2016: The year of the great British icon

There must be something in the air. Because since the start of this year, British icons of great repute, not just at home but also abroad, have been hitting the headlines willy-nilly, serving to emphasise our stature in all things musical, literary and design.

 

The biggest event was the shocking but not altogether surprising death of David Bowie from liver cancer. I say not surprising because, while I, and undoubtedly others, hadn’t necessarily put two and two together at the time, when he released his melancholic “The Next Day” album in 2013, it did come across as a sort of nostalgic summing up of a glittering musical career. A kind of review, in fact, encapsulating and echoing all that had gone before. Which, given what we know now, does makes sense.

 

And then there was the subsequent “Blackstar” album and its “Lazarus” single in particular, which Bowie recorded as a final farewell to his millions of fans throughout the world, releasing it on his 69th birthday just two days before he died on 10 January. “His death was no different from his life – a work of art,” as Tony Visconti, his producer on Blackstar, “Young Americans” and his seminal Berlin trilogy, “Low”, “Heroes” and “Lodger”, aptly put it.

 

While maybe not quite on the same scale in terms of international stardom – unless you happen to be a punk/heavy rock fan, that is – Motorhead’s founder and frontman Lemmy also passed away last month too, only 48 hours after being informed that he too had an aggressive form of cancer, which was a mere four days after his 70th birthday.

 

Lemmy
Lemmy

What did make me smile through the tears though was the news of a petition, launched by his fans on activist website change.org, to name one of four newly-discovered heavy metal elements that are due to be included in the periodic table “Lemmium” in his honour. A tribute of which I’m sure Lemmy would have been proud. A tad surprised maybe, but nonetheless proud.

 

But famous pop stars aren’t the only British cultural exports being mourned at the moment. Another is motoring legend the Land Rover Defender, a 4×4 off-road vehicle renowned all over the world, which will, as of Friday 29 January, roll off production lines no more, having fallen foul of modern day emissions and crash test safety standards.

 

Something approaching two million of the iconic rattletraps have been made since first emerging on the scene in 1948 to be purchased by such high-profile personages as former Beatles singer Paul McCartney, actor Sean Connery and even video game star, Lara Croft – despite the fact they were originally designed for use by both the armed forces and farmers and were themselves based on the US Willys military jeep.

 

But it was actually Queen Elizabeth II who really made the alluring gas-guzzler synonymous with the UK when she was first spotted bouncing around behind the wheel of one in 1952 – and she’s understood to have owned quite a few of the things since.

 

 British cultural exports

 

Anyway, on a slightly more cheery note, it turns out that Landrover aficionado Sir Paul McCartney and the rest of his Beatle chums – yet another British cultural export of the music-making variety – have actually ended up giving quite a lot back to their local community of Liverpool, whether they particularly intended to or not.

 

Some 46 years after the Fab Four split up in 1970, a report commissioned by the City Council on the contemporary value of their legacy to the local economy, has revealed that it is worth an impressive £81.9 million a year and is growing at a rate of up to 15% per annum. Currently supporting more than 2,300 tourism-related jobs, the aim is to build on this foundation by relocating the British Music Experience, a museum of UK popular music since 1945, to the iconic Cunard building on the banks of the River Mersey from the O2 arena in London – once a third party operator can be found, that is.

 

But there is also talk of redeveloping Strawberry Field, the site of a Salvation Army children’s home in Woolton. It was in this garden that John Lennon apparently used to play as a child and after which he named his psychedelic rock song, ‘Strawberry Fields forever‘.

 

And such developments would appear to make sense too given the apparently rising popularity of The Beatles among young music fans both from the UK and as far away as Brazil and China, all of which is fuelling a new-found tourist boom.

 

Beatrix Potter's favourite characters
Beatrix Potter’s favourite characters

Just as popular elsewhere, meanwhile, has been the recent discovery of a long-lost manuscript by children’s author, Beatrix Potter, famous all over the world for her tiny illustrated books of whimsical characters such as Peter Rabbit and Jemima Puddleduck.

 

Fittingly, seeing as this year marks the 150th anniversary of Potter’s birth, the manuscript for “The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots” was tracked down by publisher Jo Hanks after she found a reference to it two years ago in a letter that Potter had written to her own publisher in 1914. As well as three manuscripts of the story, which according to Potter centres on a “well-behaved prime black Kitty cat who leads a rather double life”, Hanks also found a rough colour sketch of Kitty and a pencil rough of arch-villain Mr Tod too.

 

The new book, which is due to be published in September, likewise features some of the author’s best-loved characters such as Mrs Tiggy-Winkle and an “older, slower and portlier” version of Peter Rabbit.

 

Illustrated by cartoonist, Quentin Blake, amazingly, or perhaps not, it is already a bestseller, merrily topping Amazon’s book charts months before its official appearance – an impressive fact which just goes to show that once you’ve got it, you never really lose it.

 

 

 

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Retro trends: Keeping it real

The whole retro thing seems to be massive these days.

Fashion has gone distressingly 1970s – a look that’s no better recycled, in my opinion, than it was first time around – with its muddy brown suede, seriously unflattering flares and hippy/cowboy fringing currently all the rage.

Then there are the nostalgia-driven toys appearing all over the place – everything from 1980s cuddly Care Bears to action-packed Thunderbirds play sets and whistling Clangers to entice those of us brought up in the 1960s and 1970s – let alone our kids.

Even the film studios are in on the act. Items on the current remake list range from 1980s comedy classics Police Academy and Ghostbusters to horror movies such as Nightmare on Elm Street and An American Werewolf in London. And then there’s Dad’s Army, an adaptation of the British comedy series of the same name that was massive here in the 1960s and 1970s, and which will be having its time in the sun again next year.

They’re all at it – to the extent you can now step back in time at retro-gaming events to revisit the arcade game favourites of your youth, whether that be pinball or video giants such as Space Invaders. There’s even a Vintage Nostalgia show in Stockton, Wiltshire, where you’ll find everything from vintage cars and antique fashion to old-fashioned sweet-shop sweeties and traditional entertainment, all played out against a backdrop of classic tracks steeped in comforting nostalgia.

Old-fashioned sweeties
Old-fashioned sweeties

Because that, according to the marketers, is what it’s all about. A recent study led by Jannine LaSaleta, a nostalgia specialist who teaches marketing at Grenoble Ecole de Management in France revealed a strange irony – that the feelings of social connectedness generated by nostalgia make most people – no matter what their age – attach less value to money, which in turn encourages them to spend more freely.

In other words, nostalgia sells – particularly in a social media age characterised by false intimacy where we broadcast our communications to the masses rather than chat with a mate, and calculate our popularity based on the number of Facebook ‘friends’ we’ve collected.

But nowhere is the “nostalgia sells” adage more true than in the case of the music world’s so-called “vinyl revival”. In fact, revenues from old-style albums have jumped a huge 69% year-on-year for the first quarter of 2015, while singles rose 23%.

Between them, they made up about 1.5% of total record sales in the UK last year – the equivalent of 1.3 million discs – compared to only 0.1% in 2007, with rock acts, in popular music terms, leading the charge.

And appropriately the top sellers included vintage rock acts such as Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and that old crooner, Bob Dylan – although Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds was the most popular choice overall.

Vinyl interest

In fact, in what would appear to mark a significant milestone for the industry, high street supermarket chain Tesco even started stocking the new vinyl album from ageing heavy metal boys Iron Maiden earlier in the year to see how it went, with a view to carrying more if it proved a hit. So to speak.

The UK’s Official Charts Company, meanwhile, has also found a way to mark this new-found interest by adding a vinyl Top 40 to its line-up this year, complete with separate countdowns for singles and albums – an endorsement unthinkable even a few short years ago.

The move was, in fact, made to coincide with April’s Record Store Day, an event that originated in the US in 2007 but migrated to the UK a year later. Held on the third Saturday in April to celebrate the existence of independent record stores, it is currently run by the Entertainment Retailers Association.

The idea is that each of the country’s 220 participating shops, often run by the die-hard vinyl enthusiasts who have been at the forefront of fuelling the revival, throws a party and may even be graced with the presence of artists making special appearances or undertaking performances. They are also sent a number of records specially pressed for the occasion.

Independent record shop
Independent record shop

But Record Store Day is not without its critics. Some accuse the major labels of hijacking it, while others complain it is aimed more at record collectors than your average punter – a claim backed up by the fact that an awful lot of the limited releases seem to end up being sold online at jacked-up prices.

Anyway, no matter what the truth of it, it seems that, unlike their vinyl cousins, more modern formats, counter-intuitively, are somewhat in decline. For instance, sales of CDs dropped 6.5% last year, while digital downloads fell by nearly 9%.

So just who is responsible for this surge in vinyl interest? Most pundits agree that it’s a mix. There are the youngsters and hipsters creating record collections from scratch. They buy everything from new releases to classic albums by iconic performers in order to understand the influences on current music.

Then there are the older ones who are genuinely amazed and delighted to see vinyl returning and so dig out their old record players from the loft and continue where they left off 20 years ago.

But there are also others who, like me, bought into the whole experience first time round and are now dining out on the nostalgia of it all. On the pleasure of going into an (ideally) dusty record shop, admiring the artwork on the cover, reading the lyrics on the inside and feeling the physical satisfaction of holding something real. Because no matter how you try, you can’t download that.

British railways: The march of the machines

When I was a kid, I always loved a nice jaunt from my then home-town of Durham in the North East of England to nearby Newcastle-upon-Tyne by train.

Although only a short 20-minute journey away, it was one filled with anticipation and excitement as it always preceded an adventure of some kind in the big city. And no matter how many times I passed it, it always gave me a thrill to see the iconic Tyne Bridge, which was built by the same guys from Middlesbrough as the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia and to a very similar design – essentially that of Hell Gate Bridge in New York City on which they were both modelled.

 

Tyne Bridge
Tyne Bridge

After living in London and the South East and undertaking hellish commutes and other assorted nightmare trips for years though, I can quite honestly say that the novelty of train travel has quite worn off. But that doesn’t mean to say that I’m not interested in what happens to the railways, which, even in this age of the autocratic automobile, remain an important means of getting both people and goods around the country in a relatively environmentally-friendly way.

So it was with some curiosity that I learned from my dad, who knows about such things, of a huge change going on in how our railways are managed and run. In what is being billed as the biggest shift since steam trains were abolished in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Network Rail, the entity responsible for looking after the UK’s rail infrastructure, is going to centralise and automate the country’s signalling operations, axing thousands of jobs and saving millions of pounds in the process.

The move will result in more than 800 Victorian-era and still surprisingly mechanical, trackside signal boxes – 89 of which have listed status in England alone – being consolidated into 12 modern-day, high tech Rail Operating Centres (ROC) in places as far-flung as Cardiff, York, Edinburgh and Romford by 2029.

The move forms part of Network Rail’s so-called National Operating Strategy, which is intended to try and improve both the capacity and performance of our railways while at the same time cutting the costs of running them – by an estimated £1.6 billion, in fact, once the Strategy is fully implemented and which one can only vainly hope will be translated into cheaper ticket prices.

But according to Michael Rhodes, author of “Resignalling Britain”, a recent supplement from Mortons Media Group, which publishes the Railway Magazine, it is these very hopes of cost reduction that are actually top of the agenda rather than any real desire to enhance the passenger experience by making things run more smoothly.

And the easiest way to achieve such goals, of course, is for Network Rail to try and automate all of its many troubles away. Which in this instance means introducing a European Railway Traffic Management System based on two components.

Impact of automisation

The first is a European Train Control System (ETCS), which will enable each vehicle to know exactly where it is on the network and to send that data back to its local ROC on a continuous basis. The ETCS will also enable in-cab signalling – and it is this particular little innovation that will make trackside signal boxes surplus to requirements.

All of this information will then be fed into a new Traffic Management System, which will help operators both optimise network capacity and the movement of trains around that network, particularly if trouble strikes anywhere. The aim here is to minimise delays by an anticipated 20% and improve the accuracy of passenger information at the same time.

“It is this Traffic Management System that looks certain to bring the biggest savings,” Rhodes says. “As train operating companies levy heavy penalties for delays, Network Rail can potentially reduce these fines substantially using TMS.”

But as ever with these things, there will be human casualties as part of the shift too, with the number of signalmen employed across the UK likely to fall from 5,000 to 500 over the coming years.

As Rhodes points out, “the driving force behind the ROC strategy is, of course, the savings on salaries”, otherwise known as cutting operational expenditure. He estimates that if 4,500 jobs with an average salary of £30,000 a year are axed, it adds up to a substantial “potential saving of £135 million per annum”.

Other hefty savings will also emerge from no longer having to repair and renovate ageing signal boxes, which when taken together with staff wage bills had become an unwanted expense amounting to hundreds of millions of pounds each year.

Signal box
Signal box

But the move in more human terms will, sadly, lead to the disappearance of a way of life that goes back over 100 years along with its traditional paraphernalia of manual crossing gates, paraffin lamps in the signals and such like – a heritage that many who grew up loving the railways will feel an inevitable nostalgia for.

On the other hand, confirmed materialists may be wondering just what all of the fuss is about – why worry about a few thousand jobs going over the next few decades when one in six UK steel workers are losing their livelihoods now and the demise of the British steel industry is widely feared to be imminent?

The rise of AI

But the move is an interesting one, not least for what it points to in terms of future employment trends. According to a report by Oxford University and management consultancy Deloitte, a massive 35% of existing UK jobs will be wiped over the next two decades due to computerisation and the rise of artificial intelligence (AI)-based machines.

AI is a particularly clever kind of software, often referred to as a robot, that can learn what to do based on patterns found in data – in a similar way that a person might learn to play music by ear. So it can be trained to provide particular responses based on the information that it reads – for example, it could be programmed to monitor and deduce whether you are likely to have a heart attack by studying your vital signs over a given period of time.

This means that in some areas, AI-based systems are simply more effective and efficient – and cheaper, of course – at performing labour-intensive, mundane admin tasks than humans. Such activities might include sifting through CVs based on pre-defined parameters for recruitment purposes, or even answering call centre queries and advising remote workers in the field – as is the case with an avatar called Amelia who is currently being trialled at a handful of big corporations such as NTT Group, Shell Oil and Accenture.

 

Robot
Robot

But the implication of all this is that, in the same way that computer automation did for lots of blue-collar jobs in the past, so AI-based automation will hammer white-collar employment.

Some commentators have even claimed that the technology will spark off another Industrial Revolution, with all of the dislocation and social upheaval that this implies.

But others are more sanguine. They believe that AI systems will simply supplant particular roles and tasks that are widespread today, with low-skilled workers, as ever, bearing the brunt.

On the bright side though, other previously unthought-of, higher skilled jobs will inevitably emerge from the ashes to save at least some people’s day. Who would have thought such positions as digital marketer or data scientist would have existed only a few years ago, for example?

And so the march of progress continues, it seems. Which is fine – as long as we don’t end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater, of course.