Monday, August 25, 2008

Ping Pong's Coming Home

I thought our segment of yesterday's Handover Ceremony did a fairly good job of making a virtue out of necessity in its portrayal of what can be expected in London in 2012. In case you missed it, it showed a doubledecker straying off its route to be mobbed by a representatively diverse gang of urban mutants, only for the top deck to open up where an elderly rocker was mutely accompanying an inaudible X Factor winner while David Beckham kicked a football at the crowd. The days are long gone, I suppose, where we'd have seen Cliff Richard driving the bus, singing Summer Holiday with mini-skirted Beefeaters and Pearly Kings and Queens doing the Lambeth Walk whilst eating jellied eels. But still, I do wonder what potential visitors made of it. It was as alien an experience to folks living up here in Lincs as it would be to most people's expectation of a satisfying holiday destination. I also wonder what kind of show Paris would have put on if it had won the right to stage the games because, despite everything, as tourists we do like to hang on to our myths. I think it would have played safe and gone for the traditional scenes of Boulevard life rather than giving away the secret of what you'd see if you got off the RER a couple of stops too early.

On reflection....

I was being too fair. The segment was dire, a terrible advertisement for Britain - or rather it was an advert for a certain vision of Britain held by the type of person who's over-represented in the not-for-profit arts sector, one that is unrecognisable to most people. The Creative Director responsible for it is Stephen Powell, who heads up a touchy-feely Arts Council funded outfit up in Cumbria called Lanternhouse
( Why, when London's West End leads the world in producing popular spectacle that draws in over 13 million paying punters a year, the job was given to someone from the subsidised (i.e. loss-making) sector is beyond me. We could have had colour, effects, properly trained dancers in dazzling costumes and great music played well, sung well and correctly sound-engineered - people would have loved it and recognised it as being what we are best at. Instead we had to cringe at the typically dismal unimaginative and chronically arty-farty fare that only people who are used to being given chunks of public money to spend can get away with. No doubt it's doubles all round back in Cumbria as they pat each other on the back and tell each other the public are too dumb to understand good art. I hope Boris has sense to sack the lot of them for next time.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Blood Brothers

Sometimes, if you ignore something for long enough, it goes away. Not so Blood Brothers. For 20 years, it's been pulling them in at the Phoenix and yesterday my curiosity finally got the better of me on the grounds that there can't be much wrong with a show of such longevity that its only rivals are those other creaking dinosaurs venerable antiques, Phantom and Les Miserables.

I'd almost forgotten what it was that made me give it a miss in the first place and then studiously avoid it ever since. Well it's obvious really - it reeks of Liverpule and all the bleeding-heart stereotypes such as BoJo was forcibly requested to apologise for (with his fingers crossed). Of course its author, Willy Russell, was born on Merseyside so it's OK for him to perpetuate the same thing.

Without changing much of the plot or hardly a word of dialogue, it could have told the story of twin brothers separated at birth... one, Eddie, brought up by a hardworking aspirational couple. The other, Mickey, by a feckless single mother of 7. Despite their social differences, they would share a deep friendship until successful Eddie's loyalty is bitterly repaid by being shot by loser Mickey, whose life of criminality is a culmination of rejecting all opportunities to better himself.

Instead, it's a hard-luck tale of Scouse victimhood. Mickey and his natural family are lovable salt of the earth Scallies. Outsourced Eddie and his folks, whose money comes from exploiting the workers (where else?), are risibly effete toffs. When Thatcher's de-industrialisation throws Mickey out of work, his only recourse is to crime and when he shoots his best friend and unbeknown twin Eddie it's because the capitalist system has driven him mad with rage against its inherent unfairness.

Make of it what you will, it does have the sense of being somewhat of an anachronism. But when written, in the 80s when even Derek Hatton was a credible political force, its message would have been absolutely de rigeur. It hangs together well though, keeps the drama moving along and includes enough good songs to just about keep your mind off the flaws in the narrative.

I'm glad I saw it with Lyn Paul playing Mrs. Johnstone. She's come a long way since being the heart-meltingly gorgeous lead singer for the 'English Abba' - the New Seekers. Still got the presence, though, and most crucially in this role, the crystal clear vocals with that effortlessly rich and sexy vibrato taking her wherever she wants the tune to go. Without her, I think I'd have been on the early train home.

Time to retire it.

Sunday, August 10, 2008


I found a strange thing today, in a place where it shouldn't have been. Laid across a tray of pansies in my greenhouse was a rusty iron spike. How it got there, I have no idea. It's about a foot long, a quarter inch flat, hammered to an ugly point like a dagger and with a curved bracket welded to one end.

It can't have been lost or hidden or dropped - it was placed, carefully enough not to damage the seedlings. Nothing is missing, nothing else is disturbed. So who put it there, and when? How, when at night it's unlit and pitch dark in this village? Is it a tool? A weapon? An omen? A loose piece of a Eurofighter that fly supersonically overhead of us? What? A mystery.

The greenhouse is on land at the side of the house and can't be reached except via the back door or by clambering painfully over a thick hawthorn hedge. Until today, it's been somewhere for nobody but me to be, among the plants and the freshly oxygenated air, able to look as if I'm busy at the first sign of Mme.'s approaching footsteps. Now it holds a secret. Damn.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

What the F?

Annoyed by constantly having to correct students' spelling, Dr Ken Smith, the senior lecturer in criminology at Buckinghamshire New University, is proposing that "University teachers should simply accept as variant spellings those words our students most commonly misspell.''

Yes, it must be a pain having to correct some of the most frequent mistakes such as 'ignor', 'thier', 'speach' and 'truely'. Especially when you're teaching a subject whose graduates are going to be lucky if the nearest they come to using their hard won knowledge is handing out parking tickets. I kind of lose him, though, when he goes on, "there is no reason many commonly misspelt (sic) words are configured the way they are. The word 'twelfth', for example, would make more sense as 'twelth'. How on earth did that "f " get in there? You would not dream of spelling the words "stealth" or "wealth" with a "f" (as in 'stealfth' or "wealfth") so why insist on putting the "f" in twelfth?''. No Ken, and I wouldn't dream of having to read misspelled words based on every conceivable mispronunkciation neiver.

I should think it's fair to assume that most of his students come from the 60odd% of those who were actually deemed to have an acceptable level of English in their SATS tests. This year's intake will come from some of those kids we'll soon be seeing whooping and hugging as they hear of their record-breakingly excellent A-level results - renewed proof that the £millions of extra money being poured into education is delivering new heights of success.

Yet they still can't spell and are going into careers that, a few years ago, would have needed just a couple of moderate O-levels. If that.

This issue sums up the problem of government policies in a nutshell. An assumption has been made, and is being put into practice, that a certain percentage of the population should be of degree level. Who knows.. maybe this can be demonstrated as desirable and perhaps it is. But what's clearly not happening, is that the graduates that are being produced are fit for the requirements of the labour market - neither in the quality of their education, nor in their type of qualification.

So now we merely have a 'policy' of a universal right to full education. In its name, we're churning out generations of semi-literate adults with the scantiest knowledge of their chosen subjects and conniving with the deceit that putting off work for a few years benefits all of us. What's happened, as is so typical as to be inevitable when the State is in charge, is that the reason for the policy has been lost and disregarded as the quest to fulfil its target has been implemented. Again and again we see this with Government and its agencies... it's because the implementers aren't held responsible for the outcomes of their actions. And their bosses in Cabinet never dare admit a failure.

Prof. AllShookUp's Patent Remedy.

First identify your desired aim. Then tackle it by:

Step one: Fire Dr Smith and his ilk.

Step two: Return Buckinghamshire New University and its ilk to being technical colleges.

Step three: Use the money saved to ding a basic education into primary school kids and keep them there till they've got it.

Easy peasy.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Miles away

Back when I lived in Nottingham, I was barely aware of its history. Such fragments as there were; the caves, the Castle, the flimsy connection with Robin Hood.. were no more than irrelevant curiosities compared with its significance as a vehicle for my life and work there. A city thrives on change or dies. Buildings that had been fixtures in my consciousness were almost brand new in my parents' eyes. The same thing happened to me when my daughter talked about bars that I'd known as banks, pubs that used to be shops, shops that had been cinemas, apartments that once were warehouses. Layer upon layer, it reinvents itself to each new generation that moulds it to their own needs. As soon as there is redundancy or obsolescence, something new leaps into its place. Its past is never more than twenty years ago.

I can't say the same for out here. The past is inescapable. Even to get here, you either criss-cross the rectilinear grid laid down as a consequence of the drainage of the Fen, or drive along the medieval road linking the chain of old villages on the imperceptible high ground that was available to be farmed 1000 years ago. Within a half-dozen mile radius of where I write this, there are fifteen ancient churches - fifteen, such was the degree of piety in bygone ages. Although all are nominally open for business, none has a viable congregation - the only signs of vitality are the fresh flowers in the graveyards... funerals being more profitable than weddings it seems. All the Lambeth Conferences in the world won't put life back into them - they just stand looking hurt and rejected, as silent knowing witnesses to these uneasy times when the old certainties are dead. Pubs close down and stay closed down. So too do banks and shops. So would Skegness itself, if it wasn't only for being the best that people with limited choices can afford. The force that re-energises cities doesn't have the necessary critical mass to sustain itself here. A thin modern veneer has been put over it, but the past won't go away.

I'm sensing too much decay... in myself too. How much is due to being here is hard to put a finger on - but all of us to a greater or lesser extent need to feel ourselves affecting the Earth's motion and I feel at a standstill. I've been charmed by Lincolnshire for a while, but on bad days it's not enough. The people happiest here are those most in tune with it. In me, contemplation of it is confirming my detachment and encouraging introspection. I'm blogging for the wrong reasons.... indeed I don't even have a reason. It's not serving whatever purpose I had in mind for it - no, actually I'm failing to make it fulfill its purpose. Oh I dunno... if I ask myself, "Yes, but why are you telling a bunch of strangers anyone this?", I can't come up with a convincing answer. Not one I want to hear, anyway. Why blog? That's the question. Anyone?

Chris and Inky - you can still buzz me on the link to the side (so can anyone else for that matter).

Thanks to everyone who's shown interest, going to be otherwise occupied for a bit.