Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Silver Sea Song

Even more music, but from a couple of years later; I wrote the song in the previous post in the very early 2000s, but it went through several iterations. The current subject is a piece of music I recorded several times with very different arrangements; this is the softest.

At the time I had fallen in love with GForce's M-Tron, a VST simulation of the classic Mellotron tape-replay machine from the 1960s. It has a very modest role in the track above, but appears throughout this pocket symphony:

The Mellotron was essentially a set of tape loops slaved to a keyboard, except that they weren't really loops, they simply played through once and stopped. This was a major limitation at the time and was never really overcome, although there were several attempts to market Mellotron-esque keyboards that could play indefinitely. Popol Voh and Kraftwerk used a mysterious "choir organ", apparently some kind of custom build, and Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman poured a substantial part of his personal fortune into the Birotron, which appeared on a handful of records but never took off.

On a technical level, the Mellotron is a fascinating example of how the primitive screwheads from the past did things before digital computers were invented. Nowadays astronauts are trained in a computer simulator with lots of coffee and some NASA nappies. They are forced to dock and undock and dock and undock for six months until they can do it. But in the 1960s, astronauts were trained by making them wheel a ladder towards a model of the moon. Despite being one-hundred as intelligent as modern men, the men of the 1960s performed some impressive feats.

Back in the 1960s the company that built the Mellotron recorded a bunch of session violinists, flautists, choirs etc playing individual notes for eight seconds or so, in a three-octave range, and those sounds were transferred to the Mellotron's tape banks so that if you played F (for example) you started up a tape of Mr Violinist playing F. As if you had a violinist with you all the time.

The Mellotron appealed to musicians who wanted a portable orchestra, but it had a distinctive sound of its own, that I associate with cheesy Hammer Horror / Amicus films from the post-hippy 1970s. The musicians who appear on the Mellotron's tapes are probably long-dead by now. The Mellotron fell out of fashion in the late 1970s, although Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark were big fans. OMD had a wistful retro-futuristic thing going on, and the Mellotron fit their ethos. In theory the instrument was made thoroughly obsolete by digital samplers, but the sheer volume of sound data would have been very expensive right until the late 1990s. Thirty-five eight-second mono samples at 44khz is roughly 24mb, which would not have left much space in a fully-expanded Akai S1100.

Although the Melltron had a tiny keyboard, the tapes were recorded in the appropriate ranges, with the famously gothic cello pitched lower than the oboes (for example). There were also controls for tone and volume. Tangerine Dream discovered that the Melltron sounded awesome when fed through a wah-wah pedal or LFO-controlled resonant filter plus an echo machine, which is something I have tried to evoke with this solo Melltron piece:

As a VST emulation project the Mellotron was conceptually simple - just sample the tapes - but logistically difficult, because there were several different Mellotron tape banks and they were forty years old by the dawn of the VST era. M-Tron was by all accounts a triumph, and was keenly priced, at £40 way back in 2000. It remains one of the few pieces of musical software I actually (cough) paid money for. Irritatingly the upgrade to M-Tron Pro is more expensive than the original product.

And so in the 2000s it came to pass that the Mellotron had a new lease of life, as a 2.5gb sample bank with a VST front end. Most of the sounds are pretty naff, and a few are marred by noise that was present on the original tapes (the clarinet in particular). The piano and guitar are absolutely awful, and after playing with it for a while I settled on a mixture of violins 1, flute, cello, children's voices, french horn. The flute in particular reminds me of Britt Ekland's bottom in The Wicker Man, although surprisingly the instrument didn't feature at all on the soundtrack. Still, whoever played the Mellotron's flute sample, you had a good pair of lips and big strong lungs, you did well. The flutes, violin, and cello work as lead instruments and as a subtle, organic background wash.

Come to think of it, Britt Ekland's bottom didn't feature in The Wicker Man. The director used a body double's bottom, because Britt wasn't too enamoured of her own. Bear in mind that in the 1970s people didn't find bottoms sexy, they were just there.

Does anybody remember Britt Ekland nowadays? She was one of those people from the 1970s who was in lots of films that were on the television when you were young, and presumably she was in the papers all the time, but time has moved on. For people of my generation she was the Bond girl who wore a bikini but did not smuggle a data tape in it (that was Jill St John, as Tiffany Case, in Diamonds are Forever).

You know, if George Lazenby had continued as Bond, his next film would have been Diamonds are Forever. So it's lucky that he jumped before he was pushed, because Diamonds was a terrible film. The plot makes no sense, there's very little action, and it just has a dismally low-budget fin de siecle feel to it, as if Robert Altman had been asked to direct a variation of The Long Goodbye but with James Bond instead of Philip Marlowe.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014


More music, this time from 2003 or so, lurking on my hard drive. Off the top of my head I used Cubase VST five point something or other, with some very simple software synthesisers and the hilariously jerky Supatrigger; and from what I remember the distinctive whooo-eeeee noise was produced with GMedia's ImpOSCar, a simulation of the culty, financially unsuccessful OSC OSCar monosynth.

Composition-wise it was a conscious attempt at minimalism - the melody sounds like a broken machine, it doesn't change throughout the song, which is based on a simple four-chord pattern. There's enough development to keep it interesting for three minutes and the production is nice. If I say so myself.

The OSCar was an anachronism - a monophonic analogue synth launched in the early 1980s, with MIDI. It resembled an Oberheim 4-Voice and was generally shunned in favour of the Yamaha DX7 and slightly older polyphonic analogue synthesisers such as the Prophet V and Oberheim OB-XA. The concept sounds interesting today (a Roland SH-101 with more oscillators, and MIDI!) but it was very expensive even when it was new, and musicians wanted to play several notes at once. If it had been cheap, it might have taken off.

Sunday, 13 April 2014


Off to Herculaneum, which is essentially Pompeii for hipsters. It's conceptually similar but less famous and thus more fashionable. Which is why I went there, instead of Pompeii. Fewer tourists; fewer me.

Herculaneum was buried in 79AD by the same eruption that engulfed Pompeii. Back in the superbad seventies the Roman Empire reigned supreme; Emperor Titus came to power, and he finished up the Colosseum, which I remember from this MST3K skit:

Writing in 1884, W Cope Devereux mentions the place only in passing. Literally so - he bypasses it on the way to Pompeii, because there wasn't much to see. The buried town had been rediscovered in the 1700s and had been excavated sporadically until 1875, but in Devereux's time it was overshadowed by Pompeii. Herculaneum was harder to excavate, which will become apparent six paragraphs from now, after I have finished writing about Spider-Man and the limits of human knowledge.

Work at Herculaneum restarted in 1927. The dig was one of Mussolini's prestige projects, and was intended to make Italy great again. The excavations have continued at a measured pace ever since.

I think it's a reference to SSC Napoli, which was founded in August 1926.

The ancient Romans weren't particularly fussed about resettling Herculaneum. The new town that slowly emerged was called Resina, but just like Spider-Man's black suit the name failed to catch on, and so in 1969 the residents voted to revert back to Herculaneum. Which is Ercolano in Italian.

Vesuvius is still an active volcano, which raises the possibility that the modern Herculaneum might one day be buried in ash. Archaeologists of the future will no doubt think that we all drove Fiats, and that our favourite film was "Banco di Credito Popolare".

Wonky education, or a fiendishly clever code? You decide.

If you think about it, the black costume makes sense, because spiders are black, aren't they? They're black and covered in fur. Why shouldn't Spider-Man be black... and covered in fur?

The black suit was introduced in the mid-1980s, as part of a general wave of "darker and edgier" makeovers that were fashionable at the time. It's often assumed that Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns (1986) was the spark that lit the fire - it had the word dark in the title - but although Knight was very influential it was really the culmination of a general trend rather than its genesis. Miller's story postdated Alan Moore's dystopian V for Vendetta, and Moore's work on Swamp Thing and Captain Britain, for example. The brutally unsentimental Punisher dated from the 1970s, at which point it reflected the generally downbeat, anti-heroic tone of films such as Dirty Harry and Death Wish (in the UK, Judge Dredd had been directly inspired by the Eastwood film).

Batman himself had adopted a more gothic tone in the 1970s, and the big multi-comic Crisis on Infinite Earths continuity reboot was published while Miller was still working on his epic. Nowadays The Dark Knight is almost universally praised, but the "darker and edgier" trend it amplified is not remembered fondly. In the cinema dark-and-edgy became hip in the late 1980s but fizzled out in the 1990s; modern superhero blockbusters generally take place in a world where there are a few good men, if only a few.

Does this mean that modern superhero films and thus modern society in general have become trivialised and incapable of critical thought? My impression is that the dark tone of 1970s Hollywood grew naturally from the themes and stories that contemporary filmmakers wanted to explore, whereas the cynicism of (say) Predator 2 or Last Action Hero was essentially an affectation, an optional component akin to the cosmetic spoilers on a car. But it is impossible to write about films without considering the society that produces them. During the years in which R-rated action films were replaced with PG-rated action films there were several bloody wars; and when I think of the supposedly pussified modern world I think of fat Toronto Mayor Rob Ford sitting on the face of a prostitute, farting into her mouth, while she is being filmed for sex tape that will be leaked to the press in order to publicise her reality TV show, for which she will be paid seventeen million dollars. I think of that all the time. Rob Ford is us; we are Rob Ford.

Ultimately I believe that it is not possible to draw a picture of society from its media; that once you dig far enough, there's nothing there; and that instead of actual history, we remember a construction. The traditional view of history as a set of dates and names is oftentimes mocked for its simplicity, but what is the alternative? Human society is an enormously complicated system that moves through time, and we are unable to view it objectively because we are part of it, and a static slice would be as dead and cold as a slice of a human brain. By the time we have passed through history the details are forgotten, and there were so many things we reacted to unconsciously that even a mass of research - as in David Kynaston's Austerity Britain, for example - cannot fill the gaps. Over time, humanity has learned that there is more to the universe than can fit into a single human mind. How can we advance human knowledge in a universe that exhausts the limits of human understanding? Not just the understanding of one intelligent human being, but that of the entire collective intelligence of the human race. Before we can solve the problem of total understanding we need to build a machine which will surpass ourselves... and at this point have I just spewed out the plot of Douglas Adams' Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy? Adams' book is a mass of clever wordplay, but at its core is a profound philosophical concept; how can we understand a concept that simply cannot be translated into a form small enough for the human mind to grasp?

This was the last that roll of Fuji Acros; I put in some colour film and shot the image a few paragraphs up a few seconds later.

At its worst darker-and-edgier was cowardly, easy. Nihilism requires no effort or critical thought. Reading through it again, it strikes me that Dark Knight Returns is remarkably nuanced; it isn't a bludgeoning overdose of brutal violence and defeatism, it has a human core and ends on a hopeful note. The (spoilers) deaths of the chief villains are treated as a tragic waste and an empty hollow void respectively. The world of Dark Knight is bleak but capable of goodness, and its society's major deficit is a lack of empathy. The problem with "darker and edgier" is that, once it is escalated to a point where all of society and all the people and everybody and everything is darkly cynical, what next? There can be no tragedy in a world of tragedy. With no contrast, the backdrop simply becomes a bland wash. Real life is complex, evil is almost always undramatic, and quite often it exists only in the eye of the beholder.

But Herculaneum, eh? It's on the regional line from Naples, a short walk downhill from the train station. There's a taxi firm just outside the station that will take you up to Vesuvius, which was cloudy when I went, so I didn't go. I would have ended up with a lot of photographs of mist and rocks.

Herculaneum was originally by the sea; the eruption moved the coast, and in the following image you can see how deeply it was buried:

In theory you could walk quickly around the location in half an hour or so, and it's possible to do a whistle-stop tour of Pompeii and Herculaneum if you rush, although you'd find it difficult to squeeze Vesuvius into the itinerary. One of the advantages of living in Britain is that Continental Europe is only a short, cheap plane ride away, rather than eight hours and eight hundred dollars. But the ruins have survived for almost two thousand years, they will be there next year and the year after that.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Rome: In Color

This is part of a series of posts about a trip to Rome and the surroundings. I also went to Florence, which was more regal than Rome, Herculaneum, which had fewer pickpockets than Rome (they had been killed by red-hot ash many years ago), Anzio, from which the Allied armies found it easy to check out but hard to leave, and briefly Naples, and also Rome again, but in black and white. I took a cute old Olympus XA rangefinder camera and a bag of mostly Kodak Ektar, and a Holga. This post essentially hoovers up the leftovers, which is why it has so much padding.

I begin. In 1884 W Cope Devereux described Rome and Italy as "an empire once so mighty, the Mistress of the World; then for so long desolate and entombed, a city of ruins; and now, phoenix-like, rising rapidly from her ashes, and preparing as "Young Italy" to take her place as a power among the other nations of Europe, many of whom have already welcomed her as a sister" (from Fair Italy, which is available at Project Gutenberg).

Sadly, the other nations of Europe seem to have regarded "Young Italy" as a pesky gypsy beggar girl rather than a sister, and the country had a pretty miserable century ahead of it. Italian people lived and loved, and in the end Italy survived in better shape than Austria-Hungary or the Ottoman Empire, but it had a bad deal. On a geographic-economic level Italy is a bit like Great Britain turned upside-down; the monied landowners are concentrated in the north, the poor tenants live in the south. Without an Empire, Italy lagged behind the other European powers, and millions of the most enterprising Italians emigrated to the United States in the late 1800s. Italy was on the winning side in the Great War, but ended up in the same situation as Britain circa 1945; bankrupt, heavily in debt, with nothing much to show for years of fighting except for a vague feeling of righteousness. Amidst economic malaise and a sense that it was all the fault of the Communists, Italy turned to fascism, which left it worse off than before.

As Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves pointed out, life in post-WW2 Italy was not much fun, although less bleak than Rossellini's Germany Year Zero (at least some of De Sica's characters can afford a bicycle). Fortunately a combination of aid from the Marshall Plan and a general European recovery in the late 1950s gave Italy an economic miracle second only to that of Germany, and by the 1960s Italy's levels of growth were higher than ours. Here in the UK there were was a genuine albeit minority concern that we were heading for some kind of neo-fascist takeover in the 1970s, on account of the parallels with Weimar Germany or post-Great War Italy; things never got that bad, and it seems ridiculous now, but I can understand why people might have been worried about Britain at the time.

Nowadays Italy is one of the PIIGS, although it's not as piggy as Spain or Greece. It's a little PIIG. The country is famous amongst people of my generation for The Italian Job (1969), which might easily have been called Mini Thieves ho ho.

They steal the Minis, don't they? They steal all the other cars, and go to Italy to steal Italian money, because in 1969 Britain was running out of money. Italy is something of a void for British people. It is famous for the cars and clothes and ancient monuments, and it's a popular holiday destination, but it's nowhere near as popular as Spain, and far fewer British people retire there than France or indeed Spain. Very wealthy people such as Polly Toynbee retire to Tuscany, but the average middle-class Briton dreams of retiring to Spain. Or dreamed, because Spain is increasingly notorious for its opaque property laws, and this has put off a lot of retirees.

I would go so far as to say that when British people think of Italian people, they actually think first of the stereotypical Italian-American; Nintendo's Mario, for example. Historically, the Roman Empire conquered us, and Victorian England had a thing for the ancient Romans - we were their heirs - but that wasn't modern Italy. After Imperial Rome fell, we were at war with the Catholics for many years, but it was the Spanish Catholics that were our enemies. Italy is close enough that it is not Eastern Europe, which is one great mass of miserable-looking thin people, but far enough that it was never used as a springboard for invasion, and the naval battles of the Second World War were generally overshadowed by events elsewhere. The Mediterranean is another one of those forgotten theatres, perhaps because is a modern-day assumption that the successful aerial attack on Taranto ended matters then and there and that the attacks on Malta were solely the work of the Luftwaffe.

Nowadays Italy's space agency wipes the floor with ours, their trains are faster than ours and work just as well if not better, fares are cheaper, and there are worse places to be poor.

"mostly in color"

The most obvious day trip from Rome is the Lido, which is the local beach resort; Italian men go there to drive their lowered Fiats back and forth along the seafront.

I went in March, which meant that I had the beach almost to myself, because March is too cold for Italians. And so I stood alone on the beach and imagined that a gigantic ringed planet was rising on the horizon, behind towering clouds of ice. On the way to the Lido there is a miniature Pompeii called Ostia Antica which I ignored because it was baking hot with direct sunshine and I was tired.

Naples-Herculaneum-Pompeii and Florence are both fairly expensive or slow train rides away from Rome, very and very in the case of Florence unless you book far in advance. Anzio is much closer, has a beach, and feels more pleasant than the Lido. Venice is just possible as a day trip, albeit that with a return ticket costing around €160 per person it's an expensive day trip.

And that was Rome. It has been around for some time and will still be there next year, the year after, a thousand years from now. All of the shots on this page were taken with an Olympus XA using a mixture of Kodak Ektar and Fuji Superia, except for the shots taken with a Holga, which were taken with a Holga.

On the way home, in the evening; England is north-west of Italy.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Windows XP: A Lifeline of Knuckles

Windows XP dies today. Spare a thought for its predecessor, Windows 2000

    Though I am satisfied at first by my actions, I'm suddenly jolted with a mournful despair at how useless, how extraordinarily painless, it is to take a child's life. This thing before me, small and twisted and bloody, has no real history, no worthwhile past, nothing is really lost. It's so much worse (and more pleasurable) taking the life of someone who has hit his or her prime, who has the beginnings of a full history, a spouse, a network of friends, a career, whose death will upset far more people whose capacity for grief is limitless than a child's would, perhaps ruin many more lives than just the meaningless, puny death of this boy. I'm automatically seized with an almost overwhelming desire to knife the boy's mother too, who is in hysterics, but all I can do is slap her face harshly and shout for her to calm down. - Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho (1991)

Patrick Bateman has slashed the throat of a small boy. As the child bleeds out Bateman pretends to be a doctor, and roughly pushes away anyone who tries to help. Eventually the boy dies, and Bateman runs off. In the next chapter he brutally murders a pair of escort girls whilst playing a CD of the Traveling Wilburys in order to mute their screams. To capture the event he uses a Minox LX, an "ultra-miniature camera that takes 9.5mm film, has a 15mm f/3.5 lens, an exposure meter and a built-in neutral density filter".

You've probably seen a Minox before, in spy films. The details are spot-on; the LX was the kind of luxury toy that Patrick Bateman might have owned, the camera did indeed take 9.5mm film, it had a 15mm f/3.5 lens, there was a built-in neutral density filter. The ND filter helped to regulate exposure, because the lens didn't have an aperture. With a top shutter speed of 1/2000 - not bad even in a contemporary SLR - the filter was probably overkill.

Bateman is a classic archetype. He is the upsetter, the mischief-maker who continually defies the established order. His type echoes in mythology. I assume that Ellis based the character on a mixture of Ted Bundy (the bland good looks) and Claus Von Bulow (the wealth and connections) plus the empty-headed preppies he had grown up with, and also himself. It's often supposed that the events of the book only take place inside Bateman's head, but I disagree; I believe that they're real in the world of American Psycho, but that American Psycho does not take place in our world.

In that respect the book is almost a work of science fiction. The documentary-style descriptions of corpses and consumer gadgets parallel that of the stereotypical hard science fiction novel, in which wooden characters talk and then there is a chapter where we learn about aerobraking and then they talk and then the pod fires its retrorockets and as it detaches from the mothership there is a cloud of ice crystals because water simultaneously boils and freezes in a vacuum. In fact Psycho reminded me of Arthur C Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama. The two novels are essentially descriptions of a series of processes rather than stories.

Bateman's killings are not individually implausible, and have become less easy to dismiss as fantasy in a world of podcasted beheadings and suicide cults. There was mass death and horror in the middle ages, too. Jesus was nailed to a cross and left to die by the authorities of his time. Wherever the human animal has trod murder has followed.

From a British perspective American Psycho is particularly fascinating. We had yuppies as well. They bought clothes in Chelsea and bought apartments on the newly-developed South Bank of the Thames. The nation build London City Airport for them, because they were our masters.

The big difference is that American murderers are glamorous, whereas ours are generally dull and grim. Some aspects of Bateman's story parallel that of British serial muderer Dennis Nilsen, who killed fifteen men and played with their bodies afterwards. He cared so little for his victims that he could barely remember killing some of them. But Nilsen maintained a dank existence in Cricklewood and Muswell Hill, and worked a dull job at an employment office, whereas Bateman lived and worked in opulent splendour. Nilsen's world was that of Norman Wisdom and John Christie, whereas Bateman was Miami Vice (but in New York) or Chancer (but in New York) or Wall Street (but in or Wall Street full stop close bracket full stop delete bracket.

Nilsen preyed on gay men, which is one of the reasons he got away with his crimes for so long. From the point of view of the police and society in general he was preying on people who didn't deserve to live. Who probably enjoyed strangling each other. He lured victims back to his home and strangled, bludgeoned, stabbed, and drowned them. Four of the men he attacked survived the ordeal and escaped, but although two of them went to the police nothing was done, and it seems that Nilsen was never even interviewed. He was only caught when his drains became clogged with rotten flesh.

Seven of Nilsen's victims remain unidentified. He either doesn't remember who they were, or never bothered to find out. Nobody else appears to have cared about them. There are presumably seven families whose brother, son, father or husband never returned home, never contacted them ever again. What became of them?

Shown here running Photoshop 5.5 on an old ThinkPad 600X

Nilsen preyed on people who would not be missed, and who were for the most part not missed. Psycho is told from the point of view of Patrick Bateman, and in his mind absolutely everybody is superfluous, including himself. Bateman does not value life, and the businessmen and socialites with whom he interacts are uncaring people akin to the villains of Robocop. No-one cared much when ED-209 blasted Kinney into oblivion, and American Psycho takes place in that world.

The child at the zoo and his mother are reduced to a Polo shirt, some jeans, a leaf-patterned black wool sweater. Bateman kills tramps, prostitutes, businessmen, hipsters, and although his murders are reported in the media there is a sense that New York will swallow them up, and in any case they are all history now because the novel is a period piece. A book in which the ultra-rich fill their homes with Laserdisc players, and go to work with brick-sized mobile phones. Psycho is a shopping-list of trendy gadgets that would have cost a fortune in the late 1980s but are now worthless junk.

Would any of it still be valuable today? The twentysomething yuppie bankers of the late 1980s are, I assume, still extremely wealthy, and would be in their fifties, sixties by now, some of them might still be working. Carl Icahn and Ivan Boesky, the "vulture capitalists", are very old men, but they were old men in the 1980s. The clothes might be worth something, but who remembers D F Sanders or Arnold Scaasi today? The restaurants, if they were real, presumably closed long ago.

The BMW E32 750iL might possibly have had the best engine around in 1991 - we have to assume Bateman was talking about the V12 - but it's a maintenance timebomb on the used market. The E32's target market in the late 1980s don't buy used cars; the kind of people who might want a used E32 probably can't afford to maintain it. High-end, but-not-classic luxury cars are poor investments.

It's not just men. Women have their handbags and shoes. Ellis' novel takes place in a world where objects have value and meaning but people are empty. There is some debate as to whether Bateman was supposed to be a personification of Reagan-era America, and his victims symbolic of that decade's bogeymen. He kills a homeless beggar and a gay man; the one person who catches him and seems likely to bring him to vigilante justice is a taxi driver who lets him go after robbing him of his Rolex, his Ray-Bans, and three hundred dollars in cold hard cash. A disappointing five hundred dollars in modern money.

Ellis' point is that even though the taxi driver seems pissed at Bateman for murdering (presumably) another taxi driver, he too lives in an unsympathetic world where human life is... if not exactly worthless, then not worth a great deal. "You're a dead man", says Bateman, to which the taxi driver responds that Bateman is a Yuppie scumbag, the implication being those two states are equivalent.

On another level the book defies serious analysis, because Ellis is clearly messing with our minds. At one point Bateman delivers a right-on tirade to a table of his fellow businessmen, who stare in shock as he waffles on about the need to "provide food and shelter for the homeless and oppose racial discrimination and promote civil rights while also promoting equal rights for women but change the abortion laws to protect the right to life yet still somehow maintain women's freedom of choice". It works far better as humour than satire, something that Mary Harron spotted when she turned the book into a film. (The scene implies that Bateman is immoral rather than amoral, and at the same time it sits oddly today, with the implication that bad evil bankers are in favour of crime and drugs and also illegal immigration, which is probably true but politically unacceptable). With its fetishistic portrayal of Christian Bale applying his beauty regime, Harron's film also emphasises one of Bateman's most-often-overlooked transgressions; his femininity. Bateman is a soulless, surface-obsessed cipher, and in that respect he is essentially a broad stereotype of a woman wearing the flesh of a man.


When I was very young I was aware that there was such a thing as a Yorkshire Ripper, a man with a terrible beard who had killed several women. In Yorkshire, which is far away. He targeted prostitutes, or at least that was the theory. It turned out much later that he had assaulted dozens of women picked simply because they were alone. Sutcliffe's fifth official victim was a 16-year-old shop assistant on her way home in the middle of the night. "He has made it clear that he hates prostitutes; many people do", said Assistant Chief Constable Jim Hobson, "but the Ripper is now killing innocent girls". Over time the phrase became infamous. Innocent girls.

The police investigation of the Ripper case remains notoriously awful; if there is a suspicion that the police did not care very much for his victims, it must be borne in mind that even after Sutcliffe began to kill "innocent girls" it took four years of blundering to catch him. It seems that the more women Sutcliffe killed, the more the paperwork mounted up; and the more paperwork, the more time the police required in order to process it, until eventually the investigation extended to infinity. He was only caught by a random check of car number plates and might have been released again - he had been questioned several times before - if he had not been carrying the tools of his murderous trade with him.

Win2K only had a short time in the spotlight; it was never aimed at the consumer market, and the XP-based Windows Server 2003 replaced it in the business world. Support ended in 2010. It's even riskier than XP nowadays but runs faster on old hardware. A brave soul has put together an unofficial service pack.

In most respects Bateman and Sutcliffe are polar opposites. Sutcliffe's life was even more grim, even less glamorous that that of Nilsen. As a child I associated Yorkshire with damp rain-sodden emptiness and old people, perhaps because television footage of the investigation always depicted disused garages and empty playgrounds, broken-up former youth clubs and decaying estates, with stone-faced rain-sodden men combing the ground for human remains. Specks of bone and bloodied hair.

When prostitutes are murdered there is always a dark thought that they brought it upon themselves, if not that they deserved it, but I have never had that impression from the Ripper murders. The prostitutes that Peter Sutcliffe murdered come across as pathetic, sympathetic, lonely people plying a bleak trade in a bleak cold environment for tiny sums of money. In a Hollywood slasher film - John Carpenter's Halloween (1978) was released in the midst of the killings - the victims would have been teenagers or young girls dressed in lingerie, or nude, having just had sex. Sutcliffe's victims were ordinary people.

The Ripper case echoes through British history. Ripper itself is an echo of the Victorian-era Whitechapel murders. In November 1975 26-year-old mother-of-two Joan Harrison was killed, her body found in a garage in Preston, but she was not killed by Sutcliffe. He was linked to the murder by a series of letters and a tape cassette sent to the police. Advances in DNA technology revealed in 2011 that the murderer was probably a man called Christopher Smith, a convicted sex offender who had died in 2008. "I am so sorry. God forgive me. I love you all forever" he wrote, in a note found after he died.

The hoax tape struck a chord with Assistant Chief Constable George Oldfield, who became convinced that it was the key to catching the Ripper. The voice spoke in a Wearside accent, and the tapes are now so infamous that a Google search for "wearside accent" only throws up documentaries about the hoax.

Oldfield was convinced that the Ripper came from Sunderland, and took early retirement when it became apparent that he was utterly wrong, that the tape had simply wasted police time and had given Sutcliffe breathing room and an alibi. For years afterwards rumours spread that the tape had been sent by a disgruntled former colleague of Oldfield, angry at the conduct of the investigation, but in the end it turned out that the culprit was a nobody called John Humble. He was also caught with DNA evidence, and in 2006 he was sent to prison for eight years, although he was eventually freed in 2009.

The irony is that Oldfield was almost right. He had correctly identified Humble's accent and placed it in the same area of Sunderland that Humble had attended school. He almost caught his man, albeit that it was the wrong man. Perhaps in another world he might be remembered as the genius who stopped the Ripper dead. Not in ours. In our world the best he can hope for is to be forgotten.

For most people in Britain the Ripper case is a diversion that occasionally resurfaces. The media digs things up, the public still has an appetite for it, so it goes. The Ripper case is unusual in that Sutcliffe himself is almost a non-entity. Unlike Hannibal Lector or Patrick Bateman, there is nothing impressive about him, nothing to identify with or secretly idolise. He is just mud and slurry. With his dark hair and scruffy beard he resembled a cheap Hammer Horror Satanist. He had no coherent motive, no master plan.

He left behind a trail of misery, and for a dwindling number of survivors and their relatives with ruined lives and ruined pasts there is no end, no closure, no exit.

"I'm left with one comforting thought: I am rich - millions are not."

Sunday, 6 April 2014


Off to Florence. Writing in 1884, W Cope Devereaux was upset that he was being overcharged:
    We found the climate of Florence bright and pleasant, bracing and healthful, but it was rather too dear a place for those with a limited income. We had heard that it was an expensive city, and so indeed we found it, for with all our efforts to be economical our bill at the Hotel de Russie was astonishingly high; nor were we alone in this experience, our fellow-travellers averring that it was quite necessary "to cut down your hotel bill, and not to pay quite all that was demanded, as you were always overcharged". ... As far as I have seen of Italian travel, it is a system of "spoiling the Englishman," whenever there is a chance, and the traveller might save himself the trouble of ever taking his hand out of his pocket. As a specimen, we were actually charged a franc each for four small mutton cutlets, and three francs (2s. 6d.) for a cauliflower! Of course I complained, and got one or two francs knocked off.
Which raises the question of why he went to Florence in order to buy a cauliflower. Taking inflation into account, that cauliflower probably cost the same as a small car today, which seems absurd until you consider that wealth distribution was far less equitable in 1884. There were lots of very poor people who had no money whatsoever, and a few extraordinarily rich people, who could afford to have their luggage carried around in monogrammed Louis Vuitton trunks. Reading through Devereaux's book I'm struck by the thought that in 1884 we were the Americans. While the actual Americans were taming the West we, the English, were going abroad with wheely suitcases, shouting at the locals and demanding that they speak English.

Deveraux goes on to moan about tipping:
    At present there seems a private understanding among the servants, that one and all are to establish some sort of claim on you, thus: - you ring - the chambermaid appears; you ask for candles—she withdraws and sends the sommelier with them; and every trifling duty is performed by a different personage, instead of one servant taking the entire attendance, to whom you might feel some satisfaction in giving a remuneration. I think that, under the present regime there is little doubt that the visitors pay the servants wages rather than the landlord, and therefore the item of "attendance" charged in the hotel bill is simply a fraud.
Tipping is still a point of controversy today. I have no doubt that if you scour the works of Plato you will eventually find something about tipping. It's one of those subjects that never grows old. I wonder what else the chambermaid would have been prepared to do for a few francs, eh? Or perhaps she could have posed for some naughty pictures in her chambermaid's outfit.

In 1884 photography was an established technology but still difficult and expensive; plates and lenses were slow, which is one of the reasons why contemporary nudes tended to be draped on sofas as if asleep or dead. It was many years away from being accepted as a legitimate art form. Devereaux mentions photography in passing:
    While in Paris ... I was struck with the number of indecent photographs by no means to be confounded with works of art, in the windows of shops in the Rue de Rivoli, and indeed almost everywhere; such photographs, as we should never allow to be exhibited in London, yet here nothing was thought of it. Even ladies stopped to examine them without a blush.
Pornography has long been a driver of technology, it was often opined that broadband internet, CD writers, larger monitors... huge external hard drives, comfortable chairs etc were driven as much by a desire to amass huge quantities of pornography than by a desire to watch pirated non-pornographic films. No doubt scads of wealthy young gentlemen in the latter half of the 1800s took up photography as an excuse to persuade women to take off their clothes, so that the moment could be savoured again and again (this is why nude models generally charge more than prostitutes).

Devereaux had nothing much to say about Florence otherwise. Today it is clean, neat, nice-looking, perhaps a bit dull. From Rome I took a high-speed train, which is cheaper if you book in advance, with the complication that you have to pick specific times. On that high-speed train I travelled faster than anyone had travelled in William Devereaux's time, faster than anyone ever travelled with British Rail.

Of all the Euro-nations Italy has had the most eventful past, and as a consequence it occasionally feels like a piece of blu-tack that has been stretched and squeezed too much. Ancient Rome was one of the grandest cities of its time - of all time - but beyond the ancient ruins and tourist attractions modern Rome feels anonymous. London's Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace are world-famous, but the Roman equivalents are dull grey buildings which resemble a naval academy and a university campus respectively. Rome doesn't seem to have a main shopping street akin to Oxford St, and even though it has a large river going through it, there's no equivalent of Tower Bridge. Termini station is larger and busier than Waterloo or Paddington, but the main concourse is just a big dark hole, and there's nothing romantic or dramatic about it. Exit Waterloo and you're on the South Bank, looking across the Thames at the Houses of Parliament; exit Termini and you're in a large bus park, and to the left is a McDonald's and some poor people and cheap hotels.

Rome no doubt has nightclubs and art galleries that would make my heart weep, and people live and fall in love there and lead epic lives and die in the street for things they believe in, but the same is true of any city. As I wandered Rome I remember shouting at the paving slabs and passing cars, "what makes you special, Rome? Answer me!", and I'm very grateful to the local carabinieri for helping me to find my medication and deciding not to press charges.

It was in my shoe. I don't know how it got there. I had to take it off because the echoes were too loud.

Florence is famous for its art, and for "Stendhal Syndrome", a condition whereby people are overcome by the art and have to lie down. I was immune to this because I grew up in the 1980s. The most famous art museum in Florence is the Uffizi, which has a one-two punch; you go through a neatly-designed collection of Italian artwork first*, followed by some non-Italian art which is surprisingly easy to miss because it's slightly off the obvious path through the museum.

The art itself made me sick, in the "Jesus and the moneylenders" sense, because it was so cynical. Endless Madonnas and Children painted by artists who were probably bored of the subject, for churches that just wanted something to put on the wall, to impress churchgoers who would rather have been out drinking. The only thing that moved me was a tombstone from ancient Greece. Two and a half thousand years ago a man carved out a message so that people might remember the dead.

* Strictly speaking, the first thing you experience is a steep staircase. Which may be where Stendhal Syndrome comes from.

The one painting that everybody recognises is Botticelli's Birth of Venus, which is faded but still draws a crowd. Classical nude paintings are generally not very sexy and Birth of Venus is no exception, but the model has a gorgeous face and she's very attractive on a platonic level. I would marry her, we would sleep in separate rooms and I would have a mistress and a golden bicycle.

No-one is sure whether Venus was a real woman or just a figment of Botticelli's imagination. Whoever she was she's dead and gone now. The painting provided the inspiration for a scene from Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, a terrible film remembered only for that one scene, and only because uncropped hi-def copies have a glimpse of part of Uma Thurman's right nipple for a few frames. Men remember that kind of detail.

Botticelli seems to have used the same model in Madonna of the Magnificat. Either that, or he had a particular dream woman:

It's tempting to say that women were more natural back then, but paintings are even more fake than photographs. They took months to produce and were filtered through the mind and talents of the painter. Ms Venus has anatomically impossible shoulders and an inhuman neck, and it looks to me as if her eyes are wonky.

Venus has the kind of face that makes men feel inadequate. Because she doesn't need you. And if you tried to keep hold of her you'd end up destroying something beautiful.

Botticelli's paintings were commissioned by the church or very wealthy people, and like all the classical art in the Uffizi and other museums it was commercial art. The paintings in the Uffizi weren't created because the artists had a unique vision that they wanted to explore, or because they had something to say about the human condition; they were created because the artists were paid to churn out illustrations for the local clergy, or produce portraits of wealthy businessman and their wives. A lot of it was hack work produced by the artist's assistants for people who simply needed something to brighten up their church or living room. Classical artists were the Cecil Beatons of their day. They were employed by, and had to flatter, people who had blood on their hands, or who kept the blood off by living in gated communities while the world burned around them. Italy's history is full of blood and fire, full of broken stone monuments paid for with blood, built on ashes.

I took my Olympus XA and some Kodak Portra 160, which has a subtler colour palette than Kodak Ektar. Apropos of nothing Florence has the only other Arnold Coffee I have ever seen (the first was in Milan); it stands out because it resembles Starbucks, which is unusual because there are no Starbucks in Italy at all. The Italians have their own coffee.

The CIE are immigration processing centres; "lager" in this context means "camp", as in laager.