Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Goodbye to Jade

Woman with blues by Pants

‘A Primark Princess’, that’s what Russell Brand dubbed Jade Goody. I wonder if he realises how insightful an observation he’s made. Perhaps he’s also sat on the top deck of the No 55 bus as it crawled through East London on a Saturday afternoon and tried to focus his attention on The Guardian but registered only half a dozen prattling girls arguing over who has the flyest ever boyfriend/nailart/ringtone. Perhaps it was also obvious to him that they were on their way to Primark, Oxford Street’s grand cathedral of clobber, in the perennial search for the flyest frayed skirt ever sweat-shopped. When I was on that bus I was often going there too, but for a slightly less fly stock-up of cotton knits. Primark is the antithesis of style and originality while being the embodiment of ready-to-shag fashion. It’s the most overt commercial example of the paradigm shift in post-millennium British turnoutery which saw the concept of exclusivity sent to Coventry in a Burberry mac. Even I once had no choice but to buy my long-sleeved vests at Marks & Spencer, or as we Australians used to call it marked ‘expensive’.

Jade Goody was a dominant figure in the superficial egalitarianism that came to epitomise the new millennium Britain. The dotcom geek dag look that transformed ‘jumble’ into ‘vintage’ legitimised every stressed garment lurking in a wardrobe and made potential models of us all. Whether we liked it or not, we were fixated with noticing and commenting on each other’s outfits. It’s hard to credit now but there was a time in the not so distant past when that didn’t happen because clothes were too expensive to stalk with intent to purchase every Saturday. Consequently, you saw the same people in the same attire for months if not years on the trot. Primark clothes are cheaper than chips and even more popular. That Jade Goody should be considered a figurehead of the pound-stretching flagship is, well, fitting. She was to Primark what Princess Diana was to Versace even though by the time Primark conquered Oxford Street, Jade was wealthy enough to be shopping at Harrods.

There were over 22 million hits on Google for Jade Goody last time I looked. Of those, several thousand were news items. It’s fair to say Jade had well and truly arrived before she unexpectedly left. She’s been called the ‘ultimate’ reality star. That kind of presupposes there were others. I can’t think of any apart from James Hewitt who came with inbuilt infamy and has been louching his way across our unfortunate collective consciousness for interminable decades. No one could deny that Jade did sculpt a very credible silk purse from a most lamentable sow’s ear, but she did rather more than that. She was given just one big opportunity and she not only ran with it, she came first. My own path is littered with squandered opportunities so I can appreciate, however grudgingly, the insight, focus and acumen required to turn an active vocabulary of thirty-seven words (half of them made up) into a multi-million pound fortune.

Predictably the comparisons with the death of Diana, the former diva of attention magnetism, have proliferated to mark Jade’s departure. Just as Diana’s life and early death were compared to that of Marilyn Monroe a generation before, Jade’s demise seems now to complete an unlikely trinity of martys to femme fatalism. What’s it all about? Many have tried to explain. None of it looks either logical or pretty. Let me try to make sense of it – I don’t imagine I’ll do worse than any of the thousands who’ve already been there.

Marilyn Monroe was a screen siren and very beautiful. Diana was a pure princess and very beautiful. So far, so archetypically sustainable as explanations go. But then along came Jade and she was, like one of her implausibly successful product lines, Just Jade. Enter the paradox. How does the ordinary become the exceptional by doing nothing more than remaining resolutely ordinary? Some qualities Jade shared with those other thick, peroxided birds with kamikaze sex genes we can’t seem to stop missing.

She had that whole absurdly vulnerable and needy yet hard as nails when it comes to protecting your self-interest thing going on. But Paula Yates had that in spades. She was bleached, blithering in the love department, died shockingly and left young children but there were no teddy bears and helium-filled, heart-shaped balloons left outside her house. Is it because she wasn’t thick or because she didn’t have the compulsion to share the minutiae of her daily existence? (That was a lucky break. Too much information about Bob Geldof and/or Michael Hutchence may have rendered the concept of tomorrow untenable).

Jade was compulsively confessional. Like Diana and Marilyn before her, she wanted everyone to hear about her trials and triumphs. To know the intimate details of a person’s life renders them a kind of proxy intimate. Many commentators have drawn the comparison with soap opera – a scenario of long-term tribulation trailing. That’s not so interesting. Historically it’s women principally who emote over the early demise of the famous. In 1926, the entire American supply of smelling salts was exhausted by the ‘grief’ of the nation’s women at the premature loss of the laughably camp, even for the whoring twenties, silent movie actor Rudolph Valentino. Plenty have argued that this sentimentalising belongs in a time when women were given nothing more meaningful to do. So how come it’s still happening? What perversion of the feminine mystique is this?

Stand up Britain (with apologies to Bridget Jones), the weird and wonderful place in which I spent nearly half my life. The buttoned-up, no-nonsense, sensibly shod society whose truck with the saccharine sentimentalism of Hollywood was permanently parked on L’Avenue d’Isdain, hurrumphed rather than sobbed at Ali McGraw’s character dying in Love Story and Debra Winger’s in Terms of Endearment but felt moved to buy flowers and personally convey them to deepest Essex on Mothering Sunday. Sure Jade Goody was a real person, but not one most of the mourners personally knew. It would be very comforting to think that Britain had finally rid itself of its class-consciousness to the extent where it was able to celebrate the most ordinary as if it were the most extraordinary. For one brief shining moment, pigs sort of did fly, albeit business class.

That’s not what the whole Jade hate/love/grief triangle is all about however. Her life and death tells you everything you need to know about Britain’s relationship, ancient and modern, with women. Like all disempowered groups in society, women’s lives are represented in the media as a minority experience with separate and confined interests. Women are expected to be upset if a breakfast television host dies of breast cancer just as black people are expected to protest if there’s a coup in Kenya. You’ll even find the white male population wanting to accommodate you with space and understanding if such a thing should happen and you’ll then often be in the embarrassing position of asking ‘Melanie who?’ whilst refusing a condolence Polo mint.

I often wonder if British men understand that women are a separate gender rather than inferior men in drag. Britain has a very uneasy relationship with women in positions of power, yet over the last 450 years, 190 of those years have had a woman occupying the throne. A hundred of the last 170 years have seen a queen as monarch. I can’t help speculating about the origins of gay men calling each other ‘she’ and ‘queen’ and straight men wanting to group women and gay men together as a combined sexual ‘other’. And gay men being not entirely unhappy with that provided they were top bitch. Jade Goody fell into that area of fascination for gay men which is also very useful for attracting straight men. Graham Norton was never able to get enough of her and he was instrumental in launching her post Big Brother career.

As a woman, I always feel as if my bippy’s being yanked when I’m asked to produce sympathy where it’s clearly not required and I wonder what the men are doing while I’m searching for a clean hankie. There’s an inexplicable zeitgeist embodied in the late Jade Goody, the fascination for which I hope doesn’t last very long. I especially hope the phenomenon that was Jade, laudable as her considerable personal achievements might have been, doesn’t morph into a hideously crass role model for aspiring girls from deprived backgrounds that absolves the government of the day from providing them with an equal and decent education. And I pray, oh yes I pray, that Elton John is not penning V3 of CitW as I type. If there is a god, let her smite him now before such an evil thought should enter his mind …

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Piggies on the fiddle

Clouds suddenly appear in the bank by Pants

Barings trader Nick Leeson got six years in Changi Prison for gambling with and losing his bank’s solvency and ‘retired’ Royal Bank of Scotland CEO ‘Sir’ Fred Goodwin got £16m for doing the same to his. What’s the difference? The British Government didn’t bail out Barings.

The interminable retro-outrage about obscene levels of executive pay and perks in the private sector is turning my head into horseradish. We’ve known about it and have moaned about it for the last decade or more and suddenly there's a screeching demand for stout stocks and rotting cabbages? So wage inequality is now somehow a whole different derby simply because the wheels have fallen off the money-go-round is it? I'm guffawing into my gruel at the thought of governments across the western block overtly bristling at the hackles after years of sanctioning tax scams that ensured precisely zero of those colossal bonuses made its way into national exchequers. Somehow they deluded themselves into believing that fat controllers' contributions to ‘economic growth’ made up for their erstwhile tax revenue holidaying permanently in the Caymans instead of building schools and hospitals.

It’s all going to end up being a pointless, vitriolic aside anyway because £16m, although a handy wad for an individual, will amount to about forty-five minutes worth of interest when it comes to servicing the debt resulting from this mercantile belly-flop. Sure I think ‘Sir’ Fred and all his reprobate cronies should be tossed off their own motor yachts into shark-infested waters but I thought that before they did a KLF on our savings. It’s a bit late to be securing the vault doors now, innit?

Sadly no one knows quite where else to go with this, ideologically speaking. For a few years in the late nineties, then British Prime Minister Tony Blair made occasional tentative forays into exploring an alternative world order which he liked to call ‘The Third Way’. Like most Blairomes, it was a fag packet assemblage of vaguely cobbled together notions that sounded sort of holistic and a bit sexy and kind of caring without inferring that anything would have to change very much for it to be achieved. It contained nothing new – another cornerstone of Blairomes. Roosevelt had a crack and even old Harold Macmillan made a stab at articulating a centrist position way back. The inclination of Blair to lose interest in a thought before he managed to finish a sentence probably had something to do with this project’s failure to develop into anything other than a set of annoying imperatives for people to be nicer to each other and rather a lot of CCTV cameras to enforce the new niceness. Pity because the embedding of some equitable principles prior to the mega-boom years might have been quite handy as it goes.

A very obvious flaw in seeking a third way between the two now completely discredited systems is that the chances of ending up with something incorporating the worst excesses of both are quite high - hence the enthusiasm for world leaders to busy themselves with reconfiguring deckchairs rather than tending the iceberg wound. But isn’t excess itself the main event? The dominant component of capitalism is greed (for money) and the dominant component of communism is greed (for power). Shouldn’t we stop stressing about which system we use to barter food, shelter and i-pod downloads and just concentrate on curbing our cuntishness? Did communism have to end in Kim Jong-il and capitalism in GW Bush?

Somewhere in this warped mix of human desires is a telling propensity. Dictators, whether they be corporate or political feel a compulsion to pass their gross accumulations of money and power to a relative – usually a son – at the onset of incontrovertible dotage or the termination of a fixed term in office. At the very apex of the power pyramid exists the basest of caveman instincts. It seems to me that at some point on the long march to ideological sophistication, progress flips into reverse. Maybe top dog gazes into the mirror and, in the throes of delirious self-lust, forgets that everything is spelt backwards when you do that. Perhaps an economist or, even better, a four-year-old could harness one of the copious forecast models available to predict at what point in the cycle alpha man’s knuckles start to scrape the floor.

Now we know that the people running all things financial were not only breathtakingly avaricious but also gobsmackingly incompetent. (I feel slightly less bad about not having made terribly much of myself, I don’t mind telling you.) It’s curious but I suppose just about comprehensible in the context of the huge structural void, that governments still perceive these scheming lowlifes who are rubbish at their jobs to be pivotal in the economic recovery strategy. I guess a house with no roof is marginally better than no house at all. It won’t stop the rain from getting in but it might just be useful if a herd of stampeding rhino is in the area. Even Nick Leeson got a job advising merchant banks on how to avoid rogues like him.

In a treasury of risible riches the glistening gem is that governments, even when they own an overwhelming majority share in a failed corporation (as the British Government does in RBS), remain in awe of disgraced executives and visibly afraid to withhold or claw back their insanely undeserved exit bonuses. In a sector where food-chain inferiors are given a cardboard box and twenty minutes to clear their desks for no greater crime than being superfluous to requirements, what exactly is the procedural protocol in action here? What’s there to fear? These are the bad guys, yeah? What are they going to do – whistle-blow on themselves? ‘They may take legal action,’ terrified officials quiver. So? Haven’t these brainboxes heard the one about civil cases and the deepest pockets?

The most incredulous thing is their willingness to take seriously the ludicrous huff-puff threat from the private sector that the removal of bonus payments will result in tougher negotiations over base pay. The following combination of words seems highly appropriate to that scenario – bring it on. It seems reasonable to expect the scarcity of proven performance successes accompanying future batches of executive CVs might turn out to be beneficial even in the most bungling of banking boardrooms where any audacious remuneration demands should surely be met with the retort, ‘eat my shorts’. And piggy banks might fly. I suspect the formula for a 'better world' is still quite a long way from transforming itself into a lightbulb moment in any current politician's imagination...

Postscript - I've just heard that Jade Goody has died. I'll write something about Jade next week.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Walk On Up - Review

'Round Midnight by Pants *

I plan on devoting a substantial proportion of this post to reviewing Walk On Up, the new album by the Andy Young Quartet. If you don’t like jazz, now would be a good time to check out some of my earlier posts – as you’ve been promising yourself you would do for the last year, right? As I said about Andy’s debut album Downside Up, it’s wicked and you must immediately go online and buy it from Amazon. I declare an interest - Andy is the boofhead-in-law, i.e. the partner of Sis Pants.

I was thrilled when my copy of Walk On Up arrived in the post on Thursday and I’ve been playing it ever since. A friend who is highly musically literate, although not in jazz, asked me once when Downside Up was playing, ‘What’s this?’ I told her and she said, ‘Oh right. I thought it was some classic I should have known the name of.’ It sounded like lots of jazz classics but none you’d immediately recognise. You'll get the same again with this new album. If I had any sense I’d stop right here but, hey Pants by name - the boof-in-law deserves, as opposed to desires closer scrutiny.

Walk On Up, named for a chord progression found in some blues and gospel music, is subtitled ‘progressive jazz’ by record company Hardrush. Don’t let that put you off. When I think of progressive jazz, Stan Kenton or the Jazz Warriors spring to mind - neither comparison would accurately define the signature sound of this album. It contains neither the brittleness of the Kenton sound nor the brashness of the Jazz Warriors. Later on in the notes you’ll be informed that the AYQ sound incorporates the ‘swing, blues, ballad, bebop and bossa’ styles and this is much more helpful. It’s not fusion though. There are tunes in each of these styles but the styles are not meshed. They do however sit well together, mainly because of the very strong melodies which weave a cogent thematic thread. In the UK, this album would be categorised as smooth or cool jazz. The wonderful London-based radio station Smooth-FM would call it ‘dinner jazz’. Bear in mind, Kind of Blue would fall into that category. If you’re the type of person who occasionally finds yourself humming ‘Round Midnight in wistful moments, you’ll want this CD, and Downside Up too if you don’t already have it - and you’ll probably want to have a chic dinner party to show them off.

It’s unusual to find a jazz album where the playing isn’t superb - it's the nature of the beast - and here you'll be treated to some fine ensemble playing. Andy wears his influences proudly with a stylistic range that runs from Wes Montgomery right through to George Benson via Barney Kessel. For mine, Kelly Ottaway on piano and vibes is the tallest amongst some very lofty poppies. It’s almost like you’re listening to Bill Evans when he’s on piano and Milt Jackson when he’s playing vibes. I know I won’t be popular for saying this but the addition of Andrew Legge on piano and Fender Rhodes is a layer too far for me. Kelly has the lighter touch on piano and this makes a difference to the unison melody renditions. Even by Rhodes standards the sound is pretty naff and starts to grate after a while. It’s only a slight irritant though and it certainly doesn’t inhibit my enjoyment of the music.

Andy’s trump card in the world of jazz is that he is a composer of no small ability and versatility – a quality I’m guessing will make him extremely popular once more people get to hear his tunes. I’m sure there’s been a ton of theses written on the dearth of decent tunesmiths in jazz but I’m going to speculate totally off the top of my head and venture that the separation between players and tunes coincided with the demise of the American musical after the Rogers and Hammerstein era. Prior to that Broadway had supplied many of the staples of what we now know as the Great American Songbook. In my view the last great jazz translation of a show tune was John Coltrane’s sublime reading of My Favourite Things from The Sound of Music.

The sung-through musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Stephen Sondheim tended towards a more homogenous score and were less likely to contain tunes with enough elevation to interest jazzers. Around the same time many of the great player-composers who’d made up the other half of the book, died (Charlie Parker, Coltrane, Clifford Brown), or put their feet up (Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington) or gallivanted off in entirely new musical directions (Wayne Shorter, Charles Mingus). Then in the sixties, the shift to Latin rhythms exemplified by the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim, more or less closed the book on the jazz standard. Why would anyone want to invest in new tunes when they could play Ornithology, Joy Spring or Nica’s Dream? This legacy carried within it the seeds of its own destruction because no art form can suffer the finite indefinitely. At some point someone was going to have to start over, and many have fallen trying.

Now, forty or so years down the track, Andy Young appears with a big fat batch of meaty compositions that seem to me at least to slot right back into the grand tradition of the jazz tune. The format on this new CD mirrors the successful configuration on Downside Up. You’ve got ten substantial numbers nudging the content just over the hour mark with a mixed bag of up and down tempos and an impressive spectrum of moods. There is a much bolder emotional palette on display on this second album. The ballads are the best indicator of that maturing in confidence. Serenade on Downside Up, although slightly melancholic is carefree and somewhat restrained. My Joy on Walk On Up, on the other hand, exposes a genuine saudade of the type that truly haunts. I hope Andy records more ballads next time around.

So, music-loving readers, I urge you to purchase this collection – the quality of my Christmas present may depend on it…

* This is not the album cover - I tried to scan it but it's a bit fuzzy so you have instead some of my extremely bad art work.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Chance is a fine thing

Metropolis by Rosalie Gascoigne, Art Gallery of NSW

It may have been the kind of week that changes one’s life. I don’t know, ask me in five years time. I do know I’m not half bad at predictions, having accurately pinpointed the global financial meltdown – an assertion easily confirmed by posts around September 2007 when I was scrabbling to liquefy my meagre assets and consolidate a debt-free future before the excrement collided with the cooling device. I just knew it was going to clobber Britain and I was right. It’s a great time to have neither a job nor a mortgage, (unless of course both are insignificant), not to mention your life’s savings in the Royal Bank of Scotland. As many of you know, my artful dodge only meant I’d skimmed that first hurdle but there was still a long and painful race of indeterminate furlongs stretching out as far is the blinkered eye could see. The Gumpish question in my head resounded like a twenty-four hour alarm clock - ‘what’s my destiny, Mom?’

This time last week, as I was meditating my headspace into a suitable state of nirvana in which to begin my studies at the Larrikin’s End School of Fine Art and Advanced Macramé, (and foraging in the miscellaneous toiletries box for patchouli oil as a back-up strategy), I flicked on the newly instated television to watch Sunday Arts on the ABC. For reasons best known to its producers, Sunday Arts usually devotes itself to the championing of neo-polka but it is equally usually tolerable for its visual arts content and the neo-polka segments are useful intervals in which to mix a G&T, toss some rice snacks into a bowl and remove a slab of (pre-homemade) pizza from the freezer.

Rosalie Gascoigne was one of the featured artists last week. Beginning her art career in her fifties, she quickly became one of Australia’s most significant artists and the first woman to represent the country at the Venice Biennale (1982), a mere four years after her first solo exhibition. A sculptor and bricoleur, she created immensely rhythmic and lyrical works out of weathered materials rescued from the land, bestowing upon them an enhanced but still faithful new context. Even on the small flat screen, these pieces communicated to me a truth about the world that seems absent more often than I find entirely comfortable.

My first week as a ‘mature’ (as if) student was a revelation in many ways. Firstly, unlike real life, there were no crazies to contend with. We all sat around the reassuringly paint-spattered furniture determinedly chopping at/daubing with or organising colours, lines and shades as if it were as natural as, well, toasting bread and calling it breakfast. On Wednesday, over our free (hurrah!) but cold and demonstrably Nescafé (merde doble!) morning beverage, I happened to ask if anyone had seen the segment on Rosalie Gascoigne. One of my mature (and she actually does seem to fit the spirit of the name) colleagues, not only had seen it but had a book on the artist in her bag. Under only slight coercion, she was persuaded to lend it to me. Not only did she perform this exceptional act of generosity, she also informed me that there was a retrospective of my new-found heroine showing at the National Gallery of Victoria. I needed little persuasion to head for the train station and book a concession day return to Melbourne using my freshly minted student card.

At 4.30 am on Friday morning, it seemed a less good idea but I got up, packed a rucksack with fresh-brewed coffee, an essay on post-modernism and Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife and headed for the connecting bus. By 9.30 I’d arrived in Melbourne and was perusing the works of Rosalie Gascoigne and I saw something one always looks for but rarely finds in art, humanity nestling with majesty as if they were soulmates. This was the truth that had reached out from the little flat screen and grabbed me by the throat. It was the experience I most wanted to have at the moment I most needed to have it. Here was a set of instructions for setting the world to rights. Rosalie Gascoigne, although dead for ten years, seemed to have come back to earth to explain how exactly to reorder the world so it can function honestly again.

Retrospectives are a joy because you get a speed tour of the artist’s head in an hour or so. It’s enormously stimulating, like receiving an intravenous download of a lifetime of blood, sweat and tears. Having had the opportunity to read a little about Gascoigne before the exhibition, my view was illuminated by knowing some of her story. As the educated and erudite young wife of an astronomer emigrating from New Zealand to Australia in 1943, she found herself isolated for years on a barren mountain-top with three small children to bring up. She spoke of the extreme loneliness and the need to establish purpose, which sounds perfectly plausible now, but in fifties Australia was the last thing a woman was given leave to contemplate. Women were expected to devote themselves to décor and the only fine art they were permitted to master was that of sniping each other into a highly constricting social order.

Rosalie Gascoigne found her purpose in what lay around her and became a monumental artist in part because she wasn’t prepared to compromise her vision by succumbing to the carousel of trivia paraded as a woman's lot. I could go on about her work for a month but it’s all been said already. What interested me is the single-mindedness of her journey, which was undertaken with the most astounding navigational skill and insight. Completely ignoring social convention, (as opposed to wasting her energies railing against it), she scoured the countryside for the detritus of post-industrial life, farm machinery, corrugated iron, wooden soft drinks boxes and decommissioned road warning signs, often having to negotiate courageously with suspicious males who incongruously assumed custody when they discovered a woman was interested in their erstwhile trash. From these scraps a new object was synthesised. Individually, these items were just waste but collectively they made something metaphorically powerful and always aesthetically beautiful. She had learned from the Japanese discipline of Ikebana that placement is everything in art, as it is in life. One is nothing without one’s surroundings.

What Gascoigne could or would not do in domesticity, she resolved in art. She talks about being a hopeless housekeeper, not because she didn’t try but very often because the elements diminished all reasonable effort. Dust storms, lack of suitable equipment and the severe cold all conspired to place a ‘housewife’ firmly in the red. Housework is a zero-sum game at best, an equation that’s well understood now. Gascoigne collected domestic materials (enamel-ware, linoleum, food containers and labels) and tamed them into an order that is serene and permanent. All external conflict was resolved using the same ameliorative but determined method. Of course one can never know how these dynamics really play out in families. I’m not sure I’d have liked to come home to a house full of sheep bones and saw marks on the dining room table. As Gascoigne’s career was peeking, her astronomer husband Ben was retiring after an illustrious career. He seems genuinely to have settled into a supportive role as her cataloguer, archivist and general factotum. Don’t you wish all relationships could be like that?

She said,

‘Chance is a fine thing and it serves me well.’

And I agree. Thanks to the timely intervention of my introduction to the work of Rosalie Gascoigne, the road ahead now seems far less daunting, this week at least…

Monday, March 02, 2009

Light entertainment

The Scream by Pants

I was minding my own, one of my core talents, when there was a knock at the front door. I love saying that – front door I mean. I’m used to only having one entrance. Seat of Pants is so grand, it has three doors – front back and top. A rap on the door of my Hackney flat signified a neighbour. Non-residents were obliged to make their representations for entry via an annoying intercom contraption and, unless I had actually invited someone around or ordered books from Amazon, I ignored its hideous trill. The caller was only going to be some sad fuck whose job it was to convince me to do something I’d never have thought of and had no interest in. Neither did I then nor do I now have even the remotest desire to be reminded that there are people in the world of such breathtakingly limited intelligence they don’t realise it is far more noble to kill yourself than to participate willingly in the demise of civility by bothering someone carrying out the concerted task of being.

There is evidence that Seat of Pants once had Hollywood-style delusions of fortress as the heavy front gates carried a small sign that read,

If gates are locked, please buzz.

I took it down as I don’t ever shut the gates and I didn’t like the idea of people standing outside them making like the bees. It might have done terrible things to the psyches of the actual bees. So someone had walked in through the trustingly open gates and up on to the little landing and knocked at my door. The only person who was ever likely to visit me was already here and I hadn’t ordered books from Amazon. I leaned over my bedroom balcony with all the confidence and authority of a senior Capulet, to find not Romeo waiting beneath but the bastard son of Nathan Detroit.

‘Luke’, as he claimed to be, was dressed so casually he would have been refused entry to the beach. The most formal element of his attire was a plastic disk on a string bearing the words Simply Energy slung untidily around his neck. He began his spiel,

‘I’m here to save you money,’ he bleated.

‘I don’t want to change my energy supplier,’ I retorted and turned to walk away.

‘No, no,’ he asserted, opening a folder, ‘I don’t represent an energy supplier. I’m a private contractor. Don’t you want to save money?’

I immediately recalled the two times I’d returned to London after several month’s absence to discover my electricity supply had been annexed by an insidious transformer monster called Powergen. You only find out such a liberty has been taken when the mountain of accumulated post reveals a sad little letter from London Electricity expressing hurt resignation that you’ve elected to desert them after years of mutual adoration. You phone them to say you would do no such thing as that’s not the way you’ve been brought up and you honestly believe re-establishing direct debits to be more painful than giving birth to triplets. They tell you, very slowly, you must have agreeably signed a contract to do so with some snivelling little Luke who interrupted your rapt absorption in Spring Watch. As if. I felt my eyes turn to lasers.

Luke steals himself for the hard sell,

‘Look,’ I train the lasers on to his opened folder. It is full of forms filled out in spindly writing. Old people. He’s preying on old people. I recall with murderous clarity the time one such huckster bullied Ma Pants. I could hear her at the door, trying to get him to go away, sternly but politely. In the end, I went and stood behind her just so he’d know she wasn’t alone. He left, eventually. ‘Your electricity supplier is SP-something or other…’ Luke didn’t know and he was trying to get me to tell him. Who’d fall for that? I maintained my silence and fine-tuned the lasers. I spoke slowly,

‘I do not want to change my supplier. We’re done here.’

‘Why don’t you like me?’

He was genuinely shocked that I felt no obligation to succumb to his odious advances, even though I’d made it obvious I knew he was trying to bake porkies in my oven. Why was he wasting his time like this? Why is there such limited understanding of the nature of co-operation – i.e. that there has to be some discernible benefit for people to participate? Isn’t it the very essence of this ‘choice’ culture we’ve all embraced so keenly at the expense of quality? Why would someone go door-to-door and then go head-to-head with a hostile householder? Picture it, ‘oh well, since you’re being so coercive and condescending, a combination which I find curiously charming, give it here you cheeky chappy.’ I think not.

And then there’s the choice that’s more like a kidnap. The sheer chutzpah of the Powergen episodes was confounding, even on the back of twenty-four hours of in flight existentialism. Place yourself in the Powergen boardroom during the conversation that must have precipitated this ingenious growth strategy,

‘The people aren’t buying our transfer argument Howard.’

‘That’s not good, Brendan. I know, let’s just change them over without asking. They probably just don’t want to be bothered with the details. After all, we’re a great company. Why would they not want us to supply all their energy needs going forward?’

Both times I complained vehemently to Energy Watch, the industry guard dog. It transpired that forging people’s signatures is common practice in the cutthroat energy supply business. It seems once people have been co-opted, they quite often can’t be bothered to go to all the effort of changing back.

Life’s administrative tasks hold no thrall for me. My time is worth infinitely more than the money I’d save by swapping a shark for a snake. I chose my energy supplier because i) it uses renewable energy, ii) I had a personal recommendation from someone who is not criminally insane, iii) it isn’t Singapore-owned, (although China might have snapped it up this morning).

The gracious life transformation is very nearly complete. After more research than went into The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, I have rationalised my communication needs and have gone totally wireless, thus deftly avoiding the certainty of half a dozen calls a day from people trying to flog me everything from tea towels to tap water. I now have a little broadband stick from a company that is unfortunately Singapore-owned but also the lesser of three evils. The other choices were a notoriously incompetent Australian company hated here more than Pol Pot and a British company owned by the person I despise most in the world, ‘Sir’ Rich Bastard Brandname. There has also been another secular adjustment – I’ve become a student. Yes friends, I have enrolled in the Larrikin’s End School of Fine Art and Advanced Macramé. I’ve threatened to do it for years and now I’m a fully passported citizen of Bohemia. This is bad news for you folks as you’ll now be getting a regular dose of my extremely bad art with every post. In this instance I’m afraid there is no choice…