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    • Archipelago (DVD) / DVD / 23 Readings / 21 Ratings
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      26.05.2014 22:14
      Very helpful


      • "Attention to detail"
      • Location


      • "Could be irritating"

      Archipelago - family holidays and how not to do them.

      Film only review.
      This 2010 release is set on the Scilly Isle of Tresco, in the English Channel. It follows the holiday taken by members of an upper middle class family, prior to the son taking an extended trip to Africa to do voluntary work.
      Written and directed by Brit Joanna Hogg, the style of the film is a drama-documentary, and the actors play their roles very convincingly, making a very credible troubled family. It is a fascinating, if frustrating, study of a family trying to hang on to the past. The cottage that they have rented is one that they stayed in when the children were little, but now Edward (Tom Hiddleston) and Cynthia (Lydia Leonard) are grown up, and their mother Patricia (Kate Fahy) is trying in vain to persuade their absent father, by phone, to join them in this grand send-off for their son. It is the continued absence of the father that causes most of the friction between the characters.
      Also here are Christopher (real-life artist Christopher W Baker), a family friend who is a painter, and Rose (Amy Lloyd), who is their holiday live-in cook. Christopher is a kind of surrogate father figure during the holiday for Edward, who becomes increasingly conflicted about his future as tensions rise. Rose often gets caught up in the debates or awkward silences. There is a tension between her and Patricia and Cynthia, who see her as ''the help'' rather than an equal, whereas Edward wants to include her. The awkwardness between Rose and Edward is of a different kind entirely!
      There is little narrative. We drop in when Edward arrives on the island, and we leave as they leave to go home. We observe stages in the intensifying tension over Edward''s impending departure, find out bits and pieces along the way about the father, and the relationship between both parents. We see a mother trying to hold her family together, with the desperate feeling that she is failing. The siblings bicker and make up. There are a couple of almighty rows (their strong language the source of the 15 rating), both of which we hear, but which happen off-screen.
      It is a very sparse film, and I find it quite hard to like the characters of the family as they are so self-absorbed. But there remains something compelling about this film. One striking thing about it for me is the lack of musical soundtrack, which makes the sporadic dialogue a lot more startling, and the long silences almost deafening. The scenery is beautiful in all weathers though! I am looking forward to re-watching it at some point, though not too soon.

      I chose to buy a download copy of the film on iTunes - I considered renting it but wasn''t sure I''d watch it in the time. I decided against a physical copy to save space, as well as the digital option being cheaper then. There are no extras with my download,


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      • More +
        15.01.2014 00:09
        Very helpful



        In all honesty, I wish I could unhear some of the remixes, so I only recommend the original.

        Just to be clear - this box-set was a limited release at the time (2011), and has been out of print for a good while. It is possible that it may get re-issued at some point, but currently, the only way you will get hold of a copy is by paying silly money on eBay or Amazon. Both albums are, however, still available individually, although NSRGNTSRMXS is a little harder to find. Dooyoo were unwilling to list them separately and asked me to review both together. So, apologies for the length, but here goes:

        For years, Steven Wilson has worked behind other names - his main band Porcupine Tree being his 'baby' for a long time,Bass Communion (solo experimental soundscapes), IEM (again experimental but jazz/krautrock fusion in this case), long-running collaborations with singer and lyricist Tim Bowness as the unclassifiable No-Man , and with Israeli superstar Aviv Geffen in rock/pop Blackfield , as well as many other side-projects.

        Insurgentes was Steven Wilson's first solo album under his own name, having released many others under the names of IEM and Bass Communion. It was released initially at the latter end of 2008 to those who had pre-ordered it online, and then was officially released into the wider world in February 2009. It has the feel of an outworking of all of the things that wouldn't fit in the Porcupine Tree, Bass Communion, IEM, No-Man or Blackfield canons. It has a sound at once familiar to long-standing fans of a broad range of his output, but also at odds with it, a brasher, noisier, at times more industrial sound than anything that he had done before, balanced by some softer melodic compositions than maybe had gone before, too. Although it's probably last in my preference list of the three (to date) solo albums, it is still pretty special and a great listen, particularly if you have a surround system and can locate a copy of this digibook CD / DVD-A version, which contains high resolution stereo and surround mixes of the album.

        Chronologically, in terms of his collaborative project output, this first solo album was the most 'crowded', as it fell between several other full-album collaborative releases. How he ever slept is beyond me. The overall combined sound of the album is most likely explained by the timing of it, with bits chipping in from everywhere - I can imagine a ridiculously creative brainstorm with bits of compositions being tipped into this file and that file, cross-fertilised then passed back across for another few processes before finally being designated a project to belong to.

        HARMONIE KORINE 5:07 - ominous descending guitar chords, and a quiet melodic verse explodes into the dynamic chorus with drums, guitars and pleading vocals. Very effective. Love it :)

        ABANDONER 4:48 - tinkling & sweet, musically, up 'til about 3:30, then grungy guitars crash in in slow-moving chords, then disappear for the dream-like ending.

        SALVAGING 8:17 - a regular slow rhythm throughout for this one, with guitar and drum underpinning vocals and random synth warbling at first, then louder proper rock chords. A somewhat sinister track, with an orchestral string section leading to the grand build up of reverb and white noise to finish, which sounds very much like a salvage yard at full tilt.

        VENENO PARA LAS HADAS (Poison for the fairies) 5:57 - One of the quiet tracks on the album, this hums along in a minor key, and Wilson sings in a low breathy voice. Quite evocative of a humid, slow, hot afternoon. Guitars, piano, keyboard, woodwind, vocal and subtle percussion weave together in a dreamscape.

        NO TWILIGHT WITHIN THE COURTS OF THE SUN 8:37 - Wake up time! A long rhythmic and syncopated instrumental introduction gives way to the vocals of the first verse, almost spoken, with the chorus shouted over a return to a louder section. This sets the pattern for the piece, with it alternating between crashing guitars and subtlety, with a piano interval by Jordan Rudess of Dream Theater. Beware the false ending - DO NOT TURN UP YOUR HEADPHONES TO FOLLOW THE FADING PIANO. You may well end up in casualty with burst eardrums....

        SIGNIFICANT OTHER 4:31 - Exquisitely lovely wistful love song, with guest chorus vocals by Clodagh Simmonds, soaring upwards in a spiralling harmony.

        ONLY CHILD 4:24 - Oh, weird weird lyrics... sort of semi-languid driving rhythm, not so keen on this one musically, and the narrative of the song is very twisted indeed.

        TWILIGHT CODA 3:24 - Completely instrumental track, very atmospheric and not just a little bit spooky...

        GET ALL YOU DESERVE 6:17 - A calm beginning, with softly sung vocals, lulls you into a false sense of security. The volume starts to build more and more until it becomes a full-on aural assault (in the credits it's referred to as "total f***ing noise") of reverb and goodness knows what else, reaching a deafening peak and then quickly dropping to a receding bit of white noise before stopping dead. It hurts more when it stops than when it was loud. I never get that. In the surround version it's quite exhilarating. It's not too shoddy in stereo :)

        INSURGENTES 3:55 - a beautiful, achingly melancholic meditative piece to finish, piano and vocal taking the main parts with accompaniment by a koto, a wonderfully sonorous Japanese stringed instrument.

        Guest musicians:
        Bassist Tony Levin , Porcupine Tree drummer Gavin Harrison , keyboardist Jordan Rudess (Dream Theater), Japanese Koto player Michiyo Yagi , guitarist Sand Snowman , and jazz flautist and saxophonist Theo Travis .  Steven Wilson played pretty much everything else (including guitars, keyboards & piano) and did most of the singing.

        Original release dates were pre-order 2008, retail 2009
        Limited edition deluxe version (12" square hardback artbook with CD, bonus material CD and DVD-A surround disc. This version now fetches silly money on ebay.
        Standard CD
        CD/DVD-A digibook 
        Double vinyl

        Limited edition combined mini-boxset with nrsgntsrmxs, also now a rare collector's piece, which brings us to the remixes disc...

        Remix albums are always a slightly daunting prospect for me as a listener. Usually it just seems to involve someone taking perfectly good songs and applying a drum machine "to make them more acceptable to today's young". They're not generally speaking something that I make a point of getting, I have to admit, and this one I held off for a while as I enjoy the originals very much. However, there was one potential redeeming feature here: I knew that at least two of the people responsible for the alternative versions of these songs (Pat Mastelotto and Dirk Serries) have previously collaborated with Steven Wilson on original material. This gave me some hope that there would be a sympathetic treatment of the songs, while still pushing the boundaries a little. In fact, I hoped that each mix would take the songs in new and more extreme directions than they'd previously gone.

        The Tracks and their remixers:
        1 HARMONY KORINE (David A. Sitek Magnetized nebula Mix) 5:10
        Additional musicians : Jneiro Jarel - horns; Stuart Bogie - tenor sax; Todd Simon - trumpet
        David A Sitek - guitarist & record producer, based in NYC, best known as a member of TV On The Radio. Has worked with many big artists, including doing free-jazz influenced remixes of songs by Beck and NIN
        2 GET ALL YOU DESERVE (Dalek Mix) 7:44
        Dalek, based in New Jersey, is the project of rapper Will Brooks and producer Alap "Oktopus" Momin.
        3 ABANDONER (Engineers Mix) 4:46
        Engineers - are a British shoegaze band founded in 2003.
        4 SALVAGING (Pat Mastelotto Mix) 8:31
        Additional musicians: Cenk Eroglu - Turkish Strings, v-gtr, ebow, synth, percussion; Markus Reuter - an abundance of basses; Adrian Benevides - extra guitar; Pamelia Kurstin - theremin; Kimmo Pohjohnen - accordion; Sirnee - coda voice; Pat Mastelotto - zils & zirna; Pat Manske - extra mix help.
        Pat (or P@ as he often signs himself) Mastelotto worked on the No-Man album Schoolyard Ghosts with Wilson and No-Man comrade Tim Bownes. He was a founder member of Mr Mister, and has been a member of King Crimson and its various incarnations since 1994. The list of his collaborations seems to be rather long!
        5 ABANDONER (Danse Macabre Mix) 5:33
        Remix by Lukasz Langa (www.dailyimprov.net), a Polish-based improvisation artist.
        6 GET ALL YOU DESERVE (Fear Falls Burning Mix) 6:19
        Remix by Dirk Serries, a Belgian experimental musician that Wilson has worked on and off with for several years on ambient projects.

        My thoughts:

        1. Harmony Korine, isn't that dissimilar to the original until it reaches the chorus. While the discord that is introduced over it is interesting, for me it completely undoes the power of the original where it really exploded into the chorus. Here it seems to saunter, with lazy saxophones giving the chorus an almost sleazy feel. The track is named after an American film director, whose films often portray the underside of youth culture and life in general in a surreal and disturbing way, so maybe this was the inspiration for the sleaze-effects.

        2. The first of two alternate remixes of Get All You Deserve. The treatment here is perhaps what you would expect of a remix album, if you were picking it up expecting it to be covered in electronic drums. While some of the building menace of the original has been preserved, the fake percussion is a distraction. I have to choose to hear this as a new composition or just leave it alone. Dalek seem to specialise in multi-layered menacing soundscapes, so I can see the connection between them and Steven Wilson. Here though there seems to have been an attempt to convert the track into Massive Attack's Angel. 

        3. Abandoner has been completely stripped down, by contrast, with the vocals a lot more exposed. No electronic drums here, but a reconfiguring of the existing tracks. This for me is much more successful, preserving the feel of the original and if anything amplifying the menace by keeping it 'quiet' - on the album track it explodes into noise at the end.

        4. Salvaging is the most ambitious remix of the collection. What was a fairly conventional song for Wilson has had an Eastern feel added, a more complex drum pattern (well, Mastelotto is a legend in the prog percussion department), and as you can see from the long list of additional instruments and musicians that have turned up here, he's practically thrown the kitchen sink in as well. In some ways it's quite different, but then it'll catch you out as the song's structure shines back through the remix, particularly where P@ has left the original orchestrated section largely alone. The ending however, is a drawn out ambient drone, which had been quite short, with subtle instrumentation playing alongside it. I think that this works well, and the overall chaotic feel that's been created fits well, even if it has my ears thoroughly confounded at times!

        5. Abandoner #2 is perhaps the greatest departure from the original. It is a piano improvisation (with a different percussion track) over near enough just the vocal track, and is really the only re-versioned song in the collection, it is wholly different in feel and tone. I like it very much, although my other half singled it out as lacking subtlety as the piano could be said to be drowning out the vocal. However I enjoy the expansive sound of the piano, and it actually reminds me of a track from his new album where a sad subject is given a soaring melody, melancholy set against an uplifting score.

        6. Get All You Deserve #2 I expected a lot of bearing in mind the two have worked together a lot on experimental projects (such as Continuum, which was a collaboration of Bass Communion and Vidna Obmana, their former solo project pseudonyms). There's not a huge amount of difference from the original apart from less percussion, and a little added distortion. The greatest change is the close of the song, which in the original is a massive wall of total noise. Here, he has 'stretched' the noise and lengthened it, which to me lessens its violent impact, but if you enjoy losing yourself in a couple minutes of ambient noise, then turn up loud and enjoy! This is another one where I feel I need to listen with a 'different pair of ears' as I enjoy what he's done with it in one sense, and I do appreciate the minute detail of the tonal changes in the end section.

        It is inevitable that comparisons will be drawn with the originals, and it's very difficult to approach this with fresh ears since I know Insurgentes so thoroughly. I find myself constantly listening out for musical cues in what are already often quite complex, multi-layered compositions. I'm glad that I don't know a huge amount about the folk that did the remixing, otherwise I might feel obliged to be in awe of their handiwork! I think that on the whole this was a partially successful experiment, and I know that everyone will have different tracks that they prefer over others, as with any collection of music. It's not an experiment that has been repeated yet with his other two solo albums (although to be fair the third has only just been released!), so maybe it was one of those "we'll do this to see what happens" things.

        As far as the fans were concerned, there wasn't much lasting comment about it. It is still available fairly cheaply from his usual independent distributor Burning Shed for £4.00 plus postage, Amazon seems to think it's worth more at present, so beware of people implying that it's out of print! As well as this box set, there was also a vinyl release which contained the mix of Harmony Korine incuded here, plus two alternative remixes of the track Only Child by Pat Mastellotto.

        Thank you for persevering to the end! You have the patience of a saint :)


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          18.09.2013 00:56
          Very helpful



          On the whole a good oven, looks good too, but keep an eye on the mains switch!

          As a child, I grew up with a gas cooker in the house, but switched to electric when my husband and I had our first flat due to regulations. We bought our first oven back in 1993, and it served us well until we had to leave it behind us in 2008! We abandoned it because the previous residents in our new property had left us their old Cannon gas oven, still perfectly serviceable, and I was happy to at last return to cooking with gas.

          However, it was already ten years old, and after another four years the burners began to fail, the pressure wasn't what it should have been even with annual servicing, so we began to search for a new one. After much consideration of reviews, balancing expense against reliability, we chose this model. With one near miss (one on order when Comet went under), we finally plucked up the courage to try again early this summer, and bought one from Curry's.

          The immediate difference with this one is the depth front to back - we needed it to be 50" wide to fit the very narrow gap in the worktop, but the depth had no restriction, so it never occurred to me to check it. It does stick out a bit (the old one was pretty flush with the cupboards), but not so much so that it's an obstacle. Next big difference is the colour - we've gone from a very dark brown old cooker to 'Polar White' with silver handles and knobs, so it's lightened that part of the kitchen quite nicely!

          The operation of the ignition is completely different - it has the now apparently almost standard thermocouple on each burner, making sure the gas cuts off in the event of the flame blowing out. The down-side to this is that it takes a while for the thing to heat up enough to realise that the flame is there in the first place. Since it means that the ignition is firing for prolonged periods, it makes more sense to me that the oven had to be plugged in to the mains, although it still seems odd, if I'm honest, plugging a wholly gas oven into the electrics. Still, when it takes from sixty to ninety seconds to light the grill (pressing the knob in all of this time), at least we're not constantly forking out for batteries....The grill is the worst offender; the hob rings don't take too long to get up to heat (twenty to thirty seconds), the oven's slightly quicker than that. Even the top oven's relatively quick, and it shares the same space as the grill.

          As for the heat it gives out, pans boil very quickly, which is great! Unfortunately the smallest ring gives out so much heat, that even when it's at its lowest setting, simmering is practically impossible. It's easier to simmer pans on the big rings, funnily enough. I expect that over time this will 'improve' as the pipes silt up?! The grill exceeded my expectations (when it eventually lit), and actually toasts quite quickly. My expectations were low due to the reviews that I had read, most of which stated that it was fairly useless. This seemed to be universally the case with all oven grills, however, so it had no real bearing on the purchase of this oven. In fact, it cooks oven chips, chicken nuggets & fish fingers perfectly well, and I suspect people may have been using the low oven shelf position for the grill pan, which would site it a VERY long way from the burners. It needs to be set at the top of the rack!

          The oven I'm still working on. Meat seems to take longer to cook on the same settings, so I put an extra twenty minutes on the timer and keep a closer eye on it. Baking-wise, we have yet to test it properly, but being gas it doesn't dry things out as much as our old electric, so that's a plus point. Worth noting that due to the width of the whole oven, the interior isn't massive, so I've found that some trays no longer fit in. I think the previous oven must have had thinner sides.


          There's a very bright light in the top & bottom ovens, which also comes on when the grill is in operation. There is also a cooling fan above the top oven/grill which is there to stop the plastic knobs from melting. It's also great as a heater, blowing hot air into the kitchen, although this was not particularly helpful during the heatwave.
          It has a digital display which is a clock most of the time and a timer when needed. Worth noting that if you always switch off at the mains over night you will need to reset the clock if you want to use it.
          It's a slightly tricky timer to set, but I think we've now figured it out after three months.
          There is a clear glass cover to the hob, which cuts off the gas (only to the hob though) when closed.

          If you have switched off the electricity overnight, there's always the risk that you might forget to put it back on. If you try to light the oven without the automatic ignition being on, the cut-out doesn't work and the oven just pumps out unlit gas, causing the potential for explosion. This happened to me the other day - it took me a few seconds to work out why the gas wasn't lighting. The electric switch had been thrown accidentally so I wasn't even aware that it was off. Something to be vigilant over.

          UPDATE, 6 MONTHS IN!
          I have discovered the problem with the grill ignition - occasionally it needs to be brushed off gently, as any oily smoke rising from the grill can affect its reaction to the heat, as it coats the sensor over time. I usually use the rough side of the pan scrubber, but as I said, only very gently. This does make quite a difference to ignition times.

          SUMMING UP
          I am pleased with this oven so far, although it's taken some getting used to. The fact that it's white is encouraging me to clean it more often, which can't be bad! The single most annoying this is the length of time that it takes to light the grill, but when it's on it does work quite adequately. I do recommend it, it's currently listed on Curry's website at £450 but it would as always be worth shopping around.


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            10.07.2013 00:21
            Very helpful



            Not as consistent as it might have been, but still a great album!

            Sounds That Can't Be Made was Marillion's 15th studio album, released in 2012. The Aylesbury-based veteran British progressive rock band have been around since the early 1980's, and despite the majority of people who remember the songs Kayleigh and Lavender believing that they split when original singer Fish left in 1988, they are still going strong with Steve Hogarth who took over from him!

            Unfortunately for many years now they have not been a band loved by the radio stations, so they have always had to rely closely on their fanbase to keep them afloat, with little or no promotion. Marillion pioneered the use of the internet to harness fan-power, with the fans practically inventing the concept of crowd-funding, when an appeal was made for help to get the band over to the States in the late '90s. They have used the method of offering a pre-order for albums months in advance to fund either the album itself or the publicity for it. The benefit of taking part in these campaigns is getting your name in the credits (pages and pages of them!), and often a beautifully produced deluxe package. Sounds That Can't be Made is no exception. It features artwork and photography by several artists who have been professionally connected with the band, and in several cases also fans, for many years.

            The band consists of Steve Hogarth on vocals, piano & percussion, Steve Rothery on lead guitar, Mark Kelly on keyboards and effects, Pete Trewavas on bass, and Ian Moseley on drums. Hogarth is also mostly responsible for the lyrics. If you've never given them a listen before, then this album may well be a good place to start as it has pretty much a cross-section through all of the musical styles that they've travelled through over the years.

            I've been a fan on and off since my teens, back in the days of furtively listening to the Friday Rock Show until midnight, when Radio 1 actually used to shut down. I have been through phases where I'll admit to having been a bit obsessive! However in my middle-age I seem to be becoming a little more objective, and a little less fanatical. This album is the first of theirs to come out since I passed this milestone, and so the first that I hadn't felt the traditional necessity to love to its very last note just because it's them. In that light, here are my thoughts on the tracks.

            Track 1: GAZA
            Outstanding and powerful, both lyrically and musically, and a groundbreaking piece for the band. Most of the lyrics are derived from online conversations with young Palestinians, and speak of their day to day difficulties. It is a hugely thought-provoking piece. It doesn't seek to take sides, just to highlight the collateral damage of the conflict. In the liner notes there is an explanatory statement, and also details of a charity which provides, through the arts and music, the facilities for Palestinian kids to play, learn and express themselves. It's a long song, over seventeen minutes, and the music has a very middle-eastern feel, but is also quite heavy in places. If they did a few more of this type of 'feel' of songs it would be quite an eye opener, maybe even for themselves... Opening with this track may have been an unwise move as it tends to leave the rest of the album with some big boots to fill.

            Track 2: SOUNDS THAT CAN'T BE MADE
            After Gaza, the opening of this song is a bit of a let-down. The mood is lifted too quickly, and almost makes it sound cheesy. It's basically a sweet AOR love song, which bounces along nicely. The lyrics are very simple in that they're part-repeated in each verse with modifications. It's a nice song, and cheery.

            Track 3: POUR MY LOVE
            I really disliked this song when I first heard it, but I persevered. Initial impression was Dad-rock cutesy song about flowers and love. Actually, it's about loss, recovery and dedication, and it has a mid-section that rocks out a bit in a good way. But the main musical theme does give away their late middle-age a bit, carpet slippers time! The lyrics are by John Helmer, who has contributed work to the band occasionally for many years.

            Track 4: POWER
            Back to form with this heavier number, a look at misplaced perceptions of power that someone held, and how that has now been exposed and undermined. The music perfectly moves with the lyrics, quieter in the contemplative verses, loud and strong in the declarations of the choruses. A great song, with more than a hint of revenge about it...

            Track 5: MONTREAL
            This is the divisive one amongst the fans. The other 'long song' (just over fourteen minutes), but in this case it is a section of Steve Hogarth's tour diary set to music. The music is fine - in fact it's a bit of a prog-fest, with some lovely passages of melody and syncopation. It sounds as though they were enjoying themselves a lot with the accompaniment! The lyrics though...if you imagine randomly singing a few diary entries over a backing track, that's pretty much the impression it gives. Montreal is a very special city to the band, and they are much beloved by the city. This song is special to them, so I think I'll leave it at that!

            Track 6: INVISIBLE INK
            A quiet start to a song about trying to overcome fear held by a loved one. When it gets going, it's a wistful pop-rock song, with a pretty, harmonised melody and often fragile vocals. The lyrics are repeated quite a lot, but I enjoy the guitar-driven tune so it doesn't bother me that much.

            Track 7: LUCKY MAN
            A straight-ahead rock song, complete with several classic rawk riffs, beautifully constructed and a very strong, if 'conventional' composition. It has concert-closer written all over it, definitely one to go out with a bang and a good sing-along. It does bear more than a passing resemblance to an earlier song of theirs, The Damage from the Marbles album, in fact this could be the redemption to the previous song's fall. Be warned though - this track stops quite suddenly....

            Track 8: THE SKY ABOVE THE RAIN
            After the life-affirming rock-out of Lucky Man, a song to bring you straight back down to earth. Here is a theme that many will recognise: the stage in a long-term relationship where communications start to break down; one is in denial, but things have changed big time. The lyrics speak of wishing to get back, away from the anger, to when things were right. The title refers to that place (and the lyrics, eg "the rain's below us"). Musically, the melody and arrangements fit the words perfectly, amplifying the emotion of the song, particularly Steve Rothery's soaring guitar solo during the end section. The song ends as it begins, with a simple succession of piano chords, gentle bookends to a heartfelt track.
            My overall impression of the album is that it's never really inspired me to hit repeat as soon as it's finished, although it's a decent enough composition overall! There may be one or two that aren't as strong as they might be, but really on the whole it's a good album - not outstanding, not one of my top three of theirs, but a good listen. It's still in the process of growing on me, even after this length of time, and listening to it several times for this review may even have brought us closer. If you enjoy melodic rock music with a slightly progressive flavour, then this may well float your boat.


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              18.05.2013 22:28
              Very helpful
              1 Comment



              The third solo outing from Wilson, going from strength to strength!

              British musician Steven Wilson is gaining a growing reputation in the industry, particularly at the Progressive Rock end of things, not just for his own work but also his massive abilities in surround mixes (he's just been working on the King Crimson back catalogue and the recent reissue of Jethro Tulls Thick as a Brick and the new TAAB 2), his talent as a producer, and his all-round omnipresence in Prog magazine (he won Idol of the year again, as well as tour of the year). His 'main' band Porcupine Tree are on a prolonged break, and apart from a bit of dabbling on Blackfield's new album (another long-standing collaboration) and making some more Bass Communion compositions (his own experimental ambient noise project), he's mainly been concentrating on his actual solo project. The Raven That Refused to Sing is the third and most recent album, released on the 25th of February 2013. Significant to me as it was my birthday!

              Is it wrong for an album about murders, deaths and hauntings to be uplifting? This is something I've been struggling with (well, only a little bit) since I first set ears on this album. I've been a fan of Wilson's various projects for a few years now, and this sort of subject area is his pet theme, so it's not a surprise apart from the absence of references to serial killers.... But where the music is concerned there is a barely concealed joy going on that runs completely against the words. I have a feeling that the reason for this has a lot to do with his band, as this album is the first that he has written specifically for musicians that he considers to be far more skilled than he is. That sounds a strange thing to say, but he has up to now apparently always written material that he is capable of playing himself. This new move has been born out of the touring process, with the musicians that he has been able to gather around him inspiring him to greater creative heights.

              This may be a good place to introduce the artists and their instruments:
              Steven Wilson on lead vocals, mellotron, keyboards and guitars, plus bass on Holy Drinker
              Marco Minneman on drums and percussion
              Guthrie Govan on lead guitar
              Nick Beggs on bass, Chapman Stick and backing vocals
              Theo Travis on saxophones, flutes and clarinet
              Adam Holzman on Fender Rhodes, Hammond organ, piano, Minimoog

              The album only has six tracks. Do not be deceived though as the whole album is fifty four and a half minutes long (that's just over eighteen three minute pop songs). Each song has a story behind it, penned by Wilson and featured in the deluxe version of the album. I don't have this so I've had to rely on an interview and explanation in the January issue of Prog magazine, and the lyrics which are printed in the booklet of the album. One track, Luminol, as far as I can remember was pretty much written on tour, as it was premiered during the live shows for the previous album Grace For Drowning. The others were written by him and emailed off to the rest of the band for them to add their contributions, a process that seems to growing more common these days, with the immediacy of the internet allowing freer collaboration between international artists. The album itself was basically recorded in a week at East West Studios in Los Angeles, again for the first time for Wilson as a live band in the studio. It was engineered by the legendary Alan Parsons who was (by all accounts quite happily) persuaded to come out of engineers' retirement for this project, also adding some guitar to The Holy Drinker. Wilson then took it all home to polish it, and to add some strings courtesy of the London Session Orchestra.

              LUMINOL (12:10)
              The album kicks off quite literally with a storming percussion and bass (drum and bass would give completely the wrong impression!) introduction to the largely instrumental first track. The other instruments soon come in, guitar, flute and keyboards, driving a tumult of rhythm, sound and key changes, until the bridge about half way through when the whole thing slows down for some lounge-tinged melodic vocals and piano. This picks up again after a while, almost dragging itself back to the driving rhythm that speeds itself to the end of the song. The lyric's meaning isn't obvious, but the song refers to a persistent busker, who Wilson suspects that even if he dropped dead would still be back at his post the next day. Maybe the heavy, dragging section between the slower bridge and the return to the speeding rhythm are referring to this? Whether this is the case or not, I love the energy in this piece, and it makes a great opening track to the album.

              DRIVE HOME (7:57)
              The pace changes completely for this reflective song, which has a more traditional structure of verses and chorus. It is very obviously about bereavement and coming to terms with the loss of a loved one. The explanation is that it is based on a ghost story, where a man is driving along with his wife, looks and finds that she is gone. She died some time before in a road accident and he has never been able to come to terms with it. In this case, although the background is interesting, it's almost redundant as the song is a beautiful encouragement to 'come back to life' for anyone who is grieving, and quite possibly one of the most tender lyrics that Wilson has ever written. The guitar solo by Guthrie Govan that closes the song is an exquisite, soaring masterpiece.

              THE HOLY DRINKER (10:13)
              We're instantly into more sinister territory with the opening chords of this one, the tense atmosphere building with layers of instruments, bass, bass sax, drums, overlaid with clarinets, guitars and keyboards, until the vocals come in with a temporarily more traditional heavy rock feel. Between verses you're taken off to early 70's jazz prog chord sequences, one glorious chord descent which I love and still can't place (Wilson is a great musical magpie). The story here is of a man who takes on a drinking contest with the devil. Foolish guy, of course he loses...his final demise is a very quiet passage, with the final triumph being a filthy noise from the synths into a long heavy riff to the end. This was most excellent live!

              THE PIN DROP (5:05)
              Shakespeare's Ophelia (from Hamlet) is a theme behind this one, although here a woman has been left for dead by her husband. As she drifts, dying, downstream on the river, she mourns the life that she will never fulfil. The main musical theme, conversely, is hugely uplifting, and in another context could be an anthemic, feel-good pop-rock song. After the heavy ending of the previous song, the gentle, almost playful guitar and gentle cymbals beneath the plaintive vocals are light relief, and the powerful upbeat chorus adds to the overall positive sound. Lyrically though, the more that I think over the words, the more impact they seem to have - in imagining her thoughts, he has created a picture of someone who is probably delirious, deeply sad, but not angry. The final "I did not hear my heart" almost sounds as if she blames herself for not seeing it coming. It's really quite an affecting song if you let it get under your skin.....

              THE WATCHMAKER (11:42)
              A tale of murder, a body under the floorboards, and revenge from beyond the grave. It all starts very innocently, pretty guitars, vocals gently recounting the ageing watchmaker's thoughts and circumstances. Musically the song's mood gradually ebbs and flows, referencing Pink Floyd's Shine On You Crazy Diamond at one point. We have beautiful vocal harmonies, and some lovely melodic piano passages. At various points we pause for more of the story, discovering that 50 years marriage was more convenience for him than love, and that "Eliza dear" was only meant to be temporary while he waited for gold. Eventually a Rush-flavoured build-up explodes into a deep, grungy denouement - Eliza dear has returned from the dead to 'keep him company': "Cogs and levers mesh, we are bound in death. Melt the silver down, I'm still inside you!"

              THE RAVEN THAT REFUSED TO SING (7:57)
              The tragically beautiful title track closes the album. The pace slows right down for the tale of an old man who never got over the death, as a child, of his big sister. I believe the full story tells of him being someone who lives alone on the edge of the village, and is teased and tormented by the local children. The raven is a bird that the man believes sang and made his sister appear, so he captures it and tries to make it sing again. The lyrics themselves tell part of the story, perhaps the most obviously on the album, and are profoundly sad and desperate There's a great deal of vulnerability in Wilson's voice as he sings. He pulls out some of his best and most profound melodic chord changes here, and this is one of the tracks that features the orchestra, who are used to great effect. There is also a solo violinist (Perry Montague-Mason) featured alongside the rest of the band.

              This album has been lauded pretty universally by Wilson's fans, many of whom say it's his best work to date, and that it out-does anything he ever produced with Porcupine Tree. For me this is beginning to get a little tired now as there are still many PT songs that I love! This is, however, in my opinion, a masterpiece of an album that is going to be very hard to top. Wilson is not known for singing with a lot of emotion in his voice, but here there is expression of both anger and sadness that is hard to miss. You very much get the impression from his massive workload that music is his life, pride and joy, so it's good to hear some feeling coming through, as well as the technical fruit of a lifetime's obsession and musical sound assimilation!

              The musicianship is excellent, and in my opinion, as I said above, it has a joy of creativity and almost playfulness about it that stops the right side of showboating. It would be easy for such skill to degenerate into out-soloing each other, but I think that Wilson's overall creative control, and his colleagues' respect for each other and him, prevents this from happening. Which is a very good thing! We were lucky enough to be able to see the first show of the live tour, a week after the album's release, in Manchester - it was a quite mind-blowing experience and one which we hope very much to be able to experience in October this year. If you like the idea of delving into a new genre, experimental progressive industrial jazz (EPIJ for short, and no idea who first came up with this, but it fits), do have a listen, and it will reward your ears with many, many hours of listening pleasure.

              This version:
              "This 2 disc edition is packaged in a deluxe rigid digibook" (quoth Burning Shed) with 20 pages of illustrations, lyrics and credits.
              Disc 1 is the standard CD release, disc 2 contains a short documentary chronicling the recording of the album in LA, and three audio mixes of the album: a high resolution stereo mix which is excellent, and two surround mixes which unfortunately I can't test yet, but I very much look forward to hearing one day when we can afford a surround system! This disc plays in both conventional DVD and Bluray players. Certainly during the playback of the stereo version you get visuals running of some of the art work, edited so that they appear in the moon, with clouds constantly blowing across, it's quite hypnotic. I'm guessing that the surround mixes also feature this. There is a photo gallery from their time at East West studio, and also a gallery of Hajo Mueller's illustrations. I bought my copy direct from Burning Shed, the independent online specialist distributor used by the Kscope label, for £12.99. It's also probably available elsewhere, but this version is a limited release. The standard single CD version is widely available.


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              • More +
                06.04.2013 00:50
                Very helpful



                Excellent double album from one of British rock's best kept secrets!

                Marillion are often referred to by those in the know as one of British rock's best kept secrets. Still, after all these years, best remembered for their 80's chart successes with Kayleigh and Lavender, and their Scots giant of a front-man Fish, the band have been releasing albums on a regular basis ever since, with 'new boy' Steve Hogarth providing lyrics and vocals since way back in 1989 after Fish left. Their sound has gone from emulating early Genesis back in the very early days, to a mature, reflective and occasionally loud progressive-tinged genre that they have made their own. This double album, their fifteenth, was released in 2009. I've been a fan on and off since somewhere back in the early 80s. I wrote this review a few months after I bought the album, and posted it elsewhere. I can't really add anything to it having owned it, and listened to it many more times, for four years!

                It's hard to write something about an album that is so much more 'feel' than touch - this thing has so much soul in disc 1 (Essence) that it's practically transcendent. This is easily the most spiritual collection of songs that they have come up with to date, and this even spills over into disc 2 (The Hard Shoulder). Essence is a journey of sorts, literally where This Train Is My Life is concerned, a song which any regular express train traveller can start to identify with as anonymous stations fly past, but here is something more as it speaks of the touring and fleeting glimpses of reality in the places travelled through. Life passes by too in Wrapped Up In Time, a song about lost loved ones whose echo remains but whose time is past. Liquidity is a rare instrumental outing which provides an atmospheric buffer between Wrapped Up and it's euphoric antidote Woke Up - an even rarer occurrence as it is an unashamedly happy and uplifting song, to be blasted out of the car at any given opportunity. The album's title track Happines Is The Road explains the loose concept of the disc, as H was prescribed the book 'The Power Of Now' by Eckhart Tolle to help him overcome a number of outstanding problems that were dragging him down. This whole album is an apparent testament to it's efficacy, and the track ends with the mantra of the title (to be sung at the top of lungs in concert halls across Europe during the promotional tour).

                The Hard Shoulder has been billed as 'more of a collection of songs than a concept' , and the collection is a strong one, from Thunder Fly with its nods to Cannibal Surf Babe, The Monkees and 3 Minute Boy, through the epic Man From Planet Marzipan and Asylum Satellite #1 - both of which look at the mess we're making of our world socially in a very original and creative way - to the unashamed pop of Half The World and beyond to the unashamed mourning for pop stars and their prostitution in Real Tears For Sale. Special mention must be made here for what is unquestionably to my mind one of THE most touching and beautiful songs ever written - Older Than Me, a brief meditation on a man who has met his soul partner in an older woman. Musically and lyrically exquisite.

                These are the high points for me, along with the beautiful cover artwork, and throughout the booklet, by Spanish artist Antonio Seijas. As a whole the double album is a huge return to form, and probably now in my top three favourite Marillion albums along with Brave and Afraid Of Sunlight - in many ways in fact it reminds me a lot of AOS, both musically and atmospherically. Speaking of musically - there are a lot of references to past melodies in here, not obvious recycling at all, more familiar echoes that knit this album together with its predecessors, but it also moves forward into new places, they seem unafraid to venture on into uncharted territory while also occasionally referring back to their prog roots. Maybe it is an album that is unashamedly unafraid of itself, the band saying 'stuff it' after the drubbing that previous album Somewhere Else received from a number of fans. This is a masterpiece of mind and soul music, but then that's what they're best at when it all comes together :)


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                • Nokia Lumia 610 / Smartphone / 57 Readings / 55 Ratings
                  More +
                  04.04.2013 23:01
                  Very helpful
                  1 Comment



                  For the entry level Lumia, it's pretty decent, a couple of annoying deficiencies though.

                  The end of my two year contract came around very quickly - my old full-touchscreen Nokia 5230 had served me well, so I was in two minds as to whether to step up to a better phone with my contract or not. I wanted to stay with Nokia as I'd been very happy with the battery life and reliability of my old Nokia, but I wasn't overly keen on having a Windows phone. The whole business of these brightly coloured square tiles with various apps behind them all over the screen didn't appeal. However, the idea of Wi-fi did, as did potentially improving the camera. I finally decided to change in December, having gone through all the options. I stayed on the tariff that I was on with Orange, and started on my journey with my new Nokia 610 Windows phone after a quick tour of it in the shop.

                  In the box - the usual stuff: clever charger which doubles up as a USB lead, battery, sim, ear buds (three different sizes), NO memory card as it has an unexpandable 8GB integral memory, and various different leaflets whose relevance depends on how far along in the setup process you are when you're handed your phone. The lady in the shop set up the sim and battery for me, and organised the switching over of my old number to the new phone. According to my ruler, the phone measures 63mm at its widest point, 119mm at its longest, and is 12mm deep. Its sides are slightly rounded, and it has a soft rubber-type back. This is the baby of the Lumia family, at the bottom of the current range.

                  The phone - was a lot easier to navigate and to get used to than I expected. It came with a set pattern of tiles, eight were immediately visible on the full touchscreen, with more available as you learn how to bookmark and pin things - more on this later. The touchscreen itself is a lot more sensitive than my old one, BUT one drawback is that instead of being operable by anything including biro tips, it now requires bare skin to operate it, and it also seems to require soft skin at that. Some of my fingertips are quite tough and the phone won't recognise them as human! I've learnt to get around this but it's not been much fun having to take my gloves off to answer the phone outdoors during this freezing weather. I'll have to look out for some of those gloves that were built to work with iPhones.

                  One downside to the sensitivity of the screen that I've discovered is that it's very easy to accidentally put someone on hold. It's possible that the proximity detector, which is supposed to disable the screen when you're making a call, is just in the wrong place for me on this phone. Several time now I've touched the screen to my face during a call and found that it's silenced the person at the other end. Needless to say this is extremely annoying and has also been very embarrassing.

                  The 'desktop' is the second screen that you come to. It locks itself after a set time (which you can alter, mine's set to lock after a minute of idling), so to unlock you just press the centre button on the right side of the phone as it faces you, and you have a 'welcome screen' that you can customise with your own photo if you wish. You slide this image up on the touchscreen to reveal the Windows desktop. I've moved the tiles around on mine a fair bit. You do this by pressing them for a second until they all move a bit, then you can take that one and relocate it with your finger. After a recent software update, you can also customise the size of the tiles too.

                  There's a phone icon which shows you your call history if you tap it, you can also access your voicemail from the bottom of the screen here, as well as your phonebook. There's a 'speech bubble' icon for text messages, an email 'envelope' which you can use to synch your email accounts if you wish. I don't know if there's a limit to the accounts that you can add as I've only connected my Hotmail account to it. There are also icons for Marketplace, Internet Explorer, Nokia Maps, Nokia Drive, and social media. Your pictures and calendar appear as horizontal rectangles across the screen part way down, these can also be moved up and down according to where you'd prefer them for convenience. I've found that this works a lot better than I had expected, which was a relief, and I've unpinned several icons that I wasn't going to use to make room for some other apps and website book marks that are more useful.

                  The other thing you need to know for navigation is what the little arrow at the top right hand side of the screen takes you to. Pressing this slides the whole desktop to the left to reveal another long vertical list of apps, and here you'll find Alarms, Calculator, Help, Office, Settings and all sorts of other things, including any apps that you may have downloaded to the phone. The front desktop functions are duplicated here, and anything from this list can be pinned to the front page if you wish for easier access. These things all work well, and it's one of those occasions when I thought it would all be to horribly complicated but in fact it's actually pretty useful. It's also worth knowing that if you accidentally delete something from your front desktop, it will still be on this other list, as the other are effectively just bookmarks.

                  Contacts and Facebook - there is a 'contacts transfer' which you can do when you initially set it up. It worked ok for me as I was transferring from another Nokia phone, but I don't know if it works if you're changing brand. If you integrate your Facebook account with the phone (and I have a feeling the same's true of email accounts) all of your contacts from there are automatically added to your address book too. This caught me out when it happened, since I was expecting just to find my normal, old address book under the tab. It took a bit of editing to sort out the duplicates, as quite a lot of my 'domestic' friends are also on Facebook, but it's now all under control and works fine. Thankfully it has a search bar so that you don't have to scroll through everyone.

                  Battery life - I have to charge it on average every 36 - 48 hours, which is about twice as often as my previous phone, but now that I have a phone with wi-fi, of course, when I'm within range of a connection I'm using this phone far more heavily than I ever did my previous one, particularly checking Facebook, Twitter and my emails. I have also discovered the joys of YouTube on the phone, which is the first time I've ever really used a screen this small to watch anything. It's surprisingly clear, and still very much a novelty. I also use it to play music, although the phone sound is typically tinny without headphones. I sit it with the speaker muffled a bit by a phone sock which takes away some of the white noise, but all of this activity inevitable drains the battery and I usually have to charge it once a day. It hasn't yet died on me, but I've only had it for four months so there's still plenty of time.... Games are also a big drain, though it's worth noting that many of the higher-spec games won't work on here. I've clicked on several of the common games on the app store only to find that they're either not available or not compatible with this model. I've got Doodle-jump, Flowerz and Fruit Ninja installed at the moment, and all three experience some delay during use.

                  It's worth noting that it is possible to remove the battery from this model. I believe that the higher-end Lumias have integrated batteries that can't be removed, which has resulted in a few returned phones when the phone's locked up. I'm very glad (although I've only had to do it once so far) that it's still possible to take the battery out and re-insert in an emergency re-booting situation!

                  Camera - it's 5MP, it has a flash (of sorts), and no webcam so just the conventional picture-taking out of the back with the image on screen. You can either tap on the screen on the subject that you want to focus on, or press the camera button on the side of the phone (bottom right) to take a picture. It doesn't always work, and I'm not sure if this is lack of sensitivity, or blindness to the subject on the phone's part. I often have to press it several times to capture an image. I usually take landscape photos, and rarely use it when a flash is required, but when I have used it it's been a very localised illumination and quite a poor result, so it's not the best as an after dark camera. In good light it's ok, but even then, as an upgrade from my old 2MP phone camera, I'm struggling sometimes to see the improvement. It also takes videos, which are ok - the sound capture's not too bad either, it's probably what you'd expect with a phone of this type. Nice as a memento of an occasion but it won't win any prizes.

                  Media - as I've already suggested, the screen is fine for watching videos on, and is to my eyes very sharp, allowing great detail to be seen, particularly when watching professionally shot things on YouTube like music videos. As far as the music player's concerned, you're best using your own choice of earphones/plugs/buds. I can't use the supplied ear buds as they cause my ears to feel and sound as though they're full of water, so I've pinched my old Sony Discman ear plugs which still work perfectly, and the sound reproduction is good. Media is played and updated via the Zune application, which needs to be installed onto your home PC / laptop when you first connect your phone to it, so that you can synch your pictures, music etc. This annoyed me as I already had Nokia's own Ovi installed for the previous phone, and I had expected this one to use the same application, but no. Nor will it work straight from Windows Media Player, which funnily enough the 5230 did. When it's all installed and it's all connected up though, it does synch everything pretty fast, and it accesses your music and picture files very quickly so that you can drag and drop anything you like into the phone. So I've learnt to tolerate it.

                  Office - this phone comes with mobile versions of the Microsoft Office applications Word, Excel and OneNote. These are of some usefulness if you have remembered to install and set up SkyDrive (which is part of the whole Hotmail/Outlook package these days) and then upload any documents to it that you might want to work on while you're away from your main computer. It's also handy for making notes that you can upload from your phone and then pick up later on the computer, and also for opening documents that you've been sent via email - up to a point. Its limitations become evident with Excel, however. This may be partly due to the screen just being too small to open a table properly, but I have found that trying to read timetables sent via email just doesn't work. It opens all of the details in the wrong places and can be massively misleading, as I discovered when I checked my daughter's race times and saw her name in a completely different category to the one she should have been in! One quick check on the PC screen and her name is back where it should be. So the excel app could definitely do with some work, or be left out of the package altogether in my opinion. I have downloaded Adobe reader which works just fine for PDFs.

                  On the whole I'm pretty happy with it, but I don't think I'll be overly sad to upgrade from this in a couple of years' time. There's just something not quite as comfortable about the use of this as there was with my old Symbian Nokia (yes, I really do mean that!).


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                  • More +
                    03.04.2013 14:52
                    Very helpful



                    A fascinating read with biography, travelogue, history and poetry.

                    I wrote a review some time back of an anthology of poems by Scottish poet Norman MacCaig. This book is about the fulfilling of a last request in his honour. Poet and novelist Andrew Greig got to know MacCaig through a piece of fan mail at the age of seventeen, having sent some of his own poems to MacCaig by way of a "thank you" for the inspiration of the great poet's work. An invitation to meet up followed from this, and there grew a long friendship as they found that they both knew and loved the same particular area of north west Scotland - Lochinver, Assynt and Suilven, and the complex and beautiful landscape between.

                    The Loch of the Green Corrie is a part of that landscape, and one of MacCaig's most precious places. His request was that Greig should go and catch a fish for him from the loch. This book tells the story of that geographical journey, but also of the journeys of people whose lives intersected with either MacCaig's or the author, while also telling the geological and social history of the area.
                    The book is divided into the four days of the fishing trip in 2000, with each day divided into its own chapters. These days are book-ended by an initial introduction ("The Charge is Laid"), and the account of a return trip that the author made alone in 2008 ("A Late Return"). The first trip, however, was made with two friends, two brothers, who had also known MacCaig well. They camped by the Loch when they had eventually tracked it down, which was a task in itself. The author intersperses their adventures with his own reflections on the brothers' very different lives, both before and since the quest, and his own life story so far.

                    His prose is very poetic - I haven't yet read any of his poems, apart from one which is included as a tribute to MacCaig, but the influence of his mentor was very clear as I read, partly in some turns of phrase, and partly in the descriptions. The older poet was probably best known for his appreciation of the natural world, from the highest mountains to the smallest bird, and his verbal portraits of them were full of details that could only have been had though years of observation. That Greig shared MacCaig's great love for the outdoors and that particular part of Scotland is manifestly clear. His writing isn't poetic in the flowery sense though - don't be put off. It's very easy to read, perfectly informative and fascinating.
                    For me it's particularly interesting since he visited and references places that occur frequently in MacCaig's poems, so this book acts almost as a guide book at times, to both places and people. In fact, it inspired me to go and look for the places that are mentioned and mark them on a map so that I could get a better idea of where he was talking about as I was reading. This has now led to me going through the big anthology and making an expanded version with the actual places named in the poems!

                    I approached this book initially expecting it to be mostly about a fishing trip with a few additional anecdotes. What I got was a travelogue, autobiography, memorial, and a geological and social history document, with the fishing trip accounts almost being incidental. It is a very interesting and absorbing book, and a must for any fan of Norman MacCaig as it explains and expands on some of his contemporaries, as well as some of the people mentioned in his poetry. I have enjoyed and appreciated it very much and will definitely be reading it again, as well as occasionally dipping into it when I read the poems to clarify who was who and what was where. I recommend this too as a fascinating travelogue / autobiography (travelography?) even if you have no interest in the poetic side, but love the northwest of Scotland. If you want to know if they caught the fish, then you'll have to find your own copy!

                    At the Loch of the Green Corrie
                    Andrew Greig
                    Published by Quercus, 2010. My paperback edition 2011, 324 pages.
                    RRP £8.99, I bought it on Amazon for 1p plus postage.


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                  • More +
                    28.03.2013 00:48
                    Very helpful



                    Blackfield's third album pushes slightly newer musical territory

                    Blackfield are a niche supergroup. Most people will never have heard of them, but if you're a fan of contemporary music in Israel, there's every chance you'd be very familiar with one half of the duo behind this band. Aviv Geffen is a pop superstar there, and is also well known for his outspoken, peace campaigning, political views. The other half of the duo is Steven Wilson. Currently enjoying an increasingly successful solo career, he's also the brains behind British rock band Porcupine Tree, and one half of the almost genre -unclassifiable No-Man. Together, when opportunity allows, they have been writing fine rock-pop songs together since they first met in 2000. This, their third album, was released early in 2011.

                    The two previous albums (Blackfield and Blackfield 2) were collaboratively written, but with this one Geffen wrote all but one of the songs. This I found very interesting as the whole album has a far more progressive sound to my ears then the previous two. Wilson's own music has leaned ever more towards 'Prog Rock' over the last few years, so I had expected him to have had a bigger hand in the writing than he had! This goes to show Geffen's own development away from conventional pop rock in this project. In terms of performance, they take an almost equal role in vocals and instruments (guitars and keyboards). The rest of the band are Eran Mitelman on piano and Hammond organ, Seffi Efrati on bass guitar, and Tomer Z on drums and percussion. Strings are provided by the London Session Orchestra.

                    The CD is presented in a hardback book style digipak rather than a conventional jewel case. and contains the lyrics to all the songs, the musician credits and acknowledgements, together with several portrait shots of Geffen and Wilson, with the rest of the band being featured near the back of the booklet too.

                    THE SONGS

                    1. GLASS HOUSE - the album begins with a "Goodbye", literally - a farewell song, which sounds a like a goodbye to his own country. Written by Geffen, it's almost strange that Wilson sings it as it's almost certainly about his native Israel. It is slow-paced, almost anthemic-sounding. Maybe because it starts with the word goodbye it has something of the sound of a final track about it. The initial vocal is sung over a quiet synth backing, the band coming in at the end of the first verse, with a repeated guitar phrase that recurs after verses throughout the song. The 'middle eight' is a change of mood with a more contemplative verse sung over piano, but then the band come back in and it returns to the main tempo, with a melodic vocal harmony section where a guitar solo might have been. The song ends quite suddenly after a repeat of the first verse, with very little gap before...

                    2. GO TO HELL - this track caused much controversy amongst the fans due to the language used. The title isn't the problem, the multiple usage of the F word is. The irony for me was that it was people who use the word often in normal conversations that seemed to be the most offended by it, excusing their discomfort by saying that the song is immature. Well, it is definitely limited in its lyrics ("F*** you all, f*** you, I don't care anymore, go to hell"). The song was said to be expressing his anger towards the upbringing that he had from his parents, maybe he found it cathartic? Sensibly, it's sung by Geffen. My personal opinion is that actually I find it quite a powerful song - the way that the words fit the melody, and the way that the song builds musically, are very effective, and I don't find it offensive. If anything, it's desperately sad if that is really how he feels towards his parents after all those years (he's currently 39). It is the only song on the album with such strong language, and if you feel that you would be offended by it, then the skip button would be your friend at this point.

                    3. RISING OF THE TIDE - vocals are shared on this track, starting with Wilson accompanied by piano, but it slides into a slightly pedestrian rhythmic melody when the band come in. Lyrically, it begins by encouraging you make the most of everyday, but the words soon turn to list all of the things that slow you down and stop you from doing this. In this case, it seems to refer to the problems that come with fame. It has a feel of resignation and sadness about the words and music, emphasised by the simple guitar solo and orchestra at the end, both of which have a mournful sound.

                    4. WAVING - the only Wilson-penned song on the album is a lively, guitar and string-driven pop song, with lead vocals and harmonies both being sung by himself. Staccato strings add to the lightness of the music throughout. In all honesty, in what is a very melancholic and introspective album, this song is a welcome breath of fresh air! Like several tracks on the album, the initial vocal is sung over sparse accompaniment, with instruments in this case gradually being added, building up layers until the middle verse and 'la la la' chorus where the song really cuts loose. Flute, guitar, strings and percussion play out in a more subdued manner at the end.

                    5. FAR AWAY - sung by Wilson, the pace slows again for an acoustic guitar-led piece, with swelling strings as it moves through a song that speaks of the despondency that comes from not just being far from home, but feeling as if you don't belong even when you're there.

                    6. DISSOLVING WITH THE NIGHT - vocals are shared again on this track, which builds from an initial impassioned vocal from Geffen accompanied only by the piano, with the orchestra driving the rhythm to a dramatic climactic crescendo, before dropping out for the quiet, haunting final verse with the piano. Lyrically, it's also haunting, telling a story of panic, unfulfilled dreams, the shallowness of others, and ending with a promise to be out of everyone's way soon: "soon I'll disappear into the deepest space, I won't leave a trace."One of my favourites on the album, it communicates a real sense of desperation and urgency in the way that the orchestra, in particular, is arranged to complement the words.

                    7. BLOOD - This is mostly an instrumental, with a very middle-eastern feel to it courtesy of the lively guitar rhythm and the presence of the Tar (percussion instrument), Oud and Saz (both similar to lutes), all played by Yankale Segal. I think (although I'm not 100% percent sure) that it's just Aviv singing the repeated single line "Here comes the blood", harmonising with himself.

                    8. ON THE PLANE - Wilson sings this slower song, about a child's anticipation of their father's return, but also a desire to be away from the neighbourhood which is boring him.

                    9. OXYGEN - Geffen takes the lead vocals for this quicker-paced melodic pop song, which was produced by the legendary Trevor Horn, who also provided some extra keyboards.

                    10. ZIGOTA - Wilson's turn again, fittingly, for the most prog song on the album. Also fittingly it's about mortality, death specifically, which is one of his pet subjects. Melodically it has some twists and turns, percussion drops in and out, and for the first part it is quite slow, picking up a little more momentum as it goes along, eventually going into a brief full-blown loud proggy moment with off-beats and time-signature juggling. This is probably my favourite track, and I wish the prog bit lasted a little longer...

                    11. DNA - shared vocals to finish, they both sing in harmony for the song's duration. The final song is a sad one, with a mournful melody to accompany lyrics that speak of a built-in destructiveness that drives away loved ones.

                    The album has an overriding sense of melancholy and introspection, something that has typified all three of their albums so far. The songs are always strong on melody, 'proper' instruments and the craft of song-writing, and this has some more ambitious than usual songs on it (Dissolving.. and Zigota being particular diversions from the Blackfield safe ground), but the more conventional songs aren't groundbreaking. Still not every song needs to be; a simple melody, a strong lyric and a sincere performance is all it needs to impress the subject on the listener. This isn't an album to choose to cheer yourself up though, as you've probably gathered already! A fourth is on its way with less contributions from Wilson this time, as he doesn't feel that he can commit enough time to this project to do it justice at present, due to his increasing other commitments.

                    I do recommend this album, for fans of melancholy pop-rock with a hint of the progressive about it. It's available from their artist shop on independent distributor Burning shed's website for £11.99 plus postage (it's still also available on vinyl there, only 2000 were pressed, and that version is 14.99 plus postage). Of course it's lurking around the usual online retailers too, currently starting at a hair over £6.


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                    • More +
                      23.02.2013 18:52
                      Very helpful
                      1 Comment



                      Durable despite their thin construction, indispensible!

                      Since we acquired Jake, our (now five year old) Jack Russell, I have been buying these bags for the safe disposal of his by-products! Through the process of getting his diet right, the poop has varied tremendously in volume, texture and most other ways you could think of, including two nasty bouts of gastritis due to foraging, so this is the story so far of our journey with these bags. 

                      Firstly, they chose me, in the sense that initially they were my only option in a hurry when he came to us, at short notice, when he was two. They're the only brand that our local Tesco stock, and our Local Co-Op too for that matter. They are very sturdy for their thin construction, and in three years I think I've only holed two of them when picking up offending articles, both times I think that they were tricky loads hiding in longish grass. Generally the classic technique of turning the bag inside out over the hand, then using the bag like a glove to pick up his waste,  bringing the bag up around it, then tying the handles together does the trick. It took me a while to notice that they actually said that they were bio-degradable, something that concerned me after a while as I was suddenly consigning a lot of plastic to the waste system.

                      The bags are a generous size, they certainly cope with a small dog's produce with no trouble at all most of the time. I've often used it for the morning walk deposit and then collected an errant pile from the back yard from the last trip out before bed in the same bag.  Going by the piles left lying around by others on the local verges, I've not yet seen a load that wouldn't fit easily into one of these, except perhaps the horse manure...
                      The only times when one bag hasn't been enough is when the poor boy had the runs, and two or three were necessary to make as good a job as I could to minimise left-over contamination. Thankfully since we switched to James Wellbeloved food his stomach's calmed down a lot and this rarely happens at the moment! Long may that continue. 
                      The bags are black, and come in packs of sixty. They're in a plastic wrap similar to a pack of travel tissues or nappy sacks - in theory it' suppose to be easy to pull out one at a time, but in reality I usually end up with a handful. This isn't a major problem for us though. It is also possible to buy them in a 'handy dispenser roll' pack, again sixty bags, but divided into three separately wrapped rolls of twenty each, perforated, but with no tie handles. I have only bought them like this once and wouldn't get them like that again out of choice as I found it too fiddly. Trying to get a bag off a roll, which though perforated was quite hard to separate, while hanging on to an impatient dog is not an easy manoeuvre. Add in cold weather and gloves and it's almost impossible. I ended up having to just take a couple of bags off the roll before I left the house, so it was no more handy than having a normal pack as far as I was concerned.

                      I can thoroughly recommend these bags, they've also come in useful for many other things such as collecting shells when we've been on holiday (there's always one in a pocket somewhere left over from a walk!), and throwing out bones from meat stock - the neutralising scent isn't overpowering, but again like nappy sacks, goes a fair way to covering up nasty smells until the next refuse collection. While I can see a usefulness for the bags on a roll version if you take your dog on holiday and need a large supply close to hand in a pocket for a few days, on the whole I much prefer these tie-handled ones that are packed individually. At around £1.60 a pack, they're reasonable priced, simpler, bigger, easier to use and easier to carry when it's been used too as you can loop it over your finger until you get to the bin. A thumbs-up from me!


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                      • Tom Chambers Daily Seed Blend / Bird / 71 Readings / 70 Ratings
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                        04.02.2013 13:30
                        Very helpful



                        Seemed a good buy, but birds' refusal to eat it made it a false economy

                        A few weeks before the recent cold snap, we decided that we should do the responsible thing and stock up on bird food. I spotted some 2Kg bags of Tom Chambers Daily Seed Blend on a 'buy one get one free' offer in our local garden centre, and decided to take them up on it. I didn't look in great detail at the mix at that point, but it seemed to be moving freely in the bag and I could see a bit of a variety in the contents, so I assumed that it would be fine, and filled up both of our seed feeders with it. Our local bird population has a habit of emptying the feeders pretty fast and generally don't seem to be too fussy!

                        It states that it is suitable for seed feeders, ground feeders or bird tables, that it is a "well balanced and nutritious mix", and that it is "attractive to a wide variety of birds", then goes on to list the titmice and various finches, picturing a bullfinch proudly on the front of the bag.

                        We waited. Normally we have a fairly good pass-through of Great Tits, Blue Tits, Long-Tailed Tits and Coal Tits and they tend to visit the feeders quite regularly, as do the Sparrows and the Robin, with the Dunnocks, Blackbirds and Wood Pigeons tidying up underneath. They'll empty the feeders in a couple of days sometimes so I was feeling well prepared with my two 2Kg bags. They came and looked at the feeders, had a bit of a peck, and flew off again. Then they pretty much ignored them through a patch of very wet weather, during which time water got into both feeders and the seeds formed a solid mass at the bottom, blocking the holes. So I cleaned them both out thoroughly, re-filled them, and waited again as the snow fell. One pair of Great Tits came and had some of the seeds, but that was pretty much it. We had plenty of 'stop-overs' in the tops of the trees, but no customers at the bar.

                        I have put some of the seed down on the ground since the snow thawed but nothing has cleared it up. It's been down there now for over a week, not even the mice or the pigeons have been in for it. It has me puzzled, since in the bag it has no smell of mould or anything like that. I can only conclude that this seed mix isn't AS attractive to our bird population as the food that everyone else is supplying locally. We have seen a pair of Dunnocks pecking around the periphery briefly, but that's it so far - I'd be more than happy to have my scepticism proven wrong by the pigeons swooping in and hoovering up the lot before it all starts to take root!

                        I have now bought a bag of a brand of seed that I know they have ravenously devoured in the past (Field Fayre Wild Bird Food All Season's Mix) that is readily available at our local Tesco. I'm hoping that it will tempt our feathered friends back. One thing that stood out for me as I opened the bag of their usual food was the aroma - it smells appetising, almost like muesli, whereas the Tom Chambers food has almost no detectable aroma at all (I checked with my husband and he agreed, in case it was my faulty nose ). Their usual food also has a far greater variety of seed in it, or at least a more even balance of ingredients, with a lot of sunflower seeds rather than just a few, and larger pieces of maize as well. Generally comparing the two has made me realise how uniform the individual bits in the Chambers food are in size, and how unbalanced the mix is. I believe from reading a press release that I found online from a few years back, the intention with this mix was to go for fewer 'cheap filler' ingredients such as sunflower seeds. Trouble is of course that the birds like them.... I have also seen since that their 'classic' mix actually has a far more diverse appearance, so with hindsight I would have bought those instead if I'd realised.

                        Having thrown away half a bag due to the food being ignored and getting 'old' out in the open air, I'm inclined to avoid this brand in future, and the 'special' offer does sadly seem to have been a false economy. I hope that this has been successful in other people's gardens, but it does make me wonder why they have so many special offers. The 'buy one get one' wasn't a store offer, but a brand one with it actually printed on the bag. Currently their website is advertising 20% free on the 2Kg bags. I'm afraid that from our experience over the last couple of months, our wild birds haven't recommended this product.


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                        • Samsung Series 3 305E / Laptop / 67 Readings / 64 Ratings
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                          12.01.2013 22:27
                          Very helpful



                          A good laptop, serves our current needs with lots of potential for future use.

                          (Note - ours is a Series 3 305E laptop, but is the 14" model E5A. I mention this since the photo pinned to this category at time of posting is the E7A 17.6" version)

                          We had a problem in our household. Until this summer holiday, we were battling over one computer, with at least three of us genuinely needing it for work in some form or other. Thankfully due to a small windfall for my other half, we were able to look for a laptop to help our eldest. She had managed to get to her final year at high school without one, but her workload this year is approaching lunacy.

                          She had been researching laptops longingly for some time, and had decided on a Samsung. There were several reasons for this - the chiefest of which being that we were able to borrow my Aunt's HP device while she was in hospital last year and the feel of the surface of the touchpad made her skin crawl. This seemed to be common to a lot of other makes as well, and when we visited PCWorld she found that Samsung (which she'd already been eyeing up) didn't use this type of texture. So she felt vindicated, and more so when we discovered that there was an offer on at the time which would get her a higher spec machine for the same price as the one she'd had her eye on. Unfortunately I have no record of the full price at the time as we actually ended up taking up their Infinity scheme, which is a bit like a mobile contract with a monthly lease fee. We pay about £30 a month for two years, and it's covered for everything as well as us having the use of it.

                          As it turns out this has become a shared laptop since I can use it while she's at school, so I have been making the most of this whenever possible so that she can have it back at hometime! (Our youngest's lack of computer was solved by her school, who in their infinite wisdom have decided to follow Bolton's ESSA academy and trial iPads for all of the students. This will be interesting...)
                          Anyhow, on to the machine itself.

                          Techy bits
                          The laptop has 6GB of RAM, a 64-bit operating system, and 1TB storage It came with the Windows 7 home premium edition. Much to my daughter's satisfaction it has a normal qwerty keyboard with number pad to the right, compared to my Aunt's HP which was arranged completely differently with an extra circuit of keys, causing her to hit print every time she wanted to hit shift. Her annoyance was audible from the garden. The battery lasts a fairly average two hours per charge for basic word processing and surfing, much less when using video a lot. Haven't tried games yet!

                          It is pretty fast. Bearing in mind we have a heavily burdened PC with only two 2MB RAM, and 300-odd GB of storage, this thing is comparatively empty and three times as powerful, with an absurd amount of storage. So it is a joy to start up and be able to go online within a couple of minutes, rather than switching the computer on and going off to make a cup of tea while it's warming up. It has Wi-Fi, which along with our youngest's impending iPad forced us to upgrade our modem accordingly, which has been massively helpful and liberating. It came with Windows 7, and we have also got Microsoft Office and Norton 360 installed, both of which were included in the agreement package at a reduced rate if I remember correctly. It runs very smoothly, isn't too heavy to have on your knee for protracted lengths of time, and doesn't get too hot either which is a great relief as that was something that concerned me, having read reviews of laptops that have caused scorch injuries.

                          There are two main things that will need extras buying for them. The mouse-pad seems to have very intermittent responsiveness. Having been used to a touch-screen smartphone for some time I'm finding this very frustrating, so I'll be looking for a mouse for it soon. Eldest seems to manage ok with it though so it may just be me (favouritism!). The built-in speakers are also a disappointment, so we will eventually be looking for some decent laptop speakers. Whilst we aren't obsessive audiophiles, we don't do tinny either, which unfortunately is what these speakers produce.

                          On the whole though, it's a great laptop, and so far has done all that we have asked of it (apart from the mouse business). We're still, even after five months, enjoying the novelty of not being a one-computer family. Being able to get on with my review-writing and other things while my other half's engrossed in his online pursuits has been a great help to me, not to mention that our daughter's able to get her homework done without having to dislodge her Dad (or me) to do so!


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                          • More +
                            30.12.2012 00:26
                            Very helpful
                            1 Comment



                            Greatly improved since the early days, and happy to recommend it!

                            Many years ago, my Mother discovered this product and began to use it on principal, rather than on merit, because it said that it was good for the environment. My own opinion of it back then was that it didn't work, and had the grease-shifting power of instantly filthy dish water, but she stuck with it and somehow managed to keep our crockery clean. Those were the days (back in the 1980s)when you could only purchase such products from health-food shops. Nowadays they've grown in popularity, with the increased concern about ecology and the damage we're wreaking here there and everywhere, and every supermarket chain seems to have its own version of the stuff as well as the original.

                            Ecover themselves are a Belgian company founded in 1980, who specialise in producing cleaning products made from predominantly plant-based ingredients. The intention is that these products will break down into harmless residues in the drains and water treatment systems, thus causing little or no chemical pollution of the world's waterways and seas. By 1993 they had been recognised by the UN Environment Programme for their contribution to the environment, and according to their website they continue to work on ways to improve their products and packaging and minimise their environmental impact.

                            So have they improved the washing up liquid? I decided to have another attempt at using it several years ago when I was having problems with dermatitis and conventional washing up liquids. The most commonly available aromas are Lemon & Aloe Vera, and Camomile & Marigold. (There are two other 'flavours', which are Pomegranate & Lime, and Grapefruit & Green Tea, but I've not seen these very often).

                            It's the lemon one that I chose initially, as I prefer a washing up liquid of that scent to counteract particularly strong food smells. It produced a lot more lather than I remembered from my early experience, despite the fact that the packaging actually states that it is a low-lather product. I found over time that in fact it worked equally as well with our dishes as my previous washing-up liquid had (store's own from either Tesco or Sainsbury's, NOT the value brands though). I didn't find that it was any kinder to my hands, but then neither is Fairy so I just have to resign myself to wearing washing up gloves, but that's fine as I can then have the water nice and hot! A further thing about the bubbles - there are enough but not so many that I can't see what's in the sink. Some high-end liquids are so frothy that you can't see what you're doing, so they're out as far as I'm concerned for that reason alone!

                            I have to say that we don't do a lot of frying, so I probably haven't tested it as much as some would - but when there have been very dried-on or even burnt-on remains of meals, with a soak and a bit of elbow grease they've come up clean. I do not expect my washing-up liquid to dissolve such things with no effort, since to do that they'd probably contain the harmful chemicals I'm avoiding by using this product! I think in the end it boils down to the issue of whether you prioritise environment or 'instant cleanliness', since in my opinion this washing up liquid is now as good as I need it to be to keep our family in spotlessly clean dishes. I have tried the Camomile & Marigold variety and it works just as well, but personally I dislike the scent so I stick to the Lemon and Aloe Vera, which I buy in 1 litre bottles from either Tesco or Sainsbury's. The one I bought this last week from Tesco was £2.25, sometimes they'll have two for one offers or just a price reduction for a time so it's worth keeping an eye out.

                            So I'm glad to say that I've found a great improvement since those early days, and I hope that Ecover continue to produce this successful quality of washing up liquid for many years to come!

                            Just a quick update - as of March 2013 our local Tesco saw fit to discontinue stocking this variation, and is now only stocking the chamomile version. No idea if this is a general policy or just our local store manager's fault, so I now get it from Sainsbury's!


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                            • The Great Outdoors BBC / TV Series / 67 Readings / 65 Ratings
                              More +
                              18.11.2012 18:07
                              Very helpful



                              One of my favourite comedy finds of recent years, with added beautiful scenery!

                              In 2010, a new three-part sitcom written by Kevin Cecil and Andy Riley, starring Ruth Jones and Mark Heap was tucked away on BBC4. I spotted it being mentioned in the "You might have missed" section of the Radio Times just after the final part had aired, forgot about it, then remembered after it had left iPlayer. Having tracked it down in pieces but all present on YouTube I finally got to watch this gem of gentle comedy and fell in love with it, dragged my husband over to watch it, and then got hold of a copy of the DVD when it was available, and have now got our 15 year old daughter hooked too. It was the presence of Mark Heap that made me want to see if it was any good, since he'd played my favourite character Brian, the tortured artist in the basement, in both series of C4's comedy Spaced a few years back.

                              What, you may well ask, is it all about then? Rambling. Specifically a failing rambling (sorry, Mid Bucks Walking) club, and its leader's desperate attempts to win new members and to keep the ones it still has. Mark Heap (also the Lark Rise postie, Tertius in Stardust, and countless other roles) plays club leader Bob, in his trademark neurotic style. He is getting towards the unemployable end of middle age and is worried about losing his job, having already lost his wife to another man. His plans are constantly been frustrated, but you feel that he couldn't be anything other than frustrated anyway so it fits him perfectly.

                              His 'best' friend Tom ( Steve Edge ) lives in his car and needs looking after since he's not the brightest of chaps. Bob's teenage daughter Hazel ( Gwyneth Keyworth ) rambles with them under duress, fibbing to her friends that she's doing work experience with Stella McCartney. Young marrieds Sophie and Joe (Katherine Parkinson and Stephen Wight ) tag along for relaxation, although it soon becomes clear that all is not rosy for them. They constantly bicker about her work and his ambitions, which are being solely funded by her earnings - one being a barbecue with surround sound and an integrated HD TV: "not to get it would be a false economy!" These disparate (desperate!) characters are the core of the group, and the first episode makes it abundantly clear why so few people want to join in.

                              However, they do gain two new members along the way - the first is dark horse Christine (Ruth Jones of Gavin & Stacey, Stella etc) who arrives by train having been mysteriously rejected by her former rambling group in Barnstaple, something which becomes a sore point during episode one. She is assessed very early on by Bob as looking like Ranulph Fiennes on HRT, and being a threat to the harmony of the group. Finally Victor ( Joe Tracini ), who is besotted by Hazel, is in her year at college, and will go anywhere and do anything to spend time with her despite her constant and forceful rejections. For instance when he has a sore foot, she throws his boot a long way into the nettles so that he has to trail a very long way behind, just to prove how unsuitable a girlfriend she'd be.

                              Each half-hour episode features their adventures during different walks, and all are filmed on location in southern England, so you get to enjoy the scenery as well as the banter without the effort. Here's a brief idea of each one:

                              Episode 1, Walk 1 - Great Missenden to Stokenchurch, 11 1/2 miles, difficulty rating 4.3. In which we meet the group, see some potential new members leave and see what happens when a good pub goes gastro.

                              Episode 2, Walk 2 - Aldbury Circular Walk, 10 1/2 miles, difficulty rating 5.3. In which there are rights of access issues, and angry farmer, glamping and an almost assassinated fairy.

                              Episode 3, Walk 3 - Axmouth Harbour to Seatown, 12 1/2 miles, difficulty rating 8.5. In which there is grand mutiny, a burial mound, redundancy and a sudden revelation of true loyalties. And a duel with a giant ice cream cone.

                              The relationships between the group members are beautifully written, developed and acted. The humour is quirky and intelligently witty, with the occasional bit of slapstick executed with great comic timing (usually involving Tom taking something far too literally). I don't want to add too much as the best thing you can do if this review has got your interest is watch some, either on YouTube or the BBC website which has a page with some clips on it here: www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00t8xm9.

                              The DVD itself is rated 12 (mild language, sex references and one drug reference), and is just the series with no extras. I bought my copy new from Amazon.

                              I thoroughly recommend this low-key, involving, gently bonkers comedy, in the hope that it might reach a wider audience - and I also hope that there will be another series one day, even if only another three walks, so that we get to find out what other scrapes they get themselves into.


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                              • More +
                                06.09.2012 23:37
                                Very helpful
                                1 Comment



                                A bright new hotel outside the city

                                My husband works with an international artists' co-operative. They have a biennial get-together and conference for British artists, usually in the summer, and usually 'down south'. This time around it was held in Winchester, and we (myself and our two daughters) were allowed to tag along. It was held in the relatively new Holiday Inn just outside Winchester, located next to the popular Intech hands-on science centre on Telegraph Way. From a very quick look at the card that I signed to acknowledge receipt of the keycard, I think that the rate we were on was a conference rate of £125 per room per night.
                                You are required to give your car registration number at check-in, if you have driven yourself to the hotel. The free car park is of a good size, and has a generous quantity of parking near to the entrance set aside for Blue Badge holders.

                                We had two rooms - my husband and I were in a double, and our daughters were next door in a twin room. They are teenagers and mature enough to be trusted by themselves now! Both rooms were quite compact, but well laid out, with the beds, a good-sized desk and comfy office chair, a flat -screen wall-mounted TV that doubled up as a computer for a charge of £16 (which I believe also included pay TV options), an iron and ironing board which were stored in the very narrow wardrobe, two bedside cabinets, and a small table that housed the tea, coffee and kettle tray. They also provided a folding case rack for packing and a long stool at the end of the bed. The bathroom was interestingly designed - the bath with shower at one end was partly behind a wall that served as a shower cubicle, although there was also a fold-out glass panel to add to this. The sink was a very high Belfast-style sink, in other words a free standing rectangular sink on a shelf, with little space either side to stand your toiletries in, but it did have a shelf beneath it for that use instead (a bit impractical as the towels hung in front of this too, and you could be at risk of leaving important things behind if they migrated too far to the back).

                                We had the extra demands on the space of having a wheelchair to manage as my husband uses one to get around, but we always manage with a standard room whether it be here, a Premier Inn or Travelodge. The adapted rooms tend not to be designed for married couples (or families, which was relevant when our kids were younger) so we prefer to do things this way! There was plenty of manoeuvring space in the main room despite all the paraphernalia that we dumped in it, so full marks to them for that. The rooms are air-conditioned, as even the ground floor windows are non-opening. The controls are easy to use, but even if you switch it off it can still be quite noisy as everyone else's are going on & off all the time and the noise seems to carry through the system through the night. This took a bit of getting used to, as did the lack of actual fresh air.
                                The bed itself and the pillows however were the main sticking point for us, as is often the case in hotels. Where with Premier Inn it's the great height of their new beds that's a problem, here it was the substance of the mattress, which I likened to a giant marshmallow, and Ian referred to as 'mud'. It's lovely once you've got to a comfortable position, but for my husband who has very limited mobility it was a bit of a trial moving around on it. We managed however with a bit of perseverance. Where the pillows were concerned, we couldn't actually feel much difference between the pillow marked firm and the one marked soft - the only controlling factor seemed to be that one wasn't enough, while two nearly broke your neck due to the extreme angle. A folded bath towel under a single pillow rectified this problem for me at any rate - something tried and tested over many hotel stays over the years!

                                We ate breakfast in the hotel restaurant on the lower ground floor every morning. It was a self-serve buffet, with almost everything that one could think of provided. Various fruit juices, cereals, pastries, cold meat, yogurts, fruit and of course cooked breakfast items with additional options available cooked to order, such as salmon. Tea and coffee were served at the table by the serving staff, with regular offers of top-ups.
                                CONFERENCE ROOMS

                                There were several conference rooms, and we used about four of them I think during the few days that we were there. The largest also doubled up as a dedicated dinner room on the one evening that we all had a meal at the hotel together. This room was also used as a wedding venue on the Saturday while the conference continued in other rooms surrounding it. (There were 'bouncers' in the corridor asking us to be quiet when passing by!) According to the hotel website, this room has a capacity of 250. The other rooms varied from generous to decidedly cosy, it's hard to judge how many chairs could be accommodated for a more conventional meeting since they were filled with easels and tables and so forth, but one room could only really comfortably fit five in this context, while another had around seven or eight, and another more than ten.

                                PUBLIC SPACES
                                In the public spaces, there were seating areas available in the foyer (from where bar food could also be ordered and consumed), with televisions also installed at either end of the space. This was also the case in the bar on the lower ground floor, which also had mini TVs on the bar taps, very useful since the Olympics were being televised at the time! As well as these main seating areas, there were chairs and the odd chaise longue dotted around in wider parts of the corridors, which came in handy if you were a bit weary and waiting for someone to get ready. One area that my eldest daughter and I particularly appreciated though was outside, opposite the hotel and over a stile - there was a butterfly meadow, which I think was more to do with the science centre, but was just right at the time that we were there to have a wander and watch out for the wildlife. Our youngest preferred to sit in the foyer lounge and do some writing while Dad was occupied with work,

                                Summing up
                                Overall, it was a pleasant stay. We were made to feel very welcome by the staff, who were always polite, friendly, and ready to help if needed. It felt 'posh' compared to our usual accommodation of this sort, but at the same time, as I commented above, it wasn't completely without its discomforts. Still, being philosophical, it's impossible to cater for everyone's comfort since we are all different shapes with different requirements. If we're invited to stay again, we won't be refusing!


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