Saturday, March 27, 2010

The sublime Ella

In 1970-71, I had a Saturday job at a grocer's on Oldham Street, Manchester. The shop, and the small chain it belonged to - Maypole - have long gone, of course, but when I bought some CDs yesterday, I was reminded of it. My wage, for a nine-hour day, was 25s, (£1.25) less 5d for my insurance stamp, so I took home 24s 7d, in a brown envelope, usually two ten-shilling notes, two florins, a sixpence and a penny. I remember going out in my lunch hour to buy an LP, probably Paul McCartney's first post-Beatles effort. It cost me 39s/11d, and would have cost that wherever I bought it because of retail price maintenance. So, for my younger reader, that's all but £2. In other words, Sir Thumbs Aloft's magnum opus cost me about as much as I earned in one and three-quarter days. If I were 16 now, I would have to be paid at least the minimum wage, which Dr Broon and his pals have currently fixed at £3.57 per hour, so I'd have been making about £30 for a day spent lugging boxes of tinned peas up from the cellar, swabbing down surfaces, making tea for my superiors, and so on. If I chose to spend this largesse on those quaintly old-fashioned CDs that old people have, even at top prices, I could afford three with my day's pay, and more if I bought at the frequently available discount. In effect, then, my labour would buy at least five times the product it would have bought in 1970. What's more, LPs, because of the restrictions of the vinyl format, rarely contained much more than about half - an - hour's music: five or six three minute tracks per side. A forty - minute running time was rare. So with CDs routinely clocking in at an hour or more, I estimate that my day's wage now would be worth about eight times the amount of music it was worth then. If I downloaded, instead of buying the compact shaving - mirrors, I could probably double that. Music can never have been as cheap as it is now.
In Fopp yesterday, I spent a massive £7 - two hours' minimum wage for a 16 year old - on two items. The first, costing the same as I spent nearly forty years ago on McCartney, was a double reissue of Count Basie's two albums from the late fifties, The Atomic Mr Basie and the live album of Quincy Jones tunes, One More Time.

My other purchase, for £5, was the complete Ella Fitzgerald Sings Gershwin, from the songbook series. This was originally issued as five LPs, and is now presented as 3 CDs, each with about 20 tracks, so the cost is about eight of your earth pence per track. For that, you get Ella on absolutely sensational form, singing some of the all-time great songs from the Gershwin catalogue: "A Foggy Day", "But Not For Me", "Nice Work If You Can Get It", "I've Got A Crush On You", "How Long Has This Been Going On", "Strike Up The Band", "They All Laughed", "Fascinating Rhythm", "Embraceable You"....She recorded this in her forties, when she was arguably at the peak of her powers, and she soars effortlessly over the swinging Nelson Riddle arrangements. It is sublime.
Both of these buys are new reissues from a company I'd not heard of before, the curiously named Not Now Music, from that hotbed of popular song, er, West Hampstead. They've done a great job here, so next time I have a few spare shillings, I'll be on the lookout for more.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

One Day

This is the kind of book that I don't normally read. It is a book group choice, heavily discounted on the shelves of the supermarket, and promoted through its own website. But I heard the author David Nicholls interviewed on the radio, and he seemed a very engaging cove, so when I saw the book at a ludicrously cheap price in the supermarket, I thought I'd give it a go.
I'm glad I did. Nicholls has had success before it seems, having written a bestseller that passed me by, and episodes for a "programme" that may be viewed on Mr Baird's televisual apparatus. On this occasion, he has written a quirky love story whose central conceit is that, rather as in The Good Soldier, all the major events happen on a particular day. We first meet the protagonists on the night of their graduation on St Swithin's Day, 1988, and revisit them on that day each year after that until 2008. Emma is a clone of the persona Lucy Mangan presents in her Guardian column: sassy, northern, funny, but consumed with self-doubt. Dexter is the middle-class loafer who has drifted through his degree, and whose ego never allows him to realise how fortunate he is. After a one-night stand, the two agree to remain friends, and we encounter them as they make their way through late Thatcherism and into the Blair years. Em has a succession of awful jobs before ending up as a teacher. The hilarious account of life as a waitress in a Mexican restaurant will put you off your enchilladas for a while. Dex lucks into a career as a vapid TV presenter, all Mockney accent and laddishness. The structure allows a kind of annual report on the vicissitudes of their lives, and affords also a running social history of the last twenty years. That's the book's great strength, to my mind: its sharply observed vignettes of popular culture and and fashion, from lattes to boutique hotels, from Islington's yummy mummies to the cult of the DJ. It presents a very recognisable and at times painfully accurate portrait of the nation we have become in the last quarter-century.
The tone is often jokey, veering from first to third person, with much interior monologue, and you get a real sense of the developing sensibilities and preoccupations of the main characters. There's also an ending which I didn't see coming, and which knocked me for six. Definitely a cut above what you might expect, given the ghastly front cover and torrent of endorsements on the endpapers from such authorities as Heat and Jenny Colgan. Recommended!

Monday, March 22, 2010

They Still Don't Get It

Ex-minister Stephen Byers is caught out demanding £5,000 a day - a day!- for securing access to government ministers and influencing policy on behalf of clients. Other friends of Tony are similarly caught bang to rights prostituting themselves for fat fees. Can anything illustrate better the moral bankruptcy of the political class in this country than Byers's pathetic excuse: he was lying. So now we've reached the point where mendacity is seen as a perfectly reasonable position to adopt when you're exposed as a moneygrubbing, amoral, unprincipled shit. And they wonder why we have no faith in our elected representatives.
Image: Kodama