Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Blogs Vs. Diaries

When blogs first started appearing, people were worried about their loss of privacy. Couldn't anyone access a blog, and potentially read someone's innermost personal, private thoughts? Well, yes, but how, exactly? If they don't know the person or the URL, it's unlikely they'll come across their blog by chance – considering there are now some 70 million blogs in existence.


If anyone is reading, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. I'll see y'll in the new year.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Christmas Peasants

There should be a rule against buying Christmas (or birthday) presents from: any supermarket, Superdrug, Woolworth's (RIP – though serve it right for selling crap for so long – even cheap crap is still crap), Boots, Argos, W H Smith. Come on – get some imagination! This isn't the 1970s – you're meant to have good taste now, you haven't even got an excuse because you live in some craphole in the middle of nowhere (i.e. not London) – get online!

On the other hand, around this time of year, we have ads telling us to buy iPods, laptops (!), dental hygiene products (?) as presents. Amazon emailed me the other week – a 'bargain buy' for 'my' Christmas stocking. The quote marks are mine: I'm not sure if I'm meant to buy my own Christmas stocking present or buy it for someone else – either way, a food mixer for £129 or a digital camera for £99 probably wouldn't fit and certainly isn't a bargain. My own boyhood Christmas stockings consisted of walnuts, tangerines and chocolate. I mean, shit, we're not made of money – isn't this (partly) why we're in a recession in the first place? But also, an electronic item seems to lack warmth, personality and soul, you know. I say (and this is my other hand saying it), raid the charity shops, CBS (car boot sales) and antique/junk shops for that unique and special present that says you've hunted and thought about. Branded clothes, perfume and electrical goods do not count.

On the other hand (I handily have three), for me personally, if you're stuck, I'm pretty happy with art books, post-rock CDs or obscure foreign movie DVD box-sets (but not just any – please check with me first).

Sunday, December 21, 2008

More Ladybird Book Covers


Russ Abbott loved a party with a happy atmosphere, and though happy and Joy Division aren't often seen together on the same line, they did also write a song called Atmosphere.

Atmosphere is important. Atmosphere is everything. Whether it be a party, restaurant, bar, pub, city, funeral, shop, someone's house... all we really need is a good atmosphere and the rest falls into place. You can't buy or sell atmosphere and it's not tangible; it's like love – it's something you feel. You know instantly if a place has a good atmosphere. And then it just feels right.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Sherman and Sherman

Think of movie soundtracks and you might say Ennio Morricone or Bernard Herrmann or Danny Elfman (say). Or even Elton John. But you probably wouldn't think of the Sherman Brothers, Robert B (b.1925) and his younger brother, Richard M (b.1928), who, between them, have probably written more popular songs for the movies than anyone else.

Whilst re-watching Disney films with my daughter I started noticing the Sherman brothers name cropping up over and over again. Chim Chim Cher-ee? Check. Bare Necessities? Uh huh. Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious? Yup. (As they wrote the song, I'm guessing they invented the word. How cool is that, inventing a word?). They are responsible for all those annoying songs you first hear as a naive child and remember for the rest of your life.

Between them they've written award-winning songs for loads of Disney films including The Jungle Book, Mary Poppins, Winnie the Pooh, The Aristocats, Bedknobs & Broomsticks and The Lion King, as well as songs in other films like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Beverley Hills Cop III, The Fabulous Baker Boys, War of the Worlds and Bewitched. They are absolute geniuses.

But isn't it funny when a musician who excels in their field starts tinkering with painting in the later years of their life? And then claims it's their true vocation and music is just their "side line"? But it's obvious their painting is rubbish and they should have just stuck to their music and put the paintings in the attic. I mean like Miles Davis, Bob Dylan and Robert B Sherman (and also like Henri Cartier-Bresson though he was obviously a photographer but like a few years before he died stopped taking photos and concentrated on drawing, saying he preferred it to photography). Oh well, I can guess we can forgive the great their foibles.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

More Scary Signs

Clockwise from bottom left: Death – it's art, innit; No urinating on Battersea Power Station; Danger Rabies – on a farm; Tanks crossing, sudden gunfire in Dorset; No Street Cries in Whitby; No cigarettes, alcohol, fires or needles in a children's playground, Camden Town, London

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


The apple is the king of fruit, the cause of the fall of Man, as British as the Queen, yet our supermarkets are full of cheap, imported, bland French and New Zealand varieties that travel 12,000 miles, with only one or two English ones – a Cox or Bramley, probably. There are 2,000 varieties of apple in Britain, and while I'm not suggesting supermarkets should stock them all, they could at least show a little patriotism – for the environment if nothing else. Some have great names like Hoary Morning, Winter Banana, Laxton's Rearguard, Pigs Nose Pippin and Surfleet Sour. Yet our apple trees are disappearing at an alarming rate. People don't pick them. People would rather buy bland apples from the bland supermarket. As I write, apples all over the country are falling on the ground, left to rot. Recently we picked three different varieties in a space of half a mile – all tasting completely different (and delicious) – but most of them were left to rot on the ground. Farmers destroy orchards because they get more money from cattle on the land. As usual, the government is short-sighted, and profits go before anything else. One day, in the not so distant future, we will all probably be trying to live off the land. An apple a day would be good.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Top 10 Magazines (I don't buy...*)

1. The Wire
2. Eye
3. Colors
4. Vice (free where available)
5. Sight & Sound
6. Creative Review
7. Playboy (it has good writing in it, ya know)
8. New Statesman (only since its redesign)
9. Found
10. Little White Lies

*But would if I had more money, interest, time, intelligence, creativity, etc.

Quality Dichotomy

I'm in a quandary about quality. On the one hand we don't seem to mind watching millions of videos a day in terrible, jerky, pixelated quality via youtube and its ilk; we also don't seem to mind compressed images or audio files as in jpegs or mp3s. We watch downloaded films and TV shows where the sound isn't synced and the action stutters. We squint to watch programmes or films 6x5" on youtube, on our iPods and our phones. Photos that should last for generations are taken on a phone and are so low-res they can't be blown up to 6x4 without distortion. This is all seems fine – because the image is so temporary. Delete and move on.

On the other hand we all must have the latest HD digital television set (with surround sound speakers) broadcasting HD digital TV programmes – even when, say, watching Freeview on them is often pixelated and jerky. DVDs (and now Blu-Ray – do we care it's four times better quality than DVD? In my book it's already an obsolete format) are meant to be high quality but the discs are of lower quality than CDs and more prone to scratching, jumping and skipping due to dust or fingerprints. Look closely at these TVs and see the dancing pixels. We then watch terrible quality pirate DVDs (complete with moving audience heads) on these high quality HD TVs and don't see a contradiction.

These two extremes – although there is overlap – seem to be co-existing. I've never been too fussed about the quality of the image, as long as the quality of the content is good (it usually isn't of course – and HD is only going to exacerbate the ugly soap characters, their bad acting, the cliched and recycled scripts, the over-lit interiors). But has, to quote Marshall McLuhan, the medium become the (somewhat pixelated, out of focus) message? We shall see – or not.

My Childhood Just Flew By

Sight & Sound magazine has just released its end of year issue, which includes critics' favourite DVDs. On my hypothetical list would go Bill Douglas's 1970s childhood trilogy of films My Childhood, My Ain Folk and My Way Home (shot over eight years). Released this year on DVD for the first time by the BFI, the films bear a superficial resemblance to other, perhaps more famous, childhood trilogies such as the Terence Davies Trilogy (shot over seven years), Satyajit Ray's Apu trilogy (shot over five years) and Truffaut's Adventures of Antoine Doinel (actually four features plus a short, shot over twenty years). What most of the films do have in common is an economy of style and poetry not often seen in the cinema nowadays.

Set in a mining town in Scotland just after World War II, the largely autobiographical My Childhood films chart the poverty-stricken, deprived and frankly depressing childhood of Jamie, played with scary conviction (he doesn't look as if he's acting) by Stephen Archibald, who would die in real life of drug-related causes aged 39. He never acted in any other films.

The bleakness of Douglas's vision would be unbearable if it wasn't for the moments of humour and poetry. The austere black and white industrial locations, and the sometimes stilted, bizarre, awkward performances recall Lynch's Eraserhead. The characters frozen, as if posing for a photo, are stylistically reminiscent of Buffalo 66. The poetry recalls the Jean Vigo of Zero de Conduite. The films as a whole hark back to an age when images rather than dialogue were used to tell a story and show emotion.

The films are short – which is a blessing (they're not easy viewing). The first, My Childhood, is 46 minutes; the second, My Ain Folk, 55 minutes and My Way Home, the most positive of the films, which offers Jamie a possible way out, is 71 minutes. Together they are only slightly longer than, say, The Dark Knight (152 minutes – see below) but whereas the Batman film has the emotional depth and imagination of an X-Factor contestant, Bill Douglas's trilogy is a wholly original, emotionally-draining but ultimately uplifting cinematic treat.

Around this time I was also watching another trilogy of films – Aki Kaurismaki's worker trilogy – also fairly depressing (well it is Finnish), with minimal dialogue (are there even 20 sentences spoken in Match Factory Girl?), minimal acting, and also short, clocking in at just over an hour each, but with elements of (so deadpan you're not sure) humour and poetry and image-led story telling where the audience has to use its imagination.

I had the misfortune to finally get around to seeing Christopher Nolan's much over-hyped sequel to Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, recently voted (presumably by 12 year olds or those with short memories who can't remember any films older than the last month) on the IMDB as the best movie ever. The concensus on the Dark Knight is that it's, er, Dark. In fact, it's the Darkest ever Dark Batman film – until the next one. This one is said to be more in tone with Frank Miller's seminal The Dark Knight Returns graphic novel which came out in 1986 (hence the similar title?). 1986 was over twenty years ago. Isn't it time to get over this whole Dark thing? Tim Burton's Batman film was made just a few years after Miller's Batman, in 1989. This too was meant to be Dark. Well, The Dark Knight is a whole lot darker. Is it just me or have we got Darker as a planet since 1989? How Dark are we going to get? The night can only get so dark, then the sun rises. In The Dark Knight, The Dark is synonymous with violence, corruption and, er, nighttime. That's the core of it: The Dark Knight is Dark because a lot of it is set at night. Go figure.

The Dark Knight is way too long at 152 minutes (a film, unless you're Béla Tarr or Jacques Rivette – and let's face it, you're probably not – should not be over 90 minutes; whilst I'm at it... a novel not over 350 pages; an album no longer than 45 minutes – anything more and it's wasting time). There's too much fetishising of gadgets (Morgan Freeman is like Bond's M and Bruce Wayne could be Bond). There are too many cliches. It's all been done before. It's an example of a film that should work in purely visual terms but relies on dialogue and an over-plotted narrative – in other words, it could be a TV movie. Look instead to, say, Sin City (or Popeye for that matter) for an original comic book adaption.

Mark my words, in years to come, the bright-pop-art-tongue-in-cheek-camp-comic-book-like Batman TV series from the 1960s will look darker than anything Tim Burton or Christopher Nolan had to offer us.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Winter Wiltshire Haiku

Burning chairs to keep warm
Muddy paths after the storm
Car boot sales at dawn.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Top 10 Double LPs

1. Blonde on Blonde – Bob Dylan (1966)
2. Exile on Main Street – Rolling Stones (1972)
3. London Calling – The Clash (1979)
4. Songs in the Key of Life – Stevie Wonder (1976)
5. Bitches Brew – Miles Davis (1970)
6. The River – Bruce Springsteen (1980)
7. The War of the Worlds – Jeff Wayne (1978)
8. Sign o' the Times – Prince (1987)
9. The Beatles (White Album) – The Beatles (1968)
10. Tusk – Fleetwood Mac (1979)

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Lookalikes #1: Paul Daniels & Michael J Anderson

Poor Paul Daniels has received a fair bit of flack for his recent dreadful Tesco advert but has anyone noticed the alarming similarity between him and the 'dwarf from Twin Peaks' (Michael J. Anderson)? Paul Daniels is definitely looking a lot smaller nowadays.

What is it with Michaels and a J? There's Michael J. Fox and Michael J. Pollard too. Come to think of it, they're also both kinda small. Is there a (small) society of small Michael J actors?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Barn Cinema

An esteemed ex-colleague, hearing of my bucolic move west, had the idea for me to post photos of barn doors onto barnflakes.com. This I never got around to doing, but have just managed a visit (see photo) to the Barn cinema in Devon, which must count as a consolation of sorts. Situated in Dartington estate, which also consists of an art college, music, dance and theatre venues, grounds, gardens and a cider press, it's a lovely little repertory cinema showing largely independent, foreign, and quirky films – in other words, it's a dying breed. Dartington itself is famous for its glassworks (Dartington crystal anyone?).

Sergio Leone's dollar trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly), as it became known, was showing all day Sunday. It was a lovely day – so what better way to spend it than 8 hours in a dark room (in my younger days I used to frequent all-night film showings at the Ritzy in Brixton and the Scala in King's Cross – alas, they don't do them any more). Having seen these films hundreds of times on TV, it was great finally seeing them on the big screen – what a difference it makes! It was like seeing (and hearing) them for the first time. Leone's dynamic compositions and Morricone's mesmerising score are a match made in heaven. Obviously Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef are brilliant, but I'd never consciously noticed before how Eli Wallach ('The Ugly') steals most of the scenes from under them in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – what a performance!

The locations are another star feature of the films. Last year we made a pilgrimage to where most of the trilogy were filmed, in and around Almeria, southern Spain. Prior to spaghetti westerns, most westerns were – obviously – shot in the USA. Leone (and others) changed the formula, giving a European twist to the western (though all dialogue was dubbed into English-American) and virtually re-inventing the then dying genre. Notice the white-washed buildings, the dark-skinned, dark-haired peasants, the distinctive algave plants. And notice the miles of polytunnels... hold on, they weren't there forty years ago. No, though lots of the scenery remains virtually unchanged since the 1960s, the main blot on the landscape nowadays is the polytunnels, where fruit and vegetables are grown.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Water As It Oughta

I've always thought the buying of mineral water in plastic bottles faintly ludicrous – rather like, say, the buying of bottled oxygen – when tap water is 10,000 times cheaper, tastes absolutely fine and is 99% safe. It seems almost churlish not to drink it, after all, about a third of the planet doesn't actually have access to clean drinking water – and 88% of all diseases are caused by unsafe drinking water.

Bottled water companies have always pushed the so-called 'fact' that we need to drink two litres of water a day to stay hydrated (which has never actually been scientifically proven). What they don't state is the obvious – that virtually any liquid will do the job, be it tap water, tea*, orange juice, even beer – not just over-priced bottled mineral water. And food also contains much liquid. We've been so brainwashed into using bottles of mineral water that many of us can't even get on the tube for half an hour or walk to the shops without clutching a bottle, just in case we'll die of dehydration on the spot.

We all tend to believe the imagery bottle companies foster of Amazonian waterfalls, snow-capped mountains or fresh natural springs and figure this is what goes into our bottle. Water bottle companies use terms such as 'natural', '100% pure' and 'fresh' – yet these terms are virtually meaningless – there is no law that these terms need to be substantiated. They are opinions rather than facts.

The ethics involved in the production and transportation of water bottles mean for every litre produced, two litres of water is wasted during the purification process. Bottles can stay in storage for months. They travel hundreds of miles by truck. 90% of water bottles are not recycled. The reality for a plastic bottle is not a healthy one.

Most alarmingly though, is recent evidence that the plastic the bottles are made of, Lexan polycarbonate resin, a plastic polymer, has alarming health risks including possible birth defects such as miscarriages and Down's syndrome.

Finally, there's something of a backlash – bottled water sales are down for the first time in years. It's now not totally embarrassing to insist on tap water in restaurants (bottled water has more of a mark up than wine in restaurants) – as I've always done.

I lament the passing of public water-drinking fountains, now resigned to the bygone era that includes Chopper bikes, Pac-Man and apple scrumping. They used to be a feature of every park, always well-needed after a game of football, as well as being a focal meeting point, and great fun for water fights too. Kids nowadays think water actually comes from bottles.

*See Barnflakes's now-legendary T.E.A. Theory PowerPoint presentation for more details on the restorative qualities of tea. Recent research has shown tea to be healthier than water.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

One Totnes Pound

It may not look like a traditional watermarked banknote and there's no sign of the Queen's bonce, but the Totnes Pound is legal tender in, well, the town of Totnes in Devon. Last year Totnes was the first UK town to introduce its own banknotes, and now Lewes, East Sussex has followed suit. It is hoped the venture will make the towns more independent and self-sufficient – which, in the current economic crisis seems like a great idea.

Both towns are highly community-minded and consist of local, independent shops – which, as well as being far more interesting than your usual bland high street shops, keep money in the community. At least 80% of profits from large supermarkets immediately leave the local area.

Devon seems to be one of the few forward thinking counties in England: last year Modbury made the news when it became the first UK town to ban plastic bags from its shops and introduce its own canvas bag. It's hard to imagine any big changes happening in large cities such as London until it's too late.

Read more about Totnes' Transition Initiative here.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Cherry Tree

She said she liked living in Camberwell because of its abundant, open sky. The buildings are low and the streets are wide and you can see the sky. She didn’t like south-west London. She found the buildings too high and the roads too narrow. She didn't like that lack of sky.

The cherry tree looked a long way off as I stepped into her garden. I looked past the tall nettles and at the back in the left-hand corner. The cherry tree stood alone, past the nettles, like a small vision of Eden in an otherwise Hades of a concrete back garden. I saw ripe cherries on the tree and said, ‘the cherries look ripe.’ She said, ‘yes, they’re ripe. They’re just right. But I hate going out there. I always sting my legs and crunch snails. I hate the sound of snails being crushed. I’m too scared to go over there.’

There was a short silence.

I felt like a contestant on the TV series the Crystal Maze with Richard O'Brian. I was about to say I’d pick some but she said again, ‘I hate going over there’, and said it like she was expecting me to go over there.

But all I said was ‘yes’ as I still stared at the cherries in the distance like a dream and the possibility of them. I didn’t get the cherries and I didn’t get the girl. It was probably for the best.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Blackberry season

Blackberry season is upon us. Ever since a child, collecting blackberries has been an annual ritual. I used to go picking with my parents, and thirty years later I do it with my daughter. Aside from getting pricked, it's great fun, and free. Blackberries are great on their own with cream, or in a fruit salad, or in pies and crumbles. If you're adventuous try making bramble jelly. The other day we made a lovely blackberry and apple crumble – round the corner from the brambles was an apple tree with apples literally falling into my hands.

I reminded a friend about blackberries. He looked at me like I was crazy. If I want any, I'll buy them in the supermarket, he said. Why? I asked. It's safer, he said. I was stunned. Not only are supermarket blackberries expensive – I can pick a £2.50 punnet in about two minutes – but they are usually tasteless and not as healthy as they might look – British supermarkets are notorious for being more concerned about looks than taste or nutrition. Recent studies have shown prepacked fruit has vitamin C levels far below normal for unprepared fruit. Another study, by Friends of the Earth, reported that more than 50% of supermarket fruit still contained pesticide residue. Picking yourself is definately the safest option!

Living in the country, we luckily have brambles at the back of our garden. However, like foxes and rats, more seem to be found in the city nowadays. We used to live on a council estate in London and found them on the outskirts of the estate. Being near the heat given off by cars and homes helps them grow, so city blackberries seem to get bigger and juicier quicker too.

Remember the blackberry picking mantra: eat one, save one and leave one for the birds. And don't pick the low ones – dogs may have peed on them.

PS: Though summer has been something of a disappointment, there is plenty to look forward to now autumn – 'season of mist and mellow fruitfulness' – is upon us. If you're thinking of living off the land, now's the perfect time to do so*. Nuts, mushrooms and berries are all ripe for the picking, and apples, pears, plums and damsons are all in season too.

*Though this blog takes no responsibility if you get poisoned.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Putting the War in Warminster

At the weekend I decided to go for a pleasant bike ride in Warminster's surrounding countryside. After cycling for about an hour along lanes and paths, ignoring lots of red warning signs, and getting lost, I found myself in a, er, military firing range. When I heard gun shots, I decided to heed the warnings and go back.

Warminster, Wiltshire is renowned as a garrison town. It's not unusual to see army convoys and soldiers in town. My neighbour is a soldier, and seems a nice family guy. He recently had a great time in Basra, and likes guns. A large portion of Salisbury Plain is owned by the MoD – and out of bounds. Cycling and walking around the outskirts, there's a strange feeling as if I'm being watched – by snipers. Like in a Vietnam war film where everything's still – too still... then suddenly there are gun shots coming through the bushes. Nothing feels real – the grass, trees, even the birds – it all feels like an artificial training ground. There's an eerie, empty silence; the grass isn't whistling in the wind, the birds aren't singing. There's a crow following me and I'm sure it's got a CCTV camera built into its eyes. Seemingly innocuous objects take on sinister significance – like discarded farming equipment, old barns, hay stacks, even a dirty sock on the road, and, er, bullet shells, a training camp and tanks.

I eventually found myself in a garrison housing estate – MODern said the sign, but it seemed anything but. That too was empty – rather like the Nevada atomic bomb testing villages (there's one featured in the latest Indiana Jones film) – a discarded tricycle on the pavement, a dog barking – but on Saturday afternoon, completely deserted. Most bizarre for a housing estate was the lack of litter and dumped mattresses and TV sets. There was a ubiquitous Londis on the estate – selling bullets in the place of cigarettes and grenades instead of Pot Noodles. Only joking.

Imber village, seven miles east of Warminster on Salisbury Plain, can only be visited one week in the year. It was a real, functioning village until 1943 when the army requisitioned it for military training purposes and gave the residents 47 days to leave and very little compensation. They were meant to give it back after the war – but didn't. It's still used for training, and in the past was heavily used to prepare troops for combat in Northern Ireland. When I went I almost tripped over some teenage soldiers in camouflage gear with rifles. Imber still has its local pub (unfortunately not functioning), The Bell Inn, and a church. The army have a purpose-built 'German', and more recently an 'Iraqi' village, at nearby Copehill Down – also used for training. These somewhat sinister ghost villages, from a distance, look like quaint Wiltshire towns. Then you get close and a polite sign tells you will be shot if you try to enter.

Some people think the UFOs sightings (and sounds) in the 1960s and 70s may have been the army practicing on Salisbury Plain. This month locals may get to see more Unidentified Objects if they're lucky – in the form of surveillance robots taking part in a Grand Challenge on Copehill Down which sees 11 teams competing against each other.

It was somewhat depressing hearing recently Labour Minister for Trade and Investment, Digby Jones, proudly declaring that Britain is now the world's biggest arms exporter. In 1997 Labour had said they would not sell arms to countries that violated human rights. Surprise, surprise, they seem to have gone back on their word. In 2006, 19 of the 20 countries the UK exported arms to, such as China, Israel and Colombia, have a record for abusing human rights. Oh well, at least we're good at something.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Don't Give Up the Day Job

Rock stars have had a rocky relationship with the movies. Madonna started off well in Desperately Seeking Susan before sinking with Shanghai Surprise, Who's That Girl and Dick Tracy. Jennifer Lopez fared worse with turkeys like Maid in Manhattan and Jersey Girl, which has eclipsed quite good roles in Out of Sight and The Cell. Dolly Parton was upfront in 9-5 and Debbie Harry sexy in Cronenberg's Videodrome. The annoying Barbra Streisand has been in lots of films, from Funny Girl (1962, for which she won an Oscar) to Meet the Fockers (2004).

But on the whole it seems male rock stars have fared better – or at least have more interesting roles (apart from Elvis's and Cliff Richard's lightweight cinematic escapades) – than their female counterparts. Cult existentialist road movie Two-lane Blacktop (1971) was an unlikely star vehicle for singer songwriter James Taylor and late Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson. Featuring almost no plot, very little dialogue, and not much in the way of acting (apart from Warren Oates) the film ends with the projector literally burning the film. James Taylor has said he's never seen the film.

Equally unlikely was The Monkee's psychedelic film Head (1968), co-written by Jack Nicholson. Seemingly conceived as an antithesis to their sanitised TV series, it featured surreal, stream of consciousness sketches, musical numbers and satire of the movies and was apparently intended to damage the Monkees squeaky-clean image.

Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) stars country singer Kris Kristofferson as Billy the Kid and Bob Dylan, who also provided the soundtrack, in a small role as Alias. The film also features singer Rita Coolidge, Kristofferson's then wife. Kristofferson is great as Billy, cocky and confident, and he's appeared in many pretty good films since: Heaven's Gate, Blade I-III, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, Fast Food Nation and A Star is Born with Barbra Streisand. Dylan, on the other hand, is pretty bad in the movie, and has appeared in only a couple of films since: the dreadful Hearts of Fire (playing a rock star) and Masked and Anonymous (playing a rock star). Dylan fared far better acting himself in Pennebaker's Don't Look Back, and directing himself in the little seen Eat the Document and Renaldo & Clara.

Country singer Lyle Lovett became a Robert Altman regular, acting in Prêt-à-Porter, Cookie's Fortune and Dr T and the Women and being especially creepy in The Player and Short Cuts. Tom Waits had a role in Short Cuts too. His cool, somewhat sleazy cigarette-smoking gravelly persona has also been put to good effect in Coppola's The Outsiders, The Cotton Club and er, Dracula. Paul Simon is great as a seedy record producer in Woody Allen's Annie Hall. Disreputable Welshman Rhys Ifans was lead singer in Super Furry Animals before finding fame as an actor in Notting Hill, Enduring Love and Twin Town, the best Welsh film ever. He's now in Welsh band Y Peth (The Thing).

Director Nic Roeg has also used rock stars in several films. Mick Jagger starred alongside James Fox and Anita Pallenberg in cult (why are most male rock star films 'cult' whilst most female ones 'crap'? The line between cult and crap has always been a fine one...) film Performance (1968) as, er, a washed up rock star living in a basement in Notting Hill. He then went on to do Ned Kelly (1970), which was awful. David Bowie has been in a surprising amount of films good and bad including Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, Absolute Beginners, The Last Temptation of Christ and Into the Night (directed by John Landis, who made Michael Jackson's Thriller video), but it's Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth, in which Bowie plays an alien – a perfect role for the 1970s Bowie that was Ziggy Stardust – that is his most iconic, and arguably best role.

Rap stars have frequently been in films either about rap (Eminem in 8 Mile) or life in da hood such as Boyz N the Hood (Ice Cube), Menace II Society (MC Eight and Too Short) and Juice (Tupac Shakur). Ice Cube is one rapper who's escaped the cinematic ghetto by appearing in films such as Three Kings and Anaconda – a great B-movie about a giant snake. See him next year as B.A. Baracus in The A-Team – can't wait. LL Cool J has also had some minor film roles. I almost forgot (it seems so long ago – his first album was back in 1987) – Will Smith is of course a rapper who appeared in TV sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and went on to Hollywood blockbusters Bad Boys, Independence Day, Men In Black and I Am Legend.

On the flip side, actors have an equally annoying habit of wanting to be rock stars. Whether to expand their audience base or live the rock'n'roll dream, one thing is certain: it's not for the money. Johnny Depp and Keanu Reeves are in bands, as was River Phoenix. Scarlett Johansson and Minnie Driver have recently released albums.

Juliette Lewis is more serious about her music than most of her movie contemporaries and seems to have given up acting altogether to live the dream with her band, The Licks. I saw her a while ago in HMV on Oxford Street. She was (not) signing CDs (there was a distinct lack of fans), I was looking at Pavement CDs, then our eyes met... it looked like as if she winked at me, though she might have had something in her eye.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Selling Their Souls: Authors Writing Movies

Many writers have had their own books turned into films – they may have written the screenplay or they may not have. Neither apply here. These are writers who perhaps (but not necessarily – ie Chandler and Faulkner) have written somewhat unexpected, out of character, okay usually pretty bad, original screenplays for films not based on any book they've written.

Martin Amis: Saturn 3
Samuel Beckett: Film
Ray Bradbury: Moby Dick
Charles Bukowski: Barfly
Truman Capote: Beat the Devil
Raymond Chandler: Double Indemnity
Douglas Coupland: Everything's Gone Green
Roald Dahl: You Only Live Twice
Ian McEwan: The Ploughman's Lunch
John Fante: Walk on the Wild Side
William Faulkner: The Big Sleep
Patrick Lee-Fermour: Roots of Heaven
F. Scott Fitzgerald: Three Comrades
Stephen Fry: Bright Young Things
Don DeLillo: Game 6
Norman Mailer: Maidstone
Dorothy Parker: A Star is Born
Tom Stoppard: Shakespeare in Love
John Steinbeck: Viva Zapata!
HG Wells: Things to Come

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Absolutely Famous

Cabinet reshuffles (is there any other organisation that does this?). Actors and TV presenters writing books. Pop stars acting – and vice versa. Actors doing voice overs, adverts. Just about everyone writing a children's book. Once you're in the public eye (ie rich and famous) for doing one thing, you can pretty much dabble in anything else. It doesn't really matter what. A footballer becomes a chef. A comedian writes a football column in the Guardian. A film director writes restaurant reviews. A chess grandmaster becomes a politician. Soap actors become pop stars. The minister for education becomes the minister for transport. An MP presents a cricket programme on Radio 4. Two actors embark on a motorcycle adventure around the world with only millions on their credit cards and a camera crew filming them. This is released as a TV series, DVD and book. None of it has to do with talent. It's about fame and getting noticed. Celebrities can't just stick to one thing. They are brands and the purpose of a brand is to invade as many media outlets as possible. That's as many books, TV programmes, films, magazines, newspapers, websites, adverts... as possible. Does it sometimes feel like wherever you look you see the same annoying famous face?

Can you imagine this kind of thing happening in real life to normal people? Although we change jobs more often nowadays than, say, thirty years ago, we tend to stick to the same kind of job for most of our careers. Imagine the accountant becoming an actor. The librarian becoming a bricklayer. The doctor becoming a archaeologist. It doesn't really happen (okay, begrudgingly, it does happen; people do retrain). But mainly we tend to be pigeon-holed, we get in a rut. After a few years in a sterile office, the world doesn't present itself as a vast sea of limitless possibilities.

I got thinking about fame reading Alex James's – from the band Blur – autobiography. Towards the end of his music career he got into astronomy and, naturally, instantly managed to meet Patrick Moore and watch scientists putting together the Mars Challenger and now James is a farmer making his own cheese/one-off TV journalist exposing the cocaine trade. Other ex-pop stars have had similar unlikely (this is my point) post-pop careers. Did you know that Alannah Currie from the Thompson Twins now makes macabre furniture with real stuffed animals incorporated?

BBC2's Faking It documentary series suggested even ordinary people could switch to more interesting/exciting jobs (from web designer to professional surfer; bicycle courier to polo player; newsagent to showbiz reporter; punk rocker to classical conductor) with relative ease (after some intense training – the sort you could get if you were rich), given the chance. And that's the crux of the matter. The rich and famous get infinite chances and possibilities to try and do whatever they want.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Elliott School of Rock

When I was at Elliott school in Putney it was an inspirationless, slightly rough dump. I remember my first day. I went to the toilets with a mate. We got cornered by a couple of older students and one of them forced my mate's mouth open and spat down it. Pleasant start.

Elliott's still not that great. But since the 90s it's become the somewhat unlikely denizen of experimental music. Kieran Hebden, founder of post-rock band Fridge and folktronica moniker Four Tet, and now performing under his own name, went there in the 90s. As did Adem Iihan – also in the band Fridge (along with fellow school mate Sam Jeffers) – and now performing under his own name too. William Bevan, aka dubstep producer Burial, is an ex-student. His 2006 self-titled LP received considerable acclaim. Hot Chip, geeky-cool electropop band, met and formed at Elliott. Their second album, The Warning (also 2006) was voted one of the albums of the year in the music press. A few members of So Solid Crew went there (though I think the numerous members went to just about every school in Wandsworth). Less well known are Emma Smith and Vincent Sipprell, members of the innovative Elysian Quartet; indie band The Maccabees, and folk outfit Screamer on the Hill. It's an impressive list of urban, electro, electronic, experimental, folk, indie and classical – which covers just about every musical genre.

Elliott's fine music pedigree isn't just a recent phenomenon. Peter Green, founder of Fleetwood Mac and great blues guitarist of the 60s, was a student in the late 50s and early 60s. Also there in the 1960s was Re Bethe, founder of British heavy metal band Ritual; Max Middleton (keyboardist, Jeff Beck Group); Chris Miller, drummer in The Damned; Ed Spevock (another drummer) and pop band The Pirates formed there... amongst others (ex-Bond Pierce Brosnan was also there in the 60s – currently to be seen in the dreadful Mamma Mia... yes, that's my somewhat tenuous music link).

For the record, absolutely no one from the time I was at Elliott has become famous.

Monday, August 11, 2008

A Brief History of Photography (Part One)

I first studied photography during ‘A’ Levels. I didn't study it as an actual ‘A’ Level, but as an after school activity. In those days, the 1980s, you couldn't take all those easy ‘A’ Level subjects like photography or film or media studies. To kids now the 1980s must seem how the 1950s seemed to us in the 1980s (ie a different world).

The first photo I developed took all of us by surprise in the after school slightly geeky photography club. A picture emerged of fellow student Nigel Harrison – or so we thought. Slowly, a tall, geeky guy in a raincoat caught mid-stride in the school playground appeared on the photographic paper. All of us gathered round the chemical solution tray, laughing and mocking him until it was revealed that it was actually me. When the realisation came, it was like magic. First there was Nigel, then more detail came, and it was me. Then there was silence. Then I mumbled, ‘That's me’, like some proof of existence.

At art college I would also study photography and then again at film school. Each time I’d start studying it again, I’d have forgotten all that I’d learnt the time before when I studied it. I’d even bought some photography books I never looked at. It felt too much like maths what with f stops and exposures.

And though I'd used SLRs at college, I’d never actually owned one. I’d always loved taking photos (my favourite subject matter was nothing) but never took very good pictures. For my sixteenth birthday I was given a Fuji instamatic camera – my first ever camera – which I used for the next decade or so (before finally giving it to a charity shop). It had a cover you clicked open before taking the photo, then closed again. I used to like doing that really fast. I felt like a photojournalist doing that.

After that, a friend gave me an instamatic panoramic camera that came free with cigarette tokens. This wasn't a proper panoramic camera where each picture would take up several 35mm film sizes in a roll. This simply chopped the top and bottom off a regular 35mm sized picture, but it took good photos. The panoramic format feels more natural to the eye than a regular 6x4 picture.

In Asia, the panoramic camera was stolen somewhere in the tea plantations of Malaysia. A tourist took pity on me and gave me an instamatic camera in Indonesia – which was stolen in the Philippines, along with exposed rolls of film. I then bought a cheap one in the Philippines (with a separate flash) – but all the pictures turned out foggy (even with flash).

I'd always wanted a Nikon SLR – ever since hearing Paul Simon's song Kodachrome. In New Zealand, when I had no money, I bought one, then took it back to the shop a few days later. It was great – but I couldn't really afford it and it had a slightly protruding film winder located just above the viewfinder so I couldn't actually see through it properly.

My parents bought me a second-hand Olympus OM-30 SLR for my 30th birthday – which was nice, but not the one I wanted. At art college we used Olympus SLRs – beautifully simple models (I couldn't remember which) with only a needle to indicate the exposure. The one I was given had flashing green and red lights and needed about a dozen little batteries to keep them going. I’d fiddle around with the lights and take photos. Not great ones but they turned out okay. Then I bought a Lomo. I’d read about the cult of the Lomo some years back, and finally decided to shell out £80-odd for one. I loved my Lomo.

When we got burgled the first time they took my Lomo and Olympus SLR (and my girlfriend’s Praktica SLR BCA with zoom lens). The second time we got burgled they took another crappy giveaway instamatic panoramic camera.

For my 34th birthday, my partner bought me a Canon SLR camera (from eBay). On the second roll of film I took on it, the film jammed. Now I just stick to a point and shoot digital camera (which had been stolen once – we got a replacement on the insurance when we were burgled the third time). It works out cheaper and easier – obviously.

Total number of cameras stolen: 6
Total number of cameras given away: 2

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Car Boot Sales

Shops are so boring. Know what you want, go in, queue, buy it, go home. Big deal. There's no excitement or mystery to it. Shopping is just a tedious fact of life. Not so with car boot sales, the urban equivalent of beach-combing or fossil hunting. Knowing they'll be 99% rubbish only means searching more valiantly for that 1% of gold, for it is a treasure hunt. And one person's rubbish could be another's treasure.

Charity shops are okay, but they stink and tend to consist of stuff people would have binned otherwise. And they're quite expensive now. Car boot sales (CBS) are pretty cheap by comparison and usually a lot more diverse. Even at a small one in Wiltshire I went to last week there was a stall of Nazi memorabilia next to a stall of cocktail shakers next to a stall of old Star Wars figures. CBS seem so more individual, interesting and bizarre.

I've never been up really early on a Sunday, like 6am, to get to a CBS. I am lazy by nature. I do sometimes think, though, of the early morning bargains that I might have missed. The Clarice Cliffs, The Ant and Bees, The Beanos... Then again, people who I see leaving as I'm arriving usually have absolute crap under their arms, so I figure they buy the rubbish and leave the good stuff for me. I usually arrive around 9am. By about 11am one starts to flag, and a bad cup of tea and greasy bacon butty are essential. By 12pm it is almost certainly all over... though by this stage stall holders wanting to get rid of everything they've got are literally giving it away.

Are to be had in video tapes – which can't be given away. If you have kids, though, it's worth buying Disney videos – Disney DVDs are still quite expensive. Pay up to 50p for a video; up to £2 for a DVD; I rarely pay over £1 for a CD or record. Baby and children's clothes, toys and books are always good value and plentiful. Barngains are also to be had in furniture and electricals.

If you see something and want it, buy it then and there. I've lost count of the amount of times I've thought, oh I'll get that later, then returned and found it gone or haven't been able to find the stall again. Maybe it's just me.

Some good ones
Chiswick school – quite chic and a bit pricey; Peter Blake apparently goes there for inspiration, though I've never seen him – but most stalls are fascinating and do look rather like his studio. Barngain of the day: Tricky and Basement Jaxx CDs 50p each.

Tiffin school, Kingston – only runs up to July but generally pretty good. Barngain of the day: Nick Broomfield sealed DVD box-set for £3.

Nuthill Fruit Farm – Just before the turn for Burpham and Marrow on the A3. Sprawling on a massive field. Barngain of the day: Barbar books 50p each.

Hook Road Arena – Epsom, Surrey. Also pretty big. Barngain of the day: Clarice Cliff jug £2.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Vladimir Tretchikoff: More Than Pigeon's Luck

Another artist's life deserving a full CinemaScope movie treatment* (to be filmed like one of his paintings á la Douglas Sirk meets Vincente Minnelli, and all shot in the studio) is Vladamir Tretchikoff, who died in 2006, aged 92. His part-ghosted autobiography, Pigeon's Luck, has unfortunately been out of print since 1973, but if you can find it on eBay or a second hand bookshop, it is well worth a read. As it says on the cover –' reads like a thriller' – and though the style is somewhat flat, you get the gist of what an amazing life he had.

Born in Russia, his family escaped the Russian revolution of 1917 and fled to China, where Tretchikoff spent his childhood. His self-taught artistic talents flourished young, and by 13 he was painting sets for plays, and at 16 won a prestigious painting competition and moved to Shanghai and then Singapore, as cartoonist on a newspaper. During the war, as the Japanese were invading Singapore, he fled on a boat which was torpeoed. He escaped on a lifeboat with other survivors and spent 19 days rowing to Java – where he was eventually caught by the Japanese. He was a Japanese prisoner of war on Java for most of the war. Apart from some time in solitary confinement, he seemed to have quite a good time, and painted some of his most famous 'exotic' images during this period.

Tretchikoff goes from rags to riches at least three times and does seem to have a lot of luck – but also a lot of sheer determination. In South Africa, where he settled after the war, he attributed this luck to a pigeon which sat on his easel whilst he painted.

There is no mention of the word 'kitsch' in his autobiography – maybe the word wasn't used back then. In the 1960s and 70s his prints sold in the millions (only Picasso sold more) and just about every British household had one of his prints on its walls. By the 80s and 90s his style had become vulgar and kitsch. Now his paintings are post-kitsch or post-ironic iconic – which translates as they're starting to sell well on eBay (though can still be picked up cheap in charity shops and car boot sales). Yes – worse than being deemed kitsch – they've now become trendy.

There are many similarities between the once tacky Tretchikoff and the once way cooler Andy Warhol. Both were shrewd and flamboyant businessmen who wanted as many people as possible to see (and buy) their work via the mass production of their techniques – Warhol with his screenprints and Tretchikoff with his reproductions. But whereas Warhol drew his inspiration from shops (pop art), Tretchikoff actually put his reproductions and paintings in shops. His most popular exhibitions took place not in art galleries but in department stores. Tretchikoff was a man of the people – or at least knew what the people wanted – whereas Warhol knew only what he wanted.

*See post for Arthur Rimbaud

Friday, August 08, 2008

A Jeff Bridges Too Far

I was watching a bad pirate copy of Iron Man. I didn't know Jeff Bridges was in it. Even when watching it, I didn't know it was him – partly because it was a bad copy and partly because Bridges was playing a bald baddie. I didn't know it was him until he took a loud slurp of his drink – and I immediately recognised that slurping as the same slurping in The Big Lebowski.

Jeff Bridges looks like he's never had to make an effort – is this why he was never as big as he should have been? Look at Tom Cruise – someone who has worked ruthlessly hard to get where he is, never mind that he has no talent and has yet to be in a good film – we like people who get somewhere by working hard regardless. Jeff Bridges has ambled by amiably with his lazy charm and youthful good looks. His natural acting style is the opposite to the school of the more popular De Niro and Pacino – a method actor Bridges is not.

I first remember watching him in my childhood playing an alien (in Starman – for which he was Oscar nominated) and in a video game (Tron). I didn't then know that his best films had been the decade previous: The Last Picture Show (watch him strutting out of the motel room after having laid Cybil Shepherd), Fat City (as a small-time boxer and my favourite ending of any film ever), Thunderbolt and Lightbolt (looking good as a woman), Winter Kills and Bad Company (great low-key western directed by the writer of Bonnie and Clyde) are some of the best American films of the decade.

In the 1980s, the noirish Cutter's Way and western flop Heaven's Gate are key films – for better and worse – of the decade. The 90s saw him somewhat frantic in The Fisher King, The Vanishing, Blown Away and Arlington Road until The Big Lebowski (1998) gave him the iconic role of The Dude he was born to play.

Along the way there's been a bag of other decent films too: Jagged Edge, The Fabulous Baker Boys, Tucker – The Man and His Dream, Texasville – a belated follow up to The Last Picture Show, Fearless, Masked and Anonymous (yes, I liked it) with Bob Dylan, Seabiscuit... among many others I haven't seen so shouldn't comment on. He also takes great on set photos.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

My Top 5 DVD Box Sets

1. Bob Dylan – Dont Look Back: 65 Tour Deluxe Edition (Columbia)
This feels like the ultimate (if you're a fan): Dont Look Back movie and extra DVD 65 Revisited. Plus reprinted (from 1968) paperback book of the film and cute flick book of the Subterranean Homesick Blues opening sequence, all nicely packaged.
2. Luis Bunuel collection (Optimum)
Eight mainly late but great Bunuel features plus postcards of original posters and booklet.
3. Jan Svankmajer – The Complete Short Films (BFI)
Superb collection of Svankmaker's short animated films spanning some 40 years over 3 discs. Also includes documentaries, interviews and rarities.
4. The Jodorowsky Collection (Tartan)
Three remastered Alejandro Jodorowsky features and a rare short as well as a feature-length documentary. Also comes with soundtrack CDs of two of the films and postcards.
5. The John Cassavetes Collection* (Optimum)
No amazing extras for this but great films in a nicely designed box.

(I was going to include Dawson's Creek: The Complete Collection – 34 discs with every episode but it might have ruined my art house credentials)

*It would have been good to have Gloria included in the set. The ever excellent Gena Rowlands plays a tough-as-nails moll on the run (with a heart). She's the kind of broad who has a beer for breakfast and she's more gun crazy than Travis Bickle – and better looking. Rowlands was Cassavetes' wife and acted in three of the films included in the box-set.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Let Me Ad One More Thing...

One thing on TV which was better in the distant past (the 1980s to early 90s) was its advertisements. Ads used to have style, imagination, surrealism, eroticism and wit. It's hard now to believe a time when ads actually tried to convince Jo (or Joanne) Public to buy its product with such flair.

For the last 5-10 years all ads have needed to do is show the product and add a celebrity. It doesn't matter what the ad's like. There's no need to try and convince people to buy stuff anymore – they don't need any encouragement. Consumerism has won and ads are as bland as the programmes between them. Maybe advertisers finally believe the old maxim that bad ads work better than good ones.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Sky + Rubbish = A Waste of Time

Seeing that I watch virtually nothing on TV, I find Sky's research findings of the UK's viewing habits somewhat perplexing. Those with Sky+ (I'm still not exactly sure what it is, but I'm guessing those who have it like TV) watch (or "timeshift" – don't ask) 3 and a half hours of TV a day. A day! Where they find the time, and why they bother, alas, the survey does not answer. It does, however, answer what they watch. Well, seeing that viewers have a multiverse of channels to watch I was expecting (not) an eclectic smorgasbord of cutting edge TV.

Alas, the truth was more mundane. For the most part the results could have been taken 10 or even 20 years ago when we had only 4 terrestrial channels. It's a predictable mix of drivel and crap including Eastenders, Casualty, Dr Who, The Apprentice and a bunch of other programmes I haven't heard of (but I'm sure are still crap) such as Ashes to Ashes, Flood, Waking the Dead (British TV viewers I presume?) and Britain's got Talent – surely an ironic title.

The rest of the survey is as inconsequential as the programmes we're (they're) watching: women in Scotland watch the most TV on Wednesday mornings; men in Lincolnshire watch the most on Tuesdays between 11pm and 12:30am; women in London watch more TV than men on Friday nights... you get the idea.

I'll admit to being hooked by recent American imports Lost, Heroes and 24 (and comedies such as Curb your Enthusiasm and Arrested Development) – but Sky's research reveal nothing American (or outside the UK) in the top ten.

I'm not one of those people who look back on the "golden age" of TV before reality shows and Graham Norton set in. No, by its very nature, it's always been bad. If I do watch it, I'll invariably switch on BBC4 (yes, I've just got a Freeview box). I am officially one of BBC4's 12 viewers and proud of it. The pretentious life is a tough one but someone's gotta live it.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Own Up To Your Earnings

I know how much Hollywood actors earn, I know how much David Beckham* and Gordon Brown* earn. I even know how much Brown put on expenses to have his second home painted. I know how much pop stars and fat cat bosses of multinationals earn. I even know what their bonuses were. The other day I read that BBC executive directors are getting payrises of up to £107,000. In papers and magazines we constantly read about famous/rich peoples earnings. But people where I work, who I've sat next to for years? I have no idea what they earn. All I know is it's more than me.

The very rich, and the very poor – the Asda shelf stackers and the McJobbers, the minimum wagers (£5.52ph) – we all know what they earn. But workmates, colleagues – people I spend 8 hours a day with, five days a week with, fifty weeks a year with, and socialise with, many of them won't tell what they earn (of course, some do). The one's who don't, usually earn a lot more than me – do they not tell because they feel guilty or because they've been told not to? The ones who do tell, usually earn the same, or less – and don't care who knows. Helen* (54, mother of three, divorced) earns just £14,000 as a purchase ledger clerk (five tube stops along, and with a decent company, she'd get at least double).

There used to be a joke (I haven't heard it for years and it never was that funny) that the first thing an American asked a Brit when they met was what they earned. An American never asked me but I guess the point was Americans were more forthcoming about the whole pay issue than us uptight English. I've never understood the problem but it seems some office colleagues would rather discuss their (dismal) sex lives than their salary. It seems a completely mis-guided sense of company loyalty – it is essentially making the company earn more and the individual earn less. Companies of course encourage this secrecy – if we all knew what each other earned there'd be a revolution, or – heaven forbid – fair pay for all.

It is hoped that the Government's new (July 2008) proposals to prevent companies having pay secrecy clauses and to let employees discuss their pay openly will prevent such large pay discrepancies between colleagues doing essentially the same job within the same company.

*Real names used.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Weather slips to No.2

Recent studies* show talking about the weather, that bastion of banal British conversation, has been overtaken by an equally trite topic – how was your journey**?

Unlike the weather – where the conversation tends to run dry after a minute or so – discussions about your car (or bus, train, bike, etc) journey to any destination can be epic and take in many sub-topics including route taken (and possible alternative routes), weather (before, during and after) conditions, accidents, jams, delays, sights, landmarks, music, etc. The scope is almost endless – as endless, in fact, as the journey itself probably felt.

**Only, of course, if one or more of the party has actually taken a journey to get where they are

Sunday, June 22, 2008


I boarded a clipper bound for the Asias
In the year 1869
When the weather was rough
But I was rougher.

I read the World Atlas like a book
From start to finish.
And later,
Much later,
I put faces to the names.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Architect Drawers*: Important Update

Yes, I actually bought some architect drawers at the weekend – in an antiques/junk shop in Warminster. No, they're not really nice old ones but they're still great. I got them down from £120 to £100. A relative bargain, I reckon. They open and close real smooth and although quite new have a 50s or 60s retro feel to them. I'm pretty happy. Oh, and I got an old coat rack too – down from £89 to £60. Yes, I know this should really be in Barngains (www.barnflakes.com > barngains) but it feels more spontaneous doing it here.
* See post January 06 2008

The New Shape

Backstage at a Lionel Richie concert, I met a beautiful, kooky French woman who told me she'd invented a new shape and got it patented too. She worked in PR.
Typical French I thought, and asked her what the hell she was talking about.
– I've got it in my bag, she said, and proceeded to take a shape out of her handbag. I was intrigued; it was a shape I'd never seen before.
I asked her what she was going to do with her shape.
– Photo holders, she said.
– Eh? I said back.
– You know, holders for photos. I'm going to manufacture them.
I loved the concept of a new shape, never seen before, but the idea of photo holders and manufacturing them, I don't know, it somehow took away from the essence and purity of the shape. Still, that's the hard reality for a new shape. You can't just be a new shape. You've got to have something to do.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Barnoffee Pie

8oz shortcrust pastry
3oz butter
2oz light soft brown sugar
2 tablespoons milk
8oz can condensed milk
5 medium bananas
10oz double cream
lemon juice
2oz caster sugar

1. Use pastry to line a 9" round and 1" deep flan tin (loose bottomed). Bake blind until light golden and dried out.

2. Place butter and brown sugar in a small heavy based saucepan. Heat gently until butter melts and sugar dissolves. Bring to boil and bubble for one minute only, stirring frequently. Off the heat add the milk and condensed milk, bring to boil and bubble two minutes or until texture thickens to consistency of a very thick sauce and turns golden. Stir constantly or mixture will burn.

3. Meanwhile slice four of the bananas and place in pastry case. Spoon the warm fudge thinly but evenly over the bananas to cover completely. Leave to cool. Chill until set (about 45mins).

4. Whisk cream until it just holds its shape. Pile cream into centre of pie. Refrigerate for at least one hour so that the caramel acts on it.

5. Slice remaining banana, coat with lemon juice. Pile on top of cream.

6. Put caster sugar in small saucepan. Heat gently until sugar melts and turns to a golden caramel colour. Cool for one minute until the caramel thickens and darkens, then spoon over the banana (the caramel will run through the cream). Chill immediately to set.


Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Stutter Blues

Yes I'm a stut-stut-stutterin' man
And I can't ta-ta-ta-talk worth a damn
And I can't ta-ta-ta-talk worth a damn
Sometimes I wanta cry cry
Sometimes I wanta die
John Lee Hooker, Stuttering Blues (1953)

Lately you've started to stutter
As though you had nothing to say.
Leonard Cohen, The Old Revolution (1969)

A recent song that got a lot of radio airplay is Stuttering by Ben's Brother – one in a long line of songs in popular music either about or featuring stuttering, or both.

One of the earliest known examples is K-K-K-Katy, written in 1917 by Geoffrey O'Hara and hugely popular in both the first and second World Wars at military training camps. Advertised as 'The Sensational Stammering Song Success Sung by the Soldiers and Sailors', it concerns Jimmy, a young soldier who stuttered when trying to speak to girls. He eventually manages to speak to the eponymous Katy, the "maid of hair of gold":

K-K-K-Katy, beautiful Katy,
You're the only g-g-g-girl that I adore;
When the m-m-m-moon shines,
Over the cowshed,
I'll be waiting at the k-k-k-kitchen door.

From the 1960s until the 80s various popular songs have featured singers (purposely) stuttering but not been about stuttering. The most famous ones include:

My Generation – The Who (1965)
Changes – David Bowie (1971)
Benny and the Jets – Elton John (1973)
You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet – Bachman Turner Overdrive (1974)
Psycho Killer – Talking Heads (1977)
Bad To The Bone – George Thoroughgood (1982)

These songs didn't appear to be attacking stutterers or about stuttering in any way. Stuttering just sounded good. Stuttering as a musical effect, if you will. There was no electronic trickery in these songs – the stuttering was done by the singer.

With the explosion of rap music, electronic recording and sampling in the 1980s, it seemed every song needed a sampled stutter – which could now be done with ease electronically. Most famously, Paul Hardcastle's 19 (1985) with its repetitive beats and stuttered spoken samples seemed to herald the birth of a new kind of music – on Top of the Pops anyway.

Predictably, advertising also got into the act. Most memorably (and annoyingly) L'Oreal's Studio Line ad, featuring jazz playing models against a background of post-modern Mondrian with "Sculpt your hair, any way you like it. Studio Line – create your look" as its chorus. This was "borrowed" from another song from the time also featuring stuttering, Chaka Khan's I Feel For You.

With rap, having a stutter was seen (understandably) as a weakness, much in the same way as a tennis player with a racket without strings or a runner without legs – not impossible, but pretty difficult, and not very cool but possibly quite amusing to watch. So you had LL Cool J boasting, "When I'm involved all the amateurs stutter" on .357-Break It On Down (1987); Rob Base and DJ EZ Rock saying simply "I won't stutter" (It Takes Two, 1988); "When you start to stutter that's when you had enough of / Biting it, I make you choke, you can't provoke" say Eric B and Rakim on I Ain't No Joke (1987); and NWA "didn't stutter when I said "Fuck Tha Police"" in 1988, to name but a few.

This mocking culminated in 1988 with Stutter Rap (No Sleep Til Bedtime) by Morris Minor and the Majors which managed to poke fun at stutterers, the Beastie Boys, and other songs featuring stuttering – in particular Paul Hardcastle's 19 (and Chaka Khan's I Feel For You):

"Well no-one's ever seen what I mean
From the age of n-n-n-n-n-n-thirteen
We've all been caught in a m-m-mouth trap
So join with us and do the st-st-st-st-st-st-st-stutter rap"

Since then, the tradition has continued steadily. In 1991, old skool rapper Kool Moe Dee rapped "Make no mistake, we don't shake or stutter" on Rise 'n' Shine. And in 2006, British rapper Lady Sovereign rapped, "Repeating yourself like you got a stutter with all you mutter" on Blah, Blah.

Can you imagine any other affliction that comes in for so much flack? Poets dissing dyslexics, perhaps? Or chocolatiers scoffing at diabetics?

Famously, the singers Carly Simon and Gareth Gates stutter. Singing was a way for them to overcome their stuttering: like most stutterers, they don't stutter whilst singing – but possibly would do if rapping. Interestingly, many stutterers also don't stutter whilst whispering, or putting on a voice, or speaking in a foreign language.

With the digital computer age, stuttering now more than ever feels like a technological thing – whether we want it or not (usually not). Technical glitches and hitches, hiccups and fuckups, crashes and mashes happen whether on digital TV, broadband, CDs, DVDs, hard discs, graphics, file formats – all from time to time seem to emulate stuttering when they go wrong.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Leonard Cohen albums with 'Songs' in the title

Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967)
Songs From a Room (1969)
Songs of Love and Hate (1971)
Live Songs (1973)
Recent Songs (1979)
Ten New Songs (2001)
Songs from the Road (2010)

(Updated 2010)

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Cock, Fany, Shag

Cock soup from Jamaica; Fany chewing gum from Morocco; Bali Shag from Holland. A great combination.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Son of a Rimbaud

'Man you oughta go to Hollywood and play Billy the Kid'
'Man I'd rather go to Hollywood and play Rimbaud'
– Jack Kerouac, Big Sur

Before I knew anything about it other than its title, I immediately thought, like many others did too I'm sure, that the recently released film Son of Rambow was about the life of French poet Arthur Rimbaud (or his son, if he had one). It's always struck me as somewhat perverse and problematic that Arthur Rimbaud is actually pronounced Arthur 'Rambo'. Eric Cantona encountered this when interviewed by the British press about his influences. He said 'Rimbaud', they all thought he said and meant 'Rambo'. There's no getting away from it: France's great symbolist poet is pronounced exactly the same as the mumbling murderous Vietnam war veteran (apparently the author of First Blood actually had Rimbaud's A Season In Hell in mind whilst writing it). So, for this reason, I thought Son of Rambow was a kind of play on that idea. But it's not. At all. That doesn't mean it's not good – it looks great. But what a shame it's not about Rimbaud. What a missed opportunity.

Arthur Rimbaud's amazing life story (the film Total Eclipse only concerns Rimbaud's relationship with Verlaine) deserves a full Bob Dylan-style I'm Not There (in which one of the characters is actually called Arthur Rimbaud) movie treatment – only transposed as I Is Another (Je suis un autre), Rimbaud's famously enigmatic quotation. From prodigious child poet, to doomed homosexual love affair affair with poet Paul Verlaine and being shot by him (in the hand), then giving up poetry aged 21 (no, not because of the bad hand), he spent the remaining years of his life travelling, finally settling in Ethiopia as a merchant, gun runner and possible slave trader, dying aged 37. His life is the stuff of legend.

Hugely influential – maybe more for his tragic romantic life than his poetry – Rimbaud's restless, mystic, rebellious, minstrel persona was picked up by beat writers in the 60s and musicians such as Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan and Patti Smith (hear her shouting "Go Rimbaud! Go Rimbaud!' in the song Land – they could have used it on the soundtrack in the latest Rambo movie – it sounds like she's saying 'Go Rambo!').

Pronunciation of foreign writers can be problematic – especially if you've never heard them pronounced by anyone else. Luckily there's hardly ever a situation when it happens. When it does, it can be embarrassing. It'll usually happen at a party when you're trying to impress some girl (or guy) studying French literature with your knowledge of 19th century French poetry and you'll say you love Arthur Rim-bald.

The contemporary misanthropic French writer Michel Houellebecq, although not Rimbaud's successor, has many similar qualities. Mainly the daunting name. It's like a question you don't know in a quiz: once you know it, it's easy, and you knew it all along anyway, and you're never going to forget it:

Michel Houellebecq is pronounced Michelle Well-beck.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Foreign Cigarette Packets

Cambodia, Morocco, Morocco, Laos

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Baby Books and TV Programmes

I've been reading baby books to my daughter virtually every day for the past year or so. There are some elements which they all have to have:

1. Three sheep. Sheep always come in threes in fields.
2. Blue Birds. Birds are always blue. There's nothing more to say about that either.
3. Mice. There's usually at least one mouse on every page of every book. Usually not a central character as such, but hiding somewhere. Maybe in a tree.
4. A completely erroneous view of man's relationship with animals and the countryside. Not just them talking and stuff but also their general happy countenance and having lots of space and grass. This continues into adulthood and stays there. Unless you're a farmer or you live in the countryside.

I've also been watching TV programmes with my daughter. Usually Milkshake! on Channel 5. What you haven't been up at 6am to watch it? You don't know what you're missing. Once-famous celebrities have been doing voice-overs for kids TV programmes for years. Here's some current ones:

The Adventures of Bottle Top Bill – Miranda Richardson
Pocoyo – Stephen Fry
Fifi and the Flowertots – Jane Horrocks
Little Princess – Julian Clary and Jane Horrocks (yes, again)
In the Night Garden – Derek Jacobi
Bird Bath – Richard Briars
The Beeps – Tom Baker

And from my childhood (some thirty years ago!), I remember:

Willo The Wisp – Kenneth Williams
Rhubarb & Custard Too – Richard Briars (yes, again)... and it's still going too. Although it still looks like it's drawn with felt-tip pens I've a feeling it's computer animated. Rhubarb may now have a (wooden) computer but it's one of the few children's programmes that has a healthy anarchistic spirit and retains a charming old-fashioned English sensibility that includes garden sheds, Cornish blue mugs of tea and a 1940s wireless.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Top 5 Great Gay Travel Writers

1. Bruce Chatwin, who was married (In Patagonia, The Songlines)
2. Robert Byron (The Road to Oxiana)
3. TE Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia (Seven Pillars of Wisdom)
4. Wilfred Thesiger (Arabian Sands, The Marsh Arabs)
5. Paul Bowles, also married (Their Heads are Green and Their Hands are Blue, The Sheltering Sky)

Bubbling under/not sure about/they're still alive: Jan Morris, née James (Sultan in Oman, Venice); Colin Thubron (Among The Russians, In Siberia).

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Architect drawers

Architect drawers, also known as artist drawers or plan chest drawers (well, according to eBay anyway), are those long narrow drawers you stored all your artwork in at school or art college, if you went to one. Traditionally, about five pieces of A1 or A0 paper would fit in a drawer, then it be too full to open, then it would jam and eventually break.

I've been unconsciously after some for ages. Then just recently I was able to move the thought into my consciousness. All my old art college work was still stashed under my old bed at my parents. And I had lots of posters and prints and things. It would be great (and professional-like) to store them in architect drawers. Not the school/office type from the 70s, but a nice old antique one (they're stronger and look better). They go for quite a lot on eBay. But I'd usually read about a trendy couple finding some on a skip or 'dumped outside an art college'. I'd usually read about that in the Space section of the Guardian's weekend magazine. Usually it was a couple from Hoxton who'd just converted a warehouse into artist studios or something. The guy would be a graphic designer or sculptor and the woman would make textiles.

I'd actually dreamt about finding some 'dumped'. Then – this is true – a day or so after the dream – it was raining and dark, the car window was blurred, I thought I might have mis-seen them – but no, there they were – in a skip outside a school! Not exactly the antique type, but hey, beggars can't be choosers. I went to the school the next day and asked someone, who asked someone else, who asked the headmistress who asked the caretaker who told me the actual drawers were fine but he'd smashed the chest to smithereens. I knew it was too good to be true.

A month later I moved to Wiltshire. I casually scanned the local papers. In the classified section of one of them – there they were – architect drawers for sale nearby in Somerset. I called the number in the ad and got the address. I drove through winding lanes and found the house easier than expected. A pleasant middle-aged woman answered the door and took me through to her studio. I saw the drawers before she showed them to me and knew instantly I didn't want them. I guess if I'd seen them dumped in a skip I would have taken them but £90? No way. So as not to waste both our time, I spent the next ten minutes examining them and did some excessive chin rubbing. They were the 70s office-type drawers in an ugly dark red colour. And quite scratched. And £90! I told her they weren't what I was looking for and left. I'll carry on looking on eBay, even though they seem to be going for hundreds of pounds and collection always being up north somewhere.