Plato’s shed

I have confessed elsewhere to owning seven guitars*. They are:

  • Ibanez Artcore AF-125 archtop
  • Ibanez Artcore archtop bass guitar
  • Ibanez AEB-8E BL acoustic bass guitar
  • Admira electro-Spanish (‘nylon jazz’, it’s becoming quite popular!)
  • Peavey ‘Generation’ solidbody (Telecaster copy)
  • Grant solidbody (Les Paul copy)
  • A Japanese-made, Spanish-style guitar, no maker’s name.

*As of today, 8… oh, Lordy.

**Er, make that 9… no, 10…

Shaggy heads talking knowledgeably about guitars and luthiers lose my interest within about seven seconds. You too? I struggle with big fingers and unreliable co-ordination to play a guitar, let alone build one, although I did once try. I know hundreds of chords, although not what they are all called. I like the Brazilian chords best, they’re so simple yet subtly complicated at the same time. It’s how I’d like to think I am. Other people just think of me as big and angry. I like to find and combine new chords every day. My favourite is still Am7.

Why do I have seven guitars? My grandmother took me to Selmer in the Charing X Road on my 12th birthday and bought me my first guitar, I always remember the smell of the varnish, and the racks of gleaming guitar bodies. I like how feminine they look and find them in junk shops and get obsessed over the special offers mailed to me online by mail order sites I have used. And I can’t find a jazz piano player locally, I have to accompany myself somehow. Lots of musicians have many more guitars than I do, we’re a sad bunch. Fortunately I’ve not had enough money to spend on buying more.

This tiresome list is offered, like most stuff on the internet, only because it  exists; albeit within its own conceptual framework. Did Plato ever contemplate a realm of lists, I wonder? Did he own a shed? I shall be posting more of my thoughts about lists, you’ll be glad to hear.

Ranked in order of interest, of course.

Thank you.

Number eight: I’d just come from a guitar lesson and popped into the market on the way home, just because it’s there, and saw this really lovely folk-type Jumbo acoustic guitar on a stall. Not having one of those, I went straight round to the cashpoint. It’s labelled ‘DB Classic – Handmade ‘, Model SW207N, serial no. 00011. Completely clean and unmarked, it has an astonishing tone and fidelity. My dealer however tells me it is worthless, I wasted my £60.

Number nine: Epiphone ‘Sorrento’ (superior version of Gibson 125), dated 1962. Don’t ask! You can see it elsewhere, in my August posts. And now I want to sell it again, it’s worth half what I gave for it. Of course.

Number ten: Aria D’Aquisto ‘New Yorker’. The price of this superior instrument requires that I sell the other nine, immediately. Please call. (But I have succeeded in shifting the two acoustic basses. Probably because my dealer tells me no-one wants acoustic basses…)

A letter to George Galloway

30 March, 2012

Respect, PO Box 167, Manchester, M19 0AH.

Dear George Galloway

Congratulations on an amazing win in Bradford. Whether it was God or Big Brother ‘wot won it’ for you, I can’t say. Harriet Harman’s innocent remark on Today, that it was hard to tell from London what was going on, may hold part of the answer: neither politics nor the political economy exists outside of the southeast; in which case, ‘anything goes’. This was a riot in slow-motion.

The news drove me for the first time to your website, where I read the usual polite nostrums about fairness and representation, and was duly underwhelmed. The crudeness of your logo disturbs me: it makes you look like a chain of cut-price convenience stores, or the Moldovian fascist union, something like that. It doesn’t help that you are promising to launch your manifesto on 29th April 2010….

Then I started browsing through your blog posts, and realised to my horror that our views are eerily similar (yours are mercifully shorter). Though we are personally as unalike as could possibly be, I am certainly no politician, our expressed opinions agree on almost every subject. The Respect agenda is identical to my own!

There is just one thing preventing me from joining, however: I wouldn’t vote for me. Nor would I support a party that appears to have only one point of view, one image, one voice stemming from one power-seeker at the top. I don’t feel safe with that. It’s not the British way to vote for flaky, self-publicising controversialists, other than during by-elections and in London mayoral races (Blair was an aberration, he had the opportunity to hijack the party). Our politics has always subsisted on fudge, muddle and compromise, with policy diffused through a self-effacing and encouragingly lackadaisical Civil Service. We don’t trust ambitious outsiders; while your (and my) views hardly translate into actual policies.

I agree, there are dangers in the traditional way we do things: the perceived weakness of governance leads to the arrogance of a security force unaccountable even to the law; the prosecution of endless neocolonial ‘wars’ mispresented as UN-sanctioned peacekeeping or reconstruction operations; the creepy  sucking-up to America, with its predominant weapons industry; the obscenity of Trident; the absurdity of an education system predicated on exclusionism rather than universal access; privatisations leading to, frankly, less competent or caring surrogate institutions profiting the few; the corruption of ministers by lobbyists (and didn’t Murdoch nearly succeed in placing his own people at the very heart of Government, even in the PM’s own kitchen!); the bullyboy antics of an overblown financial sector; the vicious demonising (dehumanising) of target groups in the community, depressing celebrity circus culture and the relentless subversion of the political state by a London-based media hungover on the questionable and failing power of the printed word.

History repeats itself, and the flaws that you and I perceive in British political life and governance are nothing new, people have been making the same reasonable points and criticisms and occasionally chucking bricks and setting fire to things for hundreds of years, enduring the same miseries and insecurities while others grow fat. The first modern cabinet, of Robert Walpole, made a lucrative business out of selling preferments at every level in public life; as did the Liberals under Lloyd George, who otherwise led a remarkably successful government. Yet here we are, still imagining ourselves free men and mostly in one piece. Perhaps we should agree that influence-peddling and the corruption of office may be the best way to fund political parties, given that it probably does less harm than the Puritan alternative? Finally, I’m not convinced that the murky political system in which you operate so effectively and perforce collude is any longer capable of dealing with the complexities and asymmetries of a financialised globe. My personal view is, we’re fucked.

Anyway, best of luck in the local elections. Unfortunately, in Plaid Cymru we have a party of old duffers here in Wales, historically in thrall to the intellectually low-wattage farming lobby, but they do get their act together on these occasions, I just put my head down and wait for it to blow over


Open universities: a modest proposal

Everyone agrees that the Open University model of lifelong learning is one of Britain’s greatest postwar achievements.

Why, then, does the Government continue to impose ludicrously restrictive conditions and quotas on other universities, and treat education as if it were some kind of Britain’s Got Talent contest?

Why are individual students routinely reduced to a set of A-level grades? Why are A-levels the only route in to most undergraduate courses, and why are the courses administered so rigidly within a three-year window?

Why is ‘failure’ even a remote possibility?

Over in the section headed ‘1,000 words or less’, I propose a different model, of open access for all to degree-level courses. I have heard all the arguments against it, and I say, bollocks, just do it.


I flunk the audition

Just had the email. Thanks, but no thanks. I’d flunked the audition.

What audition, I hear the question resound throughout the blogosphere (there are billions of blogospheres in the galaxy, you just can’t hear them scream…)?

Werll, reader (talking to myself again), I was coming to my 62nd birthday last year and thought it would be a great idea to apply to do a four-year undergraduate degree in Jazz at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. (Motto: There’s posh!)

No-one tried to stop me. Except me – I flunked the audition. Oh well, next year…

Boo, sob.

I’m not your mate today, okay?

Please, whatever else you want to call me, stop calling me ‘mate’!

You mustn’t blame me, but I have this beastly habit of rounding on hapless shop assistants who have been brainwashed to within an inch of their sad little lives by some random supermarket training Mormon to ingratiate themselves (and by inference, the Organization) with we shoppers by a) calling all the men ‘mate’ (is it sex-discriminatory language, I wonder?), and b) demanding of a complete stranger to know how they are feeling ‘today’?

What are you, my GP? I frequently snarl. Or look fiercely at them and intone, with hissing menace, ‘I am NOT your mate, okay?’  Well, I’m not, am I? Okay, I may be queuing in the Spar convenience store in a rundown suburb of the crumbling Welsh seaside town where poverty, divorce and indolence have condemned me to eke out my days, but I’m still a posh boy from South Kensington at heart.

And for Christ’s sake, do stop asking if I ‘need any help packing ‘today‘?’ I’m a six-foot, 14-stone, massively depressed man with a degree and two ex-wives, not a fucking dweeb in a hairnet. Or, would I be ‘interested in any savings stamps today?’, with that rising Australian inflection that is rapidly becoming a primafacie defence against a murder rap; as if there is anything ‘interesting’ about savings stamps, what, are they a sure bet for the 3.30 at Doncaster, a handy tip for where I can obtain a brand-new 42-inch plasma TV for a fiver?

And what is this ‘today’ thing? Why ‘today’? Did some cut-rate corporate psychologist come up with this motivational word, like ‘New’ or ‘Free’ or ‘Scientifically proven’? Is it one of those hypnotherapy keywords, ‘when I say the word ‘today’ you will instantly feel relieved of 40 quid’…. Would I be ‘interested’ in help with my packing yesterday? Or tomorrow? Next Christmas, maybe? And yes, I have got Type Two diabetes and a headcold, thanks for asking, mate, I feel so much better now I’ve got that off my chest. Okay?


Four things I hate about digital remasters

I’ve been spending the money I got from selling my car, buying-up the world’s collection of jazz CDs. A terrible admission, I know. Blame YouTube. You find one track some random from fandom has posted because it’s the greatest ever, and before you know it, it’s morning and your bank balance is on empty…

Some purchases have been of later stuff I haven’t heard before, by contemporary artists I feel I ought to know about. By and large this has been a most enjoyable exploration. I feel encouraged by the present, even with Django Bates in it. Other purchases have been to replace the influential vinyl albums I owned in my angsty teenage years, that I listened to gauntly night after night, believing I had found the elixir of life – cherished albums long-ago consigned to beneath the sofa cushions of other people’s flats, or whose covers have been gnawed by rats.

‘Never look back’ was Lot’s wife’s motto too, and she’d have been equally underwhelmed to hear again, albums like Getz and Byrd’s ‘Jazz Samba’, which in its day I found brilliant and exotic, thanks to Byrd’s virtuoso guitar plucking and Keter Betts’ jolly samba rhythm, which now reminds me of a rather tedious journey in a slow elevator. It doesn’t sound at all the way I remember it. And to think I walked the mile and a half to the sorting office and back to collect it.

The smack of the letter-flap just now brought a lift to the heart, but as I broke open the Amazonian envelope my heart sank again. (My, we are full of up-and-down elevator metaphors this sunny morning.) I did not recall ordering the companion Getz/Gilberto album as well? Now I suppose I shall have to listen to it. Track One is… ‘The Girl from Ipanema’. Oh, God. What have I done, to disgorge this posset of musical Gerber strained carrot down my tie? (Okay, it’s not that bad. Better than the other one, anyway. Got some real Brazilians on it.)

Four things that really annoy me about digital remasters:

1 They are no longer the original performance recordings, breaking the direct mechanical link with the artist and his/her music. So what are they? (Ontological question. No answer: just musical noise.)

2 Some A&R Mormon appears to have overlaid on the remix a digital sample of Mantovani’s second-string section playing a completely different tune, ensuring that creative jazz musicians sound like Barry Manilow at the Copacabana.

3 Cheapskate record companies print facsimile versions of the original Nat Hentoff sleeve notes on the 5″-square insert leaflets, rather than transcribing them, thus reducing them to tiny, unreadable 1-point type. Happily, you can’t get the cellophane off in the first place…

4 Reissuers imagine we want ‘extra’ tracks added to familiar albums, to bulk-out to 70 minutes what was once a perfectly fine 38-minutes, two-sides analog recording. To do this, they throw-in takes the musicians originally rejected, as if they have some special archival merit: ‘So, Miles thought this version was crap. Now you can give us money to hear why!’

‘No, she just doesn’t see…’

In the Beginning was the Log-on

Ye Gods! Yet another online service for my ‘convenience’, demanding registration: the invention and tiresome repetition of more instantly forgettable passwords and security questions, from EDF Energy this time, of whom I am already a signed-up, paying customer, demanding information they already have on file otherwise they wouldn’t have been able to email me in the first place.

Why are my date of birth and postcode of such all-consuming interest when I have just given them the 14-character customer number they sent me, that ought to cross-reference the data I have already given them but seems to be entirely devoid of content, other than to let me know how far down the pecking-order I come? Why is a security protocol needed, to obtain a meter reading? Who in their right mind is going to assume someone else’s identity just so they can pay a bill, for fuck’s sake?

Only this time, the database spits out my ‘not valid’ password suggestion, several times, then refuses to tell me why, or what format it actually does think is valid. So I can’t send them the information they asked me for. This technology is SO useful…

I am like totally fed up with having to register and log-in and jump through fiery hoops with every damned e-base I visit, where security is absolutely not an issue; just, it seems, to pander to some self-important corporate ego, or because they bought an internet solution off the shelf. It wastes hours of my time and yours, especially when the technology refuses to function.

I especially love the job applications where you get to complete maybe five or six pages of detailed free text, only to have your last data field entry rejected as ‘not valid’ and you have to start again because the form has now been wiped clean. Surely, a Hadean torment fit for Greek mythology?

Ultimately, you give up, frustrating everyone’s intentions. It’s quicker to walk. Indeed, I am only posting on my own blog this morning through sheer good luck and persistence, since it has apparently forgotten who I am. I am the Master!

PS: In fairness, EDF have emailed me, pointing out that if I had clicked on the little ‘i’ button, it would have told me the password had to have both upper and lowercase letters. They didn’t explain, however, why every other data entry form on the planet will reject your password if it has upper-case letters in it?

It’s a widgetful life

I am steeped in wonder, stupefied, stunned, stonied and anything else alliteratively starting with st. (Steroids, stupidity, stuff and nonsense…  no need writing in!)

There, I’m desperately scrabbling around in the back pages of the worldwide web to find some apparently obscure song lyric I need for an audition. Link-hopping, I find myself on an American Jazz music site. Out of curiosity, and without registration, restraint, responsibility, recording contract or something else alliterative, I open a page labelled Forum.

On the forum are a number of blogs about the music industry. I open one at random and read an interesting article about the parlous state of global sales of physical recordings. Some facile comment springs to mind and I go to post it.

The website then tells me before I even hit Submit, that I am posting from my Mindbogls blog at WordPress! Now how the hell did it even know I have a blog, as WordPress isn’t open on my machine and I had given it no personal ID? Is everyone’s IP address totally transparent? I think we should be told.

Anyway, I’m quite glad, because no-one else has found me yet, except my old musical mucker, Mrs West. I am a well-kept secret, for my age.

Pensions: a senile old git moans

As there appears to be no work left to do here, I’ve been dreaming of selling my little house in Wales and moving somewhere they have pavement cafes where you aren’t thrown out by the proprietress for furtively eating your own sandwich with her ersatz leek coffee. The plan rather depends on being able to purchase the odd comestible, and pay the bills for powering my guitar amp (bugger the phone, I’d never use it…). In other words, I’d need a modest stipend; and it seemed to me that, as I am cardinally approaching retirement age, the obvious source would be HM Government.

Accordingly, the other week, I sent a form off to the Pensions Forecasting Team, rah, to get a forecast for my pension. Back came the reply, that when I ‘retire’ in October 2014, on my 65th birthday, I shall be entitled to a pension of £170 a week, based on 33 years of NI contributions. This came as a shock, because I didn’t think I was 33 years old, let alone that I had actually worked that much or that often…. I was informed, too, much to my delight, that I need never work again, as £170 was the maximum allowable under the present scheme (Note – pensions can go down as well as up…) and I could not increase the amount by working any longer! A blessed release.

Within milliseconds I calculated that, along with my £119 a month annuity from a long-ago paid-up private plan (whose tax-free capital component also paid for my teeth, that I don’t have to immerse smiling in Steradent overnight, they’re permanent, see? I can even eat apples!); perhaps a bit of teaching,  and the difference in cost between my tiny terraced cottage on a thunderous main road, with its tuppenny-stamp garden (plus handy 8’x6′ shed), and the three-bedroomed Charentais longhouse with two acres, pool and gite, that I could still buy for a lot less, thanks to the returning Britpats pummelled by austerity and unexpected foreign stuff, I might just be able to survive abroad until carried off by sun, sex and cirrhosis.

Yesterday, all that changed with the announcement by the Fat Controller that a universal pension credit limited to £140 is to be introduced in place of the existing schemes; effectively cutting my weekly entitlement by £30. In other words, I had worked six of those 33 years for nothing. (Probably the last six, I reckon. It was that kind of job.) Not which, but I only needed another £3k income over and above to fall into the Treasury’s gaping maw, as the frozen tax threshold steadily declines over time. Add to that the lousy savings rates and the spiralling cost of Merlot, and I seem doomed to remain in Aberystwyth forevermore (it’s that kind of place, nobody ever gets out.) I had no idea pensioners had to pay tax. Surely, we’ve already paid it?

Osborne’s aim is obviously to force people like myself, approaching retirement, to carry on working until the pensionable age is raised to 67 and beyond, because, ‘Arbeit macht frei’, as they say in the best blogs. But I have no job; there is no work, and it would surely be preferable if there were any work that a younger person should have it because, to be brutally honest, work is not all it’s cracked-up to be by Conservatives who have never tried digging their own gardens.

£30 a week is nothing to the State, with its £1.3 trillion GDP and even bigger debt, but to me it is, ooh, a half-case of barely drinkable discount club wine; 100 cigarettes, not that I smoke but people do; three or four new or used jazz albums from Amazon; the cost of the various protection rackets run by insurance companies; the gas and electric bill; a month’s worth of this internet thingy I’ve heard so much about (it’s almost an anagram of ‘interested’), or the weekly fuel ration for the nine-year-old car I’m having to sell just to get through the next month…. in other words, the silver economy, crashing and burning.

Thanks, George. Enjoy your money. See you down the Jobcentreplus one day, eh?