Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Intruding on the unsophisticates

Old sitcoms from the 1970s have such a gentle demeanour. When I was seven or eight, I used to love 'On The Buses' - so much so that when I grew up I wanted to be either a policeman, an astronaut or a bus conductor - like Jack. I would squirrel away all the used paper tickets I could find on the floor of the green and cream Devon General buses that took me to school. Once, a kindly clippy gave me a whole reel of the things and I vividly remember running around the square playground of Newtown School, stopping every few yards to tear off a ticket for an imaginary passenger. Only when the imaginary bell rang twice in my head would I go running off again, towards the next pretend stop. Like every kid, I had a great imagination.

Fast forward to 2009, and digital TV repeats mean the adventures of Stan, Jack, Arthur, Olive, Blakey and Mum are viewable pretty much on demand. It's a non-stop rerun through a happy childhood! What a happy man I should be!

But something has tarnished this comedy gold. The knockabout fun seems a little silly today. The pranks seem unsophisticated and obvious, the dialogue stifled and amateurish. How can this be? Is it possible to grow out of 'On The Buses'?

Thinking hard about it, this sitcom - successful as it was - was surely not intended to last well into the 21st century. There was a gentle demeanour to its format and style that just doesn't sit well in this advanced year. We are living in the future and modern life, as we were taught before Blur, is rubbish. 'On The Buses', in outliving its actors Doris Hare, Bob Grant and Reg Varney, has aged very badly. It was intended as a gentle antidote to the misery of the Three Day Week, the power cuts, the strikes, union rumpus, and piles of uncollected rubbish on the streets - and without the context of outside turbulence, it's been reduced to a curious artefact.

And why not? Most popular culture is not intended to have any great future. There's a reason why records are made out of plastic and housed in paper jackets.

But this modern age has put paid to all that. Transient trends are no longer allowed to slip away, gracefully. 'On The Buses' will not be allowed to rest in peace and nor will anything from the past. YouTube, digital downloads and other archive systems mean these disposable heroes of history can be recalled, on demand, for us to love or deride as we see fit.

I feel a little guilty watching 'On The Buses'. I feel like an intruder. I cannot laugh along with the studio audience track, because those laughs were for the seven year old boy I used to know, not the 45-year-old man that flicks through FreeView channels. It's like rifling through someone's drawers and reading their private correspondence. I love nostalgia as much as the next man - but at heart I know this 21st century adult should not be qualified to engage in such cultural voyeurism.

The late, great poet and singer Rob Tyner once wrote: "People of tomorrow! From the deep past we salute you!" I often think we should accept these salutations, gratefully, then move on.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Foxtrot Juliet?

Our ancestors used to look to the skies for omens from their gods. Now it seems they're dropping down around us, like hailstones.

Coincidences, synchronicity, signs and gut feeling are as much a part of modern life as credit cards and Facebook. Who hasn't at some time turned on the radio to hear a song they've just been thinking or talking about? Who hasn't had an urge to call a forgotten old friend only to bump into them around the next corner? And here's a very common one: who hasn't glanced at their digital clock or watch to see symetrically matching numbers flashing back at them? As it happens, I started to write this 'Letter from Claptonia' at 20.20. There really is a lot of it about...

I used to put great currency into such synchronistic events; so much so that I would spend my waking hours looking out for them. I'd find symbols and signs in my waking life with reassuring frequency: crows, for instance, have been hugely symbolic creatures for me for many years now. And now I've got another big one going on in my life - but I don't have to look out for this one, it comes and finds me. Here's the story:

Almost five years ago something pretty strange occurred while I was being driven to my father's funeral with my mother, brother, sisters and some nieces in a long black car. As we meandered the streets of Exeter towards the city crematorium, we were cut up at a crossroads by another motorist who slipped into the space right in front of us. My mum was first to notice: "That's dad's old car!" It bloody was, too: the registration plate checked out. Here was my dad's old Escort (being driven by its new owner, obviously) seemingly leading its original owner's funeral cortege.

It kept ahead of us a fair bit before turning off. It didn't have to last the whole journey - its presence had been noted. Sheer coincidence? Perhaps. Or synchronicity? Universal forces conspiring to make a metaphorical point? Angelic intervention? Mass hallucination or delusion? My dad making some kind of gesture from the spiritual realm? Who knows what was really going on. But if the car was there to be noticed, for whatever reason, then job done.

Obviously, the events of that day overtook this particular semi-paranormal event, but it's been repeating itself for me in a minor way ever since with the appearance of 'FJ' registration plates. These letters make up the old, no-longer-used, prefix for cars registered in my hometown of Exeter. These plates are a bit of a dying breed and they certainly shouldn't jump out at me to be noticed in London, up and down the country or even on the continent - but they do.

I take them as a good omen as well as a tangible reminder of home. I tend to notice them when I'm thinking about something connected to my dad or Exeter; always at a reasonably appropriate time. When I spot an 'FJ' plate, I'll smile inwardly, sometimes outwardly, and take it as a sign that I'm being looked after or am somehow doing the right thing at whichever time they make themselves appear. Of course it could all be just coincidence coupled with a subconscious desire to filter through the hundreds of number plates I see each time I go out on the road until I find an 'FJ' one and register a 'Eureka!' moment. But deep down, I'm convinced there's more to it than that.

This morning, when I was heading for home after a nightshift, I was thinking quietly to myself about what I could use as subject matter for the next Letter from Claptonia. I thought about my accident in Sicily, where I broke my elbow falling down some steps, I thought about writing something about the whole Michael Jackson circus, and I thought about the FJ phenomenon...

But then my thoughts were interrupted when the driver of a bendy bus cut me up, leaving me stranded in the middle of the road while I waited for him to pass me on the inside. As I watched and waited, the impatient motorist behind me leaning on his horn, I caught glance of the number plate on the back of the bus.


Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Do you suppose...?

The tubes close at 1.30am ish and re-open at 5am ish because the Queen likes to ride around on them privately in the small hours?

There will be a televised funeral for our own King of Pop, Gary Glitter?

A predator might come along that knocks us humans off the top of the food chain?

We will one day run out of air?

Monday, 6 July 2009

The Wurlitzer Brainbox.

In a tent, in a field, in a county called Kent on a night like last night, a group called British Sea Power cranked into one of their most powerful and emotive songs while I watched and listened. "Remember Me" is a delicate, concise and powerful precis of the mortality of man, the cellular cycle, the passing of half a lifetime and the very human yearning to be remembered after death: I know the song well.

So well, in fact, that even as the song was being performed a separate parallel soundtrack started to play from within my head. I was 'hearing' the recorded, released version of the song in perfect sync with the live performance going on in front of me. Every nuance of the CD I have at home was unraveled and laid open for comparison to the new rendition coming out of the Hop Farm Festival speakers. Whenever the live version offered something new or different, the 'hard-wired' version in my head seemed to rewind and restart in less than a second, returning as an updated temporary memory. A 'Remember Me V 0.2', or something.

It struck me that there are hundreds, possibly thousands, of songs that are so deeply etched into my brain in this way that every nuance, every layer, chord, intonation, note and breath can be recalled seemingly without a second's delay. It's like having a massive, super-quick iTunes programme inside the brain.

Some years ago on a long journey across Europe, myself and four friends 'sang' the whole 11 minute version of Bowie's 'Station To Station' in the back of a car. As I intimated the train noises from the intro, the music played perfectly and precisely in my head. The other parts, played by my fellow travellers, were similarly picture-perfect. We were all 'hearing' the same recording - without it being there. This is more than just recollection: it is total recall.

We all have this capacity to store such information, do we not? Is that not where the age-old debate over the merit or otherwise of a live performance sounding 'just like the record' comes from?

Yet how many novels, chapters or even paragraphs do you remember from your favourite books? Sure, we can all quote the odd line. But can you quote the first couple pages of the last novel you read? Similarly, how many of your favourite paintings can you describe perfectly? I love Van Gogh's sunflowers... but ask me to tell you how many blooms are in his vase, even, and I would have to make a total guess. I can completely recall the Simpson's theme music, even as I write this, but more than a couple of lines of dialogue? No chance. But ask me to sing Helen Reddy's 'Angie Baby' to you - a song that I probably haven't heard for at least a decade - and I'll roll it out like I wrote the thing myself two minutes ago. Backing vocals, music, percussion... the lot).

Which makes me wonder. When we listen to new music, how much of it is retained on first listen? How long does it take to store a whole song and how permanently and fully are they archived in our heads? And when we play a song that we know very well, are we simultaneously topping up the memory banks? Or is there, as I often feel, really no point in playing it? It's so hard-wired into the brain that it can be played for free, any time?

Internal jukebox now playing: The Music Goes Round My Head by The Easybeats.

Friday, 3 July 2009

Signs o' past times?

From Kings Cross to Upper Clapton, from Stoke Newington to Willesden Green... is it me or are there more and more of those archaic painted advertising slogans popping into view these days?

Is it the sunny weather that is exposing these long-redundant hoardings for Sunlight Soap, Weighing Scale Repairs, Boots the Chemist and British-made pipes and brollies? Is new building development revealing their delights to a new generation of passers-by? Have they always been there for all to see, I wonder, and I've just been too engrossed in something far more important to notice them? Or could they be just crawling out of the sludge of their history now?

I presume these often beautiful advertising designs, faded but still vibrant enough to read, are protected from planning interference? If not, they should be. What better testament to forgotten times than a cartoon sketch of a man pumping up a Michelin tyre on his trusty Woleseley? And what better juxtaposition than one of these artworks, high on a London wall in the midst of a terrace of plastic'n'chrome mobile shops? It's like rummaging through a newsagent's copies of Next, OK, Celebrity Death Weekly and Nuts - and coming across an 1892 edition of Punch. Whatever... these pre-war paintings rather put last year's hot potato, Banksy, in the shade, eh?

I'll be keeping an eye out for more of these things, but even more interesting will be to see how the ones I have already clocked fare through the rest of the summer. The 'weighing scales' wall near Kings Cross was looking particularly vibrant the other day. Perhaps it's blazing into life, in the sunshine, before the heat blasts it into obscurity again like some doomed comet?

Or perhaps something rather more surreal is going on and, like the matching numbers phenomenon ("Hey, anyone notice it's 02.02 on the second of February?!" etc etc) these signs serve to illuminate some upcoming shift in paradigm? Are they a metaphor for something? Woah. Heavy.