Vague ramblings

Brightwing: as childhood slips away

Posted in Life, Music, Personal stuff by Ian Cundell on 25 May, 2016

It was, pretty much, an impulse purchase.

Since somebody had gone to all the trouble of sorting out absurdly complex music rights, it seemed downright rude not to take the opportunity to wallow in a bit of nostalgia for lazy Sunday mornings watching Channel 4’s diet of comfort telly.

A bunch of graduates and postgraduate students, more or less hungover, in the back end of the 80s easing themselves into the day. The Waltons (entire, in the correct order) and a rotation of The Fugitive, Bonanza or The Invaders – all terrifically atmospheric. But teeing it all up, The Wonder Years.

It is a show that succeeds for a variety of reasons – music from when blues-based rock and pop was in its pomp, tight scripts and stories rooted in truth. Mostly I think the key is that it was never afraid to let central character Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage) be a total dickhead. Despite entirely American cultural references, the suburb could have been anywhere on in the industrialised World where people had no choice but to work hard for a living and, even then,  earned barely enough to get by – something the kids didn’t quite get.

So I settled in for a wallow. It it was fun, rediscovering how it knew when to prick the humour with pathos and vice versa, and exactly why it got us out of bed of a Sunday morning. I remember Karl and Gus and Alex and Maria  and, of course, Kath, from Rowfant Road with whatever the inner equivalent of a dopey grin is.

And then the last 5 episodes of Season 2 happened. They are an extraordinary essay on the pain of childhood loss – of the brother killed in Vietnam, of childhood starting to slip away and for a society showing the first signs of the fragmenting that would shape the World ever since.

And it began with Brightwing, which centred not on the three main characters, but on Kevin’s big sister, Karen (Olivia d’Abo). She induces Kevin to help her bunk off school, and lures him into her rebellious hippy world – blind that he is desperate to rekindle their earlier childhood bond. But she is trying to get out of the suburbs and, despite a promise to Kevin, jumps in a car with friends and tries to run away to San Fransisco. I doubt that Donovan’s Catch The Wind has ever been used to greater emotional effect.

There’s a lot of literature about brotherly love, about sisterly strength, about the pain of parents letting go and children moving on. There is much about father and daughter, mother and son, mother and daughter, father and son.

But this story understands the brother-sister bond, and that seems to be a very rare thing indeed.

It is a bond that cannot be broken, whether you like it or not. It can be stretched until it is a filament, no thicker than a molecule of DNA. It can rip at your heart, or ignite you rage.

But it doesn’t break.

When rain has hung the leaves with tears” it will still glisten in the morning mist.


In a foreign country: another bullet to the head of the 1970s

Posted in Life by Ian Cundell on 30 June, 2014

The era that brought us the delights of St Cecilia’s Leap Up And Down (Wave Your Knickers in The Air) has delivered another tawdry footnote. The oh-so-original jokes that come whenever any catchphrase-heavy celebrity is brought low are all present and correct, but the only real surprise is the surprise.

Not so long ago, when Dave Lee Travis was acquitted of the charges against him, it was not hard to find people saying: “Well, what do you expect; how can anyone prove what happened so long ago?” and confidently predicting that all the other pending cases would go the same way before calling for the “witch hunt” to be ended.

Tell that to Max Clifford and, now, Rolf Harris.

About a year ago – maybe a bit more – a friend, aged I think around 30, asked with full horror: “How on Earth did [Jimmy Savile] get away with it?” It is the question that separates those who lived in the 1970s and those who have heard of the 1970s.  It is almost two years since I outlined my theory that a documentary about the police started the destruction of 1970s culture. It has been a long slow process – for reasons best known to himself, Noel Edmonds thought, in 1985, that it would be OK to perform Leap Up And Down on his TV show and the very existence of the Everyday Sexism project provides a daily reminder that there is still a long road to travel.

Not having seen the evidence put before the different juries, I do not know what led them to come to different conclusions for Travis as for Clifford and Harris. But I do think, from experience of the juries I have sat on, that there is a strong desire to believe the best and that they are devilishly hard to persuade of the worst. And that, I think, is the way it should be.

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,” began The Go-Between. It is a tale from an earlier, although no more  innocent, era but it seems that some stories have the timelessness of their proverbial truths thrust upon them.

I suppose the most optimistic way to look at this is that British culture is finally doing a little overdue house cleaning or, more dramatically, a purging of shame.

I’m not entirely convinced: Savile, Harris and Stuart Hall are not the first criminals to operate over an extended period – think Harold Shipman – and I doubt they will be the last.

But let’s be clear on one thing: this is not a a witch hunt – it is justice not only being done, but being seen to be done. For Savile’s victims it is already too late, and that alone should tell us why we must go where the evidence leads and not let the fog of time deter us.

Pubs grubbing around for survival

Posted in Business, Musing, St Albans, Urbanism by Ian Cundell on 30 May, 2014
The Black Lion

I assume this was a planning condition!

Neither The Pineapple nor The Blue Anchor were especially on my radar in my regular going-out-with-mates drinking days.

It was, for us, a circulation around the The Goat, The Lower Red Lion, The Rose & Crown and sometimes The Fighting Cocks. There would be occasional detours to The Horn of Plenty for some live music, The Midland Arms for the best jukebox in town, or The Farriers Arms for the full-on real ale experience. Any other random pub might be the beneficiary or our whimsy or desire for change, but the core circuit was there. On any given Saturday, The Goat would be absolutely rammed with pretty well everybody I knew.

These were the parameters for the Pub Stroll, which is like a pub crawl except that if we ended up staying in the same pub all night, that was fine. It was a treasured youth of meeting at the Clock Tower and going from there.

People don’t really drink like that any more.

This week Bar 62 (which was The Pineapple in my youth) and The Blue Anchor announced that they are closing their doors. The future for both locations must be in serious doubt and it will be no shock at all if both are redeveloped for housing.  Although they were not on my crowd’s circuit, a look at Facebook shows that many others spent, or mis-spent, youths in them so it would be nice to be proven wrong.

Bar 62 had worked hard to carve out a niche not just for food, but for being inventive about events like open mic nights.  The abruptness of it closing-down not long after a refurbishment suggests there might still be a story to tell, but The Blue Anchor is easier to grasp.

Blue Anchor closes

Blue Anchor closes

Despite having a generous car park, its location could have been designed to have its footfall intercepted by two excellent nearby pubs, The Six Bells and The Rose & Crown. It tried to move upmarket, but that put it into the most fickle and competitive sector of the leisure trade. The building – although nice enough – was nothing special, particularly when compared to The Six Bells’ 17th Century charm.

But whatever the specifics, the trends that make the market hard for both are clear. Then it was me, Tim, Jez, Loz, Nick, Grant, Rob and a gallery of others heading for the City centre for about 8pm and heading off for beer and chat, eventually to catch up with Sarah behind the bar at The Goat, before grabbing a kebab or hotdog on the way home.

Today it is about the “pre-drinks” (meaning spirits) and barely being on the way to a venue before 10:30pm with a view to being in a club not long after. The clubs aren’t especially new around here, but their relative importance seems to be. And the whole pre-drinks idea must be about the price of booze.

And that leaves the “old-fashioned boozer” out on a limb.

You can get a seat and food in the Goat on a Saturday now, assuming you can find a parking space in the crowded streets. The pubs have bouncers on Fridays and Saturdays – not just for security, I suspect, but because fire safety limits are taken a tad more seriously – whereas, even on New Years Eve, we would simply cram ourselves in. It lasted maybe 5 years – from roughly 1978 to roughly 1983 – before the winds of time and fortune sent us on our separate ways.

Memory Lane is a nice place to visit, but you don’t want to be buying a cottage there.

The price of booze, proper enforcement of fire safety and – for that matter – drink-driving laws, maybe the smoking ban and the rise of club culture have done to the pub what out-of-town retail has done for the high street.  It doesn’t mean that the town centre is dead on a Saturday night, but it is very different and (in my view) a rather meaner place.  I hope I am just being a bit Mr Grumpy, but it seems to be that getting shit-faced is an end in itself now, rather than a by-product of being social creatures.

It is always hard letting the past go, but if I am going to argue for accepting change in the daytime economy I cannot logically reject it in the nighttime economy. Memory Lane is a nice place to visit, but you don’t want to be buying a cottage there.

So what can be done? I suspect I will come back to this.

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Cosmos: from Sagan to Tyson, children playing on the seashore

Posted in Reason, That which is cool by Ian Cundell on 24 March, 2014

If you haven’t yet started watching Neil deGrasse Tyson’s new imagining of Carl Sagan’s 1970s documentary series Cosmos, then you are missing a marvellous thing. Seriously – get on it right now.

It is no surprise that Tyson follows Sagan in starting out on a seashore – the very same shore, in fact. The allusion to Newton is impossible to escape and patently deliberate:

I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.

Sagan’s original is not hard to find. It is more explicitly didactic than the new version, perhaps because it came from a less entitled time, when people didn’t mind having things explained to them as if they were grown-up and able to pay attention. Tyson doesn’t dodge his task, but adopts a more modern approach familiar to any writer’s group: show, don’t tell.

He shows with the story of Giordano Bruno, a 16th Century monk who asked a simple question: If God is infinite, how can his universe be so puny as to have Earth at its centre? He was burned at the stake, of course. But when small-minded fundamentalists claim to have all the answers, it is as well to remind them that a monk illustrated how stupid – and disrespectful to their God – their assertions are.

Tracey at Fairborne

Latter day Newtons, circa 1973

Then there was evolution. Nothing was dodged here and the idiotic falsehood that the eye could not possibly have evolved by accident was laid bare: we are shown – literally shown – how step by patient step, the eyesight of life improved. From just enough to help microscopic organisms avoid too much light, to the beautiful irony of an organ adapted perfectly for aquatic life being not quite so marvellous on land.

No quarter was given and the frothing outrage of creationists on the social networks was a joy to behold – while also being rather sad, as their child-like certainties provoked childish temper tantrums. It was done with a nod and wink, with clarity and with the best of modern TV technology brought to bear, including animation presumably directed by Seth MacFarlane. And it was unmerciful. It was brutal.

It was factual.

And then came the flourish, the pointing out of the one thing that sets science apart from pretty well every other philosophy. “How did life begin?” asked Tyson: “We don’t know – yet.” I have lost count of the times followers of woo – from odd religions to homeopaths to mediums – have grumbled: “Well, science doesn’t have all the answers,” as if this in some way is a criticism, rather than the highest possible praise that it is.  Incidentally, science is working on the whole ‘how did life begin” thing.

Tyson’s frequent allusions to Sagan are unobtrusive, but welcome to those of us who remember the original: they stem from a deep-rooted admiration and respect for the man, touchingly demonstrated in a moving tribute at the end of the first episode.

This is science education of the highest order, not once shouting “Yah! Boo” at the ignoramuses and charlatans peddling lies about everything from climate science to vaccinations nor even the Creationists to whom reason is a mortal foe.

Instead it explains things in a way accessible to anyone interested enough to watch. If you doubt that, read of the impact it made on one six year old.

Enjoy the show – then go back and watch Carl’s original. ‘cos, why wouldn’t you want to watch the greatest science communicator of the last century, after watching once of the finest of the present?

Then, maybe, go play on a beach for a while.

A Jesuit fable: get ready for Generation Debt

Posted in Business, Musing by Ian Cundell on 2 October, 2013

Isn’t that just typical? You wait ages for someone outside the halls of academia to reference the Phillips Curve and then two come along at once.

Almost as my last blog auto-posted, the new issue of Property Week landed on my doormat and there was Peter Pereira Gray, managing director of the investment division at Wellcome Trust – I think we can agree, a pretty damned respectable organisation – nodding to Phillips. It is an interesting article and well worth tracking down, if you don’t take Property Week (27-1-13, p27). It raises reasonable questions about the effectiveness of Governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney’s reliance on unemployment as a policy indicator, suggesting that commercial property (and, as it happens my thesis in this short series of blogs) had better hope he is right.

I say “as it happens” because my interest in Carney’s stance is from a different angle.


Inflated expectations: the Phillips Curve ball

Posted in Business, Musing by Ian Cundell on 27 September, 2013

We are very good at ignoring information that conflicts with our world view. Call it over-confidence in your current forecast, call it confirmation bias, call it Albert. The phenomenon is well known.

In my last blog I described how a multi-generational experience of inflation – but especially the cancerous inflation of the 1970s – has shaped perception on what is and isn’t a safe investment for ordinary people. Since then I carried on prodding and poking the numbers and found something interesting, especially when combined with some other tidbits. (more…)

Stagflation: bet your house on it?

Posted in Business, Musing by Ian Cundell on 25 September, 2013

My chum Mark Clementson’s question was simple enough: what would happen to £10,000 left in a bank account in 1966, the short answer being that the paperwork to access it would probably be quite tiresome.

But that’s not the interesting bit. (more…)

A question of bullying

Posted in Musing by Ian Cundell on 2 May, 2013

One of the more unfortunate aspects of the charges of a bullying culture at the BBC is the manner in which the debate has ended up being about the BBC, rather than about bullying – and workplace bullying in particular.

There is no excusing the BBC’s miserable failure to lead by example, but let us be clear: anyone who has worked in a creative industry knows all about bullying. In an industry popping with monstrously huge egos it is all but unavoidable, since the egotistical are rarely wilting violets. In fact it isn’t just the creative industries. All of the so-called ‘people’ businesses are in the frame, as countless sexual harassment claims in the City suggest. These people businesses, by the way, are the service industries that make up nearly 80% of our economy. Think about the scale of that.

Just as the shocked reaction to the Jimmy Savile scandal led to much BBC navel-gazing, the facts as they have emerged point to a much wider cultural problem through much of the 1960s and, especially the 1970s. Does anybody seriously think that the culture at the ITV companies, at the huge advertising agencies, radio stations and film studios was materially different? And then there was the music business…

Anywhere that one person holds significant sway over the future of another (often men over women, but far from always) is a place where a bullying culture can fester and grow. When that sway can be wielded behind closed doors, without the victim ever knowing then it is cancerous.

From the unpaid intern at a very large advertising agency having her work stolen by a partner for their own portfolio, to the PR girl being expected to “take one for the team” to keep some sexually frustrated talent happy; from being used as a political football by warring department heads, to nurses being used by doctors and managers as human shields for their own failures, bullying is both rife and hiding in plain sight.

Jimmy Savile and Stuart Hall are the outliers, the grotesque extremes. The mundane reality is everyday and all the time, wearing many cloaks.

And that is what needs fixing.

Jimmy Savile: A decade on trial

Posted in Irritants, Life by Ian Cundell on 23 October, 2012

The more I think about it, the more I am coming to the conclusion that a documentary made in 1982, as part of the the TV series Police, is one of the most important episodes of television in history.

The episode, of course, dealt with the way Thames Valley Police handled a complaint of rape. It shocked the nation and led to fundamental changes to the way rape victims are treated.

But I now think it did something of much wider significance: it put a gun to the head of the 1970s and cocked it. Three weeks ago, ITV finally – finally – pulled the trigger. (more…)

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