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Archive for March, 2011

I have an eclectic musical taste that roams the genres and I can find myself listening to anything from Finzi and Mozart, to Counting Crows, The Jayhawks, Guns N’Roses, Linkin Park and Sick Puppies, all via the Pet Shop Boys, “Ibiza dance” and Lady Ga Ga. Not forgetting of course Led Zeppelin, U2, Nightwish, The Village People etc etc…

Nothing gets to me though quite like John Denver and there is one album in particular that defines him for me: Poems, Prayers and Promises.

It was his fourth album and every song is an acoustic musical masterpiece (except “The Box”, Kendrew Lascelles’s stunning anti-war poem, read with genuine agony by Denver on the last track of side two). His beautiful tenor soars and swoops, occasionally tinged with a spine-tingling melancholy, and the lyrics are homely, humbling and thought-provoking without being trite.

Perhaps it is because it is the first non-classical record I heard Mum and Dad play that it means so much to me. Perhaps it is because it conjures safe memories of lying on the carpet in pools of dappled sunlight, thinking that days like that could never end. Perhaps it is because it has been the soundtrack to many a long car journey to Cornwall. Or perhaps it is because its calm simplicity lets me find my centre, even in the hardest times.

John Denver died in 1997. What a beautiful legacy to leave.

From “Poems, Prayers and Promises”

The days they pass so quickly now

Nights are seldom long

And time around me whispers when it’s cold

The changes somehow frighten me

Still I have to smile

It turns me on to think of growing old

For though my life’s been good to me

There’s still so much to do

So many things my mind has never known

I’d like to raise a family

I’d like to sail away

And dance across the mountains on the moon


I have to say it now

It’s been a good life all in all

It’s really fine

To have the chance to hang around

And lie there by the fire

And watch the evening tire

While all my friends and my old lady

Sit and watch the sun go down


And talk of poems and prayers and promises

And things that we believe in

How sweet it is to love someone

How right it is to care

How long it’s been since yesterday

What about tomorrow

What about our dreams

And all the memories we share

Vodpod videos no longer available.

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Lego was always a favourite toy.

Spaceships, towns, castles… But I never got quite as creative as the Russian who has mixed Lego with the online game Team Fortress 2 and stop-motion animation to create an ultra-violent tribute to one of gaming’s most popular online shooters.

As a gamer, a film enthusiast and a Lego lover of old, this is great. Complete with menacing Russian narration.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

 

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My future brother-in-law, Mr Bagnall, reminded me of one television programme that must be one of my all-time favourite childhood memories. Who could have thought that a five minute short animation of the simplest kind could create such a comforting sense of timelessness?

When so many of today’s children’s programmes are such a disruptive mess of loud music, rudeness, primary colours and inane bouncing around, the undramatic stories of The Merioneth and Llantisilly Rail Traction Company Limited, that recognise children are capable of being entertained in far quieter, more thoughtful ways, seem almost revolutionary.

Please give a big hand for Ivor the Engine.

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In 1992, the United Nations designated March 22nd as the World Day for Water in Resolution 193 of the Forty-seventh Session of the General Assembly.

The World Day for Water was first proposed in Agenda 21 for the 1992 Rio Summit, the meeting that hugely raised awareness of the role of local government and local communities in tackling global environmental and climate issues.

Since 1993 the day has been observed consistently, drawing attention to the plight of the estimated one billion people plus who each year have to rely on dangerous sources of water to survive.

Having travelled a little in India and Africa,  turning on a tap and being able to drink a handful of clean, cold water is still something for which I am profoundly grateful. Whilst it is easy to take it for granted, when I think about it I can’t begin to imagine what it would be like not to have it.

A year or so ago we had a small taste of what it was like to lose our mains supply for just a few hours. The sense of worry as you wonder when you might be able to wash clothes or make drinks again is out of all proportion to the scale of a relatively small inconvenience. It does, however, cause you to pause and consider how it would be to have to walk miles a day to a potentially polluted stream and draw water you’d be uncomfortable watering the garden with.

The IRC International Water and Sanitation Centre reports the stark analysis of the World Health Organization:

Each year more than 1 billion of our fellow human beings have little choice but to resort to using potentially harmful sources of water. This perpetuates a silent humanitarian crisis that kills some 3900 children every day and thwarts progress towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The consequences of our collective failure to tackle this problem are the dimmed prospects for the billions of people locked in a cycle of poverty and disease.

The root of this underlying catastrophe lies in these plain, grim facts: 4 of every 10 people in the world do not have access to even a simple pit latrine and nearly 2 in 10 have no source of safe drinking-water.

Thankfully, the appalling situation is not something that the UN/WHO are prepared to see continue:

To help end this appalling state of affairs, the MDGs include a specific target (number 10) to cut in half, by 2015 the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking-water and basic sanitation. In addition, the UN Millennium Project Task Force on Water and Sanitation recently recognized that integrated development and management of water resources are crucial to the success or failure of all the MDGs, as water is central to the livelihood systems of the poor.

Among the more innovative ideas for drawing water to the surface, one particularly caught my attention, marrying the desperate need for fresh water to a completely different and endless resource: the playful, optimistic energy of children.

Water for People provides a very clear explanation of how these amazing inventions work:

  • While children have fun spinning on the PlayPump merry-go-round (1), clean water is pumped (2) from underground (3) into a 2,500-liter tank (4), standing seven meters above the ground.
  • A simple tap (5) makes it easy for adults and children to draw water. Excess water is diverted from the storage tank back down into the borehole (6).
  • The water storage tank (7) provides a rare opportunity to advertise in outlaying communities. All four sides of the tank are leased as billboards, with two sides for consumer advertising and the other two sides for health and educational messages. The revenue generated by this unique model pays for pump maintenance.
  • The design of the PlayPump water system makes it highly effective, easy to operate and very economical, keeping costs and maintenance to an absolute minimum.
  • Capable of producing up to 1,400 litres of water per hour at 16 rpm from a depth of 40 meters, it is effective up to a depth of 100 meters.

Innovations such as this, which show the application of creative, lateral thinking, create a real hope that the challenge of providing clean water can be met. Days such as the World Day for Water play a crucial part in alerting all of us to the need to act sooner – not later.

The video below, again from Water for People, is quite uplifting.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Finally, by way of a footnote, I clearly should have written this yesterday – but being tired after a long day I didn’t. So my apologies for lateness (something I seem to do far too often).

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There’ll be plenty of people of my generation (mainly men with nerdy secrets I suspect) who, notwithstanding the CGI wonders of Michael Bay’s special effects-fest, have a special fondness for the animated series of Transformers and the tinny beep of “Tranformers Robots in Disguise” over  the dark thunderings of Linkin Park’s “New Divide” (I imagine my younger  brother Seth is among them!).

Very amusing then to open Metro this morning and to see a story about Drew Beummier, a contestant on American Idol, who has discovered that “chicks find it sexy” when he wears his home-made Transformer suit.

Apart from wondering if Em thinks I’ve missed a trick somewhere along the line, I do wonder if this is taking fond childhood memories a step too far?

Anyway, he’s hoping to have the suits on sale in the UK soon…

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Each morning the C2C trains trundle into London, beginning their journey in Shoeburyness, the end of the line that lies in close proximity to the secrecy-shrouded MOD facilities of the tidal island of Foulness. One hour and ten minutes later they arrive in Fenchurch Street, the oft-forgotten commuter terminal for East Essex that hides between the contradiction of gleaming office blocks and ramshackle reminders of older, darker London such as the East India Arms.

These trains pass through the seaside excitements of Southend, on past the old-now-fashionable fishing town of Leigh and then through the connurbation of Pitsea, which, with the closure of the Motorboat Museum, has almost lost its struggle to retain a sense of its own maritime connections. From Pitsea the journey enters the sprawl of Basildon, the brash young upstart neighbour of both Pitsea and Laindon, both of which were the principal local urban centres prior to the Whitehall social laboratory experiment which was the New Towns Act 1946.

Between Laindon and the sleepiness of West Horndon lies my favourite part of my daily commute: the Bulphan Fen.

Yes, I love the bleak industrial landscape of the detours via the loop line, forced on weary travellers by endless engineering works: the vast and towering complexes of Dagenham; the faded, crumbling decay of Tilbury’s dockside menace; and the empty mystery of Purfleet and its invisible military history. Yes, I love, too, the changing landscape of East London, where clean, proud new build sits between the higgledy-piggledy tangle of scrap-yards, brick-arch businesses and the shells of now-forgotten commercial giants of Britain’s imperial past.

However, for me, nothing touches the vast, rural emptiness of the Bulphan Fen for its capacity to reassure, by reminding me I have truly left the loud metropolitan chaos of the city behind me. Perhaps it is because it is the stretch I have travelled for more years than any other, the daily schoolboy journey to Upminster a daily and extravagant adventure that took me far from the country comfort of Langdon Hills. Whatever the reason, nothing gives me the calm reassurance of the prospect of home as much as this small stretch of a rural England that is quickly vanishing.

In Summer, the setting sun casts long, warm shadows that stretch from field to field, heralding barbecue-weekends, the easy company of family sharing a glass or two under the reaches of the old vine and the wistful strains of Finzi or Vaughn-Williams teasing our souls with the melancholia of English poems and promises.

In Autumn, tendrils of mist snake between the trees and hang low in the fields. They lend the landscape an ethereal shroud worthy of Tolkein that disguises agricultural purpose and hides the pylon sentinels in their silent vigil over this corner of South Essex.

In Winter, icy frosts glitter on earth as hard as iron. These last two years such frosts foretold the blizzards which saw our landscape reborn white and pristine, the dangers of broken road and path buried by snows that harbour their own cruelties and hazards.

And in today’s Spring morning, green fields sparkled with dew under cloudless blue skies and commuters burred quietly with refreshing wonder about the sunshine, its bold appearance vanquishing the greyness of February’s dying season.

I love the Bulphan Fen – and its enduring promise of home.

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You could be forgiven for thinking that part of the appeal of “Never say ‘No’ to Panda” is the peculiar novelty of seeing pretend animals acting in unexpectedly violent ways.  However, I was shocked to discover possible antecedents in the early work of Jim Henson and an era of “muppet ultraviolence” that hitherto had passed me by.

In 1957, Henson was contacted by Washington DC-based Wilkins Coffee. They asked him to produce a series of 10 second adverts for local tv stations. Between 1957 and 1961 he made – according to the Muppet Wiki – 179 ads, in which Kermit-forerunner Wilkins, the Wilkins Coffee-lover, attacks Wontkins, the Wilkins Coffee-hater, in varyingly violent ways.

The question I have is… Whatever happened to Wilkins Coffee?

Surprisingly, there’s very little information out there, even in the vast cyber-wilderness of the Internet. According to a poster on Michael Procopio’s blog Food for the Thoughtless:

Wilkins sold the roasting plant to The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company in 1970 and continued to distribute Wilkins Coffee from Landover, Maryland. Halco, a public company, purchased Wilkins in 1974 and the division was called Halco/Wilkins Food Service. Wilkins was once again separated and sold in 1982.

There the trail seems to go cold and there are few if any references to what happened to Wilkins Coffee. A second poster on the same site reports that the name was bought by Royal Cup Coffee but notes that there are no products sold with that branding.

Frustratingly, there appears to be very little information available about Wilkins Coffee before its murderous muppet adventures. The only thing I could find is a tantalising early reference in this list of radio programmes which details a 15 minute transmission on WRC (National Broadcasting Co.) at 6.30pm EST on Friday 3rd October 1930 by the Wilkins Coffee Orchestra.

I wonder how big a phenomena that was? I wonder how proud the members of this now-forgotten ensemble must have felt to hear themselves broadcast over the airwaves?

There must have been countless numbers of similar artistic ventures sponsored by companies that are now barely footnotes in our global industrial history. Wilkins Coffee, boasting advertising budgets that could fund hundreds of television ads, now really only survives in the global consciousness as an interesting chapter in the early history of the lunatic puppets created by Jim Henson.

If you can cope with the undoing of happy childhood memories of Kermit’s nephew Robin singing “Halfway Down The Stairs”, take a look at the clips below.

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