Archive for the ‘Random’ Category

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I remember when I set up my facebook account in 2009. I uploaded some photos to my profile, as you do, and sent out some friend requests. And then I saw a status update that has always stuck in my mind. It was by a female musician who was in a prominent band at the time; a very cool, cutting-edge type band. She was a cool, cutting-edge-type girl – someone I respected. And this is what she had decided to tell the world:

“I’ve just done a poo”

I don’t normally take much interest in other peoples’ bowel movements, but if this was what facebook was all about I figured I had to get with the program. So like several other of her friends (or sycophants) I approved of this earth-shattering revelation by clicking the ‘like’ button.

There was no going back. I had joined the facebook community – a transnational network devoted to the momentary study of slightly interesting things. Millions of people vaguely curious about the minutiae of each others’ lives; briefly intrigued by dancing parrots, and mildly outraged by political issues – just enough to click on an internet petition. I was destined to become a soulless scroller, lost in the flashing lights of competing content.

Now I don’t deny the value of social media for organising events, staying in touch with loved ones, and the sharing of thought-provoking content. And I like my funnies too; cats in boxes should be prescribed on the NHS as a stress-buster. The problem with facebook is that it all happens in the same place; this has become the platform through which many of us work and play, organise and socialise. For the home-working facebook addict, finding a period of focus is like grasping a bar of soap in the bath, their newsfeed crowded with infinite distractions that would destroy the attention span of the Buddha.

I hadn’t felt the need of a digital detox before. I don’t have a clever phone, so when I leave the house I re-enter the 1990s. It’s a simpler place. Snapchat has yet to suffer any of my bus stop selfies and when I need to find my way around an unfamiliar part of the city I just…fail.

But a recent period of hermithood made me feel that I was on a slippery slope. Staying at home most days meant that my intervals between logging on shrank dramatically. The first thing I would do when I got out of the shower was check for notifications, and I would regularly stop a film or video to look for those little red numbers.

I started to worry that I would never again be fully engaged in a piece of culture or an object of study because I would be forever picking at the facebook buffet; constantly grazing but never digesting. So, one Sunday I decided that the following week would be facebook-free.

What was it like, you ask? What happens to a moderately reclusive cultural activist when he avoids a certain blue-coloured website for seven days? Well, I read a whole lot more, finished a song I was stuck on, and discovered something called housework. I also played a strange gig in a deserted library and discussed naturism in a Wine Bar.

But the most interesting thing? BOREDOM

Remember boredom? It’s what used to happen occasionally when we had gaps between things.  There used to be special places designed to nurture it, like dentists’ waiting rooms and churches; but nowadays as soon as someone is required to sit down and do nothing, the phone is whipped out.

We are encouraged to think that what benefits us most is a life of interrupted mental stimulus, but it’s not true. Our feelings of boredom are just withdrawal symptoms from the addictive stimuli of modern life, which are largely marketing. Gaps between stimulus are actually vital for our wellbeing. Don’t ask me for the medical studies to back this up, leafing through back issues of the Lancet is just so tedious.

But really – boredom leads to daydreams; and studies have recently shown that it is vital for childrens’ development. It’s a launchpad to fantasy, dressing up and games. And boredom is also a key driver of much youthful creativity; Iggy Pop and The Buzzcocks both wrote songs about it. Without boredom there would be no punk rock!

The mid-70s were rich in boredom. Groups like Pink Floyd and The Carpenters played a vital part in giving the kids the urge to create something more exiting. Sure, the unemployment, power cuts and grey concrete tower blocks also helped, but popular culture needs periods of stagnant tedium in order for new generations to burst through and rejuvenate artforms – I’m serious, I think!

Getting lost is another aspect of life that is becoming eliminated by smartphones; and its extinction could prove disastrous for cultureFrom Homer’s Odyssey to Finding Nemo, struggling to find your way home is one of the eternal themes. These days Odysseus would be onto google maps in seconds, then easyjet’s site, and have a pizza ordered for when he got home; it would all be far too easy.

Boredom and being lost (in whatever sense) are part of the texture of human experience, and they can ultimately lead to growth, but they are getting squeezed out by the idea that we can never have enough convenience or entertainment. “Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death” was the satirical title of a Dead Kennedys album from 1987; but in our modern scenario, we may ultimately find that unlimited convenience is in fact spiritual death.

Of course I missed facebook. As the weekend loomed I felt I’d run out of productive things to do. I didn’t want to be productive any more, I was curious to find out what everyone was up to. But I held out for the full week, and aim to repeat the experience regularly – who knows, it may even make feel like going out and being sociable in the ‘real’ world again.

Or I could just stay home and tell you about my poos.

 

 

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What are sodium lights? They’re the yellow street lights that are ubiquitous in the UK and are gradually being replaced in Liverpool (I don’t know about other cities) with white ones.

This burnt-yellow light is a big part of me. As a teenager I hung around after dark on street corners drenched with it. In adulthood I have walked home from nights out countless times in the strangely narcotic yellow atmosphere. I never thought about it until recently. Why does it have to be yellow? I don’t know but it has a magic of its own. Not exactly cosy. Quite artificial. Industrial. But somehow romantic.

I remember as a kid there was a park in Sheffield where you could look down on the entire city and see the whole city’s twinkling orangey-yellow lights. They mapped out the street patterns and merged in the distance like a galaxy of sweets. We have the same in Liverpool on Everton Brow.

The sodium lights of a nearby city or town are a comfort to the night-time driver as they are glimpsed from the motorway.

The other magical thing about sodium lights is that they change colour slowly as they warm up. I remember playing out on the streets in my childhood, seeing a whole street light up at dusk and the lights gradually go from pink, to orange to Lucozade yellow as the night fell.

Now certain streets including mine have had their sodium lights replaced. Presumably they are not inefficient enough (god save us from the evil of inefficiency!!) It’s happening all over the city, probably the whole country, with white light flooding much more area than before. As a result, some of the quaint, odd character from the suburban British street is being lost.

It all seems to me part of a kind of gradual increase in the brightness of our night-time world. Look back to old films and you see a gentler world of interior gas lamps in houses, streetlights shrouded in fog and phone boxes lit with a soft glow. Nowadays a violent brightness is creeping everywhere. Under the relentless pressure of ‘safety’ concerns and 24-hour retail we are turning the night into the day.

Technology is already leading to an over-stimulation, with continuously flashing sources of electronic light, but the built environment has a similar effect. Electronic billboards blaze across obikeur cities, while ATM machines have recently got a lot brighter, as have the interior lighting on buses which I find unbearable. It’s like having your retinas scoured. I know I sound like an old man complaining about the way the world is, but I really feel this is an unstoppable process where designers and engineers will not be happy until they have eliminated night-time darkness altogether.

I asked a female friend about the safety arguament for brighter lighting. She said “Well, it just increases the fear doesn’t it? If you play up to the idea of the night being dangerous then it will be. We need to create more trust not less”

Night is the flipside of day, with its own special atmosphere to cherish. It’s the time when we we recharge; and even if we are active, we can avoid being over-stimulated.

The delights of a stargazing are increasingly becoming impossible in cities, as the wash of artificial light drowns out the fainter heavenly objects.

I would like to keep the sodium lights burning, and leave a little mystery and atmosphere in the night. You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.

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One of the compensations of winter is donning a nice, cosy wooly hat. There’s nothing like the snug feeling of those knitted sheep fibres embracing your cranium. But for me and many others, these items are more than just a way to keep warm. Woolen headgear has played a role in subculture for many years. It’s time to celebrate beanie bohemia.

 

I remember when I first began to wear a wool hat inside as well as outside; I was seventeen and playing drums in a band. My image was starting to become important to me. At family gatherings some elderly relative asked me: “Thomas, why are you wearing that wooly hat? Are you ill?” I snorted at the question. I could have said “Actually, I’m referencing Mike Nesmith in The Monkees, as well as various thrash punk bands – it’s a style thing, ok?!” but I merely grunted “”cos I want to”.

mike nes

Wool hats were all around me, on the heads of off-duty psychobillies, indie kids and punks, usually in black. We got from the Army Surplus Stores and called them ‘Bob hats’ for some reason, although who Bob was remained a mystery.

Some people used to roll them so tightly that they resembled a carbonised Danish pastry of the back of them head. I thought this looked stupid, and used to pull mine down to just above the eyes.

 

At that time a coarse knitted wool hat was reminiscent of dockers, builders and anyone out on a picket line in winter. Like the donkey jacket, it was a way to express solidarity with the working-class. The early look of Dexy’s Midnight Runners was based on New York longshoremen.

dexys460

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But there were unplanned associations too. I remember walking into a grocers’ shop with my black hat on in on the late eighties and being called a terrorist. At that time the IRA was still engaged in it’s bombing campaign in mainland Britain and newspapers regularly featured the faces of IRA members or suspects on their front pages. They always seemed to be in black wool hats.

Seattle’s chilly climate created the grunge look in the early 90’s, with padded shirts and often woolen hats, which were now known as beanies. Rock acts now had their branded beanies, which were welded to the heads of their fans. It became common to see gangs of drunken eighteen year-olds at music festivals, sweating and lobsterised in the mid-day sun, still refusing to take off their black wool headgear.

One thing that can’t be left out here is the influence of knitted rasta hats. From Bob Marley and Peter Tosh to the extreme of Don Letts’s giant hat in recent years, this version of the wool hat is basically a bag to store your dreads in.

 

Bob with fine dread container

Bob with fine dread container

 

Gradually, this influenced the mainstream, who began to see that there was something kinda cool about a bit of excess baggage on the back of the head, even if you didn’t have anything to put in there.

This was probably the origin of the baggy beanie, an extra long version where the excess was left to hang at the back of the head like a flap. This looked ok unless the wearer happened to have a small head, in which case the flap looked ludicrously long – like Wee Willie Winkie’s night cap.

Unfortunately the baggy beanie quickly became commodified; available in grey from Top Man, worn by bodybuilders in espidrilles; and referencing nothing, except maybe an elephant’s piss-flap.

Beanies in their various lengths have also become the baldies’ savior. Outside the workplace, they are the 21st century version of a combover. The Edge, guitarist of ageing rockers U2, having tried bandanas and stetsons, has run out of options and has been trapped in a beanie since about 1990.

More recently, hipsterism has rehabilitated the bobble hat. During my youth I was phobic about bobbles, as I was about buttons and peas. A bobble hat was the symbol of a trainspotter, rambler or anyone untroubled by the vagaries of fashion. But twenty-first century style will suck anything into it’s orbit. Now bobbles are de rigeur and increasing in size. Even I have softened my stance; the hat I am currently wearing has a modest bobble.

This winter and indeed next summer, wear your hat with pride – you are in a fine tradition. And give thanks to the sheep that made it all possible.

 

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We have all met people possessed of a natural charm that enables them to hold the attention of groups of people, who listen to their opinions, laugh at their jokes and possibly want to share bodily fluids with them.

Charisma is like a magical chemical product flowing in certain peoples’ bloodstream. If you start out in life with nothing but charisma, you will usually make it because you can make people believe in you. Charismatic people are never short of people to help them in their ventures, or to vouch for them if they get in trouble. It doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with wealth, looks or talent but how they can make people feel.

In theory I’m a believer in collective organising, but I’ve noticed that successful projects are usually spearheaded by a motivator who has a vision. People will always be happy to fall in line if there is an inspiring figure who knows where they are going. The most successful generals are those that somehow manage to make their troops love them. The danger is that their position can become like that of a cult leader, with their power unlimited.

I remember a TV documentary a few years ago which told the story of a pub barman who convinced several customers he was a spy on top-secret government business. He held them under his spell for years, involving them in bizarre fabricated missions and swindling them out of thousands of pounds for ‘essential’ expenses before eventually being brought to justice.
I’ve never come across anyone like that, but certain people I know have led me to believe that we should be wary of people with an excess of charm. They have often read the book How To Win Friends and Influence People and consider themselves experts at psychological manouvering.

Psychological strategies can be leaned, but I’d argue true charisma is inborn and largely unconscious. Charismatic people seem to have an amplified personality ”turned up to 11” that they couldn’t turn down if they tried.

I can think of a couple of people I know who are not close friends, but when I bump into them and have a brief chat, I always walk away feeling exhilarated, inspired and perhaps just a little jealous of their self-possession. Charismatic people can help us to believe in ourselves.

Then there are others with a quiet charisma, who attract attention by not trying to. They are in their own space and hold a mysterious aura around them. I can imagine the impression conjured by the young Bob Dylan when he was playing in coffee houses in New York City in 1961. Here was a guy who was hard to pin down; odd-looking and enigmatic, there was clearly ‘something’ about him. And fifty-odd years later, people are still trying to figure out what it is.

Throughout the entertainment world, charisma is a highly-prized and relatively rare commodity. I go to a lot of gigs but only occasionally do I see someone with a magnetic presence that holds the attention. When you see it you can never explain it, it’s just ‘it’. There are all kinds of tips and tricks of stagecraft that can be learned from teachers or picked up by experience; but star quality is inborn.

A few years ago, after being a drummer and a guitarist in several bands, I decided to try being a vocalist in a band, just holding the mic at the front of the stage. I wanted to see what it was like being the focus of everyone’s attention.

We were a ragged punk rock outfit, stylistically not far from The Stooges and at the time I was in awe of Iggy Pop, who is surely one of the most unpredictable and riveting live performers ever. My first gig as a frontman was in a small bar in front of perhaps 70 people. I threw myself into it, prowling the stage, climbing on the amps, wrapping myself up in cables.

“He’s a live wire!” I imagined people thinking “…What will he do next?!”

I thought I was doing great, then I looked at the audience’s faces. Not one of them was looking at me. I couldn’t believe it. Their eyes were either on the guitarist’s hands, or the bassist’s flailing hair, or the drummer – anywhere but on the person actually singing the songs – me!

I was internally furious. What was wrong with them? Couldn’t they see how hard I was working? Weren’t they moved by my unpredictable passion? I felt like ranting, but I just continued the gig, now intimidated by the whole situation and feeling like a fraud. I laugh about it now, but I learned a tough lesson. You can’t decide to be charismatic. You either have it or you don’t.

shortly afterwards I had the opportunity to watch someone who most definately ‘has it’ . I was working at the 02 Arena in Liverpool and got the chance to see a few big mainstream acts. Def Leppard, Meatloaf and Michael Buble were all entertaining enough, but Diana Ross had something else. Standing onstage in a red satin ballgown, her charisma completely filled the huge venue. Even inbetween songs, her speaking voice and regal presence cast some kind of shimmering spell over the place.

I’m sure one day some brain scientist or communication theorist will come up with a theory that will explain charisma, but until then all we can say is that some people have a kind of magic!

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female boxer Today the temperature has hit 29 degrees (that’s centigrade, my American friends) which is pretty ferocious anywhere in the UK but particularly so in a Northern town like Liverpool. Sitting here without a shirt and sticking to the back of my vinyl chair, I have little energy to do anything more than muse upon that familiar yet strange physiological phenomenon, sweating.

It’s the bodily function we have least control over. We can, at least briefly, control the impulse to urinate, defecate, vomit, sneeze, fart, cough or cry but when things get hot, our sweat glands get to work without consulting us.

For many people, it’s a regular cause of embarrassment. Sweating reveals us as essentially bestial – we talk of “sweating like a pig” – and many people carry anti-perspirants around with them every day, regularly blocking their pores, lest their uncontrollable animal body lets them down.

Of course we know that the actions of those two million tiny glands are our body’s cooling system, but it’s one that has had limited effectiveness since humans started wearing clothes, and now it’s only function is to mess up our hair and make us smell.

Airplane!Sweating is often triggered by anxiety; the nerve-wracking experience of a job interview is often accompanied by moist palms, while a best man’s speech at a wedding is not complete without a constantly wiped brow. It’s a disloyal bodily function that reveals your inner state to the outside world like a blush or a stammer. And when it strikes, whether as a result of anxiety or simply overheating, the discomfort is magnified by the embarrassment of damp patches under the arms.

Nevertheless, sweat also has plenty of positive associations – it is synonymous with honest physical toil and is also frequently highly erotic. Sweat is such a powerful signifier that if it didn’t exist, the advertising and movie industry would have had to invent it.

In the 1951 film The African Queen, Humprey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn make a hazardous journey down an African river in a tiny steamboat, both covered in a layer of sweat throughout the film. Sweat seems to dissolve the class divide between no-nonsense sailor Charlie and Rose the prim, dignified missionary, leading to an unlikely romance.

Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn

Of course, respectable ladies didn’t sweat in that era (the film was set in 1914). In the polite parlance, they ‘glowed’, while gentlemen ‘perspired’.

During the pre-air conditioned years of the British Empire, sweating would have been a regular physical reminder to Europeans that they weren’t built for tropical climes; but of course it wasn’t only the ruling classes that suffered so.

The vast majority of colonial sweat was shed by Africans slaves forced to work through midday heat on cotton and sugar plantations. The black sweat and blood that built the United States and made the Empire rich stains our collective conscience to this day.

I happen to be blessed with a skinny frame, therefore I rarely sweat profusely. If I do, it normally happens on a packed bus on a summer day. Other people, usually the heavier ones, will be already have wet fringes and beads of sweat on their faces, even though the windows are open. When the bus is stuck in traffic with ruthless sun coming through the windows, the situation is a mild kind of torture and the only remedy is to pant like a dog!

So far this has been a great summer for sport, from the warm lawns of Wimbledon to the sticky heat of the World Cup in Brazil. Sweat is part of the iconography of physical performance, whether it’s the sweat-varnished torso of the boxer or the soaked hair of a rock vocalist sticking to his face. Here it is an index of heroic effort; it shows how hard they are working to entertain us.

Iggy Pop

Despite our uncomfortable relationship with sweating, ultimately one of the most relaxing experiences in the world is sitting in a sauna and just letting your pores do their thing. When you are wrapped in a towel gently stewing in your own brine, the worries of the world melt away. Those stressed out citizens on the bus might reflect that it’s not sweat that is the real enemy, but our modern lives.

And now for a nice cool drink…

 

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When I was a kid I was in love with motorbikes – along with dinosaurs and knights, they were one of the great obsessions of my childhood. 

I can’t remember how it started, but by the age of nine my bedroom walls were lined with posters of Kawasakis, Suzukis and Hondas; I amassed a sizeable collection of books on the subject and I drew and painted the machines incessantly. When we moved onto a street with a motorcycle showroom on the corner, the fire was stoked still further and I would indulge my two-wheeled fantasies constantly.

All of this was of some concern to my mother, who envisaged me killing myself as soon as I got the chance to ride. An ex-nurse, she was full of lurid tales about road accidents involving motorcyclists and would recount them regularly in order to put me off. It didn’t work however. It was clear to me then, as it is now – the motorcycle is the most exiting invention humankind has ever devised.

The sound of a bike is enough to quicken the blood; the growl of an exposed engine turning over gives off a feeling off danger before you let even out the clutch. That element of risk is what makes it sexy, combined with the individualism of the solo rider, who is bonded to his metal steed in a way humankind has known ever since we first tamed wild horses millenia ago.

I have never understood how anyone could get exited by a car. Sitting off to one side of the vehicle, dragging round a whole lot of extra seats, space and weight, the car driver is contained; cossetted within a piece of vehicular real-estate. Contrast that with hurling yourself through the cold air, exposed, with an angry engine between your knees. A motorbike is pure freedom.

As I got older, my interests changed. To everyone’s surprise, and some relief, I didn’t become a motorcyclist; I kept my feet on the street. But I still salute the individualism that the motorcycle represents, and the cultural impact it has had.

Motorbikes have appeared everywhere in popular culture, from films like Easy Rider to literary eulogies such as “Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”. But my favourite piece of motorcycle culture is a song by the English singer/songwriter Richard Thompson.

A master of storytelling and character in song, Thompson (a founder member of folk-rock legends Fairport Convention) recounts the tale of a rebel motorcyclist who woos a  flame-haired woman “Red Molly” on his motorbike, only to come to a messy end, handing her the keys to the machine on his deathbed. Accompanied by his unique, virtuoso guitar playing, this is a Thompson classic. Enjoy…

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I must get back that copy of Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums that I lent to my friend Tobias. I keep thinking about it – it’s one of the most significant books I’ve read recently, and here’s why: it cured me of my facebook habit. For the two or three weeks it took me to read (I’m a slow reader) I felt less and less inclined to check in to that ubiquitous forum of trivia and interpersonal grooming that Mark Zuckerberg created.

 

kerouac

If you haven’t read it, The Dharma Bums is basically On The Road in the mountains. Instead of Sal and Dean (based on Kerouac and Neal Cassidy), we follow the exploits of Ray (Kerouac again) and Japhy (based on the poet Gary Snyder), two friends bonded by a shared mission to explore the inner frontiers of the soul.

 

Like in On The Road, there are wild parties, poetry sessions and girls, but inbetween the bouts of revelry, Ray and Japhy trek into the mountains of Washington State to meditate and commune with nature.

Japhy is both a best friend and a guru to Ray. As a follower of zen buddhism, things like status, possessions and career advancement are unimportant to him – his goals are spiritual. Ray hopes to learn from him, but often the way is hard, and eventually they go their seperate ways.

When I say Kerouac cured my facebook habit I’m exaggerating. I didn’t avoid the site altogether, but while I was following Ray and Japhy’s quest for spiritual bliss, my reliance on those transitory little hits of happiness went right down. I was on – dare I say it – a higher plane.

Yes, I’d like to get that book back; I want to re-read it. And it’s got me thinking about the other things that left my life – on loan – never to be returned; the Patti Smith autobiography, the Ramones album and several other items that now live on other peoples’ shelves and bedroom floors.

pattiThese things meant something to me, and now the cultural library that I have gathered over time seems incomplete. When I think about this I feel indignant at the inconsiderateness of people, that is until I start looking through my shelves and cd stack. Where did that Michael Moore DVD come from?

Oh, I remember; Denny lent it me a couple of years ago! The book by Thomas Mann? I borrowed it from an old girlfriend that I don’t see anymore…

Yes, I’m as guilty as anyone; and I hope nobody asks for anything back!

When we’ve been affected by something, it’s comforting to have it around. After a while the books and records on our shelves become a physical embodiment of our identity, even if they weren’t originally ours. I like the way cultural goods and clothes migrate between friends in this unplanned way; it’s a kind of unconscious gifting. We rarely miss these lost things unless we are suddenly reminded of them. In any case, there will always be new ones coming our way…

When we form relationships, there can be few stronger expressions of love than pooling what we own with our partner as our lives merge. Conversely, there is nothing to match the sordid experience of seperating your possessions when the split eventually comes. Retaining your dignity can be harder than regaining your stuff.

Maybe we should share more actively, with the knowledge that what goes around comes around – what Japhy would call the law of Karma. Giving something up often lets light in from an unexpected angle.

mount

In the end, physical objects don’t matter. Wisdom matters, and it needs to be passed on. But I still need to read The Dharma Bums one more time – so I can learn to really let go…

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