Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Google Glass Vs Apple iPatch

The world's two coolest technology brands, Google and Apple, are to go head-to-head (or should that be eye to eye) in releasing their wearable, hands-free computer devices simultaneously. Google's Glass is a set of eye glasses where the internet can be accessed using voice commands and viewed via an optical head-mounted display. The device can also take photos and record video. Apple's iPatch works in a similar way but takes the form of a traditional pirate-style eye patch which can also access the web using voice only. However, in Apple's case the voice can only be recognised if spoken in a 'pirate accent'.

Although a Google spokesperson referred to the iPatch as "naff", and many feel Apple has lost its way since the death of Steve Jobs, Apple may well be onto something, cashing in on the recent craze for pirates in films such as the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Apple is also hoping to target hitherto uncharted pirate-loving territories including Penzance, Cornwall and, er, Somalia.

Hands-free wearable computers could well be the future, but the jury is currently out on which looks the most ridiculous, the Glass or the iPatch. Virtual reality was all the craze in the 1990s, with films such as Strange Days (1995) taking the concept to extremes, but the idea never seemed to take off. However, the Glass and iPatch are bringing reality a step nearer in what was previously only the domain of science fiction and swashbuckling films.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Celine and Jesse go Boating*

Aside from the original Star Wars trilogy (1977-1983), Richard Linklater's three 'Before' films, Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004) and Before Midnight (2013) are perhaps the most inspiring, optimistic and romantic trilogy of American films I've ever seen. Like Truffaut's Antoine Doinel films, or the BBC's Up documentaries, each film was made almost ten years apart (so spanning nearly twenty years) using the same characters/actors, which is the time span I watched them in, but watching them back to back is equally rewarding. I think I responded to them so much because Jesse, played by Ethan Hawke, is the same age as me so its been interesting watching him age in the films the same rate as myself.

All three films are simplicity itself, consisting of nothing more than the two main characters walking around, talking about the meaning of life, flirting, loving, arguing. But herein lies their beauty, especially in the age of the mindless, CGI-laden blockbusters, the films come across as a breath of fresh air, and more akin to European cinema, in particular the films of Eric Rohmer. The three films have an intimacy, warmth and natural realism that's never mawkish. There's something innately cinematic about them too, perhaps surprising with their lack of special effects or flashy camera angles. I think it's about observing their relationship grow on screen and the cinema being a place of intimacy (all three films have been written by the director in collaboration with the two leads). With each successive film it's like catching up with old friends, and spending time with them is always a delight.

The first film, Before Sunrise, has the two attractive leads, American Jesse and French Celine (played by Julie Delpy), meeting on a train and deciding to disembark in Vienna to spend the day together. The natural spontaneity and obvious attraction between the two is immediately apparent as we follow them in (mostly) real time with long takes and unobtrusive camerawork. Each film ends on an ambiguous note; at the end of Sunrise we're not sure if they had sex or not. By Before Sunset, nine years later, we find out they did, as Celine turns up at a book reading by Jesse in Paris (at the Shakespeare & Co bookshop, where I once spent the night in 1995). The formula is the same as we follow them around Paris, catching up with what they have been up to for the last decade, and why they didn't meet a year later after they first met. I usually say my favourite ending of any film is Fat City, but Before Sunset comes close with Celine in her kitchen dancing to Nina Simone and saying to Jesse, 'You're gonna miss your plane, baby'. Jesse sits on the sofa with a grin as wide as a Cheshire Cat and says, 'I know'.

Nine years later we find out soon enough what's happened, as we meet Jesse's son from a previous marriage and the twin daughters he's had with Celine. I don't know what's wrong with me but seeing Jesse and Celine still together after all these years bought tears to my eyes, even if they do argue a lot of the time. The film follows the now-familiar pattern of walking and talking, this time on a Greek island, where the topics are now more pragmatic than romantic. Nevertheless, the film ends again on an ambiguous but positive and romantic note.

* A pretentious reference to Celine and Julie go Boating, Jacques Rivette's 1974 film set in Paris, the setting for Before Sunset, where Celine and Jesse do actually board a boat; presumably Celine and Julie do too.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Tribes of Great Britain

I recently saw the Rolling Stones in Hyde Park (Jagger still moves like Jagger, in case you're wondering) and couldn't help but notice half the audience wearing Rolling Stones T-shirts. How uncool! It struck me how much us Brits love to pigeonhole ourselves, and literally wear our identities on our sleeves.

At gigs and sporting events it manifests itself in T-shirts; in the workplace it's suits or checked shirt and jeans on a casual Friday. Hipsters get a lot of flack for trying to look individual by looking identical to every other hipster in the land (ie ridiculous) but their painstaking, misguided effort is almost endearing (they're often compared to the hippies of the 1960s but lacking a political - or any - agenda, their look comes across as pure posturing). Sad couples like to wear matching outfits and posh people red or mustard-coloured trousers.

When walking in the countryside, walkers or ramblers like to wear their rambling gear, including walking sticks, as if they're climbing Mount Everest rather than having a gentle stroll in the Chilterns. Joggers too like to look the part. But in recent years it's cyclists who dress up more than any other tribe, and where a cycle through Richmond Park usually feels like the third leg of the Tour de France. But even cycling to work looks like it's a race for most cyclists, with their £1000 bikes and costumes costing almost as much (mainstream brands have also got in on the act with Levi's, for example, now producing a range of pricey and pointless cycling attire).

I don't know, to me, shaving one's legs and wearing a Rapha jersey and £195 Vulpine rain jacket just to go 0.3 seconds faster on a bike ride through the Surrey Downs on a Sunday afternoon strikes me as incredibly pretentious and ponsey. The cycling thing seems a mostly British preoccupation. There was a friendly, completely unpretentious cycling network I discovered cycling round France a year ago, with little of the competitiveness and expensive attire found here.

But uniforms of intent are with us throughout our lives, from babies wearing pink or blue to delineate sex (interesting to note pink was for boys and blue for girls up until the 1940s) to the elderly wearing hideous, ill fitting beige and pastel attire. There must come a time, perhaps in their late 60s, when old folk just think 'fuck it', I'm not out to impress anymore, I'm going purely for comfort and don't care what it looks like. I really like seeing the elderly still dressing well; the beige and pastel and slip on shoes makes me fear old age more than anything else.

I'm of the Groucho Marx school of thought where I wouldn't want to be a member of a club that would allow me as a member. But mainly, and I realise it's unavoidable, I just don't like to be pigeonholed by haircut, T-shirt or shoes.

* The mobile phone in the air at concerts has long superseded the lighting of candles or waving of lighters in the air (am I imagining this or did fans used to do this in the 60s, 70s, 80s? Look at the cover of Before the Flood). It's funny how fans prefer taking out of focus photos at gigs rather than record the actual music (video would seem to be the most complete option), but the photo is proof of being there to post immediately on Facebook (naturally). It doesn't matter that Jagger looks the size of an ant in the pictures or that an audio clip would be far more representative (the girl in front of me was phoning friends during the concert and giving them a blast of Sympathy for the Devil when they picked up. Now this I liked as it was in keeping with the live experience, not to be saved, repeated or posted but enjoyed in the moment).

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The last generation

I think of my parents generation – that is, those now in their 60s or 70s – as the last generation ever to do (or not do) certain things. Some of the things they do are quite important, and it's sad to see them go; others are just plain annoying (ie turning on their mobile to send one text, then immediately turning it off again; turning on the computer to send one email or check the weather, then immediately turning if off again).

Anyway, some of these include:
• Religiously sending Christmas and birthday cards.
• Knowing their neighbours.
• Being to spell, punctuate and use grammar correctly without the use of a spell checker.
• Having a good general knowledge, perhaps even some Latin, maybe able to quote some Shakespeare and/or Keats.
• Being able to navigate with just a physical map.
• Needing to read manuals.
• Popping round to friends houses unannounced for a cup of tea (I have a friend who I have to text to check when I can phone him; I've been round to his house once in five years; it took over a year to arrange).
• Having manners, being polite, having civic pride.
• Using old sayings like 'tough as old boots', 'tough as old Harry', 'bent as a nine-bob note' (that means homosexual) and 'Glory B'.
• Being mildy xenophobic/racist/homophobic.
• Being able to buy a house.
• Being keen on gardening.
• Being able to walk into almost any job in the 1960s (if that's the case – I've always wondered – why did some people walk into accountancy or insurance when they could have walked into advertising or movies?).
• Watch too much crap old-fashioned TV, yes, but more crucially, actually sit and watch the TV when programmes are scheduled. And enjoying the fact of sitting down at a certain time every day or week.
• Cluttered homes and good taste. Young people's homes are devoid of anything of interest, with their homes looking like an IKEA showroom. I mostly believe than no one under the age of forty has good taste or an interesting home. They are possibly more materialistic than the older generation, but it reflects in crappy stuff like fashion or technology, rather than things of aesthetic beauty.
• Being interesting.
• Remembering the wars, i.e. probably the second one (though probably only just being born at the end of it). Having to struggle, skimp and save. And still going on about it.
• Cooking proper meals from scratch and using real food, such as vegetables. And all the family sitting round the kitchen table for mealtimes.
• Being able to do DIY and make things (despite having less leisure time). Fixing something rather than throwing it out and buying a new one.
• Having decent handwriting, and able to write.
• Good with measurements; weights, distances, etc.
• Believing in things, having values.

Previously on Barnflakes:
Last of the legends

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Modern Love

Aside from containing my favourite lines, 'I know when to go out / And when to stay in / Get thing done', why is Modern Love my favourite David Bowie song? Well, I have a sneaking suspicion it's because the first time I heard it was in Leos Carax's 1986 film Mauvais Sang, which I loved. I haven't seen the film in decades but remember someone – probably Denis Levant (God I was watching Carax's latest film, Holy Motors, recently and just had a suspicion Denis Lavant was going to get his dick out; that which had been so, well, prominent as he ran along the beach in Les Amants du Pont-Neuf. Sure enough, five minutes later, out it comes) – running along a pavement with Modern Love playing. I heard the song again recently in a film, Noah Baumbach's acclaimed Frances Ha.

Anyway, it occurred to me that a lot of the music I love comes from films. It's something about the interaction of image with music that really stays with me. Not just original soundtracks (Star Wars, Blade Runner, Grease, Paris, Texas; anything by Morricone and Herrmann spring to mind) but pre-existing songs, a lot of which I probably wouldn't have listened to otherwise: The Harder They Come got me into reggae (albeit briefly). Fantastia got me into classical music; a love of opera via Diva and Room with a View. Rossini and Beethoven (via Moog) from A Clockwork Orange; Strauss from 2001: A Space Odyssey; Bach from Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould. Lo-fi American indy music (Sebadoh, Folk Implosion, Slint, Daniel Johnston) from Kids. Performance, Lost in Translation and Morvern Callar all contain an eclectic mix of memorable music.

When it snowed here earlier in the year (and I'd just got around to buying Leonard Cohen's latest album), it got me in the mood for re-watching Altman's McCabe and Mrs Miller. I'd first watched it as a teenager and found it mesmerising. Set in the snowy northwest, songs from Cohen's first album, The Songs of Leonard Cohen, permeate the entire film. So perfectly do Cohen's songs, in particular Travelling Lady and Sisters of Mercy, echo the harsh, lonely, snowy landscape, it's amazing the songs weren't written specifically for the film. It was my first introduction to Cohen; soon after I bought a cassette (yes, this was the 1980s) of his Greatest Hits, which actually took me a while to get into without the aid of Altman's sweeping yet intimate and poetic visuals. But I got there in the end and have been ever since.

(Altman was the main American director of the 1970s to utilise Cohen's songs but across the water in Europe at the same time, the new wave of German directors were using his songs to dramatic effect in films such as Werner Herzog's amazing Fata Morgana (1971, the same year as McCabe) and Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Legend of the Holy Whore (also 1971), where Cohen's first album is played virtually non-stop in the hotel lobby; no wonder the characters keep smashing their glasses on the floor in despair. Fassbinder uses Cohen's songs in some half a dozen films in the 1970s but it wasn't until the Cohen renaissance in the late 1980s – where the release of one of his best albums, I'm Your Man, provoked new interest in his music – that his songs were used in more mainstream films, including the controversial Natural Born Killers, and Strange Days. The dreadful Kiss the Sky (1998; sample dialogue: 'I read Sanskrit at Oxford') contains seven Cohen songs. Naturally, tons of Canadian and French films you've never heard of contain his music, but also more recently hit American TV shows such as Lost and Homeland feature his latter-day songs.)

Though I'd been after the soundtrack to Woody Allen's Manhattan for over twenty years, it hasn't been a conscious endeavour every day, you understand. I did forget about it for two decades. I first got some Gershwin after seeing Manhattan for the first time, probably in the late 1980s, on TV. The following day I shot down to Our Price and bought a cheap cassette of Rhapsody in Blue (the sales assistant asked me if I'd seen Manhattan the previous evening), which I rarely played and haven't had for years. Then I saw the vinyl of Manhattan recently in a charity shop (pricey at £3) and remembered I'd always wanted it. And it's fantastic and hasn't been off my turntable for days. God, those opening bars of Rhapsody in Blue – it's like snake charmer music! Needless to say, a few days later, it appeared on eBay – brand new and sealed – and I got it on CD for 99p. I'm saying it sounds better on vinyl though.

Lindsay Anderson's If… contains a recurring piece of music that has always haunted me: Sanctus from the Missa Luba, sung by a choir of Congolese school children, which works brilliantly with the film. I don't think the film's ever been released as a soundtrack, but the whole Missa Luba is easily available and quite beautiful.

In fact, some of the best film soundtracks haven't actually been released as soundtracks, sometimes for contractual or copyright reasons, or the studio not expecting a film to be a hit. But it's pretty easy to put together your own soundtrack album from songs on other pre-existing albums. Scorsese's Mean Streets contains a great mix of songs from the Ronettes to the Stones which would cost thousands today to get the copyright for: Scorsese didn't have the budget but used the songs anyway (sort of the film equivalent of the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique, which used thousands of samples without getting copyright for any of them).

Southern Comfort, Deep End, Harold and Maude, Solaris and, er, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, are just a few films which have great music but have never been released as soundtracks. They can probably be found online in one form or another. Well, saying that, the Cat Steven's soundtrack to Harold and Maude was released as a limited edition vinyl release of 2,500 in 2007 (the film came out in 1971). These limited edition vinyl releases annoy me. For a start, I never get one, secondly, they're too expensive anyway. Recently the soundtracks to Eraserhead and Jimmy Page's score for Kenneth Anger's Lucifer Rising have also come out on limited edition vinyl releases, as well as, er, the soundtracks to Halloween II and III.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Letting the Barngains Go

I was growing steadily despondent of charity shops. Online sales had become predictable, junk shops abysmal, car boot sales overpriced. In these tough austerity times, we are all looking for barngains. Charity shops used to be good for cheap items, but not any more, not since they've marketed themselves as boutiques and now regularly charge more than many high street shops such as Poundland or Primark. Indeed, I've actually seen Primark items in Oxfam charging more than Primark. But charity shops are apparently flourishing, whilst many big brand high street shops disappear.

I've taken a leaf out of Poundland and now rarely spend more than £1 on a CD, record or book in a charity shop or car boot sale. Fopp, Morrison's and HMV have all embraced selling secondhand CDs for £2 (still cheaper than Oxfam's £2.99). HMV and Waterstone's have good clearance sales once in a while, with CDs and books 99p or £1.99.

I don't visit charity shops as much as I used to, so my chances of barngains are pretty low. However, about a month ago in a charity shop on a Sunday afternoon, a stack of records for £1 had just been put out. I looked through them and it was a goldmine of Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Blue Oyster Cult and Bob Marley. I looked through them; checked the vinyl. They all seemed slightly worn, but largely good. I looked through them again. I don't know. Something inside said 'let them go; let someone else find them'. I don't know what it was. Maybe the next person would buy them all and sell them for £20-30 on eBay. But maybe it would just be a music fan who would play them over and over. Whatever. I never really liked Led Zeppelin or Bob Marley and had Bowie on CD. I'd play them once then put them amongst my others, gathering dust. I let them go. It felt like a coda of sorts. (I've only regretted not buying them at least twice a day for the past month. Lady luck shone on me again a few weeks ago when I turned up late at a car boot sale. Sometimes it's best to – all the crap has been bought, leaving a few gems. In my case it was The Who's Live at Leeds and Bowie's Hunky Dory on LP, £1 each, mint condition. I got them.)

Previously on Barnflakes:
London Through Its Charity Shops
Recent Barngain LPs
Recent Barngains
Top 10 Greatest Missed Barngains
Weekend Barngains (2)
Weekend Barngains (1)

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Unfinished paintings

There's something about unfinished paintings I find intriguing and mysterious. Interrupted for a variety of reasons, though usually because of death or dislike, they give a fascinating insight into an artist's technique, but more than that, they almost make a post-modern sub genre of painting in themselves. Most famous painters have a famous unfinished painting, from Cezanne and Ingres to Balthus and Michelangelo (I love his Madonna and Child with Saint John and Angels, above, with two ghost-like unfinished figures behind the Madonna exposing her breast. I equally love his unfinished slave sculptures, struggling to escape the rough marble). Some painters deliberately left some of their canvas blank or unfinished in order to draw attention to a particular part of the image, such a well-painted face, leaving the rest of the picture in a sketch-like state.
Pop artist Mel Ramos actually produced a series of playful nudes called Unfinished Paintings (above), painting the face area of the model in detailed colour and the rest of the scene in sketchy monochrome.
Artist Colin Chillag also explores the idea of unfinished paintings in his series of partially painted photorealistic pictures. The paintings are a chance for viewers to see his technique of working, though for me they're somewhat self-conscious.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

'What is this shit?'

…were critic Greil Marcus's infamous opening words to his 1970 review of Bob Dylan's Self Portrait album in Rolling Stone magazine. Well, time heals many wounds, and now Marcus is writing a more sympathetic essay in his introduction to the tenth volume of the Dylan Bootleg Series, called Another Self Portrait (released next month).  The cover features another painting by Dylan, which looks even less like him than the painting on the original Self Portrait. The new portrait may be Jack Kerouac or Tom Clancy or Richard Prince. I love the Bootleg Series. I also almost love the fact they never release what we really want. This has been Dylan's way for the past fifty years, of course, not giving the audience what they want. It may take us some time, but we always come round in the end.

But (I have a but), releasing this ragbag of demos and alternative versions of the much-maligned Self Portrait and New Morning albums from 1969-1971 (after the fairly recent Bootleg Series Vol. 8, which was a ragbag of demos and alternatives from 1989-2006... but still great, of course) seems especially perverse. Or maybe just flippant or trivial.

Especially when Dylan and his camp know that what we really want is:

A Tree with Roots (the complete Basement Tapes with over 100 songs on four CDs)
Blood on the Tracks (alternate New York sessions)
The Supper Club (CD and DVD, 1993)
Johnny Cash sessions (1969)
Rock Solid (a 1980 official live recording never released of born again Dylan, a period in his career more controversial than 1969-71)
Stadiums of the Damned (Live in New Orleans 1983)
The Never Ending Tour (1988-forever; still no complete concert has been released)
... to name just a few.

Yes, of course we have all these on bootleg CD or MP3 but we want the official release, remastered, with booklets, rare photos and essays by Greil Marcus eating his words.

Due to copyright ceasing, lots of semi-official bootlegs have been released recently from Dylan's early years: Freewheelin' Outtakes, Finjan Club, The Minneapolis Party Tape, Carnegie Chapter Hall 1961, Gaslight Cafe, Studs Terkel's Wax Museum, Folksinger's Choice... I started buying them but the quality is variable and they just don't have the excitement of an official release. God, I'm a sucker for a bit of official Dylan hype.

Previous Bob Dylan posts here.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Illustrated children's books (for parents)

One of the best things about having children is being able to buy and read children's books without fear of embarrassment. But getting children to enjoy beautiful, arty books can be problematic. Like buying beautifully crafted wooden toys for children and getting them to eat organic vegetables, say, all too often children don't appreciate what's best for them and would prefer, say, a bright pink plastic toy and chips instead.

Luckily, my daughter has plenty of good taste, so does appreciate (most) of the following (all of which are years old and referred to as 'vintage'. I'm sure there are good new children books. I don't know, like children's TV, they all seems so mawkish nowadays. I know, I could feel this way as I'm in my 40s):

The Lorax Dr Suess
Yes there's his Cat in his Hat, but we've all read that; and the Grinch is a cinch. So try the Lorax (1971), concerned with environmentalism and anti-consumerism, recently made into a terrible film.

Barbapapa is just brilliant. The French words 'barbe à papa' literally means daddy's beard but in French means candyfloss.

Barbar the Elephant
Like Barbapapa, Barbar is also French. After his mother is shot by hunters, Barbar flees to the city and brings back the benefits of civilisation.

Fungus The Bogeyman Raymond Briggs
Anything by Raymond Briggs is great.

Haunted House Jan Pienkowski
A childhood favourite, this took the pop-up book to new heights.

Henri In Paris Saul Bass
Originally published in 1961 and subsequently hard to get for decades, Henri in Paris has recently been republished. Saul Bass, famous as a film poster and title designer, uses the same simple yet graphic technique in his only children's book.

The Book about Moomin, Mymble and Little My Tove Jansson
I was a bit disappointed to discover that Moomin books are mostly black and white comic strips or novels. Luckily there are some beautifully imaginative picture books, including this one.

Mr Benn
Always dressed in black suit and bowler suit, Mr Benn's visits to a fancy dress shop always result in him trying on a costume and being transported on an adventure particular to the costume he's wearing. Mr Benn hails from 52 Festive Road, Putney.

The Witches Quentin Blake
Growing up, Quentin Blake's illustrations were synonymous with Roald Dahl's words.

Rupert the Bear
The modern cartoon is just terrible; the original books just delightful and beautifully detailed.

The Tiger Who Came To Tea Judith Kerr
Kerr, who recently celebrated her 90th birthday, has just had a book released of her life and work. She also produced the Mog the cat series ('I was enchanted by the strangeness of cats', she says). Funnily enough, both her and Jan Pienkowski live in Barnes, South West London.

Where The Wild Things Are Maurice Sendak
Justly famous for his Where The Wild Things Are, Sendak wrote and illustrated dozens of other books.

Little Nemo in Slumberland Windsor McCay
Though more a comic strip than a book (collections of the strips are available in book form, mostly very expensive), I've been wanting an excuse to mention Little Nemo for a while. Windsor McCay's comic strip first appeared in the comic supplement of the New York Herald in 1905. Wildly inventive with beautiful drawings and stunning colours, each strip consisted of Little Nemo going on a wild dream adventure and the last frame always had him waking up and falling out of bed.

Check out the blog Vintage Kids' Books My Kids Love

Previously on Barnflakes:
Ant and Bee
Baby books and TV programmes
Being Mr Benn
Fake Tintins
Rainbow Magic books

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Notes on never winning the lottery

There's probably no way I'm going to win the lottery, seeing as I've never bought a ticket (thereby making the probability of my winning only slightly less than those who buy a ticket on a weekly basis). Of course, many people do the lottery. I know loads of people who do it, funnily enough it's either people who have money or people who don't (I know, I've just described everyone). Those who do have money (ie a job, savings etc), I don't know, the things they would do with the money (used to be a favourite Friday afternoon game at work, "if I won the lottery…") are actually things they could probably do already if they really wanted (travel, say, or buy a sports car or a place in France). These people seem to lack imagination or the courage to take a risk with their savings. They're afraid. They can safely rely on never winning the lottery ("Oh, if only I won the lottery I'd…") and putting off indefinitely the things they really want to do. For those who do it and don't have money (ie they're poor), I say to them: don't bother and save your money. For many, doing the lottery becomes like an addiction and a trap. They have the same numbers they use every week. It becomes impossible not to do it every week: for the week they don't do it, their numbers will come up.

In a way, the narrow minded Brits who insist it's not going to change their lives are right: even if they do build a swimming pool in their semi-detached, they're still living in the same house, in the same town. They'll buy a better car or two but they're the same people: sure, they'll have more holidays and buy nice clothes and gadgets but they'll always be limited by their imagination. It's doubtful they'll buy an island, a Van Gogh, give 90% of their winnings to charity, open an orphanage, buy a small, poor country (Iceland, Greece), make a film or start a record label. They won't suddenly socialise with the Beckhams or the rich and glamorous in St Moritz or Monte Carlo. The Scottish couple who won £161m a few years ago (and celebrated with a single glass of white wine) are looked on as 'lottery winner role models' (ie they're boring). Although saying they'd never change house, they eventually moved round the corner to a larger abode with pool and cinema. Apparently the Weir's have done some good: they gave their old house to neighbours, bought cars for friends and gave some (not a lot) money to charities. Right, by my calculations that only leaves them about £150m left to spend, not counting interest. God, why not give £100m away? In some ways I have more respect (or sympathy) for Michael Carroll, self-proclaimed 'King of Chavs' who blew it all on cars, drugs, gambling and prostitutes (after saying he'd buy a modest house and take up fishing). He's now bankrupt, has attempted suicide twice and is back on jobseeker's allowance. Well, it was only £9m. Doesn't last long nowadays.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Inside album cover of the day: Naked City

I have no idea why whenever I have a post with the words sex or babes or even skinny dipping in the title, it gets hundreds more hits than any other posts. My post for Roxy Music's Country Life, featuring scantily clad women, has been viewed over 35,000 times (and comes up near the top of Google images when searching for it). John Zorn's Naked City was released in 1989 and features a black and white photo of a dead man on the cover. The inside contains illustrations by Japanese manga artist Maruo Suehiro, who seems to specialise in images of graphic sex and violence. I love the Japanese: so repressed on the one hand, so perverse on the other.

This autumn the British museum is to host an exhibition of 16th-19th century Japanese erotic art. Seems they've always been perverse, the Japanese.

Previously on Barnflakes:
Goodness Gracious Inner Gatefold

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Notes on the telegram

There are numerous ways to communicate with people nowadays, be it email, text, phone, Facebook, Twitter or Skype, each with their varying degrees of urgency and intimacy*. A text at midnight is more intimate than a lunchtime email, perhaps (Marshall McLuhan's the medium is the message, coined in 1964, is more valid than ever). Then there are the more old-fashioned ways of communicating, such as face to face (soon to be an anachronism, according to Susan Greenfield** in the Telegraph, and mocked here in the Guardian), letter, greetings card, postcard, carrier pigeon, smoke signals and telegram. Hand written missives add a personal touch that electronic data can't convey; an e-card or birthday text smacks of laziness; a hand-written card feels personal and sincere, and takes effort (ie buying it, writing in it, taking it to a postbox). In fact, anything hand written nowadays, so unusual has the method become, that it automatically adds a personal touch.

But there's something about a telegram, even though it's typed, that supersedes all other forms of communication, at least in terms of urgency and importance. Though largely obsolete today, thanks to text messaging and email (and the telegram's nearest relative in terms of brevity, Twitter), it's still possible to send one (though not to everywhere in the world). The familiar (mainly known through films) way of writing a telegram is a short message (each word used to cost money), to the point, and with every sentence broken up with the word STOP. This was because in the early days there was no full-stop STOP. The best ones (ie those not announcing a death) are punchy and pithy, and there's a fine tradition of famous people sending funny ones. Here's Dorothy Parker responding to a news editor hassling her for copy on her honeymoon: 'TOO F***ING BUSY. AND VICE VERSA.'

Though the traditional telegram was usually delivered the same day, and the message passed through electronic wire, the actual telegram had to be delivered by a telegram messenger, usually on a bike. I was vaguely reminded of Kevin Costner in the Postman (a remake of the Italian Il Postino), getting the mail delivered, no matter what, even during post-apocalyptic America (the year: 2013 – the future seems to be getting nearer and nearer nowadays) where probably no one can write or read anyway.

Our main knowledge of telegrams, though, comes through war films, where a telegraph messenger coming up the path to a suburban house with those vital words in his hands, usually to inform the mother/wife that their son/husband has been killed in battle. This was as true in the Vietnam War as World War II.

Email and instant messaging may be the modern equivalents of the telegram but the technology hasn't really progressed that much: the telegraph had to pass between electric wires and now the internet passes through fibre optic ones. The main difference is emails don't require a boy on a bike to deliver them. If they did, they'd be a lot more bikes on the roads.

Yes, it's happened again. The Guardian's blog section recently published a post on telegrams (needless to say, I started this one months ago). In particular, it concerns the last telegram to be sent from India (it was yesterday). According to most of the comments, the post abounds in errors, but that's the Guardian for you. Barnflakes, on the other hand, prides itself on factual accuracy.

Previously on Barnflakes:
Nothing is invented
Email etiquette (The Guardian recently pinched the idea. Read it here. Yes, I'm definitely getting paranoid)

* I've managed to communicate with someone over the course of an evening via mobile, landline, text, email, Gmail chat, Skype and Skype messenger – and each has their own mood, dictated to a certain extent by the method of communication.

** "If we're going to be living in a world where face-to-face interaction, unpractised as it is, becomes uncomfortable, then such an aversion to real life, three-dimensional communication combined with a more collective identity, may be changing the very nature of personal relationships themselves."

Monday, July 15, 2013

Back to the Cat's Back

The Cat's Back was the best pub in Putney with a motley crew of regulars, an in-house pissed artist, live music and bohemian, ramshackle interior design. It survived the regeneration of the old industrial part of Putney beside Wandsworth park, but always seemed at odds with the new, soulless luxury apartments dwarfing the charming old building. It closed for renovation last year and opened again as a bland, generic, over lit Harvey's chain pub, complete with cynical nostalgia in the form of forties music and old photographs on the walls.

Me and my boon companion were regulars in the old Cat's Back for a while, chatting to the locals and watching their mysterious comings and goings. Something was always going on, we had no idea what, but it was fun speculating. It was a real locals pub with a friendly, community spirit. Outside was an old petrol pump and a few random wooden tables and chairs. A broken window in the front had been cunningly covered up with a large Halloween spider's web sticker and flashing Christmas lights. Inside was dark and bizarre, cluttered with bric-a-brac and posters, photos and paintings on the walls. A glitter ball and chandelier on the ceiling. Candles on the tables. The School Kids Issue of OZ magazine was in a frame. A huge poster for Johnny Suede. A Nick Cave poster: a friend (a huge Nick Cave fan) was playing bridge in there some years ago and couldn't believe her eyes when she looked up and saw the man himself sipping on a pint.

One of the most intriguing locals was a man we dubbed 'the pissed artist'. He was an artist, and he was usually drunk. He was in the pub all the time. His paintings were on the walls. He would stand at the bar, sketchbook and pencil in hand, looking out for attractive women (of which there were always many), draw them, and present the drawing to them. They were usually pleased.

For a while the entire Cat's Back – the staff, the locals, the bric-a-brac, the petrol pump, the posters – had decamped around the corner to The Armoury but on returning a few months later, this too had been taken over by a generic chain. What a shame. We haven't been back since.

Previously on Barnflakes: 
Cats Eyes Removed

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Lookalikes #34: Meet the Beatles/Meet the Residents

The Beatles' first U.S. album cover has been parodied numerous times but I like the Residents cover best. Probably worth noting that The Residents are better than The Beatles. The website Deface Value features 'authentically found and intentionally altered album cover art'.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Random Film Review: Popeye

Dir: Robert Altman | 1980 | 114mins | USA

My first surprise was when I asked the bus driver where the Popeye village was. I looked at him and saw the spitting image of what I'd imagine Popeye's father to look like, a squashed-together and gnarly face. Then he spoke – and sounded just like Popeye's father would sound like. He directed me to a beat-up minibus on the side of the road, which would take me the mile to Popeye village.

My second surprise occurred upon entering the beat-up minibus: I saw three Afro-American couples incongruously seated inside. They were very bling, and looked like they belonged in a stretched limo in a 1990s rap video. They were all beautiful, the guys well-built; the wives dazzling, taking random photos of walls with their $2,000 DSLRs whilst the guys made rude digs at the locals. Best of all, they had drinks in their hands, obviously taken from a local bar. They oozed cool. I felt like I'd gatecrashed a cheesy party. They seemed friendly enough, though. Indeed, I even came to question their bling when they questioned the fact that their pre-paid tickets were €10 whilst mine on the door was only €9. Whatever.

After driving in the bus for ten minutes, we arrived at the film set of Robert Altman's 1980 musical adaption of Popeye, starring Robin Williams (in his film debut) as the eponymous hero and Shelley Duvall cast to perfection as Olive Oyl. Anchor Bay in Malta was chosen as the location for the film and nineteen wooden structures were built, all deliriously ramshackle. It was pretty surreal walking around the colourful village, but I was out of season and out of sorts. There were two performers playing Popeye and Olive Oyl, but they looked nothing like the real thing. The guy meant to be Popeye looked about nineteen, and skinny as a rake. They did an embarrassing dance to some techno track, and the Afro-Americans joined in ironically, drinks still in hands.

The film itself was a commercial hit but a critical disaster. Time has been less harsh on it, and it's now a cult movie of sorts and can even be discussed as being thematically consistent with Altman's other films. The film has a lot of charm and energy, capturing some of the spirit of the original cartoons. The music, by Harry Nilsson, isn't totally successful, but the film's an enjoyable romp with the two lead performers excellently cast. But back in the 1970s and 80s comic strip film adaptations weren't as popular as they are today. They'd been Superman in 1978, Flash Gordon in 1980, Annie in 1992, but nothing like the explosion of comic book films we've had in recent years.

Strangely enough Popeye now looks like a sort of comical remake of Altman's masterly western McCabe and Mrs Miller, made in 1973. In this Warren Beatty plays McCabe, a lonesome drifter with ambition who wonders into town, mumbling to himself ('I got poetry in me'). And Popeye, lonesome and shipwrecked into town, mumbling to himself. Both films deal with an outsider in a hostile environment and feature isolated settlements.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Mishearing Dylan

I, like many people, have always misheard lyrics in certain songs. I went through an adolescent phase when my mishearing of songs towards a homosexual bent almost made me question my sexuality: Hendrix's 'Scuse me while I kiss the sky' from Purple Haze still sounds like 'kiss this guy' to me; likewise, Joy Division's 'I need a guy to take me by the hand'  from their song Disorder is actually 'I need a guide to take me by the hand', to name just two.

But Bob Dylan, with his mumbling whine and cryptic lyrics, is ripe for mishearing. Often, my mishearings sound better than the actual lyrics, such as in Visions of Johanna what I always thought was, 'She's delicate and seems like Vermeer' (ie the 17th century Dutch artist), is actually 'She's delicate and seems like the mirror'. Likewise, Mr Tambourine Man's 'I promise to go under it' is better misheard as 'I promise to go wandering'. On All the Tired Horses From Self Portrait, Dylan sings 'All the tired horses in the sun / How am I supposed to get any riding done?' For years I thought it was 'How am I supposed to get any writing done?' – which seemed more appropriate on an album consisting mainly of bizarre cover versions.

But it's Dylan's 1974 album Blood on the Tracks that has inspired the most mishearing. In Tangled up in Blue, they split up on a 'dark, sad night' (aren't nights always dark? Aren't break ups always sad?); I always thought splitting up on 'the docks that night' was more atmospheric.

In Shelter from the Storm, 'In a world of steel-eyed death and men who are fighting to be warm', I thought was more apt as 'In a world of steel-eyed death and men who are fighting to be born'. Later in the song, the one-eyed undertaker who I thought blew a feudal horn, actually blows a futile horn.

In Idiot Wind, 'She inherited a million bucks and when she died it came to me'. I thought she inherited a million books (far more useful!). Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts contains the line, 'The cabaret was quiet except for the drilling in the wall'. I always thought it was 'except for the Dylan in the wall'. Just made more sense for some reason.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

London Bridge Lunches

Once upon a time a lunch hour really meant a lunch hour; now it means a dash to Sainsbury's to grab a sandwich and eating it hunched over your desk. The leisurely lunch break is a thing of the past. In the 1950s Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously had two course meals with wine and brandy every lunch time but by 1987, when Gordon Gekko famously exclaimed, in the movie Wall Street,  'lunch is for wimps', it had lost its popularity and, especially in work crazy cultures like the USA and the UK (where we work longer hours than any country in Europe yet are the least productive; though apparently we only spend three days of every week doing actual work, the rest is spent on browsing the internet, banter, anything – but not lunching), food is seen purely as fuel.

Surveys have found that having a proper lunch outside of the office is beneficial to both physical and mental health. I have to agree with Anna Soubry, minister for public health, on this: the lunch over the keyboard thing is rather vulgar. A recent survey in the Evening Standard showed that a common complaint amongst office workers was colleagues eating smelly foods at their desks such as curries.

I usually make time to get out and eat lunch in a park. It's also good to stretch the legs and explore the local area. Working near London Bridge, there's not only a plethora of good cafes and restaurants as well as Borough Market, but also plenty of lovely parks, gardens and churchyards tucked away down side roads off the busy Borough High Street.

One of my favourites is the Red Cross Garden on Redcross Way. A small garden consisting of flower beds, winding paths and patches of grass, it also contains a lovely pond which has the rare great crested newt living in it. Overlooking the garden is a row of cottages and a community hall. It was established by the pioneering Octavia Hall (1838-1912), social reformer and co-founder of The National Trust. Red Cross Garden was designed as an 'open air sitting room for the tired inhabitants of Southwark', and indeed one of Hill's main concerns was for London's urban workers to have access to open spaces and greenery. Octavia Hill helped save Hampstead Heath and Parliament Hill Fields from being built on and was a major force behind the development of social housing.

Along the same road can be found the Cross Bones Graveyard, which I've mentioned before.

Monday, July 08, 2013

Notes on not reading anymore, etc

'The final time they made love, seven months before she killed herself and he married someone else, the Gypsy girl asked my grandfather how he arranged his books.
Where do you keep your books? she asked.

In my room.

Where in your room?

On shelves.

How are your books arranged?

Why do you care?

Because I want to know.
How do you arrange your books? she asked as they lay naked on a bed of pebbles and hard soil.

I told you, they’re in my bedroom on shelves.

I wonder if you can imagine your life without me.

Sure I can imagine it, but I don’t like to.

It’s not pleasant, is it?

Why are you doing this?

It was just something I was wondering.
Your books are arranged by the color of their spines, she said. How stupid.'
– Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything is Illuminated
(Right. I think I may have started this book but it didn't grab me and I never finished it. The quote I found was a comment from a Design Observer post about arranging books by colour. The quote wasn't complete (nor is mine) so I googled it and found it all on a blog called Mapping the Marvellous. I love the extracts and may have to revisit the book. Or the film, if there is one.)

'She knew this type very well – the vague aspirations, the mental disorder, the familiarity with the outside of books…'
E.M. Forster, Howards End
(As quoted in Starter for Ten by David Nicolls. I haven't read either of them but have seen both films.)

Reading books used to be one my greatest joys but recently I've just not been able to concentrate. Should I blame the internet, lack of time, the stress of modern living, not being able to open a paperback on the overcrowded commuter train? The thing is, most of the books I have left to read (about 50 out of 600 in my collection) are large and heavy hardbacks. I tried taking The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross's history of twentieth century music, to read on the train every day, but it's a bulky 640 page book which I could barely find room to open on public transport during rush hour, and now hold it responsible for my dodgy shoulder. I never got past page 19. In case you're wondering, no, I'm still not getting a Kindle, but the thought has crossed my mind. I still love owning books and the feel of them, the smell of them (new or secondhand ones).

And I love seeing rows of books on shelves. Mine are all over the place, in different rooms, piles and stacks of them. One of my main pleasures of potentially buying a flat will be to see all my books in one place (Geoff Dyer wrote an amusing essay about this phenomenon in his collection, Anglo-English Attitudes: Essays, Reviews, Misadventures, 1984-98; there's also Georges Perec's Brief Notes on the Art and Manner of Arranging One's Books); something I've never seen before but always fantasied about. I really don't know what 's wrong with me, but the first thing I do when viewing a property is look at the owner's book collection on the shelves. Most people don't really have books nowadays but one flat I looked at had many of the books I also own, so of course I thought this is the flat for me, even though the second bedroom was the size of a rabbit hutch.

But how to organise them? Alphabetically? Too dull and obvious (and difficult – every new A author involves reorganising the entire collection again). Genre? Too complicated. The latest trend in charity shops, particularly FARA I've noticed, is to arrange their books like their clothes, by colour. At first I thought this idea ludicrous and, well, I still do, but then I read an interesting article in the Design Observer, called, erm, Arranging Books by Color. At first the idea seems so random, so nonsensical, as to be dismissed immediately. But is there a better idea? If you're aesthetically inclined, the colour coded look is quite pleasing to the eye, even though different size books make it look clumsy. The Design Observer article mentions other, slightly more pretentious reasons, such as unrelated books (except for colour of spine) provoking ideas and relationships between each other. But come to think of it, ordering alphabetically provokes pretty random associations too, even if it does have the added bonus of actually being able to find what you're looking for. Though the joy for a flaneur like myself is to find what I'm not looking for whilst not finding what I am looking for. Which is what happens when I look for a CD.

I do like to reorganise my CD collection (over 1,000) every once in a while, sometimes for similar reasons to the character in High Fidelity (despair, frustration, relaxation). In the film version, John Cusack reorganises his records autobiographically (the order he bought them; an awesome task of memory judging by the hundreds of records he has). I don't arrange my CDs by any order at all really, loosely by genre but mainly which ones I like best at the top and which ones I like least at the bottom (that's practical arranging). CDs, being all the same size, look good (or bad, depending on your point of view) which ever way you arrange them. As do records, but my records are in no order at all, perhaps because I don't have that many of them (approx. 250) so they don't really need arranging. My records are currently just in boxes. My dream is to have them on shelves, with spines showing. The only problem with this method is it's almost impossible to read what's on the spines, the text being so small. Still, it's a moot point, they'll look great anyway.

Previously on Barnflakes:
Kindle Despise
Infographic of my music collection

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Notes on Scotch eggs

Perhaps because they're old fashioned or unhealthy, people don't seem to like Scotch eggs any more (or at least take them seriously). In my office they're dismissively referred to a brain rattling round in a skull. No idea why. Long considered a picnic food, the Scotch egg was invented by Fortnum & Mason in 1738 (and isn't Scottish). Considering they are so portable, they should be marketed as a quick, on the move, breakfast food. After all, they contain half the ingredients of an English breakfast: egg, sausage and, at a stretch, toast (well, baked breadcrumbs, not too far off). Originally served hot with gravy, some Scotch eggs contain bacon and black pudding too (to make it even more of an English breakfast – all it needs now is mushrooms and baked beans added).

It reminds me vaguely of a George monologue in an episode of Seinfeld. George was eating a tomato (in the manner of an apple) and wondering why people don't generally eat it like they do an apple; walking round and munching on it, rather than always being in a salad. I say the same about the Scotch egg; let's take it out from the picnic basket and into the on-the-go breakfast arena.

Saturday, July 06, 2013

Kim Bauer vs. Dana Brody

Never happy... Kim and Dana
Has there ever been two more annoying female characters on American TV than Kim and Dana? Kim Bauer is Jack Bauer's daughter in 24; Dana Brody is Nicholas Brody's daughter in Homeland. Dana has been dubbed the most hated TV character since Kim. Hate is a strong word to use but they both seem remarkably pointless. At least Kim is attractive. Dana is whiny, insolent and sullen. But both are prone to getting into perilous misadventures (read: tedious side plots) involving either hit and runs or cougar traps. Both distract their fathers from the serious business of saving and/or destroying the world (or whatever it is they do).

Friday, July 05, 2013

Notes on Arshile Gorky

If ever I'm feeling low, I console myself by reading the biography of artist Arshile Gorky, pioneer of Abstract Expressionism and a man with a string of very bad luck. As a young man he escaped the Armenian Genocide in 1915; his mother died of starvation in 1919. But it was in 1946 that things started going downhill. In January that year his studio burnt down, destroying most of his work. A month later he was diagnosed with colon cancer. Then Gorky found out his wife, Agnes, was having an affair with a friend of his. The marriage broke up and Agnes moved away with their children. Gorky was then in a car accident. He decided enough was enough and hung himself on July 21, 1948.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

More horses

The 1982 Hyde Park bombing by the IRA has recently been in the news again with John Anthony Downey being arrested for the atrocity. I distinctly remember seeing the shocking photos in the papers at the time, which kept with me mainly because of the dead horses. We're so used to seeing images of human death to be almost immune to it, but there was something about the horses inert forms that was especially distressing. Horses are such innocent, beautiful and noble beasts; to die serving man seemed so wasteful and pointless.

This idea was reinforced by my seeing the play War Horse recently. Dead soldiers littered the ground but our sympathy was all for the horses. As Michael Billington wrote in the Guardian, the play showed the 'unshaken belief that mankind is ennobled by its love of the horse'.

The public's reaction to the recent controversy about horse meat emphasised our fondness for the beast and hostility to eating it (though for most of our existence we have, and obviously still do in many cultures). Eating certain animals but not eating others is a curious thing, often dictated by culture and how attached we feel to the animal in question. Chickens, cows and sheep get a raw deal in the UK, seemingly lacking in intelligence and companionship (and tasting rather good). We relate to animals that have human characteristics (I was recently offered a cat on antidepressants), perhaps, that we can assign names to (it's hard eating an animal called Max or Tigger), find cute, and can be a companion.

The little known final chapter of Gulliver's Travels involves the eponymous hero finding himself in a land where talking horses, called Houyhnhnms, meaning 'the perfection of nature', are the dominant race; intelligent, stable (sorry) and rational. The lowly humans (called Yahoos), by contrast, are filthy, materialistic and crude savages.

Previously on Barnflakes:
Top 10 Horse Songs

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Hair tips

Timely for my recent post about tipping: plastered all over today's Metro is the big news that actor Ashton Kutcher didn't leave a tip for a £8 haircut he had in Bridgwater, Somerset. Funnily enough, I also had a haircut yesterday: it was £10 and I left a £2 tip. I really don't know what came over me. Maybe it was the manly banter, the frequent references to my grey and thinning hair or the strong smell of BO in the barbers. Or perhaps it was just the fact they told me I looked great afterwards. Anyway, I really think I'm a £10 haircut kind of guy. Recently I've been going to a salon owned by a friend, who charges £35 a pop. Don't get me wrong, I love the process: beer, nuts, designer magazines, organic shampoo, cool music… and having my hair cut by a woman (it's worth every penny). It's probably been years since a woman has cut my hair, and it's a completely different experience from a guy cutting it: sensual and relaxing. In my barbers, run by a friendly bunch of Iranian guys, it's bish bosh, in and out in ten minutes. The salon feels more like an experience and indulgence, taking some forty-five minutes. Naturally, they also told me I looked great afterwards, but a week later it's back to looking an unkempt mess, and there really is only so much you can do with my hair. £10 does the job nicely.

Previously on Barnflakes:
Hair today, gone tomorrow