Saturday, 19 July 2008

Priests, spies and so on

I have complained before that this collection of ramblings has mostly focused on grumbly subjects – the sort of things that would once have left me curled up in a corner, blinking lopsidedly and cackling, but which now, thanks to the internet (thank you, internet!), can be safely exposed online. I wonder if the Roman Catholics have tried doing confession this way? It would be safer, easier, and would save priests' valuable time, so they could concentrate on doing whatever it is that priests do when they're not sitting in a tiny box listening to somebody's petty jealousies. Presumably reading Father Brown stories and taking notes ('Step one: buy umbrella. Step two: solve mystery. Step three: become witty and reasonable face of religious belief in an increasingly atheistic modernity), or watching Father Ted rather like civil servants do Yes Minister – with a combination of recognition and guilt.

Do you think priests have relief-boredom - that evil bit of sadness you feel when everything turns out okay? Haven't you ever had a tiny, guilty wish that the fire alarm had been real, because you've always wanted to use the foamy extinguisher; the shifty alley really did have a nutter in it, because you've been looking for a way to practise your 400m; or that the lift did break down so you could climb through a little hatch in the roof of the car, scale the shaft then crawl through some ventilation ducts? I hope you have, otherwise I'm going to start feeling really weird. So I imagine that inside every otherwise-benevolent priest is a little impish wish that instead of another 'I said a naughty word,' or 'I bought a pirate DVD', they get some heavy-breathing reprobate saying '... and they're buried under the apple tree.' It's probably not a very serious desire, but I think it's only natural that every so often, until rationality comes back from making tea, we want our lives to be slightly less Heartbeat and slightly more Rebus. Messiah's probably going too far.

This is partly why bonkers entertainment is utterly healthy, maybe even including those massively disturbing and worryingly popular horror/torture films. They remind us that our odder sprees of imagination are extremely unlikely to be real. As it is, I can let the plumber in with only a brief thought of 'what if he's actually a terrorist imposter trying to destroy our nation's morale by stopping us having hot showers?' Without Jason Bourne to remind me how silly, vastly entertaining and rather horrifying that sort of life is, I'd have had no choice but to grab said plumber by the collar, pin him against the wall and demand to know where they're hiding the secret documents, what they did with Shergar, and why bread is so expensive these days.

The superheroes-without-powers don't just remind us how unlikely their lives are – they also remind us how rubbish it would be to actually live like James Bond or his chums. Despite his rather diverting lifestyle, this is the sort of fellow who doesn't just worry about cyclists running red lights when he crosses the road, but worries about them having machine guns in their panniers. Film stars worry about going into restaurants in case they're spotted by camera-wielding gossip artists. Adam from Spooks* worries in case the waiter is a foreign agent who'll slip strychnine into his I'm-sure-that's-an-abuse-of-expenses starter.

Thinking about that, I become glad I can say hello to the postie without having to frisk him for weapons, and I generally rejoice in not being part of a network premiere with strong language and violence right from the start.


* That just doesn't sound right, does it? I love Spooks, but they can't do names. Of their two leading chaps, I can't remember either of their names. I know they're British and so don't like to draw attention to themselves, but 'Tom' and 'Adam' sound more like people you vaguely remember from school geography classes than the sort who gallivant around the world keeping us safe from bad people with inappropriate facial hair. The BBC needs to invest in a dramatic surname research department. I'm sure it wouldn't be that expensive – like most research departments (except the one mucking about with hadrons in Geneva, one hopes), it could just be a work experience minion with a direct psychic link to Google.

Monday, 14 July 2008

Bath Books

More should be published in the bath book format. I don't see why only toddlers should have the luxury of reading in soggy places. Fat, colourful laminated pages have an appeal to all ages and demographics. To show that this is a serious business proposition, I'm going to abandon prose and use bullet points. This demonstrates that I have too many other important thoughts to warrant mucking about with anything so time-consuming as full sentences. So, my evidence for the
magnificence of this plan:

- Hardcore businessfolk with only half a second to spare in each day could read their FT in the shower;

- flouncy artistic types could contemplate Romantic poetry while soaking and inhaling things they bought in the Body Shop;

- messy cooks could render their recipes immune to any errant liquids (usually oil, but allowing for wine, vinegar, tomato, and, in cases of negligent knife-wielding, blood); and

- people hiding out in damp forests, whether for music festivals, hikes, or just to stay one step ahead of the sheriff, could have something to read that wouldn't go mouldy when they left it on a mossy

Obviously, these tiny groups of humanity alone aren't going to make the bath book the new iPod. However, they're just my back-up, because I have another category that includes pretty much every civilised lady, gentleman and other. Let's face it, everybody sings in the shower. It's something to do with the acoustics. I'm surprised they haven't yet decided to remodel cathedrals after shower cubicles. Singing clearly sounds better there than anywhere else, and I'm reliably informed that cleanliness is next to godliness. So a resurgence in the bath book manufacturing industry
could give every hygienic person a songbook so they'd never forget the words and end up humming until they get back to the chorus.

They could market it entirely on peer pressure - anybody who didn't want to buy one ridiculed as ill-kempt and filthy. What sort of monstrous excuse for a twenty-first century person doesn't shower?

Of course, this would play havoc with those who shared bathrooms, and as a result, there'd almost certainly be a lot more waiting-for-a-shower related deaths (currently riding high in the Top Forty Causes of Murder between 'turn that blasted stereo down, this isn't Ibizia' and 'are you looking at me?'), but I think it could at least partly save both the publishing industry and our souls, and
nobody since Mr Gutenberg's been able to claim that.

As further evidence that this is a brilliant idea, I can point to a really stupid idea that somehow made it out of a madman's head and into the world. You see, in my travels, I have encountered little as
silly as protective banana holsters. Imagine, if you will, banana-shaped, banana-coloured plastic frameworks, hinged like a book, which in theory would keep your bananas safe and secure. I think they may even have rubber strips to lessen any impacts. While it's an ingenious solution to the fatal flaw of a fabulous fruit, it's still desperately sad.

I can imagine a wild-eyed hairy fellow carrying his banana cases onto Dragons' Den with dreams of glory. He'd wave his arms a lot, spit a great deal more than is necessary, then be tragically disappointed when the judges laughed at him almost as much as they did at the self-righteous woman with the woolly toilet seat covers. After the programme, he shouted to himself, 'I'll show them, I'll show them all!' then funded his own production, sold four of his several thousand (all to the same young sporty type with the sort of keen parents who think 'if we buy all the absurd gadgets, the kid's bound to win'), blamed James Caan (on the grounds that he's the easiest dragon to
remember, since his name makes people think of Sonny Corleone in the Godfather. Probably quite a helpful reputation to have in the business world...), lay in wait to murder him, leapt out, slipped on a banana skin and woke up in a secure ward.

So yeah, bath books - they'll make a comeback, you mark my (safely laminated) words.

Saturday, 5 July 2008

Folk music


Apparently, with a sufficiently positive mental attitude, it's possible to scale mountains, snaffle tremendous jobs and win Wimbledon, all in the same afternoon. In a hearty effort at self-improvement, then, I'm going to write about something that makes me merry and excited, rather than stodgy and grumpy. So this week it's all about folk and country music, because both are amazing, sometimes in slightly bizarre ways.

The two are fairly similar, primarily because both are mainly produced by moody people who reckon the twentieth century is a nasty rumour. There is actually an obscure Scottish island (by 'obscure' I mean one that hasn't had a Walter Scott novel set on it, which, given the quantity
of his output, leaves about four) with a local bylaw against plugging in. This is chiefly because the island's electricity supply is rather limited, and churning out a few trippy guitar noises uses an extra plug, and that really tires out the donkey.

Folk bands provide a valuable outlet for those who were run out of orchestras for being wantonly enthusiastic, and caught either tapping their feet or attempting to sing along. Conductors have to keep a very keen eye out for anybody using the word 'fiddle', or for any shifty, wide-eyed, henna-haired hippies lurking near the doors, handing out pamphlets. If they're not careful, one day they'll find their entire string section lying in the nearest forest, full of mushrooms and learning gypsy dances. Other popular recruiting grounds for folkies are standing stones, pagan enclaves and any rural village where they think 'pop' is something you drink. Comedy accents and shirts that look like curtains are keenly encouraged.

In contrast, a proper country singer spends at least three months a year living under the bridge, and the rest downing whisky in filthy bars, slurring '... and then she left me, so I took my wagon to Tennessee' to anybody who'll listen. Then they start a fight, kill a man, go on the run, and write a song about it. If your idea of heating involves gathering kindling, and seeing a car makes you cross yourself, you're probably a prime candidate for county music. Essentially, it's for people who haven't felt the same since spaghetti westerns stopped being popular.

In terms of subject matter, folk is generally about giving birth in a forest and having to kill your baby, then being haunted by its ghost until you hunt down the father and beat him to death with a dulcimer. Folk songs start off like horror films - if you make it through to the last verse without being bumped off, you're doing well. Of course, the last verse has a tendency to go a bit Hamlet and finish off everybody who made it through the rest of the song. It's a bit like climbing inside the big cat enclosure at the zoo - everything looks pretty and cuddly, then it gets messy. Of course, lions tend not to hide your body down a well afterwards.

Having said that, it's not always about murder. It's very possible to die instead from disease, poverty, a broken heart or old age caused by an extended accordion solo.

Country, in comparison, is a much jollier form of music, and sometimes an album can get through several songs without anybody being lynched, drinking themselves into a stupor, or being shot by banditos. It's sometimes quite similar to folk, but with Morris dancing replaced with spitting and swatting flies. Nashville record shops refuse to stock any album with fewer than four songs with subject matter chosen from: God, the devil, trains, general gunslinging, and dysfunctional families (traditionally a violent and abusive father, although an opium-addled mother or an irresponsibly pregnant sister are also allowed. The latter usually leads back to gunslinging). Thwarted love is also acceptable, but any song of requited love automatically counts as 'unnecessary frivolity', unless she dies in childbirth or is bumped off by banditos.

It has been suggested that country is just folk music for the New World, which means that it's more suited to somewhere where yes, there is loads of inspiring scenery, but it's on the other side of several hundred miles of desert, populated (if the cinema has taught me anything) only by wooden petrol stations, cults, missile silos and people hiding out in motels built entirely out of cockroaches and stains. For all this geographical theory, however, I'm convinced it really does come down to God, trains, and shooting stuff. Sometimes, if we're lucky, all three at the same time. It's a fine basis for a national music. Just don't mention line dancing.

Late addition: there ain't no such word as lonely in country music. It's lonesome, dagnammit.