Tuesday, November 28, 2006

RIP Fluff

Just to interrupt work-related blog silence to report on THE story of today. Goodbye, Fluff Freeman.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

MUSIC: Petula Clark - Blue Lady

BBC4, 17.11.06, 21.00

Whatever happened to her, then? Whatever happened to Pet Clark?

The questionable come-on of this hour-long show was to prove the arguable assertion that had happened to her, she was still just as big a star as a kiddie crooner or chansonneuse or epic-pop heroine, just a wee bit different. It didn't quite convince us either way (though locating her in any big-name agent's Rolodex would be a long haul); but it sure as hell faded away slowly and pitifully by its own terms.

Pet began, notoriously, as a Temple manqué, a Great British Garland, a trilling moppet, and hit the big time as Diana Dors' sister in Here Come The Huggetts (although seemingly a decade and several dozen or so bra sizes seemed to separate them, there was only a year's age difference). This was all dispatched smartly and with due attention to period charm and detail, as professionally as Pet might have perked and smirked her way through 'The Little Shoemaker'. It was TV as warm and comforting as Start-Rite shoes.

The show's most valuable segment was a rare lens for the casual browser into 1960s Continental pop and showbiz - Clark was a superstar in mainland Europe prior to the Beatlemaniac onslaught, and her husband, Claude Wolff, now a rubicund and jolly fellow with an accent as thick as Gauloises smoke, was a chunky A&R man resembling a swarthy Corsican heavy waiting for a Belmondo uppercut; she met him in Paris. British TV has always ghettoised francophone pop as overwrought, quavery melodrama à la Brel/Piaf or plinkyplonk banality à la Trenet. Here was at least the suggestion of an antidote to this received, and quite mistaken, wisdom.

Clark, at her best, was a superb if limited pop singer, boasting a mellifluous voice with perhaps too-open vowel sounds. Melodies and harmonies she'd learned from the chanson tradition were incorporated into her homeland material by the mid-60s, granting her material thst was robust enough to withstand the ravages of the moptop revolution. She was privileged to work with arrangers and musicians from Joe 'Mr Piano' Henderson to Tony Hatch who could conjure luxuriant and evocative chord changes as well as textures both soothing and stimulating.

Sadly, the classic epic pop of Pet's 1960s prime - 'Couldn't Live Without Your Love' and 'Downtown' (1966), for which most viewers surely would have tuned in, was relatively overlooked, although the co-authoress of those songs, Jackie Trent, appeared. Permatanned under a vanilla swirl of spun-sugar hair and as assertive as Les Dawson's old housewife caricature, she gave a sterling account of her own (substantial) contributions to some of the best pop of that, or any, decade. There was a blizzard of excellent footage, including a gooey video of a song recorded with Andy Williams that resembled a c.1970 Smirnoff ad shot through a Paisley filter.

An extraordinarily sad decline in the 1960s and 1970s was tackled at inordinate length and subjected to an almost Stalinist makeover. Apart from the assertion that 'bands' took over the late 1960s and 1970s, there was nothing to suggest that Clark found it very difficult to adapt. Her version of 'The In Crowd', heard here, has the emotional tenor of a Venn diagram. In fact, Clark's slow subsidence into the MOR schlock that was really the only refuge for a voice which, while precise and supple and lyrical, lacked attack, bite and soul - was apparently nothing of the sort, but a cunning plan to keep 'reinventing' herself. This patent nonsense reached its sidesplitting nadir in Paul Morley's suggestion that the anodyne sessions she recorded in Nashville (Blue Lady, 1975, from which the show took its title) and Memphis - where Clark desperately tried to hitch with the singer-songwriter bandwagons of King, Harris, Simon, Taylor et al - was hobbled not by lacklustre material or public indifference but by the fact that record companies found her 'too dangerous... too experimental'. Oh yeah? What next? 'Sussudio' as radical Deleuzeian manifesto? Terry Scott's 'I Like Birds' as ironic comment on sexism? As to the whys and wherefores of this 'danger' and 'experiment', we were given only a rationale only a little less vague than 'because I say so'. But that's postmodernism for you; everyone's point of view is valid, if you can get someone to publicise it.

Morley owes his career as a 'cultural commentator' to a late-70s vogue at the NME for a half-baked postmodern relativism, which enables one to have one's ideas accepted as fact if one shouts loud enough, obfuscates them with enough jargonistic prattle, or dupes suggestible editorial staff into giving it space. Alas, there are too many influential media people who grew up reading (or maybe writing) that rubbish who are still credulous enough to not only air it but pay its progenitors, no matter how cock-eyed the premise. Now, if you or I or 99.999% of the people reading this were to try selling the patently stupid idea that Uriah Heep's success in central Europe in the mid-1980s wasn't actually the last flail of a flatulent musical anachronism but actually a knowing exploration of their roots, we'd be laughed out of town. Morley and co can still get away with it, and Blue Lady is the sort of culpable show that allows them to do so merely to fill a few minutes of airtime.

Unintentionally, these encomia are as pathetic as the feelgood bromides one hears in This Is Spinal Tap to flimsily rewrite what is uncomfortable and embarrassing. If there's one thing worse about talking heads than Jamie Theakston pontificating on programmes shown five years prior to his birth, it's the likes of Morley - or rather his employers - peddling this kind of intellectual fraud.

Things got weirder, though. Even more problematic was the curious preoccupation with Clark's absence from the mainstream. The last British hit of any size (notwithstanding a 1988 remix of 'Downtown') was in 1967. There was an awful lot of poppycock talked about that deplorable word 'reinvention' (sullied forever by its constant association with fatuous apologists for Madonna), much in the way that washed-up thesps bluster about 'developing new ideas' or moving to Australia or appearing in Doctors. The bottom line for all 'reinventions' is this; showbiz stars go where the money goes, point. Artistic fancy, pace those interviewed here, rarely comes into it.

But among all the dodgy speculations and punts and half-baked opinions, there was one lulu that sank the whole enterprise below the waterline, a candidate for flimsiest historical judgement of the year, a green-ink scribble from the playbook of the kookiest conspiracy theorist. It was that Clark's (long-forgotten) 70s recordings with the producer Arif Mardin effectively prefigured Norah Jones' debut album. The fact that thirty years divided the two efforts mattered not; the producer of both albums was Arif Mardin. QED (apparently).

Clark today seems happy, fulfilled, admirably centred, rich, content - she does musicals now - but are these productions not footnotes to a glorious heyday, and to be treated as such, rather than as a subsidiary happy ending to a career path that available evidence suggests has - fairly or otherwise - sloped gradually downwards? No - we got a full ten minutes plus on this or that forgettable production and an exposition from Pet herself about getting inside the role of Norma Desmond in Lloyd-Webber's Sunset Boulevard (now there's a man in need of publicity). It was not inconceivable that Clark, far more than the makers of this slowly wilting hagiography which grew lame and old and irrelevant at a rate of knots, recognised the mirror the Desmond role held up to her own advancing years and receding gifts.

Yes, Pet's still out there, still a pro, still a trouper, still a treasure, after 60 years. After 60 minutes, alas, Blue Lady was pretty much washed up. Pet's star diminished by degrees but never quite lost our attention and shines on. This tribute's candle burned out long before the legend ever did.

SPORTIN' LIFE; Let the Debacle Commence - Postscript

Or possibly one of a series of postscripts.

I made a serious error in my aforementioned post a fortnight or so ago, citing possible London 2012 overspends of 100 million or 200 million. What I actually meant was 100 and 200%. To the 0 people that placed bets, my sincere apologies.

Well, looks like even that forecast might be whimsically optimistic. 2.4bn is now looking like 10bn... or 20bn... or... hey, pick a figure, any figure. Whoever wins can finance the whole thing themselves! Hurrah!


Saturday, November 18, 2006

Service Disruption

To all the countless thousands who devour my every word onm this, please be patient. I've a particularly onerous assignment coming up. Posts may be few and far between. There may be something about Ferenc Puskas coming up soon, or maybe a self-stirring coffee mug or Howard Goodall's new music show on C4 but bear with me, people. Try and make it without me for a bit.

MUSIC: Vangelis as Progressive Rocker - Draft Essay

Vangelis prog? Hard to argue against it. Whyever should he not be? I sometimes think that cognoscenti place him outside the pale - without denigrating his talents - because he and Yes didn't hit it off. Whether that's true or not is superfluous, because the case is an open-and-shut one, surely. Vangelis is prog - albeit, at worst, at one remove.

A tougher nut to crack would be those - Mr Papathanassiou at their head - who would define Vangelis as a virtual one-man genre, defying all classification. He has refined his hybridising of influences and working methods to such a degree that he almost resembles the Borg - part humanoid, part machine, relentlessly absorbing and processing forever in its own multifaceted, kaleidoscopic image. Jazz, symphonic, folk of all kinds, pop, electronic - it all ends up sounding like Vangelis. As Alan White perceptively put it many, many years ago; 'he was an entity, a sound, and that... was called Vangelis'.

And let's be honest - is there anyone who has a sound, a sonic footprint, remotely like his? Since that ill-fated Yes encounter, he has made only one serious musical collaboration with another artist, the Spanish electronic merchants Neuronium, in 1981.Believe me, I've been looking for another Vangelis over 20 years and haven't found anyone yet. I remember that many moons past Kitaro was billed as 'the new Vangelis' when Polydor and Kuckuck were first marketing his LPs in the West. Very, very borderline case; only a faint spicing of ethno-exotica, too many synths and some catchy tunes linked the two men. Kitaro never ventured within a country mile of Vangelis's sterner stuff, the likes of the impressive Beaubourg, the lengthy extemporisations of Soil Festivities and China, not to mention entirely missing the Greek's uncanny talent for atmospheres on Blade Runner and Kavafy. One possible comparison might be Russia's Eduard Artemiev, whose film scores, particularly Solaris and Stalker are vaguely Vangeloid in nature.

Perhaps the best and closest analogue is, tellingly, Jon Anderson's Olias of Sunhillow, which mysteriously credits Vangelis, although most intelligence suggests the Greek never played on the album. Listening to this quite unique artefact, not to mention the pair's four-album collaboration, it's hard to credit that Vangelis didn't do a bit more than suggest what hardware to buy and fit a few pick-ups. Sunhillow is - I am sure nobody would disagree - quite unlike anything else not only in prog, but in popular music per se. Apart from perhaps - you've guessed it - Vangelis. And is Sunhillow prog? I rather think it is.

Vangelis's Heaven and Hell appeared in January 1976 - with Anderson guesting on one track - and the album's modus operandi appears to be similar to that of Olias - which, thanks to a host of technical problems, would have come out considerably earlier than its eventual June 1976 release. That m.o. is simply to utilise available technology (and analogue synthesisers were undergoing what was eventually to become the polyphonic and then digital revolution) and combine it with an array of traditional acoustic instruments of all kinds to enable a true synthesis of styles at all levels, both in terms of compositional and improvisational conception of tone and textural colour, but also of practice. Put simply, it meant the conception of Yes music circa 1974 taken to its technical and harmonic extremes. It sounds high-flown and a bit silly - and of course it doesn't always work. There are some quite hair-raisingly overblown pieces of nonsense on Heaven and Hell. Side one in particular starts with one of the most vulgar pieces of wannabe-rock-oratorio ever committed to vinyl (the choral writing throughout is laughably naive, almost as crude as the diabolically kitsch cover art), but the album gradually emerges; side two is excellent from start to finish, preferring to concentrate on atmosphere than flatulent, empty gestures. Albedo 0.39, from later in '76, contains the incongruously insane jazz-prog workout Nucleogenesis, eight minutes of shrieking moogs and Animal drumming (the album as a whole has as much to do with mid-70s Pink Floyd as Yes, and the inclusion of found sound and human voices throughout his work harks back to this LP). This, it must be conceded, is an exception to the Vangelis rule (I know - I own 35 of his albums. I'm sorry, but there you are). Part of the problem for prog purists - and it's not an invalid objection - is that any music driven not by audibly human input - i.e. electronics - must in some way be beyond a given conception of rock popularised in the late 1960s. It doesn't feel right, man, is the motto. Some of those commercially cheesy, coffee-table tunes - step forward, Chariots of Fire - haven't helped either. What's more, Da Big V doesn't play live (much. But when he has done the shows have been so extravagant they make ELP look like a pub band).

Furthermore, there's little doubt from there on Vangelis preferred to concentrate on a symphonic conception of sound based on 19th-century orchestral practice, as opposed to anything to do with rock. Up to and including Spiral (1977), there are attempts to mimic electric guitars and basses; henceforward, scarcely ever, except on the stupendously weird dog's dinner of an album See You Later (1980). The tunes, and ABA song structures still crop up, but the overall thinking behind the music gradually became more and more diffuse, more and more referential to itself first and its manifold influences second.

Yeah, yeah. But the fact remains - none of Vangelis' music could have happened without prog. In terms of the technical kit required for its creation - not to mention a climate of transgression of the boundaries of musical conception and thought, prog was and is central to Vangelis. He is a satellite of the genre, true, but remains firmly within its gravitational field. He's out there - any proghead worth his salt should embrace him into their orbits, too.

Vangelis starter pack:
Heaven and Hell
Albedo 0.39
See You Later (side 2)

Thursday, November 16, 2006

...as it draws in...

"... it was not till summer was long over, and cold and frost and miry ways kept them much indoors, and the swollen river raced past outside their windows with a speed that mocked at boating of any sort or kind... in the wintertime the Rat slept a great deal, retiring early and rising late. During his short day he sometimes scribbled poetry or did other small domestic jobs around the house..."

Kenneth Grahame may have been given to whimsy (not Kingsleyesque, but...)... nonetheless late autumn and early winter in England have rarely been so neatly observed as in chapters 3 and 4 of The Wind in the Willows.

This morning, the Afon Llwyd, not much fuller than yesterday, hurrying faster, to escape that gunmental mountain sky for the jaundice sunshine over the Bristol Channel? And - yes -no - yes! - a wren! Really, incongruously, shyly, a darting wren amongst a hedgrerow's ivy, even in November.

Even when it is cold - perhaps when it is coldest of all - I crave the shelter of a little place in the woods or the fields. This is when silence is heaviest and most enjoyable. Maybe a secure and well-hidden old caravan, a little generator and a one-bar fire, a book, lots of woollen blankets, a torch, soup, soap and water.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Review: The Cult Of... Adam Adamant Lives!

BBC4, 14.11.06, 20.30

I've been trying to dig up the past. For some reason, Gerald Harper, the star of BBC1's Adam Adamant Lives! (1966-7) was referred to in my family as 'Old Lemonade-Bottle Shoulders'; after a few years nobody could remember why. Nobody can today. And it bothers me.

Especially because that 'why' recurred watching the first in a highly-promising BBC4 series of half-hour histories of cult fantasy TV that kicked off with a tribute to the titular hero. And kept on recurring, because just what was it about such an obvious dogs' dinner of a programme that could inspire memorious devotion? At a recent BFI preview screening of a new Adamant DVD, Juliet Harmer, the series' jiggle factor and one of the great lost 60s starlets, was asked how much fan mail she'd received way back when. 'Oh, masses - mostly from 14 year old boys,' she admitted. 'All of whom are here tonight,' quipped her husband. No disrespect to the astonishingly well-preserved Ms Harmer but if any of those grown-up boy fans went away from the screening of a rather awful old programme with their juices flowing as freely as 40 years ago, they were en route to a secure ward.

This hardworking tribute's commendable balance of seriousness and dry humour transcended most other retro-clipjoints insofar as it allowed those involved to make a case for their work, and a reasonably good fist they made of it. But, crucially, not quite good enough a fist. Because Harper's Adam Adamant came across resoundingly as the dud history has always held him to be, and for once one didn't need the ambassadors of the bleeding obvious (Theakston, Maconie) to tell us why.

For the tinies, a brief recap; in 1902 Edwardian gent, detective and adventurer Adam Adamant is double-crossed by fiancée, frozen in a block of ice and then dug up in swinging London by cloth-capped labourers, whereupon his travails on adapting to modern mores and morals go hand in hand with his resumption of doing the Right Thing, offing cads and thwarting dastards (as scriptwriter Brian Clemens wryly pointed out, "just a simple enough storyline"). There is a suggestion that the absence of almost all sexual chemistry from the programme (Harmer's character 'Georgina Jones' was always Adamant's platonic friend) was an attempt to gag Mary Whitehouse's ever-rising gorge with a clean, Sexton Blake-esque hero for the times - although this doubtless didn't mean that Kleenex didn't do very well out of adolescent fantasies about Juliet Harmer. As per the look of the show, all the cliché boxes were ticked in short order; predictably Art Nouveau-ish titles and typefaces, given Carnaby Street's burgeoning obsessions with hyper-stylised turn of the century chic; Harper was a proto-metrosexual, Wyngardesque fop; obligatory Mini; there are discothéques; pop art ensigns and Union Jacks; and a visual language informed by maybe one too many Nouvelle Vague nights and De Sica specials down the Arts Lab.

But the most important thing about Adam Adamant was the elephant in the room called The Avengers.

The genial and personable Harmer, Clemens, Harper and producer Verity Lambert all owned up to the clunking obviousness of the series' hamfisted and, in retrospect, laughable attempt to trump ABC's masterpiece. Even an otherwise impartial and unironic script compared the two shows thus: 'Edwardian gent teamed with beautiful girl... and Edwardian gent teamed with beautiful girl', the unspoken tag, of course, was that The Avengers had queered this pitch three years previously.

By this time the narrator had all but given up; The Avengers was 'sexier, slicker', i.e. better-funded... which made one wonder why on earth we were watching a show about a show which was playing against a stacked deck from the start. But it was worth watching, a kind of TV autopsy on a patient who is still alive. Clemens and Lambert tried to limit the damage, but when one compared the surviving Adamant footage - too few cameras, too much flare, bad stock, shoestring lighting, school-pageant swordplay -with the sleekness of Emma and Steed, one knew the game was pretty much up. To 'get' even a fraction of the premise behind Adamant, suspension of disbelief had to be as entire as the leading man's cryogenic immersion. As Clemens said, 'where did Adam learn to drive that Mini?' We never found out. One could equally have asked 'where in the name of God did that ridiculous name come from?' No wonder the guy was so good at fighting; in 1902, he must have copped a lot of diss for a handle like that.

Clemens and the ever-enjoyable sci-fi expert and allround good egg Kim Newman (who seems to be turning into Walter Becker out of Steely Dan) tried another tack; stressing the show's 'weirdness'; but evidence of this, aside of a premise so hair-raisingly daft that for a viewer to assimilate the absurdity of Adamant's situation per se was to intrude on the drama of an individual episode, we saw few examples save for a flimsy generic grooviness as ultimately empty as The Mod Squad's. Tellingly, the tribute did not trail a 'classic episode' because on the evidence here one suspects that there weren't any. There were, apparently, no storylines of landmark mindfuckery. No Fall Out, no They Keep Killing Steed. But how else? Production values were feeble, 13 shows assembled in as many weeks, the sort of schedule that would keep Crackerjack going but not a prestige prime-time thriller. Even Harmer came close to admitting the self-defeating stupidity of such a scheduling situation.

Clemens summoned the 'best pop music... fashion... football... in the world' from a lucky-bag of 60s shibboleths, as though to lend the programme reflected glory simply by the period in which it was made. Actually Adam Adamant came across as a 60s remnant as cheap and inglorious as the Tracked Hovercraft or Ronan Point.

The jarring and unsettling undercurrent of nauseous paranoia informs all the best British postwar film amd TV fantasy (Quatermass, Danger Man, The Prisoner, The Avengers) in which the very stones and mortar of civic normalcy, stability, propriety and sobriety (government 'facilities', army camps, deer parks, embassies, Ministries) become in true Amazing Stories fashion, loci of the irrational, surreal and downright scary. This is absent from Adam Adamant Lives. There are no megalomaniacs on the London Underground or robotic assassins in chalk quarries on the north Downs. The very fact that a son of luxury and indulgence was reborn into a similarly luxurious and indulgent world of supposed dippiness and discontinuities, all neon and mandrax and Woodbines and kohl and indulgence (where's the Floyd? Is that Syd there? or is it Jeff Beck?), somehow distances him from us, as it must have done four decades past. Dr Who could bring aliens to mining communities; what did Adam Adamant ever do to relate his swashbuckling to those gawping at six-inch screens in Mexborough or Abertillery?

Postwar Britons appreciated classic screen fantasy when it promiscuously impinged on their quotidian realities. One of the most chilling sequences in British cinema history opens the Wyndham-derived The Village of the Damned (1960) in which the only indication of lurking horror is a little Bedford coach skew-wiff in a ditch on a grave-silent mist-filled country lane where even birds are holding their breath - and the paralysis that noiselessly fells anyone who strays near. There is a shadow of the unknown and shocking, somewhere... as in the ETA Hoffmann story of the semi-supernatural Scarbo from the Nachtstücke (Night Tales), we are not quite sure of this terror, 'how it had got in' to an otherwise ordinary existence, the monster under every child's bed come uncannily to life.

Similarly, The War Game knew what it was about, using comparable juxtapositions of the everyday (repointed suburban brickwork, school playgrounds) and the unthinkable. Adamant's existence in swinging London was anything but ordinary for most Britons. Fantasy, benign or malign, works best when it has a base and earthbound antipode against which to shine.

Adam Adamant Lives wasn't a disaster, an abortion, a tragedy, an OTT. It was just rather sad and bad (even the theme song was rendered by the washed-up Kathy Kirby). But no matter; if we do not experience the mistakes of the past, how can we expect to learn from them? And of course, by the end of this series, Mr Harper's creation could end up looking like a colossus. Because next up come Survivors, Doomwatch, Starcops (erm...), Blakes 7 (oh dear) and (swallows hard) The Tripods... gulp. Sell those and you'll truly be a man, my son.

Angus McIntyre, the man who both produced and directed this splendid and affectionate attempt at rehab, is to be roundly congratulated; from the most unpromising seam he has unearthed a valuable piece of TV history, a programme of questionable value which nonetheless provokes comment and discussion. Nobody has yet been able to make a series about failed cult comedy shows, for example; Hardwick House, The Continuous Diaries of Ian Breakwell, They Came From Somewhere Else, Nightingales, Big Jim and the Figaro Club, Trinity Tales. In other words, with this disinterment McIntyre has pulled off an intelligent coup for TV archaeology which should spawn imitators and for all those who care or think about the genre, a goldmine. Let the excavations commence.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006


Sunday, November 12, 2006

MUSIC: Hey Mr Conductor 5

Fancy a different Christmas? Well, it's too late now to assemble a large orchestra, organist, four choirs and SATB soloists but pencil this one in for the future - part one of Liszt's mammoth oratorio Christus is one of the most Christmassy things in the repertoire.

Begun in 1861, the 180-minute monster, a neo-Romantic updating of the Messiah which apparently inspired Mahler's Eighth wasn't completed by the Abbe Liszt until 1873 and wasn't performed very often (duh). It's a shame; basically alternating beautifully orchestrated tone-poems with elongated acappella choral passages, it's some of the most wonderful music Liszt ever wrote. The first part is full of light orchestral textures, harp and woodwind and daintily skipping rhythms. Nothing too frivolous, mind, depicting the shepherds and the three kings on their way to Bethlehem. But the harmonies are full of not only reverence but almost childlike expectation and anticipation, as though every star in that black sky is blinking with eagerness at what's going on down below. The Stabat Mater speciosa setting is gentle, modestly passionate, makes Rutter sound like Ferneyhough on a bad day. Quite beautiful; one for very late nights, mince pies, Sauternes, and distant church bells as the midnight frost comes down. Helmuth Rilling's Stuttgart recording from 1997 is the most recent; Conlon and Forrai have also braved this mighty edifice, but the killer recording, for this writer is Antal Dorati, taking it in such an architectonic way that makes you yearn to hear what he could have done with Bruckner and Mahler.

More festive fun to sing next time, folks!

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

SPORTIN' LIFE: Let the Debacle Commence

The Olympics will ruin London, hike taxes and rob the national lottery. Is it too late to give them back?

Wednesday November 8, 2006
The Guardian

We should seriously be thinking about giving the 2012 Olympic games back, before it is too late. It's all very well to say that it will be all right on the night, but that's now looking increasingly unlikely. Tessa Jowell's performance in the Commons on Monday confirmed that there already exists a state of mild chaos.
It is almost unbelievable that the VAT liability for the games was not clarified before the costs were drawn up. The background is rather murky, but it seems that someone at the Treasury gave someone else an assurance that VAT would not be levied on the construction and other costs of staging the games. It now appears that the Treasury, perhaps even the chancellor himself, is saying that VAT will have to be paid after all because - here it comes again, the usual excuse when no one knows what's really going on - European Union rules insist on it.

It has been estimated that this may add £1bn to the costs- or possibly only £250m, depending on whom you ask to pluck a figure out of the air. But no one seems to know how much the total bill is to be. It is a major issue that "we are working through" said Jowell; "Work is still continuing to finalise the budget," a spokesman for her department explained. What we know for certain is that the cost estimates are already a lot more than the figures that were bandied about only last year. And that they will be a lot, lot higher as we approach 2012. We can safely assume - following many precedents, of which I need name only two, the Scottish parliament and Wembley stadium - that costs will rise quickly, inexorably, and by a large multiplicand of the original estimate.
To pay for this folly, London will be nearly bankrupted, the national lottery will have to be robbed (thus taking funds away from many good causes), and taxes will have to be raised (or services diminished).

But let us assume for a moment that we are willing to pay the exorbitant price for the glory of being allowed to stage the games - and to continue paying for decades after, as every other city that has taken on the games has been forced to do. What makes us believe that we can get everything ready in time? Years of delay didn't matter with Wembley or the Scottish parliament. They didn't have deadlines. But 2012 is a real date. You can't postpone the Olympics, or move it to Cardiff, like the cup final.

Wembley was just one stadium. The games require several new sports complexes to be built from scratch, new transport links to be laid, and many infrastructural improvements to be made. Why is it thought - against all recent precedent - that big sophisticated British constructions can be finished on time? Whenever I mention Wembley in support of my pessimism, I'm told, "That's different, and anyway, we've learned a lesson." The details may be different, but the potentially explosive ingredients - including contractual disputes and workforce attitudes - are still around. I'm often confronted with another, somewhat patronising argument: "If Greeks can do it for Athens, surely we can do it just as well, if not better?" Wrong. London is bigger and far more complicated than Athens, needs more new buildings and more protection.

In one sense, the biggest blow to the games came the day after it was awarded to London, with the July 7 bombings. Had the outrage taken place a couple of days earlier, London would not have won. Fears over security would have taken votes away. Paris would have had the games, and I can't imagine that the city's plans and ideas, 16 months on, would have been in as much uncertainty as London's are now.

The security issue will affect the future of the games in two ways - cost (of security measures and people) and enjoyment. I wasn't too worried at first: 2012 was many years away and surely, by then, we would be living in a relatively safe capital. Not so, apparently. We are constantly being told by police, government and an assortment of experts that London is a prime target for terrorism and will remain so for a long time. Imagine then, getting around a London filled, not only with more visitors than it has ever held before, but with a network of security devices and personnel never before assembled in any capital city. That hellish vision assumes that we will get as far as actually holding the games.

The games organisers did a good thing in bringing in Jack Lemley, renowned for delivering large projects under budget and on time; but he has now resigned, because (being American, he didn't quite put it this way) everyone was faffing around, talking and not getting down to the business of building. Jowell did nothing to dispel the feeling of slightly complacent muddle-throughism. That's not good enough.

Of course there is not the slightest chance that London will relinquish its spot. The loss of face would be too great, multiplied several times by the knowledge that Paris is smirkingly ready to take over. That would be one humiliation too far. Instead, I fear that London - Britain - will be the subject of other humiliations - of unfinished structures, strikes, transport delays, crashing computers, quarrels with security guards and anger at rip-off prices; above all, of the London Olympic games, if they do take place, being less than a glittering success.
BLOGGER'S NOTE- ANY BETS? 100 million overspend? 200million? Roll up, roll up.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The Onion, 7.11.06

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Are British Youth The Worst?... Yes, for now

That's the title from today's Observer. I could subtitle it, Why I Want to Marry Agnes Poirier, who wrote one of the best articles of the year so far.

Is British youth the worst? Yes... for now

French youngsters may be rude, but they're only 10 years away from matching Britain's teens

Agnes Poirier
Sunday November 5, 2006
The Observer

The latest think-tank report on British teenagers behaving badly, so badly they top the league of worst behaving youth in the Western world, makes irresistible reading for the French chauvinist. Irresistible because, by contrast, French teenagers reveal themselves as the best behaved (alongside Italians and Portuguese).

In short, French 15-year-olds fight less (38 per cent compared with 44 per cent of British 15-year-olds), binge-drink far less (3 per cent to 27 per cent), seem less sexually promiscuous (22 per cent to 38 per cent) and when they are, they use condoms more (82 per cent to 70 per cent). They eat more with their parents (89 per cent to 64 per cent) and hardly hang out with friends on weekday evenings (17 per cent to 45 per cent).

Having said that, I never thought that French teenagers were particularly well-behaved. On the whole, they still seem today the way we were 15 years ago: moody, awkward and serious, with little social flair. Our expression skills varied from a shrug to a puff to raised eyebrows, to all kinds of body gestures accompanied by sounds of one to two syllables, such as bof, mouais, putain, super

Though not particularly articulate, we were, however, craving the attention of adults. In our book, adulthood was super-cool. We couldn't wait to be older and do what adults did: talk for hours, argue theatrically over politics, make up over a good meal, smoke, wear glasses, stay up all night over the issue of lost love, take to the streets, call riot police names and go to cafes.

As early as 13, we would mimic adults by falling desperately in love, pretending to embrace lost causes, battling over abstractions to which we understood rien de rien, practising to say the word non with conviction in front of our mirror, ingurgitating espresso by the bucket and puffing on our cigarette-holders without inhaling.

Why were we fighting in the streets, while wearing our best polo-neck for which we had saved for months? Why were we drinking, when we needed a clear head to write love letters? Why were we having sex, when we knew we should make suitors wait and drool? Why were we having a takeaway (it hardly existed then) with friends, when Dad's pot-au-feu was à se damner (worth selling your soul to the Devil for)?

We were serious Parisian poseurs. When I say 'we', don't get me wrong. I'm not talking about a little clique: it was a time when social segregation hadn't overwhelmed us. It was a homogenous 'we' from all creeds and social origins. We represented a democracy of mildly rude French adolescent tosseurs

Today, however, a different portrait of youth in the west is emerging and if, according to the report from the Institute for Public Policy Research, 'Freedom's Orphans: Raising Youth in a Changing World', teenagers from Latin European countries still behave differently, they are closely following in their British friends' steps. Soon, in France, too, social class will be the most powerful indicator of behaviour. The riots in France a year ago seem to have heralded this new age in which children's personal and social development depends entirely on their parents' profession or, worse, on the state of their bank accounts.

British society can appear extreme. Seated at a cafe in London, I remember hearing the voice of a 10-year-old boy: 'Papa, would you be so kind as to pass the salt?' I turned my head, bewildered. The little Lord Fauntleroy caricature went on complementing the waitress for her cup-juggling skills in the most sweet and charming way, but with that unbearable classist touch.

A few days later, I had to fend off a 'you fucking cunt, innit' breed of teenager on a night bus. If a child could absorb frighteningly elaborate social skills, he could also be reduced to insulting people as a way of interacting with them, with school, it seems, unable to correct either bias. Hooligans or clever clogs: we have started experiencing a similarly increasing social divide in France.

But who are the culprits? All of us who refuse to grow up and take responsibility. The parents, who, in a time of cosmetic surgery hysteria and national binge-drinking, refuse to act like adults, let alone look their age. All of us who refuse to be serious, who dress like teenagers and adopt their jargon. Why would children look up to silly behaving adults? Why should children respect adults whose motto seems to have become: go shopping and be happy?

The frantic consumerism of British society has turned children into clients, not citizens. Now brands, on which they rely more and more to get a sense of identity, provide their set of values. Tell me what you bought yesterday and I'll tell you who you are and what you believe in.

As with most things, France is 10 years behind Britain. Let's savour the little time we have left during which young and old continue to share views, meals and take to the streets together to defend ideals, rather than the right to shop.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Review: And They All Sang

And They All Sang - The Great Musicians of the 20th Century Talk About Their Music
Studs Terkel

Charles Lamb once said that he never picked up a newspaper without anticipation and never put it down without slight disappointment. One could never say that about the great oral historian Studs Terkel - until now. This worthy, bargain-priced, readable but ultimately frustrating book was always likely to be overambitious - no less than a swatch of the musical history of the 20th century by interviewing 40 or so of its stars - Dizzy Gillespie, Mahalia Jackson, Josef Krips, Woody Guthrie, Birgit Nilsson, Bob Dylan. Sounds broad? Too, too broad by far. Everyone who picks up this book will be able to list more notable absentees than those musicians included.

Terkel's unearthed some diamonds here, nonetheless; Louis Armstrong's wife Lil's racy narrative of being a black, female jazz pianist in the 1920s is hilarious. Alfred Brendel is predictably and enjoyably cerebral ('all important music incorporates silence'); yet another pianist, the Canadian Garrick Ohlsson, is impressive on Chopin and Liszt.

But Terkel's uncharacteristic failure to draw more anecdotes out of the classical conductor and lexicographer Nicolas Slonimsky - who knew almost everyone from Rimsky Korsakov to Stockhausen - characterises a curious emptiness. There is too much luvvie-ish self-regard by the likes of Schwarzkopf and Gobbi, and names are dropped like confetti - Toscanini, Furtwängler, Miles Davis - without any real insight into the method of their genius or their foibles as humans. Classical music, of course - as Slonimsky, more than anyone, would have known - has just as much human interest as jazz or rock. The reader feels slightly shortchanged, a leitmotif of 'yeah, but what about...?' repeating over and over. And when the tenor Jon Vickers is allowed to get away with something so preposterously ill-informed as to claim claiming that Tristan und Isolde is a 'Nietzscheist'[sic] opera without Terkel challenging him (one might as well suggest it influenced Ice-T), one wonders as to just what other faux-pas litter the text.

It's nonetheless a good read, ideal for the loo, and repays study; Terkel's chapter on 'Spirituals, Gospel, Blues and Rock' features extraordinary people like the folksong collector Alan Lomax and bluesman Big Bill Broonzy. These 60-odd pages along inform more about the music of American poverty than far more scholarly tomes, and we'll even forgive his inclusion of the deplorable Janis Joplin. Here Terkel is on firmer ground, that of his masterworks like Division Street USA and The Good War. I am not suggesting Terkel is a prole-poet of an Ordinary Joe America, an Edward Hopper or James Baldwin, incapable of engaging with high art - it's just that he seems unable to draw much from classical practitioners.

But bite the bullet and buy this book; for all its faults, if enough of us show our hand, follow-ups to plug the gaps and flesh it out might yet be forthcoming.

And They All Sang is published by Granta

Review: Hitler's Holocaust 3

Hitler's Holocuast (Part 3)
Channel 4, November 4, 19.00

It had to come eventually and it did - despite the fact that in some newspapers the latest episode of this slow-burning but still uneven series was billed as an investigation of death camp insurrections and riots, was the Big One - the Auschwitz episode.

This was always an Everest of a project - which is maybe why Nazi-era histories so proliferate on TV, that execs, companies, directors and producers like to be seen to be able to tackle the unscalable, or seem to be doing so - but Auschwitz of course is the ne plus ultra of the evil. One is almost tempted to ask 'why bother?' This might sound callous, but when one remembers Laurence Rees and Ian Kershaw's Auschwitz from just last year, the evil, to borrow Hannah Arendt's phrase, is in danger of becoming banal again. True, the show's progression from didactic history lesson to essay in personalised and particularised horror, continued impressively. Here we find a starving prisoner fed a piece of bread from behind to stem his screams while his assailant anally raped him; whose cap was stolen by the attacker (equating a sentence of summary death at morning roll-call); and who then stole another's cap, condemning an unknown colleague to death. Here, a SS guard who reacted to being denied Christmas leave by shooting an unknown number of random prisoners. Here, the methodical sieving of ash, bones and other remains from the crematoria's ovens. One Polish Jewess who survived had odd, downward-pointing crows' feet, like the track of unstaunchable tears.

Klaus Doldinger's score, which I have excoriated previously, was now low in the mix, and the more effective for it; archive footage was well-chosen, and some clandestine images leaked in also, stills and otherwise (the official films are the ones showing Jews as irredeemably wretched, ugly, even the youngest faces living in a timelapse state of pallid age - and all simply as shawled, pathetic caricatures). In one still of women about to enter a gas chamber, they already seem as blurred as the ghosts they are about to become.

One assumes that, pace various listings editors, the lesser-known stories of the desperate, hopeless riots at Sobibor, Treblinka and, mostly famously, the Warsaw ghetto, will follow next week. It will be a relief; in the end, the railway tracks, the frosty poplars, the crimson sunset on the snowfields, began to look very familiar. Too familiar for a story that should shock over and over again, methinks. We have yet to meet any unrepentant SS men, pluff-cheeked with complacency and schnapps; any kapos, the Jewish enforcers; yet to see any death camp in the sunshine. These do not fit the template, the visual and narrative vernaculars of such programmes, and yet they are among the creepiest additions to only the very best programmes and films on this all-but-unfilmable enormity. Hitler's Holocaust still has a wealth of verbal testimony, and it should be grateful for it. But let us remember that we are discussing TV, not radio, and let's hope the producers remember that for the remainder of what could yet be a notably important series.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

MUSIC: Mondegreen Miscellany

"Someone shaved my wife tonight" - Elton John
"Leavin' on that midnight train to Jordan" - Gladys Knight

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

MUSIC: Van der Graaf Generator: An Apology

In my post 'Oi Collins! No!!!' I inadvertantly suggested that the VdGG reunion had been less than a success. Arse. it was of course one of the most potent revivals of a band in recent times. Many apologies for a shoddy bit of work there, and thanks Andy for pointing this out.