Seeking Inspiration: Exploring the Composer’s Liminal Space



Seeking Inspiration: Exploring the Composer’s Liminal Space


“I … force it, banging my head with a hammer until something comes out”. So says Hollywood composer Harry Gregson-Williams about the art of composing, the art being the process through which, after years of practice and study, the composer uses the acquired skills, techniques and experience to turn a few ideas for themes and forms into a completed piece of music. “It’s a cliché but it’s true: writing music is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration” (Michael J. Stewart). But what about that one per cent, the moment of inspiration when a tune or an idea first appears? HGW again: “I write at a grand piano [and] record everything that I do, because frequently during inspirational moments I’ll hit on something, I don’t want to stop playing, and ten minutes later I’ll be wondering what the hell I played”. (1) He is referring to the experience, which I believe to be common to all composers, where all sense of time and space recedes, and the mind is transported to a realm of thought and feeling that finds its expression in music. (2) This describes what I would term the composer’s ‘liminal space’, an altered state of consciousness (ASC) characterised not only by a distortion in the perception of time and place, but also by the interplay of emotions, by the rush of adrenalin, by the supremacy of instinct and intuition and by the temporary dislocation,  transformation or even absence of language and the conscious mind, which allows access to the infinite, to symbolic thought, to a place where mind, body and soul can communicate without words or barriers or inhibitions.

Defined as a sensory threshold (from the Latin noun “limen”), this liminal space could be represented as a room with an infinite number of doors that open to every place, a creative nexus of the conscious and subconscious where everything becomes possible. It has the properties of a fractal, lying between states (of consciousness) and serving as an interface or boundary zone, connecting or separating multiple levels (of thought, imagination and emotion), recursive, self-similar and containing infinite detail. In this sense it is universally replicated, it’s form to be found in the lungs, the brain and the skin, in the spiral of cream when poured into coffee and the spiral arrangement of the stars in a distant galaxy, in coastlines and hurricanes – in short, just about everywhere. Therefore, there is not necessarily anything mystical about either the space or related, liminal experiences. Clearly, the human being is able to bypass conscious thought to perform a voluntary action almost at will. For example, if someone tosses a ball for the average person to catch, in an instant their brain will process all the information required to just reach out and catch it, without having consciously to think about vectors, angles, wind speed or velocities. Their brain draws upon prior experiences of catching a ball, and guides the hand to the right place; the more practiced at catching a person is, the more likely they are to be consistently accurate and less likely to drop the ball. Similarly, it is possible to undertake absent-minded ‘distracted action’, like walking while engrossed in conversation, or driving for long distances whilst engrossed in a radio programme. This leads me to the personal belief that the more ‘trips’ that a composer takes to their personal liminal space, the easier it becomes to ‘navigate’ and thereby to find inspiration, although I acknowledge that this view is not universally shared.

Musicians have historically been very inventive in their efforts to stimulate creativity. In this context, the use of alcohol or drugs to induce an altered state of consciousness is well documented. For example, a brief trawl round the Internet will show that it is popularly believed that the Beatles’ Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds is a reference to the creative benefits offered by the hallucinogenic drug LSD (however, aside from an oblique reference by Paul McCartney, I was unable to find any hard evidence to support this supposition). Although the use of LSD is outside of my personal experience, users have reported that one effect of the drug is to emphasise the essence of things, e.g. the ‘yellowness’ of the colour yellow, or the ‘chair-ishness’ of a chair, to the point that these characteristics attain a universal significance, seeming to reveal a fundamental condition of existence that transcends the mundane. This quality recalls the experience of ‘travelling’ into liminal space, where inhibition disappears but the senses are enhanced, providing a point of view outside everyday knowledge and understanding where the composer can suddenly see, feel, realise and absorb (or inspire?) for example the understanding that all the tragedies of the world can be contained within and expressed by a particular chord or sequence of notes, or as William Blake put it, “The world in a grain of sand…eternity in an hour”. (3)

Improvisation is certainly a more common (and safer!) route to musical inspiration, though for those who are not absolute masters of their instrument, the subconscious phenomenon of ‘muscular memory’ can interfere with the free flow of ideas, causing hands and fingers to recreate familiar shapes and patterns on the keyboard or frets implanted from years of practice and habit. Perhaps paradoxically, and particularly in this instance, the use of a framework or structure – a holding form - can free the music maker to explore new territory. The holding form itself can be anything, limited only by imagination; it could be a rhythm, a fragment of melody, even an image or a story. The use is surprisingly widespread. J.S. Bach used his name expressed in German music notation (Bb, A, C, B) as the basis for at least one piece of music; Stravinsky also used the  same four notes in a piece as a homage to Bach. (4) Although I would hesitate to suggest that either of these luminaries needed an artificial device to kick start their creativity (even on an ‘off day’!), it’s fair to present these as possible examples of a holding form utilised as a jumping off point at which to create an original composition. In my experience, even a free improvisation session (i.e. with no pre-determined holding form) will usually produce patterns, calls and responses, repetitions and variations. It may be, then, that form (order) is a fundamental component of the improvisation experience (chaos). Chaos theory suggests that order and chaos are intertwined and inseparable, each arising from the other. Order can be seen to arise from chaos; with the holding form order can be used to develop chaos, from which further order can arise. The idea that complexity arises from simplicity is effectively the evolutionary concept, which has many parallels. For example, computer programming at its simplest could be explained as putting two figures into an equation, testing the result, feeding the answer back in and repeating the cycle.

For the composer then, improvisation can provide a reliable route to a liminal space, or ASC, where inspiration can be found and musical order can be derived from chaos. But is inspiration an irrational state of mind? My own attempts to describe the experience (at the end of the opening paragraph of this essay) could have been lifted straight from “Pseud’s Corner” in Private Eye magazine. It certainly fits well with the cartoon depiction of the mad scientist or composer, surfing on a wave of inspiration, oblivious to the niceties of everyday life and the incredulity of onlookers. Clara Schumann’s harrowing account of Robert Schumann’s descent into madness, (5) involving visions of angels and demons who sang to him and comprising moments of fear interspersed with moments of rapturous clarity, could be interpreted as an extreme episode where, as Dr June Boyce-Tillman, Professor of Music at University College, Winchester phrased it: “...processes that had served him well in composition [were] now out of control”. (6) Perhaps certain people are predisposed to this type of experience: "Prophets and artists tend to be liminal and marginal people, 'edgemen' who strive with a passionate sincerity to rid themselves of the clichés associated with status incumbency and role-playing and to enter into vital relations with other men in fact or imagination." (Anthropologist Victor Turner, Liminality and Communitas). A ‘normal’ state of mind (insofar as such a condition exists!) could be described as relatively calm, with order prevailing against a low-level background of chaotic noise (the ‘noise’ being a necessary defense mechanism that allows us to respond rapidly to stimuli). However, we all have the potential to develop psychological illness, to confuse internal and external realities and suffer hallucination or delusion, so one criterion for psychological health would surely be the ability to recognise the chaos inside us, but to tolerate and live in harmony with it. When we lose that ability, we become ‘dis- eased’, ill at ease with the chaos in our minds. And perhaps during moments of inspiration, we wilfully enter into and utilise the chaos, using our personal fractal boundaries as stepping stones and launchpads that allow us to travel freely in this liminal space and use the raw materials of our experiences, knowledge and emotions to create new music, new art and new truths. Some may find this uncomfortable: after all, abandoning one’s everyday mindset in this way can be seen as losing control. To submit to one’s imagination and let it have free rein is almost to invite possession, like welcoming in the gods and letting them loose to do as they will.

Composer John Cage took a slightly prosaic view of achieving inspiration: “If you don’t know what to do next, do something boring and ideas will flock to you like birds”. However, in the Platonic dialogue Ion, Socrates suggests that the author of a work is not the source but rather the medium through which the Muse operates: ‘For your skillful recitation of Homer is not an art, as you just claimed, but a divine force which moves you, just as in that type of stone which Euripides called a "Magnet", but most people know as a "Heracleian". And indeed these stones do not only attract rings and pieces of iron, but then convey this same ability to the rings so that they can in turn do the same thing which the stone does, to attract other rings, so that sometimes a great chain entirely of iron and rings is formed from the others. This power is thus conveyed to the others from just that one stone. In just this way does the Muse place her inspiration, and a chain is formed from the inspirations of the other  ones who are inspired. For all of the poets of epics take virtue not from their skill but, because they are inspired and possessed, compose all of these great poems, and the lyric poets just the same, just as the Corybantic dancers dance when they are no longer within their right minds, so do the lyric poets, no longer within their right minds, make their beautiful  songs...(Ion 533d1-534a2). The inspired man is ‘ouk emphrenes’ (‘not in his mind’), possessed by divine inspiration. The composer John Tavener agrees: “I don't believe that any music which is prefabricated by humans exists at all. This is not an eccentric point of view – it's the view of the Church Fathers. Any idea that is worked out in a human way does not exist. So that would distance me totally from all Scholastic theology: the whole  Western idea of man-made techniques, like sonata form, fugue, canon – useless... unless, of course, it's performing a metaphysical function”.

This brings me to the origin of the word and concept of ‘inspiration’. The Greek θεοπνευστος (theopneustos), literally ‘God- breathed’, was translated into Latin for the Vulgate bible as divinitus inspirata, literally ‘divinely breathed into’. (That we nowadays often infer from the word inspired the meaning ‘breathed in’ is because of its association with the medical term respiration, which itself is derived from the Latin respirare, literally ‘again to breathe’). If we say we are inspired we are acknowledging to some degree that we have ‘breathed in’ something ‘divine’, or at least that we are operating on a higher plane in conjunction with a definite force which may be hard to define but is easy to recognise. Given the association of its antonym ‘expired’ with death, to be inspired is clearly both life enhancing and life affirming, affecting body and mind alike. No wonder that inspiration leads to creativity, and that artists will often describe the production of their work in terms of conception, gestation and birth. Psychoanalyst and writer Adam Phillips even draws a parallel with sex, describing inspiration as a loss of control: “For non-believers, inspiration is more like sexual desire than anything else; a fascination, a fear, and something we think of as having a secret solitary pleasure attached to it”. (7) For us humans, creation is possibly the closest we can get to a divine experience, particularly in the creation of a new life. This is arguably the strongest of all desires, possibly the primary purpose of all life.

Music has a long association with religion, and can certainly produce feelings of spirituality in performers and listeners alike, but whether music is an inherently spiritual or mystical phenomenon is obviously open to debate. The act of a composer writing with inspiration, “where the composer’s inspiration collides with his learned technique” was described by Jonathan Harvey as “an archetypal encounter of external and internal, of ‘life’ and ‘art’”. (8) If a composer is inspired in some way, the inspiration will, it is hoped, be felt and shared by all involved in the resultant piece of music. But there are at least three fundamental elements of the musical experience that need to be considered. The composer can write, successfully or otherwise, with the intention of communicating a deeply felt spiritual emotion or idea. The performer(s) might or might not engage with the concept, and might or might not be able to convey it, to an audience that might or might not be receptive. For example, issues of culture can arise; value systems can affect the music and interfere in a number of ways. It’s not possible, then, to consider music as an effective system for the transmission of ideas, however lofty. Music is not a fully abstract art; it produces physical, mental and emotional responses at every stage of its existence, but it is that very quality that makes it so universally powerful. Globally, there are many concepts of the divine, but each god draws on the common human experience – our shared ‘repertoire’ of feelings - for its expression, so a piece of inspired music, with its power to lift the spirits, move the body and stir the soul, would surely be the truest and most accessible ‘stairway to heaven’.

There is a story that apparently originated in the Amazon that is said to have been derived from knowledge imparted by use of the hallucinogen Ayahuasca:

God wanted to hide his secrets in a secure place. ‘Should I put them on the moon?’ He wondered. ‘But if I do, human beings could one day get there, and it could be that those travellers would not be worthy of the secret knowledge. Or perhaps I should hide them in the depths of the ocean,’ He continued. But, again, for the same reason, he dismissed it. Then the solution occurred to Him. ‘I shall put my secrets in the inner sanctum of man’s own mind. Then only the really deserving will be able to reach them.’

Perhaps inspiration is divine. Perhaps it reflects a desire to get closer to God. Perhaps it’s a manifestation of our ongoing need to create, and keep creating. Perhaps it offers escape from death and a route to immortality. Whatever inspiration is, if we look then we will find it, and if we serve it well then it will reward us. If inspiration strikes like lightning, then surely the best place to be is in the middle of the storm!

Paul Johnson Rogers, March 2006


  1. I am unable accurately to attribute the quotes from HGW and MJS; they may be paraphrased and are likely derived from my own many conversations with the two composers about the art of composing and the nature of inspiration
  2. Undoubtedly, the experience is not unique to composers. The term ‘flow’ is used by medical scientists and loosely describes the sensation of becoming ‘lost’ in a pleasurable activity to the point that one loses track of time (see also Csikszentmihalyi M. and Csikszentmihalyi I.S. 1988).
  3. From the poem: Auguries of Innocence
  4. 'Crypto-musicologists’ delight in uncovering similar examples, many of which are tortuous and bizarre attempts to include perhaps the name of a patron, lover or composer in a musical work.
  5. Quoted in Godwin, Joscelyn, (1987) Music, Mysticism and Magic: A Sourcebook, London: Arkana
  6. Music as Spiritual Experience, 20047. Article: Divine Inspiration, published in The Observer, 12 March 2006.
  7. Music and Inspiration, London: Faber and Faber (1999)



Bibliography

Papers and Journals
The Observer in the Observed: Fractal Dynamics of Re-entry, Terry Marks-Tarlow, California, 2002.
Fractal Dynamics of the Psyche, Terry Marks-Tarlow, California, 2005.
The Emergence of Archetypes in Present-Day Science and Its Significance for a Contemporary Philosophy of Nature, Charles R. Card, Victoria, B.C., Canada, 1996.
Music as Spiritual Experience, Dr June Boyce-Tillman (Keynote address for Alister Hardy/MCU conference: “The God experience – who has it and why?”) July 2004
Journal of Consciousness Studies, 8, No. 2, 2001, (The Divine Within, Benny Shanon)
Journal of Consciousness Studies, 10, No. 11, 2003, (Being All That We Can Be, Josh Weisberg)

Books
Music and Inspiration, Jonathan Harvey, London: Faber and Faber (1999)
Music, Mysticism and Magic: A Sourcebook, Joscelyn Godwin, London: Arkana (1987)
Cleansing the Doors of Perception: The Religious Significance of Entheogenic Plants and Substances, Huston Smith, Putnam, New York, 2000
Being No One: The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity, Thomas Metzinger, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003

Further Background Reading
Music Therapy Today Vol. VI (3) July 2005 (Music as a possibility of chance – healing metaphors in music, Kimmo Lehtonen)
The Sequence of Archetypes in Individuation, James Whitlark, Texas, 2005
Dreams, the Placebo Effect and Creative Consciousness, Graywolf Swinney, Asklepia Publications, 1997

Music
The Art of Fugue, J.S. Bach, c.1742

GOF Music

It is tragically but undeniably true that I am not as young as I once was. Don't misunderstand me - I'm not old, or anything vulgar like that. These days, simply nobody is old. But my hair is not as luxuriant as it used to be. I would now think twice before walking twelve miles home after a night out drinking, let alone be confident of waking up early the next morning feeling all bright-eyed and bushy tailed. This must mean that I've reached yet another stage in my life. I've done infancy, childhood, teenage and young adult. I've now reached the age of GOF and, to celebrate, I am here and now going to launch GOF culture, which is sure to be the next big thing.

The quicker-witted amongst you will already have worked out that GOF stands for Groovy Old Fart. The GOF movement is not to be confused with the Goth movement. We don't sing about alienation and decay, we sing about declining standards in education and the incontrovertible fact that many TV presenters can't talk properly. We don't dress in black, we're far more likely to wear a jaunty and ironic beige. (GOF superstars, of course, often shop at M&S). Our hair, if present at all, is likely to be silver in colour or, as we prefer to call it, grey.

We are forthright and honest and not as strong as we used to be.

We are GOF.

ESSENTIAL SKILLS FOR BECOMING AN AUDIO ENGINEER

Lots of people send me e-mails looking for work. The following ‘ideal standard response’ has been round the Internet and back several times and has been edited and added to by (I should imagine) dozens of people, including me. I have no idea who to credit as originator, sorry.


ESSENTIAL SKILLS FOR BECOMING AN AUDIO ENGINEER

This should be regarded as a minimum skill set. (N.B: unless you graduated from a conservatoire, a Tonmeister course, or in electronics please bear in mind that, in terms of the music industry, your qualifications are probably worthless, no matter where you studied. However, 'old school tie' connections can be very, very helpful).

You MUST be able to:

Write a piece for string quartet in the style of Bach
Edit and fix a drum track overnight so that when the drummer comes in the next day he thinks he can play
Meticulously go through a track and tune vocals to perfection using autotune or whatever, leaving no artefacts
Arrange for any ensemble - winds, strings, synths, loops etc.
Know the difference between M7 and M70 capsules
Stay up working for 48 hours straight to get the job done
Edit dialogue until you never want to hear a spoken word again – then do it some more
Make Gigastudio sing like a nightingale
Re-solder a TT patchbay from Normalled to Semi-Normalled overnight
Flawlessly switch between Logic, Sibelius and ProTools
Deal with two days of normalising audio file clips and keep your head straight
Orchestrate for a 70 piece orchestra, straight to manuscript, without a keyboard
Sort out drive issues on the fly
Put your family last and your "career" first
Ghost write for a "bigger name, bigger ego" talent and take no credit (this is standard practice, especially when you’re starting out)
Track a rhythm section with 5 raging egos and keep them all in line
Avoid buying a house or needing disposable income
Fix a tube mic
Tune a Guitar without using a tuner
Troubleshoot a computer (PC and/or MAC) and make it run like a dream
Pull a module out of a console and re-cap it
Drive an old car and make it last 15+ years
Troubleshoot analogue wiring
Troubleshoot digital clocking issues
Work an unfamiliar synchronizer to sync Video with Analogue tape machines
Play at least one mainstream instrument to a professional level
Show high level of competence on two other mainstream instruments
Mix a Rap song
Mic and record a big band
Get the most out of a self-indulgent prima-donna artist vocalist
Read musical scores quickly and accurately
Know the difference between balanced and unbalanced audio and how best to accommodate both in one system
Demonstrate ‘Golden Ears’
Be comfortable and conversant with virtually ANY style of music
Mix 5.1 and calibrate the speakers
Demonstrate a 6th sense about which mic to choose and which preamp to use with it
Get up at 4:30am to write so that you can field phone calls during the day.


Congratulations. You have now reached the level of ‘amateur wannabee’, and are ready to consider starting your freelance career. (You have to be freelance, because there aren’t any jobs. Well, nationwide there might be a few every year, but they go to people with a significant track record, and if you had that, you probably wouldn’t be here).

The next step is to offer your services for nothing to anyone that doesn’t mind you hanging around. (Please ensure that you can make great tea and coffee, and have transport to facilitate trips to the local takeaway, newsagent, supermarket etc. Also, learn how to clean windows, sweep floors and operate a vacuum cleaner (practice at home until perfect)). I would recommend tolerant, busy freelancers, theatres, recording studios (if you can find one), production companies of all sorts, radio stations (you’d be surprised at how many radio stations operate with lots of unpaid staff), and anyone else you can think of. I repeat, do not expect to be paid, because they really can’t afford it. Be constantly aware that if they let you through the door, you owe them big-time.

Don’t forget to network. Be nice to everyone. It’s not ‘who you know’, it’s not ‘what you know’, it’s both.

Buy equipment with every penny at your disposal. Lurk around the forums to pick up the best advice. Buy the best you can afford, one piece at a time, and learn it inside out. Don’t turn down any opportunity to be involved with anything even if it’s only tangentially related to your main area of interest. So you want to be a film composer, but you’re offered the chance to assist the live engineer at a local gig? Do it, you’ll learn something. A drummer wants a hand transporting his kit? Do it, you may learn something about tuning drums. (You get the picture).

Repeat all the above for several years, by the end of which time you’ll have an idea of whether you’re going to get a paying career or not.

Alternatively, if you are absolutely determined to have a music-related career, go to a conservatoire, get on Surrey’s Tonmeister course, or get a degree in a field of electronics. Then qualify as a teacher. You will have a career that pays (e.g. teaching a subject you love or working in electronics in a field related to music/audio). You can then do all the stuff I outlined above in your spare time, confident that you’ll be able to afford food and somewhere to live, and will still stand as much chance of ‘making it’ as anyone else. If I had to start all over again, then that’s what I would do.

Finally, don’t bother to e-mail me for work, because I haven't got any work for you (although click here if you're a seriously great session musician). Do e-mail me to say hello; I practice what I preach and I’m always up for networking. And now all that remains is to wish you all the luck in the world – you’ll need it.

Audio Branding

I have friends in the health professions, doctors and dentists, who tell me that when they go to parties, for example, people insist on describing symptoms or procedures in unwarranted detail, expecting opinion, diagnosis and even prescription in return. In other words, their job attracts so much attention that they can never leave it behind. Now, it's fairly rare for me to be expected to write a symphony in response to an anecdote at a party, but I do have a similar problem to my medical friends.

Being a composer is a fairly unusual job, but most people I know now understand what I do: the novelty of having such a weirdo in their circle of friends has worn off and it's widely accepted that I just laze around all day plagiarising real musicians while decent people are out working their bits off and contributing something of value to society. But these days it's not the composing that perturbs people. It's the audio branding.

"What is audio branding?" asks nearly everyone, occasionally bothering to fake a tone of genuine interest.

Well first, a bit of relevant background: I've been lucky enough to write music for adverts (Nike probably being the most famous brand to date) as well as a great deal of music for stage and screen. This requires a sensitivity to the emotions of the piece, the music serving both to enhance and communicate mood. I also did some post-grad study into music and the psyche, where I was equally lucky to have inspiring and talented lecturers. Another important factor was a commission I had some years ago from a multinational company to undertake further research into the well known 'Mozart Effect' and, if possible, to write background music that would enhance the performance of employees both on the factory floor and in their award-winning, in-house 'corporate college'. All of these circumstances combined to create a strong foundation from which I could proceed with some interesting work - currently as pre-doctoral research - into aspects of what we might as well call 'applied music'.

This is not a new concept. Music has been used for centuries to control, manipulate or influence: to march soldiers into mortal peril, to scare the living daylights out of film audiences (Jerry Goldsmith's amazing score for 'The Omen' did it for me), or to make them cry (Harry Gregson-Williams' beautiful score for 'Veronica Guerin'), for torture (the FBI at Waco, the US army at Panama City in 1989), every advertising jingle ever written, the hooks in a pop song, even for civil engineering if you want to include demolishing the walls of Jericho... I could go on.

Currently, my research has two main strands: 1) audio in the retail environment and 2) the 'branding' of a product or company. Now I'm not going to go into too much detail here, partly because of time constraints and partly because, in some respects, I'm still at a data gathering stage, so what results I have aren't really ready for public consumption. But here are some initial conclusions that I find fascinating, albeit with the caveat that they might yet prove to be wrong...

Music can certainly influence a customer's purchasing decisions while shopping. In one well-known experiment, repeated many times, sales of wine were substantially affected by the playing of French and German music on alternate days. But when it comes to the 'branding' of companies or products, one needs to be cautious. Some results suggest that the five note 'Intel Inside' theme is more strongly associated with Microsoft than with Intel. Similarly, the ubiquitous 'Nokia theme tune' (actually 'Gran Vals' by Francisco Tárrega, written in 1902) is associated by many, not with Nokia, but with the more generic category 'Ringtones'. And what sounds do people prefer? Some results suggest that people prefer sounds that originated organically, rather than being totally synthesised, e.g. the click of a button seems somehow 'nicer' if it originates from, say, a human mouth or hand (tongue or finger click) before being processed. Again, I could go on, but some of my research is incomplete and, anyway, I don't want to spoil what might eventually be my doctoral thesis!

So if, at a party, someone should enquire "What is Audio Branding?" I would reply: "At the moment, it's an inexact science but it's nonetheless a field that offers tremendous potential for advertisers and composers alike. Now, where's the bar?"

Headline, 14 June 2009: BBC may face £130m licence fee cut

News that the BBC is likely to have its budget 'topsliced' in order to help out ailing independent tv channels should be greeted with derision and mass rioting in the streets.

This point has been made before, but it's worth making again, again and again. The BBC is in an entirely different business from other UK broadcasters.

The BBC's core business is to make high quality programmes for the viewers.

The core business of the 'commmercial' broadcasters is to deliver an audience (and their demographic details) to advertisers.

There are many crucial differences here and many points to be made, none of which are difficult to grasp unless, of course, you happen to be an idiot. Or a politician. Unfortunately, it seems to be more and more the case that those two words can be freely interchanged.

Britain's Got Talent.

Hah!

Okay, let's re-name it: "Britain Has Talent (Possibly)". Or "Britain Has Talent, But You Won't Find It Here, Folks". Or... oh, I can't be bothered.

In fact, Diversity were really very good. I actually voted for them, even though I don't usually watch this sort of programme. (Truly. And I've never seen even a second of Big Brother, either). But honestly, could the rest of them really represent the UK in terms of talent? Dear God, I hope not. And not a comedian amongst them! Well, not intentionally, anyway.

Sure, they didn't use my music, but that's not why I'm dissing it. I'm dissing it because, clearly, the whole debacle was embarrassingly shitty and almost totally devoid of the one thing it was supposed to be showcasing.

Oh, and by the way, if you're not grown up enough to fuck up without crying, you're not grown up enough to compete. That's the real world for you.

Rules for Kids

Now, let me make it clear that, in general, the following paragraphs are not my own, original work. Most of them have been so far round the Internet that it's hard for me to provide a genuine credit, for which I apologise. I shall, of course, rectify this on notification. But the whole lot is worth repeating, so here goes.

Rule No. 1: The average teenager uses the phrase "It's not fair" 9.1 times a day. Life is not fair. Get used to it, and stop your bloody sulking. Do you think you’re unique, or something?

Rule No. 2: The real world won't care as much about your self-esteem as much as your school does. The real world expects you to accomplish something before you feel good about yourself. This may come as a shock. Usually, when inflated self-esteem meets reality, kids complain that it's not fair.

Rule No. 3: Sorry, you won't make £20,000 a year right out of high school. Nor will you be a manager. You may even have to wear a uniform (and it won’t have a Gap label). And when you leave home, you won’t be able to afford a car, phone or holidays. In fact, you’ll be lucky if you can afford a TV. Tough shit; that's the way it is.

Rule No. 4: If you think your teacher or parents are tough, wait until you get a boss. Bosses usually don’t have the same job security, so tend to be a bit grumpy. When you screw up, they’re not going to ask you how you feel about it. They probably won’t even give you a second chance.

Rule No. 5: If you screw up, you are responsible. This is the flip side of "It's my life," and "You're not the boss of me," and other eloquent proclamations of your generation.

Rule No. 6: Flipping burgers is not beneath your dignity. Your parents had a different word for burger flipping. They called it 'an opportunity'. They weren't embarrassed making minimum wage either. They would have been embarrassed to sit around talking about football all weekend.

Rule No. 7: Before you were born your parents weren't as boring as they are now. They got that way paying your bills, tidying your mess, cooking your meals and listening to you tell them how cool you are. And, by the way, before you try to save the environment from the blood-sucking parasites of your parents' generation, try cleaning your bedroom or doing the laundry. It’s the same principle, i.e. not leaving your crap for others to deal with.

Rule No. 8: Your school may have done away with winners and losers. Life hasn't. In some schools, they'll give you lots of chances to get the right answer, and effort is as important as results. This, of course, bears not the slightest resemblance to real life.

Rule No. 9: Life is not divided into terms, and you don't get Summer off. Not even Easter break. At work, they expect you to show up every day. For eight hours or more. It just goes on and on. And take note: no employers are interested in fostering your self-expression, helping you find yourself or listening to your pathetic excuses for not being able to do anything.

Rule No. 10: Television is not real life. Your life is not a sitcom. Your problems will not all be solved in 30 minutes, minus time for commercials. In real life, people actually have to leave the coffee shop to go to jobs. Your friends will not be as perky or as pliable as say, Jennifer Aniston.

Rule No. 11: Be nice to nerds. You will certainly end up working for one. In fact, if you’ve got any sense, you’ll try to be one. After all, they’re the ones that use their brains and end up earning the big money.

Rule No. 12: Smoking does not make you look cool. It makes you look moronic. Ditto for drugs, booze, tattoos, Mohicans and pierced body parts.

Rule No. 13: You are not immortal. If you are under the impression that living fast, dying young and leaving a beautiful corpse is romantic, spend some time doing voluntary work at the local hospital.

Rule No. 14: Sure, parents are a pain, school's a bother, and life is depressing. But someday you'll realise that it’s usually much, much worse to be an adult. So enjoy life while you can.

Rule No. 15:When your parents buy you stuff, please understand that IT'S NOT YOURS! You can use it, sure. But you don't have the right to swap it, sell it or do anything else with it. You're not old enough to actually own property. Think of it as a legal thing, ok?

UK politicians and their 'expenses'.

I just want to make a couple of small points here. Let's face it, the whole subject has pretty much been done to death already, but the media - and, I hope, the people - aren't going to let this one go for a long time yet.

So, why are we surprised by any of this? We've all known for years and years that politicians are often perceived as being crooked, self-serving, immoral, selfish bastards. When the proof comes along that many of them are exactly that, why do we make a fuss? WE KNEW IT ALL ALONG!!! Why didn't we send in the investigators twenty, thirty or more years ago? We're too bloody placid and far, far too trusting, that's why.

Anyway, in this context, I'd also like to mention teachers. I know quite a few. I think that most people now realise that many teachers, if not most, work stupid hours during term time and then work normal hours through most of their so called 'holiday' periods. Sure, much of this is dependent upon the subject they teach and at what level, individual dedication and ability etc etc but, as a rule of thumb, they work very long hours and don't get paid a whole lot either.

They are also subject to huge interference by groups of people who happen to know diddly squat about teaching. On this occasion, I'm not referring to parents (although it seems to me that parents shouldn't be allowed onto the premises of any educational establishment without at first passing an exam to establish their suitability for admission). No, at the moment I'm talking about politicians. But even this is a subject for another post. The only reason I brought up the subject of teachers is that I wanted to establish (and I hope that most people would agree) that they are a group of relatively underpaid, highly qualified individuals who do an extremely important job for society, and who also seem to be accountable to anyone with an opinion, no matter how bizarre. Most politicians would probably (and wrongly) describe themselves in similar terms.

Now, if a teacher who lives in, say, Brighton, sees a job that happens to be in Oxford, s/he has little choice but to go for it. (The other thing about teaching is that the jobs you're qualified for never seem to be where you live). If s/he is successful at interview, then - potentially - s/he has to sell the house in Brighton, buy a place in Oxford (let's ignore the big, big problem of comparative property prices for the moment) and relocate the entire family. It's expensive and traumatic, but hey, that's what people do! Unless you're a politician. If you're a politician, the taxpayer simply buys you another house near your new job, which becomes something else you can make a handsome profit from during the course of your career with your nose in the public trough.

Okay, I've over-simplified and over-stated the case. But worryingly, not by much. We really need to do something about these people. Off the top of my head, perhaps a limited term of service - say, two years max - on a flat salary, set too low to be really incentivising - say £30k p.a. All staffing and other expenses organised and managed by a dedicated department. Slightly different arrangements for cabinet, PM and Lords, involving public votes after two years service as an MP. I'm sure that measures such as this would attract the best and most talented candidates. We'd see a return to public service and an end to careerism - we all know, after all, that in reality most politicians spend most of their time and much of our resources trying to achieve and then hang onto power.

One thing I'm sure of: whatever the eventual solution, it will be much, much easier to implement than we might at first think.

Creation

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Entanglement and distance hint at something underneath
That binds us each to everything and validates belief
In ways that can’t be measured or confirmed.


Will you
Pin a poem to a tree then let it ride the wind?
Dip a brush and paint the greys,
Dance your story on a stage?
Or is it safer to be chained
Than free?


So with a word the numbers tumbled outward, into space unravelled
To make a place where love could come to live.
And with a breath, the whole began to turn…


This I promise:

My love will mist the mirror
And make you whole again

My love will mist the mirror
And I will take your pain

My love will mist the mirror
And bring you home again.
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ATM to ENM is progress of a sort

We're used to ATMs now, of course. Even my youngest, at the age of two, patiently explained to me that I didn't have to work to get money; I just needed to put a card in one of those machines over there...

I recently changed my supermarket allegiance from Sainsbury to Tesco, for reasons that would be tedious to rehearse here (and, anyway, I've now changed back again). My local Tesco has a small number of self-service checkouts, or ENMs. As I like to keep in touch with my inner geek, I've used them on my last three shopping trips.

I should mention that one (probably welcome) side effect has been to extend my patience for check-out staff. I wouldn't want you to think that I was previously impatient and curmudgeonly, it's just that scanning items at a check out demands more concentration than I'd realised; not much concentration, admittedly, but just enough so that you can't quite switch your brain completely off. In my opinion, that's almost cruel.

Anyway, let me take you through the process. I scan my shopping, although not with quite enough panache for the ENM, which exhorts me to hurry up. When an item has been scanned by the ENM and the details on the display have been checked by me (I may have geeky qualities, but I don't trust technology - I'm not completely barking) the ENM scolds me for not putting the item in the bag quickly enough. It then tells me that I didn't put the item in the bag properly. Properly! I am not joking! It then declares loudly that I am not to be trusted, so starts flashing a red alarm beacon.

A member of staff then appears, gives me a sympathetic look, stands at the end of the check out and calms the ENM down, probably by feeding it little snacks and singing something by Gary Numan. The assistant then signals that it is safe to attempt to pay. The ENM, however, has other ideas. It doesn't like my banknotes. It will only accept some of my coins. I present my plastic with a little flourish; I am, after all, used to dealing with ATMs and the ENM is a very close relative. Naaah. Doesn't like my plastic. I dispatch my teenage son to nearby ATM with my rejected plastic and make a mental note to change my PIN number later. He returns with cash from the ATM. Only half of it is acceptable to the ENM. The other notes are rejected.

I am, by now, close to hysteria.

The son goes back to the ATM with instructions to withdraw much, much, much more money than is actually needed. This gives me a fighting chance with the ENM and, thankfully, my strategy pays off. It accepts the notes. I remove my bags and leave the store. It is not a warm day, but I am sweating. My heart is beating wildly. I am close to anger, close to tears - at this stage what's the difference? I am drained, and happy to get home.

So we know that ATM means Automated Telling Machine, but what does ENM stand for? Electronic Nagging Machine, that's what. I know they're not really called ENMs, but they're electronic, and they nag, nag, nag to the point that you feel ill, so as far as I'm concerned, ENMs are what they are. And yes, I do hope that it catches on.



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Water, water...

I live in the UK, on the South coast. If I lived just a few hundred yards further South, I would need fins and gills to survive. An equal distance West is the River Arun. A bit further to the East can be found the River Adur. Oh, and it's raining. I am surrounded by water.

In the 1980's, some bright spark with lots of money and no idea about the world that real, normal people inhabit (i.e. a Conservative MP) decided that rich people could make even more money through the privatisation of the utility companies. The idea was that, for example, the Water companies - which at that time belonged to the British people - should be opened up and shares put up for sale. I remember a lot of nonsense at the time about the UK becoming a shareholding democracy. Utter bollocks of course; as you will remember, the average person could only afford to invest from say, nothing to a few hundred quid at most. Sure, they made a few pounds if they sold them on at the right time. The rich, smug elite, however, were able to invest thousands, tens of thousands, or more, and make an absolute fortune.

Why we let this happen is beyond me.

Anyway, I've been doing some research into our local water supplier, Southern Water. It is truly a depressing and dispiriting experience. I've got nothing against the company, or the people who work there - all my vitriol, venom and bile is reserved for those that had a hand in privatising it in the first place. But it makes me sick to realise that, not just locally but across the country, water bills are rising, as are restrictions on the use of water. This is aggravated by the fact that last year the Water companies made profits of £1.7 billion, and this year it's likely to be even more.

This is so, so wrong. It is wrong from every human point of view. Water is a whole world resource. It should be paid for from taxation; that way everybody pays according to their means. No-one, I repeat, no-one, should make a profit from water. The shareholders should have their shares revoked - compensate them or let the buggers suffer, I don't care. (If they were scummy enough to try and profit from the privatisation in the first place, I'd be inclined to let them suffer). If we can't re-nationalise the companies - and I don't see why not, there surely has to be at least one competent politician out there - then let's make them invest every single penny they've made back into the resource they've profited from.

It looks like three companies are about to impose drought orders. No! Take their money and build de-salination plants. Build pipelines and pump water down from the North. Fix the bloody leaks! If they haven't got enough money to do this, which I doubt, then take it from the shareholders - raid their bank accounts and sell their assets*. Get the money. When, nationally, the various Water companies have finally got their house in order - and it shouldn't take a competent, suitably motivated CEO too long to accomplish - take any remaining surpluses and plough them into countries where access to clean water is a real problem.

I'm not anti-capitalism. It just seems to me that we should not submit life's essentials to the mercy of market forces. Water, power, education, health, perhaps even public transport: these are not suitable sectors for privatisation. To trade in these is immoral and obscene.

*Why so hard on the shareholders? One of the many other industries to have been stolen from the British public and sold back to us in the form of privatisation (heavily subsidised with taxpayers money, of course) was the railway network. You will doubtless still be cringing with embarrassment from the furore a little while back when the Railtrack shareholders started demanding compensation (i.e. yet more public money), effectively because they weren't making the profits their greedy little minds had first envisaged. They lost the subsequent court case, thank God. If they hadn't, I'm sure that everyone who'd ever bought, for example, a losing lottery ticket from Camelot would have been banging on their lawyer's door. As it is, wise up. Investment should always be a gamble. And if you're greedy enough to invest in a sector that should never have been privatised in the first place, you deserve to lose your shirt.


(This was written in May 2006. I was probably a bit grumpy at the time).



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Another Day in Paradise

We’ve had the builders in. The garden’s in a mess; I’ve not been able to get out there because of the building work. There’s also a new cat in the neighbourhood that has mistaken our garden for a restroom.

Today, I went into the garden to start re-fixing the rotary washing line. I anticipated doing lots of gruelling things with concrete and paving slabs, but I soon realised that I would first have to cut the grass. Though before I could do anything else, I had to pick up all the cat mess. So I did. Then I went to the shed and plugged in the strimmer, just to deal with the worst of the grass. It didn't work, so I checked all the power connections. They were fine. The strimmer was broken.
I wondered if I would be able to fix it. Ample evidence of my frankly astonishing ability to fix almost anything can be found in the cuts sustained by my leg when the strimmer roared into life.

I strimmed the grass. It seems that I hadn't actually cleared all the cat mess after all.
After washing my trainers, I went to the shed to retrieve the Flymo. On exiting the shed, I banged my head on the roof, which caused me to duck my head downwards rather quickly. On ducking my head, my open, right eye was brought into sharp contact with the handle of the Flymo. I suspect a black eye is developing.

I Flymo'd the grass. Further hitherto undiscovered lumps of cat mess were dislodged by the spinning blade. Some of them flew into the air. Some of them missed me.

But not many.

After finishing with the Flymo, I decided the grass would benefit from further strimming. Whilst jauntily walking backwards, whistling a little grass strimming tune that I had just made up, I tripped over the cable. Luckily, the rotary washing line was there to break my fall. Unluckily, and thanks largely to the excavating abilities of our dogs, the rotary washing line is no longer securely fixed in the ground which, as you know, is why I went out there in the first place. By now, thoroughly unbalanced in every sense of the word, I stumbled across the lawn, pausing only to tread in a newly discovered lump of cat mess.

I picked myself up, took off my trainers, washed them again, put away the gardening tools and went indoors. Whilst I'd been busy doing garden related activities, one of the dogs had entered the house and thrown up something foamy and fluorescent green. In four separate places. I don't know which dog, but it had better either recover or die, very quickly, because I'm not touching anything like that again.

Anyway, we had run out of kitchen roll, so to clean it up I had to use a tea towel, which I then put straight in the bin.

The good news, however, is that my accident with the washing line seems to have secured it rather better than before, so with any luck, there will be no need to do the whole concrete, paving slab thing that I had originally intended.

If there's a moral to this story, I don't want to know what it is.



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