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How carefully do you look at period detail when you're watching historical movies, TV, etc.? Personally, while I am a nerd about certain things I'm not – or try not to be – the kind of person who looks out for flaws when I'm watching the telly. I once watched an episode of Great Movie Mistakes and found it insufferably pointless. Who the fuck cares if there's a continuity error here or there? 

There is so much to love about The Marvellous Mrs Maisel. The dialogue, the characters, the late-50s clothes, the lead and her winning charm. It is beautifully observed and often very funny. The writers must've had so much fun making it.

It seems churlish to criticise the series. But there was one thing that jarred, or at least seemed at variance with the rest of the show. Whereas everything was so perfectly 1950s — the cars, the ubiquitous cigarettes, the furniture, the phones*, the records, the shops — the language was at times decidedly 21st century. 

[*I loved the early 'speakerphone'.]

Let's take swearing. I mean, it's not as though people didn't swear in the 1950s. Lenny Bruce, for example, who features heavily in TMMM, was famed for his uninhibited approach to language. He was even arrested in 1961 (and posthumously pardoned) for using the word cocksucker, and generally ran into trouble wherever he went due to his 'obscenity'.

The trouble we have looking back on that period, and others of course, is that a distinction needs to be made between a) what people said in real life at the time, b) what they said in films and TV made then, and c) what they say in films made now but set in that period.

It was point b) that made me do a double-take at times when Mrs Maisel and her profane manager came out with swearwords. "You're from the 50s. You don't swear!" The Mrs Maisel character in particular is painted as being from such a straight-laced background that it is startling when she first starts using such candid language to portray her life.

Whereas in films of the 1950s insults would usually begin with 'why, you no-good…', TMMM swore its way through so many scenes and did so in a way that I felt, rightly or wrongly, sounded 21st century.

Leaving the copious effing and jeffing aside, one example of contemporary language that really did leap out at me was when Joel (Mrs M's husband) gets exasperated and shouts 'F. Y. I.' and then goes on to saying something that I can't report because I was too gobsmacked by the text-speak to pay the slightest attention to what came next. Did people actually yell abbreviations such as OMG, WTF, LOL and FYI at one another back in the 50s? Although OMG, for example, is not actually a new expression (there is a famous example of it in a letter sent to Winston Churchill in 1917) I suspect they did not. 

At one stage, Susie says 'Thanks for the heads up'. This is such a 21st century expression, at least the way it's used these days in the world of work. The expression 'heads-up' is not in itself new, but in this instance it was used in a way that was (and certainly felt) very much of our time not theirs.

The series was periodically peppered with these new expressions. It wasn't remotely problematic and certainly didn't spoil my enjoyment. As I said in my introduction, it doesn't really matter. 

The next question is therefore: what were the programme-makers thinking? A friend suggested to me that this was a deliberate ploy, or that, at the very least, they were aware of this minor anomaly. Which begs the question, if this was not a continuity error, then what was it? Was it just a case of bad writing? Were they just being playful with it? 

Examples of placing things in a different context, however illogically, abound. Taking it to extremes, Momus's album Folktronic – 'an anthology of fake folk' – wilfully plays with notions of authenticity and of what belongs where and with what else. The blurb on his website says "Here you'll witness the hideously pompous baroque keyboard licks of 80s synthpop climbing into bed with with fakely traditional ballads, jigs and sea shanties. Here too mock prog epics full of tempo and key changes collide with neo-vaudeville numbers ..." and so on. I liked the idea of this so much that I never got around to actually listening to it.

On a much more mainstream level, Sophia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, with its banging soundtrack and hyper-modern aesthetic, felt daring but never jarring. Only a fool or a curmudgeon would baulk at the cheeky wit of the I Want Candy scene. Peaky Blinders was set in an era decades before Nick Cave and PJ Harvey, but as scene- and mood-setters those songs worked incredibly well. In TMMM itself, the closing credits of each episode are soundtracked by a range of music recorded long after the 1950s (Transvision Vamp, B-52s, Hues Corporation…). This just put a smile on my face while I was watching and never made me turn to my wife and say 'hey wait a minute' as I did with the out-of-time language.

There are all sorts of examples of this kind of thing. These were the ones that occurred to me while I was writing this post.

Time and place are just not that sacrosanct. Another Netflix series Sex Education, a charming rites-of-passage sex comedy, which puts the coming into 'coming of age', is not rooted in any particular place or (copious smartphone-use aside) time. At first I found this disorientating but I was soon won over. All of the actors have English accents but they look like they're in the States: the Moordale Secondary School logo and school jackets are so American. One journalist took the series to task for this but most, from the reviews that I've skimmed through, seemed to be able to let go and just enjoy the programme for what it was.

That's the thing. Sometimes stuff we watch just jars, whereas if the piece is made playfully and with taste and successfully draws you into its world, however clumsily or imperfectly done, then it will never cause you concern. Animation, for example, is far removed from the real world but has the capacity to engage with the audience and make it laugh, shudder, reel in horror, feel all fluffy with happiness etc. If the plot, acting, characterisation and so on are strong, then there is nothing to worry about. You suspend disbelief and let go. Or you don't. 

Friends is a particular bugbear of mine. I should've been able to let go but there was something about these nauseatingly smug New Yorkers – and their Manhattan living despite in some cases being on the breadline – that I couldn't get past. Yes ok the programme had some decent gags, but once something loses you, it can't get you back. Nothing to do with continuity, it was just gratingly implausible.

[brief tangent… Talking of Friends, Ross is one of those characters that, as a Jew, makes me squirm. By contrast, TMMM is full of Jewish characters, some sympathetic and charming, others gruesome and vulgar. I think the programme handles this deftly and, as a Jewish viewer, I found even the most tasteless scenes (usually with Mr Maisel's gaudy parents) hilarious and never felt like hiding behind the couch or worrying what others may think. But I digress.]

What was it then with the language of TMMM that jumped out at me? I guess it was partly because everything else, but really everything else, had been so incredibly meticulous in every aspect of the period detail (Period detail – haha, you can imagine what kind of risque jokes Mrs Maisel would make out of that phrase). A friend who is a fashion writer pointed out that Mrs M's clothes were chosen not only because they were exactly what a fairly posh housewife would have worn at the time but also because they reflected Mrs M's moods; they became progressively darker as Season One went on and the character's life became more troubled. We are talking that level of detail. 

Even when the vocabulary wasn't as specifically of-our-time as the examples I've given (and the others that flew by without my noting them down – I would love to have 20 spare hours to watch the series again and research this properly but I have a day-job and a family) the language had a 21st century feel. They stopped short of telling each other how 'woke' they were. But there was certainly far more 'what the fuck?' than 'Why, you and your cockamamie schemes'. 

Maybe the makers really did just want to say 'ah fuck it, let's just throw in some modern-day expressions to amuse ourselves, tickle our audience and keep awake the new parents snatching some binge-watching time'.  

12 February 2019 @ 04:24 pm

The year is 1978. I'm standing on my own in the sweet shop and some kid sees my coat and asks me if I'm a mod or a ted. He doesn’t seem very friendly. I haven't much idea what he means so, in the interests of self-preservation, I tell him I'm neither. My mum got me that coat because it was sensible and not because she wanted me to give me a musical identity. What the hell does 'musical identity' actually mean anyway?

The year is 1979. Dad's driving me to a friend's house. My sister and I have somehow persuaded him to have Radio One on in the car. Gangsters comes on, with its haunting tune, chilling attitude and lyric suggesting (cartoonish) violence in the air: "said you'd been threatened by gangsters/now it's you that's threatening me". What is this?

The year is 1979. I'm making my way into class from the main school hall. ...The school clock, the reddish-orange curtains of the stage, the polished floor.... Suddenly, someone from the year above carrying a transistor radio me tells me Too Much Too Young is number one in the charts. People around start singing it. I have no idea what the singer is on about – I'll find out about that later – but the song is damned catchy and has bounce and vibrancy.

The year is 1980. I'm turning into a fan of music. I now know what music is; or rather, it isn't just something that's on in the background, either on Top of the Pops or on the radio. There are kids at school — black, white and brown kids, boys and girls — who have bought into 2-tone in a big way: porkpie hats, harringtons, chessboard motifs. The hits are so fucking great: On My Radio, Geno, Rat Race, Food For Thought, Night Boat To Cairo, just off the top of my head. What a time to be a kid in your formative years, musically speaking. And 2-tone managed to be serious and angry and joyful and chart-friendly all at the same time.

The year is 1982. Not that it seemed it at the time, but 2-tone was a short-lived phenomenon. We move house to London, where I make friends with another lad, John, who was massively into ska, reggae and 2-tone. I'm a northerner in London and feel a bit of an outsider. John doesn't feel he fits in. Together we plot a ska revival.

The year is 1983. The house parties I go to are almost always awful. Me, John and a couple of other mates bring reggae and ska tapes/records along and sometimes manage to get a couple of tunes played before Michael Jackson and Kajagoogoo (or, come to think of it, Grease or The Time Warp) come back on. We're take ourselves too seriously.

The year is 1984. The remnants of the two-tone movement have splintered off into Funboy Three and the Special AKA (Specials), General Public and Fine Young Cannibals (The Beat), and so on. Although it's becoming clear there isn't much of a movement any more and our ska revival is not getting very far, I have a lot of time for these new bands.

The year is 1985. I become a student and my music tastes well and truly branch out. I get into all sorts of stuff, from indie to African to goth to experimental noise to goodness knows what else. I never stop loving reggae and ska, though, and after a few pints occasionally find myself asking for 2-tone in clubs that obviously have no interest in playing 2-tone. The revival starts here, right?

'Got any reggae or ska?'

'err yeah mate, later'.

In the 1990s I work abroad a lot, broadening my musical palate still further.

In the wider music world, changes are afoot that make my ears prick up. Whereas back in the mid- and late 80s no one cared about Jamaican music any more, by the 90s, Jamaican influence is spreading again (or maybe people are less hung up about admitting their love of reggae): Prodigy sampling Chase The Devil on Outer Space; hip-hop clearly borrowing from dancehall toasting; trip-hop paying attention to dub and its spaciness; jungle [and, much later, dubstep and grime] lifting reggae/dancehall basslines.

The year is 2009. The Specials have re-formed to play some gigs to mark their 30th anniversary. I'm now living in Luxembourg and have met my future wife. No kids yet, so no problem just heading back to London for the weekend. I was just too young to catch the Specials live back in the day — it's not like nowadays when kids seem to get into music much younger (my six-year old is already itching to come to gigs with me). Finally a chance to see them live (30 years too late, but still) with my old mate John, albeit it's only six Specials, without the master Jerry Dammers. What a night, what a band.

The year is 2019 and the Specials, now down to three original members, are no longer a nostalgia project.
12 February 2019 @ 10:24 am

The year is 2019.

I'm not very good at album reviews but here are a few overall thoughts on the new Specials album Encore after one or two listens.

- Encore kicks arse. It does so in a way that is not embarrassingly in denial about the advancing years [more on this later]. It says 'we may not be young any more but fuck, we know what we're doing with a rhythm section'.

- It is tender when needed. The remaining three Specials appear to have used their age to deal with difficult topics (identity, depression) in a way that sounds measured and wise. 

- They've been listening to loads of other styles, just as many of their fans have. Those hoping for a re-tread of The Specials (album) have been disappointed. I'm actually surprised by how ambitious it is. At no time, though, do you think they've lost their identity. 

- Terry is a properly great vocalist. It's taken me until now to realise this. Damon Albarn has been paying attention and I suspect the admiration is mutual. Albarn's new The Good, The Bad & The Queen album is something of a companion piece to Encore.

- The record takes risks. Taking a big swipe at (founding father of ska) Prince Buster took some balls. 

- I've always loved spoken-word songs (e.g. Linton Kwesi Johnson, Black Box Recorder, James Yorkston, not to mention the harrowing 'The Boiler' by the Specials themselves) and the spoken-word material on Encore is terrific. Somehow it makes you stop and pay attention in a way that you might not otherwise with sung songs. 

- I think Jerry Dammers would admire this album. That's a compliment.

- It isn't perfect. Lyrically it's a bit trite in parts, sometimes just in the cause of making lines rhyme. Money and power? Ivory tower, of course! The Specials have always dealt in left-wing politics. That's fine – I'm a traditional Labour voter myself – but just because you're angry about injustice doesn't necessarily mean your lyric is going to be brilliant. There's a skill and an art to doing political song properly (and I'd urge anyone read Dorian Lynskey's brilliant "33 1/3 revolutions per minute" on this topic). I feel Encore gets it right sometimes (BLM, Ten Commandments) but not always (Vote For Me). 

- In some ways it's a record about the passing of time. I was 12 or 13 when the first album came out. I'm in my 50s now. As much as I loved, and identified with, 2-Tone back in the day – and as much as I still cherish ska, reggae and dub – a lot of other music has come into my ears since then. So too the three remaining Specials, with their wrinkles and salt-and-pepper stubble and their broader/richer sonic palette. It is never in denial about being made by three men in their late 50s/early 60s. This is a pop record but it is grown-up pop. They've left some of their fans behind with Encore but it seems that most have grown up with them.

- It made me emotional to hear this record – I was welling up when I first heard it. I'm just so happy, impressed and, yes, proud that this band have made a record as strong as this.

29 January 2019 @ 03:40 pm

Code of conduct for attending gigs (to be placed on prominent display in all venues)

1. Photos. If you must take photos please do so quickly and discreetly.

2. Filming. Phone cameras cannot be uninvented and are only going to improve in quality. This does not mean that you are Jonathan Demme or D A Pennebaker; you do not have stage access or multiple views to choose from. No matter how good your camera, your only view is the one from where you're standing, surrounded by bobbing heads and flailing arms, assuming you have a clear view of the stage at all. If you have to film, be aware that your video may not be absolute rubbish, but it will be not be an Oscar contender or even a youtube sensation; on social media it will probably be liked only by the handful of friends you have who are diehard fans of the band. So if you really must film, make it a brief souvenir for yourself, your friends and your family, whoever, just to give a flavour of what it was like.

It is obvious but must be reiterated (1): the person behind you wants to watch the show, not your phone and your inept attempts at getting the settings right.

It is obvious but must be reiterated (2): Ideally watch, savour and experience with your camera tucked away in your pocket or bag. 

2a. Filming (or, worse, face-timing) the whole show is strictly prohibited.

2b. If the band says no cameras (this happens occasionally), they probably mean no cameras.

3. Talking is permissible but should be kept to a minimum. Whole conversations should be conducted elsewhere, especially if the topic has no relevance to the gig; gig venues are not the place to catch up with people — bars, coffee shops and homes exist for that purpose.

If a fellow audience-member asks you to keep it down, don't get defensive, disdainful or aggressive (not least because it's probably taken them several minutes to pluck up the courage to have a word with you). Remember, they are right, you are wrong. Apologise, move on and shut the fuck up.

If you must pass comment on the performance you're watching, make it a quick one and ideally do it between songs or, if it has to be while music is being played on stage, during the louder numbers.  

In short, always ask yourself if you really need to talk during a performance that you and others have paid to attend.

3a. You have no right to applaud a song you've just chatted through.

4. Kissing your loved one during large sections of the show is strictly forbidden. Public displays of affection are generally not much fun for others to see, but sustained exchanges of saliva (while paying scant attention to the gig) can be awkward for your fellow gig-goers, who, if it's very crowded, may have difficulty moving away.

5. Do not block audience members as they make their way closer to the stage. You have paid to stand anywhere in the auditorium; you share the venue with other people and the 30cm x 30cm space you're in is not numbered on your ticket. You're at a gig, not attending a play or waiting for your prescription at the pharmacy. Think of it like the contents of a bag of grains shifting in transit: expect movement in the run-up to the start of the gig and even after it has begun.


6. Singing along is fine but always respect your fellow gig-goers. Being the only one yelling along with, say, Portishead instead of savouring the opportunity to listen to Beth Gibbons' tender vocals *live* - and thereby preventing others from hearing her - is prohibited. The key phrase there is 'the only one': if the entire auditorium is singing its heart out to some giant anthem that was designed for mass audience sing-along, then you can, indeed should, join in. Look around, check for critical mass.

[Writer's note: I attended a Portishead gig in 2007, where there was a male loudmouth screaming I just wanna be a woman during Glory Box; the irony was lost on the un-self-aware twat concerned.]

7. Dance or mosh with like-minded people.

7a. If you're not a dancer or mosher, or you prefer not to be in the proximity of sweaty folk bundling into one another, go further back. Don't complain if people around you are being lively.

8. Tall people, have some consideration for little folk.

8a. Short people, tall people can't chop themselves in half for your benefit.

8b. Whatever you do, for fuck's sake, don't fight about it.

9. Don't do anything that is unacceptable elsewhere, e.g. violence, groping etc.

10. Be reasonable when it comes to bantering with the band and know when to stop. Good-natured heckling can help musicians settle (remember they're not all ultra-confident and at ease on stage) and get through some tricky silence between songs. On the other hand, getting wasted and declaring undying love to the fit bass player might seem heartfelt and vital to your well-being at the time, but you risk becoming a pest and, if it gets problematic, getting in the way of everyone's enjoyment.


Summary: The reason for going to gigs is not only to see the band but also to share a collective experience with a bunch of strangers. So be nice, show respect, exercise judgement and don't be an arse — all of which can be achieved while having fun and being inebriated.

18 January 2019 @ 02:18 pm

The history of reggae in the UK has been told and retold. The BBC's excellent documentary Reggae Fever: David Rodigan somehow managed to tread new ground and not just follow the usual nostalgic path. It succeeded, for one thing, in finding an angle that, to my knowledge, has rarely if ever had TV's spotlight shone its way — the phenomenon of the soundclash.

Unusually for a pop music documentary, it included interviews with people in old folks' homes playing dominoes and looking back on the old days. I found them delightful. They really got me thinking about how reggae — and its various offshoots — is perceived by successive generations. What was once quite radical (at least its 70s roots incarnation) now sounds like something your parents or grandparents would listen to. 

This is where soundclash culture made its noisy entrance into the film. We are not talking here about deep, mystical rasta-reggae or the sugary lilt of lovers' rock: these are raucous and highly competitive DJ contests — seriously a young person's game, you'd have thought. The footage in the documentary did a pretty good job of conveying the electric excitement but I still got a feeling of 'you had to be there'.

And David Rodigan, the first reggae DJ on British radio, came into his own in that environment. According to the documentary, he managed to obtain personalised tributes from reggae stars, which were then cut onto dubplate specials and played to an excitable audience. In the film we see Rodigan dancing with stiff enthusiasm in a bid to whip up the crowd and win the clash. With his dubplates the opposition barely stood a chance.  One talking head in the programme described him as looking like a white, balding, old dentist, but there he was, in front of audiences of young Jamaicans, doing his best to swing his ageing hips.

I appreciated Rodigan's admission that the whole thing often made him nervous. Some of the clashes seemed decidedly, erm, heartfelt and you could see why not everyone would be suited to this form of pumped-up verbal and sonic combat. Throughout the film he came across as decent, honest and self-aware.

At this point, the programme, not content with serving its audience a warm plate of nostalgia, gave us a taster of the music that had been influenced by sound system culture. Rodigan himself, now 77, seemed quite relaxed, certainly lacking bitterness, when the conversation began to trace the line forward as the music mutated into jungle, dubstep and, more recently, grime. This was something that the BBC's Reggae Britannia documentary, enjoyable as it was, had failed to do, leaving me with a feeling that (the programme-makers thought that) Jamaican music had basically stopped in the late 70s. 

The talking heads (Mykaell Riley, Brinsley Forde, etc.) were illuminating, with one notable exception — Jazzy B, who always gets asked onto these things and rarely seems to have anything to contribute. The footage was well chosen: interspersing National Front speeches with images of young black kids walking through town past white folk is hardly a new device but in this case it was extremely well done.  (The part about the SUS laws was shocking: Trevor Nelson talks about his fear in that climate of openly racist police and school-teachers barely any better. Naively, I'm thinking: Trevor's such an amiable guy, how could they...?)

The programme also featured quite a bit of music from the 1980s, supposedly beyond the golden era. Dancehall acts like Barrington Levi, Half Pint and Wayne Smith were part of my youth and I loved those tunes, which sound as fresh today... oh wait, I'm in my 50s aren't I, and that was a fucking generation-and-a-half ago. Sigh.

03 April 2017 @ 09:36 pm

This morning Alex and I were reminiscing about the days when he spoke about nothing but diggers - invariably they'd be "heavy diggers with sharp teeth". That seems so long ago, as Alex, now three months short of his 5th birthday, has turned into a remarkably eloquent child. He is utterly fluent in English and Slovene, though a couple of days ago he admitted "My English is way better than my Slovene". In fact when his mum talks to him in Slovene he sometimes answers in English, which is a bit of a pity. Inevitable, though, as he goes to an English-speaking school where he gets just a couple of hours' Slovene a week. His English is almost faultless. He uses comparatives and superlatives all the time to tell everyone how he's the best, the strongest and the coolest, etc. and stronger, faster, better than me or his brother or whoever. I wondered at first where he got it from but one day when I brought him to school one of the kids said: "Hi Alex, I'm stronger than you". It was the first thing he'd said to him that day!

Alex's little brother Philip is benefiting enormously from having an elder sibling and is expressing himself very articulately, and with pin-sharp diction. As he's not even three he doesn't actually have a lot to say, but he talks and talks and talks and with remarkable accuracy and some considerable imagination. The other day his teacher at creche said they found a worm on the ground and Philip made up a whole story about giant snakes! And he told me a story a couple of nights ago featuring super heroes doing lots of things in the past tense; if he didn't know the correct past tense form he'd simply say 'did go' 'did play' etc.

He comes out with things that sound so bizarre coming from a tiny child who still has chubby baby cheeks. We laughed so much a couple of days ago when his teacher told us that Philip had told her that she was "a very good teacher".

I'm very charmed by the fact that he always finishes his sentence even when he's whingeing or even crying. So instead of just saying 'no!!' he says 'Noooo I don't [squealing] want olive oil [almost crying] on my pasta'. His grammatical accuracy even extends to reported speech: 'Alex said it was cow's milk' being a very typical sentence for him. On the subject of milk, he's thankfully well aware of his allergy to dairy products. A week or so ago, there were two cartons of milk on the breakfast table, both light blue. I picked the wrong one, which we know could have terrible consequences and Philip immediately yelled "No, that's cows' milk!!!"

On the slightly negative side, he's going through an anti-daddy, pro-mummy phase at the moment and night after night he says 'I don't want you to come in my bedroom'. It's part of the deal, I know. The linguist in me just marvels at the quality of the language!

Both of our lads are heavily influenced by American cartoons and some of the things they say come out quite American-sounding. Philip is particularly attached to the American way of saying things and he often says 'it's my Ameeeerrrican aaaaccent'. He's been doing this since last summer when we listened to Caspar Babypants awesome Whale Song, which includes Sam and swam with strong (southern?) US pronunciation. He's now so attached to this way of speaking that he comes out with 'r' sounds where they're not needed: pizzerr margeriterr, pyjarrmerrs, Matejerrr, etc. Alex is also under the influence of the assistant teacher at school, who's Scottish. So I often hear her pronunciation when he says things like 'yurr' (your) and a very Scottish-sounding there (appearing to rhyme with 'here' rather than 'hair').

The little one has the kind of uninhibited personality that makes him unafraid to say anything to anyone, while his more sensitive, delicate-natured older brother is astonishingly eloquent, but needs time to warm up. Nothing unusual about siblings having different personalities, but I thought it was quite interesting from a language point of view.

It's been far too long since I last did one of these ans gosh the progress is astonishing.

18 July 2016 @ 10:31 pm
I've been writing periodic entries about Alex and his language acquisition. I have so far made little or no mention of his little brother Philip, who's now just turned two.

Philip's language skills are startling for his age, I think it's fair to say. We understand that this is fairly normal for second siblings, as they copy everything. And in Philip's case he's been imitating people since before he could walk. That might be an exaggeration but only a slight one. One of his first words, as far as I can remember, was 'outside', which he used a lot to tell us - or his teachers at creche - where he wanted to go. It's mushroomed from there to the point where he's saying whole sentences, asking questions, using tenses, getting pronouns right and so on. I asked him the other day why he hadn't eaten his fishballs. He said 'I didn't like them'. Only four words but that's quite a lot of grammatical information.

He's got past the stage of copying, then, and now he's announcing what's happening even if it's obvious! So we often see him laughing and he'll stop laughing to say 'I'm laughing, that was funny' and then resume his laughter. Or when he says a nonsense word such as Boombalooma. He likes it and instead of just saying it he'll say 'I said boombalooma' to which we all reply 'yes you did' in an encouraging tone. I used to find it priceless when Alex, his older brother, used to say 'look, a lady'. Philip does the same but with verb phrases. It's lovely.

Unlike Alex, Philip has an older brother to banter with and repeat phrases, words and noises. So when Alex roars just to be 'hard', Philip will follow suit. He's also picking up on some of the odder things Alex comes out with. I really enjoyed this afternoon's chat on the way home from creche, whcih went something like this:

Alex: what's this car?
Me: a Renault [a replacement car while ours is being repaired]
Alex: like Renaud the pole vaulter? [long story]
Me: Yes, the name sounds just the same!
Philip: I don't want Renaud's car. Leave it alone!

This thought made Philip quite agitated and he yelled 'Leave it alone, this is Renaud's car!!' a few times.

One thing I'm enjoying at the moment is when he asks for things by screaming 'I want X'. I ask him to ask nicely and not only does he say 'Can I have some X?' his voice suddenly goes quiet.

Philip also really likes singing. In fact he's just stopped, having sung himself to sleep as I write these notes. It made us all tremendously happy this afternoon when Philip sang the whole of Incy Wincy Spider, then Alex - proud older brother - applauded, with a huge smile across his face. Not that they're as pleasant as that most of the time, but it was a nice moment, worth recording.

Just as I think of it, Alex randomly said on the way home 'Our house is bigger than a planet!' I politely pointed out that this wasn't the case but it was amusingly bonkers.

These are exciting times for a linguist dad!
14 January 2016 @ 12:37 am
I was asked by a friend this evening if Bowie was ever that big for me. The implication being that he wasn't for him. The conversation felt incomplete so i thought I'd take to the blog to sort out my thoughts.

My sister told me yesterday (a day after the singer's death) that I bought Space Oddity on 7", which may have been my first record purchase. I think it was All The Young Dudes but never mind. The chap was vaguely in my consciousness even at that tender age - I must've been under 7. That was the period before I *got* music, that prehistoric 70s, the time of innocence, Junior Choice on Radio One, Elton, Bolan, Glitter (before we knew what we now know). The music from that time that I look back on now has the quality of a half-remembered dream. Bowie's odd voice and colourful presence is definitely around but it's years before I could call myself a fan of his or anyone else's. I feel that I recall hearing Sorrow on the radio. I think even then I found it weird and unsettling but perfect. I think I remember seeing Starman on Top of the Pops. None of this can ever be confirmed, and I hope no one has been auditing my life, but I guess that hardly matters. Even if I were making all of this up after the fact (I don't think I am) it still wouldn't deny Bowie his place in my life. I didn't have a clue back then, of course. Who at the age of 7 could know, apart from people with ultra-cool elder siblings perhaps, just how mindblowingly out-there it must've been for a rock singer - the author of such riffs as Jean Genie and Rebel Rebel - to go soul in 1974/5? In his mid-20s for goodness sake.

One of my many answers to the 'was he ever that big' question was that he was never bigger than anyone else. I'm reasonably sure I've never told anyone that Bowie was my favourite musician ever. Certainly not when I was entering my teens when there was so much other stuff occupying the bit of my brain devoted to music. After all, 1979 (when I began to buy music properly) to 1985, when I went to university, was a particularly fertile time in music with so many styles, even in the mainstream, vying for attention. I liked Bowie's Fashion and thought Scary Monsters was interesting. I couldn't claim yet that I was a huge fan. By the time I was old enough to know about music and my likes and dislikes Bowie's own career was taking a turn for the less interesting.

Spring 1996. I'm on a trip around Eastern Europe and Russia. In St Petersburg I'm led to a shop selling bootleg tapes. One of several I buy has Heroes on one side and Low on the other. It's shortly before the internet, so I can't just look it all up as you can now, but the spectacular strangeness of the albums is clear and I'm starting to place things into some sort of context.

The next Bowie landmark for me was seeing him live in 2000. It was at Glastonbury. My recollections of the event are scant: miles from the stage, competent band, watched it on the big screen. Not exactly a transcendent experience. But it was Bowie, the man from somewhere we can't quite place (OK, officially Brixton, but it was clear he was no ordinary headliner, even if I didn't spend all my time listening to his music). When you're at a festival you hope you might see a legend and an icon. I might not have had all the important albums at that time but gosh I knew most of the songs.

I'm a slack sort of chap, and my listening is inconsistent, my knowledge piecemeal and slipshod. As an adult I've encountered genuine Bowie fans, people who know their stuff and who've shared their personal tales, their passion for Bowie's ethereal otherness, their knowledge of dates and music styles. A helping hand has guided me into being the fan I am now.

Nowadays when I think of Bowie I think, as an adult armed with a bit more knowledge, of that extraordinary soul album and break with the past and that appearance on Soul Train; I think of Modern Love (a wonderfully uplifting pop song); I think of Bowie's wild years and his extraordinary persona; I think of the times I've told people - because I've come to believe it - that Bowie's not made of flesh and blood like the rest of us; I think of Life on Mars, the gorgeous song I remember from prehistoric times AND the TV series, along with Ashes to Ashes immortalising those songs; I think of those obtuse lyrics with moments of glorious albeit impenetrable panache; I think of the Berlin years; I think of Nile Rogers' contribution; I think of Sound and Vision, a song so grand and so ambitious (and yet so effortless) that it has the balls to have a sax solo before Bowie has even started singing.

Last year Mateja and I went to Paris to see the Bowie Is exhibition. Two years earlier we wanted to go to the original London one but couldn't get tickets, so we said shall we go to Paris in 2015. We'd been looking forward to it for two years. It was great albeit stupidly crowded.

And now he's gone and died, as mysteriously and oddly as he lived.

17 September 2015 @ 10:34 pm
We've now reached the stage where we can have a conversation on more or less anything with Alex. He's articulate, amusing and sharp. He also appears to retain absolutely everything we say and seeks to use new words at the earliest opportunity. But the most cherishable thing at the moment is that he makes us laugh every day.

Some amusing things he's come out with recently:

- Would you like some fruit?
- No, thanks, I'll have a cigarette*.

*our (somewhat inappropriate) nickname for cylindrical wafers from Slovenia.

- Alex, go on, stand in the dinosaur's mouth. It'll be fun.
- No. I'm not in the mood.

- How about a big man's hug, son? [Mateja was out]
- OK... (cuddles)
...I want my lady.

(talking to his plate of pasta)
- I'm going to eat you baby!


This is just a taster. You get the idea.

I'm enjoying this!!
16 June 2015 @ 11:30 am
The progress is phenomenal. Not only in English but in Slovene too. And of course in French, which he gets in creche. In fact until about two weeks ago we had never heard him speak French but now he occasionally prefers to say something in French. He sometimes prefers to say 'j'ai froid' rather than I'm cold, for example. And today, hilariously, he started singing a Slovene song deliberately pronouncing the Rs in a French way.

On the subject of singing. Alex loves it and sometimes even sings himself to sleep. He's at a stage where he's such a chatterbox that doesn't spend much time with his mouth shut! I sometimes get the impression that he fills in the silence with songs he's learnt. It's not perfectly in tune but it's not far off. I love the fact that if he doesn't know the word he'll make an approximation of how that word sounds. This calls to mind the books he reads, which contain some words I know he hasn't seen before but he makes sure I say every word when I'm reading, even if he doesn't understand everything. Books are so similar to songs for him: it's like a ritual of recital that we go through together.

He expresses himself really beautifully now and his grammar is remarkably good. He's got a really good grasp of past, present and future - inevitably with mistakes but generally very impressive. He knows that if something happened prior to now you have to put a past tense marker in. So this morning I heard 'I drawed it'. He also uses auxiliaries did/didn't really well. He'll say 'I did go' or 'he didn't went' etc but this of course is part of learning and I wouldn't dream of correcting him. He'll learn by osmosis and life isn't a classroom, at least not in any formal sense. His future tends to be 'I'm gonna...' and he's absolutely nailed the present continuous now.

One thing I love is the way he's not always mega-noisy (though he is most of the time!). He's capable of speaking quietly and seems to find it amusing. Last night I wasn't feeling well, so he came into the lounge and asked in such a gentle voice 'are you not well daddy?'

You can tell he loves improving his vocabulary. He's forever apeing (parrotting?) what I say, and seems to play with new words as though they were new toys. It's such a joy. So when I say 'the trouble is...' he'll repeat that with exactly my intonation. Talking of intonation,...

Alex has a very good ear. When I ask him to ask me nicely for things, rather than just shout 'I want X', he gives me a perfectly intoned 'Can I have some X?' ...including the high eyebrows! A lot of his previous difficulties, or should I say grapplings, with pronunciation have largely been ironed out. And i love the way he enunciates every letter, even when he's got it slightly wrong, e.g. he pronounces suitcase as 'soupcase', which is kind of sweet.

His English is better than his Slovene these days - language comes more naturally in English - understandably as he gets Slovene only from his mum. But Mateja is consistent and persistent and he always responds in Slovene when pushed. One thing about his English, though, is that it is occasionally influenced by Slovene syntax, so you get phrases like 'it's coming the train' and 'to the park I want to go'. And more recently there's French interference, with things like 'me I want to play football'.

Some of his utterances are really quite complex and he's attempting more and more conditionals, for example. It's usually a repetition of a sentence he's heard, which after all is the best way to learn: 'If you do that I will be very angry'.

There are tantrums and troubles to go with it but gosh this is a fun age.