30 June, 2006

Checks, balances

More electoral evisceration for Labour.

I have to admit being cheered by both sets of results, less so for the Government's defeat (hardly unexpected) than the spectacular collapse of the Tory party's majority in Bromley & Chislehurst, where the Liberal Democrats confounded probably almost everyone's expectations and came within an inch of snatching the seat outright. So much for David Cameron's revolution. Indeed, so much for Menzies Campbell's ostensibly botched helmsmanship of the Liberals.

It was another one of those occasions where the very first thing I heard on the radio upon waking up was news of a shock and exciting election outcome. It was followed, as ever, by various politicians offering claim and counter-claim, though at least Francis Maude on behalf of the Tories admitted it was a disappointing result and the Liberal Democrats were relatively humble in victory. No, it was Labour who yet again came over the worst, purporting the familiar it-doesn't-mean-anything-really line alternating with the contradictory we-are-listening-and-we-are-changing hokum.

If you looked up coverage of how old Tory governments used to respond the morning after by-election defeats, you'd probably find them mouthing almost precisely the same sentiments and using invariably the same words in virtually the same order.

And that's where the root of the problem lies. Never mind the policies; the electorate thought Labour would bring to office a new approach to the practice of politics. In reality they have ended up resorting to the same cliches and weasle words and transparent flanneling as their predecessors.

Best line of the night came from the new independent MP for Blaenau Gwent, Dai Davies: "You take people for granted at your peril. It's the people that matter, not the political parties. The dinosaurs thought they would live for ever - they died out. Political parties take note and listen to the people or you're in trouble." Aye to that.

29 June, 2006

Seaside rendezvous

I can think of few worse things than enforced conviviality, but when coupled with wilful self-aggrandisement you've got a recipe for more or less unending discontent.

Mix the two ingredients into a fever pitch of hysteria and bring to the boil somewhere on the south coast of England, then you're looking at something approaching the kind of atmosphere within which my workplace "away day" took place.

Things weren't helped by my having to get up at 6am in order to be at the relevant London mainline station to take my seat on the designated company train which would ensure arrival at my final destination in good time for the event to begin at 10am. Given this destination was Brighton I was mindful of the film they used to show whenever they needed to plug an awkward gap on BBC1, comprising speeded up footage shot from the front of a train making the same journey in precisely three minutes. If only.

Needless to say the effort involved in reaching the ultimate location - the Grand Hotel, no less - knackered me out so much that I was ready to go to sleep roughly two minutes after the first presentation at the morning conference had begun.

This was fortunate, given the first presentation, and all that followed, comprised of pronouncements that went right over my head (and, from what I could gather, those of most of my immediate colleagues) interspersed with breathtaking assaults on the English language - precisely the kind of material, in other words, to pass harmlessly in one side of your head and out the other.

This was the first event of its kind I had ever attended, and there's no point denying my irritation at having to participate was equalled if not exceeded by my apprehension as to what would transpire. So much of the day, the ensuing evening, and the following morning had been kept a mystery. A deliberate surprise, in fact, because of course everybody in the whole world loves surprises.

So it was with particular fear that I received the news of what was to comprise the afternoon's activities: a trip up to Brighton racecourse where an array of "treats" had been laid on for us to encounter and where, in teams, we had battle with each other in order to earn "pretend money" and, presumably, the honour of being the best out of the whole company.

It was the sort of thing that proved virtually beyond parody. As the sun beat down, for four solid hours we were pushed and prodded between, amongst others, inflatable volleyball, geese-herding, quadbike racing, crazy golf, ferret racing, human table football and dog whistling.

Meanwhile a man stalked the course dressed in a titanic Hawaiian shirt sporting sunglasses and half a palm tree compering this veritable hell on earth and encouraging everyone to join him in singing 'Is This The Way To Amarillo?' To get us through, we had been issued with but one bottle of water each. Oh, and some fruit pastilles.

By the time this wrapped up I had been awake for 12 solid hours and was close to collapse. I was also fairly humbled and humiliated, wondering just what all of this was supposed to do to your self-esteem.

Back at the hotel we were finally let into our rooms, which of course we were sharing thanks to the company's legendary penny-pinching, and we finally had some time to ourselves. But only an hour or so, because we had to then get all dressed up for dinner and the obligatory party which boasted a palm-reader who looked about 115, a disco fronted by a man who liked doing high-kicks to Vanilla Ice, some ancient arcade machines patrolled by someone sporting a bone-chilling resemblance to James Hewitt, and an apparently unending supply of alcohol. The one thing that was not in evidence was much in the way of dignity. But then after all that had gone before, what did you expect?

I have to put on record the Grand Hotel's appalling standard in vegetarian food. For lunch all I had to choose between was a pile of stodgy paella and some rubbery macaroni cheese. Worse was the main evening meal, where I was presented with a "vegetarian option" of...cod! What the fuck?! Had the staff never served vegetarian people before? Were they still using the same menu as 1976? I thought the Grand Hotel was supposed to be one of the best residences in the land!

I had to kick up a bit of a fuss and finally got a tiny portion of vegetable tart for my troubles. Never have I been to a hotel and finished the night more hungry. I woke up starving, to be greeted by a breakfast offering a choice between scrambled egg and...fried egg.

Anyway, I should also say I was fortunate throughout the entire event in being able to hang around with a small group of acquaintances who seemed, if not quite so dismayed by all these shenanigans, then refreshingly bemused and breezily cynical, and who at least were willing to tolerate my companionship and conversation.

We all begrudged the point of having to travel so many miles away from home in order to hear a load of platitudes and run around a field while back in the office double the amount of work would be waiting for us on our return. Because naturally that was where we had to go, once the whole event ended at lunchtime: straight back to our desks, replete with bags of dirty washing, to summon up the energy and enthusiasm for something we'd just spent the last 36 hours being told was, and this is a fact, "making the world a better place".

Brighton: don't remember it this way.

27 June, 2006

Clouding over

I have to get up at something like 6am tomorrow in order to catch the train that will take me to my horrendous work-organised "away day" in a seaside hotel. I am dreading the entire thing. It is the last great hurdle to surmount before the month ends, the year pivots, and everything begins its reassuring retreat into the muted colours and crisp tones of autumn.

I shall see you on the other side.

26 June, 2006

Kicking off

I've just finished watching, and thoroughly enjoying, the penalty shoot-out which ended the World Cup game between Switzerland and Ukraine.

It was about time we had a match that was settled in such a pointlessly arbitrary yet dementedly entertaining fashion. I hadn't bothered with any of the proper, earlier action; it was only when I realised things were heading towards spot kicks (as the commentators quaintly called them) that I settled down in front of the TV and prepared for a thrilling few minutes of action.

Sure enough, there it all was. The tense, nervy shots of tense, nervy players, wandering seemingly aimlessly around the pitch. The coaches, scribbling lists on ridiculously tatty bits of paper. The pundits in the studio, who convention dictates we don't see at moments like these, invisibly muttering rambling platitudes. The fans, wondering when they're going to get to bed. And the pithy references back to how many times all of this could have been avoided if so and so had made good of a chance 108 minutes ago.

Even better, when the penalties started, neither team seemed particularly disposed towards scoring. Muted jokes were soon forthcoming as to whether this, as with the game itself, would end 0-0. Most of the strikes were rubbish. Most of the saves were ace. Most of the viewers who had tuned in expecting the Ten O'clock News were undoubtedly livid, at least to begin with, but hopefully, ultimately, as caught up in proceedings as I was.

A fine quarter of an hour's TV, then, and a fine dry-run for what will undoubtedly happen at the end of England's quarter-final match against Portugal on Saturday.

25 June, 2006

Leaves, grass

Hendon Park, round the corner from where I live, includes a Holocaust Memorial Garden. The inscription over the entrance is a Hebrew word meaning look to the future without forgetting the past.

24 June, 2006

Looking up

Sometimes it pays dividends.

22 June, 2006

Something, nothing

By way of some kind of "summer" treat at work yesterday, the canteen was turned over to some "new bands" who it was promised would provide "exciting music" and "fresh sounds" to evoke the mood of the season. What squawking guitars, vocal histrionics and thunderously out-of-time drums have to do with summer left me stumped, though it did succeed in instantly driving me out of the building and into the sunshine, so I guess there was some corollary.

They're always doing these demented things where I work. As part of some ostensible publicity drive to drum up interest in another bizarre musical-related venture, an Ozzy Osbourne impersonator was employed to wander stupidly around the building for an hour getting on everyone's nerves and shouting. He then tried to get his photo taken with every single employee, at which point I went and hid in the toilets.

In April there was an Easter Egg hunt (careful how you say it) wherein titular ovoids were hilariously sequestered on different floors of the building and you were expected to give up the best part of your day to traipse around the place trying to find them, all in order to win a couple of tiny chocolate bunnies.

This was followed in the evening by an event which I did not attend involving, yes, a "new band" providing "exciting music" and "fresh sounds".

For a company that can't afford to buy desks for its own minions, it's remarkable how much cash there nonetheless seems to be sloshing around to shell out on, variously, sticks of rock, battered fish, candy floss and energy-saving light bulbs, all of which have been given out for free during the last few months.

When the World Cup match between England and Trinidad & Tobago took place during working hours, a giant screen was set up in the canteen to show the game, but no chairs were provided upon which people could rest and enjoy proceedings - though several giant bowls of warm punch were in evidence, presumably to fortify you while standing up for two hours.

I fail to see the merit in a company functioning with such a confused set of priorities. Don't they think that such a disparity between providing essential tools to allow people to do their jobs and providing freebies of a less than obvious kind registers poorly in the minds of its staff?

Sadly things are about to get far worse. The entire organisation, including me, is being packed off to the seaside next week for an "away day" that involves staying overnight in a hotel and a terrifying portfolio of "team games", "bonding exercises" and, good lord, "fun quizzes".

During this prolonged period of enforced conviviality, various boring announcements will also be made about the corporation's "thrilling" past and its equally "thrilling" future, while those listening in the audience will be mindful of the pennypinching which necessitates everybody sharing a bedroom.

More about all that anon. Meantime...anybody interested in a stick of rock with my company logo running through the middle? It's too much for me to stomach.

21 June, 2006

Longest day

Can it really be six months?

It feels like it should be much longer, much much longer. Half a year isn't a particularly epic stretch, but it's one that carries the burden of being more than just a few months and of therefore implying something substantial.

At least on paper, albeit of the virtual kind, it looks like I've had a pretty turbulent six months - just as well given my decision to write about it here. In my head, though, it could well be six years. Still, what I wouldn't give for an evening that gets dark when it should (teatime) and a morning that doesn't wake up you with the sun at 4am.

These truly are the longest days. I haven't slept right through the night for a fair number of weeks, being repeatedly woken whenever it starts getting light and again when some selflessly loud lorry decides to pull up just down the road and make as much noise as possible for a few idle minutes.

The blinds in my bedroom fail on every level, letting too much sun in when I don't want it and not enough light when I do, besides making a cacophony of clattering in even the tinest of a breeze. It feels like I'm being subject to a hell of a lot more of the wrong kind of light altogether in London, though science implies the days are longer the further north you travel and hence I'm getting a little less sun here than in Liverpool.

There's also the fact that I'm no longer living somewhere which operates according to the rules of suburbia. This place doesn't close down of an evening when folk pull their curtains and bed down for the night. Events conspire to go on happening around the clock.

The other night, for instance, a bunch of binmen decided to have a row at 4.15am. Early on Sunday morning there always seems to be a girl sobbing violently somewhere in the vicinity. The first Underground trains of the day rattle past somewhere round 5am. And just after 11.00pm there is always, without fail, a kerfuffle in the car park below me when the exit barrier stops working and there's one car left trapped inside.

All this comical commotion conspires to make long days even more interminable, to the extent of never truly ending at all. At least from now on there's the consolation of knowing there are a few less minutes of daylight every evening, which in turn means increasingly less opportunity for the sun to scorch itself quite so relentlessly upon the city, and in turn less scope for being woken up in the small hours by people having urinating competitions by the dustbins. Which really is taking the piss.

20 June, 2006

Glazed view

I managed to get down by the river this lunchtime, anxious to give my eyes something to look at that wasn't flickering twelve inches in front of my face.

Despite the best efforts of London's numerous tourist authorities and PR agencies, the Thames is really just as shit brown a colour as it has always been. The tide was coming in and as I watched from Charing Cross footbridge all sorts of flotsam, not to say jetsam, wound its way upstream. Bubblewrap, a doughnut, seaweed, pigeon feathers, a packet of biros and a giant plank of wood all passed in front of me in the space of a minute, bobbing nonchalently atop a murky soup of meandering grime.

On the bridge itself were arrayed an assortment of hawkers and chancers, including a bloke selling sunglasses "for five pounds a pop", someone playing a mournful saxophone, a man flogging those ubiquitous line drawings of famous people resembling cheaply-drawn caricatures of barely recognisable personalities, and someone else disconsolately playing a steel drum with one hand while eating a sandwich in the other.

He was attempting to play the chorus from 'Stand By Me', but getting every other note wrong. Still, some kind soul had given him 20p for his troubles, which was more than the saxophonist, ten times as talented, had picked up.

Tourists and gangs of schoolchildren roamed everywhere, as did businessmen in alarming pink shirts smoking cigarettes. A steady stream of joggers made their way along the riverbank, including one elderly gentleman in a hopelessly unflattering pair of tiny shorts.

An evil looking man in a suit fired me a withering glance when I happened to briefly get in his way. Two teenagers were holding an unlikely conversation about how musicals were wonderful and how "they should bring back Starlight Express". And lots of people munched through lots of processed foods discarding lots of packaging in their wake.

Of course all of this was going on against the backdrop of the yawning skyline, which for once wasn't covered in low cloud and threatened to look a little beautiful. A breeze helped to take the edge off the temperature, and there was even the trace of fresh air.

Maybe it was my relief at being properly out of the office and away from desks, chairs and computer screens which transformed this lunchtime stroll into more than the sum of its parts. Maybe it was the sound of the saxophone, de rigeur for establishing evocative city scapes. Whatever, it was a welcome interval in the drudgery of the day.

A shame about that doughnut, though.

19 June, 2006

Conference call-out

Ignore the miles and miles of twittering and name-calling that sits at the foot of this article; instead, read Jackie Ashley's thoughts on how Tony Blair has no choice but to name the date of his departure at this year's party conference, and as a consequence how he'll be gone from office sooner than we think.

I have a particular interest in this coming true, of course, because I predicted as much at the end of last year. But really, when it comes to the point of even John Major admitting that eight years is long enough for any Prime Minister, it's surely time to hand over the keys and disappear into the night. The country feels like it did in the dismal twilight years of the last Tory Government, and that's not right at all.

18 June, 2006

Class dismissed

The names of a couple of old school friends of mine have recently resurfaced online, together with photos of - presumably - how they look now.

One appears to be doing very well for herself as a teacher of Italian at Warwick University, the back of whose 18-year-old head can be evindenced here. The other seems to have set himself as a freelance theatre director in London, churning out various self-conscious "alternative" productions and sporting a huge bushy beard, besides continuing to awkwardly sport the same name as my boss.

He now looks far older than her, though they hail both from the same year. My school year, that is.

"They're both from the same year". It's a phrase that actually makes no sense whatsoever, meaning precious little in or out of context. Yet it was, or variations on it were, a calling card back at school and as much a badge of association and identity as anything else.

My year. The class of '94, as they'd call it, with far more empiricism but far less romanticism, in America.

I often wonder what I'd do were I invited to a reunion of my school year. This rash assumption presupposes I would be considered worthwhile enough to be invited in the first place, but supposing I were, would I take the plunge into such convivial yet murky waters of nostalgia and companionship?

In short: absolutely not. In fact, I would dread such an occasion and go to great lengths not to attend rather than find myself being coralled into showing up and rubbing shoulders with my erstwhile contemporaries.

Not that I wouldn't be interested to see some of them again - far from it. But not in that setting. Not under some ghastly semi-official auspices. And not with everybody else there. Not with people I would feel distinctly uneasy at coming face to face with after 12 years.

I know, I just know, that the majority of people attending such an event would have achieved far far more than I have since 1994 and that as such my accomplishments would but pale into offensive insignificance. I would not be able to handle the inevitable rating and comparing of histories and highlights, the expectation of having made something of your life by now, the accumulation of materials and experiences to back that up, and the implication that everything is all right with the world.

Part of me also doesn't want to be reminded of the "me" back then. I'm quite content to have faded out of 90% of the lives of people I used to see day in day out at school. Having to meet them again after all this time presupposes some common ground and shared interest, wheras the only thing I had in common with all of them at the end of the day was that we went to the same school. Take that away and, well, as proved to be the unhappy case, there was little reason to socialise and keep in touch - as I found out, painfully, throughout my time at university.

Maybe, in ten years time or so, I shall feel very differently. I hope so. At the moment, however, I don't have the strength, or the guts, or the nerve, or the presence of mind, to hold my own in a room full of people I last saw when I was 18. It's easier, more cowardly, to watch from afar, which is why the internet is such a godsend when it comes to being seen and not seen. Plus it means I can take an interest in other people's lives without being so presumptuous as to think they would still have an interest in mine.

In short: I would love to go...but I never will.

17 June, 2006

Hirsutes you

The mirror in my bathroom, most probably like every mirror in every bathroom in the world, never fails to show me in my most unflattering light. This is even more the case when there is an unflattering light streaming through the bathroom window, which there is without fail every morning during the month of June, when the sun is already high in the sky by the time I wake up and the temperature is rising as fast as my hackles.

These particular circumstances are, at present, conspiring to show up one particular aspect of my appearance which is only increasing as the years go by: grey hair. I never realised I had so much of the stuff until I moved into this flat and had to get used to a bathroom mirror which was nothing less than a showcase for every single one of your unwelcome blemishes, flecks and creases.

I first spotted one about five years ago - or rather, someone spotted it for me, when I turned my head slightly and the sun decided to catch one specific incidence of my advancing age, a strand of grey glinting in an otherwise unassuming mop of brown. I thought nothing of it at the time. Well, I thought quite a bit about it somewhat later. 30 minutes or so later, to be precise. Since when the topic has floated through my brain fairly regularly, but never in an especially malignant fashion. Rather I've come to view it as a betoken of bidding farewell (a thankful one) to the vagaries of youth and a welcome mark of experience.

Not particularly positive experiences, mind; I'm sure the various stresses and strains of my jobs these past five years have accelerated the ageing process and given me, oh, at least 30 or 40 strands of grey to call attention to themselves with reckless abandonment.

Still, while it's always more pronounced when my hair is about to be cut and there's more grey on view, at least - to my knowledge - I'm not losing any hair. Indeed, I remember once having a conversation with a barber who assured me that because my grandfather (on my mum's side) had a fine shock of hair until the day he died, I would be the same and would never go bald, unlike my dad, his brothers, his father, his grandfather and so on.

This sounded to me like an old wives' tale, more so because it was being spoken by somebody who bore a remarkable resemblance to an old wife. Any rate, it's good enough for me. Grey is and grey does, as John Major probably would have said, were he not too busy telling people to put up or shut up, and how, when your back is against the wall, the only thing you can do is turn round and start fighting.

16 June, 2006

Two, nil

Yesterday's England World Cup match was watched in a state of near-hysteria by my work colleagues, which wouldn't have been so bad were it not for the fact they were watching it ten inches from my right ear.

It's my luck - or misfortune, depending on what's going on in the world - to sit virtually underneath the office television sets, which are suspended from the ceiling to try and make the place look like an American newsroom and which are ordinarily tuned in to the lamentable outpourings of Sky News or the bland but worthy utterances of BBC News 24.

For the duration of the World Cup, however, both TVs get switched over whenever there's a game underway. And because these are the only two sets on the whole floor, folk cluster about them like pedestrians at a car crash, which coincidentally was precisely how you could describe yesterday's England World Cup match.

Beer was also introduced onto the premises. Sport and alcohol: a toxic combination, obviously, but an inflammable one when applied to a bunch of bored workers labouring through the arse end of a weekday afternoon.

Everyone downed tools at 5pm and clustered round the crystal bucket to practice the usual business of being alternately desperately optimistic and petulantly impatient, swigging from cans and shouting. I had stuff to do but with one of the TVs in my eyeline it was impossible not to follow what was going on, or rather what wasn’t, and to feel some involvement in proceedings.

One of my tasks, ironically, was to get a picture ready to publish on the homepage of the website as soon as the final score arrived. Much pleasure was to be had, therefore, in spending the best part of 80 minutes finding the most miserable looking image of the most depressed looking England player imaginable. Less fun was the scramble to find the complete opposite in the dying seconds of the match in order to reflect the last-minute turnaround.

In retrospect, there's always some fun to be had in being an impartial outsider, but you have to watch what you say and to resist the temptation to inject pithy comments which may sound witty and wise to you but will only be deeply irritating to others. With this in mind I quickly resolved to shut up for the 90 minutes, letting the whole farrago wash over me, reflecting on my own vocal prediction of a 0-0 draw and how this almost, almost, came true.

Then, just before 7pm, I escaped - unfortunately just as everybody else was fleeing anything with a roof on, and found the walk back to the station took twice as long thanks to a profusion of flags, fat bellies and foul mouths.

And that was just the kids.

14 June, 2006

Dark matters


13 June, 2006

Too hot

I have been sitting in my chair at work, the sweat dripping down my neck, my hands too slippery to type properly, my brain too addled to think straight. On the hottest two days of the year so far, the air conditioning in our building has broken and the place is like a tropical greenhouse on fire.

Absolutely nothing has been done to fix the problem, and absolutely no-one has offered an apology. All that's happened is that an email has come round, noting how, in exceptionally hot weather, it is "suggested" that you "drink water" and "go for a walk". No explanation as to the malfunction. No acknowledgement of the situation. And above all not one word on when it will be put right.

Every time I think my employers have so excelled themselves by way of their crass stupidity they cannot possibly get any worse, a few days later my assumptions prove groundless and another, even more spectacular, gaffe occurs. I always knew the management lived in some kind of ivory tower, but I never dreamed it was so high up as to be served by mountain air as opposed to the stuff the rest of the human race has to live off.

People have been slumping onto their desks. People have been continually rushing off to the toilets to wash their faces. People have been walking out and not coming back. The luckiest of all have relocated themselves back to a place that has an environment they could control: their own home.

It is a ludicrous, yet also a pathetic, scene. How stupid and feeble a body of employees we must have look, moping and lolling about the place, to anybody visiting the premises. Yet how hopeless and incompetent an organisation to let its employees get themselves into such a state in the first place.

I dreamt last night of being in ownership of a customised portable thermostat which I could carry about my person and which, upon manipulation, could alter the weather of my immediate surroundings however I liked. I imagined walking down a street, lowering the temperature by one degree with every step, seeing passers by strolling around in summerwear slowly start to shiver and shake in complete confusion. I dreamt of walking across a bridge over the Thames, and seeing the river freeze by the time I reached the other side.

I also dreamt of being anywhere else but in this godforsaken steaming hellhole of a city, where the sun never stops burning its way through your eyes, where the noise and smog and dust and stink never cease, and where the thunder and rain and the sweet fresh air seem never to dare show their face.

And we're only in June. What the fuck is still to come?

12 June, 2006

Disco beat

Here are some of the most banal lyrics ever written:

See that girl? She's over there;
I don't need her, she don't care.
I could be one in a million;
It would be so good to start again.

Yet when heard set to music, they become some of the most beautiful. If you ever get a chance to listen to 'Some Distant Memory' by Electronic, you'll hopefully see something of what I mean. The juxtaposition of the acutely mundane and the pointedly melodic sets up what could be called an emotional paradox but one which is strangely, unashamedly appealing. It's also one that underscores some of the greatest pop music ever to come out of this country.

Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys once described this duality in slightly different terms as "a hard lyric, a soft tune" or "disco music with un-disco lyrics". He was referring specifically to the PSB's 'Suburbia', which is an undoubtedly more accomplished song than anything hailing from the musical pens of Electronic, but is still founded upon the same premise (and indeed Electronic wasn't merely just the plaything of New Order's Bernard Sumner and The Smiths' Johnny Marr, but Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe as well).

It's basically the resolving of two different styles - upbeat music, downbeat vocals - into a unique union, one that carries with it such emotional force that it always leaves me, for one, profoundly moved. I'd say it was something specific to the Pet Shop Boys, New Order and the work of their respective members, and it's also something near-specific to Britain. You could never ever get the same combination in America. For one thing there isn't just the same kind of melancholia as in the UK. And for another, there isn't the same kind of irony (or any kind, some might say).

Of course the entangling of electronic and emotion was conceived by Kraftwerk in what was then West Germany, but it's possible to argue it was Anglicised by David Bowie and Brian Eno (albeit in a series of albums recorded in Berlin). 'Sound And Vision' is a good example: jaunty, spiky electronica bubbling away underneath ambiguous, stark statements that end up sounding alternately content and sorrowful.

It was then the 1980s, the best decade for popular music ever (fact!), that elevated the peculiar marriage of English melancholy and German computers, by way of early American house music, to the mainstream and served up such a fantastic outpouring of doleful disco beats.

It's such an elegantly simple combination. Restrained sentiments being voiced to unrestrained sounds. Reserved commentary gracing unreserved music. And deep within its heart, the celebration of the stoical, the praising of the morose, the evocation of the British way of life.

As the PSBs themselves said, "we're The Smiths you can dance to." And, fortunately, still can.

11 June, 2006

Altogether now

What would politely be referred to as a domestic took place in the car park outside my flat yesterday afternoon. What would be correctly referred to as a screaming exchange of hysterical profanity also occurred. Conveniently enough for the latent nosey streak in me and my fellow neighbours, these two instances were in fact one and the same.

There was only one party present in the car park; the subject, or rather the object, of his acute ire was on the other end of his mobile phone. But she might as well have been standing there with him, such was the totally unselfconscious and deeply personal, not to say intimate, nature of his remarks.

To be frank, I had never seen the like. It was a painfully honest, yet honestly painful, display of grief, anger, hurt and uncontrollable dangerous rage.

From what I could gather, and believe me things are actually less coherent and hard to hear when they are shrieked rather than spoken, he had just discovered his "woman" had been unfaithful to him after, oh dear, eight long years together. Or as he put it, "after eight years you go fuck someone else?"

It being a blistering hot day, every single window in the vicinity was wide open. It was impossible not to get drawn in. As the minutes went by and the profanities stacked up, I saw more and more faces emerge to view the proceedings. Our victim being down below in the car park, it became like we were eager spectators gazing upon some tawdry Greek tragedy. But here there was to be no cathartic resolution, and definitely no applause.

The bloke's other half had been "spied" with somebody else, and word had only just got back to him. He was spitting with fury. "Don't give me that bullshit, don't give me that bullshit," he kept yelling. His interrogation was relentless and also pretty ruthless. He demanded she tell him not just when she first met this new man, but how old he was ("32! I bet you he's got a fucking wife and three fucking kids"), whether - of course - she had "fucked with him", and most startling of all from my hopelessly liberal Western perspective, "what race is he?"

But soon these questions turned to insults, and then to threats, and then to retribution. What had been an intriguing eavesdrop became desperately sorrowful listening and ultimately just too much to bear.

The man ended up issuing all sorts of threats - "I will kill you, I will kill both of you, I'm coming to get you" - which were, frankly, terrifying in their intensity. He was also quite clearly out of control, walking round and round in circles, ignorant of everyone else walking past (including small children) and everyone watching from on high.

Eventually I had to turn away and attempt to distract myself in something else. Next time I looked the man had gone. His car was still there, though, and I thought for a moment I could still hear his ranting drifting on the breeze from somewhere in the distance. More likely it was his voice still ringing inside my head.

A couple of hours later I realized his car had gone, so he must have been back at some point though I neither saw nor heard of his return.

The whole thing was shamelessly tawdry yet somehow deeply affecting. The man, from what he was shouting, had been with this woman for eight years yet he was only 24. His heart had been broken there and then, in front of me and my fellow peeping toms. All of a sudden I felt terribly ashamed, as if I was complicit in the man's suffering. An ugly epilogue to an equally grisly episode.

10 June, 2006

Mercury rising

It's supposed to be the hottest weekend of the year so far, which seems to be as good a reason as any for tucking yourself away inside for the duration and trying to keep as cool as possible before the next opportunity arises to be inside an air-conditioned building. Which for me is Monday morning, back at work.

The hottest I think I've ever been was in July 1994 in Nice, France. I was only there for three days, but they were the most uncomfortable, unforgiving 72 hours of my life. I would go to bed covered in sweat and wake up the same way. I'd step out of the shower and find myself sweating again 60 seconds later. The temperature must have been up in the mid-30s, par for the course for the locals, but a whole new world to a pale, pasty-faced English teenager.

It was really very distressing, which makes me sound like a Wooster-esque upper class flapper from the 1930s, but I make no apologies for my shamelessly old-fashioned response to warm weather, nor the way I react. By which I mean react in the mental sense. It's not that I come out in any peculiar rash or anything. Unless you count grumpiness as a kind of psychological condition.

Unfortunately the flat I live in does not allow for much coolness. I've got an electric fan, but that merely pushes the warm air around the place with even more alacrity. Looking through the open windows I can see pollution outside already beginning to settle atop the city like an outrageously offensive hairnet. All this, and my local water company is applying for a drought order, which would mean, among other things, no more street-cleaning, fountains, car washes, or swimming pools.

I know full well that if I was still living in Liverpool I wouldn't give a toss about London's water supply or its hopelessly smog-filled streets. I'm sure the rest of the country feels much the same way. Yet I'm also sure that if, say, Glasgow was suddenly blighted by extreme drought conditions, there wouldn't be anywhere near as much fuss being kicked up by the media.

It's the usual hot-headed southern mentality manifesting itself again. Which, given this weekend's supposed baking temperatures, is sadly only going to get worse. So there's nothing for it but to shelter from the relentless rays behind, well, preferably a shelter of some kind, do a spot of housework, dip into a good book, do a bit of writing, set to unblocking the plug in my bath, and watch Doctor Who this evening. After all, there's not much else of consequence going on today.

Isn't there?

09 June, 2006

Full stop?

I don't know about you but there's a singular trend which I've noticed manifesting itself in more and more people nowadays? You might have heard it yourself? It's the habit of speaking each and every sentence as if it were a question?

In other words, purposefully raising the tone of your voice when a punctuation mark approaches rather than, as convention dictates, lowering it? It's really quite irritating? It's also dangerously catching?

Almost everybody in my office practices this inflection? One or two people had begun to fall into such a maddening trap at the place I worked in Liverpool, but here in London it seems pretty much universal?

I can't stand it? It's horrendous, creepy and so so wrong? It goes against every law of English and leaves you with the impression of being trapped inside a second-rate Australian soap opera? (And yes there are second-rate ones, of the likes of The Young Doctors and Sons And Daughters and their ilk?)

I try my best to fight it but it's sometimes almost impossible to not adopt the speech patterns of all your work colleagues with whom you occupy a room for sometimes up to 10 hours a day?

I hate myself for doing it? I end up listening to myself speaking and hence stumbling over even the simplest of sentences? The most maddening thing of all, however, is the fact that these people don't apply the same law to proper questions? Here's an example?

So what is to be done about that.

That is how they speak? They steadfastly refuse to raise their voice as convention dictates when a question mark hoves into view? It's like everything has turned topsey-turvey? What with that and the ongoing abuse of the meaning of words (there was another outburst of "reactionary website!" the other day) I often end up retreating into silence and simply saying nothing at all?

If only these people heard themselves speaking from the point of view of someone else, they might realise how absurd they sound? But then that's the rub, because people always say they sound different hearing themselves on tape, for instance, or on a phone message?

I fear for both the sense and the sound of our language? Perhaps the answer lies in better education about the point of full stops? Like this one coming up.

You see?

That wasn't so bad.

08 June, 2006

Anniversary upgrade

Two things to note this evening.

One, this is the 200th entry to this blog. Two, it is the first to have been posted using broadband. Yup, for all that time since last November I'd been soldiering on with a simple dial-up connection, as I had for the previous five years ever since I got my very own computer.

I remember reading online somewhere recently a bold statement from somebody to the effect that "nobody I know has dial-up anymore." That was, and still is, quite patently bollocks. My mum and dad, for instance, have only ever had a dial-up connection. So did my sister, until she moved in with her boyfriend earlier this year. And so did I, until last night. In fact, maybe it is just my family that has proved to be the exception to the rule. Hmmm.

It surely can't be the case that dial-up connections are now in the minority? Could it? Or could it? Perhaps...it could. Or could it?

To be honest I've only switched now, rather than any point in the future, because one of the precious few perks of my job is that they pay for broadband to be installed in the homes of their employees.

The thinking here is to allow you to work from home one day a week. Unfortunately this thinking doesn't extend to ensuring you have a computer which is compatible with the company's various systems and applications, which mine is not. So until they bother to furnish me with a laptop that I can both use in the office and bring back here, or I deign to buy myself a whole new machine, I must continue to make the selfless slog across London five days a week.

Ah well. Into every life a little rain must fall. And as another baking hot day takes its leave, there's just not bloody enough.

P.S. As if to prove an especially petulant point, for some reason posting this update has taken twice as long as it used to do when I had dial-up.

07 June, 2006

Brent crossed

A whole 54 years before this existed:

06 June, 2006

En vacances

Everyone is planning their summer holiday at work.

There is a feverish atmosphere borne of last-minute decisions, reckless impulses and spontaneous journeys - and that's just around the building. Yes, the hot desk regime is now fully up and running, and absolutely everybody has shown their support for the policy by sitting in absolutely the same places they sat in before. Nonetheless the mood of impermanance and the increasingly scorching weather has undoubtedly contributed to a sense of wanderlust far beyond the confines of Piccadilly.

Once again, I won't be going on holiday. I remain of the attitude that at this point in my life I'd rather use my annual leave to take a break from having to do anything at all, not least struggling with unusual environments, currencies, languages and clocks. Besides, I can't afford it. I never have been able to afford a holiday. As such I haven't taken a proper vacation since 1994, the year I finished school, when I spent two weeks travelling round Holland, Belgium and France on a train.

It's not that I don't want to visit other countries - or, more indeed, other parts of the United Kingdom. I have long nursed ambitions to make spectacular treks, such as taking a train ride from one end of Britain to the other or walking the length of Hadrian's Wall. I also dream of one day visiting all the famous battlefield sites of Western Europe, and of crossing from one side of the United States to the other by railway.

But these are dreams for another time and place. For one thing, I couldn't countenance making any of those particular journeys alone. That's a whole separate issue, and who knows when and in what circumstances it would ever be resolved.

I also feel I have yet to put down enough roots to have the strength and purpose to spread my wings - in other words, I've still to learn the business of walking before I can run.

I have a collection of postcards from old friends and members of my family hailing from all over the globe. Indeed, my sister spent most of 2001 travelling right round the world, an act for which I had and still have enormous respect and admiration, not least because, by both accident and design and with impeccable timing, she flew out of the United States on the evening of 10th September.

I looked at all these postcards again the other night, and was in awe of how far and how often these people, who I for so long I only ever associated with my hometown, have contrived to see so much of what actually lies out there beyond the dusty pages of textbooks and the rusty aluminium of school gates.

Convention dictates you're supposed to spend your twenties travelling and your thirties settling down. I don't seem to have succeeded at either. But I'd maintain I haven't lost the urge to succeed. At which one, however, I'd probably need a holiday to work out.

05 June, 2006

Full Marx

The insightful observations made by Roy Hattersley in today's Guardian on the nature of John Prescott's media mauling have been pretty much drowned by the tidal wave of tittle-tattle and abuse which has gushed forth from readers since publication.

There must be - at the time of writing - close to 100 emails on that page, the bulk of which rank no better than name-calling, shouting or downright abuse. As always happens when someone on the left of British politics poses an interesting question, they are met, not with a battery of individuals constructively sifting the argument and searching for common ground, but rather a bulwark of prejudice and/or resentment.

The tone of most of those emails is precisely the same that has rung throughout the Labour Party's history, tolling the passing of yet another consensus and the fall of another Government. It is the sound of dozens of axes being ground and hatchets being buried in other people's shouderblades.

I wonder why The Guardian bother with such an appallingly-moderated offshoot of their otherwise superlative website. It does nothing to raise the tenor of debate. It does precious little more to boost online participation, for surely any casual browser or internet novice would, upon seeing such an exhibition of petulance, log off and never come back.

I used to belong to a couple of political mailing lists nigh on ten years ago, which were characterised by precisely the same kind of bitching and backbiting evident in most of the comments on that Guardian page. Has the nature of online debate really progressed such a paltry distance in the space of a decade? Is the same narrowminded nitpicking and pedantry still as prevalent now as then?

As John Major once breathlessly informed to the country: "It is. It's still here. It's still here."

04 June, 2006

Up country?

Ever since I was hit in the face by a 40mph England flag I have felt decidedly ambivalent towards the cross of St George.

It happened during Euro 2004. I was walking home along a busy-ish road when a car sped past adorned by numerous England flags fluttering manically in the wind, one of which then proceeded to detach itself from its inevitably weak moorings and bash me in the mouth.

I wasn't hurt in any way, which was just as well not least because if I had been I'd have had no idea who to consider suing for injury (the Queen? The entire electorate? Myself?). The car was driving so fast as it was I didn't have enough time to note the numberplate or for them to realise what had happened. Suffice to say the minute I got in I threw the flag in the dustbin - an act for which I'm sure I would currently be hung, drawn and quartered in the United States.

Actually I've felt ambivalent towards the cross of St George for far longer than just two years. Not to sound like a joyless old warrior, but I well remember the days of the early 1990s when there was a far-Right scare in this country fuelled by the re-emergence of the National Front (which had recloaked itself in the rotten mantle of the British National Party) and a growing number of instances of fascist activity across Europe, paralled by the pursuit of ethnic cleansing across the former Yugoslavia. In our school there was an associate and all-too brief spurt in popularity for the Anti-Nazi League, with distinctive yellow and black stickers turning up all over the 6th form common room and on the front of our clothes.

This crucible of components starkly dramatised the age-old controversies surrounding the ownership of national flags, in this instance both the English and the Union ones, culminating in many a cry to "reclaim" both from the clammy clutches of the far-Right. What promptly happened was indeed a reclamation of the Union Jack, but not by the people for the people, but by Noel Gallagher for his guitar and Geri Halliwell for a low-cut dress. The England flag, meanwhile, ended up being hurled around in both triumph and despair during Euro '96, before disappearing completely from public view during the early years of the Labour Government and, how quickly we forget, 'Cool Britannia'.

At least the latterday trend for festooning your car with cheaply-made, poorly-fastened plastic flags helps better identify almost invariably dangerous and demented drivers. Giant-sized replicas draped around pissed people's shoulders is another matter.

I always feel uncomfortable when I pass by people wrapped in the cross of St George. The connotations and undertones are just too raw for me to ignore. Yet these things are always relative. I remember one of my elderly relatives, now dead, refusing to speak to me for months after furiously berating me for wearing a black shirt.

03 June, 2006

Hollandaise sauce

Casting around for something to prolong yesterday evening and its inevitable feelings of pre-weekend relief, I ended up watching some of Later With Jools Holland on BBC2. This was a mistake.

For starters, you'd have thought Jools would, after what feels like 75 years, have finally got the hang of being a television presenter. After all it's not as if this show, unlike the one which made him a household name (The Tube), is live. The whole thing is pre-recorded, with 95% of it requiring no involvement on the part of Jools whatsoever.

None of this, however, seems to count for anything as, judging by last night's effort, our man is just as addled, discomfited and generally thrown by the business of being on screen than ever before. He fluffed his very first line. He did the usual walk-round-the-studio opening with an air of not knowing where he was going. He looked into the wrong camera. He began shouting in a way you couldn't make out what he was saying. Then he looked into the wrong camera again. And so it went on.

I remember watching what must have been one of the very first editions of Later... back in 1992/3 featuring a very nervous looking Suede about to leave for their debut tour of America. The atmosphere was frosty to say the least. "Send us a postcard," mumbled Jools. "Yes," replied Brett Anderson, hesitatantly. "We will." "Good," said Jools. "Thank you."

This was back in the time when the studio wasn't purposefully filled with a thousand self-conscious showboaters lurking in the background to whoop and gurgle at the merest opportunity. Instead the place was virtually empty, with only a few roadies and technicians lurking disconsolately in the shadows and scant, scattered applause after each performance coming from the attendant cameramen and engineers. In a way Jools's amateur bungling wasn't so much of an issue back then, fitting quite neatly into the general air of low-key disorganisation and fraternal tomfoolery.

Now, though, it sticks out like a petulant pianist's sore thumb. Given it's the only proper music show on the entire BBC (Top Of The Pops being, of course, an entertainment series, not a music show), Later... really deserves better. It also merits somewhat more superior performances than that given by its headline act last night, Mr Steven Morrissey.

Lumbering onto camera dressed in a tuxedo replete with bow tie and looking bloated and befuddled, the erstwhile Stretford Bard bawled his way through 'You Have Killed Me' surrounded by the rockabilly chancers he's employed as a band for the last 14 years, all of whom are now either absurdly fat, bald or both. Morrissey had trouble holding a note, let alone a tune, and looked flushed and tired after the first verse. His hair was grey, his face wizened, his once athletic stage presence reduced to a few prods and pokes akin to a old man gesticulating at a pension counter.

All in all a depressing, not to say distressing, display from both star turn and host, leaving me no choice but to head straight to bed and a strange dream about the Pope being shot.

01 June, 2006

Them upstairs

More management madness. This has to be one of the most poorly-written, ill-advised and petulant memos I've ever had the misfortune to receive:

Dear All,

As you are aware, there going to be some big changes to the way we work at xxxx in the lead up to our move in the New Year. To ensure that the changes go smoothly, please take the time to read the following information detailing important dates, sources of information and contact details.


2nd & 3rd Floors
Friday 2nd June: All desks on floors 2 & 3 must be void of any personal effects, leaving the existing monitor, wired keyboard and mouse.

Monday 5th June: All desks on these floors will have been transferred to hotdesks over the weekend ready for use by all Monday morning.

1st Floor
Friday 9th June: All desks on the 1st floor must be void of any personal effects, leaving the existing monitor, wired keyboard and mouse.

Monday 12th June: All desks on the floor will have been transferred to hotdesks over the weekend ready for use by all Monday morning.

Things to do before the changeover
Clear your desk of all personal belongings.

Contact xxxx for blue bins for rubbish or to arrange termination of unwanted IT equipment.
Put your business card in the business card holder on your pedestal for easy identification. (These will be stuck on for you over the coming days).
Transfer your telephone numbers from your desk phone to your mobile.
Email signatures need to be modified to include only your mobile number.
Voicemail messages should include your mobile number.
Business cards will need to be reprinted including your mobile number.
Update your personal details in the GAL, referencing the swithcboard number as your direct dial and your mobile number below.

Many thanks
The Project Ivy Team

So basically I have to "void" my desk of everything. This includes my phone, and because I don't have an office mobile I won't be able to ring anybody anymore and nobody can ring me. I don't have a business card either, so I can't put it in the business card holder. To be honest, I don't even think I'll have a computer on Monday morning. And what the fuck does Project Ivy mean? I thought the chief virtue of ivy was that it was able to flourish in one place, not have to flit about the place from hour to hour never knowing where to put down its roots.

It's madness. Utter madness. And all the while the big bosses in America wonder why their corporation has such a poor public profile.