Monday, 24 September 2018

I DON’T WANT TO TALK ABOUT IT [128]


Last week, the “Radio Times” published an article by former TV talk show host Sir Michael Parkinson, calling for UK television to have a US-style chat show for five nights a week. According to him, the only time it was tried was when Channel 5 launched with “The Jack Docherty Show” in 1997. However, research digs up Channel 4’s “V Graham Norton” (2002-03), Norton having first presented a chat show by standing in for Docherty; BBC Three’s “Johnny Vaughan Tonight” (2003), and most recently ITV’s “The Nightly Show” (2017), before you count shows from Paul O’Grady, Alan Titchmarsh and Richard & Judy during daytime hours. Parkinson then suggested Piers Morgan as host, someone who already had his own chat show, on CNN, which was cancelled in 2014 following declining ratings.


Television isn’t exactly bereft of different ways to have one person interviewing someone else, but the reason I am not a fan of it when presented to me as a chat show is because there is something that feels insincere about them. Rarely would anyone turn up on a chat show because they fancy a chat, and even less if they like the host – it is more likely there is something to tell, or sell, about themselves, or something that involves them. News and current affairs programmes, in search of truth, are more likely to probing of their interviewees than when they are sat on the sofas of Graham Norton and Jonathan Ross’s shows, because they are set up to be more entertaining, which can also be read as less demanding – the one late-night interview show we have in the UK is “Newsnight,” which originally began in 1980 instead of giving more nights to Parkinson’s show. While his article talks of combining showbiz, politics, popular culture and sport in one show, Parkinson could have easily become a presenter of “Newsnight” instead.


Reading the “Radio Times” article, I don’t get why the effort of putting on a US-style chat show in the UK is being demanded by Parkinson – there is something about it being an important and entertaining fixture, and if it works in the US, it should work here, but the implication is that our own shows don’t work – Parkinson has often criticised other chat show presenters, including Terry Wogan, Graham Norton, Davina McCall and Lily Allen, both for the quality of their shows and the rigour of their interviewing skills, especially with the remark in 2016, “I wouldn't ever say that Terry Wogan's claim to fame was as an interviewer. Not at all.”

I should say that I do watch chat shows from the US on a regular basis, as they upload clips to YouTube, but when I do, they are usually from the first half of the hour, before the guests have come out. The US tradition is to begin with the host’s monologue about the day’s events, supplanting the nightly news bulletin, and follow it with another feature, sketch or a game – Stephen Colbert has built his current reputation on the quality of his monologues about Donald Trump, while James Corden and Jimmy Fallon’s interactions with guests are more memorable when they are framed within rap battles and “Carpool Karaoke.” Add in a musical performance at the end of the show, and US chat shows don’t have a lot to do with chat.


In fact, there is already a show on UK television, in prime time, that has guests from Hollywood and the West End, that have as much factual content and musical performances as the US shows do, and it is “The One Show,” which is just as close to “Blue Peter” – famously, in 2011, presenter Matt Baker asked David Cameron, when he was Prime Minister, “how on Earth do you sleep at night,” because he genuinely, innocently, wanted to know.

Monday, 17 September 2018

THERE’S A GHOST IN MY HOUSE [127]


Trying to take a complex philosophical concept, that I am only just beginning to understand, and trying to apply it to chocolate, to make it easier and more palatable, may well be the most literal possible example of biting off more than I can chew. However, with long-gone brands, and their tastes, still on the tips of many tongues since childhood, there may no be easier place to start.

What am I talking about? A word that has come to mind a lot recently has been “hauntology,” which was coined in 1993 by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. It is a play on “ontology,” the philosophical study of being, of existence and reality, of how things can be said to exist – the French “ontologie” and “hauntologie” sound identical when spoken. The idea that existence can be haunted comes from Derrida, in his book “Spectres of Marx,” ruminating over how Communism can be said to have failed, with the Soviet Union having been dissolved in 1991, despite Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels opening “The Communist Manifesto” with the idea of Communism being a “spectre... haunting Europe.” If that is the case, the idea of Communism, if it is a ghost, couldn’t be dead – and if it appears in the present, it cannot be said to be of the past either.

I already feel lost, and yet that may be the point, because hauntology essentially replaces the notions of ontology, that there must be something that, well, “is,” and replaces that with something which is neither present or absent, relying on language in order to describe any of it – Derrida was already known for his work on the deconstruction of language in texts, so hauntology was seen as an extension of this work.


How do you apply this theory to chocolate, then? Consider the way chocolate is often talked about: chocolate doesn’t taste as good as it used to be, chocolate bars have become smaller, and we wonder why our favourite bars have never been brought back. The notion of chocolate, as it exists today, is literally haunted, for many people, by the notion that there is a perfect definition of chocolate that either did exist, or may have never existed, forever out of reach, but without a way of moving forward into the future to create something entirely new, you must reach back into the past to recreate something, or create a pastiche – nostalgia leads the way.

This was where I thought Cadbury was heading when their new “Darkmilk” bars were announced. When I first heard of the possibility of eating a dark milk chocolate bar – a darker kind of Dairy Milk, or a smoother-tasting Bournville – I thought, oh, they are trying the Gambit bars again. The Gambit only lasted for a few years in the 1980s, but its literal gambit was blending Dairy Milk and Bournville together, giving you all of both, rather than the best of both. From the taste tests I conducted with family and friends, Cadbury appear to have created something that some people may not have tasted before. In Australia, where Darkmilk first launched, it is also available with chips of dried raspberry – that would be the real game-changer for me.

Monday, 10 September 2018

WE’VE JUST BEGUN TO DREAM [126]


The Walt Disney World Resort is almost its own entertainment nation state, made up of theme parks instead of cities. At thirty-nine square miles, it is the size of the Caribbean island of Montserrat, or slightly bigger than Jersey.

Its second theme park, Epcot, opened in 1982 as a celebration of human endeavour, a kind of answer to how the Magic Kingdom came to be. Building from Walt Disney’s original idea for the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, where traffic would travel in tunnels under a lush garden city, the “EPCOT Center,” to use its original name, would combine two further theme park concepts, one of technology and another of international cultures, into what was often labelled a permanent World’s Fair. Disney’s involvement in the 1964/65 New York World’s Fair is a precursor to Epcot, where its attractions “It’s a Small World” and the “Carousel of Progress” would be relocated to Disneyland after the fair ended, while Disney’s first full animatronic display, “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” would be reworked as Disneyland’s Hall of Presidents.

I would have loved to have seen the original EPCOT Center, having become aware of it – when it opened, the future was coming thick and fast, with the advent of home computers and compact discs, while British TV audiences still had its own primetime showcase for new technology in “Tomorrow’s World,” coming live from the site of the 1980 Franco-British Exhibition, proving that, in building BBC Television Centre on the land, you should still look to the future as much as you can.


Like the World’s Fair, Epcot would use corporate sponsorship to maintain and develop the rides – World in Motion, now Test Track, has always been sponsored by General Motors, now using the Chevrolet brand, while the Universe of Energy was sponsored by oil company Exxon, now ExxonMobil. However, this model has its problems: Horizons, the ride that specifically looked towards the future, lost General Electric as its sponsor in 1994, and carried on until 2004 without ever having been updated in twenty years.

The worst example of this was how Journey Into Imagination, sponsored by Kodak, went from being Epcot’s most popular ride to its most reviled, with Kodak’s reluctance, and later inability, to spend too much on updates, resulting in a cheaper ride that had its length cut from thirteen to five minutes. When the ride’s original mascot, Figment, was brought back to irritate the shorter version’s host, Eric Idle, it smacked of a lack of imagination, especially as the ride has not been updated since 2002.


These days, Epcot rarely has sponsors, the united nations of the World Showcase have been somewhat undermined by the Trumpery of “America First,” the health-oriented Wonders of Life pavilion is now the centre of the International Food & Wine Festival, while Innoventions, a technology showcase formerly named Communicorp, is mostly empty. The current edutainment-led rides at Epcot, already using some familiar Disney properties like Finding Nemo and Frozen, will be joined with rides fully based on them, with a “Guardians of the Galaxy” rollercoaster replacing the Universe of Energy from 2021 – there had already been a plan to supplant the idea of a “FutureWorld” with a more thrill-based “Discoveryland,” and it sounds like it is now on its way.


Is the future over? Even if I am no longer able to visit the future, as seen from 1982, I would have loved to have visited an Epcot that ran with the future theme all the way, visiting a pavilion titled “The Wonderful World of Graphene,” displaying roll-up computers with antiseptic surfaces, or something. Meanwhile, I could be fired like a proton through a virtual Large Hadron Collider, much like you can take a rocket to Mars on the current Mission: Space ride.

Mind you, as we hark back to the 1980s... and as “Guardians of the Galaxy” harks back to the 1980s... and as BBC Television Centre is redeveloped as apartments, using its history as a TV studio as a selling point, I am left with the ghost of a theme park I can never visit. At Epcot, the future has been cancelled.

Monday, 3 September 2018

WHEN I SEE AN ELEPHANT FLY [125]


On 3rd July 2018, Southwark Council approved the demolition of the Elephant & Castle Shopping Centre and surrounding buildings, to be replaced by a mix of low-cost apartments, student flats, retail and leisure space. The owners of the site intend to close the centre by 31st March 2019, with its tenants being offered lower rent and help moving to other sites in the meantime. How nice.

I have only visited the Elephant & Castle once before, around twenty years ago, when my brother played ice hockey. We must have parked under the shopping centre, then walked across to the venue, passing through the centre to get supplies. The reputation the Elephant & Castle has gained as being a kind of, well, white elephant probably didn’t make an effect on us at the time, as we lived close to the Tricorn Shopcentre in Portsmouth, a Brutalist concrete construction routinely labelled the worst building in Britain, until it was demolished in 2005, its bazaar of dark corners replaced by a flat car park, ready for a development that will actually get built.


Having already planned a trip to London, and having been reminded of the place, I took the Northern Line to Elephant & Castle, and immediately got lost – the directions up into the centre took me through a platform for the Bakerloo Line, also based under the centre. I can see why Transport for London wants a better Underground station as part of the new development, but they could sort the directions of some arrows first.

Approaching the entrance to the Elephant & Castle, I got the video camera on my phone ready, for I was expecting a dead shopping mall – the building has been characterised as having been run into the ground since it opened in 1965, as one of the first shopping malls in the UK. The documents published by Southwark Council on the day of its decision noted this was a concern found during the public consultation, although the neglect was perceived as deliberate, due to the centre having been a target for redevelopment opportunities for years. Therefore, I was expecting some sort of carnage. I walked in, and after a few seconds, I put my phone away...

The place was fine.


In fact, the Elephant & Castle was clean, if a little dark, and while there were empty shop spaces, there was an entire High Street inside, including a Tesco, WH Smith, Boots, Lloyds Bank, Greggs, Clarks Shoes, Peacocks, Poundland, Shoe Zone, and many other independent fashion and food stores contributing to the heady aroma that hits you when you walk inside – I was expecting the stench of damp and mould, and there was none.

There are two other tell-tale signs I have picked up from other dead shopping malls: while the escalators to the top floor were not switched on when I walked in (at 9.45am on a Friday morning), I put this down to the bingo hall and bowling alley not yet having opened – either that, or people were using the stairs. Meanwhile, the vending machines worked, selling Diet Coke for less than I expected. Along with the multicoloured fibreglass elephants dotted about the place, I approve. (The elephant statue outside the entrance, rescued from the pub that gave its name to the area, used to be located inside.)


You can see that more expensive shops may have been there before – there certainly was a H. Samuel jeweller at one point – but the uncertainty over the centre's future perhaps restricts bigger brands that want more certainty. Another bank, Santander, announced plans to close its branch, mainly due to most of its customers also using alternative places, but it produced a leaflet explaining how it is going to support the community ahead of this change.

That is what the closure of Elephant & Castle feels like – it is a community centre that is formed out of its shops, away from the intention of being merely a retail experience. The new development – it is led by Delancey, which built the 2012 Olympic athletes’ village - has to give first refusal to a bingo hall operator, regardless of how modern the area will look, but the bowling alley is less important. A £634,000 fund has been created to help independent retailers move out, but Tesco, which has been there almost since day one in 1965, will have to sort itself out.


The documents supplied by Southwark Council on 3rd July, available on their website, are exhaustive, detailing over their 250 pages how every single possible consideration, when a building project is proposed, needs an answer, from dust and vibration during the building work, to consideration of heritage sites, archaeology, effects on various sectors of the population, and in answering the concerns of all those that answered their consultation. From reading it, I guess the case for demolishing Elephant & Castle has been made, for progress has to be made, and with the centre sticking out among more modern buildings, time has finally run out...

Like hell it has: the decision to demolish is still subject to legal agreements being drawn up, and Historic England has to consider both an application to have the centre listed, which didn’t work for the Coronet theatre, and an application from Delancey to prevent it from being listed. This story is not over, not least after reading this quote from Fiona Colley, a Southwark council cabinet member for regeneration, which described Elephant & Castle as the “final piece in the jigsaw for regeneration.” She continued:

“As the options for refurbishment were developed further we were less and less happy with how the scheme would fit in with the rest of the area’s high-quality designs. The council has now rejected the earlier options to retain some parts of the original building and insist on full demolition.”

Leaving the Elephant & Castle, I got the feeling that, with a centre that already has the available space to do something good, or could be renovated, it sounds like anyone who wanted it demolished had talked themselves into doing it. The centre was part of the project to rebuild London after the Second World War and, apparently, that will never end – it’s either a case of make do or mend, or if it ain’t broke, break it.

Monday, 27 August 2018

AMBITION AND LOVE WEARING BOXING GLOVES [124]



Until I recover my pictures, this is a cautionary tale.

We choose to use old digital cameras. We choose to use technology from two decades ago over our smartphones, not because it is easy, but because it is hard, because that goal will serve to frustrate and drain the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is not one we should have been willing to accept, one we are willing to postpone, and one which we intend to win, or not, just give me a break.

Whereas John F. Kennedy proposed reaching the Moon to push the United States into the future, using an old camera attempts to catch the past within our present, reframing what we see now in an evocative and familiar fashion – usually a less detailed, less colourful version of now.

I tried to replicate this effect using what I already own, but reducing the resolution of pictures taken on my iPhone 7, or even on my Sony CyberShot camera from 2009, down to the 0.3 million, 640 x 480 pixel-size standard for digital cameras twenty years ago, only gives you smaller versions of well-taken pictures. Buying a camera that uses film was out of the question, as were the costs now involved with developing film (such as travelling to somewhere that still does it), so finding something suitably old almost took me back to the beginning of digital cameras. The first consumer digital camera was 1994’s Apple QuickTake 100, but I was able to find an Olympus Camedia C-420L, from 1998, for a modest amount on eBay... However, it could not read the memory cards inserted into it, so I then found a C-830L, released the following year.


Both Olympus cameras could be mistaken for a 35mm film camera, perhaps to make them easy for first-time digital users. To take a picture, you have to look through the viewfinder window at the top – there is also a screen, but you have to turn it on first, with the rest of the operations controlled by the buttons and LCD screen along the top. The cameras have no internal memory, requiring you to load a SmartMedia card (a large predecessor to the SD card) like you were loading film – the C-830L takes cards of up to 16 megabytes in size, enough for nearly 100 pictures, or only 24 pictures in high resolution (1.3m pixels). The cameras do not simulate the click of a picture being taken, as enough mechanics remain for it to make that noise anyway.

So far, so good, but this is when progress in computer technology starts to eat away at your resolve. We are so used to plug-and-play devices, USB connections, cheap controller chips, and common software and file formats - we expect everything to be read first time without question or issue. This is an incredibly recent luxury – even adding a mouse to your PC once meant loading a program to make it work. In addition, Microsoft Windows has been through about seven different versions in twenty years, meaning old software will no longer work on new computers – this is why businesses continue to pay Microsoft to maintain support for Windows XP, which dates back to 2001.


Here is where I stand: I have a camera that should have some pictures on it, in some form. I could not connect it to my computer – what I thought was an old-style serial port turned out to be a monitor output, so I have sourced a USB adaptor. The software provided for my camera is so old, my Windows 10 computer cannot read it. To create a computer that can read it, I downloaded Oracle’s VitrualBox program, which can simulate a virtual old-style computer within your regular one, but even that requires its own operating system to work - as a result, I bought an unopened copy of Windows 98, the first version of Windows that provides proper USB support, for £10 on eBay. All I need to do now is to get it to recognise the ports on my computer, and I should reach the end of my journey.

I refuse to be beaten by this - I have come too far. This is no longer about nostalgia, or even about the pictures: this is about the will to succeed. When the time comes, I shall share the results, but until then, the journey continues.

Monday, 20 August 2018

NOW THE FISH JUMPED OFF THE HOOK [123]


The following should have been what caused me to think, for once and for all, “that’s enough.” The use of capitals confirms both who wrote it, and where it was posted:

“There is nothing that I would want more for our Country than true FREEDOM OF THE PRESS. The fact is that the Press is FREE to write and say anything it wants, but much of what it says is FAKE NEWS, pushing a political agenda or just plain trying to hurt people. HONESTY WINS!”

Under the same lack of awareness, the same person later spent time moaning about how the platform he was using discriminated against right-wing voices, saying it cannot be allowed to happen: “Who is making the choices, because I can already tell you that too many mistakes are being made. Let everybody participate, good & bad, and we will all just have to figure it out!” I think he said this because there have been already many calls for him to be kicked off the platform.

Recent news from the United States often consists of news surrounding its President, which just caused his lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani to blurt out that “truth isn’t truth,” in a ham-fisted attempt to make the idea of truth into a subjective, “he said, she said” thing; the usual backlashes to things said on Twitter and Facebook; the cavalcade of far-right people, alt-right people, racists, incels and so on; arguments over political correctness and free speech...


...and then there was the mayonnaise. In the magazine “Philadelphia,” an article published under the title “The White Stuff” was given a clickbait makeover: “How Millennials Killed Mayonnaise.” In it, a mother bemoans how her mother’s salad recipes are not eaten by her children anymore, and once globalisation is mentioned, along with salsa and kimchi, things went haywire: “It’s too basic for contemporary tastes — pale and insipid and not nearly exotic enough for our era of globalization. Good ol’ mayo has become the Taylor Swift of condiments.” I prefer salad cream, and that is the end of it.

The furore over mayonnaise, even more than what Donald Trump was saying that day, was what drove me over the edge: can we just put the United States on “mute” for a bit, just as I probably should be doing with its President? For a country whose issues are currently in a feedback loop, and whose technology, especially through social media, facilitates and relies on the continuation of that feedback loop, wouldn’t it be easier to leave them to sort themselves out elsewhere? Rather than the onus being on me to reduce my own access to information to avoid being overwhelmed, shouldn’t the system that does the overwhelming try dealing with itself in its own time?

The reason the answer is “no” is because I am from the UK, where our own feedback loop, Brexit, has caused its own set of problems, even if it feels more like a localised dispute than anything that ever comes out of the United States. When our information systems depend on the American-created internet, and American technology companies the size of countries, any issue from any other company could be rendered a localised dispute.

However, the UK has a Commonwealth, while the United States currently has “America First” – countries as people, versus countries as land, and dialogue versus boundaries-then-dialogue. Engaging with an opponent is easier than waiting for it to tire itself out, especially when it has its own feedback loop. I would rather have that hope when I see the words “fake news” in capitals on Twitter again.

Monday, 13 August 2018

AND OTHER FRIENDS OF MINE, TAKE YOUR TIME [122]


I would love to visit New York again. While my only trip so far, in 2011, confirmed I would rather not live there – London is a beehive, but New York is a wasp’s nest – saying I visited the Statue of Liberty, Times Square, Central Park Zoo and FAO Schwartz (before it closed) is not bad at all.

We also had two art galleries in our sights: the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Museum of Modern Art. However, the only photographs I have of the Metropolitan Museum of Art were all taken from their roof garden, and the three I have from MoMA were for reference purposes: a portrait transmitted by RCA Photoradiogram in 1926, a print of Sir Isambard Kingdom Brunel by those chains (from the SS Great Eastern), and Edward Hopper’s painting “House by the Railroad,” which inspired the Bates House in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.”

The clearest picture of all from MoMA is one stuck in my mind, and like “House by the Railroad,” the painting was given anonymously: it was Salvador Dali’s 1931 painting “The Persistence of Memory,” presented to them in 1934. Apparently inspired by a Camembert melting in the sun, many examples of Dali’s surrealist imagery are present: melting watch faces representing the passage of time, ants representing death, a creature of some indiscernible type, a foreboding foreground shadow, the Catalan landscape, and so on. This artwork has been reproduced endlessly, and working melting clocks are now just something you can buy.

Regardless of the content of the picture, the memory that has persisted of “The Persistence of Memory” is just how SMALL it is: it is only 24 centimetres (9.5 inches) tall, and 33 cm (13 in) wide, making it a bit bigger than both A4 and Legal paper sizes. The oils are painted very finely, and having seen only photographs of the picture previously, I imagined the brush strokes would have been much larger. Dali must have had his eyes tested regularly.


I usually do not take pictures in art galleries – if I want to refer back to what I saw, I will buy a guidebook, or find the picture later online. However, what I will have taken from the visit is a sense of proportion, and a sense of colour: because so many pictures have been taken of it, “The Persistence of Memory” is available online in many different levels of quality, brightness and contrast, and even shape, depending on how the picture has been cropped. One of them must be right, because I cannot take an average of them.

I am not in favour of banning photography in art galleries, although you should consider flash photography and copyright before you walk in, but if you walk around a gallery with a camera permanently in front of you, taking snapshots of that time you saw an object, and it looked like “this” when you “saw” it, remember you were already there: you don’t need to look at the work later, you can look at it now. Just like a film is made to be shown in a cinema, art galleries provide the right conditions to contemplate ALL of an artwork, including its size.

There is only one legitimate copy of “The Persistence of Memory,” and it is a picture I did not realise existed until last week: Dali’s own “The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory” (1954), and on display at the Salvador DalĂ­ Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida. In this interpretation, the shadow has receded, and the landscape has been blown apart into straight-cut bricks, revealing a further surface underneath, and the unidentified creature has mutated. The painting is thought to mark the loss of Dali’s interest in surrealism, just at the point where other forms of art at the time, particularly Pop Art, become more about what is presented on the surface. As it happens, it is also about the same size as the first painting.