The Sunday Lao Tzu: starting small

(In the attempt to keep the blog fresh as I make the attempt to give you something new every day, I have decided to theme my Sunday posts arounds the teachings of Lao Tzu, the father of Taoism. Expect the Sunday X&HT to be a bit more philosophical, if not necessarily spiritual).

“All difficult things have their origin in that which is easy, and great things in that which is small.”

I don’t do new Year Resolutions, for the same reason that I no longer keep diaries. They always seem like a good idea, and I start off strongly, entering whole-heartedly into the agreement with myself to be a better person, to journal my every move. I have a stack of notebooks that have entries through the first week of January, an apologetic second burst somewhere in mid-February (when I was a teenager these usually coincided with Valentine’s Day, and consisted of bursts of woeful spite and, if things had been going really badly, love poems) then nothing. Rueful, shameful blank pages. Most of my resolutions have started and ended this way, and I view it as a sign of finally growing up that I stopped making unrealistic pledges that would be quickly abandoned.

I’ve realised that I was going about things in the wrong way. Rather than launching with both feet into a project and losing interest in the face of the hard and sustained effort that was required, I would have been better starting gently, easing into the task. This was a lesson that Lao Tzu teaches, but that Nanowrimo allowed me to apply to real life. By doing something every day, the task soon becomes a habit, then a part of your daily routine. No matter how little, the daily bit is the important bit. (Sidebar: yes, I know Nanowrimo is a 1667 word a day challenge, and that doesn’t sound like a little thing. By by breaking that task down into further 500 word chunks, it’s surprising how quickly you make your daily, weekly and monthly goals.)

The Habit is something that I hope to achieve with the PostaDay exercise. The point where I feel twitchy if there’s a danger of not posting is the point where I know I have accomplished something important.

When your objective stops being a chore, and becomes a daily pleasure, then you have succeeded in your goal.


Soho Morning

I get to work early. I’m usually in my suite for 8am. The walk through Soho at that sort of time reveals a different aspect to the usual crazy revelry. Something quiet and contemplative. This is the best time to take photos in my little corner of London, and something always jumps out at me.

Love And The Pot

Film critic Roger Ebert has one, and loves it so much that he wrote a book about it. My friend Rev Sherlock has one, and claims it’s the heart of his kitchen. After months of whining and pewling from yours truly, TLC caved in and bought me one for Christmas.

I’m talking about rice cookers, Readership. And I think it’s going to radicalise the way I do things in the kitchen.

My proudest new possession is a Tefal, with four functions. (Ebert frowns on this, but I don’t really care). It’s a steamer and slow cooker as well as a rice cooker. It also has a porridge function, which made for the creamiest, most unctuous podge I’ve ever made.

So far, I have steamed broccoli for Xmas lunch and spuds for a fish pie in it. I have made blueberry and cream porridge. I have cooked a full chilli beef stew in it, and the meat was softly giving under light pressure from a spoon. I have even cooked rice in it.

This process has something of the magical about it. Rinsed rice and volume-and-a-half of liquid go into The Pot (after a while, you can’t help but go for the Ebert-style capitalisation). Press the cook rice button. It sits quietly on the counter, venting the occasional polite puff of fragrant steam. After about 15 minutes, it beeps gently. Your rice, sir. It will stay warm in the pot for an hour or so. Fluff it up and get stuck in. No muss, no fuss. The non-stick bowl washes clean in an instant. The simplicity and efficiency of the device has me filled with a profound, calm joy. I want to use this machine every day.

Something of a recipe, as spelled out to me by one of my work oppoes. It’s the perfect restorative after a night out, or indeed a long work day, and will withstand any manner of tweaking.

Tobias Clayton’s Back-From-The-Brink Rice.

Put the rice in The Pot and get it started. While it’s puttering away, finely chop a chili and a green onion. Once the rice has clicked over to stay warm, fluff it up, then throw in a glug of oil and the veg, and clap the lid back on. Give it five minutes. The veg will soften slightly in the heat. When you can’t stand it any more, throw in more soy sauce than you think you’re going to need, lob the whole lot in a bowl and bury your face in it.

If you want to gild the lily, some briefly cooked mushrooms, prawns or chicken would work well. Try flavoured oil stirred through the rice, or cook it in some stock. I’m going to try popping some fish in the steaming basket that comes with the pot next time, just to see how that’ll cook.

All of which sort of jibes with the elegant simplicity of the dish. The salty tang of the soy mixed with the crunch and zap of the chili, all bound with the nutty comforting rice. It’s pure cooking, all about flavour.

Look, I’m sorry, I know I’m gushing here. But this is a transformative moment for me. I’m spending more time than I ought thinking about what to cook in The Pot, and using it makes me grin like a gibbon. As my adventures in domesticity continue, this becomes yet another reason to get home, get comfy and cook.

Now, have I told you about my new pair of slippers?

The Tax Hike: something to talk about

I'm proud to say that I was one of the thousands that contributed to get this poster into papers and onto the sides of buses.

As the tax rises start to bite, the question that is
starting to be asked more and more is not “How will this affect
me?” but rather, “Are they necessary in the first place?”

That’s a
pretty good question. Tax hikes and cuts to essential public
services will save some money. But chasing down big corporate tax
evaders and getting them to simply pay what they owe will pretty
much clear the deficit with none of the pain.

It should of course
be noted that the pipsqueak that put these austerity measures into
place sees no problem in dodging tax himself.

“We’re all in this together.” Really. I’d love to see the wallet-tightening measures in place at Dodger Osbourne’s house. One less serving of swan a week, perhaps.
The most excellent website False Economy has come up with a handy
guide to the hikes and cuts, and why they’re not just unnecessary
but potentially suicidal. Chillingly, the economists and financial
experts that contribute to the site note that there’s a country
that has recently tried austerity measures almost identical to
Dodger’s. That country is Ireland, and we all know how well they’re
doing at the moment. At least the press across the water knows how
to call out a government that can’t help but run a thriving economy
into the ground.

The False Economy primer can be downloaded from their site here. Please, download, read, learn and share the knowledge. We are being lied to. It doesn’t have to be this way.

X&HT Reviews: Love And Other Drugs

The ad campaign for Ed Zwick’s Love And Other
Drugs seem content to have you believe it’s a straight up rom com.
There’s a little comedy, a little tragedy, some saucy nonsense with
flirting and nakedness. Not the sort of thing I’d normally be seen
anywhere near.

However, I may have mentioned in
the past that TLC is something of a fan of the leading man of the
piece, Jake Gyllenhaal (pronounciation guide: it’s a “soft” G, like
the J in Jake. I learned the tough way. I pass my bruised knowledge
on to you, Readership). Hence, it was a no-brainer that I would be
called upon to escort her to her latest tryst.

I’m glad she did. Love And Other Drugs is much more than
the posters would have you believe. There’s plenty of dick jokes
and nekkid ladies to keep the neanderthal in you happy, as well as
a genuinely involving story with some striking performances. Love
And Other Drugs is a solidly entertaining movie that plays nice
with all the rom com cliches while at the same time bringing it’s
own ideas to the table.

Jake plays Jamie, a
salesman for Pfizer during the early years of the Viagra boom. He’s
a fast-talkin’, low-hustlin’ hard-lovin’ guy with serious brains
and a little more of a soul than he’s letting people see. That is,
up until the point where he meets, sleeps and eventually falls for
Maggie, an artist with early-onset Parkinson’s, and his life is
changed. This relationship is the heart of the film, and it would
be very easy for it to collapse into mush. It’s saved by the
utterly astonishing rapport between Jake and his co-star, the
luminous Anne Hathaway. To my mind, she’s very much the best thing
about this film, and lights up the screen every time she’s on (I
can happily report she’s on screen an awful lot, and often not
wearing very much)(yes, I do have a crush now, thank you for
noticing). She takes the annoying manic pixie girl trope and makes
something fresh out of it, flashing between moments of toughness,
sass, sexiness and desperate, strung-out vulnerability.

Together, Jake and Anne bounce lines, looks and tiny
moments off each with the dexterity and subtlety of world class
ping-pong players, always in the moment, always totally believable.
Watching the press kit reviews for the film (are you at all
surprised that I’ve seen quite a few of these?) that rapport
becomes more understandable, as they cook up an act that’s half
mickey-take of Inside The Actor’s Studio, and half Marx Brothers
word play. It’s sometimes surprising that the interviewers get a
word in at all.

Love And Other Drugs is most
interesting when it talks about the state of healthcare in the
States. Although you’re never beaten over the head with the
message, you become quietly aware that the system is corrupt and
fundamentally broken, ruled by Big Pharma and the insurance
companies. Hank Azaria nails his role as Doctor Stan Knight,
vacillating between sleazy opportunism and caring doc on the verge
of nervous collapse. The most moving moments deal with the patients
themselves. Maggie helps coachloads of senior citizens across the
border to Canada, the only place where they can afford to buy their
meds. Meanwhile, the scenes at an Patient’s Unconvention directly
across the street from a huge medical expo slides home the
difference between the slick tactics of the drug companies, and the
realities of what it’s like to be sick in America.

Director Ed Zwick and his co-writer Marshall Herskovitz
are best known these days for widescreen historical epics like The
Last Samurai and Defiance. But they got their break with the
seminal TV drama thirtysomething, and Love And
Other Drugs feels like a story that could easily fit into one of
that show’s arcs. It’s not afraid to be clever and treat it’s
audience as grown-ups. Above all, it doesn’t fall into the romcom
trap of assuming that there’s a happy ever after when Maggie and
Jamie finally get it together at the end of the film. There’s a
maturity and pleasing lack of sweetness to the ending that sits
nicely with what has gone before, although Zwick’s insistance on
playing the “chase the girl to make the speech” bit in the last ten
minutes forced me into an eye-roll.

I’m sorry to
say that I think Love And Other Drugs could become something of a
victim of it’s marketing campaign. It’s being sold as something
that it’s not, and although it’ll draw the romcom crowd in without
a problem (and in fact the screening TLC and I went to was stuffed
solid) it deserves a wider audience. So I’ve taken the liberty of
annotating the UK poster. Just to make sure that everyone who might
be interested in the film gets the message.


Isn’t that better?

+++Pronunciation Update+++
The Gyllenhaal G is soft, and matches the J. Thanks to TLC for pointing this out. I have amended the post accordingly.


Something of a playlist


I thought I’d hash together a few of my favourite tracks of the year in a Spotify playlist for you, Dear Readership. This is in no means a comprehensive list of what I’ve been listening to. I’m not even sure it’s entirely representative. My listening habits have wildly randomised. I’ve been known to generate playlists based on a word or a jumble of letters. This then is a selection of the stuff that’s made it through to a second play, or up from that.

Careful observers may notice that there’s little in the way of rap, dance, R&B, soul, grime, dubstep, pop or disco. I listen to all of these, but this is a list of what struck me as notable in 2010, and there wasn’t much last year in those genres that hit me and stuck. No, not even Janelle Monae. No, not even Kanye West. Mind you, I’m still playing catch up quite a bit, and it’s possible I’ve just been pointing my ears in the wrong direction.

Eyebrows may also be up into hairlines at my inclusion of a song featured in an advert. But Motorhead’s slow version of Ace Of Spades was delivered with grace and buckets of cool, and with none of the gurning and grandstanding that made Iggy Pop and John Lydon’s paid gigs quite so objectionable. Plus, if you’ll excuse the pun, it’s ace.

Here you go then. Enjoy, or don’t. And tell me where I’ve gone wrong or right.

Clicky here for The X&HTreats of 2010.


I suppose I should put a tracklisting up for those of you without Spotify but have a vague interest in what I’m about. And if you don’t have Spotify and would like to see what the fuss is about, I have invites. A click on the R icon in the Welcome sidebar will let you send me a message.

+++FURTHER UPDATE+++ Dom has let me know that the link went to an inactive playlist. That should now have been fixed. If you’re still having problems, let me know. END OF LINE+++

treats tracklist.jpg

2011: The Cleardown

The beacon is lit. The Gateway opens. The sleeper awakes.

A sense of peace and order descends on Casa Conojito as the Xmas deccoes are packed up and put away, signalling the end of all merriness and joy for the next eleven months. It’s been a straightforward clearup, as we went minimal on the froth, frippery and frou-frou this year.

The exception to that rule is, as ever, the unknotting of the lights from the tree, a process that requires the application of non-Euclidian geometry and much swearing to complete. I was quite proud of the amount of quantum entanglement I achieved this go-round. It was an exercise in four-dimensional shared-plane dynamics that took some thought and a tearful breakdown before I applied good old Gordian theoretics to the problem and took the tree apart with the lights still attached.

Even then, the bastard things were tighter than Kylie’s dress on New Year’s Eve. The final knot-form that the lights evolved to once I had finally freed them from the tree was unsetting, otherworldly. The bundle of green wires seemed to twist serpent-like in my hands as I stuffed them back in the box. ‘Twas if somehow the form had described a pathway, a map to eldritch other dimensions. A beacon that the dwellers of these side-shifted places could follow to find their way here.

I fear for what awaits me when I go back up to the loft next Christmas. I fear that the deity whose arrival we celebrate on December 25th will not be the one we usually greet.

Ho ho ho. Cthulhu fhtagn.

2011: Calling time on The Hootenanny

Hang on, lads, I know just what that 4'33" needs...

I realise that Jools Holland’s annual dose of comforting musical cheese has dropped below the radar of a lot of so-called serious music critics, but I still find it worthwhile of a little attention. TLC and I don’t do The New Year Thing, choosing instead to stay in, cook (fish pie), watch a movie (Hot Tub Time Machine, beer-spittingly hilarious) and doze out in front of that good ole boogie woogie pianna.

This year, something went wrong, and I switched off at half past twelve. The exact point? Halfway through Roger Daltrey’s painful version of Mannish Boy, backed by the Rhythm and Blues Orchestra. This was the moment where I got heartily sick of every other bloody song being a bad cover version from the band with a “special guest” who more often than not turned out to be … another member of the band.

Now, they’ve been pulling this trick for years. It’s fine, especially as the quality of musicianship in the Orchestra is so good, and includes some genuine legends. But the balance was so fatally skewed towards them that you have to ask the question: where was everyone else? Bellowhead and Vampire Weekend were fine when they could get a word in edgeways. Plan B was fine. He was smart enough to stick to the singles, and delivered them with energy and verve. And that was it. Everything else just blurred into an endless, major-key exercise in ho-hum.

In times past, the Hootenanny has grabbed my attention by the star power of the guests they could bring up, or by the sense of discovery and surprise they could bring to an essentialy mainstream music show. Later… is still the best place on telly to catch the greats along with exciting new voices, and I still think the Hootenanny should reflect that. This New Year’s Eve, it didn’t. It felt, smug, outdated, and fatally caught up in a net of nostalgia. Alongside the endless tranche of old soul and R&B, the new acts were for the most part looking backwards rather than forwards. The Secret Sisters, two sweet Nashville gals, were doing nothing that the Carters hadn’t done fifty years previously. Rumer was another one of those chantooses that Joolsy seems so enamoured with, spooling out smoky Dustyisms in a creamy contralto. It just all seems so… lazy.

Look, the Hootenanny has given me a lot of pleasure over the years, introduced me to a ton of new music and been the soundtrack to innumerable New Year’s Eves. I’m disappointed, and I hope the “will this do?” exercise I was subjected to this year doesn’t happen again. It’s the first time in a long time that I haven’t watched it to the end, and I’ll be wary of doing so again. It’s a low down dirty shame.

(Pic courtesy The Telegraph)

2011: New Day Rising

When I was young and foolish, I used to believe it was the height of cool sophistication to start New Year’s Day by putting the U2 song of the same name on at high volume. A totemic beginning to the New Year, I thought.

I know better now, and wouldn’t assume to sully the intelligence or patience of my dear Readership by forcing Bono on them while they’re still in a delicate place.

Instead, please to enjoy Leatherface rocking out to Hüsker Dü’s “New Day Rising.”


This Was The Year

…that Twitter turned me into an activist.

The 38 Degrees and Avaaz guys had me signing petitions and writing angry letters to my MP (admittedly, I’ve been annoying Rob Wilson for a while now, but surely the point to democracy is to make sure your elected representative to government is aware of your needs?), forwarding links on, and in general becoming one of those people that the mainstream press like to demonise as a kneejerk reactionary. I make no apology for that. I’ve watched in horror as we ended up with a government that nobody voted for, that seems dead set on a swingeing series of cuts to essential services that is not only unjustified, but un-necessary. Not only un-necessary, but ideologically motivated. This, from Adam Ramsay on the @ukuncut blog:

…what George Osborne spotted is what right wing politicians around the world have known for the last 40 years: a disaster is a great time to radically change a country. From the privatisation of New Orleans’ schools after Katrina, to the corporate plunder of Iraq after the 2003 invasion, this trick is nothing new. Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine describes in detail how it has been used the world over.

There is a big problem. People understand this might require a big solution. And so they accept policies they would never normally countenance – policies not designed to solve the problem, but to radically change society in a way no one ever voted for.

And like this sleight of hand, Osborne’s “solutions” too are nothing new. The Conservative students I studied with at university – the generation who were born under Thatcher, and are now the researchers and aids to this government – were arguing for 30% spending cuts long before the recession. And their predecessors did too – in fact, in 1910, the Conservative Party brought down the Government rather than allow the people’s budget, the foundation of the welfare state, to pass. And they have used every opportunity since to rid this country of what they see as a dangerous socialist experiment.

And this “solution” is, of course, nothing of the sort. The idea that you solve a deficit caused by unemployment by cutting jobs is economically illiterate. Don’t take it from me – look at what is being said by the world’s leading economists, including most recent Nobel prize winners: Britain is embarking on a radical economic experiment which is not only un-necessary, but probably going to make the recession worse.

(The whole post is well worth reading if you want to whip yourself into a spiralling rage about the lies and nonsense that we are being fed about the state of our economy, it’s causes, and why the phrase “We’re all in this together” is the sickest joke of 2010.)

Twitter has also been the sharpest way to stay up to date on the happenings of the happy pranksters that have been shutting down tax avoiders Vodafone, HSBC, Boots and Topshop every weekend for a while now. Reading the streams from participants like @pennyred as stuff was happening had a giddy, unprocessed thrill to it. In events like this, the mainstream news media was left floundering to catch up.

Rest assured, there’ll be a lot more of this from me next year.


…that I was up on the main stage at FrightFest.

A seriously heady moment, as the writers and directors of Habeas Corpus (with the exception of Ben Woodiwiss, sadly) introduced the teaser, which was shown on the giant main screen at the Empire Leicester Square. This is a big deal, and we’re working towards getting the whole thing done in time to be screened next year. Once we can get the funding, of course… In the meantime, the final shot of the teaser is getting a rep on YouTube as “The Most Revolting Kiss EVAR”, which fills us all with a quiet sense of pride.

…that I wrote my head off.

Count ’em up. Nanowrimo and Script Frenzy this year left me with a completed 100 page graphic novel and two-thirds of a first draft of the second “Moon” novel. Five short stories. Innumerable blog posts. The thing is, I still feel like I’ve been slacking this year. God only knows what could happen if I light a fire under myself.

…that I made short films.

Dom and I finished Time Out, finally. It’s off to festivals, and we’re quietly hopeful of a screening somewhere. Meanwhile, experiments with a dirt-cheap Kodak digicamcorder and Garageband led to a flurry of creative output in July as I squirted out five short mood pieces in short order.  They were fun to do, and worked as document and commentary on a quiet moment. It’s a zen approach to film-making, and one that suits me. There will be more of these next year, promise.

…that I changed my reading habits.

Thanks to the Kindle. This thin, light, clever piece of kit has turned me back into a voracious reader and helped me to rediscover the hidden gems I had tucked in the depths of my hard drive as PDFs. My early worries about the open nature of the device were calmed as soon as I realised that it would flawlessly open just about any book format out there (and if it couldn’t I use the brilliant Calibre to convert it) and I am now a complete drooling convert. Much in the way that 2010 marked the end of my purchasing music in physical form (and, thanks to Spotify, barely buying music at all), 2011 will give the over-worked bookshelves at X&HTowers a much needed break. I’m eyeing up a couple of magazine subscriptions, as well as revisiting glorious indulgences from the past for surprisingly small amounts of money. I’m a blissful little bibliophile, I can tell you.


And as for 2011? Well, I want to be looking at getting something available for download on Amazon – probably Satan’s Schoolgirls as a start. Who knows, maybe even make some money off it.

Work continues on Habeas Corpus, Ghosts Of The Moon and Dom’s ongoing Banksy doco, which he hopes to have done by the end of January.

I want to start drawing more, as a complement to TLC’s interest in crafty stuff. A life drawing class is going to be vital, I feel.


Oh, and I pledge to blog more. No, really, I mean it this time. I’m signing up to’s PostADay initiative. That’s something new from me every single bloody day. You’re going to be sick of me by the the time I give up some time in February. There’s a very good chance, therefore, that X&HT will devolve into single line posts, photos and the occasional recipe. It’ll be different, that’s fur shure.

Right. 2011. Here we flippin’ well GO.