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French exchange

As hinted in my last post, we've recently spent a week away. Visiting with Judi and Jonathan in Normandy in their ongoing barn conversion, failing to construct a goat-shed, appreciating unusual motor vehicles, hanging in a yurt, eating great food, drinking French beer, enjoying good company, and marvelling in some simply astonishing weather.

posted Friday, August 15, 2008 at 13:48 by cms in travels | 1 Comment »

Step by step guide to catching crickets


  1. Locate crickets by listening carefully to the sounds of chirping
  2. Use a nearby internet terminal to research what they most like to eat. (Iceberg Lettuce !?)
  3. Construct a cunning trap around fresh bait
  4. Wait for crickets, carefully and very quietly

Trap designs that were tried, and rejected.

  1. A basket propped up by a bent twig, connected to twine for rapid deployment.
  2. An impromptu fishing-rod, baited with carrot peelings, dangled temptingly over a basket.
  3. A pit trap, concealed by woven grass and twigs.
posted Monday, August 11, 2008 at 07:59 by cms in travels | 5 Comments »

Primavera 2008

An excellent festival. More completely organised than I expected. This came to prominence straight away, when a rather spacey lady handling our tickets failed to give us one of the essential ID cards that pair up with the wristband to allow entry and re-entry. A security guard stopped us from heading back in to point out the error. Anticipating anguish at the gate, and hoping that a single card and a friendly attitude might get us through, we were met by a super-friendly chap, speaking perfect English, who whisked us back to the check-in, where we waited for the woman to confirm that her stack of cards and tickets were out by one, and furnished us with the missing card. And then we were in. Things do not run that smoothly at Glastonbury when your credentials go awry!

The venue is good, purpose built, although admittedly it does have a slight air of NCP car park to it. There are three amphitheatres with banked steps of seating set facing out to sea. These make up the RockDelux, ATP and the VICE stages. The other two stages, namely the CD Drome, and the Estrella Damm stage are set up on the main paved area that links the first three, with the food market between them. There are two gigantic arrays of solar cells, apparently the largest in Europe, which at least made a handy shelter during the couple of light rain showers, even if they sadly aren't used to directly power the festival itself. There is also an indoor concert hall, the Auditori, which I didn't manage to set foot inside once, a combination of not being nearby when anything compelling was happening there, plus not quite being able to figure out where the entrance actually was!


The festival runs over several days, Thursday to Saturday, and keeps to a gruelling schedule, starting at four or five p.m., and running through till four or five a.m the next morning. It's really all about the music, as there is little else to do onsite, other than browse a few T-shirt and record label stalls, eat functional outdoor food, or drink expensive sponsor beer from plastic cups.

It's far less wear upon the legs and feet than the typical British festival, the proximity of the stages, along with the near-universal seating, and paved footpaths rather than clogging mud fields thankfully mean that it's just the marathon running time contributing to your fatigue, not trudging miles around countryside inbetween sets. The climate was pleasantly appropriate, a few spots of light rain but it was mild enough to be comfortable in light clothing all the way through the evening, so you could just stick to the basic set of clothes you came in wearing, not wrestle with lugging around cumbersome outfit changes to cater to changes in the weather.

It may be just a result of the lack of crowding, but the toilet facilites were fine, little queuing, and freshly clean each day. I recommend taking a little dispenser of handwash gel, you can pick these up in the chemists nowadays.

Another benefit of the close site is the number of acts you can practically watch. As the stages are just separated by a minute or two's easy stroll you can mix and match to take in as much, or as little of a set as you fancy. It's quite possible to watch the start of one artist's set for a couple of songs, and then wander around another three stages watching a couple of numbers at each, and still return to the start to catch the final few of the original. This all makes it incredibly easy to sample new or interesting acts on spec without having to miss out on much if any of your must-see sets. Over the three days we easily managed to see dozens of acts, with comparatively little effort.

It would take too long to run through them all in detail, so I'll just group the highlights into some buckets.

Read the rest of this entry »

posted Saturday, June 28, 2008 at 19:05 by cms in gigs, music, travels | 2 Comments »

Barcelona sights


We arrived in Barcelona a few days ahead of Primavera, to give us a chance to see the sights and relax a little. It's a compact city, although larger than I thought it would be, with a wide variety of flavours to the various districts. The weather has been variable, but never unpleasant.

It is a very clean city, they seem to constantly empty the bins on a daily cycle, and there are recycling stations everywhere. The architecture is wonderful. Not just the Gaudi, which is as astonishing as you'd expect, but there's an adventurous sense to public space everywhere, interesting modern building nestling up against 14th century alleyways, and giant lumps of sculpture sprouting everywhere, in a manner you only rarely see in conservative old Britain.

We've mostly been rehearsing our body clocks for the ever so slightly mental 5pm-5am Primavera schedule, and so we've not done so much cultural sightseeing, or eating out. I figured it can wait until the now inevitable follow-up visit.

posted Friday, May 30, 2008 at 13:21 by cms in travels | 3 Comments »

Such a beautiful horizon

It's been a few years now since I last went to Glastonbury, and the last few summers have been festival-free for me, save for local city-wide affairs like Venn. I came very close to attending the 'End of the Road' festival last September, tempted by a very me-friendly line up, but it wasn't very compatible with school term dates, and last summer's terrible run of weather just left me procrastinating about it until it was far too late to bother.

In the U.K. there's almost too many to choose from now, spread right across the summer, with something happening seemingly every single weekend from May to September. This means that it's now becoming something of a stadium tour circuit, and with a depressingly production-line feel to the majority, it's increasingly hard to differentiate them.

End of the Road didn't seem to have as many must-see bands this year, and so my attention wandered a little further afield. A couple of years ago, I noticed the Primavera Sound festival, in Barcelona had a line up of acts very much in tune with my way of thinking. I've wistfully looked at it every year since then, and this time around I've actually decided to go.

It seems to be built around the music, with a thoughtful and genuinely alternative line up, very much my sort of thing. There's a great mix; bands I currently like very much and would *really* like to see (Boris, Animal Collective, Okkervil River, Prinzhorn Dance School, Six Organs of Admittance, Om), significant 'legacy' acts ( Devo, Public Enemy, Dinosaur Jr., Shellac ), critically favoured 'name' acts ( Portishead, Cat Power, Rufus Wainwright), favourite acts I've seen before ( De La Soul, Tindersticks, British Sea Power, Explosions in the Sky ), and, perhaps a new trend, bands with amusingly rude names ( Holy Fuck!, local outfit Fuck Buttons, and the charmlessly named Pissed Jeans ). My single line up complaint is that it's a European festival, and there's no dEUS, even though they have a new album out to promote.

Like every festival, it's sure to be pointless attempting to programme any kind of strict itinerary. Events will indubitably conspire to wreck it. Given my estimate of at least 70% of the acts being the sort of thing I'd go and check out if they were playing locally, I think the best policy is to be mostly be guided by serendipity. Suggestions for things to check out are welcome!

The festival site is next to the sea, and just a couple of km out of Barcelona itself. We're going for the whole week, flying out on the 24th and returning on the 1st of June. I've rented an apartment, right on the waterfront in Barcelonetta , which looks like it ought to be within fair walking distance of the site. This gives us a few days preceding to acclimatise, relax and see the sights before the festival properly starts.

posted Sunday, May 18, 2008 at 18:34 by cms in gigs, travels | 2 Comments »

BTW, I'm in Crewe…

In case anyone was wondering, I'm in Crewe. I'm doing some short term consultancy work, on contract, and I'm based on-site during the week. Until recently, bandwidth was rather limited, and that's why I've been keeping such a low profile online. I've arranged for better connectivity now, and normal online presence should slowly resume from here on. 

posted Tuesday, April 24, 2007 at 05:18 by cms in travels | Comments Off on BTW, I'm in Crewe…

End of the pier

I recently spent the best part of a weekend, back down in 'astings. As I've wandered about over the years, I've amassed a credible shortlist of candidates, but this history-rich, cash-poor, coastal resort will always have the best claim for being my home town.

It's had a rough ride over the years. The BBC online magazine recently ran an umbrella feature on the decline and supposed renaissance of the English seaside holiday. In one of these pieces, they revealed that recently, a government select comittee re-examining statistics from the last decade was suprised to find some of the most disadvantaged areas of the U.K. are outside of the urban centres, in the former coastal resorts. A 'ring of deprivation all around the coast'. It was no surprise to me.

Living there throughout the 80s, I remember some grim times, routine visits to the job centre to peer at the same handful of sparsely placed little cards , infrequently rotated. Scraping together the money to keep a roof over your head and food to eat, with scant prospects and ambitions limited to either things to do on the coming weekend, or ultimately leaving the town somehow, never to return.

This is not to say that times were unequivocally harsh and miserablist. Balanced against this sour picture there are positive memories of some of the usual teenage joys of hormones, beer, cars and guitars, 8-bit computers and tabletop gaming, and other nerdly trappings. As a background setting, Hastings is peerless in its own way; blessed with character, steeped in a personality that ranges from 1066-and-all-that through the genteel Victorian sea-side craze and the post-war bucket and spade holidays, all of this imprinted wherever you look. There's also a lot to be said for living through the glory days of the coin-op video game in a seaside town crammed with amusement arcades, if you like that sort of thing. And I do.

So my feelings about the place have always been ambivalent. The locals love to talk about a curse that dooms all of those born there to perpetually return. Unfortunately for me, I was born there, and laughably enough I do still feel compelled to return periodically. And here I am again, thirty-five years later.

To my eyes, the old pile has definitely taken a turn for the better. There's been talk about regeneration grants, from Europe, and new injections of assistance from government schemes, and of course we're now looking at the product of a few years of national economic upswing, after a long spell of those bleaker times. For once, I seem to have found a pleasant hotel to stay in. After a comfortable night's sleep, I sallied forth, "Forever Changes" playing on the iPod, intending both to revel in some nostalgia, and get the measure of the changes, and a feel for the twenty-first century Hastings.

I made my way down through Burton's marvellous St Leonards, now delapidated, once a splendid blooming of the middle class Victorian fad for the coast. Most of the crumbling mansions are now carved up into 'studio apartments', or have been converted into residential care homes. Here too though, there were tangible signs of regeneration. Lanes that were once contiguous rows of empty, boarded or charity shops now seemed to be busy general stores, and bric-a-brac markets. The public gardens well maintained and colourfully planted, and the seafront properties mostly tidied and painted.

Moving down onto the seafront you step through time, from the height of Victorian pomp, to pre-war modernism, with the ill-placed, looming, shiplike Marine Court, once the tallest residential building in the U.K., and the peculiar, concrete covered-promenade decorated with pieces of reclaimed, coloured glass, locally known as 'Bottle alley' that runs the entirety of the sea-front, from St Leonards-on-sea to Hastings proper, linking Warrior Square gardens to Hastings Pier.

I love English pleasure piers. Much like the 'seaside resort', piers are a Victorian invention, and they combine some of their favourite fads in one slightly bizarre, folly; cast-iron engineering along with proximity to to sea air. Most of the sensible literature tries to explain away the pier as a straightforward solution to the enormous tidal range of the British coast. A genteel promenade right alongside the briny, any time of day or season. I prefer to think of them as the purest distilation of Victorian enthusiasm and hubris. A product of the same mindset as Isambard Brunel's unfeasibly tall top hat. A wondrous long iron bridge! That leads to nowhere! And on the end we shall place a music-hall and several gin-palaces!

Hastings pier is a good all rounder. It owns no records for length, height, age or feature. It's nicely proportioned, cast iron and wood, with a good mixture of external promenades, and internal structures, observation and fishing decks. Amusements, shops and eateries, arcades, the usual seaside fare. It's also now closed to the public, as it's collapsing under its own weight into the sea.

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Piers are essentially self-destructive. That exuberant pointlessness, the folly that gives me such joy to contemplate, is also centered about this fact; a large, turbulent body of salted water with shifting, sandy foundations is a tricky place to build a permanent structure. Especially made out of iron which will corrode, and wood which will rot. A bridge thus constructed might survive, but bridges are useful, and can justify the cost of their upkeep. Not so the pier. In the twenty-first century, a sea-bridge to nowhere is insufficiently spectacular in itself to be similarly cost-effective. And so we've been slowly losing our pleasure piers as they slip away into decline. Many of them were closed down or truncated in the second World War, mined and bisected under fear of invasion. They're an accident-prone lot, succumbing not only to freak weather, but collisions with boats, and prone to burning down in fires, which seems a curious thing until you remember all the timber and decking.

Hastings pier has always seemed more resiliant than many. As shabby as the rest of its environs for as long as I've known it, run-down but seemingly always sturdy and well anchored right in the heart of what can be quite spectacularly turbulent and stormy coasts. The last time I'd been down for a flying visit, it had recently re-opened, and was celebrating its transfer into private hands, sold by the council for a new lease of life as a commercial enterprise. It can't have gone very well, as only a few years later, it's all boarded off and shutdown as structurally unsafe. There's a definite sag to the last third of its length that you can detect with the naked eye.

I doubt that this will be the immediate end of it. There'll be the usual charity concern, or local pressure groups. Perhaps a council buy-back, perhaps another optimistic enterprise will snap it up derelict and attempt to make it a going concern. Maybe some lottery money will be secured, perhaps listed status. Or maybe it will just fall victim to some violent seasonal weather, and stand for decades more as a collapsing derelict ghost, much like the West Brighton pier. It's is hard to think of any useful future for these old things, they're dead ends in more than just the literal sense.

Lucky for me I never won big on the lottery or made any of those dotcom millions. If I had, I'd probably have bought the lovely, stupid thing myself.

posted Monday, October 16, 2006 at 23:35 by cms in travels | Comments Off on End of the pier

Stricklands return from successful North American tour

If you'd noticed my limited visibility during recent weeks and wondered where I was, then wonder no more. We've just returned from a rather extensive holiday roaming around in the New World. We were away for around three weeks, which broke down into several contiguous mini-holidays based around different exciting locations.

I will probably write up these stops individually , and I have hundereds of photos to sort through and post, but here's the five-minute overview.

We kicked off in Toronto, with the wedding of Mr and Mrs Lyle, the original impetus for the whole trip. We then travelled by rail to Niagara falls, spending a couple of nights there with a rather classy view of the falls. From there we continued by rail to New York city, spending the best part of a week staying just off Times Square, and doing our best to participate in the Manhattan skyline with a vertigo-bothering 50th floor room.

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As our time in NYC grew to a close we picked up some wedding rings, at Tiffany & Co. on 5th Ave. and flew to Vegas, where we were married ourselves, in the famous Little White Chapel, in the truest Las-Vegas walk-in style. After a couple more days 'relaxing' in the lysergic shopping-mall-in-the-middle-of-a-freaking-desert that is Vegas we jumped on a plane back to Toronto, for an evening of joint congratulations with the newly-married Lyles, and then flew back to the U.K.

Married. In Vegas. This is how you holiday with style.

posted Sunday, August 20, 2006 at 01:30 by cms in travels | Comments Off on Stricklands return from successful North American tour