Thursday, December 24, 2009

Let steeple bells be swungen

E'en so here below, below,
Let steeple bells be swungen,
And io, io, io,
By priest and people sungen.

I can think of no finer Yuletide verse to recite in sonorous yet ponderous tones on a Christmas Eve.

Thanks and Merry Christmas to you all - readers, bloggers and especially commenters.

It's been a big year on Think of England. We have been binge-drinking and shooting, given up consumerism and retreated to the hills with Ed Will and Ginger to pick blackberries. We have encountered Paul Kingsnorth, Swineshead, Muggsy Spanier, Jase Rooney, Doc Johnson, a leisure centre manager and John Portsmouth Football Club Westwood, amongst a host of other characters. Critically, Brit Jnr entered the scene. We have partied with Black Lace, divided up the animals, rescheduled Radio 4, performed some thrilling Pavement Panto, scoffed some cupcakes and rewritten pop music history. We have been to the Windy City and the Guernsey Tomato Museum.

We have learnt nothing.

As ever, be good, listen to the Baked Potato and see you on the other side.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The greatest compliment

No Good Boyo’s meandering tale of social acceptance amongst çay-drinking Turkish tokers brings to mind the greatest compliment I have ever been paid in my life.

It occurred on the island of Crete, in a tiny family-run Taverna geographically but not philosophically close to the grim disco strip of Malia. Its keeper spoke fine eccentric English and he used it to complain in a lengthy but convivial sort of way about my compatriots and their behaviour on holiday. “Why you need get so drunk?” he asked as he brought out our bottle of enjoyably vile retsina. “Why you want get nakt? Why you want take clothes off in street and get nakt?”

I couldn’t honestly answer, and nor could Mrs B. We were both fully clothed and had no intention of getting ‘nakt’ in his street. While our starters were preparing he pulled up a chair to continue the theme. “Why you want shout? I not come to your house and SHOOOOOOUT in your street. Why you want do that?” He cupped his hands in front of his mouth and demonstrated, literally, the business of “SHOOOOOOUTing”.

I couldn’t help but agree with his gist, though I did make the observation that his own compatriots were more than happy to take money from mine in return for drunk-making liquors. He conceded the point with good grace.

I ordered up the special, which the Taverna-keeper - who had, I now noticed, extremely oily hair - kindly translated to me as “Chicken chops.” It was a platter of chicken thighs, wings and things cooked in some sort of oregano seasoning and was sublimely delicious. I have a weakness for chicken things anyway and attacked the plate with carnivorous greed, using fingers and teeth to pick off every last morsel til there was nothing but a heap of gleaming, decimated bones. The keeper took our plates back into the kitchen and then a few minutes later hurried back to deliver it, the greatest compliment I have ever been paid in my life:

“Sir! My wife, the cook… she ask me to tell you… She say, You really know how to eat chicken!”

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Black Pudding

The reason I do all of my gift shopping well in advance and largely on the internet is so that I can avoid such things as going into Bury town centre in the freezing sleet on the last Saturday before Christmas. This was the gist of the message I intended but in the event diplomatically decided not to convey with some force to Mrs B and her mother. Including Brit Jnr, there were three generations of females against me: the game was up before it started.

Having chauffeured them into the town I gave them the slip as soon as was reasonable and went off into the famed boxy warren of Bury Market in search of hot grub. Bury is black pudding country. I have nothing against black pudding per se, a small disc of the stuff is a very welcome addition to any hotel breakfast. But you wouldn’t want to eat it in the same sort of style and quantity as you would, say, a bag of chips. Would you? In Bury you would. The market includes a little quadrangle of hot black pudding stalls offering exactly that. A boy of about ten was wolfing forkfuls of his congealed pig blood snack from a paper plate. He looked cheerful enough.

I hurried on and found a pieman. Like most men in the Greater Manchester area he was small and had a wiry moustache. His pies were a pound each. I ordered a homemade bacon and black pudding one.

“What, don’t you want peas and gravy for another 50p?” he asked, in a tone that was both injured and incredulous. “No, just as it comes please,” I replied in my southern accent.

It was a good pie, I ate it on the way to a warm-looking pub called the Two Tubs. Had myself a pint of mild in a nook (I like to go native, within limits) and checked the cricket score on my mobile. At the table next to me a small man with a wiry moustache was drinking a pint and reading his paper in great peace, while behind, a group of quite irritating students from some Home County or other talked too loudly about travelling in Australia. Idly, I studied the bar menu. The £3.99 special was A Plate of Black Pudding, covered in Bacon and smothered in Cheddar Cheese. Now that dish, I thought, is not widely available down south.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The hills are alive

Last night I dreamt that Steve Buscemi had taken the Julie Andrews role in The Sound of Music. Fortunately he had a rich baritone voice, so even though he looked incongruous he pulled it off. Then this morning, in the opaque rise into wakefulness, the following verse came to me, fully-formed:

The hills are alive but the mountains are dead,
The oceans are Tory, the rivers are Red,
The forests eat cake but the trees all eat bread,
Here comes a chopper to chop off your head.

I'm not sure what this means - perhaps you can interpret - but I don't think it is related to the fact that I will be off-blog for a couple of days.

We're taking Charlotte on a tour of the northern relatives. She'll be signing bibs and spreading Christmas cheer and milky sick where'er she goes. Back Tuesday or possibly Monday.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

For Gaw

Rage against the machine

People who take these things far too seriously are campaigning to get Rage Against The Machine’s 1992 song Killing in the Name to the number one spot ahead of the X-Factor winner's single.

Fine weapon of choice, is Killing in the Name: a preposterous monster of a track driven by three giant riffs and culminating in the scream-a-long adolescent mantra par excellence: “F**k you I won’t do what you tell me!”

My sixth-form cronies and I, repulsive grungy scroats all, loved it immediately. At a school disco once we somehow persuaded the DJ to play it at headsplitting volume, instantly clearing the dancefloor of handbag-waving girls and their shocked chaperones. Tanked up on two pints of White Lightning cider we hurtled, hooting like lame droogs, into a circle of crazed headbanging. It remains one of my most cherished school memories. The DJ later got into fearful trouble for broadcasting the obscenities, it was said.

Well, it was a more innocent time, they always are.

When we left school soon after and went our separate ways Martpol and I regularly posted each other homemade compilation tapes (later CDs) of our musical ‘discoveries’, painstakingly sequenced and wildly eclectic. This only dried up in the last couple of years: the problem we have encountered being that we each appear to already own every album in the universe, and thus surprising each other is impossible. We’ve got richer as music has got cheaper, leading us to over-indulge, which is why buying stuff isn’t fun anymore and nor is making painstakingly-sequenced compilation tapes and when we gain we always lose so much. We could burn the malls and head for the hills but it’s bloody cold out there in December.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

England Have My Bones

TH White, author of the strange and indelible Arthurian sequence The Once and Future King, is also the author of a strange and indelible memoir called England Have My Bones. You can often find it in secondhand bookshops; if you see it, do pick it up.

It is ostensibly a diary of a year of country living in the 1930s, but I don’t think I’ve ever read a book in which so much is unsaid. White fishes, hunts, shoots ducks, learns to fly a small aeroplane and keeps snakes as pets. He does these things one at a time and obsessively, being the sort of person who needs to be the best at everything he tries. He sets arbitrary and very difficult goals because he wants the punishment.

White writes beautifully, a genuine master of prose so much in control that he can break the rules. He has a knack of composing perfectly-balanced sentences from those middling words which you think you know but would want to double-check in a dictionary if tested. This makes for a somewhat disorienting reading experience. For example:

The primaries of the plover buckled to the wind on the turn, like the tawse of a brogue. The pine clumps on the moors had dead trees in them, like the badger bristles on a tramp’s old chin. Then it began to rain. It was a Homeric east-winderly rain, as repeatedly described by the Southcotes.

He appears to be both vain and deeply self-loathing. This may be grounded in an unfulfilled homosexuality: one biographer described him as “a homosexual and a sadomasochist”, though his friend David Higham said: "Tim was no homosexual, though I think at one time he had feared he was...and in his ethos fear would have been the word." White is terrified of people and relationships and humiliation, but not of death. This becomes apparent in the flying section of the book and in an extraordinary ending in which he suffers a serious car crash. Warner said, "Notably free from fearing God, he was basically afraid of the human race.” In other diaries (England Have My Bones contains nothing so direct) White himself made the Morrissey-ish statement: "it has been my hideous fate to be born with an infinite capacity for love and joy with no hope of using them."

The odd thing is that all this comes through in what are, essentially, laboriously detailed descriptions of his hobbies. The effect is somewhat akin to finding a profound and melancholy meditation on the human condition in an airfix instruction booklet.

Monday, December 14, 2009


I’m finding it increasingly difficult to summon up the traditional Christmassy levels of cynicism and misanthropy. Instead I find myself looking forward to it all. New fatherhood is the only reasonable explanation. On Saturday morning we erected the tree (plastic, green, Wilko’s 2008 vintage) and I coated it in lights and tinsel and the other tat. I am profoundly opposed to ‘tasteful’ Christmas tree decoration. A tree should look like the Dame in a Dalek pantomime, or else don’t bother.

In the afternoon we dropped in with Brit Jnr on what can only be described as a Christmas soiree, mulled wine and canapé job, full of thirtysomething lawyers: women in wool and Ugg boots, men in stubble and jumpers, mostly childless but getting serious about thinking about getting serious about it. Brit Jnr, four months old now, was a huge hit – she always is a hit because she’s cute and lively and gives everyone a big grin when she’s passed around, allowing you to say “Ooh she likes you”, which is the most cockle-warming thing it is possible to hear in this cold universe.

From the soiree we popped into town so I could have a Weissbier and a Bratwurst in the Kraut Christmas market, which includes a temporary Booze-haus. The Bavarians have an impressive way of making plain wood and bare lightbulbs appear cosy, and Weissbier and Bratwurst is one of the great international culinary combinations, like crispy duck and plum sauce or lager and kebabs. They were real Germans, over for the season, including one unmistakeable glassy-eyed, razor-cheekboned Aryan Herr of the kind that we Britons still find a mite unsettling. This, I suppose, is what the BNP’s ‘indigenous’ people should look like, whereas in fact our white supremacists look like Nick Griffin, ie. three parts Norman, one part Welsh dwarf, six parts bullfrog.

At the bar two long-haired English biker types in middle age were standing, pleased as punch, downing Pilsner and singing along to the 80s rock so beloved of Germans and middle-aged bikers. They were playing air guitar to ZZ Top as we left. I was pleased for them, they looked like they’d found a spiritual home. Shame it was temporary but perhaps it will be back next year.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Two noteworthy advertising boards

Yesterday I spotted two noteworthy advertising boards, of the small freestanding kind that people put on the pavement outside their shops during opening hours, to tempt pedestrians inside. I think they might be referred to as “A-boards” in the boardmaking industry. Not that I have any great insider knowledge about advertising signage and boardcraft, though I have commissioned a display stand or two in my time including a rolling screen affair and a large colourful construction that was even more difficult to erect than a tent, and I’ve had a few fights with tents in my time, though the tent-construction element is amongst the least of my objections to camping, which are many and varied. Anyway, this is all very interesting but beside the point of this post, which was to report on these two noteworthy advertising boards.

The first board was outside the Wetherspoons pub in Kingswood. It advertised the fact that this weekend the pub would be showing the live X-Factor final on a big screen. Whether a communal X-Factor screening is a step down or up or merely across from communal football screening, I leave for you to decide.

The second and much more enjoyable board I spotted while driving through Whitehall, one of the least salubrious areas of Bristol. It was outside one of those eccentric higgledy-piggledy used-furniture/junk shops that you find in tatty urban areas yet unpenetrated by the chain stores. The sign was worn and handpainted. TEA CHESTS – SOLD HERE! it proclaimed boldly, proudly, urgently.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Learning the animals

Has it ever struck you as odd that the animals and their various noises are such a high priority when it comes to educating our young?

That the cow goes moo, the lion rooooar and the sheep baaa are invariably amongst the first things our children learn. And yet in day to day life most of us have almost no contact with animals other than as pets or food, or as pet-food.

On the other hand, I suppose that impressing upon one’s infant the news that the mortgage statement goes rustle rustle and the chip-and-pin machine beep-beep would lack a certain joi de vivre.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Deniers 2

I'll be busy today but, and this is of vital international importance, I have clarified my objections to "deniers" here.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

The Windy City

On 7 November 2000 I blew in to the Windy City. The Windy City is mighty pretty, reputedly, but I didn’t see much of it except for hotel conference rooms and office suites. This was a glimpse of the life of the globetrotting businessman who has visited every great city on the planet to feast his eyes upon Hiltons and airport lounges …We joined the navy to see the world. And what did we see? We saw the sea…

I had been sent to Chicago by Mark, the second of my objectionable employers, to steal ideas from the Yanks which we could then translate to the British market. Mark had largely built his fortune through this method. I was semi-accompanied by three accountants, one of whom was marginally less humourless than the other two - a fact I attempted but mostly failed to exploit to help pass the time when our flight was delayed by four hours at Heathrow. The most humourless was a woman in her late thirties. She’ll be almost a decade older now and I’ll bet it shows.

With typical unpredictability, Mark had booked us onto the cheapest possible flight (Air India: choice of curries, William Morris-style décor, interminable Bollywood movies) but into one of the most expensive possible hotels: the towering Swissotel Chicago, located downtown by the confluence of Lake Michigan and the Chicago River on the magnificently-named East Wacker Drive.

It was dusk when we arrived. 7 November 2000 was the day George W Bush won his first Presidential election and some faction or other of Illinois-based Republicans was having a party at the Swissotel. The lobby was full of their joshings and jabberings. We fought our way through to the check-in desk where I discovered that Mark had failed to pay for my room. There must be some mistake, I said. The girl smiled blandly and confirmed that there was no mistake. I gave her my lowly HSBC credit card, more in hope than expectation. I was twenty-three years old: I didn’t have enough credit for one night at the Swissotel Chicago, never mind three. The girl apprised me of this fact, blandly. I said nothing. Behind, the least humourless of the semi-accompanying accountants semi-smiled and produced his AmEx to rescue me.

Up on the 38th floor, it’s still the most unnecessarily luxurious hotel room I’ve ever stayed in: two obese American-sized beds, a bathroom bigger than the Bristol flat I shared with my girlfriend, and the whole of one wall a picture window. Even while reeling from the Bollywood flight and the check-in humiliation, I could appreciate it. That mix of rage, confusion, gratitude and resentment was a familiar state of mind throughout the eight or so years I worked for Mark.

Outside were the lights of Chicago’s blocky beauty. Mighty pretty, the Windy City - what I could make of it. Chi-town, the Second City, Sears Tower, the Wrigley Building, the Loop, the Board of Trade Building. Al Capone’s city. Obama’s city, though I didn’t know it at the time. Muggsy Spanier’s city. I didn’t know that either, though the human world is smaller and much more interconnected than is generally realised.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Poetry is rubbish 2: Impeach Duffy

Is it possible to impeach a Poet Laureate? Read Carol Ann Duffy’s 12 Days of Christmas effort and weep. This is probably the worst verse of a pretty shocking bunch:

bankers' profits fired in greed.

The second ring outshone the sun,
fuelled by carbon, doused by none.

Ring three was black gold, O for oil –
a serpent swallowing its tail.

The fourth ring was Celebrity;
Fool's Gold, winking on TV.

Ring five, religion's halo, slipped –
a blind for eyes or gag for lips.

Capitalism, oil, warmenism, s’lebs and some anti-religionism. Elsewhere there’s a lot of the old soldier-as-victim routine.

This is ‘poetry’ as a set of banal soundbites from the student section of the Question Time audience. It’s poetry about ishoos.

The Laureate’s job is to write about Britain. Britain is not made of issues, it is made of people and places and things and time. If you can’t find something worthwhile or memorable to write about in there, then don’t take the post. Anyone could write this kind of ishoos crap from outside the Laureateship. And they do, mostly as GCSE coursework.

Duffy is abusing the post. The Impeachment campaign starts here.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Noughties, craftivism

The Arnolfini art gallery emails me with details of an exciting new movement:

Craftivism is a participative exhibition responding to the resurgent interest in craft as it relates to socially-engaged art practice. It involves 14 projects developed by artists and collectives that work with craft-based traditions and activist practices, and who employ the tactics of 'craftivism' (combining crafting & activism) to question the prevailing codes of mass consumerism.

Thus making a wooden spoon becomes not just an act of making a wooden spoon, but a small, wooden spoon-shaped blow against the prevailing codes of mass consumerism. Uh oh, this is the Kingsnorthian interpretation of Ed, Will and Ginger. I don’t rate its chances. But that’s 2009 for you. Good grief we’re at the end of the decade already. The noughties started with a terrorist atrocity and ended with a credit crunch, neither of which has yet brought down America or capitalism. As Presuming Ed has so consistently pointed out, they have failed to paint it black. Some people can’t let it go; Jane Elliott was still hammering away at her forty-year-old idea while a black man was in the White House. More importantly, the noughties were when I got married and became a daddy. You’ve got to know your place. I thought the way Paul Kingsnorth handled the ribbing he got here was wise, good-humoured and, in an important way, very English. In fact, I told him this off-blog and we’re pals now. This is as it should be.

Two-thousand-and-nine was a sci-fi number when I was my daughter’s age. Strange to think it’ll all be in the past very soon, quaint and naive, a more innocent age. Remember the fuss about the wardrobe malfunction? And about the lascivious dancing on Ulysses S Grant’s grave? But what a great tune by which to dance lasciviously on a grave, eh?

So, a few weeks and then here comes another decade. Uh oh, uh oh, uh uh uh oh...

For Malty

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Aftershave 2: Time to musk up

Apparently, the other one in the cabinet is 'Pour Homme' by Givenchy, which is French for 'For Men' by Givenchy.

However, what I really need is to get me some Sex Panther by Odion...

For Muggsy

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Book Review: "Sweeper!" by Steve Bruce

Following a personal recommendation by The Old Batsman, I sought out a copy of Sweeper!, a slim, self-published thriller by the ex-Manchester United footballer and current manager of Sunderland, Steve Bruce.

Penned during the 1999/2000 season, while Steve Bruce was manager of Huddersfield Town FC, the protagonist of Sweeper! is one Steve Barnes, manager of the fictional Leddersfield Town FC.

From that information alone you will, I’m sure, already have an inkling about this novel. And you’d be right: it is one of the great postmodern, deconstructionist works in the British literary canon.

From the very first page, Bruce/Barnes questions the reader’s preconceptions about identity, as club owner “Sir Lawrence Brook” becomes “Sir Laurence Brook” within the space of two sentences. Snide thoughts that this might be a typo due to the lack of a proofreader/editor are quickly dismissed, as the sheer quantity of fundamental spelling inconsistencies can leave the reader in no doubt that they are perfectly deliberate. Not least, Leddersfield Town itself regularly transmogrifies into Leddersford Town. And back again.

Indeed, look carefully and you’ll see that Bruce’s challenging explorations of identity are prefigured by the specially-commissioned cover art, in which we see the real Bruce standing alongside his assistant John Deehan, onto whose image a (deliberately) crude moustache and hairstyle have been photoshopped. Thus, while Bruce/Barnes remains ‘real’, Deehan has been ‘fictionalised’ (in the book he is known as ‘Jock Durham’. Mostly.). But what is ‘real’? Again and again, Bruce/Barnes forces us to confront this question; and again and again, he denies us a clearcut answer.

Bruce’s control of plot and pacing is a masterful high wire act as he treads a delicate line between the direct and the elusive. Delivered in brutally minimalist, matter-of-fact prose (His office was comfortable. There was a computer on the desk.) which also serves as a witty pastiche of the Dan Brown school of writing, the story of a football manager caught up in the affairs of Israeli Nazi-hunters and fanatical kidnappers ought to be easy to follow, yet somehow Bruce contrives to baffle and confuse. By the plot’s ‘conclusion’ the reader will be none the wiser as to the motives of any of the main characters, nor indeed what any of them actually did, nor who they were, nor the significance of any of it to the subplot about Bruce trying a five-three-two sweeper formation for the match against ‘Burnwick’.

As one of the country’s most accomplished defenders in the early 1990s, Steve Bruce was expert at breaking up opposition attacks. He transfers these skills brilliantly to the page, wrongfooting the complacent reader at every turn. We are never allowed to settle as Bruce/Barnes frequently halts the narrative flow with lengthy asides about the technical specifications of his Jaguar motorcar, or some football grounds he has known, or his wife’s predilection for shopping. My favourite example, as we wait eagerly for Bruce to embark on a dangerous mission, is this pensée about breakfast:

I prepared and ate breakfast. My mother always impressed on me as a lad the importance of a good breakfast. I don’t go the full Monty: I can manage without a pork chop and black pudding. But I like cereals, followed by bacon and eggs. And toast with marmalade. All washed down with tea. That’s the kind of breakfast a man such as me needs.

Bathetic statements of the mundane, stark in their beauty, are sprinkled through the text like precious jewels woven into a tapestry: Then my mobile telephone rang. I did not curse the interruption. A mobile phone is a necessary instrument of modern business. And better still: It is a building more than one hundred years old. Built in the Italian style, someone told me. I wouldn’t have known. Architecture, like much else, is a closed book to me.

I cannot have been the only reader or reviewer to have found that phrase 'like much else' profoundly moving.

But these apparent non-sequiturs are of course the whole point: the ghastly, nauseous reality of the ‘ordinary’ – Bruce has been reading his existentialists! Sartre, Kafka, Joyce, Henry Miller: these are Bruce’s literary heroes and mentors. Yet by absorbing the approach of the modernist and postmodernist writers and taking it into new, common-man territory – that of Nationwide First Division football management circa 1999 – Bruce/Barnes democratises these challenging ideas like no other professional sportsman-turned-self-published novelist based in the north east of England of the last thirty years. The following extract, in which Bruce/Barnes faces the prospect of being shot, succinctly encapsulates the ethos:

The gun was level with my belly. So this was what it was like to die. There was no doubt I was going to die. And not even in Newcastle. Not even Premier League. In Halifax, of all places, with a club in the third division.

Thus Sweeper! confronts the reader with as chilling a meditation on mortality as you’ll find. Think of England rating: Five thumbs up!

For PZ Myers, the Yard et al

Tuesday, December 01, 2009


The other day I noticed that I have three bottles of aftershave in the bathroom cabinet, the youngest of which is at least four years old and the oldest at least ten. They are Tommy, Gucci Envy and I can’t remember the other one. They were all presents, obviously, and all are still at least seven tenths full*. I expect they are pretty much pure, unscented alcohol by now.

It occurs to me that I only use the stuff at black tie dinners and whatnot around the Christmas period, if I happen to remember.

So, does anyone understand aftershave?


*Reminds me of a time I asked a chap how far through a book he’d got. “Oh, five eighths,” he said immediately. I expressed surprise at such a mathematically-specific estimation. “Well I’ve read more than a half but less than two thirds,” he said, as if it was a completely normal sort of thing to say.

For David C

Monday, November 30, 2009

Christmas shopping

Modern life is rubbish, says some bloke who thinks the world is becoming too left-brained, which is to say: “an increasingly mechanistic, fragmented, decontextualised world, marked by unwarranted optimism, mixed with paranoia and a feeling of emptiness.”

I wonder if he’s talking about internet shopping. Personally I love being able to do my Christmas shopping on the internet, but on Saturday morning I realised that a packed December schedule and particular requirements were going to force me to do some non-internet, ie. physical, ie. real-life, ie. interpersonal, ie. oldskool shopping in the centre of Bristol that very day. So I did what I always do in such emergencies – got up at the crack of Saturday and got in there quick before the hordes. It was raining, I was moderately hung over and the only two shops I’d been pinning my hopes on failed to deliver. All this befouled my mood. But on the offchance I popped into St Nicholas Market, the hippy-centre of Bristol retail. And do you know, the brilliant little Nails Gallery yielded the Perfect Thing; exactly what I was looking for. And then a quick mooch around the rest of the hippy stalls yielded two more Perfect Things and suddenly the trip was a triumph.

Bucked, I strolled off to buy some breakfast from a hippy food merchant. I enquired of him of what a rather tasty-looking example of savoury pastry consisted. Of.
“That’s a nice vegetarian tomato and cheese pasty,” said the hippy.
“Oh in that case I’ll have a sausage roll,” I said, chuckling.
“Ah, sorry for swearing at you, saying the word ‘vegetarian’” said the hippy, chortling.
“Well, my wife’s a vegetarian. I’m virtually a vegetarian,” I said, snickering. “So when I’m out on my own I make sure to get some dead animal.”
“I get you,” said the hippy, giggling. “When you come in it’s all Where have you been, at the steak bar?”
“And I say, No honest love, I was only at the strip club,” I said, hooting.
This went on for some time, by the end of which our improvisational double-act had reached the comedic heights of, say, ooooh, Hale and Pace, and we were virtually rolling on the floor.

I marched perkily back to the car with my Perfect Things and the sausage roll crumbs sprinkling my coat like Christmas snowflakes. The rain was gone, the sunlight was beautiful, Castle Green is beautiful, Bristol is beautiful. Hippies are great. Christmas shopping is great. The internet is great. Modern life is rubbish. God bless you all.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Spoofs, cupcakes update

That some readers didn't notice that the post below was a spoof of music journalism (and a rather heavily-hammered point re the previous debates) makes me wonder if bloggery's attention-deficient skim-reading means that I can get away with saying anything on this blog and people will believe it to be serious, such as that my posts about cupcakes have started an international trend.

Meanwhile, David C emails to inform me that my posts about cupcakes have started an international trend.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Thirty Years of Pop Music: A Narrative

The fractious economic and political climate of the late 1970s saw a flowering of musical creativity, as a generation of British youths, energised by a radical left-wing ideology, turned their alienation and anger into musical gold. With The Jam’s Paul Weller and The Clash’s Joe Strummer at the forefront, the end of that dark decade was lit up with music that represented both a primal scream of rage and a reaction to the pompous, self-indulgent noodlings of the Prog Rockers. The raw excitement of the seventies has never been recaptured since and a decade of superficial posing was to follow…

…The seventies were the decade that taste forgot, with the garish naffness of Abba and Glam Rock giving way to the anti-everything nihilism of punk. The briefly-interesting Clash had imploded with the pompous, self-indulgent noodlings of triple-album Sandinista, while the nadir was reached with squalid death of Sid Vicious. Like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon, the 1980s saw a renaissance of colour, light and refinement. Paul Weller read the signs, disbanded The Jam and took his songwriting to new levels of sophistication with The Style Council. The mood was enacapsulated in the slogan “Choose Life” and peaked with the world-uniting Live Aid events. Freed from the limitations of punk’s three-chord thrashings and primitive production values, in an era of economic prosperity and optimism, pop music, led by the swooning New Romantics and the hedonistic freaks of Frankie Goes to Hollywood, became a joyous expression of living...

Heaven knows I’m miserable now, sang the Mancunian Morrissey in perhaps the defining British pop song of the 1980s, a decade in which urban alienation plumbed bleak new depths under the harsh realities of Thatcherism…

... I wanna be adored, sang Mancunian Ian Brown in perhaps the defining British pop song of the late 1980s. A generation of creative youths rejected miserabilism as Baggy and Acid House exploded in a glorious celebration of shimmering music and drug-fuelled dancing. Shunning politics and ignoring the harsh realities of Thatcherism, the Stone Roses gig at Spike Island in 1989 marked the musical zenith of the decade…

…By 1989 pop music had reached a nadir. Stock Aitken and Waterman’s soap stars dominated the charts while the pompous, self-indulgent noodlings of The Style Council had alienated rock fans and left the once-mighty Paul Weller without a record contract. The time was right for grunge as a wave of American bands, led by Nirvana, swept across the Atlantic. Themselves influenced by the British punks, but with a gloriously a-political outlook that freed them from the naïve and tiresome cod-leftist sloganeering of the likes of Joe Strummer, the howl of grunge guitars was like an injection of pure adrenalin into the moribund music scene…

You and I are gonna live forever, sang Liam Gallager in perhaps the defining British pop song of the 1990s, Live Forever. Reacting against the bleak and self-indulgent noodlings of US grunge, Oasis represented a defiant new optimism in British music. Influenced by the punk bands of the 1970s but shunning the outdated politics and class-warfare elements, Britpop dominated the mainstream media as well as the indie charts. Re-cast as “The Modfather”, Paul Weller found a new lease of life, producing his most mature and consistently high-quality work to date. ... Is it worth the aggravation to find yourself a job when there’s nothing worth working for? sang Liam Gallagher, in perhaps the defining British pop song of the 1990s, Cigarettes and Alcohol. With Pulp’s Common People also crossing into the mainstream, and Blur vs Oasis representing the middle-classes vs the workers, Britpop was the time when class-warfare returned to the agenda…

…By the late 1990s, pop music had reached a nadir. The pompous, self-indulgent noodlings of Oasis’ Be Here Now and the so-so Dad Rock of Paul Weller represented a creative lull in British music…

…By the late 1990s, pop music had never been more exciting and varied. Inspired by the mad genius of Aphex Twin, innovations in dance and urban music had led to a flowering of genre-bending creativity, crossing into the mainstream with Underworld, Goldie and the Prodigy, and flooding abroad with the Ministry of Sound's euphoric Ibiza anthems, which rejected the pompous, self-indulgent noodlings of the likes of Aphex Twin, Underworld, Goldie and…By the early 2000s, pop music had reached a nadir, with the crass commercialism of the Ministry of Sound’s Ibiza anthems endlessly retreading old ground. The time was right for a resurgence of back-to-basics guitar music. It came from the US in the thrilling form of the White Stripes and the Strokes, augmented in the UK by The Libertines’ irresistible combination of pop sensibilities and self-destruction…Reaching a nadir with the self-indulgent and self-destructive tendencies of Pete Doherty’s Libertines, the mid to late 2000s saw mainstream rather than alternative music as the place for real innovation, as the wild electronic beeps and jagged underground rhythms of urban music seeped into the hits of the likes of Beyonce, Britney and even manufactured reality stars such as Girls Aloud and Leona Lewis…

...The mid to late 2000s saw an unprecedented homogenisation of youth pop culture. Simon Cowell, perhaps the single most powerful force in popular music since The Beatles, read the signs and capitalised with a constant supply line of commercial acts. While the kids slumped like zombies in front of The X Factor, the mainstream monoculture had never been so dominant as the scene moved further than ever from the days of the late 1970s when tribal youth movements were so musically and politically vital…

...The mid to late 2000s saw an unprecedented splintering of youth pop culture. While their parents slumped like zombies in front of The X Factor, the kids were at their bedroom computers or on the streets with I-phones and I-Pods, creating and downloading material from a bewildering fractal array of genres and sub-genres and specialist online music streams. Radiohead, perhaps the single most innovative force in British pop music since The Beatles, read the signs and gave away their album In Rainbows free on the internet. The mainstream monoculture had never been so irrelevant as the scene moved further than ever from the days of the late 1970s when a small number of tribal youth movements dominated the restrictive BBC and chart-led media...

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Music journalism

Occasionally I wonder if I would have enjoyed being a music journalist. I have two of the necessary qualifications: I enjoy a wide range of music; and I could happily spend all day writing pseudy bollocks along the lines of “The De Trop Rainbows' new album sounds as if Marianne Faithful had never met the Stones but spent the 60s in a nunnery, then joined Primal Scream for a jamming session with Bob Marley in a Cuban dance hall, with Keith Moon on drums and acid, and Miles Davis on flugelhorn.”

The line between objective and subjective is very fuzzy in music appreciation, as I suppose it is with all arty criticism. Most people not in their teens or early twenties think that today’s pop music is worse than yesterday’s. But I deny the existence of a decline from any previous Golden Age for two reasons. First, because to claim that there has been a general decline in standards is to claim that talent has declined. This is essentially a supernatural claim. Second, people invariably believe that the peak of pop music just happened to coincide with their formative years, so it is always a subjective claim.

But on the other hand, I do think that some individual records and artists are objectively better than others. For example, the White Stripes are objectively better than the Bay City Rollers (better, that is, if you rate musical quality over populism for its own sake, which you don’t have to, but I do). It’s quite hard to say why this is the case exactly, but if you know that sort of thing when you see it, then you know it when you see it. Possibly. Anyway, music journalists depend on this assumption.

But then again the biggest problem I have with music journalism is that reviews are very heavily driven by self-conscious trendiness rather than the objective quality of the music. I recall noticing the full extent of this with the critical reception of Oasis’s third album, Be Here Now in 1997. It garnered gushing reviews across the board, with Q Magazine going particularly overboard with a 5 star eulogy. The reason the reviews were so positive was that all the journos were basing them on the traditional cyclical trend of rave-backlash-rave, rather than on the actual songs. The music press had praised Definitely Maybe (rightly), then had slammed What’s the Story (Morning Glory)?, only to be wrong-footed when every man and his dog bought a copy of what was probably the defining Britpop record. They therefore went, en masse and herd-like, to the other extreme when Be Here Now came out, hailing it as the greatest thing since Sergeant Pepper, whereas in fact when you listened to the album it was a perfectly obvious shark-jump.

This cyclical trending also occurs with decades and pop music movements, since each is in some respects a reaction to the last. This is a very British thing because we are still quite a uni-cultural nation and extremely fashion-conscious. In the mid-90s it was an incontrovertible fact that the 80s was the worst musical decade ever, and that Britpop was the goldenest age since 1967. In the noughties that was revised and Britpop became naff – which, of course, if your image of Britpop is a Kula Shaker appearance on TFI Friday, it was.

But I guarantee you now that in about five years time Britpop’s reputation will be revised again and it will be back in, even if you define ‘Britpop’ narrowly enough to exclude, say, Radiohead, Portishead and Underworld. The cream - Blur, Oasis, Weller Supergrass – all produced cracking albums in the period, and a compilation featuring the best efforts from Pulp, Suede, Charlatans and all the one or two-hit wonders would be at least as good – in terms of ‘objective’ musical quality - as any compilation of the lesser acts of punk, ska, electro, disco, reggae, heavy metal or whatever genre floats your boat (which genre does float your boat is, of course, subjective and largely dependent on your age).

Most of the rest is crap but most of everything is crap. Nineties revival and Noughties backlash followed by Noughties revival and Twenty-teens backlash – you read it here first so you can safely ignore it when it comes.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The guts and the balls

Mark – the second of my objectionable employers – had a repertoire of objectionable catchphrases. An idiosyncratic one was "the guts and the balls". This was used in self-aggrandising tales of encounters with rivals. In these tales Mark would invariably meet his rival at a function or exhibition, confront him with some grievance such as an accusation of plagiarism, and then the rival would lack “the guts and the balls” to admit to his guilt. Sometimes these rivals wouldn’t even have the guts and the balls to talk to Mark at all.

This catchphrase always struck me as important. Mark was verbally castrating and then disembowelling his opponents, while at the same time revealing his own insecurities about his cowardliness which, in personal matters, was notorious. His tales were, however, strangely compelling, and it was only afterwards that you questioned them.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Falls the Shadow 2: Henry’s handball

Terrific lot of fuss about Thierry Henry’s handball, wasn’t there? The interesting thing for me was the fact that he was actually able to handle it so quickly and so skilfully.

There are a thousand incidents of cheating in any football match, but there are also different categories of cheating. This is tied to the strange internal moralities of sport, but also to what we might call, until I can think of something better, a sport’s ‘frame of reference.’

If you’ve played football you’ll know that deliberate handballs are very rare. Players who will happily cheat in other ways – such as shirt-pulling or kicking a tricky little bastard’s legs away – won’t dream of handballing. This is because when playing football your whole frame of reference is based on touching the ball with any part of your body except your hand. It’s actually very difficult to commit a handball, because your instincts are trained not to. Whereas shirt-pulling and kicking legs are just natural extensions of the physical side of the game, handball goes against the very Platonic (!) ‘footballiness’ of football.

Or to put it another way, kicking someone is a hot foul – an extension of passion and aggression - whereas handballing is a cold foul, a professional one.

Perhaps this is why there was so much fuss, and why we still resent Maradona’s Hand of God incident. Had Henry or Maradona scored critical goals by cheating in more ‘normal’ ways, such as pushing a defender in the back to win the ball, we’d just let it go.

In the split second between the decision and the action falls the shadow. Henry mastered that split second for dark and dastardly purposes. This is cold and clever and uncanny - and we don’t like it.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Two objectionable employers

I have had two objectionable employers. The first was Barry, who supervised the Devon amusement arcade in which I worked for three summers to help fund my degree. Every morning, without fail, Barry would greet me by saying “What’s the matter, wet the bed?” He would make many an unpleasant little ‘joke’ of this ilk, and compounded the irritation by going “Eh? Eh?” until you acknowledged it, by which tactic he denied you the natural defence of ignoring him. Barry was not good company. Even for a Devonian man in his late 60s he was appallingly racist. He referred to all black or Asian people as ‘coons’. When I told him that I went to university in Bristol he remarked: “I used to like Bristol but it seems now that every time you turn a corner you see a black face.” I gave him no encouragement in this line but neither did I heroically speak out. I wanted my wages. One day he purchased, from God knows where, a set of repulsive Sambo-style figurines which he cheerfully placed into the 2p pusher machine as prizes and as he did so he sang a little song about “putting in the coons.”

Barry was lecherous, frequently quizzing me about whether things “were still free and easy” at universities. He leered as he did this. He was, surprisingly, married. Every couple of weeks a newsagent called, I think, Steve, would stop by the arcade and drop off a large black bin liner, sealed with gaffer tape. This was Barry’s regular delivery of pornographic magazines. He also literally stank, exuding a greasy, idiosyncratic body odour which, it took no great leap to imagine, might have been manufactured by his bad thoughts. He died of heart failure soon after my second summer at the amusement arcade and I shed no tears upon hearing the news. I’ve no idea what they said in his eulogy but I imagine it wasn’t the above.

My other objectionable employer was Mark. Mark was not as straightforwardly objectionable as Barry but he had a much bigger impact on my life. He gave me my first proper job and subsequently promoted me rapidly and frequently. I am both grateful and resentful towards him. Mark was a serial entrepreneur. He was narcissistic, generous, selfish, chippy, erratic, insecure, domineering, weak, tunnel-visioned, brilliant, thick as a brick, famous (in his field), mad, infantile and, in many important ways, a complete fraud. I have exhausted my views on Barry in two paragraphs, but I could write a whole book about Mark and someday, perhaps, I might. And then again I might not. It could be that this post is enough.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Paul Kingsnorth, calling Paul Kingsnorth

A comment on Ragbag by Peter B reminds me that the 'North, after promising to judge our crunchy eschatological competition and send the winner one of his books, has yet to make good on that promise - and almost two whole months have elapsed!

I therefore project this post into the night blogsky like the BatSignal, hoping that his trusty Google-reader will detect it and bring him swooping back here, in our hour of need, to bring us closure.

Or perhaps if you say his name three times, he will appear...

Paul Kingsnorth! Paul Kingsnorth! Paul Kingsnorth!


This expensive-looking video is Cornerstone, the latest single from the increasingly-impressive Arctic Monkeys.

A commendable little pop song, I’m sure you’ll agree. The words are a joy – clever, unpretentious, great pub names. It’s in a long and proud British tradition of low-key pop gems (think Up the Junction by Squeeze, or perhaps Waterloo Sunset or Penny Lane). This, at least, is something we can still claim for Britain.

Also, we should show this to Chris Martin, or that bloke in Snow Patrol, or all the teeming hordes of rubbish poets and advise them to stop trying to convey vague universal feelings about lights guiding you home and igniting your bones and if I lay here if I just lay here and all the rest of that tedious twaddle and just write about stuff. After all, it’s not like there isn’t enough stuff to write about, is it?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Has it come to this?

Back in the There is too much internet post, Martpol pointed us to the Wikipedia list of statistically superlative countries.

Brace yourself. Britain’s entries are as follows:

- Most books published per year (new titles), 206,000
- Best performance at Eventing World Championship (equestrian), 8 gold medals, 19 total medals
- Most Formula One Grand Prix wins, 208 by 19 drivers
- Most Formula One Grand Prix wins (constructors), 494 by 12 constructors
- Best performance at equestrian Mounted games, 22 wins
- Best performance at ITU Triathlon World Championships (men), 8 gold medals, 13 total medals

So that’s us, is it? Once it could be said that the sun never set on the British Empire. Now what have we got? A load of terrible books, a bit of horseys, the sport for people who like spreadsheets and the frigging triathlon.

Surely we can lay claim to more than that? Most ironic attitude to the Eurovision Song Contest? No, Eire have beaten us at our own game there, and we blew it last year with the Lloyd Webber fiasco. Highest proportion of middle-aged men called Keith? No, that’s probably Ireland as well. Largest number of barbecues disappointed by rain? Oh dear, we need a binge-drinking World Cup asap.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Bust, Bowl and Palette

BBC2 had a programme the other night tracking the trends in mass-market art, from Vladimir Tretchikoff through the cheeky Tennis Girl to today’s bestsellers like Sam Toft and, the current number one smash, this photo of Ullswater. The programme took an unnecessarily long time to come to the less-than-earth shattering conclusion that living room art and gallery art fulfil different functions, so while a Jack Vettriano might look vapid and naff if it were hanging in the Tate, you wouldn’t want to wake up every morning to find Francis Bacon or Lucien Freud screaming at you from the landing. It is therefore besides the point to be snobbish about these things; one might as well scoff at a pair of curtains because they’re not the Bayeux Tapestry.

The programme did get me thinking about my own art collection – an absolute mish-mash of things I like, things created by people I like, things I’ve created myself which nobody else likes, things with a sentimental value and things that I barely notice are there at all.

When at school I cut some tokens out of the newspaper and sent off for a free Picasso print – Still Life with Bust, Bowl and Palette (pictured).

I did this primarily because I thought that having it on my bedroom wall would make me look offbeat and cool. I didn’t really appreciate it as a piece of art; if anything it was a bit of a joke. When I went to university I put it in a wooden frame which I acquired by buying an extremely cheap picture of approximately the same size from a charity shop and discarding whatever piece of (probably rare and priceless) tat was in there. I displayed the picture on my wall for much the same reasons as before but gradually I came to appreciate that there was something inexpressibly pleasing about the way the shapes were put together. Then as I became more aware of Picasso I realised that, in fact, Bust Bowl and Palette was by some distance one of the least interesting and pleasing of his innumerable works. Nonetheless it was the only one I had and I felt an obscure loyalty to it. When I became a bit more solvent I invested in a proper frame and transferred the print to it. While other artworks have come and gone, Bust Bowl and Palette has adorned the walls of all of my abodes. Now, I realise when looking at the picture, any aesthetic appreciation I might once have felt for it has retreated to irrelevance; its appeal is almost entirely based on comfort and familiarity. Never, ever, til the day I die, shall I willingly get rid of Picasso’s Still Life with Bust, Bowl and Palette. And where is the picture now, you ask? Reader, it’s in the attic, waiting until we have a bigger house, because my wife doesn’t like it.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

God of the Gaps

Over here I attempted to explain to the ever-polite Rus (and, linking, I find he's still going strong) that he didn’t understand speciation because he was thinking Platonically. He wasn't 'aving it, it goes without saying, but such is life. The attempt to demonstrate the impossibility of an evolutionary leap from one species to another is, as anyone with a passing interest in the subject will know, an old device used by Intelligent Design theorists, the idea being that if you can show that nature can’t do it on its own, then Divine Intervention is required to bridge the gap. Of course, once you grasp that species are not Platonic Forms (whether defined by DNA or any other characteristic) but the names we give to populations of genetically individual creatures, the speciation ‘problem’ disappears because there isn't, in fact, a gap to bridge. A speciation event is merely anything that divides a population into reproductively isolated sub-populations. Time and differing evolutionary pressures (whether natural selection in differing environments or fluke or genetic drift or anything else) might lead to some degree of divergence between the populations and eventually we might or might not decide to call them different 'species'. Much like maddening after-dinner riddles, or those 3-D ‘magic eye’ pictures, when you can’t ‘see’ population thinking it’s impossible and you get bogged down in red herring details (in Rus's case "when the sperm meets the egg", or indeed, "hits the road", yuck), but once you can, it’s so simple and obvious it’s hard to remember what the problem was in the first place.

Peter B suggests that I do a post about why Intelligent Design doesn’t work for biology but might for physics. I'd like to oblige but the difficulty there is that while I do have a passable grasp of the rudiments of evolutionary theory, I know even less about physics than I do about parenting, so arguing the details about fine tuned universes and multiverses etc is really beyond me.

That said, I would always be very wary of any kind of Intelligent Design approach to anything. Science is one way of seeing the world, religion is another. They are different frameworks, both have their insights and internal validity. Scientists like Dawkins, as I have increasingly come to realise, stray beyond their remit when they insist that science equals hardline atheism and argue, for example, that religious approaches to questions are ‘nonsense’ or invalid. The most they should say is that they are unscientific.

The problem with ID is that it insults both religious and scientific approaches. It insults science by hijacking its language but bastardising its method. It insults religion by degrading its role to that of a loon in denial, repeatedly crying “this far and no further!” as he is pushed backwards once again. As a defence of the existence of God, ID is embarrassing: the business of accepting everything the scientific method tells you, but attempting to squeeze in whenever there is a gap. Then every time the gap is filled the result is only further humiliation and damage for the religious cause. Best give up on that particular cause, just as Dawkins should give up on his. God deserves more than the ever-shrinking gaps, and science deserves more than to be pestered by the loon. ID benefits nobody. My advice, for whatever that’s worth, is to give it a wide berth.

Monday, November 16, 2009


Tell me, is there anything more satisfying in this life than producing, from a wind-troubled infant, a resounding burp?

Tell me something else. A hint of a glimpse of a foreshadowing of a whole new world of excruciating worry manifests itself. Ian talks about this on the New Psalmanazar here. This, I thought, must be why we have multiple progeny; it’s surely not fair – on you or it - to invest all that in one child. You’ve got to spread it a bit amongst siblings. Or - and this is the kicker - does the excruciation in fact double and treble with the addition of each new sprog?

Friday, November 13, 2009

A competent but unmemorable drummer

I was a competent but unmemorable drummer. My name is by the bye (it’s Ian). I drummed, competently but unmemorably, for many of the leading blues, skiffle and jazz bands of the day.

I played snare drum and cymbal acceptably but forgettably in two of the early incarnations of Putney Dandridge’s Swingin’ Big Band. Though adequate, my percussive contribution to Bunny Berigan’s standard Chicken and Waffles left no lasting impression. Later I moved into blues, where I drummed prosaically with Bumble Bee Slim, Smokey Hogg, Peg Leg Howell and Snooky Pryor.

People often asked me who I was. “I’m the drummer”, I would say. “Oh yes, of course,” they would reply, but I could see the uncertainty in their eyes. Sometimes this would happen with people I’d met just a few minutes earlier at the concert. Sometimes they were fellow band members who’d known me for weeks or longer. Sometimes they were old friends, or family members, or my wife. I have one of those faces.

Muggsy Spanier once ordered that I be maimed or shot for insubordination, but within hours he had forgotten all about it and when he found me cowering down at the boondocks he clapped me on the back and presented me with one of his Toby Jugs. I still have it somewhere. Or I might have given it away, or lost it. It was a Friar Tuck. So sometimes being unmemorable has its uses. On the Night of the Broken Brass, Bix Beidebecker’s goons massacred every jazz musician at the Hotel Yorba but they failed to recognise me, even though I had been playing drums just moments before and indeed still had the sticks clutched in my clammy palms, crossed before my terrified person like a crucifix to ward off vampires. Two days later I was up on the stage with Bix’s band, drumming unexceptionally on Toddlin’ Blues. So being competent but unmemorable has saved my life on more than one occasion. The question that still haunts me, as I tap politely through another number to neither disapprobation nor acclaim, is this: was it worth saving?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Muggsy Spanier - the man behind the legend

Muggsy Spanier was, as we know, the cornet player’s cornet player. We also know that he was the subject of a hugely controversial concept triple-album by Black Lace which, notoriously, failed to sell a single copy and was boycotted by the Muggsy Spanier Appreciation Society because of its explicit lyrics. But what do we know about the man himself? Wikipedia gives us but a skeleton biography, and I suggest that (to better appreciate the following post) you take a moment to glance at it now.

Hardly comprehensive, is it? Allow me to put some meat on the bones.

Born in November 1906, Spanier dominated the Chicago cornet scene throughout the 1940s and was renowned – and feared – as the best cornet player in the city until Bix Beiderbecke entered the scene.

Although his real name was Francis Joseph Julian Spanier, he acquired the nickname ‘Muggsy’ either because of his youthful enthusiasm for a baseball hero ("Muggsy" McGraw); or because of his obsession with King Oliver and Louis Armstrong (he was known to have shadowed and "mugged" both of them); or because of his unusually large and protrusive right ear, the prominence of which made his face resemble a coffee mug; or because of his vast collection of mugs, cups and Toby Jugs (which, by the time of his death in 1967 numbered some 48,000); or because of his famous love of pug dogs (combined with a rare linguistic impediment which left him unable to distinguish ‘m’ and ‘p’ sounds); or because he liked to relax after a gig by strolling down to the boondocks in the early hours armed with a cosh in order to mug inebriated passers-by (he would always restore any money he took from his victims during these muggings, for just as keen anglers will often throw their catches back into the brine, so Spanier valued the sport and violence above the rewards); or because people often confused him with his identical twin brother, who was indeed christened Muggsy Spanier; or some combination of the above. Anyway, the point is that ‘Muggsy’ was a nickname.

Muggsy led several traditional/"hot" jazz bands, most notably Muggsy Spanier and His Ragtime Band (which did not, in fact, play ragtime but, rather, the "hot” jazz that would now be called Dixieland). This band set the style for all later attempts to play traditional jazz with a swing rhythm section. Its key members, apart from Muggsy, were: George Brunies - later Brunis - (trombone and vocals, though not at the same time); Rodney Cless – later Cles - (clarinet); Joe Bushkin – later Joe Buskin (piano); Ray McKinstry – later Steven Georgiou, later Cat Stevens, later Yusuf Islam (trumpet); Nick Ciazza or Bernie Billings, nobody could ever remember which (tenor sax); Bob Casey (bass); Herb Parsley (hammers, tin whistle); and Pamela Spanks (backing vocals, soup). A number of competent but unmemorable drummers worked in the band, many of whom Muggsy had shot or maimed for insubordination.

The Ragtime Band's theme tune was "Relaxin' at the Touro", named for Touro Infirmary, the New Orleans hospital where Muggsy had been treated for a perforated ulcer early in 1938. He had been at the point of death when he was saved by one Dr. Alton Ochsner who drained the fluid and eased Muggsy's weakened breathing. Ever the ingrate, immediately upon regaining consciousness Muggsy beat Dr Oschner to death with his bare fists. When later asked to justify his actions, he would only glower and mutter something about the surgeon “knowing too puch”.

Muggsy’s reign of terror continued with "A-Bellowin’ in the Boondocks”, a fairly straightforward 12-bar blues, with a neat piano introduction and coda by Joe Bushkin – later Buskin – which accounted for twelve victims within a week of its debut performance. The pianist recalled, many, many, many, many, many years later: "When I finally joined Muggsy in Chicago (having left Bunny Berigan's failing big band after a bank heist got badly ballsed-up) we met to talk it over at the Three Deuces, where Art Tatum was appearing nude. Muggsy was now playing opposite Fats Waller at the Hotel Yorba, three nights a week over fourteen rounds, no holds barred, and we worked out a kind of stage show for the two bands. Muggsy was a man of great integrity. We played a blues in C and I made up a little intro. After that I was listed as the co-composer of "A-Bellowin’ in the Boondocks”, and allowed to choose any medium-sized Toby Jug featuring a man wearing a three-cornered hat from Muggsy’s collection.” He added: "I plumped for a highwayman holding a wee porcelain pistol."

Despite the stench and the bloody mayhem, audiences continued to flock to Spanier’s concerts throughout the early 1950s. During this time Muggsy also cut numerous Dixieland recordings that still serve as favorites today. (Up All Night – Gitmo Greats, a 2007 platinum-selling compilation of twenty tracks used for sleep-deprivation torture at Guantanamo Bay included no less than nineteen Ragtime Band numbers.)

The reckoning was to come in 1958 when a young Bix Beiderbecke, a cornet player of unprecedented savagery and ambition, arrived in Chicago on, famously, the midnight train from New York, accompanied by his loyal goons and rhythm section. As large a city as Chicago was, it was not quite large enough to sustain two such aggressive cornet-led “hot jazz” ensembles. The battle was brutal and short - Bix Beiderbecke’s crew was hungry and lean and unafraid to use the weapons of the mean streets of NY, including semi-automatic firearms, honeytraps and funk. The Ragtime Band meanwhile, had grown fat and lazy on too much easy meat. Within minutes, Brunis and Cles were dead, Pamela Spanks had been pillaged, Cat Stevens had fled to the UK and Herb Parsley was hiding in the attic, where he remained for seven years composing a diary of almost unimaginable tedium, inanity and repetition.

Muggsy escaped with minor injuries, but he never fully recovered from the infamous Cornet Coup, or The Night of the Broken Brass as it failed to become to be widely known, and for years afterwards he could be spotted abroad on moonless nights: stalking the boondocks with his pugs; half-heartedly mugging amenable passers-by; cursing his luck, cursing Dr Alton Oschner who had saved his life by draining the fluid from his perforated ulcer early in 1938, cursing the “hot” jazz that would now be called Dixieland. Cursing above all the midnight train from New York that had brought Bix Beiderbecke like some ancient plague onto the city streets he had once ruled with his cornet of terror. Cursing, cursing as he hurled chipped Toby Jugs into the silent black uncaring waters of Lake Michigan.

It is not known precisely when Spanier died, only that it was in 1967, in February, on the 12th, at 10.35. But the precise second at which he died is still a matter of fierce debate, for while the traditional school of thought held that he expired at 10.35 and 42 seconds, many modern jazz historians have made the case for 44 seconds. Over the last decade a ‘synthesis’ theory putting the time at 43 seconds has generally prevailed but a new, radical hypothesis developed by a team at Brasenose College, Oxford, argues that the true time of death may have been as early as 28 seconds past the minute. Poignantly, given the stature and influence of this greatest of all cornet players, it is perfectly possible that we will never, ever know.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Television is meddling with the very nature of Time

Does anyone else feel they’re being diddled out of their rightful allocation of Time?

I refer, of course, to rubbish television programmes. Mostly these are scheduled to last an hour. On commercial channels fifteen minutes of this hour is ads, fair enough. But much more insidious is the sneaky format of virtually all reality/lifestyle/documentary-type shows, whether its Four Nasty Buggers Cook Food and Bitch, or Pissed-Up Brit Yobs A-Pukin’ in Marbella, or even more upmarket fare such as S’ralan’s Apprentice or Gordon Ramsay Shouts at Fools.

The sneakiness, I’m sure you’ve noticed, is the business of starting the programme with a little highlights-package preview of what’s going to happen, then showing it happening, then ending with a highlights-package round-up of what happened.

Increasingly the more proletarian channels such as Living, Living +1, Just About Conscious and Cor Blimey! are taking this approach to dizzying, wheel-within-wheel levels of complexity: a preview of it happening, immediately it happens, then a preview of what will happen after the ads, then after the ads a reminder of what happened before the preview before the ads, then a preview of what will happen now, then it happening, then a talking head talking about how it felt when it happened, then a clip of it happening again, then another, different talking head telling you that it happened and adding “Oh my God”, then a round-up, repeat, ads, repeat, then a preview of what will happen next week, the end. After a while it is impossible to tell what is ‘really’ happening, and what is just a precursor, or a reminder, or a commentary on a precursor of a reminder.

The worst example I’ve ever encountered was a show featuring anti-sex campaigner and Brizzle boy Justin Lee Collins, in which he tried his hand at diving off the top board at the swimming pool. I assure you I only watched this feebly-conceived entertainment because the climactic top-board jumping competition took place at Kingswood Leisure Centre, formerly run by the Local Character, my nearest pool and perhaps the least glamorous location in the UK. The programme lasted an hour but, by the end, I calculated that if you removed the many previews, reminders and direct-to-camera wafflings, we saw approximately six and a half minutes of actual action. And what we did see was pretty darn thin. All of which puts me in mind of the old joke told by Woody Allen at the start of Annie Hall about the two women in the restaurant: "Boy, the food at this place is really terrible." "Yeah, I know; and such small portions."

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


I hope this isn’t too late to be entered into the Appleyard/Alsop architectural competition.

Inspired by Gaw’s account of the ossuary of Hythe Church, and mindful of the requirement that the building be ‘multi-purpose’, I noticed a gap in the market for some sort of mausoleum which also offers high-quality dining featuring locally-sourced organic produce. After intensive focus-grouping, I rejected both CharnelHouseSnackz and reliquary/BAR as brands in favour of the more direct 'Gastro-Ossuary' (pictured below).

90% of the seats in the Café-Bar (1) offer unrestricted views of the Ossuary (2), allowing diners (or, indeed, casual drinkers) to reflect on their mortality and corporeality as they sample the seasonal menu. The slaughterhouse (3) is situated upstairs and accessed via a central staircase (or lift for the disabled); or by the pig steps (5) from the organic free-range farm (4). The ‘Noseybonk’ crèche and play area (6) is separated from the slaughterhouse by the Hub (7), a vast black prohibitively-expensive marble oblong, which acts as a central focus-point for the whole building. The attic (8) can be used for storage or converted into two reasonable-sized double bedrooms.

Nine bowls of soup

In fact, that Heinz Tomato Soup - the finest of all tomatoey manifestations (and I am prepared to support that assertion with graphs, surveys and, if necessary, a surprising amount of physical violence) - is not even mentioned at the Guernsey Tomato Museum is indicative of the paucity of that attraction.

I suspected that the meh list would cause a stir, and hesitated a moment before including "most soups" in it, knowing full well that there was likely to be some sort of fallout. But I stand by it. I trust neither soup nor soup lovers. For one example, the failure of the ichthyosaur to mention exactly kind(s) of soup are contained in his nine bowls is just one of the loose ends which suggest that the official 'explanation' at the end of the following documentary is nothing more than a smokescreen for a much deeper and more sinister conspiracy. Judge for yourselves, please:

Monday, November 09, 2009

So, fireworks

... a bit 'meh' these days, no? Overexposure I expect. Even at the most extravagant display, five minutes is enough, isn't it?

I mean, I know lots of other things are a bit meh, such as A Question of Sport, Starbucks, religion vs atheism, most soups, the M6, jugglers, The X Factor, misconceived critiques of The X Factor, tennis, interest rates on savings, meerkats, the Government, poetry, ready-salted crisps, golf shoes, Esperanto, buying stuff, American Exceptionalism, ten-pin bowling, clothes from Next, movie car chases, lists of disparate things, documentaries about sharks, the last few series of Shameless, jogging, sandals, Leicester, brown rice, The Godfather Part III, apricot yoghurt, Punch and Judy, anything starting with the prefix 'Euro', lane swimming, DH Lawrence, gravel, Tuesdays, the eight times table, eating fish in restaurants, The Silmarillion, sweetcorn, Scotland and, in hindsight, the musical legacy of Michael Jackson, but fireworks seemed the most topical this weekend.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Everyone sang

It's always worth reading this, at least once a year anyway.

Friday, November 06, 2009

The Rolling Hill

So the next day, a Friday, braced and full of beans after Thursday’s thrilling blackberry-scrumping adventure in which I had unequivocally stuck it to The Man, I took a northward lane up the hill towards Lansdown.

By and by I happened upon the gate depicted below. I leaned there and gazed out across the valley.

The above picture deceives by flattening the hill. In reality, the gradient is fairly steep and – in a flash it struck me – eminently rollable. There was, I realised, absolutely nothing save societal convention, the fear of being observed and the odd cowpat to prevent me from leaping over the gate and tumbling, like a giddy child, down the grassy slope.

Once again I was faced with a test of my sense of adventure, of my capacity for devil-may-care spontaneity, perhaps even of my very manhood. I had passed the blackberry exam with flying colours, but would my determination to be master of my own destiny allow me to take this further, still more daring step?

I took a deep breath, and – do you know what I did? I thought ‘nah’, turned and walked down the lane, back to the office: a slinking failure, a simpering poltroon, a hollow man, a wretch.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

The Warning Berry

This is a tale of thrilling recklessness. Last Thursday my lunchtime stroll took me, almost against my will, along lanes eastwards, eastwards, past the llama farm, down hill and up. In this direction lie the best blackberry bushes, though the season is on its knees and few edible specimens remain, just the odd over-soggy bloater or, saddest of all, the shrivelled black geriatrics, spent on the bramble, ripened and rotted without ever gracing so much as a crumble.

After a while the lane is abruptly interrupted by a locked gate (pictured below), which signals that hereafter it is a private road, and walkers may take themselves down a steep footpath to the right if they wish, or else turn back, or else go hang.

Sometimes I like to lean against this gate and ruminate, and I was doing exactly this when I noticed that just beyond it, in the private forbidden land, was a bramble adorned with the finest, juiciest-looking blackberries you could hope to see, certainly this late in the year. What a terrible waste it would be, I thought, if they were to shrivel unpicked and unappreciated. And all I needed to do to save them from this fate would be to jump over the gate and pick them.

So there I was, weighing up the ethics and analysing the cost-benefit ratio of a three-foot trespass, when out of the corner of my eye I spotted something unsettling. Balanced on top of the gate was a very big, fat, dead blackberry. (If you click the pic to full size you can probably make it out, about halfway between the right edge of the sign and the end of the gate). The sight sent a chill down my spine. Obviously it has been put there deliberately, but to what end or purpose?

I could only think that it was a Warning Berry, fulfilling much the same function vis-à-vis would-be blackberry-scrumpers, as did severed heads on stakes for potential invaders of ancient citadels.

This, clearly, was a test of my sense of adventure, of my capacity for derring-do, perhaps even of my very manhood.

It was too much to bear, it had to be done. I looked quickly about, girded my loins and, as if in a dream, I clambered over the fence, snaffled three of the choicest fruits, reclambered, and marched westward, westward, home to the safety of the office, with pounding heart and Judas Priest’s Breaking the Law on my lips.

But how were the stolen blackberries, you ask? Reader, they were above average.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

The Guernsey Tomato Museum

By some distance the least impressive museum I have ever visited is the Tomato Museum on the island of Guernsey (mind you I haven’t yet been to Barometer World in Okehampton but some day, just you mark my words, I will).

I think I was about fourteen when we went, so you can imagine the impression a tomato-based attraction would have made on my adolescent mind. That’s right, none whatsoever. I don’t even like tomatoes. Nonetheless I found myself unaccountably reminded of it yesterday, as dusk settled sadly on Bristol’s GMT-darkened commute.

How to describe? I could mention the feebleness of the displays, the battered, uninformative signs purporting to enlighten the public on the practicalities of tomato-growing, the general dirt, the ill-kept greenhouses. The inadequate refreshment area. The toilets. The random additional attractions, including a plastic Wendy House shaped like a big shoe and a ragged huddle of obsolete arcade machines.

But merely listing these things cannot capture the feel of the place. So try to imagine, if you will, that you are a bright tomato-red balloon blown up for a jolly party, but the party is over, the marquee is packed away, the empty bottles are stacked and reeking, and you have been left to wrinkle and deflate in the rubble-strewn car park. And it’s raining, and there will be no more parties ever again. That is the Guernsey Tomato Museum.

When Brit Jnr is a bit older I will of course take her to fun places such as Alton Towers and Disneyland and whatnot, but I think I should also insist on a visit to the Guernsey Tomato Museum, if it still exists.

“Life isn’t just Disneyland and Alton Towers”, I will tell her. “Look around you, Brit Jnr. Look around you and absorb this and think on it. This too is real. This too is life.”

“Can I have a pound for the machines?” she will say.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Is Gyles Brandreth nothing more than a dandified Pecksniff?

Did anyone else read Robert Harris giving Gyles Brandreth an absolute kicking in The Sunday Times, and think, Woah, steady on, Bob. What’s Gyles ever done to you? This is like punching Paddington Bear, or strangling Sooty. Surely there are more worthy candidates for a coldblooded character assassination than this harmless old hack, whose sole and modest ambition in life has been to give people who like doilies and macaroons a gentle chuckle?

The harshest you could say of Brandreth, surely, is that he is a bit of a name-dropping old ham. Perhaps a soporific milksop. You might even call him a namby-pamby flimflammer or a flummering fop, but surely no reasonable person would want to go so far as to suggest that he was a preening pansy or a simpering poltroon?

And yet in his review Harris calls Brandreth ‘tedious’ and ‘a creep’ and furthermore implies that the Countdown stalwart is a canting prig, a humbugging punchinello, a coxcomical poetaster and even a pontificating soi-disant.

This all strikes me as being a somewhat over-egged evisceration of a man who is, at the very worst, a waffling old creampuff.


Meanwhile, in a rather kinder review of Gyles’s diaries, Camilla Long extracts a typical anecdote in which Brandreth lunches with the Great Blogger himself, and which ends with the immortal line:

“I am never early. I am never late. I am Jeffrey Archer.”

Jeffrey Archer – now there’s a real c***.


This occurred to me just over 12 weeks ago, and has re-occurred faintly since.

For those of you with offspring, when you found yourself in the dizzy environment of the delivery suite for the first time, did you get the unsettling feeling that all other activities and careers going on in the outside world, including yours, were trivial, even a bit silly, and that midwives and other related medicos and birth-mongers are the only people on the planet with real jobs?

Monday, November 02, 2009

On hating the only thing you’re good at

A nice piece in the Guardian here about the fact that Andre Agassi hated tennis.

It appeals to me, the somewhat tragic aspect of the sportsman who hates the only thing he can do. Other examples that spring to mind are Stan Collymore (football) and Chris Eubank (who used to regularly profess his loathing of boxing, but as with so much about the man, it was hard to tell to what extent this was a pose).

A much better example is Ronnie O’Sullivan, by some distance the most gifted snooker player ever. Some people actively dislike the man, but I think it’s a failure of empathy to damn O’Sullivan’s various brainstorms and mood-swings and lashings-out. He is a man in a very strange situation: he hates snooker. He is visibly bored and irritated by the prospect of having to poke all those frigging balls into the poxy little pockets over and over again. But he can’t do anything else and all of his peers envy his outrageous talent. And always the mediocrities, the keen tryers, the sad-acts who go on to make a living talking about this most trivial of pastimes, are endlessly nagging, nagging at him to knuckle down and be a ‘professional’.

But professionals are in many ways the bane of sport, the stodge. O’Sullivan is the only snookerist worth watching. That’s why, as well as being the most disliked player, he’s also the most popular.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Friday, October 30, 2009


The Arnolfini art gallery, of which I have been but am not currently a patron (despite its excellent bar), emails me with news of an exciting event in its season C Words: Carbon, Climate, Capital, Culture:

The Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at Home - two adults and three children - proposes a holiday for autumn half-term. …Accompanied by eco-Au Pair Branka Cvjeticanin, they will set up an interim activist cell in Bristol with guest dissenters and visitors to take action against carbon, climate chaos and capitalism.

This leaves us with an interesting philosophical and/or semantic question: if every single artist and the government and most of the mainstream media agrees with you about carbon and climate change, can you justifiably describe yourself as a 'dissenter'?

Jane Elliott’s Hammer

Do you remember Jane Elliott? She was that terrifying teacher who divided her all-white class into blue-eyed and brown-eyed children to illustrate what it was like to be on the receiving end of racial discrimination. It was powerful stuff, almost unwatchable.

That famous progamme was made in Iowa in 1968. Amazingly, Elliott is still doing exactly the same thing forty years later. Last night Channel 4 featured her performing the exercise on a group of multi-ethnic British adults. Did it work in the modern context? No, it did not work, not at all. In an all-white class of Iowan schoolchildren, the eye colour divide would have been arbitrary; here it effectively put the whites (blue-eyed) in the oppressed role and the rest (brown-eyed) in the oppressor role, which made it look like some sort of revenge fantasy. And indeed it became clear that Elliott thinks that all whites are inherently racist, conditioned to feel superior from “even before they’re born”, and the purpose of the exercise was to make them see this and feel bad about it.

Time has not mellowed Elliott, it has made her madder (in both senses). The President of the United States is mixed race, but she doesn’t seem to think that the world has changed since Martin Luther King was murdered, or indeed, that there is such a thing as ‘mixed race’. She believes in reinforcing distinct racial categories: the pure whites and the rest. One chap in the brown-eyed group – himself mixed race - spoke about his concerns for his daughter (one-quarter black) if her schoolfriends found out about her ‘blackness’. Elliott made no comment about this, or whether the three-quarter white girl in question had been three-quarters conditioned to feel superior from even before she was born. Elliott’s vision of a post-racist world is one where the ‘whites’ are sufficiently racked with guilt and self-loathing that they’re basically too knackered to discriminate, rather than one where nobody gives a toss one way or the other about race because it has become unimportant as an identifier.

It was a sad thing to see. Elliott had one Big Idea in her life, which at the time was brave, brilliant and made her famous. She misunderstood her own Idea, and forty years later it has become a Very Bad Idea. But she’s still hammering away at it, hammering in the morning and in the evening and all over this land.

Talking of which, and on an otherwise completely unrelated note, read this humdinger of a Hoot.