a valued customer

It’s a source of real irritation to me that, no matter how much you spend in an Australian shop, no matter how high-end, the likely greeting by the shop assistant at the till will be “Just these today?”. Once I was shopping for a whole new work wardrobe, assisted by a personal shopper. Even with the personal shopper’s discount my bill in one shop was a comfortable four-figure number. “Just those today?”, I was asked as I approached the counter. I almost asked whether she would prefer I shop a little harder just to gain her acknowledgement as a bona fide customer.
So I love shopping in Japan, where every transaction makes you feel like royalty. On a whim the other day, I stop by a Birkenstock shop on Shinsaibashi in Osaka. One pair of sandals and a $100 spend later, the shop manager escorts me right outside the front door before formally presenting me with a heavy cotton bag containing my purchase. With a low bow, he thanks me and I walk away. Fifty metres away at the corner of the street, I look back and he is still there, still bowing low.
For a $100 transaction.
A few days later a lovely shop assistant helps me choose a new yukata (summer kimono) and matching obi (tie belt) in the fashionable halls of Dai Maru. This young lady has almost no English, and embarrassingly I have even less Japanese. But fashion, colour coordination and commerce need no common language, and after an enjoyable trying-on session I spend around $80 on a lovely new black, white and red creation. My purchase is lovingly wrapped in tissue paper and placed in an iconic Dai Maru paper bag, with a clear plastic bag popped in for later in case it rains. The shop assistant asks whether we will browse some more in the South Building or return to the Main Building. When I indicate the latter, she politely escorts me to a set of marble stairs, indicates where I need to go, then presents me with my purchase with a low bow and an “arigato gozaimas-ta”. As I reach the top of the staircase I look down, and the young lady is still there, still bowing until I am out of sight.
I love this country.

heartbreak… 21st century style

It was a brief, but short-lived, love affair. A chance encounter online then, finally, a hurriedly-arranged reunion on Australian soil. The few weeks of anticipation dragged as my impatience rose and my expectations fell. How could it be the same as the last time I’d seen him, back in London, so many years ago? I warned myself not to let my hopes get the better of me.

The night came at last. It was the first time I’d set eyes on him in over fifteen years, and he hadn’t changed a bit. To paraphrase Jerry Maguire, he had me from the first time he spoke.

Continue reading

return to forever

I have to commence this post by stating that I am not a jazz aficionado, but when Orlando gets that excited about a gig, you know it is going to be worth it.

Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke, Lenny White, Jean-Luc Ponty and Frank Gambale assembled in Melbourne for the Return to Forever IV tour, and we were four rows from the front.

It was a distinctive crowd at the Forum, for this most exclusive of gigs. Carefully chosen outfits by men of a certain age. Long, flowing grey hair and meticulously trimmed beards. Shaven heads and goatees. A red bandana tied defiantly around an inevitably bald pate. A pork pie hat. At least one Marks-and-Spencer-style navy blue polo shirt. High-waisted pants. A safe pair of black jeans made completely illegal by being thrust into a pair of highly decorated cowboy boots. Black and white Rude Boy loafers. The odd glint of silver jewellery, inappropriate in a man of that age. At least one pair of glasses exactly like John Richardson’s funky old/new fogey ones.

And that was just the band.

I’d have to say I understood very little of what was going on, but I knew it was important. After a while I realised I was holding my breath. What these men were attempting (in fact, succeeding at) was far beyond anything I’ve ever seen attempted live. I have seen many incredibly talented individuals and bands playing live music, but I would have to say this was the cleverest group of musicians I have ever seen. This went beyond raw talent. This was like seeing a bunch of mathematicians live on stage, attempting to solve the Grand Unified Theory in parallel, reaching a crescendo of simultaneous mathematical prowess on a row of whiteboards, thus solving one of the greatest puzzles of our generation.

Lenny White seemed to toy with the rest of the band. The only one operating with no sheet music, he spent almost three hours on stage behind a complicated drum-kit driving the tempo wherever (it appeared) he wished. I could only guess at which segments were rehearsed and which were improvised.  Stanley Clarke took centre stage with his bass guitars and double bass. He, of all of them, got the biggest reaction from the crowd whenever he took the musical lead. Chick Corea’s curly grey head bobbed up and down behind a barricade of keyboards, sometimes taking control, sometimes doing exactly as Clarke or White dictated.

I felt as if there was danger in the air. I felt as if I was watching a group of extreme acrobats performing without a safety net. My mind was exhausted from hard concentration, focusing myself to help them get to the finish line by sheer force of will.

It wasn’t a performance at one level, it was an exercise in survival. One of the most exciting musical events of my life.

irish christmas songs

Well, I am not sure if you are expecting Daniel O’Donnell or Enya, but here are some of the best Irish Christmas tunes of recent years.

  1. Christmas Countdown – Frank Kelly: those of you who are not Irish will know Frank Kelly as Father Jack from Father Ted. Worth listening right to the end, just for the insults.
  2. This Christmas – Funzo: this was the ultimate winner of the 2009 Christmas FM song contest. Reminds me of driving around Dublin city listening to Christmas FM on the radio, with all the Christmas lights shining in the dark, and Ashling and Connor in the back seat.
  3. Christmas Tree Song – Dustin the Turkey: Dustin is a famous Irish TV and radio personality. Yes, I realise he is a turkey puppet.
  4. Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) – U2: From one of the Very Special Christmas albums.
  5. A Spaceman Came Travelling – Chris de Burgh: yes I know this appeared in another listing of mine, but it is one of my favourite Christmas songs of all time.

Have I missed anything?

christmas in the city

Part two of my Christmas song odyssey – tunes that are perfect for Christmastime in the city. We have no sleigh-rides and often no snow, even in the northern hemisphere.

  1. Christmas In The City – Mary J. Blige: this reminds me of driving home from Lygon Street on a hot and steamy Christmas Eve night with Mena, the city lights shimmering as we cruise by with all the windows open.
  2. Christmas In Hollis – Run DMC: a classic track from the movie Die Hard. McClane asks Argyle the chauffeur if he has any Christmas music. Argyle replies: “This is Christmas music!”
  3. Santa Claus Go Straight To The Ghetto – James Brown: nuff said.
  4. Fairytale of New York – The Pogues: the ultimate song from New York City. This song reminds me of the my first December away from home after emigrating in the recession of the late 80s. Every time I heard this song I cried.
  5. Driving Home For Christmas – Chris Rea: my strongest memory of this song is driving to Birmingham Airport from Leicester one wintry December evening, to fly home to Dublin for Christmas. Love that M42.

books I’ve read – a meme

I was copied in on a meme today, about books I’ve read. The list didn’t seem right to me: for example listing Hamlet by Shakespeare alongside the Complete Works didn’t seem kosher in a BBC-originated list. So I sourced the original BBC Top 100 books in order of popularity (the public voted) and did that list as well as the original. The lists overlap a lot, but the first list looks a little illogical and the second (the original list) looks a lot more like a list of books the public actually voted for.

Books I’ve read are in bold, and part-read in italics. How do you far?

The Original Meme

INSTRUCTIONS: Have you read more than 6 of these books? The BBC believes most people will have read only 6 of the 100 books listed here. Copy this into your NOTES. Bold those books you’ve read in their entirety, italicize the ones you started but didn’t finish or read an excerpt. Tag other book nerds. Tag me as well so I can see your responses!

 1 Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen

2 The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien

3 Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte

4 Harry Potter – JK Rowling

5 To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee

6 The Bible

7 Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte

8 Nineteen Eighty Four – George Orwell

9 His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman

10 Great Expectations – Charles Dickens

11 Little Women – Louisa M Alcott

12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy

13 Catch 22 – Joseph Heller

14 Complete Works of Shakespeare

15 Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier

16 The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien

17 Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks

18 Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger

19 The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger

20 Middlemarch – George Eliot

21 Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell

22 The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald

23 Bleak House – Charles Dickens

24 War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy

25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams

26 Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh

27 Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

28 Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck

29 Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll

30 The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame

31 Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy

32 David Copperfield – Charles Dickens

33 Chronicles of Narnia – CS Lewis

34 Emma – Jane Austen

35 Persuasion – Jane Austen

36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – CS Lewis

37 The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini

38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Berniere

39 Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden

40 Winnie the Pooh – AA Milne

41 Animal Farm – George Orwell

42 The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown

43 One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

44 A Prayer for Owen Meaney – John Irving

45 The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins

46 Anne of Green Gables – LM Montgomery

47 Far From The Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy

48 The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

49 Lord of the Flies – William Golding

50 Atonement – Ian McEwan

51 Life of Pi – Yann Martel

52 Dune – Frank Herbert

53 Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons

54 Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen

55 A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth

56 The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon

57 A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens

58 Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – Mark Haddon

60 Love In The Time Of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

61 Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck

62 Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov

63 The Secret History – Donna Tartt

64 The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold

65 Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas

66 On The Road – Jack Kerouac

67 Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy

68 Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding

69 Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie

70 Moby Dick – Herman Melville

71 Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens

72 Dracula – Bram Stoker

73 The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett

74 Notes From A Small Island – Bill Bryson

75 Ulysses – James Joyce

76 The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath

77 Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome

78 Germinal – Emile Zola

79 Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray

80 Possession – AS Byatt

81 A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens

82 Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell

83 The Color Purple – Alice Walker

84 The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro

85 Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert

86 A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry

87 Charlotte’s Web – EB White

88 The Five People You Meet in Heaven – Mitch Albom

89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

90 The Faraway Tree Collection – Enid Blyton

91 Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad

92 The Little Prince – Antoine De Saint-Exupery

93 The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks

94 Watership Down – Richard Adams

95 A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole

96 A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute

97 The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas

98 Hamlet – William Shakespeare

99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl

100  Les Miserables – Victor Hugo


The Original: BBC’s Big Read

“In April 2003 the BBC’s Big Read began the search for the nation’s best-loved novel, and we asked you to nominate your favourite books. Below are all the results from number 1 to 100 in numerical order!”

1. The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien

2. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

3. His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman

4. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams

5. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, JK Rowling

6. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

7. Winnie the Pooh, AA Milne

8. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell

9. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, CS Lewis

10. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë

11. Catch-22, Joseph Heller

12. Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë

13. Birdsong, Sebastian Faulks

14. Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier

15. The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger

16. The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame

17. Great Expectations, Charles Dickens

18. Little Women, Louisa May Alcott

19. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Louis de Bernieres

20. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy

21. Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell

22. Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone, JK Rowling

23. Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets, JK Rowling

24. Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban, JK Rowling

25. The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien

26. Tess Of The D’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy

27. Middlemarch, George Eliot

28. A Prayer For Owen Meany, John Irving

29. The Grapes Of Wrath, John Steinbeck

30. Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, Lewis Carroll

31. The Story Of Tracy Beaker, Jacqueline Wilson

32. One Hundred Years Of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez

33. The Pillars Of The Earth, Ken Follett

34. David Copperfield, Charles Dickens

35. Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl

36. Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson

37. A Town Like Alice, Nevil Shute

38. Persuasion, Jane Austen

39. Dune, Frank Herbert

40. Emma, Jane Austen

41. Anne Of Green Gables, LM Montgomery

42. Watership Down, Richard Adams

43. The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald

44. The Count Of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas

45. Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh

46. Animal Farm, George Orwell

47. A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens

48. Far From The Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy

49. Goodnight Mister Tom, Michelle Magorian

50. The Shell Seekers, Rosamunde Pilcher

51. The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett

52. Of Mice And Men, John Steinbeck

53. The Stand, Stephen King

54. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy

55. A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth

56. The BFG, Roald Dahl

57. Swallows And Amazons, Arthur Ransome

58. Black Beauty, Anna Sewell

59. Artemis Fowl, Eoin Colfer

60. Crime And Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky

61. Noughts And Crosses, Malorie Blackman

62. Memoirs Of A Geisha, Arthur Golden

63. A Tale Of Two Cities, Charles Dickens

64. The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCollough

65. Mort, Terry Pratchett

66. The Magic Faraway Tree, Enid Blyton

67. The Magus, John Fowles

68. Good Omens, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

69. Guards! Guards!, Terry Pratchett

70. Lord Of The Flies, William Golding

71. Perfume, Patrick Süskind

72. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Robert Tressell

73. Night Watch, Terry Pratchett

74. Matilda, Roald Dahl

75. Bridget Jones’s Diary, Helen Fielding

76. The Secret History, Donna Tartt

77. The Woman In White, Wilkie Collins

78. Ulysses, James Joyce

79. Bleak House, Charles Dickens

80. Double Act, Jacqueline Wilson

81. The Twits, Roald Dahl

82. I Capture The Castle, Dodie Smith

83. Holes, Louis Sachar

84. Gormenghast, Mervyn Peake

85. The God Of Small Things, Arundhati Roy

86. Vicky Angel, Jacqueline Wilson

87. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley

88. Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons

89. Magician, Raymond E Feist

90. On The Road, Jack Kerouac

91. The Godfather, Mario Puzo

92. The Clan Of The Cave Bear, Jean M Auel

93. The Colour Of Magic, Terry Pratchett

94. The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho

95. Katherine, Anya Seton

96. Kane And Abel, Jeffrey Archer

97. Love In The Time Of Cholera, Gabriel García Márquez

98. Girls In Love, Jacqueline Wilson

99. The Princess Diaries, Meg Cabot

100. Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie

Máiréad’s Total – 44

stevie wonder comes to town

Genius. Civil rights activist. Legend.

Stevie Wonder came to town and we worshipped. I cannot believe I was in the same room as this giant.

From the first bars of Master Blaster, his first track, to the very last notes, or the last song I was enthralled. He changed the lyrics of Master Blaster, swapping an endorsement of Barack Obama for president for the sadly out-of-date words about peace in Zimbabwe.

stevie wonder 1

Now in his late fifties, Wonder’s voice is still amazingly strong and powerful. He sounded better than he did as a teenager. Early in the piece he dedicated the concert to the late Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops, who’d died the day before. He led a cover of “Sugar Pie Honey Bunch” which had the crown on their feet singing along.

stevie wonder 2

His band was tight. The backing singers included his daughter Ayesha who performed solo part-way through the concert.

stevie wonder 3

Hearing Wonder himself perform such songs as Sir Duke, Very Superstitious, and Higher Ground were some of the highlights of the year for me.

stevie wonder 4