30 April, 2006

Sausage appliance

I can't think of any other recording artist equally responsible for just as many songs that I love as ones that I loathe as Morrissey. Nor someone whose output I have been somehow unable to throw away down the years despite a substantial portion it being quite horrendous.

There was a point when I eagerly snapped up each and every one of the man's releases, despite it largely coinciding with what is commonly held to be the most fallow of all his fallow periods (1994-7), almost all of which I subsequently listened to once and never again. Yet they still all sit there on my shelves, challenging me to give them a new home in the nearest bin bag, daring me to play them for a second time.

Back when he was properly good (and not merely sentimentally good, as he appears to be now) I relied for my education as to the life and work of Morrissey upon my friend David, whom if memory serves correctly had fostered an interest in the man around the time some of The Smiths' singles were being re-released on CD in the summer of 1992. A few months later began one of those characteristic instances of osmosis, unique to the British school 6th form system, where one person begins to absorb somebody else's collection of tastes and interests in return for a suite of their own (in my case, The Beatles).

As much as there can ever be one defining moment in such a process, I would cite it as being when David leant me his vinyl copy of The Smiths' 'Hatful Of Hollow' LP, a moment fixed in my brain thanks to it also falling on the date of a spectacularly dreadful school production of selected works of the German playwright Bertold Brecht for which I was haplessly conducting the music, and for all the fuses tripping in my family home that night leaving us temporarily without any electricity. Meaning, among other things, I couldn't play the aforementioned record until the following morning.

When I did, there was something immediately striking about the wistfully cynical, broodingly romantic whining of lines like "England is mine, and it owes me a living - ask me why and I'll die" and "I would love to go back to the old house, but I never will", set to such curiously contemporary yet evocative musical tapestries, that I have to confess I found immediately irresistible.

At the time I guess I was happy to let myself stumble upon a new hook upon which to helpfully hang all my teenage, well, hang-ups. In retrospect I was probably glad to have been presented with a form of music that so effortlessly married profound literary lyricism and subtle musical craftsmanship - two qualities I had sought to enjoy, often separately but rarely together, throughout my life.

For a long time afterwards I pursued an interest in Morrissey that extended into his increasingly patchy and ultimately pathetic solo career. It was a strange experience, being an ostensible fan of somebody embarked upon - what seemed to me - a path that was leading towards mutually assured extinction.

His first solo album 'Viva Hate' had been superlative and still remains his best work: beautifully sung, sympathetically produced (by Stephen Street), supremely melodic (ditto) and above all brilliantly fresh and forward-looking. Then came endless singles of varying quality, the stop-gap compilation 'Bona Drag', the half-wonderful, half-woeful 'Kill Uncle', the YTS rockabilly right-wing roustabout 'Your Arsenal', the furore over Johnny Rogan's biography The Severed Alliance (dubbed by its subject The Sausage Appliance) and, in 1994, 'Vauxhall And I', what seemed at the time to be evidence of, if not a return to form, then at least consistency.

But then everything went horribly wrong: pointless singles about East End bruisers and window cleaners, an obsession with working class thuggery, too many songs without any tunes, even more with just downright shit tunes, the sense of merely recycling the same concerns and themes (and chord sequences) over and over, the retreat into American isolationism and semi-retirement. Plus there was the court case brought by former Smiths drummer Mike Joyce about unpaid royalties, during which the judge labelled Morrissey as being "devious and truculent".

I abandoned any real or resolute interest in the man round about 1997 and the bizarre 'Maladjusted' album, the most indifferent yet needling album he had then been motivated to make. And that's the way it has stayed, despite Morrissey's 'comeback' during the last couple of years, his run of top ten hits, his ostensibly blistering live performances, his waspish outbursts, and his embrace by a new breed of critics and audiences alike.

Yet I still cannot bring myself to exile those traces of his pre-revival, post-peak oeuvre from my possessions. I can only conclude this is partly because of their anachronistic status, partly because they always make for great talking points when I'm reminiscing with David, and partly because of how they represent the end point of a particular kind of relationship which wound its mercurial way through much of the 1990s and which will always remind me of the places, faces and mood of those times.

And ultimately some bits of the past are too present, or rather too prescient, to ever get rid of.

Let me see all my old friends
Let me put my arms around them
Because I really do love them
Now does that sound mad?

29 April, 2006

Afternoon naps

Well, it seems I have yet to master the art of these, despite many years of trying.

I have just indulged in what I'd hoped would be a therapeutic and revitalising snooze, only to wake up reeling from stomach cramps (I was lying in too awkward a position), a criminally runny nose (I'd left the window open) and a mighty sense of dislocation stemming from the fact it's now a lot later in the day than I'd planned. I guess it's not until I'm old enough to partake in them regularly that I will know the correct techniques and devices for ensuring the ideal afternoon nap. By which point they will have ceased to possess any novelty, of course, and what was once an occasional boon will have turned into a boring ritual.

This isn't right at all. You go to sleep to escape the complications of the day, not to end up facing more of them. Though maybe not finding yourself wanting to go to sleep in the day at all would be a start.

28 April, 2006

Absolute shambles

The notion put forward by Charles Clarke that, despite being responsible for a gross error of ministerial judgement and profound incompetence, he must remain in his job to take responsibility for sorting out the crisis, implies nobody should be sacked from any political post ever. Never mind the qualities that so precipitated or led to such a monumental blunder and bureaucratic disaster, Charles argues; since I'm the one who made the mess, I'm the one who should clear it up.

It's the art of empirical reasoning and rational argument reduced to the level of the primary school artroom: you're the one who spilled paint on the floor, you're the one who should wipe it up. Applied to the arena of high politics, however, it's not merely illogical, it's also hugely patronising, in that it presumes we, the electorate, either can't grasp or aren't fussed about such things as cause and effect and the otherwise apparently trivial matter of culpability.

Surely those qualities which conspired to engender such chaos within the Home Office are the same ones which will conspire to prevent it being rapidly and efficiently resolved - not to say increase, rather than decrease, such a turn of events happening again? And whatever happened to such concepts as honour and dignity, of being aware of your guilt and of the need to show that you are aware of your guilt? Is it now the case that you can get away with any amount of bungling within the Government and stay in your job, simply because you're best placed to undo all the damage you yourself have caused?

The premise upon which Clarke's action is based is a tautology: it concedes incompetence, yet simultaneously refutes it by suggesting the protagonist is competent enough to do something about it having previously failed to do anything about it.

How can any kind of government be practiced upon such absurd a foundation? A kind, you can only conclude, that is desperate. A kind that is obsessed with the pursuit of power for its own sake, of eking out its existence beyond a point that appear to be in anybody's best interest. A kind that has no truck with being seen to keep its own house in order and knowing when it has done wrong.

The elasticity of the British political system can only be stretched so far. I remain convinced that Blair will be gone before the end of the year. This Thursday's coming local elections is our chance to effect such an outcome sooner rather than later.

27 April, 2006

Rosemary, thyme

Battling through travellers swarming round the belly of Leicester Square station, I had a Proustian rush on hearing the sound of no less an instrument than a harp, delicately struggling to be heard amidst the mayhem and intrigue. Better still, it was playing that most textbook of busker tunes, Scarborough Fair.

The combination of instrument and tune was something of an enlightenment following another desperately long day and, more pertinently, the first dangerously warm weather of the season. Already the Underground is taking on the feel of a mild sauna (and the stench to match), meaning travel is beginning to become an acutely physical as well as a psychological discomfort. With the rise in temperature has also come a rise in the pursuit of self-grooming; more and more I'm noticing women carrying on in the carriages like they're at some kind of notional dressing tables, applying make-up, brushing hair, changing shoes and climbing in and out of frocks, and all in the least self-conscious manner imaginable.

Next to such immaculately turned out commuters I can't help but feel even more of a piece of grimy flotsam, washed up in their wake with my dignity trailing behind, ebbing further away at each pounding turn of the locomotive wheels. Suffice to say, from within such a moment of low appeal and even lower self-esteem, hearing the sound of a harp strumming such a timeless melody made for one of the highlights of the entire week.

26 April, 2006

Cistern addict

There aren't any urinals in the toilets at work, only cubicles. When I discovered this, on my first day in the job, I was pleasantly surprised - not least for coming after such an execreable state of affairs (literally, I'm afraid) at my last place, where not just the chinawork but the actual floor would often be caked in filth, and one of the urinals remained blocked for three whole weeks. Plus there was that cubicle, about which I have spoken before, which remained unrepaired for the entire three and a half years that I worked there, the broken lock requiring you to lean against it the door with one hand (if you were standing up) or just take pot luck at not being interrupted (if you were sitting down).

Anyhow, not only are the toilets in my present job in fully working order, they are also regularly cleaned. I can tell as much by the fact there is a rota pinned up on the door, like the ones you get in service stations, ostensibly listing the times at which the premises have been properly refurbished and upholstered. Indeed, from this list they seem to be cleaned about ten times a day.

However the absence of urinals and the presence of ancillary staff does not, as I have been finding out, preclude the toilet's patrons from treating the place exactly how they would at home (or not, as the case may be). For recently I've had the increasing misfortune to walk into the toilets and find someone using one of the cubicles with the door wide open.

What the hell is the point in that? I don't want to hear, let alone see, a person going about their private business in the public gaze, especially when a door has been laid on to avoid just such an eventuality. It's salubrious and also somewhat arrogant: what do I care for doors, these people are declaring, I can piss when I want how I want, and sod the rest of you.

It's worse than a urinal, in fact, because at least they are designed to afford a modicum of privacy and necessitate you standing close to the porcelain in order to avoid an aquacade of poisonous precipitation. With ordinary toilets, though, people seem inclined to treat the business of passing water as target practice and to stand as far back from the bowl as they can manage, thereby making their performance far more of a self-conscious and desperately noisy act. On a few occasions I have walked into the toilets and found people standing almost outside the cubicles such is their ambition to project as towering an arc of fluid as their muscles can muster.

If it all sounds somewhat preposterous, then that's exactly how it is. It's also very embarrassing. Going to the toilet should be a pleasurable act, of course, but also a private one. What's worse than having your train of thought - and mode of operation - interrupted by somebody striding into your cubicle, assuming it was empty simply down to the small matter of the door being open? The moment is lost, the solitude is gone, and you're most likely left with a red face and soiled trousers. It really is taking the piss.

Fellow colleagues, I feel like saying, if there's a door, keep it closed. Please don't treat the bowl like it's a urinal. There is a difference. Soundproofing for one. And besides, when it comes to going to the toilet, you can't beat the cistern.

24 April, 2006

Demotion sickness

It's a peculiar fact of my life that each of my sequential jobs has brought with it a diminishing of responsibilities, so much so that I now have less authority, seniority and all-round influence in my line of employment (such as it is) than I had five or six years ago.

I realise in retrospect that I've readily endorsed a kind of demotion by stealth, in that I've had to take jobs which have over time necessitated a contraction of my abilities and skills in exchange for a degree of notional stability and permanence. It's like I've repeatedly signed up for positions which have required a trading in of promotion and prospects in exchange for the unspoken assumption that if I keep quiet and shut up I'll be guaranteed a wage as long as I want one.

It's a rotten state of affairs, really, as it plays upon two of my most profound and enduring fears: instability and impermenance. I hated the way I was so belittled and undermined in my previous job and spent over 18 months trying to leave. But at the same time there was never any likelihood of my losing that job under anybody else's volition except mine. Given that fatally long period was also witness to a total negation of my responsibilities, close to ongoing daily humiliation, no wonder some of those dismal entires from the arse end of last year were quite so, well, dismal.

Yet I can't hide from the facts. At one point in my life I had so much responsibility I was even in a position where I was charged with opening up an entire library. For a spell I also had the mixed privilege of having undergraduate students purport to hang on my every word in my guise as a freelance tutor and lecturer. I've had a book published, co-written another, turned up as an "expert" on a Channel 4 clips programme and a number of Radio 5 Live phone-ins, worked for a breakfast radio programme, and interviewed a former Director-General of the BBC.

In my previous job I used to chair meetings. Now I only attend them, sitting in the corner, mute and unemotional, listening and taking notes and nodding when everybody else does.

Why have I engineered such a singular turn of events? Or rather, why have I let such a turn of events imprint itself upon me and my vastly diminishing status and self-worth? And why, given my supposed pursuit of the stable and the permanent, do I still, after all these years, feel perilously unsettled and deeply insecure?

These are conundrums with which I grapple most days from the moment I wake up, and with which I fight from the moment I close my eyes every night. But always, tragically, achingly, by myself.

23 April, 2006

By George

A list of 20 things that I associate with the word 'England':

1. People making lists

2. People with red faces

3. Restrained silences in ultra-crowded environments (inside buses, trains, waiting rooms and lifts)

4. Unrestrained noise in ultra-quiet environments (a suburban road after dark, a library, anywhere you're trying to get some peace)

5. Queues for no reason

6. Complaints when it's too wet, complaints when it's too dry

7. Inbuilt obsolescence

8. A surplus of coffee shops, a deficit of tea shops

9. Healthy scepticism, unhealthy cynicism

10. The most beautiful and greenest of all possible green fields

11. A love of everything foreign except the people

12. A self-preserving fear of extremes (especially political points of view)

13. The BBC, the greatest organisation in the world

14. Half-day closing

15. The postal order

16. Audiences clapping along to music on the down beat (grim, military) rather than the up beat (loose, relaxed)

17. The freshness of the air after a thunderstorm

18. Unblinking support of unwinnable causes

19. Muddling through

20. Not talking about what things you'd associate with the word 'England'

22 April, 2006

Shop talk

Having spent 11 and a half years patronising the good folk of Tesco in Liverpool, getting used to the unscheduled variations in quality, the unpredictable degrees of freshness within the vegetables, the way the fresh bread always sold out by midday, the mania of the scrum that brewed up every 6pm when that day's reduced goods were brought out, and the mysteriously frequent non-availability of cauliflowers, I fully expected the Tesco branches of London to be, if more soulless, than certainly more efficient, well-stocked and reliable.

I continue to be proved wrong. My local branch persists in being spectacularly adept at disabusing all my hopes of maybe, just maybe, one day being able to purchase everything I set out to purchase. I should stress these notional items aren't fancy goods or obscure delicacies. They are things like, yes, a cauliflower, but also potatoes, carrots, orange juice, or even a loaf of brown bread. Foodstuffs you would say are pretty basic staples of most people's diets. Most people who try to eat healthily and sensibly, that is, and aren't merely content to shove crisps into their face three times a day.

Yet on every single occasion I have been to this Tesco (it's on Brent Street for those keeping score), which must now number in total two dozen or so, something has been missing of enormous everyday consequence. Usually more than once. No explanation is given. No protests seem to be mounted. Nobody seems the least bit bothered. Indeed, often more fuss appears to be raised over the length of the queue at the lottery ticket booth rather than the produce on the shelves (or lack of them, as the case may be).

The whole store is a bit of an anachronism. It's decked out in the old Tesco font of the 1970s, which albeit nice to look at in a nostalgic kind of way doesn't suggest an organisation at the top of its game. Every possible nationality in the world shops there, which always gives an eerie impression, on entering, that you're walking into an exotic bazaar rather than your local supermarket. A lot of shouting goes on. Nobody working on the tills looks happy. There's always a shortage of carrier bags, resulting in you having to use half-size ones which are neither use nor ornament, especially if you've been lucky enough to find, say, a cauliflower.

People push in when you're waiting in line at the checkouts, which is quite frankly unacceptable - especially when it's 60-year-old women doing the pushing. And finally, when you've made it through the shouting and the queues and got everything in decent-sized bags and forced yourself to look at the glum faces of the assistants, the sliding doors out of the place either fail to open or move apart just wide enough to let you edge out with the minimum of dignity and the maximum potential for dropping your purchases all over the pavement.

I used to begrudge the fact I didn't live near a Tesco in Liverpool and always had to make a long walk or bus ride to buy any food. Now there's one 10 minutes away, yet I'm still begrudging. What price the location of an ordinary potato? You might as well try planting your own. Oh, wait a minute, I don't have a garden. But there is a supermarket 10 minutes away.

21 April, 2006

Canterbury tale

I've been sizing up London's numerous official walks and paths the last few days, as the prospect of tackling a circumnavigation of the city on foot has something of a snappy and potent appeal. I'm particularly excited by the Capital Ring, chiefly because it passes right by my flat and would therefore be ultra-easy to pick up. I'm also rather pleased that I am deemed far enough out of the city centre to be part of the Ring in the first place.

There's an epic feel to the notion of walking right around the outskirts of London, and the sense of achievement that would go with completing such a task is one I think I'd really rather relish.

After all, it would be quite a feat - albeit one to be tackled in stages at different times between all the regular mundane detritus of everyday life. I'm assuming it'd give me an insight into a less social, more visually intriguing side of the great place. Plus pass the hours in a slightly more healthy way than being slumped over a desk. As healthy as it's possible to be in a noisy, smog-stained city as this one, of course.

It would also bring back memories - as everything seems to do nowadays - of a vivid incident from my youth: a day spent walking a full nine or ten miles through the fields and woods surrounding my hometown, organised by my A Level English teacher in a somewhat futile but entertaining attempt to recreate the notion of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

The plan, such as it was, involved strolling along this considerable route, breaking off to read bits of Chaucer's interminable scribblings from time to time, and generally trying to ingest something from the sensation of a dozen or so people walking, endlessly, through the English countryside. It sounds demented, but was actually good fun and supremely memorable: a beautiful June day, some wonderful views, plenty of pissing about, precious little work being done, and a shared comradeship born of universally aching feet. Plus it was a day out of school. And our teacher was a top grade eccentric: desperately trying to give up smoking, endlessly muttering contemptuous remarks about her younger students, voraciously swearing, and regularly abandoning the lessons to invite us all round her house for a cup of tea.

Looking back, that long long stroll through the land round where I grew up summed up all that I treasured about the 6th form: unabashed freedoms, unchecked ambitions, unfettered friendships. I wish I'd had a camera with me to capture that trip. I sensed, even at the time, that it was the sort of thing I would do with that group of people once and once only in my entire life. A uniquely evocative day.

20 April, 2006

Splash down


- roared the front page of today's Evening Standard. I doubt it had much impact or resonance. There doesn't seem to be any sense of impending crisis within the city, assuming the people I share an office with are a representative cross-section of the city. Which given they all seem to live south of the Thames, unlike me, is probably not a 100% reliable sample. But nobody has spoken about it, not once, and from that I have to assume that nobody is bothered enough about it to make it a topic of conversation.

I wonder if they'll be less tongue-tied when the standpipes are brought out. Because that, I fear, is where London is heading. I've seen two incidences in as many days of people blatantly flouting the hosepipe ban. One was a family, carrying on in their back yard like it was nobody's business, waggling and waving the hosepipe about while simultaneously shrieking at the tops of their voices, thereby helpfully drawing further attention to their law-breaking antics.

I spied them, Mrs Mangel-like, from my living room window, which is high enough to peer down into a number of people's ostensibly private gardens. That was also the place from which I spotted the second instance. This was even more brazen: the staff of a restaurant using a giant hose to wash down various baking trays and metal tins in the middle of a car park. What is this, the Victorian times? People don't wash the dishes in the open air anymore! Why didn't they use a sink?! And why such a self-consciously massive hose instead of a normal garden-sized model? The amount of energy needed to power it was so great that every time they switched it on all the lights in my flat flickered. So not only were they putting the water supply in jeopardy, the electricity seemed to be on the way out as well.

Should I report the perpetrators of these incidences? Would they care? I'm guessing they're assuming nobody can be arsed shopping them to the local water authority. Or they simply aren't fussed about having to pay the subsequent fine. Whatever, when the standpipes do arrive I'm not saving them a place in the queue. Assuming there is a queue, of course, and not a mad scrum desperately lunging for every last drop.

Ah, I wish it would rain down. As someone once inadvisedly sung.

18 April, 2006

Timeless time

Small things make a big difference working in a place like London, and for me the difference between finishing at 5.30pm (my ideal) and 6pm (my reality) is vast.

Ordinarily you wouldn't set so much store against a mere half hour, but given the fact I invariably haven't got everything finished by 6pm, plus the way the trains seem to get more, not less, reliable the later the evening becomes, it all means I don't get home until 7pm at the very earliest. This is a titantic difference from my previous job, to which I could stroll from my flat in around 10 minutes, and from which I could escape and be back home with luck by 5.45pm. Once you factor in the business of making something to eat, my evening, such as it is, doesn't usually begin till gone 8pm, sorely limiting the amount of free time I can devote to reading, writing and watching stuff. That's assuming I have enough energy left to bring myself to read, write or watch anything in the first place.

My working hours are supposedly 9.30am-6pm, but I'd be more than happy to see them shifted forward a half hour and have to get up earlier than make do with the present lopsided arrangement. Especially as there's always so much more I'm expected to have completed than time allows, pushing that 6pm finishing post back to 6.30pm and often to 7pm. Even after almost two months of these sorts of hours I still haven't adjusted to the way it's turned all my previous routines on their heads and so wrecked my quality of life.

Not that having to put in unusual hours necessarily leads to misery. I once had a job working in a community college library, which involved adhering to one of the nicest arrangements I've ever come across. For a start my lunch hour meant just that: a whole hour for lunch, not - as the unspoken implication is at my current place - 15 minutes maximum. I had to be in for 8.45am, except on one day a week when I had to be in for 8.15am when I actually had the responsibility for opening up the whole library. I didn't mind these early starts in the slightest: it was fantastic to be able to get on a bus and not fight with a crowd of commuters, and to walk through the streets of Liverpool early enough to find them still fairly quiet and serene. Plus there was the privilege of getting to open up the place once a week by myself.

Best of all, though, was that I got to finish early on Friday. And how! The library closed at 2.15pm! Being able to clock off at such an hour never lost its appeal. That feeling of walking free when so many others were still chained to their desks was an elation. Many a time I used to come back to my flat and decide to have a snooze, just because I could. The trade off was doing one late shift a week, which for me was Monday, and meant staying till 7pm, but again, this didn't bother me. Mondays were the best day for getting it out the way, and also the quietest in the library. On Tuesday and Thursday I finished at 4.45pm, on Wednesday (when I had to open up at 8.15am) it was 4.15pm. It was, quite simply, the perfect deal.

And as with everything that is perfect, it was all too temporary: I was only employed for a fixed-term contract of five months. Yet I still look back on that time as one of the points in my life where I did manage to achieve almost, to use the Government's preferred jargon, the ideal work-life balance.

I guess five months is better than nothing. But what I wouldn't give for those hours now.

17 April, 2006

Sick note

There's only one thing worse than being ill. It's being ill when you live on your own.

16 April, 2006

Sounds incorporated

There are a number of albums which I own, and have done for many years, which I can state here and now I will never ever listen to again.

Indeed, they are mostly albums I have only ever heard to once or twice, yet am still wholly convinced I will never willingly listen to again. The reason I've kept them is the reason I keep everything from my life, including old newspapers, school books, essays, letters, postcards, train tickets, birthday cards and, of course, diaries: to preserve the past, and to do it on my terms, so that as and when I choose I can dip back into it, take from it what I can, try to fathom exactly what I should learn from it, then (hopefully) move on.

Not that I'm sure what I can take from these assorted albums which will be of any use for me today. Amongst this motley collection of considered caterwauling is '30 Something' by Carter, or rather Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine, which I listened to once somewhere round 1997 (six years after it was released) and haven't touched since; 'Monster' by REM, easily their worst ever album, a load of shouting and noise and unsubtle histrionics; 'Miaow' by The Beautiful South, which I recall very clearly purchasing with great anticipation on the day of its release, taking it home, putting it on and then reeling with dread at its awfulness*; 'Stars Crash Down' by Hue And Cry which I got for 50p in a second hand shop and have never played at all; and 'Good Humor' (sic) by St Etienne, which unlike all of the group's other albums I singularly abhor (too many real instruments).

I have got rid of some stuff that I decided wasn't even worth keeping just for the sake of it. These have included 'London Calling' by The Clash, which to me was just interminable, impenetrable rabble-rousing; 'Pop' by U2, which didn't have any proper tunes; and 'Infected' by The The, which just didn't sound like pop music. Plus there have been loads of purges at various points in my life, due chiefly to changing tastes, which have led to permanent exile for people like, yes, Phil Collins (though I have kept 'But Seriously...' tucked away in a drawer for pure novelty value. "Do you remember, ooooo it's over" indeed).

I think, however, I've now reached a tolerable equilibrium and will go on carting about these aural anomalies for a fair few years at least. At some point I'll get round to accounting for the genealogy of my music collection and why, for instance, Morrissey's 'Boxers' EP remains while all my Blur singles are probably now in a landfill site somewhere near Ellesmere Port. But not for now. For simply writing about 'Miaow' has tempted me to go back and see if it really was as dreadful as I remember discovering it to be 12 years ago. Such are the perils of reminiscing about something that remains so perilously close at hand.

*I also remember subsequently reading a review that noted how proud the group must be at producing music too insipid to even be played on Radio 2 and lyrics too juvenile to even be quoted on Radio 4. And yes, it's still true.

15 April, 2006

Wheezing, groaning

Travelling on the Underground late afternoon, aside from the carriage seemingly being more than usually full of loving couples, I overheard a couple of Doctor Who fans eagerly counting down till 7.15pm.

"How long now?" one of them kept chiding the other with deliberate relentlessness. "Is it less than two hours yet? Is it? As long as we've got plenty of time, that's the main thing." Inevitably, his face was full of unashamedly boyish enthusiasm. And inevitably, he looked about 45 years old.

His companion, who was even older, displayed far more restraint and dignity. He just merely beamed a huge beam and tapped his watch, knowingly. A short while later, both hared off the train as if their lives depended on it. They looked and acted as if they intended to move heaven and earth to be back in time to watch the show.

They really needn't have bothered. 3/10 at best. There just wasn't any soul.

14 April, 2006

Bank holiday

"When I first came to this country," the bloke cutting my hair announced, "nowhere was open on a day like this. I couldn't even buy a newspaper. Everywhere was shut. Now what have you got? Shops open everywhere. It is just like a normal day. I thought it was supposed to be a holiday."

I half-concurred with what he was saying, although our conversation, such as it was, wouldn't even have been taking place were it not for the fact that he was open today, and was therefore contradicting his own argument.

"Of course, I had to open today," he went on, as if reading my thoughts. "I like to spread my work through the week, you see? I could have shut today, but what would I have done? Sat at home, maybe do something in the garden. And then I would come back in tomorrow and I would be really busy. So I choose to open today. Luckily, it it is not that busy. Which is just as well as I am by myself."

I had wondered where his colleague was, and was just about to remark as to his whereabouts when the man cut in again. "The other person, he has gone to a funeral and has been away two weeks. I have had someone in to cover, who has been very good, but people don't like change, you know? They see a different person there, and they go away again."

"Some people are very precious about their hair," I replied, trying to sound light-hearted but dismissive at the same time, as if to emphasise that I was certainly not one of those people. "Oh yes, and wouldn't you know it," he declared. "All these mirrors I have in here, they help me do my work, but these people come in and they look in these mirrors and they think I am making them bald. They don't realise how hair grows. It grows out of the crown of the head. Instead these six-year-old boys come in and say they are going bald."

Outside it was pouring with rain and nobody else showed any inkling of dropping by. I was the only customer on the premises. I didn't mind, though, because at least it meant there was nobody else watching me watching them watching me, or more specifically, watching me watching them watching my hair - a very uncomfortable scenario and one about which I always get shamelessly coy. Instead it was just me and him and his tools and his conversation.

"When I first started, it was when Margaret Thatcher was here, you know, and I remember when not only was everywhere shut on a bank holiday, but everywhere was shut on a Sunday too." I commented I'd heard something on the radio this morning about how the present Government had just finished a consultation on whether to extend Sunday trading even more. "I heard that too!" he exclaimed. "Perhaps we were listening to the same thing. But you know, it is only happening because people think they have more money in their pockets. They don't. They just don't plan and save and pay their taxes and use common sense, and they think they have plenty of money but it is not their own."

A short while later we parted. I exited less £9, less some of my hair, and slightly less reticent about having conversations with complete strangers. Although so far that has been my only conversation of the entire day. Such is the nature of the British bank holiday.

13 April, 2006

Tunnel vision

Strolling aimlessly around the city after work, buoyed by the fact that the Easter holiday had finally arrived, I was stunned to encounter the following poem stencilled on the underpass that runs from Waterloo station to the IMAX cinema. It's one of the most moving things I think I've ever read:

I am not afraid as I descend,
step by step, leaving behind the salt wind
blowing up the corrugated river,
the damp city streets, their sodium glare
of rush-hour headlights pitted with pearls of rain;
for my eyes still reflect the half remembered moon.

Already your face recedes beneath the station clock,
a damp smudge among the shadows
mirrored in the train's wet glass,
will you forget me? Steel tracks lead you out
past cranes and crematoria,
boat yards and bike sheds, ruby shards
of roman glass and wolf-bone mummified in mud,
the rows of curtained windows like eyelids
heavy with sleep, to the city's green edge.

Now I stop my ears with wax, hold fast
the memory of the song you once whispered in my ear.
Its echoes tangle like briars in my thick hair.
You turned to look.
Second fly past like birds.
My hands grow cold. I am ice and cloud.

This path unravels.
Deep in hidden rooms filled with dust
and sour night-breath the lost city is sleeping.
Above the hurt sky is weeping,
soaked nightingales have ceased to sing.
Dusk has come early. I am drowning in blue.

I dream of a green garden
where the sun feathers my face
like your once eager kiss.
Soon, soon I will climb
from this blackened earth
into the diffident light.

It's by Sue Hubbard.

11 April, 2006

4 reel

Another week, another film premiere for me to stumble blindly into on my way home from work.

This time I found myself fighting through the throng gathered for the opening of this new Julien Temple-directed documentary about the Glastonbury Festival. I say throng, but to be honest it was a somewhat modest gathering. It would have seemed like a throng to somebody knee-high to a grasshopper's knee. Someone from Sky News was there, broadcasting live from under a huge umbrella and gesturing to passers-by as if we were somehow complicit with what was going on. The fact it was pissing it down certainly didn't help the occasion, despite the obvious mileage to be got from drawing comparisons with some of Glastonbury's legendary washouts.

Speaking of which, there were some people who looked suspiciously like they belonged to indie bands hanging about Leicester Square. I read later these included The Magic Numbers, who I certainly wouldn't have been able to recognise even close up, and none other than Michael Eavis himself, uber-lord of the festival from day one.

But all in all it was a distinctly low-key affair and nowhere near as illustrious as the premieres I've joylessly clawed my way through in previous weeks. I'm not entirely sure of the merits of the film either. Its the kind of proposition that's only bound to leave audiences disappointed, on the one hand because they've been to Glastonbury themselves and what they've seen on screen isn't anywhere close to capturing what it was like to be there; and on the other hand because they've never been to Glastonbury and are envious of those who have.

I've never been to Glastonbury but I know several who have, and I would never presume to fully understand or appreciate what it was like for them while they were there. All I know is that first hand testimony has always conflicted with received wisdom, and that - for instance - for every critic who retrospectively rubbished Oasis in 1995, somebody else will sincerely testify to it being one of the greatest performances they've ever seen.

Anyhow, the best coverage of Glastonbury that I've ever seen hails from the first year it was televised, 1993, back when only Channel 4 could be arsed to send cameras. I've still got it on tape, and it's always a joy to watch, more so as the years go by and its uncompromising sights and sounds become more rose-tinted and reflective. Plus it had Mark Radcliffe presenting, with no sign of bloody Jo Whiley. Which can only ever be a good thing.

10 April, 2006

Stupid count

As I write, nobody knows for certain who has won the Italian General Election. Hours earlier, however, I was being buoyed by how the exit polls were predicting a close but decisive win for Romano Prodi. As a gesture of relief, I had chosen to make the story the lead item on the website for which I work, proudly heading the homepage with the declaration Prodi Set For Italian Election Win. All through the afternoon reports compounded the impression that part-time media magnate and full-time crook (fact!) Silvio Berlusconi was on the way out. Even on the way home I comforted myself with the thought that, despite it being a Monday and despite me not getting away from the office until gone 6.30pm - again - the day hadn't been all bad.

That was until I tuned back into the news earlier on this evening and found my previous assumptions starkly and unfairly challenged. Now nobody seems to know what's going on. There's talk of Berlusconi clining on, of his party still holding power, of deals being done, of expectations being confounded. The final count is still going on.

I feel cheated and misled. I feel like I've just been made a personal and professional fool of. And I feel like I did back in 2004 when I went to bed convinced John Kerry had won the White House off George W. Bush, only to wake up and find he'd thrown it away. Just like I felt back in 2000 when I went to bed certain Al Gore had won the White House instead of George W. Bush. Just like I felt back in 1992 when I went into the night convinced Labour were finally, at long last, destined to defeat the Tories - only to come out of the night wondering if there was ever going to be a change of Government in Britain again.

I hate seeing people I like, or rather political parties I support, snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. It seems to be a particular predeliction of parties from the left; very rarely do right-wing organisations unexpectedly lose elections, preferring to go down in a blaze of recrimination and revulsion (certainly true in this country: see 1997, 1974, 1964 and 1945). The left, alternatively, can't help but repeat the old trick of getting everyone's hopes up then dashing them, collectively (as befitting the left) and stupidly, at the very last minute.

If ever there was a European country at present more suited to an easy shoo-in for the left it is Italy: zero economic growth, corruption rife in the offices of state, an ostensibly widespread belief that a fresh start was needed, and a deeply discredited ruling elite. But then if there was ever a chance for the left to blow another chance for taking power, it is always the next election round the corner. And the one after that.

Maybe by the time I finish writing these words I'll have been proved wrong. It's more likely that by the time you'll have finished reading them I'll have been soundly, depressingly, proved right.

09 April, 2006

Past masters III

Time to dip into that shoebox once again.

- 'Facade - 1/4/92'
This is a tape of a performance I conducted (oh yes!) at school as part of my A Level Music. I did this course a year early not out of choice but because someone high up in the staff thought it'd do the school some good to have an "advanced learner" on the books. The thing was a shambles from start to finish, however, because the head of music couldn't teach, preferring to spend each lesson making lists, writing wallcharts and organising trips to perform at some local primary school or other. I had to fumble my way through the syllabus largely by myself - one aspect of which involved me demonstrating my leadership skills by conducting a small ensemble through a piece of work of my own choosing. I opted for a few extracts from 'Facade', a suite by English composer William Walton setting the poems of Edith Sitwell to music. It seemed like a good idea at the time: an unusual choice, involving an unusual arrangement (flute, clarinet, alto saxophone, trumpet, cello, percussion and two people speaking, not singing, the words). Plus I knew folk who could fill all the parts and who I'd performed stuff with before. The recording session itself was not so straightforward. One of the people reciting the words turned up wearing a neckbrace. The person on percussion couldn't read music. And taping the whole affair was my nemesis (one of the many), the bespectacled Buddy Holly lookalike who was the mastermind behind that notorious school covers gig. Somehow I got through it, but I remember it being one of the most desperately tiring days of my life (to date), and wondering even then whether my steady pursuit of music via academic means would ever come to anything (it didn't).

- 'Winter 1994'
Another compilation made for me by my friend David. It begins, brilliantly, with 'If I Only Knew' by Tom Jones, which I'd still rate as one of the best songs the recently-ennobled Welsh bellower has ever done. The tape also includes some Velvet Crush songs, 'Faster Days' and 'Weird Summer'; 'Love Torn Us Under' by the Manics; something called 'Never Understand' which, without listening to it, I suspect is by The Jesus And Mary Chain (David left off the names of all the artists); something else called 'The Power' which I know is most definitely not by Snap; and a live version of 'The Drowners' by Suede. There's also 'Out Of Tears' by The Rolling Stones, which at the time was a hugely uncanny choice given I'd just spend three bleak months listening to - and bizarrely watching the video for - the song on the bus into university.

- 'Billy Bragg: Radio Cambridgeshire 18/2/84'
How on earth I came by this is not a particularly interesting story, and refers to a period in my life when I'd decided my destiny was to write the definitive history of British political popular music in the 1980s and 90s. Suffice to say that lofty goal never came to pass, but it did precipitate a lot of unlikely and frankly ludicrous business involving, for instance, assembling an audio archive of significant gigs by the titular Bard of Barking, around whom a substantial portion of my narrative was to revolve. I made this tape from another tape loaned to me by someone who had actually recorded the session in February 1984 itself. It's not that good, but worth keeping as a memento and I guess a small slice of cultural history. I later got to stand in a lift with Billy Bragg, but couldn't think of anything to say.

- 'Mark Radcliffe (Last Ever Shows)'
I have probably two dozen or so tapes filled with either parts of or complete off-air recordings of the show Radcliffe self-dubbed The Graveyard Shift, which ran from 10pm to midnight Mondays-Thursdays on Radio 1 from autumn 1993 to spring 1997. I'd listened to the programme a fair few times during my last year at school ('93-4) and been dazzled by its mix of inspired music, learned guests, poetry, comedy and all-round self-deprecating dementedness, but it wasn't until I left for university that I became a devout fan. I tuned in religiously, looking upon it as a comfort and ritual during many difficult and depressing times, coming to trust and appreciate its companionship and inclusiveness, and tuning to it last thing at night for the company I so rarely found during the day. I quickly took to taping the second hour of the show, chiefly on those occasions when I had to be up early the next day. But I never wiped them, and ended up taping editions even when I listened right through to midnight, such was the brilliance and inspirational quality Radcliffe's formula for broadcasting seemed to purvey. I never met anyone else at university with the same interest or enthusiasm for the show. I wrote in quite a few times, once winning a competition for a copy of The Graduate on video. In fact the first time I wrote in was back in April 1994, when I was still at school, on the day I passed my driving test. It sounds lame in retrospect, but I wanted to express my relief at passing (on the fourth attempt) via some gesture of thanks to what had already become a totemic slice of escapism and reassurance. In what I quickly ascribed to be a move of great symbolism, the programme came to an end just as my life at university was coming to an end. Hence the show became instantly and for all time associated with my three years as an undergraduate, bookending my degree and providing the soundtrack to my student days. This tape is one of several capturing Mark's farewell shows, before he left for a daytime slot and a career of ever diminishing returns, and I treasure them all.

08 April, 2006

Today's Today

I've mentioned it a couple of times before, but I'm minded to explain just what it is about Radio 4's Today programme that makes me choose it, rather than any other radio station, to wake up to in the morning.

There are the presenters for starters. Historically they have been a whimsical bunch, encompassing everything from dour, poker-faced journos (Peter Hobday, Edward Stourton) and unsettlingly kooky fishwives (basically, Libby Purves) to fair but firm matrons (Sue MacGregor, Anna Ford), bumptious raconteurs (Jack De Manio) and dominating, headstrong bullyboys (Brian Redhead, James Naughtie). John Humphrys, however, cannot be confined by any pigeonhole and surpasses all attempts at qualification, thereby making him the best ever Today presenter. He is simply his own man, conforming to no obvious stereotype, representing no agenda other than his own, and quite prepared to defy anyone's preconceptions of him as some kind of arrogant, snooty interrogator by suddenly unleashing a devastating quip, appalling pun or a shard of cutting irony. There's never been a better host of Today. His love for everything to do with the programme is evident every morning, from the care and respect he shows towards all the regular features and co-hosts, to the tenacity he demonstrates in pursuing questions and investigations to their end. He's also got a great self-deprecating sense of humour, and shows no sign whatsoever of unnecessarily conceding one inch to the anti-Beeb cheerleading lobby.

John Humphrys was co-hosting this morning's show alongside James Naughtie. This is the programme's classic line-up, and one I always look forward to hearing. Two greats, side by side, inspiring each other to greater heights of incisive cross-examination and equally cutting gags. But they wouldn't be anywhere near as good if they didn't have such an ace line-up of reports and topics with which to grapple.

Tradition has long dictated that in-between Today's heavyweight politico grilling and earnest dirt digging, something has to lighten the mood to ensure that both presenters and audience don't go spare from a surfeit of furrowed brows. Hence the continuing fondness for eccentric, off-the-wall and defiantly "sideways look at" features which regularly pepper proceedings and give the presenters a chance to talk over each other and generally see how many of those technicians silently padding about the studio they can reduce to laughter.

Recent highlights have included an attempt to recreate the entire Today studio in Lego before the end of the programme; an origami folding contest, again involving the production of paper-based doppelgangers of the show's hosts; an entire gospel choir invited in to perform the original version of 'Swing Low Sweet Chariot'; a mass tasting of a 150-year old jar of chutney; a group of kids asked into the studio on the day the latest Harry Potter book was published, who were then challenged to read as much as they could by 9am before giving their verdict (although they were pointedly never referred to as kids, and treated as if they were normal guests); a poet who had to record everything that happened during that day's edition in verse then recite it as the show's finale; and the annual debate over the authentic recipe for Christmas pudding which always ends in a collective sampling of various stomach-churning dishes and a phone call from Clarissa Dickson-Wright sounding pissed off.

Then there's the programme's wonderfully love-hate relationship with information technology. The show's got a fantastic website, beautifully designed, but none of the presenters seem a) to have properly visited it b) to have even looked at it on someone else's machine or c) to really know where it is. All of them write regular newsletters for the site, but you get the impression they've done them on a typewriter or in longhand and got some office junior to re-type them ready for uploading onto the internet. The attempts at interactivity, which are never plugged very convincingly, often seem plagued with technical problems. Above all, though, there's a superbly blatant Luddite streak that manifests itself in occasional petulant outbursts, the best of which was John Humphrys' announcement a few autumns ago: "...and you can read Sarah Montague's account of her time at the Tory Party Conference on the Today website. Alternatively, you could get a life." Suffice to say the next time Sarah was co-hosting with John she humorously chided her colleague for such fustiness, to which John mumbled a splendidly unconvincing apology.

Since I left home I've migrated through various radio stations at breakfast, beginning with Radio 1 (during the Chris Evans years), then Radio 5 Live (1997-1999), then Radio 2 (1999-2002), and most recently Radio 4. I switched to Today just in time to hear the whole build up to and subsequent coverage of the Iraq war, including the now legendary "sexed up" report which, after many months, led to the Hutton Report, the resignation of the BBC Chairman and the sacking of its Director-General.

No other programme on any other channel on any other network in the world would've been able to first report and then analyse criticism of itself in as calm and dignified manner as Today did the morning after the Report was published. With something of a Blitz-spirited mentality, the programme set about painstakingly and lucidly reciting each and every detail of Lord Hutton's exposition, reeling off point after point of the esteemed judge's considered conclusions that everything the Government to a man had done was right, and everything that the BBC to a man had done was wrong. Resisting all temptation to lower itself to the kind of mudslinging and offensive swaggering exhibited by certain representatives of the Government, this was stout, clinical reportage that was desperately moving in its impartiality. Quite rightly, the visceral emotion was to come later in the day, away from the programme itself and within BBC buildings up and down the country. But that one edition on Thursday 29 January 2004 was an absolute model of professional broadcasting, and a reminder why the Beeb remains the best newsgathering institution - no, the best institution full stop, in the world.

07 April, 2006

Social policy

Despite having endlessly intriguing views, my flat has gained a far less pleasant quality these last few days: noisy neighbours. Yes, that old bugbear once again.

I see now that, despite my somewhat petulant whining, I actually had a pretty good deal in my last place. Although the old woman made a racket, at least it wasn't relentless or all-pervasive or unbecoming. It was simply the non-specific sound of a television turned up particularly loud. I could block it out by going into another room. Better still, I could fight back with my own noise, and with her being partially deaf she was none the wiser.

How times have changed. I'm now at the top rather than the bottom of a small block of apartments, and hence sound comes up from below rather than down from above: something you think would make it slightly more bearable and less oppressive. Well, not if it blasts up at you from seemingly every square inch of floor and with the force of not a TV but a stereo system turned up to its maximum volume. And not if it is all-too distinctive and specific and unbecoming.

I can't for the life of me think what kind of normal, sociable person would carry on in such a way. Surely they must be aware of the noise they are making, and how it will be resonanting far beyond their own four walls? More distressing is the kind of music that they are choosing to broadcast at such an earsplitting level: a curious mix of AOR and, for want of a better term, bhangra beat. Of the former, they appear particularly keen on - erk - Chris DeBurgh. Yup, I've been treated to the man's entire back catalogue these last few days, including his 1988 top 5 smash 'Missing You' twice in a row and, despite it being early April, 'A Spaceman Came Travelling'.

I'm hesitant to go and say anything to them concerning the noise for fear of establishing a precedent and unintentionally causing friction having only been living here a month and a half. If I went and asked them to turn the noise down, what would I do if, the day after, they turned it back up? The whole thing could get very nasty. Typically I'm the one who, aware of being in a fully-lived in block, went to such trouble upon moving in to only listen to music through headphones. Fat lot of good that did me.

I've got to come up with some kind of coping strategy, but at the minute I'm buggered if I know what it is. One of the sore points in moving from Liverpool to London was having to forfeit being able to live in a place surrounded by the sound of birds and wildlife and weather and, well, natural unfettered silence. Now it seems they've all been replaced with the beat of a hundred middle-of-the-road pop classics.

I've lived in this city six weeks and I'm already itching to get out.

06 April, 2006

Fair play

From my kitchen window I can see that some kind of ferris wheel has been set up in the Brent Cross shopping centre car park. It's one of those wheels that doesn't just rotate but pivots through an angle of 90 degrees, starting flat on the ground but ending up spinning almost completely vertically.

It looks, frankly, like a veritable death trap, albeit decked out in very nice illuminated lights. Heaven knows why it's there, in one of the least hospitable, not to say inaccessible, places in the whole of north London. But it's obviously doing some kind of trade, and certainly brightens up what is otherwise one giant grey smear of architecture stretching from between the M1 to the main railway line between London and the Midlands.

I've only ever been on a ferris wheel once in my entire life. It was in my hometown, during the annual funfair which materialised every November and commanded the entire market place, numerous side streets and a great deal of local revenue. I never particularly liked the fair, due to a combination of the way it turned the whole town into one great gaudy theme park, the cost of all the rides, the noise, and the uselessness it proved to be as a practical and rewarding social event.

I remember that when I was younger a huge amount of effort would always go into planning a trip to the fair, effort that was never rewarded when you actually got there and found the place was too crowded for people to stick together and too raucous for any kind of conversation. At primary school we used to go on an official visit to see the "opening" of the fair by the Mayor, at midday on the second Thursday in every November. I say opening, but none of the rides would ever be working, and it being daylight all of the illuminations looked crap. To set the seal on this dismal tradition, we would always have to trudge back to school in a crocodile past all these mysterious caravans and camper vans with eerie looking people inside. Of course nowadays these folk would most likely be chased out of town for being putative asylum seekers. Back then they were simply "the people who ran the fair", and who to me seemed to live the perfect life, travelling from place to place in their portable worlds and not having to walk in crocodiles anywhere.

One year when I was a bit older I decided I should make more of an effort to appreciate this annual jamboree and actually go on a few of the rides. And this was when I made my one and only foray onto a ferris wheel. From the ground it didn't look like it went very high. From the top I couldn't see the ground I was so high up. The ascent wasn't too bad; you're being pulled up, after all, with your back feeling the force of gravity and your eyes focused largely on the ground. The descent, however, was appalling. That feeling of being pushed downwards, with your stomach lurching as if trying to escape up out of your throat, and your brain trying to process the fact you're falling but sitting still...it was a nightmare. Everyone else was shouting and screaming, but doing it out of pleasure, not pain. And every time I thought it was over, up the thing would go again and another rotation would begin.

Regardless of social etiquette, paying no heed to whatever anybody else said or did, I stomped off and walked all the way back home, pissed off at having to undergo such an ordeal but equally pissed off at the way others seemed to be having a great time while I was not. Another of life's tests failed.

The self-same fair still visits my hometown every November, the prices of the rides assuredly ten times what they were when I used to go, while the rides themselves are probably ten times more safe and secure. But the one element I always appreciated, come what may, was always free of charge and will always remain that way: the morning after the last night of the fair, the town deserted, the streets all washed clean, the air still tinged with the smell of toffee apple, the sky bleached a brilliant white from the pop of a million light bulbs.

05 April, 2006

Almost blue

I didn't think these kinds of views existed in London. Here's what I see when I open my living room window and look to the left. Hendon and Golders Green are in the foreground; Hampstead Heath is on the horizon.

03 April, 2006

Slight return

Where did you go?
When things went wrong for you...?
When the knives came out for you...?

Heading back towards Leicester Square station after work, I was greeted with the sound of what seemed to be The Stone Roses booming out of a giant stack of speakers.

As I got nearer, the jumble of jangly guitars and distinctively out-of-tune vocals resolved itself into none other than 'Ten Storey Love Song', a number 11 hit for the titular band in March 1995. This felt like a very odd choice of song, regardless of the context in which it was playing. Of all the Stone Roses' ostensible hits, why on earth go this hardly-known one, taken from the tail end of their abortive second coming in the shape of, erm, 'The Second Coming' LP?

As I then walked through the square itself I recognised the now familiar sights of yet another film premiere stirring itself into life: the crash barriers, the giant hoardings, the batteries of security men, the armoury of photographers, and the dozens of bemused-looking tourists wearing the look that suggested they thought they were about to meet the royal family. And still The Stone Roses played on.

I hadn't heard the song for years. Its pointedly meaningless lyrics reminded me of how, at the time, it was briefly mooted that the title was actually 'Tense Tory Love Song' and hence some kind of anti-John Major rant. Its woeful musical arrangement and half-arsed production, meanwhile, reminded me of another thing I read somewhat after the event, along the lines of John Squire ascribing the sloppiness of 'The Second Coming' to "too much cocaine and babies".

It was only as I passed by the cinema in question (and there are about half a dozen of them within Leicester Square) that I realised it was all in aid of the premiere of the Ant and Dec film Alien Autopsy, which is set in, yup, the mid-1990s and which is presumably blessed by a soundtrack bursting with Britpop's finest. Cast, Dodgy, Northern Uproar, Shed Seven...just some of the band who don't qualify for that description. The Bluetones, however, now they were a different matter.

I think in years to come the mid-90s will take on some kind of potent yet ambiguous reverence in the hearts of my generation akin to that of, say, the late 60s or early 80s, the latter of which I lived through but can recall all-too little about (being born in 1976). It will forever be a very evocative yet rather salubrious period, a tapestry of just as much good as bad culture (and politics, for that matter), and a time into which everyone invests far more significance and emotion than they were willing to do at the time.

My own feelings towards the mid-90s change every week, shuttling between a profound nostalgia for the music and TV and radio and potential of those years, and an alarming revulsion for the misguided optimism all those things created coupled with a dread at how young I was then and how old I am now. Yet I know they'll always remain a precisely etched and carefully bracketed era within my mind, filtered and packaged in a way few other periods have managed to be. Or continued to be.

Suffice to say, rushing back from work trying to fight my way to the Underground, the last thing I wanted to hear was Ian Brown's off-key caterwauling. Yet it did the job of piquing my interest in what was going on, besides activating that part of my brain wherein resides all the cultural capital and critical junk associated with the years 1994-97. Which also, somewhat unfortunately, happened to be the three years I spent at university. But that's for another time. As is 'Ten Storey Love Song'. Hopefully a long long time.

Now why couldn't it have been The Bluetones? So many Top 40 hits to choose from!

All this will fade away
So I'm coming home
But just for a short while.

02 April, 2006

Photo shopped

I haven't been abroad since 1994, but in the past five weeks I know I've already been round the world several times.

I'm not indulging in some pseud-talk here, about how mentally I've journeyed to a thousand places thanks to the sights and sounds of unfamiliar global cultures. No, it's simply that since I moved to London I can't help but notice how many backs of photos I've found myself wandering in to.

It only really applies in the city centre, of course, but that still counts for most days since the end of February. It's not like I'm deliberately contriving to step into somebody's viewfinder or seeking out unsuspecting tourists for a bit of photographical hi-jacking. Far from it. I started off doing my best to avoid getting in somebody's way, but pretty soon it proved impossible to get where you wanted to go in an reasonably straight and direct line without passing behind a tourist or two posing for a commemorative snap.

Given my route to and from work involves walking through one of the most tourist-saturated parts of London - Leicester Square, Shaftesbury Avenue and Piccadilly - this is a situation which probably afflicts me more than most. And seeing as I've already documented my aversion to being caught on camera, you must understand this isn't something I look forward with keen enthusiasm. Yet it happens, and it will go on happening, and there's nothing I can do about it. I'm not going to wait half an hour for a band of tourists to complete their business and get out the way just so I can walk from A to B.

Hence my likeness and image is, I know for a fact, already captured in the background of any number of international visitors' lensmanship, which in turn will already have been processed or uploaded or printed or emailed right around the globe to nestle unsuspectingly in the inboxes or photo albums of people in faraway places of which I know little.

It's an odd thought, that you try and do so much to control and preserve the course and pattern of your life, only subjecting yourself to unknown elements and external forces when you choose to do so, yet fragments of who you are get scattered around the planet every day and there's nothing you can do about it. My likeness, no doubt settled into an uncompromising grimace, could well be gracing the coffee tables of folk in Moscow, Mexico City, Sydney and Los Angeles.

So much for globalisation. They've got a part of me, but I've got no clue about them.

01 April, 2006

No foolin'

Given this has been posted after midday, everything you're about to read can be taken as solemn truth. Well, hopefully not too solemn. But it's 100% safely fool-free, if not totally foolproof.

I mention this for the simple reason that I have fallen afoul of this ostensibly rigid midday cut-off before. Quite where this "rule" about when you can and can't "fool" on 1st April came from is conveniently shrouded in mystery. But I didn't think it important when, in my previous job, I decided to continue a tradition started by my predecessor and write a totally bogus news story for the home page of one of the company's websites.

The substance of the story was, of course, just the right side of preposterous to confound the gullible and to entertain the self-aware - the latter of which I assumed to be in the majority. But as it turned out this latter did not contain a couple of well-known national magazines who, after the story appeared online, rang up the publicity department of the company wanting to know all the details concerning where and when the fictious event about which I'd written was due to take place. And wanted to know right away, for they were looking to run with the story forthwith.

Now I hadn't told publicity what I was up to, for the simple reason I couldn't be arsed. And because they never told me what they were up to, which as far as I could see was their job. And besides, they of all people should have been able to see through the tissue of lies in which my story was neatly wrapped. But no. I was wrong. Rather than dismiss the enquiries, the publicity department, the stupidest people in the world (fact), fussed and flapped and promised to ring the magazines back with "an official line" and "an explanation" concerning the story and the television programme to which it referred.

They then rang me up and started chuntering on about what the hell I was doing peddling these sorts of untruths online and why they hadn't been informed and what precisely did I think they would now have to tell these national magazines. Well, on the last point I had no intention of doing their job for them. They were the publicity department after all. But as for the rest of it, I was overwhelmed with utter despair. I really couldn't be dealing with that kind of joyless pedantry.

Nonetheless I politely drew their attention to the date. And the day. And how when you combined the date and the day you came up with 1st April.

"Oh yes," they replied, "I see. But look, it's after midday, and you know you really should have taken it off the website now. Because after midday, it's wrong. You can't fool after midday. Because then the fool is on you. You're the fool."

They actually said that to me. They actually called me a fool. So out of spite I left the story up online for the whole day, regardless of etiquette and convention and manners. I just wanted to wind up both they, and those dimwitted magazines, even further.

Nothing came of the whole affair. Well, the publicity team were never likely to call more attention to their incompetence by pursuing the issue or referring it to a higher level. Aside from this one incident, though, I've never gone in for, or had done to me, anything in the way of April Fools. The closest I came to personally identifying with the day came in a diary entry from somewhere in the wilderness of my adolescence and which began "April 1st. A day for me: a fool." Ahem.

Anyway, unsurprisingly nothing was planned at my new place of work to commemorate April Fool's Day. But as a footnote to the above tale, when I think of it, I actually NEVER took that original offending story offline. It's still there. Right now. You can take a look for yourself, if you want. There are enough clues scattered through this site for anyone so inclined to work out which company and which programme and hence which website I'm talking about. That's the truth - and in the words of Homer Simpson, no foolin'.