Famous Grey Raincoat – an introduction

(This is probably not strictly a daily post but it’s what I’ve been thinking about today)
The years after punk were rich with possibility. The convergence of influences that freed music from the restrictions of big industry made it possible for so much more music to be heard. The first nihilistic roar that came out of London (via New York – or at least that corner that the Stooges lurked in) cleared the air for a more cerebral generation of bands: mostly northern, generally more artistically inclined, often soberly dressed and looking to Europe instead of the US for influence, or at least that Europe occupied by David Bowie and Can.
There was probably no movement as such – there very rarely was, just patterns in the minds of the music journalists that documented the bands who fitted the bill, but there were tags that could be applied. There was of course a certain sound, influenced by Martin Hannett’s production, a high register, low slung bass; chorussed and echoed guitar and an oceanic depth of reverb. The more observant would recognise U2 in this, and they wouldn’t be wrong. The biggest band in the world gained their inspiration from the same sources as many of the bands in this history, and indeed are one of the bands in this history.
Many of the bands in this history are now household names: Joy Division/New Order, Echo and the Bunnymen and U2. Then there are the bands who achieved cult status or even fame outside of the UK: The Chameleons, The Sound and The Comsat Angels. Following them were hundreds of contenders who may have had the thrill of hearing their single played by John Peel or got a live review in Melody Maker before sinking below the radar again.
I haven’t found a history of this specific musical non-genre, so I thought I would have a go myself. This is my statement of intent: if anyone comes across it and has done such a thing, then you can sell me a copy as I want to know more.If not, then give me time and I’ll find it out for myself. There might be a blog, but not yet, but I’ll keep you posted.

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Home-cooked manipulation

Those of us who have been short of culinary cliffhangers in the last couple of months (except of course the bite-sized re-runs of Celebrity Masterchef on Swap Shop, sorry, Saturday Kitchen) may have found ourselves turning to the Australian and New Zealand,er,ian versions of the franchise on Watch. Last year saw the respective third and first series in their territories and both have been refreshingly understated combinations of education and competition. The plot (it is a plot, this *is* drama, after all) got rather convoluted, with the early leavers getting second chances, the Australians being flown all over the world to cook for different celebrity chefs (this hasn’t happened in the Kiwi version yet, which is probably cautiously finding its way before the big money gets invested) and increasingly complicated ways of serving chocolate mousse.

The competitors were given more prominence, including being part of the titles, and have, certainly in the Australian version at least, gone on to some actual culinary celebrity. It seemed fairly likely that some or all of the new format was going to make it back to the UK, and, after trailers that showed at least one element, the competitors as performers, the new UK series of Masterchef started tonight with, gordon crikey, auditions.

Twitter is all ready full of the accusations of ‘X Factor’-ness, and there are the starts of stories attached to each winner, and some competitors seem to be being picked out for extra attention (the young carpenter who turned up mob-handed with his mates got a Reservoir Dogs film introduction), but Greg Wallace is still Greg, John Torode is still, you know, him and India thingy is still narrating like she’s trying to pass a horse.

The soundtrack is much the same as the Australian and New Zealand versions but far more obtrusive, and the amiable friendliness of the format in Antipodean hands has been overlaid with the usual artificial tension and Greg and John’s Mr Nice and Mr Not-as-nice act. True, it’s only the first night but the emotion is being signposted several miles away all ready.

It is early days, but over the next 98 weeks (sorry, I haven’t seen how long it is, but they’re starting with 20 contestants, and allowing for returns, nervous breakdowns and assassination attempts, and following the Australian version, which was seemingly challenging Mahabarat towards the end, that can’t be far wrong) we’ll see what elements of the new version have been brought in – I’m expecting communal house, early dismissals and returns, and probably a reciprocal week or so in Oz at the very least – and how they’ll be slathered with the artificial tension that detracts from what the show used to be about.

The fashion and the fight

As a non-aligned sort-of-punk, sort-of-goth of the late 70s, and a football fan firmly stuck in the armchair, the casual movement was a small blip on my radar. There certainly didn’t seem to be any in Doncaster at least, but back at the time Doncaster Rovers had hardly any fans, sharply dressed or not. Those of us who looked up the M1 to Leeds might remember the casual violence of time more from the articles that picked up on the trend in the Face and ID trying to slum it with a working class trend that they tried to turn into a movement.

A photographic exhibition at Temple Works on Saturday remembers the ‘dressers’ of Leeds and charts the changing styles that of the Leeds United supporters of the early 80s, as evolve it did, from the sharp dress of the mod revival to the dope and tracksuits of the early stages of baggy in the space of a few years. This article remembers the time for the clothes, the friendship and the adventure as much as the football and the accompanying battles.

Wish You Were Here, Saturday 19th February 2011, Temple Works, Holbeck 11am – 2pm and after Leeds United v Norwich City at Elland Road.

Libraries gave us power

After living in the area for seven years or so, I noticed Rawdon Library the other day. It’s a fairly utilitarian bit of civic architecture, built in limestone and in sight of the A65 in the corner of Micklefield Park. It’s one of the libraries in Leeds that is earmarked for closure as part of the city’s New Chapter reorganisation and of the four in the area would appear to be the one that is most likely to close, being both relatively close to Yeadon and Guiseley libraries and quite a way from what most people would regard as Rawdon, and as such is not able to meet one of the main functions of a library, that of a community resource.

Libraries are some of the more visible resources of the municipal landscape as they are public buildings as much as they are book repositories, and therefore when they are perceived as being at risk, concerned people get together to support them. However, many of those concerned people are probably trying to save something that they remember from their childhood, and not what they are now.

Those of us who are in our forties were probably the last generation that really knew what the public libraries were. As we left school they started to be eroded by the cuts that eroded the visible aspects of public service in the 80s and 90s. Books got old and were not replaced: populism replaced service and videos and DVDs joined cassettes and CDs. The Internet brought PCs into a corner of the building and then took over when Amazon made books more easily available then any library could make them.

The libraries that are under threat now are therefore not the libraries that we think they are. Yes, they are an excellent resource, but making books available is not their primary function: they are social centres and meeting places, and as such should be preserved, but much of the goodwill surrounding them is due in part to the nostalgia of our generation.
However, let us also not forget where the British public library came from: many were founded on the bequest of the Carnegie Foundation: the kind of philanthropy that the modern Conservative Party (or its leadership at least) believes should be the foundation of the Big Society, but which in truth, would never exist in this way again.

United, the Leeds Tiger and the return of civic pride

It’s a rainy Sunday afternoon in February. On the other side of the Headrow the main shopping streets of Leeds are busy with winter weekend shoppers, but Millennium Square is also busy with visitors to Leeds City Museum. Occupying the former Mechanics’ Institute building that used to house the Civic Theatre, the museum is a recent addition to the square, but its design and integration has already established it as a landmark in the city.

On this wet afternoon, there are many attractions: on the top floor, the Special Exhibitions room is host to Spiceworld, a retrospective of the Spice Girls, whose late 90s heyday is drifting into cultural history. It’s relevance is of course that Mel B, Scary Spice, is a local daughter, born in Burley. Other parts of the building are, however much busier. The map of the city on the floor of the arena around which the musuem is built, is covered with kids pointing out their homes, picking out places or just sliding around. The back end of the Leeds Collectors Gallery is playing host to a storyteller and a small crowd of enraptured children and their equally entertained parents. Downstairs, the Life on Earth gallery also mills with children and places Leeds and the surrounding area in a context in the evolving world.

Standing guard over the Life on Earth exhibition is the Leeds Tiger, a stuffed Bengal who has been in the city for very nearly 150 years. Its story is the usual one of colonial barbarism, twisted slightly by the charming fact that its first few years in this country were spent as a rug. The tiger has become a touchstone for many in Leeds, not least my wife and I, as it was where we went on our first date two years ago.

Leeds hasn’t had a proper city museum since the mid-1960s, when the former museum located in Park Row closed its doors for the last time. A small part of the collection lived in the municipal buildings on Calverley Street until 1999, and other parts of the collection were distributed across the city’s other properties such as Temple Newsam and the Abbey House at Kirkstall.

Towns need their civic collection though, and a city such as Leeds, if any city can be like any other, with such a lot to be proud of, needs one more than most, and the two and a half years since the new museum opened its doors have also seen a improvement in the city’s view of itself.

For many years Leeds was the London of the north, the capital of Yorkshire, a financial centre in a county known for its canny way with brass, a centre of the legal business, and that mythical 24-hour city where, in the Englishman’s view, it was possible to get a drink at any time of the day. There was a near-victorious football team that almost didn’t have to look back to its last glory days of the mid-1970s.

But these things ignored the city’s civic and industrial history, trusting in the future of service. When I arrived in Leeds from London in 2001 it seemed to be lacking a real identity. The Bank of England had closed, leaving only a junction on the Loop as a mark of its passing, and much of the money had gone with it. Leeds United were in the top half of the Premiership but not far from the collapse that saw them drop to Division One. The city was prospering but at the cost of its past. The idea of Leeds was hollow.

When Leeds United were relegated in the disastrous but not unexpected season of 2003-4, the fans sang’We’re not famous any more’ and ‘We’re going down, but we’ll be back’. In 2011, the club is in the top six of the Championship and on the verge of a return to the Premiership, and the city is rediscovering itself through the museum, projects like the Leeds Owl Trail and a grassroots campaign in support of the city centred around the Culture Vultures blog, alongside cheerleaders on Twitter who have driven the discussion and promoted new businesses and ideas in the city.

Millennium Square has been at the heart of this renaissance and the placing of the City Museum there has served to confirm it as the civic centre of the city. The Leeds Tiger is a fond memory for older generations of the city, and its place in the museum has created continuity with the past. Leeds is a place to be proud of again.

Our visit to the museum today was to see the tiger, and show him that we got married in October. Two years ago I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to be in this city but my wife, the way that the museum celebrates Leeds and the way that it has been a part in creating pride in it has confirmed that it’s where I want to stay.

Starting again

I’m going to start writing more, and try and post something every day. It could be about anything. It might sometimes be interesting. Feedback would be welcome. As you were.

User communication with Django Messages and jGrowl

Like any good web application, I wanted stocklotstv/vidjyo to have a method of sending messages to the user. Simple stuff like ‘invalid username and password’ or a friendly greeting when the user succeeded in logging in, that sort of thing.

This requirement has now been added to django with the inclusion of django.contrib.messages in version 1.2. There has been a messaging framework included in django.contrib.auth since early days, but there are situations when you don’t want to use the native auth system, but you do need messaging, so it has been repackaged and extended as a standalone contribution.

The instructions for adding messages to your application are documented at Django Advent
Using the code is pretty simple. Add django.contrib.messages to your view or function and pass messages into the request context:

message.info(request, 'You have logged in')

and make sure that you are sending the request context to your templates (you *are* sending the request context to your templates aren’t you? It should be the default action in my opinion, but hey, that’s me, what do I know).

The template example at Django Advent is pretty simple -put this code somewhere in your templates:

{% if messages %}
    <ul class="messages">
        {% for message in messages %}
            <li{% if message.tags %} class="{{ message.tags }}"{% endif %}>{{ message }}</li>
        {% endfor %}
    </ul>
{% endif %}

However, I, and probably you, want to have system messages on most, if not all of our pages, so if you have a standard template layout, with a base template that includes the page metadata, and blocks or includes for header, footer and content, put the code in the html body, below your header but above your content.
What you get is an unsorted list of system messages at the top of your page, which probably isn’t what you want.

You could have some fun with CSS and turn your list into a menu or a sequence of messages, but a more common method of display these days, in the civilised worlds of Linux and Mac OS X at least, is to display the messages as bubbles, usually in the corner of the screen. In OS X, this is enabled by a system called Growl, which provides cross platform messaging with a very nice UI. On the web, it has been emulated with a couple of the better javascript libraries and as I have been mostly working with jQuery, I found jGrowl.

This is pretty simple to get working by following the demos, but they only cover getting messages by clicking on a link. What we want is for the messages to pop up when the page loads. This is where jQuery’s

$(document).ready(function())

comes in. This loads any script item in it when the document model is ready (sorry if that’s not wholly accurate, but that’s how I read it). Drupal has a jGrowl module that provides messaging in this way, so with a bit of code reading and lateral thinking, I came up with this:

{% if messages %}
<link href="/media/css/jquery.jgrowl.css" type="text/css" rel="stylesheet" media="screen" />
	<script type="text/javascript">
	(function($) {
		$(document).ready(function(){
			{% for message in messages %}
				$.jGrowl("{{ message }}");
			{% endfor %}
		});
	})(jQuery);
</script>

{% endif %}

Put simply, if there are messages in the request context, the browser will pass them into jGrowl and display them. There is no styling there at the moment, so they pop up at top right of the screen as white text on a black background. To save browser resources I also don’t load the stylesheet unless there are messages.
My next step is going to be to set the default position to centre and possibly to redesign the layout. jGrowl has a theme setting which is defined using css classes, and the django message object has the tags attribute which is based on standard system message codes such as info, error and warning which the documentation suggests that you also use as CSS classes . You might be able to see where this is going. I will return to this when I’ve got it working and can provide a couple of screenshots.

In conclusion, django.messages is a useful addition to Django and, combined with some judicious jQuery-based scripting, creates an attractive method of communicating with your users.

What I have learned today about custom template filters in django

If you make changes to a custom template filter, or, in some cases, even a function that passes data to a custom filter, and the filter stops working, restart your web server. That should reload the filter into the template cache. Takes me a day to realise that usually. Now I’ve written it down I shouldn’t forget. When I can find my glasses. Oh, here they are, on my face.

The joy of web – how fussy IE can be

I’m developing a small Google Maps application and have come to hand over the first cut for testing. I don’t have a Windows machine about the house at the moment so didn’t test on Internet Explorer. The map going to be mostly used on mobiles anyway. Immediately the client told me that naturally, it didn’t work on IE. I managed to confirm this using browsershots.org and went looking for clues as to what the problem was.

The right path seemed to be that IE8’s security features can stop maps loading. This made some sense in Microsoft World as a page that was loading mixed data from different locations is probably Up To No Good, and the solution seemed to be to tell IE8 to act like IE7 in this case, using this header:


which naturally seems like the sort of horrible cludge that we have come to know and love from a web browser that is made by wage slaves in a cubicle farm in Bangalore.

This morning I managed to test in IE using the simple expedient of switching on my partner’s laptop. It threw an actual error and a location in the javascript, which I traced to the line that handles the XML data that the Maps script takes in. It was true that there was a character error in the XML data, but the map still loaded in Firefox, Chrome and Safari. I loaded the XML script in IE and it helpfully told me where  the parser was choking. The application of assorted text lint fixed all the problems and the map now loads in IE7 and IE8 (quite possibly in IE7 emulation mode, but right now I don’t care).

The lesson learned: the world’s worst web browser can actually be quite helpful when it isn’t doing things that other web browsers do properly. Or when you’re trying to manage data without cleaning it.

Ah, this is probably it. Stop reading this, you’re wasting your time.