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!

The trouble with hosting your own

When I bought the andrewdoran.uk domain I moved my blog off of the free hosting service at wordpress.com. They could have hosted my blog for me at that URL for a fee, but I made a decision to go solo as I wanted to host some static content alongside the blog at the same domain and that didn’t seem to be possible. I’m now running a WordPress install in the Amazon cloud that I created using a Bitnami installer. This gives me a ‘proper’ website stack of my own. Aside from a few setup tweaks and a little bit of regular maintenance to upgrade WordPress and its plugins, this has suited me fine. The balance of additional work versus additional flexibility has been good.

Troy Hunt’s excellent podcasts and blog posts have alerted me to the fact that web browsers are soon going to get more and more aggressive with websites that are not served up over https with valid SSL certificates. At a simple level, these certificates ensure that data is encrypted between the web browser on your computer and the server at the other end. Years ago, they were only really used for when you were checking out with your ‘shopping cart’ in an online store or accessing data at your bank. You knew that you were ‘secure’ by the fact that a padlock appeared next to the address of the web page you were on. For many reasons, it is now best practice to serve encrypted web pages for everything. When you visit an unencrypted website in the future, instead of passively just not displaying a padlock your browser is start to give you much more prominent visual clues that the website is not secure.

Last night a friend sent me this message:

Dramatic!

Dramatic!

…which is what Mobile Safari on iOS 11 shows you when you go to any page on my site prefixed with http__s__ instead of http. It looks as though I have inadvertently tweeted an https link and this resulted in everyone thinking I am a cyber criminal trying to steal their financial data off the back of a two-minute review of a 50-year old film. Not good. So, it’s time to jiggle the priorities on my to-do list and embrace a move to https across the site. This is where the problems start.

If I was hosting my site on wordpress.com or another platform they would take care of all of of this for me. Instead, I find myself spending a not insignificant amount of time looking into how to go about getting an SSL certificate (Let’s Encrypt), the best way to get it installed on a web site running Apache httpd on top of Ubuntu (Certbot, so that it automatically renews the certificates when they expire and I don’t have to do this every three months) and how to do this under the specific Bitnami setup that I launched all those years ago.

Three years of using Solaris as part of an undergraduate Computer Science degree in the late 1990s and using PuTTY once in a blue moon gives me enough confidence to get going, but hasn’t exactly garnered me with the technical chops to step up when things get challenging. After much frustration and fear of making a wrong move on the back end as a ‘super user’ (as I’m anything but) I have thrown my hands up, admitted defeat and opened a request for help. If anyone has any ideas as to how I can complete this process, I would be extraordinarily grateful for the time back that you will be giving me.

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.

Just set a new PB for mowing the front lawn. House presentability has now been marginally upgraded from ‘oh, that poor family must have died’ to ‘if we have to go in and the inside is as bad as the outside, don’t sit down on anything’.

To Sir, With Love

Just watched ‘To Sir, With Love’ (1967). Amazing to see it though modern eyes — I spent half the film thinking about how many safeguarding issues it was accumulating as we went along. A chunk of casual racism that I am sure fit with the times but is astonishing now, gigantic milking of the title song throughout and an obvious plot that didn’t go very far. But strangely compelling. Having The Mindbenders play the finale was fun. 6/10.

Met this cute little guy today. 10 weeks old, as small as a cat and falls asleep at the drop of a hat.

Photo taken at: Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire

The Devil In The Flesh

A really good read, particularly when put in context of the author’s short life and the time it was written. I read the Melville House edition of the book and enjoyed the afterword by the translator almost as much as the work itself.

There is a farcical scene in the book where a former town councillor, Monsieur Marin, and his wife host a gathering, which when I read it made me think of readers of The Daily Mail:

“I discovered that the entertainment the Marins were planning was to stand under our bedroom later in the afternoon and catch us in the act. They had probably acquired a taste for it, and wanted to broadcast their little pleasures. Being respectable people, the Marins naturally attributed this prurience of theirs to moral decency. They wished to share their indignation with all the other upright folk in the district.”

The translator’s afterword covers this point, as well as a larger one that the work shone a light of truth on the relationships that must have taken place while men were away fighting in World War I. That this must have been a feature of those times had never occurred to me; it must have been shocking to read about this when the book was published. We still talk today about conscientious objectors being given white feathers, but don’t hear so much about those people who weren’t directly affected negatively by the war:

“The narrator symbolizes the generation who witnessed the Great War from the safe distance of their “four-year-long holiday”, resenting how it intruded on their personal gratification in the same way their suburban calm was occasionally spoilt by the echo of serious events in the capital. In this it is impossible not to see a reflection of the hedonistic, predominantly suburban Western society of the present day, its spiritual vacuity that seems content to consume while creating little of lasting value.”

Time and again I find myself surprised by ‘old’ works of fiction and how modern and relevant they are. I tend to think of World War I as all-consuming for the people that lived through it but for some of course this may not have been the case.

This is a really enjoyable book and well worth the short time to read it.

Elephant Complex: Travels in Sri Lanka

Read this book before and during my holiday in Sri Lanka. Gives an excellent overview of the country and its history which reveals itself to the reader gradually, culminating in an account of the end of the civil war. The chapters are sequenced and themed in a general anti-clockwise journey around the island starting in Colombo/Negombo.

On my travels I met a scientist from England who said that he found this book quite dense; I was grateful to find that it wasn’t just me who felt this! I think that the subject matter is so complex (as per the title) that it couldn’t be anything but.

A very worthwhile read if you are visiting or have been to the island. A fascinating book about a unique country.

More to follow about our amazing holiday when I get the chance to write up my notes.

RIP Glen Campbell. If you haven’t seen the ‘I’ll Be Me’ film it is well worth a watch; Alzheimer’s is such a terrible disease and you get to see him dealing with it with great dignity. Thoughts with his family, they seemed so lovely in that film.

Sadly had to withdraw from Sunday’s Prudential London-Surrey 100 as I’ve been nowhere near London and didn’t realise I had to pick up the entry documents from The Excel. £85 for nothing. Looked back over the comms and I really don’t think this was made clear enough when signing up. Hey ho.