Well, Reading really caught the brunt of the cold weather this time around. X&HTowers is blanketed under about a foot of cold crisp white stuff, and looks more festive than Santa’s new socks. I’ve been really lucky with shift patterns over the festive season, and am happy to report that The Big Freeze, as most unimaginative news outlets are calling it, coincided with three days off. Yes, OK, I have to work this weekend, but I don’t have to work now, which pleases me greatly.
2010 is, I think, the year when Working From Home becomes much more important, especially if the country continues to be caught out by EWEs (Extreme Weather Events, Ⓒ Rob Wickings if no-one’s snagged that term yet). It’s like taking a duvet day without the guilt, or the chance of getting caught out by the boss. With the prelavence of netbooks and smartphones it’s now so easy to Work From Home that you can do it from a cafe. Or if you prefer, the pub. Why pay for all those expensive business premises when you can just bitch about your colleagues and play soduko in the nearest Barstucks? It’s been coming for a while, and all it takes is one more EWE, one company where no-one bothers to come in, business continues as usual and the clients don’t notice and … well, I reckon it’s time to start investing in multi-purpose public spaces. Wave of the future, I’m telling you. Make ’em weatherproof and give ’em free wi-fi and creche facilities, and you’re rocking. Why close libraries, when you could turn them into something like that?
I wish I had the option. Sadly, my work still requires a physical presence, which means braving public transport and the train services. I have a bicycle. Buggered if I’m going to use it in this weather. I can walk to Reading Station if I need to, which I have to frequently as buses and taxis evaporate in Reading as soon as the weather takes a turn for the rotten. If you need a workout, nothing beats walking uphill in a snowstorm. It’s that heel-toe action that you have to adopt to prevent the comedy prat-fall and inadvertent face-first snow angel action. It works muscles that you’d forgotten you had. Muscles that have taken the opportunity to remind you of their presence by complaining loudly.
The end result of all this has been that I have taken great pleasure in spending the last couple of days with my butt in a chair, laptopping. I have been working hard on a New year treat for you all, which is the first step in what I am calling The Year Rob Makes Contact. I have great hopes for this year, despite all the evidence so far that it’s going to be rubbish. Come on, we’re only a week in. Give the new guy a chance.
In the mean time, here’s a little something. Below is a PDF to a short piece called The Body Politic. It’s excerpted from a longer piece, Under Glass, which I SWEAR will never see the light of day. It was a badly-misjudged piece of erotic writing, and it makes my toes curl in all the wrong ways. Not pretty. The bit I’m sharing has a few merits, though. It’s here as a PDF. I’d appreciate it if you can let me know if you have any problems either reading it, or dumping it onto your hard drive. My reasons for this will become clear soon enough.
Christmas is not Christmas to me unless the first song played is the Bruce Springsteen version of Santa Claus Is Coming To Town. This has been going on certainly since the mid-eighties, where it was used as reveille, a blast of joyous noise to get you out of bed. Or at least to signal that Dad was up.
I suspect his adoption of the song as the Wickings Christmas anthem came out of the song’s appearance on the B-side of the My Hometown single, which made it the first time you could own the song as opposed to just listening out for it on the radio. It’s always been a Dad-sponsored thing, although I’ve carried it on, and I suspect I am the only one of his three boys that does so. I got my love of The Boss from him. That being said, It’s also his fault that I like prog rock, so there’s swings and roundabouts.
There’s just something about the song that sends the hairs up on the back of my neck at this time of year. The quiet opening with the sleigh bells and Roy Bittan’s gentle piano. The Big Man’s solo. The bit where Bruce nearly loses it as Santa arrives behind him.
I love the video, that was a regular feature on the Old Grey Whistle Test for at least three years, that I think is a recording of the 1978 Winterland gig where the version we know came from (UPDATE: memory serves me poorly, it seems. There IS a version shot in ’78, but it’s from Passaic, New Jersey and it’s black and white. I’m probably getting that and the version of Rosalita that Hepworth and co always used to play mixed up. Still good, though. Have a look.)
This year Dad mentioned in passing that he was thinking of playing the Dylan version of “Must Be Santa” instead of Bruce first thing on Christmas Day. It’s a good version, sure, and the video is a riot. But it’s not the same. And I was quite genuinely shocked. The very thought that he might play something else to blast the Nans and Mum out of bed on Christmas morning seemed so alien. It pulled against the tradition that we two had so carefully set up and kept running for all those years.
I’m happy to report that he didn’t break the chain, and the Big Man still blared over Havering on Friday morning, in the same way that the Micra shook to the beat as we whizzed down the M4 to join him and the family.
A quicky, as I’m at work. That’s my excuse for link blogging, but there’s a chunk of work in the pipeline.
Like the wonderful Post Secret, SOMEONE ONCE TOLD ME is a brilliantly simple idea. The heart of it is a collection of simple B&W photos of people holding up a placard of a truism, fact or weird piece of advice that they were once told. It’s random, funny, moving and utterly addictive.
And sometimes it comes up with some really good advice.
Being offline for a morning (not my fault by the look of it, the cable modem’s flashing where it shouldn’t, and the Virgin Media tech support line is permanently busy) does tend to concentrate the mind on all the other chores I should be doing rather than farting around on the web. But it also tends to concentrate one’s thoughts on the inherent fragility of the online existence.
Take Spotify, as an example. This brilliant music streaming service is being held up by many (including me) as the first step towards a radical new business model for the music business. Pay a tenner a month, and eight million tracks are yours. Up until the point where a workman with a jack-hammer chops a cable in half, killing internet connection. All of a sudden you’re paying for… nothing. Better hope the hard drive you stashed all your music on before eBaying all your CDs still boots.
Actually, let’s think this through. Say, like me, you use Google for a lot of your services, upload text to Google Docs, have online storage with any number of companies. Online banking. Chatting to friends in foreign countries. Online gaming, online shopping. Perhaps even running a business. If you couldn’t get at any of that stuff, then you’re stuffed.
This is, of course, exactly what the government’s proposing to do to alleged file-sharers, as part of their brave new digital strategy thought up in a couple of days flat and sketched out on a napkin by Peter Mandelson, completely superseding the moderate, carefully considered Digital Britain survey on which Labour spent months and millions. If one member of a household is “found guilty” of “excessive file-sharing” (these points are in quote marks as there’s no guidelines as to what either of these terms mean in reality. There’s no mention of any particular up/download limit after which filesharing becomes excessive, and certainly no mention of fair legal process or right to appeal) the whole household suffers.
There’s a school of thought that the Internet should become listed as an essential service, which it already is here at X&HTowers. This becomes more relevant when you consider that the Government is already moving some of it’s services and information onto a purely online basis. I now have to administrate Sick Puppy Films Ltd. through the Companies House website, as they charge me to submit my accounts on paper. This is only set to increase, and it becomes a matter of ever-growing horror and disbelief to me that there is consideration to throttle a vital conduit of services and information on shaky legal and ethical grounds.
See, even now I’m putting off sorting out the flat tyres on my bike in favour of ranting about the internet.
Ooh, look, the modem’s playing nice again. Gotta go. I have YouTubing to catch up on.
There’s already been plenty of guff about the update to iPhone software that will be announced next week, and how it will finally address issues that have been waved in the faces of owners of said phones as fairly basic weaknesses.
I’ll try not to spend too long on the subject, then. There are just a couple of things I wanted to briefly discuss.
So, we finally get MMS. So what. If I want to send someone a photo from the phone, I email it. I’ve had perhaps three MMS links sent to me in the 18 months or so that I’ve owned an iPhone. Don’t miss that bit of functionality, but then I’ve not been 15 for a very long time.
Cut and paste is of course desperately important. Since I moved to WordPress last year, more and more posts on the blog have been at least first draft generated on the phone, using the excellent free app. And I use SyncBook as a form of jotter now almost daily, dropping notes back to the Mac as .rtf files with no fuss at all.
So, it’s become a writing tool, and the announcement that iPhone 3.0 would allow Bluetooth sync with devices other than earphones is the most important bit of news for me. If I could use the phone with a small wireless keyboard, then it suddenly becomes my go-to portable writing tool, and I don’t have to lug the laptop around with me.
This kind of functionality has been around for smartphones for a while, (Warren Ellis used a Palm attached to a fold-out for quite a while, as I recall, as did an august member of my writing group – an arrangement he called the Economy Laptop) so it’s about darn time that Apple stepped up and offered it to me. After all, it’s not like they don’t already make a Bluetooth-equipped keyboard that would fit very snugly in a small rucky or *ahem* manbag.
I’ve been considering a netbook as a mobile writing solution for a little while, but this would seem a cheaper option that integrates much more snugly with the way I work now.
I don’t have a problem with the touch keyboard that lives in the phone, per se. I’ve learnt that it’s best to relax and let error correction take care of a lot of the bumpy bits, and it’s right a lot more often than it’s wrong. Although I have to admit, proofing is even more vital for the occasional fubar. And of course, I’m not as fast as I would be on a regular keyboard, although not by as wide a margin as you might imagine.
A seperate keyboard would sort me out nicely for writing on the train, which is quickly becoming my principal chunk of thinking time. Who knows, if that arrangement works out I might even contemplate doing chunks of this years NaNoWriMo on it.
I’m on a train, heading back home from That London. It’s late, and I won’t be in bed before midnight. On any normal Wednesday night this might be an issue. But my working life is changing shape for the next few months, and I am no longer a slave to the standard routine.
Once again, I have been shifted onto a night shift at work. The difference is that I have decided to embrace that life, complete with benefits and pitfalls, and am going to try to make the best of it.
I’m working a seven-day fortnight, which is a week on, week off deal. Obviously, the week on is a prize pig. Six 12 hour days on the trot. 72 hours crammed into one long working week. The compensation is that week off. Careful holiday planning can help take the sting off, and I find that I’m getting more things done in the down time, as opposed to monging in front of the telly. It’s early days yet, and I’m sure that’ll change. The worry is how long it’ll take to recover from the on week, and how much desperately needed sleep is going to eat into that time off. That is something I’ll have to see about, although I can’t pretend it’s a situation I’m looking forward to much. I guess if I start posting in monosyllabic grunts, then you’ll know how well I’m dealing with it.
For the mean time, I’m just enjoying the benefits of a late night out without consequence. The reason for my late train journey? Finally, I went to see Watchmen. A faithful, loving adaptation of one of my favourite books. Surprisingly sensitive in places, jaw-droppingly crass in others. I didn’t mind the change of ending, although it’s a worry when you find yourself thinking that the only reasonable opinion in the room is coming from Rorschach. And I never really even noticed Dr. Manhatten’s big blue dong. I guess the storytelling must have worked out after all.
I thought I’d wait until we were safely past the random celebration of a random date in an outdated calendar (hope you all enjoyed the leap second) before posting my musings on what I have been calling The Year Of Change. I’m not even going to mention the state of the global finances, the regime change in Washington, or the re-evaluation of Andrew Sachs’ career into the role of a sweet old thing with a saucy grand- daughter.
No, just on a very personal level it’s been a wild ride. The company I worked for no longer exists, and I am busy on a fairly high profile long term project. I put up a proper website, with a promise of a lot more writing (yes, I know blogging is displacement activity, why do you think I gave the site that particular title?) Clare changed jobs. So did several of my close friends. One mate saw his company bought put by a private investment firm. Two people very close to me went through painful seperations and moved back in with their parents. Two friends announced marriage plans. Two others got married secretly. Three others, one of whom I would not have expected, announced upcoming parenthood. Oh, and Mum and Dads’ cat was run over.
Seriously turbulent times. Five years of change crammed into one tumultuous twelvemonth. I guess surviving upheaval makes you stronger, but I really hope that this year we get slightly more solid foundations. Otherwise, how can we rebuild what has been lost, or build on what we have gained?
The image of the year for me is one that was used during the blackest part of WW2, and began popping up on tshirts and posters this year. I offer it in lieu of any decent advice.
I remember a conversation I had with my mate Kevin back at the turn of the century, where we considered what we were, the state of the industry and our chances for the future. We considered the matter thoughtfully, over more than a several pints of IPA. And we came to the conclusion that, like the Chinese curse, we would be living in interesting times.
I hate it when we’re right sometimes.
To all of you, oh Readership, I wish you a dull and uninteresting 09.
Hey ho let’s go. Here, in no order of preference or alphabetical…ness… are the songs that most moved, inspired or cheered me during the last tumultuous twelvemonth. Complete with commentary, so I apologise for the length of this post. Just listen to the songs if you’d rather.
The Hold Steady: “Lord I’m Discouraged.”
“Stay Positive” is the most recent Hold Steady album, and an instant favourite. It was conspicuous by it’s absence on a lot of critics best of years lists – a criminal omission in my view. It’s an epic song cycle of Catholic mysticism, rock and roll hedonism and dirt poor street tribalism. A triumph, and on pretty constant replay here at X&HTowers. There are better tracks on the album (although the guitar solo is a thing of majestic beauty), but this is the one that gave this website it’s name, and it gets the nod for that.
AC/DC: “Rock and Roll Train”
Oh, yes, here’s the good stuff. “Black Ice” marked a return for one of my favourite bands after an eight year absence, and they did it in style by not changing a damn thing. Their irascible refusal to put the album on iTunes hacked me off a bit, but the album gets plenty of routing into the regular playlist, so they are forgived. And I’ve bought tickets to see them at Wembley this June, which is gonna be a great day out. “Rock And Roll Train” is the chosen track. As solid a statement of intent to head up an album as any I’ve heard in a while.
Bruce Springsteen: “Radio Nowhere”
“Magic” is a fantastic album, and seeing Broooce at the Emirates last summer was one of the highlights of the year for me. The three-hour show he pulled was non-stop energy, fire and thrills. I’m a rabid fan, and he lived up to every expectation. Like “Rock And Roll Train” above, “Radio Nowhere” tells you exactly where Bruce is heading from the first 20 seconds of the record. A new album coming this January, and rumours of him headlining Glasto this year are going to make me a very happy fanboy.
Elbow: “Grounds For Divorce.”
About flippin’ time that everyone caught up with me. Winning the Mercury Music Prize was one of those moments when the world made sense, and one of the most genuinely innovative bands on the planet finally got the recognition they deserve. “The Seldom-Seen Kid” is a record in widescreen. Stirring, moving and endlessly rewarding. A true highpoint.
I’ve chosen this track because, let’s face it, why would I not choose a track that starts with the line “I’ve been working on a cocktail called Grounds For Divorce”?
Eddie Vedder: “Rise”
This is from the soundtrack to Sean Penn’s Into The Wild, a film of rare restraint and beauty. The same could be said of Eddie Vedder’s accompanying music. Acoustic textures and Eddie’s trademark croon makes this album a late night favourite. “Rise” is the perfect example of the pleasures that the soundtrack offers.
Fleet Foxes: “White Winter Hymnal”
I played this album on Christmas Day. After Bruce doing “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town,” of course, which has been a family ritual for as long as I can remember. The Fleet Foxes album, an evocative rendition of crisp, cold winter days could become an addition to that tradition. White Winter Hymnal gets the nod here as the absolute distillation of that “Beach boys fronted by Jim Jones from My Morning Jacket in a church” vibe that permeates the album. Chilling in all the right ways.
Freezepop: “Less Talk More Rokk”
A Boing Boing find, and one of those perfect pop moments that just digs under the skin and hides in the hindbrain. I love the balance of cool female vocals and deranged electronic riffage. This track also appears on Guitar Hero 2, and I can imagine it tying your fingers in knots. That intro is harsh.
The Gutter Twins: “Idle Hands”
Mark Lanegan and Greg Dulli, both artists I admire greatly, got together this year as The Gutter Twins, and came up with one of the albums of the year. Epic, taut, vicious and oozing a bruised romanticism all at once. “Idle Hands” is the theme to the best horror movie never made.
Martha Wainwright: “Tower Of Song”
Time to get meta on your asses. I had the distinct pleasure to see both Leonard Cohen and Martha Wainwright live this year. The Martha gig was especially memorable, as it was an intimate gig at the Borders in Oxford St for winners of an online competition. It was a thirty minute acoustic set, which showcased her brilliant album “I Know You’re Married But I’ve Got Feelings Too” (one of the titles of the year too!) That album contains a track called “Tower Song”. This, though, is a cover of my favourite Cohen track for a Mojo covermount.
The cross-contextuality makes my head spin.
“Dig, Lazurus, Dig!!!“: Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds
Three exclamation points in a song is always worthy of comment. A big, fat swagger of a track from a big fat swagger of an album. Nick Cave has never been afraid to deal with issues of faith and filth, and he’s utterly confident on both on this record. I find I drop into a strut whenever this comes up on the playlist. Don’t be afraid to do the same.
“5:05“: Paul Westerberg
This track appeared as a free download earlier in the year, as a taster for a new album that PW was going to release under a similar model as Radiohead’s “In Rainbows”. As yet, that album is yet to appear, but the ramshackle charm of “5:05” makes me eager to see if the album can live up to the promise of the single. The title? It’s the duration of the track, of course…
“The Rip“: Portishead
Soundtracky noir and I have always got along especially well, so it’s no surprise that I’m a Portishead fan. But 3, their long-awaited third album took all the preconceptions about what they were, gave them a noogie, a spitclean and a long hot kiss and sent them off to do great things. I love the single, Machine Gun, the best use of syndrums since New Order’s Blue Monday, but The Rip is a movie in miniature, a transforming monster of a track that gets better with every listen.
“The Great Gig In The Sky“: Pink Floyd
Richard Wright’s death finally ended all speculation of a Pink Floyd reunion. It was a deeply poignant event, as he had been playing live again with Dave Gilmour, and was beginning to be regarded as the quiet still point at the heart of the Floyd. I offer up his greatest moment, the song he wrote that is the highwater mark of their greatest album. I always found it especially moving, and even more so now.
“Consoler Of The Lonely“: The Raconteurs
This came out of nowhere. Released within a fortnight of it’s completion, “Consolers Of The Lonely” is a monster of an album, like “Music From Big Pink” as played by Led Zeppelin. Jack White has never been on better high-hollerin’ form. Love it to bits. The first track tells you exactly what to expect. Incidentally, the first verse describes the low points of my mental and physical state over this year pretty accurately. Another reason I relate so strongly to it, I guess…
“I’m Gonna DJ“: REM
2008 saw my Georgia boys finally step up and deliver the album they’d promised for the past decade. A tight, sharp, bright shot of sunshine, Accelerate included a live favourite that was part of the mythos to such an extent that lyrics from it had featured on official tour t-shirts. It’s great to see it finally on record, cos it’s a stomping beast. Music will provide the light. You cannot resist.
“Please Read The Letter” – Alison Krauss and Robert Plant
“Raising Sand” is a spare, intimate and subtle album that feels like an intrusion into a delicate, careful courtship. Planty calms the wailing loverman act, tempering his urgent heat in the face of Alison Krauss’ sweet ice-cream coolness. “Please Read The Letter” is the track that does it for me, a tale of yearning, loss and sacrifice that fills me with emotions that I cannot quite name.
“Inní Mér Syngur Vitleysingur“: Sigur Rós
One of my favourite bands and one that I was lucky enough to see live this year, at the Westminster Methodist Hall. At this point in their career, they have learned that melancholy can only get you so far. They lightened up, and started to sing and dance. With a track as infectious as this, you can only join in. Even if you don’t speak Icelandic.
Oh, and one of the weirdest points of the year – Sigur Ros interviewed on More4 News about the collapse of the Icelandic banking system. A true WTF moment.
“I Feel Alright“: Steve Earle
The final season of The Wire was the major TV event of the year for me, and the soundtrack to that show, “… And All The Pieces Matter” is a perfect counterpart. This Steve Earle track, that played over the end of the final episode of season 4, sums up the show for me. Bitter, beaten, yet eternally hopeful in the face of a cruel and arbitrary universe that seems to delight in punishing you for doing the right thing. And it’s said Americans don’t do irony…
“That’s Not My Name“: The Ting Tings
I heard this for the first time on Jonathon Ross’ show, and instantly had that spinal zap-chill that told me it would be a phenomenal hit. Feminist anthem, the 21st century’s own Clapping Song (a debt that Katie and Jules acknowledged by having a double dutch crew on stage with them at Reading), an earworm of the highest order. It’s a track that polarises people, but I bloody love it.
The random one. Not even sure where I heard this first, but this dose of Georgian jazz-pop gets my tag as Song Of The Year. Dating back to the late 60’s, it starts as a choral exercise of rare medieval power, before morphing into a finger-popping bounce groove that just grows and grows. It’s one of the reasons I love random surfing for music, and shuffle remains my playback mode of choice. Quite simply, I love it when music surprises me, and that’s something that every song I’ve featured here has done.
I hope you approve of my choices. Here’s to more of the same this year!