31 May 2008

Yardbirds and Zombies

Who could miss the opportunity to see two legendary bands from the 60s play on the same bill. Not me, even if it meant going to Croydon to do so!

The Yardbirds were on first. For the purists there are two of the original members still in the band, on rhythm guitar and drums, but for most of us the music was all that mattered and they rocked! They played a lively mix of early material, including the wonderful Shapes of Things and the surprising Dazed and Confused, as well as some more recent songs from their 2003 album Birdland.

The Yardbirds are famous for their lead guitarists and the current incumbent Ben King fills the role magnificently leading the band through an hour of wonderful rock music. More please!

A short intermission and then the Zombies take the stage with Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent as twin front-men, though I am not sure what the point of the matching suits and shirts was (at least Rod Argent took his jacket off).

The Zombies' set also covered forty years of music and included all the expected hits from the Zombies (She's not there), Colin Blunstone (I don't believe in miracles) and Rod Argent (Hold your head up), as well as some other well known songs such as What becomes of the broken hearted.

Colin Blunstone on lead vocals sang well enough but I could not help thinking that he moved like a Thunderbird puppet! Meanwhile Rod Argent bounced behind his keyboards at times seeming to attack it with karate chops.

Working well together, the Zombies produced a melodic and varied set that gave the fans just what they wanted and left us all heading for East Croydon station happy and humming the highlights.

30 May 2008

2000AD Extreme Edition

The weekly 2000AD has two companion publications, Judge Dredd Megazine (4 weekly) and 200AD Extreme Edition (bi-monthly) and I have an annual subscription to all of them :-)

The latest edition of 2000AD Extreme Edition reprints a classic Sam Slade Robo-hunter story written by John Wagner and Alan Grant with stunning artwork by Ian Gibson.

I particularly like the way Ian Gibson draws robots, and as Sam Slade is a robo-hunter there are lots and lots of robots!

29 May 2008

Groundhogs at The Eel Pie Club

The Groundhogs were one those bands that I read about in the 70s but never got to hear much of their music (in those days we relied on taping our friends' records and on Radio 1's limited rock output) so I welcomed the opportunity to see them playing locally.

The Eel Pie Club has a long and distinguished history dating back to the early 60s. The venue has changed over the years and its current home is above the Cabbage Patch pub in Twickenham. The venue betrays its "upstairs bar" heritage and makes few concessions in becoming a live music venue. The main viewing area is quite small but experience gained at many concerts enabled me to shuffle my way gradually to the front.

The Groundhogs are a traditional power-trio (like Cream etc.) and reply heavily on their front-man, which is OK because that's Tony McPhee and he can play! Most of the songs seem to be little more than a few threads in which to tie guitar solos together so if you like guitar solos (I do!) then Groundhogs are your sort of band.

It is always unfair to compare one guitarist with another but as Tony McPhee is not necessarily that well known I'll offer Robin Trower as a simile as he plays with a lot of slide and extensive use of the tremolo arm.

The Groundhogs made gloriously loud noises for the best part of two hours before leaving us with our happy memories to go and find a bus home and the result of the England game.

27 May 2008

A new approach to phishing

I was amused to receive this phishing attack as, instead of using the usual technical upgrade story to lure you in, this one warns you about phishing!

Two things rather give it away though; 1) the click here URL points to https://my.secure-ssl.net/www.moneybookers.com/..., which is not quite the same as the correct https://www.moneybookers.com/, and 2) I don't have an account with moneybookers.

Kingston parents lose out (again)

The latest figures on Secondary School Applications and Offers for Kingston upon Thames make depressing reading for parents. These show that only 60% of parents got the secondary school of their choice.

Given the diversity of schools locally and their geographic distribution, most of the 40% of parents who failed to get their first choice school will have had to settle for something very different from what they wanted.

And all this comes as many young children are still without a Reception place for next September.

Providing a good school place is one of THE main services that people need from their council and Kingston is failing to do this.

26 May 2008

Petersham Village Open Gardens 2008

It was a wet and blustery Bank Holiday Monday so what could be more natural than going to look at some gardens?! The occasion was Petersham Village Open Gardens 2008 which, for two days only, opened 9 private gardens to the public. Well, I was not going to miss a chance like that to be nosey!

The gardens were a mix of sizes and styles, so too were the houses, which made for an interesting afternoon. The highlights for me were the modern formal courtyards at The Glasshouse and the rambling majesty of the very large garden at Petersham Lodge (pictured below).

The rest of my photos from the afternoon can be viewed on Facebook (you do not have to be a member to see them) and will be appearing on my Ham Photos blog in stages over the next week or so.

The energy for the walking was provided by a reasonable pint of Landlord beforehand at the Dysart Arms (which looks less like a pub every time that I go there) and an afternoon cup of tea with a delicious slice of cake in the Petersham Village Hall.

A Bank Holiday with rain, beer, gardens and afternoon tea - this must be England!

24 May 2008

Purple Spaceships Over Yatton

Stackridge were a band that I was aware off in the 70s but I head little of their music, mainly because there was just so much good music around in a wide spectrum covering blues, folk, prog, glam and heavy metal, that getting noticed was very difficult.

But somehow Stackridge managed to survive through my lack of attention and produced several albums that were worthy of a review in NME.

The band has been through a few changes since then but are now back on the road as a richly textured eight piece band (six old blokes and two young women, how did that happen?!) and I was tempted to see them live at the 100 Club in London. I'm so glad I went.

They played a long set, just over two hours plus a small break, which included a variety of styles, which is not surprising given the number of songwriters in the band and the number of years that they have been writing those songs.

A large part of the set was familiar sounding early 70s folk-tinged progressive rock, think of Barclay James Harvest and Jethro Tull, that was easy to sway along to even though none of it was familiar. I particularly liked two long instrumentals that they did, Purple Spaceships Over Yatton and God Speed the Plough.

I was less impressed with their "fun" songs, such as Dora the Female Explorer and Galloping Gaucho, but these were relatively short and small diversions from the main feast and were quickly forgiven.

In the few hours since the concert I've added Stackridge as a friend on MySpace, bought one of their classic albums from Amazon and made a note of their local gig in October. It may have taken 25 years for me to discover Stackridge but I am quickly making up the lost time!

23 May 2008

The Mighty Avengers #14

The Secret Invasion story continues this week in The Might Avengers #14 and while the story is still excellent it is the cover that I want to write about.

It follows the theme of other Secret Invasion covers in having superheroes on the cover with the suggestion that one or more of them might not be who you think they are but are, instead, shape-shifting Skrulls and so are part of the secret invasion force.

This is shown by the Skrull facial characteristics which include the prominent creased chins. Here we see the Vision apparently revealed as a Skrull and overpowering his former colleagues.

What we also see is a homage to the classic Avengers #57 from 1968 which introduced the Vision in the story "Behold The Vision".

It's always a delight when current creators pay their respects to the creators of the past as it shows that they are fans too and that they appreciate that the stories that they are creating today build on, and depend on, the decades of stories that have gone before.

21 May 2008

Sparks: Propaganda

Propaganda (1974) was Sparks' fourth album and so was the fourth concert in the current series where they are playing all 21 of their albums, in order, in London.

It was also my first concert in the series, I am (only) going to 5 of the 21.

Sparks are using support acts for these concerts, because their own sets are shorter than usual, and the opener for Propaganda was dan le sac Vs Scroobius Pip, an interesting and fun mix of serious beats (delivered by a MacBook Pro) and rap (delivered through a long beard). Surprisingly good.

Sparks played Propaganda with a four-piece backing band which updated the sound from the whimsy of 70s electro-pop. Some of the songs were also elongated slightly, simply by repeating the chorus a few more times. Repetition has always been a big part of Sparks' music so a little more of it is a good thing.

Apart from that it was very much Propaganda as I first heard it in 1974, which is just as well as that is what the fans wanted and we all left happy (if slowly, why was only one door open?!).

19 May 2008

Let the monkey drive

There is going to be quite a bit about Sparks in this blog over the next few weeks for justifiable and joyous reasons.

The story starts with today's mail which brought me a copy of their latest album, Exotic creatures of the deep, which was soon on my iPod and entertaining me while I wrestled with work.

The album immediately hits you as typical Sparks (and that's good) with pleasing melodies masking sharp lyrics that include explanations for why you should let the monkey drive. It's fun!

I'll be seeing Sparks perform the album live on June 13 but before then I have four other Sparks albums to hear live, starting with Propaganda tomorrow night. More fun!

18 May 2008

Lead Strategic Manager

I read a newsletter this week issued by somebody with the job title "Lead Strategic Manager for Prevention and Cluster Services" which got me asking questions about the way that the work was organised and managed.
  • Are there managers who do not lead?
  • Are there managers who are not strategic?
  • Do Prevention and Cluster Services fit well together?
  • Just how many managers are there in this department?
An impression that many people have (myself included) is that a lot of the money thrown at Education by the Labour Government in recent years has been wasted by Councils employing people in jobs that are concerned with nebulous concepts such as "facilitation", "co-ordination" and "liaison", rather than directing it to the front-line, e.g. schools, and I wonder if a Lead Strategic Manager for Prevention and Cluster Services is an example of this waste.

16 May 2008

More on schools' funding

I thought that the big debates on schools' funding had gone as we have just entered a three-year funding cycle where the only changes that we can make are those that we have already said we will make, but I was wrong.

The latest meeting of Kingston Schools' Forum was asked by Kingston Council to establish a working party to look at issues raised by some schools following this year's settlement. In the Primary Sector, some schools have queried the variation in funding received by schools when measured on a per pupil basis.

On first sight you can see why this question has been asked as some schools do receive significantly more funding per pupil than others but the funding is calculated from a not very difficult formula that everybody was consulted on and which was approved with no serious dissent - not even from me! So the funding is right if you look at the details but can seem wrong if you take a simplistic overview.

I suggested that the purpose of the working party should be to explain to the schools why the funding is right (i.e. to explain [yet again] how the formula works) rather than to review a formula that we have just spent a year of detailed work on.

I'm not sure that this distinction was understood so I gave myself the opportunity of making sure that the message was not lost on the working party by volunteering to be on it.

I resent that it is necessary to spend so much time fighting for fair funding but the alternative is not to fight and to let the string schools take the money from the weaker schools that need it more.

13 May 2008

School league tables are wrong

Finally, a little bit of common sense on the subject of school league tables from The Commons Schools, Children and Families Committee which concluded that the national testing system in English schools is being misused to the detriment of children's education.

This issue was also debated on The Guardian Mortarboard recently, where the proposal to abolish league tables got overwhelming support. This was my contribution to that debate.

Of course they should be abolished, and for several reasons.

They distort behaviour (as all targets do), e.g. disproportionate teaching effort is spent on children on the cusp of achieving a target grade at the expense of those who will clearly pass or fail (standard triage but hardly equitable).

They do not achieve their primary purpose in that the vast majority of parents simply so not understand them clearly enough. To give a real example from a DfES consultation on the presentation of the results, a sample table showed a league table with four schools in it which labelled a school fifth best but one point on one paper for one child could have put them second. But how many parents know enough about

There are other arguments against league tables but these two will do. They are indefensible and should be abolished.

The immediate response from the schools minister, Jim Knight MP, was not encouraging and suggests that he does not really understand how league tables work but I get the feeling that the tide has turned on this issue and the days of league tables (as they are currently defined) are numbered, though it may take a change of government to finally seal their fate.

12 May 2008

Invincible Iron Man #1

Not much doubt about what the comic book event of the week is as the new Invincible Iron Man book hits the shelves just in time to benefit from the success of the film.

People new to comic books who try this out because of the film will not be disappointed as it very much has the same feel to it but they may be confused by some of the differences, e.g. here Jim Rhodes also has an armoured suit and Tony Stark is now teetotal following a long battle with the bottle some years ago (which is hinted at in the film).

But these differences are inconsequential, unlike in Spiderman where the success of the film recently forced the comic to undo many years of continuity to align itself with the film.

The important question is whether the book is any good and the answer to that is a resounding "yes"! The characterisation is spot on, the plot is gripping and worthy of Iron Man (no hopeless "d" list super-villains here) and the artwork beautifully captures the mood, the action and the technology.

This is a really good book.

11 May 2008

Iron curtain

Kingston riverside seems to be preparing itself for war by constructing a defensive barrier that would surely deter most armoured vehicles.

But I suspect that the real purpose of the new barrier is to protect well-oiled chavs from falling in to the river on a boisterous night out.

It will be interesting to see what this brutal barrier looks like when it is completed and that may also explain why it has to be so sturdy.

10 May 2008

Space Ritual at 100 Club

Space Ritual concerts are special but rare events so I go to all of them that I can but fates conspired against me in 2007 and the last time that I managed to get to a concert was back in December 2006. So it was with great anticipation that I went to see them recently at the 100 Club in the centre of London.

The evening got off to a good start. Before we had got our first drinks in we had met up with several people that we had met at previous gigs, including the Fabulous Ms Angel herself.

Space Ritual adopt a flexible 1-1-2-3-1 formation. Terry Ollis (drums) holds the fort admirably at the back and gives the band the freedom to play knowing that their back line is solid. Jerry Richards (bass) provides rhythm but also makes forward runs to sing backing vocals. Chris Mekon (warbling) and Sam Ollis (techno stuff) occupy the two wings to provide width and to make the sort of noises that make space rock spacey. Mick Slattery (guitar), Thomas Crimble (keyboards) and Nik Turner (sax and flute) conjure the rich texture to the extended jams and swap roles to allow each other to take the lead as the songs evolve. Finally, the Fabulous Ms Angel dances, cavorts and entices from the front but also moves freely around the stage to play off the other band members.

Musically, Space Ritual do what is says on the tin. They play a lot of Hawkwind songs and sound much like Space Ritual era Hawkwind. But while the set ended with two classics from this period (Master of the Universe and, obviously, Brainstorm) most of the Hawkwind songs came from the late 70s, e.g. Steppenwolf, Right Stuff and D-Rider. They also played several songs from their recent Otherworld album, which is a good thing, particularly as this included the title track.

I did not manage to get a copy of the full set list, nor did I try and write one down, but I estimate that they played 10 to 12 songs in their set of 140 minutes. Keen mathematicians will have worked out that the songs were quite long. The extended song length comes from simply extending the main line and letting the three front men pay loose on top of it. These jams define the Space Ritual sound and are why I go to see them play live.

There are only a few select bands that I go to whenever I can because of the quality of the music and the way that they make a special event from paying familiar songs, and Space Ritual is one of these.

9 May 2008

De Monfort at The Orange Tree

The Orange Tree Theatre continues to put on plays that I have never heard of, by people that I have never heard of, and staring people that I have never heard of, that delight and entertain.

De Monfort is no exception. Over a couple of hours we watch the descent of De Monfort through despair, hatred and madness towards the tragic conclusion.

This descent is slowed by the love and understanding of his revered sister and his friends. But this proves futile and they are left at the end with nothing but questions and grief.

Justin Avoth is magnificent as the despairing De Monfort and easily carries the burden of the period language, the many monologues and the constant heavy emotion. A tour de force that almost carries the play single-handedly.

The rest of the cast have much less to do, the play is called De Monfort for a reason, but generally they do what they have to do in providing the backdrop to the tragedy. The only weakness is that De Monfort's sister does little to suggest why she is so revered by everybody and so provides less of a contrast to her tragic brother than might be expected.

But don't let that one small negative put you off. It is compelling, tense drama that is well staged (as always at The Orange Tree) and well led by Justin Avoth's De Monfort.

8 May 2008

Smazeny syr

As a vegetarian working and living in Prague in 1992/4, I got used to living off the students' menu, i.e. cheap food, i.e. food without meat.

Luckily this almost always included smazeny syr which is, simply, cheese fried in breadcrumbs that is served with boiled potatoes and tartar sauce.

I ate this for lunch most days though I did occasionally try other fried foods, such as cauliflower and parsnip, when they were available or a plain omelette if I fancied a change.

In London I can quench my lust for smazeny syr at the Czechoslovak Restaurant in West Hampstead where the BCSA holds informal socials. Things have changed slightly as the dish has been Anglicized by the replacement of boiled potatoes with chips and the addition of a small garnish. The other main ingredient is, of course, the pint of Pilsner Urquell!

7 May 2008

Multiculturalism works!

Living in London allows you to enjoy the best of many worlds.

Last night I was in an English pub drinking English beer (Naked Ladies from the Twickenham Brewery), eating Indian food (potato and lentil curry) while listening to a live band play Irish music.

Now I am off to the Czech and Slovak Club in West Hampstead for some local food (smazeny syr) and local beer (Pilsner Urquell).

6 May 2008

Miss Finch disappoints

I had forgotten that I had ordered "The Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch" so I was pleasantly surprised to find it in this week's comics order.

An illustrated short-story by Neil Gaiman is normally a complete joy, and I cannot recommend Murder Mysteries and The Dream Hunters highly enough, but Miss Finch disappoints in comparison.

The story is thin and lacks the typical Gaiman grandeur of vision and clever, but not too clever, plot. The characterisation is also a little weak, probably due to the main characters being based on real people, i.e. Jonathan Ross and Neil Gaiman himself.

What does remain is the expected fantasy elements and here Michael Zulli's art does a sterling job in rescuing an otherwise poor book.

5 May 2008

Iron Man is a great movie

As an avid reader of comic books I always look forward to films based on characters I love but the experience has been mixed with the good films (e.g. Batman I and X-Men I) roughly balanced by the weak films (e.g. Hulk and Superman Returns) with quite a few so-so films in the middle (e.g. all 3 Spiderman films). So I am delighted to say that Iron Man is absolutely one of the good films.

The film tells the origin of Iron Man which is a creditable update of the original story with the war theatre changed from Vietnam to Afghanistan. Iron Man is then brought quickly up to date and leaps forty years of comics history in, er, a single bound.

The explosion count for an action movie is fairly low and while their is plenty of high-octane action the real strength of the movie is in the characterisation and dialogue. There are also some laugh out loud moments, particularly when Tony Stark is working with his voice-activated factory robots. The ending is really cute too!

After the film came the obligatory visit to Pizza Express and now comes the wait for the DVD.

4 May 2008

I love Centre Point

Centre Point still dominates the centre of London and still splits people into admirers and detractors. I'm a firm admirer and was pleased to catch this view of it framed by the buildings in Falconberg Court and facing directly on to the front with the name emblazoned proudly at the top.

3 May 2008

Wishbone Ash 36 years on

Wishbone Ash are, I am very pleased to say, one of the many 70s bands that are still touring. And, as with the other bands, the line up has changed many times but their front man is original member Andy Powell and some of the other members while not originals have been with Ash for some years.

Wishbone Ash are still writing new songs and their concerts include material from their whole career though there is an emphasis on the earlier songs from when the band were more productive and innovative. Their eponymous first album from 1970 includes the 10 minute jam Phoenix which became an anthem for the band and remains a fixture at all gigs.

I did not see Wishbone Ash at their zenith (living in darkest Dorset made gig going difficult) but I had seen them before, in a warehouse in Chichester (!) a couple of years ago. That was a good gig so when the opportunity came to see them again I jumped at the chance.

The London set was a little different from the rest of their current tour as instead of just including the highlights of their classic album from 1972, Argus, (such as Warrior and Throw Down the Sword), they played all of it. Needless to say this was very well received and the audience was a mass of people singing along and shaking their heads in time to the music in ageing rocker style - no mosh pit here!

The band clearly enjoyed the night as much as we did and Andy Powell told us that his love of the music kept him playing so we can hopefully look forward to many more Wishbone Ash gigs to come.

2 May 2008

A quarter of pupils to be denied their primary school of choice

The story behind the headline "A quarter of pupils to be denied their primary school of choice" in The Times is one of misery, frustration, anger, incompetence and complacency.

Choosing a school for our children is one of the biggest decisions most of us make and the process has changed in the UK over the last few years to make it more equitable. When things go wrong, such as some schools breaking the rules on admissions policy, then this makes the national news.

There are now many families in Kingston upon Thames that are distraught and worried that their child has not got in to the school of their choice and some 200 families who have not been offered any place for their child.

Kingston Council's response to this is its usual complacent twaddle. They claim both that there is not a problem and that the problem is not their fault. Both statements are false.

Kingston Council has failed in one of the most important services it provides for its residents but does not have the courage to admit this or the ability to fix it. Somehow Ofsted thinks that Kingston is "outstanding", a claim many parents find hard to believe.

1 May 2008

Indian call centres

I stole this joke from Steve Dale but as it relates to my recent trials over BT Broadband I feel justified in doing so.

Mujibar was trying to get a job in India.

The Personnel Manager said, ‘Mujibar, you have passed all the tests, except for one in the use of English. Unless you pass it you cannot qualify for this job.’

Mujibar said, ‘I am ready.’

The manager said, ‘Make a sentence using the words Yellow, Pink and Green.’

Mujibar thought for a few minutes and then said, ‘I am ready.’

The manager said, ‘Go ahead.’

Mujibar said, ‘The telephone goes green, green, and I pink it up, and say, ‘Yellow, this is Mujibar, how may I help you?’

Mujibar now works at a call centre for BT in Mumbai. You may have spoken to him, I know I have!