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New Year’s Dishonours December 29, 2014

Posted by markswill in Uncategorized.

It’s Christmas: seasonal cheer, goodwill to all men, that sort of thing. And in the spirit of that sort of thing I’m temporarily reviving my Blarg, specifically with an apology to those who responded to my rather pompous announcement in the last one – way back in mid-June – that I was planning to launch an odd little classic car magazine. So to those who wished me well, albeit with a tinge of justifiably bemused scepticism, and especially those who offered to scribble something for it, I must sheepishly announce that it ain’t happened, and probably never will.

Classic Car Reader – not it’s real title, obviously – was to’ve been a low budget and therefore relatively low risk enterprise, but a major obstacle proved to be a vast media org. who unaccountably felt threatened by its editorial premise. Which proved tiresome, to say the least. And were I twenty, even ten years younger I might’ve called their bluff or taken ‘em on legally, but frankly life is now quite literally too short for such shenanigans.

Indeed as the weeks and months passed by towards my entirely arbitrary launch date and the issue remained partly unresolved, plus the whole stressful business of launching a wee print magazine in a world gone digitally mad, made me realise that I simply lacked the appetite for it. Or at least the appetite for doing it alone and risking most of what little money I’d scrimped and saved on something that mightn’t work. I would’ve had to’ve given up my film reviewing contract, too, which means regular money for a job I love – albeit with a wildly irregular workload that makes forward planning almost impossible.

Its premature demise also and with convenient irony provides the backbone of this little epistle, for I have lately been musing on the broken promises of the past twelve months. This has of course been most notable in the political arena with the posh boys who swagger around Westminster casually determining our fates failing to reduce the national deficit, curb immigration, re-balance the economy in favour of manufacturing exports, sort out the NHS, end various costly military misadventures… the list is endless. The major overall consequence is to’ve reduced even further public confidence in politicians, which accounts for the rise of Farage and the other clowns who comprise UKIP. Whether a major protest vote in their favour – bearing in mind that it’ll be a woefully low turnout – will give UKIP an influence in parliament beyond that of short-term scaremongerers remains to be seen, but as a measure of my faith in politics I shall again be voting Monster Raving Loony.

In America the situation is much the same. Obama for all his fine oration and intentions, has failed to deliver on anything except arguably the economy, but that was largely down to the luck of fracking. And elsewhere in the world I can’t immediately think of any government that has successfully risen to the challenges faced. A few despots have disappeared these past couple of years, but only to be replaced by cruel, ruthless and/or religious psychotics whilst totalitarian states such as those in Syria, Egypt, North Korea, Russia etc., etc. have continued to destabilise a world that has little appetite for addressing the damage they do… mainly because we need their energy or they need the arms we can sell ‘em. And organised religion remains the most divisive, inhumane and hypocritical force in the world.

Although many otherwise sophisticated governments remain in denial about climate change, the evidence of increasingly hostile and unpredictable weather patterns is as clear as the irreversible denuding of fauna and flora that’s the inevitable consequence of overpopulation. Mankind’s failure to do anything significant about all of this evinces perhaps the most anguished handwringing of the lot, but closeted in my own little bubble I’m of course more exercised by our ability to let library closures continue unabated, the inability of the motorcycle industry to stop its slow-drawn-out suicide, the sucking of public money for the absurd vanity project that is HS2 at the expense of our otherwise creaking railway network, Amazon and Google’s relentless pursuit of untaxed profits as they speed the downfall of traditional retailers and publishers and the race-to-the-bottom of most cultural institutions and human qualities that I once held dear. Readers of past bloggery may recall what they are so I’ll spare them and anyone else who’s come across this scrawl more recently, or by mistake, any further wailing.

What I will merely list in conclusion are those who have failed to survive a further year and are much missed, at least by me. Felix Dennis, my oldest friend and colleague from underground press days died last summer: his support, loyal friendship and sharp intellect is as much missed by many others who were close to him, and indeed not-so close. Mick Farren, of the same ilk and era also departed earlier in 2014 and other losses in recent years and the serious illnesses suffered by many friends compound the discomforting feeling that we haven’t got too long left to make the most of our lives. So if there’s a positive message to be drawn from the failures and disappointments of the past 12 months, may it be that we’re all still lucky to be here.


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Dubious in Dubai March 18, 2013

Posted by markswill in Cars and Bikes, Politics, Schmolitics, Uncategorized.
1909 Stag at Sharkey's oil on canvas 92.1 x 122.6 cm

An early Bellows’ work of an illegal NYC boxing bout

Before I get into my brief, gob-smacking trip to Dubai, there’s some unfinished business following the catalogue of cultural recommendations which I unilaterally chose to excrete into the ether last week. Misgivings abound about this, but is it any worse than zillions of my peers’ FarceBerk postings concerning the cute antics of kittens, kids and inebriated colleagues ? Erm, probably.

Anyroad up, there was no room to mention a few exhibitions that have thrilled and delighted recently, and even if you live miles away and/or are ambivalent about art, if you go to only one show this year, make it George Bellows at the Royal Academy. Hitherto unknown to me, in his short life Bellows produced a vast body of work in ever-changing styles (think Lowry, Hopper, Rocker, Nicholson etc) including visceral depictions of illegal boxing bouts in his native turn of the century New York to seascapes to rather formal society portraits but with twists that mirrored his hero Manet at that painter’s maverick best. It’s only a small exhibition in the Sackler Wing but there are some hugely moving works there, including some WW1 reflections that are equaled only by Picasso’s Guernica in their stark, powerful anger.

And talking of Manet, the RA currently has a bigger exhibition of his work, although the numerous deliberately unfinished paintings rather reduced my admiration for him even though his observational eye and subtle use of colour cannot be undervalued. And talking of Picasso, there’s another smallish show of his early work at the Courtauld Gallery which of you’re a Picasso completest (which I am) shouldn’t be missed. Finally in more modern vein the Light Show at the Hayward is worth seeing if only for Anthony McCall’s misty, atmospheric projections and a few pieces by Dan Flavin (who had a literally dazzling solus show there in 2006).  I haven’t yet seen the Lichtenstein at Tate Modern but as someone who sparked my enthusiasm for modern art back in the ‘60s, I’m slavering in anticipation.

And as a postscript to my list of recently consumed literature, I forgot to mention Susie Boyt’s compelling, beautifully wrought new-ish novel, The Small Hours about a plucky, if troubled idealist who in setting up a private school is obliged to confront many of her personal demons.

2013-03-07 05.31.56

Dubai’s Burj Khalifa tower – the world’s tallest, obviously

Now Dubai. I’ve been telling everyone that this obscenely rich Emerati state evoked for me the Blade Runner cityscape, but transposed to the desert. The place is awash with skyscrapers, many of which line six lane highways behind which there’s little but desert scrub. Weird. However from the 124th floor of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, even these towering edifices look like bungalows. Unfettered by planning requirements, although some of the architecture is aesthetically questionable, some of it is breathtakingly impressive, especially the buildings incongruously lining the Dubai Creek where traditional dhows load cargoes traded along the Gulf and beyond.

And just in front of the Khalifa there was a huge display of classic cars, all restored within an inch of their lives – mainly big fuck-off Bentleys, Caddies and of course the obligatory Ferraris – because thanks to the talented artisans who’ve emigrated from India and further east, Dubai is a centre for cheap, high-quality restoration work.

This of course raises the ugly issue of immigrant labour without which Dubai couldn’t exist. Living in cramped and inhospitable dormitory suburbs, legions of building and menial service workers spend 50 weeks of their year creating the superstructures and maintaining the lifestyles of the copious ex-pats (some 80% of the 2million population) who’ve made their homes there due to the lack of income tax and a shamelessly retail-driven culture.

Visiting the (in)famous ‘Palm Jumeirah’ estate artificially stretching out into the Gulf felt rather like being in The Truman Show, and then rising surreally out of the shimmering desert, there’s the world’s largest shopping mall, and its largest indoor ski slope… All this said, Dubai’s ruler, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum is an apparently canny fellow who seeks to undermine any risk of Islamic (or other) revolution by ensuring all his native subjects are well looked after and regularly turns up unannounced, often driving his own Mercedes G-Wagen, to cultural and other events, such as the poetry evening I attended in a desert encampment where he stayed for a good, er, 20 minutes.

2013-03-07 06.18.34

And the view from the Burj Khalifa

I gather that the Sheik and his family, a/k/a ‘the government’, are tolerant of the many Taliban big-wigs, international criminals and other despots who’ve put their money into Dubai just as long as they cause no trouble or incur debt, in which case they’re out on their ears. Another consequence of his financial strictures was the horde of expensive cars left at the airport, gloveboxes full of maxed-out credit cards, after 2008’s financial crash when their suddenly debt-ridden owners had to flee. And the cars, now covered in sand, are still there…

I spent my final evening with a lively group of young lawyers, digital entrepreneurs  and media-types from China, the Antipodes and Europe who’d made the place their home and who provided sharp insights into Dubai’s still escalating prosperity despite  its lack of oil: it’s become the financial hub of the Arab world, even more so now its troubled neighbours needs somewhere secure to store their capital. But not one of them expected to live there beyond a few more years, and hot, hospitable and intriguingly bizarre though it was, I doubt I could’ve stayed there even a few more weeks.

One final, bleakly instructive thought on where we’re heading economically is prompted by this link (for which I must thank Dick Pountain). How sustainable, I wonder, is a world where such financial inequality continues to exist and indeed, grows?


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The Rise (& Fall) of the Machines March 1, 2013

Posted by markswill in About me, Cars and Bikes, Politics, Schmolitics, Uncategorized.

Making my journey back home to Wales last Friday, because I didn’t have time to explore the rich culinary paradise that is Praed Street, I found myself buying a sandwich in Sainsbury’s Paddington store. Like its competitors and indeed WH Smith’s cheerless outlet at the same station, Sainsbury’s have replaced most of its human cashiers with automatic scan’n’pay machines. Having a train to catch in ten minutes, I nevertheless ignored the two staffers who urged me to use these machines instead of the lone person manning an old fashioned till, because I prefer to deal with humans wherever possible, and also on the possibly misplaced moral grounds that machines like these deny jobs to people who need them. Indeed it was instructive that it required two people to shepherd customers through the vexatious, time-consuming process of using the computerised facilities, although my principled stance meant waiting ages for a woman who’d apparently done her weekly shop to depart the sole humanly-helmed check-out.

So long, in fact, that I had to leave my sandwich in the rack of chocs and crisps in the checkout area and bugger off to catch my train muttering to myself that had all those three staff been working the tills, I might’ve not ended up lunchless. But I doubt Sainsbury’s management would give a toss as they’re obviously in the thrall of expensive technology that dispenses with troublesome human beings even if the customers might not like it. And as they’re in fact deliberately trying to limit or replace staff with machines, it also renders hollow the supermarkets’ claims about job creation when they’re bribing local councils to allow planning permission for new stores. And then…

My journey home involves changing trains at Newport from the amusingly named Inter-City 125 to a usually cramped, draughty bus-on-rails through some stunning Welsh countryside and last Friday, for reasons involving dentistry, I had to break my journey at Hereford whose gaunt, freezing station I later returned to only to learn that a freight train had broken down outside Abergavenny, thus for an indeterminate period blocking anything else from chuffing north. The dread phrase ‘replacement buses’ had been invoked but the admittedly helpful station staff knew not how long they’d be and having to run the local film society box office that night I couldn’t wait indefinitely: long story short, after 90 mins shivering wait I paid £30 to get to my car parked at the next station, but not before one of said staff admitted that broken down freight trains “are a regular bloody problem.”

A little light internet research, albeit involving many incomprehensible trainspotters’ bulletin boards, revealed that the goods train in question was pulled by a Type 47 diesel owned, like most of the UK’s rail freight business, by the German company, Schenker. The Type 47s were built in the 1960s and designed to last perhaps 30-35 years, so perhaps it’s unsurprising that they keep breaking down. But like America’s Northwest Airlines who, until they started falling out of the sky, continued flying a fleet of creaky old Boeing 727s produced in that same era in the belief that it was cheaper to endure escalating maintenance costs rather than buy newer ‘planes, no one at Schenker seems to’ve done a cost/benefit analysis of that. (Aviva Trains Wales, from whom I’m demanding a refund and taxi fare, probably wished they had). And of course if and when the penny finally drops, Schenker will probably buy replacement engines from a German company, not least because by then our last remaining (Canadian-owned) train builder will have gone bust.

These two admittedly unrelated events happened the same week that we learnt that lack of investment over the past 15 years means that our power stations, one of which the Schenker train was delivering coal to, must be de-commissioned well before enough coal-, gas- or nuclear-powered replacements have been built and the regulator, PowerGen, warned that prolonged black-outs can soon be expected.  And then…

I recently took a friend to see Rust & Bone at Belsize Park’s Everyman Cinema, one of a small chain that charges 50% more than the average flea-pit for the luxury of having over-priced drinks brought to your comfy sofa seats by girls called Clarissa. Having already seen the film in the course of my day job, I was surprised, then annoyed to find that the aspect ratio was all wrong and part of the image area was obscured by the curtains which evidently the projectionist hadn’t noticed. After complaining to the callow youth who purported to be the manager, I was told that (of course) there wasn’t a projectionist because the Everymans only use digital projectors and no-one there could do anything about it. And a phone call to an absent ‘technician’ at head-office yielded no remedy, either. So we walked out. (An angrier, more informed treatise on the death of the projectionist in the name of cost-cutting can be read in Mark Kermode’s excellent book, ‘The Good, The Bad… and The Multiplex’). I was going to cunningly use this cinematic debacle to segue into some movie and other cultural recommendations, but as I fear it might unduly test your patience, I’ll leave that ‘til next week .

Instead I’ll conclude from these recent misfortunes that cost/benefit analyses aside, our captains of industry and politicians can’t grasp that by putting people out of work – skilled or otherwise – who are not able to find jobs in the thrusting new industries we were told would be our economic salvation, they are de facto reducing the nation’s ability to well, buy stuff. And since buying stuff is supposed to be what it’s all about, then where does that leave us?

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My World According to Apple January 4, 2012

Posted by markswill in Media, Navel Gazing, Uncategorized.

If you’re computer-phobic, abhor digi-jargon and have zero interest in the different declensions of Intel processors, then maybe stop reading here. Ditto if you’re a committed geek to whom over-clocking and CPU architecture are meat and drink. Because I fall somewhere in between… but nearer the former than the latter, obviously.

Unfortunately however, I rather urgently need a new computer. And my inadequate grasp of what’s new and necessary to maintain the minimum standards of technological capability that my life demands, means that I’m panicking. I know, I know, I know – given my regular tirades against the digital enslavement we’ve quietly acquiesced to this past decade, and especially my brief interlude bereft of both my internet connection and mobile phone, I should bravely respond to the fast dwindling efficiency of my battered old laptop by abandoning such devices for good. But no. I am instead grudgingly acknowledging that most people only want to communicate with me by email, and that some of them are actually essential to what I grandiosely call my employment… never mind my reliance on Google as the encyclopedia of the airwaves. So I am once again at the computer crossroads, wondering whether to continue down Macintosh Boulevard or turn left along PC Pathway.

It’s an intersection I’ve stood at every five years or so since I acquired my first computer – a Ferranti Advance 86 – in 1985. Having recently launched my own magazine outfit, Advanced Publishing, my choice seemed literally appropriate, if not willfully cute, but the Ferranti was a hopeless mistake to someone so utterly un-nerdy. After a month of mounting frustration, which occasionally included smacking it smartly on its casing, rather as my dad did our first t.v. set when it went on the blink, I got rid of it and bought a Macintosh Plus. Which I loved, and on which I literally ran the company for a few years. As such, it and I were even featured in MacUser magazine, both vindicating my choice and initiating an enduring smugness over my addiction to Apples.

Sure, everyone knows that Macs are more user-friendly than PCs, but watching the BBC’s morbidly fascinating Steve Jobs documentary recently I discovered that Bill Gates’ had actually beaten him to the punch with an icon-based design. Except that the Microsoft version is really just a memory-hungry lash-up that prods an antediluvian MS-DOS system, whereas Mac’s OS was designed to be seamlessly icon-driven from the get-go.

So far, so commonly known, but it wasn’t until 2003 when my iBook’s  broke down and had to be driven to the nearest dealer some 50 bloody miles away in Tewkesbury, that I learnt how clunky Windows really is. At the time I lived with a gal who very kindly let me use her PC for the ten days it took for the diffident-bordering-on-rude kids – and they were of course kids – to repair my Mac, and fortunately Karen was away most of that time running her company in London (exclusively on PCs, of course) so she couldn’t witness me swearing at, crashing and constantly re-booting her PC… I may’ve hit it a couple of times, too. The reason, obvious to die-hard Maccas, was that Windows isn’t intuitive in the way that the Mac OS is, and one has to go through various alien rigmaroles to get it to do anything. And of course having a crap short-term memory, I instantly fortgot those rigmaroles.

However, and it’s a big ‘however’, the price you pay for the superior and more stable Mac set-up is, well, over twice the price of a PC. No wonder Apple, at $346billion, has a value higher than the GDP of many developed countries, because a MacBook Pro with a 15” screen has an RRP of £1549, whilst a Dell Latitude PC laptop with, as far as I can work out, roughly the same stable of gee-gaws, costs £649. Go do the math.

My current machine is the Pro’s immediate predecessor, a PowerBook G4 which thanks to something called its PowerPC processor isn’t up to an increasing amount of software, in particular BBC’s iPlayer, which means I can no longer catch up with CBeebies, boo-hoo.  Being perennially budget-conscious, or skint if you want to put it that way, I’m therefore having to seriously consider a PC-based laptop and learning a whole new way of digital life. Or buying secondhand… just like my current machine, bought in 2006 from an Australian publishing company that was going bankrupt. Needless to say this involved many late night screaming contests with an IT manager in Sydney who couldn’t understand why its casing was damaged in transit and its screen bisected by a thin orange stripe. Secondhand? Never again, then.

As miserable fate would have it, I also need a new mobile phone if I’m going to keep up with the techno-groovers. Because after my last one cracked under the pressure (quite literally, screen-wise), I bought another by then obsolete Motorola Razr on eBay last year, and now that’s knackered, too. Yes, I’d like a nice, sprauncey iPhone like all my posh pals, thus making Apple richer still since they cost lots more than the Android-based smartphones that ape them, but I’m scared witless of trying to ‘migrate’ (see how hip I am to the jargon?) the vital address and diary data from my Palm Pilot digital organiser (circa 2003) which is also worn out… but long since obsolete.

Yes of course I’ve trawled the web forums trying to glean how to bung my Palm data onto an HTC Wildfire or Samsung Galaxy, but you’ve got to be an über-geek to understand the process, much less actually execute it, although it does seem to be rather easier with an iPhone. So it looks as if not only are we all prisoners of technology, but those of us who’re idiot technophobes are also in permanent hock to Apple.

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Scattergun Reproach January 17, 2011

Posted by markswill in Media, Politics, Schmolitics, That's Entertainment, Uncategorized.

I know, I know… after all my braggadocio about cranking up the bloggery again, I’ve been a bit schtum recently but truth is, I’ve been so damn busy scribbling for filthy lucre that I haven’t had the time or energy to dish out any amateur vitriol. And for the next few weeks, I doubt that’ll change. Having said which, after whining about under-employment for a couple of years, it’d now be a bit rich to moan about the stresses and strains of overwork, but truth is (for the second time in one paragraph), I’m actually enjoying the slow swell of adrenalin that builds up during a 12 or 13 hour day of virtually ceaseless toil, and the modest satisfaction of hitting deadlines and turning the odd cute phrase.

But that’s just self-justifying guff and past posts have at least attempted to provoke thought across wider, less narcissistic lines. I’d certainly like to get back into that groove, however spiky – or tellingly silent – the responses might be, but sitting in front of my ‘pooter, eyelids involuntarily screwing down as midnight approaches, I can offer little more than a few disconnected bullet points to prompt your own investigations… or not, as the case may be:

THE TUSCON SHOOTINGS   Sarah Palin and the Super-Right’s media provocateurs have already turned around arguments for a quelling of their inflammatory vitriol and accused the Democrats of niminy-piminy (™ D. Moggach) posturing. I was nonetheless impressed by the Mayor of Tuscon’s measured, enough-is-enough condemnation of the savage polemic that has passed for American political debate in recent months but fear his was a lone voice.  Fuelled by the Tea Party bonkerists and aided hugely by the swaggering bigots of Murdoch’s Fox News (see below), one-in-five Americans now believe that Obama is a Muslim, so I ask you, how long will it be before he’s assassinated?

WANKER’S ONUSES   Last week it was revealed that the head of Lloyds TSB bank, which we taxpayers saved from collapse in 2008 and still own a huge chunk of, is unapologetic about the £2.3million bonus he’s about to get on top of his £1m salary. The Cleggarons are (almost) equally unapologetic about letting him have it because, as they tell us, the financial sector contributes some 10% of tax revenues to the Exchequer and if we’re nasty to ‘em, they’ll all pack up and move to the Bahamas. This may also be why the six-form coalition who “manage” our affairs continue to let our once dominant manufacturing industries go to the wall, e.g. Sheffield Forgemasters, because their blind faith has it that financial services will buoy up an economy which the banks almost brought to its knees and which we, the taxpayers, are having to subsidise by accepting swingeing wages cuts, mass unemployment, withdrawal of social and cultural services and a bleak vision of our children’s future… unless we’re bankers of course.  Or am I being a bit harsh here?

EMPEROR’S NEW WARDROBE   I don’t watch lots of t.v. because I’m too busy nasally nudging the grindstone, oh, and I have a life, but with the exception of The Times’Caitlin Moran (who, incidentally, on a good day is the funniest journalist currently employing the English language), every t.v. scribbler and features editor is falling over themself to laud every new comedy series that hits the tube when most of them are patently rubbish.

Deborah smiling

Episodes and Not Going Out are but two recent and entirely rank offerings that have basked in media overkill, so one has to ask, is money changing hands or what do the controllers of BBC1 and 2 know about the sex lives and drug habits of t.v. critics that enables them to get away scot-free with this crap? And talking of which…

RUPERT THE BARE-FACED   Just say for example, it transpired that the BBC had been routinely tapping the mobile phones of a few celebs, and politicians, the ensuing stink would forced the Cleggarons to shut it down, or at least severely clip its wings, within a nanosecond. Yet R. Murdoch’s News International is apparently considered inviolate from such censure, presumably because the government needs to keep it onside whilst they impose their “tough economic medicine” on a cowering population. Alarmist conspiracy-theorising? Well why else have the cops been soft-pedalling on the blatant breeches of privacy practiced by Murdoch’s News of the World, the relevant government ministers been so quiet and that quintessential defender of Briton’s freedoms, The Thunderer, a/k/a The Times (prop. R. Murdoch) entirely silent on the matter?

RAYS OF SUNSHINE   But that’s quite enough vitriol, for it hasn’t been all horrid since I last scribbled. Movie junkie that I am, there have been a few silver-screen highlights during the last few weeks  – although internet pseudo-documentary Catfish was execrable and G. Clooney’s latest outing, The American only somewhat less so. But I was lucky to catch a lone, cinema screening of Citizen Kane which beyond the t.v. screen totally justifies its ‘Best Movie of All Time’ accolades, not least for the incredible energy of  the performances but primarily due to the really extraordinary images conjured up by Welles’s cinematographer, Greg Toland. Seen writ large, the political rally speech and the Xanadu scenes are unlike anything else certainly before, and possibly since, and should you ever get a chance to see it in a cinema, do so.

Back in real life, last week here in Presteigne we had the annual Wassail ceremony when a bunch of locals urge the town meadow’s apple trees to bear great bounty come autumn. A good-humoured, pleasantly pagan festival involving

Wassailing Furiously on Wentes Meadow. Pic. Alex Ramsay. Check out http://www.alexramsayphotography.net

much consumption of apple-based food and drink (i.e. strong mulled cider), music, fires and fireworks it was just another great example of a community celebration which if nothing else, reminded me that despite all the crap bearing down on us in the wider world, the natural one can still uplift the human spirit.

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I, Philistine? December 2, 2010

Posted by markswill in Uncategorized.

Okay, having got my Indian Summer out of the way let’s get back to reality. Or at least my own bent version of  it. And I fear it may be terminally bent, as in not according with the high aesthetic standards I am hugely respected for. Thing is, I’m getting a bit worried about my artistic and cultural tastes and like it or not, I’m going to share my anxiety with you.

First off, I think it’s a given that as we get older we become more interested in art in its many forms. For me it’s always been movies, music and increasingly in the last couple of decades, traipsing around galleries and swotting up on the visual arts. Major shows at the big London galleries both ancient and modern have attracted my custom and city breaks to the Euro capitals done ditto and this, coupled with a near-compulsion to see every other movie that comes out based on provenance if nothing else, has filled up the time between gainful employment, eating, sleeping and relentlessly burning up fossil fuels. And then there’s books. Since the late nineties – and close personal friends may understand the darker reasons behind this – I’ve also had at least two and sometimes as many as three books on the go simultaneously, a reflection not so much of my immense literary appetite as my butterfly mind.

But culturally nourishing as though this may sound, just recently it’s all started to go tits-up. Fr’instance the last few films I’ve seen have all be dogs to me, and this despite the glowing reviews by generally respected reviewers (i.e. the one’s that aren’t 13 year-olds parachuted in by impressionable editors desperately hoping to snare the youth ticket). Examples: Mike Leigh’s Another Year (sentimental tosh with a plot full of holes and loose ends); Uncle Boonmie Who Can Recall His Past Lives (badly lit, shot and scripted sub-film school fantasy porridge); Winter’s Bone (gratuitously bleak Ozark Mountain crystal meth family drama); The Kids Are Alright (the flimsiest of family dramas only green-lit because the parents were lesbians). Apart from critics falling over themselves to outdo their peer-group’s plaudits, what all of these flics have in common are characters you could care less about and storylines amounting to sod-all.

But maybe it’s me? Maybe I’ve become cynical and insensitive, or even more so than I was before? Because it’s the same with art. Take the Glasgow Boys at the Royal Academy: a bunch of highly derivative (c/f Millet and Whistler) daubers whose relative deficits in originality and even craft were matched only by their alacrity to move onto more lucrative portraiture as soon as the pennies literally dropped. Then we have this year’s Turner candidates, and although at least there’s an actual painter up for it this time, namely Dexter Dalwood, otherwise it’s the usual pretentious assemblages of found objects, installations and arty-bollocks videos (oh, and Dalwood’s not much of a painter, either). However my worst outing this year was the British Art Now at the Saatchi, and if this truly exemplified our best  younger painters, sculptors and, oh alright, installers, then god help us. I couldn’t even bring myself to take in the latest Gaugin show at Tate Modern because I get so easily bored with his predictable self-indulgence. Indeed I’m sure my friend John James home-based summer show was a better bet if only for the simple and sad reason that although he’s been painting his highly evocative urban landscapes for three decades now, he doesn’t play the gallery game… which is why most of you haven’t heard of him. (www.johnjames.com)

White Night, St Petersburg - by John James

But I digress. Now onto books. Well since I rely more on friends’ recommendations than reviews and don’t want to upset any of them with my discursive dismissals, I shan’t list them, but only one of the dozen or so books I’ve read (and mainly failed to finish) this past few months has rocked my boat. As an aside here, I’ve just realised that digi-gizmos like the Kindle and iPad are an absolute gift to impatient readers like me, because when the downloads cost only 99p instead of a £7.99 paperback, we won’t feel so bad about giving up after 35 pages. And of course the publishing trade’ll be happy as pigs in shit because they haven’t had to print, store and distribute them. Authors, bookshops and libraries… well that’s another sorry matter.

Anyway, where I’m going with all this is here: Have I been subtly nudged into philistinism, a/k/a dumbed down, by too much exposure to the interweb? It’s a contention, already better examined by recent-ish reports, that brains can be re-wired by the way that information is fed to them online, but which I loftily thought didn’t apply to me. But in apparently failing to ‘get’ the Glasgow Boys, Uncle Boonmie, or a Ryu Murakami novel (oops, there goes discretion), maybe I now lack the necessary intellectual fortitude to try and appreciate their true cultural meaning and value? And am I alone in this?

Or maybe I’ve just become a tedious old fart too willing to slump in front of the box and watch endless repeats of Black Books?

Time will perhaps tell, but if you’re living in my neck of the woods and fancy a culturally challenging night out, and the sight of yrs. trly. proving he can neither act nor sing, the Presteigne Player’s Les Mouserables runs at the Memorial Hall on Dec 9th, 10th and 11th at 7.30pm. It’s another of writer/director Mary Compton’s unique pantos based ever-so-loosely on local characters… but with a wider topical resonance, i.e. while students revolt on the streets of our cities, underneath those streets it is the mice who are revolting against the fat cats.

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Indian Summer (Pt. 1) November 12, 2010

Posted by markswill in About me, Media, Uncategorized.

Never really wanted to go there before on sketchy moral grounds, i.e. the poverty, the beggars, the stomach-bugs and the squalor but when Rupert Murdoch calls who am I to turn down a free lunch? Of course (of course?) I’m talking about India, which is where I found myself a fortnight ago, courtesy of my dear friend D, who was being flown out to Rajasthan by 20th Century Fox where one of her novels is being filmed and who “for a lark” generously invited me along to ride shotgun. Well shallow and impressionable as I am, one woman’s lark easily eclipses any of my long held ethical dilemmas and thus it was that we waited in the subdued luxury of a Heathrow executive lounge for Kingfisher flight IT2 to Delhi. And waited. And waited.

We should’ve known better than fly on an airline owned by a brewery, but their engineers somehow couldn’t get the electronics in Business Class to function so the entire overnight flight was bereft of movies, music, reading lights and, most crucially, the ability of the fancy leather seats to recline and/or turn into beds. So sleepless and irritable, we arrived in India with barely 20 minutes to catch our connection to Udaipur, our base for the next week. However what I quickly learnt about India was that very little happens on time and although we were met by two very nice chaps who dutifully sped us the 5kms to the domestic terminal – and you thought Heathrow was a logistical nightmare ­– our Udaipur flight was delayed by an hour. Well 90 minutes actually.

Having eventually arrived, another film co. driver in another air-conned SUV drove us through suicidal traffic to the fancy hotel where the crew were also staying, one of whom turned out to be a long-lost friend, Linda G., the prod. co’s p.r. manager and one of the world’s sharpest wits. Her ministrations (and bar tab) helped us overcome our industrial strength weariness and struggle towards a ‘normal’ bedtime in advance of  being collected for the drive to the set the next morning.

Put rather more crudely than D might thank me for, her hugely funny, deftly observed and, if this government gets hold of the idea, ultimately prescient 2004 book is about out-sourcing retirement care for the elderly to the Indian sub-continent where low cost and the last vestiges of colonialism appeal to cash-strapped gentility. Although originally set in Bangalore, the search to find a suitably run-down, post-Raj hotel in which to set the film led director John Madden to a guest house 70 minutes drive from Udaipur, outside which a crack crew of production designers and set-dressers had created an incredibly bona fide city street – or so I later discovered when we ventured into Udaipur itself. To accommodate all the characters in the story they had also added a couple of extra rooms by the not-so-simple expedient of constructing them out of wood and plasterboard on the roof and applying a seamless patina of age and decrepitude.

Yrs. trly. above the hotel courtyard set

Okay, even the least dedicated cinephile knows that this sort of visual slight-of-hand is commonplace in the make-believe world of movie-making but when you actually witness it firsthand, it has a considerable impact.

So I guess this first of (possibly) two episodic blogs is really all about this arcane but impressive process, and the fact of it being in such a far off land. Several hundred people were encamped temporarily in the dusty Rajasthan scrubland and thanks to the proximity of Bollywood they included a lot of Indian crew as well as British cameramen, assistant directors, wardrobe persons, gaffers, grips (yes, I now know what they are) and a small army of cooks, drivers, runners, fixers and extras. Oh yeah, and of course the principal actors, a stellar cast which includes Dames J. Dench and M. Smith, Bill Nighy, Celia Imrie (who rather alarmingly took what is known as “a shine” to me), the great Tom Wilkinson (who happily didn’t) and Slumdog Millionaire star, Dev Patel.

Controlling all of this like some benign dictator was Mr Madden, my admiration for whom grew by the minute as I watched him not only attend to every detail of every shot, but graciously if sometimes firmly relate to everyone on the set, no matter how humble their role, and by name. D, no stranger to film sets herself, noted that even in her experience Madden was something of a prince amongst directors, and when a minor motorcycle accident meant he couldn’t complete a complicated scene (course I could’ve warned him, but I didn’t have a union card), he calmly shooed the principles into rehearsing another scene whilst camera and sound men re-grouped.

Local extras wait for their call in front of a giant diffuser

I also hadn’t realised from how many different angles it’s necessary to shoot a few seconds of film in order to give director and editor the choice to make the most of it in the cutting room. One simple scene where three of the characters walk up to the hotel was shot four different ways with two cameras, the actors endlessly repeating their lines and hitting their painstakingly set ‘marks’ with a patience you certainly wouldn’t find in, say, this year’s Presteigne Panto rehearsals.

We were given free rein to wander throughout the sets and as author of the book (and the original script) which had made all this possible, D was subjected to endless waves of lovey-ness, a little of which I’m embarrassed to say washed all-too-easily over on me. Indeed, although D responded to all this, including being video-interviewed for next year’s pre-release publicity (which I dutifully photographed for, gulp, the Mail On Sunday), with well-honed dignity and enthusiasm, nothing in my adult experience had prepared me for it. Or indeed for the real world of Rajasthan outside our glitzy celluloid bubble.

And that, if you can bear it, will comprise my next little dispatch.

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It’s a Monster Raving Election April 25, 2010

Posted by markswill in Navel Gazing, Politics, Schmolitics, Uncategorized.
1 comment so far

I feel I should, like my friend and fellow blogster, Ian Marchant (see http://ianmarchant.wordpress.com) be writing more and more frequently about what is admittedly turning into an rather fascinating election campaign. However despite the emergence of the LibDems as serious contenders, my avowed cynicism about the outcome  (see Vote For… Who? – April 11th) has not been dispelled and I remain convinced that whoever wins we’ll still get another government of lying, self-serving nincompoops. Or perhaps I’m being a tad harsh? Many of them are not nincompoops, they are cunning, sharp-eyed career politicos who just happen to evade the truth and serve their own interests before those of their paymasters, (that’s you and me, buddy).

I am also unconvinced about the value of the televised debates which many hacks and observers who should know better claim to’ve energized the election process and will miraculously prompt a higher turnout than of yore. To me they are little more than the inevitable consequence of X-Factor Britain where celebrity is given full reign and cogent, fact-based argument is replaced by hectoring. To some extent of course this has ever been thus, certainly in my lifetime, but Macaroon and Cleggie’s failure to even mention Labour taking us into the Iraq way during the so-called ‘foreign policy’ debate, a war of eye-watering cost and one which the millions of Britons who took to the streets against were lied to and ignored, confirmed in my mind that politics today is just a cosy complicity of vested interests. And why are there no high-profile women MPs, ministers or their shadows in this campaign? If I was a female voter I’d be incensed at this, and indeed the way the leader’s wives are being given such prominence simply because they look good(ish).

It was equally telling (maybe) that I was staying in the People’s Republic of Stoke Newington this weekend where I saw only one New Labour poster, but a plethora of LibDem and even UKIP placards, and as Ian had observed in his daily blogs during the campaign, NewLab just don’t seem to be promoting themselves as they have in past elections. Mine hosts explained to me that here in Stokie this is because the egregious (in my view) Diane Abbott has a safe seat, but such smug certitude cannot be the norm throughout the land? Or can it?

If it is, then can I commend you all to catch Roman Polanski’s latest flic, The Ghost, in which a very Blairian-style ex-PM is gradually revealed as an indicted war criminal who was also, gulp, in the pay of the CIA. It’s a gripping piece of work with a plausible subtext which just about outweighs it conspiracy theory motifs. Don’t live near a cinema, ticket prices just too steep on your wages (if you’re lucky enough to have any) or simply can’t be arsed, then check out this clever YouTube pastiche of Pulp’s ‘Common People’ which, if you must vote, will have you – like me – running as far away from the Tories as you can on May 6th.

Which remains in my case into the arms of the Monster Raving Loony Party.

Check it out: www.youtube.com/watch?v=EKFTtYx2OHc&feature=player_embedded

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CLASSICAL GAS* June 26, 2009

Posted by markswill in Uncategorized.

Classic cars are a passion of mine, perhaps even a ‘blind passion’ inasmuch as I currently own a car only a few dozen examples of which remain roadworthy in the UK – which is therefore almost impossible to get spares for – namely a Lancia Gamma Coupe. It is, however, subtly gorgeous to the eye and stirring to the soul that drives it.

Gamma Gamma Hey

Gamma Gamma Hey*

Curiously, the first Gamma I drove was being sold by one James Dennison who is quite literally the driving force behind the regular classic car sales I usually attend at Brightwells, an auctioneers in nearby Leominster. The latest of these, last Wednesday, proved as interesting as ever but not just for the huge variety of vehicles James had assembled for the sale, but also as a barometer of what might be happening in the classic car world during a major recession.

The last significant economic downturn in the early ‘90s, saw much speculation in classic vehicles as financial investments, a process whereby quite mundane Ferraris and Jaguars rapidly achieved insane prices which of course plummeted shortly afterwards as chancers who neither knew nor cared about precious metal got their fingers rightly burnt.

Of course reflecting the fact that buyers must beware, the hammer prices at auctions where there are no opportunities to drive the goods tend to be lower than both private and dealer values, but Dennison’s catalogue pretty assiduously describes his wares realistically and of course half the fun of an auction is poring over the vehicles beforehand, especially if there’s something that takes one’s fancy.

At Brightwells there are always lots of lots that take my fancy, albeit cruelly tempered by my financial realities. But this time there was one car that looked like it might be as affordable as it was desirable… a shocking yellow BMW 2002 Cabriolet.



Normally of course German cars leave me cold, but like many classicists, perverse nostalgia rocks the boat of reason and in this case just such a BM was the first, and I hasten to say, only car I ever crashed. The Cabriolet in question belonged to my then American girlfriend who bought it – brand new – in 1974 and whilst she briefly returned to Kentucky that summer I was tanking back to Wales when a tight corner got the better of me and suddenly the car was traveling along on its roof or rather, and thank gawd, the substantial roll-bar that held its targa top in place. Well it was 1.30am, the road was damp and I was stoned (and it was 1974).

As I said, nostalgia for a car which I nearly killed myself in may be perverse, but it was some kind of testimony to BMW’s engineering integrity that I didn’t die. The 2002 was also an eager performer and amusing to drive and so the one offered by Brightwells, which had been lovingly and properly maintained rather than restored in the hands of just three owners looked attractive, in every sense of the word, at a guide price of £3250 – 4750.

Obviously I don’t need another car – classic or otherwise – but with less than 90 of these once very expensive machines imported into the UK, I also rationalised that it might gradually increase in value should I ever need to flog it. Similar thinking was clearly at work elsewhere because oddities like a 1953 Healey Abbot sold for close to its top estimate at £13,500 and a ratty Jowett Jupiter drop-top beat its £7,750 upper guide price..

But several rather more iconic Jag E-types all went for relatively low prices, the best, a 1970 Series 2 model hammered down for £30,000 which is about £20k less than its normal retail value, whereas vendors of a several Austin Healey 3000s clearly had inflated ideas of their worth as they remained unsold having failed to reach their £29-37,000 reserves.

Exaggerated notions of value were also attached to a clutch of Yank tanks, including a rather saucy 1964 Chevvy Impala convertible, but none of them sold, possibly because Brightwells tends to appeal to a more trad. British vendor and therefore buyer, and so last week ten pre-war Rileys and MGs from the Ivor Halbert Collection attracted a huge attendance. The rarest of these, a 1934 MPH fetched way above its top (£130k estimate), namely £195,000, and even a relatively common Kestrel saloon won £23,000 more than its estimated ceiling of £15k.

Mean while vendors of two Lotus Excels perhaps wisely accepted below estimated prices at £2400 and £3300, the same applying to a couple of Jensen Interceptors, including a pristine four wheel-drive FF at £2,000 shy of its lower £20k estimate. But these are all generally unloved cars that would probably never reward speculation and like several ‘unfinished restoration projects’ offered would only find homes with mad enthusiasts.

Interestingly, there wasn’t a single MGB or Triumph Spitfire – the bread and butter of the classic car world –  in the sale, perhaps because their not-so-well-heeled owners are hanging onto their cars simply because they provide fun and solace in miserable times, especially as the market for them is flat. Conversely, only top condition and/or rarity command high prices that will only get higher as the economy continues to descend down the toilet.

Which bring me back to ‘my’ BMW Cabriolet. Having not had the conviction to actually bid for it, I was secretly pleased when it failed to sell at £2400, its reserve being £3250. But then lo and behold, the next day it was offered for sale on Brightwells’ website at £3500, including buyer’s premium and VAT. So will I weaken? Watch this space… but do I really want to consign my delectable, ultra-rare Gamma Coupe to Brightwells next hammer-fest with an optimistic five grand guide price?

* No prize whatsoever for guessing the relevant if deeply cliche’d musical origins.

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Dropping the Shopping June 17, 2009

Posted by markswill in Uncategorized.

I’ve been doing a lot of shopping lately. Not ‘shopping’ as in searching for a darling little outfit to wear at one of the numerous swanky soirees I habitually attend, but dashing into a wide variety of convenience stores, butchers, charity shops – especially charity shops – around the Welsh Marches, badgering them to take posters and flyers for the upcoming Sheep Music Festival (see previous blog, Fool For a Festival).  And the experience has inclined me to clamber aboard yet another hobby horse.

A few friends have long if gently ridiculed me for patronising only the emporia of our hometown for all my food and drink shopping, a policy that whilst  hopefully well-intentioned, is increasingly hard to sustain. A few years ago Presteigne had two butchers, two greengrocers and three mini-supermarkets, a chemist, a baker, two ironmongers, and two newsagents. Both ironmongers, a butcher and a greengrocer are gone, one of the newsagents and the smallest of the mini-marts are for sale, their places taken by what with brutal flippancy, I will call knick-knackeries. Oh, and a sandwich shop, a third hairdressers, a second charity shop and an outlet for a very good organic baker in Way-on-High that keeps not-very-working-mum-friendly opening hours.

In the meantime a healthfood shop briefly came and went (its high prices victimised by the credit crunch) and several premises remain empty. To those who briefly visit the town or indeed live in bigger burghs, our ‘retail environment’  – as current parlance must have it  – still harks back to gentler times before high streets became interchangeable parades of national brands, sucking money out of the local economy and into city portfolios. But my efforts to keep it local are being sorely tested these days, and as I flit around the Marches with my posters the signs of locally-owned retail fragility are becoming commonplace.

On reason is of course that when it comes the weekly shop, the recession or at least the cold, pervasive fear it engenders have forced folk to shop downmarket, even if it means a 45 mile return journey to the nearest Lidl. This has denuded the biggest mini-mart of the choice it once offered (a changed of management hasn’t helped here), the shelving for which has now been stocked with fruit, veg and periodicals which in turn has hurt the newsagents and remaining greengrocer. The latter has rather cannily turned to pet-foods for its salvation, the result being a gradual creep away from human comestibles and a consequent reduction in their range and quality… to say nothing of the acrid, off-putting odour of Bonio. Plus of course those that can still afford better quality are also traveling further afield where there’s a better class of butchery, greengrocery and indeed, fish.

Prone to similar phenomenon, bigger towns such as Leominster, Llandrindod Wells, Knighton and even Ludlow – the Hampstead of the Marches – have already or are in danger of becoming havens for Tesco, Somerfield and Aldi, overwhelming a dwindling smidgen of specialist and charity shops. There are many who’d argue that none of this is important, that the advance of mega-retailers who offer cheaper everything from sun-loungers to CD-players as well as food’n’drink, are what matters to cash-strapped customers. And if you listen to the regular radio bulletins celebrating or bemoaning the latest results from Tesco or M&S as crucial economic barometers you might think that this is all that matters.

But whereas I occasionally if shamefully slope into Aldi on my way home from London in search of cheaper olive oil (or more likely, vodka), I think the homogeneity and ubiquity of a few big retailers is to be deeply regretted, even feared. Regretted, because it does take money and entrepreneurial opportunity out of the local economy, and if you happen to live in a smaller town or village your food mileage and thus the cost to the planet inexorably rises. There is also the social cost: every time I wander up the street for a pint of milk, I meet someone who I can pass the time of day with, a small daub of social glue that nevertheless enhances the local culture. That doesn’t happen if you’re shopping 15 or 25 miles away in a giant shed.

More ominously – and this is where I admittedly risk falling foul of conspiracy theorising – as wafer-thin margins, bankruptcies, mergers and takeovers result in fewer and fewer but bigger and bigger retail consortia, there is an Orwellian danger that we’ll be forced to buy everything from faceless, soulless corporations whose economic might will be greater than the governments whose planning and tax laws they can shape if not skirt. And choice and price will then inevitably fall and rise accordingly.

But try telling that to the pensioner shuffling painfully round our local Costcutter who can avoid crossing the street to buy her veg or Daily Mail and you’d get a blank or contemptuous response. And I doubt she’ll be taking much notice of my Sheep Music posters, either. Same goes for some of the shopkeepers.

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