Monday, 22 December 2014

Home Improvements 2 - The Christmas Special

So. We've ended up with a bunch of workman crawling around inside and outside the house in the already fraught Christmas run in. With the inevitability of Santa's once a year coming, the projects we'd foolhardily agreed to be done in December have overrun.

Madness, I hear you say, to willingly invite in such mayhem at this time of year. Well yes. And no.  The idea of having everything sorted by the end of the year is seductive, but we didn’t push for this. Businesses are only happy to overprogramme, leaving the tightest of margins. They can’t wait to get all the filthy lucre in their mits before the break.

I ran away at the end of last week. The house was filled with blokes spreading rubble and brick dust far more liberally than any festive cheer. I couldn't get past the ponderous patio man to my office and the dining room was livid with sooty wood stove fitters. Mrs A had the back room baggsied. So I fled to the sanctuary of the Double Six cafe on Eversholt Street, near my Camden employers to begin scribbling this blog. I found a table in the corner, hemmed in by the very breed of hi-vis clad fellows I was trying to escape at home.  

Our current log jam began with the boiler, installed back in November, which needed a few repeat visits by Alex to sort out various pressure and valve issues. To be honest, I became a little sceptical about some of the issues Mrs A was identifying. Our plumber is notoriously easy on the eye (apparently) and I sniffed an element of "yes, that bottle on the bottom shelf please", transplanted from the bar scenario to kitchen domesticity. "Ooh, you've got Alex have you?" admired friends and neighbours when Mrs A mentioned the sabotage (in my view) she was inflicting on the boiler and the remedial action thereby required.

Installing the wood burner has been the most intense and yet comic saga so far. Mick, the unreliable builder, has taken six visits to complete the two-day job of enlarging the existing hole in the chimney breast to make room for the burner. That's about forty quid's worth of sugar just for the tea drinking.

Nevertheless, he did uncover the dining room's original fire place behind about 10 black sack's-worth of brick infill. We were delighted with that. Experiencing the grinding down of just 2mm of 150 year old residue on the surface of these old bricks was a smidge less delightful. A thick, acrid dustcloud obscured one end of the room from the other for most of Thursday. Grit penetrated everything. It's an ingredient even Heston can’t translate to fine dining. I checked after seeing the state of the fridge contents.

Then Kev and his Mate came to fit the boiler. Then they went away again. They couldn't find two adjacent spaces outside the house for their van. Mick forgot to tell us this requirement. They came back the next day. We'd primed the neighbours this time and so were able to move cars around. Typically, a lorry came to haul away the skip full of garden rubble (more of this is a moment) at precisely the same instant. For about twenty minutes, the bottom of Cross Oak Road was like a game of Parking Mania meets Ice Road Truckers on LSD, involving one skip lorry, one 18 cwt van, two Ford Estates, three lines of frustrated traffic and four wheelie bin place-holders. I was too busy making rude asides to see what happened to the Partridge in the Pear Tree.

Kev and his Mate were irrepressibly cheerful. Cheeky banter and shouty mirth.

“There’s your burner”, said Mate as he dumped the Clearview Stoves box by the back door. “Merry Christmas” and he made to walk back to the van. “Excellent!” I replied. “Where do we plug it in?”

Later, Kev was cleaning the chimney, pushing his rods up the fire aperture, Dick Van Dyke style. Mate was barking instructions from the garden at the top of his voice. “A bit more Kev! Yep, keep it coming. Give it some oomph. More, more…” And then finally. “There she blows” as the brush popped out of the middle pot. “It’s a boy!”

And then some frankly juvenile stuff that had Mrs A snorting. Kev clambered onto the roof so that he could push the metal tube lining down the shaft:
“Is it in yet?” 
“It’s coming it’s coming…”
“I need more length…”
Etc after immature etc.
 And all the while, James was trying to lay the patio. Like I say, why does this all happen in the week before Christmas? James, a quietly spoken, careful and over-fussy landscape gardener didn’t naturally take to Kev’s supersonic chatter. He was also a bit uneasy about Mate standing on his carefully prepared hardcore bed, bellowing instructions to Kev. James seemed to have a suspicious relationship with Mick the builder too. Especially when Mick schemed to chuck the fireplace debris in his precious skip, rather than take it away himself.

Mrs A, on the other hand, thought James was looking for any excuse to take it easy. She wasn’t very sure about him at all. It probably didn’t help that she bore the brunt of his fastidiousness on the first day. Every few minutes there would be a little tap on the back door:
“I’m a bit nervous about the space for the skip? Can I talk to your neighbours about moving their cars?

“Shall I write some notes to put on the windscreens?”

“Can I tell you where I’m going to pile up the old slabs?”

“I’ll put the new materials down here. Is that OK? I may need to move your bins.”

“I’m just off to the loo if that’s alright…?”

Mrs A dubbed him Twinkletoes. Irony I suspect.

Twinkletoes will be back this week. He has to fill in his lovingly painted yellow outlines on flattened rubble with real slabs and real concrete. There’s a more than fair chance that he’ll still be there in the garden as we wake to open presents on the 25th. Mick is coming back before Christmas too, armed with his big gun to seal in the granite slab under the wood burner. We’ve reserved a Christmas dinner berth for him next to James.

But I don’t care, because the burner’s working. We’ve been lovely and toastie all weekend. And I had a perfect excuse to go and buy an axe, for which task I donned a thick check shirt and furry trapper hat. One has to get the details right. No one batted an eyelid as I queued at the till with my fine weapon, humming the Lumberjack song.

Tradesmen or no, one way or another we’ll be ready for the big day. Family gathered around us and counting our blessings. Every one.

Season’s greeting, all.


Thursday, 18 December 2014

Back to Catterick

I hadn’t been to Catterick Bridge racecourse for about 25 years. My previous experiences weren’t particularly positive.

My formative punting years were scarred by ramshackle grandstands, fizzy beer and crap racing, as this chunk of Mug Punting makes clear:

“….Catterick was worse. The track was surrounded by towering piles of unwanted spoil from the adjacent quarries carved disrespectfully out of prime Yorkshire moorland.  An ugly, crusty and polluted lake covered much of the inside of the track which served to encourage the feeling of dereliction. It was a hole of a course with no facilities to speak of. I stumbled across a gem of a book called ‘Cope’s Racegoers Encyclopaedia 1962’. Leafing through its mottled pages I discovered that ‘in January 1961 Catterick Bridge opened a £30,000 new stand which provides facilities previously undreamed off at this small Yorkshire course’. That must have been the twisted pile of rusty iron and crumbling grey brick that I could see across the track. The intervening 27 years had not been kind.

We used to populate a brick outhouse construction in the silver ring where we partook of fizzy keg bitter, traditional for the time (long before widgets had been thought of) from a dirty pump dispensing beer and Legionnaires Disease in equal measure. The only food to be had was a hot dog/burger van outside the bogs.  I had had enough of burgers one desperate Friday afternoon so I asked the bored 'sales assistant' for a cheese sandwich as advertised. The guy took one of his burger buns, slapped in a sliver of plastic unmelted dairylea and charged me £1.50 of my hard-granted wedge! I was appalled.

There was no way of seeing the horses all the way round the track from where we were herded. The quality of racing was always as miserable as the course. At least there was the outside chance of a decent race every so often at Redcar. I never, ever had a winner at either Catterick or Redcar and I never, ever want to go back there.”

Dad and Bruv began to frequent the track regularly about five years ago and I never missed a chance to scoff and taunt about gaff tracks. Bruv would with rejoin with “So why does McCain send his best novices there then? Why did Grand National winner Ballabrigs have his prep run there? Eh? Why did Jonjo send up Holywell last year? He’s favourite for the Gold Cup now y’know.” Bollocks. “Well they wouldn’t have risked them if they knew how good the horses were. Obviously a trainer mistake.”

Despite my grumpy response, it was clear that the track had come to be held in fair regard by local trainers at least, and evidently by yards further afield as well. The time had arrived for a grudging repeat visit.

We picked the track’s first jumps meeting of the season and I steeled myself for Class 6 three-runner novice chases viewed from broken plastic chairs.

3rd December dawned crisply clear and frosty. I was at King’s Cross by the time weak daylight hit the northbound rails and at that point I did have a quick shufty at the Racing Post site to confirm that the cold night hadn’t jeopardised the fixture.

The RP also showed me that the races were pretty healthy fields of between 9 and 16 (apart form a 7 runner novice event) across a mixed card of hurdles, chases, bumpers and handicaps. Not much wrong with that. And I also spied that Nicky Henderson had sent up an expeditionary force of three novices to wick away some modest Yorkshire prize money.

Northallerton Station was largely deserted as I stepped down from the train, save for a stout fellow blocking out the low sun and casting a weak, wintry shadow down the platform. It turned out to be my Bruv. Everything was going to plan. Dad was already in the motor and we were navigating the narrow lanes to Catterick in an instant, glibly exchanging exaggerated opinions about the quality of the track. “Hope they’ve tidied away the discarded quarry gear from the 2 mile start”, was my concluding hope, “really messes up the action of those juveniles.”

Having blatantly set myself up for the inevitable climb down, I’m secretly delighted to report that first impressions of the track were considerably more favourable than on my last visit.  I blame the sunshine. It flooded the venue with spirited rays and threw the surrounding northern fells into glorious sharp relief.  The old grandstands may not have had any structural investment for many a long year, but at least they had had a lick of paint which gleamed and reflected back the light for all it was worth. The bright weather had bestowed a cheery disposition on the ticketing manager too. She supplied my outstanding-value punters package from her snug office with a smile and fine welcome: 22 quid for a grandstand ticket, the dish of the day in the cafĂ©, a pint, a Tote bet and a racecard. Dad and Bruv eyed my stash enviously.

Inside, the stands had been dragged into the 21st century. Comfy chairs, bench seats and carpets replaced formica tables and broken bucket seats. The beer was a passable pint of Tetley’s and the dish of the day was chilli and rice. I was happy. Until I saw the pies. We had noticed people obviously queuing by the bar, but not buying anything. Then surly Sandra (she needed to get out into the sunshine) brought in a tray piled high with crusty fare. “Pies are here now!” she announced and began fulfilling the orders of those in the well-behaved procession. We all looked longingly at the firm, round meat and potato, beef and onion and chicken offerings. Though perhaps less longingly at the puce-coloured accompaniment of indeterminate state somewhere between mushy peas and East End liquor, ladled on top of the pies. The green gunge didn’t particularly appeal but I really wish I’d saved my token for one of those fine looking pies. On visual evidence I’d say better than Twickenham last week, but not quite as good as Neil Young in the Summer.

It wasn’t all about pies though. The racing offered morsels of nourishment too. We watched most of the races from the top of the steppings, squinting in to low sun, as horses lapped the compact, undulating track. Decent viewing - a nine furlong circuit meant the beasts passed the stands three times in a 3 mile event.  The addition of a large screen was welcome progress from my previous visits. It was sited in the silver ring, adjacent to the stand that I had berated as inhospitable in those student days. The building still didn’t look much. I’m sure it was lovely inside though…


We all had winners. Sue Smith, whose horses “always improve for a fence” according to Bruv had a good day with her novice chasers.  I was on the right side of Oorayvic in the 2nd race. She also had Grate Fella later who won powerfully at a staggering 10-1. The market was made by Henderson’s Cocktails At Dawn, who went off odds-on, fell and then ran through the running rail after the line. He bucked and kicked a bit but seemed fine when the stable staff collared him. Hendo’s other two runners were also well backed but neither made the frame.



Dad and Bruv both struck in the lucky last: After Tonight looked good in the bumper. We all took away this improver from the mercurial David O’Meara as one to watch. But probably only around the northern circuit.

None of us were as fortunate as a Scottish guy sat next to us in the bar though. Cooking Fat, a flashy chestnut, won the juvenile novice hurdle in much better style than his odds of 66-1 suggested. Medicine Hat, at the same price, followed him home. This bloke had contrived to combine them in a minimum stakes exacta, paying out at 701-1. He was more shocked than jubilant. The good ladies in the Tote booth had to fleece all the other Tote windows at the track, empty the manager’s safe and rummage around the stashes in their knickers to settle his bet.

The chat in the bar was good natured, clique free and indiscriminate. Just before the Scottish exacta sting, we were debating who to back in that very juvenile event. We were looking at Scrafton. “Aye. Quinny’s got a good record here”, muttered someone. An old lag piped up “Aye. He’s here as well!” Dad picked up on that. “Quinny’s here is he?” It was echoed by a couple on the next table. Soon,“Quinny’s here” was murmuring its way round the bar. We all looked at Scrafton’s figures a bit more closely. The old lag again: “Mind you, he’s got two in this race…” 


I reflected on a top day as I stood on the southbound platform back at Northallerton, watching the sun dissolve out of an orange sky above the goods line. Catterick has come far. My opinion of this well-appointed, comfortable track with entertaining, competitive racing had risen immeasurably, as it was always destined to do. The over-riding feeling was of a friendly, informal venue. Emblematic was David O’Meara, welcoming back horse and rider into the winners enclosure and yet having time to acknowledge the genuine greetings and well-wishes from departing racegoers.

And as I climbed aboard the Euston express, I recognised the sentiments, if not the reality, of a crusty farmer sat on the terracing of that 1961 grandstand, belly hanging over his worn cords like Kilnsey Crag. He could have been there since its construction. He said to an accomplice, “Well, I’ve never left Yorkshire meself. Not in all maa born days. Never seen t’need to, to be honest with ‘e”.

Three days later I was at the other end of the scale for the boys’ annual Sandown Tingle Creek trip. The fixture was blessed with the same winter sunshine as Catterick, but otherwise the venues inhabit different universes. This fixture is a perennial seasonal highlight, even if it was lacking in the depth of quality seen in previous years. I’m not sure what my crusty farmer would have made of the hen parties, mulled wine and lairiness, but thank heaven there is room for both worlds in the fixture list.




Monday, 1 December 2014

Twickers

I’d never been to Twickenham before. The largest stadium in the World devoted solely to Rugby Union. Not even to see Lady Gaga or Rihanna. So when Bryn, via Steve, offered up a ticket for England v Australia in the Autumn Internationals, I jumped at the chance. Another iconic sporting venue ticked off the list. (I have lists of lists, just in case you are wondering. Alphabetically and chronologically organised.)

The game and indeed the stadium did not disappoint. Bryn and I had a sweeping view from the Upper East tier that enabled a perspective on the shape of the match, the gaps and overlaps and territorial advances that you can’t get off the telly. Identifying the individual protagonists was a little more tricky, however. As was interpreting the many refereeing decisions. The big screen helped out here a few times, but there were some random infringements that even the video boys struggled to nail.

Up with the Gods

This was mostly good, open action though. The Wallabies clearly had the advantage in the back division, regularly creating spare men on both wings and slicing the defence open with electric running through the centre. They delivered three tries this way. England had the forward power though and this proved decisive. Their two tries were scored by Ben Morgan at number 8, both from marauding forward play. The boot of George Ford secured enough penalties for a 26-17 victory that, we reasoned, flattered the hosts a fraction. I was very happy with my debut at the home of rugby.

For a while, I thought I wasn’t going to make the game at all. Rewind four hours. My train came to a juddering halt at Kings Langley and the conductor announced that there had been a ‘serious passenger incident at Watford’. We all knew what this meant. A jumper. Sickening feeling. And that contradictory emotion of selfishness that this would cause massive travel disruption. After about twenty minutes, I rang Bryn to update him.

A young man across the aisle from me turned and said ‘Nice one mate, that should be a great game – if you get there!’ He then asked me a few technical questions about England’s selection for the game which I bluffed and blagged a bit, but I think he could tell I didn’t have much of a deep insight.

This urge to fill every empty space with words often does me no favours.  On Friday, I left the house to watch a race at the bookies. My mind was full of potential profits and I’m sure I was displaying plenty of excitable traits. I saw an acquaintance coming up the road and offered a hearty 'Alright?' a fraction urgently. 'Hi’ he responded, ‘Good thanks'.

There was still some yards between us and I felt I had to fill the geographic gap with more conversation. I spied the bags he was holding. 'Ah, dry cleaning!' I blurted. 'Excellent!'

He laughed nervously. In a stride I was past him and I had an urge to turn round and say, 'Sorry! Weird. Don't know why I said that!’ But I didn't. The damage was done.

We are going to a Christmas party in December. He'll be there. I'll walk in with Mrs A and he'll see me from the other side of the room. He'll lean over to those next to him and stage whisper, 'Don't look now but that dry cleaning fetishist I was talking about has just arrived...'  I am doomed.

The conductor announced that 'The fatality is not a good one. We could be here for one hour, it could be two hours.' A London-bound chap opposite looked over and said, ‘When is there a good fatality?’ We got chatting about the nature of these horrible incidents which, sadly, are not uncommon on this line. He looked up Twitter and there was a tweet form a passenger on the platform saying 'Horrendous incident at Watford. People looking for parts.’ Too much information.

The train did eventually get moving again and I met Bryn a bit later than planned at Clapham Junction. I feared another rail incident as he directed me to an eight-car unit that did not appear to be stopping at Twickenham. We were on platform 11 whilst the Burberry-clad crowd was on platform 5. Bryn told me not to fear, that this was the mysterious ‘loop line’ and that we would be there in plenty of time, with a seat to boot. He was right on all counts. A little local knowledge goes a long way.  

I was also impressed with the enterprise shown by the good people of south west London. Every other front garden in these suburban streets played host to a fast food stall, some run by the residents, others hired from them by outside caterers. Burgers, noodles, curries, hog roasts, pulled pork baguettes, tacos, donuts, smoothies. Endless possibilities. I was happy with my meat and tatie pie on the way in and the return journey jumbo hot dog, but perturbed that Bryn negotiated a double burger for the price of a single on the way home. I’m losing my touch.

You don’t get the same chi chi food village on the way to Wembley. Neither to you get the same atmosphere. Rugby Union is more inclusive, less hostile and all about good natured banter. I suppose a flip side is that the songs are much poorer. ‘Swing low’ and ‘heeeeaaavve’ was about the limit of the repertoire.

After the game (and some photobombed selfies), we stayed for a drink in one of the many ground level bars. This is something else civilized and racing in particular could learn a lot from not slamming the shutters down before the last and thereby creating an almighty crush both at the exits and the transport hubs. Cheltenham are you listening?

Gerroutovit!

There was even a decent covers band pumping out Lenny Kravitz and Ocean Colour Scene whilst we queued behind a group of pissed up ex-public school boys engaged in some humorous jinx. This involved a pillock in a union flag trench coat wrestling his mates to the ground and causing a little collateral mayhem in the process. Including increasing our beer-waiting time. Merely high spirits, course.  

On the way back to the station a chap was digging deep into a rubbish skip, retrieving sundry ‘Twickenham’ embossed polycarbonate pint pots for which he would get a quid each back at the bar. He looked to have about £17 in his mits already. I kept mine as a souvenir.

plastic

We rounded off the evening with a few in The Falcon at Clapham Junction, where we hooked up with Pete and his mate Des. Des had been on the lash in Brighton watching his beloved Fulham turn over the hosts 1-2. He staggered into the boozer looking for his tenth pint of the day, which he held at a precarious angle for about half an hour without either spilling or drinking a drop. There is unexpected talent everywhere you look.

Next stop on the stadium tour is Catterick Bridge racecourse on Wednesday. My expectations are only a shade lower. 


Friday, 28 November 2014

Old rockers never die…

 …they just keep reforming their bands.

We know because we’ve seen a couple this week. Some have a bit more credibility than others. At least Nine Below Zero had the wit to turn up with their classic formation.

NBZ had their high water mark in the 1982 when they were all over the telly, including a cult claim to fame, performing ‘Eleven Plus Eleven’ on the very first episode of The Young Ones. I just about remember it, though at the time I was far more impressed by the hilarity of Vyvyan’s random violence and Rick’s empty anarchist tantrums.

They split after that album (NBZ, not the Young Ones – that took another series). It was Gary that put us onto the trail of their ‘80’s-edition resurrection. We were blathering away about music at our recent curry night and he told me the band were out to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the first album. I said it was a no-brainer and we had to go. The deal was sealed with another London Pride.

Tim counted himself in as well. An old punk by instinct, but he loves a slice of well-honed r’n’b as well as anything. Gary just likes anything good. I don't think I've met anyone with such an embracing taste.

We left the pub research to Tim. Maybe this was a mistake. Of the three he proposed, one looked like the place you'd get stabbed if you wore the wrong t-shirt (his partner refused to go in there); one was somewhere near the Old Street industrial estates (not so handy for the gig in Islington) and on that basis the final option became a self-selection.

The Island Queen by the Grand Union canal was indeed a decent boozer. A high ceilinged gin palace with plaster mouldings, dark marbled pillars and glass Victoriana aplenty. However. Isn’t there always one of these? However, in common with practices I’ve bemoaned elsewhere, all the tables in this pub were reserved. I found one which we would have to vacate by 7pm in favour of ‘Steph’. I was still huffing and blowing when Gary walked in.

Victoriana

He was not the least interested in my bleatings.
“I nearly didn’t make it, mate!” 
“Eh?” 
“My office was under siege! It was surrounded by angry students! 
“Eh?”
There had been a demo march earlier that day organised by the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts. It seems that they had strayed off their course towards Trafalgar Square and detoured up Victoria Street. Gary works in Business, Innovation and Skills, the Government Department responsible for further education. A highly appropriate target for student wrath.
“Luckily I was on the right side of the embargo due to a lunchtime excursion to the Laughing Halibut”.
 A moment’s pause to respect the finest chip shop in Westminster.

OK. On with the story.

Gary was returning from his battery feast when he saw about a thousand students descending on the building. The front doors had been closed, locked and shuttered. Security told our hero to ‘go round the back’. Tradesmen and all that.
“In the time it took me to walk round the building, something had happened because those doors were shut as well and Security were going mental.”
Some protesters had evidently got through the entrances and into the office. Gary was told that the building would be off-limits until every demonstrator had been tracked and ejected/arrested.

It was just by luck that Gary had taken his phone and wallet (containing the gig ticket) with him. Even by the early evening, staff were only allowed to leave the premises in small batches.

Tim walked in sporting his leather jacket. Clearly he meant business. We had another pint of Timmy Taylor’s during which Gary brought him up to speed with the demo (where Tim and his jacket would have fitted in well - about 20 years ago). I started going on about table reservations again “that don’t even seem to be for people who want to eat, for God’s sake. I could just about understand that. What. Is. The. World. Coming. To.”

A look flashed between Gary and Tim along the lines of ‘let’s get him out of here’. “I could feel your tension”, said Tim, sensitively (the man in the leather jacket).

Next stop was the Earl of Essex, literally round the corner. This was a proper pub. Yes, it had been gentrified with matt khaki paint and robust Scandinavian furniture, but the place was all about beer! We found standing room by a thousand-litre mash tun and sampled a few brews advertised on the beer board. A beer board! Genius!  


There was nothing much below 4.5% on there, some pub-brewed and some shipped in. Just as well that we lurched out of the establishment when we did. The band hit the lights smartly at 8.30pm and lurking for another beer would have punched a big hole in the set.

The Academy was reasonably full and reasonably cross-age/cross-gender. The review is here in full, though we all thought that a pretty decent slab of high energy rock and blues had been served up. I was of the opinion that the band fell away a bit towards the end, but Tim thought they were only just hitting their stride. We all reckoned there were too many cheesy covers. Good stuff though. And plenty of life in these originals.


Sadly, the same could not be quite said of The Yardbirds a couple of days later. Only two originals remain in this iconic blues outfit and one of those hadn’t played with them since 1963, before they had even cut a disc…!

When does an original outfit become a tribute act? I’m not sure, but The Yardbirds are not far off. I suppose whilst Jim McCarty is still thumping the tubs it is legitimate act. Original singer Keith Relf is dead so the odds on him making an appearance are slightly bigger than one of my ante-post outsiders.  And the chances of any of the band’s mega-guitar luminaries having nothing better to do than pitch up at Shepherd’s Bush for a jam are slim and none (and Slim is out of town). Clapton, Beck and Page. What a triumvirate.
 
Beck, Page...no Clapton?

Those glory days are over. Unlike the venue, which is having a new lease of life. Bush Hall was built as a variety theatre in the great Victorian swell of such things. And like so many similar buildings it fell on hard times in the latter half of last century.

The stunning restoration of the theatre is almost a symbol of the rejuvenation of this corner of central London. Its ornate ceilings, chandeliers and plaster cornices witness conferences, weddings and film shoots as well as and gigs. …Except that the building is at the unglamorous edges of Shepherds Bush’s Uxbridge Road, whilst the posh new glass and steel stuff is crammed around the Westway flyover.

Pomp and circumstance

Mrs A and I had time for a bite to eat before the gig. I was getting a mite nervous by the way we walked so swiftly past kebab houses and Mediterranean restaurants that I could barely press my nose up against the windows. No fear, though. We hit on a low key, high quality North African joint near the venue called Abu Zaad for some rather fine spatchcock chicken and kofta kebabs.

The support act, Some Velvet Morning, were known to Mrs A through their drummer Rob who by day is a music business royalties man. His evening role could be even more rewarding, judging by the early signs of this set. The band certainly sounded a bit fresher than The Yardbirds, who were good in patches, but battled bad sound all night.

“Don’t be too mean about us!” said Rob on the way out. I don’t think I was. Here’s the review.






Monday, 17 November 2014

This sporting life

A fistful of facts and truths I learned this weekend:
1. Under the right circumstances, the amount of sport I can soak up from my settee is only limited by the hours in the day.  
The circumstances do have to be right, however. The lovely Mrs A is away this weekend, visiting her lovely sister in Tenerife. That’s one contributory factor: an invitingly clear diary. It’s hot in the Canaries apparently. It is wet, dank, dark and gloopy here. That’s another explainer: why go out?
I was clear on Friday and so could devote myself, guilt-free, to the three-day feast of televised action from Cheltenham’s Open meeting. Punchestown was a more than decent side dish. The raft of footie European quarter-finals were timely snacks littered through the weekend. Autumn rugby internationals the thick icing on a cartwheel of Victoria sponge the cake. ATP tennis action a mere amuse-bouche amongst the main ingredients. Topless darts on Eurosport at 1am on Saturday night was probably a weffur theen meent too far.
Potential Olympic sport?
2. TV football commentators are massively more positive than their radio counterparts.
Take the England game on Saturday. Danny Mills and Alan Green were ripping ‘tedious’ England apart in the second half – which, curiously, was when all the goals occurred and contained the only real quality of the game.  I watched the first half on the telly, where the ITV commentators were unduly sympathetic to England’s ragged industry. Why is this? Do the telly folk see themselves marketing guys for the product? Convincing us that we should be buying in to an unrivalled entertainment package? Maybe. And if so, does this mean 5 Live are fulfilling a counter-balancing gritty, honest, warts-and-all analysis? Danny Mills was so full of criticism about tempo and fluency that I thought his bile duct would split. Alan Green’s coruscating criticism is becoming increasingly unguided and wearing thin. Bring back Fanzone. OK, maybe not. 
Green: gobby
3. The Open meeting has put my season back on the tracks. 
The three day fixture remains one of absolute quality - that’s hardly news – and one that has proved a relatively happy hunting ground for me over the years. Nevertheless, I can’t remember the last time I watched and bet on all the principal races across the entire party. In doing so, I was also able to establish these nuggets:
  • Wins for Champagne West, Uxizandre and Garde La Victoire from my 40 to follow list put me back in profit after a poor early season.
  • Sausalito Sunrise and Blue Heron from the same list ran encouragingly well in defeat and are feeding my fragile optimism.
  • An above average number of front-runners bagged big decent wins, mostly accounted for by dictating a slow pace on bad ground. These circumstances show the admirable Dickie Johnson to good effect because he doesn’t have to worry too much about other more subtle tactics.
  • Simon Claisse is a prat. Dolling off four fences in Friday’s staying novice chase was questionable enough – looking at the shadows across Prestbury Park, I’d wager that the alignment of sun and fences didn’t warrant such action. (I’d like to know if it was the jockeys that demanded this action. I suspect not.) He then introduced a heavy dose of incompetence by trying to get the time of the following day’s showpiece event changed less than 24 hours before its start. The chaotic, farcical incident was stutteringly and unconvincingly reported live by the otherwise excellent Lydia Hislop and sidekicks at RUK, handicapped by disjointed and incomplete information. Not the game’s finest hour.
Johnson aboard Garde La Victoire: drive
4. Dessie Hughes will be missed. 
I caught a whiff of the seriousness of his plight when his son Richard Hughes collected the Flat Jockey Championship gong last week. In paying tribute to connections, friends and inspirations, he could barely speak when prompted to mention his father. Hughes Jnr was simply too choked and quickly moved on with a quip and a forced smile. 
I don’t remember Dessie Hughes’ exploits as a jockey very well, but landing the Gold Cup/Champion Hurdle double is a pretty special achievement. He surely surpassed that in training feats with the wonderful Hardy Eustace. A three time Festival winner, Eustace won the first of his Champion Hurdles at 33-1 in 2004. I backed him that year. For the Stayers…! His victory the following year when chinning Harchibald still goes down as one of the most remarkable Champion Hurdles of recent years. Harchibald, all over the winner, found nothing in the shadow of the post after a ride of extreme patience from Paul Carberry. 
Hughes should have been able to enjoy the achievements of another of great talent in Our Conor. This special looking horse won the Triumph in 2013 but was tragically put down in last season’s Champion Hurdle after a fall. Our Conor’s jockey, Bryan Cooper said Hughes was "one of the greatest trainers that we've ever seen and by far the best mentor and friend anyone could ever ask for". Amen.   
Dessie Hughes
5. Science is wonderful. 
I’ve been following the unfolding exploits of the Rosetta satellite and the Philae lander with the enthusiasm and wonder of a small child.  I’ve been looking for updates more regularly than changes to the Paddy Power ante-post market. I’ve been staggered by the vision of a programme that was conceived 15 years ago, launched 10 years ago and delivered almost exactly as planned from last Wednesday.  
This is one of those pinch-yourself moments.  With technology getting on for a generation old, this satellite blasted 510 million km to track a lump of ice and rock hurtling round the outer orbit of Venus. It then jettisoned a small spindly-legged probe to land the right way up on the spinning comet 67P, send back some breathtakingly beautiful photos and enough data to rewrite a library of science books.  Epic. Almost on a par with the finish of the Paddy Power. 
Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko

And now Monday is unfolding and I am feeling trepiditious about emerging from my cocoon to blink into the half-light of a new week. Roll on the weekend. Already.