Tag Archives: Journalism

The confusing shape of modern pop music

 

If you’ve been listening regularly to various types of popular music for 50 years, it’s hard to break the habit entirely, isn’t it? You want to keep up to date, to know what the current stars sound like.

And, actually, what the pop/rock mainstream sounds like is the way that it has sounded for a while. The only significant shifts in the sound of most pop music came when the practice of several acoustic or electric instruments being played together at the same time was gradually replaced by such things as synthesisers and computers and sampling, and with voices rapping rather than singing. Those changes took place only slowly and gradually from the 1980s onwards. It is probably true that this is today’s dominant popular musical sound, although other music is still regularly released which sounds similar to other styles of the 1970s or 1990s, such as heavy metal, punk, rhythm and blues, jazz and acoustic.

Writers much younger than me can feel a confusion in navigating the current scene. Kitty Empire admitted in 2017 that there was “(a) matrix of sameyness currently plaguing pop”.  Caitlin Moran made a similar complaint wittily in an interview at the Hay-on-Wye book festival in 2016. “There’s such a uniformity of voice and tone and subject matter across… pop music at the moment,” she said. “ (It’s either) ‘ everybody in the club tonight’ or a very sad man who appears to be sitting in a cupboard with a ukulele playing a very sad song or they’re taking bangers and saddening them, (for example) people are taking massive huge bangers by Queen and paying them very sadly on a ukulele”. Barbara Ellen wrote that the music scene was “almost as dominated by a smug clique of multimillionaire mega-artists as it was back when punk exploded”,  while, in a discussion earlier this year on BBC Radio 3, Luke Turner from The Quietus expressed concern that “ increasingly… this age of algorithms (feeds you) the blandest lowest common denominator rubbish” .

The BBC’s Ian Youngs (or the sub-editor who chose the headline of his article) summarised the current period of popular music as “the collaboration age”.  This may be why, as pondered before,  new artists continually talk about “writing” their new album. Do they worry they have no distinct identity, or are not treated seriously enough? Invariably the released material has been co-written, even that of the most famous icons like Beyoncé, Adele and Ed Sheeran. This must surely be at least partly because competence in playing and a reasonable technical skill in composition are both nowadays rarer.

Even though we are in “the collaboration age” and the business of recording music is for most people still as much a team activity as it ever was, many more artistes today release their work under an individual name rather than a band name. 45 per cent of the most successful albums of 2018 appeared under the names of solo artistes,  whereas in 1995 the percentage was 34%
and in 1978 it was 26%. Although solo artistes often give themselves names which sound like ensemble titles apparently to distance themselves from the old 20th century singer-songwriter stereotype; people like Iron and Wine, Bat for Lashes, Gazelle Twin and Snail Mail.

So why does modern pop and rock music sound as it does? From the 1960s and throughout the 1980s (it will be a matter of readers’ opinion when this period ended) all musicians, geniuses or journeymen, could feel that they were creating something new and fresh out of the earlier genres of blues, country, folk, jazz, rock and roll and rhythm and blues.

But if you are a pop/rock musician in the 21st century, you must surely be aware you are standing on the shoulders of giants, to use Isaac Newton’s phrase. The artists from the past are often still around, their songs are recycled into “jukebox musicals” on stage and screen, documentaries are common on TV and radio, and tribute bands are widespread and accepted. This music of the past is still widely available, and, yes, it is generally of a high quality, which must be the reason that so many contemporary artists want to sound like people you’ve heard before. To give just a handful of examples which I’ve heard on the radio in recent weeks: Anna Calvi, Marika Hackman, Beirut, Pi Ji Ma, Julia Jacklin, Jordan Rakei, Big Thief, Lewis Capaldi, Tom Walker. That leads to the further consequence that reviews you read now explain the music of the present mostly by comparing it to artistes or songs from the past.

When I was young, music preferred by older listeners was orchestral and instrumental and long – although often tuneful. Our pop/rock preferences used electric instruments, shorter songs, vocals and lyrics. The abundance of newer radio stations and music festivals show that the latter has become the norm and the former the exception. Pop music has truly become the “popular” music, the mainstream music, the default setting for most people in the UK of all ages when they use the word “music”.

For me, personally, it is the music which is still usually called “classical” which I usually find myself listening to, whether by deceased composers or current practitioners like Roxanna Panufnik or Thomas Adès or Amanda Feery. Just because it is music I haven’t heard before and is generally considered to be worth some of my attention. Happily, a lot of such stuff is still available free on the internet, even as, encouragingly, ways are being found in the new technology world to provide non-celebrity musicians with some income.

Maybe the new technology will bring further new shapes to the pop music scene. As it did in the 1980s.

 

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The modern shape of the news

 

“Brexit continues to suck the life out of the British news cycle,” said journalist Andrew Neil on the BBC programme This Week recently. He might reasonably have omitted the last two words of that sentence.

The UK’s decision to leave the European Union after 40 years has been the main story for all of its news media for many, many months.

I am old enough to remember that the issue of membership of what was first called the Common Market has long been an issue of discussion and even controversy in UK politics. Margaret Thatcher’s successful Conservative governments of the 1980s frequently criticised the organisation even while they maintained membership. Divisions within the John Major government of 1992-1997 over the issue of the Maastrict Treaty led to the election of Tony Blair’s Labour government.

The major difference today is how much more ubiquitous and dominant are news programmes within national television. In the UK thirty years ago each weekday had about five hours of news within 36 hours of programmes on two BBC channels; nowadays we have the two 24-hour TV news channels provided by Sky and the BBC, plus nine hours of news each weekday on the two main BBC channels as well as the regular news bulletins on the other networks.

Both BBC News and Sky News tend to follow each other closely in the stories they cover and how they prioritise. The topics are often London- and Westminster-centred; also acts of violence, perceived terrorism, natural disasters. This has led to a climate where the same few news stories are endlessly repeated and the way they are reported uses the same language and the same people and the same video footage.

24 hours a day of TV is a long time to fill. So other resources have emerged to supplement. New media organisations like Spiked and Novara Media sprang up alongside the long-established but less popular print newspapers. Think tanks with different interests and shades of political opinion conduct research and write articles which the news media pick up on. Each of the two news channels has devised many programmes of political conversation. Unfortunately these have learned to prefer confrontation and shouting rather than clarity and balance. And there is “social media”, especially Twitter, which staff of both TV news and print newspapers have long used as a major source and which they also have adopted as their own principal broadcast conduit. The journalists do less independent research and reporting but more commentary and their language has become less nuanced and less temperate and less impartial.

We had political divisions in the past, of course. Industrial disputes always polarised opinion, especially the miners’ strike of 1984-85.  The British military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq led to sustained protests and arguments.

So, what about the discussion over leaving the European Union? It’s surprising to remember that during the campaign before the referendum in 2016, the word “Brexit” was almost never used: we all just talked about leaving or staying in the EU. Only when the incoming Prime Minister Theresa May said “Brexit means Brexit” did the word start to gain popularity and notoriety. Although, as conceded above, it is certainly an issue which divided opinion within political parties and within different geographical areas in the past, many of us have still been shocked about the extent to which it created hostility and hysteria and accusations of treachery within all age groups and social groups. Especially since the poverty and social problems which people were angry about had obviously been caused not by the EU but by the neglect of successive national governments, both Labour and Conservative. The TV producers’ fondness for headlines like “Brexit Crisis” and “Brexit Britain” and for raised voices and personal insults has allowed this evidence to be ignored, and for the actual closeness of the referendum vote to be forgotten.

A robustly free and impartial press is the feature of a just society and Amnesty International and kindred organisations remind us that in other countries more journalists are being intimidated, imprisoned and killed than ever before. However, I do feel that a large part of the blame for the anger, aggression and fear around “Brexit” can be fairly laid with our media, principally the television news programmes. Why might they have behaved as they have? Many possible reasons: technological changes within their industry, difficulties in coping with these, a long-standing gluttony for political drama, the laziness of individual executives and producers. What I am quite sure about is that we are not living through the finest hour in the history of the UK free press.

A perceptive reminder came recently from the Canadian academic Steven Pinker. Why, he wondered in his recent book, are people so unhappy, when all the evidence shows that the whole world is wealthier, healthier and more peaceful than ever before?

His answer: because the picture of the world which the media presents is so different. “Journalism has a built-in bias towards the negative, in that it covers events, and it is easier for something to go wrong very quickly rather than right very quickly.” An explosion or a terrorist attack can break out rapidly, but improvements in well-being arrive more slowly and gently and so are very seldom deemed worthy of a news report.

 

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Exotic blooms

 

The most interesting thing in Vanessa Thorpe’s report in The Observer about the growth of independent magazines was her conclusion, “ Since many readers of these niche titles are young, the boom must be fed by a feel for the exotic nature of print, rather than by nostalgia.”

I recognise the term “exotic”. My own purchase of many magazine titles during the 1980s was prompted by new adventures both intellectual and physical. An increasing interest in all the arts, in liberal/left wing political ideas and campaigns, plus the discovery of alluring shops in Glasgow and Edinburgh, like the Third Eye Centre  and the Fifth of May Bookshop, different to those available in my home town of Greenock.

A large part of my reading during that time was of Granta. The literary quarterly was a paperback book 250 pages long – as I reminded myself when seeking an excuse for the fact that another year had passed and certain essential classic writers remained unread. Granta gave me an acquaintance of many of the fashionable contemporary writers like Milan Kundera, Salman Rushdie, James Fenton, Nadine Gordimer, Primo Levi, Raymond Carver and Hanif Kureishi. It was also playing a key role in the coverage of the shifting boundaries of central Europe in those years before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

 

A couple of “Granta” issues from the distant past.

 

The now-defunct Scottish publications Cencrastus and Radical Scotland drew my attention to the idea that (left-wing) internationalism might be compatible with Scottish nationalism, a programme being offered from a different direction by the musician Dick Gaughan.

There were regular magazines of the two political organisations of which I was then an active member, Amnesty International’s Amnesty and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament’s Sanity. In addition, New Statesman, New Internationalist and Marxism Today were other recommended reading for a lefty and arty type at that time.

Many of those 1980s titles have disappeared but it would wrong to feel that such sources of education and culture no longer exist. Reporting and analysis of the wilfully ignored Israel/Palestine conflict is provided by +972 magazine and Mondoweiss. Commonspace covers some of the ground once covered by Radical Scotland. The Quietus and The Skinny both cover music and culture and Gal-Dem writes from a black feminist viewpoint.

The Al-Jazeera website gives detailed news and analysis on the Middle East and other under-reported places. Dissent is a long-established American magazine. And New Statesman and New Internationalist continue to publish.

So sources are still available, which provide alternative and particular views of the modern world and apply old-fashioned values of independent thinking and decent quality journalism. The only possible cause for regret is that they are now accessed usually only via a computer screen rather than by a stapled collection of A4 pages. A bit inconvenient for an old man on a train although not really a convincing argument for doom and gloom.

You might also get around to reading some more of those essential books.

 

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Coming home

 

It was instructive to read the report by the great journalist Hugh McIlvanney of England’s World Cup victory in July 1966. Especially because it is written in the classic journalism style of the past of clear facts expressed concisely in stylish language – which we took for granted then and see rather less often now. “Moore took the ball coolly out of defence and lifted it upfield to Hurst 10 yards inside the German half. The referee was already looking at his watch and three England supporters had prematurely invaded the pitch as Hurst took the ball on his chest.”

In 1966 I was ten years old. The World Cup was one of my first big television experiences as well as one of my first big sports experiences. I knew then that live football on television was rare – although not that it would remain that way for 20 years more, well into my adulthood.

Of the competition, one match I clearly remember was North Korea scoring three goals against Portugal in the first 25 minutes of the quarter-final before being beaten 5-3. I recall one of Hungary’s wins (most likely, based on retrospective research, the 3-1 victory against Brazil) for the impressively alliterative Daily Express headline of “Magical Magyars” ). And yes, I do remember the final, with Geoff Hurst’s dramatic concluding goal – never guessing that Kenneth Wolstenholme’s commentary would become one of the most endlessly replayed and repeated phrases. Even as a Scottish child, I was supporting England, because this was a year before Celtic’s European Cup win, and many more years before we were presented regularly with a choice of preferring Scotland as a World Cup country over England.

So, 1974. Scotland had qualified and England hadn’t. I had just left school. The older men I worked beside were equally fascinated by the World Cup, as it was Scotland’s first qualification in 16 years and easily watchable because it was being played in Europe. So too the Scottish press. As mentioned above and elsewhere, I often find I can remember big news stories by the newspaper headlines which followed them. The Sunday Post came into our house at that time in common with the majority of Scottish households. The day after Scotland’s elimination at the group stages, its back page sports headline was the sober and irrefutable “Scotland go out without losing a game”, but the front page was filled with the inclusive and cheerleading “Out – but weren’t they all champions”.

So, 1978? The Argentina adventure is a popular exercise in media nostalgia due to the famous optimism then of Scotland’s manager and fans, especially in this its 40th anniversary year.

It has created other cultural connections. In the 1980s TV drama The Justice Game, Scottish solicitor Dominic Rossi is familiar with the political situation in central America, because he visited there after travelling to the World Cup in Argentina. (In other words, showing that he understands the ordinary person’s values as well as international affairs.) William McIlvanney, brother of the aforementioned Hugh and a novelist-journalist with a great interest in football, centred one of the stories in his Walking Wounded collection around a young man who tries to borrow money from his employer to travel to Argentina.

I do actually have definite memories of that unexpected 3-2 win against Holland and of Archie Gemmill’s confident goal which seemed to suggest Scotland might yet qualify for the later stages. Of course, I have a more vivid one of the way Irvine Welsh and Danny Boyle in Trainspotting  presented Gemmill’s goal as one of orgasmic intensity.

The 1998 championships coincided with a holiday to Switzerland. The hotel in Wengen buzzed with several nationalities sharing an interest in the results. A pub near the hotel in Lucerne was a base for Holland fans cheering their team’s journey to the semi-finals. The first finals to have used the Golden Goals rule, I recall.

 

Two alternative sites of the 1998 World Cup. Wengen, and, below, Lucerne, in Switzerland.

 

Another multi-national experience in 2006. Throughout July I was doing a CELTA course in Glasgow to teach English as a second language. The adults who were our student guinea pigs were of various nationalities, so loyalties conflicted but interest was widely shared. My strongest memory of the matches: Zinedine Zidane’s scene-stealing headbutt in the last minutes of the final.

To this year. I was attracted to the unfeted and self-restrained England manager Gareth Southgate and his young squad, while still wondering whether the latter really was more genuinely emblematic of a new inclusive modern England. As the team progressed there must have been a few pro-Brexit journalists and politicians who suggested that their success beyond most expectations was built on a rediscovered strength in the national psyche. Fortunately that theory did not have to be put to the most advanced testing.

The team’s longer residence in the tournament gave further prominence to the song “Three Lions”. I’ve never been entirely sure about the phrase “football’s coming home” – surely the explicit and implicit meaning of the song is that it is the World Cup which is coming back to its rightful home? Despite the Cup having been also won by a number of other countries? However it is one of the best football songs of the pop/rock era with a strong melody by Ian Broudie so it is hard to grudge Broudie his success.

Nobody can yet be sure which of the UK football nations will qualify for the next World Cup finals during Christmas shopping and carol-singing time in Qatar in 2022, or whether Gareth Southgate will still be around to exert his quiet charisma on fans and media – but probably “Three Lions” will still get some airplay.

 

Reference:  McIlvanney, William (1992)  Walking Wounded   London : Sceptre

 

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Dazzling

 

That heyday of punk and indie music from 1976 into the mid-1980s was a growth period both of small record labels like Postcard, Stiff and Rough Trade and of fanzines, small independent magazines. Whenever you read and admired a publication about literature or music, you were frequently inspired to set up one of your own which would be equally good if not better. Nowadays people might set up websites and on-line magazines, but then they typed and photocopied them and distributed them at concerts and shops.

Chris Davidson was one such person, producing the Slow Dazzle music fanzine in Greenock, Renfrewshire, in the 1980s. Named after the album by music maverick John Cale, it reviewed and interviewed new and established names from the music scene of the time. The four issues which I still have feature, for instance, conversations with Billy Bragg, the Bluebells, the Pastels, Pete Shelley, Marc Riley and the Creepers, John Peel, footballer/music aficionado Pat Nevin, Tommy Smith, Alan McGee and the Jesus and Mary Chain. In addition, articles on Miles Davis, Frank Zappa, Neil Young, Frank Sinatra, African music, apartheid, the Glastonbury Festival, Kurt Vonnegut and scooters.

 

 

In common with many freelance music writers, Davidson was also a keen music promoter, and organised many concerts in the Greenock area in the same period.

I was acquainted with Chris Davidson around this time, and I nursed some literary ambitions. Although I was a music fan, I recognised that I didn’t have the depth of music knowledge and concert-going experience of Davidson and other Slow Dazzle contributors. However, the magazine welcomed wider cultural topics and I did get three theatre reviews included.

Slow Dazzle lasted for six issues during 1983 and 1984. It ended not because it was unsuccessful but because it was too successful. It was taking up too much of Davidson’s time and energy but of course not earning any money. He already had a full-time job plus a wife and family so there came a point where Slow Dazzle became too big to have all these parts of his life running concurrently.

However, Davidson’s fondness for and dedication to music did not wane. 20 years later he was co- running another live music night in Greenock called the Pineapple Club. Its website is now discontinued but its playlist and programme demonstrated that his voracious musical appetite had not dulled with time.

I had always intended to include a homage to Slow Dazzle in Leaf Collecting, but the timing was decided when I saw (belatedly) a proper press feature about Chris Davidson credited in a proper book – A Scene in Between by Sam Knee – about the indie music scene of the 1980s. Well done, Chris! Happy memories for all of us.

 

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Colour enhancement

 

The Sunday Times was the first UK newspaper to produce a colour supplement in 1962, and The Observer followed soon afterwards.

When, some years after that, I started looking at the grown-up newspapers which came into our house each Sunday, those colour magazines were the first part I ventured into. They were welcomingly different from the other larger pages of dense black newsprint.

At that time colour photographs in newspapers came only in these separate glossy supplements. When I think back to them now, it is not so much as a significant technical innovation or because I have strong individual memories, but because in recent years all publishing has become like them.

Colour moved into mainstream sections of newspapers 20 or more years ago. This made the colour magazine undistinctive. Yet today all surviving newspapers seem to still have one.

The regular features of colour supplements in the 1970s and 1980s were the topics which worked particularly well in colour: fashion, food, celebrities, foreign countries – and advertisements. Sometimes the photo-journalism about war and poverty sat incongruously side by side with the advertising pictures of consumption and luxury – as pointed out effectively by John Berger in his famous 1972 TV series on art, Ways of Seeing.

Another popular feature of the colour supplements was visual art, the current gallery and museum exhibitions. An article about the Andrew Wyeth show at the Royal Academy in 1980 provided inspiration for my first ever visit to the cultural life of London that summer. Some articles which I recognised were, amazingly, among the pages which John Berger flipped through randomly in another part of Ways of Seeing. Content and advertisements were often blurred when the latter pastiched the characters or poses of famous individual paintings in their scenes of domestic wealth and comfort.

One of the last examples of magazine coverage of art which I do remember was a Claude Lorraine exhibition in the 1990s which earned a cover entitled “Trouble in Paradise” in The Independent Saturday magazine. That the genre scarcely features nowadays suggests editors have a low opinion of readers’ interests – plus a lack of confidence in their own knowledge and judgement. The current Picasso 1932 exhibition at the Tate Modern has gained a good deal of media attention – it is easy to imagine how it would have been treated by the colour supplements of previous decades!

The recent tabloid rebranding of The Observer has retained the magazine but it is now almost identical to the review section. Similar type of paper, similar colours. A few regular features stay in one place rather than the other but they share an overall likeness. Profiles of arts practitioners and personal memoirs can feature prominently in either section, and therefore on either cover.

Peter Jackson’s article for In Publishing about The Sunday Times magazine in 2012 suggests that its gradual deterioration was the inevitable result of lowered budgets. He also identifies Andrew Neil’s flamboyant editorship of the paper in the 1980s when it became divided into many short sections of specialised interest, which diluted the impact of the original design, including the colour supplement.

Jackson’s article includes a solution proposed by former editor of The Sunday Times magazine, Robin Morgan: “I’d put all of the sections back in the newspaper and have a 150-page magazine that had a clean sheet to tackle anything it liked.” An idea which is likely to stay only an enticing fantasy in these dying days of newspapers – and as likely as there being less personal memoir and more visual art!

 

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Ritchie Yorke, Van Morrison and the unmade Christmas album

 

In the 1970s, books about pop/rock music were rare, and newspapers and magazines were still the authoritative sources. After all, the landscape changed fast. New bands and artists appeared regularly and some became successful quickly; others changed personnel or broke up equally quickly; some major figures died like Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison or became inactive like Bob Dylan or Eric Clapton; most artists still produced an album every year; concerts and tours took place regularly in venues large and small.

Van Morrison was a major artist. His Astral Weeks, although only a few years old, had already been universally and confidently acclaimed to be a classic. The first Morrison albums I myself heard were Veedon Fleece (actually similar in tone to Astral Weeks) and the live It’s Too Late to Stop Now (both loaned by someone or taped for me by someone – it happened endlessly in those days) and then I bought, and loved,  Astral Weeks itself.

By unfortunate coincidence I had become acquainted with Morrison during a period of his inactivity and lack of confidence. It would be another three years before he released a new record.

Also during this time (1976-77), I bought Into the Music, a biography of Morrison by one Ritchie Yorke. The book was informative in many areas but Yorke’s personal critical assessments often seemed too dogmatic and shallow. His opinion was that Astral Weeks was Morrison’s masterpiece, a view already widely shared.  However he would scornfully and dismissively find fault with any other journalist who had found anything of value in Morrison’s subsequent albums, Moondance, His Band and the Street Choir and Tupelo Honey.

As I said, the music journalism landscape often changed fast. You might still though have shared my surprise when, a couple of years further on, I saw Ritchie Yorke’s name again, this time as a contributor to Paul Gambaccini’s Critics’ Choice book. Not that Astral Weeks was his choice as the number 2 album of all time, but that his number 1 and number 3 choices were of albums by Supertramp – whom nobody at that time or later ever judged as one of the notable acts in the pop/rock genre! It did make me wonder at the time about the quality of Yorke’s research and writing and the soundness of his judgement. Anyway, my musical tastes soon moved on, Yorke continued to have a substantial media career, and, now, many decades later, I have no taste in traducing a recently deceased person whom I know so little else about.

I do still find it intriguing how pop and rock music, once so defiantly the province of the young, came to become so religiously practised and followed by the middle-aged and the old. It is actually rather nice to see how many of those artistes of our youth, once super-cool and therefore exalted and distant, have mellowed into regular tourers of accessible songs. Morrison, despite not entirely losing his grumpy taciturnity, has released about a dozen albums in the last 20 years and appears to perform frequently.

In Yorke’s book Morrison expressed an interest in some day releasing an album of Christmas songs, of the type that in the 1970s would have been associated with older “easy listening” singers like Perry Como or Frank Sinatra. One possible track he named specifically was “The Christmas Song” aka “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”. Such a plan seemed then bizarrely individualistic even for one of rock’s mavericks.

However, as Morrison’s career has stretched and broadened, with his recordings of other people’s jazz and blues songs, collaborations with such as Georgie Fame and Cliff Richard and the Chieftains and Tom Jones, the tendency of other contemporaries to move into such earlier “classic” repertoire, his own knighthood and status as one of the grand old men of pop/rock music, it’s actually rather astonishing that somewhere in the last couple of decades this hasn’t happened!

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Reading, watching, eating

 

Cookery has been a growth area in publishing for many years. As soon as an amateur cook does well on one of the numerous television competitions or through a website, or as soon as a professional’s restaurant becomes successful, a personal cookery book is rarely far behind.

I admit to being part of that inflating audience. While I have read many fewer books in the past 20 years than in the previous 20, one subject which I have definitely read about more often is food and drink and cooking.

 

Rural France – Claude Monet’s garden at Giverny, photographed in 2005.

 

Urban France – Paris, probably photographed from the Eiffel Tower, in 1995.

 

In the 1970s, the highest status cooking in the UK was influenced by France, although the most commonly eaten food was probably Italian, or even Asian. Around that time my father did a good deal of the weekend cooking in our house, and consulted in particular two books, The Constance Spry Cookery Book and French Provincial Cookery by the more famous Elizabeth David.

My own first cookery book in the mid-1980s was a Delia Smith. One is Fun was on TV and much publicised but I remember it wasn’t that title, so it must have been one of the volumes of Delia Smith’s Cookery Course. It was a valuable source of particular recipes although soon enough I did gain enough basic knowledge not to have to refer to it regularly. I do remember her almost coy description of mackerel which seemed to betray the period in which she had grown up: “it has a strong taste which men like”.

Another TV programme which provided cooking ideas around that time was the first Master Chef – lower budget, less cool than the current version, with its Sunday tea-time scheduling and including some restaurant chefs as judges.

We were entering the era of the Celebrity Chef. Expert and/or professional cooks had been on TV for a while but this was the time when the term was coined and they were now more likely to be male. An episode of the Gary Rhodes series Rhodes Around Britain encouraged my wife and me to visit the wonderful area of St Ives.

 

St Ives, Cornwall, in 1994.

 

Soon after came the very first Jamie Oliver series The Naked Chef, with its pretend bijou city centre apartment, and for a long time after I copied a recipe of his for baked salmon wrapped in parma ham.

My biggest influence over the past twenty years has probably been Nigel Slater through his regular columns in The Observer newspaper. His recipe for a spicy aubergine stew, first suggested as an informal Christmas Eve dish for a large group, is perhaps the single recipe which I have used, adapted and shared the most often.

 

A few Nigel Slater recipes from over the years.

 

(Tangentially, I do miss the passing of the classic design of The Observer newspaper, once so weighty and authoritative, as it has moved significantly in the tabloid direction over many years, with many more and bigger photos and more light-weight stories in the front half of the paper. Its coverage of food and drink has definitely been one part of that “tabloid-isation”, with the Observer Food Monthly magazine and other frequent recipes supplements adding to the regular pages. But a modest periodic coverage of food and drink with accompanying photographs is hard to dislike).

As if there were not enough recipes already in books and newspapers and magazines along came the internet, full of more ideas and pictures from professionals and amateurs. Food and recipes are actually what directly led to the creation of Leaf Collecting: one particular piece of cooking research drew my attention to how many weblogs documented other areas of people’s domestic life and interests alongside the recipes and prompted me to think that I might do no worse!

Middle East food and drink has definitely become my most interesting experiment in recent years. Arto der Haroutunian’s book Middle Eastern Cookery (London: Grub Street 2010) is as informative on the history and culture of the region as on individual dishes.

Belatedly I came across the name of Claudia Roden, the Egyptian writer who was one of the first to introduce the British audience to Middle Eastern food in the 1960s. A recent article by Bee Wilson article opened with Roden’s discussion about how something she ate as a child in Cairo appeared in Australia later as “dukkah”  – which was clearly the same snack I was offered  myself at Ayers Rock last year, with its chunky bread, dry spice mix, olive oil and sparkling wine. That combination of taste and place was something I would count as one my own most memorable food experiences in recent years.

 

Uluru/Ayers Rock in Australia, at dusk.

 

 

 

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The drama of news headlines

 

Newspapers are less important than they used to be, as proved by years of declining circulation. Perhaps no surprise, then, that newspaper headlines now are often long, plain and inelegant.

One recent example which bucked the trend was “Enemies of the people”, the Daily Mail’s concise and provocative description of the High Court judges who ruled that Parliament, and not the Prime Minister, should vote to begin the UK’s process to leave the European Union.

It recalled another Daily Mail headline from those earlier days of high circulation and political influence: “The Enemy Within”, supporting Margaret Thatcher’s criticism of the miners’ during the 1984-1985 strike.

A few more from that era stick in my mind. When Arthur Ashe defeated the favourite Jimmy Connors to win the men’s singles tennis title at Wimbledon in 1975, more than one paper saw the available pun. “King Arthur’s court”, The Observer stated. However, the Sunday Express extended it more eloquently to “Connors bows at the court of King Arthur”.

In 1979, the announcement that Sir Anthony Blunt, art historian and Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, had been a Soviet spy since his youth resonated perfectly with the popularity of John Le Carré’ s novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and its TV adaptation. The Glasgow Herald borrowed one of Le Carré’s great pieces of espionage jargon for their headline of “Mole at the Palace”, but I thought Blunt’s character suited better the more old-fashioned, and more stylish, phrasing by the Daily Mail: “Traitor at the Queen’s right hand”.

This September sees the 20th anniversary of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, one of the most dramatic media events in my lifetime. Most of the press and TV coverage at that time made me wince, and its polarising effect is shown well in the Peter Morgan/Stephen Frears film The Queen.

However, one headline which I did admire came from the Glasgow Herald at the start of that dramatic week in 1997 when Diana’s body was flown back from Paris to RAF Northolt. “Home – to a nation of broken hearts” displayed assonance, alliteration and an appropriate sense of rhythm.

 

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A wise man of (music) journalism

 

One of the Leaf Collecting links on the right is to David Hepworth’s Blog.

David Hepworth wrote for Sounds when I was regularly reading the paper in the 1970s  but I became more closely acquainted with him later on TV. During the mid 1980s, he was, along with Mark Ellen and Andy Kershaw, part of the last presenting team of The Old Grey Whistle Test.

While the programme’s respectable range and quality of music was a model which had been formed from its earliest days, what Hepworth and co. added was a welcoming, jovial fans/pals vibe. This more casual style, a marked contrast equally with both the Bob Harris and Anne Nightingale eras, seemed representative of the way tastes and styles in pop and rock music were expanding and also often coalescing, during that period where the arrival of music videos combined with the political activism of  Band Aid and Red Wedge and the early days of hip-hop, house and world music. The enthusiasm displayed on Whistle Test was something which Hepworth and Ellen brought to their print journalism at that time and later: they wrote for, edited or managed the charts-oriented Smash Hits as well as the more serious Q, Mojo and The Word.

Hepworth’s weblog comments on music, other arts, the media and other topics in a wonderfully crisp, succinct and witty way. Just a handful of recent fine examples have covered the plagiarism court case brought by the Marvin Gaye estate over the Pharrell Williams/Robin Thicke hit “Blurred Lines”, the female pupils from the London school who left their homes without warning to join the Islamic State organisation in Syria, how bands owe their success to different combinations of talent and charisma“the only two creative thoughts on TV”,  the current appetite for public apologies and “the 21st century disease – fake indignation”.

 

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