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.

Goodbye to all that, please


I proposed to my wife at midnight on New Year’s Eve, 1999 in New York City which I think was a suitably memorable and positive way the mark the start of a new decade* and millennium. We were having a party at the apartment of a friend of mine but couldn’t see the Times Square fireworks from the roof of his building as we’d planned because it had been closed by the police, as had every other rooftop in the city, because of worries about a terrorist attack. There was also anxiety that something catastrophic was going to happen when the calendar rolled over to 2000 because of the Y2K computer bug, the power was going to go off, planes fall out of the sky, and we’d all have to start using rocks for money or something, and people were stockpiling food and guns in preparation for the worst. Thankfully the evening ended without incident (unless you count me getting engaged), nothing blew up and the machines kept working, and we all stood there amazed that here we were, living in the year 2000. The 21st century! The future! And we’re not dead!

Unfortunately “we’re not dead” was about as positive as it got for the next 10 years.

The historian Arnold Toynbee famously referred to history as “just one damn thing after another” and the decade which just ended (The Noughts? The Aughts? The Zeroes? The Thank-Christ-That’s-Overs?) saw such a never-ending parade of “damn things” that I sincerely hope history takes a holiday for the next few years so we can all catch our breath. I must have been feeling fairly chirpy and optimistic at the start of it because I was stupid enough to think that the “election” of George W. Bush later in 2000 wasn’t a cause for too much long-term concern because the country seemed to be ticking over smoothly (and had a budget surplus) so he couldn’t possibly fuck things up that much, could he? Silly me, but how was I to know the stakes would soon get so much higher? Then, that sunny morning in September 2001, those planes flew into the World Trade Center and The Pentagon – images which still give me the willies — and suddenly it seemed like someone floored the accelerator and sent history careening like a drunk down some really terrible roads: more horrific terrorism in London, Madrid, Bali, Beslan and Mumbai, anthrax in the mail, two wars which are still dragging on, the “War on Terror”, torture, rendition, reality television, an entire city drowned by a hurricane, a tsunami of Biblically-deadly proportions, glaciers melting, bees dying, bird flu, swine flu, and, the icing on the cake at the end, a global financial meltdown that looked like it might suck entire economies down the plug hole with it and cause another Great Depression.

So much of what happened was like something out of a big-budget Hollywood disaster movie — Skyscrapers collapsing! Drowned cities! Killer waves! Super germs! — that films which predicted a grim dystopian future like Children of Men and The Road (and even WALL-E and Idiocracy) no longer seemed like science-fiction fantasies but were scarily believable. I know I go on a lot about how awful the 1970s were but the gloomy malaise of those years seems like a nice daytrip to the seaside compared with the paranoia and anxiety of the past 10 years which left us feeling as if we were wobbling on the edge of a cliff in a high wind and our politicians and institutions didn’t have the will or wisdom (a nice way of saying they’re too corrupt) to keep us from falling. Here in America the country just seems sort of broken and dysfunctional after a decade of neglect, mismanagement and political cynicism.

It was an eventful decade for me personally too, after getting engaged in its very first minute I got married in 2000 (also in New York, you can see the World Trade Center in our wedding video) and in the following 10 years I moved to a new city, bought my first house, my dad died, I had a kid (and – newsflash – have another one on the way) and then my mother died too. It was like the Stars on 45 version of a life with nothing but the memorable bits spliced together in quick succession over a disco beat. Obviously, with the sad exception of my parents, those were all good things and my life is better in lots of important ways than it was 10 years ago, but I would just like to look at my daughter (and my son when he arrives in May) and not worry that she’s going to grow up in a remake of Mad Max with very real special effects. That’s not too much to ask is it?

And on that cheery note, here’s a wonderful track from one of my favourite albums of the decade (produced by Mr. Richard Hawley no less), the next 10 years will be considerably brighter if she ever gets around to following it up.

Download: People Used To Dream About The Future – A Girl Called Eddy (mp3)

*I know some calendar pedant is going to point out that technically the decade started in 2001 and will end in 2010. Yes, you’re right, now bugger off.

You can’t put your arms around an mp3


When I moved to the States I stored all my records in my Dad’s basement and it was 10 long years before I finally had them shipped over. When those battered cardboard boxes landed on my doorstep it was like being reunited with my lost self, as if someone had just dug up the dusty artifacts of a past life that had been fading into the distance after spending a decade in a dark room thousands of miles away. As I flipped through those old albums and singles for the first time again I was hit by a flood of memories which were just as much to do with the physical, tactile reality of the records themselves as it was the music they contained. These records had sat on the shelves in all the flats and houses I had lived in over the years, bought from record stores that don’t exist anymore (by a person I wasn’t anymore either), and every scuffed sleeve and worn spine, every scratch on the vinyl, was like an mark left by the past. Here was the album that got covered in beer at a party and I washed under a tap, the 12″ I bought in New York the first time I went to America, the single with a message from an old girlfriend written on the sleeve. Even the faint dark stain left on a sleeve by the peeled-off price sticker was like a ghost trace of where and when it was bought. It wasn’t just the soundtrack of my life, it was the actual concrete evidence of it.

What I felt even more strongly was a pang for what was missing, all the records I’d sold over the years, particularly at one point in the late-90s when I was temporarily back in London flat broke and flogged some of my most valuable ones. It was like several chapters in my life story were missing. Who, I wonder, now has the copy of “You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever” that my first serious girlfriend bought me? And what had happened to Queen’s “Sheer Heart Attack” album? Not the rarest record in the world by any means but it was the first album I ever bought. Surely I wouldn’t have sold that too? That one really bothered me, a big milestone in my life and the evidence is gone.

Records are vulnerable, fragile things, the way they can scratch and warp gives them a human quality that cold, perfect CDs lack, you can feel the patina of age on a vinyl album just as much as you can a human face. But now with even the CD becoming obsolete it seems like music formats are shrinking out of existence, from twelve inches of vinyl to little silver discs to… well, nothing really, a sequence of digital ones and zeroes downloaded off the web with all the tangible reality of a cloud. It’s like music stripped of all the lovely touchy-feely pleasures, there’s no there there and how can you be that emotionally invested in something that doesn’t exist? I have a whopping 45GB of mp3 files on my computer but if they all got deleted tomorrow it would be a pain in the arse but I wouldn’t be all that upset about it because I could just replace them with ones that were literally exactly the same. You can’t say the same about records, I’ve been slowly replacing some of the ones I either sold or lost over the years (the ones that aren’t too expensive anyway) but the “new” copy will never be that one, the one I bought when I was 16 with the scratch on the last track I sometimes still hear in my brain even when I listen to a pristine mp3 of the same song.

So in twenty or thirty years time will someone who is a teenager now relate to their mp3 collection the way I do my records even though it just a track name on a glowing screen, still exactly the same as the day they downloaded it with no physical substance or texture they can hold, feel or smell? Will they get all sentimental about their beaten-up old iPod instead? I have no idea, I’m just one of those sad old gits with an emotional attachment to objects, particularly the circular black plastic kind.

Of course, one drawback of vinyl is that you can’t download it off the internet, it’s too big to fit down the tubes. So an mp3 will have to do.

Download: Some Of Them Are Old – Brian Eno (mp3)
Buy: “Here Come The Warm Jets” (album)

Dilly Dally


Back in the 1980s the statue of Eros* which had stood in the center of Piccadilly Circus since 1893 was moved over to it’s present, less grand location on the corner outside The Criterion Theatre, apparently just to improve traffic flow through the area. I remember being really pissed off about this at the time and was surprised it didn’t cause more controversy — that was also around the time British Telecom got rid of our red phone boxes without any public consultation and that caused only a small ripple of protest too. It seemed just another example of how the character of the city I loved (and the whole country) was being ruined by the forces unleashed by Maggie Thatcher and everything had to be sacrificed at the altar of capitalist “progress” — in this case the growing number of cars that were taking over the city — so one of London’s most iconic and beautiful landmarks just got booted aside. Somehow I can’t imagine this happening in any other city in the world, it would be like the French shifting the Arc de Triomphe a little to the left so Parisians could get to the Champs Élysées a bit quicker.

Even though it happened 20 years ago Piccadilly Circus still looks “wrong” to me and poor old Eros seems a little diminished removed from it’s former pride of place in the centre. You probably can’t buy drugs there anymore either. Not that I ever did you understand, but it seemed that every time I sat there I was asked by some shady-looking bloke if I wanted to.

Anyway, that little rant was really just an excuse to post this track, a lovely tune that was on the b-side of the “Shout To The Top” 12″ single.

Download: The Piccadilly Trail – The Style Council (mp3)

*Yes, I know it’s actually a statue of Anteros but everyone calls it Eros.

The future isn’t all it was cracked up to be


Remember when machines were going to free us all from the drudgery of work and lead us into a utopian life of leisure, novel-writing and blogging? As recently as the 1980s people were predicting that computers would make us so efficient our main problem would be finding ways to fill up all the free time we’d have.

So why is it I don’t even have time to draw breath this week, let alone write a blog post (well, apart from this one of course)? In my business there was a time when you could tell the boss/client he couldn’t make that last minute change because there wasn’t time to get the typesetting back or have the artwork redone or find a different photo — now no one ever says “no” because the deadline extends almost to the minute before the job gets printed. Those old limitations were physical, human limitations, but now it’s all possible with a few keystrokes our poor human selves are working longer and longer hours in an effort to keep up with the 24/7 flow of work that computers and the internet have made possible. All that computer-enabled “free” time has just been filled up with more work, I’m super efficient these days but I’m also completely knackered most of the time.

All of which is my way of saying I’m having a really bad week.

Download: Crushed By The Wheels of Industry (12″ version) – Heaven 17 (mp3)

More home thoughts from abroad


This chap is a British Army spokesman who was on the BBC talking about the troops spending Christmas in Iraq and I took his picture because his name was Lt. Col. Dickie Winchester. I didn’t think British officers had such marvelous names as that anymore, at least not ones so young who didn’t also have massive, Jimmy Edwards-style whiskers. With a name like that he should be leading men over the top at the Somme, not dull PR duties in Basra.

The other thing I noticed about Dickie was that, despite his old-school-tie name, he didn’t sound in the slightest bit “posh” and instead spoke with a rather generic middle-class English accent that could be from anywhere south of Birmingham. There was a time when someone with his name and rank would have been all “Bally good show chaps!” and plummy, aristocratic vowels but, apart from the odd appearance by the Royal Family, these days you don’t hear frightfully proper “BBC English” much anymore — especially not on the BBC itself. Apparently talking “proper” and sounding upper-class is out of fashion these days, something to be embarrassed about even among the upper classes themselves whose children are dropping their ‘aitches and adopting the more common sound of so-called Estuary English in an effort to fit in with the new English egalitarian meritocracy — a country run by celebrities and footballers instead of the old Eton-Oxbridge network. Which of course it isn’t, you know those buggers are still in charge.

The only time I heard an old-fashioned upper class accent in London was when I was having lunch at one of the traditional stomping grounds of British nobs, the Peter Jones department store in Sloane Square. Among the crowds of modern young couples pushing their progeny around in Bugaboo pushchairs I’d catch the occasional sound of some haughty, crisp old-money voice and it was such a surprise to the ears I’d stare at the person as if I was looking at some rare bird on the endangered species list.

I’m not turning into Evelyn Waugh in my old age and mourning the decline of the ruling class (plus, I talk common as muck meself), but what is a shame is the continuing loss of colour and character to the national palette and, I must admit, hearing someone crisply crossing their Ts and talking in those clear, cut-glass tones does sound rather pleasing to the ear (especially coming from the mouth of a Jenny Agutter or Joanna Lumley), and what a dull place England would be if we all ended up talking like David Beckham. Knowarrimean?

Download: The Ruling Class – Monochrome Set (mp3)

Home thoughts from abroad


The vast sea of cranes that is still dotting the London skyline after what must be a decade-long new construction frenzy made me wonder if the city will ever be “finished” or if it would forever be growing and changing like some mutant, shape-shifting beast.

Then it occurred to me that was probably just what your average Londoner felt during Victorian times: “All this bloody building work going on all the time, are they ever going to be finished with their new bridges and tunnels and train stations and museums and statues?”

But will the Gherkin still be there 150 years from now?

Download: This Is Tomorrow – Bryan Ferry (mp3)

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

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