There are 104 posts in total.
Over the last week or two at work I've actually started being a little bit naughty.
The webteam in Birmingham here, like many council webteams, sits within the Customer Services division of the council, rather than within either Corporate Communications or IT, like in many other councils. This means the word which underpins all the work we do is the word 'customer'.
Being frank, I was never particularly happy about us being moved from comms to cs when it happened - as a person out on the street who buys things, my overwhelming experience and view of 'customer services' is they're the people you take a faulty product back to, who spend a lot of time trying to pursuade you it isn't faulty, or the people you complain about an intangible service to, who spend a lot of time telling you the majority of their customers think the service is just peachy. I, frankly, have never been happy about my job being associated with that sort of thing.
I've also never really liked this description of our website users as customers, but it's only in the last few weeks or so I've been able to really crystalise why I've never really liked it. The first reason is one which I've shared a lot in many arenas, and which underpins a lot of my discomfort with a number of current council website trends - customer services divisions of councils seem to have quite a skewed view of who their customers are, focusing on the people who are complaining about potholes, missed bin collections, and leaky taps in their council houses. Those might be the biggest numbers of customers, but that shouldn't exclude the business customers (large and small), the visitor customers, and the politically-engaged customers - those other groups, because they don't register as big numbers in the statistics, it is often a struggle to get counted as also important.
The second reason i realised more recently why I don't like the word is that actually, very few of any of these people are actually customers in the usual sense of the word - customers are people who have a choice, who can take their custom elsewhere if the initial provider doesn't live up to expectation.
But for most services, council customers don't have a choice to go elsewhere - it's only councils who provide the service of fixing potholes, collecting bins, and fixing leaky taps in council houses; the customers are stuck with our service, whether we provide a good one or not. Not just that, customers are people who not only can choose who to have a service from, but they can also choose to have a service at all - but our customers have a right to these services of having their potholes fixed and their bins collected; by referring to them as customers, we're actually denigrating the fact that they have rights. And similarly, customers have the option to not choose a service - but council tax customers don't have an option to not pay their council tax!
So a couple of weeks ago at work I started, clearly and pointedly, in all emails and spoken conversations, no longer referring to customers, and instead referring to citizens - citizenship is what we want to promote in our towns, boroughs, cities, and counties, citizens encompasses everybody ensuring groups don't get dismissed, and citizens to me emphasises the fact that they have rights to our service rather than being people who should be grateful for it. And specifically when it comes to web services, I've returned to what should never have been dropped in the first place - referring to web users as, well, users.
Interestingly, not long after I first wrote this, internally the organisation did indeed start to replace the word 'customer' with the word 'citizen' in all its communications - I wonder if it was my effect that did it?Public / Third Sector Digital
Today I officially pronounce the Bullring fruit and vegetable market to be dead.
It had a good innings – nobody can complain about a run of 856 years and it being curtailed; I remember when plans to demolish the 1960′s market and shopping centre area were being consulted on how most of the traders predicted the market wouldn’t survive, but – the soul having been ripped out of the place notwithstanding – most of the stalls made it through that redevelopment.
Then there are the current fears that the move of the Wholesale Markets from right next to the Bullring Market will cause major hassle – Jon Bounds has commented on the silliness of the image of traders wheeling trolleys full of cabbages half way across town half way through the trading day, but there’s the very real concern of how produce will be then transported, coupled with the new uncertainty surrounding when the move will actually happen.
But to me, what has finally killed the market is the combination of the serious drop in quality of the produce on sale, combined with the scourge of the man from the weights and the measures, the Poundabowl.
Now don’t get me entirely wrong – where the typical shopper might think more in terms of a number of items rather than a weight of items, there’s nothing wrong with it; but it still makes price comparisons difficult, because you don’t know how much you’re getting for your pound from different traders – you may well even be getting a different amount from the same trader each time you buy!
Until recently, produce from the market always tended to have what supermarket fruit and veg well and truly lacked – flavour. I still remember like it was yesterday my reintroduction to the market (after being horrified by reading Felicity Lawrence’s supermarket exposé, Not on the Label) and rediscovering that an onion is an actual real vegetable with a texture and a flavour, rather than some white thing which goes in the dinner for I’m-not-really-sure-what-it’s-adding. The market produce was the blemished, funny shaped stuff which the supermarket bland-o-matic rejected as being Not Possible To Bland.
But of late I’ve noticed that the flavour is less noticeably different from the supermarket, but more critically, the quality has gone right down the pan. It’s no use buying four or five peppers for a pound rather than three or four peppers for £1.50 if you only get to actually use two of them because the rest have become a putrifying blob of mush after a couple of days. I already decided a couple of weeks ago to stop getting my onions from the market because basically half of them were rotten even on the day I bought them.
Today, when I went to my usual stall for getting peppers, I was saddened to see they too have gone over to poundabowl. Rather than hand-picking the precise peppers I wanted (ie, the ones which looked the least off) I would have been forced to accept the ones in the bowl. I usually get a mix of colours, but these bowls were all monochrome – when I asked the assistant for a mix, her reply was “no, I’m not allowed to do that”. So I walked away and found another stall.
The other stall was also poundabowl, but at least when I asked if he could do a mix he said yes. When I checked in the bag to see how mixed he’d done it (just one red to five greens – I wanted three reds and three greens), I saw that two of the peppers were a putrifying blob of mush already.
If I can’t even rely on what I buy being of merchantable quality on the day I buy it, I’m not sure I can be bothered going all the way down there to buy in the first place. So for that reason, I’m out.Birmingham
Zakir Hussein and the Masters of Percussion - Town Hall, 02/07/2008simon gray - 2008-07-02, 14:30:37
Mention the words 'Indian Music' to the man or woman on the Northfield Omnibus, and the chances are the first person who will come into their heads will be Ravi Shankar. Which is understandable really, since it's fair to say he above anybody was chief in popularising Indian classical music to western audiences. However, if you were to find a member of the world music cognoscenti and say those words to them, there's a good chance the thought will come back as tabla player Zakir Hussein.
And rightly so - whereas Ravi Shankar is, as they say, a master, Zakir Hussein is the master. But more to the point, whereas Ravi Shankar in his high profile collaborations with western musicians has largely done his own thing bolted on to the side, Zakir Hussein has very much been much more devlopmental in the field of Indian / western musical fusion, going back as far as the 1970s with the band Shakti with John McLaughlin, through working with straighter jazz artists such as Airto Moreira and Pharoah Sanders, and through to the more techno sounds of Tabla Beat Science.
After a vocal beatbox introduction by percussionist Taufiq Qureshi the concert proper opened with a blast from the Dancing Drummers of Manipur; the programme described them as 'dazzling and athletic', which was no word of a lie as gymnastic backflips were in full evidence - simultaneously to the actual business of drumming! The Dancing Drummers then left the stage not to return again until the very end of the concert, which did seem somewhat of a shame, leaving me feeling they were participating as some kind of token gesture rather than being properly included.
After their stint Hussein and sarangi (a kind of Indian style violin) player Dilshad Khan took the stage for a traditional raga performance; Khan opened with the introductory alaap solo, then becoming the accompanying instrument for the rest of that half after first Hussein joined in for the jhor section, with then Bhavani Shankar (no relation) adding - often perfectly synchronised with the tabla - to the drumming mix with his sideways drum, the pakhawaj. There's the old cliché in the rock music world of 'boring us to death with a drum solo', but in the Indian music world, nothing could be further from the truth, especially with drums in the hands of greats such as these. And in an amusing twist to the bol, or 'tabla speech' (where the drummer speaks the rhythms as well as playing them - used as a teaching method rather than performance itself in its proper setting) feature which we are used to getting in concerts here, it was likened to a proper conversation: 'come in, sit down, enjoy the concert; dha ti-ki-taah tun ti-re-ki-ta dha ghe dha ghe KHAT!'. Well it amused us in the hall, anyway.
As the first half was quite firmly traditional classical Indian music, knowing the performers' pedigrees I assumed the second half would be much more fusion-based, especially since all the way through the first half there was set on the stage a western drum kit (minus kick drum) left unused. But instead when then musicians returned to the stage the sarangi was replaced by a sitar, which this time continued to take the lead as the solo instrument in a traditional raga performance.
Finally percussionist Qureshi joined the ensemble on stage, when I realised actually we were being treated to something more interesting than the straight fusion I was expecting. As Qureshi was clearly playing western (and African, as at one point he was playing a djembe simultaneously with the rest of the kit) drums but according to Indian tala principles it occured to me that for the second half we were getting neither traditional Indian music nor 'fusion', but something best described as Indian contemporary classical music - showing that the forms of Indian classical music can, and indeed have, developed over the years just the same way as western classical music forms have changed.
Building through we had a fitting grand finale as the performers from the first half returned to the stage to close what was a fine concert - a concert where I didn't get what I was expecting, but instead was treated to much, much more.
When Portishead first hit the record shops in the mid-90s, I have to admit I was initially a little underwhelmed. That all changed with the release of Roseland NYC Live (and the accompanying concert video) when I discovered just how artistic their music can be; if you're the kind of person who likes contemporary classical music as might be played by B.E.A.S.T. or the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, or alternatively if the arthouse flicks of the Electric Cinema might make that venue your second home, then Portishead are the band for you.
After a gap of some 10 years since that album, the band have come together at last to release a new studio album, the imaginatively titled Third(released on 28 April 2008), together with a European tour to promote, which reached the West Midlands last night.
Unlike many rock reformations, where it feels like the spark had long gone and has barely been rekindled to pay an unexpected tax bill, the return of Portishead shows a group of true dedicated and accomplished musicians demonstrating as much skill and energy today as they did on the album which converted me. The opening track included loud heavy guitars demonstrating them to be so much more than the label 'trip hop' leads one to assume, but the intimate numbers are still there with the band gathering around close in to each other sitting in a huddle.
Importantly, each song blended perfectly with the one preceding and following, and the sudden endings - a feature which often irritates me in a band - in this case were just 'right', an important part of the music rather than laziness. The Lalo Schifrin-esque melodies which wouldn't be out of place in a James Bond soundtrack are still occasionally there along with the live turntablism (I do often wonder, does it matter what records they're playing when they're scratching?), together with a more classic analogue synthesisor soundworld - I counted at least two Minimoogs on stage.
Unless you can make a trip to Paris or Brussels early next month you've missed your chance in the UK on this tour, but if you fancy a Bank Holiday Eurostar trip you could do no worse. Hopefully we won't have to wait another 10 years to see such a truly great band.
If I were to use all the superlatives I'm minded to in writing this, you could probably be forgiven for wondering if I was related to a member of the cast.
Mahabharata is, for Hindus at least, the 'Great story of India', at 100,000 verses the longest epic poem in world literature, and dating from at least 500BC one of the oldest. Alongside the Ramayana it forms one of the cornerstones of Hindu scriptures, and its scope is best summarised by one of its beginning passages - "What is found here, may be found elsewhere. What is not found here, will not be found elsewhere".
In essence, the story centres around a family feud between two sets of royal cousins - the Pandava brothers and their common wife Draupadi, led by our hero Arjuna and the Kauravas, headed up by the villain Duryodhana. I say villain - the philosophy of the epic tends to present a universe where all are governed by destiny, unresponsible for their actions, and Duryodhana was "born to hate the world and all that is in it". In the west most people might be more aware of the Bhagavad Gita, the discourse within it where Krishna teaches Arjuna the nature of dharma, or duty, on the eve of battle as Arjuna has doubts about what he is about to embark on, ending here with the famous quote "Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds".
As with any great epic, there's love, deceit, and a great battle in which hundreds of thousands are slaughtered, with it being highly debateable whether there were truly any winners at the climax, and ultimately Draupadi, who is a perhaps surprisingly modern woman for the time the story is set (5000 years ago) makes the decision to end the pointless cycle of revenge and counter-revenge.
Not every member of this cast could quite handle all of those aspects themselves, but all were highly capable in at least three of them each, and as an ensemble cast achieved the goal admirably, seemlessly integrating as they moved about all three dimensions of the stageset so you would be hard pressed to work out who was better at what.
Categorising the genre of this production is less than straightforward for those used to standard western performing arts; it is a piece of Kathak, which at its heart is a work of dance, but is so much more than that - a true Kathak performer must be able to dance, sing, act, mime, speak, play percussion instruments, and work puppets.
Ensemble is certainly a key word to describe the production as a whole, in fact. Often in musical theatre or dance one is left with the impression that the creators of the choreography, music, and text will have occasionally spoke on the phone together, but essentially worked in isolation leaving it to the director to finally bring the components together, but in this production there was an overriding sense of genuine collaboration between all concerned, working together to produce a united whole as a production from the outset. On the credits page Nitin Sawhney was listed first as composer for his fine music, but perhaps an alphabetical credit listing would have been more appropriate. Amongst the musicians the ethereal bansuri (Indian flute) playing of Lisa Mallett must be given special mention as it floated throughout the theatre, and Natasha Jayetileke's Draupadi was every bit the strong-whilst-feminine woman of the story.
In staging and set design, less is more was clearly the operative thinking - which is by no means to say it was minimal or sparse, but instead well judged, tastefully designed, and effective. The most complex visual effects were executed by means of pieces of cloth, lights, and mesh screens, proving that lasers and video screens are rarely necessary to create the magic of the stage.
It may just have been because it was Tuesday night, but sadly the Alex seemed to be barely half-full - if you have no evening plans for any night the rest of this week, you could do little better than to catch it whilst you can.
misty's big adventure + restless list + kategoes... - jug of ale, moseley, 22/11/2006simon gray - 2006-11-22, 13:15:28
If you like your popular beat combo concerts to feature fresh, genuinely original, and slightly off-the-wall music performed by bands who are accomplished musicians, composers, and songwriters, and where you can tell their reason for performing is the shear joy they feel in playing together and for you (rather than the band being a vehicle for satisfying egos, like so many rock-legend-wannabes), then last night's packed out upper room at the Jug of Alewas certainly for you, and certainly for pretty much everybody there as well. For me it was without doubt the best pub gig of the year, and almost certainly one of the best for a long time.
Normally when reviewing I treat each band individually - and certainly each of these three bands could have made a good show if it was they who were headlining - but in this instance as well as credit to the acts, credit is also due to Arthur from the Catapult Club for putting together three bands which, each very different in their own way, complemented each other perfectly to make a show which was even greater than the sum of its parts.
KateGoes... have only been together for about a year, were breaking in a brand new bass player last night, and are probably the youngest group of musicians I've seen play together since my youth orchestra days - and showed all the musical maturity and performance flair you would expect to see in a band on the main stage at the Academy. The stage look is quite (and I hope they're not cross with me for saying this - especially the blokes...) 'girly hippy', but the music combines elements of punk with primary school nursery rhyme with ballad with complex (for rock) rhythms and time signatures, incorporating instruments as diverse as a squeaky dog toy and a violin as well as guitars and keyboards. The songs were a perfect combination of funny with serious, and the occasional bit of sad, displaying the kind of child-like humour which if you're a fan of David Mitchell and Robert Webb will be right up your street. A nice touch was the way they set up the stage with living room / den paraphernalia such as beanbags, photographs, table lamps, and flowers - after a long tour, KateGoes... Home!
Restless List were last night a duo, having come all the way up from Brighthelm, Sussex on the Megabus (reminding me of one of my old band's fortnightly residency many years ago at the Sir George Robey in Finsbury Park where we travelled down on the train and the underground carrying the entire band's equipment in a shipping trunk!). Their genre is what used to be fiendishly difficult to pull off live (especially in a pub setting) but is now becoming gradually doable, electronica / 'laptop sounds' combined with live action, fully interactive rather than the karaoke you often get with this kind of thing. The pair of them between them produced a massive sound, crossing trip-hop without the hop (or should that be trip?) with the raw energy of The Prodigy, layered with the orchestral collages of a James Bond soundtrack. My only criticism of them would be that when they thought they'd fluffed a song, they didn't need to tell us about it - we didn't notice, and if we had we didn't need reminding about it...
Lastly, Misty's Big Adventure, the band my friend in London has been urging me to see for getting on for two years - and like all her musical recommendations, turning out to be a thoroughly reliable one. The choppy rhythms and the sax and trumpet give them a bassline sound which recalls the ska beat of The Specials, but well updated for the noughties, but the tuneful sonorous baritone voice of lead singer Grandmaster Gareth recalls more The Divine Comedy; the comparison goes further with each of the songs being mini stories to be told, observations on life, the universe, and everything. Each song was relatively short, but in those 3 minutes nearer ten minutes of music were packed, with plenty of mayhem and jazz to be added to the lyrical melodies. Like Restless List and KateGoes..., any attempt to draw comparisons with other more famous artists just seems inadequate - really, they're in a class of their own.
Finally a word has to be said about the sound engineer for the evening - every note of every instrument and every word of every song could be heard with total hi-fi crystal clarity; difficult enough at the best of times mixing keyboards with guitars with vocals where the words matter, but especially tricky with such complex multilayoured sounds from three entirely different bands. This was truly an artist of the sliders at work.
I look forward to following the inevitable rise of all their careers in due course.
pravda - a fleet street comedy - birmingham repertory theatre, 03/10/2006simon gray - 2006-10-03, 13:09:04
First written and performed in the mid-80s, Howard Brenton & David Hare's Pravda is a newsroom satire, focussing on both the journalists themselves and their newspaper proprietors; it's not hard to see at the front of the authors' minds was the still-relatively-recent takeover by Rupert Murdoch of The Times, and the concerns many had about that of whether he would send it downmarket in the direction of The Sun.
The story proper opens in the editor's office at the Leicester Bystander, with the staff, in the middle of trying to put the paper to bed being sent into turmoil at the news they are about to be bought by South African media magnate Lambert LeRoux (Roger Allam). Our 'hero' Andrew May (Oliver Dimsdale) is immediately promoted to editor, and LeRoux marches onwards.
As a journalist reviewing a satirical play, one almost feels on slightly dangerous ground when the play is a satire on journalists - especially when one of the cameo characters in the play is the drunken theatre critic who writes his review without actually seeing any of the performance! It's analogous to the situation of those who write letters to the paper prefixed with the comment "I know you won't print this but I'm sending it anyway", in order to try to shame the editor into printing it. By being critical of a play critical of journalists, you're almost inviting a response of "well you would say that, wouldn't you".
And, I have to say, I wasn't that impressed with the play. Sure, it had its amusing moments, but the satire was no near as biting as it was in Drop The Dead Donkey (which surely must have taken some inspiration from Pravda). There were dodgy accents abound, with Michael Begley's Eaton Sylvesterbeing just about the worst attempt at Australian I can remember for a long time, and although John Woodvine demonstrated his acting skill by playing a number of small roles throughout, it did set the audience up for confusion, because we couldn't be sure when other actors appeared in a different scene whether or not they were going to be different characters - especially when their accents slipped! At times the action became confused, either because things happenned too fast or because a new character's equally speedy introduction and departure wasn't properly explained. Most surprisingly, given the impressive CVs of nearly all the cast, some of the movements were a little on the wooden side, and right from the opening scene I was reminded of the school play instructions to never turn your back on the audience.
Perhaps that paragraph above is a little over-harsh, though maybe not as harsh as other reviewers were during its run in Cheltenham, and although I couldn't recommend it I certainly wouldn't say it's not a fun night out. My thinking is perhaps best summarised by the words of a former colleague I bumped into on the way out - "I'm not sure what I was supposed to be learning from it".
I can't say whether I would have thought it funny or relevant had I seen it in its day, but 20 years on, I don't think it has dated particularly well.
Go and stand on New Street holding a clipboard and ask passers-by if they could name any composers of musical, and the chances are, depending on their age, the overwhelming replies would be either 'Rogers & Hammerstein' or 'Andrew Lloyd-Webber'. If they're a discerning shopper they might reply 'Stephen Sondheim', but if they were that discerning they'd be more likely to describe his work as opera rather than musical anyway.
Alternatively, if you asked them to name any musicals themselves you would likely get quite a few saying 'Chicago'. But curiously, if you asked them if they could name any musicals by John Kander and Fred Ebb pretty much most people would just give you a blank look in response. Somehow, despite being responsible for two of the best-known musicals of the late-20th century,Cabaret, and Chicago, the names of Kander and Ebb themselves seem not to trip off the tongue of the Man on the Moseley Omnibus the way others do.
Since the revival of the show in the late 90s it's barely been off the stage, and now makes a welcome return to the Alex.
It's the classic story - girl meets boy, girl fills boy full of lead, girl does what she can not to swing for it. A classic story needs classic lines, and "I gotta pee" has to win the Award for the Most Classic Line After a Murder.
Unlike many musicals, Chicago does actually have a reasonably strong plot, backed with a solid score, and dance routines (originally choreographed by Bob Fosse) which are integral to the telling of the story rather than merely being eye-candy. The show is broadly satirical, not only sending up the format of musical theatre itself, but also a satire on the cult of celebrity - especially the pseudocelebrities who are famous not for actually achieving anything, but just famous for being famous. Remarkably prescient, for a musical which premiered in 1975, based on a play dating back to 1926!
Jennifer Ellison, best known to television audiences for being Emily Shadwick in Brookside is the archetypal wannabe Roxie Hart, and Dawn Spence slinks around the stage as the Vaudeville old-hand Velma Kelly; both ably supported by George Asprey as slippery smooth-talking lawyer ("Let's just say, if Jesus Christ was in Chicago today and he had $5000, things would have been different") Billy Flynn, and Katy Secombe as the miss fix-it head warder Mama Morton; after the 2002 film of the show it's difficult to imagine anybody other than Queen Latifah in the role, but Secombe does a fair job, though unless you know she's a warder rather than a prisoner already it's not so clear here.
The current production has the fairly innovative step of putting the band not down in the orchestra pit as usual, but right there on the stage in the middle of the action. This could have led to two problems - a much-reduced space for the actors to perform in, and a much greater need for amplification for the singers. In the case of the former, it wasn't a problem at all, and the sound reinforcement for the singers was perfectly tasteful and unobtrusive. Katalin's performance of her famous Hungarian rope trick didn't quite have the impact it might normally have, but I wonder if given news events of earlier this week it was toned down a little on grounds of taste.
All in all, definitely a quality night out, and have fun annoying your colleagues with regular outbursts of "& all that jazz" the day after!
Before there was Cypress Hill, before there was the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, before there wasThe Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, there was - in the UK at least - Senser.
It's probably pushing things a bit to say they invented the genre of angry intelligent hip-hop with a strong musical underpinning, but they were clearly influential in its development.
It was in the atmosphere of Thatcher's Britain that the band formed in the late 80s - the Criminal Justice Acts of the time, the Battle of the Beanfield, the Poll Tax, and raves on the beach and in warehouses. Mass rioting in the streets was common, and even many in 'the establishment' agreed that police violence and corruption was out of hand.
Although Senser disappeared from the mainstream public profile almost as quickly as they entered it, despite some line-up changes they've only really had a few of years of not working together. Clearly from the audience last night, their following comprises fans from the whole period of their existence.
When they started the show last night, I was initially struck by how fresh and relevant their sound was, not at all sounding as if it had been forged 15 years ago - and the energy was certainly still there.
But as the night wore on, I did find myself thinking I'd heard everything before - the songs, whilst definitely good and all that, did start to sound the same as each other after a while.
Similarly, although initially I thought the political content of the songs seemed still relevant today, by the end I realised: we don't live in Thatcher's Britain any more; we don't have riots of anything like the scale of then, and - recent high profile raids and shootings aside - the police aren't nearly the right-wing private army they'd become then. To be sure, we have many problems with our current government and the erosion of civil liberties just as then, but we need a new artistic discourse of protest, not a rehash of the old arguments.
So eventually I have to admit I was starting to get bored with being there, and left 10 minutes before the end.
Don't get me wrong - it was a great gig, and if you are a hard core Senser fan you'll have had a great time; and I'm still just as likely to play my copy of Stacked Up whenever I'm in the mood every now and again.
But that was then, and this is now. Maybe I've just grown up a bit more than I thought?