Thursday, September 20, 2012

Fire up the Strictly machine

I used to be in marching band. It's important to get that out of the way, to acknowledge it right off the bat; I like silly things. The rhythms in this video are the same were being used in the 90s, when I was there. Just hearing it gets me sentimental. Those kids in their half uniforms geeking out? That was us; I wish I had been genius enough to wear a shark fin. The noise and movement and jumping and laughing and swirling around until we were exhausted –– it was my whole world. I loved it. It was one of the reasons I stayed in school.

It was an enormous, lumbering, ridiculous, beautiful thing.

Marching band practices always started a few weeks before school: day after day of stomping around, trying to learn footing and music in the mosquito-riddled heat. And the image I had in my head last week was that of the band getting lined up to practice its first run cadence. It's a hell of a thing, the run cadence. This is a video of the University of Minnesota marching band (who we copied in almost every way) doing it. You can see them flooding out onto the field. What you can't see is that they are kicking their feet out in front of them, to about knee height, as they do it. Go ahead and give that a try: run around the house for a bit kicking your feet out in front of you. Do it for about a minute, then stop and play an instrument as loud as you can. 

The JHS band ran to the 50-yard line –– more distance to cover and more time in which to get it wrong. The whole idea was for it to look uniform, for all the lines to be straight. We had to practice over and over and over and over to get it right. In my freshman year, I had so much trouble keeping my feet in sync, and we had to go back and do it again so many times, that everyone had learned my name before classes even started. They had learned to hate it. The whole band (and flag corps, and danceline) would groan when they heard the name Cope. 

Roughly 300 of my peers cursing my name: that was me in grade 9, baby. 

Eventually, I got the hang of it, to the extent that in consecutive years I was often called upon to show freshman how to get it right. And all of this just to get in place, just to set things up so we could begin that particular performance. 

So, imagine the very first day of summer practices. You are a junior or senior –– an old hand at this marching band game –– and Doc (the band director) has directed everyone to line up before running out. You're walking to the end zone and you can feel in your body a slight tiredness, a single moment of exhaustion from the knowledge of all that is ahead. Because it's not just this run cadence you'll practice over and over, but the months and months thereafter of pregames, halftimes, and indoor performances. Day after day after day of noise and movement and sweating between this afternoon in early August and that night in November when the final geek-frenzied drum circle will signal an end to the season. That's what's ahead of you, my friend, and in the moments before the rhythm starts, before it gets hold and takes over, some tiny voice thinks: "Ugh. Again?"

...I wrote the above before Saturday's Strictly Come Dancing premiere. I was thinking about the enormous, lumbering, ridiculous, beautiful BBC programme beginning its its 10th season, and thinking: "Deep breath. Here we go again."

Oh, sure, I was excited. After all, one of the reasons Jenn and I bought a big TV back in June was for the very purpose of being able to gaze more easily upon the cleavage of Natalie Lowe. But even still, usually the first few weeks of Strictly Come Dancing are a bit dull, as one waits for washed-up snooker players, incompetent TV chefs and various other nobodies and unlikeable sorts to be sifted out of the running.

This year, however... this year looks good. Unlike Len Goodman, I cannot claim this year as my first in which I actually knew who all the celebrities were beforehand. That still hasn't happened. But certainly there are far more recognisable names, and a hardy stock of competitors. By the end of Saturday's premiere show, Jenn and I were so excited for the upcoming season we were literally jumping on the couch. True, we had consumed a bottle and a half of wine by that point, but Strictly Come Dancing fever was very much in effect. I cannot wait for 5 October, when the show properly gets under way.

In the meantime, here are my first impressions of those who will be taking part:

Richard Arnold
Who??? Richard is the requisite annual GMTV contribution. Like Russia and China have permanent seats on the UN Security Council, GMTV and EastEnders are seemingly an automatic part of any series of Strictly Come Dancing. I suspect he'll be gone by the Halloween show. He looks like an out-of-shape Ted Allen, but he seems like an amusing enough fella –– quick with the repartee and reminding Jenn and I oh so slightly of John off The Great British Bake Off ("Ooh, she likes her lemons, doesn't she, Mary?"). The fact he's been teamed with Erin Boag is a tip-off that no one expects him to do well. Erin hasn't had a good partner since Austin Healey (in 2008).

Johnny Ball
Who??? It's Zoe Ball's dad. He taught kids math on television in the 80s and 90s. So, completely out of my scope of awareness. I doubt he was half as good as Square One, but he, too, seems like a nice enough fella. In the tiny celebrity dance on Saturday's show he appeared to have the agility of a Grade II listed building, but in his being paired with Aliona Vilani he's being given the best chance. I think people have a positive attitude toward Aliona following her successes with both Matt Baker and Harry Judd. She's very good at flinging herself about, so if Johnny can get the basic steps she may be able to compensate enough to drag him along to Week 3.

Fern Britton
I actually know who Fern Britton is! Fern's got a bit of previous Strictly experience, having performed in the 2010 Christmas special, and I predict that will bode her well. I think she'll make it into the Magnificent Seven (Yes, I've been watching Strictly so long that I am given to use the show's cheesy terms. When there are seven contestants left, they are the Magnificent Seven, followed by the Dirty Dozen, the Fantastic Five, and the Fab Four). That's assuming her partner, Artem Chigvinstev, doesn't injure himself on some spotlight move –– as he is wont to do –– and that he is intelligent enough to come up with choreography that suits his partner. This will be his first time performing with someone who can't do flips.
I also predict Fern will lose at least one stone over the course of her Strictly journey.

Nicky Byrne
Who? I had heard of Westlife but would not have been able to identify any of their members nor any of their songs other than "You Raise Me Up," which, I would have previously been just as likely to attribute to Boyzone, or Take That (in looking at a list of Westlife's singles I'm inclined to ask whether they sing any of their own songs). As such, I can only gauge Nicky by what I saw in the premiere show, where he appeared to have the personality of masking tape. Equally unknown is his partner, Karen Hauer. I follow the Venezuela-born dancer on Twitter and like her for the fact she was so gleeful about gaining U.S. citizenship recently, but it's anyone's guess how she'll perform in the Strictly sphere.

Jerry Hall
Because I hate fashion and 1980s pop culture I have a default dislike for Jerry Hall. This causes deep internal conflict because it goes against my default love of just about anyone from Texas. The Texas parti pris was likely to win out out anyway, but I knew I was going to like her when she quipped: "I hope to be an inspiration to drag queens everywhere."
Her sassy-sexy Texas wit is hard not to like and I agree with Craig Revel Horwood that she was shortchanged in being teamed with Anton Du Beke. Obviously, she should have been paired with James Jordan. Can you imagine? James, with his history of getting women to slink around like sexed-up cougars, and Jerry, with her history of being Jerry Hall? Just take a minute to think about that. Think about how amazing that would have been. Think of how the BBC probably would have had to move the show to after the watershed. Their rumba would have been them just having sex.
But instead, she is burdened with Anton, who always attempts to cover weaknesses with outdated comedy, and who is incapable of choreographing a good Latin dance. Meh.

Dani Harmer
Who??? The strangely proportioned munchkin girl is a British version of Raven, it seems. No, not that Raven, this Raven. In my mind, she and Richard Arnold are in the battle for who leaves the show first. She may be helped by the fact her partner is the equally wee Vincent Simone, whom people seem to like. If the self-proclaimed Team Smurf survive very long, look for Vincent to self-sabotage with unnecessarily tricky choreography somewhere around Week 7.

Sid Owen
Who? Oh, yeah. That guy. Requisite EastEnder. More likely to be on the Ricky Groves side of the EastEnders dancing talent scale than the Kara Tointon side. Sid's a weird-looking dude, isn't he? Like a Bizarro World version of Drew Carey. And the fact he is so intricately linked with a hapless and dim-witted character makes it difficult to see him as anything but. He has been very lucky, however, in being teamed with Ola "Ola Chops" Jordan, whom everyone loves. Ladies love her for being cheeky and bossy, fellas love her for rarely wearing more than a hand towel.
Each dancer has his or her tricks to detract attention from their celebrity's failings. As I've mentioned, Aliona uses acrobatics, Anton uses dumb humour. Ola uses sex. The worse her partner is, the more likely she is to remove clothing and writhe around. So, hopefully Sid will be awful.

Victoria Pendleton
Olympics plus Strictly, bitches. Welcome to my fantasy world. I am hereby naming Crazy V as my favourite. She is there to win, yo. Don't be fooled by her awkward, uncomfortable smile. This isn't a woman who is there half-lamenting the fact she listened to her agent's advice (I'm looking at you, Holly Valance). Crazy V had long said she wanted to do the show and she is the cleary the sort of woman who, when she says she wants to do something She. Does. It. And. She. Does. It. Well.
Dear Lord, look at her body. Those legs. Those abs. She owns you. Jenn and I have long admired the Greek goddess physique of Natalie Lowe, but in terms of physical fitness Crazy V destroys her. You don't get to look like that, and you don't win Olympic gold medals in cycling without being INTENSE. Once, when Crazy V got angry at her trainer she started stabbing herself with a Swiss Army knife just to prove a point. So, I would hardly expect her to go at Strictly half-heartedly. No one can train as hard as she can, and I think she'll use that fact to her advantage.
To that end, you almost feel badly for Brendan Cole. The notoriously competitive dancer was visibly elated when paired with Crazy V because he realises that in her he has probably the best chance of winning since Kelly Brook (in 2007). But she may work him into the ground.
For her part, Crazy V didn't look overjoyed to hear Brendan's name called out, but her ability to excel despite her unhappiness within British Cycling means she knows how to make the best of whatever situation she's in.

Lisa Riley
Who??? No clue. Genuinely no clue. She was a regular on a long-running programme I have never once seen. I'm keen for her to do well, however, based wholly on the excitement expressed by big gay Robin Windsor in the premiere. He came at her full speed and lifted the plus-size actress into the air with ease. One felt he had been hoping for the pairing, that, since first learning of Lisa's being on the show, the wheels of campness had been working overtime in his mind. One can only hope that's the case. I'm eager to see what Team Ri-Ro produce.

Colin Salmon
Who??? Strictly viewers have a very bad track record when it comes to supporting black people, especially black people no one's heard of. I'll be surprised if the bit-part Bond actor makes it three weeks. Especially because I'm not entirely sure his partner, Kristina Rihanoff, is all that good at getting the best out of a partner. I used to be a big fan of Kristina, and still would happily share a two-man tent with her, but it seems she's not able to transfer her talent to other people as well as some other dancers are. That's part of the great Strictly challenge: you have to be good, you have to be likeable, and you have to be able to draw out in your partner the ability to be good and likeable. Kristina has the first two skills (the first more than the second, admittedly), but falters on the third. I fear the whole thing will be awkward, especially as Colin appears to be ignorant of many of the Strictly traditions, such as the creation of team names.

Louis Smith
"He's got a bit of the Prince to him," Jenn said. Indeed, there is something reminiscent of the original Sexy Muthahugga in Louis; he's certainly keen to preen. With his gymnastics skillz, one would expect to see him flying all over the dance floor –– literally. Indeed, I'll be disappointed if we don't see that. And to that end, I'm just a little disappointed in his partner. I would like to have seen him paired with Aliona rather than Flavia Cacace, who I think suffers from the same inability to transfer skills as Kristina (and is less likeable).
But, in fairness, when has Flavia ever been paired with someone good? She got to the final with Matt DiAngelo (in 2007), but in truth, he was a bonehead. He sat down in the middle of a dance, for the love of Pete. And remember the great vacuous lack of self-awareness that was Craig Kelly?! So maybe this is Flavia's time to shine.
One would expect (and hope) for Louis to approach Strictly with the same sort of Olympian intensity as Crazy V. Indeed, gymnasts are known for pushing themselves, and Louis has already said that he sees himself as competing with Crazy V. In that case, I am really hoping to see awesome things. And ladies, expect to see Louis topless at every opportunity.
Denise van Outen
Right. Sure the West End musical performer can't dance. Wink, wink. In having done Any Dream Will Do, she has strong experience with a format similar to that of Strictly. And if things start to get a lirttle rough she has the secret weapon of husband Lee Mead and their cute baby daughter. The phrase "odds-on favourite" applies incredibly well to Denise. In addition, she has the partner of James Jordan, who has grown into being a fan favourite (when he's not too mouthy with Craig) and to whom male viewers will be writing thank you letters when Denise does the rumba. This really could be James' year. That said, I'm not sure how long I'll be willing to put up with Denise if she keeps mentioning that she's from Essex. Yes, Denise, you're a slag. We get it. Save it for the dancefloor.

Michael Vaughan
Who??? Apparently Michael plays/played cricket, a sport I still have never watched a game of, despite having lived in the UK for more than six years. Michael was on the team that won the Ashes a few years ago, which is probably the only cricket reference I get: at some point in The Past, England and Australia played a series of matches against each other and one of the teams (England? I could look it up, but I'm too lazy) did so poorly they burned the wicket. Or their bats? Or both. The ashes from the scorched sporting equipment was placed into a tiny urn and now the two countries make a big deal of competing for it. Michael Vaughan was on the team that year England won the Ashes and there was a victory parade in which Freddie Flintoff got so drunk he almost fell from the top of an open-top bus.
So, Michael, who looks less like an athlete than myself, is famous for being part of the team that beat Australia. Hilariously then, he has been paired with lady-machine Natalie Lowe, who is... wait for it... Australian. Tedious cricket banter ensues.

Kimberley Walsh
Who? Oh, yeah, I've heard of that band. They do the one that goes "I'm just a love machine, nuh-nuh-nuh nah na-na." Or was that Sugababes? Or Pussycat Dolls? Or Westlife? Nonetheless, Kimberley's one of those girls. But she's the member of the group who seems to possess the strange quality of being instantly forgettable. Each time I see her I think: "Who's she? Oh, yeah –– the forgettable one." In an attempt to garner some attention, Kimberley has put too many Es in her name.
Based on the successes of previous Strictly pop stars, one would expect Kimberley to do well. And in having Pasha Kovalev as a partner she's being given the best possible chance. Remember how he managed to make Chelsee Healey tolerable? By the end of the series I was even cheering those two on. Perhaps by the end of this series I'll be able to remember who Kimberley is.

- Darcey Bussel. She's got a name that sounds like a Victorian euphemism ("Oh, I say! I'd like to have glimpse of her Darcey Bussel!"), and I'm looking forward to her contribution to the show. Darcey was brought in on a one-off not too long ago and apparently went over well with show bosses. When Alesha first announced she wouldn't be returning for this series I had hoped they'd bring in Karen Hardy, if not simply because she will happily call Brendan on his BS. I doubt Darcey will develop a lot of sass but she'll definitely know what she's talking about.

- Can you imagine the stories that Jerry Hall and Bruno Tonioli could tell? I'm inclined to blush just thinking about it. Just imagine being in a room in which the two of them were exchanging tales of their exploits. The paint would peel from the walls, my friends. You'd come out of there, quivering and needing to be baptised for several hours: "Nope, dunk me again. No, believe me, preacher; I am nowhere near pure. Dunk me again."

- What was up with Erin Boag's stomach?

- I expect to see Victoria Pendleton, Louis Smith, Denise van Outen and (probably) Kimberly Walsh in the Fab Four. It's always possible, though, that Nicky Byrne could be in there somewhere.

- Jenn thinks Crazy V will under-perform.

- I imagine Louis will perform incredibly well, but he may get hurt in one of two ways: 1) When the pressure gets to her, Flavia has a habit of committing self-sabotage by putting in choreography her partner can't learn; 2) Louis' personality is an unknown; I can picture him possibly rubbing people the wrong way.

- I'm picking Denise as my winner. If she performs well in her first dance I am going to take the money I won on Harry Judd last year and place it on her to win.


Friday, September 14, 2012

What I want to be

When I was a boy –– probably about 7 or 8 years old, I don't remember exactly –– one of my teachers at Bunker Hill Elementary assigned to us the task of writing an essay about what we wanted to be when we grew up. 

In addendum to this essay we were to draw a picture of our future selves in action, on the job. These essays and pictures, we were told, would be displayed in the hallway on parent-teacher night, so we should really try to put some effort into it.

This was my first experience with writer's block. I cracked under the pressure and stared dumbly at the blank paper on my desk. I didn't know what I wanted to be. I had never really thought about it. Not in practical terms. I knew I wanted to be strong enough to beat anyone up. I knew I wanted to be tall. I knew I wanted to own the General Lee. I knew I wanted lots of people to like me. What job was that?

"Maybe you could be an actor," my teacher suggested.

No. No, that wasn't it at all. Acting was pretending; I didn't want to pretend. Besides, how was one supposed to show himself acting in a drawing? Especially a drawing that was going to be hung in the hallway and seen by all the other kids and their parents?

And don't say, "Draw a person on a stage," because that is totally wrong. Stage actors don't make any money. That's why no one knows who they are. And a stage is just a straight line. That's a very boring picture. No one is going to look at a drawing of a kid just standing there and think: "Wow! That kid has ambition! I wish this boy were my own son! He's so amazing that I'm going to make my child be his friend and he can come over and play in our pool and eat all the hot dogs he wants!"

I had in those days perfected the art of drawing a pretty good helicopter. With a ruler and a steady hand, I could craft an Apache with fire-shooting jets on the side. I decided to build my essay around the visual. I claimed to want to be a helicopter pilot, so I could help save people's lives. I threw that last bit of information in there because it sounded good. People like it when a kid says he wants to save lives, or that he loves Jesus. I knew that. I understood how the world worked. I had written a letter to President Reagan, pointing out that I was pretty cute and likeably precocious and it would probably look good for him to invite me to the White House to discuss how we could save the environment (he never replied).

In truth, I had no interest in being a helicopter pilot, nor did I care all that much about saving people. I just wanted to be taller than them. And able to beat them up. And driving a car with a horn that played "Dixie."

A few years later, in 5th grade, the teachers wrote a little story for the kids "graduating" Bunker Hill Elementary and moving on to the rough and tumble world of middle school. In it, they predicted the future for each child. The essay proclaimed I would be host of the "Tonight Show."

I decided to roll with it. For years afterward, if anyone asked what I wanted to be I'd say with certainty: a stand-up comic. I liked the idea of being a stand-up comic. Growing up in Houston –– home to NASA –– any number of geniuses had come to my elementary school, telling us kids of their exciting jobs involving explosions and robots. But always they would stress the importance of math and science for these things.

"Well, to hell with being an astronaut," I would think.

I hated school. I was a poor student with a weak attention span. Any career that involved first correcting these already entrenched bad academic habits was definitely not for me. Being a stand-up comic, however, was a profession for which a good education wasn't an explicit requirement.

Jumping ahead quite a bit, I have known a few stand-up comics in my life and am these days pretty good friends with one. And what I have realised from this exposure is that the comics without educations are awful. But I never had to confront that issue because at age 17 I went to an open mic night and bombed.

It wasn't that I was booed or heckled, but that the room full of people echoed with silence. My best joke (rhetorically asking why vacuum cleaners have headlights) was mistimed and received only a polite chuckle from a woman I think may have been feeling very sorry for me.

People who still know me from those days claim it's not surprising that I have taken to writing books, and I think I remember walking around proclaiming myself to be a writer in my late teens. But the truth is, I wrote very little. Some bad poetry and letters to people. That was about it. And I hardly ever read.

In the years from ages 18 to 25 I probably read fewer books than I have this year: Jack Kerouac's On the Road, Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, all of Carl Hiaasen's books, most of Bill Bryson's and a few of Dave Barry's. That was it. I don't remember tackling anything else unless it was required reading for a college course.

Also, I hated the idea of authors. I bought into the cliché visions of writers offered by the sort of films that invariably feature a "storming the country club and making the rich people party" scene. I embarrass me with my erstwhile anti-intellectualism. I honestly think it was not until I reached my 30s that I started to really read and think and pay attention to the craft of storytelling.

I think now almost constantly about the question of how to be a good writer. Having recently finished work on my third book, I am consumed with thoughts and worries about my abilities as a writer. Or lack thereof. I feel that I have come to this too late, that I don't get it, and that I never will. And, more importantly, I don't see how it's ever going to lead to my being able to beat people up or drive the General Lee.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Eight things I loved about August

Muddy and sweaty atop Craig yr Allt, on the Ridgeway Walk.
~ 8 ~ The Olympic Games: I'm a mark for the Olympics. That's a pretty well-established fact. And I've mentioned countless times that my emotional attachment to this particular Olympics stretches back years, to a time before London was even declared host city. Back when I first heard that London was bidding, I promised myself, for no particularly obvious reason, that I would be living in the United Kingdom by the time the opening fireworks went off. I think, perhaps, in my mind I assumed I would be in London and that I would be there in the stadium watching it all take place. But that was never a specified part of the goal, so I'm not too upset.
Indeed, I was quite happy with where I was when those fireworks went off: in Penarth, sandwiched amongst friends who had come over to watch the event.
Maybe it is precisely because I created an emotional connection to the 2012 Olympic Games that I feel they were the best I've ever seen, but there is also some outside evidence to support such a claim. First, of course, is the fact that in the middle of the wettest summer on record suddenly the weather held just long enough so the majority of events were unaffected. Many countries had incorporated golashes and umbrellas into their wardrobes in anticipation of the notorious British climate, but, amazingly, most spectators and athletes were rewarded with agreeable summer weather.
Secondly, Team GB came away with a stunningly large haul of gold medals. It was the best the UK has performed since the end of the Empire. 
This, and the weather, and the whole feel of the summer (the Queen's jubilee, Andy Murray playing respectably well at Wimbledon, etc.), have mixed together to create an oh-so-slight swell of Britishness as of late. Welsh and Scottish nationalists spit bile at the trend, but by and large I find people on this island of rain are just a little more patriotic these days. Perhaps "patriotic" is too strong a word; it is certainly not patriotism as any American might show it. But it feels that a greater sense of pride has developed or is developing: a broader understanding of some kind of something that gently connects the surprisingly diverse cultures and accents of this place. Seeing this all around me helps to remind me of why I wanted so badly to come here in the first place, why I tied my life to the 2012 Olympics.
They were a games that I genuinely feel made the United Kingdom better in some tiny way. And because of that, I can't help but feel they were the best.

~ 8 ~ Usain Bolt: One of the biggest surprises of the Olympic Games for me was Usain Bolt. Not that he is fast, or a really, really, really amazing athlete, but that he's not as big a drinkbox as I had thought. I'm pretty critical of athletes who spend more time celebrating than the thing they're celebrating. Bolt ran the 100 meters in 9.63 seconds. He then spent roughly 30 minutes mugging for cameras and basking in the adulation of fans. That kind of thing annoys the hell out of me; be mensch enough to not parade around.
So, in the lead up to the games, with all the talk focused on him, I had a tendency to grind my teeth upon hearing his name. I felt he only represented the lesser part of what is so incredible about the Olympics: he's good at what he does. But the Olympics are better than other sporting events because there is also, often, an emphasis on being a good person. I didn't see that in Bolt.
But then I saw a video someone had posted on Facebook, in which Bolt refused to talk to a foreign reporter while the U.S. national anthem was playing. Then I saw him do the same thing on the BBC, while Kenya's national anthem was playing. The man is an insufferable show off, but when it really matters he shows respect for his fellow athletes, their countries, and their supporters. That kind of respect completely changed how I feel about him. I can't help but wonder how many NBA players on the U.S. men's basketball team would be good enough to do the same.

~ 8 ~ Visiting London: I wasn't there in the stadium for the opening ceremonies but I still wanted a chance to experience London in the throes of Olympic fever. I've already written about the experience of going out there, so I won't repeat myself other than to say that my lasting impression of the experience is positive. I get damn-near teary-eyed at the memory of the good mood that seemed omni-present in London during that time.

~ 8 ~ "Finishing" my book: I'm not really sure how to define where I am with my book at the moment. I finished a rough draft toward the middle of the month, then locked myself away to focus intently on revising and editing so that late in the afternoon on the very last day of August I was able to claim that I had produced the final draft. But the problem there is the word "final." I am hopeful this book will be published. If it is, I accept as a given that changes will be made at the behest of an agent, editors, and so on. So, it's not really a final draft. It's a draft with which I am comfortable enough to send to other people in hopes of having them see enough merit to work with me to make changes. 
Whatever the case, I am happy about it. I genuinely feel this is some of the best writing I've done so far. I've sunk an incredible amount of time and emotion into the project. Hopefully it will all pay off in the form of a published book.

~ 8 ~ The Ridgeway Walk: Based on how overgrown and underused some of the paths are, almost no one in the Cardiff area is aware that there is a really lovely hiking trail stretching the width of the city's northern border, called the Ridgeway Walk. Easily accessible from a number of train stations, it runs along the ridge of hills that form the high side of the half bowl that is the Cardiff area, offering views extending as far south as Devon, and as far north as the Brecon Beacons.
On a slightly soggy morning not too long ago Jenn and I took the train to Lisvane, and walked west several miles to Taff's Well. I realise all this geographical talk means nothing to someone not from the Cardiff area, so suffice to say it was a pretty long hike. It was only about 6 miles as the crow flies, but we're not crows and that doesn't take into account all the up and down walking that's involved. By the end of the day I smelled awful. But this scenery is the sort of thing that helps me overcome my latent bitterness toward Wales. It is a very pretty place, this country. It is not nearly as bad as I can sometimes feel it to be.

Beach bonfire, looking toward Penarth Pier.
~ 8 ~ Beach barbecue: Further proof that Wales does not suck came toward the end of the month when Jenn and I had a picnic on the beach.
Penarth, as the abundance of sea gulls on our roof would suggest, is a seaside town. Its claim to fame is the fact it is home to a 118-year-old pier, one of the last Victorian piers in southern Britain. And well into the 1960s, the town was a holiday destination for people from all across Great Britain. When I taught Welsh at the Assembly offices last summer one of my students would happily distract me from teaching by telling stories of her childhood in Penarth, when the town still somehow felt far away from Cardiff. These days, when it is often cheaper to fly to Spain than travel by train to south Wales, Penarth is mostly the permit of locals. It is just us Penarthians wandering the esplanade, eating the ice cream, wondering how that terrible Italian restaurant manages to stay open when seemingly no one has anything good to say about it, and wishing just one member of the Vale of Glamorgan council had an IQ above 75 so that the beauty of the area could be better utilised. Because we've got lovely views, yo. If we had a decent pub to go with our decent restaurant, and perhaps something other than a permanent construction site right across from the pier, it would be a really enviable place to live. With a modicum of effort and intelligent planning, Penarth could be one of those places that people come to and think: "Oh, wow. I really wish I lived here."
But then, perhaps if Penarth were such a place, its beaches would be annoyingly crowded on a bank holiday and a barbecue like the one Jenn and I had might not be so pleasant.
For those of you playing along at home, one of the nifty facets of British life is the existence of single-use disposable barbecue grills. I've never seen such a thing in the United States. Perhaps this is because the U.S. summer has more reliable weather and, as such, it's worth it to invest in an actual barbecue grill, knowing you will get to use it more than once a year. Nonetheless, the disposable barbecues are about the size of a thick notebook and fit easily into a bag of other important picnic items, like a blanket, a bottle of rioja, sausages and ribs. Jen and I packed all these things and walked out to a spot where Marconi first transmitted and received wireless signals over open sea.
After grilling our dinner we used the remaining coals to fuel a fire built of collected driftwood, and sat there cuddled next to each other as the summer light drained from the sky. Soon it was just us, the sound of crackling fire and tide moving in, and the faded orange sparkle of streetlights in the various towns and villages of the Bristol Channel. There was something beautiful and melancholy about it. I thought of how it must have looked 100 years ago, and how it will look 100 years from now.

~ 8 ~ Pure, by Andrew Miller: I've been hellbent lately on getting myself to read stuff that's "good." I'm not entirely sure what I mean by "good," admittedly. Stuff that other people say is good. Stuff that wins awards. Barbara Kingsolver says that reading is biological in the sense that "whatever comes in will, in some form, come back out.So, since I want very much to be a "good" author, I find myself trying to figure out what that means by reading authors that others deem to be good. This often means picking titles from the lists of winners and runners up in the Booker, the Pulitzer, the Orange Prize, etc.
Andrew Miller's Pure won the 2011 prize for Costa book of the year. Not a terribly prestigious award, perhaps; the Costa Book Awards were only dreamed up in 2011. But that's more or less how I came across the novel: somebody somewhere deemed it good enough for an award. And because I am a rube, I thought: "Hey, I would like to write well enough to win awards. I think I'll read this book."
However I came to the book, though, doesn't really matter. The point is, I liked it. Miller creates a protagonist in the old style of a person you'd like to be, a person whose qualities you wish you possessed. So it is easy to stick with him as he moves through a story that has good pace and doesn't get bogged down in all the traps you would expect from a story set just before the French Revolution.
I find it interesting, and not just a little bit distressing, that the books I've enjoyed most this year are the sort that I would not really write.

~ 8 ~ Gangnam Style: Have you seen the Gangnam Style video? Surely you've seen it. How could you not have seen it? Last I checked, it had been viewed 104.5 million times. That's the population of the United Kingdom, Ireland and Canada combined. But if you haven't seen it, watch it now. Hell, even if you have seen it, watch it again. It will do you good.