Archive for October, 2011

Background Hell

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I confess to being one of those weird people who actually like background music and have even been known to enjoy the occasional elevator ride but I am finding myself increasingly irritated by music which far from being in the background smacks me in the face like a bucket of wet quavers.

When Shakespeare wrote the immortal words “if music be the food of love” I feel confident in saying he didn’t have the likes of Never Mind The Bollocks by the Sex Pistols in mind but a nice romantic melody. African warriors played menacing drum beats all through the night before an attack in order to instil terror into their enemies. Just how terrified would the enemy have been if those same Africans charged at them doing a Viennese Waltz? My point is when music is played in public it should be the right music for the right occasion.

As a professional musician I always thought of music as a tool for which I could manipulate an atmosphere. In a restaurant I played relaxing music quietly so people could talk and enjoy their meal. They might not even like the music I played but they would subconsciously enjoy the atmosphere that it created. Sometimes even in the most sophisticated of restaurants I would sense the audience becoming animated so would change the music to suit their mood. If I was playing in a pub I would wait until the audience was warmed up and then rip into something like We Will Rock You at full volume with everyone singing along. It was important to use the right tool for the job because trying to force an atmosphere on an audience that is not ready or willing can ruin their evening.

The problem I have with background music is when it is used in inexperienced or uncaring hands. I have lost count of the number of restaurant meals I have had that were spoilt by music which was inappropriate or too loud. I recently took my parents to lunch in a almost empty restaurant where the owner insisted on playing 70’s disco music. Amazingly when I asked him to play something more appropriate he refused saying it was the kind of music his customers liked. I pointed out that apart from one other elderly table that agreed with me we were the only customers but that made no difference to him and his only concession was to turn the volume down a little. I have no doubt that on a previous night he might have played the same tape in a crowded restaurant and it created a great atmosphere so he had decided that all that was needed to recreate that atmosphere was that same CD.

Sometimes employees are left to play music they like rather than what is appropriate. Many years ago I owned an Italian restaurant and I had the greatest difficulty in getting my staff to play Italian music. Every time I dropped in unexpectedly I was sure to be greeted by Michael Jackson at a volume so loud it made the Pizzas curdle. Worst of all are venues that out of laziness play the radio all day so not only do you have to listen to inappropriate music but also adverts.

Buying clothes can be hell and I recently ended up with a sore throat when I had to shout at a sales assistant to make myself heard over the music. I almost ran out screaming from one shop when the music sounded like someone had got their leg caught in a bear trap (honestly I am not exaggerating) . Of course there are plenty of people who like that kind of music but the point is if you are selling to the general public then the music should selected for people in general, not just those who like to hear people screaming in agony.

So if you are responsible for selecting background music in a public place please consider what is most appropriate for your customers and not for your own or your staff’s personal taste.

Cooking with Nemo James

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Since the publication of my book “Just A Few Seconds” several people have emailed me to ask whether my cooking has improved since the chapter entitled “A Recipe For Shoestrings.” In it I wrote how during a very difficult time in my life I was living on a budget of £1 a day for food. Some people are able to do wonders with £1 spent wisely on ingredients but I am definitely not one of them. I was not only on a shoestring budget my meals actually tasted like shoestrings.

Since then I met and married Federika who apart from being amazing and gorgeous is also a fantastic cook specialising in dishes from all corners of the globe but particularly from Peru where she grew up. I am never going to win any awards for my cooking but she has taught me a lot and in particular shared that secret that all you crafty cooks have been keeping to yourselves: The Kitchen Timer.

Until I discovered the kitchen timer I used to rely on the smoke alarm which is a method I am told experienced cooks frown upon.. In a terraced house in the UK it was not a problem as I would always put the smoke alarm within easy reach so I could turn it off quickly. But one day while I was living in Los Angeles I was heating a chocolate muffin for my breakfast when the phone rang with a call from a prospective agent. I completely forgot about the muffin until the smoke alarm went off but being accustomed to this event I continued talking to the agent whilst removing the muffin from the oven and jumping up and down on a chair trying to blow cold air onto the alarm. As most of the buildings in L.A. are made of wood everyone is paranoid about fire so just as I thought I had everything under control and had the agent interested, the building manager started banging on my door and screaming at me to let him in. I never realised cooking could be so difficult. Here are a few more tips that I have discovered that I would like to pass on:

  • Keeping the kitchen floor clean from grease saves you from having to wear a crash helmet when you cook.
  • A baguette is not a small shopping bag
  • Using an apron means that cooking doesn’t always require a change of clothes
  • Crab apple is not a seafood
  • Putting a box of elastoplasts near the cutting board not only saves time searching for them but means no more mopping blood from the floor.
  • The oil you use for cooking is a different to the type you use in your car
  • Oven gloves save a lot of pain.
  • When breaking an egg it is better to use the edge of a knife rather than a hammer.
  • Chicken shit is not a substitute for Guinea fowl.
  • You don’t get black eyed beans by punching ordinary beans
  • You can’t make white sugar go brown by leaving it in the sun all day
  • Hitting a halibut with a hammer doesn’t make it a flatfish
  • You can’t scald pasta by telling it off.
  • Milkshakes were not invented by Arabic dairy farmers
  • Molasses are not moles’ bottoms.
  • Strong currents in Muesli are not dangerous to swimmers
  • Rigatoni is a kind of pasta, not the rigid state of a deceased Italian ice cream seller.
  • If you are running short of Tofu for that special dinner party try adding half a litre of water to a roll of toilet paper and blend in with one large packet of wallpaper paste. No one will ever know the difference.

If you have a cooking tip you would like to share with others please send them in.

A Hero Unknown

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I am sure I am not alone in having a father that manages to turn almost any conversation into an anecdote from his time as a soldier in the second world war and some of those stories I can recite by heart. Now in his 91st year with his short term memory slipping he is beginning to repeat these anecdotes more frequently but there is one that I never tire of hearing and now, 67 years after the event there are still tears in his eyes when he tells it.

My father’s Captain was a man named Timothy O’Brien and there was never an officer more loved and respected. On more than one occasion when my father and his comrades were sheltering terrified in a trench while German mortars fell all around them O’Brien, with no thought to his own safety ran over and shouted to them “move from these trenches immediately or you will be killed.” They moved without question and sure enough it wasn’t long before mortars fell into the trenches and there was no doubt if they had not moved they would have been killed. It was that astonishing foresight that led my father to the conclusion that O’Brien being a religious man must have been touched by God as he seemed to know instinctively what was going to happen. Whether it was a religious thing or that being a well educated man he was able to see things that his subordinates couldn’t we will never know. Then one day towards the end of the war  the British army where moving through Italy following the battle of Monte Cassino when O’Brien noticed two of his men walking along the skyline. He ran over and shouted at them to get down but was himself shot and fatally wounded by a sniper.

O’Brien held a special place in my father’s heart and there is no doubt in his mind that if it were not for O’Brien he would never have survived the war so my father and all his descendants owe him everything. Like many ex soldiers, my father feels guilty that he has lived a long an happy life when such great men like O’Brien were killed and their families left without a father.

No one has ever heard of O’Brien. He was not awarded any medals and he was buried in a military grave in Faenza in Italy. I feel a sadness in writing this story that for every hero that is acknowledged there must be hundreds who died without anyone knowing of their extraordinary bravery. But then I suppose it is in the nature of a true hero that the only acknowledgment they desire is the knowledge that their comrades survived.

It has always been my father’s greatest wish to contact the relatives of Timothy O’Brien and tell them what a great man their grandfather was but sadly with such a common name I have found it impossible to trace him. In recent years, due to the Internet I have managed to find his grave but not his descendants so I would like to make a public appeal for information about this fallen hero. His details are as follows:

Name:  Timothy Joseph O’Brien

Birth: approx 1913

Death 1944
Grave: Faenza War Cemetery
Regiment: West Kent Regiment (The Buffs)
Rank: Lieutenant (acting captain)
Service number: 294236
Residence: Pembrokeshire
Profession: Teacher
Children: At least three at time of death


Please email and share this article with your friends and help me find the descendants of O’Brian.

Dancing With Nemo James

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I was one of the most dedicated musicians that ever lived and practised to the point where I could play any piece of music put in front of me. The problem was most of the music put in front of me could have been played by first year guitar students. It is  like mastering calculus and the only job you can get is copying out the times table. The one consolation (apart from the money of course) was that after putting my guitar playing fingers into autopilot I got to indulge in one of my favourite pastimes which was to watch people dancing.

You can tell a lot about people by the way they dance and I am surprised psychiatrists waste so much time talking to patients when all they need to do is watch them dancing. Here are 13 types of dancers I discovered over the years.

  1. The Alcoholic
    He will interrupt his dancing and say something in his wife’s ear before walking towards the toilets. At the last minute he takes a detour to the bar and knocks back a couple of whiskies before returning to his wife via the toilets.
  1. The Farter
    His friends know he has a problem with flatulence so any nasty smells are likely to have emanated from him so his wife has given him strict instructions to control himself. Easily recognisable by his clenched buttocks and a reluctance to make any sudden movements.
  1. The Exhibitionist
    The dancer will be continually be looking around to see if they are being watched. When they catch someone’s attention they will make a funny face and wave their arms effectively saying “look at me, I’m a real party animal.” If they can’t get anyone’s attention within ten minutes they return to their table.
  1. The Show Off
    Thinks he’s John Travolta but looks more like John the pole vaulter.
  1. The Tight-Arse
    He will spend most of the time on the dance floor and return to his table just after someone has bought a round of drinks.
  1. The Professional
    Serious but boring couples often found shouting at each other because one of them made a move that wasn’t rehearsed.
  1. The Martial Artist
    Usually a lower grade karate student who is desperate to show he does karate and so has superhuman powers. It is possible to predict the exact grade of a student by how subtly they blend punching or kicking into the dance. The more obvious the karate movements, the lower the grade.
  1. The Self Conscious
    They are convinced that all 500 people at the venue are making judgments about their dancing.
  2. The Press Ganged
    Always male. He moves with short movements from side to side and hands in front of him like he is almost playing a piano. He hates dancing and only does it to please his wife.
  1. The Flirt
    Usually found amongst the female of the species as men have trouble multitasking. She will skilfully dance with her partner whilst giving the eye to someone else. The trick is to wait until her partner looks away, wiggle to the side, smile at the target and then spin around to face her partner again without him noticing. Advanced users of this method can even be seen giving out phone numbers to lip readers.
  1. The Dysfunctional
    There is nothing more painful to watch than someone dancing who has absolutely no sense of rhythm.
  1. The Fashion Conscious
    Usually found in heels so high that dancing is almost impossible. Easy to spot as they are continually grimacing with pain. I have seen women actually fall off their shoes while dancing and even know one woman that broke her ankle.
  1. The Gifted
    This is a rare species and I have fond memories of their dance movements decades after seeing them. They have a true love of dancing and move to the music as if they were one with it but with movements that are entirely unique to them. They have a look of pure joy and happiness on their face as if music is the most important thing in the world.

So which one are you ?

Can you think of any other kinds of dancers?

Facebook your friends and tell them what kind of dancers you think they are!