Friday, 28 October 2016

SHAVE AND A HAIRCUT


Everybody must know “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” back to front by now – for me, it was the first film I remember seeing in a cinema, and was watched every day once it arrived on home video. Therefore, we can all picture the scene where Doctor Doom walks into the Cloverleaf tram station bar, looking for Roger, who has been hidden in a back room by Eddie Valiant. Doom then starts tapping out a rhythm on the wall, knowing all too well that a “toon” cannot leave it unanswered.

With his final attempt at tapping the rhythm out, Doom utters the phrase most often spoken in time with it: “shave and a haircut…”

Roger, unable to take it, explodes through the wall, yelling in answer, “two bits!”


For me, that was the first time I really became aware of a rhythm that is so ubiquitous, it isn’t clear who made it up in the first place – Wikipedia places an early use of the phrase in a song from 1899, Charles Hale’s “At a Darktown Cakewalk,” while the phrase may have been established by the time the novelist Joel Sayre used it to describe boats tooting their horns, in “Hizzoner the Mayor” (1933). For those thinking the musical phrase was as cockney-sounding as Danny Dyer, the news is might be American in origin might be a bit disappointing, but because it is so ubiquitous that this cannot be proved either, Chas and Dave can continue to rest safe.
In both cases, it seems that what is so usually added to the ends of songs, or used as a quick and handy thing to say, has grown by osmosis: it grew in the collective unconscious, in the minds of songwriters, and of those about to knock on someone’s front door, with no-one able to take the original credit. However, if it can be used in songs as far away from each other as Harry Champion’s “Any Old Iron,” to “Gee Officer Krupke” from the musical “West Side Story,” at least one person has missed out on royalty payments to make them richer than Bill Gates.

Even if I could not find the origin of this earworm, I have found a missed opportunity. On an episode of “QI,” Danny Baker asserted that the two Voyager probes, both of which have now left the Solar System, included the first part of “Shave and a Haircut” on the gold-plated copper records bolted to them, in the hope that alien life will discover them, take the records out of their aluminium bags, play the record, and answer “two bits.”

I wish it were true, having checked the contents online – this worked for American prisoners of war in Vietnam, to check if the people in the room next door were friend or foe but, at least, they do get the “da-da-da-daaah” of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony instead.

Saturday, 22 October 2016

THE SUN ALWAYS SHINES ON TV


At 9.30am on Saturday 27th August 2016, following the Rio Olympics and Paralympics, ITV “switched off” their channels for an hour, affecting around a million viewers, supporting a Team GB effort to get people outside and be active, rather than watch another episode of “Murder, She Wrote.” I am usually out the house by that time on a Saturday morning anyway but, at least, I was already doing what Team GB hoped for, even if my bracing walk was only to the shops.

ITV’s hour of non-broadcasting is usually what you expect the BBC to do, given their years of being the go-to point when there is a national event, especially when ITV plan to keep us rooted to the living room sofa by building new sets in Salford for “Coronation Street.” In late 2017, the soap opera will broadcast for six episodes a week, complementing the six episodes of “Emmerdale,” five of “Hollyoaks,” “Doctors,””Neighbours” and “Home and Away,” and four of “EastEnders” – that is a lot of time spent watching nearly-people have a go at each other.

Despite being able to watch television on mobile devices nowadays, the demands TV makes on your attention roots you to the spot far more than radio does, which is why I didn’t mention the six episodes per week of “The Archers” earlier. Perhaps, the only way to get people out of the house would be for someone, or Ofcom, to mandate that all TV is turned off entirely, like every Thursday or, say the whole of July, so everyone can go on holiday in the knowledge they won’t be missing their favourite shows…

This is what Iceland used to do but, then again, their television service only started in 1966, by which time TV was already supplanting other forms of entertainment in the UK, especially going out to the cinema. The people of Iceland usually holiday in July, so it made sense that TV would not be watched during that time, although the annual blackout ended in 1983. Likewise, the intention to promote human interaction by keeping Thursdays free fizzled out by 1987, as TV integrated itself into Icelandic life – however, for a country where one in every ten people will publish a book during their lifetime, the place for TV in Iceland appears to be firmly in the corner.

There used to be restrictions in the UK on how long TV stations could broadcast – only fifty hours per week, with some exceptions – until 1972, but even when they ended, programmes only really appeared when people were there to watch them, which was mainly in the evenings and at weekends. Regular shows at breakfast time took until 1983 to appear, BBC One still had breaks during the day until 1986, and twenty-four broadcasting was only achieved, by ITV, in 1988. At every point, there had to be a justification for the effort and, with schedules filled with repeats and lifestyle shows outside of primetime, and the continued existence of “The Jeremy Kyle Show,” it looks a bit difficult to keep that up.

Online, on-demand TV helps our chosen form of leisure fit around our time, but breaking with routine makes it far more difficult. Despite ITV’s best efforts in August, there was always something else to watch.

Friday, 14 October 2016

GET HIGH, GET TALL, YEAH WE’RE LIGHTER THAN AIR


I am not really qualified to talk about alcoholic drinks, as I only drink them every so often, and usually just to get the point of what the drink maker was intending – a half-pint of Guinness, a Pimm’s and Lemonade, and that’s about it. I certainly don’t understand the desire of some to get intentionally drunk, let alone those who think thrusting a condition of being less inhibited upon yourself makes you more able to be creative – one drink usually leaves me prepared for a good night’s sleep.


However, I can still talk about the history of Special Brew, both venerated and berated as the stereotypical British “tramp fuel,” without drinking it. It is a strong pilsner beer, usually found only in cans, and was first brewed in tribute to Sir Winston Churchill – appropriately enough, a new Five Pound note will survive being dunked in a can of Special Brew, and presumably also a glass of it, but the image of the drink in the UK means Special Brew is not often pictured as being drunk from a glass.

The Churchill connection comes from a visit he made to Copenhagen in 1950 while in between stints as Prime Minister, which Carlsberg commemorated with a special drink that was infused with the flavour of cognac, to match his taste for brandy. He would later name it “Commemoration Lager,” when Carlsberg delivered two crates to him later, but it became “Special Brew” on when it went on general sale – it was originally “Easter Brew” in its native Denmark, but that name is now on another, weaker beer.


Despite the pedigree the drink hoped to create, the social impact of alcohol as a whole led Carlsberg, in 2015, to make it weaker, or less efficient in getting you drunk. Any drink over 7.5% ABV is taxed more highly in the UK, and Special Brew, at 9%, was made to fit. To fit a pledge to provide no more than four units of alcohol in one can, signed between beer companies and the UK government, the original 500 ml can was reduced to 440 ml – so, so long as you have one, it is now fine. (At the other end of the scale, drinks under 2.8% have less duty applied to it, as anyone that insisted on choosing “Guinness Mid-Strength” will know – there is no “Low-Strength”, so where’s the “Mid”?)

I am sure Special Brew tastes fine for those choosing to drink it, and its poor image in the UK is balanced by more than two thirds of sales apparently being made to “older professionals in management positions,” but its image could be overturned by selling it in large, ornate bottles, with one of those old-fashioned stoppers attached to it, and it was marketed like a craft beer. If it is to be thought of as highly as Churchill, Special Brew shouldn’t be sold in a can.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

THERE IS A LOVELY COUNTRY


A “Danish moment” is upon us. Last weekend, I bought a book titled “How To Be Danish,” from a bookshop that had a table laden with books about Danish and Scandinavian culture, all vying to be Christmas presents. Why Denmark, and why now?

Where we once had “Feng Shui,” we now have “hygge,” a term meant to describe a particularly Danish brand of homeliness and conviviality. It is a feeling already known as “Germütlichkeit” in German, but Danes usually swap their translation “gemytlig,” for their word for “snug,” as in being hygge as a bygge in a rygge. (However, “hygge” is pronounced “hoo-guh,” so that joke doesn’t work.)

In essence, hygge is a year-round version of that relaxed feeling everyone has between Christmas and New Year, meeting up with family, enjoying good food and conversation in the glow of a candlelight, wearing a woolly jumper, drinking mulled wine, relaxing by a fireplace, away from the cold – lots of blankets, candles and food are involved. Step into a branch of Tiger, which is being renamed to the original “Flying Tiger Copenhagen,” and all your hygge needs will be met.

What I realise is, in the UK, we have no time for this during the rest of the year. That the Danes have this as part of their everyday lives goes some way to explaining why the sinister-sounding Happiness Research Institute recently reported that Danes are the happiest people in the world.


Hygge may work for Denmark, but Denmark is a different society to the UK, with its own solutions. Social mobility is not an aspiration, but an (unofficial) high minimum wage means it is not really a thing. It has among the highest tax rates in the world, but numerous, and generous state benefits, such as student grants, mean people are more likely to see what they pay for. Ostentatiousness is not part of the Danish character, and there is a smaller wealth gap than in most countries. In Denmark, your lifestyle is more likely to be shared, and more likely to be given a single name.

Having seen, when I picked up my copy of “How to Be Danish,” books with titles like “Hygge: The Danish Art of Happiness,” and “The Little Book of Hygge: How to Bring Danish Cosiness Into Your Life,” these Christmas stocking fillers feel less like guides to how others live their lives differently, and more like self-help books describing how others live better lives than you.

It reminded me of the 1996 TV ad for Ikea, imploring the British public to “Chuck Out the Chintz,” changing tastes more quickly than Sir Terence Conran managed with Habitat. That chintz itself was imported from India in the 17th century is more an indicator of how British culture absorbs influences from other cultures so easily, and so often. Ikea likes to sell us a lifestyle but, for some, it is also somewhere else to go when you are bored with Argos.

Perhaps that is what we should do – take the bits that work, then move on. We watched “The Killing,” “The Bridge” and “Borgen,” and proceeded to make “Broadchurch” and “Top of the Lake.” We like what we like, then make our own version, like we’ll do with hygge.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

I AM WHAT I AM


So, there I am, walking out of a supermarket this morning, when I see a billboard across the road questioning my identity.

I thought I heard the last of this a few months ago, after these billboards started appearing – a good explanation of what happened was given by Jon Kelly, writing for the BBC [www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-36499750].

On the surface, all the billboard does is yell “LEGAL NAME FRAUD – THE TRUTH – IT’S ILLEGAL TO USE A LEGAL NAME,” while not providing any context, or an address for finding more information. When Kelly asked the Advertising Standards Authority about it, he was told there were no grounds for investigating them, despite their appearance or meaning being unclear, while its message “was not particularly harmful, misleading or likely to cause widespread offence, and unlikely to cause consumers confusion regarding their own name.”

Because these billboards are not cheap – similarly-sized spaces from Primesight, owner of the site I saw, usually cost around £175 per week – so this unexplained string of words could just be a really efficient way for someone to piss away their own money, across the whole of the country.

Anyway, I guess I now have to find out what it means. Searching “legal name fraud” online brings up a truly bizarre, and baseless, conspiracy theory about how your birth certificate means your name is copyrighted property of the nation state. This is a misunderstanding of how the layout of a birth certificate is Crown Copyright, but not the information contained on it, which is subject to the Data Protection Act, as you hope it would be.


What is asserted is that using your own name means you are committing fraud, because it does not belong to you. Anything you normally use to prove your identity, down to your passport or a utility bill, is using your Legal Name, and not your own.

This is an interesting switcheroo, insisting it is YOU committing the fraud by using your own name, instead of the government, but going as far as insisting you can refuse the rules of law, or pay any debts you have, because you were somehow duped into being enslaved, is incredibly dangerous. Perhaps, if you are prepared to search for this stuff, then believe it, you deserve what is coming to you.

I am confident about this because I have changed my own name – I used to be Lewis Spence, instead of Leigh, which is an entire story in itself. In making this change, I understood that having confidence in yourself as a person, and in the rights we all have, are what led to my new name being accepted quickly – there is no point in owning something unless it has been given meaning, and a name is just a name without the person attached to it.

For this to work, it requires the consent of everyone, which I learned had to be earned – just telling people to change what they know cannot be expected overnight. Once you show what it means, there should be no problem.