On Gyms

•20 March, 2015 • 3 Comments

Everywhere you look nowadays, despite any number of vacant retail units to testify that our economic recover is only on paper, one thing seems to be curiously ubiquitous on the high street: gyms. They’re everywhere. Maybe the so-called obesity epidemic has something to do with it – they’re making their money off the backs of people’s paranoia. I don’t know for certain and I don’t care. Because I’ll be damned if I ever set foot in one. Why? Well I’ll tell you…

“I conceive of nothing, in religion, science, or philosophy, that is more than the proper thing to wear, for a while.” – Charles Fort, Wild Talents (1932)

This is as much the case with fitness. You’ll notice that, outside of actual sport, there is now One True Physique. It’s a fitness model’s physique, based on weightlifter’s muscles and a lack of body fat. It requires a relentless diet of protein. And it’s a fad. It has blown up over the last five years, and in another ten there’ll be a new beauty ideal. Personally, I can’t be arsed with it, because it requires gyms. To spend a day each on a number of different areas of the body in order to build it requires an amount of weights and equipment that simply cannot be contained in the average person’s home. So you give someone money to use theirs. And for what? What is fitness?

The problem these days is that it’s basically bodybuilding. Not to the insane levels of a competition bodybuilder, but nevertheless modern fitness seems to require the artificial packing on of muscle – muscle that you only use to lift weights whose only purpose is to build your muscle. That’s not worth £40 per month. Sure, on top of this bodybuilding nonsense you’re encouraged to do some cardio and get some flexibility. Fine. Do some yoga and go for a run. Yoga video – £10. Running – free.

The other thing I detest is the fad for personal trainers, because they are snake oil salesmen to a man/woman. Consider this: they advise you on the best way to train, and the best diet for your workout regime. Any fitness buff tends to give their two penn’orth online for free anyway, and reading that information tells you exactly what quacks personal trainers are. Simply put: there is no personal trainer out there who is worth a bent drachma unless they have a degree in sports science and proper qualifications as a dietician. What various fitness experts will tell you on websites is idiosyncratic and contradictory. Why? Because at best they guess which of their personal, unqualified prejudices will work for you. Have you seen the arguments about burpees? Furthermore, a friend of mine told me that his personal trainer told him that you can damage yourself by only doing one kind of press-up, so you need to do five variations. There are over a hundred variations available. And no website anywhere says you need to switch it up in the first place. Quacks, I say!

10,000 BC (Week Three)

•26 February, 2015 • 2 Comments

Given that I take a certain amount of pride in watching very little TV, I’m not sure how I can justify sticking with this show. I was hoping for some insight into the stone-age way of life – God knows the best way we could learn such things is to go out and do as they did – but the format was never really going to achieve that. As I said in my previous week’s review, the production team should have made a choice between a survival experiment and a social experiment. Doing both at once was doomed to disaster and disaster it became. This show is a car crash.

In my review last week, I’d forgotten that Tom, a male model but also a keen outdoorsman, had dropped out in the aftermath of the starvation debacle. The tribe were down to twelve once Josie had recovered from her illness. And then disaster really struck.

It had been unseasonably warm when the tribe first came to camp, resulting in some unfortunate incidents with maggots getting into their starter carcass and their furs. Suddenly, there was a cold snap and eight inches of snow fell overnight. As the snow continued through the day, the weight of it was snapping the branches of the trees in the forest, making any attempt at foraging or hunting unsafe. So the tribe were immediately evacuated back to the hunting reserve’s lodge. In the aftermath of this, despair had set into the five-strong Harding family and, despite Steve telling them the story of his surviving a capsizing ferry in Indonesia, they all elected to leave. A twenty-strong tribe was now down to seven before the half-way mark.

And it was then that the producers and Klint Janulis did what they should have done in the first place. The next few days were spent on a “Stone Age Boot Camp”, teaching the remainder the skills they needed to actually complete the experiment. So much of this nonsense could have been averted if the original twenty had been given this training in the week before they went out. When they were finally allowed to return, they had new rations and a new deer carcass to butcher. But settling back in wasn’t going to be easy and the group needed to form new dynamics.

Firstly, Paul the lorry driver cum trapper had a hissy fit when he found that some of the others had tried to sneak creature comforts back from the lodge. He tried to leave immediately, and Klint talked him out of it, leaving the others with the perception that he had tried to blackmail them. Personally, I sympathised with his position – there was no point in continuing if they weren’t going to do it properly. Then Steve ended up having a childish tantrum of his own.

Early on, he was voted in as the tribe’s leader. In the interviews, he made it clear that he thought in ‘alpha-male’ terms that all men want to be the leader. So Klint tried to give him leadership lessons during the boot camp. Unfortunately, Steve was (as it turned out) a bad leader. Firstly, he didn’t step in to try and deal with the Paul situation. Secondly, he doesn’t deal effectively with challenges. Given a new carcass and having what needs to be done impressed on them by Klint, and with Klint’s supervision for another day, the tribe had a quick discussion and Paul reckoned two people were needed for butchering and Klint said that they needed to know how to strip birch (the bark being a key to making certain tools). So Steve argued that more people were needed on the carcass, and told Klint (the external expert!) that they should forget the birch exercises entirely. With fewer voices in the camp, genuinely dominant voices like Mel and Paul were able to speak up, and Mike switched his allegiance to Mel. Steve, miffed that the tribe were listening to the experts rather than his wisdom, left.

Does a tribe need a leader? No. A tribe needs leadership, but not necessarily a leader. If you look at small communities, those that aren’t militaristic tend to have a council of elders who are trusted to make decisions as a small group for the good of the larger group. Certain elders may have areas of expertise. A single leader tends to only be needed in war and modern business, where a quick and decisive strategy is needed. Frankly, Steve was even failing at that.

Personality Crisis

•23 February, 2015 • Leave a Comment

What defines a band? It’s a tough question. One work colleague of mine said that a band should change its name if they change lead singer, but AC/DC and Iron Maiden both hit their stride after their original singers departed. How long does a single line-up have to be together before any change is unthinkable? How far do the musicians define a band’s sound? And if a band changes direction, should they still use the same name just because they are the same musicians? Pantera and Deep Purple both made their names after changing style, but Status Quo had some success as a psychedelic pop band before turning to three-chord boogie. At one extreme, Joy Division had an agreement to change their name with the line-up, and would have changed name even if it had been Stephen Morris who departed first, not Ian Curtis. At the other extreme, Dr Feelgood has continued without a single member of the original line-up since Lee Brilleaux died. If a band name is the name of a brand, it carries the weight of customers’ expectations. If you buy an album or see a show, what is it you expect to see and hear when you pay money for a given band? Obviously, this has been on my mind over the past year, so you may as well know my thinking where Harlequin’s Kiss is concerned.

It wasn’t a question until recently, and I’m not sure how it became a question. It just seems like, for the space of about a month, whenever we were booking a room at Robannas Studios, Rob Hoffman (the owner) would ask us, “Are you still keeping the name?” This went on across November and December after we took Matt on. I’m sure Rob didn’t ask us this when we were playing with Kev…

It is certainly true that André did a lot to define our sound when he joined us. His riffs are behind the songs that defined us to our audience, and even two of the blues songs that Ed and I laid the groundwork on were given their final form by André. At the same time, Harlequin’s Kiss existed for over a year before we started working with André, and our career with André and Andy amounts to only nine gigs over two years. In fact, you’ve probably not heard the original Harlequin’s Kiss – the only people who have were the Lamp Tavern’s Monday night regulars from 2010.

So if there ever was a question over our name, it was one of sound. How much have we changed by replacing a single Ibanez with twin Gibson SGs? While I didn’t lose sleep over it, I had a nagging doubt. That is, until Matt sent me demo’s of two new riffs a few weeks ago – all my doubts vanished when I heard them. Trust me, we are still Harlequin’s Kiss and we still play the same brand of catchy rock ‘n’ roll.

10,000 BC (Week Two)

•17 February, 2015 • 1 Comment

Never has a social experiment show been more predictable. Take twenty British volunteers, only a quarter of whom have any survival skills, and drop them in a hunting reserve in Bulgaria with only stone age tools. Tell me: what do you think is going to happen? Especially if you give them no training or supervision beyond day two of fifty-six?

There were two drop-outs across days one and two. Caroline collapsed with heat exhaustion before she could even change clothes and Perry was at a bad time in his life and simply needed to be home. So the reduced tribe of eighteen… erm… meandered. British people are peculiar. We don’t like treading on toes when we don’t have a formalised hierarchy, so without a nominated leader, we tend to mill around like lost sheep. On day two, the tribe did elect Steve as leader, but as most survival training is geared towards individual survival, there were several concepts that even by day nine had evidently not occurred to anyone.

Concept one: everything has to be a continuous process. On day one, four people stripped a deer, one person spent most of the day trying to light a fire, and the rest foraged a pretty meagre stock of berries and nuts. On day two, Paul and his lovely assistants made a half-baked attempt at setting traps not very far from the camp. These were not finished until day three or four. Sometime around day six (i.e. far too late) Steve decided a group should head out on a recce to find the lake they had been told about. On day two, not enough additional fires were set and no concerted effort was made to smoke the deer carcass. Two thirds of it was wasted. If you look at modern hunter-gatherers in Africa and the Amazon basin, in a day a small party will do the high-risk-high-reward stuff (hunting) while a larger group will forage concertedly, and another group will maintain the homes and fires and do other work in the village. Like sheep, this tribe have to do everything en masse.

Secondly: on screen, for the benefit of the viewers, archaeologist Klint Janulis said that the tribe would need to set several different kinds of fishing rod on the lake shore to find out which worked. Apparently, he neglected to tell them that. For two days’ work at the lake, the tribe amassed fourteen crayfish and a mouse to try to bring fifteen people back from starvation (Kym, Oliver and Terri having left on day seven).

In the meantime, the young and the dumb of the tribe couldn’t seem to get their heads round the fact that they were likely to starve if they didn’t start working to help themselves. They snacked selfishly on food rations and fart-arsed about while others worked. Yeah, they knew there was a safety net and they wouldn’t be left to die by the production team. The great British public, folks! I have no doubt that the two biggest culprits were picked because they were likely to behave that way, but that factor was bound to cause the team to collapse entirely in an experiment where inadequate training was given to start with.

By day nine, the tribe was down to twelve and the medics had been in to bail them out with food. Because modern gender divisions don’t encourage women to build muscle mass, naturally the women of the tribe were hit hardest by starvation. Kym was a vital part of the group’s dynamics, but had hit the end of her tether very early on. Terri hit the wall at the same time and her boyfriend, Oliver, left with her. Aamer, realising his own total uselessness, left after the bailout and Kam decided she couldn’t go on after the rescue, either. Josie, the resident vegetarian, was just plain too sick to go on. Unfortunately, at the end of episode four, the proactive part of the tribe are still stuck with a dead weight in the form of JP.

This whole debacle is the production team’s fault. If they wanted Big Brother Does The Flintstones, they should have kept Janulis around longer and watched the sparks fly as the cold of November kicked in – circumstances where the lazy part of the tribe were at least not endangering anyone. Likewise, if they wanted to see how modern man copes, they should have only taken people with outdoor hobbies. Instead, this over-egged pudding has failed as experiment and drama.

The Further Adventures of Harlequin’s Kiss

•16 February, 2015 • Leave a Comment

I don’t write this blog to chronicle the inner machinations of my rock band, but Harlequin’s Kiss is a major part of my life, so I suppose I ought to talk about it from time to time.

When I last mentioned the band, we were a vocalist, guitarist and bass looking for a drummer so we could get back in the game. Things have both changed drastically and not changed at all. You see, sometime in June our “new” guitarist left us. His old band had got back together and he figured he couldn’t dedicate his time to two bands. So once again we were back at square one and we weren’t able to replace Kev as quickly as we did André. In fact, we had what seems like an interminable number of weeks where auditioning guitarists no-showed us. It got to the point where, after losing £20 a time for auditions that just weren’t happening, Ed and I decided to move back into the Lamp Tavern – at least the landlord wouldn’t charge us if we didn’t use the room.

So October rolled around, and suddenly Birmingham turned its bizarre coincidence field on us. Back in December 2013, Ed and I had spent a Monday evening at the Roadhouse’s open mic night and the evening had ended with anyone and everyone getting on stage to sing Christmas songs with a piano. And so it was that I ended up duetting a homoerotic version of “Fairytale of New York” with a singer-songwriter. Fast-forward to October 2014 and I’m in Birmingham trying to meet up with a bunch of amateur film-makers for training as an extra. And it turns out the guy training us was non other than the guy I’d met the previous Christmas. The training session was a bit of a wash-out, but those who had turned up had a bit of a trek round the city centre and I told the singer-songwriter about our guitarist woes and invited him to come and play with us sometime. And then I got shitfaced and forgot all about it until he texted me back on the Sunday evening taking me up on my offer. One surprisingly comfortable rehearsal session later, we took on Matt as a rhythm guitarist.

Previously, of course, we had only had one guitarist and carried a lot of rhythm sound on the bass. Matt had told us that he was strictly a rhythmist, so our guitar search wasn’t complete just yet. Another few weeks followed of mostly failing to get potential lead players and drummers to turn up before we finally had two auditionee guitarists one night. And that was the night we picked up Brett.

So coming into 2015, we have a new line-up (minus a drummer). We expect to appear on stage soonish – we’re writing new material and learning some of the old stuff – but we are still short of a drummer. So email me if you know someone who might be interested…

10,000 BC (Week One)

•15 February, 2015 • Leave a Comment

The premise seemed pretty interesting. Put 20 people in a stone age setting and see how well they cope with life. Remember The 1900 House? Well, this is that concept taken to extremes and, let’s face it, we may know bugger all about the structure of society back then, but we can safely assume that the modern “nuclear family” didn’t exist. So a “tribe” of 20 volunteers makes sense.

I must admit, the concept of 10,000 BC has made me a little nostalgic. Not that I’m twelve thousand years old – my nostalgia is for the early days of social experiments like Castaway (where a bunch of people were dropped on Taransay for a few months) and the first Big Brother (when the house was populated by people with a sociological interest and not just the biggest loonies the producers could find). I was interested to see how these modern people react to living like, say, Magdalenian people and what they might take away from such an experience. Unfortunately, in some respects the set-up the show actually uses is flawed. What I expected was a situation where the volunteers are given constant, if retreating, guidance and some of what we know from archaeology is explained to them. As such, the volunteers would actually live like Mesolithic man.

Here’s what happens instead. The volunteers are given a bundle of stone age clothes (plus modern boots, because there’s no getting around untempered feet) and ceremonially turn in their modern gear. They are shown to a camp with ready-made huts in the middle of a hunting reserve in Bulgaria, and an archaeologist/survival expert shows them some early ropes. What the volunteers have is some tools, their shelters, some furs, some food, and a pre-slaughtered (but not butchered) deer carcass. Then, after being chivvied a little (but not really shown a lot) by the archaeologist for two days, they’re on their own with the camera crew and two survival advisers (whose main job is to stop them poisoning themselves). So, yeah. A bunch of modern Brits who’ve never done this before are basically dropped right in it.

Why is this bad? Well, where do I begin? Obviously, any culture living in Europe in an era before animal domestication had really taken hold beyond the Middle East would have got to where they live slowly, learning as they went and building on techniques that they already knew worked. Their society would have structured around that life, with an accepted means of conferring leadership, knowledge of what needed doing day-to-day to survive, and whatever systems of society were needed for people to perform their roles in the structure of the tribe. Furthermore, twenty strangers (the volunteers are pulled from a cross-section of British society, and therefore from a wide variety of backgrounds) would not find themselves suddenly together in unexplored territory (the reserve is twenty-eight square miles and nobody’s seen a map) in October with only four days worth of food. As an intelligent viewer with an interest in archaeology and anthropology, I could see disaster looming from the get-go.

In these first two episodes, the limitations of the format mean that there are some gaps in what we know about the tribe as viewers. Frankly, the format of the show is very badly put together. Besides the fact that the concept is clearly doomed to failure for the reasons I’ve described, little attention is paid to some members of the tribe early on, meaning that we sometimes don’t see how they fit into some of the situations that arise. Kam (a housewife and shopkeeper according to the website), for one, is a face that just kind of appears in the background. And Mel, although she gets stuck in early on, wanting to learn by helping butcher the deer, doesn’t really figure in the narrative but gets featured in a lot of diary segments in episode two.

Despite the limitations, however, I have been drawn in a little bit. While characters like Aamer and JP have clearly been picked because of the tensions they are likely to cause, the tribe are mostly made up of reasonable and interested people, clearly invested in surviving the eight weeks in prehistory successfully. They quickly vote archery teacher Steve as leader and the other “alpha male” types work with him and defer to him (so far, at least). There’s a family involved, and a couple, so the dynamics are interesting to watch. Maybe my patience will be tried next week.

Impact Wrestling: Some Thoughts

•12 February, 2015 • Leave a Comment

If you’re a casual viewer rather than a wrestling nerd, you’ll probably not have been keeping up with behind-the-scenes stuff and Impact Wrestling’s status in America. The short version is that TNA’s relationship with Spike TV ended in November and there was a brief hiatus (their international broadcasters got highlight shows) before they began a new slot on cable channel Destination America. They took the opportunity to change the format a bit, and that’s what I’d like to talk about today.

First of all, some superficial things have changed. There’s new branding, including a new logo. The lighting is dimmed during matches, leaving the focus on the ring and blacking out the crowd. And Taz and Mike Tenay have been split up, with Josh Matthews replacing Tenay on play-by-play commentary. Branding is branding, and I feel no need to comment. The lighting, however, is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it gives the six-sided ring an MMA, caged feel, which I like. But on the other, it leaves any climbing spots on cage matches ill-lit – something that marred the Lockdown special last weekend. These first few editions were, however, all filmed at one venue, so it will be interesting to see if they kept this lighting for the UK tour and use it for the forthcoming shows in Orlando. As for the commentary, I was sceptical about dropping Mike Tenay. He had a good rapport with Taz and I liked the “two guys on a sofa” feel of their banter, especially as the UK broadcast is on Sunday night. However, I soon got used to Matthews and I like that his and Taz’s calls are more technical – the feel is more like a (competitive) sports broadcast in that respect.

In fact, it looks like TNA have learned some things from Wrestle-1 (and the pleas of a more indie-inclined fan base) in that the style of the show is now more realistic. They claim to have cameras everywhere, and the “backstage” shots seem less soap-opera-ish (necessary if you don’t want to look like WWE’s poor cousin). There is also more focus on the matches, with less time devoted to replays and promo videos (although they tried this early on during the Bischoff era and it was short-lived, so we’ll see how long this positive development lasts). Even though many of the same storylines are being continued from the last of the Spike shows, the whole thing appears less cartoonish. It seems that they’ve taken steps towards a more realistic-looking presentation, which certainly sits well with me. Whether it keeps the interest of American fans remains to be seen, however. Viewing figures have been positive so far.

All in all, I’m impressed with the new run of Impact Wrestling, and I’d say to any curious viewer that now is the time to give TNA a go, whether you’re a wrestling sceptic or have simply abandoned the product over the last couple of years.


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