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.


He was not the least interested in my bleatings.
“I nearly didn’t make it, mate!” 
“My office was under siege! It was surrounded by angry students! 
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, 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.

Monday, 10 November 2014

UK Blog Awards nomination

Ha! Recognition at last! Some fool has nominated Mug Punting for the UK Blog Awards. I'm flattered indeed to be included on the shortlist in the lifestyle, individual/freelance category. Though having checked the nomination page, I suspect the definition of the term 'shortlist' has been stretched a little...

Never mind.

If you feel moved to vote, you will earn my undying gratitude and respect.

Thank you in anticipation. Voting closes on 1st December.

Blog Awards - Mug Punting voting page

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Home improvements

Time for a post that is not about horse racing. Because the gee-gees continue to misbehave.

Good job I’ve got some Don’t-Do-It-Yourself projects to partially distract me. The house has been in neglect for some while now and finally we’ve decided to do something about it. 

Starting with a new back door. A lovely new wooden framed all-glass portal for the back of the house, manufactured with care and fitted with precision by my mate GC. (All enquiries to

I thought getting rid of the old one might be a little tiresome. In fact the thing had about 40 watchers on E-bay and went for a tidy £40, including pick up. The best result I’ve had since G-Force won the Sprint Cup in September. Seriously.

Arthur and Lisa from Wendover had bought to door. Lisa texted me to say they would be over on Sunday morning to collect it.  After a late night, screaming Toast Of New York down the stretch in a sun drenched Santa Anita Breeders Cup Classic (another taste of seconditis for me, but what a run, what a race…!), I flicked open Sunday morning curtains to grizzly rain.

The phone jingled into life and Arthur was seeking last moment directions in a thick Glaswegian accent. A few minutes later, his neighbour’s blue Ford Mondeo pulled up with Welshman Pete at the wheel. Arthur explained that they were hauling the PVCu half-glazed door and frame back home for their new lean-to. A few moments late, under battleship-grey skies and siling rain, Arthur and I were at either end of the reject door, blocking the pavement at a rather jaunty 45 degrees, edging it towards the awaiting jalopy.  

Pete was obliviously ensconced in his warm, snug driver’s seat. Arthur raised his eyes heaven-ward. “Pete, Pete! For God’s sake! Open the boot!”. He looked at me. “Just knock on the back window will you.” I did and Pete appeared at leisure, a short and sprightly 83 year old. He lifted the boot door to reveal a space ranged with useful (on other occasions, perhaps) car maintenance equipment. I looked in despair at the back seats still upright, the rear shelf in place and felt my arms lever from my shoulder sockets just a tad more.

Arthur issued some instructions to the hapless Pete and said to me “I don’t want to put the door down now I’ve paid for it. Don’t want to break it. I’m a Scotsman you know.” “Ha!” I mustered some jollity. “Well, I’m a Yorkshireman. You know what they say about us: Scotsmen with the generosity squeezed out!”

He liked that. “I used to be a Redcoat at Butlins”, he boasted. I felt my affable grin wane a little. I felt a Scotsman-Welshman-Yorkshireman gag coming on. Not quite, though.  “Do you know how copper wire was invented?” Pete was rummaging around in the boot and shifting seats around. “Go on?” I moved us carefully towards the yawning saloon and glanced up at Arthur, his glasses slipping down his nose. “Two Scotsman fighting over a dropped penny!” I chuckled and lodged the frame on the lip of the boot. My muscles squealed with relief.

We pushed the door further in, scraping against plastic mouldings and tearing at the seat covers. It came to a halt on the headrests with the front seats pushed as far forward as they could go. “You’ll be sitting with your knees up by your ears, Pete!”

The bottom of the door was sticking out of the back of car. Arthur and Pete pulled down the hatch and wrestled with a couple of bungee wires until the door was dubiously secure. Arthur was still on his red coat re-enactment. “Did you hear about the Scotsman who was so tight-fisted he had varicose veins in his knuckles? Ha!”

I waved them off clutching £40 in my own knuckles, determined not too put too much of it on Eduard in the 3.45pm at Carlisle. This proved to be a wise decision. Nicky Richards unexposed prospect mustered only 2nd, unable to concede weight to the very fine Many Clouds under that one’s ideal conditions.

The next part of our home improvement project was to the replace the boiler. It was on its last legs two years ago when our plumber shook his head in that way that tradesmen do, before coaxing a little more life out of it. Alex the plumber, no mean looker, according to Mrs A, pitched up at 8am with a brace of lean, fit young men to do the job. I jumped out the door and in to London thinking that at least Mrs A would enjoy an attractive side-show as they ripped the kitchen apart.

The plan was for Mrs A to join me in London that night. We’d booked a couple of preview tickets at a fringe theatre in south London close to where I work that I’d been really keen to try. Of course it was bound to go wrong. The boiler job took longer than expected and then the gas pressure was inadequate, so we had chatty National Grid Man pay us a visit to crank up the cubic metre-age, whilst asking Mrs A to complete the customer questionnaire so he could get a certificate to show his kids.

Mrs A pretty much manhandled Alex (any excuse) out of the door at 6pm, and somehow we made it to the bohemian Union Theatre bar by 7.20pm. A couple of stiff Rioja rojos and she was back on an even keel. The theatre was a 55-seat off-West End gem built into the arches of the viaduct carrying the Waterloo East line to Kent. We were invited into the auditorium, clutching our drinks, in batches of 10 to sit where we chose. Dry ice and moody lighting gave a whiff of Dio-period Black Sabbath gigs. Maybe it was expecting too much to hope the score of this Howard Goodall-penned fringe-musical would pack the same doomy punch.

Girlfriends was hugely enjoyable though. And not just because there was a surprising amount of shagging. The narrative was a little deliberate and a fraction na├»ve in its portrayal of  WRAF girls on a bomber base during WWII. Nevertheless, the performances were excellent and the production innovatively suited to the small space: because there was no sense of division between stage and seating, the audience was drawn right into the heart of the play. Although not into the shagging. Obviously. Everything else was going on all around us. I think we were both more intrigued by the staging than the musical itself. A perfect antidote to Rhythm Star being unsighted in the 1.20 novice hurdle at Uttoxeter.

By calling in to check on the girls, we contrived to walk past the best restaurants in Union Street and ended up eating the worst Thai ensemble I’ve ever tasted. I was up half the night gargling water to dilute a caking of salt and garlic in my throat deposited like a layer of basalt from the alleged ‘green curry’. But I don’t like to moan about a tiny blemish on an otherwise top evening.

Such Metropolitans. We were back in town for Fiona’s birthday brunch bash a mere few hours later. Penkull & Barnes is in Shoreditch which remains resolutely upwardly mobile. You can tell by the number of eateries and bars that pretend they are in cooler-still Hoxton the other side of Old Street by liberally misappropriating the word ‘Hoxton’ in their names. Good afternoon though. Top class Bloody Marys and scrambled eggs til 5pm. Nothing wrong with my system after that lot. I know how our radiators felt after Alex the plumber’s power flush the day before...

Next on our home improvement checklist is a new patio. The existing one was dug out and placed there by me about 10 years ago. The cracks between the broken slabs are now so wide that they could be mistaken for the holes in my punting strategy. We are starting to lose small children (and, worse, crisps and olives) to their cavernous clutches.

James came round to price up a replacement.  He seemed to spin a convincing yarn about what needed to be done, but I was so entranced by his Rasputin-like beard that he could have pitched for a house extension and I’d have tamely nodded.

Our neighbours have had some building work done at the back. From our kitchen window, where we previously gazed on fields, trees, wide sunsets and small herds of impala, we are instead confronted by a brick wall. To be fair, it is a lot better than I feared when I first saw the plans. James the Beard ran his landscaping hands over the brickwork and nodded appreciatively. “Nice job. Good pointing”.

He said it would be great to complete the edging of my new patio with matching bricks if there were any spare. So I asked the builders next door and they said they’d just chucked half a pallet in the skip out the front. James left and I spent the next hour digging into the skip to retrieve 80 reclaimed house bricks and stacked them neatly behind my shed. The power of the beard. Just waiting for the quote now.

We’ve had a long term plan to put a wood burner in our dining room’s empty fireplace. After abandoning ambitious plans to link one with a new boiler and create an eco scheme that would dwarf the Eden Project, we settled on a nice model from a supplier in Chipperfield. The sales woman was quiet, low pressure, informative and just very nice really. She booked us an appointment with the installer, her husband Kev.

Kev arrived one Saturday morning and you would have never put the two together. He bounced in, flexing wide, tattooed biceps and a wider, tombstone grin. He didn’t stop talking for half an hour. Loud, quickfire, repetitive stuff about the width of the fireplace, the length of the flue and the size of his family. Entertaining. He was a man’s man and spent twice as long talking to me directly as he did Mrs A. I found myself involuntarily imitating his style. “WELL YEAH, WE THOUGHT THE JOB COULD BE DONE, EASY LIKE. NO PROBS. BUT THAT AIN’T ‘ALF A SMALL OPENING. SMALL HOUSES THESE VICTORIAN TERRACE JOBS, YEAH.” Going with the flow, I could even feel my shoulders start to roll.

So we await the builder later today to tell us the extent and price of the fireplace widening. Potential for this to be the death knell of another project. Is nothing easy? Hope he arrives after the 2.15 from Exeter. Haldon Gold Cup. Special race. I wouldn’t want to miss another loser.

We also want some outside lighting for the expansive new patio that beardy James has probably sold me. Can I get an electrician to look at a job that’s less than a full house re-wiring? No. Anyone know a decent sparky?

One with a few racing tips would be especially welcome.