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Sicily 2016 – Day 1 – Gatwick to Catania to Taormina

So we are off on our adventures again. This time it’s to Sicily, that island being constantly kicked by the boot that is Italy. We’ve never been before and are making a visit solely based on how attactive it looks on the Inspector Montalbano TV series!

Sicily is a three hour flight from the UK and to reach the east side of the island you fly into Catania. As an introduction to the Island the drive out of the airport is not a great one. I would imagine that those leaving Heathrow have similar feelings. This was followed by an hours drive north to Taormina (after the obligatory wrong turn despite the sat nav). Our hotel for the next five days is a converted monastery and is a beautiful place. The picture above is taken from our bedroom window overlooking the private gardens and the sea.

After freshening up we walked into the town and quickly found a cafe serving Lemon Soda, a real favourite of mine when we visit Italy. The rest of the evening was spent getting the lie of the land ready for a full assault tomorrow! 

VirginPure - a Solution to a Problem that Doesn't Exist

Virgin Pure – a Solution to a Problem that Doesn’t Exist

TL;DR Tap water is great, buy a reusable bottle and drink with pride.

In the Oracle shopping centre in Reading over the last few weeks there has been a pop-up stand for Virgin Pure which, to quote their website is “the smart appliance that dispenses unlimited pure water, hot or chilled, at the touch of a button. Instant triple-filtered water for a healthier lifestyle.”

I took exception to this and took to Twitter to say so:

My objection is that here in the UK we have some of the cleanest tap water in the world. We can drink from the tap safe in the knowledge that there is going to be water available and it will be safe to drink. Contrast that with other places in the world. The United Nations in 2012 estimated that “783 million people, or 11 per cent of the global population, remain without access to an improved source of drinking water.”

Virgin Pure is a solution to a First World problem.

This isn’t an attack on Virgin Pure, they just happened to be in my way with their pushy salespeople trying to tell me how pure their water was like I should be disgusted by my tap water. No this is me calling out the bullshit in this and all bottled water sellers praying on people’s insecurities.

Save yourself from this marketing hype, buy yourself a reusable water bottle and drink the tap water that you pay for anyway. Oh and donate to ensure everyone no matter where they are also has this choice:

https://www.wateraid.org/uk/donate

Inside of Reading Gaol

Ballad of Reading Gaol

When I told people that I was going to take a tour around the Reading Prison the general question was “why?” My response is that other than Porridge and on news reports I haven’t been into a prison – not having the pleasure of being at Her Majesty’s pleasure and all that! It’s just not something that you get the opportunity to do normally.

When the Reading Prison closed in 2013 there was a lot of debate about what should be done with it, a conclusion to which has yet to be reached. The buildings are grade II listed and part of Reading Abbey lies underneath it, including (maybe), the grave of King Henry I, inevitably under the car park, so it can’t be ripped down and replaced with flats fortunately. So while the debate rages on the prison has been opened up for a couple of months for an art exhibition and for guided tours.

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I think the first thing to state about the place and this might be stating the obvious but it is pretty grim. This is partly due to the buildings dating back to the Victorian era and the warren type nature of the place. When it first opened every prisoner had their own cell. This is not as great as it sounds as prisoners weren’t allowed to communicate with anyone else, at all, ever. Breaking this rule got Reading Prison’s most famous occupant, Oscar Wilde, two weeks in an isolation cell as punishment. This was a cell in the basement of the prison that had no light whatsoever. They were fed bread and water twice a day and that was it. I spent a few seconds in the closed room and that was enough for me, it can’t have done much for the mental state of those who spent longer.

The main body of the prison looks just like it does on Porridge long corridors with cell doors off each side and netting strung between the two sides of each corridor. The cells themselves were, of course, tiny. The picture is taken from inside Wilde’s cell. Clearly the fixtures and fittings have been updated since his time.

Inside Oscar Wilde's Cell at Reading Gaol

It was an interesting experience to see a prison up close and some more than others will have deserved to have spent time in Reading but it cannot have been a comfortable experience during the days of no communications. Now we wait to see how the building is repurposed but still retains its character – that is going to be an interesting challenge.

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Right Policies, Wrong Person

To date I have kept well out of the debate on the next Labour leader but now that I have received my £25 vote I am pitching in.

I will be voting for Owen Smith. Not that I think that he is the best person for the party but because he is, in my opinion, marginally the better of the two put in front of me.

I like Corbyn’s policies but I just don’t think he is the right person to deliver them and to be leading the party to win an election, which is what it is all about after all.

This video sums him up for me. Like it or not today’s politics requires you to be media savvy. Corbyn is not. He was luke warm during the Brexit campaign and now there are legitimate questions to be answered about his conduct he wants to not answer them.

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Despite my vote for Smith I strongly suspect that Corbyn will win but, again in my opinion, he cannot deliver a general election victory for the party and that is what really matters. He cannot appeal to the sorts of people he needs to – the general voting public and not just his fervent supporters who will get him back in.

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7 Days 7 Singles from the ’80s

So I have been nominated by Dirk Manuel on Facebook for the “7 Days 7 Singles from the ’80s” challenge (you can read his selections here). I wouldn’t normally bother but this has been great fun to both read other’s entries and to sift through my single collection again to select my final 7.

I decided I would only choose where I still owned the original 7″ which, regrettably, meant that there’s no Love and Money but has allowed me to spend a fun evening listening to many other, forgotten, records. Some I listened to and thought “why did I buy that?”, others I didn’t even have to listen to think that!

And so to the first selection…

Day 1 (1981): In the Air Tonight – Phil Collins

I was 16, still at school at this point, and had a major Genesis obsession. I remember very clearly sitting on the floor in the lounge at my parents house listening to this with my headphones on.
Music was an area of friction between myself and my parents who always felt I played it too loud. They also objected to my singing along with the headphones on while they were trying to watch the TV!

This was so nearly a number one in the UK for Collins but was kept off the top by the death of John Lennon. But it did introduce the gated drum sound to a much wider audience.

Day 2 (1982): Market Square Heroes – Marillion

I was now 17 and going to college to retake all the O Levels and CSEs I had failed at school. I found the change of environment refreshing and gave me a new lease of life.
As an early Genesis fan I supposed a progression to Marillion was inevitable. They were one of the first bands that I went to see and I still clearly remember Fish jumping through a paper background at the start of the gig. Ever the showman. I still like Marillion and am eagerly awaiting 23rd September for the next release.

When I listened again to the single this week I was surprised as just how raw sounding and under produced it is. Such a refreshing change to the over produced sounds that it was competing against.

Day 3 (1983): What is Love? – Howard Jones

18 and on the cusp of leaving home to go to university (or, to be more accurate, Polytechnic in my case).

I’ve included this selection for a number of reasons:
1. it typifies the 80s sound
2. it’s a great tune
3. we’re all trying so hard to look cool with our selections I thought I would buck the trend!

Day 4 (1983): Relax – Frankie goes to Hollywood

Thanks to DJ Mike Reid this became a big hit and set Frankie on a path to success. There was a big fuss at the time but it seems tame now. Actually it was overblown at the time too.

This was another great piece of production by Trevor Horn (who I have written about before). He is pretty versatile as his work from the 80’s shows spanning everything from Dollar to Yes to Buggles to FGTH.

One slightly odd thing is that my copy of the 7′ has the b side label on both sides – wonder if this make is more valuable?

Day 5 (1984): Do they know it’s Christmas? – Band Aid

This, I’ll admit, is not the world’s greatest song but it is here for a number of reasons.

Firstly, it features so many of the biggest names in 80’s music and if you watch the video you will see just how you they look!

Secondly, because it highlighted the plight of those living in the drought of Ethiopia and raised substantial amounts of money through the single and Live Aid…

Thirdly, because I was there. I was 19 and now at University. Emma, my girlfriend at the time, and me were driving home and drove past the Guildhall. I have no idea where we would have been to take us back past there but we did. As we came round the square we noticed people queuing up so we stopped and went over to ask what they were queuing for. “Live Aid” was the response. So we joined the queue and “slept” outside the Guildhall overnight until the box office opened at 10am the next morning.

I remember the 13th July 1985 very clearly mainly because it so hot that there were people at the side of the stadium spraying water into the crowd to cool us down! We saw an amazing lineup of bands and for that reason alone is why Do they know it’s Christmas gets included on this list.

Live Aid

Day 6 (1985): Slave to the Rhythm – Grace Jones

So I rediscovered Grace Jones’ Island Life album again earlier this year and thought how it really hasn’t aged and could chart now. Can’t say that about much else from the 80’s. Of course it’s that big Trevor Horn sound (again). He really does know how to do it right.

The album cover to Island Life has Grace Jones standing wearing not very much, oiled up, arse in the air. I still remember to this day my dad commenting “she’s got a great body”. Which, of course, she has but that’s not something I needed confirming by my father!

At 20 I was still of the belief that to work out how often your parents had had sex you just needed to count your number of siblings and add one. So to hear anything vaguely sexual from my dad was quite shocking.

Day 7 (1986): Don’t Dream it’s Over – Crowded House

And so we reach the end of this music journey with the beginning of my Neil Finn obsession.

At about this time I would have been 21 and on my industrial placement at IBM. This meant more disposable income which went increasingly on CDs and a much better sound system. I still have the same speakers although the rest has gone.

I can’t remember what got me into Crowded House but it was also certainly this track which I still love to this day. For the jangling guitar at the beginning to the lyrics it is just sublime. After this I couldn’t get enough of the Finn’s output. In fact from 1991 to 2001 when, with a single exception, I saw no-one in concert unless they had been in Split Enz at some point! I’m also a member of the fan club but this is decidedly a very grown up affair.

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A Wild Weekend in Manchester

It can’t be a coincidence that on both the occasions I have visited Manchester a fight has broken out. I suppose some might see me as the catalyst but in both cases I was an innocent bystander.

We had chosen a weekend in Manchester solely because it is equidistant between the homes of ourselves in Reading and our friends in Newcastle. It isn’t somewhere that instantly springs to mind for a weekend break but is just a three and a half hour train ride away.

Our first day there was spent in the town itself looking round the odd mix of architecture on offer. We visited the John Ryland’s library a fantastic building which looked very much like the interior of Hogwarts. Also passing the central library, the imposing town hall and the surprisingly small cathedral.

Interspersed between these fine old buildings were the usual mix of glass fronted shopping centres, run down high streets and huge numbers of coffee shops.

We had the second day of our visit all mapped out. We were to get a tram out of Media City at Salford and visit the BBC where we had booked a studio tour. Much of Manchester seems to be being dug up at the moment while upgrades are made to the lines. When we checked the tram times to Media City we were disappointed to discover that the line out that way was shutting until August starting… today! So we got a cab.

It was while sat in said cab that we looked across while waiting at a set of traffic lights to see two blokes throwing punches and wrestling each other to the ground while partners tried to pull them apart. This was road rage taken to the extreme. I have to admit that I was pretty flabbergasted at the scene but not as much as when our friend undid his seat beat, got out of the car and ran across to help break it up!

Media City is vast, sparse and modern and home to the BBC in the North. We had booked on one of the regular tours laid on by the BBC and I am really glad we did. I had been a little concerned about just what we might be able to see and whether we would be able to take any pictures. I needn’t have worried as two incredibly knowledgeable and friendly guides took our small group through a fascinating tour right into the heart of the action.

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First it was into a radio studio used primarily for BBC Radio 6 Music. Rather than being held back we were encouraged to sit at the desk and take as many pictures as we wanted. Next, it was into a radio drama studio where we were shown how it was setup to allow them to record any number of different scenarios including a set of steps with four different types of tread on them to get different sounds.

Finally, we were taken to the studio where Blue Peter is recorded. Another myth shattered – it was tiny! The presenters apparently have to take smaller steps to ensure that they don’t cross the floor too quickly!

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All the way round the guides imparted a number of great stories that were entertaining and informative. Telling us, for example, that people write in to the Archers to say things like “the migratory birds you played was wrong as they would already have left the UK by now” and that Blue Peter has between 8 and 10 people whose sole job it is to reply to all the letters they receive. They also made me look at wildlife shows in a new light and said that they practice the announcement of the death of the queen twice a year. So she not only gets two birthdays a year but also two deaths!

And that was our two days in Manchester. Would I recommend it? Well the BBC studio tour is definitely worth it and there are some interesting places to visit and but it’ snot somewhere we’ll be coming back to regularly I suspect.

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So Long and Thanks for all the Fish(ing Quotas)

So I awoke early on Friday morning and was disappointed to discover that leave had narrowly won and it seems we are out of the EU. I wasn’t the only one to be disappointed as the pound and the stock markets dropped significantly on the news. I’m glad that I’m not picking up my pension anytime soon…

Since the vote Britain seems to have become a very different place. I don’t just mean in the way that the pound has plummeted, the stock markets are in free fall, the major opposition party looks about to self destruct and that it could precipitate the break-up of the union. No, I am talking about the people on the ground. The ordinary, normal people who have become very different animals in the last few days (myself included I should add). People who would politely post family pictures on Facebook and others who would comment how marvelous they looked are now locked in increasingly heated debates about the rights and wrongs of Brexit (again, myself included).

What is even worse is that the vote seems to have made some people think that it is now absolutely acceptable to be openly racist. When did ticking a box on a bit of paper suddenly allow all humanity to be thrown out of the window? Except, perhaps, that immigration was for many the underlying reason that they voted to leave in the first place. They could be in for a very nasty surprise as we negotiate our EU exit and find that in order to trade with other member states that we have to accept freedom of movement and pay AND don’t get any say in the laws. This is summed up nicely in this graphic stolen from the Independent:

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So, in summary, there are some pretty horrible people about and I feel thoroughly depressed about the future of the country.

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In, Out, Shake it all about

So tomorrow is the time for us all to vote on the future of the Conservative party. June 23rd is your opportunity to decide their fate once and for all as that is really what has triggered this vote – factions in the tories that have spent years arguing over Europe.

In truth the conversation about whether we should be in or out of Europe seems to come down to one single issue – immigration. To be clear here we are talking about recent immigrants from the continent not the inbound immigration that has been taking place over hundreds of years. Chances are you’re not British if you think you are, see the video below. I know I certainly have Germanic ancestry.

The thing about immigration is that people try and wrap it up as concern for the fragile resources of the UK. The fact of the matter is that immigrants from the EU make up a tiny proportion of the population and are more likely to be in work paying taxes than an indigenous person. If you would like to run through the numbers take a look at this post.

One argument made is that immigrants are taking jobs from British workers. With unemployment at an 11 year low I think that this can be safely discarded as a reasonable line to take. In fact many of the over stretched services, such as education and health, are only running at present because of workers from outside the UK. Without them who would teach our children? Who would nurse us when we are sick? Who would pick fruit and vegetables from the fields? And who would do all the jobs that UK workers don’t want to do?

It is obviously clear that I will be voting to REMAIN but whichever side of the argument you fall on if you do nothing else make sure you VOTE.

And remember, once the decision is made, there is no going back…

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A Summer of Vinyl

Anyone that has been paying attention will have noticed that I am back into vinyl in a big way – mainly because I like having a physical product and also the print on a record sleeve is large enough for me to be able to read without glasses!

However, I am trying to be a little more discerning about what I buy now rather than simply plundering the local charity shops for dog eared copies of what I already have (although I do that too!). And with vinyls resurgence there is now so much new music being released on that format that it is increasingly possible to add new items regularly.

To illustrate that very point I have all of the following on pre-order, all of which are on “heavy-weight” vinyl and quite a few are also signed too:

Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool – 17th June 2016
Peter Gabriel – So, Up, Us – 15th July 2016 – half speed, limited edition, remasters
Dodgy – What Are We Fighting For – 2nd September 2016 – Signed Deluxe
The Divine Comedy – Foreverland – 2nd September 2016 – Signed
Marillion – Fuck Everyone and Run – 23rd September 2016 – Signed

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There does seem to be a gap in August though but the La’s reissue would fill that nicely!

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Reading Mammoth Record Fair

So I have been getting back into vinyl in a big way. No, not like that, but vinyl records of the round black variety.

I am trying to limit the amount I spend on records by only purchasing brand new releases and particularly if they are limited releases, special vinyl or signed. This isn’t working out too well for me as everyone seems to be jumping on the vinyl bandwagon at the moment releasing limited releases on special vinyl that are signed!

There are still some releases that are no longer available or I would like to collect so I am always on the lookout for them. When I saw that Reading was holding the largest record fair in the UK I had to check it out.

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I haven’t been to a record fair for probably about 20 years or more but they haven’t changed in any way in the intervening years other than now holding a smattering of CDs too. It was pretty well attended showing that there are a lot of people still wanting a drop of the black stuff!

I think in the end I must have made three complete circuits of the stalls looking for something that took my fancy but came away with empty handed. The issue was that for the most part nothing was in any order so if you were looking for something specific, which I was, you would have had to be pretty lucky to stumble upon what you were looking for. I did come close to a signed copy of the latest Steve Hackett but couldn’t bring myself to part with the required £35.

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So the visit to the record fair was an interesting trip down memory lane taking me back to my youth but I don’t think I will bother going again as I stand a much better chance of sourcing what I want to eBay.