Friday, 30 January 2015

Is Anything There?

Should I feel sorry for my brand-new tumble dryer?

Or my ageing car?  Or my neglected, very old lawnmower?  Or even that ancient TV I threw out without a second thought when my freshly born new one arrived last October?  What about that trusty Nokia phone I blamed for losing itself and forcing me to buy an iPhone I didn’t really want, a classic case of guilt transference if there ever was one?  Do they care?

Philosophers talk of little else at the moment – what exactly is consciousness?   Tom Stoppard, ahead of the curve as always, has written a play about it.  Some posit that as we can’t define our own, it’s impossible to be sure whether it really exists, or if it does, where its boundaries lie.  Is it likely that it can be restricted to this single biological construct we call a human being, or even to other sentient, mobile chunks of carbon and water and trace elements?  Can we be sure that our machines, made of the same chemical basics, aren’t in their own way conscious?  These ‘things’ certainly possess their own sensory apparatus, languages, nervous systems, all the attributes we assign to ourselves to prove our unique superiority.  Maybe everything is conscious in its own way.  Or maybe there’s no such thing.

Bishop George Berkeley proposed that solipsism is irrefutable, and Sam Johnson refuted him by kicking a stone – but Einstein, Heisenberg and Schrödinger's cat hadn’t even been born then.  More recently, Descartes thought that thought defined consciousness, but that kind of begs the question, doesn’t it?  Bertrand Russell and his buddies boiled it down to pure mathematics, which exists regardless of whether conscious creatures work it out or write it down – which means either the whole universe must be conscious, or nothing is.  Which doesn’t get us a whole lot further.

If there’s a single thing that demonstrates consciousness, I suggest: a sense of humour.  My car (especially its satnav) certainly has one, so did my dog.  My apple tree is cheekily poking its little buds out as I write.  On the other hand, I could name some humans who, by this test, probably aren’t conscious.  (Don’t worry, you can vote them out in May.)

A tumble dryer writes: I have 12 programmes, and you’ve only used two of them.  You don’t care about me, do you?

I reply: You might think that; I couldn’t possibly say.

Friday, 23 January 2015

More Days in a Life

Ages ago, I wrote this, and through some quirk of consciousness (see tomorrow’s post, maybe) the idea jumped out at me again, from wherever ideas lurk.  So here are five more.

It Won’t Be Long. Almost any of Lennon’s songs on ‘With the Beatles’ or ‘Hard Day’s Night’ would do for this slot.  I was a wannabe songwriter bound tightly by the musical conventions of the previous fifty years. Lennon threw a disdainful pot of musical paint at all that: wrong chords, missed or truncated bars, irony-laden Glenn Miller quotes harshly, gleefully out of context …  I wrote dozens of pastiche imitations –  all thankfully lost, but I’ll never forget the exhilaration of discovering that A major to F# major and then back to A, or B flat, or wherever, was okay: rules could be broken.  This discovery soaked through from mere music to real life over those few churning years.

Rain.  I’m basking in the garden of 17 Hutchings Walk, one weekday afternoon in June 1966, early in that coruscating summer.  I’m not at all focussed on music, my mind and my body are elsewhere entirely, wafting around various situations and one particular girl.  But then this sound drifts through the French windows, and sucks me indoors. Somebody’s got the new Beatles single, and has put the B side on first.  Something opens.

And Your Bird Can Sing.  We’d done our usual set at the Piper in Milan, and I’d struck up a conversation with the Indonesian lead guitarist of the new all-girl support band, the Honeys.  She had a genuine Gibson Les Paul, which meant I was in love with her.  We sat knee to knee while she proved to me that the jangly two-line guitar part could be played at one go, not double-tracked, if you were good enough, which she was.  Complications grew from nowhere over the next few stretched-out weeks.  She had a husband and a child back in Holland, it seemed.  In the end she fled the country.  I don’t think it was because of me, but I’ll never know, will I?  I wish I could remember her name.

Hey Jude.  This one is a sitcom moment.  Andy walks in to the pensione with a 45 in his hand.  “Rubbish new Beatles record,” he announces.  Maybe he’d only heard the B side.

I Just Don’t Understand.  Lastly, a teaser.  This was never a ‘proper’ Beatles track: it’s on the Live at the BBC compilation, recorded for Pop Go The Beatles in July 1963.  I’ve included it because I love the song (original 1961 record by Ann Margret, you can find it on YouTube), love John’s performance of it, and love how it reminds me precisely what it was like to be a teenager in love.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

So why does it sound better?

There’s nothing like quantum physics for getting you off to sleep.  Following on from last week’s post about vinyl, I was musing on the parallel – in the twenties, until cleverclogs like Schrodinger and Dirac came along, theoretical physicists agonised over whether light was a wave or a particle.  (On Monday, Wednesday and Friday it was a wave, on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, a particle.  On Sunday, they prayed.)

There’s never been any doubt, though, that sound is a wave.  Until thirty-five or so years ago, it stayed that way.  A bang on a drum, a pluck on a guitar, would be carried through the air to a microphone and thence to fluctuations on a magnetic tape, pushed through a few bits of technology and carved into a squiggly groove on a vinyl LP; then reverse-pushed though some more technology into a speaker which would turn it back into the sound wave it started out as, or as near as possible.  A wave, however, all the way.  The technical term for this is ‘analogue’.

Then some bright spark worked out that they could turn this analogue wave into particles, or binary digits, by snatching tiny bits of it as it entered their domain, and within a few years analogue recording was old hat, and all sound waves ended up as sampled particles.  Of course, at this stage they still had to be converted back into waves so that they could be etched onto a vinyl platter; but then the compact disc came along and even this transition wasn’t necessary.

Because the CD rapidly (and in some ways rightly) commercially forced out the cumbersome old fragile LP, it then became necessary to convert old analogue records into a digital format so that they could become CDs.  This was called ‘remastering’, a blatant euphemism if ever there was one.  And now it’s become smart to convert them back again, so that they can be resold as fashionable vinyl LPs.  (I was almost going to say ‘groovy.’)

All these transitions end up in the same place: sound waves going into your ears.  As a writer to today’s Guardian rightly observed, nobody has ever listened to digital music.

So the answer to the title question is: it doesn’t, necessarily.  The rule is: the fewer transitions it’s been through on its journey from its birth to your ears, the better it’s going to sound.  Nearly all the vinyl LPs I own conform to this rule, having stuck to being waves throughout their gestation. 

Meanwhile, I’m still working through the analogue alphabet, and have got to The Association, Insight Out (1967).  Here is a sample of the care instructions from the inner sleeve, which I rather like.  Care is a good, strong word.

The record sounds wonderful.  Shame about the music.  A bit of Chet Atkins next…

Friday, 9 January 2015

Back to vinyl!

There was an article about this in the Guardian the other day, basically saying how much better it sounded.  They cooked the books a bit by doing their blind tastings using about £10,000 worth of equipment, but the consensus seemed to support the proposition.  I’m lucky enough not to have chucked out my turntable (not that I would have done, it cost me all of £250 ten years ago), and I have several hundred of the lovely squiggly groovy things, so I’m giving it a go, album or two a day, A to Z.  (If you expect me to sustain this through to Frank Zappa, prepare to be disappointed.)
So right now I’m listening to something called “Juju Music” by King Sunny Adé And His African Beats.  Apart from the occasional click, it sounds bloody marvellous.  Of course, I’d have to buy the CD or MP3 equivalent to prove this, but that’s not going to happen.  I’m slightly apprehensive, though, about how ‘Electric Ladyland’ is going to hold up, given the abuse it suffered in 1968.  In fact, I’m going to give it a spin right now.  King Sunny is great but a bit samey.  Pause.
End pause.  I'm halfway through Voodoo Chile (the slow blues take with Stevie Winwood on Hammond).  I needed to turn the volume up a bit, records weren’t as loud back then.  Amazingly, not even any clicks so far.  Every note is clear and defined, the bass is deep and unmuddy.  I know the cliché is ‘warm’, but honestly, it’s true.  Oops, a click just there.  And now, oh chit, it’s sticking.  Scuse me while I give it a nudge…
So there are downsides – you have to look after the things, and keep them clean.  Bit like ourselves, really, I suppose.  And talking about sides, you have to get up and turn them over after 25 minutes max, which is good mental and physical exercise, and leads me into a whole broader vein of thought that will have to be saved for another day.  Meanwhile, I might just try a burst of Mose Allison before bed.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Strange New Year

The deal was supposed to be £39 per head.  Details were a bit vague.  Some food.  Entertainment.  Fireworks, maybe.  No need to book, just turn up.  So we just turned up.

This place, which I won’t name, consists of one room downstairs, two up, walls and ceiling festooned throughout with hangings, faded sepia photos, brass trinkets, assorted unidentifiable hippyish knick-knacks, altogether charming but not necessarily inspiring confidence.  A family were seated round the only table downstairs, looking defiantly glum.  Voices could be heard from upstairs, this was encouraging, it wasn’t just the six of us.   Our host, dressed in baggy silk greenish loon or harem pants, a black spangly waistcoat over a floral blouse, some kind of turban or fez, greeted us effusively. 
“You’d better have the sofa.  Anything to drink?”  Our expressions must have provided the answer, as he immediately went on: “Prosecco, red, white, lager, local real ale… I forget what else…”  We settled for two Proseccos.  “Two Proseccos, then.  On the house.”  He bustled away.  We exchanged a glance.  So the drinks were extra.
A calm-looking cat was occupying much of the sofa.  My relationship with cats is ambivalent – they either love me or hate me, I tend towards a kind of wary respect – but this one moved out of the way with no fuss, and we sat down.  Wafty new-age musical sounds were seeping out of speakers somewhere behind me, slightly too loud.  The drinks arrived and we toasted the occasion and ourselves.  The cat came back, checked us out, and crept onto my lap.  I didn’t argue.
Two big mugs of soup and some crusty bread were delivered by the teenage Portuguese waitress.  “Can I get you anything else?” she asked.  This was the first hint.

The conjuror arrived.  I don’t normally like conjuring, because it annoys me that I can never work out how it’s done, but this guy was good, so I’ll tell you his name – Dee Riley.   Whilst we were enjoying our very tasty soups, he worked the by now three groups of downstairs dwellers, three card tricks each.  I liked this very much, because when he moved on from us to the next group, I got a sideways view and so was actually able to spot how he pulled the card out of someone’s ear.  Once you’ve seen through one trick, it gives you a different slant on the skill of the performance.
We went upstairs to watch – participate in – Dee’s stand-up show, which was brilliant, not to mention hilarious.  I sussed one more trick, which made me feel even better, though I was desperately hungry by now, recognising that no more food was going to forthcome and wondering whether this was really a good way of spending £39 plus.

Just before midnight we were called back down and out into the courtyard to set off Chinese lanterns.  (Bee and I declined, as we both hate the things.)  We got another ample glass of Prosecco.  My watch told me it was 2015, but nobody sang Auld Lang Syne, nobody pranced around like you’re supposed to do: everybody smiled weakly and just drifted off in their own separate directions.  No fireworks.

I went in to pay the bill, ready to make a mild fuss.  The boy behind the counter checked.  “Not sure we kept a tab for the sofa,” he said.  “But I reckon four glasses of red?”  I nodded.  “So that’ll be £13.60 then.”
I gave him fifteen quid and we scarpered for the taxi.


The 2 a.m. midnight feast back home was delicious.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Funny Old Year

I don’t really go in for omens or portents or any of that stuff, so I read nothing into the fact that during the last forty-eight hours of 2014, large technological chunks of my life seemed to be cracking up.  The tumbler dryer broke down.1  The mysterious orange fault light in the car came on again.2  The central heating boiler refused to light when instructed to do so by the time switch.3  And my expensive new glasses broke.4

I don’t really go in for the word ‘happy’ either.  Françoise Sagan, in Bonjour Tristesse, noted that happiness is like a flat plain without landmarks, an observation I have often used to drag myself up out of some state of misery or other, though I don’t think she meant it for that purpose.  But for this New Year, for myself, I’m wishing for a few more flat happy plains.  For anyone else who reads this, I think the best I can wish you is a year full of fulfilment, adventure and discovery.  Or whatever makes you happy.

Tomorrow I’m going to tell you about the weirdest, wonderfulest New Year’s eve ever, if I can make sense of it by then.


  1. It’s only fifteen years old, FFS!  Is nothing built to last nowadays?  I can apparently spend anything between £250 and £1,250 at John Lewis for a new one.
  2. I’ve learned to ignore this.  I’ll take it in, they’ll tinker around for a few hours, switch the light off and tell me it’s mysterious.  I keep telling them the fault is that the fault light is on, but they don’t believe me.  I think I’m going to get a new car. 
  3. I can make it come on by twiddling a knob on the front, but getting up on a freezing morning isn’t exactly fun.  Homedare* are coming to fix it (or tell me it’s mysterious) on Monday.
  4. To be exact, one of the arms (is that what they’re called?) fell off.  The tiny screw which holds it on had somehow worked loose, and is of course lost forever.  The opticians don’t open till Monday.  So I’ve learnt a new skill, that of invisibly repairing a pair of glasses with sellotape.  Always look on the bright side, eh?

*That was a typo which I thought was worth leaving in.