Sunday, February 5, 2023

I’D LIKE TO BE A GALLERY [382]


Andy Warhol, by turns a renowned artist, counter-cultural figurehead and inventor of our modern notion of celebrity, has to my surprise only appeared three times on this website so far: regarding the endless reproduction of Arnold Machin’s image of Queen Elizabeth II on British postage stamps [link]; as an associate of the iconic artist Keith Haring [link]; and as a man whose career changed when he painted his lunch [link]. Having now belatedly watched “The Andy Warhol Diaries”, a Netflix series I should have known about much earlier, I feel I need to review that latter article, written back in September 2016, because I am not entirely sure of the point I wanted to make.

In the article, I explained that Warhol ate the same lunch of Campbell’s Condensed Soup and Coca-Cola for twenty years, presumably saving thinking time. In an act of “method writing”, I ate the same lunch, finding it not to sustain through to dinner time. I think I was trying to say the whole move could be counterproductive, if that indeed was what Warhol was doing.

Rather than painting what surrounded him, Warhol was responding to a friend’s suggestion to paint objects already familiar to people. In the event, the reaction to the first Coca-Cola and Campbell’s paintings was either bemusement or outrage – I tried to point out that making the individual objects by hand, from mixing the drink and cooking the soup, through to blowing the glass bottle and printing the labels, would be extremely difficult. This may be the kernel of my article, having a point to make, and building a case surrounding it, using names well-known to people, particularly that of Warhol.

I then quoted from “The Philosophy of Andy Warhol”, where he stated that what made the United States great was how it “started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest… the more equal something is, the more equal it is”. This feeds into Pop Art being based in the use of imagery from popular culture, and in the democracy of art as the levelling of a playing field – anything can become art. It’s a good point worth making, but only because we have seen how this is developed into works like Damien Hirst’s embalmed shark, and Tracey Emin’s unmade bed.

I would try not to write the last sentence of the article today: “For Andy Warhol, having had his first successful art show, he could concentrate on pictures of what he enjoyed the most – soup, Coca-Cola, money and celebrity.” The parodic, postmodern incarnation of celebrity of classical Hollywood celebrity pioneered by Warhol’s Factory of paintings, films and actors, and continued in one sense by video content creators from their home studios, makes the process transparent – interviews with Warhol always looked for profound replies, only to be met by a banal reply that could be misinterpreted as superficial. We know enough about Warhol, especially from his Diaries, to now there was a three-dimensional person behind the image he created, and the business his art was produced. The human drive to create, and to remain vital, loom large in Warhol’s career, the celebrity and money being the reward.

I'll have a better article about Warhol in due course, once I think of a better idea.

Saturday, January 28, 2023

HAVE IT ON HIGHWAY 61 [381]


Produced since 1895 by J. Hudson & Co. of Birmingham, trading as Acme Whistles, the Acme Siren Whistle (model number 147) has been the source of nothing but joy since mine arrived, direct from the manufacturer. Having the ability to create its surprising, whimsical whoopee of a sound at a moment’s whim was something I would have to keep quiet about for a while, but I gave it to someone else to use first, and they laughed as much as I did when I placed the order, anticipating its eventual arrival.

The siren sound is created by blowing into a cylinder casing containing a fan blade – the harder you blow, the faster it spins, and the higher (and louder) the sound created, the acceleration of your breath creating a silent sound. The mouthpiece and casing has changed from metal to plastic over the years, but the fan’s metal axle is still held in place by brass pins. The main body of the whistle, amplifying the sound, remains made of nickel.


Found in the “Orchestral and Musical Section” section of Acme’s website, I have experimented with what sounds you can set out of the Siren Whistle. Unless you can train your breathing to speed up and slow down at a constant pace, creating a type of police siren, you will be blowing straight into it to produce a sharp glissando to a high note, creating the “whoops” sound when a cartoon character slips on a banana skin, for this is the whistle that makes it. You can blow short bursts of air into the whistle to continue hitting a top note, as if the character is about to fall over. Sucking the air out of the whistle will not produce the opposite sound, but the sound produced could be described as the switching off of a turbine-powered vacuum cleaner.

Outside of its use for sound effects, the Acme Siren Whistle substitutes for Bob Dylan’s harmonica in his song “Highway 61 Revisited”, having purportedly been brought in to police drug use during the sessions. Its sound is very pervasive, cutting through to the forefront, especially if you are not expecting it, belying its 1880s origin as the “Cylcists’ Road Clearer”, appearing around the same time as the advent of the non-Penny Farthing “safety bicycle”, for those who felt that bells and yells would not be enough to warn of their approach. While cycling whistles have given way to bells, I have heard enough cyclists using machines to generate white noise and chirping while on the way to work – certainly enough to know they were cycling too fast on the shared path.

Its immediate use as a pick-me-up is giving me time to work out to what use I can use the Acme Siren Whistle. It could well work as an absurdist solo instrument, instead of the more obvious choice of a swannee whistle. Then, performing live, you can switch to Acme’s Siren Horn, with a seven-inch bell horn attached to the existing whistle...

Saturday, January 21, 2023

WRAPPED UP IN BLUE [380]

IBM System/360 mainframe computer

International Business Machines (IBM) is one of those companies whose name is well-known, but what they currently do is less clear. I say this because my idea of IBM seems to be stuck between the mid-1960s and 2005, covering the use of their mainframe computers by large businesses to run databases, through the introduction of personal computers and the emergence of the “IBM-compatible” PC standard, followed by their from the PC market, hastened by competition, the internet and the emergence of cloud computing.

To my knowledge, IBM has not had made a consumer item for decades, with their typewriters, printers and keyboards continuing under the separate Lexmark company until even they divested themselves of everything but laser printers. IBM acknowledge their past, but their history as an innovating business means they cannot afford to be nostalgic about it.

IBM’s website describes their activities almost like a mission statement: “We bring together all the necessary technology and services, regardless of where those solutions come from, to help clients solve the most pressing business problems.” This currently focuses on providing a “hybrid cloud”, ringfencing access to cloud computing power and resources for individual organisations, alongside the more public access available over the Internet, the sort we use for ordering items and saving files. This sounds like they continue to lease the mainframe computers that used to fill entire rooms in offices, but this time IBM are selling the extension lead to the computers held at their, with support included via software, consulting and facilitating partnerships with other businesses.


This is a million miles away from a company that once invented the floppy disc, made electric typewriters and built the Atari Jaguar games console, and that would be the point they would make as well. IBM are in the business of business, and they have to innovate to stay ahead. Innovations and standards like barcodes, magnetic strip cards and the PC will be challenged as soon as they become commonplace, and IBM have been ruthless in jettisoning anything that no longer supports the business: ThinkPad and ThinkCentre computers have now been made by Lenovo for longer than by IBM did, but their users have almost inevitably accessed a service with IBM technology built into the back of it, whether they knew or not.

Businesses pivoting from one product, service or purpose to another has been done endlessly. Just as IBM sold its PC business to Lenovo in 2005, the typewriter manufacturer Smith Corona, having endured two recent bankruptcies, turned itself entirely over to making thermal labels, leveraging its experience in typewriter ribbons. The car company Peugeot’s lion logo was originally introduced to indicate the strength of their saw blades. Western Union’s declining telegram service allowed them to refocus its network into money wire transfers in 1980s. The advent of vinyl-based, washable wallpaper meant there was less need for Kutol putty to be used to clean coal dust from wallpaper, so it was reinvented as the children’s toy Play-Doh. It is always a case of innovate or die.

Sunday, January 15, 2023

I SAW THREE SHIPS COME SAILING IN [379]


You never question what you are watching on television when you are only five or six years old, and I saw absolutely nothing wrong with watching a children’s drama series set in a 1920s New York-like city about a fleet of anthropomorphic tugboats.

“Tugs” was created by Robert D. Cardona and David Mitton, the former an American TV scriptwriter and producer working in the UK on shows like “Crimes of Passion” and “Emmerdale”, and the latter a special effects technician for Gerry Anderson’s Supermarionation series turned director of TV advertisements. Their production company, Clearwater Features, developed the TV version of “Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends”, producing the first two series – one thirteen-episode series of “Tugs” followed, using the periscope camera system developed for “Thomas” that could film at the models’ eye level.

I remember being enraptured by “Tugs”, watching it every week on its run from April to June 1989, because I like ships anyway – I think it might be the crossing of the eternal sense of adventure, elegant design, and a massive scale of engineering. I have always lived in the Solent area of the UK, with the Royal Navy and car ferries of Portsmouth Harbour on one side, and the ocean and cruise liners in Southampton on the other side. Tugs are naturally found in both harbours moving the larger ships around, and here they were on TV, doing exactly what I saw in real life.


I saw the premise as what I now know is a Hitchcockian “MacGuffin”, the driver of the plot that is not important in itself. The Star Fleet, owned by the human Captain Star and comprised of main character tugs Ten Cents, Sunshine, Warrior, Top Hat and More, are competing for contracts with the villainous Zero Fleet, comprising of Zorran, Zug, Zip and so on. Captain Star, also the narrator of the series, is represented only by a megaphone talking to Star Fleet from a harbour building – no humans are seen on screen in “Tugs” perhaps to distance itself from the set-up of “Thomas the Tank Engine”. The stories took place in and around the Bigg City (spelt with two g’s) port, and essentially was a workplace comedy.

I don’t remember seeing any merchandise at the time, although figurines, annuals and VHS cassettes did appear, and while a second series of “Tugs” never materialised, I had two Lego ships to be getting on with, and real tugboats a matter of minutes away. Every so often, a mention of the show would appear, or a picture would come up, and my love of the show as a child became a running family joke. 

Then the YouTube videos appear asking the same questions they did of “Thomas the Tank Engine”, questions I never thought about: because the ships have faces, are they alive? Do they procreate? Does Captain Star use the tugs as slave labour? Isn’t Captain Star’s voice the same used for the “Protect and Survive” videos and “Two Tribes” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood? (Yes, the last one is Patrick Allen.) The faces never bothered me, as I was already used to trains with faces by then, and the tugs were painted in the correct colours – you may as well ask why they were all wearing hats.

Fortunately, I still think of “Tugs” as being a great show, with high production values and breezy storylines, so long as you don’t think about it any harder than that.

Sunday, January 8, 2023

NO, I HAVE NO REGRETS [378]

Presenting "Lunch Box"

Noele Gordon had a big role to play as a producer and executive in the formative years of British commercial television, but her name is normally mentioned only when talking about her later starring role in “Crossroads”, a soap opera itself most remarked upon for its inferior production quality. This isn’t going to change straight away: in February 2023 the network that showed “Crossroads”, ITV, will broadcast “Nolly” a three-part drama written by Russell T Davies and starring Helena Bonham Carter, about Gordon’s firing from the show she made famous.

Back when ITV, originally a network of regional stations, started in 1955, few people in the UK could have had experience in the television industry – the only channel on air by then was run by the BBC, from London, the only regional outpost opened by then was based in Birmingham, and broadcasts only lasted for five hours a day. The path taken by Associated Television (ATV), initially contracted to provide television in London at the weekend and in the Midlands during the week, was to send their recruits for training in the United States, where its TV industry was growing at a far faster pace.

To that end Noele Gordon, a RADA-trained actress who had been starring in a touring production of the musical “Call Me Madam”, and who had joined ATV both as a presenter and as Head of Lifestyle Programmes, would study at New York University, work as a continuity announcer for WCBS-TV, and remarkably became one of the few British people to appear on the ill-fated DuMont Network, guest starring as a fitness instructor in the 31/08/1954 episode of the famous early sitcom “The Goldbergs”. The episode was broadcast live.

Back in the UK, Gordon would present the opening programme on ATV’s London service in 1955, moving to Birmingham in 1956 when the Midlands service opened. At a time when everything could be thrown at a TV screen to see what stuck, Gordon filed feature reports for news and sports programmes, acted as content producer on the women’s magazine show “Week End”, presented chat shows “Tea with Noele Gordon” and “Midland Profile”, produced the documentary series “Weekend Farming” and “Midland Scene”, while also presenting fishing series “A New Angle on Noele Gordon” and, in 1957, “Noele Gordon Takes The Air”, a six-part series where she learned to fly, qualifying as a pilot in the last episode. Amongst these programmes, Gordon became the first woman to interview a Prime Minister on television, namely Harold MacMillan.

with Gertrude Berg in "The Goldbergs"

Gordon’s signature series before “Crossroads” was “Lunch Box”, broadcast live for forty-five minutes each day, presenting dedications to viewers and music performances from the house band, Jerry Allen and His TV Trio. I found one episode on YouTube, and the relaxed atmosphere, the backchat between Gordon and the band, and lack of audience, felt a little like a radio breakfast show.

The problem with discussing Noele Gordon’s career before “Crossroads” is that little of it exists, or was kept – the episode of “Lunch Box” I saw began with Gordon remarking that the episode was being recorded this time around. Television was still ephemeral in the 1950s and 1960s, and shows being made to be broadcast at novel times of day like lunchtime were almost boarding on the experimental. When “Crossroads” began in 1964, produced by Reg Watson, future creator of “Neighbours” and director of “Lunch Box”, “Lunch Box” was not replaced, and restrictions on broadcasting hours that meant ATV closed earlier at night on days when “Lunch Box” was broadcast were not lifted until 1972.

The role of Meg Richardson, owner of the Crossroads Motel, was written for Gordon, and with “Crossroads” becoming successful quickly, her appearances in other shows reduced, her executive position having already been vacated for more on-screen roles. As I understand it, the basis of the new drama “Nolly” was that Gordon was fired from the show because her status as a national treasure with the British public was preventing Central Independent Television, a reconstitution of ATV to continue providing ITV in the Midlands from 1982, from replacing the show with better ones. “Crossroads” had always been recorded as if it was broadcast live, causing shaky sets and flubbed line readings to remain in each show, but storylines and performances still shined through, and Gordon’s departure in 1981 did not stop the show, which eventually ended in 1988. “Acorn Antiques”, Victoria Wood’s sketches that satirised the quality of “Crossroads”, would later see Julie Walters’ Mrs Overall being let go in similar circumstances

After “Crossroads”, Noele Gordon went back on stage, most notably in a revival of “Call Me Madam”. She died in 1985, before a planned return to “Crossroads”. Knowing now of her career before that show, perhaps that could form a greater discussion of her life and career in future.

Sunday, January 1, 2023

MAKE IT EASY ON YOURSELF [377]


I have made no new year’s resolutions for 2023, having realised that creating a slogan to encapsulate your hopes could be far more effective. Unsurprisingly, this comes from listening to “My Brother, My Brother and Me” [talked about in loving detail here: link], whose first episode of each year has become an hour-plus record of brainstorming. Previous highlights include “Twenty Grift-Teen, The Con is On”, “Frankenstein-Teen: Become the Monster” and 2013’s “Twenty-Dirt: Dig It up, Get It Out”. Each slogan has come to inform the tone of that year’s episodes and live shows, and is a perfect way to focus your mind on what kind of year you want.

“Twenty Twenty Free: You Have Arrived at Your Destination” is a slogan I arrived at very quickly, though a long time passed before accepting that my first idea was the best one. The only acceptable goals are achievable ones, otherwise you are constantly setting yourself up to fail, so if you really need to resolve anything in 2023, make it something you will give yourself a chance to achieve.

The age-old adage in advertising that “you don’t sell the sausage, you sell the sizzle” is what you are looking for – you are effectively selling your own possibilities to yourself. Thomas Watson coined “Think” in 1911 as the slogan for what would become IBM as he wanted his salesman to take everything into consideration, not just do what is expected in their role. Their eventual computer competitor, Apple, effectively replied with “Think different”, tying it to images of people who did just that, like Thomas Edison, Amelia Earhart and Alfred Hitchcock. Instead of the closed question posed by resolutions – you either achieve them, or you do not – the possibilities posed to yourself could inspire bigger achievements, or at least that should be the hope.

For obvious reasons, New Year’s resolutions were far harder to follow and achieve in 2020 and 2021, and 2022 has its own set of concerns. In the UK, the economic forecast is turbulent, with both inflation and energy bills to remain high, productivity weak, and consumer spending and business investment falling – no growth in the UK economy is expected until 2024. This is partially coming from Russia’s war in Ukraine, but also inflation that has led to strikes over pay taking place across the NHS, train companies and Royal Mail among others. No General Election is expected in the US or UK until 2024, unless the current British Prime Minister decides to hold it earlier, which is, depending on your political leaning, either a welcome relief or a missed opportunity.

Reading this gave me the impression that 2023 will effectively be overlooked in the grand scheme of things, a fallow year that will have to be worked past somehow. This isn’t really good enough, especially when I have previously talked about how the “Roaring Twenties” still haven’t really got started [link]. The year 2023 will really be what you make of it, and what better way to add charge to that journey by applying a slogan to it? Happy new year, everyone.

Saturday, December 24, 2022

EVERYONE WILL BE COMPUTERIZED [376]

[click to enlarge]

The Acorn Electron, the computer slingshot that launched me into the world of home computing, was infamously not ready for its original release date in Christmas 1982, and not enough of them could be made in time for Christmas 1983. With demand drying up ahead of Christmas 1984, the deteriorating finances of Acorn Computers Ltd, who introduced computing to millions of school children with the iconic BBC Micro [link], led to their being sold to Olivetti in 1985.

I didn’t know any of this when our family bought two Acorn Electrons and a bundle of software cassettes in the late 1980s. Games, programs, joysticks and other peripherals continued to be developed into the 1990s, supporting the near quarter million units that entered people’s homes, mostly at a reduced price to clear stock. 

The Electron was exactly what we wanted. We were taught the BBC BASIC programming language at school, and that confidence came home with us. When it came to loading games from cassette, we knew to enter “CHAIN” rather than just “LOAD”, and I knew my way around creating short musical tunes using the “SOUND” and “ENVELOPE” commands, separating out the notes and sound types, rather than the less intuitive “POKE” command and codes I later found for the SID chip in the Commodore 64 [link]. Meanwhile, Electron games we enjoyed were the wire-framed 3D spaceships of “Elite”, the maze quest game “Repton” and “Snapper”, the obligatory “Pac-Man” knock-off. 

At half the size and, initially at £199, half the price, the Acorn Electron was essentially a cut-down BBC Micro designed to meet the challenge of the Sinclair ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64. This cutting down was the computer’s downfall, as removing some of the display modes and sound channels available to the BBC Micro gave developers the expense, if they chose to spend it, of rewriting programs to be compatible - the Electron-compatible version of “Elite” is a minor triumph as a result. However, the largest problem was condensing the scores of logic chips on the BBC Micro’s motherboard into a single custom chip, a far bigger task than Sinclair had doing the same for the simpler ZX Spectrum, and one that drove back the release date of the Electron, and continued causing manufacturing problems afterwards. At least the Electron, unlike the original ZX Spectrum, had a keyboard with proper keys.

Again, we didn’t know anything about this – we were upgrading from the computing dead-end of the Commodore Plus/4, a productivity-minded machine incompatible with the more capable Commodore 64, only receiving more support decades later. The ability to use the same type of computer as at school put our family at a tremendous advantage, and in a decade where technology at home and work exponentially increased, we welcomed it. 

Acorn stopped supporting the Electron after 1986, by which time it had unveiled the Archimedes, the first computer powered by an ARM processor (“ARM” initially standing for “Acorn RISC Machine” before it was spun off into its own company). Once that made its way into school, it became the first computer I used with a graphical interface, and the later RISC PC hosted my first use of the internet. It took Acorn’s demise in 1998 to eventually come across the IBM-compatible PC that dominates people’s idea of a computer today, something that never felt as special as a result – no wonder I own a Mac now.

At the time of writing, thirty years have now passed since our Electrons were replaced by a Commodore Amiga 500 in Christmas 1992, the era of 8-bit computers having finally been overtaken. Once again, there was little to learn – we were ready to fly.