Wednesday, 30 June 2010

The Golden Years of Number Ones

It's tempting to say that pop (rock, dance, whatever) music is at its best when you're between, when,  fifteen and twenty-five? The same age girls are at their sexiest. Because it's not about the music, it's about your capacity to react to it. Well, I'm going to beg to differ here. I was still at Belmont Junior School when this period started and just started Erith Grammar School when it ended. I give you from the 5th April 1963 to the 24th September 1965 as the longest unbroken run of high-quality Number Ones in musical history. Ken Dodd ended it all, with Tears, which is why my generation hated him. After that the Number Ones were often novelty numbers (Ernie The Fastest Milkman In The West - huh?) as they were stone knock-outs (Good Vibrations). In order...

How Do You Do It - Gerry and the Pacemakers
From Me to You - The Beatles
I Like It - Gerry and the Pacemakers
Sweets for my Sweet - The Searchers
Bad To Me - Billy J Kramer and The Dakotas
She Loves You - The Beatles
Do You Love Me - Brian Poole and The Tremelos
You'll Never Walk Alone - Gerry and the Pacemakers
I Want to Hold Your Hand - The Beatles
Glad All Over - The Dave Clark Five
Needles and Pins - The Searchers
Anyone Who Had A Heart - Cilla Black
Little Children - Billy J Kramer and The Dakotas
Can't Buy Me Love - The Beatles
A World Without Love - Peter and Gordon
Don't Throw Your Love Away - The Searchers
You're My World - Cilla Black
House of the Rising Sun - The Animals
It's All Over Now - The Rolling Stones
A Hard Day's Night - The Beatles
Do Wah Diddy Diddy - Manfred Mann
Have I The Right - The Honeycombs
You Really Got Me - The Kinks
I'm Into Something Good - Herman's Hermits
Pretty Woman - Roy Orbison
(There's) Always Something There to Remind Me - Sandi Shaw
Baby Love - The Supremes
Little Red Rooster - The Rolling Stones
I Feel Fine - The Beatles
Yeah Yeah - Georgie Fame
Go Now - The Moody Blues
You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling - The Righteous Brothers
Tired of Waiting For You - The Kinks
I'll Never Find Another You - The Seekers
The Last Time - The Rolling Stones
Concrete and Clay - Unit 4+2
Ticket to Ride - The Beatles
King of The Road - Roger Miller
Where Are You Now (My Love) - Jackie Trent
Long Live Love - Sandi Shaw
I'm Alive - The Hollies
Mr Tambourine Man - The Byrds
Help - The Beatles
I Got You Babe - Sonny and Cher
(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction - The Rolling Stones
Make It Easy on Yourself - The Walker Brothers

and then the execrable "Tears".  Okay, I missed a couple, which were at the top for a week, because I didn't want quibbles. This is about twenty-eight months of non-stop strong songs. The period when the Number One was also one of the best songs around that week. Of course, Like A Rolling Stone wasn't a Number One, but it came out in this period. The next year, 1966, saw tat mixed with Eleanor Rigby and Good Vibrations and popular music was never the same again. That period, from April 63 to September 65 was classic pop at its peak, high on youthful spirits (and maybe a couple of reds). In the next years, the music would be high on many things, but youthful exuberance was not one of them.

Monday, 28 June 2010

Chester Visit

I was in Chester a couple of weeks ago, on business for reasons that still make me mad to think about them. I took an evening train up and went for a walk along the Shropshire Union canal...

(It's worth clicking on both those for the detail.) The hotel room - in the Kings Suite of the Queen Hotel by Chester station - was pretty good...

though the courtyard is kitsch beyond description...

Lunchtime was at the Old Harker's Arms, on the canalised. It might not look prepossessing...

...but the food is consistently damn good. As this hake was...

As things are going, I won't have many more excuses to visit the place in the future. Kinda shame, as it's a nice time and I keep wanting to use my right to shoot a Welshman who has dared venture near the city walls with a bow and arrow.

Friday, 25 June 2010

Why Can't The BBC Do The Wire?

There was an interesting article about British TV drama in the FT a couple of weeks ago. The starting point was The Wire and why the BBC hasn't done anything like it. The article ended with an attempt to suggest that British TV drama was different-but-equal. Tosh.

What lifted The Wire clean above even The Shield, The West Wing and BtVS, was season four, that heartbreaking series about criminality and evil amongst school-children. These were children murdering and hiding the bodies in derelict houses, pouring lye over the corpses to help with the decomposition. Being children, they poured the lye over the clothes. They didn't quite get it. The series didn't flinch, didn't miss a detail and it didn't moralise once - it told the story. I can't remember a single moment of hope in all twenty-two episodes.

It took David Simon thirteen years of non-stop writing and producing to get there, with one hundred and fifty four episodes of Homicide: Life On The Street between 1993 and 1999, six episodes of The Corner in 2002 and sixty-six episodes of The Wire, before that awesome series four. No other writer in television history has had Simon's opportunities, and he has admitted as much in an interview. It's not that British TV can't do The Wire - no-one else could or did either.

What British TV should be able to do but can't, and Hollywood can and does, is The Shield and follow it with Sons of Anarchy, or BtVS and follow it with Angel. (And don't dare offer Dr Who and Torchwood) Why not? Well, are we looking for reasons or excuses? Lack of money is an excuse - if the British wanted to produce high-quality drama, they would find the money. God knows they find enough for football and celebrity presenters. The "theatrical tradition" is an excuse as well - the Americans only got this good at TV in the early 1990's. Both have had the same time since the invention of television to learn the art. The fact that British culture is run (if it is) by kidults to busy attending inclusiveness and marketing courses is an excuse as well. There are sensible people you can hire if you are prepared to pay. It's not a lack of talent either: the music scene is bursting with it and Hollywood moves and TV are packed with English actors who couldn't get jobs in the UK.

British TV produces not-quite-good-enough (or "flawed" if you're being polite) drama because the British simply are not serious about the job of writing, directing and producing drama. That's not unique to drama: the Special Forces and music aside, the British aren't really that serious about anything. They rely on the fact that the competition are just as... lackadaisical isn't the word, nor is shoddy... easily satisfied is probably it. On the creative side, the British are easily satisfied and on the managerial side they are just plain cheap. Which is why most British writers never do more than two drafts - they aren't being paid enough.

I suspect that most British writers and producers don't even read the books. Hollywood has three standard texts on screenwriting: McKee's Story, Syd Fields' Screenplay and Vogler's Writer's Journey. Everyone has read these, and even if they don't agree with what the authors say, the industry shares a common technical language. Do you know what a "beat" is? Entire British scripts can go by without a single one - and as for story arcs, in British scripts, fuggedaboutit. (One reason I love Local Hero, Dinner Rush and Groove is that they are packed with satisfying character arcs.)

It's more than just a lack of technique. It's as if there's something missing in the soul of many English writers: it feels like they don't really like or understand people. The Big Names who write for theatre admit they are all about the Ideas and the Politics as if that's a good thing. The British can make nasty, mean movies (Eden Lake, Kidulthood) but they can't make something as charming as Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist or Before Sunset. No. You just think they have. But they haven't. And costume dramas are cute, not charming.

The real question isn't why British television couldn't do The West Wing or The Wire. It's why the BBC can't even do Flashpoint or Blood Ties. If I was unlucky enough to be in charge of drama at the BBC, I swear I would cancel the lot and show a test card where Eastenders was supposed to be, until either I or someone else worked out how to tell engaging stories with characters the audience will identify with on the limited budgets at my disposal. And if I couldn't, I'd give the money back to the license-payers.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Gratuitous Trivial Wi-Fi Name Post

My netbook picked up this list of Wi-Fi sources somewhere near Bath. This is a screenshot and utterly for real.

What surprises me is that so many sources can be picked up while you're on a train.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Corporate Development Part 143: Cute Questions Carry The Message

You know those quizzes they do in magazines: cute questions with cute answers? Well, try this one. The questions are real, and I wrote the answers more or less spontaneously.

How aware are you of your emotions?
Very. My feelings are me in the moment. I am one with what I feel

What am I feeling? (Name it in one word?

Why am I feeling that way?
Because I am connected to the world

How do I view myself?
Through a glass and darkly.

Do I get overwhelmed easily?

Do I panic quickly?
At my age?

Do I tend to assume the worst?
No. It turns out far worse than I could ever have imagined.

How do I view the past / present / future?
I live in the day.

Do I spend time regretting the past?

Do I worry about the future?
No. (I know I'm fucked)

How much time do I focus on the here and now?
All of it.

Do I take time to consider the bigger picture?
Your bigger picture or my bigger picture?

Do I take time to stand in someone else's shoes?
Mine fit just fine, thank you.

These questions were part of that Resilience course. WTF? When I started work, and senior managers were giants who bestrode the earth, anyone who tried to pass this twaddle off as serious training would have been dumped. Or sentenced to life in Records in Swansea.

I was okay. I've done the Steps and achieved enough spiritual progress and equanimity to recognise that when someone asks personal questions like these in a business context I am under no obligation to answer them truthfully. The guy I was working with was not okay. He was a tangle of hard emotions. What is he supposed to do with the feelings a question about regretting the past will raise? I know what it did to me and it would take me days to recover. How dare someone put together a course that sends many of those attending out into the world with stirred and shaken emotions?

Notice how the company's message gets carried even by this exercise? Would you ask me to consider the bigger picture if my views agreed with it? Why would I need to put myself in your shoes, unless you want me to change what I intend? Those questions are intended to remind you that the Corporation has its reasons that you wot not of and do not include you. The hits just keep coming.

Friday, 18 June 2010

Corporate Development Part 142: Resilience

The one-day course I attended in Bristol the other week was about Resilience. Courses like that are either a complete waste of time; a pleasant confirmation that you're on the right track; or a rather harrowing experience. I had the pleasant confirmation bit.

Resilience is the ability to recoil or spring back into shape after bending, stretching or being compressed; or being able to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions. It's the psychological analogue of fitness. (Fitness is about how quickly you recover from exertion: it's usually confused with strength and stamina.) Some of the things you need are: good health (the ability to withstand infection and recover from it if you are); a reasonable level of fitness, strength and stamina; a clear conscience and a reasonable amount of justified self-confidence; friends who care for you and a family that is a source of happiness; a job that pays you an adequate sufficiency with a manager who is a decent human being. Absent one of those things and you might get by, but two or more and you're screwed. Poor health, no fitness, self-doubt, shallow friendships, a family that drains you, too little money coming in and an insecure bullying jerk for a boss and you are not going to bounce back from anything. You're going to collect dents.

Which wasn't the way the course dealt with it. Their definition was "the capacity to face, overcome and be strengthened by experiences of adversity". The guy referred to the old Nietzsche saw about "that which does not kill me makes me stronger". Ol' Freddie was posturing when he came up with that one. Adversity, from the serious (your pension getting trashed) to the tragic (your ten year old son dying in a random car accident) to the infuriating (The Bank's bureaucracy) to the Kafka-esque (dealing with the Family Courts), rarely leaves anyone stronger. It leaves them with a few more dents at best and insolvent and barely sane at worst.

But we weren't discussing philosophical psychology. We being handed a message. Which was that The Bank knows that working there is tougher than it should be. It knows its systems are half-assed and frustrating to use. It knows that never in the history of human affairs have so many been employed to stop the so few from actually doing the work. It knows that it pays below the market rate and doesn't keep up with inflation. It knows that its managers abuse the staff appraisal system. And guess what? It ain't gonna change. Not one jot of a thing. So get over it. Here are some suggestions from your hired trainer.

Which turned out to be apple pie and homily. Don't take yourself so seriously. See a silver lining in every cloud. See something funny in the situation. Step back and get some perspective on it. View obstacles as challenges. Be able to learn from mistakes. Refuse to see yourself as a victim. Find some support from other people. Recognise what you can control, what you can influence and what you cannot do anything about.

On this last point, they guy said that he had total control over the meal he had eaten the previous evening, because he had ordered it from a menu. Obviously he's never been served a poor cut of steak, a rubbery omelette or coffee in any hotel in Great Britain. You have control over what you eat when you buy the ingredients yourself from a supplier you trust (as opposed to a supermarket who gets the stuff from God knows where) and cook them yourself. Otherwise you're in the lap of the sous-chef and brigade - if you're lucky - and more probably a barely-trained illegal immigrant on minimum wage.

But as I said, we weren't discussing abstruse philosophical concepts with homely examples. I knew the guy wasn't serious when he repeated a line that's caused me to stare incredulously more than once: "this is a performance organisation". It isn't. It really isn't. If it was organised to allow its people to perform at high levels, why would it need courses on handling the shit? The Bank is a dys-organisation and it does not perform. But more on that later.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Bristol Wednesday Snapshots

I had a quick trip to Bristol to attend a course recently. The course I'll make comments about later, but here are the photos of the little bit of the town I could see between the end of the course and catching the 17:30 back to Paddington. The guys and gals in Bristol are always partying - or at least that's how it seems. The row of buildings in this photograph may once have been warehouses but are now all bars. And it's about a hundred yards from one of The Bank's bigger office buildings. Maybe that's why.

I took an evening train down and stayed in the Thistle Grand Hotel about a hundred yards from the building I needed. On the outside it looked a little tired and dedicated to conventions, but the room was okay.

The tray was a decent if standard cheese-and-crackers that hit the spot as a light supper. But a £5 "Tray Charge"? What's that about?

So this is probably the most popular photograph anyone takes when they are around the harbour area...

While I chanced across this pretty damn good graffiti on the way to Temple Meads. I think it's four different artists, or maybe they're all part of the "Graffiti Bristol Crew".

Monday, 14 June 2010

The Casual Cruelty of Debarahlee

This young lady has a lawyer who figures he can get her a decent payout from Citibank because they told her she shouldn't wear clothes like these she's pictured in. The other female staff weren't given attire guidelines because, she says, "they were short, overweight, and they didn't draw much attention, but since I was five foot six, 125 pounds with a figure, it wasn't appropriate".

I'm not going to comment on the lawsuit. What's interesting is her remark about the other women. It's an accurate description of them: it's an accurate description of most women in offices. But is it me, or is there a casual cruelty about it when it comes from someone so clearly above the Pretty Line?

This is connecting with a thing I'm writing where two of the characters are discussing clothes.

ADAM: What about the guy in the baggy cargo shorts and sandals walking round the supermarket? What's he signifying?

LUCIE: That he has no taste, or he wouldn't be wearing shorts, and no manners, or he wouldn't be wearing sandals around food.

ADAM: So why do people dress like that?

LUCIE: No-one really knows. And fewer people care. Harsh truth? If you're above the Pretty Line, you just will dress becomingly, and if you're below it, nothing you wear will look good. Also, the High Street is full of cheap junk and very few people would take to time to thrift a blazer like you did.

The way I've written it, it's not coming across as a "harsh truth". If it did, I wouldn't have to call it one. Maybe it should be...

ADAM: So why do people dress like that?

LUCIE: You're assuming they could wear something that would make them look good.

ADAM: I didn't know I was, but now you put it that way, there isn't?

LUCIE: Clothes don't make people look better, people make clothes look better. People are born pretty or not. I was. You were. They weren't. Those are the breaks.

ADAM: And somewhere in their heads they know this and stop bothering?

LUCIE: And, to be professional for a moment, High Street shops are full of made-in-Honduras junk with twisted seams. Which is what happens when everyone buys on price.

ADAM: I buy on price.

LUCIE: That blazer might have been cheap, but you spent a long time thrifting for it. You have an eye. You're one of us.

(You have no idea how many different options I tried before that.)

Friday, 11 June 2010

London Snapshots Part 226

Views from Ladbroke Grove underground station. This isn't going to turn into a photography blog, but it was summer and I have been text-heavy recently. The third one down is a real cliche, but who can resist it? It's what God made zoom lenses for.

I was reading Andy Hunt's Pragmatic Thinking and Learning pretty intently over that weekend, and there will be some reflections from it later.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Breakfast in Notting Hill

Saturday 5th June was the last morning of Summer 2010 and I was out bright and early. Fed up of rock-hard fruits in the supermarket, I went off to Notting Hill for breakfast and a little light shopping. I had scrambled eggs, bacon and sausage at the Kitchen and Pantry, sharing a table with three ladies who ran stalls or shops and were having their morning conference before opening. I was there so early there were empty couch spaces - get there at 11:00 and see if you can sit down.

However, this fine example of homo macbook cafeterius had arrived before me and was there when I left. After I took the photo, he plugged his transformer into a mains socket somewhere. I can only wonder what his flat must be like.

This next is a little blurred, but actually it gets the feeling across...

The toilets were an example to all cafe-owners everywhere...

and this is the place.

I did my shopping and was on my way out by 11:00, just as it was getting really hot and the last hour or so of sunshine was in full effect. Ah. Summer 2010 - I was there!

Monday, 7 June 2010

London Snapshots Part 225

Which idyllic railway station is this?

Railway photography is a genre all its own and one day someone at The Photographer's Gallery should choose a railway photographer to give a show to. Or the Tate Modern could mount an exhibition. The thing is, that unless you have a shot of a brand new train, railway photos always have an air of nostalgia and romance. Even if they are of this station, in one of the least romantic places in West London.

Friday, 4 June 2010

London Snapshots Part 224

This is underneath the tangle of roads and paths by Blackfriars bridge on the north side...

... while this is one of those monuments to over-managed transport policy on Temple Avenue.

Looking onto the South Bank: Sea Containers House on the left with the National Magazine Company tower behind it, the OXO Tower and Wharf, the Thames Television building, Shell Building and London Eye.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Never Apologise, Never Explain... Except

No-one knows where this comes from. In England it's supposed to be a working principle of the Royal Family. So what's wrong with apologising or explaining? You're late for a meeting because the public transport broke down - where's the harm? There isn't. Unless you have a boss who says things like "Why didn't you take an earlier train? You knew this was important." If your regular train journey has a little slack time in it, the guy's a jerk. If you're regularly making it with seconds to spare, he may have a point.  Now you get home and your partner gives you the "you always do this" speech about something you did that morning. Maybe you left the toilet seat up - who knows and it may not matter. "Why do you do it?" is an essential part of it. She doesn't want to know, of course, and she could care less about the reason. You know that, right?

Have you ever been asked why you did something right? (Except as a prelude to having that right action contrasted to several wrong ones?) When someone asks you to explain why you do something, it is because they think you should not be doing it, that they will be the judge of what you should and should not do and they will set the rules about what is and is not an acceptable excuse. That is why you cannot win an argument with an angry woman. She doesn't want to understand why you did it, she wants to be mad at you. Nothing you can say will make any difference, because she's not interested in anything except her own feelings.

The same thing applies to campaigners for any cause. They are not interested in arguing facts, interpretations, alternatives and policy, they want you to feel like a bad person and stop doing it (whatever it is). They already know what is right and wrong, they know what you must do and they really don't care about your opinions. Why do you eat meat? What justification do you have for that foreign holiday? Why haven't you given away ten per cent of your salary to a charity?

And then there are times when explaining does not help. Like why the surgeon couldn't save your husband. What she says may be true, but what does it matter? Indeed, if they aren't careful they could come across as blaming you for not getting the poor guy into hospital faster ("He was too far along"). And their legal department are not going to let them say they screwed up, even if they did. A simple expression of sympathy ("I'm sorry for your loss") is all that's needed and appropriate.

Apologising puts the other person in the position of forgiving you ("that's okay") or being seen as not  forgiving you and thus being a grudge-meister. So they pretend to say it's okay and resent you for putting them in that position. Explaining just lets them know you weren't deliberately jerking them around, and anyway you should have called when you knew were going to be late.

Never apologise and never explain, except in business when you're calling ahead to explain why you can't keep you promise of whatever it is. That's just courteous. And if someone keeps on at you for reasons and apologies, consider that one or other or both of you may be a jerk. And take action as needed.