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Month: July 2009

Back when I were a wage slave in London, the only thing that made the Monday morning commute bearable was listening to a mini disc of the previous night’s Malcolm Laycock show, recorded off BBC Radio 2. Despite being in my mid-20s at the time, I enjoyed both halves of the show equally – the 30 minutes of British dance bands, then the 30 minutes of big bands. Well, I say 30 minutes of each. I remember my dear, much-missed friend Tony Moss, president of the Cinema Theatre Association, muttering to me on a visit to the Regal Sloughborough or somewhere that “Malcolm’s been short-changing us. The dance band section is always under the half-hour nowadays”. As a fan of both genres, I didn’t mind quite so much as Tony the purist, and was simply grateful that someone, somewhere was broadcasting any amount of this stuff.

I can only begin to imagine how Tony would have reacted last December when Laycock was ordered by executives to drop the dance band half of the show. I know I could have expected at the very least a long telephone call of elegant, refined profanity. Informed profanity too, as Tony spent many years in the personnel department of the BBC and remained well versed in Corporation gossip. I was pretty angry myself, but knew that Laycock wasn’t to blame. I’ve only met him once, in the bar at a Ted Heath band concert in Westcliff-on-Sea, but our brief conversation confirmed how much he cared (and cares) about the all aspects of the music in his show. In particular, his willingness to request obscure 78s from the BBC Gramophone Library, using the programme budget wisely to get them transferred, restored and shared with a devoted listenership, did him and producer Roy Oakeshott great credit. This was real public service broadcasting in action.

The alarm bells began ringing when Oakeshott left the show and was replaced by Bob McDowall, producer of Big Band Special. I believe Oakeshott retired from the Corporation staff, only to return as producer of Russell Davies’ independently-made Song Show. Suddenly, every side played by Laycock came from a commercially-available disc. Then, there was no room for dance bands at all. Finally, Laycock disappeared on holiday for a few weeks – the first time I recall this happening in all of the time I’d been listening to the show – to be replaced by Clare Teal. Now, I like Clare Teal. I’m not a fan of the current crop of female jazz singers. In particular, Stacey Kent’s reedy singing voice brings me out in a rash. I’m sure she’s a lovely person and all that, but if offered a chance to hear her sing, I’ll pass. Clare Teal’s pretty good, though. I saw her at a jazz festival in Guernsey a few years ago and was impressed by what she did with the songs she sang, and her general witty on-stage manner. She is, however, flavour of the month at Radio 2, and her stand-in stint on the Laycock show seemed an obvious indication that Malcolm’s tenure was coming to an end.

So it has proved. Last Sunday, without fuss or fanfare, Laycock signed off with an announcement that this show was to be his last. There were no DLT antics, but what he didn’t say was very telling to those who’ve been following this particular saga. He thanked Oakeshott and current producer Caroline Snook, but there were no garlands for McDowall. The BBC Radio 2 website pushed out a statement that he was leaving for personal reasons. He’s since dismissed this as untrue and made it clear that his departure was due to a disagreement on programme policy.

When McDowall kiboshed the dance band element of the Laycock show, the logic seemed to be that only coffin dodgers listened to that part of the show. Not so. I know of quite a few people my own age and younger who listened devotedly to that side of the proceedings. Given that much of the current popular song book dates from the dance band era, the original versions continue to be relevant to an audience of all ages. If any research was commissioned (and the BBC doesn’t fart without focus group approval these days), chances are they deliberately canvassed the opinion of the worst kind of tinnitus-afflicted iPod abusers, who wouldn’t know a tune if it came up and goosed them.

So, here’s hoping that an enlightened station will snap Malcolm up and let him do a show like the one he used to do. It doesn’t have to be a national network. If he’s broadcasting somewhere, we’ll find him online. In the interim, at least we still have The Late Paul Barnes on BBC Eastern Counties. Before some prannet like Mr G Reaper makes the connection, I will declare an interest here. Paul is a good friend of mine, and my visits to Norwich usually end with a trip to Barnes Towers for coffee and a natter. I was, however, listening to his simply spiffing show long before I knew him personally. So there.

Thanks to the bin lid stapled to the front of schloss Barfe, I’ve been watching the German TV repeats of 1970s editions of Top of the Pops. On the editions they’ve shown, 3 presenters have been in charge: Toe Knee Black Burn, Noel Edmonds and James Savile (then just an OBE – his KCSG had yet to materialise). Of these, I’ve met Blackburn and Edmonds. My encounter with Blackburn was brief (he’d just won Oldie of the Year, and I had sidled up to congratulate him), but , as you’d expect, very pleasant. Others who know him far better have supported my initial impression that he is exactly as he seems – a thoroughly nice bloke.

Then there’s Noel. At one time, I thought he was great. I was always more a Tiswas fan than a Swap Shopper, but I caught enough of Noel, Maggie, Keith, etc in the ad breaks to be aware of his work. His Radio 1 weekend shows were the real source of delight to this smutty-minded pre-pubescent lad, especially the interventions from announcer Brian Perkins as Perkins the butler. I particularly recall the pair of them musing on the what each BBC radio network would call nasal mucus. Radio 1 was “snot”, Radio 4 was “mucus”, but Radio 2 was a more vexed issue. After much thought, Perkins replied “On balance, sir, I suspect that Radio 2 would be ‘gribbly’.”. Unfortunately, during the lost years when I thought all mainstream entertainment was shite, possibly evil, I came to regard Mr Tidybeard as something of a pariah. When Victor Lewis-Smith compiled the following ‘Honest Obituary’, I cheered:

When he retreated from television, I cheered again. Years later, though, as I began to research Turned Out Nice Again, I saw him being interviewed on a show called Who Killed Saturday Night TV, and felt very sorry for him, because he’d clearly been shafted by the production team, who had set out to present him as a risible, pathetic figure. They failed. Then, in the mass of excellent viewing material given to me by friends and associates for research purposes, I found a couple of editions of the Late, Late Breakfast Show. You know what? They were ace, largely because of the likeability and professionalism of the presenter. I bumped into him briefly at a book launch, explained what I was doing and begged for an interview. He said yes. Meeting him at his office, he was charm personified and also a crackingly good interviewee. Nothing was off limits – the Michael Lush business clearly still affected him deeply, but he talked very openly about the incident, and the difference between blame and responsibility.

Near the end of the interview, he said that he was delighted to be away from telly. Example: He’d been asked to appear on Five’s reality show The Farm, the sole point of which was to show townie celebs floundering in a bucolic idyll. There was something they hadn’t realised about Noel: “I own a fucking farm. What would I want to be on The Farm for? I’ve got a farm. I know what cowshit looks like”. If it looks like he’s angry and bitter there, I should point out that this section of the recording is covered in gales of laughter – his and mine. I have no doubt that his delight at being off telly was sincere at that point, but that Deal or No Deal was the ultimate offer he couldn’t refuse. Quite right too. It’s a compelling enough game in abstract, but without someone as good as Noel building the atmosphere perfectly, it’s not an hour’s worth of TV. So, Noel Edmonds – one of the good guys? Hell, yes.

Which leaves Sir James Savile, who has been the subject of much innuendo and rumour about his private life. Men in pubs, who claim to have friends of friends of friends who work on The Sun, wink and say, with confidence, that “it’ll all come out when he’s gone”. Now, I’ve had a theory about Savile for years. I’m convinced that what will emerge when he’s gone is that he has led a completely blameless life, but that he just never minded appearing a bit weird. It’ll all come out that there was nothing to come out.

I’m not sure what’s got into me of late, but my natural tendency towards procrastination has given way to a ‘let’s do the show right here’ attitude. As a result, numerous tasks I’ve been putting off for years (no exaggeration) have been despatched with alarming speed. Best of all, it isn’t displacement activity. I’ve been doing my proper authorial-type work too.

Example: In the autumn of 2006, a biblical downpour (on the day of Don Lusher’s memorial service, as it happens – had I a canoe, I could have ridden the rapids down to the station that morning) exposed the shortcomings of our bathroom roof/ceiling. Removing a section of damp, crumbling plasterboard with alarming ease – it had the consistency of cheesecake – I was able to fix the holes in the felt with a can of Thompson’s Instant Repair, and bung up a fresh bit of plasterboard across the gap. However, for the last 3 years, I’ve been looking at the gaps between the edge of the plasterboard and the wall and saying to myself “I must fill that in and paint over it”. Reader, I filled it, shortly after repainting the front door, sorting out the bookshelves in my study and putting new hinges on the pull-down flap of the cupboard by the kitchen door so that it opens and closes properly for the first time in months. All were relatively tiny, easily-achievable things that had acquired a significance out of all proportion by being put off for so long. It’s not all backlog, either. The decision that the larder door would benefit from a bolt, fitted well out of reach of small persons who had taken to using the kitchen as a potato bowling alley, was followed immediately by the fitting of said bolt. That the bolt in question had been bought to be fitted to a door in my previous house shows how far we’ve come. I never got around to fitting it, stuffed it in a drawer still in its shrink wrap and transported it over 100 miles when we moved here 7 years ago.

Then there was the enormously satisfying business of downloading a bit of software that identifies duplicate files on your computer for safe deletion. I’ve cleared my hard drives of several gigabytes of superfluous old toot. If only one could download something like that for analogue life. Something that, Mary Poppins-style, sorts piles of papers when you whistle. “This is the manual for something you no longer own, but this is your birth certificate. This is a cherished letter from your deceased grandmother, this is a press release for something now obsolete that was utterly useless even when it was launched”. That sort of thing.

I’m sure this burst of industry won’t last, but I’m enjoying it while it does.

Phew, someone’s posted a slightly-less-than-glowing Amazon review of Where Have All the Good Times Gone? I can’t find fault with anything that the reviewer says. It was my first book and I tended to throw in everything bar the kitchen sink. Five years after it came out, even I find it a bit heavy-going. So yes, lots of trees, not enough wood (Hur hur). That said, the ‘confusing rapidity’ with which business names are introduced and dropped was semi-deliberate, reflecting the confusing rapidity with which it happened in the industry.

So, own up, is the reviewer a reader of this blog or the real Mr G Reaper? It’s a bit too much of a coincidence for it to be a random punter.

Sheltering from a thunderstorm in Currys the other day, I found myself laughing heartily at the price of everything (£10 for a ruddy USB cable – if I weren’t already tripping over spare leads that came free with USB devices, I’d be starting, and almost certainly ending, my search in Poundland) and trying to resist interrupting the clueless saleswoman who had just told a middle-aged couple that you had to buy a laptop with Vista Professional to get the software that played DVDs.

This led me to think about the vast number of people who shell out for software, despite there being legal free alternatives that are as good, if not better. I used to be one. I used Microsoft Office 2000, and dutifully paid an annual subscription for Norton Internet Security. For the last few years, however, I’ve been an OpenOffice kind of guy, with AVG Free, Malwarebytes and the firewall in my router taking care of the nasties that might infest my IT infrastructure given half a chance. If it weren’t for a few work-related things that need to be done in a Microsoft operating system, I’d be using the Ubuntu side of my dual-boot installation for the majority of tasks.

Why do so many computer users ignore the wealth of good free software that’s out there? Are they suspicious of its provenance? Does the act of paying for something give it some kind of imprimatur? Perhaps, but that’s assuming that everybody’s using commercial software that they did actually pay for, and not a cracked copy off a torrent site. If they realised that they could get stuff that did the same job for free without bootlegging it, would they?

Nice words about the paperback edition of Turned Out Nice Again from Nicholas Bagnall in last week’s Sunday Telegraph and Victoria Segal in today’s Guardian. In the interests of transparency, I should point out that I used to be married to Nicholas Bagnall and that I once offered Victoria Segal a crisp.

As you’ll see if your eyes ever glance over to the right of this page, I have been known to do bits and pieces for Private Eye. Not as much as I used to, admittedly. Sometimes months go by without submitting anything. What did I do? Oh, shedloads of stuff for the Books and Bookmen column from 1999 until I decided that nearly all publishers were bastards and gave up for the sake of my sanity. For my sins, I was the one who named erstwhile Waterstone’s boss David Kneale ‘the Mekon’. Calling Alan Giles ‘Weasel’ wasn’t mine. That was just a head office nickname for him that someone told me about.

An email arrived from the Eye yesterday, forwarded from a reader signing him or herself ‘Mr G. Reaper’. It went as follows:

—-

Glancing through Louis Barfe’s website I saw claims that he contributes to Private Eye.

Glancing through Amazon’s list of two books by Louis Barfe, I saw a small handful of distinctly suspicious reviews, indicative of someone or someone’s close friends enthusiastically praising their own or Barfe’s work. Indeed, certain praiseworthy quotations from Mr Barfe’s website are repeated almost verbatim on one Amazon review.

Bearing in mind that Private Eye quite rightly exposes others for duplicitously puffing their own work or that of their cronies on Amazon, I wondered whether you would have the integrity to do so when it involves one of your own employees?

—-

It’s true that Bookworm has picked up on the odd bit of what appears to be Amazon review fraud over the years, but I always thought we were identifying the covert but painfully-obvious backscratching, the reviews that have blatantly been written by the author themselves and the suspiciously glowing notices for books that have been compared unfavourably to Andrex in all other quarters. Is that how this review and these reviews appear?

Yes, the Big George in question is the same one who wrote the Have I Got News For You theme tune. When Where Have All the Good Times Gone? came out, he interviewed me on the BBC eastern counties regional radio show that he then had (he’s now on BBC London). Not because he knew me, because he didn’t at that time (we email back and forth, but we’ve only actually met once), but because he loved the book, and he seems to love Turned Out Nice Again too. As he’s someone with a lot of music industry and television entertainment experience, it meant a lot. Similarly, when Bernard Shaw raved about Turned Out Nice Again that meant a lot too, as I knew of Bernard by reputation as a musician who’d worked in many television orchestras and seen a lot of what I wrote about first-hand. Save for a few cordial encounters on a message board for drummers, including one where he declared himself ready to leap on any mistakes I might have made in the book, I never actually knew him or met him. I use the past tense because he died at the start of this year. So, two-thirds of my ‘cronies’ and ‘close friends’ are someone I never met and someone I’ve met once. It’s hardly freemasonry, is it?

That leaves Miss T Jones, who is indeed a friend of mine – in fact, she says so at the start of the review. However, I know that she read it not because we’re friends, but because of the subject matter, a shared interest in which is one of the main reasons why we’re friends in the first place. She goes on to say that had my book not been any good, she’d have said so. I know this to be true.

As the vast majority of the press reviews for both books were favourable, the Andrex situation doesn’t apply. Nor was there any systematic backscratching. I have been informed by several other authors and various people in publishing that it is now the norm for a writer to solicit Amazon reviews. It might be the norm, but it’s not something I’d be happy with. I’ll take what comes, rough or smooth.

Moreover, if I were hell-bent on puffing my work, would I have posted “…this book is not worth reading” from Robert Hanks’ Independent review of Turned Out Nice Again on the book’s Amazon page? On seeing that I had, my publisher questioned the wisdom of doing so, and flat out refused when I maintained that it would be a spiffing wheeze to put it on the paperback jacket.

So, there you go, Mr Reaper. No need for the Eye to expose me, as I’m perfectly happy to expose myself, mainly because I’ve no reason to be ashamed.

Am I the only person to greet the news that Coffee Republic has gone into administration with the response that at least some good has come out of the recesssion? I love coffee, but I hate paying through the nose for it. I can’t recall the last time I bought one ‘to go’ from a high street coffee emporium. I think it was when I worked in London and hadn’t yet worked out the art of avoiding needless expenditure. Work in an office? Buy a cafetiere for the same price as a double shot skinny Americano with blue jeans and chinos, or whatever the Cribbins they call it, and keep it in your desk drawer, along with a reclosable bag of ground coffee from the supermarket. Sorted. I’ll only be truly happy when Starbucks does a Woolworths.

Are Michael Jackson fans the most unhinged followers of any pop culture icon? Yes, if some of the comments on YouTube concerning Jacko’s run-in with the mighty Jarvis Cocker are anything to go by.

“Jarvis Cocker you are only a? poor idiot.
it was better that you died.
M.J. THE KING”

Ah, but Jarvis Cocker hasn’t died. Thus he wins.

“Jarvis Cocker youre a fucking twat. Don´t try to steal the KING Michael´s shine. Don´t need to know who he? is, any money he has listened to Thriller one time or another and enjoyed it and that goes for anyone of you Michael Jackson haters. 110 million people can´t be wrong.”

Ah, the ‘if a lot of people agree on something it must be right’ fallacy. Cobblers. Also, you can enjoy Thriller (although Off the Wall is a far superior album) and still think that the Brits performance of ‘Earth Song’ was an over-blown, self-aggrandising pile of cack.

“He told a story in that song a story that is in fact a reality of how fucked up the world actually is.

He at least tried to bring to the attention of us what was? actually happening in the world.

On that note jarvis if you ever have the misfortune to meet me you will regret it. You jelous commercial fame seeking cunt.

Be warned the next time your in London keep your eyes open. “

Jarvis Cocker is well known for walking around central London with his eyes firmly closed, so the above advice will be a welcome wake-up call to the erstwhile Pulp frontman. Let’s not dwell on the unpleasantness of the threat. It’s easy to be a bullying fuckwit when you’re sat at a keyboard, hiding behind a made-up username. The likelihood of this numpty ever getting to duke it out with Cocker is so small as to not even register.

The message, such as it is, of ‘Earth Song’ (and I think it’s unbearably trite, twee and obvious, if well-meaning) is one thing. Appearing to think you’re Jesus is another. Oh, and how can “commercial” be used as an insult when you’re defending one of the most commercially successful and shrewd artists in the history of popular music? I can’t believe either that Jacko’s record sales didn’t get a welcome boost from the coverage of this little fracas. The performance would have got a few headlines in its own right, because of the ‘Jackson with ver kids’ angle, but nowhere near as many as it got.

To close, my personal favourites:

“so, ho w is coocker?
ah the guy that invedes? this performance…
oh great.

and who is michael jackson?

th king of pop…

poor coocker….”

and

“jarvis is a dick rider thats about the only talent he has as he even begged lil wayne and akon? to ride there dicks.Thats why is last name is cocker lol.Jarvis is the king of dick riding and if u like him that means your a dick rider.”

Well, that’s him told…