Archive for July, 2004


Friday, July 30th, 2004

Albums that I didn’t like at first but then later came to love

Urban Hymns – The Verve

Bittersweet Symphony came out whilst I was at Sixth Form, and I really couldn’t see what the fuss was about. It was really repetitious and boring. It just didn’t go anywhere or do anything. And all the followup singles seemed to follow the same pattern.

A couple of years later, I went to see a friend in Cambridge, and at some point during the weekend, she put on the album. For some reason, it lodged itself in my brain and wouldn’t leave, and I went round for several days, humming it to myself. In an attempt to exorcise it, I bought the album in a sale somewhere, and forced myself to listen to it. And then it clicked – actually, it’s really, really damned good.

Discovery – Daft Punk

Again, I was unimpressed by the singles. They just didn’t do anything for me, at all. And that whole thing with the low-bitrate samples just annoyed the hell out of me. But then, at some point, someone made me sit down and listen to the whole album, and actually pay attention. And then it all made sense. Plus, it’s got the coolest video ever made.

Final Straw – Snow Patrol

In fact, the album that prompted this posting. Listened to it on a listening post in HMV a couple of months back, and wasn’t impressed at all. Then, today, Rick asked me to rip and MP3 his copy to stick on the MP3 server at work, and as I was listening to it to check it had encoded okay, it hit me that it was actually pretty damned good.

White on Blonde – Texas

Words cannot express how much I disliked this at first. “Say What You Want” was just too goddamned annoying and repetetive and catchy and wouldn’t get out of your head, ever. So, after being stuck with it in my head for a week, I just relented, gave in, and accepted that, actually, I quite liked it after all.

Albums I still just Don’t Get

Is this it? – The Strokes

Nope, sorry. Boring.

Elephant – The White Stripes

No, you’re not clever and stripped down and reductionist; you’re just dull.

Anything, ever by Shania Twain

If you need this one explaining, you should probably just shoot yourself now.

The rest

Thursday, July 29th, 2004

I was going to write a load more for Prague Week, but seeing as:

  • the stats for this month suggest no-one’s reading this anyway
  • I can’t be bothered

I’m going to bring Prague Week to an early close. File it under “failed experiments”, I guess. Anyway, for what it’s worth:

Food and drink – Cheap. Really, really cheap. Beer about 50-60p a pint, and very nice. Food basic, mostly meat and dumplings, but plenty of italian stuff too; quality nothing to complain about, but don’t expect Haute Cuisine. Eat outside of the city centre and it’s cheaper still – can get two meals and drinks for about a fiver. U Sadlu, just off Revolucni, is a good laugh; Retro, just off Namesti Miru, is a nice, stylish place outside of the city centre; Cafe Imperial on Na Porici is a stunning tiled Art Deco cafe with free donuts (and you can buy yesterdays leftover donuts to throw at other customers).

Music and Entertainment – You’d better like Mozart. Or Vivaldi. Seriously.

Communism – Czech Republic used to be a communist state. Isn’t any more. Has made a remarkable recovery. Hurrah.

Right, that’s your lot. Normal blogging will be resumed when I can be arsed writing something you might be actually interested in reading. In the meantime, go and play with some bees.

Things to see and do

Wednesday, July 28th, 2004

Ok, let’s get the big four out the way first:

  • Wenceslas Square – just don’t bother. It’s a big shopping street. If you must ‘do’ it, get off the metro at Muzeum, pop your head up, go “ooh” at the statues and the big museum thing at the top end, and then leave. The rest of the square is just covered in expensive street cafes and western shops. Move along, there’s nothing to see here.
  • Charle’s Bridge – yes, it’s very pretty. Yes, the statues and gatehouses are very impressive. But so is the rest of Prague. Walk across it once, ignore all the little stalls, and then take photographs of it from a distance. It’s always rammed with tourists, and if you want your wallet nicked, you’re in the right place.
  • Old town square – home to some of the most impressive architecture in Prague, and a very cool astronomical clock. Also home to all the tourists – and, in particular, all the stag groups – in Prague. You’ll inevitably pass through it several times as you wander around the city. Take your photos, have a look in Sv Miklaus Church and move on.
  • Prague Castle – now this one is actually worth seeing. It’s big enough that the huge numbers of tourists crawling all over it aren’t actually much of a problem. You have to pay for all the interesting stuff, though, but you can wander round the grounds, some of the Cathedral and gardens for free. Don’t bother with the toy musuem, though.

Fortunately, because these four things (along with Josefov, more of which in a moment) take 90% of the tourist traffic in Prague, nearly everything else is pretty much empty, pretty much all of the time – wander off the main tourist trails and you’ll find buildings, museums, churches and all manner of interestingness easily as pretty as the main sights, but with far fewer people.

We decided to visit the Astronomical Tower in the Karolinum on a whim, but it turned out to be one of the highlights of the week – the tour lasts less than an hour, but takes in an utterly incredible Baroque library (which holds over 6 million ancient scientific texts) and some old (and fascinating) astronomical and meteorological instrumentation. Tours leave on the hour, and are 180Kc per person.

On a similar note, the National Technical Museum is worth popping along to if you’re of a geeky mindset. Housed in a big old Soviet concrete, it’s got a huge collection of old vehicles, and several other smaller (although still very comprehensive) exhibitions, including a history of film and photography, timekeeping and (bizarrely) irons. English translations can be a bit thin on the ground, but are by and large adequate, and for 70Kc, it’s barely worth complaining about. It’s a bit out of the way, but the map should help.

Back on the tourist trail, Josefov (the Jewish quarter) has been turned into a combined museum of Judaism in Prague (with all the exhibits housed in working synagogues) and powerful memorial to the Czech Jews killed in the holocaust. A ticket to see all the sights isn’t cheap at 300Kc, but there’s a lot to see, and it’s all fascinating and, on occasion, very moving: the impact of walking into a synagogue whose walls are literally covered in thousands upon thousands of names – a tiny fraction of the total – of Czech Jews who were murdered in WW2 cannot be understated.

Valdstejnsky palác in Mala Strana has one of the most impressive gardens in Prague – a formal garden very much in an Italian style, with a huge loggia decorated with frescoes from the Trojan War at one end, and a bizarre and somewhat ugly (but fascinating) “dripstone” wall on one side. The palác itself now houses the Czech upper house, and you can go on a tour on weekends, but the gardens are the main focus here.

Naturally, there’s far more to see and do in Prague than I can possibly write about here – and the utterly indispensable Rough Guide To Prague does a far better job of it than I do – but the key to really seeing the city is to step off the tourist trail and do a bit of exploring yourself. It’s far more rewarding than any overpriced tour group will ever be.


Tuesday, July 27th, 2004

Screw terrorists, this is far more scary.

The Basics

Tuesday, July 27th, 2004

Prague is the capital city of the Czech republic. It is almost entirely populated by tourists, who mainly reside in one of four areas of the city: Pražský hrad (Prague Castle), Karlùv most (Charles’ Bridge), Václavské námĕstí (Wenceslas Square) or Staromĕstské námĕstí (Old Town Square). Occasionally, one may encounter someone who actually lives and works in Prague full time; these people are a rarity, however, and for the purposes of most censuses (censii?) can be ignored.

Therefore, the social demographic can be broken down roughly as follows:

  • 10% stag parties – who reside exclusively in the George and Dragon pub on Old Town Square
  • 30% confused looking tour groups – these are usually to be found around the Castle, desperately trying to work out which umbrella-wielding tourguide they are supposed to be following
  • 30% student backpackers – during the day, found sleeping on benches in and around the city; at night, in any of the many bars and restaurants around the city.
  • 20% English holidaymakers, adorned in traditional ill-fitting football shirt and shorts outfits – usually found on Wenceslas Square, because that’s where Marks and Spencers is
  • 5% assorted other tourists
  • 5% actual residents of the city

(statistics may not be entirely accurate)

The currency in Prague is the Czech Crown; when we went, there were about 42Kč to the UK pound – double it, add a bit and knock 2 zeros off, in other words. But you needn’t worry about that unduly, as Prague is, for westerners, outrageously cheap – which accounts for the huge number of tourists that overrun the place throughout the year.

The language in Prague is, funnily enough, Czech; this is close enough to Russian for it to be confusing for Russian speakers, although unlike Russian it’s written with a Roman alphabet. Again, though, it’s barely worth worrying about because nearly everyone speaks English or German as a second language. Unless you’re like me, of course, and get all guilty about going to a foreign country without knowing any of the language – in which case “Pivo, prosim” will get you what you want, most of the time.

Public transport in Prague is, frankly, a marvel. You pay 250Kč (a little over £5) for a 7 day travel card, and that entitles you to use any public transport in the city (metro, trams and buses), as much as you like, for that period. The services are regular, reliable and frequent, although the metro stations in particular are a testament to particularly dreadful 1970s “futuristic” architecture.

Street crime is, apparently, a problem in Prague, although we didn’t experience anything in our time there. If you’re sensible – keep your money well hidden, don’t leave anything in loose pockets, and leave all valuables in your hotel or hostel safe – you shouldn’t have too much trouble. Metro stations are the most common place for muggings, although obviously, any of the main tourist areas are hotspots, too.

Accomodation is about the only thing in Prague which isn’t absurdly cheap – hotel prices are about the same as most of the rest of Europe. There’s a decent selection of youth hostels, though, and it’s worth booking into one of those even if you do want a hotel, because if you’re anything like us, you’ll get there and find they’ve overbooked you, and they’ll stick you in a nice 3* hotel round the corner for exactly the same price as the youth hostel.

Oh, and don’t bother getting a taxi from the airport to your hotel; it’ll cost a (comparative) fortune – at 750Kč it was easily our biggest expense of the week, apart from accomodation. The 119 bus runs from the airport to the end of Metro line A, Dejvická, from where you can get to the centre of town; use that instead, and you’ll save yourself around a tenner which you can put to use buying yourself a beer or fourteen when you arrive – which, lets face it, is probably why you’re going, anyway.

Citizens, there is no need to panic

Monday, July 26th, 2004

I was going to save this for my entry on Communism in Prague (to appear later in the week) but developments in my own fair land have prompted me to talk about it a bit earlier.

Tony and friends have decided to issue a reassuring pamphlet about what to do if ever the evil bad men decide to do bad things to us. They say that this is so people are prepared in the event of a terrorist attack. You’re supposed to stockpile tins of food and water and things. Apart from the inevitable panic buying that this is going to cause, exactly how much do you think a few tins of tuna and bottles of Evian would have helped the thousands of people in the World Trade Centre when two jumbo jets slammed into it? Or when the IRA decided to give Manchester city centre the biggest facelift it had had since World War 2? Quite.

Rather, this is a subtle form of propaganda: it puts the public in an “us versus them” kind of mindset – we’re obviously prepared for an attack from “them”, so “they” (whoever the government decide they are next) must be bad men. The advice it presents will be, by and large, useless. A tin of spiced ham isn’t going to help you should someone decide to drop a bomb on your house (although I suppose if you threw it hard enough you could catch someone a nasty blow to the head) – but telling people to prepare for the fact that someone might drop a bomb on your house – even with all the caveats of ‘no specific threat’ and that – is a very nice way to get people to thinking that the government obviously do know about some outside threat and that, whatever it is, it can’t be good. And whilst the words “Destruction”, “Mass” and “Weapons of” haven’t been spoken out loud, the implication is clear: you need a device capable of some pretty serious devastation to cause the kind of infrastructure failure which would mean people couldn’t buy food or get water.

All of which brings me back to Prague Week – and here’s a curious thing. During the period of Communist rule in Eastern Europe, the government needed the people to believe in them – many people were having a bit of a hard time of it under Communism, and this didn’t bode especially well for those in power, especially as they were quite keen to stay in power, democracy or not: if they didn’t have the hearts and minds of the people, the risk of a people’s revolution was always a possibility.

Therefore, support for the ruling state was galvanised by the use of (amongst other things) secret police, show trials of people accused of actions against the state, erosion of civil liberties (individuals must make sacrifices for the greater good, and that) and – and this is the good bit – spread of propaganda concerning the West, including their intention to use weapons of mass destruction against the USSR. Ringing any bells yet?

Now, okay, we haven’t got secret police yet – or, at least, if we have, no-one’s found out about them (me? paranoid?) – but as I walked round the Museum of Communism last week, I couldn’t help but have an eery feeling of deja vu: replace the borgeois capitalist West with the evil terrorist Middle East, the secret police with the US Patriot Act, and the people’s hero factory workers with the people on the cover of Forbes, and it all starts to look just a little familiar.

Of course, I could just be being manipulated into thinking this by the enemy propaganda – it’s just what the terrorists would want me to believe…


Saturday, July 24th, 2004

The last day of any holiday is always a curious mix of happiness and misery – happiness, because you’ve got one last day to enjoy and make the most of, but misery, because you know that in around twenty-four hours time, you’re going to be back in your bland, ordinary existence back home again and the holiday will be but a fading memory. No more was this more marked than yesterday in Prague, when a very nice (and stonkingly cheap) meal, followed by a number of very reasonably priced pints of Budvar capped off a great week of sightseeing, exploration and, uh, quite a few very reasonably priced pints of Budvar.

Anyway, you can’t stay on holiday forever, however much you might like to do so (the idea of permanently being on holiday raises the curious philosophical issue of maybe some day having to take a break from being on holiday, anyway), and so I find myself back in Manchester once again and, now the massive backlog of email (99.8% spam, 0.1% blog comments and 0.1% Amazon shipping confirmations) is out of the way, normal bloggage should resume. My plan for the upcoming week is to intersperse the normal tedium of links, memes and self-indulgent rambling with a couple of posts about Prague on a variety of themes (the exact details of which I hope will become clearer to me once I get under way) to encourage (or maybe dissuade, I don’t know) you to go and visit the place.

In the meantime, it’s worth mentioning that the Best Camera Shop In The World is in Prague (Vodièkova 37) and if you’re ever there and have even the tiniest interest in photography, it’s well worth a visit. They have what is possibly the greatest selection of second hand cameras I’ve ever seen – literally hundreds of old Soviet and East German devices, some of which must be nudging 80 years old. Naturally, I couldn’t help parting with a few Korun and I’m now the proud owner of an LCA. Pictures will therefore, inevitably, be forthcoming.

Right now, though, I think it’s probably teatime.


Sunday, July 18th, 2004

Right, I’m off to Prague for a week. Updates will be sparse-to-nonexistent depending on whether I can find an Internet Cafe (and whether the girlfriend will let me anywhere near it).


Saturday, July 17th, 2004

Well, today, I had my first haircut in about 5 months. To be fair, I needed it – whilst some people can carry off long, flowing locks, my hair tends to grow in volume as faster than it does in length, and as those people who have met me recently will surely testify, it was getting to the “Look, just get it cut, you look ridiculous” sort of stage.

Of course, the hairdresser, having cut it to a suitable length, then ruined everything by styling it in a stupid way, but I’ve since washed the gunk he put in out again, and restyled it myself so that I didn’t have the fringe combed forwards in an unflattering manner. Much better.

In addition, the much maligned “minibeard” has gone. This absurd piece of facial fuzz took up residence a couple of years ago, and has survived some fairly desperate attempts by my friends, family, girlfriend and, on occasion, total strangers to persuade me to remove it. My logic has always been that it might look ridiculous, but my chin, which has been hidden underneath for all these years, looks even more unattractive – hence, whilst the beard made me look stupid, at least that was my choice; my chin makes me look stupid and there’s not a damn thing I can do about it.

I’ll confess, my immediate reaction (once I’d managed to stem the bleeding and mopped up the worst of the blood from around the bathroom) was one of abject horror. I looked into the mirror, and saw the face of myself, only several years younger, staring back at me. And that’s a version of myself I’m quite happy to leave several years in the past. In a stupid sort of way, there were memories of many things I’d rather forget hidden behind that comical sprouting, and removing it has brought some of them back to the surface. I’ve been quite happy with my self-image for some time now, but I suddenly feel very, very naked and exposed again without it. It’s going to take some geting used to, I think.

I’m still not quite sure why I shaved it off. Fortunately, though, I’m leaving the country for a week as of tomorrow, so if I decide I really don’t like being without it, I can make a decent start on growing it back before anyone here notices.

Inevitably, there’s a picture.

Let’s face it

Thursday, July 15th, 2004

Chloe Annett as Kochanski might have been the worst thing to ever happen to the programme, but damn she’s hot.