Friday, 28 January 2011

photographic abstraction

One of the delights of digital photography is that you’re freed from the tyranny of having to decide whether something you see is worth using a frame of film, which means that you can take photographs of anything. I wonder how many people do. Take photos of anything, that is. For me, the only criterion is whether I like the image. It doesn’t have to be an intimate snapshot of friends or family; it doesn’t have to be of a ‘picturesque’ landscape; it certainly doesn’t have to be of a famous landmark. I like to take pictures that aren’t of anything.

In other words, I like to photograph images that were they painted and hanging in galleries would be considered ‘art’ by the cognoscenti. I make no such claims for the photographs that follow, although I could promote them as ‘found images’ in the tradition of Marcel Duchamp, who famously exhibited a porcelain urinal as a ‘found object’, claiming that because the world is full of interesting objects, it isn’t necessary to create new ones. The ‘art’ was claimed to be in the simple act of selection, but in fact the statement being made by Duchamp was that it’s art if he said it was. It was probably quite a profound statement when first made, but it sounds trite and banal now, and it opened the door to all manner of mountebanks and charlatans.

I could claim an affinity with abstract expressionism, but these photographs have neither Kandinsky’s vibrancy of colour nor Jackson Pollock’s fluidity of line. They are simply images that I find aesthetically pleasing. They were taken with a cheap six-year-old digital camera, and I have given them fanciful titles; you may feel that they remind you of something else. Let me know if they do.

tattered banners

the big bang, as seen from a nearby universe

the enchanted forest

light and darkness

Sunday, 23 January 2011

the colour of money

How much reliance do you place on promises? Do you, for example, expect them to be kept? Before you answer, you might want to consider the following:
The Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation Limited promises to pay the bearer on demand at its office here ONE HUNDRED HONG KONG DOLLARS.
Inscription on HK$100 banknote.
This statement is meaningless. Assuming that the bank isn’t going to exchange your $100 note for another, I can’t help but wonder what it thinks the promise means. It’s obviously not going to exchange your $100 banknote for one $70 and two $15 notes, although it might as well given that this so-called promise is no more than a form of words. A piece of paper bearing such a promise is essentially worthless. Money is only as good as the confidence that people have in it, and paper money, it turns out, is no more than a gigantic fraud perpetrated against willing victims.

Until the First World War, it was possible to go into the head office of a note-issuing bank in most industrial countries and exchange such a promissory note for its equivalent value in gold. The war put paid to that practice. In even earlier times, silver (or gold), neatly fashioned into convenient units, was the only kind of money. Its value was real and instantly recognizable. Now all the ‘silver’ coins are cupronickel, which, if not intrinsically worthless, has a value that is a mere fraction of the amount engraved on the coin. Gold coins still exist, but they are not for everyday commercial transactions: they are simply bullion, a convenient way to amass and store wealth.

When humans first began to coalesce into settled agricultural communities, there was no money, and any inter-community trade would have been via the medium of barter. This would have worked well enough between small communities with broadly similar products to offer and similar needs, but as villages became towns and towns became cities, the need for a more efficient system would have become increasingly apparent. Hence the invention of coins, which resolved the obvious difficulty of finding someone who was willing to exchange their cattle directly for a wagon, or a sack of grain for a bolt of cloth.

Unfortunately, anyone receiving a gold or silver coin could not be sure what they were getting: coins might be of their proclaimed weight and therefore value, or they might be less. They might also contain an unknown amount of a base metal. Over time, a coin’s intrinsic value would be related to the perceived reliability of the issuing authority. In other words, money would either be reliable but scarce or unreliable but relatively plentiful. In both cases, uncertainty would be built in: uncertainty over opportunities for earning money, or uncertainty over what that money, once earned, would buy.

However, ingenuity didn’t stop with the invention of coins. The next innovation was the establishment of banks, which were used principally as repositories for accumulated wealth. They flourished first in the Roman Empire and reached a high level of development in the Italian city-states of the Renaissance. However, the first major innovation in banking practice took place in Amsterdam in the early seventeenth century. The majority of coins in circulation at that time were appallingly deficient in weight and/or purity, so the city’s merchants created a bank that was owned by the city—an embryonic central bank. The Bank of Amsterdam solved the problem of quality by going back to a system that had preceded the invention of coins: weighing. A merchant could bring all the coins that he had received in the course of business to the bank, and after they had been weighed their total value would be credited to his account.

This turned out to be a reliable form of money, because the merchant could then transfer some of that credit to a fellow merchant, and the recipient could be sure that he was getting honest weight. It wasn’t long before payments through the bank commanded a premium over conventional transactions. But then came an interesting discovery: the money deposited with the bank didn’t have to sit idly; the bank could lend that money. The borrower then had an amount that could be spent, but the original deposit could also be spent. There is an obvious difficulty here: the borrower and the depositor must not come for their money at the same time. They must trust the bank, trust it as far as believing that it isn’t doing what it does as a matter of routine.

One of the recurring themes in the history of money is that every system for its creation and management contains within itself the seeds of some unforeseen future abuse. It was thus with coins, clipped, ‘sweated’ with acid and otherwise debased until faith in their value had been eroded almost beyond repair. And so it was with the Bank of Amsterdam, which lent huge sums to the Dutch East India Company. The men who ran the bank were often the same men who ran the company, and over time the scrutiny given to loans grew increasingly lax. Times became harder for the company: there was war with Britain, and ships didn’t come back. One by one, loans went into default. As noted above, a bank can operate only if its depositors do not come for their money all at once. However, if they even suspect that they won’t be able to withdraw their money, they are sure to come. And they did. The Bank of Amsterdam was wound up in 1819.

However, long before the Bank of Amsterdam finally closed its doors, a far more spectacular example of banking malfeasance had occurred in France. Louis XIV had died in 1715, leaving the country bankrupt after a long and extravagant reign marked by a succession of largely pointless wars with much of the rest of Europe, and an heir only five years old. The country was therefore left in the hands of the regent, the Duc d’Orléans, a dissolute character with an expensive lifestyle and a big problem. The treasury was empty.

Apparently hopeless situations such as these offer opportunities for a scoundrel, and it wasn’t long before one appeared. John Law was the son of an Edinburgh goldsmith who, in 1716, obtained permission from the regent to open the Banque Générale. As part of the deal, Law’s bank took over the debts of the regent, and therefore of the country. In 1718, the bank became the Banque Royale, meaning that notes issued by the bank were guaranteed by the king; these notes were, in essence, promises to pay their holders their face value in silver or gold. It is not difficult to see why the regent was so easily persuaded.

In 1717, Law had acquired the Mississippi Company to support the French colony of Louisiana and to mine the ‘unlimited’ supplies of precious metals to be found there. However, as would soon become apparent to holders of the bank’s notes, the gold and silver backing the notes was in mines as yet undiscovered in the unexplored parts of the colony, which extended well beyond the boundaries of the modern American state, north to Minnesota, west to the Rockies and east to the Alleghenies.

By 1719, Law’s notes were being issued in the hundreds of millions. Government creditors who were paid off in the notes rushed to buy stock in the Mississippi Company and the Banque Royale. From the proceeds of these sales, more money could be lent to the government, more notes could be issued, and yet more stock could be sold. It was in effect a closed system for recycling worthless paper in which everyone involved was getting rich, on paper. The word ‘millionaire’ first appears during this episode.

Inevitably, doubts began to surface about the reality of the gold and silver, and people started to bring in their banknotes for redemption. By no stretch of the imagination was there enough gold and silver to pay off the notes, so payment was suspended. Law was lucky to get out of Paris alive.

However, there is another side to this story. In his role as comptroller general of France, Law had directed large sums into building canals and other useful public works. His mistake was not in issuing paper money but in issuing too much of it. Could the system be made to work if used in moderation?

The Bank of England had been set up in similar circumstances in 1694. The king, William of Orange, was also in debt, not as a result of succeeding Louis XIV but as a result of fighting him. He was persuaded that such a bank would solve his problems. Rich private subscribers put up the cash he needed, in return for which they were allowed to issue notes backed by the king’s promise to pay. This evolved into a system whereby these original subscribers, goldsmiths and the like, issued banknotes secured against the bullion in their vaults. When the Bank of England received such notes, it returned them for redemption, thus ensuring that these early bankers weren’t reckless in their issuing of banknotes.

As noted above, this remained the paradigm for the management of money until after the First World War, by which time the issuing of banknotes had become the prerogative of central banks. However, around this time the private banks discovered that they could make more money and therefore more profit not by lending money but by investing it. And therein lay the seeds of further abuse. Where investment had once been in stocks and shares, it metamorphosed into another system for recycling worthless paper: ‘structured investment vehicle’ sounds very impressive, until you realize that this was the label attached to an investment backed by American sub-prime mortgages. Which swindler thought that one up?

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

guess who’s coming to dinner

It’s traditional for Chinese families to get together on New Year’s Eve, which this year falls on the second of February, for a dinner, sometimes at home but more often in one of the many big restaurants around town. Needless to say, trying to book a table at this time of year is very difficult, which is why our family dinner will be tomorrow night.

Hong Kong’s restaurants are a bellwether for the territory’s economy, and if the restaurant we’re going to is half empty, then the outlook is not promising. Note that I’m talking about midweek restaurant patronage; if restaurants are also half empty at weekends, then it’s time to start stocking non-perishable foodstuffs at home, because the suicides will be raining down from the upper floors of Hong Kong’s financial district, and the economic weather report will be uglier than a black rainstorm warning from the Hong Kong Observatory.

I’ve no idea what the menu will be, but with a few possible exceptions—goose webs and sea slugs spring to mind—I’m sure I’ll like it. I’m used to multi-course dinners nowadays, and it puzzles me why in the Anglo-Saxon world in a similar situation each diner would select their own individual dish, even in a Chinese restaurant, where one person might order sweet and sour pork, another beef in black bean sauce and a third fried noodles. Surely it’s more fun to share, and the upside is that you get to try several dishes. Of course, you may not agree if your chopstick technique isn’t up to scratch.

At the first such twelve-to-a-table dinner I attended, in 1974, I instinctively left the last piece of food on a dish because it seemed impolite to be the one to take it, but as with the spilling of tea on the tablecloth, I soon noticed that no one else had any misgivings about that last piece. Chinese table etiquette, I realized, is quite different to that in my home country.

And if that isn’t something to look forward to, Paula and I will be attending a wedding banquet on Sunday. Although I’ve spent most of the last 37 years in Hong Kong, this will be only the eighth I’ve been to. However, it will be the fifth in the past three years, so naturally I’m hoping that this sudden increase in frequency can be sustained.

Who wouldn’t be hopeful? All the dishes on the menu will be expensive and thus not part of my normal diet. In fact, I can predict almost all the dishes that will be served, because there is remarkably little variation. The first course is certain to be barbecued whole suckling pig, one of my favourites. The fourth course will be shark’s fin soup.

I’m very ambivalent about the soup. I know that I should refuse my bowl on environmental grounds, but it would be an empty gesture, because it would have no effect on the barbaric practice of ‘harvesting’ sharks’ fins and throwing the unwanted parts of the fish overboard. It is the responsibility of the bridegroom’s family to request that it not be on the menu, but they have a dilemma: were it not on the menu, it would be a signal to those attending that they need not put quite so much money in the packets traditionally given to the newlyweds on such an occasion.

The sixth course will be steamed garoupa. This may be the only dish on the menu that I will eat on other occasions, mainly because it’s possible to order a small fish, unlike the monsters that will fill the platters at a banquet. I must put in a word for this method of cooking fish. Most fish have very delicate flavours, so I don’t see any point in cooking one in a spicy sauce, which will overpower the principal ingredient. This fish will have been steamed with nothing more than spring onions and shredded ginger.

The seventh course will be deep-fried crispy chicken, another of my favourites. There is scope for variation in courses two, three and five. The second is likely to be some variant of stir-fried prawns, while the fifth will probably be abalone, the world’s most expensive shellfish. The third course is an interesting one: it will be an indicator of how extravagant the bridegroom’s family has been. The cheaper option is stir-fried fresh scallops with broccoli, but we are far more likely to be served a marrow ring containing a whole dried scallop. These are widely available in dried goods stores throughout Hong Kong and are seriously expensive. The largest ones will set you back the equivalent of £60 per pound, six times the cost of the fresh version and ten times the cost of broken bits, which are ideal for making soup, the only thing that dried scallops are good for.

After the main courses, there will be a dish of rice and a dish of noodles, which are there as ‘fillers’. At a wedding banquet, not much of either is eaten. Then comes a hot, sweet soup, which will probably be made from red beans, green beans or sesame seeds, followed by some kind of cake or biscuit and, finally, a fruit platter, which may include tangerines (the symbol of prosperity) but is more likely to be something non-sticky, like watermelon.

Although the food is the principal attraction, there are any number of interesting sideshows, which vary from wedding to wedding. Some are embarrassing, like the practice of getting the bridegroom to carry his wife around the room as fast as he can, presumably for the amusement of the guests, who shout encouragement. The roles will then be reversed and the whole spectacle repeated.

One invariant is the mah jong: many guests will have been at the restaurant since early afternoon, and the restaurant will have enough sets of tiles, tables and lights for several dozen games to take place simultaneously. Annoyingly, when it comes to chow time, you can be sure that several tables will continue to play beyond the scheduled time. I now consider it safe to assume that the banquet will never start on time.

In any case, it is considered appropriate to arrive at least an hour before that, so there is the problem of finding something to occupy my attention in the interim. I’m probably hungry, because wedding banquets are always scheduled to start a good two hours later than the usual Chinese dinner time, which is earlier than it would be for most Westerners. Consequently, my second move is always to check out what food is available to keep hungry guests from fainting in public.

If I’m lucky, there will be some savoury Chinese pastries; if I’m not, the only thing to eat will be an assortment of fancy Chinese cakes. To say that I don’t like the kind of cakes offered in a Chinese cake shop, which these would be, is a gross understatement. And if you’re wondering what kind of cakes I’m describing, then imagine throwing one at a wall. It would probably splatter, and most of it would stick. Just what you need before tucking into seven consecutive savoury courses. And if you wondered what my first move is: I grab a beer, if there’s any available (not always the case).

Another part of the pre-banquet ritual is the bridal photographs. Paula and I are usually guests via some work connection, so we have no role to play in this part of the proceedings, but at a recent family wedding we all took our turns at being photographed with the bride and groom. The printed photos were delivered to our tables before the end of the meal, but the memory that I took away from this banquet is of my father-in-law, resplendent in a neat blue suit, shiny new tie, and trainers.

By this time, all the guests will be seated, but there is one more penance to suffer before they bring on the food: a cringingly awful audiovisual compilation of how the happy couple’s love blossomed. At least, by way of compensation, they will have started serving the red wine by this time, and it won’t take the nearest foki with a bottle long to notice that this gweilo tends to drink quite a lot faster than anyone else within his area of responsibility. I always do when it’s free. I’ve never been known to pass up on free drink. The only problem is that when someone is constantly recharging your glass, it’s hard to know how much you’ve drunk. The only thing I can say is not enough to make me forget to pick up one of the printed menus as a souvenir (when you have a few, they make interesting comparative reading).

At this point, you will have to excuse me. I need to practise my signature, which I hardly ever use. The first character, ‘Hon’, has eighteen strokes, which are easy enough to remember, but it’s only a surname, so signing my name is the only time I write it. And it’s important to write it with panache, which in this context means fast, so I need to practise it a couple of times to make sure I don’t betray any momentary hesitation because I can’t remember which stroke comes next in the sequence.

The connection of my Chinese signature to a wedding banquet should really have been explained at the beginning of this report, because it refers to the first thing you see upon entering the banqueting area: two young ladies seated behind a large table. On the table is an ornamental silk tablecloth on which guests are signing their names. The marker pens they give you are not the best tools for writing Chinese, but my efforts never fail to elicit squeals of surprise. Some people are easily impressed.

Monday, 17 January 2011

the curse of the midland railway

The Midland Railway was in 1923 the only railway company running into London that didn’t have its head office in the capital, and before Britain’s railways were consolidated into just four companies in that year, it was the third largest in the country. It connected London with the cities of the East Midlands and Yorkshire, finally terminating in the small border city of Carlisle.

Although it offered a route to Scotland, it couldn’t compete with the London and North Western Railway’s alternative, which merely skirted Birmingham and split the difference between Manchester and Liverpool on its way to Carlisle. Nor could it match the Great Northern Railway, with its partner the North Eastern Railway, whose combined line reached the south bank of the River Tyne before encountering the largest population centre en route to its eventual destination, Newcastle, on the north bank of the same river.

The Midland, by contrast, served six major cities—Leicester, Nottingham, Derby, Sheffield, Leeds and Bradford—in addition to several important industrial towns. Because of the delays that serving so many large population centres entails, the Midland’s main line carried a negligible share of the Scotland traffic. However, the company did have a huge market in short-range intercity transport. It also had a monopoly on traffic from the Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire coalfields, which was bound to cause problems as business expanded, because mineral trains are heavy and therefore very slow, and the Midland developed an abysmal reputation for punctuality. It was rumoured that engine crews sometimes spent an entire shift waiting at a stop signal, and a journey from London’s St Pancras station to Carlisle might take two or three days instead of the scheduled eight hours.

The Midland’s great competitor was the Great Central Railway, which was based in Manchester. It had previously been known as the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway (MS&LR), or Money Sunk and Lost Railway by the locals, a name later taken up by the popular press. Its original Manchester–Sheffield main line through the Woodhead Tunnel was the most arduous of the trans-Pennine routes, with nominal gradients of 1 in 40, although some sections were actually steeper, the result of subsidence caused by mining.

In the 1890s, the MS&LR, which had built docks at Grimsby and Immingham to facilitate the export of coal from south Yorkshire, started to extend its operations into Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire to tap into the lucrative coal traffic from this region. Then, in 1895, it began to build its own line into London, motivated perhaps by the delusions of grandeur of its directors, who had decided to rename the company to better reflect its image. The vainglory of these people is amply demonstrated by noting that in 1913 they commissioned a new class of express passenger locomotives, the so-called ‘Director’ class, each of which was named after a member of this clique.

Unfortunately, by this time all the ‘easy’ routes had been taken, and although it served Nottingham and Leicester, the bulk of the route passed through sparsely populated rural areas and small market towns on its way to Marylebone station in London. It was not, in other words, a sound business decision. Shareholders saw little return on their investment, which was reflected in a new sobriquet: the Gone Completely Railway.

Needless to say, the citizens of Sheffield, Nottingham and Leicester preferred the more direct and thus cheaper Midland Railway route to London, so the GCR’s so-called ‘London extension’ operated at a loss almost from the start. The company’s directors, who had by this time voted to move their head office from Manchester to London, could come up with no ideas to stem this severe drain on its coffers (more money sunk and lost). In desperation, they decided to call for suggestions from the railway’s workforce, and many were forthcoming, but not one was both practical and easy to implement.

The most bizarre of these suggestions came from Duncan Drummond, nephew of the Caledonian Railway’s former chief mechanical engineer Dugald Drummond and a foreman in the GCR’s Gorton locomotive works in east Manchester. The younger Drummond was well known in the company as ‘Drunken Duncan’, for obvious reasons, so his contribution was dismissed by the board without a formal debate. It consisted of a single quatrain, which Duncan said had been composed by his grandmother, who lived in Ballachulish in the Scottish Highlands and was believed by her neighbours to be a witch. According to Duncan, it had once, many years ago, taken her more than three days to get from London to Carlisle, most of the time not moving at all. Some things never change.

The original paper on which the quatrain was scrawled has not survived, but the quatrain itself remained part of the folklore at Gorton until the locomotive works closed in 1963. I heard about it during a tour of the works in 1961, and although there is no guarantee that the version I heard was a verbatim rendition of the original, I believe it to be substantially accurate. I made a note of it at the time because it seemed so strange, and also because nobody knew what it meant:
The six citadels have raised regiments of foot,
and all will count amongst the most renowned,
but in final judgement shall they be cast down
and the bounty of the sky will be lost for ever.
I have shown this to adherents of the mountebank Nostradamus, but none of the interpretations I received were even remotely convincing (much like the so-called prophecies of their hero). However, in the past few years, I have finally succeeded in deciphering this apparent gibberish.

The ‘six citadels’ are the six cities connected to London by the Midland Railway—Leicester, Nottingham, Derby, Sheffield, Leeds and Bradford—and the ‘regiments of foot’ are those cities’ football clubs. In the modern era, ‘the most renowned’ must refer to membership of the English Premier League, and it is the case that Leicester City, Nottingham Forest, Derby County, Sheffield Wednesday, Sheffield United, Leeds United and Bradford City have all spent more than one season in this exalted company. The Nottingham, Derby and Leeds clubs all topped the old First Division in my lifetime, while Forest were actually champions of Europe in 1979 and 1980, so there is some illustrious history there. Unfortunately, all have since been relegated, and several have even dropped into the third tier of English professional football (‘shall they be cast down’).

If you’ve been following so far, you will probably have deduced that ‘the bounty of the sky’ is a reference to the satellite broadcaster BSkyB, known colloquially as ‘Sky’, given its responsibility for the obscene amounts of cash sloshing around the Premier League nowadays.

An intriguing tale. I’m not sure if I believe it myself. Do you? Do you believe in prophecy? Was the precipitous decline of these once famous clubs foretold more than a century ago by an old crone with a grudge? Or are they in the wilderness because their football teams are crap?

Thursday, 13 January 2011

puzzled

I was a student in a traditional wing chun school in the 1980s, although in this case ‘traditional’ referred to the mental discipline and not to the surroundings, which were merely an empty apartment in a rundown block a few minutes walk from Temple Street, a thoroughfare that has long been famous for its market but is no longer of real interest, except perhaps to tourists.

Three times a week, I used to walk down Temple Street, where in those days you could buy all sorts of rip-offs, knock-offs and fakes, most of them of appallingly shoddy quality. ‘Polex’ watches, with the hands carefully placed to conceal the subterfuge, and ‘Philirs’ cassette players were a standing joke. You could sample snake soup (delicious—trust me), watch people undergoing alfresco amateur dentistry, or listen to a traditional Chinese orchestra. In the street’s new tourist-friendly incarnation, the orchestra has probably survived, although in the old days there might be three or four, all within earshot at the same time.

And there was the man who made traditional Chinese wire puzzles, beautifully crafted out of brass wire with nothing more than a pair of pliers. He always had a crowd around, all trying various puzzles, but I suspect that he had few customers. I was one. Whenever I tried a puzzle, I was checking to see whether it was worth buying, while the crowds were merely amusing themselves. When I picked one out, the man offered to show me how to solve it. What? No way. I’m buying it because I want the pleasure of solving it myself. That ‘pleasure’ was sometimes quite prolonged: one puzzle involved hundreds of moves, which had to be made in sequence. It took me months (not continuously, I hasten to add).

I love all kinds of games, puzzles and quizzes, as long as they’re difficult enough to engage my attention in the first place. And I never want to be told the answer or shown the solution. I don’t even want hints, so I’m completely mystified by the following, from Google’s mobile blog:
Now, Goggles on Android and iPhone can recognize puzzles and provide answers to help make you faster than a Sudoku champ. So if you ever get stuck, take a clear picture of the entire puzzle with Goggles and we’ll tell you the correct solution.
What is the point? I know that a sudoku can be very frustrating, especially if you make a mistake early on and then base every subsequent deduction, directly or indirectly, on that error. I would either give up—there’s always another one—or get out the correction fluid and start again. On the other hand, I can see why someone might want to write a program to solve sudokus—it is an intellectual challenge, and, as puzzles go, quite a good one—but use of the end-product has something significant to say about the need for instant gratification that is built into modern popular attitudes towards almost everything.

There is a subtle but important point to be made here: despite the claim outlined above, this application does not provide a solution, merely an answer. In other words, it doesn’t show the sequence of deductions needed to complete the puzzle. Without understanding the method, what use is the result, except to impress your friends, who may not be aware that you obtained the answer by cheating?

Unfortunately, cheating to solve a puzzle has a long and inglorious history: the most famous puzzle cheat of all time was probably Alexander the Great, who used his sword to cut through the Gordian knot because he was either too thick or too impatient to untie it by conventional means. The irony of this episode of puzzle brigandage is that it has become a metaphor for success in a particularly difficult endeavour (“I have cut the Gordian knot”), which perpetuates the notion that cheating is acceptable, even if in modern usage that aspect of the story has been forgotten.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

musical memories

A few days ago, I was listening to my ‘general playlist’ when a song started that can only be described as ‘weird’. “What’s this?” Paula asked. I explained that it triggered a very specific memory, and I began to wonder how many other tracks on that playlist would also set off such detailed recollections. Here are some of the highlights, ordered according to the date of the original memory:

Marvin Gaye — Can I Get a Witness
In the early 1960s, a vinyl single would set you back six shillings and eightpence, but once a month the local record shop was visited by a travelling salesman, who always left a pile of demo records. These were intended as a guide for possible future orders, but the proprietor merely put them on sale, and at a meagre two shillings and sixpence (half a crown) each, they were a godsend for cash-strapped teenagers like me.

This record is the only one I can now remember buying as a demo. It was released at a time when Tamla-Mowtown was not a separate label in the UK; it appeared on EMI’s Stateside label and was not a hit, although I consider it one of Marvin Gaye’s best records. Many years later, when I consulted a catalogue that listed the prices you could expect to pay for old records, I was not surprised to learn that this one would have cost £2, but I was amazed to discover that the demo version was priced at £50! By this time, the owner of the record shop was dead, but I’d have enjoyed winding him up about the fortune that he gave away for peanuts, because every demo is now worth considerably more than a commercial pressing.

Solomon Burke — Down in the Valley
In the autumn of 1964, I was in my first term as a student in Manchester, and at the end of every day I took a bus back to my hall of residence that passed a record shop called the Turntable. It had a sign in the window that read “45s, half a crown each or 10 for £1”. One day, I decided to get off the bus and check it out. The shop had so many must-have records that I ended up spending all my money and was thus obliged to walk the remaining two miles back to the hall.

This record, with its rasping brass accompaniment, was also not a hit in the UK, but it marked the emergence of soul music as a distinct genre. It was the stand-out record among those that I bought there, but when I returned to Manchester after the Christmas vacation the entire area had been demolished, so there was no opportunity for a return visit. I must have caught the tail end of a closing-down sale.

The Bonzo Dog Doo-dah Band — I’m the Urban Spaceman
In the 1960s, it was customary for big-name bands to play at student dances: the Moody Blues, the Who and the Spencer Davis Group all played at Manchester University Student Union while I was there. However, this memory relates to a dilemma I was faced with in 1967. The Faculty of Technology had its own student union, and one Saturday night the Move were playing at the main union, while the Bonzo Dog Doo-dah Band were on at the tech union.

I finally opted for the Bonzos, and I’ve never regretted that choice. Remember, this was meant to be a Saturday night dance, but the band put on a show, the first time I’d seen this done. And what a show: the hall was crowded, and nobody was dancing. It remains one of the most spectacular entertainments I’ve ever seen, and I still picture the onstage antics every time I hear this track.

The Who — Pinball Wizard
It is often alleged that proficiency at snooker is a sure sign of a misspent youth. The same might be said of skill on a Bally pintable. The Dunrobin, the coffee bar where I misspent my youth, had a pintable as well as a jukebox, and I was a frequent player. The custom was that you could play continuously for as long as you liked, unless someone else wanted to play. In that case, when your game was over, you gave way, except, that is, when you had free games on the clock. I often had the free-game clock at or near the limit, and I would eventually sell my games to the next guy.

In 1969, I found myself working in Great Yarmouth, a once genteel seaside resort on the Norfolk coast that had become, with the discovery of gas offshore, a major supply and service base for exploration and production in the UK sector of the southern North Sea. Like every other English seaside town, Great Yarmouth had its amusement arcades, with their pintables and one-armed bandits, and it wasn’t long before I located one. I found a pintable that was identical to the model in the Dunrobin. It cost me sixpence for my first game, after which I was able to keep playing because I kept winning free games. Finally, after about three hours, with the place full and people waiting to play, the owner gave me £5 and told me in a not very friendly manner to bugger off. And not come back.

Now, whenever I hear Pete Townshend’s crashing guitar chords in the introduction to this song, I am unfailingly reminded of this incident.

Earth Opera — The American Eagle Tragedy
If you’ve never heard this record, it’s the weird one referred to in the opening paragraph. I heard it for the first time while lying in hospital in IJmuiden in 1969 as a result of a near-death experience. I was listening to Hilversum, a Dutch English-language radio station, not paying much attention for the obvious reason that the beginning of this record is not attention-grabbing stuff. Suddenly, it kicked into gear with an arresting chorus:
And call out the border guard,
The kingdom is crumbling.
The king is in the counting house,
Laughing and stumbling.
Gosh! This is interesting. Who is it? I’ll find out at the end of the record. Well, no I won’t. There was no back announcement. For years, I asked everyone whom I thought might know, and I followed quite a few red herrings, but I never did find out, or hear the song again.

Until the internet came along. The only clue I had was that chorus, which had stuck in my memory. I tried typing it into Google, and I had one hit, a discussion forum where a poster had quoted it to make a quite different point. But he had the grace to credit the band, which meant that I could go about locating a copy.

I had no idea at the time that this was a Vietnam War protest song, but this was probably because I didn’t remember the rest of the chorus:
His armies are extended,
Way beyond the shore.
As he sends our lovely boys to die,
In a foreign jungle war.
Bucks Fizz — Making Your Mind Up
I am not a fan of the Eurovision Song Contest, but this one had ‘winner’ written all over it in 1981. Bucks Fizz was a vocal quartet (two men, two women) who provided a vigorous onstage presentation of what is a very lively song. My elder son, Siegfried, was only slightly more than two years old, and I still remember his description—“Shaky bum dancing”, which he used every time he heard the song, even without the visuals—every time I hear it now.