Band Made – part 1

Stevie with the MD441

I’ve been reading Mark Lewisohn’s book Tune In, the first in a planned trilogy about the Beatles, which takes the story up to 1962, the year I was born. I’ll have more to say on that later, but it surfaced a lot of memories for me, which were sharpened by this week’s Roderick on the Line podcast, in which John talks about his own experience of starting bands.

One of the things Roderick says is that boys who think playing a guitar will get them the girls are wrong. As Bruce Springsteen himself points out in his autobiography, it was the dance moves that counted for much much more than the guitars.

When I think back to my own teenage years, the picking up of the guitar, I don’t believe I was thinking at all about girls. I just wanted to be in a band. But unlike anyone who ever made a success of it, I clearly didn’t have the drive or ambition to make it happen, not properly. My first guitar was purchased on the front doorstep for £10. It was a made-in-Japan classical acoustic, which ought to have had nylon strings, but which arrived with steel strings fitted. Concerned these would warp the neck, I soon replaced them with nylons, but this “Woolies special” was never particularly easy to play. It had been advertised in the local paper, and a phonecall later, the owner – having run all the way down our road with it – was at the front door. A cursory inspection (what did I know?) and it was mine.

It wasn’t worth £10.

I had a learn-to-play book, which encouraged you to paint your fingernails with different coloured polish so as to get the positioning right. I never did succeed in playing any of the songs in the book, but after a short time started to write my own. I would say I probably mastered the open chord shapes but never did manage to play a bar chord without buzzing.

My best friend Jim and I had always dreamed of having a band, which was never quite as great as our vision for it. It was only when he came round one evening with a song he’d written that things kicked off. Jim would go through periods of coming round with regularity – on a Wednesday evening, say – and then after a while he’d stop for some reason, and I might not see him for months on end. Usually, to be fair, when he had a new girlfriend to entertain. In terms of the band, it was always important to me that he was the first to write a song, but I was disappointed ever-afterwards because he never wrote any more, and we weren’t able to collaborate together like the songwriting duo I wished we were.

Once he’d written one, and I realised what was possible, I quickly started writing my own. And one of the reasons I couldn’t collaborate was that I worked too quickly. By the following week, I’d written my first (‘In My Heart’), and a week after that, my second (‘Is It Any Wonder?’). I would present these to him on a Wednesday evening, desperate for his approval, never sure I’d created anything as good as his first song. This was around the turn of 1982 to 1983. I was in the full throes of my affair with Kim, on an emotional rollercoaster that moved so rapidly that I was going from ‘The Girl in White Tights’ to ‘The Remembering Song’, which is to say from the excitement of initial attraction to the despair of a break-up, in the space of a fortnight (and back and forth again, and again, for about a year).

Some writing sessions are such vivid flashbulb memories that I don’t think I’ll ever forget them. ‘The Remembering Song’ was written, more or less, in the time it took to play it through once. Sure, I paused to scribble down the lyrics in an illegible scrawl, but that took almost no time at all. I was sitting on the edge of my bed, pad of paper to my right, guitar across my knees, and the perfume-imbued scarf (referred to in the song) behind me.

In 1982, Springsteen released Nebraska, his home-recorded album of what might have been demos for a full studio record, and the existence of home 4-track recorders was known. It was known. And, after a while, it turned out that my future brother-in-law Pete had somehow got hold of one. Springsteen’s was a TEAC, I believe, and Pete had a Fostex. Already in a band, he had connections with a music shop and a lot of ‘demo’ kit passed through his hands. So he had an early drum machine as well as the 4-track cassette recorder, and a decent selection of microphones, including a Sennheiser MD 441, which was and is a pretty fucking good dynamic microphone with a unique appearance – a legend, in fact, considered by some to be the finest vocal and instrument dynamic mic ever made. It wasn’t a condenser microphone, not a Neumann, but it had a clarity and accuracy that made it really special, far superior to the Shure SM 58 which is the most commonly used dynamic vocal microphone.

I’ve had a fetish for microphones ever since.

The 4-track cassette recorder was a work of genius, using a technology that came and went in a period of 40 years, and has since been replaced with the smartphone/iPod generation of gadgets. Cassettes came in a variety of capacities, but the most useful was the 90-minute version. The 120-minute tapes were generally unreliable (was the tape physically thinner? It broke easily) and the 60 minute variety too short to fit an album on each side. The sweet spot, mixtape central, was 90 minutes: 45 minutes per side, good enough to fit two vinyl albums, or a lovingly composed compilation, painstakingly recorded from individual tracks on your vinyl collection. You would sit for hours with LP sleeves spread around you on the floor, composing song sequences that were more than mere playlists.

The 4-track recorder worked like this. Take a 90 minute tape: it plays 45 minutes of stereo per side, but what if you played both sides all at once, in one direction? Then you could record 4 tracks for 45 minutes. But tape was a hissy medium. The sound the tape made as it moved over the playhead couldn’t be entirely eliminated. The Dolby system (B or C) removed some of the hiss but not all of it, and if used too aggressively could remove some of the ‘brightness’ or ‘presence’ of the vocals and instruments. You could mitigate some of the noise/hiss problems by recording on the tape at double its normal speed: 15 inches per second instead of 7.5. This reduced the length you could record to 22.5 minutes, but that was still enough to record up to seven 3-minute pop songs, one track at a time, which you could then mix down onto a regular tape recorder, and duplicate. So you’d end up with a master cassette of 4-track recordings, plus a stereo mixdown, and then second generation duplicates that you could distribute at gigs or give to your friends.

So Pete had a range of useful kit, but what he didn’t have, really, was a songwriter who was available on a regular basis on weekday nights to do a little bit of recording. And so it started, in 1984, the first recording sessions of Go Dog Go!, our band named after a P D Eastman (Dr Seuss) book, but with the punctuation removed for convenience.

(There was, much later, an American band called Go Dog Go, just as there was an American band called Toad The Wet Sprocket – the name of Pete’s original, heavy metal band – but fuck ‘em all. We were first.)

Jim and I had been using a double cassette boom box up till that point, and had in fact recorded his song on it, which was already circulating among our friends. Our first performance was in fact of that song, as unofficial support for another band who were playing at a club in Luton. I keep calling it his song or that song because I can’t remember its title. I know it had three chords and it started, ‘When I first saw you, I knew this time it was gonna be love…’ Not the most sophisticated lyrics, but it had a good melody and it made a virtue of its simplicity. Even after I’d written 50 other songs, I didn’t think any of them were as good as that. I really looked up to him for it, but (to my knowledge at least) he wrote no more.

Time for Bed, Boys

He and I started turning up at Pete’s house on a Wednesday evening for recording sessions. Jim didn’t want us to record his song, so we simply started with the most recent one I’d written, and over a few more weeks we recorded several others. My Woolies special wasn’t much cop for recording, so we borrowed a Fender acoustic for me to play, which eventually became mine by default. I think I paid a nominal fiver for it and I wish I still had it. I mean, it wasn’t brilliant, but it was better than anything else I had available. We’d recorded about five songs, including my earliest classic, ‘Like Natalie Wood’, when Jim just stopped turning up. The truth was, he wasn’t contributing much. As I was writing all the songs, I was playing the acoustic guitar, Pete supplied the bass and the drum programming, and all Jim had to do was sing with me. At first, I didn’t want to sing alone, and I guess neither did Jim. But when you hear our two voices blended together, you can’t tell us apart. When he stopped coming, I insisted for a while on being double-tracked, because I didn’t like the sound of my voice on its own. But after a while, I realised it sounded okay, and over many years I came to accept that my voice is perfectly pleasant.

If emotionless.

I don’t have a lot of range, and I always felt I went off pitch if I tried too hard, didn’t have the control, so that’s one reason I didn’t put a lot of emotion in my singing. The other reason was contextual, so it bears explaining.

Where I did struggle was with playing my guitar in time with the backing track supplied by the drum machine. The arguments have been well rehearsed over thirty years: it ain’t natural to play at exactly, say, 120 beats per minute for the whole length of a song. There’s a natural swing, a natural variation in tempo, that the metronomic drum machine stifles. I struggled then, and I still struggle now, though I’ve learned what you have to do. I still cringe when I hear my rhythm guitar drift slightly out of time on a couple of the tracks. So the guitar was wobbly, but the vocals, well, they were all right.

I was a teenager during the punk era, and I never did warm to the exceedingly angry style of singing of most punk singers. So for a start, I was singing with a smile on my face, which I think you can hear in my voice. There’s a kind of knowing wink there: doesn’t matter how sad or upset the words are, let’s not be one of those angry young people.

I loved Jonathan Richman’s sunny outlook and matter-of-fact expression. He never screamed or sounded mean. He was probably my main musical influence: not the Beatles, not the Stones, the Who, not Dylan or Bruce. Jonathan Richman is where I’m coming from.

So my affectless tone was a mixture of knowing my limitations and wanting things to be that way. Singing with emotion is a little like speaking French with a proper accent: couldn’t take it seriously enough to do it. 

Then there was the circumstances of the recording: usually in a room in a house where there were people downstairs, and so I felt properly inhibited and always self-conscious. Overall, I kind of wanted a neutral tone, so that the meaning of the song resided in the words themselves rather than in my performance. Which of course more or less goes against the whole history of popular music and I’m not pretending for a moment that I was onto something. It was an online review (written years after the fact of it) of our EP release, Welcome to Weston-Super-Mare, that described me as a ‘slightly emotionless singer’ – and that stings, it does, but I also own it. And even now whenever I listen to my old recordings, the bits I like the least are the moments when I allowed some emotion to enter my voice. That said, the tone is less neutral than, as I said above, knowing wink, and there was often a smile on my face as I recorded the vocal.

I wanted, really, for people to pay attention to the lyrics, which is hypocritical of me, as I rarely bother to do this nowadays myself. But I am proud of some of the songs I wrote, and some of the lines. I still hear them and think, that’s quite clever.

Though I probably peaked too early with, Operator, get me Weston-Super-Mare… Which was in one of the earliest songs I wrote.

So I continued to turn up on Wednesdays, and me and Pete continued to record, and he got his bandmate Curly (Mark Ridout) to come round to add some nice guitar on a couple of tracks (and Curly’s younger brother added piano to one), and after a few months, we started rehearsing together as a band, with a drummer (Olivier, who was half French, from Calais).

And, somehow, we got some gigs and played them.

(Part 2)

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The water diviner

My brother-in-law has bought some land near to us here in France, and this is not his first rodeo. One of the things he did with his first house, built eighteen years ago in the village down the hill, was put in a geothermal heating system. Back then, there was almost no information about how to do this, and very little expertise, so he relied heavily on his own engineering genius, and succeeded in putting in a system that heats his home (with underfloor heating, natch) for a fraction of the price of a conventional boiler.

Nowadays, French building regulations have caught up with him, and everybody needs to build to a certain level of energy efficiency.

One of the things you need for a geothermal heating system is a source of water. 

When you have a plot of land and you want to know where to dig for water, you need a water diviner.

This guy, the guy we’re talking about, doesn’t use a switch of willow or dowsing rods. He uses his hands.

Before he became a water diviner, he was working for one of the large employers around here, and it came to pass that he got a new position with a new office. He moved into the office and started his new job, but he didn’t feel happy. He started to get depressed. Really depressed. It was something to do with the office, he thought, a bad vibe.

It turned out that the two previous occupants of that same office had also got depressed. And both of them had committed suicide.

The guy who would become a water diviner rearranged the furniture in the office, and things seemed to improve. The bad vibe was less present, but it didn’t go entirely away. So he quit, and decided to, ahem, try his hand at water divining.

So he came around to my brother-in-law’s new bit of land the other day, and suggested two places to dig. He’d brought his son with him. Just for fun, he got his son to see if he could work out where water was. The son said, “I feel something here, and I feel something stronger over here.”

He said it in French, obviously.

The water diviner suggested two places to dig. He said one was about eight meters down, and the other was deeper. He charges fees based on how far you have to dig. And if you find nothing, you just pay his expenses.

So we’ll see if he’s right about where to dig, but I’ve got a feeling in my own water that he almost certainly was.

The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie – review

A switch of genre for this most interesting of SF writers, a woman who can weaponise pronouns and shock you into a new way of thinking.

Pronouns feature again, here: this novel is told in the second person. The narrator is, it is gradually revealed, a rock that fell from space and is also a god in a fantasy world filled with minor and local gods. The object of the narration, the you of the sentences, is a transgender soldier who acts as loyal factotum to a princeling, an heir to a throne, who appears to have been cheated out of his inheritance by a wicked uncle. Except not really a prince, not really a throne, because this is Ann Leckie.

So it’s a little bit like Hamlet. Something is rotten in the state city city state overseen by the Raven, a god who lives in the titular tower. A god who incarnates as a raven, but then also speaks through a human who acts as the Raven’s representative. Not a king so much as a minor pope.  And then of course the princeling is not a prince so much as an heir to a minor papacy, except not quite. When the raven incarnate, the bird, dies, the Pope, the Raven’s Lease, is also supposed to die, his sacrifice giving more power to the Raven, who is immediately reborn into an egg. Because it’s a Lease, right, you’re only there for as long as the bird lives.

And then there’s a liminal stage, between incarnations, as the egg waits to hatch. What then? Who’s running the show? What’s that grinding noise coming from below?

Local gods is exactly where I live, part of the title of my PhD thesis. Local gods who lose their power but are still worshipped by some small band of people; local gods who are subsumed and defeated by other, more powerful local gods, and so on.

There are two strands to this narrative. One is the slowly emerging, patiently told story of the rock who fell to earth. The other is the more urgent here-and-now tale of the transgender soldier, his Hamlet-like Leaseling, and the wicked uncle who appears to be up to no good. One narrative is about an immortal (?) being who has all the time in the world; the other is about short-lived, fragile humans who do not. 

Hence the pacing, a slow build so that it that took me some percentage of the novel to get on board. But then it gets more interesting, once you get what’s going on. Like Becky Chambers’ work, these narratives spiral around and come together in a close and common orbit, and they reach the same conclusion, as it were.

As with most fantasy novels, this is left open for a sequel, an immediate divergence from that same conclusion, which is kind of maddening. But then Leckie’s Imperial Radch space opera series was a three book series, and the way the publishing industry operates is on such franchises, so it’s more or less inevitable. Interesting, though, that no sequel has appeared for Provenance, her previous SF novel, which I also enjoyed.

So here we are, at what appears to be the beginning of another series. It’s good. The pronouns here don’t quite have the same sting, but it’s still a patiently built universe with, clearly, many stories to tell. If I’ve a criticism it’s that the second person narration doesn’t provide an inner life for the central (human) character, so we don’t really learn much about him, other than that he’s loyal and brave. Perhaps the second in the series will give us more.

Flickr mircl

A while ago, I wrote an extended post about how I was locked out of my original Flickr account. You can read it here.

What was especially galling about the whole thing was that, even though I’d started a new Flickr account to continue my use of the service, I never did use it very enthusiastically or regularly. That was because it made me unhappy every time I visited the site, just to know that my old account had been languishing there since September 2013.

And, oh, how those not-very-good 2013 Fleetwood Mac photos came to bug me, as the last things I posted in that account.

WELL.

New owners Smugmug have been emailing me over the past couple of months, informing me that I was about to lose my “Pro” privileges as they limit free accounts to 1000 uploads. So I tried, one last time, to email technical support and get some help.

And this time, I didn’t get a Yahoo robot, but an actual human being, who looked at the situation, clearly saw the match between (a) the two different accounts and (b) the email address attached to the locked account; and also (c) looked at my screen grab of all the corrupted Yahoo log-ins (dating from the 2013 hack of the service); and decided to help me out.

Reader, I’m back in.

I was so happy about this that I immediately paid for a “Pro” account for one year, so I could start uploading things again.

So for the past couple of days, I’ve been uploading pictures taken since 2013 into the once-dormant account. I’ve reached the end of 2014, the year I bought my little GM1 system camera. (I noticed also that I’d set the date and time wrong on that camera, so there were a lot more 2014 pictures than it initially appeared.) A lot of these had previously been uploaded into the sad secondary account, but I want everything in one place.

And it’s been fun, looking back at those far off days of 2014, the year of the heavy snow fall in France, the year of my youngest in braces and my oldest out of them. I will always be happy about my kids’ confident smiles. I tend to shoot candids, not a fan of the look people get on their faces when they’re posing, although there are a few portraits on there. I used to have quite the eye, but lack of practice means that I take fairly dull photos these days.

Flickr is still Flickr, of course. It’s slow at times, flaky, unreliable, with an awkward app experience. But the good news is that I long ago ceased to interact with others on the platform, and I don’t feel the need to comment or keep checking activity. Poignantly, the last ever comment on this account was, “Why you stop posting?” A question I couldn’t answer, because I was locked out.

Here’s how you know Twitter is doomed

At the end of July this year, Twitter’s stock price crashed by around 20% when the company took steps to delete around 1,000,000 fake (or bot) accounts. Instead of seeing this as a good thing, investors decided to offload their holdings. I guess it makes sense: all those ads being served to robots were hardly doing any good. If I were an advertiser, I might be wanting  some of my money back, although anybody who didn’t know Twitter was full of fake accounts is an idiot.

A tumbleweed in search of its own emoji

I’ve been on the service since 2009 and I’m hardly your typical user. I’m lost somewhere in the backwaters. My following once struggled up as high as 310 and is currently down at 293. But I guess I lost fewer fake followers than some. When I first used Twitter Audit nearly 4 years ago, it reported that 93% of my followers were real people, with just 14 fakes. Now, I’m 99% real, with just 3 fake followers.

I gain followers at the rate of about one every couple of months. They often unfollow again when I don’t follow back, or even when I do. I only follow back if they look like a real person who isn’t trying to flog something. This is exceedingly rare.

My recent followers (soon to be unfollowers) are a food app (probably followed me because I follow Kitchen Stories, which is a food app I have – but I don’t need another one, thanks); a roots music TV network (unlikely to watch or follow, sorry); some kind of book marketing service (I should probably remove the word “author” from my bio, which is only there because I didn’t want to put “teacher”); and some kind of news website (there’s too much news as it is). The occasions when what might actually be a real human person much like myself turns up in my follower list are so rare that I seriously doubt it’ll ever happen again.

Which is why I think Twitter is doomed. Not because people don’t want to follow me (though God knows I can be fucking funny and I have impeccable taste) but because almost everybody on Twitter is there either to self-promote or start arguments. If you’re the type to try to avoid both of those things (which is to say: political twitter + tweeting compliments about yourself twitter), then Twitter is more or less a howling desert without even the relief of a tumbleweed emoji to break the monotony.

The real reason I know Twitter is doomed is because none of my students are asking me about it. Even a couple of years ago, whenever I mentioned that I was on Twitter, there would always be a couple of students who wanted to know my handle (which I never give, natch; anonymity is essential in my line of work), and even some who would make a point of arranging to follow me when they’d left school and a decent interval had passed.

That doesn’t happen now, and I think that’s because that young people aren’t even giving Twitter a go anymore. Like TV news viewers, Today listeners and newspaper readers, Twitter’s demographic is ageing and replenishers aren’t joining.

Of course, I’m hardly relevant, but unlike a celeb or politician I actually care about the people who follow me. I teach a rolling total of around 150 students a year, and even two years ago, maybe one percent of my students would show an interest. As of now, it has been a couple of years since anybody did. Furthermore, when you try to discuss modern social networking and media mores with students, Twitter has gone the way of Facebook as something the olds do, but not them. I mean, we’re constantly being told we have to talk about “online safety” etc. with our students, but their reference points are not ours. They’re all on Chatsnap or whatever. Amazingly, turns out, that toxic discourse, misogyny and Brexit are turn-offs for teens.

Anyway, Twitter is doomed. Sell your stock.

And another thing

Image result for this is fine memeFeeling a bit grumpy about various things at the moment, so I want to set things down just to be clear, when this whole shithouse burns down, that I was not on board.

Our culture has been dumbed down over the past 25 years due to a number of factors.

Because the internet was, inevitably, first adopted by tech nerds, the culture of the internet exists within the narrow comfort zones of said nerds*. So the humble comic book, which was in the past the acquired taste of a narrow coterie of reluctant readers, has come to have an outsized influence on modern life – in the film industry, especially, and increasingly on television.

These narratives are repetitive, derivative and witless. The debates around representation in these narratives, increasingly a part of every day discourse, are still debates about texts which are repetitive, derivative and witless. Black Panther may be lauded for its representation of people of colour, but it’s still a stupid movie based on a stupid comic book. Wonder Woman may have a woman in a lead role, but it’s still a stupid (overlong) movie based on a comic book. All of these movies, every single one of them, are bloated, loud and dull, wallpaper for the mind. So stuff gets smashed up, so what?

And these debates about representation? They were a creation of the narrow white bread world of these shitty properties in the first place.

And because these early adopters of the internet, 25 and more years ago, were of a certain age, and because their cultural and personal development was arrested when they got interested in “computer stuff”, they were obsessed with Star Wars. If you were ten years old in 1977, the year of that film’s release, you were at college when the first personal computer revolution started, and primed to get onto the pre-WWW internet by the time you graduated. And you have continued to bore the rest of us with your Star Wars obsession ever since. Let’s be clear: every single second of the interminable Star Wars franchise is as dumb as and has all the charm of a septic tank full of turds.

Watch another film, for fucksake.

Harry Potter? Read a different fucking book.

Lego? You’re too old for toys: grow up. And only idiots call it legos.

Everything wrought by this generation is loud and stupid and colourful. Video games. A whole industry devoted to creating landfill in the form of obsolete consoles and plastic packaging. A whole generation lost to stupid, simplistic narratives. And what do we get at the end of it? Trump. Brexit. Simplistic narratives.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

*I almost wrote geeks, because the implication of nerd is that there is some intelligence behind the obsessiveness, whereas a geek doesn’t even have that going for them; but I must be feeling charitable.

Dead Sea Me

I think of my eczema less as a skin condition and more as an alien parasite that has somehow invaded my system, and which I get to chase around my body as it retreats from the steroid creams but never quite goes away.

At the beginning of the summer holiday, I decided to give up on the gluten-free and dairy-free diet, which was expensive and also ineffective. Although my eczema had cleared up (ish) for a while when I went gluten-free, it returned with a vengeance, and then hung around stubbornly.

So I went off to France for the summer and drank beer and ate bread and generally lived it up in the land of a thousand cheeses.

Interestingly, and just as it did the year before, my eczema cleared up a lot over the summer holiday. So what’s the recipe? Sun, sea, and sand? I had a week-long beach holiday both years, so it might be a factor. Also, our neighbours who let us use their pool use salt rather than chlorine.

Anyway, returning to work in September, the eczema returned, and proved stubborn even in the face of the strong steroid cream that the doctor is paranoid about prescribing. I also use a variety of moisturisers, aloe vera gel, anti-histamine pills, and even Vaseline to try to keep it at bay.

Recently, I purchased a small pot of this stuff, which contains, among other ingredients, manuka honey, coconut oil, aloe vera, and shea butter. It’s an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to cream blending, and cost a small fortune for a 100ml pot. Needless to say, it didn’t work, and didn’t last long. One star

So then I decided to recreate some of the experience of that beach holiday in the home. I purchased some Dr Salts Dead Sea bath salts. I have to be careful with the water temperature (too hot, and it flares up the itching), but even after two or three goes, the eczema is nowhere near as bad as it was a week ago.

Which brings me to my latest hopeful purchase: Dr Organic Dead Sea Mineral Skin Lotion, which is more reasonably priced than Honeyskin, and might help to supplement the bath salts. Because maybe, just maybe, alien parasites are afraid of salt. It’s like something out of The Day of the Triffids.

Running iOS 12 on an actual iPhone 6

Image result for treacleMy iPhone 6 (Plus) is coming on four years old, and I’m eyeing that coral-coloured  X🅁  with real interest as October 19 approaches. But, at the same time, I’ve brazenly updated my 4-year old Mac to Mojave and the 6 Plus to iOS 12, on the promise that this was a “performance” update designed to give older hardware a new lease of life. iOS 12 was backwards-compatible to the 5S, so I’m one generation ahead on that.

I doubt that many of the tech journalists writing about this stuff are really still using the 6 generation phone as their everyday phone. So what is it really like in practice?

More performance?

Not noticeably. I mean, games like Pocket Run Pool and Flip Flop Solitaire still take ages to load. Overcast, my podcast app of choice, is still a bit laggy, and (most damningly), the keyboard when you’re typing in the Safari address bar works e   x    t    r    e   m    e   l     y slowly, making the letters you type appear several seconds after you type them.

I’m hoping today’s 12.1 update will address that particular issue, but the best I can say about iOS 12 is that my phone is more or less the same after updating as it was before. Give or take the keyboard lag. As for the much vaunted Shortcuts, I still can’t see much use for it, and when I do try a pre-programmed Shortcut recipe, it works so unbelievably slowly that I’d have been better off doing it manually. I mean, invoking the play-a-particular-Playlist takes about 20 seconds to work, when it works.

So it is time for a new phone. The camera always seems to have Vaseline smeared on the lens, and it has been a considerable time since I was able to hear a phone call on it without invoking the speaker or plugging in a set of earbuds.

Still, I think four years is pretty good. The original battery is still at 85% of its original capacity, and it still looks okay. My heart is set on the orange X🅁, so whatever happens, if supply is constrained, I’ll be waiting.

I return from education blogging exile to post a little thing about work

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See what I’m doing here? Yes, in this metaphor I am the exorcist

It’s surely only a matter of time before a senior politician at last joins the final dot in education policy and realises that our collective obsession with GCSE results is misplaced, and that in a world in which compulsory training or education till 18 is established, we should be obsessing on A Level results instead.

The measures introduced by Gove (Progress 8, the English Bacc, all that nonsense) focus on GCSEs. Every September, teachers return to school to learn the big news about how this year’s GCSE results stack up, locally and nationally. Sure, A Level results are mentioned, but 90% of the stress and pressure in schools is still focused on the latest Year 11 cohort and their outcomes.

And yet, we only require them to have five good passes at GCSE to qualify for 6th form. Also, they can often qualify to take an A Level in a subject with a grade 4 or 5. Sure, the government is still bashing schools over the head with GCSE statistics, but the reality of the world is that a student will be able to start an apprenticeship with 4s in English and Maths and not much more; or a college course with similar results. As far as I can see, nobody out there in real life is demanding eleven or twelve good GCSE passes, or even eight or nine.

Apart from everything else he wrought, the absolute worst achievement of Gove was the introduction of the new grades 1-9 at GCSE, with students achieving an 8 now made to feel like failures because it’s not a 9. And yet: 7, 8, 9: doesn’t matter. Any of those is going to get you to the next step. I’ll go further: 5, 6, 7, 8, 9: all the same, as far as qualifying for most of the next steps.

Are universities looking at GCSE results? Possibly, when deciding on what offers to make; but the other new reality is that many universities appear to be filling their courses on a first-come first-served basis. Gotta get those £9,250 fees, gotta pay for those new buildings. Anyway, there are a lot of universities, and just because a few of them self-appoint as élite institutions (step forward, so-called Russell Group) doesn’t mean they’re the best places to go for most people. I love pointing out that Jony Ive went to Newcastle Poly. Nobody really knows what is going to be the making of them. Universities are like William Goldman’s Hollywood in that respect: nobody knows.

As a teacher, I’m the equivalent of a priest who doesn’t really believe in supernatural beings or miracles. (In this metaphor, the Russell Group are supernatural beings.) I absolutely want to teach students about life, and empathy, and art and beauty, to impart to them some of the things I’ve found it useful or interesting or simply joyful to know. But I also want them to stop worrying about numbers. Because nobody knows. And I’m not here to help someone along the way to becoming the next Theresa May or Boris Johnson or – supernatural beings forbid – Michael Gove.

Returning to my initial point, then, it can surely be just around the corner, that moment when an Education Secretary realises that the stick they ought to be beating schools with is the A Level stick. More to the point, when are parents going to start looking up A Level results when deciding where to point their sharp elbows? The Guardian is on the case.

Long hot summer, short hot take

19751976 was the summer I spent mostly barefoot, staying up the park from early in the morning till the gates were locked after dark. That was the year I started at what was then called the Upper School, in the “third year”—what is now called Year 9. The great joy that year was, on my paper-round, seeing faces in a window who turned into friends-again, kicking off a summer of closeness and camaraderie, the inseparable team for tinpanalley and the other endless games of that endless summer. The pain came in September, at the Big School, when those same friends blanked me for no reason other than the new environment, because they felt like it, and because there was more space and more distance to make it stick.

1975 had been a good British summer: great in comparison to most of them, but there hadn’t been a drought, so it’s easy to forget it. It had been a warm June (average temperature 14.5ºC), followed by the warmest July since 1955 (17.1ºC), and then, the kicker, the hottest August on record (19.2ºC)—until 1995, which beat it by just 1/10th of a degree. Were it not for that summer of ’76, in fact, 1975 would have been the summer we (Gen Xers) all look back upon with nostalgia.

But 1976 was even hotter—in June and July at least, and there was a long, unbroken stretch without rain. There was a Minister for Drought, and hosepipe bans, and we were encouraged to share the bathwater, then water the roses with it, and put a brick in the toilet cistern. But August wasn’t that great, it was 2º cooler than the year before. The damage to 1975’s reputation was done, though, and it was forgotten by history. I’ve always felt about it the same way I do some beloved records. You know, like Beatles for Sale, or even Rubber Soul, as compared to Revolver. But 1975 is like the girlfriend in the distracted boyfriend meme. 1976 caught everyone’s attention and held it. But isn’t a summer in which you’re not obliged to get into someone else’s dirty bathwater as a matter of routine better than one in which you are?

Back then, when I was twelve and thirteen, I was young enough to see two years as the beginning of a pattern (all summers will be great from now on), so when the summer of 1977 came along, oh man. What a disappointment. June was a frigid 12.2ºC, July and August a gelid 15º. I went on a school camping trip that year, a week in the Wye Valley, and, boy, did it rain. And rain. That was the year of “God Save the Queen” and the Jubilee and street parties, none of which held any interest for me.

A couple of years ago, we had a bunch of people round towards the end of August for a night of pizza in the garden. It’s our usual way of returning dinner invitations. My kitchen in France is primitive, so I do most of our entertaining on the barbecue, whether it’s pizza or grilling. We sat out there long past sunset, lighting candles when it got dark, and enjoying the warm evening, not noticing the rolling thunder that might have been in the hills, even then. Because suddenly, as if someone threw a switch, the wind picked up, and the umbrella blew over, and the big orange awning started to flap like a mainsail in an Atlantic swell. By 11 o’clock, it was raining, big drops, and our guests were helping us get everything we didn’t want to get wet inside. Like that, summer was over.

This year, the weather changed a few days ago. We’ll be eating indoors for our final dinner with friends tonight, and I’ll be barbecuing in the rain. But it has been a hot one, hasn’t it? We’ll know in a couple of days whether this August has beaten 1995 and 1975. I’m going to guess not, though, as I think the weather broke in Britain before it did over here in France. It was dry; I think I can count the number of rainy days on one hand. But no 2018 summer month has been a record breaker as far as I can tell. July was hot (19.5º), but not as hot as 2006 (20º) and June was 0.4º cooler than 1976. Other places had it worse, and I suppose that global temperatures might tell a different story. All those wildfires. How many had natural causes, I wonder?

Back in 1976, Farmers were still in the habit of burning stubble in the fields, so we’d see palls of smoke up in the hills. This practice was banned in 1993, but it would give some kids ideas. We, my friends and I, sometimes hung out with some other kids, not really friends, but the same age as us. We’d come together for cricket matches or giant tinpanalley games. I remember going up the Downs once (the Downs behind my parents’ house), and we encountered a bunch of them setting fire to the railway embankment. Great swathes of dry grass were left scorched. How many of the wildfires in North America and Scandinavia were started with a match?

It’s easy to buy the narrative that extreme weather events are increasing in frequency. I’m sure there’s an upward global temperature curve, but looking at localised UK data from the last fifty years, it’s hard to see much of a pattern. 1975 and 1976 felt like something was happening, but then 1977 brought us all crashing back to earth.

I think it more likely that the negative effects of climate change for the UK will involve quantities of water coming from the sky rather than anything special in terms of summer temperatures. In the meantime, I’ve enjoyed this summer: I tried not to complain too much about the heat, even when I was sweating in my classroom back in June and July. But sitting inside today as it rains intermittently outside, I can already feel my cycling tan fading. And we lit a fire to help dry the washing, so…