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Year Endings December 30, 2009

Posted by markswill in Cars and Bikes, Media, Navel Gazing.
11 comments

It’s that time of year when lazy columnists look back on the past twelve months and try and reach some kind of conclusion about what it all added up to. Resisting the “hill of beans” summation, I’m not even going to get into moisty-eyed backward glances or, more likely, shrill rants about everything that’s ailed mankind and more selfishly, yrs. trly. this past year, I’ll instead stick to more recent stuff.

Actually the end of the year can be, and in my case was one of the best bits of it. Ten days hiatus from the business of, well, business allowed time to catch up on socialising – much of it happily accidental – a whole slew of films downloaded onto my increasingly indispensable Freeview box and of course, reading. Downing far too much food’n’drink smug in the knowledge that the gym doesn’t open again ‘til next week only adds to the delightfulness of the dying days of 2009 and it looks like being snowed in will further excuse this sloth.

Getting Booked

But the subject of reading does prompt a bit of a grumble, and on two counts. Lunching with a friend in Hereford the Saturday before the red mist of Christmas finally descended elicited the recommendation that before I made my intended tramp round Waterstone’s for the usual 3-for-2 fest I should visit the city’s Oxfam bookshop. And this I duly did, finding two tomes I’d missed first time around and for les than a fiver the pair. Hurrah, then.

Two days later over tea and buns with Ian Marchant, Presteigne’s premier novelist, raconteur and the thinking man’s George Formby, (www.ianmarchant.com) I found myself berated for stealing the bread from his table by patronising the Oxfam outlet which of course doesn’t pay the business rates or staff wages that Waterstone’s and other proper bookshops do. The point being that Oxfam can afford to entice bookworms to buy secondhand and remaindered volumes at prices and in quantities that deny him and other struggling authors their just rewards. And my only defence was that I bought the bloody buns.

But this brings me once again to bookshops and their imminent extinction, a reprise prompted by last night’s Front Row on Radio 4 which spent its entire half hour debating the virtues or otherwise of e-books.  With mounting fury I only just resisted hurling my Horlicks at the radio as  Mark ‘I’m-so-damn-clever’ Lawson ignored the impact that Kindle, e-Reader and the rest would likely have on retailers. Happy enough to indulge the man from Sony who predicted that e-books might replace 60% of ink’n’paper books sales within five years (well he would say that, wouldn’t he?), and a woman from Pan-Macmillan who blithely dismissed the prospect of vast layoffs in the printing industry (“They’ll have to adapt”. Yes they will: to unemployment), Lawson never mentioned randomly dipping between the covers, scanning dust jackets, discovering new authors or lesser known works by familiar ones and all the other pleasures of bookshop browsing.  In London a fortnight ago I witnessed the ugly consequences of  bookshop closures, ­ albeit as a result of bad management rather than electronic storage devices, as I passed two boarded-up branches of Borders flyposted and forlorn then spent a feverish twenty minutes rummaging round their one remaining West End store which was having its closing down sale. (Needless to say I found nothing amongst the Archers, Cartlands and third rate sleb memoirs that took my fancy). Okay, it’s only an unreconstituted luddite that ignores the march of technological progress and I am, after all, writing and publishing this on my Apple laptop, but no-one seems concerned about the cultural and social consequences of more unemployment, deserted high streets and the isolation that yet another digital convenience fosters.

Letting The Buyer Do The R & D

This all reads suspiciously if not pathetically like another grumpy old man bemoaning the winds of change, which of course it is. And it also explains, if further explanation were required, my affectation with classic cars and the excuse I need to update my Lancia Gamma woes. (Actually this is in response to at least three, count ‘em, three, queries as to its health). As I write Mr Barratt and his boys are enjoying the festive break before returning, suitably rejuvenated I hope, to the piles of rusting, seized and bent bits that sit disconsolately on pallets in his workshop. But turning two buggered engines – one apparently rescued from a ditch, the other driven perhaps a tad too enthusiastically by yrs. trly. – into one robust runner is a task riven with pitfalls. For example, the full compliment of gaskets and seals it took several weeks and many phone calls and e-mails to assemble may or may not be all present and correct and with this particular engine there is a serious risk that the cylinder liners can ‘drop’ if the paper-thin gaskets twixt block and barrels are damaged. In which case starting all over again (with virtually unobtainable gaskets) is mandatory.

It begs the questions why don’t you forgot all this nonsense and get yourself a nice Mazda MX-5 or, more importantly, what were Lancia’s engineers thinking when they designed and didn’t properly develop this big boxer engine? Brilliant though the basic design was and remains, i.e. smooth, relatively compact and immensely torquey, did they really think it was acceptable to let the first few thousand owners discover its weaknesses? Lancia actually has quite a record in this department, most notably in the use of substandard steel for their early ‘70s Beta saloons which were often rusty before they left the showrooms and the suicide brakes on their otherwise divine Montecarlo coupe, which they pulled from production for two years whilst they (crudely) sorted the problem.

Like the race to compel us all to adopt the e-book, they didn’t consider the price that might be paid which in their case was the relegation of a once proud and innovative marque to nothing more than a badge-engineered Fiat. And yet, and yet I shall stick with my sexy old girl and my heaving shelves of dusty dead trees.

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Not Fade Away December 25, 2009

Posted by markswill in That's Entertainment.
8 comments

Sitting here on Xmas Day morning, sun streaming over snow-clad roofs, I had, as trailed, intended to pen a few pithy observations about pantomimes. Topical of course, and especially since I was recently involved in the theatrical triumph that was the Presteigne Players’ An American in Powys. 

Ironically typecast as Det. Insp. Slipper of the Yard, mine was a relatively small role amongst a cast of 30 locals ranging in age from under 10 to, well old enough to know better and peppered with a few of the professional thesps who live hereabouts. It was, as ever, good fun and after a few, arguably too few, nerve-wracking rehearsals, all right on the nights. But these annual PP productions are not really trad pantos, for they are custom-written and directed by the modestly brilliant Mary Compton who deftly weaves sharply observed local and national politics into plots that also embrace some of the conventionally hokey boy-gets-girl, good-vs-evil themes and throws in a whole bunch of fun-poking at local characters, mostly just on the right side of benign.

LUMPY THROATING

It is testimony to Mary’s skill that each year’s plot is very different and includes a whole raft of rather good songs mostly co-written by her. But she knows her audience (and indeed, cast) well enough to reprise the finale, ‘Presteigne – Home of the Free’ every year. This latter is a quietly remarkable work which fondly takes the piss out of local retail institutions, schools and incomers (which she and most of us are) whilst simultaneously thrusting a lump of pride into the throats of the assembled cast and, certainly by the last chorus, a large chunk of the audience.

Anyway, I was planning to segue from this into a broader treatise on these knockabout theatrics, both community and professional, but when it comes down to it, I haven’t seen a commercial panto since I was a tot and the only community versions I’ve experienced are those I’ve made a fool of myself in here in Presteigne. But the thing of it is, whilst pantos may be have a useful role in bringing disparate elements of society and culture together – albeit fleetingly – what’s far more important is Captain Beefheart, certainly in the lump-in-throat department. Or that’s how it seemed last night.

Don’t know why it is but at this time of year I find myself re-visiting the nooks and crannies of my record collection and PLAYING THEM VERY LOUD and thus it was that I came upon Clear Spot, probably the most commercial of Don Van Vliet’s oeuvre. This has much to do with its producer, Ted Templeman who, in between profitably twiddling the knobs for the Doobie Brothers and Van Halen (!), was charged by Warner Bros. to try and recoup some of their investment in the gloriously unpredictable Captain and his Magic Band. And whilst 1969’s, Frank Zappa produced Trout Mask Replica is generally regarded as the good Captain’s mightiest work, Clear Spot is the best entry point. Reason being that Templeman, whilst he might not’ve always understood what the hell was going on musically, separates and lifts the individual instruments sufficiently from the dense rhythms favoured, nay, mandated by Van Vliet to the point where the listener can fully marvel at the mastery of those involved.

THOSE CRAZY RHYTHMS

Students and fans of the Beefheart legend, of which I am unashamedly one, will know that the clearly but brilliantly half-mad Van Vliet would lock his band members into rehearsals until he’d schooled them into performing each crazed, highly complex composition to his satisfaction, which occasionally took weeks and accounted for a rather high staff turnover, especially in the rhythm sections. Clear Spot therefore sees ex-Mothers on Invention Roy Estrada take over from Rockette Morton on bass (though Morton moves to rhythm guitar)  and newcomer Artie Tripp on drums, and it’s an ensemble that elevates ‘cooking’ to a new level. In particular there’s Tripp’s 5/4 intro to ‘Nowadays a Woman’s Gotta Hit a Man’ which is overlaid with Morton’s 7/8 (I think) riff before Don comes in with his acid harmonica and an anonymous horn section lazily prefacing (in 4/4 time) the utterly wonderful Zoot Horn Rollo (Bill Harkeload) cutting a swathe through it all with his typically vicious lead guitar. My favourite track – and it’s hard to pick just one – has to be ‘Circumstances’ which whilst Don’s lyrics and harmonica clearly reflect his blue’s roots, are simply a feint for a rocking opus that belies the numerous and almost impossible contrapuntal rhythms he throws into the pot.

And talking of impossible, this same trawl through my vinyl back catalogue inevitably lit on the Grateful Dead and specifically, the double Live Dead album (although the title appears nowhere on the sleeve or labels). In my view rockist scribblers too easily forget their unparalleled ability to create an intoxicating musical weft from apparently incongruent elements. Certainly they share this with Capt. Beefheart’s Magic Band but the difference is that the Dead did it best live and usually when they were out of their heads on acid. If you need evidence of their enduring might, check side two on disc two where ‘Not Fade Away’ merges effortlessly into ‘Going Down the Road Feeling Bad’.

INSUFFICIENT FINGERS?

It’s here that the late, much lamented Garcia galvanises the troops into another throat lumping jag and if you’re not bobbing and swaying like a fool by the time he rips out his second solo in ‘Road’, then you clearly need therapy. But 34 seconds into this magisterial 61 second opus (I know, I’ve timed it, I’m a saddo), something truly extraordinary happens: Phil Lesh a great but perhaps not seminal rhythm player begins doing something which I can’t see that between them he and Garcia had enough fingers to execute. It’s rhythm guitar but not as we know it, and combined with Garcia’s soaring, million-miles-a-minute yet note perfect solo, it’s simply transformative… as is the entire track. I must’ve played it fifteen times last night and I still don’t know how they did it, but it makes the likes of Beck and Clapton and even more modern plank-spankers such as Sonny Landreth and Buddy Whittington, whilst technically exceptional, sound undernourished and soulless. (Sorry Frank).

One thing is clear however, with Van Vliet retired to painting in the Californian desert and Garcia long, er, dead, we will not hear their musical like again.

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Antidisestablishmentarianism Re-defined December 21, 2009

Posted by markswill in About me, Media, Navel Gazing.
6 comments

To London last week for a spot of commerce, socialising and what passes for Xmas shopping, an enterprise characterised primarily by its cheery hecticness. Okay, that’s a noun that doesn’t really exist, but then so many words commonly parlayed in these digitally dominated times, don’t. On Radio 4 this week I heard a ‘top businessman’ refer to his services having “topicalism” and a politician who’s name I sadly missed and thus can’t ridicule claimed to have the “supportiveness” of his constituency association.  Technically ‘supportiveness’ is almost a transitive verb, formed from the adjective (‘supportive’) that stems from the original transitive verb (‘support’), but what was happening here was the increasingly common tendency to distort vernacular, or simply use more syllables than is necessary, in order to exalt the mundane. Either that or shite command of the English language.

Mentioning this at an increasingly well-lubricated supper I overcooked on Friday spawned all manner of appalling, or appallingist, examples of such grammatical excesses whose nadir was yrs. trly. trying unsuccessfully to pronounce “familiarisationism”. And next morning a postcard in my letterbox from one of my guests thanked me for an evening of such “cordiality, discussionality and jovialism”, which despite being so hungoverish had me falling off my chair with mirthfulism.

If only we scribblers were paid by the character rather than the word (if we’re paid at all, that is) then this all might – literally, or literatively – have some value but more generally I suppose it at least supports the joke maxim I coined in the ‘80s, “Why use three syllables when five will do?” However the evening itself served to illustrate how much fun heightened, if perhaps inebriated discussionality can be and how rarely we have the chance to engage in it as we spend more and more time huddled, iPods akimbo, over our laptops and smartphones. So as such isolationism (and that is a real word) becomes the norm and local pubs, clubs and other venues for social intercourse disappear and we have less money and time to spend in them anyway, it was encouraging to read in today’s Observer that the salon is making a comeback.

Which is kind of spooky since three of my supper guests and I had agreed to start exactly such a series of soirees (run for the hills, it’s an alliteration attack) in the New Year. It’s actually an idea I’d been harboring for some years but the problem was finding a site which didn’t involve rent, expensive drinks or upsetting a friend whose house was big enough to house 15 – 20 alleged free thinkers involved in animated intellectual discourse… a/k/a getting shouty about stuff they think matters. Happening to mention this when we four bumped into each other one Saturday morning elicited unexpected enthusiasm from all concerned and a venue and a list of like-minded culture vulturists and socio-political opinionaters quickly materialised. I just hope that our little salon will live up to what novelist Giles Foden defined in the Observer as being a cross between “a well stocked library, a bordello and a boxing ring”. 

Now of course much of what ails our language and fuels social disinteraction (or disinteractionalism) is the omnipotence of Google in all its tentacular guises, so I was pleased to hear last week that a French publisher had won its case against the company who, in their campaign to digitise and freely distribute all the world’s literature had posted many of their authors’ works online without permission or payment. This landmark case will hopefully encourage other publishers to take on the info-giant and may well bolster Rupert Murdoch’s plans to charge for content that his and other newspapers have hitherto given away for nowt in the mistaken assumption that it would boost ad. revenues (see previous blog, Paper Tiggers, April 20th). I was less pleased to read, unsurprisingly in Murdoch’s Sunday Times, that ‘Google pays no tax on £1.6bn’, that figure being its 2008 UK earnings which, were it not for some frankly shabby avoidance schemes, would’ve generated £450m for our beleaguered exchequer. I was further incensed to learn that the average salary of Google staff here was circa £90,000. (But if the job application I’ve just mailed off to them  – via the interweb, natch – is  successful, please put everything I’ve just written down to mental aberrationism).

Finally whilst I’m in media rant mode, during lunch with a friend in London we were bemoaning the infantalism (another real word) of much of what appears in the ‘quality press’ which willfully refuses if not to acknowledge that most of its loyal readers are over 45, then at least fails to adequately cater for them… albeit with the exception of other otherwise egregious Mail titles. My regular reader will recognise this as a familiar hobby horse but our discussion concluded that the reasons for the disconnect between reader requirements and editorial imperatives are twofold: the people who run the shows think that by relentlessly focusing on celebs, style and cultural ephemera (a/k/a vacuous nonsense) aimed at twenty- and thirty-somethings, they will brainwash their older, core readership (which, incidently, is not generally being replaced by a younger one) into lapping it up and this is because advertisers, or those that haven’t already migrated to the web, are apparently only interested in the young adult markets and not very interested in the ‘grey pound’. The fools.

And then when I saw page 2 of Saturday’s Guardian I realised that this was not perhaps just the cynical if ineffectual* manipulation of reader demographics, but the naive  evangelism of those still lucky enough to have jobs in the press. For there at the top of the page were the mugshots of the paper’s top 28 scribblers and editors, only five or six of whom could be over 40 and mostly looked to be fresh out of uni. And what would they really understand of what us eldsters empirically like, love and value?

I rest my case. Or case-ism.

 *(as circulations continue to decline)

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Focus on the Hocus Pocus December 2, 2009

Posted by markswill in Media, That's Entertainment.
7 comments

Occasionally I write film reviews for our local listings magazine, occasionally I proof-read it, and occasionally I deliver the finished product to the various hostelries, libraries etc., where it’s picked up gratis by a public thirsting for knowledge of where they might shake a tailfeather of a Saturday night in the soggy hinterlands of the Welsh (Squelch?) Marches.

But unlike that grand-daddy of listings magazines, Time Out (for which I have also worked, in this case for real money), Broad Sheep – for such is it wittily titled – contains several pages of ‘Complimentary Therapies’ which I occasionally skim through and having done so, seethe over. Broad Sheep’s editor, a dear friend of some forty years standing, wisely caveats these pages by taking “no responsibility for their content”, but I wish to go a bit further and point out, with customary understatement, that generally speaking they’re a load of hokum.

I know I risk opprobrium and possibly having a rat nailed to my front door by saying this in a part of the country where employment opportunities are limited but Crystal and Shamanic Healing (?!), Starlight Essences (!?!) and Ear Candling (!?!?!) are simply ways of separating the vulnerable and gullible from their money. Ditto Authentic Movement (surely something we all do when we fall out of bed hungover in the morning?) and Colour Therapy (oh, a yellow wall, I feel better now) are pure hocus-pocus masquerading as cures for the human condition which, as we all know, is fundamentally flawed.

Not that I completely eschew complimentary medicine, for I once had my sciatica permanently banished by a nice lady who stuck needles in me, albeit at a cost of several hundred pounds over 18 months, and a post-motorcycle accident back problem cured by a fellow biker who also happened to be a hot-shot osteopath. But these are both proven techniques recognised by the NHS as effective in certain circumstances and not phony panaceas relying entirely on the questionable convictions of the person signing the cheques. I must also admit that this ire was fired by a report in last week’s Sunday Times that Boots the High Street Comedians continue to stock homeopathic ‘remedies’ despite there being “no evidence to suggest that they are efficacious”, (i.e. they don’t work) because “a large number of our customers believe they are efficacious”.

This somewhat accords with my own attempts, prompted by a well-meaning ex-girlfriend, that I try and stem my rising blood pressure a few years ago by any means possible… except drugs. This I duly did with (expensive) visits to a homeopath, cranial osteopath, medical herbalist, acupuncturist and shiatsu-ist (there weren’t any snake-oil salesmen around at the time), none of which had the slightest effect and if that was because I simply didn’t buy into their various schticks, then so be it. But I certainly wanted a cure and got one within two days of visiting my GP, the medication he prescribed coming free on the Welsh NHS (see, there are some benefits to living here).

And talking embracing mumbo-jumbo, I mentioned in my last blog a nightmare drive through rain-lashed Shropshire for an evening of “druid chanting, finger cymballing and other new-age nonsense” which I might enlarge on later, and that later is now. Not wishing to be (too) cruel, I should say that the event in Shrewsbury’s cathedral-like St. Mary’s Church was a source of wonder and not-inconsiderable-although-necessarily- stifled mirth. It was hosted by a camp middle-aged gent with a massive white bouffant and a gray lurex (yes, lurex) cape called Mystic Ed who my companion immediately re-christened Mystic Egg. Mr Egg eulogised the considerable virtues of the various performers and organisers all of whom is seemed were capable of transforming the mundane treacheries and disappointments of our modest lives into well-springs of shimmering wonderment and eternal wisdom (that’s almost verbatim, but not quite).

With the exception of my friend’s friends who’d traveled up from London as a favour to the lady who Mr Egg endlessly lauded prior to her 15 minutes of fame at the finger cymbals (and here I’m not exaggerating at all), the performers almost universally wore that look of beatific smugness which so often translates into disdain for anyone who questions their dippy philosophies, the music itself being largely Chris de Burgh for the hippie set, i.e. aimless, tuneless and completely unmemorable.

We were thus relieved to leave early for the Yorkshire House pub, conveniently located –in a ying’n’yang kinda way – alongside the church and home to Shrewsbury’s goths, heavy-metallists and biker hordes who were having much more fun than any of the sackcloth- or home knit-clad miserablists lapping up Mystic Egg and his chums next door. But I should say that we weren’t the only refugees from the hallowed portals who slunk into the rowdy Yorkshire House for a restorative tincture, and it was also telling to see a few flowing robed figures huddling in the porch cupping a furtive roll-up.

Not that I wish to condone cigarette-smoking of course, indeed in the absence of any paid proof-reading or film reviewing this month, I might just develop my own complimentary therapy designed to kick the evil weed with a spot of Transformative Gesture Hands-on Healing™ using empty vodka bottles and bent Lancia con-rods.

Talking of which, if perchance you watched last Sunday’s Top Gear you might’ve glimpsed my lovely Gamma Coupe shortly before it lunched in engine (blogs passim) during Clarkson’s peculiar love/hate item on classic Lancias.  More on which anon. Perhaps.

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