Posted in bastards, entertainment, music, musings

Charles “Chuckles” Berry, 1926–2017

To paraphrase Mark Ellen (who was talking about Van Morrison), I would guess there are two kinds of people when it comes to Chuck Berry: those who like his music; and those who have met him. As a black artist whose work had been appropriated, stolen, lifted, plagiarised etc. several times by white artists, Chuck Berry had every right to be a miserable old git. But while Lennon was a very naughty boy when he stole “Here come old flat top”, I’ve always considered it more of a reference/quote/homage than an outright steal, and I don’t think the Beatles thought they were pulling the wool over anyone’s eyes. They weren’t trying to pull a Led Zep.

After all, The Beats had already covered both “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Rock and Roll Music”, and if Chuck Berry had a beef it was with the organised criminals who owned his publishing, notorious as they were for not paying out royalties. Lennon recorded “You Can’t Catch Me” in 1975 for Rock ‘n’ Roll, so Berry was paid back in spades.

Anyway, Berry’s own “Maybelline,” one of the first rock ‘n’ roll records, was heavily based on the song “Ida Red”, which was recorded by Bob Wills in 1938. And “Ida Red” itself included lyrics from F.W. Root’s song “Sunday Night”, written in 1878. In other words, it’s disingenuous of anyone to sue anyone else over copyright, which is really designed to protect artists from exploitation by greedy and unethical corporations and shouldn’t involve artists getting pissed at each other for doing what creative people do.

Great artists steal. (And even that quote is problematic, having been borrowed/stolen, reframed and so on, through multiple iterations. In its current form, it probably owes more to Steve Jobs than Picasso.)

So where does that leave us with Chuck Berry? Watching Springsteen work up and perform “You Never Can Tell” is one of the pleasures of my life; but watching Springsteen stand awkwardly to one side while Berry performs “Johnny B Goode” at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, treating Bruce and the E Street Band like just another one of his cheapskate pickup bands, is simply embarrassing.

Berry was an originator, one of the first to make this thing called rock music, and the first to write literate, intelligent lyrics that stand the test of time.

But he was a miserable old git and impossible to like. Which is before you get to the video cameras he allegedly hid in toilets at various properties he owned; or the 20 months he served for transporting a 14 year old girl across state lines for “immoral purposes”. Now you can point to the latter incident and consider the all-white juries and the different times, as they say on the Simon Mayo programme (it was 1959), but filming women with hidden cameras in the toilet is just nasty.

All of which is before you get to the armed robbery rap.

Monstrous ego, shoddy live performances with badly rehearsed pickup bands, sexual offences, armed robbery… Add to this the crime of “My Ding-a-Ling” and I’m afraid Chuckles is just not my kind of guy.

Posted in Baking

Caputo Gluten Free Pizza Flour

pizz - 1The true test of any gluten free pizza is whether it is as palatable cold as it is hot. What might pass as acceptable straight out of the oven can be very different the following day. Slimy is the adjective I’d use to describe the sensation of swallowing GF pizza — until now, that is. Before I get to the Caputo experience, here’s what I’ve tried so far in my search for an acceptable GF pizza.

Pizza Express

I ordered some pizzas from this chain, who offer a gf option with any topping. These crusts are clearly industrially produced pre-formed bases, supplied to restaurants to use on request. They’re not particularly brilliant. Quality is acceptable hot, not so great cold. An expensive option, in excess of £10 per (not very big) pizza. I haven’t tried Dominos, who only offer a limited selection with a GF base, but I suspect similar outcomes.

Bob’ Red Mill81xOpErAmoL._SL1500_The first home-made GF pizza crust mix I used was Bob’s Red Mill (Amazon), which is a blend of brown rice flour, potato starch, millet, sorghum, tapioca, and potato flours with both xanthan and guar gum. These kinds of blends are hard to reproduce at home, as they require you to have a cupboard full of different flours. This mix makes a very wet dough (the recipe on the packet calls for eggs as well as water and oil), which is hard to work with: you basically have to push it into a baking tin with your fingers. I was very disappointed in the result, both hot and cold. It took a lot of cooking (much more than a standard bread base) and the texture was very gummy.

Teff

I moved on to try teff flour as a main ingredient (again, from Amazon), and this was fairly successful, making for a crisper pizza crust with a decent flavour. It was like pizza made with wholemeal flour, which might actually appeal to some people. It was definitely edible and not unpleasant cold, though not brilliant.

(I tried combining a bit of teff flour with some of the Bob’s Red Mill mix, with disastrous results. I pre-cooked the crusts for five minutes to avoid undercooking them, but they were quite nasty and I ended up throwing one whole base and most of the one finished pizza I made in the bin.)

Pre-made bases

ProductsUSA_ Pizza CrustIn most supermarkets, you can find Schär pre-cooked bases (on the small side), which are okay, but nothing special, and no good cold. They come in a vacuum sealed bag, which means they keep indefinitely, I guess, but they’re only average (as, to be fair, are most pre-cooked crusts).

The better pre-made option was a raw dough (chiller section) in the French supermarket Auchan. This was pretty good, though again on the small side, and required five minutes pre-cooking before you put the topping on.

It’s a characteristic of GF (so-called) dough that it requires more time to cook than wheat-based options.

Which brings me to…

…Caputo

pizz - 1 (1)By a weird coincidence (or is it?), the people from whom I buy my 25kg sacks of Caputo (blue) pizza flour emailed me the other day with news of a new product, Caputo Fiore Glut.

Well, I couldn’t get to the laptop to order quickly enough. My main reason for optimism is that Caputo is an Italian product aimed at professionals. The recipe on the (1kg) pack is for the entire pack, for example, and the instructions on the web site suggest making the dough balls in advance and keeping them in the “walk in cooler”. I didn’t think Caputo would put their name on anything less than the best product you can get. Caputo are the Apple of pizza flour. Or something.

The first surprising thing about this flour mix is that the recipe calls for 800 ml of water per kilo of flour. Regular blue Caputo uses a ratio of 65% water to flour for a pizza base (depending on humidity, you might add a bit more or less). 80% water suggested this would be a very wet dough, but it was not. In fact, I added a little extra water and it could have taken more. I didn’t use the whole kilogram, but enough (300g) for a couple of 30cm pizzas.

pizz - 2The mix* consists of Rice starch, rice flour, potato starch, soy flour, sugar, both guar and xanthan gum (your gluten substitutes) and fibre. There are no eggs required in the recipe, just water, yeast, salt, and a bit of oil.

The second surprise was that the dough rose quite quickly. I didn’t have time for a long rise, so I added a couple of tsp yeast, and it rose at the same rate as the regular wheat dough I made at the same time. In contrast, the dough made with Teff flour certainly fermented when left, but didn’t noticeably rise, even when left for several hours. The Caputo GF dough was slightly harder to work with than Caputo Blue, obviously not as stretchy, and harder to move onto the peel. The greatest challenge with GF pizza dough is to keep the shape regular, but I don’t worry too much about that — as you can see. I rolled the second one directly onto a peel, which made it much easier to handle.

I cooked the two pizzas on my stone on the barbecue, sliding from the peel using cornmeal to prevent sticking. They cooked more or less as quickly as a regular base.

The results were crisp, with a good inner texture of air pockets, and while not as tasty as a base made with Blue, they were pretty damn close. I send love and kisses to the whole Caputo family with gratitude.pizz - 3

And, just for the hell of it, I tried a slice cold that had been in the fridge overnight, and it was absolutely fine. No gagging on the claggy, slimy, gummy texture.

Five stars to Caputo.

*As a bonus feature, according to the specs, this flour features hardly any insect cuticle or rodent hair.

Posted in bastards, musings, Television

The end of civilisation, reality TV style

1480638381-trump-tie-tapeThinking about the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, which involved at least one person who thought she was participating in a TV prank show, it struck me that our civilisation has been in the process of being laid low by our consumption of trashy media.

For sure, we live in the platinum age of TV drama, which is a surprise to me. A few years ago, when ITV shares were a few pence each (9th March 2009: 17.5 pence per share), it felt as if scripted TV drama was going to be a thing of the past, as advertising revenues collapsed and the BBC was chipped away by the neolibs and their tame newspapers.

But enter Netflix, and enter Amazon, and enter HBO, and it turns out that scripted drama has never been better. Left to the likes of Fox/Sky, the US networks, and even the BBC, it would not be so healthy. We’d have wall-to-wall procedurals, and the stuff the BBC makes these days, which seems calculated not to frighten the Daily Mail horses and attract as little attention as possible.

No, when I talk about trashy media, I mean three things, in the main:

  • 24 hour news
  • Talent shows
  • So-called Reality TV

Unlike a lot of my fellow Media Studies professionals, I could never bear to even watch a single minute of reality TV, so I kind of pretended the topic didn’t exist. But I know for a certainty that if I was looking at so-called Western civilisation from the outside, I would see reality TV and talent shows as a sign of the degradation and decadence of liberal democracies, and the wealth and fame heaped upon individuals with little or no talent as emblematic of our debased values.

That Donald Trump, a stupid man who fell into a heap of inherited wealth, who doesn’t know what a tie clip is, could become a household name is something you’d point to as evidence of a degenerate culture. Add to that the fame and wealth of Simon Cowell, a person who wears v-necked t-shirts, and yet was still given a job as an arbiter of taste in music, and you’ve got enough evidence to damn a whole civilisation.

And then there’s the 24-hour news cycle, which, turns out, didn’t mean more news or more depth of coverage or more analysis, but less and less and less, until journalists are churning out a dozen ore more clickbait stories a day and political coverage is reduced to whether someone can eat a bacon sandwich or bow his head at the correct angle when showing respect to the war dead.

Looking at all this from the outside, of course you’d hatch an assassination plot in which you’d dupe somebody into thinking they’re participating in a TV prank show. It’s Art of War 101, right? You’re using the enemy’s own decadence as a weapon.

What North Korea does on a small scale to deal with its own domestic issues, Russia (very much not a liberal democracy) is doing on a much larger scale, having apparently exploited the stupidity and venality of a range of assets in a very long game in order to undermine the ability of the US to oppose it. The game is Smileyesque in its complexity, but it appears to have involved Wikileaks, various online hate groups, and a reality TV star who was able to exploit the inability of news organisations to do their job* and win an election. What Smiley did to snare Karla, Putin has done to snare a whole nation.

Back when Twitter was new, when Facebook was new, some of us naively thought that these new platforms would be for us, that we’d be able to organise and resist using these agile new tools. Cynical voices pointed out that these platforms were owned by corporations, but we thought we knew better. Of course, it turns out that these platforms were far more effectively exploited from the right than they ever were from the left. Because the one thing the left can never stop doing is squabbling amongst its various selves.

And then this week, just when you think that something is up, when the new President is denouncing the media like a newly minted North Korean dictator; just when you think the Western media might start doing their job*, even if it’s too little too late; just then, there’s an explosion of news (and social network coverage) of an event so fucking trivial and unimportant that you can’t believe anyone would be taken in by it for even a single second.

Yes, I’m talking about the Oscars, an awards ceremony in which a small, self-selecting coterie of previous winners votes for a new set of winners in their own image, usually in order to promote a few films that hardly anybody saw. And yet, when someone cocked up and handed the wrong envelope to a presenter so facelifted he probably couldn’t open his eyes wide enough to read the small print on the card, we not only got the immediate reaction, but ongoing coverage of the incident, including Zapruder-like frame-by-frame analysis, as if this was 1972, and this was a break-in at the Watergate hotel.

It was almost as if the media were waiting for something they could switch their attention to, so that they didn’t have to keep reminding people that they’d elected a tie-sellotaping  Russian stooge to high office.

*SPEAK TRUTH TO POWER

Posted in entertainment, music

When your heart grows cold and old

I was listening to a (back catalogue episode of) Roderick on the Line today, and he said an interesting thing about music and nostalgia.

We, he said, meaning people in their 40s and 50s, are the first generation who can listen to the music of our parents’ generation as easily as we can listen to our own. Can this be true? I’ll explain.

My parents were born in the 1930s, and the music collection they had when I was growing up came mostly from the 1950s and on. In other words, came from the era that they’d have been in their later teens and twenties. A collection of brittle 78s, a mostly-disappointing collection of vinyl LPs (with the notable exception of Sinatra), and some other stuff from the early 1960s that I’ve always assumed belonged in some sense to my older siblings.

But my father’s father, who was dead long before I was aware of anything: what was his music? No records survived. Even if he was in his 20s in the 1930s, that era of economic hard times, would he have even owned a record player? Or had the luxury of even being into music, in the modern sense? No records survive.

Similarly, I don’t recall ever seeing or hearing any music at my maternal grandmother’s house. My grandad had an old broken reel-to-reel tape recorder, but who knows what it was ever for?

Just now, I could hear my kid upstairs playing Buddy Holly, which is something I passed onto her. It’s interesting to hear her playing (over several days), Jonathan Richman, then the Velvet Underground, then Buddy Holly or the Everly Brothers. You can trace the line, you can hear the musical DNA. I listened to Buddy Holly myself because I wanted to know where the Beatles had come from, and because “Words of Love” was on Beatles for Sale, which was the Beatles album in our house.

When I listen to Sinatra, it’s also because there were a load of albums in the house when I was growing up (but, really, only two or three of them were of the right vintage, the rest were from the Reprise era, not the kind of thing I still listen to). So the Sinatra DNA was passed on, but I had to do my own work to obtain/discover the best material. My mother had Songs for Swingin’ Lovers and Come Fly With Me, but I never heard the superior A Swingin’ Affair until much later on.

So the kid upstairs, you might say, represents a third generation, who can listen both to the music of her parents, but also her grandparents. Does she have Sinatra on her iPhone? I think she does. How weird is that?

 

Posted in musings

Detox yer box

grapefruitwaterWhen people talk about detoxing, they’re usually referring to the idea of cleaning out your system by abstaining from something for a period of time, or by only eating one genre of food for a weekend or so. So a weekend drinking nothing but fruit juice, for example, or a (first two weeks of) January without alcohol.

Well, I’m here to tell you…

When I was investigating possible causes of my eczema (now confirmed by biopsy as such), I came across a reference to the idea that gluten intolerance might cause such a rash. Huh. So I gave up the gluten for two days. Ha ha! Classic detoxing.

No effect, so I went back to the wheat and carried on (literally) scratching my head as to the cause of me having to scratch my head.

But the doctor who performed the biopsy suggested that giving up gluten needed to happen over several weeks, and I later found a website which mentioned that it could take up to six months for any positive effects of giving up gluten to be felt.

Six months. Not six days, or a weekend, or even a whole January.

In the event, it took precisely 5 weeks for my near-constant itching to diminish and disappear, once I gave up gluten. And, six weeks into the experiment, I’ve been advised to continue it for another six weeks before cautiously reintroducing gluten-containing foods to see if the rash comes back.

In short, if you want to detoxify your body of Substance X, you have to detoxify it for an extended period of time before every last molecule of X leaves your system. This is most clear in the case of drug addiction. Giving up cigarettes for a day or two is easy. Giving them up forever is much harder, because the cravings can be present for weeks, or months. So juice purges or whatever dietary fad you’re following aren’t really achieving anything. As to what’s really going on inside, there’s an argument that says your liver, which is designed to naturally detox your body – that being its function – is working at peak efficiency when it is given something to work with. In other words, drinking (alcohol) moderately is better for you than not drinking at all.

Posted in Baking

Breakfast at Teffany’s?

gf-pizz-1I’ve been (trying to be) gluten free (GF) for four weeks now, and I’ve spent three weekends in a row experimenting with various ingredients to make baked goods and other things. I’ve also raided the supermarket shelves for GF items with mixed success.

Although some of the seeded breads are okay in small quantities, and as long as you toast them, I’ve been struggling to find something that hits the spot when it comes to spreading butter on it. I’ve thrown away one failed so-called bread and found that most of the shop-bought stuff has to be heavily adulterated to make it palatable. I tried a Warburton’s sliced brown loaf, for example, which I could only eat in the form of an egg/bacon sandwich or crisped up in olive oil as croutons, or smothered in (GF) welsh rarebit.

gf-cook-1This weekend it was the turn of Teff flour. Sainsbury’s sell a tiny (125g) pot of it in their GF section (Doves brand), which is barely enough to use in a single recipe. So I ordered some of this stuff, and used it this weekend to make the following:

  • Chocolate chip cookies
  • Pizza base
  • Crumpets/pikelets

I used the Doves teff flour last weekend to make the same cookies, but their recipe had water in it, which was bizarre. As with so many of these things, a lot of recipes and pre-packaged goods try to take into account multiple dietary needs. In this case, I guess they were avoiding egg as well as gluten. Well, this weekend, I made the recipe with an egg instead of 4 tbsp of water, and it was much better. The cookies held their shape well and were less crumbly. Teff flour (even this “wholegrain white”) has something of the texture of wholemeal wheat bread flour, so everything I make with it reminds me of some of the vegetarian recipes I’ve followed, which always include wholemeal flour when they could just as easily include white or sauce flour. So the cookies are pretty good, like standard cookies made with wholemeal, which makes me wonder about making digestive biscuits.

For the pizza base, I used 125g teff topped up to 150g with cornmeal for added crunch. The dough was very soft (softer than a cookie dough, looser than pastry) and nothing like traditional dough. So you have to push it into a tin by hand. I lined the tin with baking parchment because I’ve learned the hard way that gluten free stuff tends to stick more. After about two hours, I topped the base with the usual pizza toppings, and I baked it in a hot oven for about 15 minutes. The result was much better than my previous attempts (and those I’d bought in supermarkets). A crunchy crust that was quite palatable – you could convince yourself that you were eating a regular pizza made with wholemeal flour.

Onto the crumpets. Last weekend, I tried crumpets with Doves GF flour, but they ended up stodgy, without the right kind of texture. Disappointing, because Warburton’s GF crumpets are among the few bread products I’ve tried that are okay (if expensive, which is why I wanted to make my own). So I made the same recipe again, but swapping out half of the flour for teff. I also tweaked it by adding a bit more salt, more bicarbonate of soda and a hair more yeast. This time, the batter fermented very well, and the resulting crumpets taste good and have a good, aerated texture. In colour, they look yellower than regular crumpets.

After two batches of four, I was a bit fed up of the crumpets sticking to the rings (hard to get out because they were so hot), so I just cooked the rest of the batter as pikelets, which was perfect. In the future, I’ll not bother with the rings and I’ll just make batches of pikelets. These are great when warmed in the toaster and spread with butter. Nirvana!

gf-cook-1-1Other successes over the past couple of weeks:

  • Cake au jambon – a French style savory cake made with a jar of green olives and some bacon or ham. Works perfectly well with GF flour, and because it’s an enriched dough, it’s fairly indistinguishable from the original.
  • GF naan bread – while not as puffed up as regular naans, these were pretty good really, and went down well with a chicken curry.
  • GF dumplings – these were nothing like dumplings, but fairly close in nature to scones, or what the Americans call biscuits. We had something similar at school, and they called it beef cobbler.

gf-cook-2After all this, I think I can go forward, though I’m still obviously hoping that my possible gluten intolerance is not a thing, and I can go back to eating wheat. In terms of my eczema, the itching continues, four weeks into the experiment.

Posted in music, musings

Some of me Music

The Proper Stranger. My future brother-in-law got a 4-track cassette recorder, so we started meeting up on Wednesday evenings and recording songs that I’d written. The more we recorded, the more I wrote. It was me and my then best-friend at first, but after a while he gave up on it, probably feeling he was contributing nothing. He was the first one to even write a song, which started me off. Once you realise you can do it yourself: oh. But then he didn’t write any more at all, and I was coming up with a new one (or more) every week. It turned out that, on tape, we sounded very similar anyway.

There’s a drum machine, Curly (Mark Ridout) on backing vocals and guitar, and Pete Austin on on bass. I think I’m just singing on this one. We didn’t have access to Curly very often. We put his amp in the bath for the rhythm part.

Is It Any Wonder? My first song, which was recorded for the 1984 cassette release Mr Mystery/The Proper Stranger, and then for our 1985 EP, Welcome to Weston-Super-Mare. This was recorded onto an 8-track, then pressed onto 500 vinyl 45 rpms. We had to speed up the tempo so we could fit all the songs we wanted on. Thinking back, my major influence at the time was probably Jonathan Richman. The idea was a kind of cool detached, pastiche/homage to old rock ’n’ roll, singing with a smile on my face. That cool detachment is the central characteristic. No real emotion, except that which might be evoked by the lyrics, if you cared. I hated the drum machine sound, and when we played live we had a real drummer (Olivier, who was half French), but we didn’t have the facilities to record a real drum kit. That’s Curly on lead guitar and Pete on bass again.

Sway. About five years after we started the recording project, I ended up with a lot of Pete’s equipment in my back bedroom. By this time it was an 8-track reel-to-reel and a mixing desk. I wrote this one about a girl I was seeing, Sarah, and recorded it just on acoustic guitar in that back room. A few years later, when I was experimenting with computer recording for work purposes (which is how I ended up getting back into it), I got hold of an Adrenalinn, a kind of drum machine, with guitar delay effects. You plugged your guitar in, and it created textures and rhythms based on the drum pattern. So I played “Sway” through it, and then my work friend Simon played some whale sounds on his guitar.

Latest News. I’d started teaching Media Studies, and I wrote this song, which wasn’t based on anything real, just all the different media I was thinking about. It takes you through from news and the BBC and the internet through radio and magazine articles, and then a film. And I recorded it with a selection of the instruments I’d begun to accumulate, and Roy played some guitar on it. His is the laid back rhythm in the left channel. At the time I had a Variax, which had the banjo sound on it, and I had an Ovation mandolin which was pretty cool.

You Don’t Belong. When I was in my early 20s, songs were like diary entries. I would take real emotional stuff that was happening and turn it into simple little songs that didn’t sound like anything much (emotional detachment being my watchword). When I went back to writing songs in my 30s and 40s, I had to dig down deep into memories. This was written about my ex-best friend, and his habit of creating legends about his life, the kind of bullshit I eventually tired of. I saw him from my car once, filling up his motorbike at a petrol station on the A5. It was about 15 years after he’d bored my tits off with his fantasies about emigrating to Australia. And there he was in Northampton, with his characteristic sloped shoulders and his motorbike. Went home and wrote this. Some of the recordings are so vivid I can remember recording every instrument.

The Conversation. In the 80s, I wrote a short story, and then I turned it into a kind of epic poem, which I turned into a song. I used to perform it at poetry readings. It was long and full of detail, quite funny. And then about 15 years later, the original long forgotten, I wrote a 3-minute version of it, what I could remember of it. I still like the guitar on this, and the flow of the lyrics. And every time he repeats. “the one I’d always loved” the meaning changes, until you know he’s singing about how he always picks on unavailable women. Story of my life.

And Then You Fall. This and “You Don’t Belong” were my first experiments with piano sounds. I’d got some kind of amazing plug-in software piano that sounded great. So I started programming one chord at a time into the software and then building on them. I’m also pleased with this because what sounds like some kind of mandolin solo is actually a guitar solo recorded at half-speed and then played back at normal speed. Pete plays bass on this. And then there’s an actual mandolin on there somewhere. I’d edit this to make it shorter if I did it again.

Outside My Window. In my teens, I was kind of in love with my then best-friend’s girlfriend, Linda. I was eaten up with jealousy, which I would never admit to myself of course. I was horrible to her and ended up deliberately cutting her out of my life, hoping all the time that she would say something and we could have it out. But before I did that, we were very close. When I left home and lived in Kent for a while, she wrote to me at least once a week. And she came down to stay one weekend, and we spent a couple of precious days together without him around. I wrote this song about that weekend, and the rest of it. I piled too many instruments into the mix, but it kind of fits because of all the emotions I piled into that relationship. I would get snippets of news about her from him, when I could casually ask without making it seem obvious that I really wanted to know. But he lost touch with her himself in the end, so I lost that lifeline. I regret this almost as much as not being able to whistle with my fingers.

Saturday Night. This has a lazy tempo, but I like it, especially the line, “All those eight o’clock girls, trying to straighten their curls…” Another song aimed at my introverted younger self, for whom Saturday nights in the Saracen’s Head in Dunstable were a form of torture. Fake it for fuck’s sake.

Walking Shoes. I was just playing with song arrangements on this, copying that of a record I liked. This is another “digging deep” one, written about a girl I liked when we worked together in Bejam in Dunstable. She really did used to frighten old men, Juliet. This is a phase when I was capable of some decent guitar because I’d been playing so much.

Everything. You can tell all the ones recorded about the same time: had my Orange guitar amp, and was just recording the sound straight from it. Play with some chords, make up some words. Whoever this was about? Lost in the mists.

Without You. I think I aimed this at my younger self, and the stupid games I used to play when trying to get women interested (qv “Outside My Window”, above). One of the last times I recorded with the mandolin, which I was too rubbish to play properly.

Yours Faithfully. One of the last things I ever did was February Album Writing Month (FAWM), in 2009, maybe? You write 14 songs in 28 days. Easy! Except I never did much justice to the recordings, focusing too much on working quickly. Also, most of my good software wasn’t working anymore, so I had a much more limited set of sounds. But this one I liked, because of the bits about, “There is no ex in loneliness, etc.” It’s about being dumped by text, which people were doing by then, it says here. I used pitch-changing software to add the backing vocal.

Tell Me a Movie. This is another one kind of based on a short story I wrote. This was a FAWM song. Again, I didn’t do the recording justice, and the vocal is not the best. I’m embarrassed by it really, but I still like the idea behind the song. Always thought there were too many verses but couldn’t bear to cut one.

Little Red Riding Hood. As best I can remember, this was the last one I wrote and recorded. Just messing around with different sounds by this stage. One of a series written about my younger, hopeless self. Sold the amp after this, and the electric guitar, which about two years later the kids were really annoyed about.

Posted in Books, musings, Publishing, Review, Writing

Last Year by Robert Charles Wilson

bdd04d_9e31b247d83045dca8fa43475cbff922While not ever quite reaching the heights of his very best work, RCW has been putting out a book every year or so that is readable, interesting, and entertaining. If you offered me, say, something of the quality of Spin or The Chronoliths every two or three years; or something decent like The Affinities or Burning Paradise  on a more regular basis, I’d have to think hard. Wilson’s stock in trade is the technological sublime: a technology that humans do not quite understand that nevertheless has profound influence on human culture. In Last Year, the technology is The Mirror, a kind of time portal that allows you to visit the past of a world that is similar to your own, but not the same world (so that any changes you introduce do not affect your own time line).

What’s it about?  The attempted assassination of Ulysses S. Grant, transtemporal gun smuggling, horses and helicopters, tasers and tong wars, the luxury resort industry, two Gilded Ages in a violent confrontation, and the nature of time itself.

This allows Wilson to take us into Julian Comstock territory, with a protagonist who is an 1870s drifter, whilst mixing in 21st century types  such as a security chief who is both a US army veteran and a woman; or an Elon Musk (or is it Donald Trump) type leader who seems okay at first but later reveals his true nature.

The City of Futurity appears in the mid-western 1870s, offering locals a tour of the attractions in the world to come (amid tight security preventing actual time travel) and visitors from the 21st century a vacation in the Gilded Age, the post civil war United States, a country on the eve of electricity, the phonograph, radio, and moving pictures. Except, spoilers: anything the 19th Century can produce pales into insignificance next to the wonders on display in Tower Two.

Some locals are hired to work security, including Jesse Cullum, a man on the run from his violent and traumatic past in San Francisco. Cullum inadvertently comes to the attention of his bosses as being especially competent, and he’s given additional duties: tracking down smuggled contraband (Glock handguns, iPhones and solar chargers) and chasing runners: people from the 21st who decide they want to live in the land of no indoor plumbing and no antibiotics.

Jesse is partnered with Elizabeth DePaul, former soldier, single mother, and they explore each other’s worlds, cautiously but earnestly, knowing there’s no future in it. She comes from a different timeline; he’s got a past.

Someone goes missing; someone starts sending messages to downtrodden groups, informing them of the shitty deal they’re about to get from history, and it all kicks off.

Is there a metaphor here? Twin towers representing the future and commerce, aligned against forces of superstition, bigotry and ignorance. Is there hope in the future? Can we overcome our own histories and find a better world?

Probably.

Hard to put down, I finished it too quickly (as usual), and now I guess I’m waiting for something coming out in 2018

Posted in bastards, musings

Shut down, log off, fade away

Mini DV TapeWe are surrounded by digital ephemera.

A while ago now, I reactivated the Facebook account (total of friends = 1), just so there would be one place on the internet where you could find me by my actual name. My timeline consisted almost entirely of my Instagram feed. But I hate Facebook, always have, and as Zuck appears to be preparing to run for office (as a Republican, according to one thing I read), it’s time to kill it. So that’s gone.

I still use Instagram. Although owned by Facebook, it’s fairly harmless, and since I stopped using Flickr (destroyed by Yahoo), it’s the only place I upload photos. But my finger does hover over the button sometimes.

I was attempting to put together a Photos book for 2016 the other day, and I had an enormous number of those red warning triangles, because the “original image could not be found”. Massive database corruption in my Photos library – perhaps caused by my use of CleanMyMac. The photos are there – I can export them and re-import them and fix the triangle issue – but the application doesn’t know they’re there. So that is a massive pain in the arse, and brings to stark relief the eternal problem of what is going to become of all our digital photos in 5–10 years. Apart from low-resolution uploads on early Flickr, I’ve got whole clusters of photos missing.

This came up again when I was rewatching my kids’ childhood DVDs a while ago. A couple of years have gone missing, and one of the DVDs wouldn’t play (though I managed to rip the file off it). I noticed an old MiniDV camcorder at work the other day, which nobody (probably) is ever going to use, and it reminded me that I have a case full of MiniDV tapes with my kids’ (unedited) childhoods on, and I have nothing to play them on.

Digital ephemera. We live in a streaming world. Timelines flick by, news churns 24 hours a day, people are up in arms about one thing after another, ricocheting between issues of import and issues of no import as if it were all the same.

I spent half an hour this morning unfollowing a bunch more people on Twitter. People I like and respect, even admire, but I cannot bear to read their political and news tweets, because they make me feel impotent with outrage, powerless, depressed. Muting keywords doesn’t work because things always leak through, and in the end I came to the conclusion that, for the foreseeable future and for my own sanity, I’ll probably end up unfollowing most of the Americans on my feed, and many more besides.

I’ve said it before: complaining on Twitter achieves nothing; the people you need to reach are not on there; it’s not a substitute for activism. Twitter is for jokes, for people-watching, for aphorisms, art, wit, photos, videos, all of that digital ephemera. But it’s not for politics or climate change, or bringing down capitalism or fighting nazis. People get mad about stuff, sure, but never so mad that they put down their phones and do anything.

 

Posted in bastards, movies, Review

Swallows and Amazons (2016)

photoThis 2016 adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s first S&A book sank without trace as far as I was concerned. I remember reading about the pointless name change from Titty to Tatty, which smacked of the kind of asinine decision that gets made when there are six separate production companies involved. How anything gets made with so many captains on deck, I don’t know.

I rented it on iTunes, and watched with a kind of fascinated horror – mixed with tearful nostalgia for the books I read as a boy and the 1974 film adaptation (which, for the record, had one production company and one distributor). That version featured my schoolboy crush, Kit Seymour, as the “Ruthless” Nancy Blackett, an actress who appears to have been plucked from obscurity, immortalised on celluloid, and then forgotten by posterity. The children in the 1974 film were, for the most part, cast for their ability to handle a boat rather than their training at some stage school. They were clearly non-actors and yet, for all that, were natural enough in their parts. The magic of film is that you only have to capture that one good take.

To be fair to 2016 Swallows and Amazons, then, it couldn’t hope to compare to that slice of my childhood, even if it had stuck to the fucking plot. But these charlatans, these bunglers, couldn’t even do that. Alarm bells begin to ring almost immediately, in the sequence featuring the children travelling up to the Lake District. There’s some nonsense involving men chasing each other around on the train. It’s as if a drunk editor was editing this film and The 39 Steps at the same time, and got mixed up.

Sure, Arthur Ransome was a spy and adventurer who witnessed the Russian Revolution, but we don’t need that biographical nonsense in the film. Its presence is a clear sign that the producers had nothing but contempt for the material and the audience: what could we do to make this shit interesting? The spy crap continues throughout, taking up valuable screen time that should be devoted to the children and their story, which at times seems so neglected it’s reduced to the status of a sub-plot.

And after all this indulgent espionage peril is spooned into the film, like so much thin gruel, it doesn’t manage to whet the appetite. As one reviewer pointed out, the sequence in which the kids lose their picnic hamper overboard is more gripping, by far, than the attempted kidnap by Russian spies of the Captain Flint character – who could so easily have been left as grumpy uncle novelist trying to finish a book instead of indulging his nieces’ pirate fantasies. The food the children manage to procure, in the hungry 1930s, is such an important part of the story that the loss of the picnic hamper is as devastatingly dramatic as this film manages to be.

Still, there are moments. Or, there is one moment. The discovery of the Swallow in the boathouse had an emotional impact that was squandered by the lack of attention that the film paid to the actual sailing. The shame of it all is that, what you really want out of this is the chance to make some of the other books into films: Swallowdale, Winter Holiday, We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea, Pigeon Post, The Picts and the Martyrs… there are some really good storylines to be had, and all of the books had really strong female characters baked in, with no retrofitting required.

And it’s with the female characters that this film falls tragically short. Nancy and Peggy get precious little screen time, about which I have mixed feelings. The actress cast as Nancy just seemed completely wrong to me. Wrong colouring, wrong age (in year 11 doing GCSE drama, when picked). In a way, it was a mercy, but Nancy is supposed to be the heart and soul of the stories, so it really matters that they go it so wrong. I don’t blame the actors at all. This was clearly a scrambled mess of a production, made by people with no feel for the stories and no understanding of their appeal.

All I want to do now is watch the ’74, to restore my memories.