Saturday, 19 July 2008

What? You mean there's stuff beyond London?

London, the physical and moral black hole that it is, makes it very hard to escape to other parts of the UK. Sure, you can hop on a crap-o-jet flight to the continent for the loose change you found in the washing machine, but getting out to the lesser-known parts of the UK is another story altogether. Train timetables and fares that are designed to reduce your mind to mush and motorways that are more or less long, straight car parks make it feel like trying to escape from a lower pit of hell.

Thankfully, Mark played Virgil to my Dante and led me to the purgatory of Devon for one mad June weekend of Morris dancing mayhem and teenage munters. Yes, there was a morris dancing festival, and it is as ridiculous as it sounds (who 'wields' a handkerchief anyway?). It can get quite serious when the lads really go at each other with the sticks. We watched for a while hoping one of them would forget a step and cop a well timed stick to the face, but without luck.

So, like everyone else in the town, we settled in to a local pub to drink, listen to folk music, and eat strips of pork pulled from the still spinning carcass of some impressive swine. Why does food taste better when you can still see its face? The village was quaint (a word I'm sure that is only used to describe English villages), with a friendly, morris-style atmosphere... until sundown at least, when the teen townies came out and started boozing away in the town square, drinking from tesco bags. Although, when all the local youth can look forward to is a once-a-year morris festival, you can't really blame them.

July saw me ascending to the lofty heights of Edinburgh to compete in another rat-race. Having loved the inaugural race in London, I thought running in the place where it all started would be a good excuse to see the city too. Yes, I ate a fried mars bar (and a snickers bar). I also partook in various touristy things like wandering along the royal mile (although we couldn't go into the castle because the Proclaimers were setting up for a concert there - seriously), getting lost in the history museum, drinking at Ian Rankin's local, and drinking in general. The rate-race itself took us out to parts of Edinburgh normally unseen by the weekend tourist, forcing teams out to see the Firth of Forth and local stadia. Unfortunately a knee injury to the team forced us to slow to a walking pace, and we ended up coming-in just before the cut off but still somehow not finishing last. After a Sunday afternoon listening to a Scottish ska band doing a decent cover/mash up of Ice Ice Baby, the overnight train trip back to a London Monday morning was like a descent to hell.

Nevertheless, I did finally make it to the UK equivalent of paradise, spending the August long weekend in Exmoor National Park. Having spent so much time in cities, I'd forgotten what a simple joy it is to get away from the city and breathe in some fresh air (read: smelling of sea salt or animal dung). Staying in a hostel located in the middle of the moor with absolutely no mobile coverage was an added bonus. The national park lived up to the long, rambling descriptive pieces Thomas Hardy used to flesh out his otherwise terrible writing, and we made the most of it by being stupidly energetic and active: fell running and hiking on the moor, mountain biking along the coast near Minehead, and surfing at Croyde Bay. Thanks to the 8th day adventure sports people for making it a great weekend, and Alex in particular for introducing me to Devonshire cream tea.

Friday, 4 July 2008

I like the old stuff better than the new stuff

One thing I have to admit is good about London is the quality and range of live acts that come through town, and perhaps because there's so much going on, getting your hands on tickets is generally pretty easy. As an example, the past week saw me take in two very different gigs, and I think I'm showing my age when I admit that I loved one, and would have gladly missed the other.

Jack Johnson and friends (namely G-Love, Special Sauce, and Ben Harper) came to London to do their bit for (or should that be against?) global warming and injustice in the world by putting on a one day 'festival' in Hyde Park. I dunno about you, but in my mind, 2 support acts and a headline on one stage does not a festival make... normally that's called a gig. Outdoor gig, I'll grant you, but gig nonetheless. Despite the fact that the sun made an appearance, and the fact that I normally enjoy a bit of harmless surfer/slacker guitar based music, the gigteval left me cold. In fact, the longer it went, the less I enjoyed it: G-Love was pretty damn good as an opener, Harper started to drag on a bit, and by the time John Jackson got on stage I was ready to go. I have to admit I arrived in a foul mood, but normally the first blast from the speakers is enough to make me forget my cares... I guess paying to watch a bunch of guys who travel the world surfing and playing music to legions of adoring female fans just wasn't going to cheer me up that day.

A few days later, still feeling mighty pissed off at the world, I dragged myself out to see another band: The Hoodoo Gurus. (Other Aussie bands of yesteryear to tour through London recently include Weddings, Parties, Anything, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, although they never really went away). No self-aggrandising, save-the-world, outdoor festival for the gurus, just a simple ol' fashioned rocking out gig at The Forum. Faulkner and co still had the moves, if not the hair, and definitely still had the energy to blast out the crowd faves (which was, well, all of them) and blow away the cobwebs of a horror week stuck in the office.

Sure, I'm showing my age, but I think rock improves with the passing of the years. Or at least you can appreciate it more as you get older: you can afford to go to the gig for a start, you can enjoy it with fellow fans, not just band-wagon hopping chart followers, and you get to see the band in a much more intimate venue than you could have in their hey-day. Sure, I can hear a few of you saying: "I'm glad I spent a fortune to go see a stadium gig when I was a kid - it's an experience that can never be repeated because the band doesn't exist any more," but that just shows you had bad taste in music if your favourite band couldn't last a few measly decades.