Saturday, February 23, 2008

Helot in Halesowen

I've been based at my mother-in-law's house in Halesowen (near Birmingham) for the past three days, as it was the logical place to be amidst various meetings. This morning I wandered through Halesowen's excellent street market - had an excellent spicy samosa as I walked past the stalls of paperbacks, crystals, faggots - then sat at the Kinver Sausage stall, eating a Shropshire Special in a bun and drinking instant coffee on a polystyrene mug, that was somehow better than one of my habitual Fancy Dan latteccinos.

There's a tiny secondhand bookshop at the top of the town, with aisles so narrow that I had to deploy reading glasses to read the spines, so close was I forced towards them by the facing shelves. It was a delight for all the senses, as the owner smoked rollups in the doorway, the tang of (I think) Old Holborn mingling with the delirious scent of old pages, bindings, bookdust.

I got a copy of Worcestershire by L. T. C. Rolt, published in 1949, in a series called the County Books,'an unusual combination of social history and topography'. Although it looks like a nostalgic guidebook, it is in fact a polemical work of some poetry and power. I was particularly struck by his vision of the future (of Worcestershire but also of the countryside in general):
A change comparable to that effected by the nineteenth-century enclosures will take place on the land. The smaller farmsteads will disappear, hedges will be grubbed up, coppices felled, and the land redistributed in large blocks of big fields suited to the cumbrous machines of the new "factory farms"...Wire fences will supersede hedges, and the only woods will be regimented plantations of quick-growing conifers.

I suppose that has been partially true, and may have been more fully realised if not for the work of countless conservationists.

Meanwhile the corpse of the Worcestershire which we know may linger on in a few small, scattered islands, preserved by public or private bodies as parks, or sites for holiday camps where, like children let out of school, the mass-minded helots of the Power State may go out to play, or to partake of their planned leisure.

Well, I've been to a few country parks, National Trust and Forestry Commission places in my time so maybe Rolt was prescient in this regard too. Ironically, some of the canals that Rolt helped restore would fit into this category. But am I a 'mass-minded helot'? (A helot was a Spartan, neither citizen or slave, but less free than a full citizen. It's a great word which I would drop into conversation if I knew how to pronounce it; 'hell' or 'hee'?) Rolt probably imagined a gigantic socialised industry, predicated on technology and manufacturing, spreading through the land and absorbing country towns as well as conurbations, an extension of the factories imbued with 'mechanical inhumanity that is cold and passionless' he saw springing up, fungi-like, in the Black Country. It hasn't quite worked like that - retail, transport and leisure have arguably had more of an an impact, though with a backwash of more localised micro-industries. I'm no geographer or economist, but I suspect that many of the products in Halesowen's market and shopping centre come from manufactories more distant than the Black Country - and that the chronic environmental and social disasters once found here can now be found in sprawling megacities on other continents.

Interesting stuff anyway. I expect I'll return to Rolt's thoughts on sense of place as I progress in my walk, as well as looking for more in the County Books series for insights into the places I pass through, and the forces that transform them.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

One Ball Rally

Read the blog, or donate here... please put your hands in your pockets to give them money and, if applicable, check your testicles.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Phishing the phishers

I love this site, in the same way I love the idea of the Four Just Men, Dirty Harry and others of their ilk, out there somewhere, selflessy defending us, the regular people who only sleep peacfully because 'rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf'.

- fearlessly retaliating against unsolicited, scam emails - fighting fire with fire - daring to reply to the scammers with convoluted, often hilarious emails that trap the reader in loops of bizarre logic.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

My guilty pleasures (No. 1 in a series of 934)

Gilmore Girls! It's a TV series, not some actual girls. I believe it was on the Hallmark Channel, which we don't have - but dipping into the DVD version has become our top entertainment moment of the week (since we finished Deep Space 9 a while ago.)

'Lorelai Gilmore, 32, has such a close relationship with her daughter Rory that they are often mistaken for sisters. Between Lorelai's relationship with her parents, Rory's new prep school, and both of their romantic entanglements, there's plenty of drama to go around' is a good summary. It's very much an ensemble show, with some great performances and witty scripts.

To be honest I didn't care for it at first - the early episodes seemed shrill and frantic, and the characters trying too hard. But after a while I found I wanted to find out what happened next, occasonally laughing out loud at some of the dialogue (which tends to happen less often than Halley's Comet visits), and appreciating a show that was funny without being cruel, and dramatic without being tragic.

I think, as with a lot of fiction, part of the appeal is the self-contained world it offers. The town of Stars Hollow (perpetually bathed in a kind of powdery light) is big and detailed enough to be interesting, and discrete enough to become familiar and knowable.

In some ways it's as fantastic as Middle Earth or the cosy future of Star Trek - not least because the characters seem to eat nothing but pizzas and burgers (with the occasional gourmet meal) whilst remaining lath thin.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Well they're not _my_ friends...

I've loved Kay Hanley to mincy bits ever since I first saw her (in her band Letters to Cleo) performing 'I Want You To Want Me' on the roof of a school in the closing moments of '10 Things I Hate About You' - a sublime moment. (The mightiness of the song, the jubilant absurdity of a band suddenly singing on a roof with no-one watching, the pathetic fallacy of it forming a soundtrack to the events of the film...) Solo albums like 'Cherry Marmalade' are great - she does 'exhilerating' like no-one else, and has a fantastic lyrical edge and range.

Despite not being a Hanley completist, obliged to hunt down every bootleg and interview, I was slightly interested to hear that she (alternative diva that she is) sings the themesong to a Disney cartoon series, 'My Friends Tigger and Pooh'.

Now the song is nice enough (though parents who hear it several times a day might disagree.) But the cartoon looks like a living hell - sugar rushing hyper-reality channelled into screaming ugliness. I presume from this that whoever owns the Pooh stories doesn't insist on strict canonical accuracy in every manifestation of the characters, or insist that the visual style and tone match that of Ernest H. Shepard's wistful illustrations to the original books. But even allowing some creative license, the ghastliness of these images makes the original Disney film (crass horror that it is) seem like a masterpiece of subtlety.

I had the books when I was tiny, and like them well enough, but I feel a sneer coming on when I see grown up people with Pooh stationery or 'Tao of Pooh' books. Get out of the nursery, people! I expressed this thought in the office once, giving rise to general mockery given my visible love of superhero comics...

(Check out this guy painting his kid's bedroom with Pooh stuff hen redoing it with superheroes - best dad ever!)