's nice to be master of my own destiny again.  If I thought I could pick up a steady stream of such work, I'd do this full time.  Big 'If' though.

In my final few days away, I filled my evenings beginning to work through the first series of 'Spectacle', a music/chat show hosted by Elvis Costello.  Originally recorded and broadcast in the States, the series was somewhat lost in the depths of Channel Four's late night schedules and was consequently largely overlooked in this country.  So I was surprised to see the DVD of the first series for sale - but wasted no time getting a copy.

Four episodes in, and I'm pleased to report it is one of the most intelligent music shows I have seen in a long time - whilst Elvis (initially at least) is not the most polished of interviewers, his love of music and his respect for his interviewees comes across clearly.  And the music is superb too - whether performed by Elvis and his band (including, at various times, James Burton, Allen Toussaint and Attractions Steve Nieve and Pete Thomas) or in conjunction with his guests.

Oh, and some high quality guests as well.  Elton John in the first show, focusing heavily on his first few albums when his credibility outweighed his popularity.  Bill Clinton on the second, as a jazz fan (and sometime musician) rather than as a president, then Tony Bennett - dapper and smooth as silk, one of the last great crooners.  Then in show four - Lou Reed, for once engaging and erudite rather than bitter and abrasive.

To come - Smokey, Rufus Wainwright, Kris Kristofferson, James Taylor and others.

I have no idea what the potential audience is for a show like this - it's hardly appealing to mainstream tastes - but I'm delighted that there are producers who are prepared to invest in this sort of programming even though the returns must be tiny compared to the investment required.

Anyway, Here's Elvis and Lou duetting on 'Perfect Day'.  Fascinating contrast between Costello's crooning and Reed's, er, idiosyncratic approach to the melody.  And Elvis still looks threatening on the 'you're going to reap just what you sow' line.

Richard Thompson apparently makes an appearance on Spectacle on a later series, but comes up on the soundtrack today with wife (of the time) Linda.  I prefer the R&L albums to the solo Richard work - Linda's voice is that much easier on the ear and adds variety and nuance that can be missing from Richard's solo albums.

By any standards, this is gorgeous.  'The Dimming of the Day'.  Richard and Linda Thompson.

Monday, January 18, 2010

10 Rules for the perfect record shop

  1. The shop should only sell music. No DVDs, books or video games. 
  2. Discs should be easily browseable, sorted by artist and by genre. 
  3. The proprietor(s) should be extremely knowledgeable about the most obscure corners of the music spectrum and be prepared to flaunt this knowledge at any opportunity. Mild sarcasm is allowed if a customer's desired purchase falls below their very high standards. 
  4. Vinyl (preferably second-hand) should be given as much floor space as CDs. 
  5. Lighting should be low-key, if not downright dark. Natural light is to be discouraged. 
  6. Music should be playing at all times. Such music must not, at any time, reflect current popular, or even critical, acclaim. Any enquiries of the proprietor as to what is actually playing at any given time may be greeted with raised eyebrows and snorts of derision. 
  7. On each visit, you should be able to search the racks of your favourite artist(s) and find items you did not know existed. 
  8. You should be allowed to browse at your leisure - for hours at a time - without interruption. ON NO ACCOUNT should the proprietor or any other member of staff ask if they can help you find what you are looking for. 
  9. The walls should be papered with concert posters, obscure vinyl picture sleeves and ticket stubs. No original wall space should be visible. 
  10. The faint smell of patchouli should linger on the air.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Big Chill

Today's soundtrack:  TV On The Radio - Young Liars

By Christ, it's cold.

Set off to Staines last Monday in sub-zero temperatures, but due to a combination of good fortune and good timing, I managed to avoid any road-related trauma and reached the office just after eight.  The road-related trauma was not long in coming though - although for Mrs W, rather than me.

Tuesday, and whilst it was a tad chilly in the South, the skies were clear.  Unlike the North, where it snowed like a bastard all day.  Mrs W had struggled into work - to the surprise of many - and later struggled as far as the local town - five miles from home - before having to ditch the car by the side of the road.  Rear wheel drive is not recommended in the snow!

Nothing I could do to help - I was miles away in the balmy south - and no way anyone could reach her.  But - left to her own devices - she struggled home a few hours later, not without some kind offers of help from complete strangers, which was good to see.

Anyway, the bleak weather turned its eye southwards, and heavy snowfall on Tuesday night led to the realisation, on Wednesday morning, that travelling down south with one pair of flimsy work shoes was a BAD IDEA.  So off to Millets, for wellies and a pair of those chunky items that cross walking boots with trainers.

Suitably shod, the snow wasn't a problem for me any more, although it did prevent a lot of people getting into work that day.  With more snow falling, the office was closed at three pm (as it was for the rest of the week). Back up north, Mrs W managed to retrieve her car from the drifts, with the help of one of the neighbours, but it did mean a day off work.

Thursday, and I got into the office to find one meeting cancelled, another potential meeting scuppered by the meetee staying at home, and a lot of people suggesting I make a run for it while the roads were (relatively) clear and quiet.  Alarmed by the prospect of having to spend the weekend in Staines (lovely place though it is), I hit the road.  And again, was lucky enough to have a clear run all the way back.

A doddle, this snow-driving.

Well that was until I took Mrs W to work on Friday.  For some reason, her company did not think it worthwhile gritting the staff car parks, which were consequently ice rinks.  The 4x4 coped - just - but they are setting themselves up for a nasty incident if they don't get their fingers out!  Despite the four wheel drive, I had a little wobble on the way back home, but thankfully no more than that.

And thankfully no other major problems, other than a bath that would not drain because the water from the previous bath had frozen in the pipes outside (which, I discovered, had a bit of a 'bow' in them).  After a bit of pipe-warming (involving hot water bottles and kettles) we managed to get the blockage melted and shifted.

Still, I can't remember too many winters colder than this one.  There was the time in Sheffield when it was so cold the water froze in the toilets, and I was around for the Really Big Freeze in 1963 (although I don't remember anything about it) but this is as cold as it has been for as long as I can remember.

Pussy cat loves it, at any rate.

The Big Freeze caused most of the footy to be postponed this weekend, although the Everton game went ahead as planned.  Now we normally go to Arsenal and get tonked, and the 6-1 at home on the first day of the season didn't augur well - but the lads done good.  In the lead twice, pegged back by two wickedly deflected shots, the latter of which fell two minutes into injury time.  Chances to go 3-1 up as well.  Now I'd have snatched your hand off for 2-2 at Arsenal before the game, but to play so well and come so close to winning made the draw feel more like a defeat.

The signs are good for the rest of the season, though.

TV On The Radio today, an achingly trendy band from Brooklyn.  The 'Young Liars' EP was their first release, and it's precociously good for a debut effort.  The group combine elements of jazz and soul with indie rock noises, that greates a musical stew that is - more often than not - better than it sounds.  Difficult to describe what they sound like - best listen for yourself!

This is Staring At The Sun, from the EP, performed live in 2004.  Excellent Afro/Beard/Glasses combination sir!

Friday, January 01, 2010

(Don't) Look Back in Anger - a personal review of 2009

Today's Soundtrack:  Ruben Gonzalez - Introducing...Ruben Gonzalez

So - the pizza bases are rolled out and in the airing cupboard, rising.  The wine is in the wine glass, Reisling.  And I'm sat at the computer - musing.

I think it's fair to say that, on the whole and all things considered, 2009 was a shit year.  Probably the shittest on record for me, personally - and possibly for the Waring family, past and present, generally.

Let's have a look at the lowlights.

March - made redundant.  Kicked out of a job that I loved, something I'd built up from scratch over a three year  period to something that was - just - on the verge of something interesting.  The right people were in place to take things on to the next level - except I wasn't going to be involved.  Despite the kind words, and the honest praise that my (ex) colleagues gave me, bottom line was that I was the expendable one.  And it wasn't just me, of course.  Two of my cousins, my first wife, and many close friends also lost their jobs this year.  My son, graduating with a good degree, has struggled to get his foot on the job ladder and is temping where he can until things pick up.

April - we lost our cat, hit by a car before my eyes, dying in my arms.  A source of real joy and pleasure, particularly for Mrs W.  A good, happy life cut short in moments.

November - and worst of all - my son told me that the lump in his neck was not a benign piece of gristle, it was something that needed to be cut out as soon as possible, along with half his thyroid gland, a series of lymph nodes and (possibly) some nerves and veins as well.  To be followed by radiotherapy to kill off any remaining Bad Cells that might have escaped surgery.

Oh, and I turned fifty.  At a point in my life where I'd kind of hoped things would have settled down into a steady and comfortable, if dull, routine - all of a sudden I'm lumbered with a raft of financial and personal uncertainties and stresses I could, quite frankly, be doing without at my age.  It was never supposed to be like this...

But however bad things get, there will always be good things to provide some sort of balance?  Won't there?  Well yes, 2009 did have its moments here and there.  Let's look at the good bits of 2009.

I may have lost my job, but the response to my loss from friends and close colleagues - who know a bit more about my abilities than the people making the ultimate decisions, unfortunately - confirmed to me that I am, actually, pretty good at what I do.  When I get the chance to do it.  So I look forward with some optimism despite the conditions.  I am currently working on a short term contact that came about as a result of a personal recommendation from my former employer - that wouldn't have happened if my abilities were in question.  So let's build on that in the New Year, things can - and will - get better.

Hopefully before the money runs out.

My football team continued to overachieve - fifth place in the league and two trips to Wembley, despite a succession of injuries to key players throughout the season.  Put to one side the so-called Big Four, and Everton 'did the double' in 2009, which I think is rather a nice way of looking at things.  Now admittedly it's not looking so great this season - but a couple of decent cup runs and a few players back from injury could turn things round dramatically.

On the music front, both Glastonbury (with Matt and the Wells Massive) and Latitude (with Simon) were big highlights in the year.  The weather stayed good for the most part, the company was excellent and the music - for the most part - was sublime.

Key highlights from a year of festival and gig-going would include:
  • Magazine in Manchester and at Latitude.  How to do a reunion tour with style and class.  All the hits, plenty of humour and fantastic musicianship, all comfortable with each other.
  • Doves in Delamere Forest.  Local lads made good.
  • Glastonbury - many, many highlights, but The Gaslight Anthem, bringing on Bruce Springsteen in the JP tent was possibly the biggest.  Neil Young and the neverending Rockin' in the Free World.  Roger McGuinn in the Acoustic Tent.  Hot Rats and Dead Weather in The Park.
  • Latitude - Pet Shop Boys, sublime both here and earlier in the year in Manchester.  Nick Cave, raging and ranting.  Squeeze, the greatest greatest hits set imaginable.  The Gaslight Anthem and Doves, again.  Surprise of the festival - St Etienne, only there to get a decent spot for Magazine but enjoyed every minute.
  • A reformed Pele in Liverpool.  Old mates together for a fond farewell.
  • Depeche Mode - Stadium Rock with synths.  A great night out.
New music - well there wasn't a right lot of 'new' this year that gripped me.  My favourite new 'discovery' would have to be The Gaslight Anthem, but most of this year's 'new' was surprisingly 'old'.  However honourable mentions for the Arctic Monkeys' third album, Truelove's Gutter by Richard Hawley, The Duckworth-Lewis Method, Doves' Kingdom of Rust - and Mew, who I discovered (new and old stuff) in the wake of Latitude.

Most of the year's viewing was of DVD Box Sets, series-long blasts of immersion in some compelling drama. Started the year with The Wire, continued with The Shield and we're currently halfway through Prison Break. Loved them all, but The Wire was magnificent, really living up to the hype.  Honourable mentions also to Dexter, The Corner and the Red Riding trilogy.

Reading material this year was rather dominated by Davids Peace and Simon - The Damned United, the four Red Riding books - and then Homicide and The Corner.  All wonderful on the page as well as on the screen. And - of course - The Word: magazine, podcast, blog, way of life.

Other good stuff?

Well, putting this thing together has given me a great deal of pleasure this year - glad I've kept it up and it amuses me, if no-one else.

Having the time to spend in the kitchen and the joys of breadmaking.

Pedro - bowel-related mishaps and all - has been a source of joy since he came into our lives in May.

Having the love and support of a good woman - thank you, Mrs W.

But most of all, seeing Matt, awake and talking, after eight hours of surgery in December.  That was the best thing that happened this year.

But still - roll on 2010.  Bye bye 2009 - you won't be missed.

On the soundtrack today, Ruben Gonzalez.  One of the Buena Vista Social Club musicians, Ruben was in his late seventies when 'rediscovered' by Ry Cooder.  Releasing his first album (Introducing...) at the age of 78, he continued to play with the BVSC and solo until just before his death at the age of 84.  A dapper, dignified old man with a light touch on the keys.  Proof that age is no barrier to talent.