Wednesday 27 January 2010

Up In The Air

George regrets buying conjoined ventriloquist dummies
I'm not going to write a big long film review of Up In The Air, the latest offering from the team behind Juno. In effect, that pedigree should be endorsement enough. All I will say, if you're interested, is that it's funny, has a message, is genuinely thought-provoking if you let it be, and (best of all, and the real reason I'm writing about it) it does NOT succumb to that most annoying of all Hollywood traits, the tacking on of an unrealistic feelgood ending to satisfy the masses. Mr Clooney doesn't get the obvious happy ending some cinema-goers may expect, and the film is all the better for it.

My loathing of the crowd-pleasing but story-damaging ending can be traced back to watching Falling In Love in the early 90s. A decent enough romantic film, with two fine leads in DeNiro and Streep, it is nevertheless utterly ruined by an entirely unrealistic ending clearly designed to leave a sweet taste in the audience's collected mouth. It made me gag. Worse, it made me fume. Maybe where I was emotionally at the time didn't help, but there you go - whatever the reason, I fumed. Even now, about 20 years later, I can feel myself getting annoyed...

So hooray for Up In The Air, which doesn't make me gag or fume, mercifully. I heartily recommend you rushing to your local independent cinema to watch it. Or it will doubtless be available on Amazon before you know it.

Friday 22 January 2010

Warning! I might rant...

So, as promised, a proper post; this is your chance to bail out early though, as it's going to be about something that made me cross, so I may rant.

Still here? Okay then. But don't say I didn't warn you.

Whilst driving down the A2 last Sunday, I was listening to news crumpet Kate Silverton's show on Radio 5 Live. Just for a while, you understand, and only once I had passed beyond XFM's broadcast range. Anyway, towards the end of her show, Kate did a piece on child poverty in the UK. She started with the statistic that 1 in 3 children in this country - that's 4 million kids - are considered to be in child poverty. I was pretty shocked by this, as I suspect you might be now.

Then Kate introduced Joshua Fenton-Glynn, a spokeperson for the Child Poverty Action Group and before I start to rant I should emphasise that this is an entirely noble organisation, worthy of your support. For absolute clarity, I'm not getting at CPAG or Mr Fenton-Glynn. I'm not even getting at Radio 5 Live, a station I often turn to on long car journeys, or Kate Silverton, who actually seems rather nice, and bright as a button too. But this whole piece did make me cross. I'd better explain why.

Kate asked Joshua for a practical definition of child poverty, and he replied that it meant not being able to engage in the things that other children take for granted. He gave exmaples of children not being able to go on school trips, and not having their own bedrooms. For clarity, he stated that child poverty meant not having "what you need to get by". This got me thinking, firstly about my own childhood. I hadn't had my own bedroom until my sister left home when I was 10, pushing 11 - until that point, I had shared with my brother. As for school trips - yes, I went on the day trips but there were some grander excursions during my secondary education that I didn't even ask my parents about, because I knew that they were too expensive. I also knew that if I had asked then they would have found a way to send me, but that's beside the point. By no stretch of the imagination could you say I was in child poverty though because I had "what you need to get by" by the bucketful... and that's because what you actually need to get by, aside from the obvious physical needs of food and shelter, is a stable, loving home. It really doesn't matter that much, does it, if you have to share a bedroom?

The CPAG guy then went on to say that children are expected to be able to do their homework on a computer, and that they feel excluded if they don't have one at home. This may be true but it got me thinking again: is this really how we measure whether a child has what they need at home? Don't get me wrong, I think computers are great and have made a career (of sorts) out of them. But something about this expectation that a child should have one at home jarred with me. I wasn't cross yet, but that was about to change.

Apparently, a stated aim of Gordon Brown's government is to halve child poverty by the end of 2010. It is not on target to achieve this. It was at this point that Kate introduced Theresa May, the Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, as another guest on the show. Kate then asked Theresa and Joshua what should be done about the problem, and it was during their replies that I started to get a bit worked up. One of the most effective ways of raising a child's standard of living is, apparently, extending the tax credits and benefits system to give more to their parents. Also, since 59% of children in poverty have at least one parent in work, it might be appropriate to consider raising the minimum wage. Oh, and extending free school dinners had proved effective in the past, and there was more talk of the proposed Tory tax-break for married couples that would, apparently, remove 300,000 kids from child poverty. And that was more or less it...

Again, those are all perfectly reasonable ideas - you might not agree with them all, but you can see that there is some logical reasoning behind why they might work. And, as policies go, they are well-intentioned. But what made me cross (to the point that I was verbally remonstrating with the radio and an otherwise-empty car) was that there was no consideration given to what people can do themselves to help raise their children out of poverty.

Now something like 21% of the adult population of the UK smoke - that's roughly 1 in 5. I could make the suggestion that this figure rises the further down the socio-economic scale you go, and that by inference the parents of a child in poverty are more likely to smoke than this. If you've followed the last hyperlink you'll have seen that there are figures to support this suggestion, but I don't want to turn this into a discussion about class, so for simplicity's sake I'll just use the national average. 1 in 5 of the parents of those 4 million kids in poverty... that's 800,000 kids with a smoking parent. Now what I don't know is how many cigarettes the average smoker gets through in a day but I reckon a reasonable estimate is 10. Maybe that's too conservative, but it's a starting point. That's 3,650 cigarettes in a year, or 182.5 packets of 20. What does a packet of 20 cost, about £6? So that's £1,095 a year, literally up in smoke. Now I've never been a smoker, so I can only imagine how hard it is to give up, but if my child was in need I'm pretty sure I'd be giving it my best shot. After all, £1,095 would buy a computer, pay for a lot of school trips and still leave enough change to be able to contemplate moving somewhere with more bedrooms. I don't even need to point out the obvious health benefits for all concerned to make this seem a blatantly good idea... and 800,000 kids could, at a stroke, be taken out of what we here in the UK call child poverty.

Then I got to wondering how many parents of children in poverty have Sky TV? Their cheapest monthly package is currently £18 - that's £216 a year. It all adds up, doesn't it? And this is why I got cross. Yes, child poverty might well be a problem in this country, especially given the broad definition of what apparently constitutes child poverty. But there seems to be an expectation that someone else - whether that's the government or CPAG or whomever - should fix it. I'm pretty sure that if my child was wanting for something I would do anything and everything I could to rectify the situation, just like my parents did for me. My Mum and Dad were in their mid thirties before they had a holiday; before then, they couldn't afford it and other things, specifically the family, came first. Are today's generation of parents, with their monthly contract mobile phones, Sky TV and all the other trappings of 21st Century life, really as ready to sacrifice aspects of their own lifestyle for that of their children? Sadly, I suspect that a significant number are not, and that surely contributes to what Gordon Brown calls the "scar" of child poverty in this country.

To close (I need to stop ranting soon), I want to go right back to the CPAG spokeperson's practical definition of child poverty - not having "what you need to get by" - and the examples of this that he gave - no computer at home and having to share a bedroom. Can poverty really be defined in such glib terms? Forget the UK, think globally. Anyone who has watched any of Channel 4's current India-themed series of programmes will have seen what poverty really is, in its harshest sense, when the basics of food, drink and shelter are not a given. Maybe we should ask a boy scavenging plastic bottles from a Mumbai rubbish dump so that he can recycle them for a few rupees whether he'd mind living in the UK? After all, he might have to share a bedroom... Or we could go to Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the world even before the earthquake, and offer a street-child a home... but she might have to walk to the nearest library to do her homework on a computer, and miss out on the odd school trip.

Really, who's in poverty here? And have we got our definition of poverty right?

Tuesday 19 January 2010

Since 60 second news updates have become popular...

A proper post will follow by the end of the week. Probably.

Friday 8 January 2010

In the style of High Fidelity...

I've talked about it often enough (here, here, here and here, for starters). Now it's finally time to write about my fabled (drumroll please) Top Five Gigs List. Except that I want to write about more than just five gigs, so it's going to be the (can I get another drumroll please?) Top Ten Gigs List. And since all the best charts count down, I'd better start at ten. Here goes.

10. The Wedding Present - Koko, Camden - 31 Oct 2007
Finally, after twenty years of waiting, I get to see one of my favourite bands perform their landmark album George Best, in order, in its entirety. Before the gig, the pub across the road is full of men of a certain age who have all waited a long time for this too - the atmosphere is buzzing, friendly, expectant, excited. If that's not enough, I'm there with my best mate, a fellow long-time Weddoes fan. I even get to meet the support act, the wonderful Astrid Williamson, in the lobby and she signs a CD for me. Even the fact that the guy in front of me of me is alarmingly drunk and, embarrassingly for his friends, looks like he might want a fight (with me!) cannot spoil this gig. Gedge is on form, the sound is tight, and we have an excellent, lofted perch from which to watch it all. I've seen the Weddoes many times, but since I'm going to limit myself to one entry per band in this list, this one just gets the nod for its uncompromising George Best-ness, just pipping their 1995 show in the tiny (and now defunct) Penny Theatre, Canterbury.

9. James - UEA, Norwich - 18 Apr 2008
The biggest surprise in the list. I didn't go into this as a huge James fan, only owning three of their albums (and one of those was a "best of"). Add to this the fact that they had reformed after a lengthy hiatus and were promoting new material (not usually good signs) and you can see why I wasn't expecting too much. But they blew the roof off the place with their energy and enthusiasm for the show. I knew far more of the songs than I'd thought I would, Tim Booth was still an exciting frontman and they somehow resisted playing Sit Down - it didn't even make the encore. I still only own three James albums - I just play them a bit more often now.

8. Travis - UEA, Norwich - 09 Jun 2005
For a long time, this gig was rooted firmly in my Top Five. The band had been drafted in as last-minute replacements for Morrissey at the Isle of Wight festival, and so needed a warm-up gig at short notice. This was it. With no album to promote, they gave a crowd-pleasing greatest hits set, the highlights of which were Fran's acoustic, unmiked rendition of Flowers In The Window and a world premiere of a new song, Closer. Oh, and they covered Everyday Is Like Sunday too, in preparation for that Isle of Wight slot. It's a testament to how good this gig was that I thought it would always be in my Top Five... the fact that it's slipped down a bit is testament to how many great gigs I've been to in recent years.

7. Gene - The Forum, London - 14 Jan 2000
How I wish I'd seen Gene live more than twice. How I wish they would jump on the reformation bandwagon and come back to us. How I wish... etc, etc. Yes, I am a big Gene fan. There are few things as good as going to see a band you love, when you know every word to every song, even the album tracks, and most of the rest of the audience does too. The atmosphere lifts you up. For a few hours, you share something with a couple of thousand strangers, and that indefinable something is special. This is what Gene gave me that night, a night on which they were at the top of their game. Reform, gentlemen, reform!

6. Morrissey - Alexandra Palace, London - 19 Dec 1992
The artist I've seen live more than any other. I'd had tickets to see Mozza (for what would have been the first time) at Madstock a few months earlier, but he'd pulled out after being bottled on the first night of the Nutty Boys' reunion. So this was a big night for me and my best mate and fellow Smiths devotee, The Man of Cheese. Walking up the hill from the tube station, surrounded by Moz-alikes, between chancers selling knock-off t-shirts and posters, everything about going to a gig felt new and exciting. Nearly all of my previous gigs had been in the comfortable, familiar surroundings of uni - this was different. Kirsty MacColl was the (brilliant) support act and, being a week before Christmas, she was joined on stage for her finale by a monumentally drunken Shane MacGowan for a rendition of Fairytale Of New York. If the night had ended there I would have been happy, but then Moz came on, and was just... MORRISSEY. Really, truly. He was brilliant, his band at that time were so much better than the current incarnation, and my fandom was set for life.

5. Ray Davies - The Roundhouse, Camden - 28 Oct 2007
It's hard to overstate just how much bands like The Kinks meant to me during my teenage years, so when I saw that Ray Davies was giving a rare live UK performance as part of the BBC's Electric Proms, well, I just had to go. The pre-gig atmosphere was almost perfect, undampened by the rain. I sat in a quiet corner of a proper pub with a beautiful woman, drying out, chilling out... and then we were off into the Roundhouse to see Ray turn back the clock. All the Kinks hits that you'd want to hear were rolled out, as were plenty of less familiar tracks to please the more serious fans. And he performed Waterloo Sunset with a choir providing an angelic backing. I could have floated out the door afterwards...

4. U2 - The Millennium Stadium, Cardiff - 22 Aug 2009
Beforehand, I had doubts - I hadn't been bowled over by their most recent album, and a gig in such an enormous venue isn't always the most engaging. I needn't have worried. Not only did U2 bowl over 70,000 people, they also gave me three genuine hairs-up-on-the-back-of-my-neck moments in the course of this show. Forget the astounding stage set, the sheer scale of the peformance and the weirdness of being in such a big crowd (and sitting down for a gig)... for the goosebumps, and the goosebumps alone, this gig is deserving of its Top Five slot.

3. Billy Bragg - UEA, Norwich - 18 May 1990
The good thing about being young and impressionable is, well... things make a big impression, obviously. I'd liked Bragg's work since my big brother had excitedly brought home a vinyl copy of Life's A Riot With Spy Vs Spy some years earlier, but at this gig Bragg became Uncle Bill, became mine... and created such a bow-wave of fandom that I've even been able to surf through some of his more recent albums, despite them not really being so satisfying. Support was great too, from Caroline Trettine, with whom I sort of fell in love for the duration of her twenty minute set. Uncle Bill played half of the set alone, then was joined by a backing band. His finale, Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards saw him, his band, Caroline and all the other support band (The Cole Porters) on stage at once for a rabble-rousing singalong. I saw him again a couple of years later and, whilst he was good, there was no recreating this. A special night.

2. Radiohead - Lancashire County Cricket ground, Manchester - 29 Jun 2008
What do you do when you spot two tickets to see one of your all-time favourite bands for sale on your employer's intranet bulletin board? Well, you snap them up, of course! Just because you're skint and the gig is 250 miles away doesn't matter. Yes, we got slightly ripped off for car-parking. Yes, we were stood a long way back in the crowd. And yes, the weather wasn't the best for an outdoor gig (though the rain did, miraculously, hold off). But Radiohead were... just everything I had been hoping they would be. And they played almost everything I wanted them to - it was almost as if I'd written the set list. And Fake Plastic Trees gave my goosebumps goosebumps. I'm almost scared to see them again, because I don't know how they can top this.

1. Paul Weller - Brixton Academy, London - 24 Nov 2008
I've seen the Modfather several times now and, like a fine wine, he seems to be getting better with age. Or maybe it was the love he had newly found at the time, or the fact that this seemed like a sort-of-homecoming gig, I don't know. Whatever it was, Mr Weller was on fire - so up for this, he seemed like someone in his mid-30s, not a 50-something. And he finally seems really comfortable with his full back-catalogue, playing plenty of Jam material to keeps the old mods happy. The first time I saw him, back in the very early 90s, he (perhaps understandably) taunted the fans who were chanting "Jam, Jam, Jam". But I digress. We had a great spot, close to the front but not so close as to be moshed, the sound and lighting rigs were excellent, Paul and his band (mostly long-term collaborators, so well bedded in) were on good form... and there were surprises too. The backdrop - essentially unused throughout the show - sprung to life for Whirlpool's End, showing a genuinely thought-provoking collection of images and quotes. I didn't want this night to end, and it will be a long time before this gig drops out of the Top Five.

So, what do you think? The almost-made-its, just bubbling under outside the Top Ten, included REM at Milton Keynes in 95 (a scorching hot day, with an undercard of Sleeper, The Cranberries and Radiohead!), Blur at the Shepherd's Bush Empire in 94 (again with Sleeper for support, coincidentally - I used to fancy Louise Wener something rotten, just my kind of indie-chick), Thom Yorke solo and acoustic at Latitude 2009 (really solo, he did everything himself) and the aforementioned Madstock (30,000 people in a park, singing all the words to all the songs... and Ian Dury and Prince Buster too). But these are the Top Ten... for now. You can see my SongKick gigography in full (well, almost, I've still got one gap to fill) here.

Tuesday 5 January 2010

Nought to nine

So, the Noughties have come to an end... thank goodness (and not least because "Noughties" is a rubbish soubriquet). I'm not going to write a review of the decade that has just passed - many others have done that, with a particularly interesting and highly recommended take on the last ten years being given at the always-excellent Crying All The Way To The Chip Shop.

But no, none of that here. Instead, I will try to give you my life in numbers, celebrating nought to nine in honour of the now-deceased Noughties. Yes, it's a lazy way of writing a post. Yes, some might even call it a meme. I just think of it as a way of telling you ten odd and maybe unusual things about myself you probably don't know. Here goes.

  1. The number of criminal convictions I have. Phew.
  2. How many houses I have bought. Hopefully this won't change for a good long while.
  3. The number of Swedish au-pairs I have dallied with. No, really.
  4. European countries passed through without stopping to visit properly (Germany, Switzerland and Liechtenstein).
  5. The number of bones in my right arm that I've broken (three different events).
  6. The number of cars I have owned. All good in different ways, one truly epic. Three of them are still on the road, somewhere...
  7. Years since being made redundant by a faceless, soulless, heartless global corporation. What, me? Bitter?
  8. How many years of part-time study it took to do my Masters. A slog, but a worthwhile slog.
  9. Number of people I became friends with in my first year at uni (20 years ago) that are now on my Facebook friends list.
  10. The number of jobs I have had in my time, i.e. proper jobs with wage slips. I didn't count my old paper-round though...

Who knows, if I'm still blogging in 2020, maybe I'll do ten to nineteen...