Sunday, December 31, 2017

Highlights of 2017: hearing Sir Tom Jones record a gospel Christmas!

Back at the end of November 2017, I was fortunate enough to attend a recording of Gospel Christmas, a TV show presented by Sir Tom Jones and Beverley Knight, and featuring a couple of other singers and two gospel choirs. Now that the show has been aired (three times!) over Christmas I feel I can blog about it without upsetting anyone.

Sir Tom, in full voice

The first thing to say is that it was an extraordinary privilege to see a man I consider a living legend at such close quarters. He is, obviously, getting on a bit now, and yet he still has the most marvelous singing voice. He did two songs by himself, although backed by the gospel choir. Sir Tom did them in one take. Nobody was going to ask him to do it again, and he didn't need to.

In contrast, Beverley Knight seemed like a bit of a perfectionist. Although when she did her second take of a Prince cover you could see why she wanted to redo it. The second take got used in the programme.

There were a couple of other guests as well, who apparently have released albums and everything, but I hadn't heard of them before. One was Kwabs, whose solo song was Higher Love. It was an OK cover, but really, it's a good song and any half decent singer will sound good on it. The other guest was Jessie Ware. She sang In the Bleak Midwinter, which I loathe with a passion. Unfortunately, she had to sing it twice. Double loathing!

Jessie was also wearing a white shirt with batwing style sleeves that irresistibly reminded me of the famous 'Puffy Shirt' from Seinfeld. So much so I involuntarily laughed when she first came on-stage. Jessie and Kwabs also sung a duet of Have Yourself a Very Merry Christmas. It's another song that it's hard to mess up, although they both seemed to have a good attempt. They had two shots at it. Neither really convinced. (Kwabs had his own interesting sartorial choice as well, a woolly beanie hat. I imagine it looked reasonably cool when he decided to wear it for the show but he must have been sweating under the lights by the end.)

It's always funny to watch people record links. They fluffed a couple of them. Sir Tom joked with the audience after looking down the camera to introduce a piece they were going to cut to in the show.

Recording a link

It was fun to watch the programme and see the pre-recorded segment they put in, all about Tom visiting the Valleys chapel where he used to go to Sunday School.  There was another interesting segment featuring archive footage of a black church in Butetown, Cardiff. As the show was filmed at the old Coal Exchange, just around the corner it fitted with the show.

Despite being a one take hero for his numbers, Sir Tom recorded the grand finale twice. Beverley wasn't too happy with the second version either and seemed to want to go for a third attempt, but Sir Tom wasn't having it. He quite loudly asked what was wrong with the version they had just done then took the executive decision that twice was enough and slowly walked off.

Finale time! Including Jessie's puffy shirt

It was really special hearing him sing live, and just being present in the same room as him as he performed. It was definitely one of my highlights of 2017.

(Big thanks to my friend Leanne, who was in the group I went with and sent these pics to me!)

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Christmas Carols Audit 2017 - what are the most popular carols?

From a previous year's
Christmas card audit
Given how popular the Christmas Card Audits are, I've decided to analyse the Christmas services (and other caroling opportunities) I've been to this year. My Dad has also chipped in with service sheets from two services he attended.

I'm going to include set lists for the services. Feel free to scroll to the bottom of the post to find out what the most popular one was. Asterisked songs are ones I don't think I have ever sung before, or heard sung before.

Overall stats
Services audited: 6
Denominational breakdown: 4 Anglican (C of E), 1 Methodist, 1 other

Service: Evening Carol Service, Methodist Church
Total songs: 14 (10 sung by congregation and 4 performed by choirs)
Congregation songs
O Come, O Come Immanuel
O Little Town of Bethlehem
It Came Upon A Midnight Clear
In the Bleak Midwinter
Away in a Manger
Silent Night
As, With Gladness, Men of Old*
Cradled in a Manger, Meanly*
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
O Come All Ye Faithful (all 5 verses!)
Choir-performed songs
Carol of the Bells
Mary, Did You Know?
Jesus, Rest Your Head
O Holy Night

Service: football club Carol Service hosted by a C of E church (service sheet from Dad)
Congregation songs
O Come All Ye Faithful
Once in Royal David's City
Joy to the World
While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night
We Three Kings
Silent Night
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

Plus musical interludes/performances
Another Christmas/ Candlelight Carol / Little Drummer Boy / Peace on Earth/ Carol of the Bells / Jazz Gloria/ Nowell for the Merrie Citie/  Twelve Days After Christmas / O Holy Night

Service: Christingle service, C of E church
Total songs: 6
Congregation songs
O Come All Ye Faithful
Little Donkey
Silent Night
Away in a Manger
Shine Jesus Shine
Performed song
Mary, Did you know?

Service: Midnight communion service, C of E church
Total songs: 4 
Once In Royal David's City
Good Christians All Rejoice
O Little Town of Bethlehem
O Come All Ye Faithful

Service: Midnight Mass, (different) C of E church (service sheet from Dad)
Total songs: 4 
O Come All Ye Faithful
While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night
Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence*
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

Service: Christmas Day service, charismatic 'new' church
Total songs: 5  
Congregation songs
O Come All Ye Faithful
Light of the World, You Stepped Down Into Darkness
Once in Royal David's City
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
Performed song
(Video) Light of the World - Lauren Daigle

The most popular sung carol, featuring in the set lists of all six services was O Come All Ye Faithful. In order, the most popular ones were:
1) O Come All Ye Faithful (6 setlists)
2) Hark! The Herald Angels Sing (4)
=3) Once in Royal David's City and Silent Night (3)
=5) Away in a Manger, O Little Town of Bethlehem and While Shepherds Watched (2)

In terms of performed songs, I don't know what the musical interludes were like in the football club carol service that Dad attended, and whether the songs were performed in their entirety. So I'm going to base my conclusions on the services I was at. This means 'Mary, Did You Know' was the most popular performed song.

Of note, that two services included non-carols, which I've listed for completeness. There were three weird ones dredged out of the back of old hymnals, although I think 'As, With Gladness, Men of Old' isn't as obscure as the other two.

The Annual Christmas Card Audit is coming. We'll be taking the cards down in the next couple of days. I haven't decided yet whether carol services are going to become an annual auditing subject. Feel free to comment and let me know what you think.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Excuse my moribund blog

Apparently a lack of blog action is a sign that real life is busy. Not sure where I read that, but it's a useful excuse and I'm going to stick to it.

Life has been a bit busy of late. I've been making time to attend football matches and have already been to 13 this season. This has been helped by Shrewsbury having a seriously brilliant (and unexpected) start to the season, and getting to know a Cardiff season ticket holder as well. I've been to enough Shrewsbury games this season already to justify buying the new replica shirt.

Plus there's been work, and films, and all kinds of fun things going on. Like going to look at Snowdogs that have appeared all over Cardiff.

Chrome Snowdog on Barry Island

Life is short, so it's important to live it well.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

General Election 2017 - the final election comms count up

Nobody really expected the election last month to go the way it did, least of all Theresa May and all I really want to say about that is HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA what a mess you made of it!

Anyway, I'm concluding my survey of the election leaflets for 2017. We had no Green or UKIP leaflets in the final count, although Ian the Plaid Cymru chap did tell me he had a leaflet from the Greens delivered not too far away from our house. Not sure why we missed out.

I'm kind of glad about the absence of UKIP. Their local campaigner in our street seems to have stopped. Maybe he finally saw through all their lies about the Utopian departure from the EU. Or maybe after his side "won" he doesn't feel the need to campaign any more.

On to the final count, we had four more missives from Labour after my second post about electoral bumf. Labour were really shoring up their vote. None of the leaflets mentioned Jeremy Corbyn, so the media narrative that Jez's messianic emergence among da yoof swung the election doesn't really hold true in Wales. If you relied on Labour communiques you wouldn't know who he was.

I've updated my graph to include both the Welsh Assembly elections last year and the latest General Election. This means I now have 10 years worth of election leaflets recorded, with more bound to come soon. We are having elections at least every year at the moment. Roll on 2018.

Huge Labour spike... in leaflets

Sunday, July 02, 2017

2016-17 football season review

As we are now into the 2017-18 European competition qualifiers I felt I should probably get round to publishing my season review for the 2016-17 season. Seduced by the success of the Wales team at Euro 2016 I bought a "season ticket" for the 2018 World Cup qualifying  campaign that hasn't exactly reached the heights of expectation but means I have started watching international football again after a break of several years.

As per previous seasons, here are the overall stats:
Season: 2016-17
Total games: 14
Most goals in a game: 4
Fewest goals in a game: 0
Total goals seen: 26
Number of football grounds visited: 6 (3 of which I’d never visited before)

This year I saw 8 games at Cardiff City Stadium - 4 Cardiff City, 3 Wales and the UEFA Women's Champions League Final.

The games:

Cardiff City 0 v 2 Queen's Park Rangers

The mopey mascot just about sums it up for Cardiff at this point, as they were desperately poor. I was in the away end with Steve, my QPR-superfan friend. Two second half goals did for City

Weston-Super-Mare 0 v 0 Poole Town
Steve is also a Poole Town fan and persuaded me to go with him to Weston on a Tuesday evening to see the Mighty Dolphins take on the Seagull Army. (I didn't take much persuading.)
In case there was any doubt about the Seagull Army, they have a banner.

Second half we were right behind the Weston goal and I saw the keeper pull off probably the best ever save I've seen live, from point blank range. He was a nice guy too, having a chat to the fans about the various grounds in the league and who we thought were the best teams.

Cardiff 0 v 1 Reading
This game was notable for two reasons. Firstly, both sides were shambolically bad. Secondly, Reading were in a high viz yellow kit which meant the away end looked like it was packed with safety stewards.

Wales 4 v 0 Moldova
The first home game for Wales after the Euros and a trouncing for the weakest team in the group. Gareth Bale won a penalty at the death to make it more flattering than Wales really deserved. When Moldova decided to actually play they made life a bit more difficult for Wales, but they were trailing by then anyway. This game was my third of the season at Cardiff City Stadium and I was in the third different stand.

Cardiff 0 v 2 Derby
Derby's manager, Nigel Pearson, was relieved of his duties the day before this game, while City boss Paul Trollope was grimly hanging on. Grim was the operative word. I said to my friend Sara, who I was standing with at the back of the Canton Stand that they would get relegated.

Wales 1 v 1 Georgia
This was a massive let down. Wales took the lead, then lost momentum and let Georgia back in to throw away two much needed points.

Wales 1 v 1 Serbia
For the second match in a row Wales let a lead slip and this time against some of their main rivals in the group.

Poole Town 0 v 2 Ebbsfleet United
This was a long road trip with Steve, but I got to see Poole at home for the first time. I particularly liked the idea of the fundraising cheese that was on sale, although I didn't buy any.

The Poole mascot is Danny Dolphin. Amusingly he joined in the team handshakes at the start of the game.

Cardiff v Ipswich 3-1
Another Cardiff game, and another viewing angle. This time I was in the family stand with a friend who wanted to take his daughter to a football match but had never been to one himself. She loved it. He conceded at the end that it was much more enjoyable than he thought it would be.

She particularly liked it when Cardiff scored (naturally) but also when Cardiff missed and the whole crowd went 'OOOOHH' at the same time. It made me remember how much I enjoyed being part of the crowd when I was a kid at football matches. You're this tiny part of this huge organic thing and as much a part of it as anyone else.

Cardiff were much improved, having ditched Paul Trollope shortly after the Derby game and appointing veteran manager Neil Warnock. He's a bit of a marmite manager, with most people detesting him, but the turnaround at Cardiff in terms of team shape, tactics and spirit was very evident.

Shrewsbury 0 v 2 Bolton
I finally got to a Shrewsbury game for the season. Bolton were a horrible team of whinging cloggers. The game wasn't much better. There was supposed to be a minute's silence at the start but it turned into a minute's applause. The mascots joined in. I'm not sure how I feel about mascots at minute silences. It seems a bit frivolous.

Bristol Rovers 2 v 0 Shrewsbury
A game ruined by a referee who sent off a Shrewsbury forward for nothing and gave the home team a duff penalty. The rumour afterwards was that the ref went into the changing room after the game and apologised. Rovers have half a ground and we were sat under a tarpaulin roof.

Shrewsbury 1 v 0 Southend
Three points that meant Shrewsbury were almost guaranteed to stay up, which was a minor miracle given they were bottom in October when Paul Hurst took over as manager. The players did a lap of honour after the game as it was the last home game of the season - although technically they hadn't won anything, so it should probably have been called a lap of survival.

Ton Pentre 1 v 1 Port Talbot Town
Another new ground for me, this time in the Welsh League. The view around this ground, of blue grey mountains and hills is spectacular. The ground is basic, but fun. Tea served in proper mugs, and boy did we need it despite it being May. The pitch was the bounciest pitch I've ever seen. At one point a ball bounced into the stands and I swear it bounced higher off the pitch than it did off the concrete. I don't think player needed to wear studs.

I went at the invitation of my friend Ben who was playing for Port Talbot. Here's a picture of him in action.

Olympique Lyonnais 0 v 0 Paris Saint-Germain (aet) - Lyon won 7-6 on penalties
My eighth match of the season at Cardiff City Stadium. My full review of the game is here. It was the first ever women's football game I'd been to. There was a lot less diving and rolling around than in the men's final a couple of nights later.

It also contained the most amazing conclusion to a penalty shoot out, with one goalie missing and the other scoring to win the trophy. Not a bad way to end the season.

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

More litterpicking tales from the streets of Grangetown -

Sunday morning. The promise of rain. Half the city is still blockaded in the aftermath of the UEFA Champions League final security clampdown. And I was off to a Tidy Grangetown litter pick along the south-western river-edged border of G-town.

I've blogged before about how you learn a lot about an area by picking up its trash. This time I learned a lot about the people who drive through Grangetown as well, particularly the ones who drive along Ferry Road. They eat McDonald's and throw their Big Mac boxes, their Chicken Wrap wrappers, and their drinks cups out of the window, Seriously, they can't possibly take them home and put them in the rubbish like civilised people would.

The big news is that now litter pickers get the option of one of the new high-viz vests. I felt I had to wear one, really, and Sara, one of my lovely neighbours from my street obliged me by taking a photo.

It's important to pick a yellow vest, explained Dave as he pulled out the big bag of vests, because the orange ones are for people doing community service.

There are always odd things to find while litter-picking. This time round I found a pair of gloves, a dashboard hands-free mounting device for a mobile phone, a coat-hanger, a Romanian coin, and a troll.

Little lost troll
There was an awful lot of rubbish associated with smoking. Mainly cigarette butts and packets, but people just chuck away their e-cigarette liquid bottles as well. Alcohol-wise, there was a bottle that once contained very cheap cider and several cans, but most of the cans I picked up were soft drinks and those awful energy drinks that stink to high heaven. Even the bugs don't touch them. In terms of other drugs, this time I only found two nitrous capsules, but lots of suspicious little baggies. Sara used a sharps kit to sort out a syringe, which is a bit more serious.

I finally got to pick up one of those plastic multi-rings that hold together cans of lager. They are always the thing you see on environmentalist memes trapping fish and other marine life. Well, this one was safely bagged, so who knows, I might have saved a sea-turtle.

It's hard to tell how long some trash has been sitting there. From the depths of a hedge I pulled out a Cherry Coke can that was completely faded on one side.

It was also home to a family of woodlice, but I shook them out safely before bagging the can. I don't know how long a can has to sit in undergrowth before it is bleached by nature, but I'd guess it had been there a couple of years. It was next to a Calippo Shots tub. I thought Calippo Shots had been discontinued a while back, but a quick Google shows they can still be bought, so that gives no clue as to how long the Cherry Coke can had sat there.

But regardless of how long it had been there, it's not there now. And that's all that really matters!

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

General Election 2017 - looking at the Tory leaflets

In my first blog post about the 2017 Election leaflets I only looked at material from the Pirate Party, Plaid Cymru and Labour, because they were the only ones I had received. After I tweeted the link the Plaid Cymru candidate, Ian Titherington, replied to me confirming that he always squints in photos. (I'd made that comment about his picture on the leaflet.) We had a bit of a chat and he said he had received leaflets from the Green Party and the Tories. Ian doesn't live that far away from me so I'm not sure if that's just people not willing to leaflet our street or what.

Anyway, in fairness to Ian, and because he got back to me, here is another scan of one of his leaflets. Of note is his bio, confirming that he lives in Grangetown. (Again, click on it it read it bigly.)

My only criticism of this is that as he lives local, the team could have swapped out some of the stock photos and used, say, a picture of a local school, or local businesses. The empty shot of Penarth Pier is arty, but it would have been better if Ian had been in it.

You can also see the "Defending Wales" message quite clearly on that leaflet - defend the nation, defend the economy and defend the people. And the Brexit promise of the best deal for Wales, that everyone is promising and realistically no one can deliver. The UK is going to get screwed on that.

Anyway, almost as if they were alerted to the fact they had been  missed out on the blog, the Tories got in on the act. Two leaflets arrived yesterday through the post, one addressed to me and one to Cathy.

In stark contrast to Ian's intro, Bill Rees the Tory candidate doesn't tell us where he lives. Perhaps because he lives in Oxfordshire. The Tories have done this for a few elections now as it seems they can't find a suitable local candidate.

Bill's leaflets are plastered with the "strong and stable" meme that has been a feature of Tory campaigning and both have an entry for perhaps the most obvious caption competition: "Bill Rees Standing With Theresa May" next to photos of him standing with Theresa May.

One thing - does no one go to these photo ops with nothing better than a phone camera? I mean, come on, invest in something with a flash for goodness sake.

Anyway, Bill has been touring the constituency. I think the family photo is on Splott Road. I bet his kids loved being taken there. I hope they got to go to the nice play park round the corner. Bill makes sure he is in his Penarth Pier shot as well, both with the family and on his own. Also, standing next to the Rumney Partnership Hub sign, which I am sure he was fully cognizant of before being parachuted in as a candidate. Fair play, that's a clever idea. The association is that he is involved in community action but he doesn't make any claims about it.

Inside one of the leaflets, there is another dimly lit photo of Bill with Theresa May. They both seem very happy to see each other. He's also might be supporting local businesses as he could be buying an ice cream on Penarth Pier. It's hard to tell.

Also on that leaflet is something that I think might be a misstep, really. It's a contrast between Theresa May and a "Coalition of Chaos". (Theresa should know all about chaotic coalitions, having been Home Secretary for five years in a coalition, although this isn't mentioned.)

Then it says: "Think Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister is never going to happen? DON'T BE SO SURE" followed by headlines of unexpected wins for Trump and Vote Leave.

I read that and thought, 'What? The Tories think Jez might actually win? They think it's a possibility?' If so, I think they could well be far more optimistic about Labour's chances than Labour are, even. Putting those headlines in seems to imply it's a much closer race than anyone seriously thinks.

It seems to me to be a really dangerous strategy. You're basically saying the guy you're up against is a real challenger. It makes you look scared. Less strong. Less stable.

I doubt the headlines on Friday will be as unexpected as some of the headlines we saw in 2016, but the Tories are the only ones who seem to think it's possible.

Sunday, June 04, 2017

General election 2017 - pre-election communications review

This is the third year in a row now that I have been collecting all the leaflets that come through the door ahead of an election. Two years ago we had a General Election (review here) and last year we had the Welsh Assembly elections (review here).

With the election less than a week away I thought this would be a good time to blog, except I'm at a disadvantage to previous occasions. Usually by now every party who are going to put something through my door will have put something through my door, but even though there are seven candidates standing in my constituency, I've only seen literature from three of them. It would appear the Tories have given up on trying to win South Cardiff. The Lib Dems are still a dead duck locally. And UKIP have vanished in a puff of smoke after pushing the most stuff through our door just two years ago. From boom to post-Brexit bust, it appears, for them.

Meanwhile, Labour are throwing the kitchen sink at this election, helped by a lot of boots on the ground canvassing. A record 10 items from them, the most from any single party since I started looking at this way back in 2007. More about Labour later. (All the scans later down in this post should open larger if you click on them- sorry that some edges are cut off).

Anyway, this lack of leaflets means I'm not going to do my usual thing of rating them, awarding points for positive promises and dinging points for every swipe they take at the opposition.

First to the real underdogs in the fight to become our MP. I was delighted to get a leaflet from the Pirate Party, mainly because I had no idea who they were and, Arrrrrrr! Pirates! Their candidate is Jeb Hedges, and I like the fact that Jeb does sound like a pirate name. He also has a pirate-ish beard. Sadly no eye patch or parrot. That would have sold me.

I actually agree with a lot of what the Pirate Party stand for. Free knowledge. Open Government. Respect for privacy and concerns about the Snooper's Charter. And I especially like the sound of "Evidence Driven Democracy". They crowd-source their policies and want technology to benefit everyone. That all sounds very sensible, but the silly name puts me off.

Onto the next party, who have put three leaflets through the door, Plaid Cymru. It would appear that Plaid have gone into full tilt Sons of Glyndwr mode, painting themselves as the defenders of Wales against the English parties who are all "London-based". They are going to fight for the best Brexit deal possible and make sure that Wales doesn't lose out when the EU funding that has dragged the country into the 21st Century dries up. Yeah, good luck getting money from the UK Government for Wales.

This is Ian's main leaflet. It's bilingual and this is the Welsh side.

Now, I am very careful about saying anything personal about candidates. What I would say, though, and this is solely from a professional point of view, with a long background in communications, is if you are going to publish your photo on a leaflet and shove it through 9,000 doors you should make sure it's a good quality photo. And you should try to smile. Ian is squinting into the sun in one photo, and barely smiling in the other, which looks like it was taken on a phone. You're with the party leader, man! Look like you're pleased about it!

Plaid are pretty left wing but I have issues with nationalism. I'm not too bothered by the anti-English sentiments, but I don't think pitching your party as the only way to protect your family from those bastards over there is particularly promising. Even if every constituency returned a Plaid MP, those forty brave souls aren't going to achieve much unless they can get on with the Saes.

And so on to Labour. As mentioned, a record-breaking 10 items through the letterbox, seven of them delivered by Royal Mail.

I quite like our MP, Stephen Doughty. I wasn't hugely convinced when he was put forward for the by-election in 2012, but he's done alright in the past five years. Like most of the MPs he hasn't been a fan of Corbyn, but that might change the way things are going. He's also voted against Brexit so good on him.

I like it when he puts positive leaflets through the door, like this:

OK, he does mention the Tories, who have never been anywhere close to challengers for as long as I can remember and I've voted in five general elections here. But it's a nice positive message. The informal photo is OK, it looks like a selfie and he's smiling.

However, we also had this:

I really don't know why they didn't go the whole hog and have someone wearing jackboots stamping all over Wales. Smart shoes and suit trousers could be anyone. The reverse of this warns about people being thrown out of work under the Tories, massive education cuts, the death of the NHS and so on. Never mind that education and the NHS are devolved issues, funded by the Welsh Government. It's a bit of an odd scare tactic. The Tories won't run Wales if they win the General Election. True that might still be able to ruin Wales, by turning off the cashflow to the Welsh Assembly Government (and they probably will, because why put money into a country that keeps electing people who aren't Tory?), but they can't run it without winning a Welsh Assembly Election.

Cathy and I also had a nice letter each from Carwyn Jones. Again, I quite like Carwyn. He seems genuine and like he wants to do what's best for Wales. His key message: don't vote Tory, you fools!

But that wasn't the only letter I've received. I've saved the best for last and it is the last election communication to arrive. My friend Matt had received a copy the day before and sent me photos of it simply because it is a stunning piece of direct mail. The letter is addressed to 'Dear Friend', is printed in a hand-written font, which might even be reproduced handwriting, and is from a lady called Vera in Blaenrhondda. Vera talks about how she remembers the dark, disastrous days of the miner's strike and how village after village had its heart ripped out. Her message: Don't vote Tory, you fools!

As someone who has written direct mail, and looked into the dark science in some detail, I think this is by far the best piece of pre-election communication I have ever seen. (I'm so glad I have my own copy!) I loved this. From the start when Vera talks about how angry she gets when people accuse her of just voting Labour because everyone else does, through to her reminiscence of the "good old bad days" (as Matt cleverly put it). Matt said he thought it would really appeal to the older generation, and I agree. You can forget your Facebook memes, it's the older generation who bother to go out and vote and this is pitched at them. If I get time I would like to talk to some older people and see if this has resonated with them.

Here's both sides of the letter - click on it to get it all bigly:

There's one aspect of the mailing that really lets it down. Again, this is looking at it from a professional point of view, but the envelope is utter garbage.

The hardest thing in direct mail is to get your prospective customer to open the sodding envelope! You can have the best, most perfectly crafted direct mail letter inside, but if the letter looks like junk mail it will get junked.

This looks like junk mail. Vera's brilliant letter, full of emotional hooks, and dire warnings of what might happen again if you vote Tory, is utterly let down by the packaging. Imagine what this would have looked like if it had a handwritten font envelope. Even better yet, imagine if this had a real stamp on it. (People almost always open direct mail with real stamps on.) As a perfect piece of pre-election mail, it's a case of so near, and yet so bland!

If this feedback gets back to Labour, sort out your envelopes. And at the rate things are going, they'll be able to have an even better shot at producing the best piece of election mail ever in 2018. Because elections seem to be an annual event now.

Remember to vote on Thursday.

Saturday, June 03, 2017

Rocking it like it's 1990

Two years ago I was given some medical news that prompted me to change my diet and lose weight. This has meant having to buy new, smaller clothes and clear out a lot of my XL stuff that is way too big and was long overdue for removal.

In the process I found this sartorial delight that I bought when I was about 14. 

Lovely, eh?

It came from C&A (remember them?) in the summer when everything was fluorescent neon. Shell suits were the other big craze at the time. It would be another year or so before the grunge hoodies and baggy jeans would take over.

I could never quite bring myself to dispose of it, even when I was far too large for it. But one benefit of being smaller is that it now fits. And according to one friend I might vaguely be on trend with it. I guess 25+ years is long enough for the fashions to come around.

Someone else commented that it makes me look like children's entertainer, Mr Tumble. I got quite a few comparisons to Mr Tumble when I was chubbier so this has given me pause. I'm not sure I want to dress in a way that is reminiscent of him.

On the other hand, I owned this shirt first...

Friday, June 02, 2017

UEFA Women's Champion's League Final - Paris Saint-Germain play Lyon in Cardiff

This is the last game I will see in the 2016-17 season (my usual end of season post will be along soon). And what a way to cap it, a European final in the city where I live, and the first live women's game I have ever been to. I joked to my friend Steve as we walked towards the ground that it was a 'personal growth moment' for me.

Opening fireworks

22,000 other people also came to the game, meaning the Cardiff City Stadium was very full. The PSG 'ultras' down in one corner added to the atmosphere with non-stop chanting. Several people had travelled from France for the game. The couple behind us were a PSG fan and a Lyon fan so there was plenty of what I presume was banter between them.

The Paris Ultras
The game itself was technically very good, but it lacked pace. I can't decide if that was because both teams were nervous, or whether it's because they were both continental teams, or whether it was because it was a women's game. There were a couple of occasions where a quick ball over the top for a runner would have opened up scoring opportunities. But the forward line seemed a bit slow to capitalise.

They were running in this picture

The game ended 0-0 but I still can't really work out how as I saw contenders for the two worst misses I have ever seen in one game. There was also a shockingly bad offside decision when a defender  sold her keeper short with a back-pass and the winger who ran past her was then flagged offside. The attacking player went nuts at the referee, and rightly so, because it was an "Injustice!" as the Paris fan behind us shouted.

Woman of the match for me was Wendie Renard, the Lyon defender and captain. She has got a pass on her, almost Gerrard-esque in how she hammered the ball across the pitch. She also has a real physical presence. At one point a Paris striker tried to play the ball and run past her and Wendie just 'edged' her a good six yards off the field, casual as you like.

Anyway, it went to extra time and no goals were forthcoming so we were up for a penalty shoot out. Many of the penalties were drilled home, but Eugenie Sommer, the Lyon striker fluffed her shot, which was Lyon's second. Fortunately Lyon keeper Sarah Bouhaddi saved one of the Paris penalties. Wendie went after Sommer, and just hammered the ball home. She walked back to the centre circle at the slowest pace, as cool as ice.

And it was Bouhaddi who had the decisive kick. It had gone to sudden death. Both teams had taken 7 and it was tied at 6-6. The Paris goalkeeper, Katarzyna Kiedrzynek, stepped up to take the 8th kick and missed. Then Bouhaddi placed the ball and drilled it home to win Lyon their fourth Champions League title. I filmed both kicks!

That's one of the things I love about going to football matches. You never know what quirk or oddity will come up that will make it a unique experience. I've never seen goalies take back to back penalty kicks in a shoot out before. I doubt I ever will again. But I captured the moment in all its grainy mobile phone footage glory.

We watched the trophy presentation. Wendie hoisted the cup as ribbons were exploded over the victors. Of course we had to watch this from the back, but it still looked impressive.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2 - big theological questions in a comic book movie (Spoiler warning)

Back in 2014 Guardians of the Galaxy was an unexpected hit after being widely tipped to be the first Marvel movie to bomb. Cathy and I both loved it (it was my film of the year) and we have subsequently got into GotG in a big way. Toys, books, comics, and playing the Awesome Mix soundtrack album quite a bit. I've blogged about how I found one storyline from the comics particularly inspiring. There was also a possible religious-themed social commentary in the first film - it's no accident the villain is a religious fanatic.

A few weeks ago Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2 came out. I was a bit worried whether it would be anywhere near as good as the first one. But I also had high hopes. I wasn't disappointed. The film was brilliant. But what I got was something much deeper than I expected. It is probably the movie that has asked the most interesting theological questions for a long time. Spoilers follow, so don't read on if you don't want any.

I love this promo image

The first film ends on a slight cliff-hanger. Peter Quill (Star-Lord) is told he is half human, and half something else. Yondu tells a subordinate that he's glad he didn't deliver Quill to his father. This film is about Star-Lord and his dad.

His dad turns out to be Ego, the embodiment of the consciousness of a living planet housing the physical form of a Celestial, an incredibly powerful ancient life-form. The incarnated version looks just like Kurt Russell. Ego turns up to usefully save the Guardians from an attacking fleet of spacecraft and then proceeds to invite some of the team to come and visit his planet. When he explains who or what he is, he is asked if he is a god, and Ego says 'Yes, but with a small g.'

Star-Lord is told he is most likely immortal, what with being the son of a god with a small g. And then Ego reveals his intentions. His billions of years of consciousness have convinced him that other life forms are mundane and disappointing and he intends to wipe them out, transforming the matter of the universe into his own self. Presumably to become a God with a BIG G.

However to do this, Ego needed more power - the power of two Celestials - and had therefore roamed the galaxy as his Kurt Russell incarnated self romancing all kinds of alien races to try and procreate another being with Celestial power. One of the beings he procreated with was Meredith Quill, Star-Lord's mother, and Star-Lord is the only one of Ego's children to contain the necessary Celestial essence. (The rest of his offspring are now a mound of skeletons in a cave.)

Ego offers Star-Lord the opportunity to join him in transforming the universe into God but first Star-Lord has a question about his mother. Did Ego really love her? Yes, Ego replied, but his mission to change the universe was more important. Then Ego drops a bombshell, saying he gave Meredith Quill the brain tumour that killed her. Star-Lord doesn't ask any more questions, he just draws his guns and begins blasting away at the Kurt Russell-shaped embodiment of Ego. Star-Lord and the Guardians then fight Ego, first to escape, and then to kill him.

As I said this is the most theologically interesting movie plot I've seen in a while. You could almost say it's an anti-theistic plot, in that it shows attacking a god (with a small g) as an heroic act. The Guardians get to save the galaxy for a second time. It's rare that a movie depicts deicide - the act of killing a god. Of course this isn't the 'god' of any established religion, this is a 'god' in a fictional setting, but it still opens up those questions.

Like many people who have been involved in a church a long time, I have prayed for people to be healed, who then haven't been healed. Just over 10 years ago a brilliant Christian man I knew died of cancer at the age of 32, a few months after diagnosis. This was despite regular prayer meetings, including at the Christian charity I worked at, asking for him to be healed. My experience is not unique. Prayers for healing often go unanswered.

I don't think it's an accidental music choice that when the Guardians arrive on Ego's planet, the song playing is George Harrison's 'My Sweet Lord' with it's refrain "I really want to see you, Lord." This is something prayed in earnest by many believers when praying for God to intervene in a situation.

If God doesn't intervene, Christians console themselves with reassuring statements that God's ways are higher, or there must be a plan behind it all, or, the line I hate most, that God takes the best ones first. (What does it say about those who don't die young?) Sometimes it's said that by dying, people are "really healed" as in made perfect in the afterlife. But that wasn't what was prayed for. When I have prayed for people I wanted them restored to full health in this life. And then sometimes people say that God will have all the answers when we see him after we die. That feels a bit 'too little too late' to me.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2 actually gives its main hero the opportunity to ask those questions without having to die first. If Ego is so powerful why couldn't he save Star-Lord's mother? The answer is so callous and cruel - not only did Ego not prevent it, he actively caused it - that Star-Lord forgets all about the promise of his own immortality and proceeds to attack the being who fathered him.

If we did get answers to our questions and we didn't like them what would our reaction be? Would we suddenly turn on God like Star-Lord? That's a big question. All the assumptions are that when we get answers we will be satisfied by them, but what if we are not?

I discussed this with Paul Hammond, presenter of the morning show on UCB Radio last week and Paul asked whether comic book movies are the right place for these kind of theological topics to be explored. It was a question that surprised me a bit, but as I thought about it I realised that they are possibly the only movies left where they can be asked. There is a layer of cynicism running through most 'realistic' cinema these days so perhaps to discuss questions of belief you first have to get the audience to suspend disbelief. If you've accepted spaceships and pink slimy monsters and genetic experiments that look like talking raccoons, it's not a stretch to consider interacting with a divine being - even if it only a god with a small g.

Monday, May 29, 2017

The "smoking gun" on that Aneurin Bevan 'quote' I investigated almost six years ago

Way back at the end of 2011 I wrote a post about the provenance of quotes, with three examples of quotes and stories that I felt were not authentic. A couple of months later I proved one of the stories - about the violinist Itzhak Perlman - was totally untrue, because I emailed his agent and got a reply debunking the myth.

One of the quotes was attributed to Aneurin Bevan. I could not find a source for it and the people who quoted it couldn't give me a source either. Then back in January 2015 I had the bizarre experience when I asked a Tweeter if they knew the source of the quote and they linked me back to my blog post questioning whether the quote was genuine. When I pointed that out they didn't bother to reply.

On and off I've noticed the quote still appearing on Twitter, often in this format:

And so to a few days ago when I got a mention on Twitter from a chap called Alex Marklew.  I had not heard of Alex before but he had written a piece on about the same quote. In his tweet he acknowledged my "initial digging" around the quote and he linked to the original blog post and quoted from it.

Alex definitely went further than I did, fruitlessly scouring the biographies that I'd been pointed towards but hadn't had time to read. He also seems to have gone deeper into Hansard than I ever did. And, most excitingly, he has found the quote, except it was not said by Aneurin Bevan. It was a summary of Bevan's position by a British sociologist called Thomas Humphrey Marshall, who wrote 'Social Policy in the Twentieth Century' (published in 1967). Alex has the exact quote in its context in his article. Then in 1978, Marshall's line was quoted in a paper called 'Medicine, Health, and Justice: The Problem of Priorities', with the quote attributed to Bevan. Alex refers to this paper as 'Patient Zero' - the source of the quote as a false 'Bevanism'.

I think Alex Marklew has solved this mystery, which I never thought would be, and I'm grateful. It was one thing on my list of things to get round to one day and now I can cross it off without having to lift a finger.

The question now is, does it matter who said it? I mean, yes, in one sense it does because misattributed quotes are basically lies given false authority based on who allegedly uttered them. But the question is do we still agree with the message, regardless who says it? I do. I think this quote from Thomas Humphrey Marshall captures the essence of why healthcare should be freely available to everyone. I'm not too bothered that it was said by someone writing about Bevan and the NHS and not by the "Father" of the NHS himself (as seen in the meme photo above). But I'm glad I now know who we should credit with saying it.

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

2017 film reviews - January & February

This year I am going to try and review films througout the year rather than having a stupidly long list at the end of the year like I did in 2016. So, to start this off here's the list of films I saw for the first time in January and February 2017. The key is as follows: C = cinema, D = DVD, N = Netflix

The Secret of Kells (D) - made by the team who made Song of the Sea (which was my film of the year in 2015). Brendan, an apprentice manuscript artist working in the scriptorium in Kells monastery looks after a manuscript gospel begun by St Aiden on Iona, as Kells comes under attack from Vikings. He is helped in his mission to protect the book by a faerie called Aisling who lives in the forest outside the monastery. The animation is excellent, although not reaching the heights of Song of the Sea, and the story is well told.

Passengers (C) - big budget sci-fi starring Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, who are both 'passengers' who have paid a huge amount of money to travel to another planet. A few decades into their 190 year journey they wake up. It's hard not to write about this without spoiling it, but it raises interesting questions about being faced with your own inevitable mortality despite having the rest of your natural life to live and what would you do if circumstances trapped you in total isolation from the rest of humanity. The film had a few flaws, but both lead actors were very good and I enjoyed it.

A Monster Calls (C) - Cathy and I had both read the book by Patrick Ness that this is based on, so we knew what to expect. The story focuses on Conor, whose mother is dying from cancer. One night the yew tree in the neighbouring churchyard comes alive as a monster and offers Conor three tales, told in animated sequences, before demanding Conor tell him "the truth". It's not an easy subject to cover in a film but it tries to address the difficult mixed feelings people have in those horrible situations. We both thought it was very well done, but Cathy felt they had missed one of the key aspects of the book. I was a bit thrown to realise halfway through that I recognised Conor's dying mum, Lizzie, as Jyn Erso in Star Wars: Rogue One. Other actors involved include Sigourney Weaver, who gives an understated masterclass in acting as Conor's grandmother.

Ex Machina (D) - science fiction thoughtful thriller from British screenwriter and director Alex Garland. Domhnall Gleeson plays a programmer called Caleb who works for a search engine company and wins a staff lottery to spend a week with Nathan, the reclusive billionaire company founder, at his isolated luxury home. Nathan wants Caleb to run a Turing test on a possibly sentient artificial intelligence he has created. The AI looks feminine, is called Ava and is played brilliantly by Alice Vikander. Caleb starts to believe Ava is genuinely conscious and therefore alive and then has to decide if he will help free her from the secure area where Nathan has contained her. But Ava might have 'her' own plans. This is a thought-provoking film looking at some of the issues involved in creating articifial intelligence and I thought it was well worth a watch.

What's Your Number? (N) - rom-com with Anna Faris as a 30-something woman with a disastrous love life who gets hung up on the number of men she has slept with. Not wanting to bump the number higher she decides to revisit all her ex's in the hope that one of them has developed into marriageable material. She enlists her lothario neighbour, played by Chris Evans (AKA Captain America) to help her track them down and in the process rather predictably they end up liking each other. I did laugh quite a few times, particularly at the scenes involving Faris' real-life husband Chris Pratt who pops up here as one of her ex's. Chris Evans is also funny and very watchable. There's a bit of nudity and frank sex talk, but nothing over the top. Andy Samberg has a very brief cameo, which also made me laugh a lot.

The Cobbler (N) - Adam Sandler plays a New York cobbler who's inherited the family firm, including a load of old junk in the basement. Hidden down there is an ancient shoe repair machine with magical properties that means when he puts on the shoes he has repaired he takes on the likeness of the owners of the shoes. This sounds on paper like an awful premise, but it strangely worked, helped by a strong supporting turn from Steve Buscemi and a bit of a twist. Well worth watching for something a bit different.

Good Will Hunting (N) - I know, I know, it's 20 years old and people can't really believe I'd never seen it, but hey, I'm finally caught up. Surely everyone knows the story and the story behind the story - that Matt Damon and Ben Affleck wrote a script and ended up winning an Oscar. Everyone talks about Robin Williams in this, and he is great, but I feel for Stellan Skarsgard who never gets mentioned but is absolutely pivotal. It's weird watching this now, and remembering how fresh-faced Affleck and Damon once were, before fame and Bourne and Batman. They tend to sleepwalk through movies now so it was kind of nice to see them act. Also I think I appreciated the film more, having been to Bawstun and hearing the accents in real life and riding the train through the city.

Sing (C) - Animated film about a city full of animals where a koala puts on an X-Factor style competition to try and save his crumbling theatre. The 'we need to save the theatre' trope was a cliche when the Muppets re-used it for their comeback movie several years ago. So that wasn't promising. The characters are a mixed bag. None get explored in real depth. There's a happy-ish ending and one or two clever jokes, but nothing exceptional.

The Lego Batman Movie (C) - I've already written a (spoilery) blog about how this didn't really work. It will appeal to a lot of kids who like Batman and who like people being silly and will therefore like Batman being silly. They have a lot of fun with the Batman mythos, but as a film it isn't great. There are cameos from villains from other franchises as well.

Birdman (N) - There was some hype about this when it came out and it won an Oscar for Best Picture. Michael Keaton is great as an actor who was famous 20 years previously for portraying a masked vigilante superhero before such films were such big business, and is now trying to resurrect his career in a Broadway play. I do wonder exactly how much of his real life feelings of regret for walking out on Batman back in the mid-90s informed this movie. It's hard not to think Birdman is a bit close to the bone. The film is a bit slow. Some of the other characters are a bit annoying. I didn't really like the ending. But overall I thought it was worth a watch and the cinematography as characters are followed through the twisting backstage corridors of the theatre is fantastic.

Ratchett & Clank (N) - I'm not sure this actually got a cinema release. Certainly it didn't really register. Catching up on Netflix, it's a by the numbers kids science fiction animation based on the vintage PlayStation game(s). Ratchett is a mechanic who wants to join the Galaxy Rangers. Clank is his robot buddy (and is rather adorable). Together they thwart evil, including a villainous robot voiced by none other than Sylvester Stallone. It's enjoyable knockabout stuff which made me laugh along the way, but isn't really a must-see.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

You can learn a lot about your neighbourhood by picking up its trash

One of the things I do occasionally - when the fates and free time at the weekend allow - is join the community litter-picks in Grangetown organised by Cardiff Rivers Group. This is far less boring than you might think and I've learned quite a bit from my experiences.

Archaeologists and anthropologists (and Wombles) can tell a lot about cultures from what they throw away and the discarded stuff on the streets is similarly illuminating. A couple of Saturdays ago I went along and was directed by Dave from the Rivers Group to go inside the Bowling Green and fish all the cans out of the hedge. Walking alongside the hedge to the entrance I thought Dave must be mad. There were no cans to be seen in the thick leafy healthy hedge. But inside it was a different story. The hedge was full of cans that had been shoved in from the street side and were hidden away.

I pulled out almost a full bag of cans, the oldest a faded Coke can in London 2012 Olympics livery, along with other rubbish and to crown it all (literally) the top of an artificial Christmas tree.

Coke cans are generally OK to pick up. The ones you have to watch are cans for disgusting energy drinks like Monster and Relentless. Those are always pretty much full when they are discarded, as if the teens buy them, take a swig and realise they taste the way a tramp's armpit would, and lob the mostly full can into the nearest bush. Or maybe they get a super burst of energy from the caffeinated swill and experience a full body spasm that causes them to launch the can reflexively away from their body as a survival instinct against drinking poison kicks in. Top tip: drain the can of it's nasty toxic contents before putting it in your bag.

Fag ends are even more annoying pieces of litter. They are fiddly to pick up with the litter-picking claws that Dave loans out from his truck, If you needed evidence that smoking is an antisocial vice, then it's all over our local park because it's not just the butts that smokers chuck. Fag packets and empty lighters get lobbed into the bushes, even though there is a bin right next to the bench where the smokers obviously puff away.

You don't get much evidence of other drug use, except for the nitrous capsules. These are metal or shiny plastic containers shaped a little bit like lighters with a screw-thread on one end. They never appear alone. If you find one under a bush, you'll find 10. Compared to the nitrous, the occasional empty baggie or rizla packet is a rarity.

And then there are the odd finds that also tell a story. The skeleton of a broken umbrella, turned inside out by the wind and chucked over the park fence by someone who has finally lost their temper with the thing and given it up as a bad job. (That was tricky to get in the bag without tearing open the sides on the spokes.) And then there are the untold and unknowable stories. What happened to the other half of the bed frame found lying in a kerbside gutter? How much money did that person spend on the lottery scratchcards now in the flowerbed, and did he win on any of them? Where is the rest of the Christmas tree?

That's my neighbourhood. A few kids do nitrous, but most can't finish their energy drinks. Smokers sit in the park and litter when they smoke. Some people put their hope in a lottery win, while others shove their Coke cans in the hedge. And Christmas is over when the decorations get dumped.

But the neighbourhood are also out on the sunny streets, and in the muddy borders of the park, picking all this crap up. And that's the Grangetown I love, because the kind of people who give up a couple of precious weekend hours to pick up rubbish and make the place a nicer space, are the kind of people you would want to spend a couple of hours with. There is an unselfish goodness at the heart of this activity that leaves me smiling for the rest of the weekend.