The Obscurer

Month: October, 2007

Fingertails

Language is not a static beast; it constantly evolves, although not in a planned, linear manner. I hope that yesterday the English language made one of its many osmotic advances as, with the score at 1-1 and the ball bounding around inside the England penalty area, Steve Wilson – presumably the only Match Of The Day commentator the BBC could drag to Moscow for an October fixture – declared

England (are) hanging on by their fingertails here.

Quite inspired; announce the winner, inform the OED, bookmark this post and remember the moment for series 42 of Balderdash And Piffle when Dame Victoria Coren explores the etymology of the word. Fingertails; I love it, honest. It’s as if we are somehow going beyond the mere strain and uncertainly of hanging on by our fingertips, like the situation is even more precarious than simply hanging on by our fingernails (which seems positively secure by comparison.) Wonderful. I’m going to try to work the word it into my everyday conversations from now on. Would Steve have possibly put it any better if he had successfully managed to articulate either of the words I assume he was trying to utter? I don’t think so.

Yes indeed, England were hanging on by their fingertails. So it was then in the match, and so it is now with regards remaining in the European Championships beyond the group stage; although just a short while ago the idea that our prospects of progressing were hanging by such a thing would have seemed aspirational when the campaign was going as poorly as I’d predicted and before injuries forced McClaren into fielding a balanced team, so prompting a change in our fortunes. Scotland meanwhile have approached this the other way around by getting off to a cracking start that just refused to peter out, but they have ended up in a similar situation to England after fatefully repeated their classic error of entering a match (in this case against Georgia) as favourites, and with people thinking they stood a good chance. Will they ever learn? We all surely remember where we were when Scotland first proved to us that while they will do well when they don’t stand a chance they will bugger things up with ease once the pressure is off. For myself that epiphany came while I was on holiday at Butlin’s, Pwllheli – watching Archie Gemmill’s goal against the odds that helped put paid to serial World Cup runners-up Holland, but was ultimately in vain as Scotland had forgotten to turn up against Peru the week before – but I know you will be able to name your own time, place and match.

It’s not over yet – England can pray that other results go their way, and Scotland will benefit from being the underdog in their final match against Italy where victory will ensure qualification – but I fear the worst. I have a feeling I could be looking at a European Championships where I will have to adopt another nation to support; that is if I want to have any interest in the competition beyond a sort of detached curiosity. Let’s hope that feeling turns out to be pessimistic. Fingers crossed.

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I Want A Rainbow Nation

I didn’t pre-order my download of Radiohead’s new album In Rainbows because I didn’t want the frustration of receiving my username and passcode weeks before just to be frustrated on the day when the website inevitably crashed under the weight of so many hits and downloads. So as it was I just popped along yesterday morning on the off chance, swiped my credit card through the honesty box, and a few moments later I was listening to my favourite band’s seventh studio album. And a good job I did it that way too; when I checked the website later in the afternoon it was running as slow as a pig. By nighttime it was down completely.

And? Well on first listening In Rainbows is just fantastic. It kicks off with the sort of scattergun staccato drumbeat intro that tells us we’re in welcome and familiar territory, before settling down into an opening track that at times sounds like Doves, at other times seems reminiscent of late Talk Talk (which can be no bad thing) and that soon had me jigging around my kitchen (not what one expects from Radiohead. Or from me for that matter.) From there on in it seems quite the most instantly likeable Radiohead album since OK Computer, which may or may not be a good thing; with Kid A it took me a while to work out what the hell was going on, but it is now probably my favourite Radiohead album, while Hail To The Thief was more immediately accessible, but repeated listening revealed that after a great start it sags at about the quarter-way point, before picking up majestically towards the end. Overall, though, and interestingly considering the unconventional way it has been released, In Rainbows sounds more like one complete, flowing album rather than just a collection of individual songs bunged together as Amnesiac and (to a lesser extent) Hail To The Thief seemed to me. Often sounding pared down and minimalistic, and with more use of acoustic instruments than I rememeber previously, In Rainbows is not a radical shift or quantum leap as Kid A or OK Computer were, but it is rather a wonderful continuation of the unique brand of music Radiohead have been exploring down the years. Best of all, there appears no equivalent of “Treefingers” or “Fitter Happier” present to make you leap instantly for the skip button.

As is often the case with a brand new album it can be difficult to pick out your favourite songs at first, it can take time to isolate the individual standouts track from the album as a whole, not least of all because being without a CD cover to peer at and pore over while listening makes is harder to associate each song with its title at first; squinting at the LCD display on my MP3 player without the backlight doesn’t really do it. But perhaps it’s just me; I still find it takes me longer to become familiar with CDs today when compared with the old vinyl LPs of my youth, where you could play side one to death before gradually discovering and falling in love with the second side. Ah, the ceremony of easing the precious record out of the paper inner sleeve you have been studying on the bus all the way back from Woolworths, holding the delicate black vinyl horizontally between your fingertips, carefully reaching forward while blindly trying to locate the pin in the centre of the turntable and placing the album flat down, then gently resting the stylus on the spinning disc, the buzz and crackle as the needle seeks the groove, then the anticipation, the waiting for the new sounds the pristine recording will reveal. I miss it all, I really do.

Much has been made of the unusual way this album has been made available, for people to pay as much or as little as they like for it, and I think it could make an interesting study for a psychologist or perhaps a sociologist (I don’t really know the difference) to question what motivated each individual to pay what they did; as you have to provide your contact details prior to downloading I’m sure it could be arranged quite easily. Take Justin’s embarrassment in saying that after listening to it he is “now quite ashamed at the piffling amount I paid for it” while Swiss Toni excuses paying nowt because he felt he was owed after shelling out £30 for a crap Radiohead gig a few years ago; “debt paid, I would say” he concludes. I imagine an erring on the side of caution instinct predominates; better to pay too little and feel guilty than too much and feel like a fool (and where because you have chosen the price yourself you can’t even displace your grievance by complaining that you’ve been ripped off.) For myself, I paid a rather insulting £1, that with the 45p admin charge means it cost me about as much as my first 7” singles when I was a kid. My motivation was simply that, as I still like to own the tangible product, I reckoned I would eventually want to buy In Rainbows when it comes out on CD, and I’m damned if I’m going to pay full price twice for something I could get for free; at the same time I wasn’t sure I would like the album enough to stretch to the £40 being charged for the special discbox set. £1.45 seemed a fair down payment to sample what was on offer.

And so what was the upshot? Well after listening to the album several times I liked it so much that I went back onto the website (hence how I know it started running slow and finally crashed later in the day) and eventually, this morning, I went and ordered the £40 box set anyway. So I’ll get my 2 sides of vinyl after all (well, 4 sides actually) and another collectors’ item to continue my run of Kid A (with the hidden pamphlet in the box) Amnesiac (which came in the form of a “damaged” library book; even more damaged now after my young son ripped off the front page a few years back) and Hail To The Thief (packaged to resemble a town plan map). This means that it will be the third consecutive Radiohead album I possess that won’t fit in my CD rack. Hoorah! Is it sad to still be a bit of a record collector at my age? I think so, but at least The Boo Radleys have split up, so that particular pressure to purchase everything they ever released in every possible format has eased.

If you haven’t already downloaded In Rainbows, then I do recommend it. Sure, as a fan I’m biased, but this time what have you got to lose? Even if you don’t trust me, when was the last time you could guarantee value for money when buying a brand new album, or indeed anything? If in doubt just get it for free; go on, I’m sure they won’t mind.

An Unwanted Gift

I don’t know what Gordon Brown thought he had to laugh about. His childish chuckling at the Conservatives yesterday as Alistair Darling announced the government’s new policy on inheritance tax was a depressing sight to behold. Can he not just stick to looking dour? It was the shamelessness that so grated; it was always pretty obvious once the Tories had received a boost in the polls with their proposal to raise the inheritance tax threshold that Labour would respond in some way; but the following week? It was all about as subtle as a brick. Fortunately, the sneering response from George Osborne on the opposition benches soon shook me awake; I can never hate Labour as much as I ought whenever I’m reminded what the alternative is.

Yes, I have “a plague o’ all your houses” feeling this week, I think that is the only sensible reaction to yesterday’s announcements, and to the previous week’s shenanigans over the election that wasn’t; which gives an extra added reason to avoid blogs like Iain Dale’s and similar, and reminds me why I tend to give them a wide berth. What has happened recently should give further cause for despair at the nature of politics itself, not mirth-filled glee at having put one over the opposition. It highlights the difference between “political blogs” and “blogs about politics”, as Paulie mentioned last week. We all have our particular viewpoints and biases and it can be interesting to read the writings of someone whose opinions don’t chime with our own, but this week has starkly shown why I avoid those blogs that have a party political axe to grind; they seem completely out of touch, not to be trusted, and while the popular ones may be hugely popular, it is a popularity based on a worthless political tribalism.

But I’m not interested in political blogs. Time and tide (and in the case of the Tory blogs the inevitable Conservative government at some point) will make them disappear up their own arses. Political blogs, like the Westminster village gossip they prattle on about, are ultimately irrelevant. No it’s politics itself I want to talk about, because politics is important, no matter how hard our politicians try to debase it.

Let me deal with Gordon Brown’s faults first, because they are fairly obvious. Bringing forward government announcements, especially the troop “reductions” during the Tory party conference, was as cynical as you can get, and was bound to stoke speculation about an early election. It was spin, of course, and really bad, contemptuous spin at that; so transparent that Brown must really have a low opinion of the British public to think we wouldn’t see through it right away. That it has backfired so beautifully is justice in action. To then play down the importance of the recent opinion polls in the decision not to hold an election, to claim he would still have comfortably won in the marginal constituencies in spite of all the evidence, and to wibble on about not going to the country now because he wants to show the nation his “vision”; enough already.

But if Brown is full of shit, what about the Tories? They have had a pretty easy ride recently as everyone from Conservative bloggers to newspaper leader writers have stuck the boot into Brown, but I mean honestly; all that guff praising Cameron’s autocue-free speech at his party conference overshadowed the hypocritical, vacuous and content-free flim-flammery of the speech itself; the demand for a general election they clearly didn’t want to fight is as disingenuous a declaration as any (Cameron’s shout of “we will fight, Britain will win” must be the most enthusiastically received defeatist rallying cry in history); the fact that in trying to goad Brown into calling an election let’s not forget they were in effect trying to goad him into making a decision based purely on opportunism and self-interest; and to then criticise his decision not to go down that path and to reiterate the party line that Brown had bottled it is to ignore the simple point, obvious in any dispassionate reading of the situation, that Brown just made the correct, common sense decision.

I think that last point bears further consideration. Brown didn’t have to call an election; that he thought about it when opinion polls showed Labour having such a huge lead over the Tories – and when he must have wondered if he would ever again have it as good – is only human. That he then decided against it when the poll lead either closed or disappeared is just the sensible thing to do; to have pressed on with an election he didn’t have to call under such circumstances would have been utterly stupid, and the fact that he can be criticised as being a coward because he refused to do the stupid thing shows how crap party politics is, where saving face is more important than good judgement. That making the right decision can be so criticised is because spin is so endemic to politics, but what to do? Spin is endemic, full stop. If politics is to reform itself where is it to get its inspiration from; from business? But the PM of the UK is no different from any CEO of a PLC in this regard, spin is everywhere we look from government announcements to company press releases. There is a reason why each firm’s in-house magazine is referred to by its employees as Pravda.

Talking of which, I’m not letting the media off the hook either. No doubt there were briefings by senior politicians hinting at an election to come and that this helped build election fever, but the media really doesn’t need any assistance. It was largely the Labour lead in the opinion polls that allowed the media to lose their heads completely and crank up the hype; for them to now blame the politicians for spinning is a bit rich, and it’s not for the first time. More and more it seems that the media are very quick to point the finger at others, when really a degree of introspection is in order (the Madeleine McCann story is a case study on the subject.) It is here that the best “blogs about politics” should be valued as cutting through the media bollocks and providing an alternative, and where the “political blogs” fail because they follow the herd and exhibit all the faults of the MSM.

I’ve not mentioned the Liberal Democrats yet, but I will; they have been as guilty as the Tories in playing this affair for point scoring party politicking gain. But give them their due; at least they have also used it to propose a move towards fixed-term parliaments, which would prevent the farce of the past few weeks while dealing with the inequity behind it. It is interesting how many Tories have been heard to criticise Brown’s constitutional right to call an election when he likes, but I don’t remember such criticism when the Tories were themselves in power. Also, while there has been much criticism of Brown’s antics, there seems a far less noticeable enthusiasm from Conservatives to back the Lib Dems’ motion, at least at this stage, almost as if the problem isn’t with the prime minister having this power, just with Gordon Brown having it and threatening to utilise it. As with proportional representation, while many in the Labour and the Conservative parties complain about the unfairness of the current system when in opposition, few support an alternative because they don’t want to lose the advantage they perceive it will provide them when they get back into power.

In considering and then dismissing the option of holding an early election Gordon Brown did the sensible thing, he did what anyone would have done in his position; but it shouldn’t be in his gift. Hopefully the lasting legacy of this past week will be that in bungling his election decision Brown has drawn attention to this element of our electoral system, and a groundswell of opinion can build to put an end to the anachronism of the government of the day being able to go to the country at the most advantageous opportunity. As a rule of thumb, if we can take something out of the hands of politicians then it is probably a good idea if we do; and when the thing in question is only of benefit to politicians themselves, then that counts double.

Long Agos And Worlds Apart

Some things make me feel stupid, some things make me feel old; University Challenge usually majors on the former, as questions I don’t understand are answered by students who do, and then some. But on Monday it managed to do both, and the guilty party was the one round that normally cheers me; the “music round”, where I can usually knock off the starter for ten and the supplementary questions with aplomb. Ha, I mutter to myself; you kids may look pretty smart when the matter is one of quantum physics, but your floundering ignorance when presented with a series of album covers from the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal reveals your feet of clay. While I may lose ground on the swings, I can at least gain some on the roundabouts.

But this week was slightly different. Sure the premise was the same; a short clip of an easily identifiable song – in this case The Smiths’ “London” – and eight clueless geniuses staring out time, waiting for Jeremy Paxman to move on and ask them a simple one on the early history of the Ghaznavid Dynasty, or something. That minor obstacle overcome and the music round duly recommenced.

Only this time I couldn’t take it in, I was still reeling from the starter question. Let me restate what I have just said; not one of the students knew “London” was a song by The Smiths. The Smiths! Students! And The Smiths! I thought they were inextricably entwined. I thought the terms “Smiths’ Fan” and “student” were synonymous. When I was at college not only would almost every student have instantly recognised the band, but also around 20% of them at any one time would have had Louder Than Bombs on their Walkman at that precise moment. What has happened to the youth of today?

So that made me feel pretty old; but I feel even older the more I think about it. After all, in the contestants’ defence the last proper Smiths album was released in 1987; that means that for some of today’s university students The Smiths will occupy the same space in their consciousness as The Beatles do in mine, and I grew up considering The Beatles to be ancient history. Worse, to my kids The Smiths will be seen as a band that split up way, way before they were born; they will view them from the same perspective as I view Buddy Holly. Now I reckon I would still recognise just about any Beatles or Buddy Holly song thrown at me on University Challenge, even while I must hold my hands up and admit I haven’t memorised the periodic table by rote; but I think that’s beside the point. It doesn’t make me feel any better. It still makes me feel old. Perspective? Too much fucking perspective.

But perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised; perhaps today’s students are a different breed entirely? That’s the way it seemed the last time I knowingly entered what I believed to be a student pub, one Sunday afternoon a couple of years ago during my short break in the Cotswolds (and environs.) Back in the day you could instantly spot a student bar by the profusion of black cotton and Doc Martens, the vast array of Goth gear; but not here. Instead I reckon I must have clocked more navy blazers and tweed sports jackets in that half-hour in the pub than I did during my entire three-year stint at Bradford University. I even overheard students making arrangements to meet up later for something called “supper”. It was weird.

Then again, perhaps that was because the pub in question was The King’s Arms in the centre of Oxford. I don’t know, I don’t know; it’s possible that representative it may very well not be.