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    • Jason X (DVD) / DVD / 38 Readings / 38 Ratings
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      02.09.2013 22:55
      Very helpful
      1 Comment



      Slasher sci-fi that's more entertaining than you expect (but not that much)

      It's surprising (and faintly depressing) that of the three juggernaut stalk 'n' slash horror franchises of the late 70s/early 80s it's the most limited and unimaginative one that turned out to have the most legs. For sure, they all ended up being churned out in a creatively moribund manner, but the initial entries in the 'Halloween' and 'A Nightmare on Elm Street' series were highly memorable little flicks made by skilled directors with an innate understanding of what did and didn't work in the genre, and blessed/cursed with villains who were genuinely scary before over-exposure (or in the case of Freddy Krueger that and a terrible addiction to despatching every unpleasant teenager with an equally unfunny gag) neutered them. If one wishes to make musical analogies then 'Halloween' was like Kraftwerk: all technical perfection and precision execution. 'A Nightmare on Elm Street' was like the late era Beatles after the hallucinogenics kicked in, or Captain Beefheart.

      And 'Friday the 13th'? That, unfortunately, is just like Status Quo. It started out rubbish. It stayed rubbish. Repeat. Ad nauseam.

      ** 'So, What Were You Going To Do When You Grew Up? **

      Once Jason Voorhees put in his memorable first appearance towards the end of the first film and assumed centre stage, the Friday 13th movies cheerfully settled down to their standard lakeside setting and devotion to the idea that a stalk 'n' slash movie can do without the stalking and just have a large bloke in a hockey mask pretty much walk up to most of his (generally idiotic) victims before walloping them with a machete. Because of this it can be quite hard to tell each entry apart; there's the 3D one where baseball bats and eyeballs are thrown off the screen, and there's the Final Chapter one where Jason is conclusively offed at the end. Then there's the one where because Jason is meant to be dead someone dresses up as him and behaves exactly like him in killing exactly the same sorts of characters in exactly the same manner in exactly the same setting. Later on there's another 'Final' one where Jason (having spent three films basically as an indestructible zombie as opposed to an indestructible human) is conclusively offed again.
      And there's the sixth one, which is actually rather good. I'm not kidding.

      But back to the second occasion where Jason was supposedly killed off for good. This came at the climax of the ninth (yes, dear lord, the NINTH) film, but was also done in such a way as to tee up a mooted 'Freddy vs Jason' flick. This did eventually arrive (and was utterly, mercilessly awful; a terrible demonstration of what can happen when you give internet fanboys the exact film they want) but for a while was mired in legal disputes and development hell. Rather than wait for that mess to sort itself out, off they went to make another Friday 13th to bridge the gap...

      ** The Plot. (No, really) **

      It's something of a surprise to discover that a tenth film in a franchise whose producers are far more concerned about the eleventh entry actually ends taking more risks with the basic premise than the previous nine flicks put together. In the near future all attempts to execute Jason Voorhees have failed (he's like an even more durable Rasputin in that regard, but without a Boney M song about him), and a decision has been taken to put the incarcerated killer into cryogenic suspension. Just before this can happen, some bad executive-type guys roll into town spouting off about how he's too valuable a commodity to be frozen; arguments ensue and Jason takes his chance to escape. After he's slaughtered all the bad guys (the leader of whom is incongruously played by legendary Canadian director David Cronenberg), his chief pursuer (spunkily played in true 'Final Girl In A Slasher Flick' fashion by Lexa Doig, a shrewd piece of fanboy-appeasing casting given her role in sci-fi cult series 'Andromeda') lures him into the cryo chamber and freezes him, but at the cost of being accidentally frozen herself.
      Cut (or slash violently) forward to the year 2455 and a 'team of students on a routing training mission' (rough translation: the misbehaving teenage machete-fodder from all the previous films, only in space) are exploring the polluted and long-abandoned Earth, only to happen upon the chamber and its occupants. Back to the spaceship goes the frozen cargo, and Lexa Doig is successfully revived. And, because you would, they also thaw out the huge angry-looking bloke in the ice hockey mask wielding the huge cutting implement...

      And then they all lived happily ever after. That, or Jason goes on a killing spree around the spaceship that rips off (oops, I mean 'riffs upon') 'The Terminator' and 'Aliens' as well as the usual 'Halloween'...I leave it to you to decide which. All of this is played in a knowing style that only the aforementioned Part VI ever really tried before, and it'd be remiss not to admit that some of it (especially the parts that introduce genuine sci-fi to the mix) is quite inventive and rather amusing. The more experienced members of the cast tend to play the material with the wink to the camera it requires; the teenage machete fodder fares less well, although one has to sympathise when all their characters are no more rounded out than the following three descriptions:
      1) Male, teenage, annoying.
      2) Female, teenage, annoying.
      3) Female, teenage, annoying, occasionally naked.

      ** (Extra) Stuff and (Supplementary) Nonsense **

      There is a decent selection of extras included. The standard 'Jump to a Scene' feature is joined by a 'Jump to a Death' refinement; this is a disc that understands the needs of its audience. An above-average commentary track features director Jim Isaac, writer Todd Farmer and producer Noel Cunningham. A bog-standard 'Making Of' covers the production with particular focus on the (for the budget, excellent) computer effects. Best of all, the history and 'influence' on the genre of the titular character is addressed by 'The Many Lives of Jason Voorhees'; a splendid half hour with Sean S. Cunningham (director of the original and executive producer of most of the sequels) likeably continuing to sport a facial expression betraying his disbelief of the fact that such a thin and derivative idea has stretched this far, various horror cinema aficionados telling varying degrees of fibs about how the Friday 13th films aren't rip-offs and how they're better than 'Halloween', and (this is the most memorable section) a bloke in a fur hat who is a tremendous advert for how well-adjusted fans of this sort of thing can be...he looks like he's never seen daylight.

      ** In Blood-Drenched Conclusion **

      It would be unfair to judge the tenth entry in a deeply limited horror franchise by the standards one would use to measure a 'proper' film; lest we forget, this is a series which has prompted such memorable critical bon mots as 'The censor suggests you need to be 18 to see it...I would suggest you merely have to be daft'. I won't pretend for even a moment that 'Jason X' is a good film (it's not even remotely scary for a start) but seeing as it's one of the few entries in the saga to know how silly it is and to actively embrace that silliness, one has to acknowledge that it is largely successful on its own terms. It tries to be a good-fun-guilty-pleasure, and that's what it ends up being.

      And the fact that its casting director is called Robin Cook tickles me. Recommended. Of a fashion.

      (Previously on Ciao).


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      • Concept Two Indoor Rower / Fitness / 61 Readings / 58 Ratings
        More +
        09.05.2013 22:33
        Very helpful



        A borderline essential piece of kit for the serious seeker of fitness

        I am someone who has spent over a quarter of a century lurching dramatically between wanton slovenliness and the most manic of fitness fanaticism, and when you couple this with my barely repressed hoarding tendencies there's a degree of inevitability in the amount of sports equipment I've acquired during those years. Golf clubs languishing in the attic. Fell running shoes secreted at the back of the wardrobe. But constantly on display throughout my era of self-delusion (and periodically subjected to the most vicious of abuse from its owner) is my Concept Two rowing (mine is a Model C; the current version is the D) machine, an ever-reliable implement of cardio-vascular improvement and absolute agony.

        The Concept Two is easy to assemble (proof? I assembled it, and my DIY incompetence is legendary) and straightforward to maintain, a periodic dab of oil (supplied with it) and the mopping up of several oceans of sweat having seen it right for well over ten years. If the rower is in use it requires a space roughly ten feet long and wide enough for the user to splay out their elbows; the sensible will decide upon extra provision to ward off claustrophobia, or to allow for some nearby entertainment/distraction. (When I used to be a five-nights-a-week-at-the-gym-bore the line of huge television screens in front of the rowing machines would have a constant diet of Mariah Carey and Westlife videos on repeat, as if to encourage you to row even more frantically in the hope of getting away from them as quickly as possible. For some reason it never occurred to me to bring along my iPod). For storage purposes it breaks down into pieces no more than six feet long and relatively slim; I've moved house with mine three times and the space it consumed in the van (or indeed my car on one occasion) was comparatively negligible.

        Seating yourself on the rower is fractionally uncomfortable before the deliberate discomfort even starts: the moulded plastic seat is rather unyielding to the bonily-behinded such as myself. The stirrups for your feet can seem a bit over-slim to anyone wearing chunky trainers. In addition, the rubber coating on the rowing bar you pull on has a terrible tendency to bring the ungloved hand out in blisters. (These flaws were addressed to a moderately successful degree by the Model D). But I very much doubt anyone is going to buy a 'proper' rowing machine for its comfort. For this sort of investment you'll be wanting performance from the machine and improved performance from yourself. And in that regard the Concept Two delivers, and no mistake.

        The sheer versatility of the Concept Two is difficult to beat within the confines of a single piece of fitness equipment. It can be applied to increasing your personal power, anaerobic endurance and endurance, or decreasing your weight, depending upon what sort of speeds, durations or intervals you decide to utilise. All of these are easily read/judged from the display that sits in front of the fly wheel (a display with pretty decent battery life, it should be noted...personally it annoys the life out of me when I have to replace batteries) as well as calories burned and stroke rate. (Users with a Polar Heart Rate Monitor can view their pulse too. Given that mine once claimed my heart was pumping at 320 bpm during a session, I'd take its readings with a pinch of salt). In addition, if it's not painful enough already you can increase the resistance to the flywheel by means of a lever to make pulling it harder.

        The other area in which the Concept Two scores very highly is its ability to train/wreck almost your whole body rather than just a small bit of it. You can make it train just your arms and shoulders by having really useless technique, but if you're using it properly your legs will be wishing your father had never met your mother too (the stroke should begin with stretching the legs out before the torso then the arms come into play). And boy does it hurt if you really commit to using it: many has been the occasion when I've finished a session pumped sufficiently beyond belief for my dismount to involve rolling off the Concept Two because I was utterly incapable of standing up.

        Now, one shouldn't feel obliged to indulge in that sort of level of self-abuse to gain some benefit from this particular fitness gear, but like all fitness gear it only really repays whatever level of dedication and effort you put in (and for this much of an outlay you'd hope that both of those would be substantial). For those with the right sort of attitude, you won't go far wrong with a Concept Two. And for those who tend to give up at the first sign of lactic acid...well, I still have those golf clubs in my attic. Make me an offer.

        Recommended to the serious fitness enthusiast with a decent amount of money to spare.


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        • More +
          03.05.2013 13:57
          Very helpful



          A little bit of heaven come down to County Down

          'When we've got all we want, we're as quiet as can be
          Where the mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea.'

          Huddled into a squashed salient of land just inside Northern Ireland, the Mountains of Mourne do indeed sweep down to the sea. But that's not all they do and have done. More than most mountain groups they have shaped and influenced the lives of men: their slopes have been farmed for generations; their hollows have been dammed to water the city of Belfast, and their granite rocks quarried for roads and houses. And, as in Percy French's classic immigrant song quoted above, they have been culturally and socially inspiring: a regional symbol more resounding than the cranes of Harland and Wolff, Gerry Adams' beard or the Rev Ian Paisley's jabbing index finger. The summits bear witness to Northern Ireland's divided years, with lyrical Irish names paying tribute to Catholic saints (Slieve Donard) and more prosaic English monikers (such as Rocky Mountain, Cove Mountain, Hen Mountain, Pigeon Rock Mountain and Cock Mountain) describing the landforms, assorted birds and Bono.

          The Mournes pack a lot of mountain into their compact 100 square miles. They rise straight from the water (as anything sweeping down to the sea is wont to do) in steep steep slopes to the lofty crests of the High Mournes, before plunging down to deep valleys sheltered by soaring ridges and guarded by granite castles. This splendid land is buttressed from the Irish interior by the 'Back of the Mournes': less dramatic than the coastal area but still a tough highland of considerable character.

          Hard Nose the Highway

          The Mournes are about 30 miles south of Belfast, and it's logical that travellers from outside of Ireland will reach them via the city. Ferries arrive from an assortment of ports on the west of northern England and Scotland, and the two airports (International and City) are well-served from a good selection of overseas locations.

          Personally I've only ever used Belfast City Airport, and this is highly recommended for anyone who wants an idea of what a plane crash would be like without the trying-to-locate-the-Black-Box-in-the-sm​ouldering-wreckage bit. Apparently the adjacency of the runway to the sea is the cause of the excitement, with the discrepancy between land and maritime temperatures making a 737 become fleetingly as stable as a falling housebrick. A humungous thump and skid invariably precedes a lot of hysterically laughing adults and a similar number of uncontrollably shrieking children: an experience entirely in keeping with the man after whom the airport is now named, George Best. Well, in his later years anyway.

          The onward journey can be conducted by bus or car: standard rental outfits operate out of the airports and the Ulsterbus network is reasonably reliable. (Generally roads and public transport services are much better in the North than in the Republic, where many communities saw James Joyce more recently than their last sighting of a bus or train). Amongst the Mournes themselves are bus routes accessing most of the main access points to the mountains. Further information can be found at:-


          Opened Ground

          The Mournes have been an outdoor playground for the folk of the Province for generations: a municipal park on steroids. There is canoeing, mountain-biking, world-class rock climbing, and of course, walking.
          Access to the mountains is more akin to mainland Britain's uplands than those south of the border, in that it's very good. A veritable furrow of farmers work the lower slopes, but much of the higher ground is owned by Northern Ireland (formerly Belfast) Water: an estate draining both naturally and by human intervention into the huge reservoirs of Silent Valley and Ben Crom, and defined by the colossal engineering feat of the Mourne Wall.

          The whole range is compartmentalised by many such barriers of sliced and shaped granite, but the Mourne Wall is something else, snaking as it does for 22 miles over 15 peaks. It took 18 years to build and is the most impressive such construction I've ever seen that wasn't trying to keep out the Picts or Genghis Khan. Nowadays it doesn't keep anything out beyond livestock, but it remains one of the greatest mountain navigational aids in these islands.

          Thus the Mournes are fantastic country for those on foot. The more sedate can explore the foothills: Tollymore and Castlewellan Forest Parks, both easily reached from Newcastle (of which more later) are but two examples of estates with well-marked trails.

          But we want to go a bit harder and a lot higher. Don't we?

          (The following are just a few of many potential walking days, and while most walking guides to Ireland feature several Mournes excursions a more definitive (32 routes) volume is Paddy Dillon's excellent 'The Mournes Walks', which is in turn best used in conjunction with the OSI's 1:25000 'Activity Map' of the area. At the very least they'd help illustrate the following descriptions).

          Slieve Bearnagh

          Slieve Bearnagh's fairytale summit is the most dramatic in the Mournes, and its ascent probably the finest middling hillwalk in the group.

          The best starting point is the Cecil Newman car park, sited on a side road just off the B180 west of Newcastle. A little further up said side road is the start of the Trassey Track, which provides an easy passport to the mountains' northern fastnesses. It climbs gently and broadly through gorse and woodland before opening out alongside the Trassey River. The path continues its easy rise as it gradually sidles over to the river, eventually crossing it, and from here one takes the right hand track. This pulls more steeply past a quarry into the rock-strewn defile of Pollaphuca before depositing you at the gap at the valley head, Mourne Wall athwart your path and Bearnagh impending overhead in an impressively slabby manner.

          The energetic may turn right and follow the wall over Slieve Meelmore ('Big Peak') to Slieve Meelbeg ('Little Peak', despite being higher) before dropping down from the col between the two and using a handy path to regain the gap below Bearnagh. Most will preserve their glycogen stores for the task at hand, making the very sharp climb up Bearnagh by following one of the paths that makes a rightward loop to dodge the too-steep-for-comfort initial section. Soon you'll be back at the wall, which will bear mute witness to the few minutes of eye-popping effort that sees the pedestrian to the pleasant rockery of the summit plateau, crowned by the huge gothic summit tor and a glorious panorama of mountain lakes, pendant ridges, deep valleys and infinite sea.

          (Of course, if you don't climb to the top of the tor you haven't really climbed Bearnagh, but the congenitally clumsy might wish to pass on this bit. Scramble up to the low point on the tor's skyline, from where either a) stand on a pinnacle to the left, make a short but bold step across a gap (very nasty drop on left) before swimming up on lovely rough granite to glory, or b) drop down a couple of feet on the far side before following a path along a wide ledge for a few yards, making a strenuous move up into a body-width chimney and cheese-pressing your way to the top. One last hint: even if you climb up by a), climb down by b). Unless you're on your day off from Cirque du Soleil or share R Kelly's beliefs).

          Summit survivors and cowards should now follow the wall across the roof of the mountain to the North Tor, easily climbable by sneaking around the back. A long descent down a rocky slope leads to the col of Hare's Gap. Over the wall we go (there is a stile, worry not) and another descent down a wet bouldery incline should find an improving path that will return you to the ford from the uphill journey, and a triumphant trot back to the car park.

          A fine day out, and no mistake. (5 miles, 2100ft ascent)

          The Annalong Valley circuit

          A bit more challenging (it's a full day trip) is the Mourne Inner Horseshoe, a supremely satisfying circuit of the Annalong Valley. If walked clockwise this route rather handily splits into a hard then easy half: if done the other way...well, the climactic 1200ft up Slieve Binnian is probably quite difficult done on one's knees. Your choice.

          The start is the Carrick Little carpark on the Head Road that skims the Mournes' southern slopes. A wide track leads north for about half a mile to a fork: the right path leads along the valley floor (very pleasantly, but if you fancy a REALLY easy day you're better off in the Silent Valley over the ridge to the west, with its Visitor Centre and shuttle bus and what have you), but the left branch allies itself to the embryonic Mourne Wall for the tough grind up to the twin tors on Slieve Binnian's summit. The higher is the left but the one with the trig point is on the right, and both can be attained by clambering rather than climbing. Binnian is the last southern outpost of the High Mournes and provides sensational views over highlands and low.

          The high ridge running north from the top is superb walking, past the granite towers of the Back Castles to the ominous citadel of Binnian's North Tor. A scout around will reveal an easy route up this for the agile: considerably easier than the over-enthusiastic chimneying, lackbacking and camera wrecking that my ascent comprised. A long descent over cushioned grass and bruising boulders ensues, during which it's best not to contemplate the upcoming brutal slog up Slievelamagan. (All seasoned hillwalkers will tell you: it's rarely the big climb at the start that does you in, it's the big climb after a big descent in the middle).

          Luckily things are then easy; or easier. Sure, you still have to climb over Cove Mountain and Slieve Beg (cleaved by the astonishing chasm of the Devil's Coachroad)...but with each ascent being shorter than the last, you can get up a proper head of steam. By the time you're over Beg and have picked up the ancient smugglers' route of the Brandy Pad across the valley head you're only halfway there in terms of distance, but almost all the necessary effort is already spent. The Pad leads you across the face of Slieve Donard and back to the Mourne Wall. The Bog of Donard (a Ronseal Quick Drying Woodstain of a place, without the drying) is a brief obstacle before the short climb up Rocky Mountain. All that remains from here is a long languid descent down to the woodland above the river and an avenue through the trees back to the road.

          (There's a 200ft climb up said road back to the car park to keep you honest though. Sorry about that). (12 miles, 4000ft ascent)

          Slieve Donard

          Slieve Donard is comfortably the highest of the Mournes. Its dominance is undeniable, be you stood on one of the other summits, or driving down the A24 from Belfast, or even returning your trolley in the car park of Newcastle's Tescos. It's high and smoothly steep-sided, and while it may not be as interesting as some of the other peaks it's still a good climb to a fine belvedere.

          There are two popular ascents. Just south of Newcastle on the A2 coast road is the Bloody Bridge car park: across the tarmac and through the left-hand (smaller) gate (to save some tedious fence-hopping higher up), then the route puffs steadily up the course of the Bloody Bridge River. The valley is well-defined enough to make going astray difficult, but there are various paths on either side of the burn. You'll pass through assorted reminders of the Mournes' industrial past and ongoing functionality: abandoned granite quarries and assorted water workings. The lovely retrospect over the sea nags at your back while the onward view is constricted, but a little bit of application and a little more oxygen will see you to the ridge south of Donard and the emphatic landmark of the Mourne Wall. Peer over and you'll see into the heart of the High Mournes, with the wide expanse of the Annalong valley leading the eye to a long line of peaks framed by the cracking crenellations of Slieves Bernagh and Binnian. If you add that to 'something to lean against' and 'something to block out the wind'...it's a fine place for a breather.

          That's something to be glad of as you turn right for the final 1000ft of flog alongside the wall to the top. Gradually everything else sinks below eye level and you'll reach the summit with its assorted furniture (memorial, big cairn, wall, lookout tower on wall, trig point on lookout tower on wall).

          And the view: The Mournes themselves, variously sleek, stubbly and spiky; the rolling Irish interior of towns, villages and farmland; and the sea, seemingly infinite apart from those days where you can see the Isle of Man set adrift in its midst.

          This is the way I climbed Donard, on a warm and breezy late summer evening. I took the wrong gate at the start, rapidly became glad that I had my 34" inside leg to deal with the fences, nipped up Chimney Rock Mountain (left at the wall rather than right) to take in the view south, and then sat in the lee of the wall at the top, gazing over the sea and the mountains as the wind howled and the lighting muted. Then I trotted down over the outlying Millstone Mountain, arriving back at the car park at 9:15pm as dusk gave way to darkness: the last walker of the day. (7 miles, 2700ft ascent)

          As I pried myself out of my boots I noticed numerous other vehicles (and their occupants) parking up. I'm a sap, so I'd like to think of them as 'courting couples'. Y'know, rather than 'doggers'.

          The other popular ascent goes from the Donard Park at the south end of Newcastle, up the valley of the Glen River. I refer the interested to the following entertaining tyro's account of this route. Personally, I'd have made more use of the path. Just saying.


          Names and Addresses

          The Mournes aren't remote, and a whelter of settlements and amenities surround them. Pre-eminent is Newcastle, a busy seaside town at the foot of Slieve Donard. As well as being darned handy for the mountains, it also becomes the Belfast Riviera on any semi-temperate weekend; worth bearing in mind if you're not mad keen on the concept of Southend circa 1989, streets thronged with tipsy underdressed Bright Young Things and roads humming with pimped-up Vauxhall Astras.

          I make it sound bad when it isn't. There's a huge variety of lodgings, from hostels (which must be ok because I know people who've spent the night in one and happily gone back again) to the sumptuous plushness and eye-watering expense of the Slieve Donard Hotel (oddly for a top hotel you turn off the main road at Lidl, then it's the big building that looks like Willy Wonka's factory). Even if you can't justify the second mortgage needed for a room the Percy French Restaurant in the grounds serves a damned fine lamb shank. This represents the tip of the iceberg in terms of eateries and pubs to suit all tastes and most budgets: they even have a Tescos. And you don't have to stay in Newcastle as there are plenty of other places within easy reach of the Mournes: I used the excellent B&B of the Tolly Rose Country House in the nearby village of Bryansford, and very nice it was too.

          The Day We Got Drunk On Cake

          One of the great things about Ireland for the apparently-adventurous-but-actually-rath​er-conservative Englishmen is how it's just like England, but totally different: you can partake of a lot of things not available at home while having that driving-on-the-left-and-paying-in-sterli​ng comfort blanket to protect you. But (hopefully) nobody goes on holiday to behave exactly as they would domestically. Or to drink the same drinks...or to eat the same food...

          Of course, to gain a proper idea of the gastronomic delights of the area you needn't bother visiting a posh eaterie at all. The Percy French is all well and good for seafood, sirloin and superb lamb shanks, but it's got nothing on Tescos when it comes to procuring the truly emblematic local delicacy: Tayto Cheese and Onion crisps. You can get these in the South; they're even starting to crop up in England. But the packets you get in their mother country are still unique, unique in the way that Guinness consumed in the brewery in Dublin is meant to be (but isn't).

          These are an astonishing creation. They aren't the benignly crunchy and bland embodiment of bulb vegetables and dairy produce: they're more akin to being waterboarded by a combination of extra mature cheddar and your own tears. Its flavour is of such prodigious power that I can still taste the packet I consumed in on the 15th August at around 1pm. They're great.

          Local hyper/supermarkets (probably not Tescos, who are far too generic and unadventurous) will also stock Smak lemonade. If you're really lucky, you'll happen upon Smak Brown lemonade. Y'know...because one vague accidental reference to hard drugs is never enough. But if you aren't into buying drinks simply for their comedy value, get yourself a bottle of Finches Sparkling Orange, which tastes like an angel (who'd been bathing in orange juice) crying on your tongue.

          Seeing Things

          Whilst packed with interest the province isn't that large an area and a couple of hours of driving will get you to pretty much all of it (although the Giant's Causeway might be a stretch). So, if you're rained off the hills or just fancy a day off, you might visit...

          Belfast itself - A city of much history (not all of it blood-spattered and semtex-smeared, although the resulting murals are absolutely fascinating), and much greener and hillier than you expect. Many of the expected metropolitan trappings are present (museums, galleries, a zoo), but are invariably infected with Irishness.

          Seaforde Tropical Butterfly House - Well, I drove past it on the way back to the airport (it's on the Newcastle to Belfast road) and it looks very nice on the flyer I snaffled. As well as the butterflies there's a maze, gardens, tearooms and a kids' playground: enough to keep all bar teenagers and mottephobes amused (decent disabled access too). There's also a nursery, although if you're planning on flying home I'd be interested to see how that 'potted plants and airport security' scenario plays out.

          ...amongst others.

          That Which Was

          The Mournes are great: a superb range of very individual mountains uniquely acting as the back garden to a world of amusement arcades and kiss-me-quick hats. They're compact enough to be explorable in a few days, but complex enough to require a lifetime for genuine intimacy. They're ideal for walkers travelling with non-walkers (just make sure you're booked into the Slieve Donard and give them the keys to the hire car while you're off gallivanting). And they represent an introduction to proper hillwalking that manages to feel incredibly convenient without seeming at all watered-down.

          Mountains are often impressive and imposing, places of drama and danger. Few are genuinely beautiful.

          'So I'll wait for the wild rose that's waiting for me
          In the place where the dark Mourne sweeps down to the sea'

          (Previously on Ciao)


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          • More +
            30.04.2013 14:05
            Very helpful



            A busy little introduction to the Irish mountains

            Torc Is Cheap
            'Convenience' is a word that breaks out the hardened hillwalker in hives. One is meant to embrace the challenge of the outdoors, to eschew the comfy sofa, to try to strike that unsteady balance between climber and peak, and generally make one's experience as pure as possible. But some folk might like the idea of a mountain walk 30 minutes from the airport that can be accomplished within a few hours without needing the aerobic threshold of an Olympic rower. So, this one's for you.

            Torc (like many mountains, it's named after the wild boar) is an irascible little peak 1755ft in height, just south of Killarney. Shagged with trees and sporting a fine waterfall at its base, it squats like a watchdog over the town's eponymous Lakes, providing both a literal and metaphorical gateway to the higher peaks of County Kerry.


            Leave Killarney on the N71 towards Kenmare: this is the start of the fabled 'Ring Of Kerry', one of the world's great drives on the right sort of day (that being 'nice weather, out of season'). If you're 'in season', be aware that you'll be driving against the flow of tourist-laden coach-delivered Death, but this won't present a problem if you're only going as far as Torc. (It's beyond Torc that the road starts getting interesting, with its cavernous potholes, vast subsidence and Last-Stop-Before-The-Next-Life narrow blind corners). After a couple of miles you'll draw alongside Lough Leane, largest of the Lakes of Killarney, and then the entrances to Muckross Priory and House: low level walks, National Park Visitor Centres, jaunting cars, traditional farms and gardens, if that's what you're into. And a couple of miles later, on the left, a spacious car park is signposted for the Torc Waterfall.

            It's only a couple of hundred yards to the waterfall along an obvious maintained path (past a National Park information point: open from the end of June to mid September). Any able-bodied person incapable of handling the moderate gradient of those couple of hundred yards should probably reconsider their lifestyle: I suspect (without having tried) that a wheelchair user could be taken within viewing range of the falls. This ease of access is something of a double-edged sword: you'll be lucky to get any quiet contemplation done here at any time of year, unless one turns up in the middle of the night. But let's not be churlish: Ireland is a land surprisingly unblessed with waterfalls, and this 60 foot cascade is one of the better ones. It's possible to clamber carefully to the very foot of the falls, but most pedestrians will be content to view them from where the path doubles back steeply uphill. For this is the point that separates the folk 'going to the waterfall' from those 'going up the mountain'.

            Torcin' 'Bout a Revolution

            Actually, that's not entirely true: there are several colour-coded trails based on the falls looping through the woods above and around (see the notice board at the car park for details: none of them are more than a couple of miles in length and as such are suitable for the vaguely active family party). But the route up the mountain does go round this sharp left hand bend, and onwards and upwards, through the woods. The rumble of the falls gradually recedes to be replaced by a veritable parliament of birds, and gaps in the trees allow views over the lake. I saw a wild, untamed teenage couple attempting to snog each other to death hereabouts, but they may not have been indigenous. After about ten minutes you will pass a track on the right leading to a bridge over the stream: this signals that the top of the wood is near. Ignore it, unless you're doing one of the colour-coded things, and soon you'll arrive on a road next to another car park. Yes, I deliberately didn't tell you that you could have reduced the climbing by about 400 feet by driving up here. You'd have missed that nice stroll up through the forest, and besides, this is what you get for reading the daubing of an exercise fascist.

            Anyway, once you've finished swearing, you need to turn right along the road. This soon becomes a rough track: the Old Kenmare Road. As you walk west along it, the trees thin out and the Owengariff River burbles down to the right. After a few hundred more yards the track decides that it prefers its burbling on the other side, and crosses a bridge before hanging left and hugging the river bank on its way up the valley. Throughout your use of it, the Old Road is delightfully easy to walk upon, only rarely conspiring to be anything more severe than 'gently uphill'. In fact, whisper it, the most strenuous part of the entire ascent is the bit up through the wood...

            The valley becomes more open and bleak as you progress. Deer and hares are often seen here, comparatively easy to pick out against the stark hillsides. One could continue along the track as far as Galway's Bridge on the New Kenmare Road (aka the previously used N71), as do many hikers, forming as it does a section of the popular Kerry Way (whose markers you may notice hereabouts). But it's worth bearing in mind that you'd eventually reach the striking-and-supposedly-haunted derelict church of Derrycunnihy (at the junction of the Old and New roads: you can't miss it on the N71. We're talking late-night female apparitions, passing cars, drivers looking in drivers' mirrors, something suddenly being on the back seat, etc. Yikes. Where's Derek Acorah when you need him? Actually, probably playing one of his frequent shows at INEC in Killarney...seems like the Irish haven't cottoned onto him even if everyone else has), and the owls in Kenmare itself are really vicious, allegedly.


            Happy Torc

            Hmmm. Anyway, after about a mile the river bends obviously away to the left (south), and soon afterwards the path up Torc is signposted on the right. This was built by a specialist party in the last few years, and rather succinctly sums up the problems of managing tourist access to wilderness areas. Torc is probably the most climbed mountain in Kerry (more so than even Carrauntoohil) and is only really easily accessible via the slope you are now eyeing up. Said slope is tough grass, dotted with outcropping rock, but is otherwise 'easy' and as such can be climbed almost anywhere. And 'anywhere' is exactly where it was getting climbed: there is no obvious natural line, so the (mostly) inexperienced pedestrians were wandering (and eroding) at will. So the decision was taken to build a path. To the environmentalist/mountain sportsman in me, the concept is anathema, but having thought about it and (more importantly) sampled it...I have to concede that it has been done with a fair amount of discretion, is well-routed (it's a doddle, with the very occasional very short steep sections seemingly trivial next to the general gentle gradient) and now serves as a fine introduction to the pleasures of the mountains.

            So, up we go. The path, a mixture of pitched stone (on the steeper bits) and railway sleepers swaddled in wire mesh, meanders back and forth to mitigate the steepness. Until the latter stages of the climb the view is largely limited to the barren wilderness south of the Old Kenmare Road, with the legendary peak of Mangerton glowering over the landscape, a landscape that was extensively inhabited until the clearances of the 18th/19th century. That said, the glimpses of the Upper Lake (another one of the four Lakes of Killarney) to the south-west (and the striking peaks beyond) will hopefully inspire those who find this ascent awakens a primal desire to throw one's self at all the other big pointy things out there. And as one nears the summit, Muckross Lake and Lough Leane peer over the shoulder to the left of Torc's peak, giving the ailing tourist a last psychological push to the top.

            As you sit on your heathery throne your eye's first port of call will probably be the blue expanses of Muckross Lake and Lough Leane to the north, with Killarney (and some rather indiscreet hotel developments, unfortunately. Nobody has yet come up with emerald-coloured concrete) prominent. Gradually turning left, the lakes are buttressed by the prominent Tomies/Purple Mountain group. To the left again is an end-on view of the east section of Macgillycuddy's Reeks, and the long straggle of the Upper Lake provides the frontispiece to the grim defile of the Black Valley (whose inhabitants all died in the potato famine. The Irish: We Don't Do That Whole Euphemism Thing). Moving on we come to a convoluted area of lesser peaks, smaller loughs and Celtic badlands, before the mountains reassert themselves with the high dome of Mangerton. The panorama concludes with the fertile outline of the Paps (properly, The Paps of Dana: yes, Dana's Boobs), before the land declines into West Cork.

            All of this assumes that you can actually see the view. After numerous visits where Torc's status in my mind was as 'something to do when I can only spare a couple of hours', Ryanair's switch to their winter Stansted/Kerry timetable forced my hand: it was December and I did only have about three hours of daylight. And a Chevrolet Kalos. I didn't have the weather though, and my plod up through the forest was accompanied by the gradual transformation from 'overcast' to 'murky': by the time I left the Old Kenmare Road said murk was gently weeping on me, and so it continued to the top, only with a gradually increasing windspeed. Fortunately, I have a man on the spot with multiple ascents to his credit, and I've ransacked his photo archives to fill in the gaps in my mind's eye.

            Descent by the same route is easy and advisable. Inspection of the map would have told you that the way up is roundabout and circuitous, but with good reason: Torc is a rough little peak, and attempts at shortcuts are likely to lead to discomfort or trouble, or both. This applies on a smaller scale too: don't be tempted to cut the corners of the path on the way down. If you crave a bit of variation you could go over the bridge at the top of the wood and take the trail on the other side back down to the road, but you won't see anything comparable to the waterfall if you go that way, and the few hundred yards along the N71 at the end exposes you to a possible encounter with tourist-laden coach-delivered Death. Be careful, people.
            (6 miles, 1750ft ascent)

            Careless Torc Costs Lives

            Unless you're seriously languid, the ascent of Torc won't take you a whole day. So, a somewhat non-exhaustive list of things worth seeing nearby...

            Killarney - Probably the second most visited town in Ireland by tourists (so there's lots of accommodation, but it's wise to book in advance). Pleasantly bustling, with lots of pubs and shops and pubs. Pubs, too.

            Gap Of Dunloe - On the other side of Tomies/Purple Mountain from Torc lies this rather dramatic glacial defile. Jaunting cars (horse and carts carrying passengers) run through the gap (normal cars, jaunty or not, are frowned upon), and the splendid watering hole of Kate Kearney's Cottage is situated at its foot.

            Lady's View - Carry on down the N71, past the scary church, and you'll reach a car park overlooking an excellent vista looking back to the three main Lakes of Killarney. This is so-named on account of Queen Victoria's ladies in waiting proclaiming it the finest view they saw during her time in Ireland. Slightly further up the N71 is the junction of Moll's Gap with its craft shop, a place that feels almost comically remote considering it's on a main road, and a little further on again...the road descends to the sea at Kenmare. Owls. That's all I'm saying.

            Having got that far, you might as well carry on around the rest of the Ring Of Kerry (arrival at Kenmare suggests you've mastered the art of not being wiped out by oncoming coaches): at the risk of being as repetitive as U2's oeuvre, it really is a bit special.

            So, Torc: a fine excursion. And a final nugget from my mate Dave who lives nearby...'if you want to add an addendum to your review you could add that half a mile further down the road is another car park, where a 15 min walk takes you to Dinis Cottage (tea room, best choc cake ever) and The Meeting of the Waters.'


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              24.04.2013 14:02
              Very helpful



              A beautiful mountain in the wilds of Donegal

              The most northerly point on the island of Ireland isn't in Northern Ireland. For sneaking around on its western blindside is a slither of the south...the northern arm of County Donegal.

              ** In the shade of Avalon... **

              The actual guilty party is Banba's Crown near Malin Head, the utmost extremity of the peninsular of Inishowen, near enough to Londonderry as to kid you it's not remote and 'other'. But it is. And south-west of here the remoteness and otherness continues apace: perhaps only the outer isles of Scotland can compare for uniqueness of atmosphere in our little corner of the globe. Here lies a sparsely populated network of lofty mountains and secret glens, reaching across to a coast dotted with townlands and pummelled by a merciless Atlantic. No settlements exist larger than villages, the wild and largely infertile land encouraging goings rather than comings.

              Two ranges of mountains form the foundations of the interior. To the south are the Bluestacks: rough limestone hills strewn to the north of Donegal town itself, secretive and not much visited. More overt are the Derryveaghs: stern granite and quartzite mountains rising from ravenous bogs in the grand Irish style.

              Errigal dominates the Derryveagh Mountains and the Glenveagh National Park, asserting its superiority both by means of altitude (it's comfortably higher than everything else) and in form. Many mountains are dramatic and overpowering, but few can honestly claim to be beautiful: Errigal, with its steep sides shrouded in quartzite screes tapering to a narrow summit ridge, is one of the few. Particularly when seen end-on (from the south east but especially from the north-west, where it rises straight up from the plain in almost Tolkeinesque fashion), in terms of aesthetics it bows to none. The name translates to 'oratory', and indeed the summit would be a tremendous place from which to deliver a sermon...so long as the congregation was limited. There's not a vast amount of room for a crowd up on the top, but it'd probably be perfectly adequate for next year's meeting of the Little Mix Fan Club.

              ** To the lands I've never been... **

              Road access to the mountain is decent, with the R251 running along its southern base (from where it is usually climbed). This means that Errigal is roughly half an hour from the sizeable town of Letterkenny, and about an hour from Donegal town and Londonderry: if you're making a longer day trip from further afield, I'd guess you're talking two and a half hours from Belfast. For jet-setters, obviously Belfast has an airport connecting with multiple international destinations...and Donegal has a little airport of its own on the west coast, although that only offers flights to and from Glasgow and Dublin, and probably has the same fella doing the air traffic control, the baggage handling and the duty-free. Accommodation is plentiful (although I would book in advance in busy periods: http://www.gulliver.ie/ should see you right). I stayed in Donegal itself (for ease of access to Slieve League...see other review) but visitors focussing on Errigal may prefer something closer.

              (When I say the roads are 'decent'...it should be noted that it was on the drive from Donegal town to Errigal, on the N15 alongside Lough Eske, that my hire car, fed up from the constant headbutting that 14 days on the Irish road network gives you, finally decided to give a physical form to its emotional suffering and shredded the right front tyre in a quite grisly fashion. After an extended rummage for the spare and the jack, my protracted changing of the tyre precisely coincided with a short, torrential shower...bloody Kias and their not-very-clearly-marked jacking points.)

              Anyway, the sort of person seeking genuine guidance from me will probably want to know the easy way up Errigal, and with the mountain being fundamentally an L-shaped ridge arcing from north to east, the basic choice is 'north ridge' or 'east ridge'. The north ridge is quite awkward of access and with scrambling in its upper section that, while technically straightforward, is a little visually intimidating. So I will concentrate on the east ridge. This can be approached from the north, as part of an excellent horseshoe including Aghla Mor and Aghla Beg, but is more commonly approached from a substantial carpark on the R251 to the south. From here the peak appears as a slightly squished pyramid crowning the moor, with the even more crushed eminence of Mackoght (oft mistakenly dubbed Little Errigal) to its right, and the ascent, by the standards of peaks of this stature, is reasonably straightforward. If the cloud is down, the route probably isn't especially dangerous, but it would be a shame not to see the view: it might be better to go elsewhere.

              ** Errigal from the south **
              (3 miles, 1900ft ascent, 3 hrs)

              Regardless of the aforementioned 'straightforward'ness, the route keeps you honest with a rather annoying start. Various faint tracks lead discontinuously northwards up the slope, but they're united by one common goal: getting the pedestrian's feet wet. Judicious placement of one's steps will avoid the worst of the slutchy quagmire, but cannot evade it entirely: one suspects that only when frozen solid can this stretch be crossed dryshod, and under such circumstances the inexperienced shouldn't be on Errigal anyway. Your first goal is the dip in the skyline between Errigal and Mackoght, and by the time you reach it, conditions underfoot are somewhat drier.

              Turning left onto the ridge, the way becomes stonier and steeper, but as height is gained a more consistent path develops and will be seen zig-zagging upwards: this is a bit of a treadmill, to be honest, with the rattle of stones an ever-present accompaniment to the placement of feet. Psychological succour can be gained by following the curve of the ridge upwards by eye, and noting that the twin summits (with their abrupt separating saddle) don't seem impossibly distant (see photo): alternatively, turn your gaze to the south and the savage scene of the Poisoned Glen, a monstrously boggy bowl (next to which the lower slopes of Errigal are about as wet as the Atacama Desert) scooped from the mountains and girded with huge cliffs. In any case, upward progress soon brings you to a shoulder of the mountain and a welcome lessening of gradient, and the Joey Glover memorial cairn.

              The mountains have a habit of forging extraordinary men, and J.B.Glover was no exception. Not taking to the hills until he was 32, he brought a glorious tenacity and mania to the things he did once he got there. Usually clad in a criminally clashing red-sweater-yellow-anorak combo and possessed of a supreme ability to sink entire lines of vehicles up to their back axles in bog, he founded the North-West Mountaineering Club with friends in 1955, and the next twenty-odd years were spent in continuous cheery defiance of common sense. Marathon treks conducted at mightily anti-social hours (a race over Donegal's ten highest peaks starting at midnight?) and a tenacity often needed when you're the sort of man who climbs Ben Nevis in mistake for something else (this is hilarious, trust me) were Glover hallmarks: 85 ascents of Errigal were the thin end of the wedge. So his ashes lie here on his favourite mountain, because tragically Glover was shot dead in 1976, apparently in a case of mistaken identity. Not all Irish history is Tara and Fionn mac Cumhaill, alas.

              From here, it's not too far to the summit, and a narrowing ridge arcs round to the top. 'Compact' and 'bijou' are the watchwords here, and there is very limited room next to the cairn before steep slopes plummet from both sides of the ridge. Beyond the summit, the ridgeline follows an airy catwalk for a short distance to a slightly lower top: this should prove easy to anyone who has suppressed any latent vertigo enough to get here in the first place (see pic). If you want to marvel at the mountaincraft/madness of others, look to the left (west) from the dip between the tops: from here it is possible for the VERY sure of foot to scree run directly to the bottom of the mountain near Dunlewy...taking around 15 minutes.

              Assuming you don't have any pressing business that requires your presence in Dunlewy in 15 minutes...the vista is as extensive as might be expected from Errigal's dominance. The eye will skim from the grim fastnesses of the Poisoned Glen, over the causeway-cleaved loughs of Dunlewy and Nacung, before a wild expanse of coast (better viewed from the slightly lower top across the catwalk) engulfs the distance from west to south-east.

              Place your feet with care on the stony sections of the return down the ascent route: better to have the quartzite rocks bruising your feet than your backside. The car park is in sight for the vast majority of the descent, and the enthusiastic may choose to nip up Mackoght for dessert (better than than having it as a starter on the way up, IMHO). The bog seems less extensive with the anaesthetic of gravity to assist, so tea and medals will soon be yours.

              ** Let me crash upon your shore... **

              The ascent of Errigal shouldn't take more than half a day, so that leaves plenty of time to explore. Ascentionists are directed to have a mooch along the minor roads to the north of the peak, if only to properly appreciate the sharpness of Errigal's ridge, and to head towards the coast from there. So much of Donegal's scenic and historic interest is tied in to the coastline: magnificent beaches for walking along, huge cliffs and jagged rocks constructed to knacker Spanish armadas, and tiny townlands clinging to the edge of the land. So drive around Bloody Foreland, and work your way south from there, taking in as much or little of the shoreline as you wish. You may choose to visit tavern near Crolly, fabled for its folk music (if only to thank/otherwise its proprietors for spawning (literally) Clannad and Enya). You may choose to take in the gorgeous inlet of Loughros Beag, with the Assarancagh Waterfall and the Maghera Caves. Or you may take the ferry to Arranmore Island ('Facilities on Arranmore are limited, but there are seven pubs - The Rough Guide To Ireland' seems a rapturously Irish approach to catering for a population).

              You may even happen upon the legendary 'Ringing Cow'. If you're lucky.

              So, even if you aren't climbing Errigal or Slieve League...visit Donegal. If only to confirm that the Ireland of your mind's eye is still out there.


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                20.04.2013 09:46
                Very helpful



                A wonderful exploration of a fascinating niche sport

                We've been here with me before...but hang in there.

                Picture the scene. The great outdoors...someone, it doesn't matter who, is pitting himself against nature, trying to find some accord, some harmony. He briefly scans the landscape ahead, before putting his head down and reacquainting his eyes with his feet. Said feet are placed carefully, conserving energy and avoiding false steps. The movement is slow, as the person tries to build up some rhythm upon a surface that is constantly scheming against it. Time slips by, hours pass, and the sedate meter of his deep breathing and footsteps drives him upwards. Sometimes a steadying hand may rest on the slope for balance: perhaps the occasional appearance of outcropping rock will demand that the arms are required to assist in the battle with gravity. But if he shows determination, he will inevitably arrive at the top, where he can sit down, contemplate the view, and appreciate the sandwich fillings. And after a while, when his legs are rested and his minor oxygen debt repaid, he will arise and pick his way carefully down...possibly putting his Goretex anorak and gloves on as the westering sun urges afternoon into evening. Eventually, he will arrive back at valley level, pleasantly tired and content. He will have enjoyed the experience.

                Take 2: The same mountainside. Another figure is also sketching a route upwards, only this figure seems to be wearing a vest, shorts and trainers. Not bothering with such trifling matters as anaerobic thresholds, the weather, and the possibility of breaking an ankle if he misses his step, he streaks upwards with gay abandon. He arrives at the summit apparently on the verge of collapse, and without any sort of rest proceeds to turn around and run down again at an obviously suicidal speed. Occasionally gravity will force him to visit the very limits of his ability to control the descent: inevitably, his way of regaining command of his direction will involve speeding up rather than slowing down. Go figure. He arrives at the bottom, and the assembled masses (if there are any) will start wistfully thinking of Darwin Awards.

                Welcome to the maddest sport in Britain. Fell-running.

                Richard Askwith was a journalist and lapsed club runner who, having been introduced by his friends to the sport in his early thirties, developed an obsession with completing one of its great challenges: The Bob Graham Round, a course of 42 peaks over 72 miles with (and this is the killer, trust me) 27000ft of ascent. And the same descent. All to be done within 24 hours. So, statistically akin to running three marathons while climbing up and down your house stairs about 4000 times. And the reality is it's MUCH harder than that. Despite that, the Bob Graham Club, restricted to completers, has over 1200 members, and in the five years it took Askwith to realise his ambition (after numerous, often excruciating failures), he immersed himself in the sport: its history, traditions, future (?) , most famous races and most legendary proponents. 'Feet In The Clouds' is the tangible result of his immersion.

                And what a gloriously guileless little book it is. Combining aspects of autobiography, history, straightforward reporting, profiles and interviews, it is written in the style of a journalist or travel writer attempting to be clear and dispassionate but failing...he loves the subject matter too much. It's a hard game for hard people, but these are people who aren't prone to bragging and therefore they deserve someone who blows their trumpet with quite such bravura skill and untrammelled joy.

                The book has two basic framing devices: Askwith's 'progress' towards his Bob Graham ambition, and the documentation of a year's happenings within the sport. The former involves a colossal amount of discovery, both about the sport and about Askwith himself as he searches for the knowledge and inner hardness to allow him to reach his target: never was a truer word spoken than by the man who says 'Being fit is easy. It's being hard that's hard.' The latter involves some skilful newspaperesque 'reportage' as well as some far more personal chapters chronicling Askwith's competing in the most famous races in the calendar.

                These range from the comparatively short (the Burnsall race in Yorkshire, 2 miles almost impossibly steeped in tradition, and scene in 1910 of fell-running's equivalent of the 'Bannister Mile', where Ernest Dalzell set a course record so ludicrous that it took over 60 years to better it and whose legitimacy is still debated today) to the excessively long (the two-day drip drip dripping orienteering torture that is the Lowe Alpine Mountain Marathon), via a host of intermediate classics: the Borrowdale, the vicious Ben Nevis, the Grasmere guides race, Skiddaw and many more.

                Askwith explores the roots of the sport, back to 1064 when a king of Scotland organised a race near Braemar to audition would-be messengers, through to 'foote races'in the North of England in the mid 19th century, conducted naked so as not to spoil the clothes of the competitors. There were the guides races, born of a time where being able to call yourself the fastest guide was a ticket to a greater range and moneying of clientele, and from which came the amateur/professional schism that was as deep and livid here as in any other sport. And when he arrives in the present day he ponders where the sport might go in the time of the 'where there's blame there's a claim' culture and whether it can possibly survive as its pool of competitors gets older and sparser. All of this is done in a style that manages to be warm yet bloodless, and avowedly page-turning.

                Askwith meets the people behind the scenes: the organisers and the scientists. Foremost amongst them are Fred Rogerson, a quiet old man whose encyclopaedic knowledge and encouragement have driven comparative legions of runners to achieve the Bob Graham, and Pete Bland, who together with Norman Walsh perfected the breed of fell-running shoe still in general use today: a rubber rippled sole that I can vouch does indeed give 'excellent grip and shock absorbency'.

                And best of all, Askwith meets the legends of the sport. People almost unknown outwith of the cognoscenti, but athletes of staggering stamina, drive and bravery. That, and too daft to know better.

                He meets Bill Teasdale, probably the greatest of the professional guide racers, and winner at Grasmere a mere eleven times: one of only two of these superb athletes to have received an MBE (and when he went to get it, it was the furthest he'd ever been from his home in Caldbeck in the northern Lakes). A man of whom more than one exasperated vanquished opponent was heard to say 'has Bill gone home yet?' on reaching the finish line the proverbial country mile behind. He meets Helene Diamantides, a Greek expatriate who has made astonishing inroads into the performance gap between men and women in the more extreme endurance events. The first athlete of either sex to complete the three classic 24-hour runs (the Bob Graham, the Welsh Paddy Buckley Round, and the Scottish Ramsey Round) in a single summer, and in the winning pair in the Dragon's Back race, probably the toughest event ever staged in the British hills.

                He meets Kenny Stuart, the Keswick gardener whose unnatural fleet of foot over the steepest hillsides was sadly curtailed by ME. Stuart was part of the ultimate era of fell-running, and many of his course records still seem pretty invulnerable over twenty years later (the organisers of the Ben Nevis race habitually offer a £1000 prize to anyone who can better his 1984 winning time, safe in the knowledge that they won't). He meets Billy Bland, the manically training Borrowdale stonemason from the same generation who holds all the records that Stuart doesn't, records that nobody from the current competitive pool is even remotely approaching (Bland's record for the Bob Graham, probably the most amazing mark I know of in ANY sport, is 13 hours 53 minutes: 26 years on, nobody has got within an hour of it). Rather discouragingly for Askwith, Bland's last performance of the Bob Graham Round was entirely at walking pace, 'just to show how easy it is', and he was still 2 hours inside the time limit.

                And he meets the most famous fell-runner of them all, one who might even be known to the man in the street: Joss Naylor. The Wasdale shepherd is the other MBE in the sport, a man with the runner-up in the Grand National named after him, a former winner of The Biggest Liar In The World contest, and possibly the greatest living embodiment of the idea that the mind can bend the unwilling flesh until it will unquestioningly do its bidding. A man who had two discs removed from his back and all the cartilage removed from one knee before he even took up running, and who once spent six weeks with two broken feet without noticing it. A man whose record breaking runs inevitably include climatic hardship and phenomenal physical pain that would terrify all but the most resilient souls: ankles rubbed by ill-fitting running shoes until the ligaments were showing, 24 hour mountain challenges completed in storms that would make anyone else refuse to venture outside their back door, and attacks of cramp that would cause him to literally lapse into unconsciousness...Iron Joss shut them all out, and kept going.

                He didn't meet me though, and that's probably the most glaring omission. My most glorious mountain running moment (actually, because I'm endowed with just the vaguest essence of common sense, I rarely actually RUN in the hills) was descending from Skiddaw summit to Keswick (five miles and 2800ft of descent) in 28 minutes. I can remember the rush, the sense of other-worldly surefootedness on slopes where a twisted or broken ankle was only a misplaced foot away, and the cocky joy of hurtling past countless Sunday hikers (including everyone in the walking club of which I was a member) as though it were yesterday. No mean feat of recall, considering I was 15 at the time and therefore this memory is 26 years old. And I simply couldn't have imagined running any faster than I did, and I won't ever again, now that I value the ligaments in my knees a little more...Let's overlook the fact that Kenny Stuart ran this course (up and down) in 62 minutes in 1984, taking 17 minutes on the descent, including (so legend has it) the fastest mile ever run by a human being.

                This book tells you about this remarkable man, several more men and women scarcely less remarkable, and most of all it informs you that there are still sports that breed pure fortitude and complete camaraderie rather than greed and ego. That's not the reason it's the finest sports book I've ever come across, but it is anyway. A quite superb evocation of the collective human spirit.

                Hugely recommended to anyone who likes a sports book: even Premiership footballers are urged to learn to read so as to appreciate that the greatest athletes aren't the ones with the most money.

                (Previously on Ciao. Please note that this is a NON-FICTION book, despite its Dooyoo category).


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                  18.04.2013 23:16
                  Very helpful



                  The final (to date) dysfunctional-but-devastating hurrah of one of the very greatest bands

                  Bands are strange, ephemeral things. Logic doesn't apply. What would happen if you threw together the world's greatest singer, its most technically proficient bassist, its most ludicrously gifted guitarist, its most joint-wreckingly dextrous keyboardist, and Christendom's most almighty drummer? Who knows, but I'm betting it'd be catastrophically rubbish. That's not what makes a great band. It's a personal thing, but I think that bands coping with their limitations (or trying to ignore them) is where it's at. Or as someone far better qualified than I once said, "it's the way bands make mistakes together that gives them their appeal. Like The Beatles were trying to be black and Little Richard. The way they failed was genius."

                  Which is why we have a band whose singer and lead guitarist had never been in bands before, whose bassist was actually a guitarist who'd never played bass before (but thought it would be easier because it had less strings) and a drummer with a Rush fixation who worked at Radio Shack; and that band are usually cited as one of the most influential, if not THE most influential rock bands of the last 25 years. Beyond a desire to be in a band, there was no obvious reason that they should have got together (and maybe that's the reason they fell apart quite so comprehensively), despite the fact that a small ad asking for musicians "into Husker Du and Peter, Paul and Mary; no chops" is almost as perfect a piece of rock mythology as you could wish for.

                  The Pixies (notice, they're the Pixies, not The Pixies; that's an important distinction. Kinda), singer/rhythm guitarist/main songwriter Charles "Black Francis" Thompson, lead guitarist Joey Santiago, bassist/backing singer/secondary songwriter/"star" (and it's the latter two that probably caused the majority of the friction that made the Pixies burn so briefly) Kim Deal, and drummer/occasional vocalist David Lovering, came together in Boston in 1985. Thompson and Santiago had been suitemates at UMASS (an educational establishment he immortalised on "Trompe Le Monde"), Deal had moved to Boston from Ohio with her husband (hence her adopting the moniker of Mrs John Murphy for the first two Pixies releases, before her divorce), and Lovering had met Deal at her wedding. Attention came relatively easily for the Pixies; by 1987 they had recorded their legendary 17/18 track (there is one track of it that has never been publicly released; a cover of Christian rocker Larry Norman's "Watch What You're Doing") demo tape "The Purple Tape", which had been passed onto tragically hip English indie label 4AD by Throwing Muses (and soon to be Pixies) manager Ken "Anything" Goes. 4AD cherry-picked it down to the 8 track mini-LP "Come On Pilgrim". The astonishing sound this mis-matched foursome made was streamlined still further by producer Steve Albini on their debut full-length, "Surfer Rosa", and by the time the Gil Norton helmed "Doolittle" came out in 1989 the Pixies were the coolest band in the world, at least as far as the English music press were concerned; a substantial audience in England agreed with them, and "Doolittle" made number 8 in the main album charts, almost unheard of for an indie LP in the late 80s.

                  These first three releases pretty much told the listener everything he needed to know about the Pixies sound; indeed, almost twenty years on, "Surfer Rosa" and "Doolittle" are still considered to be absolute landmarks in alternative rock. The basic elements had been introduced; the Black Francis Scream (which is a great excuse to look up the word "horripilate" if you don't know it; that's what The Scream makes you do), Santiago's almost child-like surfy guitar lines and fondness for bending one note into another, Deal's budda-budda basslines and ludicrous helium-fuelled cheerleader voice, and Lovering daring to be "merely" a good rock drummer (after the Pixies split, he became a professional magician just to show that he'd been quietly bonkers while the others were being overtly bonkers).... then there were the songs, which were classics of tension/release dynamics, supremely catchy (for want of a better word) while often being quite magnificently abrasive.

                  So, if these two albums are the landmarks, if they tell you everything you need to know about the Pixies, how come I'm reviewing one of the other two? The Pixies' last album, one of the less-regarded releases, dating from a time when intra-band communications were practically zero?

                  Well, part of it is to investigate what a band does when its initial creative rush runs out; when the "automatic" songwriting (as Thompson put it) stops paying off quite so extensively. Can a band that's not really functioning as a band any more turn out something worthwhile? But mostly, I think I'm trying to redress a balance, because, contrary cuss that I am, this is my favourite Pixies album.

                  Pixies did two albums after "Doolittle"; "Bossanova" (which ramped up the surf aspect of the Pixies' sound) and "Trompe Le Monde". Relations within the band (especially between Thompson and Deal, with the former allegedly growing tired of the amount of fanlove being bestowed on Deal when he felt he was the one doing the vast majority of the work) were already frosty and continued downwards, and Thompson took more and more control of the band in the studio. Deal was almost fired before "Bossanova", and by the time of the Pixies' final tour, the pair of them were no longer speaking; her presence on Pixies records had gradually dwindled too, her previously-prominent vocals were now used, if at all, for the odd harmony, and she certainly didn't get to write any songs. And the albums were largely being written in the studio rather than being demoed, and as the Pixies' own road manager put it, "once you're writing the songs in the studio, it's over."

                  Thompson felt he'd more or less exhausted the "subject matter" he'd used on the first Pixies albums (he always claimed to be a surrealist, and earlier Pixies songs tend to be far more focussed on that sort of imagery than with more mundane concerns such as girls, love etc; he dealt in sex, death, religion and mutilation, and he made it fun. Honestly), so "Trompe Le Monde" covers all kinds of arcane matter. But to a lot of people, this is the Pixies' sci-fi record. Thompson claims to have been exposed to a UFO as a baby, and the subject has always fascinated him. He now used that fascination and married it to discourses on architecture, dinosaurs, university, shrimps, indie clubs and Indians. Oh, and a love song, just to show he could actually do that too.

                  Anyway, to try to justify my five stars, to get across the eclecticism on display, I will look at the record track by track. Bear with me...

                  1) "Trompe Le Monde" - For a man who wrote "Tame", "Gouge Away", "Bone Machine" and "Something Against You" to open an album with the lines: -

                  "Why do cupids and angels
                  Continually haunt her dreams
                  Like memories of another life"

                  ....is a bit of a surprise.

                  As a song, it's characterised by a few changes of tempo, some lovely Santiago guitar runs and sweet high singing from Thompson. And the words? Well, as Charles Thompson is a man who loves word games, fans have spent 16 years trying to work out if one is being played here. Or maybe it's just a "here's the album guys, enjoy!" sort of thing. To quoth:

                  "Go, little record, go
                  It is named by
                  Some guy named Joe
                  And the words
                  Are the letters of the words
                  Electrically played
                  For outer space and those of they who paid
                  This song is twice occurred
                  And now it's time to go
                  Away on holiday"

                  2) "Planet of Sound" - A magnificently wilful choice for a single. A little drum roll and guitar squall gives way to a classic Kim Deal bassline. A very very Pixies song; the spoken verse drops out to a staggering rock chorus, with one of the few cameo appearances of "The Scream" on this album. Lyrically, the Planet of Sound is Earth, and the song is from the point of view of aliens looking for it.

                  3) "Alec Eiffel" - "I thought it was important to speak about Gustave Alexandre Eiffel, as he is considered as the pioneer of aerodynamics. Fascinating subject"

                  A deeply addictive number, and telling of the band dynamics of the time. The song spends just over a minute on a call-and-response vocal which in days of yore would have been Thompson-to-Deal-and-Back. Here it's Thompson to Thompson. But no matter; just when you think what a nice little rock ditty it is, it goes somewhere else entirely. The last minute and a half is amazing; a Santiago guitar motif that seems to be in a totally different time signature to the rest of the band, and a repeated refrain (either double-tracked Thompson or Thompson/Deal; either way, it's gorgeous) of "Alexander, I see you beneath the archway of aerodynamics" which is underpinned by the first appearance of Captain Beefheart's keyboard whizz, Eric Drew Feldman. It's not abrasive at all, but it is wonderful.

                  4) "The Sad Punk" - Another song whose start and finish are on totally different plains. A minute of full-on rock guitar and full-on Black Francis shrieks ("I smell smoke and it comes from a gun named EXTINCTION!!!") gives way to a much slower, more thoughtful vibe and a long fade-out. This one's about a kid walking along the road and thinking of the dinosaurs beneath his feet.... according to its author.

                  5) "Head On" - An absolutely piledriving cover of a Jesus And Mary Chain song. Apparently the Reid Brothers fully approved.

                  6) "U-MASS" - Quite possibly the dumbest riff in the history of rock music drives this ode to Thompson and Santiago's alma mater. The bass goes wonderfully rubbery around 1:02 and the chorus is a triumphant scream of "It's educational!". Nuff said, really.

                  7) "Palace Of The Brine" - Pixies producer Gil Norton always used to say that Thompson tended to write ditties, short sharp songs with no fat on them. This is one of them; a tribute to the Brine Shrimp that lives in the Great Salt Lake in Utah. The first really obvious appearance of a Kim Deal backing vocal, and after only 1:34 it segues beautifully into.....

                  8) "Letter To Memphis" - Nothing to do with Elvis (the Memphis in question is actually in Egypt), this is, shock horror, a love song about Thompson's then girlfriend, later wife, eventually ex-wife, Jean. A great rock song with a great tune and cracking Santiago guitar flourishes.

                  9) "Bird Dream Of The Olympus Mons" - A Ronseal Quick Drying Woodstain sort of song, in that the title tells you exactly what it's about; a little bird that falls asleep and dreams it goes to Mars. The second song with a conspicuous Eric Drew Feldman keyboard part, it's a classic example of a song building to its climax, and gorgeously so. Interestingly, this was originally to be sung by Deal, but Thompson nixed the idea.

                  10) "Space (I Believe In)" - A song that screams "written in the studio", but one that strives to make a virtue of it. On an album with a few space-themed songs, this isn't about that sort of space; in fact, the lyrics deal with the space within a song, and how one should seek to fill it (or not). So, bizarrely, we have a song which deals with the bloke who's playing tablas on it (Jefrey Drew Feldman, Eric's brother). Maybe this is Thompson's way of mocking his own inability to write about an external subject; it's very entertaining regardless.

                  "We needed something to move and fill up the space
                  We needed something this always is just the case

                  Jefrey with one f Jefrey took up his place
                  Sat on a carpet and with tablas in hand took up the chase"

                  Musically, this is song showcasing Santiago's guitar, which squalls and spirals in all manner of directions. And then Thompson sings the Perry Mason theme.....

                  11) "Subbacultcha" - Each Pixies album had a song resurrected from the Purple Tape tracks that didn't end up on "Come On Pilgrim"' technically, this record has two, as "Distance Equals Rate Times Time" was originally "Subbacultcha"'s middle eight. Anyway, this is the only Thompson/Deal shared lead vocal, and is a low, rumbling, choppy tribute to indie clubs.

                  12) "Distance Equals Rate Times Time" - And now follow the two inessential songs! One of Thompson's more throwaway ditties, this time dealing with the omnipresence of television. This was 1991; the poor sod didn't know how much worse television was going to get.

                  13) "Lovely Day" - Actually, that's unkind to "Lovely Day", which has some lovely, very Santiago-esque guitar play, and a sweet lyric that might be about falling in love with a Martian girl. Can't be sure. But it does rather pale next to the epic.....

                  14) "Motorway To Roswell" - A tribute to the Roswell alien. Don't you dare laugh; this is my absolute favourite Pixies song. Another track that builds quite superbly, on a bed of some great Santiago guitar flourishes and motifs, gradually kicking in with a Feldman keyboard part, and a lovely, appropriately alienated lyric. But the best is yet to come; having spent two minutes circling around the lyric "he started heading for the motorway, and he came right down", still managing to build, suddenly the rhythm guitar, bass and drums all drop out, and you are left with a staggering ethereal keyboard line and a guitar beaming in a shaft of feedback from somewhere out there in space. Sorry to go all Lester Bangs on you, but there's about 50 seconds of it, and it's one of the finest things I've ever heard on a record.

                  15) "The Navajo Know" - Now, if the Pixies weren't the Pixies, they'd have ended their final album with something so utterly apocalyptic and vast as "Motorway to Roswell". But they are, so there's a little ditty about the Mohawk Indians who built the skyscrapers in early 20th Century America (Thompson used the Navajo in the lyric because he loved the internal rhyme). A lovely chuggy number, with a gorgeously simple (i.e. I can almost play it) underpinning guitar line.

                  So, this album isn't groundbreaking; indeed, it could be argued it's absolutely all over the place. And it's no introduction to the band in question, that's for sure (although Santiago's guitar playing is great throughout). But it's a deeply loveable introduction to the unique talent of Charles "Black Francis / Frank Black" Thompson, and while even he acknowledges he was a bit of a tyrant at the time (and legend has it, he broke the band up by fax), at least he had the benevolence not to end up with a useless record at the end of it.

                  Well worth rediscovering.

                  (Previously on Ciao)


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                    17.04.2013 13:59
                    Very helpful



                    A semi-successful attempt to condense the 80s board game phenomenon

                    For those of us spending the majority of our waking hours earning an honest crust, the onset of Yuletide is a time of mixed emotions. You might be gradually winding down as holiday mode gradually takes hold; equally, you may be beset with fervour as you try to get everything finished in time. You may have social events with a whole army of people with whom you wouldn't normally socialise, be buried under an avalanche of hastily scribbled Christmas cards and somehow acquire enough chocolate to make the town of Bournville sink into the Midlands. And more fraught still, you might have a Secret Santa...

                    I was once given a carnivorous plant as a Secret Santa gift. It died obviously, what with me being about as useful in the garden as soluble decking, but I appreciated the effort. Plus, that present stands out a mile amidst some of the 'witty' detritus for which I've felt obliged to look grateful (or at least vaguely amused) over the years: ten copies of OK! Magazine for instance, or 45 tins of Tesco Value marrowfat peas. And the worst insult of all: a Brotherhood of Man CD. (A slight I repaid the following year by buying the guilty party 'Fandabidozi: Our Amazing True Story' by the Krankies, a book whose mere cover is toxic).

                    Fear, surprise, ruthless efficiency, an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope...

                    But this year my anonymous benefactor had been paying attention, and my tearing open the obviously-female-wrapped package revealed 'Trivial Pursuit Genus Edition Bite-size'. For back in the 80s I had been one of those deeply tedious folk for whom the original game had been manna from heaven: as the type of lad who was decent at most competitive/academic things without being truly exceptional at anything, here was something that totally played to my abnormal ability to retain completely useless information. I played it a lot in its various early incarnations, ruining many parties in the process, until it eventually dawned on me that there's a difference between being impressive and being likeable, and that practically nobody likes a smartarse. Competitive quizzing was cast aside, but the reputation as a know-all didn't die, and this Christmas the Ghost of Quizzes Past (but not Quizzes Yet To Come, let me reassure you) paid me a visit in gift form.

                    The game comes in an easily portable (fits in my hand) box whose exterior promises 600 new questions (which could be added to an original Genus or Genus II box to augment their question stock: satisfyingly, the questions categories are the original ones, rather than the daft nonsense with which the manufacturers attempted to jazz things up later on). Breaking into it reveals a (somewhat annoyingly tightly packed) container in the classic TP wedge shape, resembling a large thick purple chunk of Dairylea. The annoyance extends to the opening of that container: scrabbling fingers struggle to prise off the lid before you discover that said lid is bafflingly attached to the body by means of a length of wire running through a couple of eyelets before looping through the base via two small holes. But once the top has been removed (and the wire wrenched clear and tossed crossly aside) you are confronted with a deck of cards and a die: the former contains 100 question cards (and two more that explain the rules), and the latter has a TP category colour on each face.

                    There is no board, and the rules are simplistic. The youngest player starts, and the die is rolled to determine the category of question to be asked. If the answer is correct then the card goes to the back of the pack, the die is rolled again and another card is picked for the player's 'Wedge' question. If the player answers this correctly too, they keep the card and put it in front of them: if not, the card goes to the back of the deck. To win another card, the player must answer a question on a new card before they can try to answer the 'Wedge' question on the next card (a little like the 'red-colour' arrangement in snooker). A player keeps their turn until they get a question wrong, and the winner is the first to collect six cards.

                    The pros:

                    * The game is highly portable and tremendously convenient, requiring next to no space in which to play. (It doesn't even need a truly flat surface). As such it's excellent for journeys (if not necessarily for children).

                    * It's a quiz. Some of us, despite the years we've spent in denial, regardless of the risk of complete social pariahdom (sic), really like quizzes.

                    * It's good for up to four players...any more would get frustrating. (I can imagine it would be useless played in teams, mind you).

                    The cons:

                    * The packaging is somewhat frustrating.

                    * It's disconcertingly easy to lose track of whether you're answering a 'Wedge' question or not...at least it proved easy for one person with a decent degree and one person with a Computer Science degree to do that. (The rules cards suggest a 'Speed Game' where you get a card for every question answered correctly...that sounds very much like 'Who Can Answer Six Questions?' rather than 'Trivial Pursuit').

                    * Maybe it's me, but the questions are easy, too easy, and far easier than I remember them being back in the day. Also, because the objective is just to answer any six 'Wedge' questions correctly rather than one from each category, it's possible to play an entire game without being tested on any dodgy areas of your knowledge.

                    * And there aren't really enough questions...you'd get through those hundred cards within a few games.

                    But I'm not going to look a gift horse in the mouth, and Bite-size Trivial Pursuit constituted a fun (if brief) reminder of my youthful indiscretions/inadequacies (and is therefore ahead of that Brotherhood of Man CD, which I refuse to use even as a coaster). Investigation on Amazon seems to imply it's only available used at roughly £24, but seeing as we had a Secret Santa limit of a fiver I'd hope it could be obtained more cheaply elsewhere.

                    (Previously on Ciao)


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                      29.03.2012 23:39
                      Very helpful



                      A magnificent peninsula in County Donegal

                      The British are by tradition an island race, a nation that does like to be beside the seaside. This is handy seeing as we are actually living on an island, but what (if we're brutally honest) is less handy is the seaside we've been landed with. Obviously it's not ALL disappointing (Beachy Head, North Devon, Arisaig, etc) but for a lot of us a very important part of our day trips or holidays is pretending that places like Skegness, Blackpool and Great Yarmouth aren't actually utterly useless. Some of us aren't very good at pretending, and so we tend to spend our free time slightly further afield. And if I go to County Donegal, it really is 'slightly' with a small 's'. A couple of hours past Belfast brings you to a dementedly diverse coastal wonderland at the northern extreme of Ireland, where titanic Atlantic breakers lap upon the most gorgeous of sweeping beaches, where peeling seabirds whirl and dervish about the hugest of towering cliffs, and where the 'characterful' locals eke a fascinating ongoing existence.

                      On Your Shore

                      The most staggering scenery in the county is in the south-west, where the horrifically beautiful declivities of Slieve League rear almost 2000ft above the waves (*cough*, see my previous review, *cough*), but as you continue clockwise towards the border at Derry the visual feast scarcely eases off. As the coast gradually turns the corner around Bloody Foreland one grows used to the inevitability of another golden shoreline, one more wildly remote headland and the succession of tenuous communities. It finally terminates in the 'Ireland in miniature' of the Inishowen peninsula, but a little way back from there, jutting northwards from the village of Dunfanaghy, is an even more compact summary of the Emerald Isle's seaboard...Horn Head. Here you'll find golden sands, varying granularities of pebble, flora, fauna, and feck-off cliffs. A bit lacking in pubs I'll grant you, but you wouldn't want to drive around this peninsula drunk anyway.

                      Strictly speaking there is the Horn Head peninsula and there is Horn Head itself. The former is a five-by-five-mile knot of land, an island until the overcutting of marram grass allowed drifting sand to join it to the mainland within historic times (land is always less permanent than you think), the latter its northern extremity, a place where the land gives out in the form of quartzite mandibles and the most wonderfully wicked gravity. It's all reached from the aforementioned large village of Dunfanaghy on the main N56 road less than an hour from the relative metropolis of Letterkenny (take the turn for the Holy Trinity church as the last couple of times I was there the Horn Head signpost was missing); the village itself is accessible by bus (although the very best of luck with deciphering the timetables) but the sensible and licensed will bring a car. And rail transport? Well, one of the locals might let you play with their Hornby train set if you ask them nicely.

                      As I Roved Out

                      For the avowed motorist the signposted Horn Head Drive is reasonably exciting (without being quite as death-defying as some accounts would have you believe). Leaving Dunfanaghy (and going anti-clockwise) the road traverses the dunes and skims the shoreline but once it starts angling up the hillside the driver might want to concentrate a bit and any nervous passengers might want to take a few deep breaths, seeing as the increasingly glorious view across the bay of Sheep Haven has an increasingly large/steep drop as a foreground. You're probably not going to die in the next few minutes but it's as well to bear in mind the consequences of missing a bend in such a situation, consequences starkly borne out in this harrowing documentary footage...


                      Rounding the corner the huge cliffs of Traghlisk come into view, hinting at the spectacular nature of the Head itself. A conveniently placed parking spot provides a fine vantage point for this vista, and also allows very easy access to the highest point of the peninsula. (This is Croaghnamaddy, and is about five minutes' walk inland. The view's great, and hopefully the fly-tipped washing machine has gone by now). Back in the car the tarmac loops still higher above the sea before salvation is reached at a T-Junction. A right turn here provides the closest road access to Horn Head itself; a left turn takes a gently declining and hugely picturesque line back to sea level.
                      Right so, it's a cracking drive, but inevitably there's a lot more to be seen if you leave the car behind. So here's a description of a walk around the western half of the peninsula (you can walk the eastern half too, but most of its wares are displayed from the road), relatively easy going and with an array of astonishing sights and sounds. Go on go on go on...

                      A Day Without Rain (fingers crossed)

                      The start is just past Horn Head Bridge (just over half a mile out of Dunfanaghy) where there's a notice board and space for vehicles; alternatively, drive a little further to a signed car park in the woods on the left. The latter option means you start with a sylvan shaded stroll beneath the branches (hopefully not assailed by billions of non-biting but bloody annoying insects like I was), the former with an open stretch along the river, but they soon unite on a beautifully smooth grassy path across a links that would make a tremendous golf course in an incredible setting if anyone ever dared risk my wrath by building one. After a mile or so the going becomes a bit more yielding and sandy underfoot, and a quick clamber over the dunes will have you tumbling down onto the beach. Or 'The Beach' as I prefer to think of it.

                      Wind Beneath My Wings

                      Tramore Strand is simply majestic; mile upon mile of pristine sand holding court over a fearsome battery of Atlantic breakers, backed by the brooding mountains of the interior. So friendly as to be the ideal venue for a picnic (if you can find someone mug enough to lug the hamper this far), so vast and wild that 'Big Wednesday' and 'Lawrence of Arabia' could have been simultaneously shot here without either production noticing the other. It's the most beautiful beach I've ever come across (and I'm old, y'know) and hopefully the shlep required to reach it will maintain its peace and quiet.

                      But onwards. A fun clamber up the rocks at the north end of the beach gains the continuation of the path, part of a waymarked trail whose focus will appear once you round the headland overlooking the strand. The coast becomes more rocky and fretted on the approach to the mighty (although not quite so mighty as once it was) blowhole of McSwyne's Gun, an obvious aperture in the rugged surface. Before erosion this was allegedly audible up to 20 miles away; these days it's a bit less dramatic but still worthy of notice and respect (the hole spits out rocks about 10cm in diameter at frightening speed, and there have been deaths here, so bear that in mind if approaching the opening during an incoming tide). The going underfoot is very easy so long as you don't fall over the edge (there are cliffs, although not 'cliffs' in the way that some things later in the day are cliffs) or stumble into a blowhole. Soon enough the corner is turned into the enchanting inlet of Pollaguill Bay, the path descending to sea level by an exhilarating (but safe) traverse across a steep hillside. The Bay is harsher than Tramore but even quieter, pebbly more than sandy, and supposedly a good swimming beach for the careful. (I have no experience to relate on this point because a) I'm not stupid and b) it's the bloody Atlantic. It'll be cold).

                      (Note that the walk can be shortened here by following the waymarked 'McSwyne's Gun Loop' back to the car park; indeed, turning east at almost any point will gain a road in time, even without an obvious path. Don't worry...most of the landowners will have the decency to ask questions before they shoot you).

                      Sleeping Satellite

                      The rattle of boots on pebbles grow silent as you grassily climb away from Pollaguill Bay aiming for the cairn on Rough Point on the skyline. The gentle pull uphill, the turn of the coastal corner and the continuing walk northwards are wonderfully easy: one can walk anywhere (so long as it's a sensible distance back from the edge) but paths can be found if required. A mile more of blissfully benign going brings you to the pull up Crocknaclogher. In a walk of ever-escalating highlights, here is the best yet: the magnificent Marble Arch forms a Olympian opening in the cliffs on your left, the sea within almost eerily calm amidst the shrieking seabirds and otherwise-crashing waves. Leaving the arch behind (and behind the wall on the left: a good way to keep safely back from cliffs that are gradually increasing in stature) the plod up to the skyline is heavy with anticipation, and when you crest the brow of the hill you catch your first glimpse of Horn Head on the horizon. It's a great moment indeed, its sawn-off antlers crouching moodily over massive Atlantic-bound declivities.

                      You're as well not to become TOO fixated upon Horn Head during the couple of miles leading up to it, although keeping on the landward side of the wall should eliminate all possibility of a really sticky end. The more adrenaline-addicted can utilise the seaward side and clamber over a couple of preliminary blunt spikes while admiring the impressively perpendicular westward plunges; the cautious can occasionally peer over at some vertically-walled inlets which are especially impressive on an incoming tide. This terrain is slightly tougher than what's gone before, but soon you debouch onto an Elysian tilted meadow of moss and heather which culminates in the horns. You can either follow the edge or take a more direct route; you'll find thin tracks on either course but only the former has a bloody enormous drop on one side to concentrate the mind, and either way the Head itself grows more ludicrously impressive with every step. Finally you reach a short cross-fence; it wouldn't stop anyone more than three feet tall but it does serve as a signal...from now on, no messing about. This is Horn Head itself.

                      Heaven Is A Place On Earth

                      From here the two horns extend seawards. The left (westward) one forms a platform of grass and bracken, its west wall collapsing in a shield of shattered streaked quartzite 600ft into a furious Atlantic. The other horn is similarly vegetated but narrower, a salient fin poking bravely northwards, separated from both its brother and the ground continuing eastwards by monstrously unfathomable chasms. The nervous may remain at the fence, but easy paths lead safely (in all but the worst of weather) onto both of them.

                      When I was there I met four other people, either lunching by the fence or wandering warily out onto the horns. Having engaged them all in conversation (they all turned out to be as nice as they looked but in the presence of 600ft cliffs it's wise to check that you aren't also in the presence of sociopaths) I did likewise. I can safely say that few bits of coast have made quite as much of an impression on me as this, the platforms on the end of each horn like thrones of sky, one of the very best places for experiencing the vertical from the comparative comfort of the horizontal. (Frankly, Conan Doyle missed a trick by not setting the Holmes/Moriarty death-struggle here). Everyone will find the excitement almost overwhelming, especially photographers, as they struggle and (like me) probably fail to capture the true scale of their surroundings. It's utterly sublime.

                      One could linger for a long while (or forever, if you're not careful), but eventually the matter of getting the hell out of here must be addressed. The coastline continues semi-eastward to a prominent Napoleonic lookout station above Traghlisk Point; you'll keep turning around to look at Horn Head (which is lost from sight after this) but the humungous cliffs upon which this ruin perches are scarcely less impressive. From hereon in the way is 'pleasant' rather than 'adrenalized' as a selection of eroded turfy trenches meander southwards over Coastguard Hill, past another derelict lookout post, before finally reaching the end of the road mentioned earlier. From here it's three miles back to the start (unless you've arranged a pick-up), and while the tarmac is unyieldingly tough it's softened by the charming rural foreground and dramatic mountain/maritime background. It's all downhill too, apart from the uphill bits, and make sure not to miss the necessary left turn after a couple of miles. And after all the coastal drama it makes for a calming coda at the end of a terrific journey.
                      (6 miles with transport, 9 miles without, 1000ft ascent, took me a lazy four hours)

                      Days In Old Donegal

                      Apparently there's more to life than idyllic beaches and incredible cliffs, so I'm obliged to mention 'other places of interest'. The Irish have always excelled at death and the afterlife, and a glance at the map will reveal a decent selection of megalithic tombs dotted about the peninsula. It's always an entertaining gamble to go looking for these locations, as they vary between 'huge dolmens that would have a visitor centre in England' and 'a bit of a pile of rocks in a field, possibly put down not so much by the Ancients as by a modern farmer having a laugh'. If one retreats to Dunfanaghy itself you'll find a Harry Vardon-designed golf course, a fair few craft shops, a smattering of galleries (one can well imagine this area forming a fairly decent artists' retreat) and a famine museum. In addition, a short distance west along the coast road is a car park giving access to the New Lake wildfowl reserve, the freshwater lake formed when the bay of Rinclevan Strand was sealed off by the drifting sands barely 100 years ago.

                      The Parting Glass

                      The coastline of County Donegal is probably the finest in Britain and Ireland, and its riches are almost embarrassing extensive. Even with that in mind Horn Head ranks very highly in its armoury of wonders, providing an excellent balance between accessibility and remoteness, combining wildness with tranquillity, and never forgetting to be blazingly beautiful while it's doing it. It may save the most extraordinary sights for the pedestrian, but it's hard to imagine that anyone could regret a visit here.

                      OSI Discovery Series Map 2 (you do need a decent map)
                      http://www.gulliver.ie for accommodation
                      http://www.buseireann.ie/ for bus transport; other private operators also serve the area
                      Nearest airport is Londonderry

                      (Previously on Ciao).


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                        11.08.2011 13:17
                        Very helpful



                        A brooding and elevated ancient fort in the north of Ireland

                        The Circle

                        Maybe it's me, but as an Englishman driving around Ireland I can't help but feel that the Emerald Isle's visible ancient history is so much more magical than our own. This isn't to say that the Stonehenges of this kingdom aren't impressive, but to me they're suggestive less of sorcery than of primitive science and lots of Druids, and it's hard to get excited by a sect that apparently counts Ken Barlow among its number. Over the water they have Newgrange, Gallarus Oratory, fairytale monasteries and cold stone tombs, all of which are viewed through a mystic meteorological veil that makes you think that Cúchulainn might drop round for a spot of stew at any moment. Even Tara, the ancient seat of Irish kings, seems otherworldly despite looking like a badly maintained municipal golf course these days. And then there's a lot of ancient stone forts, and if you're cruising along the main N13 Letterkenny to Derry road in the north-east of Donegal wondering what that circular walled thing on top of that hill on the right is...well, you're looking at one of the finest examples of the genre.

                        The Grianán Ailigh (which translates as 'Sunny Place'...those ancient Irish kidders) is sited about five miles outside of (London)Derry, just inside the Republic. As such the travel links are unusually good for Ireland; buses run along the N13 to within two miles of the fort (walking distance?) from where minor roads lead up to the site (as ever in Ireland, a car remains the sensible way to get about), trains run from Belfast to Derry, and airlines fly to Derry Airport or either of Belfast's two airports. Ferries from various parts of Britain drop anchor at Belfast too, and from there Derry is about 90 minutes' drive.

                        This Way

                        The place to leave the N13 would be obvious even without the clear signposting (another relative novelty for Ireland), for the turning is next to the striking Burt Church, described by the Rough Guide to Ireland as 'the most beautiful 20th century church in all Ireland' and by myself with my peerless grasp of architecture and having only ever looked at the outside as 'quite nice, kind of a failed attempt to scale down Liverpool's Roman Catholic Cathedral'. You won't drive past it without noticing it though, and having found the church you turn into the road next to it, climb a steep hill, make a right and gently contour up the slopes of Greenan Mountain before a left turn and a final sharp skyward pull gains a commodious car park. It's a pretty scenic car park too, but attention will focus on the fort itself. Less than two hundred yards of very gentle ascent along a somewhat over-maintained path (levelled then overlaid with wooden planks swathed in mesh; a bit of an eyesore but it does make the Grianán Ailigh unusually accessible for the infirm) will see you eyeballing the external walls.

                        Said walls are breached by a lintelled low(ish) passage which takes you through into the interior. Here you'll find a circular lawn of tufty turf, enclosed by walls about 20 ft high, staggered into terraces linked by slabby stairways in an almost Escher-esque fashion. Wandering around the edges reveals a few alcoves in the stonework, but most folk will quickly elect to navigate the multi-level vertical maze leading to the top of the walls (careful now; there are no rails or fences and the ledges are narrow enough to threaten Total Wipeout contestants or the owners of excitable dogs). Here they can drink in the extensive panorama of the interior to the south and west, the walled city of Derry to the east, and finally the winged coastline of Donegal to the north with the beautiful Inishowen peninsula bathing its gnarly toe between Lough Swilly and Lough Foyle.

                        Standing on this lofty belvedere it's easy for the romantic in you to imagine the fantastic scenes that might have played out here in olden times; primitive Christian inaugurations, festivals of feasting and games, and the gleeful pouring of scalding hot oil from the ramparts down onto Louis Walsh's ancestors. Your practical side may admire the rigourous standards employed by builders in ancient Ireland, and as such it's slightly disappointing to learn that the fort was extensively rebuilt in the 1870s, with controversial works continuing to this day. In fact the site's usage probably dates back to around 3000BC when it's believed that a tumulus and/or earthen hillfort was built here (explore further down the hill for evidence of the embankments...it's a nice area to wander over at will with an ancient road and another tumulus to look for). Maybe it was the prior existence of those earthworks that led to the stone fort being constructed here in the early years AD. The building was further strengthened by the Uí Néill dynasty in around the sixth or seventh century, and served as the royal seat of the Kingdom of Aileach until the early 12th century when it was sacked by the King of Munster (a situation easily envisaged, seeing as I watched an eight year old girl climb the outside wall like it was a ladder). The fort stood as a windblasted ruin for the best part of 800 years thereafter until that 1870s restoration, and ever since it's been a place of tourism and archaeology (and construction). Hopefully the construction is on a bit of a break.

                        Remembered Country

                        So the Grianán Ailigh is a site whose 'authenticity' (given all that reconstruction) is for the visitor to judge; to me it felt 'antiquated but not that antiquated'. It's not substantial enough to consume a whole day, being more suited to being an interesting diversion on the way to or the road back from somewhere else. And what it gives is largely dependent upon the mindset the visitor brings with them...and for those whose brains can declutter what their eyes see before bolting on a bit of imagination, it's quite an entertaining hour or two.


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                        • Paranormal Activity (DVD) / DVD / 116 Readings / 108 Ratings
                          More +
                          10.05.2011 23:34
                          Very helpful



                          Suburbia plays host to otherworldly horror on a shoestring budget

                          Let's have a quick look back over popular culture's (comparatively) recent past...because the future ain't bright enough to require the wearing of shades these days.

                          'Listen... do you smell something?'

                          I'm old enough to remember a more sensible time. A time when judgment and consensus were gradual things, and when initial opinion was allowed to evolve into a more considered conclusions. But not anymore. In an age of hype and hyperbole, shades of grey have been swiftly overwhelmed by the encroaching armies of black and white. For while the past few years have spawned a legion of Channel Four '100 Best...' shows with their endless ranking lists, the media still prefers the idea that everything is either the greatest or the worst ever. Thus that same period has apparently coincided with the greatest glut of 'the scariest movie ever's since the Lumiere brothers visited the patent office. Since 'The Exorcist' we've had the likes of 'The Shining', 'The Silence of the Lambs', 'S7ven', 'The Blair Witch Project', 'Big Momma's House 2'...and now the latest sledgehammer-marketed contender, 'Paranormal Activity'. It's easy to be cynical, but given that Paramount spent $300k to acquire the rights before spending $10m on the promotion when the flick made by a video game programmer who'd never made a feature film before (and probably didn't think he was making one here) cost the princely sum of $15k in the first place...presumably someone at the studio thought they were onto something. And seeing as 'Paranormal Activity' is now the most profitable film ever made, that person had a point.

                          'Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together... mass hysteria!'

                          Even though its DNA is resolutely 'indie', there is one way in which 'Paranormal Activity' fits perfectly into the modern studio machine: it's pretty much devoid of a plot. Instead, what we have is A Situation: a situation that gradually unravels and deteriorates under the stresses of a repetitive-but-escalating series of events. It's a bit like the recurring episodic sketches on The Fast Show in that respect.

                          We are introduced to a young couple: Micah and Katie, who live in a very ordinary house in the suburbs of San Diego. They have been bothered by noises in the night, and so Micah has bought a video camera to attempt to capture the odd occurrences on film. From thereon in the film follows a constant cycle: Micah will set up the camera in the corner of their bedroom overnight, and the following day will see the couple react to the events of the wee small hours while Micah pores over the footage in an attempt to work out what the hell is going on. And as things get more and more ominous he gets more and more irritated-cum-confused while she goes from perturbed, to frightened, to absolutely terrified.

                          Erm, that's it.

                          So, never mind the humungous hype and the reductio-ad-absurdium of a storyline...is this really the most frightening movie ever made? Hell, is it actually any good at all?

                          'Don't cross the streams...'

                          Well, obviously it isn't the former, and I suspect that even the perspective afforded by time won't anoint it with that particular crown. But for those in the mood, it's most definitely the latter, in spades. And for those not in the mood, if you're dead set on not being scared...well, 'The Twilight Saga' is available on DVD/Blu-ray boxset right now...off you go then.

                          Because this is most definitely a slow burn of a film, and those whose brains are conditioned to the pacing of conventional movies (especially those in the horror genre) will be fidgety. Its effectiveness comes from the mundane nature of the characters (to whom one is thoroughly introduced, because you never care about the fate of folk you don't really know) and especially the setting: this isn't some dark gothic castle fabricated through the flourishes of a set-designer. This is obviously someone's house (actually it belongs to the director), and it's a house to which a large slice of the audience can probably relate. It's something bad happening to someone like you in some place you might sleep.

                          The Someones Like You (who, in a handy coincidence, share the names of the actors portraying them) carry a considerable dramatic burden given that they are on screen 99% of the time (there's a psychic investigator who turns up a couple of times before unease gets the better of him (rarely a good sign), and a fleetingly glimpsed friend of Katie's presumably included to establish her life outside of the house): given the film's vérité style it's critical that you never notice that the protagonists are 'acting'. To this end, Katie Featherstone is deeply unshowy and believable. Chirpy, harassed, exasperated and terrified in turn, she makes her predicament both ghastly and easy to buy into. Hounded by an unseen force she cannot escape from, it's a good job she has a fabulous boyfriend to turn to, isn't it?

                          'I make it a rule never to get involved with possessed people...actually, it's more of a guideline than a rule'

                          In a word...'no'. It's hard to think of a scary movie where at least one character doesn't do something wilfully stupid and illogical in order to advance the plot (a quick sweep of my own memory couldn't come up with any save for The Exorcist itself), and in 'Paranormal Activity' we have Micah Sloat to rely upon. Micah, bless him: one can only imagine what he might do if presented with a more promising scenario such as living next door to a spooky cemetery guarded by platoons of flesh-eating zombies and with a deranged axe murderer on the loose, but he still performs admirably in a house with a few odd noises. Any sympathy one might have for his personal sample of supernatural suffering quickly dissipates once the audience discovers just how much of a geeky alpha male pillock he is. For instance...

                          1) Upon acquiring the camera, Micah begins by behaving like one of those Christmas Day bores who films absolutely everything anyone does, before making the logical (and equally tedious) progression to repeatedly attempting to persuade Katie to have sex with him on film. You know, like a sixteen year old boy who's simultaneously discovered both a) the joyous concept of a disposable income, and b) his penis.

                          2) Having promised his girlfriend that he'll listen to the psychic investigator and NOT buy a Ouija board in an attempt to communicate with Whatever It Is, he goes and gets one anyway. But hey, it's alright. After all, he borrowed it, and his promise only covered his not buying one. Women always fall for that, don't they?

                          3) In the midst of a particularly memorable night time sequence (doors slamming, more noise than the Monsters Of Rock festival, etc.), he leaves his girlfriend to go exploring the loft. Like you would.

                          4) And best of all, he treats the malevolent otherworldly presence lurking in the house as being less a colossal threat to his and (more particularly) his girlfriend's body and soul, more an inconvenience that grates a bit in its unwillingness to be explained and controlled. Therefore he manages to ignore the escalating terror of his significant other in favour of treating the situation like a cool puzzle to be solved: never a good idea when thinking doesn't seem to be your strong point.

                          Despite all this, he does come across as 'real', which is critical for a film like this, But one hopes that Mr Sloat isn't this annoying in real life, although it's worrying that the actors apparently improvised all their own dialogue. And one can't help but think that Katie would be better off with the source of her terror. At least it's deeply interested in her inner soul.

                          'FOUR FEET above her covers...'

                          The daylight sequences serve to introduce these protagonists and make some sense of the nocturnal occurrences, but they also try to cover some of the narrative holes that many horror films leave unplugged. (Why don't they just leave the haunted house? Why don't the pair of them ever seem to do any work? Both answered with dialogue that doesn't seem bolted on as exposition). But it's in the dead of night sequences with the camera locked to a tripod in the corner of the bedroom as the couple sleep that the film delivers to anyone willing to do any receiving. Through repeated prolonged exposure to that one shot the audience becomes so familiar with how it should look that the slightest change or movement is enormously amplified (especially when you factor in the sound). And the shot itself is so brilliantly framed: a relentlessly ticking time clock in the corner, a bed filling most of the right hand side, and an enormous big space on the left into which something might or might not jump. And most troubling of all, the open bedroom door leading out to the universal fear that is 'an upstairs darkened hallway'. I don't know about you, but personally I'd have kept it shut. Or left the lights on.

                          It's easy to consider this all to be very 'Blair Witch Project' but that would be misleading: all it really shares with that movie is the low-fi execution and the largely unseen threat. This is a much more streamlined proposition, devoid as it is of an invented mythology, and much less coy about throwing in overt 'jump' moments. Also its setting is more universal by comparison: I think we've all lived in a house at some point, whereas hardly anyone in their right mind has ever gone overnight camping in the middle of the woods.

                          No, the comparisons are more validly made with the likes of 'The Exorcist' or 'The Entity' (a slightly cheesy but bloody scary saga of bad hair and supernatural sexual assault from the early 80s), each of which feature a young female attracting the unwelcome interest of something demonic. There have also been plenty of previous movies (such as the original version of 'The Haunting') where a very palpable air of menace has been carried by nothing more than suggestion and sound design. But possibly most relevant of all would be John Carpenter's 'Halloween': a movie where the frame often contains a big dark space in which something awful might happen, and the nice cosy bosom of suburbia is shown to be absolutely lethal.

                          'That's a big Twinkie...' (DVD Extras)

                          1) The inevitable commentary from editor/producer/writer/director/landlord Oren Peli. Given that the film was shot in his house, one might have hoped for loads of crazy anecdotes about how Katie Featherstone kept hogging the bathroom and leaving the toilet seat down, how the neighbours wondered what the hell all the noise was in aid of, and how the stench of Micah Sloat's ghastly cologne still can't be shifted. Alas, his droning accented monotone takes the whole enterprise 100% seriously, and it badly needed someone else to puncture his balloon.

                          2) An alternate ending (at least two were screen tested, before they went for the less ambiguous allegedly-suggested-by-Spielberg-bring-the-house-down one that was seen in cinemas).

                          3) The (cough) 'best' entrants in the 'Film Your Own Paranormal Activity' competition run by Paramount to tie in with the movie's release, a collection of short clips that amply demonstrate how 'ideas' and 'execution' are two bits of lightning rarely captured in the same bottle.

                          'I'm terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought...'

                          So, now the dust has settled, 'Paranormal Activity' isn't going to walk away with the prize: for a few viewers it will genuinely be the scariest thing they've ever seen, but for others more accustomed to the breaks and beats of standard Hollywood movie fare it requires a patience for the pay-off that they simply won't possess. In the cinema screening I attended there was actual snoring as well as teenage girls out of their depth screaming their heads off, but for most of us willing to buy into its conceit and construction it is what it is: an effectively creepy little flick. It's certainly encouraging that after a decade where increasingly lame entries in the Hostel and Saw franchises were content to sling various chunks of viscera at the screen, here was a film looking to scare rather than sicken.

                          And if you're troubled by strange noises in the middle of the night, or you experience feelings of dread in your basement or attic...if the answer is 'yes', then don't wait another minute. Don't just cower on your bed, and whatever you do don't go and investigate. Just jump under the legendary Duvet of Invulnerability. That always works for me.

                          Trailer (which you maybe shouldn't watch, because it rather gives the ending away):

                          Running time: 83 mins
                          Starring: Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat, Michael Bayouth, Mark Fredrichs, Ashley Palmer
                          Written and directed by: Oren Peli
                          Rated 15 for 'strong language and threat'

                          (Previously on Ciao)


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                          • More +
                            22.03.2011 22:09
                            Very helpful



                            Meet (a lot of) your fellow man on Ireland's holy mountain

                            To mark the beginning of Lent, a time of penitence and self-denial, I thought it appropriate to travel over the sea...over the land...over a bloody great river and a veritable moat of lakes...to a place where the mists of time have born witness to millions of Catholics making themselves suffer.

                            'It's a big mountain. You have to take your socks off when you go up it, and once you get up the top there they chase you all the way back down again with a big plank. It's great fun' - Father Ted Crilly

                            It's quite difficult to tour Ireland without noticing...it's a bit on the Catholic side. Artefacts and imagery abound: the famous, such as the Book of Kells in Trinity College library and the gorgeous ancient stone church at Gallarus on Dingle, and the more mundane and everyday such as the countless grottos with lurking Virgin Marys casting a disapproving eye across the multiple misdemeanours committed on the road network. Radio Kerry even does the death announcements immediately after the 9am news and weather...'well, we do love a good requiem mass' as my landlady put it.

                            But indisputably the biggest symbol of the Catholic faith is the one that rears 2510ft into the air on the Mayo coast near the town of Westport: quite possibly the most brazen landmark on the whole Emerald Isle...Ireland's Holy Mountain, St Patrick's Stack. Native Irish speakers know it as Cruach Phádraig. The majority know it as Croagh Patrick. And to one expatriate Englishman (sorry Dave), it's 'that fecking Reek'.

                            The First Golden Cleric

                            You'd have thought that 'being Welsh' would constitute a crippling obstacle on the path to 'becoming patron saint of Ireland'. But Maewyn Succat was made of sterner stuff: born into a Christian family in Wales in 415AD (or maybe 387AD), he was abducted into slavery by an Irish brigand to present-day Antrim when he was 16. Escaping six years later, he gradually made his way to France where he was ordained as a priest, and later as a deacon and a bishop. Pope Celestine sent him back to Ireland, where he remained until his death in 493AD. Or until his death in 461AD. He did die on St Patrick's Day though, which was handy. What he actually did in Ireland during his missionary work is fuzzy, but it mostly seemed to involve travels in the north and west of the country, converting and baptising clan chiefs and their followers. And legendarily, he went to Croagh Patrick...

                            St Patrick, tired from the hustle, bustle and wild partying of late Iron Age Ireland, allegedly spent 40 days fasting on the summit of the mountain: they didn't have The Late Late Show with Gaybo back then, so to pass the time he built a church on the top, used a silver bell to knock a pesky she-demon out of the sky, and banished all the serpents in Ireland to a hollow near the summit: presumably he used some unusual riverdancing variant of snake-charming to lure them there. Ever since that time, Croagh Patrick has been Ireland's holy mountain, and pilgrims come from the world over to experience it. As a result this is almost certainly the busiest mountain in the country, and you are exceptionally unlikely to have it to yourself (I did it on an overcast, cold, damp day midweek in February, and I reckon I still saw a good fifty people). This is especially true on Reek Sunday, the last Sunday in July, where around 25000 people usually make the ascent.

                            We're All Going To Heaven Lads, Wayyyy!

                            If this strikes you as likely to be an almost biblical shambles, well, that's because it is: it speaks volumes that there are normally about 12 mountain rescue teams in place on the day. A wise move, because it seems likely that a large proportion of these pilgrims have never climbed a mountain before, and a large proportion of the remainder who do have previous experience only have previous experience of doing the Reek on a previous Reek Sunday. It has the same potential for disaster as the London Marathon, only with the added frisson of mountain weather, gravity and a comical parade of inappropriate clothing and footwear. (That is, if a pilgrim is sporting any footwear at all: traditionalists will, as St Patrick is assumed to have done, do the climb barefoot. Those of us familiar with the path can only shake our heads in wonder. Sensible folk wear boots, in case you needed telling). In an unfortunate (and rare) moment of sanity the Church discontinued the practice of doing the climb overnight with the Pilgrims all carrying burning torches: this must have been an awesome sight, and well worth the risk that lots of people would set each other on fire and that the dawn would see the mountain looking like the aftermath of a fondue evening at Keith Richards's place.

                            Flight Into Terror

                            Regardless, it's tricky to oversell the visual impact of Croagh Patrick. Having sensibly surrounded itself with sea, flatlands and much lower hills, its dominance of the surrounding area is emphasised and unchallenged, steep grassy slopes tapering up to an almost perfect stony cone. This is one mountain that you always recognise when it's in view.

                            (Although that didn't stop the following exchange occurring during final descent into Knock Airport:
                            Irish Bloke Who'd Politely Engaged Me In Conversation: 'What's that mountain over there that looks like Croagh Patrick?'
                            Me: 'Erm...it's Croagh Patrick'
                            IBWPEMIC: 'Ah. Right so' )

                            While we're on the subject, Knock Airport (serving Dublin, Glasgow, Birmingham, Bristol, East Mids, Liverpool, Luton, Stansted and Gatwick) is closest (about an hour's drive), with Galway Airport (serving Dublin, Edinburgh, Luton and Manchester) being slightly more distant. This is a semi-sparsely populated region, which does beg the question 'why are there two airports in close proximity? Especially that one built on a bog at Knock?'

                            Well, as it happens, on the 21st August 1879 apparitions of the Virgin Mary, St Joseph, St John the Evangelist and Jesus Christ (as the Lamb of God) were seen by numerous witnesses at the south gable of Knock Parish Church. Their testimony is drenched in wonderment: the beauty of the figures, the brilliance of the light, the reverence of the Virgin. At no point was 'the potency of the Guinness' even mentioned, although one witness testified that he 'saw a very bright light on the southern gable end of the chapel; it seemed to me to be a large globe of golden beer'. A commission was established by the Catholic Church to investigate this deeply important ecumenical matter, and after what we must assume to have been a very careful, methodical and forensic consideration of the evidence accompanied with exhaustive consideration of all the alternative, non-divine explanations...they believed every word of it. And 100 or so years later, the local parish priest convinced the sitting Taoiseach Charlie 'That Money Was Just Resting In My Account' Haughey to fund an airport so that pilgrims could reach his new basilica more easily...oops, I mean 'so as to bring prosperity and employment to an impoverished corner of Ireland'. Phew. All thanks to the Blessed Virgin for a properly integrated transport policy.

                            Once you're on the ground cars can be hired, or buses (of whose frequency I am not sure: I always hire a car in Ireland) run to Westport, which also has a railway station. If you're without a car, that still leaves you five miles from the foot of the climb: you could cover it on foot, or you could use the sparse bus service. Thursday is the best day (being as it's the main shopping day in Westport), although the odd bus runs on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Accommodation is plentiful and varied: personally I prefer B&Bs, and if that's your preference too then http://www.gulliver.ie/ should see you right.

                            'God, it'd be easy to make something like this look cheap and tacky...'

                            The traditional modern starting point for the ascent is the village of Murrisk on the R335 road to the north-east of the peak: there is a substantial car park here (although not substantial enough on busy days in summer: arrive early. There is another car park on the other side of the road, but even this is hopelessly inadequate on Reek Sunday). Other routes are available but I leave them to the more committed to discover, such as that from near Mullagh to the west, or the original supposedly-trodden-by-St-Patrick pilgrim's route from Ballintubber Abbey to the east: a mere bagatelle of a 44 mile round trip. For now, the modern Pilgrim's Path will do, and it's perfectly reasonable for the able-bodied and semi-fit. Even Chris Moyles could probably manage it right now.

                            Standing adjacent to the carpark is the Visitor Centre (http://www.croagh-patrick.com/ although the website appears to have given up 'details' for Lent at present). This was shut when I climbed the Reek, and I'm not really a Visitor Centre sort of guy anyway, seeing as I'm under the continuing delusion that I'm more than a mere tourist. But there is a restaurant within, and it would be churlish not to mention their provision of hot showers and secure lockers. Of more dubious use would be the 'climbing sticks' (or, to give them a more accurate name, 'sticks') they sell for the ascent. Take it from me: if you don't normally need a stick in your general perambulations, you don't need one here either. Also, there's the inevitable gift shop where (amongst other things) you can buy 'I Climbed Croagh Patrick' T-shirts, instantly identifying you as someone who's climbed Croagh Patrick...or as someone who wants you to think they have.

                            But to legitimately wear such a garment, you'll have to climb the mountain...

                            'Now be sure to keep warm...'

                            I could glibly suggest 'follow everyone else'. Or concede that even Mark Thatcher would be hard-pressed to lose the path once on it: it's the width of a major road for most of its length (if not quite the smoothness, unless we're talking about an Irish major road). Even Joss Lynam's bible for the Irish hillwalker concedes that a map is not really necessary for navigation on this route. So the Pilgrim can sally forth confident that if they die on the mountain it'll be through clumsiness or adverse climatic conditions, rather than getting lost.

                            Drift out of the left side of the car park and the path is obvious. The initial stages are easily graded and well-surfaced, but as soon as you pass the statue of St Patrick (who looks a bit overdressed for hillwalking: possibly he wandered into the sale at Habit Hat when aiming for Millets next door) it degenerates into a stony path. Although nowhere near as stony as it gets later: consider yourselves warned in that respect. The path up to the shoulder left of the peak is clearly in view, which is inspiring or depressing depending on how your aerobic respiratory system is coping: it's not long before you are climbing up the left bank of a stream-worn gully and the view ahead closes in.

                            But if you're in need of oxygen, stop and turn around. As height is gained the view over Clew Bay becomes more expansive and impressive: the bay legendarily has an island for every day of the year (a brief foray onto Google Earth with an abacus suggests this is somewhat optimistic). The bay was carved out by a retreating glacier, and the islands are drumlins: whale-shaped ridges formed during that retreat, and then drowned by the inrushing sea. Reacquainting your nose with the grindstone, the path gradually climbs away from the gully bed before curving right (west) to reach a saddle on the ridge. The poleaxed pilgrim, getting this far, can cheer themselves with the thought that 60% of the altitude has been gained, and that from here the gradient generously eases off for a bit. The path now meanders gently uphill, keeping slightly down on the south side of the ridge (therefore keeping Clew Bay out of sight, preferring to look into the loneliness of the Mayo interior). And it's not long before a block of toilets are passed on the left.

                            As a fully paid-up member of the 'take only photographs, leave only footprints' militia, I'd usually consider the presence of the little boys room high up on a mountain to be a ghastly eyesore...it's not like there isn't a toilet block in the carpark. Why can't the hills be left free of such conveniences?...the outdoors isn't meant to be convenient. And then I contemplate the 25000+ people swarming all over this mountain on Reek Sunday, and I suddenly think it's a great idea. Anyway, having 'used the facilities' I can report they're a bit dank, but you can't really complain about that given that it must be quite tricky to organise a cleaner.

                            Onwards and upwards. During this easy section the Reek's steep cone becomes almost overpowering in its proximity, and its culminating shawl of stones sickeningly obvious. With so many pedestrians covering such uncompromising ground the result was never going to be pretty, and once the vegetation gives out the path becomes a crazy conglomeration of sand, gravel, rocks and boulders: too stern and shifting to ever be trodden into submission. Quite steep too, and it behoves walkers to take some care over this section. The penitent pilgrim, climbing the Reek to get closer to their God, will probably have started talking to him (under their breath, and in slightly unflattering terms) by this stage. Progress is awkward, slow and strenuous for a while, but once a right-left zig-zag (whose straight section is the worst bit of all) has been negotiated, you're nearly there. Things are now easier (but not easy), and salvation will be gained upon arrival at the summit chapel. Y'know, in the same way that it's quite a release to stop banging your head against a brick wall.

                            The chapel was built in 1905, a plain white building. Mass is conducted therein on Reek Sunday, and the church is (allegedly) open every day during summer. I was there in winter where it remained resolutely locked to my heathen ways: apparently God is quite happy to let an atheist get rained on, half-frozen and blown all over the shop. Serves me right, really.

                            Given that the weather was none too clement when I was up there, I haven't seen the view in person. Which is a shame, given how renowned it is. Pride of place must go to Clew Bay, which looks extraordinary from here, backed by the Nephin range of hills. Sweeping inland, you come to the corridor between Westport and Castlebar, laced with loughans, leading into the Irish interior. Turning south and the view becomes mountainous again, with the huge plateau of Maumtrasna, the Sheeffry hills and the fearsome Mweelrea, before a final seascape with the Aran Islands, the ominous prow of Clare Island and the Ireland-in-miniature of Achill.

                            It should go without saying that the final section of the ascent needs a bit of care on the descent: try not to dislodge rocks and to miss those dislodged by others, while agreeing that barefooted pilgrims are nutters. The remainder of the descent is straightforward, with the lovely view over the bay to beckon you homeward. As you descend, keep an eye out for the school party I passed while I was returning to my car: they were about a quarter of the way up with less than three hours daylight remaining, wondrously ill-clad and shoddily-shod, progressing upwards in a staccato run-then-collapse-then-run-then-collapse manner that averaged out at 'painfully slow', and quite comically grateful for the spare Lucozade of a descending Englishman. I do hope they're alright.

                            (5 miles round trip, 2500ft ascent, 3-5 hours)

                            Anyway, that's Croagh Patrick then. Although jubilant pilgrims celebrating in a quietly meditative manner back at their cars might wish I'd told them this next bit before they set off...

                            'It's nonsense, isn't it?' 'Sorry, what is?' 'Religion...'

                            You see, if you just walked up and down the path, even if you had a bit of an old pray on the top...erm...you won't gain any spiritual benefit from it. Because there are rules to be followed if that's what you were after. So, you'd better turn around and head back up again (barefoot, of course), having printed off the following instructions...

                            There are three stations, and the suitably reverent should perform an assortment of Catholic parlour games at each one.

                            First Station: Leacht Benáin
                            (Situated at the base of the cone)

                            The pilgrim:
                            1. Walks seven times around the mound of stones while saying
                            * Seven 'Our Fathers',
                            * Seven 'Hail Marys' and
                            * One 'Creed'.

                            A mere warm-up, because next up is the Second Station: The Summit
                            The pilgrim has several hundredweight of Kendal Mint Cake and then:

                            1. Kneels and says
                            * Seven 'Our Fathers,
                            * Seven 'Hail Marys' and
                            * One 'Creed'.
                            2. Prays near the Chapel for the Pope's intentions (whatever they might be)
                            * Walks fifteen times around the chapel saying
                            * Fifteen 'Our Fathers' and
                            * Fifteen 'Hail Marys'.
                            3. Walks seven times around 'Leaba Phádraig' (Patrick's Bed) saying
                            * Seven 'Our Fathers',
                            * Seven 'Hail Marys' and
                            * One 'Creed'.

                            Now, continue over the top, down to the foot of the summit cone (over which you'll have to return, broken and bleeding, hours later) to the Third Station: Roilig Mhuire. This is fun, isn't it? Careful now.

                            The pilgrim:
                            1. Walks seven times around each mound of stones saying
                            * Seven 'Our Fathers,
                            * Seven 'Hail Marys and
                            * One 'Creed'at each
                            2. Finally goes around the whole enclosure of Roilig Mhuire seven times praying

                            Amazingly St Patrick failed to specify that pilgrims perform the Hokey Cokey as well...that's what it's all about, after all. Remember, he wasn't a fascist...he was a priest. Fascists go round dressing in black telling people what to do. Whereas priests...right, back to Murrisk, then!

                            See you some point next year then. And after this...surely hell can't be THAT bad?

                            'St Kevin's Stump...that sounds good...The Magic Road...'

                            Non-devout Catholics (and followers of other faiths. And the faithless) might want to know what else there is to do nearby. As there's plenty, here is a borderline-random selection...

                            The National Famine Monument and Murrisk Abbey - These are sufficiently 'nearby' to be 'just across the road. Literally.' Ireland is somewhat overloaded with history, and the Famine is one of the darkest corners of it. In the years between 1845 and 1852 potato blight precipitated the deaths of a million people, and the emigration of a million more (apparently God doesn't love the Irish that much): perhaps the vast portions of chips in Irish eateries in modern times are the natives erring on the side of caution. Some nations might have chosen to commemorate this event with something metaphorically understated: the Irish were having none of it. So, we have a subtly symbolic bronze sculpture of a plague ship, crewed by skeletons. Nice. Especially now it's gone green from all the rain. Right next door, on the shoreline, is the fine ruin of Murrisk Abbey: a fine foreground for the bay, and a gorgeous place from which to watch the sunset.

                            The National Museum Of Country Life - On the other side of Castlebar about 10 miles from Westport. Set in the lovely grounds of Turlough Park House, the Museum deals far more in realism than nostalgia: very gritty recreations of rural life from 1850 onwards are juxtaposed with the main house itself, which has been furnished in the manner of a family mansion from the late 19th / early 20th century. Quite recommended, and that's from someone who doesn't normally like this sort of thing.

                            Achill Island - 25 miles or so from Westport will bring you to the bridge crossing to Ireland's largest offshore island. It's a trip well worth making, as Achill is a wonderful landscape of lowlands, stark mountains, magnificent beaches and colossal sea cliffs. Easily attainable by car is the conspicuous transmitter atop Minaun mountain: an even better place from which to watch the sunset than Murrisk Abbey. Slightly more worrying is the drive to the end of the island and the lonely, lovely shoreline of Keem Strand: the substantial seaward drops from the narrow road probably bring you nearer to God than anything on Croagh Patrick.

                            'The Miracle Is Mine'

                            But back to The Reek. Taken purely as a physical challenge, well, it's a pity about the ravaged path but it's a good sharp climb to an unusual summit. The view is sublime, he says, pointing out that he'll be very upset if anyone else on here gets to actually see it before I do. And if you factor in the history and tradition, it's unique.

                            Despite myself...highly recommended.

                            (Previously on Ciao)


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                              10.02.2011 14:39
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                              Bumper compendium of the best short ghost stories in the English language

                              I'm forty this year...I'm allowed a little existentialist angst.

                              'nothing but bones and tendons...'

                              As individuals...hell, as a species too, our grip upon life is fleeting, and that grasp is constantly subject to countless obvious-or-insidious attempts to loosen it. Remember that time you almost stepped out in front of a Number Ten bus? Remember all that food that you ate beyond its 'Use By' date because 'it'll probably be alright...fingers crossed'? Consider the constantly mutating armies of germs and viruses continually seeking the weaknesses in our ever-deteriorating immune systems...think of the vagueries of a climate that warms an entire planet while dispensing the sort of cold snap that leaves your face marbled to numbness should you even step outside your front door. And laugh at the bloke who chose the middle of said mini-ice age to change cars from a front to a (powerful) rear-wheel drive model.

                              Most of us are troubled on some level by the impermanence of our being...perhaps that's why we're so hung up on pondering whether this is all there is. Maybe our exit from this life isn't so much 'ashes to ashes, dust to dust' as 'Mr Acorah...can you hear me?'

                              All civilisations and cultures throughout recorded history have constructed their own legends and tales of the spirit world. The Mesopotamians believed in entities with the memories and personalities of their living selves, accorded a position in the netherworld and offered food and drink by their earthbound relatives. The Egyptians took such beliefs as the khu (shining part of the soul) and compiled them into the Egyptian Book of the Dead. In the Middle Ages spirits were divided into either ghosts or demons, distinguished by their response to the Holy Name being invoked. And 20th Century America gave us Scooby-Doo.

                              But nowhere else can compete with the stupendous supernatural lore of Britain. It's an isle rich in allegedly true (cough) tales of spectral kings and queens ('with her 'ead tucked underneath 'er arm'' etc), of armies of assorted White, Red and Brown Ladies, and haunted houses such as Essex's Borley Rectory and London's 50 Berkeley Square; and also replete with folklore which describes such creatures as the kelpie, the Black Shuck and Spring-heeled Jack. Literature has featured many supernatural protagonists and antagonists, from the four ghosts in 'A Christmas Carol' to Hamlet's dad.

                              But one form of writing has always lent itself to tales of visitors from the grave: the short story. Lots of folk have essayed them, some have specialised in them; but still preeminent, nearly 75 years after his death, is Montague Rhodes James.

                              'Quieta non movere...'

                              Born in Kent (in 1862), raised in Suffolk and a quite brilliant scholar, James spent much of his adult life steeped in Cambridge-rooted academia, and the majority of that at Kings College. In his time as a fellow, dean and tutor he specialised in biblical literature and illuminated mediaeval manuscripts, eventually becoming the provost of first Kings (1905) and later his old school, Eton (1918). Study, research and teaching took up most of his time, and the academic papers he produced were very highly regarded.

                              But a man's got to have hobbies. So it was that Monty James, when he wasn't busy being an antiquarian, had quietly invented what came to be known as 'the antiquarian ghost story' on the side. And most Christmas Eves he and his friends would gather around the fire at Kings where James, allying his acting and mimicry talents to his writing facility, would read one of his new stories aloud. During his lifetime his tales were packaged into several compilations ('Ghost Stories of an Antiquary' (1904), 'More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary' (1911), 'A Thin Ghost and Others' (1919), and 'A Warning to the Curious and Other Ghost Stories' (1925)) but the true testament to their chilly power is that they've never been out of print in the years since he died. Countless published compilations of James' work exist and continue to be released, despite the fact that (as it's all out of copyright) most of his yarns can now be found on the internet.

                              'But they didn't like having their bones boiled...'

                              Because of this it's almost (appropriately) academic that I've selected 'Collected Ghost Stories' as the subject of this review. Contained therein are 30 stories, compiling the majority of James' output but omitting the final few tales (several of which are mentioned in the compelling closing essay, 'Stories I Have Tried To Write', and most of which are inevitably web-obtainable anyway). None of them run to more than twenty pages, and as such they're eminently suited to a quick bedtime read before a restless night of seeing every shadow, hearing every scuttle and passionately praying for daylight.

                              It's extraordinary to think that these extreme reactions are being evoked from beyond the grave by a man writing 100 years ago; a man who generally wrote of the 'educated' world he knew for an audience consisting of his own contemporaries. To that audience they would have seemed shockingly modern (with most ghost stories having been 'gothic' up to that time), but to the 21st Century reader they SHOULD be little more than 'Downton Abbey' with the benefit of added supernatural vengeance. How come they're so much more than that?

                              Well, despite the fact that a lot of James' tricks have been shamelessly approximated to over the years, the devil (or the worryingly-cowled figure with the wisps of wiry hair poking out from under the hood and the face you can't quite see) is in the details...

                              As many have written before me, there are a fair few recurring motifs in James' writing. There will be a protagonist (always male; women are never more than a rare supporting character in these stories), often an academic, sometimes a country gent (with academic leanings), usually repressed and absorbed. Said protagonist will find themselves in a place of learning, the Low Countries, an abbey, a country house, or (if they're really unlucky) the Suffolk coast. And there generally be an object, such as a book or picture or carving, the coveting of or possession of which will come with a terrible payload, like marrying the girl of your dreams but discovering you suddenly have Heather Mills as your mother-in-law.

                              Stylistically James tended to write in a very colloquial fashion (although he wasn't above quoting the odd bit of Latin), often using the first person (be it that person's direct experience or his relating of a tale that he himself was told) as a method of drawing the reader in and placing them very much within the yarn being spun. That yarn would have been embroidered with almost offhand fine detail while James would teasingly hint at other things that may or may not be significant come the denouement. The cumulative effect is to make the reader feel they are very much inside the heads of the author's characters, a rare skill and one that becomes worryingly effective when allied to the other dominant feature of his writing... Properly Nasty Ghosts.

                              'The ghost should be malevolent or odious: amiable and helpful apparitions are all very well in fairy tales or in local legends, but I have no use for them in a fictitious ghost story' - M. R. James

                              Always described with perfect balance between 'telling' and 'not telling', James' supernatural entities were never friendly, and while some stories do end with the characters escaping from their unearthly attentions a lot of them don't; lots of people end up dead, and not just those who were technically dead before the story even started. Young and old, good or evil, all are vulnerable in these tales, and that's a large part of what keeps the reader on edge; after all, when reading this sort of fiction the most important thing to be frightened of is the author rather than the apparitions.

                              '...put its arms around my neck.'

                              Afore-mentioned recurring motifs aside, James worked hard to avoid repeating himself; because of this his standards remained high throughout 'Collected Ghost Stories'. But these are my favourites...

                              Lost Hearts - An orphaned boy is offered the chance to live in a big country house by his elderly cousin, a bachelor with no previous record of liking children and given to spending hours on end in his library studying 'alternative' religions. Has he experienced a conversion to the innocent joys of cherubic company of Daddy Warbucks-esque proportions? Seeing as this is M. R. James rather than The Railway Children, that's unlikely. A quite deliciously black little tale.

                              Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad - The most famous of James' stories finds a young Cambridge professor taking a golfing holiday on the windswept Suffolk coast and indulging his Antiquarian tendencies with a spot of recreational archaeology. And just as blowing a whistle at 4:50pm on a Saturday afternoon in Salford can bring forth a frightening face of ancient vengeance if Manchester United are losing...well, you get what I'm hinting at. A supremely evocative voyage into a bleak landscape with a hair-raising (and sheet-disturbing) denouement.

                              The Treasure of Abbot Thomas - An Englishman abroad in the Low Countries in the mid 19th century happens upon an ecclesiastical conundrum etched in the stained glass of a nobleman's private chapel, and in his delight in deciphering the passage about huge amounts of gold he pays a bit less attention to the bit about a 'guardian'. An excellent example of James' ability to direct the reader's imagination towards smell and touch as well as sight and sound, and a dreadful warning to Sudoku aficionados that sometimes the solving of the puzzle represents the beginning rather than the end of the problems.

                              There Was a Man Dwelt By A Churchyard - A very short short story that's actually the story of someone telling a story. Confused? Well, with the conceits stripped away this is a raw and frightening vignette (particularly for those of us who have actually dwelt next to an abandoned graveyard) where the titular man is left very much wishing he'd left the titular churchyard alone.

                              Wailing Well - Displaying a level of playful malice of which Roald Dahl would have heartily approved, the tale James wrote to be told around the campfire of the Eton School scout troupe concerns a scout troupe...one of whose number fails to gain his map reading badge in somewhat spectacular fashion. Starkly chilling, and set as it is on a hot summer's day 'tis a fine demonstration of James' ability to coax threat from otherwise unthreatening situations.

                              '...an intensely horrible, face of crumpled linen'

                              Just as some folk instinctively (but incorrectly) shy away from books there's a cross-cultural inevitability that anything remotely effective on the printed page will end up adapted to alternate formats; thus many attempts have been made to relocate James' clammy 'otherness' to media pastures new. None of them quite compete with the uniquely queer atmosphere of the original stories, but some serve as a decent introduction to his work for anyone whose curiosity I've aroused. Even Hollywood has had a go (with 1960's 'Night of the Demon' a reasonably faithful adaptation of 'Casting the Runes', sporting some incredible atmospherics but slightly undone by a plank of a leading man and a laughable monster that the story wisely hinted at rather than described). But with such a peculiarly English proposition as James the most significant adaptations were always going to be English, and usually sprang from the cobwebbed bosom of old Auntie Beeb herself.

                              Plenty of James' stories have been committed to audiobook by the world (minus Martin Jarvis, amazingly, and Joe Pasquale and Brian Blessed, disappointingly) and his wife, while BBC Radio have adapted a fair few of them into plays. For television there have been productions that leaned heavily on the fact that the tales were designed to be read aloud, and it must say something about the awe in which James' unearthly beings are held that only Jesus and Dracula (Robert Powell and Christopher Lee, the latter playing James himself) were felt to offer sufficient insurance when telling these stories to the camera. But just as old Monty himself would gather his friends around the fire at Christmas, so the best-known versions of his stories result from the BBC's periodic urges to produce a ghost story for Christmas. This idea sprang up in the late 60s and has been occasionally revived ever since.

                              In common with so much else in life, it's the more recent efforts that most disappoint. Most of the productions aren't entirely faithful to the original stories, but 2010's 'Oh Whistle and I'll Come To You' finds a grimly suffering John Hurt in an adaptation that keeps little more than 'being very scared in an East Anglian seaside hotel' from James' yarn, while 'The View from a Hill' and 'Number 13' make the mistake of taking characters who were no worse than academic and reserved and making them rudely unsympathetic. 'The Treasure of Abbot Thomas' from 1974 fares better; the story is still altered to no great dramatic gain, but the slithery sound design is hugely memorable. Best of all are 'A Warning to the Curious', a powerful reminder (by means of a very wheezy ghost) of Peter 'Grouty' Vaughan's substantial acting range; 'Lost Hearts', after which you'll never hear a hurdy-gurdy again without it conjuring the image of some very creepy children; but best of all is Jonathan Miller's classic 1968 adaptation of 'Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad', a genuinely terrifying cocktail of beaches, rags, and Michael Hordern frantically sucking his thumb, wrong in all the right ways.

                              (All of these productions can be found on YouTube, according to a barely glimpsed shadowy presence).

                              'Penetrans Ad Interiora Mortis'

                              Obviously the passage of time has removed the shock of the new from James' stories, but that's pretty much the only type of shock that's missing. Modern life is as far removed from his Edwardian settings as he was from the gothic traditions he was superseding, but some things remain effective no matter which era you're trapped in. An anecdotal, almost chatty style...casually inserted information that resonates and grows until it overwhelms...and horrible great spiders.

                              All voyages to the unknown (if safely returned from) will teach the traveller something, and with James being a tutor as well as a scholar he teaches the reader a great deal. Such as...

                              * When the Manic Street Preachers told us 'Libraries gave us power' what they really meant to say was 'Libraries are fecking dangerous.'

                              * If a French bloke offers you a book for way, way less than it should be worth, he's up to something. They aren't generally a generous nation when dealing with the English.

                              * If you see a red circle on a map, it's unwise to enter it. It's either the lair of a group of bloodthirsty ghosts, or a railway station.

                              * Grave robbing is a seriously bad idea.

                              * Seeing as wells are a bit grim and dark too...I wouldn't bother with them either.

                              * Performing black magic upon children can rebound upon you terribly. It's probably illegal too.

                              * Most nasty curses and warnings of dire supernatural retribution tend to be written in Latin...it's not too late to start a correspondence course in Classics.

                              * By all means join the Scouts...but be aware that there are some things they just won't be able to prepare you for.

                              * And curiosity may eventually run out of cats to kill...take care.

                              'YOU'VE GOT IT!'

                              And when it all gets too much, when the darkness overwhelms and the shuffling sounds deafen and the smell of damp mould overpowers, and you want to take refuge under the bed clothes...remember what can happen when you blow a whistle. Thanks to Montague James even my Duvet of Invulnerability simply can't be trusted anymore.
                              Massively classy, highly accessible, hugely recommended.

                              (Previously on Ciao)


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                                19.01.2011 13:24
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                                The return of Glasgow's finest purveyors of lush pop

                                Many years ago we had Cool Britannia and easy credit, and we didn't really have the Internet and Simon Cowell. The latter has continued history's habit of putting evil in a black shirt, ruining both popular music and popular television in the process...and the former? Well, as you fire up Google and discover another thing you never knew before Webcrawlers...do you ever think that we've lost something with all this access to information. Don't you wish there were a few secrets left in the world?

                                Well, a long time ago, in a Glasgow far far away (I'm here all week), in an age before the Internet put all human knowledge at your fingertips and thus wrenched all the mystery out of everything...there was a lovely little band called Belle & Sebastian.

                                They played the most gorgeously wistful chamber pop imaginable, with chiming guitars, plaintive keyboards and orchestral flourishes, all topped off by the remarkable cracked choirboy's voice of Stuart Murdoch, purity seemingly tarnished by unwanted Catholic knowledge as he sang of childhood and small-scale domestic drama while somehow making the kitchen-sink minutiae of Clydeside sound impossibly glamorous.

                                'Wrapped Up In Books'

                                The music was SO good (and in particular the first two albums, 'Tigermilk' and 'If You're Feeling Sinister', ostentatiously adorned as they are with amazing moments of timeless beauty) that the initiates were desperate to know more. But the band weren't playing ball, and their steadfast refusal to adopt a conventional relationship with either the media or their record company's marketing department just made them even more exotic. Band photos? Interviews? Don't be silly. Their preference was to use publicity materials to flesh out the world of the songs, rather than to directly flog their records. And so it was that legions of students and wish-they-still-were-students came to view Glasgow as a wonderland where the blokes were all bohemians in long scarves, the girls all looked like Jean Seberg and all worked in libraries and coffee shops because there was nothing but libraries and coffee shops, every passer-by might be a member of Belle & Sebastian but wasn't telling, and there were lots of toy animals. (Obviously).

                                And of course for every person utterly smitten by what they heard, saw and read, there were plenty of others who took one listen, screamed 'THIS IS THE TWEE-EST (if that is indeed a word) BAND IN THE HISTORY OF TIME, EVER!' and retreated to the welcoming simian bosom of '(What's The Story) Morning Glory?'

                                But after four albums incredibly diverse in terms of content (folk, electronica, Northern Soul etc, bizarrely effective at all of them while never seeming to be remotely competent at any of them) the band had hit something of a artistic impasse. Something had to give, or leave, and the leavers were bassist Stuart David (who went off to become a novelist) and critically, Isobel Campbell. Campbell was the band's cellist, Murdoch's ex-girlfriend/muse and the most obvious reference point for anyone bandying the t-w-e-e word about. (It's unfair on Campbell, who's gone on to do some excellent albums that sound a lot less like the mice in 'Bagpuss' let loose in a studio than you think they will). But at the time it managed to liberate the remainder of the band, who seemed suddenly to realise that even librarians leave the library on occasion. Having broken cover on the media profile front (interviews, videos that were 'quirky' rather than 'wilfully obscure') they hired Trevor Horn (yes, that one) as a producer and suddenly sounded like a proper band rather than a bunch of buskers, shiny and tight where once they'd been indistinct and ramshackle.

                                'Electric Renaissance'

                                The resulting album, 'Dear Catastrophe Waitress' was decried as being too slick by some devotees but was actually their strongest set of songs for years. Then came 'The Life Pursuit', still shiny but slightly patchier (a few too many stodgy glam numbers for these ears) but still with some cracking moments. Then they took a break for solo/side projects (Murdoch recording the score for an as-yet-unproduced musical, guitarists Stevie Jackson and Bob Kildea playing with the Vaselines, keyboard player Chris 'Beans' Geddes DJing, and drummer Richard Colburn playing with Snow Patrol), parenthood (trumpet player Mick Cooke) and bespoke purse manufacture (multi-instrumentalist Sarah Martin), before reuniting for 'Write About Love'. Like its predecessor it was produced in LA by Beck's favoured knob-twiddler Tony Hoffer and (according to Murdoch) is a record made out of artistic need rather than artistic want. Fair play; if my drummer had to listen to 'Chasing Cars' every night I'd want to save the poor fecker too.

                                1) I Didn't See It Coming - It's an inauspicious start: a 20 second fug of distant electronica that might lead the horrified listener to believe they've bought 'Belle & Sebastian Write About Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music With The Volume Turned Down' by mistake. Then the drums start pattering, guitars chime against the piano, and Sarah Martin's voice enters from behind the coffee shop counter. What ensues is a highly pleasant album opener, poppy, bright and with a eminently hooky hook ( 'make me dance, I want to surrender' ), the vocal starts to fade, the guitars start to drift into reverb, the listener starts mentally preparing for the second track...then something strange occurs. A galumphingly cheesy and cheeky keyboard part kicks in, Stuart Murdoch enters the fray upon the shoulders of another huge hook, the production kicks into overdrive and the song recapitulates in a manner that makes you realise that when you thought the song was 'quite good', you were wrong. It's simply glorious, and the best thing I've heard all year.


                                2) Come On Sister - Murdoch's opening shot is a very strident and uptempo number with another daft keyboard motif driving it. It's a decent rule of thumb that the bolder and brassier the arrangement the less comfortable he'll sound singing over the top of it, and so it proves here: the authority he's trying to convey narrowly eludes him. It's still a fine piece of songwriting craft and damned catchy with it, but a smidge too straightforward by its author's occasionally celestial standards.

                                3) Calculating Bimbo - He's much more comfortable on a slow electric piano led ballad like this one. Here Murdoch manages the tricky feat of sounding simultaneously contemptuous yet caring for the bimbo of the title, an old flame who felt more for him than he did for her before she traded him in for a better offer (despite which he still remains the preferred port of call in an emotional firestorm). He may write a cracking tune, but here lies his true strength as a writer: he really does come up with plausible characters before getting deep under their skin.

                                4) I Want The World To Stop - But this is better still: a fabulously constructed track where a subtle setup of vaguely funky bass and drums and a withdrawn wash of organ underpins Murdoch and Martin's melancholic call and response vocals. Not for the first time (nor the last) on 'Write About Love' the song resolves itself in a manner miles away from the destination you'd expected: the muted section is actually the chorus, but the verse is a swirlingly urgent affair; a riot of strings and keyboard motifs and twangy guitar that sounds like it belongs over the titles of a Lew Grade 60s TV show.


                                5) Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John - A bohemian Glasgow cafe on a damp autumn's day, pale young men wear long white scarves under long black coats while the waitresses (English Lit students attempting to top up their student loans with day jobs) stand around with blankly stressed faces.

                                Does Norah Jones really belong in this scene? Because here she is duetting with Stuart Murdoch...doing her thing.

                                It's a thing of which I'm not a fan. I'm not claiming for a moment that the woman can't sing, far from it. Some people consider her vocal style smoky and sultry. But to these ears she's sexy in the manner of a decently varnished Ikea coffee table, someone who seems less a real person and more Frankenstein's monster as built by a record company's A&R department. And she just doesn't fit on this late night bar ballad, an apparent rumination on an intense-yet-brief relationship. Murdoch croons with understated feeling, Jones reads off a cue card that says 'Be sultry! 'Do' sexy!'. A clunker.

                                6) Write About Love - It's often said that one of most conspicuous signs of creative bankruptcy is a sudden need to have loads of collaborations on your albums, so the volume on the alarm bells increases further on discovering that 'Write About Love' features the actress Carey Mulligan (imagine Keira Knightley, only talented) on vocals. Luckily Mulligan, all doe eyes and bobbed hair, looks like she's lived her life on the cover of a Belle & Sebastian album, and she can hold a tune with aplomb while avoiding Jones' grating perfection. The song (if you overlook how much the intro sounds like The Four Tops' 'Reach Out...I'll Be There') is a fine throwback to the British beat era with Murdoch's stop-start verses imparting wisdom ( 'I know a spell that'll make you well...write about love, it can be in any tense but must make sense' ) to the office girl singing the chorus, taking her lunch up on the roof while imagining a man who's intellectual AND hot. (Oddly, Mulligan has apparently just broken up with Shia LaBeouf, who is surely neither of those things).

                                7) I'm Not Living In The Real World - Guitarist Stevie Jackson's sole songwriting contribution is even better still, a whirling pop dervish of Wurlitzer organs, skitteringly strummed guitars and semi-taunting 'ooh ooh-ooh ooh' schoolgirl assembly vocals. Jackson's protagonist is a beautifully encapsulated escaping dreamer, bullied at school, doing all the childish things that kids do to try to be grown-ups while still being kids, thinking about girls, and finally discovering that nobody arrives at adulthood as a fully-formed adult. The wordplay is borderline dazzling, the vocal arrangement borderline genius, and it's most definitely the most fun to be had on 'Write About Love'

                                8) The Ghost Of Rockschool - A lot of the band's hardcore fanbase pine for the days before their worldview featured material beyond what they'd read about in books or seen from their bedroom windows, for a time before they could afford slick production...for such as these 'The Ghost of Rockschool' will be like manna from heaven. Kind of appropriate, given that it's an old-style B&S song with added God.

                                Stuart Murdoch is a devout Christian, a man who spent the band's early years living in a church and acting as its caretaker. He's always written songs with religious imagery but it's only recently that he's actually dealt with his own faith. Fortunately he's not the overbearing sort, and atheists such as I can safely approach without the worry of being hectored. That said, the word 'God' does crop up 14 times on this track, but as it's a lovely languid tune (sufficiently languorous in the middle that you're surprised that it hasn't actually finished) with some seriously gorgeous trumpet he can have the atheists equivalent of a Papal pardon.

                                9) Read The Blessed Pages - Even more low-key and personal is 'Read the Blessed Pages', basically Murdoch's voice, a picked acoustic guitar and an orchestra of recorders (it's Belle & Sebastian, after all) in the middle eight. All the pop sheen of the last few years hasn't removed his ability to sound deeply delicate and fragile on this nakedly autobiographical number about the band and how much his late father loved them. It's very much the kind of song that will polarise opinion, but for those of us who can genuinely relate to the subject matter it's incredibly moving.

                                10) I Can See Your Future - It's a measure of how far she's come as a songwriter in the ten years since she penned the interestingly awful 'Waiting For The Moon To Rise' that Sarah Martin's other song on the album is almost as much of a standout as the first. A brassy fanfare begets some jauntily chugging melancholia: the tale of a girl who thinks her partner is leaving her behind so she uses the twin weapons of a) reminiscing about the good times and b) a warning that this might actually be as good as life gets.

                                'I can see your future...there's nobody around'

                                The whole thing is coloured by a quite sumptuous strings 'n' brass arrangement, highlighted in a marvellous little middle eight. Here Martin's voice, usually a bit formulaically breathy and girly (and thus best utilised as backdrop) becomes an instrument of genuine longing and pathos. Well done that girl.

                                11) Sunday's Pretty Icons - 'Write About Love' closes with a misshapen but marvellous Murdoch offering, musically cheery but lyrically downbeat (until you actually read the lyrics and realise it's probably hugely upbeat but possibly about God...or death...he's a clever swine is Stuart Murdoch). One guitar distorts while the others jangles, keyboards wash, tambourines shake and vocals sink into the mix, and then...

                                'Every girl you ever admired,
                                Every boy you ever desired,
                                Every love you ever forgot,
                                Every person that you despised,
                                Is forgiven...'

                                ...before we get a keyboard solo that quite fabulously sounds like it belongs in a different song entirely while somehow fitting like a glove.

                                'Sunday's Pretty Icons' is a fair microcosm of the character of 'Write About Love' as a whole; it seems a bit wonky and all-over-the-coffee-shop, you feel it's not quite fitting together, but it keeps you listening until the realisation hits you...you wouldn't want the damned thing any other way.


                                I spent a lovely week in County Donegal last October, climbing the hills (as is my wont), wombling along the magnificent beaches (because, erm, they're magnificent) and drinking in the endemic-but-amiable local madness. And during my Kia-borne travels, I was soundtracked by the just-released-that-week 'Write About Love'. You can tell a lot about a record by its ability to either distract you from the wondrous Irish landscape or console you because impenetrable rain is rendering that landscape invisible. I've fallen in love with a lot of albums while driving around Ireland in rubbish rental cars.

                                At first I was borderline disappointed. But there were obvious standouts (Sarah Martin's songs, Stevie Jackson's song, 'I Want The World To Stop'), so I concentrated on them. Hours slipped by, giving way to days, and I rationalised that I couldn't really reduce the album to an EP by just listening to four tracks. So I began to slip in a few of the others...and realised I really liked the keyboard bit on the last song...and discovered that the trumpet on 'The Ghost of Rockschool' gave me the shivers..and almost had an unmanly moment when I worked out what 'Read The Blessed Pages' was about. In short, complete surrender. (Well, nearly. Sorry Norah).

                                Meanwhile, all my breakfasts had been consumed dancing round the kitchen to a friend's Motown compilation CD, and I began to see the 60/70s Detroit influence sprinkled atop 'Write About Love'. So, by the drive back to the airport I'd decided that it was a worthy addition to an excellent back-catalogue (three stars had become four...it's not far off five at the time of writing), and that after 39 years, I do actually really like Motown after all.

                                'Put The Book Back On The Shelf'

                                So, 'Write About Love' achieves what it presumably set out to do: to weld the band's latter-day slickness with its former intense slice-of-life lyrical concerns and emerge with a serving of tunefully optimistic wistfulness. But for the fan it's hard not to listen and feel a tinge of genuine sadness, for while the band have never so successfully married the two distinct periods of their output before, the fact that they have here leaves one wondering if there's anywhere left for them to go, and whether a band 15 years into a career and sporting personnel easing into their forties have any remaining creative wallop with which to go there. If this does prove to be their swansong then it's a lovely one, serving not only as a reminder of just how excellent they were, but of the ability of a really good album to get better rather than worse over time.

                                So join me in raising a frothy cappuccino and a nice something from the patisserie to Belle & Sebastian, the last of the great British indie bands. They'll be mourned in places way beyond bedsits, libraries and coffee shops when they're gone.

                                (Previously on Ciao)


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                                  04.01.2011 21:18
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                                  Darkly intelligent New Mexico indie popsters break through

                                  Don't underestimate the influence of the Pacific North-West of the US in shaping the world you see today. It gave us Starbucks.... erm, ok. It gave us Microsoft.... hey, errr, great. And it gave us the fabled Seattle music scene of the late 80s, a scene that begat the likes of Nirvana, Soundgarden and Mudhoney, bands united by a love of howling and rumbling guitars, lumber shirts, and meaning it maaaan. And by a record label; Sub Pop.

                                  In terms of influence, you can make a pretty good case for Sub Pop being the most important label of the last 25 years. Built on grunge, they diversified, and an important stage of their diversification was signing The Shins. The Shins didn't sound like a stereotypical Sub Pop band at all; nobody was howling and sounding liable to marry a psychonutbar before shooting themselves, or on an apparent career path that would inevitably end up with the recording of a James Bond theme. They were, whisper it, an indie guitar pop band, and don't even mention it, they were from Albuquerque, New Mexico.

                                  Emerging from the ashes of a band called Flake (latterly Flake Music), the Shins formed in 1997. The first album 'Oh, Inverted World' came along in 2001 after a few EPs. The band was dealt a huge stroke of luck when the film 'Garden State' convinced a significant proportion of its male audience that humming 'New Slang' put you in with a chance with Natalie Portman; it and several other songs are featured prominently on the soundtrack. What convention demands I call "the sophomore effort" came along in 2003; 'Chutes Too Narrow' was even better, adding more production fidelity to OIW's occasional distance.

                                  Actually, 'indie pop band' is totally accurate, yet somehow slightly unsatisfactory. Lead singer/guitarist/songwriter James Mercer tends to write words to evoke a mood rather than convey a literal meaning; tossing off metaphors and similes like Mark E Smith and Stephen Malkmus' busker brother. But he has something else too; a wonderful grasp of melody. It's often said that the bizarre thing about Shins songs is that they sound like the greatest thing in the world while they're on, and yet you can't remember them properly five minutes later. Normally this would be a minus, but for this band it works; it means the songs somehow keep surprising you a little even on repeated plays. Maybe the reason the tracks are so hard to pin down is the sheer amount of melodic and lyrical ideas on show in each just overloads the listener; Mercer usually stacks more tunes (be they vocal melodies, lovely guitar motifs, warm keyboard parts) into one song than many folk manage in an entire career. And because he doesn't simply go 'that's a good tune; I'll turn it into a massive crashing footstomper of a singalong chorus', they burrow their way into your head in an insidious fashion.

                                  He's quite intense too; the Shins live were a slightly odd but worthwhile experience. The songs were very well reproduced, nicely played and gorgeously sung, and the band were hugely gregarious. Well, kinda anyway; I've seen them three times, and Mercer barely said a word (although he's quite loquacious when interviewed), while his more motormouthed bandmates (especially now-sacked keyboardist Marty Crandall and guitarist/bassist Dave Hernandez) often couldn't shut up.

                                  Anyway, the third album is 'Wincing The Night Away'. Some have lazily described it as a splicing of the first two records, but it's quite a bit denser than that. And while the first two records could be described as 'melancholy', often WTNA goes 'dark'. Also, to this listener, it has a feel of being more of an album (especially in terms of the sequencing) rather than the first two's vibe of 'this is a collection of songs'. It sports more guest musicians and more ambitious instrumentation too. Despite not being quite as immediately cuddly as their previous efforts, it was a huge success on its release, becoming the highest first week charting Sub Pop album ever.

                                  (Oh, and the lyrics are really fiddly to read off the inlay. If you're going to include them, INCLUDE them.)

                                  1. Sleeping Lessons
                                  A spacey keyboard idea starts the album, and shortly a similarly spacey James Mercer vocal starts going on about.... something; maybe it's an exhortation to do.... something. You can't be sure. He's hot on his metaphors, is James. And at no point in this song are you taught how to sleep, so you may feel short-changed if that's the reason you bought the record. It circles round, adding the odd bit of low-key underpinning instrumentation, before suddenly turning into a driving semi-acoustic rock song about 2:30 in. A song that eases you into an album, rather than tossing cold water unexpectedly on your face before demanding 'what d'ya think of this, then?'

                                  2. Australia
                                  'Time to put the earphones on.....'

                                  A far more uptempo number, one that screams 'SINGLE!', which indeed it was. It might be more lyrically upbeat, but it's hard to tell (another metaphorical riot; it might be about Australia, because there seem to be references to being chained up and stuck in the ocean and dodos which sort of ties in with its history. But there's loads of other stuff that seems to have nothing to do with anything, and the subject of all that deadly wildlife never crops up). Anyway, deeply hook-laden, with a cracking twangy geetar break in the middle.

                                  3. Pam Berry
                                  Something of a doodle; a stream of repeating electric guitar notes goes up and down the scale, and Mercer, slightly indistinctly in the Michael Stipe fashion of yore, sings about a 15 year old girl, who's probably called Pam Berry but you probably wouldn't stake your mortgage on that. It's over inside a minute, and it segues rather nicely into....

                                  4. Phantom Limb
                                  Another single, but a rather more subtle one. Fuzzy, static-ey bass leads into a rather languid track of interlocking jangly guitars. The lyric sounds like a dream of an extract from a fairytale of an entire mythology; they scan nicely anyway, and soon enough you arrive at the eminently hummable 'oooh-aye-oooh' chorus. Probably the song that seizes you most first time round. (Oh, research reveals that the song is about a young lesbian couple. I can only assume someone out there is bloody good at cryptic crosswords).

                                  5. Sea Legs
                                  'Wincing The Night Away' is a reference to the sleepless nights James Mercer suffered writing this album, and he's said that he wanted an album that resembled a dream. Well, Robyn Hitchcock may dream of trains, but it sounds very much like Mercer dreams of the sea; in an album sporting many maritime images, this is one of the mainstays. Strings and flute flourishes support a largely acoustic song that might be about the end of a relationship, or the beginning; frankly I'm useless at interpreting songs. Nicely weird breakdown section.

                                  6. Red Rabbits
                                  By dialling down the drums to a very low key percussion of tambourine and dripping water, the mood is changed entirely. Largely driven by damp keyboards and bass, with gradual introduction of strummed guitar, this tune meanders, kind of builds, ultimately ends up where basically it started, but with more strings. I like it, though. I give up on the lyrics here; occasionally Mercer's strivings for imagery rather than meaning leave him perilously close to pretentious, and here I think he falls in. Bonus marks for following 'I don't know I might, just give the old dark side a try' with a musical equivalent.

                                  7. Turn On Me
                                  Back comes the pop, and very nice it is too. As is a comparatively easily understood lyric (an uptempo take on a rather dark subject); when Mercer marries his wordplay to a smidge of accessibility, he's deadly, because this is great. The intro twangs us into the sort of verse where the singer seems to be tripping himself up with his words, a glorious chorus follows, a cracking guitar solo, lovely backing vocals.... a standout.

                                  8. Black Wave
                                  An acoustic guitar picks over an embroidered ambient soundscape (including some of the world's most distant handclaps, like applause at the foot of the Grand Canyon heard from the rim). Mercer's voice is treated in an equally Eno-esque fashion, and the lyrics are possibly best thought of as freeform melancholia (when he dreamily sings about 'looking on the brighter side' he might, just might, be being ironic).

                                  9. Spilt Needles
                                  Another acoustic picking, swiftly accompanied by a slightly odd-sounding drum pattern, leads into a very dark pop song. Quite a bizarre pop song too; after several listens I've decided there's no chorus, just a pot-pourri of verses, middle-eights and a wonderful twice-repeated breakdown bit. There's a lot of beautifully judged background embroidery (guitar feedback, odd keyboard sounds) too. Another riot of freeform downer lyrics, it's still probably my favourite song on the record, even if I have no idea of what being 'pressed on the handlebars of a blind man's bike' might be like. No needles were spilt in the making of this song. Probably.

                                  10. Girl Sailor
                                  Pop again, but slightly more straightforward and all-round upbeat. Still midtempo, but with perky, almost country-rock guitars to ease it along, this seems to tell the tale of one of those 'make or break' conversations that all relationships undergo, sooner or later. Mercer sings it in a sad but hopeful fashion, so as not to give away the ending..... you should never give away the ending.

                                  11. A Comet Appears
                                  A very low-key ending, as if 'Sleeping Lessons's' first two and a half minutes demanded a similar closing bookend. Muted acoustic, electric and slide guitar are the main protagonists, although a horn does have a lovely cameo at the climax. A lyrical downer of which Morrissey (to whom he has lazily been compared) would be proud; apparently there's a numbness in my heart and it's growing. Here's hoping it's indigestion. At least the promised comet does actually appear.

                                  Personally, I gave this record the most intensive road test imaginable; literally. I drove round Ireland for 10 days in February 2007 with this as the sole soundtrack. (Well, apart from the odd diversion onto Radio Kerry and its ilk, but they were just plain scary with their death announcements and programmes about the home lives of Gaelic sports stars). And come the end, I still wasn't fed up with it. Sure, it's slightly patchy, but it's patchy for the right reasons; the band are trying things out, and occasionally they don't quite work. So, I would drive around in the rain and wind with the Shins; I'd dare to venture out in the mountains in that same (actually rather worse once you get up high, I'll have you know) rain and wind, and my near-hypothermia would be softened by humming the chorus of 'Phantom Limb'. And time in the car was made to feel more palatable, which is no mean feat when someone's as gagging to get out and climb something as I was.

                                  It's pretty good in other circumstances, too. Still is, four years on.

                                  So, recommended. Right, where did Natalie Portman get to? 'Oooooh, eeeeee oooooh......'

                                  (Previously on Ciao, I almost forgot to mention).


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