Saturday, October 20, 2012

A rant about the state of things today

I attended a school assembly with some relatives recently, as one of their children was receiving a certificate. The last time I was in a school assembly was at some point in the 1980s, where nobody received a certificate, and parents weren't allowed to attend. Instead, the terrifying Mrs Cheeseman would bang out hymns (containing lots of thees and thous) on her piano, daring us, just daring us not to sing enthusiastically enough. At least once a week she would bang her hands down on the keys in rage and then spend five minutes shouting at us that we must try harder. After more hymns, and prayers, if we were lucky, we'd get an inspirational story, usually The Good Samaritan. And if anyone had a birthday, they were allowed to come to the front and take a disgusting boiled sweet from a big plastic jar.

So I wondered how much school assemblies had changed since my childhood. The answer is - a lot.

The parents (and me) were all seated at the back of the school hall, and the children filed in. There was no 21st century Mrs Cheeseman playing the piano. There wasn't even a piano. Instead, music was piped through loud speakers via the internet, all manipulated by a 9 year old DJ. After the children had sat down, a song was sung. And no, it wasn't "Oh Jesus I Have Promised (To Serve Thee to the End)" or "Let There Be Peace on Earth (and Let it Begin With Me)". Instead it was this.

As I am aged 105, I have never heard this song before, and as the "inspirational" lyrics progressed, my jaw started to fall wider and wider open.

Standing in the hall of fame
And the world's gonna know your name
Cause you burn with the brightest flame
And the world's gonna know your name
And you'll be on the walls of the hall of fame

So rather than being brainwashed by singing gentle songs about being humble and kind and wanting peace on earth, instead, today's children are brainwashed into wanting to be FAMOUS and A CELEBRITY! It was one of those moments when one of society's missing jigsaw pieces fell into place and I realised, "Ah, that's why!"

That's why he's so rich.

There was only one mention of God in the song, and that was in the line "You could talk to God, go banging on his door", which was held up as another example as how wonderful YOU could be. Somehow, I don't think God would be too impressed if you went banging on his door - but welcome to the 21st century God, you'd better get used to it - cos today's kids are loud, proud and are gonna hang out with you as part of their celebrity, name-dropping posse. It's gonna be you, them and The Beckhams.

I'm not remotely religious and think that like most things, religion can be used as a tool by misguided or nasty people to oppress others, but after hearing all these children screaming about how they could be the best and the world's gonna know their name, I would have welcomed a couple of hymns about what a nice guy Jesus is, and how it might be a nice idea to try to be a bit like him.

Then the certicate giving started. And oh, what a lot of children received certificates, for things like "trying REALLY hard" and "always giving 100%". The teachers gushed over their pupils in a way which I found embarrassing and even mildly creepy. The parade of certificates went on and on, until it started to feel as if more children received certificates than didn't. It was difficult not to contrast this mutual appreciation society with Mrs Cheeseman, impossible to impress ("You're ALL HOPELESS!"), telling us we're not leaving the assembly hall until we get the song right.

And next, it got even more weird and creepy. It was the "talent show" portion of the assembly. Various children got up and performed dance routines to "The Hits of Today". One routine stood out in my mind, as three girls, aged around 9, gyrated to a piece of R+B nonsense, the girl in the middle wearing a crop top that exposed her midriff.

I'm glad I don't have any children, because I would be constantly at their school complaining. I guess imbibing children with self-esteem and a competitive nature isn't awful, but it all seemed so... American. The messages I grew up with - be modest, put others first, be decent - have been replaced by "crush the competition and get 'em to notice ya!"

I expect I am hopelessly out of touch. After I subjected her to a rant last week, one of my students said to me "GET OFF MY LAWN!", likening me to grumpy Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino.

I used to admire the image of Clint Eastwood as the silent avenger in those Spaghetti Westerns. Now, when I see him shouting at an empty chair, I just feel sad. But I guess that's the route I'm going down.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

In a sound-proof booth, no-one can hear you scream

As someone who writes things that very very occasionally get noticed by members of the media, I have a terrifying relationship with the radio and have appeared a handful of times over the past decade. I refuse to do anything live, despite the fact that my fella once participated in a friendly taped radio debate which was then edited to make it look as if the debators actually disagreed with each other. However, I'd rather take that risk than get tongue-tied, stumble over my words or come out with some sort of inappropriate colloquialism live, all of which I frequently do, even when I'm not speaking to a few million people at once.

So last month when I was asked by a radio station to write a 1,800 word essay on something to do with something I did some research on about 15 years ago, and then be recorded reading it out for them, I thought "what could go wrong?"

I wrote the piece and although it got returned with a few small edits, it seemed to be liked, so I rehearsed it a couple of times and then turned up at my university's little sound-proof booth yesterday afternoon. Far away, in a different studio, the poor radio presenter who had the job of coaching me through the "reading" was impeccably patient with me, although I have seen enough television drama to know that when someone working in the media says "That was great, can you just try it one more time and this time try...." you know you are awful and they will replace you with a voice-over of John Hurt the minute your back is turned.

You would think that reading something out would be the least difficult thing you get to do on the radio. You don't even have to answer unexpected questions! You can switch your brain off. But no. Oh no. No!

First, I had to ensure that the microphone was in the right place. Apparently, you aren't supposed to speak into it, but point it slightly off to the side of your face and downwards, as if you're pretending to ignore it. Once we got the positioning right, there was the slight matter of a little humming sound that we couldn't locate the source of. I turned off my mobile phone, then the lighting (which meant I couldn't see well enough to read the script). But neither of those were the source of the hum. Finally, the announcer gave up and decided to just accept the humming. She said it was OK, but I could tell I had failed her terribly.

Then I was asked to ensure that I had both feet on the ground (because apparently if you don't, then you are using your stomach muscles to balance yourself and your voice doesn't sound as good). It's nice to learn new things.

Then I started reading the first paragraph. I tend to speak very quickly when excited and/or not enjoying something (to get it over with) so I concentrated on speaking slowly. There was a slight feedback echo over my headphones and I could hear myself, sounding exactly like Boy George, so I tried to suppress all form of modulation into my voice, making me sound just like a very bored Boy George with a cold (due to the weird weather of this year, my hayfever seems to have lingered all the way to October this year, so I also had a blocked nose).

Despite making several mistakes, I got through the first paragraph, and then was then asked to try again ("but it was great") and this time to hold the page of writing up in front of me, rather than having it on the table (because that squashes your diaphragm). And to hold the page from the bottom rather than the side (I was told why this was important but can't remember).

So I got throught the first page (there were three pages), and thought I was doing quite well, but then I was stopped again. "You're doing great, but you've started to sound like you're reading from a sheet rather than talking to an audience." I guess I had overdone it with removing the modulation. So I gave it another go, emphasising words and speeding up and down a bit. It felt a bit like I was doing one of my current Grade 4 piano exam pieces caled "Alone at Sunset", where practically every single note requires you to push down the pedal, speed up, slow down, go very quiet or get louder. Practising this high-maintenance, frankly quite bonkers piece of music, often has me in confused tears by the end.

Anyway, I finished. But then I was asked to go back to the start and do the first few bits again, because now I sounded more relaxed (whereas I mustn't have at the start). However, speaking fatigue was setting in by now and I had morphed into an incoherent caveman who couldn't speak a single sentence without getting the words in the wrong order and inserting a few that weren't on the page. And to make it worse, the announcer had a few additional edits to make to the first few sentences, so I had to get out my pen and cross out words and put them in different places.

I pity the poor editing person who will have to listen to my hour long recording and then pick out the fluent sentences and then piece them together so I actually sound like a human being.