Archive for January, 2009|Monthly archive page

Has anybody here seen my old friend John?

Music, love and friendship

Catching the next train home

Wild child

Wild child

I heard Solid Air performed live just last week at a performance of Nick Drake’s songs at Bush Hall in Shepherd’s Bush by Keith James and Rick Foot. It’s such a unusual song in that it’s equally associated with its subject, Nick Drake, and his friend the creator, John Martyn. What really struck me was what a warm, open expression of friendship it is, especially as I imagine the communication was rather one way.

The last time I saw John Martyn live was when he played the whole of the Solid Air album live at the Albert Hall. It is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the greatest albums ever. I went that night with a friend whose life subsequently took a bit of a nose dive due to drugs – a close-to-home illustration of how delicate we all are with regard to alcohol and the like. Watching JM decline from beautiful boy to one-legged survivor wasn’t easy but his unique voice and experimental energy was an enduring thread through his music-packed life.

The penultimate time I saw him was from a red velvet seat in the front row of the Shepherd’s Bush Empire with Una. The performance had a beautiful later life serenity.

Dyed in the wool Londoner that I am, I’ve never been a big lover of West London beyond occasional quick sorties to the All Saint’s Dinner (sic) and the Hammy Odeon, but West London seems to run as a skein through my life with John. One of the first times I saw him was in the Underworld/Westworld (? darn, what was that place called?) somewhere under the Westway near Portobello market. I just remember it as electric.

I saw him live around a dozen times – the Town & Country Club (Kentish Town), the Jazz Caff (Camden Town), the Mean Fiddler (Harlesden) – he struck a chord with me. We shared a birthday. Cooltide accompanied me down the Nile at sunset. One World has that special vibe of Jamaica which runs deep in me.

On the subject of Island, if I had to pick just one song to take to a desert one, it would be Don’t Want to Know:

I don’t want to know ‘bout evil
Only want to know ‘bout love
I don’t want to know ‘bout evil
Only want to know ‘bout love

Sometimes it gets so hard to listen
Hard for me to use my eyes
And all around the cold is glistenin’
Making sure it keeps me down to size

And I don’t want to know about evil
Only want to know about love
I don’t want to know one thing about evil
I only want to know ‘bout love

I’m waiting for the planes to tumble
Waiting for the towns to fall
I’m waiting for the cities to crumble
Waiting til’ the sea a’ crawl

And I don’t want to know ‘bout evil
I only want to know about love
I don’t want to know ‘bout evil
I only want to know ‘bout love

Yes it’s getting’ hard to listen
Hard for us to use our eyes
‘Cause all around that gold is glistenin’
Makin’ sure it keeps us hypnotized

I don’t want to know about evil
Only want to know ‘bout love
I don’t want to know about evil
Only want to know ‘bout love

Not much more to say after that. From the words of another great English bard, if music be the food of love, he satisfied us wondrously in his six decades – and I couldn’t love him more for it.

Silver Lining

hi ho silver lining

hi ho silver lining

Here’s a rather salutary assessment of the economy from our Chairman here at Channel 4, Luke Johnson, in the FT. I have to say, it resonates for me – I’m pretty much a “a house is for living in” kinda guy.

For too long it has been more profitable in the west
to finance consumption rather than production.
That cannot continue. I am afraid that the west’s credibility
– and luck – has run out.

In the early days of Simple Pleasures 4 I began reflecting on what people really need, a stream of consciousness prompted by a Demos gathering which reminded me of a book which had really gotten me thinking – Coasting by Jonathan Raban.

Been meaning to get back to that post, Reflections on the Fundamentals of Life, for ages – nothing like a bit of financial meltdown to encourage thinking about the principles of economics.

So what did Coasting prompt? Looking back I seem to have re-invented Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs. Still, no harm working out stuff for yourself.

What struck me last week, the week of the US presidential inauguration, was that Britain is in desperate need of a bit of self-confidence. With the City fucked by its own petard and North Sea oil drying up we’re really going to have to work out where we add value to the world.

So we arrive on earth like the Terminator, naked and balled up as a package with the basic needs outlined in that earlier post. The economics of our existence start from the need to cover those basic needs by doing the equivalent amount of work or value adding. But those needs simply meet our bestial basics. As King Lear argues, we need something over and above that to make life worth living.

“O reason not the need! Our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous.
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man’s life is cheap as beast’s.”

Watching Vicky Cristina Barcelona the other week, what constitutes that ‘something over’ has got really out of whack. The New York life-style portrayed in the movie (through Vicky’s impending marriage) was truly repellent.

The shift of emphasis from consumption to production and adding value could be the silver lining of these dark clouds. Is this the moment when we reflect and recognise what is true value and what matters? These are themes that have been on my mind over the last couple of years such as in this post prompted by  a Buffalo Springfield classic.

The schadenfreude around the collapse of the banks, or more so, the bankers stems from the fact most of them don’t produce anything or add value – they guess and they gamble, they speculate and they risk, they continue to short-sell bank shares the moment the ban is lifted to profit as usual at other people’s expense.

Talking of profiting at other people’s expense, Luke’s article reminds me of a bafflement I had as a teenager about just how did the economies of the West and the rest fit together. How come American’s have those huge fridges and South-East Asians live in huts, scraping together a bit of meat to go with their bowl of rice? How come we get paid hundreds of pounds a day when for equal effort and more they get pence? How come poverty here comes with a 32″ telly? A good friend of mine lent me when we were teens a copy of a JK Galbraith book, The Nature of Mass Poverty I think it was, which I struggled with but didn’t ultimately come to grips with – I’d probably get on much better with it now as the interest is truly there.

Luke raises similar questions: So why should industrious Asians earn a tiny fraction of what citizens in the west earn? Especially when they have so much of the cash and productive resources, while we have deficits, high costs and poor demographics.

Now what I know about economics you can fit on the back of an ATM slip – hence this second stream of consciousness thinking out loud.

Around the JKG time I was also baffled by how can this constant growth add up? How can countries expect to grow year on year with finite resources? How can we expect pay rises as a given year on year? Doesn’t there come a point where no matter how clever you are about squeezing the most out of existing resources and in creating technology to increase productivity those two graph lines eventually run into each other and cross?

My gut feeling about this moment is that we must use it as a time to readjust our values, to refocus on what is really important. We must use it to refocus as a country and as individuals on what value we can add. Having said that, it was a bit depressing to see the reactions to falling oil prices – after a few weeks of people really thinking about the car journeys they were making, the headlines swiftly reverted to ‘Supermarket forecourt price wars!’

The next three commissions on my plan are Landshare, where people who want to grow their own food are linked to people who have bits of land which can be grown on; the Secret Millionaire online where the online community get to give a million pounds to community groups and small charities which quietly add value, largely unseen; and a project on Adoption that tries to highlight the value of each and every child and enable it to be realised fully. I feel they are the product of a particular positive, back-to-basics  vibe. Despite the grimness of the IMF report which ranks Britain’s economy as the most adversely impacted this year of any major economy and the Lords scandal which ranks Britain’s high ranks as smelling as rank as it comes, I can’t help but feel there’s opportunity here…

Big Art Mob

Violence erupts in the Art world

Remix of a video made by students at Kingston Uni inspired by Big Art Mob

The free range broadcaster

With all the speculation, misinformation, politicking and general bullshit flying around today with the release of TV regulator Ofcom’s blueprint “for sustaining and strengthening public service broadcasting (PSB) for the next decade” I’d like to take a moment here to highlight Ofcom’s recommendation for Channel 4:

Create a strong, alternative public service voice to the BBC, with Channel 4 at the heart

And pick up an article by Roy Greenslade, widely respected Professor of Journalism at London’s City University, writer for The Guardian and Evening Standard, and man about Donegal (believe he’s been spotted in The Bridge Bar, Ramelton where my wedding reached a satisfying, musical conclusion on Day 3). In tonight’s issue of the Standard (which I picked from the bin in East Finchley station – does Alexander Lebedev have any idea how few people part with actual cash money for it?) Prof G wrote the following insightful article:

Ofcom risks making a pig’s ear of C4 if we lose gourmet selection of quality TV
Roy Greenslade
21.01.09

Pig Business - a Channel 4 documentary

Pig Business - a Channel 4 documentary

On Monday evening I attended the preview of a Channel 4 documentary called Pig Business. It was a fine piece of work, a mixture of passion and compassion that raised all sorts of disturbing questions about factory farming, agri-business and globalisation, not to mention airing concerns about public health and the environment.

You can make up your own mind on 3 February, when it is screened on More4, but — even if you disagree with the polemic — it has to be seen as an extraordinary project because it was filmed over the course of four years by Tracy Worcester. After the showing there was loud applause for her and tributes from several speakers, including Zac Goldsmith and Chrissie Hynde. There was acclaim too from Tim Sparke, managing director of the path-breaking broadband TV documentary company Mercury Media, but he broadened his praise and struck a particularly topical note.

“If ever we need a demonstration of Channel 4′s commitment to public service broadcasting,” he said. “Then this is it.”

As C4′s chairman, Luke Johnson, and chief executive, Andy Duncan, peruse the Ofcom report released this morning that outlines how the channel will be funded in future, it is important to keep in mind the value of its output.

I know this is the channel of Big Brother, and that we are currently being assaulted by another instalment of a Celebrity Big Brother, a title that — given the crop of inmates — surely breaches the Trades Descriptions Act. But they are programmes that ramp up viewing figures, thereby attracting essential advertising revenue and enabling the broadcasting of serious public service broadcasting (PSB) content.

There is so much to appreciate about C4, not least its contribution to film, arts, drama and documentaries. There is a Channel 4 ethos, a distinctiveness, that sets it apart from both its commercial rivals and the publicly-funded BBC. I happen to be an avid viewer of Channel 4 News because it deals in some depth with the most important news stories of the day. It treats viewers as grown-ups and, significantly, attracts a young audience that clearly appreciates that fact. It’s a sort of early Newsnight.

Consider also the very different documentary and factual strands such as Dispatches, Cutting Edge and Unreported World. The latter, screened 20 times a year in peak time, takes viewers to stories in parts of Africa, South America and south-east Asia that never appear elsewhere.

Sure, the audiences are small. But the whole point of PSB, and of C4′s remit, is to widen the TV horizon. There is no point in sticking to a safe mainstream, agenda. Other broadcasters do that. There is a mix, with populist factual programming running alongside more esoteric stuff, but it works. C4 also commissions programmes that take risks or challenge our preconceptions.

Take the eight-part series now showing on Sunday evenings, Christianity: A History. It started off two weeks ago with a superb and counter-intuitive presentation from Howard Jacobson on Jesus the Jew. It was some of the most watchable TV I have seen in a long time, intelligent without being in the least bit pompous, provocative without any hint of bombast.

Turning to C4′s contribution to film, who can deny the virtues of a company that backed movie-makers such as Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, Trainspotting and Shallow Grave); Steve McQueen (Hunger) and Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Six Shooter)?

But let’s stop the tour here. The point of the exercise is to illustrate what we stand to lose if C4 is not adequately funded in the coming years. It is also to underline the point made by BBC executives, even if through gritted teeth, that rival PSB output is healthy for our society.

I realise the over-riding importance of C4 every time I call up the list of documentary channels on Sky and discover the endless loop-tape of what has rightly been dubbed a choice of sharks or Nazis.

What distinguishes C4′s factual output is that it rarely, if ever, stoops to the formulaic TV that populates the digital depths. That is one reason why I have been opposed to the notion of a merger with Five, a commercial channel that would erase the individuality of C4.

I have never seen the point of Five since its launch in 1997 and, going on the viewing figures, neither can most of the nation’s viewers. It is remarkable that a populist channel that screens wall-to-wall entertainment attracts only 4.6% of the total audience. Yet C4, with so much of its PSB programming specifically aimed at minority audiences, manages to get a 6.3% share.

I can well understand why the BBC’s director general, Mark Thompson, has advocated a C4-Five merger. He wants to protect the BBC’s licence fee and preserve the income from its own commercial arm, BBC Worldwide.

While I was thinking about C4′s dilemma I realised that the Pig Business documentary offered several relevant metaphors. In its current state C4 is a free range broadcaster, offering good meat that satisfies the appetites of its customers. If it is overly constrained, whether by tighter budgets or by an uncomfortable accommodation with a rival, there will be a reduction in both the quantity and quality of its meat.

Factory-farmed TV is junk food for the masses. C4′s programmes, by contrast, are a gourmet selection for niche audiences. We lose them at our peril.”

Update 22.i.09:
Last night while I was writing this post Channel 4 was winning the Broadcaster of the Year Award at the Broadcast Awards.

It also picked up awards for:
Best Documentary: My Street [a wonderful film]
Best Documentary Series: The Genius of Charles Darwin
Best Single Drama: Boy A
Best New Programme: Gordon Ramsay Cookalong Live
Best International Sales: Come Dine With Me

Update 22.i.09:

To ram the point home, this lunchtime (GMT) this year’s Oscar nominations have been announced and Channel 4′s Film4 have received 12 (yes, 12!) nominations:

Slumdog Millionaire

· Cinematography

· Directing

· Film editing

· Original score

· Original song – “Jai Ho”

· Original song – “O Saya”

· Best picture

· Sound editing

· Sound mixing

· Adapted screenplay

In Bruges

· Original screenplay

Happy-Go-Lucky

· Original screenplay

Day 1 – US / UK remix

A formula for the future:

US Optimism and Can-Do

+

British Pluck and Make-Do

Poster from WW2

Poster from WW2

= a +ve, progressive way forward

A good place to start (this side of the water): www.landshare.net

Freeing the People – track of the day

Track of the Inauguration Day:

Abraham, Martin and John – Marvin Gaye

They paved the way for TODAY

Martin

Martin

Astoria La Vista baby

Music with minerals

Music with minerals

This week marked the sad demise of the Astoria in London’s Tottenham Court Road to make way for an expanded TCR station for the forthcoming Crossrail. It started life as one of four Astoria cinemas in London and became in latter years a music and dance venue. Like many others I have fond memories of it. Stand-out ones include seeing Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros there about a year before Joe died. I was surprised by how much of The Clash’s sound was centred on Joe’s voice, how reminiscent it was of the old days at the Electric Ballroom in Camden Town – the main difference being that, twenty odd years down the line, after sustained pogoing I was starting to feel sick and my legs were getting numb. Seeing Atlanta’s Arrested Development there was also a kick – following chat and doobers round the corner in Mateo’s crapped up old Brixton Jag, the gig seemed simultaneously 3 minutes and 3 days long.

Coming in to town the other day I bumped into Feargal Sharkey of Derry’s finest The Undertones on the tube platform (I knew he lived in the hood but I’d never seen him around). I introduced myself and we chatted on the train about music digital and live, including the new emphasis on live gigs as an opportunity to make some serious dough. I guess it’s the grime and edge of the Astoria that will be most missed with the advent of super-corporate venues like the O2 (a venue named after a phone network, that says a lot in itself – where’s the magic and colour of names like The Music Machine, The Palais, The Electric Ballroom, The Marquee?). I think the O2 is very well done and there’s a place for it and such venues but the dirt and a bit of background fear added spice to my teenage live music experiences, and I’d hate to see that vanish. As a fairly sheltered 14 year old suburban Londoner meeting the Hardest Man in the World on the way to that Clash gig at the Electric Ballroom was all part of the rich mix of the experience. He was standing at the exit of Camden Town tube in army fatigue trousers, filling those huge khaki pockets with coins extorted from less hard passers-by (i.e. everybody).  He had the standard skinhead cut but was so hard that on his feet were not the de rigueur DMs but plimsoles – that’s how hard he was, he could pull off soft footwear and still terrify all-comers. Music needs a bit of that sort of edge and dirt for its minerals – if the diet is all too processed and clean the taste gets bland and it does nothing to strengthen your body or soul.

Global Warming

Q. Why did the Belgian chicken cross the road? A. Because there's fuck-all else to do in Bruges

Q. Why did the Belgian chicken cross the road? A. Because there's fuck-all else to do in Bruges

What an incredible year my colleagues at Film4 have had since Last King of Scotland picked up an Oscar (and two BAFTAs). Last night at the Golden Globes of the 14 movie awards 6 went to Film4 productions:

  • BEST MOTION PICTURE – DRAMA 
Slumdog Millionaire
  • BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR IN A MOTION PICTURE – MUSICAL OR COMEDY
 Colin Farrell, In Bruges
  • BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS IN A MOTION PICTURE – MUSICAL OR COMEDY
 Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky
  • BEST DIRECTOR – MOTION PICTURE
 Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
  • BEST SCREENPLAY – MOTION PICTURE 
Slumdog Millionaire
  • BEST ORIGINAL SCORE – MOTION PICTURE 
Slumdog Millionaire

Add to that movies like Hunger which already has picked up a shedload of silverware (20 so far including the Camera d’Or at Cannes, which I acknowledge is not technically silverware) and Garage, a landmark in Irish cinema. Irish and Waiting Around has been something of a theme this year (Garage, Hunger, In Bruges). And let’s not forget A Complete History of My Sexual Failures made by Chris Waitt, an alumnus of 4Talent.

Film4 may not be huge but they’re perfectly formed, add a great deal to the UK film industry and – like Channel 4 as a whole – punch well above their weight. “Our organization is small, but we have a lot of opportunities for aggressive expansion.”

…which brings us neatly from a great night to a Dark Knight: I have to agree with Maggie Gyllenhall’s analysis of Heath Ledger’s win in the Best Supporting Actor category: “Our movie I think is great, but I think he elevated it to a completely different place.” Without a doubt, performance of the year.

Why so serious?

Why so serious?

UPDATE 15.i.09 08:15

BAFTA nominations just announced. Film4 picked up 3 of the 5 nominations for Outstanding British Film (In Bruges, Slumdog Millionaire, Hunger); Slumdog got most nominations (equal with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button); and, of course, Slumdog is up there for Best Film and Best Director.

Good to see Kate Winslet pitted against herself in Best Actress category – you can see the speech already: “I’m so sorry, Anne, Meryl, Kristin, …oh god, who’s the other one? Me!”

Now THAT speech, it bears some anaylsis… “I’m so sorry [unconvincing (for such an experienced actress) self-deprecation] Anne, Meryl, Kristin, …oh god, who’s the other one? [what a bitch, eh? sub-text: I know full well who the other sexiest one is] Angelina! this is… ok… now, forgive me …gather [sub-text: I've been to drama school]. Is this really happening? OK, erm… I’m going to try and do this on the cuff, ok [so OFF the cuff I get the phrase wrong] – Thank you so much. Thank you so much! [sub-text: I really do need a good script-writer, I've nothing substantial to say myself] Oh god! {applause} Please wrap up, you have no idea how I’m not wrapping up! [sub-text: stop clapping, I need to wrestle control back, I'm not fucking finished!] Ok, gather…”

UPDATE 17.i.09

I’ve just gotten round to watching the end of The Reader. Having given Kate Winslet a hard time above, I have to confess it is an excellent performance, well worthy of awards. But the film itself has left me with nagging doubts, two in particular. Most of the UK critics praised it highly but I noticed two exceptions, strangely enough by two people I went to school with. Pete Bradshaw of The Guardian expressed strong doubts (from memory, the review I read on the way back from Ireland after the new year gave it one star). Mark Kermode subsequently spoke of his reservations on the weekly film review show he does with Simon Mayo on BBC Radio 5.

The implication of the film – in the trial of Hanna Schmidz – is that she left Siemens to join the SS because she had been offered a promotion which would have exposed her illiteracy. The same happened to her at the tram company after the war – she runs away when a promotion to office work is offered. What is this saying? The film comes to (and this is no easy feat) create a degree of sympathy for Hanna, a guard at Auschwitz for the SS. Is it saying because she was illiterate, disadvantaged, perhaps a touch simple it explains her role in the war? That reminds me of an experience I had in Austria in the 80s.

I was on a scholarship studying the artist Egon Schiele (to whom my attention had first been drawn by David Bowie on the radio). I went to the small village on the outskirts of Vienna to find his studio. I knew it had been up a small lane but had difficulty finding it. I asked an old man I met on the street and first he hushed me, indicating that the name Egon Schiele was still a dirty word in the village 70 odd years after his ‘artistic’ behaviour had scandalised the place. Then he brought me into a bar, bought me a white wine and launched into an apology (in the sense of ‘explanation’) for Austria’s take up of Nazism. We were poor, hungry, illiterate…

It didn’t wash then and it doesn’t in the film either. The other thing I didn’t buy was that the daughter who had been in Auschwitz as a child with her mother would keep a memento (Hanna’s tin) of a concentration camp guard, least of all by a photo of her murdered family. There’s something being underestimated there.

Now I’m not sure what comes from the David Hare screenplay and what from Bernard Schlink’s source novel (Der Vorleser) but the tin and the flight to the SS from the Siemens promotion both give me the impression that Schlink (or Hare, but I suspect the former) was letting Germany off the hook too easily – ignorance is no excuse and forgiveness doesn’t come that easy.

For all that, it’s still a very well made and compelling movie. Ralph Fiennes’ performance is on a par with Kate Winslet. Ironically the one time I met and spoke to him, in the bar at the Almeida in Islington, he had just played the fiendish Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List. David Kross who plays Fiennes’ character, Michael Berg, when young is also excellent. The film was part-shot by my old boss Roger Deakins (who shared the gig with fellow Brit Chris Menges) and it certainly looks great too. Well worth watching but there’s something dubious to be read between the lines.

Update 22.i.09:

This lunchtime this year’s Oscar nominations have been announced and Channel 4′s Film4 has received 12 (yes, 12!) nominations:

Slumdog Millionaire

· Cinematography

· Directing

· Film editing

· Original score

· Original song – “Jai Ho”

· Original song – “O Saya”

· Best picture

· Sound editing

· Sound mixing

· Adapted screenplay

In Bruges

· Original screenplay

Happy-Go-Lucky

· Original screenplay

Walking in someone else’s Shoes

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it” (Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird)

“Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes. After that who cares?… He’s a mile away and you’ve got his shoes.” (Billy Connolly)

The politics of footwear

The politics of footwear


L: Protestors against Israeli action in Gaza throw shoes at Downing Street

R: Shoes resulting from Nazi action in Stuffhof concentration camp near Gdansk, Poland

Songlines #5 – NYC Blues

What song means the most to you and why?

AUDIO FILE: Hear Bronagh’s answer: Bronagh.mp3

Bronagh recalls hearing the blues in New York

Harlem

Harlem

Photo courtesy of Christopher de la Torre

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