Monday, December 24, 2007

What on Earth

A review of Live Earth CD/ 2x DVD

Expensive and useless gifts? Christmas is the season. This year, for the modicum price of £18 (or 26 Euros), a real contender drops by in the guise of Live Earth CD (not to mention the double DVD), a memento of the most overlooked and delusional music marathon in the history of pop and rock. It came. It went.
That’s what you thought.

"The concerts for a climate in crisis" (that being the official slogan), is now available in shops, featuring illustrious environmentalists Bon Jovi, Kelly Clarkson and Snow Patrol. Rihanna's there too. Her ubiquitous Umbrella makes you wonder whether you missed out on something and the song may actually be an ode to how we all missed the ozone layer. Duran Duran too, they may have cared jack about the environment throughout their career but, what the heck, at least one of their 80s hits contained the words "planet" and "earth". In this feast of back-patting and self-importance, that'll do fine. We learn that Black Eyed Peas also frown upon the planet looking a bit knackered and so do Enrique Iglesias and Joss Stone, no doubt on top of their game when it comes down to environmental and political awareness. Then there's Madonna. She had a record out in 2007 and she's on Live Earth too. To look at her mouthing off the word "revolution" reminds you of what Top Shop and H&M did when they decided to mass manufacture Clash, Ramones and Motorhead t-shirts. They soon got so trendy they ceased to make any sense.

When two and a half years ago Live 8 announced itself to the world, some people objected to the ongoing sniping by insisting that folded-arms cynicism was simply another excuse for idleness. I admit I was amongst those who thought Live 8 was a good idea and that Saint Bob-bashers could do with keeping their mouth shut for a day at least. Wrong. Hindsight's a wonderful thing, but what exactly did Live 8 achieve apart from getting Sting to change the lyrics from Every Breath You Take into "we'll be watching you" and to sanction Pete Doherty as the world's Chief Moron? Ok, Pink Floyd got back together and it was amazing, and Razorlight's sales made an unexpected jump. But hey…were you saying something about poverty, climate and Third World debt?

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

British fairytales

Under the censors' thumb

Today's page was about to begin with the words "Britain's hit a new low". Yesterday BBC radio 1 decided to ban a few words from The Pogues' 1987 Christmas hit "The Fairytale of New York". According to some zealots at the corporation, the song epithets 'faggot' and 'scumbag' were apparently gagging for their share of 'bleep' treatment.

It is exactly this type of idiocy that gives fresh ammunition to the (currently trendy) Daily Mail-led "political-correctness-has-gone-mad" lobby. Thankfully, of course, when challenged, no-one at the BBC 1 was prepared to argue that, in the context of "Fairytale of New York", the word 'faggot' is imbued with inflammatory undertones. Anyone vaguely familiar with music may be just aware The Pogues inhabit a territory miles away from Beenie Man's braindead gaybashing.

This time round, fitting the happy-ending narrative, people at BBC radio 1 came to their senses and took back their decision. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Mr Brain's faggots were soon to disappear from supermarkets. Or, most likely, if the makers of Lost were to be taken to court for racial hatred each time Sawyer is caught saying 'shortbrown'. And how about half of Fawlty Towers banned from telly and the authors of Queer as Folk legally bound to come up with another title? Oh, and no more Love Thy Neighbour on UK Gold… Not many grumbles with that one, I guess.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Morrissey's NME

Neither a racist, not a victim. Questions the NME should have asked.

Last week some serious sleep was lost in Britain. Tabloids and papers alike were at pains to figure out if:
a) Morrissey may truly be a BNP-courting racist or:
b) liberal Britain has lost its marbles once and for all as they throw hissy fits each time the word i-m-m-i-g-r-a-t-i-o-n is uttered.

As always, once the flurry of catchphrases, simple formulas and panic buttons is cast aside, it becomes clear that reality is neither black nor white. But whoever thought the NME was going to fare any better than that is, forgive me, a bit of a pranny.
And so I don't believe Morrissey is a racist at all. Nor did he use "inflammatory language" (everything's become "inflammatory" in today's Britain, you start wondering how those poor firemen cope). More, I don't even think he's a Tory and, anyway, does it matter? By the same token, I don't happen to think the NME is part of the world conspiracy that a long time ago set out to victimise poor-old Morrissey. He's been in the game too long -25 years and still counting- not to be aware that (especially) British papers have a natural inclination to sensationalise and misrepresent. You fart and the headlines proclaim that, shock/horror (!), you shat yourself; you put on a pound and you turn out the salad dodger.
So, if you don’t want to take that risk, simply, turn them bloody interviews down.

The NME's fault -and a big one at that- is that it totally failed to challenge Morrissey with REAL, factual and intelligent arguments. And a lot was there to be said. In that respect, Morrissey nailed it right on the head when he wrote in his subsequent statement (3 December) about the dreadful dumbing down of the weekly music rag. What Moz called "the relentless stream of 'cheers mate, got pissed last night ha ha' interviews" is a faithful depiction of today's NME. Then again, had Morrissey stayed in England, he'd have also noticed that "fuckin'ell, mate, got paralytic last nite, I'm so 'ungova" is by far today's young Brits' most likely topic of conversation.

So what could the NME have said to stand up to Morrissey's remarks instead of simplistically spurting out talks of "inflammatory language", Enoch Powells and BNPs?

Firstly, for instance, by pointing out that the true victims of an open-immigration policy are always gonna be those at the lower end, no matter what ethnicity, creed or religion. Have a look at the prophets of labour casualisation. You'll note their tendency to remark about too many foreigners on English soil goes hand in hand with their distinct reluctance to employ people on a decent competitive wage. Cue legal and semi-illegal agencies having a field day as they contract out vulnerable immigrants who'd take anything (and also share a room with ten others) so that their British bosses' profits can get even fatter. As immigrants are unaware or too afraid to claim their rights, wages are fast driven down. Ken Loach's latest film, "It's A Free World", as well as a recent BBC undercover investigation , both highlight the gravity of the situation. Incidentally, ask the Tory voter in Sutton Coldfield who'd grunt about bloody foreigners if he/she is quite happy to employ an English housekeeper on a proper wage instead of their current Ukranian one on four quid an hour. Local authorities and government can patronise us all by robotically going on about 'inclusion', 'equal opps' and 'black history' exhibitions, but factual reflection on the UK's inner city ghettos and the true plight of the lower classes - of all races, I maintain- is forever going to be blighted by cries of "racism" and "inflammatory language".

Also, did anyone sense a whiff of hypocrisy when the Irish Blood, English Heart singer spoke of "every accent under the sun, except British, in Knightsbridge"? Worse, when Mozza remarked that "if you travel to Germany, it’s still absolutely Germany. If you travel to Sweden, it still has a Swedish identity. But travel to England and you have no idea where you are", that -on his part- is naivety at the very least. How Anglo-centric (and blind) can you be? Doesn’t it click that his is the typical simplistic view of the post-colonial little Englander abroad? I'm sure to the eye of a sov-donned Brit getting pissed in the Mediterranean, tacky Torremolinos feels "distinctly" Spanish, or central Paris quintessentially French (and by the way, why not ask an old Frenchman in central Paris if the place "hasn't lost its identity?"). Ask the week-package language student in Brighton and he'll tell you how "very English" it all is.

But, the question is, would Morrissey care to ask the few Spaniards left in Marbella or Benidorm if the place doesn't feel overrun? What about 'loss of identity' when you walk up and down la calle only to stumble upon an English pub or a chippie after the other? It's alright when a million (and counting) ex-pats grab hold of Spanish homes driving prices through the roof, isn’t it? It's alright when Brits move to Spain en-masse without bothering to pick up a single word of the local language...What would the locals have to say about foreign accents there? Or how about, not registering as local residents (hence dodging tax) but still making full use of hospitals, rubbish collection and other public services all along the Costa Blanca? So, you see, dear old Moz, loss of identity is happening everywhere, Germany, Sweden and Spain included. It isn't like the Daily Mail would hint, that "they all wanna come here".
It's not just about hearing accents down the street.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

All dolled up

Forget the brain... it's the wardrobe, stupid!

With 'Crimbo' approaching, how many of you are already pulling your hair out in clumps because of the onslaught of high-pitched, hyper-irritating children's toy adverts? How many of you who are parents are fending off squealing requests for the latest gadgets from your flapping kids?

Yesterday, one of my 10-year-old students thrusted the Carrefour Christmas brochure into my face and insisted that I looked at the toys with her. She then went on to point out all of the dolls (nothing like the innocent Polly Pockets and Sylvanians that I remember as a kid) she was going to get whilst I looked on with a mixture of disgust and horror. Most of the young learners that I teach (female, of course) are obsessed with 'Super-fashion', mobile phones, Zara's latest revealing kid's collection and the list goes on, and on.

This was nothing, however, compared to an article I read not so long ago in The Sun. As I flicked through, I came across a picture of what looked to me like some sort of munchkin glamour model. A mini Barbie doll with poker straight white-blonde hair (with extensions, naturally) Day-Glo orange tan and more make-up than the average pissed-up shaz on a Saturday night. Fair enough, you might think, that's the usual sort of girl you see in any tabloid. The worrying thing was, however, that this was an 11-year-old girl.

Sasha Bennington lives with her parents and brother in the north of England. Her mum Jayne, a B-class glamour model herself at one time, treats her daughter to the type of treatments only WAGs can manage to afford: spray tans once a week, acrylic nail extensions once a month and regular trips to the hairdressers to top up her highlights and have new extensions fitted. Each morning, she plucks her eyebrows and spends an hour before school applying full make-up. At weekends, she enjoys wearing her favourite outfit, a tight, white satin boobtube, mini-skirt, heels and a white Stetson.

The girl's idol is inflated, outspoken shagger Jordan, who in Sasha's words is "My obsession... I want to be a model like her when I grow up, be famous and have loads of money."
When her mother was asked how she feels about people criticising her daughter's appearance she charmingly replied ''They're just jealous do-gooders who probably have fat kids they can't do anything with... She can't help being good looking. I want her to use it to achieve something."

Most terrifyingly, Sasha isn't a one-off example of 21st century childhood and parenting gone bad. More and more primary school age kids are obsessing about celebrities, WAGs, unsuitable fashion and beauty products. Shops such as upscale French beauty giant Sephora have introduced a whole aisle of products aimed at the under 13's. Perfumes by Escada, Moschino and even Dior are given child-friendly names, cute bottles and are marketed to the new wave of little women. Sephora's own brand of make-up has now extended to the kids market, selling mascara, nail varnish and even powder to their new target audience. Once-wholesome-now-slutty Barbie has for a few years now been selling its own range of beauty products. The horrendous, hookeresque atrocities known as Bratz (of which I would rather burn my own genitalia off than give to any child of mine) have amazingly given their name to a manicure and nail-drying kit, and finally, the 'Pampered Bratz' body lotion and perfume set marketed to ages 6+, no less.

In the age of paedo-hysteria, eating disorders and the perfect image, the message this undoubtedly sends to girls is that if you don't wear tons of make-up, dress like a Bratz doll and follow high fashion trends, you're simply not good enough. Girls like Sasha Bennington and countless others are being brought up in a vacuum world of vanity and self-obsession which will no doubt ruin them in later life.

If children like this are told every day by their parents, no less, that - forget the brain - the only way to succeed in life is to be pretty and done up like a dog's dinner, god alone knows what he next generation of kids will be like.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Sheffield's finest

An interview with Richard Hawley

In the 80s and 90s Sheffield gained a reputation as the birthplace of some some truly amazing bands. The Human League, Def Leppard (ok, maybe NOT quite them), Cabaret Voltaire, ABC and Pulp were for a time able to give bigger and more celebrated cities a run for their money.

Today's torchbearer is by far my new favourite artist, Richard Hawley. He stands out from today's crop of bands. People have been talking about a renaissance of indie and guitar music but, since the Noughties, I've personally been left a bit cold. Except, that is, for Richard Hawley.

His records sleeves alone can tell a story like perhaps only The Smiths' could. And the music...well, that's another thing altogether. Sparse piano, shy, shimmering, beautiful guitars, stunning arrangements and a wink and a half of the atmosphere of 50s rockabilly. After attending his fantastic gig at Sala Apolo, Barcelona, I decided to ask him a few questions. He politely agreed and here's what he said.

- I'm one of those people who believe artwork and record sleeves can be as significant a factor in making you fall in love in a band. Your imagery seems really meaningful - which is fascinating. Not many current bands can boast the same. Have you always been into records layout and sleeve design?

I agree. I don't think it's quite as important as the music as you can listen to music and fall in love with it without the artwork, but it helps define and artist/band and helps to separate them from the pack if they are brave enough. I have, since my earliest bands, been very much interested in the artwork to covers of singles and albums, as well as all the poster, etc. I like things to have continuity if and wherever possible. I have o formal training at all, but this isn’t important if you have a definite idea of how you want things to look. I have always liked a more journalistic approach to most of my sleeves. Almost like a snapshot rather than something posed, although the newer stuff was more thought out. In the past I would just choose a location I liked and then just fire away.

- Can you think of any sleeves that had a certain impact on you in the past?

I like sleeves from the 50's and 60's, no surprises there, I suppose. I also like a lot of graphic design of the early 20th century. I like hand set lettering and simple but effective design. No clutter, just to the point.

- Do you think the age of internet and downloading can put an end to all that? Records are quickly giving way to 'invisible' MP3 tracks?

Well, it's hard to say, isn't it? But I think it's odd that everyone assumes that the entire world is glued to the internet. They aren’t. At a time when record companies are panicking and using the internet more, which to me makes music more unreal and remote, I think it's MORE important than ever to be real and available as an artist. Especially live; that's the real test. A lot of stuff that's available won't translate to a live audience. I don’t think the internet will be the death of music or indeed record companies. It will be the death of the performer because it takes years to learn that craft.

- You once said your political views are "Jurassic Labour". What do you make of 10 years of Tony Blair? And can we expect any change at all now with Gordon Brown at the helm, or is it just unnecessary delusion?

My views are from the perspective of being a steel worker's son from a generation of men who were abandoned by ALL their leaders. I have never trusted politicians and trust them even less now. They only care about their own careers, they don’t give a shit about the consequences of their actions, no matter what they say. Blair and Brown are just another pair of lying monkeys on the vine.

- Do you ever look back and miss being "just" the member, however significant, of a band, instead of chief singer/songwriter/lyricist and the one carrying the torch?

All members of a band are important. I used to carry a lot in Pulp; I handled a lot of the dynamics, but it was all done quietly at the back, no problem to me. In my situation now I had to be the singer…although I did try and find someone to sing the songs but couldn’t…cos no-one else wanted to, or could actually sing them the way I heard them in my head. All ways of making music are valid and I have enjoyed all past and hopefully future ways I have and will play music. It's not an issue to me.

- The Barcelona gig. I heard a few guys shouting "Roy Orbison!" Flattered, or does it piss you off a bit?

They are at the wrong gig. I don’t really mind. It's better than them shouting "George Michael", innit?

- You're one of the few artists I can listen to without literally skipping a track. Each of your records is remarkably consistent from start to finish. The last two albums though are just in a league of their own. Which songs are you most proud of?

That’s very nice of you to say, so thanks. I don’t have favourites really… I like the ones I haven’t written yet.

- 'Tonight The Streets Are Ours'. There's a line in which you sing: "Those people they got nothing in their souls/ And they make our TVs blind us/ From our visions and our goals". Are you referring to, by any chance, the current state of UK telly, megasaturated, as it is with celebrity pap and' realities'? In any case, what's your take on them?

That’s exactly what I am referring to. It's so depressing! I have decided to just disengage with it all. I would rather read a book or go for a drive than even look at the TV when it's off. It's the lunatics' lantern, my friend…

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Living the American Dream

New York, New York….let me be a part of it….

I always wanted to be a part of it, so when I finally got the chance to live The Manhattan Dream, I said good bye to ole Europe, to my friends and family, packed my two suitcases, and took off from Roissy Airport in Paris on a cold and rainy Saturday morning about two months ago.
I landed in JFK International Airport seven hours later, filled with that feeling that certainly all new immigrants get whenever they arrive somewhere: excitement, fear of the unknown, and the “what the fuck am I doing here???” feeling.

Anything to declare?

Even if Ellis Island was shut down 50 years ago, the immigration process in the US has not changed much really, merely has it become more modern nowadays. You still need to stand in line for hours together with other would-be immigrants, and instead of checking for head lice and infectious diseases, you would be submitted to full background check by the Immigration Authorities. After cross-checking your VISA information with FBI and Immigration Services databases, you finally get a “Welcome to the US!” from the Immigration Officer, and you are finally ready to move on with your new life…or at least that’s what you would think…

What’s your SSN?

I heard that question a dozen times a day upon my arrival, and quickly understood that without your holy social security number, basically you are just a ghost in this country. No SSN, coupled with the fact that you have no credit history in the US means that no one will trust you: you cannot open a bank account, you cannot rent an apartment, even subscribing a cell phone contract is impossible.

Your broker is your best friend.

First thing to do when you want to settle into a new place is obviously finding somewhere to live. Luckily enough, my firm offered me one month free housing to give me time to find my own place. Should not be too hard, I thought, I am in New York, housing situation cannot be worse than London or Paris…how naïve I was…

I have met all types of brokers the city has to offer: the charming American guy that is REALLY interested in what’s happening in Europe (yeah, right!), the Philippine broker that understands PERFECTLY what you are going through (been there done that sort of), the aggressive one (I’m telling you this is really great value, a steal, you should really go for it….and I’m like, yeah but still it’s $2,000 for a basement studio….with no windows!!!), and also the one that couldn’t care less (oh no SSN, sorry can’t help you then, but call me when you finally have your number! Good luck!).

After having met with five or six brokers and visited about twenty apartments, I finally understood that it would be difficult to find an apartment that was bigger than a closet, not in a dodgy part of the city and not infested with mice, cockroaches or other unwelcome guests. The 30th apartment didn’t look too bad, so tired of searching, I finally decided to go for that one. Just to hear that without a SSN, they couldn’t give me the apartment…unless I was willing to pay 12 months rent upfront! I could go on with four more stories like this one.

I’m not a part of it yet, but I’m getting there.

Once I was able to sort out my housing situation (I consider myself lucky with a 6th floor no elevator 1-bedroom in a nice area of the city) things started becoming much easier. 4 weeks after my arrival I finally received the Holy Grail SSN in my mail. I was finally a legal alien! Here, small things like that really can make your day!

I have started becoming a true New Yorker:

I am walking much faster, I understand that one NY minute is much more valuable than a minute anywhere else.

Tourists annoy me, coz they don’t walk fast enough.

I am not shocked by the 1-800-COPSHOT stickers anymore (it‘s the number you are supposed to call when you have been witness to a cop being shot).

I am not afraid of heights anymore.

I am starting to think that NY is the center of the universe.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Daft Punk is Playing at My House

Three reasons why electronic music is not just a load of old noise.

Justice "The Cross"; Simian Mobile Disco "Attack, Decay, Sustain, Release"; Soulwax "Remixes"

Annoying, repetitive, chavvy. That's what I used to think of electronic music until someone recommended a new track she'd just downloaded. The song was by a bald man from Paris who called himself Vitalic and was called 'My Friend Dario'. It started with the noise of a person undoing a car door, slamming it, and followed with a rather creepy disembodied voice rhythmically chatting about a bloke who downs bottles of drink before he drives his 'super make of car'. At first, my initial reaction was one of confusion, but the more I listened to it the more I grew strangely intrigued. After the fifth listen, I was hooked. This was the start of my fascination with electronic music.

Three albums that have made an enormous impression this year are from three rather fantastic DJ ensembles. Belgian remixers and ex-indie kids Soulwax (Soulwax Remixes), the magnifique French duo Justice (The Cross) and last but by no means least, lunatic acid house revivalists Simian Mobile Disco (Attack, Decay, Sustain, Release)

Very personally, Justice's The Cross reminded me exactly why you can fall in love with electronic music in the first place. Probably one of the most eagerly anticipated debut albums of all time, it's packed with gems such as the single 'D.A.N.C.E', and addictive disco-strings-and-bass laced anthem 'Dvno'. Whereas weaker tracks such as 'Phantom Pt.2' sometimes remind you of your little brother pissing about with a set of decks whilst gargling Listerine into a microphone, it still is a classic album. Whilst The Cross is a good choice for electro-virgins, Attack, Decay, Sustain, Release by Simian Mobile Disco is probably best left to hardened fans. Nonetheless, it's an interesting example of the new direction of dance music at the moment. It begins with absorbing, terrifying track 'Sleep Deprivation', which sets the tone for the rest of this brilliantly unapproachable album. Even so, there are a few gentler tracks such as 'Wooden', while 'Tits & Acid' should please the old-school-house crowd with it's squidgy bass and throbbing beats.

Finally, Soulwax's admirable remix album (with its title nothing less than an 104-word paragraph, so forgive me for rebranding it as such) is a cd-rack-essential for any self-respecting electro fan. Boasting two CDs, one mixed, one unmixed for your pleasure, it contains the very best of their B-side-mixes. Standout tracks include their exceptional remix of Klaxon's 'Gravity's Rainbow' and their unusual rework of Muse's 'Muscle Museum' (so weird it works) although I doubt any Ladytron fan will ever be able to forgive them for the foul mess that is their mix of Seventeen. If it ain't broke don't fix it, as they say.

Ten essential electro tracks to download:

1. Shit Disco: OK (Acid Girls Remx)
2. Justice: Dvno
3. Daft Punk: Technologic (Vitalic Remx)
4. Justice vs. Simian: Never Be Alone
5. SebastiAn: Ross Ross Ross
6. Simian Mobile Disco: Sleep Deprivation
7. Vitalic: La Rock 01
8. Mason: Exceeder
9. LCD Soundsystem: Daft Punk is Playing at My House
10. M.I.A: 10 Dollar

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Living the dream?


Good or damaged goods, they just won't go away.

I wonder if this is what she wanted. It's been two years since she became the self-appointed spokeswoman for the generation of wannabe-celebs-for-the-sake-of-it desperados. She literally exploded onto our TV screens in a flurry of "Oh My Gawd!" and never ending blonde hair, becoming a gossip mag favourite ever since. Chantelle Preston (nee Houghton) was the unlikely winner of Celebrity Big Brother 2006. Not a celebrity herself on entering the house, with the assistance of Max Clifford she had to pretend that she was a member of imaginary girl-band Kandy Floss and fool the other celebrity housemates (including Pete Burns, George Galloway, Jodie Marsh and singer Preston from The Ordinary Boys, who she later went on to marry) that she was one of them.

A healthy, happy-go-lucky Essex-girl, her 'career' went from strength to strength soon after. In succession, she harvested a publishing deal for a biography, her own TV programme (both entitled 'Chantelle: Living the Dream') and also a regular column for monthly gossip rag Closer. Meanwhile, six months was all Chantelle and Preston's marriage lasted. Their separation was announced in a flood of publicity and 'are they or aren't they together?' headlines.
Clearly a trying time for any person, celeb magazines went on to pummel down our throats shocking photos of Chantelle looking emaciated and skeletal while doing her shopping, scandalising her close friendship with ex-anorexic and BB '07 housemate Nikki Grahame and henceforth hinting on Bulimia and vomiting sessions.
It seems that these days of Celebmania, no matter if you're a successful star or one who's hit rock bottom, you'll snatch headlines and front pages (even more so for the latter. Take Amy Winehouse for example). A recent issue of More! magazine quite pathetically cheated their readers by marketing their Chantelle 'rock bottom' story as an exclusive. You would expect to read first hand accounts off the disgraced celebrity herself or her closest pals. Instead, this was simply a rehash of read-it-all-before comments from 'friends' of hers ("She's my friend and I love her but she really needs to sort her life out, innit...") and photos that had been printed numerous times beforehand, ad nauseam.

The Venus De Milo of Z-list 'celebrity' Kerry "Mum's-gone-to-Iceland" Katona is another fine example of 15-minutes-of-fame gone claustrophobically wrong. The one time Atomic Kitten singer was once the darling of the non-entity magazines. She married vacuum-packed good boy Bryan McFadden, spawned two kids and was all the time praised for coming through her care home background to find happiness and success. Instantly, she turned into the evil smoking-whilst-pregnant-coke-snorting-Warrington-Chav-divorcee. She married again, amongst more revelations, this time that her new husband was once a drug-dealer. Next, she was held a knifepoint whilst her house was burgled and, overnight, brave Kerry was hurled back on the gossip-mag circus and handed her own column in OK! magazine. No week goes by without a 'shocking- exclusive' feature about her.

When you have nothing to offer the general public, no talent, no skills other than marrying another talentless Z-list celebrities and taking the odd decent photo, the press that nurtured you at first will slowly, painfully devour you at the first signs of distress. When you're no longer part of The Golden Couple or the sweet, slightly simple girl-next-door image wears off, the flap simply opens up to darker, more malicious types of publicity that have potentially destructive effects. How else are the hordes of those vacant, shallow magazines supposed to survive otherwise?

Is turning into one of these self-induced wrecks really living the dream?

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Rule Britannia

Berlin after 3 months. An update.

My first three months here have been less dramatic than one would have expected, considering I have been experiencing a deep rooted angst about moving abroad for the past 3 years. A fear that lay buried until the prospect of moving to Frankfurt reared its ugly head. Anyone who knows me knows that I denied Frankfurt my presence for the next academic year, instead deciding to hold out for the Holy Grail of German cities: Berlin. My feelings at the start of my German degree revolved around the musings that after spending two years away from home in Birmingham (and I use 'away from home' loosely), I would be ready for the next step in the adventure known as life - doing one accross the channel to Bonny Deutschland.

In reality however,I was only ever 20 minutes away from my family, and about 10 minutes away from my brother and nephews. I have never been further, nor did I want to be. That was how I liked it. I found myself comfy and settled and totally content in Birmingham - those sentiments only securing my doubts & resentment of leaving British soil. But then, after 2 years of Grammar-based turmoil I finally took the plunge and signed my 12 month legally-binding contract with an aloof, long-haired, wiry looking German man, for a 2 bedroomed flat in the heart of Berlins art scene.

In theory this all sounds perfect, and it really is. But I have come to a certain conclusion that places can be incredible and amazing and inspiring and life-fulfilling. But for me, the place is not charachterised by the monuments or the shopping districts (although I am partial to the latter!), it's solely about the people you surround yourself with. In short, I miss England. Not for its pathetic excuse for public transport. Not for the BullRing or Topshop. Not for the £1.99 fry ups in Asda. I miss the god blessed people!

Monday, November 12, 2007

Death of a ´60s bridge. In Brum.


In his excellent book Ghosts of Spain (Faber and Faber, 2006), Guardian correspondent Giles Tremlett argues that Spain's obsession with modernity entails "a certain disrespect, even contempt, for the old". And so, the story goes, a remarkable heritage of old buildings, churches and fortresses are being neglected or even pulled down for the benefit of office blocks and contemporary architecture. Tremlett adds that, from Madrid to Valencia, Seville to Bilbao, even the 'old new', that is to say modernist buildings, are being swept away.

His work is distinctly part of that family tree of books penned by Brits abroad as they dissect Dark Hearts, Merdes and Ghosts crowding their adoptive countries. All have one thing in common, that is stoical failure to keep hold of old sayings like "pot calling kettle black" or "look who's talking". And, just perhaps, Tremlett could do with a quick trip to Birmingham, the epitome of a city ransacked by office blocks and battery apartments. Throughout the 50s and 60s, stunning old buildings like 1861's Wycliffe Baptist Church on Bristol Street, the old Central library (1863), the Woodman pub on Easy Row and dozens more were all criminally torn down, paving the way for 'gems' like Paradise Forum and Lee Bank. The result is a Birmingham that earned its fame as the capital of concrete and distinct lack of pre-WWII heritage.

You'd have thought the lesson's been learnt. If anything, one could argue, Brum's vast collection of 60s architecture is testament to a specific architectural drive. Although debatable, it still harbours a certain charm. Yet, look at today's never-ending slew of demolition sites dotted around the city. I understand the need to improve and modernise and few would doubt Birmingham was in need of a bit of slap. But it's difficult to discern any notion of communal improvement when the old, glorious Museum of Science and Industry turned into fertile land for yet another urban splash apartment block. Or think of John Madin's Birmingham Post & Mail modernist jewel ending up worse for wear in last year's encounter with the planners' wrecking ball. Not least, there are increasing rumours that the Central Library is to go - yet again- pledging a legacy of a massive building site right in the middle of the city.

They don't restore in Birmingham, they bulldoze. Eddies no.8 mysteriously self-combusted and the strategically-located Flapper too may soon make way for more overpriced city-centre-living. The victims of Brum's knock-down frenzy are, simply, too many to mention. But it broke my heart to see (and film) my favourite pedestrian bridge- the unique 60s flyover that used to spiral across the two sides of Smallbrook Queensway-from Snobs to the Mailbox, ending up in a pile of rubble.

You may need Quicktime to view the video.

video

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Hawley in Barcelona. Photos.

As promised, here's a few photos I took last Saturday at Richard Hawley's gig in Barcelona. Feel free to peruse, but please do quote the source. Otherwise, you're in for castration (for caballeros- ladies are to be let off lightly).








Monday, October 29, 2007

Richard Hawley, Sala Apolo, Barcelona 27 Oct 2007

A Review

Life's bizarre circumstances: I never managed in England, and it's in Barcelona I get to catch a glimpse of my new musical hero.

The bar next door to Sala Apolo is packed with 30 or 40-somethings sipping the local equivalent of Carling (a lager that goes by the moniker of Estrella Damn) and sporting New Model Army t-shirts…

For a second I ponder at the unusual music taste combination…did they in any way find some sort of connection with Hawley's vintage brand of rock'n'roll…or is senility getting the better of me as I totally forgot NMA were to play the venue next door? I've dragged my girlfriend along tonight. She's no Hawley fan, but is willing to keep an open mind.

And so we head for the entrance. Difficult to judge from a 30-second experience but bouncers appear a touch friendlier than the power-crazed ex-convict-bunch back in the UK…no-one ever died from a smile and they seem to be aware of it.

We make for the upper level and Sala Apolo is, quite simply, beautiful. If expectations are anything to go by, the surreal setting heralds a great night: a cross between 'Cabaret' and vintage 50s dancehalls. In fact, the ballroom scene in 'The Shining' could have easily been filmed here.

It's a cosy, red-tinted little venue, donned in vintage lanterns and tasteful decor. Most strikingly, as we approach the stage, we find out there are no barriers. None. I can't help but think that if the guy standing next to me is going to be sick - not unlikely given the state of him- Richard Hawley's monitors will be in for early retirement.

Again, amazingly, capturing the best spot exactly right at the front is as easy as piss. Staggering pisshead on my left included, the audience are incredibly well behaved. Any gig I watched in England before, and I mean any, there was always a fucker or two completely off their head, spoiling it for everyone else. But thankfully not here, not tonight.

Javier MacKenzie, the one-man opening act, displays remarkable talent - though it's difficult not to think he could do with a band. Soon it's ten o'clock and Hawley-time.

Aside from his absolutely amazing, mesmerising voice, melodies and arrangements - as well as the compelling atmosphere his records evoke- what drew me to Richard Hawley in the first place was the obvious affability of the character.

As he walks on stage, Chelsea boots, jeans complete with turn-ups, white shirt and black blazer, it's quite obvious the word pomposity doesn’t fit into his dictionary. Before strumming a single note, he clocks the guy on my left (who's at pains to articulate a slurred "kr-ooh-nher!" at him) "You're pissed, aren't you mate? 'Ammered!" he smiles, "I'm going to get pissed myself after the gig".

Hawley's friendly banter with the crowd includes a Partridge-like moment when he asks for a ceiling fan to be turned off. He looks puzzled for a split-second and then proceeds to put it right "I don't mean these fans! I don’t wanna turn you off! I want to turn you on, you know!" he protests. Only to add, with a smile, "And oooh, by the way…I feel quite turned on tonight".

Later on, he'll introduce himself as "Maria, a crossdresser from Barcelona", and as I ask him if The Washington, a Sheffield pub owned by Pulp's Nick Banks, is still standing, he quips "It is still standing, but it's shite!"

When I decided to find out more about him I couldn’t believe he started his career in The Longpigs. Thankfully, his music is miles away from them. With a voice as magnetic as nothing else on earth, the guy was born to sing his own music. Morrissey tried to give voice to his rockabilly instincts and I'm still not entirely sure he managed to pull it off.

Hawley, instead, he's cracked it exactly right and he's turned me into a hardcore fan. Which I didn’t think would be possible past the age of 25. Music can convey the intensity of emotions like nothing else on earth but you won't know the full extent until you soak in, in silence, each one of Richard Hawley's records, Coles Corner and Lady's Bridge in particular. You'll almost feel reluctant to breathe in case you frighten the moment away.

Live, he's even more effective. He performs most of his new album Lady's Bridge with subtlety and style, striking that perfect balance that makes him sound epic without, in fact, being epic at all. I can't remember who said that it's not the notes that matter, it's the spaces in between and Hawley and his band are testament to that.

Valentine
is the perfect opener, followed by a gentle rendition of Roll River Roll. It's quite obvious his voice is in fine form tonight and his band know exactly what they're doing. Just Like The Rain is followed by the fact-of-the-day that the video was filmed in the Spanish city of Almeria, and Tonight The Streets Are Ours is so heartfelt it's like an emotional air-raid condensed in a three-minute classic.

Coles Corner subtle-swelling chord progression captures the hall and I'm basically transfixed. Hawley introduces the graceful Lady's Bridge adding that "it's not a euphemism" while the wonderful Hotel Room is "a song about addiction", conjuring up a cinematic mood that would give David Lynch a run for his money. Darlin Wait For Me is "for our wives cos we're soppy old gits really" and what follows is one masterpiece after the other; the timeless Born Under A Bad Sign -my personal favourite - and the new single Serious.

Were it not for the British public being obsessed with trends and fickle notions of cool shoved down their throat, it would easily be a chart-topping contender. There's still time for the classic Something Is off his debut album: "I'm going away my sweetness, don’t you cry, cos tonight is the best time that we've had", he sings.

You know the old cliché that time flies when you truly enjoy something. Well, it's the encore already. The Barcelona crowd are clearly engrossed - can you blame them- and they're treated to the moody, almost spectral, Tonite and a lump-in-your-throat rendition of The Ocean, (initially spoilt by a pillock behind me laughing out loud until his own girlfriend had the sense to shush him).

"Gracias", Richard Hawley pronounces as he heads off. I look at my girlfriend and she proudly announces she's totally fallen for his music. And then it's time to go. Already.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Ming Campbell resigns!

And so the story goes that Menzies Campbell managed a flimsy 18 months.
He admitted that, in spite of his competence and integrity, there was no chance he could halt the Lib Dem's downward spiral. Since he took over from Charles Kennedy in January 2006, the party has been trounced at all local elections and in all opinion polls. Campbell was, to put it bluntly, totally uninspiring.
This is the right time to for Kennedy to throw his hat back into the ring. When you look at the desolate, depressing British political sytem, where they all look the same and the difference between Tories and Labour amounts to the width of a rizla, Charles Kennedy is the right person to take up the challenge. He may trip up while he speaks, he may not be a Blairite-style automata, but at least he's not like the other politicians. Get him back!!!

Monday, October 08, 2007

Two-wheeled cunts

Motorbikes are right up my pet-hate table, high as they are there in the league of all-time straight-to-your-nerve-centre annoying noises, on a par with mosquitos, in-aircraft toddler-crying and Celine Dion's voice.

Brum is simply packed with tossers riding about in their souped-up bikes, overly concerned with proving macho credentials through one-wheel swerving, left-right-and-centre overtaking and racing miles above speed limits. Race bikes, of course, are the most annoying. "Oh the freedom, maaaan", they would inform you. Freed from traffic, traffic lights and basic road rules, along with the hip pull-a-rock-chick imagery they evoke, aren’t motorbikes the coolest vehicles on earth?

Except for one, actually two, things. In 2005 motorbikes accounted for over 50% of road accidents. That's a huge amount if you think of the totality of vehicles in circulation. Coincidence? It may as well be. To me, it just proves most bike people are amongst the most selfish, self-centred, inconsiderate motorists alive (how long for?) given that it's not just their own spinal liquid they're going to spill out, but other people's too.

And that's without dwelling on the enormous noise those things produce. There are times you walk down the streets hearing industrial pneumatic drills throbbing about only to realise that of course there's no sign of road works nearby: it's just a hyper-cool souped-up bike roaring past you. And there's no way you can get sensitised. Play me the Titanic soundtrack CD everyday. I'll puke each time, like clockwork.

In Oldbury there's even more bikes around- only louder. If karma is anything to go by, the only conclusion is that my new strategically-located abode serves me just right. The sense of smugness as I signed the tenancy agreement was quickly followed by the bombshell of having a motorbike retailer as a corner shop and a bike repairs as you take a left. I'll go and have a kip.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Cold calling

For the past few days my UK phone has been telling me of several missed calls from a Manchester number. Yesterday I finally managed to catch them. "Sir, we're from [classified] services", was all they said, quickly moving on to their script: an almost incomprehensible succession of "selling our products" and "customer services", all the usual crap. They spoke so quick I'm not even sure it was **B. It could be **M, or even LSD, or anything. I told them I wasn’t interested and that was that. So far, nothing unusual.

Except. Same again the following day. **B -whatever that stands for- on the phone, with the specification that it was a [classified] that had given them my details. Nice. The guy the other end of the line then went: "For security purposes, we need to ask you to confirm your personal details. What's your date of birth?" I said: a) you're the one calling me, I don’t know you, and you're asking for my personal details. Shouldn’t it be the other way round?" b) quick answer: are you trying to sell me something, yes or no?

And the man went, "for confidential reasons I can't answer that question, sir".
Goodbye, then.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Richard Hawley, Lady's Bridge


A review

Mid-August 2007. My holiday. Sitting at a cafe' bar in the pretty lakeside town of Iseo, in Northern Italy.

Were it not for the appalling dress-sense displayed by a couple of German tourists, the bloke sporting the infamous hiking sandals/white socks combo and his missus the baggiest most masculine t-shirt that's ever graced the earth, you'd conclude it's a pretty unremarkable early afternoon.

On the radio, Gloria Gaynor's I Will Survive is followed by a previously unheard tune. I look at my girlfriend. "I like this one", I utter, the melody, the arrangements and the texture feeling just right and thirty seconds is all it takes for me to want to find out more…The 1950s romance aura rings incredibly familiar. Then the singer's voice, warm and melancholic, comes in. It's Richard Hawley and that's his new single Tonight the Streets Are Ours.

Dedicated in memory of his father, a former steelworker from Sheffield and the real influence behind Hawley's fondness for 1950s' rock'n'roll and rockabilly, Lady's Bridge is no doubt as addictive as his previous work.

Compared to the critically acclaimed Coles Corner, the music may have lost a touch in intensity, but it's certainly picked up kudos in maturity and grace. It's quite possibe that in the heart of many fans Hawley's filled the gap left by Morrissey when the former Smiths singer packed his bags for Land of Egomania and decided that giant spangly MORRISSEY neon letters sculpted on stage would do.

Richard Hawley's distinctive retro style is well-suited to the ongoing themes of introspection, absence and loss. The sleeve is so carefully studied and the imagery alone suggestive enough to leave you daydreaming for a couple of hours. To me, that’s what a timeless record is about.

The title track is just sublime, musically and lyrically, as it takes the cue from The Ocean off Coles Corner, but with a less claustrophobic effect, "Take me with you when you go I'm tired of living life on hold"- he sings, while the frail and tormented Dark Road has the charm of a Johnny Cash ode: "One day from the darkness I'll come rapping at your door and I'll never walk this road anymore".

With Serious and I'm Looking For Someone To Find Me things go up one notch. The double bass, doo wop vocals and steel guitars are evocative of a lost world where ballrooms and dancehalls were punctuated by puffa skirts swirling round in pirouettes.

"Macho Music is Stupid", Hawley is keen to let the world know on the CD sleeve. That alone makes it money well spent.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Interview: Francis Gilbert

A conversation with the author of Yob Nation

Q: What do you reply to those people who claim that 'crime's always been there' and that the idea that it's spiralling out of control is a 'misconception'?

A: Firstly, I'd say look carefully at the crime statistics. The government's own figures show that violent crime has risen tenfold since 1979, with violent crime rising sharply in the last few years.

Secondly, I'd say speak to the people in the know: the police. They all say that it's getting worse, except the policemen who are required to be "on message" by the government.

Thirdly, I'd say take a look around you: the alcohol-related violence that you can see in any city or town centre on any Friday or Saturday night simply didn't exist on the same level as it did a few decades ago, when public binge drinking was confined to a small minority of men. Furthermore, it was the problem of "teenage gangs" while always an issue since the Second World War, wasn't on the scale that it is now: there were seven teenage murders in eleven weeks recently, a statistic unheard of even a decade ago.

Fourthly, look at the way our system of law and order is breaking down: the Home Secretary himself said recently that his department is "not fit for purpose".

Fifthly, look at the wider culture: the internet, the rise of violent video games, the increasing yobbishness of TV etc is immeasurably different from 1960s and 70s, when if if someone swore on TV it was debated in parliament.

Q:You carried out a thorough and extensive research as you wrote 'Yob Nation'. If you were to think of one factor, what was the most shocking episode or aspect, that you saw or came in contact with?

A: Obviously, the thing that had the biggest impact on me was being attacked myself on a bus, an episode which prompted me to write the book. Witnessing people being glassed in Cardiff was shocking, as was the fights between girls I saw in Ayia Napa. But by then I'd become hardened, having spoken to so many victims and perpetrators before then.

Q: What's your opinion of the comments Tony Blair made last month in Cardiff when he said that the black community "need to be mobilised in denunciation of this gang culture that is killing innocent young black kids"?

A: As with so much of what Blair says, it sounds great but what exactly does it mean? I think it's just hot air. The most important thing the government can do is impose some firm law and order on the streets, in our schools and in our public places. The government's greatest failure has been its education policies which have given no hope to young children from poor backgrounds.

Q: The topic is obviously incredibly complex. But why do we drink as much as we do in Britain? If you were to think of a particular factor that would explain it, what would you say?

A: We've always had a culture of binge drinking, something which the city banks exploited when they took over the breweries in the early 1990s: they saw a chance for a massive expansion of the industry -- it's been expanding by 10% every year ever since, and amounted to 3% of our GDP. The government also felt that it could regenerate our cities and towns by encouraging bars and clubs to open in their centres. This has led to a big upsurge in drinking amongst all ages and classes, and to, as I have mentioned, a big increase in alcohol-related violence.

Francis Gilbert is the author of several successful books such as "I'm A Teacher Get Me Out of Here", "Teacher On The Run" and "Yob Nation". Find out more about him here.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Nick Cohen, "What's Left? How Liberals lost their way"

A Review

'A theme of this book is that ideas on the fringe are worth examining' writes the author.

Read his new book, and you may end up taking his word for it. Far from examining ideas on the fringe, one chapter down and it's quite clear that the focus has turned into sheer obsession, almost couch-like, for the myriad of the tiny -and irrelevant- factions of the far-left. Cohen is probably the last mainstream UK journalist who's still truly preoccupied with (and quite obviously in awe of) the petty squabbles that lacerated the far-left thirty years-plus ago while still (conveniently) overrating their influence on British politics.

No doubt Nick Cohen rates the internal-wrangling of the WRP, the Redgraves' family history and the clownesque deeds of political zombie George Galloway the key discourse behind the millions who dared to feel a touch iffy about the consequences of the military adventure in Iraq.

Incidentally, while Cohen has a point in knocking Galloway and the likes' gargantuan power-trips, it's exactly work like "What's left?" that hands their trifling ego way too much credit. To read Cohen's argument, one would almost buy into the idea that the two million people who marched against the Iraq war in February 2003 were mere pawns in the devious game of Galloway, the minute SWP (Socialists' Workers Party) and their alleged media machine - and wouldn’t have demonstrated otherwise. You really wonder if the author has lost his sense of proportion over who actually holds the balance of power in UK politics.

Then Cohen proceeds to muddle the game up even further. The genocides in Bosnia and Kosovo are none other than another piece in the jigsaw; along with Iraq, 'freedom causes' that evil leftists never understood. In fact, they chose to stick by their 'Serbian comrades'. Cohen forgets tiny details, like the fact that the Lib-Dems, The Independent -and most of the Labour MPs (think Robin Cook) who voted against Iraq- were actually very vociferous in favour of intervention in the former-Yugoslavia.

But Cohen's clever. He's not sidetracking you out of thin air. Cos while he's yakking about Bosnia, Galloway, the 'no-globals', Kosovo, Noam Chomsky et al., he also dodges the most delicate questions.

Taking a country to war on the basis of a dodgy dossier? Surely that's a blunder that will end up in history books? Nah, you Stalinist, let's run through the antics of 2006's Celebrity Big Brother again instead cos that's what really matters in international relations.

Or…surely it's a worry to a liberal like Cohen that 60% of the British public were against the war and weren't at all reflected in the Feb 2003 parliamentary vote? You've got to be joking. There are more pressing matters, like Michel Foucault's stance over Iran in 1979.

And how about: are you really one of those mugs still frowning upon Blair's apocalyptic claim that Saddam was 45 minutes away from washing Britain's shores with WMDs? Don't you worry. Let Cohen tell you about what a pervert and a despot Gerry Healy was in 1973.

In fact, since I'm on it, I mean, what's all that about? Though I was born in the Seventies, I used to consider myself quite clued up with politics and current affairs. And yet I'd never heard of Gerry Healy and the WRP, Workers' Revolutionary Party, a tiny little sect on the far-left that imploded while nobody noticed (except Cohen, of course) in the 1980s. Granted, there's no excuse for my ignorance, so I typed up "Gerry Healy" and "WRP" on Google. A couple of rickety paragraphs on Wikipedia was the best I could get. I then went on to ask my older colleagues, but none of them had ever heard of Gerry Healy or the WRP. Yet in 2007 Nick Cohen manages to devote more pages to the WRP and their Jurassic-era Stalinist rituals than they had perhaps enjoyed throughout their entire party history. It's a bit like Classix Nouveux getting media coverage only twenty years after their split.

Cohen's is textbook political manipulation of the most vintage kind. As if in order to discredit the tens of millions of workers who ask for better living conditions, one chose to write a 300-page tome solely focusing on the Angry Brigade and other groupuscules of the early-70s who also happened to blabber against "the capitalists" and so on. You hand the spotlight to some dubious cults and the result is that an entire movement - no matter how complex or massive - is forced on the back-foot. Want to sidestep a debate on why the Euro may be a bad idea? Rant about Combat 18 also being anti-Euro and half the job's done.

The author deserves credit for his emphasis of the dangers of Islamofascism, already the most lethal ideology of the 21st century. Alas, it all goes down the drain the moment he turns it into the mainstay of his grudging political propaganda: '[the Left] used bin Laden as an ally to promote their own wish list and called for a limit to globalization […]'. For a moment I had to double check I hadn’t bought Melanie Phillips' "Londonistan" instead.

You've got to hand it to Cohen; his case is extremely passionate and heartfelt. However, that is perhaps why it misses out on clarity, ending up in a 386-page binge of spite being hurled at all directions: Iraq, Iran, Gerry Healy, university lecturers, the Redgraves, Galloway, old Labour, New Labour, post-modernism, WWII, the Tories, Bosnia, Naomi Klein, John Major, Michael Young, The Independent, the liberal media, the BBC, even Derek Jarman and other unlikely subjects.

It literally becomes a clutter of bitterness and incongruous slating, all thrown in the same cauldron. In his black and white-tinted world, Cohen implies that those against intervention in Iraq would be so from the comfort of not having had to live under Saddam's genocidal tyranny. True. Except reality isn’t so simple and Cohen knows it.

By the same token one could retort that those in favour of war can easily do so with their arse safely tucked in their armchair as they watch the war unravelling on Sky News. They're not the ones putting up with four years of non-stop carnage, roadside bombs and the likes. In any case, if a military intervention is such an easy-peasy option to replace the Saddams of this world with nice'n'neat democracies where feminists-and-gays are all liberated at the blink of an eye and can hop up-and-down the street holding hands, then let's go bomb the shit out of China, Iran, North Korea at once so that we can all feel as progressive and liberal as Nick Cohen.

In the meantime, four years down the line and Iraq is as tangled up as ever a mess. Last month the Red Cross produced the Iraqis' plea to the world: the streets are filling up with corpses and urgent help is needed to remove them.

Try and tell Cohen. He'd probably remind you that it's all the Left's fault. He may then patronise you by insisting that we're all so anti-American that we're rubbing our hands in satisfaction. Then he'd go off on a loop repeating that at least Saddam's gone.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Never their fault

The seats magically self-dismantle, missiles throw themselves at the police and fireworks decide to self-combust.

22 March 2007: Man Utd play their Champions League away leg in the French city of Lille. Disturbances follow and Manchester United end up with a 15,000 Swiss francs fine for the improper conduct of their fans at the game, "which included the setting-off of fireworks and disturbances at the entrance to the stadium".

'Course Utd fans complain that the police were heavy-handed, brutal and barbaric.

4 April 2007. Having raeched the quarter-finals, Man Utd take on AS Roma. Their away leg at the Stadio Olimpico is also marred by fights and other ugly scenes. Again, Man Utd and their fans complain that Italian police were "thugs in uniform", that never before had they endured such bad treatment, etc etc.

5 April 2007. UEFA Cup quarter finals. Tottenham play their away leg against Seville, in Spain. Guess what? As riot police charged, Tottenham and their fans complained that it all happened for "no reason", that their behaviour was exemplary, and that Spanish police were ...you guessed it..."heavy-handed".

It's never the English's fault. The seats magically self-dismantle, missiles throw themselves at the police and fireworks decide to self-combust. It's the locals, the police, the weather, the turnstiles, the heat, the cheap beer, the local press, the chemical composition of the air, any excuse but the English fans themselves.
Incidentally, no other quarter-final match across Europe involving teams from any other nation be them from Germany, Holland, Italy, Spain or other, was the theatre of "ugly scenes" and "heavy handed police".

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Delusional nation

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The Queen Mother popped her clogs five years ago.
This is what I wrote about it. It's the first chapter of the book I've been writing since 1922 and will hopefully complete by 2043.
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Your plane may have just landed at Gatwick or Heathrow but it doesn’t take you long to register the press obsession with “what it means to be British in the 21st Century” and similar self-referential press exercises. Inches and inches of columns are devoted everyday as journalists and press-gurus alike express an abstract sense of self-doubt, self-flagellation and fait accompli regarding what’s left of Britain, England, Britishness and so on. If you reader are from overseas, then helping out is piss easy. How?
Well, one trait you wouldn’t fail to discern even if you fared the podium at the Olympics of dizzy people is the one of collective hysteria. Granted, pretty much all around the world people subconsciously enjoy moments of joint hysteria: collective panic, collective mourning, collective celebration and partying with the whole country in front of the telly or waiting for the latest news. But just watch the Brits fitting the narrative when the World Cup’s on, or when England play. Watch’em when Princess Diana died, watch them during the ephemeral “fuel crisis” of 2000. But above all, the way the strings were pulled at the death of Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, aka the Queen Mother was textbook for the observer.
When Princess Diana suddenly died the world’s eyes were genuinely on the UK. Nobody deserves to end their days in such a horrible way, and the shock for the woman’s death was as genuine as it was palpable. She was popular all over, perhaps the most tip-of-the-tongue British woman worldwide for the best part of two decades. She enjoyed glamorous friendships, Armani, Versace, Sting and Elton John. Whether icon or victim, fact is the 31st of August 1997 provided our generation with its JFK moment. The 24-hour non-stop coverage of the events was therefore fully justified in terms of public interest. Less so the disproportionate reactions of ordinary people crying hysterically but that’s how the biscuit crumbles and with the media fostering it all and reaping the harvest with books, videos, and horrors like “Candle in The Wind”[1] recorded in a rush to cash it in on the corpse of Diana, then defeat has to be conceded. Nine years on, the Daily Express is at pains to incessantly come up with hearsays and residual conspiracy theories in order to sell more copies. Day in day out, its readers endure headlines like: “New developments in Di’s death enquiry”. The Diana industry isn’t over quite yet.
At 3:15pm on 30 March 2002 another total news blackout took place across the country. The Queen Mother[2] had snuffed it. The artificial display of patriotic rhetoric that followed would have made the Argentinean junta of the late 70s pale by comparison. It truly beggared belief to the eye that isn’t trained in the paradox of British psychology. Suddenly BBC1 broke into Auntie’s Bloomers and suspended all schedules. For at least 48 hours it flaunted a non-stop whirlwind of adulation, tributes and interviews with whoever had met the old lady, butlers, biographers and any lackey in Albion who’d seen her in the flesh for more than 30 seconds.
“You were very close to the Queen Mother, weren’t you?”
“Oh yes, I had the luck to meet her in 1951”.
“You did, didn’t you? And wasn’t she nice?” - question tags-a-go-go.
“Oh yes, she was a lovely lady, she was so generous, she had such a heart”.
“And tell me, wasn’t she also brave?”
“Oh she was extremely brave, she survived the Blitz in 1944”.
“What a brave woman, but her heart was always in the right place, wasn’t it?”
“Absolutely, the whole country loved her”.
“Yes, while the Germans were bombing she stayed put in her bunker, isn’t that incredible?”.
“Indeed, incredible. What an amazing lady. She stayed in her bunker and waited out the bad moment”.
And so on. Britain was rammed down its throat insightful “interviews” like that non-stop for the best part of two days if not more. The press covered the shocking event as if the whole of the UK had ground to a halt, devastated by the loss. Watching the BBC on March the 30th 2002, you’d have no doubt thought it as if the mourning masses were at pains to find out every single thing about her legendary life, old ladies jostling their teapots as they were grieving over a demigod passing away. You’d have betted your money on factories closing shops and people staging mass walkouts simply as a loyal tribute to the late Elizabeth I. Arafat was being made prisoner in his Palestinian compound at the same time, there were talks of recalling Parliament over impending war in Iraq[3], the government was passing crucial legislation about asylum seekers, yet it didn’t matter: the BBC were in the throes of telling us how brave the Queen Mother was for walking down the stairs unhelped.

But what blew me away was the total lack of connection between reality and narrative. Aside from a few romantic old ladies and a bunch of Daily Mail journos still mourning the loss of the Empire, absolutely nobody, and I mean N-O-B-O-D-Y in the country gave a shit about the “great loss”. Instead the BBC was at pains to fill the marathon tribute with things to say. And you have to hand it to them; if Resilience was a competition, those commentators who ranted on about the Queen Mother’s bravery for 48 hours would clear the tab. It certainly takes some genius to delude themselves that they’re turning a tedious “wasn’t she a brave woman” into the most epic newscast of the decade. And still take some stick for lacking “loyalty” to the royal family because a news presenter wore a burgundy tie instead of a black one”[4]. But without doubt it was no topic for a fag-break exchange, pub talks or general curiosity. In the real world, outside the BBC studios, life went on as normal, and people were much more concerned about how David Beckham & co were gonna fare at the impending Japan and Korea World Cup.

The dichotomy “real world vs. ivory tower” was truly startling. I actually pricked up my ears as I saw it an unbelievable observational experience. My radar was on the lookout to analyse what Britain may look like when a Queen Mother dies. And I swear even my most anti-royalist chromosomes wouldn’t have hoped for a more striking level of apathy. Josie Appleton summed it up alright: “In the world-according-to-the-BBC, Britons from all walks of life were united in paying our respects for two minutes at 11.30. The evening news on 9 April showed a cake factory where the icing and conveyer belts had halted, the women in their plastic caps with heads bowed; Birmingham New Street Station where everybody had frozen on the spot, looking as if they were playing a mass game of musical statues; young navy recruits lined up, their chests out. The view from Costa Coffee on Farringdon Road, London, was little different. A harried Italian waitress called for silence at 11.30; but most people carried on chatting, or looking at their watches as people hurried past outside. But in Westminster, where the reporters were, people had finally got into the swing of SNE (shared national experience). The Queen was apparently so 'moved' by the numbers who wanted to pay their respects that she made an unplanned address: 'I thank you for the support you are giving me and my family as we come to terms with her death.'”[5] People from all age groups, social levels, religions and races just shrugged with indifference. It just had no relevance whatsoever to their daily business. Yet the BBC insisted on covering the Queen Mother’s death as if some nuclear fallout had kickstarted the end of the world, like I’ve otherwise seen them do only for the 2005 London bombings or the death of Princess Diana in 1997, one a matter of national security and the other striking the heart of national consciousness. And in fact, on both those occasions the Brits indeed showed understandable hunger for news and revelations. Even Rupert Murdoch’s The Sun spoke of an “establishment en masse” being “out of kilter with ordinary people”, marking “the end of an era”[6]. Yet, the hysterics kicked off straightaway: before a formal notice is pinned up on the gates outside Buckingham Palace at 5.45pm, all the royal dignitaries dotted holidaying around the world have to be informed first. “Newspapers tear up their front pages, and rush to get their special commemorative sections on the presses. The tabloids replace the red mastheads with black versions. The News of the World clears the nipples from its news pages as a mark of respect[7]”.
Whatever TV channel you tuned in or paper you read, it seemed too late to escape the bombardment of bleeding obvious. Quotes follow quotes: “She was a lovely lady, She was a lovely lady, so lovely to people. I shall miss that smile of hers” (Dame Vera Lynn), "At our darkest hour of all time in 1940 she helped to turn it into our finest." (Lord St John of Fawsley), "Our country is the richer for her life and the poorer at her death." (former UK Prime Minister John Major). Even the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, joined in the populistic binge by reiterating the PR-friendly myth that "The Queen Mother held a special place in the hearts of many Londoners who remember her decision to stay in London during the Blitz." Nobody there to remind Red Ken that, during WWII, “the East End was not able to retreat to Windsor to catch up on sleep, or to spend recuperative holidays in Norfolk and Scotland. Nor was the East End able to supplement its diet with pheasants and venison shot on the royal estates”[8].
I sought respite from the sycophantic fever by nipping over to Sainsbury’s for some fags when an old lady at the papers section smiled: "She is such a gracious lady, don't you think?". Oh my god. G-r-a-c-i-o-u-s. Obviously the media had been hammering the word down with such sickening regularity that the parroting stage had already begun. Coz otherwise who the hell would utter the word "gracious"? If you were looking for sanity on those days you’d be fucked. “Officialdom” resembled a snippet off Invasion of The Body Snatchers, nobody under the age of 80 cared but you had to endure tributes about the Queen Mother being brave for enjoying her gin and tonic[9]. Proudly the BBC was trumpeting out that “they will mount one of the most ambitious broadcasting operations in its history to cover the funeral of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother”, concluding: “The massive television outside broadcast operation will pull together more staff and equipment than the combined studios of the BBC’s Television Centre”[10]. And could St. Tony Blair possibly shy away from this messianic evangelist bath? "During her long and extraordinary life”, he wailed from his countryside retreat of Chequers, “her grace, her sense of duty and her remarkable zest for life made her loved and admired by people of all ages and backgrounds, revered within our borders and beyond”. Pockets of sanity were left to a handful of independent bloggers reporting poignant entries from condolence books scattered around the country. One A G. Hollins from East Sussex had been reported as writing "No matter how she felt, no matter the situation, she always wore a smile. Just like a retard", followed by such Mr Wainwright from Hastings quipping: "She had such a difficult life, always battling against adversity and misfortune. Let us hope that if there is a next time round she is given a life of privilege and comfort". Alas, good old English humour was confined to the meanderings of the worldwide web. Life in the UK in early April 2002 consisted of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s sermon dished out in all formats. “Strength, dignity and, yes, laughter. We come here to mourn but also to give thanks, to celebrate the person and her life - both filled with such a rich sense of fun and joy and the music of laughter. With it went an immense vitality that did not fail her.”[11]And if you thought that was epic, then you haven’t heard of true pomp: “Like the sun, she bathed us in her warm glow”, sighed the Archbishop. Amen.
But you see, in the UK there isn’t much room for reality. They collectively enjoy jokes at the expenses of the Germans fifty years on, stuck-up post-colonial lessons in life and economic management to France and Italy, but when it comes to their own courtyard, the term blindness doesn’t even come near the appropriate definition.

Few and far between were the comments that favoured facts and veracity over the sickening plethora of warm glows, graciousness, laughter, joy and bravery. Public indifference for the Old Bat aside, little was said about the most interesting -and no doubt disturbing- aspects of Queen Mother’s life. From Northern Ireland, John Gromley protested that “Nobody explained to me why I should feel any more sympathy for the Queen Mother than for any of the other people who died on Saturday […]. The same could have been said of any very elderly person who died at the weekend. In fact, elderly people who have lived their lives without the benefit of large amounts of wealth, free travel, several homes and a retinue of servants have probably achieved much more than the Queen Mother”[12]. Had there been such a thing as a consistent Tory you would have heard quotes of Iain Duncan Smith pleas to a bit of “common sense”, but alas, in the UK the very same concept is not often applied to the Royal Family.
Ireland aside, there was little visible protestation. “The Queen Mother's supposed role as a 'People's monarch', with her East End walkabouts and reported down-to-earthness, has been hyped beyond belief” wrote Jenny Bristow, adding that “The Queen Mother did not symbolise a generation; she symbolised, in many ways, the most degraded aspects of the British royal family - indolent, frivolous, fundamentally uninteresting”[13]. Yet everyone knew the Queen Mother had always been extremely vindictive, an obstacle to reform as well as a fan of pomp who bitterly opposed the notion that members of the royal family should pay tax. “When it became clear that Diana would not behave as she believed a royal should, the Queen Mother became the princess's greatest enemy (a mutual hatred recorded in Andrew Morton's Diana: her true story, in her own words)”[14]. Her adoration for Margaret Thatcher[15] and support for apartheid in South Africa was well documented, as much as her dislike for the unions and middle classes and her regret for the loss of imperial possessions. “She made it publicly known, when she was Queen, that she regretted the end of Britain’s colonial occupation of India”[16]. A staunch supporter of white minority rule in Rhodesia, “this person referred to black persons as nig-nogs [...], criticised their relative and friend's wife's mother for being a half breed, opposed immigration, and thought blacks (Africans) would not understand how to run their own country — could it be leading members of the BNP?”[17], wondered Davy Carlin, clearly not falling for the “bless-her-wee-cotton-socks” overriding rhetoric. But the most redolent point of all was the lavish lifestyle the Queen Mother had enjoyed at the taxpayers’ expense. But the way it works, in England, chances are the same taxpayers would simply shrugs (or get pissed) when presented the facts. A laudable exception is The Independent’s Johann Hari. In his view, never had the ‘guess-who’ game sounded more fitting: “I want you to imagine how the Daily Mail would describe a purely hypothetical person. This person –let’s say she is a woman – is old, very old and in the course of her long life racked up far more debt than she could ever dream of repaying (over £3 million), despite the fact that she’s never done a day’s work”[18]. While the country was deafened by packaged grief, “the nation’s favourite granny’s” millions wasted on vintage champagne, racehorses and parties as well as her five homes, including a Scottish castle with 25,000 acres worth £20 million[19], got wiped out from mere blueprint to the land of total oblivion.
Other sources spoke of a £4 million overdraft, as if eighty-three servants, four footmen, two pages, three chauffeurs, six cars, five chefs, five housemaids, an orderly, an housekeeper, a private secretary, money from her relatives and yet another £634,000 from the civil lists wasn’t enough.
In a country that, like finally recognised in 2006 by George Osborne, was defined “credit card UK” and where repossessions were at an old time high, the Queen Mother’s had enjoyed that humongous overdraft with no questions asked. No doubt to reward her big hearted patriotic generosity.
Because it’s obviously glossed over now, but Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon harboured more than a shred of sympathy for a man called Adolf Hitler, vehemently opposing Churchill’s anti-Nazi stance and “also sent a copy of Hitler's Mein Kampf to a friend saying ‘even a skip through gives a good idea of his obvious sincerity’”[20]. The Queen Mother also guarded royal documents in vaults at Windsor Castle that detailed the abdicated king's relations with Hitler. They included captured German documents describing the Windsors' meeting with the Fuehrer in 1937 and plans to restore the Duke of Windsor to the throne if the Nazis won the war.
But although “far more people phoned in to complain about the length of royal coverage than its brevity”[21], the British subjects generally took in the grief-fest with a few grumbles and typical resignation. The only stir caused in those days of suffocating overhyped sorrow stemmed from a radically different angle. On ‘bereavement day’, the BBC newsreader Peter Sissons committed the mortal sin of failing to go on air wearing a black-tie, getting the Daily Mail to go haywire: “the BBC betrayed the British people”, “Royal fury at the BBC”[22], it yelled, adding that: “Mr Sissons chose to press Mrs Rhodes, the only person other than the Queen present at the deathbed, for intimate details of what had taken place in the final moments of the Queen Mother's life”. The Times instead left the conspiratorial doubt hanging that the BBC may have even ordered its presenters not to wear black ties[23]. How outrageous.
Although even some commentators on the right pleaded for sanity as they wondered “why should the newscasters hark back to the days of Lord Reith by dressing in mourning?”[24], it was going to take more to talk the Daily Mail and cohorts out of their grotesquely warped view of Britain. Two years before the headlines had already shouted “SHOW DYKE THE DOOR”, in objection to the BBC’s director general’s refusal to televise the Queen Mother’s 100th birthday in its entirety[25]. This time, over a burgundy tie instead of a black one, there wasn’t going to be any let up. Amidst enraged talks of “broadcasting infamy”[26], The Telegraph didn’t flinch: “Many licence-fee payers were upset that Peter Sissons, the chief newscaster, failed to wear a black tie, adopting a burgundy one instead. There were also complaints that the Queen Mother was twice described as an ‘old woman’, and that BBC interviewers attempted to question the future of the Royal Family”[27]. Alan Taylor of the Herald was quick at satirising the hysteria: “Swiftly, I changed out of my shellsuit and into my black tie and dinner jacket and turned on BBC 1, expecting at the very least to see the screen with a black border. Instead, there was Peter Sissons dressed like a sports presenter, wearing a burgundy tie. "What is the world coming to!" I yelled. "Take him off to the Tower!" There and then, I decided to withhold my licence fee. If the BBC cannot get the etiquette right why should the rest of us bother?”[28]
And to add insult to injury, Boris Johnson of The Spectator magazine claimed Prime Minister Tony Blair had tried to 'muscle in' on plans for the Queen Mother's lying-in-state, backed up by a Mail on Sunday claim that a Downing Street aide had telephoned General Sir Michael Willcocks, the senior parliamentary official known as Black Rod, and asked if Tony Blair would be able to greet the Queen and the coffin as it arrived at Westminster Hall. “Blair feared the Black Rod” were the headlines[29]. My alarm kicked me out of bed at 6.30am. As I got ready to go to my translating job in Leamington, I wondered if, in April 2002, anybody would have given a toss about all the tabloid mayhem.

[1] Pop star Elton John rushed to record what will become the best selling single of all times (5 million copies in its first week of release alone). On 13 September 1997, two weeks following the Princess's death, the single was already out in the shops.
[2] Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, best known as the Queen Mother (1900-2002), widow of George VI and mother of Queen Elizabeth II.
[3] Andy Richards, “Mass hysteria”, The Argos (Hove), 06/04/2002
[4] “Media ignores the real human tragedy”, Socialist Worker no 1794, 06/04/2002, page 3.
[5] Josie Appleton, “The Queen Mum Queuers. How was it for you?”, Spikeonline.com, 11/04/2002.
[6] The Sun, Editorial, 04/04/2002.
[7] Stephen Robinson, “Two weeks that reaffirmed our faith in royalty and confounded the critics”, Telegraph, 30/04/2002
[8] Ben Pimlott, The Queen: Elizabeth II and the Monarchy, 2002.
[9] Simon Jeffer, QM’s Obituary, The Guardian, 30/03/2002
[10] BBC Press Release 05/04/2002
[11] The Guardian, “This is the full text of the Archbishop of Canterbury's sermon at the funeral of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother at Westminster Abbey”, 09/04/2002
[12] John Gormley, “Our Media’s Blinkered View on Royal Death”, South Belfast News, 05/04/2002
[13] Jennie Bristow, “Queen Mummified?”, Spikeonline.com, 02/04/2002
[14] Simon Jeffer, ibid.
[15] Andrew Pierce, “What Queen Mother really thought of Attlee’s socialist heaven on earth”, The Times, 13/05/2006
[16] Johann Hari (2002), God Save The Queen, Cambridge: Icon Books.
[17] Davy Carlin, “Guess Who?”, Andersonstown News, 08/04/2002
[18] Johann Hari, ibid.
[19] “The Nation's best Granny? The truth about the Queen Mother”, Socialist Worker no.1794, 06/04/2002
[20] Davy Carlin, ibid.
[21] Maurice Bernal, “Official Britain on Parade”, Weekly Worker no.427, 11/04/2002
[22] Richard Kay, “Royal Fury at the BBC”, The Daily Mail, 02/04/2002
[23] “Sissons hits back at critics”, BBC.co.uk, 03/04/2002
[24] A N Wilson “What this past week has told us about Britain today”, Telegraph, 07/04/2002
[25] Emily Bell, “Greg Dyke was right to snub the Queen Mother”, The Guardian, 21/05/2000
[26] http://www.tv-ark.org.uk/bbcnews/bbcnationalnewsother.html
[27] D. Bamber and C. Hastings, “Viewers distressed by lack of respect shown by BBC”, Telegraph, 31/03/2002
[28]A. Taylor, “Tuned in to what is a film turn on” The Sunday Herald, 07/04/2002
[29] The Spectator, 19 April 2002.