The best night of the month

Last night I hosted Album Club #79. That’s 79 months — almost seven years — of Album Club evenings, so I thought it was about time I wrote about them.

Way back at the start of 2011, my friend Bill dropped me an enthusiastic email with a link to a BBC News magazine article about Classic Album Sundays:

A growing number of music-lovers unhappy about the way album tracks are enjoyed in a pick-and-mix fashion have decided to take action.

The rules are strict. No talking. No texting. You must listen to every song on the album.

Classic Album Sundays treat our best-loved records like great symphonies and are being set up in London, Scotland and Wales.

Groups of music fans sit in front of a vinyl turntable, with the best speakers they can afford, dim the lights and listen to a classic album all the way through.

This monthly club in north London is run by Colleen Murphy and for her it is a strike against “‘download culture”, the sense that music has just become an endless compilation of random songs used as background noise.

”Everyone, stop multi-tasking, sit down, open your ears and do some heavy listening.”

Bill’s questions to me: Shall we start an album night of our own? Did I know anyone who might be interested? Yes and yes! This was great — it sounded like a book club without the homework. I was definitely in.

Five of us gathered on a February evening at Bill’s place. A lot of what happened that night set the tone of all Album Club evenings to come. We arrived, had a few beers and crisps in the kitchen and about 45 minutes in we were ushered through to the lounge. Bill revealed that he was going to play us a vinyl copy of David Bowie’s Hunky Dory. He’d printed the Wikipedia notes for the album and gave a small speech about why he had chosen it. Then the music began.

We sat there, in complete silence, listening intently. His stereo sounded amazing. I’d never heard the album before and from the opening notes of Changes to the fading sounds of The Bewlay Brothers it was a revelation. On this particular evening, and for the next couple of Album Club nights, the enjoyment of the music was mixed with the self-consciousness of sitting there in silence with everyone. Where do you put your eyes? Is it okay to jiggle my legs as the music takes me? Could I cough? Eye contact was strictly avoided.

After a few months the format was well-established and we consciously agreed some rules as follows:

  • Album Clubs are held monthly. In the case of being unable to book a date that people can make (August and December are particularly difficult) we can double up with two in the following month.
  • Hosting follows a round-robin format, with each member taking a turn in succession. In the case of sudden illness or force majeure on behalf of the host someone else can step in, ideally the next person in line so that you can simply swap places in the hosting order.
  • The host has to supply all of the drinks (ale, lager, wine) and snacks.
  • Most importantly, the host gets to choose the album. As host, your responsibilities for picking a suitable album are:
    • You must love it.
    • You are not allowed to play an album that you yourself have never heard before (see previous point).
    • Strictly no compilations.
    • No live albums. (This point is controversial with opinions on the rule split down the middle; I personally think these are legitimate albums in their own right but others believe that the inevitable presence of live versions of the artists’ own songs mean they are a type of compilation.)
    • Albums are played as if they had been bought on vinyl, with the end of a side giving people time to pop to the loo, have a brief chat about what they’ve heard so far and top up with beer. If you don’t have the vinyl and are playing the CD or streaming the album, make sure you do your research to know when to press pause. Double albums will have three breaks, triple albums (and you have to be very brave or completely infatuated by the album to choose one) will have five. If streaming, a top tip is to make some playlists of the various sides in advance.
  • At the end of the album, everyone can completely relax and enjoy the rest of their evening. Typically we end up lining up records on the host’s hi-fi that are linked to the album or fit with the vibe in some way. If it’s a Friday, a lot more beer is consumed.

Picking an album can be a difficult affair. Do you go with the one you really love or do you play something that you think people haven’t heard but are likely to like? Experience now tells me that you should go with your heart instead of your head and don’t over-think it. When everyone loves what you play (for me, Siren by Roxy Music, Heartbreaker by Ryan Adams and Tommy by The Who have all been successes) it’s a great feeling; when they don’t (see Human Racing by Nik Kershaw) it can be a bit deflating, but you get over it quickly.

Over the past six and a half years we’ve seen a few people come and go; two of the original five founding members moved away which made membership impossible and with a bit of recruitment we now have a ‘full team’ of eight. This is probably the perfect number — sometimes one or two people can’t make it at the last minute but it still leaves you with enough of the crew to make it worth it. For a while we had six but this means you always have the same two months of the year, no good if you find yourself lumbered with August or December. “Who’s turn is it next?” can always be answered by looking at our back catalogue of events lovingly put together and maintained by Mat.

It’s been brilliant to have an evening every month where I know I can just sit back, relax, listen to (typically) a great album and enjoy the company of a cracking group of friends. For me the best nights have been when I’ve discovered a truly brilliant album that I had never heard before: Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Cosmo’s Factory and Gary Numan’s The Pleasure Principle have been the pinnacle for me, closely followed by the unexpectedly punky eponymous The Pretenders. John famously loved Cosmo’s Factory so much he bought a CD copy of on Amazon before the first track had even finished playing.

Massive love and thanks to Bill for creating what is now commonly known as ‘the best night of the month’. We miss you, fella!

A minute of your time, please

This local project is well worth minute of your time. Sunnyside Rural Trust, based in Hemel Hempstead, Berkhamsted and Northchurch, are looking for funding for solar panels to make their charity even more sustainable. It only takes a minute to register and vote.

Sunnyside Rural Trust has been operating as a charity for over 26 years. Our vision is for an inclusive community where all people are valued and enriched within a sustainable environment.

We provide adults with learning disabilities with work experience in horticulture, conservation and animal care. We support 130 adults with learning disabilities at our three beautiful sites; Hemel Hempstead, Berkhamsted and Northchurch in Hertfordshire.

Trainees grow fruit, vegetables and plants, which are sold in our farm shops, market stalls and veg boxes. The produce is also used in Sunnyside Up Café at Hemel Food Garden plus our veg box scheme.
Trainees care for 300 ex-battery hens at our site in Northchurch. Our happy hens roam freely in our orchards where they enjoy their retirement!

Sunnyside Rural Trust have long wished to add sustainable electricity production to our list of environmental achievements.  The installation of solar panels will be a leap forward for the charity, enabling us to create our own electricity and generate income, which will be put back into the running of our charity. Plus it will encourage a greater awareness of the electricity usage amongst our employees and trainees. Installing solar panels will help us reduce our carbon footprint.

We use a large amount of electricity to heat up our greenhouses and staff communal areas. If we receive the funding this will enable us to heat the chicken coops during winter months.

Sunnyside Rural Trust aims to develop all three of our sites as a “green” focal point within the community, in turn enabling the charity to achieve more sustainability.

A little respect

Raiders tournament, June 2017

Berkhamsted Raiders tournament, June 2017

A couple of weekends ago I spent an entire Sunday sitting in a field watching my two young boys competing in the Berkhamsted Raiders football tournament which traditionally marks the end of our season. Raiders is a great club to be a part of — we have won FA and European recognition for the club, and particularly how it is run in the spirit of respect and fair play.

If you turn up at a match at our club you will always find someone has put up a ‘respect barrier’ rope along one of the lengths of the pitch, the idea being that the supporters from both teams stand behind this to watch the match. This gives the players, coaches and referee a bit of distance — a brilliant idea, particularly when the match is getting heated and temperatures are running high. It’s always the job of the home team to get the respect barrier up before the game. If the person putting it up has managed to untangle the rope and get the support poles into the frozen ground, an aerial view of it would look like this:

Typically when the supporters turn up they cluster at each end with people that they know. Here they are, eight supporters of each team closely watching the ball which is dangerously close to the goal on the left:

The problem with this setup, especially when the ball is close to the line near the respect barrier, is that not everyone can see. If the action is directly in front of you it’s fine but if you are at the other end of the pitch or even a few people deep, the angle to the ball means it becomes very hard to maintain a clear line of sight. Everyone is straining to see which only makes the situation worse:

Ladies and gentlemen, there is a solution to this problem! I’d love to take credit for it but it has to go to a fellow parent from another Raiders team who suggested it to me. Instead of having the respect barrier completely parallel to the length of the pitch, it can be configured in a ‘V’ shape as shown below:

Assuming that people don’t push so far forward that they strain or break the respect barrier (showing very little respect in the process), everyone at the front should then have a reasonable chance of seeing the action wherever it is on the pitch. Occasionally this can be difficult to do where one pitch sits alongside another one, however the ‘V’ doesn’t have to be very deep in order to have a massive impact on visibility:

Hopefully, armed with this knowledge we’ll be able to go into next season being able see even more on-pitch action than before. Well, at least at our home games.

Democracy theatre

I’m not sure where to begin. On Monday night I attended a meeting of Berkhamsted Town Council as a member of the public. They were due to discuss the planning application for an eight-storey car park in the centre of our town and I wanted to be there, to see the process for myself and raise my concerns. The council had given people a week in December last year to formally review and comment on the proposal and this had passed me by in the pre-Christmas rush.

In case you aren’t aware of the proposed multi-storey car park (MSCP)—and I think a lot of people aren’t—here are a impressions by an urban designer of what it will look like:

There were about 25 members of the public at the meeting, seated around the outside of the room. The town councillors sat in the middle around a table. We were each given a programme of business and asked whether we wanted to speak at the appropriate time. When I turned up I had no intention of talking but while waiting for the meeting to begin and reflecting on what was happening I raised my hand and said that I too would like to speak. I had little idea of what I was going to say.

First up was a planning application for 19 flats on a site by an existing residential area near Bank Mill. It turned out that a large number of people had come to the meeting specifically to raise concerns about this. The proceedings were suspended to allow people to speak, two local residents read their written speeches and the council thanked them. The application was quickly dismissed with the council members citing the numerous policy violations that the development would make. “This is great!” I thought. “The council seem to know exactly what they are talking about and are clear on the policies.” From the extensive work that people had done looking into the numerous policies that the MSCP would conflict with—including Dacorum Borough Council’s own transport and parking policies—I knew that the objections stood up and hoped that the council would be just as diligent in dismissing the application on similar grounds.

Dacorum Borough Council have spent over £350k on putting the application together. Despite spending all of this money, the application is deeply flawed. By deeply, I don’t just mean that there is some controversy over the technical details of impact to traffic flow and air quality (although there is that too!), I mean that it has basic issues such as saying that no trees will be impacted where in fact there are many across the whole of the site and multiple conflicting messages about what the core purpose of the car park is. Many people have written to DBC, Berkhamsted Town Council or commented on the proposal with their objections based on these issues and many are more eloquent or detailed than me.

Everyone agrees that parking in Berkhamsted is a total pain. So much so that there is a local parking forum that meets to discuss the issues. Anecdotally, you only need to drive down Lower King’s Road on a Saturday to experience the cars queuing back from the entrance to Waitrose onto the road itself. However, the ‘solution’ of a MSCP is short-sighted—even the representative of the parking forum said so at the meeting! We are very fortunate to have an independent traffic consultant in the town as well as a number of volunteers who contributed to an independent traffic survey. From the data they collected and the professional model that they used it is clear that there would be additional traffic in the area as well as significant pollution.

Here’s the thing for me—I don’t see how the MSCP will be good for the town whether it is full or not. If it is a ‘success’ and gets filled up with cars as is intended then we will have the added pollution and traffic—the main junction at the high street and Lower King’s Road will both become more of a nightmare than they are today. If it is unsuccessful and people don’t use it then we have spent £3.5m of public money on something that will have changed the character of our town centre for a very long time, with no payback.

Five members of the public spoke against the car park, including me, one after the other. Numerous policy violations were cited as well as yet another recent survey where local residents object to it. The representative of the town’s parking forum expressed disappointment at the lack of engagement from the Council. One final person then spoke in support of it. I learned later that this was Julie Laws, an ex-town councillor and former Mayor of Berkhamsted, who had been significantly involved in putting the original proposal together and was at the DBC Cabinet meeting where this was approved and the money allocated. She asked the room not to listen to the negative voices as they “always speak the loudest.”

Proceedings reconvened and I assumed it was an open and shut case. To my dismay, the councillors then started to give their own speeches in support of the work. First up was Tom Richie, our current Mayor. Incidentally, Mayor Ritchie is also an elected official of Dacorum Borough Council and sits on their Development Control Committee. DBC are the applicants in the planning process and are also have the final say in terms of whether it should be approved. So, Mayor Richie played a part in submitting it, was speaking (and had a vote) in supporting it at the Town Council level and will then assess it when it goes through DBC. Not only was this not declared at the start of the meeting when conflicts of interest were requested, it seems perfectly normal to everyone that this is the way of things! In my role as Chair of Governors at a local primary school I am often thinking about the seven principles of public life that came out of the Nolan report and making sure I ask myself how my actions look; at the very least, this participation as submitter and adjudicator seems to be at odds with the spirit of the principles, if not the letter of them. It feels like democracy theatre. Mayor Ritchie acknowledged that the application was flawed but effectively said that we should not turn down this opportunity to have £3.5m invested in Berkhamsted as the opportunity would not come around again—and we wouldn’t get the money for anything else if we turned it down.

Ian Reay, another former mayor, then spoke. His words reflected that of the Mayor in that we should be taking this forward. He said that we should approve it ‘with concerns’ and try to engage Dacorum Borough Council on the issues. I am not sure what this means in practice.

Councillor Garrick Stevens sat through this, shaking his head at what he was hearing—as did a large number of the public attendees, including people who had come along for the Bank Mill application. We couldn’t believe what we were hearing. Councillor Stevens made an impassioned plea to his fellow councillors not to approve this due to all of the factors that have been highlighted, however two more councillors spoke in support of the application.

The chair, Julian Ashbourn, then proposed that the Committee vote on the proposal. He offered a choice of rejecting it outright or approving it ‘with strong concerns’. Only one person, Councillor Stevens, voted against it. Everyone around the room was confused as to what this meant and Councillor Stevens himself had to ask for clarification as to what they had all just agreed on. Is ‘approved with strong concerns’ appropriate for a planning application of this magnitude? Councillor Stevens finished by saying “Right. You’ve sold yourselves down the river,” and this is exactly how we felt.

Where can we go from here? I get the impression that the majority of the councillors are keen to do something rather than the thing that is best for Berkhamsted. I do not see why there is such a rush to get this through. For example, could we test the impact of a temporary two-storey structure such as the one that was erected at the train station? These can be hired (for a lot less than £3.5m I assume) and would surely give a good insight into what would happen with an additional six storeys?

The Conservative councillors had the car park in their manifesto and I assume that they feel they are delivering on what they have promised, leaving a legacy for all of us. Many of us believe that we should be pressing pause and thinking again, but no matter how loudly we speak or clear our arguments, it doesn’t seem that we are being heard.

Barriers, forms and looking after your customers

I pay London Midland nearly £4,500 for my annual season ticket. On Monday morning after arriving in London, bleary-eyed and limping along from my weekend's cycling, I discovered that I had left my ticket in the wrong wallet. Due to Berkhamsted station not having any ticket barriers and my train rolling up to a platform at Euston that was also devoid of ticket readers I only realised my predicament when I descended to the tube for leg two of my commute. Tube journeys aren't that expensive if you use a contactless card so I just sighed at my dozyness, resigned myself to having to pay for a couple of tube trips, waved my credit card at the yellow reader and figured I'd deal with it when I got back to Euston.

On the way home I was in a rush to catch my train in order to get to a school governors' meeting. There is always an attendant at the barriers at Euston and I thought that just perhaps there would be a chance that I would be able to let him or her know what had happened and he would wave me through. I couldn't have been more wrong.

I have discovered that the process you have to go through is as follows:

  1. Get directed to the customer service window, usually staffed by only one person with a queue of people in front of it. On this occasion it meant that I missed my train.
  2. Explain your predicament to the customer service agent.
  3. Buy a ticket home (£14.40 off-peak from Euston to Berkhamsted!)
  4. Start your journey but remember not to put your ticket in any barrier at your destination as you need to hold onto it.
  5. At a later point, when you have your season ticket with you—probably in peak hours if this is when you usually travel—speak to another customer service agent and get a pink 1970s-style (actually revised in 1996!) carbon-copy form to fill out with your details. These details include your full credit card number and expiry date for all to see.
  6. Hand the form over along with the ticket to be refunded, your season ticket, your photocard and wait about ten minutes for the form to be added to and stamped.
  7. Be given the carbon copy of the form (see below) and be told that “they will call you if there are any questions, otherwise the money will be refunded in about ten days or so.”

At first it seemed bizarre to me that a company would treat its season-ticket buying customers like this, making them jump through hoops when there is a simple error. Then it dawned on me that there is probably no incentive to change—the process is such a pain that there is automatically a barrier to people pursuing refunds, resulting in more money for the company. They also have a monopoly—there is no other way of going from Berkhamsted to Euston on the train—and so it isn't that I can go to another train operator that makes a point of having better customer service than their peers.

To give the firm a little credit, they have made some things easier over recent times such as giving us the ability to log a 'Delay Repay' claim using their iPhone app. Perhaps this could be the next area to look at. I know that the company couldn't replace the outdated paper ticket system on their own, but having something on my phone that proves I am a gold-card holder would make life much easier.

 

What do you do when you spot another blogger?

On the train home from work today I looked up from my iPod and did a double-take – right in front of me was a fellow Berkhamsted blogger (if I can still call myself that, given my lack of recent posts) whom I recognised from his numerous Flickr photos. My first thought was to say hello and introduce myself, but I quickly realised how wierd this would be! I really had nothing to talk about other than the fact that we had both uploaded various photos to the Berkhamsted Flickr group and he had made me an admin many months back. It’s a strange feeling, thinking that it isn’t the first time that you have met someone and wanting to say “hi” but actually having nothing more of any real interest to say.

This happened to me before when I spotted the Station Master (of the now defunct Station Master’s Weblog fame) at one of the tube stations that I use on my commute – again, I thought of saying “hi” but had nothing to really talk about other than the fact that I read his blog. Not many avenues of conversation there.

Nobody wants to come across as a stalker!

Morgan Freeman in The Seven Samurai (well, almost…)

We went to see the Sunday matinee of The Seven Samurai at The Rex last weekend. I’ve wanted to see the film for ages and it was great that a chance came up at our lovely cinema. I wasn’t disappointed – for a Japanese film made in the 1950s it was surprisingly accessible and I could see exactly why it was remade as a western.

I couldn’t help feeling that I had seen the actor playing the main samurai somewhere before. Towards the end of the film it hit me – he was the spitting image of Morgan Freeman. A little digging turfed up this picture of Takashi Shimura – take a look for yourself to see what I mean. I think it was that he was doing so much of the ‘staring in disbelief and not daring to speak’ type-poses that really did it for me. I thought it was really cool that I wasn’t the first person to make this connection – see this review at the Internet Movie Database.

Great film, great way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Badgers!

Badger footprints!Ever since we had our lawn relaid somebody or something has been busy beavering away in the dead of night digging holes. The damage wasn’t too bad at first, but recently a massive chunk of lawn was uprooted and we’ve had to completely reseed it. Still we didn’t know exactly what was causing the problem.

I found out on Tuesday. Arriving home very late from work, I felt that something was snuffling and rustling around on a neighbour’s drive. I had a look but I couldn’t see anything. The same sound seemed to be even louder in our back garden. I unlocked the door, popped my bag inside and grabbed the torch. Wandering up a big dark garden in the night isn’t a bag of laughs and I could feel every hair standing on end as I tried to locate what was making the noise. Suddenly I saw the unmistakable stripy head of a badger looking at me as it scrabbled through the gap between our fence and the shed. I legged it – I’ve read that badgers can be nasty creatures when they feel like it and I didn’t want to get into a fight. The badger made it through the gap, saw me and then sped off up the garden at a billion miles an hour. It was awesome.

Although they’re a pain for the lawn, they really are very very cool. Don’t ask me why, but they are. Now that it’s suddenly got a little frosty they’ve been leaving tracks all over our garden and I managed to grab a shot of some guilty-looking paw prints from our garden step. Can’t wait to see our little visitors again.

Another great bike ride around Berkhamsted

Discovering bluebell woodMy wife and I went on another fantastic bike ride around Berkhamsted and Ashridge a couple of weekends back. It’s amazing how much wildlife and natural beauty is on our doorstep here. This time we managed to catch lots of lovely bluebells as well as be admitted to climb Bridgewater Monument. You can see the photos I took in my Flickr set or view a video from the top of Bridgewater Monument below.

The loudest tears on the way home

On my journey home on the train last night a young child in my carriage was having the loudest crying fit that I’ve heard for quite some time. You know something is loud and out-of-the-ordinary when people on the train actually start looking at each other – yes, acknowledging each other’s presence – and smiling in a “can you believe how loud that is?” sort of way. I can’t believe what a state children can get themselves worked up into! You just want to ask them what really could be so bad. Like these things do, it stopped almost as abruptly as it started and left an eerie silence on the carriage.

As I was busy sorting a few emails out on my PDA at the time and found that I couldn’t concentrate I quickly hit the record button with the intention of posting it here, but, listening to it now out of context, it just sounds harrowing and horrible. Consider yourself spared.

A strange Friday night at the pub video

Well, it all started with a suggestion from Mat that we meet for a beer after work at The Boat in Berkhamsted. Now that he and Steph are living so close to us we thought that we should be taking more advantage of it by getting out there and socialising. However, Friday night at the pub is always dangerous as everyone is tired and the beers don’t take quite as long as usual to take effect. We had a good time, but…well, I remember taking a video of Mat but I don’t remember it being quite this bizarre. The dangers of alcohol for all to see.

Mat, what on earth were you doing?

Deer in the garden

Deer in the gardenI couldn’t quite belive my eyes when I was making some breakfast on Saturday morning and spotted a deer wandering around in the garden. My wife had seen one when we first moved in but at that time we didn’t have much of a fence. She seemed quite happy to wander about, munching on our crocuses, and wallked away instead of running off when I opened the window to get some photos. With our new fence put up I couldn’t understand how she’d got there but it seems that there’s a route in from our neighbour’s garden. Hopefully we’ll see her again soon!

Boys night out in Berko

Trevor and Stuart murder James Blunt's You're BeautifulHad a great night out on the town last night with Mat, Trevor, Stuart and Iain, visiting a few local pubs that we hadn’t been to before. We started off with a couple of beers at my place before wandering down to the High Street and into the Rose & Crown, a small and friendly ‘locals’ pub. Everyone was busy watching the football so we amused ourselves with a few games of ‘killer’ on the pool table – for money – where Stuart and Mat cleaned up and were very happy to take their winnings. After a couple of pints it was time to go – Tevor decided to take a last-minute trip to the loo and we took the opportunity to leg it and hide from him. Very amusing. We then progressed on to The Lamb which was a bit more lively – they had some good beer on tap and a comfy place for us to sit and talk rubbish for a bit. Once again Trevor thought it would be great to take a trip to loo land when we were about to move on and once again we did a runner. I don’t think I could get tired of that.

Next on the agenda was a pit-stop at the Curry Garden – a place that I seem to be visiting all the time these days – for a lovely meal and a couple of Cobras. Unfortunately we didn’t get the opportunity to leave Trevor this time.

On the way to Mat’s place, where we planned to continue our evening, we wandered past The Bull. Mat was paying more attention than the rest of us and shouted “It’s karaoke!” which is a temptation that I just couldn’t miss. We had a fantastic time, singing, dancing and laughing with the regulars and Stuart and Trevor entertained us all with a muderous rendition of You’re Beautiful at which point the organisers donned their ear protectors. Magic. Unfortunately it felt as though it was all over too soon but we consoled ourselves by heading back to Mat’s for some late-night Mighty Boosh (“I’m Old Greg”) and Halo 2.

Iain and I finally made it back to my place at a quarter to five so consequently I’m feeling pretty knackered today. Great night out though – thanks guys!