Sunday, September 30, 2007

The best things in life are free

A pair of chortles were provided by my first instalment of the local free paper, the South Manchester Reporter, when it arrived yesterday morning. The letters page is a splendidly archetypal catalogue of intensely regional gripes and pithy observations sent in by moaners and eccentrics. I quite liked the following letter from E Graham, Ladybarn, about the shortcomings of the length of the new platform at Mauldeth Road railway station. It’s not in the same league as Alfred H Lister, Guisborough, in the entertainment stakes (that would be ridiculous), but I’m always up for an unprovoked and seemingly arbitrary dig at Michael Palin so I liked it.

‘Walk to platform is far too long’

I look forward to using Mauldeth Road station after its refurbishment but was miffed at the distance from the road to the platform, even allowing for slopped access for the less able.

It is long enough for Michael Palin to present a programme on it.

Why didn’t they extend the platform to the bridge so the train could halt nearer the road, so reducing the trek for passengers? Couldn’t they construct a flight of steps closer to the road?

E Graham,

I picture E Graham grabbing his/her head in both hands immediately after concluding the letter and screaming ‘Why?!’ repeatedly, and listening for a response in an empty room. ‘What have I done? Why do they make me walk this unnecessary distance?!’ Plus it really does say ‘slopped access’, which makes it all the better.

The ‘Love 2 Love’ personals page (tagline: “…fast, fresh, fun on your phone!”) threw up this gem:

Short M, 37, with no hair, wooden leg, one glass eye & twitch in t’other, looking for F, 30-45, n/s. Box 198094.

Even though it’s presumably a joke, I just love the fact he went to the effort to send it in. Maybe I'll respond.

Friday, September 28, 2007

My temporary deliverance

As part of my bid to temp (read: work with no commitments or rights; right up my street) for a couple months on arriving in Manchester until getting around to applying for proper jobs, on Tuesday I ended up starting work for DHL. No, not Lawrence, the Nottinghamshire author, but the parcel delivery company. Although given D H Lawrence's concern with the duhumanising effects of modernity, it could easily have been (did that link work? I'm not sure). Anyway, I then ended up ending work for them on Thursday. I was meant to be there for four weeks, but couldn’t last more than three days. Is that bad? I don’t think so; in fact I think it’s great, mainly because it means I’m not there anymore. I was intending on getting some straightforward, dull office work and avoiding call centre work altogether, but I somehow ended up not wanting to turn down work, agreeing to it, and thinking “it’s only four weeks”. Within twelve hours of that ill-fated decision I was offered two far more attractive propositions in straightforward, dull office work by a different agency. Typical. I felt obliged to stick to my DHL agreement because of the fierce rapport I’d developed with my recruitment rep Lisa, 25, of Sunderland, while registering at her agency.

Even though it wasn’t altogether horrific, I couldn’t face four weeks of it. I was one of the people you call if you miss a parcel delivery and find a card through the letterbox telling you to call and rearrange delivery. I think the main stumbling blocks between working there and my personal contentment were that I’m not a massive fan of (a) telephones, and (b) speaking to people. The day was a vicious cycle of being disenchanted with the boredom but simultaneously not wanting anyone to phone up, thus increasing the boredom. Everyone has to earn money somehow, and I’m sure call centre work is more suited to most people than it is to me, but frankly I would rather starve than do it any longer than I did. Looking around at the drained, pallid expressions of my fellow recruits, and witnessing the misplaced power trip of my ‘Team Leader’, made for a soul-destroying experience. But that’s all part and parcel (boom boom) of the job. Really the worst bit was that I didn’t even need to be there.

I’ll get back on to my mate Liz, 27, of Longsight, at the other agency. She was most disappointed upon hearing of my defection to a rival, and she’ll sort me out. I’ll be like some particularly worthless hooker within weeks, whoring myself around the city’s temporary employment opportunities at the whim of my pimp (Liz). And she’ll be feeding me crack to keep me reliant. It’s all a downward spiral from here on in (which, by now, I’ve often thought should've become just one word: hereonin. But it hasn’t, and probably for a good reason).

PS: Due to the absence of an internet connection in our flat thus far, all these blogs are being penned in various Internet cafes. Please accept my apologies for any decrease in content quality.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Top drawer giggery (and a kick in the balls)

I saw two of the best gigs I've witnessed for quite some time at the end of last week. The first was Patrick Watson at Night and Day Cafe in Manchester on Thursday with Jimi. His album 'Close To Paradise' is lovely, and its loveliness is aided by the fact I've pinned him down to being halfway between Jeff Buckley and Devendra Banhart, which is always a nice place to be. His voice was just as good live and his band perfected the art of providing backing whilst not being too intrusive.

The venue was great too. It's in the arty Northern Quarter and is quite a long, narrow, darkened room with a stage at the far end. Nice and intimate. It feels a bit like you're in a cellar bar, except you're not. I'm sure I'll be a regular enough visitor while I'm here in Manchester; although, humourously, I've already had a trip back home for my very first weekend to see the Boro game and The Young Republic at the Knights. I met David amongst the braindead Friday night crowd in The Star and then we 'hooked up' with Dan and Rob in the venue (no hooks were actually involved though, it's just a phrase. It's not like we physically connected our clothing to form some kind of big human chain).

What a fine live band they were. There's eight of them and they all crammed onto the Knights' stage with their guitars, violins, glockenspiels and all. They seem to be building up to something a bit special, so it was great to see them visiting Middlesbrough. And they seemed pretty happy too as they accepted rapturous applause from their first ever sell out show. They deserve to be very successful, but whether they are or not will depend on the taste of the general public, which of course is rarely to be relied upon. Their melodies and multi-instrumental power were quite mesmerising though.

After two great highs, the Boro game on Saturday managed to bring me down a few pegs thanks to a frustrating last-minute equaliser from Sunderland after we'd controlled the game from the second minute until the second last. If only it'd been from the first until the last, we'd have won 2-0. "But hey, that's football", apparently.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Under slate-grey Victorian skies

I've been in Manchester for four days now and am settling in well. Young Holden (Anna) has even already found time to go on a litter picking expedition in the immediate vicinity of our building. It seems that our little car park and path way is where the wind chooses to deposit all the litter from the southern half of Manchester, so she's in her element. It's a very different litter culture to what she's been used to while idly picking up bin bags strewn alongside narrow country roads in her Lincolnshire Wolds, but she seems to have adapted well to city litter. The roof of our flat seems to be a bit of a pigeon hidehout too, so I feel a bit like Jonathan Noel from 'The Pigeon' by Patrick Suskind every time I go out the door. The overcast skies and spots of rain always provide solace though.

As Manchester's primary student area, Fallowfield seems to have a lot of students, which has come as a bit of a surprise. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but it's come as a minor culture shock to be amongst it all, and staggering to think I'm five years older than all of these Freshers prowling the streets. Yesterday I made the mistake of trying to glide past the main Freshers' Fair and was met with a barrage of fliers for themed discos and toga parties, all rebuffed with a stern "no thanks", naturally. It seems quite a few of the pubs/bars where I'm living are your standard, soulless student affairs, but thankfully 'The Friendship Inn' has provided some sanity. It's got a wooden bar, a nice old-fasioned carpet and serves Olde Trip, so I've declared it my local. Plenty of great alehouses in the city centre though, and I'm looking forward to gaining a comprehensive understanding of them all.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Go back to bed, Britain...

...your government is in control. Last week's considered advice from a grand fromage in our judicial system that every resident of Britain should be included in the national DNA database should set alarm bells ringing in everyone's years. I'm not sure it has though. The UK's database - already the largest in the world - currently includes only those who've had direct dealings with the police. According to this top judge, that is a problem because fledgling criminals can go free and undetected for longer than if they were already on file. This kind of talk is music to any government's ears. (That's two mentions of ears now: I seem to have developed a bit of an ear theme so far. No doubt in the knowledge that, if I was on the DNA database, the government would be able to clone my lobe or something.)

I find it astonishing that so many people appear to be apathetic when it comes to civil liberties. Especially when so many people, from all across the political spectrum, are so quick to state their distrust of the government: "Eeee, I don't trust any of that lot me." I think this general distrust must be centred on relatively inconsequential things like sleaze and the extra-marital affairs of our politicians, because from what I can see the majority of people just shrug their shoulders when it comes to the idea of handing over our identities for 'security' measures. Why, if we don't trust governments, do so many people support identity cards and other identification measures? It Makes. No. Sense.

The lack of media opposition to suggestions like these is also worrying. Whenever identity cards were discussed, the main reasons for concern cited were usually surrounding the scheme's cost to the treasury rather than the more prescient, general principle of resisting a slide towards a police state. Completely disproportionate responses to crime and terrorism (the latter always being the most powerful tool for scaring a populace into compliance) like this aren't being opposed enough. Rule One of operating a functional democracy is that you don't grant your government total biometric information about ordinary citizens who are yet to commit a crime. It can only go one way. Even if we think a particular government wouldn't abuse a database of its citizens for undemocractic purposes, who's to say a future one wouldn't? The civil liberties record of our current government, and the one before it, has been increasingly authoritarian and our true vigilance is required to resist that trend being furthered. As George Orwell said (couldn't leave him out, really), "to see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle." Wake up.

Monday, September 10, 2007

"There's a black fella..."

I've stumbled across a good YouTube clip of Bernard Righton, a reformed and politically-correct version of dead hate-comic Bernard Manning, and the creation of ex-Fast Show and Cold Feet bloke John Thomson. I heard some clips of him a few weeks ago on a Radio 2 documentary about Steve Coogan, who Thomson toured with in the early-90s and compered for in character as Bernard Righton. It's funny.

The death of the odious, bigoted and unfunny Manning in June of this year brought all the usual "he's just a different generation" nonsense back to the surface as his celebrity friends closed ranks in the media. "He was a perfect gent who loved his family and would never swear in front of his mother." Just a pity he hated people because of the colour of their skin then really, wasn't it. I'd say the world became a slightly better place when he died. But now I can hear my producer saying in my ear that to actively glorify the death of someone is a social faux pas, so I'll stop.

At least Bernard Righton lives on and, given the fact he tackles the same subject matter, might even be able to exploit Manning's market.

Bernard Righton (YouTube): "There's a black fella... a Pakistani and a Jew having a drink in a nightclub. What a fine example of an integrated community."

Friday, September 07, 2007

White van man

I've spent much of the last 48 hours in unfamiliar territory as a white van man, scourge of the streets. I was helping my sister move a load of office furniture between Ripon and Middlesbrough and, as part of my role, got to hire my first ever van. Quite a milestone. I think it's what it must be like to find yourself placed in alien situations and filmed for the purposes of a television programme, like that time Michael Portillo just about looked after a family of Liverpudlian children for the BBC, or an episode of 'Faking It'. I wasn't actually filmed, but when alone I quite often pretend I'm the subject of a documentary anyway, so I just did that again:

"Paddy is driving northbound on the A19. It's twenty-five minutes since he left Ripon and around twenty minutes until he's scheduled to arrive in Middlesbrough. Although everything seems to be going smoothly with the van, he still has a few reservations about this way of life..."

I'm not sure if I was a convincing white van man. Of course, the stereotype is that these characters charge up and down our road network, leaning out windows shouting "oi oi!" for no apparent reason, resting a forearm on their van roofs while stationary at traffic lights, constantly rearranging their crotch, and giving free advertising to the Daily Star by leaving a copy on the dashboard. I tried my best to live up to the role, but failed miserably. Where normally you'd see a particularly robust-looking set of female breasts pressed against the windscreen thanks to Page 3 of the Daily Star, today my van featured a neatly-folded copy of The Independent left open on an article about what some regard as the potentially harmful effects of increasing the availability of the international baccalaureate in our country's sixth-forms. Honk honk. Furthermore I kept the windows wound up at all times, sang along to a Kate Bush CD I'd taken with me, adhered to all national speed limits, remained within the designated lines at either side of my lane, and allowed my crotch to sit unaltered. I almost considered pulling into one of those roadside Portakabin cafes and ordering a mug of tea for 30p, but decided against it for fear of feeling misunderstood by the other drivers.

"Paddy is taking a well deserved break after lumbering a seemingly ceaseless amount of Ikea furniture up a staircase. After a day spent living a life he never imagined he would live, he insists he's found the experience a worthwhile one..."

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Pat calling the kettle crap

"Come and look at this" murmured the Harrogate-based alpha brother while beckoning me into his kitchen. The visual feast I was expected to provide a reaction to was a brand new kettle he'd bought, with a puzzling feature whereby it doesn't seem to take time to do anything. Rather than needing a standard three to four minute boiling period, you just fill it up, flick it on, and then it pours the water out at a boiling temperature within seconds, producing quickfire tea. I'm not quite sure how it works. I'm no scientist. Or electrician. Or interested. But it emerged that this freaky little instant-boiling device had set him back £63: for a kettle! That's just so Harrogate.

My brother wasn't happy with my luke-warm response (I take a while to boil up [*ba-dum-pa-tssssshh*]). I complained that it was a ridiculous purchase and an example of the kind of nonsensical gadget fetishism that kept the western world's false economies artificially afloat. You can do the same job with a 50-year old pan and a hob oven top if you're willing to wait a few minutes. I don't see removing the processes of life as being necessarily a good thing. We should really delight in process, so that the product is all the more appreciated. There's a certain therapy to putting the kettle on and being able to wander off and conduct some vital life-admin around the house, before returning like clockwork to witness the boiling point and having built up an even greater thirst than you started with. Then, quenching that thirst with a carefully-crafted cup of tea is just heaven. I've often read the back page of the Evening Gazette in the time it takes for the kettle to boil. Or made a toilet trip, made a chess move, or cut down a small tree. To remove the period of waiting time is also to remove the pleasure. It's teamaking for the iPod generation and it's sickening. What next? Nourishment without the pleasure of taste, without chewing and being able to manipulate the foodstuff from cheek to cheek for lasting thrills? Consuming literature without the sensuous licking of ones finger in order to turn from page to page to page (to page)?

His considered assessment of my reasons for being unimpressed by this iKettle was that I was "just jealous". This was the final straw. I pointed out that surely he meant I was envious rather than jealous, since jealously (in its unspoiled semantic form) means being fiercely possessive and guarded towards one's property. People have gradually distorted its meanings and just substituted it for envy. So, since I don't own an iKettle I'm unable to be jealous of it, but could feasibly be envious, even though I'm not. So there. I don't think the alpha brother wants to speak to me anymore.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Trailing Scandinavia

As a general fan of all things Scandinavian I was always bound to quite like Danish band The Kissaway Trail, who I witnessed appear live ('as opposed to appearing unalive', © Morrissey) just a couple of hours ago. It's not just the music, what with its often dreamy arctic soundscapes, that sets Scandinavia apart. It's also the social conscience of its politics, its emphasis on the welfare state and a sensible tax system, its climate with joyously dark winters, its laid back culture, its crime and litter free streets, its water features (I love a good archipelago), and its Norwegian ex-Boro star Jan Aage Fjortoft. I'm still hoping to end up living in Sweden one day. A five-day trip to Stockholm is my only experience of Scandinavian life thus far but despite coming back with no money to my name due to the extortionate prices, I fell in love with the place. Mind you, they've elected a centre-right government and its Foreign Minister Anna Lindh was stabbed to death in a department store just a few months after I left, so it sounds like it's all gone to pot ever since my visit. I might just stay over here afterall.

Anyway, this band right. They combine the aforementioned Scandinavian tendency for dreamy and wintry indie sounds with some highly catchy pop melodies. The layered cacophonies and song structures of Arcade Fire and the youthful charm of fellow Danes Mew. I remember first hearing their song 'Smother + Evil = Hurt' (kindly skim over the crass title) on a DrownedInSound podcast nine months ago and really liking it, so I was delighted when this gig was announced. I enjoyed them immensely: they had a fine energy that really filled the little room they were playing (capacity 130). It was at The Knights in Middlesbrough and I went along with Welford and David B. The Knights has hosted a few brilliant gigs since March this year thanks to a new local promoter doing it purely through love of music. It's a great venue for gigs like this: an intimate, social club atmosphere lends itself well to a good honest gig experience, devoid of the pretensions and scenesters you'll find at your average diluted gig/club night combo that seems to be all the rage nowadays. The ticket prices are kept to a minimum with the aim of covering costs rather than profiteering. There's a little cultural revolution going down on Southfield Road - it's brilliant. And The Kissaway Trail could be brilliant in many people's eyes (ears?) soon too.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Manufacturing Dissent?

Subversive truth warrior or cynical distorter of facts? Opinion of highly successful and staggeringly rich documentary film-maker Michael Moore is often split between the two extremes and not often anywhere in between - and that's just within the left. I've been reading about the makers of Manufacturing Dissent, a film released this year which claims Moore's films deliberately mislead viewers by distorting facts to suit a preordained agenda, and are thus at odds with the basic principles of documentary-making. It's not the first film released in criticism of Moore and the claims within it are certainly nothing new either. The only difference is that the makers of Manufacturing Dissent aren't your average conservative Republicans on a mission to discredit a major thorn in their side. Instead, it was made by two 'left-wing progressives' who originally intended a straightforward biographical film but say they found Moore so uncooperative and evasive (just like many of the figures he mocks in his own films) that it led them down new paths.

The thing is, from the sound of it (I should point out I haven't seen this film and am just spouting off on the basis of second-hand information - but what's new?) most of the criticisms centre on Moore's personality, which shouldn't be relevant. The film is packed with former colleagues talking about the unpleasantries of working for Moore. Arrogant, egotistical and difficult to work with? Probably. Is that important? Not one bit. Next. The more telling criticism, that he distorts truths or even creates his own untruths, is more important. There's been plenty of talk since Farenheit 9/11 about the alleged flights transporting Osama Bin Laden's relatives from US soil 48 hours after the collapse of the World Trade Centre, and whether or not the Bush administration was directly involved, as Moore claims. Throw in lots of other lines like selective historical references and manipulative editing and presentation of footage and you have an idea of where a lot of the criticism of Moore's films is centred.

The thing is (second time I've said that), any of the perceived factual inaccuracies and supposed manipulations are on a decidedly minor scale in comparison to Moore's greater objective. They don't affect the legitimacy of his overall statements. Of course documentaries should seek to do what they say on the tin: documenting the truth. Naturally, for his films' agendas - highlighting corporate-induced economic devastation (Roger & Me), liberal gun laws (Bowling For Columbine), and illustrating the US' disastrous foreign policy and destroying the erroneous perception of Iraq's links to the September 11th attacks (Farenheit 9/11) - he seeks supporting information. He's a polemicist, but are his occasionally selective versions of events any worse than what all the major American news networks do on a daily basis? In a US media culture consumed with vested interests and resultantly a selective news agenda, maybe the only way to succeed in the manner Moore has was to play them at their own game.

I see Moore's influence in the past five or six years as overwhelmingly positive. There's no denying he's a master of effective and emotive filmmaking. Personally, I don't care much for many of his methods, but I recognise the end he's striving for is a noble one. There's been enough cause for dissent in the past few years that it didn't need manufacturing. But sadly, apathetic people do need prodding into dissent, and that's what Moore does. Expertly. The fact he's become rich in the process is an irrelevance. His films and books made dissident politics accessible to a wide audience. I remember people I knew with no previous interest in politics whatsoever reading 'Stupid White Men' and watching 'Bowling For Columbine', engaging with what they were about, and looking into the topics further. That's quite an achievement really. Yes, you'd be far better off reading Noam Chomsky for a more comprehensive understanding of some similar issues, but it's not realistic to expect every man in the street to do that. Although he's had his shortcomings, Michael Moore's works are still refreshing, positive, and vital.