Save the libraries!

Today is Save Our Libraries Day, a national day of protest, action and awareness raising against library cuts.

I’ve been using libraries for almost my entire life. I can just about (albeit hazily) remember being 3 or 4 and going for the first time to the children’s corner in Lincoln library’s junior section. Three brand new cardboard tickets were my passport into this previously parent-only world. Yep, you handed over your tickets in return for books, a slip was removed from the book and placed in the slot in your ticket, before the whole lot was stored in special racks behind the counter. All manual in those days!

Having worked my way through no end of colourful picture books, progressing onto gently wordy stuff like Mary Plain and Bobby Brewster it was suggested that I might like to explore the main junior section. Holy crap! There were just SO many books, and some of them were HUGE! This was the age (7-10) when I was really ploughing through books, especially the old classic adventure novels, and there was a seemingly never-ending supply of new stuff to discover.

I then progressed onto the teenage room (seriously, a whole ROOM of teenage books, mags and records) and then came the next life-changing moment. At 14, I was allowed to become a full member of the adult library. This occupied the main body of the building, with dusty wood-panelled reading rooms, mysterious flagstoned corridors and just miles and bloody miles of books. The tickets were different, too… you got a little booklet of tear-off paper tickets, like Post-It notes, and although there was a “fair usage” system, there was no limit to the stuff you could borrow.

This coincided with my early days of playing guitar and learning about music, so the stock of guitar tutor books and music scores was even more exciting than football and girls combined. Geeky teenage hormones went into overdrive when, enquiring about some obscure music book, I was told that I was allowed to join the Lincoln Music Library, over the other side of the city centre. HOLY CRAP! Over the next four years or so, I probably visited that place twice weekly, and worked through no end of guitar books, classical scores, biographies, crappy badly transcribed songbooks…

Of course, seeing a huge university library was a whole new level of Dubya-Tee-Eff which, for a while, made me a bit frustrated with public libraries (“I’m sorry, you have absolutely NO Danish existential poetry from the Modern Breakthrough era?”) but that soon passed. Since then, whenever we’ve moved house, the quality and accessibility of the local library has been as important a criterion as the railway station, a decent pub, low crime levels and all that house-hunting stuff. I just can’t live without a decent library. I’ve been lucky, always living a 10-minute (or less) walk from Lincoln, Norwich, Sutton and Epsom libraries… all excellent resources.

And, by way of a rambling anecdotal case for the defence, that’s why the proposed library cuts across the country amount to cultural vandalism. I live a fairly middle-class life, but I seriously doubt if I’d be able to afford to buy all the books I read. How does a single mother with three kids cope? Not reading at all is, sadly, an all-too-common outcome. It’s not just about the ability to buy books, either, it’s about the choice of independent learning and enrichment outside of the market system.

I’m not blaming the councils on the whole. Some have responded better than others, in doggedly and proactively trying to maintain library services within the restricted budgets. Some services, for the very young, very old and infirm, simply have to take precedence, and I don’t envy anyone trying to make sense of a council’s finances under the new order. No, the blame lies squarely with a culturally bereft and elitist government. Politicians pay lip service to “social mobility”, but along with a decent public transport system, the public library is a surefire way to guarantee social mobility. But it’s just lip service… auto-didacticism has a nasty whiff of old-school socialism, doesn’t it? Miners and builders… reading BOOKS? Whatever next!

The public library system is the most effective conduit we have for universal free speech and the free flow of information; WikiLeaks can only dream of such a wide coverage and influence. Don’t get your hopes up about the next (party unspecified) government being able to reinstate the services during the next boom. Those gaps will have been filled by supposedly profitable private sector initiatives. If we allow this great public resource to be eroded, we’ll never get it back.

Posted in Art/Culture, Politics | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Hacking to the top

Although there’s been plenty of coverage of Andy Coulson‘s resignation this week, amid the increasing significance of the phone-hacking scandal, I’ve been surprised at how the media have chosen to focus on the story.

The obvious point to make is that snooping into people’s personal voicemail is a Very Naughty Thing Indeed, and we’ve been reminded of that several times in the past week. Many of the comments have also mentioned David Cameron’s “error of judgement” in employing Coulson in the first place.

But to me, it seems there’s a far more important point to make, resonating with several other recent political stories. Despite knowing about Coulson’s legal baggage, Cameron decided to employ him because he can do whatever he likes. That attitude can be found every level, from employing your own private photographer at the taxpayer’s expense through to tearing up the entire history of public health and education provision.

Coulson is a vital connection to Rupert Murdoch, another person for whom Cameron’s cabinet will happily bypass any question of ethical behaviour. How long before he’s back in a similar role?

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Using WordPress in a subdomain?

This is pretty niche stuff, but I’m posting it just in case someone else happens to find it useful…

If your WordPress blog lives in a subdomain (this one is at, not you may well have problems upgrading plugins and WordPress itself. In my case, the “upgrade automatically” buttons give this error…

Upgrade Plugin

Downloading update from

Download failed.: Could not create Temporary file

Plugin upgrade Failed

Of course, I can still download manually, unzip and install via FTP, but it’s annoyingly fiddly when a more streamlined alternative supposedly exists.

The support forums give a range of potential solutions, of which the first one I tried worked perfectly! Bear in mind this didn’t work for at least one other person, and it may be specific to Unix servers, I have no idea.

When you click an “upgrade automatically” button, you’re prompted for standard FTP details. DON’T put any subdomain information in the “host” box… just put the top-level address (in this case, and WP will find the right directory. The issue here is with WP not being able to create a temporary file, so we’ll give it some help.

Open your FTP program, navigate to the directory where “wp_config.php” lives (probably in subdomain/httpdocs) and create a new folder. Call it “tmp” and CHMOD it to 777. If you don’t know how to (or can’t) send raw server commands, your FTP program may have a more graphical way of doing it. I’m using Transmit, and it’s simply a matter of selecting a file or folder and choosing “Get Info” (or cmd-i).

Next, open the file “wp_config.php” and add this line…

define(‘WP_TEMP_DIR’, ABSPATH . ‘tmp’);

Save it to the server, and with any luck, your automatic plugin upgrade should now work!

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The return of the album?

I’ve seen a couple of BBC radio and TV news items about the Classic Album Clubs running in a few British pubs. A reaction to the one-song-at-a-time ADHD listening habits fostered by the downloading culture, the clubs have an atmosphere of reverent reflection. The heads of listeners are shown gently nodding to the sound of a classic album being played in its entirety, pausing only as the record (vinyl, natch) is turned over.

A few things occurred to me. First, the “no talking” rule. Punters are allowed to talk before and after the presentation, but while the music is playing, only silent appreciation (and supping your pint) is allowed. I sympathise with the general sentiment; music is best enjoyed in a state of immersion. But this isn’t a gig (I hate it when people talk during the music at gigs!) where the unique nature of the event makes interruptions more of an issue. It’s a recording, available in a variety of formats for reproduction on a variety of domestic equipment, available from all good electrical retailers. If you want to listen in silence, why would you go to a pub and sit with other people?

To me, this completely negates the benefits of creating such a social event. Even with the greater interconnectedness that disparate music fans now enjoy via the internet, there is still no other effective social approach to music listening than to sit together in a room where the music is playing. What’s the point if you can’t point out your favourite guitar solo, ask about a misheard lyric, laugh at a dodgy synth sound? This does nothing for music; this is simply the pretentious act of being seen enjoying the “right” type of music. If you need to listen to your albums in silence, stay at home and don headphones!

And then, do we actually need to reverse the trend of iTunes shuffling and single-track downloading? We’ve always had singles, and in vast swathes of western musical culture, the fundamental currency unit is the song. The Beach Boys’ album “Pet Sounds” is a great piece of work, but I think most of the songs can be appreciated, enjoyed and marvelled at in isolation. The same might not be true of Brian Wilson’s follow-up “Smile”, where the gradual ebb and flow of ideas calls for the full symphony treatment. But that’s just me; everyone has different ways of listening to music. Schubert’s symphonies are not objectively “better” or “worse” than his songs or string quartets; they just present his musical ideas in a different format.

[By way of anecdotal reinforcement, I spent a couple of years or so where I hardly listened to any albums in full, apart from long-format classic pieces. Most of my music listening involved having my entire iTunes library on random. It was wonderful, and caused me to hear details on tracks that I'd never noticed when they breezed by in the context of their parent albums. But I grew tired of that, and these days I'm at the opposite extreme... I like to listen to an artist's entire back catalogue, in chronological order, hearing the gradual unfolding of creative trains of thought and the addition of new influences and interests. Neither of these approaches will be right for everyone, though.]

Finally, the idea that classic albums must be heard in their entirety is misplaced in many cases. Not every album is a conceptual song cycle like “Ziggy Stardust” (as featured in the BBC item) and while that club’s curator Colleen Murphy insists that the classics are not simply collections of songs, that’s often precisely what they are. The gradually shifting moods, perfect pacing and logical progression from Side A to Side B is so often wishful thinking on the part of the listener. Who even chose the order of the songs… the band? Or how about the producer or mastering engineer?

I’m starting to sound very negative, but I think these clubs are a lovely idea. I just think they’ve got the focus wrong. Forget the nonsense about “classic” albums and concentrate on MUSIC. Listen to a great album, song, symphony or whatever and then compare it with what that artist did next, or what he/she was listening to beforehand, or try to identify what makes it unique. You’re in a pub, with like-minded people, so TALK about it. Music is for sharing.

Posted in Music | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Trish Keenan RIP

So sad to hear that Trish Keenan has died from complications caused by the H1N1 virus. I think I get a bit blasé about “celebrity” deaths, as the people seem so distant and unreal, but this really shocked me. Trish was relatively young and creatively active; I saw her on stage at the South Bank Centre only nine months ago.

I first heard Broadcast in 1999, when they were releasing the initial singles for their second album ‘The Noise Made By People’ (arguably it was their first proper album, as ‘Work and Non Work’ was essentially a singles collection). It was one of those instantly captivating musical introductions… Trish’s warm, rich voice combining with analogue synths and an obvious love for 60s psychedelia and cool, obscure library music.

While their sound gradually developed along more purely electro lines, they never stopped captivating me, and much as I love all their music, that second album remains special for me. It cuts through any feelings of jaded cynicism, turning me back into a wide-eyed teenage music fan. It’s the archetypal “favourite album”, where every note is perfect, both intimately familiar and fresh-sounding.

The only redeeming fact about the deaths of our favourite musicians is that we still have their work to enjoy. If you haven’t heard Broadcast, Youtube is currently your best bet for a free sample… start off with ‘Come On Let’s Go’, ‘Papercuts’, ‘Echo’s Answer’ or ‘Unchanging Window’, then try ‘Black Cat’, ‘Pendulum’ and ‘Colour Me In’.

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It happens every year!

… that is, the self-important media pronouncements about our inability to cope with the snow.

Why we’re a laughing stock with the rest of the world – David Jones, Daily Mail

This bursting urge to point out our national shortcomings is like a comfort blanket for the terminal self-deprecator. It usually sits pretty squarely with the usual Daily Mail response to local authorities, the previous Labour government, Health & Safety and so on, but it’s also contradictory. To describe ourselves as a “laughing stock” suggests that FOREIGNERS may do things better than us. How’s that work, when they’re all feckless communists, out to bleed us dry via EU bureaucracy? It’d probably be unnecessarily cruel to point out to Mail readers (and columnists) that other countries haven’t the slightest interest in how we’re coping with the snow.

Many of the problems experienced by people in this (and every other) freak snowfall are down to personal choice. The choice to drive across countryside at midnight; the choice to send your kids to a school that’s way beyond wellies-and-scarves walking distance away. Yep, you give people personal choice (you wouldn’t get that in a nasty Labour politically correct nanny state, hohoho no) and what do they do? They make a right bloody pig’s ear of it and moan because the politically correct nanny state didn’t come and dig them out.

And then there’s the killer argument, typical of all these articles, running along the lines of… “THEY COPE IN SWEDEN!”

Well of course they do. When your annual weather pattern involves 3-4 months of snowfall, regular as clockwork, you can invest in the infrastructure to deal with it. When the lower temperatures mean that the snow is dry, powdery and easy to shift, you can have a quick run round with the snowplough every morning and keep the roads clear. That’s not quite so easy when the snow can melt to sludge and then refreeze to something resembling reinforced concrete in the space of a few hours.

The only given in this country is that there’ll be snow on the hills every year. The lowlands and cities, where the majority of the population lives, went nearly ten years without any significant snowfall. And then we had short bursts in February 2009, December 2009, January 2010, November 2010… if a local council started investing serious money in snow-clearning equipment based on such unpredictable freak events, there’d be an outcry in the tabloids. SICK KIDDIES DEPRIVED OF CARE TO PAY FOR SNOWPLOUGHS IN MILDEST WINTER EVER!

Posted in Drivel, Journalism, Politics | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

England – calm down!

It’s been interesting to read/hear the media response to last night’s England-France friendly. On the surface, I think we’re all broadly in agreement… England were lacklustre, France were worthy winners, England still lack technical precision, France have returned from their World Cup embarrassment much better than England, and so on. But some of the reaction is quite hysterical.

I think it’s important to get things in perspective. It was a friendly match, during which both coaches substituted SIX players. Eight of the England players have less than ten caps, and three were debutantes, two of whom were in the starting line-up. If the culture of entitlement (seen as the core reason for poor performances by stalwarts such as Rooney, Lampard and Terry) is to end, what better than to “blood” young players in challenging friendlies against big teams?

Both Carroll and Henderson looked overwhelmed at times. Of course they did… it was their first cap, against a very talented French side. Despite a couple of shocking performances in international tournaments recently, France didn’t suddenly stop producing talented players between 2000 and 2010. People seem to forget that they reached the World Cup final in 2006, despite the otherwise disastrous man-management skills of Raymond Domenech. With a proper coach now in charge, maybe we’re seeing them starting to regain the interrupted momentum of 1998-2000, with a new generation of scarily talented players… Gourcuff, Benzema, Nasri, Malouda, Valbuena…

In one of the TV interviews, Capello pointed out that he’d been urged to try out younger players, saying something like “and this is what happens”. I’m slightly concerned, both by the suggestion that he was bending to media pressure and by the fatalistic tone, but we shouldn’t read too much into the nuances of someone haltingly speaking their second or third language. If anything, I’d like to see him fast-track even more young players into the spotlight. The successful under-21 squad is there for a reason, after all.

On that subject, some older players are still not reaching their true potential in an England shirt. Gerrard, for all his genuine commitment, is still under the misapprehension that his 70-yard “searching” passes are the answer. His battling hat-trick against Napoli is what he does best; he just doesn’t shine as a Carrick/Hargreaves wannabe, spraying inch-perfect passes from the centre of midfield. Gareth Barry is rapidly slipping into the same lazy habit, and looked terribly shaky. More worryingly, Ben Foster looks less and less like an international goalkeeper every time he plays. All of this is the reason why the England coaching team MUST maintain a good relationship with the Championship clubs… it just isn’t enough to make routine selections from the Premiership.

But ultimately, what really happened? A friendly match did exactly what it’s designed to do… the coach was able to try out new combinations of players in a risk-free environment. Some didn’t work, some were hampered by nerves and inexperience. I hope Capello sees past the first-night nerves and recalls last night’s youngsters, also continuing to experiment with Kevin Davies and Adam Johnson, while introducing even more young hopefuls. There are still places for Rooney, Lampard and Terry, but they must be earned, otherwise English football really will stagnate in mediocrity.

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The Roundhouse Zappa festival

At risk of spreading myself too thinly, I also have a couple of Posterous blogs. One of them, SFORZO is just a daft little photoblog for little snaps as I’m bumbling through life. The other one is where I babble about music I like, or big up stuff by friends, or… well, whatever.

So, in case you weren’t aware of those, I thought I’d mention that I recently posted a partial review of the Roundhouse theatre’s Zappa festival…

Eight Days of Zappa

Frank would have been 70 this year, so I’ll be writing a bit more, come December…

Posted in Music | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Literally a joke trial

No point going off on an epic burble here. This is simply the most stupid verdict in British legal history since Judge Pickles said “Raped? I’ll bloody show her what raped feels like!”

[Yes, GCHQ, that was a joke. A bit like the one Paul Chambers should have been acquitted for. Like the ones made by millions of people every second of the day, with no intention of malice. Justice Pickles was a knobhead, but I don't think he ever said that.]

Lots of good writing about the whole farcical case all over the interweb, but this one is particularly good…

With the conviction of Paul Chambers, it is now illegal to be English (Heresy Corner)

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Oh no, it’s the 80s again!

Students rioting, tabloids screaming, Tories ranting… blimey, I’m expecting to see a DeLorean drive past any moment.

Most of yesterday *could* be described without too much bluster or complication. Somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000 students and education workers marched through London to protest against education cuts. Around 200 people behaved badly, to varying degrees. That’s a pretty tiny minority, but of course the tabloids have gleefully snapped back into 80s mode, barking their simplistic catchphrases that inform Tory (do we really call it a “coalition” any more, now that the reality is apparent?) policy.

Well, anyway… we’re damned either way. If the march had gone peacefully without any police involvement, it would have been a tiny footnote to the week’s news, making no impact on government policy. But when things get broken, the protesters invoke that good old Tory get-out clause… all dissent is the work of violent, anarchist thugs. Oh, and there’s still no impact on government policy. What’s the point?

I wasn’t really going to talk about the protest itself. I just wanted to vent about some of the convenient historical revisionism that seems to be at the root of some of the pro-government comment. On this morning’s Today programme Janet Daley of the Telegraph compared yesterday’s incident with the protests of the 1960s. You might want to don some pretty powerful rose-tinted spectacles for this (the italicised comments are what I was shouting at the radio)…

In my day, student demonstrations were about, not one’s own interests, you know, we weren’t fighting to have other people pay for our education.

[Okay, just a minor point, but it's irritating me that the media keep referring to yesterday as a "student demonstration". There were lots of uni admin and teaching staff on the march. Also, as Matt just pointed out on Twitter, it's not just about the personal fear of tuition fees, but also a sector-wide fear of vicious teaching cuts.]

We were fighting for civil rights, black [voters?] in the south, and against de facto segregation in the north, and against the Vietnam war, and as a result I think those demonstrations really did capture the imagination of a generation.

[Selective memory. The government and National Guard didn't seem to be captivated in quite the same way.]

What these demonstrations seem to be about is something much more unrealistic

[Like the racial equality in America that you haven't even got 40 years later?!]

and self-serving, which is to say that the whole of society should pay for your education

[But it's fine when the whole of society bails out an incompetent bank, or fills in for a mobile phone company's tax evasion?]

and I think most people will perceive them rather in the way that they perceive those riots in France, where people went out on the streets and threw things at the police, because they were going to have to retire at 62 instead of 60.

[A large proportion of those French protesters were students who worry that the increase in older workers will affect their chances of finding empoyment when they graduate. Because we don't want a benefit-dependent culture now, do we?]

I don’t think that, even without the nihilist rent-a-mob aspect of it, that this is going to capture the sympathies of a country and a generation.

Speaking of the “dependent culture”, I’ll come to that in another post…

Posted in Politics | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment