Thursday, July 31, 2008

Breast enlargement, vanity and freak-shows

Is there any sane bloke out there who truly thinks Jodi Marsh or Jordan's bazookas look good?

The article of the week is by Bethan Cole in today's Independent and it reads :"Double trouble: Are breast enlargements imitation or mutilation?" It's, at last, a call to arms against the culture of body mutilation that is being perpetrated by contemporary media and celebrity magazines. I mean, aside from the geekiest, most desperate lads (those of the kind who tickle the pickle 12 times a day and then tell everybody at school about their masturbating record), and aside from lairy peer pressure of the cor-look-at-those-knockers variety, is there any sane bloke out there who thinks Jodi Marsh or Jordan's bazookas look good? They look FAKE.

And that's on a par with the Jackie Stallones of this world, i.e. people who are incapable of ageing gracefully and end up looking like a scary freak. Bethan Cole is right that "[c]ompanies such as Transform and the Harley Medical Group present the acquisition of fake breasts as being a consumer choice comparable to the purchase of a new car or a sofa, with pay-by-instalment price plans to boot", and absolutely spot-on when she argues that "we need to start loving ourselves a little more and stop worshipping dumb-assed celebrities who mutilate their breasts in the name of vanity".

Perhaps the trend reversal has already started thanks to Kiera Knightley. You may have heard that she recently refused to have her boobs airbrushed for her upcoming film, "The Duchess", and told everyone to leave her tits alone. Fair play.


Another month, and more headlines about British Gas announcing a record 35% price hike. This is not quite clear to me. Does it mean that the increases announced last month and the month before (etc) have all been outdone? Or is it the same stuff? In any case, multi-zillion profit British Gas and the likes justify their extortionate rates by saying raw material is getting too expensive. But they've been putting the price up no matter what. And, like this article in today's Times points out, "Only a day before the announcement by British Gas that household bills would rise by a third, the wholesale gas price fell off a cliff". Thieves.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Summer holidays: a licence to look ridiculous?

The people who get up in the morning, look smugly at their hotel room, then look down at their sandals and socks and think "blimey, don't I look good today".

With August approaching, most people can finally enjoy the break they've been looking forward to all year. For many though, a holiday becomes a licence to look ridiculous. Except that they don't know it. Let's shed some light.

Airport. With the air conditioning oozing out of the vents, as you queue to check in, you can't help but notice the amount of people carrying a 2-litre bottle of water each. Suddenly they’re all incredibly thirsty. I mean, do you normally walk around your local high street constantly swigging water? No, but the moment you adopt the ‘tourist’ identity, for some unknown reason your mouth magically dries out and water has to sipped every two seconds. I suppose that must explain why, as the queue flows and people push their trolley forward, you hear glugging sounds coming from all directions. No wonder that, once on board, the plane’s toilet turns into the most coveted retreat. Everyone’s desperate for a slash.

Once you get to your destination, it’s obviously time to take a good look around. Bear in mind I’m not talking about beaches. It could be any major square, main road, or quaint alleyway around Amsterdam, Rome, Paris or Berlin. It soon dawns on you that there are tens of thousands of tourists who must have woken up in the morning, looked in the mirror and thought "today I really want to look like an absolute ejit". Here they are, throngs of people donning a straw hat. You walk around a European city and you see all those people in a straw hat, looking like a cross between a medieval pilgrim, a colonial explorer and a plantation worker. Why? Would you wear a bleeding straw hat back home?

Not to mention the sizeable minority who have no trouble showing their sweaty sunburnt torso. Especially British geezers. It doesn’t cross their mind that fellow pedestrians aren’t keen to have swollen beer guts shoved down their face, let alone backs so hairy that they would make a gorilla look like he’s suffering from alopecia.

Next, the bottoms. Why do people walk around in beige/khaki bermuda shorts when they’re on holiday? Whether it’s division shorts, breeches, or slacks…they’re all beige. Or, perhaps, hawaiian, that seems to be the only alternative. Again, who the hell strolls around Altrincham, Walsall, Watford or Sunderland in hawaiian shorts? You cross the channel and you magically want to wear beige bermuda or hawaiian shorts. One of the unsolved mysteries of the globalised world.

And then there’s the icing on the cake: ugly footwear. Again, back home most blokes wouldn’t dream of walking around town wearing sandals or flip flops. Somehow, on holiday, they feel it’s socially acceptable, even though it’s not. The display of ugly Jesus or hiking sandals for all to admire is staggering. That would be bearable if it wasn’t for people with ugly feet insisting on wearing them, perhaps because they want to let their hairy toes and disfigured toenails also gape at the monuments.

To end, of course, there's the legendary sandals/socks combo, essentially what put certain countries on the map. Those people must get up in the morning, look smugly at their hotel room, then look down at their sandals and socks and think "blimey, don't I look good today".

So, yeah, the lad walking down the Champs-Élysées can-of-lager-in-hand may be a Brit or an alky (or both), but as far as distinctive features go, the quintessentially Teutonic binomy sock/sandal is, and will always remain, unbeatable.

Primal Scream, Beautiful Future

Review by Johnny Taronja

Bobbie Gillespie has been quoted as saying that the band's 9th album is full of "sugar coated bullets". He's right. Never afraid to experiment, Primal Scream refrained from coming up with XTRMNTR part two and made a pop album while staying true to their glorious musical history. The sarcasticly titled Beautiful Future confirms their status of a band impossible to pigeonhole and proud of their own musical versatiliy.

True, Gillespie is clearly in a 'pop' mood. To soak in the atmosphere, some of the tracks were even recorded in the studio were Abba made Dancin Queen. But that is not to say that Primal Scream have given up rocking out altoghether. Just check the ballsiness of the vitriolic single Can't Go Back, produced by Bloc Party's Paul Epworth. There's even a folksy cover of Fleetwood Mac's ballad Over and Over, featuring folk legend Linda Thompson, and the gospel-influenced Zombie Man. There are references to krautrock and a nod and a half to legendary new wave pioneers Suicide. The critics who lazily spoke of Primal Scream's "regressions into rock classicism" are probably the same who'd slate them for being 'ageing' 'fake' punk rockers if this was a whole album of garage tracks.

In recent interviews, Bobbie Gillespie expressed his pride at Primal Scream not being like a 'proper' band. Outside musicians are brought in as dictated by the song. In other words the line-up is cut around the music and not viceversa. The new album is the first without long-term guitarist Robert “Throb” Young. Gillespie explained it with Young's typically "grungey" and "angular" style. It wouldn't fit on most of Beautiful Future. Musically speaking, the gamble worked.

The problem comes with the lyrics. They make you wince a little. Some critics pointed out the cringeworthy aspect of a now clean-living 46-year-old Gillespie still singing about drug vignettes a-la Trainspotting ("I stuck a needle in my baby's heart"), as though he was trying to live up to his public persona of visionary rock'n'roll junkie extraodinaire.
Not to mention Gillespie's criticism of the "capitalist" and "consumer" system. He doesn't quite cut it, simply because you can't sing about “gritty realism” (in the title track) and that we're “not really free… only free to buy the things you can’t afford”, when your band's music has been lent to all sorts of adverts, including Carphone. Illegal? No. Immoral? Neither. Contradictory? Yes.

And what about those titletrack lines about the grim reality of poverty and deprivation coming from a man who lives in a mega-posh mansion in Maida Vale and who recently attended the Mayfair launch of a $250,000 diamond and sapphire-encrusted ice dagger designed by Jade Jagger for use in the world's most exclusive hangouts. It simply doesn't make sense.

A great album, if you don't understand English.

[Beautiful future is out on B-Unique now]

Monday, July 28, 2008

The end of Big Brother?

First came the news that, due to poor ratings, the Australian Big Brother had been axed. Now, according to the Mirror, some people are ready to bet that that "there will be no Big Brother 10 in 2009 after last week's eviction recorded a seven-year low of 2.5 million viewers". This is what happens when a formula as shallow as piss on concrete is overdone to the point of saturation. There's a reason why they don't do the World Cup every summer. Sure, it would generate a huge turnover in the short run, but within a decade it'd die of asphyxia.

Since its triumphant debut in 2000, Big Brother was followed by nine successive editions of the same. For the circus to survive, each time the threshold of vulgarity, nothingness and artificially shocking behaviour had to be set an extra notch further to the bottom. Meanwhile, on the trail of BB's success, dozens of other hybrid 'reality' (what exactly is real there we'll never know) TV shows were hastily assembled. They were all invariably centred around an all-pervasive staple of voyeurism, 'celebrity' (which will probably be remembered as the defining word of this decade) and sensationalistic transgression, be it Rebecca Loos masturbating pigs on The Farm' or Busted's Matt Willis eating a crocodile's penis on I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here.

The words 'trashy', 'dumbing' and 'down' may spring to mind, but 'reality' TV soon became something more insidious and perverse than simply that.
Until ten years ago, 'trashy TV' had been associated with daytime telly of the Jerry Springer variety. But that never became a lynchpin of contemporary culture, nor did it generate a whole multi-millionaire industry. The 'reality' frenzy was (is) of an entirely different scale. Our beloved Sun and other tabloids were given more meat to guzzle, pull-out features and cheap characters to put on a pedistall and then devour for breakfast. A whole industry of magazines feeding off z-list celebrities' antics multiplied and gained prominence as it took the notion of 'gossip' to new levels.

Yesterday's Observer featured an excellent article by Rachel Cooke on the subject. The reporter argued that, amongst other things, BB has been feeding "our obsession with presentation" and has "reinforced class, gender and racial stereotypes". According to maverick Italian journalist and TV presenter Michele Santoro, "reality TV is all but [politically] neutral as it plays a part in moulding the values scale of young people as well as society and culture". False idols, as well as a misleading, unreal notion that all there is to aspire to in this world is to get your face on telly. Where these people would do anything to get talked about, including wanking off a donkey or coming across as thicker than pigshit.

Defenders of Big Brother usually cling on to the trite formula of "cultural snobbery", arguing that the genius of BB is that of "reflecting" society, rather than setting the pace and establishing new 'models'. According to the creator of Big Brother, Peter Bazalgette, "The fads of young people, what obsesses them, what interests them, their lingo; [Big Brother] has reflected that".

Which is pure bollocks. Big Brother reflects society no more than those old farts sitting on their arses in the House of Lords do. The success of BB is exclusively based on casting, an artificial, clinical selection. Not to mention that the housemates are fully aware of the type of antics that are going to help them grab headlines and fame. BB 9's Alex and her "pow pow pow" gang-links prompted complaints and crocodile cries, but that's exactly why she was casted in the first place. If you don't possess any outrageous, freak show-like, marketable potential simply there's no chance you're going to get on the show.
Film director Marco Tullio Giordana recently said of contemporary TV :"it tries to elude all [the viewers'] worries, to anaesthetize their anxiety; it induces them to a sort of bulimic consumerism and brings them in a permanent state of dizziness, just in case they might be tempted to think".
It's working a treat.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

This week's news round-up

by Johnny Taronja

Remember Saddam's long beard at the time of his arrest? Bosnian war criminal Radovan Karadzic too looked like a fairly hirsute guru this week when he was copped after thirteen years in hiding. There's a pattern emerging with this Neo-Guru look. So remember to watch out for that bearded bloke sitting next to you on the bus. It could be Hitler re-incarnated. Or Osama Bin Laden.

"Plot to dump Brown", "MPs campaign to make Jack Straw prime minister", "Labour turns on Brown as MPs fear poll wipeout". Today's headlines are a reflection of the dismal state of affairs within the Labour party. After yet another electoral humiliation at the Glasgow East by-election (until Thursday a Labour stronghold for the best part of 60 years), it really looks like poor Gordon Brown can't get one thing right. Not only that. New polls suggest Labour are in danger of a total wipeout at the next general elections. Gordon keeps uttering in his usual atonal fashion is "I have a job to do", but that's exactly what the band onboard the Titanic were saying while the ship was going down.

Really, the situation is desperate. There's little to feel sorry about for the architects of New Labour and the people who destroyed the party and made it unelectable until memory fades. The trouble is, the Unions and the Labour left are now instinctively trying to grab room for manouvre after 13 Blairite years of wilderness. That is the worst mistake the left can make right now. Because whatever Labour do between now and the next general elections, there is absolutely nothing that can save the sinking ship, no new leader, no last-minute policy makeover, no hurried change of tack. The next elections are going to be a Conservative landslide.

It is important that the last two years of Labour agony are not sold to the public as a "lurch to the left" and a comprehensive "caving in to Union policies", otherwise they will become the convenient scapegoats for the Death of Labour while Blair and his aficionados will escape unscathed. Or else, whoever pick up the pieces after electoral disaster in 2010, it'll be mock-Tory policies and Blairism all over again.

On Friday, Carol Vorderman announced she's quitting Channel 4's legendary Countdown. Reports talked of the programme's producers asking her to accept a take-it-or-leave-it 90% pay cut. Since Richard Whiteley's death in 2005 the programme has been limping. Now it looks like the closing credits are rolling.

No week passes without 'new' astonishing revelations concerning the sound of Franz Ferdinand's forthcoming album. The NME is now reporting of "wild recording techniques", following previous proclaims of "raw and dirty" as opposed to last year's rumours that they were going to sound "like Girls Aloud". It's been three years since their last release, their second album You Could Have It So Much Better, an eternity for a relatively young band. Don't forget that in the same interval, The Smiths' output amounted to four studio albums and a slew of "albumless" singles. Hopefully all this procrastination isn't a sign that Kapranos & co. have lost the plot.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Despicable Darwins

I guess you've all heard and read about John Darwin and hiw wife Anne, the couple who, by most papers' accounts, behaved like contemporary monsters, war criminals that would make Radovan Karadzic come across as an innocent Huey, Lewey or Dewey - you take your pick. However, one commentator seemed to show the rare gift of seeing past the bottom of their rectum. You may think that reproducing large sections of somebody else's article is tantamount to indolence. But this time it has to be done.

Howard Jacobson, in Shakespearian mood in today's Independent, put it like no-one else could.

"Despicable canoe couple sent to prison" also gave one pause. What's a despicable canoe? In fact it was the couple who were "despicable" in the judge's view on account of their deception of their sons. Bad call, judge. Use every man after his deserts when it comes to deceiving children and who should scape whipping? Otherwise what did the Darwins do that so was so terrible? Swindle an insurance company? Why, half the people invited to take tea at Downing Street these past 25 years have had no better reason for being there. Enterprise, it's called. In a money-crazed culture you get knighthoods for it. (bloody right! - Ed.)
And isn't six years a bit steep for what they did, however you regard it? You can wipe out an entire family on your bicycle, knifing anyone who tries to stop you, and be given only half that. Explain it to me, judge. Explain why a crime against a financial institution weighs heavier than a crime against the person".

Friday, July 25, 2008

The Cure Fan Special

To celebrate the release of The Cure's new album, finally scheduled for Oct 13, at Hagley Road to Ladywood we decided to put together the most interesting Cure-related stories and anecdotes as sent by our readers.

Last April we called for Cure fans to tell us how they first got into The Cure and which song in particular got them hooked up. The results were so successful that we decided to turn it into a permanent feature. Here it is.

Right to privacy 60,000, News of The World 0

A resounding slap in the face to the low, intrusive, vulgar tactics of UK tabloids

And so Max Mosley won it. After taking the News of The World to court for violation of privacy as they filmed his private orgy, the Motorsport boss was proven right and awarded damages. It was a resounding slap in the face to the low, intrusive, vulgar tactics of the Sun and his sister paper.

"There was no public interest or other justification for the clandestine recording", the judge said, "for the publication of the resulting information and still photographs, or for the placing of the video extracts on the News of the World website - all of this on a massive scale". Although the compensation awarded amounts to a (relatively, I could do with some of it myself) meagre £60,000, legal fees amount to around £800,000 and the News of the World will have to fork out.

But what matters most is the precedent that was set. Though we're no admirers of Mosley, the FIA boss had the nerve to do what most people wouldn't: he took on the News of the World and sued them all the way. In the words of Mark Oaten MP (read his article in today's Independent here), whose private life was also devastated by the tabloids' lethal culture of peepholism and lies, this is hardly the end of the red tops stirring shit and setting up scandals. However, editors may want to think twice about what they're doing. Outside court, yesterday, they were wailing about erosions of freedom, "public interest" and "investigative journalism", but spying on other people's sex life has got nowt to do with "public interest" and "investigative journalism".

Unless, I have a better idea. How would those sanctimonious Sun "journalists" like a couple of cameras shoved up their arses recording every single time they're caught having a Barclays or cheating on their wives during the Christmas pissup? Now that's what I call investigative.

New Street 'Gateway' takes some stick

Lord Snape, former Labour MP for West Bromwich has slammed the ongoing project dubbed "New Street Gateway" right after a Commons inquiry warned the idea should be shelved as "it would not solve Birmingham’s rail needs".

Lord Snape talked of a cosmetic project that would simply "tart up" New Street while causing "further massive interruption of train services in and out of the station". In 2007, the former MP already denounced the scheme with an article that described it as "seriously flawed" and based on a review (the Birmingham and West Midlands Rail Capacity Review) that allegedly included "erroneous assumptions and pretty elementary errors". The implication is that the old idea of a major main line station at Eastside, known as Birmingham Grand Central, should be dusted off.

The deputy leader of Birmingham City Council, Councillor Paul Tilsley, hit back at critics of the £600 million New Street Gateway scheme by saying: “There is no Plan B, this is the only plan there is,” adding that it is too late to make a u-turn after all partners have been signed up and compulsory purchase orders have been sent off.
“The Birmingham Grand Central idea died some time ago after the land was sold on Eastside, so there is no Plan B. The alternative died a death some time ago, so we must get on with the redevelopment of New Street".

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Rotten, racist or both?

After one "final reunion" too many, have the Sex Pistols run out of stuff to grab headlines?

"Rotten by nature", was the apt headline from yesterday's Daily Mail. Many of us always suspected John Rotten Lydon and the Sex Pistols were amongst the most overrated popstars ever. And many thought their popularity is only justified if you are 14-year-old braindead who finds pulling faces and middle fingers up sooo rebellious and rock'n'roll. Well, finally we have been vindicated.

Controversy was recently spurred by Lydon as he left Duffy in tears after a psychotic fit at the Mojo Awards and after he was sued by an American TV assistant for smacking her in the face. Then there was the Isle of Wight festival last month, in which the rebel complained about the quality of bands on the festival bill, saying there were "still fucking homo bands coming up here". Coz the Pistols are a quality band, not a marketing tool, you know.

But this time there's enough evidence to state that a stunning concoction of senility and stupidity has definitely got the best of the self-styled 'punk rebel'. Or, arguably in line with a history lined by a marketing ploy after the other (the old saying 'all furcoat and no knickers' springs to mind), one final reunion too many meant that the Pistols have run out of stuff to grab headlines.

The scene was the Barcelona Summercase festival. After the gig, Bloc Party singer Kele Okoreke walks up to his old idol Lydon asking him if there will ever be a chance of a reunion for his post-Pistols band Public Image Limited. Apparently, mayhem ensued. Okoreke, born from Nigerian parents, said in a statement that the Sex Pistols singer “became intimidating and aggressive while his entourage responded with a racist tirade including the statement, ‘Your problem is your black attitude’.” Okoreke ended up with a split lip and severe bruising.

*How the press covered the incident*

The Telegraph titles :"Sex Pistols star John Lydon denies racist abuse allegations ", but it seems to muddle the issue up a little. Was the attack coming directly from Lydon or was it from his entourage? "Okereke claims he was the victim of unprovoked abuse by Lydon and members of his crew at the weekend in Barcelona, where both were performing at the Summercase festival".

"Anarchy in Barcelona as Lydon is accused of racist attack on singer", is The Independent's headline, while The Mirror focuses on Ricky Wilson's alleged rescue attempt in the guise of some kind of 'indie hero': "Kaiser Chief Ricky Wilson stops Sex Pistol John Lydon's 'racist' attack on Bloc Party's Kele Okereke". "Witnesses described Lydon and his gang as 'as acting like a gang of racist thugs'”.

The Sun seems to be in possesion of more details. Then again, the source being The Sun you really have to tread carefully. Apparently, "A eyewitness said: “Three guards piled in with fists and started pounding him, shouting things like, ‘We don’t like your bongo bongo music’ and, ‘Your problem is your black attitude’. “Johnny stood to the side and at one point he screamed, ‘You f****** kids don’t know what you’re talking about’”.

The Guardian ("Sex Pistols: Lydon denies racial abuse as singers clash") publishes Lydon's response, stating that the incident was sparked by "jealousy in certain bands". "The trouble was brought to us", Lydon said in a statement, "resulting in those causing the trouble being physically removed by festival security". He added, pathetically: "Grow up and learn to be a true man. When you have achieved as much as I have, come back and talk to me".

Lesson learnt, then. One: unless you've reached superstar status, and for a prolonged period of thirty years, absolutely do not dare talk to John Lydon. Two: too much money, fame and 'omnipotence syndrome' can get to a Rotten head really bad.

Fair Tips campaign

This is the link to Unite and their campaign to stop the service charges scams. "Money left as a tip on a credit card or paid as service charge on a menu is legally the property of the employer to dispose of as they wish. Bad employers use this as an opportunity to take a cut of waiting staff tips and only pass on a proportion back to them". Read all about it here.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Food fascism...

...and a eulogy of the Brits' culinary open-mindedness

It's undeniable that Britain doesn’t thrive with recipes and is hardly host to world famous cuisine. However, most non-Brits seem to be truly convinced that it's just roast beef and fish 'n' chips. And the pleasure they take in telling you that needs to be witnessed first hand in other to be appreciated. Little do they know there's more to it than battered cod. It may be simple stuff, but it's interesting to watch foreign students finally nod in approval when you put in plain words the beauty of Cumberland pie, Shepherd's pie, bubble 'n' squeak, egg and chips, gammon and eggs, fry-ups, beans on toast, jacket potatoes and spotted dick.

I understand the glamour and variety of French, Italian or Chinese cuisine is miles away and yet, lacking a strong culinary tradition carries its own benefits. Food is one area in which the Brits don’t show a single ounce of arrogance and leave the annoyingly pedantic and finicky approach at the dinner table to their French, Italian or Greek counterparts.

Any British town can offer a parade of good restaurants from all over the world, and while that is also true in other countries, the British seem to have a unique affinity for foreign food of every kind - so much so that, like tea, they quickly adopt it as their own. Adopted from its Pakistani community, 'Balti' - for instance - has become Birmingham's signature dish and any 'expat' would tell you that curry houses are amongst their most-missed items. Food, it seems, is the strongest case in point for one of Britain's best qualities, cosmopolitanism.

Vegetarians in Britain will also tell you that -for at least a generation- they have no longer been looked at like a bunch of semi-anorexic fussy eaters or, worse, freaks of nature. Even the simplest greasy café in Redditch will have a clearly marked vegetarian choice on offer and all menus routinely carry a vegetarian-friendly symbol to make it easier for non-meat eaters to recognise their options. Again, the entrepreneurial-minded Brits understood that diversity can benefit turnover. Any supermarket in the UK will feature a wide range of vegetarian products and substitutes like Quorn or Linda McCartney's that are simply unheard of in many other countries. The first time I told an Italian that I wasn’t too keen on trying his bloodcake, a local guts-made delicacy he was so generously offering, I was duly greeted with a benevolent vaffanculo. The man simply couldn’t believe that love for animals could extend to finding the idea of eating brain, innards and nerves revolting. And Catalunian morcilla? Why would I want to eat pig’s blood, rice and onions made into a sausage? In many parts of the continent, especially the Mediterranean, veggies are still seen as third-generation hippies or knotted-haired tree-huggers, a view that only the most embittered grannies would still hold in the UK.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Butchers, the police and Genoa 2001

15 police and medical staff have been convicted by an Italian court for the horrors of the 2001 G8 summit, but before you utter the words "good" and "news", please stop in your tracks.

Today's must-read is a piece by Nick Davies' in The Guardian about the horrors inflicted by Italian police during the Genoa G8 Summit on 21 July 2008.

Seven years on and those disturbing episodes of contemporary fascist butchery have returned to haunt us as 15 police and medical staff were finally convicted by an Italian court. But before you utter the words "good" and "news", please stop in your tracks. First off, most of the several hundred law officers involved in the Diaz school raid and the tortures at Bolzaneto detention centre have escaped without any discipline or criminal charge. Also, those sentenced will not spend a single minute in jail due to the legal loopholes. And, lest we forget, the politicians who presided over one of the most disgraceful pages of recent Italian history are back at the country's helm.

Nick Davies' article is a plea not to forget the events of July 2001. He goes through the story of Mark Covell, a British journalist who -purely for being there- was kneecapped, kicked as a football and suffered from massive internal bleeding, ending up on a life-support machine.
The point was made by the prosecution that the ordeal at Bolzaneto involved at least four out of the five technicalities that, according to the European Court of Human Rights, constitute torture.

Hundreds of people from all over Europe were arrested during the raid and taken to a temporary prison camp outside Genoa, at Bolzaneto. Random and heavy beatings, freezing cold conditions, and various organised brutality were all perpetrated by the police. Prosecutors said those arrested were beaten, made to sing fascist songs, and that some women were stripped naked, had their heads shaved and were threatened with rape.

It quickly emerged that the horrors had been meticulously planned and extended way beyond a few excitable policemen grappling with wet dreams about Mussolini. Straight after the school raids, the police put on show the weapons they claimed to have found in the building - petrol bombs, sledgehammers and metal bars. They didn't say, however, that all those had been (amateurishly) planted, which they were forced to admit as the truth emerged during the investigation two years later.

Credit to The Guardian for keeping the issue on the front page.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Leave those tips alone

How restaurant chains dip into tips
Last April we told you about Unite's campaign to stop the practice of crooked freeloading bosses pocketing customers' tips. Tips that are obviously aimed at staff. A very contemporary tale of workers' exploitation. The Mirror were the first to back the campaign and today The Independent joins in style with an investigation by Martin Hickman, Simon Usborne and Andrew Grice. Read, take note, and boycott if you can.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

This week's news round up... order of unimportance - by Johnny Taronja

Egged on by FIFA's eternal president Sepp Blatter (honest - the guy must have been at the helm of FIFA since...forever) Cristiano Ronaldo bewails that he's the victim of "modern slavery". On a £120,000-a-week salary. Whatever happened to:
a) the concept of appropriate wording;
b) good taste.
Piss off, Ronaldo.

The Mirror' s Tony Parsons suggests the death penalty to try and tackle the spiralling surge in knife crime. What do you guys think? They have in the U.S. and it's no crime-free haven. Yet something radical is needed. This week the Cornish town of Redruth adopted a "voluntary" curfew scheme for everyone under 16. What a mess. If it carries on this way, soon it'll be compulsory for tourists and visitors to England to wear a stabproof vest or other forms of body armour at the borders. A bit like required vaccinations when you visit tropical countries. If you fancy a trip to Blighty you may want to take precautions.

Tory MP David Davis defined Thursday's by-election victory as a "stunning message" to Gordon Brown and his government. Some chaps see it instead as a stunning waste of public money. £80,000 - that's how much it cost - to see David Davis voted back into Westminster a month after he'd resigned to prove a totally sterile political point. The East Yorkshire constituency of Haltemprice & Howden saw a pathetic turnout of 34% as both the LibDems and Labour refused to take part in the taxpayer-funded farce. Stunning.

The Iranian regime spent most of the week flexing their muscles. As they launched one missile test after the other, they must have netted John McCain more votes than twenty primetime Fox News specials about Barack Obama's middle name or a whole round of fundraising. Arguing that Iran poses no threat is not going to be easy-peasy.

Finally, the UN Security Council failed to authorise sanctions against the Mugabe dictatorship in Zimbabwe. The reason? Russia, China and -above all- South Africa voted against. This time it's not the usual "evil Westerners/Europeans/Americans" to blame. The horrors of a regime where -only since March- thousands of people went missing and 200,000 were displaced will be remembered as the shame of 21st century African politics. Like Rwanda became the symbol of world inaction, Zimbabwe will end up the icon of crook-eyed, criminal, African brotherhood. South Africa could give Mugabe the boot at the drop of a hat if only they wanted to.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Max Mosley and Peeping Tom

The News of the World and the Sun's history of hard-hitting violations of privacy

It's only a few years since the News of the World ended up in a costly out-of-court settlement after stirring some shit in the Beckhams' household with the alleged text message exchange with Rebecca Loos. A few months later, the Sun unleashed a hate campaign against Swiss referee Uri Meier after the controversial Euro 2004 exit of England against Portugal. After urging readers to "let rip" and send him emails, the tabloid stuck a huge St George flag outside the referee's home in northern Switzerland and published his address. Fed up of death threats and afraid for his family, Mr Meier was soon forced to up sticks.

The latest chapter to be added to the News of the World and the Sun's history of hard-hitting violations of privacy concerns Formula One boss Max Mosley. He was filmed and photographed during an S&M session with prostitutes, behind closed doors. The guy is suing and, quite frankly, he has every right to.

The reader can laugh, sneer at or criticise Mosley's penchant for a bit of tough love, but the fact is, the Sun's practice of intruding so violently into people's privacy in order to rake up the dividends has got to end. Mosley's lawyer, Mr Price, was bang on when he contended that to spy on a person's sex life is "disgusting". More to the point, "the role of the News of the World as Peeping Tom publishing for the amusement of the millions sits uncomfortably with its self-appointed role as arbitrator of the nation's morals," he said. Abso-bloody-lutely.

It was also patent that the News of the World was at pains to strike up a sensational story of Nazi undertones. Max Mosley is, in fact, the son of Oswald Mosley, the infamous British fascist leader from the 1930s. To obtain footage of him roleplaying master and servant was, in essence, a gift served on a tray. Before you knew, the News of the World had already come up with the "Nazi-themed orgy" headlines even though the Nazi references were notable by their absence.

It is true that when Mr Mosley talks about how "totally devastating" the ordeal was for his wife and his two sons, the words crocodile and tears spring to mind. But it's simply vile that the News of the World, or any paper, can feel the right to stick their nose into people's privacy.

Friday, July 11, 2008


The irony of the European Parliament banning unfair advertising fares on flights and Ryanair talking of scams.

Ryanair confrontational? You're not kidding. The company's display of arrogance and belligerence in the wake of the European Parliament ban on bogus advertising fares is, quite simply, textbook.

Responding to years of customers' complaints across the continent, Strasbourg has finally decided to ban airlines from shameless advertising fares that do not include the taxes and charges passengers have to pay, the sort of 'Fly to Paris for 0.99p' that can end up costing you hundred times as much. So widespread was the parliamentary agreement that the motion was whizzed through without a formal vote.

Yet Ryanair's official response (8 July 2008) via their spokesperson Stephen McNamara was that "no changes" are needed as far as their own website is concerned. It is already "one step ahead of the European Parliament" and in line with "Ryanair's high standards of fare transparency"
Well…the truth is a little different. Very few (aside from Ryanair's chief and his mates) would deny that their practices have been unfair for a long period of time. In the words of Robert Evans, a British MEP, customers "see an advert, a headlined figure, but when they actually end up paying for it it's a lot more than that because there are extras that hadn't been made properly aware to them at the beginning".

This is why, a few months ago, along with other low fare airlines, Ryanair were persuaded to display tax and other surcharges in a dropdown box. You select your cheap flight and along comes a window that sets you a step closer to reality, warning you that it doesn't come that cheap after all. It is unfortunate that when we checked what the feature looked like on Ryanair's website, we found the following disclaimer:

"We regret, due to system slow down issues, we have been unable to display the tax inclusive fare box on this page, since 25/06/2008. We are currently working with our suppliers, including Navitaire & Microsoft to resolve these problems and hope to restore the tax, fees & charges inclusive display shortly".

At which point you automatically wonder: why don’t Ryanair simply advertise the total price up front? Why does the customer have to wait for the elusive "tax inclusive box" (which only comes with "step 2" of booking) and that, as of today, has not been functioning for 15 full days?

So when the European Parliament forces them to stop this practice and Ryanair retorts aloof that they don’t need to make any changes, does it cross your mind, just for a second, that they may be treating 450 million Europeans like a bunch of idiots?

Ryanair has a habit of shrugging off all criticism as "false". An interesting choice of vocabulary. In 2004-05 they threatened court action against a website that collected hundreds of customers' complaints and stories of travellers routinely being conned or treated like cattle, learning the price of "no-frills low-fares" the hard way. Asked to point out which stories, claims or details may have been "false", Ryanair declined and conveniently opted for the silent treatment.

Yet the company should most certainly be handed an award for imagination when it amounts to coming up with new charges. You pay "extra" for checking-in. You pay extra for "priority seats". You pay extra (they've made it into a maze, but the fact is the baggage/check-in fees keep going up, look here) for a bag. You pay (a lot) extra for excess weight. You pay premium (or very high at least) telephone rates if you need any help or have a problem (just take a look at their website: the customer service page is strategically tucked away- there are tons of horror stories online about people who wanted to complain to Ryanair but couldn’t find a way to do so). Most amazingly, Ryanair (though they're not alone here) charge you for paying. Yes, you read correctly.

Imagine you queue at the supermarket checkouts. They've already charged you extra to get in and for using a trolley. Now you are told that you can only pay by card (it's notorious that Ryanair don’t do cash transactions) but they have to charge you to use that card. You have to pay extra for paying. There is a story on where the writer Sascha Hutchinson was charged £3-50 for using a Visa Debit. When she complained to Ryanair (not a straightforward procedure, as it turned out), she was told brusquely that her claim was "untrue" as she must have made a mistake, i.e. clicked on the Visa credit card option instead. But I've just checked. Sascha Hutchinson was right. Today, 10 July 2008, if you book using a Visa Debit they charge you 5 Euros (of course you only find out as you're about to pay), and double that if it's a return ticket. Who's selling "untrue" stories then?

And what about the joke of marketing flights to Paris, except that you end up at a place called Beauvais an hour and half away from the capital? Of course, no-one expects an airport to be right in the city centre, but is it fair to advertise Luton, Girona and Orio al Serio as London, Barcelona and Milan? They may as well rebrand their Birmingham route "London-Birmingham" or Valencia "Barcelona-Valencia"!

Which leads us to the issue of Ryanair's own CEO, foul-mouthed Michael O'Leary. The man who hits out at the European Union's "scams". The man who is so concerned about the working classes' right to fly that he has no problem squeezing any penny out of them with the cheekiest smallprint-based pricing strategies, one-sided refund policies and "discretionary charges". To listen to him you'd think that, poor thing, he's had a right struggle against the evil of Europe and that he's the Robin Hood of the hard done-by. And yet each week we learn of new Ryanair routes into the depths of Poland or Norway so, one would conclude, it doesn’t look like he's done that bad, does it? He's become a multi-zillionaire in the space of a few years and his company keeps expanding like a tampon in water. Ryanair even finds the time to issue press releases that take the mick out of competitors giving up on certain routes i.e Easyjet packing their bags from Dortmund. Aggressive practices, anyone?

When the European Parliament increased environmental taxes on aviation, O'Leary went on full-on mode. Look at how he lashes out: “These clowns in the European Parliament seem determined to destroy the European airline industry with these discriminatory taxation penalties. When aviation accounts for less than 2% of Europe’s Co2 emissions, and when airlines like Ryanair have invested heavily in new aircraft to reduce our emissions per passenger by 50%, there is no justification for this tax theft by the European Union". Aside from the manipulative "less than 2%" claim (read here to understand the nonsense of it), it's interesting how O'Leary growls "tax theft" and "tax scams".

Michael O'Leary talking about scams, ladies and gentlemen.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Economic doom and the politics of envy

Three months ago this blog took you through the daily life of Glenn Gallop and highlighted the mad increase in the cost of living in Britain. We weren’t dreaming or talking on behalf of a particularly nasty brand of cynicism. In fact our estimates were extremely conservative.

Last week the Sunday Times ran a story about the increasing numbers of Ozzies who are packing their bags and heading home due to the unsustainable cost of living on UK soil (the immigrant-phobic will also rejoice at the estimated 60,000 Poles expected to give up on the land of hope and council tax in the next 12 months - but who's going to care for Nana? They obviously haven’t put two and two together).

On Friday, Ernst & Young released the official figures. Due to a big rise in the cost of everything, real income has fallen 15 per cent. Comparing the current situation with 2003, bills have gone up 110 per cent and council tax 25 per cent. And whether you have a car or ride the bus, you're forking out way more than you used to. "Costs are far outstripping wage inflation" they concluded.

You can be sure though that bonuses and wages at the top end are keeping up though. Does that make us envious? Does it fuck…

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Knife crime, a national emergency

Why is it that when there's a massive surge in gang culture and knife-crime, the media are so sure that they have nothing to do with it?

Remember when everyone at school was walking around howling "Arse!" from the Fast Show, or when you couldn’t find a single kid immune from Ali G-speak or, more recently, reciting "Bovvered", ad nauseam from the Catherine Tate Show? Who would argue against television taking credit for the latest catchphrase?
Another example of the media's contagious effect in setting trends is last year's sudden rise in popularity of Victoria Beckham's "pob". Surely our media helped inspire the thousands of girls who headed to their hairdresser's with specific instructions in mind…How about any idiot walking around slurring "Bud-wise-errr" thinking they were being the funniest thing since sliced bread? And remember the grisly "You've-Been-Tangoed" craze? Didn’t it end up in a spate of acts of emulation around the nation's schools?

So why is it that when there's a massive surge in gang culture and knife-crime, the media are so sure that they have nothing to do with it?
Channel 4 and the BBC's recent run of documentaries about Kids, Knives, Broken Lives and Street Weapons failed to analyse that one tiny little aspect. Did gangsta-rap play a part in glamourising anything by any chance? Or the normalisation of televisual ultraviolence and nastiness?

No-one's saying that the media are culpable, for goodness' sake - anybody with a bit of sense would rightly point the finger at the total collapse of parental control and sense of direction, and in turn at the vicious circle of social deprivation and family breakdown. But to think that the media are totally immune from responsibility does sound a bit iffy.

In the meantime, the bulletin of youngsters stabbed to death in London alone since 2008 reached 18 this week. Some may find the comparison offensive, but they've started to outnumber coalition casualties in Iraq. And no-one seems to have the slightest clue about what to do. In the wake of Ben Kinsella's murder last week, The Mirror started the commendable Stop Knives Save Lives campaign. It's great that some papers are finally conceding we're in front of a national emergency and acting accordingly. However, the idea of an amnesty to bring in the blades figures amongst their suggestions to stamp out knife murders. But hadn’t it been tried already in 2006?

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Fingerprinting Gypsies: pro and against

The UK press have been unanimous in their condemnation of the Italian Government and their controversial programme to fingerprint all Gypsies in the country, including children. But is it true that it's a return to the old days of Mussolini? Is it that simple? Let's analyse the two sides of the argument.

- In favour.

This week, in Verona, eight Romany Gypsies were arrested for using children in hundreds of robberies. It emerged that they had been caught 123 times and used 93 different aliases. Now I ask you: is that normal?

The initial reflex may be a chilling one, especially when you read the headlines drawing comparisons between the Nazi persecution of sixty-five years ago and the current singling out of an ethnic group as part of a crackdown on crime. So is the birthplace of fascism at it again?

It is a fact that the British press absolutely love linking anything they can to the old Nazi/Fascist days, whether it's incest in Austria, the election of a right-wing Mayor in Rome or England taking on Germany at Euro 96.

Sixty-five years on and they seem disturbingly - perversely - fascinated. It's no surprise, therefore, that when the Italian government plans a census of the Gypsy population and the British papers answer with cries of "mass deportations, torture and death" (The Times, Saturday 5 July 2008), there are several logical steps missing.

So let's hear it out from the new Italian Government (of whom I'm no fan - at all) and the Red Cross.

I may be easily persuaded, but when I read their justification, I no longer felt a sense of unease. Here it is, plain and simple. Out of the estimated 152,000 Romany Gypsies who live in Italy, an (again) estimated 60% live without papers. Out of this 60%, their kids don’t go to school, they live in camps with horrendous levels of hygiene and are involved in all sorts of "activities" that allow them to "make a living", so to speak.

You just need to travel to Southern Europe, Italy and Spain for example, and have a look at the amount of Gypsies begging -baby in tow- or forcing their kids to do so. Take a look at those digging into rubbish bins, for good measure.

And if you class yourself an observant person, keep your eyes out in the Madrid metro, or Barcelona, Milan and Rome, and check out who's got the lion's share in pickpocketing. It may make you feel better to think of this as a generalisation (and yes, of course stealing and pickpocketing isn't the Gypsies' monopoly, nor did they invent it), but go check for yourself. And they're highly skilled, those kids. You see them hopping from carriage to carriage, nodding and winking at each other until they've identified a particularly careless prey, wallet dangling out of their pocket. It's not unusual to spot Gypsy kids, boys and girls, as young as six caught by helpless police at an underground platform. Helpless because, unless the offenders are identifiable, there's absolutely F.A. they can do. Who are these kids? Have they got a fixed abode? Why aren’t they at school? Who are their parents?

Although it is fair to say that not all Gypsies live and work illegally, it is simply intolerable to have such large numbers of people choosing to live outside the law. This week, in Verona, eight Romany Gypsies were arrested for using children in hundreds of robberies. It emerged that they had been caught 123 times and used 93 different aliases. Now I ask you: is that normal? The fact itself that the government can only estimate the tens of thousands who are in Italy and estimate the number who live in camps and estimate those who carry out illegal activities is a sign that a serious clampdown is needed.

Critics of the plan argue that the Italians can hardly claim their country was crime-free before Gypsies settled in such high numbers.

And it's true, but at least the authorities could reasonably keep track of offenders and re-offenders and organise their social services (i.e. custody, young offenders' institutes, rehabilitation packages, social security, council housing and the rest) accordingly. With such large numbers of people, many under 14, without a known identity or address, the authorities end up with their hands completely tied and their duty to protect the population all but a pointless exercise.

The idea of fingerprinting and photographing them may not instinctively be the most comfortable one - but is the alternative any better? And those who are crying out at the "Nazi methods": is it left-wing, instead to feel at ease when tens of thousands of kids are sent out by adults to rob and steal without any hope of an education and a better future?

- Against.

There is not a single example in history where the targeting of a single ethnic group, may the purpose be a clampdown on crime or social engineering, ended up free of wretched consequences.

Amnesty International, Unicef and the Catholic Church are only three of the many organisations who reacted in revulsion at Silvio Berlusconi's Government plan to fingerprint an entire ethnic group. People often forget that Romany Gypsies were persecuted (and killed) in the hundreds of thousands during the Holocaust.

Of course, this is not what the Italian Government has in mind. But when you blanket target a whole ethnic group for whatever governmental purpose, the implications are disturbing and drawing a line becomes increasingly difficult. There is not a single example in history where the targeting of a single ethnic group, may the purpose be a clampdown on crime or social engineering, ended up free of wretched consequences.

Mugging, pickpocketing and robbing didn’t start with the Gypsies. It was only until recently, for instance, that people from Northern Italy would complain of the alleged criminal inclination of their fellow compatriots from the South.

After all, hasn’t Naples got a reputation as the capital of pickpocketing? Didn’t those tourist guides warn you to keep your jewellery at home and avoid flashing your brand new camcorder when you wander round the old town's alleyways?

So, perhaps, if fingerprinting is intended to cut down street crime, the Government may record the entire population, whether they hold an Italian passport or not. Recent high-profile robberies featured people of Romanian, Albanian or Bulgarian citizenship. Are they planning to fingerprint them as well? Where does it stop? Why just the Gypsies?

Also, by legally sanctioning their "different status" (i.e. by saying that only certain ethnic categories are to be fingerprinted and/or photographed), the Government is running the risk of exposing Romany Gypsies to increasing episodes of hatred and xenophobia.

Not to mention the whiff of populism emerging from Silvio Berlusconi's Government. It is ironic that phone tapping made possible the recent arrest of a Romany Gypsy criminal gang. Berlusconi and his coalition government want to restrict police powers to listen in on potential criminals.

Never has the saying that "you should set your own house in order before preaching others" sounded more appropriate.

Berlusconi's disagreements with Italian magistrates are well-known and problems of corruption and organised crime that are so endemic in Italy could do with taking a priority over the anti-Gypsy crusade. Yet the Italian Government is passing the fingerprinting measure by "emergency decree", something usually reserved for natural catastrophes.

Monday, July 07, 2008

More magazine v Mischa Barton (and the merchants of anorexia)

One would love to line up those peddlers of nothingness, Beauty Editors, Beauty Assistants, Fashion Editors and Beauty Gurus and analyse their fat rolls bit by bit.

Last week's More magazine surpassed itself. Second-rate gossip and oh-my-god-look-at-this-D-list-celebrity's-sweat-patch aside, More and similar magazines' sole raison d'etre is the usual, incessant, repetitive litany of "tips" on "how to get an amazing body", "lose weight" and achieve the dream of a "flat tummy".

Week in week out, they line their pages with instructions for a-leaf-of-lettuce-a-day crash diets that will make you look good on the beach. They market impossibly perfect bodies as the one and only thing that would allegedly turn you into a sexy, cool, popular young female. A "fit" body that is sold as the only desirable ambition (aside from the latest A-list fashionable bits and pieces of course). Which makes their token stories of "how I beat my eating disorder", "anorexia" and "bulimia" even more perplexing.

Printing out pea-sized-brain-style vacuity dressed as "exclusive news" is fair and legitimate. But perversely and (not so) subtly perpetrating eating disorders is not. Look at this shit. Under the banner "THE WEEK'S BIG QUESTIONS", page 20 of More (issue 548 - no, before you say anything, I didn’t buy it, I just came across it somewhere!) sported the headline "WHY DOES POOR MISCHA HAVE SUCH BAD CELLULITE?", alluding to Misha Barton's cellulite supposedly disfiguring the back of her thighs. Sure enough there was a photo of the pleasant-looking OC star taken from the front accompanied by another, oh-my-gawd (!), showing the back of her legs. Perfectly normal legs of a human being. Yet, according to More, even Misha Barton, someone who is -surely- thinner than at least 90% of the female population, has a body to be ashamed of.

If THIS WEEK'S BIG QUESTION actively portrays Misha Barton as someone who should sort out her diet and fitness regime, imagine how More readers who are not as superthin as her are made to feel. More's Beauty Editor, for instance, is quoted as saying that "Mischa's love of Taco Bell and Starbucks may explain why she's battling wobbly bits". One would love to line up those peddlers of nothingness, Beauty Editors, Beauty Assistants, Fashion Editors and Beauty Gurus and analyse their fat rolls bit by bit. If hell does exist they'll be probably forced to stand in a circle, guts out, bingo wings and double chins in sight with an army of photographers gawping and giggling at their (perfectly human) imperfections. Because, effectively, that’s what they make a living out of themselves.

Friday, July 04, 2008

The biggest English export

Isn't it weird to be driving anywhere in the world and suddenly hear Basildon-born Depeche Mode on the car radio, Madness' ultra-heavy Cockney twang or the Gallaghers' nasal Manc voice?

"There's some corner of a foreign field, that is forever England", were the famous words from Rupert Brookes' The Soldier. For those of you who are well travelled, and don't like to see things from a militaresque angle, I suppose Brookes' words can be turned into "there are radio waves that are forever England". Music is, in fact, the corner of England you're most likely to find abroad.

How weird to be driving anywhere in the world and suddenly hear Basildon-born Depeche Mode on the car radio, Madness' ultra-heavy Cockney twang or the Gallaghers' nasal Manc voice. With the exception perhaps of some French electro blasting out of your taxi drivers' car stereo, no other country is so likely to export such thriving levels of music and youth culture.

I was speaking to some Portuguese lads the other day and they looked at me in amazement when I told them that the one they like isn’t actually an American band, but an English one instead. You should have seen their face when they learnt that Pink Floyd actually hailed from Cambridge and not somewhere in the mid-West. I once had to convince one that Led Zeppelin weren't a New York band; he was obviously unaware of the proud Black Country roots of singer Robert Plant. And the Rolling Stones too, they're English for goodness sake! No doubt, the US can claim they came up with rock'n'roll and exported some remarkable music along the way, but it's unbelievable how so many European citizens expect anything that isn’t The Beatles or Oasis to originate from America.

In spite of its small size, Britain is the cradle of music-inspired movements that have been appreciated and copied around the world. It's quite a sight when you walk down the streets of provincial towns round Europe and see young punks sporting Sex Pistols t-shirts or kids humming a Franz Ferdinand song. But aside from punk, the fashionable Mod scene also originated in the UK and so did heavy metal, new romanticism, indie, goth and Britpop. Whereas in most European countries pop and rock music are considered an exclusively teenage-affair or something confined to the extreme fringes, Britain is the only place where any forty or fifty something can routinely hold a music-related conversation. And they will then proceed to put you to shame with all the gigs they've been to in their life. The planetary success that UK bands have enjoyed in the last forty years also convinced those who pull the strings that such a profitable export is to be cultivated. The music weekly NME has long been cherished as a national institution, and a number of music monthlies (Q, the now defunct Select, Mojo, Uncut and others) and television programmes (The Tube, The Word, Later With Jools Holland, Top of The Pops, etc) have punctuated British pop culture in the last few decades. I don’t know if figures exist, but the UK's live music circuit can probably claim it shifts a bob or two. Following a tradition that started in the Seventies with Glastonbury and Reading as pioneers, Britain's outdoor summer festivals have mushroomed up in the last fifteen years, offering tens of thousands of people the chance to come together to appreciate live music on a large scale.

I will never forget my trip outside Manchester's Salford Lads Club in 1995. The otherwise grotty place, located in an incredibly rundown part of the city, was handed a touch of worldwide notoriety when The Smiths posed outside its front door in 1986 for what was to become The Queen is Dead album official photo-shoot. I was simply blown away by the amount of scribbles jotted on the outside entrance, tributes and declarations of love that had been left by hordes of people from all over the world. Fans from France, Hungary, Sweden, America, even Japan had trekked all the way in praise of the most characteristically Mancunian band. Years after their split, their music still obviously inspires an army of people worldwide. No other creative crop in the world can claim the same level of infatuation and personal involvement that British music has managed to instigate in the last few decades. The Smiths, in particular, are part of a family tree of popular culture and eccentricism that stretches back to Auden's writing and on through Larkin's poems, Shelagh Delaney's films and - even most recently, Ken Loach's gritty realism or Mike Leigh's kitchen-sink - epitomising the unrivalled gift of self-expression that the British have. In the words of writer Michael Bracewell, that "mixture of bitterness, resignation and hatred", that "ambivalence towards England - their simultaneous love and hatred for the country and its culture" that is the "refining element of their lucidity"