Thursday, February 28, 2013

Room 101: Fear the Parrot of Self-righteousness

I knew nothing of folk music as a young man. I'd been made to do country dancing at school, and didn't like it one bit. I feared morris dancers.

And then this was my first exposure to folk, in the loosest sense of the word.


Let me state for the record that I think the Levellers' politics are great and I really do like 15 Years and Just The One. I still can't quite get with the rest of their music, feeling as I do that folk music should be about heartbreak and death rather than upbeat tales from the alternative community, but I can live with it now.

But I came across This Garden first, their commercially successful but - for me at least - ill-fated dance experiment during the Second Summer of Love. It had both a didgeridoo and a repetive parrot sound effect which I felt was just a bit too much; and I was partial to a bit of Banco di Gaia in those days so my global village tolerance threshold was quite high.

And then there were the lyrics, which were - kindly put - the kind of left-wing holier than thou posturing non-activists hate. It made the nearest thing the UK in the 90's had to The Clash sounds like finger-wagging vicars.
I never thought, I'd see the day / When you became what you've become / It's easy now just to look away / And leave your conscience on the run
Spend so much time not looking for an answer / But someone else's to blame / As long as you don't take the drop / To you it's all the same.
Again, I am reminded that there's a difference between being right and being persuasive.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Room 101 guest post: Minibar Humbug by @Wreckferretzero

Once upon a time, the presence of a mini-bar in a hotel room was a sign of luxury.

You weren't in a bargain, budget level accommodation.

You were going places!

Image by Tomasigiorgio made available under the GNU Free Documentation License
No. Instead, it was a mark of grandeur - hidden behind its fake wood exterior, underneath the TV (that may or may not have had satellite channels), and likely next to that other mark of business extravagance: the trouser press.

But really! In today's modern hotels, and in a world where more and more people have the ability to travel - not just jetsetters or business-folk where en-suites are standard (not optional), where there's always a kettle and coffemaking ingredients - where these days, we demand wifi as free! - why do we still have mini-bars in our hotel rooms?

I'm lucky, I get to travel a fair bit- both nationally and internationally. I don't often get to stay in uber-expense- but I'm not always relegated to slumming it. But nowadays, even mid-range budget accommodation often has mini-bars in the rooms.

But the question is Why? Who actually uses it? 

I like the practicality idea of having a fridge in your room - especially in climates where outside the Air Conditioned bubble of the hotel that the temperature, or humidity means that a cold glass of water is more than just simple refreshment; it is revitalising!

But how many mini-bars actually have free space in them for you to store your own bottle of water?

Very, very few in my experience.

You can of course, instead use the bottled water that the mini-bar itself offers, but not only is it only available in containers barely large enough to fill a teacup, but it will cost you 5 times the amount that the hotel bar itself charges, and that is usually 3 times as expensive as the outside world.

So who benefits?

At some point in the past, when the person who came up with idea of the mini-bar managed to sell the concept to the hotels that some jetlagged businessman, in his polyester suit and his expense account wouldn't care what price he was paying for the packet of 3 peanuts, or the club soda, because he was too lazy to venture to the hotel bar... or heaven forbid! even leave the hotel and venture into the locale!

Sometimes it was an alternative to room service (which I can see why there is a surcharge associated with) - a chargeable convenience of have drink and snacks (I use the term loosely) at any time of the day.

But these days, both vacationers, as well as business-persons, are a lot more discerning- both in regard to their ability to leave their hotel room, but also in their travel budget. The entire world knows that hotel mini-bars are over-priced.

And it's not as if it is 'just a smidgeon' more expensive....; every item, from water, to canned fruit juice, to chocolate bars, to savoury snacks, to booze itself, is hideously over-priced. So who actually buys it?

Who eats/drinks enough of the contents for the hotels to still say "Oh, it clearly pays for itself!"
I just don't understand it.

The size of the containers within the mini-bar is also mind-bending. "Oh no it isn't" you cry, in a pantomime-esqe manner - "surely the clue is in the name itself; it's a MINI-bar!"

Did miniatures of spirits exist before the proliferation of the mini-bar across our hotel landscape?

We've all seen 1970's+ American TV shows where someone goes on a bender, shacked up in a motel room, downing miniature, after miniature.

Yes, it's a pre-packaged 'shot' - but one shot is never enough is it? It's the same as those tiny cans of softdrink/mixer- they barely whet your appetite, or cure your thirst.

Sure, clever in a way that it makes you spend more money by having to open two.

But how does it really help the hotel if you always open zero because we, the travelling public, are wise to the scam, and refuse to pay through the nose for convenient refreshment.

So. Given that I don't see the hotels reducing the price of the items within the mini-bar to anything half-reasonable, nor do they seem inclined to leave it as a convenient fridge space in the room, for you to place your own goods to keep chilled, then to me it is just an irritant.

A taunt, if you will. A throwback to an older age of travel, which is now unnecessary.

If it is just a mechanism to try to take more money off the visiting punter who is too scared to leave his hotel room, then you'd have more luck using the space in the room, underneath the TV to install an X-box, or Playstation, and to charge the resident to access games instead!

But as far as the Mini-bar goes, I believe it's time has come and gone- and this is why I believe it should be consigned to Room 101.
To be furthermore removed from our social psyche, and sent on its merry way to the past-best-forgotten!

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Room 101 post: ah House of Pain, how you live up to your name

There are many reasons to dislike this song, but credit where credit's due - at least it starts with the good bit: the brass sample from Harlem Shuffle.

At student discos in the 90's that BAAAAA! BA BA BAAAAA! was the signal for a sudden rush to the dance floor for some, but also for an expeditious retreat by yours truly. 

Why? First and foremost, it's The Screech. Wikipedia kindly informs me it's a saxophone - yet another example that of how that instrument can be used to commit great wrongs. The screech is right up there with brushing paving slabs - my own personal 'fingers on blackboard' sound - as one of the most annoying things I've ever listened to.

The only thing that would make it worse it would be sticking The Screech over a lumpen lopsided piano riff. Oh wait...

There's also something about how Jump Around translated onto the UK dancefloor I never liked. The repeated direction to jump around became something mandatory, almost coercive instead of inspirational. It turned the mood hyper-masculine and the battle rhyme threats - removed from their context thousands of miles away - left a sour taste in the mouth.

So, yeah. I discard it utterly.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Room 101 guest post: Against Sporks by Anonymous

Disclaimer: This is the first piece of non-work writing I have attempted since (I think) GCSE English.  As such, consider this less a piece of creative writing and more an opportunity to dump the content of a tiny area of my brain onto (sort of) paper. You have been warned...

When this bit of scribbling was requested I had to think about what topic I would choose. No easy task as many things infuriate me on a daily basis; poor use of apostrophes, Preston North End’s last manager, the ginger cat that attempts to cat-burgle us on an almost daily basis. You get the idea. However, I have chosen something a bit more...well...plastic.

Photo by Jmb at en.wikipedia and Made available under Creative Commons license
Sporks*. Defined by Wikipedia as a “hybrid form of cutlery taking the form of a spoon-like shallow scoop with three or four tines”. Known in my brain as “that useless piece of plastic that functions neither as a spoon or a fork”. Essentially a waste of space, time and air. I am not sure when these bits of tat completed their infiltration of food stores but they have seemingly crept up on us like Norovirus.

I suspect that some witty folk sat round a dinner table, after a few too many glasses of wine, mused upon the amalgamation and naming of household items. Someone came up with the ‘spork’ concept and then someone else decided it was their Dragon’s Den moment. To be fair there have been worse suggestions on DD; I refer you to Hamfatter and the water-free egg cooker.

Don’t get me wrong, I am pleased that when nipping in somewhere on my lunch break to buy a pasta salad or similar I have the option of something to eat it with. I would however prefer that instrument to, you know, actually work. In the way of say – and I realise I am being daring here - a spoon, or a fork, or a knife. Cutlery that for 100s of years seemed perfectly acceptable.

Rather than a useless piece of plastic that is too small to scoop, not pointy enough to spear and cannot cut a bit of egg, never mind a cherry tomato. Chasing a tomato round a plastic pot, running a fine line between not being able to stab it onto the fork or hoping when you finally corner it it won’t just spray you with juice is too much excitement for me on a Wednesday afternoon. I might as well use my fingers.

Which, I suppose, is my basic point. I already have fingers. We already have cutlery that works effectively. We do not require sporks. Never have. Never will. And so that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I request, nay demand, the inclusion of sporks in Room 101.

I thank you.

*Apparently also a 2010 film described by imdb as a colourful and foul-mouthed comedy musical. Can’t be worse than the plastic rubbish. I enclose a link

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Introducing Room 101 Week - nominations please

Yes - it's time this week to nominate the things you think life would be better off without. 

The rules:
  • If you've lived under a rock and are not sure what Room 101 is, see here.
  • One person, one nomination. Nominate by commenting on this thread.
  • No grievance too big or too small.
  • But, at the risk of stating the obvious, no hate speech.
  • Explain your choice - persuade us.
  • Bring the funny.
  • And feel free to comment on other people's nominations.
Throughout the coming week on the blog there'll be some long-form nominations for Room 101 from guest posters as well, so keep an eye out for fresh updates.

And get nominating!

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The 4'Ns every campaigner needs

A few weeks ago I attended the Grassroots Democracy Conference organised by the Electoral Reform Society, Make Votes Count and Unlock Democracy.

I sat in on a colleague's (Jane Thomas, head of our team of regional campaigners) session on campaigning on multiple issues. Her key point was if you can campaign on one issue - like an AV referendum - you can campaign on a cluster of issues, like 'democracy', because the skills are essentially the same

To underline the point, we participants compiled a flipchart setting out the skills a good campaigner may have.

So, that's 

  • Passion and righteous anger
  • Audience awareness and the art of appearing normal
  • Building teams and leadership
  • Encouraging involvement and taking people with you.
  • Clear asks
  • Listening
  • Planning and focus
  • Resilience and determination
  • Good verbal and written communication skills
  • Persuasion and charm
  • Negotiation and compromise
  • Research and knowledge
  • Networking and building relationships
  • Political savvy, identifying opportunities
  • Empathy
  • Creativity
  • Freedom to fail
Jane drilled this down to four key N's: negotiating, nagging, networking and nouse, which is an elegant way of pulling all of this together.

There are two other things I would stress personally. One, is that it's more important to find and support the people who have the skills that you don't have, than to develop them all yourself. Learning new stuff: good; pretending to omnicompetence: bad. 

Plus, however good you are, you won't get far without a team of friends who've got your back.

Two: don't worry if you're not the finished article - no-one really is. Back when I started volunteering with Friends of the Earth, I was very green, and so shy I wouldn't say boo to a goose. I'm still on a journey, but I've been able to grow a lot over the past 15 years. Having a safe space like FOE was for me where you can learn and grow in confidence makes all the difference. 

Hopefully you'll then be able to provide that space for other people who come through the door of your campaign or local group.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Video of the week: the theme to Toejam and Earl

One of the best console games of its era. And definitely the funkiest.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Crooked Necks - Forgetting To Remember To Forget

This is one of the most interesting songs I've heard so far in 2013. And it's only from two years ago so I'm - almost but not quite - up to date for once. :-)

I fall into music which clashes control with emotion, as Forgetting To Remember To Forget does on each chorus/howl as it washes over chiming metalgaze guitars. 

And credit where due: I came across Crooked Necks via the rather wonderful Invisible Oranges metal blog.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Let's Occupy Valentine's! My first live performance

Having only two weeks to organise our Escape The Cheese alternative Valentine's fundraiser, we went in house for our spoken word. 

For the first time ever in thirty six years of existence, I performed live last Friday.

I recited the following little number unaccompanied but I can't help feeling that somewhere in here there's a Flanders & Swann or Fry & Laurie number waiting to get out.

And yeah, I didn't invent the idea of Occupy Valentine's. Better and brighter minds have gone before...

Let's Occupy Valentine's 

Let's occupy Valentine's,
And set up camp in Clinton's,
Liberate the hearts and flowers,
And set free all the kittens,
For what good is a day, packed full of cliche,
To single, couple or beast?
You pay to express yourself,
Mostly just stress yourself,
It's the wafer-thin mint at the feast!

O! Let's occupy Valentine's
It's really rather stupid
Remember we're the 99
And all gang up on Cupid
For that cherubic kid, is a vampire squid,
Wrapped round the heart of romance!
Don't do things the clone way
Do Valentine's your way
Like a Strictly Come Dancing Show Dance!

So we'll occupy Valentine's,
We'll change that paradigm,
From compulsory kitsch,
Away we shall switch,
One Feb 14th at a time!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Another old writing fragment - a cranky narrator explains role-playing games

Know, oh resplendent readers, that the tale before you is set in a time when the ancient littoral civilisations, the ancient empires of the West, had reached their considerable peak of cultural achievement. Let me tell you something, it is an epic, lords and ladies. And there will be elves.

Well, perhaps I'm not being entirely straight with you. To be honest, it is a story about stories of adventure, heroism and all that lah-dee-dah. Stories and the people who tell them. Make them anew, break them, and cast their defiance into the sharp and pointy teeth of chance with ten and twenty-sided dice.

The illuminated will recognise from the above description that this a story of own Great Game – call it role-playing, call it Dungeons & Dragons if your lawyer permits, or just call it gaming for simplicity's sake. Even, if you're prone to hyperbole, call it the pinnacle of our culture and the ultimate synthesis of all disciplines. Some may bestow that accolade elsewhere, there are those who may speak of some affair with glass beads, and wild and hairy heretics may even speak of Boggle or Whack-a-Mole. We, however, shall have no truck with such ludic (and ludicrous) deviation.

Was I addressing an audience of the scholars and aesthetes of the Game, no further explanation from me would be required. Yet I have been asked to spin this fancy for a broader audience. An all-to-predictable gesture by my commissioners and sponsors. Sex it up, they say. Make it a five-volume epic with a name ending in -iad, they implore (Old-ropiad, perhaps).

In response, I sigh, and remind myself that while in theory I have a duty to none but my Muse, in practice I have very real duties to my cats, my landlord and my ex-wife, in roughly that order of priority.

So, role-playing. Let's give you a couple of definitions to be going on with.

So, first, your theatrical definition, darlings and dramaturges. If I were to say interactive storytelling to you, what does that do for you? Well, try this: humans have always told one another stories. What we tend to forget in this Age of the Paperback (and the coming Age of the Kindle) is that a story is not just something you buy on a three for two deal in a well-known bookshop but a collective experience.

What if we're all back around the camp-fire (or the kitchen table) telling each other a story, each playing different characters? Collaborating in the creation of a shared world, in whatever genre? Both spectators and actors, or spect-actors, to use a neologism from radical theatre. If you can dig that, then the rules and the polyhedral dice just become a way of resolving that old question – can my favourite character do that? Can he jump the ravine? Can she cast that spell? Can he make the Kessel Run in less than 50 parsecs? No big deal.

With me? No? Okay, if that tripped too many of your hot buttons for pretension, try this second attempt. Imagine a co-operative board game where all but one of the players work together to explore a dungeon, a haunted house or space station. They find treasure, fight monsters and become more powerful. The remaining player designs the dungeon or whatever and controls the traps and monsters. 

Then take away the board and the pieces and ask all the players to run the game in their heads, with the ... ah ... dungeon master describing the situation and the others having their characters react to it. Here, in what you might call the war-gaming tradition in role-playing, tactics are paramount and rules matter, while character is a nice to have, not an essential item.

You can probably tell from this where my own sympathies lie without me having to spell them out for you. Just don't get me started on W**** of W**craft and it's on-line bastard brood.

What, you would have my name too? Such things have power, you know? [Pause] Do you know, I almost said that with a straight face, but I was never any good at poker. All I'm saying is that the pointy hat and the beard come with the role, and you won't find me wearing them in the bar later. Read what I said  about the compromise between art and commerce.

So if it's all the same with you I'd rather keep my name out of this. But apart from that you're in safe hands. I know my THACO from my AC, my Azathoth from my Agadoo. *

What? Do I look like I was there for Temple of Elemental Evil the first time around? Cheeky sod! Let's say I remember second edition and stop asking personal questions, okay?

Any more questions? Good. So, what are you waiting for? Speak, friend and enter! 
(*) The only way Lovecraft could have topped the image of a blind, idiot, formless god at the centre of the universe writhing to the feeble piping of an unseen flute would have been the vision of it gyrating to the horrific refrain of 'Agadoo-doo-doo / Push pineapple shake the tree...' Sanity checks all round, I fear

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Party to escape Valentine's cliches and help Brum bloom


For immediate release, Saturday 9 February

Party to escape Valentine's cliches and help Brum bloom

Photo-opportunity – hosts in bee-style wings and antennae on Fri 15 or by arrangement in advance.

Let down or jaded by Valentine's Day this year? Come to the Escape The Cheese Valentine's after-care party.

From 6.30pm to 8.30pm on Friday February 15 at The Warehouse, 54-57 Allison Street, 

Digbeth there will be rootsy stomps and gutsy grooves from local band The Mellow Peaches, as well as games, spoken word and an extra-special prize raffle.

Proceeds from the night will go to Birmingham Friends of the Earth's wild-flower planting project, which aims to create bee-friendly urban spaces across the city this Spring.

Escape The Cheese event organiser Rachna Shah said

We're looking forward to a great alternative night to the commercialisation of Valentine's. With The Mellow Peaches providing the entertainment it's all about having a good time, getting to know people and looking after the world around you.

Julien Pritchard from Birmingham Friends of the Earth said

Bees are essential in pollinating our favourite foods and for our gardens and parks, but are under threat. That's why we are hosting this party to raise money for wild-flower planting projects across the city.

Tickets for Escape The Cheese are £2 if you put your name on the guestlist at (or £3 on the door).


Additional information

1. More information about Escape The Cheese can be found at
Twitter: @escapethecheese

2. Birmingham Friends of the Earth is an environmental campaigning organisation, and the only organisation in Birmingham campaigning on biodiversity, transport, energy & climate change, planning, waste and recycling.

3. We rely on bees and other insects to pollinate most of our fruit and vegetables. Without them, it would cost UK farmers £1.8 billion a year to pollinate crops. But bees are under threat, and with their decline, so too is our food supply and our economy.

See also why we need a national bee action plan

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Sign up, start a new Friends of the Earth local group with me this Spring

Would anyone like to join my pledge to start a Friends of the Earth local group in their area – see below? I’m been wobbling about starting a local group in my current home town, though I know it will be fun once I get going!

So, will anyone step up with me? 5 people is all I need to inspire to take the plunge in Cannock. You can sign up at

NB – want to check if there’s a local group in your area – see

PS - Pledgebank is great. I came across it ages ago through My Society and had forgotten about it until I was hit by a bolt of inspiration this morning. Another post to follow investigating what kind of pledges other people have on there? Perhaps!

Fraternal pride moment of the day

My brother’s band Dora Brilliant are in the pages of Classic Rock magazine this month as great undiscovered music.

They come as recommended by snooker’s Steve Davis (see below) – check them out at

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Round-up: Silver Action, Freedom fires and the aftermath, Occupy Twitter

Sharing of women activist experiences at the Tate

"Hundreds of women over the age of sixty will converge on The Tanks at Tate Modern to participate in Suzanne Lacy’s new participatory artwork, Silver Action, a live and unscripted performance of staged conversations. Women from across the UK who took part in significant activist movements and protests from the 1950s to 80s have been invited to share their personal stories in a series of workshops, culminating in this day-long public performance."

(plus write-up from the Women's Room blog)

Freedom Bookshop Re-Opens after Fire

"And so it is today that written concepts are lived in reality and anarchy is demonstrated in action."

My colleague, Tim Gee helped with the clean-up: this is his account.

(plus a good write up with videos from Vice magazine here)

Occupy Twitter

The takeover of the HMV Twitter feed by disgruntled staff connects to a longer, broader tradition of occupations. From Richard Seymour on The Guardian.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Another old writing fragment – an university, aerial view

Latitude: 53.7696563611, Longitude: -0.367167156976, Altitude: 47, 376 feet. Rate of descent: lazy.  

Follow me, oh reader, follow me down on phantom wings at dawn, down as we bust through the clouds and orgone, towards the planetary petri-dish. 

See the city below segue from Kandinsky to Monet to Mondrian to, to, to, real life as we swoop in drunken downward ammonite spirals to ground level.  

To the centre of the city? No, not yet. Leave that mix of chain store traffic and dockland dilapidation for another time. No, while the thermals and this hawkmannish-boy fantasy permit, let us set the controls to the south, to the university which is the heart of this story. 

Pass over the time-worn terraces, the tower blocks all-a-hung with the symbols of reservation, the threatened Victoriana of the churches and the swimming baths and the triumphant Thatcheriana of the red-brick house-boxes.   

Head for the concrete blocks surrounding the manor house on the outside of town, clamped there like Le Corbusier grafted to Pugin.   

Readers, Dive! And greet The University in all its glory at dawn. Let us land in the centre of the quad. Don't buzz the ducks on the lake. How would you like it?  

How still and torpid universitas castra is in the first light of the morning. Before the invisible army of cleaners and helpmeets arrive and depart, and its symbionts arrive for lectures, seminars, gossip and disporting, before then, all is quiet.   

The magisterial manor house around which the university was built, housing the administration and the offices of those whom the vice-chancellor deems worthy of this perquisite; the student union with the look of the flatulent youth club; the functional gun metal and concrete strongholds of the social sciences, the ivy-tamed outposts of the arts and languages, the glass palaces of business and engineering, the basements of comp sci and surgery.   

In the silence, all seem less real than the faint movement of wind  in the neatly mown grass on the lawn of the quad, on the sports fields where the first joggers are yet to be seen, on the parklands which gently merge with the flatland farms beyond the edge of the city.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Recipe-watch: sweet pretzels

A friend made some amazing sweet pretzels last weekend.

In lieu of Mary Berry generously making her books available free online (open source baking), here is a recipe, at least.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Against the Wagner Defence: call-out for ideas

Recent posts about racism have gotten me thinking - can you separate an artist's disagreeable politics from their music? I mean really

I am calling the idea that you can do this the Wagner Defence, after the classical music canon's favourite anti-semite, Richard Wagner.

Most journalism about him walks the line between acknowledging his greatness and acknowledging that politically speaking his beliefs are beyond the pale. So, how does he get away with it?

Granted, there's at least some historical perspective applied in the case of Wagner: there was a lot of racism in the nineteenth century, to put it mildly, and the pantheon of pre-twentieth century greats would start to look a little empty if contemporary standards were applied retroactively in full. And it's not his fault that he was sanctified posthumously by Nazi Germany.

But in Wagner's case, there's a more troubling argument: that someone's artistic contribution can outweigh any consideration of their politics - however reprehensible.

So, what do you think is the appropriate response to all of this on the part of the listener? 

How does this relate to contemporary debates about, say, metal artists who make racist statements, homophobic reggae singers, church burners, left-wing revolutionaries - think of John and Yoko backing Mao?

Or, one level down, American country singers advocating violent reprisal after 9/11? British metal bands toying with cultural nationalism by way of re-appropriating our history?

I believe music appreciation has to acknowledge the latent unity of the artist's life, beliefs and work.  
  • Unity, because no piece of art or music can be separated from its context, as expressed by its maker and known by the recipient.
  • Latent, acknowledging that this context may not be fully known to the recipient, and an musician's views may also be only to varying degrees manifest in their work
In other words, I don't believe in letting artists of the hook for their politics, but I acknowledge that it's more complicated than at first sight.

So, what's the most appropriate response in these situations? And how we do we make sure that modern-day Wagners don't get a cheaper pass than they deserve?

Over to you.