Monday, March 31, 2008

Trying to fit in with Londoners

I was in London at the weekend, for a meeting about the launch of a gay magazine that I'm doing a bit of writing for. I always find London (and Londoners) a bit stressful. Because I am from "the north", many Londoners instinctively look down on me. It doesn't matter if you're a billionaire with a Nobel Peace prize - if you live in Sheffield, they still feel superior. All people who live in cities - especially capital cities tend to make me feel like Mr Country Mouse, having fallen into Fagin's Den, surrounded by little 21st century Artful Dodgers.

So I've developed a number of techniques of coping with Londoners over the years. These include:

a) making fun of "the north" and my northerner status in a self-deprecatory way. This makes them feel validated. I try not to tell them my true feelings about London, which are usually mixed at best. For example, when I arrived in London, I was instantly struck down with a feeling of dread and depression - the noise, the crowds, the bad smells, the filth in the streets, the confident extroverts... "If there's one place I hate most in the world," I growled, "One place which sums up everything I hate about London... it's Soho..." Needless to say, I ended up being invited to Soho by my new friends for a trip round the bars. I had to pretend I liked it.

b) telling them that I "hate everything". Londoners like to project a jaded, seen-it-all, worldly air and tend to get impatient with ingenues, once their initial exoticism has worn off (after 5 minutes). So it's best to beat them at their own game here. It keeps them on their toes.

c) Pointing out that "this bar/building/film/restaurant already looks dated or will look dated in 2 weeks".

d) Giving everything an ironic sheen. If you couch everything in ambiguity and ambivlance then it at least keeps their attention up.

e) Making references to things that are either very very new or very old. Londoners like to keep up to date with the latest trends, or be ahead of the trends. Telling them about something new will get them excited. You can only talk about old stuff if it's at least 20 years old and has therefore recently become fashionable in terms of being "kitsch" or "classic". However, you have to be careful here as recycled trends also have a shelf life and you could be talking about last month's revival which is now naff again.

f) Not getting impatient when they are late. And late they are. I have a "thing" about time-keeping. If I am not on time, I start getting panicky and worrying about keeping other people waiting. Many Londoners like to arrive fashionable late, or rather, they just aren't that concerned about things like time. I tend to get a bit sulky and passive-aggressive if people are late and keep me waiting. It feels like a social slap in the face. However, when I'm in London, I try and relax this rule - even arriving for things late myself (although I'm always the first one there still). So when the powerpoint presentation I was due to see didn't start until an hour after it was supposed to, I simply beemed serenely and had a bagel with smoked salmon on it. (I normally don't touch the stuff, but in London everyone eats this sort of food and I feel lucky to escape going to a Sushi bar).

I gave myself a score of 7 out of 10 for my social interactions with Londoners during the weekend. I took off three points because a) I asked someone if they were carrying a photograph of Myra Hindley around with him - it turned out that it was the photo on his subway pass. And b) I confessed that I had never taken cocaine and then acted a bit surprised when someone told me he had last taken it a few hours ago.

Actually, the people I met were really nice and intelligent. So I guess I'll have to revise some of my rules.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Snakes and Ladders in the Isle of Mann

A week's Easter break in the Isle of Mann, though I managed to mark 12 undergraduate dissertations while I was away. The Isle of Mann is a bit like going back to 1982 - there are very few new buildings and everything has a very old fashioned feel to it. We were staying in Jurby which is one of the most isolated bits off towards the north, in this place

It looks lovely, although it was pretty cold weather while we were there and as a result most of the upstairs rooms were really cold. I didn't dare take a bath for a week - I can see why people in the 17th century used to get sewn into their clothes - it gets too cold to step out of them.

We spent most of the week playing Snakes and ladders with my nephew, who is just at the age where he can count and understand rules - though he tends to throw a strop if he doesn't win. My fella filled his head with stories of nasty goblins living inside the hills.

We also went on a tiny steam train

We were filmed during it as apparently it's going to be put on youtube or something. So if you see some people looking freezing cold (it was hail stoning at the time) and cramped into a tiny carriage, while faking happiness, then it's me.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Back home for about 5 seconds

This year is turning out to be like a series of the Amazing Race, in 10 weeks I've been on 19 planes. I feel personally responsible for global warming, sort of.

Anyway, back to New York - Annie Ross was pretty fab. She's in her 70s now, and was performing in this very small jazz club, to an audience of about 20 people. We were sitting right up close to her - a bit too close in fact. She could have spat on me if she'd wanted. I desperately wanted to ask her to impersonate being turned into a robot in Superman 3 but decided to play it cool and simply smile at her instead (but not in an almost-stalker way like I did with Gina Gershon when I saw her in the Vagina Monologues).

After New York, we flew to Salt Lake City for a conference that was taking place in Sundance (of the film festival and Butch Cassidy fame). Sundance is practically up a mountain and there was a lot of snow, so every day the conference started late as we had to wait for snow ploughs to clear the road for us. The ride from the airport to Provo, where we were staying, was utterly depressing - mile after mile of souless out-of-town shopping centres - in dull contrast to the stunning mountain scenery. Everyone drives (seemingly). To give an example, while we waited in the lobby of the motel, this car pulled up, a man got out, went to the front desk and pulled a remote control out of his pocket. I thought he must have packed it in his case by mistake or something, and had come back to the motel to return it. But no - he was a guest at the motel and was reporting that the remote control wasn't working - rather than walk from his motel room to the lobby, he had driven there.

The other weird thing about Utah was all the Mormons. The people who organised the conference accidentally referred to each other as "Brother Smith" rather than Professor Smith, which was quite interesting to note. Mormoms (or the ones I saw), were all rather jolly and somewhat asexual and innocent - it's like they don't have irony or sarcasm. Worst of all, coffee was banned at the conference (or not available at least). By the first afternoon, a group of us got headaches, so we managed to sweet-talk a kind Mormon into driving us down off the mountain so we could find coffee elsewhere. For the rest of the afternoon, we felt like bad high school kids, cutting class to do drugs. Except in reality we were sad middle-aged, caffine-addicted academics. It's a sorry state of affairs when the oldies are cooler than the students.

Speaking of High School - I read High School Confidential - a "participant observation" study about a 24 year old guy who goes undercover at a high school, pretending to be a 17 year old and learning to fit in with the popular kids. It's well-written in an initially confusing way. The author describes the same couple of weeks from the perspective of 6 different students: a weird geek girl, a bitchy "slut", a prom queen, a steroid-injecting athlete, a thug kid and an evangelical Christian. I identified most with the Christian. Maybe all that relgion in Utah is rubbing off...

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Headcold in New York

I am in Manhattan again for a few nights, stopping off on the way to a conference in Utah - where the university I'm going to be at apparently has banned coffee.

It's been very cold here, and I caught a headcold on the way to the airport, so have been holed up in the hotel for most of it, venturing out for the odd trip to Starbucks, the cinema or the shops. The nice thing about Manhattan is that everything is close and there's plenty to do, even if you're ill. We've booked to see lengendary jazz singer Annie Ross tomorrow night - you may have seen her in Superman III - she got turned into a robot at the end

(this was one of my most disturbing viewing experiences as a teenager)

... or Short Cuts where she played an emotionally dead jazz singer with some of the most jaded song lyrics of all time - one of her songs, I recall involves the recollections of an ageing lady who spends her time watchin the daytime soaps - "all the most villainous men, can be found on channel 10!" Her lyrics tend to be very rambling and a bit crazy - another of my favourites is one she is clearly mad and deluded, boasting that "On Broadway I danced for that Senator" and claiming improbably "They know me in London and they know me in Paris!" At least they know her in Lancaster!

I have seen a lot of films in the last few days - including the very disappointing Diary of the Dead. I am fed up of bad zombie films. The only two zombie films I actually liked were the 1970s Dawn of the Dead and the 1980s Day of the Dead. All the other ones are stupid. I couldn't even finish watching the recent "remake" of Day of the Dead - it was so bad. Diary of the Dead thinks it has something socially interesting to say about our relationship with recording things, but it doesn't. And the budget seems to have all been spent on spatter effects rather than acting lessons and script writing. Give it a miss. On the other hand, I enjoyed The Other Boleyn Girl - partly because it brought back memories of History class 1985 when we did The Tudors. Eric Bana is rather interesting as Henry VIII - obviously playing the man before he swelled up to 300lb and got a massive gouty ulcer on his leg that had to be drained nightly.

I do love a good period drama, even if a lot of it is based on conjecture.

Something seems to have happened with the renowned American good service since my last visit. Shop assistants seem to have started ignoring me, chatting about nothing with their co-workers, then packing my things slowly and sulkily. I said "thanks" to a clerk yesterday and instead of a robotically cheery "you're welcome", I instead got a very sarcastic sounding and drawn out "mmhmm..." I'm not sure what it meant - it was possibly the equivalent of "I'm not interested in engaging in polite rituals with you, go away." I used to find the American "you're welcome" to be eerily odd, always fake, even disturbing. Now I miss it. British service is comparatively awful - shop assistants hide from you, look down on you, act too busy, don't look you in the eye etc - but I've never had an "mmhmm..." from them. It's beyond passive-aggressive. It's aggressive-passive.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Another reason why I love my PS3

The PS3 really was one of my favourite purchases - and now that the HDTV war seems to have been won by blu-ray, I'm hoping that high-definition will take off. At the moment, our small branch of HMV stocks a small number of blu-rays, many of which fall under the "naff blockbusters" category.

At the moment, I'm addicted to Guitar Hero 3 after the streetwise 20-something nephews of my fella introduced me to it recently. It's a childishly simple, yet hatefully addictive Playstation game where you have to emulate playing a guitar by pressing coloured buttons as they flash up quickly on the screen while a jolly tune plays in the background. There are different levels of difficulty and the better you get at it, the more songs you unlock. As you "play" the notes, a rendering of a "cool" rockstar jigs on a stage, while an audience bang their heads in appreciation (if you make too many mistakes you get booed off-screen). I could manage Easy level, when only three keys are involved, but I'm afraid that once the ante was upped to Medium with the introduction of the blue key (which exposes how weak your little finger is), it was a case of "off! off! off!" and my dreams of rock stardom were over before they had begun.

Some of the songs involve bands which formed after 1995 (when I stopped paying attention to modern music), but there are also some old favourites like Paint it Black and the fabulous Barracuda by Heart.

In a way the game is a teaching tool in that you learn about keeping in time with a beat - although pressing a blue key is by no means the same as playing a chord like C7. On the other hand, perhaps it will interest more people in music as well as introducing them to a wider range of songs (myself included). It's also fun, if a bit wearing on the hands - my father-in-law who is 70 had a go, and after one song his hand had got stuck in a kind of claw position.