Sunday, 27 December 2020

I'M SO TIRED, MY MIND IS ON THE BLINK [275]


Autopsies of 2020 were complete long before the year’s end. Only war could have made it worse, then I remembered it began with the United States and Iran on the verge of open conflict, after a drone strike killed an Iranian general.

Meanwhile, Covid-19 has been detrimental to the extent the United Nations Development Programme, on Tuesday 15th December, said it threatened human progress, publishing a report detailing how a global lurch from one crisis to the next could reverse gains in health, education and social freedoms. There is nowhere left for us to go but upwards.

The signs are good. The United States will soon have a President who favours diplomacy over disruption, and while on its way out of the European Union, the United Kingdom has somehow managed to make a deal with the union on trade that was achieved using negotiation and compromise – the protectionism, nationalism and sovereignty ingrained in politics in the last few years has made the announcement of the Brexit deal more of a surprise than it really should have been.

The lesson I learnt from 2020 is that the truth is bigger than you are. This has come from the overwhelming number of times that opinions have had to change in the world due to uncovered, emerging and overriding opinion. You cannot ignore coronavirus, you cannot dispel climate change, and you cannot decide that evidence for either doesn’t exist just because you don’t personally believe it, or that a conspiracy theory puts those facts in a more acceptable order. You cannot wish away disease and death. (I am doing my best not to mention Donald Trump, but after all the rubbish he talked about coronavirus, I was just waiting for him  to contract it himself, and he did.)

In an already notorious speech given by Liz Truss, Minister for Women and Equalities on Thursday 17th December, she mischaracterised postmodernist philosophy as having led, in the 1980s, to Leeds City Council prioritising equality legislation in schools over learning to read and write: “These ideas have their roots in post-modernist philosophy – pioneered by [Michel] Foucault – that put societal power structures and labels ahead of individuals and their endeavours. In this school of thought, there is no space for evidence, as there is no objective view – truth and morality are all relative.”

Did Liz Truss intend to take what sounded like the truth, and present it as fact?

I describe myself is a postmodernist, because ideas about “grand narratives,” deconstruction and relativism prove useful in my processes for understanding the world, especially when it comes to writing about different subjects, but I don’t get out of bed in the morning because I feel like it. If I don’t do it, I won’t achieve anything, and I know this to be objectively true, even if saying this makes it sound like I had given something so obvious even a moment’s thought. My understanding of coronavirus has been shaped by the Government’s representation of scientific evidence, and I have taken their word on it because the information provided – the evidence - has proven to be reliable enough to prevent death. I have objectively chosen to live. No-one chooses to live on edge either.

I am tired of 2020 as you are. See you in 2021.

Sunday, 20 December 2020

ONE OF THESE THINGS IS NOT LIKE THE OTHER [274]


The Ineos Grenadier is an off-road car to be released in 2022, following a six-year process where Sir Jim Ratcliffe pushed his chemicals company, most well-known as a sponsor of cycling and sailing teams, into car production to fulfil Ratcliffe’s dream of building a modern, rugged vehicle in the spirit of the original Land Rover of 1948...

...or, when Jaguar Land Rover declined to sell Ratcliffe the tooling and moulding for the previous model Land Rover Defender, which ended production in 2016, he decided to build a vehicle that looks so much like the original Defender that, if it drove past you, you could mistake it for one. Some edges have been smoothed off, and the front and rear lights are different, but apart from that, the Grenadier – named after the pub in which Ratcliffe and his team conceived the idea – appears to be for people that wanted the old Land Rover Defender, but didn’t want to buy second-hand.

In a September 2020 article for “Autocar” magazine [https://www.autocar.co.uk/car-news/new-cars/ineos-grenadier-2021], reporting on the 17,000 pre-orders received so far, designer Toby Ecuyer, usually known for his work on superyachts, appeared relaxed about the Grenadier’s resemblance to the Defender: “It has been fascinating, benchmarking all the cars we have. One thing I’ve learned is how little there is between cars. I mean, you only have to change a vehicle a little to make it look like something different. Shift the headlights a bit and you’ve suddenly made a Ford Bronco.” Fortunately, the rest of the interview suggests more passion than this one answer suggests.


(It should be noted that, in August 2020, Jaguar Land Rover lost in the litigation it brought against Ineos, when a judge upheld a decision by the Intellectual Property Office decided that the Defender’s design wasn’t distinctive enough to be trademarked, highlighting previous models of the Jeep Wrangler and Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen as examples of similar-looking designs [https://www.autocar.co.uk/car-news/industry/jaguar-land-rovers-trademark-court-case-testimonies-revealed].)

Looking on the Ineos Grenadier website [www.ineosgrenadier.com], it is made clear the purpose of the car defines the design: “We’re building on the legacy of classic 4x4s. A box-section ladder frame. Permanent four-wheel drive. Beam axles. And a boxy body that’s designed rather than styled.” The car is “a working tool. More angles than curves. Function dictates form, every time. It exists because Ratcliffe “identified a gap in the market for a stripped back, no-nonsense, utilitarian 4x4.”

Surely Land Rover filled this gap over seventy years ago? The only reason Sir Jim Ratcliffe could have perceived a gap was Jaguar Land Rover’s ending of the Defender’s production, but this was more a case of their hand being forced in January 2016 rather than choice. Safety and emissions regulations precluded the Defender from being sold in various parts of the world, and had been withdrawn from sale in North America back in 1997 when the car’s design, already heavily modified for the market, was unable to accommodate side airbags. The new 2020 model Defender, using a more standard aluminium unibody structure and air suspension as standard, was designed to meet safety standards worldwide, and if it results in a car perceived as more upmarket than its predecessor, that appears to have been the result of remaining vital and competitive.


Declining to allow Ratcliffe to buy the original Defender’s tooling does not mean that Land Rovers have previously been built, under license, by other companies. Much like the notorious Lada Riva was a Russian evolution of the original Fiat 124, and the Seat Alhambra was a modified Fiat Panda produced after Seat’s license to build the original expired, the Spanish manufacturer Santana moved from being a builder of Land Rover-supplied “complete knock-down kits” to making their own legally-distinguishable version when their license ended in 1983 – the final version of it was also sold in Italy by Fiat, as the Iveco Massif, before they merged with Chrysler and started importing Jeep vehicles instead. (Fiat appears to be the centre of derived car designs – add in variations made in Bulgaria, Egypt, Turkey, India and South Korea, and the Fiat 124 lays a claim to being the most popular car in the world.)

With pre-orders and a court case resolved, all Ineos have to do now is start building the Grenadier. Originally seen as being a leader of British manufacturing following Brexit, with a new factory to be built in Bridgend, there was disappointment when Ineos decided to instead buy the Daimler-Benz plant at Hambach, France, to be vacated when production of Smart car series moved to China. To be fair to them, they had not promised that the Grenadier would be built in the UK – the underlying ladder frame is being built in Austria, and the engines are being supplied by BMW. Then again, the new Land Rover Defender isn’t being made in the UK either: with the original space at the Jaguar Land Rover factory in Solihull filled by production of other sports utility vehicles, namely the Jaguar X-Pace and Range Rover Velar, the Defender is being made at a facility in Mitra, Slovakia, alongside the Land Rover Discovery.


Sunday, 13 December 2020

BY THE SLEEPY LAGOON [273]


No-one builds stations like BBC Radio 4 anymore. With general, mass audiences for drama, comedy, news and magazine shows served mainly by television since the 1950s, radio is ever more divided up into individual stations providing either “music” or “talk,” either individually or in varying ratios, in an attempt to stop inspiring the listener to tune away. But Radio 4, with its roots through the original Home Service to the birth of the BBC in 1922, has always broadcast a mix of programmes like a TV channel. As befitting the more intimate and personal nature of radio listening, the days of its listeners are entwined with Radio 4 in a way that cannot be replicated by talk show phone-ins or a continuous stream of today’s greatest hits. No-one marched in the street when the presenter of the Radio 1 breakfast show changes, but if Radio 4 moves its furniture around...

I remember when, in 1998, new station controller James Boyle unleashed a swathe of changes to the station that caused uproar – long-running series ended, their replacements starting at different times of day, current affairs and Parliamentary coverage buried in the evening, and flimsy quiz shows at lunchtime, with “The World at One” shortened to accommodate them.

These changes made headline news, and enraged listeners continued to ask questions on Radio 4’s “Feedback” – renamed from “Disgruntled Tunbridge Wells” in 1979 – for the following year, by which point the programmed had, coincidentally, doubled in length to thirty minutes, and had taken over one of the quiz slots. As confirmed in David Hendy’s book “Life on Air: A History of Radio Four,” even when asserting that these changes were based on a year’s worth of listener surveys and analysis of each programme, the BBC were accused of following computerised data instead of their instinct. It sounded like people could not trust the BBC to arrange their shows properly.


And yet, the Radio 4 schedule in 2020 largely still follows the same pattern – comedy shows like “Just A Minute” and “I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue” at 6.30pm, “Woman’s Hour” at 10am, drama at 2pm, current affairs at 8pm, and science at 9pm. Some shows introduced in 1998, like the Sunday morning news programme “Broadcasting House,” evening arts review “Front Row,” and discussion show “In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg,” are still running. However, if anything has been moved, like replacing the lunchtime quiz shows with more news, it has been done gradually.

I later found that harsher changes had been implemented in 1977, proving to be so unpopular they were largely reversed within a year. The Radio 4 controller at this time, Ian McIntyre – dubbed “Mac the Knife” in the press – answered concerns about the quality of news programmes by cutting their length, and putting in more scripted talks to ensure the quality stayed high. The side effect was shown most clearly on Sundays, when programmes aiming to replicate magazines like “The New Yorker,” with titles like “Forget Tomorrow’s Monday,” and “Not Now, I’m Listening,” pushed the shows people were already listening in for, like the omnibus of “The Archers” or “Letter from America,” towards the evening, with no clear reasoning that this was what people actually wanted.

The symbol of the changes, and what annoyed everyone the most, both listeners and BBC employees, was cutting into the breakfast news of “Today” with a hodgepodge of sport, weather, newspaper reviews, entertainment and consumer items, and comedy recordings. The frustration was shared: on one edition, after trailing what was on other stations, announcer Peter Donaldson said, “but if you’re listening to Radio 4, I’m afraid you’re stuck with ‘Up to the Hour’.” McIntyre was later moved to Radio 3, and all that remains of the experiments are the investigative series “File on 4,” and a half-hour Six O’Clock News.


But what caused marching in the streets? As it turned out, it was existential threat. “BBC Radio 4 News FM” temporarily ran as a rolling news network during the first Gulf War in 1991, while the usual programmes continued on long wave, but its success in that time – it had gained the nickname “Scud FM” – brought several years of ruminating to a head on whether the BBC should start a twenty-four-hour news channel. The suggestion it should take the long wave channel, keeping Radio 4 on FM, led a teacher named Neil McKinnon to start a campaign of direct action named “Save Radio 4 Long Wave,” where he was interviewed in various newspapers, tore up his TV licence, and received thousands of letters, not unlike deliberately incendiary campaigns today like “Defund the BBC” on Twitter. This culminated in a march from Hyde Park to Broadcasting House in April 1993.

The existential threat was that any new network would take away Radio 4’s spine of breakfast, lunchtime and evening news – “Today,” “The World at One,” “PM” and “The World Tonight.” Finally, the decision was made to take Radio 5, a collection of sports, children’s and education programmes made to keep the medium wave frequencies of Radio 2, and turn it into Radio 5 Live, a 24-hour news AND sport network, with a tone and character different from Radio 4, with its own separate programmes.

Neil McKinnon later said he was making up his Radio 4 campaign as it was going along, but what it did was provide a face for the station’s listeners in a way that hadn’t happened for other stations, at least until social media came along, but what it had also done is set the pace of change at slow, and careful

Sunday, 6 December 2020

I'M RUNNING THROUGH THE WILD LANDS [272]

 



As I have previously talked about here, here, and here, I cannot leave the house without my Sony Walkman, and I still buy Compact Discs. I may still listen to music online, but if I find myself coming back to the same songs, either by MP3 or on YouTube, it is time to buy them on CD so I can hear them with better sound quality, preserving that in FLAC format on my Walkman without losing a single note – well, it makes sense to me anyway.

I have a number of CDs I need to transfer, and once that’s done, I can spend the rest of the day listening to them:



Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO): “Yellow Magic Orchestra” / “Solid State Survivor” / “X∞Multiplies” / “BGM” / “Technodelic” / “Naughty Boys”

After uncovering the story behind the song “Behind the Mask” [link], I continued listening to Yellow Magic Orchestra, and I have come to the conclusion that YMO may possibly be one of the greatest bands ever, and that the history of electronic pop music in the Western world cannot be properly understood without them. Their original self-titled album may have been intended as a one-off critique of Western interpretations of Eastern culture, but what they did to Martin Denny’s exotica piece “Firecracker” appears to have kick-started the use of sampling in hip-hop, while their second album, 1979’s “Solid State Survivor,” is a progenitor of both techno and the cyberpunk genre. When the iconic Roland TR-808 drum machine was released in 1980, YMO used it first. Since coming across the band, I have been overcome by the sheer infectiousness of their use of electronic sounds, their driving bass, the tight rhythm, and relentless pace, and their humour: one song starts with what sounds like a rubber duck being squeezed, before the rhythm and a pub piano comes in, and it just happens to be called “Absolute Ego Dance” as well. Of course, I have bought their first six studio albums, because it was inevitable.



Adam Lambert: “Velvet”

I was a fan of Adam Lambert before I heard him sing, but I prefer him singing his own songs than those of Queen. That said, UK radio never plays his songs, as far as I know, so I have only ever heard him on CD, and his latest album made this more difficult. “Velvet,” harking back to funk, rock and glam, was first released as an EP in September 2019, subtitled “Side A,” so I thought I would wait until “Side B,” or a whole album, came along. Six months later, it arrived, but so did Covid-19, and I forgot about it until August 2020. In short, the funkier sound on “Velvet,” and the more forthright lyrics, is what Lambert has needed: his voice now has the more mature, fully realised sound, and songs that no longer have to allude to anything.



The Edge of the 80s

This is another of those cheap £5 CD compilations that you find in a supermarket (which I previously talked about here) that turns out to have very good mastering, while also being another chance for me to mop up any new-wave and pop tunes I might be missing from my Walkman, like “I Know What Boys Like” by The Waitresses, “Mexican Radio” by Wall of Voodoo, and “Icing on the Cake” by Stephen “Tin Tin” Duffy – I’m not likely to have come across these songs unless I already knew of them, so the ability to surprise ifs worth the cost of admission.



You Are Awful... (Showbiz Comedy Titbits of the 60s and 70s)

The only second-hand CD I have bought recently, I sought it initially for two songs seemingly only found here: “Freezin’ Cold in 89 Twoso” by Mike Reid (discussed when I talked about the “CheapShow” podcast [link]), and “Boiled Beef and Carrots” by Lenny Henry. Comedy songs are miscategorised as novelty songs these days, a fault that can be laid at the feet of Hilda Baker & Arthur Mullard’s version of “You’re the One That I Want,” but then there are songs that defy categorisation altogether, like “Dance with Me,” by the ITN newsreader Reginald Bosanquet.



All Time Greats: Quincy Jones / Bill Haley & His Comets

Universal Music have released a number of albums compiling 1950s and 60s artists like Ella Fitzgerald, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Tommy Steele and Billy Fury, under the “His Master’s Voice” label. If I come across any of these, I will look for them, especially if they were as cheap as I found these collections - £5 for Quincy Jones, and only £3 for Bill Haley, perhaps a symptom of fewer people buying CDs, the comparative ease of releasing pressed pieces of plastic, and a need to keep making money from your back catalogue through a continuous process of remastering and rereleasing. The Bill Haley collection was worth buying for historical interest – they helped popularise rock and roll, but they were surpassed by Elvis Presley, Little Richard and many more – while Quincy Jones’s work as an arranger and producer is wide-ranging and does not disappoint, so the chance to hear more of his big-band recordings could not be missed. Jones was also the producer that alerted Michael Jackson to YMO’s “Behind the Mask,” which is where we came in.