Wednesday, December 27, 2006

It's Chriiissstmmaaasss! # 6 - I resort to laziness and write a 'best of' list

It's Christmastime and I've decided to be as lazy as the "professional" media and fall back on the end of year list. It's the kind of thinking you can pretty much do whilst sitting in front of the TV, in the pub (even though I almost never go to pubs), in the car or simply laying down.

The 'conventional media is full of these thrown together best and worst lists. So I offer mine. It's a best things of the year, according to me.

1. The bit in The Sun goes Down by The Arctic Monkeys where the guitars drop out and the verse is sung over just bass and drums for a few bars. It's a perfect example of rock dynamics and the rest of the song is pretty good too.

2. My Birthday meal in October. It was splendid - even a tiny shard of crabshell that almost shattered a tooth couldn't spoil it.

3. The 7 foot sunflower that I grew from a seed.

4. Spike Lee's film When the Levees Broke.

5. 12 Stops and Home by The Feeling.

6. The entrancingly sexy woman in a very sexy dress whom I saw in a pub in July.

7. Radio 5's show Up All Night, notably the World Football phone-in on a Friday morning.

8. Maxi Rodriguez's goal in the world cup.

9. Children of Beslan (which was actually in 2005 but I watched it again)

10. Seeing myself in print and thinking that what I'd written was pretty good.

11. The evening of June 19th.

Monday, December 18, 2006

It's Chriiissstmmaaasss! # 5 - I sympathise with the neglected

unfairly neglected

For TV viewers in Britain there is a dead hour on Sunday. It occurs after the footie has finished and before the gentle fish-out-of-water comedy dramas begin. It is the slot that is pretty much targetted at pensioners. Therefore we have yawnsome fare such as Antiques Roadshow, 'nice' safe celebrities like Alan Titchmarsh and Patricia Routledge making appeals for charities, Last of the Summer Wine and the daddy of all public service broadcasting - Songs of Praise.

Today I watched S.O.P. Well, I didn't actually pay attention, but it was on in the background with the sound off, whilst I check out the schedules on the 700 different cable channels.

For some reason it got me thinking about Christmas carols, because there's always a carol concert on on Christmas Eve, and then a televised midnight mass that nobody watches. The carol concert reminds of when I used to sing in the choir when I was a boy. I always enjoyed it I was a good singer and was quite often gven the lead. Unfotunately, genetic necessity intervened and my voice broke. Overnight, what once was the sound of an chirruping angel became the sound of an unoiled derailleur.

Two carols always stood out for me. The first is O little Town Of Bethlehem. For some reason everytime I hear it I am filled with dread. I don't know why, from a very early age, it inspired in me more fear than hope, but it does. So I don't like that one.

The other carol that I always disliked was The Holly and The Ivy. The reason is that it's just so bloody unfair to the Ivy. It gets second billing in the title yet when it comes to it is criminally neglected. Throughout all 53 verses of the song The Holly gets all the attention. It's 'the Holly this and the holly that' and 'the holly has this and the holly has that' and you're waiting and waiting for the ivy to get a turn and it never does. It annoys me so much, like desperately witing for Santa and then finding that he just forgot to visit your house. Why did whoever wrote it even mention the Ivy in the title if they were going to simply ignore it for the whole of the lyric? The disappointment and sense of injustice when I hear this song is similar to that which I felt when I discovered that Alfred Hitchcock didn't actually write any of the Alfred Hitchcock and The Three Investigators stories.

I am suggesting a politically correct revision of the Holly and The Ivy in which the Ivy is not vicitmised by being neglected to the point where it has to ring Shrubline to complain.

Friday, December 15, 2006

It's Chriiissstmmaaasss! # 4 - & I hear music

Its Christmas and everywhere I go I am accosted by Christmas music. I do have a problem with it. Since when was 'A Spaceman Came Travelling' by Chris De Burgh a Christmas song?

The issue I do have is that there are some marvellous Christmas tunes around that never get played. Why don't shops put on The Phil Spector Christmas Album or, even better, Mary Margaret O' Hara's Christmas EP. Instead we get the same maybe 15 songs over and over. Stop The Cavalry by Jona Lewie, Stay Another Day by East Seventeen ( which is another not really a Christmas song at all, just a repetitive and rather boring pop song with some added slighbells and bell sounds. It kind of reminds me of when Blue Rondo a la Turk-lite pop band Modern Romance released a special 'Christmas mix' of their most famous hit The Best Years of Our Lives which featured a short intro of sleigh bells followed by the normal song) and various banal offerrings from the likes of Mariah Carey.

So I walking around Asda (part of the Walmart family) the other evening. It was pretty late - almost midnight, yet Asda (POTWF) radio was still playing over the tannoy and inbetween telling me that I could get four mince-pies for a pound, the hospital radio -quality DJ suddenly shut up and played Fairytale of New York.

The thing is : Fairytale of New York isn't just the best Christmas song of all time, but arguably just the best song of time. In fact I resent the fact that people only consider it a Christmas song and play it to death for one month of the year. Songs that good should be played rarely - so powerful is their effect that they are like very strong drugs. And as, ironically, Shane MacGowan has proven throughout his life, the more strong intoxicants you take the more diluted their effects are and the more blase you are about said effects. Not that I buy into that drunken Oirish poet myth that follows him around. Like all addicts I reckon his work (and dental health) could be even better if he could keep himself straight.

But the fact remains that Fairytale of New York is like all the other great MacGowan songs like Rainy Night in Soho or Aislynn or loads of others, in that it has a melody that seems like it was plucked out of the air rather than written, and evocative, bruised romantic lyrics that sum up in very simple universal terms the precarious nature of the human condition. I could write several thousand words about how beautiful this song is, but let's just leave it at that : it's a beautiful song.

Which is why, for a moment, I stopped in Asda (part of the Walmart family), just near the condiments, ketchup and salad dressings, as the pure beauty of the song struck me. There is something in the loveliness of Kirsty MacColl's vocal too - a lightness that reinforces the irony of the words. And then there's the fact that this is her legacy - and the fact that Christmas is, when it all comes down, about children and childish things. And she died heroically protecting hers. It is all slightly too much to hear over an echoing tannoy.

Passing shoppers must've wondered why this odd bloke was standing by the condiments, ketchup and the salad dressings, just across the from margarine, butter and cooking fats, wiping away what looked like a small tear.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

today : we are all profilers and detectives now

The thing about the Suffolk serial murders is that they are the first British post-CSI, post Cracker murders. Yesterday, when the gruesome find of two bodies hit the news, we had journalists asking the police why, given that the first bodies were dumped in water in order to lessen the effectiveness of modern forensics, were these two bodies left on open ground? Was this because the serial killer was moving into the over-confident, chaotic stage of his spree?

The thing is, everyone knows all about serial killers through endless films, books and TV shows. Since Silence of the Lambs serial killers have been a staple of popular culture, as well as the profilers and forensic investigators that chase and catch them. We have all seen a million autopsies and know in great detail the contribution made by bones, blood maggots, dna residues, carpet fibres and bodily fluids to the detecting process. Why ask Quantico to provide a profile. You could ask any old lady walking down the street. We are all profilers and detectives.

I have my own theory. The police are being almost too cooperative with the media. We know that the cops always hold back crucial details and information as part of a cunning plan to draw out the killer and throw the press of the trail. I get the feeling that the cops might catch this guy in pretty quick time

I certainly hope so.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

It's Chriiissstmmaaasss! # 3 - My Christmas cheer deserts me.

My neighbours are strange. To the right side of my little house I have had two neighbours in recent years, both of which I would consider friends. I know their names, we stop to chat, do each other the odd favour and get on very well. On the left side, with one honourable exception, I have had six neighbours who have been the opposite. The honourable exception were a nice couple who moved after six months.

I sometimes wonder if it is down to me - that somehow I am an unpleasant neighbour. But actually, no. I am the person who says good morning if I happen to be going out the door at the same time as the neighbours. I'm the person who says hello when I see them at the local shops. I am considerate about parking, don't make a lot of noise (even though the walls are really pretty thick I always turn down the TV after 10-30 at night and only play music at certain times of the day) and generally make an effort to be at, the very least, inoffensive. Yet the five neighbours I have had on the left side have been a hard nut to crack. When I moved in the neighbours were a young couple. I soon found out that, even through the thick walls, I could hear their shouting and violence. It seemed that the guy was beating the girl fairly regularly. I wanted to intervene and did, inasmuch as I called the police a few times and spoke to the domestic violence unit. They told me they were logging the incidents so that when the girl eventually complained they had some history. I did carry on saying 'good morning' and what-not, but both neighbours acknowledged me and then put their heads down and got into the car. They probably were in that peculiar situation where they were embarrassed about what was happening in their house and didn't want to face anyone who might know. Eventually, thankfully, she threw him out. A few weeks later he returned, drunk and furious, broke into the house by smashing the back kitchen window and proceeded to attack her. This time when I called the police I reported an attack in progress and they came and arrested him. Not long after she moved away and I'm okay that she didn't thank me for possibly saving her life. After all she was having a pretty horrid time. The day after the attack her parents came to help fix the window and I had a short conversation with her Mum in which we discussed our relief at the bastard boyfriend's arrest, even though we didn't actually say it in so many words.

All the other people who've lived to my left have been studiedly uncommunicative and insular. Last year another young couple moved in. I am fine if people want to keep themselves to themselves but on the day they moved in, I was coming back from the shops and had a few bags to unpack from the car. So there was a decent amount of time where they were unpacking a removal van and I was unpacking a car. I said hello and they actually said nothing back. They simply ignored me. I figured I wouldn't take offence at this so continued to be polite and friendly. Yet they continued to ignore me completely. I would arrive home at the same time as one or other of them and make some kind of empty overture. Cold out today, hello, must get in out of the rain - that kind of thing. There was no response. They didn't turn away in a huff, it was just as if they didn't know that responding was an option. This meant that they looked through me as if I wasn't there. I felt like walking up to them and waving in their faces like you do to check if someone you have blindfolded can actually see through the blindfold. After a while I gave up.

Which leads me to the subject of my post. Which is Christmas spirit. I am all for it. But yesterday mine deserted me somewhat. A few days ago I was upstairs working when there was a knock at the door. I hobbled downstairs to find a parcel delivery guy. He asked me if I would sign for a parcel for next door and make sure they got it.
"I'll put a note through their letter box telling them it's with you," he said.
"Sure," I said, which meant that he presented me with a large box. I signed his electronic signing thingy. The box was pretty big an unwieldy. Later that evening when I thought my left hand neighbours (I don't know how many of them there are - I DO know that one of them runs heavily upstairs several times a day) were in, I braved the wind and drizzle and took it round.
"I took this parcel for you earlier," I said to the guy, handing it over.
"Yeah," he said, neutrally, taking it off me and then closing the door in my face.

Two days later, much the same thing happened. This time I received two parcels. Smaller, but MORE parcels. I dutifully and neighbourly-ly signed for them and, later in the evening, went next door to drop them off. This time the woman opened the door.
"You had some more parcels delivered today," I said, handing them over. She was more talkative.
"Yeah, we got the note. We decided to get all our stuff on the internet this Christmas. It's easier." This was the most words I'd heard her speak in seven months. However, as she shut the door on me and went inside to run heavily up the stairs, I couldn't help feeling that she was a couple of words short.

Yesterday I was just on my way out and actually heading for the door when there was a knock. It was yet another parcel delivery guy.
"Can you take some parcels for next door?" He asked chirpily.
"No, sorry," I said, and was immediately gripped by guilt over the fact that both my neighbourly and my Christmas cheer had deserted me.
"Oh," he said, standing forlornly in the rain.
"The thing is," I said, "Is that I am not a bad person. Only they've decided to do all their Christmas shopping online and keep getting parcels delivered. Twice this week I've taken parcels for them and they haven't bothered to come round and get them from me. They just waited for me to take them round for them. And then when I took them round they never said thanks or even treated me as if I was doing them any kind of a favour. It was like they just expected me to be their personal parcel delivery depot. And they told me they were expecting all their gifts delivered this year. Yet they never thought to mention that it might be happening and say "Oh, by the way, I've got some parcels coming this week. Would you mind taking them in for me if I'm not here?' because I would do that, except they actually never even say hello or comment on the weather or anything so they'd never get that far. And what sort of person gets all their stuff online and then has it delivered to their house while they're out at work all day? Surely a sensible person would have it delivered to work so they can collect it themselves and then they can be sure they got it. So, even though I'm not a bad neighbour and it's Christmas I'm not taking their parcels any more. They can collect them from the depot."

"Okay," the increasingly cold and wet parcel guy said, "I'll try across the street."

Friday, December 08, 2006

It's Chriiiissstmaaasss! #2 The truth about nuts

It's Christmas and the supermarkets are jammed with food that we don't see for the rest of the year. My question is : If mince pies are that bloody nice then why are they only wheeled out for one month a year? If Turkeys and Cranberry sauce are so tasty and delicious then why only eat them once a year?

And nuts. Let's face it: nuts are made of wood, and eating them is about as much fun as eating wood. Brazil nuts are the worst. They are even coated in varnish fercrissake! Somewhere in Brazil there is a man giggling to himself as he saws the knobs off old mahogany chests of drawers and puts them into red plastic nets to sell to the gullible British come December. There's an awful lot of coffee in Brazil. That's because they keep all the decent brazilian stuff for themselves like coffee, sunny weather, football, bossa nova, girls on Ipanema beach in very small bikinis, and Fernanda Lima.

I don't know this for a fact, but I imagine Brazil nuts and the Christmas nut tradition stems from austere British wartime, when people were sold nuts as some kind of exotic treat to keep them happy in the face of death, depression and rationaing. Did nobody question why the apparently desirable, exotic and delicious nuts were available in such large quantities? i.e. that nobody else in the world wanted them because they are made of wood. They were probably cheap to import too, because, as (de facto) wood, they could be used for ballast.

Everyone complains that they put on loads of weight over the Christmas period. Well, perhaps this wouldn't happen if they didn't reflexively and, like ravenous squirrels, continuously munch on the bloody nuts that everyone feels they need to put out in little bowls over every spare flat surface of their homes. Because, by the way, the other ingredient contained in nuts, apart from wood, is FAT!

There is no point in disguising them anymore by mixing them with raisins. You cannot hide them. There is a reason why, historically, nuts have become synonymous with madness. You know I am right. Eating wood IS madness. The whole thing actually smacks of Milo Minderbinder's chocolate covered cotton.

today : It's chriiiissstmaaasss! #1 I watch films

Because it's coming up to Christmas, it is time for TV channels to show all of their Christmas movies as much as possible. The problem for them is that movies rights are so spread out these days that they struggle to come up with the one big Christmas movie event for everyone to watch. In recent years the BBC has shown both Titanic and Jurassic Park. The only problem is that by the time they appeared on Christmas day, everyone had already seen them about 100 times. I think this year's 'event movie is the little seen first Harry Potter film.

One thing that video, DVD and now movie channels has brought us is the ability to watch things again and again. In the olden days people who saw films several times were considered somewhat eccentric. In one of his plays Alan Bennett jokes about some woman in Leeds who'd seen The Sound of Music 55 times. These days she would be outstripped by almost any young child who has seen Cars or Toy Story or whatever WAY more than that, even before they've reached school age.

So I watched Love Actually again last night. I must have seen it about six or seven times now. I don't know why. Actually I do. When it first appeared on cable it was on heavy rotation and each time I flicked onto it I began watching and then watched it through to the end. Even little old selective me ends up doing this quite a lot. It sort of becomes a film-studies activity and even whilst I know there are probably better things to do with my time, I can't help feeling a little like Marty Scorsese in his screening room obsessively trying to watch every film ever made so I can then make documentaries about them.

The thing about Love Actually is that it is an excellent and fascinating piece of work that I think has been under-rated because it has an optimistic theme in a time when anything serious and feted has to be dark, edgy and downbeat. It kind of manages to jam what amounts to 8 different films into one, and switches wildly between froth, odd psycho-drama, hand-wringing relationship study, sketch comedy. light romantic comedy, slight straight romance, kids' movie, light satire and Christmas movie. Each time I watch it I become more and more interested in how it actually manages to work rather than appear as hideous mess. I am not sure who edited it but they did a brilliant job. Somehow the rhythms of each storyline are maintained, even though the film switches between the stories in a seemingly random way. The Alan Rickman, Emma Thompson story of a fading marriage is given long scenes where the actors can breathe and show off. After all Rickman and Thompson are two of the best, and she in particular as she gets older is quite brilliant at portraying the woman who is holding it all together whilst falling apart inside. Conversely the scenes with Laura Linney feature an equally serious and downbeat storyline yet is configured in short scenes.

The fact is that, for a 'romance' it is closer to Short Cuts or Magnolia than it is to Notting Hill. The secret is to watch it without the sound. Take away the rather syrupy musical montages and you have a character montage movie that skillfully creates its characters ,scenarios and stories in an economic and richly satisfying way.