Category Archives: Culture

Green all year, no mosquitos reports that American immigration to Canada may be increasing (see Life | Discontented Americans consider Canada).

It’s amazing how irrational human beings can be. Most cite Canada’s health care system as a positive reason for immigrating, and yet until recently hospitals in Toronto were one of the best places in the world to catch SARS. Others like Canada’s gun control laws, and yet in recent months Canadians have been up in arms (excuse the pun) about the country’s exceedingly expensive gun control registry. One Minnesotan even wants to go for the Canadian climate! She dreamily described Vancouver as “Green all year, no mosquitos“.

Given that more Canadians continue to move to America each year than vice versa, I guess the grass really is always greener on the other side of the fence.

Canada, the 51st state

Some people claim that Canada becomes more like the United States every day, but the Washington Post published an article on Canada Day that argues against that trend: Whoa! Canada!
Legal Marijuana. Gay Marriage. Peace. What the Heck’s Going On Up North, Eh?

It refers to a best-selling Canadian book titled Fire and Ice: The United States, Canada and the Myth of Converging Values which includes a New Yorker cartoon showing a man and woman enjoying drinks before dinner. The man says, “You seem familiar, yet somehow strange — are you by any chance Canadian?”

For more on the reaction to this book see The Christian Science Monitor and The Nation.

Arts news

Anyone interested in the Arts should be reading at least weekly. The New York Times has published an article (see Conversing on the Arts by Clicking a Mouse) about its editor and founder, Douglas McLennan (a Canadian now living in Seattle), who recently wrote an interesting article on the perceived decline in cultural importance of classical music (see Requiem).

Also interesting is The Do Re Mi’s of Everyday Life: The Structure and Personality Correlates of Music Preferences by Peter J. Rentfrow and Samuel D. Gosling in the Journal of Personality and
Social Psychology
, June 2003, Volume 84, Number 6. Unfortunately, it’s not online, so you can only read about the research in The Age: You probably think this song is about you ….

Of course the idea that your taste in music can reveal your personality is the premise behind Desert Island Discs.

Is it such a small world after all?

It’s a commonly expressed idea that as technology shrinks the world, we are all bound to become more alike. However, the major literary event of the week (year?) in the English speaking world seems to prove this assumption wrong.

International media coverage of the launch of J. K. Rowling’s latest novel, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, has revealed significant cultural differences between at least three countries with which I’m familiar.

In Britain the BBC was quick to report on a new world record, as if it might re-establish Britain’s place on the world stage (see Potter ‘is fastest-selling book ever’ from the BBC).

In the USA, where the culture is business, the focus was naturally on the sales volume and money. National Public Radio advised its listeners on whether or not they should buy shares in Rowling’s American publisher, Scholastic, which is listed on the New York Stock Exchange (see Harry Potter and the Pitfalls of Success, but take care — there are apparently better buys on the NYSE).

NPR also reported that given the staggering 8.5 million copies of the book being printed in the US, Saturday Night Live had joked that Rowling’s next book should be titled ‘Harry Potter and the End of Trees’.

Trees concerned the Canadians too, but they had good news to report since many were saved by printing all 935,000 Canadian editions on recycled paper (see Harry Potter goes green for Canadian buyers).

Who says cultural differences are disappearing? Everyone is behaving true to form.

My Desert Island Disc #2

All Fly Home album cover
All Fly Home album cover

A year ago I wrote about my first Desert Island Disc and with the advent of summer, it’s high time I wrote about my second – Al Jarreau’s Grammy-winning album from 1978 All Fly Home.

I hadn’t heard of Al Jarreau in 1978. I was introduced to his music a few years later by my second roommate at university, George Applegarth, who came from an old established family in San Francisco.

George was incredibly urbane for a freshman in small-town provincial English Canada, and I had never met anyone like him. It was clear from the start that he really wanted to enjoy student life, and in the end he had trouble adapting to the cold, serious, unsophisticated climate he found at Queen’s. Just before Halloween he called it quits and returned to his large family in warm California. During his short stay, however, I fell in love with his two recordings by Al Jarreau. I played them over and over again in our room, until even George started to complain that I was playing them too much.

The two albums were This Time and All Fly Home, and to be honest I don’t know which I would choose as my favourite. Whenever I introduce friends to Jarreau’s music, however, I always play All Fly Home because I know that one particular track is guaranteed to impress them: Jarreau’s version of the Beatles┬ásong She’s Leaving Home.

The song tells the story of a girl running away with her boyfriend to escape the oppressive control of her parents. It was inspired by a true story that Lennnon and McCartney spotted in The Daily Mail, and you can tell from the lyrics (“She’s leaving home, after living alone, for so many years“) that they understood the feelings of disaffected youth very well.

It’s hard to describe what Jarreau does to this song, but no one ever recognises it as Lennon and McCartney even if they are familiar with the original. It’s arranged for jazz trio and, freed from the constraints of pop, lasts twice as long as the original. At this point in his career, Jarreau was a true jazz musician, and as fans will know, when not singing words, his voice becomes a fourth instrument in the band.

His interpretation of She’s Leaving Home is about as far removed from the Beetles’ version as I can imagine possible, and yet it remains incredibly true to the spirit of the original song. In fact, more so. I think it is arguably better at expressing the painful regret of past failures than the original Beatles recording.

Even though I haven’t heard them all, Jarreau’s performance is so good that I’m sure it’s the best rendition of this piece (according to The Covers Project there have been eight). It’s a masterpiece of understanding, expressed through a song all about misunderstanding, and for that reason alone it would have to be among my desert island discs. Besides, how many cover versions are better than the original?

The Painter of Light

There’s been a lot of news about the recession currently affecting businesses in Silicon Valley, but I bet you can’t guess what business is still booming there — the fantasy world of Thomas Kinkade.

I don’t know when I first discovered his incredibly kitsch paintings, but recently I was stunned to discover he has a gallery in London. I should have known better, because it’s only one of five galleries that feature his work here in the UK.

Today, just by chance, I discovered that the BBC’s Peter Day reported on Kinkade’s multimillion-dollar business, Media Arts Group Inc. which is listed on the New York Stock Exchange, in a 30-minute programme on In Business (you will need Realaudio software to hear the programme). It’s well worth listening to if you’re at all interested in the interaction of art and business, but it’s also amusing to hear Peter Day struggling to contain his disbelief. How could such syrupy and sentimental representations of a completely fictional landscape be so popular?

The inevitable conclusion of course is that there’s no accounting for taste (just the money!), but it’s also clear that Kinkade’s work is as intentionally commercial as anything Hollywood might produce. In fact, the more time you spend looking at his paintings the more familiar they seem. Where have I seen this before? … Ah, I know. Kinkade is painting the flip side of The Lord of the Rings. His landscapes portray the best parts of Middle-earth; all the safe, twee places where Hobbits live. No wonder he’s making a fortune.

A frequently asked question

Friday is the deadline for filing your 2001/02 tax return here in the UK and as usual I’ve left it to the last minute. Well, almost the last minute. I filed my return today using the Inland Revenue’s on-line filing service for the first time.

The system worked well for me, despite receiving some bad press earlier in the year regarding its security. I was able to complete the tax return form quite easily and more quickly than in previous years because the system only asked me questions that are relevant to my tax situation. I didn’t have to read the entire form in order to work out which bits apply to me. Also, it calculated my tax bill immediately, which inspired a degree of confidence that didn’t exist in the past. Previously it was difficult to know if you had completed the return correctly simply because there was no way of checking it without consulting a tax professional. Now, it’s checked and the numbers crunched in a matter of seconds, and when it turns out as you expected, it’s all very reassuring.

Although the deadline for filing is January 31st, the tax year always ends on April 5th in the UK, and a few weeks ago I wondered how this odd year-end came to be. Thanks to the Internet, I found out. The Notes & Queries section of the Guardian once asked the same question, and Luke of Birmingham had an interesting reply:

The calendar year used to start in March. Hence “September” (7th), “October”, “November” (9th) and “December” (10th). Perhaps the first month of the year was set aside for producing accounts, end of year reconciliations, business plans, mission statements and blue-skies thinking – all important elements of a successful Roman business. Quis enumerabit ipsos fabarum enumeratores?

However, the definitive answer must be that of the Inland Revenue itself, which much to my surprise includes the question on its FAQ:

7. Why does the tax year start on April 6?

The reason for the tax year running from 6 April to 5 April is primarily historical and has its origin in the switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar in 1752.
It had been calculated in the 16th Century that the Julian calendar had lost 9 days since its introduction in 46 BC. Most of Europe changed to the new, more accurate, Gregorian calendar in 1582, but this country continued with the old one until September 1752 by which time the error had increased to 11 days.
These 11 days were ‘caught up’ by being removed from the calendar altogether – 2 September was followed by 14 September. In order not to lose 11 days’ tax revenue in that tax year, though, the authorities decided to tack the missing days on at the end, which meant moving the beginning of the tax year from the 25 March, Lady Day, (which since the Middle Ages has been regarded as the beginning of the legal year) to 6 April.
The dates were adopted for income tax on its re-imposition in 1842 and have not changed since.

Hang onto your plastic wallet

I received a new driving licence today, and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) included the following note:

Important Notice
Plastic Wallets

DVLA no longer issue plastic wallets with photocard driving licenses. This decision was taken primarily to help minimise the administrative costs of issuing licenses to the public. The Agency has also received numerous complaints from members of the public about the size of the plastic wallet [my emphasis]. Consequently, many drivers discard the wallet and use a different way of protecting their licence.

Please note: Old plastic wallets sent in to the Agency cannot be returned.

Who on earth would go to the trouble of complaining about the plastic wallet supplied with your driver’s licence? If you don’t like it, discard it by all means, but complain? Why? Do you really think the civil servants working at the DVLA care whether you like it or not? What a complete waste of time.

Who said the British don’t like to complain? Clearly that’s not true anymore.

P.S. - I’m pleased to say I didn’t return my old plastic wallet, so I still have one; but please don’t tell the DVLA!

Just whistling in the snow…

It’s been unusually cold and wintry in London the last few days (cold is relative - around here it means 0°C). In fact, we woke to a light dusting of snow yesterday morning, but it had all gone by the end of the day. This morning it snowed quite heavily for a couple of hours and there is now an inch and a half collected on the ground and in our garden.

As I watched the midday news on television, I noticed something that struck me as very odd when I first moved to the UK ten years ago. One of the reporters taped his report while the snow was falling at its heaviest, and he was pictured holding an umbrella above his head while speaking. He’s not the first person I’ve seen behaving so strangely. What makes the British think that an umbrella is appropriate protection from all types of precipitation?

To a Canadian, fending off the snow with an umbrella just looks ridiculous. After all, snow doesn’t make you wet unless it melts, and that doesn’t happen until you go inside a warm building. Besides, blowing snow easily circumvents any umbrella, making it useless. Think about it. When was the last time you saw pictures of any Inuit (aka Eskimos) carrying umbrellas? You didn’t, because they don’t. Umbrellas are pointless in the snow, and the fact that the British attempt to use them just shows you how unprepared they are for real winter when it occasionally hits them.

[Update – Various news organisations have reported that the snowfall in London today was the heaviest for nine years.]