Friday, 30 May 2008

Hooked On Classics?

When I was a kid there were there was a company called K-Tel Records that used to advertise mail-order only compilation albums. Vinyl, of course (I know, you’re surprised I didn’t say cylinders. Even talking about cassette tapes makes you sound old these days – as does moaning about the past and using phrases like “these days”, but there you go)

They would advertise the kind of album that you find even to this day in High Street Stores with outlandish titles like “The Greatest Chilled Sessions Volume 7” or “Twenty Songs To Hear Before You Die…” (As if anyone reaching their deathbed is likely to look back and say “you know, my one regret is that I never heard a Britney Spears song”)

Morrissey (of The Smiths) once wrote a song about making money on the back of dead or gone artists, endlessly re-packaging and re-branding ad infinitum – a fate that has, ironically, befallen The Smiths since they went their separate ways.

But one sure fire way to make money on the back of someone dead is to chose someone who shuffled off this mortal coil a good century or so ago and, as such, can’t sue for infringement of copyright or demand royalties – and this is where Classical compilations come in.

These days there are only two ways to sell classical music to an unsuspecting public:
1) Get four very attractive women in short skirts and revealing tops, give them an electric violin each and a name like “Classical Babes” and sit back and watch the money roll in (Vanessa May, I’m thinking of you)
2) Sell it to the public as an “as heard on…” basis

I recently bought such a classical compilation – it probably wasn’t called The Greatest Classical Moments EVER!!! (with obligatory three exclamation marks), but it was that kind of title. Anyway – it wasn’t sufficient to just sell me the music, each piece had to be underlined with the words “As heard on the Cornflakes advert”, “As heard on X Factor” or, when they get desperate, “As heard on Sky Football channel”

To be honest I found this a bit insulting at first – implying that I was too stupid to know a piece of classical music outside of a contemporary reference – then I found myself wondering how many other unpopular things we could sell to the modern world in this way.

What about all those museums that no one ever visits? Put up a banner outside saying “As Seen On Battlestar Gallactica” and the tourists will be falling head-over-heels to get in.

Got a difficult subject to teach at school? Mathematics – as seen on Wheel Of Fortune.

Or alternatively we could stop spoon feeding people and treat them like adults. It’s a choice – but somehow I can’t see the advertising agencies going for it…

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Don’t Believe The Truth

Most people in the UK could, with a bit of a push, tell you the story of William Webb Ellis.

Whilst many people through history make contributions that go unremembered some, lucky few, will always be remembered and Webb Ellis is doing pretty well so far.

The story goes that WWE was at Private school (In other words he was posh and rich) in Rugby when, during a game of football (or soccer as it’s known in the USA), he decided to pick up the ball and run with it.

Had this been a public school Webb Ellis would have suffered many years of bullying, beatings and endless detention from his teachers and fellow students. However, as this was Private school the teachers, apparently, patted him on the back and said “Well done Webb Ellis, great new sport you’ve invented there”

The only problem with the story of the invention of Rugby is that, very probably, it’s apocryphal. In fact the game is thought to have been already being played when Webb Ellis was at the school – and the story was only invented to give Rugby a claim to the sport over another rival area.

The funny thing is – how easily a lie becomes the truth (They say that a lie can go around the world in the time it takes the truth to put it shoes on)

Take the humble Kangaroo. There it was, bouncing around the Australian outback like a giant rat in clown shoes for 1000s of years and all of a sudden it’s the centre of one of the biggest urban myths of our times.

Check on any website or server that you care to mention and you will find that when colonialists went to Australia they pointed to the Kangaroo and asked what it was called. The Aborigines, having never bothered to name it, shrugged and said “Kangaroo”, meaning “I don’t know”. Again, the sad truth is that the word Kangaroo simply means Kangaroo and has no translation – yet many of us believe the “I don’t know” story to be true.

It’s easy to see how conspiracy theories start when the truth depends so much on witnesses who all tell their own version of the truth (and who can say which version is the true truth?) – Especially when our natural tendency is to add to the story and mythologize. Take Lady Godiva.

Upshot of the story – Godiva lived in Medieval Coventry and was married to the Leofric, the Earl of Mercia (a very powerful man). She objected to her husband’s unfair taxes and rode butt-naked through the streets of the city. All the locals, who had been pre-warned, turned their faces away in deference apart from Peeping Tom – who looked, went blind and forever lent his name to dirty old men with binoculars.

However Peeping Tom, much like Lady Marian in the Robin Hood stories, is a much later addition to the myth and, therefore, probably little more than a story. There are those who even doubt the authenticity of the original naked protest – but that’s another story.
The favourite myths of our times are, of course, that aliens are abducting people and that our governments are covering things up which – when you look at how effectively Bill Clinton covered up the whole Monica Lewinski thing – does look a little far fetched.

Whether these abductions are real or not has ceased to be important: like Webb Ellis, Godiva, Kangaroos and The Osmonds (come on, does anyone believe they were real? Surely no family can have that many teeth? (JOKE)) before them they have entered into popular culture and myth and no amount of evidence will ever persuade people that events were otherwise.

They say that the winners write history to suit themselves – but aren’t we all the tiniest bit guilty of doing the same?

Sunday, 25 May 2008

Selling the skies update

Follow the link for the original story

Friday, 23 May 2008

Selling The Skies

On the bus yesterday there was an article in the free newspaper, claiming that one of the major tourist operations had bought a plot of land on the Moon and, within 30-40 years hoped to have established the first Moon Hotel.

Immediately I saw this article I thought – “who, precisely, has the right to sell the Moon?” Followed by “How would you go about getting planning permission”, followed by “How much of a cut did the Estate Agent get?”

Since nobody, as far as I am aware, owns the moon – who did the money go to? The moon is in MY sky just as much as it is in theirs, so where’s my cut?

Historically, of course, ownership of something depends on a number of factors:

It’s on my land, therefore it’s mine

One of the problems with the conquest of Mt Everest was that most of the passable routes to the range of mountains are through China and the Chinese were unwilling to allow foreigners in to conquer what they considered to be their mountain. When Edmund Hillary and Tensing did eventually make their assault they did so through a much harder route through Tibet

I was there first, therefore it’s mine

The fact that the local Aborigines had been discovering Uluru on an almost daily basis for thousands of years had little impact on history, as they were not Explorers, and therefore did not count. It took a foreigner to come along and take their country for unwanted prisoners to “discover” it and rename it Ayers Rock

It was given me, therefore it’s mine

For thousands of years people have been fighting over who owns the holy city of Jerusalem, each of them convinced that they have the promise of God that it is theirs by inheritance. Some of the bloodiest wars in history have been fought over a city that is less than 50 sq miles in size – most of which were started by, or in the name of, the Catholic Church

I took it, therefore it is mine

See above – but also the ongoing fight as to who owns all those very profitable oil supplies in the Middle East. Alexander the Great conquered much of the known globe and forged an empire like none that had been seen before, and few that have been since. Although his empire is long gone there are people to this day who would rather die than say a nice word about him.

I paid for it, therefore it is mine.

Though the purchase of a country is rare there are historical precedence, with SeaLand being declared a principality despite existing solely on an old oil rig. Technically speaking the right to purchase a piece of land does rely rather heavily on the other claims of ownership.

So the only thing I can think of is that, as America were there first, the USA Government thinks it owns the moon. Surely this cannot be true??

A more interesting question is how long will it take the Corporate Giants to catch on? How long until there’s a Starbucks on the moon (In some cities and towns in the UK we have already hit the Starbucks Event Horizon – the point at which it becomes economically unviable to open any business other than a Starbucks…or at least it feels that way)? How long before a Tesco?

Call me strange, but in my own lifetime I don’t want to be looking up at the night sky to the moon and seeing the huge words, ‘This is not just a Moon, it’s a Marks & Spencer moon”

The moon belongs to all of us – and it’s time to claim it back!

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

It’s Not Easy Being Green

I’m not good with kids. I’m far too self-involved to ever have the time or patience to raise a child and would much rather have a cat (sleeps all day, hardly ever talks back) – I wasn’t even particularly keen on children when I was one. The best kind of child is the one you hear about from a distant relative, but never actually meet and the second best is the one that you can hand back to someone else as Their Problem.

But even I care enough about the snotty nosed little oiks (sorry, just kidding) to want to protect the world for their, and my, future. I took a cycle ride down the canal path the other day and was saddened by the amount of junk that had been thrown into the water at every bridge by people of all ages too lazy to carry it home and recycle.

Now I have to admit that things are a bit extreme in my house – labels are soaked off jars so that the paper can be recycled separately – but I do think that things are too complicated for the average Joe. Why don’t all products come with a recycle barcode so that when we chuck them away a machine somewhere can automatically sort it out for us? We have machines that sort out our food so that our cornflakes are a uniform size – so surely we can produce one that sorts out our waste?

Another thing that annoys me about trying to care for the environment is how much hard work it is shopping ethically. Like with Fair Trade products – where you pay an extra £1 secure in the knowledge that the particular sweat-shop worker who had to sort through your coffee granules with his teeth was beaten with a stick less regularly than the non Fair-Trade worker.

The problem is that labelling is never clear. For instance “Free Range” chickens can mean anything from “they roam loose over the alps” to “they get a slightly bigger window in the coop” And then there’s organic – a joke and a half if ever there was one.

In my local supermarket they sell organically grown Peppers: fresh, healthy products, grown without nasty insecticides (though probably in a bio-dome that blights the local view).

Yes – fresh, healthy products that are better for the environment…or at least they would be if they weren’t flown direct from Turkey and then individually shrink-wrapped, thereby negating the good done by not using chemicals.

Being a vegetarian/vegan is no better – if you give up milk and convert to soya you are personally responsible for destroying the rainforests, as farmers across the third world are tearing down trees in a frantic rush to plant soya fields. And yet your packaging does not give the option to choose. Also vegetarians passing wind produce more methane and thus damage the environment (NB – this is not an excuse to tuck into a Super Size Whopper)

Every day each one of us eats rubbish – mostly without realising. For instance – most pre-grated cheese is coated in flour to keep it from sticking together, but you won’t find this fact on the labelling.

Labelling in this country is still hit and miss at best – varying from good to bad to confusing within 2 isles of the same store. Every report about the environment says that we are in the eleventh hour with little time to make the changes required – so why are our leaders hesitating so much?

The only answer can be that they are afraid to make the tough decisions because they know it will lose them votes. And so we go on, spending our resources without a thought for the future.

Most of us do what we can – but without a larger commitment from those in charge it’s all too little and far too late.

Friday, 16 May 2008

Something On My Mind

I’m more than aware that some of the people I know think I’m a bit odd – because I question everything, sometimes quite randomly. I don’t know why this is and can’t explain why I find the world so endlessly confusing and mad any more than I can explain people who don’t.

For example: yesterday I had a meeting in London, for which my company paid for my travel and hotel the night before. Now I don’t want you to go thinking that I live the jet-set life, forever yachting across the Seychelles to discuss spreadsheets because I don’t – in five years with my current company I’ve been to London 3 times and Birmingham 3. About as romantic and exciting a lifestyle as painting the Seventh Bridge ocean grey, only to find that the specifications said military grey.

Anyway – on the way home I decided to catch an early train – thus giving myself a minor chance of finding a seat. For those of you who have not experienced British Rail the experience is of 3-4 hugely over-crowded second class carriages, with 5-6 totally empty first class ones. How deliberately infuriating and over-charging your passengers in this manner to the point where they fly, drive, take a coach or – in extreme cases – camel to their destination makes financial sense for the company is beyond me, but that’s another story.

As catching an early train meant running to the station I didn’t have time to stop and buy something at the station so, as the last time that I bought British Rail tea was in the 1980s when the cup was 100% guaranteed to burn the skin from your fingers and the milk carton was designed with a small explosive device set to send the contents over your trousers, I decided to try the on-board shop.

And, as chatted to the young lady with the hideously over-the-top eyeliner who was serving me (she looked like she’d applied it on the train and been jolted at each try), I found myself pondering an awkward question: How did she get home?

I mean – for those of us working in an office, shop, factory or other fixed location we presumably work somewhere we can commute to – but when your office is currently on the move and you’re not the driver what do you do?

Say for example that you live in Milton Keynes (although, as anyone whose ever been there will know, the phrase “Live” in Milton Keynes is not entirely possible or even plausible) and your employer has you scheduled on the London-Edinburgh train on a 9am-5:30pm shift. If the last train of your shift leaves London at 3pm you can’t just get off at Milton Keynes and go home early – so presumably you get stranded in Scotland with another 2 hour journey to go home. And what if it’s the last train of the day – are you expected to find accommodation? Or if your replacement doesn’t show up? The world needs to know these things.
It just doesn’t make logistical sense for the employer to plan your schedule so you always finish near home – that would be a shift-planners nightmare.

Perhaps British Rail have a secret teleportation device to send their staff home at the end of the day?

And this is nothing in comparison to the problem faced by flight attendants…

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

It’s Never Enough

Back in the year 1999, when everyone was panicking in case the computers crashed, civilisation ended and we’d all have to get used to wearing bear-skins again, I decided to do a charity cycle ride.

For the next 12 months I trained pretty much every day – I joined a gym (still miss going, but having a mortgage means I can’t afford it) and regularly cycled 22 miles each day, with a 30 mile ride on Saturdays and up to 60-70 miles on Sundays

For the Sunday rides I joined a local riding group, who shall remain un-named, but I always referred to as “The Nutters”

The Nutters were divided into three groups:
1) The Professionals – cycle racers who thought nothing of cycling 100-120 miles on a Sunday morning
2) The Veterans – former racers, still cycling 80-100 miles come rain or shine
3) What was laughingly referred to as “The Family Group”

The family group would cycle 40-60 miles each Sunday at a steady 16 mph – which may not sound much, but is pretty hard going. They would eventually arrive at some god-forsaken greasy-spoon diner that made you wonder why you had gone there, drink copious amounts of scummy tea and go back home.

My memory of that time is mainly of me pedalling like mad to keep up, silently yelling “Slow down you *********” in my head – but it was very good training and I have recently been thinking about re-joining as I did like the people.

Anyway, during all the time that I was training with them I had to explain to friends, family and anyone likely to sponsor me what I was doing – cycling 300 miles across a foreign country in 5 days.

Inevitably, as is a typical British reaction, no one was impressed:
“That’s nothing” some elderly relative would respond, ‘I used to cycle 500 miles and back every weekend to Wales, carrying your Auntie Bertha on the handlebars”
“Really?” I would respond – knowing full well that the closest they had got to a bicycle was in a museum
“Oh yes – and I’d have to bring back half a ton of coal too – on a penny farthing too!”

Rumour has it that the general response to Neil Armstrong landing on the moon from my family was "I could've done that distance in my Robin Reliant if they'd asked me" - although this cannot be substantiated.

I think this could be because my family originate from the knife and spoon-making capital of England, where life was tough and the people tougher. They probably rowed single-handedly around the world just to get to the shops and back.

Whatever the reason some people remain resolutely impossible to impress.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

(Everywhere You Go) You Always Take The Weather

Don’t get me wrong, I love cycling. I spend six months from October to March travelling to work by bus and am always glad when it gets light enough to start cycling again (although the cold of winter is a factor the main thing that stops me is the safety factor – car drivers will happily kill you to shave 30 seconds off their journey and in the dark mornings/evenings things are far worse), but I do wish the weather would make its mind up.

As anyone who has to get up early to go to work knows you have to make A Choice (note capital letters)

When you leave your humble abode in the morning it is often still dark and cold – so you put on your big winter jacket and walk to the bus, or in my case pull on your winter leggings and start peddling.

And for the first 20 minutes or so of your journey everything is just hunky dory. Then Mr Sun (or Mrs, depending on which side of the equator you live) comes up and suddenly you’re sweating to death. OK – so you may just make it to work before this happens, but this is when you are faced with your Big Problem (again with the capital letters)

Because when you travel home, still wearing your Michelin-man, anti-frostbite Thermal Jacket, sitting on the bus next to lots of people in t-shirts you are going to a) sweat like a pig and b) look like a complete idiot.

Everyone will be looking at the nutter in the big jacket and wondering why you are dressed so strangely.

The problem with cycling is slightly different – in that all the winter clothes you were wearing this morning now have to be stored somewhere for the journey back. I’m quite lucky at work – I have 3 showers on site to chose from and two lockers – in which I store a pair of shoes; but my work clothes, shower kit and towel all have to be transported back daily – which leads to feeling like you have a ton of bricks on your back/bike. Of course the day you decide to leave your jacket at home is the day you get an epic storm on the scale of Twister or The Perfect Storm. Believe me – I’ve been caught 10 miles from home in hailstones in the middle of June and it’s not fun. If you don’t believe me get a bag of ice cubes and try repeatedly throwing them in your face for 30 minutes. Then do it again whilst running on the spot.

So inevitably I end up leaving the house every morning looking like Nanook Of The North and returning like some beach-crazed tourist in Ibiza.

One solution, for both methods of travel, is to carry a bag that is big enough to hold your folded jacket. This does add to your weight and slows you down – but again comes with problems because most “Water Proof” bags are nothing of the sort and wouldn’t stop a determined cat from soaking the contents with spit, let alone a full-blown downpour. This is not a problem if it rains on the way home, as you can put everything on a radiator – but working all day in the knowledge that you have to put wet kit back on is nothing short of horrible.

Still, I’m looking forward to the summer when it is my intention to start doing some serious riding at the weekends, when I don’t have to worry about taking a change of clothes. Hopefully I will bring you a report of my favourite cycle route – a 40 mile run with a hill that just keeps on going. Lovely.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Falling Just The Wrong Side Of Brilliance

I just went into the toilet at work and discovered that someone has had the bright idea of installing a soap-dispenser into each individual cubicle.

Which initially might seem like a good idea (improve hygiene etc), until you realise that – having squeezed soap all over your hands – you now have to somehow open the locked cubicle door and get over to the sink (where we already have wall-mounted dispensers) before you can wash the stuff off your hands - unless, of course, one is supposed to wash in the toilet bowl?

A moot point considering the dispenser was empty.

So close to being a great idea…and yet so far!

Thursday, 1 May 2008

I Didn’t Quite Catch That…

It was once said of William McGonnagle – dubbed the worst poet in British history (note – British, not English: he was Scottish) - that any idiot with a pen can write bad verse, but that it takes a kind of reverse-genius to write verse that is so bad it is good.

Now I’m a music fan. I love music. I can’t cope with public transport without my stereo and, in quiet moments at home, can often be found with my guitar trying to capture the thought of the moment – so I have to take my hat off to anyone who is successful in the music industry – or at least I would do if I owned a hat.

However, let’s be honest here – not every song writer is an Ian Curtis or a Bruce Springsteen – and inevitably some song writers have to be Chas And Dave (NB –for international readers think Cockney songs about rabbits and football teams with bad rhyming slang). The record factories of the 80s and 90s churned out many indistinguishable stars with forgettable lyrics that were nothing short of terrible. But they weren’t Terrible (with the capital T)

No one will ever award Kylie Minogue an award for thoughtful insight for her lyrics – but bad as they are “In my imagination/there is no celebration” wins no awards for Outstanding Levels Of Awfulness.

Sting, however, is another category all to himself. Be fair, the man’s written some great tunes, but he is also responsible for the following refrains:
#1 Giant steps are what you take/I hope my leg don’t break
#2 He starts to shake and cough/like the old man in the book by Nabkof

Now referencing Lolita in a song is a jump of reverse genius if ever I saw one!

However, what I really enjoy in lyrics is the misheard vocal.

We’ve all listened to a song for years, convinced that someone was singing about spam, when in fact they were singing about jam – so much so that Maxell put out an advert in the 80s for cassette tapes (remember them?) with alternate lyrics for “The Iseralites” and “Into The Valley” including:
The soldiers go marching, but who can Viv iron?

More recent bands have continued this phenomenon – including the mighty R.E.M. For many years I believed that the refrain from The Sidewinder Sleeps ran “Call me Cheryl Baker, call me Cheryl Baker” and was voicing Michael Stipe’s wish to be reincarnated as the most attractive one from Bucks Fizz

My personal favourites for misheard lyrics are the otherwise brilliant Manic Street Preachers, whose song “Faster” always has me in tears of laughter at the end when James Dean Bradfield apparently sings “Sodomy is a Care-Bear” repeatedly.

Well James, if Sodomy really was a Care Bear then it was a strictly limited release.

So, I guess the question is – what particular delights of mishearing make you laugh?