Ken writes:

Despite being a fairly middle of the road sort of person politically speaking, I sometimes get a bee in my bonnet about things. I’m tagging this post ‘Red Ken’.

My views have hardened on the subject of renting and letting property. While I agree that people should be able to use their property to make a profit, in certain cases that fundamental right needs to be balanced against other people’s rights. I would like to see a massive rebalancing of the legal framework of renting in favour of the tenants. Landlords shouldn’t be able to do whatever they like with property they let to tenants. Changes I would bring in include:- having the rental deposit held in a separate bank account controlled by a third party, so that the landlord must apply to retain the deposit at the end of the tenancy; security of tenure (rental contracts would be by default on a permanent and ongoing basis, with the tenant having the freedom to leave on a month’s notice, and the tenancy being protected under a change of ownership of the property); the tenant would be allowed to decorate the property; rent would not be allowed to increase at more than the rate of inflation during the tenancy and so on.

Property rights are very important in our society, but the right to a home is even more important. Everybody, including people who rent, needs to be able to put down roots in a place. It is profoundly unsettling and detrimental to health to have to move from place to place every couple of years. So establishing secure tenancy is a social good and landlords rights will have to be subordinated to it. (I am talking about residential tenancies not commercial tenancies).

You might say that if we made letting property unattractive by introducing all these restrictions and safeguards there would be fewer houses. I think it would drive the part-time landlords out and usher in the professionals. Restrictions on rent increases would flatten out the potential return on investment in property so more capital would be directed into actual investment in the real economy, which would be good for business. Restrictions on returns would also discourage speculators so the housing market would mostly be about people buying houses to live in and that would take the heat out of the property market and reduce the chance of bubbles.

So says Red Ken.


Filed under Ken, Red Ken


Dot writes: Hugh had just been jumped on by Frank and was cast into deep woe. Weeping, he spoke in full-throated tones:

“My brother is a man without a heart, a man without a soul. He hurt my neck… I am nothing in this family. I am just sand in the fireplace. I’m a thing left to be burnt.”

I’ve left a few bits out that I don’t remember properly, but he genuinely said all this. He’s seven.


Filed under Family stuff, Prawn on the outside

Cover versions

Dot writes: it’s a fun exercise, made very easy by YouTube, to compare multiple versions of the same song. Ken and I both like to do this. At one point he dug up a remarkable number of versions of ‘I Will Survive’, the most interesting being one in Spanish that I don’t seem to be able to find again. ‘Whiskey in the Jar’ is another favourite. Probably the primary version for us is the Thin Lizzy one, but I have a weakness for Metallica’s pumped-up take on it, which borrows Thin Lizzy’s riff (I’m less keen on the prurient video). Since this is an Irish traditional song The Dubliners’ version is very much worth hearing, with its bright instrumentation and buzz-saw vocal; Peter, Paul and Mary, however, perform the perverse miracle of making a song about crime and betrayal sound utterly wet. (And there are many more, of course…)

Ideally a cover version will tell you something interesting about the song, or about the performer, or both. – I’m thinking here about recorded music, since it’s worth performing a piece live just, well, to make it live. – However, listeners’ reactions are always in relation to whatever version is the dominant one for them, and the direction of comparison can really change what you find in a song.

Here’s an example: a well-known song that I only encountered for the first time in a very recent cover. This is ‘Johnny and Mary’, originally by Robert Palmer, and the cover is by the Norwegian producer Todd Terje on his 2014 album It’s Album Time, with vocals by Bryan Ferry.

Especially in the midst of the playful and upbeat music that surrounds it on the album, the hushed, wistful pulsing of this track, the reverbs and delays, the building of instrumental layers – mostly electronic, but there’s piano in there too – were all really lovely. And the lyric worked so well with Bryan Ferry’s weary, experienced voice, a lyric that seemed to be about ageing, about a man who was still restlessly searching for a brilliant future long behind him, and a woman who was exasperatedly resigned to his ways through long familiarity:

Johnny’s always running around trying to find certainty
Seems he needs the world to confirm that he ain’t lonely
Mary counts the walls, knows he tires easily

She says that he still acts like he’s being discovered

When I heard the original (thanks to Ken, who’s usually better informed about 80s pop than me and knew it already) I had a feeling of the song being flattened out, much of the mood I so liked being lost from it.

It has that low-budget early-80s synth sound, a pace I perceived as slightly frenetic, an affectless vocal delivery. A few listens in, and I started to be able to hear how these made the song work: the rapid pace appropriate for ‘running around’, the slightly autistic quality relating to the theme of emotional disconnection (and here it’s not about ageing). Now things began to switch around and instead of perceiving Robert Palmer as failing to be as moving as Todd Terje I could see how Todd Terje – with some pretty significant help from Bryan Ferry – had found a new register in this piece. Other covers include Tina Turner (her huge voice threatening to spill out of the too-small box of the song), Placebo (which sounds like Placebo), and Status Quo (which doesn’t sound like Status Quo, and I guess that’s mildly interesting, but as a cover it’s unimaginative). To my mind none of these are as original and effective as Todd Terje’s version; I note that none of them thought, as he did, to slow the tempo.

Sometimes one’s attachment to a song can lead to a rather violent reaction to a cover. For me, given my enthusiasms, it’s natural to reach for a Gotye example. ‘Coming Back’ isn’t my favourite song on Like Drawing Blood, but it’s one I thought about a lot and puzzled over; I invested a lot of mental energy in it and became, perhaps, a little possessive of my idea of it. (I’ve commented on it before in my general review of the three Gotye albums.) At first I found it simultaneously attractive and grating. On the one hand there were the brisk flourish of the drum pattern, the trills on strings and flutes, the touches of accordion, and the lively acoustic bass line, all evocative of some cabaret tango. On the other hand there was the vocal line, rather high and strained, and the melody built around a descending minor scale from which Wally would repeatedly come down a third and then hitch himself up again, slightly sliding, slightly whining. It wasn’t mellifluous, though he can do mellifluous.* And there were other odd touches, such as the break in the music, a point at which one seems to step out of it and look at it sceptically, and the wordless female vocal phrase that distorts and breaks up into staccato triplets. The lyric is passionate but it’s also occasionally quite funny (‘I count the days, they’re grey without you / The weather’s much better when I think about you’).

Altogether, the song seemed to express a state of extreme neediness while also being flamboyant, stagey and curiously detached. It seemed unsure if it meant anything it said. But I found it tremendously interesting, and after a while, revisiting it intermittently (I do listen to other artists as well), I thought there was a truth in its mask-like quality, a sense of keeping up appearances – continuing the flashy dance while abjectly desperate, ‘crawling up the walls’. I perceived a correlate to this in the figure of the 1950s housewife in the video, a common shorthand for desperation behind neat blinds (otherwise the video clearly responds to the humour and weirdness in the track).

When I heard Inga Liljestrom’s version on the album of Gotye covers and remixes, Mixed Blood, I’m afraid I absolutely hated it. (There’s plenty on Mixed Blood that I like; but not this.)

The tensions and complexity are all stripped away. It’s done very simply and totally straight, acoustic guitar plus voice with a few bits of woozy strings, woodwind and backing vocals from time to time. The melody is simplified in places too. The vocal recording is very close-miked so you feel she’s pretty much breathing in your ear. Liljestrom goes for the passion and need in the track without any of the self-mockery. I thought it was soggy and awful.

However, it occurred to me recently that Wally had taken a similar approach in his cover of Depeche Mode’s ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’, a version so different from the original that the first time I heard it I didn’t even make the connection (dozy of me as it’s in the title, but I guess I don’t always listen with my brain on). This appeared on a 2004 disc of Australian covers of British songs of the late 70s and early 80s, and it renders the bouncy 1981 hit with piano, voice, a few effects and some atmospheric frog noises. The vibe is melancholy longing on a hot night. Have a look at the comments on the YouTube clip and note the sharp divide between people who like it (I recognise some of these names) and people who are deeply outraged by the violation of a favourite Depeche Mode song (“Gotye soll sich schämen…”). For my own part, I don’t like it as much as his original material but I think it’s a worthwhile exercise in taking a lighthearted, upbeat song totally seriously and seeing what happens, and the result is unexpected and rather nice.

In light of this, I thought I’d give Inga another go. And certainly her version passes the test of saying something interesting about the original, because it shows what the song can be when its guard is down. But I’m afraid I still don’t like it. It’s all those breathy wet mouth noises. They’re just not my thing.


*Try Spender’s ‘Hotel Home’ as an example of Wally being mellifluous. It’s interesting that it’s not one he wrote himself.


Filed under Music

Pepper and The Bear

Dot writes: don’t worry. There are no bears in our garden, just cheeky rodents, shy woodlice and a solitary magpie being ill-omened for a tease. The Bear of my title is a celebrity cat – celebrated for melancholy, intellect and sensitivity, showing that the routes to celebrity are much more elevated for cats than for humans – and this post is a mix of a book review and an update on Pepper. Here is Pepper, characteristically posed with his paws up on the back of a chair as though hoping to be served a drink. 20150430_181245 And here is The Bear, pictured on the cover of the first of the three books in which he appears, Under the Paw (2008). The other two are Talk to the Tail (2011) and The Good, the Bad and the Furry (2013). 51Ac-HcM82L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ I follow Tom Cox’s excellent Twitter account for The Bear, Why My Cat Is Sad. It’s an effective formula: you can make a lot of different kinds of jokes using pictures of a cat, or sometimes several cats, and a caption starting ‘My cat is sad because…’ I especially enjoy the ones with rock music references, because I enjoy rock music and like the in-group feeling. Anyway, the Twitter account constructs a personality for The Bear as a sensitive, poetic type with pretensions as a gloomy singer-songwriter and a deep engagement with social and political issues, though at the heart the joke always is that, well, he’s a cat.

When I turned to the three books, which I read in a dreadful guilty binge over the course of a couple of days, I was initially surprised to find a very different The Bear: he first appears in Under the Paw as a flea-bitten super-villain, tormented with various ailments and direly plotting against Tom, newly hooked up with Dee, who’s inherited him (the cat, not the man) from her ex. The books are, unsurprisingly, wider ranging than the Twitter account, and deal with various different elements of Tom Cox’s life and of the countryside and animals, as well as a large number of cats. The Bear is one member of the cast, though a very important one, and he changes in the course of the books.

You could say that the Twitter account uses cats to look at humans; but, while the books characterise the cats in richly human terms, there’s a very strong sense of cats being interesting in themselves. The characterisation is metaphor rather than anthropomorphism. Certainly you learn something of Tom Cox’s view of rock stars (he used to be the Guardian’s rock critic) from his description of his magnificent but needy tabby Ralph as ‘an oversensitive rock star'; in this kind of metaphor, the tenor and the vehicle are mutually illuminating. Yet one of the most appealing features of these books is the close, loving but unsentimental observation of several quite different cats, in their feline particularity.

Reading these books made me think I should look a bit harder at Pepper. I confess I didn’t bond with Pepper in quite the way I did with Tibby. Tibby came to us in the summer and I made an effort to be at home for him as much as possible as he settled in; I spent a lot of time with him and quickly grew to love his bold and playful personality. I loved the way he ran manically up trees and (somewhat conflictedly) his affectionate practice of walking on my chest at six in the morning. When he went missing I had dreams in which he’d come back to us, and I’d lose him all over again when I woke up. It was hard to commit emotionally to a new cat. You could say I’d been hurt in love before. Moreover, Pepper arrived during term time when I didn’t have the luxury of working at home; and in kittenhood his hunting play was of an over-enthusiastic variety that left us all extensively scratched – he loved to hunt toes under the bedclothes, but also hands on keyboards, unguarded arms, passing feet, hair, laptop cables, Frank’s nose etc etc. I got into the habit of decoying him out of the bedroom at night and firmly shutting the door; fortunately it was easy to do this because he was wholly unable to resist a dangled dressing gown cord. The cord would be found, thoroughly vanquished, on the landing in the morning.

Nonetheless, despite this rocky start, Pepper has become an essential part of our family. Frank in particular is awfully fond of him, which is rather dreadful for Pepper; and I feel happy and contented when this deliciously furry creature curls up on my lap, and even obscurely honoured when he comes into bed with me and sleeps on my head. My morning wouldn’t be complete without him winding around my feet in the kitchen, meowing persuasively for his second breakfast; my nights are now punctuated by the clunk of him landing on the cistern as he comes in through the loo window from one of his mysterious sorties.

What would Tom Cox say about him, if he were Tom Cox’s cat? Well, I’m not sure. The thing is, I can’t write like Tom Cox. I’ve read a number of chatty, humorous non-fiction books of this type, and it’s the kind of thing that looks easy to do and absolutely isn’t. Some of my blogging, especially when the kids were babies, attempted something in the same vein, and I think I was quite funny sometimes, but to keep it up – to find the right slant between humour and truth to make something engaging out of daily life; to see the right things; to avoid tedious exposition while getting the necessary information across – this is difficult. There’s an unobtrusive style to Cox’s prose that’s hard to reproduce. Here’s a slice of it, chosen almost wholly at random:

Once, early during my attempt to catch Winston the stray, I’d gone out to check the trap, and been elated to find him in there, disorientation all over his muzzle. A bigger surprise came when I realised that his enormous, ugly neck wound had completely healed. It had taken almost a full minute before I realised that I was actually looking at The Bear, and by mistaking him for Winston, I’d momentarily been able to see him through the eyes of an outsider and realise his true plump, lavish healthiness. The rejuvenating effect that five and a half years of being in the same place had had on him was plain and radiant to see. (Talk to the Tail, p. 186, eBook copy)

This is not a funny passage as such; it’s part of a section on deciding how to divide the cats up after Tom and Dee separate. It’s there to illustrate the point that The Bear has benefited from stability and shouldn’t have to move away along with Dee. The anecdote makes that point concrete, and the idea of the miraculously healed wound is an arrestingly surreal hook for the reader, but also an effective focus for the wider concern of the paragraph with transformation and perceptions shifting. The verb ‘realise’ occurs three times in these four sentences (twice as ‘realised’, once as ‘realise’), but it’s not obtrusive or clumsy, just a symptom of what the paragraph is about. Otherwise the vocabulary is varied without being fancy; there are a couple of more highly coloured touches, carefully placed, such as ‘muzzle’ for the cat’s face (balancing the humanising implications of ‘disorientation’). The control of rhythm and syntax is also admirable. A lot of narrative information is economically conveyed in the first sentence through a combination of an adverbial phrase and a pluperfect construction. The third sentence is both compound and complex, but it’s easy to navigate, and balanced in length against the shorter second sentence that contains the startling image of the healed wound and the final sentence that gives the conclusion. Note the vowel echo between ‘plain’ and ‘radiant’, and the placing of the most emotive term, ‘radiant’, almost right at the end of the paragraph. Nothing here is strained and there’s no showing off: it’s just really tight, effective writing.

Coda: I tweeted about this post, tagging @MYSADCAT, and Tom Cox then linked to it from the @MYSADCAT account and the Under The Paw Facebook page. Suddenly our blog stats look as though someone’s erected the Empire State Building in the middle of Hay-on-Wye. It’s lovely to get all these readers – thank you for reading! – but there was a comment on the Facebook page I’d like to respond to. Annie Mac wrote

it’s a nice review, but made me grateful I don’t know how to dissect Tom’s writing….just be in love with the whimsical whacky view of the world via the Sad Cat.

And so I wanted to add: I don’t analyse the prose like this when I’m reading. I enjoy these books for their humour, their observational sharpness, the way Tom Cox loves and notices his cats, and my sense of connection to his world and attitudes (and Tom Cox is very much my age, has interests I share – I’m not so into golf, I admit – and writes about Norfolk, where I grew up). But to convey all this and to create this world there has to be carefully crafted writing. Making it feel easy is part of the craft. So it was a fun exercise for me to dig into it a bit harder. I like having a sense of how things work.


Filed under Family stuff, Lucky Dip, Words and books and cultural stuff

Home improvements

Dot writes: I’ve been flirting for a while with the idea of starting to buy vinyl. As a 37-year-old mum of two who never had the knack of being either an encyclopaedic music nut or in any way cool even when I was a 22-year-old working in a record shop, I don’t fit the part, but what the hell. Let not society’s ageist and sexist stereotypes limit my bold consumer choices! People are always saying that vinyl sounds warmer, sharper, just better somehow. CDs and mp3s both work by breaking the musical information into little bits and, in the case of mp3s, throwing a lot of it away. And I’ve had a further nudge from The Basics (a band I am very fond of, as excitably demonstrated in this gig review from last year), as they (probably Kris, in fact) recently posted on Facebook to ask who would buy their new album* on vinyl when it is released. First I thought no – I don’t have a turntable. Then I thought, well, it could be worth it in the short-term, as it would come with a digital download so I’d be able to listen to the music that way and have the physical copy for the artwork, which is much better in a larger format. But really I would want to play it. Records are for playing.

See? Much bigger artwork on an LP...

See? Much bigger artwork on an LP…

So, in order to play the new Basics record that I plan to get, I need to do the following.

– buy a turntable and speakers and whatever other bits I’d need, depending on the type of system.

– find somewhere to put them. That would have to be the front room.

– to make the space in the front room, get rid of the television.

– to make the front room into a listening space for adults rather than a telly-watching, lego-strewing, sofa-dismantling space for children, move their toys into their bedroom and buy a new sofa-suite.

– to make the space for the toys in the bedroom, rip out the built-in wardrobe.

– to make the bedroom halfway bearable after ripping out the built-in wardrobe, completely redecorate the room and put in a new carpet.

– to find the money to buy the system, sofa suite, paint and new carpet, come up with a workable blackmail plot, since we don’t seem to be doing too well at saving right now and what we are saving is earmarked for the next trip to NZ.

– to come up with the blackmail plot, engage in covert surveillance of prominent figures, the only one of whom I’d have much of a chance of watching is probably the head of the university where I work (not that I’m aware of any blackmailable activities on his part, but you can do a lot with editing, I believe).**

When I am sacked and sent to prison, you’ll know I did it all for The Basics.


*Current indications are that the album is called The Age of Entitlement and is likely to be out in August, though the release date hasn’t been confirmed. There should be a single soon, Roundabout (a sensitive meditation on the traumatic human cost of certain types of traffic intersection) (previewed here).

**It’s ok. I wouldn’t really do this. After all, at the moment the only camera I have is the crap one on my phone.


Filed under Lucky Dip, Music

some thoughts about whisky prices.

Ken writes:

After just over two months sitting on my hands after packing in the old job, I’m now gainfully employed again. Hip, hip… I’ve had a finger and a half of my special ‘getting a job’ Scotch which is about 30 years old and way out of my regular price range (but I won it as a scholarship gift). It’s truly a beautiful, beautiful drink, but I don’t think it’s so very much better than, say, a 15 year old whisky, or better enough to justify paying more than 50 to 60 quid. When it comes to pricing whisky (in this country at least) there’s a minimum floor created by the truly massive duty on alcohol which together with VAT amount to close to €14 per 700ml bottle. Then there is the fact that whisky is a very expensive commodity to produce, since it has to be warehoused for a minimum of three years in oak barrels before it counts as whisky (think how much vodka the distillery could have made in the meantime instead of making that bottle). So the manufacturer, distributor and retailer all have to make a profit out of the balance over €14. That covers production costs, wages, marketing, materials etc etc. A micro-sized distillery probably has to retail for €40 at a minimum to make any sort of return on investment. So basically €50 doesn’t buy you much of a premium in whisky. That’s just your average product. However, actual price is merely influenced by the fundamentals like duty and cost of goods to produce. it’s also affected by rarity and marketing. So the actual price can go way up. Obviously the older the whisky gets the rarer it is (because inevitably some whisky is sold young). The reason I say it’s not worth paying too much for whisky is that, in my opinion, the pleasure you get from whisky doesn’t increase in line with price. To a degree more mature whiskies taste better than younger whiskies, but only up to a point, and they don’t necessarily increase in proportion to the increase in cost. You’re not buying the sensation on your taste buds. You’re buying the right to have that sensation instead of someone else having it. The qualities of the sensation itself drop out of the picture. All this means: Don’t let the snobs fool you about whisky. Drink the stuff you like and the stuff you can afford and be happy with that. Sure, if someone gives you an expensive bottle, enjoy that too, but keep things in perspective.


Filed under Ken

A day out in London

Ken writes:

I visited a friend in London yesterday and we did a nice tour of the microbreweries there taking in Camden Town brewery, Kernel, Brew by Numbers, Partizan, and the London Fields brewery. Actually, Kernel was closed (it was a Saturday) so we only saw the outside. These breweries all have tap rooms open at the weekend to sample the beer at the brewery. I don’t know if any of them brew at the weekend.

A great day out!

Fermenters outside Camden Town Brewery

Fermenters outside Camden Town Brewery

Camden Town brewery packaging room

Camden Town brewery packaging room

Kernel brewery

Kernel brewery

Brew by Numbers

Brew by Numbers

Fermenters at Brew by Numbers

Fermenters at Brew by Numbers

Brew by Numbers brewery under railway arch

Brew by Numbers brewery under railway arch

Loft space at Partizan brewery

Loft space at Partizan brewery

Dave Porter brew house in use at Partizan brewery

Dave Porter brew house in use at Partizan brewery

Fermenters at Partizan brewery

Fermenters at Partizan brewery

Leave a comment

Filed under Lucky Dip