April Fools’ Day – ★★☆☆☆

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picture unrelated

picture unrelated

As if I didn’t spend enough time facepalming at people sharing unfunny attempts at satire on social media (or accidentally misunderstanding satire and getting indignant), April 1st has grown to fill that completely unwarranted void. “Oh haha, the Guardian said Jeremy Clarkson is suddenly interested in climate change, how whimsically unlikely,” Oh please stop, it’s not that funny, it’s low-hanging fruit. “Hahaha, CERN discovered the Force,” Yes very good, it’s not like the Onion doesn’t do this stuff every single day, but a hundred times better. It’s not automatically funny just because a real newspaper does it. You’ve heard of the Onion, right?

The compulsory terrible fake news aspect aside, April Fools’ is ostensibly a day to celebrate pranks and mischief, but it’s never worked for me. I’ve never pulled a prank that actually went down well (though I’ve done plenty that just seemed to piss people off), and I’ve never been pranked well myself either. My dad once unplugged the TV for April Fools’ when I was 5, which might have been funny had I not had an obsessive Power Rangers fanaticism at the time and thrown an almighty tantrum. I’m sure proper pranks must happen somewhere – there must be funny people somewhere in the world, right? I feel like I’m missing out – am I really this out of touch? People do pranks today, right, it’s not just the newspapers? Is everyone just scared of pranking me in case I fly into a maddened rage? Do I just have the wrong friends?

Anyway, midday curfew’s passed now, everyone can get back to boring reality where I don’t have to worry about this stuff and you can prank people any time anyway, and it will be funny because you’ll be able to pitch it right without people expecting it. Back to normality where we don’t have to put up with the news media printing deliberate lies OH WAIT THEY STILL DO HAHA SATIRE (PROBABLY).

The Cat That Used to Live Near Us – ★★★★★

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dawwwwwwww

 

Before Christmas there used to be this cat that lived near us on my route to the bus stop. By all accounts it was an excellent cat and I miss it dearly.

We called it Kristofferson. I am about sixty five per cent sure it was male. We decided that it was either a Maine Coon or a Norwegian Forest Cat, and I remember checking around online for any sex-distinguishing characteristics, but I can’t remember what they were. There is a chance, then, that the cat left because it resented us constantly misgendering it with a male name. Or maybe it just disliked the name. Maybe it got weirded out because it already had a name and didn’t want us trying to “stake a claim,” as it were, by renaming it. We will never know, because the cat left.

Kristofferson would appear to one or both of us maybe three or four times a week on our separate trips to and from the bus stop. Every now and then, circumstances would permit us to make the trip together and he would appear, and we would have to stop and have a five minute “cat break” to enjoy the company of the cat for a while before catching the bus (or heading home). It was very important for us to make time for the cat. Sometimes we took pictures.

Upon seeing the cat, we would stop walking and double check that we were indeed seeing the cat – it was often dark. We would then make noises and approach the cat (without trespassing, mind you – he could mostly be found snoozing in a seemingly randomly-picked porch or front garden). The cat would respond with, from what I could tell, joy: I vividly remember at least one occasion on which he ran towards me. No other cat I have known has done that.

His favourite game was called “Get On You”. The game involved kneeling down to pet the cat, when he would jump up on your legs and, somehow, lie down and go to sleep on your lap. You would then have to balance awkwardly until your knees could not handle the difficult angles and tensions involved. When you give up and have to remove the cat from your lap, the cat wins. Now, although “Get On You” was absolutely his favourite, Kristofferson was also partial to a variant of “Get On You” called “Get On You Even More”: this game began in the same way as “Get On You”, but crucially diverged at the point when the cat would ordinarily sleep on your lap – in this variant, the role of the cat was to continue to climb you until it had reached the highest scalable point (usually your shoulders) and have a nap there. In this fashion we enlivened many an otherwise uneventful commute.

We believe, based on his prowling hours, favoured sleeping patches, and unsolicited rumour, that Kristofferson was a stray. Although clearly of well-bred stock and possessing of the manners of a domestic mog, he was very thin and slept rough, so he may have been abandoned. We toyed with the idea of adopting him, but our flat is not pet-friendly and he would have found it hard to get outside from the third floor, not to mention the possible awkwardness if he actually did already have a home.

Anyhow, we took him some treats once or twice, but soon enough it was Christmas and then he was gone. Although I obviously fear the worst, I like to think that he moved on to better things in a better place with better people who will treat him right. Kristofferson, or whatever your name was: you were an excellent cat and we love you.

Time – ★★★★☆

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pictured: freaky melty clocks

Did you know that time is everywhere? It’s true. Even in really different-sounding places like Laos and Djibouti and Kuwait and the Faroe Islands and Tuvalu and Suriname and Burkina Faso and Nunavut and Birmingham, they still have time the same as we do. Well, not totally the same – it’s a bit worse because we’re British and everything we have is best – but, functionally, yes, the same.

It’s difficult for me to think about time objectively because I am in it and I can’t get out. Imagine somebody is in a swimming pool and they were born in the swimming pool and they’ve never got out of it or had any contact with anybody else who had ever not been in a swimming pool and you suddenly ask them to think about what it’s like being in a swimming pool – they might answer something like “What?” or “I like the swimming pool, four stars”. It’s that difficult a question.

When first I started thinking about how to review time and ran into this conundrum, I thought that all I needed was something to compare it to – if I could compare time with, say, Batman Begins, I could trot out a GCSE-style “compare and contrast” piece. That doesn’t work though, because all the things I know about exist in time the same as I do, and because I can’t dissociate them from time, the whole effort becomes confounded. For example, let’s say that one of my criticisms of Batman Begins is that it was too long (even though it was in fact excellently paced). Not only does that ring disingenuous in the context of comparison to time itself (which, let’s face it, is quite a lot longer) it doesn’t make sense when we consider that it’s only time that makes Batman Begins too long (which it’s not). Remove time from the equation and you have a film that, although probably still quite good, is impossible to watch because I don’t even know what that would be.

It’s quite hard to think of what life without time would be like. Physicists have wondered why it is that we perceive time the way we do – in a sort of line going in one direction – rather than something else. But what something else? It’s a bit like that story Plato had about the cave and the shadows on the wall and what reality means, but in our situation, instead of dismissing the protagonist as a nutter, there is no protagonist and we’re desperately trying to discover the nature of reality and we can’t because it makes no sense. The only way I can picture a world without time is if either everything in the universe happened at once and was over and done with really quickly (except faster than that, because “really quickly” is still time-talk), or if everything stopped where it was forever like in Bernard’s Watch. Both of those are really boring for everyone involved, so on balance I think I much prefer having time.

I understand that this is a bit of a cop-out. I feel a bit like the indoctrinated child of an aggressive totalitarian dictatorship, swearing allegiance to the government because I’ve been brainwashed and it’s all I’ve ever known. But I’m not sure I have a choice – freeing myself from the tyranny of time itself is … impossible? I think? Unless that’s what they want me to think…

Anyway, I’m docking a star because we grow old and die and everything we love will one day fade away for ever, but other than that I have no complaints. Good show, time. Four stars.

 

Live From Itchy Mansions #4 – ★★★★★

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Two thirds of the way through his set, Ben Barritt finishes a song to raucous applause. This excites the dog, who begins barking. Ben laughs; this is a first for him. “I wish every gig could be like this” he says, and it’s hard to disagree with him.

Every now and then Itchy Teeth invite a bunch of friends and fans round to their south London flat, where they make tea and have a couple of friendly bands play some songs. The highlights are edited and get put on Youtube but, predictably, it is one of those “you-just-had-to-be-there” things. To all intents and purposes Live From Itchy Mansions is a DIY gig, but it straddles the borderline with something more like a campfire – just friendly people singing their songs sans stage and sans amplification. It’s a humble evening, but dramatic nevertheless. The atmosphere is bubbly and fun, there are plenty of interesting people, and the music is naturally top-notch.

First up is Joel Sarakula (replacing the unfortunately absent Ligers) with some masterful Amish-core piano pop. Old Yellow Photographs is my favourite, and I’m glad to see it make the highlights reel in all its bittersweet glory. But the real highlight for those who were there was the creaky chair solo. It was as brilliant as it sounds and more. Next up is Hares, who are fun. Drummer Adam somehow wrangles various percussion instruments, backing vocals and a bass guitar simultaneously. From what I (mis?)remember, the lyrics mixed playful and melancholy and came across as summery and vibrant. I suppose Hares are the musical equivalent of cider in a pub garden on an August evening. Perhaps with a small friendly dog, or maybe cat. Another listen will help me decide.

Of course the Teeth round off the night. Their bassist is on walkabout, so we have some previously unheard and chilled out piano-driven numbers. They are excellent, as expected. Before that, though, is Ben Barritt, who is remarkable. Ben’s music is as vibrant and soulful as it is genre-defying – Lonesome George (which can be seen on Youtube) sounds like Randy Newman to me, but each new song brings a new aesthetic, some bonkers jazz chords, and a totally different emotion. Ben’s music excellently defines a feeling, so if you listen to nothing else from that video above, listen to him.

If you ever get the chance, watch out for Itchy Teeth and make your way to a gig. If you can stand yourself enough to schmooze your way into saying hi to them, try and get yourself an invite to Itchy Mansions for a reliably stupendous evening.

Camping Zeeburg, Amsterdam – ★★★★☆

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The caravanning solution for people who can’t afford / hate the idea of owning a proper caravan.

I am writing this in the cafe restaurant at Camping Zeeburg. It is very pleasant. I am drinking white beer. There is some pretty OK-quality music on, and later there will be a live band. Outside there is a large benched area with a fountain. Reception is attached to a respectably sized shop full of groceries and camping supplies. The shop and cafe also do breakfast, with bread and pastries baked onsite.

On my first visit three years ago I arrived at midnight during a thunderstorm. We put the tent up in heavy rain in the dark. When we were done I got inside and panicked myself to sleep. To avoid a rerun, this time we are staying in a wagonette (pictured). It costs quite a bit more, but it has real beds and power sockets, and you can lock it. They also look pretty neat. Rain is loud on the fiberglass roof, but that’s nothing.

It really would be a delightful place to live. It doesn’t bother me too much that the campsite is on a sort of island that is quite difficult to get to. The only bridge is a stretch of highway with no pavement, so you have to walk a good five-to-ten minutes in a busy cycle lane. No, that’s not too bad. Maybe I should get a bike.

The population of Camping Zeeburg is about 50% standard campsite bores (old white people and their bored grandchildren), and 50% stoned teenagers. It is very quiet – although I do hate most people, I haven’t got really annoyed or woken up by anyone yet. For the similarly world-weary, there is little chance of solitude, but don’t worry – I’ve yet to meet anyone unfriendly. “Laid back” seems to be the local motto.

Our wagonette is opposite an area of grey dirt near the water, optimistically labelled on the map as “the beach”. Apparently you can go swimming. I have bought some shorts, and I look forward to finding out exactly what that means.

Do Anything – ★★★★☆

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do anything

The tree symbolises ambition. The house symbolises an absent father. This is not the most pretentious thing I will be saying in this review.

Do Anything is a free browser game by Jason Meisel. You play … Nathan Fillon I think? He is credited as Nathan Drake, which is confusing. Maybe that’s the point. The game opens with an enigmatic quote of Peter Molyneux’s about game design and confusion. I think maybe that means something. Spoilers. If you care. Go on and play it, it’ll take four or five minutes tops.

Anyway, you move around by clicking places. Making your bed and looking in the mirror give you sparkly achievement updates. So does just moving. You go outside and shake down trees for acorns, which you quickly learn that you can collect. You then encounter a turtle, which you can blow up. Then you run into Ellen Page (credited, for some reason, as Emma Watson), who I am scared is going to get blown up too, but instead you woo her. Then there is a giant acorn who kidnaps Emma/Ellen and you have to rescue her by blowing up more turtles and turning into a jet. Then there are credits and more fawningly admiring Molyneux quotes and pictures.

So, um, what the fuck was that?

On reflection, I see what’s happened here. Of course the game is terrible, but it’s enjoyable enough for a five-minute distraction. It is also very clever. What Meisel has done here is to pare down the experience of a video game to a few microcosmic elements- protagonist established, controls established, game goals and mechanics (acorn collecting, turtle blowing-upping) are introduced incrementally, there is the slightest hint at a boy-meets-girl storyline, and then you are left to use the skills you have learned in a more complex “boss fight” situation. I understand from the designer commentaries on Portal that these are all fundamental elements of game design. In that game everything was carefully spaced to give the player room to learn and experiment. In Do Anything‘s case it doesn’t matter how ridiculous the components are – you just cram them together and bam: game.

I don’t really know what all the Peter Molyneux stuff was about though. Maybe it’s ironic. Maybe someone has a crush. Ah well. Oh yeah, the music and art is good too. Sort of.

Nestlé Aero Mint and Choc Bubbly Dessert – ★★☆☆☆

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AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRGH

Nestlé is, I can quite confidently claim without having thought about it much, an evil company. The Controversy and Criticism section on their Wikipedia page has twelve subheadings, each more dastardly than the last: price fixing in Canada, extortion in Ethiopia, deforestation in Borneo – that’s roughly the standardly expected level of evil, though certainly more international than most. The child slavery stuff is a little heavy, as is the aggressive pro-formula (read “anti-breast-feeding”) stance the company holds. The whole thing tips right over into cartoonish supervillainy when you find out they were buying milk from Robert Mugabe.

As a mindless consumer, I am willing to look past a company’s troubling business ethics if they give me some tasty chocolate for the right price. These Aero mousses were reduced to 15p in Tesco. Please don’t judge me too harshly, I am but a man.

Unfortunately, as you can see from the picture, the mousse is green. This was a terrible idea. It might have been a good idea for the inside of the chocolate bars, where green means minty and fresh, but it was definitely a bad idea for a pile of viscous goop. At the very best, it’s still only a minty fresh pile of viscous goop. At the very worst, it’s mouthwash. Or snot. Or both.

On the plus side, you can close your eyes and imagine you’re eating an Aero. Whether that warrants two stars depends on how much you like mint and chocolate – I am aware that it is a controversial mixture. It also depends on how tightly you can close your eyes, whether you can find them on sale, and how well you can stand yourself after essentially wiping Satan’s arse with your money. Luckily I can hardly stand myself anyway, so financially endorsing Nestlé’s barbarism had little effect on my self esteem. I fully appreciate that you might be different.

Clowns Cafe, Cambridge – ★★★★☆

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Because clowns

This was my stream of consciousness upon entering Clowns Cafe:

Oh yes it is nice to get out of that heat, it is very cool in here, oh look the lasagne is in a tray in a deli counter, it doesn’t actually look that bad, oh hey there’s plenty of room, I wonder where we will sit, I quite fancy a coffee, hey look the coffee is really cheap, I guess I will just sit myself down right h- OH JESUS SHITFUCK I AM SURROUNDED BY TERRIFYING CLOWNS FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK.

The coffee and cake I had were extremely nice. I understand that the whole place is run by an Italian family – the ones I met were extremely friendly. The prices were low and the service was excellent. There is an upstairs seating area with a balcony. The atmosphere is quiet and relaxed, even in the kitchen. The experience is exactly what you want from a friendly neighbourhood cafe. Well, except for the hundreds of paintings, drawings, poems and dolls depicting terrifying clowns that line the walls.

All in all, I have no complaints about this perfect experience. Except the bit with the clowns.

Luther, series 3 episodes 1&2 – ★★★☆☆

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The red tie is a splash of colour in an otherwise monotone world, his only connection to sanity.

Luther is a gritty crime drama about a no-nonsense renegade loose cannon cop who doesn’t play by anyone else’s rules, but damn it if he doesn’t get results. His boss has a stick up his ass, internal affairs are gunning for him, and he’s probably got something dark in his past that haunts him every day … ah fuck it, why do I bother. You’ve seen it all before. Spoilers coming up, probably, if you care about that sort of thing.

Everyone in Luther is a cartoon, including Luther. Think James Bond – a few human foibles, but essentially a superman love machine. In the first episode he dents the car of an improbably hot blonde woman (her hotness and hair colour are only worth mentioning because that is almost her entire characterisation), who turns out to be Hugh Grant – shyly stumbling through her lines, a bag of nerves, somehow coming across  to the protagonist as likeable while seeming to the audience like lazy writing.

There’s also a hard-boiled internal affairs (or whatever we Brits call them) guy with a chip on his shoulder, the aforementioned ass-besticked boss, and not one but two creepy old dudes who like killing women and cutting off their faces. Honestly, it’s a pantomime. There are long sections of Luther where the cop drama stops and it goes into full-on slasher horror mode, along with all the cliché slasher horror tropes – slow build, scared victims look at each other, one goes upstairs to check out the weird noise, POV shot, limp payoff when the killer turns out to be hiding under a clear sheet of plastic in the attic (yes, this happened), etc etc.

I worry that Luther fails the Bechdel test – all the cops save one are men, and the only female characters that meet are two potential murder victims who chat inconsequentially about “fit guys”, just like women are supposed to. I am also slightly concerned that some key authorities – namely the internal affairs whatsits and some nursing home staff – are portrayed negatively, as interfering do-gooders getting in the way of serious police business. I worry that viewers might come away from Luther vindicated in their opinions that the world is full of “elf ‘n’ safety” killjoys, and that women are shit.

But these aren’t reflections of whether it is actually any good. I think that they just indicate lazy writing, but not bad writing. Faults aside, Luther is pretty enjoyable. There is a very solid B-story about a middle class dad who kills the guy who trolled and defaced his dead daughter’s Facebook page. There is an abundance of proof and Luther knows he did it, but the cops are hesitant to bring him down. They sympathise with his motives, he is full of regret, and his wife is ill and can’t look after herself. This could and should have been the main story, it is truly heartbreaking with some fantastic performances.

I am going to keep watching this season of Luther because I expect more storytelling of this calibre.  I recommend it, but with some serious reservations. I believe I have mentioned the lazy writing, and the fact that the hard-boiled cop shtick is as old as the hills, but every now and then there is a deeply affecting strength to it, like a diamond glistening beneath a mound of human shit. Also: “Idris Elba” is, like, the coolest name ever.

Mandarin House, Dovercourt – ★★☆☆☆

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Chinese takeaway, the last bastion of quality

Chinese takeaway, the last bastion of British quality

My family has a long history of loyalty to takeaway restaurants. Mandarin House has been our go-to for Chinese food ever since I was little. When I was first trying out vegetarianism I ordered from a Chinese restaurant slightly further up the road that made tofu dishes; this was not welcome at home. Mandarin House has relatively few vegetarian options – even fewer that are remotely appealing – but we’d be damned if we were going to just give up on her. We would remain monogamous.

So we all ordered from there again last night. I was a little hurried so I picked something obvious from the Thai section in the back – Pad Thai with Beansprouts. There was also the option of Pad Thai with Vegetables, which I found odd – aren’t beansprouts vegetables? Anyhow, it was vegetarian. When it arrived, it had congealed in the foil tray to the extent that it retained the tray’s shape. The ingredients in the Pad Thai with Beansprouts, as far as I could tell, were: egg noodles, beansprouts, soy sauce, and tomato purée. I still can’t quite figure out what Mandarin House think a Pad Thai is.

My girlfriend ordered a Thai Green Curry and Spring Onion Fried Rice. I had a little of the rice and it made me a bit ill. Or maybe it was the crackers. Someone else ordered fried rice with pineapple and cashews, which was pretty good, I admit.

Most importantly, though, the food just made me very sad. Between the family we ordered several different dishes, which all arrived looking brown and sticky and the same. I ate it and, though my hunger was temporarily sated, my life force felt drained.

Also it was pretty expensive. Nope nope nope nope nope.