Could some clever person explain to me why...

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December 2020

It Always Floods On Christmas Day

Not hyperbole: when South Oxford floods it really does seem to wait until Christmas Day. And right now, we’re watching the levels creep up. So I went a bit snap-happy with my camera phone (and even blew the winter dust off the drone) and tried to capture some of it. Personally, I find flooding can be quite terrifying (and I slightly lost my composure a couple of days ago, standing ankle-deep in the cold drizzle with insufficient waterproof clothing, waiting for a kindly neighbour to bring a spare rope for that day’s emergency). But it can also be oddly beautiful.

So we’re nearly at the end of 2020. The year so weird they had to name it twice.

This month’s newsletter kicks off with a tribute to one of my favourite writers, and another tribute to one of my favourite types of folk song. The monthly recommendations include a squirrel assault course designed by a former NASA engineer, another shout-out to the film I’ve watched most this year (even a couple of times in the cinema!), and a new book of poetry from a familiar face.

Oh, and there’s a special new year’s Bastard Online Session tonight (unless I’ve had to cancel last minute, which is not totally impossible)!

So let’s beat on, boats against the current, borne on ceaselessly into 2021…

New Music This Month

Just a couple of weeks ago we lost one of the great Angry Old Men of English literature: John Le Carré. This daft microsong was recorded about a month before he died, and it was inspired by the fact that every time any media person stumbles on anything remotely cloak and dagger they tend to utter these words. It’s intended as a posthumous tribute, even though it’s very silly, and kind of taking the piss. But the Smiley trilogy really is great, and Toby Esterhase from Smiley’s People is my spirit animal.

Following that is my take on every English broadside ballad from the 17th century. It is even sillier.

Tinker, tailor, soldier, song.
I'm just calling it how I see it.

Upcoming Events

Thursday 31st December

Tonight! Tonight goddamit. (And maybe in January too but we're still figuring that out.)

These are online versions of the Bastard English Session which has haunted the Isis Farmhouse Pub in Oxford for over a decade now.

And please note... WE HAVE A NEW ZOOM LINK! (Which I bollocksed up last time, but hopefully I have it figured out now...)

You simply click this:

And then enter the password, which is:

  • bitshowy

And a reminder of the New (well, now Old) Bastard Protocol:

  1. If you’re performing, you’ll need to change your Zoom settings to ‘Use Original Sound’.
  2. It’s a one-at-a-time performing thing, and I have to mute everyone during each performance (because of audio lag) (and also, because I get an enormous kick out of it).
  3. Feel free to use the Chat function throughout!
  4. Also, I find all Zoom calls weirdly tiring, so feel free to hide your video, and wander in and out.

All my recorded music thus far...

I mention this each time now, but it occurs to me that, since I've stripped the newsletter format down for lockdown, I don't actually have any links to the website. So I thought I might as well just chuck this in here.

Click on the image above for a link to my (now... kinda old) music. (I mean, even the stuff that wasn't old when I recorded it is now kinda old.)

Hope you enjoy! And now, here are this month's recommendations:


Building the Perfect Squirrel Proof Bird Feeder

Mark Rober is one of the YouTube giants. Let’s say a popular YouTube channel gets an average of 10,000 views per video, and a really popular one gets ten times that. Some of Rober’s videos get over 70 million views.

He’s an engineer, formerly at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who makes intoxicatingly meme-able videos that combine science with DIY mischief. He’s the guy that makes ‘glitter bomb’ packages disguised as Amazon deliveries, which he leaves on his porch so that they’ll get stolen, and then cover the thieves with glitter when they open the package.

This video is about how, early in the pandemic, he decided to take up birdwatching, but kept getting frustrated by how squirrels kept raiding the bird feeder. So he decided to apply his engineering skills to make his bird feeders squirrel-proof.

He failed.


zombie apocalypse self-knowlegde - A Poem by Laura Theis performed by Edwin Roberts

Remember Badass Snow White, Laura Theis’s alter-ego that she explored on the eponymous album that I helped record a few years ago?

Well, one Brian Dempsey Memorial Competition poetry prize later, and she has just published a book of poetry.

Laura is the kind of person who, when she finally is revealed to be an international master criminal who has absconded with the University of Oxford’s treasure chest (a real literal thing that lives in the Finance Department – I’m not making that up) and journalists interview her friends and say “How can you claim you didn’t see this coming? Have you not listened to her work?!”, we’ll all say “Yes, it seems obvious now but… she just seemed so nice!”

How To Extricate Yourself is available to buy here: 


Ask Adam Savage: Pros and Cons of ""Worldwide Fame""

This is… just a recommendation to watch this 10 minute video of Adam Savage talking about the nature of fame. As half of the core team of the US show Mythbusters, he was briefly internationally famous and…

Well, if you’re at all interested in the phenomenon of worldwide fame then check it out and see what you make of it.

I just think he comes across as a truly lovely human, basically.


It Has Come To My Attention That You Don't All Love BIRDS OF PREY

It’s the end of the year, and this year pretty much started with me recommending the movie Birds of Prey, and it’s going to end with me recommending someone else’s recommendation of it.

The film did okay in terms of box office – certainly nothing amazing. I wonder if it might have become a sleeper hit if it weren’t for the fact that the pandemic cut its run short. It was the last film I saw in the cinema before I felt it might not be safe to do so.

What’s so great about this film?

Well, watch YouTuber Cold Crash Pictures give his opinion – I’ll let him explain it this time.


They're great!

You go there, you buy coffee and cakes, and other people prepare them for you. And then you can just… sort of hang out. With strangers.

You don’t need to clean the place, or pay rent on it. Other people take care of all that stuff.

You can just have really fancy coffee and read books and stuff.


It's also great!

Like Zoom gigs, only the musicians are actually in the room with you.


Remember hugging friends and family?

Good times.

Dear Diary...

On Christmas day, as the folk song goes, it happened so…

My houseboat is moored at a spot that regularly floods. I would guess that once a year, on average, you need to put on wellington boots to get to and from it, and once every five years you need waders.

At time of writing, it’s one of those once every five year floods. The Environment Agency, Thames Water and Oxford District Services are all on high alert, putting up flood barriers, pumping out drains, and watching the rising water levels with concern.

On the boats we always get flooded first – and so we should, because we’re on a floodplain. But it’s still a stressful experience. Generally speaking, boats go up as the flood water rises, and go down as it falls. But if the water rises or falls very fast then ropes can snap, or boats can caught and can tip. Boats can sink.

The evening of my Christmas day was spent grappling (or at least intending to grapple) with a neighbour’s boat that had snapped its front rope, and was swinging out into the river (see below).

I had a couple of theories for how rescue it: jumping onto the back, tying a rope to the centre, jumping back onto the bank and pulling it in… or hooking the loose rope with a boat hook, tying another rope to it and pulling the boat in from the front…

I was persuaded against all of these by my neighbours, who insisted that – in a channel with a flow of around 60 cubic metres per second – it was just too dangerous to go anywhere near it. (It was eventually rescued a couple of days later.)

The flood waters rose, very quickly, in the early hours of Christmas Day. That’s not the first time I’ve experienced that happening. I don’t think it’s even the second. It always happens on Christmas for some reason. I think it might have happened on Christmas Eve before, or the 26th or 23rd or 22nd, but there is nearly always some kind of extreme weather event around then, and it nearly always falls on Christmas Day itself.

And I’d be fascinated to find out whether there is a rational explanation for this. Whether perhaps the position of the Earth at the solstice triggers some kind of regional or even global weather event that sends swathes of rain directly at us.

Today I decided to take a trip round town and do a bit of photography to capture what Oxford looks like in flood. (Well, to be honest, I was complimented by someone on Facebook Messenger about a drone photograph I had shared of the flooding, only to be chastised when I confessed I was reposting a picture taken by a boat-neighbour’s drone – so I felt like I had to redeem myself.)

And as I cycled round I noticed something about this town that I had never noticed before. Everywhere I went there were buildings and roads that were right next to some serious flooding… but that were not flooded themselves.

I started to get a sense of how Oxford buildings and infrastructure might have been built around flooding in a way I’d never noticed before.

I remember learning years ago that Oxford has more green spaces in it than any other city in the country, and I assumed that this was because of the colleges, and the tourism, and maybe just the general wealth of the place. But cycling around town made it clear that no, these green spaces are all flood plains!

Time and time again I saw dense residential areas next to parks or fields that, today at least, had turned into lakes. And these lakes would come right up to the walls of the houses even, but wouldn’t flood them. Or… not yet at least.

And I’d thought for a long time that it was an insane choice to build houses along the Abingdon Road, when it’s so prone to flooding. What kind of property developer brown-paper-bag-full-of-money decision made that happen? But only a few days ago did I learn that these houses all have ‘flood cellars’ that are designed to hold the rising groundwater and stop it from coming up into the house.

With these kinds of flood prevention measures in place, each centimetre of rising flood level requires exponentially more water, as more and more designated flood areas fill up. And some of these areas are huge. If you look at a map of Oxford you’ll see there’s an area of common land – Port Meadow – which is so big that it could fit the original walled city in it many times over.

Global warming is obviously making extreme weather more likely, as we’re seeing around the world, and since I’ve been on the boat I’ve seen a couple of extreme floods where all of this protection wasn’t enough, but there is more infrastructure being built, and I’m starting to appreciate that they’re not starting from zero on this project.

Even the town’s name – a ford, or crossing point, for oxen – illustrates how important the management of waterways has been to this place. (Not to mention a meadow that was also a port!) And understandably so, as Oxford is basically one giant flood plain. It’s built on very porous ground, and we tend to get two waves of flooding. The first is the initial water from a downpour that drains into rivers which then break their banks. But then all of these giant flood plains start to drain their water through the soil, which runs down the Thames Valley from north to south.

So we in South Oxford get this water running underneath us and, when enough of it builds up, it starts coming up from the ground. Depending on how much water has built up, and how well or badly the authorities have managed it, this second wave can be higher than the first – and that’s what we’re currently all waiting for now.

A second wave higher than the first – where have we heard that lately?

Okay, let’s metaphorically tie this all together then…

So What Have We Learnt?

2020 may be ending, but the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t – at least not yet. We’re very much in that second wave.

The end is in sight: we have vaccines that seem to work. But it’s like passing the winter solstice: yes, technically the darkness will be receding, but we won’t actually get to feel that for a while. So we need to keep battling through.

Much of it is out of our control, but not all of it, and our actions still very much have an impact. And just because political leaders in England don’t seem to give a shit about obeying the rules, it doesn’t stop it from literally being life and death. Sorry to be preachy, but also… not sorry to be preachy. Ya know what I mean.

So let’s just focus on looking after each other for a few more months.

And if you want to celebrate the close of this motherfunster of a year in the most raucous yet socially distant way possible, remember that there is a Bastard Online Session tonight!

I… do need to qualify that the BT Openreach terminus that currently runs my internet is under about 2 feet of water right now, so my connection might be bad enough for me to occasionally disappear, but hopefully that just adds a little more adventure to the proceedings.

And just to clear this up: old acquaintance should NOT be forgot. Tonight, let’s bring them to mind…

Ask me things

If you have any questions then seriously, do please drop me a message using one of the pretty social media buttons below. About the recordings. About the folk session. About life. About the universe. About the current water level at Godstow lock.

  • Click on the images to see the originals. (It just means less admin for me this way.)
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