Thursday, June 28, 2007

today : Rummaging through

Watching the TV coverage of the Arctic Monkeys performing at the Glastonbury Festival last Friday I was struck by the difference between this performance and the one they did at Reading last year. At the time they were overpromoted off the back of massive record sales and looked out of place, nervous and rather amateurish. The Glastonbury performance proved that they even though they are not a natural stadium kind of band, they can hold a headline spot and own a large stage and crowd.

The thing is: I hope they don't get drunk on it and change too much. Editors showed with their set and with their latest record that they are trying to make music for stadium gigs and creating a pointless unfocussed mess in the process. Coldplay took this route and ended up as an overblown pompous proposition creating music to accompany lightshows - The Simple Minds of the New Century. When I first heard 'Fix You' I knew it was over between me and Coldplay. A blatant attempt at writing a cod-religious stadium-filling U2 song it was the organ on the intro that gave it away - indicative of that kind of cynical 'inspirational' sludge that fills stadiums worldwide and bores the pants off anyone with any taste.

Onstage at Glastonbury Alex Turner played and sang with confidence. It appeared as if the Monkeys had taken their headline spot with responsibility and worked hard at providing a show that didn't fall short of the headline billing. The set had ebb and flow (which is especially hard for a band like the Monkeys, whose songs can be a little samey). But still the Monkeys managed to come across as a little band with a big audience. There were no lasers, video screens, customised lightshows and massive racks of guitars to change between songs. No swathes of cabassa players and thin, beautiful black backing singers.

They just played hard and let the songs speak for themselves. It gives me faith that the British public has enduringly great taste in music, and that every few years Britain unfailingly throws up literate, intelligent songwriters who have an individual voice. In Turner's case he has managed to introduce Yorkshire dialect into the mainstream - especially the word mardy. Everyone's using it nowadays.

The suburbs of Britain are still the cradle of the greatest pop music on earth. America can keep its Linkin Parks and its Killers and its Dave Matthews Bands. We Brits are the ones that come up with The Smiths, Suede, Blur, Pulp, Radiohead, The Arctic Monkeys - and Depeche Mode, ABC, Wham, The Manics amongst others. That isn't to say that many American bands aren't great. It's the fact that in England these bands are the most popular in the nation. When was the last time that happened in the USA? Nirvana, I guess. And even then The Pixies (who were pretty much the biggest band in Britain for a while) should have been the ones to sell megamillions.

today's very old fashioned thing is...

The Antimacassar

it's also a really cool word, given that it survives still and the thing it was anti i.e. 'Macassar' is long forgotten, apart from a tangential mention in Canto 1 of Byron's Don Juan

Thursday, June 21, 2007

today: The Sirtanic Verses

Salman offers hope for balding rectangular faced men everywhere

Since its publication in 1989, The Satanic Verses has sold about 800,000 copies worldwide. The world population is roughly 6,725,000,000.

A bit of maths and I guess that maybe half a million people have read it all the way through. Statistically that ratio is closer to zero than it is to an actual number. Even if it upset every single person who read it (minus two - it didn't personally offend me and a friend of mine was also a fan of the book) then it's resonance as a focus of continuing upset must surely be little to do with the actual book itself.

Personally, its not difficult to imagine that a religion of 1.2 billion people that is also the fastest growing on earth has proven itself to be pretty resilient over the years. Maybe the people who are jumping on their high horses over Rushdie's knighthood could use their energies more wisely. I imagine there are many more threats to the worldwide status of Islam than some ink-marks on paper.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

today: Doctor! It's my eyes!

This photograph of my retinae is how they found out about me having a cataract. I think it would be more entertaining if I actually had a catamaran in my left eye, but it couldn't be arranged

Thursday, June 14, 2007

today : Some thoughts on Banaz and John

Murder is always horrid and what I am writing here is in no way meant to trivialise it.

Yesterday the News contained information about two high profile murders. PC John Henry was stabbed to death in Luton and the murderers of Banaz Mahmod were convicted and sentenced.

It was interesting that the Banaz Mahmod story - one of 'honour killing' in the Muslim immigrant community appeared first on the BBC evening news bulletins. The PC Henry story was secondary.

Both murders should be highlighted and both people should be mourned equally.

My point is that it is highly unusual in this country for the murder of a policeman to not be the lead item on the news. I wonder why it wasn't in this case.

My conclusion is profoundly depressing. The story of Banaz Mahmod was simply a 'sexier' story. It has lots of elements of controversy - the kind of stuff that can elicit opinions and drive viewer emails and phone in shows. It is about Muslims, who are the default pariahs of our society. It encompasses immigration and touches on the fashionable ideas about Britishness. Never mind the fact that there was home-made phone-shot video of Banaz herself, expressing her fears.

More worryingly, little was done to disassociate 'Honour Killing' from Islam. When did you ever hear someone referred to as a member of the Christian community?

'Honour killing' is not a Muslim activity, but a cultural practice borne of extremist Patriarchy. All the context pieces surrounding the case have been about Islam, none that I saw mentioned the dangers of patriarchal social models. Any men who kill their own daughters and relatives are clearly brutal, evil people. Sadly there are plenty of men like this, and plenty of children with white rather than brown faces who end up dead without ever making the six o clock news.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

today : Coursework help

today : spoiled

The big cultural news in the US, as usual, is based around criminal activity. Firstly Paris Hilton gets sent to gaol and then HBO airs the final episode of the Sopranos.

For some reason I kinda like Paris. Don't know why, I just don't hate her like so many people seem to.

Anyway, I just finished watching the penultimate 12 episodes last week and was settling down to the wait for the final batch to arrive. Its been like that ever since I missed Season 1 Episode 1, and, after hearing such glowing reports, decided to waitr for the DVDs. In fact, for me, The Sopranos was my real initiation into watching entire seasons of TV on DVD. For years after I avoided reviews of the Sopranos and went out to buy each new Season with a palpable sense of excitement. I would put aside special chunks of time to watch them back to back. It's a different kind way of viewing episodic drama. YOu consume it as if it;s a big long film with lots of intermissions. I think it's probably responsible for the increasing quality in TV drama. Producers and writers are thinkning in terms of the box set as the main medium of delivery.

But on Saturday, I was listening to the generally superb Five Live show Up All Night. Between 1-30 and 2-30 am they have The New York Hour. As with much of Up All Night's content the NY Hour is fascinating radio. Peter Franklin aka The Gabby Cabby (who I guess is probably and NPR guy a bit like Click and Clack or someone) talks about what's happening in New York each week. It is a great example of global media. Why should I care what happened in New York this week? Well, I don't really, but y'know, it's New York. It has an innate kind of glamour and film forged mythicism. I went there once and even though I didn't stay long it is all still very familiar. This week the Gabby Cabbie's co-presenter was some TV critic. Perhaps from the Post (I forget). She talked excitedly about the fact that Sunday's final eposode of the Sopranos was all anyone was looking forward to. Bets were being taken on whether Tony would die. And then she casually threw in the fact that another VERY IMPORTANT character had met their demise in episode 83. Spoiler alert! At least when Terry and Bob spent all day trying not to find out the score, it turned out the match was postponed.

And then last night I again was listening to Up All Night. During the week they have a little piece each night with the night editor of USA today - the exceptionally affable and pleasant Bill Nicholson. Bill talks about what's going in tomorrow's paper, which, much like USA today itself, gives a broad overview of what's making the news in America. Of course, in cultural news, there was much discussion about the final episode of The Sops. Apparently people were wondering what the fact that ____________________________really meant and whether the__________________________ was a good idea or not.

So now, after six long seasons of waiting and watching. Seven years of not knowing, an essential element of my watching experience has been scuppered by ignorant parochial know it all media-types.

...Fade to Black.

Monday, June 11, 2007

today : The Grammar School question

The problem : how do I talk about Tory strategy and give my considered comments without accidentally helping a party which I do not ever want to be elected. I am no Bruno Gianelli.

So I am taking quite a risk, although perhaps not. Thus far, the Tory party hasn't looked like doing anything close to what I might suggest for them and neither has anything else I've said made its way to Tory HQ to be read and considered by the haw-haw PR troupe.

The fact is that I must consider that after 10 years of Labour, some of the electorate and press might want a change. In the real world power swaps between Tories and Labour and historically the Tories have the upper hand. What I would like to see is a Tory party that is as close to the centre as possible. In fact, I kind of think that a kind of European Social Democracy is the only political model that has a credible chance of being a useful government at the moment. To have a right wing Tory mob running the place would be a disaster - they would start playing neocon with foreign policy, flat-tax with the economy and wall-building with immigration.

Cameron's climbdown on the Grammar School Question is fascinating. On this most symbolic of questions, he chose to pick a fight, and then when it started to get nasty, he ran back to his corner, issuing 'clarifications' that diluted the argument and handed the complainers an easy victory.

In political terms this was entirely predictable but also pretty stupid. I must say I was surprised. It seemed as if Cameron might be smarter than this.

If the Tories are to be sure of being elected they have an easy template to follow. This is the way that Labour dragged themselves towards electability. The difference is that Labour has managed to only make one real screw up - Iraq mainly - as well as some small stuff like The Dome, Casinos and cashpoint fines. And even then they have a very solid argument that the Tories would have done exactly the same: the same could not be said of Labour closing the mines or introducing a poll tax.

To this end, Cameron's job is to place his party in the centre ground and wait for a jaded electorate to decide that a change is what's needed. And the Labour template could provide a useful one to follow. Under Kinnockspectre of its extreme left wing and dragged the party towards the centre. When Blair came along he continued the process. What occurred was a make-over. Labour became cuddly. The 'modernisers' chose the anachronistic clause 4 as a point of attack. Deleting it from the party constitution made no substantive difference to real policy making. A commitment to nationalisation was like one of those laws that bans people from holding hands with their wives whilst wearing a blue hat on a Tuesday within fifty yards of the town well. It was meaningless but extremely symbolic. But by changing it, they swept away the old fashioned lefties who also believed in all sorts of other trouble-causing stuff.

The Grammar School issue could have been the Tories Clause 4. The Grammar school is symbolic of an ageing, backward looking Tory party - the wasn't-like-that-in-my-day brigade. Even if people believe in it, a return to a Grammar School model will never happen. How can you be a low-tax party and promise to reconstitute an entire nation's education system? Like the NHS, education is too big to tackle in anything but degrees, and the cost would be unthinkable.

That is what makes this issue the one to pick on. Because in one fell swoop Cameron would, by alienating the Grammar School lobby, also alienate the racist right wing - who are the real reason the Tories can never move to the middle. Now we know that the Eurosceptics or the anti-immigration bods would claim that they aren't racist and we could talk for a long time about this. But lets face it they are.

I did have some hope that Hague would do this, but he didn't. Then Howard looked like he might do it, but he didn't. I wonder if Cameron has the guts to grasp the nettle and not end up as a Kinnock-style nearly man?
and Smith Labour expunged the

Saturday, June 02, 2007

today : hands up if you're an idiot

I'm wondering what Allen Johnston's game is. As Education secretary, he has hijacked two news cycles this week with bizarre attacks on teachers. You would think that it might be time to sit back and watch the Tories get their knickers in a twist over 'the Grammar School question' and allow the press to focus on Tory splits rather than yet more befuddling Labour initiatives. But the Dfes apparently isn't aware that saying nothing is sometimes the best option.

So, last weekend Johnston suggested that one way that Private Schools could fulfil their public commitments by kindly and and charitably donating their teaching expertise to the public sector. Then, on Friday, he made a case for teachers not using a hands-up approach to classroom questioning because some children are shy.

Maybe he wants to lose the confidence of the people whom he ultimately manages. If he is, this
Woodheadian (or block-headed) approach seems a pretty good way to go about it.

The underlying assumption behind the first announcement is that the teachers in private schools actually have something to offer to the public sector.
Hmm, lets see. Clearly people who need only a degree, the right school names on their CVs and whose teacher development occurs in classes of nine or ten pupils with resources falling out of cupboards and students whose parents have a direct financial stake in them behaving and achieving are the real experts. Those who spend a year of their lives training both in classrooms and on the job in often challenging circumstances with under-resourced schools and often disaffected pupils are obviously LESS schooled in pedagogy and LESS expert than their untrained private counterparts. Yes, private schools get better results on the whole than public, but to use the headline pass rates as indicators of professionalism and expertise, is like saying that Jose Mourinho is better at playing the transfer market than Sam Allardyce or Harry Redknapp.

I was kind of joking above. I am sure that many private school teachers are superb at their jobs, but I resent the simplistic assumption that they are naturally better. The implication, of course, is that public sector teachers are not good at their jobs and need help. How about trying it the other way around? How about taking inner city school teachers who have to sweat and battle to achieve every piece of learning, every exam mark and every percentage point and taking them into an environment where the students are well behaved, motivated and educationally minded and the
establishment is rich with resources?

And then there are questioning strategies. Someone does one of those pieces of research that is useful but not necessarily ground-breaking. Turns out that a hands up to answer strategy can be unsuitable for kids who are shy, or for kids who aren't so quick at finding answers. Well, knock me down with a feather.

I actually, from experience, have an awful lot to say about how certain students can go through the whole of the system without having their problems picked up on, being stereotyped and their issues ignored. But this is a complex and
multifaceted issue about social inclusion, special needs, class sizes, staff training, resourcing, parental empowerment, subject specific knowledge, linguistics etc etc.

But this announcement contains yet another simplistic assumption i.e. that professional teachers only use one strategy for questioning and what's more their use of it is not sophisticated, intellectual, knowledgeable and appropriate but a one-size-fits-all process that is wheeled out again and again despite its problems. This vision of teachers as people who trot out processes is taking over the
DfEs. Actually it is taking over everywhere. Junior doctors aren't sophisticated individuals with a unique set of skills, talents and interests but can be employed from tick-box questionnaires, GPs just sit and write scripts for Valium and Prozac all day, whoever comes through the door, judges cannot judge but are ordered to simply hand down pre-determined sentences. We are being managed by people who despise sophistication, because it defies their blind necessity to label, box and control everything as a measurable process.

To even imply that teachers can use only one failing strategy to question their pupils is simply idiotic, and insulting to teachers. Why would a secretary of Education do this? Perhaps, like much of the media and the public, he sees the world of education with the analytical skills and insight of the average child.

Friday, June 01, 2007

today : guitar week part three. The Love Affair

The fact is I love my guitars. Especially the flat top acoustic. It has an interesting story. It was bought by a friend of a friend of mine who has a habit of buying expensive things that he never uses. He decided to take up guitar playing and so bought an expensive guitar that he never really used (I think he really likes the act of buying stuff rather than actually using it). In order to fund another faddish purchase he sold it to my friend G at a knock down price. G is a keyboard player and roped me in to co-write and produce some demo songs for him. During recording I used the guitar and fell in love with it. It was the chime of the open G string that bewitched me. We put it through an Alessis bloom reverb and straight into the desk. The sound was perfect.

G lent me the guitar and I kept and played it for nearly two years. Despite my many offers to buy it from him he refused each time - mainly, I think churlishly just to wind me up. I gave it back.

But I didn't give up hope. I held a torch for the instrument for the next six or seven years, periodically asking if it was for sale only to be further rebuffed. G was pretty well off by now and there was no chance he needed the cash. It was a long dance, a story of love and loss. In fact if 'Our Tune' still existed then I'd send it in. I always thought of the guitar as mine, in the same way that feted lovers may hook up and maybe even marry other people, but retain a significant corner of their heart for the one they really love.

But quite suddenly, tired of the rat race, G gave up his wealth and went to work unpaid for charity. At some point, perhaps through genuine need of cash and perhaps through magnanimity, he called me up and offered to sell the guitar. I had to borrow the cash, but the deal was done. She was finally mine.

What I love about the guitar as an instrument is that it is so direct. The combination of sounds is directly made by the way someone's fingers address the strings and fretboard. Once you reach a level of skill, you cannot help but reflect yourself in the way you play. I guess this is true for most instruments. They become an extension of your mind and body.