Monday, June 28, 2010

today : recriminations

Today's guest blogger is 'The Professor' - who emailed me these comments. Who says American citizens don't know shoot about "soccer"?

They only have themselves to blame. The problem is fundamental and structural. The FA, in its toxic relationship with the EPL, simply doesn't prioritize the national game. When I heard that the Germans had been practicing with the ball since January and had completely revamped the youth footy programs, I thought to myself, these people really want to win the WC. Our priorities are elsewhere. All this is fine if we just are honest about it: that the EPL and the massive tv contracts with clubs that just want to win (regardless of the nationality of the players or how they treat them) are what is the most important thing in English football. Until that changes, England will not win the WC. In fact, they seem further away from winning it than they were ten or twenty years ago.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

todays deceptively deranged song is...

...Rock Lobster by The B-52s. In minute 3 it starts to unravel and by minute four is properly deranged and quite scary.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

today : 4-6-6-6-4 vs 4-4-2

It might be my mood, but the World Cup so far has been a bit odd.

One thing I have noticed is that none of the teams are really unfamiliar. The globalisation of football has led to blanket coverage. There are now hardly any surprises in terms of players who are brilliant but you've never heard of them, or surprise teams from obscure parts of the world. This is mainly because there are no obscure parts of the world any more.

I heard Tim Vickery - the South American specialist pundit make an interesting point. Globalisation has concentrated all the top talent in the world in a few mainly European clubs. When the World Cup comes along that situation is reversed. The players take all their Champions League and top division experience back with them to their national teams. All the top players play against each other regularly, so there are less opportunities to spring a surprise.

This extends to the spectators. I could name most of players of each Champions League team, as well as the major players from many other European teams (which means pretty much all the major players from whatever country). In the past Samuel Eto'o, for example, would be the star player in Cameroon and would only be heard of when the WC came around. Now we know him as a top world star who plays for Inter. The much wider coverage of world football means that I have seen many of the players playing. And if I, an interested but not obsessive footie watcher, have seen them, then the coaches and players of the actual World Cup teams must be extremely familiar with their opposition.

Perhaps this is part of the reason that the first round matches were relatively even and defensive. Nobody wants to lose, and there are few shocks.

I also think the coverage has been rather flat. I put this down to the fact that there has been a gradual change in presentation over the years. It's a long time since 'fantasy football' began the fad for fan-led programming. Whilst Sky came up with Soccer AM, the BBC stuck with the old rather po-faced style for years. Super-nerd Mottie on commentary, blandness personified Lineker in the studio. This started to change when Adrian Chiles took over MOTD2. Chiles's everybloke persona was coupled with a healthy dose of light comedy which actually made MOTD2 a much better watch than Gary Lineker's predictable and smug punning and Alan Hansen's caricature po-faced analysis. Chiles's pundits included the dry Lee Dixon and the ebullient and likeable Robbie Savage.

But come the World Cup and it all reverts to type. Chiles went off to ITV and took his banterish blokey-jokey style with him. So what we are left with on the Beeb is Lineker, who has never displayed much in terms of personality, and Shearer, who has relaxed down the years but whose comedic high-point still remains inserting Phil Collins song titles into interviews in 1998.

Which leaves us in an odd bind. For the first time in years ITV has some of the most engaging coverage, even though Chiles is hamstrung by the ITV pundit team - the uninteresting Andy Townsend, the deeply uninteresting Jim Beglin and (until he was sacked) the even less interesting Robbie Earle, as well as the dull as ditchwater commentary team of Clive Tyldesley, Jim Rosenthal et al.

ITV still has the problem they always had - adverts. The sheer amount of time taken up by them is reaching critical mass. Adverts, sponsorship jingles and phone in competitions cram all available space and break everything up too much.

Which leaves the way open for the increasingly accomplished, modern and relevant Colin Murray. Wisely ditching his Radio 1 career with the tiresome and annoying Edith Bowman, Murray cut his sporting teeth presenting on 5 live.,and doing second-rate European games on Channel 5. His Friday night show on Five Live is an entertaining blend of fan punditry, banter, silliness, obsessive and sincere interest in football and in depth analysis; helped immeasurably by having the daft but likeable Perry Groves and the properly intelligent Pat Nevin on the team. Murray looks increasingly like the future - who knew?

Murray and Chiles are, notably, both professional broadcasters who moved into doing football, rather than professional footballers who moved into broadcasting.

Another interesting feature of this years World Cup is the coverage of South Africa. Now, without being an expert, I am guessing that South Africa is a hugely diverse, complex and fascinating place. But the feeling I get is that, because the broadcasters feel they have to show 'the other side', then they have ignored stuff like musical culture and the white people. Basically, what happens is a curious mix of football highlights and poverty porn. It's as if all the broadcasters feel a responsibility to be 'responsible'. So in between people discussing 4-2-4 as opposed to 4-3-2-1 or 5-4-1 we have an endless stream of AIDS orphans and indefatigable women carrying water on their heads. The apogee of this was Alan Shearer reporting from the townships where Alan pretty much went around some townships posing the incisive question "So, what's it like to be poor?" to various residents who had no idea who he was. Of course, there were shots of him kicking a football on a dusty street with some undernourished kids in Chelsea shirts.

Curiously: no shots of him handing out cash.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

today : time's up

Okay, times up. I decided to give Cameron and the "Coalition" a chance. I think it's churlish to want the government of your country to be a failure - much as the nation treats it's footie team. So I sat back and decided to watch and see what was happening.

But my patience has run out. Cameron sold himself as a social liberal, but I guess he has to keep every wing of the coalition happy. The Libdems are just happy to be in government - a bit like those X factor winners who are happy to sing whatever dross Cowell has prepared for them because they never thought they'd ever even see the inside of a studio. I worry about them. I think ultimately they could well suffer a backlash against their participation that wipes them out.

And Cameron's way of keeping the right wing happy is to look, as PM, just like a Tory. I really wanted him to be a devoted centrist, but that's me. I'm always too trusting and end up broken hearted. Realistically, it was never going to happen. She was always going to choose the next tall neanderthal that came along.

So on Monday we'll discover that the Tories are just the same. Still stuck in a decades old ideological trap. Whatever rhetoric they use about the need for budget cuts they will simply enact the age-old right wing slash and burn. After all, if you care nothing for the public, then why should you care about public services?

After trying to create a Clause 4 moment by decrying Grammar Schools, their schools policy is just a stealthy way to undermine the comprehensive system and create and elitist education for those who can afford it. They might increase Capital Gains Tax, but the bulk of the rises will be stuff like VAT (-probably at 20%, possibly on food) which people cannot choose, and hit the poor as well as the rich. Their attack on Health and Safety culture is just another way to deregulate and allow rich businesses to cut corners on employee welfare.

Just watch: the spin will be classic New Labour, but the underlying ideology will be classic old Tory.

Let's see how well they do with the debt. Let's refer to Byron (in Don Juan) for some guidance:

"This makes your actors, artists, and romancers,
Heroes sometimes, though seldom--sages never:
But speakers, bards, diplomatists, and dancers,
Little that's great, but much of what is clever;
Most orators, but very few financiers,
Though all Exchequer Chancellors endeavour,
Of late years, to dispense with Cocker's rigours,
And grow quite figurative with their figures.

The poets of Arithmetic are they
Who, though they prove not two and two to be
Five, as they might do in a modest way,
Have plainly made it out that four are three,
Judging by what they take, and what they pay:
The Sinking Fund's unfathomable sea,
The debt unsunk, yet sinks all it receives."

Friday, June 18, 2010

today : I bang the drum

They say that good drummers are as hard, if not harder, to find than good singers. But I found one last night. The details are fairly irrelevant but here they are anyway. My friend invited me to her jazz singing class end-of-term jamboree. Everyone in the class gets to sing. She is by far the best singer in the class (having done professional work such as singing with Daniela Mercury at the Rio Carnival, for example) and lots of the other students are not as blessed in the vocal chord department. This is no criticism of them. Singing ability, like sprinting or winning the Tour De France is a lot to do with the genetic lottery. Everyone can sing to an extent with practice, but almost nobody is a born singer. Just look at all these huge TV competitions. Queues of thousands and thousands hopefuls line up and even then, when they are whittled down to a few finalists, there are usually only one or two who can really sing in a way that makes them stand out as 'singers'.

The students' main attribute is infectious enthusiasm and love of singing. One or two I spoke to joined the class as a confidence booster. Others were singer songwriters or rock singers who wanted to broaden their vocal technique. Others just loved jazz and wanted to have a go.

The idea of the jamboree was that the class tutor got in a small group of top notch musicians whom I assumed were connected with the college - a jazz combo of piano bass drums and tenor sax. Each singer got to do their two songs with a top notch group.

They were all clearly superb musicians. But the toppest of the notch was the drummer. I don't even recall his name (actually I found it out by some judicious googling - it was Chris Bussey, whom I read is one of the most highly rated and in-demand drummers around) but you would go far to find a player as outstanding. It was a privilege to watch and listen to him, especially in a context such as an amateur showcase. I kept saying to my friend "that drummer - he's probably the best I've ever seen." Perhaps it was influenced by the small room and the fact that we could watch as well as listen to him. But I have seen lots and lots of bands and many of them had fine drummers. I think this guy outshone them all.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

today : I fleetingly worry about Doomsday

I don't have any access to the journalistic resources that proper journalists have. Therefore anything I say can only really be speculation. I'll leave others more expert, and paid, to do the real work. But I speculate that it would only take digging about a millimetre into the Gulf Oil disaster story to find that it all flows back to Bush and Cheney. It was their oil regulation regime that was responsible for allowing this failed well to be drilled and exploited, with 7 layers of protection against blowout ill-configured and clearly ill-scrutinised (I also imagine that plenty of the people who are now up in arms, weren't marching on the streets in objection to more jobs and wealth being created in the Gulf region because of the drilling).

Bush and Cheney were hardly known for their strict regulation of polluting industry - especially when it impacted their and their friends' bloated bank accounts. Neither were they keen on placing environmental concerns ahead of making money for their friends. Or ahead of anything, for that matter.

In the clamour to shift blame I can understand Obama wanting to heap the blame on BP, given that blaming the previous regime, even when it's legit, is a PR no-no these days. But I don't see the mainstream media looking any deeper than the one inch of oil spread on the cerulean blue waters of the Gulf as they suffer in the empty resort hotels of Pensacola beach. Of course people like Greg Palast are digging and finger pointing, but who listens to the likes of him?

On a related topic the previous administration were also so incompetent at running the economy and regulating their rich pals as they gouged fortunes from the rest of us, that we are still suffering the consequences.
In fact, I am a big believer in all systems (physical, psychological and yes, even economic) acting according to some pretty simple, overarching principles. I know that on a very localised level things can appear impossible knotty, confused, complex and apparently discrete, but Newton worked it out for physics, Freud and his post-Freudian friends worked it out for psychology. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, or as Lacan put it - a letter always reaches its destination.

Basically, given that the entire world economic system actually collapsed, but was caught and held up by extraordinary governmental measures, still means that it collapsed. The instant attempts to ameliorate the effects worked to some extent. But like stress showing itself as IBS or a back-strain, the shocks from the collapse have likely not yet made themselves entirely known. There's only so long that Big Bad John can replace the broken pit-props until the weight of the earth buckles him into dust. I guess there are people who could predict what might happen next, but nobody really predicted anything so far. From the collapse of Madoff's (and Standford's) pyramid to the similar collapse of the Greek economy (followed by Spain, followed by Portugal, followed by Italy). It strikes me that there are faultlines all over the place in the economies of the world. Jagged edges that pre-Lehmans, could bear the pressure in a stable world. But you can actually see the ripples as ripples. The money markets fluctuating up and down at the slightest flinch of worry, the way that previously predictable measures like unemployment, inflation and confidence all seem slightly out of whack. From my layman's (see what I did there - I made a pun!) perspective it all seems rather too easy. That the unsustainability inherent in the system can be fixed with a bit of money-printing and a bail-out. You can give money to a gambler when he gets behind on the rent, but chances are it won't keep him from returning to the tables the next time he has some spare change, and eventually losing the house.

I never like to play doomsday scenario games. But I cannot help thinking that some more big money crises are headed our way. I think I said it before, but my Dad said to me today "What would happen if California tumbled into the sea?" The answer isn't just that "that'll be the day I go back to Annandale", but that the US (and world) economy might not survive in its current form. But the real risk comes not from unpredictable natural disasters, but from the fact that nobody seems to know anything. It would be quite hard to argue that governments shouldn't have intervened so massively when it looked like the whole system would fail, and it would be equally as hard to expect them to not intervene on an ongoing basis. But I just wonder how long this can keep happening.

Mixed metaphor alert! When you make a bad recipe, there is only so long that you can keep adding more ingredients to try and rescue it. Eventually you just have to admit that the original dish was inedible. Eventually, if the underlying foundation is faulty, then the building will fall down.

A couple of years on and I still don't people are being honest about the size and extent of the problems. After all it took a while for Greece's debt problems to come truly to light. There is a story I heard or read - possibly a myth - about a senior investment banker. On the Friday before Lehman's went bankrupt he knew what was coming and drove home to his family. On the way to his country pile he stopped in at the home of a local farmer and offered to buy a small flock of sheep for a wodge of cash. His logic was that when Monday came and all money in the world was worthless, then at least he would have something with which to feed his family and barter for necessities. That's how close we came. That's the edge we are pretty much still teetering along.

I don't want any more huge financial shocks. God knows my own income and lifestyle has already been impacted by things such as the hike in oil prices (I have to really be careful how much I use the car, because it costs so much to pay for petrol - my weekly food shopping bill has gone up about 15% hence even less treats and luxuries). But I fear they will inevitably happen.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

today : was that it?

I just watched The Strokes on TV, playing the Isle of Wight Festival. They were pretty good but I have a problem with them. Here it is. They are not a band that can really pull off being 30. It just feels wrong. It's nine years since Last Nite. Nine years since Is This It? At the time they were fantastic. The music was exciting and groovy and they looked like a proper band. People even forgave them their privileged backgrounds and Swiss finishing school educations.

But really it should have ended after the first album. A drug death (I don't wish death on anyone obviously, but you know what I mean), a massive internecine war within the band. Someone running off and rejecting music in favour of becoming a monk. Anything to stop them traipsing on as just another band - marrying supermodels, releasing less and less interesting albums until they eventually drift into irrelevance and retirement in their mid-30s.

Some bands swell slowly - Kings of Leon are a current example. But the Strokes exploded onto the scene. Perhaps the first vital band of the century. Had they burned twice as bright and half as long they would have been legendary. Now - they're just another heritage act.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

today : pants

I am waiting for my underwear. Keenly. Now, dear reader, please don't look away because I mentioned my underwear. I have no intention of having the kind of blog that brings up one of those "are you sure you are over 18? "entrance portals.

But the the fact is that I am waiting for a parcel of new underwear to arrive. This shows the mighty and stunning power of the Internet, as well as the relative absurdity of the so-called free-market.

I cannot be the only person who believes that some things are important. In fact, I think that everything is important i.e. if you are going to spend money on something then make sure it's what you want (or as close to it as available). Earlier in the year I ordered some shoes via Australia, which were delivered to my house via Bordeaux. This because I wear a large size and could simply not get hold of the specific brand and model of shoes I wanted (they are close to perfect for me due to a unique and effective design) in the whole of England. Shoes to me are the most important foundation garment, closely followed by socks. Because my feet are medically taxing and highly unusual, I have to be extremely careful. You'd be amazed at how even slightly incorrect socks can lead to significant increases in pain and losses in stamina when applied to my feet. So when, after much trial and error, I discovered a brand and model that fitted and were comfortable I stuck with them. Even different colours of the same sock possess slightly different qualities. For several years I was able to get the ones I wanted, but then suddenly they became scarce in my local clothes emporia.The Internet came to my rescue. I bought a wholesale pack of them from a gentleman's outfitters in Shropshire - 25 pairs, which at the rate my oddly shaped feet, unusual loading and rate of sock attrition (about 1 a week wears out beyond repair), is a years supply. A side issue was that buying 25 pairs in one fell swoop was a significant saving on buying 2 pairs at a time.

By the way, here's a tip that arose as another side-issue. If you buy all the same make, model and colour of socks, then it eliminates the odd-sock dilemma, as all your socks match. I am aware that this might scupper some observational comic's finely honed routines based on the question "Where do the odd socks go?", as well as a whole series of Far-Side or Far-Side-style cartoons and maybe even one or two children's books, but that is a price I am willing to pay.

So anyway, the next most important foundation garment is underwear. Pants. undercrackers, trolleys, knickers, chuddis, undershorts - whatever you want to call them.

I bought some underwear in the USA about 10 years ago and it was a revelation. I discovered at the time that many Americans were much further down the line of 'designer' underwear than us Brits, who seem only to be able to shop at M&S and one or two other places for their gentleman's foundation items. But on my USA shopping spree I found that the kind of boxer short that I preferred was readily available almost everywhere. Not cheap (the Brits also seem to choose cheapness - three pairs for a fiver - over comfort, perhaps that's why we are all so uptight), but quality. The key with 'Designer' clothes is that they are always massively overpriced, but almost always of better quality than generic stuff or non-designer 'brands'. Ted Baker shirts are silly money, but do last for years and years without looking old. Ralph Lauren gents clothes are, in my experience, excellent quality, even if at full price they are still not worth what they ask. The secret is to get them in a sale, where the price is closer to what they are worth. The clothes last just as long.

I must admit that, at the time, part of the appeal for me was that Calvin Klein pants were the brand a la mode, but in Britain expensive and rare. In the USA I bought one or two pairs of Calvins just to be trendy, but mainly other brands.

They have lasted ten years. TEN YEARS. And that's whilst retaining almost all of their original quality. Not for me falling apart seams, lost buttons and the colour of old chewing gum. No. My black ones are pristine black, the elegant sober grey ones are still elegant sober grey. The white ones could well make you snowblind. That's 12 pairs changed every day for 10 years. Each pair has been washed and dried more than 300 times.

But we know all good things come to an end. The Calvins - the most expensive by far - went first. Around the second half of last year the elastic lost its elasticity and consequently the garments themselves had to go the way of all things. Then one or two of the others started to show signs of weariness and joined them. I tried buying replacements from both M&S and the local supermarket, but they were ill shaped and dreadfully uncomfortable. What's more, after only a few washes they started to look old.

Now, this in no way constitutes an undergarment crisis. I still retained a good week and a half's supply. But I decided to head off any impending shortages by replenishing the numbers.

A search ensued. But what I found was extremely disturbing. Apparently, men have changed shape completely in the last 10 years. It seems now that (according to pictures on the boxes) in order to wear, for example, Calvin Klein brand underwear, men must possess a 24 inch waist, but also have a 32 inch thigh. What's more, the part in the middle (gusset, by the way, is the word that most people say is the one that makes them cringe) has apparently grown wider and wider to a point which is almost anatomically impossible.

Now I'm sure that most women I know would be very used to this idea - that clothes designers often easily get above their station and start expecting people to change to fit their clothes, rather than making the clothes to fit the people. In fact there's a very serious point to be made about how this can devastate women's self esteem and lead to all sorts of complex problems. What do women do when the 'fashion-gurus' decide that waifiness or curviness or the larger or smaller breast size is either in or out this season? It seems totally crazy and not a little cruel to suddenly declare that people themselves are suddenly out of fashion, and that each season clothes are made and sold that only fit or suit a small and specifically shaped number of the public. It's tyrannous.

This does happen more and more with men's clothes. And underwear is a glaring example. In Britain, there is also an issue of size. I'm not a slim guy and never have been and in such matters as undergarments I wear XL or even XXL (same as I wear a size 13 shoe). But try and find some XL designer underwear in Britain is almost impossible. The same goes for extra small people. This might be a question of economics, but either by design or default, people who are not slap bang in the middle of average are excluded from wearing certain clothes. If you are bigger than XL the choice of clothing in general is extremely small. Once you get to 3XL then it's specialist shops (and specialist prices) only. Which is silly, because not only are more people fatter these days, but lots of people who aren't too overweight are just bigger than, say, 40 years ago. I suspect a measure of fashion snobbishness. Some companies don't want certain (i.e. not shaped like models) people to wear their clothes.

But in the USA it's easy to get, for example, Calvin Kleins in a 2XL. It's also dead easy to get an huge range of choice.

So the replenishment of my underwear stock led me to the Internet. A quick search of the make of pants I wanted to buy threw up quite a few results. I decided to stay away from Calvins, even though in the USA they do a traditional knit boxer. It was a small protest against body fascism. So I went looking for another brand and there they were, pants much the same as the ones I'd had and been very happy with for 10 years. Sold by an online retailer in the USA. The fact that they were on sale and therefore cheaper than even cheap ones from M&S, and the shipping was about the same as parking for 2 hours in a UK city centre, was a bonus.

It is moments like this that I tend to stop and wonder at, despite plenty of negatives, what an amazingly revolutionary thing the Internet is. The speed, breadth and ease of communication it affords is almost unbelievable. In it's early days when I used it for email it was pretty stunning that I could send letters to the USA at the click of a mouse. But now I can order crucial items from the other side of the world, as easily as I can go and make a cup of coffee.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

today : delicious comestibes of summer

Jersey Royals, butter, mint. Sublime.

today ...more speed

If the news media IS speeding up all the time, it also seems to be contracting. Like any business, consolidation makes economic sense. Watch any of the three 24 hour news channels available in the UK - BBC, SKY and CNN and they are pretty much the same. Okay, so CNN is not UK focused so does wander off a bit, but all the stories are the same, all the angles are the same and I quite often finding myself thinking where the original journalism has gone. Because with 24 whole hours a day to fill, almost all of it is filled with what is coming in on the newswires and what is in the newspapers (all but one owned by proprietors with an agenda, stealthily undermining the fairness and balance rules of public broadcasting).

The BBC does have chunks of original content, such as Matt Frei's reports from Rio when World News America did a week there and some of the material was recut for UK broadcast, They also have HardTalk, On The Record, Reporters, Click etc. But these are tucked away at the weekend and late at night.

All news begins to look the same and sound the same. Crucially it has the same content.

I don't know whether there was some mythical golden age of original journalism and investigative reporting in the past. Actually I don't really care. What worries me is that, as news contracts, knowledge and opinion is under threat. Where there should me more in-depth journalism, we have more and more 'churnalism' and superficial reporting.

A few months ago, Charlie Brooker showed an excellent montage of clips on his Newswatch show. It was financial correspondents trying to explain 'quantititive easing'. All of them failed in a hilarious and embarrassing manner. Some tried to make simple metaphors and visual representations to help us, the stupid public, understand. Some of them sounded as if they really didn't understand the idea themselves.

There is also the influence of the news cycle on politics. How many times have we heard a review being announced in the past decade? It's the de rigeur way of deflecting a bad news story without actually taking action. All that needs to happen is the appearance of action until the next story comes along in 24 hours or so.

Either that or speedily announce a resignation or a change in the law. Anything to shut down the negative feeding frenzy. Gordon Brown was fatally wounded by this endless disapproval from the press and media - death from a thousand tuts.

It was interesting to see that the Coalition's response to the Cumbria Murders was to insist that they would take no hasty action on gun control. I wonder of they have learned the lesson of quick but shoddy laws that began with the dangerous dogs act and has continued ever since.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Sunday, June 06, 2010

today : the speed of the machine

Did we used to be so immediate? Did everything always happen on a minute by minute basis or has that only happened in recent times.

I ask this because I squirmed at the fact that a pro-gun guy was being interviewed on the TV on Wednesday evening - about 4 hours after the Cumbria massacres. He was forced to defend the ownership and use of rifles and shotguns. His argument was that any ban would impact Olympic sports. All this while the blood was still cooling on the streets of the Lake District. I cannot imagine that he volunteered for it (if he did then I hope he feels as uncomfortable about it as I do). I am guessing that he was invited to comment as the news channels scrabbled for angles to cover, given that actual facts were emerging slowly and there are only so many times you can repeat scant information.

The news media was caught in a bind. An event of such impact means they feel they have to suspend all other reporting and focus on one story. Only, as these things unfold, there is always a lack of information to fill extended tracts of time.

The next morning, 16 or so hours after the event, Radio 5's phone in was "Do you think guns should be banned?" Inviting opinionated callers to argue about the merits of gun ownership whilst the people of West Cumbria woke up to fresh grief.

But the story doesn't end there. Once you've set up an OB unit and sent a couple of big-hitting anchors to the scene then you have to justify it by keeping it as your main story. Hence the presenters are actually standing in front of the taxi rank where someone was gunned down in cold blood not 24 hours ago. They point it out. Not with glee exactly, but with a tone that - perhaps unintentionally - borders on prurience.

And stuff happens. Like releasing names of victims because the people around the town have given them to you. No thought that there might be reasons the police have withheld names - how about that relative in New Zealand or on holiday in Ibiza who doesn't really want to switch on BBC World to find their brother or lover is dead, or someone needing dental records checking? Or patronising the town as some simple little backwater, and its people as unsophisticated yokels. Or filling the gaps in the facts by falling back on cliched speculations.

And asking people how they feel, then asking them again. How do you feel that this happened in front of you? What was it like to see someone shot in the face? How do you feel that this happened in your town? Did you ever think it would happen here? How did you feel when you found out how many were dead? How do you feel about gun ownership? Will you ever feel safe going out shopping again?

24 hour news has an endless habit of repeating everything several times over, then over again (like a monkey with a miniature cymbal, you might say). Someone tells you what will be asked on PMQs, then they show it and someone else cuts in over the top to restate what's being said. Then after it's all over someone else - or several people - spend more time retelling what you've just heard, explaining it, re-explaining it and then explaining their opinion of it. It's annoying but they do have hours and hours to fill. The interviewers will rephrase the same question three, maybe four times and receive the same answer. Then suddenly they declare that they're out of time and have to go to the weather. And all that is fine when it's asking a football manager about his potential transfer targets, or a politician about some policy to do with recycling.

But when it comes to brutal mass-murder and its victims and survivors it's just not the right thing to do. Okay, ask how someone feels, but then let them get on with their life.

This week there were two or three people - eye-witnesses - who appeared on every channel, every radio station and in every newspaper. Were they seduced by the thought of being on camera and being a bit-part actor in the scene? One or two of them might have been. But I am guessing that once they'd done one interview or given one account, a queue formed. Who knows if they even got paid somehow? Who'd blame them if they were?

And then come the 'forensic psychologists'. Some of them are clearly legit, some are chancers who like appearing on telly and doing that 'expert' thing. All spout the usual stuff that anyone can pick up from CSI or any number of crime novels. The fact is, nobody knows what caused this terrible thing. Nobody knows what ever causes these things because the perpetrators don't explain. They probably can't, which is why they do their talking through the barrels of guns.

I saw an interview with a Hungerford witness/survivor. The first thing he said was that as soon as he saw the news on Wednesday, he was a waiting for the phone to ring and to see the TV trucks roll into Hungerford to vox-pop the people. It was Friday. Less than two days after the Cumbria story first broke.

Did it all go so quick in the past. Did this machine kick into gear, overbomb the story, devour the people affected and then roll onto the next event, all before a single funeral has even been arranged?

Thursday, June 03, 2010

today : I don't deny the obvious

Songs aren't poetry. Of course, they can be poetic, but there is something about a song that means that without rhythm, melody and intonation, the lyrics alone always appear shrunken.

I was watching the news the other evening. I think it was ABC CBS or CNN or something. They showed a montage of famous people giving commencement speeches at US Universities. One of them was Paul Simon, singing with a guitar. He looked like an old man. It made me realise that the last time I remember seeing him was when he was promoting his 2000 album You're The One - which makes it ten years ago. Can't blame him for ageing in ten years. Or for looking like a grandfather. He is almost 70.

Then, on something on TV promoting the World Cup I heard a snippet of 'Homeless'. It made me go and listen to Graceland again. It's been a couple of years since I heard it.

It took me until I was 40 to start appreciating Joni Mitchell - who is roughly Simon's contemporary and could be put in a similar genre category. Until then I was always aware of her. She, like he, just exists in musical culture. Even people who don't know it's her know Big Yellow Taxi or Clouds. Even people who don't know it's him know Sounds of Silence or Bridge over Troubled Water or Diamonds on The Soles of Her Shoes.

That's what great about music. There's loads of it, and you can start to explore different areas at any time. My current favourite track is Ventura Highway by America. I'd heard it plenty but suddenly, a couple of weeks ago I really listened to it. Can't stop playing it in the car. It sounds like California.

I'm glad in a way that I left Joni until I was already steeped in jazz and older folk music. I can appreciate the fact that she moved away from peoples' taste towards the late 70s as she herself began writing and singing looser - influenced by post be-bop and other non-mainstream fare. It meant that I could see where she was going. Some people find her unbearable, and I can get that, but I love her music more and more.

It took me until even after Joni to really get to Paul Simon. What I liked about Graceland was that it did mark a change in his writing. He too, took a musical detour and it led him to write in a looser and more interesting way.

I never really listened to it when it came out. I was at college and it was kind of the soundtrack of the times. I did hear You Can Call Me Al on the radio and was struck by it's fantastic bassline, but I was following Loyd Cole, Paddy MaCaloon and others more obscure and now forgotten. In fact I felt the kind of distaste that young people can feel for anything that is too popular and mainstream, so turned my nose up at fellow students who listened to Sting's solo album and Graceland. The times meant that Simon was pilloried for breaking sanctions, and I stayed out of that one too. I was (and am still) generally all for sanctions, provided that they are properly done and targeted at the richest parts of a regime and its supporters who will feel them in the pocket most. I bought Little Steven's Sun City album and thought that such an embargo was okay. After all, Sun City was a resort for rich, white South Africans. Graceland seemed slightly different. It never really appeared to be exploitative. Without it perhaps Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Miriam Makebe and lots of township music would not have been so popular worldwide. On its simplest level, Simon gave work to some black South African musicians who toured with him and built careers outside their home country.

It wasn't until years later that I listened to Boy In The Bubble on someone else's car stereo. It's fantastic. I listened to it today, then flicked the CD back and listened to it again.

It is extremely rare for any artist to last so long. Simon has been going for almost 50 years. It's even rarer for them to not burn out artistically and then continuously repeat themselves. Ironically, I think that because he was such an icon of the 60s and could have retired in 1970 leaving behind a pretty peerless greatest hits album, people have under-appreciated him. He doesn't have the obsessive literature and analysis that someone like Dylan, or even Mitchell attracts. Maybe he is too easy on the ear and just too damn popular amongst people who aren't generally obsessive or snobbish about their music.

What changed for me when I really started listening to the whole output from Tom and Jerry onwards (somehow I missed his last album Surprise) was that always thought of him as a great songwriter. But I never quite appreciated what a great musician and singer he is. I don't think I am the onnly one guilty of this.

I could write all about the songs. The art and the craft. How he somehow manages to use language that is both meaningful and meaningless at the same, how he has a gift for the bon mot, or ligne mot that sticks in the mind - 'angels in the architecture, negotiations and love songs, the words of the prophet are written on the subway walls and tenement halls, like a bridge over troubled waters, I will lay me down, when they wake up they will find all their personal belongings are intertwined, everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance, home - where my love lies waiting silently for me, the Mississippi delta was shining like a National guitar.' How he manipulates the rhymes and rhythms of language so musically, constructs songs so carefully and precisely and throws in complex melodic twists whilst creating eminently hummable and deceptively simple tunes.

But what I really wanted to do was to just pay tribute to his endless musical journeying and his precise but relaxed singing, his detailed and skilled guitar work and his ability to conjure up musical frames for his lyrics that enhance their poetic nature. He is pretty much a genius.
As an example, the S&G setting of Scarborough Fayre. The music that soundtracks dreams.