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Month: August 2009

All too often nowadays, I put down a newspaper having concluded that its writers know little and care even less about the subjects of their articles. I want authoritative voices, not some ‘will this do?’ chancer who’s cribbed the lot off Wikipedia. I’m not entirely sure if it’s them or me: was it always this way, and I only notice it now because I’m better informed?

One of my pitifully few must-reads is James May’s column in the Daily Telegraph each Saturday. While Jeremy Clarkson’s in the Sunday Times telling its readers how he’d run the world (and making many of them profoundly glad that he isn’t) and the Hamster’s set up his wheel in the Daily Mirror, May ploughs his own wildly meandering furrow in the Torygraph. Despite being in the Motoring section, May’s rambles frequently have only the slenderest connection to cars. Very often, only the last paragraph even mentions motoring, in a manner that just about connects with the preceding few hundred words. And that, dear reader, is the joy of the exercise. Rather audaciously, May uses his platform to explore subjects that interest him, including trains, music and the contents of his kitchen cupboard. It’s a weekly visit to the mind of an agreeably anoraky middle-aged chap who actually knows stuff and gives a toss about it, so, as an anorak nearing middle age, is it any wonder that I’m a fan?

When May appeared on Friday Night with Jonathan Ross, the host, jokingly, said that he hoped never to be trapped in a lift with May. Given Ross’ own well-documented geek credentials, I thought the remark, even in jest, was beneath him. I’d rather be trapped in a pub (as can happen at high tide in the White Cross in Richmond) with May, but if it came down to it, I suspect time stuck in a lift with him would pass most pleasantly. In this cynical, jaded age, May is an enthusiast, and a pretty good standard-bearer for enthusiasts of all kinds. My only hope is that nobody at the Telegraph ever sits him down and asks him to write more about cars.

Cemeteries are an endless source of fascination to me. In my local necropolis, there are two plots of note. One is over 100 years old, and is the family vault for James Maconochie, a pioneer of food canning and co-proprietor of Maconochie Brothers, whose first factory was located in my street. If you have relatives who served in World War 2, ask them about Maconochie stew. Another dates from a mere 20 years ago, and commemorates a man whose nickname, emblazoned on the headstone for all to see and scratch their heads over, was ‘Pimp’. How did he get the name? Was he pimply? Was he Lowestoft’s answer to Percy Blakeney? Or was he just a ponce?

It all reminds me slightly of the night when a friend admitted to having a relative with a shady past, whose tabloid nickname had been ‘Harry the Ponce’. I’m guessing that Harry’s gravestone doesn’t bear this legend.

The news that the Government is considering various measures against file-sharers, including cutting off their Internet connections is more amusing than worrying, from where I’m sitting. After receiving David Geffen’s hospitality, of course Mandy’s got to make harrumphing ‘something must be done’ noises. Is it even remotely enforceable, though? Save for a few well-publicised legal actions brought by the RIAA in 2002 or thereabouts, the threatened wave of mass prosecutions has failed to materialise. A few people have received legal letters from computer game developers demanding compensation for alleged file-sharing naughtiness, but all can quite reasonably claim that it must have been someone leeching off their unsecured wireless broadband and tell the beaks to piss off. The Pirate Bay verdict has not resulted in the site’s closure, and those responsible for running the site remain free men, despite ludicrous sentences being handed down. Even if it were possible to monitor every last bit of data sent or received, it would, effectively, criminalise the vast majority of computer users. If you’ve looked at even a single clip on YouTube, you’ve almost certainly been a party to ‘copyright theft’. Most of those computer users will also be voters.

I share files. I’ve put things on YouTube to illustrate points I want to make here, I use Bit Torrent, and I download music and video from blogs and other sites. However, none of the stuff that I send or receive is available commercially. I encode and share records and archive TV programmes that haven’t a cat in hell’s chance of a DVD or CD release, but which a small number of people still want to see/hear. Some of the things I’ve hoovered off the Web have been vital for my researches into light entertainment. If I want something, and it’s available to buy, I buy it. Legally, there’s no distinction between sharing the contents of a commercial DVD and a forgotten comedy show retrieved from a Betamax tape, but, morally and ethically, I think there’s a considerable gulf between the two acts. Just recently, I saw a newly-released DVD of a 1970s TV series turning up on Bit Torrent sites on the day of its official release. I’m afraid that’s not cricket, chaps.

Maybe I’m just post-rationalising my own transgressions, but I can’t see a problem with sharing commercially-unavailable material. For one thing, doing so drives a coach and horses through the distasteful practice of bootlegging for profit. For another, sharing an obscurity can help create awareness and interest for an eventual commercial release. The DVD of the Armando Iannucci Shows, an excellent series overlooked at the time of transmission in autumn 2001 because of various world events, came about largely because comedy fans had been sharing the shows online in the years since, bringing them to a new audience who’d missed them when they went out. The fans then began lobbying for a proper release. Hell, I’ve even seen things that I’ve encoded turning up as the source of clips in TV programmes – in which case, the broadcasters are the ones doing the illegal downloading. How do you like them apples?

If Geffen gets his way, will I be left without an Internet connection? Believe when see. In the meantime, the ‘creative industries’ should stop insulting their customers and potential customers, cease bellyaching about file-sharing and simply try to work out ways of making it generate revenue for them. Home taping didn’t kill music.

Keeping with the theme of digital radio instant nostalgia, was the Digital 1 multiplex so named because it had only one station worth listening to? The demise of Oneword was a sad day for UK radio. On a budget that wouldn’t cover Mark Damazer’s annual expenditure on coffee and Danish pastries, it provided a good, intelligent, broad-based speech radio service, with nary a phone-in to be heard. Maybe I’m biased, having had several mates who worked there, and having nearly bagged a show of my own just before it went tits up (the first time, that is), but it was a good, talented little outfit, producing splendid stuff. If the backers had held their nerve a little longer, who’s to say it wouldn’t have turned the corner?

Regular visitors to this corner of the WWW will know already that schloss Cheeseford is home to all manner of strange, wonderful technology. My family of open-reel tape recorders rule the roost, but there’s room for more recent obsolescence such as the object on the left. That’s what affordable digital radios looked like in 2000. Well, I say affordable. When launched, the Psion Wavefinder was £299, and you needed a PC with USB ports for it to be any use at all. I sprung for mine when they came down to £99 a year later. At the time, I was reviewing radio for the New Statesman and I felt I needed to keep up with all of this digital lark. That and the fact that, despite putting my life in peril by hanging out of my 2nd floor flat window with an electrically-unsafe drill to install a suitable antenna on the side wall, my VHF reception was still far from perfect. Unfortunately, I chose to opt in at the moment that the BBC dropped the bitrates of all their stations (save for Radio 3), so I was merely swapping one set of sonic compromises for another, but with timer recording and other rather neat features, it was a worthwhile bit of kit. When it worked.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I reinstalled the drivers and the front-end software. I unplugged it, plugged it back in again, found a piece of third-party software that disabled the resource-hogging lights (I should take some video of the lights in action. They’re oddly calming. When they work.), and I tried it with slimline salad dressing. Unfortunately, every which way I turned, it was a buggy piece of crap. I kept it for dire emergencies, but came to rely on satellite and Freeview for my radio reception, as well as an improved VHF aerial installation when I moved to my present house. Finally, when Windows XP Service Pack 2 came out, it was bye bye Wavefinder, as Microsoft had done something under XP’s bonnet to make the Wavefinder even more of a dud than it had been before. I hung it on the far wall of my office as a lesson to myself never again to be an early adopter.

Then, last week, I read on Mike Brown’s excellent TX list that the ruddy things work again in XP SP3. I went through the rigmarole of reinstalling it, and yes, it works. Sometimes. I had hoped that having a computer several times more powerful than the one I had in 2000 might have helped the Wavefinder realise its full potential, but no. It’s still a buggy piece of crap. And yet I can’t bring myself to get rid of it.

To my great surprise, I’ve just had a phone call from Bob McDowall. To my even greater surprise, it was a long, constructive conversation about the show, the issues and Radio 2 in general. He said a lot of things that I suspect would be heard sympathetically by a lot of his harshest critics, and he said that he’d love to say them in public, but that he was unable to make any definitive statements until he’s talked to Bob Shennan (currently on holiday) about the situation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Mail story is not quite how he remembers what happened, and I know the problems involved in relying on a single source, so a contrary view is always instructive. What he did say, though, was that he genuinely didn’t want Malcolm to leave and that he was and is looking for ways to incorporate relevant dance band music into the programme. He also corrected some of my assertions about gram library usage, which I’m happy to take on board – the process of transferring rare material for use in programmes is ongoing, and his view is that he’s happy to spend whatever it costs to do the programme right. The information that he’s an ex-BBC Scottish Radio Orchestra musician goes some way to scotching (no pun, etc) the idea that he’s a faceless bureaucrat, meddling in perfectly good programmes.

Anyway, I’ll be continuing to lobby for BBC Radio 2 to reinstate its commitment to dance band music, but I’ll be easing off on Bob McDowall, in hopes that, when he and his programme team have had time to regroup, they’ll confound all of the critics.

Two reviews for the papperbok edition of Turned Out Nice Again this weekend. In the Sindie, Brandon Robshaw says ” I thought I was going to love it at first – there are fascinating accounts of the early variety acts…The evolution…is entertainingly told…But there is too much emphasis on the behind-the-scenes stuff, the hierarchies, management structures, procedures, and budgets.” Agree to disagree. I’ve always found what goes on backstage as fascinating as what happens out front, and have also always believed that the writers, producers, session musicians and crew members are the most reliable sources of information. Also, in this case, hierarchies and budgets play a large part in shaping what ends up on our screens. Still, Mr Robshaw thought it worthy of 3 stars out of 5, and expressed his reservations in a polite, constructive manner. Can’t say fairer than that. Just one thing, the Parkinson show he cites was 1982, Richard Burton wasn’t involved and if he still wants to see it, the section I write about is on YouTube. Meanwhile, in the Mail on Sunday (4-star review not yet online), Simon Shaw says that I’m “an excellent companion to have on this visit down memory lane”. That’s very kind.

Also in the MoS was this piece about Malcolm Laycock’s exit from Radio 2’s Sunday night schedules. The Mail stable’s anti-BBC agenda is well-documented, but as this story seems to come from a reliable source – Mr Laycock himself – we can, if we can bring ourselves to dismiss the Mail‘s motive, trust it. So, it appears that the dance band element of the programme was canned simply because executive producer Bob McDowall didn’t like it. In which case, was there nobody around who would have happily taken over the dance band side of the show, so that McDowall didn’t have to sully his lugholes with Jack Hylton, Jack Payne, Jack Hylton again and the band at the Brixton Astoria? The show still has a constituency, and it’s one that has every right to be served.

The decision to get drop the dance bands was symbolic of a problem with the BBC that needs to be flagged up a lot more than it currently is. While the Corporation is impeccably, and quite rightly, anti-racist (The BBC’s ‘urban music’ digital station 1Xtra has a weekly reach of 491,000, while the Asian Network has a reach of 473,000. So, their pulling power is only about 30% more than Laycock’s listenership, but would anyone even dare suggest replacing either station with something else entirely? Feel free to take your time in answering that one.), anti-sexist and anti-most other isms you’d care to name, it is deeply ageist. This would be offensive enough if it weren’t also a complete and utter fallacy that you have to be old to appreciate dance band music. I’m 36, and I’m far from alone. The BBC’s entertainment programming was built on live relays from the major London hotels, and that precious weekly half-hour of music was a direct link to the Corporation’s origins. It should be viewed in a similar light to the Tower of London’s ravens. I’d be interested to know whether that figure of 360,000 listeners is from before or after the decision to narrow the programme’s focus, and how many have deserted the show since?

Below the Mail story, there’s a host of comments including one from ‘Deanna of London’: “Awwww poor diddums, a measly 24 thousand pounds for 52 hours work? I expect the people who work in a supermarket who take home around 300 measly single pound notes for 52 hours work, will be sobbing for the injustice to this poor man!!”. You’re missing the point, Deanna. Laycock’s saying that the 52 hours of radio involve far more than 52 hours of work, indeed that it’s a full-time job – scripting, checking discographies, timings, creating running orders, etc. Given some of the other salaries given to Radio 2 presenters, the asked-for £38,000 for a year of impeccably-researched, meticulously-prepared programming that credits the listener with intelligence looks like a bargain.

Yesterday afternoon, I was sitting on a bench near Lowestoft station, sharing my cod and chips with the youngest member of the Swiss Family Cheeseford. The sun was out, the nosh was lovely, my ankle is on the mend, and I thought that things couldn’t get much better. And then, I looked towards Lowestoft station and noticed a set of carriages unlike those that haul the normal services in and out of town. A mixture of mark 2 and mark 1 stock, I deduced, leading to the logical conclusion that there would be a locomotive of some note at the front. So there was – BR Britannia class 70013 Oliver Cromwell was paying a visit with a steam enthusiasts’ excursion from Liverpool Street to Norwich, then to Lowestoft, then back down the East Suffolk line to Stratford. Cheeseford Junior showed enormous interest in the big, noisy machine, and having established that it would be in town for a couple of hours, I resolved to go home, grab my camcorder and capture its departure, which I share with you now. Like James May in yesterday’s Telegraph, I’ll admit to a preference for early diesel locomotives. Faced with a choice of a famous steam loco pulling modern carriages and a modern locomotive pulling vintage carriages, the smell of warm leather and moquette always beats any amount of atmospheric smoke. However, I did feel a pang of jealousy that I wasn’t on the Easterling as it chuffed away back to the capital.

I’ve just heard about the death of Les Paul. I really, honestly, thought he was good for the ton and then a few more. His mother achieved a great age, and, when I saw him live at Iridium in New York in 2002, he looked indestructible – even if a stroke had robbed him of some of his dexterity. However, I don’t think anyone can call 94 a bad innings, and he packed a hell of a lot in to his time on Earth. Pioneering and popularising, if not actually inventing, the solid-body electric guitar. Creating 78rpm soundscapes that still sound futuristic as all get out. Inspiring Ampex to make the first practical multi-track tape recorder. I grew up with his music, and I still revisit those amazing, astonishing Capitol sides regularly. When he struck up ‘Brazil’ on that night in New York 7 years ago, I found myself crying a little. I’d played the record to death, and now I was no more than 20 feet away from the man who’d made it, hearing him play it live. After the show, he sat at a table and signed stuff for anyone who wanted it, which was just about everyone in the audience. I waited my turn, shook his hand and we had a brief chat. I tried not to gush. I didn’t need to. Without being arrogant, he knew precisely how great and important he was. RIP Red Hot Red.

Maybe Bob McDowall has voodoo powers. Or maybe I was pissed. We shall never know. Both are possible explanations for how I passed out on Sunday morning, sending my full 14 stone 13 pounds crashing down on my right ankle and resulting in the accompanying picture, taken at Stroud railway station. It happened while spending a weekend visiting relatives in Gloucestershire, and such a lovely time was being had that not even the injury and the fact that Mrs Cheeseford’s beloved Nissan Sunny had been declared DOA (hence the need to return by rail) could put a crimp in the festivities. I’m currently finding PRICE easy to comply with, and doing OK at avoiding H, R and M of HARM, but I reserve the right to ignore the advice on the A.

Crossing London as a temporary cripple was an interesting experience, second-guessing rude bastards with their tinny little iPod headphones blocking out the outside world, allowing them to rush about like headless chickens, oblivious to the fact that they’ve just nearly knocked over someone whose stopping and turning abilities are considerably less than theirs. In one case, I found myself shouting something obscene at the person who’d almost sent me flying. Oddly enough, the name I called him got through his aural insulation, and he turned round and asked if I was talking to him, in a manner that he obviously thought menacing, bless him. I said that I was and that I was glad I’d got his attention, as it might in future make him more aware of his surroundings when walking around like he owned the pavement. His response: “You can talk about walking”. Choosing not to debate the meaninglessness of the utterance, I replied: “Yes, I can. And if you’d like to carry on being able to walk, I’d advise that you go on your way right now”. Which he did. I’m not a violent sort, and as can be seen from the picture, I was dressed like Alec Guinness at the end of The Lavender Hill Mob. I can only put it down to the fact that I had a walking stick, and the expression of a man who knew how to shove it up someone’s arse.