This one’s for the freaks

Version A
In an attempt to evaluate the user experience of the popular blogging platform Tumblr, I have undertaken to publish a work of my own devising, thus experimenting with its user, admin and customisation features. Because, apparently, we’re all so short of spannable attention, I’m going to publish it scene-by-scene three times a week, till the end. I will attempt to gain followers (gasp). The result of this experiment will also influence when and how I publish my novel Lo! The Flat Hills of My Homeland.

Version B
Because of reasons I am uploading Star Cross-dressed Lovers a spoof jukebox show, a Manic Street Musical, if you will. (It’s built around Manics songs. Of course it is.) It’s got James eating pies, Nicky nearly destroying the world, Sean being evil and best of all, Richey isn’t dead (much).

If Tumblr and I get on, I’ll use it to publish my completed (in the sense that I’m not bloody doing it again) typo-ridden novel which is NOT called Lo! The Flat Hills of My Homeland, but it probably should be.

You can visit the Manic Street Musical site any time you like.

The words we’ve heard

After much procrastination, I can present The illustrated Brett Anderson, a rather messy series of infographics (delusions of grandeur, right there) based on Brett’s most frequently used words.

Geeky method and stuff
It was pretty simple really. I took all of the lyrics to every officially published Suede, The Tears and Solo song and ran them through a frequency count. I also manually checked each one (kill me now) and adjusted for declensions, congugations, plurals etc. An information science degree does not prepare one for the sheer tedium of this and I nearly gave up at Suede, but felt guilty about abandonning The Tears and solo material. I think this means I have issues.

Almost all words which occur more than 20 times are included, and quite a few down to 4 occurances as I chose. I discounted all pronouns, bits of sentences that had no meaning (e.g. because, so) and variations of ‘to be’ (e.g. am, were). I didn’t include ‘la’ or ‘awwwwhowwww’ because that would have tipped me over the edge, and there’s a few more like ‘make’ that seemed too abstract to bother with. I wanted to include phrases like ‘you and me’ but I let my data integrity slide in favour of leaving the house occasionally. Basically it started off as a statistical exercise then I got bored and wanted to draw doomed spaceshuttles.

I drew all the pictures in Powerpoint. This is because I felt like giving myself an extra level of misery and is in no way an excuse to cover my poor design skills.

Anyway, here are the results.

Pretty pictures

You can download the whole lot as a PDF, should you be so inclined.

Why?
I don’t bloody know. There’s something distinctive about Brett’s lyrics, Suede in particular and I wanted to investigate. In essence I guess it’s that whole suburban apocalypse thing, which I hope is reflected in the images. I’m not sure if this exercise brought me any closer to understanding it, but awwwhowww well.

Cuttings from his glory days

I’ve walked Las Ramblas but not with real intent.

I’m a big fan of the local library. Not library as I might usually mean it, not the slightly over-heated, out-of-the-way, never-have-what-I-want-in cubby holes that I treasure dearly. But the other local library, the streets of London and beyond which I tread daily, living and breathing the present but so often the past, or the made up.

Here, in Tufnell Park I am in spitting distance of the following:
– The house George Orwell used to live in
– The Seven Sisters which Brett Anderson left ‘for a room in a seaside shack’.
– The Hotel Splendide which inspired a Bernard Butler bside
– The Good Mixer which cooked up Britpop until it boiled over
– The St John’s Road, Archway where Spike Milligan used to visit his friend Harry Edgington
– The house where Spaced was filmed. (I even shop in the same Londis as Tim did.)

The locations in songs, TV and books captivate me as much as the emotions, and send me on stupid Saturday morning missions to seek out a brick wall somewhere in Highgate. Cast the nets a little further, to the rest of London, Worthing, Sheffield and the list could go on.

You know, I walked around Merrian Square in Dublin, and sure people know Oscar Wilde lived there, but who else spots the estate agent Morrisseys on the corner and Yeats’ house opposite, and sees Cemetry Gates made flesh? And then I walked down Las Ramblas in Barcelona thinking of Orwell and thinking of Nicky Wire feeling inadequate in his steps, and I felt inadequate in both their steps, but was somehow thrilled, as if I was doing a secret thing which only I knew about.

Often it’s me on a treasure hunt but sometimes it’s accidental and it catches me unawares. Take this week. I have been reading High Fidelity by Nicky Hornby. It’s set around here, Crouch End, Seven Sister Road, Camden, Kentish Town. Familiar terrirtory but I don’t recognise many of the road or shop names. I know Crouch End well so there’s no need to seek it out.

But then, the book finds me. On Friday evening a friend of mine from work, Rachel, invites me to see her band play in Camden. Suddenly I’m in the Hope & Anchor and the Purple Turtle and seeing Rachel sing, meeting the band and their friends and having awkward but fun conversations and the memory of the book, of Marie’s gigs comes crashing in. Waves of sensation – something like deja vu – make me laugh and I find myself asking my new aquaintances what music they like just to keep the illusion going. It’s not even as if the personal situation is similar, it’s the same thrill as Baracelona – being in a joke that no one else is.

Saturday morning I walk to Oxfam Books & Music in Kentish Town to see what I can dig out for my scruffy book pile. The guy in the shop is berating his younger assistant: “I can’t believe you haven’t seen Zulu! How can you not have seen Zulu? Where have you been?!” I take my books to the counter and he critiques them, all the while continuing to tell his assistant how great Blondie are. As I’m paying the assistant is asked “OK, top 10 records from the 80s?”. On my way out I ask them both if they’ve read High Fidelity. No, says the man. Yes, says the assistant. “Well,” I said to the assistant, “he is definitely Barry.”

She giggles, I leave. But not before I catch the expression on her face, which I know well myself. It’s the joy of being in on a joke that you can’t explain and you couldn’t even if you wanted to.

New generation calling.

On the face of it, this post might seem like it’s about yet another obscure piece of fan trivia, the kind that Fact & Breakfast makes its bread and butter. But it isn’t. This post is about the internet, libraries, user generated content and how – despite what some might have you think – they are not diametrically opposed but work together for all kinds of end. (Including, admittedly, solving obscure bits of fan trivia.)

Side A: Problem finding

In October 1994 Suede released their second album Dog Man Star. In October 2002 I fell in love with it. In June 2011 Suede re-released it as a ‘deluxe’ edition featuring demo and pre-edit versions of some tracks. Last week, I played these new versions for the first time and awoke some old curiousities.

So I did what I always do.

There are no results except a link to the Suede forum. Well, I guess if anyone’s going to know it’s them.

Oh.

I have come to rely on the internet to tell me things. Before I was merely curious. Now, after being told I shall never know, I am determined that I will. So, I think, maybe there’s some clues within the clip. The newly-released deluxe version is two minutes longer and has more samples. There must be a hint of something in there.

I listen. You can listen to the standard album version. The extended version is similar. The main difference in the sample is a few seconds seemingly broadcast from the Cheltenham races. But can any of it help me? As it turns out, yes. And it all hangs on the closing seconds of the song. …here at Cheltenham.

Side B: Problem solving

How? Here’s how my thought process went:
Key assumption: That the Suede forum is right and the sample was recorded directly off TV. This thesis is supported by the white noise sounds that break up the sample.
Therefore: TV has a broadcast date. Broadcast schedules are published. Determine the date > Locate schedule > Name film.

Easy. What’s the date?

We need TV schedules across three months in 1994. Range too big.


We need TV schedules for every day in April-July 1994 that there was racing at Cheltenham. Still a potentially large range.


The sample mentions that the horses will also be at Newton Abbot today. We need TV schedules for every day in April-July 1994 when there was racing a Cheltenham and subsequent racing at Newton Abbot.

Let’s compare racing schedules for Cheltenham and Newton Abbot and see where they coincide.
Cheltenham race schedule
Newton Abbot race schedule

There’s only one match: 20th April 1994. (The 27th April is also a possibility as there’s racing at Newton Abbot two days later, and I can conceive that horses might travel a day or so before a race. We’ll keep that one as a back-up).

Cool, who has TV schedules?
Not Google, it’s too long ago. But in those pre-historic days of the early 90s, they were at least published. On paper. But who’s got a copy of them now?

Enter Westminster library, who kindly give me access to UK Press Online.

A bit of boolean querying. I knew that degree in Information Science was good for something. Not that one really needs a degree to understand boolean operators.


Dear UK Press Archives. Please can you show me all pages from the 20th April 1994 with the words ‘Television’ OR ‘TV’ please? Ta.

Yes, indeed it can.

Full image

There’s the Cheltenham races on BBC2, and then at the same time:
– On ITV a studio talk show which accounts for the If you’d like to take part in fu-… bit of the sample;
– On BBC1 Hawaii Five-0 which might explain the violent punching sounds. Or that might just be Brett and Bernard finally loosing it;
– and, wonderfully on Channel 4 a film, Woman’s World, from 1954 (plummy accents) and according to Wikipedia a character called Bill.

Bing-bloody-go.

I posted my findings back on the Suede forum with the caveat that (a) I’m a complete geek and (b) I could be wrong and it’s all been a collossal waste of time.

A day later, this was posted:

Here’s the video clip – a direct result of all this wrangling.

My level of excitement was beyond embarassing:

Hidden track: Why bother?

16 years of uncertainty over in a couple of hours. But like I said, this isn’t a post about obscure fangirl things. I’ve written this screed to prove a point.

As meaningless as this discovery is, I couldn’t have made it without databases (racing and TV schedules), search engines (Google), or user-created content (forums and wikipedia). And I certainly couldn’t have made it without Westminster library telling me the press archive even existed, and then paying for me to access it. I reached it from my own PC and all I needed was my library card number.

Those TV schedules are on the net, but not Google-able. So are dozens of other databases, reference books and collections. Not only do we collectively not know they’re there, we don’t know how to work them and are unwilling to pay for them when we do. Libraries, God bless libraries, solve the last one, though I really wish they’d shout more about the first two.

But this isn’t a post about how wonderful libraries are, though I’ve been known to write them in the past. The point I want to make is that databases and early computers did not kill libraries, or render them obsolete. The internet did not do away with structured information or negate the need for books. User-generated content, when used with sound mind, enhances rather than destroys ‘proper’ sources.

I needed all of these to make this meaningless discovery. We could make things of actual value if we learned to stop polarising old and new, formal and fun, tactile and virtual, and just enjoyed the wealth of information that – with a little effort – is available at our fingertips. This rant is a little without context, but think of the number of X or Y debates there are – Mac OR PC, print OR screen, facebook OR real friends – and think of this as the same. Not or, both. BOTH.

High horse off. Over and out. Time to listen to Still Life.

You might at least have told us you had a trumpet

On Wednesday I saw Hugh Laurie play the Union Chapel, Islington, in support of his upcoming album Let Them Talk. It’s fair to say that until my friend offered me a spare ticket, I’d filed this whole musical venture under ‘vaguely aware but largely ignore’.

My rationale was thus: First and foremost Laurie will be a comedian to me, and since I don’t watch House, in many ways he’s an archived, DVDed interest, not a going concern. I’m not used to seeing Laurie in serious mode. I will ambivalenty assume that he’s now so famous any musical venture would have sold out long ago. I’ll stick to slapstick and songs about lids if it’s all the same to you.

But, I went, and it was brilliant. The funny had moved between the songs. Less slap-stick and more the self-effacing sarcasm that comes across in interviews. There were no Fry & Laurie songs, as expected, and live the New Orleans blues moved beyond merely competent and into enchanting.

I don’t normally blog what are essentially ‘I done do go to gig’ posts (much), but there was one particular song, Jericho that was so enchanting the effects of it are still with me days later. A simple song of christian strength set in a beautiful chapel that lost none of its power with knowing Laurie himself is atheist.

Here’s a shaky live (not mine) video to show the effects of the chapel:

And here’s the album version for musical clarity:

Whenever my cultural obessions hit my christian spirit I am enthralled. I love seeing God in mixed in with real life in such overt ways, I simply love that He’s talked about. There’s an element of frission knowing that such thrills come from the non-believing author of the very sarcastic ‘Jesus is my friend’.


(Full sketch from 3:08)

And yet, despite knowing it’s not played with the spirit I receive it, I still rejoice. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Art is in the creator and the audience. God can be met anywhere, and often in the strangest of places.

Back in the chapel, we left after an 80 minute set, touched by the songs, pleased at the humour and grinning at the sheer brilliance of it. Jesus is friendly (and so much more). Chapels are for church (and so much more). Hugh Laurie is funny (and much, much more).

Hugh Laurie is funny.

Hugh Laurie is funny. Hugh Laurie falls over. Hugh Laurie writes extremely sharp words and deceptively clever songs. Hugh Laurie does all three at once and becomes very funny.

Hugh Laurie covers blues songs. Hugh Laurie covers blues songs extremely competently. These songs are also deceptive because they sound like Hugh Laurie being funny, but there is no punchline.

This is an issue, but one which is only felt subconsciously. Hugh Laurie is funny. He is funny. He will be funny. He will. He is Hugh Laurie. Hugh Laurie is funny.

Hugh Laurie’s blues hang in the air, unresolved. They leave a sense of tension like an single quotation mark” (or a forgotten parenthesis. Perhaps this adds to the emotional weight of the music.


This should have been the theme to ‘House’

[Or perhaps, like this post, the expected pay-off will never arrive.]

What’s my name?

Returning to some user profiles I created two years ago raised a wry smile back at myself. Never one to let the chance to sneak in a subtle nerd/fan reference slip by, my wireframes, user journeys and user profiles are full of sly nods to whatever I’m crushing on at the time.

User profiles, example below, tend to sketch a person with reference to a particular project e.g. a website. They’ve got a name, a location, backstory, tasks thoughts and feelings. For me their names have much wider significance than one might think at first.


Picture: Rough ‘n’ ready user profile

Two years ago, ‘Matthew Osbourne’, ‘Adrian Healey’, ‘Jenny Lewis’, ‘Michael Young’, and ‘Donald Trefusis’ (or variants of) were very busy people, while I was up till 1am most mornings watching QI repeats on Dave. Not a coincidence.

When I’m profiling, I sometimes have genuine user data, but sometimes I’ll need to design in the dark, and sometimes I’ll have practical tasks but I need a personality to pin them on. These insta-names give my developing persona somewhere to begin. Knowing that I don’t have forever to create 6-10 new people adds to the impetus to get some ego-aspects going quickly.

If I’m using real people as a basis I’ll jumble up names and surnames as a cover, because the aim isn’t for the client to recognise their origin; they need to be new people, portmanteaus of their genuine users as well as my fictional friends. Across projects I’ve also used mixtures of the Manics, Conan-Doyle characters, the Comedy Store Players, Suede, Chalet School novels and many more. The profiles that come out the other end are in no way these people. They’re a very useful starting point for personality and a happy repository for in-jokes that are too tiresome to list here.

It’s also a bit about my identity. When I go down a fandom rabbit-hole, I take my whole world with me. I always wonder if a client or a colleague would spot my references but they never have done yet. If they did I’d be happy and embarrassed at the same time. Pleased someone gets me, mortified that my nerdiness might have crossed a line too many.

On one occasion I used names taken from my own fiction writing. Now, no one would ever recognise these and bring me to book as it were, but they still came with all the benefits of a pre-fab identity. Only, as I handed them over to colleagues and clients, Tom, Pippa and Rachel were changed. Words were put in their mouth that they would never say, lives were given to them that they would never lead, and I found it strangely hard to handle. But “Pip would never have a haircut like that, she’s far more of a 70s child” does not go down well with a designer on a tight deadline. In the end I forced the project to change their names because I couldn’t cope.

Now I stick to fiction and bands, all jumbled up in my cultural reference pit. Jenny Healey gets a lot of fun because she’s an extension of a fictional character. She’s mine to use at will but since I based her on a Fry character it’s not so personal when others take control.

However, naming personas remains a secret pleasure and Jenny won’t last forever. No doubt I’ll keep finding new obsessions, they’ll keep leaking, and in a few years time it’ll be a good a map as any to find out where my mind’s meandered.

Use your right to protest on the street

I’m watching everyone on the Student Fees protests while listening to Running The World over and over again.


Picture: BBC. Original.

Your free market is perfectly natural,
Or do you think that I’m some kind of dummy,
It’s the ideal way to order the world,
Fuck the morals, does it make any money?
And if you don’t like it? Then leave.
Or use your right to protest on the street,
Yeah, use your rights but don’t imagine that it’s heard, Oh no no.

It’s been one of those days yes, which is oddly in tune with itself (I have Pulp tickets, yes!) but it’s more than that. It’s people, for once, doing something. I’m not asking for violence, no. That will just make people dismiss us. Doing something, yes. YES.

Still so in love with you

It’s that time of year again, when everything kicks into gear. Not because it’s autumn or anything, but when I open my diary and it’s a mess of train times and confirmation numbers. My head, to match, is a mess of organisation, revelation and glitterly disintergration. Time, in short, for a Manics tour.

A new album too, to add to the adventures of my imagination this month. I’ve been seeing the world through a mixture of Sherlock, Phill Jupitus, Chalet School, Edwyn Collins, Fry & Laurie, Bret Easton Ellis, Edingburgh Fringe, and Patrick Wolf, plus all my usual temptations.

Now’re we’re in September and things are kicking up a gear.

Exhibit A. On Monday we see Stephen Fry read from his biography part 2. I’m re-reading volume one, Moab is my Washpot in anticipation. It’s been a while and I’d forgotten how close to the bone it was. Not in circumstance but in sentiment. I keep having to come up for air during passages. Sometimes I can’t process a whole sentence at a time, the feeling is so thick. I adore it, but it feels like I’m being turned inside out in the process. I remember when I first read it I knew it would change me. That was about three years ago and I was right. The next link in the chain, the next big touchstone for all I’d pick up, read, frame my thoughts through. You’ll either get that or you won’t but either way, it started in Moab.

Exhibit B. I was in York this weekend gone and with two hours free shopping, hit the charity shops to stock up. Very succesfull – Mark Gatiss, Alan and Victoria Coren, a previously un-owned edition of Moab, Grahame Green and Miles Kington all showed themselves. So did a Billy Ray Cyrus CD and a horrible book titled ‘The Smarties Guide to the Galaxy: Space, the universe and everything’. I did not buy these last two monstrosities; I put Billy to the back of the rack and hit the Smarties one against the bookshelf because I am mature like that.

Exhibit C. There’s lots to write at the moment, so I must take notes properly as I go pootle along so I don’t forget all the things I’ll put to page when I get the bloody time. I must keep hold of the Edingburgh spirit when I stayed up all night discussing sketch craft with the UCL Comedie crew. Sketches are where I started. I still have a Monty Python-esque fear of punchlines.

These things might sound like diversion but they’re all the same thing really. Swimming deep in inspiration, infatuation and validation. I love it. It makes we want to work, to create, to design and write.

So after Fry there’s a couple of weeks respite until the Manics tour, which takes up most of October. In between all this introspection, I must organise trains, hotels and myself. I must attempt to remember which of the hundreds of editions of the album/single I’ve ordered.

And then I’ll hit the road. I’ll be working, travelling, and singing, but probably not eating or sleeping. No doubt I’ll come back with a million new in-jokes and a whole host of new favourite lines. Let’s end on another one, Jarvis this time. Why live in the world when you can live in your head – and cringe at the number of hours you’ll spend waiting in Birmingham New Street wondering where the hell you’re headed next?

There’s a song that I recall

I went to see an adaptation of Adolf Hitler: My Part In His Downfall in Hampstead the other week. As adapatations go, it was excellent. It took the three biggest elements of ‘Adolf’ and the subsequent volumes – the humour, the loss and the music – and told of the first two through the latter.

Taking of the form of a classic revue show of jazz standards, it merged the hits of the time into the plot, and unlike most of the modern day pop-musicals (yes, still looking at you, Ben Elton) it succeded wonderfully. Like the best stand-up shows, the transitions between skits, songs and scenes were seemless, and the over all impression was of friendship in one of the most wasteful expending of human life in history. I was laughing, through joy and sorrow, often at the same time. In short, it did justice to the books, and was exactly what theatre should be.

In the subsequent couple of weeks, I’ve re-read ‘Adolf’ and the next one in the series, Rommel, Gunner Who?. A lunch break later and I’m wondering what happened to Harry ‘Ying Tong’ Edgington, Spike’s best friend in the pre-Goon era. Now so reliant on Google and Wikipedia to meet all my pop-culture needs, I was really rather confounded when a search on both of these turned up next to nothing.

If did they a QI on ‘ways Kathryn chooses to abuse the wealth of information resources at her fingertips’, I will definitely apply for the job of Chief Elf.

The reason I know so much about Harry is, ironically enough, because I can’t find anything much out about him at all. I was reading Spike Milligan’s war memoirs, and he’s featured loads (usually with a cup of tea). He co-wrote some of Spike’s early comedy sketches and started a Battery Band with him. His surname was even the inspiration behind the Goon’s Ying Tong Song.

Anyway, as I often happens whenever I get interested in a subject something slightly to the sidelines of the main subject (i.e. WWII) will spark my curiosity. In this case it was Spike mentioning that Harry lived in Archway, down the road from me! I wondered if he went back there after the war, and what he ended up doing. He didn’t end up in the Goons despite his early forays into that music and comedy with Spike, so where did he go? Normally I’d whack a couple of things into Google, and bish bash bosh, there’s your answer.

Only, there’s nothing, except a small article in a Kiwi newspaper saying he’d died. Ziltch. I tried a few more combinations and still nothing. Harry was to the Goons as Pete Best was to the Beatles, and yet the internet has never heard of him, apart from in reference to the Ying Tong Song. I think this actually broke me slightly because I’m so used to being able to find anything I want online. I then spent a mad afternoon looking in the Guardian, Mirror and Times online archives (which go right back to the first edition). STILL NOTHING, not even in Spike’s obituaries.

Of course, obstruction like this just makes me more determined to find out what I can about the guy. I’ve pieced a few things together, but it’s basically my pet project at the moment. It made me think about all the other information that probably isn’t online. A massive black hole that you don’t know is there until you try and find something from pre-1980. People these days assume that everything is online, that there’s a record of everything and there isn’t. Harry wasn’t just another soldier, he was instrumental (excuse the pun) in changing Britain’s comedy culture and there really isn’t anything. I’m trying to find out enough information so we can make a wikipedia page for him, then I expect other people will be able to add stuff. It’s just getting it started.