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Dean Spanley

Philip Reeve suggests you all rent Dean Spanley (Toa Fraser, 2008).

This is a film that I came across by accident, knowing nothing more about it than that it stars Peter O'Toole and was set in Edwardian England.  We saw the trailer for it on another DVD we'd rented, and since we're always struggling to find things to put on our rental list we thought we'd take a punt on it.  Peter O'Toole; Edwardian outfits; surely it would while away a wet evening?  To my surprise, it turned out to be the best film I've seen all year, and possibly all century.

It started a little unpromisingly (it's a New Zealand/British co-production, which, perhaps unfairly, suggests state-aided stodge to me, and the opening scenes are all gloomy interiors).  Peter O'Toole plays a grumpy, curmudgeonly old man, obsessively set in his ways, who refuses to admit to any grief over the death of his wife, or of his favourite son, killed in the South African war.  His surviving son, played by Jeremy Northam, dutifully pays him a joyless visit once a week, and one day, in an effort to vary the routine, persuades him to attend a talk on reincarnation.  There they encounter Sam Neill's Dean Spanley (who's the Dean of a cathedral, not just someone called Dean) and Bryan Brown's Australian jack-the-lad, Wrowther.  From that point the story veers off in a rather strange and unexpected direction involving vintage tokay and some dogs.   The dour, oppressive mood of the early scenes lightens, broadens, and by the end it has become extraordinarily sweet and touching.

I won't go into any more detail about the plot, for fear I might spoil it for you.  All you need to know is that this is a film worth seeing.   Peter O'Toole is superb, of course, but Sam Neill is magnificent too; we've so often seen him phoning in performances in tripe like Jurassic Park that it's easy to forget what a good actor he is.  And how nice to see a fantasy film (and Dean Spanley is a fantasy, of a particularly Edwardian type) which doesn't rely on effects or shocks but just unfolds in a series of conversations between four men.

It may make you want to buy a dog.

Alien Swarm

Our computer-game and firearms consultant Jeremy Levett pits his wits against the gribblies in
Alien Swarm (2010)  The Bee says, "Take off and nuke the whole site from orbit: it's the only way to be sure."

Valve Software are known for three things: making near-perfect games, finding and hiring the best independent talent, and taking forever and a day to release anything. Alien Swarm, released for free on the 19th of July without warning or fanfare,* breaks with their tradition in two ways. Here’s a hint: it’s not the independent talent thing.

The story of Alien Swarm is very similar to that of Left 4 Dead. Both were being created independently, as mods, before Valve employed their developers to make full games. Both are four-player cooperative games in which you and three friends take on hordes of computer-controlled gribblies. Both are fairly bare-bones, story-wise, playing through campaigns shooting things with a minimum of background or narrative. But where L4D was a first-person shooter, Alien Swarm is top-down third-person; where L4D joyfully embraced every zombie cliché in the book, Alien Swarm is every Aliens cliché; and where L4D was superb in every way, Alien Swarm isn’t.

The game is free to play, and has minimal content: a single campaign and a decent set of weapons, characters and achievements. The SDK** was released at the same time as the game. The message is clear: make your own campaigns. Valve are known for encouraging community-made content, and here it seems they’ll be relying on it completely to flesh out this skeleton of a game.

The single official campaign, “Jacob’s Rest,” is excellent. You fight through the set of Aliens in a storm of familiar tropes: advancing through a creepily abandoned station, covering one of your number while he welds a door shut to delay alien monsters, using sentry guns to hold off hordes of critters while your tech hacks frantically at a computer, riding a cargo lift that descends ever so slowly while aliens leap down from the walls and ceiling, and one hugely satisfying mission in which you’re given a flamethrower, sent to a large nest of alien eggs/parasites/biomass, and told to cleanse and purge. The graphics are gorgeous, and the gameplay is fairly polished throughout, aside from a few issues like the truly aggravating facehuggers parasites, who kill you unless your team medic uses a lot of healing supplies very quickly (and sometimes, regardless of even that) and the seriously overpowered enemy-freezing, near-infinite-ammo Tesla gun.

As in L4D, you and your fellow marines communicate via voice chat, typing or a rather good set of pre-programmed lines. There are four classes, distinct though not nearly as different or specialised as in Team Fortress 2; each is a space marine with a rifle, plus some extra stuff. A basic XP and levelling system, with the bulk of the XP awarded for completing missions rather than killing things, allows access to more and more weapons. I can’t see why anyone would want to play as anything but the Special Weapons trooper, but they each have plenty going for them: Special Weapons, who is tough and gets by far the best basic weapon (a powerful auto-aiming machine gun taken directly from Aliens’ smartgun); the Medic, who wears a natty white spacesuit and is the only one who can drop healing beacons (and, later, use a healing gun on teammates); the Officer, who provides boosts to his teammates and gets a special shotgun, and the Technical, who gets a special rifle, bonuses for using welders and sentry guns, and is required to hack doors, fiddle with computers and progress through the game. Unlike L4D, there are no respawn points, so if you or one of your teammates dies they’re out for the rest of the chapter. If the tech marine dies, you usually have to restart, as you can’t finish the puzzles without him. Although in single player mode the other three marines are controlled by the computer, in cooperative mode there are (again unlike L4D) no bots – you need four people, and it’s considerably harder to drop in and out of a game.

The biggest problem with Alien Swarm is that it’s so generic. It takes the time-honoured clichés of space marines and alien bio-horrors we know so well from Cameron’s Aliens, Verhoeven’s version of Starship Troopers and the million “space marine fights aliens” computer games that have aped them, and... replicates them exactly without doing anything new or creative. There is no real story or characterisation, nor are there any gameplay elements we haven’t seen before a thousand times. Valve, renowned for excellent character design, writing and voice acting, have here created an utterly forgettable set of faceless space marines with one-word names, who spout hackneyed, staticky “badass” lines at scripted moments and are distinguishable only by the colour of their armoured spacesuits. Each character is just a set of bonuses, a portrait and a short, poorly written bio, scattered alternately with pulp-SF tropes and painfully silly lines like “the soul of a medic.” Even worse are the weapon descriptions, which take the bog standard guns (assault rifle, dual pistols, shotgun, machine gun, flamethrower, sniper rifle, sci-fi thing that vomits lightning everywhere) with bog standard generic sorta-futuristic designs and bog standard stupid, meaningless descriptions clearly written by someone who just didn’t care.*** Everything is riddled with mistakes and generally amateurish writing.

But you get what you pay for, and this is free.

Taken as a game, Alien Swarm isn’t all that great; it has reasonable gameplay, but lacks both polish and substance. Taken as what it’s meant to be – a cheap’n’cheerful way to get lots of people using Steam and playing with their friends – it’s very clever, and bound to be successful. In a couple of months, when community developers have put together some good new campaigns, and Valve have addressed some of the gameplay problems, it’ll be a perfectly competent space-marines-shoot-aliens co-op.

But it could have been so much more.

Alien Swarm’s technical details, and the game itself, can be found here on Steam   

* The game was announced a couple of days before launch. The release was, of course, delayed several hours, and resulted in the Steam download servers completely keeling over. I don’t understand why they even bothered to announce a release time.
** Software Development Kit, basically the tools used to make the original game. Very useful for modders and third party content makers.
***Knowing the first thing about firearms terminology (a personal hobby-horse) has never been a strong point of the gaming industry, but “semi-automatic bolt-action” is going a bit too far. Though it conjures an amusing mental image of a gun extending a small robotic arm to work its own bolt.

'Up The Bottom'

Roger Whale has lived and worked on Dartmoor for fifty years, both in agriculture and the holiday industry.  His self-published novels The Damson Tree and The Yellow Sapphire are filled with his knowledge of the moor, and sell in quantities that would make mainstream publishers envious.  Here he guides us on a short walk up the banks of the West Webburn.

I consider myself very fortunate to live in a beautiful part of the country, in the hamlet of Ponsworthy, a collection of twenty three dwellings in the valley of the West Webburn on Dartmoor. At one end is a T-junction and three much-photographed thatched cottages. A stream runs across the road, forming a water splash for cars to drive through, and there is a little clapper bridge with iron hand rails for those on foot. A hundred years ago the local blacksmith, Richard Nosworthy, lived in the third cottage up from the bridge, where he had his blacksmith’s shop. He it was who made the wrought iron hand rails, and although they have never been painted they are still as sound and rust free as they were on the day they were made.  

At the foot of the sign-post in the middle of the junction is a spring called 'The Golden Spout'.  This was the sole water supply for the nearby cottages until mains water was brought to the area in 1971.

Beside the first cottage is a gate across a lane, now a part of the Two Moors Way, that leads to the next hamlet a mile upstream called Jordon. Originally a footpath for locals, it ran for most of its length beside the stream and was also used by fishermen fly fishing for trout. It is probably only a mile long and can be walked in twenty minutes, but who wants to rush a pleasant experience? 

‘What is this life if full of care
We have no time to stand and stare?’

 The other day, a warm sunny afternoon, we walked ‘up the bottom’ as we call it. Through the gate we went, with its weighted chain to pull it shut, and down the green tunnel of a lane, in places having to duck under the low, overhanging branches. Beside us the little stream was tinkling away, also in a green tunnel of ferns and nettles. Then out into a meadow with butterfly-covered knapweed, and grasshoppers filling the air with their song. Brambles in full flower gave promise of rich pickings in a month or two, as did the hazel bushes with their yet unripe nuts.We passed on into the next meadow, now almost entirely full of shoulder-high bracken. To think that seventy years ago these two meadows would have been cut for hay. A stand of toadflax in full flower shone like a light orange beacon against the backdrop of the dark green bracken.

The gate at the far end of the second meadow was formed of two horizontal bars that slid into slots on the side of the gate posts.  Through this and we were into the wooded area where the path now ran beside the river. There is something special about walking beside running water; the sound of the splashing and slopping; the constantly changing patterns on the moving surface and the wildlife in, on and all around. A shaft of sunlight shone down through the water, turning the pebbles on the river floor brass, copper, and bronze. Reflected sunlight off the water made dancing patterns on the underside of the sycamore leaves. A little further on a huge old oak tree had fallen across the river; its upturned base forming a cartwheel of earth, stones and broken roots; its ivy covered trunk and branches partially damming the flow. Winter rains can cause the river level to rise dramatically, washing the banks, eroding the soil from around the roots of the trees, weakening their hold. The tangle of exposed roots across the path make walking difficult and the weight of the snow on the trees these past two winters has brought down several trees.  

We came to a pool in a small clearing and stopped to watch the fish lazing in the We sunlight water. Small trout, half a dozen of them, were gently flicking their tails, keeping them facing upstream in the same place. Every now and then one would turn and drift a few inches downstream and then turn again, to be followed one by one by the others. In small curves in the bank sand has been washed and there are often the foot prints of small animals. Once I saw what I felt sure were the tracks of an otter; they have been seen in the river but unfortunately not by me. However I have seen foxes, badgers, rabbits and deer and countless birds. In the mornings the dawn chorus is truly wonderful, an orchestra of song.

A few yards further and we heard a whining from a small building on the opposite bank. This noise was coming from a hydro-electric generating plant that an enterprising farmer had built. By diverting part of the river water along a leat, he had gained enough height for the fall of water to be powerful enough to generate enough electricity for his needs and some to spare. Despite the constant noise, a dipper makes his nest in the generator house every year. The dipper is a fascinating bird a little bit bigger than a robin; dark brown, almost black, with a white breast, his colours perfectly matching the wet rocks and the white foam on the water. He flies straight and low along the river and then lands on a rock, bobbing and curtsying. Then he opens his wings slightly and walks upstream into the water and along the bottom picking up caddis fly larvae and all sorts of grubs for himself and his family. We always look out for him; for some reason we think it lucky to see him; but this day there was no sign.

Just above the generator are the remains of the weir that formed the head of the leat that fed the mill at |Ponsworthy, turning the water wheel that provided the power to grind the corn. In the pool above the river floor is made of long rocks, all lying in the same direction as the flow of the water, all a rust red colour. There were several more fallen trees across the river and I was reminded of a day two winters ago when we walked down from Jordon after a fall of heavy snow. Trees of all sizes were across the path and we had to alternately climb over and duck under them, for all the world like human shuttles in a loom of trees.

Then after a few yards of open ground the path turned away from the river into a young wood of trees planted some twenty-five years ago; oak, ash, Spanish chestnut, sycamore and silver birch. Here the woodland floor still had the pale green stems and seed pods of the bluebells that bloomed so brightly a couple of months before. In a large old oak at the edge of this woodland a pair of buzzards build their nest each year. On a bright day last winter we were delighted by a group of six long-tailed tits which gave us a display of acrobatics, like women gymnasts, in one of the silver birch trees.

Just before we reached Jordon there is an island, about thirty yards long, with a number of trees growing on it, and on each tree is a nest box for the birds. One of these boxes was inhabited a few years ago by a swarm of hornets. Then we were out into the open again, the path running  between tall bracken until we reached the river. We crossed it on the wooden foot bridge (or 'clam' as such a structure is called in these parts), entering the hamlet of Jordon with its old mill on our left and three cottages and the old manor house on our right. Jordon or Dewdon as it was once known is one of the six manors in Widecombe parish, a small hamlet with its own tale to tell... perhaps another day.

Roger Whale's books are available from his website,

The Ruins of Old Dartmoor: No.1

By Philip Reeve, with photographs by Sarah Reeve.

Dartmoor is often described in guide books as a wilderness, and much of it does feel pretty wild, but when you walk or ride on the moor you can't go far without passing the signs of past human activity.  There are bronze age hut circles and stone rows, abandoned mediaeval villages, old boundary works, and tin mines and quarries which in some cases were working well within living memory.  These pictures record a walk we took to one of the moor's more recent ruins.  This Ballardian object is the old rifle range which stands southeast of Rippon Tor, close to the road between Halshanger and Cold East Cross.  

Dartmoor has long been used for military training, although most of it now happens on the bleaker western side.  This range was built at the beginning of the Second World War, and was in use until the mid-1960s.

This huge brick wall was the 'receiving end'; shots would have been fired into the bank behind it from four large mounds spaced out across the hillside to the east...

Author included for scale.  (Note hip-hop pixie from the Dartmoor Massive.)

The rusting machinery below would once have raised and lowered the targets...

When the range was in use a red flag would have been flown and 800 square metres of the surrounding moor would have been closed to public access.  There are still rifle and artillery ranges on the moor; from time to time we hear the guns booming, and sometimes we go for a walk over on the western side only to discover that the red flags are up.  There are people who object strongly to the moor being put to this use, but live firing days are actually quite rare, and I've always felt that it adds no end to the odd sense of mystery and danger which still clings to these hills.

Next time: some interesting chimneys.

Dear Esther

There must be a hole in the bottom of the boat. How else would new hermits have arrived?

Jeremy Levett reviews the computer game Dear Esther (2008), with Helpful Footnotes for those of us who still aren't quite sure what a computer game is...

There is some furore over whether a computer game can ever constitute “art”. I’m not really interested in the debate (a sort of Punch and Judy “Oh no they aren’t!” “Oh yes they are” back-and-forth between old people who don’t understand what computer games are exactly but feel vaguely threatened by them and young people who spend far too much of their lives playing games and need validation for it, and anyway “art” is such a vague and disputed term as to be totally meaningless. But if I thought I knew what art was, and I needed a game to wave at the naysayers that would make them shut up, sit down and possibly shiver, my first choice would be Dear Esther.

Not that it’s exactly a representative sample. Beyond the most basic information (a first-person, single-player mod for the Source engine,* created by University of Portsmouth researchers) Dear Esther is infuriatingly difficult to define; what is it? An interactive audiobook with visual cues? A first person ghost story? “Redefines how we think of games” is a line that’s been misused so much it’s now just another part of the stupid marketing buzz-phrase lexicon, to be smeared at random over the boxes of the next FPS summer blockbuster, but in this case it actually applies. The controls are those of a shooter, but there are no guns, no enemies, nobody but you and a few gulls. Player participation is minimal, but essential. The entire story is given by disembodied narration and visual cues, uncovered as you wander a barren Hebridean island.

And a strange story it is. The game is the very model of an unreliable narrator; most of the audio triggers** have more than one piece of relevant narration, each one choosing at random from a handful of voice clips. Here the game’s writing really shines; even with different narration each time, it is consistent. The story is abstract, open to interpretation, but strangely satisfying; certain turns of phrase repeated in different contexts stand out, and these broad, sometimes overlapping brushstrokes gradually make up a strange but beautiful picture. By the end of the game you will have, if not a complete story, a wonderfully constructed, interlocking piece of lucid madness.

Sound is a powerful medium, and Dear Esther uses it to its fullest. The narration (which would be of remarkable quality for a commercial game, let alone a free mod put together by university researchers) is brilliantly written, brilliantly performed and accompanied by haunting music. The atmosphere it creates has you leaping at shadows or passing gulls. It helps that I’ve been playing with FPS controls so long they’ve become instinctive, but a particularly intense moment had me finding a corner in the rocks and hiding in it, crouching to make myself as small as possible. The greatest challenge of games is eliciting an emotional response from their players. This game literally made me run and hide. That is immersion.

It is far from perfect. The game design is very “My First HL2 Mod”, scattered with invisible walls and unnecessary physics objects. The navigation is at times opaque and directionless, a particular flaw in a linear game, and between the widely spaced audio cues and the sluggish walking speed, the pace is excruciatingly slow (never have I played a game which made me quite so aware of my own footsteps.) The graphics are plain and functional. All these drawbacks are especially pronounced in the earlier stages. I’ve read some comments that wonder if this is intentional – to emphasise the difficulty in beginning any journey worth taking – but it strikes me as just cheap, mediocre level design, by people focusing on more important aspects. In any case, it gets better and better as you progress through the game.  A rework of the game is currently in progress, aiming to remedy the pacing and navigation issues, as well as adding some of the most amazing graphics ever seen in the Source engine. It’s due for release sometime in late 2010, though as a free release being made entirely in someone else’s spare time, it might take a while longer.

I’m not sure whether to say “wait for the rework, because it looks like perfection” or “play this game now, because you have to.”

* For any non-techy types who might be reading, the “engine” is the essential bit of software on which a game is built. Think of it as the skeleton of the game, giving basic functionality, with everything the player actually sees – graphics, textures, level design, audio and so on - the flesh and blood. Source is a game engine made by Valve Software, which is used in a tremendous number of homemade mods and games.

** Points at which the game detects you have arrived and plays a relevant piece of narration or runs a scripted sequence. Imagine an invisible line; crossing it makes a voice clip play.

Dear Esther is a free mod which can be downloaded here. It requires Half-Life 2, which is worth your time anyway, being one of the greatest games ever made.

EDIT (August 2012) A version of Dear Esther is now available for Mac. PR

At The Tone Leave Your Name And Number...

...and I'll get back to you.  Repelled by sport, CSI, and TV talent contests, the Bee has been seeking out telly from a bygone age.

Dr Johnson observed that 'Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier', and I suppose that there may still be a certain truth in that.  But he would have been on firmer ground if he had said, 'Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having spent the mid-to-late 1970s as an L.A Private Eye operating out of a trailer parked on the beach at Malibu'.   This is the only way that I can explain the peculiar watchability of long-running lightweight detective drama The Rockford Files, DVDs of which have been filling empty evenings very amiably lately here at the Bee Hive*.

The first thing that I should say about The Rockford Files is that, in many ways, it's Not Really Very Good.  The concept is just Chandler with the corners smoothed off, the plots are repetitive and sometimes lazy; the writing is unspectacular, and the pace (especially in the well-padded two-parters) is often sluggish.  But none of this really matters, because the programme has a curious charm which somehow makes you ignore all these things.

At its heart, of course, is James Garner, who could probably have been one of Hollywood's great leading men if he'd been born a decade or two earlier, but arrived in the age of the anti-hero and the collapse of the studio system and ended up on telly instead.  As ex-con turned P.I Jim Rockford he's supremely likeable; a would-be cynical, would-be tough guy with a heart of gold and a nice way with a one-liner.  (In some ways he's rather like Harrison Ford.  You could easily imagine him playing Indiana Jones.) The rest of the regular cast (especially Noah Beery as his dad) are all likeable enough too, and there are frequent-ish cameos from stars on their way up (or down): Ned Beatty, Isaac Hayes, Joseph Cotten, and Tom Selleck all pop up at one time or another, along with lots of those faces that make you go, "Ooh, it's him out of, you know, thing..."

And despite the routine plots, Jim Rockford is about as believable as 'seventies TV detectives ever got.  He's consistently short of money (it's a recurring joke that he almost never seems to get paid for his cases); he rarely gets the girl; he usually tries to talk his way out of trouble rather than resort to violence (he does own a gun, but not a license for it, and it stays at his trailer, in the biscuit tin).  I first encountered him in the early 80's, an era when American TV tended towards aspirational fantasies about the super-rich, and he always seemed appealingly down-to-earth.  The exotic aspects of his life (the trailer in Malibu, the answerphone, the beautiful lawyer friend, the whole private eye thing) all seemed like things I might actually have one day**.

Nowadays, of course, The Rockford Files can also be enjoyed as a historical document; an extended tour around the ugly, low-rise sprawl of LA in the seventies, with occasional excursions into the deserts and orange-groves around it.  Rockford's Califonia now seems as far-off as Philip Marlowe's, although the fashions of its time are much harder to like; weird knitwear, huge hair and high-waisted loon-pants abound, and lapels like those on James Garner's sports jackets have since been banned under strategic arms limitations treaties.  Over it all hangs the spectre of Organised Crime.  Was this a particular concern in the US during the '70s, or just a handy plot device?  At any rate, gorillas from the mob are frequent visitors to Rockford's trailer, where they force him into their enormously wide, low cars and drive him off to meet sinister kingpins in deserted industrial buildings.  Happily he always escapes, and then there is a car chase, in which vehicles the size of small European countries pursue each other through the streets to the sound of squealing brakes (or at least to the sound of a record of squealing brakes, and it sounds suspiciously as if the sound-effects department owns just the one).  But don't let the car-chases or the odd murder fool you; The Rockford Files is comfort telly; it's usually sunny, it's usually funny, and the worst that generally happens is that another client wriggles out of paying their $200-a-day.  They don't make them like this any more***, but that doesn't matter, because it ran to about six series and assorted TV movies.  That should keep me going for a good few years yet.

*I expect it's repeated endlessly on ITV2 or somewhere, too.

**And sure enough, I do now own an answerphone.  But I always forget to switch it on.

*** No, they really don't: a recent attempt to do a re-make has gone no further than a pilot show.  Which is probably good news because it Wouldn't Be The Same.

A Sonic Youth

By our Beat Music correspondent, Philip Womack.

I do not remember how, exactly, it was that I stumbled upon the American post-punk band, Sonic Youth. It was in the days before the internet, in 1995, before the rise of irritating computer programs that tell you what you may like (so softly imperious, that ‘may’); when I was in my first year at Lancing, a titanic, windy, cathedral-like place that dominated the landscape of the south coast, rising into the sky like a Gormenghastian Tower of Flints.

My musical education, up till then, had consisted of three strands: the classical (I was a piano player, and my parents listened to Radio 3 and Classic FM); the French (my father, having worked abroad, had a taste for Gallic singers of the 1960s and 70s); and long-haired rock. My tiny prep school had three tapes (yes, they were cassettes) available for the use of its pupils: Queen, Bon Jovi and Nirvana. These were played, seemingly all the time, everywhere: from Art room to indoor football. For a while we went around in plaid shirts and jeans, thinking that we were American grungers. The effect was not successful.

When I arrived at Lancing one of the first questions that older boys would ask (apart from ‘what football team do you support’ – something which I was equally unable to answer) was ‘what music do you like?’ I didn’t really know – I liked everything from Bach to Blur. The older boys in my dormitory preferred listening to straightforward pop music: but I knew I wanted more than ‘Gangsters Paradise’ and the chart-pillaging normality of ‘Now That’s What I Call Music! 32’.

So I became an avid reader of the New Musical Express, which was rather luxuriously delivered to my door every Wednesday morning. I would spend the afternoon immersed in its prose – which I then admired enormously – and would dream about being in a band, being in London, being free. I must have come across a reference to Sonic Youth in one of their reviews or features. They were always spoken of reverently: musical explorers, uncompromising in their vision, secret yet accessible. The next time I went to a record shop in Brighton, I came back home clutching one of their CDs as if it were a sacrament.

It was Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star (1994). I remember going up to my room at home with the sense of something immanent. My bedroom was small, book-lined and covered in posters, a temple to other worlds for which I yearned. I put on the CD, nervously, and waited. At first, I must admit, I was disappointed. There were no obvious hooks; nothing of the jauntiness of my other favourite band, Elastica. I put it away – yet with the feeling that it was I who was at fault. On a trip to London I found Dirty (1992). This time, my fingers trembled as I put the CD into its little spinning box. There was always a tiny pause when it went on, as the machine whirred into life: sometimes it would stick, and time would be wasted polishing CDs fruitlessly. So I held my breath as it sputtered into the first track: and then sat down on my bed, entranced. The moment I put it on I knew that I had found my band. Dirty is a record that hurtles from snarling, spitting guitars, through mountainous, jagged noise, to beatific calm and whimsy. So began a torrid, passionate love affair which has lasted for fifteen years, and continues still strong.

Other bands I grow tired of, sometimes even after one or two listens. But Sonic Youth never disappoint. I even grew to love their less successful albums, Jet Set and Washing Machine. The reason was their total difference to anything else I had ever come across: here were a bunch of well-educated New Yorkers influenced by William Burroughs and the Sex Pistols, politically motivated and musically aware; there was I, learning about gerunds and reading Virginia Woolf. Yet somehow I found a congruity between the band and my other influences: there is a song on Dirty called ‘Theresa’s Sound World’ that soars into shimmering, knife-like melodies which I would listen to over and over again. The people in Sonic Youth songs seemed to be wild and brave and passionate; they loved and sang and danced like the people in the novels I read, like the classics I was translating. The lead singer, sempiternally boyish Thurston Moore, became a divine figure in my personal mythology, his intelligent, mumbly vocals, gravelly and faint, giving the band a touch of genius. His wife, Kim Gordon, beautiful, yelping and loopy, managed somehow to be at once harsh and soft: when she would whisper ‘you’re going to be free – just for a while’, it somehow encapsulated everything that I thought or knew about life so far.

Sonic Youth continued to be the background to my school years: ‘Hoarfrost’ I would listen to whilst revising Virgil, Plato, Homer and Petronius, its gentle, sliding lyricism a counterpoint to the burning sun and the blazing vocabularies. I remember being devasated when the band’s van was stolen, with all their specially tuned guitars; but when their next offering arrived, in 2000, my final year at school, the two songs ‘Never Mind (What Was it Anyway)’ and ‘Renegade Princess’ would roll out of my speakers nightly. Occasionally people would nod as they came into my room and say ‘that’s good’; but I would simply nod too. I never sought to introduce anyone else to Sonic Youth. Somehow I didn’t want to.

And now, those gods of the guitar continue to provide layered, wise, melodic albums. Their most recent, the appropriately-titled The Eternal (2009) continues to experiment and explore, to challenge and confront. Their music reached across the vast expanse of the Atlantic, from underground clubs full of punks to my dormitory room. It hooked me, and it has me still. Long may Sonic Youth continue.

Philip Womack is the author of The Other Book and The Liberators

'The Other Book' by Philip Womack was published by Bloomsbury in 2008

Paradise (Losing The Plot)

The Bee's South East Asia Correspondent Justin Hill shares some impressions of his life in Thailand.  (The photographs are Justin's, too: you can see more of his work here.)

Before I witter on with my thoughts, musings and experiences I'd like to make a statement. I adore the people of Thailand and am in love with the Kingdom itself. My first trip out here was way back in 1999. I'd never flown before and had no idea what I was about to find. Sights, sounds, smells and smiles surrounded me from the minute I touched down in Bangkok. It was a veritable feast for the eyes, ears and nose, and I didn't know which way to turn next as I gazed out the window whilst riding in the Taxi to the hotel. Moving many years on I find I now have a Thai wife, a beautiful step daughter and still no idea quite what's going on here. Thai life catches you out daily; you're always the last to find out or know anything, whilst being expected to be a step ahead. It's an impossible task! 

Right, now that I have cleared myself for literary take off and if you are sitting comfortably and taken note of all the emergency exits I shall begin. I warn you beforehand that it is quite a ramble...

Chaos theory is alive and kicking throughout the 'Land of Smiles'. Without it I think the Kingdom would simply dissapear in one enormous bang created by everyone colliding with each other. If someone is signalling right then there's a great chance they are going to turn left. One way signs are pretty much ignored, laws are 'flexible' and you can often find an elephant to run into parked outside a bar at night. Nothing seems to get done quickly here, but before you know it everything is completed. In contrast to that you can go to a store one day for a newspaper only to find it's not there the next day as it's been demolished overnight! The country keeps you on your toes, guessing its next move.

Their grasp of the English language can also throw you at times. I have often been greeted with the phrase "How are you tomorrow?" and have found myself replying "I am fine yesterday, thanks for asking". If you've had too much to drink the night before then you will have an 'Over Hang' in the morning, which could be fixed by eating 'Fried Rice with crap' which can be found on the menu (typo's here are excellent). Talking of food, the Thai language sometimes comes up with wonderful coincidences when thought of as English. "Fried rice with pork" when ordered in Thai comes out as "Cow Pat Moo". All Thai's have nicknames and once we were in a bar and the bargirl 'Som' was asked by 'Anggun' for some limes to put in our drinks. Som is Thai for Orange, Anggun is Thai for Grape so ... the Grape asked the Orange for some Limes. Simply wonderful.

There are many times I have watched a 'live' game of 'Buckaroo' take place as a couple of Thais see how much stuff they can pile onto a Honda Dream motorbike before both getting on and wobbling and weaving off into the distance. We once had a double bed, wardrobe and dressing table delivered to our apartment by motorbike! The craziest and most unbelievable thing I have seen was on the super highway just outside the city of Chiang Mai (Northern Thailand). We could see a motorbike being erratically driven some distance off and it wasn't until we got near we realised why. One Thai up front in 'control' of the bike, one Thai sitting on the back with a live cow with it's feet bound together on his lap. Would not have like to have seen that accident!

"Health & Safety" is a phrase that you seldom hear or see in use. It's certainly not evident when wandering around the city. Bamboo strapped together is used as scaffolding and it's ok to wear flip flops as long as you've got your hard hat on when using a pick axe to break up the tarmac! It's fascinating and terrifying all at the same time. Electric cables stick out of walls at head height, and sometimes you are forced to walk in the road as the local council have put a phone box smack in the middle of the pavement - which is also full of dangerous holes.

In amongst all this mayhem there are the temples. Wonderful bejewelled structures glistening in the sunlight, each one an oasis of tranquility that somehow seems to cut out the noise from outside in order to aid enlightenment. Saffron robed monks pad about the temple grounds barefoot, fulfilling chores, whilst others simply sit in silence, or give out water blessings to visitors. I remember being quite shocked when I first saw a monk smoking a cigarette whilst making a phone call. I was also amused when I came across a queue of monks at a mobile ice cream stall that had pulled up outside their temple.

The arts & crafts (especially in Chiang Mai) are incredible. Beautiful works of art can be found in the markets along with ancient Lanna style bowls, vases or wall hangings. Detail is exquisite and the colours simply breathtaking. In stark contrast to that, there's the everyday workmanship. I once watched three Thai men take an entire day to weld an iron gate back onto its hinges in the bar opposite our apartment, only for it to fall off into the Soi (Thai for street) again one week later. The 'CLANG!' was deaffening and highly amusing. Like most things in Thailand you can wait days or even weeks for the electrician or handyman to finaly arrive. It can work the other way too. If you've been told to be up bright and early and ready to go out somewhere at 09:00 am you can bet your bottom dollar that they'll be ready themselves to go out by 12:30! Thailand is a waiting game; procrastination is a pastime.

It's the land of paradox. Gambling and prostitution are illegal throughout the country and yet they are both rife, especially in the cities. The go-go bars and strip joints are well known and out in the open, with no attempt to hide the goings on from the law. Pool games are bet on, card games are bet on and football is bet on. The kick boxing rings are a den of activity whilst a fight is on. The place is full of Thais waving their hands in the air and all shouting, all trying to put a wager on at the same time.

And not one of these things put me off. Thailand is a wonderful place and it's taught me a lot. It's a kingdom full of dramatic scenery, incredible flora and fauna, great food and good beer. They love to laugh, to party and above all smile. The recent political upheaval and trouble in Bangkok has darkened its name dramatically, but things are slowly returning to normal. We were under curfew for a week or so in Chiang Mai while the dust settled, but life is ticking over as it always did now. Tourism is still thin on the ground, but hopefully people will start to venture here again and discover the delights for themselves.

And that, as they say, is that! I hope I have raised a few smiles or even the odd eyebrow for those of you who've managed to make it through to the end. Hope you've enjoyed the journey and please check your belongings before you leave.