Friday, 4 November 2016

Where The Streets Have No Name

I'm on a secondment for the next six months.  Great because it's closer to home, so less travel, but not so great because the work dried up almost as soon as I joined...

The train journey is about 35 minutes as opposed to 1hr 30 so I'm there and home a lot quicker.  It's getting colder and darker though, so I'm often coming and going after the sun has gone down

In the morning it's cold, the frost hanging on my breath, the ice growing stubbornly on my windscreen.  It's a half-mile walk from the station to my work: you come out, go down in the lift, cross the road at the lights, turn right up the hill and then first left under the flyover and you're there.

No distance at all.  No distance at all

Yet in the 10 minutes or so it takes me to walk it I see anywhere between 2 and 6 homeless people.

Most of them are usually asleep in the doorway of a closed down lap-dancing club, covered in an array of duvets that have seen better days, barely visible beneath the thin layers.  Some of them sit outside the coffee shop, or the small supermarket.  Sometimes they lie under the underpass or sit in the walk-in entrance to the car park.

One or two will call out for help: just a bit of change please.  I give them what I can: not every day and not much.  I used to really worry about giving homeless people money: what if they use it for buying drugs? what about the next person and the next and the next?  Then I realised: what they spend it on is their choice.  Sometimes I buy them a coffee instead, once I took someone to lunch (a Big Issue (magazine sold by homeless people) seller that I have become friends with) - it's not much and I guess it doesn't make much difference, but it's better than nothing.

Most of them didn't choose to be there: some just had a run of bad luck, some are running from something or someone, others may have mental health issues.  Mostly they are just trying to survive as best as they can.

And every day I think the same thing.  Every time I give a few coins, or when I don't, I think: how can we allow this?

How can it be that in a first world country, where most of us carry £600-£800 worth of smart phones in our pocket, where second homes sit empty and properties are allowed to fall into disrepair - how can we allow people to fall through the cracks of society and be left to rot?

So I do what I can, not always but sometimes.  It's not enough, it doesn't change a thing - but maybe it's a start

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Stand Up, Comedy (Part 2)

About a week before my Stand Up Comedy day course last year Herself suddenly turned to me and said, "Well, you could have asked me if I wanted to come as well"

This, it should be said, despite the fact that I had told her all about the course repeatedly and she'd had ample chance to jump on board.  I pointed this out and said, "well, the tickets are still on sale - would you like to go?"

As it happened she wasn't really feeling up to it, so decided to pass - but we did agree that we would both go on the longer version of the course from April - July that also included the chance to take part in a showcase at a local Arts Centre

Now the first problem with the course was that it was on a Monday night - and Monday's are traditionally difficult in my job as it's the day I am needed in the office for our main meeting (a meeting that could equally be held entirely remotely via the internet if it weren't for the large number of Dinosaurs that work with me) - so I had to get permission to work from a different office that was much (100 miles) closer to the course.  Having agreed this with my colleague and immediate boss you can imagine my surprise when, having paid for the course, my boss upped and left the company without telling his boss what had been agreed.

Fortunately I was able to argue that I could offer support just as easily from a remote location and could therefore complete the course.

A lot of the material was the same and many of the exercises were ones that I had already done but the structure was different - in the first hour we did group exercises, whilst in the second there was a "show and tell" section for the class members to try out the routines they were working on and get feedback from the others and the teacher.

The honest truth is that you can't really teach comedy as there is no right and wrong - but you can learn about different styles of comedy, where ideas can come from and get useful feedback.

Excercises included:

Taking a household chore and assigning one of the seven deadly sins to it - so how would your attitude to washing up be affected if you were Slothful or Envious etc

Anthrophormorphisation (probably spelt wrong) - assigning a character trait to an inanimate object.  How might a tin of tuna feel about never being used etc

Another thing we talked about was the economy of language - often taking the shortest route to a joke is the best so that people can keep track without speeding ahead

Pretty early on I started writing my routine - it developed from a single joke about my hometown to an entire routine of 40 jokes (we had a five minute slot each in the showcase, which was open to the public), many of which were inspired by the location I lived for the past ten years

I wrote and re-wrote, all the time telling Herself that maybe it would be a good idea to at least write something and that the deadline was looming increasingly closely on the horizon (she seems to thrive on waiting till the last minute)

My main fear was my memory - I was so afraid of forgetting bits that I would constantly repeat the jokes in my head or out loud if no one was around hoping that they would stick - I did decide that I would have a sheet of paper with bullet points on and that I would finish on a song

Now I've done a small amount of amateur theatre in the past and we are both members of a public speaking group - but the difference with acting is that there are other people on stage whose lines will help you to put a framework around your own - this time I would have only my memory: and each time I repeated them there would be a blank spot somewhere.

The first time I tried the routine at class there was a deafening wall of silence - clearly it needed work and re-writing - the second time (a few weeks later) things were much better.

The week of the showcase came around at last and for the first time Herself stood up and tried her routine in front of the class - total silence.  Oh dear.

The evening of the performance - I was on first, herself was third.  I wasn't even slightly nervous whilst I listened to the teacher/compare do his warm up jokes, just trying to keep hold of the jokes in my head.

I stood up, told my first joke, got a laugh - and went totally blank.  It was like my brain stepped out of my head.  It was probably only for a second but it felt like a lifetime.  I turned to the piece of paper I had left on the desk and saw the next bullet point - from there on I was fine and, although I did leave out one or two jokes, I got plenty of laughs

Fortunately Herself had rethought the way she approached her routine and she did really well, getting lots of laughs as well from a routine about how sign language can land you in trouble if you use the wrong sign (never confuse the sign for samosa with the one for vagina)

All in all it was a good evening - but looking back I don't know how I really feel about it.  Sometimes when you come off a good gig you feel like you could take on the world, and your head is buzzing with energy.  Sometimes you can come away from a gig, even the best gig in the world, feeling terribly depressed because of something tiny that went wrong - I just came away feeling empty: not really knowing if I had achieved anything or not.

I think it was good to challenge myself - recently at the public speaking group I've been aware that I am coasting and have lost interest - and am glad that I got plenty of laughs.  But still...

Anyway - here's a comedian talking about spices

Friday, 13 May 2016


Pretty much every year around about this time, and also just after the summer, we get the same old article in the newspapers or on TV

Some kid, at a posh school somewhere, has been sent home. Usually because his/her hair is too short but also for any reason from skirt is the wrong shade of blue, were wearing trainers to had left their tie at home.

And it's a big thing because the mother of said urchin is bemoaning that until such time as the hair has grown back or the remains of the missing tie has been retrieved from the cat litter tray their child has been sent home from school.

And they are, of course, indignant: their child is being excluded from blah blah this and will miss out on blah blah that...

As you can tell: by this time in the article I've usually lost interest - because all of these articles have one thing in common: the school/institute had a clearly publicized dress code and set of rules for appearance.

I have to be honest here and say that I don't really hold with the whole idea of uniforms working, as I do, in the IT world where for the past 10 years or so my ability to perform my job has in no way hinged on the presence, or lack thereof, of a tie around my neck - but I do understand that part of the point of wearing a uniform at school is to teach us that there are certain areas of life where having a smart appearance and conforming are still expected and necessary.

Not that this stopped anyone at our school: where boys wore their ties with the thin end showing and girls wore their underskirts so that the hem of the lace would show in line with the Fashion

But then there was an article in the news yesterday about a woman who had been sent home from a temping agency without pay because she had not been wearing high heeled shoes.

This may seem archaic and immensely sexist (and yes, actually, it is) but again the woman had signed an agreement that included a dress code that stipulated women wear heels - so part of me thinks that the time to mention that this requirement was out-moded was at the point she signed the agreement.

Now it seems that there is a move to make it unlawful to enforce a particular form of footwear that may affect a particular sex - but part of me wonders if we shouldn't just be applying common sense.

In the case of the child removed from school: ok so their hair is a bit short, but unless it looks like they are doing it to make a point or that it's somehow going to undermine their moral code then surely the teachers should consider the child's personality first and think "well it will grow back" if they're otherwise well behaved

And in the case of the woman surely all that needs to happen is for the company to admit they've been a bit over the top and to amend the wording to "smart shoes" rather than stipulate a particular pythagorean angle of tilt?

But then what is smart?  Ask the average man if what they are wearing is smart and they will probably shrug and say "it'll do" as long as it hasn't been worn for so long that it can actually stand up unaided

Having said all of the above I find myself thinking back to just over twelve months ago and the area I used to live, where people would regularly pop to the local corner shop wearing their Panda Onesie and can't help but feel that those people might have benefited from a lesson somewhere about social acceptability and self control

I mean come on man, it's simply not British!

Monday, 2 May 2016

The Van

Memory is a funny thing, isn't it?

My brain can store pages of random facts about old TV shows, will often flag up things that I did and said that I now wish I could do differently and, for some reason, retains the middle name of Captain Scott of the Antarctic (Robert Falcon Scott for those of you who are interested - although who knows where I gleaned that from) - but the name of the person you introduced me too five minutes ago: not a chance.

I say this because my mum is currently clearing out her house: going through things that we don't use and downsizing it all and there's still a small wardrobe of stuff that is mine there so every Saturday when I visit her there's a new pile of stuff waiting for me to sort through.  Most of it, to be honest, is junk: old magic tricks that I had as a kid (I used to do magic, and was even a member of the Junior Magic Circle but I lost interest when I realised that the local Senior club was really just an excuse for bitter old men who hated their wives to drink - as I suspect most of these clubs are), old demo tapes from when we thought we could be rich and famous pop stars (the tapes really were awful looking back) and various other dust-gathering paraphernalia.

This week she gave me a folder of prints and negatives to look through, the pages most likely unturned in 30 years.  I actually bought a slide and negative scanner recently that displays the pictures on your computer screen and allows you to save the ones you want.

Most of the pictures there I have no memory of even taking, some negatives had been ruined because they stuck to the paper they were held in (sadly one of my grandfather blowing out candles was amongst these - although I do have a print of this I'm hoping to scan) and there are some that I'm convinced may be my father or brother's pictures - but the one that worried me the most was the one of the van.

It must have been a warm day.  Everyone in the picture is in short sleeves or has their top off and we're all sucking on panda pops (a frozen tube of flavoured ice that probably had millions of e-numbers in it).  It's the school van; made legend by the rust that was all that was holding it together.

The worrying thing is that most of these faces mean nothing to me - and yet I must have known them because I'm one of them (though I'm not going to tell you which)

The lad in the centre in the white shirt is Iain though I can't remember his surname and having looked at it again I think the boy on the far left may be James, but otherwise: nothing.

I knew these people for at least five years of my life.  True; I wasn't always very fond of most of them, but their names and their voices are now gone from my life forever.

It makes me wonder what, if anything, I will remember in twenty years time of the people I know now.

Thursday, 7 April 2016

Life Thru A Lenz

The other day I walked into my living room, stared at the woman sitting there and said; "Who are you?"

Well, not quite - but I might as well have because it's got to the point that I don't recognize Herself unless her face is lit by the glow of cat videos screening on her mobile phone.

It's often the case that we will put on a film to watch and we might as well be in separate rooms.  

I am only marginally better - switching on my portable computer pad maybe 3-4 times during a film and more if its a programme that is only just holding my interest.

Sometimes I wonder how we got from a world where a telephone was a big lump of plastic sitting in a booth three streets away to one where you can't walk down a street without having to jump out of the way of someone who is avidly reading something on their screen, where it's somehow ok to have a phone in your pocket that costs £800 plus whilst people starve and go without water.

I regularly travel for up to three-four hours a day to work, sat on a train with a bunch of other people.  During my time i generally have a go at the free newspaper's crossword (that I only ever seem able to finish on a Thursday) and listen to music or a radio podcast on my phone.  I rarely look at the screen itself unless to check a text.

But I am the odd one out - 90% of the rest of the train are glued to the latest game/episode of some programme/youtube video.

And it's not just on the street or on the train - it's everywhere.  The people of the 21st century seem to have developed an almost insatiable need to be constantly entertained and it's a very real possibility that our attention span is suffering.

Just recently I went to a concert at a local venue.  It was the first big concert i'd been to for nearly 3 years.  Back when I first started going to gigs, before you needed a second mortgage to buy tickets, everyone was stopped and searched at the entrance and cameras taken away - something that is now impossible as everyone has a camera in their pockets.

And all through the gig there were people holding up their cameras; recording the gig, recording themselves - posting it on youtube or facebook...and it has to be said that the image and sound quality is amazing: almost professional standard and yet recorded on a phone.

But hang on a minute: there's a problem here.  It seems that it's not enough to go to something and enjoy it - for it to actually have happened you have to record it, share it on social media and have your "friends" like it

But are we, I wonder, losing our ability to live in the moment; to enjoy what we are doing right here, right now.

Do yourself a favour: put your phone/tablet away the next time you go somewhere or watch something: try and enjoy the world for what it is

Unless there's a video of cats available, obviously!

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Your Plastic Pal Who's Fun To Be With

There's been a lot in the news recently about public tests of driverless cars - and indeed during the summer there will be a series of small busses in London that will run interested tourists from point a to point b: albiet with a human ready to leap into the controls if something should go wrong.

It's also a fact that planes haven't really needed pilots for 30 years now and warfare is moving towards smaller and smaller planes controlled remotely - and surely passenger planes won't be far behind.

This leads on, albiet tangentally, from news this week that a successor to Deep Blue has beaten a human in a game of Go! - which I have never played but am led to believe has more possible moves than there are atoms in the universe.

And I'm not sure if my cynicism is down to my age or to a genuine concern - for as the late, great Douglas Adams wrote: anything invented before you are born is in the natural order of things, anything invented between birth and around 35 years old is a new and exciting gadget: anything much after that is Against God And Must Be Stopped - but I do worry.

This all started from a comment I heard online recently that made me totally re-think one of my all-time favourite films.

Because when you come right down to it: R2-D2 and C-3PO are slaves

Yep - you read that right: and they're not the only ones in the Star Wars universe either - Anakin's mother is a slave, Leia is sold into slavery...

But the big difference is that everyone goes about acting like it's ok that the two robots have personalities, clearly react with emotions, are treated like friends - and yet are subject to have their memories wiped without a second thought and to be bought and sold at the drop of a hat.

OK, I hear you cry - but they are merely "programmed" to behave like they have personalities: they're really just clever robots right - it's not like anyone can actually prove they have consciousness...

Ah but can YOU really prove that YOU have consciousness?  I mean, really prove it?

Often quoted in Science Fiction are Asimov's three rules:
1) A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, cause a human to come to harm
2) A robot must obey a human order at all times, unless the order conflicts with the first rule
3) A robot must protect its existence unless doing so conflicts with the first two rules

And right there you have a recipe for slavery because these rules mean that in certain situations a robot has no free will.

This may sound far-fetched and fanciful, but there are many serious scientists that are worried about a Terminator style rise of the robots, including Stephen Hawking who has gone on record to say that the computer that provides his voice is now so clever that it is at the point where it can speak INSTEAD of him instead of FOR him.  There are programs out there that can carry your twitter feed on for you after you are dead by studying your previous posts and pretty soon a whole load of jobs are going to be no longer required as robots get ever more complicated.

Of course this has already happened to a small extent - with robots replacing workers on the shop floor in many factories - but now computers are being programmed to predict stock market trends, to create works of art or write plays (admittedly not very good ones yet...)

Look how far we have come in our own lifetimes - in 1960 James T Kirk being handed a small computer pad to sign a work order was thought of as science fiction, now everyone has one in their pocket.

So the big question is - say we make a robot that is so intelligent it is indistinguishable from, or  actually has, consciousness?  No doubt the scientists and programmers around the world who have been working towards that very thing will slap themselves on the back and tell each other how clever they are...

But at that very moment - the first moment that one of those robots is used or sold we may be guilty of creating a new slave race.  Should we, even now, be asking ourselves what rights these robots will have, how they should be treated, whether they can vote, marry, earn a wage with which to buy lubricants for their hinges?

Let's face it - in unpteen thousand years of evolution and what we laughingly call society we have never even managed to get human rights correct, let alone android ones

And meanwhile have pity for R2-D2 and C-3PO cast to the side of future Star Wars plots and ask yourself whether they have been treated entirely fairly

Saturday, 27 February 2016

Classic Pop Ballads (The 14 Most Beautiful Popsongs)

I know right?  Sounds promising doesn't it?

At least that's what I was thinking as I idly flicked through the Alto Sax music books and spotted this one.  I'd only come in for some new reeds: having bought a pack of ten from the internet at a price that had turned out to be a little too good to be true; but as we know - you can't just go into a specialist shop, buy the thing you came in for and go out, oh no: you have to see what else they might have.

And it's not that I was looking particularly with any hope: I've already got enough music books to start my own lending library and it's getting harder and harder to find one with tunes that I don't already have: but here I was, all the same, in the music book isle, you know...just in case...

14 Most Beautiful Popsongs eh, I thought: musing to myself.  It wasn't a publisher that I was previously familiar with and I'd been burned once before by a New Publisher I Didn't Know (the "tutorial track" turning out to be a bad keyboard zylophone sound that set your teeth on edge the way ice cream can sometimes do if eaten too quickly) and am more careful these days. 

My preferred type of book is the one that comes with a CD, or sometimes two CDs.  Usually CD one contains the "tutorial" track for you to play along to and a sax-free CD that allows you to go out into an unsuspecting world and make loud blarts and squeaky noises at passers by in random attempts to approach a tune.  This one was slightly different, in as much as, along with the aforementioned CD, it came with a pull out section of piano music (for those of you out there with a friend/relation/partner who is willing to play along with you)

14 Most Beautiful Popsongs: right then, I thought: let's have a look.  OK first track - "Fields Of Gold", ah yes: the Sting track oft covered by Eva Cassidy and the like.  Fair enough, that's a really nice tune.

Father And Son.  Yep, that's a nice tune - good ole Cat Stevens, I thought: mentally adding "or whatever he's calling himself these days"

You've Got A Friend.  Ah yes, lovely stuff.  Carole King/James Taylor.  Lovely stuff.

I Shot The Sherriff....

Wait a minute, back up there - I Shot The Sherriff????

In what universe is that a) a ballad or b) beautiful?  Arguably you could say that if you took the word ballad to mean "minstrels wondering around Merrie England randomly jumping out and singing tales of bravery at innocent passers by" then I guess it could pass that test - but beautiful??  It's a great song, don't get me wrong - but I doubt any one ever put it on their stereo as they watched their boyfriend/girlfriend/pet frog walk away for the final time and sang along with a glistening tear in their eye

And therein lies the problem with music books of this ilk: or at least one of the problems.

Problem The Firste: The Song That No Sane Person Will Ever, Ever Play On (Insert instrument of choice here)

For every book you buy there are always around three, four or even as many as five of the songs that you actually bought the book for; two or three that you can kinda live with and may attempt one day and at least three songs that make you wonder about the sanity of the person who put them on there.

Just at a random flick through my Saxophone books I found: Yellow (Coldplay), Theme From "Friends", A Spaceman Came Travelling (Chris De Burgh) and Reach (S Club 7) - and I'm sure if I tried I could find much worse (there is a whole Sax book dedicated to the songs of Adele)

Problem The Seconde: The Repetition

And this is the big problem with these books - there's a hell of a lot of the same tunes, with the same backing, spread across different ones.  As you start to build up a collection it gets harder and harder to avoid buying the same song two, three or even four times in order to get the One New Song you were after.

Problem The Thirde: The Wrong Key

OK so you're a publisher of Popular Music Playalongs, right?  And there's a big audience for this in a variety of different instruments, ok?  But you want to save some money? And paying backing bands to play the tunes can be costly, true?

And so of course the obvious decision is to issue the same songs with the same backing you recorded but with the words "for Flute", "for Flugelhorn" or even "for Yodellers" (bound to be a market for it somewhere) - only to alter the notation of the music for said instrument...

Which inevitably means that the music you've just bought may not actually be in the best key for you to play on your particular instrument - the result of which is saxophonists all over the globe blowing their lower intestines out of their noses as they try to hit that high F sharp

Problem The Fourthe: The Akwardly Timed Page Turn

Anyone who's ever played or sang with a band using music will be aware of this one: because sooner or later you will have to turn the page when both your hands are engaged in producing a note.  For some songs a good response to this is to learn the first few bars of the next page, or to photocopy the additional page and have it laid out next to the rest of the song on your stand (I recommend a small piece of bluetack or a clothes peg on the stand to stop it falling off at an inopportune moment)

The answer, of course, is simple: create a website where players can pick and chose the songs they actually want and will play and print bespoke music books especially for them - even if it came at an additional cost I would cheerfully buy such a book - but with this there is another problem

Problem The Fifthe: Copyright

Which usually means that a lot of the songs you want to play, and seem obviously to suit your instrument, simply don't seem to exist.  For instance: a while ago I bought a Rat Pack Sax book and it had some pretty good songs: but what it didn't have was Strangers In The Night or New York, New York - both of which you'd expect to be there right?

Problem The Sixthe: There Always Has To Be An Extra Problem In My List-O-Fives

And how long is it since I did one of those, right?

Still: on the whole they're pretty good books and looking through my "14 Most Beautiful Popsongs" I was, on the whole, pretty pleased.

But don't even get me started on why Hotel California was in there too...