Imagine – Books: The Last Chapter?

Books: The Last Chapter?With the rise of electronic books is the final chapter about to be written in the long love story between books and their readers?

So asked Books: The Last Chapter? –  the questioning title of a seventy-minute episode of the BBC 2 series Imagine from December of last year, posed by the program’s human incarnation Alan Yentob. Adding

Will the app take the place of the book?

Anecdotally both my sister and her husband bought Kindles for each other’s Christmas 2011 present and both loved them and both are forty-somethings and if not technophobic then certainly technoskeptic. And well as we know there is no evidence quite as compelling as anecdotal evidence.

Books: The Last Chapter? Imagine - web pageImagine is the BBC’s flagship Art series – I think that means it is expected to aim for a viewing figure at least comparable to a midweek midnight episode of a British Bowling regional meet – Art Programs for Art Programs sake. Imagine was I presume the BBC’s alternative – or complement as we are civil Arts types after all – to ITV’s South Bank Show the brainchild/lovechild of the ubiquitous Melvyn Bragg. Or it was until that show and or Melvyn Bragg were axed with its final broadcast in December 2009. Channel 4 have plenty of shows about classic and contemporary artists but perhaps surprisingly no regular series devoted to it. A gap in the market perhaps. And Channel 5 – be serious!

I am sure I read somewhere that the real name of Imagine’s presenter (and creator/writer/producer) Alan Yentob is Alan Botney but that he reversed his last name to make it sound more exotic! But now wonder whether this might be one of those urban-myths propagated pub-to-pub as afterall if your first name is the modest-sounding Alan I would think you should be going the whole-hog and reversing both names – Nala Yentob certainly sounds exotic – if perhaps to these ears female. Moving on!

The program starts with examples of analog technology – a crackling vinyl copy of David Bowie’s The Man Who Fell To Earth, a film camera, a land-line telephone, even a letter! before cutting back to Alan Yentob with iPhone in hand – commenting that

Technology expands the mind but shrinks the world

and

Making things that were once pleasurably different more or less the same

He portends that books are to be next with the profoundest change since Guthenberg as they ‘become consigned to the dustbin of history’!

Books: The Last Chapter? First book...We then get a potted history of the book. We start before the printing press, before even the physical object of a book, in the form of a scroll. A very long scroll. A second century AD roll of Homer’s The Iliad housed at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, England. Then we move forward three centuries to a very early example of a physical prototype of the modern day book in the antique form of Eusebius’ Chronicles.

A book very much more convenient to hold and to read than the scroll it was to replace but for all that still only marginally more accessible as this book was literally the ‘one and only’ of its kind. Mass production of copies was not yet upon us. Nor indeed was typography. These original books were all hand-written.

Books: The Last Chapter? CaxtonUntil William Caxton. With him appears the first book published and mass produced in the English language.

This technology propelling the producing and publishing of ever greater volumes of books in ever shorter periods of time. All the way to the modern day. With books at the digital threshold or precipice. Which is what this program will then take its remaining time expounding on.

Books: The Last Chapter? - Alan Bennett Uncommon ReaderWe are at the here and now and the here being at a book reading by Alan Bennett of his The Uncommon Reader.

Alan Yentob then remarks that

we made books and books made us

It is not yet clear to me how the aunt and uncle of an analogue book is able to shape us where the niece and nephew of the digital book with same content just different form will not be able to make us also. Let us hope this program is more than a curmudgeon’s moaning about the passing of all things.

This program takes some curious detours in its narrative. We are advised that books are 99% water 1% fibre so that like their readers they are organic too!

Books: The Last Chapter? Moma Book SmellingWe then detour further from the reading of books to the smelling of books – yes you read that right! – this might sound like some surreptitious sniffing activity undercover of darkness but no there are people who do this and get paid for doing so. We meet one, librarian Rachael Morrison of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She records her verdicts of the books she samples and smells into a ledger. I write samples but in fact she at one time or another smells each and everyone of the library’s books, each and every three-hundred thousand of them! Olfactory overload!

Her comments are in the same spirit as a professional perfume-smeller or wine-taster. And the prose as purple. There is a ledger column for ‘Olfactory Essence’ –  and entries such as ‘burnt Tortilla’ (for The Order of Things by Michel Foucault!) and get this ‘a hug with an elderly relative’ – this ledger it seems is worthy of publication in itself or at least as pretensions of.

She explains this last entry with the quite subjective experience that her parents usually wear and smell of wool (I was not even aware that wool had a smell, I guess I just have a base olfactory system!) and that her grandfather smokes and the way that his smokes sticks to his woollen clothes! For this librarian at least it is not just the physical tactile nature of a book that no digital version can provide but also its very peculiar aroma. During this curious sequence it was never asked why the Museum of Modern Art felt the need to take note of the smells of individual books let alone studiously record them. Was this something particular to MOMA I mused or standard practice of all libraries?!

Alan Yentob himself then mused that there might be a special Smell App for all those book-readers who find themselves seduced to read The Importance of Being Earnest on a Kindle or Nook but nostalgically miss its literal (as oppose to literary!) pungency.

He then alludes to Apps again as

a bland little word like Tweet, Blog and Search that are all quietly changing our world

Books: The Last Chapter? The ElementsAnd by way of ‘is it a book, is it an app’ we move onto The Elements by Theodore Gray. Formerly a glossy coffee-table book it has now become a content-rich multimedia application which since its application incarnation inception eighteen months ago has seen sales of over a quarter-of-a-million copies – nothing to smell here he notes except the ‘sweet smell of success’. Ta da!

Books: The Last Chapter? Theodore GrayAnd so Imagine – Books: The Next Chapter? As we then meet its publishers (or perhaps producers) Touch Press whose speciality is in touch screen versions of  books such as The Elements. The company was established by a former TV producer (Max Whitby) and a scientist (Stephen Wolfram) and by the aforementioned author Theodore Gray among other illustrious founders and we see them in a development meeting with author – and again do the usual descriptions break down here? content producer? Multi-media magician?! – Simon Winchester. They are discussing his latest app Skulls, this one specifically for the iPad. Simon Winchester is there in the meeting or rather he is ‘there’ – being as he is a disembodied video head on a laptop screen – quite fitting of course.

Theodore Gray clearly has no attachment sentimental or otherwise to the printed book – referring to its readers as ‘fetishisers of the printed page’ (well really!) – and adding that

it’s kinda annoying to have to hold the book open!

Speaking as someone who owns and reads books on an iPad I can tell you the paperback, even a hard-back Russian novel, is kinder on the wrists!

All this tiresome physical interaction with the external world. A future of cerebral interaction only where Megamind’s flourish, our craniums expanding as our limbs and torso diminish…

The program then explores the current publishing model in more detail. It is noted that a publisher is focused on getting books on shop bookshelves. The author of books should not be impacted too much by the ‘digital switchover’ but those involved in its physical manufacturer distribution and sale most certainly will be. And indeed already are. Most notably and iconically the book shop.

Books: The Last Chapter?And not just to paraphrase the You’ve Got Mail universe where the Kathleen Kelly small book shop resists succumbing to the Joe Fox corporate chain of books but where both are at the mercy of the online retail behemoths, most notably Amazon, laying the likes of Borders and many other casualties in their inexorable wake.

Publishing consultant – when there are more consultants than there are professionals they are consulting on you know an industry is in trouble – Mike Shatzkin notes that we are a literal crossroads as five years ago most book sales were in store whereas five years from now most will be online, though he notes that that does not mean online sales are only digital as with Amazon itself hard and paper back sales still match those of their Kindle equivalents. For now.

Most bookstores we are reminded are limited by their physical space, whereas an online store is usually a portal to a global distribution network – all that you could want, all that you could need.

Books: The Last Chapter?

The program then cuts to a meeting with the old guard of the book industry – agents and publishers – as they discuss where they find themselves currently and where they are likely heading within the next decade.

Generation Y gets ifs first mention – also known as the Millennial Generation – those born after Generation X and vaguely dated as being born some time in the last quarter of the last century – as those who consume (I hate that word – not even food should be consumed) near three-quarters of their textual information (another urghh phrase!) online. They note that the three main publishers in ten years time for books are not going to be Penguin, Harper Collins and Faber & Faber but Google, Amazon and Apple.

Concern is then expressed about the discovery of new literature for readers asking that with no face-to-face local presence of book stores are we are all then just cast adrift in a sea of information, where finding books becomes evermore hit and miss?

I am not so sure about that. One of the notable aspects of buying a book on Amazon or other online stores is the review process, more specifically the feedback of previous readers. Their own reviews can provide a more informed and authentic review of a book than the more usual hype of the publishers and their cherry-picked favourable reviews? And the algorithms they employ which suggest that as you recently bought this you may like this are pretty impressive I have to concede no matter how complicated and difficult to understand I like to consider myself!

We then come to the issue of copyright and whether all digital information will become free or should become free – inevitable allusions to Napster are quickly made. If you live in a country with Libraries like Great Britain then to an extent, a tax-subsidized extent, books have always been free. Will this be their digital destiny too? Will there be a Spotify for books for that matter, that allows us to read (stream) books freely for a limited period of time funded by relevant targeted and or irritating advertising?

But will that itself become an academic desire as the very concept of digital ownership fading cost to zero establishes itself? Another way to say that books will become worthless? At least economically. Worthless perhaps but not valueless. The program itself wonders what we will pay for if not content. It proposes this will be context and community. Not entirely convincingly I thought. The suggestion was that an author will be paid to read their work in person or that readers will subscribe for them to discuss their work as they go – I like this idea but not quite buying that an author needs to ‘turn up on the page’ – their writing should be speaking for itself and we the reader will take from it what we will based on our own experiences and beliefs – I am not sure either author or reader would want this extra if you like meta-story on the page.

Books: The Last Chapter? Gary ShteyngartWe now switch sides as it were. Following the digital reading utopia of Theodore Gray we now go to the digital reading dystopia of Gary Shteyngart and his book Super Sad True Love Story referred by Alan Yentob as working on his new novel in upstate New York

far from the tweeting crowd

Another grand comparison was made to EM Forster’s ‘only connect’ plea from his 1910 novel Howard’s End

Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.

where his plea is ‘only disconnect’. Shteyngart makes great play of being off the digital grid, forced free from the ever widening deepening web. Though disappointingly for me when I googled him I noted he had a Facebook page – well who knows perhaps it was an impostor account – I wonder if I will ever be famous enough to have impostor social media accounts!

He talks of ‘the party in your pocket’ of your smart-phone that is

binging and pinging and clinging and singing and dinging

But not ringing! I noted though he did have a Television – so a selective disengagement or perhaps just a slow weening. Like in turn those who make great play of not having a TV in their homes – so what do you do with your evenings? Oh, you know, we listen to the radio!

He thinks in generalisations which makes him entertaining if not always insightful demurring that ‘we live in a culture where youth is the only thing that is important’.

He is quick to add though that he is not against progress rather its speed. Though at the risk of speaking in generalisations myself I don’t think we can equate all progress as positive or negative. Whatever works. For us.

Books: The Last Chapter? Institute for Future of BooksNext we are introduced to someone from the Institute for the Future of the Book – yes, really! – its co-founder and director Bob Stein and back on the other side of the digital divide. His line was it is the message we should seek to preserve not fuss overmuch over whatever medium happens to be carrying it at any given time, at any given place – the book just a mechanism for the transmission of ideas – so to get hung-up on any one particular format is silly and obstructs us from grasping all the other exciting formats available for its propagation.

The program then puts forward the view that the digital format takes books from the private to the public, from an intimate one-to-one with a paperback to a shared digital experience – we can read a book together and annotate and comment on it together. I guess! Whereas our highlighting of passages in books is for own benefit only (leaving aside striving to impress (upon) others that we may want to lend the book too!) – with a Kindle for example all of our individual highlighting is recorded and stored in Amazon’s database so that we can see the most commonly highlighted phrases of any particular book of interest to us.

Books: The Last Chapter? Marshall McLuhanWe then arrive at McLuhan. Marshall McLuhan. Of the Medium is the Message. Primarily he was referring to Television as against its predecessor of the mass-printed and mass-circulated word but the program suggests that digital technology and the world wide web is even more revolutionary. The program discusses the overload of information. Its overwhelming force and presence. It is commented that in this context the word becomes more emotional and collective where on the paper page it remains more solitary and analytical.

Books: The Last Chapter? Douglas CouplandSwiftly we move on – or back – to Generation X and its Canadian author (and visual artist) and proponent Douglas Coupland.

Books: The Last Chapter? Coupland Twelve StatementsHe thinks that McLuhan’s medium is the message is now more prescient with the web than with TV too. He then comments that human attention span is now the length of one Beatle song – dating himself as very much of Gen X by so doing! – and that the Web even perhaps unintentionally panders to this in a way that the analogue world of books and vinyl never could. It is much easier on the web for us to flit about from one  object of interest to another – very easy for you dear reader to have left/fled this piece many many words back! He casually throws in that Artificial Intelligence is not ‘ever just beyond the blue horizon’ – well he did not quite say this but I am paraphrasing! – but already with us – the web our collective memory, presence, consciousness. Where does it end and we begin, where do we end and it begins…

Remembering too though that Marshall McLuhan did not approve of these changes – he saw TV as the enemy even in its black and white infancy broadcasting a handful of channels only.

We now find ourselves in San Francisco and to meet an entrepreneur and inventor and who is like an anti-McLuhan. And who believes

that friends are electric

We now hear inevitably Tubeway Army.

Books: The Last Chapter Brewster KahleAnd this is Brewster Kahle founder and digital librarian of The Internet Archive – whose mission is to scan every book that has ever existed and make them free to all comers on the web – subject to copyright. Unlike Google who also do this they seek to preserve the original ink too – an analogue back up. Alan Yentob prior to meeting him ponders what book to bring for the man who likely has every book there is to have and decides on Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 – the temperature at which books burns – as an appropriate choice as it describes a world where books are banned and burned and an underground establishing itself to preserve them as heart-learnt human memories – though I am assuming such a book would already be in such an archive but it makes a good poetic point for the program.

Kahle likes the gifted Ray Bradbury book though comments it is not the burning of books but the proliferation of books and information that is a greater problem. Adding too that we become the books we read – how we invest in them emotionally, intellectually, and how we can then recite them back. He then plays a game of ‘if we could be any book what would it be’. He himself thinks he would be either Euclid’s Elements or Ben Franklin’s Autobiography – so not committing to one then! Alan Yentob thinks he would be Voltaire’s Candide. I am not going to play along though – I cannot be constrained and described by any one book – urgh!

Books - The Last Chapter? Internet Digital ArchivesThe building use to be a Christian Science temple which I only note as we are shown a part of this Digital Archive where we see clay figures sitting in temple pews. And who are these figures? Everyone who has ever worked at the archive or is still working for five or more years! Imagine that as an incentive to stay with a company! In the very same room are all the digital servers stacked up to the church ceilings each blue bleep a digital download or upload of a book (and audio and video) somewhere in the world. Millions of books ‘up there’, ‘in the cloud’.

What will tomorrow’s cloud be the program then wonders. How much more of us, of humanity will be existing digitally, ethereally in some San Franciscan server?! How much of us will remain on earth in analogue, not digitally stored and cloned in the buzzing ether?

Finally or perhaps by way of a nostalgic post-script we are taken to a cyber-cafe on its premises where alongside drinking your simmering caffeine concoction an analogue book can be printed off of any contained in their vast digital archive – taking as long to print off as your coffee takes to brew. The program ends with Alan Yentob drinking an Expresso while reading a freshly pressed copy of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.

Books: The Last Chapter?The show ends with the disclaimer that no books were harmed in the making of this program!

Imagine – Books: The Last Chapter? dispenses with a traditional beginning middle and an end. This story rambles. Its tale is inconclusive. The current chapter still being written. There is no The End. Perhaps it is a post-modern tale but perhaps too the same as it ever was. Story never-ending.

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Bees Butterflies and Blooms – the quiet catastrophe

Bees, Butterflies and Blooms Villages Farms Countryside… the loss of Britain’s wildflower meadows and grasslands is estimated at around 98 per cent. Have we lost our connection with the wildflowers and habitats that were once so common and supported our pollinators?

So asks Bees, Butterflies and Blooms a new three-part gardening and conservation series from the BBC currently being broadcast Wednesday nights at 8pm on BBC 2 – well first being broadcast anyway and then subject to the usual re-viewing opportunities.

Its presenter Sarah Raven according to the program’s website ‘is on a mission to halt the decline in honey bees and insect pollinators with insect friendly flower power’. Sarah Raven is also a writer and gardener and has her own professional business Online Garden and Kitchen Shop.

When I first checked this on the BBC iPlayer I also saw a program Bullets, Boots and Bandages – the BBC are going in for alliteration I noted and letter B alliteration at that – are they like each subsequent series of the erudition-and-beyond QI (one of many laid eggs from Stephen Fry) going to be working their way doggedly through the alphabet toward this end. I am looking forward anyway to the long overdue Beer Bicycles and Belfries.

Bees, Butterflies and Blooms Presenter Sarah RavenBack to Bees Butterflies and Blooms. Sarah Raven is aiming to halt this aforementioned depletion in insect pollinators using Flower Power – by bringing flowers back into our British towns, cities and countryside. And this series sets out a crisis and quite an apocalyptic one at that. Sarah Raven describes it as a ‘quiet catastrophe’ – while we are busy going about our increasingly urban lives our farmlands and other rural-scapes have been transformed into soulless food factories producing ever-more efficient food stuffs but of increasingly uniform nature leaving our bees and other pollinating insects increasingly vulnerable to pesticides and parasites.

In Britain alone the loss of wildflower meadows and grasslands is estimated at a startling 98%. The loss of pollinating insects to extinction would be heart-rending enough but it has even deeper implications than that as it threatens our very food supply such is their integral part in its process.

The opening episode is titled ‘Villages Farms and Countrysides’ as it is in the ‘country’ that her campaign to reverse this decline will commence. The BBC iPlayer guide for this episode informs us that she hopes ‘to encourage farmers and village communities to help recreate a network of crucial habitats for struggling bees, butterflies and insect pollinators’. To this end she visits a village called Creaton in Northamptonshire – they will be her pilot as she seeks to convert the countrysides horticultural practices one village at a time. She breezily advises us that

if we can get Brits planting pollen and nectar rich plants throughout the country together we can get Britain buzzing again.

And she starts in the countryside because, surprisingly to me at least, this problem is less pronounced in our towns and cities. We see her in a field, a productive (being the keyword here) habitat of food but also a ‘wildlife desert’ as due to pesticides it is bereft of wildflowers and weeds the very life of our insect pollinating population.

She then demonstrates the effect of this on our everyday eating and diet by visiting a supermarket and filling up a shopping basket with food for a standard British breakfast – no not a half-eaten banana and a few swigs of coffee! – fresh fruit as well as fruit-juice and smoothies, jam, yoghurt, even coffee and chocolate (bees pollinate the respective Coffee and Cocoa beans) and then removing all the insect-pollinated items – all that was left was the wind pollinated food stuffs – wheat, oat – leaving us just with porridge and bread – this is the fate that lies in store for a British breakfast – a Scottish breakfast!  Cue the ever-young strains of Big Yellow Taxi as Joni Mitchell coos its one of many sage lines

Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone

Bees, Butterflies and Blooms CreatonSarah Raven’s next call is her first to Creaton – chosen not because it is as typical as any other British village but because of all the villages in Britain it is the one with the largest depletion of pollinating insects – it is in its village-greens, verges and even church-yards where the wild-life has been mown and tidied out of existence. Sarah Raven is as knowledgeable as she is passionate about the subject – as she wanders through a Creaton church-yard with the head of the Parish and other parishioners in pursuit she lists off all and sundry wild-flowers that she casts her eye upon – the rest of her troupe, not very convincingly I thought, nodding their heads in agreement. I was nodding my head too, and I was watching alone!

We then get some history – back near-seventy-years to the end of the second world war and the modernising of food production – meaning taking small-scale agriculture and making it large-scale industrial. Part of this meant creating ever larger fields by removing the previously connecting hedgerows. And it is in these hedgerows and the verges of land adjoining them that the insect pollinators use to live and flourish.

We get some science too. Being advised that it is not just the lack of pollen-producing wildflowers but the lack of diversity in them too – bees for example requiring a variety of flowers to build up their immune system. Professor Simon Potts  (of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Science at the University of Reading) explains the symbiotic relationship – a greater diversity of wild flowers a greater diversity of bees, a greater diversity of bees a greater diversity of wild flowers.

Bees, Butterflies and Blooms Council MeetingWe return to Creaton and a parish council meeting. We are first shown sepia photographs of the village at the early part of the twentieth century with naturally wild village greens and Sarah Raven asking us and them if they will ‘re-embrace its wild-side’! The parish council require more convincing than that and consider a  tie-in with the UN 2010 Year of Biodiversity  – when this series was initially filmed – and creating a pause in their progress – for further consultation must now be had! Meetings about meetings comes to mind.

The program then cuts away to a Royal Society for the Protection of Birds Reserve in Dungeness, Kent and Doctor Nikki Gammans of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust . We discover that there are now 25 species remaining, 2 of which are now extinct and a further 7 now endangered. Dr Gammans speaks also of a symbiotic relationship – between farmers and bees – as the farmers help the bees to thrive the bees in turn help the farmers produce richer crops.

We are then given another stat – an estimated 84% of our crops in Europe are dependent on insect-pollinators and especially bees and without this our food chain could collapse.

We are then advised of our role in re-establishing bees in our national life. We are encouraged to collect wild-flower seeds for our own domesticated gardens. Though there is perhaps a rub – that it is assumed we all have homes with gardens. I myself live in a first floor flat with not even a balcony to lay out some seed trays for. And as much as I love bumble-bees, not quite to the extent that I want them living unconstrained about my home. But I digress.

Bees, Butterflies and BloomsWe then spend some time in Sarah Raven’s undomesticated garden. We see her cleaning the wild flower seeds by dividing them from their petals – this is not quite my hope for a wild garden – rather untended growth while said wild gardener heads indoors for a more sedentary urban pursuit like a hot cup of tea and even hotter game of scrabble on his iPad while the Lesser Knapweed and St John’s Wort are left to get on with it. While Sarah Raven is cleaning these seeds we learn by way of some nature and nurture that her father was a botanist and an artist combining both loves in wildflower illustrations.

We then revisit Creaton in September to catch up on progress or even if there has been any progress. If you consider meetings about doing things but not actually doing those things has progress then there has been progress. So Sarah Raven then seeks parishioner persuasion with a people-pestering-paper-petition (see I can do uncontrived alliteration too, well okay then contrived alliteration). Most of the parishioners seemed more than happy to sign this petition if perhaps succumbing to the seductive persuasiveness of a BBC camera crew lurking just outside of their eye-shot.

Bees, Butterflies and BloomsHaving successfully gathered and armed themselves with seeming sufficient signatures it was expressed that they could sympathise with the hitherto reluctance. Mmm – you would think the building of dens of iniquity were being proposed for their village rather than a verge of wild-flowers on their village green and little-seen church-yard back-waters. The invasion of the flowery margins!

A Northamptonshire farming family the Farringtons had also been brought on board. The head-farmer Duncan Farrington in particular requires far less cajoling to see both the ecological and economical benefits of re-introducing strips of wild flowers alongside his main crop of arable fields.

As noted Sarah Raven is leading by example and we see her commencing the sewing of her wild-garden in Autumn – this being the optimum time for both annuals and perennials to be sewn – I can see you all nodding your heads in a pretence of understanding you urban lot!

The final quarter of this opening episode jumps forward to May 2011 allowing us to see the progress of the various wild flower projects. The farmer’s field will need a second year for the perennial flowers to establish themselves against the hardy arable weeds. The Creaton village did eventually decide to commence with their project with the tiny baby steps of an area of the village-green being allowed to go wild and native.

The head of the parish council is then called on for his reading on proceedings to date. He shares that a lot of the villagers ‘quite like it’ – an underwhelming sort of endorsement if ever there was one! – and just for good measure adding ‘that there are other’s not so favourable’! Against that though they have instigated a project to increase wild-flower growth in the villagers own gardens as part of a new group ‘Natural Creaton’

Remembering too that Creaton is the program’s pilot and that Sarah Raven is wanting every village in the UK to follow suit – tiny steps indeed.

In the second episode Towns Gardens and Britain in Bloom she will be taking this challenge to our towns and cities and asking that the Britain in Bloom Competition, the UK Garden Industry and Royal Horticultural Society join her in this endeavour. I look forward to seeing how she gets on. And am hopeful that her cause blossoms with this BBC broadcast – sorry but an irresistible pun should not be resisted.

Bees, Butterflies and Blooms Closing credits

The Wolf is Getting Married and he’ll never cry again – Sinead O’Connor

The Wolf is Getting Married - Sinead O'Connor

Your smile makes me smile
Your laugh makes me laugh
Your joy gives me joy
Your hope gives me hope

The Voice is back.

The Wolf is Getting Married - Sinead O'Connor - videoSinead O’Connor is not Prince prolific and she is not quite Kate Bush reticent but she takes her time making her music. Her first album The Lion and The Cobra was delivered in 1987, and next month sees the release of her ninth studio album How About I Be Me (And You Be You)? on the One Little Indian label. And this one was overdue – prior to this an album appeared every couple of years but her last album Theology is now over five years old. I was concerned she may have sworn a vow of silence and covers of John Cage’s Four Minutes Thirty-Three Seconds not withstanding this would certainly have not been good for her music career.

There is much hyperbole about Sinead O’Connor’s voice. I though am not prone to exaggeration so let us just say if the spirit of the universe could discharge itself in song and sing along to the music of the spheres its voice would probably sound like Sinead O’Connor’s and leave it at that.

The Wolf is Getting Married is the song that she is back with. And taken from and thus a preview of the alluded to album How About I Be Me (And You Be You) – well how about it reader?!

And what a song it is. A lot for that album to live up to. I hope it does not eclipse it.

The Wolf is Getting Married - Sinead O'Connor - arm tattoo

I have listened to a lot of music in my time, probably too much music in my time. I certainly spent far too much of my teenage years listening to music every waking hour, often non-waking hours too, drifting off to sleep with headphones still welded to me – I was a joy to live with! I wasn’t a joy to live with of course, I was as happy as Larry, as Larry David. At this time I was also a genius, a misunderstood one naturally. The world did not understand me, so how could my parents. My poor parents. And keep in mind that my teenage years did not end on my twentieth birthday but continued well into my twenties, and it was only in my early-thirties that I finally became a grown-up. I think. Anyway you get the picture – well try not to think about the picture too much – I spent a lot of my precious time listening to not always precious music.

And in reaction to that I turned away from music. Though only in to the arms of other obsessions such as film and books. Moderation is I realise my only moderation.

I share all of this only by roundabout way of saying that I am not easily impressed let alone overwhelmed by music these days. Being overwhelmed by a song for me now will mean I will buy it and be entranced by it and perhaps listen to it as much as six times

This song on the other hand I have done something I have not done in decades – I have played it back-to-back non-stop a dozen or so times. And I still cannot get enough of it. And yet I would struggle to explain to you why. I struggle to make sense of it myself.

I don’t know what it is about it the song. It is catchy but no more than say a Pink song is catchy. Her voice is as I modestly described it earlier as singularly evocative-as-time as ever, but there is nothing beyond, beyond that perfection. Perhaps there is though and it is her joy – that she usually has a range of feelings and emotions with a matrix of  melancholy, anger, bitterness, tenderness but not pleasure.

I referred to her album history earlier and which may have implied that with each of those releases I was eagerly expectant. But not so. My first encounter with Sinead O’Connor was with Troy an early song of hers back in the late 1980’s – the first of my song obsessions of hers  – and duly bought the album it came from, The Lion and the Cobra, too. Then shortly after came her extraordinary earth-stopping cover of Prince’s Nothing Compares 2 U – yes Prince, visionary as he was, in the 80’s was using Text-speak before there was even Text messaging to make use of it! Maybe his enigmatic squiggle symbol will come to make sense yet. It is perhaps surprising that Prince did not then pen other songs with her in mind as he wrote  many good ones for other artists but perhaps two giant egos were always going to be kept apart by the monsters envy and jealousy.

Yet despite this early impression upon me I was a fair-weather fan only staying with her as far as 1992’s Am I Not Your Girl? A title unintentionally ironic in retrospect.

The Wolf is Getting Married - Sinead O'Connor - video shot

The Wolf is Getting Married is making me catch up on lost time as I start to devour her catalogue between 1992 and now.

Her voice merits a capital v in the same way that Maria Callas, Van Morrison and Tim Buckley merit a V. Okay I have already done the hyperbole!

Your smile makes me smile, your laugh makes me laugh, your joy gives me joy, your hope gives me hope so verses this song, or is it choruses.

These lyrics are pure poetry. Lucid, beautiful. It is strange the artificial distinctions between the genres song-lyrics and poetry as if like two separate species. Poetry is treated with academic seriousness and reverential respect yet by the public at large if not with outright contempt then yawning indifference whereas song-lyrics are treated as frivolous and unworthy of too much academic effort and critical attention with a few venerable wordy exceptions like Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello (and where even then a passage of creaking time must lapse first), yet they are loved by us the great-unwashed at large. Granted many lyrics that seem profound and moving when sung and heard can read banal on the cool of paper and cold of the computer screen – and I will resist going off on another digression about the written versus the spoken word.

The song itself starts with the lines

I used to have no wolves around me
I was too free if that’s possible to be

The main chorus is

But the sun is peeping ouf of the sky.
Where there used to be only grey
The wolf is getting married, and he’ll never cry again

Such a romantic notion this latter line. Sad too in light of her recent separation from Barry Herridge after only 16 days – though like the ‘are they on, are they off?’ of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor – I am sure there must be a more contemporary reference! – I believe they are now as I type this ‘on’ – as you read it they may be ‘off’ again – or ‘on’. Toss a coin.

Though this is a new release she was performing this at concerts as early as July last year and so before her marriage in December of that year. And I should perhaps add her fourth marriage at that. So the never-crying-again-wolf is either a sign of her eternal optimism or foolishness, both of which are anyway eternally romantic notions!

The Wolf is Getting Married - Sinead O'ConnorI referred earlier to the main chorus because the opening quoted lyrics of “Your smile makes me smile’ is refrained twice and a third shorter variant of it also. As in The Wolf is Getting Married it is not clear which lines are the chorus and which are the verses – perhaps it is a song only of choruses.

Inevitably there is a video with this song, which according to MTV’s Buzzworthy, is directed by Breton, a multi-media London-based outfit. It might be described as Arty. Well the images from that video punctuate this post so you can make up your own mind about that! Feedback to it has been less positive that the song itself. Not so much hostile as hostile indifference – you know that it is boring like watching the paint dry, on Sinead O’Connor finger-nails.

It is shot in one spacious room. Sinead O’Connor bound into a wooden-chair by her wedding dress – a wedding dress were it designed by a young Alexander McQueen long before he was an international brand and Sarah Burton was making light Royal commissions for Kate Middleton in his name I should perhaps needlessly add, as her head is bandaged invisible-man style, threads of strings radiating out toward the nether-edges of the room.  And to give you an idea of the pace of this unravelling even by the end of the three minutes and fifty-nine seconds of this song we have only progressed as far as revealing Sinead’s eyes and her left shoulder.

I am trying really really hard to resist the obvious metaphor about a marriage unravelling before it has barely returned back down the aisle!

I like the video. It does not distract from the song – it allows me to just listen to it without being distracted by the gee-whiz gizmo tricks pop video directors usually try their hands at with Hollywood in their heart.

l like the fact that it is low-budget too, even a little half-arsed.

Believe it or not I did initally intend a brief uncritical-fan post expressing my love for this song and half-love for the video but here we are – or maybe here I am! – near seventeen hundred-words later still meandering around with no end in sight.

When in-spite of all my words just four of them could instead have expressed it succinctly:

I love you Sinead!

The Wolf is Getting Married - Sinead O'Connor

The Jelly Fox – Noel Fielding’s Luxury Comedy

Noel Fielding's Luxury Comedy E4 LogoLike Salvador Dali and Mick Jagger recreating The Jungle Book. Or a William Blake inspired party-time.

Noel Fielding's Luxury ComedySo describes the associated web-page for Noel Fielding’s Luxury Comedy from production company Secret Peter showing on E4, the new comedy from one half of The Mighty Boosh, the eponymous Noel Fielding, but though the other Boosher, Julian Barratt, is absent the spirit of Boosh is still very much at play.

Not just its spirit though but also some of the Boosh actors. Michael Fielding (is he more than a name-sake to Noel I wonder?!) who played Naboo turns up here as Noel’s anteater butler – yes you read that right! And Rich Fulcher who played Bob Fossil turns up as William Jessop celebrating his one hundredth birthday and being visited by the ghost of a flea. This may start to give you a feel for what this Luxury Comedy is about – or not.

We are warned that it contains adult humour – in the UK that means only suitable for those over 18 – if you are 17 and British sorry but then this is not for you! Though this show may well not be for you however old you might be – more of that later. It may just as well have warned us that it contains childish humour and that if you are serious-minded-adult-type to watch at your peril.  For Noel Fielding’s Luxury Comedy is for the child in all of us, if, that is, your inner child was expelled from Kindergarten…

Incidentally to establish that you are indeed eighteen and beyond, Channel 4 make the serious demand of you that you click in a box on their online player confirming such and you are then cheerily beckoned in, not a bleary burly bludgeoning bouncer in sight. Anyone seventeen and younger will naturally be deterred by this. Okay that’s enough sarcasm.

Noel Fielding's Luxury Comedy - The Jelly Fox cast

The cast awaits you

The Luxury Comedy starts in musical fashion with the entire cast however significant however insignificant welcoming us to them and their show.

This second episode, The Jelly Fox, then cuts to Noel Fielding in black leather jumpsuit and Aladdin Sane style face-paint dancing around to a nineteen sixties rock song (I could have just said ‘the 60’s’ couldn’t I as I doubt most of you are familiar with the rock music of the 1860’s).

The rock music so alluded is from 1960’s psychedelic group Lysergic Casserole who recorded just one album which ‘no-one has ever heard of’ and described by Noel Fielding as ‘the best band ever’ but then explaining that

they disappeared having took so much LSD they got trapped in their own guitar case

And the episode proceeds from there. There is no linear way to refer to this episode as it is beyond transcription if not description. You will either get tuned in to its own particular madness or look upon it aghast and askance before tuning out toward the lesser insanity of the BBC News at 10 or James May’s Things You Need to Know – James May is very likely in fact Noel Fielding’s TV Uncle – I do not know if that is helpful or pretentious of me – or both.

We see Lysergic Casserole’s guitar-case-trip as they experience Orson Welles having a romantic dinner with a cheese-cake, and then Welles pulling a skipping rope out of his…well I will let you use your own imagination here!

Noel Fielding's Luxury Comedy Lysergic Casserole

Lysergic Casserole – the amount of times I have spelt this wrong over the years

Their music like all the music in the show is provided by Sergio Pizzorno of British rock group Kasabian – I was sceptical when I first heard of this collaboration not thinking Kasabian’s rather masculine swaggering feet-firmly-on-the-ground music would best serve Noel Fielding’s head-in-the-clouds whimsy – Mercury Rev or Polyphonic Spree would have been more fitting I felt – but Pizzorno’s music sits very comfortably with Fielding’s madcap visions.

Noel Fielding's Luxury Comedy - Diamond Back

Diamond Back

Later Noel Fielding decides to rescue Lysergic Casserole from their Guitar Case bound fate by erecting a ramp made of Ryvita! – it is not just their freedom he has in mind though, he considers that they might make a second album and he could be their manager! But his snouty nosed butler reminds him that the sixties was a half-a-century ago and like Austin Powers their respective mojo’s might not adapt to the transport to the present day…alas they and their Harley’s trajectory is toward the guitar-case of the rock-star they call Diamond Back – Diamond Back having risen from the swamps of Putney, his father a pet-shop junkie and his mother, well she had a hundred eyes. Clear? I hope not.

Noel Fielding’s Luxury Comedy has comedy and music, that at least is established. It also has art. Much of the art is provided by Fielding but not all of it. Animation is provided by the show’s director Nigel Coan. Coan is another Boosh connection having provided its animation too.The Luxury Comedy sets are art and there is one scene where Noel Fielding himself is producing art. The most striking and impressing aspect of the program is its look – its visual swagger.

Noel Fielding's Luxury Comedy - Keep off the Chest

Artist at work – can you see what it is yet?

And as noted in one scene we see Fielding painting on canvas – we can assume this was done in real-time and condensed into TV-time – Rolf Harris used to do this kind of thing, well not quite this kind of thing!

Noel Fielding's Luxury Comedy - press-ups

The finished work

If this show is going to work for you you have to take it on its own terms. Concepts like narrative development and dramatic conventions are only going to get in your way. You have to go with its flow, let it get into your blood and nerves, let Noel Fielding get inside your head. If you are not prepared to do that then the Singing Detective and Celebrity Juice are also scheduled alongside it – their own particular brands of madness may be more accommodating of yours. Though these allusions to other channels imply a world before time-shifted TV of  +1 channels and endless repeats, of online players and PVR’s, and as if the most of you would be watching it during its first E4 Broadcast Thursday evening’s at 10 o’clock!

Noel Fielding's Luxury Comedy with Andy Warhol

With his cleaner

I alluded to the Boosh lineage but not all of them are from that particular ancestral tree. For example Noel Fielding’s cleaner Andy Warhol. Yes that Andy Warhol. Well is there another Andy Warhol?! He is played by Tom Meeten. In this episode he is planning a vacation with Picasso and Keith Haring and has organised a cleaner replacement going by the name of Frida Kahlo! His suitcase was given to him by Jackson Pollack and his rucksack is borrowed from René  Magritte – not at all art for art’s sake this! – Fielding comments about the Magritte rucksack ‘Yeah it’s a nice design but probably gets a bit annoying’!

Noel Fielding's Luxury Comedy René Magritte Rucksack

René Magritte Rucksack

Though this episode is called The Jelly Fox it is only in the second part of the show that mention is made of him! We see Little Chrissie and Spoon Snake and their crew on their way to meet The Jelly Fox. And who or what is the Jelly Fox? Well

he gives you what you need. He lives in a blue-fabric castle with creases in it. He will give you a tablet that dissolves in wine. To wipe away your past…

Noel Fielding's Luxury Comedy with Dolly

Dolly and the Warhol-cum-Kahlo Cleaner

We then cut back to Noel Fielding and another new (ir)regular character Dolly. Dolly is played by Doll Wells. Dolly has given him a face-painting of David Bowie. Except that she has painted a Tiger. We then see cleaner Frida Kahlo except that it is Andy Warhol wearing a dress. He wants to wear a dress in public but is uncomfortable in doing so, so passes himself off as Mexican surrealist painter Frida Kahlo! – the usual cowardly recourse of the man in denial of their transvestism! Dolly advises him that he should not be ashamed of this. She then advises that she dresses up as a Fireman and a Baby and calls herself a Firebaby! Noel then wants to know whether she dresses with a fireman top-half and nappy or romper suit and a helmet. She explains the latter, obviously! He considers it a joke, she a serious concept. They then argue over this point. Getting nowhere they decide to consult Hawkeye – the complex technology that resolves the flight of balls in Tennis and Cricket not Captain Benjamin Franklin Pierce of M*A*S*H* fame!

Noel Fielding's Luxury Comedy - Hawkeye

Hawkeye declares

If only all dilemmas could be resolved this way! Hawkeye decides it is a Concept, and that is an end to it!

It is only at the show’s end that we actually encounter the Jelly Fox – the term plot-spoiler has no impact on a show like this but I won’t reveal it all the same.

If you should be watching this on the 4OD online player you may note a ‘More Like This’ option – but other than its previous episode there is almost certainly nothing more like this on E4 or any other TV channel currently….and I am thankful for this.

Noel Fielding’s Luxury Comedy happily revels in its own wild imaginings. I am happy to revel along in it too – and I don’t have to take anything to do so. The whole psyche-shifting experience is all perfectly legal!Noel Fielding's Luxury Comedy - The Jelly Fox

Identity – Second Life

When you find out where they’ve been, you’ll discover where they’re going.

Keeley Hawes Identity DSI Martha Lawson

DSI Martha Lawson

This is not me trotting out pop-philosophy following on my brief flirtation with pop-psychology in my last post. Rather this is the strapline for the new to STV (Scottish TV) show Identity.

Identity is a crime-drama – when you encounter a new drama on ITV there is a better than evens chance that it will be a crime-drama. Though it is new to STV it is not new to British TV. British people not living in Scotland (I am now navigating a political trip-wire here!) would have had the chance to become acquainted with DI John Bloom and DSI Martha Lawson back in 2010. Why the STV program controllers thought to hold it off to its Scottish viewers to 2012 I do not know. We are quite provincial about Scottish crime dramas it seems – much loved but now deceased crime soap The Bill always had significantly lower viewing figures north of the Hadrian Walls than south of it and when it comes to geographical divides it is never about North versus South but West versus East and I am not invoking the Cold War either rather of Glasgow’s Taggart and Edinburgh’s Rebus and never the twain shall meet – joined up policing, as if! But as much as we Scots like Taggart and as ever-running as it is, it cannot have been this that kept Identity off the STV schedules.

Perhaps that is what Scottish Independence will come down too – good riddance to you say the English and you can keep your Taggart too and with two fingers back in return (for the sanctity of stereotypes if not poetic license at least, we are less polite) ‘aye and the same to you and you can take your Midsomer Murders and stick it where the sun don’t shine and I don’t mean Manchester!…shame on me for making parochial meteorological allusions in a blog being read all over the world!!

The Scottish Independence debate will not of course be as churlish as this.

But as gripping as the vagaries of regional TV scheduling is for us all I think I should move on to the show itself.

Just as there is a high chance that a new ITV drama will be a crime drama there is in turn another high chance if it is a crime drama that it will be an adaptation of a crime book, preferably a long running serial  And in turn yet again if so a very high chance that its author will be Lynda La Plante.

Keeley Hawes IdentitySo what about Identity. This does seem to be written for Television. It is certainly not an adaptation of Milan Kundera’s 1999 Identity and the only other book titles I could find called Identity were dry sociological studies and tracts concerning what it is that makes us who we are, and who we are not.

Its creator is Ed Whitmore. He wrote it, directed it, produced it. Identity then is his baby. His TV CV is threaded through by crime too – Silent Witness, Waking the Dead, The Inspector Lynley Mysteries and on – he has even written one episode of US crime drama CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. The Internet Movie Database tells me this and that he wrote a TV movie also called Identity in 2011. I have not seen this but it is as you might expect based on this TV series. It stars Angela Bassett and Orlando Jones so I am just guessing that it is a version made in the USA. Curiously though it has no reviews and is awaiting five ratings – what exactly does that mean?! And like the falling unheard tree in the woods if a film has not been reviewed did it ever exist. For a film called Identity it seemed somewhat fitting.

What’s that you say, there is a TV program to be reviewed, oh yes, so there is…

Before recording this to review – sorry going to have to keep you waiting a bit longer, or am I by now talking to myself – that would have been a good strapline for my blog actually – I had to make space for it on my PVR and so watched another program toward deleting it. This was Mark Zuckerberg: Inside Facebook broadcast on BBC2 December 2011. It was a look at Mark Zuckerberg’s astonishing Facebook success – his life before Facebook, his life since. It was presented by Emily Maitlis and it was a surprising yet also unsurprising reveal of Mark Zuckerberg depending perhaps on whether you had seen The Social Network. But this paragraph does have a relevant point to this review. Namely that Facebook is about identity, about privacy, about truths, half-truths and lies. The identity we want the world to see.

The opening episode of Identity was called Second Life an obvious allusion to the Second Life website and digital world within a world. Except that Second Life could also describe Facebook.

This opening episode is about stolen identity.

Are we rightly vigilant about our identity becoming lost let alone stolen online or have we been scare-mongered into paranoia, paper-shredding away our existence, by a traditional mainstream media using fear to sell copy?

Alas fear it seems sells more than hope.

The stealer of identity in this opening episode was near-invisible, a shadow of a shadow, wreaking havoc on seemingly unrelated victims.The thief-of-selves had no government records, no private financial accounts or traces of purchase transactions, no credit card used – a cash only circumspect existence.

Aidan Gillen Identity

Aidan Gillen

This then was not just any old crime but a rarefied crime. The police investigating it would need to be of a specialized unit – and as likely to be sat infront of a computer screen as burning up rubber in pursuit of some common-place knife-wielding villain. And how to make police officers in swivel chairs and a mouse not a gun in hand dramatic? Well there would be plenty of opportunity for going undercover – good old fashioned private dick stuff – and those that do remain stuck back in the office have plenty of opportunity to overwhelm if not astound us by bleeding edge tomorrow-is-already-happening technology.

The head of this team was the aforementioned (aforementioned about a thousand words ago weren’t you paying attention?!) DSI Martha Lawson played by Keeley Hawes. She is the people-manager of this team of inevitably brilliant misfits. It is also her brain-child and baby and she is keen to nurture it in the face of a not always empathetic police hierarchy. Her career and reputation are on the line. It might not be worth mentioning that she has played a TV cop before as any British actor worth their salt – and Keeley Hawes is definitely worth her salt, whatever that actually means, I understand it to be something damn well good – as played at least one TV cop – in her case as Alex Drake in the insufficiently over-rated Ashes to Ashes. It might not be worth mentioning but as you can see I did anyway.

Her team includes the also aforementioned DI John Bloom played by Aidan Gillen who first came to my attention in the late 1990’s as Stuart Jones in Queer As Folks. For any American readers (as if, there are always American readers!) you may have seen him as Mayor Thomas ‘Tommy’ Carcetti in The Wire – I watched and enjoyed The Wire and only say this because as a blogger-reviewer of TV programs I am not allowed to say otherwise. You as a reader of blogs may have been watching one of the endless CSI franchises instead. The key factor about John Bloom is that he worked previously as an under-cover cop, deep undercover – he thinks like criminals do having breathed their company for longer than he should have, it takes one to no-one, that sort of thing…

Identity Holly Aird and Shaun Parkes

Shaun Parkes and Holly Aird

These were the two characters allowed to spread their wings in the first episode. DS Anthony Wareing’s wings were kept in check but his character’s brooding more black-and-white view of crime and criminals was clearly as counter-weight to his more liberal-minded colleagues. Moral relativists in the police force, what is the world coming to! He is played by Shaun Parkes.

In programs such as this – let us say ‘CSI like’ as it has the widest cultural resonance – don’t all reflex at once – largest viewership then – there is at least one on the team who is office-bound, socially awkward, a super-intelligent geek, who will be feverishly tapping away at his or her Mac keyboard (sorry PC users but you know its true!) muttering to themselves as they go as no-one else will listen to them or certainly not understand them anyway. In Identity this is Tessa Stein played by Holly Aird.

In this Second Life her first moment of earning her cop chops is being able to track this seemingly invisible villain’s location to a petrol-station because, get this, they used their Nectar card. For all non-British readers this is a Supermarket Loyalty Card – I won’t say which Supermarket as well for one thing WordPress does not allow advertising on this blog so where’s the Quid pro quo in that. At the time I was musing to myself ‘wow fancy that my supermarket loyalty card can betray my movements, not just my guilty purchases’.

But wait for a moment. We are being asked to believe that this stealer of identities, so careful to protect their own identity that they leave not even a footstep in the snow behind, cannot stomach buying their petrol with cash without getting Reward points from their supermarket of choice?! Though I guess when you are running up other people’s credit cards to the tune of hundreds of thousands of British pounds those loyalty points really do add up and unlike the cocaine you are wolfing back they are not to be sniffed at.

Nevertheless it is this complacency with their customer loyalty card that leads the detectives to close in.

I found the final reveal to be surprising and clever if also a little contrived – as if they realized the hour was soon to be up and this was no two-parter and they better move from a stroll to a canter. It was a story-line that would have been better served over a couple of episodes.

I hope you have appreciated how I have not overly plot-spoiled for those who have not seen it – which I am guessing will be most of you – even to the extent of using gender-neutral language to describe him sorry her, them!

This Second Life episode has certainly whet my appetite for more even one whose appetite for crime drama is a sated one.

Identity has identified a current visceral fear no matter how reasonable or not that fear might be. It is certainly a contemporary bogey and ripe for TV drama.

I hope that Identity delivers.