Monday, 26 May 2008


Those who have recently bought (or, from a policy of social inclusivity, stolen) an MP3 player or a mobile telephone will probably have been given, out of the kindness of the hearts of our corporate masters, a pair of budget headphones. These will inevitably be of the kind that are so easily frightened that they wind themselves into a tiny tangled ball as soon as you look at them. The 1980s had the Rubik's cube, the noughties (or what's left of them) has unravelling headphone cables.

Said headphones come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and the only thing they have in common is that, like house keys when you're drunk, none of them will fit.

The most common seem to be the comma-shaped ones that fall out with such a small movement that the only people who can wear them are mimes. I think they are supposed to cling on through sheer force of earwax, but if your ears are that hideous I doubt you can hear anything anyway. I'm sure that Gregoire Lue (the Frenchman who invented artificial adhesive, don't'cha know?) had earwax on the list of sticky things to test before he settled on horse dust (which is like a cheap, sticky version of gold dust), probably in between soggy rice and computer scientists at house parties, but it just isn't enough.

Then come those big buckets that look like you've just walked out of a call centre and forgot to remove your headgear. These are designed either for people who want to look like a monster from Doctor Who, or for those who have exceedingly small heads and are quite self-conscious about it. Whoever thought they'd be a good idea clearly had good eyesight, because wearing them with glasses is a bit like paying a gas bill: unnecessarily complicated, and liable to give you a headache.

Equally unfriendly towards the bespectacled music-lover are the fish-hooks. You know the kind - the ones with a special 'ergonomic' design that's supposed to strap around your lugs so you can do proper head-banging without them falling off. The reason why they look a bit like devices of torture is because they also feel like them when you put them on.

These aside, my particular foes are the miniature hair-dryer variety, which you're supposed to jam so far inside your ears it feels like they're coming out the other side. Recently released secret documents from the designers have revealed that these are actually constructed with in-built malice. They take any opportunity they can to bound away from your head: too much swing in your step, an over-vigorous hat-doffing, or the dancing of an impromptu jig will almost certainly leave you without music, and, even worse, with a couple of irritating plastic leads swinging around your neck like corks on a comedy Australian hat. Even in those brief moments when they are in your ears, these newfangled 'phones will leave you so deaf to the outside world that crossing the road becomes as perilous as crossing the Siberian wastes wearing nothing but an 'I love gulags' t-shirt.

This is not to say that I dislike headphones. They are wonderful, and infinitely better than playing the latest rhythmic urban poetry out of a tinny speaker on the back of a bus. No, I very much approve of private music listening. I just wish somebody would invent a really snazzy way of doing it for people with shoddy eyesight and freakishly shaped ears. I'm sure there are plenty of us out there.


To a casual visitor, London's most noticeable features may be its extraordinary number of historical sights, its endless shopping potential, its infinite array of bus routes, or its fascinating range of crime. However, the true identity of the capital is found in none of these, for in truth, London is a city of musicals. Every building with a spare wall going will be plastered with posters for The Lion King, Avenue Q, Chicago, The Sound of Music, Billy Eliot or any one of a frankly silly number of bits of theatre born with so little dialogue that they had to sing it instead of speaking it.

This is plague on British society has somehow become taboo. Nobody dares to discuss the musicals problem, but it's there, for all to see, unashamedly bursting with melodramatic gestures and inappropriate explosions of song. In the city centre, the problem is so severe that you can barely walk a street without tripping over a musical retching in the gutter, or without being harangued by a drunken operetta. But do our politicians address this unwholesome parade of indulgence? Not one whit. Without exception, the mayoral candidates were obsessed with crime and public transport. Some of them even had other policies too. But not one, however, pledged to deal with the menace of musicals. Something, chaps and chapettes, must be done. I propose to write to the Telegraph. They always know what to do, and they're very good at disapproving.

One of the oddest offenders is the new treatment of Gone With The Wind. Even in non-musical format, this is the love story version of Taxi Driver - it goes on forever, then all kicks off at the end. Only instead of Robert de Niro on a killing spree, the payoff here is a Southern gentleman saying 'Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn'. I don't know about you, but I'm pretty leery of anything with a heroine called 'Frankly'. However, I can see that my objections are meaningless - they managed a musical of Lord of the Rings, and that's so vast it makes the American Civil War look like a border skirmish, and has so many silly names that Frankly would count as the homely, normal lass.

Whatever flaws in the material for Gone With the Wind, it does one thing exactly as demanded by the Commandments of Cheese: it ends with our strapping hero scooping up his heroine of choice and marching off to the sunset/bedroom. This is notably absent from the latest of the contenders for the peeling gilt throne. Deciding that the 'ageing legendary band has musical made about them' formula clearly needs updating without the 'ageing' or 'legendary' parts, Take That now have themselves a musical, Never Forget. Quite why they've given it a name that sounds like a documentary about genocide, nobody is sure. Also, to the hefty number of people who would really like to forget, it's an aggressive turn of phrase, like something a debt collector might say to make very sure you know the date by which money or kneecaps must be forthcoming. I'm all in favour of a spot of non-conformist story-telling, but I find it hard not to be cynical when their replacement for '... and they all lived happily ever after' is '... and they all went on to have solo careers, with varying degrees of success'. I'm also ill-disposed to anything without a sympathetic character beyond the panic-stricken usher who's had to watch it for the fifth time that week. To cap it all, it's about real, living people. This is awkward because they could even go to see it, which would be a bit like attending their own funerals. Or the funerals of their careers, anyway.

I did, however, love Les Miserables. It's hard to beat the combination of heroic, violent revolution and foxy French girls. For that, I'd set up a barricade of my own, only I think it's forbidden in my tenancy agreement. Ah yes, here we are, in section 14, paragraph (b):

'Thou shalt not use rented furniture to initiate or support the overthrow of oppressive capitalist society.'



I've always thought it a bit of a pity that stocks and shares and other slightly bewildering forms of gambling are doing so well. I'm sure they do something frightfully useful to do with making sure money doesn't fall to pieces and reduce us all to valuing things by number of chickens (or goats, in privileged circles), and I'm very glad they do this. Livestock doesn't fit in my wallet, for one thing, and I've never been very good at lobbing bricks, so I don't think I'd be well-suited to anarchy. However, despite the apparently splendid achievements of these people, they are responsible for some terrible deeds.

You see, economics has really confused all the words to do with markets. By 'markets', I mean the ones with stalls, not the ones with target demographics, graphs and people in pin-striped suits shouting a lot while holding more telephones than should be humanly possible. I have on several occasions met people involved in this seedy underbelly of maths (in my experience, real mathematicians would be aghast by the thought of their secret knowledge being used to make money. In many cases they would also be aghast by the suggestion that they shave, or shower, so perhaps they are not the most useful comparison) who have professed (or confessed, in some cases) to be traders. I, naturally, assumed that they travelled from town to town with a mule and a small wagon laden with potatoes. Apparently, this is not the case.

Equally, the word 'market' makes me think of somewhere I can stock up on carrots and onions, while being bawled at by a vast man in an apron. I imagine that a fourteenth century peasant, upon wandering into one of our markets, after being told he ought to be wearing a tie, would be very disappointed to find that he couldn't buy anything to eat.

Of course, it's also pretty difficult to buy food in a real market. Part of this is the fault of those power-shoppers who think a queue is something to do with snooker. Sometimes I wonder if this is what the harpies were a metaphor for - wooshing down and nabbing the choice cuts before the Argonauts could get a look-in. This particular brand of harpy is closely related to those shifty people who spend all week hanging about by the banana boxes in supermarkets, making sure that nobody else can so much as glance at an unbruised fruit.

But as I say, they are only part of the challenge, for markets are also blighted by imperialism. Admittedly, this isn't the kind of imperialism that sends gunboats to small, distant countries, or that sees a British passport as a sort of licence to oppress (a few steps down and quite a few more bureaucratic than a licence to kill). Instead, it's the kind that simply insists that centimetres and kilogrammes are the product of some combination of fascism, communism and the French. Which isn't such a bad assessment of the history of the EU, as it turns out, but it doesn't make it any easier for me to buy food. These retro measurements are just fiddly. For starters, they all seem to be pinned to the dimensions of the current monarch (who, considering her technical medical status of 'wizened', has massive feet), and for another thing, there's a unit of weight called the pound. I can't understand why anybody who's heard a cry of 'two pounds for a pound' can still take the imperial system seriously.