Saturday, April 24, 2010


We live in interesting times. An Icelandic volcano with a name which looks like the Pass-Key encryption into my Photoshop software has burped and reminded us all too clearly of its existence, and every aeroplane in Western Europe has been grounded. My holiday to the Carmargue in Southern France duly bit the dust, or more accurately the ash, so I’m sitting here at home venting my spleen and writing increasingly vitriolic letters about the Pension Scheme I run, rather than taking pictures of pink Flamingoes against a blue Mediterranean sky, whilst drinking a cool beer in the warm Provençale sunshine.

Now that the window of opportunity to reinstate the holiday a couple of days later has completely shut, they all start to fly again. Bastards. All, that is, except the Royal Air Force fighters we have paid Billions of pounds for to defend us from the murderous attacks of our scheming Cold War Russian foes. The Tornados are grounded because the Icelandic ash apparently screws their engines up particularly badly - a good time to invade perhaps. I have to say I’m not sure I’d have announced that little nugget of news to the world on Nationwide TV, but maybe I’m missing something. Perhaps their bombers use the same engines.

Anyway, the country is gripped (I think) in the build up to a General Election, and flocks of political chickens are about to come home to roost for those who look after us so diligently in Westminster. Whether to lay the Golden Egg, or shit on the floor of the cage, we will shortly find out.

At first, when the campaign started, it all seemed like the same old “Yes you did, No I didn’t” argument between the two main parties who have dominated British politics for nigh on 100 years. Then, for reasons which I haven’t quite got to grips with, a decision was made to have a series of TV debates in this country for the first time. Debates held between the THREE main protagonists in the British Political system. Yes, there is a third, although you don’t get to hear much about them. They’re called the Liberal Democrats, and in the main, their voice is sidelined, deliberately I suspect, drowned out by the noise from the other two main parties.

And yet, look at the votes the Lib-Dems got in the last election. Firstly, less than two thirds of the British electorate actually voted (61.2% for the pedants), and of those 36.9% voted for the Labour Party, 33.9% for the Conservatives and 23.1% for the Lib-Dems – not that far behind.

This actually means that the Labour Party’s mandate was endorsed by only 22.5% of the country’s electoral role. Nearly 80% of us either wanted somebody else, or couldn’t be bothered, didn’t want any of the candidates etc, etc, etc. I am not qualified to pontificate about the pros and cons of Proportional Representation, except to say that a system which gives us the situation above does not seem right, and does not seem fair. They bang on about the need for strong Government, and “Look at Italy”, but “They would say that, wouldn’t they” in Mandy Rice-Davis’s immortal (or is it immoral) phrase.

The last 5 years have seen massive issues raised in this country, things which will be looked back at in years to come as seismic, and potentially life changing. We’ve had a religious zealot (by the name of Blair) who, almost single handedly took this country into an illegal war. We’ve had a Chancellor, now an unelected Prime Minister, who has finished selling off the Country’s “Family Silver”, who has led a positive campaign to eradicate any sensible level of regulation within the Country’s banking system, who has poured unbelievable sums of money into the National Health Service with far less benefit than we have the right to expect, who is part way through the ruination of the country’s education system, and who has presided over a systematic takeover of the rights of the Individual in this country in a way that would have given Stalin a fair degree of satisfaction, had he been in charge. He and Blair have also been the individuals in charge of emasculating (or attempting to emasculate) the Judicial system, the Parliamentary legislative system, of politicising the Police system, and creating a New Labour labyrinth of “Jobs for the Boys” - His Boys - in a breathtakingly brazen and quite appalling way. We’ve all watched, powerlessly we thought, while it was all going on around us.

And 4 out of 5 of us didn’t even vote for him. It’s the Politics of the Madhouse.

If we want the country to be run by One Man – in Brown’s case One Man who has never even been given a mandate to lead us – and a bunch of unelected cronies, then fine. But let’s have a referendum to agree a change in this.

To police and mould all this, the more sinister political systems of America, the focus groups, the pinpointing of the small minority of voters who swing the marginal constituencies, the ruthless smearing and bad-mouthing of any dissenters, the continual pressure to be “on message”, with no individual thoughts being brooked or allowed have all been brought into play. The Drones, the Apparatchiks, the Control freaks have taken over.

So, back to this week. Some bright spark came up with the suggestion that for this election we’ll have a series of TV debates. Not just between the two “main” parties, but one including the Lib-Dems as well. Quite what these clever souls who think about these issues in the Labour and Conservative Back offices were thinking is beyond me. Gordon Brown is always going to look like “Yesterday’s Man” in that sort of company, and on any issue raised, the question “If you’ve been in power for 13 years, why haven’t you already done something about it?” is one he simply can’t answer. He’s on a hiding to nothing.

As far as the Tories are concerned, with the current Government’s performance being so shambolic, Cameron and his men should be miles ahead, hardly able to see Brown’s cohorts in their rear view mirrors. But that is not the case. Cameron, however he seems to put himself over simply does not cut the mustard. There’s something about him that just stops you believing in him. He’s not a saviour, and I suspect he knows it, and it all seems a bit “manufactured” and “Top-show”.

The third guy, who, I suspect less than 5% of the British public could recognise from his photograph up until 10 days ago, must have seen this TV debate development as “Manna from Heaven”. A chance to stand alongside the Big Two, show he can talk, show he’s got something about him, lay out his thoughts in a way he has been totally unable to do until now. No baggage, no “History”, no “Form”.

Why, in heaven’s name, did they both agree to do it?

But, agree to it they did. And just look at the result. New kid on the block, Nick Clegg, for that is his name, is suddenly on everyone’s lips. They got 22% of the vote last time when no-one even knew who the Lib-Dem leader was, so what’s going to happen in a couple of weeks time? Clegg “ambushed” them both in the two debates to date. It almost doesn’t seem to matter what their policies are, here’s someone new who isn’t tainted like the others. It may not be true of course, and there may be carpets to be lifted, and skeletons to be found, but that’s all in the future, and on May 7th, it won’t matter. In the way the political game is played today, Perception is All, and Now is Important.

I have absolutely no idea how it’s all going to turn out. The really exciting thing is that I’m pretty sure that nobody else does either. Pandora’s box has been opened, and what’s flown out, let alone in what direction it’s flown, is anyone’s guess. In the same way that a Division 2 volcano in Iceland can, at a stroke, bring the European air transport system to a halt, a couple of hours of prime-time TV can throw all the British political balls high in the air. The thread on which we all dangle is very thin. Little things can make big changes, and we’d do well to remember that.

It does seems very sad and telling however, that one man, whoever he is, in 3 hours of Talking Heads on TV can seem to transform the UK public’s views on how their country should be governed. You’d like to think that the policies and beliefs of the parties, and the strength of their candidates, would be the major factors, but maybe that’s not true anymore. Whoever said that we get the politicians we deserve may not have been too far away from the truth.

As a principal, I don’t want such power to be in the hands of one person, and the systematic and progressive stripping away of the checks and balances within our political system have worried me increasingly over the last 10 years. Maybe, as a way to give a bit of moderation, a “hung” parliament, and the probable consequences of Proportional Representation may be the way to go. Who knows?

But Churchill’s comment in 1947 is still worth reading – “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." We still need the common endeavour of a bunch of intelligent, honourable, far sighted individuals to take us forward – one where wisdom is still seen as a key ingredient. You don’t get that from one man, and a return to a wider spread of views in the Body Politic would be something I’d like to see given a chance.

Cue Bob Dylan – “The Times they are a-Changin”, or is it “Don’t think twice, It’s Alright”. Or maybe even “A Hard Rains a-Gonna Fall”?

Roll on May 6th.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

1/125th at F4, AND THEN SCARPER

I don't usually put up images taken by other people, but here I make an exception. I was going to say "it's an ill wind that blows nobody any good", but you might take that in bad taste, seeing as all the Airports in the UK are closed because of the fall-out.

But - The Volcano eruption in Iceland has resulted in a raft of pictures. I saw this one, and it blew me away (that's not particularly funny either).



It was taken by a guy named "skarpi" and can be found on Flickr. His title for it is "Playing with the Devil", which is a bit more eloquent than my version - see Blog Title.

Note - "Scarper" is a verb meaning "To Run like Hell away from where-ever you are".

Thursday, April 01, 2010


I've been a Peter Gabriel fan for a long time. For the last 30 odd years, he has been one of the most inventive, intelligent and thought provoking singer/songwriters around. Ever since his Genesis days in the mid 70s, when he would appear onstage wearing a fox's head or a sunflower, or a women's dress, the one thing you could say about him was that he was unpredictable, and you never knew what was coming next. His songwriting was always on the eccentric and somewhat bizarre side, but it was always interesting, absorbing – and different.

He has never been one to follow the crowd, thank goodness, and sitting back on his laurels is absolutely not his style. He hasn't produced a new body of work for something like 7 or 8 years, so it was with a fair amount of anticipation that I heard a new album was about to appear, and that he would be setting off on one of these “Saga” like tours they all seem to do when 60 is around the corner.

I had not bothered to read much about what was going to happen, so expectation hung heavy in the air with me. Mr Gabriel tends not to do the “more of the same” routine.

3 months ago, I got my ticket, and last Saturday, I dutifully set off to London for a day of "Kulchur". Firstly, a visit to Tate Modern on the South Bank, and then off to the O2 Arena in the old Millennium Dome to see "yer man" in the evening. I have to say that the O2 Arena is a terrific Concert Venue. It’s a marvelous looking building, especially when seen at dusk from the other side of the River. Its purity of line and simple but striking design mark it out as a real landmark construction. It’s a great pity that Politics almost managed to drag the building down with the ineptitude of what Our Leaders originally put inside it, but all’s well that end’s well. It’s very well set out, easy to get to, and seats huge numbers of people in pretty reasonable comfort. The acoustics of the place are also good, so, all in all, an excellent place.

Not my picture, I'm afraid. Author unknown.




The Tannoy system made a real point of emphasizing that he would be onstage at 7.30, so everyone found their seats in good time. There's always a real expectant buzz when 10,000 people sit there waiting for something like this. Of course, 7.30 came and - Nothing.

20 minutes later, a large 50 piece Orchestra had assembled behind a screen which cut off the main audience's view of the back of the stage. We were seated close to, but to one side of, the stage, so could see the magician's tricks going on behind the screen. Then, out he came, sidling onto the stage. He was dressed all in black, looking like a cross between a slightly portly Olden Day Sage, and a scruffy Undertaker’s Assistant. The days of the fancy dresses are clearly a lifetime ago. No matter. Here he is.

To me the show didn’t start well. He introduced a tall Scandinvian girl named Ane Brun who sang 3 very samey songs, accompanying herself on a guitar. The poor girl was on a hiding to nothing. The songs were unexceptional, and everyone was waiting for Peter Gabriel. The guy next to me summed it up with a comment “Now I know why the Norwegian Suicide rate is so high”. Not totally fair, but there you go.

Peter Gabriel’s new album is called “Scratch My Back”, and is a collection of 12 cover versions of other peoples’ songs. The plan is that they record one of Gabriel’s songs in return – presumably that will be called “And I’ll Scratch Yours”. We’ll see. Before tonight, I couldn’t imagine Peter Gabriel doing a cover version of anyone’s music. It just seems so alien to the man. He’s ploughed a very lonely furrow for the last 30 years, so for him to copy other people’s ideas seems quite strange.

The whole of the first half of the concert was given over to a performance of the 12 song project in its entirety. As soon as it started, the difference between the original songs and the versions we were hearing here seemed like a chasm. These weren’t cover versions, they were total reworks and reconstructions. No guitars, no drums, and a semi Classical orchestration of people like Bowie, Paul Simon, Lou Reed, Aerosmith and others was laid out in front of us. I’m not a pop music anorak, and many of the songs were new to me, but the ones that I did know came across as totally different in this performance, almost unrecognisable.

They were almost all slowed down dramatically, with the lyrics taking on a sparse character of voice, piano and strings. Even a song as bouncy as Paul Simon’s “Boy in the Bubble” was turned into a mournful, introspective contemplation. All the up beat rhythms, and the bright, bouncy tempo were discarded. And yet, if you read the words of the song, you could argue that this version was truer to the meaning of the lyrics. It's always good to hear a another view of any song, but this was from a different planet.

On the negative side, you could be forgiven for thinking the orchestrations were all a bit samey. Or that the tempo of the songs verged on the monotonous. There wasn’t a fast song in any of the 12, and the whole project took on an almost classical span, which clearly got some of the audience in a bit of a dilemma. The 3 minute Pop song this was not.

It demanded attention and concentration. Now I think Peter Gabriel has one of the most remarkable voices in music. He has such a purity of tone, overlaid with a husky edge which is quite distinctive and true. His top register is remarkable. What he gave us was the result of somebody paring down the original to an almost skeletal form, distilling down the essence of the song and reforming it in his own totally different view. In many places in the songs, he was almost talking melodically rather than singing the words, and you felt an almost intimacy coming over. And there were 22,999 other people in the Arena sharing this approach!

On several occasions, I wanted to rewind the performance, and get him to sing it again, because I’d failed to keep up with the message. There’s always the CD to do that with though.

The lighting effects were not spectacular in their scope. But, in some ways they matched the music. There was a backdrop of LED lights, and a perfectly synch-ed animation of red and white accompanied it all. No colour changes, nothing to distract, but gentle and beautiful animations which were very thoughtful, sympathetic and appropriate.

It was absolutely not one of those “Dancing in the Aisles” nights you sometimes get on the big venue, superstar nights. It was a thoughtful, contemplative couple of hours which stayed with me on the long journey home. Only for the last song of the whole evening, an orchestral reworking of “Solsbury Hill” did the audience jump up and get animated. “Here’s one you might know” was his telling introduction which said that he knew perfectly well what he was doing. I’m sure for some this was a bit of “Too little, too Late”, but with a guy like this, he leads and you decide if you want to follow.

I thought he produced some very haunting music, something I want to listen to again. It didn’t have an immediate “impact”, but you could feel it creeping up and engulfing you – something which would mature and burrow its way into your mind. I would imagine a Review of Reviews would result in a real polarization of opinion. Some would love it, some would hate it. No middle ground.

I know where I am on it.