The Loneliest Jukebox

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Monday, November 29, 2004

Not enough, too late?

Is it really 25 years since Two Tone? Last night's Channel 4 documentary Two Tone Britain said so, making me feel my age. Strangely absent from the proceedings was Jerry Dammers, son of the Rev. Horace Dammers, to give his take on the events which made his name.

A lot of the documentary was spot on, from highlighting the role of Ghost Town as the soundtrack to the riots of 1981 to using my erstwhile associate James 'Jimmy Bzag' Brown as a talking head. The account of Two Tone's decline was a bit sketchy; in reality Dammers was trying to maintain a beleagured Specials once the Fun Boy Three departed and Sir Horace Gentleman joined a lifestyle cult. Neville Staples put paid to the idea that crowd violence and police witch-hunts finished the band off: they were sick of the sight of each other.

Time was then taken up by the programme makers with a crop of bands who spend their time trying to sound like the Specials and rebelling against their seaside home towns (although recent trips to Shoreham and Skegness make me a bit sympathetic to them). Come on lads, it's the 21st century. (For sonic progress hear the link-up between the Coventry sound and the first Streets album.)

The participants in the show cast their youthful experiences (and mine) as life-defining ones, and maybe they were. More likely, as seen with the punk retrospectives five years ago, Two Tone coincided with its supporters coming of age. Music and fashion combined on a popular scale to make anti-racism seem cool, so it seemed to us like our movement. One interviewee called it a 'whirlpool of disparate youth'. Maybe it was, but the nostalgia that goes with breaking from childhood can often cloud one's judgement in later life.

P.S. Anyone needing that record to have heard of Nelson Mandela in the 1980s, as was claimed, might as well have been clinically dead.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Monkey see, monkey do

It's official: the British are morons. So say the RSPCA, for whom an advert showing a guinea pig drinking tomato ketchup is going too far. A spokeswoman for the RSPCA said: "Water is an essential part of a guinea pig's diet and we wouldn't recommend replacing it with ketchup. A small amount of ketchup as a treat now and again shouldn't do any harm as long as there is plenty of water available." I'm glad that's been straightened out: presumably the same condescending advice applies to the keeping of tropical fish.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Give Me a Break

According to the Guardian*, Tony Blair is cultivating 'Take a Break woman' as a key type of voter in the forthcoming general election. There's enough of these women to match the population of Scotland, with low incomes, a tough line on crime, and raising children as their top priority.

For those who don't read it, Take a Break is an excellent magazine for passing an auditor's TOE test: it provides its readers with sufficient Threat, Opportunity and Entertainment to guarantee repeat purchasing. In Blair's vision, they replace 'Basildon man', 'mondeo man' and US-style soccer moms as a ready-made electoral base. Hence him begging the mag for an interview.

Here's the problem: a politician who adapts to prospect voters and their prejudices, rather than winning them over to his programme, broadening their horizons in the process. To a Leninist, such methods stink of 'economism'. Whereas Prince Charles gets it in the neck for criticising people who get 'ideas above their station', politicians such as Blair run a mile from treating their relationship with the voters as a transformative one where the voters are improved by backing his party.

The only thing that suprises me in all this is that commentators have yet to leak the advice that Take a Break staffers are given in-house: 'Remember our reader: she has three children by three different convicts'. (Oops! A leak.) Once again, the public and private uses of demographic profiles tells you a lot about what officialdom really thinks of the public...

*Read on:

In pursuit of Tracey

Polly Toynbee
November 19 2004

The man behind Take a Break woman

Stephen Armstrong
November 22 2004

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Cheap holiday reading in other people's misery

What books shall I get the family this Xmas? Not much in my Amazon shop at the moment (although reader, please help yourself). So let's have a look at the new Book Clubs Association catalogue catalogue.

Generally I'm an admirer of extraordinary people. Since when does being a victim make you extraordinary? Page 14 of said catalogue is given over to such folk. There's Maria Housden, who recounts her daughter dying of cancer at age three. £12.78 gets you 'three shocking, true-life memoirs about child abuse' (The Kid, Out of the Dark and Sickened). Richard McCann's mother was murdered by the Yorkshire Ripper, leaving him and his sisters to be 'passed from from one violent home to another'. No list of this kind would be complete without the three volume set of Dave Pelzer's grumbling about his childhood, plus his Privilege of Youth, an account of high school so harrowing he only just remembered it. (Three cheers for Andrew Calcutt's Beat, which accounts for the genre of 'autopathography' in just a few pages, saving readers from tackling the canon in its entireity.)

Truly extraordinary. Fortunately for me, my parents were great when I was growing up. Still are - supportive, helpful, the works. This has obviously nobbled my chances of writing a bestselling memoir, but it also means I love them too much to inflict any of these grim tomes on them during the festive season.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

"Nazis, everywhere. I hate Nazis"

Paraphrasing a hybrid of Indiana Jones, Jake Blues and Ryan O'Reilly from Oz, various pundits keep hyping up the fascists on the march. This is most marked in relation to US presidential election, where some see a triumphant Bush as initiating the fourth reich. To be honest, the Young Ones character Rick was more accurate when he called someone a complete and utter fascist if ever he didn't get his own way. It falls to Scott McLemee to remind us what fascism looked like when it was respectable among the US elite.*

*SCOTT McLEMEE, 'Harvard Administrators Lent the University's Prestige to the Nazis, Historian Says' Chronicle of Higher Education, November 16, 2004

Monday, November 15, 2004

Holiday season

‘Bonking’ Boris Johnson could do with a break. He’s certainly got time on his hands after his sacking from the Tory front bench. (When are British politicians going to learn to be as relaxed about sexual matters as their European counterparts seem to be?)

Several times this year I too have been in need of a break too. (Getting sacked for sexual misconduct was not part of the deal, FYI.) The first time, fresh from being on a panel with the extremely sharp and youthful Breaking Boundaries crowd, I went to beautiful Firenze. This time, the substantially less romantic Dubai beckoned, by way of a PR junket of sorts.

According to Lynn Barber of The Observer, 'Dubai is unquestionably the ugliest city in the world - there should be a socking great sign at the airport saying "Abandon all taste, ye who enter here." It's true that there's a strong architectural belief that there's no building that can't be improved be adding gold and mirrors to it. It's also true that the Sheikh is building a man-made island peninsula in the shape of a poem, so astronauts can read his doggerel from space. While eating establishments boast of serving fine food since 1996, tour guides point to a range of things you wouldn't normally pay to see: 'the crater on your left is where hardcore was extracted to support the creation of the largest handmade, man-made mountain in the world' (completion pending). And so it goes on.

Barber is horrified by this cultural exchange of Arab and chav aesthetics. Personally, I was impressed. The local elite expects the oil to run out soon, and so are shifting towards a tourist infrastructure to see them through the times ahead. Eschewing the logical option to build in the desert - no 'brownfield sites' here, Mr. Prescott - instead they have a frontier spirit about knocking up new buildings while seldom relying on cowboy builders for the prestige project. A bit of democracy wouldn't go amiss though.


A Feast of Emails

In my role as an editor of Reconstruction, I keep on getting sent random chapters of Obi’s novel A Feast of Peonies (buy yours here). I just don’t get it. Is reading bits of the book out of sequence meant to make me want to read the whole thing? Or do I hang on and want for it all to arrive before printing it out and binding it? Those generous folks at Penknife Press have got me all confused, at least for a nanosecond before I hit the delete key.

PS. Thanks to Attila the Stockbroker among others for an entertaining pre-birthday night out last week, and some gossipy insights into certain painful footballing matters. Eye-ore!

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Reviews new and old

"How exactly can you say Dead Poets Society isn't a great film? Everyone i know who has seen it has cried when watching it, and more than 90% of those people said it was the best ending ever created in the film industry" says this IMDB user. I say exactly why not in this month's issue of TES New Teacher (print edition).

Meanwhile A PDF version* of my recent Jhistory review article appears here (pp.11-12); Dane S. Claussen's book is available from Amazon here.
*Reference: Graham Barnfield, 'Anti-Intellectualism in American Media', Magazine Matter (the newsletter of the AEJMC Magazine Division), Fall 2004, pp.11-12.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Home on the Strange [Posting may be time sensitive]

I'm not one for brief postings - reader yawns - but I was pleased to see my home suburb has made it onto the web here. It fared much better than neighbouring Anstey, as you'll see from reading this entry...

Monday, November 01, 2004

New reviews

Readers of the print edition of the architects' journal (28.10.04) will see my article 'Through a Lens' on p.52. It's a review of Zoomscape: Architecture in Motion and Media by Mitchell Schwarzer; you can buy the book here if the review doesn't put you off. Given time, an online version of the review will be available from this menu. My take on the movie Napoleon Dynamite appears here. A slightly older review of the movie Saw is here.

Flushing the mystery out of the Louvre

The Da Vinci Code is an airport novel turned global trend (buy yours here). Sure enough, I counted countless copies at an airport recently, and at least three copies on the flight itself. I’ve been reading the book as part of an impending book club inaugural meeting, a.k.a. drinking session, and found it interesting for various reasons. The plotting suggests a good grasp of the thriller formula, with chapters usually closing on a final line where someone encounters ‘the thing that s/he feared the most’. Two chapters on, you can find out what this actually was. Avuncular author Dan Brown is on hand, or on the web, to help explain what it’s all about without revealing vital plot twists.

The book concerns ‘Harvard symbologist' Robert Langdon and his various allies as they attempt to ensure that a ‘stunning historical truth is not lost forever’. What’s more interesting than this real-time chase around various authentic settings is that it has become a bestseller and a source of theological controversy. How has this come about?

Several of Brown's characters, in odd moments of self-reflexivity, suggest that everyone loves a conspiracy these days. (You almost expect them to start chatting to a fictional version of Dan Brown about it.) Whereas once it was the province of the political Right to blame things on secret societies, Jews and Communists, now such sentiments have become both more mainstream and more common on the Left. Likewise perceptions of the Catholic church have shifted. In a 1970s bestseller like The Godfather, the Vatican gets an easy ride. These days the 2000 year-old organisation is treated like it was set up in order to facilitate child molestation. In other words, it’s also a conspiracy.

A different theory is that The Da Vinci Code lets readers get a religious something or other from it, without having to make a formal commitment. All part of a society where adults feel defensive about discussing matters of the soul.

Whatever the explanation, it’s clear that folks are reading it. For now at least, the book has provided a point of connection in a fragmented society, when organised religion keeps failing to do so. The movie has been announced and the knock-off versions alleged. More from me on this topic after the book club meets.

Adventures in Regeneration, Part 1

And so to the Excel Centre, a business-friendly bridge between the City of London and the proposed Thames Gateway, itself a proposed city of 10 million people springing up on brownfield sites between now and 2021: we'll see. In the week, Excel houses some unhappy folk commuting in and out on the DLR; but at the weekend? Life in all its richness is under this roof.

At one end of the centre was the chance to 'turn fear into power - experience the firewalk'. A suprisingly large and articulate-looking group of people had probably paid out quite a lot to go on a cultish weekend of enhancing their self esteem. It was a high security affair, complete with feelgood late 80s rave music, exhortations from gurus and at least one punch-up. I'm not sure how the firewalk bit went: usually the hours spent standing around in wet grass beforehand allows the gullible to do a quick stride over the hot coals and think their self-esteem or team-building got them there (click here to find out more). This was indoors, yet I heard no ambulance sirens.

In the middle of the conference centre was the London Dental Showcase 2004. Basically, it does what it says on the tin, or on the toothpaste tube. Could I feign enough interest to pick up a free sample of Colgate? Not with my British teeth I couldn't.

Finally a wander round the London Expo. If you've not been to one of these before, it's basically a sci-fi memorabilia trade fair with 'resting' sci-fi actors selling autographs. Clearly there's some thought goes into this, with a veritable Versailles Treaty going on to ensure a balance of power between Buffy, Trekkies, Bond and Babylon 5. The first time I stumbled across it, it was fun, with Reggie Bannister getting an ecstatic reception when he introduced the Bubba Ho-Tep trailer. This time it seemed a more dour affair, with the emphasis firmly on flogging autographs.

Thankfully Ernie Hudson was on hand to chat about Oz - 'a real intense show; always glad when filming it was over'. Whereas British fans of Em City grumbled about needing to come home from a nightclub or nightshift in order to catch the start of the show - don't get me started on scheduling - Hudson was suprised his prison got on terrestrial TV here at all. But for me the star performance was a talk by Andrew Divoff, whose films I'm largely unfamiliar with but who I warmed to instantly.

Weathering the dumb questions about 'where do you get your ideas from' and 'what's it like working with Harrison Ford', he gamely told us something about his working life and how, as a simple proletarian like his mother, nothing pleases him more than hanging out with the stuntmen and on-set carpenters. Divoff's instincts for the underdog lead him to support community art projects and appear in a low budget Reservoir Dogs tribute called Sharkskin 6. What a guy to spend a Saturday afternoon with in Docklands.

My brief explanation of Fathers4Justice and their rhetoric appears here. My review of Shinya Tsukamoto's Vital can be found here.