Friday, December 19, 2008

WHEN THE POET MEETS THE SINGER

It’s strange how one thing leads to another.

I’ve just returned from a visit to my Brother in Law in Yorkshire, during which he lent me a couple of books – Words and Music to songs by two sets of people I’d almost forgotten about. One set, Flanders and Swann, was quintessentially 1960s English. Not British, English. And the other was Tom Lehrer, as 1960s American as you could get.

The thing which connected them together was they both wrote very witty and very clever songs which caught the feeling of their times to perfection. Flanders and Swann wrote songs about Britains’s Rail Cuts when a third of its network was summarily closed, songs about being English, and very much NOT being foreign. I’m not a particular expert on these things but they also wrote only song I know about the First and Second Law of Thermodynamics it ends with the definitely non dumbed-down throwaway closing line – “That’s Entropy, Man!”

Tom Lehrer was a Maths Lecturer who had a wicked sense of humour, and a lovely way with words, particularly in the way he got the most bizarre and delicious rhymes into his lyrics. In a similar vein to Flanders and Swann, he wrote a song which simply contained the names of all the (then known) chemical elements, arranged in typical Lehrer style into perfectly, not almost perfectly, scanning and rhyming couplets. More of his verse -


When you attend a funeral,
It is sad to think that sooner or
Later those you love will do the same for you.
And you may have thought it tragic,
Not to mention other adjec-
Tives, to think of all the weeping they will do.



TOM LEHRER - MASOCHISM TANGO


But, along the same clever lines, try this from Flanders and Swann – The Hippopotamus Song


They dived all at once,
With an ear-splitting splosh
Then rose to the surface again
A regular army
of Hippopotami
All singing this haunting refrain:




THIS IS FLANDERS AND SWANN OFFENDING MOST OF THE UK


You can buy CDs and downloads of the brilliant songs they all wrote, and if they don’t get you laughing out loud, as well as thinking about the messages which sit behind the lyrics, there’s something wrong with you.

But then, having delved into these two books, another name came into mind – Jake Thackray. Here’s a rather lugubrious Yorkshireman who came up with a raft of songs which he either wrote or translated. He died in 2000, but his work is available in several recordings. Try his song about an amorous gorilla. It’s actually an extremely clever translation from a French original.




JAKE THACKRAY - BROTHER GORILLA. EXCELLENT

And if you liked that, you’ll like this. Jasper Carrott, a Birmingham comedian, singing about a Bantam Cock. The song was written by Jake Thackray. Just look at his eyes during the song – priceless.


JASPER CARROTT - BANTAM COCK


With the way things are at the moment, you could be forgiven for thinking that this sort of poetry/songwriting is a dead or dying art. But no, noodling around on the Internet a couple of nights ago, I came across an Australian guy, Tim Minchin, who has seemingly taken up the mantle, and is currently filling concert halls with his humour. Try this one for size– the line about the Bell Curve is exquisite.



TIM MINCHIN - IF I DIDN'T HAVE YOU

All this probably says as much about the unfortunate state of my sense of humour, as anything else. But if you like them, have a cyber-browse. You’ll end up spending a great couple of hours.

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Sunday, November 23, 2008

AN EXERCISE IN HUMILITY

Here’s a blog that’s worth reading - http://wnandrt.blogspot.com/. Try November 16th‘s entry, entitled “Applying for my Darwin”, you will spend a few really amusing minutes enjoying the near demise of someone whose day job rather worryingly puts him in charge of hundreds of people’s lives flying airliners around North America. Just remember that when you read the alarming sequence of events of the Attack of the Killer Snowblower.

Just for the record, it actually takes a bit of humility to put yourself on the blog-line in such a way Yer Man does here. Too many of us stand on ceremony, and can’t face people thinking we ever do anything even a bit daft. Like, for instance, sticking your hand into a revving hover lawn mower to remove the last handful of grass cuttings. For the record, (this is the “Don’t try this at home” bit) trying to stop the rotor with your fingers doesn’t slow it down even the slightest, but it does make the grass a lovely red colour.

So, on the basis of communal intercontinental self-flagellation, I’ve been overtaken by an attack of something similar, so here goes.

The time is 1995, and the place is Italy. I am a manic photographer, but even I would admit that a holiday watching me wait for the right light, or the composition to gel perfectly could pall a little after a few days. It’s really a very selfish vocation – no-one takes pictures via a committee.

So off I went to Tuscany for a few days on my own, so I could concentrate on picture-taking. Before I left, I’d arranged a marvellous itinery staying one night in each of Verona, Siena, Florence and Portofino. I’d arranged to pick up a hire a car from Milan Airport so I could drive the 150 miles to Verona as soon as I arrived.

With huge anticipation, I arrived at Linate airport in Milan, went to the CarHire desk and presented myself. Passport – OK. Money – OK. Driving Licence – Ah. Yes. I distinctly remember taking that out of my wallet to save a bit of weight, and leaving it neatly on the desk in my study, back at home. Who’s a clever boy?

No Driving Licence, no car. No car, no Verona. Ringing home sets my wife off to try to inveigle an Italian pilot at Birmingham who’s about to take off for Milan to put it in his pocket and pass it on to me when he got there.

No luck. No-one was interested. So she put it on an Express UPS parcel delivery, which was great except it didn’t get to Milan until the next morning. So, instead of wending my way through the Italian countryside to Verona, I found myself on a bus heading for the centre of Milan, having booked a second hotel for that night.

To say I was not a happy bunny, would be a bit of an understatement. Off the bus, I dragged my suitcase and camera gear across the vast square in front of the Cathedral. Halfway across, I was accosted by a couple of young blind girls asking for money, one of them pawing at my arms and body. I was not in the best of moods and in spite of their ministrations, I blew them away.

Having found the hotel, I went through the registration process, and, you’ve probably got there ahead of me, found that I was travelling a little lighter than I wanted – to whit, one wallet.

Now, as a family we’d been to Europe 20 or 30 times over the previous ten years or so. We used to spread our money, all taken in cash, around all of our bodies, in various places in the car, in each of the suitcases and, and, and…... And of course, nothing ever happened to the cash. It was always there, and we never, ever lost a penny.

This time, learning from experience, I decided that you didn’t need to go to all that trouble, so I left everything in my wallet. The two girls, whose blindness I was now suspecting as conceivably being false, would have got home, and, although it was late May, would have thought it was Christmas. They were 4,200,000 lire to the good, and I wasn’t.

What to do? I’d ring home again, and get some money TT’d out to me. Excellent idea, Roger. Have you ever tried to get English coins into an Italian Telephone box? Well, don’t bother, they don’t fit. So I couldn’t ring the local consul either. Nearly 4pm, no money, no credit cards, no anything. Someone had clearly set me an initiative test which I was currently failing rather dismally.

I wandered around for a while, and saw a bank which had the rather magic name of “Abbey Nationale” above it. The meaning of this comes clear when you realise that my bank in England is (or was) “Abbey National”. But it had just shut for the night. It was 4.03pm.

Now, do you remember the bit at the end of “The Graduate” where Dustin Hoffman smashes his fist on the door of the church in the middle of a marriage ceremony to implore the bride, whose name I can’t remember (that’s because I was rabidly fancying her mother Anne Bancroft, by the way) to marry him instead.

Well, that was me. I was either going to break the door down, or they were going to unlock it and let me in. They finally took pity on me (I think it was bursting into tears that swayed the balance) and after a very strange conversation where I had to explain all of this in a language I could hardly speak, I finally got them to ring the Abbey National branch in my home town. Bless them at the home branch, they confirmed they knew me well but they couldn’t contact me because “I was on holiday in Italy”. Mille Grazia. A slug of replacement money flew over the ether instantly and I was back in funds. Yippee!

Too late for Verona, so a night in Milan, which is really nice – the Cathedral is a stunner, with around 2,200 individual statues adorning it. It looks like a stone wedding cake.

Next morning, back to the airport, and a bright red Fiat Punto’s keys were dropped into my grubby little hands. Vroom, vroom, and off to Verona.

What a super place. The walls are covered in frescos, the architecture is terrific, with statues everywhere, and it was simply a beautiful city. The centre piece is a fully working Roman Amphitheatre where, in the open air in front of 20,000 people, they perform opera under the stars, which can’t be bad.

Having settled in to my hotel, out came the new camera and off I went snapping away until the light went down, at which time my stomach called time. I found a simple outdoor restaurant next to the Amphitheatre, ordered a pizza and a bottle of Chianti, and settled down to watch the Italians promenading around. They do fancy themselves, especially the men.

Halfway through the pizza, I heard a kerfuffle going on a few yards behind me. I turned round and there’s a guy with my camera bag in his hand. The last time I’d seen it, it was nestling down just near my feet, but now this guy had £3,000 of my gear in his hand.

I went berserk. I am not a violent man, but over the previous 24 hours I’d had quite enough, thank you very much. So I shot up to him, shouting incoherently like a mad thing, and started to beat him up. I had lost it completely by that time.

Only to find out a few seconds later that this guy had actually seen the fellow who HAD walked past me and who had deftly picked up the bag without me even noticing its removal. He’d then shot off after the thief, recovered it when the guy dropped it and ran off, and was bringing it back to return it to me. Oh dear.

My Italian was strained beyond its limits as I tried to apologise, which, bless him, he accepted with remarkable grace. The bottle of expensive wine I bought him may have helped a bit, but I felt a total clown. I’d only been here 24 hours, and I was within an inch of being £6,000 worse off. And it was all down to my incompetence, as my dear wife inevitably pointed out. “You shouldn’t be let out on your own” seemed to be the gist of the argument.

Thankfully, the rest of the trip went swimmingly. The weather was good, the scenery was great, the food was terrific, and a good time was had by all, or at least me. On the last day, I wended my way back to Milan, to get the plane home, and thought it would be really nice to buy each of the family a really special present.

Milan is the home of really fancy silks and things like that. So I bought a couple of expensive scarves, a huge box of choccies , a silk shirt for myself, and a top drawer bottle of fizzy wine for one of my daughters.

Back to the airport, and off to get checked in – the boring bit. Into the Departure building, and up the stairs to the check-in desk.

Suddenly, a huge explosion went off right next to me, which scared me witless. Shit, what was that? I looked around and down, and there was the bag with all my goodies in it covered in foam and streaming with clear liquid. At the same time as the three Black Sunglassed Carabinieri rushed up to surround me, with their machine guns obviously ready for duty, I twigged that I’d very neatly caught the champagne bottle on the edge of one of the steps and it had exploded in the bag. The police seemed to find it intensely amusing, as I sat on the floor trying to dry the sodden gifts with a packet of tissues.

I didn’t share their sense of humour, as I wandered onto the plane smelling like an alcoholic. At least I got a decent amount of leg-room, with no-one seeming to want to sit near me.

It’s an ill wind etc. ……..





Friday, November 14, 2008

OBAMA IN PICTURES

Rather than moan about the way this country's going with the electorate seeming to drag Gordon Brown back from the dead, as the self styled Prince of Financial Recovery, I'm still on a high about Obama. Yes, I know the problems he faces are enormous. But, I have spoken to several friends this week, and they all said the same to me that they felt a huge uplifting feeling on the night of his electoral success. And, ever the optimist, I think that's an attitude and a feeling to nurture and support.

There's too much crap in this world, and once in a while we should rejoice when something like this comes along.

So, I've dug around on the web, and found a dozen images of Yer Man, and his wife, which I think are truly excellent - tons of feeling, and if you want an example of pictures speaking a thousand words, just look at these.

The images are by AFP-Getty Images, Jason Reed, Alex Brandon, Emmanuel Dunard, Jim Young, Pouya Dianat, Bill Bresler and Carrie Shell who took 5 of them.

















Now, doesn't that make you feel better?

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Wednesday, November 05, 2008

YES, WE CAN ......

Obama doesn’t become US President until January 20th next year. So all he can do right now is talk. And didn’t he do that in his acceptance speech.

You can’t help compare what he said last night in front of 250,000 people in Chicago last night with the words used by George W Bush on his congratulatory telephone conversation to Obama a few minutes before. If you want to see What is past, and compare it to What is to come, read on.

Dubya's phone call - "Mr President-elect, congratulations to you. What an awesome night for you, your family and your supporters. Laura and I called to congratulate you and your good bride," spokeswoman Dana Perino quoted Mr Bush as telling Senator Obama.

"I promise to make this a smooth transition. You are about to go on one of the great journeys of life. Congratulations and go enjoy yourself," Mr Bush told Senator Obama, she said.

Mr Bush also invited Senator Obama and his family "to visit the White House soon, at their convenience," Ms Perino said.

If you listen to Bush, you’d think Obama was taking his family, including his “good bride” on a trip to DisneyWorld, rather than starting out as President-Elect at a time when almost everything is stacked against him. I mean “What an awesome night…”, or “…go enjoy yourself.” Amazing.

As a contrast try listening to Obama’s speech. I’m probably doing what a lot of people are doing right now, and pulling the 17 minute clip off YouTube. But either read the transcript, or better still watch the video.




I just received a very gracious call from Senator McCain. He fought long and hard in this campaign, and he's fought even longer and harder for the country he loves. He has endured sacrifices for America that most of us cannot begin to imagine, and we are better off for the service rendered by this brave and selfless leader. I congratulate him and Governor Palin for all they have achieved, and I look forward to working with them to renew this nation's promise in the months ahead.

I want to thank my partner in this journey, a man who campaigned from his heart and spoke for the men and women he grew up with on the streets of Scranton and rode with on that train home to Delaware, the Vice President-elect of the United States, Joe Biden.

I would not be standing here tonight without the unyielding support of my best friend for the last sixteen years, the rock of our family and the love of my life, our nation's next First Lady, Michelle Obama. Sasha and Malia, I love you both so much, and you have earned the new puppy that's coming with us to the White House. And while she's no longer with us, I know my grandmother is watching, along with the family that made me who I am. I miss them tonight, and know that my debt to them is beyond measure.

To my campaign manager David Plouffe, my chief strategist David Axelrod, and the best campaign team ever assembled in the history of politics – you made this happen, and I am forever grateful for what you've sacrificed to get it done.

But above all, I will never forget who this victory truly belongs to – it belongs to you.

I was never the likeliest candidate for this office. We didn't start with much money or many endorsements. Our campaign was not hatched in the halls of Washington – it began in the backyards of Des Moines and the living rooms of Concord and the front porches of Charleston.

It was built by working men and women who dug into what little savings they had to give five dollars and ten dollars and twenty dollars to this cause. It grew strength from the young people who rejected the myth of their generation's apathy; who left their homes and their families for jobs that offered little pay and less sleep; from the not-so-young people who braved the bitter cold and scorching heat to knock on the doors of perfect strangers; from the millions of Americans who volunteered, and organized, and proved that more than two centuries later, a government of the people, by the people and for the people has not perished from this Earth.

This is your victory.

I know you didn't do this just to win an election and I know you didn't do it for me. You did it because you understand the enormity of the task that lies ahead. For even as we celebrate tonight, we know the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime – two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century. Even as we stand here tonight, we know there are brave Americans waking up in the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan to risk their lives for us. There are mothers and fathers who will lie awake after their children fall asleep and wonder how they'll make the mortgage, or pay their doctor's bills, or save enough for college. There is new energy to harness and new jobs to be created; new schools to build and threats to meet and alliances to repair.

The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America – I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you – we as a people will get there.

There will be setbacks and false starts. There are many who won't agree with every decision or policy I make as President, and we know that government can't solve every problem. But I will always be honest with you about the challenges we face. I will listen to you, especially when we disagree. And above all, I will ask you join in the work of remaking this nation the only way it's been done in America for two-hundred and twenty-one years – block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand.

What began twenty-one months ago in the depths of winter must not end on this autumn night. This victory alone is not the change we seek – it is only the chance for us to make that change. And that cannot happen if we go back to the way things were. It cannot happen without you.

So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism; of service and responsibility where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves, but each other. Let us remember that if this financial crisis taught us anything, it's that we cannot have a thriving Wall Street while Main Street suffers – in this country, we rise or fall as one nation; as one people.

Let us resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long. Let us remember that it was a man from this state who first carried the banner of the Republican Party to the White House – a party founded on the values of self-reliance, individual liberty, and national unity. Those are values we all share, and while the Democratic Party has won a great victory tonight, we do so with a measure of humility and determination to heal the divides that have held back our progress. As Lincoln said to a nation far more divided than ours, "We are not enemies, but friends…though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection." And to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn – I may not have won your vote, but I hear your voices, I need your help, and I will be your President too.

And to all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of our world – our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand. To those who would tear this world down – we will defeat you. To those who seek peace and security – we support you. And to all those who have wondered if America's beacon still burns as bright – tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from our the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope.

For that is the true genius of America – that America can change. Our union can be perfected. And what we have already achieved gives us hope for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.

This election had many firsts and many stories that will be told for generations. But one that's on my mind tonight is about a woman who cast her ballot in Atlanta. She's a lot like the millions of others who stood in line to make their voice heard in this election except for one thing – Ann Nixon Cooper is 106 years old.

She was born just a generation past slavery; a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky; when someone like her couldn't vote for two reasons – because she was a woman and because of the color of her skin.

And tonight, I think about all that she's seen throughout her century in America – the heartache and the hope; the struggle and the progress; the times we were told that we can't, and the people who pressed on with that American creed: Yes we can.

At a time when women's voices were silenced and their hopes dismissed, she lived to see them stand up and speak out and reach for the ballot. Yes we can.

When there was despair in the dust bowl and depression across the land, she saw a nation conquer fear itself with a New Deal, new jobs and a new sense of common purpose. Yes we can.

When the bombs fell on our harbor and tyranny threatened the world, she was there to witness a generation rise to greatness and a democracy was saved. Yes we can.

She was there for the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma, and a preacher from Atlanta who told a people that "We Shall Overcome." Yes we can.

A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin, a world was connected by our own science and imagination. And this year, in this election, she touched her finger to a screen, and cast her vote, because after 106 years in America, through the best of times and the darkest of hours, she knows how America can change. Yes we can.

America, we have come so far. We have seen so much. But there is so much more to do. So tonight, let us ask ourselves – if our children should live to see the next century; if my daughters should be so lucky to live as long as Ann Nixon Cooper, what change will they see? What progress will we have made?

This is our chance to answer that call. This is our moment. This is our time – to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American Dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth – that out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope, and where we are met with cynicism, and doubt, and those who tell us that we can't, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people:

Yes We Can. Thank you, God bless you, and may God Bless the United States of America.

In my very humble opinion, we will hear this speech repeated and referred to many times in the future. The world is in a hole at present, and here’s a guy, who 50 years ago wouldn’t be allowed to sit where he wanted on a bus, being voted as President of the United States, standing up and delivering a remarkable message of hope, inspiration and optimism. If it doesn’t stop you in your tracks, there’s something wrong with you.

A few years ago, in Britain we had a Prime Minister named John Major. He wasn’t a bad guy, but he set out his stall as being an “ordinary man”. Someone, and I don’t know who, remarked quite perceptively that he didn’t want to be governed by an “ordinary man”. What he wanted was an “extraordinary one”.

Maybe, just maybe, the US has found one. Like many people, I will watch with rapturous interest. He faces a mesh of seemingly intractable issues, the like of which we haven’t seen for decades, and the danger is we all think he can walk on water. He’s a human being, for Goodness sake, and there will only be so much he can achieve.

I was talking to a colleague today, and we both, almost simultaneously, were reminded of Martin Luther-King and John Kennedy. You really felt good to be alive this morning.

Let’s hope the actions get somewhere close to the oratory. You do get a massive feeling that a fundamental seismic shift is going on in the hearts and minds of the American Nation.

It’s going to be totally fascinating watching it all evolve. God bless him.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

IS THIS JED BARTLET I SEE BEFORE ME?

It’s time to get the “West Wing” DVDs out again. Seven Seasons and 156 episodes of, in this author’s eyes at least, the best long drama series I’ve ever watched on TV.

It tells the story of an unlikely, intellectual, admirable, youngish, radical, morally driven, liberal and left leaning Democrat who manages, against the odds to get himself into the White House, and stay for his allotted eight years. Yes I know in reality, it’s really a soap, but it’s a bloody good one. The stories are ones you can believe in, ones which actually happen to politicians in the real world. Often they happen first on the “West Wing”, and then you find them being played out in real life sometime later. How often have I felt that nagging “déja vu” flash of “Which episode did Blair/Brown/Bush look at to get their inspiration and strategy for what to do in the here and now?” It’s no wonder that a poll in the USA once resulted in more people thinking Jed Bartlet was the US President than George Bush. For many people, and not only Americans, the sad thought there was “If only”.

Inevitably, there are differences. Josiah Bartlet was actually a white Martin Sheen playing a very clever New England Nobel Prize winner, who knew how to play chess and knew what a “shibboleth” was without asking one of his advisors. Obama is not quite the same colour, is not from the same background, and has not yet won a Nobel prize, and to be fair, has not yet won the election. But you’ve got to be impressed with his eloquence.

As I write this a few hours before the Mid West polling closes, you can’t help feel that there’s something very important in the air tonight. A feeling of America potentially starting anew, starting afresh. A feeling of throwing off the dragging, dirty cloak of Iraq and Afghanistan, the terrifying corporate greed and seeming lack of concern for the Man on the top of the Minnesota Omnibus - if only they had them.

Of course, the structure of the American Political system is designed to be labyrinthine. The constitution is meant to be cumbersome, with elegantly and intentionally loaded checks and balances. Deliberately set up this way by its founders in the last quarter of the 18th Century, it has remained remarkably stable since that time, often resulting in a very slow system of change in the country. There is the real chance tonight that Democrat majorities will exist, not only in both houses of Congress, but also in the White House, leading to ground breaking changes in social welfare, tax redistribution and more equitable health insurance in the US over the next few years if Obama finally gets there.

Jed Bartlet never had that option – he was always fighting the Republicans on his liberalising agendas. But then, that was designed to create the tension for good television, and this is real life.

Granted whoever wins, they will be facing the grimmest introduction to a Presidency for decades, but it surely offers a once in a lifetime opportunity for great things to happen.

I wonder if they will.

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Sunday, October 26, 2008

AMO, AMAS, AMAT, AMAMUS ......

How important is it to be able to spell correctly?

I suspect the answer you give to that will depend upon a) your age, b) how important precision and detail are in your life, and possibly c) how important language, its flow, nuances and cadences is to you.

You probably won’t take too long to decide on which side of that fence I sit. My answers to the three questions are – a) Very, b) A lot and c) A lot.

As a counter argument, it’s a reasonable point that the sole, or at least the major purpose of language is communication. How you do it is immaterial. If you get your message across, then surely it’s Job Done. And anyway, language is organic, it lives from century to century. Most of us cannot understand the 13th Century English of Chaucer. We struggle manfully (or is it personfully?) with some of the flow and words of Shakespeare, wonder when the sentences of Jane Austin and Thomas Hardy will ever end. We even fail to pick up some of the meanings and subtleties of the elegantly chosen and beautifully crafted 1930s words of PG Wodehouse. And don’t even go anywhere near James Joyce’s Ulysses. Do you know anyone who has got anywhere close to finishing it? Me neither.

With something like Ian Fleming's James Bond however, we can all make sense of it. He broadly speaks the language, and uses the same words we use today. Well, mostly, anyway. If you asked some of our younger brethren, however, what they thought of it they might say it was “gr8”, which, in turn, gives us a clue where language may well be going in the future.
I can understand that “gr8” has 3 components and “great” has 5, and that “great” can sound like “grate”, which potentially could cause confusion. “gr8” (no capital letter – what’s the point of a wasted keystroke?) is therefore arguably more efficient, and presumably therefore it must be better, goes the logic. But it gr8s on me at least.

The human eye/mind combination is a fascinating combination. Read the following, for instance.

I cdnuolt blveiee taht I aulaclty cluod uesdnatnrd waht I was rdgnieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid -- aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are pelacd, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteers be in the rghit pclaes. ?The rset can be a taotl mses and you sitll can raed it wouthit a porblem.

Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. ?Amzanig huh? ?Yaeh, and I awlyas thohugt slpeling was imtorpant? Just geos to sohw?

The blaze of red, squiggly underlining that now sits on my screen is almost blinding me, as Mr Gates’ spellchecker overheats and throws every one of its toys out of the pram at once. It seems that as long as the first and the last letters of each word are in the right place, the mind can crack it relatively easily, as you did. But you (or at least I) really don’t want what I read to look like that. I need to know how it should be written in the first place to know how to unravel the deliberate jumbling up. If I couldn’t spell properly, it would simply be a code.

Now in the wider field, the fact that I don’t like it is neither here nor there. Except of course for me, it is here. So, when I used to receive CVs from job applicants at work, the misspelled ones were put straightaway very low down in the pile. They had an immediate hill to climb which others did not. That may be a bit unfair, but that was the way it was. If you don't know or can’t be bothered to spell correctly, and can’t handle or operate the necessary rigidity of the underlying Byzantine rules of spelling, then where else do you cut corners in a job. And by the way, please don’t say Dyslexia to me – I understand those issues only too well, and take them into account.

To my undoubtedly biased mind, accurate spelling does aid understanding. It is simply better to do it correctly and it looks and feels so much better. There’s enough ugliness in the world without people being unable to spell correctly.

Try “supersede”. Now don’t tell me you thought it had a “c” in it. Immediately, we’re 50 years back in Rev. Drake Brockman’s Latin class now. "Gerund or Gerundive, Cable? Dative or Ablative, anyone? Anyone??" Cue the speedy arrival of a badly but strongly thrown Board Rubber.

You know, the rectangular wooden ones with sharp edges, that hurt.

So, “Super” meaning “above”, and “sedeo” meaning “I sit”. Result “supersede” – “I sit above”. Where’s the difficulty there? But bet your friends a £ each to spell it correctly, and you’ll make money. You might lose a few friends, but then perhaps you shouldn’t be consorting with illiterates!

So rightly or wrongly, there we are.

In the same vein, or is it vain, or even vane, I read an article last week where some of our best known authors submitted themselves rather bravely to a spelling test. The point of the piece was to show that if the authors were not word perfect, then why did it matter? Predictably, they did not all cover themselves with glory. One word seemed to get them all stumped.

So, now a spelling test. How about “dessicate”? As in Coconut, and Air Drying.

You try. Now you might think it’s possible, of course, that there could conceivably be a clue in Sentence 2 of the last paragraph. But I might, again of course, have deliberately misspelled it to put you off the scent.

Or is it “sent”?

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Saturday, October 25, 2008

CARS - THE TIMES THEY ARE A-CHANGING

I have worked in the Car Industry for most of my adult working life, and trust me, that’s a long time. It is a totally fascinating environment – very fast moving, very complicated and very satisfying. The human relationship with the Motor Car is not just one of Man v Metal. These things take on an almost human form, and we love them, fawn over them and spend far more money on them than makes even the slightest bit of sense - sometimes it spills over into mechanical lust.

On the other hand, the “tree-huggers” seem to be saying that the motor car, almost single-handedly is destroying the planet. That’s why the perception of what these mechanical monsters are, what they stand for, and how they explain so much about you, is so important. If all we wanted was a set of wheels to go from A to B, we’d all be driving around in a well, you fill in that blank. If only it was as simple as that.

I’ve watched enthusiastically for 40 years as styles and manufacturers rose and fell, came and went, ebbed and flowed, or just disappeared off the scene. I can still recall the day I first read about and saw pictures of the E Type Jaguar in 1965 – the pleasure was almost orgasmic. It did 150 mph, looked like a rocket ship, and cost the equivalent of $3,000.





1961 - AND THIS APPEARS, AS IF FROM OUTER SPACE

Since then, some amazing machines have come along, each in their own way moving the face of motoring style for ever –

- Rover 2000 (yes really, look it up), 4 seat exec saloon with De Dion Rear suspension which made a new niche for the small, high quality car.



- NSU Ro80, Wankel engine, futuristic space age styling – a car 20 years ahead of its time. What guts the manufacturers had launching that onto the market.


- Mini. What do you say? 10 feet long, fitting four adults in it. Front wheel drive, transverse engine, handled like a roller skate. Huge fun to drive. We went on holiday with a couple of grown up friends in one. Luggage everywhere in it, and we drove 1000 miles in a few days, but it worked. Unbelievable intellect of Alec Issigonis whose idea it was. A car which would never get off the drawing board today, more’s the pity.



- Golf GTI, a piece of marketing genius which, at a stroke, made most sports cars look 10 years out of date. It went like a bomb, was refined and comfortable and seated 4 people, yet ran rings round the 2 seaters of the day. A car where you could definitely have your cake and eat it. You still see the originals around today.



- The original Range Rover. The first SUV, and a work of someone (Spen King) who was one of the great innovative thinkers in the European Motor Industry. I went to Land Rover for a job at the time of its launch (I was offered the job), and as part of the interview was driven round Land Rover’s then brand new off-road Test track by Spen King in his new baby. He scared the s*** out of me, by taking it to within a millimetre of falling over on its side and its end.

- Citroen DS – a great car. Just look at it today, and it still looks modern. Hydraulic suspension which made you feel that someone had just resurfaced every road you drove along. Lots of innovation - a single spoke steering wheel for instance. A remarkable car with tons of room in it. If it was released today, you'd think it was really advanced. It actually came out in 1957!



- Renault 16 (if you don’t know why, look this one up as well) The first truly modern hatchback, with space beyond its size. It had a rear door which lifted up all the way. Common today, but this was around the first to do it. It looks nothing special today, but put it back in its time, when it was the first of its kind, and you have one of the most revolutionary cars ever designed.



- BMW 2002 series – the car which turned the ailing Isetta Bubble Car manufacturer into a world force. A pocket rocket which started the small sporty exec saloon market niche all on its own. BMW would not be here were it not for that car.


But where are we now?


Companies have come and gone – try looking back over the British motor industry for the last 40 years or so, for an almost unending list of extinct names. Collaborations progress, and mergers abound. Money drives much of life, but in the car industry, it now drives almost everything, resulting in the strangest alliances. Ten years ago, could you imagine Fiat and BMW doing a collaborative engine deal? What price BMW and Mercedes developing a small car together?

I find the ups and downs of the various companies in the business over a longish period fascinating, so I decided to put these muses down to see if I could discern any patterns. Here goes. I can only look at them from a British viewpoint – the subtleties of how a company is viewed in the American MidWest, or South Africa is simply not clear to me.

Alfa Romeo – A company with a great name and a great past. In all sorts of a mess a few years ago, with patchy quality, and a Dealer Network with the lousiest reputation of any company in the UK. But someone (Fiat) is spending a load of money on them, and they produce today the most attractive mainstream range of cars in the world. Every model, you lust after. The only problem is it takes years to get round the rust image, the perceived reliability issues and the crappy dealer network image. Great to drool over, but I wouldn’t touch one for a few years. Let’s see how the Marketing men set about changing my mind.

Shame.


THE 8C - IS THERE A BETTER LOOKING CAR ON SALE TODAY?


Audi – Alright, I own one, so I’m a bit biased. They have a great image in the market place, which they look after very diligently. One of the major judgements any car maker has to make is exactly when and how to move the image along, and rip up what’s currently working well for them, in order to safeguard the future.

Some have made a huge mess of this (see Peugeot if I ever get that far!), but Audi have done in recently in copybook style. A brave and dramatic change to the Corporate front end style of all the range has worked brilliantly. They’ve combined class leading modern design with just the right touch of old Audi heritage. Look up the style of the 1930s Audi racing machines if you want to see where the design clues came from.




However, they still don’t seem to appreciate that it’s almost impossible to get a car to handle well if you stick the engine way out in front of the front axle like they do. But, perhaps in the end, it’s not the most important thing in the world. For them, it’s all about image, and quality both perceived and actual. They make the best interiors of any car on the market.

They play for quiet understatement in their approach, just to give an alternative to the brash, pushy image which BMW, deservedly or otherwise, have.

Good on them.

BMW – I’ve never owned a BMW, mainly because I don’t want to be seen driving around in one. Everyone in the UK dislikes the drivers just because they’re driving a Beemer, no one lets them in from side-roads, and most of the time when some bright spark blasts up behind you threateningly on a Motorway, it’ll be a BMW.




And their styling. A guy named Chris Bangle conceived something he called Flame Surfacing, and a whole range of ugly cars was spawned. The 7 series was a mess – they should have designed the boot (trunk for the USA) at the same time as the rest of the car. The 5 series was little better, although the Estate was better. The 1 series is in my Top Ten Ugliest cars ever. The X3 was a gawky, unconnected disaster. The Z4, well would you want one? And only the 3 series, which is the bedrock on which their sales rely very heavily took some account of what the customers actually liked, and was toned down in looks. That one just looks nondescript.

But, if you look past the prejudice (and I’m not sure I can), if you want a judgement on which company has made the biggest improvement in Emissions and engine performance in an age where the environment has now taken centre stage, the winner is BMW.

They have made stunning improvements in their engines, to the point where they stand today head and shoulders above any other manufacturer today. And they’ve done it without compromising the performance edge which has always been their hallmark. Just look at their new 3 litre diesel engine in a 3-series. 241 BHP, which makes it go like a rocket, a fuel consumption as near 50 mpg as makes no difference, and an emission level of 152 g/km, which is less than a 70 BHP Nissan Micra. Is that good or what?

But I still don’t want one – the power of image at work. Now if they only sold their engine designs and VW bought them, I’d be OK. But, pigs may fly……. – das Fliegende Schwein.

Cadillac/Chevrolet/Chrysler/Dodge – Yes, I know they’re not connected but they’re all American manufacturers, with massive brand presences in the USA. And they’ve all launched themselves recently in the UK market.

And all failing dismally.



WELL, WOULD YOU WANT THIS?



OR THIS? EXACTLY.


Sometimes, I think it’s the wish being father to the thought, with some pushy CEO thinking he can make a name for himself by spreading the brand around the world in a couple of years. Even when the names have been around for a long time, you still face a massive task in getting a foothold in a newcar market. Look at Skoda, with all the might and money of VW behind them. It’s taken them nearly twenty years to get really going in the UK, and still there is a good degree of resistance. The last two times I’ve been in the market for a new car, I selected a Skoda on merit, and ended up with firstly a VW, and now an Audi. And I don’t think I’m alone. I want everyone else to have one on their drive, but not me, just at the moment, thank you. And that’s for a car I actually quite fancy.

As an alternative, look at how Infiniti, Lexus and Acura are doing it in the US. Ultra long term, gradual build up. Only one of these two approaches will work, and it’s not difficult to decide which it is.

And anyway, just look at the offerings of these four US contenders, and you do wonder why they think we’re going to reject what we already buy, and change to one of theirs. They’re all either ugly or bland, or both. They offer nothing that’s not already available, and if you listen to the guys who drive them for the magazines, they’re not even very well put together.

I’m struggling to understand the Business Case for any of them. But who am I to have a view. I’m only a customer.

Citroen – Now here’s a company with a massive heritage. Inventor of the 1934 “Traction Avant” Front wheel drive car, as well as the 2CV, the DS, the SM. And yet as the kid brother to Peugeot in the PSA Group, you had to wonder about them over the last 20 years. All the innovation seemed to have gone, the styling was anonymous, the quality was questionable, and, and, and…

But today, if there’s a car company in Europe with a more modern, positive view of the way forward for motor car styling, I don’t know who it is. Their new C5 is trying to out-German the Germans, and from a styling point of view at least, it’s a cracking looking machine which is as good as anything our German friends produce. The new C4 Picasso people carrier is an utterly modern looking thing, bristling with excitement and flair, and some of their concept cars show signs of real ingenuity, and amazingly clever design – just like 70 years ago. Quite how this is happening, when Peugeot, their “owners” have, over the same period, got themselves in such a mess from a design and styling viewpoint is totally beyond me.




Good on them.

Well, that’s got me from A to D, so I’m off to bed to think about Ferrari, Fiat and Ford. Sad, or what?

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Thursday, October 23, 2008

STILLS PHOTOGRAPHY - ON THE MOVE?

This post is going to have a ripple of photographic geekyness flowing through it, so for the unbelievers among you, you have been warned.

I’ve been a keen photographer for much of my adult life (yes, that’s getting on for nearly 5 years, my wife has just pointed out). As with most interests, the one thing you collect as you ply your trade, is Equipment. Drawers full of the stuff. So you go out with your camera for a day looking like Quasimodo suffering from a slipped disc. Camera, lenses, tripods, filters, flashguns, film et-bloody-cetera.

Only you don’t go out with it all because, all up, it’s just too heavy and bulky. So you leave a couple of lenses behind. And which lenses do you find you need when you get snapping. You’ve got it – the ones sitting on the desk at home.

Being, supposedly, someone in the top 1% of the country’s intelligentsia, it only took me until about a year ago to realize the barking stupidity of all this. So I called for a serious, long term, fundamental strategic review with myself. And, as a result, out went three cameras, five lenses, the back-pack and a huge pile of associated photographic crap. A new regime of Camera-lite overtook the Cable household. If I can’t carry it all in one hand, it’s history.

Luckily, technology had got there at the same time when I did all this, and 1 new Nikon D300 camera, and a couple of light, versatile lenses, and a small bag I can throw over my shoulder later, my equipment portfolio has been totally transformed. And the result - I take a lot more pictures now because the camera is with me more often. And because the stuff I’ve now got is appropriate to what I want to take, the resultant pictures I take are way better than before.

A guy called Michael Reichmann, who writes a truly excellent website - The Luminous Landscape - puts it perfectly. “Most cameras are better than most photographers”. But you have to have them with you. So, once again, size is important (my dear wife also had something to say here), and at least, I’m a bit ahead of the game.

The one area where camera technology still leaves me wanting is the really pocket sized machine, the one you can ALWAYS have with you. I bought the best one I could find a couple of years ago, but I still couldn’t get on with it. It was OK, but I wanted more than OK. So that’s been sold as well.

Two photographic blogs today report developments which I think could lead to a seismic shift in The Art of Smallness. Up until now, you could have Small, but not Very Good, or you could have Large and Good. But not both. The Small and Good mix didn’t exist. But Canon have just brought out a new camera, the G10, which Michael Reichmann has just put through a few of its paces. He sat it alongside a Hassleblad H2 with a Phase One P45 Back (39 Megapixels and $40,000!) and took the same picture with both machines. He then printed both sets of images at a size of 13” x 19” and showed them to a dozen of his professional photographic colleagues, asking them to guess which camera had taken which picture. 60% of them got it right – and 50% would be the pure guess figure. So, what does that tell you? And anyway, how often do you produce a 13” x 19” print?

Now the Canon fits in my pocket, whereas I would need a manservant to carry the Hassleblad around for me. And if I had just shelled out the $40k to buy it, I then couldn’t afford the manservant. Just for comparison, the Canon’s list price is $499.99. That’s like putting a Veyron up against a Golf.

For yours truly at least, I don’t think the next move is very difficult.

On the same day, on another (extremely good) website - The Online Photographer – there is the first review of a brand new type of camera – the Micro Four Thirds. It’s a Panasonic DMC-G1 – a Digital SLR-like camera with interchangeable lenses, except it doesn’t have a mirror or an optical viewfinder. So, yes, it’s not a DSLR. But the sensor is the same size as my Nikon, and therefore should be capable of similar picture quality. And without all the gubbins they’ve got rid of, the body is about half the size and weight of the Nikon. And the size of the lenses are reduced in the same way. It uses a very high quality electronic viewfinder, and it all seems to work extremely well. The guy testing it had already seen the next iteration of this design, from Olympus, which he says is about the size of a bar of soap. And it records high quality video. And it fits in your pocket. The Times, they are A-Changing.

If you look at the camera world, it’s suffered from a massive degree of design conservatism over the last 50 years. Nikon’s top line camera in 1957 is recognizably similar to their top line model today. I know it’s now digital now, but the design hasn’t moved on a lot.

It’s about time someone stood back and went back to First principles here. Canon and Nikon, the world leaders, tend to be ultra-conservative in their thinking. They produce terrific cameras, but they don’t do ground breaking innovation. It seems to take the underdogs, who probably need to get ahead of the game to get a bigger toe in the water, if you can unravel the mixed metaphor there, to forge ahead with these developments. The issue here is that, if someone like Panasonic or Olympus gets it right, you could see major changes in the way camera development changes, and very quickly.

And the two giants could then be playing a game of catch up they don’t want.

We live in interesting times.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

INDIA TRIUMPH AGAINST AUSTRALIA

One of the great pleasures in my life is watching International Test Cricket. It raises passions, draws exceptional performances from those who play and, over a five day period, the ebbs and flows, ins and outs and the highs and lows of the game can result in a sporting experience unmatched in any other game. Even the current fetish with Twenty-Twenty and One Day Games, whilst they can be hugely exciting, can’t bring out the chess-like thrusts and parries which only a five day game can generate.

The number of national teams in the World which can compete at the highest level does not reach anywhere near double figures. As I write, the two best teams on the Planet, India and Australia, are locking horns in the second of a 4 match series in the sub-continent, so the TV is getting a fair amount of use.


MY FAVOURITE BATSMAN, VIRENDER SEHWAG IN ACTION

It is not easy to identify many things in life where Australia lead the world, but sport in general is one where they have punched way above their weight for many years. Swimming, Athletics, Tennis and Golf come immediately to mind, but in the field of Cricket, they have been the World No. 1 team on average for the good part of 70 years. Yes, there have been times when England and the West Indies particularly, have had the upper hand, but it doesn’t seem to last for too long.

PONTING TRYING AND FAILING TO RUN SEHWAG OUT

For the last 15 years or so however, they have been THE team to beat – except that almost no-one has managed to do it. England managed it in 2005, but only just. They’ve almost come to expect winning and domination as their right. But, over the last year, we’ve seen the major stars in a blindingly good Australian side depart the stage. Gilchrist, Gillespie, Warne and McGrath were all the best in the world at what they did, and they’ve all gone. Today, Hayden is on the wane, Ponting has had his share of injuries, and, all of a sudden, to me they look vulnerable, rather than dominating and all conquering.

India, as well, have been in a state of change. Many of their great stars are reaching the end of their careers, and they have started a wholesale “move to youth”. In the next year or two, we will see the end of great players like Kumble, Tendulkar, Gambir and Dravid, and time will herald a new order of Indian players. You can see it already with people like Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Ishant Sharma, Amit Mishra and the like who are well on the way to replacing these elder statesmen.

There must be something rather reprehensible in me where I get more pleasure than I should by seeing Australia under the cosh. In this match, they were not just beaten, they were utterly outplayed in every department of the game, with India registering their most emphatic Test win ever. I mean you just don't beat Australia by 320 runs.

But for once, the Aussies took it on the chin. Ponting recognised they had been thrashed and set out to move on, Be in no doubt, they’ll be back, but with no spinners in the team whom the captain trusts with the ball, Hayden playing most bizarrely, Brett Lee for once looking very ordinary, Ponting getting in all manner of difficulties facing Sharma, and only Clarke and Johnson showing any resistance in the Australian’s second innings, you wonder what’s going to happen to turn it all around for them in the next seven days.

It does beg the question as to whether we’re seeing the sunset performances of the Aussies for a couple of years. If you were Kevin Pietersen, you might be thinking that the stars are lining up in just about the right alignment for next year’s Ashes contest in England.

I, for one, can’t wait.


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Friday, October 17, 2008

SOMETIMES, SOME THINGS ARE BEST LEFT UNSAID

Most of us have not the slightest idea whatsoever about what it’s like to be at the sharp end in a war. We rely on our armies, navies and air forces to do it all for us, while we sleep safely in our beds. In this day and age, we can’t even rely on the politicians in this country to give our troops the best equipment available. And in spite of this disgrace, the British Army still has a reputation as a fighting machine second to none in the world. I’m not even sure most of us have the right to a meaningful opinion about the inner workings of the armed forces, unless we have ourselves been actively involved in them.

A few days ago, we read about a new book by a Regimental Sergeant Major, one Captain Doug Beattie of the 1st Batallion, the Royal Irish Regiment who was alongside the Regiment’s Colonel, Tim Collins when Colonel Collins gave one of the most remarkable speeches I have ever heard.

Captain Beattie apparently claimed that the speech, given to the regiment before they set off into battle in Iraq in 2003, demoralised rather than uplifted the men Colonel Collins was addressing. He saw “heads starting to go down”, and “more and more frowns on men’s faces”. It was, according to Captain Beattie, down to himself to kick the men “back to life”. Now the reality is that it’s almost unfair to comment on the “He said, I said” thing here. The only guys there were the guys there, and perhaps it would have been more appropriate for everyone to leave it all uncommented on. But then, Captain Beattie has a book to sell, so perhaps there are other demons at work.

Five years on, yesterday night, I re-read Tim Collins’ speech. I first read it in his book a couple of years ago, and at the time, it electrified me. I thought it stood alongside any “eve-of-battle” piece of oratory in history I’d heard in what he said, and the way in which he said it. Eloquent, rousing, thought provoking, honest, full of dignity and compassion, but with an underlying steeliness that read, from afar, as the words spoken by someone you’d follow to the ends of the earth. And I suppose that was what the speech was trying to do.

Here it is on Youtube. This is a re-creation of the event by Kenneth Brannagh, and bloody good it is too.


What a thrilling few minutes. He actually thought long and hard the previous night about it all, but it comes across as completely spontaneous. You can compare it to other great speeches here. Ben Macintyre quotes a few in the newspaper -

Shakespeare's “ … and gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here …”,


and Churchill’s “…we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

You may think they match it, but as a 21st Century take on it all, in my humble opinion, nothing else gets near.

It addresses the real issues in a war. Treat the enemy with the respect they deserve, go in hard, but fair, and in Tim Collins’ words “tread lightly there”. On a more sober side, he brings up things which today none of us like to hear – “There are some who are alive at this moment who will not be alive shortly. Those who do not wish to go on that journey, we will not send. As for the others, I expect you to rock their world..”

"Rock their world". What amazing language that is.

You can’t even imagine getting close to the powser of that if you spent ages honing the script for a film, with all the time in the world to get it right. But, out of the blue, a fictional connection came into my mind. Jack Nicholson in one of my favourite films “A Few Good Men”, was skewered by a similar conundrum - We want the troops in our armies to keep us safe, but we don’t want to know what they have to do, and how they have to do it. When we find out the realities, we don’t like it. That’s the paradox.

Sometimes it makes for a memorable film. In Tim Collins case, it made for a remarkable speech from a remarkable man.

I just wish Captain Beattie had remained silent.

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Thursday, October 16, 2008

HE'S GOT THIS DREAM ABOUT BUYING SOME LAND ...

.... He's gonna give up the booze and the one night stands …..

Right, there’s a couple of clues to the answer to two questions which struck me tonight, as I rummaged around in my CD racks.

What’s the best song never to get to Number One? And, what song has got the best sax intro on it EVER?

For the life of me, I can’t think why Gerry Rafferty was not more widely recognised as a really great Scottish song writer and singer. In the late Seventies he came out with a couple of absolute pearlers. There are twenty songs on the Albums “City to City” and “Night Owl”, and all of them are excellent pieces of work. A slightly ruminative, plaintive style with intelligent, rueful lyrics pervade both these albums, which I’ve listened to with much renewed pleasure over the last two hours. I’d simply forgotten just how good they were.

He’s clearly a man who saw what Fame and High Living offered, and thought a second time about it all. You could call him a One Hit Wonder with "Baker Street", and, although he issued a few more albums over the last twenty years, none of them touched me in the way these two did.

The sax player on "Baker Street", who gets scant mention in the song's credits, was Raphael Ravenscroft. A fascinating article in the Scotsman a few months ago tells how 30 years ago, Ravenscroft was paid the princely sum of £27 for his efforts on the song. Apparently, even at £27, the cheque bounced and it is now framed on Ravencroft’s solicitor’s wall, which is rather nice.

Rafferty seemed to just get increasingly disillusioned and uncomfortable with the pressure of performing, and suffered a gradual decline into relative obscurity, with the Demon drink apparently having more involvement than it should. Since the end of the Seventies, he does not seem to have had a happy life, which, given the pleasure he’s given so many people, is really rather sad.

A few weeks ago, he popped up in the News, or at least, on the extreme margins of it. A short paragraph noted that he had trashed a hotel bedroom, and ended up in St Thomas’ Hospital in London, whereupon he apparently discharged himself. Apart from a rather forlorn posting from someone who claims to have seen him in a restaurant off Picadilly Circus, and helped him to his hotel, no-one has seen him for the last couple of months.

Whilst we’re not talking Paul McCartney here, you’d have thought a story like this would have got some eager newspaper reporter snuffling around for a column. So, has he done a Reggie Perrin, or what?

Anyway, his music deserves tons more recognition than it gets. If you haven’t listened to him, give it a go.



… This city desert makes me feel so cold
It's got so many people but it's got no soul
And it's taken you so long
To find out you were wrong
When you thought it held everything ….

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Friday, October 10, 2008

SIMON SCHAMA - THE POWER OF ART

I don’t watch a great deal of television, apart from devouring the cricket matches on Sky. The other night however, I recorded a repeat of a programme by Simon Schama, the Historian. It was part of a series he had done in 2006 on the Power of Art, and this hour long programme was about one painting – Picasso’s "Guernica". It's the artist's reponse to the Spanish Civil War, and an episode where the Nazi Air Force bombed a defenceless Spanish town one afternoon, destroying it and killing around 2,000 people - a massive painting which forces you to face the atrocities of war.

Now until now, I’d spent 62 years never “getting” Picasso. I could admire his drawing and his draughtsmanship, but none of his paintings drilled their way into my soul the way many pieces of music have managed.

So I sat down the next evening while I ate my evening meal, and set the replay going. An hour later, my meal was stone cold and the glass of Sauvignon had warmed up horribly. I was quite transfixed by what I’d been watching, unable to take my eyes off it. And for the last day or so, I’ve been replaying bits of the programme in my mind, as the images and bits of commentary came back to me.

PICASSO - GUERNICA - 1937


You wouldn’t think you could talk for an hour about one painting, but we got the history, the context, the view of the painting from inside Picasso’s mind, and an explosive exposition of why it was painted and what it meant to the world. The programme was named “The Power of Art”, and that’s exactly what it was. It insisted you look at it.

Schama’s previous series on “A History of Britain” had already shown me our own country’s history in a vivid and memorable way, a way that one wished had been around when one was at school. He put it in context, put the humanity into it and presented it in a way that brought the whole thing across alive and kicking. I’ve no doubt the academic fuddy-duddies would whinge about the way he did it all, but as one of the Great Unwashed in this area, I thought it was a remarkable achievement. But somehow or other I missed the follow up series on Art where he picked 8 paintings and gave us his view of each of them in 60 minute chunks.

Last night, his Picasso repeat was more of the same. It was a bit like the effect a Music Teacher, Ted Amos, had on me at school. I went into his class as a musical philistine, and after a couple of years he had totally converted me so that Music became a major part of my life. And he never ever knew what a huge change he’d made in me, which is rather sad. I read his obituary in "The Times" a few years ago, and wished I'd found a way to tell him of the change in me which he had personally brought about.

I sat last night watching a masterly exposition of somebody enthusing eloquently, knowledgably adn passionately about his subject, and as a result of what he said, and how he said it, I came out of it a bit different from an hour before. Not bad for 60 minutes television.

And I’ve now got something else to put down at the top of my Christmas list for Santa.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

WHY WOMEN'S TELEPHONE BILLS ARE ALWAYS HIGHER THAN MEN'S

This is a posting which I came across yesterday, on - ardentobservations.blogspot.com. I rather liked it. It's the Venus and Mars thing, but written in a way which gets you really thinking, and with a smile, which we all need in these uncertain days.

Men and women are known to have different emotional needs, thought patterns and communication style. Often an ordinary incident can unintentionally lead to two totally different reactions, evaluations and perceptions.

HER DIARY:

Tonight, I thought my husband was acting weird.We had made plans to meet at a bar to have a drink. I was shopping with my friends all day long, so I thought he was upset at the fact that I was a bit late, but he made no comment on it.Conversation wasn't flowing, so I suggested that we go somewhere quiet so we could talk. He agreed, but he didn't say much. I asked him what was wrong; he said, 'Nothing.' I asked him if it was my fault that he was upset. He said he wasn't upset, that it had nothing to do with me, and not to worry about it.On the way home, I told him that I loved him. He smiled slightly, and kept driving. I can't explain his behaviour. I don't know why he didn't say, 'I love you, too.'

When we got home, I felt as if I had lost him completely, as if he wanted nothing to do with me anymore. He just sat there quietly, and watched TV. He continued to seem distant and unresponsive!Finally, with silence all around us, I decided to go to bed. About 15 minutes later, he came to bed. To my surprise, he responded to my caress, and we made love. But I still felt that he was distracted, and his thoughts were somewhere else.He fell asleep and I cried. I don't know what to do. I'm almost sure that his thoughts are with someone else.

My life is a disaster.

HIS DIARY:

The Harley wouldn't start today, but at least I got laid.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

GEORGE PARR IS ALIVE AND WELL, AND LIVING IN AUSTRALIA

A photographic friend of mine, Judy, pointed me in the direction of this clip.

It's not new, but it is amusing. if you've seen it before, watch it again. If you haven't seen it, watch it.

It purports to show an Australian politician. Senator Collins, defending the Australian national safety regulations after a tanker accident. The really scary thing is you think it's real - because we all know politicians who speak EXACTLY like this guy.

The good thing, or the bad thing (you choose) is that the two guys are an Antipodean version of John Bird and John Fortune.


Or maybe that's what they want us to think.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

TRUST IN ME, JUST IN ME .......

I was listening to "The News Quiz" on Radio 4 a night or so ago, and the excellent Jeremy Hardy said something which answered a little issue which had been niggling me on and off.

A couple of posts ago, I scribbled down a few Home Thoughts from Abroad about the adequacy or inadequacy of our Prime Minister. The unsaid thing for the Labour Party today is that – if not him, then who?

Enter Stage Left, the Boy Milibrand. In an attempt to out-youth Dave, they’ve come up with somebody who to me seems still to be in the throes of early puberty. How can someone like that possibly have the experience to lead this (or any other) country forward. Now I know that this could sound like a build-up for someone like John McCain, or even, Heaven Help me, Gordon Brown. But you do want somebody whose bike has had the stabilisers removed for more than a few months when he takes office.*

But Milibrand looks so – well, what is it he looks like? That’s what’s been bugging me for a while. He reminds me of someone/thing. I mean, just look at the two pictures which the newspapers took to their hearts last week. The first has Gordo and YerBoy glad-handing each other, which at least makes it more difficult for each of them to launch a pre-emptive stab in the back on each other.


ONE DAY MY SON, ALL THIS WILL BE YOURS

And the second, well it’s a newspaperman’s dream, to be trotted out in perpetuity and ad infinitum. Jeremy Hardy brought it all into focus for me when he said that Milibrand had clearly forgotten one of the main rules of Politics - If you look like a monkey, never get photographed with a banana in your hand.


DAVID MILIBRAND WITH HIS BREAKFAST

All together now - A One, A Two, A One, Two, Three, Four –

Now I'm the king of the swingers
Oh, the jungle VIP
I've reached the top and had to stop
And that's what botherin' me
I wanna be a man, mancub
And stroll right into town
And be just like the other men
I'm tired of monkeyin' around!

I’m solid gone!

*Memo to self – check whether Pitt could ride a bike.

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