Monday, August 16, 2010

Livestock review

Livestock is a fanstastically named back to basics music festival held in a small village in Oxfordshire where farm animals meet musos. I had not sampled the delights of this four year old event before and had sadly missed the first two days, which were held in the nearby Red Lion (This is a small festival). Festival director Malachi, whose family owns the farm including the land on which this almost intimate festival was partly taking place, goes to a lot of trouble to bring in acts from around the world as well as provide slots for friends and acquaintances. The result is a barely known gem. It almost felt Glasto 1972 (tad smaller admittedly) with comments overheard about how it had grown (I would say there were 200 people present on the Sunday afternoon). I don’t think they're in danger of spoiling the vibe just yet.

The Knights of Mentis kicked up a storm, livening up the last afternoon of festival with country and blues-style banjo and guitar picking, accordion and fiddle, and hearty singing that brought plenty of people to their feet. Their version of Bob Dylan’s much ignored Gotta Serve Somebody (from his first Christian album) was a revelation, while I am not sure I will be able to listen to the Led Zep original of Rock n Roll without wondering if the Mentis haven’t nailed it for good. Lenny (see below) was on banjo and mandolin, while earthy singing from the guitarist and one of the other two banjo players kept things lively. Festival main man Malichi was on double bass. Stage left stood Rhys Iffans doing a passible impression of Peter Cook as a folkster; he had some droll repartee to boot.

Bowell & The Movements are either criminally misnamed or singer, and lead writer, Rob Powell, is simply emphasising the creative tension between the intense emotion of some of his songs and the humour that somehow coexists, even sometimes in the same verse. This in essence is what this band does: ramshackle stompers and heart-wrenching ballads. During Rob’s solo set there were moments when his ability to hit the emotional funny bone in his half-innocent plaintive laments for love lost (or not found?) that you thought this guy pisses all over much of the rather precious(mostly Brit) balladeers from this millenium onwards. But then, just when he was in danger of getting mawkish, the daftest rhyming couplet would make you wince with delight. I don’t know the names of the first and last songs of the solo section of the gig as I didn’t manage to get the names down, possibly because I was somewhat overcome. Rob should get some of these (possibly new) solo tracks out there (there are some solo numbers available to hear on My Space). Perhaps a dedicated band website, together with one or two of the band’s stompier numbers is in order. And what about that band? Sterling performances from mandolin player Lenny (aka Midnight) and bassist Patrick Leonard fleshed out the more up-tempo numbers, while a very late stand in on drums (from earlier act, The 309s) helped to keep up the rhythmic pace.

Despite the official drummer dropping out, this, the first live reunion of The Movements for 12 years, was high on emotion, not least for the hard-core Bowellistas in the grass mosh pit, and for many, including those less familiar with the Movements’ work, an absolute delight. This band – and in particular it has to be said – the singer’s solo songs – show a lot of promise and a lot of passion. Of course that does not guarantee any kind of professional future, but people were moved out there and it wasn’t just the Oxfordshire Ales that were responsible.

Labour leadership election: The Bland and the Boring

We hear a lot about how politics these days is all about personality, presidential contests etc etc. So why is it that the Labour leadership contest, crammed full of candidates, literally jostling for position on a tiny podia somewhere near you, is so lacking in personalities? I say this mindful of the partial exception of Dianne Abbott, whose delivery revolves around a self-righteous celebration of her electoral pulling power in Hackney.

So, for the “real” candidates: four men with barely a personality between them: the likely victor David Miliband comes across as a petulant comprehensive head master in a well healed home county. His brother Ed, slightly less petulant, sparring with his slightly older brother for who can best package their answers to encompass the median party demographic without alienating the narrow socio-economic band who will actually determine whether they ever get to be prime minister. Ed Balls, hideous to look at, wide-faced and slippery, the infamous “emissary from Planet Fuck”, as Mandy alleges he was known in the Blair Camp, oh so superficially left-wing in a field of 40-something blokes way to the right of Ted Heath. Oh, and not forgetting Andy. Nice guy, very nice guy (I mean that, I worked on the same floor as him at the palace of Westminster when he and I were mere MPs’ research assistant). But if Milly Sr is a middling school’s middling head teacher, well, Andy is probably the PE teacher. I am sorry, do I appear a snob? I mean I wanted Alan Johnson on the ticket so we could put him up against Lord Snooty. That doesn’t prove I am not a snob, I guess. However, what I really look down on is average-ness dressed up as significance. This is not confined to the Labour Party of course, but at least the Tories produced a guy with plausibility as a PM. Of course when he beat the seemingly more preferable (marketable?) David Davies (how classless a name is that?), many would have doubted he was made of the right stuff. Maybe one of the Millies will grow into the job. But am I betraying my age (I am 46) when I say that as a Labour supporter who remembers (just about) Michael Foot winning the 1980 leadership election (against Healey and Shore), Tony Benn’s challenge for the deputy leadership in 1981 (against eventual winner Healey and John Silkin), the 1983 face-off involving Kinnock, Hattersley, Shore and Heffer), that the calibre of the candidates, their defined and passionate personalities, their intellect, makes the current boyish posturing look like a minor scrap among soiled ex-secretaries of state for who is the most “deserving” of the job. Of course it’s arguable that 1994 wasn’t much of a contest either, with some plausible leaders whose philosophies were in marked contrast to the Blair-Prescott stitch-up declining to stand and Beckett hardly making an impression. However, at least these were personalities and Beckett did at least seem to represent something different to the modernising juggernaut that had been chomping at the bit under John Smith.

In 2010 I am still hearing about the debate the candidates want to have, and nothing about their ideas, policies, least of all philosophy, unless that is you count a “fairness agenda” that everyone from Cameron to Mr Leftie Balls buys into. British social democracy was at one time passionately and intellectually argued for by party leader Hugh Gaitskell and by Tony Crossland (whose cabinet experience was less than his admirer, David M). After New Labour, social democracy has been reduced to ensuring “opportunity for the many” by reforming welfarism and providing tax breaks for the wealthy. I guess therefore that it’s hardly surprising that these limp wrists can’t get off the starting blocks.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Muslims press candidates at Walthamstow election meeting

Local hustings in the Walthamstow constituency have been lively affairs, but none perhaps as interesting as the Grove Road mosque meeting on Friday evening April 30. After all, this is a constituency with the third largest Muslim community in London, where Muslims are a major component of the estimated one third of the borough who are non-white. The packed audience largely consisted, unsurprisingly, of male Asians, and a few of their wives seated the other side of the aisle.

Among the four "honoured" guests was, to my surprise, Jonathan Steele, the former foreign correspondent of "The Guardian", who was presumably there to add gravitas. Of the candidates of the three main parties, the only woman was Stella Creasy, the Labour candidate, who, notably, had her head uncovered. The rather genial Walthamstow Council of Mosques leader introduced proceedings, or rather introduced Mr Steele (at some, almost obsequious, length). Why the mosque leader wasn't the one chairing a meeting aimed at the local Muslim community, can only be guessed at.

In the manner of the televised Leaders' debates, the questions had been approved in advance, and were mostly safe and sensible, albeit reflecting the understandable specific concerns of the local Muslim community. Creasy, a former local mayor, and the favourite to win what should be a firm Labour seat, and her main challenger, the Lib-Dem parliamentary candidate and local councillor Farid Ahmad, clashed over specifics concerning their individual and/or party records on issues like outlawing religious discrimination and health care. In the manner for which his campaign has become somewhat renowned, Ahmed made unsubstantiated accusations against Creasy and her party and showed a disturbing lack of familiarity with his own party's stance in the Lords on legislation tackling religious hatred. However it was when the meeting turned to foreign policy that things really came alive and audience members began to voice their opinions in an unscripted fashion. The three candidates adopted a mostly faithful rendition of their national parties' approach to Middle East matters - there were no questions about China and Russia. Andy Hemsted, a rather tired retread of a 1980s Tory Essex Boy caricature, found himself in fairly deep water as his rather unsophisticated take on terror and nukes made him sound a tad too close to Israel for this audience's particular delectation.

Overall, Creasy stole the show, in part because she was quicker on her feet than the other contenders, but also because she has plainly been working this particular community who warmed to her reminders of her past community work. Ahmed, whose campaign has sometimes cynically courted the vote of fellow Muslims against Labour on religious grounds, was not as well received as might have been expected. I left the meeting feeling that perhaps Labour's 7,000 majority, which was slashed from 15,000 in the 2005 "Iraq" poll, will in fact hold up pretty well.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Saudi debates

Riyadh, Friday 29 February 2010.
I have been in KSA nearly a week in which time I have dipped in and out of the Jeddah Economic Conference, a kind of big ticket stadium event for the Mid-East business analysis crowd, and then almost traversed Arabia to reach the capital Riyadh where I have been seeking interlocutors for my latest research project. My departure from Jeddah was premature; I later discovered that one or two of the people I really wanted to see here in Riyadh were actually at the conference. In addition, it’s an attractive city with a partly accessible shoreline a thousand plus miles from the Gulf, and that’s not a bad feeling sometimes.

Today I took the superfast lifts to get more than 100 floors up the Kingdom tower in Riyadh and stood on the SkyBridge (the tallest vantage point in KSA) and surveyed the city. I had walked there in the 35 degree winter heat (natch) and looked more than a little shabby as I arrived in the Mamlika Mall desperate to purchase my ticket. It was prayer time of course, although it was interesting (albeit not for the first time) to watch shopkeepers from right across Asia hurrying to briefly shut down these outlets in one of Riyadh’s many temples of mammon as the muezzin called (some of) the faithful to pray.

Thus far the trip has brought me closer to some of the debates raging around the Kingdom, but not that close. Everything is of course spun to suit the self interested or associated party that is being represented. So I am aware that the advancement of legal reform in the face of religious resistance and the flowering of civil society is in fact happening while at the same time domestic and foreign policy is in the hand of a tiny number of senior figures who in many instances don’t agree and don’t consult with each other. Hard to see how the latter adds up to anything other than the chance for some symbolic actions through dismissal and appointment rather than a major series of political shifts. In this vein the recent removal of two troublesome priests is seen by some here as an indication that the top man could push things further, not least on the planned shake up of the judiciary that in theory could water down existing clerical control in favour of a more structured management approach with proper specialised training not least in the much needed area of commercial law. If you can sack such big guns without merely a whimper, goes the argument, then major reform that allows more reform-minded clerics to manage the process is plausible. Maybe, but how far and with what impact, argue others. Being so personality-led, the issue seems to boil down to what can be achieved at the very top before mortality kicks in. Economic cities may not have progressed sufficiently to have a legacy but, goes one argument, rights-orientated legal judgements by the reconstructed supreme appeals court can create precedents.

On regional issues things have looked up in terms of inter-Arab diplomacy, with the KSA working closely with Yemen over the northern revolt that spilled over the Saudi border and unleashed disproportionate fire power from the Kingdom’s de facto military chief. The proportionality doesn’t seem to be bothering the Saudis however. The ceasefire between the Yemen Government and its northern rebels is holding, with KSA backing the GoY to the hilt with major funding while it turns its border policing operation into a regular pork barrel for the Saudi military and its de facto head. Saudi-Syria relations seem to be at their best for 5 years, or more precisely since Damascus had Saudi ally and top Lebanese politician Rafiq Hariri blown up. This firms up the Arab tent with the hope that, being inside, they’ll piss out. Of course, from Syria’s point of view it’s probably a case of having your cake and eating it, as the Iranian tactical alliance isn’t going to come to an end and nobody expects otherwise. On Palestine, the hope is that a solution constrains Iranian asymmetric power, but no Arab state want to lift a finger to help other than to stand behind Egypt which is being limply backed by the US while Israel remains unbound.

Pictures from the recent past

On getting back to my room after the Riyadh Sky Bridge, I absorbed myself in photos of our US road trip last summer. I have never appreciated these pictures quite as much. I cried as I thought of how disconnected I had been for much of that journey and yet how moving I found the mere photographic record of them 5 months later. She looks lovely in so many of the shots I took (partly because she is so pleased that I am actually using my camera) and in one she looks divine. I know that my (rare) emotional engagement is against a background of a lonely Friday in KSA but it was so important to me to connect to the trip and to her, even if I didn’t that much when I was actually on it.

Out of Town Riyadh

Durba Door
Durba Central

Escarpment heading out of Riyadh

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Monday, January 18, 2010

Islamic Games fail over Nationalist names

Arab or Persian? Islamic Games shelved in "Gulf" row
Mon Jan 18, 2010 9:22am EST

By Asma Alsharif
RIYADH (Reuters) - A Saudi-based body organizing the world's second Islamic Solidarity Games has canceled the sports event planned for Iran amid a dispute over whether the Gulf waterway is "Arab" or "Persian."
The Islamic Solidarity Sports Federation, an affiliate of the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference based in Saudi Arabia, said after a meeting on Saturday it decided to scrap the games which had been set for April.
The federation said Iran had taken "unilateral measures concerning logos used on printed material and medals," a statement sent to Reuters on Monday said. Secretary-General Muhammad Qazdar said that was in reference to Iran's planned descriptions of the Gulf.
Designation of the key waterway for global oil and gas supplies has long been a touchy issue among the countries bordering it -- Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Iraq and Iran.
Iran says it is the Persian Gulf, the Arab states say it is Arab. Foreign language descriptions can offend either party if they use one name or the other, or sometimes if they avoid an adjective altogether.
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said on Monday the federation should reconsider its decision but insisted the waterway was Persian.
"The logo and naming should be done correctly, based on international norms and regulations and the naming by the United Nations," he told reporters on Monday.
"So basically the board of directors did not have the right to just interfere in such a process... We hope they will reconsider," he added.
The sports federation said a dispute over television rights and Iran's failure to provide information over steps to contain H1N1 flu also contributed to the decision to cancel the event.
The dispute comes amid tensions between Sunni Muslim-led Arab countries and non-Arab, Shi'ite Iran over increased Iranian influence in the region through its allies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.
Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally which sees itself as the leading Sunni state, is trying to rally Arab countries to challenge Iran, who it fears wants to obtain nuclear weapons and win U.S. recognition as the region's leading power.
Saudi Arabia and Iran are also at odds over a Shi'ite revolt in north Yemen. Riyadh has been fighting the rebels since a cross-border raid into Saudi territory in November, while Tehran says the fighting should be brought to an end through talks.
The Islamic Solidarity Games were first held in Saudi Arabia in 2005 with the participation of 55 countries, including Iran. They were delayed from October last year over flu concerns.
(Reporting by Andrew Hammond in Dubai and Asma Alsharif in Riyadh; Writing by Andrew Hammond; Editing by Dominic Evans)