Monday, May 10, 2010

Best of British 2 - Free Streaming Music

As promised, I have another Best of British playable playlist for your listening pleasure! Like the first one, it contains what I consider to be among the best music, in many genres, to come out of the British Isles.

It kicks off with New Order's Blue Monday. I remember this being one of the first tracks to come out with multiple 12" remix versions. That is followed, in the same synthpop vein, with tracks by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark and Pet Shop Boys.

When I was in Junior school in the 1970s, one was either a Slade fan or a T-Rex fan. At that time, I preferred Slade, although I grew to love Marc Bolan and T-Rex. Here, you don't have to choose; I've included tracks by both. Listening to Get it On by T-Rex reminded me of Power Station's awesome cover, with Robert Palmer handling vocals, so I had to include Palmer's classic Simply Irresistible. After all that adrenaline, I calmed things down with an often overlooked track by Eurythmics: the stunningly beautiful Julia.

After I released the first edition of Best of British, I had some feedback via Twitter, asking me whether I planned to add music from Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales in future editions. The first one was rather anglo-centric, so I tried to correct that it a little. From Scotland, I have songs from Paolo Nutini, The Proclaimers and KT Tunstall, and from Wales, I've included some Manic Street Preachers. I'm really interested in including more music from the rest of the British Isles, so please do let me know if you think of someone I should be listening to.

We follow that with some English folk: Artisan is an a cappella group, who disbanded a little while back, but have recently reformed for a tour. Their What's the Use Of Wings? is a beautiful song about letting our children leave the nest. Richard Thompson, originally with Folk-Rock group Fairport Convention, appears here solo, with his classic 1952 Vincent Black Lightning. Finally, Something in the Wine is a haunting song from a relative newcomer, Helen Lawson, who I think is destined for great things.

The home stretch includes more synthpop, some rockers from The Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton, something from the first British Invasion of the 1960s, and a favorite from Goldfrapp to finish off with.

You can listen to Best of British 2 using the player below. Please let me know what you think, by posting a comment and tell me if there are any songs or artists you think I should include in a future Best of British. I also would like to use a logo on my blog for future Best of British episodes. If you're handy with a graphics program and think you could create one, please let me know. I would be happy to give you full credit!

Monday, April 19, 2010

Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution

Our family has been watching Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution on ABC. As he has done in his British shows, Oliver gave himself a mission to get people cooking and eating healthily. In this show, produced by Ryan Seacrest and Oliver, Jamie headed to Huntington, West Virginia, one of the most unhealthy places in the US, according to a recent report.

He took a multi-pronged approach to the task of getting Huntington to start eating healthily. He took over the kitchens in two schools. In an elementary school, he started by observing what the kids were being fed: pizza (for breakfast and lunch!), french fries, chicken nuggets, and so on. Changing the menu, he was met with considerable resistance by the cook in charge of the kitchen, although other cooks were more supportive. He also got out into the classrooms, and was horrified that the children couldn't identify even the most common vegetables. A second visit yielded much better results, after a teacher took it upon herself to teach the kids about vegetables. One revealing segment showed Jamie in front of a group of children, cutting off and discarding the "good bits" of a chicken, then throwing the leftover carcass into a blender, before grinding it down and forming and cooking chicken nuggets with it. In Britain, kids had been disgusted; here, the kids, pulled faces while the preparation was taking place, but were quite happy to eat the resulting nuggets.

In a high school, he took a different approach, getting a group of students to work with him. One girl had lost her Stepfather to obesity-related heart disease. Another girl had had been told that she might not live more than seven years, unless she radically changed her diet. One boy had anger-management issues and had been in trouble a lot. Jamie and the kids took over a local restaurant for an evening, and invited the kids' parents and various local dignitaries. They thought Oliver would be cooking, but he had taught the children, and they cooked. He brought the kids out at the end of the evening to let them tell their own stories. Jamie also took over the high school kitchen, where he met with some challenges due to the USDA guidelines for school meals. While his stir-fried noodle dish containing seven vegetables did not meet the requirements, a chicken patty in a bun with french fries, and the option of a salad (the kids were steadfastly ignoring that option) did so easily. Oliver argued that the guidelines encourage the use of processed rather than healthy food for kids.

Jamie has also been working with individuals and families, teaching them to cook simple, nutritious meals from fresh ingredients. He set up a store, "Jamie's Kitchen" where the public could get free cooking lessons. A local radio DJ who started off as a very vocal opponent of Oliver, was gradually won over. Jamie bet the DJ he could get a thousand people through his kitchen learning to cook during the course of one week. The DJ was the thousandth and lost the bet.

Although the show seems a little more scripted, and more manipulative than the British equivalents, people seem to have become very emotional about it, and there has been quite a lot of discussion on Twitter, Facebook and various blogs. Will it succeed in its goal? I think that if it makes a few people want to do something about their unhealthy lifestyle, it will have helped.

Have you seen the show? What do you think?

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Healthcare Reform, Lively Debate and The Third Place

On Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010, President Obama signed the Healthcare Reform Bill into law. A lot has happened since. Republicans have been very negative about it and have said that they plan to get the bill repealed and replaced. Some have suggested it might be unconstitutional. A large group of ultra-conservatives calling themselves the Tea Party Movement have protested against Healthcare Reform, calling it socialism. And, most worryingly, there has been an extremist fringe who have engaged in violent acts, threats of violence, vandalism and even gunfire.

Many people have been surprised at how quickly this behavior has spread. On my Facebook page, myself and some of my friends were talking about it and why it might have happened. It certainly appears to be true that the popular media has been whipping these people up into a frenzy. A recent video clip from the Rachel Maddow Show reports how the Republican Party themselves seem to have encouraged dissent, and how they would not stand with the Democrats to denounce even the most extreme acts of this nature.

I think part of the problem is that many of us are reluctant to talk about politics face-to-face with others. I can understand people not wanting to offend their friends, but I think we should try to overcome this hesitation. I think it is important to remember that you can nearly always find common-ground with the people you are talking with. If, for example, you're in a bar talking with someone whose political beliefs are the opposite of yours, the chances are that at least you like the same bar - that's common-ground! Of course, we should avoid personal attacks. One friend of mine, Asha Hawkesworth, said, "I think it's helpful to see where others are coming from. I know many, many conservative people, and I do understand why they feel the way they do. I don't always agree, though sometimes I do, but whether I do or not, I can see why they feel the way they do. This allows me to have compassion and respect for their point of view, which is also crucial for any reasoned discourse." Another friend, Susan Jones, says, "I'm working on the art of asking questions that prompt the other person to have to do more than recite propaganda."

Another reason why we seem to be losing the ability to engage in lively debate about politics is the decline in what has been referred to as the Third Place (the first place being home, the second, work). I'm referring to bars, coffee-shops and places of that nature. Some may think that Social Media sites such as Facebook or Twitter can replace the "Third Place." While one can always find a group of people on-line who feel the same way as you (which can often be an advantage), its rarefied atmosphere can also become a breeding-ground for lunacy. If you were sitting in a bar with an average group of people, you would probably very quickly get a strong feeling whether your thoughts were reasonable or not.

The danger of us not talking to each other about politics is that it opens us up to manipulation by the media and politicians. Many people seem to be content with getting their politics spoon-fed to them. If we don't make the effort to be informed and to discuss these matters with others, we risk being walked over by the politicians.

I do, of course welcome lively debate here, via the comments section.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Grooveshark and The Best of British

In a recent article in this blog, I talked about my use of, a free streaming music service that I had been using. Unfortunately, changed its service recently. They had started offering MP3 downloads at a much cheaper price than iTunes and other services. When they started advertising Beatles tracks at 25 cents each, they drew the attention of EMI and their attorneys. They forced the service to close down for a brief period, and when it returned, it had changed. No longer could one stream songs or entire albums on-demand, which was a feature I used a lot. is still a good service, however, and if you haven't checked it out yet, you should.

I recently heard about another free streaming music site called Grooveshark. Having checked it out, I decided I really liked it, and have been using it a lot. You can listen to tracks on-demand, and they have an extensive library. What's more, if they do not have a track in their library, you can upload it. According to their Help information, they pay the record company whenever you play a song. They are supported financially via advertisements you see when you use their browser-based player. You can also pay a small monthly fee to remove the advertisements.

In addition to playing individual tracks, you can build playlists of songs. Also, they have a "Radio" feature, where they will automatically play songs based on what you're already listening to. This is a great way to discover new music. Grooveshark seems to understand the importance of "social" features, and you can share songs and playlists via Twitter, Facebook, and even post them to your blog or website. Seeing these features inspired me to put together a Best of British playlist to share with readers of this blog. I hope to make an entire series of these playlists, containing what I consider to be among the best music, in many genres, to come out of the British Isles.

So, in Best of British 1, I've included artists I've been listening to a lot recently (see my recent blog post, Couch Potatoes: England 2010 Part 3), such as Lily Allen, Goldfrapp, Paloma Faith, Florence and The Machine and La Roux. Vince Clark, who I consider to be one of the most talented musicians to come out of England, is represented by Yazoo (Yaz in the US) and Erasure tracks. The playlist kicks off with a great Kinks track, and while we're talking about quintessentially English artists, you don't have to choose between Oasis and Blur, because they're both represented here. For the folkies, there is a classic from Fairport Convention. I'm particularly proud of the juxtaposition of Amy Winehouse's Rehab with Ian Dury's Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll.

Please do let me know what you think of it, by posting a comment. If you have suggestions of tracks or artists I could include in a future Best of British, do speak out.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

An Afternoon Constitutional

As I related in a recent blog post, I have been spending too much time in front of the computer recently, and not getting nearly enough exercise. To do something about that, I've been arriving early to pick up my daughter from school in the afternoon, parking my van, and walking for fifteen to twenty minutes, while listening to audiobooks on my MP3 player. It has been working well for me.

Recently, friends I've made while using Google Buzz told me about Audioboo, an audio-blogging service. Coincidentally, Stephen Fry, my inspiration for walking while listening to audiobooks, has used the service a lot. This UK-based site is optimized for iPhone, and has a corresponding application. However, they have recently added the ability to upload any audio files, or to record from your web-browser. I don't have an iPhone, but I have a voice recorder built into my mp3 player, so I wondered if I could do a little audio-blogging while doing my afternoon walk. This has led to a new mini-project, which I have called An Afternoon Constitutional, after that Victorian idea of the walk for the constitution, or health.

It has been an interesting experience. I was not aware, at first, that there is a five-minute limit to "Audioboos," and my first attempt was sixteen minutes long! When I realized my mistake, I used an audio-editing program, Audacity, to edit some material out of it and split it into two five-minute "episodes." I'm sure I could have found another service that would have allowed me to record for longer, but I decided that five minutes was quite long enough for anyone to listen to. I've already had some mild complaints about all the puffing and panting during the recordings. This is the only time I really have available to do this; it is keeping me interested in my walking, and hopefully, as I get fitter, there will be less breathing noise!

My "boos" are a little different from my posts here. For a start, I talk about anything that's on my mind, and not necessarily on subjects that would fit well here. There will of course be some crossover. I don't plan out what I'm going to say (although I usually have an idea of the theme), so they tend to be very "stream-of-consciousness." Please give them a listen, and let me know what you think.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The British Connection - An Interview

Pretty much any expat, whatever country they originally come from, will find themselves craving an item from "home." Fortunately, there are enterprising individuals who see the opportunity in supplying such items. The British Connection is a store in Absecon, New Jersey, run by Dave Brown, an expat originally from London, and his American Wife Barbara. After running their store in Historic Smithville Village for seven years, they moved about a year ago to the new location, where they have been able to expand their business, adding a large selection of cheeses and a small cafe. Barbara very kindly allowed me to bombard her with questions.

With an entertainment background, Dave first met Barbara when he was running a karaoke night in London. After he tried to drag her up on stage with him, she thought he was "a bit cheeky, but called him anyway." They came to the US to pursue entertainment opportunities in the casinos in Atlantic City, NJ. Unfortunately, they found the casinos had been converting their lounges to slot-machine parlors. Making the best of it, they started an entertainment business, doing children's shows and parties. Barbara was, quite literally, a clown - also "Minnie Mouse, Cinderella...and a Teletubby." During a visit to Barbara's parents in Florida, her Mother suggested they visit a store called The Brit Shoppe. The couple "were amazed to find some of our foods we missed from the U.K.! Three months later, the British Connection was up and running!"

I asked Barbara about some of their own favorite British foods. Barbara said she loves HP Sauce and Branston Pickle, while "Dave is all about the chocolates and bacon!" On the question of "Marmite: Love it or Hate it?" they are the exception to the rule; they both "like" it. Asked whether there was something she'd like to explain to their customers, given the opportunity, Barbara said "it's o.k. to laugh at the spotted dick...everyone does!" One question that Barbara is often asked is why she hasn't got a British accent; Dave gets asked what part of Australia he comes from! Barbara believes that most of their customers are expat Brits, but she admitted, "maybe they just come in more often." One of the recent additions was a cafe area, where Barbara often relaxes and has a cup of tea and a chat with her regulars: "I have to say the people that come in are really wonderful and great conversationalists. Part of the reason that I created the cafe section was so that we could sit and have a cuppa."

When asked what they miss about life in England, it came as no surprise to me that Barbara mentioned pubs. Although they enjoy relaxing over a meal and drinks with friends, they don't have a favorite bar in the US, but they do have friends with pubs in the UK: "The Hare and Hounds in Godstone is good fun, and another friend in London owned a pub called Novello's in Fulham. She had an Elvis impersonator there 2 nights a week for 10 years, Brilliant!" I asked Barbara about how often they got to visit England: "Not as often as we would like. We try to get there once a year, but we do like to travel to other sometimes we miss a year. We usually have visitors every year - we keep the guest rooms ready!"

Have you visited the store? Do you have any favorite places to get international foods? Let me know.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Some Snippets to Share

There have been a few things happening just recently that I'd like to share with you, so I thought I'd collect them together in one post.

If you are currently living in a different country from where you grew up, I'd encourage you to take part in a survey that is being conducted by Expats Moving and Relocation Guide. The idea is to collect information about different cities around the world, with an emphasis on their suitability for expats. I completed an entry for my city of residence, Edison, NJ. With enough entries, this could be a valuable resource.

The News and Views SectionI have added a "News and Views" section to the right-hand column of this blog. This collects together news stories, articles, etc., that have caught my eye recently, and which I think might be of interest to my readers. Click on a heading to go to the story. Only the five most recent headlines appear, but clicking on More News will expand this. For those who are interested, the list comes from my shared items in Google Reader. When I see a story I want to share, I use a "Note in Reader" application, and it automatically becomes available in the "News and Views" section. Let me know if you find it useful and/or entertaining.

I have been using Google Buzz a lot recently. It works a lot like web-forums, bulletin-boards or discussion areas of old, and combines it with social media. It's a little like a Facebook "wall," although it promises to be a lot more organized - searchable too. Its big plus is that it is instantly available to anyone using Gmail. If you want to try it out, or if you've been using Buzz yourself, you can find me here.

Soon after I returned from my New Year's trip to England, I was contacted by Jon Gibbs who runs a blog for writers. Its name: An Englishman in New Jersey! It was set up at about the same time as this one was, which explains why neither of us found one another before. So, are we firing off "Cease and Desist!" letters to each other, with promises of lawsuits? Of course not! Like good Englishmen we settled things over a cup of tea...well actually, after a series of e-mails. We figured that nobody would really be confused by the identical names, as our audiences were probably quite different. We talked about adding mutual links to "The 'other' Englishman in New Jersey." Jon's site is really rather good - take a wander over there if you have any interest in writing.

Finally, British site Londonist has a great series of articles running right now. They're looking, chapter-by-chapter, at a city guide written in the 1960s by popular spy author Len Deighton. Called The London Dossier, the book offers a wonderful snapshot of swinging London.

If you have found a website or other resource that you think might be useful to readers of this blog, please do share in a comment.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Exercise and British Old-Time Radio

As someone who spends a lot of time sitting in front of a computer (I work from home, and most of my volunteer and other activities involve computer work), I've been very conscious recently that I'm not getting enough exercise. I recalled Stephen Fry on Friday Night with Jonathan Ross (and elsewhere) talking about how he'd lost a lot of weight and become fitter by walking. Being someone who easily got bored by exercise, he had discovered that he could cover long distances without realizing it, simply by listening to audiobooks on his MP3 player while walking. This appealed to me, so I decided to do a similar thing. I would start walking in the vicinity of my daughter's school before picking her up, listening to my MP3 player on the way.

Being a cheapskate, I thought I would try to find some free audiobooks online. After asking around on Twitter and my Facebook page, someone suggested trying The Internet Archive. This site is a vast repository of texts, audio and video in the public domain, all free to download. I discovered a lot of audiobooks, but what caught my attention was that there were also many old-time radio shows. I downloaded some and I have been listening to them on my (mostly) daily walks.

Being a good son, I usually talk to my parents on the telephone every Sunday. During a recent call, I mentioned to my Father that I had been listening to these old-time radio shows. He started talking about some of the radio shows he remembered from his youth. On a whim, while we were talking, I did a search in The Internet Archive, and found a collection of episodes of radio shows from the 1940s. These were all shows that he had loved.

ITMA, one of the most popular of these shows, starred comedian Tommy Handley. ITMA was an acronym coined by the newspapers when reporting about Hitler's activities, and stood for "It's That Man Again." Other shows in this collection included Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh, Merry-Go-Round, The Will Hay Programme, Life With The Lyons, (which featured American couple Ben Lyon and Bebe Daniels and their children), and Band Waggon, the first regular comedy series on British radio. There's an amazing array of famous comedians and actors who appeared in these shows; Tommy Handley, Arthur Askey, Kenneth Horne, Hattie Jacques, Jon Pertwee and Charlie Chester, to name a few.

Of course, there are many "in-jokes" and references to long-forgotten events that go over one's head. But a lot of this stuff is still really funny. Not only is it a great way to pass the time while exercising, but I shall also be making a CD compilation of these as a gift to bring back some memories for my Father.

I thoroughly recommend spending some time exploring The Internet Archive to rediscover an old favorite, or to find a new one! Let me know what you find, or share some memories by making a comment.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Behind You! - A Guest Post by Becky Gudgin

During our recent trip to England, we went to a theatre in Wales to see a Pantomime, that most British of theatrical events. I was going to write about it here, but then I was struck by the thought that it might be even better to get a genuine American's interpretation of the spectacle. Now, where can I get one of those? Oh, that's right, I'm married to a genuine American!


I’ve been asked to explain British pantomime. I am not British. My husband is. But we both recently went to our first panto, Sleeping Beauty, in Swansea, Wales.

A British panto is the retelling of a classic fairytale in musical form. The lead players are usually well-known actors from TV, stage, etc. Some of the lesser characters are brought in or well known local actors. The ensemble consists of kids and adults who are local actors/theatre students. Audience participation, in the form of "boo", "yay", "awwww", etc., is encouraged. There is often a good and/or bad fairy, a simpleminded comedian who interacts with the kids in the audience and a "dame"- a guy dressed in bad drag. There is a lot of innuendo meant to go over the heads of the kids and entertain the adults, much of which comes from the dame. There are local jokes and references to the main actors' best-known roles.

This play had Sleeping Beauty, her father the King, the Prince, Silly Billy (the simpleminded comedian), a dame (Nurse Nelly), a good fairy (yay!) and fairy “Bodybag” (boo!!!). The Prince and Sleeping Beauty played the story straightforwardly. Everyone else went back and forth between moving the story along and just goofing around - improvising and entertaining the audience while the set was being changed, etc. The first act was fairly close to the plot of the fairytale. It began with Sleeping Beauty being born and the fairies lining up to give her gifts. Bodybag was not invited and thus cursed the baby to prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die before her eighteenth birthday. It ended with Sleeping Beauty pricking her finger on a spinning wheel despite the best efforts of the Prince and the King.

At some point the audience was thrown sweets (candy) and squirted with water guns. (My daughter was sorely disappointed not to get wet.) Nurse Nelly meanwhile, picked out some hapless guy from the audience and flirted with him shamelessly from the stage for the whole show. A somewhat traditional scene had Billy and Nurse Nelly baking. They were making "toad in the hole" - a British dish with sausages hidden in a kind of bready batter. Aside from the sausage innuendos, there was flour flying in Billy's face and smoke from the oven that prompted the audience to obligingly shout "Look behind you!"

The second act was a departure from the fairytale. Of course the good fairy had changed the curse from death to a sleep of 100 years. How was the Prince going to live 100 years to awaken her? She sent him flying thru time! The flying scene was fantastic with wonderful special effects. I leaned over to my daughter and said "[The Prince] is flying". She condescendingly whispered back to me that he was just on strings.

When the Prince landed, he went to Sleeping Beauty and awakened her. But Bodybag was not done. I am afraid to tell you what happened next! Being a huge fan of the actor who played the Prince, I was prepared to storm the stage but I held myself back. The bad fairy tried to steal the Prince! She hypnotized him and tried to get him to marry her! (Boo!!! Hiss!!!!) Sleeping Beauty showed up just in time and he was saved by the power of love. (Awwwww!!!!) Then Bodybag turned into DRAGON Bodybag and tried to stop them. The swashbuckling hero fought the dragon and eventually killed it. The closing scene with plenty of singing and dancing was Sleeping Beauty’s eighteenth birthday party combined with her wedding.


Space didn't allow Becky to include all the Pantomime traditions we were treated to. Wikipedia has an excellent description of Pantomime, and how it works, if you want to find out more. And of course, we welcome your comments and questions.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Fourteen Days in May - A Guest Post by Traci Jones

For those who are not aware, Britain abolished the death-penalty for murder in 1969 (The last person to be put to death, by hanging, in the UK was in 1964). Forty years later, a poll commissioned by a UK TV company revealed that 70% of those polled were in favor of the return of capital punishment to the UK. I am opposed to the death-penalty, as is Traci Jones, an English expat living in Colorado, whom I befriended following comments she made to this blog. I invited her to write a guest post here:


Fourteen Days In May. A title I came across while watching TV when I was just 16 years old. Twenty three years on, those four words can still transport me to a horrifying realization - the first awakening to the reality of capital punishment.

It seems obvious, doesn’t it? The death penalty is where we as human beings “punish” other human beings for the most atrocious crimes. It goes on all around the world and yet is so easy to ignore. After all, it’s not our world, it’ll never happen to us.

I’m sure it wasn’t even on my radar until that fateful evening in 1987 when I watched the TV cameras enter into this unknown world. They followed a man on Death Row in the US who was nearing his execution date. It was that last two weeks of his life. I can’t even recall all the details but the man who was representing him, and literally fighting for his life, I’ll always remember. He was an English guy, softly spoken, and full of such integrity and determination to do what was right for this man. His name was
Clive Stafford Smith.

The man he represented, Edward Earl Johnson
, was also quietly spoken, intelligent with a shy smile and a calmness that made even his guards uneasy. As the story unfolded and the cameras followed him as he took his last meal, made his last request, joined his amazingly loving, supportive family for the last time (they sang ‘Always’ to him just as he left - what else could they do?), finally Clive and the cameras had to say goodbye. It seemed so unreal that this man, who knew exactly what was about to happen, had so much dignity. And it absolutely tore me apart that humans could do this to another human … and there seemed to be nothing anyone could do about it.

I was not politically motivated at that time, I was just moved to the core by my human response. Since then, I have come to realize the facts about the death penalty. I always come back to the question, “How does this fit into our humanity, how does it make us better people and a better world?”. And statistics show us that the death penalty is no deterrent for the people that commit these crimes (let alone the question of their mental health, and should we be treating mentally-ill people in this way).


After he had been put to death,
Clive Stafford Smith announced to the press that evidence had come forward that conclusively proved that Edward Earl Johnson was innocent and had been framed. He could not have been responsible for the crime for which he was killed by the state.


Clive Stafford Smith now works as the legal director of Reprieve
, a British charity that is opposed to the death penalty.

You can see Fourteen Days in May for yourself at - to watch the whole thing, you have to download their video player (free). Traci and I welcome your comments.