Tuesday, 9 December 2008

iplayer and me

I appear to have one of the most boring jobs in the world. The problem is that now the panic and bad organisation on a massive scale is coming to an end by 11 o'clock I have done all my work and am left with merely pretending to work for most of the rest of the day barring meetings and a couple of hectic days at the end of the month. Being still glued to a chair and semi-attached to a PC for another 6 1/2 hours I have decide to moonlight on the job and am now the self-declared official listener to the BBC iPlayer.
Thus far it is an unpaid position and being official listener may prove as lucrative as my attempts to become IBMs mystic at their Greenock office, but it passes the time.
For those of you unaware. the thoughtful people at the Beeb have created a website where you can see online lots of TV programmes as well as listening to radio programmes. If like me, you are deprived of the opportunity to download Real Player into your work PC due to the pesky IT department's admin rights, you cannot listen to Radio Scotland, Wales or a lot of the World Service, neither can you download anything for later. This still leaves a lot of listening and stealth watching as you can switch screens if anyone is walking by and watch TV on a tiny window in the left hand corner safe in the knowledge that it is covered by your head and your on-line CRM programme takes up most of the screen. You can therefore look like you are working while watching Wallander.
So for all the bored skivers out there in the blogosphere with access to the BBC iPlayer (I don't know if it is available outside the UK ) I can tell you so far:
Radio 7 might not have it still available as I can't see it, but if you get the chance to listen to A Thousand Splendid Suns, don't bother. The radio programme is just as bad as the book and reading it was a waste of time. Buy A Wasted Vigil by Nadeem Aslam instead and use your time wisely.
Radio 4's new book at bedtime is Alexander McCall Smith's new novel (He of Mama Ramotswe) La's Orchestra Saves The World. It's sure to be one of those heart warming novels where a London lady saves a village and the world from the Nazis with a cup of tea and a slice of Victoria sponge cake. I know this after 15 mins of the first episode because the lady in question, La has just come from London to a small village in the West Country, wearing what the quaint villagers suppose is London fashions. Emilia Fox also sees fit to impersonate Clarry from the Archers every time she is reading the words of the villagers, just to hammer home the point that these are simple country folk. La herself has wasted no time keeping secrets and has declared to all and sundry at the end of Episode One that her husband has run off with another woman so she herself has run away to the country.
It is the auricular equivalent of lavender oil for the temples, chamomile tea for the nerves, chicken soup for the soul. You will find in comforting and refreshing or so sickly sweet you will want to vomit and throw your computer out of the window. If you choose to do the latter make sure you have removed the earphone from your ear so you don't follow your PC out the window.

On a far more sombre note Adventures in Poetry also on the Radio 4 section of the iPlayer has a study of John Clare and his poem I Am. John Clare wrote this poem in a lunatic asylum and it may be argued, was partly driven to levels of utter despair by the consequences of the Enclosure Act of 1809 and the resulting land grab by the aristocracy where peasants lost their rights to common grounds and were forced to become low paid labourers, urban poor in the new cities or to emigrate elsewhere. Trying to get a sense of the circumstances of Clare's life takes us to his cottage with a lengthy explanation of coffin hatches and a tour of the asylum where Clare wrote I Am while the psychiatrist currently at the hospital explains his mental state during the years Clare was there is a tremendously moving experience.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

The Change We Can't Laugh At

As our modern society has replaced political debate and serious philosophical enquiry with satire we now have a serious problem on our hands. Those of us who eagerly watch America’s Daily Show on the net, listen to the News Quiz or watch its TV offshoot, Have I Got News for You and who are not yet alarmed, should be.
History has taught us that losing our leaders may also mean that we will lose our satire. The premature death of Spitting Image was a direct result of Mrs Thatcher’s replacement by John Major. Thatcher was a gift to Spitting Image. John Major in grey eating peas while looking at Norma just didn’t cut it (had we known he had his feet under the table at Edwina Curry’s house, it would have been quite different) and while Gerald Kaufman could whisper and scare over excited schoolboy Neil Kinnock, with no Thatcher there was no programme.
I am thrilled and extremely relieved that yes he can and he did it, that Barack Obama will be the 44th President of the United States, but I wonder what we will slag off now. For eight years satirists and comedians have been shooting fish in a barrel with Bush. During the Presidential campaign all Tina Fey had to do was repeat Sarah Palin’s words and she made satirical history, now it is a lot harder.
It has not started promisingly. On The News Quiz, panellist Jeremy Hardy asked us all to cast aside our cynicism for a moment as he said how wonderful it was that Barack Obama had become the US President. The audience clapped and cheered and then his team mate Fred Macaulay suggested that if anyone was going to see Jeremy Hardy doing stand up that they wait for another six months until he became funny again. Jeremy seemed to forget the golden rule that those who wish to cast aside cynicism do not listen to The News Quiz.
Ian Hislop on Have I got News For You seemed to follow the maxim, if you can’t say anything nasty don’t say anything at all. Paul Merton’s comment, ‘Oh Ian you miss the empire don’t you’ and an oft repeated joke about Gordon Brown and extra salt in porridge made me fear unless the posh guy wins the UK election and soon, that particular show will not go on.
America’s Daily Show is fairing better. They have now introduced the concept of black liberal guilt, pointed out what happens when ‘brothers’ get together with white women and have their Senior Reporter in Chief Who Just Happens to Be Black valiantly attempting just the right level of patronising behaviour towards Hispanics. However nothing has actually been properly directed at Obama himself.
The problem is how can you? His kids are normal, his wife is normal, he himself comes across as normal. Thoughtful, highly intelligent and extremely well informed normal, but still normal. The Obamas are the kind of family you would want as your neighbours, you’d want your children to mix with theirs in the hope that some of their good manners would rub off o your rowdy offspring. You’d want to go on family holidays together.
The fact that America finally has its first African-American President is amazing, thrilling and will change the way many people look at the US, their own world and themselves. The fact that Sarah Palin is not Vice President is a relief of such proportions that language cannot fully express. But Obama needs to start messing up and quick or else satire will go soft and we will have to start asking our serious questions seriously and that will not do at all.

Friday, 19 September 2008

Shuffling along

Having succumbed to the wonders of modern technology I have finally purchased an iPod. It is the tiny 1GB shuffle version as opposed to the full bhuna but it can take over 130 songs that will take over 13 hours to listen to and is a vast improvement on trying to change a CD while driving a car at 80 mph along the M8.
My first problem was that my laptop wasn’t working so I couldn’t transfer anything from my iTunes onto it and the CDs I have are packed away in someone’s attic so I couldn’t download them onto someone elses iTunes to then give them a listen. I have duly uploaded a random mix of a friend’s iTunes to listen to myself.
Unlike other iPods the shuffle is too small to have a screen so listening is rather like eating an unknown dish blindfolded with a peg on your nose as you have no idea what is coming next and, unless you recognise the song, no idea what you are listening to.
There is also something so utterly personal about listening to a random mixture of someone else’s music through headphones. While you may be exposed to another musical taste when you are in their house, listening on loud speakers you are being invited to share that you are not sneeking into their mind to see what it is like in there. Also your host, if they have any consideration (and if they haven’t, find yourself better friends), may realise that their devotion to Megadeath is not necessarily shared by you and will choose their music accordingly. That in itself can be a fascinating experience as you if you listen closely enough you can find out what your friends really think you are like. I often seem to be mistaken for a old Suzanne Vega song fan and am also frequently subjected to Coldplay and Travis droning about rain (answer to the question Why Does It Always Rain On me? – You live in the West of Scotland, it’s nothing personal my dear, it happens to everyone). I am, however, fortunate to no longer be friends with the Bluegrass fans who tried to convert me to their music with a zeal that Bluegrass musicians themselves normally reserve for Jesus.
But listening to someone elses iPod selection is like being inside their head. No one else on the Picadilly line can hear anything- well apart from the occasional tinny drumbeat leaking out of my ears, so they have no idea that I am listening to a rather bizarre selection of Classic 1950s Bollywood songs mixed with Aerosmith and Guns and Roses numbers. It’s only two tiny speakers in my ears that isolate me from the rest of the passengers, mentally even if their elbows are in my ribs, and I realise that this particular selection is only listened to by someone else also through two tiny speakers in her ears on the District line. All we need to do is swap heads.
Try it. Borrow a friend’s iPod or download their iTunes and play the random selection. It will give you an insight into who they are, who they used to be and what they dream. You may lose some respect for intellectual Spice Girl fans, be rather taken aback at an atheist's passion for Gregorian chant but you will know them better in the end.

Saturday, 12 July 2008

The Royal Academy

The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition is something that I have a vague memory of studying in my deep and dark distant past as being something to do with Sir Joshua Reynolds and that the French equivalent was shunned by the Impressionists.

As I have now been in London for a year, this is my second visit to one, and the fact of being here for two summer displays and having seen now three different exhibitions in the same space makes me feel less like a long term tourist and more like an actual inhabitant.

Now when I watch TV and see things set in London (as most things are, especially dramas and British films- people who write them must generally be too lazy to write about anywhere else - except for Russell T Davis transporting Dr Who to Cardiff), I am more likely to recognise bits of where they are. Previously I was only ever able to do this with Taggart, Ballymory, adverts shot in Barcelona and holiday programmes showing the Bahamas.

It is also quite strange to watch Golly Gosh Boris in the left ventricle of the testicle as his new deputy resigns due to not having perfectly spotless past (subject for another discussion; does anyone over the age of 30? Would any of us stand up completely to a thorough scrutiny of the slightly soiled linen in the cupboards of our own past? ) and realising that behind a very tired, pasty and stressed looking Boris is actually a view of a part of a city that I walk through regularly. In no way do I feel an integral part of it, but I have a feeling that this statement has to be quantified with a ‘yet’ rather than a definite ‘no way.’

Further along the path to reaching beyond the ‘yet,’ my visit to 2008s Summer Exhibition propelled me along to agreeing with the critics as to its usefulness, its relevance and its standard. The Times critic pointed out before he had even seen it that ‘it’s always lousy,’ I would say it was completely crap.

Last years exhibition seemed so much better which made me wonder if having been in London for a fortnight I was star struck at the idea of attending a summer exhibition and following in the footsteps of rich Victorian ladies. I think that was part of it but I also think there is truth in the simple explanation that last years was much better.


Now I didn’t think about writing about this on my blog until I had moaned and groaned about it over coffee with my Mother who was with me, and we had both decided to leave the list of works on top of the tray at Brioche Doree. Therefore I will have to describe the show without recourse to any knowledge of a) the names of any of the paintings or artists, b) the names of any of the rooms.         

In the course of a year someone of importance has obviously died so there is a quick retrospective of his or her work (almost always his). This was at the entrance –the opening gambit so to speak, to give a sense of historical weight of the place –the RA is so important, its members are important people who when they die get retrospectives. You, lucky attendee of such hallowed halls may be able to purchase an item that, when the artist who made it dies, may required to be returned to this place for such an event.

  The next hall has a whole load of other quite decent stuff that is not for sale by honorary members of the Academy and others whose work is there in honour of the dead person in the previous hall. I recognised a work by Tapias there, not that this marks me out as person with great artistic intelligence, its just that if you have spent any length of time in Barcelona the two artists you can recognise half drunk with one eye shut and double vision in the other one are Miro and Tapias.

This particular Tapias looked like every other one I have ever seen.    

Beside it was a wide abstract painting that my Mother thought looked like passing thoughts and I though looked giant honesty seed pods like the kind I used to pritstick onto paper and make collages out at my Grandmother’s house when I was about 8. It was a very impressive painting.   

There was a small room with a load of paintings covering the length and breadth of all four walls and looked like those old photos of, well, Summer Exhibitions. The stuff in it ranged from slightly better than mediocre to really crap. If you are ever at a dinner party and on walking through your host’s hall to visit their toilet you come across a print of two decaying semi decomposed birds in black and white, rather than shiver and think, “what in the name of the wee man possessed them to put that on their wall?” Please, please comment on their good taste at using the opportunity of the 2008 RA Summer Exhibition to invest their money so wisely.


Then there was Tracey.

Apparently her idea was to shock and be explicit and as the RA had asked Tracey Emin to select and hang pieces in one of their galleries at the show, they must have shared that vision. There was a warning at the entrance that the pieces in this gallery were of an explicitly sexual nature and that no one under the age of 18 was allowed to enter. There was however no one there checking ID, so I am sure that a lot of 16 and 17 year olds found it far easier to get into than to see this than to illegally buy Lambrini in Tesco's.

There was in no particular order and not exclusively; a video of a woman’s lower torso hula hooping most adeptly. On closer inspection the hula hoop was made of barbed wire but she wasn’t getting cut or flinching so she was either an extreme sado-masochist or some artistic licence had been used, along with special effects. There were some photo montages of a woman fingering herself (I am not using the word ‘pleasuring’ – I don’t think that was the intended effect) while she had her period and extremely large montage of a zebra shagging from behind a surprised looking woman who was drawn in the same style as Victorian postcards.

There was also a free standing sculpture of a bunch of pink penises with pink fingers locked around them. The ‘clever’ part of this was that it was lit in such a way that the shadow it cast on the adjacent wall looked like two heads in profile facing away from each other.

I left with the feeling that this sculpture wasn’t the only bunch of knobs associated with the exhibition.      


Thursday, 10 July 2008

Studying Chavs

Radio 4s ‘Thinking Aloud’ programme had an article a few weeks ago on the sexualisation of chavs, where the fascinated listener could learn all about how the gay English community has fetishised Chavs (too many gay Scottish people are chavs , or neds as we like to call them, to bother fetishising them – especially the ones from Ayr). Gay clubs have regular chav nights, there is Chav porn and a whole host of gay Chav sex phone lines. The idea of anyone paying to hear a nasally accented man saying down a crackly phone line ’Gonnae suck ma boaby big man,’ while fantasising about a red head in a shell suit is an interesting concept to say the least. In the end it boiled down to the long standing middle class fantasy of the sexual nature of the poorer classes. It appears that the higher up the social class ladder you are, the lower your libido.

One of the guests on the programme was an academic from a wonderful place named the Centre for Sexual Dissidence at the University of Sussex in Brighton. It’s not the kind of centre that you could imagine being in Aberdeen. According to its website (and no I don’t know how to do that clever hyperlink thing so until some teaches me, you will have to look it up yourself on google), it “explores sexual dissidence as a diverse site of signification and subjective identification, acknowledging that the social milieus that produce and are shaped by sexual dissidences are just as plural and not confined within national or regional borders alone.” So now you know.

I found all this fascinating but I did wonder why no one had created a Centre for Chavdom. Surely there are more Chavs than sexual dissidents? Where are the studies on their social and cultural significance? Where are the papers written on the symbolism of Special Brew and Buckfast? Who explores their aspirations and fantasies? Do chavs have a secret yearning for Kiera Knightly?

While I am aware that Chavs have in many cases embraced the hip hop of Black America while their northern ned cousins are exclusive fans of extremely fast furious and f**king annoying pseudo-dance music, so far I have only come across one set of Ali G impersonators once on the Bakerloo Line from Kensal Green. The utter whiteness of the boys with their Jafaican accents, too small baseball caps and loud London hip hop played on their mobile phones reminded me of a time I once got on an overnight train a long time ago from Glasgow to London only to be sharing a carriage with a large group of toggled and kilted teenage boy scouts who had a ghetto blaster (ask your Mother, she’ll remember what those things were) playing James Brown’s, ’I’m Black, I’m Proud’ full volume. An American couple looked on in utter astonishment as pasty white face after pasty white face encouraged the red haired freckled owner of the blaster with the words, ”Gonnae turn that up man? I want tae listen tae Jimmy Brown!”

Could Chavs in England as a social group of Caucasians (that what we now have to call white people, just in case you are wondering) actually be undiscovered followers of negritude? Apart from the more obvious embodiments of black culture as witnessed by me on the Jubilee line, I also saw one day two extremely lady like chavs near Mile End with what can only be more examples of negritude. They were both dressed in the necessary shell suits and five or six tiny rings on each hand but one had the colours of the Jamaican flag down each side of her black shell suit while the other one had a white shell suit but was wearing white sling back shoes of the kind favoured by West African women shopping at Petticoat Lane market on a Sunday.

Poor Aimé Césaire never realised that rather than trying to unite disparate black cultures under the one culture and celebrate blackness all he had to do was wait. Sooner or later some white people would come along, unite it and nick it.

Saturday, 14 June 2008

A Grand Morning Out

On Saturday I did the most English thing I have ever done in my life. It was only the rehearsal, not the full bhuna, so I don’t feel quite such a traitor.
The actual formal name for the event is the Colonel’s Review as it was the second rehearsal, the first one only being important enough to have the Major General review it. Today the Head of the British State, Her Majesty the Queen will be there to take the salute from her own house guards and cavalry, filling last weeks empty carriage alongside that dreadful Greek man.
I had never seen a military parade but I have a vague childhood memory of the Queen on side saddle in my Grandmother’s living-room with a red top and some medals.
I may be wrong about the medals. What medal could she possibly have won and who would present them to her? God? The Archbishop of Canterbury?
In the photos of more recent Trooping of the Colours she seems limits herself to a colourful dress and matching hat.
The audience at this even seem to come from a range of Home Counties with some New Jersey housewives for good measure although one very well spoken lady behind me declared herself to be of French extraction and marvelled at how terribly well organised and prompt everything was. “Madame it’s the army.” I was tempted to say, “Military precision. It’s what they do.” As we all know what they are actually supposed to do is kill people, but this lot looked they hadn’t done any of that in a very long time. At least 200 years. They must have a lot of practise at timing.
They did, however, look lovely. The cavalry was stunning, and the toy soldier outfits of the red jacket with shiny buttons and a big bearskin hat – possibly now the non-endangered acrylic version, and their ability to march in diagonal does make for an impressive spectacle. Marching round a square actually requires more choreography that would first appear and they can also shuffle into position admirably. I did hold out hope of a Bollywood moment where some of them would break ranks and start singing and dancing but I had to content myself with the military brass bands and the shuffle.
The massed bands drum their drums and blow their trumpets beautifully but I kept hearing distant flutes although I couldn’t actually see any which rather ruined the effect. I am prepared to admit that the flutes were all in my head, but I defy anyone who comes from my neck of the woods or across the water in the north, to hear these bands and not immediately think of an Orange Walk. This may not be effect the Queen is looking for, but I am sure that The Orange Lodge will be delighted by the comparison.
My only issue with the whole event was that the organisers had gone to all the trouble of providing us spectators with chairs only to make us stand up from them all the time. It was rather like being a confused Protestant at Mass. Up for God Save the Queen (unfortunately not the Sex Pistols version, my Father will disown me when he finds out I have done this), up for the empty carriage coming in – although Prince Charles was behind it, up for some flag begin waved about, up for about three other reasons that I couldn’t fathom (which is what always happens to Presbyterians at a Roman Catholic church), up again for God Save the Queen and finally up for the empty carriage going away again. By the end of it my knees were sore and I needed a gin. Perhaps that was the point.