Smells like teen spirit? No, more like “smells of of teen spirit”

Smells. Sounds. Colours. The time of day. Where you were at the time. Who you were with. What you were wearing. What you were eating at the time.

The metadata of memories.

[Fine, I’ll admit that not everyone thinks of what s/he was eating at the time. My memories are laced with the tastes and smells of the food of my youth. Grant me my foibles.]

Yesterday was a classic fireworks day. Some celebrated Divali or Deepavali. Some prepared for Guy Fawkes Night early. Some just called it Bonfire night, any excuse. And many didn’t need an excuse. Fireworks were the order of the day.

It took me back years. To a time I must have been 10 or 11. October or November 1968. Standing on the pavement in front of Anil Shah’s house near Lake Road. Lighting a firework with a sparkler. It was one of those that looked like an orange or a large tomato, but dark chocolate brown in colour. You had to pierce the top with the sparkler, hold it until you saw the fizz of the fuse catching. And then you had to run.

All of which I did. But my squib was the proverbial one. Damp. Fizz. Fizz. And then nothing.

So. I did what every self-respecting brought-up-on-William-Brown kid would do, what every self-respecting parent said you shouldn’t do.

I went back to the squib. And poked around in frustration. A curse on all damp squibs.

And then whoosh. A wonderful fountain of light and heat. Four feet high.

With my hand in the way. Oops. Hurts like hell. Try not to cry, there are people watching. Look at the size of that blister. That’s going to hurt. A lot.

This was Calcutta. So there were lots of people around. And Anil and his sister Aandhi made sure I was looked after. The hand was slathered in oil. Dried. And then Burnol-ed to distraction.

That’s what actually happened. But when I recalled all this yesterday, forty-seven years later, it wasn’t quite what I remembered.

I remembered the whoosh and the Burnol.


Memory says it was an oily, creamy unguent with its own distinctive smell, mustard-yellow meets orange in colour. But memory was a long time ago, I could be wrong.

What that memory did was to unleash a whole slew of other memories, of the “medical” smells of my youth. And it made me think, that was me in Calcutta in the 1960s, what’s the equivalent today? What are the youth-medical smells of today, and how do they differ by culture and geography?

Every time I cut or grazed myself “lightly”, it was mercurochrome time. Red, astringent, peculiarly clean. I was even given it in swabs to hold in my mouth when the damage was in or around there.


If the damage was somewhat greater, if it wasn’t a simple doctor’s clinic job, then mercurochrome was replaced by something altogether more serious. Tincture of iodine. Dark angry orangey-brown stuff. It even smelt angry.


When you saw a fellow pupil with tincture-of-iodine markings on his forehead, with what looked like residue of cottonwool in strips, you knew he’d been in the wars. Iodine and stitches. Horse and carriage.

In other related news, this morning I was preparing potatoes for roasting. And that made me think of starch and of starched shirts to school. Shirts crisp enough to cut you if you weren’t careful.

Starched crisp and white. Crisp, yes. Sometimes. White, no. Never.

The white was something not quite white. It was a blue we got used to calling starch blue. I think the starch brand in Calcutta in those days was called “robin”, so the colour was “robin blue”. I’d never seen a robin then, so they could have called it anything they liked. As long as it was a white that was actually blue, and it had the smell that only freshly-laundered clothes can exude.



The smells of youth. I guess many of the smells of my youth continue to exist today, I just don’t experience them. Even with three grown children, these were not the smells of their youth.

Which leaves my with my final smell of youth.

An airconditioned room. One in which fine cigars had been smoked. One in which serious “foreign liquors” had been consumed.

One in which my father had spent time.

Today those smells are rare. Places where the air is conditioned are not places where cigars are smoked.

And they’re not places where my father has been.

For some years, I would walk into such places and remember him. Now, when I remember him, that memory calls forth all the others. The smells, the sounds, the people present, the colours and shapes, the environment.

The metadata of memory.

Thinking Twice: Part 2








In The Salmon Of Doubt,  Douglas Adams wrote out a set of rules to describe how people react to new technologies. These have been enjoying some sort of rebirth recently, I keep coming across references to them. They seemed apposite for what I wanted to write about tonight:

1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

When I read it for the first time, it made me laugh, secure in the certainty that I wasn’t one of those people who felt that way. And then I remembered one of my favourite quotations, one from slightly before my time on earth:

If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.

So, armed with the Francis Bacon quote above, I made sure I kept asking myself if there was anything that emerged after my thirty-fifth birthday  that I considered to be “against the natural order of things”.

And I found at least one.

Horizontal drilling, when carried out in combination with hydraulic fracturing, in shales.

Loosely referred to as fracking. I’ve thought about it, I’ve thought twice about it, I continue to think about it, but I am not comfortable with the precise combination above.

First of all, I have an instinctive reaction against it. Someone drills down, drills deep down, then turns left and drills under my house. Then proceeds to blast high-pressure fluids through rocky formations in order to extract stuff that couldn’t be extracted before. Then proceeds to get rid of the fluids somewhere where no one will notice. [Reminds me of Jamie Oliver’s Pink Slime nightmares]. Surely that’s going to undermine my house?

Relying on instinct is good; it’s better still there is some good reason for the instinct to be reliable. Evolutionary response. Muscle memory. Decades of learning and practice. That sort of thing. Schoolboy knowledge of geology notwithstanding, I didn’t feel I had the expertise to make a call. But that made me want to look into the evidence. US Government says drilling causes earthquakes.  Coping with earthquakes induced by fluid injection.

Okay, there’s some evidence that all is not well.

Secondly, that instinctive reaction gets turned right up when I see anything that looks like unseemly haste in driving decisions. Call it the Blair-WMD syndrome. I twitch in the presence of bluster in one direction when evidence points in another. Government will step in if councils don’t fast-track fracking applications. Oil and gas execs “pressured” Oklahoma geologists not to reveal fracking-quakes link. Hmmm.

But then, as Einstein is reputed to have said, if at first an idea is not absurd then there is no hope for it. So I decided to look at other angles to see if the whole thing made sense. I went and tried to make sense of the financials. And that led me to Greenlight Capital’s Sohn Conference and David Einhorn’s The Mother Frackers presentation.

Odd. So this whole thing wasn’t making money either, and it wasn’t a slam-dunk that it would ever make any money. So how come so much money was being invested? Where was the money coming from? Which led me to articles like this one: Debt levels in Energy Sector Warn Investors of Looming Bust. An unintended consequence of quantitative easing? Perhaps. It’s happened before.

Thirdly, if it doesn’t even make economic sense, then I start thinking twice. Maybe the instinct is not that far off. Maybe the truth is just what the evidence suggests it is.

So it looks like I am a Douglas-Adams-style Luddite. I’m nervous about hydraulic fracturing in conjunction with horizontal drilling. Unseemly haste by some market participants makes my nervousness increase. And the paucity of economic value suggested by people like Einhorn makes me twitch all over.

I shall keep thinking twice about it. Not convinced. Not convinced at all.

Thinking twice: Part 1





A few weeks ago, I wrote about how hard I found the exercise of choosing my fifty favourite Beatles songs. And as I signalled then, there are/were very few modern artists that present similar challenges.

Bob Dylan is one of them. So I spent some time musing about my top 50 Dylan songs, then went down a rabbit hole. I sort of wasted my precious time looking into the cover versions of just one song: Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.

Here’s a collection of some of my favourite cover versions of the song, set into context by the original. This is by no means a comprehensive list, that was never my intention. While there are many songs that have been covered hundreds, sometimes thousands of times, what intrigues me is when there is great variety in the treatment. Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right just happens to be a classic example. By the way, I’ve linked twice in this post to the “official” Bob Dylan site. Worth a visit if you haven’t been there before.

Here’s the original Dylan version. All the way back to 1962/63. All the way back to his time with his first girlfriend, Suze Rotolo,  a mentor of sorts, someone who helped make the album cover iconic, not just the album. Sadly Suze passed away a few years ago.

Then here’s Messrs Travers, Stookey and Yarrow (the surnames of Mary, Paul and Peter as in Peter, Paul and Mary) singing the song “live” a few years later. Mesmerising. Completely different treatment.

Soon after Dylan had written the song, PP&M actually helped the song get to prominence by covering it on their incredible album In The Wind. They may even have helped get Dylan himself to prominence by covering Blowin’ In The Wind on that album and even naming the album after that song. It behooves me to include their album version here as well, a faster, more frenetic, staccato approach.

I’ve heard many people swear by John Mayer’s rendition. I hadn’t appreciated it enough to begin with, but over the years it’s grown on me. I was probably biased against him: after all, he was born twenty-five years after the song was written and aired. But I found this 2011 version on the web, and quite liked it.

While wandering around YouTube looking for covers I hadn’t heard (and there were many), this one, by Camille Schorderet, caught my attention. And no, I didn’t include it just to pretend not to be ageist. I actually liked the treatment. Something striking about the juxtaposition of streetwise and hardened lyrics delivered in softly innocent strides.

Staying with the somewhat younger, here’s the Marcus Mumford/Justin Hayward-Young version. They were both born after my first child, so there. There’s something fascinating about hearing the same song sung solo, in duet and as a triplet. With video you sometimes get facial expressions and nuances that help augment the experience too.

Just making sure you don’t think I’ve gone soft and moved away from my Sixties and early Seventies focus, and to get properly this side of the Atlantic — (yes, both Mumford and Hayward-Young are British, but Mumford was actually born in the US) — here’s Davey Graham’s bluesy version.

Venturing a little further north of Davey, time for a little John Martyn. I could listen to John singing the Shipping Forecast, the Weather Forecast or even the football scores. His characteristic alterations of the phrasing makes it an altogether more plaintive lament, and somehow more vulnerable and personal as well.

Still with the small island. Still bluesy, but heavier on the electric. Here’s one of my favourite Slowhand versions.

Now before you start thinking I only listen to male singers, here’s a lovely three-person female version. The Indigo Girls. They had me at Closer to Fine and I’ve not really strayed away. Here they’re with Joan Baez, fittingly. I’ve heard the one they do with Brandi Carlile, which is pretty good, but I prefer this. Again a different tempo, a three-voice monologue if such a thing is possible.

Now for some classic Elvis treatment, a bit bluegrassy but all the way silver-tongued and hip-slinking Presley.

Change of scene. What happens when a prog-rocker who just happens to play a welter of stringed instruments sublimely gets going on a Dylan classic? Here’s Steve of Yes to show you Howe.


Joan Baez was such an incredible influence on Dylan that it wouldn’t be right to leave out her own interpretation of Bob’s classic. So here it is. Unvarnished brilliance. No further comment needed.


Staying with the gentler sex, here’s Melanie. No she’s not singing in a brand new key, but it’s a whole lot slower than most other version. Velvet melancholy.

The late 1960s had some amazing talent in the folk-rock space, and one of my favourites was Jose Feliciano. So here he is giving us his version. I can’t believe he turned 70 a couple of weeks ago.

Not everyone who reads this will know who Judith Durham is. Or who the Seekers were. They made sure my carnival is never over, even when I finish turning vegetarian. Here’s their effort.


I guess even fewer people today listen to Maggie Bell and Stone The Crows. If Janis Joplin needed a Glaswegian doppelgänger she wouldn’t have needed to look for long. Here’s a superb Kozmic Blues version from Maggie and band.

There’s always space in my heart for a rocker-turned-crooner version, so here’s Bryan Ferry doing his thing, suitably soft-spoken, embellished with harmonica as needed.

On to Nashville style. Chet Atkins and his ensemble. A different era, yet hauntingly similar to the rest.

Time for a rabbit hole. Here’s Jerry Garcia and friends doing their bit. Don’t Think Twice is at 2:37:16 in the video below. In preparing for this post I found myself listening to the whole tape. Amazing.

Just in case my hippie roots were showing too strongly, back to more modern interpretations. Here’s Metric, well half of Metric anyway, showing how they do it.

For those more inclined to country and western, here’s the nearest I can get to it. Randy Travis.

Finally, here’s the version that made Bob Dylan say “I relinquish it to you”. Rambling’ Jack Elliott. First hear the 1960s version, to give you the baseline. And then make sure you listen to the one below, where you’ll find out why Ramblin’ Jack got his name, amongst other things.

Now you know why I love the music of the 1960s and early 1970s. I could spend all day just listening to one band; or one album; or even one song.

Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.

Permission espionage and peer-to-peer spying

When I came to England in 1980, I spent some time in Blundellsands, near Liverpool, before coming down to London and starting work some months later. In those early weeks, I started exploring the area gingerly, first going to watch Marine FC play nearby, before finally heading to Stanley Park to watch my first-ever First Division match. Even the Calcuttan in me had heard of Keegan and Dalglish, of Bob Paisley, of Bill Shankly.

Which meant I chose the Red side of Stanley Park, and I’ve been a Liverpool supporter ever since. Some great years, some good years, for the last twenty years mainly not-so-good years. I was brought up to support teams regardless of whether they won or lost, so it hasn’t mattered. If, like me, you were an Indian cricket supporter in the 1960s and 1970s, you’d know something about supporting teams that lose.

It was January 1981 when I had my first experience of being in the Kop when it was time to sing You’ll Never Walk Alone. You have to be there to know what it feels like. Nearly twenty-five years later, I was at the Ataturk stadium in May 2005, there with my son to watch Liverpool in the Champions League final. 3-0 down at half-time. You had to have been there to to know what it felt like, hearing the stadium in full voice a few minutes later. Incredible. The rest is legend.

You’ll Never Walk Alone. There is immense comfort to be drawn in being together with people who you share something with. That comfort means even more when you’re up against it, when times are hard, when you’re at your most vulnerable. You draw strength just from the knowledge of someone else caring about you.

These were my thoughts when I came across Companion last week. As the tagline says, Never Walk Home Alone. A mobile app that lets you share your route and destination with friends, so that they can monitor progress. An app that even lets you express your doubts and fears as you travel, useful for journeys where you feel exposed because of the time or the context. An app that even lets you contact the police if needed.

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We have ways of tracking devices, of the Find My iPhone variety. We have ways of tracking luggage, of the Trakdot variety. Companion is just one of a long line of services that allows people and/or things to be tracked or kept in contact. An unusual example is the Good Night Lamp, launched by a friend of mine, something that will appeal to parents with young children.

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I enjoy my privacy: I detest the idea that others can decide on my behalf to trade my privacy for their perception of security, something that many governments are wont to do.

As Benjamin Franklin is reputed to have said, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

What I like about the Companion or Find My Device or TrakDot style of offer is that the choice is left to the individual, not just the choice of being tracked, but by whom.

Permission espionage. Peer to peer spying. With an accent on the permission.

Track me, but only when I ask to be tracked. If something I do will mean I am going to be tracked, tell me in advance of my being tracked. If you intend to share my track with anyone, then do so only when you have my explicit permission.

It’s not just marketing that needs to be about permission. Being spied upon should require the same permission.




From 45rpm to 45 minutes: thinking about long songs



Something strange happened in the mid 1960s, as we moved away from the 45rpm singles culture, representing a time when albums were nothing more than collections of singles. [It was actually worse than that, since the albums would contain both the A sides as well as the B sides of the singles. Until the Beatles came along, B sides were B sides. With Day Tripper/We Can Work It Out, they broke the mould. I didn’t have that single in my collection, my first experience of the phenomenon was Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane.]

People also started releasing albums that were meant to be listened to as albums rather than as a series of discrete songs, where the “bargain size” of listening to music became 45 minutes at 33rpm rather than 3.3 minutes at 45rpm. That tolled the end of the auto changer and spindle extensions and single stacking and release mechanisms. Those were the days, my friend, we thought they’d never end.


I was thinking about all this a few days ago, in the context of tl;dr and Long Reads. It’s a theme that has come up regularly over the past decade or so, the apparent social trend towards sound bites and powerpoint rather than any sort of depth of treatment of any subject. When does something become tl;dr? What does it say of a civilisation when tl;dr starts trending towards zero?

You’ve probably noticed that whenever I ask myself such questions I tend to switch context, usually to food or to music. There’s a part of my brain that doesn’t distinguish between a single, a snack and a soundbite, and I learn from the comparisons.

This was what was in my mind when I saw a tweet from John Taschek and the conversation that ensued:

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Long reads, three- or four-hour meals, albums where you listened to all the songs in sequence, they’re all the same thing to me. [There’s one twist. Simultaneity. I can enjoy the meals and the music with others at the same time, but haven’t yet figured out a good way of doing that with long reads: recitals, plays and films cover only part of the need.]

Anyway, to the gist of this post. Here’s a short list of 1960s and 1970s long songs and albums-meant-to-be-heard-as-albums, to remind some people of geriatric genres, and to let the rest of us wallow in remembered warmth.

Long songs (at least 7 minutes in duration)

Light My Fire (1967, 7:06)

Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands (1966, 11:02)

The End (1967, 11:41)

LA Woman (1971, 7:49)

Riders On The Storm (1971, 7:10)

Get Ready (1970, 21:06)

Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone (1972, 12:02)

Season Of The Witch (1968, 11:07)

Ball And Chain (1967, 8:13)

Low Spark of High Heeled Boys (1971, 11:35)

Suite: Judy Blue Eyes (1969, 7:28)

California (1969, 9:30)

Thoughts About Roxanne (1969, 8:20)

(Sometimes I Feel So) Uninspired (1973, 7:31)

Roll Right Stones (1973, 13:40)

Glad (1970, 6:59 … OK it’s not 7 minutes but I’m not legalistic)

Foreigner Suite (1973, 18:19)

The World Is A Ghetto (1972, 10:10)

Living For The City (1973, 7:22)

Dear Mr Fantasy (1971, 10:57)

Forty Thousand Headmen (1971, 6:21, yes, not quite 7 either)

Layla (1971, 7:02)

Jessica (1973, 7:28)

Help>Slip>Frank (1975, 11:55)

The Music Never Stopped (1975, 8:24)

That’s all for now. There are at least a hundred others, all fodder for a post some other day. John Taschek, I think the appropriate loud melodic long song after Dreamforce is the long version of Living For The City. And Zachary Jeans, if you want long and instrumental, besides the Allmans’ Jessica I would recommend Traffic’s Glad.

Left to myself when the time of day or night doesn’t matter, there’s no competition for Suite: Judy Blue Eyes. And in some moods Help>Slip>Frank takes some beating, as does Layla. Late evenings and in the small hours there’s nothing to touch California or Sometimes I Feel So Uninspired. Next time I’m thinking of covering my top 20 long posts …. not posts written by me, but by others, posts I think everyone should read.  And I can never leave out the John Perry Barlow classic The Music Never Stopped.