Monday, March 30, 2015

Six weeks of misery begins here

When I left Britain 16 years ago for a new life abroad it was hardly an emigration to the farthest ends of the Earth. It was, in fact, to Amsterdam, which meant I was only a 40 minute flight away from those things I still held dear - my family, my friends, and Stamford Bridge, where I'd prudently taken out a season ticket some years before.

A couple of years later, I moved further afield, to California, but yet thanks to the Internet and its world-shrinking prowess, I was hardly disconnected from the home island for long - an eight-hour time difference the only real physical barrier.

Now I'm in Paris, and in principle, a two-hour train ride from London, if I miss anything at all, it's not that big a deal. In fact, it's probably easier to get to London than it is from Birmingham. Or, for those who still commute into London to work, its outer suburbs.

One thing, however, I can say - H on H - is that I haven't missed British politicians. They're no worse elsewhere in the world, of course, but I say that in the comfort of having been kept well clear of local politics elsewhere thanks to constitutional restrictions.

But now, as the countdown to the 2015 General Election has officially begun (even though it feels like it's been dragging on for months), I find myself oddly disenfranchised from the country of my birth, and one in which I have been entitled to vote for almost 30 years. Because, having lived outside of the UK for more than 15 years, I am, apparently, no longer eligible to vote.

I could get seriously up in arms about this, but, frankly, it's just not worth it. I know that sounds democratically irresponsible - my parents' generation fought for such freedom, and all that - but by being formally refused the vote, I have been freed of the responsibility of worrying about sending a boob to 10 Downing Street. Or No.11. Or whatever arrangement they came to last time.

It must be said that I have long held a healthy and underlying disregard for politicians. All of them. In fact, they are my least favourite species to this Earth born, after rapidly mutating viruses, mosquitoes and salesmen. I have yet to encounter one politician - either via the media or in person - with whom you'd willingly wish to spend any time with.

I'm sure there are some perfectly decent politicians, earnest individuals seeking the best for their constituents via worthy deeds, but unfortunately, those who rise to prominence or, even worse, the top, seem to be cast from the same mold of narcissistic, self-serving ego-maniacal weasels who have taken up politics in response to some deep childhood issues.

So, back to the election. Britain faces an impossible choice on May 7. Because national politics has descended into the same vanilla mediocrity as Saturday night television. Even the means of electing a future government has taken on the superficiality of American electioneering, with a lot of fuss about TV debates turning the whole process into The X Factor (or should that be Britain's Got Absolutely Zero Political Talent - arf!).

I don't wish to come across as dewy-eyed and nostalgic, but British politics has lost its personalities. Even Margaret Thatcher - as much as I loathed her doctrine - stimulated discussion, debate, anger, hatred, a rise in blood pressure or, for those who adored her, a figurehead.

And today? If the primary options are Cameron, Clegg and Milliband, you have three virtually indistinguishable versions of each other. Bland, bereft of charisma and more intent on saying what they've been instructed to say rather than any discernible conviction, lest they upset the grandee factions that hold together the fragile structure of their respective parties.

After the last general election Britain ended up with an absurd forced marriage of a government, run by two such ideologically mismatched parties I'm surprised they didn't install relationship counsellors from the off. But to make it work, we were treated like dumbasses and made to believe that the Conservative/Lib-Dem coalition was a beautiful "partnership".

The best take on this came from the brilliant American comedian Rich Hall. Spreading his time between rural Montana and a home in the UK, Hall returned to Britain after the last election to be surprised to find the country being run "by a couple of gay antique dealers”.

As Prime Minister and deputy, they have been the 'taupe' premiership (though, to be fair, the PM does change hue for his annual summer holiday, when he can be seen pointing at dead fish while wearing a considerable amount of navy casualwear). Undistinct, uninteresting, uninspiring.

"Call me Dave" Cameron has done little to dispel his Harry Flashman image, leading an obsequious gang of elitist throwbacks who have ended up in a coalition with all the ridiculous contradictions, compromises and conveniences these tend to generate. That includes making Nick Clegg the second-most powerful man in the country. I've met him, and can vouch say that, even for politicians, he is one of the dullest you could ever encounter. Seriously, charisma-free and, apparently, equally under-endowed on the policy front, too.

Don't, however, think for one minute that I'm letting Ed Miliband off, either. Has there really been a less electable leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition since Michael Foot? Blair might have sold Britain down a river of deceit with his misadventure in Iraq, but in 1997 Labour - under him - reversed 18 years of Conservative misery. He was a truly viable opportunity to revitalise a moribund Britain and its political life. And, yes, he had charisma. All that Cool Britannia nonsense did, partially rub off. Britain felt good again (though I do have to acknowledge that I left it two year later...).

Can anyone truly see Milliband as Prime Minister? Does he really have the chops to represent the UK at the highest level, as a statesman and political equal? Sorry, but no. Britain doesn't need a leader who comes across like the head prefect of a progressive North London comprehensive school.

I have, I note, been alarmingly traditional so far. What about other parties? No disrespect intended to those who fall under the 'Other' category, but the only other party to consider, in the interests of balance, is UKIP, especially as it is currently third in the latest opinion polls. Which is remarkable, when you consider how much dysfunction Britain's self-appointed loony right have within its ranks, no sooner weeding out one nutjob for another to appear, foot - or worse - in mouth.

Much of that dysfunction must be attributed to Nigel Farage, UKIP's bug-eyed, ale-supping, nicotine-stained, tweed-clad, Home Counties golf club captain of a party leader.

He is more caricature of himself than anything else: all clubhouse bonhomie, a posh spiv always ready to be pictured with a pint like a "regular Joe", as they'd say in America.

Farage's aim may be to challenge the apparent domination of British politics by a metropolitan elite, but this Middle England-orientated self-image masks a danger.

And here's why: "It took me six hours and 15 minutes in the car to get here [Port Talbot in Wales]. It should have taken three and a half to four. That has nothing to do with professionalism. What is does have to do with is a country in which the population is going through the roof, chiefly because of open-door immigration, and the fact the M4 is not as navigable as it used to be."

For the record, the UKIP leader, a Eurosceptic MEP, is married to a German, is of Huguenot-French descent, and had a German great-great grandfather. I suppose he's entitled to his opinions. I just wish he didn't forced it down the throats of the rest of us.

So, if I were still able to place a vote that would, somehow in the UK's arcane electoral system, elect the next government of my home country, the world's sixth largest economy, I would be truly stumped: a choice between the taupe twins, Gromit's erstwhile human friend, and a man constructed largely from Benson & Hedges and Greene King IPA.

Forgive me, then, if I can't help feeling like Britain is screwed. Leave the Tories in power much longer and, like starving lions, they will soon turn on each other. A mess, a power vacuum and then what? Elect the Lib-Dems? Wet paper bags are more adept at governing. Labour? Even they've reduced themselves to an homogeneity of windy rhetoric that varies as far as bland and blander. And UKIP? Vote them in and the lunatics really will have taken over the asylum.

So what is Britain left with? Not much, really. Come May 7, the country will trudge off to church halls, libraries, school gyms and all the other venues that double as refuges in times of natural disasters to place a tick next to the name of that baby-kissing, eager-to-please reformed (or partially reformed) bed-wetter who came to your front door one evening, or you ran into handing out stickers in the high street. And here's where the bizarre crapshoot begins. The candidate you actually vote for might not make the slightest bit of difference to who actually walks through the door of 10 Downing Street on May 8.

Between Britain's batshit-mad electoral system, and the array of blandness on offer as eventual beneficiaries of it, I could be forgiven for giving a cynical sneer to the next six weeks and its outcome. Knowing that I have no say in it, and not much if I had, has left me in a state somewhere between calm and caustic. It will be nigh on impossible to avoid the coverage and the glorified circus that the parties will run as they present themselves as governing material. But I will soldier on. Happy in the knowledge that a Netflix subscription will see me through until the fuss has died down (though I will, for obvious reasons, be avoiding House Of Cards...).

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

You say "fracas", I say "punch-up", let's call the whole thing off

And so, an alleged incident last week gets reported by the Radio Times (didn't it used to be a TV listings magazine?), and before you know it, BBC upper management has the excuse it has been waiting for to formally discipline Jeremy Clarkson.

Curious. And on the day after Rona Fairhead, head of the BBC Trust, came under fire for her relationship with the scandal-hit bank HSBC. Seeing as Clarkson's alleged "fracas" last week was only reported by the BBC's own publication yesterday, with the corporation suspending him soon after, you could forgive the suspicious for thinking they'd caught a whiff of conspiracy.

It was, though, Or, at least, a bit of a joke, given the Beeb's choice of "fracas" to begin with. How very British. How very PR. A fracas is defined as "a noisy, disorderly disturbance or fight", so no doubt lawyers came up with the word as a polite catch-all.

The facts of the case, however (and despite apparent chapter-and-verse details reported in today's newspapers), are not yet fully clear. Stories vary from Clarkson merely remonstrating with the assistant producer, Oisin Tymon, over, apparently, the absence of catering at the end of a Top Gear shoot in Newcastle, to Clarkson "aiming a punch at" him, to Clarkson actually hitting the producer. No doubt there is a span of reality between all three.

All of this reminds me of the incident many years ago in which two Sky News presenters, Chris Mann and Scott Chisholm, got into a proper fight. This was no "fracas", no "disagreement", "brief exchange of opinions" or any other PR euphemism. Even "altercation" sounds like Victorians observing Queensberry Rules. No, this was an actual punch-up. A Ron Burgundy-style face-off. A burly scot and a burly Scott (and both colleagues of Kay Burley) rolling down an Osterley corridor like clothed versions of Alan Bates and Oliver Reed. The pair were suspended with immediate effect, but not without Sky enduring ceaseless ridicule from every newsroom between London and Sydney.

If the Sky dust-up had taken place in any other office, it would have barely bothered the pages of a local rag. And to be honest, at the time, Sky was still in its infancy, and neither Mann or Chisholm were big names outside their own self regard.
Clarkson is different. He is, to all intents and purposes, Top Gear. And Top Gear, in the 'new' format he and executive producer Andy Willman created 12 years ago, has become a global hit making oodles of money for the BBC from show syndication, DVDs, iTunes downloads, Stig toys and all the other Christmas-bound detritus that has built up around what is essentially Last Of The Summer Wine with cars - three blokes "cocking around", as they like to describe themselves.

I can understand those who don't like Clarkson, Top Gear or both. He is/it is decidedly blokeish, at times painfully scripted, 22 seasons in, very formulaic, and in Richard Hammond, televises some of the most exaggerated mannerisms in the industry. But I also get its appeal: its high production values make for some genuinely excellent television. The specials, challenges and longer-form films have been brilliant. And, no, it doesn't take itself seriously. If you're going to be offended by the things Clarkson says, you're going to be offended by Alf Garnett, which means that you're missing the joke entirely.

That said, clearly Clarkson - for it is almost always him - knows how to get dangerously close to the line, one that - like guard fences in World War II POW camps - has a minefield either side of it. The "slope" joke during the Borneo special was appalling and actually offensive, and the excuses made by the BBC in its wake were just as bad. And I'm still hugely suspicious that the 'H982FKL' number plate of the Porsche driven by Clarkson in Argentina was no accident.

It's exactly this sort of thing that divides opinion so. Much - if not most - of Top Gear's personality is Clarkson himself. And readers of his weekly column in The Sunday Times will see no difference, either. He is partly a caricature - public schoolboy (Repton), politically incorrect, probably a Tory, hangs on to being a professional Yorkshireman saying shocking things to scare old ladies, not, for effect, either, and has spent the better part of three decades (since his first appearance on 'old' Top Gear) nurturing this image of belligerence.

Some say, if I can use those words, that it is calculated. It's not. Clarkson is Clarkson. For every tweet calling for him to be reinstated there have been those congratulating the BBC for finally calling their "vial" [sic] cash cow to account (an ironic typo given the toxic associations of such a vessel).

If the BBC does sack Clarkson, his somewhat sanguine banter on Twitter last night suggests that he's not bothered, and nor are co-stars Hammond and James May who have been anchored around him. Even though Clarkson and Willman sold the rights to Top Gear back to the BBC, lawyers will no doubt find a way to move it to Sky, who would kill to have such a property. ITV, too, could do with something to replace the Champions League for advertisers seeking to reach the sort of demographics Top Gear connects with on BBC2.

All this, though, does dangerously detract from the core of the issue. It doesn't matter who you are, or what you do for your employer, you can't go around punching colleagues. The 'don't fire Clarkson' campaign seems to be worryingly overlooking this fact. It might have held true for some of the near-knuckle things he's said in the past, but if his fist did connect with Tymon, there is no justification - Top Gear's commercial importance, a tired and famished presenter, even incompetence - that can stand in the way of punitive action against Clarkson, who might also face a chat with Inspector Plod, too.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Mama, we're all racists now.

© The Guardian

So, ha-ha, very funny. No sooner had video appeared apparently showing Chelsea fans on a Paris Métro train singing about being racist while one appears to prevent a black commuter from boarding, the Photoshop wags were already at it.

Via memes depicting John Terry's face superimposed on the heads of those at Richelieu-Drouot, en route to Chelsea's Champions League encounter with PSG, social media suddenly become a braying mob every bit as crass as the song being sung and those who were singing it.

The logic that followed is that Chelsea Football Club is a racist club, captained by a racist, and supported by racists. Which makes me a racist, along with every single one of the near-42,000 people at Stamford Bridge each weekend, and the millions of others around the world who follow the club.

It also means that everyone on the staff at Chelsea is a racist, including Didier Drogba, Willian, Ramires, Kurt Zouma, Nathan Ake, Loic Remy and other black players, who are clearly so hateful of their racist captain that they train with him every day, run out for games with him, embrace him at the end of every match, go out to dinner with him, and generally tolerate his congenital racial intolerance 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and without a tweet or a comment to a foreign football magazine that they know will get back to the British press.

Don't get me wrong: if Terry used the words he is said to have used towards Anton Ferdinand, then the punishment and removal as England skipper was more than justified. But to see Terry made into a Mosley-esque lightning rod for the understandable disgust at this latest example of moronic football fans abroad is, at the very least, a fundamentally misplaced understanding of the notion of "banter" between fans.

I have no doubt that Chelsea - as every club, quite frankly - still has its neanderthal element. But the idiots on Tuesday night's Métro train were no more representative of the club they purport to support than the Aberdeen and Dundee fans arrested in January for fighting, the Brentford fans arrested last weekend in Watford, the Egyptian fans in Cairo two weeks ago, the Manchester United and Manchester City fans last November, the "barbaric" fans of Equatorial Guinea and Ghana who clashed the other week during the Africa Cup of Nations semi-final, or the Lincoln City thugs who attacked Luton Fans in a family pub two years ago and who are now doing 31 years in prison for their cause.

Of course, Chelsea as a club isn't blameless. All they can do is to try and identify the individuals captured in that video footage. Perhaps they'll get lucky: they were on a modern piece of Métro rolling stock, so perhaps the CCTV system will be good enough to match faces and open mouths during the vile singing to passport photos. It's unlikely, let's face it, that any of the pack of yobs would step forward and name names.

Because that is exactly what it was. This was no NF rally, no BDL march. These were the swollen egos of people who, with the safety of numbers, behaved as they want. Ironically, after PSG fans celebrated their Ligue 1 title two years ago, they came marauding down my street from Trocadéro, smashing shop windows, tipping over cars and looting supermarkets. Mob rules, right?

It doesn't take a doctorate in social studies to see that the pack mentality on that train was hewn from the same lump that sends drunken Brits out on to the streets of their own towns at the weekend and, even worse, out onto the streets of Aya Napa and Magaluf from May to September. I'm sure the core of that cretinous group on the Métro were racist, but I'm also sure they were accompanied by cowards who joined in because they could get away with doing so.

Chelsea has done much, as every club in fact, to transform the fan experience. Compared with my first taste of Stamford Bridge in the early 1980s, when fights broke out all around you as you stood in The Shed amid some turgid Second Division fixture, the Bridge today is - as away fans like to point out - oh-so-quiet.

Compared with the debut of Paul Canovile, which was disgracefully accompanied by bananas and monkey chants from his own club's support (sadly, I was there to witness this), Chelsea's multinational squad today enjoys the respect and dignity their professionalism and skills deserve. Does that mean that Drogba doesn't face racially-themed barbs? No, any more so than Jose Mourinho doesn't get the odd reference to his "swarthy good looks", a description as intentionally racist as it is cute.

While we can hope that police endeavour will bring those Métro idiots to account, the image they projected around the world of Chelsea and English football will, unfortunately, have done its damage, much the same as the institutional racism we've seen at matches in Spain, Poland, Russia, Serbia, the Netherlands and even Germany, the last place where such behaviour should be tolerated.

All of which will revive the arguments about whether racism and football hooliganism is football's problem or society's problem.  I will always argue that if it is football's problem, it's society's problem also.

As an expat for the last 16 years, it's been hard enough trying to convince those I integrate with that we Brits don't all wear frock coats and religiously drink tea at four o'clock, or that our lives are not a hilarious cross between Benny Hill and Mr. Bean. And, no, life in the UK is not a vomit-strewn tirade of drunken violence.

But I digress. If nothing else, Tuesday night's circumstantial evidence informs us that racism is still football's problem, just as an alcoholic is still an alcoholic long after giving up drink. It's not just Chelsea's, but also the problem of all those clubs whose fans piously claim are racism-free. Because dig a little under the surface, and you'll find racism running through society like smouldering rivers of magma. It's the undercurrent that has UKIP's gormless leader blaming Welsh immigration for the M4 being slow, or all the other nasty little right-wing movements stoking things up in Europe. Football is merely the outlet.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

It's a cover-up

For the last 44 years, van drivers, men in barbershops and frustrated teenagers desperate for a furtive glimpse of bare breasts have made The Sun their daily destination. Ever since Sir Larry Lamb (not to be confused with the dad from Gavin & Stacey) decided, somewhat randomly in November 1970, to plonk a topless picture of 20-year-old German model Stephanie Rahn over the length and breadth of the tabloid's third page, "Page 3" has virtually become a generic noun for one of the most controversial features in British newspaper history.

In The Sun's mindset - one that is permanently set in the early 1960s, the Carry On Britain where "Miss" remains anachronistic Sun vernacular for all female teachers and snackfood is still referred to routinely in the context of wartime rationing as a "tasty treat" - Page 3 has been "just a bit of fun".

The Sun's view is that Page 3 is something to put a smile on Britain's face each morning. Because, as we all know, a pair of naked norks are absolutely hilarious.

Here in continental Europe, nudity in any form is never an issue. Shower gel commercials on TV don't cover anything up, and you'll never see a newspaper drawing juvenile attention to a "nipslip", much for the same reason that Europeans don't, generally speaking, have quite the same issues with the human body and its functions as we Brits famously have.

I have no particular opinion on the sexual politics of Page 3. Visual sexism appears everywhere - you're either offended by it, or it simply doesn't bother you - but I do think that Page 3 lost any relevance on the day after Lamb introduced Britain to Frau Rahn.

Because Page 3 is, let's face it, a fairly ludicrous newspaper concept: on Page 1 you have your splash headline - 100-point type, with two sentences of the story squeezed underneath; Page 2, a continuation of the story plus a selection of shorts' (usually of global importance) and the weather forecast; and then Page 3, with three columns filled with a picture of "Curvy Cathy" or "Sexy Suzy" and a sunny but vacuous accompanying caption; on Page 4, the rest of the newspaper begins.

So, what purpose does a mildly titillating bridge between pages 2 and 4 serve at all? Do people still buy The Sun because of it? No, and they never did: the TV section always used to be the biggest sales draw, with Mystic Meg's stars and the sports pages in close competition.

Spend any amount of time in The Sun newsroom, and you understand where Page 3 comes from, and why it has remained. Despite its adjacency to more highbrow stablemates like The Sunday Times and The Times, The Sun has always prided itself on being staffed by journalists from similar social backgrounds to its readers. It has always revelled in an egalitarian culture, though it has never sought to play up working class credentials in the same way as the Daily Mirror has, under editors like Kelvin MacKenzie, The Sun enjoyed baiting its loftier peers, part of the occasional boorishness of British tabloid life (and one indulged by both male and female participants).

Page 3 played its part in this. Its models have always been deliberately drawn from the The Sun's very readership, girls from the UK's industrial heartlands, whose dads drunk in pubs that sold bags of peanuts advertised, incongruously, by women in bikinis, and whose mums thought nothing weird about sending in Costa del Sol holiday snaps of their daughters as auditions for "Britain's brightest daily read".

The argument against Page 3 has, for those who defend it, come from those who wouldn't normally read it. The paper has always maintained that The Sun maintains its audience quite nicely, thanks (pre-Internet it would regularly sell four million copies each day and be read by 12 million), and those who don't like it should stick to The Guardian.

And while Page 3's most vociferous opponents have been drawn from the hardcore PC left, a new, more straight-forward opposition has emerged in recent years. One that simply says that, like any movie featuring Robin Askwith and a window cleaner's ladder, Page 3 is ridiculous throwback to a Britain that has long since disappeared, along with Timothy Whites and Green Line buses in the London suburbs.

Sadly, The Sun and, ultimately, its owner Rupert Murdoch, who still calls the shots, hasn't moved on. This week, it was suggested that Page 3 was no more. Or at least the Page 3 Girl would be no more. After a mysterious absence, prompting the media elite to break into fully-blown chatter mode, with even The Times running a piece saying that the daily feature was being "quietly dropped".

Today it returned less than quietly, with The Sun bringing back a topless model to Page 3 -  "Nicole, 22, from Bournemouth" - and even going out its way to goad the anti-page 3 campaign.

"WE'VE HAD A MAMMARY LAPSE", a teaser on the front page facetiously pointed out this morning. Yesterday evening, The Sun's own PR person provocatively tweeted: "I said that it was speculation and not to trust reports by people unconnected to the Sun. A lot of people are about to look very silly ...", a forewarning reminiscent of Saddam Hussein's former Information Minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf - or "Comical Ali" as he was better known - who adopted a similar "you're all going to look like idiots" stance towards the Western media. Thinking about Iraq now, he may well have been right.

As for The Sun, one wonders, then, what Rupert Murdoch himself, thinks about the return of the Page 3 model. He was said to have favoured dropping it for being anachronistic and out of touch with modern public sentiment. It would appear that his own editorial team at The Sun have different ideas.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Monsters ink

To have a parent or older relative suffer from dementia - including its most common form, Alzheimer's disease - means losing a loved one over the cruellest of terms, a slow fade-to-black, a life gradually fading, like Marty McFly running out of time, only permanently.

It is, of course, no more cruel than cancer, heart disease or any of the other scythes that take our closest - and, let's face it, ourselves, eventually - from us. But to witness your own flesh and blood being deleted pixel-by-pixel is hard to take on board.

Perhaps I'm lucky: my father's Alzheimer's is in the early stages, and the progress is relatively slow, which is not to say that it won't speed up down the line, and the degradation of life becomes more apparent. But it will happen, and the soul-searching that will have begun as inevitable murmurs in the mind, will crank themselves up.

Which is what has moved me to reproduce, in full and unedited, this note, Monsters, written by my dear friend Saskia den Hollander and posted on her Facebook page the other day just as she and her family were contemplating the progress of the disease in her own father.

She wrote it for her own benefit, to try and come to terms with the profound sense of loss that comes from seeing a man gradually disappear into themselves. But having read so many things about Alzheimer's - news reports, medical studies, other blog posts - nothing nailed it quite like this did. Nothing has moved me more, either. Thanks Sas. x


You're gone. But you're still here.
You're here. But you have gone to a place where you are fighting. But it's a fight you cannot win. It's a fight we cannot help you win. It's a fight we are losing as well. Where we are losing you.
We are losing you to a vicious monster.
The monster which makes you forget. The monster which is changing you.
Which is changing your personality, your intellect and every other thing you stood for.
A monster which is degenerating your brain to the brain of a child.
A 79 year old child.
I'm trying to console myself with the idea that the one thing we, as grown ups always regret we lost, our child within, you are about to get back.
But who am I kidding.
There's nothing soothing about this monster. No good part nor does it have a better side.
The only resemblance of a child I recognise in you is the part where you behave as a child, because the monster has taken away your ability to express yourself in a different way.
You simply cannot understand anymore why things are happening to you, what is happening around you. What is happening?
So you cry.
Like a child. Like a 7 year old child.
And this monster makes us respond to you as if you are a child. We use our friendly voice. We try to comfort you. We distract you. We dry your tears. We try to make you understand that there's no need to cry.
You're crying but what are you really trying to express?
I understand that you are crying because you feel helpless. Because you do not know what to do.
And so do we. Cry. Feel helpless.
Don't know what to do.
You still know who I am.
But I know that the monster will take this away as well.
I'm trying to stare this monster in the face with all my fears and shouting at it
what are you waiting for?
why don't you take all of him?
You already took away a proud man.
You took away a husband. A father. A granddad.
His ability to remember.
His ability to remember what he wants to say. What he was saying. And why he was saying it.
By now he doesn't remember why he started a conversation, let alone how to finish it.
His ability to do things. Even the simplest things. Play cards. Play games. Play guitar. Do groceries. Cook. Count. Write. How to dress himself, although he fought a very long and a very good fight there.
You took away his memories.
The very short ones flew out of the window like this.
The longer term ones, now, like that too.
You're taking away his definition.
You're taking away his dignity.
You're giving him in return
You are making him feel lost.
It just doesn't matter how hard we try to find him. Try to bring him back. Even if he has to borrow our memory. But we are lost together with him.
If you are not taking him away in one go, please take him to a place where he doesn't have to feel like that anymore. Take him to that void of emptiness where there are no memories of what has been.
Just don't let him hang around like this.
Don't let him be stuck between nothing and something.
An undefinable anything.
Let him please find that place where the sky is blue, clouds are slowly drifting by and where blue birds sing.
Let us know that there is some sort of redemption while losing so much. Show us. Reassure us of his acceptance of his loss. Our loss.
But maybe you just did.
Is that what you tried to show me this evening?
Just before I left to go home and kissed him goodnight?
I acted silly, trying to make him laugh, in the same way as he did when I was a child.
You made him give me, an almost empty look. And you made him ask me, why are you doing this?
I said; "because this is what you thought me dad, you always did this when I was a child."
And you replied: "what has been has been."
And right there I could feel it. I could feel you. More present then ever before. You stared straight into my eyes. My mind. My heart.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Je suis...libre

© Simon Poulter 2015

In the end, it wasn't just about a magazine staffed by prototypical reactionaries, goading religious fanatics to carry out their murderous spree. It wasn't just about three dead police officers. It wasn't just about supermarket shoppers slaughtered while fetching in their shabbat supplies.

This was about ordinary people. Men, women, children, grandparents, babies in high-end buggies, the mildly aggrieved and the permanently enraged, the duffel-coated politicos, some who'd never been to any sort of political event before, and those who turned up just to see what the fuss was about.

It was a family day out, full of bonhomie. There were no tears, or none that I saw. There was no anger, no bile of hatred. Kids' faces were painted with le tricolore. There was communal singing of La Marseillaise. They stood, they clapped, they shuffled their feet when they could, they came to a halt again, they chanted "shar-lee, shar-lee, shar-lee". Some attempted to shove their way along. This was a French event, after all.

© Simon Poulter 2015
There were flags of every country - even, bizarrely, one representing North Korea. Christian, communist, republican, Israeli, Palestinian - name the persuasion, there was a flag evident.

Above us, TV cameras poked out of sixth floor windows overlooking the square, gesticulating reporters desperately trying to fill precious live satellite minutes as the estimated million-plus shuffled past at a tectonic pace. Traditional French impatience was suspended as this enormous tide moved like a mud slick from the rallying point at République on up Avenue de la République, in what ultimate direction, no one really knew. Perhaps it was meant to end at Nation, perhaps at Bastille. Even now I still couldn't say.

"Une journée à nulle autre pareille - ran the caption on one of the local TV channels. A day without parallel. Certainly it wasn't just the end to a weekend that concluded the first working week of January. And, by the way, how did that week go for you? Back to the rigmarole of commuting? Back to the disorientating fog of managerial dysfunction? Back to wasting energy trying to unjam the photocopier, again?

And what about all those tedious meetings? Probably, I suspect, they weren't interrupted by thugs spraying bullets about because of something that appeared on the cover of a magazine.

Almost 48 hours after two-and-a-half days that scared Paris, shocked France and stunned the world, this afternoon felt like the forced awakening from a nightmare. Or at least taking temporary reprieve from it.

© Simon Poulter 2015
It is, though, too soon to make any real sense of what happened last week. Of course, we know what happened - we saw much of it on YouTube, on CNN, on the BBC, on just about every video medium on the planet. Or at least we saw the inevitable, bloody denouement. This afternoon, however, wasn't about trying to solve anything. This was about solidarity and, yes, a public wanting to feel better about itself while sending a message. Because, cynics, believe it or not, behind the carnival spirit and cute kids on their dads' shoulders holding pencils aloft, there was a genuine belief in liberté, egalité, fraternité.

Which is why France may know how what happened did so, but it is still trying to consider why. Why its enshrined right to free speech met the infuriated assault rifle of jihad; why the lesions of social and racial division have been abruptly opened; why festering distrust and lingering anti-semitism has resurfaced and where will it go next; and why an underclass living within the boundary of a city famous for its bejewelled avenues should be compelled to upgrade from petty crime to radicalised mass murder.

Freedom of speech and freedom of expression shouldn't cost a thing, let alone someone's life, the sanctity and preservation of which is the common denominator of all religions, all faiths, all belief systems. It allows me to write this and you to read it. It allows for healthy debate, exchange of ideas and, critically, the ability to offer a counterpoint with the only retribution being disagreement.

Freedom of speech allows anyone to ask if Charlie Hebdo had gone too far, as much as for the magazine to go too far to begin with. And what is too far? Who sets that threshold? Who has the true moral authority to say too far is too far? Certainly not the self-appointed executioner emptying his AK47 at cartoonists exercising their right to free speech with nothing more lethal than felt-tipped pens and pencils.

Charlie Hebdo may well have crossed a line of taste or public sensitivity or even the expression of opinion - albeit in the form of a socially provocative cartoon - but did they cross into territory warranting a lethal response? Of course not.

© Simon Poulter 2015

In response to Wednesday's atrocity, historian Simon Schama wrote in the Financial Times: "Magazines such as Charlie Hebdo are in the business of taking liberties, even outrageous ones, but they exist so that we never take the gift of disrespect for granted."

A fair point. But one that takes a higher level than was needed. The Guardian's cartoonist Steve Bell brought things more appropriately down to earth, telling the BBC: "We’ve got to stand up for the right to take the piss out of these monsters, these idiots, these fools, these posturing maniacs who strut around in their black gear as a kind of death cult trying to frighten us all."

That's what today was about. The greatest defence against those who say "you can't say that" should always be "yes, I can, because I live in a society that allows me to chose what I believe and freely say what I think" - no matter how far you test the elasticity of the principle.You can't place any metric against offence. You are either offended or not offended. And if you are, feel free to complain about it. It's your right.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

2014: the year in music

© Simon Poulter 2015

We weren’t long into 2013 when jaws collectively hit the deck with such a cacophonous thud that the paranoid could have been excused for thinking someone had, in Cold War parlance, dropped ‘the big one’. It was, of course, simply David Bowie, unexpectedly announcing his re-emergence as a recording artist with the appearance of, first, a single, and later an album.

2014 has, however, been conspicuously bereft of such musical incredulity, even with Susan Boyle audaciously releasing an album called Hope, and Barry Manilow recording a collection of duets with, exclusively, dead people.

Live, 2014 brought What Would David Bowie Do? into close proximity with Robert Plant twice, even closer to the Manic Street Preachers, and closer still to the point of a restraining order from Johnny Marr. There was an evening of joyous bouncing around with the Kaiser Chiefs, the breathtakingly enchanting Laura Mvula reminding how talent and a voice is sometimes just enough, or talent and a Stratocaster, in the case of the ridiculously talented blues prodigy Quinn Sullivan or the maestro himself, Popa Chubby, a matter of feet away from me in a Mexican restaurant in California.

But when it comes to this year’s pick of albums, I make no apology for a degree of conservatism. Some might call it predictability. Whatevs. This has been a year for the enjoyment of the melancholy, the thoughtful and the introspective, not to mention the clearly West Coast, Laurel Canyon-influenced, for both gentle guitars and those of a more raucous tone.

Before, however, I give you the lineup, there are two albums worthy of notable mention: firstly, Thom Yorke's Tomorrow's Modern Boxes. I'm sure it's good, but if I could only work out how to download it via BitTorrent, I would have given it a proper listen. And just because it is Thom Yorke doesn't ensure favourable comment. Next time, Thom, stop being difficult and release the bloody thing like a normal artist. I hear even the cassette has made a comeback. At least that would be easier than fannying around trying to convert "packets" into something I can listen too...

Secondly, U2's Songs Of Innocence. Just because it is U2 doesn't mean we all have to kiss its self-annointed feet. And as for ambushing my iTunes account - even if that was a lot easier than trying to get it via BitTorrent, how dare they. I'll decide whether I want an album, free or otherwise. As it turns out, Songs Of Innocence was without doubt the year's biggest disappointment. I don't say that out of grumpiness - it really did come across as lazy and knocked out in a lunch hour. U2 can be magnificent when they try, but they simply weren't with this one. Time to go back to disruptive rock rather than just sprinkling some half-developed ideas with trademark sounds.

So, then, what of the records that were fully developed? Ladies and gentlemen, let me present the What Would David Bowie Do? Top 20 Albums of 2014:

20 Wilko Johnson & Roger Daltrey - Going Back Home
Strictly speaking, this album shouldn't come anywhere near a best-of chart. Listened to via a squinted ear, it's merely a collection of retreads by Johnson and Daltrey, an enjoyable pub rock knees up and that's it. But appreciated with a little more attention and you come to realise how much this album is a celebration of life itself, as Johnson pounds away at his Telecaster in the knowledge that his apparent terminal cancer has been miraculously beaten, and Daltrey - free of the confines of The Who - returns to his roots as Acton Town's chief mod. Best played extremely loud.

19 The Led Zeppelin Reissues
No one, to my knowledge, has ever said that a list of the best albums of a given year has to actually include albums recorded in the year in question. From a purely biased point of view - this is a biog, after all, so get over it - Led Zeppelin's (well, Jimmy Page's) reissues this year of their first five albums has been a musical event of serious note. Whether you view the wallet emptying box sets as  exploitation, or simply cashing in on the middle-aged fan's predilection for nostalgia-induced spending, there was certainly much to savour from Page's lovingly curated box sets, producing alternate takes of songs that in a few cases genuinely questioned their familiarity, along with other extras such as the previously unreleased live recording from October 1969 at L'Olympia in Paris). At risk of sucking up to hype, the reissues of Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin II, Led Zeppelin IIILed Zeppelin IV and Houses Of The Holy have been events in their own right.

18 Gary Clark Jr. - Gary Clark Jr. Live
If I can sneak in a cheeky handful of reissues, I can certainly include a live album, and few will suck the breath out of your lungs quite like this double-live from the latest great hope for keeping the blues alive, Gary Clark Jr. Those who pay attention to Eric Clapton's various Crossroads guitar festivals in aid of his Antigua drug rehabilitation centre will have already seen Clark's emergence in 2010 as a Stevie Ray Vaughan for the new millennium, and he's yet to let his build up falter. Some live albums have all the excitement of a bus ride through Leeds on a wet Wednesday afternoon, but this one captures Clark at his rip-roaring best. One also worth playing when the neighbours are out, and at full volume, too.

17 Future Islands - Singles
When a band emerges that has everyone talking about them, I usually run in the opposite direction. This is not due to a contrarian nature as such, or indeed something that would be better worked out via therapy. It's simply that I can't abide hype. Ironic, really, given that I earn a living now in PR. Luckily, in the case of Future Islands and their fourth album Singles, the end-product bore out the industry chatter. Building up their reputation, from garage band in Greenville, North Carolina, Singles is the result of a relentless slog to hone their electro-pop, also being the first album released by their new and major label, 4AD. There is romance and expression here, shades of Depeche Mode even, with a collection of songs that draw you in.

16 Ben Howard - I Forget Where We Were
Record industry dictation of what we should be listening to is nothing new. The Beatles, after all, inspired an entire slew of lookalike and soundalike acts. The cause of the singer-songwriter, however, has ebbed and flowed as if controlled by the tides. Currently, they're in, but thankfully the rush to find the next Jake Bugg-cum-Lonnie Donnegan has been abandoned. In that midst came the sophomore effort from Ben Howard, the Devon-based S-S who 'chose' his record company (Island) based on its heritage with John Martyn and Nick Drake, decent reference points each. There were obvious nods to both those acoustic icons on his 2011 debut Every Kingdom, and they're there again on I Forget Where We Were,  especially Martyn, as Howard explores his craft further. 

15 Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers - Hypnotic Eye
Yes, you read that correctly. Hoary old West Coast rockers (though they're actually from Florida, originally), making an album worthy of inclusion in a year's best-of list. Well, they have, and with a record that drew no greater accolade than me selecting "Album Repeat" on my iPhone and not changing that for a week. This is proper, "meat and potatoes" rock, a brilliant blend of guitars doing what guitars are meant to do, coupled with the 63-year-old Petty applying a healthily caustic view of the world on songs like Burnt Out Town and the opener, American Dream Plan B, as well as the brilliant assessment of life's unfortunates, Forgotten Man.
14 Kaiser Chiefs - Education, Education, Education & War
The last time we saw the Kaisers it was those heady days of the 2012 summer, and they were part of that celebration of Britain, the closing ceremony of London Olympics, charging around the Olympic stadium on Vespa scooters to channel The Who. The Kaiser chief Ricky Wilson went a bit showbiz, as a judge on The Voice, the BBC's attempt to cash in on Saturday night TV wannabedom. Thank God, then, that at some point they graced a recording studio with their presence to produce this, their fifth album. After the lacklustre The Future Is Medieval, Education... has the Kaisers back punching at their correct weight, writing infectious, festival-friendly classics like Ruffians On Parade, mildly political essays like The Factory Gates, and the slightly schmaltzy but nonetheless enjoyable Coming Home. On tour they were effervescent. 

13 Robert Plant & The Sensational Space Shifters - Lullaby and... The Ceaseless Roar
With those who clearly still misunderstand Plant - including, perhaps, Jimmy Page - banging on about another ker-ching Led Zeppelin tour, Plant has admirably ploughed his own furrow. Admittedly, his live shows were peppered with Zepp songs, but the enthusiastic eclecticism with which Plant and his superb Sensational Space Shifters have been approaching both original and old material demonstrated that, like that other refusenik warhorse Peter Gabriel, there is no statute of limitations on what you can still do as one of rock's elder statesmen. Lullaby... refused to even continue the bluegrass theme of Plant's enormous collaboration with Alison Krauss, Raising Sand, instead diving into music, themes and tones from Americana, the Middle East and Africa alike, turning the old on its head with something new (Little Maggie) or rocking up a storm with Pocketful of Golden, which nods slightly to the behemoth Plant once fronted.

12 Johnny Marr - Playland
You wouldn't normally place indie's diminutive guitar icon in the same sentence as Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, but for the purpose of this list, I will, seeing as Playland, like Hypnotic Eye, was another album that went on repeat and didn't come off it until it was really, exhaustively, time to move on. A big improvement on last year's The Messenger, Playland feels more thought through, and more cohesive as a result, a punch cocktail of riffs and sterling reminders of where Manchester's Britpop Ground Zero was centred.  Thus, spiky four-minute wonders like Easy Money, Dynamo and Boys Get Straight put lead in the pencil like few others have done on record this year. Brilliant.

11 Deacon Blue - A New House
Despite earning serious kudos for naming themselves after a Steely Dan song, and with their hit singles Dignity, Real Gone Kid and, today appropriate, Queen Of The New Year, being mainstays of  Top 40 radio well into the 90s, the last 20 years have been something of a critical desert for Ricky Ross & Co, even if their last album, 2012's The Hipsters did at least break the UK Top 20 album chart. However, A New House appeared to creep out, which is a shame, as it has been one of the great surprises of 2014. A New House is engulfed in a renewed zest, the result of the band taking time off and then returning via live performance, something that comes through on every single track. Next time, will you let us know? Ta.

10 Caribou - Our Love
Like Future Islands' Singles, this, too, shouldn't be on this list owing to the amount of tastemaker approval it has received. But after a chance encounter in - where else? - a record shop, this sixth album from Dan Snaith's electronica vehicle had me hooked. Combining electronic hooks that refuse to adhere to any recognisable label with the more personal lyrics of a man approaching his 40s (he's 36), Singles is the non-formist's non-conformist album, by turns fascinating, danceable, baffling and always engaging. Play it in the car with your windows down and wait for the looks you'll get. And not give a rat's arse about them.

9 Jack White - Lazaretto
Speaking of inveterate contrarians, rock's own Tim Burton/Johnny Depp combination turned in one of his most mainstream albums ever, which is in principle his break-up album, and named after a quarantine facility for sailors. Make of that what you will. Inside there is no shortage of White's sonic idiosyncrasy, getting noises out of guitars that very few other artists have the time or the patience to develop, but then layering them into plaintive blues, folk, country and other genres that no doubt come from making Nashville his home base.    

8 Bombay Bicycle Club - So Long, See You Tomorrow
It's only just occurred to me, as I've arrived at this album in the 20, how much Ben Howard reminds me of BBC's Jack Steadman, vocally. There, however, the similarity ends, with Crouch End's finest taking their fourth album into a broader sphere, less guitar-focused and more world music-influenced with heavy samples of Bollywood and sub-continent rhythms peppered throughout. Is it dance? Is it pop? Is it rock? Who cares, it is excellent, and evidence of a band maturing before our eyes. They recently entertained a guest appearance from David Gilmour at their Earls Court show a few weeks ago, a visit from rock royalty to place a regal stamp on this still-impossibly young band's stature. 

7 Paolo Nutini - Caustic Love
Speaking of still young, Nutini may have the voice of a world-weary R&B veteran, but the Scot is still technically of an age when he could be called a "young man". But ignore such fogeyish speak: Caustic Love is a superb piece of soul, not exactly the blue-eyed kind as the bloodshot, blue-eyed kind. Those who may have previously avoided Nutini for being an artist who, despite his chronic hedonist reputation, could so easily evolve into the next Bublé, will be pleasantly surprised by the acreage this album covers, both in terms of impact and invention. Even when threatening to go in a lounge direction, Nutini steers onto paths less travelled, avoiding cliché without abandoning convention.

6 Ben Watt - Hendra
Leonard Cohen and Peter Gabriel have clearly got nothing on Watt when it comes to lengthy gaps between albums, with this glorious summer soundtrack coming some 31 years after Watt released North Marine Drive. It brought Watt back to the folk-rock influences of his youth, with John Martyn and Nick Drake (again) prominent in the 70s singer-songwriter vibe, along with woozy reflections on life and the countryside supported by guest guitarist Bernard Butler and even a cameo from David Gilmour's seminal pedal steel guitar. If you can imagine a hot August afternoon, sitting in the garden reading a good book, warm waves of sunshine washing over your face, then this album is the musical equivalent. Enchanting.

5 The Black Keys - Turn Blue
While El Camino, its predecessor, journeyed the Keys along a heavily blues-influenced thoroughfare, Turn Blue launched Dan Auerbach and Pat Carney into a wicked maelstrom of psych-rock, soul, glam rock, funk and even 70s glitterball wigouts. With the help of producer Danger Mouse, Turn Blue evokes everyone from Floyd to Donna Summer in a typical hook-laden Black Keys jam  that doesn't take itself too seriously, but offers serious entertainment for those of us who like their music to be stained in the past.

4 Ryan Adams - Ryan Adams
I'm always suspicious of any band or solo performer who, some way into their careers, names an album after themselves. It does set off the alarm bells that a creative dry patch has been reached. Mercifully, Ryan Adams' Ryan Adams doesn't present any such disappointment, instead delivering an album of fully-formed, cheesecloth-and-denim wearing West Coast soft-rock that probably doesn't deserve that description. Yes, there are some obvious comparisons to be made to Lindsay Buckingham's contributions to Fleetwood Mac, but that is just a passing observation. For its entirety, this is an album of straight-forward constructs, of heartfelt writing and earnest performances (even, bizarrely, featuring Johnny Depp playing guitar on two tracks, not that he exactly stands out). A perfectly-crafted record, and one that spent the better part of a week on near-constant repeat as I drove from Lake Tahoe to Portland, Oregon, and back down into California again. Rare is the album that feels like comfortable shoes and the shiniest party shirt simultaneously. But Adams pulled off that trick with aplomb.

3 Manic Street Preachers - Futurology
To briefly return to U2 for a second, when you've enjoyed critical acclaim and commercial success over the course of a career spanning more than a couple of decades, expectations are high when you release a record. It's not one that I would even pretend to have any appreciation of, and I don't envy those bands trying to make it work. But unlike U2's highwayman album in September, the Manics' twelfth studio album was just breathtaking in its boldness, in its resolution to not sound like anything the Welsh trio (or quartet, if Richie ever does reappear) had released before. Some call that progressive, others just call it hard graft, not giving into the temptation of retreading a load of angry old stompers, but to invest further in their craft. The result is a simply majestic record.

2 Damon Albarn - Everyday Robots
As we get down to the final two albums of this year's line-up, don't expect perky, don't expect upbeat, and don't expect too much ra-ra. As the cover image of Everyday Robots - Albarn's debut solo album - suggest, this is a wonderfully downbeat collection of largely melancholy essays on the absurdities of a world in which we communicate more via our mobile phones than by face-to-face contact. It's the sort of reflection men of our age (Albarn is just four months my junior) can easily fall into. Here, he peels back the layers of his life to revisit the Essex and East London of his youth and his post-adolescent, pre-fame existence. It is in places dour, sepia-tinged and gloriously melancholy. And utterly, utterly compelling. As my review earlier this year stated, Everyday Robots can be considered as either the slit-your-wrists bleating of a polymath coming to terms with age, or an intelligently weighted concept piece which underlines how how gifted Albarn is in creating brilliantly nuanced music. Stunning.

1 Elbow - The Take Off And Landing Of Everything
The achingly cool, self-appointed who like to decide for us what is in and what isn't might still be waiting to pounce on Elbow as the next Coldplay (and no-one wants that, now do they). The Take Off And Landing Of Everything, however, ensured that Salford’s finest held their heads up with this positively sumptuous collection of expression and just the right hint of melancholy. Written largely on the back of Guy Garvey’s relationship split and subsequent flight to the protective bosom of New York City, it coalesced the decade and a half that Elbow have been writing and recording with an album that had nooks and crannies in every big, open-spaced room on it occupied. Even with the break-up context that could have given Garvey his own Blood On The Tracks or Grace And Danger, it doesn’t wallow, resting - thankfully - in a broad church of self expression, self rediscovery and imperious songwriting. Sam Smith may have produced the year’s most talked about debut focusing on unrequited romance, but no-one seams to apply voice, melody and invention quite like Elbow, and this album blended that triumvirate with majestic excellence.