Tuesday, 28 November 2017

We need to talk about Steven

It isn't easy being a Morrissey fan. It never has been, but it's harder in 2017 than ever. Allegations of racism have dogged him since the early 90s, when lyrics like "Life is hard enough when you belong here" (Bengali In Platforms) were seemingly open to (mis)interpretation, and when Moz took to the stage at Madstock to sing National Front Disco whilst waving a Union Flag around. A couple of years later, the flag was appropriated by everyone from Geri Halliwell to Noel Gallagher and the whole Cool Britannia thing, and no-one batted an eyelid - maybe Wannabe is less thought-provoking lyrical matter.

Perhaps it's just a case of mud sticking, or Britain's national trait of wanting to take someone successful down, but this issue has never really gone away. Maybe this is understandable, when people can interpret lyrics any way they choose. If only the man would offer up a categorical statement one way or the other on the subject? Something like this, maybe:

"I abhor racism and oppression or cruelty of any kind and will not let this pass without being absolutely clear and emphatic with regard to what my position is. Racism is beyond common sense and I believe it has no place in our society." [Source]

Now, for editorial balance, I should add that this statement was issued after the NME published an interview with the Pope of Mope, in which he said Britain had lost its identity and had been "flooded" with immigrants. Is it possible, you might reasonably wonder, to hold quite such an abhorrence of racism in all its forms, whilst believing the country has lost its identity in this way? And if it is possible, how valid is that view if held by someone who divides his time variously between numerous other countries but spends comparatively little time in the country he seems so concerned about? What did he actually say?

"With the issue of immigration, it's very difficult because, although I don't have anything against people from other countries, the higher the influx into England the more the British identity disappears. If you walk through Knightsbridge on any bland day of the week you won't hear an English accent. You'll hear every accent under the sun apart from the British accent." [Source]

Blimey. Doesn't have anything against people from other countries. Does have concerns about the British identity disappearing. At first glance, these two views don't correlate, do they, unless you're one of those people who say things like "I'm not racist but..." Except I don't have Morrissey down as that sort of person. You may think me naïve for this. That's okay. Maybe I am. I just think that if Steven had made a plain statement of fact, along the lines of "The introduction of other cultures into British culture by definition changes that culture from what it was", no-one would have batted an eyelid. But that's not Morrissey. He can't help himself. He wants to provide a quotable soundbite. He wants a headline. And most of all, as Rol argued brilliantly last week, he can't help but challenge us all to think about difficult issues, in a way few other social commentators do these days.

Three years later, he was seemingly at it again. Discussing China's animal welfare record, Moz opined:

"Did you see the thing on the news about their treatment of animals and animal welfare? Absolutely horrific. You can't help but feel that the Chinese are a subspecies." [Source]

At best, a spectacularly crass statement. But as interviewer Simon Armitage later commented, "I thought at the time it was a dangerous thing to say into a tape recorder. He must have known it would make waves, he's not daft. But he's provocative and theatrical, and it was one of dozens of dramatic pronouncements. I'm not an apologist for that kind of remark, and couldn't ignore it. But clearly, when it comes to animal rights and animal welfare, he's absolutely unshakable in his beliefs. In his view, if you treat an animal badly, you are less than human. I think that was his point." Which is interesting. If you or I try to make a dramatic pronouncement and it goes awry, however well intentioned, no-one cares. If someone like Morrissey does so, it makes headlines. And headlines sell. Does Morrissey genuinely believe the Chinese are a subspecies? I very much doubt it. Does he think there is a lot of inhuman treatment of animals in China? Certainly. Did his "dramatic pronouncement" get people talking about the issue? Most definitely. Moz himself, whilst not apologising, later clarified his view by describing the Chinese attitude towards animal welfare as "indefensible". Not many would have a problem with that, I'd imagine. But it wouldn't have made waves either.

And on it goes. Earlier this year, there was T-shirt-gate, when Moz - then manager-less, label-less and album-less - added a T-shirt featuring black civil rights activist James Baldwin to his merchandise offering. On the shirt, Baldwin was surrounded by lyrics from Unloveable, specifically: "I wear black on the outside because black is how I feel on the inside." Cue a Twitter-storm of outrage, and the withdrawal of the t-shirt. And more recently, during a live broadcast for 6 Music, Morrissey offered up the opinion that the British media had rigged the UKIP leadership election. The reaction from the audience (mostly devoted fans who had entered a ballot to win precious tickets) was deafening silence.

I think the UKIP comment between songs is the most telling of all. "You didn't get it, did you?" were the next words out of Morrissey's mouth. In his mind, he'd just made some kind of joke. Was it about UKIP? Or about the British media? We'll never know, as he has been characteristically close-lipped about it all. But to me, this comparatively minor indiscretion is the perfect illustration of so many of Morrissey's problems: he thinks he's being clever, arch, pointed, witty, incisive, provocative. And yet, quite often, he's being gauche, clumsy, naïve, ill-judged... and yes, provocative. It's no surprise that most of his problems arise in interviews or in live, spontaneous settings, where he can't rehearse, revise and tweak his pronouncements. And when you're someone with fans around the world who hang on your every word, the temptation to make those pronouncements dramatic must be hard to resist. What you probably need in such situations is someone to rein you in, but I get the feeling that it's been a long time since anyone told Morrissey "no".

Most recently of all is Steven's alleged defence of Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein. An interview (again, see?) given to a German journalist, presumably in English, is translated into German for publication. Excerpts from that interview get translated back into English, apparently using Google Translate, and, unsurprisingly, something gets lost along the way. Whatever the circumstance, Der Spiegel quotes Morrissey as saying:

"One wonders where the boy’s parents were. One wonders if the boy did not know what would happen. I do not know about you, but in my youth I have never been in situations like this. Never. I was always aware of what could happen. When you are in somebody’s bedroom, you have to be aware of where that can lead to. That’s why it does not sound very credible to me. It seems to me that Spacey has been attacked unnecessarily." [Source]

Which probably wouldn't have raised too many eyebrows without that coda; I'm sure a lot of people have wondered (to themselves, not to a German news agency) where the boy's parents were. Not sure too many have come to the conclusion that Spacey has been attacked unnecessarily. So, pretty bad, eh Moz?

Except, at a gig earlier this week, Morrissey offered up a pronouncement that was, perhaps, more rehearsed than most. Between songs at Chicago’s Riviera Theatre on Saturday, Moz appeared to deny that he had made those comments about Spacey, telling the crowd:

"I did an interview a couple of weeks ago for a German newspaper and, of course, let me just say this: that was the last print interview I will ever do. Unless you see the words form in my mouth and then you see or hear the words come out of my mouth... please, if you don’t see that, I didn’t say them." [Source]

And the irony of all this recent controversy, and the resurrection of the whole "is Morrissey racist?" debate is that it comes as he releases the most outward-looking, cosmopolitan, global album of his career, singing with passion and feeling about the Arab Spring, Tel-Aviv, Israel, Venezuela, fake news, Brexit and a propagandising mainstream media. He's not just singing about his life any more, but the wider world, more than ever. Introspective, insular old Moz got empathy, on a global scale.

Of course, Steven doesn't help himself. In the pixelated world we all live in these days, when someone says something social media disapproves of, the keyboard warriors of the world expect the Sacco model of public shaming to play out; they demand contrition, apologies and ruination. But Moz does not comply. He's neither contrite nor apologetic, he only ever explains or clarifies. And far from ruination, he continues to sell plenty of records, and sell out concert venues around the globe. I fear this just makes some amongst the professionally outraged more determined to "get him" next time. Luckily for them, there will almost certainly be a next time.

I know there are some who have had enough of Morrissey, including bloggers I very much admire and respect, and musicians I love (notably Martin Rossiter). And I'm very much aware that I sound like the biggest Morrissey apologist imaginable. So let me add this. Do I agree with everything Morrissey says? No, of course not. As I hope I've shown, he's often gauche, ill-judged, misinformed, naïve and more than a bit crass. I'm certainly not one of those fans who hangs on his every word either. Do some of the sentiments he expresses make me uncomfortable? Yes, absolutely, especially those that cannot be explained away with rational scrutiny. In fact, do I think Moz is a bit of a berk sometimes? Yes. But do I think he's a racist? No, I don't. I think he strives to be profound, relevant, wise and/or funny, in making pronouncements about serious or topical issues, but whilst the thoughts are clear in his head, I believe he struggles to articulate them in a clear and unambiguous way. Or maybe I'm being too kind - maybe that ambiguity is deliberate, fuelling the Morrissey myth which, if you've lived within it for 35 years, must be tempting to keep burning. Either way, as the t-shirt once said, "It's Morrissey's world, we just live in it." Live in it we may do, but we just don't get it, do we?

Maybe one day the scales will fall from my eyes, and I'll have had enough of Steven too. But for now, I am content to continue my appreciation of the man and his music. Low In High School (complete with the "axe the monarchy" cover that has so upset certain UK retailers) is my album of the year, without question, and I am very excited to have a ticket to see the man in person at a gig in the Spring. I appreciate you may have a different view, and that's fine too. I didn't write this to change anyone's mind. Unlike Rol's brilliant post from last week, I don't seem to have reached a conclusion or summarised a cogent argument either. Never mind. Maybe I'd better just end with Morrissey doing what he's always done best - delivering a song.

Monday, 27 November 2017

It's nearly that time

For the last two years, I've blogged a musical advent calendar of festive tunes that you don't hear on the radio. I'd like to do the same again this year, but I've blown 48 ideas in the last two years, so need your suggestions please, in the comments below.

To give you an idea of the sort of songs I might post, here's 2015's calendar, and 2016's.

I await, with interest.

P.S. And while you're at it, I'm still (always) on the lookout for your fantasy cover version suggestions...

Friday, 24 November 2017

This time five years ago... part IV

As you know from earlier, five years ago, almost to the day, I went to Tokyo. Here's my travel diary from then, mostly unedited, for the fourth and final day of the trip. Much as I was loving Tokyo, I was also missing people. Let's see what I squeezed in before the flight home...

22nd November 2012

Up early (6) after next to no sleep. Less than an hour and a half, in fact. The capsule was comfy, if a bit short. Too warm though. Main problem was the guy opposite snoring loudly all night. Cut my losses, got up, got washed and got cracking.

On my way to the tube, saw a Japanese beer casualty, draped over some railings. Two passersby were trying to help him. Wouldn't happen at home. As wouldn't homeless people sleeping in the underground without being evicted, as appeared to have happened in the Shinjuku underground passageways. All good though. And even their sleeping area was clean and ordered.

Got a tube out to Ueno and then, because I was up so early, I had an hour to spare before my Skyliner back to Narita, so I headed back to Ueno Park, found the lake (complete with lotus (?) plants growing five feet out of the water) and the Benten-do shrine on an island in the middle. A quiet, peaceful moment, so I washed at the font (left hand, right hand, mouth) and lit a candle.

Then onto the Keisei Skyliner back to Narita Airport at high speed. Despite police in helmets and body armour appearing to investigate an abandoned trolley behind police tape (a drill? I was allowed very close), check-in was uneventful, as was passport control and immigration.

Unlike the outbound flight, the one home was fully booked so when I boarded (after some last-minute souvenir shopping for ■■■■■■■■) I found I didn't have an empty seat next to me this time. But that was okay. Films: Dark Knight Rises (okay but too long), then (after a meal, some sleep, another meal and some reading) Killer Joe (excellent ... but they turned it off for landing, five minutes before the end!)

After a bumpy landing courtesy of strong crosswinds, I breezed through passport control (UK queue non-existent, non-UK/EU queue very long)... so much so that I was able to get an earlier National Express coach home. Uneventful ... more reading. Got to ■■■■■■■■■ at 10pm. Then waited in the very cold wind for the 10.24 bus to ■■■■■■■■■■. ■■■■■■■■ were a sight for sore eyes.

Then to bed, and trying to get my body clock back on time.

Benten-do Shrine over Shinobazu Pond

Things I seem to have neglected to mention then but stick in the mind now:

  • the homeless people sleeping rough at Shinjuku all had flattened cardboard boxes for mats, and these (and hence they) were all arranged in perfectly straight, ordered rows
  • I really liked the Shinto temples, like Benten-do. I'm not religious, so don't know whether it was the peace, the ritual or the novelty that appealed
  • the penultimate paragraph has been quite heavily abbreviated, sorry. Too reflective, too personal for public consumption

And that's that, you'll be pleased to know. I loved Tokyo, and wish I'd had longer to explore, and to visit other parts of Japan. If you get the chance to go, seize it with both hands.

This time five years ago... part III

As you know from earlier, five years ago, almost to the day, I went to Tokyo for a few days. Here's my travel diary from then, unedited, for day three of the trip. It was a day of real contrasts, as I recall. Let's see how I wrote it up...

21st November 2012

Up and out early, reluctantly leaving the Eishinkan which I had quickly grown to love. By tube to Ueno Park, a journey which included being forced onto a crammed train when there looked to be no room.

Ueno park has many attractions - you could easily spend two days there and not do it all. I limited myself to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Tokyo National Museum. The former, ironically, had a big exhibition of western art but also had some locally made prints and photographic displays. The latter was much more what I was after, giving a potted history of Japanese art, including ceramics and terracotta figures, Buddhist figures, swords, costumes and more. Very good, as was the park itself, as a lovely relaxing green space.

Then back on the tube to Akabusa for the Kaminarimon Gate and Shenji-jo temple, easily the busiest tourist spot I've been to. The temple and five-storeyed pagoda were impressive though, as were the shots of the Sky Tree in the near distance. Walking back to the tube I was stopped by a group of primary school age (10-11?) kids and their teacher - could they ask me a few questions in English, to help them learn? It was quite sweet - what was my favourite colour, favourite sport, how many in my family, that kind of thing. When they'd finished they gave me a little origami figure they'd made and a homemade sticker that I'll have to get translated sometime. Then the teacher took their picture with me - I might be on a Tokyo classroom wall somewhere!

Then to Shibuya to watch the throng of humanity at the manic Shibuya Crossing - 100,000 people cross the road (in all directions) per hour. It's as mental as it sounds. Also to the statue of Kabichko, sort of a Japanese Greyfriars Bobby.

Then I headed to Kabuchiko to find my hotel for the night in daylight, which I just about did but only by asking in the General Post Office. They didn't know where it was either but kindly phoned the hotel for me to find out. And at least I got to see the Golden Gai, a warren of tiny lanes filled with traditional Japanese bars, many of which don't admit foreigners.

The capsule hotel is odd, not something I'd do again but just this once for the experience. My stuff is in a locker downstairs, as is the communal bathing area. And I really mean bathing, with showers, bathing room and sauna. I get to sleep in a box that is, at most, 3' 6" square ... but it has a light, an alarm and a TV in the ceiling. It's on now, with the sound down. I wouldn't understand the dialogue anyway.

Having checked in, it was back on a tube to Akihabara to see "Electric Town" or Akiba, as it has come to be known. Eight or nine floors of as much tech, and of every conceivable brand, as you can imagine. The guidebook described it as "geek heaven" and I certainly had fun nosing around.

Then back to Shinjuku for a walk to the Tokyo Central Government Towers, to go up to the free observatory on the 45th floor of Tower One. Grabbed some good night shots of the skyline, and best of all it was free to go up. Another triumph for the guidebook.

After dinner in Café Lu-Le in Shinjuku's massive station (3.6 million use it every day, I think - the station, not the café), I walked back to my hotel via the Kabuchiko red light district. Got hassled by a couple of guys trying to hustle me into their club ("Come and have a free drink with a pretty lady!") so decided to call time on a busy day and head to my capsule to write this and a few postcards.

Kaminarimon Gate

Things I seem to have neglected to mention then but stick in the mind now:

  • the Post Office guy didn't just phone the capsule hotel for me, he then took me out through the back of the building and pointed the hotel out to me across the street
  • the only thing I actually bought in Electric Town was a tiny paper diary (I'm so 20th Century)
  • the trip to the Kaminarimon Gate was the first and only time I saw an appreciable number of westerners anywhere during my Tokyo trip

Rest easy, there's only one more post like this to come.

This time five years ago... part II

As you know from earlier, five years ago, almost to the day, I went to Tokyo for a few days. Here's my travel diary from then, unedited, for day two of the trip. It's not the greatest piece of writing, and the tone of it makes me wonder what (or who?) I was writing it for. Anyway, here goes...

20th November 2012

Blimey, what a busy day. If I resort to bulletpoints later I'm sorry but there's so much to write...

Up at seven for a nice hot shower just down the corridor, then breakfast of scrambled egg, a bacon-like meat, croissant, orange juice and bread rolls. I really like this place and wish I had booked all three nights here. Still, tomorrow night's capsule hotel stay will no doubt be an experience...

First trip of the day was a tube ride out to Narimasu to see the Daibatsu (giant Buddha) at the Jourenji temple. The only directions I had from the tube station were to walk for 20 minutes in a north-easterly direction and given the lattice of tiny streets, this wasn't very helpful. But I did find it, despite there being no-one out in the suburbs who spoke English. Finally, as I was on the verge of giving up (after spotting what I correctly thought was the top of the temple roof between buildings but still being unable to pinpoint it) an elderly Japanese man helped. All I said was "Buddha?" and he pointed me in the right direction ... then followed me to make sure I wouldn't miss it. The Daibatsu was huge, the temple serene, and the whole trip a worthwhile contrast to the hustle of the city centre - empty streets, quiet domestic life, a smalltown feel - a different side of Tokyo.

After finding my way back to the tube (much more easily), I headed back into the city and to the East Gardens of the Imperial Palace (Higashi-gyoen and the Ninomaru Garden). Peaceful and starkly beautiful, not what we would consider a garden to be though - all trees and lawns, no flowers. From there it was a short walk to the wonderful Wadakura Fountain Park, a little gem, sparkling in the sunshine. Then, after grabbing a sandwich for lunch at the impressive, Western-style Tokyo Station, I went by tube down to Ginza, visiting the Sony building first, then having a £6.50 beer in the Sapporo Lion Beer Hall.

Back on the tube again for a trip to the Tokyo Tower, a red and white 50's version of the Eiffel Tower. It has observation levels at 150m and 250m, so naturally I went to both. Was still up there as the sun set behind a distant Mount Fuji.

On foot from there up through the commercial stretch of Roppongi, a neon strip of clubs, bars and shops. From the tube station there back to my local stop, Yotsuya, and back to the Eishinkan to drop off bags and have half an hour.

Then back out to find dinner - ended up in the Bambi restaurant, Shinmichi, where you order at a vending-style machine, get a ticket, put it on the bar and watch it be cooked. The U-shaped bar has the cooking/prep area in the middle, where the twelve set dishes offered at the vending machine are prepared. I had hamburger, topped with cheese and gravy, served with sweetcorn, carrot, sauté potato and a mountain of rice for ¥700, i.e. about £5.50. Oh, and it was served with a glass of water and a cup of gravy. Nice touch!

Then back to my room to write postcards and record the day. I'm exhausted and footsore, having walked miles, but it's been a good day. And I phoned ■■■■■■■■ from half way up the Tokyo Tower as the sun set. A quality moment.

Daibatsu at Jourenji temple

Things I seem to have neglected to mention then but stick in the mind now:

  • that breakfast... the "bacon-like meat" was a perfect circle. Also, the Eishinkan's take on a westerner's breakfast included a single lettuce leaf, which really should have been noted
  • I passed a couple of cemetaries on the way to the Jourenji temple. These, with their narrow wooden grave markers, are quite something to behold
  • the "gravy in a cup" served up at Bambi was white, so maybe it wasn't gravy. It tasted like gravy though.

There will be two more entries like this. Try to contain your excitement.

This time five years ago...

...well, not quite, it was the 19th, but never mind. Courtesy of some air miles, I went on a short solo trip... to Tokyo. And kept a diary of it, that I have just rediscovered. Here's what I wrote then, exactly as I wrote it, unedited. It may be boring for you, I understand that, and I may have misspelt some Japanese names but it's nostalgia for me, so...

19th November 2012

Took Virgin Atlantic flight VS900 from Heathrow to Tokyo Narita airport. Arrived on the morning of the 19th, local time, after an 11½ hour flight, lots of food and lots of in-flight movies. Narita was clean, quiet and efficient - hard to imagine getting through passport control so quickly in the UK! Took the Keisei Skyliner into the city - again, clean, quiet and efficient. Can you see a theme emerging here? Without doubt the cleanest train I've ever been on, it took me as far as Nippori station where I changed and got a JR line train the rest of the way to Shinjuku. From there, I walked down Meiji-Dori, past the Takashimaya Times Square shopping complex, to the Meiji-Jingu Shinto shrine. This is starkly beautiful, dedicated to a dead emperor and his wife, and set amongst tens of thousands of trees planted by the public to honour them after their deaths (early 20th C). There seemed to have been something going on, as lots of families were there with their daughters (primary school age) all dressed up in traditional costume. Had lunch there - beef curry noodles, very tasty though not much beef! Then walked back across town to find my hotel, the Ryokan Eishinkan, in a part of Shinjuku-ju called Sakarnachi ... and it was very hard to find. I'd probably still be looking now if I hadn't got lucky. After asking two traffic wardens (who couldn't speak English and had no idea where it was anyway) I asked a young mum out with her son in a pushchair. Luckily she'd been to England on her honeymoon, and spoke some English! She didn't know where the hotel was either but offered to ask some other people for me. After another local didn't know either I was starting to get worried ... but then we found a postman and he knew straight away!

The Eishinkan is basic but clean, quiet and (I think) safe. My room has bamboo matting on the floor and a paper + wood blind across the window. Oh, and the bed is a thin mattress on the floor. As I was unpacking (which didn't take long - hand luggage only), the lady who'd shown me around knocked on my door with a cup of green tea. Nice!

After a nap, I phoned ■■■■■■■■, then dragged my tired self out to explore the neighbourhood and buy myself some tea, which I ate back in the hotel whilst watching the Japanese weather channel and planning tomorrow's excursions. And now - an early night, I think!

In the grounds of the Meiji Jingu shrine

More later, if you can bear the excitement of it all...

Monday, 20 November 2017

Lost in King's Cross

I had occasion to go to that there London recently, for the best part of a working week. Not for a holiday, nor for a jolly, but for a fairly intensive training course for the day-job. It's nice to have an employer who's happy to invest me again, after a good while without.

Now the training company are a bit of a beast in their field; they've been around a good while too, have a good reputation and are a global training brand. So much so that I used to be a customer of theirs way back in the past, when I worked for a corporate multi-national behemoth and had a personal training budget. Back in those days, I would think nothing of taking three or four courses, four or five days each, per year. How times change, eh?

I'll tell you what else has changed - the nature of training itself. This training company, fifteen or more years ago, used to occupy all five floors of a brick and glass cube near Euston Station, and would play host to so many trainees, every day of every week, that they had their own canteen on the fifth floor to keep their students fed and watered. But time moves on. Technology, more than anything, moves on. These days, most of the company's students take their courses remotely, with a virtual desktop and a webcam - why travel to London and spend the week in a generic hotel when you can take the course from the comfort of your office desk and go home afterwards, right? Except where's the interaction with your classmates and, more importantly, trainer? Where's the space to reflect on the day's learning, as you eat dinner at your table-for-one in the hotel restaurant? And most of all, where's the time and space away from everyday work, to just concentrate on learning. I'm no Luddite, and I completely understand the financial pressures at play here, for both the training company and the trainee, but it does feel to me that something has been lost, and going on a course is not what it was. The training company now occupies only two floors of the same building, and has no canteen any more. For lunch, trainees have to make their own way to the M&S across the road for a sandwich. I wonder what, if anything, will be left in another fifteen years? Why go on a course anyway, when you can just Google the hell out of everything instead, right?

Meeting Place
The biggest change of all though is that whole area, from King's Cross and St Pancras up to Euston. Back in my younger days as a trainee, it was - well, there's no other word for it really - a bit of a hole. Seedy, run-down, decrepit. Dirty, in every sense. Back then, my employer used to book me into a nice hotel, quite upmarket. And in that hotel, posh at it was, there would always be a concierge in the bar in the evening, part of whose job it was to identify and remove call girls who would linger there in the hope of picking up well-heeled customers. Whilst at the other end of the scale, venture out of the hotel in the evening to find a bite to eat and you often couldn't walk thirty yards without being propositioned: "You wan't business?" And every phone box (of which there were still many, back then) was plastered with business cards for all manner of escorts, eager to part the transient population of the area from their money. I remember seeing someone cleaning the phone boxes one morning as I walked to that day's training, assiduously removing every card. By the time I'd finished for the day, eight hours later, they had all been freshly plastered. And looming over everything, at once disapproving and complicit, was the gothic and ever-so-slightly faded grandeur of St Pancras station.

Identified Flying Object
The transformation now is marked. Let's stay with St Pancras, shall we? Now the end of the line for Eurostar, it's clear to see the investment that high-speed link has brought. Still gothic but no longer faded, the building looks fantastic, rejuvenated. There are champagne bars in there, for God's sake, and more shops than you can shake a stick at (station or mall, you decide). And then there's the statuary, like the Meeting Place (aka "The Lovers"), a 30ft bronze of a kissing couple that is frankly breathtaking, or the statue of Sir John Betjeman, or (currently) the mechanical clock installed in front of the more traditional Dent Clock (more here on all of this if you're interested). And this rejuvenation carries on into King's Cross, where the ceiling of the western concourse is a dazzling, dizzying piece of architecture (or is it art?) And of course Harry Potter's Plaform 9¾ brings a queue of selfie-taking tourists, all keen to spend oodles in the adjacent shop - wizard, no doubt, though I didn't venture in. Outside the station, Battle Bridge Place is currently home to Identified Flying Object, a 30ft-high birdcage that is lit in neon at night - bizarre but beautiful. Swish bars are everywhere, none finer than the German Gymnasium (which is a very fine building, more than worthy of its fascinating history). Walk from there up past Google's huge new office (another very conspicuous sign, and source, of inward investment), over the Regent's Canal towards St Martin's, and there's plenty more redevelopment on show, none more arresting than the redeveloped old gasholders, two of which now house apartment buildings with their exterior ironwork intact (to dramatic effect). The third gas holder stands empty, but is artfully lit at night, with the foot of the ironwork clad in subtly angled mirrors and steel, encompassing an undulating lawn - the overall effect is quite beautiful.

Gasholder Park

All of which sounds great, doesn't it? I certainly sound enthused, hopefully. The art and architecture is wonderful, the bars and restaurants infinitely better than their equivalents of yesteryear, and (whilst I was only staying with the hotel chain Lenny Henry now purports to like for cash) I am happy to report that hotel bars no longer seem to need policing. And not that many phone boxes are left, but those that cling on have only a half-hearted smattering of cards posted in. So, the area is much improved all around... but sanitised too much, maybe? It felt a little out of kilter, otherworldly, uncanny - the familiar had become unfamiliar. The changes taper off as you move towards Euston, and there are still a lot of homeless people rough-sleeping in doorways (maybe more so than when New Labour were in their pomp, fifteen years ago). Beneath the steel and glass, and shiny new paint job, London's rusty hindquarters and matted underbelly cling on. That's probably how it should be.

The Pet Shop Boys had a song called King's Cross, and maybe you were expecting that. But since I very nearly became lost, metaphorically if not literally, in King's Cross, there can only be one song to end this with. I know, any excuse for a bit of Gene...

Friday, 10 November 2017

The single most important television of my youth

Given that I've recently blogged about Starsky and Hutch and The Bionic Woman, it seems only natural to continue the TV theme. They were both programmes I predominantly watched in the late 70s, as were other blog subjects Paddington, Happy Days and The Two Ronnies. I've also waxed lyrical in the past about The Prisoner, a 60s programme but new to me in the 80s when the nascent Channel 4 screened it. Over the twelve (!) years of this blog, I've written about television quite a lot... all of which makes it even more surprising that I have never written about the most important programme of all to the young me. For whilst I once blogged about a spin-off film, I've never written about the original television series of Star Trek.

Just three series. 79 episodes. A cast of regulars and a whole host of red-shirted security guys. Occasionally hammy acting and special effects that, whilst state of the art for 60s television, were, in a post-Star Wars world, pretty basic to behold. Leading men who looked like they couldn't believe their luck. Leading women who were always in soft-focus for close shots. A science fiction show that played fast and loose with physics (when asked "How does the Heisenberg compensator work?" ST technical adviser Michael Okuda famously replied "Very well, thank you."). And storylines, in the third series, that often didn't measure up.

So what was the appeal? Beyond the science-fiction of transporters, warp speed, phasers and photon torpedoes. Beyond the catchphrases ("Beam me up," "Illogical", "He's dead, Jim", "She cannae take the strain, Cap'n", and so on). Beyond the mostly bipedal aliens, all of whom could be understood by the miracle of the universal translator (no doubt something else that worked very well, thank you), and beyond the interplanetary women, who all wore revealing costumes and fell for James Tiberius Kirk. Beyond an emotionless first officer from another planet who could render you unconscious by pinching your neck and perform mind-melds just by holding your head. And beyond an impossibly glamorous communications officer who had a bluetooth earpiece 40+ years before such things were invented (and the shortest mini-skirt of the lot).

So quite a lot going for it then. But genuinely beyond all that were the stories. The space setting was, to a degree, secondary to the premise that a band of friends would roam around in altruistic exploration, encountering strangers and having scrapes, resolving them in a positive way. It could have been set in the old West, or ancient Rome, or anywhere in-between. The sci-fi accoutrements of the 23rd Century added some excitement, made it new and even more colourful, and maybe enabled fantastical elements to enter some of the stories but, when you boil it down, the series survived (and later, in syndication and repeats, thrived) because of the stories and the interplay between the principal characters. That's the reason people are still buying merchandise, attending conferences, reading books, watching movies and TV spin-offs, and, most of all, revering the source material. And that's how it's entered the pop-cultural lexicon: everyone knows what warp speed is, everyone has had a "beam me up" moment. And it's why, in an episode of The Simpsons when Bart prepares to shock his classmates, he puns, "Crew, set your faces to stunned."

I had a hard time choosing a clip to illustrate these virtues of story-telling and crew camaraderie. I considered The Devil In The Dark, Amok Time, The Trouble With Tribbles, The Day Of The Dove, Assignment: Earth, A Piece Of The Action, Charlie X, The Galileo Seven and Arena before settling on a clip from perhaps my favourite episode of all, The City On The Edge Of Forever. If you're not familiar with the plot, all you need to know here is that Kirk and Spock have gone back to 1930s New York to retrieve a similarly displaced McCoy. Whilst there, Kirk falls for Edith Keeler, a pacificist. Long story short, he has to let her die, otherwise her campaigning will delay the US entering the Second World War long enough for Germany to win, thereby changing the future irrevocably (and Kirk et al's past). This, for me, is great stuff. I appreciate your mileage may vary.

And because lots of you that come here are music bloggers, or readers thereof, there's this, from Amok Time. Kirk agrees to fight his best friend, for that friend's sake, not realising it is to be a fight to the death. And it's of interest to fans of music trivia because...? It's where 80s power-poptarts T'Pau got their name...

Growing up, I always wanted to be Spock most of all. Sure, Kirk had the swagger and got the girl and McCoy was funny, but Spock was cool, logical, detached, intelligent, and always knew what to do. Plus, you know, the tricorder, neck-pinches, mind-melds and "fascinating"... Or maybe I just fancied myself as a bit different, who knows. I certainly hold dear his view that "there are always alternatives", and I can raise quite an arched eye-brow. And whilst I don't have pointy ears, I do sometimes wonder whether the Starfleet ideals of altruism, positivity and peaceful exploration might, in part, explain why I have spent the majority of my working life in public-sector or non-profit roles. Just how influenced was I?

Whatever, the bottom line is this: whilst I like Star Wars I love, and will always love, Star Trek. You could do a lot worse than immerse yourself in the original series and, to a lesser extent, the (even numbered) films starring the classic cast. Enjoy... and live long and prosper! (Not you, Ensign Ricky)

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Disentangling

I have something of a love/hate relationship with being online.

I love the possibilities the Internet provides, the inter-connectivity, the access to the riches of the World Wide Web.

I hate the capacity of mankind to fill the World Wide Web with unmitigated bobbins.

Just lately the balance is getting increasingly out of whack. Example: I used to think Twitter was great - the social media it was okay to love. Concise, pithy, and interactive, if you had something of value to say it could be picked up and shared, your message was out there. And it was a door-opener, allowing you to communicate with people that you'd never otherwise be able to. But now? It's a bot-ridden, fake news propagating, cesspool of hate, where a thread can go from innocuous comment to outraged splenetic insults in four tweets or less. It is the demesne of the professionally angry, provocative, hateful and the first recourse of the competitively correct. Trolls, attention-seekers, hate-mongers, virtue-signallers, bots, propaganda, lies, fakery, extremism, inanity, ridicule, scorn, derision, loathing, self-loathing... pretty sure this is not what Tim Berners-Lee had in mind.

It wears me out, it really does. And it's not just Twitter. It's anything and anywhere online that requires you to have a username.

What makes it worse is that we've got to this point incrementally, and by stealth. The idea now of renouncing all online activity, deleting every account, cancelling email addresses... well, it's hardly to imagine. But if the whole shebang was invented today, complete and in its current form rather than developing over many years, I wouldn't touch it with a barge pole. Would you?

All of which doesn't really even scratch the surface of why I am trying to disentangle myself from the Web somewhat, though it gives you a flavour. And I am aware of the irony of making these points in a blog post (attention-seeking, inane, loathing, self-loathing). Whatever. I shall be having a purge, reapplying the pub test to my Facebook friends list (as in, would I enjoy having a pint in the pub with you? If not, unfollowed), the reciprocity test to Twitter (is our interaction mutually beneficial or are you getting more out of it than I am? If the latter, unfollowed), maybe just binning LinkedIn completely, and even pruning my blogroll (I currently subscribe to 39 RSS feeds). And I'll be sending Do Not Track requests from my browser, not-accepting third-party cookies and browsing incognito as much as possible. Stick that in your algorithm and smoke it.

I will not be entirely successful - it's impossible now, we're all too entangled. But I shall be trying to get back towards, oh, let's say... 1989. When the Internet existed but life in general was a bit more like this:

Friday, 3 November 2017

What you got?

Thanks to C at the always-excellent Sun Dried Sparrows for the heads-up that the final series of Detectorists starts next week on BBC4. You really should watch it. Here's the trailer:

I've eulogised about Detectorists before, so won't go on again, other than to say you'll be glad you tuned in. The Beeb's programme website has a lot of clips from the first two series, if you want to see what you've missed already.

Oh, and there's the theme tune too, of course, which is perfect.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

I am at stage four...

...in the five stages of grieving over the climate. Stage four is depression. Where are you?