Thursday, November 29, 2007

Nella Last

Mr Ben Reads - Nella Last's War

The edited real-life diaries of a 50 year old woman living in Barrow-in-Furness, Lancashire during the Second World War. She wrote about being scared, being tired, getting old, getting bombed, and all the other many and various things that went through her head over the course of any day.

It was written for a scheme called the ‘mass observation project’ which was an attempt, started by some thinkers and anthropologists, to find out about how the war’s hardships affected the average citizen. Despite sounding scary to our post-Orwell ears, it was actually a pretty harmless and fascinating project - a social experiment in which people volunteered to have their daily reflections recorded. Obviously it wasn’t a very accurate cross section of the British public, the contributors were a self-selecting group with some reason to want to write for them – whether they saw it as a soapbox, a place to whinge, or a place to judge the actions of those they didn’t like – Nella Last wrote hers because she’d always fancied herself as a writer but had been sidetracked by circumstance, and life in general.

The book is interesting for two reasons, for one, it tells you all sorts of details about life during the war that mainstream historians don’t seem to bother mentioning. Like, for example, the fact that unmarried women were conscripted as well as men – for ‘essential’ work, auxiliary service and all the jobs left vacant by the soldiers. Or that unwanted pregnancies, with the unfathered children and backstreet abortions that came with them, were far more common than many would like people to believe.

The main reason why it’s so interesting, however, isn’t particularly the events she describes, but the feelings and opinions she voices in her more introspective or reflective moments. She is essentially a one-woman microcosm of all the changes in women’s perceptions of their role in society which, we are told, took place on a larger scale during the war. At the beginning of the war she writes little daily litanies, techniques and tricks, everyday domestic details - after a few years she writes in the same way, but occasionally vents her feelings like this:

I want to shout loudly to all mothers, and tell them how important they are, how much more they matter than all the preaching, talking men, who think only in terms of ‘organisation’. Look at the Hitler youth, and Mussolini’s poor moppets… …Let’s give them background, teach them simple rules of life, mentally and spiritually, love them a lot and then stand aside. Why, we would make a new world in two short generations and wipe out the bitter memories, make racial hatreds perish – and better than no man or men ever could

It’s been a good counterpoint to the endless military history books I’ve been sorting and sifting at work – countless tomes on tactics and strategy which have an odd dispassionate tone which I find slightly sickening. It wouldn’t bother me if it wasn’t for the fact that these books sell so well. I mean, commanders need to learn from examples and incidents, but I’m grateful that I don’t. Why the average middle class bloke wants to feel involved with the whole ugly business baffles me.


Tuesday, November 27, 2007


It's funny the way that working all day makes me tired. It's not tired in a physical way exactly; I generally go out running or do some kind of exercise in the evenings. It's more a kind of, erm, weariness really, an unwillingness to do small things like go and find a cable, or carry my guitar up from the living room where it has been for nearly a week. I can motivate myself to do big things, but I need to build up a certain amount of momentum to do anything, and small things don't seem worth it somehow.

One particular result of this is the fact that I've not updated my blog in a week. This is partly because I've been feeling generally a bit brain-dead and sleepy, but also because of the aforementioned inertness. I went on a walk in the countryside with various extended family this sunday and saw many very pretty things. some of which I managed to take photos of.

Unfortunately, the camera I took the pictures with is one that requires a special lead - which I haven't been able to summon the desire to find. After writing all this (which has just kinda come out in a big burst) I think I'll actually make the effort and find the cable.

Right after this song

yep. mmmhm.

Aha. I've actually done it now, I persevered even when I realised that, in order to get it, I was going to have to rummage in my mum's school bag, past the snarling and ravenous creatures that have evolved from old, forgotten sandwiches.

The walk started pretty normalwise, there was greenery, (although it was mostly gold, orange and brown) mud, and animals. Things started getting interesting when we noticed the Emus

Although now, looking at the Emu in sarah's photos I'm guessing that this is in fact, an ostrich. Which would fit in better with rest of the birds kept, which seem to identify the owner as someone with a taste for esoteric eggs - the little round birds in the background are quails. There were also pheasants, peacocks and various hues of chicken.

and then got followed across a field by a friendly shire horse.

The highlight of the day though was probably Scotney Castle.

Scotney castle is an old medieval fortified manor, which was a partial ruin by the the 19th century; when a new house was built further up the hill. The owners of the new house decided that, whilst a pretty ruin, it wasn't quite romantic or ruinous enough, and exercised a little artistic licence with the remaining structures to make something very pretty. if not hugely medieval.

So there you go, I triumphed over work-induced laziness, huzzah.


Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Tube (continued)

Another thing that I noticed whilst travelling by train is the astonishing collision detection that people in general, but commuters especially, have. At london bridge station there is a sort of concourse section underground where about six different pathways meet - people are walking across it, at speed, in every direction.

but they almost never hit each other, or even have to break their stride. I don't think it's conscious - it isn't for me anyway - they just know: weaving between the streams, anticipating the next move of the confused tourist, steering around the determined businessman - never having to stop or slow down.

It's quite beautiful in a strange sort of way, it'd be even more so if I could get a decent vantage point to observe from, and the time in which to do it.


I was going to post something about the awesome play I saw tonight, in a church designed by Inigo Jones, but I'm really tired. I'll write about it tomorrow.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Tube

Imagine, if you will, game of twister. One in which all the pads are rails on the ceiling.

A game of twister in which all the participants are strangers, and many of them don’t speak English. Where everyone involved is fully clothed – wearing big coats and scarves. Some of them are fat, some of them are sweaty, and a lot of them have bags - some very large bags. Picture this unlikely game of twister taking place underground in a very small enclosed space. That shakes and jerks around a lot.


The weird part is that I really don’t mind tube travel, it gets me where I’m going and it’s quicker and warmer than walking. I suppose it might be because I got so isolated at home that I appreciate any human contact, even if it is just being squished. It is a bit astonishing though - the way that people keep piling into tube trains until there isn’t any air between any part of your body and the bodies of the people around you – especially when you consider that at peak times the trains go through the station at the rate of about one every 2-3 minutes. Surely people aren’t afraid of being two minutes late?

It’s at times like that that I’m so very glad that I’m above average height for a bloke… I get the privilege of breathing air that isn’t filtered through someone else’s clothing.

Something else I’ve noticed is the way that commuters move in such rigid patterns. For example, the trains always stop in the exact same place and the hardened commuters just walk down the stairs and wait on the platform exactly where they know that the doors will be. I personally like taking a different route through London bridge underground station every day, I mean, you really should show your love for its multiple tunnelled craziness.


I’m pretty sure I saw Hugo Chavez on a train yesterday and another man who was stripping off and covering himself in lubricant in preparation for the next train.

I may have made the second one up… and I’m pretty sure Hugo Chavez doesn’t really take public transport… and even if he did then he’d be very lost if he was getting on the northern line at moorgate.

Everyone knows that it’s the District that goes to Venezuela… bloody tourists.


Thursday, November 08, 2007

Bad Folk

I have a fairly high tolerance for discomfort; my patience can stretch a very long way when circumstances require it to – I can sit around in an awkward situation for hours with barely a grimace, or I can endure a great deal of pain if there’s nothing I can do about it. If physical and social discomfort are mixed, however, my patience snaps like a glass twig. It manifests like a phobic reaction, I just freak out. I get a pervading, nightmarish feeling of being trapped, and have to immediately leave. In the past this has caused me to leave my friends behind at a party (arseholes + migrane) or flee an art gallery (crippling boredom + broken toe).

Tonight I fled from the local folk night due to a similar double whammy of unpleasantness. On the walk over there my knee made an unsettling clicking noise coupled with yelp-inducing pain, I suspect that this was caused by standing on tube trains today being jiggled around everywhichway – although I expect my running 2-3 miles everyday for a month is also a factor. After that I got stuck right at the front watching a band, (guest act, which meant I didn’t get to play) who were an amazing distillation of everything I can’t stand about folk music.

When I say “everything I can’t stand about folk music” I don’t mean that I don’t like folk music, no more than I dislike any musical scene. It’s just that there are clich├ęs, tics and traits of every musical style which I find really grating. Little pet hates, you know, but whether it’s pinch harmonics in rock, misogyny in rap, or self-indulgence in jazz – in small numbers I can generally ignore them and still enjoy the music*. Every now and then, though, you get a band with enough of them to just push me over the edge. I can overlook one or two but a whole set, no. Acts like Metallica, 50 Cent, or ----** set my teeth on edge.

…Anyway, as I was saying these people were amazing in that regard:

Firstly there was their musical delivery: The group consisted of three singers; a woman (alto), a man (tenor) and another man (bass) with no accompaniment. They sang in close following harmony, all singing identical parts, just at different pitches - which, given the idiosyncratic ‘folk’ style of singing they all had (which isn’t a bad thing in itself), made for a very unpleasant sound. Worst of all was the voice of the bass, which I can only describe as like what would happen if you hooked up a talk box to a farting drainpipe.

Secondly there was their choice of songs, they chose teeth gratingly ‘jolly’ songs of the sort beloved by your hardened folkie. These songs are generally dirty, in a vaudevillian, sleazy sort of way and contain ‘rousing’ choruses or refrains, which the audience are expected to join in on, in a fit of tankard-waving enthusiasm. The refrains are often complete gibberish, seemingly inserted to illicit that compulsion some folk audiences have to sing along with anything that gets repeated frequently in a song.

Lastly there was the general haranguing of the audience, which is something that I find completely unforgivable in a band – if the crowd are bored by your set, telling them to be more enthusiastic is just going to make them pissed off at you. If you want an audience to really get into your music, then write better music.


*Well, except for pinch harmonics, Don’t even get me started on pinch harmonics… ugh.

**Insert the name of any free-jazz musician you’d care to mention

Monday, November 05, 2007

Classical Sounds

I went to a performance of Brahms' Ein Deutsches Requiem tonight, it was being performed by a local community orchestra and the choir that my mum sings with. There were a few pieces of Mozart and suchlike, performed by the orchestra alone in the first half followed by the full on 'choir Vs Orchestra' showdown in the second (the choir won, fact fans).

Now I know that this is a little out of character but hey, I didn't pay for my ticket so I figured it was worth a listen. Apart from wanting to hear my mum and her choir sing, I was also curious to see if I found classical music any more interesting when performed live. The short answer is, I think, probably no. I liked it, and the choir were really impressive, but none of it really caught my attention - I had to concentrate on all the orchestral parts otherwise I just glazed over and stopped hearing it. I have no idea what it is about classical compositions, but I've just never been able to get into them. Judging from the average age of the audience I think that appreciation of that sort of thing comes later in life (or after it, seeing as some of the old folks there really weren't moving much). I wonder if it'll be like developing a taste for coffee, perhaps one day, when I'm balding a little, I'll suddenly get an urge to listen to Wagner.

Tomorrow I'm playing at a jazz night (giving the fretless bass an airing) so I should be able to get all these classical cooties out of my system.


Friday, November 02, 2007


I found a strange subculture on the internet today - that of a small, besieged group of pedants, desperately railing against the massed armies of the illiterate internet/world in general. There is a blog out there for all manner of grammarian pet peeves, be it misuse of the word 'literally', Abuse of the humble apostrophe or strangely incorrectly applied "Quotation Marks!"

I've tried to explain my attitude to pedantry before (yes the hostility of the last paragraph is genuine - I was in a bad mood and generally sick of being corrected by everyone) with a reasonable degree of success so I won't bother repeating myself here.

On that note, I really should get round to tagging all of my old posts - I did sometimes write things worth reading, although I also wrote a lot of crap.



(Click on the image to get a properly readable version. I apologise for the blurriness but I really can't be bothered to go through all the hassle of firing up the scanner)

I do enjoy finding things like this when I get up in the morning - little tokens of the chaos that accompanies my family preparing for work or school. It seems that today my little sister's voice has gone and Django (the cat) was being particularly vocal about not having been fed yet.

If you feel your note space isn't filled, then I recommend moseying on over to Passive-aggressive notes, it's funny, although I find it a little emotionally draining after a while - too much anger.


Thursday, November 01, 2007


Looks like a mighty neato game. All brainthinky and not deathtacular, which makes for a pleasant change. It's doing things with modern game physics that are actually innovative and original.