Sunday, 5 February 2017

How to talk about art without scaring the horses

As I was born in 1970, and had seen the 1960s mythologised all through my youth, I sometimes asked my parents about them. I knew my limits, though, as they were from the more (socially) conservative era that many now pretend never existed. So Beeching or Harold Wilson (the local MP, for what that’s worth) were okay, but Bob Dylan and Syd Barrett weren’t. I was pleasantly surprised by how much they could tell me about The Kinks, Scott Walker and Tariq Ali. (Generation Wikipedia will wonder what all the fuss was about).

The Beatles were the stuff of contention, though. They had bought nearly every record until a very exact cut-off point of “Rubber Soul”. I was young, I could hear music that I liked and I wanted to know more, and what they had to tell me stopped halfway through. BBC2 and the local library eventually gave me the rest.

One day, when my parents were visiting me in Newcastle towards the end of my student years , Dad asked me what Yoko Ono actually did. Yes, I could have replied “well, father, she’s a conceptual artist”, but I knew exactly what the next question would have been if I had. Mum and dad came from a world where painters painted and some loose-living beatniks might have dabbled in sculpture, but conceptual art? What’s that about? In other words, art was another subject with a barrier halfway through.

“That’s a good question, Dad”, I replied.

Now my daughter wants to be an artist. I have tried talking her out of it, believe me. So I've now changed tack and am giving her my moral support, but this comes with a message: if you want to pay the bills with this stuff, you have to start treating it like a career and not as a hobby.

I'm encouraging her to go to as many shows as possible; that way she can take on board some ideas and have something to talk about when the interviews start. So there we were at the Glasgow School of Art's graduate shows last June. In among the sitting rooms filled with cuddly bananas and jokeshop dog turds and the poorly-shot videos of people dressed as nuns climbing over fences in country fields (I'm making NONE of this up) was the work of this student:

"I want to go to art school so I can paint like that", said my daughter. The best of luck to her, and Georgina Clapham for that matter.  Tellingly, her exhibition had run out of business cards - most of the others had plenty left over - and one of her paintings was on the posters advertising the show. Most professions have a "no bullshit" clause; if you try pulling a fast one in my field, you're found out very quickly indeed. Art has no such backup.

I wonder if Marcel Duchamp ever regretted those urinals.

Saturday, 12 November 2016


I don’t want to get bogged down in American politics. The USA is, after all, a foreign country, and one which dumped a load of perfectly good tea into the harbour over the ability to decide things for itself. Americans are grown-ups and don’t need the likes of me telling them how to vote, so I don’t bother.

Looking past the media, which does pay attention to the USA at the expense of even home politics, and I start to worry. It’s not just Trump; groups like Alternative für Deutschland and the French Front National are gaining a share of the vote. If the UKIP can keep Nigel Farage, who seems to be the only party member who can walk and talk at the same time, its success will continue. After the Labour MP Jo Cox was stabbed to death by a man with links to Britain First and other far-right groups, a Guardian article talked about Britain’s political class being under attack.

Of course it is, even if Jo Cox was not a member of it.

It’s ridiculous that Britain, the USA, or anywhere that isn’t an absolute monarchy still has a political class. But inertia, and a sense of entitlement that borders on freemasonry, has kept one there. Now there’s talk of making Michelle Obama the Democratic candidate for president in 2020; time would be better spent not offering more of the same if it no longer works. Labour took an almighty gamble putting Jeremy Corbyn in charge, but at least he’s not another clone of either Tony Blair or Gordon Brown.

Every day at work I pass a poster for the Ashok Kumar Fellowship. Ashok Kumar was a Labour MP for Middlesborough from 1997 and the only chemical engineer to be an MP at the time. After his death in 2010, the Institution of Chemical Engineers has run the fellowship in his memory. Maybe the institution is onto something. Nurses, architects, sailors, schoolteachers and farmers may feel that they too have been short-changed. What if political parties recruited from a true spectrum of our society, with all the different careers and social backgrounds it has, rather than the rather tight profile of accountants* and lawyers currently on offer? Perhaps frustrated voters will be tempted away from random demagogues.

* - I was at school and university with someone who is now prominent in the Conservative party. Even if he were to represent a party that I would vote for, I would not go near him as his only qualification is in politics, and his short career in accountancy is largely there to pursuade voters that he is something other than a "party animal". After testing him out in a constituency where he stood no chance of being elected - a common Conservative method of hardening its candidates - he is now MP in one of their safest seats.

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Record Bore Day

Did I queue up for hours yesterday to buy a picture disc of “Histoire de Melody Nelson” the colour of a nicotine stain? Or a 78 of “Anarchy in the UK” fashioned from compressed bogies? This may disappoint a few people, but no I did not.

I agree that record shops are an endangered species. Just as with post offices and libraries, our culture will lose something if the physical place where people hear music and talk about it, rather than merely buy it, disappears. Let’s separate the myth from real life, though; those places painted in black to hide the dope stains were always spoken of highly because they were rare. For every Probe or Volume or Missing, the sort of places Nick Hornby wrote “High Fidelity” about, there were numerous greeting card shops that had record racks. People who moan about the supermarkets selling CDs don’t remember, or choose not to remember, how clueless WH Smiths and Boots were about music when it used to be sold in their branches.

It’s a very urban phenomenon, anyway; if you lived in the country or a rather unequipped suburb, you just had to buy things by mail order. Even if rural internet speeds aren’t so good, things are now so much better.

Unfortunately, gamely supporting your local record shop (if you ever had one in the first place) has been confused with records, as in the vinyl format. I’m exactly the right age for this argument, so here goes:

When I started off (Mirror Man by the Human League on 12 inch, by the way*, from The Music Shop in Belle Vale shopping centre**) vinyl was the only real way to do it. CDs were still a millionaire’s plaything, and cassettes, although priced the same as records after years of being priced higher, were flimsy things with crushed, tiny artwork. There were times when tape came in handy – bootlegs, catching things off the radio, portable players, making mixtapes – and recording onto blank cassettes allowed you to miss out the drum solo, but pre-recorded tapes were awful. It was records, records, records.

When I started taking interest in older acts, the likes of Kraftwerk, David Bowie, Can or The Doors were well served because their labels kept a good back catalogue. Re-issue labels did their best to fill in the gaps for other bands whose labels had disappeared – like The Kinks. As CDs grew in popularity, the reissuers had a choice; should they divide their rather marginal market up by making things available as records, cassettes and CDs, or do they choose one format and stick to it? By focussing on CDs, they could then do a much better job of making older music available to new listeners.

So my own music collection grew as a CD collection from the early 1990s onwards. If I bought anything while abroad, Spain was still good for vinyl but France had gone all-CD. I kept buying new records until the bad quality of pressings put me off. Was the drop in quality control a symptom of a struggling business, or a sneaky trick by The Man to make me buy the more profitable CDs? Please send your answer in on a postcard. I don’t moan about the sound quality – my turntable, CD player, amplifier and speakers all came to roughly the same price and, if you look after the discs, they sound as good as each other. Putting a FLAC or a high-bitrate MP3 through the same set-up sounds just as good as well.

So I still play records, but the revival of the format as an object of desire just strikes me as a hipster gimmick. Some foolish youngsters don’t even play them!

As Record Store Day is always Saturday, the same morning as Radio 2 broadcasts “Sound of the Sixties”, I check if Brian Matthew ever mentions vinyl reissues of listeners’ favourite tunes from their youth.

He doesn’t.

* I’m usually Mr Metric, but I always still say “12 inch single”.  I know that countries elsewhere in Europe call them “Maxi-Singles” because they don’t use that system of weights and measures. This is all a bit “Pulp Fiction”, isn’t it?

** Somewhere that sold stationery and greetings cards as well, when I started going there, in a circa-1970 concrete shopping parade next to an outlying group of Liverpool council estates 45 minutes walk from home. Huyton, strangely, didn’t have a record shop!

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Paris (version française)

Je me suis réveillé ce matin et je trouve plusieurs mises à jour sur Facebook qui demandent pourquoi les attentats de Paris reçoivent autant d'attention quand les choses semblables se passent ailleurs avec une fréquence choquante. La vie humaine n'est pas soumis à une sorte de taux de change entre les pays, mais je ne pense pas honnêtement que cela est le sentiment que l'on veut exprimer.  En fait, ce sentiment est la chose qui motivent ces attaquants - un désir de faire descendre le monde entier au même niveau effroyable, comme si ça preuve un principe.

La France est un pays que j'adore. Oui, de temps en temps je pense qu'elle est peuplé entièrement par des gens difficiles mais je l'habitais, j'ai visité un certain nombre de ses régions souvent et j'admire la façon dont elle a produit une société culturellement riche et diversifiée qui valorise les libertés des individus . Elle a parfois fait cela d'une manière différente de mon propre pays, mais ça marche en tous les deux. Aucun d'entre eux est parfait (où est le pays parfait?) et elles ont des histoires ensanglantes qui ne doivent pas être passé sous silence, mais le moins que nous puissions faire (le jour de l'Armistice a été juste la semaine dernière) est chérir la paix et la stabilité qui est maintenant en place.

La France est un pays qui incarne la civilisation, et l'Etat Islamique déteste ce fait. Si cela est affaiblie, il n'y a aucun espoir pour les pays comme le Liban et le Yémen, car ils ont rien à viser.


I've woken up to find a number of Facebook updates that ask why the Paris attacks are receiving so much attention when similar things happen elsewhere with sickening frequency.  Human life is not subject to some kind of exchange rate between countries, but I don't honestly think that is what is intended.  In fact, that is one of the very things that motivate these attackers - a desire to drag everywhere down to the same appalling level, as if to prove a point.

France is a country I love.  Yes, there are times when I think it is populated by a sixty-million member awkward squad but I have lived there, visited a number of its regions frequent times and admire how it has produced a culturally rich and diverse society that values individuals' freedoms.  It has sometimes done this in a different way to my own country, but they both work.  Neither of them are perfect (where is?) and have bloodied histories that should not be glossed over, but the least we can do (Armistice Day was only last week) is treasure the peace and stability that is now in place.

France is a country that exemplifies civilisation, and that is what ISIL despise.  If that is undermined, then there is no hope for the likes of Lebanon and Yemen, because they have nothing to aim for.

Friday, 30 October 2015

Votes for women (and other postcode lotteries)

I’ve seen “Suffragette” twice in the last week.  I know that the way British cinema operates accounts for a few decisions – the casting of Meryl Streep and Carey Mulligan should prevent any bad Hollywood remakes. There are one or two historical cheats, including one that did rankle, where Sonny (Ben Wishaw’s character) and Maud (Carey Mulligan) discuss what it means to have the vote – that Maud would use her vote just the same way Sonny uses his.  The 1912 truth is that Sonny, as a man who owns no property, would be just as vote-less as his wife.

On the whole, it’s a solidly well-made film that pitches things about right for a modern audience, my daughters as well as myself or my wife, and I’m glad that the UK film industry can still produce historical drama with political relevance without just leaving this sort of thing to Ken Loach.

The film ends with a list of when various countries enabled women to vote.  After I visited the Middle East for the first time last year, one of my aunts in Liverpool told me that most of the powers that women have in the West are only two generations old, or three at most.  Another opportunity to work for a few days out in the Persian Gulf has just come in, this time to give a training course, and guess what?

The letter detailing the job requested that male candidates need apply.

I took this to the Athena SWAN representative in my department, and she expressed no surprise at all – The Times and the Daily Telegraph* had run a story on another UK institution actually paying different accommodation allowances to men and women in Qatar a few weeks earlier.  It all reminded me of a confrontation at my former employers twenty years ago when only men were being sent to jobs in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, even if some of my most able colleagues were women.  Ultimately, my current employer cannot climb onto a particularly high horse over this one, as none of the engineering academics are women anyway.  (The Athena SWAN rep herself is a physicist).

If you are a woman and you’re actually reading my blog, can you please consider an engineering career?  We’re all quite friendly, and the whiff of testosterone is nothing like as strong as it is in financial trading.  Once there’s enough of you in this particular workplace then you’ll be rather hard to ignore.

Thank you.

*I’ll link to the Daily Telegraph rather than The Times here, because of the paywall and because, well, Murdoch.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Q: Are we not (Scots)Men? A: We are Devo (Max)

This Thursday I am to vote in a referendum that decides if Scotland becomes an independent country or not.  Patriotic sentiment has nothing to do with this as I did not live here until I was 26.

Oil changes everything doesn’t it?  A Scottish campaign to separate from the UK has run for decades, but the discovery of North Sea Oil did much to make it realistic.  It means a division into two countries of more or less equal wealth, unlike other independence campaigns within Europe.  France could easily lose Corsica behind the sofa and not even notice.  However, Spain would be economically doomed without the Basque Country and Catalonia.

It’s the European front where Scotland has its biggest gamble.  I’ve never voted for the Conservative Party in my life, but I’ll concede that they have always been better at handling the EU than Labour.  Not any more – the Conservative fear of losing votes to the UKIP will lead to a referendum that may withdraw the UK from the EU.  Scotland has the will to be stay in the EU if treated separately, but the Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy will do all he can to block Scotland’s membership, as he has his own interests to protect.  The UK only ever joined the EU because Charles de Gaulle died; maybe Scotland has a similar wait.

Seeing as EU students have free tuition at Scottish universities, as well as opportunities through the Erasmus+ programme, much of my livelihood depends on Scotland being in the European Union.  Being British is something I can dispense with, but European is a tougher link to break.

On Friday morning, what I want to hear from all political parties is what the next step actually is.  Because of the way the Better Together/No Thanks campaign has been run, nobody knows what a Scotland run by anyone other than the Scottish Nationalist Party or the Greens would look like.  I’ve already put Labour’s canvassers on the spot about this one – that their party could well be running Scotland in 2016; what are the policies?  Much of the Yes campaign has been based on social reform, but the SNP have no real ideas there.  Alex Salmond seems a media-capable leader but I’m amazed the likes of Nicola Sturgeon are trusted with as much as selling ice creams at the beach.  A Labour Party that is no longer scared of floating voters in marginal West Midlands seats may find the courage to propose a few things.  I won’t hold my breath; in Glasgow, the Labour party has been phoning it in for years.  The Liberal Democrats may have something planned already.  The Conservatives have nothing to lose by showing their hand.

I still can’t hear the term “Devo” without picturing grown men with synthesisers wearing overalls with inverted flowerpots as hats.  “Devo Max” – giving further devolved powers to Scotland – should be the result of a “No” vote.  I would then be very interested to see what happens in the north and west of England, which have just as much reason to be tired of London rule as Scotland or Wales have.  Independence may be beyond their reach, unless they want to frack for shale gas.  However, studies are growing ever more critical of the lack of autonomy for the English provinces, and even Michael Heseltine agrees that the over-centralisation of power in London is counter-productive.  I can speculate that Britain’s local government reform in the 1970s would have been better off being like the French one - creating regional assemblies along German or US lines rather than fooling around with county boundaries.

My final doubt, as tempted to vote for independence as I am, is the monarchy.  I don’t call it the “English royal family” as others do (it’s a line of German princes with some Scots aristocrats married in), but it is a mediaeval relic that any new, bold society would be better off without.  The fact that it is to be kept no matter what shows that the only thing that is radical about independence is independence itself.