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Saturday, 27 October 2012

What makes you Scottish?

Now that the deal is done, some aspects of the forthcoming referendum on Scottish independence remain puzzling. I suspect that Mister Salmond thinks he has won a major concession by including young people under 18 in the vote; he’s a pragmatic operator and will no doubt fancy his chances of persuading younger voters of the benefits of independence.

Lowering the voting age is quite an innovation for a party which, not so long ago, raised –from 16 to 18- the age that cigarettes could legally be bought and would like to raise the legal age for buying alcohol from 18 to 21. The Scottish government appears not to see (or chooses to disregard) any contradiction between granting these young folk a say in the most important political issue of the last 300 years, but not allowing them to have a fag while they think about how to cast their vote. And, at the very least, it seems something of an oddity that a kid of 16 or 17 will be able to vote in the referendum but not in a general election. I've yet to hear a convincing explanation as to how that makes sense.

Another troubling aspect of this referendum is that any British, Commonwealth or EU citizen will get to vote, as long as they are resident in Scotland. A Frenchman working in the oil industry and living in Aberdeen, for example, will get the chance to determine Scotland’s future, but a Scotswoman who has moved as far south as Durham will have no say.

I know that if I moved to Manchester tomorrow, I wouldn’t presume to describe myself as a Mancunian and wouldn’t expect to have much of a considered opinion on issues pertaining to political life in Manchester; my roots would remain in Scotland and I’d still consider myself Scottish. According to estimates, there are around 800,000 Scots living in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It would not be unreasonable to guess that a high proportion of these exiles might think like me and would wish to have a stake in the future of their country but, in the 2014 referendum, they will be disenfranchised. What exactly would be difficult about arranging a postal vote for these exiled Scots? Perhaps the main ‘difficulty’ is that Mr Salmond has calculated that people who have moved south for economic reasons might be more inclined to vote in favour of the union.

One of the big arguments being put forward is that the independence issue shouldn't hinge on our ethnicity. The ‘Scotland’ that will vote is merely the diverse community of peoples who happen to be registered to vote here in 2014. I have no particular difficulty with the argument that the cultural or ethnic background of the voters isn’t that important, but surely you can’t have it both ways?
If 'Scottishness' is not about your ethnicity, but is mainly about your post code, what exactly is the point in going to all this fuss to break up a partnership that has worked for more than 300 years? If someone can move a few miles up the road from Carlisle to Langholm and instantly become ‘Scottish’, what’s the big deal about national identity?
What exactly is the point of 'Scottishness' if there is no ethnic component to it? And if there is an ethnic component, why are we denying 800,000 Scots the right to vote?

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Song of the Week - 'Reign of the Stupid'

It was once said that if you put a million monkeys on a million typewriters, they would eventually come up with a Shakespearian play.  Someone very smart has pointed out that the internet has rendered this remark demonstrably untrue.  I hold to the theory that the person who came up with the monkey /typewriter /Shakespeare / theory was probably a monkey.      
When I wrote this song, I was influenced by watching a TV programme on the ‘National Television Awards’.  There were some very well-dressed people being rewarded, celebrated, congratulated and fawned over for their various televisual efforts.  As this song says, they were giving themselves prizes and everything.  As a consequence, they probably felt even better about themselves than they did before.  Isn’t showbiz just great? 
Anyway, I can’t sit here talking all day ... I’m going to zap channels, because I really don’t want to miss ‘Help, I’m almost as fat as my dog!  On a musical note, the chords on this song are pretty nice and I feel truly honoured to have nicked them from some of my favourite artists. 

Reign of the stupid - The Eisenhowers

Monday, 22 October 2012

'Philip Larkin - A Writer's Life' by Andrew Motion

This comprehensive account of the life and work of Philip Larkin is remarkable in its detail and scope, particularly when you consider that the poet insisted, on his deathbed, that his diaries be destroyed. At times, it reads like a novel as we follow the development of the bookish, precocious middle-class child who became a jazz-obsessed undergraduate before ‘settling’ for a career as a librarian. Showing some flair for the work, he made his mark in his first job by reviving a dowdy Shropshire branch before moving to Leicester, Belfast and eventually, Hull University. Library triumphs aside, the writing is what we are interested in and Motion reveals a great deal about the poet’s various struggles with his art. Concerns about the worth of his endeavours loom large, as does the influence of his autocratic father and demanding mother; it is no wonder that one of his most famous lines was: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad”.

Some modern critics have foolishly chosen to judge Larkin by today’s politically correct standards and, invariably, he is decreed to be ‘unsound’ on just about any topic you could mention. There is, however, a sense in which his life and work can be seen as illustrative of the disillusionment of the post-war years; many of the best minds of his time will have shared his opinions on, say, social engineering, modernism and the decline of empire. Motion is broadly sympathetic and, rather than condemn the poet for some of his ‘old-fashioned’ views, tacitly recognises that he was a product of his times. Complicated and contradictory as Larkin often was, one suspects that some of the so-called ‘damning’ correspondence detailed in this book was written in something close to the spirit of caricature, designed to amuse and tailored to what he thought the other person wanted to hear; his letters to Kingsley Amis and Barbara Pym are examples of that.

Having long feared –presciently, as it turned out- that he would not live beyond the age of sixty-three, his final years were marked by alcoholism, bitterness and regret. Towards the end, he confided to Monica Jones (one of his long-term girlfriends) that he was “spiralling down towards extinction”. In truth, that was the kind of remark that he could easily have made at any point during his previous forty years. Reading Larkin’s poetry, one knows -for all the mordant humour- that boredom, failure, disappointment and death are never very far away. It is quite sad that in spite of accumulating an impressive body of work, he could often view his artistic life as a rather tepid failure.

Chosen to edit the Oxford book of Twentieth Century English Verse, Larkin made enemies in literary and academic circles when the final selection appeared to reflect his own view that modernist poets were often elitist, wilfully obscure and somewhat over-rated by the cognoscenti. But what some interpreted as a cantankerous and conservative eccentricity on this topic actually reflected a principled belief in the value of verse that was accessible to all. There is something very English about that kind of unfussy and unpretentious approach to art; indeed, it is probably one the reasons that Larkin’s work endures.

Until reading this biography, I was unaware that his love life was quite so complicated. He obviously had strong desires for love and sex, but also a need for solitude. Having made the decision to put his writing before other considerations, he scrupulously chose to avoid making a firm commitment to any one of several women with whom he might have led a very different kind of life. His work turned out to be remarkable, but one wonders whether the women in his life would have considered it all to have been worth it.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

There is no such thing as musical 'guilty pleasures' #2

Further to my recent observations on the concept of ‘guilty pleasures’ in music, something has reminded me of another episode of foolishness that probably stopped me getting as much enjoyment from music as I should have.             
Nik Kershaw’s recent UK tour, in addition to promoting his new album ‘Ei8ht’, featured a complete run-through of his platinum-selling ‘Human Racing’ album from 1984.  I was particularly happy to attend a couple of these shows because I had more or less missed out on the ‘Human Racing’ album first time around, not because I was unaware of its existence, but because I was daft enough to have felt guilty about liking a certain kind of pop music.    
I recall that when he first appeared on Top of the Pops, my girlfriend described him as looking like a cross between Gary Numan and someone from Buck’s Fizz; I don’t think it was meant as a compliment.  He had obviously had some kind of fashion makeover and looked like what I would have pejoratively described as a ‘manufactured’ pop star (as if other more ‘authentic’ pop stars just appeared out of the ether, fully formed and bursting with talent and integrity).  On the final night of 1984, the BBC showed a live transmission of one of his gigs.  In spite of the fact that I quite fancied watching it, I kept only half an eye on proceedings and eventually consented to the TV being tuned to something else.  I knew deep down that I found his music quirky and tuneful, but I couldn’t give myself wholeheartedly to it, because, well … it just wasn’t ‘cool’ to admit to liking someone who featured in Smash Hits and who was screamed at by teenage girls.  I mean, come on.  That kind of stuff, surely, was just not culturally significant?  It didn’t have, to use Woody Allen’s phrase, ‘total heaviosity’. 
Some would argue that 1984 was a great year for British pop music.  Wham, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Culture Club all topped the charts, but they made little impact on me.  Haughtily and ostentatiously snubbing the charts, I would have been too busy with other stuff.  When, for instance, I bought my 12 inch copy of ‘What difference does it make?’ by The Smiths, I was convinced that I was witnessing the rise of the coolest and most culturally significant band on the planet.  There is no doubt that they made a cultural impact, but –to my ears- much of their work now seems bereft of melody, with many of the songs failing to cash the cheques written by Morrissey’s witty titles.   
I was a big fan of the introspective singer-songwriter David Sylvian.  His ‘Brilliant Trees’ album was one of my favourites of 1984, but nowadays I can’t abide his constipated vocal stylings and humourless existential angst (and any songwriter that references Picasso and Sartre in his work is surely trying a wee bit too hard).  I also admired the dreamy post-punk soundscapes of Cocteau Twins, but find now that I tire rather quickly of their ethereal, meandering, effects-driven epics.  Although Liz Fraser’s melodies are sometimes pretty, the lyrical gibberish I once thought charming (or even mysterious) now seems merely annoying.      

Another act that I would definitely have name-checked in any conversation in which I would have felt the need to appear cool (namely: any conversation that would have taken place between ‘waking up’ and ‘going to sleep’) was Echo and the Bunnymen.  But whenever I hear their stuff now, I find it difficult to like; much of it appears plodding and pedestrian, drearily anchored by what sounds like a very limited range of keys and tempos.  Most of the time, Ian McCulloch is not so much singing as posturing, sounding like a lippy social studies student who wished he had studied at the Sorbonne.  His lyrics somehow manage to sound vacuous, gauche, pretentious and glib at the same time.  The Bunnymen’s 1984 album ‘Ocean Rain’ was launched with a PR campaign that proclaimed it to be the greatest album ever made.  It wasn’t.  It had a few decent tunes, but the tasteful orchestration helped disguise the fact that most of the songs were little more than average.   
So, off the top of my head, those are four acts I would have enjoyed in 1984, but am quite indifferent to now, along with one act that I pretended not to like in 1984, but am very keen on now. 

Hamstrung by silly student snobberies, I let Nik Kershaw’s chart-busting glory days pass me and only deigned to catch his act once his commercial star had started to wane.  During the nineties, he took a long sabbatical from performing before returning with the sublime ‘15 minutes’ album in 1998.  Mature, reflective, tuneful and adult in its lyrical concerns, it was all that good middle-of-the-road pop should be.  His albums now sell in modest amounts, but the recent tour gave his fans the chance to relive the halcyon days of 1984 and, of course, presented a fool like me with a belated opportunity to see those big hit songs performed live.  

The enjoyment I got from these concerts has led me to reflect once more upon how we experience, perceive and enjoy music.  How do we judge musical quality?  What makes folk imagine that some music is ‘cool’, while other music isn’t?  What gives a piece of music longevity?  Does age bring greater clarity about what we like, or does it merely make us more conservative in our tastes?  Why do some songs remain in our hearts while others lose their lustre?  

I have the feeling I might return to this topic.

In the meantime, here is Nik Kershaw bringing in the New Year at the Hammersmith Odeon on 31st December 1984, complete with balloons, eighties-style dancing and screaming girls.   

Friday, 5 October 2012

Song of the week - 25 o'clock

This week’s song is ’25 o’clock’, taken from the first Eisenhowers album. 

It represents something of a brief assault on the senses, crammed as it is with retro synths, a disco bassline, crashing powerchords and harmonies straight out of the Beatles songbook.  The original demo started off sounding a bit like Squeeze impersonating the Rutles, but once we started to kick the song around in rehearsals, wiser council prevailed.  We eventually settled on this slightly retro (but hopefully not cheesy) arrangement, with Ronan Breslin contributing the funky synth (complete with mad solo), while Paul Gray and Billy Devine cook up a storm in the rhythm section.      

The lyric is about two people trying to inhabit a private space away from all notions of personal responsibility.  The line “You learn from experience that you don’t learn much from experience” is key to illustrating the folly of dwelling in the kind of fantasy world conjured up by the self-deluding losers in this song.  Incidentally, there is no thematic link between this piece and the rather fine Dukes of Stratosphear song of the same name. 


Wednesday, 3 October 2012

On falling out of love with Doctor Who

A friend asked me the other day if I had caught the final episode of the latest series of Doctor Who. I confessed that not only had I failed to catch it, but that I had stopped watching the show some time ago. The acknowledgment of that fact still makes me feel a little bit sad.

When Russell T Davies revived the franchise in 2004, he reclaimed Saturday night TV for the family. Doctor Who, with Christopher Ecclestone and then David Tennant in the starring role, was the only programme that our whole family could sit and watch. It seemed to have something for everyone. But much as I loved this reinvention of the show, I wondered if there would come a point at which I would eventually tire of it. When I was a lad (and it was all fields around here), it had a definite shelf life. Once you had worked your way through a couple of Doctors, it was usually time to move on. I lost interest towards the end of Tom Baker’s reign and, by the time the TARDIS was occupied by Sylvester McCoy and Bonnie Langford, Doctor Who meant about as much to me as Andy Pandy or Emmerdale Farm.

I don’t, however, think that my current lack of enthusiasm has anything to do with Matt Smith. From what I’ve seen, he is a fine actor and a very good Doctor; he’s quirky, weird and funny, but with just the right hint of menace. My indifference may be something to do with the fact that my youngest child has also lost interest in the show, but I think the writing was actually on the wall during the last days of David Tennant's tenure. That series drifted lamely towards a prolonged and cheesy farewell that was utterly devoid of dramatic tension. While Russell T Davies may have stayed just a little bit too long, his successor at the helm, Stephen Moffat, is probably too much of a Doctor Who geek to have been left in charge of steering the ship. Under his direction, the show has become almost ridiculously self-referential and pointlessly complicated. At times, one gets the impression that elements of unresolved plot within the various timelines are accumulating like so many piles of uncollected rubbish. The narrative arc, for instance, around the character of River Song, is just too convoluted to care about. And if I ever hear the phrase "Hello, sweetie" again, I may well commit an act of violence.

I think, however, that my current lack of enthusiasm is mainly about what I believe to be a fatal flaw in the writing. This might best described as an absence of jeopardy, brought about through the current Doctor's unfortunate acquisition of messianic qualities and seemingly limitless power. For example: I can’t be the only person to have grown bored, and then irritated, by the infinite capabilities of the sonic screwdriver. In the old days, it was a handy little tool for getting the Doc out of tricky situations. Where once it might have unlocked a door or maybe sparked a broken circuit into life, it is now a fall-back device that can do just about anything, making Harry Potter’s magic wand look about as effective as a stick of celery. It does, however, come in handy for writers struggling to resolve awkward plot situations.

In order willingly to suspend disbelief, we have to believe that there is at least a chance that the Doctor might fail. When he can do literally anything, we have no stake in the drama, because there isn’t any. You can't have 'drama' when the central character has a bottomless pocket full of GET OUT OF JAIL FREE cards.

Without wishing to sound like too much of a traditionalist, omnipotence was never a characteristic of previous Doctors and I’m afraid that the notion of ‘rebooting’ the universe to resolve a plot was the writing equivalent of the infamous Dallas series #9 ‘it was all a dream’ debacle. These developments have painted the show into a corner, from where it can surely only benefit from some kind of downgrade.
It pains me to say it, but what Doctor Who probably needs now is several years off before trying another imaginative reinvention.