Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Kiss and Make Up

It's late, and we're very drunk, and I'm gazing around the walls of a beer bar somewhere near Wenceslas Square, Prague.

It’s kind of incongruous, a reminder of the two worlds this country has known over the last fifty years.

Standing on tables behind us, a birthday party or works outing is bellowing out songs at the top of their voices, some of which, our guide tells us, are old revolutionary communist fighting songs.

But the walls are laden with framed pictures of that greatest example of Western decadence - the rock and roll band.

Here's one of Johnny Cash, backstage at Hammersmith Odeon in 1966, looking disturbingly like The Fall's Mark E Smith.

There's one of an indie rock band who were huge globally in the mid-nineties, their flame haired singer crawling towards us on all fours, burning the world with the flash of her eyes. This band always make me wistful because I met the singer a few times and she definitely fancied me, and I did nothing to reciprocate. No one believes me when I tell them, but this was back when she was a lot less famous and quite a bit less attractive than she is on this poster, and, it has to be said, when I was an entirely different shape.

But over here is a poster of Kiss, and it pulls me up short and stops me feeling sorry for myself, because I feel loads sorrier for one of Kiss.

I've noticed it before, but never really processed it till now. Sure Kiss were camp and larger than life and ROCK in a way that now only a fully-fledged novelty act could get away with, but look at them. 

Let's play Kiss! Baggsy not being the one on the bottom left - oh, why do I always have to be the cat one?

Three have face make-up that makes them look very cool, very rock and roll. One's demonic, one's got a star, and one has some kind of explosion or lightning flash. All guaranteed to make the seventies groupie swoon.

And then... one of them looks like a cute little pussycat.

His face paint is not glam rock face paint; it's the kind of thing children get painted on their faces at village fetes. The poor bastard looks like he's lost a bet, or was a regular target for being bullied by the rest of the band. Surely he can’t have chosen that design himself, in contrast to his band-so-called-mates?

Did no one think this unusual at the time?

Did Kiss fans cold shoulder him, or was there a special enclave of sensitive Kiss fan who instead of shagging his brains out put him on a cushion and fed him bread and milk?

Either way – poor bastard. No wonder he was one of the first to leave the band.

When I got back from Prague I read Kiss’ Wikipedia page and found out some more about what each band member’s face paint was meant to represent, and why. But it wasn’t half as interesting as the drunken mental story I’d created for myself, so I won’t repeat it here.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Hurrah Mummy, it's the F*** Buttons!


You know you could only be at a festival when…

… it’s after 11pm, and you’re watching a band called Fuck Buttons play the kind of nosebleeding, earblasting noise you occasionally enjoy because it acts as a reset switch in your head, scrubbing out your brainpan like wire wool and making all the bad people go away, the kind of noise that actually scares some of your friends, and…

…your view of the stage is obscured by a toddler on his father’s shoulders.

As we reach the outer edges of the Far Out Tent at the Green Man Festival, the aforementioned Fuck Buttons are playing the first song off their latest album.  Well, I say ‘song’.  This is just a noise.  But that makes it sound like a bad thing.  It’s a noise that goes squeeeeee and ranggggggggg and zzzzzzzzz in the most satisfying way. 

Fuck Buttons are what Mogwai would have been like if they’d picked up synths instead of guitars.

They’re what would have happened if the Chemical Brothers had been a couple of Orcs.

This is static electricity translated into English.  It’s sounds that belong to another kind of life form, made listenable.  (Well, I say listenable.)

Fuck Buttons music is what happens after you go to bed and your telly and your laptop come to life, go to a cathode ray disco and start fucking on the dance floor, shooting ultramarine and indigo pixel sperm.

I do love Fuck Buttons.  But – and maybe it’s something to do with a nagging worry that until little Jasper decides he’s ready for bed we’re perhaps expected to pretend they’re called Flip Buttons – after thirty minutes I feel I’ve seen and heard all I need to.  I could stay to the end quite happily, but I don’t have to.

As we leave the Far Out Tent, while the neon strips of lights are still pulsing and throbbing, we have to reacquaint ourselves with mud that’s as filthy as the noise at our backs.  I worked out earlier that I’ve been to ten festivals in the last fifteen years, and five of them have been mud baths.  There isn’t a mud bath festival in the last decade that I’ve missed.

“It’s the same kind of mud as Glastonbury now,” says the Beer Widow, now on her third mud bath out of six festivals.

“Yes,” I reply, “It’s obviously the same soil type.”

And it’s only as these words leave my mouth, thankfully unheard by the masses around us getting drunk, baked, stoned and bombed, contemplating what for many of them is a mere curtain raiser to a whole night of bleeps and squawks – it’s only then that I think, ‘Maybe I am getting too old for this shit’.  

Monday, June 14, 2010

Jumpers for goalposts? Not quite, but....

We were watching one of these endless 'Best World Cup Moments' spacefillers last night and I became really nostalgic.

Twenty four hours earlier, notwithstanding the complete fuck up of ITV's HD coverage (they lost the goal!!!!), at the start of the England game I'd been marvelling at the pin-perfect picture and sound being broadcast live from the other side of the planet.

And then I decided I didn't like it.  Not just because of the bleedin' vuvuzelas, but because in adding something (digital quality), broadcasters and the technology they use have taken away something far more emotionally powerful.

The clips from past tournaments on the programme last night showed us what we now miss.  Back in the seventies, eighties and early nineties, when the World Cup came from a different continent, you knew about it.  The picture was grainy and slightly bleached, and the commentary sounded like it was coming to you down a phone line, sibilant and shushy and tinny and flat.

And I'm not just being nostalgic here - even at the time, I adored it for that.  It underlined that this was coming to you from thousands of miles away, that Our Lads were out there, on a world stage.  It reminded you how big the world is, and how important that stage.  You were keenly aware that you only got this kind of coverage every four years.  It created a Pavlovian anticipation that you were about to see something special.

If I see a miraculous goal from Brazil in any higher quality broadcast, counter-intuitively it feels less real.  If a World Cup final 12,000 miles away has the same immediacy and presence as a third round FA Cup tie on a January Sunday, how can it not feel more ordinary than it did when the compromises we had to endure underlined the enormity of the planet, and the significance of its coming together to play football?

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Stokey Lit Fest

So, my wife just organized Stoke Newington’s first ever literary festival, and it was a phenomenal success, written up here by The Times (which you may now have to register to see).

I did two events at it myself, but these were almost an afterthought compared to the work we had to do organizing volunteers, the bar, crib notes for all event hosts, the sugar for A C Grayling’s tea… pretty much everything you can think of.

We’ll do it again next year, when we’ll hopefully have funding and the opportunity to hire staff. But what a blast it was. You can see some fab photos here.  To give a flavour of a whirlwind three days that feels like it lasted both a hundred years and half an hour, here are the images and sensations that stick in my mind a few days later:
  • Stewart Lee magicking the weather.  Stewart was reading a spooky short story by Arthur Macken, set in Stoke Newington.  It was a glorious afternoon as a sell-out crowd converged on Stoke Newington International Airport.  As the room was hushed by Machen's subtle, uneasy creepiness the sky went dark, and fat, heavy rain drops began hammering on the roof.
  • Our volunteers just turning up and getting on with it after I promised a briefing and allocation of duties and then found myself stuck organising a billion other things as the briefing time came and went and we got closer to the doors opening for the first event.  And them turning up day after day, and remaining cheerful and proactive, and just doing the biz again and again.  All while wearing bright pink festival crew T-shirts.
  • Stoke Newington's librarian, Richard Boon, meeting Edwyn Collins.  Edwyn is the former lead singer of Orange Juice, the band that pretty much invented the sound of Indie, who had a massive stroke in 2005 and is, incredibly, now playing gigs again.  The short set he and his band played after the readings from Grace Maxwell (Edwyn's wife, whose book documents his miraculous recovery) brought a standing ovation from the crowd.  Richard Boon is the former manager of Buzzcocks and Magazine (that's how cool Stoke Newington is, and how cool Richard Boon is - a librarian who was a key figure in the post punk movement!)  Richard first met Edwyn when Buzzcocks were touring Scotland in 1978, and Orange Juice hung around after the gig and offered to help move the equipment back to the van.  Now, 32 years later, I'm escorting Edwyn to the table where his wife is signing books, and Richard is coming the other way.  Richard: "Edwyn!"  Edwyn: "Richard!" and they fall into the most passionate embrace two straight men can, and my eyes fill with tears, not for the first time in the last hour.
  • The shivers that ran down my spine as I read Orwell's The Moon Under Water to a packed room of 50-odd pub fans.
  • Hearing about Tony Benn being taken to our green room in the basement of Oishiii, Stokey's Japanese restaurant, being asked by a star-struck proprietor what he would like to eat, and replying, "A cheese sandwich".  Volunteers finding him a cheese sandwich.  Our wonderful artist liaison coordinator, Camilla, then taking Tony Benn across the road to Abney Park cemetery to eat his sandwich because he wanted to smoke his pipe.  A crowd of people walking past thinking "Blimey, is that Tony Benn eating a cheese sandwich and smoking a pipe in our cemetery?" and gathering round.  In the commotion, a passing dog nicking half of Tony Benn's cheese sandwich and running away with it.
  • Seeing Liz up on stage after the final event and close the festival, and a capacity crowd cheering her because they knew who she was and what she'd done, and me then keeping her on stage while we presented her with a huge bunch of flowers, and getting to say to two hundred people, "I'm so proud of my wife right now."
  • Phill Jupitus, after his event closed the festival, walking round the hall with a black bin bag collecting rubbish and depositing glasses on the bar, because (a) he loves small events and getting back to intimate, shabby venues, and (b) I'd just made a speech saying we had to clear the hall and help set it up for play group the following morning before we could have our staff wrap party, for which he stayed.
See you next year.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Chutney Conversation

A random chutney stall off of the internet, earlier today.

In the wake of this year's tax bill, I've taken a three month contract back in an advertising agency. The gaps between my agency stints get longer and longer as my writing career actually starts to make money, and every time I leave an agency I hope it's for the last time.

This one will be. I know it will. It has to be.

Because after only five weeks in the job, I'm having The Chutney Conversation with my new colleagues. And that wont do at all.

The Chutney Conversation is in one way uplifting - it points the way to a better world. The problem with it is that in doing so, it points out the flaws with the world we're in - particularly inside ad agencies. So while it's fine to have The Chutney Conversation with old friends, who know what I'm like, it can actually be invasive and dispiriting - even quite upsetting - for new people, and I think that's rude. And if they don't get upset by it, they probably think I'm a bit mad - and that's even worse.

The Chutney Conversation - or my side of it I should say - perhaps it's the chutney monologue - goes like this:

These days, I spend my summers doing book readings and beer tastings at a variety of food and drink festivals up and down the country. I enjoy doing these events a great deal.

After I've signed a few books and tasted a few beers, I can relax and wander around the festival. And it feels like Christmas. Everyone there is a small producer keen to promote their wares. There are organic butchers, gifted pie makers, adventurous cheesemongers, bubbly Indian housewives hoping to turn their curry sauces into something a supermarket might discover and stock. And most of all, there are chutney makers.

I talk to all these artisans and try a few samples of their food, and I usually buy a curry sauce or a marinade or a bit of cheese even if I don't need any. But I ALWAYS buy chutney. We have cupboards full of it at home.

The range of chutneys, their ingredients and flavours, is always astonishingly diverse. They have little bits of cracker for you to try some, and the flavours set your mouth alight. And the chutney makers talk with such passion about how they started this as a hobby, and then realised, you know what? I'm good at this, and I'm going to make more of these chutneys and I'm going to sell them, and while I hope to make enough money to live on, if I don't make as much as I did in an office, so what? I'm happier than I ever was during a PowerPoint presentation or conference call.

After two or three of these conversations, you end up walking around a food festival on a natural high, walking on air. Everyone is so positive. Everyone is so friendly. Everyone is so keen and passionate about what they do, and in tiny, tiny ways, each of them is making the world a better place.

And then I come into an advertising agency and I see young, attractive, intelligent, energetic, motivated people, voluntarily tying themselves inside their personal hamster wheels and running for all they're worth, expending energy on pointless conversations and arguments, spending nine months at a time, seventy hours a week, working on something that will eventually be a thirty second TV ad that people will forget, or sneer at, or feel patronised by. Very, very occasionally, one of these ads might make them laugh, or inspire them - maybe one or two a year do this, and the last one that truly added anything to our collective lives was Compare the Meerkat.

While some of these ads might create wealth for the companies who pay for them, it's hard to see who's reaping the benefit - advertising has lost its shiny allure and agencies work on wafer-thin budgets. TV stations face plummeting revenue as budget is increasingly moved to invasive, in-yer-face internet ads. And punters face a relentless barrage of messages that - if they're successful - make you feel slightly more discontent with your life than you did - because only if you create need, desire and unhappiness in a country where most of us already have too much, can you persuade us that we need to buy more.

For every tiny, microscopic atom of happiness that a jar of chutney brings into the world, every showing of an advert creates an atom of negativity that blows it away. And there are more adverts around than jars of chutney, and more people making them.

People in advertising would not only be adding to rather than reducing the sum of human happiness if they switched from making adverts to making chutney, they would feel happier and more fulfilled in themselves, knowing they were not wasting their considerable and inarguable talents on something that is at best worthless, at worst damaging.

If you don't believe me, go and talk to a man behind a chutney stall at a food festival.

That's the chutney conversation. You can see how it might upset people in ad agencies if I've only been working with them for a few weeks.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Welcome to Mega City One

Your friendly local Bobby, tomorrow. Or maybe the day after.

For a large chunk of my life my favourite reading material of any description was 2000AD. It grew from being a simple Sci-Fi action comic to do what the very best Sci-Fi does: satirise modern society. Judge Dredd did this better than anything else - a lawman with absolute power in a futuristic mega-city, there's a brilliant tension between rooting for Dredd in his battles against proper baddies and then feeling guiltily appalled when his jackboot comes down with equal force on campaigners for democracy.

Dredd has many tools in his armoury, and over the 34 years of his existence several of these have made the transition from science fiction to fact.

Today, it seems the UK police are learning some tricks from Dredd, with the proposal to introduce airborne surveillance drones to monitor the British population. These were developed by BAe for use in war zones. Their critics claim that they are unreliable and have resulted directly in needless civilian deaths. But the government is considering spending a considerable some bringing them into use in Britain.

Where do you start with this?

How about the principle of a government taking hardware developed for warfare against foreign terrorists in the world's most hostile war zones and using it against its own population?

How about the fact that we already have more CCTV cameras per head of population than any other country in the world?

How about the fact that these drones will be able to operate from heights that make them invisible from the ground, so you will have no idea whether you are under surveillance or not?

How about the fact that the police are already talking about selling the technology to private companies?

How about the fact that these drastic measures are being proposed not to catch murderers, but to help with "routine" police work including monitoring fly tippers, waste management, "anti-social" motorists and protesters against - ooh - things like the creeping totalitarianism that both main political parties seem so keen on?

If Hitler or Saddam Hussein had had the technology for such a scheme, we would have cited it as yet another example of their evil. One of the worst things I hate most about measures like this is that they make me say things that sound like a Jeremy Clarkson reading, UKIP-voting wanker, but I woke up this morning feeling a little more frightened at the prospect of living in my own country.