26 November 2009

"Allow to stand for fifteen minutes or until bludgeoned to death."

Quite simply, the blog post of the week.

25 November 2009

Boyle or Boiler?

I don't especially care about the X Factor, and I never see the Saturday show anyway as it's strictly Strictly in this household. However, I watch the results show on Sundays, so I reckon I get a decent deal - all the egotistical bollocks from the judges without any of the weekly crucifixion of great songs.


I saw Susan Boyle perform on Sunday night (and, thanks to JM's marvellous weekly review, established that she didn't really) and enjoyed it. The material she's doing is very easy listening, of course, and as well as the new single, her album also contains a version of Madonna's You'll See, which I heard on Radio 2 the other day.

I would have loved to have been inside the brain of Dannii Minogue or Cheryl Cole as they watched this performance. Yes, those two have looks, youth and got lucky early etc - but they must know that despite all their riches, successes, hunky conquests, profile triumphs and the like, that they simply have absolutely nothing in comparison to a frumpy, bashful, untouched woman who kept her talent and ambition hidden until her dying mother instructed her to try to get noticed.

We've all heard the usual showbiz mantras about how image and looks and style matter too much in the music business. Here's the proof. It's pejorative and too simple to call Susan Boyle ugly, but frankly, she is no beauty. And yet her voice projects more light and drama and grace and theatre than any younger, thinner contemporary whose audience she now seems to be chasing. Could this amazing battle of talent over image really change the music business as we currently see it?

Look at Dannii Minogue. She got a record deal because a) she was in an Australian soap; b) she looked good when she was 19; and c) her big sister was already a proven pop star on little discernible talent and there were currency signs in some executive's eyes when the next Minogue rolled off the production line. There was no sign of a d) suggesting that she was a good singer. Listen to her debut hit Love And Kisses, if you dare. And even when she did break into the charts with that hideous record, she never got even close to Kylie's stranglehold and had, all told, a very ordinary pop career.

As for Cheryl, well she came through a reality show to make Girls Aloud and I do find that group entertaining, as well as easy on the eye. But that bum note she hit at last year's Brits will haunt her for life - and now she's telling unknowns how to sing and perform.

Three things have gained her individual status from the rest of her group; her court case, her marriage to a footballer and her role on the X Factor. None of the things have made her essentially the Chief Girl of Girls Aloud have anything to do with her ability. She could have released a fart and it would have gone to number one in the charts (and judging by the blandness of the record, hasn't strayed far from that notion) but that song has got to number one not because of artistic excellence, but of the personality and image behind it.

Cheryl Cole and Dannii Minogue are professional singers who didn't hit any branches on the way down from the tree. However, would they rather have the best looks, as they do, or the best voice, as Susan Boyle does? Even though it's a singing business, as Dannii herself likes to say when deciding who to keep in the show, I bet I know how both would answer.

23 November 2009

"Hope your room is to your liking..."


Facebook has got me in touch with a few old college pals lately and, being the nostalgist I am, subsequently had me thinking about my solitary year of education away from home.

I didn't go to university. After passing my A-levels, despite the best efforts of my head of sixth form to force me to fail, I went to Darlington College of Technology to train as a journalist. The course felt quite exclusive as it was the only direct training course available at the time and gave you recognised trainee status after a year of study if you passed your exams at the end.

So, upon acceptance on to this course, I received from the college a list of available accommodation premises in the Darlington patch, some within easy walking distance of the college, some a bus or bike ride away. I opted to stay in a guest house rather than take on student digs; I figured that this would make me a little more disciplined in getting the right things done on the course as stuff like housework and meals were done for me.

The guest house was run by a Scottish family and had a smattering of students, but it was mainly made up of doleites and long-term pensioner residents, plus the usual array of shift workers and overnighters. The pensioners were an interesting bunch; all men, all widowers, all somehow affected by their working lives to the extent that they couldn't cope with the idea of living alone and so, upon the loss of their wives, moved into a guest house.

As a teenage student who knew bugger all, their stories would be most enlightening but often they were told second hand, as they didn't seem to trust any of the younger people who shared the dining area with them. One chap was called Rudi, a German prisoner of war who stayed in England afterwards and built a family life here. A second chap was as introverted as any person I've ever met in my life, apparently suffering from lifelong traumas caused by what he observed and endured in the Korean conflict. Yet though I was able to smalltalk with them, they didn't choose to tell any stories. The landlady was, instead, the relayer of this fascinating information. As a trainee hack there were potential interviews there but it was impossible to know where to begin.

Three doleites stayed at this guest house too. One was called Craig, a chap who was pleasant on the outside but, as it turned out, was a bail dodger who was facing charges of obtaining money by deception; essentially this involved vulnerable pensioners and non-existent conservatories. When he left the guest house in a hurry, he owed me £35, which was a lot for a student on what the dreaded Humberside County Council considered a worthwhile grant. He nicked more than £200 from one of the other doleites, a simple but likeable local boy called Keith, who spent his money on records. Weeks after I moved out, I later learned he had been fooled into lending his record collection to someone who promptly flogged the lot and disappeared. There were some vile people in Darlington in 1992...

The third doleite was called Alan, who was a temporary resident who had injunctions against him as he battled his way through a horrific divorce. I remember once he went out to visit his wife, all smartly suited and booted, and came back with a nosebleed and black eye after an encounter with her new bloke. He and I talked about all sorts but mainly football and music, and only disagreed once when I was watching the Conservative Party conference on the communal television and he came in to switch over for the horse racing. I lost the row.

I do wonder what happened to each of these people. I would suppose that none of the old chaps are with us any more. I hope Craig got caught, punished and rehabilitated but I also hope Keith and Alan are doing okay. In the end, a lack of stimulating conversation and a need to fend more for myself took over, and I moved out after one term and took a room in a house where two other chaps from my course lived. Aside from a mad, drunken Welsh building student in the room downstairs occasionally smashing the place up, it was a decent six months there and I was able to combine studying with partying to good effect, and could make a killer pasta 'n' sauce for four.

Looking back, I should have done that from the start though when I think back, I was the same as most of the other 18 year old school leavers on the course (there were five of us; the rest were graduates or mature students) as I chose to live in a place where help was at hand. Two of the other school leavers did likewise, although they lodged with families instead of taking a room in a guest house. The other two school leavers were already local to the area and so stayed at home.

To be honest, I'm not sure what the point is to telling you all this. I suppose I should find one. Well, I'm twice the age now as I was in Darlington and yet the year I spent there remains very influential on how I've lived ever since. Leaving home for the first time and seeing how other people live strengthens you and enlightens you, and as I didn't immediately get a job in newspapers upon finishing the course, it was a little bit of a culture shock when I had to go back to my parents' house again, aged 19, with a professional qualification and desperate to experience real adult life. A year later I found work, moved out and never went back.

Right now, there are people I went to school with who, for varying reasons of misfortune, are still living with their parents. I don't pity them at all, but I also don't envy them. To have your own space, be it a dingy room in a guest house or a decent home of your own via a mortgage, is totally invaluable.

I want to know about your student digs, and your first home after shuffling free of the apron strings.