Friday, 29 December 2017

I’M JUST SECOND HAND NEWS


It is very well-known that, one day in 1930, a BBC radio announcer proclaimed, “there is no news,” with piano music played to fill the gap. This is often read as the BBC deciding no news was worth broadcasting that evening which, in our age of instant reports and reaction to the merest flinch of an event, sounds either completely authoritarian or completely hilarious. However, the very specific set of circumstances that led to this decision would never be repeated, as our appetite for information was already increasing.

The day was Good Friday, 18th April 1930. Usually, the BBC’s National Programme would broadcast, after the mid-morning Daily Service and Shipping Forecast, a continuous diet of concerts and talks from noon to midnight, with two news bulletins at 6.15pm and 9pm – regional services dipped and out of the national feed, re-reading “The Second News” at 10.15pm. However, Easter meant Good Friday’s main programmes started at 3.30pm, with a military band, string orchestra, sports results, church service, and an evening concert of Wagner’s “Parsifal,” conducted by Sir Henry Wood, who began the Proms. Regional services had their own concerts, but all had an interval at 8.45pm, for the single news bulletin of the day. All services closed down for the night by 10.15pm.


When regular radio broadcasts began in 1922, news bulletins on the BBC were only broadcast after 7pm, to protect the newspaper industry. By 1930, the embargo had moved forward to 6pm but, as before, the BBC was required to take its stories, unedited, from newspapers and their wire services, for which their paper tape machines had only just been installed. The BBC also had to broadcast numerous government announcements, even down to the banality of “post early for Christmas,” eventually forming their own section of each bulletin.

On this Good Friday, the system was nowhere to be found. The Chittagong uprising, in what is now Bangladesh, had just started, but news would not reach the UK in time. Even then, newspapers in the UK did not routinely publish on Good Friday until 1987, and their wire services were not running either. The BBC were expecting a denial to come from the Home Office over the reporting, in a newspaper, of an interview with the Home Secretary, because no newspaper would be available to report the denial – eventually, nothing came, as it was no longer news. With no news available, piano music became the more appropriate interval between the concerts.

In 1934, the BBC finally moved news out of its “Talks” department and into its own division, its reputation as a respected and impartial news provider formed in the heat of the Second World War. In contrast, newspaper circulation peaked has steadily declined since the 1930s, hastened by the advent of television and online news. Now, the cacophony of news stories leads us not to ask if what we are given is news-worthy, but whether it is even true – far better it be insignificant than absolute rubbish.

Friday, 22 December 2017

JUMP INTO A DUSTBIN AND DANCE




After another year blighted by terrorism and ideology – OK, name a year when that wasn’t the case – Christmas becomes a time for remembering the lights in our world, those things for which we give thanks, for which the world becomes that bit better or, in the very least, a little more bearable.

This was demonstrated by my finding a radio show, recently played out on BBC Radio 4 Extra, titled “The Naughty Navy Show,” from 1965, starring Spike Milligan, with John Bird and Barry Humphries, in a story not unlike those found in “The Goon Show,” but without the orchestra and sound effects. The difference here was how the show was recorded in front of a group of students at Greenwich Royal Naval College, on Christmas Day. While not the best show Milligan ever did, it is nice to hear everyone giving up their time on Christmas Day to perform a professional show. Similar shows were done for Army and Royal Mail workers, but at other times of year.


For me, Spike Milligan is the father of modern comedy. Milligan begat “The Goon Show,” which inspired “I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again,” which inspired “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” which inspired a number of comedy specials on Canadian, which led its producer, Lorne Michaels, to create “Saturday Night Live,” which produced or inspired every American comedy film, so-called or actually funny, ever since. Milligan is also the father of subversive comedy – “The Goon Show” featured impressions and parodies of the Prime Minister, then Winston Churchill, at a time when that was just not done, and numerous satires of British institutions, both military and civilian, filled the show every week. The sheer effort to write twenty-six half hours per week cost Milligan his sanity at times, making him one of the first to talk openly about depression, for which the national conversation is still playing catch-up.


Just as I had been introduced to “The Goon Show” by my father, I was introduced to Spike Milligan through his poetry, particularly “In the Ning Nang Nong,” by one of my primary school teachers, Mrs Mason. We would learn double, or joined-up, writing by copying out Milligan’s poems: “Pussy-cat / What are vices? / Catching rats / And eating mices!” That practice has given way to something faster and clearer for me to write, but my expectations for poetry to be both symbolic and economic were set by copying up some of the best examples until it stayed in your head: “There are holes in the sky / Where the rain gets in / But they’re ever so small / That’s why the rain is thin.”

Milligan also has a sense of bravery in light of those who defend their nationality as part of their identity, for he was willing to lose his own when it became indefensible - as a British Indian, born in Ahmednagar, he refused to take the Oath of Allegiance necessary for him to get a British passport, and was rendered stateless, until he gained an Irish passport – even marrying a British woman later, and a subsequent letter writing campaign to the Foreign Office, made no difference.

I have written previously about Milligan’s post-apocalyptic play and film “The Bed-Sitting Room” [link], and I know I am likely to return to the man and his work again, for how it has helped shape my view of the world since childhood, and I will continue to be thankful for knowing how much of a difference his work will continue to make.

Friday, 15 December 2017

ONE SHAFT OF LIGHT THAT SHOWS THE WAY


Last weekend, I took delivery of a piece of my childhood: an Acorn BBC Micro computer. For an entire generation of British schoolchildren, the BBC Micro, introduced in 1981 as part of a Government-backed computer literacy campaign, cemented Acorn as a British technology success story for nearly twenty years, culminating in the creation of the ARM chip, now found in billions of devices.

Why did I buy a second-hand one on eBay, described as being “in working condition, needs a clean”? Apart from having already bought another BBC Micro eight years ago, sadly no longer working, I wanted to make some music with it – the four-channel Texas Instruments sound chip installed in it is also found in other 8-bit machines, but also many Sega arcade machines, the Master System and the Mega Drive / Genesis. In addition, BBC BASIC, created by Acorn engineer Sophie Wilson, is still the most versatile version of basic, with easy SOUND and ENVELOPE commands to build sounds – Commodore 64 owners, in comparison, are left to POKE their sound chips until they made a noise.

In a time when we expect our mobile phones, let alone our computers, to be capable of more than everything, the BBC Micro, and other 8-bit computers like the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, the Apple II, and the Amstrad CPC464, all appear to be as capable as the micro-controller chips you might find in your alarm clock or hi-fi system. That is sort of correct: Acorn’s first computer, the System I, looked like a calculator, was programmed directly to the processor using hexadecimal machine code, and was developed from a cow feeding system.


Modern micro-controller systems, like the open-source Arduino or the Raspberry Pi, take computing back to the same nuts-and-bolts principle of writing your own programs, and building your own devices. Using the BBC Micro at school was Eben Upton’s inspiration for creating the Raspberry Pi, and eventually led the BBC to produce the Micro:Bit micro-controller board, returning to a computer literacy program when programming skills are needed more than ever. The Arduino system was easy enough for me, an enthusiastic bystander when it comes to computing, to consider building a type of electronic typewriter, where you could enter text without the distraction of the internet, and upload it to your computer later -  however, the Alphasmart series of keyboards already did this, so I have since bought one of them.


Likewise, the BBC Micro has been used as widely as the on-screen ident generator for Children’s BBC, the steering controller for a radio telescope at the Jodrell Bank observatory, and as a music sequencer on the Queen song “A Kind of Magic.” My older non-working Micro could also save programs to SD card, through the successful fusion of old technology with the new.

What did I make of my “new” BBC Micro? Erm… It turns out there is a known issue where the capacitors in the internal power supply will eventually fail, because thirty seconds after turning on the thirty-plus year-old machine, the sound of firecrackers, made without any programming from me, was followed by quite a bit of smoke. It would have been nice to make retro computer music using period equipment, instead of resorting to attaching a music keyboard to my iPad, but soldering capacitors is more than a bit beyond my capabilities – at least, I did get my money back.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

HAIR RING MOLASSIS ABOUNDING


"Solar Prestige a Gammon” is a song from side A of Elton John’s 1974 album “Caribou.” The album was made under a contract that required John to release two albums per year – “Caribou” came only eight months after his masterpiece, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” and was recorded in only nine days before embarking of a tour of Japan, leaving his producer, Gus Dudgeon, to finish the arrangements and mixing. Despite the rush, the album reached number one in the UK and US, and spawned two singles, “The Bitch is Back,” and “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.” Dudgeon’s own assessment was: “’Caribou’ is a piece of crap… The sound is the worst, the songs are nowhere, the lyrics weren’t that good, the singing wasn’t all there, the playing wasn’t that great, the production was just plain lousy” – seeing as Dudgeon was in charge of the production, I can only guess this was a case of the creative process not being what you wanted, even if the result was.

“Solar Prestige a Gammon” begins in the manner of a lament, but all is not as it seems: “Oh ma cameo molesting / Kee pa a poorer for tea…” The lyrics, by John’s songwriting partner Bernie Taupin, are sung in a cod-Italian fashion, but are comprised of seemingly random English words. “Cod” is the operative word: “turbert,” “salmon,” “hair ring,” “sardin,” “floundin,” and even “cod” are words used by Taupin, along with “molassis” and “gammon” for those made hungry by the references to fish. The chorus is a shift to a jauntier tome, the lament left behind, because life carries on: “Solar prestige a gammon / Kool kar kyrie kay salmon…” Que sera, sera…


Clearly, the lyrics in this song are supposed to be nonsense, but it is inspired nonsense. John has previously said the initial idea for “Solar Prestige a Gammon” came from the Long Medley on side B of The Beatles’ album “Abbey Road,” most notably John Lennon’s “Sun King”: “Mundo paparazzi mi amore cicce verdi parasol” - in turn, “Sun King” was inspired by Fleetwood Mac’s “Albatross.” The quote from John reads, “I thought it could be great to write a song with English words that didn’t mean a thing, but that sounded fantastic when put together.” It has also been said that the deliberate avoidance of meaning was due to people having read things in Taupin’s previous lyrics that may not have been intentional, like “Madman Across the Water” being about Richard Nixon, religious references in “Border Song” and “Take Me to the Pilot,” and “Grey Seal” being about nothing in particular.

Everything I thought I did hear in “Solar Prestige a Gammon” is an example of the pareidolia I have examined previously [link] – just like you look for faces in inanimate objects, you hear for patterns in music and speech, which have created the system of scales and chords found in Western music, and where the joke surrounding rock bands like Status Quo is there are only three chords, and you know when they are going to appear. Does this mean that any attempt that writing something that is deliberately nonsense is doomed to be made sense of by the next person to come into contact with it? Possibly, so long as there was a reason to do it.