Monday, March 31, 2008

Give that wrecking ball a rest

Birmingham Central Library and the devastating legacy of Birmingham's planning department

I'm 31 and if I was a building in Birmingham my hours would most certainly be counted. Although it's a well know fact that the Luftwaffe was behind the city's loss of much of its history, it's also true that Brum's planners have been just as lethal for at least three generations, raising to the ground anything with a potential for architectural legacy. Decent or not, anything approaching four decades and the wrecking balls are summoned in.

These days, the clock is ticking for John Madin's Central Library on Victoria Square. Legendary Jackie from BM&AG dug up the picture above left. Look how new the Library looked in the 1970s. There's little debate over the fact that it doesn't exactly fit in with the surrounding Town Hall and the Art Gallery. But the damage was done when the old library was knocked down and, like it or not, its 1973 replacement is a significant statement of its time, i.e. modernist and brutalist architecture which translated into reaching out for new forms and spaces. Simply, the Library has been left to rot for the past two decades. Its concrete clad been left to grey, much needed maintainance work was neglected and the site just to the north of the library (as you go through the glass doors) looks like Ceaucescu's Romania with added eau-de-piss. Quite cunning then for the Council to talk about a Library that look "old" and "unfit " for the 21st century. "It stands in the way of regenerating the city centre", said Council leader Micke Whitby.

However, John Madin's library had the merit of placing culture at the heart of Birmingham, in the crucial intersection between Centenary Square and Victoria Square. Aside from one of the largest libraries in Europe, the John Madin's building is home to a Conservatoire, a concert hall, as well as the Birmingham School of Acting. The Council is on a mission to knock it all down, replaced by -surprise surprise- yet another commercial development, and no it's not a joke.
Spurred by Prince Charles' comments that the Central Library looks crap (that from a man who likes to dress up to go and kill foxes), Birmingham City Council appear overly keen to sell the (prime) location to a developers and build the library elsewhere. Against the profit-laden proposal, there are organisations like English Heritage and the Twentieth Century Society, both of which recommended the library be listed. The final word will be issued by Culture Minister Margaret Hodge, under pressure to decide whether the building should be retained or not.
In the meantime, as we cross our fingers against yet another gigantic building site sitting at the heart of the city, we turned our questions to Alan Clawley, the Secretary of pro-listing Friends of the Central Library.

"The Council remains intent on demolishing the existing Central Library" he told us, "but it can't do so until a new library is opened as it must maintain continuity of service. They say this will happen in 2013".

Why do you think the Central Library is worth saving?

"It's a fully operational purpose-designed library that is only 35 years old. It has great architectural merit and was considered worthy of listing by English Heritage in 2003. Demolishing it and building a new one will emit a large amount of Carbon Dioxide. Retaining it will emit none, as it was emitted during its construction. The Library is very popular with users and in a good location".

Mike Whitby recently went on record as saying he would try to overturn any decision to approve listed building status. If the Council can do that anyway, what is the point in waiting for Ms Hodge's decision?

"The Minister for Culture Margaret Hodge is at present deciding whether to grant the City Council a Certificate of Immunity from Listing for the existing building. If she does then no application for Listing can be made for the next 5 years. If she does not, then the Library is automatically listed and the City Council will have to apply for Listed Building Consent if it wants to demolish it. This will give the public the opportunity to have its say like in a planning application. There could even be a Public Planning Inquiry".

How much public support have the Friends of Birmingham Central Library gathered on the issue?

"The letters in the Birmingham Post that are not from official sources invariably support the retention of the Library. There is also international interest from the architectural profession and we have the support of the influential London-based Twentieth Century Society. There are those who don't like the way it looks but we say thats not a good enough reason to demolish it and build a new one for a minimum cost of £193 million".

Why is there such widespread hostility towards post-war modernist buildings? Isn't this urge to demolish exactly what people regret the most about the Fifties? see our recent article about Birmingham's current demolition frenzy

"One can only guess here. Many people seem to want shiny new buildings rather than those that show signs of ageing. Concrete does weather badly but it can be cleaned or even painted. Public buildings built in the 60s and early 70s suffered from the economic recession and public spending cuts soon after they were built and have been badly neglected since. I suspect that the Library is too stong a presence for many people who prefer either the blandness or the supeficial showiness of post-modernism. Prince Charles encouraged public hostility to modern buildings but I am not sure that his traditional taste in architecture would be any more popular".

How many more Shopping Malls does Birmingham City Centre need??? Isn't it telling that a cultural building of such scale was built right in the middle of the city and now they want to replace it with yet another symbol of profit?

"The proposals for Paradise Circus are not at all clear, except that it would include Grade A offices. The only property developer we know who is interested is Gary Taylor of Argent plc who seems to want to build a Brindleyplace Mark Two on the site.
The Council is determined to build a "world-class" library as part of a re-modelled Repertory Theatre on the Car Park in Centenary Square. They have just drawn up a short list of famous architects who want to design it. We think the site is too small. Four floors will have to be underground to get everything in. The concept of combining a theatre with a library was dreampt up by the Council and the Rep to give the illusion of having more space to play with, but it makes little sense otherwise".

Sunday, March 30, 2008

In the throes of a laughing fit

The unmissable Radio 4 cringing moment

Hilarious and cringeworthy was BBC Radio 4's Charlotte Green's giggling fit on the Today programme. Seconds after she played a clip of the oldest recording of a human voice (which was quite ridiculous indeed), poor Charlotte Green must have wanted the ground to open up and swallow her when she started a laughing fit as she moved on to report the death of award-winning screenwriter Abby Mann. A nation shuddered with embarrassment. And sympathy. After all, newsreaders can be human too! Hear the clip:

Even more laughable were today's claim from Home Secretary Jaqui Smith. She dismissed claims from a fellow minister that the New Labour government is "too often silent on the daily realities facing hard-working families". "We're not out of touch", Smith protested. We'll leave any judgement to our readers.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Nick Cave, Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!

The return of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds (except they weren't away for very long).

Go and dig through the bargain bins at your local HMV. Find out a single band or singer who reached their artistic peak at the age of 50. See if you can remember what Bowie was putting out at that time, or the Rolling Stones, or Paul McCartney. Or simply look at Nick Cave's peer and the current state of their creativity and it's guaranteed the words 'constipation' will spring to mind. But not him, not Nick Cave. His inspiration's more in need of an Imodium, like. He keeps coming out with ideas after ideas, four albums in five years (and that's without counting the film soundtracks) and a state of form that sweeps unexplored corners with a swagger and a confidence that is simply astounding.

Now, don't expect Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds to play disco vicar with a drum'n'bass album, or a techno remix, bending over backwards to prove that they're in with the kids. They couldn’t care less, they do their own dysfunctional thing and even when they offer a radical departure from their template -as is the case with Dig Lazarus Dig!!! - it comes their own way, as smooth as a coot. And it got them their highest UK chart position ever.

Track one is like having your throat cut by the sharp edges of a splintered Stooges LP. Except that it makes you gag for more. As guitar-laden as little else he's ever released, the titletrack Dig Lazarus Dig!!! is Nick Cave's own tale of a modern Lazarus, the poor chap that Jesus Christ raised from the dead, a heartfelt warning that a second session on this planet may not be quite such a good idea: "He never asked to be raised up from the tomb, I mean no-one ever asked him to forsake his dream, he ended up like so many of them do back on the streets of New York City in a soup queue, a dopefiend, a slave, in prison, then the madhouse, then the grave". Musically, bass player Warren Ellis is the one calling the shots here. Today's Lesson is another hellraiser. Running apace on a brilliant bass line and a wah effect like 'they don't make them anymore', it'll make you scramble for the repeat button. Similarly, Lie Down (And Be My Girl) is the musical equivalent of REM on speed, manic rhythm section, guitar overdrive up to 11 and a piano refrain that just won't go away. It should be a single. To read his lyrics, you'd think Nick Cave must be absolutely mental, and I mean that in the best possible way. And if he's just pretending then he's doing an excellent job. There are no tired, corny or trite clichés on Dig Lazarus Dig!!!, no self-celebratory junk, no I-love-you-babe formulas. There's a track here, Albert Goes West where the gentlest couplet salutes you with a "Harry went down south and left his way down in the deepest forest of La Vulva".

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds' trademark spectral ballads (most of which defined their 90s output), don't find much space on Dig Lazarus Dig!!! The more familiar territory comes with the melancholic waltz of Jesus Of The Moon, while the eerie Night of The Lotus Eaters, like Stagger Lee twelve years ago, is a wobbling wall of sound built upon a hypnotic bass loop and a scratchy guitar.

The myth of a content, middle-aged, weighed-down-with-a-wife-and-kids rock star won't wash with Nick Cave. It'll take more than that to sap his genius.

Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! is out now on Mute Records and it comes with a 54-page booklet.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Natural Bored Killers

The pointless murder of Sophie Lancaster

What a world we live on where you can lose your life simply because of what you're wearing. We pride ourselves on the liberal times we live in, but unless it touches us directly, we choose not to see the extreme violence that reigns over big chunks of Britain. We watch Jeremy Kyle from the safety of our TV screens, but little do we know that the everyday freak show of violence and brutality takes its regular toll. This one, though, was worse, because it was particularly pointless. As I read BBC news online I had to take a deep breath and make a real effort before going back to work. You may have heard all about it already.

Today Brendan Harris, 15 and Ryan Herbert, 16 - textbook chavs of the lowest degree - have been found guilty of murder after they kicked a woman to death because she was a Goth. If you've ever remotely attempted to express yourself by wearing clothes of a slightly different kind, then you may already be aware that Britain is full of scumbags who let loose their insecurities by hurling abuse at people whose only fault is looking better than your average chav. The alibi? Oh yes, they're bored shitless; "they get drunk and show off" because they have nothing better to do. Or have they? Their lives so empty that in the case of Sophie Lancaster, 20, her sub-human attackers went as far as killing her.

Harris and Herbert, along with a bunch of others from the pack, kicked off with a vile and cowardly assault on Sophie's boyfriend Robert Maltby as the couple were walking home via Stubbylee Park in Bacup, Lancashire in August 2007. Robert's fault was that he wasn't wearing a tracksuit and he was minding his own business. As Sophie begged the scumbags to stop the beastly aggression, the savages turned on her until the orgy of violence got both Robert and Sophie into a coma. According to the press, "when paramedics arrived and found the couple lying side by side covered in blood, they could not tell what sex she was such was the severity of the injuries to her face". Once in hospital, Robert regained consciousness but Sophie didn't. She had been killed.

The police went on record as saying that Herbert and Harris haven't recognised how violent the attack was. In the words of Det Supt Mick Gradwell, "They have just done it without thinking but they have seemed to have enjoyed it and carried on remorselessly kicking at two very defenceless people who were unable to protect themselves because of the level of violence inflicted upon them". Most disgustingly, when Harris was initially interviewed about the assaults he was "laughing and joking" with his mother. "The general attitude of the defendants' parents during the whole process has been appalling".

The judicial sentence, and the hope that both Harris and Herbert rot in jail, isn't going to bring Sophie back. However, in a country like Britain that is increasingly losing any notion of social bearing, it is a matter of urgency that the definition of hate crime is to include offences against people based on their appearance.

Sophie Lancaster's mother said "The thing that makes me most angry is that it is seen as an isolated incident, maybe the seriousness of what happened to Sophie is isolated, but attacks are far from isolated". In the yobbish, proto-macho culture that has taken over Britain, you stand out from the crowd and you become fair game. It is difficult to see how an atrocity entirely motivated by ignorant hatred regarding Sophie and Robert's appearance shouldn't be dealt with as severely as a racially aggravated crime. The killing of Sophie prompted a Hate Crime Petition that you can view and sign here.

Sophie's family started the Sophie's memorial website as a lasting legacy to raise awareness of the injustice perpetrated against Sophie and to work toward a more tolerant, less violent society.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Bye bye Travel West Midlands

New logos for West Midlands buses

You may have noticed in recent weeks that the old Travel West Midlands logo, the name Birmingham travellers associated with their buses for twenty years, is no more.

Its retirement coincides with the adoption of the new National Express West Midlands livery. The change is also in line with the company's recent relocation from London to Birmingham, and follows the plan, as announced in July 2007, to integrate all National Express subsidiaries into one single division, now known as National Express UK Limited.

In the meantime, enjoy the offer (available until 31 May 2008) of a discount on National Express coaches when you present a 4-week Adult Travel card. But before you get over excited, just be aware that it's only valid via the direct debit scheme. There had to be a catch...


That scumbag of a scally (or shall I say "ned"), Stephen Price from Paisley, Scotland, who stabbed his victim to death with a knife and a screwdriver 80 times, owned up to it, and then posed next to the corpse for a triumphant picture was told "he must spend at least 15 years in prison". The cynical in me knows that in the language of the British justice system that probably means 7 years. Obviously a mandatory life sentence was too much to ask wasn't it?

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Love a man in a uniform?

The raging debate on Army recruitment strategies

The National Union of Teachers is in defiant mood. Standing in the dock today, Army recruitment strategies. We've all met kids as young as 18 signing up after a game too many of 'Call of Duty' or 'Command and Conquer'. And we've all read those (infuriating) interviews with the parents suddenly finding themselves on the anti-war side the moment their kids come back from Iraq in a coffin. "I was in favour of the war at the start, but now I realise my son died for a pack of lies".

Well, being loyal with whatever your government decides to do -including the Iraq adventure- is the essence of joining the armed forces. If you're the questioning type then you're in the wrong trade.

But here's exactly what The National Union of Teachers are debating and it's difficult to argue they haven't got a point:

"They are too young to vote, too young to drink, too young to drive, but they are considered old enough to sign up for years in the armed forces without being fully aware of what they are signing themselves up for in their lives", a union member presenting the motion said.

The other issue, along the lines of the debate in the US (as infamously seen on Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11), is that of recruitment programmes running in high unemployment areas.
This is the coverage on today's BBC online.

This is The Daily Mail's take on the subject (talks of "Left-wingers" galore).

Monday, March 24, 2008

Out of sight out of mind?

Britain's lop-sided relationship with fags & booze

By the look of it, Brown & co are desperate to grab headlines and be seen that they're busy tinkering with stuff. Whereas the smoking ban made some sense (and more or less put Britain in line with the rest of the Western world), the new proposals to remove tobacco from public display in shops are simply delusional.

Who exactly walks past the lottery counter at Sainsbury's and ends up lovestruck by the enticing design of the fag packets at the back? It may happen that fat kids spot a Chocolate Orange along the aisle and dream of stuffing their face but, though my social bearings are extremely limited, I don't know a single person who took up smoking that way. Stay tuned and at this pace tobacco will be labelled a 'Class A' drug before you know. Soon children will be up against a new taboo subject. They'll ask their dads where that smoking stuff they light up comes from and the answer will be it was the stork that brought it in.

Now, this is all very well. If you still ignore the risks tobacco carries and the strain it puts on the NHS, chances are you're the kind that buys into Donald Rumsfeld when he talks about exporting democracy.

The problem is the UK Government's massive double standards. As they're driven by the belief tobacco is bad for your health, they're following the logical line that it should be more complicated and expensive to take up smoking.

But look at what they did with alcohol. Each week a new scientific study comes out that warns of the increasing link between booze and street fighting, booze and the strain on the police forces, domestic violence, street vomiting, splattered livers, the rise of STDs and the rest. So what does the government do?

It makes it possible for alcohol to be available 24 hours a day. As alcohol prices keep going down, any ordinary resident of Britain is bamboozled with 3-for-1 booze offers. Britain's become the country where you're better off knocking back pints and double shots than spending the night sipping soft drinks (hence the Lib Dem's Vince Cable's recent proposal to raise tax on alcohol and use the extra-revenue to slash duty on fruit juice and other healthy drinks). If you have any, ask your teetotal friend if she's happy to shell out two quid for that microscopic bottle of Britvic.

Now, they may tell you that it's not true and that only a minority of pubs have applied for extended licensing hours. Well, I say look at the amount of supermarkets that sprung up in the last 18 months sporting proud "Alcohol Sold 24hrs" signs.

Looking back, clubs shutting at 3am was literally the only factor that could stop a few of my friends from drinking themselves to sleep. I recall the desperation in the eyes some of them, 'Trampy' Adam or others who are to the neck of a bottle what a moth is to a flame. As they kept digging around in my kitchen hoping for a lost can of lager or a half-drunk bottle of wine to somehow materialise ("You don't have any booze in the house do ya?"), they just couldn’t have enough, something that most continental readers would probably not comprehend. As it stands, for all their flaws, old licensing laws -11pm for pubs and 2 or 3am for clubs- saved a few of my mates from liver failure.

Now if you fancy a crate of whisky at 4 in the morning all you have to do is ring one of the many "24-hour dial-a-booze" delivery services or nip over to your local Quicksave and here's to New Labour's Healthy Britain. No danger of anyone stopping 'Trampy' Adam now.

Excellent article on today's Independent Online edition. It's about spoilt children and parents who can't say no and it's written by Nicholas Lezard. Have a read here

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Birmingham's relentless bulldozing work

How many more clone-Shopping Malls before the city is declared "FULLY REGENERATED"?

As this website is called Hagley Road to Ladywood, it's about time we review the ongoing changes in one of the most significant areas of inner city Birmingham. The intersection called Five Ways, in particular, is already looking unrecognisable.

First off, it looks like the powers that be have declared war to any type of 1960's architecture, whether that may be 'concrete jungle' like Lee Bank's recently blown down tower blocks, or outstanding gems like John Madin's Birmingham Post & Mail or the award-winning Chamber of Commerce just off Five Ways. Yet, it's worth a scratch on the head or two when Stephenson Tower, or other buildings that wouldn't have gone amiss in Soviet-era Kazakhstan, is still standing right in the middle of town.

Another question that your average Brummie may ask is: how many shopping mall-hotel-(extortionate) battery apartment-parking space combos does a city centre need exactly? Aside from the universally celebrated Mailbox and Bullring, at the turn of the century the fancily named Broadway Plaza was built, providing central Birmingham with more of the usual food chains and hastily assembled prefab apartments half the size but ten times the price of post-war council flats. However, at least Broadway Plaza provided a disused area with some character. Not to mention a state-of-the-art bowling alley that is second to none.

Then, the other day, the 1960s Edgbaston Shopping Centre was knocked down. It's quite baffling when people talk about dilapidated buildings that had to go and they don't realise the same buildings were deliberately left to rot for years with an eye on the clock and the other on the wrecking ball. Simply put, if you neglect them, they're bound to look crap. The old shopping centre is now going to be replaced by the £110m Edgbaston Galleries project. According to the developers, the 424,500 sq ft is "the largest regeneration project of a principal gateway to Birmingham", featuring "foodstore, retail and leisure space, Grade A offices, hotel accomodation and 800 car parking spaces". Just across the road, two modernist buildings, Donne and Nettleton towers have recently made way for the construction of the new Calthorpe House. But the next one to bite the dust is going to be the 1960s-era Five Ways Shopping Centre.

As tenants were required to vacate the building a while back, you'll hear more talks of "another derelict eyesore" that needs clearing out. Those of you who cherish fond memories of the old XLs rock club will be familiar with the imposing white-clad construction and its internal, circular courtyard that was home to a number of independent shops and cafes. Admittedly, it was hardly the Trevi Fountain. However, that's going to go too (the 60s centre, not the Trevi Fountain). And guess what's going to be stuck there instead? A £100m, 1.25 acre site comprising a 28-storey tower and more "luxury apartments, hotels, shopping-mall, restaurants and cafes". The new Five Ways Shopping Centre. As "regeneration" is the token word here, I presume it may be legitimate to wonder how many branches of Boots the chemist, Subway sandwiches or other clone town shops Birmingham can host in a square mile before initial excitement gives way to dust on the shelves and everything-must-go sales.

More to the point, is there really such a major demand for three shopping mall-hotel-(extortionate) battery apartment-parking space combos, especially when they're literally going to face one another? Just to recap, Five Ways island alone will feature Five Ways Shopping Centre, Edgbaston Galleries, Broadway Plaza. And, lest we forget, a few steps down the road there's the new Edgbaston Mill (on the site of the old BBC Pebble Mill landmark). Apart from the commercial sustainability and the clonetown implication of so many shopping malls, there are the recent reports alleging that the Birmingham city centre property market may have begun its slowdown phase.

Apartments have been built in their tens of thousands in just a few years, perhaps exceeding demand. As detractors of 1960s "concrete jungle" are keen to point out, people prefer houses. That was one of the reasons why the brutalist monsters of post-war architecture were being blown down like pins down a bowling alley. But the contradiction becomes apparent when the replacement is just more of the same, or even more brutalistic (just to get an idea take a look around those anonymous, humongous ones near the Mailbox). They may have fancy names and a splatter of colourful paint, but have you peeped at the price? And, more importantly, have you looked inside?

Two years ago, in an interview on the subject, Birmingham's architectural legend John Madin criticised "a lack of comprehensive plan to how the city should evolve over the years". At Hagley Road to Ladywood, we beg to disagree. The plan is clear alright. Closing theme: Pink Floyd, Money.

*COPYRIGHT NOTE: The photo at the top (Edgbaston Shopping Centre in the run up to demolition) is by Flickr user feltip1982. If you feel there was any inaccurate crediting, please contact us and we'll be happy to rectify.

Friday, March 21, 2008


The soft heart of gross-out teenage comedies will go down in history as the film of a generation

Attentive readers may remember Seth Rogen's inspired performance as Cal in The 40 Year Old Virgin. If that unveiled his talent to the wider world, his co-writing gem Superbad hurls him straight into Hollywood's best.

Superbad is no arty feat. Part of the teen-classic family tree that includes the American Pie trilogy, Roadtrip and the aforementioned 40 Year Old Virgin, it simply cracks you up from start to finish. Even if that wasn't your cup of tea, the collection of putdowns, funny lines, deadpan remarks and clumsy bits is just too much to resist. The masterstroke, of course is the notion of character identification. No matter how vulgar the line, the three protagonists Seth, Evan and McLovin are such a good array that it makes it impossible for us not to see a little bit of ourselves in them. Just think of those cringe-factor lined school-days and the all-talk borderline-obsessive fixation with sex, girls, and booze. From McLovin's fake ID, to Evan's bullshitting about his wild-party-weekends and Seth's mouthful of gross expressions, the ingredients are all there.

But beneath all the teenage bravado, what seals the deal is the tale of friendship between Seth and Evan. The knowledge that the clock is ticking and that University will change their life forever makes for a backdrop of simmering tension. But it's in the final shot, with one of the most poignant reconstructions of teenage life ever portrayed, that Superbad stands out from the crowd of high-school comedies. That last day, when Seth finally manages to pull Jules and Evan is about to go for a shopping round with his dream girl Becca. When Seth goes down the escalator as he looks round for a reassuring glimpse of his best mate Evan, he knows that a chapter of his life is about to shut down forever. That sudden lump in your stomach, paired with the sudden realisation that those comfortingly familar years of uber-geekiness and messing about are now over.
10 out of 10.

Saturday, March 15, 2008


Will the UK's no.1 music mag publish this letter?

Dear Q,
Rumour has it you may have run out of inspiration for your beloved "Best Of" lists.
Here's an about "The 50 Best Q Best Of Lists Ever"?
Bet your palms are all sweaty with excitement already.
Claude Carpentieri
And hey I didn't mention the virus-like proliferation of [...pat pat...] Q Awards for inspiration, legend, myth, legacy, ancestry and pedigree (forgive me if I left one or two out). And don't call it lazy journalism. It takes some beef to come up with two-dimensional reviews. Take your pick. "Northern lads with super-human self-belief and indomitable spirit who tell it like this". Or '80s legends that "tapped into the mood of a divided nation that just elected Thatcher".

Friday, March 14, 2008

Death Of A Party

Amidst celebrating the filthy rich and proposing that every Brit should swear an oath to the Queen, New Labour has plunged to new depths in his quest to outTory David Cameron.

This week Business Minister John Hutton confirmed that over half the UK population is in desperate want of political representation. His speech to the Progress organisation was eerily reminiscent of the halcyon days of Thatcherism, later replicated by Blair in his pal-with-the-Gallaghers Feelgood Britannia phase.

For those of you who've spent the last few years awash in denial, Hutton hammered the point home. This is what New Labour's basic tenet should be: big money as the sole source of worth and righteousness. Don't question - the New Labour Minister warned us - the morality of million-worth pay checks, city bonuses and financial engorgement. That's got to be celebrated instead. We should be happy that Britain is host to a number of super rich. In fact, we need more of them.

In other words, New Labour's priority shouldn't be one that offers a realistic way out of financial trouble (poverty is so passe') to working families and individuals. Perhaps next time Hutton and his lot will unveil Labour's new target: by 2010 everybody in Britain should be persuaded to play the lottery. That way, hope and glory currently denied by the notoriously socialistic British state will be made available to all.

'Course Hutton didn't say a single word about the record of growing inequality under 11 years of New Labour. While busy celebrating (read negotiating his way up the millionaires' backside), he never mentioned the fact that too many of them pay less tax than their cleaners. Instead, Hutton remarked, the real scandal is that, for society's sake, barriers are erected that prevent the very wealthy from getting even wealthier. Perhaps, he was thinking that in 2006 the richest people in Britain paid 0.14 per cent of their income in tax. But we forgot: don't question the morality of that.

Not content with ten years of Blair, and totally blind to the fact that it's their core voters who are deserting the party like a sinking ship, today's New Labour appears even more desperate to outTory the Tories. Just look at the reluctant, pathetic, token attempt to tax non-dom billionaires a-la Roman Abramovich. In the face of public outrage, all Gordon Brown could master was a measly £30,000 a year in tax- and only when the filthy rich tally seven years in Britain. Even that was saluted by a gospel choir of shock, horror and disgust by Britain's big business egged on by David Cameron and the Conservatives. Those miserable, penny-pinching, millionaire "wealth creators" threatening to up sticks and set up shop in Bermuda or Singapore was possibly one of the most repulsive displays of class arrogance since the 19th century Corn Laws controversy.

Hutton's remarks can be seen as the by-product of a party overly anxious to assuage the superwealthy. Similarly, this same week, Brown's cabinet proudly turned down the Unions' request to extend basic rights to agency and temporary workers. A Labour government that legislates in favour of sick pay or indemnity? You've got to be joking.

And so what's left of what was once the Labour Party? Token talks of eradicating child poverty, I guess...but when you find a politician publicly claiming to be against that don't forget to drop us an e-mail.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Guillemots, Red

The indie mavericks return with album no.2
Review by Stan Moss

When they released their successful debut album in 2006 I suspected Fyfe Dangerfield's indie misfits Guillemots were different from the crowd of post-Libertines wannabes. Too much of a bunch of mavericks to stick to one script. Sure enough, their new LP 'Red' confirms that view, as it opens a whole new chapter and signifies a new-found confidence. Here there's a whole new pool of influences.

Lead single Get Over It is the most exuberant track on 'Red', the flagbearer of a collection of catchy and experimental pop songs. If the Scissor Sisters were a touch less over the top that's what they would sound like. Track one, epic singalong Kriss Kross, instantly grabs you by the throat while Standing On The Last Star will linger round your brain for the next couple of years.

Critics have pointed out that Guillemots going all R&B is bound to fail in some quarters. But ‘Red’ is more a parody of the genre than the real thing. Only, this time round you'll be able to judge directly on the dancefloor. Dangerfield said "We didn't want to make Through The Windowpane 2. That was a softer record. This time around we just wanted to make a bunch of pop songs that punched, instantly". Why not.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Here's to four more years of Zapatero

How refreshing to see a Prime Minister willing -for once- to channel money into welfare rather than wars, Millennium Dome, or billion-worth bailouts for banks and private firms (for British readers, Virgin Rail and Northern Rock may ring a bell).

Spain is going to be under Socialist rule for another four years. Last night's PSOE victory proved that the 21st century blend of ugly conservatism, bigotry and politics of fear that is stalking Europe can be defeated. Most importantly, it can be so without stealing the conservatives' clothes. Josè Luis Zapatero sent the Partido Popular packing without mimicking their policies, nicking their language or genuflecting to big business. The Socialists' four years in office carried none of that Blairite whiff of neo-Toryism which was essentially a priestly "I understand your concerns" tagged in front of "lady's-not-for-turning" sort of policies - and that was Blair's conscience ticked off.

Zapatero's government did exactly what it said on the tin. Firstly, he kept his word about Iraq as he pulled Spanish troops out as soon as he got in. Second, he acknowledged that labour casualisation is the noughties' version of the black plague. Fancy that in England, where the unions are still trying to get into Gordon Brown's head that the rise of casual labour carries a whole range of social side effects. For the PSOE, moderate and cautious policies don't necessarily mean pandering to whatever the zealots of contratos basuras (literally 'rubbish contracts') prescribe. For the first time, there's a government aware of today's 18-30 generation's financial plight. Hundreds of thousands of "call-centre-kids", in their twenties and thirties, pocketing crumbs and with no other choice than to hold onto their mother's apron. The ley de ayuda al alquiler (a sort of rent subsidy) was brought in to redress the drama of a new generation worse off than their parents' for the first time in history. Similarly, the dependency law (ley de dependencia) was designed to guarantee residential and nursing care to every old person in need.

Zapatero didn't flinch in the face of the PP's hysterical hissy fits about "wasting money" on solidarity. How refreshing, to see a Prime Minister willing -for once- to channel money into welfare rather than military adventures, opus magna a-la Millennium Dome, or multimillion bailouts for banks and private firms (to British readers, Northern Rock or Virgin Rail may ring a bell). How refreshing to have a non-Conservative government that doesn't huff and puff day in and day out against benefit claimants. Just look at the state of those New Labour fellas in the UK. All muscles when it's about giving dole-claimants the proverbial kick up the arse but as docile as the new boy at school when it comes down to the scandal of the non-doms tax-free status.

Given that it could have been Mariano Rajoy (the Iberic William Hague), here's to another four years of Zapatero.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Afghanistan? Iraq? Shush! Read your Daily Mail and collect your plates!

Welcome back collective hysteria, last seen in town at the Queen Mother's funeral.

Amongst the revolting cries of "Harry the Hero" and "Brave Harry" that afflicted the weekend - an endless seam of sycophantic triviality - The Independent was the only paper to stick out and speak some sense.

If you thought cheap jingoism and a peculiar aversion to reality were already populating the UK press, the last few days showed that there's always room for lower depths. Welcome back collective hysteria, last seen in town at the Queen Mother's funeral or the 2006 World Cup.

The Daily Mail and Daily Express had over ten pages plastered with photos of valiant Harry "in combat", Partridge-esque smiling while atop a tank, commanding a rifle while looking at the stars and so on.

Even The Mirror, the "working man"'s paper sported a lame "Here's To You Harry The Brave" headline. And of course, routine statements that Prince Harry "was being treated the same as all the other soldiers" serving in Helmand, Afghanistan, were too many to mention.

Because of course every soldier enjoys the Press Association being the guardian angel of their every move as they take snapshots of their "experience" in the desert. Every soldier has the privilege of Royal minders rolling in to drop them safely into the combat zone. And, last but not least, every soldier returns from a two-month tour of Afghanistan to then proceed straight to an exotic safari with his girlfriend, all expenses paid. Just to wind down a little, you know.

Bored of the shackles of his pampered, oppressive life, Harry wanted to go out and play a bit. It turned out a win-win situation.

For the royals, an excellent PR opportunity to clear Harry's spoilt-brat, party-animal, photographer-punching image. For the tabloids, industrial quantities of populistic fodder for weeks to come. And while soldiers and civilians alike are dying in a morass that makes less and less sense as the weeks go by, there they are, the brave, bulldog-clad, patriotic, British papers, bingeing on regalia.

The miserly press coverage of the last British soldier killed in Basra last Friday is a poignant case in point.

And so, hats off to The Independent newspaper, with extra praise to Afghan-veteran Leo Doherty. Speaking of the Harry-induced gorge, the former soldier remarked that "war is reduced to entertainment". More, "The images of Prince Harry blasting away on a machine gun seem dangerously close to propaganda". You can read the full article, "Harry's war: the ugly truth", by clicking here.