Sunday, 30 December 2018

JUST START THAT BRAND NEW STORY [142]



[N.B. This article appears at both Leigh Spence is Dancing with the Gatekeepers and His & Hers Movie Reviews.]
After five and a half years, this is my one hundred and seventy-fourth and final article for His & Hers Movie Reviews. Thank you to Richee & Layla for inviting me to write for them back in 2013, for all their support since, and for never wanting a single word or subject in advance. I also thank you all for being along for the ride, as even I often didn’t know what I’d be writing about next.
I will continue to publish new articles, on a variety of subjects, every Sunday at the home of “nostalgia culture crisis since 2016,” Leigh Spence is Dancing with the Gatekeepers, where updated versions will also appear of articles from “The Leigh Spence Moment,” and “L.J. Spence’s Starting Points.”
There comes a time when you want to put theory into practice. For me, that was when you can treat writing an essay like it’s a creative writing exercise, and when learning about a subject creates its own narrative – how else would I explain what logarithms are, the face-off between Dadaist performance art and alt-right political commentators, or the help given to people who wish to identify as Range Rover drivers. My work has improved once I realised, I am in a position where I can safely take a risk, and move my work forward.

Sixty years ago, Jean-Luc Godard – and I will compare myself to him here, because we will never cross paths – also moved from film theory to film practice, as his first feature film, “A Bout de Souffle,” marked the arrival of the French New Wave. At the magazine “Cahiers du Cinéma,” Godard helped to canonise the Classical Hollywood Cinema, and its auteur directors like Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock, then spent his career as a film director actively challenging the artform, and the industry, he had placed on a pedestal. Between Godard’s tributes to Hollywood, like “A Bout de Souffle” and “Bande à Part,” and the assaults on narrative like “Week-End” and his version of “King Lear,” sits “Alphaville,” a science fiction film noir comic satire that came fifteen years ahead of “Blade Runner,” and fifty years ahead of themes that pervade current online discourse, and my website.

The plot of “Alphaville” concerns a secret agent, posing as a journalist, entering the city of Alphaville to find a fellow agent, kill the city’s creator, and destroy the computer that runs the city. Anyone found acting illogically is eliminated, and dictionaries are replaced when words begin describing emotions – the computer is confused when poetry is read to it, and destroyed when Anna Karina finally understands she is an individual, autonomous human being, rather than an automatic one.
The intellectual chess game between the secret agent, Lemmy Caution (played by Eddie Constantine, reprising his hard-boiled role from a separate series of films) and the computer, Alpha 60, puts the film’s themes in the forefront: “Do you know what illuminates the night? – Poetry.” “What do you love above all? - Gold and women.” “What is your religion? - I believe in the inspirations of conscience.” “I shall calculate so that failure is impossible. - I shall fight so that failure is possible.”

After “Alphaville,” Godard’s films would become more political, and his films would be used to explore these ideas, and the artifice of film would be made clear to the audience: even in his next film, “Pierrot le Fou,” the bourgeoisie is criticised, while characters break the fourth wall, with the later “Week-End” adding cannibalism into the mix – anything to serve the idea you have.
The ability to tell a story, to help your understanding of the world, is a wonderful – the ability to take the piss while in full command of the facts is just as great. But does writing shape the truth, or is writing, well, truth? Writing is writing, my dear.

Monday, 24 December 2018

YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU GOT TILL IT’S GONE [141]


It has only been a few months since my visit to the Elephant & Castle Shopping Centre in London [link], but things have moved on a bit in that time. In fact, they have become terminal: in October 2018, Historic England announced they had rejected the application to list the centre as a protected structure, and the final approval to demolish the centre was given by the Greater London Authority on Monday 10th December.

So, that appears to be the end of that then. Historic England made it pretty clear: "although the shopping centre originally had architectural interest due to the quality of its design, this has been eroded by a series of incremental changes over the years so that it does not resemble its original appearance... the shopping centre was one of the first two, and is now the earliest surviving building of this type in England, but it has been greatly changed from its original layout and appearance".

I am not sure what to make of this – you could protect the building, and require renovations to be made to it. What happened to the oldest building of this type? Should it be assumed that certain types of buildings are transitory enough in their nature that they do not require preservation?

On Saturday 8th December, I went back to Elephant & Castle – I did not know the final decision on its future was due the following Monday. The place is still fine and, more importantly, the place was busy. For a centre due to close by the end of March, there was only one store, running a closing down sale. Like there was three months ago, one empty shop is being used to house displays explaining the redevelopment of the area and, like three months ago, it is only open a few afternoons per week, and never at the weekend. There are examples of where the building shows its wear: Tesco’s linoleum tiles have worn away in places, revealing the original floor underneath, and one escalator is cordoned off, with a sign saying it is awaiting repair – if it is planning to close by the end of March 2019, I don’t imagine that will happen. However, the large escalator that leads to the bingo hall and bowling alley really will only start up once they have opened for the day.

I am still minded to believe the redevelopers and the council have talked themselves into demolishing the Elephant & Castle Shopping Centre, but I look at the new high-rise buildings around it, and further down into the City of London – steel, sheet glass, big-name architects – and I realised this really is a case of, if it ain’t broke, break it: the Elephant & Castle doesn’t fit the area anymore, because they changed the area. Once the replacement towers are finished, what will still tell me I am in Elephant & Castle? Most likely, just the name about the entrance to the Underground.

Monday, 17 December 2018

IT’S AUTOMATIC, IT’S SYSTEMATIC, IT’S HYDROMATIC [140]


So many ways have been used to get music, TV and films into the home over the years, but there is a reason I am going to talk about Sony’s U-Matic here, apart from it being the world’s first video cassette: it is the nexus point of all that has been, and all that remains, in the last fifty years of audio-visual formats, and that isn’t hyperbole either.

U-Matic, named after how the tape was threaded around a large chrome cylinder that contained the record and playback heads, was first shown off as a prototype in October 1969, and went on sale to the public in 1971, beating Philips’ VCR (Video Cassette Recording, also known as N1500) and Avco’s Cartrivision by a year. Home video recorders were already on sale for nearly ten years by then, but these were open-reel devices, not unlike reel-to-reel audio recorders – U-Matic simply encased the tape in an anti-static cassette, making it easier to handle. Like the EIAJ standard agreed among open-reel machine manufacturers, Sony also persuaded other companies, like Panasonic and JVC, to agree to make their own U-Matic machines.

However, for all the ease the format gave the general user, they were still ruinously expensive to buy, approaching the price of a small family car. However, businesses, schools and colleges could afford them, which caused Sony to move their efforts towards them – the “VO” prefix on the machines’ model numbers already stood for “Video Office.” The failure to get U-Matic into homes led Sony to develop the smaller Betamax format, and much has already been written about the format war between it and VHS, ironically developed by JVC, with help from their owner at the time, Panasonic.

Holding a U-Matic tape in your hands defines “industrial.” While a smaller E-180 (3-hour) VHS tape weighs 195g, a 60-minute U-Matic tape weighs 505g, and that is mostly the tape: while VHS runs at a maximum of 1.3 inches per second (PAL region, Short Play), using tape half an inch wide, U-Matic’s three-quarter-inch tape runs at 3.75 inches per second – 60 minutes is all you can get into the case, unless you make the tape itself thinner. However, more tape per second means higher quality, and rather than people at home using them to record TV programmes, the programme makers themselves were using them instead.

Until U-Matic, if you wanted to go out and record a news report, you needed to take a 16 mm film camera with you, which would have to be developed before you could edit it and show it to anyone. This had begun to change slowly – Sony had developed a “Portapak” system that used open-reel tape, but once the U-Matic S Type (for “small”) cassette was developed, Electronic News Gathering (ENG) took off in the United States from the mid-1970s. It did not matter if the picture was less detailed than film, it did not matter if U-Matic had a problem with making the colour red too saturated, and it did not matter if the S Type cassette only held 20 minutes at most – making the news became easier and faster, and did not need as many people to make it work. It took another ten years for ENG to become commonplace in the UK, as unions argued it put too many jobs at risk – the BBC took a film developing unit to the Falklands War – but technology was moving on.

As UK TV news began using ENG, other formats were becoming available, and even Sony had a replacement for U-Matic: while the cheaper and more convenient VHS beat out the technically superior Betamax, Sony simply reworked their second cassette for the professional sector as well, creating Betacam (later Betacam SP, later DigiBeta). While these became the industry standard, Sony still supported U-Matic, because companies still used it: there is evidence that films like “Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith” (2005), and the Studio Ghibli film “Ponyo” (2008) had clips issues to TV stations in the US using U-Matic tapes. I couldn’t find the date for when Sony stopped supporting U-Matic but, considering they only stopped making Betamax cassettes in March 2016, it can’t have been that long ago.

While U-Matic was central to the development of video, it was to audio as well: before the Compact Disc, video tape was the only way of recording music digitally, and U-Matic was often used for mastering music this way in the 1970s and 80s, once connected to early PCM adaptors. Because the digital signal would be encoded using the number of lines in a TV signal, a combination of the number of lines that make up the picture, and the number of audio samples made up one line, meant that a total of 44,100 samples could be recorded per second, otherwise known as 44.1 kHz – CDs use the same rate for this reason, and practically everything else has since.

Monday, 10 December 2018

YOU MAY BE HOMELY IN YOUR NEIGHBOURHOOD [139]

[1978]

Seeing pictures, taken in the 1970s, of the Hollywood sign in a state of dereliction and disrepair, are confusing and disconcerting. Seeing pictures of the building of Tower Bridge, or the Eiffel Tower, bring up similar feelings: haven’t they always been there, and why was there a time when they didn’t exist? All three structures define, influence and symbolise the ideals of the areas around them, which brings me back to the Hollywood sign: what is it about Hollywood that left it to fall apart?

Pretty much everyone knows the sign was originally built in 1923 to read as “Hollywoodland,” to advertise the new (whites-only) neighbourhood built further down Mount Lee, in the Hollywood Hills area: the houses imitate the design of Mediterranean villas, particularly from France, Spain and Italy. The builders of the estate, among which included the founder of West Hollywood, and the owner of the “Los Angeles Times,” owned the land on which the sign stood, but signed it and the remaining undeveloped land to the City of Los Angeles in 1944, which was added to Griffith Park, home to the observatory and Los Angeles Zoo. The sign was nearly removed in 1949, but enough of an outcry led to it remaining, minus the last four letters, and with some renovation.
[the building of Wolf Lair Castle, Transylv… Hollywoodland]

However, with upkeep now coming from the public purse, the sign was left to deteriorate. The four thousand lightbulbs that lit up the sign were not replaced – mainly because of the cost of electricity, but the originals had been stolen by then – and if parts of it fell over, or were subjected to arson, then so be it: the only replacement of a letter in its first fifty years happened in the early 1940s was when the sign’s caretaker lost control of their car, and took the “H” down the hill with it.


The state of Hollywood in the 1970s is often used to describe the comparative state of the sign from when it was built in 1923, not least because it no longer spelt “Hollywood”: it became more like “Hullywod” or, by 1978, “Ilywod.” With the old studio system of the previous half-century broken, Paramount Pictures remains the only major studio to be based in the Hollywood area, but many of the others left far earlier: Warner Bros and The Walt Disney Company are based in Burbank, on the other side of Mount Lee, separated from the bottom of it by the Ventura Freeway, with the others spread across Culver City, Studio City and, obviously, Universal City. Yes, the film industry sprang up in the Hollywood area over a hundred years ago to escape the enforcement of patents owned by Thomas Edison – a subject that needs its own article – but once they arrived, the scenery of California, and all it could be made to represent, film companies spread themselves around to take advantage of their surroundings.

However, the Hollywood sign made enough appearances in the backgrounds of films to become a unifying shorthand for the industry itself, as brash and brand new as the buildings around it, and the technology that brought in the money to build them. Fittingly, it was the figures of New Hollywood, with some of the old, that formed a trust in 1978 to rebuilt and look after the symbol that marked where they came together. The $250,000 cost of the new sign was split across nine donors: Hugh Hefner, head of the trust, paid for another new “H,” Alice Cooper donated the third “O” in memory of Groucho Marx, and Cooper’s record label, Warner Bros. Records, paid for the “O” next to it.

The Hollywood Sign Trust continues today as a non-profit organisation, working on behalf of the people of California, and contributions can be made to the upkeep and preservation of the sign at hollywoodsign.org – none of the money goes to illuminating the sign at night, because it has remained unlit since the bulbs were nicked.

Sunday, 2 December 2018

MY FEET HAVE COME LOOSE FROM THEIR MOORINGS [138]


Words, don’t fail me now.

My intention here is to confirm that poststructuralism doesn’t mean you can say what you like. That is an easy thing to type.

To say I have spent hours trying to work out how to describe “poststructuralism” really does not describe how exasperating the whole experience has been. It really should be so easy, but trying to condense an entire school of thought into a small space risks missing the point of it entirely. Expect only bullet points here, but enough to suggest further reading.


The easiest analogy that has come to mind is “fake news.” This phrase feeds into the so-called “postmodern” landscape of truth and facts not counting for anything anymore, or at least that is how I have seen “postmodern” used in this loose way: are talking about everything that reacted to modernism, good or bad, from philosophy to art, or is it just the bits that relate to your hatred of a particular term? From there, is “fake news” meant to mean, “news that is deliberately incorrect,” or “news I don’t like”? Once you hear Don Backslide saying this is why he “invented” the word “fake” in a news interview, inspiring incredulity, there becomes a disconnect in the use of language.

This is the problem I have with trying to give a short answer to “poststructuralism,” about whether it is a reaction to structuralist thought, or a number of different things that have been grouped together by topic or time period. Structuralism is usually boiled down to the study of how language interconnects: the definition of a word depends on the definition of other words, building an ever-growing web, finding that which is universal.


Therefore, poststructuralism must take that and break it, to find out what is different, and that difference comes from different language systems, i.e. the different systems that allow us to access information, be they words, images or symbols. Nothing is as transparent as just simply meaning what they say, because a lot of agreement is needed for that to be the case.

This is where I can recommend a list of French writers, as poststructuralism is also known as the “French school”: you have Roland Barthes on the “death of the author,” as the use of “I” shifts from reader to reader; you have Claude Lévi-Strauss looking at anthropology and custom; Michel Foucault, looking at reason, truth and knowledge, and the power that has control over what those mean; Jacques Derrida, deconstructing meaning, seeing how the “other” invades the notion of the “self,” of objectivity always being subject to something; and Jean-François Lyotard’s incredulity to “grand narratives” that explain everything about the world, used as a way of defining postmodernism.

The reason you cannot say what you like is because, at some basic level, you have to agree on some level of understanding before you can say anything to anyone ever again. At least, that is my understanding of it: I have been looking at postmodern and poststructuralist theory on and off for fifteen years now, and I find it as brilliantly frustrating as ever – just don’t live your life by it, or expect everyone else to follow.

Monday, 26 November 2018

WORDS ARE WORKING HARD FOR YOU [137]


With almost no exception, these articles use song lyrics for a title. There are three reasons for this: it provides a moment of recognition before I plough into dry subject matter; it fulfils the need for a title; and it may come up online when someone is searching online for those very lyrics. The first reason relies on the lyrics remaining in their original context, while the second requires them to stand on its own, and the last simply needs those particular words to be in that particular order.

This time, the lyrics created the article. Tom Tom Club is a new wave band, formed by husband and wife Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz, also members of Talking Heads. Their first self-titled album, released in 1981, led to two very different single releases: “Genius of Love,” more like of a traditional love song, while serving as a tribute to singers like Smokey Robinson, Bob Marley and James Brown; and “Wordy Rappinghood,” a torrent of words and ideas more along the lines of early rap records. The music of both songs has been sampled in kind by the likes of Public Enemy, Ice Cube, Busta Rhymes, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Mariah Carey, The Gossip, The Ones and George Michael, but the lyrics of the original “Wordy Rappinghood” knocked me over.

“What are words worth? / What are words worth? Words / Words in papers, words in books / Words on TV, words for crooks / Words of comfort, words of peace / Words to make the fighting cease / Words to tell you what to do / Words are working hard for you / Eat your words but don't go hungry / Words have always nearly hung me”


Not many songs, and not many people, call the use of words into question, and that is when you wish it happened more often. I’m not about to break down the meaning of the lyrics here, but their effect on me was to break down how I understand the use of words, even beyond their inherent meaning: “Concrete words, abstract words / Crazy words and lying words / Hazy words and dying words / Words of faith and tell me straight.”

I always hope to create some meaning here, some factual information, a bit of informed judgement, a constructed article at least once a week. You then see people charging words with particular meaning, then applying them like a spray into people’s eyes - yes, Donald Trump, the original Don Backslide, I am talking about you. At the same time, words are cheap, words are plentiful, and words can be made to look like articles, which are supposed to be meaningful in themselves – it doesn’t matter if it has to mean anything, especially if it only has to be a diversion.

That doesn’t feel good enough somehow. With the breakdown of meaning being decried in the media, and those words themselves being decried as “fake news,” this is something I need to explore, before these words turn even further into gibberish.  

“Rap it up for the common good / Let us enlist the neighbourhood.”

Sunday, 18 November 2018

IF YOU DON’T ANSWER, I’LL JUST RING IT OFF THE WALL [136]


There appears not to have been a time before the mobile phone or, if there was, it exists in an alternative reality, one where Biff Tannen did not turn the Hill Valley courthouse into a casino. More seriously, the mobile phone has changed how we live, changed our habits, and changed our infrastructure. Like with the World Wide Web, I will be one of the last, at age thirty-five, to remember a time without them.

I had to remind myself of how I used to keep in touch – I actually remember once having to wait until somebody finished using a payphone before I could make my own call, using my pre-paid BT Phonecard. That all changed in 2000 when, ahead of my seventeenth birthday, I bought my first mobile phone, just as they started becoming affordable to everyone. By that year, just over half of UK adults had one.

I’m not sure why I bought the phone I did, but I guess I recognised the name “Philips” more than “Nokia,” who made the phones everyone else had at the time. The Philips Savvy was introduced in 1999, and was a chunky black and blue brick of a basic phone. Its big buttons make it clear it has only one use – cameras were not commonplace on phones for another five years.

If I wasn’t using it to call or send an SMS message – the manual confirms SMS stands for “Short Message Service” - the other reason I had the Savvy in my hand was to unscrew and screw in its external aerial, as a way of keeping your hands busy. Unlike the black slate smartphones for today, if I broke the aerial, I could just buy a new one, and I could replace the battery with a new one, or one I charged earlier, or one with a bigger capacity, which needed its own bigger back cover. Standby time was measured in days, but you could only do so much with the Savvy.


With no information available on internal storage capacity, saving contacts, SMS messages and call history appears to be down to the SIM card only. Details of the last twenty calls you made, and the last ten you received, is the most you can have. No internet service is possible, but you do get a calculator and stopwatch. The LCD screen had space for two lines of text and an icon – the home screen displayed the time using a clock face. There is a primitive pre-emoji list of twenty-five characters you can send with SMS messages, but only an emoticon is sent if the recipient doesn’t have the same phone as you. Short pre-prepared SMS messages are provided, like “please call me back, or “I will be late” – the first such message had only been sent in 1992, over the Vodafone network, and people were not expected to take time writing long messages. The only other “app” was a “biorhythm calendar,” using your birthday and a given date to show your results for Chance, Love, Energy and Success. Amuse your friends, if you can.

In the year 2000 alone, payphone use declined by 12% in the UK – BT responded by increasing the minimum call charge for the first time since 1984, from 10p to 20p, and began charging for directory enquiry calls. BT Phonecards were withdrawn in 2002, except within the prison service. From the peak of 92,000 phone boxes in 1992, there are now only 40,000 on UK streets, with BT expecting to halve that total by 2022.

For all its limitations, I used my Philips Savvy for four years, longer than any other phone I had since. I finally joined the Nokia brigade in 2004 with a 3510i, an updated version of one of the first phones to have a colour screen, and 2007 established the two-year contract pattern to which practically everyone follows. Today, speaking as the owner of a phone that insists on using glass, it would be nice to use a phone I can drop, or throw, with abandon.

Monday, 12 November 2018

GET READY FOR THE SQUARE DANCE [135]


Watching YouTube involves a lot of understanding. You understand that the people creating the videos are most often people at home, who have turned a passion into a paying job. You understand that, to earn a living from their passion, they need to advertise, seek sponsorship, and offer subscriptions for more content. You understand the advertisements you see are what pays for your ability to watch the videos, and what contributes to the creators’ income. You understand that Google, YouTube’s owner, will take the information generated by your having watched the videos to target you with the ads that will attract your interest the most, to ensure you continue watching.

However, what I don’t understand is why YouTube is bombarding me with ads for only one company. In one evening, across six videos, five of them started with different ads for the same website, two were interrupted with another ad for that website, and when one of these videos joked that they were going to be interrupted with an ad for the new “Grinch” film, they were interrupted, but did so to repeat the same name once again: Squarespace.

With the videos I watch on YouTube – usually lots of comedy and factual pieces, film and technology reviews, documentaries, and monologues from Stephen Colbert – you will often come across introductions saying, “this video is sponsored by Squarespace,” and will end with something explaining how the creator of the video has been taking a course on Squarespace to improve their editing skills, or something like that, and you can do the same when you sign up using the discount code that sounds a bit like the channel name.


What I didn’t realise is that Squarespace, much like Google, aims to be the complete package. It was founded in 2003 by Anthony Casalena as a website builder, allowing users to create their own sites using drag-and-drop templates, without a need to know complex HTML code. Later, e-commerce functions were added, and online tutorials and classes appeared to give users greater ability to fulfil their online business. Even the name “Squarespace” gives it a more collegiate atmosphere than Google, even though both sites were founded out of college dorm rooms – just what is it about college dorm rooms?

I can see why the barrage of Squarespace ads may line up with the videos I watch – Google knows I run a website, and I write weekly articles on it, so it may be trying to be helpful. The same videos may also be sponsored by Amazon’s audiobook shop Audible, or various internet security services, and I can see why Google may not prioritise those ads. But this is it – Google knows I run a website because Google hosts it – why would they recommend someone else? Do they realise what they are doing or, at least, do their algorithms know? Should I try watching other types of videos to throw them off their scent, or should I start subscribing to YouTube’s premium service to get rid of the ads altogether? That would be very cynical indeed. Perhaps, by posting this article online, some algorithm somewhere might get the point?

Monday, 5 November 2018

YOU TAKE YOUR TIME AND TAKE MY MONEY [134]


It took me until October 2016 to subscribe to Netflix, but it didn’t take long from then for me to discover my problem with it.

I had never seen before the 1978 version of the film “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” with Donald Sutherland, Leonard Nimoy, and a very early appearance from Jeff Goldblum, and I knew I would want to watch it again... until Netflix removed it, possibly after their rights to it expired. The same was also true of “Psycho II” a film far better than that title suggests, and one that disappeared before I could get to it.

In the end, I did the obvious thing – I bought both films on Blu-Ray, so I can watch them whenever I want. From the same publisher, I now also have a copy of the 1980 Italian horror film “Incubo cilla città contaminata” (English title: Nightmare City), something Netflix was never likely to have. In fact, when I came across the interesting science fiction film “Cherry 2000” on Netflix, I made sure I had my own copy in case it also went away.


For me, it helps to remember that subscription services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Spotify, Apple Music, Audible, Kindle, and so on, are only effective substitutes for the places you used to hire the same works from: video hire shops like Blockbuster, and libraries – my local library was especially good for foreign films, but I haven’t been there in a long time. You cannot use it as a substitute for your DVD collection, or your music collection, or even your book collection, unless you are the sort of person that lends your stuff to friends without expectation of getting them back.

A couple of weeks ago, I took my Sony Walkman out of my pocket, and my nephew had asked if I had Spotify on it, and if it was connected to the internet – in both cases, the answer was, “it is not a phone.” I had a Spotify subscription once – it came with my phone contract, but I never started paying for it once that was over. Faced with the choice of spending the cost of a CD album with access to a million tracks, I decided I would rather buy the CD I wanted.


Like my DVD collection, I have up to twenty years of carefully curated content at my command, sometimes with a story behind them. For example, Freddie Mercury’s 1985 solo album “Mr. Bad Guy” is out of print, and is quite expensive to buy as a result, unless you researched it and found a reissue as part of a compilation in 2000, and was able to find a copy that way. There is also David Bowie’s album “Never Let Me Down” – Bowie hated the song “Too Dizzy” so much that it is missing from all subsequent releases after 1987, but I am enough of a Bowie fan to find it for myself. My copy of the horrendous Raquel Welch / Mae West film “Myra Breckenridge,” out of print since 2005 and selling for upwards of £40 second-hand, was the result of a speculative bid on eBay, and being lucky with the price: £1.99. This is before I get into all the books I had to buy from the United States, because they’ll never have a Kindle release instead.

There has been much said recently about the impending closure of the arthouse film streaming site FilmStruck (known as FilmStruck Curzon in the UK), and how it reduces the curated spaces for content online. I had almost cancelled my subscription to it due to lack of use, and then its demise was announced. Be assured of this: demand drives the market, and the films will be back again. However, I already have enough stuff like “Citizen Kane,” “Grey Gardens,” “The Blob” and Harold Lloyd’s back catalogue to keep me going until then, because my content is, well, mine.

Monday, 29 October 2018

JUST FOR THE TASTE OF IT [133]



Every so often, I will look in a shop that purports to sell American candy and drinks, or look online, to see if they have cans of Tab, the original Diet Coke, for sale. It has been over two years since I last tasted Tab, and over two years since the shop I bought it from had closed. A seller on Amazon is apparently selling two cases of twelve cans, imported to the UK, for nearly £60 – this is approaching wine prices, but unless I can find something for less, it may be my last resort. Is it the taste, or the thrill of the chase, that keeps me looking?

It’s not just me – even in its country of origin, people are getting desperate. Stories have been running about the largest independent distributor of Coca-Cola drinks in the US, covering fourteen states, deciding to discontinue Tab. With what remains on store shelves, supplies are drying up, and the search for its delightfully bitter aftertaste – a result of sweetening with saccharine, instead of the smoother taste of aspartame – continues into neighbouring states, and further afield.

Really, it’s not that surprising that Tab is easier to find – its original success threatened its company’s brand. Coca-Cola introduced Tab in 1963 as a zero-calorie alternative to, well, itself. It’s pink-coloured can was marketed to women, and its name, originally chosen from a computer printout of random letter combinations, because the name “Diet Coke” was considered heresy to the original drink at the time, was marketed to everyone with their weight on their mind. All of Coca-Cola’s zero-calorie drinks used the Tab name in the 1970s, including what became the diet versions of Sprite and orange Fanta.


However, diet Coke (originally with a small “d,” with the strapline “just for the taste of it”) was launched in 1982 at the point where the original Coke was losing out to the growing market of diet drinks – there was a diet Pepsi by then too. The taste was enough, making Diet Coke the fourth-biggest drink in the US by the end of 1983, and just to show the power of the Coca-Cola brand, taste tests showed people favoured Diet Coke from vending machines even when the cans actually contained Tab – no wonder present Tab cans take pains to tell you where they came from.

However, taste tests can lead you down a blind alley. The Tab formula was changed in 1984 to use the smoother-tasting aspartame, as used in Diet Coke, and an outcry reversed it – saccharine is just part of the taste. The New Coke debacle of 1985 repeated it, because more people said, in tests, they preferred a sugary version of Diet Coke. In both cases, habits were changed, and taste buds went mad. Now, in the face of replacing Tab with Diet Coke because you cannot get Tab anymore, the same thing will happen.

I would like to see where this goes. In the UK, there has been a conspiracy on social media that Coca-Cola Cherry has been withdrawn, when this is not the case – that doesn’t bother me, I have only ever bought it by accident. However, should something only receive a resurgence when there is a threat to take it away? I would rather not spend £60 on soft drinks, I know that much.

Monday, 22 October 2018

AND BUTTERFLIES ARE FREE TO FLY [132]


...aaand time’s up. At noon today (Monday 22nd October), the UK Government’s consultation on reform to the 2004 Gender Recognition Act ended – it was meant to end at 11pm the previous Friday, but a last-minute minute flurry of responses crashed the online portal – it had been open since 3rd July. I answered its questions two weeks ago, later than I really should have, but with the discourse, or argument, over transgender rights having become what they have over the last year in the UK, I would be doing a disservice to myself not to say something.

The proposed reform to the Act will update the process by which transgender people can apply for a Gender Recognition Certificate, so their correct gender can be recognised in law. I don’t have any irons in that part of the fire anymore – in fact, this week will mark one year since I received my certificate. The first thing I did with it was to update work, then obtain an updated birth certificate – the system for this is run, oddly enough, by the UK Passport Office.

The Government wants to make applying for a Gender Recognition Certificate a self-declaration process, already in place in the Republic of Ireland, Malta, Norway, Denmark, Belgium and Portugal – the Irish application form is four pages long, not unlike applying for a passport. The current British form, meanwhile, has sixteen pages, and has a twenty-four-page guide on how to fill it in. When you send it away, you must also send two medical reports - one from a gender specialist confirming a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, and another from your GP – a statutory declaration, signed by a solicitor, confirming I will continue living in my gender, and at least five types of document that prove you have been living in your gender for at least two years. I ended up sending practically everything I had, to avoid any doubt. The cost of making the application is £140 – once you add in the costs of acquiring medical reports, photocopying, special delivery for all your valuable documents, and finally getting your updated birth certificate, I spent nearly £200.

There has to be a better way. In my reply to the consultation, I said that all you needed was to supply the evidence that you were living in your correct gender, and that the two-year timeframe could be too inflexible. As it turns out, all that is needed in Ireland is the statutory declaration, which is pages 3 and 4 of their form. In both cases, there is a statement of intent: you won’t be doing this more than once. The hoops I had to jump through, under the “old” system, meant that I, and the approximately five thousand other transgender people that had to jump through those hoops since 2005, earned their right to feel happy in themselves, and would rather not have had to jump so many times.

I have heard too many arguments recently that trans self-identification will mean that men can use it to access women’s spaces inappropriately, as if the Gender Recognition Act, and the Equality Act, didn’t already make provisions for situations like this. The consultation asked many questions on whether I think there is a potential impact on everything from women’s refuges, the armed forces and public services, to sport, insurance and religious marriage. I found myself saying that these provisions can stay as they are, because they all require any issues to be dealt with by communication, and consideration, by adults. Someone can be questioned for unfairly providing access to a service, as much as unfairly denying access, whether that is to a transgender person or not. However, I did say that religious marriage cannot be stopped if it is found that one person in the couple has a Gender Recognition Certificate – I only found out that was a thing when I read the question.

The consultation has been taken by some as a referendum on transgender people, as if everything is to play for. Advertisements stating “Woman: Noun, Adult Human Female” have been taken down because of why they were placed, and not because of what they said. As a transgender woman, I could be accused of being a man infiltrating womanhood, of redefining what it is to be a woman, of reducing being a woman to being a feeling, of confirming the dominance of the patriarchy. Even worse, I could be told I am mentally ill, that I don’t know what I am, that people like me don’t really exist. All I can possibly know, in my experience, is this: when I realised what I was all along, why did my life become so much easier to understand?

The consultation is over, and the law-making must begin. I am not going anywhere.

[Update: “The New York Times” is reporting that the Trump is trying to redefine gender as being defined by genitalia at birth, stripping transgender people of the rights they have under the law. Firstly, that won’t happen – too many Americans will have too much to lose, and too many Americans are good people to allow it to happen. Secondly, what is the point of the word “sex” if you are planning to do that?]

Monday, 15 October 2018

AND PLAIN TO SEE THE FACTS ARE CHANGING [131]


Memories are short. Instant access to information via the World Wide Web has only been available to the general public since August 1991, with mobile and broadband internet only becoming commonplace in the last fifteen years. However, if you had the right television, instant recall of news, sport and financial updates, TV and radio listings and even recipes, was possible as early as 1974, before the first home computers appeared. Look down at your remote control, and the remnants of Teletext will stare back, marking where the information superhighway begins.

The world’s first teletext service was the BBC’s CEEFAX (“See Facts”), launched in 1974, following two years of testing technology developed by Philips, which had already launched the first consumer video recorders by then, and were readying what would become the LaserDisc and Compact Disc. The BBC had already been experimenting with “BEEBFAX” in the late 1960s, using TV transmitters to broadcast a page of information overnight, not unlike a newspaper page, to be printed on a fax machine-like printer at home. This project was shelved because the printer was too noisy, but with Philips proposing to use the screen, work started again.


The way teletext worked is down to how old televisions worked, in ways that are still well known to many. Put extremely simply, the reason not all 625 lines are broadcast to make up a TV picture is because the top and bottom of each field of lines is left blank to denote where the picture starts and ends, literally creating the “vertical blanking interval,” also known as the black bar that rolled down the screen on analogue TVs when the channel was not properly tuned in – horizontal blanking intervals also take up some of the width, and digital television makes sure you see none of this at all.

Teletext used the spare lines from the vertical blanking interval to broadcast a cycle of digital code that creates each frame of text. When you enter a three-digit code for the page you want, like 430 for travel news, you would then see the number scroll through the cycle as it is broadcast, until it reaches your page – popular pages were broadcast more than once. Each “magazine” of pages was broadcast on its own line, usually grouped by subject, to a maximum of eight lines – when subtitles for TV programmes were added from 1981, the page for this was usually placed at the end: it was originally 170, and eventually ended up at 888. Each page also had a number of frames, for longer news items and other stories, for which you may need the “hold” button on your remote control.


Later, hyperlinks to other sections of teletext were possible by red, green, yellow and blue “FastText” buttons. A “Reveal” button was also available for parts of pages, like revealing a punchline for a joke. Blocky pictures were also possible using the palette of eight colours, which included the black background, and breaking news could be left to scroll along the bottom of your screen while you continued to watch TV.

Ceefax would grow slowly at the BBC in the 1970s. Initially a staff of nine would write the original thirty-page magazine, broadcast on a single line, which were punched onto paper computer tape, and sent to a different floor of BBC Television Centre to broadcast them – updates only happened on weekdays, as everyone went home for the weekend. From 1981, the BBC Micro computer was used to create pages, and could be received at home with an adaptor – basic computer programs were also broadcast using teletext. Viewers in the UK will also be used to “Pages from Ceefax” filling in gaps on BBC television during the day when there were no TV programmes to show.


Of course, this is all gone now – digital teletext was introduced in 1999, using information from Ceefax, but by the time the end of analogue TV killed off Ceefax in 2012, it was using text from the BBC’s website, and some of the sections could only be found online, because it was just easier. A similar text service that used your phone line, Prestel, allowing you to buy items and view your bank account at home from 1976, had already ended by 1992, mainly because it was cheaper to  Even looking at the “BBC Red Button” service today through my TV, it is cut down even from when it began, almost to the point where there is no longer a need for it. However, teletext was built because a need for it was found, a need that continued to find ways to fulfil itself.

Sunday, 7 October 2018

EVERY DAY I WRITE THE BOOK [130]

Monday

Is there any point to keeping a diary? You know what you did, and how you feel – is it for reference, or to confront yourself, or as a writing exercise? The last of these was my reason for having first begun a diary fifteen years ago, but also why it has petered out – I have other outlets for that sort of thing, outlets more than one person can see. I could do with a way to collate all those disparate thoughts you have during the week, those ideas that felt like a good idea at the timer, but they let you go before you remember to write them down.

Tuesday

So how did Ceefax work anyway? And why did my mind make me think of this? And why am I now entertaining this as a subject for a future article, instead of looking it up? Teletext is still a recent history for most – oh yeah, that’s why it’s a good idea.

Wednesday

Of course, today is when you actually started writing your diary, in the hope that, when you read through it as preparation for the inevitable autobiography, you will have forgotten what kind of procrastinating person you once were, only to have that thought hit you once again.

Thursday

Of course, your energies were concentrating on work during the week, and there are times where you have nothing to write down, but the idea of skipping an entire day seems about as perverse as making a note that, by the way, nothing else happened – it may be easier to make a note of that having been the case, and move on.

Friday

A manager at work said I had a good speaking voice, but I then decided to say it sounded like it was full of disdain – it was rather a pointless call. I am not exactly sure why I said that, but it does sound like I was being too honest while making a joke. I don’t like taking phone calls. I’ve had the latest iPhone for two weeks, and made one call on it so far.

Saturday

Napping in the afternoon, I dreamt I was walking, then my right foot slipped, I fell forward – and I woke up. This joins other weird dreams of this week, which included retrieving papers, from a red post box in a high street, that I needed for when I was starring in a TV detective drama – a type of show I never, ever watch – and the dream where I found forty-five pence on the floor. I should have gone for a walk, but it was raining – that is, in real life.

Sunday

Wrote an article about “Friday the 13th: A New Beginning” for His & Hers Movie Reviews – it is their Halloween Horror month, and I rarely watch horror films, but I may write a horror film one day, or some sort of horror story. If science fiction portrays our anxieties about the future, then horror does the same for the present. 

Sunday, 30 September 2018

I WON’T DO WHAT YOU TELL ME [129]


“If you didn’t live in that time, you’re not allowed an opinion in my view.”

“If you didn’t live in that time, you’re not allowed an opinion in my view.”

“If you didn’t live in that time, you’re not allowed an opinion in my view.”

This sentence has rattled through my head for the last week, because I have never heard anyone say something like this before. I also cannot think of a situation where you could get away with saying something like it. How do you respond to it? Am I allowed?

When writing about why I don’t like chat shows [link], I came across an interview gave to the “Mail on Sunday” newspaper in 2016 [link], just as a book on his encounters with Muhammad Ali was published. Even if I wouldn’t have made a point of tuning in to “Parkinson” in the 1970s, if I had been around then, I probably would have if Ali, or Billy Connolly, or Peter Sellers, or Kenneth Williams was a guest – some people are worth hearing, even if they are mainly there to promote something.

Although the article was to promote the Ali book, the headlines came from when Parkinson was asked if there were any moments in his career that he regretted. Saying he has been accused of being old-fashioned, Parkinson used the example of the 1975 interview he had with Helen Mirren, who was introduced on the show was the “sex queen” of the Royal Shakespeare Company and, after a theatre critic was quoted as saying Mirren was good at “sluttish eroticism,” Parkinson asked if Mirren thought her “equipment” got in her way of performing as an actress. After clarifying he was referring to her figure, Mirren replied, “Serious actresses can't have big bosoms, is that what you mean?”

The interview can easily be found online, and while it has since been decried as sexist since, it was perfectly fine for broadcast in 1975 – “it was OK at the time” is a phrase often heard in cases like this, usually because it may not be these days. In the “Mail on Sunday” interview, Parkinson said he may have overreacted, but he was reacting to the provocative figure Mirren presented. When asked if they had made up since, Parkinson said, “I don't want to. Nor does she. I don't regard what happened there as being anything other than good television. There is no need to apologise, not at all. She didn't want to do an interview and after about ten minutes I didn't want to interview her. There's no problem, it's not World War III for God's sake.”

For her part, Dame Helen Mirren, later quoted in an article for “The Telegraph” website [link], said, “That’s the first talk show I’d ever done. I was terrified. I watched it and I actually thought, bloody hell! ... I did really well. I was so young and inexperienced. And he was such a f------ sexist old fart. He was. He denies it to this day that it was sexist, but of course he was.”

This leads me to where I became unstuck. In his interview, Parkinson is reported reacting to the notion of his interview with Mirren being a defining moment of the “sexist” Seventies: You have to judge it by what happened in that time. If you didn't live in that time, you're not allowed an opinion in my view [my underline].... I’ve not done anything that I'm ashamed of. I can see everything in the context of the time I did it. I can think, 'Ooh, I wouldn't do that now.' But that doesn't mean to say I was wrong at the time.”

The interviewer, challenging that one sentence, writes, “if one of his guests had said that, he would have challenged them strongly,” but I wished it was challenged in this interview, although we do get the odd quote later, “Am I a sexist? No, I'm Yorkshire. I don't know what the answer is or what a sexist means, basically. I've been married for 57 years so something must be going right. I wouldn't say I'm a sexist at all.”

To be honest, I just needed to write about that one sentence, “If you didn’t live in that time, you’re not allowed an opinion in my view,” but I also needed to present the context in which that was uttered. I will go with Dame Helen’s reaction to the interview, because she definitely was there at the time, but to say you are not allowed to have an opinion on something is a red flag that needs as much oxygen as possible – if I said that to anyone, I would be demolished in response. Perhaps it is easier, for Sir Michael Parkinson, not to use his chat shows as primary sources.