Thursday, August 31, 2006

'bomblets' - the name makes them sound so harmless and cuddly

This story seems to fit with my theory that one of the main objects of war is to drop as much ordnance as possible because you are most likely contracted to buy more from your suppliers. Why else would Israel dump these horrendous US made bombs in the face of a cease fire?

I am no Greg Palast but I wonder if somewhere there are written agreements to use a certain number of these bombs within a certain timeframe?

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

today : I try to teach kids in the inner city

Here is an explanatory report I wrote a couple of years ago for a visiting student teacher who was observing a lesson of mine.

Behaviour Management strategies Year 9 set 4 English

Teacher : Mr S Dog. Tuesday Lesson 5.


I have three objectives with this class
1.The baseline is to get through the lesson without incident.
2.To encourage confident working and learning.
3.To improve general classroom behaviour over time.

The Students - Background

This group is totally composed of students who range in special needs from 'school action' to 'Stage 5' statemented. They have very poor skills in a number of areas.

4.Social Skills

I have decided to disapply them from the Year 9 National Curriculum for the first few weeks of the year. They need coaching and reinforcement of basic skills and expectations. I am gradually introducing NC content into their lessons as the weeks go on.

The group has a mixture of students I know well and students I have only taught this year. Background knowledge is very useful when deciding on behaviour strategies.

An example of this is Z------. I taught him throughout Year 7 and know his tendency to express frustration through misbehaviour. I also know his older brother U----- well and I am using U------ to report home on Z's positive improvements.

B----- is also an excellent example of how an ongoing relationship with a student can benefit current behaviour. I taught him in year 7 and have helped him, in a pastoral sense, many times throughout year 8 when I didn't teach him.

I also taught I------- in Year 7 and am familiar with his foibles.

I don't think, in this kind of group, I can underestimate the value of building positive relationships with the students over time. Trust is an issue that affects behaviour.

Particular focus on Students

There are two students in the group who have extreme special needs. Their behaviour can be unpredictable and very disruptive. I make an extra effort to give them targets for behaviour. They can earn rewards easily and can make 'mistakes' with impunity - providing they demonstrate improvements.

B------- is a statemented student who came from another school. He has many of the symptoms of mild autism, as well as having an unpredictable, sociopathic side to his character. Incidents of random violence characterise his behaviour. When he does lash out it is often inappropriately extreme. I usually leave B------ to his own devices, as he does not accept help well and can become very stressed when told what to do. About half the time he will attempt the task given. Sometimes he will go off on a tangent of his own which I will support. An example of this is when he drew a hugely detailed diagram of the September 11th plane crashes. It was a very inappropriate but impressively focussed piece of work. B------ is especially difficult because he responds to both praise and criticism in an unpredictable manner. If he wanders off from the classroom I will rarely pursue him. He often comes back under his own steam. I see it as an achievement for him to attend lessons, as he is very prone to truancy.

K------ is also very difficult. He too came from another school and is almost always on the verge of refusing to attend and cooperate. Like B------- he is prone to violence as an inappropriate response. K------ is an attention seeker and is forever trying to recruit co-conspirators when he is in the mood to misbehave. He is aware of the need to make a good impression and is scared of his family knowing how he behaves in school, which you can sometimes use against him to keep him calm. Although beware, as he sometimes loses it if you mention his parents. He ios a hefty and tall 14 year old and when he goes berserk it can be pretty scary. Do not try to physically intervene. Just let whatever situation play itself out. It appears to me that he is physically abused at home and poor reports from school might be the excuse his Dad uses to beat him

Time of Day/Week

This is a crucial element in choice of task, strategies and approach. This was a morning lesson, which is where the main part of learning occurs. In general, this kind of set 4 does not learn new skills well after lunch.

They become mentally tired, yet have stuffed their faces with starchy, sugary food and chemical laden drinks at lunchtime.
Issues both within the group and outside lessons ferment during the day and can explode into violence under pressure in an afternoon.

Generally, learning tasks are planned for a morning, consolidation tasks are placed in an afternoon, fun and less taxing tasks are placed in Thursday and Friday afternoons. Their lifestyle means that by Friday they have done four days work and had four days of very late nights.


This kind of group responds to regimentation. At this stage of the year they will get rewarded for having their equipment or getting their planners out. I always follow certain rules. For example, no one leaves the class at the end until everyone is tidy and quiet.


I use placement as a reward/sanction. Most of the time I allow the students to form their own seating arrangements with their friends and then only move them if behaviour is affecting their work.


The class has very poor concentration skills. Therefore choice of task is essential to maintaining order. There is a balance between work that the students can complete and work that challenges them to learn and improve.

The three-part lesson is essential as a model for planning. However, there is a need for flexibility and backup plans at all times. A short starter can last one minute or fifteen. A starter time also gives me time to assess the mood of the class and buy some time to adjust the planning of the lesson. A task often runs out of steam after only a few minutes and needs to be replaced. Whilst following the three-part model some lessons end up having nine or ten parts. With this class plenary sessions are almost impossible to conduct at the end of the lesson. I often shift the plenary into the next lesson as a recap starter.

Objectives are kept very simple. At this stage of the year the marking focus is Presentation, and is an ongoing project. I encourage students to assess their own and each other's work when dealing with such issues. This empowers them to monitor their own achievement and improvement.

It is often the case that a very low ability group will have a lack of skills in all areas. There are many students of this type who cannot, for example, use a ruler or tie their shoelaces. Therefore if you can combine an English skill with some other kind of general skill there is value in it.

In this case the class was learning prepositional words and phrases. But I was also drawing clocks and reinforcing the basic skill of telling the time. I know that five of the students in the class struggled with this basic skill in year 7 and could do with practice.

This skills combination can also help with confidence. If students who are not great at English can show off other talents it helps them shine in their English lesson.

If I am at the board I will make sure members of the class get a chance to use the board pen and do my job. It helps with self-esteem to do tasks in front of the whole class. Rarely does a student refuse to do this, although once B-------- stuck whiteboard pen into someone's eye.

Pace and Variety

Pace is another essential factor in all lessons. This kind of class requires lightning pace. The students begin to disrupt the minute the second they become bored, which is anytime they see a gap of about 3 seconds.

For writing tasks that involve the students doing a few practice examples I usually ask the students to complete only three or five of their own. Very few of the students can reach ten and maintain quality and concentration. Starting with a very low target is also flexible because I can then increase the number if things are going well. For Q-------, his name, the date, the objective and ONE example is an excellent result, even if it is not yet legible.

I use plenty of variety in every lesson. Extended writing is usually beyond most members of the group therefore I combine sketching, diagrams, writing and speaking and listening in almost every lesson. Often we will play a game or have some kind of fun activity at the end of a session - quizzes, parlour games etc. I wentto market and other memory games are the class's favourite, although cheating is routine. I make sure that tasks never bleed themselves out, almost always finishing up before everyone has completed the full task. This injects an artificial sense of pace. Tasks are almost always completed against the clock. Things are kept short. The units of time used are two minutes or three minutes (even if the 'three minutes' becomes ten).

Movement around the class

Lessons in this class require a lot of teacher movement. As well as using proximity as a simple device to control behaviour I try and give all the students some personal attention while they are working. This ties in with rewards and sanctions.

Rewards and Sanctions

Clearly there must be clear sanctions matched to behaviour. However, I make these lessons rewards driven. I will often give a sanction that can be turned into a reward by commitment, work and good behaviour. The students are very low in confidence and are the kind who rarely win prizes or have positive contact between school and home. A reward in this situation can be much more effective than yet another detention.

I use three main types of reward.

1.Praise. This is either directly personal or in front of the class. I make sure to praise the steady members of the group as well the very keen or potentially problematic
2. Official Praise. Notes in planners are the easiest way of doing this. Merits can also work, although the school position on the function of merits is fuzzy and they often lead nowhere. Older students work this out and see little reason for earning them. A note to parents is much more effective and encourages students and parents to use their planner.
3. Physical rewards. Chocolates and sweets, being allowed to keep a borrowed pen, pencil or ruler and sometimes even small amounts of cash are used as incentives.

An important strategy where sanctions are concerned is to not hold grudges and model kindness and forgiveness. If a student has been abusive or violent I usually talk to them at the start of the next lesson, agreeing a new start. This means that they have an equal chance of earning rewards in each lesson. This is an ideal situation for students to turn a punishment into a reward.

I also believe it is important for students to acknowledge the humanity of the staff. I will often express personal upset over poor behaviour, apologise for any mistakes I make e.g. an angry over-reaction to a situation, and show honesty at all times (although 'honesty' is pushing it - I often lie whilst acting honest. An example of this is during your observation. I told B------- and K---- that you were from the LEA and here to observe their behaviour. Hey! Whatever works!).


This is difficult to pin down. However, in all classes of this type I try to make the lesson fun. It's simple: if students don't enjoy themselves they don't learn. Therefore there are deliberate strategies that I use.
1.Silliness - everything from juggling, sticking pens in my ears, slam-dunking paper into the bin, play fighting with B------- or swapping jokes. Sometimes I will tell a joke and then the lesson will become a joke telling session where the students then join in. Little do they know that they are practising constructing narratives, speaking and listening and social skills.
2.Moving off topic to gossip and just chat with students. Again, this is a social and speaking listening skills activity. It also helps me to build positive relationships with individuals. No topic is off limits from last nights TV to why someone was excluded. The best support assistants do this a lot and consequently develop excellent personal relationships with students.
3.Rudeness. The students are allowed to be cheeky and rude in an appropriate and humorous way. I will say 'naughty' things for comic effect and allow the students to do likewise. Again, they are learning the limits of what is appropriate.
4.Banter. There is an acknowledged problem of almost constant goading and swearing amongst this lower ability group. I will trade humorous (and good-humoured) insults with the students and keep the banter level as high as possible. Students are allowed to reciprocate (e.g. draw caricatures of me or use me as examples in their work) and over time they begin learning to give and take without fighting and threatening to shag each other's Mums and Sisters.

I figure that for students who find school hard work and have problems in class, that laughter and a light atmosphere helps them deal with the rigid format of school. When it works well everyone genuinely enjoys the lessons. When it doesn't at least there are a few jokes to lighten the relentless grind of disruption and violence.


I try and create a supportive atmosphere. The best example of this is when people are reading aloud. I encourage students to help out a stumbling reader as the teacher might and empathise and show absolute respect for the reader. This is surprisingly effective. Better readers help the weaker ones rather than laugh at them.

I encourage the students to think we are the best class in the school and that we help each other Lending a pen, sharing a ruler, working together on a task - if the students can develop this it will help them in English and beyond.

Invariably these kinds of groups are my favourite. I will often tell them they are my favourite class. Apart from when the students are swearing at or punching each other this is effective as a behaviour management strategy.

n.b. When my boss decided to attack and smear me for getting ill with stress, one of the accusations made against me was that I did not have a decent knowledge of the students and did not provide appropriate lessons for them.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

this weeks unsung cultural icons are...

Mr Alan Towers and Ms.Susie Dent

today's classic footy scrap is...

Roy Keane's attack on Alf Inge Haaland. It's actually more of a feud than a straight scrap. Keane did his knee ligaments in a match against Leeds when Alfie was playing. Even though Alfie didn't even touch him, Keane held a grudge for sixteen months before exacting his revenge with this tackle that contributed to ending Alfie's career. btw Roy Keane's full first name is Royston.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

today : I am embarrassed by some unforgiving trousers

Possibly the best way of gauging what other people think of you and what social standing you are defined by in any given situation is to examine the lavatorial facilities available to you.

For example, if you visit your parents you will, likely as not, have free reign of the lavatorial facilities to the extent that, even though you don't live there you can act as if you did by using any or all of the facilities for whatever purpose pleases you. I guess the same happens if you visit a friend's house (after all friends are the family we choose). After that, things operate on a sliding scale. You may be visiting the wealthy parents of your latest squeeze in their extensive country mansion. For the purpose of the visit, which consists of polite conversation over tea and cucumber sandwiches, they may have designated that you use the downstairs lavatorial facilities. Only when you prove beyond doubt that you are possessed of royal lineage and that you are a rich and successful plastic surgeon or investment banker will they allow you upstairs to avail yourself of their more private ablutionary accoutrements. Eventually you may be given the guest room with it's own en-suite. But on that first visit you are only on the start of the ladder of social standing, given that the father is, at this point, twitching to go get his shotgun.

The commercial world treats us on similar principles. If you are staying at the Hiatt Four Seasons or the Westin St Francis, then you are afforded the highest status of toilet facilities, because you are paying what amounts to a decent down payment on most houses. If you are staying in a youth hostel on the side of a dusty hill in Faliraki, or the 'Friendly Motel' I once stayed at in Springfield Illinois, then the facilities will be less salubrious (even though the air conditioning in the youth hostel will probably be better than the emphysemic window mounted unit that the 'Friendly Motel' provides).

Of course, the worst toilet facilities on the planet are provided by Fast Food franchises, motorway service stations and Supermarket chains. Like every other 'service', they pretend they are providing you with a high class and personal experience when really they are trying desperately to save money, or rip money out of your account and into theirs. I am not saying that their facilities aren't clean, or spacious. What I personally object to is the idiotic design, which is wholly about cutting costs rather than providing a comfortable service. In fact, motorway services almost grudgingly provide toilets as an adjunct to selling you their criminally overpriced and pathetically small range of snacks, drinks etc.

Therefore we have to put up with warm air blowers instead of paper towels, one handed taps, neverending toilet paper and anti-tab end urinal protectors.

For an examination of the abject crapness of warm air hand driers I would refer you to Nicholson Baker, and specifically his novel The Mezzanine.He spends several pages of this tome detailing in minute detail his objections to them. His argument can be usefully summed up by me in two words: They're shit! Admittedly those words don't employ the writerly arts in as eloquent, charming and delightful a way as Mr Baker but I do urge you read his book.

One handed taps are the most moronic and insulting invention of all time. They beat warm air hand driers by a country mile. Of course, they are there for two reasons: to stop companies having to pay anyone to clean up on the rare occasion some moron leaves the tap running with the sink blocked , flooding the toilet area, and to impose portion control principles to water. I personally resent the fact that the assumption is that I am the vandal who will willfully block the sink with bog paper (if they can actually get to it. Neverending bog paper dispensers have two settings: a mechanism that is so tight and Scrooge-like that you wrestle with them for several minutes, causing them to eventually dispense half a sheet of paper that is so thin it makes Kate Bosworth look like John Goodman, or the mechanism is missing and you have to stick your arm inside them up to the elbow to try and get to the roll that is wrapped so tightly that the end has come free and pinged back inside. Once you have reached the actual roll of paper it is then tantamount to finding the end of a cheap roll of sellotape in order to unroll a sheet or two of paper) and leave the tap running in the middle of the night when nobody else is there to see, or turn off the tap. I am not that person. Secondly, portion controlling water is just mean and miserly. When I have paid 3 quid for a coffee, six for a pack of tabs, ten for three drips of petrol, 2 for a lukewarm bottle of water and another quid for a 'fun share bag!' of Quavers, I think I have done my part in paying being able to wash my hands under a running tap. Similarly in the Supermarket. I have just handed over a hundred pounds for my shopping, and in return you treat me like a vandal and don't allow me to wash my hands under running water.

On top of that, they don't work. Invariably several of the cheaply made and cheaply installed one-handed taps are broken, so they either emit a trickle that is barely a level above water vapour, or they emit a torrent of water you could hold an Olympic kayaking championship on.

But the worst thing is the anti-tab end urinal protector. The dome shaped item placed in the well of the urinal designed to deter people from dropping their tab ends into the urinal and causing a blockage. Except they aren't really designed for that. They are designed specifically to bounce back piss all over your trousers and shoes. Someone has designed these things: someone has marketed them and then someone has bought and installed them. Who are these morons? Why are they allowed to exist?

Anyway, I own this particular pair of summer trousers. They are light and comfortable, made of a very fine cotton that's almost like parachute silk. They are a light khaki green and go well with any casual summer ensemble. I like them. However, the fabric and colour are deeply unforgiving. Any splash of liquid on the light khaki green makes a very dark green splotch. On visiting the supermarket on a warm day, I was casually wearing my casual summer trousers and, as I had been quaffing cold drinks all day, needed to visit the toilet. I entered the supermarket's lavatorial area without a care in the world, unzipped and began doing what a man has to do. In my case it was to watch a fine spray of piss reflect back from the anti-tab end dome in the urinal onto the front of my unforgiving trousers.

When I had finished I went to wash my hands. it The first one handed tap was broken. The top was askew and it was emitting a pointless, useless dribble of water. I went to the second one. I pressed the top. What came out was a wall of water strong enough to wash away a small shanty town and maybe jet-wash a few cars. The rushing snake of water spurted up the side of the sink and splashed outwards, landing directly on the crotch area of my trousers, which, true to form, were deeply unforgiving.

A large dark green stain spread across the front of my summer trousers. It looked not only like I had pissed myself, but like I had been somehow force-drinking mysself for several days in order to attempt the world pissing record, and then pissed myself. I tried in vain to use the warm air hand drier to rescue my reputation and casual summer look. But it was out of order.

Holding my hand casually over the offending area I somehow made it out to the car without being arrested or having coach parties of tourists pointing and laughing at my supposed incontinence and went home without having done any shopping, or receiving forgiveness from my unforgiving trousers.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

today: I prove we are in the last days

First there's a war kicks off in the middle east, then the lead singer of Keane turns out to be off his tits on coke when we all thought he was such a nice, sensitve boy and now this...In Toledo.

It's proof I tell you! Prepare your angel wings, bible-belters, it's gonna be a smooth flight all the way, providing, of course, there are no scruffy, shifty looking Asian types along for the ride, in which case you will all have to make an emergency landing at a small airport just outside of Stavanger.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

today : I tell you what will be on the evening news

What will be on the news today.

1. A level results will rise.
2. Various talking heads from business organisations will accuse A levels of being easier than 'in my day' and lots of exam board types will defend the difiicultness of modern exams
3. A junior minister will grudgingly congratulate teachers on being good at their jobs
4. The same press who obsess about pedophiles will pick the prettiest 'barely legal' girl to put on their front pages celebrating her results.
5. There will be some twins, or perhaps triplets. Both of whom have got into Oxford or Cambridge.
6. A disabled kid will have overcome insurmountable obstacles and got 9 A grades.
7. An immigrant kid (possibly a Bosnian or Iraqi war refugee) who could barely speak English two years ago will get several A grades.
8. Endless people will show up giving advice about clearing.
9. Nothing will besaid about the kids who didn't do A levels, because they don't matter.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

today : I wonder...

If baggage handlers can manage to steal laptops, ipods, curling tongs and sundry other high value goods from passengers' bags after they have gone 'air-side', and then get the stolen goods out of the airport, doesn't that mean that they would also be able to get a couple of bottles of lucozade and a digital watch INTO the baggage hall and plant them in luggage?

Just a thought.

Monday, August 14, 2006

today : I climb every mountain and ford every stream

Yes, I know that there are wars, mad ideologues trying to run the world, terrorists desperate to blow us all into red mist, bird flu (or has that been solved? A few months ago we were all going to die of it before the weekend and now it seems to have disappeared), the temperature is rising and soon we will all be boiled alive like lobsters, floods, famine, CJD, HIV, necrotising facciitis and Castro teetering on the edge of death (or actually dead, if you live in Miami). But I'm going to talk about TV.

The BBC has a new 'reality' talent show. called "How do You Solve a Problem like Maria?", it features a cast of unknown women on what is basically a three month long audition for the part of Maria in a West End production of The Sound of Music. It is quite possibly the most annoying TV show of all time, given that it features both Andrew Lloyd Webber and The Sound of Music. I don't know what the opposite of a dream team is, but this is it.

I don't understand the appeal of The Sound of Music. Actually I do. It's the same appeal that means that people like Chicken Nuggets or The Davinci code.

It strikes me that Rodgers and Hammerstein, as well as being involved in some of the best musicals of the twentieth century, also gave rise to some of the worst - uncluding Mister Lloyd Webber's entire oevre. Their error was to make musicals out of stories that were not really interesting, or just stupid. Carousel started it. A weird amalgam of ghost story, pastoral portrait, romance and coming of age story, Carousel featured some interesting tunes but was, when all's said and done, kinda pointless. It 's relative success gave the green light for a musical about The Von Trapp family, which in turn allowed people to believe a musical based on Whistle Down the Wind, TS Eliot, Trains, The Vietnam War, Joan of Arc and countless other rubbish stories would be a good idea. It's not.

Carousel also started R+H's annoying habit of writing some really popular but crap songs, an art that they began with You'll Never Walk Alone and perfected when it came to The Sound of Music (the song) and Climb Every Mountain. They have a lot to answer for. I blame them for every excruciating 'inspirational' ballad that we are now routinely tortured with, like Wind Beneath my Wings and Hero and The Power of Love. Simple (moronic) soaring (screeching), powerful (vomit inducing). Climb every mountain is the worst song of all time and Lorenz Hart must be spinning in his grave each time it is performed.

I don't know anyone who actually likes Andrew Lloyd Webber, or his musicals. In fact, this is one of the crucial tests that I conduct to see if people are going to be my friends or not. If they like ALW then I simply refuse to talk to them. Yes, like anyone who has been writing songs and tunes for decades, then the law of averages means that he has written one or two memorable tunes (although I can't exactly remember one just at this moment), but as a rule Mr Lloyd Webber is to good music what Anne Coulter is to the redistribution of wealth amongst the proletariat.

Anyway, it is not the stupidity of the musical nor the odiousness of MLW that is my problem with this show. I don't even object to the format, which is basically a standard public vote singing competitiion. I also suspect that the 'Millions' that Lloyd Webber and his co producers have riding on the succes of the show are rather helpfully subsidised by the premium rate phone voting.

The central problem with The Sound of Music is the 1966 film. Julie Andrews is so idenitified with the role that it is almost impossible to see anyone else doing it. Imagine someone other than Brando as Don Corleone or someone other than Bogart in The African Queen. It's hard.

Yet The Sound of Music, like any other dramatic text, is not a fixed entity. If the story, music and script were good enough there would be room for anyone else to play the part. In fact, a truly bold producer would go out on a limb and allow someone new and fresh to define the part for themself. When My Fair Lady was filmed Julie Andrews was cast aside for the non-singing, definitely non-cockernee Audrey Hepburn. To be honest , despite their memorable and iconic performances both Andrews and Hepburn are not really that good at defining their characters. In the film of My Fair Lady, let's face it. Hepburn's Eliza is a just a very beautiful woman with a bit of dirt on her face and her sqawking is just silly. She pulls off the entire role with screen presence and the charm that only true films stars possess, without ever really describing a character we can believe in.

In TSOM Julie Andrews is just not a flibbertygibbet or a clown. And the though of her climbing a tree and skinning her knee is quite preposterous. .Maria is tomboyish and the thing about tomboys is that they are defiantly uninhibited and physical - which inevitably means they have to be revealed as rather sexy. Julie is many things, and a great talent, but uninhibited, defiantly physical and ultimately rather sexy isn't three of them. Her screen presence is just too prim, proper, passionless and goddam English to be sexy. And rather than being the opposite of Cap't Von Trapp, she is simply his reflection.

Presented with an oportunity and an audience to show they are original, risky and imaginative, Andrew and Co are paying it safe. They are not looking for a new West End star. They are not even looking for a Maria. They are looking for Julie Andrews.

Friday, August 11, 2006

today : my career as a rock writer

You know what pisses me off. Those people on who write their lists of favourites, spouting effusively like a captured spy who's recently taken their cyanide pill and is foaming uncontrollably at the mouth about their horrendous taste in 'music'.
this person

It is no different from graffiti artists who write their 'tag' on any newly painted surface that they see, terrorists blowing up public transportation systems. It is a desperate desire to be noticed, to feel important, to rail against the certain knowledge that nobody gives a flying f*ck about you and even less of flying f*ck if you listen to Mariah Carey or Alice in Chains or The Shins.

I don't want to be recommended to buy anything, thank you very much. Amazon itself (along with other websites) is desperate to send me lists of books and things it has decided I will like. So I once bought a John Ridley novel from them (the excellent Everyone Smokes in Hell). Does not mean I want to buy A copy of Los Angeles Without a Map or Permanent Midnight (which tangentially are both also set in LA and feature losers). I once bought a Propaganda CD of their wonderful album A Secret Wish. I do not want a bloody Flock of Seagulls CD. Yes they were both 1980s bands and could have been categorised as 'new wave' But A Flock Of Seagulls are to Propaganda what Kenny G is to John Coltrane, or Paul Nicholas to Chic.

There's a whole lot to be said about the corporate desperation to categorise, niche market and force feed us cultural artefacts. I am not the only person who will listen to Public Enemy and Dan Hicks and his Hot Licks in one sitting. I am not the only person who reads Dickens and Dennis Lehane. In fact everybody I know has a broad and eclectic taste. Who are these people that exist in such a narrow world that they will only watch one kind of movie, listen to one kind of music or read one kind of book? (the answer actually is Conservative small-minded Americans, but that's beside the point. My question was rhetorical)

Anyway, all this is a preamble to the only review I ever wrote and put on Amazon. There were no reviews of The American Music Club album 'California' at the time. It was 1999 and I reproduce it below.

California was the pinnacle of AMC's career, and perhaps Mark Eitzel's writing. Each great band has an album where they are on effortless top form. Everything comes together.

Eitzel's songs can be rambling and abstract, self consciously arty and sometimes gruelling, but on this album each song is concise, melodious and framed by a fluid and shimmering, but punchy production.

Beauty and subtlety abounds in the music, with Vudi's guitar reigned in from the noisy slabs of Engine. Here, on Blue and Grey shirt and Western Sky we have atmospheric and tuneful fills with the accent on 'less is more'. In reviews of the time, much was made of the use of pedal steel, but this was an inspired choice that served the songs rather than a ginmick. How many alt-country bands now use pedal steel as a tool of atmosphere these days?

Great bands make albums that have no filler. California is a perfect cycle of love loss and melancholy. Side one (Firefly thru Blue and Grey Shirt) especially is made up of five songs that simply could not be improved. The 7 or 8 seconds silence in the middle of laughingstock only serves to provide a perfect centre to this sequence. After the drunken rant of Bad Liquor that opens side 2 , a slight optimism takes over, just to help the fatally broken-hearted a tiny bit.

Eitzel's voice is rich in character. Pathetic, intimate, passionate, despairing, drunk, hopeful and resigned. He never again managed to match the form and songs to the texture of his singing.

California was too subtle to be a massive hit and is even out of print now. It's a cruel world.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

today : I encounter some insane people

A couple of weeks ago I decided to clear some space. About a thousand books have been sitting on my groaning shelves doing nothing for several years. I looked at my advancing age and realised that I would never read most of them again. At the same time I became aware of someone who had been selling books on Amazon, using their marketplace scheme. The two ideas went perfectly together. So I listed my books, sat back and waited for them to sell.

And to my surprise: they did.

However, in emailing people who are buying books from me I have discovered that lots of them are insane. One guy bought a copy of And the Don Flows Out to The Sea by Mikail Sholokov, and sent me an email detailing a list of interminable Russian novels that I should read, as well as stating that he already had several copies but was buying mine in case he wanted to give it as a gift. Beware. If you know this man do not tell him when your birthday is. In fact become a pagan and cancel Christmas. If you don't you will receive a rather tired mid-1970s Penguin Classics edition of an interminable Russian novel closely followed by promptings of an Oprah's book club style discussion of said novel, which means you might actually have to read it, rather than discreetly give it away to charity or use it to prop up a wobbly table.

Another of my customers bought a copy of Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. Upon receipt she sent me a very nice and chatty email which stated that she had just got out of the bath and had been reading my book therein, followed by a promise that she would update me on her progress. Is that not too much information to pass on to a total stranger? The fact that you have just got out of the bath and was reading a copy of Patrick Susskind's superb novel of murder and degradation therein? I gave her the benefit of the doubt. Email can be such a chatty and intimate medium that sometimes you forget who you are talking to. Secretly, though, I await her updates with no small interest.

Thirdly there was the person who gave me feedback on Amazon's site. You can have anything from one to five stars for customer service. A few of my customers have left very nice comments and I was sailing along with a 100% rating. Whether this affects sales, I can't say. But it's nice nontheless.

Last Saturday evening I received an order for An Introduction to Postmodernism. I'd actually been 'clever' with this book. I noticed that although there were one or two copies cheaper than mine, they were supplied from the USA, which would take weeks to arrive . So I didn't undercut the lowest price but pitched the book at what I thought it was worth. I'd read it once and it was in brand new condition. Nonetheless I offered it at about 40%of list price.

I parcelled up the book and posted it on Monday morning. The key to marketplace selling is that you can provide the same service as Amazon itself, but can often be cheaper. Second class parcel post means that, like Amazon you can make a little profit on the postage costs and the book arrives an acceptably quick two days after you post it. And sure enough, it did. Yet by Wednesday lunchtime the customer had posted a comment on my seller's feedback page absolutely slating me. She complained that the book was late, she estimated the price of second class post and accused me of ripping her off, in one fell swoop destroying my 100% customer satisfaction record. It seemed that despite the regular Amazon experience, as enjoyed by millions of people where you pay a slight premium for not actually having to visit a bookshop, pay for parking, search for you book, order it because it's not on the shelves, buy an overpriced latte and an even more overpriced biscuit, and then drive home again with petrol at £5 a gallon, she wanted to order the book at half it's list price on Saturday evening and then have it hand delivered to her on a silver salver by a tall dark chiselled man in one of those Chippendale non-shirts with only a bow tie, cuffs and rippling tanned torso, along with a Bucks Fizz breakfast on Sunday, or at the very least Monday morning.

I was obviously upset because I had followed every seller's rule to the letter. Why was this person complaining and being so nasty? Then it struck me. Here was a a person who was clearly a stupid f*cking moron. Someone who seemed to believe that what she was dealing with was a personal giveaway service, that exists to provide her with items on a whim, who has no idea that Amazon, and not the seller sets the postage fee and that even the most anticapitalist person who sells you something, kind of wants to make a few pence on the deal in order to pay their bills and keep themself alive by eating and having a place to live etc. Here was a person who was so dumb that reading the information that's emblazoned all over the website she ordered from that says: 'Items are usually dispatched within 1-2 working days' is beyond them. In fact, here is a person who thinks that the word dispatched means the same as the word delivered.

All I can say to her is good luck understanding page 1 of An Introduction to Postmodernism.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

today : my pitch to Mel

I haven't actually seen transcripts of Mel Gibson's outburst (i assume they are still translating it from the Arameic) but I do have a suggestion for him and have written it in an open letter.

Dear Mel,

As a film-goer I enjoyed you in Hamlet and think you should cover more of Shakey's scripts. How about you make your next production The Merchant of Venice.