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.