Not what it used to be

With all the hand-wringing about how the internet is destroying our attention spans, I also wonder… oh look, cats that look like Hitler!… sorry, where was I? Oh yes… I also wonder if it will screw with our our memories too.

When all human knowledge and culture of the past — from the epochal to the hopelessly trivial — is catalogued for instant call-up at the click of a mouse button it’s almost impossible to forget anything. In the probable future when our brains are literally hard-wired into the web you won’t even need a mouse or keyboard, your subconscious will do a Google search so quickly you’ll “know” something a nanosecond before you’re even aware that you’d forgotten about it. In this world we’re all trivia experts and pub arguments end in the time it takes for someone to whip out their iPhone.

The internet makes it a lot easier to literally own the past too. It used to take a JR Hartley-esque effort to find but now everything that previously only existed in your foggy memory is there for instant purchase in a vast nostalgia marketplace. I know I’m not the only one who’s used eBay to buy lost items from my youth — records, magazines, Whizzer and Chips annuals — but I find the pleasure of winning an auction doesn’t match up to the thrill of accidentally coming across something in a second-hand record or charity shop because that feels like discovering buried treasure, not something you just Googled. Sadly, the reality rarely matches up to the romanticized image you had in your head either — that old copy of Look-In loses its mystical power the minute you hold it in your hands (or see that old TV show on YouTube) because you have to face the cold, hard truth that it was actually a bit rubbish. Some things are probably best left un-bought and unseen.

So while the internet has enabled nostalgia by allowing us to wallow in every trivial thing we ever enjoyed as kids (and write blogs about it), it’s also killed it a bit by taking away its mystique and that lovely, hazy quality things have when they’re only vaguely half-remembered. But I’m sure that if you’d described the internet to me thirty years ago I’d have said it sounds like the most wonderful thing ever invented.

Download: Memorabilia – Soft Cell (mp3)

Under Siege

I live in Watertown, Massachusetts which, as you may have heard, was the centre of a rather big story on Friday. It’s a nice town to live in, not as expensive as (and more working class than) neighbouring Cambridge and Belmont, but close enough to Boston to not feel too much like you’re out in the suburbs.

Very early Friday morning we were woken by the sound of sirens, gunfire, and explosions (actually, my wife was woken up and she woke me) and, putting the news on, realized that some serious shit was happening just a few blocks south of our road and that we weren’t getting back to sleep. Even if we’d wanted to, the helicopter flying overhead and the thought of a fugitive terrorist in the neighbourhood would’ve kept us awake.

By the time the sun came up we also knew that we weren’t going anywhere that day as we’d been told to stay indoors (“shelter in place” was the rather cozy phrase they used) while the police carried out a house-to-house search in a zone around where the second suspect escaped the gunfight.

Luckily we live on the outside edge of that zone so we never had the pleasure of an armoured, quasi-military SWAT team entering our house to search it, but we did see about half a dozen cops carrying assault rifles and wearing bulletproof vests sweep our street — checking cars, back yards, and basement doors. It was very surreal to see something like that through your living room window, from my side of the glass the swiftly efficient way they split up around each house and then regrouped before moving on to the next one was like watching some silent, eerie modern ballet. Being a Brit I’m uneasy seeing a policeman with any sort of gun and to see these guys in our front yard carrying the kind of weaponry they had was entering I’m-in-a-Hollywood-movie territory. Though they were only a few feet away I didn’t take any photos because I didn’t want to find out how itchy their trigger fingers were.

I’d been down to our basement earlier in the day (armed with only a Maglite torch) to check if the fugitive was down there. It seemed highly unlikely, but a lot of things were highly unlikely that day so I thought it better to be safe than sorry no matter how nervous it made me.

The other tricky thing I had to do that day was tell my daughter what was going on. It was easy enough to bullshit her little brother, but there really isn’t a convincing lie when a 6-year-old keeps asking why she can’t go outside to play and why we keep telling her to get away from the windows. We stressed that the bad man was nowhere near us and she was perfectly safe and thankfully she took it in her stride so we didn’t have to deal with freaked-out kids on top of everything else — letting them watch cartoons all day helped a lot.

By early evening they still hadn’t caught him and the lifting of the stay-at-home order was an admission they didn’t think they were going to either. That’s when I started to feel a little anxious at the thought of putting the kids to bed and going to sleep myself knowing that this nutcase could still be out there somewhere. I also didn’t relish the idea of our streets being patrolled by heavily-armed police all weekend — this is Watertown, not Baghdad.

But then, happy at least to be allowed outside, we were on the street chatting with our neighbours when we heard a lot of sirens in the distance and the helicopter overhead getting lower and louder, making tighter and tighter circles. We guessed something was happening but didn’t know where so we told the kids to come back inside with us right away, that was the only time my daughter got a little panicky. Sure enough they’d found the guy and caught him — outside the search zone just like we were, guess it wasn’t that highly unlikely after all. We heard those gunshots too. “Yay! They got him!” my daughter said when we told her. Our very, very, very long day was over.

Friday had been a lovely sunny spring day and we couldn’t wait to take the kids to the playground after they’d spent the day cooped up inside. Typically it was pouring with bloody rain Saturday morning.

Download: Life During Wartime (Alternate Version) – Talking Heads (mp3)

2013 and all that

Funny how jetpacks have become the symbol we all use to express disappointment that the future isn’t so, well, futuristic. Why not hover cars? Robot butlers? Here we are only six years from when Blade Runner is set and I’ve yet to hear one complaint about the lack of Replicants.

If I had a wish for 2013 — besides a robot butler, that is — it would be for a permanent job, though I have been enjoying the gun-for-hire life I know it won’t always bring home the bacon needed to buy the baby a new bonnet and it would be nice to be settled.

On to the future…

Download: Happy New Year – Camera Obscura (mp3)

PS: I just noticed that last month was the sixth anniversary of the start of this blog. Six years! Bugger me.

That was also the year that was

The biggest personal events for me in 2012 were losing my job and turning 50 which could have been an awful double whammy but turned out not so bad in the end. Temp/freelance work has been pretty steady and my birthday ended up being a happy, memorable event thanks to my lovely wife and some surprise guests. Otherwise these were the highlights of my year. How was it for you?

HE’S DONE IT!!!!!!!
In 40 years of supporting Chelsea I have never gone as deliriously batshit happy crazy as I did when that penalty went in.

The Olympics
Hard to pick one clip that summed up the magnificence of London 2012 – one that I’m not legally forbidden from embedding here anyway — so this will do. What a couple of weeks that was, eh?

I went pretty berserk then, too. Gary Neville wasn’t the only one having an orgasm at that moment.

The Heavenly Saints
Going in I was a bit nervous that seeing Saint Etienne live wouldn’t live up to my expectations, coming out I was floating on a happy cloud in pop heaven.

Republican Math
Obama winning a second term was sweet enough, but putting on Fox News to enjoy some schadenfreude and see evil Karl Rove desperately trying to deny the reality before his piggy little eyes was a treat for the ages.

20th Century Toys

Three minutes that will make you feel ancient. Though how the kids react to the records and record player is a real smile.

The Power of London

I went to art college in Kent and one of the greatest pleasures of taking the train back to London at the weekend was the moment right before the train crossed the Thames on its way into Victoria Station and on the right would appear the imposing edifice of Battersea Power Station looming over you like some giant machine. Once I saw it I knew it would be only a few minutes before I would be back among the sights, sounds, crowds, and buzz of London. As a result I came to think of it as a symbol of “home”, a signpost that marked the line between the backward small-town atmosphere I was leaving behind and the cosmopolitan energy of the greatest city in the world — it was as if the building itself was saying “welcome back”.

Which is why it’s so depressing to see the state it’s in today. It hasn’t been used as a power station since the early 80s when the last of it’s generators were shut down, leaving it a silent relic of the dirty energy past, and sadly these new photographs by Peter Dazeley are a dismal reminder of how it’s been slowly falling apart since then. Several redevelopment schemes have been tried and failed to make new use of the building, including a theme park plan that died through lack of money after they had already taken the roof off, leaving it an open shell exposed to the elements, it’s walls crumbling and it’s magnificent machines rusting. As a result it’s been named one of the world’s 100 most endangered sites which is a bit bloody embarrassing for a country that’s supposed to love its heritage so much.

When you consider what was done with Bankside Power Station and the fact that London has been a buzzing hive of expensive new construction for the past couple of decades, it’s skyline constantly shifting and changing, it’s even more monumentally depressing and farcical that so far no one has been able to save a building which is just as much an icon of the city as St. Paul’s or Big Ben. There’s yet another plan in the works but I wouldn’t be surprised if the whole thing falls down first.

Download: Electricity — Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark

Goodbye Mister Whippy

According to this article the ice cream van is disappearing from the streets of England, a victim of “health campaigners and local authorities, which have stopped them operating near school gates, or set up ice-cream exclusion zones in shopping streets.” Not living in Blighty anymore I don’t know how true this is but I hate to think so, it’s depressing enough seeing part of your childhood become a relic but even more so when it’s deemed unsuitable or even dangerous by the No Fun Police. Ice-cream exclusion zones? You’d think Mister Whippy was a child molester or something.

I’d never heard this story before though:

In one of those stories told largely for their allegorical content, whipped ice-cream was supposedly invented by Margaret Thatcher when she was a young industrial chemist working for Lyons. She discovered a method of injecting more air into the ice-cream, making it easily freezable as well as using less ingredients. What a wonderful metaphor for the “free” market, getting us to pay for air! But actually Mrs Thatcher was only a junior member of a team that did the initial research on “fat extension”; I’m not sure we can pin Mr Whippy on her.

Great though this would have been if it was true, I’m not sure if I could have dealt with being thankful to Maggie Thatcher for anything.

Download: Ice Cream Man – Tom Waits
Buy: Closing Time (album)

Man Out of Time

Some mornings when I’m on the bus on my way to work I feel like I’m living in the future. I look around me and see people holding digital devices usually not much bigger than a fag packet on which they’re listening to music, reading, playing games, watching videos, browsing the internet, sending emails, probably even blogging and — ugh — Tweeting. They have a dazzling multimedia experience in the palm of their hands while I’m just reading a boring old book and feeling increasingly like an old fogey with my “dead tree product”.

I know men are supposed to wet their pants over the thought of a new gadget but the grumpy contrarian in me is always suspicious of a sheep-like rush toward some shiny new thing (who are these people who camp outside a shop all night just to buy a bloody iPad?) and the current ubiquity of whatever Steve Jobs pulls out of the sleeve of his black roll neck jumper just makes me even less inclined to want one. I work in publishing which, like the music business, is currently being turned upside down by digital technology, working at a traditional print magazine these days is a little like being a Luddite when the mechanical loom was invented as we join the mad frenzy to embrace all these new gadgets. Though I’m rightly skeptical of the idea that a person can be reduced to a “type” or a category, especially by some smart-arse marketing executive, reading some of the character sketches at The Middle Class Handbook I came across a person they call a “Bitter” which captures a lot of my feelings about the “digital revolution”:

They are named after Twitter – a site they particularly hate. Bitters basically feel drowned by the technology everywhere, and yet are niggled by the idea that they ought to be trying to keep up. They were always crap with technology, they loathe any type of user manual, and feel a peculiar mix of resentment, jealousy and hatred when they see people such as the work experience kid clutching their copy of Wired and doing something futuristic on their iPhone.

Secretly, even though half of them do media jobs where it is quite essential the Bitters wish it would just all go away.

I’ve been using a computer to do my job for the past 20 years, know my way around the internets and can design web sites (like this one) so it’s not as if I’m some grandpa who doesn’t know how to program his video recorder (though I am one of those sad bastards who only uses his cell phone to make phone calls) but while I am niggled by the idea that I ought to be keeping up more — at least for the sake of my career — my real problem is that I’m bored by it all and find it impossible to work up any enthusiasm for the iPhone, iPad, Kindle, Droid, or whatever the “must have” gizmo du jour is. I’ve used an iPad to “read” a magazine and the experience left me completely cold, tapping your fingers on a piece of glass is no substitute for the feel of a piece of paper no matter how many interactive bells and whistles they load it up with. As the legendary art director George Lois recently said in his usual pithy way: “there is a visceral feeling of having that thing in your hands and turning the pages. It’s so different on the screen. It’s the difference between looking at a woman and having sex with her.”

It’s not as if I’m going to quit my job and go work on a farm in Vermont but, yes, I do wish it would all go away. Which is probably what all those typesetters who were put out of work by desktop publishing in the 80s felt, they must have hated young fuckers with Apple Macs like me too.

Download: Computer World – Kraftwerk (mp3)
Buy: “Computer World” (album)

Much as I hate to give The Sun credit for anything, this was pretty funny.

What’s it all about?

The sentimental musings of an ageing expat in words, music, and pictures. Mp3 files are up for a limited time so drink them while they're hot. Contact me: lee at londonlee dot com