Tuesday, December 22, 2009

What are the chances?

At the top of this page, you'll see a "next blog" button, and clicking it takes you to a random blog. In an idle moment, I clicked yesterday, and on the third click, was presented with a blog I didn't know, but which was written by someone I do know, and featured pictures of many people I know. Since, according to this, there are currently 133,000,000 blogs - and OK, Blogger is only one platform, but probably the biggest - what are the chances of this happening? And should I buy a lottery ticket this week?

Friday, December 18, 2009

Old Lags

To the Martin Harris Centre, for an event with Martin Amis, one of a series that exists largely to justify his salary, I expect. The attraction for me was not so much Amis fils, but Clive James, who, since he's now three-score years and ten, was considered to be a suitable candidate for a debate about ageing and literature. Ghoulishly, Clive's old (in every sense of the word) sparring partner Peter Porter was too ill to attend. That didn't matter of course, since Clive can talk enough for a dozen. Amis looked like an ageing roué, in a raffish Leslie Phillips sort of way. Clive eschewed the trademark leather jacket in favour of a black polo shirt disturbingly like the ones I habitually wear.
The two of them then both made opening statements. Amis pointed out that the forties were the time when you discovered mortality, but the fifties were when you discovered death. You look in the mirror, and you know death is interested, is intrigued by you...
His basic premise was that writers invariably declined as they got older. Mr Amis is 60.
Clive, working with no notes, and speaking far more fluently than Amis - who did have notes - refuted the Amis argument with a string of examples. What struck me about Clive is that he speaks in sentences, perfectly formed, balanced, with barely a pause or an erm or a y'know. It's quite uncanny, really. There was some good knockabout stuff at the expense of Roth and Updike, but Clive insisted that even when youthful inspiration has gone, the craft remains to sustain the writer. He also confirmed what I have long suspected- that his recent prolificity is a conscious decision to get stuff out with time's winged chariot in the background.
...and doesn't Martin look exactly like his dad these days?
Update: Just read the review of two of Clive's recent books in the current (Dec 18th) TLS. As Oliver Dennis says: "In what is surely the final phase of a glittering career, Clive James is busier than ever. No other contemporary writer is more aware of the ticking clock, or more likely - time permitting - to deliver on a promise."
Further update: the podcast of the event is now available here.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Urban(e) Fox

Great snap of a foxy traveller.
Credit: RadioKate

Sunday, November 22, 2009

North by Northwest

In my imagination, Hitchcock's film was in black and white - probably because I saw it on TV in about 1968 in b&w. Seeing the Vistavision print in colour at the Cornerhouse today was a revelation. Why is it, that even when you know the story, the shocks are still, well, shocking?
I don't think my adolescent self appreciated quite how much innuendo there is in the banter between Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint, though even I got the train-into-tunnel metaphor back then.
So- things I noticed that I hadn't before:
Cary Grant was my age then. He is old enough to be Eva Marie Saint's dad, although she was ten years older than the part she was playing.
Jessie Royce Landis, who played Cary Grant's mother, had also played Grace Kelly's mother in To Catch a Thief, and was just seven years older than Grant.
He was very tanned.
He, and the other male leads, wore suits of a blue-grey hue. Was this the dernier cri at the time?
Leo G Carroll as the Professor is trying out for his role in Man from UNCLE.
Why, other than to stage one of the best scenes ever, would you decide the best way to kill your victim was to arrange for him to travel to a remote landscape where you could attack him with a crop-spraying plane?
Hitch's traditional cameo appearance is in the first few seconds.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The real Henry Higgins

Reading this obituary took me back thirty odd years to a lecture theatre in a brutalist concrete building in Leeds. The first year English students were being lectured about accent and dialect by the great Stanley Ellis. He asked one of our number, picked at random, to say a few words. He'd chosen Bob McNally, a lad whose accent to the rest of us was just "Geordie". Stanley had other ideas. After listening for  no more than a few seconds, he identified the precise area within Newcastle where Bob came from, and also suggested that he'd spent some time in his adolescence away from Geordie land, naming, I think, an area in Yorkshire. An astonished Bob confirmed this was the case. We applauded.
Stanley Ellis was a delightful, down to earth man with a passion for the linguistic diversity of this country. Leeds had become a major centre for the study of accent and dialect, thanks to Harold Orton's  Survey of English Dialects, to which Ellis contributed. The arrival of this man, in a caravan, with an unwieldy primitive tape-recorder, must have been startling for the rural communities he visited- especially when he asked the questions. The researchers wanted to avoid planting words in the minds of the subjects, so, if they wanted to elicit the local word for a cowshed, say, they would ask something like "What do you call the building where you keep the animals that go moo?" One can imagine how this might have gone down with the tough farming types who were the typical respondents.
Stanley's party piece could be useful, as the obituary reports:

He came to national prominence when he declared that a tape released by the police in June 1979, purporting to be the voice of the Yorkshire Ripper – then suspected of the murder of 10 women – was by a hoaxer, someone who hailed from Castletown, a small village on the edge of Sunderland, Tyne and Wear – many miles from the scenes of crime. The police disregarded his warning, a decision that may have put their investigation on the wrong track for more than 18 months.

Ellis was proved to have been right in 2005, when the hoaxer was identified and shown to have lived all his life within walking distance of the area Ellis had pinpointed.

Another former student wrote to the Guardian, with a similar story to mine - Stanley must have delighted and entertained thousands of students with his ability, born, of course, of intense study.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


Too busy to blog much of late, but thought I would mention a gig by The Visitors. They were at The Studio in Manchester to launch their new CD, and a small but select band were there to see it. They are led by Karl Walsh, a Madchester scene veteran, and play power pop with some interestingly subtle vocal arrangements, mainly as a result of the interplay between Walsh and the other lead singer, Mike Crook.
As the website and video suggests, they've gone for a visual vibe that owes a lot to fifties science fiction, particularly, it seems to me The Day The Earth Stood Still, with Walsh as Klaatu. That's reflected in the song Visitor, which puts them in the select bracket of groups who have written a song with their own name as the title - Living in a Box springs to mind.
At the gig, from which my eardrums have just about now recovered, two weeks later, Karl turned up in silver lycra, but the rest of the band obviously didn't fancy the look, so there was a curious mismatch. From left to right, we had Klaatu, Mike as Steve Harley, and, behind them, er, two blokes who'd turned up from the council to collect your old fridge on bass and drums. Still, the sound, particularly from bassman Paul Petricco was prodigious, and, with a bit of exposure, there's no reason why they shouldn't do well. I'd drop the silver lycra though.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Ah, friends eclectic

More music on this allegedly literary blog. People often claim to have very broad musical tastes, but this is frequently not borne out in fact. When some starlet or reality TV show participant says something like "Oh I love all kinds of music - anything from Rihanna to the Pussycat Dolls" you sense that their idea of music isn't, shall we say, particularly well-developed.
Jools Holland, whom God preserve, said on his radio show recently that it really annoyed him when people said of a particular artist or type of music "Oh sorry, before my time" as if anything that existed before they were born could not possibly have any relevance to them. Yes, quite. Thus, I feel happy with a really wide range of music. I never understood rap, in which I always find the c is silent, and I'd rather folk songs were sung by folk, instead of Peter Pears. And don't ever take me to your lieder. Apart from that, though, pretty much anything goes. So here's the latest eclectic mix of live music encountered by me and 'er indoors.
Quatuor Danel

If you are occasionally in Manchester on a Thursday lunchtime, and you need sustenance of the musical kind, the Martin Harris Centre is the place to be. This innovative centre presents regular free concerts at lunchtime, and recently this string quartet gave a performance of two standard repertoire items, Haydn's String Quartet op.1 No 1 and Mozart's String Quartet KV 465 together with a brand new piece by Pieter Schuermans. The Haydn and the Mozart were sublime, and the concentration of the players noticeable. I particular enjoyed the flourish which the leader, Marc Danel, brought to his work. The Schuermans piece was, as they say, "challenging", but was played with enormous attack by the four musicians, and the single long movement impressed with its energy.
>Damien Maddison

Damien recently went solo after some time with his band Maddison - there were, in the time-honoured phrase, musical differences. Damien appeared as part of the annual In the Cityevent at The Moon Under Water, a huge Deansgate pub. We went with the estimable local DJ and rock chick (she wishes) Caroline Rennie. Damien played with a pick up band, with whom he had one hour's rehearsal. Considering that, he was pretty good, and the current highlight of his set, the withering "Absolutely Tib St." (spot the Dylan reference) was certainly enhanced by the beefed-up electric sound. Damien's work is recognisably in an English singer-songwriter tradition, and whilst he clearly owes something to people such as Ray Daviesand Ian Broudie, he has a distinctive voice and a great facility with words. "Absolutely Tib St.", which is even more effective when you know what occasioned it, spits out bile in splendid fashion - and it's not often you come across "sanctimonious" in a pop lyric.
The Unthanks

To the newly refurbished Band on the Wall, last visited by me 27 years ago. It's changed a bit, as have Rachel Unthank and the Winterset, now officially The Unthanks. Ten of them crowded on to the small stage. The line-up is basically a string quartet, two brass players, drums, bass, keyboards, guitar, and various other instruments- all the players swapped instruments at regular intervals. The ethereal sound of Rachel and her sister's voices, that made the previous incarnation of the group such a success, is preserved in the big band version, but with hugely improved capacity for new textures and modulations. It helps that they have gathered some brilliant multi-instrumentalists around them, even if some of them looked like they had wandered in from the school band rehearsal. Great harmonies, some really unusual songs -not just folk - and some fantastic playing. The venue is mainly standing, but if you get there early, you can sit on the balcony, which is what we did.
So- an eclectic few days, and lots more to come in the musical maelstrom that is Manchester.

Friday, October 09, 2009

It's nice to be recognised...

...especially by the mighty Normblog. Thanks Norm!

Thirty Year Man

Clive James was 70 this week. When he was a mere stripling in his thirties, I discovered the work he had done with Pete Atkin on a series of albums just coming to a premature end in the face of indifference from the great British public and the big record companies. I've been a fan ever since, so when, not long after getting to grips with the internet, last century, I discovered Midnight Voices, an online community of Atkin / James fans, I joined up, and have watched with pleasure as Pete has responded to our interest by producing new versions of his older material, versions of previously unheard songs, and an album of all new material. This is one of the best things about the web- none of this would have been possible without it, although Steve Birkill, the onlie begetter of Midnight Voices deserves a huge vote of thanks for his tenacity in getting the whole thing moving, and keeping it going.
The website that Steve maintains contains more than you will ever need to know about Atkin and James, and I commend it to you. For the uninitiated, though, here's why I think this work is important. The songs (lyrics by James, music by Atkin) struck me then as a callow youth, and strike me even more so now as a grizzled pantaloon, as being quite extraordinary in their lyrical dexterity and musical adventurousness. To listen to them alongside some of the other products of the early seventies is to hear consummate skill and intelligence up against the derivative and inept inanities of the semi-literate. The lyrics of James, intense, allusive, topical, poetic, are set by Atkin using the full range of musical styles available in popular song. So, rather than a typical guitar bass drums set up, those early Atkin albums featured the cream of British sessionmen, often with a jazz background, such as Henry Mackenzie, Chris Spedding,Kenny Clare, Herbie Flowers, Alan Wakeman and many others.
In a series of albums in the early seventies, they produced a long list of brilliant songs, often tackling unlikely topics with intelligence and humour. In my view, they have produced the best songs about the music business; the best song about alcoholism; the funniest song about drug abuse; the only song about the fears of a Mafia boss; the best songs about the death of sixties idealism and the Vietnam war...I could go on, but you get the picture.
It was a real pleasure and privilege, then, to attend this year's Midnight Voices event, and to hear those songs again, often with new arrangements. My review is here.
If you are interested in intelligent lyrics, sung sensitively and with a brilliant musical setting, look no further. All the old albums are reissued in handsome new editions, and the later material is still available. You won't be disappointed.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Last Chance to See...

Anxious as ever to be present at the cutting edge of vibrantly youthful popular culture, I hied me to the Bridgewater Hall on Friday, accompanied by 'er indoors and the man also known as the Silver Fox to witness a concert by two up and coming youngsters playing modern music. The elder of the two bandleaders, the prematurely grey Acker Bilk, was supporting the raven-haired whippersnapper Kenny Ball.
Blimey! Acker is 80, and Kenny a year younger. Between them, they've been trad-jazzing for over a century. That's remarkable enough, though not as remarkable as Kenny's hair. What is truly remarkable is that they can still put on an excellent show for a pretty good crowd of adoring fans.
Acker came on to stage painfully slowly - he's obviously not too mobile - but he performed well, helped out considerably by his excellent trumpet player, Enrico Tomasso, who dominated proceedings, as the six-piece band ran through a series of standards. Acker introduced most of them with a joke, and a running gag (at least I think it was) where he'd say, "The next number is... (turning to the pianist) what the hell's the next one called?" He had to do Stranger on the Shore, of course, and did, donning his bowler for the occasion,though his clarinet part was really reduced to some atmospheric noodlings. It was pleasant, but that was all.
Kenny Ball's group, with an identical lineup - drums, bass, piano, and a front row of trumpet (obviously)trombone and clarinet, produced a much beefier sound, aided considerably by excellent playing from the rhythm section, and the clarinet playing of Andy Cooper that reminded you rather poignantly of how much power Acker had lost. Kenny Ball can still blast it out, and certainly contributed mightily to the overall impact. The Jazzmen had fun, and included, as they had to, "I Wanna Be Like You" played as a request for a young lad (with his grandparents presumably) in the audience. I think they might have played it anyway...Andy Cooper's been singing that for 40 years now, but still obviously enjoyed it, and rocked the house, insofar as the Bridgewater is rockable. There were some surprises, notably an excursion into Jacques Loussier or David Rees-Williams territory, led by excellent pianist Hugh Ledigo and a fantastic (but, by definition, too long) drum solo by Nick Millward.
It was great fun, and I'm glad I saw these legends. Couldn't get Midnight in Moscow out of my head all day Saturday.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Moderation in all things

One of the unexpected benefits of comment moderation has been that I've picked up on some comments on old posts that I wouldn't have otherwise seen - including some spam from China.
So, it seems that my titanic struggle with Writers Bureau wasn't quite the success I had thought judging by the new comment. I'll see if I can get a copy of their brochure - but does this count as advertising? And thanks to Thomas for his comment on the ways people try to get more money out of us.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Dee Time

It's a never-failing indication of creeping old age when icons of your youth die. I'm old enough to have been enthralled by Simon Dee's tea-time show on TV. To an adolescent in grimy Moston, he seemed effortlessly cool, roaring off into the sunset in his E-type as the credits rolled at the end of the show. He was one of the first people who were famous for being famous- he had no discernible talent other than handsome features and a pleasantly unforced television manner. He seemed at the time to epitomise the new youth culture, as it took over the bastion of the establishment, the BBC. What happened after his flop at LWT is quite shocking. There were a couple of comeback attempts, but essentially, this man spent half his life on the scrapheap.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Fair enough

So I'm in the local Co-op buying a bottle of wine. Spotty youth at the checkout is trying to scan it but it won't scan. He asks his camp co-worker why it won't. "Well, it's obvious", he says. "This is an evil bottle of wine - it's not Fairtrade, so it's probably produced by enslaved North Korean children!"
"Er... it's Italian," I say.
"Yes, probably produced by Mussolini's descendants" he says, and flounces theatrically to serve someone else.
I love this. It proves that, as John Shuttleworth wisely opined, "Shopkeepers in the north are nice."

Thursday, August 20, 2009


Just a quick post to say that I've enabled a new widget called Apture, which should produce lots of multi-media links at the click of a mouse, as MC Desmo says.

Saturday, August 15, 2009


I suppose blogging is a kind of vanity publishing. There's no quality control - I can write what I like. But the main difference between Topsyturvydom and some execrable self-published collection of poems is that I can, to some extent, control the reaction to it. After all, an author publishing in the usual way is open to criticism and has to take it. On the interweb, however, my space (someone should use that as the name for a web site) is my castle, and I can repel boarders if I wish.
In four years of blogging, I've never attracted the kind of malicious commenter designated a troll by the internet geeks. Until now, that is. Thanks to a friend who understands how these things work, I have been able to use my sitemeter to identify the troll's IP address- not that I really needed to, as I know who the person is, but you never know when you might need proof. Having a colleague who is an expert in forensic linguistics is useful too.
The upshot is that comment moderation is now in place. It won't trouble any genuine commenter, beyond having to wait a matter of some hours perhaps before their comment appears. But I really don't see why I should give cyber house-room to people who simply want to insult me. So I won't.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Volleying and thundering

You would think I might get these all right. No, I got 6 / 7. I even got the question on To Kill a Bleeding Mockingbird right. What I got wrong is the question on The Charge of the Light Brigade, where I was invited to declare why Tennyson had used certain verbs. All the answers were reasonable, but only one is right, apparently. My respect for GCSE examiners has increased exponentially, as it is clear they can communicate with long dead poets laureate to ask footling questions about their poems.
"Alf, are you there? Can you tell us why you chose the verbs "volleyed" and "thundered" in that long poem of yours?"
"Certainly: it's to reinforce the danger faced by the soldiers."
"Righto. Sure it's not to reinforce the noise of battle, what with those verbs being vaguely onamatopoeic and all?"
"Nope. Reinforce the danger."
"OK. Thanks Alf. Is Charlotte there by the way? Got a couple of questions for her."

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Utt(er)ly barmy

Authors routinely complain about boorish punters at book signings, but I don't think any of them tried the Uttley solution. The formidable children's author apparently didn't like the prospect of dealing with real children:
Dimly, she perceived an overwhelming mob running at her and with British pluck she unhesitatingly grabbed her duck-handled umbrella and waded into the attack, felling infants right and left. The kiddies paused, briefly regrouped, then broke up and ran off, screaming in terror. Uttley strode among them, lashing out freely.
I'm warming to her and her rabbits....

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Voluntary = Compulsory

In the brave new world of education, a "voluntary" contribution to the cost of a child's education is actually compulsory.
It read like a letter from a debt-collector. "Our accounts indicate you have not made a contribution," it stated. "Our records indicate you have not contacted us." In fact, it was a letter from a state primary school. And it was asking for "voluntary" contributions of £40 from parents to its annual fund.

"I recognise that you may feel unable to pay the full amount," the chair of governors went on. "We always invite parents to write to us to explain their circumstances and propose an alternative."

Monday, June 01, 2009

Spoiling Charlotte

The mighty Normblog has a nice post about the way the notes in classic editions of novels give away plot details, assuming we have all read it before. Norm cites Nick Hornsby's neat line about this:
Even the snootiest critic/publisher/whatever must presumably accept that we must all, at some point, read a book for the first time. I know that the only thing brainy people do with their lives is reread great works of fiction, but surely even James Wood and Harold Bloom read before they reread? (Maybe not. Maybe they've only ever reread, and that's what separates them from us. Hats off to them.)
I remember teaching Jane Eyre to a first year group a couple of years ago. We were in the final week of the unit, so all of them should have finished reading it weeks before. I was trying to get them to think about the ending, and to compare it with conventional endings a la Jane Austen. I mentioned the classic line "Reader, I married him" at which one member of the class exclaimed "What? She marries him! Stupid cow!"

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Only Living Boy

To the Lloyd's Hotel, downtown Chorlton for a book launch by my friend and former colleague Robert Graham. His new collection of short stories, The Only Living Boy, was the main event, and a goodly crowd enjoyed his witty and self-deprecating chat, and his sensitive readings.
I was moved to write a review on Amazon:
This collection of stories, written over the last quarter-century, showcases Graham's talent for the fine detail and the telling turn of phrase. Many of the stories are set in (to me at any rate) very familiar locations, and one of the strengths of these stories is the sense they exude of being grounded in the real lives of the believable people who inhabit them. That's not to say that whimsy doesn't have its place here- one story in particular, "Playing Gershwin" has that almost magic realist quality one finds in, for example, Paul Auster.
What strikes me most about these stories is their wit, not just in the sense that they are often witty, and funny, but in the old - fashioned sense of the word: they display a high degree of verbal dexterity. There's no room in the short story for the wasted word, and Graham wastes none.
If you want to be entertained, amused, intrigued, and occasionally challenged to reflect on life's iniquities, this volume will suit you well. Here's an author at the top of his game.

Inspector Singh Investigates

I am immersing myself in things Malaysian at the moment, in preparation for the forthcoming Burgess conference in Kuala Lumpur. That's one of the reasons I've changed my banner to a picture taken last year in Kuala Kangsar. So I was intrigued by this book: it must be the only English language detective story set in KL, I imagine. The detective is Inspector Singh, a Sikh seconded to Malaysia from Singapore in order to investigate the killing of a leading businessman, apparently by his estranged former model wife. My heart sank when Singh was described as a maverick in the opening pages (do fictional police forces contain any non-mavericks?) but the story soon picked up, and engaged me enough for me to finish it in two days. The author, Shamini Flint, is a former lawyer and also an environmental activist, so it's no surprise that aspects of Sharia law and a subplot concerning illegal logging are integral to this novel.
The picture of KL that emerges is one that will be familiar to those who have been there- certainly, the bustle, the grime, the contrasts, the traffic were all elements I noticed on my visit, and are all evoked well here. My one criticism of Shamini's use of local colour is that she usually feels obliged to explain quirks of behaviour, or cuisine, as if she doesn't quite trust her reader to accept her knowledge. I wondered if it was the heavy hand of an editor with an eye on the anglophone market.
Singh, whose character maybe owes something to HRF Keating's Inspector Ghote, keeps one step ahead of his Malaysian colleagues in a murky tale of corruption, bluff and passion. I enjoyed it, and look forward to the next in the projected series, to be set in Bali.
Shamini Flint is obviously very much a genre writer, and there's nothing wrong with that- but the burgeoning Malaysian literary scene contains some seriously impressive writers, and I will be turning to them in a future post. Meanwhile, this is a promising beginning, and Singh is a distinctive addition to the crowded detective story marketplace.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Boris the Bold

This post is completely self-indulgent, though Petal will be interested. Boris is the head of our household. He had some kind of accident last year - exactly what we still don't know - and for a while there, things looked grim. But he was soon back to his old self, bossing us about and demanding fish. Here he is anyway, meditating above and surveying his domain below. If you like this, go to Petal's blog, where her Fidel, who looks very much like a young Boris, is currently starring.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Swine flu in proportion

Partly posting this so I can get another picture of my second favourite animal species on the blog two days in succession, and partly to record my admiration for Dr Crippen, whose blog is well worth a look. Key quote:
There have been deaths in Mexico. There has been one in the US. Our Indian partner said: "There were 2,000 deaths, mainly children in Africa and Asia, yesterday."

Our medical student looked shocked: "I didn't know swine flu had reached that part of the world." "It hasn't," said our partner. "I'm talking of deaths from malaria. But that isn't news, is it?"

We were silent for a while. Time to get things in proportion.

Friday, May 08, 2009

They just don't get it

The trickle of stories about the way MPs abuse the expenses system is now a flood. What's noticeable is the entirely predictable excuse that all of them offer- we didn't break any rules. They are so removed from the ordinary lives of their constituents that they can't see that's not the point. The rules (made by them of course) permit all kinds of clearly unjustifiable expenditure at taxpayers' expense. It's a gravy train, pure and simple.
I was amused, then actually annoyed, when it was revealed that Jacqui Smith was upset with her husband / employee for his claiming of porn films on her expenses, not because of the embarrassment, but because she had apparently spent a week going through her expenses, and was confident they were legit according to the rules. Well, I rather thought her job was to run the Home Office- who was in charge when she was trying to find her bath plug receipt?
I am a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, and follow the blog of its director, Matthew Taylor. So when he weighed in with his thoughts on the matter, I posted a comment. My solution is this:
First, the government should requisition, buy or otherwise acquire about 500 central London flats, at a cost of a day or so bank bailout. This would also give some stimulus to the housing market. MPs whose constituencies are not within reasonable commuting distance of Westminster are allocated a flat. Furnishings are provided (I’m sure John Lewis would oblige). And, er, that’s it. No allowances, no claims to be made. Maintenance to be handled either by contractors who bill the House of Commons or via a dedicated team appointed by the state. Utility bills paid. MPs in London suburbs given a travel warrant to get them back home.
Matthew objected:
"But might it not cost more. There would be up to £300 million to buy the flats and then the cost of managing them, maintaining them, and servicing them. And if it was overseen by the House I’m not sure it would be the most efficient of services. Also, there would anyway have to be transitional arrangements as t wouldn’t really be fair to ask existing MPs to move out of homes they had lived in for years."

I think this is revealing- his instinct, perhaps understandable, since he is a former aide to Tony Blair, is to protect the MP. I replied:
Well, yes, I suppose £300m would be a lot- but that’s assuming each flat would cost on average about £600k. On one website, I found 55 flats in Central London at under £300k. Even so, the cost would be small change compared to the money the govt is currently spending on bailouts etc. Maintenance would obviously cost - but at the moment with MPs claiming for every last bath plug, I’m sure it would be cheaper. And if it were handled by an agency of the Commons, it would create jobs, apprenticeships etc.
No need for transitional arrangements. If this system were introduced at the next election, all qualifying MPs would get their allocated flat. Those who had a second home could sell it, keep it, whatever. They just wouldn’t be able to make any claims for it.
No reply from Mr Taylor. And fair enough, there's no reason why he should. I think the political classes need to realise the depth of the anger felt by what they would call in their patronising way "hard-working families". MPs receive a salary beyond the wildest dreams of 95% of the population for a job that doesn't require their attendance at their place of work - which is open on fewer days than an Oxford college - and which allows them to take any number of extra jobs, directorships etc. On top of that, there's the bottomless expenses fund. It stinks.

Update: Andrew Rawnsley says it all much more gracefully:
"Harriet Harman has been shoved before the cameras to try to defend the indefensible. She bleats that it was "all within the rules" as if the rules were not of Parliament's own invention, but had been handed down by God to Moses on Mount Sinai. All her exposed colleagues have likewise protested that everything they did was "within the rules" as if they were powerless to resist an invisible hand that forced them to sign the claim forms. Not every MP felt compelled to scoff at the trough. Hilary Benn, Ed Miliband and Alan Johnson emerge as acmes of frugality who make modest and entirely reasonable claims for performing their duties. The unblemished MPs should be furious with the avarice of their grasping colleagues who have tarred the whole political class with a reputation for being seedy and greedy."

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Pope Right Shock Horror

If only...
Still, the Onion is on top form with this story.
Thanks to Charles for the tip.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Pope Wrong Shock Horror

Who'd have thought it? Er... isn't he supposed to be infallible? You can't get the staff these days, can you?

Inside Today...

If you wake up to Radio 4, then you will enjoy this. If you don't, you'll have no idea what is so amusing about this film...

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

£5 worse off

I bought some supplies in a nationally known store the other day. I won't identify the store, but the words "Marks" and "Spencer" appear prominently in their name. The cashier waved the goods across the barcode reader, and then asked me for £24.13. Unusually for me, I had actual cash money on my person, so I proffered a £20 and a £10 note. The cashier opened the till, and gave me 87p. I said "Erm, I think I gave you £30." She shot back, rather too quickly "No, you gave me a twenty and a five."
"Oh," I said, beginning to doubt it myself now, "I thought I gave you a tenner as well as the twenty." At this point, she rang furiously for the supervisor, who waddled over at leisurely pace. I said that I might well have been mistaken, and she said again that it was definitely a fiver, because she had to put it in a special drawer. A very brief conversation with the supervisor then ensued. The supervisor tapped in something on the till, the till opened, and the cashier handed me £5 and my receipt. The supervisor, who hadn't even acknowledged my presence, waddled off. I said to the cashier that if there wasn't a £10 note in the wrong place, I would accept that I'd been wrong. No, that wasn't possible: I had to accept the extra £5. No-one said it, but the underlying implication was that I'd tried it on, and they would just write off the loss.
So now, I feel guilty at having extracted £5 from this enormous company. What struck me was that, in the olden days, the cashier would probably have put the notes in a clip on top of the till while she rang the purchase up, so it would be very clear what had been tendered; and she would also have probably said "Twenty five pounds" when I gave her the money- two checks to ensure that the transaction was transparent.
I'm still not sure whether she was right or I was. The upshot is that, if I use that store again, I will always pay by card. And my favourite charity is £5 richer.

Photo: TheTruthAbout

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Woolfpole: Charles Lambert on Normblog

Chez Topsyturvydom, we are very pleased to see Charles Lambert occupying the guest slot over at the mighty Normblog. Charles has chosen Christopher Isherwood's little known book The Memorial, which I must admit I don't know. I would be curious to read it though, as Charles has whetted my appetite with this description: "It's an odd amalgam of faux-modernism and the traditional novel, as though Isherwood still hasn't made up his mind what kind of writer he plans to be: Virginia Woolf or Hugh Walpole." Still trying to imagine what a combination of Walpole and Woolf would look like...

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Is that all right for yourself?

My car is being repaired. The insurance company phoned to say it should be ready on Friday. You might predict that such an exchange would go:
Company person: Mr Spence? Just phoning to say your car should be ready on Friday.
Me: OK, thanks.
In fact, it goes like this:
Emily (for it is she): Hello, this is Emily from Megacorp insurance speaking. May I speak with Mr Spence?
Moi: Yes, speaking.
Emily: Is it all right for yourself to give you an update on your car repair, sir?
Me: Yes, please do.
Emily: OK, first I need to go through security. Can you confirm your full name, please?
Me: Robert John Spence
Emily: Great (she thinks it's great that I know my own name?) Now, can you give me the first line of your address?
Me: 3 Acacia Avenue Manchesterford
Emily: And the postcode?
Me: MZ56 OPQ
Emiy: Fantastic. (she thinks it's incredible that I know my own address?)Now I have to inform you that all calls may be recorded for security and training purposes. Is that all right for yourself?
Me: (wearily) Yes.(thinking- what if I say no, I can't be recorded, as I believe that a part of my soul will be taken away from me?)
Emily: OK, now I am phoning to update you on the current position with your car. The current position is that....(long pause whilst she searches for something on screen) your car should be ready on Friday. It may not be ready by Friday, but Honest Joe's garage are telling us it should be.
Me: Oh, right.
Emily: Are you satisfied with that update, sir?
Me (under my breath): Ecstatic. (Louder) Yes, thanks.
Emily: Is there anything else I can do for yourself, sir?
Me: Please go away. (I didn't really say that- I said No, thanks. Goodbye)
End of call. That's what I call service.

Photo: Doug8888

Sunday, February 15, 2009

1000 years of popular music - in a black cab

It's a somewhat sobering fact to reflect that I have been a Richard Thompson fan for forty years now. I've lost count of the number of times I've seen him play, but I always come back for more brilliant guitar work, darkly disturbing songs, and a surprisingly well-developed stage patter. His voice has deepened and matured with the years, too. He really is a pretty good singer these days. So, no surprise that 'er indoors and I hastened to the Lowry recently to see RT's "A Thousand Years of Popular Music" show. You might think it perverse for such an accomplished singer songwriter to perform a show containing no songs of his own, but Richard has fashioned a rare treat in this show. How many people, do you think, could sing and play in a single evening everything from medieval plainchant to madrigals, early opera, music hall, thirties jazz and sixties rock?
The guitar playing is mind-boggingly proficient, it goes without saying. The accompaniment on this occasion is provided by chanteuse and occasional pianist Judith Owen and percussionist Debra Dobkin. and they make a very fine noise together. They finished, not with Britney's "Oops I did it again", which he's used in the past, but with something by Nelly Furtado (during which, as a way of turning the wheel full circle, Richard included a verse he'd translated into Latin). Not everything came off -Judith Owen is much better at Cole Porter than Purcell - but you have to admire their chutzpah. It's not really a history, of course: medieval times to Victorian are covered in the first half, and the twentieth and twenty-first centuries are featured in the second, so it's weighted towards more recent stuff.
The show is available on CD and DVD, and is a must-buy for RT fans. A flavour of it can be had by viewing this bizarre video, from the Black Cab sessions web site, where, somewhat surreally, musicians play whilst being driven around London in the eponymous black cab. Barmy idea, but it works.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Orlando Lopez

News of another death in music today. Orlando "Cachaito" Lopez, the bassist for the Buena Vista Social Club died in Havana. It was a joy to see these superb musicians in concert in Liverpool a few years ago. Sadly, Lopez is not the first of that group to die. I feel privileged to have caught them in that marvellous Indian summer, largely brought about by the work of the estimable Ry Cooder. The group were the subject of a film by Wim Wenders. We will not see their like again.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Blossom Dearie

Sad to hear today of the death of Blossom Dearie, whose work I have admired for years. She was still working in her late seventies in a New York club. A very evocative voice, by no means technically brilliant, but somehow appropriate for the songs she chose- and her piano accompaniment was always brilliantly judged. Here, someone has put on Youtube her version of the fine Michael Barr song "Try Your Wings" with lyrics by Dion McGregor, from her Verve album of 1957 (and my favourite) "Give Him The Oo-La-La" Its visual accompaniment is from Breakfast at Tiffany's, one of my favourite films, with the peerless Audrey Hepburn.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Little Monsters in paperback

So now there is no excuse for not buying this extraordinary first novel by Charles Lambert. Go on - you know you want to.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Keep Calm and Carry On

I was interested by this article. The poster has been a fixture, and a talking point, in my office for a few years now. It never fails to intrigue the visitor. I saw it on a visit to Barter Books, and ordered it from them, before the avalanche of interest they report. What's the attraction? It's simple. And it's true.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

This Just In: Man Splits up with Girlfriend

This was the top story on BBC News website today. When are we going to get over this obsession with celeb royals?
Maybe they should be giving more attention to this.
And all hail Ed Stourton, for skewering the desperately feeble "Chief Operating Officer" on the Today programme.
That this came the day after the return of £6 million a year Woss to the airwaves simply added to the impression of a corporation that really needs to sort itself out.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Charles Lambert's Virtual Book Tour: The Scent of Cinnamon

Topsyturvydom is proud to hold this leg of the virtual tour for Charles Lambert's The Scent of Cinnamon. This is Charles's second major publication, following his novel Little Monsters. First, a biographical note: Charles Lambert was born in Lichfield, in 1953. After going to eight different schools in the Midlands and Derbyshire, he won a scholarship to the University of Cambridge from 1972 to 1975. In 1976 he moved to Milan and, with brief interruptions in Ireland, Portugal and London, has lived and worked in Italy since then.
Currently a university teacher, academic translator and freelance editor for international agencies, his occupations have included kitchen hand, shop assistant, medical journal editor, guidebook writer, receptionist, teacher of political science, and journalist with ANSA, the Italian news agency. He now lives in Fondi, exactly halfway between Rome and Naples, a stone's throw from what was once the Appian Way.

The Scent of Cinnamon has been well received- Scott Pack went so far as to say that "the majority, the vast majority, of people who routinely enjoy the Richard & Judy books would wet their knickers (or pants, but let's face it, it would mainly be knickers) over the title story of this book." Well, up to a point, Scott... Where I would agree is that these stories are all exquisitely crafted, showing the same attention to the telling detail that was such a feature of Little Monsters. And if anything is going to restore the popularity of short fiction in this country, it must be the publication of stories such as these, by turns humorous, surreal, disturbing, but always memorable. Here's a short question and answer session I conducted with Charles:

RS: You mentioned when we corresponded that you are working on a novel that might loosely be described as detective fiction. In The Scent of Cinnamon, at least one story, "Moving the Needle Towards the Thread", might be said to have some of the characteristics of that genre. Are you attracted to genre fiction? I wondered if you like to subvert it, as, say, Gilbert Adair does.

CL: Yes, I am attracted to genre fiction but, bluntly, I’m not very good at it. What tends to happen on the occasions I set out to work within a genre is that, without wanting it, I find the writing wriggling off towards something else. The story you mention is a good example. The set-up – a corpse, a murder, a murderer, a sort of confession – certainly has the characteristics of, if not quite a whodunit, a whydunit, if you like. But what happens as the piece develops is that the narrator begins to find her own certainties questioned, so that by the end of the story what began as self-justification is crumbling in her hands and she no longer has an explanation for anything, least of all her own actions. The story has become, willy-nilly and regardless of its quality, ‘literary’ fiction in that it lends itself to, indeed necessitates, more than one reading. The Number Worm also looks like a pure genre piece - a classic horror story - before veering off into (and it’s been criticized for this by one irate SF/fantasy reviewer) ‘psychological metaphor’ (quite apart from its nodding salute to a story that has almost established its own genre, "Metamorphosis"). I’m a great admirer of certain genre writers, like Stephen King, say, or Ramsay Campbell, or Ian Rankin, and I have a special place in my heart for Patricia Highsmith, who has, I think, influenced me as much as any other writer, but these are all people who are challenged and stretched by the genre they’ve chosen to work in, rather than writers like, say, Patricia Cornwell, who stay within their genre for less creative reasons (I hesitate to use the word money). I also like and admire the work of Gilbert Adair, but I wouldn’t see my use of genre as involving the kind of very knowing operation he performs so skilfully in his Christie-inspired novels. The book you mention, by the way, has already broken free of its detective fiction moorings and is heading off who-knows-where… Right now, a study of what it means to be lonely might be a more accurate one-line description.

RS: We touched on your relatively late emergence as a writer in our interview. Many reviewers have commented on the sense of craftsmanship and maturity in these stories. Has it been an advantage to do your apprenticeship in private as it were?

CL: Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Outliers, talks about the numbers of hours a person needs to devote to a certain activity before becoming proficient in it. I haven’t read the book, but I think he suggests a minimum of 10,000. That would work out, roughly, as three hours a day for ten years, or one hour a day for thirty. In these terms, I’m definitely proficient, which, for me, means being aware of what I can do and of which limits I can profitably push against. Having said that, the stories in the collection cover a fair number of years and I hope they’re all both well-crafted and mature, though I’d like to think that some of the newer pieces were, if not better, perhaps more sparely written. It’s noticeable that the most recent work of, say, Bob Dylan and Alice Munro– to take names out of a mixed-genre hat of personal favourites – has a feeling of being stripped back, and I’d tend to say that maturity is also a process of freeing the text from what’s inessential and decorative. I hope that I’m doing this. As far as conducting my apprenticeship in private goes, I can take no credit for this at all. From the very start, I did everything in my power to go public and I’d still be happy to see a novel I wrote over 15 years ago sitting on readers’ shelves. Over to you, world of publishing.

RS: You've lived nearly all your adult life as an exile. Do you still feel as if you belong to Britain, and has your sense of place been affected by your long absence? Your novel Little Monsters moves easily between British and Italian settings, and there's a similar breadth of setting in The Scent of Cinnamon.

CL: I’m not sure I’d choose the word ‘exile’ to describe myself, though I might if the alternative were ‘ex-pat’. I don’t feel exiled, by myself or anyone else, from Britain. At the risk of alienating readers of Private Eye or the Daily Mail, one of the papers incidentally that reviewed Little Monsters most enthusiastically, I’d like to think of myself as European and equally at home in both the UK and Italy; but that wouldn’t be true either, because what I feel is not-quite-at-home in both, which I think is the state I was aspiring to when I first left Britain. Bilingual speakers are said to achieve 100% proficiency in neither language. I’m not bilingual, though I wonder sometimes about my linguistic competence in English and Italian, but I’m certainly bicultural, by which I mean twice incomplete. I’m made aware of this most strongly when I watch programmes like Who Wants to be a Millionaire, and discover that the first few questions are the ones that flummox me: I’d need to ask the audience. More seriously, I’m not sure how far I actually have a sense of place. In the sense of feeling rooted, or the need for that, I have very little. I had a fairly nomadic childhood, if only within the confines of the Midlands (from Lichfield to the Pennines, with quite a few stops in between), I’ve moved around quite a lot in Italy as well, and I’m beginning to look forward to the next country, whichever that might be. What I do have is a strong visual memory, which comes in handy, a strong curiosity in the minutiae of other people’s lives (a faculty that people who don’t have the excuse of being a writer call nosiness) and a sort of reckless belief that I can write about anything if I try hard enough. Transmitting the feel of a place, or time, is often a question of reducing detail to a minimum. There’s nothing less convincing than a sense that the author is ticking stuff off on a checklist of local colour: what I call the Bakelite ashtray syndrome. The thing that makes Penelope Fitzgerald’s other places so utterly convincing isn’t the precision of her attention – which is extraordinary – so much as the sparseness of detail. There’s a moment in Innocence when she talks about one of the characters buying school exercise books from the local Upim and it’s perfect. and all that’s needed to fix a world.

Thanks, Charles for those illuminating answers. Now, gentle reader, buy the book!

Monday, January 12, 2009

Something Rich and Strange

Yes, that haunting line from The Tempest. It's one of the stories in Charles Lambert's new collection, The Scent of Cinnamon. Topsyturvydom is proud to be one of the virtual stopping points on Charles's virtual tour, and we will be virtually hosting him on 20th January. In the meantime, check out the tour so far at Salt, and read Charles's always entertaining blog, which I see currently features one of my faves, David Byrne.


To Liverpool, for the Transition. My reader will recall that my views about Liverpool and its status as Capital of Culture were formed in the days when a new disaster was announced every hour on the hour, and the whole thing seemed an absolute joke. Well, time to eat my words, because, in the hands of Phil Redmond, a laughing stock was turned into a fantastic success.
There's still a tendency in Liverpool to trade on the past - come on, the Beatles split forty years ago- and a habit of trotting out the cliches about how everybody in the city has a marvellous sense of humour and community spirit - especially, and paradoxically, when something awful, such as the murder of a child, has happened. Boris Johnson, who was lampooned in the presentation, had to apologise for offending Liverpool's delicate sensibilities by using the "victim culture" stereotype- but at the time, Liverpudlians just subscribed to another stereotype.
Someone who had a similar experience to mine is the estimable Lynsey Hanley, who also mentions that bizarre phenomenon of the outdoor pyjama-wearer, but in a serious context. I noticed on my last visit to Liverpool that peculiar juxtaposition of dereliction and prosperity that she comments upon.
The transition night was great fun.
Big screens at the Pier Head showed a fast-changing collage of the year's events to the accompaniment of a soundtrack that cleverly referenced everything from Sgt Pepper to the La's (always hated that apostrophe) though, of course, Lennon's dreadful Imagine dirge had to be in the mix. It was all narrated by a bizarre disembodied Roger McGough head.
The official handover was done to the Lord Mayors of Linz and Vilnius- no speeches, as the thumping soundtrack was still going. (By the way, when did we finally crack the problem of public address systems, which, by definition, were always inaudible? At Liverpool, and in train stations, and football stadia, it's crystal clear now). Then a huge firework display - the best I've ever seen, and then 30,000 people went off to roam the streets, shop, visit art galleries and museums, and generally have fun. We had a brief visit to a very crowded Tate, where we had a glimpse of Blake's work, an even briefer visit to an even more crowded Bluecoat, and finished with an excellent pint or two at the Lion, before taking the train back to where we were staying (thanks for a great night out and, as usual, marvellous hospitality, Robert and Christine)