If you look in the dictionary for a current definition of “nice”, it’s quite possible that the text will be supported by a picture of either Tom Hanks or Alan Alda, two actors who seem to emit rays of warmth and decency and trust, whenever they’re on screen or talking on the radio.
What better combination for a podcast then than to have both of these American acting icons sit down together for a chat, covering topics such as lost gloves, spatulas and typewriters?
Back in the early 1970s, another American President sat in the White House, believing that he alone embodied the state, that his decisions were always legal and that only he could tell the people of his country which news sources they could believe in.
On June 30th 1971, however, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in a landmark case, confirming the First Amendment rights of The Washington Post and The New York Times to publish the Pentagon Papers and denying President Richard Nixon’s attempt to censor the free press.
The Pentagon Papers had revealed in extraordinary detail that the American public had been lied to for decades by every administration from Harry Truman onwards about the US military intervention in Vietnam.
It was a story that needed to be told, but if it hadn’t been for the bravery and tenacity of a few people, it would never have seen the light of day.
It was the principled whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg who had leaked the papers to the press, it was newspaper owners like Katherine Graham and editors like Ben Bradlee who risked everything to publish them, and it was indomitable reporters like Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein who followed the tawdry trail from there to a bungled burglary at the Watergate building, and eventually all the way to the Oval Office.
In ruling for the newspapers, Justice Hugo Black wrote this:
The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.
We all know what happened next – a President full of hubris, who lied and broke the law repeatedly and thought he could always continue to do so, because he was the President, was finally brought to book and brought low.
Could it happen again now?
Would any news organisation be able to resist those enormous political, corporate and commercial pressures in quite the same way?
Could any journalist or news organisation be able to stand strong and try to shed light upon the truth?
Now owned by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, The Washington Post might no longer be trusted to be a standard bearer for press freedom, having called on President Barack Obama to reject a pardon application for a modern-day Daniel Ellsberg, Edward Snowden.
Quite the turnaround.
All The President’s Men, featuring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Woodward and Bernstein, tells the story of a time when that newspaper and its journalists did stand up against a bullying and threatening political machine, and without fear or favour, told the truth to the country.
In a week in which we’ve been told that Number 10 has tried to control which journalists have access to Downing Street, remembering the vital role that the Fourth Estate plays in speaking truth to power has never been more important.
Maybe some other Ellsberg, Woodward or Bernstein is out there, even now.
Eight years ago, Britain was preparing itself for a Big Moment – the Opening Ceremony for the 2012 Summer Olympics.
Like today, another Big Moment for our nation, there was a great deal of uncertainty – would we be able to pull it off? With the world watching on, just how would we express our culture, our history, our heritage?
In post-crash Austerity Britain, the prevailing mood in the days leading up to the opening ceremony seemed to be one of national self-doubt, cynicism, even a fear that it would all just be a bit crap.
Then, at 9pm on Friday July 27, it started.
At first, it seemed entirely possible that it was actually going to be pretty cringeworthy, with groups of dancers running around a clichéd vision of bucolic Britain, farm animals, cricketers playing beneath Glastonbury Tor and a maypole.
So far, so awkward.
But then something amazing happened.
The next sequence painted a dark and intense picture of the dramatic transition from a pastoral Britain to one that defined the Industrial Revolution, embodied in the five Olympic rings slowly being forged in fire, ascend into the sky and then join together in a mesmerising crescendo that brought tears to the eyes.
Now, we were paying attention.
Then James Bond took a taxi to Buckingham Palace to pick up The Queen and off they went to parachute together out of a helicopter into the Olympic Stadium. Rowan Atkinson played a one-finger solo with the London Symphony Orchestra and David Beckham piloted a jetboat along the Thames to deliver the Olympic Flame into the stadium.
Here was an Opening Ceremony with a sense of humour, determinedly British and damn proud of it – hilarious, quirky, subversive.
Essentially, this was a love song to Britain.
For four hours on the night of Friday 27 July, the whole country basked in all of its multi-faceted history, its multiculturalism, its massive contributions to the world and the national mood quickly went from indifferent cynicism to joy, jubilation and delight.
Perhaps for the first time in a Very Long Time, there was a reawakening of national pride.
For a nation that had found it all too easy to wallow in self-mockery, it was a rare moment to be able to revise that with a new and positive view of itself, shorn of irony and doubt.
Tonight, on the day of another Big Moment, equally freighted with uncertainty and national self-doubt, it seems like a good idea to try to remember that we are actually a Better Nation than we might think sometimes, still capable of Surprisingly Great Things.
For me, those summer weeks in 2012 represented a high-water mark for our country as we presented ourselves proudly to the world and absolutely bowled them over with our art, music, culture and technical prowess, with an unrivalled ability to Put On A Show.
Let’s hope we can still remember to do that in the years to come.
A man goes for a drive around Paris early one summer Sunday morning,
He makes his way around the Arc de Triomphe and past the Place de la Concorde, proceeding along the Champs-Élysées, turning left at the Louvre and then up towards Montmartre, before a final rendezvous with his girlfriend at Sacré-Cœur.
So far, so mundane.
What sets this Sunday drive apart from all others is that the driver covers 10km of Parisian streets in just over eight minutes, all of which are filmed at ground level in a single take, with only a few pigeons and the occasional bystander as witness to this mad metropolitan joyride.
Only a Woman in White, an uncooperative refuse wagon and a Nonchalant Woman in Red stand between director/driver Claude Lelouch and his completely unnecessary and somewhat reckless objective.
His girlfriend is demonstrably worth rushing about for, but she shows absolutely no sign of irritation at his lateness, so there really was no need to charge across Paris in order to get there quite so quickly.
The very idea of driving across a capital city at an average speed of 80km/h is one that could only have happened either in the 1970s, or in a carefully scripted segment of Top Gear.
Thankfully, there is no sign of Jeremy Clarkson here – just a few French people and some distressed pigeons.
“When a man knows he is going to be hanged in the morning, it concentrates his mind wonderfully”
Serial killers aren’t really supposed to be admired for their humour and wit, nor are they the sort of characters that you’re meant to be rooting for in a film.
You’re supposed to want them to be caught, preferably by an all-action maverick cop or a surprisingly fit criminal psychologist, ideally in the nick of time just before they execute their latest fiendish plan to bring death and destruction upon the innocent.
Hannibal Lecter is a splendid specimen of a serial killer that you’re allowed to like, partly because his victims are generally the sort of people that you weren’t going to miss that much anyway, and partly because he’s absolutely fascinating.
But Lecter’s sophisticated murderousness is as nothing compared to Louis Mazzini in “Kind Hearts and Coronets” when it comes to admirable assassination, as the outcast aristocrat urbanely wreaks revenge on his estranged family, ruthlessly knocking them off en route to a dukedom.
Narrated by the funniest voiceover in cinema history, this deliciously black satire of British society in Edwardian times tells the tale of Louis’s early suffering at the hands of his distant family, remotely punished for his mother’s “incorrect” marriage to an Italian opera singer and his burning desire to right perceived wrongs, by murder of all those ahead of him in the line of succession to the seat at Chalfont.
I shot an arrow in the air; she fell to earth in Berkeley Square.
“Weekends, like life, are short”
Alec Guinness takes on the task of playing all eight of the Ascoynes who stand between Louis and the dukedom, all of whom are doomed, one way or another, as the orphan psychopath prunes his way through the family tree.
Along the way, there is also adultery, blackmail, suicide and perjury to accompany the murderous rampage and a final twist in the tale that concludes the story in a most satisfying manner.
“It is so difficult to make a neat job of killing people with whom one is not on friendly terms”
It’s a hugely subversive film in so many ways, delighting in pricking class sensitivities and satirising innate deference to the upper classes and the moral strictures of the time, which means that it ought to have dated badly in the 70 years since it was made.
But it hasn’t. It’s still one of the funniest films ever made.
Generally speaking, human history is a tale of relentless advancement, ebullient expansion and continual change, only interrupted by unhelpful wars or inconvenient pandemics.
Then came the churches, then came the schools
Then came the lawyers, then came the rules
Then came the trains and the trucks with their load
And the dirty old track was the Telegraph Road
Telegraph Road, Dire Straits
Over time, things seem to always get faster, improved, and more technologically advanced, with rarely a step ever being taken backward.
The only exceptions that come to mind are Concorde and the manned space programme, where the extraordinary progress made fifty years ago seems to have stalled, channelled instead into other avenues that seem somehow less dramatic and inspiring by comparison.
I’m still waiting for my personal jetpack and hoverboard too.
Back in the days when those things just seemed like a matter of time, music was still being played on cassette tapes and on vinyl.
Music had substance, yet it was also fragile – a treasured cassette tape could suddenly end up as a mangled mound of metallic sadness at any moment, whilst a beloved LP could easily be scratched or shattered if you weren’t very careful.
Then came the supposedly scratch-proof CD, impervious to damage, able to double up as coasters for coffee cups and transmitting space-age superior sound – and everything had to be bought all over again.
Then came Napster and iPods and iTunes and our relationship with music changed yet again, now converted into unseen, intangible encoded digital files.
And we had to go and buy all of our music again, of course.
Music was now easy – there was no more waiting for a new album to be released and then going to a shop to buy it and then making a tape of it so that you could then play it on your Walkman or in your car.
Now you just pressed a button and the latest album was there – ready to play however and whenever you chose to listen to it.
All those old tapes and albums seemed to be completely redundant now – sadly gathering dust in boxes in the garage, if not just given away altogether.
But slowly, ever so slowly, people started to miss how it felt to handle a record, to gently slide it out of its sleeve and to delicately place it on a turntable, waiting for that hiss, crackle and pop as the needle slipped into the groove and – oh, how the memories would come tumbling back again.
This was real.
Digital files have all the romance of a tax notice, but a Christmas gift of a Bluetooth turntable has allowed me to reconnect with the music of my youth, complete with all the imperfections that made those discs feel like my own personal version of the song, something unique and only meant for me.
It’s about as close as I’ve ever got to Proustian time travel, to listen to all of those old LPs and 12-inch singles from a specific time in my life and be taken back on a wave of aural reverie.
It’s slightly ironic that it has taken the advent of Bluetooth to enable it, but in this case, the retrograde step back to an old and outdated form of listening to music is an utter delight.
Progress, it seems, does not always travel in a straight line.
Three young men decide to take a boating holiday up the Thames from Kingston to Oxford in fin de siecle Victorian England, accompanied by a dog, some cheese and a tin of pineapples.
On the face of it, “Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog)”, is a 19th century travel guide in which nothing much really happens, and which really shouldn’t have much relevance for the rest of us now.
Yet despite the apparent mundanity of a book about a riverbound camping holiday for three blazered boys in boaters, it is quite simply one of the funniest books ever written.
Jerome K. Jerome’s comic gem features the accidental escapades of three real people – himself as the narrator and two friends, Wingrave and Harris, plus a dog with the improbable name of Montmorency.
From the very start of the story, in which two of the party bribe a Waterloo train driver to go to a different station to board their boat, it’s constant laugh-out-loud hilarity as the ragtag party makes its way upstream, with hysterical passages on the playing of bagpipes, the occasional horrors of campfire cooking, doomed battles with a tin of pineapples and the advantages of cheese as a travelling companion.
I forget the other ingredients, but I know nothing was wasted; and I remember that, towards the end, Montmorency, who had evinced great interest in the proceedings throughout, strolled away with an earnest and thoughtful air, reappearing, a few minutes afterwards, with a dead water-rat in his mouth, which he evidently wished to present as his contribution to the dinner; whether in a sarcastic spirit, or with a genuine desire to assist, I cannot say.
The Irish Stew
The book is a testament to the simplicity of earlier times, easy comradeship and the joy to be taken in savouring life’s absurdities – all told in a far too quickly read 150 pages.
“We are very fond of pineapple, all three of us. We looked at the picture on the tin; we thought of the juice. We smiled at one another, and Harris got a spoon ready. Then we looked for the knife to open the tin with. We turned out everything in the hamper. We turned out the bags. We pulled up the boards at the bottom of the boat. We took everything out on to the bank and shook it. There was no tinopener to be found.
A battle with a tin of pineapples.
Some years ago, Griff Rhys Jones, Dara Ó Briain and Rory McGrath recreated the journey for a BBC TV series, which was sufficiently amusing at times, but it was no substitute for the original material.
“Let your boat of life be light, packed with only what you need – a homely home and simple pleasures, one or two friends, worth the name, someone to love and someone to love you, a cat, a dog, and a pipe or two, enough to eat and enough to wear, and a little more than enough to drink; for thirst is a dangerous thing. ”
“What the eye does not see, the stomach does not get upset over”
“Montmorency’s ambition in life, is to get in the way and be sworn at. If he can squirm in anywhere where he particularly is not wanted, and be a perfect nuisance, and make people mad, and have things thrown at his head, then he feels his day has not been wasted.
To get somebody to stumble over him, and curse him steadily for an hour, is his highest aim and object; and, when he has succeeded in accomplishing this, his conceit becomes quite unbearable.”
As the intention of this blog is to talk only about “good things“, the subject of modern-day football has therefore not featured much so far.
Whilst a good game of football still has the potential to lift the spirits of fans and even improve social cohesion in a wider community at its best, there are plenty of rather awkward issues around the game at its worst too.
Poor player conduct, corruption and greed, over-exposure, ticket costs, betting addictions, re-emerging “isms”.
And then there’s VAR.
The game is ripe for ribaldry and there is nobody more “on the money” than David Squires of The Guardian when it comes to poking justifiable fun at those involved.
Each week, he delivers another perfectly composed cartoon that lampoons the absurdity of the previous week’s footballing madness, mixed with multiple references to the world outside the game too, straddling the spheres of politics, culture and sport.
Richly detailed, rewarding repeated readings, each panel is packed with subtleties that at times are only fully understood after reading the comments that follow each new issue.
If you enjoy football, and are potentially amused by representations of José Mourinho as the lead singer of My Chemical Romance, or Pep Guardiola as Winston Churchill, then it’s worth ten minutes each week to revel in the ridicule he pours upon those who deserve it the most, even if his targets are often the least well-equipped to handle his delicious barbs.
Even if you’re not a football fan, there is still so much to be savoured here.
Six days after I was born, to only very localised interest, “Bullitt” was released to universal critical acclaim and global box-office success.
It’s fairly safe to say that the film has aged rather better than I have in the intervening years, particularly if one discounts the alarming pyjamas that Steve McQueen sports in one of the opening scenes.
A tense, slow-burning thriller that set the template for maverick cop yarns for years to come, “Bullitt” had a style of its own.
Long, almost wordless scenes that quietly ratcheted up the tension, a slow and assured pacing that never needed a jump cut to keep your attention, realistically mundane dialogue, an effortlessly cool soundtrack from Lalo Schifrin and the sort of actors who knew how to convey emotions and intent with no more than a slight facial movement.
Oh, and that car chase.
Steve McQueen is the very expression of cool, oozing a calm and confident authority – even when pressurised by politicians and angry bosses, he remains still and stoic.
Perhaps he had learned by then that fidgeting around on screen, as he had done to Yul Brynner’s annoyance in “The Magnificent Seven” wasn’t the only way to command attention.
Here, he holds us all – and Jacqueline Bisset – in the palm of his hand right from the start, with an economy of effort and as few words as possible.
Somehow, he gets away with wearing a brown tweed jacket with elbow patches and a blue turtleneck too.
He’s that cool.
If there is a fault to be found, then perhaps it comes during that car chase.
If one looks carefully, a green VW Beetle can be seen on more than one occasion during the same part of the chase sequence.
Before the advent of CGI and green screens and weightless, insubstantial crash-bang-wallop destruction derbies, this was how car chases got filmed.
You can feel every moment of it.
That’s why it’s still worth watching, all these years later.
There really is a bit too much “content” out there these days – all just cascading in front of our eyes, across our screens and into our ears, jostling for attention in an evermore crowded and cluttered consciousness.
For me, trying to keep up with new music had become rather confusing and far too dependent on whoever Jools Holland decided to parade this week on “Later with…“, occasionally acceptable tips from friends, or stumbling across someone new and interesting while half-trolleyed at Glastonbury.
Which radio station should I be listening to? Which podcast will keep me in the loop? Spotify was a potential solution, but there was just SO MUCH of it.
Then I discovered KEXP and I had my answer.
Based in Seattle and operating as a non-profit, independent and community-supported internet radio station, KEXP DJs are free from the shackles of syndicated computer-programmed playlists and they really make the most of that opportunity, showcasing exciting new acts from all over the world across a range of musical genres, from indie rock to blues, electronica, hip hop, punk and more.
The best thing about it? You don’t have to listen live and hope for the best.
Subscribe to these – for absolutely nothing – and you get at least a couple of hours of brand new music delivered to your lugholes every week, with an enormous range of artists from Arcade Fire to Zero 7 lurking in their ludicrously well-stocked archives too.
There’s even an awesome (they say that a lot) YouTube channel with hundreds of hours of live performances to wallow in too.
I discovered this treasure trove of new and old music when KEXP broadcast live sets during the Airwaves festival from the coincidentally-named KEX Hostel in Reykjavík, presented by proper old school DJs like Kevin Cole and Cheryl Waters.
I had to go to the 64th parallel to find the best way to discover new music.