Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Magic Mole in the Adventure of the Velvet Curtains

Has there ever been a less likely Torch singer than Cilla Black? She spent her teens and early twenties looking as though she'd borrowed her big sister's clothes, and her later years as the ginger love child of Mrs Thatcher and Larry Grayson. She's got a Liverpool accent so thick that even when singing it keeps popping through like an unwelcome neighbour scrounging sugar. And she has that weird mole, sometimes blacked in like a beauty spot, sometimes covered over with enough make-up to fill the space under every nail on your hand. And latterly, gone altogether.

You can certainly have plain torch singers (Nina Simone was no classic beauty for a start) but Cilla surely takes the prize for plain odd.

In any case, she was a marvellous singer when she got going, with a set of lungs like a bouncy castle and a huge voice with so much power that it could turn geraniums into coal. And that's what counts really - the fact that any self-respecting record collection should have a cd of her singles.

The one I have on just now is this one, and as well as nearly twenty brilliant singles (and sundry crap later tracks) it also contains a decent dvd summary of her career, showcasing performances ofrm the 60s and 70s on various TV shows, including her own eponymous one.

She starts off doing You are my World at the Royal Command performance, wearing her mother's old velvet curtains turned into a dress, sensible shoes and a haircut presumably designed to woo her lesbian following. Barely moving from her spot in the centre stage, Cilla's fine but nothing special.

Skip forward a few months and here she is on Ken Dodd, fashionable haircut and 60s mod dress in place. It's a far better look, even with the puppy fat and mole on her chin, so it's just a shame that she seems to have been taking lessons in hamming it up from Donald Sinden as she does a very nice live version of Don't Answer Me partially ruined by a series of huge sweeping motions which wouldn't have looked out of place in an early Kate Bush video.

Next up is the brilliant Step Inside Love. I'll forgive Cilla for talking at the beginning of the clip - it's not her fault she's Liverpudlian after all -because her singing is so good. Her skirt's micro-short this time round, the mole is coloured in and Christ does she look uncomfortable, battering the song into submission in that gigantic voice of hers and waving her skinny arms around in vague approximation of the beat like some prototype Ian Curtis doing a cabaret turn at Butlins...

1968, and she's obviously decided that wearing skirts so short you can all but see her knickers is not for her - so she's decided to dress like Princess Anne's idea of a Mod instead. Oh well, it's her show, she can wear what she like. And she absolutely nails Love's A Broken Heart.

TOP OF THE POPS! One of her lesser songs, true, but even doing Where is Tomorrow? Cilla on TOTP is something to savour. Disappointingly the majority of the performance has been directed by a git, determined to show only Cilla's head and shouders, so it's impossible to tell if it's just the collar of her dress which is curled up on itself or if she's buttoned it up wrong and thus looks a little bit special in full view.

Liverpool Lullaby is obviously a song Cilla is comfortable singing, but even so she couldn't look more odd than in this clip from 'Cilla'. She's wearing another very short dress and cool shoes, for a start, which is a better look on Twiggy than Cilla, but with the sort of haircut more suited to her mum and which at times threatens to make her look middle aged. For the first time on this dvd in fact she looks like an entertainer than a singer, someone who parents might like at least as much as teenagers do. Take away the dress in fact and chuck her in a trouser suit and she could present Surprise Surprise no bother. The only surprise in this really is that there's no dancers pretending to be starving in the snow or anything behind her as she sings.

Arrgh - duet with Cliff! He's a good looking lad that Cliff - until he sings, when his mouth goes all weird and you can hear his bloody cringingly sincere voice. Horrible.

20th February 1969 - I was an embryo by this point! I suspect even then I could dance better than Cilla, who bops around at the start of Surround Yourself in Sorrow on TOTP, but presumably in time to a different song that only she could hear or even to the voices of dead christian missionaries singing Hallelujah in her head. Or maybe she was having a very minor stroke? And she's miming! Bah. Humbug.

I can't stand Yesterday and would have skipped past it had it not been the first colour clip. Even then I only managed 27 seconds: just enough time to check out Cilla in a red dress which just about covered her arse and with her hair now long and ginger, as opposed to short and an indeterminate colour in black and white. She looks almost exactly like Liz from Corrie actually.

From what is presumably the same 71 tour, she then does Going out of my head fairly dully, except for the fact she's back to wearing curtains as clothes again, this time yellow and billowing, making her look like Margot from the Good Life or a slimmed down post-op Demis Roussos. Not great on any level.

You've Lost the Loving Feeling - hate that song and Cilla's rubbish at it, starting off too low to allow her to hit the later high notes. I am Woman? You're So Vain? I can Sing a Rainbow? Imagine!?!?! Oh bugger off - all that's left is a succession of bad cover verisons briefly envlived by Alfie from 1973 sung by Cilla looking every inch the comfy seventies variety artiste so I turned the dvd off there and watched Black Books instead.

All in all The Ultimate Cilla is worth picking up for the superb disc of singles. The extra disc of music is patchy, leaning towards rubbish at times, but with enough interesting stuff to pass a happy hour.

And the bonus video is awesome! From 2003, it features Cilla miming in a tasselled cowboy jacket and boot cut jeans, spinning like a compass on the heel of one boot, with a slightly humiliated bunch of what seem to be christian rockers playing behind her. You just don't get enough of that sort of thing...



Cilla and the Christian Rockers



Cilla when she was good, doing Norwegian Wood with the Shadows

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Friday, November 13, 2009

A football fan writes...

Dear Players of Grimsby Town FC

I am writing with regard to my absolute astonishment and disbelief as to the sheer magnitude of your complete lack of talent and failure to carry out the job for which you are paid to do. I am not aware of any swear word or other derogatory phrase in my current vocabulary which comes close to a description of your ‘performance’ (and I use that term loosely) this afternoon, but let me just say that you have collectively reached a level of inadequacy and ineptitude that neither I nor modern science had previously considered possible.

In fact I recall a time, in my youth, when I decided to call in sick at work and instead spent the entire day in my one bedroom flat wearing nothing but my underpants, eating toast and wánking furiously over second-rate Scandinavian porn. Yet somehow, I still managed to contribute more to my employer in that one Andrex-filled day than you complete bunch of toss-baskets have contributed to this club in your entire time here. I would genuinely like to know how you pathetic little píssflaps sleep at night, knowing full well that you have taken my money and that of several thousand others and delivered precisely fúck all in return.

I run a business myself, and I believe I could take any 4,000 of my customers at random; burn down their houses, impregnate their wives and then dismember their children before systematically sending them back in the post, limb-by-limb, and still ensure a level of customer satisfaction which exceeds that which I have experienced at Blundell Park at any time so far this season. You are a total disgrace, not only to your profession, not only to the human race, but to nature itself. This may sound like an exaggeration, but believe me when I say that I have passed kidney stones which have brought me a greater level of pleasure and entertainment than watching each of you worthless excuses for professional footballers attempt to play a game you are clearly incapable of playing, week-in, week-out.

I considered, for a second, that I was perhaps being a little too harsh. But then I recalled that I have blindly given you all the benefit of the doubt for too long now. Yes, for too long you have failed to earn the air you’ve been breathing by offering any kind of tangible quality either as footballers or as people in general.

As such, I feel it’s only fair that your supply runs out forthwith. I trust, at this precise moment in time, that Mr Fenty is in his office tapping away on the Easyjet web site booking you all one-way flights to Zurich, complete with an overnight stay with our cheese eating friends at Dignitas. Don’t bother packing your toothbrush – you won’t need it. In the event that our beloved chairman can’t afford the expense (understandable given that he’s soon going to have to assemble a new squad from scratch), then I am prepared to sell my family (including my unborn child) to a dubious consortium of Middle Eastern businessmen in order to pay for the flights. Christ, I’ll drive you there myself, one-by one, without sleep, if I have to.

Failing that, understanding that most dubious Middle Eastern businessmen are tied-up purchasing Premier League football clubs, I ask you to please take matters into your hands. Use your imagination, guys – strangle yourselves or cover yourself in tinfoil and take a fork to a nearby plug socket, or something. Just put yourselves and us fans out of our collective misery.

So, in summary, you pack of repugnant, sputum-filled, invertebrate bástards; leave this club now and don’t you fúcking dare look back. You’ve consistently demonstrated less passion and desire than can commonly be found within the contents of a sloth’s scrótum, so frankly you can just all fuck off – don’t pass go, don’t collect your wages, don’t ever come back to this town again. I look forward to you serving me at my local McDonald’s drive-thru in the near future.

Yours sincerely

A very disillusioned Mariner

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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Strange Girls and Other Stories


I took the train across the Pennines from Manchester to Leeds in the spring, with the hills all verdant and the little train stations we stopped at glistening and bright from spring showers. The sun was shining in that weak, tentative sort of way it has in March and April and every town and village the train passed through looked like it was probably packed with second hand bookshops and winding streets full of junkshops and little cafes.

And yet the best bit of my trip south was none of that, but was when the train slowly chugged its way through the outskirts of northern industrial towns like Bolton and Blackburn, past abandoned factories and tumbling red brick walls, the signage long gone but the names of forgotten places still visible greyly amongst the soot. Obviously working factories are to be preferred to derelict ones, but I love industrial history and abandonment is perversely usually the only way to preserve industrial places as they once were.

That, and writing about them.

Co-incidentally, I picked up a copy of Sallie Day's The Palace of Strange Girls on another trip south, this time in Ilkley in Yorkshire. I bought it in one of those two books for a fiver deals you get in bookshops occasionally, and in another peculiarity showed it to Paul, who I was meeting up with in Ilkley, and he said 'I was on the judging panel who gave that book the Portico Prize you know'. Small world and all that...

The Palace of Strange Girls is set in that unfashionable post-war decade or so which existed before the Beatles and the sexual revolution. It's a particularly British period - or at least it feels that way to me - of austerity and want giving way to affluence and possession. It's an era amrked by masses of working class British teenagers aping their American counterparts for the first time, but in an awkward, not quite right, way that I recognise from my own teenage years in the early 80s but which no longer exists due to the Internet and the swamping of British television by US imports nowadays.

And yet at the same time it's a period of industrial upheaval, of layoffs and factory closures, as traditional working practices lose out to innovations generated by the wartime economy now filtering down to the country at large.

The story is of the Singleton family's trip to Blackpool in 1959: sickly Beth recovering from a heart operation ('A fifty/fifty chance of success' according to the surgeon), big sister Helen hoping to assert herself an an adult and parents Jack and Ruth bickering about everything, but mainly their differing ambitions.

It's a delightful, intricate sort of story, as the family interacts with other Blackpool inhabitants, permanent and transitory, and large and small tragedies loom out of the pages to come like speeding cars in the dark. In a very first novel sort of way, subplot layers upon subplot but unlike many first novels this kitchen sink approach works on every level.

And in the background, the destruction of the Lancashire cotton industry is tied neatly in to the familial strife, as Jack decides whether to take a job as a factory manager or as an area rep for the Union, and Ruth begs him to go with the union so that they can move to a bigger, better house.

It's Jack's story in many ways, in fact, which comes as a surprise in a book which could easily be read as very superior chick-lit. He has the glamorous past, the responsible and successful present and the promising future. His actions and inactions make or break everybody's future: financially, socially, personally, emotionally. His physicality - described at various times as a soldier, a worker, a fist fighter and a passionate lover - is contrasted with his intellectual abilities and more gentle nature: there's a gorgeous passage, for instance, where Jack wanders round the hotel dining room, naming the weaves in every different kind of cloth as Beth points to curtains and tablecloths, clothes and napkins. And in the end, even while the author claims that he is 'not a sentimental man' it's Jack who ensures that all of those who matter to him get what they want, even where it's not entirely what they deserve.

A lovely book all round, really - one character says towards the end of the book that he'll be glad to see the back of the fifties, but I'd have been happy to stay with the Singletons a little longer.





Blackpool in 1959

* Factory image courtesy of Mzacha

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Saturday, November 07, 2009

And that was Bagpipe Whisky with their Asparagus Puppy EP

Like most people my age I suspect, I seem lately to have got in real rut musically. I own thousands of albums and cds and mp3s but I tend to find myself putting on the same dozen or so albums over and over again. Bit of Antony and the Johnsons, bit of Bowie, maybe a track or two by Frightened Rabbit, the Eels or a compilation of my favourite tracks. Rarely anything new.

And it used to be so different.

Back in 1984, lying in bed in the dark, listening to John Peel discussing the latest Liverpool game in between tracks, writing down band names on pieces of paper (is Bogshed one word or two? where the hell can I buy Retard Picnic by the Stupids? Are I, Ludicrous more like the Fall or Half Man Half Biscuit?) or borrowing albums from our mate Dave, who had effortlessly cooler music taste than anyone else I knew ('you'll like this', shoving a copy of 'Y' by The Pop Group in my hand before we headed to the pub. He was right).

But now it's 2009, and I don't seem to have the time any more. Plus DJs are all about wacky catchphrases, irritating jingles and comedy sidekicks. So I hear far less new music than I used to.

Until last night, when I downloaded a podcast by an iPal, Ned, who likes Iris and wrote a nice story which almost made it into the Panda Book of Horror. Plus he seemed to have good music taste, which is handy.

(I've always been a bit wary of podcasts, incidentally. Just an excuse for spods to talk at interminable length about how much they fancy David Tennant, or for fans of Radio 4 to pretend that theirs is the only kind of radio that matters. As dull and pointless as Craig Burley, frankly.)

To cut to the chase - since I'm supposed to be taking Matt and Cameron round to Spar to buy gogos - Ned's podcast was brilliant. It lasts an hour and 8 minutes and I'd stuck it on the mp3 player for when I was walking the dog, thinking I'd give it ten minutes then switch to the new Twilight Sad album.

By the time Ned signed off, the dog was knackered and I was soaking after an 80 minute walkin the rain, but it was well worth it. Someone doing radio in a normal speaking voice, interspersing the music with brief chat about what was going on round them ('it's pissing down' Ned pointed out at one point - at least he was indoors!) but crucially remembering that the show was primarily about the music, not the chat.

Of course it helped that the music was worth listening to. Not all my cup of tea but some great stuff (for those interested, I was particularly taken with the first track, a cover of Blue Midnight by a band called Grand Erector and by an extended drone by a Norwegian guy) and always interesting. Plus a good little interview with James from the mighty Twilight Sad (whose new album is worth a listen btw).

It's obviously a work in progress - the segues during the interview into Twlight Sad tracks were a little too abrupt, and I've never been a fan of little clips of songs as played during the recommended Five Tracks section, but other than that it was all spot on.

I mean how can you not love any DJ who says, in a conversational tone, 'That was Bagpipe Whisky with "Men Bason" from the "Asparagus Puppy" EP"*?

And not a comedy sidekick in sight...

http://wasistdas.co.uk/Radio.htm#Show2

* As a former member of bands called My Dog Eats Spiders and The Creepy Fish, I do appreciate a mental band name...

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Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Win a copy of The Panda Book of Horror


We (Obverse Books) are running a small competition in conjunction with Outpost Skaro!

To win a copy of the Panda Book of Horror, just create an image or animation promoting the book (you can use the image to the left if you want) - go to

http://tinyurl.com/ycl7q5s

and have a bash! (you need to join the forum to do so but it's a decent sort of place, promise).


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Attack of the Killer Cucumbers

The Butcher of Smithfield: Chaloner's Third Exploit in Restoration London (2008)

Susanna Gregory's Matthew Bartholomew books are entertaining if slight medieval murder mysteries set in and around 14th century Cambridge University. More efficient than inspired, they're the kind of books you buy to take on holiday and then leave in the hotel for the next guest.

They pass the time enjoyably enough, but you're unlikely ever to want to re-read them, basically.

What they're definitely not is Patricia Finney style medieval spy novels, Smiley in Elizabethan times, with richly described historical detail, intricate and logically consistent plots and a cast of finely sketched characters moving around a wholly believable world.

Which is why I should have suspected Gregory's second series of historical detective novels might be a bridge too far for the author - and for the reader. The Thomas Challoner books are set immediately post the restoration of Charles II, with the eponymous hero a spy for the Earl of Clarendon - a position he formally held under Cromwell's government. It's a promising set up and an interesting and relatively unexplored period, but where in the hands of a Finney or Martin Steven I'd expect something deep and layered, here the prose is at best workmanlike and - more importantly - the central puzzle has so obvious a solution that the failure of Challoner to spot it for several hundred pages serves only to make him look an idiot.

An incredibly straight-forward and obvious anagram turned ludicrous co-incidence, a scattering of clues so completely telegraphed that they may as well have been written in a different font to the rest of the text and a tendency to change the intelligence of each character from page to page in order to shove the story onwards, made this a real struggle to read.

Add in a habit (admittedly slightly less pronounced than in the Bartholomew novels) of devoting paragraph after paragraph to pointless and unconnected historical data which serves merely to highlight that the author has done some background reading, and this is a book - and I suspect series - to avoid like the mysterious and poisonous cucumbers which kick off the mystery (that's not as interesting as it sounds, incidentally).

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Monday, November 02, 2009

Saturday was my birthday!

Presents galore...

iPhone!

Star Trek TOS Season 1 on Blu-ray!

Pon Farr sex perfume (not cologne due to idiocy on Scott's part)!

Hitchcock dvd box set!

A jumper which I look slim in!

Books! Books! Money to buy books with!

Then...

Food!

Comedy!

Alcohol!

Dancing!

More alcohol!

Taxi home in the wee small hours!

Subsequently...

Hangover!

Hangover!

Oh God, hangover...

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