I was just checking on Gary Numan’s birthplace — after Antony correctly challenged my Essex assertion (maybe it was his later association with Shakatak that confused me). I found that Gary Numan was yet another famous musician born in 1958. This year produced a pretty impressive collection of musical luminaries who came to prominence in the late 70s and dominated music well into the 90s between them. Most people will probably know that Michael Jackson was born in 1958 but so was Madonna — and, my favourite, Kate Bush. The rather nice Belinda Carlisle was also born then. A similarly disproportionate number of well known actors and rather nice actresses were also born in 1958: Annette Bening (American Beauty — the film with the best soundtrack ever?), Holly Hunter, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Bacon, Michelle Pfieffer and Sharon Stone. There are bound to be a lot more but I can’t find anything better on the web that lists people by birth year than this. I suppose it was probably a big year demographically but that probably doesn’t fully explain the distibution. It’s a bit like the huge number of famous people that come from Rochdale — Cyril Smith, Gracie Fields, Anna Friel, Bill Oddie, Andy and Liz Kershaw, Steve Coogan (sort of — he comes from Middleton which is in the metropolitan borough), Don Estelle, Lisa Stansfield, Kieron Prendeville (of That’s Life), John Virgo — and plenty more. Bizarrely, I found on Wikipedia that there is a novelist called Nicholas Blincoe who apparently comes from Rochdale. This is a very unusual surname and so I think it must be someone whose family I knew of as a child — they lived about 200 yards from me next door to one of my friends. If it’s the same family then I didn’t know the children too well as they went to the private school. I may have to look his books up on Amazon.
How sad that Liverpool dropped two points due to an assist by a beach ball! It says something about the quality of the game and of Liverpool’s attack without Torres that no humans were able to put the ball in the net but a red beach ball was able to divert Bent’s tame shot past Reina. Match of the Day might regret showing the kid who threw the ball on the pitch (a Liverpool fan) if they end up missing out on the title (or, more likely, Europe) by a couple of points. Hilarious — as was the argument between United legend Steve Bruce and Rafa Benitez.
I had dismal hopes for the Channel Four programme — the Red Lion — on Thursday. Another instalment of government promoted doom and gloom about the evils of drinking seemed on the cards.
The programme visited 10 of the 600 Red Lion pubs in the country (the most popular pub name) and the first one featured unashamed, wanton binge drinking, the only objective of which was ‘to get hammered’ — but this was by a group of women. It was a student netball team from Newport University (no, I never realised there was a university there either) who religiously went out on a Wednesday to get completely plastered playing ‘pub golf’ (a close relative of drinking golf that I’ve played myself) at 9 local pubs. So the programme started with a dozen or so girls downing a pint of Guinness in one at the Red Lion. Rather than be apologetic, the students they interviewed were refreshingly honest about their motives — drinking to get pissed (although they have to be able to stand up or else that would be a bad night) and ‘feeling like shit’ the next morning was a big part of it. These women were not violent or sad or ill — they were all pretty athletic as they played netball for the university. I remained in awe as they went on to other pubs in Caerleon to down other drinks in one. I expect that, after this programme, Caerleon will never be the same again on a Wednesday night as hundreds of male binge drinkers will no doubt want to make a favourable impression on the netball players by consuming even larger amounts of alcohol. Where is it again?
After that classic opening, the programme went to a reasonable cross section of other Red Lions. It seemed that even when they found the inevitable solitary drinkers whose whole lives revolved around the pub that even these characters came out of the programme with a lot of dignity. My favourite Red Lion was one in Whitworth, north of Rochdale, which was pretty typical of the pubs I learned to drink in (in Tim Martin approved fashion) myself just over the hills from there. There was one Rugby League player who cheerfully admitted to spending £100 on beer a week — as he didn’t have much else to do. He also gave one of the most eloquent descriptions of the pleasure of being mildly inebriated. As with the netball players, even the BMA might have problems correlating the large volume of alcohol consumed with the physical fitness required of the players. (It brings to mind the conclusion that Jancis Robinson came to in The Demon Drink when she reviewed the scientific literature that the people who drink most do so because they can — i.e. fit young people in their 20s can outdrink almost anyone with no ill effects.)
What the programme managed to convey quite effectively was the sense of camaraderie and community that can be found in all good pubs. It showed the pub is a leveller of society and class — with the regulars being incredibly brutal in their comments towards each other but all done so in the safe knowledge that they’ll be back there the next night. The pub pricks pretension and is an amazing social leveller. Many of these issues have been examined by social anthropologist, Kate Fox, who devotes a whole section of her book ‘Watching the English’ to the etiquette of round buying. The last Red Lion was closed — bought up by an owner who has no intention of re-opening it but, by the look of the boarded up windows, can’t get planning permission to do anything else with the building. Speculating and profiteering were ripping the heart out of a community — odd that after 12 years of New Labour.
There was plenty of potential for ridiculing the pubgoers, who were remarkably candid, but what came across was an amazing feeling of common humanity bonding the pubgoers. After all, the pub is basically an institution where ‘the public’ are invited into a ‘house’. The programme generated a very favourable review in The Guardian. I can’t put the conclusion better myself: ‘a lovely portrait of a peculiarly British institution’. The Times review says ‘Drinking in moderation, the contributors suggested, was a dreary waste of time.’ I couldn’t possibly comment.
This autumn, more than any I can remember before, the book market seems to be dominated by television spin offs. This photo shows the promotional titles at W.H.Smith in High Wycombe. Look very carefully (the photo is compressed) and you’ll see a few novels — Dan Brown, Stig Larsson, Patricia Cornwell. However, virtually everything else is promoting a TV programme or personality: Jamie Oliver, Delia, Peter Kay, Ozzy Osborne, Jack Dee, Ant and Dec, Chris Evans, John Barrowman, Hairy Bikers, Leona Lewis, Al Murray, Harry Hill, Gordon Ramsay, Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond — AND James May has a book out. It’s a relief to get one by a sports personality whose TV connection is almost incidental — the legendary Freddie Flintoff. I couldn’t begudge Jo Brand’s place on the shelf with her book having the title — ‘Look Back in Hunger’ — much wittier than Dawn French’s ‘Dear Fatty’.
There was a great 90 minutes of nostalgia on BBC4 last night — an account of Synth Britannia — the story of electronic music in the late 70s and very early 80s (the fantastic track list is on this page). The origins of the movment and their inspiration in terms of novels, films and Kraftwerk was all very interesting but the best bit was when some of the musicians started talking about their iconic records and demonstrating the synthesizers actually used on the record. Dave Ball from Soft Cell played ‘Tainted Love’ (one of the candidates for best synth track ever) along with the electronic percussion that makes the record still so memorable (there doesn’t seem to be a pattern to when it comes in). He spoke in a bluff Yorkshire accent and talked about coming down to Soho with Marc Almond like a pair of country hicks.
One remarkable aspect of the bands featured was they overwhelming came from two regions — northern industrial cities and Essex. Liverpool had OMD, Manchester Joy Division, Leeds for Soft Cell, Sheffield the Human League and Heaven 17. Essex produced Gary Numan and Yazoo/Depeche Mode.
Numan was the subject of some revisionist history — Andy McCluskey from OMD said it was a scandal that Numan’s career was effectively cut short by press sniping. Numan himself admitted he was not a particular sociable person and this may explain his faux pas in openly supporting Thatcher in the 80s. Many more bands completely embraced Thatcherism in their desire to ‘make lots of money’ but were smart enough to maintain a left-leaning image as a sop to the music press. Apparently the established bands like OMD and the Human League who were struggling to get in the charts were a bit put out that ‘Are Friends Electric’ steamed in to number one in 1979. Listening to it now, they shouldn’t have been surprised. It’s probably still the best synth track ever although it has guitars and acoustic drums. The drumming is the making of the track IMHO — a fantastic relentless sound that complements the mechanical synth lines.
I have a soft spot for the Human League and it was good to see Phil Oakey talking about how they made some records. Apparently they had the first Linn drum in the country and put it hurriedly on ‘Sound of the Crowd’. It was interesting to see how Suzanne Sulley and Joanne Catherall had aged. I always preferred Joanne (the dark one) but she now looks like one of the panellists on ‘Loose Women’. Suzanne still looked quite good, albeit with lots of make up and an extravagant hairdo.
Martyn Ware (or was it Ian Craig Marsh) from Heaven 17 described how he was motivated to outdo the Human League, having been fired by them (Phil Oakey said something about not turning up to a photoshoot). Dare and Penthouse and Pavement were apparently recorded simultaneously in the same studio — Human League by day and Heaven 17 by night. I love both albums and Dare is probably the best album as it has two classic tracks (‘Love Action’ and ‘Don’t You Want Me’) and the rest are pretty strong too. Yet Penthouse and Pavement has a fantastic redolence of place and time — although I didn’t really get to know the album until a couple of years after it was released. The title track of the album seems to reflect the 80s political point of inequality and contrast (hence Penthouse and Pavement) in its musical arrangement: descending piano chords and dance beat contrasting with the rambling woodwind soundg synth introduction and Glenn Gregory’s laconic vocals — ‘Sweat my youth away’. Breathy female vocals and the fast percucssion give a contrasting sense of urgency to the chorus.
As with the Electric Dreams technology programme, the music in Synth Britannia — and particularly ‘Penthouse and Pavement’ show what a huge societal change occurred in the 1980s. The cover of ‘Penthouse and Pavement’ anticipates the arrival of the yuppie culture — and the Essex types took the title of ‘Let’s All Make a Bomb’ literally — despite the group’s ideological standpoint being to look back to the industrial society of the north — out of which this music was created in the first place.
Frank Lampard lambasted former FA chief Adam Crozier recently for uttering a completely fatuous and premature soundbite about England’s supposed ‘golden generation’ when he made the disastrous appointment of Sven Goran Eriksson as England manager. Whereas Sven has now moved to the heights of Director of Football at Notts County, Crozier has found another national institution to wreck. As Lampard says of Crozier ‘Look what happened to him’. Typical of our political culture where competence is thought far inferior to spin and appearances, Crozier is chief executive of the Royal Mail — whose appalling industrial relations seem to have nosedived further after he took charge. Not that you’d know he’s in charge as, like his ultimate boss, Gordon Brown he’s suddenly turned invisible when the going has got tough and sends his minions like an operations director out to face the media.
I’ve just started a creative writing course at City University, slap bang between New Labour trendy Islington and genuinely trendy Clerkenwell. It promises to be a very good course. We were told of the illustrious achievements of previous students, who have novels in various stages of publication and many of whom have agents. There are 14 students on the course and they seem a fantastically varied and friendly bunch. One of the many things the tutor encouraged us to do was keep an eye on the ‘News in Brief’ stories in the papers as sources of inspiration. This put me in mind of this bizarre story that I found on the Sun’s website (via Google News I hasten to add). I quite liked this as it lends credibility to an idea I’d had before for one of the climatic scenes in the plot of my putative novel. (I don’t think I’d stretch the reader’s credulity to say that the character was a poet who’d previously eulogised the husband in question. But truth is stranger than fiction.
The Baby Boomer generation is fond of re-inventing its history and self-mythologising itself to the extent that you’d think they were all at Woodstock or burning down the Bastille and that the music of the Beatles was thought far too ‘square’. In reality, although my parents were thankfully a bit older than the typical boomers, I remember that the soundtrack to the late 60s and early 70s was not so much Hendrix and company but Neil Diamond and Andy Williams whose records are indelibly imprinted on my brain. In ‘cool’ retrospect Neil Diamond is now so trendy that he even played Glastonbury. BBC4 just showed a documentary about Andy Williams’ duets on his NBC TV show which featured all kinds of luminaries such as Judy Garland, Aretha Franklin, Johnny Cash and many others.
It was good to see the man himself introducing the clips. The one I enjoyed most was his collaboration with Simon and Garfunkel. I can’t help but imagine that these two are a couple of the most unlikeable, dysfunctional individuals ever to come to public recognition — at least their public personas anyway. However, there’s no disputing that they made some fantastic records and Williams joined them in a threesome to perform perhaps my favourite — ‘Scarborough Fair/Canticle’. Simon’s guitar accompaniment was beautifully simple and Williams’ voice perfectly complemented Garfunkel’s pitch. It was quite lovely and showed how adaptable Williams was as he was soon shown doing a bit of R&B with Ray Charles.
Those who paid out £11.99 for watching a blurry picture on a computer will have been rewarded by being first to see a thoroughly poor performance by England. I followed the highlights saga in the news and wasn’t too surprised to see the BBC showing the highlights at short notice but it seems very dodgy that they, in effect, colluded with the spivs who were streaming the match on the Internet by keeping quiet about the highlights being shown until after the last kick.
England were lucky not to lose 3-0 at least — with a missed penalty, the woodwork being hit and James making some spectacular saves. Nonetheless, they created quite a few chances with ten men. There are some who think that that England won’t be too sad if the result means that Croatia miss the playoffs when the final results are in on Wednesday. I’ll be a little sad if it means less chance of Blanka Vlasic making an appearance but that might be compensated by the likes of Eduardo missing out.
I wonder if we’ll ever be told how many people paid to watch this miserable non-event but it’s heartening that Rio ‘The Wanderer’ Ferdinand and Cashley Cole seemed to treat the occasion with the contempt that maybe comes of thinking that one man and his internet dog are the only ones watching.
Credit to the Coach and Horses, Bruton Street, W1 for doing a cheap pint of real ale at peak time on a Friday evening (on BITE Bedfont points out that it is NOT the Shepherd Neame house — that’s the other side of Berkeley Square). Of course, cheap is a relative term in the area with the most expensive rental on the Monopoly board. However, one might save enough by buying Fuller’s London Pride at £2.50 to make a slight dent in the amount needed to buy one of the Rolls Royces or Bentleys in the showroom just around the corner. It wasn’t a bad pint of Pride either. At the more typical price of about £3.20 they also did Timothy Taylor Landlord, one of my favourites normally but it had a good whiff of diacetyl, which I’ve never come across in its Yorkshire heartland. Warwickshire Darling Buds, which I tried a few weeks ago at the King’s Arms in Tring, was also on.
The pub itself was packed with suits. Apparently this is hedge fund HQ territory and the fridge in the pub had more champagne in it than anything else — which goes to show that not a great deal seems to have changed around here since the credit crunch unless it’s the hedge fund managers who are on the £2.50 Pride.
I watched the second in the series of ‘Electric Dreams’ on BBC4 — on the 80s. The programme on the 70s last week was quite shocking in its accurate depiction of the spartan lifestyle people in this country led at the start of the 1970s — twin tub washing machines being quite a novelty and teasmades being at the cutting edge. One point the series seems to be making is that change is quite discontinuous: in retrospect there seem to be periods of relative stability and then a few years when huge changes happen. One of these times seems to be the late 70s until the mid-80s — co-incidentally when some great music came out.
The 70s seemed to be way back in history whereas by the end of the 80s they’d got computers, CDs, videos and so on which means most of the entertainment and music options were pretty similar to what people use today (if not the actual technology). It’s only mobile phones and the Internet that would seem to be the big innovations to come. Everything seems to have changed with Thatcher coming in which, whatever one’s opinion of her, certainly was quite disruptive.
There were some classic pieces of footage — Cliff Richard looking very creepy in the ‘Wired for Sound’ video (perhaps he’s just not confident at roller skating?) and the totally absurd Sinclair C5 (I remember when BBC Nationwide built up to its launch describing it as a car). Particularly pleasing was the demonstration of the amazing properties of the compact disc which were shown by spreading honey and pouring coffee over the disc — before cleaning it off and putting it in the machine. (Not sure it was the great Michael Rodd though.) Great selling point should you be the sort of person who wants to plaster your breakfast all over your music collection before playing it! Anyone under about 30 must be completely mystified why this test was carried out. (For any youngsters watching this, it’s because spreading jam on a vinyl record would irreparably break it — though it still doesn’t explain why someone would want to do it.)
They picked some fantastic tunes for the soundtrack — more unusual ones than in ‘Ashes to Ashes’ — and it’s listed on the iPlayer page. I’d not heard ‘Kings of the Wild Frontier’ by Adam and the Ants for a while. ‘Quiet Life’ by Japan always sounds so reminiscent of the era. Not heard much either is ‘Somebody’s Watching Me’ by Rockwell (surprising as it has Michael Jackson singing). From later in the decade music included ‘System Addict’ by Five Star, ‘Good Life’ by Inner City (which I think is fantastic), ‘True Faith’ by New Order and ‘Pacific State’ by 808 State which, oddly, is also on a Ministry of Sound Chilled compilation of music for modern youngsters that takes in tracks up to 2008. It goes to show how maybe things have changed less than the intervening period than they did in the few years before and what a fascinating time the late 70s and early 80s were to grow up in.
Today I drove through Southcourt in Aylesbury: a large, 1930s-60s housing estate which was originally almost all council housing. Such estates used to be bastions of working-class ale drinking but the smoking ban and the credit crunch have finished off two of the three pubs and the closest pub in the direction of the two centre is also shut. A pub that tried valiantly to keep going in the face of cheap supermarket beer and home-based entertainment like videos and Sky TV was the Steeplechase, which did some decent real ale at times. It has been boarded up for a year now and is a sad sight.
However, on the bright side, a report partly supported by CAMRA and publicised on the BBC website reported that cask ale was the only type of beer now with growing sales and partly because twice as many women enjoyed drinking it in the past couple of years. There was also a very interesting report on the Radio Four Food Programme about hops and their use in real ale — which gave an opportunity for Roger Protz to yet again claim that beer is far more interesting than wine. The brewer at Brewdog commented on his Punk IPA, which the female presenter found very tasty. (I love this beer and its weaker sister — Trashy Blonde — Brewdog are so non-pc they even make an 18% beer.) The programme noted that the trend towards using more (and more assertive) hops started by US craft breweries and is now being adopted by ale brewers here. Such beers have to either have a high alcohol content to balance the bitterness or need to be drunk in much smaller quantities (such as thirds of pints) to be palatable.
The two themes above suggest that there’s a trend for both beer and pubs to lose their long-time association with the working man and instead to become the preserve of the middle-classes. A valid criticism of CAMRA is that while it has spectacularly succeeded in preserving real ale and increased the variety available, it has done so mainly for the benefit of a minority of beer snobs and tickers. Real ale is not the drink of the working man any more — that accolade was lost to lager a long time ago — the fact that real ale quality is dire in a large number of workaday, non-CAMRA-Good-Beer-Guide pubs might have a lot to do with this. However, it seems that these sort of workaday, average, unremarkable pubs are the ones that are suffering most at the moment and, as the cask report says, it’s the affluent real ale drinkers who are able to afford £3 a pint in the pub and don’t go for the £10 24 can Stella pack at Tesco as an alternative.
So perhaps the saviours of the English pub as we know it are the middle-classes, much as that might be an anathema to some of the more revolutionary founders of the real ale movement. The middle-class seem to have saved real ale and pubcos should perhaps target these high-spending, but demanding customers more. Another factor in the pub’s favour is brought to mind by having forty-something politicians paraded at the party conferences over the past couple of weeks: it seems the annoying, social-skills free nerds that inhabited student politics in the 80s are now making their bids to be the annoying, power-crazed nerds that run the country. But if that’s reflected in other walks of life there may be a silver lining in that the middle-class, especially Generation X who are entering middle-age, have very fond memories of the pub from their student days (mostly rose-tinted in terms of the amount they drank and time the spent there). Yet this almost sentimental attachment to the pub as a hub of student life might yet save the great British institution. The middle-classes might not be propping the bars up swilling ten pints of mild a night but they might be pretty solid campaigners to ensure that pubs are still there for people that do.
To illustrate the point there are a number of examples of local pubs being saved from closure by being bought by (presumably relatively wealthy) members of the local community and re-opened and run on a community basis. The Unicorn at Cublington and Crown at Sydenham, Oxon are good examples. I went tonight to a pub, the King William IV at Speen, that’s not owned by the community but run in a way that is designed to be community minded — to the extent of having a small room of a perfect sized for committee meetings. It also has an ice-cream parlour selling locally sourced ice-cream. A group of local charity volunteers were also enjoying the evening in the pub. These pubs aren’t, of course, exclusively full of middle-class people but they’ve benefited from the sort of activism that the middle-classes (and, dare I say it, CAMRA) have shown to be very successful.
I came across the previously mentioned Giant ale from White Horse Brewery in the Turf Tavern in Oxford yesterday. They’ve not shied away from putting the chap in all his glory on the pump clip. Of course I had to try a pint of the ale but I better not say whether it had the advertised effect.
Oxford might have wonderfully historic pubs with great ale and lots of atmosphere but what about the needs of drinkers whose teams are playing at 5.30pm on ESPN? No big plasma screens at the Turf Tavern or the King’s Arms or White Horse so I ended up missing the Man Utd v Sunderland match live and followed the less than comforting scoreline on my phone. After a self-stranding toilet incident involving the 280 bus I had to catch the train back from Haddenham and then valiantly tried to stay awake when I eventually got home through the end of Strictly Come Dancing so I could watch the highlights on MOTD.
Of course, I fell asleep just a few minutes before it started and missed the highlights. Fortunately I was able to remember to record the repeat of the programme at 8am this morning and so enjoyed two remarkable spectacles. Berbatov’s goal was superbly taken — an amazing overhead kick. However, the terrible decision that Wiley made about the Anderson penalty interview brought on the most amazing rant by SAF against the fourth official. Whatever his other failings, Ferguson will certainly get stuck in and fight ‘the enemy’ for his team.
Went drinking in Flackwell Heath for the first time ever tonight. Not many people probably go there but many pass close by as it’s very close to the M40 — just behind the woods on the big hill as the road climbs out of the Wye valley at Loudwater (junction 3). The Stag was a decent enough pub and the Crooked Billet down a side road towards Little Marlow was a lovely old-fashioned country pub with an astonishingly well-tended garden — enough bedding plants, even at the start of October, to put a municipal park to shame.
In the pub it was mentioned that White Horse Brewery have a special beer called ‘Giant’. It might not be a surprise to discover that, as the brewery has the ancient Uffington White Horse as its logo, the giant in question is the famously endowed chap at Cerne Abbas. In these days where it is not allowed even to hint to under 25s that alcohol may equate to enhanced sexual success, we wondered whether the brewery would be allowed to use an image of the prehistoric figure on the brewery pump clips. Or would the nation’s twenty-something males be corrupted into thinking that drinking this real ale might have such a startling effect on a part of their anatomy. (It would be interesting to see if their partners might be tempted into buying them a pint to test the drink’s efficacy.) I’d guess that the existing guidelines might prompt the brewers into modifying their pump clip design. I suggested inverting the said organ in Photoshop but another suggestion was to put him in a pair of Y-fronts to be on the safe side. No doubt, if it’s not against the law and the brewery go ahead and display the giant and his colossal manhood then we’ll see Harriet Harman rushing the necessary legislation through the House of Commons as soon as parliament returns.
Of course, if the BMA get their way then all alcohol marketing and advertising would be banned so there would be definitely no pump clip, no matter how graphic.