Tuesday, 25 November 2014

My Great-Grandfather: the Real Peaky Blinder

It’s not often that a TV advertisement for new drama series triggers childhood trauma, but the TV advert for the first series of Peaky Blinders almost did just that. I was around ten years old when I first heard my grandfather mention the words ‘peaky blinder’ and it was my father who, after much enquiring on my part, reluctantly explained the meaning of those words to me. I wasn’t a delicate-natured child by any means, but the thought of someone’s eyes being slashed with razor blades would have kept me awake for more than a few nights had it not been for the warm affection that my grandfather had for these individuals and his reassurance that I wouldn’t have come to any harm had I encountered one of these suspicious characters on the street.

I stumbled across mention of the peaky blinders purely by chance. At the age of six I expressed an overwhelming desire to learn to play the piano and my parents were unsure where this aspiration had come from, since my grand-parents, parents and most of my family were musically illiterate and they had no interest whatsoever in playing a musical instrument. Four years and many piano lessons later, I overhead my father mention in conversation with a neighbour that my great-grandfather, James Aloysious (known as Curly), was very musical and he played the piano and the mandolin, so my father mused that perhaps an idle musical family gene had sparked within me. I questioned him about this comment and when he showed me a photograph of my great-grandfather I was surprised to see that James Aloysious was the absolute spitting image of my father.

I felt a close connection with James and pestered my father to hear more about James’ life. And the more that I discovered about him, the more I found him to be a fascinating individual. James lived in Harborne, he was ex-army (WW1) and he was a bare knuckle fighter at Smethwick market. Every Sunday morning he would walk from Harborne to Smethwick to fight and when he returned home he would give his wife Florie all the silver from the win money that he had earned and the copper was his beer money. He seemed to make a fair living out of it. My auntie still recalls sitting on his lap and putting her tiny hands over his large hands while he played the piano and seeing how beaten up his hands were from the fights.

The stories that my father told me about James had a significant impact on me and I remember them to this day. Many of these stories involved shadowy characters such as the mysterious Mr Mansini who found my grandfather a job when he came out of the army ‘because he was Curly’s son’. It seemed that James and his family were well looked after because they were ‘in with the right crowd’ and ‘knew the right people’, although the company that James kept seemed to be very dubious indeed. For instance, James played the mandolin in the Green Man pub in Harborne and one evening there was a huge fight between his friends and the police. It seemed to have been some kind of sting operation targeting them all. James took out three policemen, he smashed his mandolin over the head of one policeman (thus ending his musical career) and he threw another policeman through the front window of the pub into the horse road. The police took him to Steel House Lane police station where he ‘fell down the steps of the police station’ (was beaten) and my great-grandmother claimed that he was never right again afterwards.

James certainly seemed to have lived a violent life, but the most memorable – and disturbing - thing that my grandfather told me about him was this; if James was going to the pub or out for the day with family then he would wear his ‘ordinary cap’, but if went out of the house wearing his ‘working cap’ then my great-grandmother would stay awake and wait all night in the front window until he came home because she knew that there was going to be trouble. When I asked about the significance of the caps, my father explained that the ‘working cap’ had razor blades in the rim which came in handy if there was ever a fight. I remember this conversation well because I was not only shocked by the thought of slashing someone with razor blades, but my father is a very gentle man and not predisposed to glorifying violence so this was something that he would not normally have discussed with me at that age. But although James’ friends and their activities were both very violent, it was somehow acceptable to talk about them because they had ‘principals’- they had a strong family-like bond, they would ‘watch out for each other and each other’s families’ and they were very firmly ‘on our side’. I took some comfort in knowing that, due to my surname, I would have enjoyed the same protection as my great-grandfather and grandfather and I would have been accepted into this extended family. (Interestingly, my auntie tells me that James’ death was quite a talking point. The story goes that a gypsy came into the Green Man pub and started reading palms. James paid her to read his palm, but she took one look at his hand, refused and left the pub straight away.  James died only days afterwards).

On the flip side of my family coin was my great-grandfather on my mother’s side: Sam Richards. Sam’s portrait hung in my grandparent’s front room for many years and he looked like a lovely man wearing a sharp business suit and a kindly smile. Sam was a boxer, book maker and freemason who owned a boxing ring in Selly Oak.  Although he was deep in dodgy book-making dealings, he presented a more business-like front to his activities and he clearly had the police under his influence. The police would often tip him off before a raid and when passing on their regular beat they would bang on the wall of the house whenever he needed to clear the house (which most often involved sending my grandmother down to the bottom of the garden with the betting slips in her dolls pram). Sam made a great deal of money, he bought a lot of local property and he contributed to the community by buying shoes for the poor. He certainly didn’t hide the fact that business was very lucrative and he once caused a stir by buying my grandmother a silver handled umbrella (which she subsequently left on a bus).

Sam Richards (centre)
My mother recalls that the words ‘peaky blinders’ were banded around the household and she was aware that Sam mixed with other well-heeled groups and individuals who looked out for his business, but I had the feeling that the James Aloysiouses of that world were on Sam Richard’s payroll rather than sat drinking with him in the pub. In fact it is a running family joke that my father’s family were on the rough-and-ready side of the Birmingham gangs, whereas my mother’s family were much more discreet with their dealings and ‘higher up the chain of command’.

I watched the first episode of Peaky Blinders with mixed emotions and expectations. I have portraits and photographs of James and Sam, I have general paraphernalia and memories from their lives and I grew up in a community in Birmingham that could be a violent place to live at times but it also valued strong historical links forged between gang-like families that looked out for each other. Things haven’t really changed much in that respect. Individuals come and go, but family ties and family names still carry a great deal of weight around here. And seeing my physical likeness in the photographs of James, things haven’t really changed that much within my own family either. So hearing about a TV series focusing on the blinders felt as though someone was making a documentary about a close friend or relative, which, in effect, I suppose was the case. A writer who was unfamiliar with the true spirit of these individuals could be tempted to ridicule the blinders and/or cast them as heartless gangsters. However I wasn’t disappointed, in fact a great deal of content made me smile because it cut very close to home. Pretty bang-on in some cases. I’m pleased that the series not only highlighted the brutal, frenetic violence that these men were predisposed towards, but it also addressed the strong allegiances between the gang members – particularly in the case of family ties - and by portraying the central characters as both hero and villain it gave the viewer the uneasy experience of both fearing and admiring them, which was the exact same uncomfortable feeling that I grappled with upon learning about the blinders as a child. Perhaps my – and my family’s - fondness for James, Sam and their friends is borne out of this realisation that although they were violent men who sailed on the wrong side of the law, they also had strong family values, they were loyal to those who were loyal to them and they would protect their friends and loved ones at all costs - values that most modern-day, law-abiding people would do well to heed.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

A Church Organist's Response to The Wedding Project and a Rant on Modern Church Music

So the Church of England has completed its four-year investigation into dwindling church wedding statistics - known as The Wedding Project – and the result of this review is the publication of The Church Weddings Handbook: The Seven Pastoral Moments That Matter, a new book that is intended to revolutionize the traditional church marriage ceremony.One of the suggestions in this new book is that couples should be allowed to walk down the aisle to modern pieces of music rather than the traditional Wedding March. A new ground-breaking proposal? Really? Well, I’m a church organist and I've been playing modern pop and rock pieces for weddings and funerals for the last 15 years. I enjoy receiving requests for organ arrangements of pop and rock songs because each one is a fresh challenge and it’s also the kind of music that I listen too; I’m a huge live music lover (in fact I’m nursing a hangover from a gig last night), I've been a keyboard player in a rock band and my music tastes are wider than the sky…

Now I stopped playing the organ and going to church recently, not for religious reasons (I have never been religious, I just enjoy playing the church organ) but because I lost respect for the direction that the church was going in and its repeatedly forced modernisations. Aside from a few aspects about the church in general that I became increasingly uncomfortable with - such as fleecing poor pensioners out of every last penny to meet the apportionment laid down by senior and affluent living clergy - I didn't like the way that the church was moving music-wise. Let me explain. I love going out to gigs and I listen to a lot of new music but sometimes, just sometimes, it's nice to sit quietly, relax and chill out to a gentle, old hymn tune. It's the perfect break from the manic noise of modern life. But my weekly hour of escape came to a screeching halt recently when the desperate-to-be-cool-but-actually-quite-cringy clergy decided that they wanted to turn the Sunday morning service into gig night, so we had guitars, drums and people yelling their vocal chords out. Sunday mornings were pretty much indistinguishable from my Saturday/Friday nights. And all my hard work learning to play the organ was annihilated by hymn books that replaced beautiful four part harmonies with cheesy guitar chords and words that were clearly written to be read by young children. Excuse me? I'm a musician, not a bloody primary school teacher with a knowledge of four basic guitar chords! 

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m no stick-in-the-mud who runs scared from change (bring it on!) and I love modern music – particularly as I am partial to dropping the odd prelude on My Chemical Romance into the communion once in a while – but I worry that the CoE is increasingly obsessed with the belief that old music equals bad music.  I worry that it will start phasing out the old stuff and eventually this resource will die out and we are going to lose a helluva lot of very good music. And what will we be left with? Girls Aloud? Purlease. If I get married and find out that my only option to walk down the aisle to is One Direction then I will freak out big time. Please, please, please, CoE, remember that the key to modernisation is amalgamation not replacement and the old stuff – no matter how outdated you think it might be - is still a valuable resource for musicians (in fact, how many times have I found myself playing a psalm and thinking 'someone should sample this because it would make an excellent sample for a goth-rock song...'). And since when do we dispense with anything that is of musical, literary or artistic value just because it is old? If this is the case then when was the last time you read a Shakespeare play? Not recently? Then let’s throw all his plays away, shall we? And surely we don’t need da Vinci now that we’ve got Banksy, do we? Fetch the skip….

The other difficulty that I have with this new proposal is that… how should I say this …we are in danger of implementing The Chav Project rather than The Wedding Project. Walking down the aisle to Cheryl Cole or Rihanna can work if – and only if - it’s done right but unfortunately I have attended some weddings where the couple have tried to pull this off and it has been a truly awful experience, like a cheesy DJ at a kid’s party. Seemed like a good idea at the time, right? I would regularly remind couples that I was willing to arrange a modern piece for their wedding if they had a particular song in mind but, if I'm honest, by and large most brides asked to walk down the aisle to the traditional, spine-tingling Wedding March. And, I’ve got to say, these tended to be the classier breed of bride. A bit of Improvisation on Tinie Tempah might attract the brides who want the blingy, TOWIE/Katie Price style of wedding, but it could be a huge turn off for other couples (the chavvy church or the classy stately home with a string quartet you say? Hmmm, where do I book?). I suspect that someone senior in the church has been watching too many episodes of Big Fat Gypsy Weddings and spotted a nice opportunity to fill the coffers. Ker-ching. And it’s not like the church is money obsessed, much…

I worry about where the CoE is going with The Wedding Project and its overall trajectory in general. It doesn’t seem to want to assimilate the ancient and modern but completely trample all over the old ways and convert some beautiful old churches and equally beautiful pieces of music into cheesy 60s sitting-around-in-a-loving-circle meeting places and nursery-rhyme style borderline-screamo worship songs. What the Church doesn’t realise is that its identity is in its traditions, they are its *thing* and it should be making the most of them, not throwing them in the trash and jumping on the latest, cheesiest fad. Being cool is about being an individual, not a mindless sheep. I don't want an awkwardly-cool entirely modernised church, I want a traditional, broad-minded church that can do the shouty drum banging and tambourine waving thing (if that’s what the masses want *sigh*) but also isn't afraid to have a quiet, traditional Evensong once in a while with traditional hymns from the New English Hymnal. That’s the difference between cool church and hipster church. The very second that the church that I attended converted into a poor man’s O2 academy then it became like any other modern venue in my life and it lost what attracted me to it in the first place. What happens when a jazz venue decides that it wants to move into thrash metal or a rock pub decides that it wants to book boy bands? The punters go elsewhere...

If I have a message for the church it is this: Stop apologising for yourself! Yes, it’s lovely that you are willing to update and modernise and I thank you for this, but if you keep up this landslide of grovelling apologies and forced modernisations then you’re going to compromise yourself out of existence. Grow some balls, stand up and be proud of what you are. Then, and only then, might I think about giving you a second chance. But the real shame here is that four years of research have gone into solving a riddle that I could easily solve in thirty seconds. I suspect that the declining appeal of the church is largely due to the public’s growing distrust of the church itself; stories in the media of paedophile priests, wrangles over gay rights, the constant demands for financial contributions while bishops sit at home quaffing champagne etc etc. A bit of Girls Aloud isn’t going to change that…

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Building the Future, Burying the Past? The Modernisation of a University Library

Last week I was informed that a redbrick University here in the UK will be demolishing its main library and building a new one. As a former student of the University, I have been aware of a furore surrounding the demolishing of the grand redbrick building in favour of a modern alternative for a while as I was invited to sign an online petition set up in opposition to its demise. The plans for the development look very interesting and I look forward to seeing how they are executed, however there appears to be dissent among the ranks about the message that accompanies this move.

When it was pointed out that the new library looks smaller than the present one on the plans, the justification for any downsizing was ‘because students don’t really use books these days’. Ouch. Chicken and egg, anyone? Was that the death knell for the written word I just heard? Libraries and book shops across the country should take heed.

There appear to be two issues that are raising concern: the library building and the books within...

The Books

Hopefully the redevelopment will take place without the loss of any books and with the addition of extra facilities. But as a former student I worry that the redevelopment will be an excuse to lose one or two volumes that are considered outdated, given that apparently students ‘don’t really use books these days’. Please please please, University developers, don’t throw out the books and replace them with huge computer screens and online resources. I agree that technology is essential for futureproofing, but holding onto these dusty books is futureproofing in itself, if not a step further.

What developers need to realise is that we might be in the age of digital downloads but all the cool kids collect vinyl. How many teenagers do you see in the street wearing huge earphones? Why are China selling mobile phones to teenagers that *just* make phone calls? It’s handy to have books on my Kindle but I prefer to display them on my bookshelves. I store all my music on iTunes but I still buy CDs because I like the artwork. However you feel about the intrinsic value of the written word, if the University wants to futureproof its business then it must keep its books for people like me who will always prefer a balance and to guard against a turn in the popularity tide back to hard-copy resources. Besides, technology can all too easily go the way of the minidisc player...

The Building

Faux modernisation is happening a lot these days and I hope that the University is not setting itself up for a cataclysmic fall if it chooses to follow suit. Many institutions have recently sought to ‘modernise’ their business by ripping out anything that smells dusty, painting everything white and scattering some uncomfortable funky chairs around at the expense of unique and irreplaceable historical aspects that makes them distinctive from their competitors. Take the Church of England, for example. It is continually falling over itself to update and modernise and as a result we have three kinds of churches: the dusty old churches and mighty cathedrals that have survived redevelopment, the dated retro churches from the first exploratory steps into redevelopment and the ultramodern futuristic churches currently in redevelopment. Now put yourself in the position of a bride-to-be. The ultramodern churches are very pretty to look at and would look nice in the wedding album photos, the retro churches would make you look like you’re getting married in the 70s with their tacky kitsch interiors, but the absolute make-your-friends-insanely-jealous setting would be in an old, untouched, crumbly church or cathedral. I was a wedding organist for 15 years and let me tell you with authority...*everyone* wants to get married in old churches and cathedrals. Ultramodern is second best, but bear in mind that the retro churches were once the ultramodern churches. New developments date very quickly, hence it can only really be termed ‘faux modernisation’...

The added problem for a University is that the average student, to whom these funky modernisations are ultimately aimed at, encounters this kind of environment on a daily basis. They see it everywhere. It’s nothing new. The older professors might be impressed by the changes but I doubt your average 19/20 year old will even stop to pop his earphones out. And the danger with modernisation is that if it’s not absolute top-end spec then it invariably becomes tacky and dated very quickly, just like the retro churches. Ill-advised ‘cool architecture’ can be as cringe-inducing as watching your dad dance.

But the base-line here is that ‘funky architecture’ is not what you expect of a redbrick University. A newly-labelled Comprehensive perhaps, but not a redbrick sitting on top of a goldmine of history. Thinking back to my expectations on my first day at University, I expected to walk onto the set of Harry Potter when I stepped inside the University gates. And it didn’t disappoint! Walking into the main hall of the University was like walking into a big cathedral, it certainly had the ‘wow factor’. I expected Hogwarts and how massively disappointed would I have been if it had resembled an Apple store?! There was a real sense of history and belonging, which was fostered in part by the visual history evident around campus - predominately the buildings, such as the library. I fell hook-line-and-sinker for this sense of history, so the University should be ensnaring other prospective students using the same method, not trying to suppress it at every turn! And there is an important business aspect to this too; any member of a group will tell you that group cohesion is better achieved when there is a unique, unifying element that is specific to the group and separates the group members from outsiders, whether that be what they wear, how they speak or what they believe. This is how armies and gangs are united. This is the way that human nature works. Each University has its own history, its own ‘unique element’ that students expect to buy into. By removing this ‘unique element’ and replacing it with a ‘ten-a-penny McDonalds element’ the group will quickly lose its sense of belonging. And that, as it has been pointed out to me, is corporate suicide...

This might all be a panic over nothing and the old library will segue painlessly into the new with no bother whatsoever. I have every confidence that this will be the case. But for other Universities planning similar redevelopments the concerns raised must be addressed. Decisions made within Universities with regard to the future of the written word should not be taken lightly as they will influence generational waves of students and thereby send ripples out into the wider society. And there is no system backup, once these hard-copy resources are lost we may never recover them again...

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

The impending demise of rock music?

I’ve been aware of a few stories circulating recently lamenting the decline of rock music. Some of it is seriously apocalyptic stuff, for instance The Independent ran an article today pointing out that ‘only three of 2010's 100 bestselling singles were guitar-driven’. That’s pretty bleak. But when I think about it, I can’t remember the last time I heard rock music on a mainstream radio station, in fact it has been noticeably absent. Just try to name some rock bands appearing in the mainstream charts right now. Not easy, is it?

I wonder what could be contributing to this sudden apparent apathy? Is it something that we are doing as music listeners? Or are we, the rock bands, guilty of cutting our own throats somehow? This decline in interest is particularly worrying for those of us in bands who are slogging our guts out in rehearsal rooms each week. Is there any point in carrying on if no-one wants to listen to us? Maybe if we can uncover the source of the problem then we can figure out whether it’s just a passing phase or a long-term, serious threat to the genre itself. The first step is to consider whether the problem is with supply or demand...

     • Supply

Perhaps there are fewer new rock artists out there to feed through into the mainstream in the first place? Maybe the talent just isn’t there? If this is the case then we need to investigate the cause of this breakdown in supply. There are, for example, huge cost issues involved when playing in a band as instruments, petrol to drive the band around, rehearsal rooms and recording costs don’t come cheap. Maybe it is difficult in the current financial climate for new artists to afford to play? I also wonder whether new artists become disenchanted when they make their first foray into the world of live music because it is not the instantly glamorous lifestyle that the media leads us to expect. Carrying heavy instruments around, playing hideous dives in the middle of nowhere to three drunk locals, sitting in the rain outside a locked venue, sleeping in the back of a tiny van with hung-over bandmates - the early days are not pretty. Some ‘pre-packed’ rock bands seemingly appear overnight without this history behind them and if they have history then it has been clearly swept under the carpet, so the reality of gigging in the early days may come as a shock to some new artists.

An expectation of immediate success is also fostered by reality TV shows that distort our concept of the music industry’s mechanism for finding talent. Reality TV is the whipping boy for a great deal of our cultural grumbles, but it’s true that such shows teach young artists that there is no need to tout yourself around back-street pubs and clubs playing to empty rooms and sending audition tracks to labels. You just upload a video to YouTube or enter a competition and you are plucked from obscurity and fast-tracked to the top of the charts. As the X Factor auditions demonstrate, some singers haven’t even stood on a stage before and in a blink of an eye they have a number one hit and they’re booked to play Wembley arena. There must be oodles of sublime talent sitting around in bedrooms waiting to ‘be discovered’ on Youtube rather than booking gigs in local venues and getting their music out there.

Yes it might be getting tougher for new artists to stay active and the channels feeding them into the mainstream may be changing, but when I consider fellow artists that my band and I meet on the Birmingham circuit alone there doesn’t appear to be a rock famine out there. There are plenty of gigging bands that fulfil the criteria for a bona fide rock band and they are desperate to break into the larger market. So the problem cannot be with supply, it must be with demand...

   • Demand

As music listeners, what do we expect from the music we listen to and where could rock music be falling short?

Some rock bands that have broken through into the public consciousness in the past few years have arrived on the scene pre-packaged with readymade scripted personalities and posters, t-shirts and stationary sets waiting in the backrooms of department stores. We all secretly suspect that merchandise and the saleability of a band is higher up the shopping list of the music industry than the actual noises a band makes. And, if true, then this saleability would be massively affected by the artist’s appeal to the mass market. This mass market - and the music industry in turn - has become increasingly squeamish when it comes to signing raw artists that push boundaries and it is noticeable that our music has become increasingly sanitised and child-friendly. It’s sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll after all, right? Not anymore. Take mainstream pop singers like Rihanna and Britney Spears for example. How many times have they been blasted recently for being too raunchy? We need to stop for a second and think about the real target audience here. If your ten-year-old is pole dancing in the front room then maybe it’s time to take the Rihanna CDs off her, but kiddy-related fears trump our adult tastes every time and without fail the party is ruined for the rest of us.

And it’s not just sex that gets our disapproval; it’s violence, drugs and all the general ‘unsavoury’ elements characteristically (although often unfairly) associated with rock too. Take the whole Marilyn Mason/Columbine High correlation. Without resurrecting the debate, the US branded Manson as the influence behind the killings and the entire Western world went on censorship red alert as a result, fearing that any guitar track would cause their teens to start committing violent crimes. Hence rock music took a huge knock that it has since struggled to recover from (interestingly, how many serial killers relaxed to classical music before going on a rampage? Should we stop all teenagers listening to Debussy or Chopin in case it stirs psychotic tendencies in them?). And finally, I’m not condoning drug or alcohol abuse by any means, but the very second a musician is caught in a room with something mildly dodgy, drinks a little too much or has more than one woman in a hotel room they are vilified and ostracised from the industry with no second chances. No ifs, no buts. I’m with the censors on the drugs issue to be fair, but a small part of me wonders how many influential bands we would have lost if we had taken this approach back in the 60s and 70s?

It is difficult for a genre of music that is so closely associated with pushing boundaries and ‘living life on the edge’ (even if in lyrics alone) to thrive in a climate of oversensitivity that increasingly panders to delicate sensibilities that might be offended by explicit lyrics or a tiny bit of raunchiness. So maybe it is the kindly-killjoy brigade that is responsible for marginalising rock to the point of death?

One final option is that rock is simply seen as out-dated in a world of movie-set music videos, epic stage designs and pre-packaged artists that are carefully selected and briefed to fill a desirable hole in the market and then plucked, vamped and painted with the brightest gloss shine. The stereotypical dirty-gritty, spit-on-the-stage rock artist is very difficult to conform to this ideal and perhaps the sight of a group of people on stage playing instruments live is seen to be somehow amateur and undesirable. If this is true then it is a crying shame because, besides from various possible side-effects like kids will stop showing an interest in learning to play instruments, an essential part of the glorious experience of discovering a new artist and enjoying their journey is unearthing their history, the funny anecdotes, the people they’ve met while gigging, their on-the-road-grown quirks and idiosyncrasies and most importantly what drives them to share their music with their fans and fellow musicians. Many new artists look great on the screen, but they do not come with these attractive extras to flesh them out. Pre-packed musicians will write boring as hell biographies....

If I take a step back and look at my own band then I can’t understand why - if the newspaper reports are to be believed - bands like us will be condemned to the scrapheap before we’ve even plugged in our amps. Yes, we’re feisty on-stage and we put energy into our performances, but we’re not deliberately offensive to the average music listener; we don’t use lots of foul language in our lyrics, condone violence or take drugs so we’re pretty ‘safe’ (apart from our drummer Neil who has a tendency to fling his drumsticks across the stage, he’s pretty dangerous) so we’re not going to cause any riots or turn your children into psychotic monsters. We come with an interesting back-history, silly anecdotes and all the ‘DVD extras’ that appeal to a fanbase. We’re fairly pretty and take good photos so we tick all the shallow, superficial boxes to keep the poster printers happy. We, and many bands like us, are poised on tenterhooks for an opportunity to make our donation to the music landscape, champing at the bit to flesh it out and make a contribution worthy enough to wrench music back from the teetering precipice of a trashy, pop-driven cesspit of linear crap. And this is what confuses me about the whole situation more than anything; how can something die when there are so many like us - musicians and music lovers alike - who are desperate to feed it?!?

Friday, 27 January 2012

The Honey’s Revenge: Lana Del Rey, Adele and the Vilification of Beauty

Back in July 2011 I stumbled across the mesmerising video on Youtube called ‘Video Games’ by Lana Del Rey. Haunting is a word that has been overused to describe it, but it really is. I fell instantly in love with the melody, Lana’s voice and the kooky imagery in the video and she climbed up my most-played iTunes list and muscled in on my iPod airplay. I was very confused as to why some reviews of her new album Born To Die, due for release on Monday, were so critical. And I was doubly confused as to why there appeared to be a problem with her pouting, girl-next-door-turned-gangster-moll character. I suspected, unfortunately for Lana, that even if she sang like a cherubim on God’s right hand her fatal weakness is this - she is a woman in the public eye who is prettier than the norm and not afraid to flaunt it. #popularityfail

It all started a few years back when it become cool, socially acceptable (and even encouraged) to ridicule women who had gone to extreme measures to alter their appearance and make themselves look more attractive, whether it be through breast implants, botox, surgery etc. Prominent public figures like Jordan and Jodie Marsh bore the brunt of the public aggression while ‘ordinary girl on the street’ celebs like Lily Allen, Adele etc could do no wrong. You could be the sweetest woman on earth, but once you passed a certain level of prettiness it was assumed that you were a fame-hungry harridan hell bent on burning the earth to the core. The trickledown effect has over time fed into the wider society with this derision being directed at any woman, celebrity or not, who is even mildly attractive. (The most recent incident was on Celebrity Big Brother 2012 – the final of which is tonight. Admit it, the second you saw Natalie Cassidy - the ‘average girl on the street’ - you assumed that she would be a lovely girl, a laugh and a joy to be around. Yet when the ‘honeys’ arrived - the Playboy twins, Nicola McLean etc - you naturally assumed that they would be bitchy. Am I right? Although we didn’t know the housemates and based our judgments on first impressions alone, guess which ones we cheered and which ones we booed…).

On the flip side to this ‘honey vilification’, I caught Adele Live at the Royal Albert Hall a few weeks ago and cringed so hard that I had to switch off after the first ten minutes. Yes, she’s a good singer (albeit with a limited vocal range…listen for it…) and she’s knocked out some good tunes (well, we’ve been brainwashed into liking them at least), but I was shocked by what was, essentially, the sight of a chavvy fat lass slurping on a cup of tea and swearing like a trucker. It was over-the-top, exaggerated chaviness on a monumental scale that almost felt like it was put on for the cameras. Get some decorum girl! And yet she’s lauded by, well, everyone. Why are we not trying to clean up her act? Is this the kind of cringingly awful chaviness that we  view as the societal norm? I suspect that we adore and foster this type of crass personality because it makes us feel good about ourselves. Adele is safe, familiar, unthreatening, resembles every other ‘girl on the street’ and slurps tea and curses like the rest of us. Perfect, she’ll do, stick her on the radio. Lana Del Rey, on the other hand, is a larger than life character who is different, pretty, classy and edgy (a pseudo-edginess that Adele tries to emulate by swearing her way through a setlist) and that is very unsettling to your average ‘girl on the street’. And before you say it, looks and size are irrelevant. It’s true that beauty is predominantly a state of mind– it is classy, refined and has self-respect. That certainly isn’t on Adele’s stage. Take a step back and consider which singer you would prefer to act as a role model for your daughter…

As a disclaimer at this point, I must say that I consider myself to be pretty average looking and by no means a ‘honey’, but I have some friends who are very easy on the eye and they regularly encounter anti-beauty discrimination in their everyday lives. One recently remarked to me that she would feel much more accepted in society if she had tracksuit bottoms and a cap surgically attached, swore/drank/smoked like a docker, tried her hardest to resemble a man and took no interest in her appearance whatsoever. Then, and only then, she felt that she would be accepted by society for who she is rather than belittled and disregarded for how she looks. We must remember that taking a dislike to a woman because we consider her to be more attractive than us is equally as offensive as taking a dislike to a woman because we hate her skin colour, weight or age. I would like to think, in an ideal world, that our veneration of the crass and vilification of the beautiful plays no part in forming opinions with regard to new faces such as Lana Del Rey, particularly as some critics appear to have formed an opinion before she even opens her mouth. I would honestly love to believe that, but I have one eye on the seething anti-beauty subtext that is bubbling beneath the reviews whenever a pretty face hits the headlines. We really need to keep this in check before it becomes a problem…

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Chez Lloyd: For the Food and Wine Lover Extraordinaire

If you are an avid foodie or wine lover then please check out this new blog written by Lloyd Petersen, my very good friend, fervent oenophile and proprietor of Chez Lloyd

Lloyd will be documenting his travels around the country eating and drinking at various restaurants in the UK (and I expect far beyond) and offering comments and insights from his vast knowledge of fine dining and the world of wine.

The blog compliments a series of services offered at Chez Lloyd. Lloyd holds the Advanced Certificate from the Wine & Spirit Educational Trust (WSET) and the website offers a range of wine tasting packages to suit all needs.

You can also follow Chez Lloyd on Twitter at http://twitter.com/Chez_Lloyd


Sunday, 15 May 2011

The Microsoft virus/computer hoax and how to have fun with malicious phone calls

I've been receiving phone calls from scammers claiming to be calling from Microsoft on a daily basis now. The caller tells me that I have a problem with my computer (a virus, malicious software or the computer is simply performing too slowly) and I need to follow his/her instructions in order to fix the computer. If an unsuspecting recipient of such a call follows these directions will find that they have, at the very least, downloaded a virus onto their computer or given the caller immediate access to the information on their hard drive, as this article in the Guardian explains:

‘The puzzled owner is then directed to their computer, and asked to open a program called "Windows Event Viewer". Its contents are, to the average user, worrying: they look like a long list of errors, some labelled "critical". "Yes, that's it," says the caller. "Now let me guide you through the steps to fixing it."

The computer owner is directed to a website and told to download a program that hands over remote control of the computer, and the caller "installs" various "fixes" for the problem. And then it's time to pay a fee: £185 for a "subscription" to the "preventative service".

The only catch: there was never anything wrong with the computer, the caller is not working for Microsoft or the internet service provider, and the owner has given a complete stranger access to every piece of data on their machine.’

Now most recipients of these calls will catch on that it’s a hoax straight away and put the phone down, but there are many computer users out there, particularly the elderly, who fall foul to these hoax calls and find themselves considerably out of pocket as a result. So the purpose of this post is two-fold: a) to spread the word that these calls are malicious, and b) to absolve any guilt that you may feel when you vent your weekly stress buildup at them. Occasionally I feel guilty when I’m short with the workers in call centres – yes cold calls are a pain, but if they’re doing the legitimate selling thing then it’s just annoying, not malicious. But these guys are different. They're not only trying to rip you off but they’re doing it right to your face. They may as well walk up to you in the street and try to mug you.

I believe that the illegal nature of these calls gives us the right to be as aggressive, abusive and offensive as humanly possible, but if you’re bored then you could try entertaining yourself with one of the responses below. See it as a game and have fun, please feel free to add your own…

Tell them you’re 15 years old

Keep repeating ‘hello?’ as though you cannot hear them

Ask them to wait while you fetch your husband, wife, partner or get a pen, then put the phone on the table for an hour or two

Tell them your troubles. Why do they think your ex sent you that text out of the blue?

Give the phone to your toddler

Tell them that the person they are calling for is dead

Speak another language (or gibberish)

Invent a religion and try to convert them

Tell them you’re suicidal and they need to talk you out of doing the worst

Alternatively, learn this script verbatim…

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Tiger Blood, Charlie Sheen and How to Market a Meltdown

We all love a good public breakdown and Charlie Sheen’s recent antics have certainly stoked the fires of media frenzy with sound bites from his ‘The Today Show’ interview littering the internet, spoof vids appearing on Youtube and #winning #fastball and #tigerblood hashtags popping up all over Twitter. As always when a celeb ‘goes bad’, they quickly acquire a large following of fans that wait with baited breath for the next outrageous pronouncement from the person concerned (Sheen has outclassed his predecessors on this front with his Twitter account being the fasted ever to reach a million followers). On the whole we tend to get right behind these individuals because we love it when a big name says ‘f**k it’, flips the corporation the bird and walks out on the comforts of celebrity, becoming ‘one of us’ for a second and lounging about at home ranting about the big bosses.

But there’s something about Sheen’s rage that I’m not quite buying. While he’s slouched in front of a webcam blathering on about s**t (albeit entertaining s**t) at the same time he’s coherently planning world domination via the Internet. Links on his Twitter page lead to a site recruiting interns instructed to keep his social media profile ticking over and attract more followers and his website has an online shop selling t-shirts with slogans taken from the ‘Today Show’ interview.

That doesn’t sound like a man on the edge. That sounds like a man who knows exactly what he’s doing.

Oh Charlie, I’m disappointed. I expected you to rip the ass out of Hollywood but that’s not tiger blood pumping through your veins, it’s good old-fashioned fame-hungry, corporate American greed at its worst. You would have made the perfect ‘f**k em all’ anti-establishment poster boy if these sentiments were real but you’re really about as rock ‘n’ roll as a middle-aged suit with a wife called Bunty who sells insurance at weekends. Either man up, sack the interns, unplug yourself from the media cashcow that you’ve created and commit to leading an anti-industry troll rebellion or stop this half-assed charade, get clean, apologise to everyone concerned, sign the deals and get back to your sitcoms pronto…