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.

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)

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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