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Age Concerned June 4, 2014

Posted by markswill in About me, Navel Gazing, Politics, Schmolitics.
10 comments

I’ve been trying to finish this blog since the end of April but work, hedonism and indolence have proven effective hindrances. However a slight lull in the proceedings now allow me to wrap it up and as long as the lull continues – which it looks set to for a few more days – another one might well ensue before you can say “Whining Willy”.

I recently attended a protest meeting in opposition to HS2, albeit specifically concerned with the hideous blight the initial part of the route will have on North London. Most of the speakers were well-versed on their subjects, whether it be the damaging effects 10+ years of constructing the railway will have on health, housing, small businesses and the environment but only Frank Dobson MP, who represents part of Camden, alluded to the bigger picture. HS2, he pointed out, was conceived “on the back of a fag-packet” by the previous Labour government with almost no consideration for its likely negative effects or, indeed, its alleged economic benefits, a conception the Coalition government has subsumed with little more serious research and such as been done has concluded that the planned route was deeply flawed and the economic benefits decidedly sketchy.

But I am not about to rant against the whole misguided, damaging and invalid waste of taxpayers’ money that HS2 represents, rather to offer some more peripheral observations that the protest meeting prompted. Held in Britain’s home of folk music, Cecil Sharp House in Camden, it was almost entirely if well attended by people in their 50s, 60s and beyond, the baby boomers who, depending on your viewpoint, are largely responsible for Britain’s economic and social ills or alternatively, its cultural virtues. Naturally I subscribe to the former belief, but in my quite considerable experience as a bona fide silver serf  I’ve learnt  that us lot tend to run the committees, the pressure groups, the local charity organisations and the like that arguably make life worth living in a society where successive governments have capped or reduced funding for anything remotely related to quality of life.

I worked out that most of my friends and more intimate acquaintances sit on committees or help run voluntary outfits of one sort or another, many several times over. Then again, I actually gave up chairing a music and events charity recently for reasons that will probably be familiar to many of us who engage in such activities, namely a wearying clash of personalities with one particularly vociferous individual who was a disruptive element. Which underlines the inherent weakness of working for a voluntary body where there’s no coherent chain of command: lazy-bones or troublemakers can’t be sacked, and the only reward for your often quite significant labour is the satisfaction of goals achieved… or not as the case may be.

Unsurprisingly then, over the years I’ve noticed that in each of the outfits I’ve been involved with there’s been a steady turnover of committee members who for whatever reason couldn’t hack it any longer and who felt they had better things to do with their time. And attending that HS2 meeting, I was reminded that in many cases “life’s too short” could often be another reason for bailing out, because I fear despite all logic and all the protests, the government is going to railroad – sorry – this white elephant through in order to save face… and provide jobs for the boys and the bankers.

I’m now, and regretfully, of retirement age but the slippers, golf clubs and Rhine River cruises that are synonymous with this don’t really appeal, even if I had a decent pension to fund them (alright, I can afford the slippers). Most of my peers and pals also choose or are economically obliged to carry on working and as I said, almost all of us do voluntary work. The National Trust was recently criticised for working its small army of middle- and let’s face it, old-aged volunteers too hard, but without them that organisation, like many other so-called cultural institutions, would simply collapse.

So what I’m getting at is that Britain’s volunteer workforce ought, at the very least, to get tax breaks on what money we do earn, and for those who earn nothing but spend significant amounts of time helping others, then how about a bigger state pension Mr Bloody Osborne?

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Hippy New Year? January 6, 2014

Posted by markswill in About me, Navel Gazing, Politics, Schmolitics.
20 comments

I stopped making New Year resolutions a long time ago. They always got broken, usually within days. But the early January habit of wondering what the ensuing 12 months might bring persists and, I suspect, for many of you too.

As we continue to suffer the ill- and sometimes disasterous effects of global warming – the river at the bottom of my street has burst its banks – 2014 may be the year that the government gets serious about climate change, although as the waters rose and seas defences were breached around our fragile isle the news that some 1500 jobs are going in the DoE including, “hundreds” in the flood defences department, wasn’t exactly confidence-inspiring.

I’d also like to think that our coalition government may force Brussels to capitulate to our need to free ourselves from some of the more ridiculous and debilitating legislation its unelected bureaucrats oblige us to enact: I’m thinking immigration controls (we live on a small, already crowded, socio-economically divided island), mad health and safety rules and bankrupt carbon trading. But again, the political bombast may well be strident and repetitive, but the reality might be something else. Hello Ukip?

The slow groundswell of anger at the excesses of unfettered capitalism that obliged us to bail-out a busted banking system post-2008 and continues to award fat cats obscene, tax-free rewards for exploiting the vulnerable – I’m thinking the privatised utilities, railways and health services – may also bear fruit especially if, as I suspect, the housing price bubble bursts and throws the financial sector into hock to the poor taxpayer yet again. (There are even mutterings about re-nationalising the railways which, having spent the best part of Saturday traveling less than 250 miles at ruinous cost on three trains all of which ran woefully late, is a notion I’m warming to). And as long as the government rails (sic) emptily against the parlous fiscal legacies of the last Labour government whilst viciously cutting public services, simultaneously ramping up the national debt and championing white elephants like HS-2 there is some chance of this happening.

However offset against these perhaps encouraging symptoms of imminent change, one reluctantly realises that fewer and fewer people can be arsed to vote, especially the young who register whatever dissatisfactions they might have with the status quo via Twatter, FarceBerk and Instagrumble, none of whom have much effect of our so-called policymakers who are too frit of these and other digital giants to pay much heed to their users, much less tax their profits. This very weekend Head Boy Cameron offered an obvious, if desperate vote-winning sop to the one group who do still vote in large numbers, namely the oldsters, guaranteeing them that pensions would rise with inflation for the foreseeable future. But no political party has yet come up with a way to restore, nay instill faith in our political system amongst 18-40 year-olds and get them voting in droves. Ending Punch’n’Judy grandstanding, policymaking on the hoof, empty rhetoric and rampant corruption might be a start, but our public servant/masters, most of whom have never lived or worked outside of politics, still just don’t seem to get it.

But I end this bout of crystal ball-gazing with the hope that for anyone reading this semantic swill the year will at least bring some degree of personal satisfaction and comfort, and that the death-rate amongst friends and peers diminishes a little – too many went AWOL in 2013. After decades of commitment-phobia and recent-ish romantic misadventures – not necessarily one and the same thing – somewhat to my own surprise I recently got married, so I know things can get better if risks are taken.

So at risk of sounding like an old hippy, why not take some yourself in 2014?

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THE WORLD ACCORDING TO CAMERON DIAZ, Pt 2 November 14, 2013

Posted by markswill in Media, Navel Gazing, Politics, Schmolitics.
3 comments

I ended last week’s excursion to the outer fringes of melancholic resignation by claiming that there had at least been some compensation in the shape of cultural nourishment. That said, we’re not out the woods yet but before return to the forces of darkness, I will honour my promise, kicking off with the fantastic Pop Art Design show at the Barbican – a sprawling, comprehensive exhibition taking in pure art, commercial media and even furniture and household goods. A good 90 minutes if not two hours are required to take it all in. Equally uplifting, partly because I was barely aware of his work, was the Daumier exhibition at the RA and rather more for laughs, Michael Landy’s installations based on the martyred saints at the National, even if they do rather ape what Bruce Lacey was doing 50 years ago.

In fact I’m writing this on the train back from King’s Lynn after a jolly works outing to see the temporarily returned post-renaissance paintings acquired in 1779  from Robert Walpole’s ancestral seat, Houghton Hall, by Catherine the Great. Walpole had Houghton built specifically to accommodate a collection that wasn’t uniformly to my taste – although the Van Dycks, Velazquez and Marattas were of a high order – but its scale and décor, still beautifully preserved, are the perfect setting for an assemblage that’s shortly to return to Russia, never to be seen here again. (Also, the warm fruit scones in the caff were the best I’ve ever had  – which is saying something – and we enjoyed one of Griffith’s pork pies, brought all the way from Shropshire, on the train home). Top day on all counts, then.

Only two theatre outings in the last coupla months, but both crackers: Terry Johnson’s clever, archly comic Hysteria at Hampstead with Anthony Sher playing a much put-upon Sigmund Freud (N.B. Naked Old People Alert), and Moira Buffini’s Handbagged at the Tricycle which is a sardonic, brilliantly observed and pitch-perfectly performed imagining of the hostility between M. Thatcher and H.R.H. The Queen. Both still (just) playing so if you live in London, get there quick.

As for films, well obviously I’d advise seeing The Counsellor with Brad Pitt, Javier Bardem, Michael Fassbinder and of course Ms. Diaz all on topping form. And as they haven’t quite yet been released, I’ll repeat my enthusiasm for All Is Lost (R. Redford, brilliant), Nebraska (B. Dern, ditto… indeed his best since The Driver), Labor Day (Kate Winslet, more ditto), August: Osage County (La Streep outstanding as a drug-addled, vile-tongued matriarch) and the best film ever to come out of Romania, Child’s Pose. Which perhaps isn’t saying much. But then neither am I.

Except on the subject of HOUSING, the price of which if you live in the South East, which I don’t, you’ll know is rising at some 8-10% per quarter. It seems extraordinary that the government tacitly if not actively encourage this by allowing, i.e. without any notable tax deterrents, foreign investors to buy ‘off-plan’ properties they will never live in or mansions they might visit occasionally, indirectly pushing up the cost of rental as a consequence. Then on the other hand the banks, several of whom we part-own and who screwed up the economy by over lending to an over-heated housing market, instead of to business as they were supposed to and which we were told would re-build the economy on sounder basis, are again offering 95% mortgages and often with government backing. In the spirit of last week’s blog, I have tried to overcome my cynical doubts about this by listening to the pundits who, like Thatcher, claim that having lots of rich Russians, Arabs and hedgefund hogs investing in bricks and mortar will have a beneficial trickle-down effect for the rest of us. And maybe this time around I am wrong and they are right?

I’m slightly surer of my prejudicial positions on the ENERGY COMPANIES and the NATIONAL HEALTH, both of which obviously concern me in my twilight years. Much to my surprise I agree with John Major that the cartel which supplies light and heat to our overpriced homes are profiteering cynically and enormously, the huge salaries of their bosses and the ‘enhanced shareholder value’ which they trumpet as their prime motive causing both anger and fear amongst those who increasingly have to choose between adequate heating and feeding themselves. And of course a consistent reduction in either leads to ill-health which disproportionately effects the elderly who of course, because of the deliberately repressed interest rates have found their living standards further reduced. A troll round any branch of Aldi or Lidl witnesses growing numbers of harried looking pensioners debating whether they can afford own-brand ketchup or tinned sardines, nutrition being rather lower down their economic agenda than three or four years ago.

I don’t therefore find it coincidental that the NHS is creaking under the strain of all these increasingly ailing crocs, neither am I surprised that closing down walk-in centres, cutting support to GP surgeries and the A&E units that are having to take up the slack, plus wasting squillions on IT systems and senior management that do sod-all for frontline services results only in weasel words from Cameron and Co.  The contrarian view, which in my new spirit of impartiality I am bound to espouse, is that like many other developed countries we should jolly well pay for some or all of our healthcare, ergo, the rich and entitled would enjoy better health, live longer and contribute more to, erm, offshore tax regimes.

Oh, and one final cause for unfettered joy: Ed Reardon’s Week is back on R4, and on excellent form – 11.30am Mondays.

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THE WORLD ACCORDING TO CAMERON DIAZ November 8, 2013

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

In The Counsellor, a violent but not unappealing drug trafficking thriller due out later this month, Cameron Diaz’s deliciously villainous character spouts a lengthy homily about change, its inevitability and the smart person’s decision not to fight it. Obviously I am not a smart person because Canute-like, I constantly resist change. I was also reminded of the foolishness of this when visiting the Paul Klee exhibition at Tate Modern, for although in his day (1879-1940) Klee was a serious thinker and teacher about matters artistic, on the evidence of this rather disappointing show he failed to put his thoughts into action, or rather onto canvas. Which in failing to put most of my own stridently voiced opinions into practice, I am also a craven hypocrite.

And it is of course this untypically honest admission that partly accounts for the hiatus in blogging which I whined about six weeks ago, although then I cited the irrelevance of one man’s views in a world where better brains than I have bigger and better fora to disseminate them and the usually despicable acts of mankind that prompt them. So whilst I still advocate Private Eye, The New Yorker and even Prospect if you really want to know about mankind’s horrors and follies, I was moved by Ms Diaz’s, or rather scriptwriter Cormac McCarthy’s observations to re-consider my position on a few matters that had recently vexed me.

HS2   The current political wrangling over the proposed £42billion north-south trainline is characterised by the opposing sides constantly issuing contradictory reports on its viability, cost and disruptive elements. My view is that it’d be a disaster, especially for the citizens of north London whose properties and lives would be blighted for a decade whilst it was built (I spend a lot of time in north London, see), and as a regular traveler on a creaking east-west train service to and from and my Welsh home, I’d far rather see the money used upgrading existing rail routes. But because so much political capital depends on HS2 going ahead, it almost certainly will. Just as it almost certainly will be beset by cost overruns and delays and do nothing for the economies of northern England that are its supposed beneficiaries.

MEDIA & BOOKS   The recent sacking of its arts critics by The Independent and the steady cull of journalists by the Telegraph, Times and Guardian confirm that mass print media is doomed. Ditto the ongoing closure of independent bookshops due to the increase in sales of digital readers with Amazon, the arch-villains of the piece, rubbing salt into the wound with a series of ads showing an ugly man smiling at his Kindle in front of a pile of discarded books. A recent report that children, often encouraged by parents desperate to keep them occupied, just don’t have the attention spans to read anything other than digitized gobbets of information confirms that the printed word is doomed. And with it, probably anyway, the power of the press to challenge authority and commerce to account for their myriad venality. So I’d better get used to that, too. But a bracing if surprising counterpoint came from Murdoch’s News UK paywall-loving boss, Mike Darcey, in the latest In Publishing (print edition, natch): “Papers like The Guardian are eating themselves alive by publishing a newspaper at £1.40 and then giving all the content away for free.” Precisely.

CAR TROUBLE    A rare case of contrition now regarding my unfashionable romance with the internal combustion engine. I got it wrong with the Twingo I irrationally bought in August (because I liked its cheeky looks and supposed economy), and am having doubts about both selling my Lancia Gamma and my continuing ownership of the gorgeous technological marvel/nightmare that is my Citroen XM. Since acquiring it, the Twingo has needed a replacement driveshaft and cambelt, both nightmarish to source because it was never an UK import and Renault UK can’t or won’t identify relevant parts numbers. Ergo many frustrating hours spent badgering confused and irritated friends/mechanics/axe-murderers for help. The Citruin has developed a leak from I know not where, probably because I stupidly let a garage who didn’t know XMs service it instead of doing it myself. And winter’s coming and its bum’s getting rusty. Until I bought the XM, I maintained that one’s ‘daily driver’ should cost no more than £1000 and deliver at least two and usually three year’s virtually trouble-free motoring, after which I’d flog it for a few hundred less than it cost and move onto another cheaply insurable old banger, arrogantly assuming that I knew enough to do rudimentary maintenance and avoid buying a dog. Oh, and I’d keep and cherish a classic for high days and showing off. The XM, glorious to drive though it is, proved the exception in every respect, but I thought I’d box clever by replacing the Lancia with it as my object of automotive lust and make the Twingo my daily driver. Wrong, wrong, wrongity wrong. And worse, when I occasionally drive a modern BMW or, gulp, Ford, I kinda hanker after transport that’s quiet, reliable and economical… even if it has no soul.

TALKING OF SOUL    All of this unrequited resistance to the march of progress has this month been ameliorated by some determined cultural consumption, but as your attention span has probably already been stretched to its limits, the details of which I’ll peddle around early next week in a unexpectedly prompt second instalment.

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Still Scribbling (Just About) September 2, 2013

Posted by markswill in Cars and Bikes, Media, Navel Gazing, Politics, Schmolitics.
29 comments

There have, it seems, been 85 of the suckers over the past few years, and almost uniformly bleating about some social injustice, media travesty, political inertia and/or conspiracy blah-blah-blah. My last blog in fact exhorted my reader to simply buy Private Eye whose muck-raking activities are far, far more assiduous, wide-ranging and comprehensive than a lone scribbler’s could ever be, and that remains my position. And in a world increasingly run by giant corporations and their poodle governments, the potential for protest to have much effect is limited. Which is why I haven’t published another one for months and likely won’t do for many more.

Indeed I think it’s fair to say in the world we now blindly struggle through, my generation really had the best of it and I pity the poor blighters following in our wake.

But just for the record, these are the subjects that have me wringing my hands most often and most intensely : Mick Farren’s death; Google; Amazon; virtually all politicians; Syria; fracking; HS2; global energy policies; most electronic media; banks and bankers; my personal finances; human behavior in the digital age; Afghanistan; celebrity culture; finding a garage who can competently tend my Citroen XM. It’s never bloody ending.

And since this will be probably be my last scrawl for ages, I’ll try and counterbalance that litany of despair with a brief list of things that have made life bearable:

DAVID BYRNE and St Valentine at the Roundhouse: 8-piece brass section, quirky if borderline irritating guitarist/chanteuse Annie Clark and Byrne’s magnificent songs. Truly uplifting.

MOVIE BINGEING: Seeing up to seven a week courtesy of my gig with the Picturehouse chain. Yes, there’s dross a’plenty, but some gems too, recently including What Maisie Knew, Closed Circuit, Cold Comes The Night, All Is Lost, Gloria, The Great Beauty, Enough Said, Blue Jasmine and Nebraska… all out now or in the next two months, and all to be savoured before online streaming and home cinema finally kill off real cinema (and I’m out of a gig, again!).

Beefheart Illustration

‘Outsider Artist’ Joe Coleman’s homage to the Mighty Captain

ART: a now not-so-recent trip to Paris revealed some unexpected gems, including Hey! Modern Art & Pop Culture at the wonderfully whacky Hailles St Pierre (a sort of mini-Roundhouse) featuring ‘outsider artists’ from the 70s onwards, including the Clayton Brothers, the biker druggie Joe Coleman, Erik Joyner and dozens more.  Hey! is also an occasional, beautifully produced mag-book worth €19 of anyone’s money whose interested in truly innovative creative mavericks that make the Damien Hirsts, Chapman Bros. and Tracey Emins of this world look like the cynical, minimally talented hucksters that they are.

And the Chagall exhibition, mostly of his bitingly critical anti-war works at the Musee du Luxembourg was moving in a different way.

But most impressive was a trip to the Musee des Artes et Metiers. I was making my third visit there in the vain hope that I might finally work my way through its enormous collection of technical, industrial, consumer, automotive and architectural design exhibits (I failed) when for light relief wandered into the temporary Enki Bilal show. He’s little known (to me) Serbian-born comic book artist and writer – a master draughtsman and fantasist with an agreeably perverse view of the (nether) world, but he’s also made several feature films, unshown in the UK, which despite massively limited resources and zero CGI are incredibly dramatic and graphically imaginative. This I know only because he’d spliced together a riveting and often hilarious assemblage that played on a constant 15 minute loop.

What all the hip Parisian  despatch riders are using these days

What all the hip Parisian despatch riders are using these days

Amazingly, given their no-budget origins, Bilal managed to persuade star names to appear in them, such as Julie Delpy and Michel Piccoli (Tykho Moon), Frederic Pierrot and Charlotte Rampling (the deeply weird Ad Vitam a/k/a ‘Immortal’) and Jean-Louis Trintignant and Maria Schneider (Bunker Palace Hotel). Bilal’s films are available, if hard to track down, on DVD but I recommend that you do. (I also got to bestride Prosper Keating’s meticulously maintained Velocette KSS whilst in Paris, but that was art as ancient engineering).

Lichtenstein at Tate Modern is long over of course, but it’s still zinging around in my head, and the Salgardo photos at the Natural History Museum are pretty damn incredible.

THEATRE: The revival of Gorky’s Children of the Sun at the NT was a timely reminder of the perils of political expediency, thrillingly staged and performed, ditto Chimerica at the Almeida – since transferred to the West End  – which boldly addressed the growing power of China and waning influence of America. More conventional but no less caustic was Noël Coward’s supercharged comedy of upper-class manners, Private Lives at the Gielgud.

MEDIA: Apart from the aforementioned Private Eye, The New Yorker continues to be the source of much pleasure and instructive intelligence. Long, beautifully written articles on subjects as diverse as Louisiana tugboat dynasties, Tibetan politics and the exploitation of African mineral resources by shadowy Israeli industrialists, plus the best film reviewers in the world bar none make the £100+ annual subscription worthwhile… even if, with hideous inevitability, its publishers are trying to migrate us online.

And so finally of course we come to Renault Twingos: I’ve always fancied these cheeky wee-but- roomy French hatchbacks since riding around in a colleague’s during my frequent business trips to Paris in the mid-90s, and having been obliged to sell my beloved Lancia Gamma, I spent some of the proceeds on what is now probably the only one in mid-Wales.

The future is Twingo, at least when I can't afford to fill up the Citruin XM

The future is Twingo, at least when I can’t afford to fill up the Citruin XM

Certainly the only one in metallic gold with a full length sun-roof. What larks… almost as much fun in fact as riding a Honda CBX around in what for once has been a fabbo summer.

Double Booked. And This Time It’s Personal. December 9, 2012

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

Once again I find myself repeating myself, or at least returning to a rant only just posted, but being of an obsessive nature, I just damn well will. (Reminds me of a sign in a Parisian shop a fortnight ago: ‘Okay, I’m addicted to shoes – so what?’). So there I was browsing my local Waterstones, seeking selfish reward after a particularly harrowing dental appointment on Friday and, as anyone frequenting Britain’s sole remaining bookstore chain recently now knows, you can’t get through their doors without tripping over a table full of Kindles. Usually I ignore them, but this time some 12 year-old (© Ed Reardon) actually accosted me and asked if I’d “thought about” buying one.

“Yes,” I replied with all the snottiness you’d expect, “and my thought was ‘not in a million years.’” Not exactly a scintillating response, but as I took my ‘Buy One – Get Another Half Price’ volumes to the dreadlocked Assistant Manager (as his badge so helpfully explained) at the till, I managed something chunkier. “Tell me, “ I asked, handing over my Waterstones loyalty card (yes, I’m that sad), “what’ll happen when you’ve sold all your customers a Kindle… apart,” I added with a triumphant sneer, “from making lots of money for Amazon who won’t pay tax on it?”

Somewhere between sheepish and confused – hadn’t his boss James ‘Turncoat’ Daunt, anticipated his staff being asked this? – he haltingly, if not bitterly replied, “Well I supposed we’ll become a Kindle accessory shop?” Unsure if he was actually being facetious, I parried, “Well then you won’t need all this space will you, or all these staff?”

As it happened, a punter waiting behind me piped up, “But at least it’ll keep people reading, and they’re so much more convenient than books.” I looked round and saw her blanching slightly, perhaps as the import of her words sunk in. Readying her debit card to pay for Hilary Mantel’s latest, this well-groomed, interesting-looking woman of a certain age was perhaps echoing the conclusion drawn in my last blog, inasmuch that digital media is just symptomatic of technology’s inevitable progress, and as bookshops, printers, paper mills, warehouses and all their staff disappear like the quill and the Gutenberg press, society will adjust. Although in this case perhaps just to one or two companies – Amazon? Google? – profiting from and controlling everything we consume.

Which brings me neatly to another regular beef: the changing nature of human communications. I’m actually writing this during the day-long ‘technical rehearsals’ for our town panto, which despite the fluffed lines, wrongly-keyed songs and mis-timed entrances is a terrifically convivial affair and one of the small joys of living in a real community. And afterwards, suitably exhausted and moderately elated, some of us will doubtless repair to the pub, perhaps even staying on ‘til the pub quiz at 9.30.

I’ve actually had some of my best times of my life in pubs and bars, especially this one which luckily is at the end of my road. However I have many friends who never go to pubs at all. And yes, the booze costs thrice as much as at Aldi and if you live in the sticks driving home is risky, but like bookshops (and butchers and bakers), they’re disappearing fast and with them an entire facility for social contact. And how often do you simply phone up your mates for a chat these days? Nah, now it’s Twatter and FarceBerk that evidently sustain us socially and when I sometimes do call someone up for no particular reason, they are usually surprised and sometimes lost for conversation.

But I know people who use FarceBerk on a daily basis to broadcast their little miseries and triumphs (‘Here’s baby Mandy eating her first porridge’), or alert their chums to an hilarious video of a dog farting.  To mention this sounds pejorative and churlish, but like bemoaning the imminent death of the book, it’s a lament for a time when our relationships were more tactile and you could understand so much better how your friends, family and lovers were really feeling across a pub table, or even at the end of a telephone receiver. Okay, there’s Skype, but cowering awkwardly over our keyboards, Skype chats are viewed in blurry, staccato images reminiscent of Ray Harryhausen’s ‘50s and ‘60s stop-motion film animation… i.e. very distracting.

I know I’m riding high on my extremely hypocritical horse here, because I also occasionally delve into FarceBerk, albeit mainly to flog my blog, I use email several times a day, and I’ve been hopelessly flattered by those I respect into joining online business communities such as LinkedIn and Plaxo, naïvely believing it’d help my so-called career, but all they seem to do is encourage members to boast how clever and successful they are and/or spew out acronyms I neither am able nor really want to understand to voice anodyne opinions about the wonderfulness of digital media.

Where will it end? Will human interaction become limited almost entirely to the digital short-form and if so, what will it mean for the depth and diversity of imagination, emotions and intellectual rigour? As ever, I’m keen to hear your views, Orwellian or otherwise. Full of seasonal cheer, that’s me.

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Arts For Heart’s Sake November 26, 2012

Posted by markswill in Media, Navel Gazing, That's Entertainment.
29 comments

Returning to Wales today I couldn’t help noticing the contrast between Britain’s post-industrial landscape and the one I travelled through in northern France yesterday aboard Eurostar. Here, nondescript clusters of empty, crumbling brick factories and warehouses sat forlornly skirting Midlands towns, interspersed occasionally with retail park blight, whereas in France the factories were almost uniformly big, white sheds shimmering beyond neatly ploughed fields. Of course those French factories may’ve well been dormant, too, although I rather hope the one whose identifying sign simply read ‘Potato Masters’ still had a life.

The news back home after a few days without it was, according to the Daily Telegraph, predictably grim: flooding across the country – plenty of evidence of that through my Virgin Voyager window – with higher food prices and home insurance premiums ahoy, shipyard closures imminent in Glasgow and Portsmouth, pubs still closing at the rate of seven a week, often bulldozed to make way for supermarkets using convenient planning loopholes and of course the inevitable and continuing recession which, we are now told, may mean wallowing in economic despair until 2018… probably much longer, if we can’t manufacture and export our way out of it, which we can’t. (But I was rather tickled by James Dyson whining about industrial espionage at the hands of an oriental mole, this being the same James Dyson lionised for his industrial savvy but who closed down his factories years ago in favour of outsourcing to… the orient).

Notwithstanding what may or may not have been going on in those shed-like factories, in France, or at least Paris which is where I’ve just been, things appear to be different, although that may well a tourist’s panglossian gaze. The glitzy shops in the Marais, where I stayed in a friend’s apartment, all seemed to be prospering and ditto the myriad restaurants, bars and bistros. The art galleries, which along with serious socialising were the main purpose of my trip, heaving to the extent that after queuing for two hours in the rain for the Edward Hopper show at the Grand Palais we could take it no longer and went round the corner to see The Bohemians after merely a ten minute queue. As my Paris-based companion pointed out, this was hung with a panache that the French seem to do particularly well which made up for the somewhat patchy quality of the works themselves, but there were other treats in store, most notably the Sarah Paulsen show at the very wonderful Maison Europeeene de la Photographie and the ever reliable Musée D’Orsay where a smallish show of Van Gochs, Vuillards and Bonnards (the latter whom I never quite get) alone justified the price of admission.

But slightly hungover from yet another night of over indulgence denied sufficient time to do justice to the Conservatoire des Arts et Metiers before hightailing it to the Gare du Nord. This is one of the great neglected musées – it doesn’t even feature in most guidebooks – featuring an extraordinary four centuries-worth of scientific, industrial and architectural instruments, inventions and machinery curated with considerable aesthetic flair and intelligibility.

Now you may say that London and even many provincial British galleries, shops and restaurants are also doing gangbusters business despite the recession, and you may be right. But over here I sense a degree of desperation compelling us to get as much culture under our belts as we can before tightening them even further, and/or the arts lose even more funding and thus public accessibility. (On a tiny scale, I am already involved in trying to replace recently withdrawn government funding for local arts and education institutes here in Wales, with yet more to come).

Enough has been written about the civilising effects of the arts on society, often by me, for such concerns to be obvious to anyone with half a brain, but the plethora of publicly available culture in France – Paris has more museums than filling stations – does seem to be reflected in the mood of the Parisian demi monde who, just looking at the handsome smartly-dressed citizens striding the streets and packing the galleries, seemed somehow happier and more optimistic. Plus of course they let motorcycles park on the pavement – truly the sign of an enlightened society and the reason why so many are ridden round the city.

Still, this year I am again doing my bit to raise the cultural bar by appearing in our local pantomime, on this occasion playing the local county councillor, an aging, eccentrically attired ‘confirmed bachelor’  – typecast again I fear – who dies a hideous death as the second act opens. And talking of ugly demises, I’m currently and simultaneously reading Edward St Aubyn’s ‘Mother’s Milk’ and A.M. Homes ‘May We Be Forgiven’, both darkly hilarious, and both including grandmothers suffering dementia. Add to these ‘Amour’, cheery Michael Haneke’s latest flic which considers the incapacitating aspects of old age… and suddenly cognitive decline seems all the rage. I am tempted to say ‘Bring it on’ as it might provide blessed relief from all that ails us in the world, but for the moment at least, I prefer my oblivion bottle shaped, and let’s face it, the French do produce some remarkably good wines and spirits. Must get back there a.s.a.p.

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Breaking Wind, If Not Silence November 6, 2012

Posted by markswill in About me, Navel Gazing, Politics, Schmolitics.
Tags: , ,
30 comments

Since my last rant some seven weeks ago, I’ve had a few stabs at composing another but to no avail, obviously.

I don’t know about yours, but I find that in these blighted times and especially if you’re of a certain age and culture, life is an endless tide of disappointment, failure and betrayal relieved only by brief and increasingly infrequent examples of spiritual generosity and soul-stirring creative venture. As such, there isn’t much worth writing about that isn’t just more of the rut-ploughing whining I’ve been doing for years now.

So on the cusp of a right-wing, tax-avoiding, women-hating religious zealot probably becoming Master of the Universe and then bombing Iran, out-sourcing even more jobs to the Far East and ending his female subjects’ right to choose an abortion, I fear we are all in the same bloody boat. But one thing I can be sure of and is perhaps worth noting is that Trouble Rides a Fast Horse.

Which is all you need to know.

And if you can bear to read more of the same, albeit at greater length, check out the column on the right

I Am Barbara Cartland’s Love-Child September 16, 2012

Posted by markswill in About me, Cars and Bikes, Media, Navel Gazing.
46 comments

It’s not often I claim anything in common with the late Barbara Cartland, but right now I’m writing this in bed… albeit not wearing a pink nightie. This is because having just had eleven teeth removed at one go, I’m drugged close to the eyeballs with industrial-strength painkillers: something else, judging by the rubbish she wrote, I suspect Ms Cartland was also partial to. And the reason for that is that they all had to be extracted in one hit so’s I could immediately start wearing a pair of  horrid if temporary dentures.

This modest revelation is not, I promise you, a prelude to an outburst of self-pity, but rather to a broader treatise on aging… although perhaps that’s almost as bad. Almost as bad, in fact, as the Observer’s price rise this week, but more on that later.

The problem with teeth is part of the problem with aging, inasmuch as like the rest of one’s mind and body, they wear out. Unkind voices have suggested that all the cocaine and speed I took in a past life accelerated my dental decline, but be that as it may, the deterioration of one’s molars is but one of many symptoms we baby-boomers must apparently suffer, sooner or later. Hair-, hearing-, sight-, stamina- and memory-loss, thickening girth, wrinkled faces and flabby limbs are some more of the almost common ones, others such as calcified joints, poisoned livers, loss of muscle tissue and libido, plus of course the Big ‘C’ being less widespread but more serious.

As a reasonably vain man, I try to stave off such deteriorations as I can reasonably afford, so I go to the gym, watch what I eat, avoid alcohol a couple of days a week and so on, but I clearly didn’t look after my teeth carefully enough and when various bridges and crowns collapsed earlier this year I was somehow rather shocked. Moreover after 18 months on an NHS waiting list, I wasn’t best pleased to be told that unless I went private, the best the state could do would be to hoik most of them out and provide me with acrylic dentures for the rest of my days. The thought of plonking a set of false teeth into a glass of Steradent each night after passionate sex with my 24 year-old love goddess frankly appalled me, so with the rigour typical of an aging hypochondriac, I investigated implants and even paid for consultations with specialist clinics both here and in Hungary (where life, and dentistry, are cheaper).  But even when you tot up the cost of airfares, hotels and the lonely nights of painful recovery doing it abroad, I was looking at the price of a brand new Mini to get my mouth looking and working good again. Plus various friends in the know recounted lurid tales of surgery gone wrong and implants having to be removed from infected gums.

Although I won’t elaborate here, my solution was a halfway house between conventional falsies and implants, but the overarching point I want to make is that NO-ONE PREPARES YOU FOR THIS SORT OF THING. Just as kids today aren’t taught how to cook, manage their finances or, it seems, read and write, we weren’t trained how to deal with middle-age. I dunno about you, but with the exception of drug abuse, I still think and try to behave pretty much as I did in my 20s. I still have poor impulse control, still want to dance and drink late into the night, still like fast cars and motorcycles, still like s-e-x, still dress to impress even if it’s only for myself etc., etc. And if I could afford a hair transplant as well as the dental work, I’d do that too.

Is this growing old paranoidly (a word I just invented), embarrassingly or disgracefully? Or should I and my peers, most of whom seem to act to varying degrees as I do, behave more in line with the generation in front of us, swaddled in beige, slowly driving sensible Toyotas, joining the bowling club, shuffling round town with our Zimmers and doting on grandchildren with a passion that transcends our own intellectual and cultural curiosity? Sooner or later we are all going to peg it, but these next couple of decades are uncharted territory for the likes of us who cut our teeth (sic) in the laissez-faire late ‘60s and a lot of us don’t have a nice pension to cushion the blow. Any suggestions?

And talking of pegging it, today’s Observer has just raised its price from £2.20 to £2.50, a hike justified in a pious little editorial by claiming “it is the only way we can hope to continue to invest in the world’s oldest Sunday newspaper… (and provide) excellence in journalism.” This excellence is doubtless exemplified by page three’s main story about a British businesswoman setting up an “erotic website as an antidote to hardcore sexual imagery” and a double-page spread on London’s “opera wars” between Verdi and Wagner (yawn). But worse still is the Observer Magazine which is now little more than a unctuous showcase for expensive fripperies, fancy food and C-list thesps no-one cares a damn about. If the Observer ditched their magazine, had the balls to drop its price by 50% and put some backbone into their editorial offering my guess is that circulation and thence ad. revenues would rise significantly. But we all know that like its Guardian sibling, their management myopically believe that getting everyone, including their core 45-60 year-old readership, to shell out for an iPad and access it online will be their salvation, no matter how much their thus far failed attempts to do so, and make money out of it, costs them.

So the Observer now costs more than having my copy of the New Yorker air-mailed to me each week, which is beautifully written, far more interesting and arguably news-worthy. But then it’s aimed pretty much at middle-aged readers who want to, and still can, really get their teeth into something.

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I DON’T KNOW WHY… August 28, 2012

Posted by markswill in Media, Navel Gazing, Politics, Schmolitics.
19 comments

…I seem to have no time to scribble random tirades and regularly propel them into the ether anymore, but then I don’t know how others have time to read them along with all the other digital effluvia, either. I can barely flick through my Daily Star these days so busy am I dealing with emails, texts, voicemails, cleaning the bath, cooking delicious meals for my legion of close, personal friends who constantly pop in for a little home-spun wisdom, marriage guidance, a cup of sugar or the inside poop on the 4.10 at Chepstow. Life, eh? It’s enough to make you want to marry a Tetra-Pak heiress.

And I don’t know why the government haven’t sacked the entire boards of all the banks we taxpayers bailed out. After all, as Bob Diamond and his crew have proven, they’re all as corrupt and venal as sin, and Cameron and Co. certainly wouldn’t hesitate for a nanosecond in sacking the head of a healthcare trust or board of school governors if the media got on their case, but maybe it’s because at heart they’re all bankers themselves, or at least millionaires, and you just don’t shit on your own doorstep?

I certainly don’t know why the pseudonymous novelist Kate Alcott got away with bemoaning in The Times how it was nigh impossible to get by on £41,000 a year in these straitened times (is that how you spell it, Blez?). Poor darling practically had a nervous breakdown when her middle-class mum chums shunned her at the school gate because she couldn’t afford little Felicity’s ballet classes anymore. Such hideous deprivation reminded me of another overheard party conversation – secondhand, obviously – as some expensively coiffed matron explained that her idea of belt-tightening was “getting the children to muck-out their own polo ponies.”

Mind you, I don’t know why even allegedly left-wing rags like the Guardian, which has now become almost unreadable as well as unaffordable, persists with endless fashion spreads featuring £600 handbags, shoes at £700 a pair and darling little £150 tank tops. Do, indeed can Guardian readers really buy this stuff, or is it merely self-indulgence on the part of the Jennifers and Melindas who for some reason are paid to puff it? Now I’m as vain as the next ex-Guardian reader, vainer probably, but I’m reduced to Uniqlo and charity shops as my personal outfitters. Still, along with whole tiers of sub-editors who on the evidence of the rising tide of typos and tortured syntax are losing their jobs at all the so-called quality ‘papers, they’ll soon be for the chop as well, because Versace and Stella McCartney clearly aren’t gonna be advertising in the Guardian anytime soon. But that doesn’t matter because its über-arrogant editor A. Rusbridger is keen to abandon his paper readers a.s.a.p. so’s he can concentrate on his digital fantasies which lose squillions a year and probably always will.

Indeed I don’t know why anyone reads newspapers anymore, at least if I’m to believe the seers who can afford to spend so much of their expensive time on LinkedIn and MediaWatch telling us that print is dead and that we should all be concentrating on smartphone apps. Which kinda of makes me wonder why the rest of the forum posters, many of whom also seem to be called Jennifer and Melinda in fact, are constantly asking “How do I find an editor for my organic hair products B2B magazine” or advice on setting up an iPad app for owl watchers… and I’m only half-kidding? I could in fact spend hours a day putting such anoraks and dreamers in their place, er, but of course I don’t have the time and on the rare occasions I do I am met with such tsunamis of ill-informed bile that it really isn’t worth it. Such as when I innocently responded to an unasked-for invitation to subscribe to an online-only motorcycle magazine with vaguely sceptical comments about website readability. That certainly larned me.

And I don’t know why summer’s finally here but the time isn’t right for dancing in the streets, festivals are being cancelled (but not our Sheep Music, ho-ho-ho – see last blog) and I’ve been through three brollies in as many weeks… although I suspect global warming.

I don’t know why my car tax and insurance have gone up, petrol’s gone down when we’re supposed to’ve used up most of the world’s oil reserves and no-one on the Today programme ever asks the hard questions about windfarms (because they don’t work), or why politicians keep bottling it on nuclear power… and most everything else that’s important, for that matter?

And for similar reasons I can’t understand how – and I’m cribbing from an excellent piece by John Naughton in a recent Observer and similar observations in the New Yorker and Prospect – Amazon, Facebook and Google, Yahooo and Microsoft are insidiously controlling what we say, think and buy with little or no accountability whilst paying virtually no tax which in order to offset the recession caused by their bankers we dutiful little people (© Leona Helmsley) have to make up for by… paying more car tax.

I don’t know why… and maybe that’s just as well because if I did, I might just take up crystal meth or Scientology.  Still, at least that’s something to look forward to in this endless winter of our discontent.

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