Thursday, November 28, 2013

Prince Will.I.Am - livin' the dream

His mother frugged regularly to Queen, Duran Duran and George Michael, while his father talked to plants. And, during the 1980s no mid-summer Wembley Stadium concert by any of rock's royalty seemed complete without the Prince and Princess of Wales waving somewhat awkwardly from the Royal Box.

And while his father would inevitably look as if he'd rather be at the opera, Mama would be in her element, Mama not only being the People's Princess (© A. Blair) but also the Pop Princess (as opposed to Kylie, who clearly is the Princess of Pop. Fact.)

So we should not be too shocked to see HRH The Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and second in line to the throne of the United Kingdom, rocking out with Jon Bon Jovi and someone called Taylor Swift this week at the first karaoke party of the Christmas season. Actually, it was a charity concert at Kensington Palace, but same difference.

As you might imagine, it all looked a tad awkward: a future monarch, suited-and-booted in a crisp by-royal appointment tux, leaning in on the diminutive JBJ and giving it the full "Take one's hand, we'll make it I swear...." as they belted out that Cheese-o-Rama classic, Livin' On A Prayer.

What did David Bowie do....?

In one go, Wills nailed his street smarts to the wall: eldest son of the People's Princess joining in on a solidly blue collar song about the working folk of New Jersey making it through a downturn. And ending it with a high five. Well, at least the evening' charity cause was the homeless.

William's performance, we are informed by royal lickspittles, was entirely "off the cuff". But as anyone who has ever joined an office outing to a karaoke bar knows, there's always one shrew-like colleague who, given the spotlight and an open microphone will burst forth with lungs like an industrial-strength Dyson vacuum cleaner, catching everyone off-guard with their rendition of I Will Survive.

Tuesday evening wasn't the first time William has done this, either. He is known to have given a solo performance of the Bon Jovi hit at the 2011 wedding of his cousin Zara Phillips to rugbyist Mike Tindall.

But fair play to JBJ for putting up with his stage interloper this time, being one of the most pleasantly down to earth rock stars I've ever met (even if he did once say of his album New Jersey: "New Jersey isn't a place, it's an attitude").

And let's not get too snotty about Wills, either. Together with his, let's face it, cooler brother, and his posh but pleasantly normal wife, he is the top-selling line of a new hip(ish), sub-brand of the House of Windsor. When not steadying RAF search helicopters over the Irish Sea (so he could have chosen the Stones' Emotional Rescue then), William is taking the GLW out to the pictures on a Friday night, 'disguised' in a baseball hat.

As a threesome, they were the combined face of last year's London Olympics. And with Harry living the dream, flying attack helicopters and hanging out at Las Vegas pool parties, you couldn't get a better branding of the next generation of British royals.

So, if I was the PR department of either Sony's PlayStation or Microsoft's Xbox, and was in an enterprising frame of mind, I'd be shipping one of their latest PlayBoxes and the hottest karaoke game round to Ken Palace in time for Christmas. Because I'm sure there's nothing young Prince George will enjoy more on Christmas morning than his dad and Uncle H cranking up the sound system with a megamix of festive karaoke staples. "So 'ere it is Merry Christmas, everybody's 'avin' fun...!".

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Intrepid once, but no more

"We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too."

John Fitzgerald Kennedy, President of the United States of America, September 12, 1962

There was a time when anything seemed possible. When scale and ambition, and the scale of ambition, seemed limitless. When Kennedy made his speech 51 years ago, promising to put boots on the moon, the world was emerging from its World War economic hangover. After a first half dominated by the tectonic shifting of old empires, the second half of the 20th Century was to be dominated by technological possibility.

In America, the impossible was being embraced firmly as the possible. Fuelled by the ideological pissing contest that dominated our lives for the better part of four decades, the Americans and Russians threw stuff into space because they could. And then it seemed to stop, an a major scale at least.

This fell into perspective during my recent visit to the USS Intrepid, the aircraft carrier-come-floating museum moored permanently on the Hudson in New York. Perched on the stern-end of its flight deck is the Space Shuttle Enterprise, the first of NASA's 'orbiter' spacecraft that were designed to travel into space with the relative regularity that an Eddie Stobart truck ventures down Britain's M1 motorway.

 © Simon Poulter 2013
Science fiction special effects designers have led us to believe that space travel involves vast vessels, but the first thing you notice about the Shuttle is how small it is. I'm sure there are bigger SUVs in the US. And yet there was the simplicity of its 'launch-like-a-rocket, land-like-a-plane' principle, having the same shape and dimensions as a small airliner. But despite this relative normality, seeing it up close - an actual space ship - merely grinds away at the imagination, and how we're no longer using it.

© Simon Poulter 2013
Although Enterprise - unlike its television namesake - never went anywhere bolder than being hauled around on a Boeing 747 to test its design, it still represents a major sum of human capability.

133 Shuttle missions - including two tragic disasters - may not sound much compared with the 90,000 commercial aviation flights that take off and land every day - but none of them challenge gravity as the NASA shuttles did, even if George Clooney's character in Gravity- the film - is of the opinion that flying them "is not rocket science".

Sir Richard Branson's sub-orbital Virgin Galactic venture might be at least one worthy attempt to keep manned spaceflight going, but the abandonment of the Shuttle programme, and very little intent from anyone else to put people into space, means that we, as a species, have done no more than stepped outside the door, sniffed the air and gone inside to watch Homes Under The Hammer with a packet of Hobnobs.

One deck below the Enterprise on the Intrepid is evidence of when space was shiny and new, and Kennedy's belief in doing things, not because they were easy, but because they were hard and made "the best of our energies and skills".

© Simon Poulter 2013
In Intrepid's main hangar is a replica of the capsule that took Scott Carpenter into space in May 1962 as part of the Mercury missions, NASA's program to test manned spaceflight as a precursor to, ultimately, the Apollo moon landings itself.

The capsule is tiny, resembling the cap of a large toothpaste tube, with an interior space about the same size as the cockpit of a small family car. What it lacks in transporter rooms, a spacious bridge and photon torpedoes it more than makes up for in terms of human advancement.

So, where is the Mercury mission of 2013? Why could we choose to go the moon in the 1960s but, 50 years on, can only um and agh about returning there, let alone committing to a mission to Mars.

It's not, however, just space where we appear to have lost our ambition. Parked next to the Intrepid is one of British Airways' decommissioned Concordes. Another product of an era when governments had something to prove and were prepared to sink millions of taxpayers' money into doing so, Concorde is still a source of wonderment, an icon of a now dwindled era of envelopes being pushed.

© Simon Poulter 2013

Concorde might have been, ultimately, a political folly - a final act of two colonial powers (Britain and France) to demonstrate their aviation virility - but what a stunning folly it was. And practical. Three-and-a-half hours between New York's JFK airport and London (one record-setting flight did it in two hours and 55 minutes), it literally shrunk the world. It enabled celebrities like David Frost to work from London and New York almost simultaneously, and famously allowed Phil Collins to perform at Live Aid twice.

In service, Concorde was the most beautiful sight in the sky: growing up under its flight path into and out of Heathrow, a sighting was a minor event in its own right. Planes might take off or land every two minutes at Heathrow, but nothing - then or now - could replicate the appearance in the West London sky of that distinctive white arrow. Nor could anything replicate the aspiration it represented. As commercial air travel became ever-more accessible to the masses, Concorde remained deliciously out of reach, delightfully anachronistic in representing the era of luxury trans-Atlantic travel. It was a plane that people still dreamed of travelling on.

It wasn't, however, quite the luxury liner of the skies that Concorde tickets might have suggested: 100 passengers squeezed into an aluminium dart just over two and half metres wide, travelling at twice the speed of sound. Today's business class sections offer considerably more comfort. But not the convenience.

Crammed into a Boeing 757 for my trip to New York earlier this month, I couldn't help feeling how passenger aviation had regressed. Business models - like those of Ryanair and EasyJet - may have put air travel in reach of millions - but their planes are little more than flying buses. Airbuses, indeed.

Seeing a Concorde sat, incongruously, next to a World War 2-built aircraft carrier with a Space Shuttle on its deck, seemed to reduce Mankind's greatest air and space achievements to a novelty, a Ripley's Believe It Or Not! freakshow for the winged. I couldn't also, help noting the irony that a plane New Yorkers once tried to ban for being too noisy was now parked on the western end of their own 44th Street...

© Simon Poulter 2013

Yesterday, November 26, marked the tenth anniversary of the last commercial flight of a Concorde. Ten years of nothing. What a tragedy. Instead of going faster, we have gone further but slower, lumbering through the air in technologically superior Airbus A380s and the cursed Dreamliner, but slower and with less wonder.

"It was probably more advanced than Apollo 11, which put the first men on the Moon," Jock Lowe, Concorde's longest-serving pilot recently told BBC reporter Richard Westcott. "No military plane came anywhere close. It was so manoeuvrable and there was so much spare power, even ex-fighter pilots weren't used to it."

Despite its negative image as a fuel-guzzling über noise polluter, Concorde was also one of the most technically advanced planes developed in the 1960s and 1970s, with innovations like fly-by-wire technology long before it became Airbus's big thing. Maintaining such complexity was given as one of the reasons British Airways and Air France withdrew their Concord fleets.

Profitability, however, was never an issue: despite plenty of harrumphing about the exorbitant sums of development money pumped into Concorde by the British and French governments, it didn't do too badly for making money, earning more than £500 million over its operational lifetime.

This is something Sir Richard Branson is acutely aware of. At the time British Airways halted flights of their Concordes, Branson offered to buy them. BA turned him down. Branson lobbied then-Prime Minister Tony Blair, claiming it to be "a scandal" that the taxpayer-funded plane was being axed when there was "a company" - Virgin Atlantic - willing to keep flying.

© Simon Poulter 2013

"As well as losing a uniquely beautiful and capable aircraft, it seemed like human ingenuity and technological innovation and had taken a backward step," Branson wrote recently on his blog. "We actually fought hard at Virgin to keep Concorde flying. I still have a wonderful desk model of the plane in full Virgin Atlantic livery but despite offering one million pounds for each aircraft (they were originally sold to BA by the British Government for a pound), sadly our friends at British Airways were having none of it and decommissioned the planes in a way that makes any chance of them flying again an unlikely prospect."

Despite campaigns to get at least one Concorde airborne as a 'heritage flight' - much like the Royal Air Force's Battle Of Britain flight so popular of air shows and royal events - the Anglo-French marvel remains grounded, rooted to the spot like the French Concorde on display at Paris' Charles de Gaulle Airport, or the British Concorde at the Intrepid.

"We firmly believe that the technical and safety challenges of returning a Concorde to the skies are absolutely prohibitive," says a spokesperson for BA. Others, though, disagree. The Save Concorde Group believes that £20 million is all it would take to get one flying again. That's roughly what Johnny Depp got paid for the last Pirates Of The Caribbean instalment. And I know what I'd rather see flying...

For now we must be resigned to the fact that air travel will not be getting any quicker or, for the majority of us, more luxurious. The mega plane deals being struck last week at the Dubai Airshow were for the latest behemoths from Boeing and Airbus, lightweight, carbon-fibre giants like the 777x designed to move as many people from one place to another as fuel-efficiently and cost effectively as possible. Which means being crammed in, ironically, as Concorde passengers once were. Except without the champagne.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Flogging a dead parrot?

"Comedy is the new rock and roll", much like "brown is the new black" and "70 is the new 50" is one of those pointless throwaways that media folk spit out like flavour-evaporated chewing gum. It might make sense at the time, but it just adds to the clutter of other people's discarded, not-for-digestion confection.

And thus, whenever it is announced that Britain's jester du jour is to headline their own rock venue show (and we go back as far The Mary Whitehouse Experience cast on this, not forgetting more recent inductees like Eddie Izzard, Michael McIntyre, John Bishop and Russell Brand), there is an audible rush to the typewriters to declare C is the new R and R.

The announcement, then, that the surviving members of the Monty Python team are to stage not one - as previously announced - but five shows next July at London's O2 Arena is about as rock and roll as it is possible to get in comedy. After all, Led Zeppelin only managed one reunion show at the O2, and yet the Pythons - somewhat validly described last week by Eddie Izzard as "The Beatles of comedy" - are to go four nights further, with a hint of more to come.

To their credit, they are mostly transparent as to the motivation: money. Terry Jones says he wants to pay off his mortgage, John Cleese wants to pay off his latest and most eye-wateringly savage divorce settlement. And why shouldn't they. If the schedules of rock's grand-papas can be bulging with coffer-stuffing greatest hits tours, why not the closest thing comedy has got to the expansive creativity that music went through in the late 1960s and early 1970s?

As their musical counterparts drew on the influences of '50s rock'n'roll, blues and R&B, so the Pythons drew upon The Goon Show, the still brilliantly surrealist and jaw-achingly funny radio show that turned Peter Sellers into a star, Harry Secombe into a British national institution, and came close to putting the genius Spike Milligan in a British national institution.

But, like the superannuated rock bands from the British invasion who are still minting it today, the Pythons face a similar dilemma of relevance. And if we stretch the musical comparison further, the benchmark they will have to meet will not be the arena-filling likes of Bishop, Brand or Gervais, but the stadium-packing Rolling Stones and the McCartneys of this world.

At least they won't be matching the Stones for hard currency, with tickets for the Pythons' O2 shows priced between £27.50 and £90 (or, as Eric Idle caustically put it, "only £300 less than the Stones"). But if Mick, Keef, Charlie and Ron can still turn a decent coin and maintain their justifiable status as the world's greatest rock band (with Mick now a great-grandfather, God help him), playing songs first recorded almost 50 years ago, the Pythons will have the unenviable task of trying to pull off comedy routines that were funny - though not always obviously so - in 1971.

I can, today, listen to a Goon Show and laugh like a drain for long after. But that's down to Spike Milligan's brilliance at writing for radio ("It's all in the mind, you know"). The Pythons face the struggle of overfamiliar material (there wasn't a sixth form common room in the early 1970s that couldn't do The Dead Parrot Sketch verbatim) and somewhat dated humour (Terry Jones in drag speaking in a high voice? A comedy staple from Dick Emery to Little Britain).

So why, then, have the Pythons' O2 shows sold out as fast as Led Zepp's one-off? For, presumably, much the same reason as the Led Zepp one-off: nostalgia. And there's nothing wrong with that. I would gladly hand over my hard-earned to see again any of the bands that were the foundation of my original love of music, even if they offer nothing more than a greatest hits show in the process. Why? Because it's what they do best.

But with comedians, and especially television comedians, I'm not so sure the vibe will be quite the same. What made Monty Python's Flying Circus so unique at the time (but somewhat patchy now, the "hits" not withstanding) was the use of television as a medium. The non-sequitur style, and studio sketches morphing into filmed sequences which morphed into Terry Gilliam's cock-eyed animations, was a virtue of the format...and the BBC's willingness to let it go out. Not involving ballroom dancing, naff singing, cooking, house buying or antique owning, I doubt the Pythons would get on to the BBC now.

So, more than 30 years after their last stage performance, the Pythons will get the chance to expand their television-dimensioned mirth in the huge space that is the O2. And it will be like a great band reforming. But before we get too hyperbolic about the O2 run, comedy has been there before. The Pythons themselves played at the 17,000-seat Hollywood Bowl, 33 years ago. And during his time as a breakthrough comedian, Steve Martin played many shows at arenas such as Colorado's Red Rocks Ampitheater with his "wild and crazy guy" routine and King Tut novelty hit.

When Genesis came out of retirement in 2007 to stage their Turn It On Again tour, it was deliberately an opportunity to say goodbye to as many people in as short a space of time. 47 shows in Europe and North America, starting in Helsinki and ending in Los Angeles, all at large outdoors stadia. The Pythons - who, incidentally, toured with Genesis in the 1970s on the famous Charisma Records package tours - may not be saying farewell yet, but the pack'em-in approach is understandable - 100,000 paying punters during the O2 run alone.

The one big difference between the Pythons and a rock band comeback is that with the latter, anything is possible as long as the lead singer can still sing and read an autocue, and the lead guitarist is suitably past need for rehab to get those classic licks right. The Monty Python five (minus the actually dead Graham Chapman, of course), who have a combined age of 357 years, plus their somewhat unreconstructed female stooge Carol Cleveland, will be reviving sketches written in the era of black and white TV, when Britain's currency was pounds, shillings and pence, when cross-dressing lumberjacks could be considered a source of joviality, rather than a lifestyle choice.

The last time I watched Monty Python's Flying Circus I was left somewhat underwhelmed. Even for a Goon Show fan like me, much of the Pythons' television work was dating badly, perennial gems like The Spanish Inquisition, The Four Yorkshiremen, The Argument Clinic and Silly Upper Class Twit Of The Year not withstanding.

Oddly, though, their films haven't. Monty Python & The Holy Grail and Life Of Brian should both be enshrined in even the most basic of movie collections, if only for the creatively derogative representation of the French in the first, and the fantastically infantile "Biggus Dickus" gag in the second (like the baked beans scene of Blazing Saddles, I defy anyone not to watch this bit of Brian and not want to have

The Pythons live at the O2 next summer will, naturally, be somewhere between the rock band reunion and the world's largest out-of-season pantomime. As you get at any arena gig, there will be the complete tool next to you reciting all the sketches along with the performers; but the biggest challenge will be the Arena itself.

As Bruce Dessau, The Guardian's respected comedy critic noted earlier this year: "Appearing at the O2 might be good for business, in other words, but it's not necessarily good for comedy. I'm not entirely against massive gigs, but they are simply not what stand-up should be about. Comedy should be all about communication and intimacy. At the O2 Arena it is more about bombast, hot dogs and those darn video screens."

The Monty Python gang are clearly not stand-up comedians, but comedy is an intimate medium. It won't provide the same groove as a rock concert, even if the scale of both the act and venue is. Standup is best when performed in a back-of-the-pub room, though it's not the worst entertainment you can stage in an arena. But, let's face it, you may as well stay at home with the comedian's latest DVD.

And so that might prove to be the case with the Pythons. A spectacular rock show at the O2 - as I witnessed last month with Peter Gabriel - works because of the sound, light and star power filling the hall. Five septuagenarians reviving comedy material devised for television more than four decades ago in a 20,000-seat cavern may stretch the sides of comedy, but might not split the sides of the audience.

But let's not dismiss the prospect too soon. Aristotle once said "The secret to humor is surprise", and as he was the philosopher who was "very much the man in form" in Monty Python's Greek Philosophers-versus-German Footballers sketch from 1972, we should take his word for it.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Walk The Line

© Simon Poulter 2013
For a city so seemingly welded to mechanised transportation, one of the true joys of New York is its walkability.

With its traffic-choked streets packed tightly into a 23-square mile mesh, and the subway providing an edgy, but quick, means of getting around only if you're prepared to travel in vertical lines, your own feet are often the quickest form of transport here.

Which makes The High Line a very logical development in urban wellbeing. It's a public park and walkway created from a disused, elevated railway line built in 1934 to carry freight 30 feet above New York's West Side.

(Facebook/The High Line)
In 1999, with the then out-of-commission line due to be demolished, a group of local residents started campaigning to turn the track into a unique urban park. The outcome was the formation of a not-for-profit organisation that would managed the exhaustive effort to raise the substantial amount of money needed to transfom the former railway line, and then maintain and run the park on an ongoing basis.

Ten years later the first section opened, running from the junction of Gansevoort Street and Washington Street in the Meatpacking District to West 20th. A second section followed two years ago taking the trail a further ten blocks to West 30th, just west of 10th Avenue.

Currently running for just a mile and a half, The High Line is hardly America's most strenuous hiking trail. There are even elevators at each end for those who can't use the various staircases accessing the trail along the way. But this isn't a trail designed for those hearty types who are happiest stomping through the wilderness. This is a walk through the urban jungle.

For its duration, The High Line provides fascinating glimpse of the Manhattan you would never see if you only stuck to Times Square and Broadway. Yes, there are stunning views of the Empire State Building poking the skyline, and lofty views of New York's cross streets, stretching up an over Manhattan's bony spine. But there are also abandoned factories, warehouses, even the former site of Bell Labs, now part of the company I work for. Interspersed with the trees and plants are pieces of abstract art and scultpure, and tunnels coursing through the supports of buildings, as the original High Line track would have carried freight into the heart of the city.

© Simon Poulter 2013
The High Line is a fantastic oasis of calm, snaking in and out of some of New York's oldest industrial buildings and some of its sleekest steel and glass office complexes. Along the way, it's carefully-tended flora - which on my visit was in full autumnal colour - adds to the sense of relaxation.

© Simon Poulter 2013
© Simon Poulter 2013
There's more to come, too: last night the High Line organisation unveiled plans for a third section, The Spur, that will extend beyond West 30th Street and into a wide open area adjacent to 10th Avenue that will create New York's newest park, a wide, wooded space in what were originally railway yards. The aim is to have the $76 million extension open later next year, with funding coming from a combination of private philanthropy and some public funds.

Picture courtesy of The High Line Org.
Walking is one of the surprising attractions of New York, a city whose yellow cabs are as prominent a representative symbol as any of its fixed attractions. Apart from anything else, its estimated 8,000 miles of streets are the easiest form of mass transit. From a Midtown hotel you can be in the East Village, TriBeCa, SoHo or Central Park in the space of half an hour - often the time it takes to walk to and into a subway station and wait for the right train - or get through traffic.

What makes The High Line, however, one of New York's simplest but greatest treasures is that you can't help but feeling becalmed after taking a stroll along it. Arriving, if walking north-to-south, in the Meatpacking District, you then have the West Village, TriBeCa and SoHo beyond it, before walking into the hectic concrete canyons of the Financial District.

For a mile and a half, then, The High Line is the perfect antidote to the city that never sleeps, not that you would wish New York to be any different. New York is the city you come to as a visitor because you want the hustle and bustle. The High Line is, though, an innovation borne of innovation. To some it might just be a footpath on a disused railway track, but to this tourist, it's a half hour-injection (or an hour, or two hours or however long you want to take) of tranquility.

© Simon Poulter 2013

For further information about The High Line visit

Sunday, November 10, 2013

In A New York Minute - the Eagles live at Madison Square Garden

© Simon Poulter 2013
We've all done it. We've all wondered what it must be like to have lived in a different era. For me, it's a very specific time and a very specific location: the canyons that stream north into the Hollywood Hills from Sunset Boulevard, around 1970.

For there, amid a haze of strangely sweet-smelling smoke and all manner of bed-hopping, was a music scene that mainly wore denim and hung out in shacks, huts and ramshackle houses in Laurel Canyon and on various semi-rural stretches of Mulholland Drive.

At the time, Los Angeles was taking on both New York (then the traditional HQ of America's music industry) and London for the title of Music Capital of the World. As the West Coast has always done, it had drawn musical gold diggers to its sunshine and casual vibe, generating a post-Beach Boys LA cocktail of rock, folk and country, and bands like The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and their offspring Crosby, Stills & Nash (and Young), The Flying Burrito Brothers and Poco.

Night after night, the legendary Troubador club on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood would host various combinations of these bands and their associates, like Linda Ronstadt and Joni Mitchell. 

It was beautiful and it was groovy, and just a short, battered Porsche drive down the twisting, turning, thrill-seek that is Laurel Canyon Boulevard, before heading back to whichever bed was in use that night.

In the middle of all this, a confident young man from Detroit, Michigan - Glenn Frey - was sleeping on the floor of a room rented by a young songwriter by the name of Jackson Browne. Frey would later be introduced - by Ronstadt - to a wry Texan called Don Henley. Together, these two aspirational  immigrants to the Golden State would form, in 1971, one of the bands that would define West Coast FM radio-friendly soft rock for the exact duration of the 1970s before imploding acrimoniously in 1980, with Henley avowing to reform "when Hell froze over". I am, of course, talking about the Eagles.

Speed forward 14 years and the Devil himself had clearly begun ice skating to the office. For in 1994, at the tail-end of the MTV Unplugged era, Henley and Frey, together with Joe Walsh, Timothy B. Schmidt and Don Felder got together to do a live show, Hell Freezes Over. Sense of humour clearly reconstructed. But this being the Eagles meant that it wouldn't be long before more strife, with the gifted guitarist Felder (it is he and Walsh who perform the legendary guitar duet on Hotel California) being fired in 2001 and then it all turning sour with lawsuits over royalties.

Fast forward again to 2013 and the Eagles are keen to tell their story. Their DVD/Blu-ray Disc documentary History Of The Eagles is doing boffo business, being a warts'n'all (albeit carefully so) account of their 42-year story. Which has brought them out on the road to tell their story, including three nights at New York's Madison Square Garden, the ludicrously enormous host of boxing fights, ice hockey and basketball games, where in front of my seat in the first row of my tier, there are TV monitors. Presumably for the myopic who can't quite see what's happening on the floor below. Or, for those easily bored and need something else to watch. Occasionally it hosts rock concerts, though just how Ed Sheehan managed to sell it out a few nights earlier baffles me now.

However, for almost the next three hours, however, it would be hard to be bored. Logging in at 27 songs, this show by the Eagles is a deliberately exhaustive greatest hits trail. Last summer, as I was driving from Chicago to LA on Route 66, I was listening to a box set of the six albums the band made between 1972 and 1979. Six albums. Seven years.

© Simon Poulter 2013
And its that canon that they run through tonight. Kicking off with a folksy set of early songs like Saturday NightTrain Leaves Here This Morning and Peaceful Easy Feeling, Frey, Henley, Schmidt and Walsh are perched on top of amps and flight cases, slightly contrivedly recreating how they used to jam and write in the early days. Delightfully, they are joined by Bernie Leadon, the former Flying Burrito Brother who was their lead guitarist (and banjo player long before hipsters made it fashionable....) until leaving in 1975 as a result of musical disillusionment.

Gradually, the set cranks up, Witchy Woman from their debut album and Doolin-Dalton from the Western-themed Desperado album that followed it, running through the sanguine Tequila Sunrise, and the evening's first singalongs, The Best of My Love and Lyin' Eyes. There's no escaping the fact that, at this point in the Eagles' career, they had quickly established themselves as the sound of LA that suited LA at the time.

Other bands, like Led Zeppelin, for example, may have turned LA into their playground, but the Eagles - along with Steely Dan and, perhaps the post-blues Fleetwood Mac - came to exemplify a form of music that wasn't quite rock, wasn't quite country, wasn't quite blues and wasn't quite soul.

© Simon Poulter 2013
But did sound good while driving up Pacific Coast Highway to Malibu on a sultry evening. One of These Nights is the song that captures that mood perfectly, and here at the MSG (which obviously shares its acronym with a key ingredient of Chinese food) it swings with a laid-back vigour, Henley demonstrating the remarkable and unique art of singing and drumming (an exclusive club populated by the likes of Micky Dolenz, Dave Clark, Karen Carpenter, The Bangles' Debbi Peterson, Meg White and Phil Collins).

Indeed throughout the show Henley demonstrates his musical virtuosity, switching between lead vocals, drums, guitar and backing percussion, dressed in a voluminous check shirt that gives him the air of a hardware store owner. His vocals are spot on, that slightly higher register of his defying the gruff, deep and dry Texan accent of his spoken voice. Indeed vocal duties are shared out equally - Frey, who always looks to be in the deepest pain when he sings, scrunching his entire face up, passing the vocal baton to the ever-so delicate-looking Schmidt, who provides an even higher register. Along with CS&N, the Eagles always were one of the great close-harmony vocal bands, something Frey explains later comes from their love of The Beach Boys.

Even 42 years after they formed, the Eagles still sound exactly as they did when you first heard them on the radio. But that doesn't mean that their performance is bland. Far from it. But after a 20-minute interval ("some members of the band need to use the bathroom," Frey quips at the end of Take It To The Limit), they return with an additional vigour. Joe Walsh, to be exact.

© Simon Poulter 2013
Walsh was already regarded as one of the best session guitarists in the business when he joined the Eagles in 1976 after Leadon had left. And his arrival marked a harder, bluesier edge to the band, with him making his recorded debut on the Hotel California album.

The second half of the Eagles set, however, starts off with a Walsh song from that album that had neither much to do with his guitar prowess or the band's country-rock back story: Pretty Maids All in a Row.

With its piano and synth backing, it was a new sound entirely for the Eagles, adding, in Walsh's own words, "a melancholy reflection on my life so far...and a valid statement for people from our generation."

Any band is a collection of personalities. And the Eagles are no exception. Frey is sharp-witted but contains a mid-western steel; Henley, ascerbic, Texan, and you just never know whether or not he's pissed off about something); Schmidt is the more accessible member, who replaced the ailing Randy Meisner and considers himself the "newcomer"; Walsh, however, is the rock star. He gets to be the class clown, the unpredictable whack-job who adds the sort of craziness to a relatively dry band  in the way Ilie Năstase used to make tennis matches more entertaining. Only not as annoying, thankfully.

On his own composition In the City he demonstrates some of the best bottleneck slide guitar you'll ever here, while on the ironic Life's Been Good, he larks around with all the seriousness expected of a song that
self-deprecatingly took a shot at the rock star lifestle. The James Gang's Funk #49, provides Walsh and the entire band with another solid workout, leading up to Life In the Fast Lane, another Walsh contribution to the rockier Hotel California album.

The first encore begins with the distinctive, jangling 12-string arpeggio, played tonight by long-serving support guitarist Steuert Smith. "On a long desert highway," blasts Henley as he pounds the equally familiar reggae-ish rhythm on his tom-toms, and the crowd, perhaps for the first time tonight, goes proper wild. The trouble with Hotel California - the song - is that it has become over-familiar. Almost four decades of constant play on myriad genres of radio stations have almost turned it into rock's equivalent of Monty Python's Dead Parrot Sketch, you know the jokes before they've come out.

© Simon Poulter 2013
Thus, Hotel California is performed with supreme precision, but with something lacking. Perhaps the band know it's their contractual obligation to play it.

The famed guitar duet - here played by Walsh and Smith - is performed with unwavering accuracy, it's complex interplay and 'human overdubbing' showing little variation from the studio original - but oddly, for the signature song of a band which represents pristine FM rock - it's the first time tonight that the Eagles have sounded so clinical.

Perhaps relieved to have gotten that song out of the way, and after another quick shimmy offstage, the Eagles return with the number which launched their career: Taking It Easy. I have a particular affinity with this song. 23 years ago I was working in an office of creative people, and to make the day more creative, we managed to acquire an office stereo. Unfortunately, we had a limited choice of music to listen to, largely the result of a boss who insisted on playing The Best of Eagles daily. Which meant the twanging, countrified guitar into - 'dang-dang-der-danga-danga-dang' is etched in my brain, along with that opening line "Well, I'm running down the road tryin' to loosen my load, I've got seven women on my mind".

© Simon Poulter 2013
It is, however, the second verse that would, like a terrorist sleeper cell, animate itself much later on in life: "Well, I'm a standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona, and such a fine sight to see. It's a girl, my Lord, in a flatbed Ford slowin' down to take a look at me," is so specific a destination that, while driving Route 66 I couldn't help but visiting Winslow, Arizona where, at the corner of 2nd Street and Kingsley Avenue - there is a park dedicated to just this song.

Together with a gift shop pumping out Eagles songs (see From Holbrook, AZ to Lake Havasu City, AZ - Takin' It Easy). Obviously. 2,256 miles away, the song has taken on a rousing singalong value, turning MSG into a 20,000-seat country bar on a Saturday night, minus the cowboy boots, stetsons and fist fights.

With the crowd now having a good time, Walsh returns to the spotlight for Rocky Mountain Way, that blues-rock avalanche featuring the blond guitarist managing to play two Les Pauls at once, while singing - or playing? I never know which - into that plastic tube doobry that he, Pete Frampton and Floyd's David Gilmour managed to use to create a weir mash-up between voice and electric guitar.

And with that, there is just one more shuffle offstage before the Eagles - the harmonious, wise-cracking, self-depreciating, happy to trawl back through their history, 2013 edition - return to the stage and the piano introduction of Desperado, the sweeping, soft-rock anthem that was the title of what was meant to be a concept album about cowboys. Them 1970s, eh?

This has, however, been an exhaustive journey back through the Eagles' history. A 27-song set is an impressive achievement by any band, even more impressive for a band that has only released seven studio albums. There are acts with a considerably longer back catalogue who wouldn't invest in anywhere near as much stage time.

Like so many bands of the West Coast, soft-rock era, there is always room for people to sneer about the Eagles, that it was unadventurous music made for unadventurous music fans. But this show tonight has, if partly due to the grandiose scale of the venue, successfully amplified a band who were always about the songwriting. Walsh maybe their token showoff - and always entertaining he is too - but the Eagles were never about rock pyrotechnics and Lurex-clad mayhem. They were always about the LA lifestyle, the laid-back coastal vibe, the sun-dappled living of the Hollywood hills. And they managed to bring a taste of that to the chilly streets of Manhattan on a cold November night...and still render this fan dreaming of life in the not-so fast lane, 43 years ago.

© Simon Poulter 2013

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Time to bar the beard

What Would David Bowie Do? has arrived in New York City, which remains – as David Lettermen nightly attests – The Greatest City In The World™.

There is so much to like about New York. And there is much more to it than the borough of Manhattan, that Ritz Cracker of an island with thousands of cocktail sticks poking upwards from its cramped grid of streets. But for the most part, and despite the allure of quaint Staten Island or Brooklyn’s light and shade, the old school seaside charm of Brighton Beach and Coney Island, Manhattan IS New York.

As soon as you arrive via bridge or tunnel you sense its energy. You can smell it, too (to which I oft refer to the late, great Bill Hicks: “‘Bill, you should give up smoking! Give up smoking and you’ll regain your sense of smell!’ ‘Why do I need that? I live in New York!’”).

You immediately get a sense of the enormity of a city accommodating eight million people – a million and a half of those alone in the 23 square miles that constitute Manhattan. Proximity brings its pressures, but there really is nothing more amusing than watching New Yorkers fight over who bagged a taxi first at rush hour on a Friday night. People have fought hard to come to New York, and once there, they’re not going to give up that easily.

So the two-word "M and P" cliché goes, New York is the exemplification of the United States and that ‘land of opportunity’ stuff.  Out there in the middle of its harbour sits the Statue of Liberty, her flaming torch welcoming those seeking freedom and a chance to make it. No wonder almost 40% of New York’s residents can claim to have been born somewhere else. And it is that mad, insane cocktail of just about every nationality known to mankind: Chinese, Filipino, Korean, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Fijian, Australian, Lebanese, Syrian, Jews from all over Eastern Europe, Iraqi, Iranian, Irish, Italian, German, Polish, Romanian, Russian, British, Greek, Ukrainian, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Mexican, Ecuadorian, Colombian, Salvadoran - clearly not the exhaustive list, but you get the point.

Then throw into the mix the numerous industries of New York – from the mad men (and manettes) of Madison Avenue’s advertising agencies, to the universally popular financial community, the fashion business, publishing, media, tourism and the world’s greatest collection of restaurants, bars and pubs.

I could go on, but I won’t, because there are more pressing matters at hand. Specifically, one particular group of New Yorkers who, by now, might even qualify for ethnic status of their own: hipsters. 

For those not in the know, the hipster is that breed of urban, middle-class (and, it would appear, mainly WASP) twentysomething or thirtysomething who has adopted the 21st century’s equivalent of late 1960s hippyism, by growing beards, eating organically and buying organically, owning a ukulele, and managing to shun consumerism while ensuring they’re wearing the coolest brand of skinny jeans and myriad other trends du jour.

Last August, Caitlin Moran - without doubt the finest newspaper columnist working in the ink industry today - wrote a piece for The Times defending the hipster from the rampant hatred that had been springing up against them.

"I would like to speak out on behalf of one of the most reviled sub-species in the world," she wrote, prompted by the bizarre news that animal sanctuaries in America’s hipster hubs (New York, Los Angeles, Miami, etc) were being “overrun” – and that was the word - by formerly pet chickens that their city dwelling urban cool owners were unable to cope with any more. Yes, chickens.

Friends’ Joey and Chandler may have started this by adopting a duck and a chick as their housepets, but the modern trend has, evidently, not been fueled by aviatic companionship as the intention to set up a rather limited free range egg production line.

Frankly, however, such a painful and agonizingly stupid attempt to appropriate coolness by owning a chicken is nothing compared to the hipster accessory I despise the most: the beard.

For transparency and balance, I should point out that this does, of course, apply to only, and this is a rough estimate, half of the hipster population. But that’s bad enough.

Near the end of WWDBD?’s "epic" drive across America on Route 66 this summer, it entered Los Angeles the Silver Lake neighbourhood. For the brief duration that 66 runs along the Silver Lake end of Sunset Boulevard, there were streams of preposterously-bearded young men heading for organic restaurants.

The irony hit me quite soon: here were hordes of men, in their beards and lumberjack shirts, looking like the very gold miners who turned California into a state of flailing pick axes in the mid-19th century. But instead of searching for nuggets of Earth’s most coveted commodity, they were out in force looking for an exotically-sourced cup of coffee, or a table at that restaurant specializing in ethnic Cambodian fare (which might probably include a French baguette, a legacy of French colonial rule).

I say that the beardos of Silver Lake was an ironic sight, but hipsterism is, I’m told, all about irony. Hipster ownership of bone-shaking, testicle-shrinking Penny Farthing-style bicycles is an ironic statement, and not some comment on affluent middle-class urbanites buying the most expensive road bikes they can find; the wearing of T-shirts bearing the logos of toothpaste brands from the 1960s, once-reviled rock bands from the 1970s, and TV series from the 1980s is purely about irony, making a statement that says: “Yes, I may look a twat in my oversized white-frame WayFarers, and my beard is now so long I actually use it as a doormat, but look at me wearing a Styxx 1975 tour T-shirt – I’m so organically, ethically-contentedly wacky!”.

The reason the United States hasn’t tipped into the sea due to all that hipster beard growth in Los Angeles is that the weight is more than balanced, it would appear, by the hipster population of New York. Since arriving last night I have been traumatized by the length, breadth and all-round volume of the hipster pelt on display on the city’s streets. And that was just in one cab ride from the airport.

Ground Zero for New York’s hipster explosion is the district of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, a mass of coffee shops, farmer’s markets, second-hand and 'non-brand' clothing shops, and lots and lots and lots of people cycling around (no hipster owns a car) dressed in a mixture of vintage attire and H&M, Urban Outfitters and American Apparel. Oh, and even more ironic T-shirts.

I was recently watching an episode of the excellent Blue Bloods, in which Tom Selleck and his entire family are the New York City Police Department, and they were confronted with a terrorist attack on New York in which the bad guys were about to release a weaponised mutation of influenza. Kindergarten teachers will know how virulent this can be. So Tom brought in his flu-as-terrorist-weapon expert who did that thing TV and movie disaster stories do, where they calculate how soon it will be before everyone is affected. The expectation, he said, was that within 72 hours millions would be sick. Without a cure. That, my friends, is how fast hipsterism spun out of control out of Brooklyn.

But beware, oh luxuriously bearded ones. For America does not share your over-zealous trend-setting: according to a report in the Washington Times earlier this year, many Americans don’t like hipsters. A Public Policy Polling survey found that only 16 percent of Americans regarded hipsters favourably, while 42 percent were decidedly unfavorable, although clearly a third of Americans couldn’t be arsed to have an opinion at all.

“We asked voters whether they thought hipsters made a positive cultural contribution to society or whether they just ‘soullessly appropriate cultural tropes from the past for their own ironic amusement,’” the poll’s analysis read, somewhat weightily, adding that “Twenty-three percent of voters said they made positive cultural contributions, while nearly half — 46 percent — went with soulless cultural appropriation.” Of some note, Republicans expressed the strongest opinions of all.

I have no strong opinion in any direction as to whether hipsters add anything to society. The only truck I carry is for that stupid, stupid beard. Extending the chin out like an airliner’s escape slide is not only ridiculous to look at, but impractical. As someone who regularly sports some degree of facial hirsuteness (currently limited to a barber-standard No.4 length, I’ll have you know), I know that any excessive length of hair on the mug will be prone to acting as an unplanned repository for toast crumbs, Cheetos, hummus, toothpaste and mouthwash on a regular basis. Trendier distances of beard must raise high the risk of small woodland animals setting up shop.

It must stop.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Oh Mother, it's happening again...

Along with obesity, flat bed trucks and Krispy Kreme doughnuts, another unwelcome American import to Britain is the Halloween celebration.

In America it is virtually a national holiday, a strangely pagan celebration in such an occasionally puritanical country. By August, its supermarkets are bulging with trick-or-treat paraphernalia, and by September its children are already running around in anticipation of the chocolate-fuelled frenzy they'll be whipped into come October's end.

So why any country would wish to import this commercial juggernaut is beyond me. Which is why, at risk of crossing a line of political correctness, I was somewhat impressed by the investment in Halloween made by the woman in Orpington, a leafy suburb of London, who, when visited by trick-or-treating children, opened the front door dressed in a blood-stained apron wielding a large knife in one hand and a bag containing a lamb's heart. Needless to say, the children and their parents are a tad upset. The woman in question has branded the stunt as a "bit of fun". The Daily Mail is, as I write, still unknotting its underwear over the prank. 

While not wishing to condone the emotional disturbance of children, I am quite glad to live in a country (France) that very sensibly eschews the American-style Halloween circus in favour of taking All Saints Day, the day after Halloween, off as a Catholic holiday.

Anyway, for one group of Londoners - let's just call them the players and managerial staff of Chelsea Football Club - Halloween has a habit of marking the start of a particularly unpleasant, particularly traumatic and particularly debilitating tradition known as November.

Because no matter who is in charge, whichever miscreant has been handed the poisoned chalice of being named 'head coach' at Chelsea, the weeks after Halloween have, over the last several seasons, been one long, night sweat-inducing pavor nocturnus. 

Last season it happened like clockwork: on October 31, the Blues finished 5-4 victors after a legendary League Cup tie against Manchester United. By November 3 they were drawing 1-1 in a dismal encounter away to Swansea. And then it pretty much collapsed until December: 1-1 against Liverpool on November 11, a 2-1 defeat to West Bromwich Albion on the 17th, a 3-0 defeat to Juventus in the Champions League on November 20, 0-0 against Manchester City at Stamford Bridge on the 25th, 0-0 again against Fulham at the Bridge three days later, and a 3-1 defeat to West Ham on December 1.

Thankfully, December brought a 6 - 1 win over FC Nordsjælland in the Champions League, 3-1 win over Sunderland in the league, 5-1 win over Leeds in the League Cup, and 8-0 over Aston Villa in the league, with wins following away to Norwich and Everton over the Christmas program.

In previous seasons the November to Christmas period - and beyond - has been a source of nothing but frustration followed by recovery at the tail end of winter (accompanied by the inevitable change of manager).

So you could easily forgive José Mourinho for being "angry" following yesterday's 2-0 defeat to Newcastle at St. James' Park. "I'm angry because I don't understand [why we lost]," said The (Un)Happy One. "I was expecting to lose my next game when the opponent was fantastic or when we were very unlucky - a match where we fought to our limits and couldn't get the result."

Now I know what you're thinking: one defeat does not a lengthy disaster make. But Chelsea have form here. And with a challenging fixture list between now and Christmas, and indeed over Christmas, Mourinho needs to get to grips with any Groundhog Day-style repetition.

Only Tuesday night sports journalists were wondering whether the Portuguese may have found his formula - including getting better performances out of Fernando Torres and finally realising that Juan Mata is a player of rare creative gift. Four days later and the Chelsea coach is nursing what could be politely called a bloody nose delivered by a Newcastle United who took their chances well.

Mourinho is aware that Chelsea's away form this season has not been good. More importantly, he's also aware of where they are in the calendar: "Of course I am worried, and I read in previous years it happened the same," he told the BBC, noting that successful cup progress has regularly not been matched by league proficiency. "Last year, in December, they were not in the race for the title because they were already 20 points behind. This season, we have played five matches away in the Premier League - I know at difficult places to play difficult matches - but we have one victory and we have two defeats."

Refreshingly, Mourinho admitted that he may not have the right attitude amongst his players, suggesting that they were too "comfortable" at Stamford Bridge. Moreover, he admitted that he may have, simply, put the wrong team out. "I made 11 mistakes. I should have picked another 11 and not this one. It's the feeling I have. When my team plays so badly, it's the feeling I have."

The worry, from this end of the season ticket, is that Chelsea's next matches might offer more opportunities for banana skins: home next Wednesday to Schalke in the Champions League, home next Saturday to West Brom, managed by Mourinho's former No.2 at Chelsea, Steve Clarke, and then away matches to the uncompromising West Ham and then another European trip to Basel.

An Advent Day encounter with Southampton at Stamford Bridge seems a long way away for Chelsea fans, especially as the team embarks upon on the rickety-rackety rope bridge that is, traditionally, November.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

This just in: common sense breaks out in airline industry

You could say Alec Baldwin took one for the rest of us when he was forcibly removed from an American Airlines flight at Los Angeles International Airport in December 2011. Baldwin - or TV's Jack Donaghy to all right-thinking people - was kicked off the plane for, apparently, continuing to play Words With Friends on his phone long after passengers had been told to switch off their electronic devices for takeoff.

Of course, Baldwin’s act of defiance had nothing to do with highlighting the absurdity of the aviation industry’s restriction on gadget use, even if a publicist for the actor maintained at the time that "He loves WWF so much that he was willing to leave a plane for it”.

No one, I can think of, loves their smartphone, tablet, laptop or the movie or on-deadline work project so much they’re willing to leave a plane. For the most part, people want to just get on with the whole ordeal and arrive at the other end.

But the American Airlines cabin crew member who allegedly had to ask Baldwin five times to switch off his phone will be taking at least a semi-breath of relief following this week’s announcement by the US Federal Aviation Administration that it was changing its policy on the use of electronic gadgets during takeoff and landing.

The policy - adopted around the world by other aviation regulators - is an arcane piece of safety control dating back before airliners started being kitted out with in-flight WiFi and satellite TV feeds, when mass mobile phone ownership was still relatively new, and there were concerns that even the lasers contained in portable CD players (there’s one for the teenagers!) could interfere with critical flight systems like navigation in the air and on the ground.

Picture: Air France
The FAA's announcement on Thursday was that, subject to further technical validation by airlines, passengers would be able to use their personal electronic devices to listen to music, watch movies, read and play Words With Friends "in all phases of flight”, as long as these devices remain in ‘flight mode’ without the ability to receive or make calls or send data wirelessly. In other words, the ban on mobile phones being used to speak to people on flights remains in place, which is something we should all embrace.

Planes, unlike other modes of public transport, remain the last sanctuary from listening to other people talking at excessive volume about their medical woes, their Aunt Fanny’s dodgy knee, whether the person at the other end of the line can remember to buy extra milk for the weekend, and all the other irritating bits of personal information people feel the need to impart loudly while in the company of strangers.

Thankfully, putting in-flight mobile phone reception on planes is still some way away, even though it has been touted for a while as an imminent possibility, although the proliferation of in-flight WiFi will no doubt lead to the annoyance of loud conversations via VoIP.

All that aside, however, the most important part of all this is that soon, the majority of passengers who simply want to get on board, strap in and start watching a film or films, or spend the time confined within the big silver bird productively, will be able to just that from wheels-up to wheels-down. Quite rightly, the FAA’s change of policy has been welcomed universally.

Flight attendants, in particular have given their approval, although Veda Shook, president of America's Association of Flight Attendants told Business Week that it shouldn't result in a safety compromise. "We’re not going to run away from technology," she said, "but we’re not going to run away from safety, either”, pointing out that having more gadgets out during the most safety-critical periods of a flight - take-off and landing - could also represent a safety risk.

Clearly, no-one wants a 2Kg laptop flying at them during a bumpy landing, which means, according to the appropriately-named Shook, there may be new regulations needed to ensure every airline was consistent on what needs to be stored under a seat or in an overhead bin, and what could be held or put in a seat back pocket.

Inconsistency across airlines is still one of the frequent flyers’ biggest bugbears. Today, some airlines allow mobile phones to be switched on when a plane is taxiing after landing (and hats off, British Airways, for relaxing on this one), while others don’t, causing frosty moments between passengers and cabin crews. On the other hand, phones - quite rightly - should not be on during take off, although there is always one passenger who thinks he - and, yes, it usually is - is above everyone else by continuing that "essential" phone conversation while the plane is running on the ground.

The rule change on laptops, tablets and MP3 players, however, is at least a step in the direction of common sense. “It’s great when you have kids, because you can get them settled in and settled down, and it makes a huge difference in the quality of the flight,” Atlanta-based PR executive Jodi Fleisig told Business Week.

“They can play games on their iPads, or they can read or watch a movie.” Though a sign of the times that a child might even have an iPad, getting children settled on a flight - and keeping them that way - is a major challenge for parents…and their fellow passengers alike.

Once the technological validation of the relaxation of gadgets has been carried out by US airlines, most are expected to adopt the new guidelines by the end of the year.

Already, Delta Airlines says it is ready to allow devices being used ‘gate to gate’ immediately, while JetBlue - an airline that has pioneered many in-flight conveniences - is champing at the bit to be the first US airline to lift the device restrictions.

Other parts of the world are not so clear, though the European Aviation Safety Agency said that it would analyze the FAA’s decision before making its own position known.

For now, the FAA can give themselves a pat on the back for removing one of the most outdated examples of in-flight nannying there is. "We believe today's decision honours both our commitment to safety and consumer's increasing desire to use their electronic devices during all phases of their flights,” said the US Transportation Secretary, Anthony Foxx.

Some restrictions, though, will remain: "Passengers must take a break from their devices, their reading material, their music, whatever they are doing, and listen to the safety briefing before each flight,” says FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. “It is information that can save your life.” And pilots can very easily impose an immediate ban on devices being used during airport approaches in bad weather and poor visibility, where planes use radio signals to land.

As a fairly frequent flyer, and someone who cannot enjoy the luxury of sleeping on planes, the airline cabin is an opportunity to buy back some time, to mainline a box set on my iPad or get on with work without being interrupted by ringing phones and a noisy office.

But, perhaps, the biggest beneficiary of the FAA's lifting of the restrictions on electronic devices are the flight attendants who have to constantly deal with belligerent passengers.

As Laura Glading, head of the trade union representing 16,000 American Airlines flight attendants - including, presumably, Alec Baldwin’s nemesis - told the New York Times, her colleagues were “frankly tired of feeling like hall monitors when it comes to this issue”.

Picture: Air France

Friday, November 01, 2013

iGoogle iGone

So welcome to the first day of the rest of your life. November 1, 2013. The first day of the rest of your life without iGoogle.

It's been there every morning when I wake up since 2005, there when I go to sleep, and there throughout my day. Anytime I wanted to check one of a number of preferred news sources for the world headlines, football news, what's happening in the business world, weather, the time in different cities - it's been there. Refreshing itself, always new.

It was a true "dashboard". Yes, I know that's one of those semi-analogous phrases the technology industry loves to make something slightly sexier than it actually is, but with iGoogle, a most apt description for how I, as a self-confessed news junkie, kept abreast of the world throughout the day via computer, smartphone or tablet.

So it is with the heaviest of hearts that I’m coming to terms with the forced closure by Google of arguably its best – and simplest product. The reason, Google says, is that "the need for something like iGoogle has eroded over time", claiming that access to information via their own apps like Chrome and Android make it redundant. "We originally launched iGoogle in 2005 before anyone could fully imagine the ways that today's web and mobile apps would put personalized, real-time information at your fingertips," Google says.

Ironically, the architect of iGoogle was Marissa Mayer, now CEO of Yahoo!. "I look at personalised search and I think it is one of the biggest advance we have had in the last couple of years," she said at the first major refresh of iGoogle in 2007, when Google's Vice President of User Experience.

Mayer and Yahoo! could, if they get their act together, retrieve iGoogle's millions of abandoned users by restoring the My Yahoo! service to the status of pre-eminent news dashboard it held before its upstart rival from Silicon Valley's Mountain View came along.

To all intents and purposes, iGoogle was more or less what My Yahoo! had started out as. Google, however, made the concept easier to personalise, and far richer in the choice of sources and widgets available. In short, it became indispensable.

Today, as Google shutters iGoogle, and 15 million users go off to make do with comparable services like Netvibes, iGhome and Symbaloo, they are curiously closing off a service which needed little further improvement and certainly, from this end of the fibre, no reason to be killed.

Even now, Google's claim that iGoogle has been superseded by the plethora of information aggregation apps and sites is thin. If you want to take the 'dashboard' description literally, imagine a car where you effectively had to install different apps just to see how fast you were driving, what the fuel situation was, and what radio station you were tuned into.

Joni Mitchell made a very good point when she opined “that you don't know what you've got till it's gone”, but I can promise her that long before iGoogle disappears from our computer screens today, 15 million of us knew exactly what we are losing.

My iGoogle, Friday, November 1, 2013. Adieu.