Friday, January 28, 2022

The end of The Marple Leaf is nigh

We've put our house up for sale and are probably going to move out of Marple.

That's of little or no interest to anyone outside of our family and close friends, and we're not planning on going far. I'm remarkably unsentimental about it, but it does create a slight problem for my social media identities.

This blog started in 2006 when we moved here, my Twitter and Insta accounts followed.

The other thing is, blogs are sort of over aren't they? I have outlets for the things people want to read about, food, football and music and the sort of long post that gets lots of likes on LinkedIn. Having this outlet for political commentary probably prevents me from pushing hard enough to places where it contributes to a wider debate.

It's not a decision I have to make today, but I will throw it out there. The response will certainly influence what I decide to do. 

Thursday, January 27, 2022

Make your TV world a little bigger - Ozark, Walking Dead and those hopeless Australian cops

Maybe I've reached an age where I find my willingness to try new things tested. Yes, I say I want to find new films to watch, new books to read, films and TV series to bury myself in, ones that bust a genre and redefine culture. But let's face it, most stuff is made precisely because it has a guaranteed audience of people who liked one thing, and who will also like another. People like me.

I quite enjoyed the BBC's Australian outback romp, The Tourist, but as one reviewer said - "stick another cliche on the barbie, Bruce". It had elements of Mystery Road and of Wolf Creek, and the only two types of cops allowed in Aussie TV dramas, corrupt ones and the hopelessly incompetent variety. But it also had Jamie Dornan, who seems to have a strong appeal to a certain section of the population. By the way, I'm genuinely excited to hear that a third Wolf Creek film is in production, just in time to prepare my wife Rachel for our long-awaited holiday in WA.

Another slick Harlan Coben adaptation featuring seemingly unemployed wealthy people living in implausibly large houses in the North West of England, Stay Close was probably one too many. I can get over the location continuity - IT'S NOT MEANT TO BE REAL - but not the ludicrous introduction of Killing Eve inspired characters Barbie and Ken and the utterly implausible scenario of someone living in the next town and no one noticing she was missing, nor that twenty blokes were AWOL. Maybe the cops were trained in Australia.

So I do have a tendency to revert to what I know and like. British gangster films. And Zombies.

I'm going to have to say this now, but for slightly different reasons. I'm kicking the habit. Enough is enough.

I reached gangster/hooligan nadir with ID2: Shadwell Army. A truly awful film. Unless it has Craig Fairbrass in it, I'm out, maybe Rise of the Footsoldier Five will be just one last job.

With Season Six of Fear the Walking Dead, I've seen my last zombie fight. Erik Kain in Forbes - a peerless TV and games reviewer - said it was: "tepid, nonsensical and deeply silly". He's right, but I think it's actually even worse than that. I actually watched the last few episodes on shuttle, it takes about ten minutes, the dialogue is predictable drivel, the stand-offs tedious. But it is also now offensive because it is so reckless and negligent with the development of characters and the use of acting talent, notably Alicia Clark, played by Alycia Debnam Carey. I want it to end and refuse to have anything more to do with this franchise or any of its spin-offs.

So that's me also done with season 11 of The Walking Dead too, which involves a Disney subscription, and a bucket load of disbelief that this is still a thing. 

Redemption for the familiar has come in the form of Season 4, part one, of Ozark. As I wrote about season 3, which concluded in April 2020, I lauded the women of the Ozarks. How this is a show in which they provide all of the forward motion. Even Helen, spoiler alert, is the one corpse from the previous season that's unaccounted for and causing problems for everyone else in season 4.

But for all the nonchalant chat about the drugs trade and the outrageous behaviour of Wendy Byrde, Ozark is tense and challenging. The last two episodes were directed by Robin Wright, but unlike House of Cards (in which she starred as Claire), or Succession, which also has no characters with any redeeming features and none you can root for, you are gripped by Ozark because you care. We may not inhabit the world of media moguls or powerful politicians, so we probably can't place how we'd react. But while we also don't launder money for the Mexican drug cartels, or farm heroin, there are parenting choices and business decisions that indecisive middle-aged men everywhere can relate on a certain level to Marty. 

But, all day long, Team Ruth are we, right? 

It's only been up a few days and we've rinsed it already, I hope none of that has spoilt it. But it's set up for a storming return in a few months time.

Sunday, January 23, 2022

Music Therapy has it covered

There's something great about a really well-performed cover version.

Not just a copy, but a really thought-through intelligent take on a great song. It gives the artist who is doing the cover a real credibility boost for having the sheer audacity to take a successful piece of work and put their own mark on it.

The greatest and surest trick is to respect the original, but do something new and different with it.

Sure, there are some takes on a classic song where you wonder why they bothered, but as I’m being true to my New Year pledge not to be mean on social media, or print media, I’ll do what my mum always told me to do - if you’ve nowt nice to say, say nowt.

What the Pet Shop Boys did with Elvis Presley’s Always on my Mind is a fantastic example of that. 

They managed to add it seamlessly to their confident camp disco range of songs at their 80s’ peak, probably introducing the work of the King to a new audience.

There’s a story too about Marc Almond of Soft Cell working as a cloakroom attendant at Wigan Casino, the mothership of Northern Soul in the 1970s, and falling in love with a song called Tainted Love by Gloria Jones, the one-time girlfriend of Marc Bolan. When it was originally released in 1965 it was a b-side, and a commercial flop.

Within a decade Soft Cell’s reworking of it quickly became an 80s’ pop classic, selling a million copies, making it one of the best sellers of 1981, alongside the Human League’s Don’t You Want Me.

There’s no doubt which is the more successful, and the best known, but which is the best version? 

Then there are some songs where you probably didn’t know the original because the cover version is far more popular. 

It just so happens that quite a few of these were written by Prince, probably the greatest musician of all time, so it seems only fair that he’s able to spread his genius around to the benefit of others. 

The two most notable songs that were made absolute staples lying there somewhat neglected in the archive of His Purple Highness were Nothing Compares 2 U, which Sinead O’Connor (pictured) did such an amazing, heart-rending job of, and I Feel For You, which most of you will think of as a Chaka Khan tune. 

That’s going to be a new feature on our show. Well known songs you maybe didn’t realise were cover versions, here’s the original, but which one is better? 

We kicked it off last week with a couple of gems. 

Firstly, China Girl by Iggy Pop, released in 1979. The song was written by David Bowie, and he later performed a very polished version on his incredible album Let’s Dance, the very high point of 80s’ slick pop mastery, given a big sound by Nile Rodgers from Chic.

Secondly, we dropped a glorious 70s’ soul track by Otis Clay called The Only Way is Up, which people of my vintage will know as an 80s’ nightclub floor filler with acid house tinges by Yazz. 

There are loads more out there, so let us know your favourites and we’ll offer our humble opinions on which we prefer. 

Unless it’s about the cover of Talk Talk’s It’s My Life by No Doubt, because there is nothing to debate.

This is my weekly column in the Tameside Reporter and Glossop Chronicle.

Sunday, January 16, 2022

Don't Look Up is flawed, but great fun and a savage satire for our times

The film that’s got everybody talking at the start of the year has been Don’t Look Up.

The central premise - the high concept - is that there’s a meteorite heading for the earth that’s going to wipe out civilisation. The scientists who spot this are rushed to the White House to brief the President so the powers that be can prepare for, or prevent, this apocalypse. 

The rest of the film is a parable for how science is trivialised, weaponised and manipulated. The obvious parallels are with climate change and the current pandemic.

It’s certainly been popular. It smashed streaming records with more than 152 million hours streamed around the world in a single week, according to Netflix.

It’s stuffed full of A-list megastars who all pull off superb if overblown performances, especially Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio as the scientists and Cate Blancett as a randy TV presenter.

The music is also sensational. From the original score by Nicholas Britell (who also did the music on my favourite TV show, Succession), a new song specially recorded for the film by Ariane Grande (Just Look Up) to the beautiful Second Nature by Bon Iver used at the end, right through to the inclusion of the Four Tops classic Bernadette. It is a masterclass in how to use music in a film.   

Yet the movie seems to have really divided opinion - and there have been lots of views expressed already - so let me get my stance out there early: I loved it.

Sure, if you overthink it there is plenty to pick it apart. It’s massively irritating for the usual American exceptionalism that runs through so many Hollywood movies, even ones where the whole plight of the planet is in peril. Like, the whole story is still told as if the only country in the world is America. Yet even this obvious niggle is turned into another layer of satire.

Then there’s the charge that the central character of President Janie Orlean, played by Meryl Streep, is just a crude caricature of Donald Trump. It is. She is. President Orlean is a narcissistic bully, in thrall to big tech, manipulating a supporter base. What else can she be?

British actor Mark Rylance plays a powerful tech tycoon who is socially awkward, downright rude and ruthlessly convinced of his own immortality and superior abilities. Again, the parallels with Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are plain to see.

But if you think it’s just an attack on easy targets no one really gets off the hook  I liked the way the liberal media - a clear parody of the New York Times - lose interest in the biggest story in the world because of the missed opportunity to use it to attack the President close the mid-term elections.

So much of the film is so frighteningly close to the bone. Just see the reaction of the current media during any serious discussion on climate change. Piers Morgan hectors people about car use, Richard Madeley tries to pick at the reputation of Sir David Attenborough, while Talk Radio’s Mike Graham trying to claim concrete can be organic to a carpenter is probably the most egregious example of dumbing down any serious discussion about the real science behind climate change.

Even here in Greater Manchester, 20,000 people have signed a petition against a clean air zone charge aimed at discouraging tax polluting vehicles. No government is prepared to make any serious attempt to price air travel properly. The popularity of Don’t Look Up suggests many of us recognise that we are sleepwalking towards a disaster, but then isn’t Greta Thunberg annoying? 

(Column from the Glossop Chronicle and Tameside Reporter, 14 January 2022)

Monday, January 10, 2022

Strange goings on at Rose Hill

I've had a strange message from the Friends of Rose Hill Station, which I thought I should pass on.

A person is using the emergency help point to make a complaint about the station cleanliness introducing himself as “a former station adopter”.  He apparently does it from various stations, often Woodsmoor and last Friday it was from Rose Hill.

Obviously, this is improper use of this facility so if by any chance you happened to be around the station when this occurred, please let the Friends of Rose Hill Station group know any information that would help to identify the person.

Sunday, January 09, 2022

The FA Cup Odyssey takes me to the best stadium in the land

Watching the scores roll in on the Saturday afternoon of FA Cup third round weekend captured every single bit of magic and that clear hope (and dread) of a footballing upset. Every fan of any team cheered the efforts of Cambridge, Kidderminster, Huddersfield and Wigan, except of course if your team, like mine, was one of the vanquished.

And so to the progress on our FA Cup odyssey, picking up on the trail that started at Radcliffe and had most recently found itself most romantically in Buxton. I said I would persist as long as I could. And though there was no room at the inn for the second round tie between the Bucks and Morecambe, it was on telly, and I had bagged the bonus of Buxton’s replay win over Kettering. That was, as I said at the time, as hardcore as it gets for a hardy groundhopper.

And taking in new sights, new grounds, is what this is all about. Today I took in the fourth new hallowed domain of this trip, the Tottenham Hotspur stadium, for the visit of the Shrimps. I think it’s probably the best of all the new builds, and marks my 75th of the current 92 and the 165th stadium I've watched football in. The thought and planning that’s gone into the whole concept is highly impressive, especially when you consider the card Spurs have been dealt. Even when I lived in London I never found the access to White Hart Lane particularly enjoyable, or without difficulty. Choosing therefore to build on roughly the same site, and embracing the gritty urban setting, and still pushing public transport and pedestrian options is a brave move. 

Partly as a result of an old habit failing to die as hard as my perceptions of the old ground and its environs, we opted for lunch at Yildiz, the best Turkish grill in London, and deep in Arsenal territory.

But though the Seven Sisters Road might not have anything to compete with pre-match scoff like that, in every other way this was a superlative match day experience. The facilities are better, the food options more diverse, the atmosphere improved, and every lesson in flawed stadium design has been eagerly learned from every mistake made by everyone else, but mainly Arsenal. 

On the pitch though, we were in for a treat, served up with pluck and grit by a Morecambe side prepared to embrace the occasion and give it a go. Spurs might have had all the possession, but the blocks of empty seats and a place in the team for what were effectively Conte's triallists showed an institutional lack of respect that gave the Shrimps every motivation to run their bloody noses in it. 

Though there was a roar for Morecambe's opener on 33 minutes from their 3000 fans, some 150 of whom may have been at Christie Park for the 8-1 crushing of Esh Winning in 1986 in an early FA Cup memory we will share. But the loudest cheer of the day came for the Harry Kane led cavalry to replace Ali, Ndombele and Gil, and raucous boos as they didn’t leave the pitch, and possibly their Spurs careers, quickly enough. The eventual 3-1 win had a feeling of inevitability about it once the first one rattled in. An ungracious taunting of the visiting fans from parents and children around us, that they weren’t singing anymore, won’t be enough to properly extinguish the embarrassment that a struggling League One side with scant resources took the game this far. Premier League, having a laugh, for sure, but they weren’t laughing in Newcastle last night.

The reason this odyssey is back on is down to our 21 year old soldier son Max, a Spurs supporter. On Sunday 9 January 2011 I took him by trains, buses and tubes across all points of London, via an Ottolenghi cake shop, also close to Arsenal, to an FA Cup third round sweeping aside of Charlton Athletic. It was a special day, and the write up is here. For my Christmas present he made today happen. The circle of life, and the magic of the cup. Pick whichever cliche you want, but it works for me.

Friday, January 07, 2022

Social Media, the scourge of our times

I’m sure that many of you have made New Year resolutions to cut down on social media use. 

If so, then you probably realise what a tragic waste of time it is to scroll away through different platforms and then come away at the end of another lost hour and think - what was I doing? 

It might be that you’ve seen passive-aggressive chain letters on Facebook that family members expect you to share, but with the caveat that “most probably won’t”, thus making it your fault that cancer, child abuse or Brexit is your fault because you didn’t share.

I wouldn’t say so at the time, but the run-up to Remembrance Sunday gives me palpitations. As I’m from a family with cousins, nephews, grandads, uncles and now a son who has served in our armed forces, it’s a given for me that I’ll pay my respects. 

That doesn’t seem to be enough for some people. Facebook profiles become a parade of misinformation, culture war nonsense that contrasts the mythical plight of a homeless veteran with refugees and asylum seekers, and tirades of anti-German, anti-EU nonsense, or worse, made-up stories about poppy sellers being banned for fear of offending someone.

It might also be that you come away from a session scrolling through Instagram posts of your beautiful “friends” in glamorous restaurants and clubs, or looking amazing in front of a mirror “living their best life”. Or their shared memes from life coaches and mental health experts.

You may have come away from LinkedIn, the home of the humblebrag, feeling utterly inadequate that you haven’t spoken to thousands of people in a TED talk, sealed a mega-deal, or had a record month for sales.

Then there’s the cesspit that is Twitter, where a constant conveyer belt of outrage fills your timeline with splenetic opinions about everything and anything. I find sides to pick, and tribes to join, in every area of life, local stuff, football, politics, music, comedy. And if you’re active, then it’s a constant threat that your hot take will land badly with someone else and you risk being cancelled or shamed.   

The writer and comedian David Baddiel has made a very thoughtful BBC TV programme, Social Media, Anger and Us, about the harmful effects of social media, and I would thoroughly recommend you watch it if you are in any way interested in the effects it’s having on our mental health. 

His most telling part of the hour-long programme was the discussion with his daughter Dolly who had suffered from anorexia, but whose condition became worse the more social media groups encouraged her to define herself in such a way.

Twitter seems to have set its algorithm to push more opinions from angry people at you, so you will engage because engagement drives numbers, which results in advertising income. 

The trick is never to be that person on Twitter. As I file this column that person is the comedian Stewart Lee, who isn't even in Twitter, but has sent out his monthly newsletter with an exhausting and long list of everything he likes and doesn't like from 2021. Some people think that's incredibly conceited. I think that's probably the joke. But Twitter is never good at subtlety.

Full disclosure, I am guilty of all of the above behaviours I mentioned. I’ve been snooty on Facebook, braggy on LinkedIn and pushed a false image of my life on Insta. And while I will say that bullying and shaming are wrong, you won’t have to look very far to find Twitter posts from me where I’ve said horribly unkind things about football referees, certain political figures and Prince Andrew. 

You could make a ‘fair comment’ defence at some of those individuals, but it all adds to the overall atmosphere and tone of the room. 

So, I’m going to try and be kinder, humbler, more honest and more tolerant. I’ll share nice things, rather than spread poison, and hopefully get some more lovely feedback from you all about what songs you’d like us to play on our show.

(Tameside Reporter and Glossop Chronicle column, 7 January 2022).