The Interrailing Adventures of Jen and Emily, Part 1

Warning: Not for the easily offended. Contains casual profanity (in English and Dutch), crude humour and references to all the things the Dutch are more liberal than you about.
=====It’s a cliche to go travelling to ‘find yourself’ when your life hits crisis point. I realise this. But I succumbed to it anyway. In terms of ‘crisis points’, one that involves being dumped by a wonderful man and graduating but realising you’re woefully ill-prepared for employment is not perhaps comparable with crisis points that find people homeless, terminally ill or bereaved, but it’s one that nonetheless inspired me to escape to Europe.
=====I convinced Emily, my hometown friend of 16 years, to come interrailing with me for three weeks. Starting last Wednesday (August 28th), our route is taking us via Brussels (briefly), Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague, Krakow, Budapest, Vienna, Venice and Munich. During the trip, we’ve both kept journals of our adventures, which will be written up onto this here blog twice a week, featuring anecdotes, opinions and idle musings (particularly on my Countdown adventures, being broadcast while we’re away). Enjoy…

28th August 2013: Train to Rotterdam (Netherlands), 15:44
=====The Eurotrip has commenced! We’ve only been on the continent for 6 hours, but already there have been triumphs, defeats, tears and bloodshed. And that was just over a game of Scrabble. (Ok, that is a slight exaggeration, but I did win a closely-fought game 347-310.)
=====We’ve already been to Brussels, albeit briefly. We visited the Port de Hal by virtue of the fact it was the only vaguely noteworthy building we encountered on our aimless ramble from Brussels Zuid station. After a 15-minute sit to recover from the shock of lugging our enormous backpacks around (and also to be leched on/mocked [not sure which] from afar by some Belgian guys), we headed off rather less aimlessly- courtesy of Emily’s masterful Google Maps skills – towards Grand Place, the gorgeous city square. The city up to that point had a sort of faded charm, but nothing else of note apart from some devastatingly handsome men (which, admittedly, is quite a note). We took a well-earned half-hour sunbathe there before moving onto sample Belgian cuisine (Belgian waffles!) and not-so-Belgian cuisine at Subway. Non, je ne regrette rien.
=====We’re now on the train to Amsterdam via Rotterdam for a changeover. Can’t help but think that Dutch place names would rack up a lot of points in Scrabble – not that anyone would be able to spell them correctly. Our objectives in Amsterdam are to visit the Anne Frank House and, less solemnly, the Hemp and Sex Museums. I am ready and willing to be educated in these topics. My other personal mission is to use the word ‘kutkabouter’ in casual conversation with a Dutch citizen. I am reliably informed by our half-Dutch friend Amber that this word means ‘cuntgnome’ in Dutch.
=====On that insightful note, I shall end this entry here.
Signing off,
An excitable Jen (not a kutkabouter)

29th August 2013: Dam Square, Amsterdam (NL), 14:27
=====In the middle of a very sunny, very busy Dam Square in Amsterdam at the moment, opposite the Royal Palace (whose bells sound like a Pantha du Prince and the Bell Laboratory song), having just been to the, erm, enlightening spectacle of the Sex Museum. Emily emerged from it educated but scarred, whereas my tendency to research the more sordid corners of Wikipedia was revealed by my relative lack of shock. That said, the exhibit on ‘male reproductive fluids’ did ruin my appetite and remind me why mayonnaise makes me feel nauseous. Although not as nauseous as Emily felt when she saw this particular exhibit.
=====Yesterday post-hostel-finding/settling-into was spent finding food (€8 for a tagliatelle carbonara so huge it defeated my usually bottomless stomach!), gazing at impossibly pretty canals, touring the Hash, Marijuana and Hemp Museum (a rip-off), and – of course – the Red Light District. It sounds ridiculous, but there’s something jarring about seeing ACTUAL PROSTITUTES on the game, with absolutely no discretion save for the door/curtain that hides them in flagrante delicto. Virtually everyone on the streets gawping at the perma-tanned women in their glow-in-the-dark underwear was a tourist, something also discernible from the pervasive smell of weed in the air. Some of the hookers were so bored they were sitting on the bed texting instead of preening, something so mundane it was faintly amusing amongst the surreality of everything else.
=====What’s also surreal is the sheer number of bikes about. I know Amsterdam is Cyclist Central, but the quantity of both parked and active bikes is ridiculous. I’m constantly fearing for my life whenever I accidentally end up walking in a cycle lane, which hasn’t helped my general dislike of cyclists (the unfortunate consequence of both immensely enjoying running them down on Simpsons Hit & Run for Gamecube as a child, and dating an overwhelmingly enthusiastic cyclist who constantly wore Lycra and tried in vain to get me to ride a tandem). That said, I am impressed by how space-efficient mass-cycle parking is compared to car parking.
=====The hostel is alright; any mess comes courtesy of our French former room-mates, who we never actually met because they returned to the room after I fell asleep and left before I woke up. However, we could infer certain things about them from the detritus they’d strewn across the room – innumerable cigarette butts piled on the desk, boxers scrumpled in the bathroom, and no less than 10 (!!!) empty plastic packets that held remnants of weed.
=====Time to move before we get sunburnt [update: too late 😦 ], and finish this entry. We plan to visit the Anne Frank House and a ‘coffee shop’ (although we’ll ‘just say no’… hi Mum and Dad!) and ingest our own body weights in paprika crisps (the greatest foodstuff you can’t really get in England) for the rest of the day, not to mention finally shout ‘KUTKABOUTER!’ at some poor unsuspecting Dutch citizen. We did play a game of ‘Bogies’ (where you shout profanities gradually louder in public) using ‘kutkabouter’ instead yesterday, though.
SIgning off,
A typically mature Jen

30th August 2013: Train to Hannover (Germany), 11:02
=====Ich bin on the Deutschbahn! (Or the Douche-Barn as I have affectionately nicknamed it.) And so we leave behind the city of free (well, €50) love, liberal drug laws and impossibly thin houses, towards the land of Kraftwerk, bratwurst and lederhosen.
=====Yesterday was, for the most part, a resounding success; we did indeed go to the Anne Frank House (dingy, cramped, insular – all the things you’d expect it to be), a ‘coffee shop’ (but we ‘just said no’… hi Mum and Dad!) and ate enough paprika crisps to turn our insides orange. The failures included the lack of kutkabouter conversations and an Ethiopian guy following us through the poorly-lit Vondel Park after dark, having lured us (read: me) in by talking about Chelsea FC. Having made awkward chit-chat until we reached a well-lit exit, we thought we were free. Him ominously telling us he had something to show us was not what we wanted to hear. Emily suspected he was going to whip out his manhood – clearly the flasher exhibit at the Sex Museum left a lasting impression on her – while I suspected a knife. What he actually did was less terrifying, but more weird: he showed us how he could contort his hands behind his back, and came up close to show us a picture of him with his Indian ex-girlfriend. He may have been harmless, but we didn’t wait to find out, and wandered off abruptly vowing to never wander through dark foreign parks at night again. Speaking of lechers, Emily actually saw someone go into one of the windows in the Red Light District last night. I guess not all the tourists were there just to gawp.
=====Our plans to make a cool, hip interrailing playlist (featuring noted cool, hip artists including One Direction, Miley Cyrus and Steps) and generally get lairy in our room were hampered by finding several new roommates. Not wanting to disturb them, I settled for using the free WiFi to remind everyone on Facebook that I’m going to be a minor daytime TV celebrity tomorrow. A weird thought. We woke up this morning to two more roommates. After our scare with the weird guy in Vondel Park, it was slightly unnerving to be the only girls in the room. Undoubtedly the worst thing about being female is that you frequently have to assume that everyone is a potential rapist-murderer.
=====Sent postcards to grandparents (consciously leaving out mentions of our museum trips), parents/brother/gerbil (consciously leaving out mentions of our trip to the Hemp Museum – my father, so anti-drugs that he likes to pretend Bowie isn’t a human skeleton on the cover of Diamond Dogs because he was coked up to his eyeballs at the time, would disown me for even looking at such things), and Spanky (who got none of the boring stuff about canals, and all of the cheeky details). Slightly regretting my decision to mention ‘banana shows’ in a footnote to my brother.
=====6 hours on the Douche-Barn should be fun (sarcasm), especially when our food supplies consist only of a quarter of a French baguette each, Nutella, orange TicTacs, half a pack of chewing gum and half a packet of plain crisps. We’ve had no breakfast so this is basically a highly nutritious brunch.
=====Onwards to Berlin!
Signing off,
A slightly hungry Jen

Later: Train to Berlin (GE), 15:51
Flouncing off,
A very diva-ish Jen

31st August 2013: PLUS Berlin HostelBerlin, 01:16
=====Hectic few hours of mostly internet-using. Turns out that if you win convincingly on Countdown then you send friends/family/complete strangers into raptures. A LOT of messages to respond to.
=====However, I did drag myself away for long enough for us to go out and experience East Berlin. We walked past a hefty stretch of the East Side Gallery and admired the graffiti, spent an age wandering the supermarket aisles (we’re both fascinated by foreign supermarkets) and buying essentials such as Pom Bears, Red Bull and a tiny, adorable bottle of Jaegermeister, and having cocktails at a nearby bar. Emily didn’t enjoy her Melony cocktail (turns out it’s not a good idea to choose your friend’s cocktail based on it being an anagram of her nickname), so I selflessly drank it for her once I’d finished my Baileys Colada, which took all of two minutes. You can’t beat a Colada.
=====Haven’t seen enough of the city to judge it, but I like it so far. It’s less picturesque and more industrial/grimy than Amsterdam, and the buskers are far superior to English ones thanks to their preference for amps over acoustic. But we’ll find out more tomorrow, when we’ll spend a busy day visiting all the World War II/Cold War monuments, going out on the lash in the evening, and no doubt making more colossal discoveries about life in general – though none can be as eye-opening as today’s revelation that the German title of ’99 Red Balloons’ isn’t, as I thought it was for so long, ’99 Luftwaffe’. Proof that you can win Countdown, but still be a blithering idiot.
Signing off,
Minor daytime celebrity Jen (though not minor enough to meet the invite requirements for Celebrity Big Brother)

Later: McDonalds by Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin, 15:05
=====Bit of a disastrous day. It started off small (plans for an early morning swim in the hostel pool impeded by it not opening until 10, and my water bottle proving to be incontinent in the day bag I borrowed from my grandma), but intensified at lunchgtime as we ate lunch in a park opposite the Holocaust Memorial. Our plans for a peaceful meal descended into chaos as a wasp started stalking us, at first taking a liking to Emily and, after she’d run around in a circle screaming, using me as a rebound. No sooner had we decided to risk the wrath of its family by swatting it (they release pheromones that attract their relatives) than it thankfully disappeared, possibly to ogle a nearby woman who was sunbathing naked.
=====Just as we’d settled back down, two deaf and mute guys waved clipboards in our faces that informed us they were raising money for a deafness institute. We signed and, feeling awkward that previous entries had listed €20 and €30 Euro donations, handed over 50 cents (Emily) and €1 (me). They wandered off to bother other parkgoers, leaving us to bask in the glow of our good deed for the day.
=====Minutes later, more guys with clipboards came along. We tried in vain to signal to them that we’d already signed and donated, but they were persistent; I signed it again to get rid of them, but gave no money, while Emily wavered awkwardly, not keen to go through the rigmarole of signing again. She then noticed that her bag had mysteriously opened, and that her purse was empty of notes. The boy bothering her – who surely hadn’t yet reached adolescence – had been slipping notes out of it while she was distracted by the clipboard. Fortunately she noticed his fistful of notes, and snatched at them, at which point he dropped them on the ground behind his back and made absolutely no show of repentance. She gave him the ‘Ginger Look of Death’ (even I was scared) and shouted at him until they both nonchalantly mooched off, leaving us feeling very unsettled and desperately double-checking that all our valuables were intact. (I briefly descended into hysteria on being unable to find my phone, but it was – to my immense relief – buried under all the rubbish in my bag.) A kind German woman came over to warn us, slightly too late, that their disabilities and petitions were a con. We couldn’t relax and left soon after, clutching our bags with iron grips and treating just about everyone with some amount of suspiscion.
=====Aside from that, a productive day. We’ve wandered a long way from our starting point of Friedrichstraße station: passed the Bundestag; circled the Reichstag; seen both the Sinta-Roma and Holocaust Memorials (the latter, in spite of its solemnity, would make for a fantastic game of Hide and Seek); traipsed round the Brandenburg Gate; looked at the exhibition at the Topography of Terror; and, most recently, got touristy pictures at Checkpoint Charlie. All in all, a very educational few hours – it’s easy to quickly condemn Hitler and the Nazi Party but forget how truly despicable their laws, ideology and atrocities were. I do admire how the Germans don’t try to gloss over or whitewash such a destructive era in their history, though – the Brits (regarding our ‘glorious’ days of Empire) and any other country whose belligerence has inflicted scars on so many could learn a lot from this.
=====The hostel has good facilities, but the common room closes disappointingly early and the toilets in the room don’t have locks on them. I suppose it means you have to communicate with your roommates (currently three girls from Reigate and a Spanish boy) even if you don’t want to, lest they walk in on you.
=====Off to Bebelplatz (where the Burning of the Books took place in 1933) before returning to the hostel for some much-needed R&R. Hopefully we’ve fulfilled our disaster quota for the holiday, but somehow I suspect not…
Signing off,
A very paranoid Jen (still in possession of a phone)


Putin It To The Man: Why ‘Too Gay For Putin’ Is The Most Fun Way To Oppose Russia’s Prehistoric Anti-LGBT Legislation

“It’s rare that I get particularly vocal about LGBT issues, but the stuff currently going on in Russia has really appalled me.” So writes Zarte Siempre on his ‘Too Gay For Putin’ Facebook campaign, which seeks to undermine Russia’s recent, much-maligned anti-LGBT laws from afar by getting people of all sexualities to do anything that would be ‘too gay for Putin’ during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Examples listed include “watching the entire series of Queer As Folk, selling and baking rainbow coloured cakes, organising a chain of hand-holding through a city centre, [and] singing ‘Glad To Be Gay’”, but attendees are encouraged to come up with their own ideas and spread the word.

Like Stephen Fry’s typically eloquent blog post earlier this week, the campaign is quickly going viral. It’s reached thousands of people on Facebook and has been endorsed on Twitter by comedian Adam Hills, the presenter of Channel 4’s talk/comedy show The Last Leg, and musician Tom Robinson, writer of 1978 hit ‘Glad To Be Gay’ – a testament to how the internet community feels about regressive, repressive measures such as those unanimously approved in the Duma earlier this year.

Russia has come under global scrutiny and criticism in recent years for other draconian laws that hinder its citizens’ right to free speech, most notably following the imprisonment of several members of feminist punk group Pussy Riot. Yet those who view LGBT rights as a mere case of decriminalising homosexuality may fail to understand what the fuss is all about, as technically homosexuality is still legal in Russia. However, by criminalising “gay propaganda” and the right to be open about sexuality, the Russian government has attached an unfavourable stigma to LGBT communities, suggesting that their message is ‘wrong’ and ‘immoral’ – a stigma whose sentiments have been echoed by Russian pole-vaulter and Olympic Village mayor Yelena Isinbayeva, who has come under fire this week for airing her opinion that homosexuality goes against what “normal, standard people” want in the country.

The Russian police are also taking an aggressively active stance toward upholding the laws. Shows of support for the community as innocuous as wearing rainbow-coloured suspenders have resulted in arrests, Dutch tourists have been arrested for asking Russian teenagers their opinions on gay rights and neo-Nazi groups such as ‘Occupy Pedophilia’ are given free reign to attack gay men and put videos of the abuse on YouTube, having lured their victims in with fake adverts on dating websites and other forms of social media [here].

The legal system, meanwhile, is just as bad. Attempts to get a ‘Pride House’ – a place for LGBT athletes and attendees to celebrate their sexuality at the Olympics, with such venues existing at Vancouver’s 2010 Winter Olympics and London 2012 – in Sochi were denied by judge Svetlana Mordovina, who claimed that it “contradict[ed] the basics of public morality” and that “propaganda of non-traditional sexual orientation which can undermine the security of the Russian society and the state [and] provoke social-religious hatred, which is the feature of the extremist character of the activity” [here]. The fact that no country that allows LGBT propaganda has had its security undermined or seen social-religious hatred provoked is clearly beside the point.

The Olympics, both Summer and Winter, are meant to be a peaceful celebration of globality, free from the usual international dialogues of politics, war and economy. It is on these grounds that some have rejected calls to boycott, protest against, or relocate the 2014 Winter Olympics. Yet when the host nation’s vague but dangerous laws are to be imposed on the foreign athletes and tourists who will visit the host nation, potentially putting both people and the fundamental principles of the Olympic games in jeopardy, it is impossible for these Games to be held free from politics. Even Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany relaxed its horrific anti-gay law ‘Paragraph 175’ for the 1936 Berlin Olympics, as visitors to the Games were not subject to it.

Although ‘Too Gay For Putin’ encourages its attendees to support a boycott and/or refuse to watch the Games, it is not compulsory. The main aims are to get people of all backgrounds, nationalities and sexualities to challenge prejudice and support the Russian LGBT community, no matter what form or size that support takes. The only boundary Siempre puts on how people choose to be ‘Too Gay For Putin’ is that it should be “peaceful and positive”.

“The immediate reaction has been overwhelming and made me incredibly emotional,” says Siempre. “It gives me hope that this could really become something huge. As far as I’m concerned, the bigger this gets, the more good it can do.” His ultimate aim is for it to receive media coverage, “to show that just because some people might be willing to sit back and let what’s going on in Russia happen without saying a word, that there are people who truly care about what’s going on in the world, and will do whatever they can manage to try and make some sort of difference.”

How will I be ‘Too Gay For Putin’, you may ask? By lip-synching Electric Six’s seminal hit ‘Gay Bar’ while wearing a Putin mask. After all, the song does mention that “I’ve got something to Putin you”…

God May Bless America, But The English Certainly Don’t

            The ‘Napoleon Complex’, more commonly known as ‘Short Man Syndrome’, is the alleged psychological predilection of short men towards aggression, named after the diminutive Emperor of France. (Psychologists are divided over whether it’s a genuine phenomenon or a baseless stereotype but, being below average height myself, I find it plausible. People constantly making jokes about how they’re always looking down on you/you’re always looking up to them is incredibly annoying.) Whether or not height is one of them, it’s a concept that applies universally to most scenarios in which one party with ‘less’ is jealous of one with ‘more’.

A whole host of less/more dichotomies – of land mass, economy, and cultural dominance to name a few – come into play with the example that inspired this train of thought. The example? Well, judging by the frequency with which I see Facebook statuses sneering about Americans, and am directed to half-baked blogs protesting that the Brits are superior to the Yanks because we ‘gave them’ The Beatles, you have to come to the conclusion that the English* are gripped by a Napoleon Complex whenever we consider our enormous ally across the Atlantic.

It’s been well over two centuries since the United States was a British territory, and about a century since they became the dominant world force in just about everything, yet we still seem piqued that they had the temerity to surpass us on the world stage. This has led to a general attitude of “if you can’t beat them, insult them”. And insulted them we have, until the insults have become the central traits of our archetypal American stereotype. If we believe that stereotype, then Americans are stupid, crassly jingoistic, gun-loving, humourless, conservative, hyper-religious, devoid of any significant cultural history and either too thin (if they’re famous) or too fat (if they’re not).

When phrased so bluntly, even those who snipe at Americans online can see that this is intensely reductive. Of course, negative cultural stereotypes are nothing new – The Mail essentially exists to imbed stereotypes about Polish immigrants into its readers’ minds, while the French are joke fodder for a broad section of society. However, in my experience, the ‘us v them’ mentality is most prevalent and competitive when discussing America and its population. While the USA is home to horrors such as Fox News, Rick Perry and the Black Eyed Peas, it’s also responsible for innumerable scientific and technological advancements. Not to mention that while it’s rarely the first country to embrace liberalisation, when it does accept progressive measures it’s arguably more influential than when any other country does, as the subsequent worldwide press attention undoubtedly provokes debate and discussion in other countries. The idea of America inspiring less developed countries to civilise themselves (i.e. conform to a Westernised ideal of acceptability) is unhealthy, but if Obama openly supporting gay marriage means some of the Caribbean islands consider repealing their laws against male homosexuality, then maybe it has some currency.

There’s no smoke without fire. Some of the stereotypes are largely true – a third of the American population is overweight, another third is obese – but some are clearly not. Despite YouTube videos appearing to show the opposite (remember, there are obese religious fanatics who don’t know how many sides a triangle has in the UK too – the difference being that the US, having a far greater population, has a few more of them), and despite the continued influence of the Republicans seeming to imply the stereotypes have a point regarding ‘American stupidity’, it’s clearly something of a myth: over half of the population has a degree, while American universities utterly dominate worldwide university rankings. For all the history that English people pride themselves on having – and look down on Americans for not having – there were only two universities in England by 1800 (Oxford and Cambridge). America, by contrast, had over 20, including Harvard, Yale, Columbia and Princeton. We may have an interesting national history stuffed with turbulent monarchies, but the American settlers were clearly far more pragmatic with regards to investing in the country’s future.

And so on and so forth. Countering every individual argument is beside the point. As ever when wisdom is needed, I defer to the words of Mean Girls: “Calling somebody else fat won’t make you any skinnier. Calling someone stupid doesn’t make you any smarter… All you can do in life is try to solve the problem in front of you.” That is: condemning America and Americans doesn’t make England any more a paragon of virtue. Essentially, the problem is that countries are just kids in a playground, each trying to be the most popular so they can dictate the way the world runs. England, the little kid who somehow managed to be the top dog for a while, can’t cope with having her place at the top of the pecking order usurped by one of her former minions. So to make up for losing our influence in the playground, we either try to claim the credit (“I, like, invented her!”) or discredit them (“You’re a home-schooled jungle freak, who’s a less hot version of me!”).

Newspapers such as The Mail contribute to our pique, making sure to emphasise England’s downs more aggressively than its ups, in order to make the population feel like they’re in terminal decline from some mythical Golden Age of the British Empire. By mythologising the era when we had most influence as a Golden Age, perhaps we begin to believe that America, now the most influential player on the world stage, is experiencing her Golden Age – and we’re jealous. Of course, what the newspapers fail to note is that, while we held domain over huge swathes of land, this was only achievable through the poverty and subjugation of millions. America, at least, is not guilty of that (even if it is guilty of secret internet surveillance. Swings and roundabouts).

Next time you feel the urge to sneer at Americans because they “can’t make tea” properly, wonder why you’re sneering at them as opposed to, say, Canadians. Is it because you’re subconsciously subscribed to our national Napoleon Complex? Think about it. Maybe you don’t need to sneer at anyone.

*I refer to the English and not the British because, while researching my dissertation, I came to the conclusion that the British Empire is really a misnomer – it should have been the English Empire. If anyone wants to have a lengthy quibble about this, quibble away. Just thought I’d clarify that.

Guess who’s back… back again…

Hi. Degree is finished. Website is off hiatus.

Articles will, as ever, be sporadically posted. I refuse to pander to the internet journalism mindset that quantity of articles is more important than quality. I will happily sacrifice a greater viewcount to stick to my principles.

I promise nothing else (yet).

Jen, a.k.a. MLIR

ps. FAO Britpop revival bands – whatever my angry 18-year-old blog posts say, I do not believe that all current music is devoid of value, nor do I advocate a Britpop revival. There’s a wealth of good music out there from the last few years – you’ve just got to look for it. (And no, Beady Eye, Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds and Jake Bugg do not fall into this category.)


Apologies. MLIR is currently:

a) Too busy with work in my final year of uni, and other projects in my spare time (editing my novel, writing another one, anagramming), to write articles of a decent standard;
b) Taking a break from journalism more generally for reasons too long to go into on here;
c) Er, that’s it.

I’m not going to promise any articles in the near future. For your fix of new bands, the Guardian’s New Band of the Day feature is invaluable (Childhood, last Thursday’s band, sound excellent on the strength of ‘Blue Velvet’); for Britpop stuff, John Harris’s book is pretty much the Bible on that front. I’m provisionally looking at Britpop in my dissertation (in relation to English literature/art/nationalism of the 1990s), so I might get sick of writing about it after that!

Finally finally, some new albums you should check out in MLIR’s absence (click links to open in Spotify): All Of Us, Together – Teen Daze; Lonerism – Tame Impala; Anne Ivory EP – Shade Of Red; Melody’s Echo Chamber – Melody’s Echo Chamber; Kill For Love – Chromatics; Always EP – Summer Camp. Achtung – if you’re looking for Britpop, you will not find it in any of these albums. I do listen to other things, y’know.

Thanks, and sorry again.

Bands of the Week, Round-Up #3

Previous Bands of the Week round-ups: 1, 2
BOTW has been on hiatus recently – numbers 9-11 were posted in June, number 12 was posted this morning. MLIR is fashionably unpredictable like that (apart from appearing to be predictable by starting sentences with acronyms, FYI). With no further delay, here are the last four Chosen Ones…
Band of the Week, #9: Psycosis/Neutral Bling Hotel.
Do you enjoy Neutral Milk Hotel’s modern classic ‘In The Aeroplane Over The Sea’? Then prepare to be thrilled or disgusted by the hip-hop reworking of it by video game producer and mash-up master Psycosis, billed as Neutral Bling Hotel on ‘In My G4 Over Da Sea’. Once you’ve got over the novelty, it actually works with and builds on the original to surprising effect. You can find the full album on his Band Camp website, and download it for however much you want.


Band of the Week, #10: The Boo

With Green Day’s forthcoming album ‘Uno’ due out later this month, it seems fitting to introduce Billie Joe Armstrong’s family band, The Boo. Green Day haters, don’t run – it sounds far more like 60s-flavoured GD side project Foxboro Hot Tubs than anything on ‘American Idiot’.

With wife Adie on vocals, sons Joey on drums and Jakob on guitar, and Armstrong commandeering the bass, their economical, lo-fi punk channels a playful, female-vocalled version of The Ramones. Unfortunately, only a handful of their EPs have graced the buying public, so probably not coming to a record store near you.

Other tracks on YouTube:
Wallflower, I Want Revenge, Little Silent Boy

Band of the Week, #11: Trailer Trash Tracys

The name conjures up visions of rednecks peddling a tame ‘n’ terrible brand of Kings of Leon/diluted Black Keys guitar music, but it’s really a London quartet dabbling with ethereal, dreamy-voiced shoegaze. Debut album ‘Ester’, released in January to a slew of good reviews, is full of gorgeously strung-out gems with the full reverb-drenched works. Singles You Wish You Were Red, Candy Girl and Strangling Good Guys, deserve to be lavished upon your ears immediately.

Website, Spotify, Facebook, Wikipedia, Record company page

Band of the Week, #12: The Waves of Fury.

Most appositely described as a Motown-tinged Jesus & Mary Chain (thanks Paul Lester), they’ve somehow managed to not only mash but mesh together the splenetic, fuzzy guitars and anguished howl of East Kilbride’s finest with the most celebratory horn section heard on a record for… well, a while. Their debut album, ‘Thirst’, is due out on October 29th.


Website, Spotify, Facebook, Soundcloud (unused as of now, but could be useful in the future), Twitter (barely used), Record company page

London 2012: Regeneration, Regeneration, Regeneration

Hosting the Olympics comes in the midst of a difficult period for the UK. In the last few years we’ve seen journalists, politicians and bankers come under intense scrutiny for compromising public trust. Economists predict that the country is on the verge of dipping back into recession for a third time. Austerity measures and riots have kept the papers busy, fees of £9000 per annum will all but price the less wealthy out of university, and, just when you think things couldn’t get any worse, Cher Lloyd’s indescribably appalling ‘Swagger Jagger’ reached #1 on the UK Singles Chart last summer.

It’s a portrait of doom and gloom which even the impending Olympics couldn’t alleviate – in some cases, it just fuelled the fire. The sense in hosting the 30th Olympiad during an economic downturn was questioned vigorously before the Games, and will probably be questioned vigorously after the Games, regardless of their legacy. Detractors heaped scorn upon the Games logo, their mascots and the spiralling cost of the project months in advance, saving their vitriol in the weeks beforehand for the G4S security recruitment debacle, the ticketing process and Olympic Family/corporate privileges such as separate road lanes and plum seats at events. Even following Danny Boyle’s widely acclaimed Opening Ceremony there were digs to be had, as empty seats, a venue food/water shortage and Team GB’s gold medal drought after four days caused public outrage – and let’s not forget the diplomatic crisis incited by a North/South Korean flag mix-up in the women’s football competition just days before the Games officially began.

Specsavers’ response to the North/South Korea flag mix-up.

With such pervasive home-grown press negativity beforehand, the only way to respond was by rebuffing the critics with a well-organised, inclusive Games, a healthy medal total for the home nation, and enough public support to prove that taxpayers wanted the £9.3 billion monster they’d funded. Fortunately, all three boxes seem to have been ticked.

It’s no generalisation or misleading media propaganda that Britain is in the throes of Olympic fever. An estimated 88% of the British population has watched these Olympics at some point, with 27 million watching the Opening Ceremony, while prior to that 10.2 million took to the streets to see the Torch Relay. Twitter has seen almost three times as many ‘#TeamGB’ hashtags in tweets as ‘#TeamUSA’; considering the disparity in population size between the two, and the fact that American viewing figures for this Olympics have surpassed those of any other Games (Atlanta ’96 and Los Angeles ’84 included), this is no little achievement. Their effect has been such that support for Scottish devolution among the public has actually dropped by three percent since July 27th, for which The Independent suggests the ubiquity of Union Flags has been a catalyst. The adage is that the Brits love an underdog; you have to wonder whether the overwhelming public support for London 2012 is at least partly a response to the relentless criticism it received beforehand.

Yet the last week’s national veneration for Team GB is surely a reaction to the negative climate of the past few years. That the country is desperate for an opportunity to party was evident during the Diamond Jubilee weekend, with around 10,000 street parties taking place and 1.5 million people descending on the streets of London to watch the celebrations. The Olympics have built on this air of celebratory patriotism, and offered escapism not only through entertainment, but by making the 541 athletes of Team GB the most important figures in the public sphere for a fortnight. Where Britain’s authority figures have failed us through expenses, phone-hacking and banking scandals, its athletes have succeeded through hard work and determination. That our sportspeople uphold the romantic tenet of ‘hard work = success’, when those with power have consistently shown an appetite for greed and corruption instead, is uplifting to the public.

It’s not just the athletes, either. 70,000 people are volunteering unpaid at the Games; it’s deeply encouraging that these thousands (along with the 170,000 who applied unsuccessfully) were prepared to work for no benefit other than sharing an experience and ensuring the events ran as smoothly as possible. The Games Makers, whose contribution has surely been the most conducive resource for London 2012’s continued success, have not merely carried out their menial tasks; they’ve done them with the best of attitudes, giving the Games a heart and soul. For them to become the defining symbol of this fortnight would befit their altruism and be an inspirational legacy.

What happens when the party’s over, though? While it won’t be over as soon as the Closing Ceremony is, with the Paralympics still to come (half a million tickets for which have been sold since the start of the Games), it will be interesting to see whether the regeneration of east London will be reflected in a rejuvenated public. Whatever the ideological issues with jingoism – primarily, the fostering of a ill-reasoned mindset exemplified by this tweet by Piers Morgan – it gives people a common topic to bond over, creating a sense of community. A sense of community improves public spirit. Could an improved public spirit, then, boost the economy?

It does seem farfetched, but with the Games having had four billion viewers worldwide, there’s certainly potential for a spike in tourism. A palpable national pride is far more likely to endear the world to holidays in the UK than a sullen, apathetic population. As more strangers talk to each other on the Tube about the Olympics, the usual wall of suspicion between the people becomes weaker. In a nation whose paranoia is evident from its surveillance agenda (the UK has 1% of the world’s population, but 20% of its CCTV cameras), it could even be the first step to a shaking off the nation’s ‘emotionally repressed’ stereotype – hardly a bad result.

The London 2012 motto is ‘Inspire a generation’. With what we’ve seen over the past week, hopefully it will be inspiring all generations – not only to get down the gym, but to look to the future with optimism. The success of Team GB’s athletes has proven that background is no hindrance to glory, with many of the most familiar medallists coming from state schools – Bradley Wiggins, Jessica Ennis and Mo Farah to name a few – and can hopefully boost the morale of those the recession has hit hardest. Sport may be escapism, but its consequences can certainly be real – and hopefully the Olympics will mark the point at which Britain regenerates, is reenergized, and resolves the underlying issues that have made the last few years so tumultuous.

Olympic Opening Ceremony Liveblog

Click Here

(Apologies about lack of embedding – WordPress and CoverItLive do not a happy union make.)

‘The Finals: Countdown’ Strikes Back – The Series 66 Version

Back by popular demand, this is pretty much the only blog on the internet to provide in-depth analysis of the Countdown series finalists – because I really am that sad! Featuring a finals broadcast schedule [objective], contestant analysis and a round-up of series bests [both subjective].

.     My first and previous one of these, for series 65, provided a few more Google hits than expected whilst also stirring up a bit of controversy. You see, I rashly decided to air my slightly exaggerated views on the #2 seed and eventual winner Graeme Cole, suggesting he had potential to be a serial killer. What I didn’t intend was for Graeme (and, later, his mum) to actually read this. Although he took it like a pro, finding it funny, several of Graeme’s fan club didn’t – understandable, as Graeme’s one of the loveliest people you could hope to meet, hence the added disclaimer on the article. About ten apologies later, all accepted, I still feel terrible about this. (SORRY AGAIN, GRAEME. AND GRAEME’S MUM.) …However, I don’t apologise for my opinions on runner-up Carl Williams, who is apparently even more of a douche in person than previously thought possible. (NO SORRY FOR CARL. OR CARL’S MUM.)
So, onto the present series. To be honest, Series 66 has been a bit of a disappointment. Fewer octochamps, fewer dislikeable characters inviting a rant-fest, fewer potential serial killers who are actually awesome. Plus there’s been the change in host to adapt to; Nick Hewer started very woodenly but has improved, despite still making acerbic comments which sit badly with the show’s nature. Still, there have been some great octochamps, even if none have bantered their way into a huge Jen-bias for the title. This means I have to assess their actual game performances. Boo…

Broadcast Schedule [winners in bold]

QF1; Thursday 21st June: #1 (Jonathan Rawlinson) v #8 (Rob Gibney) [101 – 77]
QF2; Friday 22nd June: #2 (Jack Worsley) v #7 (Mark Murphy) [75 – 52]
QF3; Monday 25th June: #3 (Peter Lee) v #6 (Victoria James) [80 – 73]
QF4; Tuesday 26th June: #4 (Suzi Purcell) v #5 (Nick Hall) [80 – 86]

SF1; Wednesday 27th June: Winner of QF1 (Jonathan Rawlinson) v winner of QF4 (Nick Hall)  [108 – 54]
SF2; Thursday 28th June: Winner of QF2 (Jack Worsley) v winner of QF3 (Peter Lee) [91 – 88]

Grand Final
 Friday 29th June: Winner of SF1 (Jonathan Rawlinson) v winner of SF2 (Jack Worsley) [70 – 80]

Contestant Analysis

 1.    Jonathan Rawlinson (8 wins, 850 points)
Opinion: He’s sung in Notre Dame! He plays piano to grade 8! He’s almost at the same level on the violin! He’s off to Cambridge to do Maths in the autumn! He looks like he could be in One Direction! And, somewhat sickeningly, he’s rather good at this Countdown lark too. But before you start rooting for his opponents, “the Kid” [© Nick Hewer] is really quite sweet, with a disarmingly big grin. Yet this just masks ruthless efficiency at the game, casually declaring words like ‘TARTUFO’, ‘SENECIO’ and ‘ACUPOINTS’ like he’s been injecting pages of the dictionary into his arm. However, towards the end of his run he was less impressive [Less impressive = under 100 points in 2 games! Quelle horreur!] – and, with his quarter final filmed immediately after his eighth win, tiredness could affect his performance. When on form, though, he’s outstanding – he was one round away from a perfect game in not one, but two performances [his first and third shows]. Plus he’s only the sixth contestant in the show’s history to have solved all eight conundrums in his heat games… As my mum said, “Is there anything he can’t do?”.

Highest score: 120 (3rd show, against Stewart Calver)

Biggest win: 119 – 24 [95 points] (4th show, against Max Eyre)

Nines spotted: UNDERGOES (3rd show), ACUPOINTS (4th show), ANODISERS (5th show)

2.    Jack Worsley (8 wins, 818 points)
Opinion: The last heat game champion of series 65, and of Jeff Stelling’s tenure as host. But fast forward to January and his next seven shows. Much of Nick Hewer’s pre-game chitchat centred on Jack’s university dilemma; should he study Criminology or Accounting? As soon as he took to the numbers rounds of his games, however, it became apparent that he could probably teach most accountants a trick or two with numbers, getting full marks an incredible 23 times out of a possible 24. His letters weren’t shabby either, getting several good nines, shorter but still impressive spots like ‘NEUROMA’, ‘SLEAZING’ and ‘MONETARY’, and inuring Hewer to the joys of amusing declarations along the way (‘FANNIES’ and ‘TRANNIES’). Only short of a century on one occasion, in his eighth game, he’s certainly in with a shout of winning that dictionaries/laptop/OED online life subscription prize package. (Just what every teenage boy wants, eh?)

Highest score: 110 (3rd show, against Catherine Green)

Biggest win: 110 – 44 [66 points] (3rd show, against Catherine Green)

Nines spotted: INDURATES (3rd show), TERMINALS (6th show)

3.    Peter Lee (8 wins, 801 points)
Opinion: There’s nothing like a suave Irish accent to add a little va-va-voom to the dreary consonant/vowel picks (apart from Rachel Riley, if you’re that way inclined). Flying over the Irish Sea to return to the show ten years after his first appearance (a loss to eventual Series 47 semi-finalist Kevin Thurlow), he proved his patience had paid off as he stormed to an average of 100 points per game, despite arguably a harder draw than Jonathan and Jack. Cracking words like ‘BRESAOLA’ and ‘OTHERWISE’, one of his four nines – more than any other finalist – made up for occasionally missing a very doable numbers round or two. Should he have rectified that, he could definitely overturn higher seeds – especially if they underperform. Failing that, he should at least charm a good section of the show’s older female viewers.

Highest score: 120 (5th show, v Kieran Bray)

Biggest win: 105 – 15 [90 points] (8th show, v James Belshaw)

Nines spotted: OTHERWISE (5th show), CREMATING (5th show), MORGANITE (6th show), INVENTORS (6th show)

4.    Suzi Purcell (8 wins, 686 points)
Opinion: It’s always refreshing to see a female octochamp, and Suzi was the first since Jayne Wisniewski some eight months ago (herself the first female octochamp for two and a half years). Down-to-earth and likeable, she proved that you can get great words and scores without fitting the traditional finalist demographic of young, nerdy male. A few lapses in concentration prevented her from breaking the 700 barrier – her fantastic spot of ‘VINEYARD’ was only marred only by her failure to pluralise it for that elusive 9, while other good spots were misspelt (‘pewits’ instead of ‘PEEWITS’) or misdeclared (‘RACIER’ for a 7 instead of a 6). I’m not sure her flashes of brilliance will be frequent enough to derail those with octo-totals of 800 and above, but it’s not inconceivable.

Highest score: 106 (2nd show, v Jamie Lock)

Biggest win: 98 – 36 [62 points] (6th show, v Paul Magson)

Nines spotted: None, but she made up for it with several stunning eights – ‘VINEYARD’ (4th show), ‘MANPOWER’ (4th show) and ‘MEGASTAR’ (6th show).

5.    Nick Hall (6 wins, 588 points)
Opinion: Dispatching his first competitor sadly deprived us of the most interestingly attired contestant since, well, ever – Kerry-Anne Alcock won her first game dressed as a cavewoman, but lost her second game against Nick by a point. Yabba dabba boo. Still, he’s the highest-placed non-octochamp of the series, lifted up to the #5 spot courtesy of spots like ‘FORAMINA’, ‘INDOLENT’, ‘TARPON’ and ‘INPUTTED’. Could be capable of a quarter-final upset, but overturning the top three seems unlikely.

Highest score: 96 (6th game, v Luke Spencer)

Biggest win: 87 – 40 [47 points] (4th show, v Fiona Owen)

Nines spotted: None, though ‘FORAMINA’ for eight was a spot arguably better than some nines!

6.    Victoria James (6 wins, 567 points)
Opinion: Robbed! Robbed of at least one more win and a higher placing by the incredibly dubious decision to disallow ‘SEDATIONS’. Apparently ‘SEDATION’ is a mass noun – and the rules state you can’t pluralise mass nouns. Really, though? Can doctors not administer ‘SEDATIONS’ to their patients? It’s a debate that’s been raging long and hard between… err, a few Countdown viewers. ‘SECLUSION’ was allowed though, along with good declarations like ‘MUSTANG’, ‘RAREBITS’ and ‘EQUATOR’ to spur her onto six wins. It’s just a shame that a dodgy dictionary call prevented her from potentially being another female octochamp. She’s probably used to missing out on glory, though – she does work for Arsenal FC…

Highest score: 97 (3rd game, v Aliraza Alimohamed)

Biggest win: 94 – 59 [35 points] (6th game, v Ed Barker)

Best spot/nines spotted: SECLUSION (1st game), SEDATIONS (7th game – dubious, but I’m putting it in anyway)

7.    Mark Murphy (5 wins, 454 points)
Opinion: You may not recognise the name, but you probably read about one of his declarations. Every so often, the letters selections offer nothing more – or, at least, nothing more obvious – than a naughty word (with this surely being the best example). And so, in his first game, Mark found himself in the situation where ‘WANKER’ was the longest word he could see. Blogs and websites that should know better breathlessly documented this, and the Facebook generation loved it. Take that, Mary Whitehouse! I didn’t actually see his games due to uni commitments, but I read about ‘WANKER’. It’s certainly more obvious a spot than ‘REAWAKEN’, the maximum from that round, and far funnier too. [This story featured in The Mirror, The Huffington Post, The Guardian and The Telegraph.]

Highest score: 98 (1st show, v Nick Evans)

Biggest win: 98 – 34 [64 points] (1st show, v Nick Evans)

Nines spotted: None. ‘CRAYONED’ and ‘QINTAR’ in his fifth show were his most inspired spots.

8.    Rob Gibney (4 wins, 486 points)
Opinion: Exploding onto the scene with a century against the returning victor John Bird, despite declaring an invalid word in his first round, he looked promising as he consistently declared sevens and solved a conundrum in 1.75 seconds (EXPLETIVE – that’s the solution, not me swearing out of rage or amazement at how good this was while not being courageous enough to express actual swear words). He managed another century in his fourth game, but was derailed by a point in his fifth game against Nathan Steggles. Better than his position suggests, but a win in his quarter final would be an almighty upset.

Highest score: 105 (1st game, v John Bird)

Biggest win: 52 point advantage (4th game, v Spencer Taylor)

Nines spotted: None. ‘ASSUAGED’ for 8 in his second game was, in my opinion, his best spot.

Bests and Predictions

Highest score of the series: 120, shared by Peter Lee [episode 5433] and Jonathan Rawlinson [episode 5505]

Biggest win of the series
: Jonathan Rawlinson 119 – 24 Max Eyre (95 points) [episode 5506]

Best contestant spot of the series
: ‘BRESAOLA’ by Peter Lee in his 4th match. An outstanding 8 from a horrible letters selection, and tricky to spell correctly. Trust me, it took a few attempts!

Best Dictionary Corner spot of the series
: While none were as jaw-droppingly brilliant as CUNJEVOIS (in series 65, ep 5344) or QUODLIBET (in a 2010 special), honours from this series are shared between GENDARMES (episode 5446), AIRSTREAM (5401), SEPTENNIA (5467) and CERASTIUM (5494).

Best bit of contestant banter
: “What do you want?” asked Rachel Riley, numbers lady and nerds’ pin-up, anticipating that contestant Niall Seymour would ask for one of the numbers round combinations of 1, 2, 3 or 4 large or 6 small. “A whisky on the rocks, please,” he replied instead. This unexpected bit of hilarity was rightly rewarded with a mention on [Incidentally, this featured in the same match as the ‘best contestant spot of the series’, episode 5432.]

Best Dictionary Corner guest:
Doctor Phil Hammond – always unrivalled for the Steadman household. Expect to see him back in DC to propel next week’s finals games on with crudeness and hilarity.

Prediction for the winner?:
Despite the former flagging towards the end of his run, I’d still plump for an all-male gap year student final of Jonathan Rawlinson (#1) v Jack Worsley (#2). Picking one of the two as a winner, though, is intensely difficult; Jonathan has the edge on letters, but Jack proved more lethal on the numbers in his heats. On conundrums Jonathan stands undefeated, but Jack managed a 0.25-second solve during his second show (Jonathan’s fastest was 0.75 secs) – and it’s all about speed. Time to sit on the fence, then…

Bands of the Week, Round-Up #2

.     The beginning of a new month now signals one thing and one thing only in MLIR Land, and that’s the compilation of a Bands of the Week round-up. Whilst this mostly requires copy ‘n’ pasting, it also takes supreme effort to hunt down pictures and finding the URLs of every website they’ve ever set up across the web –  With no further ado, here are the latest four bands I found myself listening to, getting excited about, and promoting as a Band of the Week during May (and, technically, June)…

Band of the Week, #5: These Kings.

Birmingham-based band These Kings emailed me out of the blue, asking if I’d listen to their single, ‘Home’, and its B-side ‘There’s A Light In That Pile Of Snow‘. Although originally worried about how I’d respond to them if it wasn’t great, my pessimism was misplaced. In its four-and-a-half minutes, the A-side builds from a skeletal drumstick solo to a soaring soundscape reminiscent of Bon Iver’s ‘Perth‘, before adding vocals and a show-stealing bassline. Really rather good – and with them supporting big local bands, recording in the studio right now and having a debut song this promising, the rest of the blogosphere will soon be singing their praises too.

Twitter, YouTubeBand Camp, SoundCloud

Band of the Week, #6: The Yellow Melodies.

A Spanish band of 16 years who really deserve more success than they’ve had thus far. Their trippy cover of The Auteurs’ ‘Showgirl‘ from 2000’s High put them on my radar 18 months ago, as it jazzes up the original with violins, lo-fi production and a gorgeously spidery guitar part on 1:48 – all to devastating effect. Their newest EP, ‘How Television Personalities Learned To Love‘, was released last month and has more of a synth influence (on ‘Look Back In Anger’, my favourite from it, and ’14th Floor’) than their usual material; as with all their catalogue, it’s utterly endearing.

Website (parts of it look like they’re solely in Spanish, but scroll down for an English translation), Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, BandCamp, Spotify, Wikipedia

Band of the Week, #7: PINS.

Enigmatic, dramatic, shadowy… but enough about the monochrome ‘Eleventh Hour’ video. PINS are a quartet of Mancunian females whose eerie, fuzz-soaked debut single got music bloggers salivating back in April. Second song ‘Shoot You‘ is more upbeat, but retains everything that makes ‘Eleventh Hour’ so marvellous. Given the strength of both singles, their debut album should be eagerly awaited by any self-respecting fan of new music.

Website, Twitter, YouTube, SoundCloud

Band of the Week, #8: Shinies.

Imagine Yuck mixed with a between-his-first-two-albums Wavves, and you’ve basically summed up the sound of Shinies, another lo-fi Mancunian band who are yet to release a full album. Beneath an enormous dollop of fuzz, though, are some chaotically gorgeous tunes – as you’d expect from music that’s the love-child of noise-pop and shoegaze. My favourite of their three songs thus far is ‘Spent Youth‘, but ‘Shola‘ and ‘Pillow Talk‘ are also pretty good.

Twitter, Facebook, BandCamp, SoundCloud