Friday, September 30, 2011

Eric Pickles - a man who never puts the bins out

Others have written (here and here) about the Eric Pickles' latest daft idea of a £250 bribe for councils to revert to weekly collections of residual waste.

What strikes me is that Pickles doesn't understand the basics of refuse and recycling collections. While he cultivates the image of blunt, plain-speaking man, he is clearly so remote from everyday life that he never actually puts the bins out. Or else he would know that his proposals do nothing to achieve his stated goal.

According to the Daily Mail, Pickles says that:

My aim has always been to pass the chicken tikka masala test, so the nation’s favourite meal can be consumed on Friday night safe from the worry that two weeks later its remains will still be rotting in the bottom of the bin

But weekly residual waste collections don't achieve this. Leftover tikka masala goes into the food/garden waste bin, not general waste. Packaging goes into recycling bins or boxes. In other words, none of the chicken tikka masala or its packaging should end up in the general waste and none of it will be collected any earlier if councils moved from fortnightly to weekly collections.

The only way to end the rotting tikka masala nightmare would be to introduce weekly collections of food and garden waste. To their immense credit, Lib Dem colleagues in neighbouring Three Rivers have pioneered this, although they have met with little but begrudgery from the Conservatives. But Pickles is not proposing weekly food waste collections.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

CD Review: The Jayhawks - Mockingbird Time

The Jayhawks' trademark sound was based on the harmonies of joint songwriters and frontmen Mark Olson and Gary Louris. It's sixteen years since they recorded together under the Jayhawks moniker, eight since the band sans Olson released a studio album and three since the two of them recorded the (under appreciated) Ready for the Flood album as a duo. So the reunion album Mockingbird Time  has been much anticipated by the band's long-standing followers.

Before the release of the new album they professed the ambition to be the band who produced their best album work later in their career and that Mockingbird Time would be it. This was always going to be a tall order, the more so as their 1992 release Hollywood Town Hall was not only a masterpiece in its own right, but also highly influential, indeed genre-defining.

And so it proves. While Mockingbird Time recaptures the band's classic sound as if a natural successor to Tomorrow the Green Grass, the last Jayhawks album to feature Louris and Olson, this time the songs are not quite there. In particular, the limitations present in Olson's solo work are in evidence here - I liken him to Stephen Stills, writing songs that are worthy and workmanlike but rarely memorable.

One of the things that made the Jayhawks interesting to listen to was the way their songs never went for the obvious hooks (perhaps this is why they never had a hit), but spun off in unexpected directions. That is still the case here, but there is a shortage of good tunes.

This is not to say this is a bad album - the band are too professional in their songwriting and musicianship for that to be the case. The Byrds-influenced 'She walks in so many ways' will be an automatic choice for any future 'Best of' compilations, while Louris's 'Pouring rain at dawn' captures the spirit of wistfulness that is present in all the Jayhawks' best work.

And none of the songs here are weak or embarrassing, it's just that for the most part they are a bit off the pace. One or two reviews I have read suggest that this is an album that grows on you, and perhaps that will be the case. But anyone looking for an introduction to the Jayhawks should still start with Hollywood Town Hall. And for contemporary work in the same vein, try the outstanding Nothing is Wrong by the California band Dawes, who sound like they have listened to a Jayhawks album or two in their time.

Friday, September 23, 2011

So farewell then, REM

Perhaps more surprising than REM splitting up is that they were still together after so many years of releasing indifferent material, with each new album being hailed as a return to form but flattering to deceive.

It also provokes me to reflect on a quirk in my own musical taste, namely a tendency to lose interest in artists I like as soon as they become successful. I was a relatively early follower of REM, first hearing them in 1984 at the time of their second album, Reckoning, and playing 'Don't go back to Rockville' endlessly. Their wistful, melancholic sound was unmistakeable, as were Michael Stipe's mumbled vocals that left you with the impression of profound lyrics that you somehow couldn't quite hear. For a while I would buy everything they recorded as soon as it was released. I even rather liked their much-derided third album, Fables of the Reconstuction (hence the youtube clip).

They seemed to be a band that would remain a reasonably well-kept secret, admired by those of use who enjoyed now following the mainstream. And then of course the sound got louder, Stipe stopped mumbling, 'Everybody hurts' followed 'Shiny happy people' and the secret was out. While Out of time and Automatic for the people were in their own way fine albums, to me they lacked quintessential REM-ness. One started hearing people describe themselves as REM fans, who hadn't heard anything they had recorded before 1992.

So, listening to REM was no fun anymore and I mostly stopped buying the albums. But once upon a time they were indeed special.

Why I have little sympathy for the 'Philharmonic Four'

As an avid reader of newspaper and magazine letters pages, I have often found myself annoyed by people expressing what is clearly a personal opinion, but sending it from their employers' rather than their home address. Academics are particularly guilty of this, and unless they are writing specifically on an issue of professional expertise, there can be no justification for it. Often one suspects they are using their university address to give added gravitas to their opinion on a subject where their opinion is no more expert than anyone else's. At worst author's can give the impression that their view represents that of the institution from which they are writing.

It is in this light that I view the suspension of the so-called 'Philharmonic Four' for signing a letter to the Independent objecting to the participation of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in the Proms. The signatories of the letter in the Daily Telegraph defending their right to express an opinion are (deliberately or otherwise) missing the point. The problem is not that the four musicians expressed a view publicly, but that they signed the letter as members of their orchestra.

When expressing an opinion publicly, in whatever forum, it's always worth being clear about on whose behalf one is speaking or writing. I post on this blog, and occasionally write elsewhere, in a purely personal capacity. Sometimes I have to speak or write officially as a Lib Dem councillor or group leader, occasionally as an executive member of Watford Borough Council. On the other hand I don't have a public-facing role in my permanent job and would avoid even the appearance of speaking on their behalf - for example by signing letters to the press from work rather than home.

And that's where the Philharmonic Four have come a-cropper. Had they each signed as 'musician', it's hard to see how their bosses at the London Philharmonic could have objected. But unwisely, they chose to mention their employers. Of course, one could argue that it's wrong to punish musicians for a practice that academics get away with all the time. Which would be a fair point. But it would be better all round if people avoided using their employer's name to add gravitas to the public voicing of their personal views.

Friday, September 09, 2011

The problem with the rugby world cup

As a fan of the game with the oval shaped ball, I should be rather more excited about the Rugby World Cup than I am. This is because it is a rather unsatisfactory tournament for one simple reason - there are too few games where the result is in doubt and likely to make a difference to who qualifies for the next round.

In soccer there is a sense that in any given match anything can happen. Algeria can hold England to a draw; the cup-holders can be eliminated without winning a game. Even the weaker teams who are unlikely to progress to the next round might have a say in who does qualify.

In rugby this doesn't happen - nearly every time the stronger team will win out, overpowering their opponents, and as teams are allowed to substitute nearly half their players during the course of a match, rugby's powers have ensured an even stronger bias in favour of the bigger rugby playing nations.

By my reckoning , of the 40 pool games only about six that could both be won by either team  and make a difference as to who qualifies. (Those involving Wales, Fiji and Samoa in Pool D and Scotland, England and Argentina in Pool B.)

Admittedly, the last Rugby World Cup did offer some surprises - Argentina's victory over France in the opening game, and their becoming the first country outside the traditional eight to reach the semi-finals and Wales's defeat at the hands of Fiji. Yet still the majority of games at the pool stage started as a foregone conclusion.

Rugby also has been poor at broadening its competitive base - Argentina still don't take part in a major international competition, as a result have not built on their success of four years ago and last month were reduced to playing one of their warm-up games against an English club side.

The tournament will open in a few hours with a game in which the only matter in doubt is whether Tonga will be able to restrict New Zealand to a margin of victory lower than 50 points (unlikely). So I shall wish the underdogs well (other than those playing Scotland or, in deference to my dear wife, Wales) but suspect I won't be watching all that many games.