30 November, 2005

Made up

While I'm writing this, the album 'Focus' by Stan Getz is playing.

I've owned this album for all of one a half weeks, but I can already safely say it's one of the greatest jazz recordings ever.

I should point out I have an absolutely miniscule collection of jazz, have never been to see jazz played live, and more or less stopped listening to it altogether for a while after suffering three years as pianist in the school jazz band - a position I occupied against my will on the orders of the decidedly non-hirsute Head of Maths who moonlighted as a jazz "buff" in his lunchhour.

Despite all this the jazz albums that I do own I love dearly. I'd read about 'Focus' being some kind of landmark in popular music (it was released in 1961) thanks to the way it mixed pure improvisation (Getz's saxophone) with a meticulously scored string orchestra (by Eddie Sauter). I already owned Getz's other two most famous albums, 'Jazz Samba' and 'Getz/Gilberto', so I kind of knew what to expect by way of personality and temperament; namely, the coolest and the smartest dressed saxophone player ever to come out of the United States. With strings.

I wasn't prepared, however, for the album's heady mix of classical sensibilities (order, structure, finesse) and popular emotion (tunes that bubble up from nowhere and stick in your head for ages). An inevitable commercial flop and critical masterpiece, 'Focus' has got some of the sharpest song titles around ('I Remember When', 'I'm Late I'm Late', 'A Summer Afternoon'), none of your over-lush American attitude that dictates "sax and violins" equals muzak, and can be the soundtrack for any mood you choose.

There isn't supposed to be any other piece of music like it in the world. But the crucial thing is it's not like that for the sake of it; it's not trying to be different and ending up self-conscious and arty and facile. It's unique and sincere at the same time, and I can think of few other recordings in the whole history of music that would fit that description.

I spend so much of my life surrounded by words - typing them, reading them, conjuring with them, arming myself with them - that to escape into such a distinctive confection of pure sound, one that's all the more potent for being mostly made up, is a welcome tonic.

29 November, 2005

Dimensionally transcendent

The front cover of the Christmas double issue Radio Times has been revealed - and it's the TARDIS.

Fine as this undoubtedly is, I'm not sure about devoting the entire cover to just one programme. Radio Times hasn't done that for a fair few years, preferring to go with some kind of seasonal tableau or a gaudy confection of baubles and tinsel. I can imagine the sight of the good Doctor's calling card adorning one of the most crucial of all festive armchair props pissing a lot of people off.

In addition I almost don't want there to be any more publicity about the Christmas Doctor Who, in case it turns out to be even slightly less than my already Everest-sized expectations will allow. All the same, it's somewhat thrilling to see the show get such a plug, the same way it bagged the front of RT earlier in the year not once but twice.

And what with all the snow from yesterday having already disappeared, seeing the cover has done no small job in helping to kindle a bit of nicely premature Christmas spirit.

Other Type 40 time machines are available.

28 November, 2005

White stuff

I'm at work, and it's snowing.

27 November, 2005

Retail ramble

One way I get exercise is to walk to Woolton Village every weekend to do some shopping. It's a round trip of about four miles, gives me a chance to clear my head and refocus my eyes after a week staring at a computer screen, and takes in some of the most secluded, beautiful parts of Liverpool I've ever seen.

It's a route that bisects the city's Beatles tourist trail, meaning the customised Magical Mystery Tour bus lumbers into view from time to time. But the titular coach never seems to show up on Sunday mornings - along with most of the residents of the area - so this is the best time to stroll round one of the most Beatles-esque, yet one of the least Liverpool-esque, neighbourhoods to be found.

The main reason for that, I'm sure, is do with the fact that Woolton and its surrounding area is on a hill, at one remove from the rest of the unpreposessing sprawl that is Merseyside, and which was only incorporated into the city a few decades ago. So there's still a strong sense of identity and insularity - it calls itself a Village, for heaven's sake - fuelled by a shameless affluence, and once you're meandering round its quiet streets and alleys you really could be anywhere in the Home Counties.

Anyway, this retail ramble is, as I've discovered, best done in the autumn and winter when the dozens of trees that line the roads and parks are deep red, half-bare and wonderfully wistful-looking. This time of year there's also loads of leaves on the ground, which means you're able to shuffle your feet along the pavement engaging in, ahem, mulch ado about nothing.

My route takes me through the fine Reynolds Park, past St Peter's Church where Eleanor Rigby is buried and where McCartney first met Lennon at a village fete in 1957, then into the village proper alongside the bizarrely named Duck Pond car park and the old club house.

As you can see, it's a much-photographed vicinity; even my destination is available to view online. Then having struggled past the inevitable herds of pensioners who always seem to be dawdling round Sainsbury's aisles of a weekend morning, and run the gauntlet of the checkouts through which I always seem to be chased by another old person unwilling to allow me enough time to pack my bags and get myself together, it's back out and past the old cinema, a return through the park, and a pleasing descent back to my flat taking in Gateacre Grange (where, so some distant relative once assured me, my great-grandfather used to live - used to work more like, probably picking up leaves in the garden), and, in the far distance, the glorious sight of Winter Hill.

Over the eleven years I've lived in Liverpool I've contrived to move further and further away from the city centre, growing sequentially pissed off with the noise, atmosphere and burgeoning gangs of kids that roam the inner suburbs. I'm now right on the very edge, as far away as it's possible to be from Liverpool itself without falling into another region altogether. If - when - I have to move again, it's going to have to be right away from Merseyside. There's nowhere else left to go.

26 November, 2005

Perfect circle

I once read an article about how scientists in America had undertaken a study into the optimum number of people the human brain feels comfortable knowing. They'd conducted various psychological tests and empirical research, and had discovered the ideal quantity of friends or acquaintances a person should aspire towards having was 100.

I remember thinking at the time how this sounded absurd: nobody can have a whole century's worth of friends. I wasn't too bothered with the ethical or moral dimension involved in conjuring up such a quota, more - typically - how it impacted on me and my own circumstances.

But then I remember casting back through my own life and finding a point in time when I could indeed claim to know around 100 people - know in the sense of being able to avoid having to always introduce myself, to be on first name terms, and to exchange more than pleasantries.

It was when I was back at school, in the sixth form. I wasn't aware at the time, but thanks to common room culture and various after-school activities I'd somehow landed myself with a circle of acquaintances larger than ever before (or since). I certainly wouldn't have counted all of them as true friends, but they were definitely all people I "knew" in a manner that would satisfy any prospective battery of US scientists and sociologists.

100 people seems a hell of a lot now, more so considering they were all in the same place and hence always around me, every weekday. I know far less people nowadays. A dozen or so at work (none of whom bar two I'd count as friends), a dozen more online, a further dozen scattered around the country who I rarely see or speak to, plus my close family.

Does this place me in a hopelessly tiny minority? The thought of regularly being in an environment boasting 100 people terrifies me today. Yet I will always rate my two years in the sixth form as two of the best years of my life.

I live alone, so I guess the only world I can only ever move in is my own - and I've subconsciously turned that into one where I am as little burden upon as few people as possible, in the belief that I shouldn't dare to presume otherwise. Who says anybody at work would have a care for what goes on in my life outside office hours?

So things have come in a full, though sadly not a perfect, circle: from having a miniscule number of friends for most of my time at school, to enjoying the company of that elusive magic 100, to being back on my own. The innocence of trudging hopelessly round the playground trying to tag along with others has been replaced with the bitter experience of effortlessly winning and equally effortlessly losing a succession of acquaintances in a succession of environments.

Somewhere out there are 100 people, 96 of whom I am perfectly sure have long since forgotten I even existed. Which probably, given all this wittering, is not a bad thing...

25 November, 2005

Autumn Journal

I've quoted from it before, but I feel Louis MacNeice's epic poem 'Autumn Journal' deserves a proper plug.

I'm re-reading it again for the first time since having to study it at university almost ten years ago. While I'm still pretty loathe to return to anything I endured in the name of my degree, 'Autumn Journal' is something I've been itching to go back to for ages. I've only just been able to get hold of a copy, and it's just as ace as I remember thinking it was first time around.

It's essentially one man's account of living in London through the autumn of 1938, told in verse but split into the equivalent of entries in a diary, charting the events - personal, political, social, seasonal - that marked the close of that turbulent year. And it's one of the most beautiful things I've ever read.

The conceit undoubtedly plays a big part; I've kept a diary myself for almost 20 years. But it's the simple, evocative, uncluttered language which MacNeice deploys that really gets me, best summed up by a sentence from the man's own introduction to the work:

"Poetry in my opinion must be honest before anything else, and I refuse to be 'objective' or clear-cut at the cost of honesty."

It's this honesty that makes 'Autumn Journal' so poignant for a time I can never know, nostalgic for a place I will never see, and such a moving testament to a world long long gone. In one section MacNeice declares:

As I go out I see a windscreen-wiper
In an empty car
Wiping away like mad and I feel astounded
That things have gone so far.

Throughout the poem he's alternately baffled and beguiled by the palpable sense - rendered evermore acute by the looming threat of war - of the old order giving way to something new. Preparations for hostilities are potently symbolized by the cutting down of trees on Primrose Hill to make way for anti-aircraft guns:

The night grows wet, the axe keeps falling
The hill grows bald and bleak
No longer one of the sites of London but maybe
We shall have fireworks here by this day week.

And while I've never read a better description of embarking on a trip on the London Underground -

And so to London and down the ever-moving Stairs
Where a warm wind blows the bodies of men together
And blows apart their complexes and cares.

- I've also never come across a more plaintive summary of the dangers of wallowing in the past, of imagining yourself back in a better time only to discover yourself trapped in a reverie of half-truth and illusion:

How one can imagine oneself among them
I do not know
It was all so unimaginably different
And all so long ago.

Like all great poetry 'Autumn Journal' is accessible, inclusive and full of resonances of today. There's precious little online about Louis MacNeice, but this is as fine a place to start as any - other than purchasing a copy of 'Autumn Journal' yourself, of course, and reading it in time with this autumn's steady fade into the dusk of the year.

24 November, 2005

Brewing up

I don't drink coffee, so every time I find myself in a place like Starbucks (not very often, to be honest) I'm always at a loss at what to order. I say that, but what I really mean is at a loss at how to order. I know what I want: a cup of tea. What I don't know is how to get the cup of tea I want (black, quite weak).

There never seems to be the option to simply select A Cup Of Tea. It has to be of a particular blend, or particular leaf, or particular size. But how do I know which one I'll like? How do I know which is the closest to A Cup Of Tea? Why should I feel like I need to know the names of the world's tealeaves before offering one of these places my custom?

In the end I usually give in and order a hot chocolate. The belief, seemingly hardwired into the national political psyche, that all that people want in this country is endless choice leaves me utterly bemused. It's substituting the reassurance you feel in knowing what you want and how to get it with the uncertainty of having to commit to a process that's based more on competition than convenience.

When cold ideology comes between you and a hot drink, something's gone wrong. I'd like to see a Lyon's Tea Shop back in every high street. And sometimes I'd just like to have the choice to have no choice.

23 November, 2005

Night train

Picking up on a theme from yesterday, the current cold snap has had another unexpected impact on the world outside my window. All those distant suburban sounds I'd previously only catch from time to time if the traffic fell silent and the wind was blowing the right way have been amplified no end. And one consequence of this is that the noise of the Liverpool-London mainline train thunders through the flat like I was next door to the track instead of several miles away.

There's always been something very moving about, to coin a handy phrase, the sound of a train in the distance - precisely why it's turned up in so many songs. To shamelessly namedrop another pertinent lyric, it takes a lot to laugh, it takes a train to cry.

When I was growing up I used to be able to hear the noise of the Sheffield-London train quite distinctly at night, even though the station was right on the opposite side of town. That was probably when I must have started to associate the sound with the dark, and attach all sorts of magical, mysterious connotations to it. There was a time when the words 'Night Train' symbolised little more for me than a songbook standard that used to get slaughtered by the school jazz band, of which I was an unwilling member. But then I found myself, many years later on a family holiday to Fort William in Scotland, staying up late to wait for the lights of the last mainline train to pass in the distance and the sound of its engines to fade, experiencing precisely the same thrilling sensations all over again.

Now all those sentiments are flooding back, as once more I'm getting to hear the rush and the clatter of passing carriages, trundling through the blackness with the same eerie momentum and poignant clarity.

All the cliches are true, I'm afraid: when a train goes by it is a sad sound.

22 November, 2005

Making tracks

For as long as I can remember, a part of me has always been thrilled by the London Underground map.

It's just such a perfectly formed, expertly realized yet continually intriguing design. It's also the best example I can think of that shows how something can be both functional and beautiful at the same time. Harry Beck's the one to thank.

Its secret is that it's endlessly hypnotic. Even when really young I used to try and copy it, or make individual maps of the different lines, or invent new lines to criss-cross the existing ones. It also gets burned into your brain. Whenever I go to London I try and clear some time to just get on the Tube and go anywhere I feel like, travelling out to some of those magical-sounding distant stops far out towards the ends of the lines - Colliers Wood, Southfields, Burnt Oak, Arnos Grove - and dreaming up new ways to get to and from familiar places.

Earlier this year I managed to catch the repeat of a programme on Sky Travel called The Tube about a bloke called Geoff Marshall and his mate attempting to visit every single London Underground station in one day - the kind of thing I've always secretly wanted to try but never had the time nor means to ever consider seriously. Sadly on that occasion the pair of them failed. It was a great pleasure, however, to discover the other day that not only does Geoff have his own site, but also that he finally broke the record (on his seventh attempt) last year. Hooray! Not sure how you'd square the necessary business of pelting through stations with bulky rucksacks nowadays, though.

21 November, 2005

Mist opportunity

The chill continues. From the moment I woke up, freezing fog has completely covered the part of the city where I live and work. The sun almost broke through at lunchtime, but was fighting a losing battle and had more or less given up by 3pm.

I haven't known a day like it in Liverpool for years. From everywhere being vividly etched in sparkling frost just 24 hours ago, now I can barely see a couple of metres in front of my face. A different kind of silence is abroad: not a respectful, sympathetic one, but a threatening, shifty shroud of nothingness. This isn't the sort of weather to linger and savour. It's the kind to shut out behind locked doors.

The mist and fog is forecast to hang around for at least another day or so, the cold snap even longer - a prediction born out by the fact that the price of domestic gas in the UK has doubled over the last seven days. Meanwhile in the Coastal Observatory on Hilbre Island in Liverpool Bay, a webcam continues to chart our spectacular slide into the kind of winter not seen in Britain for a quarter of a century.

20 November, 2005

Penny dropped

Off the back of seeing the Concert for George again the other week, I've finally got round to buying the re-issue of All Things Must Pass. For years I've only had a poor cassette copy of the thing, taped from a CD I borrowed from the library about a decade ago, which conveniently had no insert or information other than the names of the songs. Now, at last, I've been able to find out who played on what track, and more importantly what George is actually going on about in the songs themselves (the one big drawback about the album being its hamfisted production, Phil Spector joyfully burying the vocals underneath a ton of squawking strings and duelling drummers).

I say that original library copy "conveniently" had no proper blurb in it, but now it seems that was probably a genuinely positive, indeed wholly non-ironic state of affairs. For the lyrics to my favourite song, 'Let It Roll', are completely different (and a whole lot worse) than I'd previously reckoned.

For starters I'd always thought it was called 'Let It Rot', and as such was a dig at 'Let It Be' and how George was pissed off with Paul and how Apple was fucked and so on. Wrong! Secondly, I'd totally misconstrued the words, hearing the intriguing line "The penny rolled across the floor" whereas in reality it's the boring "Let it roll across the floor." But I'd also applied this reasoning throughout the entire song, turning it into a satirical yet strangely poetic statement about the titular coin (i.e. The Beatles' finances) travelling down halls, through doors, caves and mazes, before "rolling into the night". Wrong again! The lyrics are just a load of nonsense about how we should "Let it roll among the weeds" and - erk! - "Find me where ye echo lays".

Suffice to say I've been pissed off by this discovery, and have felt more than a bit cheated. How could the song turn out to be so lame, and after all these years?

It's happened to me before. I used to think 'Listening Wind' by Talking Heads was an eerie tale about American colonialism, with its subject resisting occupation by summoning the power of the eponymous breeze to hasten him and his people to freedom. Then a few months back I read it's about a bloke trying to plant a bomb in an American town, and as such has been "claimed" by US neo-conservatives as an ode to the self-dubbed "war on terror". Bollocks.

I also used to think 'Two Of Us' by The Beatles was written by Macca about him and John. Then I read it was "officially" a love song about him and Linda, which is just preposterous. How does the middle bit about "You and I have memories longer than the road that stretches out ahead" refer to a woman he's only known for 18 months or so?

Worse of all, I completely misunderstood the fantastic Ben Folds Five song 'Missing The War'. For a long time I had concluded - not having listened to the words properly - that it was on the insightful topic of people who, having lived through periods of protracted military conflict which have come to totally dominate their world and their every waking moment, now miss the bonds and relationships and customs (both good or ill) such dark days cultivate. I know, I clearly have too much time on my hands. Anyway, then I read the lyrics and saw it was just about a man and a woman pining for the days they used to have rows over the kitchen sink.

I wish the penny hadn't dropped.

19 November, 2005

Frost report

The temperature has barely struggled above freezing today, something that's completely upended the normal look and feel of the outside world.

I had to go into Liverpool city centre, which I normally hate doing on a Saturday as the place is traditionally heaving, noisy and manic. Today, however, I found it transformed into a bewitching, beguiling landscape where all the harshness and hostility had been tempered by the unexpectedly Arctic conditions.

Even though the sun was blazing away, patches of ice and frost remained encamped upon the ground at every turn, masking the dirt and the grime and all the straight lines. There was an incredible colour to the sky, a soft bluey-white gauze that threw all the angular buildings and increasingly-skeletal trees into hugely sympathetic relief, while dappling the sunlight into a thousand prisms of gold. A stillness pervaded everywhere. People went about their business mute and muffled.

This cold snap has taken everyone by surprise, and most seem to just want to get back to some place warm where they can control their surroundings. I'm just thrilled at nature reasserting itself in a manner befitting the time of year. There are only five weeks to Christmas after all.

I'm lucky to live quite a way out of the city, and as I write I can almost smell the silence which I can sense through the window. Smoke is rising lazily from chimneys, silouhetted against the wispy bleached clouds, while the wistful red and brown leaves are making their sedate way softly to the ground and birds are settling down for the night. In the same way the world always feels newly distilled and reinvigorated after a thunderstorm, a dose of proper winter re-focuses and heightens your surroundings wondrously after the blurred, mushy mess of late summer.

Meanwhile last night's Doctor Who one-off was truly fantastic - Stuart sums it up perfectly. I wondered if anybody would be talking about it on the bus, like they were when the show was back on Saturday nights earlier this year. Not so. Instead all I heard was two women discussing why Natasha Kaplinsky had a "mature face".

18 November, 2005

Bear facts

It's the night of the BBC Children In Need telethon. This annual passing of the Corporation collection plate has evolved dramatically over the last quarter of a century from what I dimly remember as a functional studio-based sequence of pledges and pleas to an all too prescient hysterical studio-based pageant of newsreaders dressing up, soap stars singing show tunes and "special" TV skits and spoofs.

There's nothing else like it on British television, and that's probably just as well. Compared to Comic Relief - its younger brother - Children In Need contains surprisingly few "serious bits", hardly any sense of occasion, a really unimaginative attitude towards choosing the featured artists and acts, and presenters who rarely show any respect towards their audience. Sometimes you feel that just raising the money isn't enough.

Yet you still get things like the Today programme selling customised eggcups, and a special Doctor Who mini-episode which I'm about to tune in for and which somewhat implausibly picks up from the almighty cliffhanger of the last series. But overall it's a far cry from the sense of excitement and anticipation which accompanied those first telethons back in the late 80s, when staying up to watch TV past 10pm and into the realms of authentically "alternative" and unexpected entertainment was one of the biggest kicks you could get.

I remember the first Comic Relief in 1988 completely obsessing my entire school, so much so that our miserable form tutor even turned up sporting a red nose - albeit one he'd made himself by colouring in part of an egg carton, being such a tight bastard he couldn't even bother to buy an official plastic one. But then when I was older and Comic Relief came round again, I was deeply unwilling to be co-opted - as was everyone - into taking part in a giant, well, "happening" is the only way to describe it, wherein everyone had to stand in a giant circle then lower themselves onto the lap of the person behind them. If this sounds highly preposterous as well as hugely undignified, it was. Our collective shame was only saved by the side of one of the (male) deputy heads parading around the corridors dressed as a nurse.

Of course nobody marked this year's Children In Need at work. Some kids from the creche came round with some fairy cakes, but that was it. What with that and the similar disinterest shown last week towards wearing poppies, you'd think Christmas wasn't celebrated either. You're right. There are never any decorations in our office, because nobody can be arsed to buy any. At times it feels like the most miserable place on earth. Trouble is, those times are between 9am and 5.30pm every weekday.

But enough of that, because a giant one-eyed yellow freak is beckoning out of the TV set. The last time Pudsey Bear - for it is he - ushered a special Doctor Who production onto screen, it was the woeful 'Dimensions In Time' in 1993 ("Pickled in time, like gherkins in a jar!"). This year's effort must surely be better. There's no way it can be any worse. "Please, do dig deep!"

17 November, 2005

Battered Chomsky

It's a lazy inversion of a really ancient and over-used truism, but today's news is no longer just tomorrow's fish and chip paper.

The fact that The Guardian has had to remove from its website archive an interview with the writer Noam Chomsky is a potent reminder of how what used to have a 24-hour lifespan and exist solely in newsprint now hangs around forever online, waiting to be revisited, re-evalued and end up becoming news all over again.

I can't profess to be particularly au fait with the old Professor's mutterings, other than to know he shares some of that familiar and irritating "have cause, will shout" mentality of mercurial protest groups down the ages. Plus he seems to have an inordinate capacity for changing his mind, or even holding two conflicting theories in his head at the same time - a walking embodiment of George Orwell's doublethink.

I know he declared Clinton's erroneous bombing of a pharmaceutical plant in 1998 to be more of a crime than the attacks of 11th September 2001, and that back in the 1970s he refused to concede that Pol Pot was a maniac and a mass murder - ironically leaving such a task of admission to, of all people, Simon Groom off Blue Peter. Yet still the Professor professes to oppose all evidences of militarism and dictatorship - as long as it's being done unto others by the US, not vice versa.

The Guardian were clearly in the wrong this time, but while it's right to declare ownership of the intention of words, nobody can claim posession of their interpretation. Words mean whatever the reader wants them to mean, and if by shouting louder than everyone else you leave yourself open to ambiguity and double-meaning - let alone doublethinking - what can you expect but to turn as many heads as stomachs. As far as fish and chip paper is concerned, Noam's been properly battered.

16 November, 2005

In tune

Some of the greatest songs ever written have been about the business of songwriting itself. This is arguably because it's the sort of challenge that seems to spur songwriters to delve that bit deeper and work that bit harder to fashion something they hope will be of universal class and immediate understanding.

But it's also undoubtedly because most vocations in the world cannot themselves be the source of other people's art and entertainment. I was once fortunate enough to get a chance at it by way of setting to music a batch of lyrics penned by my best friend at school - more of which another time. Even though I guess you could call me a professionally trained musician, I sense my days of performing - in any public capacity - are long gone. Yet I'm still struck and quite often moved by those instances where the very practice of creating great music has also inspired the creation of great music.

I know song lyrics aren't really meant to be reproduced in any other form than in song - if they were intended to be read off a bit of paper or on a computer screen they'd be poems - but when you find yourself spending the day humming phrases and singing lines from such an expertly constructed, beautifully articulate yet effortlessly melodic one as this, it's worth breaking the rules:

'Song For The Asking', by Paul Simon

This is my song for the asking
Ask me and I will play
So sweetly I'll make you smile

This is my tune for the taking
Take it, don't turn away
I've been waiting here, all my life

Thinking it over I've been sad
Thinking it over I'd be more than glad
To change my ways for the asking
Ask me and I will play
All the love that I hold inside.

15 November, 2005

Pipe dreams

The fact the daytime temperature in Liverpool has now dropped to single figures for the first time since the spring suggests that this might be on the cards after all. Enthusiastically rubbished by the press when first mooted - not least because just over a week later came the warmest October day for more than 100 years - I have to admit a properly cold spell is a deeply enticing prospect. Mild, wet winters are wrong in so many ways. You want to be able to leave the house first thing in the morning and feel the cold whack you in the face like a giant frosty flannel. When the skies are brillianly clear and your breath steams in the soft sunlight, even the grimmest of environments takes on a kind of beauty.

Anyway, there's hasn't been a genuine freeze for so long I guess it'd seem laughable to young kids today that it was only 20 years ago when schools could be shut for days on end thanks to flooded basements, leaking pipes and exploding boilers. It's no myth that weather has got warmer over the past few decades. Snow used to fall non-stop for several days on my hometown every winter, and on each occasion my primary school would close while blizzards raged, radiators packed in and the outside toilets (oh yes) froze solid. There's precious little more thrilling in life than being actively encouraged not to go to school (especially when the instruction comes from the school itself) and those days were always to be treasured, even if I really didn't know how at the time.

What I found more impressive was the way snow went on to not only shut down my secondary school, a far more robust and modern building (with copious inside toilets and plumbing that was barely 10 years old), but also the sprawling community college where I did my GCSEs and A Levels. This was a massive place, including several buildings, numerous classrooms and endless portacabins, but which was summarily closed for three whole days when the boiler blew up and a thousand pipes cracked in glorious unison.

The blizzard was so heavy that year that it also knocked out power over half the town. It was incredible to me that in such an ostensibly advanced age - this was the start of the 1990s - everyone and everything could be so in thrall to a bit of unusually inclement weather. I remember being pissed off I couldn't watch a re-run of Not Only But Also on BBC2. I also remember being called upon to share my battery-powered radio amongst the rest of the family. Having to endure the sound of Your Hundred Best Tunes with Alan Keith trilling through a candlelit blisteringly cold living room did not make for the most heartwarming of scenes.

With no streetlights working the town shut down as soon as the sun set, and I saw very few people indeed out on the streets after 5pm. It was a thoroughly timeless and surreal few days, with virtually no contact with anybody else and an insular and slightly suspicious atmosphere palpable throughout the neighbourhood. My mum was more concerned with the freezer starting to defrost than my needling paens to the dim and disparate community in which we lived, yet I sensed a nervousness setting in come the third day and no news of when the power would be returning. Yet once it did, and school re-opened, everybody behaved like the preceding period of Blitz-like existence had never happened. It was textbook "let us never speak of it again" behaviour, and left me bemused and not a little depressed.

It might be foolish to dream of broken pipes and power cuts, but there's a part of me that can't wait to see the world brought to a standstill once again thanks to a solitary night's snowfall.

14 November, 2005

Late shift

I've been having problems sleeping recently, ironically in part because I've been going to bed with my head filled up with things I wanted to say on here but had neither the time nor inclination to articulate. I thought starting this would help clear my mind of semantic clutter, but in fact the reverse seems to be true. That's no reason to stop of course, more a suggestion (or warning) that words, like cheese, are not best chewed on before turning in for the night.

13 November, 2005

Suburban skies

I spent a year of my life living in a house just off Penny Lane.

I didn't intentionally seek out a property at that location; it was more a question of expediency - it was coming to the end of the university year, I was about to be kicked out of my hall of residence, and me and three others needed a house to live urgently. This was the first one we found that was cheap and available to let. It was an absolute dump (no central heating, dodgy gas fires, appalling plumbing, dirt and crap everywhere) but it worked out at something like £30 rent a week and that was all that mattered. The landlord was later prosecuted for fraud, or trying to pollute his tenants to death, or probably both.

Anyway it was just round the corner from Penny Lane, and hence this mythological location became just another street, the one where I bought my newspaper and did my washing and got emergency groceries and, at the top of the road, where I got my hair cut. The place lost all significance. I didn't notice this at the time. I only realized it retrospectively, and it still saddens me that I put myself in a position where I allowed it to happen.

It wasn't that the Beatles associations weren't ever-present. Bus loads of foreign (usually Japanese) tourists regularly turned up to ask me if I knew Paul McCartney. The hairdressers' had loads of Beatles photos up on the walls, together with an incongrously positioned group shot of the staff meeting Jason McAteer and Jamie Redknapp. One day a giant film crew arrived and closed off the whole street to shoot the video for 'Free As A Bird'. Dovedale Junior School, which George Harrison and John Lennon attended, was a few hundred metres away.

Instead I just blocked all this out, not wishing to seem unduly smitten by my environment and preferring to maintain an air of steely detachment. Plus I was preoccupied with just surviving in such a terrible house (fellow residents included - well, almost all of them).

But even though I now live much further out from Liverpool City Centre, I still get the bus over to Allerton to get my hair cut at the same place (10 years this autumn). If only circumstances had been more conducive back then to enable me to appreciate where I was. Or perhaps that was impossible. Perhaps you're not supposed to live in such places, merely visit them briefly and treasure them as memories.

Certainly two musical pilgrimages I made with my best friend to Stretford, Manchester in December 1993 and London in April 1994 continue to resonate today. Both were day trips, both inspired by our shared interest in The Smiths and The Beatles. The former we honoured by trudging round the area near Kings Road, speculating as to the whereabouts of an old grey school or some cemetery gates. The latter witnessed visits to Abbey Road and Macca's house in Cavendish Avenue, before ending up down at Clapham Common (Morrissey again) and then to Oxford Street for shopping.

Both occasions were a bit like those episodes of Grange Hill that followed characters during the course of a Saturday to see what kind of good-natured shenanigans went on away from the classroom: full of high-spirits, unexpected discoveries, amusingly doomed endevaours, and exhausting treks around unfamiliar territory in the hope of chancing upon that elusive end of the rainbow. Because of that, and because we really didn't do much together outside our hometown, these experiences were effortlessly joyful and will stay with me forever.

So much of my life spent dwelling off Penny Lane was a struggle, however, that I can't bring myself to recall it with anything other than regret. Streets and houses which become famous for being lived in are fine if the people in residence are always unique. The magic fades as soon as you move in yourself, and the placename instantly switches from the lyric of a song to the address to which your council tax is sent.

12 November, 2005

Zero hour

From 'Autumn Journal' by Louis MacNeice:

And a train begins to chug and I wonder what the morning
Paper will say,
And decide to go quickly to sleep for the morning already
Is with us, the day is today.

11 November, 2005

Flanders fields

As usual, nobody respected the two-minute silence at work this morning. For all the time I've been there they've never once made an effort to commemorate such an event, nor the other two-minute silences that seem to be turning up with increasingly regularity in the national calendar. Nobody was wearing a poppy either. Nobody ever does.

I'm pretty sure this isn't out of ignorance, more of not wanting to imbue the place with any acknowledgement of reality. I'm all for this sentiment, if that's what it is, because I hate to see real life intruding into my current workplace, be it through celebrations of birthdays, anniversaries, weddings or even the purchase of a new car or item of clothing. It's not somewhere I want to be anyway, so why dignify it with more than the barest of recognition?

Remembrance day has swum in and out of my consciousness down the years, starting I suppose in the early 1990s when I read in my local paper that the traditional display of wreaths and poppies placed around the base of the war monument in my hometown had been "brutally vandalised". In truth all that had happened was that the display had been kicked around a bit, but the newspaper had a field day, as did the batteries of "I am quite frankly disgusted" letterwriters. I was more intrigued by the news which emerged several months later that the people who'd committed the deed were all people from my school, including several close friends. They did it as "an act of anti-war protest", with which I had a great deal of sympathy, though remember this was the time of the first Gulf War, when our school radio was closed down for fear of broadcasting "destabilising" content, i.e. Paul McCartney's 'Pipes Of Peace'.

The war monument in question had been the subject of an original school play in which I'd taken part a few years earlier, and which had, rather ambitiously, gone "on the road" to the West German town with which my own town was twinned. What our continental cousins made of squeaky-voiced, woefully-delivered recitations of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon must remain a historical curiosity. What they made of appallingly unsubtle and poorly-realized tableaux depicting their country's butchery of Europe was made clear enough in their instant and joyful booing.

I know far more now than I did then about the history of warfare, in part thanks to the discovery, which my own parents kept from me for some reason, that one of my grandfathers was a prisoner-of-war from 1942-45. He was captured after the fall of Singapore and shunted around the Japanese Empire with its myriad of miserable detention centres and torture camps, somehow surviving and somehow keeping a diary of his ordeal (an act punishable by immediate execution). It's only recently that I've conspired to make an effort to read the diary myself - the closest I'll ever get to the man, as he died before I was old enough to remember him.

His experiences have undoubtedly helped to round out an understanding of the Second World War I've already spent a great deal of my life reading and writing about at school, university and for my own edification. Yet it's still too remote, and I stupidly wavered the chance to get a bit closer to it all via a 6th form journey round the battlefields of Northern France because - sigh - I was having trouble dealing with the advances of a girl I quite liked but who was tangled up with (of all people) the bass player from The Architects Of Smile and who were both booked on the trip. I sort of compensated for it by sporting a white poppy for much of November 2003, a fashion item that was doing the rounds of the common room and which, bizarrely, were being supplied by Mr Gardner, the religious studies teacher. I've got it to this day, still partly stained by some gravy from the 6th form canteen. I wore it again a few times, once when I was out shopping in Tesco to looks of horror from several pincer-faced pensioners.

It's still my ambition to visit Flanders fields some day. It's also my ambition to get a job some place somewhere that I don't have to treat as a brutal and uncompromising adjunct to the rest of my life. Days like today place my own predicament in the context it deserves.

10 November, 2005

Mood indigo

Struck down with a bad cold, I've had to trudge into work each day this week weighed down with numerous sachets and potions to try and make it through to 5.30pm in one piece (and thereby saving the need to phone in sick for other, more propitious occasions).

At one point I was emptying out a packet of Lemsip and bits of purple powder cascaded everywhere, rendering my desk akin to a miniature Fathers 4 Justice protest. I find it intensely bemusing that this organization continues to garner headlines through tactics that render their cause hopelessly trivial and self-defeating. By way of an advertisement for fatherhood, illegally scaling buildings, disrupting public thoroughfares and hijacking national events is certainly an original strategy. Who'd want to leave their child in the care of someone whose idea of behaviour is to don fancy dress and waste police time by lolling about atop Buckingham Palace or chucking condoms into the House of Commons?

I guess it's just another case of a justifiably relevant issue becoming totally subserviant to the personalities of its supporters and hence losing all credibility in the process. Fathers 4 Justice subtract authority from their cause every time they mount another demented protest, turning a question of morals into a platform for personal hubris and selfish showboating. They're not the first, of course, and won't be the last. The Socialist Workers Party, of whom I have to confess to being a member for about three months in 1995, are the classic case: first look around for another lost cause, then hi-jack it so it becomes your own, then completely overlook any nuance of debate or argument, and finally shout a lot, usually in the high street on a Saturday, to no effect whatsoever.

It might just be my cold talking, but I can't think of any situation in history where change has occurred without people working at least in part within the system, co-opting the existing mechanisms of democracy and government to serve their cause, rather than merely turning their back on everyone, yelling as loud as they can and condeming all those who disagree with their solution as being part of the problem. It goes for both positive and negative change, of course. Mrs Thatcher didn't seize power, she was voted into office - time after time after time. And Hitler only rose to dominance because the National Socialists worked through the German political system, patiently standing for election like everyone else.

Anyway, the requisite four hours are up, so I'm officially allowed to take another Lemsip now. Hopefully this purple patch won't persist into a second week.

09 November, 2005

Ninety days

Today's defeat for the Labour Government is an event of seismic significance.

Tony Blair has never lost a vote before - that's a staggering eight and a half years in power without being beaten in the Commons, a record for any British Prime Minister in at least the last 100 years. It's worth remembering how often the incumbent PM loses votes in this country. John Major, operating for the most part with a Commons majority of 21, lost votes on a weekly basis - not particularly surprising. But Margaret Thatcher before him, even with a majority of over one hundred, tripped up a fair few times, not as regularly as her successor but enough to serve as a reflection of just how polarized and turbulent politics was throughout the 1980s. Indeed, the further you go back the more you find the Commons regularly slapping down the elected Government of the day. Even during the Second World War, when there was a supposed National Coalition Government, Churchill (and more often his hapless predecessor Neville "Peace In Our Time" Chamberlain) fell foul to unexpected groundswells of opposition.

So it's in this context that Tony Blair first turned history on its head by so adroitly marshalling his battery of docile MPs to obey his every whim and word to avoid any defeat for almost a decade, but has now pushed his party that one bit too far. It was long anticipated, often expected, rarely believed but hugely overdue. Whenever you turn an issue of procedure into one of personal authority, more people will recoil simply because it's no longer procedure and all about personality. In this instance it was even more vital given the nature of the issue under vote - proposing to hold people without sentence for ninety days, summarily junking 500 years of English history - and the PM's demented fallback of repeatedly insisting that since it was what the police had asked for, it was therefore right. The implication being that if the army suddenly asked for the shutting down of certain newspapers or organizations, it would also therefore be right, and so on.

Who'd have thought Michael Howard would ever sound more sane, rational and worthy of respect than the leader of the Labour Party? These are fascinating, febrile times, and Tony Blair - as with Thatcher before him - is contriving to erode and decay his chance of remaining in office with increasingly manic aplomb. If there's one useful thing he's taught his party, it's how to survive in office - and hence this time next year he'll be gone.

08 November, 2005

Fatal floor

There's an old woman who lives above me who must conduct the most anti-social lifestyle for a pensioner you could possibly find.

For a long time I thought the flat was occupied by a shift worker, or a petulant recluse with a penchant for spinning Foster and Allen records in the middle of the night. But no, it's a woman of at least 70 years of age, who appears to like nothing more than switching her TV or radio on to full volume at roughly 11pm every night and leaving it like that for the next few hours.

The sound level never falters. It's like trying to sleep under the floor of a multiplex cinema. Don't old people need some rest at night? Moreover, aren't they supposed to like sleeping a lot more than everyone else? For what possible reason does this self-styled crumbling media junkie have for persisting with such a din to such an inhospitable, unreasonable hour? It got so bad I actually had to re-arrange the layout of my flat so I wasn't sleeping directly under this cacophony, and could effectively muffle the sound by keeping my radio on all night tuned to inoffensive static. That's no way to live, awake or asleep.

I saw her once, hobbling around aside on a walking frame, looking as if she hadn't the energy or inclination to withstand a gentle breeze let alone several hundred decibels. I can only reason she must slip into a doze forgetting she's left all her machinery on, and come round none the wiser. Meantime I lie in bed, dreaming up the ten most far-fetched but entertaining ways of disabling all electrical appliances on the floor above me. Permanently.

07 November, 2005

Cover story

Watching the repeat of A Concert For George on BBC4 last week, it was telling how many of the erstwhile (and now permanently) Quiet One's songs sounded vastly superior to the original versions. In fact, all of them did. Whether it was Billy Preston throwing himself into 'My Sweet Lord', Eric Clapton trilling 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps' or Paul McCartney crooning 'All Things Must Pass', in every case the tribute was better than the version recorded by its creator. He may have been a decent songwriter (from 'Taxman' onwards), but George Harrison was certainly no singer. And given he didn't even play the most convincing guitar solos to feature on Beatles records - 'Taxman', 'Sgt Pepper', 'Good Morning Good Morning', 'Get Back' - he wasn't that much cop as an instrumentalist either. A documentary about the Concert For Bangladesh which followed on BBC4 straight afterwards certainly proved as much, with endless shots of Harrison weedily yelping into a microphone while prodding haplessly at his guitar.

It's very rare, of course, for cover versions to so exceed their antecedents. Most times they barely parallel the original by way of imagination or invention. A recent example was Oasis's butchering of The Jam's 'Carnation': not a song it's easy to screw up, given there's not much you can do with it, but Messrs Gallagher and Gallagher did their best, which as usual meant doing their worst, and accordingly Liam bellowed his way through the tender lyric, his voice never varying in tone from that of a fishmonger desperately trying to flog his wares ten minutes before closing.

It was back in 1994 that both the perils and possibilities of cover versions were brought home to me when it was decided to stage a gig at school entirely comprising other people's work. This was my last year at school, and while tradition dictated there had to be some kind of rock gig every summer, this time round nobody seemed prepared to say it had to be a proper one, i.e. any good. An unusually profligate number of prototype groups were jostling for recognition and acclaim in 1994, and presumably to create some kind of level playing field a covers-only policy was introduced. I was supposed to be taking part, in an ad hoc ensemble comprising me, my best friend and a couple of mutual acquaintances. We even did a couple of rehearsals. A curious chain of events then led to us pulling out, however, when word filtered along the 6th form grapevine that a rival group were intending to "sabotage" our performance. Such lamentably outrageous hearsay was grist to our headstrong teenage sentiments. Nobody was going to screw up our act, we concluded. We're better off out of it. Let them make fools of themselves. Which of course is precisely what happened (though I'm hardly likely to claim otherwise).

Anyway, what transpired was as much of an education in how not to do cover versions as you could possibly want. One band was called The Outcasts. They chose this name in the belief it satirically drew attention to the fact nobody liked them. In reality it compounded everybody's estimation of them as being unlamented half-arsed idiots. The lead guitarist took to the stage with a broken foot, and proceeded to do the set sitting in a plastic chair. The drummer lost his sticks. The third stood glumly behind a tiny bank of keyboards. They did three songs: 'The Road To Hell', 'Wonderful Tonight' and 'Money For Nothing'. Everything that is great and fun and exciting about pop music was efficiently and mercilessly driven from the vicinity, never to return. Fortunately, neither did The Outcasts.

The other band of note were called (prepare to wince) The Architects Of Smile. A bizarre conglomerate of an ace drummer, an equally ace bassist, an appalling trumpeter who wore Buddy Holly glasses, a violinist who was sleeping with the guitarist, and a vocalist who was the trumpeter's brother, they went on to fuck up 'Brown Sugar' by not playing the riff (how is it possible to make such a decision?), ruin 'Creep' by shouting all the vocals, invite not riot but ridicule from a cartoon recital of 'Killing In The Name Of', and perpetrate a Salvation Army-esque reading of 'Hard To Handle'. My best mate had fled the venue (the school hall) by this point, leaving me to stand almost completely alone with only two teachers and a female acquaintance for company. We didn't applaud.

In retrospect it was clear the whole thing was doomed from the outset. What were we to know, at just 18 years old, about interpreting the classics? Me and my friend had deliberately goaded the bespectacled trumpet-wielder a few days before by pretending to "rehearse" 'Brown Sugar' ourselves in one of the school music rooms, knowing our rival was next door and was sure to come bursting in waving his arms around like a girl. Sure enough he did, wailing that we couldn't do that number as it was "his song". But of course it was no more his than ours. Being able to amateurishly recite songs is one thing. Being able to properly perform them is quite another.

George Harrison couldn't even do the first of these two feats. John Lennon was a decent singer, but an acutely inconsistent songwriter. Macca was the only all-rounder. But when was the last time you heard someone trying to cover something as beautiful as 'Fixing A Hole'?

06 November, 2005

Bus etiquette

I witnessed a trio of old women bring the normal flow of life to a screeching halt this morning when they decided en mass and with a spontaneity that was as dangerous as it was demented to indulge in that textbook preserve of the elderly: an uber-slow conversation. There was no doubt it was an uber-slow conversation, as it took place inches in front of my face as I was waiting to get off the bus with two stupidly overpacked bags of shopping. This phalanx of ponderous pensioners completely blocked my path as they kicked off the usual achingly drawn-out pleasantries. One was getting off, two were getting on. I say that, but they weren't actually getting anywhere. All parties were rooted to the spot. They knew I wanted to get off. I couldn't move. Why couldn't they do an uber-slow on one specific bit of ground, be it stationary (i.e. the pavement) or non-stationary?

I ended up having to virtually push them aside, loudly cursing as I went. Well, it'd been a long time since I'd seen such a blatant disregard for bus etiquette. It's a given amongst all ages, or so I thought, that you converse either on or off the bus, not both. Better still, you don't converse at all. You board or dismount, then do the talking. It's no place to have any kind of chatter, uber-slow or not. Christ, even kids know that, and they're usually the worst offenders when it comes to abusing bus etiquette.

Then again, it's forgivable when you're young, because it's exuberance and ebullience which prompts you to loiter in the gangway or kick the seat of the person in front. When old people do it, it's 100 times worse because old people are neither exuberant or ebullient. They do it out of malicious calculation. And typically they have to be the demographic that spends the highest portion of their life travelling in buses.

Maybe it's because old folk didn't have the kind of tutoring in bus etiquette that my generation received from many years of school trips and educational away days. There seemed to be a kind of monopoly on bus transportation when I was growing up: everyone went everywhere courtesy of Paul S. Winson - the pride of the East Midlands (after Ladybird Books, naturally). Mr Winson's name was on the side of every bus that got hired to take pupils to the local zoo, wildlife park, Ironbridge gorge, the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford, or even, one time, to West Germany. The same orange and brown livery is there in every photo taken at the time. They must have had a makeover somewhere in the late-80s, though, as the brown disappeared to be replaced by purple.

Yet we were implicitly conditioned to always treat these excitingly huge vessels in exactly the same way. No loitering by the door. Reckless and rowdy kids to the back. Swots at the front behind the teacher. Couples towards the back. Sing the peanut song. Draw in the layers of condensation that quickly caked the windows. Wait for someone to fall asleep then turn their Walkman up full volume.

And it worked, because as we all grew up our behaviour never changed. I remember on that trip to West Germany, well into secondary school, the same rules applied. The bloke who got the Walkman treatment was listening to 'Auberge' by Chris Rea, but still didn't wake up. En route to Ironbridge somebody's condensation etchings prompted a van driver to force the bus into a lay-by to remonstrate over some supposedly offensive language. An overnight trip through France saw a copy of The Blues Brothers on video send everyone to sleep - literally. Except the person who brought the tape.

When I was in my first year at university and had to get the student bus service into lectures, I encountered something I'd never seen before or since: a TV channel just for buses. On cold, wet, ragged mornings (they were all like that in my first year) I'd board this ice-box of a charabanc and be greeted, without fail, with the same transmission comprising of music videos for 'Black Hole Sun' by Soundgarden and 'Out Of Tears' by The Rolling Stones. Neither enlivened my spirits at either the ride or the lecture ahead. The final stage of the imparting of bus etiquette was complete: these are places to be silent at all times, no matter what distraction is placed in front of you.

So now I don't talk on buses at all, let alone when I'm standing at that bit by the door. Except to swear at old people having an uber-slow, of course.

05 November, 2005

Opening night

By means of an introduction...

"What do we do if he opens the door?"
"Hello is the usual greeting."