Saturday, June 12, 2010

Fish Custard (5)

The Lonely Space Whale was an obvious metaphor for the Doctor, and Amy's empathy for the Whale was an obvious metaphor for Amy's empathy for the Doctor and Amy understood the Whale better than the Doctor did to show that Amy understands the Doctor better than the Doctor understands himself.

The Weeing Angels aren't, in that sense, a metaphor for anything. They aren't anything at all. They are villains without motive or personality or clearly defined powers, almost an absence in a story which is about the relationship between three main characters: the Doctor, Amy and River Bloody Song.

Everyone talks about the Buffyfication of Doctor Who, and by everyone I mean "me", obviously. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a show of great underlying integrity. You could accept evil alien Buddweiser that literally turned frat-boys into cavemen, or a school swim team that were mutating into Deep Ones because you always and absolutely believed in and cared about every one of the characters. Every bit of teen angst was followed through to its achy breaky conclusion. Davies "got" that the monsters in Buffy were mainly metaphors, lights to shine a torch at the hopeless doomed love affairs between Buffy and Angel and Buffy and Spike and decided that this was how modern Who would have to be.

I still don't know if this was the right decision. I don't know whether everything really does have to be all touchy-feely. When people say that the the Boys' Mountaineering and Boxing Society isn't attracting many girls and should therefore do less mountaineering and boxing, I'm inclined to say "But what about the boys who liked mountaineering and boxing but aren't nearly as keen on knitting and watching Glee?" Good thing to drop the "boy" bit though. Apparently girls can join the Boy Scouts but boys can't join the Girl Guides. Or maybe "don't". There's nothing wrong with girls wanting to learn how to kill and cook wild squirrels and boys wanting to bake cookies. But I'm not at all sure that there isn't room in the world for an all male space where boys can talk to other boys about their periods, so to speak. There really are a lot of socially awkward males in the world and Doctor Who really did used to be place for them to retreat and talk about Thals and Neutron Flows, and I am not sure if making it about dating, weddings, mothers and showing your emotions was an improvement, given that there are one or two programmes on TV which deal with that stuff already.

But given that we are committed to making Doctor Who a soap opera, at least lets make it a good soap opera. Once we had passed Bad Wolf Bay -- which I increasingly think was the moment when Russell had done what he set out to do and said what he had to say -- both we and him stopped caring, and that's the one thing that can never, ever happen in a soap.

Steven has made me care.

He's made me care about the relationship between the Doctor and Amy, and as long as I'm doing that it really doesn't matter whether this is a different kind of relationship to the one which a different Doctor, a long time ago, might have had with Jo Grant or Adric.

Me and Jon have recently seen a lot of movies we've quite liked, like Avatar and Iron Man; and a couple that we liked an awful lot, like Kick Ass; but we keep finding that we don't have very much to say to each other about them. But we've been talking about the Phantom Menace, which neither of us liked nearly so much, for years and years. (We agreed to differ about the abomination.)

Why, says Jon, is it so hard to talk about good movies?

I think the answer is that in a real sense you don't actually see good movies. As long as the movie is good, you aren't watching it: you are inside it, sharing the characters' experiences, seeing their world through their eyes. If you are in that state of mind, you can put up with almost anything, even the plot of Avatar. In the same way, you never actually see a good special effect: what you see is a spaceship or a sword fighting skeleton or a big blue willy. Only if the special effect has fundamentally failed do you have a chance to think "I wonder how they did that?" When a movie goes wrong something wrenches you out of it and you are looking from the outside: commenting that such and such an actor is doing this thing well, and that thing badly, noticing structure and shot. Sweet is the something which nature brings / our meddling intellect mis-shapes the beauteous form of things / and he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of knowledge, as the fellow said.

Criticizing Kick Ass would be a non sequitur. The only correct reaction is "Like, wow. Wow." Or as Jon said: "I never need to see another movie ever again."

The relationship between the Doctor and Amy is a relationship between two characters, between two people, not between two actors saying lines at each other. That's all that matters. Matt Smith gives us a panicky Doctor; an improvising Doctor; a Doctor who knows his own reputation and isn't quite sure if he can live up to it; a Doctor who knows that he is going to do something incredibly clever but hasn't thought of it yet; a Doctor who won't know what his plan is until he's finished talking; a Doctor who is concerned about being the Doctor.

"I'll do a thing. I don't know what thing yet. It's a thing in progress. Respect the thing."

Possibly maybe arguably perhaps a Doctor who is aware of his own Doctorness points to a show which is still not quite at ease with itself; a show which still thinks of itself as a revival of an old programme; a bit too post-modernist for its own good. "Doctor Who, based upon the BBC TV series 'Doctor Who'." But I honestly don't care. I haven't enjoyed the company of a TARDIS occupant this much since...I don't know, Logopolis, probably. From time to time David Tennant used to deliver lines which you wanted to take home and put on a tee-shirt because they defined everything you loved about this daft old silly TV programme. Matt Smith seems to do this every time he opens his mouth.

"There's something here which doesn't make sense. Let's go and poke it with a stick."

When a character is this mad, this endearing, this compelling it honestly doesn't matter if he's too like, or too unlike, the ten actors who previously played a character with the same name. (Have you noticed that Moffat keeps face-checking the First Doctor, as if to remind us that this Young Man is the same person as the Old Man who he is almost completely unlike?) I think I might be in love with the Eleventh Doctor if I had never seen another episode of Doctor Who in my whole life.

The scene where he leaves Amy with the clerical soldiers, warning her to keep her eyes closed and telling her to trust him ("But you never tell me the truth" "If I told you the truth you wouldn't need to trust me") seems to matter more than any Doctor / Companion scene has mattered since.... Well, since Bad Wolf Bay. But that wasn't about the Doctor and his companion, it was about the Lonely God and Dark Phoenix, over-the-top, overwrought, out of the range of normal human emotion, I'm burning up a star just to say good bye to you. This was the young old traveller and his human friend; the old young traveller about whom the question has never really gone away: can you trust him?

Doctor who?


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Friday, June 11, 2010

Fish Custard (4)

Or take the one with the statues. It's a "sequel" to Blink and "brings back" the Weeing Angels which were one of the "scariest" monsters in New Who.

Actually, the minute you start describing things as "scary" you've side-slipped away from the actual TV series and into another virtual Who clone in idea space -- "that programme which children watch from behind the sofa". Kids can be scared by anything and everything – Big Bird and Laurel and Hardy and the India Paper edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica -- but a glance at, say, Robot would be enough to blow away the theory that Doctor Who was always and irreducibly a horror show. The editors of Doctor Who Adventures, Radio Times, and other children's publications continue to ask whether this story is, or is not, as scary as that story. But they all agree that the scariest story ever was Blink, and that Blink was, coincidentally, the work of the present incumbent, sir, Mr Moffat, sir.

Blink was a good story. (I think that it was a very good story, but dissent from those who think that it was a very, very good story.) But the Angel itself was a very small part of the success of Blink. Steven had, in fact, written an angel-free version of the story in the 2006 Doctor Who Annual. The story was – like The Gel In the Fireplace and the Eleventh Hour – and, come to think of it, like Silence in the Library and Curse of Fatal Death and everything else the Moff has ever written – about Time Travel. Not from the point of view of historically accurate portraits of Winston Churchill, or even from the point of view of marrying your Grandad and stepping on a butterfly, but from the point of view of events confusingly starting to happen in the wrong order. Which, come to think of it, is what Time Travel in the context of a story pretty much has to be: a way of disrupting the narrative, foreshadowing, putting effects before causes and carts before horses.

So Blink is about people who are young at one moment and old the next because they've been sent backwards in time; and the Doctor trying to get a message to himself about something which hasn't happened yet. The Statues concatenate all the wibbly wobbley timey wimey ideas that Moffat wants to muck around with into a bloody great lump of plot device. Making them statues which can only move when nobody's looking at them (manifestly a stupid idea) is as good a way as any to signify to us that they are only a plot device and we shouldn't waste too much time thinking about them. It would be a bit like giving your hero a huge and inexcusable lump of technology and signalling the fact that it's never going to be explained by making it look less like a space ship and more like, I don't know, a phone box. (People who have invented something called a Doctor Who Universe go on and on about something called a Chameleon Circuit and thereby miss the absurdity, and, arguably, the point.)

So: bringing back the Angels is pretty much a category mistake, as if there was anything that was bringable backable. Everything which was angelly about them – the fact that they don't move (by the end of the second episode, they have) and the fact that they send people back in time (these ones don't) the fact that you can defeat them by making them look at each other (you can't, for some reason) has been dumped. They have randomly acquired new powers. It turns out that whatever carries the image of an angel becomes an angel and it turns out that Angels can turn people's arms to stone and it turns out a bit later that they can't turn people's arms to stone after all but only make people think that they have turned their arms to stone and it turns out that they can talk to people through the bodies of people they've killed which is only a bit identical to the invisible telepathic alien piranhas in the library.

And – you know where I am about say next, don't you? – none of this matters in the least.

My god-daughter says that she had "always wanted" to see a story with the Angels in it. Well, three years is a long time in television and an awfully long time when you're ten. Having always wanted to see the Angels in 2010 is no odder than having always wanted to see Yeti and Cybermen in 1973. (I never did see any Yeti.) The Angels are things which happened in Doctor Who a long time ago, and things which everyone knows are really, really, scary, even people too young to have seen them the first time round.

The story was as everyone has boringly but correctly persisted in pointing out, a remake of Aliens, plucky marines being picked off one by one by indestructible monsters. The idea of space marines fighting statues that don't move is manifestly absurd. The imagery of stone angels massing in spaceship corridors is manifestly absurd. And that's fine. Daleks are manifestly absurd. Daleks never made the slightest sense outside of the corridors of Skaro. Angels are Moffat's Daleks. They are the scariest thing in the universe because Moffat says they are the scariest thing in the universe. We have a race memory stretching all the way back to 2007 that says that they are the scariest thing in the universe. Even though they can't go upstairs


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Thursday, June 10, 2010

Fish Custard (3)

The One With the Daleks, for example. Yes, it was rushed. Yes, the revelation that Braceman was an android should have come at the end of an episode, when we'd had time to get to know him, not five minutes after we met him for the first time. Yes. there's a sort of glitch in that it took Braceman ten minutes – it's carefully specified in the script as ten minutes – to jury-rig the Spitfires into spaceships, when, even supposing him to be a Dalek supercomputer, it should have taken at least a fortnight. But even that's not the sort of glitch I can bring myself to get really cross about, because it means that the show is being driven by narrative logic, not engineering logic. Given that he's an android with Dalek blueprints it makes sense that he can rustle up something with which to defeat the Daleks. Given that he can, I don't think my enjoyment would have been greatly enhanced by a caption reading "three weeks later, he did."

After 47 years of careful thought, Terry Pratchett has spotted that Doctor Who isn't really science fiction. In other news: Bob the Builder is an inaccurate depiction of the modern building trade.

If what you want is something that you can think of as a little window into a more or less believable universe – one that carries on existing outside of the frame of your TV set – then by all means, go back to your FASA RPG and your New Adventures. You have your reward. But Steven Moffat laid out his stall pretty clearly on Day 1 ("in which Doctor Who comes to the forest and has breakfast"), and on Day 2, ("in which the whole character of the Doctor is defined as 'he can't bear to see children crying'".)

Do you remember that day in ninetyseventysomething when the Test Match was rained off and the BBC put the Peter Cushing Dalek movie on, unscheduled, on Saturday morning? Or the earnest boy in the school blazer perfectly describing how the Doctor had beaten the Daleks in the previous clip, and Michael Rodd saying "Only the Daleks could be so stupid!", patronisingly? Or even the ninetyeightysomething Panopticon which showed the Invasion of Earth movie on Saturday night, and Jeremy Bentham telling the nearly empty hall that they had just relived the days of Dalekmania?

It's all right, I'm shall spare you Yarvelling, Mark Seven, chocolate and mint ice lollies, yoghurt cartons, slot machines, board games.... My point is that the New New Daleks are brighter and shinier and bigger and have deeper voices than the Old New Daleks. They are, as my god-daughter helpfully pointed out, fiercer. The Doctor confronts them in a big, empty white room, and he beats them because they don't know what Jammy Dodgers are and he does. And very pointedly, when the action cuts back to the Cabinet War Rooms, we look at the Doctor confronting the Daleks in black and white, which was how we all first saw the Daleks, in order to make the point that the New New Daleks are much more like the Old Daleks, indeed the Old Old Daleks, than the Old New Daleks ever were. (Notice that the slats have gone and been replaced by those sort of metal collar things which disappeared after The Chase?)

It's like Russell wanted to the Daleks to be sensible, believable, dark, metallic, Klingons that went up stairs and had existential angst and weird religious fanaticism but who were a little bit pathetic even -- especially -- when they were trying to destroy the whole of Life, the Universe and Everything. Steven wants them to be great big exciting toys in a flying saucer with an interior that looks like how the interiors of flying saucers ought to look, and unceremoniously wipes out the Rusellite half-Daleks in a single scene.

The Daleks aren't serious believable alien life forms: they just aren't. They're 1950s outer space robot people with an impractical design: more like Smash Martians than Borg.

I didn't think that the Doctor was really going to destroy planet Earth, of course, but I did feel that he was being presented with a moral dilemma that was a little on the hard side and he did seem to have to think about it a little bit.

It really is beside the point to say that it wasn't a very believable portrayal of Winston Churchill. There are people out there who think that Doctor Who ought to be about time travel -- that a story set in the War ought to be a story set in the accurate historical War and that cave men should speak with the kind of received pronunciation BBC accents that modern anthropology tells us that cavemen really spoke with. Russell was wrong to say that Doctor Who historicals should be like Horrid History books. Horrid History books are mainly about executions and toilet paper. But Doctor Who historicals have always been set in the world of English school history text books. This may not have been Winston Churchill, but it was Winnie. Not true, necessarily, but certainly memorable.


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Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Fish Custard (2)

Doctor Who is watched at several levels in an average household. The smallest child terrified behind a sofa or under a cushion, and the next one up laughing at him, and the elder one saying 'sh, I want to listen', and the parents saying 'isn't this enjoyable'.
Tom Baker

It's all about expectations, isn't it?
If you go to a Bob Dylan concert expecting Mozart [*] then you might find Bob a bit simplistic -- decent melodies but not very much happening. But if you expect Mozart to be like Dylan, then you might find him a bit fiddly and showy offy, not enough tunes and too many notes. I myself spent many years thinking that Bob Howard wrote bad fantasy; I recently discovered that he wrote the best pulp fiction in the whole wide world. (Starting to think of him as Bob rather than Robertee helped, I have to say.)
I've talked before about the two different Doctors Who – the Who that exists in the mind of the fans and the Who that exists in the nostalgic memories of people who used to watch it on television in the 1970s. The former is all Time Lord politics and back story, maybe Harold Saxon is the Monk, maybe River Song is the Master, if James Bond is Rassilon then who is Omega? The latter is Basil Brush and Marmite and Frank Bough and the dividend forecast is very good.
And by all means, make a hobby out of the Dalek Civil War and the Other and that peculiar confection in which baby Time Lords are knitted and the Doctor has a pet Badger. By all means believe that some kind of golden age came to an end when Ernie Wise died and they replaced the BBC globe with the BBC hippopotamus. But just occasionally, sit down with Horror of Fang Rock and remind yourself what it is we are talking about.
Which is the real Doctor Who, after all? The one we remember from when we were twelve? The one invented by fan-fiction writers? Or the actual DVD we watch on our actual television?
If I was going to write about The Prisoner remake, and I might, then I could safely talk about it as if it was a telly programme; quite interesting in places but no substitute for the real thing. A bit dull in the middle...Jesus was a bit wooden....Gandalf saved the'd have to have had a heart of stone to watch the scene in which [SPOILER DELETED] tops himself without laughing. I wouldn't waste ten words saying "Bugger all to do with Patrick McGoohan, though". My reader would probably send me a comment along the lines of "Well, duh!"
If you like modern Doctor Who, well, 10 to 1 you'd like anything with the Doctor Who label on it on general principles. Running back to the TARDIS is the equivalent of grasping a favourite teddy bear, quite harmless, possibly, but not a valid basis for a critical response. If you don't like modern Doctor Who, then, 10 to 1, you're one of those fanboys who's still sore at Jon Pertwee for leaving and thinks that everything should be in black and white. And don't dare try justify your position by referring to specific strengths or weaknesses in specific episodes. Only the geekiest of geeky geeks would quote facts about a TV show, and we really shouldn't pay much attention to what geeky geeks say. Simpsons Comic Book Guy. Simpsons Comic Book Guy.
We may have differed by a star rating here or there; we may have dissented about whether Blink really put that much of a dent in the reputation of Phillip K Dick and why The Satan Pit was so quickly forgotten but there was a pretty broad consensus on New Who Seasons 1 – 4. Started well...Chris and Billie...Dalek...gas masks....Tennant...Bad Wolf bay...started to lose the plot....Torchwood....Olympic Torch....dragging the earth....please god, make it stop....John Barrowman...John Barrowman....John Barrowman. But this time, there seems to be a definite split, and I find myself on the wrong side of it. Both my readers have surfed here because they want to listen to me doing some witty pithy slagging off and I'm on the defensive. Not since Deadly Assassin have I felt so guilty about the fact that I'm, you know, a Doctor Who fan but I'm, you know, how can I put this – really enjoying Doctor Who...


[*] Or Bob Dylan, admittedly, but let's not get bogged down in the first paragraph.

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Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Transports of Delight

A couple of weeks ago I was walking along the river, through Bristol's prestigious "impossible to get anything remotely resembling a glass of beer" quarter. On the courtyard in front of the Lloyds building (usually occupied by young men falling off skateboards) I stumbled upon what was obviously some kind of convention or flea market for bus enthusiasts.

You may think that "bus" and "enthusiast" is a contradiction in terms, and I may think that "bus" and "enthusiast" is a contradiction in terms, but the people who were walking around the convention writing down bus numbers in their notebooks were clearly very enthusiastic indeed about buses. And there are apparently enough of them for it to be worth holding a convention in Bristol. There were perhaps 50 or 100 buses: buses that didn't look much more ancient than the ones one waits for on Stokes Croft; buses that looked so old that you wondered why they didn't have horses attached to them. Mostly local and country buses; green buses and buses with regional insignia and heraldry. I venture to say that the fans of scarlet painted London Transport diesel engine 97 horsepower London buses have their own conventions, and laugh (ha!) at regional bus fans. (I am city kid. Buses are red and it is only in quaint places outside the Thames TV area where you visit elderly relatives that buses are green. I have heard that if you stand outside Cockfosters tube (where the London Underground comes to an end) you will eventually see buses turning from red to green, and do in part believe it.) Some of them wore the uniforms that bus conductors wore in the days when there were bus conductors.

I assume that an individual collector can't possibly own his own bus. Presumably, there must be vintage bus societies, and each vehicle must represent thousands of pounds and thousands of hours work by society members. I picture them packing up their sandwiches and piling into the society bus, and then converging on Bristol at an agreed time, like Hells Angels or the Caravan Club. (The last time I went to Bournemouth I discovered the phenomenon of the costumed marching band: a large group of local men in Spider-Man suits doing cheer-leader majorette type marching, followed by, as it may be, a group from Clacton all dressed as Buzz Lightyear or a group from Lewes all dressed as Vikings. Can you imagine a better excuse to visit a different English seaside town each month during the summer? Well, yes, so can I, but that isn't the point I'm trying to make here.) And of course, there were trestle tables on which people were selling antique bus time tables, back numbers of bus magazines, cigarette cards with buses on them, and old Corgi models of buses, many of which are much sort after by the sorts of people who collect corgi models of buses.

Now, I have always taken it for granted that someone, somewhere knows about buses. If I were making a movie set in Weston Super Mare in the 1950s, an admittedly remote contingency, I would expect to be able to give someone a ring and say "There's a scene where my hero is waiting on the sea front to meet his girlfriend off the bus. Please, what kind of a bus should it be?" Some people believe that history grows wild on the Internet. You can close history departments, fire the academics, give all the universities a restructuring they'll never forget, and when the BBC wants to make a lavish costume drama about the life of a kitchen maid at the time of bloody Mary, trivial data about Tudor dish-washing will magically fall from the sky. But I guess I'd been assuming that bus experts were a species of Local Historian or a sub-phylum of Vintage Car fanatic. But no. It appears that there are people whose whole life is buses.

I imagine they are just as bored with people who say that you wait hours for a bus enthusiast and then a hundred come along at once as I am with people (and I'm looking at you, Venue magazine) who can't see a meeting of strip illustrators without saying "Zap!" and "Kapow!"

At this point in the proceedings you would very naturally expect me to start using expressions about "getting a life", wondering whether these bus enthusiasts would ever "grow up" or if indeed they had ever "got laid". But in fact my reaction to a courtyard full of people wondering whether this 1/76 die cast ABC model West Midlands PTR Volvo TRA 5005 was in better condition than that 1/76 die cast ABC model West Midlands PTR Volvo TRA5005 was to cry out "Brother!" or at any rate "Distant cousin twice removed on my Auntie Annie's side!"

In my third favourite pub there is sometimes a group of people who spend the evening talking about their capacitors and their resistors. It turns out they are radio amateurs. Not even Citizens Band: I don't think C.B ever really took off in this country. Proper Hancock style Radio 'Ams. How can it possibly be fun to use home made radios (and Morse Code, for heaven's sake) to communicate with people from other lands in an age when electronic mail, and, I believe, telephones, are relatively common? There's only one possible reaction to this kind of stupidity. "Fellow geeks!"

There is literally nothing better in the world than a group of friends getting together to do something they like. When it's something that hardly anyone else likes, something which everybody else thinks is quite silly – something which in the cold light of day, even they realize is quite silly – that makes it even better. Rather noble. Rather Corinthian, if that's the word I'm groping for. I don't know why the 1972 Pagham – Littlehampton time table was so much less beautiful than the 1964 version had been. Why should I? They don't know that the 1996 invasion of Earth by the Mekon was only defeated because the human race bothered to practice redundant skills like horse-riding and sword-fighting which the Treens had long abandoned.

So. I hope you all enjoy your big game of kickabout very much indeed. But please – don't pretend it actually matters. And do try not to kill anybody afterwards.

You've done this one before - Ed

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Best Political Essay Ever?

A new politics...?

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Martin Carthy / Jim Causely / Emily Portman

Bath Fringe Festival (Tent)
4 June

Martin Carthy wasn't allowed to do an encore. He had already sung all twenty four stanzas of Prince Heathen, including the twiddly bits between the verses. So the show had gone on 15 minutes longer than planned: any later and the tent might have lost its licence...

He also did Lochmaben Harper, which I'm sure I've never heard before, about a harper who makes one of those unwise bets that he can steal the king's favourite horse. He (Martin) claims that it is the most satisfying song in the repertoire. When you know as many songs as Martin Carthy you must have a lot of favourites. (The harper's wife comes up with a ruse to win the bet. Martin says it's always the musician's wife who has to think up a "plan B".)
He also does a lot of the old staples, of course, including the most spine-tingling version of the The Trees They Grow So High I've ever heard.

Jim Causely is notably less silly without Mawkin to banter with, but these things are relative: the set includes a song about a ferret to the tune of My Grandfather's Clock! (And Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, of course.)
His accordian playing is pretty good. There's a poetic vibe to the set. He sings a version of a Dylan Thomas poem about looking for "long linbed summer girls" on the beach. (
"If I tell you who it's by, you'll say "meh, Streets of London"). He also does his own rendition of
"All Souls Day" by Charles Causely, of whom he turns out to be a distant relation.

Emily Portman, who I've never heard before or of, sang a lot of down tempo songs of her own, cleverly and obliquely inspired by fairy tales. They were very dense and I'd like to hear them again. I enjoyed the
jolly traditional number about wife beating ("He put the salt-hide on her back / Hide woman hide /He beat her blue, he beat her black / That'll lay down your pride"). I'm not sure we actually needed the additional verse in which the man gets his comeuppance: we could probably have taken it for granted that the singer didn't approve of domestic violence. She finishes with a Lal Waterson song in which Martin Carthy joins her. Isn't it lovely that such a senior performer will play guitar for the relative newcomers who are supporting him?

As a result of the lady spending quite such a long time refusing to cry when the heathen dog tells her to, I missed the last train back to Bristol and had to sit on Bath Station until 1.15 AM. Worth it, though, definitely worth it.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Nancy Kerr and James Fagan

Jazz@FutureInns Bristol
19 May

I suppose you are are expecting me to say something interesting or clever about this weeks performers.

Well, then.

Nancy comes from England and James comes from Australia.

She plays the fiddle and he plays the ouzouki. I know this because I overheard him telling somebody in the interval that that's what it was. Otherwise, I might have thought that it was a guitar.

They just had a little baby boy named Hamish, who will one day be able to tell his friends that his granny was Madeleine the Rag Doll.

They used to live on a boat on the river outside Bath, but have recently moved into a house because of the baby, which brings them out in a lovely song about sailors longing for the land.

They do a nice line in clever song medleys, so that Thaxted (I vow to thee, my country) turns into Sad To Be Leaving Old England, with just a level teaspoon of Hard Times Of Old England for seasoning.

Nancy has a delicate, little-girl-lost voice; James is more robust, less folk songery.

Nancy sings a lovely gypsy influenced version of Barbary Allen which she says is the first song she remembers her mother singing.

James opens the second half with some contemporary Australian tunes. Blood Stained The Soil of Australia was completely new to me: one of those leftie anthems which makes you want to go on strike regardless of your previous political affiliations. It was written by their late friend Alistair Hulett: I have to say I liked their version better. James also does a not at all folkie but very good song called The Long Run apparently written by a group of left-wing economics students.

The Australian side of the partnership definitely dominates tonight's set: the first half finished with the mighty Farewell to the Gold -- not quite as good as Nic Jones version, but then, what is? Nancy contributes her own ballad about Ned Kelly's final days in Jerilderee. Their next album will consist entirely of original Nancy songs.

Words like "sweet" come to mind when I try to describe the partnership; the music, even the angry political songs are light, melodious, catchy.

Hamish gurgles occasionally from the back row: we're assured he likes Mum and Dad's songs and will go to sleep if we join in the choruses. From time to time during a riff they catch each other's eyes and grin or laugh. The venue is ridiculously empty, but you can tell how much they enjoy being on the stage together.

So, I shall attempt to say something clever and insightful about the evening:

"Nancy Kerr and James Fagan play nice songs, beautifully."

And they seem to be nice people as well.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Songs About the Global Credit Crisis

Good Song About The Global Credit Crisis

Very Good Song About The Global Credit Crisis

Very, Very Good Song About The Global Credit Crisis

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Habemus Papam!
And let's be clear -- when the Blue Nasties start cutting schools, libraries, swimming pools, re-installing Discipline into schools, exorcising homosexuals on the NHS, following President Palin to war against Iran, Korea, France etc -- everyone in the Labour Party will say "That's a price well worth paying for us not talking to the Liberals."

Either the next election (about three months from now, I should think) will be fought on a new, sane, PR based constitution, in which case I will say "Good on you, Mr Klegg, you canny political operator you, you certainly deserve a shot at being Prime Minister under our new democratic system." Or it will not be fought on the daft old first past the post system, in which case I will certainly not vote for Klegg.

Or anyone else.
Do we nearly have a government yet?

Monday, May 10, 2010

Folk Against Fascism Village Fete

Royal Festival Hall, London
May 2

"I've lost Saint George in the Union Jack / It's my flag, Nick, and I want it back..."

Steve Knightley's on-the-spot rewriting of his anthemic folk manifesto provided the high point in an afternoon that was entirely made up of high points.

The conceit behind the Folk Against Fascism Mayday event was that it should be an English village fete. So, sure enough, the sky clouded over, a persistent drivel drizzle descended, and the stalls and dancing were moved into the foyer of the Festival Hall. There was a cake stall and a stall selling Imagined Village bath-bombs and Jim Causley providing possibly a new definition of "good sport" by spending the afternoon in the persona of a gypsy fortune teller. When I arrived, the Oyster Band's celidah was coming to end with loud song about having been up since the break of day-o because it was May-o and winter had gone away-o. This led very naturally into an outbreak of morris dancing.

This was the only part of the afternoon that was really dampened by the English weather. It isn't really as festive to watch morris in the bar of a concert hall as it would have been on the banks of the Thames, and it was perhaps harder to hear the accordions and fiddles than it should have been. I don't know if the groups were chosen specifically to counteract the myth that morris dancing is only done by elderly, beery males: there were all female groups and plenty of young'uns and two ladies dressed up as a horse. The crowd was most pleased by the rappa dancing (that's a sort of sword dance where you get skilfully entangled in strips of leather) but regional pride requires that my favourites were the young men from Brizzle who waved their hankies and leapt in the air with what is technically known as "gusto".

I know not the first thing about morris, but like very much the fact that people take so much trouble to do something which is pretty obviously very difficult and very silly. Village green preservation society, and all that.

Pausing only for a slice of lemon cake, we got to the the meat of the afternoon: a mini-concert of traditional music played by people the Daily Express would consider to be insufficiently indigenous. First up was the remarkable Boka Halut, fronted by Roger Watson (traditional English songs on the accordion) and Musa Mboob (Ghanan-speaking and playing some kind of African drum arrangement.) As Roger Watson told the story, Mboob had remarked that English folk music made him want to dance; Roger replied that African drums made him want to dance. "So let's put them together and make the whole world dance." I don't always go for "fusion" stuff but this works, spot on, simply because both ends of the music were just so damn good. Watson sings a more or less straight John Barleycorn to which Mboob adds a refrain about the evils of beer; then there's a rewritten Haul Away Johnny-Oh which points up the connections between English sea shanties and African work songs. The sax player is German, and notes that he wanted to play the gig because he's only too aware of what happens when the far right appropriates traditional music. Apparently, it only now becoming possible to sing traditional German folk songs in Germany again.

This was followed by an all-to-brief set by Tom Paley and Thomas McCarthy. Tom Paley does bluegrass banjo stuff. He's eighty two, Jewish, lives in England, grew up in New York and once played in a duo with Woody Guthrie, I will say again, once played in a duo with Woody Guthrie. Thomas McCarthy is from an Irish traveller background: apparently he turned up at Cecil Sharp folk club one evening and asked if they'd like to hear his family songs. He sings genuine, uncollected, source-singery songs about getting drunk and waking up with a pig, witnessing the end of the old travelling days and accidentally marrying a lady of 90. It doesn't get more authentic than this.

I may be in a minority of one here, but I was less convinced by Dogan Mehmet. He's clearly a very accomplished violinist, and I have no objection at all to listening to that Turkish Cypriot starts-slow-and-gets-faster-and-faster fiddle music. But this kind of fusion didn't really say anything to me about folk music. It felt like Turkish music which just happened to have lyrics about raggle taggle gypsies. Everyone else in the room obviously thought he was sensational.

By which point, it was time for us lucky ticket holders to proceed into the main hall for the main event.

As everyone knows, I don't think that Chumbawamba can do a single thing wrong. They opened their set with the unaccompanied traditional "arise ye men of freedom the world seems upside down" and followed it with the modern anti-facebook anthem "Add Me". (Once again, I loved it that there were people in the audience who didn't know the song, and were hearing the silly pun in the refrain for the first time and laughing out loud.) It was an absolute revelation to hear them in a concert hall with a classical music acoustic: the detail and skill of their akapella close harmonies just shine through. There was no particular sense that this was a specifically anti-fascist concert – everyone was just doing a set of their songs – but, of course, Chumbawamba are always political and it was inevitable that there would be thunderous, thunderous applause for the mighty "Day The Nazis Died" (with all the verses, this time.) Heidi and Belinda provide the rattles for "Wagner at the Opera", and come on to the stage to help them "Torture James Hetfield." They wind up with "El Fusilado", the song about the man who survived the firing squad, with the audience clicking and clapping as appropriate. Utterly perfect set. If anyone asks me to explain my political beliefs at the moment, I tell them to listen to Chumbawamba albums. Not that anyone ever does. (Ask me, I mean.)

Show of Hands came on next. It could probably be argued that, more than anyone else, Show of Hands is responsible for Folk Against Fascism's coming into being. Chumbawamba are, as we know, anarchists: Mr Beer and Mr Knightley's songs often seem small-c conservative, although Steve might say that he is articulating characters' points of views, not necessarily his own. The opening number, "Country Life", is clearly looking back towards a better rural past: not a pastoral utopia, but a time when the small holder could scrape a living, before Tescos and foot and mouth finished him. "Cousin Jack" is a thumping anthem for the Cornish diaspora, which ends with miner in South Africa seeing a future in which the English buy up his cottages as holiday homes, and the Spanish fish in their waters. [*]

And then there is "Roots", the great, heartfelt, three-songs-in-one crie-de-couer for the English to stop despising their own folk-culture. With Indian, Asian, Afro Celts, it's in their blood, below the belt / they're singing and dancing all night long / so what have they got right that we've got wrong. Steve is quite clear: of course it wasn't intended to be taken up as a theme song for the extreme right (I believe he took legal action to get the song removed from the BNPs website). The target of the song is, if anyone, Kim "bullshit" Howells, the culture-hating junior culture minister who (defending Nulabour's bonkers plan to make pub landlords buy a performing rights licence if anyone sung a song their pub) opined that "listening to three Somerset folk singers sounds like hell". The song is demanding the return of the flag from the far right, not from the immigrants. I chickened out of wearing my Union Jack tie to the event, which I rather regret.[**]

I don't like everything Show of Hands do: I can't really get my head round the easy ranting of "Arrogance, Ignorance and Greed" (A.I.G, geddit?). Mr Tilston and Mr Wood have both written much more reasoned songs about the Global Credit Crisis. But their treatment of the traditional "Keys of Canterbury" is quite wonderful. When they get into their groove, hardly anyone provides a better stage experience: "Cousin Jack", "Santiago" and "Roots" are all handed over to the audience with Steve getting into "caller" mode -- " 'where there's a mine'....'copper and lead'....little bit louder.... raise the last time."

After the interval, we find that someone has placed song sheets on our chairs. Jackie (Jim Moray's Sister) Oates comes onto the stage unannounced, and sings the unaccompanied tale of the sweet nightingale that sings in the valley below, below, which sings in the valley below, whereupon the lights go out, and then red spotlights shine into the audience, and an uncharactersitcally smartly dressed Jon Boden launches into the Prickle Eye Bush. I don't think I've heard Bellowhead do this before, although it's a regular part of Spiers and Boden's act when they're being a duo. Over-the-top even by Bellowhead's high standards, the brass section go into a Morcambe and Wise skip-dance routine at one point; there's a silent-movie style tension-fanfare in the middle of the final verse ("Oh my love have you brought me gold...and silver to set me free?" da-da-da-da "oh yes, I have brought you gold...") and many audience participatory repeats of the last chorus. Sensational. I rather think that 20 years from now, old folkies will still be saying "Aye, lad, I were there when Bellowhead sung Oh The Prickley Bush at the festival hall."

They rattle their way through a good mixture of old and new material: we get Fakenham Fare (which passes for a "slow" track where B'head are concerned) and Haul Away Johnny Oh and finish with the New York Girls, off their forthcoming album. It can be Portsmouth girls or London girls, depending on where you are but you'll always wake up stark naked on the bed thinking that "you have to get up early to be smarter than a whore."

It is possible to have too much of a good thing, and I can sometimes think that by the end of a Bellowhead set I've been repeatedly beaten over the head with a mellodian. In between the songs, there were more unaccompanied acoustic numbers, by Jo Freya and Tim Van Eyken which mitigated the overwhelmingness of it all.

I had wondered what the climax of the event would be – I mean, having had "Roots" and the "Day the Nazi Died" and Bellowhead starting with an earthquake and building up to a climax , how do you end the evening? (When I saw Spiers and Boden in Bristol, they'd suggested that the three groups would be trying to sing each other's songs, which would have been interesting... I still haven't quite got over the fact that I missed Bellowhead covering "Fairy Tale of New York" at their New Year gig.) But in the event, and very sensibly, they kept the conceit of the village fete going and brought everyone onto the stage, including the Voice Lab choir, and sung unaccompanied again, three traddy songs, with the audience joining in off the song sheet for "The Larks They Sung Melodious" and "Farewell Lovely Nancy."

In a way, I was surprised how apolitical the event was. But this was really as perfect an end to the evening as you could possibly have had. It's Mayday. It's pissing down. An English (and, let's be honest here, entirely mainly white) audience are singing English songs. And what's brought us together is a pressing need to say "Bollocks to Nick Griffin."

Bollocks to Nick Griffin. It's our flag too, and we want it back.

[*] When I heard Chris Wood a couple of months back, he noted that his own song, the Cottagers Reply, contained the line "I need the earth that bred my race" and admitted that it would be possible to misinterprate it.

[**] I've only just understood the line "I've lost St George in the Union Jack": I think he means that Englishness (warm beer, morris dancing, folk songs, ye diggers all stand up) has been subsumed him Britishness (land of hope and glory, rule Brittania).

While it is literally true that I have never heard Bellowhead play The Prickle Eye Bush before, if I had a copy of their Eponymous mini-album, I would have done....
"I don't want to go...."

Friday, May 07, 2010

OK. I am quite happy with Klegg saying that he will sign a pact with anyone, up to and including Mephistopheles, provided the offer voting reform. But he mustn't prop up the Blue Nasties for anything less than constitution reform. If you are going to sell your birthright, make damn sure you actually get the pottage.
So, basically, Klegg says he will prop up the Cameron and continue to "argue for" fairness.

Can he really be saying that he'll anoint the Blue Party -- who won't promise any kind of constitutional reform, and keep out the Red Party -- who will have a referendum on voting reform?

And I voted for this guy, when I could have voted for the identity card anti-civil libertarian nutters who lied about a the homophobic old etonian nutters who like national service and was a very good "Legalize Drugs" independent. If I'd voted for him, his score might have reached double figures.
Sure, most of what's wrong with England today can be blamed on Rupert Murdoch, and sure, the Sun is an odious little rag, and everything. But you can't deny that "UKIP brought down by right wing" is a bloody good headline.
How democracy works. 64% of those who bothered to vote didn't vote for the Blue Party. This is an overwhelming mandate for the Blue Party. (71% of those who bothered to vote didn't vote for the Red Party. This amounts to complete annihilation of the Red Party.) 52% if those who bothered to vote voted for either the Red Party or the Yellow Party. A joint Red-Yellow government would therefore be an affront to democracy.
Man in the Nasty Express comments section goes to the heart of the issue: "Brown should not have been allowed to stand as prospective Prime Minister on the basis of election in Scotland."
John says it is now impossible for their not to be a hung parliament.
The Nasty Mail says that Cameron has earned the right to "rule" Britain. Does this qualify as treason against the crown, d'you think?
Cameron: "I don't 'old with all this constitutional stuff. I'm unilaterally declaring that this is an electoral college and I'm president, so there."
I wish I was a member of the Lib Dems so I could resign if Klegg hands power to the Tories.