Saturday, 10 November 2012

absolute beginners

Children of the future Age,
Reading this indignant page;
Know that in a former time,
Love! sweet Love! was thought a crime.

Sex education was a musical adventure when I were a lad. Bare with me, I'll explain . . .

Nowadays with the ubiquity of the internet, young people have seen everything, know what it looks like, and what it's for. Travel back with me, dear reader to a time when there was no internet or even Page 3. Pre-Sun, even.

I was quite keen on "wild life" when I was at Junior School - I was a member of the WWF and collected PG Tips cards with all that info about animals in danger of extinction. My pocket money just about stretched to buying badly printed booklets from Cramphorns ( a pet shop-cum-garden-centre) and some British Wildlife-type magazine that I've long-since forgotten. Observer's books of birds/animals/bird's eggs etc too. Basically, as a kid of about ten I was quite up on British wildlife - okay I was probably a boring geek but a spell at Grammar school soon beat that out of me (via an awful bullying science teacher). Anyway, I remember that I read zoology books (my first career choice) and it seemed okay - to be quite honest, I had no idea about that funny picture:

What the hell does that mean to a ten year old?

My mate Josh - who became an F1 driver long before that other, more notorious F1 driver from Stevenage - explained to me that it had something to do with the jokes all the girls were making. And why we played kiss chase with the girls in the year above.  And possibly why Cindy Marlowe and the exquisitely (and alliteratively  named) Melanie Mucket were so popular. Josh had an older brother who worked for RSO and "knew" Eric Clapton.  Actually, that didn't mean much to me as I was so naïve I had no idea who the hell he was talking about. You have to remember that I was probably much like the kid in Son of Rambow at this point. To be honest, if Josh had held on to all those wonderful old pop and psyche singles from the late sixties/early seventies his brother gave him he'd make a fortune on ebay. Perhaps he did. He obviously didn't become the first Louis Hamilton!

Anyway, Josh seemed to know about all those jokes those girls with the funny bumps in their jumpers kept making.  I thought I got it - but those comments were about animals, surely? I must admit, I never put these things together -I mean, I had an older sister and I knew what girls looked like naked. The lads down the street were quite persuasive (I won't explain that point here) and the "girls next door" seemed okay about showing me their's - it was all very innocent. Just looking. Remember, no opportunity to see it all online. I remember liking pictures of film stars like Dahlia Lavi  and Sydne Rome but not really why I liked them!

Perhaps Josh's older brother explained things to him - by the time I went to secondary school I was completely confused. An all boys school meant that girls were an unknown quantity. I had an older sister who kept bringing her friends home - they seemed interesting to be around.  They probably hated me being there but they were, er,unsettlingly interesting. Occasionally uncomfortable for all of us (certainly me) but strangely alluring. I remember my sister brought home an lp of Hair.  There was a particular moment one afternoon when my sister and her attractive grammar school girlfriends were sitting in the front room listening to it when my mother came in to chat to them. Raising her eyes to heaven about the nature of the songs on it, she seemed to continue to hover in the room. Maybe she was asking what my sister wanted for tea, I'm not sure. I still don't understand why they put up with me, a ten year old kid sitting there in he same room with them, but . . . they did.  As one particular song came on, my sister jumped up to change the record saying something like, "well we don't want to listen to this one really!" But my mother did - she said, "oh no leave it on - it's the only nice one on the album."

The silence was palpable. I've never been in a room where everyone was so obviously uncomfortable before. Or since.

The music started and the singer sang:

Father, why do these words sound so nasty?
Can be fun
Join the holy orgy
Kama Sutra

Wïth a wonderful innocence, my mother walked out of the room without a word. As a fairly innocent naif, I found it funny - but I  didn't know why.

Anyway, at age eleven - 1967, the Summer of Love -  I went to grammar school. No girls. Even less chance to understand what the hell was going on. In these days there was the "Hedge System" which is a concept we have possibly met before. Basically, it meant that youngsters "found" copies of magazines like Parade and much later, Fiesta* left in unlikely places like under hedgerows. Now, I'm not sure this was an actually well known way of passing knowledge on but it did genuinely happen. There you are, walking along the fields near your house with a mate when a torn colourful magazine was poking out from under a hedge. Nowadays I tend to be pleased when some rosehips or sloes are poking out from under a hawthorn hedge but then, a copy of Parade with a cheeky rural lass with her charms showing was a much better harvest. Actually, they were more like a full colour version of the Sun, little was on actual show. And Health & Efficiency airbrushed it all out.  I'm aware from what I'm told that airbrushing is still important - probably Photoshop nowadays, I suppose. Well, that's the "Hedge System" - the visual part of our education.

Meanwhile, our sex education was being moved on in more musical ways.

My father and uncle were members (fna, fnaa) of the Baldock Working Men's Club. This was somewhere that working class families could go for an evening out without paying for baby-sitters. Much beer was drunk and bingo was played. After the bingo, if my uncle had had enough beer, he would get up and sing I Left My heart In San Francisco.  That was the only song I ever heard him sing. Usually, on a Sunday evening, there was also a comedian and a musical act. Generally, the musical act was a three piece resident band in the style of The Peddlars** with a drummer, bassist and a saxophone player called Rodney who, I believe, my sister was rather enamoured of. Their shtick was to play versions of popular songs of the day - they did a mean Lazy Sunday Afternoon, I remember - but occasionally when covering for late main acts (or non-appearances) they performed such numbers as a rather surprising ditty called Lady Chatterley's Lover to the tune of An English Country Garden. I'm not making ANY of this up. We had to make our own entertainment in those days, I guess. However, I'll leave it to your imaginations.

At about this time the charts began to fill up with songs such as J'taime moi non plus by Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin ( I'm no French speaker but I'm assured that at one point he wishes to "pass between your kidneys") and Wet Dream by Max Romeo (the follow up to his more famed The Israelites) where he attempts to convince his young lady friend to lay prone and allow him to "push it up, push it up". This is repeated possibly because she is hard of hearing or just for rhythmical effect (!). Obviously, this was all rather confusing without a more worldly-wise mentor. By this time Josh was dreaming of becoming an F1 driver. There were stories of acquaintances such as the god-like almost mythical Charlie Backer who had, evidently, actually "done it" but most of us were a long way off from that. At this point a future in animal husbandry seemed more of a career path than anything else.

My father had been in the Royal Navy towards the end of the second World War - I believe he lied about his age - and during the halcyon years of the early 1970s was the Commander of the local Sea Cadets.This meant that at some point I had to join. I didn't last long but that's another story. Yes, I was a great disappointment to him. Still, it was a major part of my sex education.

On the various trips that we went on in the Cadets, we usually had to sit in the mini-bus or on coaches - occasionally on "whalers" (ridiculously long rowing boats - like Roman Galleons but without the percussionist) and, as was usual for the forces,  we had to listen and join in to popular songs. Now, I'm not sure if you're aware of such events but these sing-songs were where innocents like me learnt about the ways of the world.

From such musical exploits, I learned quite a lot about the opposite sex. I learned that in the Scottish town of Inverness there had been four and twenty virgins (no, I had no idea what they were despite being one) who had managed to go on a feminist Viking rampage of England; and about the length of hair on a woman's, er, "dickey dido" (what on earth that was). I also learned that there was a lady called Dinah who was implored to "show us your legs" - get this - a YARD above her knee. From my own observations of the various girls next door, that suggested somewhere above their chests. A yard? Perhaps maritime types liked really large women. I also learned at this rather tentative time in my development that the aforementioned Dinah also appeared to be rather different to her peer group. Whilst rich girls used Vaseline©, and poor girls used lard, Dinah, for some reason used "axle-grease". I didn't know why really nor did I really have any idea about what the hell all these older boys seemed to know about - I just went along with it all. I don't think my sister was ever going to explain it and, somehow I sure as hell knew my parents weren't going to.

So, all in all, it seems that Generation Console have it easy as far as learning about the others goes. I remember my father shuffling in to my room when I was about twelve and asking if we "did sex education" at school? Oh yes, I know all about it. The look of relief on his face that meant he had been able to relinquish all responsibility for "learning me" such stuff was palpable. It was always so embarrassing - no one wanted to talk about it. "It" was everywhere. The first naked woman I saw on tv was on Monty Python - thank you Carol Cleveland - but I knew what girls looked like. It was just going to be a few years before any of them would be - even vaguely - interested in me. Getting rid of spots and the advent of better hygiene helped. Oh, and going to college where there were girls as well as boys helped too!

All I'm saying, I suppose, is that we had to read between the lines and there seemed a lot more mystery than there appears to be now. Having instant access to some (extremely graphic) porn means that younger people  seem far more aware of what to expect.  I can assure you that (other than young master Backer, I guess) there was a lot of unexplored and unfamiliar territory to discover all those years ago.

Roll up, for the Magical Mystery Tour . . .

* slightly raunchier
** a light entertainment jazz combo featuring bass, drums and a keyboard/singer with a habit of soiling himself onstage much to the chagrin of his band mates

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

the dreams our stuff is made of

We certainly live in a science fiction world.

To think that I grew up in a house without even a phone - I bought my parents their first phone when I was about twenty. It was a Christmas present. Up until then we had very few people to call, maybe the doctor. My sister had married and eventually moved all the way from Stevenage to Hitchin (at least 3 miles from each other according to wikitravel). My best mate at school lived about eight minutes away - mind you, I had to go where there were dragons to get to his - Whitesmead Road; I still get the jitters thinking about it. 1970's Stevenage and places like that were the equivalent of police no-go areas now. That's where all the bully boys lived; the "broken families". But now, we have phones that are connected to us in the way Captain Kirk would have grown up with. Just think, had the bully boys had personal phones then, I would never have got through the alley up to Grace Way alive. "He's just entered the alley" - "Okay, we'll head him off at our end".

Over the last few year I've had to get used to laptops at work that connect you to electronic registers, 24/7 emails and instant access to the virtual world* and now, gentle reader the advent of the iPad. The iPad.  This is science faction.  When I turned it on the other day it had already linked in to my iPhone and personal emails. The iPad is a school object - tool, if you will. I hadn't "asked it" to connect to anything, I just turned it on. A bit frightening. At one point, I tried to download an app and both mine and my wife's phones and iPads were pinging with messages telling us that someone is trying to access and download stuff - it's all linked up. Seamlessly, it seems.

I am assured by those who know better - people who care - that this is all natural and part of the world we live in. To me, it smacks of witchcraft and a dystopian future.  I can write notes, plan lessons, keep a diary, make presentations, map journeys, use it as a compass and a gps system (we've been here before, I know); keep in contact with everyone (literally), check banking, read newspapers, magazines, novels, comics, watch tv, films listen to the radio and just about anything else you want to ask of it.

Another thing is to film on it - there are various ways of capturing ideas or documentary evidence available; there is nothing we can't record or document, it seems. All well and good. I suppose.

As mentioned previously, I can't actually read, watch or listen to all the stuff I have now and I'm sure I'm not the only one. The easier it has become to record and save everything, the easier it seems to compartmentalize stuff and ignore it.  The rise of "storage facilities" perhaps is endemic of this phenomenon. Those big yellow (usually) boxes on the edges of towns now house thousands of objects of ephemera that can easily be put of our minds. What will happen to these in the future as they are forgotten about - probably due to the space vacated in our houses giving space over to new chindogu. Are these new pyramids for future civilisations to find and make assumptions about us? I'm put in mind of that Arthur C. Clarke story Expedition to Earth where a future alien race find artifacts from the Twentieth Century and it ends up that it was a Disney cartoon they were watching. Suggesting, of course, that even our entertainment may seem like the pinnacle of our civilisation whilst ignoring the important stuff. Whatever that may be.

So, we have so much to take up our time now that we can't possibly process all the information available. Now I'm reminded of William Gibson's concept in Neuromancer of information being the Twenty First Century's main form of wealth/power.  The idea that all information available is out there (ie on the web) but the people with actual power are those who know the right things - you know, as far as wealth goes,  knowledge is power not how much money you have. As I often tell students, I may not be that intelligent but I know how to access information. This is a point that Ian Gilbert wrote about in Why Do I Need A Teacher When I've Got Google? I have learnt the skills required to access info and can work out what is the right info. "Research" nowadays seems to mean typing a phrase or word into Google and printing what comes out having not read it, processed or understood said info. This is where teachers are important to Gilbert - we can teach how to work out what you need to know.  An obvious point, I guess, but it doesn't seem to be globally accepted as such.

Anyway, at our school (all right, Academy) all the sixth form are being given iPads - hence me being given one as I'll need to know how to use one - but this could be seen more as a bribe than a reasoned educational imperative (I mean to keep the students at the school as opposed to defecting to another one). We'll see whether the experiment works.  I hope that they get them soon and the film and media students can get their production work made. Then we'll see whether it's useful for my subjects - whether they are going to be useful for the more traditional subjects, amongst others, is a moot point currently. I have a feeling that it's going to be difficult knowing what the students are actually doing - given that iPads were really designed for a more leisure approach to life. Texting and Gaming seem to be the more obvious choice for these machines. Still, I'm off to London again for the BFI Media conference later in the month and one of the workshops is "Using iPads in the classroom".

Hmm, I can't imagine for one minute that I'll come back much wiser but I'm sure the powers that be** know better.

* not that I ever bother to check work emails once I get home
** our management, that is, not the government - they'd have us using chalk and slates

Thursday, 1 November 2012

in your own time

somewhere a long time ago . . . 
time rise
time fall
time means nothing, nothing at all

I was going to write about the future but that will have to wait. Until tomorrow, I suppose. Having found ourselves with some time on our hands, Mrs Dave and I went to London for a few days.  We immersed ourselves in the past - partly intentionally. The National Theatre's production of War Horse was, as expected, absolutely breathtakingly good. We wandered out into the night to think about the day we'd experienced.  We started with the Tate's Pre-Raphaelite exhibition which was great, although I agree with Mrs D that the exhibits were rather packed in a bit too closely. We ended up in The Freemason's Arms round the corner from the New Theatre in Drury Lane, a Shephard Neame pub in Long Acre. Nothing special - old and new badly thrown together. All modern plasma screens and olde worlde charm(e). A bit naff and full of people shouting at their team on the ubiquitous football game. This was nothing like the lovely Greek restaurant we found housed in an old pub. It was tiny inside. The pub was the Kemble Head in Long Acre and the seats were all high up - all old, dark wood. To get round the problem of being cramped - it was pretty busy - they used what amounted to cake stands which was an interesting experience.  Especially for me as I'm usually very clumsy.   We got out unscathed.

I had picked up a copy of Simon Reynold's Retromania from Fopp the day before and alarm bells were already beginning to ring. All of the first Joni Mitchell albums in a cd set for £26!! Anyway, I recognise far too much of myself in Reynold's book. It's well worth a read. We also picked up a copy of Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris which was great fun - well worth the couple of quid Fopp charged us. The Allen character, played by Owen Wilson (who looks disconcertingly like my hairdresser) comments on how the past isn't dead, "it isn't even past"* and explores how we all look back to a more rosier time that we'd prefer to live in. In the film, the Allen figure keeps travelling back to 1920's Paris  to meet Hemmingway, the Fitzgeralds and Dali, Picasso etc, and the lady he meets wants to go back to 1890's Paris to meet Lautrec et al.

Mrs Dave asked which time I would like to go back to - I guess I was happy in the 1970s when so much seemed new. Reynolds talks about the pre-internet/You Tube/digital era and how we had to watch it or miss it, buy it or lose it World we lived in then. It's a subject I return to often, socially and professionally, but the past really was another country and we certainly lived differently there. I had a collector's mentality and still have a bit of a hoarder's one, too. I am getting better. Reading books like this is helping, to be honest.  The point Reynolds makes about how we have little time now (at my age) to read or listen to all the stuff we've hoarded and continue to collect, worries me.  Why do we keep all that stuff? Why collect more? Perhaps I should just STOP buying stuff and listen to/read/watch the huge amount of cds/mp3s/books/mags/films that I've collected? What will happen to it after I'm gone?** Does anyone care? Anyone out there?

Hmm, this wasn't the blog I expected to write (the one I'd planned is on its way), nor has it turned out how I would have liked; but I guess the past few days being drenched in the past (Art galleries and WW1 plays'll do that) have brought a few ideas bubbling up to the surface. I seem to have grown up with either the past or the future in my head - rarely the present, it seems. What's to love about the present (Buddhists need not reply)? That is, other than, it's all we've got?

I have bookshelves full of books that I'll probably never actually get round to reading. The problem is that I keep going into shops and seeing yet another bloody book worth reading . . ! Still, at least I still read books - lots of people don't, remember! I must admit that I have no real interest in people trying to recreate the past - there's too much of it around.  I'll carry on accepting the stuff from the past. I'm surrounded! As I write I am listening to Johnnie Walker's programme on Jackson Browne's Running On Empty and Ms Mitchell's Blue. I do listen to modern music as well.  At least, what I call modern music. If an artist is touring, recording and writing new songs, then, as far as I'm concerned, it's modern music. I do get very tired of people saying that it's old music - as I've just said, if it's just been written and recorded then it must be new.  Oh! you mean it's written and recorded by someone older than about twenty? Ah, get a life. I may not be over the moon about the Stones still pushing out "product" at their age but the likes of Andy Powell and John Tams are relevant because they've got an audience and still have something to say to that audience.  Just because something's new from some youngster doesn't exactly make it relevant to someone of my age. Generation Console just doesn't speak to me and I don't feel "old" because I don't get it; I need people of (a little above) my age using the tools I understand to put modern life into perspective.  We all need a signpost, that's why we have maps. Great songs by our slightly older peers work as exactly that. If someone's felt a similar feeling to the one I'm undergoing . . . then all the better. It's only a signpost.

As I said, I sometimes get accused of listening to "old music" yet when I talk to contemporaries and (slightly) younger people they all seem to think I'm up-to-date!  Maybe Show of Hands, The Oysterband and Aimee Mann are (near enough) contemporaries of mine but, for god's sake, they are working currently and not living in the past. Okay, I mean when those first two are singing their own recent (original) stuff. Interestingly, when 30/40 year old types moan they're still going to concerts to see Eighties acts being their own tribute bands! If I occasionally go to see Wishbone Ash then at least their recent albums are contemporary - I don't think we can honestly say that about acts such as these. As far as I can see, Andy Powell feels that at least he's got something to say whereas the self-tribute acts have nothing else to give.

I guess this one will run and run. Hopefully not emptily . . .

*okay, okay, William Faulkner's "people" want to sue me . . . get a life
** it'll be thrown away just like it probably should have been. Ephemera.

NB: This is a slightly modified version of this post after re-reading it this morning:  it seemed a bit shouty - too many CAPITAL LETTERS and exclamation marks!! Very poor writing. Must try harder.