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December 12, 2013

Billy Bragg gas been and gone… 12-12-13


It’s now a couple of weeks since we saw Billy Bragg in Birmingham, which is more about my sense of urgency than any implied lukewarm response.
And… it’s Billy Bragg. Is there anything left to write about Billy Bragg? There isn’t. And Billy Bragg is the world champion at explaining what Billy Bragg’s about.
His audience has aged with him. One bit of tuning-up patter vis.his new grey beard is a tale of the decisions involved in embarking on facial hair as a permanent day-to-day feature and its virtues as a recognition of Older Manhood. This is me, ladies and gentlemen, and this is My Beard. There was ripple of recognition amongst the male audience, not so much laughter as a general murmur of “Yeah… what he said…”. In the auditorium the motion was carried.
A recent tour of The States has found its way into the band – his pedal-steel player C J Hillman’s really got the ol’ steel-player’s craftsman’s bug though he looks eerily like the Peter Tork in a Monkees tribute band, with his untucked stonewashed denim shirt.
Billy did a Grumpy Old Bloke hrrumph! at some article saying that Bragg had ‘gone country’. I couldn’t see the problem. Country has always been the Working Man’s 1001 Nights, the wired-up chamber-music for the weekend hop.
…This is now December 12th and the only reason to return to this draft is that I’d hoped to pick up motivation for writing but have revised the plan to the more modest: finish this before it becomes another of those unfinished bits the litter the Blog Drafts folder.
So in summary: it was a Bragg gig, part Music Hall, part revivalist Mission-tent, part Union rally – a lot to enjoy; a seasoned performer comfortable with large crowds; an audience that doesn’t pin him down to a catalogue of Greatest Hits.
It may not be part of a balanced appraisal but somewhere in the back of my mind I was reminded of Nigel Tufnell in Spinal Tap musing about The Tap’s Mission to keep the band on the road, the audiences turning up to Preserve The Moose, keeping the endangered species of Hard Rock alive despite cultural climate-change.
Herself had been looking forward to the gig for ages and had there been a BB Advent calendar she’d have marked the approaching day. She knows all the words and welcomed the opportunity to get to her feet, chant them and prod the Purposeful Finger in the air for the choruses.
Support for the evening was Kim Churchill, who apparently blagged a lift in the Bragg tour bus and ended up on the tour as a protegé. From an open-tuned guitar, harmonica and bass-drum, through an array of FX pedals, he whips up a sonic storm in which his voice is a trebly keen. I took the opportunity to use The Gents – prudence rather than criticism – and found the mix fed into the rest-room relay actually better-balanced and easier to listen to than the howl in the auditorium.
Well, good luck to Kim. He has youth and energy on his side and some very convincing affirmation in performing with Big Names. There were moments when I was reminded of John Martyn in his prime on stage with an Echoplex and Danny Thompson on bass, launching into extended slaloms through I’d Rather Be The Devil or Glistening Glyndebourne.


November 19, 2013

18-11-13 Give It Some Awe.

18-11-13 / Give it some awe…

Saturday night Chez Higgins and we’re finally getting down to plates of mint-peas and two hefty baked potatoes and the start of The X-Factor. We’re at that stage in the series where my weekly doses of astonishment in the auditions phase shelves away once it becomes a steeplechase, The Market Penetration Stakes.
I was in the end quite glad that my retreat to an hour or so messing about in Photoshop was delayed long enough to see – witness, if truth be known – a live performance by Miley Cyrus, a chanteuse with whom I’m unfamiliar but whose name translated into the proclamatory dialect of the X Factor people is a full-throated Maaai-la-a-ay CY-raaaasssss! I stifle a reflex to answer A-haaa!
It was a live appearance, live, but not quite yet. First, a rapid-cut montage of vids from Ms. Cyrus’ ouevre. She poses and throws shapes; a glamour-puss not scared to wear the most darling designer-kitsch novelty sunglasses and stick out her tongue; at some point it appears that she was at least in the presidency race, giving it some noble profile against the Stars And Stripes billowing in the backdrop. She is briefly caught in an outfit of dark feathers – not burlesque but a pretty good realisation of one of Max Ernst’s bird-women.
Who could remain un-piqued by this array of personalities portrayed by this versatile musical dramatist? And in case there was any doubt – as if! – 00:17 into the info-bomb blast a graphic executes a perfect parking manoeuvre and Thhe VOI-usss! Helpfully reads it to us, “Number 1 in 70 countries!”.
More Mylie, at a Teddy Bears’ Picnic; in her dungarees and cap, down, I shouldn’t wonder, with her crew.
At around 00:24, they’re back, “Over 30 million albums sold worldwide!”
00:35: “1 Billion video hits!” You will have to imagine the weight of incredulity The Voice can pack behind that plosive in “B – illion!”
00:43 – The Pop Princess
00:45 – The World’s Talking About
…and… studio cameras… tableau vivant please.

I might a couple of weeks ago have written up a very brief chance meeting at a Camden snackerie. I’ll return to the MC performance but it has a place here.
I am happy to be parked in baggage reclaim for the duration of Jo’s tactical reconnaissance missions to target Ladies Footwear. So we find a café and I settle and glance up and get a shock of ‘I know you from somewhere’ at the face across the table. I thought I might as well say so and… was I wrong in thinking he was a music journalist?
Turns out it’s Jon Robb. Tuh! That Oor Wullie-inspired trademark mohican crest. Jon Robb! Come on, catch up. Robb was one of that new wave of rock writers who could hardly remember the wholemeal goodness of pop music before the purging fire of punk and who inhabited the new musical landscape and its network of venues as a native.
So we talked about a shared sense of relief that John Cooper-Clarke has had an injection into his pension-fund by lending his voice to a McCains Oven Chips TV ad; Jon’s current band and Wreckless Eric’s two-chord wonder “Whole Wide World”; that quaint old time culture of the public voting in popularity contests by buying vinyl discs. Can you feel close to a downloaded file?
Then Jo returned triumphant and we said well see ya to Jon and I had to explain all of the above. Wrote for ZigZag! (Uh, ZigZag…? Oh never mind.) Brought up in Blackpool – where did I keep that dusty bookmark for thirty years? Wrote for Sounds at about the same time I was drawing for Punch, next floor up in the same building.

Anyway, more from him at:-

We now know that Mylie Cyrus is a success d’estime by several statistical measures. No mention of her pension-fund, which must be eye-wateringly substantial. That would get my attention.
She is discovered, a gold-sheathed turbanned odalisque, live, atop a mountain, with a hi-res back-projected close-up of flakey paint on crumbling plaster, which is very… I’m sure this word cropped up in the creative team’s conceptual synergy group-work… real.
Apparently beset with the weighty portent of the lyric she is prepared to proclaim, she can hardly sing, and spends the opening moments beckoning to someone off-camera to bring her a quick hit of Himalayan Organic Chamomile essence. With an expression more of disappointment than anger she swallows hard and rises above.
As the camera pulls back, my heart rises as the mountain is revealed, clearly modelled on the background art of Chuck Jones’ Road Runner cartoons, so there’s also an outside chance of a live appearance by a CGI’d Wile E. Coyote.
She begins her descent from the mountain-top, using the ramps provided behind the pantomime screen. To everyone’s relief she gets to the shouty bit and the back-projections echo her wrath, so mighty that cities crumble to the plain, solid brickwork explodes into dust, all in fast-cut squazz-filtered stock footage (“footage” – a curious survivor from the film-age, especially as a loose measure of time).
Man, when this Royal Mite opens up the pipes to unleash the big vowels of Wre-e-e-e-ckin’ Ba-a-a-a-awl! she could rival my mate Kenneth’s Mum calling from their garden in the next street that his tea was on the table and she wasn’t going to tell him again.
As she bends to deliver the vocal she clutches at her frock – wearing it and walking down a ramp were evidently not a feature of rehearsals – expressing through the medium of mime a sensation that she’s so worked up she may be in danger of doing a bit of wee. We can all relate to that.
By the time the camera has retreated to take in the full stage, the set appears to be a biggish box, about the size of a mobile fast-food caravan.
Job done, she adopts a fragile expression in the face of a thundering tsunami of ecstatic rapture. She’d put the effort in.

OK, right, so… On one hand a chance encounter with someone I sort-of recognised who it turns out I also rather admire as a writer. A human face to attach to The Work. A bit of a chat, conversational ping-pong. Just about enough to make an anecdote.
On the other, Pop Princess Miley Cyrus, live, and by no means understated, leaves me feeling “Should I know you from somewhere?”


July 9, 2013

6-7-13 Down The Hall

Sometimes some snatch of some long-forgotten song echoes down the corridor of your memory just to hang out and recall some scene you were once part of; it doesn’t get in the way or interrupt whatever you’re doing, you just think, “Oh yep, I remember that, there and them…”
This sensation is commonplace. Frank Zappa called records ‘electronic folk-music’, though the music stored in corners of our own folk-memory feels unique even when it’s the soundtrack to crowd-scenes.
Example: I had a little epiphany one night driving home from the Red Star package depot – early hours of the morning, deadline grit under my eyelids, the road dipping through Birmingham’s underpasses; a relatively short journey that always felt like that long scene in Tarkovski’s ‘Solaris’.
I’d flicked the radio to BBC3, hoping for something calming, hoping to avoid cheery DJ banter, poptastic selections, country music or the kind of easy-listening orchestrations of chart hits that peppered the dead hours to honour contractual agreements with the Musicians’ Union… and I should say: good luck to them, skilled musicians all, but blimey, I wished they’d take that opportunity to rip it up a bit.
As I emerged on the roller-coaster on Great Charles St. before plunging into the next tunnel, I realised that I was watching the passing rectilinear concrete architecture to the sound of a string quartet. Until that moment I’d always thought that The Quartet was the preserve of purists, a form of musical equation in which the initial statements were investigated and passed around. Scholars didn’t so much listen to them as give credit for the working-out.
I couldn’t even say what particular piece or players I was listening to. In my frazzled home-run for bed and oblivion. On empty urban roads, my mind was wide open to this perfectly ordered exercise in logical closure. Me, completely unqualified, listening to a string quartet and enjoying it! I felt like I’d sneaked into a room where adults were gathered.
I struck lucky when I went out the next day looking for cassettes of quartets to try out. In the local WHSmith I found, of all things, Janacek’s two quartets – angular, edgy pieces, and a bit thrilling with my new ears on. Fate was obviously on my side because a couple of days later in town I picked up a tape with Ravel on on side, Debussy on the other. Again I felt like I was listening to a musical trapeze act – nowhere to hide in a quartet. A couple of bars into the second movement of the Ravel I was in some kind of Monet dream – the light in there!
I listen to quartets now and on one hand it’s the closest I get to a crossword audio-book [The Amadeus Quartet play: “After school, her spell at the menagerie is cut short(7)”], on the other I’m on the road emerging from a deserted night-time underpass off the Aston Expressway
From the sublime to an undulating bass-line that always catches me out when it occurs to me, every damn time. It’s only when I reach the top of its roller-coaster that I remember it’s there to deliver me into the execrable “Up-Town Girl” by Billy Joel. Happily I’ve found that if I can punch to Pause button and switch to Joe Jackson’s ‘Steppin’ Out’ the spud-faced suburban romantic with the knack for a phrase and and memorable riff reliably rescues me from the good-time schlockwave.
Back in ’77 – the 20th century, I have to remind myself – I had a desk in Royds Advertising’s studio, Room 23, in an atmosphere of cigarette smoke and solvents and the peppy pump of BRMB’s news, weather, traffic updates and Pop Classics, Chart Toppers and after this break: New Releases.
The studio’s business rep and turboschmoozer Peter favoured louche suits, raffish ties and shoulder-length blond hair artfully borderline dishevelled. Geoff the studio wrangler arrived on his Moto Guzzi and used an aluminium flight-case for a briefcase. His biker’s luxuriant Vive Zapata! moustache was a tribal thing. At home in Cheltenham he painted abstract landscapes, fascinated, he said, by the classic English Country House regard for symmetries.
The two of them could have been the final casting-choice for a UK remake of Easy Rider. I’d have liked to have stuffed them with peyote and send them off on Geoff’s bike on a journey to find out whether in their Dharma Bum personae Peter’s inner Pirate would put aarr’s on his urbane “Ah!” and whether John Betjeman would step out of Geoff’s feral dreams.
Anyway, the production masterstroke in Down The Hall is that piping riff. Lower the gangplank; nostalgia is coming aboard. As so often with pop tunes, the words are less important than the feel. The lyric is a 3-minute folk-tale.
You were expecting exegesis? Nope, this is just how these soundtracks to our days work. I found the track on YouTube, played it a couple of times as you do, gave those old memories a bit of an airing and then you move on.


July 3, 2013

3-7-13 We’re here to help

We’re here to help – 3-7-13


Communication is when we interact with others. Communication is when we share information with others, both giving and receiving information.”

I’ve just finished a Level 2 Counselling course with Birmingham Adult Education Services. The helpful guidance above gives you a fair idea of the expectations of Level 2 students; the inclusion of this definition as a header for the worksheet on Forms Of Communication constitutes a pretty clear communication in itself.

It may be apparent already that I wasn’t swept away with the demands of Level 2, especially after a visiting Senior Lecturer popped in to assess our progress and delivered the judgement that the collective work was of a ‘high standard’ (meaning…? In the absence of any elaboration this was a pat on the head, in the cow-pasture sense) but that we needn’t answer at too high a level. Here he helpfully illustrated the quality of the superfluous high-level: apparently at about forehead-height – compared to the required standard: somewhere around trouser-pocket height.

To illustrate just how simple it was to achieve accreditation at this level, he suggested that to answer Criterion 1.1.3 – “Identify own motivation for helping others” – it wasn’t necessary ‘to analyse it with reference to world religions’ (?… one of the group was certainly affiliated to a religion; was this a ‘tactful’ reference to her homework?; did she identify a vocational calling or duty? Problem?). The sample answer suggested was: ‘I like to help people’. So you can expect a credit for ‘My motivation for helping others is that I like to help people.’

Oh, and although the word ‘Counsellor’ appeared on some of the worksheets, we should amend this to ‘Helper’ or ‘Practitioner’. ‘Counselling’ should now appear as ‘Helping Skills’. I did try to point out that for our purposes the roles of Client and Counsellor in these theoretical homework submissions were a simple clear shorthand but the trouser-pocket answer seemed to be that some committee had at some point decided that this is how we do things round these parts, stranger.

This was the evening, about three-quarters of the way through the course, where he also announced that anyone proposing to move on to Level 3 would have to find 700-odd quid in comparison to the 200-odd for the Level 2. Shrug. Sorry ’bout that. Bye now…

One of the aspects of the course was the opportunity to observe highly-qualified skilled communicators at work.


Last time I approached my blogspace with trepidation, expecting to have to sluice out huge heaps of random responses accumulated in my absence. Akhismet however saved the day – thank you, people – so that there were few enough to read with only that vertiginous spamoramic sensation of the language in freefall. Needless to say, the reviews are breathless with admiration…

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Yeah, take that, Google! I’ve upped my profile, so up yours! I didn’t actually manage to get over to talk with the website because it looked as if it was stuffed full of dodgy medication and I have enough trouble managing my own.

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Pshaw! Flatterer. Cherie, I’ve barely scratched the surface of all significant infos. Obviously my life’s work is to leave no questions unanswered and yes, I’ve made significant inroads into dispelling those troublesome universal anxieties, but – see above – my lucidity only piques the appetite for more!

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I know, I know. I’m all agog to find out what I shall wrint about next. Have no fear, with attentive correspondents such as this I would feel I was neglecting a public responsibility if I were not soon bent over my keyboard wrinting like billy-oh.


June 28, 2013

Here again… 28-6-13

You’re wondering why this opening shot has me framed in profile, peering at the monitor. Here in close-up, the reflection of the screen in my reading glasses barely hints at the time it took the camera and lighting technician to capture this hem-hem iconic image of the writer at his work.
If you’ve ever watched me at the writing, you’ll know that I never look as real writers do, at the emerging paragraphs scrolling up the screen because I’m a slow two-fingered typer – I can’t even dignify this with the description typ-ist – with a bad memory for where the J-key is, for example. Even with full-beam concentration on the keys I still end up with those little red underlines that caution me against overco9nfidence [see? Like that].
I’ve recently come to the end of a low-level Counselling course where my written assignments would have been littered with references to ‘copunselling’ had it not been for my helpful, tetchy spellchecker. Given the range of misunderstandings that can pop up in counselling scenarios, co-punselling began to look like a useful coinage.
OK, where was I? Ah yes, in chiaroscuro, concentrating on the monitor and yes your ears do not deceive you, the soundtrack is a very discreet electronic drone from the music library. You will have gathered that I’m not simply sitting here hoping that words with a J in them don’t crop up too often; that the doc. in question isn’t a shopping-list or one of the many replies to correspondence I’ve put off because it would seem rude not to answer until I had time to do it with proper thought. No – here it comes – I’m not merely typing with comical sloth, I’m… Going On A Journey.
Oh yus, that’s what we do now. There was a time when we could make do with considering, or investigating. Now we go on journeys. If you’re lucky enough to have been given a production budget you may even have the chance to do a real journey [cue shot of same profile gazing thoughtfully out of the window of relevant transport while the script hints at deeper currents of apprehension].
I’m going on a nostalgic journey to visit my blog. One of the early discoveries when I first made that experiment in digital graffiti was that where there’s a blog there is spam: great mounds of enthusiastic non-specific robotised responses to my learned and influential pensées.

“This post is genuinely a fastidious one it helps new internet people, who are wishing for blogging.”

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And needless to say, fastidious it is that I too reciprocate such grateful mentioning of my superb subject area. Hello, the eager millions!
I’ve left the field fallow for so long now that I anticipate long hours with my Augean Stable-o-mat pressure-hose clearing the accumulated dross when I revisit the ol’ domain on my – remember? – Journey.
Ah yes… the ‘hope to find’ paragraph. I’m hoping to find… don’t know really… expecting to find the old on-line allotment overgrown with verbiage.
Join me now as I, duh, stop procrastinating and go to find out what’s been happening in the target-zone while I was away doing Real Life.


March 11, 2012

Earlie Musickelele

11-3-12 Earlie Musickelele

We were delighted to entertain Prof. Reed last week, the ukuluthier responsible for the better ukuleles in our collection. We’ve always brought them home from his Suffolk workshop with the promise that he has open-ended visiting rights to his creations and finally we’ve made good on the deal.
One advantage of the arrangement is that you get a chance to hear the instruments played well and how different they sound from the audience-side. It’s surprising how much you can’t hear from the playing-side.
Prof. Reed’s repertoire of jaunty vintage risqué songs, saucy in the seaside postcard sense, is dotted with tricky triple-strums and melody runs for added comic value. It’s difficult to convey how this works but these music hall bon-bons gain comic momentum from a clockwork train-on-the track tempo and these carefully placed flourishes to highlight the lyrical double-entendres (given their vintage, these are often discreet entendre-et-demis) and give you a moment to appreciate them.
I haven’t so far discovered any research papers on the neuro-psychological precursors of comic effect (possibly more correctly ‘affects’) engendered by torrents of rhyming syllables – is it possible to compose comic blank verse? There definitely seems to be a metronomic correlate to the optimum humorous effect. Taking time to insert musical punctuation is less intrusive than the snare-drum and cymbal ‘trrrr- tash!’, maybe closer to a subliminal flash of the Variety comic’s ‘no, give over, missus, what are you like?’.
Naturally I went in search of early examples and discovered that one of the very earliest, played at Court upon the lutekinelle, or in the Courtlie Parlance of the time the ‘bien-jolie’, uccurs in Chaucer’s The Pane-Fettler’s Tale. Sadly the tablature no longer survives, though we may surmise from the preface to the troubadour’s baudie-lay that the inclusion of a customary benison was an early convention  – ‘with many a gladsome beck and nod he pluck’d his plaisantrie/ and saith to all the companye/ ‘Lo, Providence hath cast her fairest face upon us once again.’
Though this fragmentary example appears inconsistent with the Pane-Fettler’s canon text, there is evidence to suggest that it may originally have occurred as a lullay in The Miller’s Tale.

Nellie ye Oliphaunt packéd her traunche
Bade th’circus adieu to thee
Thence did she sallie with triumph of trumphs
Trumph, ‘non a trumph: trumphets three

The Thane of all Oliphaunts fanfarana’d
Manie a good league away
Then made they a tryst neath the Moones glist
En pilgrimage to Mandalay

Nellie, she-Oliphaunt, curtsied ful well
And to Hindoostan traundléd she
Thence did she sallie with triumph of trumphs
Trumph, ‘non a trumph: trumphets three.


For a more complete version of this family of traditional tales concerning the Elephant’s reputation for superior intelligence, see:-


February 25, 2012

25-2-12 T’ain’t No Sin

How many times have I set up an empty page, thinking it’s about time I wrote something, looked at said blank page, paused over the keys and thought better of it, collapsed it and wandered off to play an instrument or hoover the East Wing? The question isn’t really why I don’t write but why I do. In the gaps there’s no clamour for more and rightly so.

25-2-12. That short paragraph was written on November 2nd last year. Nothing much changes. I hear that I’m surrounded by lives so crowded by incident that Facebook statuses demand to be updated daily; the airwaves are filled with a crossfire of tweets – what observation can be so pressing that it must be shared from a cinema seat mid-movie?; speakers appear on radio programmes on the strength of their blogging activity. How I envy these lives of daily significance.

We spent a couple of days at the end of the half-term break in Suffolk with The Reeds, two well-stocked minds under one roof, whose hospitality amounts to a form of therapy. They are in the original sense restaurateurs (my pedant-pinger dings when I hear the added ‘n’, albeit on the not unreasonable ground that the term is applied to proprietors of restaurants); our spirits are restored and the wonky wheels of the daily round are rebalanced and the tyre-pressure adjusted to recommended levels. We head off towards the A14 at the end of our visits with a mixture of cheeriness and regret, with the feeling that left to choice a kind of tranquil inertia would set in.  I think even their house-cats became better-educated than the average felid by osmosis.
We came home with a new Reed hand-built ukulele and the chords for a long-term favourite song, ‘T’aint No Sin’ (Walter Donaldson), which I first heard in my teens, on a Saturday afternoon Radio One programme of new recordings, a must-listen slot whose name now eludes me. I do remember that it was a track on an EP (for younger readers: ‘Extended Play’ – a 7” vinyl disc with three or four tracks) by The Pigsty Hill Light Orchestra, “The Great White Dap”.
Wikipedia doesn’t list this in the discography but the wonders of YouTube preserve the PHLO version amongst many others. I hadn’t realised how durable this lyric was until it occurred to me to suggest that it might fit Prof Reed’s repertoire of slightly saucy novelty numbers.
As so often, the original I recalled has undergone decades of remixing in my memory-bank, so it came as a surprise to me to hear it afresh, minus the Hot Club Of France gipsy-jazz guitar ‘pompe’ I’d obviously added for myself.
As a public service, here are Prof Reed’s chords. Typically, while I’ve never worked them out satisfactorily, it took him about 20 mins from first listen to emailing the arrangement for me to practise at home.

Taint No Sin

G              Em7      Am7       D7
Dancing may do this and that,
G              Em7       Am7     D7
And help you take off lots of fat
G          Em7       Am7       D7           G      Em7     Am7     D7
But I’m no friend of dancing when it’s hot!
G         Em7 Am7      D7
So if you are a dancing fool,
G              Em7         Am7          D7
Who loves to dance but can’t keep cool
G           Em7         Am7     D7       G               G7
Bear in mind the idea that I’ve got.

Am                       B7                          E7                       A7
When it gets too hot for comfort, And you can’t get ice cream cones,
D7                                                                   Dm7     G7               C
‘Tain’t No Sin, to take off your skin, and dance around in your bones.
Am              B7                   E7                  A7
When the lazy syncopation of the music softly moans,
D7                                                                   Dm7     G7           C
‘Tain’t No Sin, to take off your skin, and dance around in your bones.
Em                                       C7                 Em                 C7
The Polar Bears aren’t green up in Greenland, They’ve got the right idea.
G             D7                G     D7             G                 Eb7    G7
They think it’s great to refrigerate while we all cremate down here.
Am                                  B7                      E7                  A7
Just be like those Bamboo Babies, In the South Sea tropic zones,
D7                                                                   Dm7     G7          C
‘Tain’t No Sin, to take off your skin, and dance around in your bones.

The road trip to Suffolk included a reacquaintance with another – gasp! – 40-year-old vinyl LP transferred to MP3 with a turntable thoughtfully bought for me as a Christmas present by Herself in recognition of the miles of nostalgia preserved in the worn grooves of a crate of vinyl in the garage.
Curiously, I must have etched Buzzy Linhart’s ‘Music’ LP into my neural pathways so effectively that it’s become embedded, to the extent that as the digital transfer played through my inner ear anticipated the vocal gymnastics, guitar solos and stereo trickery. With a little more time on the transfer I can separate the tracks so they’d pop up un a random shuffle, but a strong element of the Proustian trip is in the brief analogue crackle in a time-honoured tracking-order.
I don’t know what impression it made on Herself, as a walking Wiki on 80’s Indie. She didn’t actually groan or rock with derision; her indulgence is extensive but not boundless.
I pause with a little trepidation even for myself at the prospect of revisiting early Strawbs LP’s and the late 60’s Notting Hill Asian-jazz hip-mysticism of Quintessence’ ‘In Blissful Company’ but Buzzy didn’t let me down.


September 30, 2011

Living History 30-9-11

One late night in my teens, when John Peel’s Top Gear radio programme featured, amongst the Captain Beefheart, Third Ear Band and Principal Edwards’ Magic Theatre, readings by poets, I have a tissuey memory of Roger McGough reading one of his about some future in which England would have little to trade on but our history and pantomime tradition and so would become a living heritage centre with Brits playing themselves for the entertainment of tourists.
As I wrote that paragraph it occurred to me that ‘the late 60’s of the 20th Century’ is already a distant bygone era. The Swinging 60’s – mod dandyism, Motown, Op-art, miniskirts and cute Courreges boots – was giving way to hippy boho-style, psychedelia, mystical knick-knacks, tuning in turning on and dropping out.
In theory.
Schoolchildren researching the social history of that decade of radical politics and social revolution will find it surprisingly staid. The Late 60’s Underground culture had its own nostalgia drawing from fin de siecle Art Nouveau and Victorian Imperial formality, which in turn had replaced a previous vogue for the 1920’s  – ‘Thouroughly Modern Millie’ and  ‘The Boyfriend’ at the movies; The New Vaudeville Band in the charts. By the time I’d arrived in Birmingham as a student, the 1930’s had become the reference point. By the time I graduated it was all Country Diary Of An Edwardian Lady and William Morris filtered through Laura Ashley, The Albion Band and Steeleye Span.
Nostalgia for this – our – decade will include an unaccountable – the more forgiving will prefer ‘ironic’ – regard for the pre-punk glitterball Disco 70’s. In the current collapse of faith in the belief-system of Global Economics, my money’s on a replay of the 80’s fling with Weimar fashion, filme noir and kohl-eyed German Expressionist Cinema; decadent chic. As a place-bet I’ll put a fiver on make-do-and-mend Blitz spirit and Ration Book austerity. The Keep Calm And Carry On brand has clearly struck some awf’ly English chord of stiff-upper-lip stoicism.
So… no surprise to discover some of the Keep Calm merchandise in the Black Country Museum Gift Shop on a reconnaissance visit for a school trip.
The Museum is a small cluster of buildings from around the area meticulously relocated and rebuilt, staffed by guides in Victorian costume, though not Victorian clothing, which for most was a durable one-set-of-everything, laundered once a week in the more fastidious households.
Try to banish even the aspiration to have a choice of clothes to suit the day and the weather. Try to unimagine our own distaste for the undeodorised body and its maturing residue in clothing. What if a daily squirt of gently-fragranced 24-Hour Dry Protection Mist wasn’t pretty much the unofficial law?
For £20 you can climb into clip-on costume to have your own sepia-tint portrait as if… as if what,exactly..? (I’ve paused there for several minutes trying to think of a snappy answer. What Derridalical ley-lines of disauthored intertextual dialectic converge in a digital photograph fed through a Photoshop filter and a laser printer that resurrects the souls of our ancestors: pipl dem b’long faraway time.)
A very good son-et-lumiere presentation of the workings of a Black Country drift-mine, with crouching figures given voice by recorded actors, can’t erase the visitor’s knowledge of a working world reshaped by the intervening century, nor replace it with the experience of an unrelieved conveyor-belt of days confined between home and coal-seam, with its fatalist resignation to sudden mortality, disabling injury and meagre diet.
What always strikes me about preserved historic sites is the many ways they remind you that you can’t imagine life as it was lived, even decades ago. Equally, as you return to the Black Country Living Museum car-park via the Gift Shop the airy glass-walled entrance it’s hard to imagine how of-its-time this ascetic turn-of-the century vogue for plate-glass and exposed structural components will look in even another 50 years and who will be looking.

One of the features I really enjoy is collecting Favourites, a scrapbook of other Flickrists’ posted images. Some really need no explanation; some give me quick links to on-line archives of artwork, printed ephemera and found photographs; a few are bookmarked because I’d paused to work out why they made me hesitate.
Like the fashion for Magic Eye 3D(ish) posters, there was a brief blossoming of those composite photographic images created with a patchwork of tiny photographs. The Favourites collection must form some kind of composite mind-map, including characteristic head-scratching moments.
I keep meaning to write occasional footnotes here, so while I’m on the subject of history that makes you go ‘wha…?’, here’s Eadweard Muybridge mechanically recording the kinetic procedure of slapstick.


September 15, 2011


Pea-Brains 12-10-11

Ah, the life of Supply Teaching. Here’s a thing. Quite an old thing, from last term, long enough for the simmering ‘Wha…? Wha…? Tuh!’ and worse – oh, pay no mind to my coarse mariner’s oaths, rough as a plug o’ Navy Shag me, lor luv yer, ma’am – to subside.
Left with a Literacy Learning Objective to experiment with story introductions other than ‘once upon a time…’ I remembered I had Andy Stanton’s “Mr. Gum And The Cherry Tree” in my briefcase, opening line: “Yes! No! Maybe? What! Hello.”
Mr. Stanton’s ouevre is jolly good fun to read aloud so long as you can more or less keep track of the voices in his jostling cast of cartoon characters.
To prime my Yr.3 class in adventurous writing and share my admiration for Mr. Stanton’s Puckoonish style, I read on and by the time I thought we’d all heard enough and had some serious writing to do there was clamour in the auditorium and demands for more. Firm but fair, I denied Year 3 further guffaws and told them to write their own, the kind of writing they’d like to read.
Job done, I thought; the primed class set to work and there was enough time to read out some of the results before the end of the lesson.
Next day – now here is The Thing in question, sorry to keep you waiting – I had a call on the class phone from the Deputy Head, telling me that she’d had a call from the mother of  ‘one of our more sensitive children’, complaining that I’d called the class ‘pea-brains’.
I suppose I should look up exactly what a flummox is but for a second or two I was definitively flummoxed. You don’t need etymology to know you’ve experienced the woozy felt-mallet concussion of a sudden flummox.
‘Pea-brain’ when I first heard it as a child was certainly one of my favourite funny phrases and as a sensitive child myself, far preferable to cretin, moron, numbskull and worse (yes there were worse insults to the intelligence which I won’t repeat here even as social history. Political Correctness is often only a particularly puritan relabelling of Common Decency).
However, colourful and pithy as ‘pea-brain’ may be, it hasn’t been in my vocabulary for decades.  ‘Pea-brain’ seems even to me as dated as ‘oh, capital!’ for approbation ; the yout’ today routinely use ‘sick!’ as a term of approval. I don’t, though even I know that when adults these days imagine that pronouncing their services, products or educational materials ‘cool!’ they may as well be saying ‘with-it’ or ‘all the rage’. Cool. Yeah, right.
Disentangling myself from the flummox (how does one unflummox, or is that deflummox? In short I was in recovery from a condition of flummoxedness. I’m sorely tempted to claim that I achieved aflummoxia ‘in a trice’ if only I was clear about the span of a trice, so it may have been two) I had two questions: first (note to self) was ‘pea-brain’ sufficient to unsettle even a sensitive child? And second (official report) when had that salty curse occurred?
I remembered our Mr. Gum exerpt. There wasn’t time to haul out the book and read it over the phone to the Deputy Head, but here’s Exhibit A – apologies to Mr. Stanton for the possible copyright infringement (it’s page 2, so you can check this in any book shop worth the name):-

“… And what a freshial, special morning it was in the town of Lamonic Bibber, my friends! The sun was shining, the birds were playing Quidditch in the treetops and the ground was sort of just lying there letting people walk all over it. It was a glorious, give-me-morious, start-of-the-storious sort of a Spring morning. And as you can imagine with your tiny little brains, everyone was looking forward to it like a rascal.”

“Tiny Little Brains”, uprooted from its native text and relayed via child to parent to school and back to me loses something in translation. I only found out that there’d been a final stage in the relay when I asked the teaching agency if they’d  heard from the school at all recently, because I liked it there and had looked forward to visiting it again, only to be told that the folklore had taken root. I’d called a class ‘pea-brains’.
Supply teachers are an expendable resource, so it was probably easier to drop the teacher than explain to the parent that she or the child had probably not been using appropriate skill and judgement, or, perhaps even responded with the  cerebral finesse of a small legume.
I reserve the right to feel less than sanguine about losing paid work because of this whisper-down-the-alley (an acceptable neologism I’ve discovered recently as a culturally neutral substitute for ‘Chinese Whispers’ – a parlour-game, young’uns, from a bygone time when houses had parlours and we were driven to make our own entertainment). However, when educators stroke their chins and wonder why teaching fails to attract graduates, here’s a possibility. Working in a classroom is not made any easier when you have to watch out for concealed tripwires of etiquette while keeping an eye over your shoulder and an ear to the ground for the approaching grumble of disgruntled parents. Good heavens, this example is the very least sinister of the range of accusations that a teacher might have to account for.
(Are we allowed to say ‘sinister’ or am I being gauche? There may be activists in some cadre of the left-handed lobby who might take up ergonomically modified cudgels on my kack-handed behalf. I’m allowed to use The K Word, see? First elect yourself into an oppressed minority, then you’re allowed to identify with its marginalised constituency, patrol its borders for trepassers and ‘reclaim’ its insulting signifiers as your own, K?.)
To the concerned parent I’d wish that she could read this and take righteous satisfaction that as a result of her prompt action the offending teacher has been summarily dismissed from the premises and her sensitive child has been spared exposure to the perils of ambush by literature. I’m still a fan of Mr. Gum and – call me reckless – I look forward to using his disgraceful example again in Literacy.


July 29, 2011

29-6-11 Wholly Hollesley

Hollesley 2011
Years ago I had a call from an editor at DC comics in New York to say he’d be out of the office for a few days, visiting friends in Reno. I know nothing about Reno except it sounded like it belonged in a Western and I said as much; American place names very often have a ring of myth about them missing from Cleethorpes, Basingstoke or Runcorn.
He pointed out that when he was touring in the UK he’d find himself asking for directions to towns marked on the map as Little St. Mary’s Under Ditheridge which turned out to be pronounced Lambsditch. That was part of the romance of British geography for an American.
Months ago I was invited to experience the Hollesley Ukulele Jamboree 2011 in Suffolk. I only found after I’d parked the car on site that it’s pronounced Hoseley. I don’t know what my New York colleague would’ve made of nearby Ho’sly Be’ach.
I don’t know either how many have to be gathered together to constitute A Festival. I’m reminded of a Bill Tidy cartoon ‘Oh come on, Ghengis, we only need one more to make a horde’. A couple of hundred in all, enthusiasts plus friends and family?
The HUJ gathers in a holiday camping-site. You can walk easily around it in about five minutes. Step out of the car and you hear ukulele strums near and far like birdsong. Lay out a sheet of music to strum and sing and within minutes you’re likely to be surrounded by wandering uke-ists like sparrers drawn to a bird-table.
As at similar gatherings of scooter-clubs and hot-car modifiers, punctuating the buskathon there are intense show-and-tell discussions between ukuluthiers about the handbuilt variations they’ve assembled and displayed on builders’ online forums.
Clifford has found cunning ways to use laser-cutters and in one experiment has pressed a Citroen hub-cap into service as a resonator cone; Sven has travelled from Sweden with his family and acts as a consulting field-surgeon to a steady trickle of enthusiasts, refining their instruments with a kit including teeny-weeny luthiers’ planes you could use as Monopoly pieces; deals are made over sheets and short planks of Suitable Wood for necks and facias; arcane know-how is exchanged about how unlikely bric-a-brac and salvage can be assembled and coaxed to yield music. Cigar-boxes are pretty routine, oil-cans aren’t unknown.
Electric ukes are a bit marginal in these circles, as electric planks would be at guitar-builders’ conventions; electric instruments share characteristics of the acoustic versions but behave very differently. Their design is more to do with getting the circuitry and the action right than making the wood sing. You can buy off-the-shelf acoustic Flying-V’s and Les Paul cutaway novelty ukes but they’re not known for great sound. There’s a whole area of extravagant whimsy yet to be explored here; my left-handedness has preserved me from several thousand pounds I might have squandered on ooh-shiny boys’ toys flashing their fetching curves and luscious paint-jobs from music-shop racks.
My host for the weekend, Prof Chris, took one description of the banjolele, ‘a drum on a stick’ – George Formby’s instrument of choice curls the lip of hardcore ukistas – and built his Little Hooligan series from hand-drums bought off eBay. I own the second; the third was donated as a prize in the Saturday Raffle and the winner was being offered substantial three-figure sums for it within the hour. He’d advised that if my ticket won I should grab Sven’s svelte sopranino. Since uke-owners rarely stop at just the one, keen eyes are cast over covetable concubines; Rufus keeps a domestic harem of 40 on a wall at home, though he’s been obliged to fit a second picture-rail.
I’d missed the Friday Night open mic session in the marquee but Saturday evening was definitely worth perching on the hay-bale seating for. First up was Simon – it’s all first names here – with a soprano uke arrangement of The Velvet Underground’s ‘Sister Ray’. I first heard the original, a relentless churning 18-minute miasma of garage sleaze taking up most of one side of the White Light White Heat LP, about 40 years ago and revisit it every couple of years. Like vindaloo, it takes a while to forget how deeply unsettling it is and to foolishly imagine that this time you’ve got its measure.
This performance presents a different take on off-kilter, summoning up the spirit of John Otway.
The massed ukulele-power of SOUP – South Ockendon Ukulele Players, or is that Philharmonic? The tiny stage overflows with the pluckers – provided my high-spot of the night with their version of Chas’n’Dave’s ‘London Girls’, a number I’d never heard before but for my money, better than the original.
Top spot by a narrow margin, set beside Yan Yalego – my companion, a connoisseur, leans close to murmur ‘…a *serious* player…’ – and The Re-Entrants, two guys playing classic stadium rock and pop hits on two ukes, with that winning combination of profligate virtuosity and stand-up comedy. After their opening number, Take That’s “Let It Shine”, I thought oh yeah, a covers band. A couple of songs later I was smitten.
They announced from the stage that they’d just got a support-slot for Amy Winehouse. We cheered. I remembered someone’s line that her name was French for ‘Likes The Pub’. I thought they’d be a great counterpoint to her darkening repertoire.
We drove back to our hosts’ place in Woodbridge on Sunday afternoon to be greeted with the news that Amy Winehouse had been found dead. It was one of those rock RIPs that qualifies as a not-unexpected surprise. Some learn wisdom through excess; sometimes the excess gets them first.