Monday, 21 December 2015

The Future Isn't What It Used To Be - And I'm Not That Thrilled With The Present(s)

It's fair to say that, by and large, Science Fiction has totally lied to us about what the future held for us.  We were promised flying cars and hover boards by 2015 (Back To The Future), humanoid robots to do all our dirty work for us by 2019 (Blade Runner among others) and all sorts of gadgets like portable devices we could be handed to sign off work wait, Star Trek actually did predict that one.

But the one thing I think we can all guarantee in the not so distant personal future is that moment on Christmas Day when we receive a well intentioned gift and we smile cheerfully in the hope that INSERT BELOVED RELATIVE HERE won't notice as the words "Charity Shop" flash across our brains.  Typical such presents include:

#1: The Tacky Thing

The tacky thing varies from person to person but must consist of one or all of the following: 1 - ceramic oddly shaped serving bowl that due to it's depiction of cheerful reindeer can only be brought out a) at Christmas and b) when not serving venison.  2 - Festive attire: either a jumper, scarf, hat or tie that has pictures of Christmas and, preferably, plays "jingle bells" at a note on the chromatic scale that had previously been undiscovered.

#2: The Pot Plant

Now this is a tricky one, because unlike The Tacky Thing which has clearly been bought either a) by someone who doesn't really know you or b) is trying to foist their own Christmas fixation onto you - the pot plant person has decided that a plant will Cheer A House Up and add some much needed greenery.  But despite all their well meant intentions what they have given you is not so much a present as a problem.

Plants don't traditionally do well for me - I have been known to kill off supposedly indestructible plants by mere dint of a) placing them in the wrong degree of sunlight or b) just plain forgetting to water them/stop watering them at the right times.  The one exception to this at time of writing is a pot plant I bought home from the office when we moved to another site - it had survived routinely being forgotten about there and so has thrived on the same basis ever since (the plant is called Florence by the way - for reasons that are unclear to me now)

#3: The Lottery Ticket

We've all done it - forgotten about someone and, at the last minute, gone out and bought them a lottery ticket in the hope that they will a) win the lottery and b) not forget their kind relative/friend when they do and quietly slide a Mercedes or two in our direction - but the chances are extremely high that what you have just given to this person, a person you presumably care enough about to buy them something, a worthless piece of paper.  And should it turn out that you have actually bought them some winning numbers you will, of course, kick yourself for all eternity that you didn't keep it for yourself when you get that postcard from Barbados

#4: The Thing With Cats On It

A few years ago you went out and, on a whim, bought an amusing thing with a cat on (or insert whatever thing it actually was).  People came to visit and remarked on it and you said, in a generalistic way, that yes indeed: you had a passing fondness for cats: and now of course everyone buys you cat trinkets and somehow you are a collector of such things who rues the day you ever passed the shop where you bought that first item that led to your house being festooned with cats playing banjos, cats smoking cigars over a game of cards, cat toilet roll holders - because everyone who knows you knows you are a cat person despite the amount of protestations that actually you'd rather have anything else but another porcelain figurine of a cat ballerina

#5: The "Hilarious" Calendar

I never buy a calendar until January.  Not only can you get it for half the price even though you've only lost about five days of useage but you can always guarantee that at least three well meaning relatives and/or friends will buy you one - one that you will not like but will inevitably be stuck with.  Last year's calendar pretty much sets the bar for these - it was a collection of satirical newspaper "cartoons" from a newspaper I never read about articles that had been in the news the previous year!!!!!

I would say that I have never, in my entire life, seen a funny political cartoon in a Newspaper, but that would be a lie as I have seen precisely one: a cartoon of George Bush and Tony Blair as Laurel & Hardy and even that only raised a faint smile.

#6: Socks

There's a curious curve in the diagram of sock appreciation.  If you get given a pair of socks as a kid then you have probably been bad or something and will spend the rest of the day grumping and complaining that at least they could have been fitted with bluetooth - whereas as you get older socks become an increasingly attractive present to replace the other pairs that somehow never seem to be to hand when you need them (or to foot for that matter)

#7: Adopting An Animal For Someone

Actually quite a good idea in some ways, because it's charitable and it helps the animal - but at the end of the day you never actually get to enjoy the animal itself (and even if you did it would probably destroy your house and eat your cat) - but the weird thing is that part of adopting your animal is that you get letters and photos "from" the animal telling you how well it is doing and encouraging you to donate more - it's sort of charity by proxy: the recipient hasn't actually lifted a finger to help Save The Whelk (a struggling creature now that more people are flying than travelling by sea) but gets to feel good about themselves nonetheless

I'm sure there's plenty more of these presents of this ilk, perhaps you would like to add a few yourself?  Well, anyway have a good one and meanwhile here's a little present from me:

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

A Few More Films You Might Want To See

Well yet again I seem to have lapsed when meaning to show my face on here more often, so to speak, so here are some films I've seen recently and what I made of them:

#1 The Martian

A while ago my friend and lapsed blogger Argent, lent me the book of The Martian - I found it an interesting book which was clearly well researched but, if I'm honest, I found the level of actual science in the book a bit hard going sometimes.  When I first heard it was going to be a film I really wasn't sure it would translate well for precisely that reason - how much of the book would be sacrificed in the name of cinematic action.

It's often been said that Ridley Scott is more interested in the look and feel of a film than the script and that, as a result, some of his films have struggled -but when, by some chance, he is given a good script he really delivers the goods.  In this case the story finds our hero marooned on Mars after his crew flee in a storm, leaving him for dead.  From thereon in he is left to try and problem-solve long enough to be rescued.

The key element in a film like this has to be the watch-ability of the main actor and Matt Damon was an excellent choice here as he walks around the habitat growing potatoes, creating water and suffering endless disco music whilst chatting to himself the entire time and trying to communicate with Earth.

The film is visually stunning, but I have to admit that it took a second viewing for me to really engage with the story - possibly because having read the book I already knew the outcome or perhaps because I never really felt he was in much danger.  Still, all things considered, this is definately worth a watch - but I don't know if it would stand up to repeated watching on home video.

#2 Mr Holmes

There have been many attempts to bring the character of Sherlock Holmes to the screen, from Basil Rathbone driving around New York in a taxi inbetween fighting Nazi's to Robert Downey Jnr and Bennedict Cumberbatch with their post-modern takes on the story (for my money the only actor who ever truly encapsulated Holmes as written by Conan-Doyle was Jeremy Brett in the ITV dramatizations of the 1980s who drove himself to a nervous breakdown as a result of his commitment to the role)

In this take we find Holmes, portrayed by Ian "Gandalf" McKellan, fully retired and keeping bees, fighting against the onset of alzheimer's and desperately trying to remember his final case which took place some years early.

This isn't a detective case as such but more a character study of Holmes the man as he comes to terms with his mortality and steadily makes friends with his housekeeper and her young son - for once allowing his long-controlled emotions to come to the surface.

It's a gentle story with a wonderfully judged performance by McKellan and Milo Park shines as the young boy, and if perhaps the central mystery is a bit too thin then this hardly seems to matter by the film's conclusion.  Again, I'm not sure I'd go out of my way to watch it again, but it did impress me whilst it was on the screen and left me thinking afterwards

#3 The Lady In The Van

I doubt that the name Alan Bennett will mean much in the USA but for many here in the UK his style of writing encapsulates our understanding of the "talking head" style of drama - having made a name for himself both on stage and screen for writing wry and thoughtful monologues on elements of life (including one I think was called The Biscuit Under The Sofa in which an Beryl Reed played an old woman who had had a fall and was unable to get up)

Moving on from having actors play the parts Bennett later placed himself in the centre of the stories, something he had perhaps always been on the periphery of, with his tales of Northern life and this story is no different, with Bennett recounting the mostly true story of the old lady who parked her van on his drive and lived there for 15 years.

Maggie Smith (perhaps best known as the Dowager Lady of Downtown Abbey to Americans) manages to make the central "lady" both likeable and a figure of some pity despite her rudeness and lack of gratitude) and Alex Jennings is good fun to watch as he plays Alan Bennett the writer talking to Alan Bennett the person (a device of splitting the character that works very well on the screen)

It's fair to say, as some critics have indeed done, that the story never really moves anywhere much or make any major points - but I rather think that misses the point of Bennett's work and his conclusion that sometimes things in life just happen

We took my parents with us to see this one and they both said that it was more serious than they thought it would be; but i would probably clarify that I felt the level of melancholy humour was just about right

Next film I see will be Star Wars: Episode 7 - which i'm hoping will be better than the prequels

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Stand Up, Comedy

What's the secret of comedy timing?

Sorry, let's try that again:
What's the secret of comedy?


Or is it?  And ok - that was a joke that may not have worked so well on paper, but last Sunday myself and my good ole friend Argent (still going despite her lack of activity online) decided to find out.

It all started a few months ago when I had a text from the aforementioned Blog absconder saying there was a Stand Up Comedy workshop at a local University - AKA Mega City because it is now almost bigger than the City to which it gives educational service (there are, in fact, two major universities in our neck of the wood which are both growing so exponentially that thermonuclear war is seemingly inevitable and Historians of the future, should there be a future, will no doubt curse us for not stopping that "Physics Lab" being erected)

Now I should say at this juncture that it is unusual to find any evidence of Culture in these parts - it's like that scene in An American Werewolf In Paris where the tourist walks into the local pub and all eyes turn towards him and Brian Glover says "we don' loike strangurs 'round 'ere".  Culture dare not step over the boundary lines of our noble city incase it gets mugged.

The exception being, of course, at the University Arts Centre where they show French ROad Movies About the Grimness of Existence (or F.R.O.M.A.G.E. for short), have some of the major comedians of the land visit, the occasional small-scale concert and even, it is rumored, teach the occasional student something.

We started the day by playing Rock - Paper - Stone as an ice breaker - each time you won you evolved from Egg to Chicken to Pterydactyl to Super Hero and could only play someone else at the same level (I was pleased when one person asked me if i wanted to play the Lizard - Spock version, but turned them down - and also that I was able to maintain Super Hero level quite a long time by the simple step of always playing paper second if there was a draw first time)

Then we were asked to write down one thing we loved and three things we loved about it and tell this to a small sub-section of the group in the space of one minute.

Having done so we then had to write down one thing we loathed and three things we hated about it and (and here comes the twist) use those points to say why we loved it.  This was a very interesting excercise as it forces your brain to work in a more creative and unusual way: looking at things from a different perspective.  It was also to show how much more people listen when you are clearly arguing something ludicrous for comic intent

Other excercises followed which included (in no particular order): going up to the mike and introducing ourselves and choosing one of three subjects to speak on (I chose "my favourite teacher" but i can't remember the other two options) - immediately after which we had to go back up to the mike and recite (note - NOT sing) a song lyric as if it were the most important thing ever.  This was designed to make us feel more comfortable with the mike and to use expression.

Another really interesting excercise was to take a random piece of news from the internet (just chosen randomly based on the number of hits) and to write down as a group how many funny things we could think of about each paragraph - we had a list of 13 jokes (some funnier than others) from the first paragraph alone.

The chap running the course was himself a stand-up comedian with over 1,000 gigs under his belt who frequently lectures on public speaking and he was very clear on the ups and downs of life as a comedian - saying that for every 100 jokes you wrote maybe only 10 would be worth trying out and 4 would actually make it to the set-list, and that with the loss of comedy clubs its now harder for comedians to get going without giving material away for free (via podcasts/youtube etc) and that jokes have an increasingly short lifespan due to the internet.

Finally we were sent into a corner in groups of 3-4 and told to write a brief routine (I chose playing the saxophone and Argent talked about the lord of the rings) and come and perform it, if we wanted, for the rest of the group.  I was quite pleased with my response as it gained a few laughs (but then i am aware that i tend to use humour as a defense mechanism anyway)

He does another course - a 10 week course that tells you how to develop material and your act.  It's not cheap and it's not nearby, but I am thinking of going: especially as there's a chance to take part in a live comedy showcase at the end.

Not that I particularly want to be a comic.  I'm just creative in lots of random and unfocussed ways: plus it would be good for my public speaking group.

But I feel I should leave you with a joke - not a very good one, but one that I penned myself

There's a new Detective Show being made about a Cop who loves blue French cheese

It's called The Roquefort Files

(badum tish, here all week folks, try the fish)

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Spot The Misdemeanor

OK folks it's time to play a new, fun and exciting game that I've created called Spot The Misdemeanor.

I'm going to describe something that I actually saw happening and you have to guess, from the details given, what nefarious deeds were underway.  To preserve some sense of interest the answer will be given in the comments page - but please read the blog before turning over.

So - here is the scene: Myself and Herself were driving home one evening early in the year when we saw Suspect No#1 (and I checked - that actually is his name.  I'm not saying he's a criminal, but I would say that he can often be seen Helping The Police With Their Enquiries...if you catch my meaning), a local lad aged between 12-16, cycling along the road towards us.  On the handlebars of his bike was perched Suspect No#2 - holding a spade in his hands.

So: from the above can you spot the misdemeanor?

This was actually the third event in less than a week that finally persuaded us that it was time to move to a nicer and safer location: possibly the Somme, circa 1914

The first was when I was on my way back from work and waiting at the train station for Herself to pick me up when I got a call to say that her friend was coming instead because the valve from the tyre of our car had been stolen.  It had taken Herself a few metres to realise something was wrong, by which time the flat tyre was torn to shreds.  Apparently there had been a speight of this in the area.

The second was a few days later when I was practicing my saxophone upstairs: I had just finished and switched off the light when there was an almighty WHAM from the front of the house (and no, it was not Andrew Ridgley busking for change...a joke you will only get if you remember your 80s pop history).  I went outside to find that a wheelie bin had been thrown against our door.

To be fair: we had been talking about moving out for 12 months or more - ever since the New Neighbours had their 3-day bank holiday party during which the the whole of England seemed to traipse in and out of next door and there was much imbibing of fermented vegetable products (for starters)

Both of these events went into the Top Ten on our list of Occurrences:

10: The Annual Burning Of The Evidence
I have never understood the attraction of setting a bonfire without having fireworks and BBQs but every now and then there would be a loud crashing from next door as they kicked down doors at 4am whilst screaming at each other - followed a few nights later by them pulling a sofa out to the back garden so that they could grunt "man make fire" at each other in the hope that they might still evolve

9: Wallpaper Warehouse
Neighbours sitting on the other side of the house, at 4am loudly singing the tune of an advert for a  local wallpaper sales place to the tune of Waltzing Matilda

8: Swearing At Chickens
Every so often one neighbour or other would buy a pet whilst drunk at the pub.  On one occasion they came up with the brilliant idea of keeping chickens: this was brilliant until they realised there might actually be some work involved and resulted in one of them going into the back garden and yelling "shut the *&^% up!" at them.  Because, of course, chickens are well known for their understanding of English and its more colourful metaphors

7: Over The Fence
We had to get a security fence installed to stop one set of neighbours urinating against our wall and climbing over at 2am to get to their back door.  On the last occasion this happened one of them yelled "Oi McGuinness, you'd better climb over before he gets that fence installed", it took all my self control to refrain from yelling, "yeah, or before he works out who you are!"

6: Three Day Party
As mentioned above

5: A Pizza The Action
Immediate neighbours with the party wall enjoyed nothing better than screaming at each other all night, kicking down doors to get at one another and then laughing like it had all been so much water under the bridge.  One night the woman became obsessed that he "don't *&^%ing love me, cos you %$£&ing ate my £$%^ing pizza"

4: The Great Bedroom Fire
Does what it says on the tin really: one set of neighbours two doors down got evicted after someone at a party at their house decided it would be fun to set fire to a bedroom.  The smoke damage spread to the house next door and narrowly missed us as well

3: Bin Being Thrown At The Door
As above

2: The Halloween Incident
I've told this story here before, so I don't want to go into it again other than to say that a nice sweet young boy was taken trick or treating the first year we were there by someone who was barely sober enough to stand.  The fact that there was no one in that kid's life who was sane enough to stop this from happening still haunts me

1: Under Age, Over The Limit
But the one that stays with me the most is the 6 year old tottering alone in the middle of the road, holding a can of lager it had clearly been given to keep it quiet.

This August, sitting in the back garden of my new house, it took me nearly half a day to realise that this was a) the first time in 13 years I had felt able to sit outside in my garden without worrying about neighbours shouting abuse and b) the first hot Bank Holiday where I had got any sleep prior to 2am in more years than I could remember.

I now live in a nice, respectful area where it's permanently quiet, with neighbours who smile and say hello instead of sneer and ask what the duck you are looking at, where no boy racers scream around the streets in stolen cars at school letting out time and where the loudest sound is probably me practicing my saxophone, at respectable hours, without fear of Refuge Revenge.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

The Peter Principle

It is a sad fact of life that I was born without a sense of ambition.

None whatsoever.

Well - there are things I'd like to do, but it really is in a vaguely unfocussed way as and when they come to mind, with my usual inimitable style of bumbling genially through life whilst trying to cause as little damage as possible - with no real end point in mind other than to find something that occupies my mind for a short while and is enjoyable to do - preferably in the company of people who are Fun To Work With (IE equally geeky with warped senses of humour).

Which is why I have little time for people who describe themselves as Life Coaches and talk of time optimisation, career actualisation and end game perspectives (or whatever) - I can't see a situation in which I would ever find a use for such a person: other than perhaps to buy me a cup of coffee at one of their far too frequent team bonding effication moments.

I mean sure - I play saxophone (for instance) and I'd like to be much better at it but 8 hours a day practicing - really? Where's the fun in that?  A hobby is something I do for pleasure and that sound a bit like hard work

And yes, sure I'd like to be doing something a bit more creative and fun at work, but I have no real idea what precisely that is nor how to achieve it - and as for promotion well...

I've actually been a manager a few times.  I had a team of 15 people that I looked after and whom I was supposed to check on a daily basis that they still knew their jobs and hadn't forgotten it all over the weekend (instead of, you know, trusting them to just get on with it)- and I was placed in the very odd position of finding and training my own replacement when my job was offshored, leaving me at risk of redundancy and my question to all those career-oriented people out there is - who needs it?

I'm quite happy to keep my head down, stay out of trouble and do the job in front of me the best way I know how.  A little recognition wouldn't go amiss, but hey...

I'm just not cut out to be a Manager - but to be honest life has left me with the distinctive impression that neither are any of them.

Douglas Adams famously said in Life, The Universe And Everything that anyone who was capable of getting themselves into a position of power and actively wanted to be there was, by very dint of that fact, the absolute last person you should allow to be there and there's a similar thing called The Peter Principle

Based on a theory by Laurence J Peter the idea goes that promotion is often based not so much on the ability to do the next job in line as upon proven track record in a current role - thus every Manager eventually rises to his or her own level of incompentence - where they can no longer cause any active harm, cannot be promoted any further and inevitably become paranoid of the young upstarts who are climbing the ladder behind them.

I've had every type of manager: from the David Brent/Ricky Gervais type who tries too hard to be your mate to the shouty/moody type who makes your life a living hell just because they can - but what I really want from a boss is this:
* Someone who understands the role I do and appreciates the difficulties of the job
* Someone who is open and honest about what they are doing and why and is not just looking after number one
* Someone who recognizes that we are part of a team and can be trusted to have your back
* Someone who I can have a joke with, but can take control when required
* Someone who would rather I asked time after time than didn't know something and would have the patience to reply

Someone a bit like me I guess.

Shame there's no power on earth that would make me want to do it.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

A Mighty Tribute (Act)

In an ideal world, were I of a mind to do so, I would create a tribute act for Talking Heads.

We would be called Stop Making Sense, or possibly Found A Job if that were already taken (Third option: Houses In Motion - all now (c) 2015 as band names until I hear otherwise!) and we would tour - doing all five hits and doing occasional fan-shows where we just play all the way through the set of the seminal concert film Stop Making Sense (made by Jonathan "Silence Of The Lambs" Demme)

But back in the real world I suspect that there is probably not a great deal of desire for a Talking Heads tribute act and that once we'd played Road To Nowhere, Once In A Lifetime and maybe And She Was our audience would largely stare at us in apathy wondering when they were going to hear a song they knew.

Possibly then there might be, as a second option, space in the world for a Joy Division tribute act.  Despite the early death of singer Ian Curtis and being almost entirely ignored by everyone other than a cult following for many years they seem to be experiencing a posthumous level of attention that they could never have expected to achieve at the time.

I say the above because my saxophone teacher is currently in a band.  A proper actually gigging, writing their own material, band that might actually become a big thing in their own right - only one of their members is very publicly against tribute acts and has decried the ones he had to endure on his recent holiday...and I can't for the life of me understand why.

OK yes - going out and creating your own thing is a noble achievement and worthy of attention: but it's very hard to make a living from and besides there are various problems with that:

Take for instance the average cruise ship, casino or, if you will, ceremony of nuptials.  You don't want Sonic Death Monkey turning up and scaring your guests away - no indeed.  There's a reason why Come On Eileen by Dexys Midnight Runners is a cliche of the DJ at the British Wedding - it's because it always gets people up and dancing (though if I never hear it again...)

There's a reason why Dancing Queen by ABBA always gets played around 1am in the sort of disco that still has UV lighting and a semi-permanent pool of beer by the toilets - because Girls Of A Certain Age are genetically built to scream "wooooh-hooo" when they hear the opening chords and throw themselves on the dancefloor - destroying anything foolish enough to stand in their way

New music is great - but at an average pooling of a random group of people, only brought together by family ties, inebriation or both you need something that they know.  Any new band will tell you how hard it is to get a gig because of this - but if they're good enough then a following will start to happen

Also - as you may have noticed - there is a certain point in your career as a New Inspiring Voice where you inevitably become your own tribute act.  Too much success and ten years down the line no one wants to hear the new songs played, they want to hear the classics that made them like the band in the first place.

Finally, of course, new bands need somewhere to play - and those places need to attract punters in order to keep their doors open.  Bands with a name, or a known repertoire, are an easy sell - and who knows they may have a support slot.

And let's face it - going to see The Rolling Stones is very expensive.  These days you need a second mortgage to buy concert tickets - so why not see The Counterfeit Stones for £10 instead of £80

And some of these bands have very inventive names (although the majority are just "The INSERT COUNTRY OF ORIGIN Pink Floyd" or else named after songs) - my favourite of which include The Joshua Trio (U2) and the all-female punk band Sex Pissed Dolls

But at the end of the day the reason I feel these bands should be championed rather than ridiculed is that ultimately anyone getting up and learning an instrument and putting music into the world - even by someone else - is doing a good thing.

On a final note though I just want to contradict myself entirely: increasingly many years ago now I went on a creative writing course at a local college - on which was a man who was determined to write and have a Mills & Boon (hack romance) novel published.  This chap had analysed their books down to the Nth degree and knew what should be happening on Page x, paragraph y.

At the time I was rather saddened by this idea and wondered why anyone would want to subvert their creative juices to achieve such a thing...but really, isn't he doing the same as a tribute act only without a guitar?

Answers on a postcard please.  Meanwhile: here's Sonic Death Monkey:

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Not Nece-Cecil-ry A Good Thing

I have to say I have my doubts about this current trend of naming and shaming through social media

Not, I hasten to clarify, that I'm in favour of dentists who go shooting furry animals for fun - honestly, at this stage in our evolution I can't help but feel that when the robots finally rise up and overpower us we will, if we have decimated the planet for fun and profit, somehow deserve it.

But what are we trying to achieve here?  I mean, Cecil won't be any less dead will he?

And of course Cecil is merely the tip of a much bigger iceberg.  About a year ago now, on her honeymoon, a friend of mine went to a zoo in Thailand where she and her husband were invited to stroke and cuddle with some "tame" lions - sounds innocent enough so far, but after the event I looked into this and found out that lions and other animals are specifically bred and treated this way in some zoos so that they will approach the nice hunters when they get too old to be cute.

Even despite the game reserves, zoos and preservation attempts we are losing the battle because there is always a quick buck to be made by a local trying to put food on their family's plate, not worrying that their trade will be gone once the species has failed.

And again: I want to make it clear that I think shooting and killing something for fun is shameful and wrong and should be consigned to the history books - but I question the value of naming and shaming.

Firstly - if these people were happy to be photographed with their dead prey is it really likely that a few hundred people sharing their photo is going to change their minds or make it any less socially acceptable?  Right now in the UK a very strong Conservative party is motioning to relax some of the rules and regulations around Fox Hunting - something that surely no one was calling for.  We all understand the need to control vermin and pests to livestock - the problem we have is dressing in red outfits, yelling Tally Ho and making a day of it.

And yet it persists - does the tide of public opinion against people going fox hunting stop even a single hunt?  Somehow I doubt it.

Secondly - have we thought about the ramifications.  OK so you and your immediate friends might be level headed individuals ready to yell "shame", but sooner or later that post is going to reach someone willing to take the law into their own hands.  Sure: what this dentist did was not very nice, but the guy may well lose his business, has had death and arson threats and is probably at threat of having his friends and family reproached by association.

A few years ago there was a famous case in the UK of a farm that was breeding animals for fur - there was an almighty clash as animal rights protesters blockaded the house, throwing firebombs at the buildings.  Whilst I respect the feelings of these people that unnecessary cruelty to animals is a bad thing, I cannot condone actions to stop it that bring us to the level of animals ourselves.

Is that really what we want?  What problem would that solve exactly?  Surely responding in this way makes us as bad as the killer with the gun in his hand.

By all means protest, sign petitions, contact your local politician and continue to work for a world where this sort of thing no longer happens - but don't endanger someone's life in the process

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Tray A Little Tenderness

I always feel a little disappointed that establishments like the Hilton allow riffraff like me in.

There should, in my opinion, be a long coated man at the door who reaches out with immaculate white gloves and gently stops me with a polite but firm “I think Sir will feel more comfortable in another, lesser, establishment”

Places like the Ritz, the Hilton and that are owned by anyone who has a child named after a major city are probably not the sort of places to which the likes of me would usually gain egress and the fact that they will allow me to stay there in return for the exchange of small pieces of paper (or increasingly the swiping of a plastic card) in some way cheapens them.

As you may have guessed by now a few nights ago I stayed at a branch of the Hilton on the one of my increasingly rare work visits (these occur every year or so and are usually to do with training or meetings) – paid for out of the company coffers. We were down to visit a site that already had a Bright and Shiny New Practice that we wished to emulate and also to have a team bonding day for what is increasingly a disparate group of ragamuffins who are spread to the four corners of the universe.  Quite frankly though: if the two people required to give us the briefing on the aforementioned Process had come to us it would have been a hell of a lot more economic than shunting a team of 16 people half-way up and down the country.

I had chosen to stay overnight the night before in a desperate attempt to be even vaguely awake for the meeting and in the knowledge that the trains from my local station to this site were about as frequent and believable as sightings of the yeti.

Staying in a hotel on company expenses is not what it used to be – back in the Good Old Days you used to get a generous food allowance and pretty much be able to book wherever you wanted to, arriving there in a gold plated Rolls-Royce if one should desire to do so. However: these days everything has to be In Budget and therefore affordable – so you get enough money to feed a hamster and bus fare home if you’re lucky. However: I had managed to swing it so that I could get the Hilton as my hotel is on this occasion as it was just about in budget.

My plan was to get something to eat at lunchtime and then just grab a snack at the train station that I could eat in my hotel room – however this proved to be more difficult than I had thought, because I couldn’t find my way around the train station enough to find anywhere that would sell suitable snacks. The platform, i decided, could only have been designed by Professor Rubik, In addition to which the train ride had been hot, sweaty and tiring – with corridors crammed with people, so I was pretty tired and just decided to get a taxi straight to the hotel and just order in.

There was no sign of the white gloved doorman when I arrived, so it was a relatively simple operation for me to go through the door, approach the lady behind the desk and plant my ukelele on the desk (having foolishly agreed to provide a section of “entertainment” to close off the day) – the major miracle being that in the two trains and three taxis between work and the hotel I had not succeeded in losing my microscopic instrument.

She looked at me in my jacket, T-shirt and jeans, with my windswept hair and must have assumed I was some kind of vagabond, because when I booked inand asked how much wireless access would cost me she gave me a free pass (which would normally have cost £8) as well as taking my payment details for the breakfast the next morning (£12)

I didn’t really want anything big to eat – having eaten out at lunch, and by now my feet were very tired – so I decided to look at the room service menu and based upon the selections, and even despite the fact I thought it was a ridiculous amount pay, I ordered an omelette that cost me £10

Now I don’t know about you, but I think £10 is quite a bit pay for a couple of whisked up eggs mixed into some milk – quite frankly I could have done that and I doubt it took their most highly trained sous chef to create my meal– anyway, it was okay and was sufficient for me. It took me awhile to find the free tea and coffee, which they had surreptitiously hidden away in a drawer next to the not – so – free minibar (cheapest item £3 for a chocolate bar) and to work out the remote control (£9 for a film)

The room was pretty much like any other hotel room I have ever stayed in and there was not much to do. I don’t know what it is like in other countries, but most Hilton’s seem to be out in the middle of nowhere, so once you are there they are pretty much playing to a captive audience unless you have transport – so my only option was to flick through the channels watching naff TV until it was time to go to bed and check facebook for humorous pictures of cats.

In the morning I woke up, showered and pulled back the curtains to the exciting view of another part of the hotel and saw that my bill had been pushed through the door during the night. When I looked at it I noticed that it was £5 more than I was expecting it to be and it was only then that I realised that they had charged me £5 for the tray at my meal had come on.

Not, I hasten to add, for the purchase of my tray (which quite frankly I could have found in a fairly 
decent pound shop), but for the “hire” of the tray. Had I not been so tired the night before I would have noticed this and ordered in a pizza (with free box)

I was actively incensed and paced around the room like a delegate from the Tourette Convention for a good couple of minutes – I could understand this in a budget hotel, where everything is optional or extra: but in the one kind of expects that things like trays required for delivering food on, is part of the price.

I took a deep breath. I calmed down. I went downstairs to breakfast: wearing my Manic Street Preachers T-shirt and jeans.

It was a small act of defiance that brought me little or no satisfaction as I piled my overly priced breakfast onto my tray and called for a second cup of coffee, but it was worth it for the look of horror on the faces of the two business types in suits who shared the left down with me.

After breakfast I made a hurried escape – before they could set the man in the white gloves on to me.

Monday, 4 May 2015

Where Do Songs Come From?

A question almost every writer will be asked at some point in their lives is: where do you get your ideas from?

Agatha Christie allegedly used to answer this all-too-often asked question by replying, "From Harrods, of course: where else?"

Terry Pratchett postulated that ideas are like lightning arcing through the air in search of the right head and that it was equally possible for an idea about quantum mathematics to hit the head of a camel as it was to hit the head of Einstein - which goes some way to explaining why camels look so permanently surprised.

I began thinking about this after a series of incidents where I have woken up at 3am with an idea bouncing around in my head and had to find some way of recording it before it was lost forever.  Where did this idea come from? Why did it arrive at 3am?  Why is it not possible for it to arrive at a more convenient time: for instance when I am sat with a piece of paper trying to come up with an idea.

I suspect that the amount of times that someone, even a great songwriter, sat down and said "right: let's create a classic song" and then did so are quite small.  Sure: there are plenty of people who can bash out hit single after hit single on demand and make a living out of doing so - but the truly great songs...well, I suspect they are a bit harder.

Elton John, I believe, allows himself a maximum of one hour to find a tune for the lyrics that Bernie Taupin has supplied - if he can't get to grips with it in that time then he abandons the song and moves on - personally I don't know how one would go about writing a set of lyrics and then handing it over to someone else to come up with a tune, but I would imagine that Bernie has to write quite a few lyrics before he finds one he thinks suitable to present to His Eltonness

The truth is that there is no easy formula or solution to this - otherwise we'd all be doing it: but here are a couple of examples of how you can start:

#1: Some form of physical exercise.
Preferably in the middle of nowhere and with no recording implements so that you have to keep repeating the idea to yourself until you get to a notepad/mobile phone/handily placed secretary - there's something about the motion and rhythm of exercise that is beneficial - particularly to song writing which is all about rhythm and movement

#2: Talking to yourself.
Some people say that talking to yourself is the first sign of madness: I say it's rude to ignore the little pixies.  However: talking to yourself is a way of externalizing your thoughts and making them solid - if you really allow yourself to relax you will often find yourself thinking in ways that surprise you and saying things that you have no idea where they came from.  If you get embarrassed talking to yourself try talking to the cat instead.

#3: Being in a creative space
Some of the best ideas come purely from being around other creative people and doing creative things - more than a few of my songs have come from just mucking around on the guitar and seeing what happens.  Most famously Dave Gilmour (Pink Floyd) has said that the notes for Shine On You Crazy Diamond just seemed to fall off the guitar - most likely whilst he was playing around and seeing what would happen

#4: Listening and giving it time
Some of the best songs I have ever written have come from things that people have said to me that have stuck in my mind.  Most recently a friend was telling me about her violin and it's history and it just stuck with me: I knew somewhere in the back of my head that there was a story to be told, but nothing came through immediately.  Then, one night, I woke up at 3am with a fully formed chorus in my head.

#5: Try not to interfere too much
I read an interview with Bono some years ago where he said something along the lines that songs were ideas floating in the air and that the more you reached for them and tried to catch them the more you changed the shape of what they were - scraping away the imagery this essentially means that the more you let the idea occur naturally the more pure it will be and that sometimes by messing around with an idea too much you can break it.  Having said that: the above mentioned song about the violin took me two days to finish writing, but is probably the exception to the rule as I usually try to get the idea down fairly quickly

#5: Practice
Ultimately if you have the time and patience to do so you should spend some time trying to be creative every day.  I saw an interview on TED some time back about creativity where the speaker said "Inspiration may not turn up: but you should" - and it's true, because if you train yourself to be receptive to the ideas that come along then they are more likely to materialize in the first place.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Yet More Film Reviews

#1: The Imitation Game

There are many big names in Hollywood – but at 19 letters Benedict Cumberbatch is surely one of the biggest

This quirky British actor is slowly gaining himself a reputation playing intense characters such as Khan (Staff Trek: Into Darkness), Stephen Hawking (TV series Hawking), Sherlock Holmes (TV series Sherlock), Julian Assange and now legendary mathematician and war time code breaker Alan Turing

The film follows the story of Bletchley Park – where the team test with the seemingly impossible challenge of breaking the Enigma code were based, focusing on Turing and his relationship with the rest of the team, although it does so in a semi-flashback some years later when Turing is brought in for questioning following a break-in at his apartment which initially leads to him being suspected as being a Soviet spy.

Benedict Cumberbatch is a highly skilled actor who manages to make Turing both an outsider and also ultimately likeable character, who struggles to communicate with others due to his obsession with the giant computer he is trying to build – the first of its kind. Keira Knightley is also strong as the main female, who due to restrictions on women working on the project has to perform her mathematics almost secretly. How much of the story, aside from the focus on the Enigma machine is true is debatable – however this is a tense and enjoyable story that keeps you interested from start to end and at the end, when you discover the eventual fate of Turing (for those who don’t already know at the start) you feel genuinely angry on his behalf and for those who suffered the same fate

This is well worth watching if only for the story of Bletchley Park - which may have been one of the best kept secrets of WW2

#2 The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

When the original film came out a couple of years ago it was the surprise hit of the year – a film about a bunch of old age pensioners who, for various reasons, decide to retire to a dilapidated hotel in India where they find a new lease of life.  The film appealed to a whole generation of cinema goers who were being overlooked in the rush to fill the cinemas with films about robots hitting each other and with a strong ensemble cast that included almost all of Britain’s acting elite, a plethora of exotic locations and plenty of humour it was an enjoyable and oddly life-affirming film

This sequel carries on where the first film left off – with the residents of the now flourishing hotel finally settling in as the young proprietor tries to juggle expanding his empire, the imminent arrival of a hotel inspector and his forthcoming nuptials. 

Cue Richard Gere turning up, wooing the ladies and much confusion as to whether he is/isn’t the expected Hotel Inspector (a plot that many have likened to an episode of the sit-com Fawlty Towers)
Pretty much everyone in the cinema seemed to enjoy the film and I have to say it was certainly nice enough to look at whilst it was happening, but there was something slightly missing from the film that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.  

Perhaps it was the way that the plot twists seemed to be sign-posted for all to see or that the action all seemed a bit by the book but there seemed to be something of the heart of the original story that was missing from this.  

All in all it was an enjoyable enough film at the time and it carried enough good will through from the first film to get away with it – but it left me feeling oddly like I’d eaten an average takeaway meal: when you go for the meal you are thinking how much you are looking forward to it, and you scoff it down quickly enough – but at the end you still feel slightly empty and want to bite into something a bit more tasty

#3: Pride

And then we come to Pride.

It’s almost impossible to describe to anyone not from England what the words “1980s”, “Margaret Thatcher” and “Strike” evoke but the Miners Strikes of the 70s and 80s were one of the most turbulent times in our recent history – on the one hand you had an ancient industry that was struggling to cope in the modern world, competing against foreign fuels and finding the communities that lay behind the industry struggling to earn a decent wage and on the other hand you had a strong Conservative government determined to break the power of the Unions after decades of strikes no matter what the cost to the people – starving them out and turning the Police on them wherever necessary

And in the middle of all this, in a true story that history had all but forgotten, was a small Gay community surrounding a special interest bookshop in London that decided that they could associate with what the miners were experiencing at the hands of the police (having experienced brutality at the hands of the Police and others) and decided that they wanted to help

Finding that none of the unions wanted to be publically associated with a Gay and Lesbian group for fear of the negative publicity they approached a small welsh mining community directly and went on to become one of the most reliable sources of food and fundraising during the latter days of the strike

The fact that over a week after seeing this film I’m struggling to write this review without getting emotional tells you something about what an absolutely amazing film this was: funny and shocking, tearful and uplifting with a cast that included Bill Nighy (who seems to get everywhere), Imelda Staunton and Ben Schnetzer as Mark Ashton (the leader of the group) – it really is a film that you will find yourself going back to mentally time and again after the end credits roll

Clearly, being a period piece, this film uses some of the language and prejudices of the times and for me one of the most uplifting things of seeing this at the cinema was to hear the gasps of shock at the way people were treated purely due to their sexuality and to realise how much those attitudes have changed – although admittedly I was saddened to see that in the USA all references to Homosexuality have been removed from the DVD case to help increase sales (I’d be interested to sit in the front room of anyone who buys the film without knowing the content to see what they make of it as a result!)

I can’t possibly recommend this film enough – it is the best film I have seen in a long, long time and anyone who walks away from the ending without a tear in their eye is no friend of mine

Wednesday, 18 March 2015


One of the most disturbing news stories I have seen recently was something on my local news a couple of days ago. The report came from a local shopping centre where police had been negotiating with a man to come down from on top of the building. Sadly, however, he eventually jumped and died.

But the disturbing side of the story was to do with the onlookers: some of whom were reaching for camera phones to record the incident, while others were actively joking and shouting for him to jump. I found this last section particularly sickening – particularly the young lad who admitted on camera that some of the people he was hanging around with (i.e. him) had been amongst those catcalling the man.

There is psychological evidence to show that people who are part of the crowd are less likely to take action than a person on their own to help somebody – i.e. there’s a sense of “well someone else will do it”, but the fascination with recording everything is relatively new. It seems that the ability to carry a broadcast quality camera around in our pocket and instantly upload anything to the Internet has not only turned us into voyeurs on our own lives, but also desensitised us to the world around us.

However: to actually laugh and joke and urge somebody to jump to their death is a far more worrying development.

This follows on from a week where we have had a number of problems with local kids, which started with a valve being stolen from our tyre, continued with a wheelie bin being thrown at our door and most recently, albeit not directed at us, an attempt to smash as many car wing mirrors as they possibly could in the street (a series of events which has convinced us it’s time to move somewhere less semi-evolved)

With all of the above I keep saying to myself that I can’t understand the pleasure that could be gained from performing these actions: nor why someone would want to single us out, when all we have done is to keep to ourselves. And the truth is that it’s nothing to do with us – we are just easy victims and they have no understanding nor empathy of the effect of their actions. It’s just senseless violence for the sake of something to do.

I have no understanding for the kind of life they have led that can bring them to a state of being where attacking someone senselessly, or jokingly calling for someone’s death, can have no meaningful context or can be seen to be funny. Where is the pleasure in that?

But then how can I possibly have any understanding? I grew up in a completely different area, with parents who taught me right from wrong. I grew up in a completely different world, where people talked with each other instead of burying their face in their iPad. Although the kids at our school were pretty nasty sometimes I doubt that many of them would have shouted at someone to jump off a building, if any.

And why should they care about me?  They live in a world where the only goal is self gratification and there are little or no consequences.

All of this is left me thinking about an old episode of Star Trek: The Generation.

In the story, entitled “Darmok” Captain Picard encounters a race who initially seem to talk in gibberish despite all attempts to translate them. In desperation the alien captain kidnaps Picard and takes them to the planet below, where he constantly says (amongst other things) “Darmok and Jilad at Tanagra”.

As the episode continues we slowly begin to understand that their language is entirely contextual and everything they say relates back to their ancient stories and history – the example being the story of Darmok and Jilad, who started off as enemies but came to be friends after they faced a battle together: only once you know this shared history does the sentence make any sense.

Although there is no realistic way that such language could have evolved the idea is an interesting concept – what would it do to our society if the only way we had of communicating with one another was to talk about shared experiences and relate them to our history? Would this foster a greater understanding of one another and read empathy for different viewpoints which it now became necessary to understand and relate to in order to do anything even as basic as trade with one another?

If we had no choice but to empathise with one another surely this would change the way we view our own lives and the world around us?

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Live Organ Transplants

I don’t know what it’s like in other countries, but getting anything for cheap in the UK requires a level of deduction and planning rarely seen outside the offices of Sherlock Holmes.

For instance – if I were to travel between my house and London via train an “any time you want” ticket would cost me around £140 and even booking from A to C on the cheaper tickets would still be around £90. However: if I break my journey so that I buy a ticket from A to B and then from B to C ON EXACTLY THE SAME TRAIN AS THE MORE EXPENSIVE OPTION and then come back from C to a station there is actually further on from A I can actually do this for around £55.

Not that the travel companies will tell you any of the above, oh no: you need a good knowledge of the route, a lot of determination and to spend a good fortnight trawling the internet and typing in all the different variations you can think of

It was with this thought in mind that, when I had to recently travelled to London for the 1st time in about 5 months, I decided it would be just as cheap to travel down the night before and stay over if I found a suitably cheap hotel. As it turned out the journey down in the evening cost £10 and the journey back the next day cost £25 – so all I needed to do would be to find a hotel for around £45 and I would pretty much break even (aside from food and taxis), alongside the benefit that I would be less tired for the team meeting that was due to take all day.

So I spent some time on the hotel comparison websites such as and also rang around 3 or 4 hotels before I finally spoke to a young woman with a heavy set Eastern Block accent who was far more helpful than the previous hotels had been and, as such, I decided to book with them requesting a room on the 1st floor as I knew they wouldn’t have a lift and didn’t fancy 20 flights of stairs!

So the day of my travel arrived and at 5:15 PM I boarded the slow train to London – arriving just after 7:30 PM, by which time I was too tired to face the thought of travelling on the underground and caught a taxi across London that actually ended up costing me more than the entire train journey so far! As I arrived I saw that the front of the hotel was covered in scaffolding, making it impossible to see the contours of the building. To be fair I wasn’t expecting a great deal – this was a one star hotel, which means it was as cheap as you can possibly get (hotels in England tend to go from 1 to 5 stars).

Inside the woman with the Eastern Block accident greeted me, telling me that if I wanted a remote control for the TV it would be a £5 deposit – which I politely declined, having taught my generic tablet device with me (complete with downloaded program about art from the BBC).

I followed her direction down the corridor and saw that the stairwell that I was due to climb was covered in clear plastic sheeting (the kind you see bodies wrapped in on CSI Punxsutawney) and it was then that my texts to my friend and occasional fellow blogger Argent that the hotel would turn out to be a front for illegal organ donation or the Russian Mafia/white slave trade came back told me, even despite the smell of plaster and paint that was clearly the true explanation.

I carefully climbed the stairs, making sure not to slip on the sheeting whilst also examining it for any tell-tale signs of blood or entrails, and let myself into the room.

The room itself was little more than a box with a single bed in each opposing corner and a small cupboard that served as the ensuite bathroom and toilet in between. The shower was a square that was barely big enough for a 12-year-old to clean themselves and the toilet was positioned in such a way that it faced an outward jetting part of the wall, making it impossible to sit down on the seat in a straight line with the system behind your back without first removing one of your legs.

However the room was clean and the bed seemed reasonably comfortable which was the main thing.

It was now so dark that I couldn’t see what kind of view I had, but with the window closed could barely hear any traffic.

This was when I inadvertently made my 2nd mistake. Earlier in the day I had listened to documentary about a musical group that had played a song in the style of a Slavic anthem and, what with my comments about the Russian Mafia, I found this stuck in my head all night long as my brain refused to shut up and let me sleep properly.

Now this is where things get really strange – because at about 11/12 at night another man let himself into the room and started setting up on the other bed – it turned out that the hotel had double booked the room, explaining the 2nd single bed. To be honest I should have gone down and complained – but I was far too tired and decided just to put up with it, as he didn’t seem to be making much noise.

However – at about 3 o’clock in the morning the door of the room was kicked in and a shadowy figure appeared in the doorway, leering drunkenly into the room. After a moment’s hesitation he apologised in a sick Russian accident and went away again to the room he should actually have been staying in. I got up and went to the door of the room, only to see that had been kicked clean off the hinges.

It was at this point that I woke up and found myself alone again in the hotel room – my fellow guest and the Russian Mafia bloke having been created by my imagination.  Sleep continued to come and go for the rest of the night, interspersed by a variety of songs playing in my head to the beat of a polka.

Morning came and I somehow managed to squeeze into the tiny space allocated for shower and washed myself – then it was downstairs to the basement where there was an array of beds and linen splayed out across the hallway outside of the breakfast room. Breakfast was beyond extremely cheap: consisting only of a tiny packet of cereals, an extremely runny yoghurt and some cheap orange squash – so I ate enough to feel that I had earned at least some of my additional £2 I paid for the privilege and checked out.

In the end, if you include all the taxis, it did end up costing me more than coming down on the same day would have – but the main thing is that I was awake, ready for work and still had all of my internal organs intact!

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

The Cribbins Factor

It’s 8:30 in the morning and I’ve just dumped my bag on my desk and before heading to make myself a much-needed cup of coffee I nip to use the facilities.

The “facilities” here are in the shape of separate cubicles inside a small corridor at the back of the building not far from where I sit. As I opened the door to the cleaning lady with the Afro hairstyle greets me with a smile and says “good morning”

I return the smile and ask if she managed to get home on time yesterday: this not being our first meeting. She tells me again about her 2nd job that she has taken on to help pay her daughters way through college, meaning that for the next couple of years she is working 15 hour days.  I commiserate and tell her not to overdo it.

I go back to the coffee making area and the chap with the moustache who somehow knows my name (despite the fact that I have no idea of his) says “good morning Pixie” before I get involved in a conversation with crazy eyelash lady who is under the weather at the moment with a combination of a cold and a pulled back muscle. I recommend Lemon & Ginger tea with honey over Lemsip (full of sugar – yuck)

This, in short, is my life: people seem to see something in me that makes them want to tell me their entire life story at the drop of a hat

People of all shapes and sizes just seem to befriend me: from the chap at the train station, who regularly tells me about the workings of the local railway, to this security guard with a hearty laugh who greets me with a fist bump whenever I’m in the building, to the variety of people around the office that I regularly stop and chat to – some of whom I know who they are and some of whom I have only the vaguest idea.

Perhaps it is because I’m quite quiet and I’m usually happy to listen, perhaps it is because I make no distinctions in life – a cleaner, to me, is just as important and worth my time as a senior manager and I try to treat both the same. Perhaps it is because I take things quite lightly and am usually ready with a silly comment: though personally I attribute it to what you might call The Cribbins Factor

Now I accept that at this point I’m probably going to lose some of my readers – if not all of you: because I don’t know how I can possibly explain Bernard Cribbins to a global audience.

Bernard Cribbins is what you might call a National Treasure: the something that I’ve always wondered about. There are plenty of celebrities who are referred to as national treasures, but I wonder what this really means. For instance: do they have to open themselves up to the public on bank holidays?

Mr Cribbins is an actor, most known for his work in light comedy and children’s entertainment. He has been in such films as The Railway Children, Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150 A.D., Casino Royale (the 60s spoof, not the Daniel Craig one) and been the voice-over for classic animation series like The Wombles (essentially a bunch of creatures that live on Wimbledon Common and collect rubbish).

He was also a regular presenter on Jackanory – which was a 70s/80s TV show where minor celebrities of the time read children’s stories episodically over a week and for me, as a result of this last programme, he will always also be the quintessential Bilbo Baggins.

More recently he made several appearances in the revamped Doctor Who as Donna Noble’s grandfather and he is also known for a series of comic songs in the 70s including “Right Said Fred”

None of which, I suspect, will make you any the wiser if you live outside of the UK

However: when a friend of mine recently described me as having “the air of affable approach-ability of Bernard Cribbins” I was oddly pleased – as he has always struck me as somebody who would be extremely down-to-earth and, should you ever meet him, would turn out to be extremely pleasant and generous with his time.

Not that I will be having one, because they are so expensive now, but if the best thing they can find to say about me on my tombstone is “he had the affable approachability of Bernard Cribbins” I shall not consider my time to have been wasted – after all what is so wrong with spending a life being nice to people and spreading a little affability around?

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Keep Below The Parapet

It can be small wonder that we British never managed to invent Jazz – or much else in the way of music come to that.

We seem to have been hanging on the coattails of other countries musically for several hundred years – all the great composers were German or Swiss apart from Elgar; Blues and Country both came from the colonies and it’s hard to think how something as tropical but relaxed as reggae could ever have originated on a cold November night in West Dulwich.

In fact about the only thing we can claim any sort of heritage with musically is folk music – which is largely people in Arran jumpers wearing ginger beards you could hide a ferret in, sticking one finger in their ear, screwing up their eyes and singing about how much better everything was 500 years ago – but even this largely comes from Scotland, Ireland or in cider growing country or wherever miners chose to frequent.

With our famous Stiff Upper Lip, no-nonsense view of the world and strict adherence to queueing for everything it’s hard to imagine what Brits must have thought when we first heard Jazz: which is largely people plinking around randomly on a piano in search of a tune. (NB I should probably say at this point that my image of Jazz as a child is largely garnered from brief performances by Cleo Laine and John Dankworth as she scat sang her way through hour after interminable hour that made me want to bury my ears in concrete with every shoobie-do-do-do-wah)

About 4 or 5 years ago now I started learning to play the saxophone – in truth it was something I had thought about doing about 10 years previously and then never followed up on. The saxophone, when played correctly, can be a beautiful instrument that produces a lot of emotion despite its connection to cheesy 1980s pop songs and the inevitable image those bring of a man on a beach without a shirt on. However – it does have inevitably strong links to Jazz, having largely been invented the purpose of playing that particular ilk of music.

Which is probably why I still struggle with the blasted thing: particularly when it comes to improvisation.

Douglas Adams once wrote that his character Arthur Dent could contrive to feel self-conscious if left alone with a pot plant for long enough, let alone with other people and I know exactly what he meant: when you improvise you are awfully exposed and bringing attention to yourself, inevitably inviting other people to comment on what you have just done – when, in my case at least, all you have done is to go up and down the scales in a largely formulaic manner.

I should mention at this point that I never dance in public unless there is a large crowd of people in which I can hide – and that when I do, very rarely, dance attempt to do what I call an “embarrassed boxer shuffle” where I sort of jiggle on the spot with my fists clenched looking at the ground for a shorter period of time as I can politely manage before considering it safe to go and sit on the sidelines and watch everybody else move with abandon – or preferably just go home and read a book. This is a similar experience to trying to improvise because it makes you acutely aware of your failings, particularly when you don’t have a great deal of confidence in what you’re doing in the first place.

Since October last year for a number of reasons I haven’t really played my saxophone and when I first picked it up after quite a long break I found that I had forgotten some of the few scales I had previously managed to remember and become rusty on the others. I’ve also stopped going to my lessons partially at frustration that none of it seemed to be sinking in, partially because I simply wasn't able to go and partially as increasingly large parts of the lesson focus around improvisation.

Since this is something I don’t feel comfortable with in the first place I find that I don’t enjoy the process and that this disinclines me from practising improv outside of the lesson, which presumably only adds to the problem. I feel that I somehow lack the imagination and spontaneity required. I just can ‘t seem to get past that sense of being pointed out in the crowd that we Brits fear so much.

Maybe I should just give up, buy a big woolly jumper, dye my beard ginger and go wassailing in the merry month of May…

…but somehow I doubt I’d manage two streets before I died of embarrassment.

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

As Close As A Blade

It can be truly said that barely more than a generation ago you could tell a lot about a British family by how many buttons they had on their TV set and what they did with them.

This was, of course, back in the days when in order to watch a TV programme one had to switch on the set approximately 3 days in advance so it could warm up and that in order to do you had to get up from your sofa, walk across the room and press a switch (oh, the humanity!), bang the set a little  and then wait.

By the time you had sat down again there would be the beginnings of sound and then, shortly thereafter, there would be a steady black-and-white picture. 

Of course, in these days, there were only 4 buttons on the telly – the on/off button and 3 channel buttons: none of which were ever touched because, of course, there was only one channel that any right minded British person would watch.

For most people owning those early boxes things started going wrong when those additional buttons started being the home to programmes. Obviously there was the BBC – that bastion of England, where radio presenters wore dinner jackets and everyone spoke in a clipped Etonian accent: unless they were interrupted by Winston Churchill saying something extremely patriotic. Then later there was BBC 2 and already there were mumblings that perhaps this was a channel too many.

When ITV came along with its adverts pumping their way into your home, bringing soap operas and light entertainment in their wake there was a lot of frowning and disapproving puffing on pipes being done across the land. My own father can clearly remember watching ITV with his father’s disapproving glare on his back: the second he glanced anywhere else my grandfather would reach over and switch back to the only proper channel. In these days of course there was no morning telly, broadcasting would stop around bedtime for children and programs would stop entirely at midnight.

When Channel 4 and later Channel 5 came along forcing us to buy sets with extra buttons there was practically a civil war.

It was whilst I was having a shave the other night that I found myself thinking along these lines and remembering the old adverts for Remington that were fronted by entrepreneur Victor Kiam with his 2 famous catchphrases “so good I bought a company” and “shaves as close as a blade or your money back”

Now I have to admit that I am something of an infrequent shaver - whereas growing up I was constantly told stories of ancestors who had survived Ypes and never missed a day’s shave I am often known for going several days without trimming the old face fuzz and generally only shave when it becomes properly itchy. Additionally if I am poorly (i.e. cold) I may leave this longer so as to truly feel well once the symptoms have started to pass.

This is because I truly feel there is something nice about a really good shave that one has waited for – if you shave every day you can begin to take this for granted, whereas if you wait a few days until the stubble is annoying you and then have a really good, close pruning session your face feels much more refreshed for it. Additionally about 12 years or so ago I went over to shaving with a blaze and, aside from the inevitable cuts, I have never looked back.

But even I, on those days when I finally do get round to momentarily not looking like a vagabond or extremely cheap rate Pirates of the Caribbean reject, cannot quite understand what it must have been like for Victor when presented with this amazing piece of technology he didn’t merely think “gosh this is quite good, I must thank my wife for her thoughtful gift” – which most sane people would have done – but instead decided to go out and buy an entire company.

It makes me wonder what kind of life he had lead up until that point that he could be so amazed by a simple razor (always assuming she didn’t buy him the Remington Fuzz Away for nasal hair removal) – and I can’t help but wonder what his wife’s reaction was.

“Honey: I like that so much I’m going to go out and buy the company!”

“Dammit: I knew I should have bought him slippers!”

Maybe we all need to pay more attention when using everyday items, perhaps one of you out there reading this could, upon opening your next tube of toothpaste, realise that this is the minty freshness that everyone needs and become the next Victor Kiam?

Oh and by the way...I still rarely watch ITV...

We still have some standards here you know!

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Film Review Time

Hello again and it’s time for my infrequent film review sections. As some of you may already know we have an arthouse cinema about 1 mile away from where we live which shows what I like to think of as Foreign ROad Movies About the Grimness of Existence (FROMAGE) and other such films that you don’t always get at the multiplex.

However increasingly it also now shows some of the mainstream films a few weeks after the other cinemas have shown them in an attempt to cover the losses of the less popular films which get a small but loyal audience: however this time around all of the films I'm going to talk about are mainstream – so there will be no mention of Brechtian overtones today.

First up I should say that during November I had a one-month trial of Netflicks which I subsequently decided to cancel – largely because in that one month I had watched pretty much everything on the lists that I wanted to. However: I did catch up on all the Marvel superhero films I had missed (Iron Man 2 and 3, Thor, Captain America etc) which were of mixed value. I also watched both seasons of Orange Is The New Black (definitely worth a watch) – and then found a new film in my “recommended to you” pile which, during a dull moment, I decided I would give a chance. That film was…

 #1: I Am Number 4

Now I have to admit I had never heard of this, but as I say: I was quite bored and there was nothing else to do – so I decided to watch it. The plot is essentially about a group of 7 children from another planet who are refugees on Earth. Each has a superhero power and a Buffy That Vampire Slayer style Watcher to look after them and keep them safe against the killer from their home planet that has come to wipe them out: a story that can only have been created with the mindset of “how much money can I make from the teen reader market that made the Twilight series so successful”

But this is where the plot gets really stupid – because the killers have to take them out in numerical order. I.e. if they bumped into number 7 now they couldn’t kill them because they haven’t killed number 3 yet. This is never explained to any great satisfaction and is utterly ludicrous.

The film trails along for nearly 2 hours with lots of explosions, some not so impressive fight set pieces and an unrealistic love interest from the previously mentioned number 7 – before I finally realised in the end credits that this was a film produced by Michael Bay – which only goes to show you should read the instructions before attempting anything, because I could have saved myself 2 hours of my life if I’d known that at the start.

My review: give it a miss. There’s nothing much to redeem this story and I can only hope that the sequel book never gets turned into a film. Not as big a waste of time as Iron Man 2 which was essentially 2 very long hours of Robert Downey Jr getting drunk – but close.

#2: Edge Of Tomorrow (or is it seems to have been retitled on DVD – Live, Die, Repeat – Edge of Tomorrow)

Now I have to admit I’m not a big fan of Tom Cruise. In fact I would go so far as to say I find him slightly annoying. Even as far back as Top Gun I thought his character Maverick was a little too full of himself and that Cruise came over as being too aware of his own good looks and overconfident. As such I wouldn’t go out of my way to watch one of his films.

However: it seems that I’m not alone – because in the last couple of films I have seen him in Tom Cruise has pretty much played to this facet of his character. In Jerry Maguire he plays an overconfident, slightly annoying PR expert who learns by the end of the film to be a better person and to accept love into his life, in War Of The Worlds he plays and overconfident, slightly irritating everyman who by the end of the film learns to be a better person and a better father and in this he plays another slightly annoying, self-involved PR expert who, through his own cowardice and self-preservation finds himself on the front line of an unwinnable war against a strange alien species that looks like those rubber spiders you used to throw at the wall as a kid and watch climb down the surface.

The plot of this film is a kind of mix of Groundhog Day and Starship Troopers – because every time the main character dies he pops back to life again at the start of the same day, slowly learning to be a better person and a better fighter until such time as he is capable of surviving further and further into the day.

Edge Of Tomorrow is one of those sci-fi films where plot and the pace carries you along at sufficient speed that you don’t have time to question all the bits that don’t really make much sense and it looks good enough to make you believe in the world you find yourself. There’s not much here are any intellectual level: no attempt to really find out what the aliens want or why they are attacking, or even to show them as anything other than just brutal killing machines – but that’s not really the purpose of the film.

My only real problem with the film was the ending, which without wanting to give anything away I felt was a bit of a copout.

Ultimately I enjoyed this film enough whilst I was watching it – but had no real desire to ever watch it again: so I would recommend that you wait for it to be on telly or to borrow it from a friend (as I did)

#3 Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes (DOT-POTA)

I have to admit that I am something of a POTA fan and have now seen all of the films apart from the 1st of the rebooted franchise Rise…

There surely can’t be that many people in the world who aren’t aware of the original Charlton Heston movie where an astronaut arrives on a strange planet to find that the balance between man and ape has been reversed – followed by the inevitable sequels Underneath The…, Escape From…, Conquest Of… And Battle For… All of which was then followed by an ill recieved Tim Burton reboot and a further reboot, which takes us to where we are now.

There have been those who pointed out the really Dawn should’ve come before Rise – because unless they were on a night shift most people, and presumably apes, don’t rise until after the dawn – but this is a niggly point which we will swiftly gloss over (until such time as the 3rd film turns out to be called Weetabix Of The Planet Of The Apes – which is surely the next in the logical sequence of crawling out of bed)

As I said earlier I haven’t seen ROT-POTA, but this film makes enough sense on its own to be viewed alone and actually is extremely relevant to the times we are living in, because if you take away the talking apes what you are left with is a story about racial intolerance and misunderstanding and the consequences of hatred. Both sides have their reasons for disliking and mistrusting the others and ultimately it is a lack of ability to communicate and get past these issues that leads to the problems.

The CGI apes are fantastic, brought to life as usual by Andy Serkis – a man who has so far been foolishly overlooked for a best actor award – who gives Caesar a real sense of personality. It’s a fast-moving film that keep you watching all the way – but it’s only problem is that the ending suffers from this being a middle section of the longer story – i.e. it leave you hanging for the next instalment.

Ultimately I found this an engaging film with enough going on to leave you asking questions and interested enough to want to see the next one.

#4: The Lego Movie

This has been one of the big surprise successes of 2014 – a film about consumerism gone mad, creativity and oddly about individuality in a world demanding uniformity, but with jokes and, of course, Batman.

The story follows an everyday worker who comes to believe that he is the chosen one of a prophecy to save Legoland and his wacky adventures. It’s also a film about how we deal with change: so for a children’s film starring a bunch of CGI animated bricks there’s a lot more going on here than jokes. 

Perhaps it was the fact that I saw it on quite a small TV screen – but although I found this passed the time I didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought was going to. I kind of feel that I need to give it another chance on a larger screen and perhaps I might enjoy it more then – but I also saw some episodes of the Lego Yoda Chronicles shortly after and laughed twice as hard at the jokes in that as I did those in the movie.

I’d be interested to know if anyone reading this has seen this film and enjoyed it more than I did as I know a lot of people thought it was amazing – because at the moment I'm a little bit ambivalent.

#5: Paddington

Anyone who has grown up in England, certainly during the 1970s, will be aware of Michael Bond’s stories about a refugee bear who comes to London and moves in with an everyday family – certainly I grew up with the BBC’s animated series voiced by Michael Horden (which had the supporting characters of the Brown family shown as two-dimensional cardboard cutouts and Paddington himself as the only 3-D colour character and was utterly charming as a result)

Paddington is a rare talking bear who wears a duffel coat, red hat and has a fascination with marmalade sandwiches – he is well-meaning but slightly innocent and often gets into trouble by trying to be helpful.

I think there were a lot of people who, when hearing that there was going to be a film, panicked that the charm of the 70s TV series would be lost and it would be ruined forever. Certainly when stories started coming through that the original voice of Paddington (Colin Firth) had been replaced halfway through filming there was a certain trepidation that it was going to be awful.

However – as it turned out we couldn’t have been more wrong. From the opening sequence to the end credits this film doesn’t put a single step wrong and it would take a person much more cynical than myself to watch this film without smiling from start to end and laughing out loud on several occasions. I have never applauded a film as I find it a bit weird to applaud people who aren’t there – but when at the end of the movie the audience began to clap I nearly found myself joining in.

This is a cast that includes Hugh Bonneville as the safety conscious Mr Brown, Julie Walters as the dotty aunt/gran figure, the fabulous Ben Wishaw as the voice of Paddington and Nicole Kidman having a whale of a time as the evil taxidermist. Even the addition of the calypso band D Lime who appear as a small running joke on the streets at various times adds to the charm of this film.

The CGI of Paddington is such that you completely accept him as a real character and you genuinely find yourself on the edge of your seat at times of peril and at 90 minutes the film feels exactly the right length. Although this is essentially a children's film it's intelligent and funny enough to please any adult and to bring out the inner child.

I know this film may be hard to find outside the UK – but if you get the chance to go see this please do, because this is quite simply the best film I’ve seen in a long, long time.