Literary endeavours

Apologies for those of you waiting for the next instalment of the very-exciting-story-of-how-I-wrote-a-novel. Are there any of you? Well, I’ll assume so, for rhetorical purposes at least. I am sorry, and I haven’t forgotten about you.

The thing is, I have also been slightly involved in getting things ready for a different thing, which is a theatrical adaptation of a book called The Snow Spider.

Unlike my novel, this project has taken under three years to introduce to the general public, but I’d still very much appreciate any interest you wanted to take in it.

Here is an image associated with the show to whet your appetite:

Want to know what it’s all about? Well, it’s obvious, really. A coming-of-age story set in Wales. With snow. And a spider.

I promise I’ll get back to the self-publicity really, really soon, but in the meantime, you can book tickets for The Snow Spider here.

A strange ostrich-like relationship

A couple of years ago, my dear friends Phil and Del introduced me to their game ‘World Cup’ in which you play off 16 (or, if you have a lot of time on your hands, 32) things in a single category against each other in a series of heats, the winner of each round being the one that is ‘best’.

The joy of the game is that the randomness of the order of play, the vagueness of the question ‘which is best?’ and the fact that a single category (especially one along the lines of ‘things you can do on a Saturday’) can yield completely different types of ‘team’, makes for a bonkers series of heats in which you might end up fiercely debating whether the Bishop of Hereford is better than Elgar’s house.

I mention it because the BBC Religion and Ethics team played the same game at their hideously named BBC RE:THINK 2012 Religion and Ethics Festival, in which they asked some young people ‘which is the most important moral issue?’ out of the following choices:

– Paying taxes
– Having religious faith or beliefs
– Caring for the environment
– Buying ethical products
– Being faithful to a partner
– Looking after family
– Playing a part in your community
– Putting others before yourself

To point out, as did the person who drew my attention to this, that having religious faith is not a moral choice, is almost to take the ‘poll’ too seriously (though if we’re going to question the category itself, I had never previously considered ‘paying taxes’ a moral question, or even really a choice…). The point is that to pull eight Cub Scout Guide Book chapter titles out of a hat and ask young people to choose between them is as pointless as debating ‘what is the best thing you can keep in a hat’.

Apart from anything else, it’s not even like they’re exclusive and distinct categories. Some people play a part in their community because they have religious beliefs, without first stopping to ponder which is more important to them, or whether what they’re doing is actually more in the line of putting others before themselves. In a game of ‘World Cup’ at my school last summer, Covent Garden was being hotly contested against the Build-a-Bear shop (the category being ‘places in London’): eventually, the boys gleefully decided that Covent Garden was better because it actually includes a Build-a-Bear shop. They, at least, realised that it was ridiculous, showing more wit than the BBC Religion and Ethics team. (The fact that it is a prominent Anglican choir school does not excuse this.)

Aaqil Ahmed, Head of Religion and Ethics at the Beeb, considers the results ‘startling’. I challenge you to find a single startling thing in the results. I challenge you even to be interested enough to look up what they were. The only startling thing is that anyone thought it was worth taking part in such a vacuous survey.

As for using the results to show that their shows need to have ‘impact and relevance’ – and then desperately citing a documentary I’ve never heard of and Thought For the bloody Day… A department which made a documentary about the burial business in 21st century Britain ought to know when they’re digging their own grave.

I leave you with a simple question. Which of these things could you most live without in 21st Century Britain?

– Festivals
– Surveys
– Television
– Cycle lanes
– The BBC Religion and Ethics department
– The Build-a-Bear shop

And more drummers. Haven't we seen enough drummers?

So the Olympic closing ceremony is set to be, we are told by its artistic director, an elegant mash-up of British music. ‘A Symphony of British Music’ is the bold title it has been given; call me a cynic, but I’m about to get cynical.

My cynicism stems not least from the celebrated opening ceremony. Yes, yes, I know everyone loved the opening ceremony – I have no desire to be the only commentator apart from the Daily Mail to take against it and even if I had I certainly wouldn’t take against it for those reasons – I thought the whole thing was very impressive and very jolly and I shared the slightly socialist, multicultural, patriotic glow very gladly without actually staying up for long enough to be disappointed by Sir Paul.

But just to be a little objective about the music (and the incoherent musical montage segment through five decades of pop was the weakest section by a long way), for all that we were promised that the ceremony would reflect Danny Boyle’s great love of music, it was surely the work of somebody with a rather limited frame of reference?

Indeed, I’m not even sure it represented the best of British pop so much as the best of what was on Danny Boyle’s iPod. It was a show which made a centrepiece of the unbelievably mediocre and unimportant Mike Oldfield (I’m sorry, but his seminal work sounds like a poor demo album and his most substantial contribution to British heritage was an arrangement of the Blue Peter theme) and which climaxed (if the word can even be contemplated) with a horribly predictable and predictably horrible performance of an embarrassing wrinkled museum piece of a former Beatle singing one of his most overrated and annoying songs for what feels like the millionth time since he stopped being good at anything else. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to think of superior living British pop musicians who have contributed so much more and can still rock a stadium that big, even if we assume that Bowie isn’t coming out of retirement – how about Peter Gabriel in the Mike Oldfield slot, what could be a more British finalé than Kate Bush doing ‘Wuthering Heights’?

But that’s a niggle, a mere niggle. My main point, of course, is: what about all the other decades, centuries, genres?!! Where was a single representation of the great British contribution to the development of jazz, from the Dankworth/Scott/Shearing generation through to any number of incredible living jazz artists or fusion groups – how about a slot for Courtney Pine? What about the great British musical?! What about Noël Coward, or indeed Noel Gay? Antony Newley or Lionel Bart? And much as I loathe both the man and his music, what about Andrew Lloyd Webber, saviour of the West End that he once was?

And that’s just scratching the surface of the 20th century – the vital heritage of British music stretches back far further, and whilst Boyle’s presentation rightly acknowledged some of the richness of our hymnody there was no room for folksong. Most obvious of all, the entire canon of British classical music was represented by a couple of tracks from a Classic FM ‘greatest relaxing classics’ album and Simon Rattle conducting a comedy sketch with Rowan Atkinson. Even a bit of Gilbert and Sullivan would have been more sophisticated.

The Guardian‘s snide conclusion was that it was an eloquent enough remark on how marginal classical music really is in Britain today, so they presumably haven’t noticed that in spite of the Olympics, one substantial London arena is still playing host to the world’s largest classical music festival and crowds are flocking to hear a superb range of music new and old performed by some of the finest ensembles in the business. Marginal? Piss off, Guardian.

Just as the success of the Olympics has provoked the Prime Minister into at least pretending that he supports sport in education (ignoring the fact that his government sold off the playing fields in which it could be taught), events like the Olympic opening and closing ceremonies ought to be an opportunity to put the country’s arts in the limelight. Unfortunately, music runs the risk of looking marginal if it represented entirely by the kind of tracks you get on a DJ’s playlist for a 40th birthday party; Britain is, in fact, a hotbed of emerging musical talent in all genres, but if Thomas Tallis, Henry Purcell and Benjamin Britten are left forgotten in a lengthy, music-heavy spectacular which is meant to sum up what’s great about the country, young musicians are surely going to be wondering what hope there is of any kind of recognition.

I’m longing to be proved wrong by tomorrow night’s ceremony, but talk of a surprise appearance by the Spice Girls and the phrase ‘anything from Adele to Elgar’ suggests that the field will be as narrow as we’ve come to expect. The idea that this represents ‘the nation as a whole’ is as terrifying as it is insulting, in that it’s only a matter of time before it becomes self-fulfilling.

Advomiteration

So, shall we see if we can guess what annoyed me most about this advert?

Could it possibly be the use of the word “innovalue”, being as it is a completely made-up word???

I now know, having googled it, that it is the name of a management partner, at least three consultancy firms, an electronic technology company, and a company offering ‘strategic innovation’ whose website is so funny I don’t know if it’s actually a big piss-take. Evidently those clever guys at Taiwan Excellence aren’t the first to come up with the idea of combining the words ‘innovation’ and ‘value’.

Nevertheless, it is still a completely made-up word.

But no, that isn’t the thing that annoyed me the most. Nor are the self-defeating quotation marks around the word in which the advertisers acknowledge the made-upness of their made-up word in a way that is presumably meant to look knowing but actually makes them look clueless, like they were searching for a better word but had to settle for a crap one that isn’t really a word at all.

No, the thing that annoys me the most (and if you can’t tell I’m already pretty darn annoyed by the above, so I must find this other thing extraordinarily annoying) is that, having used this made-up word and openly acknowledged it as just that, they then condescendingly explain what the made-up word means, thus showing how utterly useless their made-up word is.

If they ever thought that this might turn out to be a useful word, a time-saving truncation that one day Taiwan Excellence might take the credit for – and goodness knows, I can work out which words the term ‘innovalue’ takes its inspiration from – why the hell didn’t they just leave it without the explanation?!!

As it is, I feel like I’m simultaneously being treated like a thicky and having my mother tongue shat all over by some advertisers. Not to mention the fact that my lasting impression of Taiwan Excellence is of a company who will use thirteen clunky syllables when four made-up ones will suffice – which is the very opposite of innovalue.

“Notinnovalue”, as I like to call it.

Charming debut

I note, with more than a modicum of excitement, that my novel More Tea, Jesus?, very nearly imminently to be published as an e-book, is now available to pre-order.

This has been a long time coming. So long, in fact, that there’s actually quite a good story behind it, and not least because the folk who inhabit the forums at Authonomy expressed some curiosity to hear it, I will be blogging said story in easily-digestible chunks, starting in just over a week or so.

In the meantime, for one month only the novel is available for the insanely generous price of 99p, so what are you waiting for?

The concierge also has some nasty suspicions about what the camera's for…

So, shall we analyse what’s going on in this advert? Oh, do let’s.

The thing that strikes me is that, although lastminute.com promise ‘concierges that read your mind’, this fellow’s mind doesn’t really take a lot of reading. It may be the kind of thing that certain people book late deals for, but it seems a rather inappropriate thing on which to base an advertising campaign.

If the concierge’s face is anything to go by, he’s none too happy to have read this particular mind, though the reluctance in his expression suggests that he is well aware that simply reading a customer’s mind is not all that’s required of him. No doubt he’ll be handsomely tipped, but one feels that he’s already hunting around for other hotels to work in.

Indeed, the particular stances adopted by both characters in this horrific vignette indicate that, having read the customer’s mind, said concierge has already at least hinted that he is well aware of what the customer wants from him, and said customer is really quite chuffed at the thought of what is to follow. And the concierge is inwardly sighing because he was rather hoping he’d misread this customer’s mind all along.

A second letter to the DVLA, who ignored the first.

Hi.

Eight months ago I moved house and, as I needed to change my address with the DVLA, I went with the ‘do it online’ option, following the process through right up until the point where it left me back at square one, forcing me to do make the request on paper in the traditional method. I put a rather petulant note in with my address change request, pointing out that your system had let me down and cost me time I could ill afford to lose. Petulant it my have been, but excusably so I think, given the stress that moving house causes, added to in no small part by the shortcomings of your system.

As luck would have it, I find myself to be in the position of moving house yet again, but in spite of the short period of time which had elapsed since the last move, I had forgotten quite how bad your online system was, and like a mouse leaping towards a piece of cheese which has already broken its tiny spinal cord, I once again sat down to ‘do it online’.

Since my petulant note was roundly ignored eight months ago, I am sending this polite email to a) inform you that the problems remain and to relate them to you as specifically as I can and b) request that some kind of action is taken to make sure that, when I next move house, I will not be subjected to the same risk to my blood pressure. (Some kind of apology, or failing that even an acknowledgement that I have bothered to write to you, might be nice as well.)

1. To change my address online I am required to log on with my Government Gateway details. In spite of the fact that I file a tax return on an annual basis using the same username and password, these seem not to be recognised by the system which tells me I must ‘register first’.

2. There follows a laborious process of registration, including the past three years’ worth of addresses, after which your website tells me ‘you have already registered!’. The cheery exclamation mark implies that I am somehow ridiculous for having gone through this silly process, even though I wasn’t given the option to do otherwise and was perfectly well aware that I had already registered. Never mind, I think; what’s done is done, and I’m surely nearing the end now.

3. I am indeed nearing the end. A couple more pieces of information and the next page informs me, without giving any reason at all, that the system is not able to acknowledge my change of address and ‘none of the information you have entered has been saved’.

The levels and number of ways in which this system has failed me are, I think, perfectly obvious, perhaps the most annoying being that it gives me no reasons for what has happened and no option other than to start again (a trap which I fell into eight months ago, there being nothing to suggest that it was necessarily the system, as opposed to my information, which was fundamentally flawed).

For pity’s sake, if you can’t fix your online system at least put up a warning in big letter that it is quicker (and it is, I think probably even for those lucky people who get through the entire assault course, still quicker) to fill in the green counterpart on the paper part of the licence and post it?

Yours sincerely,

James Lark

P.S. If your ‘contact us’ page has a ten minute timeout, it is also polite to inform people of that fact before, rather than after, they have pressed ‘next’. Don’t worry though – I know your website well enough by now to have anticipated such inconsiderate technical shortcomings and made sure my missive was saved and preserved in all manner of formats before taking the plunge.

P.P.S. Oh my bloody lord. You have limited your comments box to 1200 characters. Why on earth would you do such a thing? Does eloquence mean nothing to you? Or are you worried (perhaps justifiably) that if you let people have as many characters as they want they will email their problems at the full length warranted by their size?!! I fear I am veering towards petulance again as I ask what kind of CRETIN built your bloody website in the first place??? But I suppose it hardly matters since YOU’RE NEVER GOING TO READ THIS thanks to the inbuilt safeguards against lengthy sarcasm your website seems – I suspect inadvertently, since the rest of it is so clueless – to contain.

I’m going to fucking blog it instead, so at least somebody sees it.

A question of justice

Not a witty blog, this, or a carefully constructed argument slash diatribe. Just a question, because I am genuinely baffled. These stories that seem to proliferate in newspapers at the moment about miscarriages of justice in our legal system – I mean the UK’s legal system, the one that I’d be tried by if I happened to be standing in the wrong place during a protest or pressured into a bad decision by an abusive partner or even (and this is the most worrying from a personal point of view) were I to write something slightly ill-considered on the internet – those stories. Is that a new thing, then?

I mean, I’ve read Dickens, I know that injustice in the legal system isn’t a new thing. But haven’t we moved on since then? Or has it ever been thus?

And either way, why do we continue to entrust our justice to judges who are, at best, out-of-touch to the point of ignorance, or worse value justice only for those who make the most money, and worst of all are capable of making decisions which shit all over human rights and moral decency and leave criminals free while their victims go to jail?

I’m sure these are exceptional cases. Well, pretty sure. Actually I’m not sure at all, because in any system that worked how could any of these things happen???

When musical theatre grows up

Two conflicting articles here: Neil Tennant (the Pet Shop Boy) arguing that Matilda demonstrates how divorced the musical has become from cutting edge popular music, and Charlotte Skeoch (not a Pet Shop Boy but apparently a ‘critic of anything that moves’) touting Matilda as ‘the start of a creative musical revolution’.

Actually they’re both a little bit right. Tennant is correct in his observation that Matilda, and along with it every commercially successful West End musical of the last 20 years (discounting the revivals or the ones based on songs that already exist), contain ‘the sort of music you only find in musicals’ and have ‘no relevance to contemporary music’. (Let’s ignore the ironic fact that his own foray into musical theatre in 2001 was a commercial flop, because it means I can also ignore the fact that he once sat through a musical that I wrote and maybe considers it guilty of the same shortcomings.)

But Tennant’s conclusion, that musical theatre ought to be turning out more pop hits like in the Good Old Days when Lloyd Webber owned the West End, shows a tragic lack of awareness of the real potential of musical theatre. Yes, in its infancy the musical was the source of all the popular tunes, but that was before popular music had outlets like regular air play, the UK charts, Top of the Pops, albums, iTunes… it was also before pop music became so heterogeneous that every form it takes is a niche interest. Cutting edge pop music has never been less mainstream.

More to the point, it was also before the likes of Rogers and Hammerstein, and after them Sondheim and his many collaborators (and lesser imitators), changed the musical from a showcase for popular tunes into a serious form of theatre in its own right. Lloyd Webber’s marketing of his early musicals as pop albums, shrewd though it turned out to be, was a hugely regressive step; in the hands of greater practitioners the musical had become far more than a collection of songs. Tennant cites the richness of the songs in Oliver! as an example of pop genius, but ignores the fact that putting a Dickens novel on stage with song and dance taken essentially from a cockney tradition – a Londoner’s response to West Side Story – was a bold and brave artistic idea, far from the obvious commercial decision it may seem to us in retrospect. It’s worth remembering that Lionel Bart’s theatre writing had emerged from collaborations with the groundbreaking Theatre Workshop under Joan Littlewood, whose Oh! What a Lovely War was an even more influential piece of musical theatre, and not because it contained any pop hits.

For musical theatre to be cutting edge again it needs more than good songs – it needs to be cutting edge theatre as well. Which brings us to Matilda, which (as Charlotte Skeoch raves, seemingly forgetting her mandate to criticise anything that moves) is a gloriously crafted piece of theatre, packed full of inventive staging and performed by a wonderful and energetic cast. It also looks gorgeous, though what makes the production special is that you could put it on in a barn and it would still be brilliant.

And yet… what Skeoch conspicuously fails to talk about is the music itself (her fleeting reference to ‘heart warming musical surges’ calls to mind Tennant’s paragraph on theatre critics having ‘no value system for judging the music in musical theatre’). That is because the music is peripheral to everything that makes the show brilliant; indeed, you could remove the songs altogether and it would still work.

Apart from anything else, there’s just not enough of them. There are whole sections in which Matilda tells a story-within-the-story, speaking them over underscore which pastiches circus music as if the production team forgot it was a musical and thought they were making a film. (In fact, in one of the most disappointing sections, the story reaches a climax and is accompanied by film; the inventiveness of the production makes way for lazy special effects, all the more frustrating because the pseudo-shadow puppet style of the film sequence could have been thrilling if performed by real shadow puppets.) These sections, the most melodramatic in the show, are crying out to be sung.

But there’s little attempt at a coherent musical journey in this show, none of the sustained musical argument that the greatest musicals have shown is possible, and the songs are rarely interested in telling story. Instead they hold up the action to show off Tim Minchin’s lyrical cleverness or to let the choreography take over. It’s just as well that it does, because the songs themselves don’t stand up on their own – there are a few hummable tunes here and there and “When I Grow Up” stuck in my head for a while (though I have a feeling that’s more to do with the image that accompanied it) but, as Neil Tennant says, nothing that will have any life outside the theatre. If a musical is going to be about set pieces, it needs to bursting with one great tune after another like an Anything Goes or indeed an Oliver! – this doesn’t even come close. (I won’t even get onto the poverty of harmonic and textural vocabulary in the score because, let’s face it, that is endemic not just in theatre music but in most commercial music full stop.)

It’s refreshing and thrilling to see a West End show which contains such beautifully crafted theatre; but if musical theatre is going to be cutting edge, it’s going to need scores that are every bit as thoroughly crafted. Music needs to be at the centre of any ‘creative musical revolution’ and, as far as I can see, we’re still a long way off.

'A chilling realisation.'

Just in case you missed the complete lack of astonishment across twitter, it turns out that the hoax @OfficialGlitter account in which somebody pretending to be Gary Glitter tweeted about his comeback was in fact a hoax. You can almost hear the collective lack of a gasp.

But this wasn’t just a tasteless joke. No, a blog post by somebody called ‘Ben’ explains that this was actually a ‘social experiment’ – one which had ‘interesting and eye-opening’ results. In case you haven’t read the post, let me tell you of these astonishing results.

‘Ben’ begins by reassuring readers that he doesn’t actually condone paedophilia himself. Phew, well that’s a relief! He had me worried for a minute there, what with pretending to be one. Am I glad that this ‘social experiment’ was conducted by somebody who doesn’t condone paedophilia, as opposed to one of those people who does.

‘Ben’ goes on to explain that the point of his ‘social experiment’ was to demonstrate that there might be real child offenders hiding away on twitter. Quite how pretending to be Gary Glitter actually demonstrated this is unclear, since he didn’t seem to be very successful at ‘hiding away’. Still, we’d better ignore that leap of logic, because if ‘Ben’ had set up a twitter account pretending to be an anonymous paedophile he most likely wouldn’t have had such interesting and eye-opening results.

He briefly concludes that legislation is needed to ban registered sex offenders from using digital communications without supervision (‘Ben’ is clearly a lawyer of some sort, because that simple solution isn’t naïve or problematic at all), that parents need to be properly informed of the dangers of the internet (because of course everyone thinks it’s totally safe at the moment) and that ‘Social Networking Sites such as Facebook and Twitter need to properly police just who is using their websites’ (he doesn’t say how, but I’m thinking they could have a box you tick if you’re a convicted paedophile).

Those problems effortlessly solved, he gets on to what would seem to be the main point of his blog: to morally castigate anyone who didn’t send @OfficialGlitter an abusive comment.

‘Ben’ was ‘deeply disturbed’ at the shocking (underlined) number of positive comments he got, some of which actually seemed to suggest that people want to see Gary Glitter do a Comeback Tour! ‘Do people’s morals differ when they are online?’ he demands to know.

Well… no, as far as I can see, there are just some people who like Gary Glitter’s music and are excited at the prospect of seeing him perform. And baffling though I find that on musical grounds, there is nothing in Glitter’s crime itself that makes me uncomfortable about him, y’know, singing. It’s not like there’d be children in his audiences. Irrespective of this, anyone innocently showing excitement at Glitter’s career restarting, or a shred of forgiveness for a man who ‘Ben’ had rather convincingly pretended wanted to move on, comes in for a moral beating.

Next up for castigation are a number of people who I would presume saw that @OfficialGlitter was a hoax (a lot of us did) and made a joke about it. A joke!!! MY GOD THERE ARE PEOPLE MAKING TASTELESS JOKES ON TWITTER!!! Who knew?!?!!

Everyone from Piers Morgan to ‘loud-mouthed footballer Joey Barton’ comes in for criticism (though Barton’s attitude to Glitter hardly seems to be supportive); ‘have people forgotten what hideous crimes that Mr Glitter committed?’ ‘Ben’ ungrammatically cries.

Um… no. Demonstrably, they have remembered, or the jokes wouldn’t make any sense. But maybe ‘Ben’ is just being rhetorical, because after all this is an issue of ‘basic human morality’.

He goes on to express shock that the media brought further publicity to Mr Glitter by featuring an article on his comeback. His moral outrage is complete: celebrities are actually using twitter to get publicity. Newspapers are actually reporting things that happen on the internet. Even when paedophiles are involved.

The post finishes by summing up what we all need to do about the terrible realisations he has ‘hit’ us with, giving thanks to the media who brought the @OfficialGlitter account to everyone’s attention (which is curious because only a few lines ago the same media were blamed for being nearly ‘responsible for putting money into Glitter’s pocket’) and a special mention for all those who sent hate and abuse and started the #GetGlitterOffTwitter campaign, because they’re the people who show that ‘a majority of Britain still has their morals intact’.

The smug, moralising tone of the blog post, replete with indignant underlinings and a surfeit of melodramatic adjectives, is all too close to the News of the World anti-paedophile campaign (it says a lot that most of the news reports on this ‘social experiment’ are so far mostly in the gutter press). Apart from the serious questions about the irresponsibility of this kind of journalism (because that’s all this is), who exactly is ‘Ben’ to lecture us on our moral wellbeing? Where’s the link to his own twitter feed so we can check that he has never made an ill-judged joke or followed somebody with a criminal record?

In fact, all we really know about ‘Ben’ – except that he is no great knowledge on internet law or the English language – is that he spent several days pretending to be Gary Glitter on twitter.

Clearly a person to take our basic moral values from, then.