Friday, August 18, 2017

FRIDAY MUSIC Elvis: Forty Years On, by JD

It hardly seems possible that 40 years have passed since the death of Elvis Presley. They say that time speeds up as you get older; it certainly feels like it.

The tabloid press would have us believe that, in his later years, he was grossly overweight and feasting on cheeseburgers; drug addled and incoherent but that is the tabloid press. Footage of the last concerts tell a very different story.

His life story is well known despite the worst efforts of the gutter press (which seems to be all of them these days) So there is no point trying to summarize it here, but a few thoughts: Elvis was one of twins, his brother Jesse was stillborn. It is understandable that his mother would be even more protective of him and more loving than if his sibling had survived. The effect on Elvis of having a stillborn brother cannot be known; after he became famous, he asked people on several occasions to try and find the whereabouts of Jesse's unmarked grave but to no avail since no papers marked the spot.

The family attended a Pentecostal Church which is where a young Elvis found musical inspiration and, undoubtedly, his love of God which was a constant throughout his life. There are many stories of Elvis in concert being confronted by placards proclaiming him to be the King and he would always politely say "Thank you ma'am but there is only one king" and he would point a finger skywards. I have seen film footage of that but can't seem to find anything other than audio on YouTube.

There is also an apocryphal tale about Elvis wearing a Star of David alongside a crucifix. When asked about it he answered "I would hate to miss out on a technicality!" That is in line with his sense of humour but it might be true, who knows. It also illustrates a side of Elvis which is more or less unknown. Both his wife and his daughter have said that he had a very large collection of books on religion and spirituality and he would make endless notes in the margins of those books.

As a further illustration of that side of Elvis, read this about his continual spiritual search. There are two excellent videos embedded.

(The third embedded video is "How great thou art" and I have included below what I think is a better version)

"To say that Elvis Presley loved Gospel music would be an understatement. It was by far his favourite musical genre and the three personal Grammy awards he received during his lifetime were for recordings in this field.

"From the summer of 1956 until the summer of 1977, whenever he stepped on stage, he did so accompanied by at least one Gospel harmony group; that's how highly he valued the Gospel sound."

"An American Trilogy" (embedding disabled) - link:
- alternative clip:

Thursday, August 17, 2017

MOTORCYCLES: Ton Up, by Wiggia

The BSA Goldstar

I saw a comment on another blog about how modern vehicles seem to have electrical everything and it is all a recipe for something to go wrong, as electrical faults are the biggest area of grief in modern vehicles. There is more that a scintilla of truth in that statement.

Of course this caused an avalanche of “when we were young” comments asking why it was so difficult to wind a window up that you had to have an electric motor fitted to take the strain out of all that winding and many more examples were forthcoming, some very funny.

One caught my eye though, talking about the ‘joy’ of kick starting a motor bike: he must have lived on another planet as there was never any joy in kick starting a motor bike, only a sore leg, tired muscles and a still-inactive bike. Some bikes of course were made to be difficult, nearly all large single-cylinder machines.

The story that came to mind was that of a friend who lived in the same council block as myself who purchased as a first bike (?) a BSA Gold Star 500cc single cylinder machine which was ostensibly sold as a club racer, a sort of poor man's Manx Norton - beautifully made but totally impractical, which was why you rarely saw one on the road.

Anyway my friend Irvine (it was a very Jewish neighbourhood) was standing with this bike when I appeared and asked the obvious question : where did that come from and why? He replied it was his cousin's and he was selling it cheap so he bought it; the why was never answered.

I left him there and went indoors but could hear this low gasping sound coming at regular intervals as he tried to start the bloody thing. Being of slight build he was standing on the kick start and having to use all the weight he had to even get the kick start to move; occasionally he did and the low "I am not going to start" sound would emerge from the exhaust.

He gave up after a while but returned later for another go, looking distinctly worn out and peeved, so I went down to give support. Still nothing happened and a couple of other boys who lived there and had bikes tried also to start the recalcitrant machine. I went away again and just as I reached the top of the stairs heard a short burst of life from the engine and then it stopped. I rushed back down to find my friend laying in the road in serious pain: the bike had kicked back and the kick starter had caught him mid shin; we/he later found it had fractured his leg.

On top of that he had started it and somehow got it into gear, so having let go everything in pain the bike shot off and went through some iron railings. He never did get to ride a motor bike and the Gold Star was sold on post-haste. He was next seen with a Vauxhall Wyvern; similar but no cigar.

I only briefly had bikes because of my association with my oldest and still best friend who raced them. My own two bikes were the much loved NSU SuperMax from the NSU article earlier and a Triumph T120 Bonneville but it was a brief and interesting period and most went through it as cars were then out of reach and not nearly as much fun.

One of the boons of the period and one of the downsides of the consequence were the empty roads. Apart from the police who actually patrolled in those days there was little to stop you being a lunatic on those same roads, not fast by today's standards but fast enough with rubbish tires and brakes, and the resultant accidents amongst the ton up brigade and mounting death tolls was something to wean you off bikes as it was all too tempting.

One used to get owner cliques who would gather at the various greasy spoons dotted around London. The most famous and still operating is the Ace Cafe on the North Circular, but in our part of the world it was Ted's Cafe on the Southend Road. As drab inside as outside, it always had the appearance of a place they had opened and forgot to put the lights on. Its popularity was it was adjacent to the Mad Mile where the ton-up brigade would race from the cafe to the next roundabout and back.

The car park was of course full of motor bikes, either in the groups that had come there or in groups of single makes. The most revered were the Vincents - it still had that cachet no other bike had; and then there were the Velocettes:  handsome machines; though dated by then, they always seemed immaculate, apart from the pool of oil under them or left by them, a sort of calling-card.

The other two main groups were the Norton owners and the Triumph lot. Nortons had the name for their handling and good looks of the Dominator but a poor reputation for engine failures. The Triumph was the reverse though the handling wasn’t bad. Other makes like the Royal Enfield had a big twin that like the Norton (but worse) seemed to blow up with consummate ease when strained; and the Matchless and AJS twins - nice bikes, but the Triumph was king.

There were of course many small bikes and my association with road bikes ended when my racing friend - he raced an Aer Macchi and briefly a Manx at the end before emigrating to Aus - decided we would go to a party in Southend. His road bike was an Ariel Arrow. In those days the Southend arterial had a roundabout known as the Halfway House for various reasons; on approaching said roundabout three Triumphs overtook and I knew what was going to happen. He got past two into the roundabout but the third was a step too far: the foot-stand dug in and deposited us just outside the police station (remember them?) that stood on the roundabout. No injuries, just hurt pride and as he asked me if I was all right he started laughing. "What?" I said. "Your trousers!" I looked behind and the whole arse of the expensive Carnaby Street trousers fell down in a torn flap. So the party was never made and my association with road bikes ended very shortly afterwards.

Like all things it was one of life's experiences and above all else I always thanked that period as a motor bike gives you a whole different slant on road conditions and how to manage them, something a car can never do. If used wisely that knowledge stays with you and is invaluable.

The non-starting motor bike saga continued awhile after my Gold Star front seat. My racing friend's Aer Macchi was a pig to start: it had the most critical timing and had to be absolutely spot on or nothing happened. Being sick pushing the bloody thing in the paddock is not something I would want to repeat, so some modern additions are welcome after all. I can remember when some cars and not just cars had a starting handle - can you imagine going back to that? You needed the arms of Bluto.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Voiceless In Catalonia, by Brett Hetherington

Walk into any pet shop in Barcelona this summer and you are likely to hear the resident parrot spouting one party line or another about possible independence for Catalonia.

With a referendum for only Catalans to vote on this October first, those who live here without Spanish citizenship cannot participate and are frozen out of having a say in the final result.

As I said the other day to a foreign-born local photo journalist, I am sad that I can't vote in the referendum. Just like plenty of others, my wife and I have lived here for over a decade on European passports and have a son who will soon be going into the workforce, so the near future is extremely important to us.

To exclude people who are not Spanish citizens but have lived here (continually, and regardless of how long) is clearly a mistake because it just makes you seem unimportant and disregarded. In a genuine, fully-developed democracy everyone is included and everyone has the impression that they count.

Naturally though, the referendum has value even though the Spanish state will not recognise it. The collective opinion of the people -- or at least a majority of the population -- is an important statement about where they want to live and who they believe they are.

The minority conservative Spanish government of Mariano Rajoy is doing all they can to prevent the ballot boxes from being delivered then used and they are employing legal methods as well as trying to intimidate civil servants into ignoring instructions related to the referendum from the Catalan administration.

In this way, they will be denying a basic, universal democratic principle in action.

In truth though it's actually quite difficult to know the exact pros and cons of an independent Catalonia because the debate has largely been so polarised, emotionally jingoistic and partisan. I do think that any referendum has greater legitimacy to it if there is an informed and balanced education campaign from both sides and that this should be publicly funded. Not the case in Catalonia.

Both campaigns should also be put under scrutiny from the media but without the rabid nationalism that we have continually seen up until now. Only then will the referendum accurately mirror the population's decision.

Of course if you are not a holder of Spanish nationality, you are as good as irrelevant in the outcome of what has simply been called "the process." You may as well be just another parrot in a pet shop.

Brett Hetherington is a journalist and writer living in Catalonia, northern Spain.

Blog, "Standing In A Spanish Doorway":

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Beer: The Black Country Tie Night

Ma Pardoe's

At the school where I worked there was an annual expedition-cum-challenge known as the Black Country Tie Night. Those who had passed the ordeal were entitled to sport a tie around the school featuring a foaming mug of beer. Another select club was wearers of the You Lad Tie, conferred on a teacher seen to stop a child in his tracks from a distance with a bellow of “You, lad!”

The Black Country is a region in the English Midlands, so called because it was heavily industrialised and in the old days everything was stained with soot from coal fires and furnaces. Before the recession of the early 1980s the area was still thriving and a key element in working class culture was an appreciation of beer. I remember a crossroads - I think it was in Lower Gornal - that had a pub on each corner.

There were many little breweries and pubs that brewed their own on the premises. Brands included Batham’s, Hanson’s, Simpkiss’ and Holden’s, the middle two now long gone. Some of the hostelries were very simple, not exactly spit and sawdust but certainly bare floorboards. It was in one of these that I saw something I fervently wanted (which is rare for me): a short-haired blue cat, muscular and disdainful of the customers as he made his way between the legs of the chairs and people. The next time I saw such an animal was when a similar one appeared from nowhere to inveigle her way into my mother-in-law's house. Bobby, a British Blue (as I now know), came to live with us for the next twenty years. What a peculiar coincidence; I am afraid to wish for anything else.

It was usual for us to start at the Lamp in Dudley, a Batham’s pub serving a light-coloured bitter similar to a lager but much mellower. Candidates for the tie would be paired with a marker who would check off pints on a beer mat as they were drunk, generally only one pint in each pub. And so the minibus made its tour around the Black Country. The challenge was to drink ten pints without being sick, at least not until after the tenth, which by tradition was always drunk at Ma Pardoe’s in Netherton (she was still alive and brewing back then). That one was served in two halves downed one after the other and then, if necessary, it was off to the gents’ in haste.

One time part way through the evening we bumped into a colleague who was having a drink with friends and asked what we were doing. When we explained he joined in. He was a big Jamaican with a great love of life and famous for his so-called Rocket, a punch prepared with over-proof Jamaican white rum and served surreptitiously to staff in the know throughout the final day of term, which gave a second meaning to the “staggered dismissal” of the children at the end. He was not expected to have any difficulty, even though he had started several pints behind the line; but after a gallon or so he looked stricken and said with tears in his eyes that he couldn't continue. He was most relieved when we clarified the rules for him: he had thought that he wasn't allowed to visit the toilet for a call of nature before completing. Having passed easily, he stayed on for further drinks after the rest of us climbed back on the bus.

The kicker in this challenge was that tie runs were always held on a Thursday so that staff had to come in the following day to teach. One of our colleagues turned up with straw in his hair, having not made it home the night before. The children appeared to be very considerate on the Friday, as I remarked to one of my coworkers, who explained to me that they would remember seeing their dad white-faced in the morning and had learned when it was wise not to provoke.

I never made the tie: I simply haven’t the capacity. Nor did the headteacher, a whisky drinker who asked if he could have doubles instead of beer, but was turned down. Rules are rules.

All is changed. In the ‘80s, secondary schools were male-dominated; now, only one in four of the staff is a man. We have to watch patiently as the women drink Prosecco and dance.

Getting away from La Vida Loca

Click through to see how a very small minority of Japanese make a meaningful life away from the big city:

  Yadorigi: A Village in Portraits, The Short Film (2012/Eng subs/Dur:28'57") from Fu Films on Vimeo.

Saturday, August 12, 2017


In December 1891, Maurice Baring left Eton early, having shown a talent for languages that had won him the Prince Consort's French prize, and was sent the following January to a German family in Hildesheim, near Hanover. At that time he couldn't speak  the language at all, but soon picked it up.

He would go drinking with boys from the two local schools, the Gymnasium (grammar school) and Real Gymnasium (the British equivalent in recent times was the "grammar tech" or "secondary tech", which never really took off as it did on the Continent).

The German tripartite school system was abolished only a few years ago but it's worth noting that the historian Correlli Barnett says Britain's economic decline is partly attributable to the failure to modify its education system to train people who could turn scientific and technological discoveries into profitable commercial enterprises. Too many classical scholars, not enough engineers. Even now, in Britain engineering is a white-collar job, whereas in Germany it's a profession and you put letters before (not after) your name, e.g. "Dr.-Ing".

Drinking culture and customs are a vast area and perhaps readers will offer some thoughts. In the meantime here is how youngsters socialised and learned habits of social adjustment, mutuality and conformity in North Germany in the late nineteenth century. (I have broken the prose into more paragraphs for ease of reading.)
From Maurice Baring’s “The Puppet Show of Memory” (1932)

The boys from both schools used to meet in the evening before supper at a restaurant called Hasse, where a special room was kept for them. Braun was an earnest and extremely well-educated youth, a student of geology. Before I was taken to Hasse, he said I must be instructed in the rules of the Bierkomment [I don't know the correct spelling of this word and it is not in the dictionary], that is to say, the rules for drinking beer in company, which were, as I found out afterwards, the basis of the social system. These rules were intricate, and when Braun explained them to me, which he did with the utmost thoroughness, the explanation taking nearly two hours, I did not know what it was all about. I did not know it had anything to do with drinking beer. I afterwards learned, by the evidence of my senses and by experience, the numerous and various points of this complicated ritual, but the first evening I was introduced to Hasse I was bewildered by finding a crowd of grown-up boys seated at a table ; each one introduced himself to me by standing to attention and saying his name (" Mein Name ist So-and-so "). After which they sat down and seemed to be engaged in a game of cross-purposes.

The main principles which underlay this form of social intercourse were these. You first of all ordered a half-litre of beer, stating whether you wanted light or dark beer (dunkles or helles). It was given to you in a glass mug with a metal top. This mug had to remain closed whatever happened, otherwise the others put this mug on yours, and you had to pay for every mug which was piled on your own.

Having received your beer, you must not drink it quietly by yourself, when you were thirsty ; but every single draught had to be taken with a purpose, and directed towards someone else, and accompanied by a formula. The formula was an opening, and called for the correct answer, which was either final and ended the matter, or which was of a kind to provoke a counter-move, in the form of a further formula, which, in its turn, necessitated a final answer. You were, in fact, engaged in toasting each other according to system.

When you had a fresh mug, with foam on the top of it, that was called die Blume, and you had to choose someone who was in the same situation ; someone who had a Blume. You then said his name, not his real name but his beer name, which was generally a monosyllable like Pfiff (my beer name was Hash, pronounced Hush), and you said to him: "Prosit Blume." His answer to this was: "Prosit," and you both drank. To pretend to drink and not drink was an infringement of the rules. If he had no beer at the time he would say so (" Ich habe keinen Stoff"), but would be careful to return you your Blume as soon as he received it, saying : " Ich komme die Blume nach " ("I drink back to you your Blume ").

Then, perhaps, having disposed of the Blume, you singled out someone else, or someone perhaps singled you out, and said: "Ich komme Ihnen Etwas" ("I drink something to you ").

When you got to know someone well, he suggested that you should drink Bruderschaft with him. This you did by entwining your arm under his arm, draining a whole glass, and then saying : " Prosit Bruder." After that you called each other " Du." Very well.

After having said " Ich komme Ihnen " or " Ich komme Dir etwas," he, in the space of three beer minutes, which were equivalent to four ordinary minutes, was obliged to answer. He might either say : " Ich komme Dir nach " or " Ich komme nach " ("I drink back "). That settled that proceeding. Or he might prolong the interchange of toasts by saying : " Uebers Kreuz," in which case you had to wait a little and say : " Unters Kreuz," and every time the one said this, the other in drinking had to say : "Prosit." Then the person who had said " Uebers Kreuz " had the last word, and had to say: "Ich komme definitiv nach" ("I drink back to you finally "), and that ended the matter.

If you had very little beer left in your mug you chose someone else who was in the same predicament, and said : "Prosit Rest." It was uncivil if you had a rest to choose someone who had plenty of beer left.

If you wanted to honour someone or to pay him a compliment, you said " Speziell" after your toast, which meant the other person was not obliged to drink back. You could also say : " Ich komme Dir einen halben " ("I drink you a half glass "), or even " einen Ganzen " (" a whole glass ") . The other person could then double you by saying : " Prosit doppelt." In which case he drank back a whole glass to you and you then drank back a whole glass to him.

Any infringement of these rules, or any levity in the manner the ritual was performed, was punished by your being told to " Einsteigen " [or " Spinnen"]  (or by the words, " In die Kanne "), which meant you had to go on drinking till the offended party said " Geschenkt." If you disobeyed this rule or did anything else equally grave, you were declared by whoever was in authority to be in B.V., which meant in a state of Beer ostracism. Nobody might then drink to you or talk to you. To emerge from this state of exile, you had to stand up, and someone else stood up and declared that " Der in einfacher B.V. sich befindender" ("The in-simple-beer-banishment-finding-himself so-and-so ") will now drink himself back into Bierehrlichkeit (beer-honourability) once again. He does it. At the words, " Er thut es" you set a glass to your lips and drank it all. The other man then said : " So-and-so ist wieder bierehrlich " (" So-and-so is once more beer honourable ").

Any dispute on a point of ritual was settled by what was called a Bierjunge. An umpire was appointed, and three glasses of beer were brought. The umpire saw that the quantity in each of the glasses was exactly equal, pouring a little beer perhaps from one or the other into his own glass. A word was then chosen, for choice a long and difficult word. The umpire then said : " Stosst an," and on these words the rivals clinked glasses; he then said : "Setzt an," and they set the glasses to their lips. He then said : "Loss," and the rivals drained the glasses as fast as they could, and the man who finished first said : " Bierjunge," or whatever word had been chosen. The umpire then declared the winner.

All these proceedings, as can be imagined, would be a little difficult to understand if one didn't know that they involved drinking beer. Such had been my plight when the ritual was explained to me by Mr. Braun. I found the first evening extremely bewildering, but I soon became an expert in the ritual, and took much pleasure in raising difficult points.

 These gatherings used to happen every evening. If you wished to celebrate a special occasion you ordered what was called a Tunnemann, which was a huge glass as big as a small barrel which was circulated round the table, everyone drinking in turn as out of a loving-cup. A record was kept of these ceremonies in a book. The boys who attended these gatherings were mostly eighteen or nineteen years old, and belonged to the first two classes of the school, the Prima and the Secunda. They belonged to a Turnverein, a gymnastic association, and were divided into two classes the juniors who were called Füchse and the seniors who were not. The Füchse had to obey the others.

Friday, August 11, 2017

FRIDAY MUSIC: Kathak Flamenco, by JD

A musical treat!

The art of Flamenco is rooted in Andalucia, specifically in the south west in and around Sevilla and Cadiz. It is thought that it came to Spain via the Moors or possibly the Sephardic Jews or maybe because the Emperor Charles the Fifth used Flemish body guards who were famous for their exuberant Burgundian behaviour. In those days the gypsy music was much heavier than the Castillian songs, they called it ‘flamenco’, the name also means Flemish. It is probably a combination of all of these factors and many more.

When I first went to live in Madrid many years ago I discovered that the flamenco dance form has its roots in Rajasthan in India where one of the traditional dance forms is called Kathak.

In recent years many artists in Spain have been rediscovering the origins of their music and dance and have been collaborating with Indian artists and musicians to create a new fusion of the two traditions.

(I had hoped to include video from Prashant Shah and his Kathak/Flamenco fusion but the sound quality was very poor so it can stay hidden in YouTube.)

Thursday, August 10, 2017

TV: from the sublime to the ridiculous, by JD

Over the weekend I watched two very contrasting TV programmes on BBC.

The first, on Saturday, was the City of Glasgow honouring Billy Connolly with three portraits for his 75th birthday. Paintings by John Byrne and Jack Vettriano plus a photograph taken by Rachel MacLean.

And here are the three portraits-

Byrne's painting is very good, as one would expect from him. The Vettriano is painted from a photograph (a still from a video in fact) as are all Vettriano's paintings which is why they are all superficial in appearance. MacLean's photograph was a wonderful tribute to the man. Connolly loved all three of them, the generous gentleman that he is.

It was a genuinely 'magical' hour especially when he was with his old friend the painter John Byrne. 

And then there was this programme about Silicon Valley last night:

These millionaire 'bright sparks' are seriously insane even the one who has run away to hide from the world in the Canadian wilderness. Biggest worry is they all think they are saving the world and building a better future, a phrase they trotted out quite regularly. 

The most seriously deranged, to me, was the one who allocated his time very precisely and allowed 35 minutes and no more for his interview with the man from the Beeb. I think I would have asked him rather more difficult questions. He said that work was what people did to earn enough to live and 'have fun'. Such shallow thinking is the opposite of what I tried to outline in my post "What is the purpose of work?" Or perhaps I am the one who is deranged?

The 'runaway' in the Canadian wilderness would have been funny if it were not so tragic. He is there only because our entire civilization created the means to allow him to escape: he didn't build his 4x4 vehicle, he didn't dig the ore nor smelt it nor build the machine tools which created the ammunition he was so proud of - "This will be the currency of the future" he declared. What happens when his 4x4 breaks down? Can he get it going again? What happens when he runs out of ammunition? You could think up countless examples of how other people's creativity and endeavours had given him the means by which he is able to run away from the world he has helped to create and of which he is so frightened.

The most significant thing, in my view, was they are all dodging their tax obligations there at home just as they do in the rest of the world. So it is really just good old-fashioned self-enrichment by lots of snake oil salesmen and some of their business models look suspiciously like 'Ponzi' schemes even better than the derivative trading scams or of Enron!!

Strange world we live in: the benign and the loonies all mixed in together.