As of right now, Assistant Blog has moved.
Please update your links, feeds, bookmarks.
This blog is now based at www.assistantblog.co.uk
Hope to see you all there!
Monday, March 08, 2010
Friday, February 26, 2010
Right, so I have started, very tentatively, exploring the possibility of - and preparing for - the big shift from Blogger to Wordpress. That means a change of URL, a change of look, and the mothballing of this side of the site. Terrible idea? Possibly. I've not decided definitely, but think I'm going to do it.
Any endorsements, objections, suggestions, encouragment much appreciated. Am I doing the right thing?
Monday, February 22, 2010
Over at Skuds' blog, he's made a couple of very good points about Nick Winterton MP, the Tory who blundered into a political crisis this week when he revealed that he objects to being made to travel in standard class, because they're occupied by "a totally different type of people".
Your constituents, perhaps? Anyway, this was all predictable stuff, and my immediate reaction was that it's ironic that these crass, condescending comments attracted so much ire, rather than the blunt fact that Winterton (and his awful wife, who is also a Tory MP) has been spouting objectionable, backward, bigoted crap for years. As Marina Hyde commented:
"I think quite seriously that the couple should be scientifically preserved in some way to remind people what it was like until, well, about eight months ago. A husband and wife team of such luminous repugnance, the most reasonable assumption is that the Wintertons were hatched in an al-Qaida-underwritten research facility, created with the sole aim of destroying all British trust in authority from within".People, however, are preoccupied with a personal - rather than a political - vendetta against politicians. In the eyes of the Daily Mail reading public, for example, a fine public servant is considered a corrupt charlatan if he or she has an inaccurate expenses claim. A self-serving, arrogant and morally bankrupt MP like George Galloway, meanwhile, can boast of moral superiority by virtue of his having not submitted any expenses at all - regardless of his other (more important) transgressions.
Anyway. Winterton is clearly a vile throwback; he's voted against equalising the age of consent, in favour of Section 28 (which prohibited teachers from discussing homosexuality in their classrooms), for the reintroduction of capital punishment. All this I noted, but Skuds noticed something else, which I think is extremely insightful when considering how the average Conservative thinks.
"The people who increasingly dominate this House are people who are intelligent, but they go from school to university, university to researcher, researcher to adviser, then to candidate. They have no experience of life outside. Have they ever paid wages at the end of the week? Have they ever been through negotiations over a business deal? Have they been in the law? No."Skuds notes:
A very very good point - this kind of patrician thinking has less and less to do with how modern Britain works. If you've even the slightest interest in a meritocratic society, a Tory government would be a disaster.
"Very telling. Note that real-life experience is not being paid wages at the end of the week but paying somebody else. How many people do actually pay somebody else and negotiate business deals? A very small proportion I am guessing. It is another way of saying that you need to be from management to be in parliament – forget about being an ex-teacher or something like that."
Laura, over on her lovely Make Do And Mend blog (which always makes me feel bad for never sending her any post) has some good news; after what seemed like the end of the road for the traditional polaroid camera, the re-invigorated company are now preparing to launch a new range of cameras and a return of the classic Colour 600 film. As Laura says, here's hoping that the film is less expensive than it was last time round.
In the meantime, here's a glimpse at one of the new models. More here.
Meanwhile, I was pleased to see that I'm not the only one who looks forward to seeing Siobhan's lovely drawings - here she is being written about on a German website, in some incomprehensible foreign language. Yay. And here's one of her drawings, which I like.
Lastly, I'm really starting to miss Anne-Sophie and Rich now that they've moved out of the country. Although I like the fact that my friends are a pretty egalitarian, European lot, it's sad that this sometimes means they move away. London, Melbourne, Barcelona, Paris and Alsace have all robbed me of loved friends and drinking buddies, for which I am most resentful.
However. I am delighted that AS and Rich are blogging regularly from their new home, and recommend you bookmark their blog - I envy them having a whole new life to write about. Mine trundles on, punctuated with occasional flurries of sneezing.
Later on, as we had stopped to enjoy the quietness and the sun glaring on the snow, we heard noises coming from the bushes. A deer emerged from nowhere, only about 5 meters from us, quickly to disappear into the forest. A few seconds later, its foal passed even closer, looking absolutely terrorised: we could not believe our eyes! Suddenly a dog that had been chasing them through the trees appeared, stopped, stared at us (I got really scared it might attack us for a moment!) and finally, luckily, realised that it had lost the track of the deers and went away in the opposite direction. What a magical moment!
For my money, Sunderland's amazing Field Music remain the best band in Britain at the moment. I can't think of a better LP released in the 2000s than their 'Tones of Town' (closest competitors; PJ Harvey's 'Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea', Gorillaz' 'Demon Days') and their new record, 'Measure', is terrific too. The other day I wrote a preview for a local show over at the Bored of Brighton blog, where I described them thus:
Their sound is intensely musical; gorgeous North Eastern harmonies, abrupt tempo-changes and unusual time signatures, with orchestration which varies from lush and pastoral to aggressive and loose.Not at all surprisingly, their set - they played an instore at Brighton's Resident Records - was every bit as brilliant as I thought it would be. I didn't exactly have the best position in the world, for the shop was crowded, but the following video does I hope do justice to their wonderful sound, if not their stage presence.
Here's the entire set in mp3 form. Hope no-one minds me posting these.
live at Resident Records, Brighton
Friday 19th February, 2010
(right click and 'save target as' to download)
2. Them That Do Nothing
5. Clear Water
6. Tones of Town
7. If Only The Moon Were Up
9. Tell Me Keep Me
If anyone from Resident, or anyone associated with Field Music, minds me sharing this, let me know.
[edited for geographical accuracy; see comments]
Sunday, February 21, 2010
I watched Precious, today, the second feature by Lee Daniels, and was very impressed, if upset, by its grim, unflinching portrayal of domestic abuse in 1980s Harlem. It’s only Daniels second film, although he is an established name in Hollywood, having produced both the excellent ‘The Woodsman’ – a hard, affecting film about a convicted paedophile – and the execrable ‘Monster’s Ball’, a condescending, unpleasant film about ‘black America’. Here, aided by some excellent casting and several terrific performances, he has crafted a film which is alternately painful to watch, surprisingly heart-warming, and very funny.
It’s the severity of the circumstances his young lead must face that resonate most strongly. Precious, an impassive, obese 16 year old who is pregnant for the second time by her own father, is played by newcomer Gabourey Sidibe with real depth and significant restraint, and entirely fulfils her role in a film where appalling events are threaded routinely into the plot. The comedian Mo’Nique, who plays her mother, is even more impressive, bringing a nightmarish intensity to her portrayal of one of the most unsympathetic characters I’ve ever seen in celluloid. In addition, there is good work by a (slightly too-good-to-be-true) Paula Patten and Mariah Carey, whose hard, ambiguous social worker is central to the film’s (ultimately hopeful, despite everything) climax.
At times, particularly when Mo’Nique is inflicting shocking abuse on her screen daughter, it’s terribly hard to watch. To leaven the horror, Daniels provides a hopeful subplot which lauds the role of the state in protecting its most put-upon citizens, and it’s for the best that he does, else the film might be unwatchable. At times the contrast between these two strands seems a little unbelievable, but it is a necessary plot device. As in both Monster’s Ball and The Woodsman, however, there are some ambiguous moral lessons. In The Woodsman, vigilantism is presented in a strangely uncritical light, and in Precious it’s hard not to notice that every character who lines up to help Precious (and thankfully there are several) seem to have progressively lighter skin.
Her relationship with Patten – who plays her teacher and mentor – is touching and convincing; but at times it feels that Patten is a little too good to be true; an impeccably groomed, comfortable liberal – she seems remarkably unfrazzled for an inner city teacher. Indeed, her class – supposedly made up of Harlem’s most troubled teenagers – seems at times to resemble the kids from Fame.
This is nitpicking – there are great performances here, and it’s very difficult not to be upset, moved, and exhausted by the film. It’s a great success and Mo’Nique, for one, might feel unfairly cast aside if she doesn’t pick up an Oscar for her role. I hope that the intolerable life young Precious is handed in 80s Harlem is a historical observation, and that things are better for America’s poor today.
Friday, February 19, 2010
According to the Guardian, today, Metacritic have trawled through all of their data (they collate reviews of music, films, games etc) and have identified Spoon as the most critically acclaimed band of the 2000s. I'm not really surprised by that - it was always going to be them, Wilco or Radiohead; consistent, worthy bands who are all loved by critics, who take adventurous steps without alienating their fanbase. And, y'know, you can't argue they're a good band. There must be songwriters, though - like Lambchop's Kurt Wagner, or Mark Everett of Eels - who look on at Britt Daniel and think, um, yeah, but I'm better. Still.
What this does mean, of course, is we have an opportunity to appreciate once again the brilliance that is Adam Buxton's video to Spoon's 'Don't Make Me a Target'. Wonderful.
Tuesday, February 16, 2010
"Actual life is full of false clues and sign-posts that lead nowhere", EM Forster wrote in Howard's End, warning against "the tragedy of preparedness". But some things must be prepared for, and it is a tragedy if they are not – they become Rumsfeld's unknown unknowns. Here's a bitter example.
From Armando Iannucci, a sorry anecdote heard in Whitehall about post-war planning.
"Donald Rumsfeld weeded out from those going to help the reconstruction of Iraq anyone who could speak Arabic, on the grounds they would be pro-Arab. As a result, it took the Americans 18 months to realise that when marines held up the flat of their hand to oncoming cars to signal them to stop, they were actually using the Iraqi hand-signal for "come forward". That's why so many families in cars were shot".Almost too appalling to contemplate - perhaps not a war crime, but a crime of negligence.
(via Chicken Yoghurt)
Monday, February 15, 2010
Saturday, February 13, 2010
I'm back at my parents' house in Cambridgeshire this weekend, where I am normally made to feel unwelcome by their distant, rather jumpy cat, Millie. This time round, however - perhaps spurred by the poor weather, which is keeping her indoors - she seems to be have adopted a tolerant attitude to me; not scampering angrily from the room when I enter, nor leaping a foot into the air when I extend a hand towards her.
And then, finally, a sign that, ten years in, I am finally beginning to win her over.
Monday, February 08, 2010
From my experience of working in the publishing industry, it can be a mixed blessing when an author offers to lend a hand in the design of a book cover. Often, the author's ideas can act as a springboard which helps bring about a really unique, or apt, design. Equally, an author's dogmatic or unrealistic expectations can lead to many a fraught conversation. Either way, I enjoyed reading this account of Orhan Panuk's input in the design process, from the Guardian.
"Like his earlier melancholic memoirs of his Turkish childhood and youth, the front of Orhan Pamuk's latest novel, The Museum of Innocence, draws the eye with a sepia-tinted image evoking the romance of bygone Istanbul. But at the Southbank's Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, the Nobel-prizewinning author raised smiles with the tale of his use of technology to enhance the appeal of the cover photograph of the new book. The picture, featuring an open-top car containing three smiling women and two men, the latter with hair gelled back in 1950s fashion, was originally bought by the writer from a website he called "the Turkish eBay". There was just one problem: its backdrop was that of woodland somewhere in Turkey's interior. Pamuk explained how he had used Photoshop to resolve the issue. With a few mouse clicks, the car and its occupants were transported to the Bosphorus, the busy shipping lane running through Istanbul, complete with familiar minarets on a facing shore. Graphics wizards at Faber later introduced burn marks to the top half of the image. Pamuk also revealed that there had been worries about what the car's unknown occupants would make of their unwitting cover stardom. There was relief, however, when one of the women, pictured in a headscarf, was traced. A photo was sent to him showing her, now aged 88, happily holding the novel. Whether other authors take such a hands-on approach to the design of their book covers is unclear. However, for Pamuk, a self-described "repressed artist" who once harboured ambitions to forge a career with a brush, doing so must be particularly satisfying".
Sunday, February 07, 2010
Observant readers will notice that I never got round to posting my 2009 lists - records of the year etc. Not quite sure why - I spent ages working out my top tens and exhausted my interest, I think. I'll dig the music list out and post it this week. In the meantime, a bit late, here are my top ten films of 2009. Thoughts in the comments box, please.
Best Films of 2009, in order.
1. An Education (UK)
Utterly charmed by this - everything from the sensitive adaptation to the casting to the period detail was exquisitely done - Carey Mulligan in the lead role acted with incredible subtlety and charm. A beautiful, fascinating film.
2. Fish Tank (UK)
Very unfortunate not to be first in the list, I thought this was terrific, too - another beautifully realised film with a captivating central performance. Here's a link to my more detailed review.
3. Let The Right One In (Sweden)
The thought of the US remake of this perfect film fills me with, well, horror - I just can't understand the decision to remake a film which is so beautiful, accessible and chilling. An unexpected, complex reworking of the Vampire myth. One of only two films in the list I've seen twice, and it impressed even further on the second view. I'd happily watch it a third time.
4. Moon (UK)
A film that really stayed with me - Sam Rockwell is perfect in the central role(s) and this is a brilliantly realised bit of unsettling science fiction. And yet another promising new director in Duncan Jones. Upsetting and brilliant. Here's my review - I got told off for including spoilers, so read with caution.
5. A Prophet (France)
Pretty much as good as everyone says it is - where this film really impressed me was in its dual portrayal of toughness and sensitivity. It has the weight of the great gangster films, with a thoughtful metaphysical component.
6. Thirst (S. Korea)
What with True Blood, Let the Right One in and the wonderful Being Human on the BBC, as well as the many other vampire franchises in operation, one would be forgiven for taking a pass on yet another film about people who bite people. But Thirst was brilliant. Totally repositioning the Priest's role in the Vampire story, this was great stuff.
7. In The Loop (UK)
Do you know, I was a touch underwhelmed by this the first time I saw it, finding it a bit less funny than I was expecting and mostly concentrating on the furious final third. But I've seen it since and thought it much better on a second viewing. A case of it's funny 'cos it's true, perhaps.
8. Star Trek (US)
So much better than it had any right to be. Mystifying middle section apart, this was awesome fun.
9. Down Terrace (UK)
Not sure if this has had a general release yet, but this very dark, low-key comedy is a gangster flick set in Brighton. Somewhere between Mike Leigh and The Sopranos, it was quite brilliant, and genuinely shocking in places.
10. Helen (UK)
Not sure if I actually enjoyed this, but I admired it for its simplicity and purity - a strange, unsatisfying meditation on identity - it's well worth a look.
Obviously there’s a bunch I didn’t see (Avatar, The White Ribbon, The Antichrist, 35 Shots of Rum) that might have made the list, but as I didn’t see ‘em...
Tuesday, February 02, 2010
Over on the Faber & Faber blog, The Thought Fox, Faber's Editorial Director, Lee Blackstone, has penned a rather curious, slightly sweet and more than a little embarrasing open letter to Morrissey, in which he asks Moz to consider f&f as the publisher for his much-rumoured memoirs. Its high-level of obsequious fawning demands attention.
In the hope that you might consider bringing your much-rumoured memoir to The House of Eliot, I am posting this letter on the Faber website. Forlorn as this hope may be, I can only fantasise that at least you might read my letter through and consider the pleasures and prestige of being an author at Faber, the last great family-owned independent publishing house in the western hemisphere.
I have been trying to persuade you of the virtues and wisdom of this for some years now. You probably won’t remember. We even corresponded at one point via a friend of yours, an author of mine, most famous for his biography of Roxy Music which ends just as the band are getting together. You see, we love the perverse and the contrary at Faber. And we also like to think we are the custodians of twentieth-century Modernist poetry. In fact we are. Our shelves groan and bulge and spill over under the weight of Ezra, Larkin, Hughes and Heaney. And that’s just the surface; deep as it may seem. We feel very strongly that you belong in this company. To me (and to many of my colleagues) you are already in this company. It would be the fulfilment of my most pressing and persistent publishing dream to see that ‘ff’ sewn into the spine of your Life. Just any other publisher won’t do. You deserve Faber and the love we can give you. History demands it; destiny commands it.
I don't really get it. Morrissey has already created his great work - the lyrics he wrote in the 1980s. If Faber really feel that his work belongs in the company of Ezra Pound and Philip Larkin, they should just ask him if they can publish his best lyrics in their poetry imprint.
Well, I'd like to say that the relentless kicking which The Persuasionists has attracted from the media over recent weeks wasn't deserved, but sadly I think it probably was. Nevertheless, I still love Adam Buxton unreservedly. Here he is reading through the reviews.
Monday, February 01, 2010
Yikes, I've been really terrible at blogging this last week, and after such a productive first few weeks of January, too. Here's a poem to tide you over - I'll be back shortly.
by John Crowe Ransom
Beautifully Janet slept
Till it was deeply morning. She woke then
And thought about her dainty-feathered hen,
To see how it had kept.
One kiss she gave her mother,
Only a small one gave she to her daddy
Who would have kissed each curl of his shining baby;
No kiss at all for her brother.
“Old Chucky, Old Chucky!” she cried,
Running on little pink feet upon the grass
To Chucky’s house, and listening. But alas,
Her Chucky had died.
It was a transmogrifying bee
Came droning down on Chucky’s old bald head
And sat and put the poison. It scarcely bled,
But how exceedingly
And purply did the knot
Swell with the venom and communicate
Its rigour! Now the poor comb stood up straight
But Chucky did not.
So there was Janet
Kneeling on the wet grass, crying her brown hen
(Translated far beyond the daughters of men)
To rise and walk upon it.
And weeping fast as she had breath
Janet implored us, “Wake her from her sleep!”
And would not be instructed in how deep
Was the forgetful kingdom of death.
Saturday, January 23, 2010
I took this photo a couple of months back in St Neots, Cambridgeshire, and didn't do anything with it. In truth it was a bit washed out and I immediately filed it as one to forget. But flicking through my photos earlier I wondered if a bit of digital manipulation might improve it - and sure enough I think it's quite a nice shot, now. It's all about the glee on the face of the little girl, I think. Feeding the ducks, of course, never becomes boring, as far as I'm concerned.
Friday, January 22, 2010
Last night I was sat reading my book on my journey home, the train idling at a quiet platform - when I saw out of the corner of my eye someone running alongside the train. I heard his feet land heavily on in the carriage as he leapt through the closing doors, and then his bag land heavily on the seat opposite mine. He slumped after it, not red-faced but out of breath. He was young, handsome, in his mid-twenties, with long hair and a close-cropped, fashionable beard. The train pulled away and he began a familiar mime; patting his pockets, shifting in his seat, flipping open the lid of his canvas bag. It’s a spectacle I put on myself near enough every morning when I see the ticket-inspector approaching, wondering where I’ve put my railcard.
His movements shifted up a gear. I recognise that, too. It’s not just in a different pocket. It’s not here. I left my wallet on the bedside table, my telephone at work, my book on the bathroom floor. He began to search frantically, repeatedly, replaying the sequence as if he were a caged animal obsessively retracing a route. I fought to restrain my mouth from twitching into a smile, not because I took pleasure in his discomfort, but because I know the feeling all too well, and sympathised. Then he brought his fist down hard upon the plastic table, and swore. His bag, now thoroughly searched, turned inside-out, he flung hard into the adjacent seat. He swore again. And again. That flicker of a smile had long since disappeared and I tried to immerse myself in my book, shrinking backwards in my seat. Great.
His temper did nothing to abate. He thumped the table again, and punched his bag. He tilted his head back and let out a volley of curses. I began to wonder what he had lost. He pulled a mobile phone from his pocket and held it to his ear. So, not that. A moment later, he was talking, hissing, words tumbling out. His opening conversational gambit was “I’m really fucking angry”. His wallet, I suppose, or an iPod. House keys? He kept swearing.
As he muttered on, still occasionally slamming his head back into his head-rest in frustration, I fluctuated between interest and revulsion. It was a remarkable display of petulance from a grown man. It made me think how controlled I am. Over the years I have lost a quite absurd number of vital or expensive things, from spectacles to mobile phones to expensive gadgets. I don’t recall ever doing more than closing my eyes in frustration and musing over how careless I am. I honestly don’t think this guy was far from punching a wall. Or someone else. His girlfriend, if that’s who he was talking to on the phone, must have moments when she really wonders at his capacity for aggression. I’m not saying I don’t understand temper, and possibly he’d just had the worst day of his life, but it was incredibly unappealing.
In the end I learned from his call that he was upset because, running for his train, he had pulled his ticket from his jacket pocket and unknowingly dropped a £20 note on the station platform. I got off the train ten minutes later, glad of my even temperament.
Thursday, January 21, 2010
Massachusetts! Of all the states to go Republican, I would never have guessed it would be that bluest of East Coast states. Extraordinary, extraordinary and terrible. Obama has to face up to the first, catastrophic, humiliating defeat of his political life. And there goes his senate super-majority, and any hope of the Healthcare bill passing in its current form. Christ.
What does all this mean for Obama?
Firstly, it’s pretty much what I’d be calling a disaster, if the horrific events of Haiti over the last week hadn’t reminded us all exactly what a disaster looks like. Ordinarily, a defeat at this stage of the cycle (a year in to a new Presidency which has been mired, through no fault of the incumbent, in economic collapse) would not signify so very much: governments often lose by-elections, especially during recessions, and the loss of one seat may negate Obama’s super-majority (he needs 60 out of 100, rather than 51, to pass significant legislation) but the Senate still has a healthy majority of Democrats.
But the unusual, feverish world of US Politics is stranger and sadder than that. Obama may only have lost one seat, but the current Republican party is more partisan than any in recent history, and is completely, unambiguously opposed to co-operation or compromise. Once upon a time, the GOP was a broad party representing many hues of the right – but now it is a cantankerous, disciplined beast which is entirely resistant to every law, no matter how good, or how moderate, the Democrats propose. For as long as students of contemporary politics can remember, the Democrats had, in Ted Kennedy, the best deal broker in global politics. Even if he was still there, though, he’d be hard pressed to come to an agreement with a solitary Republican. They intend to bring Obama down by obstructing absolutely everything he does. Now that Scott Brown has Kennedy’s seat, they can do that. It’s a real mess.
And if the Republicans can win in Massachusetts, they can win anywhere – all of a sudden, there’s no such thing as a safe seat in US politics.
Now, clearly this is awful news for Obama. He’s going to have a real job on in confronting and turning around this deeply discouraging turn of events. But he has to do more than just negotiate his way around this vast obstacle – he has to confront his own failings and the fact that his own mistakes helped make this happen. A year in to his presidency, it’s clear that he’s tried hard, and any liberal would take his policies over those of his predecessor in a heartbeat, but errors have been made.
Firstly, I don’t think that anyone, anywhere, had any premonition of how incredibly hard the healthcare battle would prove. In retrospect, with the economy in the state it is in, it’s probably the case that he should have left it alone until the economy picked up again. That’s a bitter admission for anyone who believes that the provision of universal healthcare is a fundamental duty of government, but the last year has proved that it is so. The opposition (for this goes beyond the Republicans) has been ruthlessly efficient in attacking the plan, organising and protesting, taking in many ways their cue from the ceaseless, senseless hounding of Clinton which they perfected in the 1990s. Obama, in contrast, has been passive, slow to make his case, and too detached from the process. He has caved in too often, and not taken charge of the situation.
The real problem has not been the bill, but the process. On the one hand, the bill has been repeatedly, robustly attacked by the American right and the conservative media, to the point where fallacious speculation about its’ contents have been repeated as fact. On the other, Obama has entrusted Congress to draft a bill in precisely the same long, slow, argumentative, concession-heavy method that it always has. A year later, the bill is almost broken – universally misunderstood but no longer universal; the public option is gone and what is left, though a dramatic improvement on what has gone before, falls way short of expectation. This is not the ‘new politics’ that Obama promised. It is the old politics, done badly. Obama’s inability to influence and drive Copenhagen was cut from the same cloth. America’s new President promised change. The change from Republican policy is to be warmly welcomed, but the greater drive to change the political process, and to change American society, has stalled.
So, what he does do? Try to push the healthcare bill through in some further weakened form? Scrap it and start from scratch? Scrap it and forget it?
Well – America isn’t Haiti and this isn’t, yet, a disaster. Worse politicians than Obama have survived blows more damaging than this, and he has plenty of time to prove that his prescription for America is worth taking. But he has to respond to this quickly – prove that he can keep going when a blow is landed and swiftly adapt his game. If the healthcare bill is dead, it may even be a good thing – the bill as it was was looking cancerous, something that might infect everything he did from this point on, and to have lanced it now may ultimately work in his favour. What he needs to do is affirm his priorities (it’s the economy, stupid), get on track, then come back and find a way to fix healthcare afresh. That means bringing to the table a bill which the American people understand – healthcare reform is an argument he can yet win. But right now he needs to be quicker, clearer and more direct on the issues that the electorate care about.
He’s down but a long way from being out. The next few months might define this Presidency.
Wednesday, January 20, 2010
If you've not heard it yet, 'Stylo', the new single by Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett's subversive, always-interesting pop project, Gorillaz, is all over the internet today, and you owe it to yourself to track it down forthwith. Whisperings about the forthcoming LP, 'Plastic Beach', imply it will be a typically dynamic, eclectic affair, boasting guest spots from Snoop Dogg, Mark E Smith, Lou Reed and many many more.
Albarn has dropped some interesting clues about where Gorillaz is headed over recent months, hinting that his new songs have roots in his abandoned stage project 'Carousel', and that the Blur gigs in the summer persuaded him to revisit his vocals for the LP and abandon his recent usage of guide vocals, preferring instead to sing more directly. The title of the LP suggests that, lyrically, a recurring theme will be the environment, one of Albarn's current passions (he recently told Paul Morley that the two things he is most passionate about are "the effects of our waste and the healing properties of Africa").
But for all that this is interesting, the most intriguing thing about the band - apart from Hewlett's wonderful drawings and Albarn's staggering musicality - remains the dichotomy between Damon's critique of manufactured chart music and his self-evident, not at all contradictory, love of pop.
'Stylo' expresses this perfectly - built on a platform of thudding beats and a persistent, electro bass line, it may feature a stunning, deeply pretty melodic line from Damon, but it also completely lacks a conventional chorus, providing instead a terrific, unhinged hook vocal from Bobby Womack. It sounds stranger, more challenging than previous Gorillaz records.
But it is also easily the most catchy thing Damon has done in years. The bass line alone is stunningly memorable, and the jewel may be Mos Def's short, rhythmically perfect verse in the closing stages. The whole thing swaggers and shines.
It's too early, of course, to say whether it'll engage daytime radio and the general populace in the same way as previous Gorillaz singles, but for me it's superior to every single from the last two LPs with the exception of 'Dare'. And if it IS successful, Damon's genius will have been to have crafted a perfect, vibrant pop single which harks back to the bassy, vibrant electro of early Compass Point (think Grace Jones or Tom Tom Club) and the euphoria of late 80s house music, but which is in no way nostalgic, formulaic or predictable.
In short, I think it's one of the best things he's ever done. And elsewhere? There's really no one, creatively, anywhere near him.
This is charming, although at times really hard to watch - Darren Hayman is asked a set of challenging questions live on Spanish television. It's funny to watch how a Spanish critic struggles with Darren's very English self-deprecation. There's clearly an expectation that music should be a flamboyant, romantic art, and an supposition that Darren will be able to talk fluently about it in that light. He does his best, but his face is a treat when he is asked "would you say that you had been unfaithful to music, or has music made a cuckold of you?".
Tuesday, January 19, 2010
David Cameron's comments on education, made yesterday, offer refreshing hope that there remains a slim chance that the slick, electable Tory party he manages will still slip up ahead of the next general election. It's a cliche to say it, but they remains absolutely hopeless at policy, even if they have done a creditable job in opposition (hardly difficult, given Labour's ongoing implosion). Cameron's absolutely ludicrous comments, which argued for what he himself called "brazenly elitist" changes to the education system, were perhaps the least thought-out or helpful ideas he's yet floated. That hope is, however, counterbalanced by a heavy sense of dread. This is what the Tories will be like if they win the next election.
The plan, in case you missed it, is to make teaching "the noble profession" (I thought it already was) by restricting government funding to graduates with a 2:2 or higher, and only paying off the debts of graduates from a narrow pool of "good universities". We can expect this pool to exclude all the perfectly good ex-Polytechnics in this country, many of which are - incidentally - at the forefront of scientific and technical education; a completely unnecessary measure.
There are so many things wrong with this.
Firstly, and most obviously, we have a teacher shortage in this country - it has been so for many years and to miss this point is crazy. I'm fully behind any politician, even a Tory, who places education at the centre of policy-making, but to ignore the realities of the market when launching new initiatives smacks of ignorance, high-handedness or laziness. We need more, not less, teachers - and which University they studied at is almost entirely irrelevant.
Even if you buy the premise that having attended Brighton University, or possessing a third class degree, is an impediment to becoming a decent teacher, Cameron's comments are profoundly misleading. Only a tiny proportion of graduates entering the teacher training system have a third class degree in any case; only 3.7% in 2007-8. But Cameron's comments imply otherwise, and the effect will surely have a demoralising effect on existing teachers, who must suffer yet another politician implying they are no good at their jobs. From the way Cameron launched this pathetic scheme, one might conclude that there are rafts of poor teachers with bad degrees out there. But it's rubbish - this scheme aims to redress an imbalance which doesn't exist.
Chris Keates, general secretary of the Nasuwt teaching union, has commented:
"Teaching will never generally be recognised as the high-status profession it is while politicians keep making announcements which implicitly or explicitly denigrate and cast doubt on the quality of teachers currently in service.As the above implies, Cameron's comments are not supported by evidence. We already have a vigorous evaluation system within both Secondary and Tertiary Education (indeed, the Labour government deserve very little credit for their relentless promotion of QAAs and the ubiquitous Offsted), but the Tories have not made use of the statistics these bodies collect. Where is the data that supports their argument? Instead, they make misleading references to other, very different, education systems which we should want to emulate. Cameron said:
"Nothing is more demoralising and demotivating than constant announcements of strategies to attract the 'best' teachers. They imply that those in post are somehow sub-standard, and the bar for entry has been set too low."
"Finland, Singapore and South Korea have the most highly qualified teachers, and also some of the best education systems in the world, because they have deliberately made teaching a high prestige profession.
They are brazenly elitist – making sure only the top graduates can apply. They have turned it into the career path if you’ve got a good degree"These comments mean nothing at all. Finland is an exceptionally strange, and self-serving, comparison to make, for Cameron is using an example of an education system which thrives for a completely different set of reasons, and reasons that Cameron's party would never endorse. He's being very selective indeed. I'll quote Unity, from the Liberal Conspiracy blog, verbatim here, if I may.
1. Finland has a wholly comprehensive education system. There are no grammar schools or other selective institutions, to speak of. Finland’s comprehensive schools are expected to take in pupils, irrespective of their personal background and the skills, abilities and aptitudes they possess on entry, and adapt to each individual pupils’ needs.I don't mean in highlighting all this to imply that the Finnish system is perfect, but the above self-evidently is illustrative of an education system which resembles ours in name only. For Cameron to suggest that the high standards of Finnish education could be replicated in the UK purely by virtue of restricting the pool from which we draw teachers is downright ludicrous.
2. Teacher training courses are massively oversubscribed and, typically, accept only 10% of applicants. Studies looking at the positive outcomes generated by of the Finnish system invariably pay little or no attention to the quality of applicants for teacher training courses. What they focus on is the quality of Finnish teachers on leaving university to enter the education system.
3. All Finnish teachers are required to complete a Master’s degree in either education or a teaching-related subject and all are treated as pedagogical experts.
4. On taking up a teaching post, Finnish teachers are afforded a significantly greater degree of latitude and pedagogical autonomy than their counterparts in the UK.
5. Finnish teachers are expected to teach and, for the most part, are left alone to get on with the job of teaching with little or no outside interference from the state, politicians or even parents.
6. Finland does have a national curriculum, but unlike the UK, their curriculum covers only the general subject matter to be taught, not how it should be taught or how long should be spent on each topic, and teachers have a considerable say over the content of the curriculum.
7. The Finnish system does not make use of national tests or examinations – teachers are trusted to assess pupils’ performance throughout the system based on the individual student’s classwork, projects, portfolios and teacher-generated examinations.
8. Finland does not make use of school league tables, nor could it given the lack of national tests and examinations. School outcomes are measured, but only using data drawn from sample-based surveys and this is only published at system level
9. School exclusions are also unheard of in Finland because they’re not permitted by law – once a pupil enters a school, it’s the school’s responsibility to educate that child whether they (the school) likes it or not.
10. As you might imagine, in a system of that kind, non-teachers (i.e. school governors and local education authorities) have far less authority over schools than is the case in any other OECD country.
If we're agreed that right now, less than 5% of new teachers have third class degrees, are we prepared to conclude that this sub-5%-category are the worst teachers? Only Offsted - or the teachers' own pupils and colleagues - can tell us that, but I'd be surprised if anyone was happy with that assumption. The Guardian, here, gives one example of a highly-rated teacher who would be excluded under the Tory proposals - I'm sure there are plenty more.
Academic rigour is plainly not the key characteristic required of an educator. Perhaps it is at Eton, where class sizes are small and disruptive elements long since factored out of the equation, but at a normal secondary school, with a wide range of students, enthusiasm, patience, clarity and empathy are the most important things. I couldn't tell you, in retrospect, whether the teachers at my school were intellectual powerhouses, but I can tell you this: the majority of them were good, motivated, lively educators who understood children.
Francis Gilbert is excellent on this in today's Guardian:
"If you don't have the right personality, you'll suffer in the bearpit of today's classrooms. In my experience, there are four types of teacher who are effective: the despot, the carer, the charmer, and the rebel. And none of them, in my experience, requires an upper-class degree.Do we only want educators who breezed through the academic system, often propped up in some respect by pro-active parents, financial security and/or private education? Or do we want teachers who understand the difficulties that many children face, from struggling with complicated concepts to lacking motivation.
[...] But the crucial point here is that none of these teachers learned their skills by getting a good degree: they learned them on the job. All could improve by watching other good teachers in the classroom and learning from their techniques."
A teacher who has, in his or her life, sometimes struggled with academic success is someone that can be a considerable asset - a role model and a friend to students who need guidance. Indeed, we must also consider that the academic heights reached by a 21 year old are of comparatively little significance when the average age of students training as teachers "is mid twenties to early thirties", and so much life experience can be brought to bear in such a role.
There are, in fact, already two people who are excellently equipped to decide whether people will be suitable teachers - the PGCE course supervisor who recruits would-be teachers, and the headmaster who ultimately (if they qualify) will employ them. Let's leave these experts to make their informed decisions, and concentrate on more pressing issues, such as funding, class-sizes and (loosening the Government's stranglehold on) curriculum.
The idea that Cameron's comments - and education strategy - will encourage the growth of teaching as a 'noble profession' is plainly absurd. But it's more disturbing than that, because it suggests that the Conservative Party has not learned any of the lessons one might hope they had from watching Labour's management of education over the last 13 years. There are a great many things that might be improved upon by a new government, but the evidence suggests that the same old prejudices preoccupy the Tories. How long before the conversation moves away from "elite teachers" to "elite pupils", and we see the return of grammar schools?
At the end of Gilbert's excellent article - which is worth reading in its entirety - he concludes thus:
"Instead of demoralising teachers with his ill-informed comments about what makes a good teacher, Cameron should commit himself to putting proper money and time into training the existing teachers in the system. Instead of paying for the training of a "brazen elite" of graduates, he should improve the wages of all teachers so that we are all treated like an "elite". His current policy, if implemented, won't improve the standards of teaching, and will instead further dishearten an already deflated profession".I can't improve on that.
Monday, January 18, 2010
When I was a teenager I used to listen religiously to Mark Radcliffe's Radio 1 show, and I remember being staggered and delighted that he regularly found time to include poetry in his format, and wish I still had all the tapes I used to make of Simon Armitage reading his own, and others' poetry. I vividly remember an occasion where he read the poems of Charles Simic, and think it was a real turning point in my developing love of literature.
Here's Simon Armitage reading 'Snow Joke' back in 1991. If anyone knows of an audio archive of his poetry, please do let me know.
Loping carefully down snow-covered pavements; watching My Sad Captains play a set of melodic, fine tuned indie rock; playing with my friend Claire's cat; watching the trains negotiate through the bad weather; Curly Hair live at the Freebutt, everything perfumed with Xmas; constructing stop animations from the window at work; watching adults and children throw snowballs; gasping at the lovely, sonorous sound of Foxes! live; admiring cat-leaps on Boxing Day; talking shit at parties; lunch with my friends; housebound in Brighton; surrounded by my favourite people; watching the new year land.
This was my December.
Thanks to Claire for the idea!