Tuesday, 25 August 2009

The joy and curse of our lovely English language

This time last week I was sailing down the fjords discovering what a wonderful country Norway is. I will be writing at some length (and with many a gushing adjective) about my Norwegian adventure in out travel section in the next couple of weeks but before I start pining for the fjords too much I want to discuss the only thing about my trip that actually depressed me.

And that is about languages. And specifically the fact that ‘they’ - i.e. the world - speak ours and we simply don’t bother with theirs.

I have long been a tad embarrassed to go abroad and find everyone talking to me in my mother tongue - and watching Match Of The day is positively excruciating at times as the foreign players speak better English than the, ahem, English ones - but Norway took this onto a new level.

Of course we do have some links with Norway - we were pillaged by their Vikings for starters - but it is not exactly as if we are bosom buddies. We often refer to the special relationship between Britain and the United States but you hardly ever see a misty-eyed Brit talk about the unshakeable link between the peoples of Oslo and Oswestry. And yet, travel across the North Sea and you will find a country where it seems everyone speaks our language. Brilliantly.

I read somewhere that the best gift the British gave to the world was our language. It has become the world’s number one tongue for culture and business but the downside about this is that it stops us bothering to learn other languages. After all if you live in a pub, you are unlikely to bother finding out where the off-licence is.

Travelling around Norway I met people of all ages and of all backgrounds and they all spoke English really well - usually after apologising for their ‘poor English’. (Poor English? You should hear my Norwegian I kept thinking…..)

When questioned - and trust me I started questioning everyone on this - people saw it entirely natural that they spoke English having learned it at school from an early age and also (crucially) from TV, cinema and pop music.

We met one charming 19-year-old girl who sang and danced for us who even managed to speak English with an English accent. How did she do that I asked? “Well,” she said. “My favourite programmes are MidSomer Murders and Heartbeat which are popular here. I just copy that.” (I was very impressed but I had to gently tell her that life in Britain isn’t quite like Heartbeat anymore. Not quite.)

And it is not just as if our Norse friends just talked English to the English. I heard Norwegians talking English to Germans, Norwegians talking English to Koreans etc etc. It seemed as if one the common denominator for everyone was that English was the glue that binded nations.

A source of pride? Sure, but let’s face it, being British has made many of us lazy about learning other tongues. I didn’t take my French, German or even Latin school lessons terribly seriously if I am honest and I don’t think it has held me back. After all I have visited France and Germany and got by without so much as a oui or a jah because frankly I didn’t need to. And yes, that does make me feel slightly embarrassed.

So among the many things I will now add to my bucket list of ‘things to do before I die’ is to learn a language. I can’t face revisiting my failed French, German or Latin (and Norwegian seemed a bit too much to be honest) but I will find a language to learn and start to redress the international inbalance.

I just wonder if there is a Spanish or Italian equivalent of Heartbeat . . .

Takk skal du ha alle for lesing.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Some things I'd like to do before I die . . .

A report has come out this week that shows that Bath is on a 'bucket list' as one of the top places that people want to go to before they die.

The concept of the 'bucket list' derives from the idea of setting out all the things you want to achieve before you depart this mortal coil.

The idea was spotlighted in 2007 when Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman starred in film (called The Bucket List, of course) where they ticked off a big chunk of things to do before cancer got the better of them. The film wasn't supposed to be all that great (hence it is not on my bucket list to see it) but the idea must have got a lot of people thinking.

I am sure most of you can rattle off your own ways to fill up your proverbial buckets and so to get you all started I took great delight in compiling my own list. It is not definitive, it is not terribly serious (something of an understatement) and above all, and I feel I must stress this, it is not terribly worthy either.

Sure I would love to see the Second Coming, see all my family and friends prosper, win the Lottery, see the Chronicle sell more than The Sun and welcome in world peace and the end of global poverty. But I am setting the rules here and I declare that for my list (and yours) you can be as selfish and as decidedly unworthy as possible.

Hence here is my completely worthless bucket list. It is my view as of Tuesday 6pm after literally seconds of thinking, and I can assure you come 7pm it will have changed totally.

  • See England win the World Cup. On penalties. Against Germany.
  • Work out which one is Ant and which one Dec.
  • Visit New York, go to Israel (again) and visit somewhere exotic no one else has ever been. And Dundee.
  • Hear my favourite band (The Stranglers) play my favourite song again (Down In The Sewer) surrounded by my favourite music fans (Strangler ones). All within walking distance of home. They are pictured here - pretty bunch hey?

  • See Curly Wurlys return to their original size – and chewy Texans make a comeback.

  • See Josiah Bartlett (The West Wing) made US President with Larry David, pictured, as his Vice President (the world would be on the brink on a daily basis). Oh, and see Jimmy McNulty, from The Wire, put in charge of the US police.

  • See Garth Crooks win an award for making The Most Obvious Sports Comments Ever Heard on TV.
  • Go a whole month where 'no weather records are broken since records began'.
  • See someone get to the moon – just to prove the Americans actually did.
  • Go a whole week of editing the letters pages in the Chronicle without finding anyone moaning about anything.

  • See the rules of food alter so consuming lots of chocolate, curry and beer makes you thinner while cucumber and celery are derided for making people put on weight.
  • See Phil Collins music banned from the airwaves.

  • See Tiswas brought back to our screens. It remains Chris Tarrant's best moment. And Spit the Dog's only one.

  • Watch a whole X Factor without someone saying "this means everything to me/this is my dream/please, Simon, please, please let me through".
  • See Brian Clough given a posthumous knighthood. And a good chunk of the UK to boot.
  • See a new dictionary introduced with an easier way of spelling rhythm. I mean, why two 'h's?
  • See a Jerry Springer/Star Wars special entitled Luke, Who Is Your Father?
And finally . . .

  • Being able to find a way to avoid kicking the bucket in the first place!

Happy bucketing.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

School reunions - no, you don't have to be a bragger or a wallower

School reunions.

I know those words are enough to send a shiver down many a spine but in my opinion, school reunions are like pork scratchings – everyone should try them just once even if only to show you that you never, ever, want to go there again.

I was reminded of all this for two reasons this week.

First, was the news that Friends Reunited – which was THE social networking site for the over-25s while Facebook and Twitter were still just an electronic dream – was sold last week by ITV for a fraction of the price it had paid for it. The game was up for the site now, many pundits said. The site has been well and truly Twittered out of relevant existence.

I do hope not.

Secondly, I had my own mini-reunion last week when, for the first time in about four years, I managed to stand in the same room as some of my oldest, best friends after one of them flew in from America (where he now lives). It was great to see him and the rest of the chaps and it reminded me that one of the last times we had been together had been at . . . a school reunion.

I must confess I was in two minds about going to that school reunion which had been created because of Friends Reunited. In a mad last surge of youth, many of us had discovered that site and looked up old school mates again and it wasn't long (and it was probably inevitable) before the plan was hatched to all meet up.
Of course, logistically, this wasn’t going to be easy.

Of the 25-plus who eventually came, only four or five still lived in our old home town. A reunion therefore involved long car journeys, hotel stop- overs, flights, boat trips – the lot. In the words of the late, great John Hughes, who sadly left us last week, it was a case of ‘planes, trains and automobiles’ just to get us all there.

But I still had my doubts about going. I had kept in contact with three of my closest friends in the world because, well, they were three of my closest friends in the world, but (nearly) all the other invitees were just names from the past with no connection to my present or future. I had liked some of them a lot, of course, and just lost contact, but others were not quite on my Christmas card list even when I sat next to them. And I kept thinking ‘there is a good reason why you never kept in contact with them, you know.’

I was also somewhat put off by the dire warning of someone who said: “only two type of people go to school reunions – people who have had brilliant lives and want to gloat, and people who have had terrible lives and want to share their misery.”

Neither of these types of people – the braggers or the wallowers – appealed (and, lordy, lordy which was I?) but along with the aforementioned trio of lifelong friends, we bit the bullet and went.

And do you know what? I am just so glad we did. After initial nerves (yes, we nearly ran away at one point) we soon settled into a very pleasant evening where there was no “I’m so great, I now run ICI” types, and no “I am on my sixth divorce, and third bankruptcy” moaners either.

Everyone was just chilled, relaxed and genuinely pleased to see everyone again. All the talk (surprise, surprise), was about the past, not the present, because that was our link. And it was fun.

OK, truth be told I haven’t suddenly started contacting many of the ‘reunion-ites’ again but you can’t deny the ties that bind and it was great to reconnect for one night.

So, Friends Reunited, I do hope you rally under your new owners because I am sure you brought together an awful lot of people. And not all of them were braggers and wallowers.

A review of two pop picnicing evenings

Here is my review of the two nights of pop fun at Dyrham Park mentioned in the picnic story below . . . .

Human League/ABC/Belinda Carlisle/T Pau/Go West
(Friday) and Jools Holland (Saturday),

Thousands of Bath music fans descended on Dyrham Park for two nights of top quality entertainment from stars of past and present.

The two night ‘picnic in the park’ event saw a special celebration of the best of the 1980s – headlined by the peerless duo of Human League and ABC – and then a second show where Jools Holland and his amazing rhythm and blues band delighted the crowds with a stunning two hour show.

The concerts were part of that now well-trodden summer path where groups and artists descend on lovely outdoor venues and people turn up not only to have a dance and a drink but also to have a splendid picnic.

Of course the British summer being the British summer didn’t make it easy for the weekend music lovers.

Friday night’s 1980s show was dominated by rain bursts and gloomy skies – which seemed somewhat out of synch with the bright, breezy pop music that emanated from this homage to the decade that taste forgot. It was, to quote another ’80s band, Wet, Wet, Wet.

The following night, however, no-one was weather beaten. It had been raining all day and the situation looked very gloomy but Jools is very well connected and a word with the big boogie-woogie man in the sky ensured the picnics remained dry and the music reigned more than the clouds rained.

But first back to Friday – and back to the 1980s.

The ’80s were that time of volatile house prices, recessions and Coronation Street and EastEnders being the most popular programmes on telly. So not much change there then! But in terms of music and fashion it might as well be a different world.
Good time pop music, synthesisers and upbeat electronica was the dominant mood of the era and that was very apparent during the five bands that made up the Back To The ’80s extravaganza.

First up we had T’Pau, a band who not everyone remembered terribly well until they did the legendary song China In My Hand which produced the first big roar amid the gloom. Next up were probably my least favourite band on the night – Go West. The tunes were familiar, they looked in pretty good shape but there was just something about the ‘slap bass’ style that seemed incredibly dated. You may think that anything from 25 years ago would be dated, but the reality is much of the music from that era has survived the test of time.

Soon after Go West had, well, gone west, on came the still gorgeous ginger spice that is Belinda Carlisle (pictured in fine fettle above). All I could remember about Belinda Carlisle – apart from the fact that I had something of a crush on her 25 years ago – was her best known song Heaven Is A Place On Earth but you soon realised she had far more tunes in her repertoire that had seeped into the consciousness and I thoroughly enjoyed her short but lively set. She had ‘it’ 25 years ago – and boy, she’s still got it now.

Next up were a band I was really looking forward to – ABC. Their debut album, The Lexicon Of Love, remains one of the finest pure pop albums ever and its lush melodies and beautifully crafted songs have truly stood the test of time. When Smokey Sings seemed to get the best reaction of the lot, but for me it was the superb coupling of the Look Of Love and especially All Of My Heart which reminded me what a fantastic group ABC really were.

Following Martin Fry’s combo could have been difficult – but not when you are as good as the Human League.

Most of us will remember those classic hits Sound Of The Crowd, Love Action and Don’t You Want Me Baby but The Human League had a genuinely strong body of work and although Friday concentrated on those hits, there was enough depth there to make you realise it is worth plundering their back catalogue again. The best moment of the night for me was seeing the band – who all looked in remarkably good nick – produce a stunning version of Together In Electric Dreams. That remains one of the best pop songs from that whole era and is such a good tune it can help you to forget how dreadful the film was that bore its name . . .

So, Friday was a big success, not only on stage but off it. Many people had come dressed up for with pop socks, headbands and garish make-up aplenty. There was also a number of people who had dressed up and we saw Adam Ant, Boy George, Mr T and even one spectacularly ill-advised Michael Jackson to make it a feast for the eyes.

Saturday night therefore could have been an anti-climax after the fun of Friday – but Jools Holland never disappoints. His 18-piece r ’n’ b orchestra provide sheer unadulterated fun from start to finish. They are ALL amazingly good musicians but they never get self-indulgent with their talent because it is always about the song, always about the tune and always about the mood.

This was good time boogie-woogie of the highest order and for two hours Jools Holland left the large audience with broad smiles aplenty..

If the sight of Jools and his incredible army of musicians wasn’t enough to relish he also brought on excellent special guests including Dave Edmonds and the remarkable Ruby Turner. These provided splendidly varied cherries to go on top of the bountiful cake.

So two great park picnic pop nights to remember at Dyrham – even if you ended up with soggy sandwiches on Friday, got stuck in the traffic jams on the way out or found the sight of pop socks offensive.

Two great nights, two great shows and too bad we can’t do this every weekend.

Picnics for pop pickers

As regular readers of my weekly Chronicle column and blog will know I am somewhat obsessed with music.

The very first single I can remember buying, at the tender age of about 12 (before the punk rock explosion made me worry about whether things were cool or not), was a very uncool ‘45’ by one John Miles.

It was called Music and although the chorus of this ditty didn’t seem that apt to me at the time it certainly seems so now. For Mr Miles crooned:

‘Music was my first love,
and it will be my last,
Music of the future and music of the past’.

Ok, I admit in black and white that does look a bit corny (and look at him in the pic!!) but it is amazing how that first single predicted the way my cultural life would later develop.

One of the things that has characterised my musical love affair is that my taste – though obviously incredibly refined and sophisticated – is not shared by many others.

As a result, I reckon that of all the various concerts I’ve been to over the years, the vast majority have been on my own. When I tell some people this they are a bit surprised, but I think music, like film and books, is something which can be enjoyed communally but is often even more enriching on your own when you don’t have to compromise what you want to see or hear.

At the weekend before last however, here in Bath, I enjoyed two concerts which simply aren’t designed for solo entertainment.

For Dyrham Park hosted two evenings of what are known as Picnic in the Park concerts.

As the name suggests, these aren’t shows where you turn up and are ushered to a set seat and they’re not quite traditional modern festivals either, these are just very pleasant outdoor concerts where you’re invited to bring along not only your ears for the music but your mouth and your stomach for a feast.

I’ve been to a number of such highly enjoyable shows now – including a couple of very good classical ones – but this weekend belonged to ’80s pop on one night and the ever likeable Jools Holland on the other. The music was great - but what about the picnics, I hear you cry?

Well, it struck me the fayre was very much determined by the fact that the two shows attracted very different audiences.

Friday night – which featured the Human League, ABC and the rather delectable Belinda Carlisle – attracted a somewhat younger, funkier crowd and as such, the main ingredient of the vast majority of the visible picnics appeared to be alcoholic (well, it was a wet night!).

Friday night’s revellers had come to dance, drink and eat – in that order.

Saturday night’s picnickers were an altogether different breed however.

Jools Holland attracts a very wide audience base and the average age at his show was probably 45-55 – a good decade or so older than the night before.

As befits this slightly older, more sedate audience, the picnic was clearly at the heart of the evening.

We were greeted on arrival by a sea of tables laden with some fantastic delicacies which frankly would have made you feel a bit inadequate if all you had brought was Pringles and a cocktail sausage or two.

The group in front of us, for example, had staked out their very large spot with some intimidating looking umbrellas and appeared to be having a multi-faceted feast that wouldn’t look out of place at a banquet for Henry VIII.

It appeared there were a number of couples who had all been given responsibility for a course each and clearly no-one wanted to be outdone looking at the amazing array of goodies on view. At one point I expected Gordon Ramsay to pop up with the next dish and one couple to say: ‘there, that trumped you all’.

OK, this lot may have been a bit extreme, but it was the same everywhere you looked – the order of the entertainment on Saturday was definitely eat (a lot), dance (a little bit) and drink (to soak up the food).

All of this culinary fun just added to the atmosphere of a truly splendid couple of nights where the ‘main course’ on stage always delivered.

And it proved to a ‘one ticket please’ kinda guy like me that, yes, music can be enjoyed on your own, but it can be just as fun with people by you and a slice of cake in your hands.

Next course please - for if music be the food of love I say play on.... .