A Mostly Musical Slice of my Locked Down Week

The other day I was idly lazing about in the lounge in what might be described as my default position. You know what I mean, in my favourite chair, the TV remote within easy reach, my iPad just beside me.

After scanning through several TV channels in search of something to watch, I settled on plugging my earphones in and listening to Spotify. What I love about Spotify is that as you listen to the various tracks that you love, Spotify will create playlists for you of not only your favourite music but also similar music which it thinks you just might like also. You can also build your own playlists and recently I turned my old Top 100: one hundred of my favourite tracks I compiled quite a while ago, into a playlist.

Another great thing is that you can listen to new music, free of charge before you shell out and buy the CD or download the track. Recently I listened to the new album by Paul McCartney which seems to be pretty popular. McCartney wrote, sang and played all the instruments on the album which he recorded himself in his own studio during the lockdown. Now, you don’t need me to tell you what a talented guy Paul McCartney is but the fact is I didn’t think McCartney III was that good at all. I liked the first track, actually an instrumental one but the rest was pretty forgettable.

A few years back I decided that I was going to try and buy all the Beatles albums on CD. Not all in one go of course, just gradually, as and when I saw them up for sale. I started with Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band which was pretty good except for one awful George Harrison track. George, in the latter days of the Beatles, was getting a little fed up with Lennon and McCartney because he wanted some of his songs on the albums and they wanted, well just Lennon and McCartney ones. I can kind of see the Lennon/McCartney point of view because on the Sgt Pepper’s album, I copied all the tracks to a new CD for use in my car, but cut out George’s song because it was pretty awful. Harrison must have been fairly pleased with the Beatles break up because then he didn’t have to argue the toss about getting his music recorded, he just did what he wanted and in fact made some pretty successful albums.

Anyway as I bought more and more of the Beatles albums I actually became a little disillusioned. I’ve always found that even though the great Beatles hits are actually great, a lot of the other tracks on their albums are actually not that great at all so my project for buying all their albums gradually fizzled out except for getting most of their hit collections.

In the canteen at work the other day where we all sit at separate tables due to social distancing, I couldn’t help overhear two of my colleagues discussing music. One said that she and her husband had oceans of CDs between them but as they were all copied to their ‘master hard drive’ and that as streaming throughout the house of this music had somehow been enabled (I’m pretty low tech so don’t ask me to explain) she was urging her husband to get rid of his CDs. Get rid of his CDs? I couldn’t think of a greater blow she could have hit her husband with if I had tried. Get rid of his CDs? Outrageous!

One of the things I love about music is not just the music itself but the actual disc and the packaging and the sleeve notes. Now sleeve notes are not what they were back in the 70’s and 80’s. An album back then, a vinyl album of course was pretty big, twelve inches actually which gave the artist plenty of room to talk about his work, include the lyrics, details of the recording sessions and so on. It’s hard work getting all that stuff on a much smaller CD package but even so, I like the physicality of a record or a CD and although a download is pretty convenient sometimes, I still prefer my CDs.

Getting back to the afternoon that I started off with, there I was, listening to music and just generally meditating when I became aware of a nose hair. Now generally speaking, I am all for some personal grooming most days but now when the lockdown has stopped us going to restaurants and pubs and so on I suppose I’ve been a little lax in that department. You know how it is, like me you’ve probably been lazing about under lockdown in the same old jogging pants and sweatshirt you’ve been wearing for ages. Not going out to restaurants or pubs means I’ve not been grooming myself in the bathroom mirror as much as usual and as all the barbers and hair stylists are closed, my hair has been getting noticeably longer.

The result of that non-grooming soon became evident because as I relaxed I idly passed a hand over my nose and to my dismay I discovered a random nose hair dangling out from my left nostril. Going by touch only, it appeared to be a pretty long one so as my appearance is pretty important to me -heck I am a well-known writer, blogger and YouTuber– I thought the best thing was to yank it out. Now I’ve removed nose hair before, but this particular removal sent me into a paroxysm of pain and some serious sneezing. It put me in mind of a cartoon I snipped out from a magazine years ago and glued into my scrapbook. It was a guy at the dentist and he was having a tooth pulled out. The caption went something like ‘this might hurt!’ and it showed the dentist pulling out the tooth which had such a long root it also pulled out the fellow’s private parts.

My parts were intact, but that hair removal certainly made my eyes water.

What else happened last week while I was glued to my couch; grooming, listening to music and watching TV? Oh yes, Joe Biden was sworn in as the next President of the USA. All the living former Presidents with the exception of the poorly Jimmy Carter came to see Joe being appointed as President. One particular guest was missing though; that was Donald Trump, the outgoing President. Of course he wasn’t expected to attend because the whole thing was a stitch up because Joe, Trump maintains, stole the election. Well as far as I know, despite this terrible crime of election tampering being committed, no actual evidence of the tampering has come forward or been revealed.

On a BBC2 documentary the other day they showed a tearful young woman crying for the loss of Trump and all he stood for and has done. What he actually stands for, I don’t know and what he has done, well actually I don’t know that either. He was keen on building a wall to keep out the Mexicans but I’m not sure if he did that. He promised to lock up Hillary Clinton but he definitely didn’t do that. I know for a fact he’s played a lot presidential golf but that wasn’t one of his election promises.

I have always felt that Trump’s supporters would most likely be his fellow millionaires and billionaires but the majority of people who rampaged through the Capitol building the other week didn’t look like millionaires to me either, unless they were all disguised as para military fatigue wearing rednecks. Trump then leaves the White House as a bit of an enigma. Some pundits think he might even leave the Republicans and start his own party. Wonder who the first presidential candidate for the Trump party will be?

I spent some time this week looking back through my old posts in search of inspiration. I didn’t get an idea for anything new, but I did begin to think that one of my old posts, Four Simple Secrets of Self Publishing could be made into a video. I do love tinkering about, editing video so I decided to shift my lazy behind, crank up my laptop and create something for my YouTube channel.

There are probably two ways to make the kind of video I had in mind, one is to put a rough cut together with an eye on what I think I’m going to say in the voiceover. The other way is to record the voiceover first and then cut some images together to fit the voiceover, which is what I did.

So there you have it, the story of a few of my locked down days: Some music, some TV, some grooming and a little bit of video editing. How was your week?

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A Video for my Younger Self

Lockdown has been eased slightly here in the UK but even so, the day when things will be back to normal seems pretty distant. Even then I keep seeing things in the media about the ‘new normal’. What will the new normal be like? I don’t know but one day we will all be back out again, going back to bars and restaurants and flying to Europe and even further afield for our holidays. Still, I can imagine everything being ever so slightly different though with much more handwashing and social distancing.

I did consider calling this post How not to Smash up your Laptop. I didn’t but read on and you’ll begin to understand why. I have actually been fairly industrious this week, well, industrious by my standards that is. I have finally finished my latest video project and I have gradually come up with a few ideas for blogs and made some headway on my other writing projects. When I see my blog post deadline looming, I am not usually that worried because I tend to have a half-written blog post in the pipeline but when I have no ideas at all and no partly written blog posts, well, that is a worry so it has been good to get myself ahead again, if only by one or two blog posts.

A while back I decided that as my writing wasn’t coming along too well, I should set myself the task of making something new for my YouTube channel. There are actually plenty of videos over there on my channel but they are all short and simple one or two minute videos either of me reading poetry or me extolling the virtues of Floating in Space to the reading public.

I felt that my loyal band of video followers could do with something slightly different and while looking around for ideas I began to wonder if I could perhaps make one of my blogs into a video. After a look through my older posts I came across A Letter to my Younger Self. It was a post inspired by one of those blog post prompts that I tend to use when I’m short of ideas. What would you tell your younger self? What advice could you give?

My younger self needed not only advice but a good kick up the rear end although I didn’t quite go that far in the finished video. As we are still under lockdown I couldn’t go out and shoot anything new but I do have plenty of assorted video that I have accumulated over the years. To make things easier I decided to make the video on Animoto which does have plenty of stock clips that I knew I could use. Not only that, I have used Animoto for several years and I’m pretty confident using it. The alternative was using the windows HD movie maker. I have the Pro version but even so it’s not nearly as user friendly as the old Windows Movie Maker.

OK here we go. I logged on to Animoto but found that I was now one of the few people chosen to use the new beta 3 version of Animoto. Why oh why must our favourite software be continually changed? The first big problem I came across was that when using a vertical image in Animoto, it couldn’t be fully zoomed out; it would only fit on the screen to its width, I couldn’t zoom back and display the full image.

I contacted Animoto and they said you can zoom out using the scale bar. No you can’t I said. Yes, you can they said. I had only just started the project and already I was ready to smash my laptop into small pieces. A few days later after a lot of moaning on various Animoto forums the technical people sorted that issue out and yes, I could finally zoom fully out. Anyway, I ploughed on and when I had an initial basic cut, I made a rough narration and uploaded that to the project so I could get the pictures and video clips to fit in together. This seemed to take a hell of a long time and I found myself continually moving on to some other project or sometimes just surfing through eBay for something to buy that in fact I didn’t really need.

Just to give you a fuller picture of the issue, over lockdown I have ordered 3 DVDs, 3 lots of razor blades for the various razors I use, a bargain box of Terry’s chocolate oranges, a 1/43rd model of a bus I used to drive in 1987, a couple of books and various other things I’m too embarrassed to mention. One other thing I ordered, not from eBay but from Wowcher, was a set of face masks, quite handy I thought for venturing out shopping during the current situation. On Wowcher you order your item and are then given a voucher code which you use on the actual site that sells your item. I sorted that out, entered my code and ordered my face masks.

A week later I received an email saying the company had received my voucher from Wowcher and was ‘processing’ my order. After another week I got another email this time to confirm my order had now become ‘fully processed’. Later another email landed in my inbox advised that the item was now with the Royal Mail. At this rate I might just get the face masks in time for Christmas shopping.

Over on Twitter I tend to schedule my posts for the next few days but just lately Twitter doesn’t seem to want to display my scheduled tweets on my laptop. In fact I get a page looking something like this.

Now this can be a problem because there is no point in scheduling a post for 12:03 on Thursday if I’ve already set one to pop up at a similar time. Emails to Twitter and posts on various forums got me nowhere fast and once again I had to use all my willpower to prevent the violent smashing up of my laptop. The only solution was to schedule the posts using my iPad which happily displays the relevant scheduling page without any issues.

OK. Days have passed, even weeks and after getting my video cut near to perfection it was time to download the result and narrate a much more confident voiceover. Here’s when some more technology issues began to slow me down.

I noticed that when I recorded the voiceover, the recording seemed to be jumping and missing out various words. So, I clicked over to Google and searched for information about optimising sound recordings. I found I had set my recordings to DVD quality and maybe my laptop just couldn’t cope with that. OK, time to reset to CD quality and finally that was another problem sorted. (I’m happy to report I resisted the temptation to just smash my laptop to smithereens again.)

I noticed then that when I had my narration on my computer screen and scrolled down as I read, the microphone was picking up the clicks on the scroll button. I couldn’t print off the narration as I had no ink in the printer so what I did was upload the narration to my OneDrive and open it up on my iPad and read it from there. On my iPad I was asked to log in to OneDrive. I did but they wanted further confirmation. They wanted a passcode entered which they sent to my mobile. Off I went in search of the mobile. I entered the pass code but I was too late. It had expired! I did it again but this time the password was wrong!

(Steve don’t do it. Don’t smash the laptop to smithereens!)

No I didn’t. Instead I recorded the first section of the voiceover, paused, scrolled the text and recorded some more. Brilliant!

OK, final narration added, time for a few quick changes here and there and that was it. The big problem with editing is that when you are replaying your work over and over, it’s easy to miss the odd error. A few things I missed were some text on the screen that was in dark blue but wasn’t easy to see against a dark background and some other similar bits and pieces. I like to leave the finished video for a few days then take another look and then those minor errors are much easier to see.

In the old days of editing video, the editor began at the beginning and just carried on adding the next clip and then the next and so on. Today, working in digital video, the approach is slightly different. A scene can be easily compiled into a rough cut but then the editor can go back and change clips earlier in the video, trimming a bit here or re-ordering things there. Another great thing about modern video editing is that you can save your project so if, at a later date, you want to change something, you don’t have to start all over again. You just open up your saved project, change whatever you want and create a video file for the new version.

I’ve often thought about how wonderful it would to be a professional video editor but then I always see myself at work and the boss comes in and says ’can you have that ready by this afternoon?’. I doubt if I would last long at that company when I handed in the finished product two weeks later.

One of my favourite video editing stories is about Charlie Chaplin. Exactly a hundred years ago in 1920, Chaplin had just completed his first major film as a director, The Kid. He was in the middle of a messy divorce from his first wife Mildred Harris and thinking she was about to seize the unreleased film, Chaplin smuggled the negative to Salt Lake City where he completed the edit in his hotel room. Despite this, The Kid was released to rave reviews and became the second highest grossing film of 1921. I doubt whether A Letter to my Younger Self will get a similar response but it I do love messing about with video or as Liz tends to say twatting about on my laptop!

By the way, that’s the laptop I didn’t smash into a thousand pieces.

Willpower, wow! . .


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Working Out that Sweet Illusion!

Not so long ago I had a check up at work, nothing exciting just a routine health check. However they noticed that my blood pressure was a little high. Anyway a while later I thought I’d better go and see the doc about it. He did another check and confirmed, yes, my blood pressure was a little high. He in turn sent me down to see the nurse and she checked my pressure too. Once again the verdict was it was a little high. The nurse recommended that I take home a blood pressure monitor for a month and record the readings. The thing was, all the monitors at the practice were currently out with patients and were being used so they had to put me on a waiting list.

That was last year so now fast forward to January: A blood pressure monitor had become available but guess what? I was on holiday in Lanzarote for a month! Oh well, that’s the National Health Service for you. Anyway, the reason for me rambling on about all this is that the nurse offered me a free 12 week membership at the YMCA to see if 12 weeks activity might bring down my weight, my blood pressure or even both.

Liz and I then appeared at the YMCA in St Annes for our induction. Wearing my rather tasty track suit I picked up in the Asda sales, we were shown around the premises and given a run through of how to select certain weights on the weight training machines. We were also shown how to work various machines and introduced to the cross trainer, a sort of walking device with big handles so you can work out your arms and legs together. All these devices were kitted out with computerised systems which delivered the results of your work out at the touch of a button. So many calories burned. So many miles walked and so on. Tom our trainer, recommended we spend 10 minutes warming up on the walking machine before we went through our paces. 10 minutes warm up? Heck, I was knackered after 5 minutes!

Anyway, we carried on for another 30 gruelling minutes and I have to say it was all rather enjoyable. I burnt off a number of calories, at least 7 and even managed to walk and cycle quite a few miles. I did fancy a dip in the jacuzzi just to finish off but apparently, the YMCA doesn’t have one. Pity because a nice soak in a jacuzzi would have finished things off nicely.

I noticed that a lot of the other gym users were plugged into mobile phones or MP3 players, presumably listening to music while they jogged. As I didn’t bring mine I had to be content with listening to a few tracks in my head. Funnily enough, most mornings I tend to wake up with a tune running through my head. I usually have something of a stretch then potter off to sort out a cup of tea for myself and Liz. When I get back that tune will still be strumming away and sometimes I’ll know exactly what it is, other times the answer is just slightly out of reach. Anyway, back in the bedroom and Liz will be just reaching out for her cuppa and I’ll say ‘Guess what tune I woke up singing today?’

Now, you might think a simple answer would be in order but no, after all she is female. What she will do is ask me to guess what tune she woke up to that morning! When I decline she’ll tend to ignore me and just carry on to tell me about her tune. If it’s one I’ve never heard of she’ll probably even try to find it on YouTube. Eventually, some time later, we’ll get round to my tune. Now the tune in question on this particular morning was this: ‘Sweet Illusion‘ by Junior Campbell. Remember that one from 1973? It’s actually a great little track and one of the first singles I ever bought.

Now here’s the thing, why should I have woken up on a bank holiday Monday with that tune playing in my head? Sometimes I’ll hear a tune on TV or maybe playing on the jukebox in the pub. Then I can only guess that the tune will get trapped in my brainwaves, do a few circuits of my cranium while I’m asleep and surface into my consciousness just as I awake. Don’t remember hearing Sweet Illusion recently. Don’t think they played it during the pub music quiz either.

Two of my favourite live bands do a lot of cover versions. The Electric Boogie Club didn’t cover it last time we saw them although they do a cracking version of that old O’Jays hit ‘The Back Stabbers‘. April Moon are another band we like but again, Sweet Illusion is not one of theirs. Could it have meandering round my subconcious since 1973? I doubt it but then again, there is plenty of free space up there!


Steve Higgins is the author of Floating in Space, a novel set in Manchester, 1977. Click the links at the top of the page for more information!