Friday, 28 November 2008

Through a glass darkly

As previously posted, trying to find one kind of 'thing' which represents a geographical area can be tricky. Possibly impossible. I've wondered before about what image could represent the Outer Hebrides. Maybe the beach at Luskentyre, or the plane landing at Barra, or a boat leaving the harbour.

But it's this image by The Tamed Shrew (Kate Ferris) on Flickr that, for me, represents the Outer Hebrides. And this is how you take a picture.

She took it while on a bus on the island of Lewis, looking out of the window. On September 4th 2008, through the window, then through the plastic shield of the bus shelter, she saw an old man sitting, waiting for a bus.

The picture and comments can be found on Flickr.


Why does it represent the Outer Hebrides (for me)? Because there are many old, very old, people here, both native and retireess to the archipelago. Every week, the obituary column in the Stornoway Gazette is long, while the births column is short. Funerals are an integral, frequent, intense and raw, and both private and public part of living here. Because it's in black and white, the colours of the Hebrides through the long winter. Because you just know he's got a story, his story, and it will be epic.

I've wondered several times who he is, and what his story is. And I hope he's still alive and will be alive for a lot longer, has led a fulfilling life, and is able to reflect on it with contentment.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

The Sound of Britain

On TV a few years was one of those crappy chart programmes - 'top something or other of Britain', which is a cheap way of filling a whole evening of the schedule. On one such programme, the 'discussion' turned to the most well-known or representative sounds of Britain.

Apart from the fact that it's nonsense (e.g. trying to rank a Scottish bagpiper against a city square nightingale), it did get me thinking about what was the sound that most represented Britain to me. My personal answer:

The laugh of Sid James.

Many of my peers will be quietly horrified I just wrote that.

Sid James (1913 to 1976) was best known as being an actor in the Carry On series of films. There's many clips on YouTube and elsewhere; here's a short one one from Carry On Camping. Sid is the one laughing several times, especially at the end - it's that particular laugh which is my Sound of Britain:


Carry On Camping was the highest grossing film of 1969 in the UK (seriously). The Carry On films were massive in the UK, especially in that oddly misunderstood decade, the 1960's with the films at their best in 1967 to 1969. Basically, each film revolved around some aspect of British life (or perceived life), with every excuse possible used to enter innuendo and double-entendres.

They made a lot of Carry On films, well over 30, though the quality markedly went down from the mid-1970's onwards as lighter smut and innuendo was replaced by less subtle humour and the most well-known characters left. For me they really finished in 1972. I've seen every Carry On film several times, and ones such as Carry On Screaming and Carry On Doctor around 25 - 35 times each. (Side note: where do you think the humour in some of the Ariadne caption competitions was derived from?)

Most people younger than me will probably be baffled by the Carry On films. As will all non-Brits. I tried explaining the humour to some colleagues in Finland last year. Didn't work. At all.

In terms of political correctness, like Benny Hill (another adolescent favourite) the films fell severely out of favour as the century rolled on, especially Carry On Up The Khyber for the portrayal of Indian people. Even now, mention of a liking of Carry On films can cause uncomfortable foot shuffling and looks amongst peers.

Being born in 1968 and being brought up surrounded by lots of older relatives, it was easy to see where the Carry On film series was coming from culturally. Two world wars and massive social changes had left Britain outwardly a repressed country - in many ways it still is. Smut, innuendo and double-entendres were almost essential. Though Barbara Windsor wasn't my early, muddled, adolescent fantasy woman (that would be Suzi Quatro, and Carrie Fisher a la Return of the Jedi), the films did have a strong impact on one of that age. They were shown a lot on the television in the 1970s and 1980s, and in those days of just three television channels, no video recorder and no Internet there weren't many other options. (Thinks) actually, in rural Worcestershire, any other options for such cultural, social and adult enlightenment.

They should have just stopped them when the quality was still high, and they were still relevant to society at the time, in the early 1970's. Still, there's some good clips in this documentary:


Anyway, all I've got left to say is 'tiffin' (insert Sid James laugh here).

RHLP: Lorcan and Clifford

RHLP: Random Historical Librarian Picture

This one from 1997. It was taken in the British Library, but appeared in Ariadne for the piece where I interviewed Clifford Lynch.


I was reminded of this today when Z39.50 was mentioned by one of the speakers at the #cetis08 conference. Which made a knot of attendees and twitter followers feel very old...

Saturday, 8 November 2008

Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee

After wandering around Graceland for a few hours, I'm still not sure what to make of it. The house itself is surprisingly small, and you can only follow the (planned) downstairs route, through rooms and outbuildings.


Some of the inside rooms I quite liked and thought were tasteful and restrained enough.


Others, perhaps less so. Though I do like his use and choice of lampshades:


The whole experience is very efficient; seeing the house, and doing the four additional mini-exhibitions took around two hours. Today was apparently a quiet day, but it seemed crowded to me, so in August especially when major events happen the place must be mobbed. Inevitably, much of the display area in Graceland (in the back) is focused on Elvis's achievements. The visitor is left in no doubt that he sold a lot of records:


The side exhibitions held varying interest for me. You could go inside Elvis's private jet, which was quick and not that interesting. Better was the car collection, including a Sheila's Wheels type pink Cadillac:


The place is a huge money generator; doing the maths on the number of people and thro-rate, it's racking up a lot of income quickly. Plus the restaurant, gift shop et al. Ah, the gift shop was the one part of the Graceland experience I thought was tacky, with some dubious items for sale not out of place in a Father Ted spoof. But overall it seems a fitting tribute to a man who did sell over two billion records in his career. Though the experience, as Larry Mullen Jr. noted, is jarred somewhat by rounding the swimming pool outside to be confronted with the most photographed part of the complex - the family graveyard. Five graves (Elvis, parents, sibling, grandmother) next to the swimming pool and close to the house just seemed uncomfortably odd.