Posts Tagged ‘decent’

musical chairs

Posted 04 Feb 2005 — by Jonathan
Category Observations

My life rolls by without much in the way of conflict and then – suddenly – I am at war with a fellow commuter. Disturbing developments in what was previously a stress-free journey. I find that, after two years of sitting in my favoured seat on the Brighton-Chichester express, a fellow traveller (and one who clearly has less difficulty than me in getting out of bed in the morning) has decided that he too wishes to sit in the second seat on the right in the third carriage. I thought it was only me who had figured out that this is the best place to sit on the whole train but apparently I was wrong.

Monday: 7.48am. I climb aboard the train a minute or two before it pulls out of the station and find to my horror that my seat is taken. I sit, reluctantly, in the one in front and try to adapt to my temporary surroundings as best I can.
Tuesday: 10.40am. Hmm. I go in late today, so no problems. On the other hand, I worry, will this look like I have given up my seat – practically presented it to my adversary on a plate? No, I reassure myself, that was just a one off. Silly.
Wednesday: 7.46am. Situation is now back under control. I time my arrival at the station well. I am first aboard the train and straight into my appointed seat. Moments later, someone boards the train, walks past the first row of seats and makes as if to swing into mine. But aha! He finds me settled. Let’s see how he likes that.
Thursday: 7.49am. Damn Damn Damn. I am up late and dawdle, catastrophically, in the newsagents, trying to decide between salt and vinegar hula hoops and salt and vinegar square crisps. When I board the train my seat is taken. Not just that, but I can’t help but notice that my rival looks well settled, as if he has been there for at least five minutes. After yesterday’s defeat, is he raising his game, I wonder?
Friday: 7.44am. I am on the platform before the train even pulls into the station. I position myself where I think the third carriage will stop but notice, incredulously, that my adversary does the same thing. Yet when the train settles against the platform and the passengers disembark I actually find myself politely gesturing him to board ahead of me. It is a moment’s instinctive politeness and I suffer for it. He takes my seat.

What do you think? I know it would be cowardly for me to just give up, but should I take this as an opportunity to settle into a new routine? There are other seats, after all.

And yet… that seat is mine.

the art of selling out

Posted 21 Jan 2005 — by Jonathan
Category Music, Observations

Pete writes, over on his Powerful Pierre Goes Forth blog, about an interview with KT Tunstall in the Independent the other day, where she explains that “To be frank, the overall sound of the album isn’t what I would have delivered had I been left to my own devices,” , and he notes that “I personally think this is a shame, as it seems she hasn’t really made the sort of album she would like to”.

I appreciate that on one level there’s nothing as romantic as the album which is free of industry influences, but part of me, faced with this, just thinks, well, that’s the way it goes. The writer, by way of comparison, depends upon his or her editor in the early (and sometimes late) stages of his or her career as a moderating influence, as a sounding board, and as a critic. A great many novels are substantially edited and re-worked on the advice (and insistence) of the editor or publisher. Later on, when they are established, perhaps they dispense with this advice (and not always for the best). But we don’t tend to see the music company in the same benevolent terms as we do the publisher; they ‘get in the way’.

Equally, until comparatively recently, no-one really gave much thought to the notion of a ‘director’s cut’ of a movie. It was understood that certain pressures were brought to bear upon a film and these had to be overcome by the director. These days a film can be sold to us twice, and arguably both formats are devalued. In the first instance the standard version is exposed as lacking some ‘artistic vision’ and compromised because of it, and in the latter, where the director can display that vision, we feel a significant disappointment that such a version tells us a story that we didn’t want to know: that the first time round he couldn’t negotiate with external influences: they defeated him.

Lastly, there’s the question of why people make art or music, of course. It’s easy to invest in an artist like KT Tunstall (who I’ve not heard, incidentally, so I apologise if I get her wrong in any way) this idea of creative freedom; we can well imagine her writing an album which is unarguably ‘hers’, and done to her own design. And doubtless that’s how plenty of the greatest records do get made. But there’s another side of art which is projected outwards, the part which is collaborative and social, which seeks to tick as many boxes as it can; which is interested in the dynamics of fashion, and its following. We often instinctively regard this kind of music as somehow ‘meaning less’, because we value the internal dialogue over the external. Yet often I find music speaks to me because it is trying to do just that – speak to me, not ramble incoherently at itself. (Here I am, your target demographic). And y’know, sometimes an artist gets to do what they like and they make something that’s just unspeakably awful, and you want to know why no-one said ‘hang on a minute’.

Perhaps Tunstall’s album would sound better if it were more the record which she wanted to make. But I’m reminded of Andy Partridge’s experiences in XTC, where he allowed his determination to retain complete creative control at every stage of the recording process to – frankly – damage every record he made for the first ten years of his career. Only when he was persuaded to let Todd Rundgren take the reins on ‘Skylarking’ did he create his true masterpiece. And for years afterwards he detested it, although now he repents (though maintains his control freak-streak).

A couple of years ago I submitted a poem to an online magazine which got back to me saying that they liked it and would like to include it in their next issue – provided I agree to remove one line (which I considered key) from the poem. At first I felt quite affronted, feeling that the poem was mine and shouldn’t be changed. But I quickly got over that vanity and let them alter it, and I’m glad that I did, although I still dunno if their change improved it. Probably it did. So anyway – maybe I’m just cynical. I compromised my art, so I’m damn sure everyone else should have to.

I remember a band a few years ago called Sammy – who actually made a really good debut album – who were much criticised for being a fairly shameless Pavement rip-off. Pavement had just released their magnificent ‘Watery, Domestic’ EP and Sammy’s shtick was that they were the Pavement who were happy to sign to a major label (Pavement were very much indie darlings at this stage) and ‘sell out’. Then Pavement signed to a major themselves and Sammy had to resign themselves to being the Pavement who would stay indie.

Pavement knew it was much better to sell out.

a quick reminder

Posted 20 Jan 2005 — by Jonathan
Category Politics

Could anyone have predicted the perplexing developments in the career of perma-tanned bigot Robert Kilroy-Silk a mere year ago, when he was just an easily ignorable daytime television presenter? He seems to have gone through more re-births in the last year than most politicians do in a lifetime. Until last year, no-one seemed to much notice his bile, partly because he was published by the Express, where his cretinous views fitted right in – yet it is still remarkable to think that he got away with a litany of abhorrant articles before his racism was detected. When it was, and he was sacked, it seemed his career was over.

A year on, he’s gone from being a political outcast to a powerhouse of campaigning energy. He’s been credited with turning round the fortunes of a hopelessly disorganised political party – his visibility clearly helped UKIP to their success in the European elections. For a short time the Tories were running scared. He would ‘kill them off’, he said. His UKIP, he implied, was the future of British politics. Then things started to go wrong. His maniacal grip, it appeared, was fastened not to the collar of his party but to its sleeve; when he tried to increase his grip the party bolted. Today he announced that he is leaving UKIP (having all but destroyed their credibility by exposing them as comically disorganised and desperately incapable of operating like a political party, a kind of Fathers-for-Justice for alzheimers afflicted landowners) and he will – we are told – shortly start his own party, Veritas – which is the latin for truth.

When he does he will doubtless portray UKIP as old-fashioned and past it, reactionary and – probably – racist. His new party, he will say, is not caught up in right-wing dogma (although it will of course exploit it) and has the ambition of revolutionising British politics. When he does, it will be interesting to see which version of Kilroy the media gives us. Will he be presented once more as the celebrity taking on the politicians (as he was in the early days of his UKIP campaign)? Or as the firebrand kicking up a storm and winning people over (as he was after the European elections)? Or will it be the slurry-covered Kilroy, the man who couldn’t even persuade his party that he could do a better job than Roger bloody Knapman? Whose ego, unassailable, all but destroyed his new party?

Either way, it’s worth going back to those old Express columns, so we can remember – when Kilroy tells us he’s a modern man, not a reactionary fart – just which side he’s on.

Starting close to home, Ireland, he said, was “a country peopled by peasants, priests and pixies”.(9 Nov 1992), with Scots fairing little better. In fact, “Scotland is dying.” (9 Mar 2003). He wrote that the French were “devious” (2 Feb 2003), “treacherous… not to be trusted” (16 Feb 2003), that the plight of Africa is “mostly the fault of Africans,” (5 Oct 2003), and that “Most of what is good and decent in Africa has been provided by Europe and the United States.” Pakistanis, he said, just “want to generate hate” (7 Jul 2002). Why didn’t people understand, he wondered, that “Scots are British, that Geordies are British, but that Pakistanis are not. They’re Pakistanis!” (23 Dec 2001).

Iraqis, apparently, are “not worth the life of one British soldier, not one. All they seem to do is moan, incessantly” (29th June 2003), and that paratroopers should be employed to “herd the immigrants together and cart them off to Dover where they are dumped on a secure slow boat to — wherever” (17 Mar 2002). He complained steadily of “pushy blacks” or “talentless blacks and Asians” (19 Aug 2001.), complaining that “bleating blacks and Asians… [should] stop whining and get a life” (7 Dec 2003). On HIV, he is adamant that “The indigenous population is not responsible. The diseases are being brought here by refugees, immigrants and tourists… It is the foreigners that we have to focus on” (1 Dec 2002). Finally, of course, he said of Arabs, “Apart from oil — which was discovered, is produced and is paid for by the West — what do they contribute? Can you think of anything? Anything really useful? Anything really valuable? Something we really need, could not do without? No, nor can I.”

You’ll excuse me, Kilroy, if I refrain from voting for your kind of Veritas.

the ultimate bag

Posted 22 Oct 2004 — by Jonathan
Category Daft

Comes to a sad state of affairs when you only catch up with the Sunday papers on the following Friday, but sat down with the Observer Music Monthly at the library at lunchtime and not sure why I bothered; from the first few issues when the magazine seemed like a wonderful cross between the NME and the Friday Review, the content seems to have lost its edge.

That said, the final paragraph on the final page, where Lauren Laverne was interviewing The Beautiful South’s Alan Bennett-like frontman, Paul Heaton, was a corker.

LL: Do you still collect crisp packets? And where do you stand on Snack-a-jacks, if so?
PH: Well said. They’re not a crisp, are they? Cheesy comestibles are comestibles to me, still, and a crisp is a crisp. Where do you draw the line? The master of cheesy comestibles was Smiths, of course. 121 King’s Road, Reading, Berkshire RG12. Square crisps, Frazzles, Quavers, they were all Smiths. All taken over by Walkers! Smiths took over Tudor and Walkers took over Smiths. But Tudor Spring Onion remain the ultimate bag.”

Actually, I don’t remember Tudors. Before my time. But Vic still insists you can’t beat Salt and Vinegar Golden Wonder (not as sharp as the Walkers alternative). I’ve always sworn by Square crisps, ever since I had to collect 50 packets to get a ’100 best ever World Cup goals’ video as a kid. But you know what? That rogue square crisp, which looks normal but is unusually brittle and crunchy, seems to be cropping up more and more these days, which I find upsetting. Slipping standards at the Walkers factory, clearly. This country.

Laverne meets Heaton

leeds, amsterdam and the costa geriatrica

Posted 06 Sep 2004 — by Jonathan
Category Observations

The first of a couple of trips away starts tomorrow; I’m going up to Leeds for a work conference. Am kind of looking forward to it, because last time I went I didn’t have a particularly good time – spent lots of time fruitlessly walking around the city centre looking for a record shop, or a branch of waterstones, or a pub, or a restaurant. Not that Leeds doesn’t have all those things, obviously, but I always seemed to find myself at the furthest geographical point from such a place whenever I needed it, or else instead managed to locate the most roundabout and misleading route. That thing of being in a new city and being compelled to pound the streets – it’s a mentality I find hard to shake.

On Saturday myself and Vic jumped on the train and went to Eastbourne for the day. It’s not really what I expected; smaller and grander along the seafront, and quieter – and somehow ghostlier. Not because it was a ghost town or anything, there were plenty of people about, but because it didn’t seem to fit together in the way that Brighton does; walking down to the sea from the station I was reminded of pretty much any biggish-town outside of London; moderately pedestrianised streets lined with the kind of shops one can briskly stroll past without finding any reason to stop or slow down, a shopping centre which was filled with regulation, icy oxygen-starved air. The kids looked suburban and not much bothered with fashion. There was a notable lack of nightlife; clubs, theatres and cinemas hidden away or absent.

Then you turn down from the commercial area into a short road to the sea, and everything suddenly changes. Shops which minutes earlier were replicated exactly in high streets up and down the country were replaced with queer, old-fashioned boutiques and cafes, shops selling pensioner-ware and terrible trinkets and gifts (a china horse’s head which seems to be bursting through the table top? Only eight quid) and the usual, open fronted shops where there were lines of sun visors, little beach-windmills and postcards of cats and dogs with somnolent expressions. Not a single shop betrayed the slightest sign of being built, fitted out and stocked later than the early 1960s.

Running parallel with the sea-front, and even stranger, was a wide road adorned with arty banners which read


Or something similar. And yet it only took moments to ascertain that the shops on this road were even odder. I wish I had taken more time to note what they were, but all evinced a somehow quaint, hallucinatory atmosphere, as if one could turn a corner and find oneself amidst a hall of mirrors at any moment. One shop was the ‘World of Hair’. What a vision. Beautiful victorian B&Bs, connecting this street to the seafront, boasted of ‘hot and cold water in every room’. One even had a ‘Colour TV Lounge’.

The seafront is lovely, though. Old fashioned and picturesque – if you ignore the large numbers of very bored looking, very foul-mouthed teenagers crowded around the promenade – and, on this incredibly sunny day, a picture of summer. We sat on the beach for twenty minutes and watched an elderly woman swimming gracefully in the shallow, still water. Out on the pier, we saw that kids had paddled out over a hundred yards on lilos and inflatable rafts. There was a sense of peacefulness which one rarely detects in Brighton.

Having seen on this and tired ourselves out, we began to stroll back to the station. But here that predictable flaw crept back into our habits and we decided to find the Meads – the town’s more arty and genteel district – despite having read that they were a considerable distance out of the centre. So we ended up drifting aimlessly westward, unable to find the area and becoming increasingly tired and irritable along the way. Just as when I was in Leeds and every logical instinct told me to do the city bit by bit and I ended up storming angrily around, we were unable to resist that extra ten minute walk which so predictably turns from ten minutes to twenty to half an hour and onwards. Never mind. Eastbourne is perhaps best explored at the pace of its residents (the youngsters mooch, the pensioners shuffle), but we had a nice day. Doubtless I shall return from Leeds with aching legs.

The second trip comes in two weeks – we’ve booked a weekend away in Amsterdam. Vic has been before but I’ve not, and I’m really looking forward to it. It took us about three days to decide on a hotel, but we did it in the end. And I’m relying on Vic’s background knowledge to ensure that we don’t end up walking, walking, walking….

several hundred gallons of tea

Posted 20 Aug 2004 — by Jonathan
Category Uncategorized

Andrew has had his poems online for a year or two, and we’ve always been able to spy them floating around on bits of paper when we’ve gone round his place, but until now he’s not really publicised them, although he did publish a few on his blog when it first got started. Well, he’s finally decided to mention them, which is a very good idea considering they’ve had people in stitches whenever they’ve stumbled across them, although the odd look of bafflement and near-horror indicates that they remain a selected taste, like olives or Dave Gedge’s voice. Nevertheless, I’m a big fan, and am reproducing a few in case it inspires you to go and search through his poem database for some more.

Daffy, scatter-brained, pinko actress, Diane Keaton,
Whilst in England, precipitated a strike meeting
At her studio flat on Chillingham Road in the Newcastle suburb of Heaton
As plumbers refused to tackle the decrepit 19th Century central heating!

With thousands of screaming girls following him wherever he goes
Young Prince William housed a terrible secret which only he knows
But he confronted his parents the other day:
Mother, Father, I now realise that I am a semi-literate, inbred, parasitical, toffee-nosed little shit.

After watching “The Sound of Music”
Lucy bought a Nun’s uniform and was determined to use it.
She re-interpreted the classic film
Guiding some Southwark children over Telegraph Hill to the safety of Lewisham.

After his humiliating Wimbledon defeat, Henman
Was told by his father, “You are not my son.”
He now sleeps in a sack underneath a bridge
Living on scraps stolen from Sue Barker’s fridge

Prince William is now so popular with elderly women
That several Shropshire pensioners conspired to grab him.
He was imprisoned by them in a padded study
And, when Police eventually found his corpse, several hundred gallons of tea had to be pumped from his body.

Read more of his poems here. And, while you’re at it, there’s a couple of new Bedsit Bomber songs up now too.

spider cam

Posted 27 Jul 2004 — by Jonathan
Category Observations

It is, perhaps, a sign that my heart is not really in it today that I have spent the last half hour pre-occupied with a spider that has decided to make my desk his home – he is a confident fellow; one minute merrily preparing a web from the side of my monitor to the desk divider, the next crawling over my screen, as if each letter I add to the back cover copy I’m writing is an insect he might trap. In fact, should any fly be unlucky enough to get caught in my spider’s web, I fear he will not have too much too worry about. Bold he may be. Bigger than a crumb, he is not.

Looking away for a while I got a bit of shock to discover, when I looked up, that he had apparently decided to make my face the next stop on his ever expanding web, and was chugging along towards me, about two inches from the safety of my forehead. Needless to say, I resisted. I am a friend of spiders, yes, but I draw a line at being made their home – that’s a step too far. That said, perhaps now is a good time to ask how?. I’m sure people have explained to me in the past how spiders make their webs but how had he got so near to my face? Upon what had he attached himself? Me?

So, schoolboy stuff – I’ve not yet named my eight-legged chum, and will happily name him after the first person who can use the comment box below to explain how spiders get their web spun across from Point A (my monitor) to Point B (my head).

Meanwhile, any more exciting spider action and you’ll be the first to know.


I keep missing US presidents

Posted 24 Jun 2004 — by Jonathan
Category Politics

At various stages in the last two or three months I’ve had posts planned on Reagan, Clinton and Bush and never finished any of them. All three are beguiling, frightening and amusing in their way; certainly it would have been possible for me to have posted two very different messages on each of them; the public rehabilitation of Reagan and (to a lesser extent) Clinton has been fascinating to say the least. Nightmarish thoughts abound as to how Thatcher will be remembered when she dies. Amongst the many stories I’ve read about Reagan recently (most of which have concurred with the new reading of him – that his methods and his diplomatic skill were gravely misjudged by his critics) the story I liked best was how he would alarm the Russians by earnestly explaining that, in the event of an alien attack, he saw them working together against the common enemy.

Most interesting about the nostalgic re-evaluation of his career is the implication that America (and the Western World) is suddenly hugely nostalgic for the days where American identity and security was – comparatively – a more straightforward matter. Communism was an enemy which may have galvanised America’s collective aggression and fear but it elicited, especially under Reagan, a bold decisiveness, even if, in supporting the hotchpotch of dictators and bandits who resisted Russia (“my enemy’s enemy is my friend”), the short and long term effects were catastrophic (although I concede, because it is in vogue, that the cold war was ultimately ended under Reagan). Under Reagan America seemed to have a common purpose (apart from get richer if you were rich or get poorer if you were poor). Bush may have gone after Saddam with the same eagerness to identify and destroy an ‘enemy’, but the people of America are gradually realising that the world is emphatically not a safer place for it. 270 injured in car bombs today.

Writing in yesterday’s Guardian David Aaronovitch wrote, of Bill Clinton – who sought solace during the Monica Lewinsky scandal by reading the writings of Marcus Aurelius (a Roman emperor who shared Clinton’s fondness for both affection and talking): “There is no grandeur to be had now. These days Reagan is a great president, because these are not great days. They are messy and difficult and bloody, full of awful choices. It is no good blaming Bill because, as Marcus Aurelius himself said, real life is more like wrestling than dancing.”

rates of exchange

Posted 15 May 2004 — by Jonathan
Category Books, Travel

Some more thoughts on travel, having read Geoff Dyer’s super Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do it and written a little about it, about the author’s conception of a zone – not a physical space which can be travelled to (with the exception of Black Rock City), but the moment of absolute, peaceful pre-occupation which occurs sometimes, which is sudden and temporal. Dyer, we sense, is a good traveller; a traveller who does not go looking for something, but who goes hoping it will find him somehow.

I’m re-reading Malcolm Bradbury’s hilarious Rates of Exchange at the moment. His protagonist, the hapless Petworth, waits for his plane to board in a Heathrow departure lounge, about to head to an unknown European city somewhere ‘east of the Rhine’.

On the digital clock, flight time comes and goes; Petworth orders another Scotch and finds himself caught by and old and nameless fear – the fear of being trapped here, for all eternity, in the unassigned, stateless space between all the countries, condemned to live forever in a cosmopolitan nowhere, on clingfilm-wrapped sandwiches, duty free whisky, tiptree’s jam.

Not the stateless space that Dyer writes about, this…

It is a fate he knows he deserves; he is a man who has spent his life circling around and away from domestic interiors, hovering between home, where he sits and thinks, and abroad, where he talks and drinks.

Travel is a manic cycle, with abroad the manic phase, at home the depressive; there is some strange adrenelin that draws him into the fascination and the void of foreignness, with the plurality of sensation, its sudden spaces and emptiness. He travels, he thinks, for strangeness, disorientation, multiplication and variation of the self; yet he is not a good traveller…

I’ve been discussing with my parents the many holidays we went on when I was a child, trying to sift between them and work out which happened when, and in what order. It’s very difficult to make each its own and put it into context. All our holidays, many of which were in repeated destinations, blend together like an unsorted collection of photographs. The only bits I remember, if you like, was when I was ‘in the zone’. I have a particurly strong memory of a weekend in Evesham with my grandparents when I ran my hand along the side of a cobbled house, for instance

Other memories are significant because they represent moments when I struck out for myself; my first drink of beer (actually a french shandy called ‘Force Four’); the first time my parents let me out on the town in the evening without them, the time me and Zoe escaped altogether and made for the motorway… Mostly these memories are fragmented and the circumstances which surrounded them are hazy. This seems oddly fitting, though, because they were strange, dislocated moments which together form the plurality of sensation which made up my childhood. I’m torn between working out more – fitting dates together – and leaving them where they are; like torn pages from an old scrapbook I fleetingly kept.

Living in a busy house

Posted 29 Apr 2004 — by Jonathan
Category Books, Observations

Sometimes it’s difficult, when you live in one flat in a large building, to feel as if you live in anything other than your own three rooms, approached via a corridor and a couple of flights of stairs. We told ourselves that when we moved into our current flat we would make a point of introducing ourselves to our neighbours and not just live as anonymous flat-dwellers. But we fell into the usual trap and didn’t approach anyone – especially silly as, in fact, we used to live in the basement flat of the same building a few years ago and our old landlady, who we really like, still lives down there. Consequently when we eventually bump into her and explain we’re living too floors up, it will be an absurd moment.

The last few days, though, I seem to have come into lots of contact with our neighbours, or rather become conscious that there is more to the building than just us. In actual fact, apart from our experience in Seven Dials, where we were hounded by the loud music of our neighbours, this is probably the first time I’ve felt this.

Not that I’ve been doing lots of socialising with the other people in the building, mind – just that lots of little events have occurred which, joined up, add up to something, much as the 10 flats in our building must, naturally, add up to a house.

The other evening someone rang our doorbell / intercom thing. I answered it, and was met by a man demanding, rather aggressively, to speak to ‘Elisa’. I explained there was no-one there by that name, but he didn’t seem convinced, and I had to repeat myself. Then, the day before yesterday, as I was leaving for work in the morning I got to the top of the road and heard someone call “Hey” out to me. As I turned round I saw a man getting out of a nearby car and, in a familiar voice, ask me to hang on, as I was already walking on, it not being my practice to get into conversations in the street. When I did turn around, I imagined that I would be asked for directions somewhere, or at most for a cigarette or something. But the man again, asked, quite urgently, “Where is Elisa?”. He had obviously been waiting in the car for someone to leave the house. Obviously, I told him that I didn’t know of any Elisa. “But you live in that house”, he said. “Yes, but I don’t really know the neighbours, or if there is anyone of that name living there”. Thinking him a bit menacing, I continued, “As far as I know – there isn’t”. He looked pissed off and returned to his car.

Last night, bringing back memories of our last flat, we had quite a lot of loud music, overhead. I had rented out the film Together and we were trying and failing to watch it, becoming distracted by the sounds. The couple above us are not that noisy, although they always play music on Tuesday nights, and once had a fairly raucous dinner party on a Sunday night which kept us awake. However, we had observed them going up and down the stairs and their appearance seemed to explain why they had been so animated that night. It was the evening when the Greek election results were announced, and they had obviously stayed up late to watch the results coming in. We heard much stamping of feet and the kind of rumbling chatter which you know must be in a foreign language. Their appearance, besides betraying their Southern European background, also helped explain the fact that we would often hear them thumping about upstairs – we called them ‘The Elephants’.

After sitting through the music for ten minutes or so, we decided to go up and ask them to turn it down a bit – something which would of course, have been much easier if we had introduced ourselves to them when we first moved in. But doing that would, it turns out, have done more than just that – it would have disabused us of an assumption or two. Because when we got to the top of the stairs and knocked on the door, a young man in his mid-twenties (playing, I could hear now, Jimi Hendrix) answered, saying “Oui?”.

Why had we reached the conclusions we had about the people overhead? Obviously the Greek couple lived somewhere else in the building. All the mental images I had of the flat above us collapsed. It was strange. The guy turned the music down immediately, of course, and we returned to the flat to wonder how we had so successfully rationalised so much of what we had – frankly – guessed at since we had moved in. The Greek elections? Now I think about it, the ‘Greek’ couple don’t look that Greek – only slightly Mediterranean; their ‘Greekness’ only followed from the knowledge that the Greek elections were being held the day they had a party. How easy it is to make assumptions! Anyway – the chap who does live above us seemed nice.

When I left for work yesterday morning, I was relieved to see that the man in the car was nowhere to be seen. Nor, however, was my bus, and standing at the stop at the top of our road waiting for the 7 I noticed out of the corner of my eye, suddenly, someone I recognised. It was, of course, our former landlady, Teresa. If she saw me she reacted the same way I did; it was too late. I find meeting people unexpectedly quite alarming, usually (as does Vic, who looked away when a friend waved at her the other day. The next day she said, cheerfully, ‘sorry for blanking you’, which I thought was funny – I’d have made an excuse), and both myself and Teresa did that hesitate, look of confusion, look away thing. In actual fact, nine times out of ten you’re level or beyond the person before you completely recognise them, I find. Well, it was a bit embarrassing. But perhaps she didn’t see me at all, I don’t know.

Even if we desire to live in isolation, it really isn’t possible. But I can’t think why we would. Living surrounded by other people means you’re opened up to plenty of situations beyond your control (and the emotions I described above are hardly sanguine – embarrassment, concern, irritation, confusion) but it also means you’re in some way connected, and in some sense that is calming, even if the stereo above is blaring. I feel better about living where I do after the last few days; like the house just became an organic thing. In the Geoff Dyer book I just read, he spends some time in Rome and visits the Colosseum – while on acid – and writes,

“The exhaust-smeared stones pulsed and rippled with life, warm and vital as a stroked animal. For a few minutes, anything seemed possible. I was within reach of the stillness at the centre of the stone.”

Adnams ail…

Posted 21 Apr 2004 — by Jonathan
Category Observations, Travel

Although old-fashioned, fisherman’s pubs are one of the main reasons why Aldeburgh has such charm, one of the pubs we frequented a couple of years ago when we visited (admittedly, not the nicest pub there) had undergone a bit of a revamp. Now styled as a ‘bar and grill’, what used to be The Victoria is the largest pub in town and, on a Thursday night where only one of the town’s several restaurants was not fully booked, the emptiest, too. As for the grill, they seemed to have given up.

Aldeburgh is, incidentally, being just around the corner from Southwold, very much part of Adnams country. Due to a strange combination of events, and our tiredness post dinner, we never quite got a chance to sample a pint. Had we decided to do so, any pub would have served it, except for the Bar and Grill, which served an unimpressive mix (perhaps why it was so quiet). When we went (late afternoon, attracted by the sun and seats outside where we could read our books and watch the high street) we plumped for a Hoegaarden for Vic and a, ahem, Carling Cold, for me, which I had not seen before. Basically Carling that’s been in a freezer as opposed to a fridge. Buying them, the pub’s sole other occupant (Vic was outside), a middle aged man drinking Guiness, addressed me in a posh, matey voice.

“Is that a wheat beer?”, he asked, pointing at the Hoegaarden.
“Yes, it is”. I think it is. What’s the difference between a wheat and a white beer? “It’s very nice”, although actually I don’t like it, too thick.
“Ah”, he said, becoming a bit excited.
I smiled and made to leave, but he kind of edged into my way.
“You know what they say about [he named a beer, I can't remember which], don’t you? The slogan?”
“That it is a beer for professors! Other drinks may be alright in their way, but this is a drink for professors! Isn’t that good?”.
“Excellent!”. He obviously wanted me to continue our conversation, but I made my way outside.

Striking up conversations with friendly strangers is the kind of thing I wish I did more often, but it’s hard to know what to say. What had my neighbour at the bar seen in me? I imagine he saw a scruffy, posh-ish young man who might sit and discuss unusual beers with him. I’m probably like his son. But I know nothing about beer and talking to a stranger in a deserted pub is not as much fun as sitting outside in the sun. When we got back out there we sat contentedly, getting sunburnt. I was reading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon, which is really good, and getting partially distracted by the sun, by the fact that the fellow sitting on the next table along looked like the Aphex Twin, and by the next man along still, who knew everyone that passed. He had a voicebox. “Still croaking away?”, one passer-by asked. He nodded happily.

A few more people did turn inside the pub as the afternoon stretched on, but the man I’d talked to inside didn’t come back out.

The road to nowhere

Posted 20 Apr 2004 — by Jonathan
Category Observations, Travel

Victoria and I spent three days last week in the lovely seaside fishing village of Aldeburgh.

(lovely picture of the town here)

If Aldeburgh is, indeed, in the middle of nowhere (and of course, it isn’t really – the nearby town of Southwold is a popular destination and Ipswich itself is not so far away – but it feels like it to a city boy whose journey from Brighton to London, even, is peppered constantly with large towns and only the thinnest slices of countryside), it is at least noticably civilised. A polite way of saying we only heard two regional accents all the time we were there (in the Co-Op and the newsagent, oddly, rather than the neo-Hampstead minimalist furniture store). The journey, which was hardly direct, was a bit more colourful.

Obviously, if you drive you simply get in at Brighton, admire the scenery and roll in at the Cross Keys Inn, Aldeburgh, a couple of hours later, but by train the journey is much more complicated. We had to go from Brighton to East Croydon, then to London Bridge, then to Bank, then to Liverpool Street, then up to Ipswich, and on to Saxmundham, a small town about eight miles away from Aldeburgh.

As the photo above should show, Aldeburgh is a very pretty, unspoilt little town. A fishing village for hundreds of years, it was home to the poet George Crabbe and the composer Benjamin Britten, whose opera Peter Grimes was inspired by the former. Like lots of villages in the area, Aldeburgh has had much of its land reclaimed by the sea in the last five hundred years (Slaughden, where Crabbe was born, is now entirely under water), losing 5 or 6 streets to the North Sea. The Mote House, which stands on the village’s long and beautiful beach, was once at the town centre. There have been more recent changes too, if not architecturally. The village has become popular with well-to-do Londoners in seach of a rural retreat, with the unfortunate consequence that during the winter much of the town is empty and the shops closed down. But it’s a fascinating place.

Saxmundham, on the other hand, a small market town with not an awful lot going for it bar a Somerfield Supermarket and a train station, bears all the hallmarks of The League of Gentlemen. Well, possibly, I’m being cruel. But walking through the town on our way to the bus-stop (the last section of the journey, thankfully) we were comprehensively stared at and examined by all the locals, as if the heavy bags on our shoulders did not adequately explain that we were merely tourists passing through. The only people there who did not seem to notice our presence were the gang of kids skateboarding around by the bus shelter.

Everywhere teenage boys relish this carnival of failure, the endless, endless attempts to successfully master that manouvre from pavement to bench, or tarmac to curve. I had not a hundredth of that patience when I was a teenager – my skateboarding fad lasted less than a week. In Brighton at the tail end of last summer I asked Vic why she thought boys put themselves through it so much. Before she answered we noticed the gaggle of exceptionally pretty teenage girls coyly watching, and then I understood, maybe. But the boys in Saxmundham were only being watched by us, so I didn’t understand it after all.

Perhaps it was the shortage of anything else to do except board the train to Ipswich (or the bus to Aldeburgh). All the shop windows were amazing, like the inverse version of Stephen King’s Needful Things - all useless. One shop window carried a sign which asked for participants in the forthcoming series of Wife Swap, an advert I have never seen anywhere else. So that’s how they recruit their country bumpkins! Pity the poor metropolitan who ends up here with one of Saxmundham’s gurning husbands. Another was full of sponge mini-footballs adorned with the flags of Europe and an obviously fake botched attempt at the Euro 2004 logo. Why had the proprieter taken on these monstrosities? Where had he bought them? We did not wonder that the boys played instead with skateboards.

Better and stranger than this was the shop window in Leisten, which we passed through on the bus (and which was, amazingly, even weirder) – the usual clutter of end-of-line products and tat and, sitting proudly in the middle, a large black gollywog. There is a gollywog in The League of Gentlemen, isn’t there? I’m not imagining it?

The Cost of Learning

Posted 02 Feb 2004 — by Jonathan
Category Politics

Before we all got so hot and bothered about Tony Blair being exonerated in the Hutton Enquiry, it was still the issue of tuition fees which was making us all angry. Vic uncovered a good article in the Guardian, and I tried (and failed) to voice the argument for their introduction (although I remain far from convinced about it, and certainly oppose variable fees). Amongst all that, we had a conversation with Anne-So who pointed out the tiny fees which are paid in France, and which made us feel all the angrier about the situation here. This morning, however, I read in the Guardian that

Le Monde’s front page headline recently was “French Universities on Point of Collapse”. It reported that the Sorbonne now ranks 65th in world university tables. The reason is lack of money. European universities were once independent, arrogant, confident institutions with a wealth of income sources. Bit by bit, they became appendages of education ministries. As they ceased to be trainers of an elite the number of pupils entered increased but the salaries for professors and money for laboratories, books and kit got lower and lower. In both France and Germany, the percentage of GDP spent on universities is less than half that of the US. On Tuesday night, the Commons turned the key in the rusted-up lock of university finance. Britain is now in the van of EU nations in turning its university sector to the future.

In Time magazine, Michael Blumenthal writes

The French system of higher education is broken to the core. At the level of higher education at least, it seems to me high time for the old French revolutionary triumvirate of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité to open its doors to a fourth sibling: Modernité.

Money may not buy us love, or even happiness, but it can go a long way toward buying things for which we have, as yet, no other currency. A culture that takes pride in its intellectual achievements also needs to create a university system it can be proud of. And — though it may sound unapologetically capitalistic to say so — there are times when even a certain crass Americanism has the ring of authority: you get what you pay for.

Where does that leaves us? We didn’t vote for a Labour Party that would introduce tuition fees, and we probably won’t forgive them for doing so. Yet are we prepared to contemplate commercial funding? Do we think we have the slightest chance of persuading the government to channel money from it’s ridiculous and immoral war-mongering budget over to Higher Education? And why did we never have to pay before? Why now?

David Chaytor writes in the Guardian that we need to examine some of the slogans we use when we attempt to defend the notion of a free higher education system. First of all, we say that we don’t want to encourage a two-tier education system. But, he points out,

Since when did we have a single-tier university system?

From Oxford to Essex, from University to Polytechnic, there has always been a hierarchical structure in British higher education. And what of the claim that under the new system the working classes would not be able to afford to go to University?

The fact is, however, that when full-time undergraduate tuition was free, the proportion of working-class students in our universities was close to zero. The key factor in widening participation is not low cost, but appropriate entry qualifications. Ninety percent of students with at least two A-levels continue to university.

These points don’t make the idea of a market-based University Education any more appealing. But they do point to some of the fictions which hover around the edges of the argument. Chaytor concludes, damningly, that

a university system financed wholly or largely out of general taxation can only ever be a system designed for an elite.

He goes on:

Those of us who were the first in a thousand generations have got to recognise that our privileges were paid for by those we left behind. If we want to see a university place for everyone able to benefit from it, the old ways must change. That’s why the higher education bill is so important. Far from being a betrayal of everything that Neil Kinnock spoke about, the new policy is a necessary, logical and practical act of redistribution of educational opportunity that should be welcomed by all socialists.

Now, invoking the ‘s’ word in order to get the labour party back on side is a tactic well practised by Tony Blair, so it comes as no surprise to find Chaytor doing the same. And I disagree; the new policy of the labour party promises nothing in the way of distributing education more fairly. Assuming we buy the notion that it is considered advantageous for us to be aiming for a higher education system which is accessible to all and which produces thousands more graduates every summer (and as socialists, if not graduates, we must), we then have to cope with the fall out. If my qualifications (2:1 in English Literature) were enough, in 1999, to get me a low-paid job in the Publishing industry (but not much more) then how far, in five years time, would those qualifications get a similar graduate who is now awash in a sea of other graduates. What will the starting salary be then? And if having a degree is no longer a safe route to a modestly paid (let alone well-paid) job, how does one justify putting these hundreds of thousands of adults into unmanageable debt. If I had taken student loans at University (and luckily I didn’t have to because my parents supported me financially) I would only just be starting to pay them off now. And I’m 26. How old will the graduates of the future be before they hit that ceiling and begin a long climb out of debt (if they get out at all). The pitfalls are obvious. For all the talk of education being further distributed, at the end of the day the same people will feel able to go (those whose background can carry the financial burden) and the others will demur.

Yes, there are arguments that a shift towards vocational degrees would help many future graduates (and might have got me a better paid job by now), and in part I agree with this. But (the wonderfully named) Stephanie Merritt writes that

perhaps the Government means that as many people as possible should have the opportunity to benefit from the experience of higher education regardless of the ‘usefulness’ of their degree, and all the qualities it encourages – self-motivation, independent thinking, the capacity for questioning and debate – which can only contribute positively to the wider society. If they really believed that further education had a value beyond enabling the individual concerned to make more money, they should have maintained the principle of free university education for those who show themselves to be motivated and able, because all the sophistries of their proposed bursary system will not override the fear of half a lifetime’s debt in the minds of a great many young people.

All roads seem to point the same way – that there is no alternative, and that the solution is painful. Not so, of course. But until we learn in this country that we will never make progressive social change without changing the top rate of tax, we will grow to hate our governments, and rue our finances, all the more.