rooting around for grubs in diverse soils

Tag: bbc

All that is solid…

I had not clocked Spaced until a beer blogger wrote a couple of years ago about the evolution of the function of pubs as you grow older in London, coinciding with chronic decline due to wider socio-economic trends. ‘The specific pub culture depicted has already begun to fade out of existence,’ blogged Boak & Bailey, ‘The portrayal of a lock-in, for example, gave us a rush of nostalgia for the world of drawn curtains, low muttering and conspiratorial glee.’ The ‘rough-and-ready pubs’ that were a mainstay of urban life and fabric, taken for granted, are now almost all flats and Tesco Metros. These nondescript boozers were already staggering, and the pandemic has all but finished them off.

I was not watching much TV on Friday nights at the turn of the millennium. But as a latecomer I find Space to be one of the most charming and comforting sitcoms ever made, and a vehicle of heart-sinking nostalgia. Twenty years is a long time, but twenty years ago feels recent. Like Daisy and Tim I was shacking up in shared houses, people typically lounging around with little disposable income. I was last night thinking of the Bagpuss theme tune pizzicato spliced at the start of Series 2 Episode 2 as accompaniment to successive close-ups of the show’s 20-something loafers, and the dog, lying in one morning before the violent eruption of an almighty row between the landlady and her daughter Amber, one of many moments of comic inspiration.

Thirty years ago with the launch of the Premier League and Sky Sports, I tried to impress an older and wiser mate of mine by recalling a Billy Bragg motto ‘Capitalism is Killing Music’ from a few years earlier (which he had put on an album cover along with the instruction to ‘pay no more than £4.99’ for it). Capitalism is killing football, I said; Capitalism is killing everything, he swiftly retorted. Now my club, from which have become already estranged, owned by a remote, callous and philistine American billionaire, announced its elopement with similarly soul-bereft mega clubs to form a ‘super league’. I am not sure where this will end up; it’s been long on the cards.

What is left? The BBC cannot be relied on anymore for neutral analysis, now they have been cowed into submission by the rightwing’s ascendancy and its iron grip on British power. The Church of England, and my old parish church of Hackney has been captured and branded by the born-again marketers of the Royal Borough of Kensington.

What I thought was permanent is not. It’s all now sunken lines and sockets, greyness and loss.

UPDATE: Super League is dead, for now. Hope springs…

Daily bread

I feel for all of you still reeling from the threatened vaporisation of the BBC online recipe collection. So to tap into the Zeitgeist here’s one that I guarantee will endure through all of cyber eternity:
1. Take one baguette ‘a l’ancienne or other crusty* loaf.
2. Stuff it with as much  rocket, water cress, young spinach and other bitter or peppery herbs as you can cram into it.
3. Pick it up.
4. Eat it.
*Americans don’t have time for crusty loaves. Around a decade ago I was hosting a couple of chums from over the water. It was a hot day so we thought we’d take them for some picnicking and tomfoolery on Hampstead Heath.  One of these guests (to protect his anonymity, let’s call him ‘Greg’), ran through our shopping list.
‘Wait a minute’, he said (in an American accent). ‘Crusty bread?’
‘Yeh, So?’
‘Dude, you describe something as crusty… you don’t eat it!’
Ah what a laugh we had that day.  Ha, ha…er… a-hem.

On television


On the eve of the time of penance, take a moment to genuflect before the BBC.

I watched a repeat of The Story of the Twos, broadcast on BBC2 last year to mark its own fiftieth birthday. Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse scorch the very earth that fed them, laying waste to the pipe-puffing patricians and smarmy intellectuals who have run the channel (all of them called Jonathan Oxbridge/ Cambridge-Oxford/ Oxford-Cambridge), to revered flagships (like Call my Bluff, where the word ‘paedophile’ is cheerfully revealed not to exist in the lexicon of 1960s and 1970s public broadcasters) and to ‘national treasures’ (‘John Cheese-Shop-Sketch’, Alan-‘I’m-betta-than-you’-Sugar and Mary Berry – ‘Wouldn’t I make a wonderful queen?’).

At one point the comedians turn the satirical pistol to their own heads, as Whitehouse’s interviewer baits Enfield, playing a brooding, lonely version of himself, for failing to land any awards for his various series. The hour-long Rabelaisian tapestry is woven through with Enfield’s masterful mimicry of the gurning, rippling body language of Simon Schama, that mainstay of history documentaries. Among all the broadcasters in the world, only the BBC would willingly subvert itself through such merciless self-piss-taking.

All the same, someone needs to have a word with the head of BBC documentaries about the identikit soundtracks used to accompany the programmes. I am not the only one who refuses to acquiesce in these ear-assaults, seemingly adapted from the formula for the deranged Hollywood blockbuster:

  • First talky portentous prologue accompanied by panicky strings,
  • Then building to hysterical crescendo
  • Sudden rush of percussion, typically a massive cymbal clash
  • Climactic gong subsides into sparkly-twinkly stardusty sound as the title of the series appears at the bottom of the screen
  • Final cut to tranquil beginning-of-the-story scenes invariably featuring some calm body of water.

This epileptic blueprint is rolled out regardless of the subject matter, from Africa to acupuncture, from Magna Carta to monarchy. The only explanation is that Jonathan Oxbridge has digested the results of multiple focus groups and determined that a cross-section of British TV viewers all suffer attention deficit disorder. It’s akin to standing on a remote roadside, and feeling the brush of wind and distant rumble from a heavy vehicle approaching, which eventually hammers past and drenches you in puddle.

Not so long ago it was assumed we could cope with silence and nuance. Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation drifted purposively through eddies of atmospheric silences, pierced by the dull peel of bells in Assisi or by chirruping of birds over a field of rapeseed overlooking Chartres cathedral. In Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, the obligatory synthesisers were used sparingly. In one scene you heard the crackle of a fire on a dark prairie while Sagan conjured, with his characteristic jerk of the head, an image of prehistorical conversation: “There once was a time before television, before motion pictures, before radio, before books [his plosives are emphatic] – the greatest part of human existence was spent in such a time – and then, over the dying embers of campfire on a moonless night, we watched the stars.” We would notice their movements, invest them with characters taken from everyday life, give them meaning.

The computer scientist Sandy Pentland in Social Physics speculates about how sitting round the campfire pre-language homo sapiens would communicate through the subtlest signals and gestures which then evolved into language. That this must have taken thousands of years, and the first known writing seems so far way and yet is relatively a blink of the eye.

Lent is for stopping and listening. The Yakut in Siberia recognise the whooshing sound made by the moisture in exhaled breath as it turns into crystals in the freezing air. Words spoken in the depths of winter remain suspended like icicles. In the spring they thaw; you hear them as you pass by, ‘the whispering of the stars’.