Sunday, 29 April 2012

Cutting Edge

An article in today’s newspaper bemoaned the paucity of new ideas from the IT world, which slightly surprised me because, as I understand it (not being a dabbler myself), there are hundreds of thousands of apps out there, claiming to do everything you’d never imagined you might need, plus some.  But on reflection, I had to agree.  New uses for saucepans, even new kinds of saucepans, but nary a new kind of pan.  The last significant invention was the smart phone, centuries ago in technology years.

Elsewhere in the same newspaper, I read about the Swiss Army Knife.  Here’s mine:

Pathetic, isn’t it?  To be fair, it’s at least forty years old.  It’s not my first one: that would have been in the late fifties.  I remember losing it at a funfair in King’s Park, then going back a couple of hours later and finding it in the grass; then losing it for good a week or two after that.  This one is mainly used, these days, for breaking into the infuriatingly impenetrable shrink-wrap that encases new CDs from HMV; but the corkscrew has been used, once, in a holiday flat in Gran Canaria when the management had failed, after repeated pleas over a whole forty-five minute period, to fill this horrific gap in the inventory.  That was when I found out how useless the Swiss Army corkscrew was.  The bottle got opened, but on our departure we noticed that the kitchen walls were being repainted.

The latest models are pretty good, though. 

You can get ones with 32Gb USB memory sticks, laser pointers to enable you to destabilise football matches, LED spotlights, MP3 players, prosthetic thumbs for iPhone tapping; surface-to-air missile launchers …  I may have made a couple of those up.  You probably get a useless corkscrew too.  And a Swiss Army squaddie to carry it around for you.

Anyway, there’s the breakthrough.  Merge the functions of an iPhone and a Swiss Army knife into one piece of kit, and you will have bridged the generation gap.  The virtual and the practical will co-exist, and we will have world peace.  Not to mention being able to extract boy scouts from horses’ hooves.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Don’t Worry

I join what seems to be the shortest queue.  It’s not moving, in fact the customer and the cashier are chatting, even though the customer’s bags are full and ready to go, and her card is an inch from the reader.  After a few moments, she looks back at us.

“Sorry, it’s my fault.” 

The cashier demurs.

“No, it’s ours actually.  Dud barcode.”

“Don’t worry,” says the lady in front of me.  “They’re open till nine this evening.”

We all now start politely looking back into the shop in the hope of spotting an official person carrying a loaf of bread.  Time passes.  I look out of the window.

“It’s stopped raining while we wait,” I observe.

“Don’t worry,” says the lady at the next checkout, over her shoulder.  “It’ll start again.”

I risk looking behind me.  There’s only one person, and he doesn’t seem particularly aware of the passage of time.  I resist the temptation to inspect the contents of his trolley and ask questions like What on earth are you going to do with all that milk?  The official shop lady appears on the horizon, holding the loaf high like an Olympic torch.  There’s an in house technical discussion, then the transaction is complete and the customer pushes her card into the slot.  I feel her pain, but I also think please, let her get it right.  She does, very coolly considering, and gives us a wry grin and a cheery wave as she departs.

The lady in front of me steps forward.  She looks at me.

“I’m a bit slow too,” she says.

“Don’t worry,” I reply.

When I get outside it’s pissing down.  Which doesn’t matter in the least.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Self-indulgence, Sloppiness and Contempt

I confess to two out of the three, occasionally.  So I’m beaten by a media mile by Channel Five.  Except that I can now drum up a measure of contempt as well, though not to match theirs.

The other evening I squinted at the listings and noticed that "The Magnificent Seven" was on.  I was feeling self-indulgent (one down), and I calculated that I could slot my pre-prepared dinner (that’s two) into one of the duller bits.  I knew there’d be advert breaks, of course, and missing the bit where the two loser characters, Harry Luck and Lee, are set up with their fatal defects so that (spoiler!) they can get killed at the end without us minding too much wouldn’t really matter.  The film is much too long, and was made at a time when Hollywood was desperately trying to salvage the Western by making it psychological, which they thought meant lots of soul-searching dialogue.  In that sense, it’s a failure; but as I say, I was feeling self-indulgent, which often means reverting to my eighteen-year-old self.  So I settled down to watch.

The first thing I noticed was that it had been cropped from its original revised Cinemascope ratio (2.35:1) to the ubiquitous 16:9 , in order to make sure the whole screen was full of picture, with no black bits top and bottom.  To put that in technical terms, the edges had been chopped off.  Luckily, this wasn’t as bad as it could have been: when this practice was first deployed back in the seventies, to sixties films in which the director had been determined to exploit the width of the letterbox to the full, sometimes all you could see was two noses talking to each other.

Just as I’d resigned myself to that piece of vandalism, after fifteen minutes the first ad break kicked in.  Well, that was a bit quick, I thought; but I’ll go and stick the dinner in to warm up.  When I got back, the ads were still going on.  I hadn’t set a timer, but it must have been at least four minutes’ worth.  Oh oh.

I went out to eat at the start of the next commercial break – the meal took about twenty minutes – and got back for the end of the following one.  By now I was too far in to jump off.  Or so I thought.

Just when Chris and the guys have been (another spoiler!) booby-trapped by Calvera into pretending to surrender their guns and leave town, so that they can do their big soul-searching bit, nod to each other and ride wordlessly back, the soundtrack started to fail.  The dialogue became less and less audible.  It didn’t matter that much, because most of the talk is over, except for the last few lines which I knew by heart anyway, and the music still sounded, well, audible.  The final multi-layered gunfight is spectacularly choreographed, ludicrously over-the-top, up there in ten compressed minutes with anything today’s CGI-enhanced wannabe directors manage in an entire movie.

Just before it began, Channel Five decided it was time for another ad break.

So well done, guys, for your valiant shot at trashing this flawed masterpiece.  You failed, as your likes do; but thanks for enabling me to give an outing to my rarely exercised power of contempt, for you.  I could never equal yours for me, of course.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

How long is a piece of time?

When I tell you that I’ll be celebrating my seventieth birthday within two months, three weeks and two days from the date of this post, you will I’m sure be able to work out exactly what I mean.  You might think I could have expressed myself less abstrusely.

You might also, on reflection, ponder on the word ‘within’, as strictly speaking it means ‘up to and including’ rather than ‘on’, but that’s fine: there is nothing that says I can’t start celebrating right now, and continue to do so right up to the deadline.  Similarly, nothing prevented Abu’s lawyers from lodging their appeal days or weeks, rather than ten seconds, before the deadline laid down by the ECHR – but leave that to one side.  The issue, once you hack away the usual media obfuscation, seems to be exactly what the phrase ‘within three months’ meant, or was meant to mean, and hence when that deadline actually was.  Nobody seems to have answered that.

I know the answer.  ‘Within three months’ of 17 January 2012 means ‘by 16 April 2012’.  I can prove this in several ways, but let me offer just one.  If a three month period commences on the 17th of the month, then a subsequent three month period must also commence on the 17th of the month.  I rest my case.

The obvious question, of course, is: why didn’t they just say that the appeal must be lodged ‘before midnight on Monday 16th April?’

I know the answer to that as well.  If precision of language were to become the watchword, what would lawyers be for?

Thursday, 19 April 2012

I'm so organised


In Tray:

Filing Cabinet:


Tuesday, 17 April 2012

A303 Revisited

Just a turning off the M3 these days.  Should be a song, like Route 66.



Thruxton.  Vroom vroom.



Stonehenge.  Come over the hill and you almost miss it, until suddenly there it is on the skyline.  As you descend, so does it, and you see that it’s swarming with human ants, who are eating its heart.

Winterbourne Stoke.

Deptford.  Marlowe never came here, you think irrelevantly as you soar past the signpost.

Fonthill Bishop.




Chicklade.  An old joke about hens.

Mere.  Don’t stop there for lunch.  The only way out is via the carpark.

Wincanton.  Tankers full of milk.

Compton Fauncefoot.

Queen Camel.


Kingsbury Episcopi.

Ilminster.  The strangest bypass in Britain.

And then it peters out, no ceremony, not even a place (the nearest is Upottery), just before Honiton, and turns into the A30.  Which is a whole other story.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Sorry, I’ll read that again

A piece in the Observer a few weeks ago had prompted me to muse about rereading, what we come back to and why.  I lost interest, but a friend has just reminded me of one.*  I said I’d come up with my top ten.  (I’m good at self-imposed challenges.)

To deal with the ‘why’ first, some rules are needed.  (I’m good at self-imposed rules.)  Rereading from desperation because there’s nothing new to hand doesn’t count, except when it does.**  Comfort or nostalgia are insufficient motives – for example, I will never read ‘The Lord of the Rings’ again, because though it may have been a comfort blanket in the past I now recognise that, basically, it’s crap.  And some books are just plain worn out.  I’ll never read ‘Catch-22’ again.  And big fat multi-volume sagas are not allowed, just because I say so.  So no ‘Dance to the Music of Time’, or Patrick O’Brian, or Harry Potter (hah, gotcha!).

No, the ‘why’ has to be caught in that one ineluctable word: quality.

So here we go.

·         ‘The Outsider’, by Albert Camus.
·         ‘The Great Gatsby’, by F Scott Fitzgerald.
·         ‘The Tin Roof Blowdown’, by James Lee Burke.
·         ‘The Third Policeman’, by Flann O’Brien.
·         ‘Vilette’, by Charlotte Brontë.
·         ‘The High Window’, by Raymond Chandler.
·         ‘Good as Gold’, by Joseph Heller.      
·         ‘The Code of the Woosters’, by P. G. Wodehouse.
·         ‘?’, by ?
·         ‘?’, by ?
Perceptive as you are, you’ll have noticed two things (apart from how boring and narrowly read I am – some of those Observateurs were doing Aristotle and Thomas Mann and stuff like that): they’re not ordered; and there are two empty slots.  Those are for you to fill, with a book that you reread but I’ve probably read once at most.  You’ll have to apply some guesswork there, of course.  And obviously I can’t rank them until I have all ten.

 * It’s on the list, but I’m not telling. 

** That’s a snitch from another one on the list, by the way.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Error Reporting Error

 ‘Caravan Diaries Part something or other’ is what this was supposed to be called.  The site opens at Easter, or April, whichever comes first (so I could, should, probably, have gone down a week ago).  The first visit’s always a bit of a chore: plumbing to be reinstalled, grass cut, hedge strimmed, patio furniture recovered from wherever the winter has redistributed it; not to mention tracking Joseph down and persuading him to reveal this year’s rent increase and accept a cheque after the customary discussion (something like “What, again?”  “It’s the landlord, see?”  “Yes, but – ”  “And there’s the VAT, see?”  “Yes, but – ” and so on).  But I thought Easter, caravan buddies’ll be down, catch up, wish each other happy new year, nip down the Wiseman’s for a snifter or three after tea…  And stare at the sea, pop seaweed bubbles, kick sand and start to ease back into that special brand of sanity.

The car thought otherwise.  Tuesday morning, halfway back home down the M4, there was a loud bleep.   “What’s that?” said my passenger.  Once upon a time I’d have said something like “read the fucking display, you silly cow,” but she’s 89 and old Yorkshire, and that wouldn’t do.  So I just said “seems to be an engine fault, power reduced”, because that’s what the fucking display said, and drove on.

The garage wanted to know if the display was amber or red.  I was pretty sure it was amber.  “Probably nothing serious, then.”  I thought eh?  Engine fault?  “But you’d better bring it in.”  Well, that had been my plan.  “Next Thursday?”  “Day after tomorrow?  That’s fine.”  “No, next Thursday, not this Thursday.”  Ah.  Of course, when I’d restarted the engine, the engine fault had somehow gone away and the power had come back.  “Probably a computer glitch.”  (That’s where the title of this post comes in, uncapping a gusher of philosophical speculation.)  “What about long journeys, then?”    “Probably best not.”

So here I am in a warm house in Reading, rather than a freezing caravan in Wales, regretting it.  The wonders of modern technology.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

All That Jazz

Following from earlier jottings about my relationship with music (my earliest hearings, and then rock'n'roll), the idea was to complete the trilogy with jazz.   I thought I could write a similar personal chronology, starting with, say, Armstrong or Beiderbecke or, from another perspective, ragtime or big band or bebop or – well, you get the idea.  I’ve been trying this for months now.  The delete key has never been used so much.  It can’t be done, for a reason which will become apparent in the last sentence of this post.  So instead, a few vignettes.

Trad opened up more than three chords.  It also equated to beer.  So it was that we ended up at the Beaulieu Jazz Festival in 1961, when they had the riot.  Me and my mates didn’t tear down any lighting scaffolds, but we gleefully watched it, until the police got too close and we scarpered.  That music was a hooligan.

One evening back in 1968, my band-mate Graham and I were slumped in our shared pensione room in Milan, pretty well enhanced, listening to this:

When side one had finished, he turned to me and said “Why do they play like that?”  Good question.

I can’t play jazz, never could, never will.  There was a guitarist busking in Broad Street the other day who could, and I stood watching from a distance, trying yet again to decipher how those notes get from the head to the fingers.  I can do them in the head, sometimes; but the fingers refuse to obey.  It’s not a matter of technique, I can’t do it in the slowest of slow motion.

John Coltrane died in vain for a love supreme, said Big Youth on ‘Natty Cultural Dread’, and proceeded to explain why.  I’d like to be able to pass that on, but I can’t, because he said it in jazz, which can’t be translated.

I once played a baritone sax.  It was surprisingly easy, after I got the hang of the embouchure.  I got at least five notes out of it, would’ve got more if we hadn’t had to go on stage: but it was the closest I’ve ever got to physical communion with an inanimate object.  I might go out and buy one, actually.

The great trombonist J. J. Johnson said: “Jazz is restless.”