that holiday feeling

 

 

 

  • for those of you who celebrate it, a merry Christmas to you.
  • for those of you who don’t, the best of the holiday season to you.
  • for all of you, may 2016 be everything you want it to be.

I woke up early this morning. Habit. Not Christmas habit, everyday habit. And I did my usual thing, went downstairs, made a cup of tea, prayed, thought about the day and week to come.

And then I listened to some music. For some reason I wanted to listen to “old” Bee Gees so I did. Holiday was one of the songs I played. I love that song. Loved it when I heard it the first time. Loved it as a young man. Love it as a grandfather. But the lyrics? Judge for yourself.

 

 

The Sixties were like that. Insane lyrics, enough to make you cringe —  if you cared — if you were in a fit state to be able to care about things like lyrics. I couldn’t think about any form lyrical insanity without making a reference to Joe Cocker and his version of With a Little Help From My Friends. Now remember the lyrics in the original were simple and understandable — they had to be — McCartney and Lennon wrote it for Starr. The Cocker version is something else altogether, and makes it to the top of the pantheon of misheard lyrics, the patron saint of mondegreens.

I append the video below, but would exhort you not to watch it while trying to eat or drink anything, you could do yourself a serious injury and that wouldn’t be a good thing.

 

 

Staying on the subject of Joe Cocker, who sadly died this week last year, may he rest in peace. The video below is probably one of my favourite examples of cross-Atlantic collaboration. Cocker and Belushi doing Traffic and Mason.

 

 

And on that note, happy holidays.

Old friends…lost in their overcoats

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Lost in their overcoats. How I love that line.

An old friend, Abu, came over to see me some time ago. It was a very long time ago. 1971. I was 13. We were already old friends by then. I’d known him since early January 1966.

We still meet. We’ve kept in touch. We have dinner every now and then, especially when other school friends come through London. That happens a few times a year. Wherever we meet, whenever we meet, it’s like a gathering of the clans.

Minoo rolls into town every now and then, all the way from Tennessee. Vishnu from Singapore. Asani from New York. Vir from Dusseldorf. Ashok from the West Coast. Nishat from Calcutta.

And when one of them passes by, a small number of us gather. Pesi. Abu. Sumit. Shiel. Me.

Old friends. We will have known each other for fifty years next month. And we’re still in touch. Some sixty, seventy of us, going through our various rites of passage. Some of us are grandfathers now. Well, at least one of us. Me.

We’re in touch in many ways. Some via email. Some via Facebook. Some even via new-fangled things like Whatsapp. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that the tools help us meet regularly IRL. And we roll back time and laugh and reminisce and break bread together.

Old friends.

Where was I? Oh yes, Abu dropped by, in 1971.  Came to our flat in Moira Street. Our home. The place I lived in from the age of 11 till I was 23. An open-door establishment where the average guest count must have been five. (Actually that’s not accurate. They weren’t guests. They lived there. Along with about twenty others. Most of the time there were only four or five of them in occupation. But sometimes they were all there. Accompanied, of course, by the other “permanent” residents of the flat. My parents. My siblings. Me. My cousins.)

So Abu came along, carrying goodies. One of his family members had just come back from the UK. With two new albums. Two. New. Albums. Albums that hadn’t been released in India as yet. (An aside. The family then staying one floor below were the Menons. The father, Bhaskar Menon, was on the verge of becoming “the first Chairman and CEO of EMI Music worldwide”. At the time he was running Gramophone Company of India, in Dum Dum, the plant that was responsible for pressing about a third of the music I grew up listening to. And yes, it’s the same Dum Dum that gave its name to the expanding bullet).

Back to Abu (whom I called Shaf, not Abu. All the males in his family turned out to be called Abu. At which point I realised that the name everyone used for him wasn’t his name, it was some sort of title.)

Abu and the two albums. One of which was Bookends. Which gave me the chance to listen to Old Friends for the first time. If you haven’t heard it, go Google it and correct that omission now.

Listening to it this morning, I was reminded of the ways in which I “discovered” music in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s. What I thought I’d do is to spend a little time writing about some other old friends, some songs that have meant a lot to me over the years, songs that not everyone would have heard, songs that some of you may find worthwhile.

Here we go.

Today I Killed A Man. Originally a Cook-Greenaway song, covered by many people since. Brought to my attention by Bertie Da Silva, another old friend, someone I last saw in May. He’s now Dean of Arts at the college I went to, a great musician, a great guitarist. After listening to Bertie’s wonderful rendition (must have been sometime in 1976) I went to the record shop in Lindsay St, just off New Market, and bought what I thought was “the” single, a White Plains cover.

Oh mama, mama I’m so cold/I feel that I am quickly growing old/I hope that you are thinking of your son/’cause tomorrow morning I’ll be twenty-one.

Time For The Leaving. A fabulous song by a vastly underrated group. Magna Carta. How did I come by this? Oh yes. The man behind the counter at the record shop on Lindsay St, a place I spent inordinate amounts of time. He used to be very kind to me and not throw away the posters he received for new releases; every now and then, he’d give me a few, telling me what he thought of their music while he did so. And so it was with Magna Carta. He gave me an LP cover sized poster, I think it was a Polydor release, in red and black. Told me about the group. Played Time for the Leaving as well as Airport Song. I was hooked. Still am.

and the yesterday face/a picture with moustache
looks down to the ground from the mantelpiece
this is my world alone
the blue cotton dress and the man on the cross on the wall

Long Chain On. Peter, Paul and Mary. A Jimmie Driftwood story song done beautifully by PP&M. My uncle Mohan stayed with us for a while in the mid 1960s and introduced me to In The Wind, the seminal PP&M album. And Long Chain On is one of the best tracks. Along with all the others. It’s that kind of album.

Though he was tired and hungry/A bright light came over his face/He bowed his head in the moonlight/he said a beautiful Grace. 

Sometimes In Winter. Blood Sweat and Tears. The incredible voice of Steve Katz given some airtime for once. How came I by this? Friend Gyan Singh, who was to marry my cousin. Gyan, who sadly passed away a few years ago.  He had a little stash of brilliant albums he brought over for me to listen to, including some Mayall and some BST.

Sometimes in winter/I gaze into the streets and walk through snow and city sleet/Behind your room.

Prison Song. Graham Nash. From his second solo album, Wild Tales. One of my uncle Mohan’s friends managed to find a Taiwanese import, a flimsy knockoff version of the album and parked it with us for a while. We devoured it. Amazing.

Kids in Texas smoking grass/Ten year sentence come to pass/Misdemeanor in Ann Arbor/Ask the judges why.

The best of the festive season to all of you.

Why I won’t be buying a Kindle this Christmas

 

Not just this Christmas. Any Christmas.

Not just a Kindle either. I have nothing against Amazon, been buying books from them for decades.

Books.

They’re the reason I won’t be buying a Kindle.

People think books are about reading. And they’re right.

But it doesn’t stop there. Books are about a lot more than reading.

I’ve had a love affair with books ever since I can remember. If you’ve seen my TED talk Information Is Food you’d know that already.

You know when you fall in love with someone, it’s the beginning of a journey where you learn to appreciate more and more things about that someone. Little things that make them unique, their foibles, their idiosyncrasies. Their background and upbringing, the environment they grew up in; their family, their friends; the way they look when the light catches them from a particular angle. Everything.

When you fall in love with books, it’s a little bit like that.

I’ve been a passionate amateur collector of books now for over thirty years, and every year I learn something new, something about books that amazes me and delights me.

The book

To begin with it was all about the book. The plot. The characters. The journey the author took you on. Sometimes the book was part of a series, and you began to appreciate the characters and the settings more deeply, as the fondness of familiarity set in.

The binding

After a while I began to appreciate the way the book felt in my hands. How it was made. How it smelt. The paper used. The inks used. The fonts. The way the book was bound. The feel of the leather covering a well-bound, well-thumbed book. The way the pages were cut. I found myself drawn deeper and deeper into bookbinding, the tools used, the raw materials, the processes. There was a time when bookbinders actually signed their books, they took their craft that seriously. I still pay above the odds for a Bayntun Riviere bound book, and count a delightful Heath Robinson illustrated Don Quixote as one of that number.

The illustrations

Which brings me on to my next point. I have over two hundred and fifty different editions of Don Quixote. Not for the story, though it’s my all-time favourite. Not for the bindings, though some of them are works of art. But for the illustrations. If you’re interested in knowing more about Don Quixote illustrators, here’s a good resource.

Autographed and inscribed copies

I’ve had jobs that have allowed me quite a bit of international travel over the years, and wherever I’ve gone, I’ve tended to investigate two things. Two off-the-beaten-track things. Restaurants. Bookshops. Not the most famous ones, nor the most exclusive ones; the ones that had something different, something special, about them. Going to such bookstores has sometimes meant dropping in unexpectedly on a talk given by an author, often giving me the chance to get a personally autographed copy of their latest book.

With the advent of the internet, I could plan more, and that meant I could take my own copies along, or buy whole sets for signature. Decades of doing that has meant I now have a few thousand signed copies, many with their own tales to tell, where I met the author, where we went for dinner (that’s happened a few times!), what the talk was about. A whole story, encompassed in a signature.

Association copies

Books don’t just contain stories. Each individual book is also a story. Particularly when you’re dealing with books that have been around for some time, the provenance of the book can get interesting. The journey taken by each and every copy , who bought it, who read it, who sold it, where and when. So, over the years, I found myself gathering stories about the books rather than just buying the books. I wanted to buy books where I found the story of the book interesting. It was no longer enough to get an autographed copy, I wanted to get copies where the inscription meant something.

I’m a big fan of “Road” books, not just On The Road but Don Quixote, Baron Munchhausen, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Gulliver’s Travels, even the Bhagavad Gita. So, once I was bitten by the association copy bug, it was not enough to have a signed Pirsig. I managed to get my hands on Pirsig’s copies of Kerouac and of Baron Munchhausen. Later I managed to acquire Kerouac’s copy of Gulliver. Now if only I could get hold of Swift’s copy of the Ingenious Gentleman…..

It’s not just about the authors and the famous. I have a number of different copies of The Imitation of Christ going back over the years, even though I’ve given a few away. They’re all secondhand, well-thumbed, beautifully worn. Each has its story to tell, even if it’s all in your imagination.

 

Miniature books

A decade or so into collecting, I found my first miniature book. Not a pretend-book for a doll’s house. A proper working book, every word as in the original, set, printed, bound and sold just like any other book you would buy. But an inch tall with other proportions in keeping with that.

I was in heaven. Transported. Imagining what love went into making the book. Tears in my eyes. And soon I found myself drawn deep into the world of miniature books, the printers, the binders, the markets, the collectors.

Marginalia

I used to read a lot of comics and magazines when I was young, something I’ve written about before. The original Mad Magazine, the US edition, was one I enjoyed tremendously. One of the reasons I enjoyed it was the “Marginal Thinking Department” section, a set of tiny drawings by Sergio Aragones that were squeezed into the margins of the rest of the magazine.

So marginal notes were something I began to be interested. And then came Fermat’s Last Theorem and marginal jottings in books about Diophantine equations.

Yup, you guessed it. Soon I was collecting books about marginalia.

No Kindle for me

There are books about everything I’ve written about, and more. Books about bookbinders and bookbinding, about presses, about the paper used. Books about association copies. Books about illustrators and illustrations. Books about miniature books. Books about book collectors. Books about marginalia. Books about libraries.

Books about books. And the stories about the books.

And it’s not just books. Over the years I’ve gone off on all kinds of tangents, where I have squirrelled away statues and figurines to do with literary characters (mainly Don Quixote and Sancho Panza). I have paintings, illustrations, triptychs, tables, jewellery, wine bottles, toys. Merchandising from times when there were no videos or T-shirts. Letters, postcards, sketches, photographs.

The social objects that in themselves are stories about the books, the people who wrote them, the people who printed them, the people who bound them, the people who sold them, the people who bought them, the people who collected them, the people who read them.

Books.

They’re not just for reading.

They’re a world unto themselves.

They’re lovesome things, God wot. They’re things of beauty, joys forever.

How do I love books? Let me count the ways.

 

 

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.

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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.

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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.

Tincture_Iodine

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.

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.