Saturday, November 26, 2011

X Factor 2011 - Week 8: Live Blog

I am back with the live X Factor blog this week after missing out on week 7. This week, everyone has to sing two songs, which means I will keep my comments as succinct as possible. As ever, I will update as the programme progesses. Four minutes to go...

Little Mix are up first. The theme of part 1 is ‘guilty pleasures’ – songs you’re not supposed to like but do. They’re doing Justin Bieber with a sprinkling of Diana Ross. I thought that was pretty boring. Awful Bieber song. One you're not supposed to like because it's ...well... so overwhelmingly unlikeable. Nothing cute about it. Gary liked it. Louis says we need some ‘girl power’. Little Mix is all about ‘having fun’ says one of the band. Well, that wasn’t much fun... I’ll give that 5. Daughter says 8.

Janet is next. She sounded as if she was auditioning to be a Cranberries vocalist last week. This week it sounds cheesy, which is the idea, I guess, but somehow lifeless as well, and she forgot her words. She’s really lost the fragile intensity of her first audition completely. Ooh bop dibbeedap a doo bop. Along with Janet, that’s about all I can say. Gary says it’s a “real mess”. There’s always a second song, says Kelly. Oh dear. I’ll say 4. Daughter says 8. Daughter keeps faith no matter what!

Here comes Misha B. Can she bring some class to the show. She’s doing ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’. Don’t think her voice really suits the song - almost too powerful. She can rap though! That ought to bring in a few teenage votes. It’s got better towards the end. “Now the show has started,” says Gary. So much better than the first two. I’ll say 7. Daughter says 7 as well.

Apparently Marcus is doing a Wham song. He is the best performer left in the competition, I think. Odd white-suited people writhing away behind him – a bit unnerving. “If you’re going to do it, do it right (do it with me).” I’m your man, says Marcus, and he is really. The dancers are annoying and unnecessary. Marcus could carry this by himself, no problem. I do wonder, mind you, how boring a Marcus album would be. He’s a fun performer though. I’ll give him 7. Daughter says 9.

Finally Amelia is up. She says she was disappointed by her performance last week of Aretha Franklin’s ‘Freedom’ (or whatever it’s called) which left her in the bottom two. I thought it was pretty good. Maybe it wasn’t a big crowd-pleaser and Tulisa had somehow never heard it before (Aretha! Tulisa). Tonight it’s T’Pau’s ‘China in Your Hands’, which I hated at the time and it doesn’t sound any better now. But Amelia can sing and she’s giving us those huge-voice licks tonight. Tulisa says she loves Amelia’s passion and that her face (when she sings) looks as if it’s in a music video – what a weird comment! Gary says he’s glad to hear the song sung in tune – a barb at the original. Ha ha. Dermot gasps slightly. OK, I’ll say 7. Daughter says 10.

It’s round two, and they’re singing songs by their heroes. Little Mix say their hero is Christine Aguilera. Well, I suppose someone in the world must feel that way. Doesn’t make it any less astonishing when it actually happens though. Must be ’Beautiful’, I suppose. And yes, it is. Started well – very moving. But now they’ve lost it – going for vocal histrionics rather than sheer intensity. But they do clearly mean it. Louis again says we need ‘girl power’. No, we don’t, because the phrase means nothing whatsoever. Apparently they’ve had a bad time with the press slagging them off because they don’t look like models. The same papers who run shock reports on size zero models being a bad example for young women etc. Hypocrite journalists, as ever! I’ll give that 6. Daughter says 9.

Now, can Janet rescue her evening after her initial disaster? Well, this is certainly better, but it’s not that good. She sounds like she means this song just as much as it was obvious she couldn’t have cared less about the earlier one. It’s Red Hot Chilli Peppers. Mind you, she’s never been in the bottom two and must have a large fanbase. That might save her yet even though the judges seem to have decided to put the pressure on. I was bored again, to be honest. I’ll give her 5. Daughter says 6.

Misha B again. Her dress looks like it’s made been made from strips of black gaffa tape arranged in a random collage. It’s Killing Me Softly (with his Song), the dance version. This is good, I reckon. I’d go as far as to say I’m genuinely enjoying this performance. Real quality. Louis says ‘consistent’, but I thought it was better than that. I’ll say 8. Daughter says 9.

Marcus is doing Stevie Wonder. That’s no surprise. I hope it’s good SW as opposed to later boring SW. Ah yes, this is how I like Marcus. Drop the silly dance routines please and let Marcus sing. He is a soul man. He’s getting real feeling into this. Great performance, which did Stevie proud. I think Marcus has pulled ahead of the pack this week. Gary says people know him as the entertainer but now as the voice. I much prefer the voice side of Marcus... I’ll say 9 as well. Daughter says 10.

Finally, Amelia returns. Oh dear... Amelia’s hero is Kelly Clarkson. She is only 17. I suppose she will find better heroes given a bit of time. She has a rare quality of seeming very nice and humble and yet also incredibly driven. The pink trousers don’t suit her. Not that they would suit me either. At least she had the courage to wear them. It’s huge-voice territory again and she does this as well as anyone - soft MOR rock this time, as opposed to power ballad. It’s definitely not my kind of thing. In fact, I can't stand it. But she can sing it. Not much to say here. I‘ll give her 7. Daughter says 10.

Who is in and who is out? Janet should be out. But... she must have people voting for her in large numbers not to have been in the bottom two ever, even after some dodgy performances before tonight. I think Marcus and Little Mix will get through. Misha B and Amelia, despite doing very well tonight, have both been in the bottom two before and can't be counted as safe.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Edinburgh Needs Trams!

If you’ve driven around Edinburgh recently, you’ll have noticed that every second street seems to be blocked or partially blocked by roadworks, traffic cones and temporary lights. Even Princes Street, the main road through the city centre, is entirely closed. Roads that remain open and free of obstruction are jammed with slow-moving traffic. Serious delays have become a way of life. I must admit, I am surprised that no one has worked out how to fix the travel chaos, as the answer is obvious. What Edinburgh needs is a modern, cost-efficient, ecologically-sound tram system – preferably one extending from Haymarket train station to the shopping mall at Ocean Terminal.

Why has no one thought of this before? Well, I don’t know. As I walked around Princes Street last week, I noticed that there are already ancient tram tracks on the road! Many of them are in appalling condition and will need to be re-laid and some of them are clearly inadequate for the weight of a modern tram, but I’m sure we can trust the council to do its homework right. Let’s say we import the wrong weight of tram from Spain and have to send them all back. It would cost around £300,000 to send them here and (I suppose) about the same to return them. That’s only £600,000, which is not bad for a bit of ill-researched speculation! Even if that doesn’t include the costs of the trams themselves...

It amounts, in fact, not even to a “small glitch”, which a bigwig at Edinburgh City Council has set at £200 million. Losing that amount of money in a major public project is only a “small glitch”, quite normal and not a problem, she seemed to say, which is a great relief. For one minute, I thought losing £200 million of taxpayers’ money might be grounds for mass council resignations, but it’s reassuring to learn that such losses are unimportant. We can always pay more council tax and shred spending on public services like education, rubbish collection and health services, and we’ll have that £200 million back in no time.

Some people have pointed to one of the best bus services in Britain and questioned the need for trams, especially as they will end up costing more than £1 billion. That’s not the point. Buses can’t get round the dug-up streets and temporary lights any better than a car. But with trams, you can build the tracks anywhere. For instance, there’s a patch of land down by Broomhouse which was dug up and tram tracks were indeed placed there – must have been some bizarre social experiment. There’s now no question of trams going anywhere near there and the land is now being dug up again for no apparent reason (although it has created employment, don’t forget that). The point is that it proves digging up random wasteland is possible and if a tram theoretically could go down there one day, it’s been worth doing as far as I’m concerned.

Others I have spoken to about this have looked at me with a glazed expression and argued that building the tram tracks will close off even more streets. This is true, but tram tracks are easy and quick to lay. I’d estimate – if we started now – the trams would be up and running by summer 2013 at a cost of only £545 million. There may be several “glitches” (I’m not sure how many “small glitches” are normal and acceptable, but let’s say five are acceptable – that’s only an extra £1 billion) and there’s always the possibility of contractual disputes, but I can recommend a German company who specialise in sorting these out and will not tolerate the inconvenience of work taking place until everyone is happy. Even if establishing mutual happiness takes years. And happiness is what it’s all about, right?

Finally, it is really important that not everyone is allowed to use the trams. Pensioners shouldn’t be allowed to use their passes. We don’t want old people on those beautiful new forms of transport. Nor do we want habitual bus-users – carriers of colds and wearers of old clothes – to soil the trams, so season tickets for buses shouldn’t cover tram-use. Trams should be reserved for people who have cars with four-wheel drive, especially those who currently drive them to work with no one in the passenger seats. They will, of course, continue to do this when the trams are built, but it’s all about opportunity. I believe strongly in creating further opportunities for people who already have more that they can realistically cope with. That’s the measure of a developed society, after all. It's also vital that trams stop as infrequently as possible, so that no one gets taken where they want to go. Long brisk walks will cut the current strain on the National Health Service.

I hope Edinburgh City Council are listening. And Alex Salmond and the Scottish parliament. I know new ideas like trams will take a bit of getting used to, but I’d recommend councillors take a number of trips to beautiful cities in southern Europe where trams are already established and, over a few glasses of Rioja, sign up for trams and make sure the cost of getting out of the contracts is astronomical. That way there’s no temptation to turn back if things are going disastrously. Until the trams arrive, I also demand that they provide every household with computer-generated images of trams gliding silently down a Princes Street without traffic cones, wire fences and the constant racket of pneumatic drills. There are, as all theologians argue, trams in heaven for those who believe.

(acknowledgement: I got the photo at the top from this site)

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Facebook, Poets and Writers

Facebook is fun. There’s no doubt about that and the number of users testifies to it. You’ll never get millions of people to sign up voluntarily for something that takes up time and bores the pants of everyone. For writers, it’s also an effective way of putting people in touch with one another, of making new links and cementing old ones, of keeping up with what’s going on in the literary world via a multitude of links, videos and status updates.

But there are problems. Serious problems. Everyone bangs on about privacy issues, sometimes with good reason and sometimes as knee-jerk reaction. The amount of time it can swallow is colossal, even if you think you’re on top of things; it’s hard to stay out of a debate you’ve contributed to for long, and good newspaper headlines make effective links you just can’t help clicking on. Some people talk about being addicted, but it’s often less of an addiction and more a feeling that you need to know what people are saying about what you’ve said, so that you can respond.

And so much of what’s on Facebook is interesting! Within fifteen minutes your head can be swimming with David Cameron’s latest idiotic soundbite, an atrocity in Uganda, a murder in Essex, the latest Guardian blog on why literary prizes mean everything/nothing, the discovery of ancient lakes on Mars, a new chocolate bar, glowing reviews of the latest Faber effort in all the broadsheets, an old Pavement video, an interesting fact about a little-known marsupial, A.N. Other’s latest poem about eating breakfast cereal while looking out a window at clouds...

And this is the real problem, I think. To write poetry requires focus, not a narrow focus, but focus that leaves space for the unexpected intruder. Intrusion has to come from a deeper place than fifteen minutes worth of noisy and tangled links, videos and discussions. A poem often begins to work when it is focused and then shoots off at a tangent, a tangent that somehow feels inevitable by the end of the poem. Social networking gets in the way both of the focus and of the welcome intruder. Instead there’s a crowd jostling at the walls of your brain for entry and, really, almost none of that stuff should have an invitation. The one intruder who matters usually gets lost in the baying crowd.

In the latest Magma, issue 51, Maitreyabandhu writes:

For a poem to communicate profound thought, the poet needs to think deeply; for a poem to express deep emotion, the poet needs to feel deeply; for a poem to be beautiful the poet needs to experience beauty.

Social networking can be detrimental to depth of thinking and I’m beginning to think that it can also act to limit our emotional depth too. I suppose it’s the same with any form of information overload: we may feel many things in quick succession about a huge variety of events and facts, but we’re denied the chance to go deeper into how we feel about anything. We might discuss things and learn things and discuss how we feel about things, but it’s all instant, buzzing communication, and usually has nothing to do with the specific piece of writing we’re trying to get done. Expressing how we feel in poetry without resorting to cliché, obscurity (always good for hiding the fact that we’re not saying anything! Although I am not suggesting that all obscurity implies this...) and overblown sentiment is one of the most difficult things to carry off in a poem, and social networks have made it that bit more difficult.

I’m not sure what the answer is. One solution is to abandon all social networks, and some writers I know have gone that way, but they do, I think, have value. Another solution is radically to limit time spent using them, but this is notoriously difficult to achieve and it only takes a few minutes for your head to be clogged with every subject under the sun. Emptying it of all that stuff can take hours. Maybe going for a run or taking up squash could help. Anyway, I’ll now post this article and, of course, link it to my Facebook wall...

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The X Factor - Week 6: Live Blog

I haven't bothered to do this up until now this year but I think it's about time I started this blog's X Factor round-up. As in previous years, I'll update it in live time as the show goes on. So if you can't be bothered to watch or indeed can't face it, then have no worries. With some acts, this blog will be better fun in any case.

It’s Queen and Lady Gaga week – help m’boab. No one can sing Queen and anyone can sing Gaga, so the Queen-mob are going to be at a disadvantage. But first they have to replace Frankie Cocozza, who is supposed to have broken the rules of the competition by taking cocaine. The tabloids have portrayed this as shocking and transgressive, but Frankie came over to me as a complete prat, about as ‘transgressive’ as Plastic Bertrand. How many people have taken cocaine? Millions probably. Join the back of the queue, Frankie. Bye.

First up is Kitty singing Queen. Kitty is another who thinks she is original and transgressive. She wanted to sing ‘Born this Way’ and is emotional about not getting to sing it – I’m rather glad, I must admit. It would have been an ego-fest of a song for her. She has a lion-mane on her head. What’s that about? Her vocal limitations are really being shown up by ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’. Terrible. Do stop her. Please! Tulisa likes it. So does Kelly. Maybe the volume of the live show has obscured how weak some of that was? I’d give that 3 out of 10. Wife says 7. Daughter says 7. They are in a generous mood!

Now it’s Craig, who wants to be “unique” and “have his own sound.” You’re on the wrong show, Craig. Maybe you should have joined a band and written some songs and played in grotty wee pubs for a few years to develop uniqueness. He’s doing Paparazzi. He’s singing it well enough as a ballad. But Lady G’s original had a degree of fun about it, which this entirely lacks. However, Craig at least seems like a nice guy and he is a good singer. The judges are all saying how great it was. It wasn't 'great' by any stretch of the imagination, but at least he tried to do it differently from the original. I’ll give that 8. Wife says 8. Daughter says 9.

It’s Little Mix now. They can at least sing in tune. However that doesn’t help them become any more than a-girl-next-door version of The Saturdays. Here they come, astonishingly with Radio Ga Ga!! No, they were fooling us, they’re doing Lady Gaga’s Telephone. That’s more like it! That’s what we expect and they’re doing it in exactly the way we expect. And they are doing it well. Louie loves everything about it. Kelly says the vocals were shaky at the beginning (and she is right, although they did get better). Gary says it was predictable, which is putting it mildly. Oddly, two of the girls who looked nothing like one another at the beginning of the series now seem to get more alike with every week. Spooky. I’ll say 6. Wife says 9. Daughter says 10. Crikey...

Now we have Janet. She started really well in the competition, but her first audition sounds far better to me than anything she’s done since. And they’ve styled her all wrong too. Ha... Kelly seems to have realised that and wants her to "go back to who she was" (and actually is). She’s singing a very strange version of Somebody to Love. It’s like they’ve taken a Queen song and Clannad-ed it or something! She is singing OK, but I don’t really like it. Louis loved it. Tulisa says she’d have to be in a certain kind of mood to listen to her. Gary says he’s bored. I’d have to be semi-comotose to appreciate that performance. A shame, as I genuinely like her. I’d say 6. Wife says 9 for her voice, as opposed to the arrangement. Daughter says 10 (she loves Janet).

Now it’s Markus. Now, Markus really is good. He has real soul, although we’ll see how long it takes for Cowell to knock that out of him. Sounds like Another One Bites the Dust crossed with Phil Collins singing Motown. Can you imagine? Who writes these arrangements? The song arranger should be locked away with bread and water for week. Markus is singing well, but really they all sing well at this stage. The arrangement is truly awful. Ugh... People in leather trousers are dancing weirdly in the background. Some tactical comments from the judges who want to elimintae the stronger acts so their own acts benefit. Naughty, but they're all at it. Oh, I’d give Markus 7 for his performance. Wife says 10 for his vocals. Daughter says 10.

Misha B is next. They gave her a nice hairstyle last week, very natural, and she looked all the better for it. Sometimes they’ve put a curious modernist sculpture on her head, which I’m told may have been made from her hair. I hope it’s the natural look tonight. It is. Good, as I’m sure it helps. She’s singing Born this Way and I’m sure she’ll make a better job of it than Kitty. The clattering drum sound is really annoying. What are the dancers? Glam traffic wardens with shiny pyjama bottoms? She sang it well though (yawn, as ever). All the judges loved it. I’d give her 8 for the performance. The arrangement isn’t her fault. Wife says 8. Daughter says 9.

Now we're going to find out who has been chosen to replace Frankie. It should be Amelia Lily, I think, as she should never have been put out in the first place. But I heard some tabloid rumour that it will be '2 Shoes'. God save us...

Here we go. Who has won the public vote to re-enter the competition? With 48% of the vote the winner is Amelia! Well, at least that’s justice. Now can she cement her place? She’s singing The Show Must Go On. She singing it on stage all by herself, no dancers in ridiculous costumes in sight. Perhaps they didn’t have time to rehearse an idiotic stage show with the ‘possibles’. And all the better for it. She is in the Leona Lewis mould. Not my kind of music, to put it mildly, but she sang it with passion and conviction. I’d give her 8. Wife says 9. Daughter says 10.

And that’s it for tonight. It's a fairly middling line-up, I'd say, even for the X Factor. No one is obviously favourite, which is different from most previous years, but may also point to a worrying lack of something. Markus, Craig, Little Mix and Misha B could all steal it. I reckon Kitty and Janet are in trouble after tonight and will sing off tomorrow.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Short Update with Three Books

It’s been a month since I last blogged and here are my excuses...

No, I’ll save you all that. Being sorry for not blogging is faintly ridiculous. Since my last foray into blogland, I read some of my poems at the University of Basel, Switzerland along with Katy Evans-Bush (at the kind invitation of Andrew Shields) and then went out to try one of the region’s sausage delicacies with a few members of the audience. I stayed in Basel Youth Hostel, which had an affordable bar (in Swiss terms) and a buffet breakfast, and also an inevitable snorer in the room. I walked the cobbled streets and admired the window shutters. I walked along the Rhine and brought back chocolate for the family. A very enjoyable couple of days! I also took part in the Bugged! event at the fabulous West Port Festival in Edinburgh, which went really well. I read a few pieces from the anthology and later that evening went to see a fine reading by Rachael Boast and J.O. Morgan. And the submissions period has opened for Magma 53, which means that Kona Macphee and I have spent the last ten days working out a strategy for keeping up with the poems that flood the inbox daily. Working out strategies is always a good way to spend time.

But this post is really to recommend three books as much as anything else. First of all, Mark Burnhope’s The Snowboy, a Salt pamphlet of real quality. Any poet who can address a wheelchair with, “O wing-black, spectral-silver mass;/ crass imposition upon the meadow” (‘Wheelchair, Recast as a Site of Special Pastoral Interest’) deserves to be read widely, and there are many other poems which make this small collection an exciting experience. Burnhope’s ability to create memorable phrases and recast language in imaginative ways mark him out.

Secondly, Ian Duhig’s Pandorama (Picador) is a great read with a wide variety of forms and styles. You can never quite guess where Duhig is going to take you next. He seems to know about things that few people have ever thought about knowing and uses his learning lightly but with genuine emotional and intellectual impact. This collection is satirical, funny, disturbing and mysterious, often simultaneously. Moving elegies for David Oluwale, a Nigerian immigrant who died following years of racial harassment by police, line up alongside navvies, seed-fiddles, and ‘Closed Enquiry’ which celebrates “Santon Bridge’s Annual Lying Championship”; politicians may be barred from entering but agriculture holds plenty of scope:
cattle so huge they need individual postcodes,
rams’ horns winding up in different time-zones.

And finally, there’s Gabriel Josopovici’s Touch, which is described as a prose essay musing over “the central question of how we can feel at home in the world.” In fact, it’s a fascinating group of essays clustered around that theme, probing ideas of distance with reference to Charlie Chaplin, transgression and self-delusion with reference to Proust, power with reference to the $50m trade in Nazi memorabilia, and the difference between walking in England and walking in Egypt with a nod to Tristram Shandy (which, by coincidence, Ian Duhig also references). Touch, not mere observation, binds the essays into one. Josopovici deals with complex ideas without resorting to jargon or meaningless abstraction and there’s a passionate and intelligent engagement with the world behind every enquiry.