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In early 1979 Squeeze were climbing the charts with their breakthrough hit “Cool for Cats”. A somewhat ridiculous lyric, it featured cowboys and indians, the Sweeney and failed “posing down the pub”. My 10-year-old mates and I loved it.

A few months later they produced another 190 seconds of pop perfection with the fabulous “Up the Junction”. It felt like this was in the charts for ages, as it too reached 2, kept off the top spot by Tubeway Army’s seminal ‘Are Friends Electric?’.

I love Up the Junction. I Reckon it’s got one of the best introductions of any pop song, tells an amazing story with a beginning, middle and end, goes from Love’s Young Dream to Growing Up to Losing it All in barely 3 minutes, and has a blinding middle 8, and for the geeky among you, the middle 8 is almost exactly to the second in the middle of the song! It’s true some of the rhymes are a bit tenuous, but Chris Difford has said he harboured ambitions of being the David Bowie of Deptford, and not of all Bowie’s lyrics made complete sense…

 

Up the Junction is one of my all-time favourite songs. I love the kitchen-sink storytelling (he started me on Monday, so I had a bath on Sunday), the loss (the devil came and took me from bar to street to bookie) and the ultimate lack of remorse (I’d beg for some forgiveness but begging’s not my business).  And apparently the video was filmed in John Lennon’s kitchen…

 

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Can I say I was there at the start? Like seeing Radiohead when they were still On a Friday, I’ve loved Olivia Colman for, like, ages, since she appeared in sketches for The Mitchell and Webb Show (source of this blog’s title). And now she’s only gone and won a Golden Globe. So allow me to remind or introduce you to her fantastic body of work, enormously varied. Like the best in her profession, she makes great choices, and seems to make anything in which she appears better, however small her role.

The Night Manager was a fantastic BBC mini-series based on a John Le Carré novel, with amazing production values, glorious locations and a stellar cast dressed in beautiful things looking almost impossibly beautiful. Angela Burr was the ordinary person; the zealous, determined, heavily pregnant Government operative working almost entirely behind the scenes, focused on making the world a better place by seeking, finding and bringing down the Bad People. Played by Olivia Colman, she was dignity incarnate while all around her was deception, testosterone and greed.

olivia colman angela burr the night manager

(C) The Ink Factory – Photographer: Des Willie

 

And there was Broadchurch, where she played another decent, strong woman. Ellie Miller is a respected police officer in a small seaside resort, passed over for promotion and having to deal with the apparent suicide of her son’s close friend. In seeking the truth she unravels a very dark underbelly to the town she thought she knew, and faces a shattering revelation.

Olivia Colman Ellie Miller Broadchurch Season 1 final episode

 

Last but by no means least, perhaps her breakout film role as Hannah, yet another decent, Christian charity shop worker in Tyrannosaur. In what is basically a three-hander, she more than stands her ground alongside powerhouse performances by Peter Mullan and Eddie Marsan, both terrifying in their own way. It’s a brutal story and Hannah bears the brunt of it. Colman is mesmerising. I’d watch it again and again if only I had the nerve.

Olivia Colman Hannah Tyrannosaur

But before these often dark, definitely layered character roles, she made her name initially in comedy, from sketch shows to award-winning series. Much as I lover her as Sophie in Peep Show and Sally Owen in Twenty Twelve, my favourite performances and characters are contrasting.

Harriet Schulenberg is one of the hospital administrators in the surreal Green Wing. Permanently stressed, late, flustered and seemingly close to breaking point, she’s a small part who steals every scene she’s in.

 

 

In Rev she plays an upstanding vicar’s wife alongside Tom Hollander as her well-meaning husband clinging to his vocation despite the troubles of an impoverished parish in East London. It’s a fabulous series with tremendously human characters and performances, alongside occasional flights of fantasy, like this…

 

And after all that, I just have to mention PC Doris Thatcher from Hot Fuzz, whose unashamed filthy mind and single-entendres spew forth in a fabulous West Country accent…

I quite like a little midnight gobble …

Right now, in the afterglow of 2016, there are a few things I know to be true.

2016 was not the Worst Year Ever

  • To be sure, the ‘important’ celebrity deaths seem on a different level, especially as they now include stars who came to world attention in the broadcast media age. It’s very sad that Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds (her Mother) died within hours. But please, it’s only a tragedy for their friends and family. It makes me sad for them, and a bit sad for me as I’ve loved their films, but it’s not life-changing or tragic or unbearable. Really, it’s not.
  • Brexit and Donald Trump have rattled my cage and dented my rose-tinted liberal view of the world, but they’re not massively unsurprising. With a smidgen of hindsight, it’s quite easy to see them as a natural progression of where we’ve been going in recent years, perhaps somewhat extreme, certainly upsetting for me, but actually almost inevitable.
  • Similarly, while stories and images from Syria have been uniformly depressing and the scale of destruction seems more catastrophic, how different are they from Chechnya, South Sudan, Iraq, Rwanda, Somalia, Kosovo and other conflicts of the last 25 years. The so-called ‘refugee crisis’ is  similarly the natural extension of what’s been building for a long time.

I’m done with thinking of The New Year as Something Transformative…

Just because the year changes on the calendar doesn’t mean I can swivel on a sixpence and turn things around. There are things I can control and things I can’t, things that actually affect me and stuff that simply bothers me. I’m trying to stop caring too much about celebrity deaths, or what Donald Trump has proclaimed about Vladimir Putin, or what kind of Brexit we apparently want today.

But I can’t shrug off or simply change my attitude about a whole shitpile of things that affect me directly and are at least partly beyond my control. I can’t pretend to even consider the sort of upbeat “let’s make 2017 AWESOME” posts that are just about everywhere. Because while I am privileged and lucky to be British, white, born to affluent parents (etc), and we had many fine experiences last year, I can’t hide that, overall, 2016 was bloody hard. And the things that made it hard aren’t going away anytime soon.

  • My Dad still has inoperable cancer and has been increasingly breathless, which unsurprisingly is taking its toll on Mum, so they need our support more than ever, emotionally and physically.
  • Christmas 2016 was the last that Rachel and I will celebrate in either of our childhood homes.
  • We’re still helping Hannah through a protracted process to get her the support she needs to make sense of herself, feel less anxious at school, and to give her a shot at achieving her undoubted potential in an education system that seems to be going back generations in its approach to testing and exams.

Believe in Better

I do believe that it will be all right in the end, but I can’t see the end right now. So please, try not to encourage me to make 2017 amazing or exciting. Please don’t tell me to ‘consume less/create more, frown less/smile more’.

If I’m lucky, stay focused and can stick to my intentions, I’m hopeful I can be enriched in 2017 by

  • moving house (while staying local)
  • helping my parents downsize into a smaller home
  • spending more time writing this than getting annoyed on Twitter
  • continuing my cycling evolution; ride more often (commuting), further (100 mile rides), in new places (Wales, Yorkshire, France?), and more with our children
  • (re)watching Mad Men
  • helping our children to thrive, laugh and be everything they can be
  • the love and support of Rachel, Hannah & Eleanor, as well as my family and friends

Wish me luck…

In 2009 I wrote that In Rainbows was the culmination of everything good about Radiohead’s formidable progress over nearly 20 years. I Reckon was right, at the time.

This year’s release of their 9th studio album A Moon Shaped Pool has forced me to reconsider. This is a very, very good Radiohead album, made even better by Jonny Greenwood’s arrangements and the introduction of intimacy. And it’s this honest human emotion that IMHO lifts it above everything else.

Radiohead have made a career from often unsettling music. In 1989 Thom Yorke responded to friends’ criticism that he only wrote miserable songs with a self-consciously titled Happy Song(!). But these songs feel truly from-the-heart, an opening up, brutally honest and raw. There are more mentions of the words love and heart than on their entire back catalogue combined.

 

Burn the witch…

abandon all reason / avoid all eye contact / do not react
shoot the messengers / burn the witch

This is the exception to that rule. From the sudden, strident opening, with strings playing repeated percussive chords con legno (with the wooden back of the bow), through the chilling message so relevant to the Brexit referendum campaign, this had my attention immediately. After the more electronic feel of The King of Limbs, this felt like a powerful statement. Jonny Greenwood’s film scores and orchestral writing were up front and central, and the relentless momentum of the song made me very excited for the album. Oh, and the video…

 

Daydreaming

Around the time of the album release I read that Thom Yorke had split from his life partner of 23 years. This coloured my reading of the whole album, and I Reckon it’s a serious influence on the musical and lyrical content.

Daydreaming is the first song that alludes to the End of Something, a time when something precious has been lost, and the world must move on.

beyond the point of no return… / …it’s too late / the damage is done

 After Burn the Witch it immediately signals a change of tone and mood that flows through and over the rest of the album. Slow descending piano arpeggios are set against a pulsing bass in a 3-against-2 rhythm that seems to cocoon the listener with its almost hypnotic feel. Thom Yorke’s plaintive vocals feel like mourning, while the fabulous video shot by P T Anderson evokes ceaseless searching for something misplaced, but concluding in a wilderness, retreating into foetal hibernation.

Decks Dark seems to use an alien invasion as a proxy for psychological unease.

In your life, there comes a darkness / there’s a spacecraft blocking out the sky / and there’s nowhere to hide…
…it’s the loudest sound you’ve ever heard / in your darkest hour

This feels like the overwhelming threat of depression, the deep guitar and dissonant effects adding to the unease, before it ends in a layer of overlapping sounds and a woeful

          Have you had enough of me?

 

Desert Island Disk seems born of solitude, perhaps not loneliness, but more of acceptance and understanding. It’s lilting and beautiful, but leaves me feeling almost unutterably sad.

The wind rushing round my open heart / an open ravine…
…waking up from shutdown / from 1,000 years of sleep…

Different types of love are possible

 

Ful Stop must be tremendous performed live. A restless, driving track that feels more angry than plaintive.

You really messed up everything
This is a foul tasting medicine / to be trapped in your ful stop…

After a building, almost menacing first couple of minutes, the band bursts into life in a way that reminds me of Arpeggi/Weird Fishes from In Rainbows

          All the good times … / take me back again / won’t you take me back again?

 

Glass Eyes

This is as beautiful a piece of music as I’ve heard in years. Limpid, fluid keyboard figures are distorted like reflections in the ripples of a pool, while aching strings underpin a lyric full of anxiety, fear and resignation: perhaps a farewell message, or a call for help?

Hey it’s me / I just got off the train / a frightening place / faces all concrete grey /
and I’m wondering should I turn around / buy another ticket /
panic is coming on strong / so cold from the inside out

And the path trails off and heads down the mountain / through the dry bush / I don’t know where it leads / I don’t really care

I feel this love turned cold

 

 

Identikit is a great Radiohead song that builds layers of different sounds and moods. Almost indecipherable words at the start break into a chilling

Sweet faced ones with nothing left inside that we all can love
When I see you messing me around I don’t want to know

Broken hearts make it rain

The rolling accompaniment soars into broken jangling chords and a choral refrain that is gradually replaced by terrific guitar work that takes over and builds in a rare solo to an almost ecstatic finish.

 

The Numbers starts like a jazz group warming up. Rolling, random piano lines and rustling percussion undercut with birdsong gives way to an insistent, shuffling rhythm and lyrics that depart from the painful intimacy of the previous 4 songs. This feels like a more prophetic take on global ecology and our place in the world. The string arrangements in the second half are astonishingly effective and turn this initially quiet song into something almost epic.

The numbers don’t decide / the system will survive /
the river running dry / the wings of butterflies /
will take back what is ours one day at a time

 

Present Tense is a great track, reminding me of Jigsaw Falling into Place with shuffling rhythms and acoustic guitar figures over layers of vocalising. It’s both a defiant stance against sadness and a recognition of loss. It has a perfect ending.

This dance is like a weapon of self-defence against the present tense…
…As my world comes crashing down I’m dancing, freaking out, deaf dumb and blind…

It’s no one’s business but mine that all this love has been in vain
In you I’m lost

 

Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief…

With the longest title of any song I can recall, this is a hark back to Hail to The Thief, with white noise distortions and echoing vocals that grow with dark bass piano figures and sliding strings. On one level it feels more shapeless or experimental than other songs in the album, but then when I listen to it it feels almost perfectly formed.

 

True Love Waits is a song that had its origins 20 years ago as a B-side to an early single. It’s my favourite final song to a Radiohead album (no small achievement). A love song, a lament, the references to children (Yorke and Rachel Owen have two, similar ages to mine) make me shiver. The unresolved end to the song, to the whole album is breathtaking. I’m struck dumb for moments after.

true love waits in haunted attics / and true love lives on lollipops and crisps
just don’t leave, don’t leave

I Reckon this is my favourite album of all time. In the few months since its release I’ve listened to it straight through in one sitting more than 40 times, and I never get bored. I can’t remember a time when one album commanded my attention so completely for so long. It’s unsettling, challenging, beautiful, heartbreaking, human, breathtaking, accomplished and (occasionally) uplifting. Uniquely, in my experience of Radiohead over 25 years, it’s moving, touching, intimate.

You have glaucoma in your left eye.

A few months ago I had a routine eye test at our local opticians in Tetbury, part of which was the normal visual field test. I stared into the eyepiece, waiting for the machine to whirr and flash a series of tiny pinpricks of light, to which I would respond by clicking a button whenever they appeared. All-so-normal, until it seemed my left eye wasn’t quite so good at noticing the dots. This was unexpected, and very different from just 12 months earlier, so the optician asked me to repeat the tests. The results were the same.

I can still sense the whirring of the machine as it flashes lights that I ought to be able to see. There’s a rhythm to it that I can recognise. With my right eye there’s a regularity to the button clicks as the lights register in my brain. For my left eye there are gaping silences where clicks should be. I’m staring, squinting, aching to see something that means I can click. I’m tempted to cheat. The test takes longer as the machine gives me more chances, makes the lights brighter, trying to understand what’s there and what’s not there for me. And while I know it’s only minutes it feels much longer. I sense the nurse knows what the silences mean: this isn’t normal.

Visual Field Tests Glaucoma

This isn’t mine… but it’s sort of similar

 

And so last week, after further tests, a precautionary MRI scan and a couple of months of eye drops, I sat with the consultant as he confirmed the inevitable, and talked about my glaucoma.

There are fairly significant differences in the visual field tests in your left eye, notable damage to and thinning of the optic nerve…

…but your IOP (intra-ocular pressure) is normal, much lower than often is the case with glaucoma…

…you’re really quite a lot younger than the typical progression, a bit of an outlier on that graph…

…nothing on the MRI scan, so we can definitely rule out anything like a tumour pressing on the nerve…

…there’s no increase in your pressures since taking the drops, no real progression since the last tests (3 months ago), so that’s pleasing…

…you probably won’t notice anything different, until you do bump into something (joke)…

…playing a wind instrument like an oboe or French Horn can cause spikes in IOP, although I’m loathed to tell someone who loves playing music to stop…

So the long and the short of it is that I’m now taking daily eye drops (painless, no hassle at all), and will have repeated tests every 6 months. And that’s it.

Except…

The following day, at my regular orchestra rehearsal, I was acutely conscious of sensations of ‘pressure’ when playing, especially loud and high notes. We’re playing Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony, which has plenty of loud and plenty of high, especially for 1st/3rd horn. In fact there’s mostly a lot of notes that are both loud and high, in rapid succession, in violently percussive chords and fanfares. In exercise terms it’s high impact, like running up and down stairs. I could feel the impact inside my head, around my eyes, behind my eyes, in ways I’ve never actively noticed before. And all the time I was thinking

Should I be doing this? Am I risking my sight?

There were moments when I wanted to play quieter, or stop. There were moments when I didn’t want to play my Horn any more, at all, ever again.

Apparently the mean time for progression from early diagnosis to loss of vision is more than 20 years: for normal tension glaucoma and for younger (under 60) patients it’s even slower than that. So I’m probably being over-sensitive. But if the visual field loss starts in my right eye, I’ll have to tell the DVLA. And then I’ll have to be reassessed for driving.

So.

I’ll take the drops every morning, and play 4th horn instead.

It’s said that if you put a frog
into boiling water
it will try to jump out,
but it will most likely die
almost instantly.

But if you put a frog
into warm water
and gently, gently heat the water
towards boiling point
the frog might not realise the danger
until it’s too late
and it’s unable to escape,
and it will die, slowly, in terrible pain.

 

How did we get here?

Politicians’ principles are defined by media barons
Game of Thrones and House of Cards look under-written
Xenophobia is legitimised
Compassion and empathy are unpatriotic
Feeling content is seen as smug self-satisfaction
or worse,
as weakness, as a lack of ambition.

The 1% are portrayed as middle-class
We need to reach out to the rich more than ever
The poor are to blame, for the shortage of nurses, for the state of our roads
and even for their own ill-health, under-achievement and poverty,
We’re all in it together.

Unelected elites are the scourge of our nation
(claim billionaire non-domiciled newspaper editors)
We’re told that we’ve had enough of experts
(but I Reckon that’s bollocks)
Foreigners take our jobs, but UK unemployment is at a 10-year low,
so exactly whose jobs are they taking?

Empowered and informed by 24-hour news
feels more overwhelmed and misled
Facts are irrelevant if you can repeat a lie without consequences
in the post-truth world.
Don’t even think about apologising.

Everything is my responsibility but I’ve control over nothing
Parents care for their parents
Kids care for their parents
Children’s services are cut and withdrawn
Self-harm becomes just another response to a bad day

Teaching more and testing less was a promise never met
Because one size fits all
we teach to the test,
Good results mean the grades are too generous
Bad results mean our children are failures
They’re falling behind in the competitive international race

Is this our New Normal?
When did the water get so hot?

To bastardise Oscar Wilde, losing one artistic hero is unfortunate, but losing two in the same week is careless. I’m still basking in the warm glow of so much superb music following the death of David Bowie, but now I’m also lamenting the uncannily coincidental passing of Alan Rickman, one of my favourite actors. Both men were 69 years old, both died of cancer. Apparently Stephen Spielberg is 69. I hope he’s not harbouring any secret tumours, I’m not sure I could cope with another icon passing anytime soon.

Alan Rickman is always worth watching: he’s always good, often great. I can’t say he’s good in films that aren’t, because he (a) made really good choices, and (b) he makes a film better by being there. To prove my thesis, let me illustrate

…and that’s the more famous ones. Those alone would be more than enough for most careers, but I will always remember Alan Rickman from his film debut, as the eminently-quotable, always watchable, so-good-you’re-almost-rooting-for-him-so-long-as-Bruce-Willis-gets-his-wife-out-too, European uber-thief Hans Gruber in Die Hard.

Hans Gruber Alan Rickman Die Hard

How good is this character and Rickman’s portrayal? Let me count the ways…

The benefits of a classical education…

Hans Gruber is an intellectual and cultural snob. He berates John McClane as another American who grew up watching too many movies, he (mis)quotes lines about Alexander the Great, recognises great tailoring when he sees it, and gives off a sense of European existential ennui. But always in a good way.

I wanted this to be professional, efficient, adult, cooperative…

Hans isn’t a terrorist (although he’s happy the FBI see him that way). He’s only in it for the money, and enters Nakatomi Plaza like he’s there for a meeting, albeit accompanied by bag-men with automatic weapons. His opening speech to the hostages is delivered while he’s clutching a notebook, like he’s trying to remember the key points in a presentation.

There will not be a four…

But for all his mannered class, he’s not averse to a bit of killing, and getting his hands dirty. And this is key to his villainy. If he were just the cleverest man in the room helped out by burly henchmen with guns, he’d be less formidable. But it’s clear early on that he an immense threat all by himself. He immediately dispatches anyone who is no longer useful (video NOT suitable for children)

You asked for miracles, Theo, I give you the F.B.I.

Hans Gruber is a very funny guy. He has great lines throughout the film.

I read about them in Time magazine.

Nice suit. John Phillips, London. I have two myself. Rumor has it Arafat buys his there.

When they touch down, we’ll blow the roof, they’ll spend a month sifting through rubble, and by the time they figure out what went wrong, we’ll be sitting on a beach, earning twenty percent.

I am an exceptional thief, Mrs. McClane. And since I’m moving up to kidnapping, you should be more polite.

Hans Gruber is an exceptional character, formed from brilliant writing and a terrific performance.

Alan Rickman was an exceptional talent and (by all accounts) human being. He has left us a huge variety of rich pickings to enjoy. He will be missed. My thoughts and best wishes are with his friends and family.