After last year’s Obscurer Awards I received a polite email from an inquisitive PR researcher enquiring into the nature of the awards and asking if I would like them to be included in their listings publication. For this to happen they would need a little more information: When are the awards announced? For how long have they been going? How much media attention do they get? Could I provide the names, numbers and email addresses of an events organiser, a pr contact and for somebody who deals with sponsorship queries? Are any sponsors involved and if not, is this something I would be interested in?
I didn’t have the heart to respond, but to pre-empt any similar enquiries this year the answers are: sometime after New Year, when I can be arsed to get around to it; this is the fifth year I have managed to be bothered with this self-imposed chore; I get upwards of 3 page views a day, and although FeedBurner suggest I have around 30 reader I’m sure they pluck that figure from mid-air; my hard-working, conscientious and megalomaniacal character means I alone am the events organiser, pr contact, sponsorship director and brew maker; and since ditching Google AdSense a while back I currently receive no sponsorship, although I am receptive to any offers involving Chunky KitKats.
And so to business.
- Single – “You don’t really care for music do you?” squawked Alexandra Burke as her massacred version of the classic “Hallelujah” was trebucheted into the Christmas Number 1 slot. She was referring to herself in the second person as she did so, no doubt, and in trying to inject as much emotion as she could into the song she inadvertently bled it dry, leaving a truly beautiful and powerful song an ugly cadaver on the slab. She’s not alone. It’s a commonly held view that the music charts are more about business than music these days, but I can’t agree, mainly because I barely notice what goes on in the charts anymore. There was a time when I avidly sought out and snapped up new tunes, when I felt passionate about music, where I would regularly be seen leaving HMV with an armful of vinyl. Nowadays music must sneak up and catch me unawares. I’ll take a liking to a song used to advertise the forthcoming BBC drama season, say, or that features in the background of a scene on TV, or which I overhear in a pub, and via a Google search and a trip on YouTube I discover that I like Arcade Fire, The Fratellis or The Magic Numbers. It shouldn’t be this way, but it is. And last year not much sneaking up on me was done. I’m perhaps overlooking a load of great music, but the only thing that really took my fancy was The Last Shadow Puppets’ “The Age Of The Understatement”, a cracking song that was almost a manifesto for their album of the same name, leaving you in no doubt that you were going to get a recording choc-full of ’60s style film-theme type songs with swooping strings and stuff. The song has been criticised as being a rip-off of Muse’s “Knights of Cydonia”, but I personally think it’s better (and all the better for not being called “Knights of Cydonia”) and while the album itself is a bit formulaic, if a formula works who cares? In fact, around five tracks into the album I do kind of go “alright, I’ve got the idea now” and I lose interest, but there are no such concerns when listening to a single, and The Last Shadow Puppets is a worthy side project while we await the next Arctic Monkeys release.
- Album – I was confused when Radcliffe and Maconie started pushing the Elbow song “Grounds For Divorce” on their Radio 2 show. Sure, it was a fine enough song, but wasn’t it bound to be a one off? I’d heard Elbow before and dismissed them as playing a sort of sub-Coldplay mush. But I was wrong (I was confusing them with Athlete, I think). The follow-up single “One Day Like This” was just fantastic, a glorious, swooning epic of a song, and at my wife’s bidding we bought the album “The Seldom Seen Kid” while on holiday in Caernarfon. It was a particularly fine time to obtain such an atmospheric album, and I think I will always associate the opening notes of “Starlings” with our first listening to the album in the car on the coast road back to Llandudno, driving in the lashing rain, past the crashing waves and through those tunnels hacked out of the rock. As such “The Seldom Seen Kid” joins a select group of what are to me instantly evocative recordings, such as the first Stone Roses LP, where the opening of “I Wanna Be Adored” always transports me back to that snowy day when I bought the vinyl in Leeds. Back to “The Seldom Seen Kid”, though, where there are a positive welter of standout tracks with an uncanny ability to move; “The Loneliness Of A Tower Crane Driver” effortlessly evokes a feeling of floating on high within its first few opening chords, while on “Bones Of You” the marriage of characteristically poetic lyrics, crashing syncopation and sudden mood swings has the power to takes you away from wherever you are to wherever you want to be. I know I’m far from alone in recommending this record – it’s won the Mercury Award for one thing – but it was a pleasant surprise to find an album of such depth so late in the day, and when I wasn’t really looking.
Another thing. Elsewhere, I believe Oasis released an album? I did hear the first single from it and I thought it sounded so workaday at to beggar belief. It’s not that it was bad, just very average; but so average that I began to call into question my avid youthful devotion to the band. Were their earlier songs really any better, or just different, less familiar sounding? I can’t be sure. Perhaps they were always pretty average, it’s just that they purveyed the right brand of averageness that caught my interest and the mood of the times. Whatever; they can’t take away my many happy memories of those early days, even if in the end they appear like that proverbial oasis, the kind that ultimately turns out to be a mirage.
- Book – Among the books I read last year I think only one was actually published in 2008, that being William Sutcliffe’s “Whatever Makes You Happy”, and it is a solid work, a return to the more comic style with which he made his name after the deadly serious (and excellent) “Bad Attitude”, and as with all of his novels it is well worth a look. I also began reading and enjoying Jasper Fforde’s “Thursday Next” books, wonderfully silly and inventive crime novels set in the 1980’s, but an alternative 1980’s where the Crimean War is still being fought, Wales is an independent republic and the hero is a detective who investigates the kidnapping of characters from classic works of fiction. Fforde’s first book was a great fun read once I’d finally got around to finishing Hayek’s “The Road To Serfdom”. Hayek’s book somewhat surprised me, actually; it is often quoted as a sort of Libertarian handbook that shows how any minor move towards socialism can only be the thin end of a slippery wedge towards totalitarianism. In fact the book provides loads of examples of what Hayek considers justifiable state intervention but which many a Libertarians could consider state intrusion, and much of what he says is in fact little more than statements of the bleeding obvious, albeit statements that probably weren’t bleeding obvious and which needed saying back in the 1940s. As someone who considers himself to be broadly “of the left”, but who never understood why controlling the commanding heights of the economy was considered a good idea, there is much to agree with here; where Hayek fails in my mind is in too lazily conflating mild socialism or social democracy with collectivisation, and in predicting that restricting economic freedoms through, for example, nationalisation, would lead to dictatorship, which we all now know didn’t happen. A good book, but one I feel is very much of its time. My favourite book, however, was Paul Auster’s “The Invention Of Solitude”, in particular the first part of that work entitled “Portrait Of An Invisible Man”. In it Auster ruminates on his father, as he engages with the task of sorting out his father’s affairs following his death. While some books are great to dive into and race through, here you want to read it slowly, to take everything in, to savour every word. The turn of phrase, the way Auster pulls out just the right word, it’s like reading a masterclass in creative writing. Sometimes, when reading a book, I may feel that, with a good headwind, I could write something nearly as well. With Auster you know you can never even come close, such is his genius. In one interview reprinted in “The Red Notebook” Auster talks of how “whenever I complete a book, I’m filled with a feeling of immense disgust and disappointment. It’s almost a physical collapse. I’m so disappointed by my feeble efforts that I can’t believe I’ve actually spent so much time and accomplished so little. It takes years before I’m able to accept what I’ve done – to realize that this was the best I could do. But I never like to look at the things I’ve written. The past is the past, and there’s nothing I can do about it any more.” If this is true, and the books on the page are a shadow of the books in his head, then I shudder to think how good those imagined books really are.
- Film – Once more, this category is a complete waste of time. Last year, however, I did at least watch one film at the cinema, and so, by default, the best film of the year is “Easy Virtue”. It was alright; an adaptation of a Noel Coward play set in a stately home in the ’30s, wouldyoubelieveit. Decent acting, a decent script, it nicely filled the gap between a trip to The Black Bull in Coniston and our tea at The Angel in Bowness during a brief weekend in the Lakes without the kids. It’s a BBC Film, so will probably be on telly in a few months, so watch it if you like.
- Sport – The Olympics, and the strangely competent performance of the UK team, probably dominated this year of sport. From a personal point of view, City becoming the richest football club in the world – or at least, the football club with the richest owners – sticks in the mind, as does the reaction from some to the effect that “how dare City think that they can just gatecrash the Premier League’s top table by spending loads of money just like the teams currently at the top have done I mean don’t they know their place”, and the widespread schadenfreude that we have so far failed to set the world alight (I can sympathise with many of the concerns expressed about too much money ruining the game; just not when they are made by United and Chelsea fans.) But the sporting moment that really made me sit bolt upright was at the tail-end of 2008 watching “The Big Fat Quiz Of The Year” on Channel 4 which featured an interview with Steve Mclaren on Dutch TV. In case you missed it it’s all there, with the Dutch interviewer speaking perfect English to a Steve McLaren who inexplicably starts talking in a cod-Dutch accent. Okay, you may say, he’s been in Holland for a little while and perhaps he’s picked that up a bit of the accent, and perhaps when it looks like he’s grasping for the English equivalent to a Dutch word he’s really speaking slowly to assist the Dutch interviewer. But why speak in pidgin English as in “Liverpool or Arsenal…I thought maybe one of them we would draw”. Why say “we are, what you call, underdogs?” as if he is a Dutchman using an unfamiliar British phrase in the presence of a Briton. It’s a very odd performance; the Steve McLaren roadshow rumbles inexplicably on.
- TV – “Outnumbered” made me laugh, “Little Dorrit” kept me gripped following a slow start, “Simon Schama’s American Future” educated me and “Doctor Who” remained essential viewing, even if the ratio of brilliant to below-par episodes seems to be increasing. But in common with others it was Frank Cottrell Boyce’s “God On Trial” that stands out for me. I missed it at first showing, as an annoying three-way clash on the telly confounded even my Humax PVR, but for once I was grateful for my daughter’s wayward sleeping habits as I was downstairs comforting her when the repeat came on the Sign Zone. As it was, then, I watched the whole thing over the shoulder of the person doing the sign language, but it didn’t seem to blunt its power. It is very much an old school television play, of the sort we used to get weekly on Play For Today but which are now few and far between. Largely set in a single room in Auschwitz, the play is based on a true story of a group of Jewish prisoners who decided to judge whether or not God was guilty of having broken his covenant with the Jewish people. The talent-packed cast features many stirring performances as the two sides of the argument are probed and pulled apart, but throughout it all there is a sense of anticipation as Antony Sher’s character sits silently taking it all in, until he finally speaks, so bringing his devastating analysis to the situation. Overall it iss an all too rare example of what television can do.
Two other things. In 2008 television lost two very different characters in Jeremy Beadle and Geoffrey Perkins. Among his huge contribution to television comedy, I will mainly remember Perkins as the co-writer of “Norbert Smith – A Life”, the fake documentary starring Harry Enfield as the eponymous actor reminiscing with Melvin Bragg over his long and varied career. I’ve mentioned before that I feel it was Enfield’s finest hour, and shockingly that post is one of only a handful of sites listed when you Google “Keep Your Hair On Daddio”, the others being Wikipedia and IMDB. “Norbert Smith” is also unavailable to buy on DVD, and even a VHS copy will set you back £25 on Amazon (although I still have my copy taped off Channel 4). This is frankly a disgraceful situation, and one that should be sorted out immediately in Geoffrey Perkins’s memory.
Jeremy Beadle had a lesser effect on my TV viewing, but I applaud him for a particular edition of “Chain Letters” he hosted back in, oh, 1987 or something, that I watched with my Mum one afternoon. In one round, one of the three contestants was given a four letter word – say “cone” – and asked to change one letter to make another word. The contestant had to say which letter of “cone” he wanted to change and the other two had to guess what the new word would be. The premise was simple enough; change the letter that gives you the most options to make different words; the more words you can make, the more words your opponents have to choose from, the less likely they will be able to guess the word you have chosen. In “cone”, then, it would make sense to change the “c”, since that means you have the option to choose “bone”, “done”, “gone”, “hone” and so on, a huge set of words to pick from, and the odds on your opponents guessing the same word are somewhat slim. What you definitely don’t want to do is to change a vowel, as usually that means you will only be able to change it to another vowel, so giving you a maximum of four other words to pick from, and so increasing your opponents’ chances of guessing to a healthy 25%. Anyway, in this particular episode, and against all common sense, the contestant proudly announced that he wanted to change the “o”. My Mum’s jaw dropped, I just stared in disbelief. Eh!? What?! Unless “cene” and “cune” are words (and my spellchecker is telling me they aren’t) then the contestant could only chose to change the “o” to “a” for “cane” or to “i” for “cine”; two options only, giving his opponents a 50% chance of guessing correctly. But it was Beadle’s reaction that was a peach. “I don’t believe it!” he spat contemptuously, all professional bonhomie forgotten. In the event, one of the other contestants went for “cane”, one went for “cine”, and Beadle composed himself to commiserate with the ill-fated fool and politely explained to him where he had gone wrong. But Beadle’s initial reaction was a refreshing one, a rude reaction for sure but one that spoke of a very human fallibility, the sort of thing even then you felt would have been edited out and which definitely would nowadays, to preserve that unreality that it seems is so essential on TV. For allowing us that uncharacteristic glance behind the curtain – and for that alone – I thank and think kindly of Beadle.
- Radio – This year’s award goes to Radio 4, all of it. Well, most of it. I had been a regular listener to Radio 5 Live – it was certainly my default station – but after two consecutive days of listening to the moronic imbecilic ravings of utter ignoramuses being given both airtime and credence by Victoria Derbyshire on her mid-morning phone-in show I questioned what the hell I was doing and decided to make a list of all the things that were still worth listening to on the station. When I’d finished the list read “Simon Mayo…” and that was it. Why, then, was I still listening to 5 Live? As it happened I was already aware of some of the fine programmes to be found over on Radio 4, having swapped “Drive” for “PM” and “Breakfast” for “Today” some time ago, but I was somewhat scared about making that final decisive switch, to cross that particular Rubicon; because what happens if you switch on Radio 4 and it is in the middle of some boring play, or broadcasting a tedious documentary about Parmesan cheese? But since taking the plunge and dropping the increment from 5 to 4 I haven’t looked back and my fears have proven unfounded; many of those plays are excellent, for example, and the half hours devoted to Parmesan cheese, sea salt or cider on “The Food Programme” are a pure joy. In fact, since making the leap I’ve discovered that the very eclectic sense of the unknown, the fact that you often don’t know quite what is coming next, is part of the appeal of the station. Sure, there are some pretty hit-and-miss comedies, but even then the World Service is only a click away on a digital radio, and put together these two radio stations seem to be making a lone rearguard action in the face of an increasingly pathetic and tabloidesque media (Channel 4 News’s utter capitulation here by increasingly engaging in brainless, headline-hogging fuckwittery has meant I have also stopped watching it in the last year).
The BBC in general and BBC radio in particular was under the cosh last year of course, yet rather than complain about Nicky Campbell’s 5 Live Breakfast debacle being extended by an hour people seemed instead to get worked up by the Ross / Brand affair, wherein an extended joke went badly wrong, but where ultimately the only legitimately offended party sought an apology that was duly issued and accepted. For me the continued idiocy of the media’s collective outrage over the affair shows just how valuable the BBC still is, despite its many fault. However, a mischievous part of me has decided that I would like to join those who want to see the corporation abolished; to give me time to read more books, to shut the whining yaps of the Mail et al on at least one subject, and so I can have a laugh as the existing commercial media outlets suddenly have to compete for that dwindling pool of advertising revenue with a newly privatised BBC. Then let’s see how good an idea scrapping the licence fee seems to them.
- Blog – One happy by-product of the Ross / Brand affair was that in suspending Jonathan Ross from his Saturday morning Radio 2 show I began to listen to Adam and Joe on 6 Music instead. What has that got to do with blogs? Well, not much really, other than to say that last year I finally “got” blogs audio equivalent, podcasts. I could never really see the point of them before, but when Andrew Collins and Richard Herring started putting one out early last year, as a fan of the pair I decided to give it a go. Loyally I would still say that the weekly Collings and Herrin podcast is my favourite, being exactly 1 hour, 6 minute and 36 second of humorous and explicit musings on the newspapers, homeopathy, the Mitford sisters and Richard’s curious sexual proclivities; but since losing my podcasting cherry I have also enjoyed Stephen Fry’s more irregularly published podgrams, where he talks on all manner of subjects usually by way of mentioning Oscar Wilde, and the aforementioned Adam and Joe’s weekly effort which is the edited highlights of their 6 Music show minus the music, and which always has me in absolute stitches. The Mark Kermode film podcast is also great if I get waylaid and miss his Friday appearance on the Simon Mayo show, and my son has taken to the CBeebies Best Bits effort with gusto. The result is that I now see a point to the iTunes store (subscribing to podcasts there seems to be the easiest way to stay up to date and ensure you never miss an episode) and I have single-handedly given a boost to the consumer electronics industry by buying an iPod shuffle for the car (rather than continually having to borrow my wife’s) and a Pure Evoke Flow internet radio for the home, to simply listen to both podcasts and those many fine Listen Again programmes from Radio 4.
- Castle – And finally a new category this year, since my son is of an age when he often wants to visit castles; or rather visiting castles is one of the things we have decided to do with him since he enjoyed Edinburgh Castle so much the year before last. This year we’ve visited Conwy and Caernarfon, wandered outside Durham (which was closed for university graduations) and driven past Pembroke. I’m sure there have been others, but I can’t think of them just now. The view of Conwy Castle as you approach it is particularly spectacular and memorable, but overall I think Caernarfon takes the prize; its great hexagonal towers hugely impressive from the outside, and while inside it is at first strikingly similar to Conwy there is far more exploring to do, with great fun to be had climbing up towers, along walls and across bridges. Shame we never saw Barnaby Bear, though. Caernarfon itself is a crackingly picturesque walled town and we’ll definitely be back, though hopefully in better weather than the constant drizzle we endured last year.