troubled diva  
 

My freelance writing can now be found at mikeatkinson.wordpress.com.
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On Thursday September 17th, I danced on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square.
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Friday, August 18, 2006

Groin strain moan.

Does everyone who works in an office get the same health and safety training videos that we do? You know, the ones where you're so busy thinking...
  • Ooh, I wondered what had happened to Selina Scott. Fancy being reduced to this! Fame can be a fickle mistress...
  • Those fringed boots were a mistake. She'd never have got away with them on BBC Breakfast. That's what happens when you lose the stylists, I guess.
  • His trousers want burning. I wouldn't be seen dead with those sorts of creases round the crotch.
  • Got to be around, what, 1997? 1998? Hang on, that cerise Wallis-does-Prada jacket of hers has to push it on a good couple of years. I used to be so good at this! Has fashion homogenised, or have I just lost my antennae?
  • God, how did we cope with PCs like that? The size of them!
  • You're not telling me she's a professional actress. Look at the way she's making that phone call, bless her.
  • There's something about this which reminds me of porn. I keep thinking someone's going to... eww, pimples!
...that you end up not paying the slightest bit of attention to the content?

(And in any case, how difficult can it be to lift a sodding cardboard box in the first place? Besides, I work in an office, not a warehouse, so it's all completely irrelevant to my needs. You'd think they'd target these things a bit more precisely. Is it some sort of statutory requirement these days? Tsk, Nanny State Britain...)

Well, maybe - just maybe - if I'd paid a bit more attention to yesterday's "Manual Handling" video (I know, I know, don't set me off), I wouldn't have ended up straining my groin while unloading the car last night, and this afternoon's pruning session wouldn't have left me in so much physical discomfort. Oh, the irony.

Still, Co-codamol helps. As does the melon martini which K has just this second handed me (that new juicer's a godsend). And there's dressed crab for later, straight off the back of the fish van an hour ago. And I'm not back at work until Tuesday, woo-hoo! Loving these four-day weekends that I'm taking all the way through August!

Bah. I never was much good at playing for sympathy. Well, have a good weekend. I certainly intend to.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Arbeit macht frei.

(Today, Joe asked his readers: What's the worst job you ever had? This is an extended version of the answer I left in his comments.)

Aged 17, in the summer of 1979, I took a holiday job at a wholesale warehouse, back in the South Yorkshire town where I was born. Well, I say “took”, as if there were some element of choice in the matter; in actual fact, there was none.

Rather than have me loaf around at home for six weeks, my father decided that it would be “character-building” for me to step out into the “real world”, and so had a word with the bosses of the warehouse: two brothers, both the living embodiments of the puffed-up small town plutocrat. From their handlebar moustaches, cherry-wood pipes, watch-chains and waistcoats, to the cut-glass decanters of whisky in their offices and the mahogany veneer on the dashboards of their Bentleys, they could have stepped straight from a left-wing political cartoon of the 1920s. All they needed to complete the picture were little bags of cash piled up on their desks, each marked with a big pound sign.

The interview, with the warehouse’s kindly operational manager, was a mere formality. After no more than a couple of minutes, he beamed his congratulations. “You’ve got a job!” Fifteen pounds a week, start Monday.

Up until this point, I had never been burdened by much in the way of hard manual labour, as the soft folds of flesh on my palms would (and still do) testify. Indeed, I was more or less your classic lily-livered nine-stone wimp, with meekness to match. Whereas nowadays, I can generally laugh off my perpetually troubled relationship with the physical world (“I exist on a rarified cerebral plane!” “I’m an effete drawing-room fop!”), my exceptional lack of physical co-ordination and stamina was still a source of great self-consciousness and shame.

Nevertheless, I was greeted warmly by my new colleagues, most of whom were only three or four years older than me, when I joined them at the loading bay for crate-shifting duties. The work was tough, and my body never stopped aching from one day to the next – but I did my best, and my comparative lack of skill was accepted with no more than mildest of ribbings. (“How many O-levels did you say you had? Ten? Yeah, but I bet you can’t lift this crate - here, catch!”)

However, it was only a matter of time before word got out that I was "a friend of the boss" – which was hardly surprising, as the older of the two brothers frequently gave me a lift back to my father’s office at the end of the working day. In truth, I despised the man – and felt downright loathing towards his lazy, arrogant younger brother, with the scarlet face and the liver spots, who barely bothered to disguise the contempt he felt towards the men whose labours kept him in creature comforts. Since rank-pulling was all he had, he duly insulated himself with delusions of his own natural superiority, and strutted round the warehouse in a perpetual state of faux-patrician peevishness.

The contempt was, needless to say, mutual. It was also contagious. One by one, my former comrades gradually cold-shouldered me, their former good-natured joshing replaced by icy stares and silent, barely suppressed malice. Only the older men continued to treat me as before, their knee-jerk them-and-us mentalities tempered by observation and experience. Occasionally, one of them would take me aside and discreetly ask after my welfare. (“Some of these young ‘uns, they won’t understand.”)

I should have confronted the situation, of course - but my sense of disempowerment was total. Instead, I bit my lip and knuckled down, my already low self-esteem plummeting ever further.

Eventually – and presumably this was for my own well-being, and kindly meant – I was moved out of the loading bay, and taken to the larger and much quieter warehouse round the corner. There, I was given a small (and fairly blunt) hand scythe, with which to cut down the tall weeds that flanked the long entrance drive. The job took many days, and was mind-numbingly arduous. I particularly remember the younger brother standing over me as I struggled on the first morning, taking puffs on his pipe, and hissing into my ear: "Don't let them see you're a weakling." Once again: them and us. I deeply resented being placed into the middle of this set of assumptions and perceptions, but continued to say nothing.

(What I wanted to do, more than anything else, was show solidarity with my fellow workers, to explain that I was no management stooge and no industrial spy, that I thought that their bosses were wankers just as much as they did, and that I hadn’t even wanted the shitty job in the first place. But you can see the potential pitfalls in that.)

There was one last humiliation in store. My step-sisters – who had their own reasons for despising me, but that’s a whole other story – had a friend whose boyfriend worked at the same warehouse. Word of my progress, or lack of it, filtered back, and was eventually, and with no small measure of relish, thrown in my face. (“You don’t do any real work. We’ve heard! You just sit in the garden all day!”)

Still saying nothing, I comforted myself only with thoughts of escape. Four months later, I seized my chance, never to return.

A few years later, I met the younger brother once again, at a formal dinner that was regularly staged by the self-styled intelligentsia of the local business community (no women admitted). My father had dragged me along, eager for the fifth generation of first sons to make his social debut, and had duly shoved me into an ill-fitting hired dinner suit, with a particularly rank frilled trim on the lapels.

“Monty, do you remember my son Michael?”

“Of course! We showed you how the other half live, didn’t we!”

I think I was supposed to thank him for his avuncular magnanimity, and for the valuable life lessons that he had bestowed upon me.

Oh, I had certainly learnt some lessons. But they weren’t the sort of lessons that anyone could teach, even if they had been minded to do so. And so I assumed an appropriately grateful expression, and smiled, and turned away as quickly as good manners would allow.

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Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Stylus Singles Jukebox: Reductive Mimesis.

God, there must be a more interesting way of linking to this column every week than this. If it's boring for you to read, then just think how boring it is for me to write. However, since part of Troubled Diva's function is to serve as your One-Stop Portal for All Things Mike, link to it I must.

Things that are more interesting than the fact I've done another bunch of singles reviews by acts you've never heard of (*) :

1. Today is Madonna's 48th birthday.

2. A new Primark store opened in Nottingham today, where the old Littlewoods used to be. Yesterday lunchtime when I walked past, there were throngs of people peering through the windows, ooh-ing and aah-ing at the super-low prices. That's how exciting it gets round here.

3. K rang at lunchtime to tell me I'd been quoted in the Nottingham Evening Post a few days ago, moaning about the surly service in a local Indian restaurant. Which is a bit toe-curling, as said moan was blogged a few years ago, and I haven't eaten there in even longer.

4. I've just only realised (although thinking about it, the connection is blindingly obvious) that a Nottingham pal from years ago is the force majeure behind that programme which goes out on Channel 4 on Friday nights, sandwiched between the two Big Brother shows. And he's got a blog.

5. That new bicarbonate-of-soda jet-stream thingy which the dental hygienist used on me this morning: it might be a trifle messy, but DAMN does it shift the tobacco stains. Looking at me now, you'd never guess I was a guilty chuffer. Really, the thought of ruining that newly acquired gleam of confidence is enough to make me never want to smoke again.

6. If you wade through this week's Stylus Singles Jukebox podcast, you will hear me use the term "reductive mimesis", without any apparent irony. You know, one day the wind will change and I'll get stuck in Pretentious Music Journalist Mode. Reductive bloody mimesis, I ask you! I want slapping for that.

7. I'm voting for Aisleyne. She's real.

(*) Since you ask: Bela B featuring Charlotte Roche, David Guetta vs The Egg, Alesha, Da Buzz and The Spinto Band.

The "Can't Be Arsed To Do A Madonna Live Review" Madonna Live Review.

1. I do like Wembley Arena's new (to me) bar-queue-busting wheeze, whereby drinks sellers wander round the venue with big plastic barrels strapped to their back, stop-me-and-buy-one style. It's certainly the only way that I would ever have bought Smirnoff Ice - but faced with a massive queue or an instant transaction, Smirnoff Ice suddenly seemed an attractive proposition. It's clever marketing: that little moment of Positive Affirmation with the product. Next time I see a bottle of Smirnoff Ice, I'll think: Ooh yes, that time that I beat the queue at the Madonna concert. Lovely stuff.

2. I thought the audience would be wall-to-wall The Gays, but not a bit of it. 10-15% percent, maybe. Mind you, it was Madonna's ninth and final night at Wembley, and what self-respecting London boy is going to wait that long?

3. At a stadium gig, the people nearest to you can make or break the whole show - witness Joe.My.God and his Madge-nemesis, the Tall Queen - so thank the Lord for the well-behaved gaggle of Short Queens In Interesting Spectacles, who were directly in front of us. Good as gold, the lot of them.

4. This was the first stadium gig where I actually remembered to pack my binoculars (after several years of trying). These made all the difference at the start, but progressively less as the show went on. Because, unlike at Earls Court in 2001, the visibility at Wembley Arena was really not bad at all. Why, you could almost call it intimate.

5. Still it was nice to be able to lend them to my neighbour. ("Wow, I can see her wrinkles!") Gave me a warm altruistic tingle, so it did.

6. I've already said this on the podcast, but this was a notably warmer, more inclusive performance than 2001's tightly scripted, icily aloof exercise in Sod The Back Catalogue, This Is My Art. This time round, Madonna actually seemed aware that she was playing to an audience of real live human beings, and actually seemed vaguely bothered about making them feel good. Why, there was even the odd moment of genuine rapport. You know, just like you get at Robbie Williams, or Neil Diamond.

7. Madonna looks seriously great in riding gear. (Was that a proper dressage hat? My companion Dymbellina thought it might have been.) And it takes a brave 47-year-old (as she was then - happy 48th birthday, Missus!) to wear a leotard cut quite so high. (OK, so there was some sort of flesh-coloured body stocking underneath - but still, someone had been awfully busy with the old Ladyshave.)

8. But the outfit that suited her best? No question, it had to be the white Saturday Night Fever trouser suit, as displayed during the final disco-themed section of the show. This also featured the best choreography - loads of Travolta-esque pastiche, expertly done - and also the best re-workings of tracks which I'd never thought much of before: a transformed "Erotica", and a bootleg mash-up of "Music" with John Otway's "Bunsen Burner". (Or was it something older? Before my time, probably.)

9. However, maximum cheese points go to the staging of a heavily re-worked "La Isla Bonita", in a style which can only be described as Kids From Fame meets The Love Boat. This was a rare moment where the 2001 show did it better - another being the choreography of "Ray Of Light". (This time round, it was all Kraftwerk-esque robotics, whose stylings evoked the video for Kylie's "Can't Get You Out Of My Head". Interesting, but 2001's staging was stunning.)

10. Still, there was only one serious misfire, namely Madonna's attempt to "rock out" on the last album's only dud, "I Love New York". This misfired because, although she can appropriate the trappings of just about any other popular music genre, Madonna simply cannot stretch her range to accommodate Rock. This is the one genre where mere pastiche can never cut it - and since Madonna does not possess one Rock bone in her entire body, the exercise was doomed to failure. (Also, she really needs to put that guitar away. It made its point in 2001.)

11. Oh, but here's me, focussing on the gripes! Don't get me wrong: this was a fantastic show, and here are some more reasons why.
  • 11.1 The artist's entrance, descending from the roof inside a giant mirror-ball which opened up like a lotus flower.
  • 11.2 The version of "Like A Virgin", performed on top of a saddle, attached to a floating pole.
  • 11.3 The choreography during "Jump", the nature of which should be fairly self-explanatory. (Although I did keep having to excise memories of a certain French & Saunders sketch.)
  • 11.4 The one bit of rock pastiche that did work: Madonna's lurching performance of "Let It Will Be", which kidded you that she was off her face, in Courtney Love self-destruct mode, while simultaneously demonstrating that she was fully in control (in amongst all the free-form slipping and staggering, there were some perfectly timed moves).
  • 11.5 The whole use of a smaller spur stage, as linked by a catwalk, as lined by a throng of beseeching, nearly hysterical super-fans - which had the effect of dragging Madonna closer to her audience, unable to hide behind her usual glacial artifice.
    • 11.5.1 (Not that this didn't stop her from chastising the beseeching super-fans, firstly for smoking, and secondly for acting as if they were "at a hamburger stand", all grab-grab-grab. "They must have got free tickets! Thank God for the rest of you!")
12. Honestly, it was worth every penny. All those Swarovski crystals don't pay for themselves, you know.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

It wasn't me,

NOT ME!Now, I know that some of my blogging compatriots are getting a fair deal of media attention these days...

...and I am aware that the quickest short cut to such attention would be via a nice juicy quote-unquote "scandal", preferably involving bodily fluids...

...and God knows I'm enough of an attention whore to do most things...

...but, well, there are limits.

So, lest you think otherwise: it wasn't me. Sorry to disappoint you.

(PS. If anyone would like me to expand on this point this further, maybe by means of an article in a national newspaper - broadsheet preferred; suggested title: "REVEALED: MYSTERY BLOGGER AT HEART OF ROAD RAGE ID MIX-UP" - then please contact me at the usual address. If desired, I can also work in a mini-rant on the ramifications of the case for civil liberties (pro- or anti-identity cards, according to editorial prejudice - please specify). Or else you can just camp out in the PDMG and wait for me to sally forth for a bit of light pruning. Tea and biscuits provided. Mind the geraniums.)

Monday, August 14, 2006

Podcast The Second - Summer 2006 edition.

With this week's Troubled Diva Podcast, you find your host in a cheery post-Madonna-at-Wembley frame of mind. Want to find out what happened when Mike met Madge? Well, off you go then.

(I'm slightly over-selling this of course, but there are some Madonna-related goodies along the way.)

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Which decade is Tops for Pops? - THE WINNER.

1st place - The 1970s. (38 points)

2005: 3rd place, 30 points.
2004: 2nd place, 31 points.
2003: 1st place, 35 points + 1 tiebreak point.
10: Dat - Pluto Shervington. 1st place.
9: We Do It - R & J Stone. 3rd place.
8: Love Machine - The Miracles. 2nd place.
7: Convoy - C.W. McCall. 3rd place.
6: Love To Love You Baby - Donna Summer. 2nd place.
5: Mamma Mia - Abba. 1st place, most popular.
4: Rodrigo's Guitar Concerto De Aranjuez - Manuel & His Music Of The Mountains. 4th place, least popular.
3: I Love To Love - Tina Charles. 2nd place.
2: Forever And Ever - Slik. 2nd place.
1: December 1963 (Oh What A Night) - Four Seasons. 2nd place.
Right from Day One, when Pluto Shervington's "Dat" took the lead, there was never any real doubt as to which decade would be this year's winner. Throughout all ten rounds of voting, the 1970s remained ahead, earning them the highest score of any decade in any of our four years to date. Despite fielding only two winners, from Pluto and Abba, only one song from 1976 finished below third, with five songs finishing second. That's what we call conclusive.

But before this all started, did we think that naff old 1976 had it in them to win? After all, approved rock history tells us that these were the dark days before punk rock came along and Saved Music. Or something.

Interestingly, there isn't a single record in this top ten which could be said to belong to the "rock" tradition, however tangentially. This is pop all the way, with the odd foray into light soul, reggae, disco, country & western and easy listening. The only faint hints of "rebellion" come from Pluto's taboo-breaking meat-related purchase, and CW McCall's "bear"-dodging escapades on the Great American Highway.

As a lad, I remember an NME singles review column from round about this time, bearing the headline "Don't Look Now, But You're Living In A Golden Age", which went on to make specific mention of several of the songs in this list. At the time, it seemed like a decidedly questionable proposition. But in these newly liberated, post-Guilty Pleasures days, it would seem that the dear old "rockist" NME showed remarkable presience.



The Top Ten and the Bottom Five.

(Positions are calculated by dividing the numbers of points scored by the number of people voting on that day.)

1. 19th Nervous Breakdown - Rolling Stones.
2. Mamma Mia - Abba.
3. These Boots Are Made For Walking - Nancy Sinatra.
4. Borderline - Madonna.
5. Chain Reaction - Diana Ross.
6. Slight Return - The Bluetones.
7. Dat - Pluto Shervington.
8. Keep On Running - Spencer Davis Group.
9. You Got The Love (New Voyager Mix) - The Source featuring Candi Staton.
10. Spanish Flea - Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass.

46. Anything - 3T.
47. That's My Goal - Shayne Ward.
48. Thunder In My Heart Again - Meck featuring Leo Sayer.
49. Burning Heart - Survivor
50. Open Arms - Mariah Carey.



Cumulative scores for the decades to date, after three years:

1 (2=) The 1970s - 135 points.
2 (2=) The 1960s - 134 points.
3 (1) The 1980s - 132 points.
4 (4) The 2000s - 101 points.
5 (5) The 1990s - 99 points.

It's still neck and neck at the top, with the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s regularly swapping positions. Next February, we start all over again - with what I must warn you is a truly shocking selection of ropey old toss.

No, I can hardly wait either! Thanks to all who particpated. It's been a blast.

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Which decade is Tops for Pops? - the results.

2nd place - The 1960s. (37 points)

2005: 2nd place, 33 points.
2004: 1st place, 36 points.
2003: 3rd place, 28 points.
10: Mirror Mirror - Pinkerton's Assorted Colours. 3rd place.
9: Tomorrow - Sandie Shaw. 4th place.
8: Keep On Running - Spencer Davis Group. 1st place.
7: Love's Just A Broken Heart - Cilla Black. 2nd place.
6: A Groovy Kind Of Love - The Mindbenders. 3rd place.
5: Michelle - The Overlanders. 5th place, least popular.
4: Spanish Flea - Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass. 2nd place.
3: You Were On My Mind - Crispian St Peters. 1st place.
2: 19th Nervous Breakdown - Rolling Stones. 1st place, most popular.
1: These Boots Are Made For Walking - Nancy Sinatra. 1st place.
For a year which is commonly held to contain some of the most ground-breaking pop music of the last half-century, our 1966 selection looks a tad under-baked. Here are Pinkerton's Assorted Colours and The Mindbenders, trotting out the same sort of neat-n-tidy neo-Merseybeat that has been regularly charting since 1963. Here are Cilla Black and Sandie Shaw, delivering the sort of MOR ballads that would sit easily amongst the TV light entertainment shows of the day. Here's Herb Alpert, standing right outside the prevailing pop/rock/r&b fashions with his cheesy MOR. And here are The Overlanders, pointlessly carbon-copying one of the Beatles' sappier numbers for a quick buck.

However, the remaining four singles in our top ten do contain music that was, in some way, pushing against genre restrictions and moving things forward. There has never been an easy-listening standard quite like the gleefully perverse "These Boots Are Made For Walking" - a song which is custom-made for the epithet "kinky". Crispian St Peters, though destined only to enjoy two UK hit singles, messes with the Roy Orbison/Everly Brothers template to agreeable effect. The Spencer Davis Group are helping to define a grittier r&B-influenced rock sound - and the Rolling Stones are right out there, rising further above the herd with every new release, and giving establishment Middle England the heebie-jeebies good and proper.

After floundering about for a bit, the top three brought the 1960s to an almost triumphant conclusion in our voting, shortening a six-point gap between winner and runner-up to a difference of just one point. That's not bad going for a forty-year-old. But really, this year's winner was never in any doubt...

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