Friday, April 29, 2011

The alternative Royal Wedding playlist

Image: Salvatore Vuono

1. I Would Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That) – Meatloaf
2. D.I.V.O.R.C.E – Tammy Wynette
3. My Favourite Mistake – Sheryl Crow
4. Emotionless – Good Charlotte
5. Grounds For Divorce – Elbow
6. Haitian Divorce – Steely Dan
7. Before You Accuse Me – Bo Diddley
8. But Not For Me – Various (Elton John, Sinatra, Elvis Costello, etc)
9. Some People Are Crazy – John Martyn
10. White Wedding – Billy Idol
11. Slave - Prince
12. Love Will Tear Us Apart – Joy Division
13. There My Dear – Marvin Gaye
14. They’ll Need A Crane – They Might Be Giants
15. Slip Slidin’ Away – Paul Simon
16. What’s Love Got To Do With It? – Tina Turner
17. Jezebel – 10,000 Maniacs
18. Don’t Get Around Much Anymore – BB King
19. Farther On Up The Road – Eric Clapton
20. Pretty much anything by Phil Collins

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


Twitter can be credited with so many great things since Jack Dorsey came up with his novel 'micro-blogging' concept five years ago, but one Tweet in particular brought a welcome smile to my face this weekend. 

Actually, it was these two Tweets: "So. I'm fine. If I could eat I'd be perfect. But I can't. Not for ages. There was a disaster with a jacket potato last night," shortly followed by "Should have said 'attempted jacket potato'. Who, coincidentally, I once saw supporting Ten Years After at the Marquee".

These were the inaugural statements to herald the arrival to Twitter of Danny Baker, one of the finest, most inventive, idiosyncratic and - damn! - funniest broadcasters of his generation. Life in the Baker treehouse got decidedly grim towards the end of last year when he announced via Facebook, on November 1, that he'd been diagnosed with cancer.

True to style, his statement chimed with defiant self-effacement: "Hello cats and kittens," it began. "As you know I am queasy about introducing vulgar real life onto the vaudeville stage so let's keep this crisp. After a pretty mouldy diagnosis about a month back I finally begin chemotherapy on Monday with further radiotherapy from January." Baker continued: "Once the quacks have soundly thrashed this thing I shall return like a rare gas and as if out of a trap. In the meantime I am watching Tommy Steele box sets (and has there ever been a more lying title to a film than TS's It's All Happening?) and urge you all to keep yakking up a storm and laugh extra loud at the incumbents," before stoically ending with: "So. Manly handshake. Walk right on. In the words of King George, 'What what and there it is...'". 

At the time this emerged I was embroiled in dramas of my own which, looking back, seem petty by comparison. In itself, Baker's announcement wasn't so shocking, either: after all, almost 11 million people around the world are diagnosed with cancer every year. Even more cheerily, one in three of us will develop some form of the disease in their lifetime.

Just about everyone will know or know of someone who has it, beaten it or, sadly, given in to it. My father has it (though thankfully, it's under control); my former next-door neighbour survived it; and I learned a short time ago that a very good friend of a very good friend succumbed to it at the age of 51. Boom. Gone. An effusive life cut short by something you would have thought, by now, medical science would have sorted out.

Cancer is, we're told, "not necessarily" a death sentence. Early detection is the key to surviving it, depending on which of the 200 varieties you've got. I can't begin to imagine what goes through anyone's mind when they've been told they have The Big C. For my dad, who is now 81, being confronted with prostate cancer must have been baffling, bewildering, distressing and any one of a number of emotions. All of a sudden, something was attacking him from within and, unlike most other things he'd been confronted with in life, there was very little he could do about it. Well he could: agree to the treatment and let medical prowess do its work. Except that the medical treatment to beat the cancer led to all sorts of side effects, physical defects and energy-sapping fatigue - entire days when you don't feel right but can't put your finger on why (which may also have been worsened or accentuated by the first signs of mental decline).

I know this post has just taken a somewhat downbeat mood, but I come back to my original thesis: Danny Baker's appearance on Twitter on Saturday, and the rat-a-tat-tat of his subsequent musings reflecting one of British broadcasting's sharpest wits, reassured me that life does go on.

Back in November, when Baker announced his affliction, I was bitching and moaning about painters' bills, about the apparent challenges of changing jobs, of selling houses and moving countries, and everything else that seemed to anchor an ever-present black cloud of grumpiness above my bonce. What I failed to do then, but seeing this minor event on Twitter reminds me to do now, is put it all into the correct perspective. Shit not only happens, but there are people in this world who are dealing with copious amounts of it. And coping with it relatively well.

Friday, April 08, 2011

The placebo effect of a royal wedding

Living, as I am, in a country with a less than embracing attitude to royalty, some of France's republican tendencies may have rubbed off on me.

I have only just found out - significantly later than most of my compatriots, it would appear - that Friday, April 29, 2011 has been declared a public holiday in the UK to celebrate the wedding of Mr William Wales and Ms Catherine Middleton, respectively a 28-year-old helicopter pilot from Gloucestershire, and a 29-year-old occasional photographer from Berkshire.

It will be a day of national exuberance, patriotic fervour and knees-up street parties of a breed not seen since a certain mono-bollocked Austrian corporal shot himself and Europe rapidly descended into peace and tranquility in the spring of 1945. In preparation, grannies the length and breadth of Britain have been buying commemorative tea towels, coffee mugs and sticks of rock in irrelevant gestures of support for the royal nuptials.

OK. Super. But when Britain's finances remain about as robust as a binge-drinking Essex girl trying to walk down Harlow High Street at closing time, Her Majesty's Government has effectively pulled a sickie on the national economy, as the workforce takes an enforced day off, regardless of their view on royalty.

At risk of sounding like an embittered Spartist, the public holiday smacks of a Victorian placebo: "Let's give the proles a day off to wave flags, watch the telly and eat jelly in the street  - they'll soon feel better about things after that."

Actually, it's the last thing Britain needs: with a long Easter weekend just a week before, having everyone take another day off, especially just to watch two people getting married at the taxpayer's expense, is madness and will cost millions in lost productivity.

Constitutionally, William's wedding to Kate, three weeks from today, will be as important as anyone's betrothal should be. But is it really worthy of the country collectively downing tools for the day?

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Sorry, my head is full

"How is education supposed to make me feel smarter?", Homer Simpson once opined, adding: "Besides, every time I learn something new, it pushes some old stuff out of my brain."

If only I had his problem: thanks to obscure prog rock lyrics from the early 70s, trivia about Glen A. Larson productions from the mid-70s, and even more song lyrics from the New Wave of the late 70s, my head is full.

You can try pushing new stuff in, but the old stuff won't budge. My 43-year-old noggin needs decluttering. That seems to be the only reason why, in taking French lessons currently, precious little seems to stick.

It's been 30 years since I last sat in a French class, learning such useful phrases as: "Nikki le singe est dans l'arbre". As Eddie Izzard brilliantly observed, that is not too helpful when you first arrive in Paris as there are precious few monkeys up trees to point out. In fact so far, I've seen none.

Strangely, some of that O-level tuition did get lodged in the deep recesses of my nut. I can confidently order an ice cream, even ask politely for a beer in French. Probably, all essentials are covered with those two requests alone.

So here I am, for three hours each week, wearing the dunce's hat because I'm failing to remember how to  conjugate a verb we went over three weeks ago...or last week...or ten minutes earlier. It's not that I don't want to try: nothing would give me more pleasure than to be able to converse freely in another toungue. I used to think it was the height of erudition: what could be more impressive than James Bond describing exactly how he - and the lady - wanted his filet mignon prepared in any one of a number of languages?

I have dutifully attempted the lingo wherever I've travelled, but this has amounted to nothing more than bad Berlitz versions of ordering a sandwich in German, or requesting a table by the window in Spanish (and wondering why a toasted shoe has turned up in Berlin, and a wine glass and two Nurofen in Madrid). My Italian is, apparently, even worse, sounding closer to an Olive Garden menu being read out by a Midwestern farm boy than anyone genuinely from the Roman peninsular.

For nine of the last eleven years I have lived in the Netherlands. Where they speak Dutch. Given that the Dutch only have to look at a guidebook on a foreign country before they're fluent in its mother voice, my command of het nederlands taal has been woeful.

I can blame the fact that I spent five days of the week in an English-speaking business environment; I can claim that Dutch TV was crap and I watched, mostly, the BBC; I can argue that this nation of polymaths would simply give up listening to my awful attempts at their language and revert to English (arguing, somewhat patronisingly, that "yours is the more popular language, so we should speak English, rather than you speaking Dutch"). The bottom line is that the Dutch language just doesn't sound as poetic or as romantic as Italian, Spanish or French. Still, I should have learnt it; it wasn't about speaking it for effect - it should have been about learning it to communicate.

Now I find myself living in Paris, I know that I must learn French. Why? Because as Steve Martin famously warned: "If you go to Paris, France, 'Chapeau' means 'hat', and 'oeuf' means 'egg'. It's like those French have a different word for everything!".

Almost a month into my course, I'm wondering whether my brain has been progressively and poorly rewired over the years. I'm even seriously contemplating the possibility that mice have simply found their way in and chewed through the wiring. Whether it's stress, tiredness, laziness, or that you really can't teach an old dog new tricks, these twice-weekly, post-work lessons are making no progress whatsoever. What I can say, I can say. What I might want to say seems unattainable.

I'm frustrated by a glass ceiling of sorts: I see children of four learning new languages in a matter of months, their sponge-like brains soaking it up; I'm surrounded by non-native English speakers who are fluent in a variety of tongues, and yet by virtue of the fact I was born to speak what appears to be the closest the planet has to a common language, I feel cursed by ignorance and the inability to add to it fluently.

Technology hasn't helped: we're becoming congenitally lazy thanks to the Internet, and I'm as guilty of that as anyone. Need a fact? Wikipedia will have it. Confronted by another language? Whack it through Google Translate.

Perhaps my only hope is that, now we're in the 21st century, science fiction will become science fact: someone must be out there working on a real version of The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy's Babel Fish, or BIG RAT from Gerry Anderson's Joe 90. If they are, it will probably be Google.