Wednesday, 25 February 2009


The Shrieking Violet is unemployed. And spends most of her time wandering round aimlessly. However, she has been meeting up with inspiring people who have been setting her challenges. This was a challenge - to write a story. There was a building that looked like a castle that had always fascinated the Shrieking Violet, and made her think of a modern day Rapunzel, so she relocated to Central Library and sought inspiration in Grimm's Fairytales, charmingly illustrated by Walter Crane. This story was also written under the influence of the album The Power of True Love Knot by Shirley Collins, an English folk singer. Most of her love ballads do not have happy endings either.Castles in fairytales are usually magical, awe inspiring fortresses surrounded by cruel rocks and wild seas, over which the hero and heroine have to make their escape from the clutches of a dastardly step parent. The castle in this tale is rather less imposing. In fact, it’s not really a castle at all. The castles of folklore conjure up images of rugged grey buildings, in which every flint brick is enchanted. This one is red brick and grubby, and actually looks more like a prosaic Victorian warehouse to the casual observer. Instead of being protected by a moat or tumultuous sea, it stands amidst tall weeds and barbed wire on the bank of the Ashton Canal, a stretch of water that’s brown-green and impassive and breaks a ripple only in the windiest of weather. The only thing about the Ashton Canal which implies danger is the amount of rubbish floating in it, which suggests anyone who falls in will be struck down by some kind of horrible waterborne disease.

Those who choose to live their lives on the waterways usually have usually opted to live a slower pace of life, in the company of ducks and geese, and are the not the type of people whom excitement follows. It was a bargeman, however, making his leisurely way through the canals of North Manchester with plenty of time to develop an over active imagination, who noticed the building’s intriguing resemblance to a castle (or at least the type of stereotypical toy castle a child would make out of Lego). The building was a solid, impenetrable looking block flanked by strong towers topped with battlements in a sand coloured stone.

As his houseboat cruised by, the bargeman noticed a flickering light in one of the towers and an open window high up one of the walls. Otherwise, the building seemed to be deserted, like the rows of boarded up houses it rose up amongst, awaiting demolition. In common with the shells of warehouses around it, it was crumbling and its cracked windows laid it open to the elements.

After deciding to moor for the night, the bargeman became more and more intrigued. Seeing as there isn’t much in the way of entertainment on a houseboat, he decided it wouldn’t hurt to have a look around. So, in the dead of night, he scrambled onto a muddy bank, strewn with rubble from warehouses that had already been knocked down to make way for regeneration of the area. He could see no way to scale the smooth walls of the castle to reach the only opening, a high up window, but the rather more ordinary building next door had several smashed windows through which it was possible to climb if he was careful not to cut himself.

It was pitch black when he dropped down inside, and he couldn’t see anything. His other senses overcompensated and he was overwhelmed by a cold mustiness that chilled him to the bone. When his eyes acclimatised, however, he started walking through huge rooms full of machinery. Out of nowhere, he heard the distant strains of a female singing, and was taken by surprise, at first thinking the building was inhabited and he would be caught trespassing. When his heart was still again, he decided to follow his ears in the direction of the eerie tune. His feet led him through corridor after corridor and room after room of cruel looking contraptions and stacks of boxes that were intriguingly labelled ‘blonde’, ‘brunette’ and ‘redhead’. Eventually, they all began to look the same. Panicking he wouldn’t be able to find his way out before daybreak, he left through an open window.

The next day, he went about his business as usual, preparing the barge to move further down the canal, back into the city and civilization. In daylight - it was a rare sunny day - he thought no more about the strange and beautiful song and the mysteries of the castle. He set off on foot exploring the area, but found nowhere that caught his imagination. However, night fell once more and he heard the song from outside the castle this time, louder and more insistent on second hearing. He gingerly crept onto the bank and back through the same open window he had climbed through the night before.

This time, he noticed there was a covered walkway in between the building he was exploring and the castle next door, and used a rickety iron staircase to access it, each footstep making a metallic clang as if in collaboration with his pounding heart. He saw there was a strange glow at the other end of the walkway and entered, his heart beating wildly for fear of detection. He emerged in the furthest tower, and was greeted by the sight of a beautiful maiden with hair down to her knees, gleaming the colour of the terracotta bricks from which the castle was made. She was pale and unblemished, as if she had been locked up in the tower all her life, and sat singing to herself by candlelight.

She was afraid of the man, and was about to call out, but he spoke to her, saying “Don’t be afraid” and asked why she was sitting in dim light in the tower. She had never seen a kind man before, only the factory owner and his clients, who kept her there in captivity as an incentive for her family to work harder. He asked if he may touch her beautiful red hair, and she was nervous but consented. When she realised how gentle he was, she asked if he would return with help and rescue her from the tower and take her away with him. Since she did not have the preconceptions of men that are learned in the wider world, she instinctively trusted him, and said she would let her hair down the side of the tower the following evening and he could climb up, thereby avoiding the roundabout route he had taken to get there. She also did not know that in these stories the gallant rescuer is generally rich, royal and handsome, none of which could be said to apply to the bargeman. However, the beautiful maiden, her mind finally at rest, fell asleep and the bargeman crept away to formulate plans for boating away to a place they could never be found.

The next evening, as the bargeman climbed onto the bank to ascend the rope of red hair that was camouflaged against the building, he saw a small, chubby, mean looking man in a black suit had beat him to it and was clambering inexpertly up the tower. He waited, and heard harsh words from the tower, followed by a strange buzzing sound that sounded like a gentleman’s razor. After a while, all was quiet and the hair appeared again. The bargeman was worried for the maiden in the tower but hoped the man had merely been having a shave in preparation for a night out, and had exited in a more conventional manner. He took a chance, and shinned up the surprisingly strong plait. On reaching the top, he looked around triumphantly, but got a shock when he realised he was looking into the squinty black eyes of the factory owner, who was dangling the hair over the side of the building. “Hahaha”, said the factory owner, “the hair does not belong to her, it is mine as the owner of this wig factory. Her hair has become long and strong enough, and now it will adorn the heads of rich old ladies who no longer have hair of their own”. Before, he could get over his shock, the bargeman had been pushed backwards and fell into the canal, where he lost consciousness and floated away.

This is the part of the story where the hero would usually come back to life, take the hand of the maiden and they would live happily ever after with beautiful children. However, we all know that’s not how life works. Boy meets girl, but boy doesn’t always fancy girl and anyway, beautiful maiden doesn’t always equate to interesting girlfriend material. Even of they did become lovers, it doesn’t always work out. It’s perfectly possible boy would get bored and find another maiden.

The bargeman was dead so he never got to find out what could have been. All the maiden was left with was a cropped head and memories of a kind man stroking her hair, and a new interest in breaking out of her tower to explore the world outside.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Mushaboom Ukulele Festival, Moho Live, Sunday February 22

It might be small and only have four strings, but the humble ukulele seems to inspire grand ambitions in people - after all, there’s even a Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. It’s easily transportable, convenient and versatile, which could explain why ukuleles have become more and more popular recently. A couple of years back, a nationwide shortage was reported as schools switched to teaching the ukulele rather then the recorder, presumably because it’s a lot harder to make the ukulele sound horrible than the recorder and once you’ve learned a few chords that’s all you need to start making music.

The five acts at Mushaboom’s Mighty Ukulele Festival all display different sides to the instrument, folk singer Kathryn Edwards and Edinburgh act Meursault using the ukulele as an accessory to their music. Although it’s sometimes seen as a novelty instrument, Edwards manages to make the ukulele sound maudlin by dressing it up with a cello. Meursault proves the ukulele might be small but it doesn’t always have to be diminutive, bellowing anti-love songs over a combination of ukulele and acoustic guitar.

Jam on Bread and Jeremy Waumsley, however, base their whole sound around the ukulele. Jam on Bread offers himself as an example of ‘how not to play the ukulele’, but it provides an ideal backdrop for his witty songs, which range from a celebration of manatees to a tribute to Labrador Records. He claims anyone could get to his level of ukulele playing in ‘about an hour’, and perhaps that’s the beauty of the instrument - anyone can have a go.

Jeremy Waumsley provides some variety by strumming on a Venezuelan quatro, and proves the ukuele can rise to any occasion by singing about the Nazi invasion of the Channel Islands. The ukulele’s often rudimentary sound is offset with Waumsely’s vocal acrobatics.

Sparky Deathcap, though, uses the ukulele to the greatest effect, in a specially written ukulele opera he composed in the space of a day, accompanied by cartoons on an overhead projector. The comedic love story takes place on February 14 and has an organ driver as its unlikely hero.

Mushaboom even raffle off a ukulele at the end of the night, so it’s unlikely we’ll see an end to the ukulele craze just yet.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Help Stamp Out Loneliness, The Empty Set, The Deaf Institute, Thursday February 19

It’s hard to imagine how any band could look less rock ‘n’ roll than the Empty Set. The duo is visibly nervous, resembling staid scholars in smart, tweedy clothes and spectacles. They seem more like they’re about to give a lecture on physics than play a gig. They have a certain charm, though, looking like the sort of ‘sensible’ boy your mum wishes you would take home with you.

True to appearances, the Empty Set serenade with witty yet wistful love songs. You have to strain to hear Tom’s sweet voice, which has the pureness of youth but the groundedness of someone who’s wise before his time, over an impatient, unappreciative audience. It’s worth it. These are well thought out songs, which marry lyrics about things like Copernicus and photons to the jaunty sounds of a ukulele. Dan’s violin melodies have a life of their own, taking off on a journey through the pastures and back roads of a by gone England.

The Empty Set are deceptively sedate, however; they cover Cole Porter, but a shimmering take on Some Candy Talking by the Jesus and Marychain is just as effective.

Help Stamp Out Loneliness offer a different kind of rose tinted nostalgia, one that originates in discos and clubs rather than books and libraries. Where the Empty Set were subtle, Help Stamp Out Loneliness’s broad sound offers little room for delicacy or introspectiveness. Three boys and three girls groove through danceable pop led by two keyboards and a singer who sounds like Nico doing 80s pop. She’s an old style performer, belonging in the days when pop stars were pop stars, adding expression to the music with hand movements and hip shaking moves. She even looks like a diva, dolled up for a night out in glossy makeup and a metallic evening dress. A cropped haircut, like the girls from the Human League circa Dare, completes the look.

In case we hadn’t got the message that this was all very inspired by a certain former decade, DJ Jamie from Kissing Just for Practise played us out with tracks by the Field Mice and Orange Juice.

Friday, 20 February 2009

Want to feel better about your life? Watch this

Paris Hilton’s British Best Friend, Thursdays, 9pm, ITV 2 (helpfully repeated on Sundays and Tuesdays), sponsored by Skinny Cow Hot Chocolate - "a girl's new best friend"

It’s February. Two months into the new year, the hope of new possibilities and new jobs brought by new year’s resolutions is already wearing off. It’s cold outside, and grey. The weather is hovering between rain and dryness in a sort of damp nothingness, much like the uncertainty of life itself. Most of us are in need of a bit of cheering up.

Usually, the last place I would suggest is the television, let alone a reality TV programme. I can’t remember the last time I watched ITV1, let alone ITV2, until a chance encounter with American socialite or, in her words, "heiress, businesswoman and international celebrity", Paris Hilton’s new series.

A group - overwhelmingly female, with a token homosexual male - has been placed in a mansion to compete for the position of being Paris Hilton’s British Best Friend.

The twelve hopefuls are judged on how well they deals with certain tasks such as designing Paris a new dress. An early victim is traumatised by hair extensions gained as part of a makeover, and is promptly sent packing - after all, Paris’s potential friends must look the part, glossy and high maintenance.

The contestants are also tested on more conventional attributes of friendship, like their loyalty, through the planting of fake stories such as the suggestion that Paris has considered having a boob job (later, as we can see her nipples through her dress, she reassures “I love my boobs”, in case we got the impression that the socialite, celebrity lifestyle breeds insecurity and low self esteem.)

The group is also tested on how well they fit into the bored little rich girl lifestyle of partying and shopping. After all, that’s what we women are suppose to aspire to, isn’t it? Everyone knows that if we didn’t have day jobs, our only ambitions would be to spend the day searching for the perfect pair of shoes.

The contestants rise to the challenge, a strange mix of saps and shameless exhibitionists who never tire of the sound of their own voices and constantly offer psychoanalysis of the actions and motivations of the other housemates. Gratingly irritating Chrissie does a victory dance after staying up all night to prove she can party to Paris’s standards.

These people, who in civilian life describe themselves as ‘models’, ‘dancers’ and ‘bloggers’, seem to live in a different world, one which most certainly hasn’t been near reality.

They even have their own language. British Best Friend is perkily abbreviated to BBF, and as one contestant walks out in a surely orchestrated moment of drama, Hilton drawls “TTYN - talk to you never”. In excitable telephone interchanges, Hilton and the girls address each other as "hon", "babe" and "gorgeous".

You have to wonder what kind of void these people have in their lives that’s led them to audition to become an accessory to someone who is famous for being famous. The girls are battling for the chance to hover around someone who isn’t very interesting herself, and bask in whatever dubious reflected glory Paris brings. One girl describes her ambition to become Hilton’s best friend as being a way to “validate my existence”. Although it’s best to hope these lines are being fed to the girls by the producers, soundbites such as “It’s such an honour to be able to browse your clothes, Paris” sound worryingly sincere.

Woe and betide anyone who displays any sign of weakness in the backstabbing environment, where it’s a survival of the fittest based around the concept of each friend for themselves. Anyone who is seen to be “in the house for the wrong reasons” is placed “up for discussion”, and then voted out by their peers, amid accusations of being ‘fake’ or “not putting the interests of Paris first”.

One girl takes offence at the slightest suggestion she might be fake. She points out "the only thing fake about me is my boobs", but is eventually voted out for fear her chest might overshadow Paris and get in the way of the attention Paris deserves.

Hilton presides over these meetings from a throne whilst the girls get more and more hysterical. As heartrendingly earnest accusations such as “She doesn’t really want to be your friend” fly around, her mask barely registers any interest. She’s so plastic you can see the light gleaming off her lips and skin.

We only really get to know Paris in one on one sessions on a couch in which Paris drawls down that long nose about being “hurt” in the past and having to learn how to “trust”. Even at such moments, when Paris confides how “confused” she is, she still manages to look lifeless. Reassuringly, though, she confides "I'm, like, a human", just in case any of us had any doubts.

It’s like being back in school, except most of us grow out of it. There’s even an updated version of the teacher’s pet. Servile girls fawn in ‘honour’ at being chosen to be Hilton’s pet. Their duties? To report back on the other girls, to be her “eyes and ears” in the house.

An outing to a farmyard provides one of the most interesting insights into the whole show. On finding out one of the girls is less than delighted to be spending the day in the company of animals, Paris responds "oh my God, how can you hate sheep?!". Her informant agrees "yeah, sheep are cool", as if the irony is totally lost on her.

Paris is like the most popular girl in school, the girl those who are less admired dream of emulating. What makes it annoying is the level of devotion her followers show towards someone who isn’t discernibly talented, interesting, nice or even conventionally pretty.

In fact, Paris is probably the least interesting character in the programme. For all their hysterics and tantrums, at least the contestants actually show some emotion and spirit. Hilton merely simpers her way through a few voiceovers and minces away from group meetings in ridiculous outfits.

Many of the contestants are bullying, and completely devoid of any likeable features. The only likeable one, sweet Lydia, is totally out of her depth. She’s criticised for fading into the background. Shyness is chastised. Showing a concern for your fellow housemates is met with suspicion and hostility.

It might sound gruesome, but Paris’s British Best Friend is so farcical it actually provides laughs a minute. You have to laugh, because otherwise you might cry. This show isn’t going to build any lasting friendships. If you’ve ever had a dream or a passion, the most valuable lesson to take from Paris’s British Best Friend is it is that it’s better to have your ambitions shattered than to never have ambitions at all. It’s better to have a seemingly impossible dream than be completely devoid of dreams like this unimaginative group of lackeys.

Monday, 9 February 2009

Get green fingered in Whalley Range

In these troubled times, we're being bombarded with messages of doom from all sides – credit crunch gloom stories predicting we'll all be unemployed in a few weeks, and climate change warnings which tell us we're leaving future generations to either burn up or be submerged under rising sea levels. We're expected to help the environment while trying to deal with our own money worries closer to home. We're also constantly being asked to think about where our food came from and make sure that our runner beans aren't being flown in from Africa, as if we didn't already have enough on our minds.

Many of us would like to be more “eco-friendly”, but don’t quite have the time or space in our city lifestyles and postage stamp sized gardens to go about it.

We can’t all drop out of society to live in a hut and be self-sufficient, Henry David Thoreau style, but a group of volunteers is setting up GROWTH, a “grow your own scheme” that will meet every two weeks in Whalley Range to share skills and enable people to grow their own vegetables in an urban plot. Odette O’Reilly, project coordinator, says it’s all about “teaching people good habits”.

The first project will be based in a small plot at Tangmere Court residential home on Dudley Road, Whalley Range. An “introduction day” on Sunday 22 February will include sessions on organic gardening, vegetable plot design, composting and permaculture (O’Reilly herself isn't entirely sure how to define this, but describes it roughly as learning to “work with your environment but not take from it”), before the real work of digging commences.

The volunteers are involved in the Manchester based charity Action for Sustainable Living, which was set up in 2004 with the aim of helping people to make sustainable lifestyle choices and bring about a difference to the communities around them.

The charity works on the premise that “small steps lead to big change”, so it aims to educate people to “think globally but act locally”. The words "holistic" and "permaculture" bandied around GROWTH might put people off with images of crusty hippies, but these small steps include switching off the computer, shopping locally, cycling to work, recycling and supporting fair trade.

AFSL also stresses the power of the individual. Volunteers with GROWTH will have the chance to participate in other volunteer gardening projects around Whalley Range, including helping elderly and disabled residents in their gardens, tidying up public areas or using green areas to grow fruit, vegetables, herbs and flowers. No experience is necessary, and volunteers will be given training. O’Reilly says GROWTH will be a perfect opportunity to “learn as you grow”.

Although several of the volunteers are involved in The Lost Plot allotment at Southern Cemetry and Chorlton Allotments, there are no allotments in Whalley Range. Whalley Range in Bloom will donate tools and planters.

Admittedly, the idea of scrabbling around in the earth at any time of year, let alone during our snowy winter of discontent, is enough to send many people running, but pop-up tents will shield volunteers from the worst of the elements and there will be a hot vegetarian lunch of homemade soup and bread.

Most importantly, in our modern, isolated society, GROWTH will also offer the chance to become part of a community.

Yes, it does sound like hard, potentially back-breaking work, and you only get out of it as much work as you put in, but it's one thing that will provide a glow in your cheeks during the icy weather. Plus, I've been reliably informed that food tastes better when you've grown it yourself and the volunteers will be sharing round seasonable recipes when it's time to reap the benefits of the project.

If you are interested in volunteering, contact Louise at