Friday, December 31, 2010

New Year's Prayer

Happy Hogmanay and all the best for 2011 to readers of Surroundings! Here's some Jeff Buckley - his brilliant 'New Year's Prayer'.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

I am telling you the truth in poetry...

telling you
the truth
in poetry

I am
the truth in

I am
you the truth
in poetry

I am telling you
in poetry

I am telling
the truth in poetry

I am
telling you the truth in poetry

I am telling you the
truth in poetry

I am telling you the truth in poetry

I am telling you the truth poetry

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

My Favourite Books of 2010

Hope you all had a good Christmas. I was very busy through December, but still managed to have a good time. Here’s a short ‘best of’ list for 2010. I did read quite a number of very good books which may, in other years, have made the list. First of all, some 2010 poetry (in no particular order):

In the Wake of the Day – John Ash (Carcanet)
Dammtor – James Sheard (Cape)
Lighthead – Terrance Hayes (Penguin USA)
A Curious Shipwreck – Steve Spence (Shearsman)
On the Governing of Empires – Alasdair Paterson (Shearsman)
Hurt - Martyn Crucefix (Enitharmon)

And some prose fiction:

Dreams of Rivers and Seas – Tim Parks (Vintage)
Da Happie Laund – Robert Alan Jamieson (Luath)

And some non-fiction:

Cutty, One Rock – August Kleinzahler (Farrar Straus Giroux)
21st Century Modernism – Marjorie Perloff (Blackwell)

I also read Louis MacNeice’s Collected Poems (Faber), but it hardly seems right to include a lifetime’s work in a Best of the Year list. In any case, the work varies from brilliant to just OK, although the brilliant work is brilliant in a real sense (as opposed to the ‘book blurb’ sense).

Books I’m looking forward to reading, or am currently in the middle of and very much enjoying, include collections from David Morley (Enchantment), Ryan Van Winkle (Tomorrow We Will Live Here), Matt Merritt (Hydrodaktulop...), Matthew Sweeney (The Night Post) and Dean Young (Primitive Mentor). And Wena Poon’s novel (Alex y Robert). And six extra hours in every day would be great, thanks.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Don Van Vliet 1941-2010

Great Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band live performance. RIP.

The Race for the UK Christmas Number One Single 2010

I don’t suppose being the Christmas No 1 single is as important as all that, but this year the fight has been more vigorous than usual.

Until last year, the X Factor winner was guaranteed number one spot, but the Rage Against the Machine campaign successfully knocked Joe McElderry into number 2. This year, the campaign to get John Cage’s 4’33 to number 1 has gradually built momentum, cleverly (or confusingly, according to some) called Cage Against the Machine. You can download the single from here and it will count as a UK chart sale. All the money raised will go to the charities detailed at the link, very worthwhile charities too. However, there have been problems in recreating last year’s success.

Some people don’t like the idea of downloading 4.33 minutes of silence (well, it’s not quite silence, which is the point, as this Guardian article makes clear). And so an alternative song has been mooted, Bird is the Word, recently revived by a famous episode of Family Guy, as Peter Griffin’s favourite record. I’ve heard supporters say that this stands more of a chance because it’s more commercially viable to a wide public. Um...but why not just buy Matt Cardle’s X Factor single then, if we’re taking commercial viability into account? The money raised by the Bird single will go to the record company and the Trashmen, the band who recorded it. Nothing will go to charity.

I’ve also heard supporters of the Bird campaign claim that ‘Christmas is all about fun. The Bird record is fun. The John Cage definitely isn’t fun.” It’s news to me that Christmas is all about ‘fun’. I thought it was supposed to be about giving, sharing, caring, a time for reflection, and (for those so inclined) a time to celebrate the birth of Christ. The John Cage record, whatever else it does, offers a break from running about, from noise, from bustle, from ‘fun’. Fun is over-rated as a way of life, as anyone finds out at any point when circumstances make fun difficult or impossible. I always liked the Housemartins single, ‘Five Get over Excited’, not because it had great poetry or musical arrangements, but because it exposes the ridiculous idea of fun-as-moral-system ('live for the moment!') as a total sham inside three minutes. The John Cage record might create a space where we and other fun-loving people remember people for whom Christmas isn’t much fun at all. What could we do to help them this Christmas?

Another bizarre campaign is for the original Biffy Clyro single, which Matt Cardle is covering. This reached number 20 in the charts at the beginning of this year, which I think accurately demonstrates its average quality as a song. Buying this is just more money to the record company and, of course, Biffy Clyro will also be getting all the songwriting royalties from the X Factor single.

And there have been a few other songs recently mooted as potential Christmas number ones. Divide and rule, anyone? We’re going to let Matt and Simon Cowell take the Christmas number one spot by default with all this arguing. That's what's happening at the moment. Apparently, Matt is way ahead on sales and Rihanna, who - not coincidentally - appeared on the X Factor Final as a guest artist last week, is at number 2.

I’m definitely all for the Cage single. It makes a point, it’s uncommercial, the money is going to good charities, the campaign is well organised, and it actually has some resonance of meaning that people of many different beliefs can unite around. We have until Saturday midnight to get John Cage shooting up to the top spot. Let’s go for it!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

SPL Podcast

I’m featured in the Scottish Poetry Library podcast this week, chatting with Ryan Van Winkle about my mysterious middle name, what I’m writing at the moment, form and structure, Magma, revenge and ego, criticism, and various other matters. I also read two new poems. That’s in between saying ‘you know’ and ‘um...’ and ‘kind of’ a few hundred times too often.

If you'd like a good poetry collection recommendation, you need look no farther than Ryan's Tomorrow We Will Live Here, published last month by Salt. On sale at the Book Depository for only £6.98 at the moment.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Musical Treasure

I have been searching through a treasure trove over the last couple of days, otherwise known as a cardboard box. I had wondered fleetingly over the last few years what had happened to some of my old records and tapes, the ones I knew I had somewhere but could never find. I’d assumed I’d given them to someone and hadn’t got them back. Then my sister mentioned that she’d been clearing out her attic and had found a cardboard box full of cassette tapes and a bag full of records. She asked whether I wanted them or should she just throw them out. Throw them out??? What!

They were delivered to my house over the weekend, and it’s been amazing hearing them again. Not only the ones I knew I had ‘lost’ (e.g. the Factory Records ‘Fact 10c box’ containing Joy Division’s first album, Unknown Pleasures, along with the album cover postcard, old Woodentops, Quando Quango and Rip Rig & Panic albums, The Wild Swans’ incredible ‘Revolutionary Spirit’ single), but also many blank tapes I had recorded stuff onto from the radio up to 25 years ago, a recording of Radio Scotland’s ‘Beat Patrol’ show from the mid-nineties featuring my band, early Aztec Camera live in Glasgow, and much more I haven’t had a chance to listen to yet. Tantalizingly, many of the tapes have no information on them at all, so I have to play them to find out what’s on them. A few tapes haven't survived the decades and won't play properly, but most sound fine, so far. I have to restrict myself to playing them while cooking dinner or I’d spend every hour with them, but I have found recipes that take a reasonable amount of time.

Here's the Wild Swans:

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The X Factor Final 2010 - Part 2

Part 2 of the final, minus Cher. Matt, One Direction and Rebecca fight it out. It’s a struggle between consistent and boring, cheeky and scream-inducing, cool and classy. Well, who would you choose? My entirely unbiased live blog will carry you through the evening. Can Rebecca do it? She is the best, but I wouldn’t bet on it. I'll update as the evening goes on.

Matt is singing first. He’s been plugging away at his music for 17 years and has got nowhere. There just could be a reason for that - that way audiences have of falling asleep during performances might be one of them. He’s singing Katy Perry’s ‘Firework’ and deserves to lose just for that reason. Horrible song, currently new and popular – going for the teenage girl vote. He’s wearing neon yellow trousers – who that’s supposed to appeal to, I don’t know. I’ll give him 6, as he sang the horrible song consistently as ever. Daughter says 7.

One Direction are doing their boy band thing and they did it just the way you’d expect. Plenty of energy, a few harmonies. It’s a Take That song, isn’t it? I get confused, as those kind of songs all sound very similar to one another. Really new, original and cutting-edge. Not. Simon says they are something we’ve never heard before. Ha ha ha ha... How can he say that with a straight face? He isn’t even being ironic! The boys sang it OK though. I’ll give them 7. Daughter says 7.

It’s Rebecca. She’ll have to do brilliantly to win as she deserves because I fear the British public will go for one of the other two. She’s singing ‘Sweet Dreams Are Made of This’. They’ve tied her hair up and slapped loads of make-up on her face. Harsh lipstick. Not the best look for Rebecca, I think. But her version of the song is quite different from the original. A good thing too, as the song is pretty boring. She breathed a degree of life into it. I’ll give her 9. Faultless performance. I took one off because the song is dull. Daughter says 8.

Ok, after the break, one act is going home. Three will become two. Matt is the weakest, I think, but I'm not at all sure the great British public will see things my way.

Oh no, Matt is through. Looks like Rebecca is out! But NO!!! One Direction are out! Wow, that was a surprise. And a little unjustified, as I think they’ve been much better than Matt in the final. So it's Matt v Rebecca head-to-head. Nail-biting stuff.

Matt and Rebecca will both sing their own winner’s single, not the same song as in previous years. Probably fair enough.

Will Matt choose another crowd-pleaser? It’s an incredibly bland song. What the hell is it? “When we collide we come together, if we join we’ll always be apart...” He’s singing it OK, but he could sleepwalk that kind of song (and everyone else will sleepwalk with him!) Zzzzzzz. So boring. The neon blue lights, lasers, and smoke can’t disguise how weak a song that was. ‘A brilliant contemporary pop song’ says Louie. ‘Incredible song’ says Simon. What are they on! He sang it well, mind you, to be fair, and he put a lot of feeling into it. I won’t bother with marks out of ten at this stage.

Rebecca is now on. She’s singing cool and classy as ever. Perfect song for her. It’s really good. A few tremors halfway through the second verse – nerves and emotions. But she recovers. She recovers big-time. The emotion she conveys by doing something really simply is amazing. It’s all in the voice. She has surely sang Matt off the stage with this. Brilliant. Simon says he can’t call this competition. He must have listened to a different show tonight! Although it’s true it’s impossible to know who is going to get the votes. Rebecca is easily the best though and has been from the first live show.

"One last surprise after the break," Dermott tells us. OK. What will that be? A duet between Robbie Williams and some member of Westlife? Simon and Louie miming to 'I Love Rock'n'Roll'? Who knows... In any case, we'll soon find out who has won. Must be Rebecca, surely.

No, the surprise is just Take That! I don’t understand the excitement around the re-formed Take That. It’s tedious stuff. And this new single they’re performing is awful. I bet Matt loves it though...

After the break it’s the final result. The voting has closed. Fab Marks and Spencers advert. Great dance routine complete with circling Santas. Here we go though – back with the result, which is in...

On come the judges with Matt and Rebecca. They look tense. The winner of the X Factor 2010 is... Matt??? You're kidding! That’s a crazy result. Matt is going to sing that boring song again, which will be a single. Who in their right mind would buy this?

Anyway, the alternative is to make John Cage’s 4’33 number one for Christmas and I’m certainly going to download it. There is a Facebook campaign. A little ambient silence is just what’s needed. Matt is still singing. It’s almost as soporific as silence, but more annoying. Oh boy...

And here endeth the X Factor 2010 live commentary.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The X Factor Final 2010: Live Commentary

It’s the final of X Factor. Can you feel it? But don’t worry, you have this live blog for company, updated as the show progresses.

Missed Rebecca, who was first up. Apparently, she was terrific. Hmmmm, sounds as if I also missed Matt who was really first up. The clip shows Matt being Matt, technically perfect and mind-numbingly boring.

Now it’s One Direction. I hope they don’t win, although I suspect we’ll be seeing their cheeky faces around for a long time, win or lose. Will they sing in 4-part harmony tonight? They’re singing Elton and, would you believe, they do try a harmony and almost get it right – a wee bit out, but not all that much! An OK start, I suppose. I’ll give them 7, one of their better attempts. Daughter says 7.

Now it’s Cher. She starts standing on the judges’ table, showing ‘attitude’, or should that simply be ‘altitude’. It’s a good performance by Cher. It’s not really my kind of stuff, but it’s not dull. She could even make an interesting record, given decent songwriters. Simon says she is his favourite brat with a heart. I’ll give her 8. Daughter says 8.

Now it’s round 2, and Matt is thrilled to sing along with his star. Who is it? Let’s find out. He’s doing his best John Bon Jovi impression tonight. Well done, Matt. Zzzzzzzz. Here comes Rihanna, who is mentioned in one of my poems, 'The Look' from my 'The Opposite of Cabbage' collection. It stands to reason that Matt would like Rihanna. Tedious MOR stuff. She is tall, so tall. Matt says he looks up to her – he didn’t have much choice! Their harmonies are a bit off. I’ll give Matt 5 for that. Daughter says 6.

Here comes Rebecca. Can she wipe the smiles off No Direction’s faces? I mean One Direction, of course. Good to see her hair down – much less severe than the tightly pulled back look. She’s singing ‘Beautiful’, Christina Aguilera’s best song. I think Rebecca sings it better than Christina, to be honest – more controlled, less histrionics. I’ll say 8. Daughter says 9.

Who will duet with One Direction? Important to get right for the boys. Och, it’s Robbie Williams. It would be. How predictable can you get? I can’t stand him. OD says he’s a ‘hero to all of us.’ Well, I guess you get the heroes you deserve. I can hear the sound of harmonies, but this time, was that them or was it part of the backing tape?! It sounded suspiciously high and harmony-perfect. I’ll say 6. Daughter says 7.

Here comes Cher. She’s rapping. It’s the Black Eyes Peas guy. Not much I can say about that. 'Tonight’s Gonna Be A good Night'. Maybe. I think Cher will go tonight, although that’s a shame, because she did well there. I’ll say 7. Daughter says 7.

Rihanna’s doing a special guest performance. I’ll take this opportunity to watch wallpaper dry in the next room out-of-earshot...

Christina Aguilera now. Burlesque. Zzzzzzz. Skimpy costumes can’t make an interesting song all by themselves. CA can sing, of course, but what a boring song.

One of the four remaining hopefuls is about to be eliminated. Who will it be? I’d like to think Matt or One Direction, but I reckon it will be Cher. Why? Well, Matt's voice gets votes from people who think that's what the show is about. But think of his debut album! Could you do anything but sleep through it? One Direction simply appeal to, let's say, a different planet from the one I live in, but their fans appear to vote in force. Keep Rebecca in though, please.

Who’s going through? The announcement is coming from Dermott. The four acts and judges are coming onto stage. On now. In no particular order, the first act through is.... REBECCA! Yeah!! Second through is One Direction. Now, Matt or Cher? Come on, Cher, even though it’s obviously going to be Matt. Aw, what a shame. Cher is going home...Bye, Cher. We’ll hear from you again, I suspect, and I don’t think that about many X Factor losers.

The final continues tomorrow. Only three left, only one with that little bit extra. However, Rebecca could easily end up going out first tomorrow with Matt vs OD in the sing-off. What a joke that would be. We'll see...

Friday, December 10, 2010

Jeremy C***, Wikileaks, Katia the Spy, and Students: Just Another Week in Politics

It’s been quite a week in politics. First of all, there was the James Naughtie slip-up over Culture Minister, Jeremy C (see video above, as long as you are ready for 'strong language'). Really, he will never be known as Jeremy Hunt again and his political career is pretty much over. The damage done by such slip-ups is irreparable (e.g. when Michael Howard was tainted with having ‘something of the night’ about him, it marked the end of his parliamentary ambitions), although it would have been less catastrophic had the slip-up seemed less of a shoe-in.

Then we had wikileaks, the arrest of Julian Assange, and the hacking war by Anonymous on PayPal, Visa, Mastercard etc. I had a quick glance on 4Chan’s crazy ‘random’ board yesterday and noticed a few commenters seemed furious at all the publicity generated by ‘Coldblood’ at the BBC. They’re happy at the hacking attempts but not everyone is happy at people talking to the press about them.

Most of the leaked documents do seem to be very much in the public interest. Not the one on places thought to be of maximum strategic importance– I can’t see why it’s in anyone’s interest to make such documents public – but today’s one on how North Korea may be helping Burma to build nuclear facilities, for example, and the conformation that there was significant heated communication between Britain, USA and Libya over the release of Megrahi, accused of the Lockerbie bombing. This latter document shows, if we needed conformation, that Governments are happy to suppress information and lie to their voters. They will spin any story to their own advantage and deliberately mislead people as to how they arrived at their decisions. The US government were prepared to lie through their teeth to the very people they claimed to support – the relatives of those who had died in the bombing. That, surely, is disgusting, especially given the USA’s hard line on Megrahi’s release afterwards. The London government lied so that Megrahi’s release would seem like a purely Scottish decision. If you don’t believe me, read the link.

Now, I live in a democracy, a place people died so that everyone could have a vote. I’m fairly sure they didn’t die so that elected governments could treat their voters with complete contempt. That’s why the governments in Washington and London are so furious with wikileaks. It’s not because the documents ‘put lives in danger’ as they pathetically claim (they couldn’t care less about that) but because they have been embarrassed that their relationship with their own voters has been revealed as entirely duplicitous. Anyway, I also liked Dave Bonta's post about wikileaks at his Via Negativa blog.

Then, there’s the story of the 24-year-old beautiful Russian woman employed as a press secretary to a liberal democrat MP, who didn’t suspect for one minute that she might have other motives for having access to files etc. Of course, some people might get angry at this and ask why, just because a woman is beautiful, vivacious, young and Russian, they are necessarily also a spy. True. But we might also ask how many other male MPs have young, beautiful, vivacious, Russian aides, and, on the assumption there aren’t any, we might well ask if there’s a good reason for that!

Finally, the students. This story fits in well with wikileaks. Few people like to see violence on the streets. But I heard Michael Portillo a few weeks ago say that, when he witnessed the violence over the poll tax in the 90s, he knew the poll tax was dead. The trouble is – when governments treat their people with contempt, break promises to voters, and refuse to listen to argument, what else is left but violence? Last night, on This Week, I heard former Labour Cabinet minister (now part of a political ‘think tank’, supposedly on the left, but his record in the New Labour Cabinet somewhat contradicts that), James Purnell, say from his comfortable news studio that the students had to answer to the bare fact that, for all their protests, they had failed to prevent the increase in tuition fees. Well, of course they have, because politicians they voted for, who had promised not to raise tuition fees, now believe that raising tuition fees is an excellent idea. But Purnell’s complacent arrogance, of which he seemed not remotely conscious, is partly why people are angry, why they’re out on the streets, why violence is brewing. People feel betrayed. They feel democracy has become a sham, that the moral priorities of the nation haven’t changed in the slightest even after financial meltdown, that the rich and powerful will continue to become richer and more powerful, and everyone else will have to pay simply to make that happen. When Michael Portillo comes over as more humane and understanding than an ex- Cabinet minister from New Labour, it’s painfully obvious how out of touch politicians of all colours have become.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

The Suspended Bishop and the Royal Wedding

I know this is now old news, but I’ve been concerned about the fate of Pete Broadbent, the Church of England bishop who criticized, on Facebook, the forthcoming royal wedding. The BBC reported that he was suspended from his post, even though he had apologised for the tone he had used and for any hurt he had caused by the content of his remarks.

This seems all wrong to me. First of all, I know that, technically, the Queen is head of the Church of England, but that’s a historical accident. I don’t know any Anglicans who don’t believe that Jesus is the ‘head’ of their church. The Queen is head as a constitutional, legal arrangement. Secondly, Anglicans, even bishops, have a right to freedom of opinion on any matters outside the fundamental substance of the Christian faith (e.g. crucifixion, Trinity, resurrection etc), so republican views are not at all unacceptable.

Add to this what he actually said. Stating that the marriage would be over within seven years was a bit silly – how would he know? He could be right or wrong, but there’s no logical reason to suggest this. However, also, according to the BBC report at the link above, he said that:

'Marriages should be about family, not “some piece of national flim-flam paid for out of our taxes, for a couple whose lives are going to be persecuted and spoilt by an ignorant media”. He criticised the monarchy for a history of broken marriages and a "corrupt and sexist" hereditary principle, before going on to attack the "gutter press" for "persecuting" the Royal Family.'

So he attacked the media! No surprise that the gutter press have made so much of it. What is really pathetic though is the way the church has so easily caved in to media pressure and hasn’t vocally supported Mr Broadbent on some of his points, such as the way the media act around celebrity and royalty, and for the appalling effect such media obsessions have had on our lives and culture. The church has kept quiet on this and has suspended the bishop, someone whose contribution in all kinds of important matters it had previously valued a great deal (or he wouldn’t have been appointed as a bishop in the first place). Richard Chartres, bishop of London, said he was “appalled” at Mr Broadbent’s remarks. I am appalled that the church appointed a sham trial and judged it according to the rules of media circus.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

The X Factor - Semi-Final: Live Commentary

X Factor time again. I missed blogging last week after being waylaid by a few pints of Guinness with ABJ and friends. I really ought to be more professional about this... Still, I’m here with more live blogging fun tonight and will update as the show progresses. Five acts still in with a chance – One Direction, Mary, Matt, Rebecca and Cher – and two must go this weekend (edit: actually, sounds as though only one is going and four will be in the final). My hunch is that Mary is doomed. Next in line are Rebecca and Cher, even though they are far more interesting than the boring Matt and the boyband OD. Difficult to call. Of course, it partly depends on their performances. Rebecca was streets ahead of the rest earlier in the competition, but she’s not been as convincing lately. Let the show begin...

We’re going to find out how Rebecca is shaping up right now. She’s first on tonight. She’s still going on about how she’s beginning to regain her confidence. She’s singing up-tempo clubby stuff and is absolutely static – OK with ballads and cool jazzy songs of her previous outings, but she needs to move just a little bit this time! She sang it well, mind you. Nice hairstyle too. I’ll give that 7. Daughter says 9.

Mary is up next. Louie uses the phrase ‘final four’ so maybe only one person is leaving tonight. If that’s the case, I guess it’s Mary unless she has a storming night. She’s singing fine but she’s so MOR. It’s karaoke, superior karaoke of course, as she’s a good singer, but dull. Danii says ‘Mary has her mojo back.’ I don’t know what she’s talking about. My wife says ‘Stop putting her hair in a bun. She looks like Mrs Pepperpot.’ I’ll say 5, daughter says 5 too.

Oh Matt’s had a sore throat. Let’s have some sympathy for Matt. He won’t be able to do his high James Blunty licks tonight, so it may be the Brian Adamsy Matt tonight. Oh, but no, he can sing fine. The throat has made a miraculous recovery. He’s as predictable as ever... However, the throat is beginning to crack as he continues. Louie doesn’t say ‘predictable’ but says ‘consistent’. Matt could win, but could be the next Leon Jackson, my wife says. She’s got it right. I’ll give Matt 7. Daughter says 6.

What will Cher do tonight? She’s rapping. Surprise us, Cher! Now she's singing. Her vocals are kind of ropey, as if she’s straining at the higher notes. She gives a cheeky little ‘hello’ halfway through the song. Danii says the song didn’t show her vocals at their best. Well, someone had to say it. No one else seems to have noticed though. Simon says she represents every teenager with a dream. Every teenager? I hope not. I hope some of them are reading J P Sartre novels, listening to Can and watching Bergman movies. Anyway, I’ll give Cher 5 for that. Daughter says 8.

Joe McElderry, last year’s winner, has given One Direction advice. Well, listen to the experts, boys. Maybe Leon Jackson will be offering you a few pearls of wisdom next week! They promise they’ll be on stage with ‘hot girls’ tonight. They are performing well, I have to say, although they are not for me and would no doubt be shocked if I gave them over 6 or 7. They don’t sing many harmonies, do they? Is that because they can’t? I’ll give them...7. Daughter says 8.

End of part 1. Part 2 begins with Matt. Sounds great, I must admit. Really strong vocal to a terrific song, and a song with a huge range. He must have been sucking the Lockets over the break as his throat showed no sign of strain at all. Simon says it was too safe and didn’t like the song. I disagree. Matt seems disappointed. I don’t know why, as I thought that was better than his first half performance. I’ll give him 8. Daughter says 7.

Mary is singing for her life now. She is out if she doesn’t really hit everyone for six right now. Well, if Matt was safe, then Mary is already cocooned. She’s singing ‘The Way We Were (Memories)’, the kind of ballad she is absolutely at home with. I’m falling asleep. Wake me up, someone! ‘I could see her singing on a cruise ship,’ says my wife. Yes, perhaps on a Shirley Bassey themed night. Mary is crying. If she goes out, she won’t be back at Tescos. In fact, Simon says just that after I wrote it. A life on stage awaits you, Mary and you’ll no doubt sell bags of records for the MOR set too. I’ll give her 7, as she sang it OK. Daughter says 8.

(As a quick aside, I now take back my earlier comment about Joe McElderry. We got a quick clip of Joe singing - one of theose phone-in X Factor comeptitions just before the break, and, do you know, he'd beat any of the contestants tonight... One Direction really should listen to him.)

Now here comes Cher again. Cher says she’s very emotional about the song. It’s a song that cries out ‘Please vote for me,’ she says. Danni wonders if she might not be compared unfavourably to the original. She sings away and does OK and suddenly enters a rap – the rap didn’t ‘fit’ this time. It’s as though Cher thinks a quick rap is obligatory to pick up votes. She is highly intense and sings well. Danii doesn’t like it much. Cher isn’t exactly articulate and talks nonsense afterwards, but I hope she makes the final. I’ll give her 7. Daughter says 8.

Rebecca is talking about how much of a struggle it is to bring up kids on her own etc – really going for the sympathy vote. You don’t need to Rebecca – sing well and you’re the best in the competition. Can you believe it? She’s singing Amazing Grace! And she’s singing it incredibly well. Fab key change into second verse. She’s singing that song as if she believes every word – whether she does or not. Louie says she’s his favourite contestant ever. Wow... She did that really well though. The best of the night easily. Singing like that, she'd whip Joe McE, no problem. I’ll give her 10. Daughter says 9.

Only One Direction to go. Any harmonies in this song, guys? Can you do them? They’re singing Snow Patrol, an X Factor standard. ‘If I lay here, would you lie with me and just forget the world?’ Perfect lines for harmony, but not a trace. However, in the speeded up section, one of them goes a third up! Wow, what a shock. A harmony, albeit the simplest one possible... But I want to hear four-part harmonies. They obviously can’t do it. It was OK but hardly an advance on the Snow Patrol original. I’ll give them 6. Daughter says 7.

Who is in danger? I think Mary is out. End of the line on the X Factor, but her career in music is safe, and that’s what we all want for Mary, isn’t it? Seems like a nice person with a fine voice. Good luck to her.

Friday, December 03, 2010


I have a feeling I have forgotten (on this blog) to mention the Bugged anthology, for which writers were asked to submit work inspired by overhearings. It was an exercise in creative eavesdropping.

I have a poem in it called ‘What Friends are For’. But that’s the least of it. You can read some highly entertaining stories and poems from the likes of David Gaffney, Ian Duhig, Andy Jackson, Pippa Little, Sandra Tappenden, Stuart Maconie and co-editors, Jo Bell and David Calcutt. And it’s only £5.99, which is very reasonable for a 117-page anthology.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Chico And Rita - Review

If you demand a tightly-woven plot from any movie, don’t bother with Chico and Rita, because what passes for plot is useful, like a coathanger, but hardly the central attraction. What makes this movie enjoyable (and it is very enjoyable) is the soundtrack and animation.

The film is set in the 1940s and 1950s and concerns the off-on love affair between Chico, the “best pianist in Havana”, and Rita, a singer, whose voice alone is enough to melt anyone’s heart. She also happens to be uncommonly beautiful. They meet, soon fall in love, but their relationship doesn’t exactly go to plan. So much for plot. The trailer gives most of the story away but, for once, that doesn’t matter.

It’s an animated movie. I’m not up enough on animation styles to be certain of this, but it reminded me of those postcards you see of old detective movies – guys in trenchcoats smoking cigarettes by night on street corners below neon signs. That probably makes no sense to anyone but me! Anyway, the animation is terrific. The shots of Havana give a real sense of what it must have been like, pre-Castro: beautiful, atmospheric, stylish, sleazy and full of extremes of poverty and wealth. Come to think of it, the scenes set in New York City had a pretty similar vibe. The jazz club scenes, which bring to life such famous names as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and the dramatic car chases, are superbly handled. I’m not sure how this movie, which is Spanish, will go down in the USA, as the (white) Americans in it are uniformly small-minded, exploitative and nasty.

It is interesting how animation works to bring warmth and style to a city. Good cinema does that routinely by more conventional means – camera angle, light, soundtrack, colour, period specificity – even a familiar city can be revisioned on screen. A successful movie captures some essence of a place and, once on screen, our experience of that city is transformed. The animation in Chico and Rita, while at an even greater remove than an ordinary camera lens, re-imagines its cities with great intimacy and warmth. How cartoons, which deliberately strive not to look too realistic, manage to give an audience the feeling that – just for a moment – they are there, is just one more demonstration of the magic of cinema.

I remember reading a poem (can't remember who by) on the relationship between a town and a scaled down model of the same town. The model drew fascination from viewers, which the town in itself didn't and couldn't possess. A similar relationship between the physical and imaginary, gritty realism and creative impression, exists between an actual city and its cinematic counterpart, which reveals something of the importance and vitality of the arts.

The music, omnipresent throughout the movie, is just fantastic. Latin jazz, be-bop, ballads sung by the fabulous Rita – a real treat. Just watching and listening to this movie was enough. It could have been about anything and it wouldn’t have mattered. However, there was a romantic narrative, as well as a political undercurrent i.e. the treatment of dark-skinned Cuban musicians in the USA at that time. It occurred to me this morning that there was also heavy irony. Both Chico and Rita routinely suffer discrimination during their stay in the USA. They play the hotels but can’t stay in them. They play the jazz clubs but wouldn’t have been sold a ticket to many of them. Later on, when Chico returns to Cuba just after the revolution, he is told that jazz is out of favour with Castro because it’s the music of the imperialist! When, of course, it was precisely the opposite...

I should mention that the ending made the woman sitting next to me cry, so – as a romance – it obviously succeeded with flying colours. But even if you wouldn’t normally dream of going to see a big-screen romantic movie, make an exception for Chico and Rita, unless you hate music. That’s the only reason you’d find this movie hard to enjoy.