Monday, August 5, 2019

Banjos Banjos

So, I'm in an all-banjo band called Banjöverkill at the moment, and we recently discovered the existence of the Banjo Fish, aka banjos banjos. It has become extremely necessary to write a song about it.

This is my attempt at a first draft of the lyrics of that song. With footnotes. Because obviously.


The banjo fish is a perciform fish (1), which means it's like a perch (2),
It lives in the Western Pacific Ocean according to my research (3),
But one key fact eludes me still, one thing that I have to know
Would a banjo fish have the slightest wish to learn to play banjo?

Banjos banjos, they're about eight inches long
Banjos banjos, the subject of this song
You find them in Australia, you find them in Japan
They look so wise with their great big eyes but do they play the ban-jo?

In eighteen hundred and forty-six John Richardson decreed (1,4)
That the ray-finned dish called the 'banjo fish' was a very fine fish indeed (5)
And for such a fish one could only wish an appropriate binomial name (6)
Ichthyology made it clear the genus and species should be the same


There's a fish called the freshwater drum fish (7), but it doesn't play the drums
And the ovoviviparous guitarfish (8) can't play guitar 'cause it doesn't have thumbs
The bass fish is also perciform (9) but it doesn't make sounds that are low
But the banjo fish - that's our favourite fish - should surely play banjo

Chorus repeat to fade


5 - I made this bit up. I have no evidence that John Richardson had any particular view on the merits of the banjo fish.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

RIP Jonny Walker

Back when I was heavily involved in the London Underground Licensed busking scheme, I was more or less randomly* asked to go on RT TV to talk about the flaws in the Busk In London scheme then being set up. I was, as you can imagine, terrified. Busking, I can do. Performing music in public, yes. Being interviewed on telly? Not so much a thing I am used to, or indeed have ever had happen before or since.

I was also well aware that it was a great shame that they were not instead talking to Jonny Walker, who, as founder of the Keep Streets Live campaign, and author of the Liverpool Best Practise Guidelines for busking, was far more knowledgeable and articulate on the subject than I was. I'd tried in vain to get RT to interview Jonny instead of me. But, no, they wanted a London busker.

So, the night before the interview, I did the next best thing: I got his number off the Keep Streets Live campaign website and I rang him. Out of the blue. A complete stranger. "Hello Jonny," I said. "Sorry to bother you. We've never met, my name is Wayne, and I'm being interviewed on the telly about the Busk In London thing tomorrow. Do you have time for a chat?"

And he did. We spoke for a couple of hours in the end, not just about my interview and the Best Practise Guidelines, and how I could best explain them on his behalf, but also about busking in general, music in general, and life in general. He was warm and friendly and funny and extremely generous with his time given that he didn't know me from Adam. I was left feeling that I had cold-called someone and ended up making a friend.

Tonight I learned that Jonny has passed away, far far too young. Most people who encountered him did so through his busking - he played regularly in towns across the UK, or his music, widely available online. People who already knew him... already knew him. Those who didn't may not realise just how lovely, big-hearted and generous a bloke he was.

I only spoke to him once; we never did end up meeting in person after all, but I've been banging on to people about Keep Streets Live both before and since then - a uniquely powerful force defending buskers and busking in the UK. Beyond his music, his legacy lives on in the Best Practise Guidelines and the long reach of the educational side of his work with buskers, with local authorities, with the police, and with local businesses co-operating fairly and sensibly with buskers in the streets outside.
RIP Jonny Walker

 * By 'randomly' I mean I'd written an article in the Guardian about it, but I still fail to see why this means I was a First Call for talking about it live. I was crap in the end, like a rabbit in the headlights, except for the bit where they let me play guitar.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017



Have I been part of the problem? Yes I have.

Am I the reason why some woman somewhere is either posting 'me too' or mentally listing me as one of the reasons why she would post 'me too' even though she will not do so.

Yes I am.

There can be no doubt.

It's only relatively recently that I have begun to become dimly aware of just how widespread the sexual assault and harassment of women by men is. All women know this. Very few men do.

There's no cookie for becoming even dimly aware of it, as a bloke. It should be obvious but it is not.

We live in different worlds.

Men can just get up and go out and do stuff every day without having to worry about a whole bunch of things that women do. Walking down the street. In the pub. At work. Taking the tube. Recruiting musicians for a band. At a party.

Meeting someone in a work context. Going on a date. At a job interview. Starting a new project with someone. Going for a walk.

Men can go and do all of these things without thinking about it. Women have to navigate a risk calculus. Every time. Every day. It must be utterly exhausting. I can't imagine it. I really can't. I can intellectualise about it but the truth is I have no idea. No fucking idea. None.

And that's why my timeline is completely lit up with women posting 'me too' right now.

And yes, I have been and am part of the problem. I am mortified. I am working on it.

I have stood by and let things go when men friends of mine have said and done things that are causing women now to post 'me too'.

I have - and my intent or lack of it is not relevant - made women, including women I like and care about, feel uncomfortable around me.

I'm pretty sure I never raped or sexually assaulted anyone, but can I actually be 100% sure of that? No.

I'm 46. Was it enthusiastic consent every time without exception, or was it easier, sometimes, for her just to give in to pressure back when I was younger and way more of a needy dick than I am now?

I'll never know.

And on balance, probably, almost certainly, #yesIhave.

I am mortified. I am working on it.

All those women posting 'me too'. So many. So very many. So many more gritting their teeth and thinking "I could post that too but... I won't. Because reasons."

It's probably easier to assume that any woman not posting 'me too' could, but has decided, for her own reasons, not to.

To the men also posting 'me too' - just don't. Delete that post. This isn't about you. This isn't about us. By 'us' I mean the minority of men who have also been victims of sexual assault, compared to an overwhelming majority of women who can say the same. Sure, men like us exist, and yes it's shit, isn't it. There's almost no support, nowhere to turn, very few people you can talk to about it that don't find it hilarious. But there's also a reason for that. That's because it's relatively speaking way more rare. And it's a different problem, and the #metoo thing is not the place to talk about it.

Better yet, men, how about having a good hard think about whether or not you can step up and say #yesihave.

That's a whole lot of women posting #metoo. Where are the men saying 'it was me'?

Because it isn't women who need to change their behaviour. It's us.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Advice On Busking And Open Mic Sessions For Chris's Brother-in-Law And You

So, my old friend Chris just posted on Facebook asking for advice in re open mic sessions and busking on behalf of his brother-in-law, and I wrote a far longer reply than is reasonable for Facebook in response.

Clearly, the only sensible thing to now do is to post an edited version of that reply here on the blog. Otherwise what the hell are we all doing here? (Don't answer that.)

In the words of Neil Innes: 'I've suffered for my music. Now it's your turn.'

Herewith. Oh, and it's all bullet points. I hope this may be helpful to you. You'll know.

Advice For Chris's Brother-in-Law Who Hankers To Go Busking Or Open Mic-ing And Wants To Improve

  • Just go out and do it.
  • Busking and open mic-ing are completely different animals though, with completely different upsides and downsides.
  • If you've never done either one before, probably best to go open mic-ing first.
  • Feel free to completely ignore me though.
Open mics:
  • Open mics are great places to meet other open mic-ers and see how they do it.
  • Open mics are great places to try out new stuff, learn mic control, learn what does and doesn't work - for you - in front of a crowd.
  • Not all open mics are the same; some are friendlier than others; some are better run than others. Running open mics is hard. Always be nice to whoever is running them.
  • Some people turn up to an open mic and leave as soon as they've done their spot, or sit there ostentatiously ignoring everyone else's set and hooting at the top of their voices about crap. This is rude. Don't be that guy. Commit to the whole night. Talk to the other players in breaks. Don't talk through other people's sets.
  • If everyone at an open mic session is leaving as soon as they've done their spot, find a better run open mic.
  • Arrive early at the open mic if you want to guarantee that you get to play; this may still not guarantee anything depending on how it is run - check beforehand if it's a 'get in touch beforehand' deal or not.
  • Sound at open mics is often patchy because doing sound at open mics is really hard. Fifteen or so musicians playing two or three songs each with different guitars and different experience levels is your basic soundperson's worst nightmare. Be extremely nice to the soundperson even if they seem grumpy. They will always seem grumpy. They are right to be grumpy. They're probably not even getting paid for this shit. Make sure you give yourself the best possible chance of sounding good by a) if your guitar plugs in, make sure the battery is working (always carry a spare), b) find out how to set your volume and tone controls to make it as easy as possible for the desk - typically 3/4 volume, and on many acoustic guitars with older pickups, rolling off the treble completely - you'll know you need to do this if the guitar sounds like a banjo if you don't, c) if your guitar doesn't plug in, get one that does or get a pickup for your guitar - pointing mics at guitars is hard both from the soundperson side and the player's side; no-one ever gets this right at open mic sessions, d) have your own jack lead but don't insist on using it, e) if your lead does get used make sure you get it back, f) carry a clip on tuner, try to turn up for your slot with your guitar already in tune if at all possible, g) if (when) someone else borrows your tuner, make sure you get it back, h) mark your tuner - someone else will have the same model and may accidentally run off with yours.
  • All the above goes double if you're playing something other than guitar.
  • Don't lend your guitar to anyone you just met, but if you are the guy who always has spare strings to offer when someone else breaks one and doesn't have spares, this is not a bad position to be in.
  • Busking. Busking is hard. Busking is psychologically the most challenging form of music performance there is. Are you nuts? Only go busking if the answer is yes.
  • Ok fine. I'm nuts too. Busking is fun. Or can be.
  • If people can't hear you, they won't respond to you. Get a battery powered amp or be somewhere with really good acoustics.
  • Another busker is probably already there in the really good acoustics spot. Get an amp.
  • You're singing too? Now you need a mic as well, and the amp needs to take both a mic and the guitar. Head mounted mics mean you don't also need to carry a mic stand, but they aren't cheap. So. Mic stand. Leads. Spare strings. Spare leads. Spare strings. More spare strings. Did I mention spare strings? Are you playing something other than guitar? Ok, fine, spare reeds. Spare whatever will be a deal-breaker if (when) it breaks and you don't have a spare.
  • The Crate busking amps are pretty good, but heavy. Now you also need a trolley.
  • I told you you were nuts.
  • Be really friendly to all other buskers and people of the street at all times. Do not under any circumstances queer anyone else's pitch by setting up too close to them. Ever. Anyone who does this to you is an asshole. You will soon find out who the assholes are.
  • Find out what the local busking etiquette is. Some places have an agreed meeting point where people work out their slots for the day. Some places have licensing schemes. Sometimes its just a free-for-all.
  • Always seed your collecting tin / hat / guitar case with a few coins before you start, or you will make no money at all. But never have too much money showing or you will get robbed. You will get robbed anyway one day, but this way it won't hurt so much when it happens. Collect notes immediately and put them somewhere safe.
  • Dress the hell up for busking. A sharp suit / tie / hat combo or similar will make you stand out, will remind people that you are doing a performance art thing and not begging and you will at least double the take.
  • If you aren't really busking for the money, be hyper aware that many of the other buskers very much are, and each coin you get is a coin they don't.
  • If you are really busking for the money, take the long view and don't get discouraged when you get bad days. You will get bad days and they will be very bad. You can't rely on a single busking outing to go the same way it went last time. But you'll soon learn where and when are the best times and places for you to go in order to maximise the take. This may involve a process of elimination where you first have to go to all the wrong places at the wrong times and end up spending more money to get there and back than you actually make. Keep a diary of where you went and how you did.
  • It is possible to lose money busking - this doesn't mean you are a bad player, just that you haven't figured out how to make what you do work yet. It's hard and it takes time.
  • Nothing will teach you what people's attitude to music really is like busking does. There will be a sweet spot between what you want to play and what people want to hear you play that will take time to find; you'll know when you find it. Weird stuff happens at the edges of that spot.
  • If there aren't enough passers by in a spot, it's not a good spot. If there are too many passers by in a spot, it's also not a good spot.
  • Is your show an attract-a-crowd or a catch-the-passers by show? This will affect a) your show and b) your choice of spot. If you're doing the former you might need someone to bottle (collect the money) for you.
  • Busking takes it out of you physically more than any other kind of music performance. Look after yourself. Look after your voice. Don't get dehydrated. Don't get too hot or too cold. Don't play for too long. Take breaks. Have a sense of humour about it.
  • Good luck!

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

How To Write Stereoscopic Poetry

Nearly seven years ago I wrote a stereoscopic poem called 'Staring'.

You can view it here on the site.

If you stare at the text and let your focus land some distance behind the screen, you should see something... interesting.

Anyway. I'm telling you about this because I just received email from a very nice person who wanted to know more about it for a class they are teaching, and I have nearly finished an email back to them giving the Whole Secret Away.

Since I'm doing that anyway, I thought I'd post it here too.

So, herewith: instructions for writing stereoscopic poems:

I figured it out when I was trying to make regular steroscopic images myself, and was researching online. Turns out the trick is to have multiple identical columns of... stuff... can be anything really... hence the sort of colourful white noise that most of the pictorial stereoscopic images use - what you do is you place several of those columns next to one another and then change ever so slightly just the parts that you want to 'pop' from the image, but only in some of the columns, not all of them.

This becomes particularly clear if you look at the other abstract ASCII stereograms on the site.

If you examine my text for 'Staring' closely - literally counting the spaces - you'll see that the four columns of identical text are not exactly identical after all. Some of the words have two spaces on one side and one space on the other, instead of the normal one space per side. That allows the stereoscopic writer to choose which words pop out, by simply shifting the side of the word in which the space is placed in one of the columns. When you get the stereoscopic view of the text, by focussing on a point some way behind where you would normally focus, the four columns turn to five. And the words that have been shifted by one space in one of the columns seem to pop out in 3d towards you.

Don't ask me why. I'm a writer (and sometime coder), not a physicist, neuroscientist or opthamologist :)

Anyway. So the trick to writing one of these is this:
  1. Write a long poem. About anything. Doesn't matter. Short lines are essential for this though, so you'll need to bear that in mind.
  2. The hard bit. Make a shorter poem a) using only words that occurred in the longer poem, and b) in the *exact* order they occurred in that poem. You can only use each word once. It's as if you are skipping through the longer poem, missing out all the words except for the ones that make up your new poem.
  3. Type your long poem out in a column, then duplicate it three times. ESSENTIAL - use a fixed width font like Courier. I found that drawing columns using '*' helped but this is not necessary. Haven't done this in seven years but I seem to remember that it *had* to be four columns - three didn't work and nor did five. Can't remember why and I may be wrong.
  4. In each column of the long poem, add an extra space on one side of each of the words from the shorter poem.
  5. For each word of the shorter poem, choose a column where you want it to pop out and flip the side of the word where the space occurs, in that column *only*.
  6. That's it.

I found that columns of about 25 characters in width were ideal, but YMMV.

If you write one, let me know. I'd love to read it.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Jeremy Corbyn Song

I wrote a thing. It's probably woefully outdated by the time you read this.

Also, that YouTube 'share to Blogger' button is way borked. Woo.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

On Brexit

Democratically, the basic problem is this: there is no way a 51.9% share of a 72.2% turnout (so ~37.5% of voters) provides a remotely comfortable mandate for major constitutional change.

It's the worst possible result - a 3.8% margin of victory which is neither quite small enough to easily ignore, nor quite large enough to take as an actual mandate.

1.27 million votes is still a Big Number, though.

Compare 1975, when the referendum on whether the UK should join the then EEC was won by 67.2% to 32.8%. Some may not have liked it but no-one could argue with that result. Turnout slightly smaller than this time, but still a clear answer to the question.

This time it's perfectly reasonable to say 'it's about 50/50 and we not only shouldn't but can't and mustn't do anything drastic'. Massive constitutional change of this sort, if it must be taken to referendum, should require a clear majority. Something like 60-65%. That doesn't seem unreasonable, and it is astonishing to me that something like this wasn't put in place in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.

Meanwhile, drastic things have already been done, such as the bloody thing having happened in the first place, the perfectly reasonable - if essentially meaningless so far - EU response that we in the UK can fuck off as quickly as possible please before we do any more damage, and the utterly fucking terrifying open racism of so very much of the Leave campaign and the Leave support.

Of course not all Leave voters have done so on the back of racism. But they have all done so in league with it. I have friends who voted Leave who do not yet realise this and who may never realise this. These are by and large not people who think about politics much and if I haven't raised the point with them it is because I know they will get defensive and start defending the idea of voting along with the fascists when they happen to agree with a tiny part of what they are all voting for. And that is not an argument which will go anywhere helpful.

I also have far too many friends of friends who have turned out unexpectedly to have openly voted Leave because they actually turn out to think there are too many immigrants in this country. Those are not friends of mine, and it has been terrifying to me - as a third generation immigrant myself - to see first-hand how fucking easy it is for demagogues to get traction among people who don't generally care much for politics and stir up the very worst in them.

Then there's the Lexit crowd, precisely none of whom have provided any justification for going along with the fascists. Because there is none and can be none.

And finally, the people who Laurie Penny mentions in her fine article, linked here, where she says 'when all you have is a hammer, all problems start looking like David Cameron's face'. Which is all very well, but also lurches into the territory of oh, these poor people are so fucked, you can't possibly expect them to understand complex things like politics. And here's me thinking that the Labour movement was supposed to be all about people who were so fucked they had no choice but to get a very fucking good understanding of politics PDQ.

Which it used to be, but hasn't been for too long.

Obviously it's completely crazy talk but if the Labour movement actually made some kind of effort to connect there it might just gain some traction. Instead everyone wants to knife Corbyn because of unpleasant things he said about their mate in 1994 or whatever else their problem with him may be. Over here in the Green party we're far too busy hugging trees and thinking about the planet to bother with that kind of shit, but someone urgently needs to deal with the fact that UKIP are moving in and need to be confronted, directly, at grass-roots, with a better and non-shit alternative.

And the vote was *so* close. If they'd extended the franchise to 16-18s we wouldn't be having this conversation, because it would have been 52-48 the other way: in referenda on major change you need a clear majority in favour to proceed; anything else means you don't. The tiny majority in favour - what we have - is the nightmare no-one wins result.

[originally posted as a comment on the MeFi mega Brexit post]