Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Nostalgia Factory - Memories of Shadows


During the spring of 2011, I mentioned I was about to re-watch Babylon 5; a science fiction soap opera series from the 1990s. A friend of mine commented that he is almost frightened of watching the series again, for fear that it might have dated and hasn't got the same impact. He wasn't the only one; several people I know who loved B5 expressed doubts about the series getting an 2011 airing and I concluded that the main problem with watching the series again is that during the 1990s many of us were already aware of its faults and the years are likely to have exacerbated them.

I had sat down at the computer a few weeks prior to this and started writing an appreciation of B5 (I was toying the idea of replacing the comics blog with one that discussed cult TV) and a few thousand words later I had run out of steam. The reason was simply because it had been so long since I'd last watched it, I was worried that I was remembering things wrong or simply getting facts wrong. The obvious thing was the watch them all again, this time on DVD rather than video cassette and taking all the fears in the opening paragraph in hand I sat down and began J. Michael Straczynski's magnum opus yet again (my 3rd time). By the time I was halfway through the viewing many ideas I'd had about the series had radically changed. What had started as a tribute to a fantastic series began to deteriorate into critical crucifixion... Watching it had not been too wise a decision; I should have been left with my memory.

If you have a couple of hours to spare, you should go here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Babylon_5 and follow many of the links; that way I won't have to bother explaining what the story behind the series is; but essentially it is about a giant space station in neutral space that acts as the pivotal point in three massive interwoven plots - the struggles of Earth, the Centauri/Narn War and the return of the Shadows. There are other stories being told, but they all act as subplots - despite their links to the main stories.

I always believed that if it had been watched by more than a handful of people, it might have been heralded as one of the most ambitious and conceptually staggering TV series of all time - it could have been the Game of Thrones for the 90s - but after watching most of the series again, I now believe that it wasn't a huge hit because it just wasn't that good.

Don't get me wrong; I love B5. It's one of my all-time favourite TV shows and there are elements of it that are just simply awe-inspiring; but on the whole it's just a badly put together mishmash of bollocks. I have always believed that J. Michael Straczynski (JMS) had a sheet of paper with the story written out, but when you sit and watch three episodes a day, every day, until you've watched the entire thing, you realise that unlike some TV series that are continuing stories, there's a feeling that at times he was making it up as he went along. It was a bit like a comic book in that it didn't go anywhere in a 'we're going loads of places' kind of way - the illusion of change is never more obvious than by watching B5 back-to-back.

There are about a dozen episodes which, watched in context, would struggle to be bettered, but in general it was substandard Star Trek at best. This is perfectly highlighted by the fact that if you took all the pertinent story parts and got rid of the rest of it, JMS could quite easily have told the entire story over just three 13-part series'. The main stories could still be entwined and wouldn't lose anything in the shortened delivery, but what you would get rid of is the attempt to make the supporting cast interesting through having them get involved in their own solo adventures, which did nothing to advance the characters or the story. I know that TV series that were made then had the express intention of being successful enough to last a minimum of 7 years - for syndication - but some of these episodes were so weak they were painful to watch.

The general consensus among fans is that season one is the worst, but I believe this is a false impression given by the seven or eight real stinker episodes, many of which shouldn't have got over the desk of the Warner executives who were pulling the purse strings and would eventually be responsible for making this series even more shambolic than it was prone to be. There are also episodes that are quite excellent and progress the plot at an alarming rate, which juxtaposes with episodes that do absolutely nothing but inhabit the world and inhibit the story and take up valuable air time.

Three of the most pivotal episodes for the main stories take place in season one and there are half a dozen more that are pretty much essential viewing. Season One is essential viewing, even if you have to put up with stories that Star Trek would have even given a read through.

The problem with two of the three main stories is that they are unbelievably contrived and are full of contradictions. The struggle for Earth relies on a number of things conveniently happening and quite a few heavy handed bits of symbolism. Too much is made superficial, while the viewer is expected to believe aspects of the story with no real explanation as to why. There is, possibly because of budget restraints, the feeling that there were a number of red herrings and quickly wrapped up subplots that suggested to me that had there been a cast-iron guarantee of 5, 6 or 7 seasons then more would have been made of them.

The other problem was Earth's own struggle really only became the focal point after the story which should have ended the entire series. However, this would have failed if had been done this way for a number of reasons; most obvious being the utter dissatisfaction of the US viewers regarding the climax of the major story. I'm being annoyingly and deliberately cryptic; let me elucidate...

The Shadow War - for years regarded by many as possibly the most outrageous storyline for a TV show, ever - is actually ruined by its expediency. Whether it was the network's fault or not, the subplot that resonated with fans the most was not Earth's struggle or even the quite perfect Centauri/Narn war, but the return of an ancient race who seem intent on causing chaos wherever they went. It took a series and a half to get the Shadow War going and, sadly, the build up was all the fun. Strangely, I believe JMS always intended to have 'the war to end all wars' as an anticlimax, allowing him to wrap up the Earth story as the climax of the series; the problem was once the war actually started all cohesion of story disappeared; the situation escalated through a series of events that on hindsight either made no sense or were contrary to things we'd been led to believe.

With the series in danger of being cancelled, JMS had to wrap up the Shadow War in a handful of episodes when he had intended to make it almost the entire season; so what you got was three years of flirting and then a premature ejaculation. The Shadows were one of the first sentient races in the universe; they came after Dorian, the first and along with the Vorlons remained in 'our' space while the others went 'beyond the rim' of space and into a higher plain of existence. The Vorlons remained reasonably visible and emanated this mystic and power that even the Min'Bari (arguably the most powerful of the remaining races) feared. Used incredibly sparingly by JMS, the Vorlons, especially Ambassador K'osh, embedded themselves into the hearts of fans - they were a mystery wrapped in an enigma and seemed to do nothing but speak in cryptic riddles. The Shadows on the other hand had been hiding for millennia, ever since the last time they decided to start a conflict - when the Min'Bari were a young, reckless, race. Much is hinted at about the last Shadow War, generally in negative and hushed tones.

It soon became clear during the series that K'osh was training the commanders of B5 for an coming conflict, while a creepy human called Mr Morden was inveigling his way into the lives of the easily corruptible aliens and offering incentives supplied by his associates - the Shadows. This was essentially the sub-text of most of the first 2½ series. The humans and aliens dealing with what the universe sends at them, while all the while something essentially political is happening under the surface. Handled by someone like Aaron Sorkin you would have The West Wing. Once the humans force the Vorlons to make a stand everything goes tits up and you realise that K'osh was the only reasonable ancient being left in the universe...

As I said, fans hated the end of the Shadow War and that was because it wasn't smash, bang, wallop enough. They expected the show's entire budget to be spent on the most dazzling special effects ever, and to some extent there was a lot of impressive battle vistas created (for the time); but while the end was quite daring it still owed a lot to the presence of a deux ex machina. In the end, the Shadow War made little sense, it worked really well as a Cold War, but it relied heavily on tissue paper thin coincidences when it became a full scale war. Two of the oldest races in the universe ended up being portrayed as spoilt children who were refusing to allow their younger siblings to go their own way. Philosophically it's a great idea; but in a space adventure it doesn't work, especially when the premise becomes so fragile it's masked by dollops of schmaltz. I remember suggesting on a Compuserve forum many many years ago the spoilt children theory and getting a personal response from JMS; that alone generated a lot of chitter-chatter from the nerds.

The problem was to wrap it up quickly a lot of it had to take place between episodes and 'behind the scenes' but that's where they failed because with the show in serious danger of being cancelled, I think die-hard fans would have preferred to have seen the Shadow War and the Earth Civil War running parallel to each other; just for the chance to have a juxtaposition of the perspectives of war. In the end, the Shadow War fails because the premise is actually too flimsy and because it wasn't designed (as it would be today) to be watched like a box set; there are far too many jolts between episodes, too many alleys that have had a light shone down them but weren't explored and way too much potential that was never fulfilled. I think, to be honest, it could have been written better.

G'Kar and Londo
On watching the series again, one story stands the test of time quite superbly. The Narn/Centauri War featuring the two characters who stole just about every scene they appeared in - Londo Mollari and G'Kar. The two starred in their fare share of duff episodes, but as the series went on, the greatest pleasure derived from the personal journeys of these two charismatic creatures. If the series ultimately is about destiny, then no other characters are a better example of how destinies will be fulfilled or how friendships are formed, or how redemption is achieved. Peter Jurasik and Andreas Katsulas were both renowned stage actors, both appeared in film and TV semi-regularly and if the rest of the cast's acting was sometimes... a bit am dram; these two hammed it up so perfectly you could have been watching some bizarre pantomime on acid. When you hear the term actors chewing up the scenery, that's exactly what these two did when they had the screen together.

The thing that makes the Narn/Centauri War so good is the way it is deeply rooted in both the other stories, either through direct involvement or by just having links to them. The Shadow War would never have escalated so fast if it hadn't been for Londo; it might never have been won if not for G'Kar; just this involvement led to the civil war that freed the Narn and one storyline couldn't exist without the other. There are also links to Earth and its struggles and things needed to be established because of the part the Narn (G'Kar) and Centauri (Londo and Vir) play in the ultimate ending of the story.

If there was ever a TV series that force-fed the viewer a concept they hadn't tuned in to watch it was B5 and the Narn/Centuari War was a masterpiece in political writing; it was the sharpest and most focused writing in all the series and on hindsight you got the impression that JMS enjoyed this story line more than all the others and that might be because it couldn't exist without the story and the story couldn't exist with Londo and G'Kar. Andreas Katsulas was the most recognisable human playing an alien since Spock, his death ultimately destroyed any chance of us ever seeing him in lizard skin again.

What of the Min'Bari, ever present throughout the story but not really included in my theory that there was only really three stories. This ancient race had its own stories - their civil war and the part played in the original Shadow War, which of course was ended by interference from the future*, creating a strangely beautiful paradox. But the Min'Bari were really no more than catalysts for all the other stories; the series started with them really having finished their stories and was really only focusing on the resonance from those big events; their civil war almost felt like an afterthought - Oh shit, we need to do something else with the bone heads. There was also the feeling that they were a bit like God's mate Dave in a Machine rather than this deus ex machina race of aliens they tried to portray themselves (or were portrayed) as. JMS was always very quick to point out that regardless of how hard the people of Min'Bar were, they were small beans for the Vorlons and other ancient races. Don't get me wrong, the Min'Bari play a massively pivotal role in the series, but you kind of realise that from the off-set and when you understand the significance of the two part World Without End you realise that it was all destined so you focus on the other stories. The Narn and the Centauri were really the grey (race) the Min'Bari styled themselves as - standing twixt the light and the dark - but they were actually pretty much whiter than white aside from a very small percentage of mad bastards floating about who were probably there only to give the race something we (the viewer) could identify with.

The oft used analogy that B5 is just a distortion of Earth's history using a major race (or an amalgam of two) as a representation of different alien races is probably correct. You could argue that Earth is America/Russia; Centauri would be the Roman Empire mixed with the British Empire; the Narn could be Israel and the Jews. The Vorlons could be the Chinese and the Shadows would be a kind of Nazi, because of their ideological ways, but scant regard for life. Human history in a microcosm and the reason it lasted as long as it did was because it used flamboyant ideas around that historical anchor point.

* Every SF series seems to do its own time travel story, it's almost a pre-requisite, and B5 was no different and with a couple of minor gripes they pull it off possibly better than any other TV show, but that might be because it takes place within a period of time rather than trying to be clever with the future. Way back at the end of the first season there is an episode called Babylon Squared and if I had to pick a favourite stand alone episode I'd probably pick this one despite it being nothing more than one huge enigma. I think I'd choose it because I think even now it is so far ahead of its time that our sophisticated SF dramas of the 21st century still haven't cottoned on. Very simply (and despite the necessity of having to change it because of budget and cast problems), Babylon Squared is a episode to set up something else in a future season. It is people witnessing time travel from the position of not really understanding it; it also suggests that at some point in a future episode this particular episode will suddenly make even more sense. That happens and you marvel at the skill in writing a time travel story that doesn't create a paradox (or if it does it manages to shut the loop) and that the creators of this series have the faith and the foresight to do something like this, so blatantly, and kind of tie themselves into a fixed, linear, story. Of course, things changes between this episode and how they concluded it and you have to give JMS 9 out of 10 for the almost seamless way he wrote himself out of a corner.

Over the last few years there has been a growing movement to have the series 're-imagined' like Battlestar Galactica and with special effects much cheaper, perhaps JMS's initial idea, which was stymied by the lack of advancement in technology, could be realised. I think if HBO or Showtime wanted to do a SF series with the kind of gravitas given to Game of Thrones or Dexter then a remake might work, especially if JMS was given a guarantee of five, six or seven series to tell the story he originally wanted to, the way he would have liked. But would they want that? Would today's TV execs want a McG or a Whedon to re-invent a TV series like B5 and, more importantly, would it be the concept only they use? The reason I suggest this is because after all of this and deciding that perhaps it wasn't that brilliant after all, the thing that made B5 stick in my head and the heads of so many others was essentially the entwined story/stories. If this hadn't have been the case then we would have watched Deep Space Nine. If B5 was brought back it would have to bring the original story with it or come up with a story that, conceptually, beats the original. I'd say they would struggle with that.

In conclusion, I can think of a few good reasons to recommend it but these are totally negated by the faults. If you can live with the poor FX and the poor acting and the really cheesy fillers, there is a cracking story, much of which will ultimately leave you empty because of the fact budgets and uncertainty meant things got forgotten or went unanswered. The fact that it makes it to 5 series and tells an entire story is a fantastic achievement, but sadly, don't let that fact influence you.

The majority of the above was written at the end of the summer of 2011. I have added bits to it, tidied it up, taken out some of my fabulous sentences that obviously I must have known what I meant when I wrote them (but probably left a few in that I still remembered) and I've updated it slightly. 

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Album Review 2013/2


Steven Wilson
The Raven That Refused to Sing and Other Stories

Or The Raven Didn't Make Me As Much Money as I Would Have Liked and Other Whines.

I'm sorry is that a wee bit cynical of me? I mean apparently a couple of days after the official release and hordes of fantastic reviews, Wilson was bemoaning the fact that someone - presumably someone he trusted - had leaked a copy of the new album onto that blasted Internet thing and subsequently the Hardest Working Man in Rock is probably going to starve to death... Well, do you know something, I wish I had found one of these elusive illegal copies (I looked in all the usual places and never saw hide nor hair of it), it might have saved me wasting £13 on something that in a few weeks might have bought me some food.

Several years ago, myself and two prog colleagues ventured to Wolverhampton to see Porcupine Tree. We got there in plenty of time and found the bar at the Civic Centre sold proper real ale, so we were made up. When we finally entered the arena, up where the band were due to appear was this 30 feet high sign saying something along the lines of "Do not use phones or mobile devices, do not record this show or take pictures of it, if you do we will kill you!" and it was being serious - Wilson is almost anally retentive about this kind of thing and yet despite coming across as an intelligent young(ish) man, he failed to notice that everyone in that arena was there to see him, had paid money to see him and to be fair if they record, badly, their favourite song and post it on You Tube, what real harm is it going to do? Or, I remember an interview with SW once where he said how angry he gets when fans bring up tapes of shows they've recorded on their phones or whatever and ask him to autograph it. Why? The same nerd is going to buy every album you release, because true, honest to God fans, BUY, so if they get something they can't buy, it isn't going to break your bank or take revenue away from you. Maybe to such a small and insignificant amount you could class those people as not true fans, but Steve, you're not Radiohead or Beyonce, mate, the amount of money you're going to lose from this kind of thing is negligible. Man up and stop being such a curmudgeonly geek.

But what about the album. Well, it wears its influences on its sleeves for all to see. Luminol is Yes, The Holy Drinker has elements of ELP in it and so far I've also heard some Crimson, some early Genesis and while he's channelling all of his heroes he's clearly forgotten how to write a tune. Insurgents was choc-a-bloc full of good rock songs; Grace For Drowning kind of suggested we were entering into the realm of the Law of Diminishing Returns and this album seems to prove that by offering up 6 songs which I would have struggled to include in either of the first two solo efforts. This album is up its own arse; seriously far; so far it could have a conversation with Wilson's epiglottis without a hint of irony.

I have listened to this album 6 times now; under the belief that its a grower, but while I have grown to appreciate a couple of tracks, the only real thing growing on me is the feeling that I've been conned and that Wilson's overall output in the 21st century has been generally disappointing. I'm looking back at Deadwing and thinking that when that came out I didn't like it because it wasn't a Porcupine Tree album as I knew it. That's a bloody classic compared to Wilson's solo efforts.  The Raven That Refused to Sing and Other Stories is pretentious, it's an homage to many of the people that Wilson holds in high regard, it suffers from half of it not being at all good and if this is the future of SW then he can travel it without my scheckles. I'm really struggling to find positives about this album; I can't see it being on heavy rotation like many other SW projects, but if I want to be honest, I've felt that way about most of his stuff for a few years - The Incident had some great songs on it, but could have been a very tight single CD; Blank Planet might have been the breakthru album, but it's a mess, the first two solo albums had one really good album in there and that god-awful Storm Corrosion bollocks, which someone had the audacity to compare to Talk Talk, should have been the straw that broke the Raven's back. As Wilson becomes more commercially viable his music is becoming less interesting.

Perhaps I came into this wanting to dislike it; I mean, all of this disillusionment towards SW which has poured out in this review probably suggests that I was going to be in a bad place when I listened to it; but the thing was after being thoroughly disappointed by the Ulrich Schnauss album, I wanted this to be the dog's bollocks and it end up being just bollocks. It also could do with some tunes. Wilson has written some great tunes in the past... Oh, yeah, the past. Wilson is 45 now and we all know what happens to ageing rockers...

3 out of 10

Monday, February 25, 2013

Kali, God of Phwoar

If you believe everything you read on Facebook then you would probably have a strangely warped view of the world; one where no one likes some stuff and cute kittens rule the planet. The current stream of stuff in my news feed revolves around people moaning about other people's Facebook habits and how awful the current government is compared to previous efforts.

I know that my news feed is largely governed by who my friends are and that someone else might see something else entirely. For instance, I noticed a comment recently about fuel prices and one of the people commenting was quick to point out that the recent rises have been down to oil companies and retailers greed and NOT the government. That's nice to know. Nice, in that it isn't their fault, this time. However when you realise that 64% of what you pay at the pumps is fuel duty or Extra Taxation, you start to see that even not blaming a government this time is like suggesting that the wet weather hasn't been the contributing factor in the recent flooding...

There is usually a mid-term backlash against governments, but the news that we've lost our Triple A credit rating hasn't helped the already hapless Tories and has given the Libdems some bizarre false hope that they might emerge from all of this with their integrity restored and with more chance of being voted for again than at any point in the last 2½ years (I think they dream too much).

The thing is I cannot remember another government that has made so many poor decisions, made so many U-turns and alienated so many people. I have always been of the opinion that since Thatcher, you lot, the general public don't give a shit about anyone other than yourself. Thatch promoted the 'I'm all right Jack' mentality and I think that has been prevalent for most of my adult life; even Blair did nothing to promote community, which is why Cameron's Big Society idea was always a barrel of laughs; he was trying to restore something his hero obliterated, except that we know, deep down, that Cameron's Big Society was just a smoke screen to make some less extreme Tories think that their side of the current government were caring individuals.

Can you imagine what we wouldn't have now if the Tories had got in with a majority? To be fair we'd probably be on the verge of a civil war - but an interesting civil war because both the police and the armed forces have borne the brunt of government cuts and criticism, so one would have to wonder how long they'd support Cam before deciding on a military coup. We may well have seen Egypt-like changes in our own country had the Tories been allowed to make the sweeping axe cuts they want (feel the need to do).

This is why I think some people are now beginning to grow intolerant of the way the current government is treating those not as fortunate as the rest of us. Joe Average is aware that there are scroungers and fiddlers, but he's also aware there are 1000s of families who are so desperately poor they should be the targets of Children in Need and Comic Relief and not Africa. When we read about pregnant women being evicted from their homes because they've lost all their benefits, despite working full time cleaning in the centre of London for the minimum wage; or about disabled or terminally ill people being told by the government appointed ATOS that, yes, they might be dying, but that doesn't prevent them from working until they do. Or any other genuine tale of injustice being served because the government doesn't really give a shit about anyone that isn't already self-sufficient or rich.

What me and my low earning chums should realise is that the Tories don't really give a shit about anyone that isn't likely to feather their nests - now or in the future. They really are all right and their children will be all right even if the rest of the country is burning around our ears. The 20% of people in this country who vote Conservative because of their class, upbringing, wealth or selfishness will never change; they will never look on people not as well off as themselves and feel they deserve a chance; they will look at those not as fortunate and wonder why they aren't cleaning their boots or working 80 hours a week to be able to feed their children. It isn't their fault that we have so many people who don't contribute anything meaningful and if we can't exterminate them, then lets make it so difficult for them that death becomes a blessed release. This is the Tory ethos in its basic premise. Do not invest in the future; do not care about those less fortunate; do not help those that need it; do not allow anything that will change what we have and what we're going to get.

The remaining percentage of people who vote Tory because they truly believe that it is a party to look after them and their own need to wake up and smell the coffee. The only way you will ever be part of that 20% is if you have the money to begin with. You have to remember, Tories are the only party that will eat their own young and by that I mean they will embrace a person if they fit the bill, but they won't 'like' them and they will be quick to dump them, as acrimoniously as they can, if they do not always and consistently tow the party line. Tories that are maverick and don't tend to tow the party line are the ones that people like me look at and wish they could have been the ones who held power rather than the mad - Thatch, bad - Cam or inept - Major. Nadine Dorries might be a rich bitch, but she called it right when she called Dave and Gideon a couple of out-of-touch rich boys. She should have been made a Dame for that, but like so many great things it got swept under the carpet somewhat (and she blotted her own copy book pretty dynamically).

Now, I can hear comments from a number of my not left wing friends and instead of doing what any politician worth his salt would do and artistically sidestep the questions, I won't. Do I think Labour would do it better, especially after they screwed up last time? I don't actually think they screwed up last time. I think the wrong people ran the country, but not the wrong party. I look back at the unbelievable fuck ups that Thatcher and Major over saw and compare them to Blair's foibles and I'm amazed that he is as vilified as she is. Yes, he was a twat, but this country saw the building of new schools, hospitals and other massively essential things for the future of the country's infrastructure and you know what, even though I haven't got kids, I'm glad they got us into some debt because it has given three or four generations of kids the opportunity to learn in new schools, be treated in clean and new hospitals (even if the NHS is being dismantled around our ears) and have a fighting chance for the future. Any one of my Tory mates, tell me this, when was the last time a new school was built with nothing but government money when the Tories were in power (and one that wasn't built with private money and therefore only accessible to the elite's children)? I bet you can't.

I'm fed up with people blaming labour on the recession. I take it then that it is also Labour's fault that the rest of Europe is in a slump? Labour's fault that the Tories can't implement a fair tax system and continue to target the people who are less well off - if you see that a fair tax system would bring the government in £100billion extra and ripping the welfare state apart will bring them about £20billion, where is the sense in targeting the poor, unhealthy and unfortunate?

My old landlord, Mr Chan, when I ran my failing business back in the early 1990s, said something that has stuck with me ever since. It should be the mantra for every living person in 2013. "I don't expect life to be easier, I'd just like it to be fairer!" You can't really argue with that.

Effercio et ineptias

  • I am really struggling with the new Steven Wilson album - The Raven Who Refused to Sing and Other Stories - I'm giving it a third straight listen and its not growing on me like I was told it might. The most immediate thing I can say about it is that Mr Wilson appears to have left his balls at home and gone for a bland, faux moody and unspectacular 3rd album... Or, of course, this might be down to me being music'd out after spending most of this year so far going through my record collection and playing everything that hasn't been played for more than 3 years or at all.
  • Another interesting Steven Wilson tidbit is that he says that a copy of his new album found its way onto the internet and probably thousands have been circulated now, depriving him of money. Well, I couldn't find it anywhere, so I bought it. This is one case where I kinda wish I'd listened to it before buying (or perhaps that's why he's got a public bug up his arse about it?).
  • Last night I had a massive... fire. I burned all the rubbish in the garden; old tree stumps, fence panels, flotsam and jetsam that has accumulated over the last 2 years. I could have salvaged a lot of it for the fireplace, but we already have a rotting shed (as opposed to a Burning Shed which is the record label for the above mentioned album) full of wood and combustibles and I just wanted to have a massive... fire. This morning, well over 12 hours after it started, it was still smouldering, but all that was left was a few twigs; plus I gave my allotment area a thoroughly good raze, which is always good for the coming crops.
  • I love the way that as soon as we get to around the 20th of February, the news stations start filling gaps by offering fluff pieces about the impending spring. Recently it was about fashion and how do retailers sell summer dresses when everyone else is walking around with balaclavas and mittens on? Who cares; all I know is that despite the weather men saying that spring will start on March 1st, in reality there's more chance of it snowing on March 1st than there is it snowing on Christmas Day.
  • I can feel a Stephen King rant coming on.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Job's Worth, What's Yours

Some things need to be kept brief. My flirtation with the education system is over and one day I might talk about it, until that day let us draw a veil over it and here's why...

Today I was due to go and have my spirometry test; it has been scheduled, rescheduled, cancelled, re-booked and the way the world seemed to be conspiring to prevent me from having it suggested to this old paranoid git that it was body saying that something horrid is going to be found; that I have this dreaded COPD and that I am going to follow in my mother's footsteps - literally by slowly suffocating to death.

Guess what? I'm still going to have to wait. The pleurisy from a month ago hasn't been six weeks, so I have to wait until March 8 before I can have it done, provided I can steer clear of illness till then. But, that isn't the point. The point is that just two weeks since quitting my job, I was walking the dogs over Bradlaugh Fields thinking, 'God, I feel better today than I have for yonks'. And do you know something, I did. I felt fucking awesome. No aches and pains; no paranoia about my impending doom; no nagging stress from work - for fuck's sake I'm unemployed and not earning and I felt mentally more stable today than I have for 18 months!

I strode around the park, in the freezing cold, feeling alive. In fact at one point I got a bit wobbly light headed and realised that it might have been from a) exerting myself or b) fresh air. Either way it was a wobble that I thought felt nothing to be concerned about. I know what's going to happen, I'm going to get run over by a bus or a piano is going to fall on me, but before I went to the doctors' this evening I thought that perhaps 50 wasn't that bad after all.

Two things did come out of the appointment, even if I didn't get hooked up to some contraption. I have a peak flow of 370. That is pretty remarkable, especially as I thought I'd struggle to break 300 yesterday - but being out of breath and lung capacity aren't mutually or exclusively linked - and it proves that slowly it's getting better. And I'm not exposed to the Petri dish of disease that was the place I worked in.

I felt ill for best part of the last 17 months; except when I was on my summer holidays, but my lungs were so messed up I didn't appreciate it. 

Oh and the other thing that came back from my generally all clear blood tests. I have raised cholesterol and I eat too many peanuts. Roger, don't buy me peanuts any more, even if I tell you it's okay. If you tell me to buy them myself you know I never would, so...

So it seems that I am a well man - maybe not healthy healthy, but just unlucky to have suffered from a shot-to-pieces immune system, which with a bit of luck and no exposure to every virus known to man I might be seeing the end of it at last. I don't think my work and my health mixed well and while there are some damned fine people I shall miss and some fantastic kids, but the future feels a bit brighter. Yes, that sounds like optimism and considering I'm out of work, maybe I should not be so yadda yadda yadda...

Shall we do one of these?

Effercio et Ineptias 

  • Very impressed with new tracks I've heard this week by Amplifier and Taipuva Luotisoura. Meanwhile The Guardian gave the new Steven Wilson album 5 stars out of 5.
  • Does anyone know of anyone who might want to re-home a couple of year-old pups?
  • I'm growing incredibly disillusioned with TV and have given up on a number of TV series I used to bore people about. I am, quite for what reason I cannot understand, enjoying Egg of the Dead, but as I said to some friends the other day: "Do you know what the Walking Dead needs (comic and TV series)? It needs to get fucking surreal otherwise it's just going to become as normal as the Rockford Files with dead people. What it needs is a gay camp Scottish zombie called Murray who has his own mind, only eats cocks and wants peace between the humans and zombies just as long as everyone wears pink and he's the queen. Obviously the introduction of a walking, talking, thinking and fashion conscious 'walker' would be a really radical move for everyone concerned. That or space aliens."
  • It's snowing (this is Friday night) but not enough to get excited/annoyed/concerned/ about.
  • I am currently re-reading The Shining after reading the Re-reading Stephen King articles/web page on The Guardian website. Any review that reminds the reader that any memories he or she has of the book are going to be completely contaminated by Kubrick's horrendous (my description not the article writer) movie adaptation, is good enough reason to see if he's right. So far he's not wrong.
  • Fuckwit has forgotten how to park on his drive again.
  • Gissa job?

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

In Cog Neat Oh

Monday 11th:
Just because I've suspended the blog doesn't mean I haven't got anything to write about; although recently I'm forgetting more than I'm actually remembering, or getting a flash of something I forgot, thinking 'I'll remember that this time' and instantly forgetting it again. The last six weeks have been a bit like that.

Now is a perfect example; perhaps my head is so fuddled by the shit that is going on around it, but in the time it took me to walk upstairs, sit at my desk and start writing this I have forgotten what I came here for. Now that's something everyone suffers from at some point. I once got all the way to London and then thought, 'Why did I come here again?'

So while I try and remember what it was that I was going to waste three minutes wibbling about, here's an interlude...

Hasn't 2013 been a shit year? Yeah and we're barely 6 weeks into it and not only have I lost my job, but one of my friends is suicidal, another has been diagnosed bi-polar, another is also having work problems, one has lost someone close to him, another is suffering from debilitating depression, another's mother in terminally ill, one is suffering financial problems, another, 33 year old woman, has been so ill she was hospitalised with what killed my mother and is still seriously ill and these are all people I have regular contact with - not casual acquaintances. The weather's been awful, the country's mind-numbingly slow crawl to oblivion continues like some horrific glacier from an evil alternative Earth - relentless, crushing and oozing despair and hopelessness with every inch. And to think we all thought 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 was the worst year ever...

We had Megan and Gifford between 1990 and 2007 and the wife believes that you could probably count on two hands the number of days we had which could be classed as 'snow days' - days where there's more than just a dusting - during that time. Snow was a very rare thing until the 21st Century came along. There were only four recorded white Christmases, and in reality there were only two real white Christmases, in the entire 20th century. It was mild Christmas 1962, until Boxing day at least. I remember some snow events during the 1980s, but the '90s seemed devoid of any real snow - but then again, the 90s were the most consistently hottest years I can remember - although I'm sure we had a few days where it lay deep and crisp and even.

Fishwife's kids are 21st Century brats and for the last five or six years have witnessed snow like the rest of us hadn't seen for yonks; in fact, snow is the norm to them and they must think adults a bit weird by our constant surprise that two inches has fallen overnight. The same for our motley crew of hounds; the first real snow I can remember of this snowy era was at the end of February 2007, just after we got Ness and still had Meg. We discovered then that Ness was a snow dog and she's been the black Arctic fox ever since (and, she probably expects and takes snow for granted).

Would it surprise you that the current government changed the law to make it very difficult - as in convoluted and time consuming - to pursue a constructive dismissal case. Hasn't put me off, though. They stopped legal aid, despite figures showing that 98% of all people claiming legal aid needed to do it for cases where they would have won. The government in its wisdom stopped everyone from getting it because of 2%. That's our government for you; why use a scalpel when a chainsaw will suffice.

Anyhow, a tiny addendum to that; the previously unpublished entry - H - may never ever be published and we might just move along, with nothing to see here, if everything goes well. And that is really all you need to know about that.

Wednesday 13th:
That was earlier this week and it has snowed again. I've since had my second lot of blood tests (last Friday), but the good news is that a lot of things have come back from the first blood tests as negative, so I'm not going to die just yet, unless I get run over by a bus or one of the dogs' trips me up and I break my neck (so if that happens this was written before just so you know).

Just in case anyone cares, the reason I suspended the blog was to leave that message up there in case anyone came along from my former employer's and saw it. Yes, it's inflammatory, but I feel like I've been provoked.

The musical journey has arrived at V. Back in the 1980s, when it was all the rage to use cassette tapes to keep your illegal copies of albums on, I invented the compilation tape. At least I thought I did, just like any other kid who suddenly realised that a recording device could be used in a variety of useful ways without doing anything other than recording things. Putting all my favourite songs on one tape made so much sense, especially when the Walkman came along. Obviously after the compilation tape, I then created the mix tape, which I still believe I created some of the most bizarre shit you will ever hear and I don't even know if any of them even exist any longer. Anyhow, I'm digressing during my digression; the wife, cos she was about in the 80s, used to moan at me because I would never keep track lists. I figured I knew the title of the record why did I need to waste my time writing it down?

I was still doing this 6 months ago despite actually hating it; but the reason I don't make a big deal out of it is because of the Internet. If I want to know what track 6 on so-and-so's album is called there are a hundred places I can find out in seconds. It's lazy and I kind of envy those people who made turning the inlay card of a cassette into an art-form while incorporating all the song titles (and even band members, producer and other pretty anal information). The wife insists I give her albums with information or she just leaves them lying around and won't play them.

Sunday 17th:
It is now Sunday and the sun is shining brightly and since writing all of the above I have discovered a few things: I might have diabetes, which would explain a lot of things. I have heard from the Citizen's Advice Bureau. It took them 6 days to do it and they wrote to me on a Sunday. They gave me no information that I haven't received elsewhere and had I been waiting round specifically for them I would have felt unbelievably underwhelmed by their 'effort'. Subsequent governments have devalued the CAB to the point where I wonder if they actually do anything but listen now...

Of course the big news thing this week has been horse flesh. Hah, I'm a vegetarian. This whole business proves one thing to me - it's a slow news year. This isn't even on the scale of CJD or Salmonella in eggs; yes this horse meat might have some drug in it, but what about the wide screen antibiotic that most farm animals are given as a precaution every spring and autumn? We wonder why we're becoming immune to antibiotics; there's one of the reasons. I'll have the beef lasagne with penicillin please, but I'll have the Horse D'Oeuvres first!

I came up with a really sensible idea of regenerating town centres even after saying I didn't have a solution for their plight. It's simple really; if councils want their town centres to thrive they need to reduce the business rates for small companies and make parking in towns free or very very cheap. This might happen in some places, but it won't happen in Northampton, not while you, me and him have holes in our arses.

As I said it's now Sunday and I'm on A in my AtoZ of music. Huh? I was on V just a few inches above. Well, days have passed since then and I've started again, this time removing all the un-pre-recorded CDs that the wife isn't going to play in the next 10 years and moving them back into the bosom of my office, where they can be played again after much inactivity - out of sight, out of mind! This has meant that Air have been aired and bonkers, plus there are only 140 of these (as opposed to 1400 the first time around), so I expect most of them will be things I'll keep.

Monday 18th:
So far today I've tidied up my office, cleared up loads of dog sick, applied for a job and drank loads of coffee. The sun is trying to shine and you'd never guess we're going to be shivering again by the end of the week.

My AtoZ has kind of halted. I got rid of 227 CDs in total. I started with the downstairs lot, as mentioned above, but after a very long and hard look at the new stack, I decided that they were downstairs because they were considered albums I'd already decided I'd keep and, to be honest, with the exception of a couple of live albums with questionable quality, the only reason I've pulled them is to give them another listen to - which isn't a bad thing. So that didn't take long, got rid of a lot of shit, made an English teacher (initially) happy, freed up valuable space and allowed me to rediscover some old classics. I must do it again in a few years.

We watched the remake of Total Recall at the weekend and while it was an okay action adventure that tried very hard to kind of put itself in the same world as Bladerunner, it fell to bits when you actually started to think about it. It was my main problem with the hammy Arnie original in that there seemed to be no logical reason why the big Austrian would need to go to a memory implant shop in the first place. Well, the remake is based on the film Total Recall and therefore you suddenly realise that it isn't really anything to do with Philip K Dick's We Can Dream it For You Wholesale and more about updating the then state-of-the-art special effects of the original film.

The thing that fails to allow this film to work is the same as the first film and that is the entire premise of both films. Both Arnie & Colin Farrell are having bad dreams, about a life that makes no sense to them. This is the future and instead of going to a psychiatrist, both men decide the best way to work out what their dreams mean is to have another bunch of fake memories implanted?!?! I'm sorry, but neither film addresses the flimsy logic at work here. Why would someone thinking they are having a mental breakdown go to a gimmick-laden false memory seller? Oh, to make a film, I forgot.

Plus, I never thought I'd say this, but Kate Beckinsale should have died, like Sharon Stone did, inside the opening half an hour, because by the end of it you so wanted her to die as horribly as possible. Her character was both annoying and actually, logically, made less sense than Quaid going to a memory implant specialist and her sudden change from actor to psycho was really unconvincing. It makes me wonder what the alternative story would have been had Quaid just continued to live his new life as a robot maker. Would his employed-by-the-State 'wife' continue to pretend to be wifey, having sex, babies and putting up with her 'husband's' ludicrous dreams or would she have manufactured a nice easy divorce once her boss was happy that psycho-Quaid was no longer a threat? The thing that amazes me about films like this are the actors' inability to see what a stinker they're in. Are they that whorish they don't have a quality or integrity threshold? Bill Nighy could have phoned his part in and I think he was smashed out of his skull for the 4 minutes he was on screen.

Actually, it isn't an okay action adventure, it's an over-long, convoluted, hodge-podge of half-baked, ill-thought out and slightly adolescent 'plots' set in a visually impressive world of which even that starts to annoy you after a while when you realise that in the future there is no wind. And if you've seen it and you don't understand what I mean then you didn't watch it closely enough. It's a crap film and I can see why it bombed at the box office.

I knew there was something I needed to talk about. My health! I mean, it's been so long... You will have noticed that the title of this blog now reflects the health conscious me. The tests all came back and with one small exception, that we will get to, I'm pretty much okay, probably just suffering from getting old and from what my doctor believed all along, which is a fracked immune system. The one wrinkle is the second lot of blood tests I had to have on Thursday. My initial reaction was the first ones obviously came back inconclusive therefore I was going to die horribly. But the nurse put me at ease by telling me that everything they were looking for came back negative - huzzah! - however - uh-oh - my blood sugar levels were way too high and they wanted me to have more bloods after fasting so they could do a proper hunt for diabetes. Now, if I haven't got it that's great, but some of these secondary symptoms I've been having - tingly and numb fingers and toes, blurred vision, irregular peeing also have links to diabetes, so if I did have this it would explain all of this other stuff. Also, I know because an old friend of mine called Doreen got Type 2 a few years back and it went undiagnosed for months and months and she got more and more ill without anyone being able to put their finger on why. I kind of sound like I want to have diabetes (I can then stand here and do a Spike Milligan), which I don't, but I also would like a definitive reason why I've felt so shit for the last 16 months.

The job I applied for is part time. Not ideal until you see that for just 18.5 hours a week I will be earning just £3,000 a year less than the last job, which did have 13 weeks holiday, but... I'm more than happy to look for another little part time job to boost my income up to probably more than I was earning and I have no fear of this - two part time jobs will stop me from getting bored.

I think I'll go and bake a cake.

Tuesday 19th:
The cake worked. It turned into a real 'wait and hope' but in the end it came out very nice, if not a little unchocolatey. It had 3 ounces of cocoa in it and yet despite being dark brown, doesn't really taste of anything but generic cake - which, I hasten to add, is fine.

One of those things I forgot popped back into my head just a few minutes ago. I'm sure everyone still gets spam, but I've noticed in the last few weeks that my spam now comes from 50 of Hollywood's 'sexiest' women. Beyonce, Selma Hayek, Anne Hathaway, Britney Spears, J Lo, Angelina Jolie, Ellen DeGener-whatsername and a host of others (although I'm not sure about the last one) all telling me that one of their famous friends lost 50lbs because of some fantastic new diet that if you just click on this link you will open a world of untold wonders and weight loss.

I mean, you get a vague generic bit of spam from some one whose name is vaguely familiar, you are, if you are an imbecile, more likely to click on that than click on something from Scarlet Johansson, aren't you? I mean, how often do you get emails from famous Hollywood actresses? Oh, that often? Okay, click away.

Because I have nothing much to do (I intend to go and do some garden tidying in a while) I have been investigating Long Buckby on Google maps. Now, I know this sounds sad, but whenever I ran my room when I was at work, I was appalled by the fact that most of the younger generation couldn't find their arses even if you gave therm a map and a torch because they wouldn't know what the map was. If I didn't have something for an individual to do I'd give them an atlas and tell them to find Long Buckby. 99% of them weren't even aware it's in the same county let alone country. The fact it's about 10 miles from Northampton and used to have history (and was in my lifetime something of a boom town), you would hope that people have heard of it. The wife works with someone who lives there (so she knows where it is) and yet for most kids you might as well be talking to them in some alien dialect.

I used to cycle to Buckby when I lived in Daventry. I used to think it was a slightly smaller, posher version of Dav (without the Brummy overspill) and this impression stayed with me for years, yet amazingly if you'd asked me how to get there from where I currently am, I would have struggled. It's an odd place and if you live on the east of the county the best way to describe it is it's like Irchester but not so close to anywhere.

I found myself there a couple of years ago; I can't even remember why; and I was blown away by it. I remember listening to this neurologist on the radio talking about memories and how, over time, our memories rewrite and rewrite events from the past so much that they eventually become distorted and blurred Xeroxes that sometimes bare no resemblance to what actually happened. This happened when I went to Dunchurch for the first time in 40 years - the site of my first ever massive deja vu incident - and it was nothing like how I remembered (and it hadn't been structurally altered). Long Buckby seemed to have no similarities to the place I visited before I was a teenager. Bits of it were standalone memories, but because I didn't recognise what was around them, it felt like I remembered these isolated things from a different place.

Ironically, most of the people outside of Buckby who have heard of it are train commuters because it has a railway station and just north of it is where the branch line meets the mainline. Also, back when the A5 was an important road, Long Buckby was on it, so geographically it was a good place to live - hence the boom times of the '50s, '60s and '70s. The success of this area was highlighted in Weedon, just down the road on the A5. There was once a small pub on the corner of the main junction called The Crossroads. In 1970, when my folks went there with friends on New Year's Eve it was probably the size of your average food pub - not huge, maybe bordering on a standard Wetherspoons. By the 1980s, The Crossroads was a huge sprawling hotel, restaurant and, if you were lucky enough to find it, bar. It had continued to grow and was now this huge and struggling beast. It was only saved by being bought by a major chain and Weedon has reinvented itself over the last 25 years as a bit of an antiques centre and place to find the GUC. But in 1975 Weedon was rock'n'roll central!

This is becoming a digression, but I remember my brother, back in the very early 1970s, coming to Northampton with his mates, not to go to town - no one went to town - but to go to some of the hip and trendy pubs all situated on the outskirts. In 1970, the busiest pubs in Northampton were: The Sunnyside, the Britannia, The Windmill, The Fantasia, The Old Five Bells and ... the Broadmead. There were others, many of which have slipped my mind, and a lot of that list no longer even exist. The Fantasia was a hot joint on the new estate of King's Heath in Northampton. It had bands, discos and lots of promiscuity - 20 years later it was the murder capital of Northampton; 20 years after that it's a block of housing association flats.

People didn't go into town; town was full of old people and a lot of Irish pubs. Even the nightclubs in Northampton were situated around the edge of the main town centre, never in it. I don't know if this was the same for other places?

I've spent too much time sitting up here, I need to get on with something.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Green Ma Sheen

Now that I'm feeling human again (apart from the shin splints, fucked up lungs, buggered back and raging paranoia), I have set myself a 'late life challenge'. I'm going to investigate and then attempt to become a parkour champion... Bwah-ha-ha; if nothing else I haven't lost my sense of humour. I shall start again; I am thinking of doing an NVQ4 in Health and Social Care as I am becoming stymied from getting a better paid job by the lack of said qualification. The other reason for doing it, why the fuck not?

It's been another one of those 'Oh Jesus Steve Christ I wish I could tell you what happened but I'd like to keep my job for a while longer' moments happened and while nothing has been said outright, I think this site might have been found, if you catch my drift. So, I shall file it under 'This is so big you just won't forget it in a hurry' and store it in the appropriate brain department.

Feeling better has also been aided by my awareness that there is still daylight in the sky at 5pm now and over the next 6 or 7 weeks the nights are going to draw out so fast I won't give a shit about how cold it is. I have grown so convinced that a good summer is now about as likely as my affair with Karen Gillan that I derive my seasonal pleasure from the amount of natural light there is and how long it lasts. If I had the money I'd just follow the sun; have 6 luxury homes in six places on the planet where I will have optimum daylight and warm weather and spend two months when those things are the most likely and move onto the next place. As long as I could have some home comforts, a decent spoon and a clean toilet I'd be happy (the wife on the other hand...).

Speaking of hands; if you looked at mine you'd see that on both of them near that webby bit between your/my thumb and forefinger, down to where a watch would be, I have a mass of inch long scars that look like lino cuts (if you know what I mean by this old fashioned form of stencilling). If it wasn't for the way scars on my hands fade, it would probably be more scar than hand. These all have appeared in the last 5 years; they are the result of dew claws being dragged over my hands by Marley (or as she has been thought of recently - Mali - in light of all the headlines) when I arrive home and she's desperate to be closest to me first. I went back to work on Thursday bleeding profusely from the hand and was almost totally unaware of it - it happens so often, you see.

Two things are happening outside that confirm my suspicion that all is returning to normal. Fuckwit is having his car valeted again and the Sexually-Explicit family are steadfastly refusing to open the door to the man knocking on it. All credit to him; he sees their cars, he's sticking to his guns.

Effercio et Ineptias

  • Up to S, which was good timing as the new Ulrich Schnauss album just arrived. However, horror of horrors, my ghetto blaster is dying! I had to pick it up and shake it, like they did in the olden days, to get it to work again, but I think it'll probably bite the big one sooner rather than later.
  • I can't remember ever going through windscreen wipers so fast; something else that obviously isn't made to the old high standard any more.
  • We currently have the following record at the Lamplighter pub quiz: Played 9: Won 6; Runner-up 2; 4th 1; and we've probably won getting on for over £200. The girls are now worried we're going to scare people off. On the evidence of the £52 jackpot we won on Tuesday that isn't going to happen.
  • Bartlett's, the umbrella company responsible for Purple Majestic, Roosters and all those fucking Vivaldi spuds you see in Sainsbury's, have just unleashed their Russet's on Northampton. I haven't seen them before and as they claim to be 'ideal for chips' I took a gamble and bought two bags. Guess what? They are ideal for chips. In fact, they're possibly the best chip potatoes I have found since Golden Wonder and that's a little like suggesting Greene King can brew good beer. So, now you know.
  • I am considering upgrading my mobile phone device...

Friday, February 01, 2013

Album Review - 2013/1

Ulrich Schnauss
A Long Way To Fall

Or maybe he should have called this 'Going Back to My Roots' because however Teutonic Mr Schnauss seems to be at times, he kind of had his own Germanic sound rather than one that could be traced back to Kraftwerk, Neu or Tangerine Dream, plus he was a huge fan of New Wave through to shoegaze, probably dropped loads of E, got into ambient nonsense and you can probably tell him now by the size of his cult ... following. There is more Chapterhouse in Schnauss's music than Kometenmelodie 2 or Phaedra and that's why I like him. He combines two of my favourite genres and if he doesn't hit the spot all the time, when he does the results are, in my humble opinion, pretty much some of the best tunes I've heard in the 21st century. Every Schnuass album to date has at least two sublimely brilliant songs/pieces of music, a few good ones and a couple of yawn, meh, buh things that you happily skip when time is short and you want a US fix.

A Long Way to Fall can't even produce one track that is a patch on the most average of Schnauss's portfolio and guess what, it seems heavily influenced by Kraftwerk, Propaganda, Neu, Tangerine Dream and a little bit of prog/krautrock fusion wrapped up in 10 tracks of bland mediocrity. It says something when one of the best tracks sounds like a pale imitation of an old track from an earlier album that is so memorable I can't remember what it's called... Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying the album is shit, but I am saying it isn't what you'd expect from an Ulrich Schnauss album and a lot of it isn't pretty. Perhaps it's his acid album?

After really enjoyable team ups with Jonas Munk and Mark Peters in the last two years, I expected something that didn't deliver, which could be the root of my slight disillusionment with this new album and surely I should be applauding his switch to a more progressive sound; I do, after all, challenge and champion new kinds of prog and progressive music all the time, but... At the moment it just doesn't feel like anything but reheated leftovers with a harder edge - less dreamy production and more bippy boppy bleeps and bleebs.

Like a Ghost in Your Own Life has a title that sounds like a bad translation and is a real dichotomy because it is the most immediate song on the album but the most derivative of earlier albums; it is the pale imitation mentioned above and isn't likely to change the way you feel about German instrumentalists. Borrowed Time on the other hand is the closest to what I was hoping for and could easily become the best track on the album by default - it's a cracking tune, but I'm not sure it quite redeems the album.

Rating: 6½ out of 10