Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Smoking is cool, and pipe smoking is even cooler

The picture below is of me on my honeymoon terrace in Venice, enjoying an early morning infumation.
Yes, friends, I am a pipe smoker.

By what path do things that were once ubiquitous become eccentric?
The odd, fogeyish reputation that pipe-smoking endures is an odd one, because in popular culture, right up until the 60s, the more rigorous and rugged the hero, the more likely it was that he would he would be a pipe smoker.
It can't be anything to do with the disfavour that all tobacco has fallen into for obscure health-related reasons, because cigarettes, however frowned-upon they may be, are not naff in the same way, neither can it be because of commercial pressure from cigarettes themselves, for the two co-existed for decade upon decade, and many people smoked both. (Sherlock Holmes, for one.)

I started pipe smoking seriously about five years ago. It's partly because I am susceptible to a weird kind of peer pressure. I couldn't care less what my actual peers wear/drink/watch/think this week, but if I'm reading an old novel or watching a thirties movie I'm irresistibly drawn to whatever the characters are having.
We went to see an Agatha Christie at our lovely local theatre the other week, and the characters kept ordering a gin fizz, and talking about ordering a gin fizz, and when one of them said he was going to have a whisky, another one said something like: "What? In this heat, old boy? No, what you want is a gin fizz." And a gin fizz has been my tipple of choice ever since. (Great play, by the way. Suzy Amy was in it, for one thing.)

And I had read so many books in which the heroes smoke a pipe, and it's always described with such sensual pleasure that I felt compelled to join in. (It's like when people really enjoy a drink in a film, and watching it makes you thirsty.)
I think, if there was any one thing that made me become a pipe-smoker above all else, it was this deceptively ordinary paragraph from William Addison's book The English Country Parson:

"The following morning I sat for an hour or so at the window of the fine old sixteenth-century inn where I was staying, smoking a meditative pipe and looking out across a paddock to the church again."

As soon as I read it, I knew that what I wanted to do more than anything else was to smoke a meditative pipe from the window of a sixteenth century inn while looking at a paddock.
Then there was a tiny little moment, easily overlooked, in a Bette Davis film from the early thirties called Ex-Lady. It's this shockingly progressive movie about a young couple who opt to sleep together unmarried, and there's a scene where Bette's getting the flat ready for her lover's visit. Obviously, they're as modern as can be, and so the flat is all white and silver and gleaming and sharp angles, and the whole atmosphere is of sex. And in preparation for this night of debauchery, as well as putting on slinky lingerie and buffing up the pillows, she lovingly gets his pipe out and puts it on the table. (I probably could have avoided that double-entendre there, but if you're partial to such things I offer it to you at no extra charge.) It's probably the only brown, cosy-looking thing in the entire apartment. And suddenly, if you notice it at all, your whole mental picture of this night they're going to be spending together changes, and instead of the tuxedoed young blade who does, in fact, come through the door, you're expecting someone like Gilbert Harding, in tweed plus-fours and a shooting hat. Such is the power of the pipe.

All these things called out to me, and the message was clear: a man is not a man without a pipe.
But 1930s peer pressure wouldn't be enough to compel me to stick at it after the initial curiosity had been sated. The truth is that Bulldog Drummond was right. There really is nothing quite so relaxing as a pipe: less frenetic than the fag, more urbane than the cigar, and irresistibly stylish, its aroma filling the room with echoes of cracked leather, linseed oil and Alistair Maclean paperbacks yellowing in the morning sun.

It took me a while to find my brand. I began experimenting with the ones I remembered from when I was a boy and you were still allowed to advertise it on the telly: Condor, Mellow Virginia, Erinmore.

Ah, them was the days.

But you'd be surprised how few brands even supermarkets now bother to stock. Some sell none. And I'm always the first person the staff have ever heard asking for any such thing.
Old-looking newsagents are always your best bet, but you should never go anywhere unprepared: some of the places I expected to find it most easily are among those where it proved most elusive.
I once made the mistake of not taking any on a holiday to a tiny village on the coast of Cornwall, just this side of Land's End, on the grounds that any neighbourhood comprised largely of grizzled-looking sailor folk, and where there was only one shop with shrimp nets piled up for sale outside, would unquestionably have a vast range of tobaccos on offer. Wrong.
They had Hello magazine but they didn't have pipe tobacco.

Then one year, as a novelty birthday present, I was given a tin of Sherlock Holmes tobacco, made in Dublin.
I loved the fact that it was in an old-style tin rather than a plastic pouch; it has a sweet, mysterious aroma befitting the name, and obviously it has that name. It instantly became my brand.
I used to get it by mail order, but on moving to Bath found that a local newsagent, the delightfully named Bog Island News, actually stocks it behind the counter, and many other tempting brands too, which I might one day sample should my complete and unwavering contentment with Sherlock Holmes ever pall.

This is me in my old London flat - oh the memories that old thermostat brings back - producing a billowing cloud of Sherlock so beautiful that it actually looks like it's part of the Hopper painting we had pinned to the kitchen door at the time.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

(insert alliterative title)

Some more Mina magic for you, following the success of 'Bang Bang' a few weeks back, which according to the stats scored more hits in the first two minutes than the sneezing panda has managed in nearly two years.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Bang Bang

I've already uploaded this sensational performance of Bang Bang by the great Italian songstress Mina at one of my other sites, but it's so fabulous I thought it belonged here too.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

More Italian sitcom magic

Following my post here on George e Mildred - aka George and Mildred dubbed most satisfyingly into Italian - here are two more seventies ITV treats given a touch of the old Rai Unos, as found on You Tube by my wife when she was supposed to be working.

First, we have Un Uomo In Casa, then Il Nido di Robin.
If you need to be told the original English titles of these programmes you've landed on the wrong island, pal.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Childhood in a bag

Scampi Fries, to be found occasionally in corner grocery shops and mini-mart garages, but naturally occurring behind the bars of pubs, hanging from the back of the door on a cardboard sheet, are one of the supreme luxuries of life.
Never having eaten scampi in my life, I can only speculate as to the extent to which they actually taste like these almost unbelievably delicious little cereal pillows, designed to recreate their complex, evolved flavour by purely chemical means.
But I find it hard to believe that anything in the natural world can be as satisfying, let alone something that has to be dragged out of the sea and killed first.
The flavour of the Scampi Fry to me, therefore, is not imitative but unique, to be judged not on the grounds of how accurately it duplicates the taste of something else but on the grounds of sheer inventiveness.
And on those grounds: how can it not delight?

I can remember where I was the first time I tried one, and - despite a cautious reticence upon which I can now only look back and smile - how instantly and completely they claimed me as a devotee.
I remember I had a copy of Scream comic with me at the time. Well, Scream comic is long gone, but the Scampi Fry marches boldly on, even as nations crumble and ideologies clash; it is, as Sherlock Holmes once described Watson, with an admiration equally applicable in this context, one fixed point in a changing world.

But the best thing about Scampi Fries is that they are not generally available, not guaranteed to be found in every corner shop, like those dreary usurping Walker's crisps (that through sheer market saturation and aggressive advertising pushed the infinitely subtler flavours of Golden Wonder, Smiths and, my favourite of all, KP out of the general crisp market and into the specialist nut and snack hinterlands.)
Scampi Fries are rarer, and so always a treat. They have always had a vaguely holidayish, special occasiony quality to them for me.
I suspect their magic would wear off if I had regular access to them, and so I note with joy and trepidation mixed that the Spar at the end of my road stocks them, along with their Son and Holy Ghost: Bacon Fries and Cheese Moments.

Loving Cheese Moments puts you in a truly discerning minority. How they have survived so long is a delightful mystery: nobody could love them more than I, and even I have no trouble appreciating why almost everyone finds them so totally disgusting.
The Moment can be seen as a response to the sole design challenge posed by the Scampi Fry. While the exterior of the Scampi Fry is far too delicious for this to ever be a disappointment as such, first-timers may be nonetheless surprised to discover on their initial crunch that it is hollow. The Moment solves this conundrum in the most ingenious of ways. It is fashioned, like the Fry, as a cereal pouch, tasting this time not of fish but of a strange, potent but fictitious cheese, somewhere between Gruyere and marmite. But this time, on crunching, the delighted consumer encounters not empty space but a bizarre, cheese-effect paste. The contrast between the crunchy exterior and soft interior is a most seductive one.
Moments go very nicely with red wine, whereas the Scampi Fry is best washed down with a lovely cold Chablis.

Did you know you can buy Scampi Fries on Amazon? Here's the link, and just look at the sincerity and passion in those customer reviews! I especially like the one from the army wife who can't stop eating them even though her husband refuses to kiss her after she's had a bag.

(In a possible follow-up post - The flavour sensation that is the Barry Norman pickled onion: how many can you consume at a sitting?)

Monday, January 16, 2012

The choice collection of good time well known songs on wax today

Picked up this fabulous LP recently.
Exactly as the cover implies, it's a collection of old pub standards delivered with bellowing, pissed-up imprecision by what would seem to be a genuinely assembled crowd of booze-crazed wastrels.
I'm not sure if the piss artists performing are the same ones saluting us from the magnificent cover, though I suppose it is unlikely. A shame, because they look like a great crowd. I particularly like the chap on the right, who resembles the actor Norman Eshley, and the one in the background, leering sinisterly from between the one that looks like a country solicitor and the redhead in the denim suit.
Also, though it's probably less striking in this scan than it is on the cover itself, the barman looks like, but presumably can't be, a cardboard cut-out.

The album dates from 1974, and 'Stereo Gold Award' is the name of the label, not an indication that it actually won any kind of award.
There's a slight possibility that it was meant to provide 'English atmosphere' abroad, perhaps for ex-pats or English theme pubs. The sleeve notes read like the instructions you get with Japanese stocking-fillers:

Young and old alike are invited to this foot tapping "glasses up" sing along party with the Rowdies. You pay yer money and you gets the choice collection of good time well known songs on wax today. Here's the ones we love to sing whenever happy folks get together. And if you're all alone, come as a solo it'll put a smile on your face and a bit of sing along magic in your heart.

These ones we love to sing whenever happy folks get together include Underneath the Arches, I Belong to Glasgow and Ilkley Moor Ba'tat. It's infectious fun for sure, but the thought of someone who really is all alone resorting to Sing Along With The Rowdies in order to put a bit of sing along magic in their hearts is a genuinely poignant one.

Strangely, though the album is generally cagey about naming those responsible - no producer is credited, and exactly who the Rowdies are is never revealed - it does tell us that the cover photo was taken by Julian Ruthven at the White Hart, Harlington, Middlesex.
This pub still exists, so I shall write to them to see what they can tell me about the Rowdies.

Watch this space...

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Doctor, I have CD rot

Do doctors and dentists decide for themselves what magazines are stocked in their waiting room?
And if they don't, who does?

Reader, I am old enough to know that it was fact, not just a popular notion, that all doctors' and dentists' waiting rooms once stocked copies of Punch (and in some cases Country Life).
By my time they had become anachronistic and unloved, an unquestioned convention almost, and I was drawn to Punch in part by the pristine allure of the neat, untouched stacks of them one invariably found. (Hip to the streets even then, I became a fan, and Pick of Punch buyer, during the final years of Alan Coren's editorship.)

The new Punch is Classic FM Magazine. You get the feeling that this is as close as a doctor can get to the demotic but is an attempt to connect with the masses all the same: after all, it's not Gramophone; it's got Myleene Klass on the cover. Like Punch, the ratio of ill to healthy readers must be at least 4:1. The list of subscribers must read like the end credits of Casualty.

I've had to go to the hospital a few times lately, and can confirm that Classic FM Magazine is a hoot, well worth the kidney stones, in fact.
I especially like the little highlighted boxes containing soundbites from the station's presenters.

Simon Bates has ideas for how to keep the children entertained this Summer: "Why not enjoy Classic FM on your long car journeys?"

I was also diverted for many minutes by an advert for big wallets to store all your CDs and DVDs in, made by a company called Arrowfile.
Have you heard about this 'CD rot' business? It's apparently caused by plastic CD cases, and the only way to prevent it is to put your discs in big wallets made by a company called Arrowfile.
"It's a myth that CDs will last a lifetime!" screams the ad in big red type, above a kind of rubber stamp impression-type logo, that says: PVC FREE - Prevents CD Rot!
And there's testimonial from a grateful customer called Mrs Mae: "I am shocked to learn that CD cases may accelerate CD rot (rust), and surprised to discover that manufacturers recommend vertical storage to prevent this."

We're all shocked, love.
Is this true? Or do they just want me to buy the big wallets?
I've no idea but I'm now madly looking for signs of CD rot (rust) whenever I play one.
Is it visible to the naked eye? Can it be reversed or halted once detected? Or is a diagnosis already too late? Can it spread from CD to CD? Can it spread from CD to people? I can't sleep now. Damn you, Arrowfile!

Classic FM Magazine has invited its readers to email questions to Katherine Jenkins.
They want to know if she would wear a wig if she ever sang Carmen (maybe, but she has no immediate plans to), if she has any diet secrets (not really), would she ever "launch commodities under (her) own brand name - i.e. perfume or underwear" (no immediate plans to) and if she has any plans to visit Australia (no immediate plans to).
Next month: Russell Watson, probably.

Also making the headlines in the classical world is the theme music of the new Batman film (New Batman score goes Kapow!) and Natasha Marsh's version of Mozart's 'Queen of the Night' from The Magic Flute, specially arranged for ITV's coverage of Euro 2008. There's a picture of her in a ballgown holding a football. "I love football, and I love the passion, beauty and power that football and music share... Everyone's waiting for that moment, and everyone feels the goosebump factor."

Just time for some hi-fi equipment reviews.
There are things called i-Pod docks, which even I can see are just speakers for an i-Pod.
The review begins: "Unless you've been living under a stone for the past few years, you'll be all too aware of the ongoing digital music revolution."
Exactly the tone to take with readers of a specialist classical music publication.
It continues: "But listening to your music on an MP3 player or through a computer is only the half of it - what about listening to your tunes out loud?"
'Tunes'. Like it.
But isn't out loud the way we all used to listen to our choons, back in the olden days?
These reviews are crazy; surely unfair as reviews.
The Logitech Pure-Fi Anywhere is good because; "Listening to tenor Andrea Bocelli sing the emotive 'Time To Say Goodbye', his voice sounds clear, strong and full of emotion".
Is that how you test them, then? Just don't buy the i-Pod docks where Andrea Bocelli comes out singing the emotive 'Time To Say Goodbye' like a girl.
Then there's this which, unless I'm wrong, means absolutely nothing at all:
"There may not be quite the same level of bass as delivered on other iPod docks but in terms of playing a tune, this Logitech is a class leader."
In terms of playing a tune? What is this maniac talking about?
Or there's the Griffin Evolve, ideal if "you want an easy, reliable way of sending music to different rooms".
Actually, since all three models under review have the same maximum star rating and are each labelled the best, albeit the best at different things, this is basically an advert.
The B&W Zeppelin is 'Best for looking good' (all-important, I have no doubt), as well as the one to go for if you "want an i-Pod dock to set tongues wagging".
(B&W's tagline, by the way is: 'Listen and you'll see'.)
But it's not just an odd-shaped black plastic thing of beauty. There's also the matter of sound, or "sonic prowess" if you will. And at £400, it's "worth the extra money if you crave something close to true hi-fi performance". Yep, that's modern technology. 400 smackers for something close to what you're looking for.

Ah, but what about defence against i-Pod dock rot? I don't know: the doctor was ready to see me at this point.