Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Ashtastic - A gig review of sorts

Yesterday was a mad mad day in London. After being a bit overwhelmed in the new Westfield mall in Stratford (it's the biggest shopping centre I've ever seen) I was off on my way to Kentish Town to check out the soundcheck for my favourite band of all time, Ash. Since I don't get to see them live very often, I forked out for a VIP ticket which included the soundcheck, meet & greet, the concert and an after party. (and a t-shirt and a couple of old singles with some cool B-sides and a pin and a fancy laminate that was cool to flash around)

The soundcheck was cool, they played my second favourite song!

After that was the awkward time where you stand around waiting for an opportunity to get something signed and have a quick chat with the band...and they were all lovely. It must be so odd having to make random conversation with complete strangers who know all about you. Rick (the drummer) was chatting about his newborn baby

Mark (bass) was trying to extricate himself from an intense discussion with another fan

Charlotte (guitar, keyboard, vocals) who left the band a few years ago, but reunited with them for this tour, was simply one cool chick

and Tim (lead guitar, vocals), my rock idol was overrun with other people so I didn't really get to talk to him at all!

Between the soundcheck a little group wandered down to get some dinner and it was lovely chatting to people who'd come from Reading and Newcastle, but also Sweden and Finland!! And then back to the venue where we got to flash our VIP laminates to jump the queue (unfortunately the queue wasn't very long) and the first support band were The VIRGINMARYS.

They were a lot rockier than I usually listen to, but geez they were good. The lead singer has some serious pipes and the drummer was quite the may notice the gong in the middle of the stage, it got quite a beating in one song. I couldn't understand a word the singer was saying, but I've been humming a certain riff all morning.

Futures were next, and they were also really good...I could understand some of the lyrics! They were definitely more melodic with some lovely harmonies and their set seemed to be over too quickly. But none of us had come to see them, the feeling in the crowd was electric! And my friend Adam showed up just in time.

Ash were playing their "Free All Angels" album in its entirety, plus a best of set, so it was a total showtime of an hour and 45 minutes. Super! Free All Angels is a brilliant album with some kick ass singles, but also a number of tracks they'd never played live before this tour, so it was interesting to hear them live. What I love about watching Ash live is how much fun they appear to be having - the 3 guys formed the band when they were teenagers (if not before) and in their mid-30s now they've been together for a long time. And yet, they just look like they're having a ball. And Charlotte is awesome - if I'd actually been a good guitar player, I would've wanted to grow up to be just like her...hell, I still want to grow up to be just like her! :-)

The 'best of' set was insane. I kept hitting Adam on the leg every time a new song started, as they seemed to be playing all of my favourites (and I guess, everyone else's favourites too!) From memory (and in no particular order), A Life Less Ordinary, Girl From Mars, Goldfinger, Oh Yeah, Kung Fu, Wildsurf, Projects (I think), Warmer than Fire (with the guy who wrote it coming out on stage to sing it, VERY different to Tim's version!), Starcrossed, and Orpheus. There are not enough superlatives to sum up what was the best Ash show I've seen!!

The after party was a bit weird really. I hung out with my new friends and one of the guys was pointing out local 'celebrities': radio hosts, other bands - all people I'd never heard of! It was fun meeting different people from around the world, talking about random things and having a laugh, but it was a bit awkward!

If you've never heard Ash and have somehow made it to the end of this post, then (a) I hope my enthusiasm has swayed you to check them out and (b) go and check out their official website.

And now, it's time to go home for the first time since I left for Liberia in April - got a jam packed schedule of social engagements to get through in the first two weeks, can't wait!!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Admitting Failure

The inimitable J. over at Tales from the Hood has started a regular forum for aid bloggers to discuss a particular topic. The latest edition is Admitting Failure, and I thought I'd jot down a few thoughts which may or may not come together into a single outcome.

Story 1 - admitting programme failure internally
When I worked in Bangladesh for a large INGO, my job was to cruise around the field sites of their biggest programme (which Incorporated agriculture, women's empowerment, humanitarian response and a fourth element I can never remember) and produce case studies on the successes and failures of the programme. Once staff understood what I was trying to do, the success stories came flooding in. "Come and visit this programme, it's very successful," etc etc. Of course, different people had differing ideas as to what 'successful' meant, and it turned out that a couple of the so-called success stories were more like failures. Not one project manager put their hand up to say they had a failure. I guess that's to be expected, but even though these case studies were primarily for internal learning (though I'm sure the success stories were used with external audiences) no one wanted to admit to their colleagues that things hadn't gone according to plan.

Basically, I thought this was crazy. I understand why people keep quiet. But when you're talking about programmes that can change people's lives for the better (as I saw over and over again) or really cause harm (which I didn't see thankfully) then shouldn't we want to communicate what NOT to do within an organisation?? Seems pretty logical to me...

Story 2 - admitting individual failure internally
I had a debrief with my manager this morning and somehow we got onto the topic of people making mistakes and then denying they had any part of it (which is really a bit of a joke when their name is on the piece of paper in question). What my manager said was that the courage of an individual to come forward and say that they'd made a mistake and that they'd either rectified it or had a proposed solution, is actually highly respected in the department. It's never easy to say that you were wrong about something, but while you may get your head chewed off momentarily, in the long run it's better to come clean.

Story 3 - admitting failure externally
It's not really a story, just another conversation that I had a couple of hours ago with a person from donor relations. I asked that when reporting beneficiary numbers that a caveat be included to say that we can never be 100% sure that some people haven't been counted more than once, and that any single number that reports beneficiaries can't give an indication of the quality of the service/s those people received. My colleague told me that such a statement would be difficult to include in an update to donors, as we want to present ourselves as best we can. She then said, "but we shouldn't treat our donors as if they're stupid. They pay very close attention to what we do, and understand a lot more than many give them credit for," and she's absolutely right.

Actually, now that I think about it, there is a story in here. I spent a year as a donor reporting officer, and the thought of being completely honest with a donor was not one that was often entertained. Even though they'd already given the money, and we'd already spent it, I didn't want to let them know that there may have been, for example, delays in spending the money etc etc. I'm not talking about financial reporting, but reporting the progress of implementation. And yet, now that I think about it, wouldn't ECHO want to know that we'd had a rough time doing something, but had managed to overcome those constraints to deliver what we said we would? I don't think anyone actually believes that aid work is smooth sailing all of the time, and we shouldn't pretend it is in our reporting.

So I suppose if I were to try and sum my thoughts up on admitting failure, I'd have to simply say that I'm all for it. For both internal and external actors there's a lot of value in admitting failure, particularly if you're able to demonstrate that the failure has acted as a catalyst for learning, and that the 'lessons learned' don't just remain as 'learned' but are acted upon and changed. What's the point of admitting failure if it doesn't act as a change agent?

I haven't answered any of J.'s proposed questions, but if you head on over to the collection of links to other people participating in the forum, I know you'll find lots of interesting insights into admitting aid failures.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Giraffe videos

I'd completely forgotten that I'd taken some video while at the Giraffe Centre in Nairobi. Enjoy!

Sunday, October 16, 2011


A few weeks ago in Nairobi my friend Cynan mentioned a gin bar outside of Oxford that had 50 different gins. Knowing that I'd be ending up here, we agreed that a mission was in order to check it out. Yesterday was a lovely sunny day (it's odd, everyday since I got here on Wednesday has been sunny) and I quite enjoyed the 20 minute bus ride out to the quaint little village of Woodstock.

Feather's is a posh hotel and as I got there first I made my way out to a nice little courtyard in the back, denying myself the option of looking at the bar before Cynan and his lovely wife arrived. And then, the fun began. We were presented with a ring binder (a classy one) which must have been two inches thick. We weren't sure what to do with it, so we ventured inside to the bar.

Cynan was wrong. There weren't 50 different types of gin, there were close to 150!!

While I've enjoyed a nice G&T for a few years now, I had no idea of the many different varieties - like wine, you can smell the different bouquets and they can taste completely different. And I also had no idea that tonic water could be so delightfully different.

I started with a glass of Oliver Cromwell 1599 (GBR), which the book told me has a "big nose packed with distinct, clean juniper and good support from the traditional aroma. Big rich, full mouth, with all the flavours from the nose with juniper definitely in charge. It's wonderful aromatics in big, bright finish." (I had many concerns over the grammar in the gin book.) It was suggested that I match it with a Fever Tree tonic, and in a nutshell, it was terrific.

My second choice was a cheeky French gin called G'VINE Nouaison which was "fruity and rich, intense and complex aromas of cinnamon bark, baked citrus, floral juniper follow through on around silky, zesty and robust entry. Very sharp with solid character. Amplifies the aromas of spices, yet retains the sensual and silky grape base as well as the subtle floral note." With a little bottle of Fentiman's tonic it was again, superb.

Of course the whole expedition was slightly pretentious and I was reminded of the scene in the book Brideshead Revisited where Charles and Sebastian are drinking (copius amounts of) wine and as they get more and more drunk their descriptions of the wine get more ridiculous, like it being an 'intelligent' wine or a 'promiscuous' one. I wish I could remember the exact quotes, but I did feel a bit like that!

Afterwards we walked down the street to a little pub and, well, English pub food is really quite perfect for an early evening where the temperatures have dropped a bit!!

With 150 gins to go, and only 6 sampled between the 3 of us, I think it's a good thing I'm here next weekend as well!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Close encounters: giraffe edition

I've just gotten home from the Giraffe Centre in Nairobi, and what a fantastic way to spend my last morning!! There are 12 giraffes in the herd, and there's a viewing platform at head height (for the giraffes) where they come to be fed. And who does the feeding?


I've never been slobbered on as much, and while I was quite happy feeding my new friend from my hand, I just had to get a kiss. There's nothing like a gigantic head approaching your face and a massive black tongue reaching out for the pellet pressed between your lips!

It was really great to see the giraffes so closely, they really are beautiful creatures.

Perhaps not as traditionally beautiful, there were also a few warthogs running around. Though this one wasn't running as his front legs were lame.

I can't recommend it highly enough to anyone travelling through Nairobi (more photos here). I had lunch with a friend from Senegal afterwards, came home and managed to pack everything up (very glad I made the decision to buy a new carry-on size waterproof bag yesterday) and now there are just a few hours left until I have to head to the airport.

It's been a pretty magical few months!

Zanzibar wonderful wonderousness

I can't say enough how magnificent my holiday in Kendwa, Zanzibar was (well I can, but I won't). I did exactly what I wanted to do, which involved a lot of lounging, reading (6 books finished), swimming, napping, eating and drinking. And in surrounds such as this:

and this:

I really felt like I'd found utopia. I even managed to write 5,000 words of my long ignored novel, so not only a relaxing little spot, but a productive one as well!

I stopped in at a spice farm on the way back to Stone Town and really enjoyed learning about all the different plants, roots, flowers and fruits that create the little spice jars that Masterfoods sell. This one was especially cool:

They call it the lipstick plant, because if you squish the little berries you get a very flattering (!) orange paste that you can smother on your smackers.

I wasn't too fussed about Stone Town and wished I'd spent my final night at the beach. I did enjoy strolling around the old town taking photos of all the wonderful doors. This was the best blue one I found:

and the rest were quite stunning.

There's so much I could say about how fantastic Zanzibar is, but I don't quite have the energy to write an essay on it. You can see all the pictures here.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Paradise found

Am emailing this post through my Kindle, Amazon Whispernet is the only
availale internet here at my little touch of paradise in
Kendwa,Zanzibar. SoI will not be checking facebook or twitter for the
next 5 days, I will simply do as Ive done since i got here an hour
ago:gaze out across the white sand to the stunning blue water, dive
in, and the sit with my book and sip a G&T! Life is bloody brilliant!