Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Meet the new year, hopefully not like the old year

Good riddance to 2013. I could say my discontent with this fast fading year, and for that matter 2012, is all about the poor Middle East, but it isn’t. For the most part genuine popular grievances were expressed in 2011 and, quelle surprise, they met the fearsome resistance of authoritarian states ruled by unaccountable narrow cliques. In Egypt the state’s ruling backbone reasserted itself after the Muslim Brotherhood interregnum. In Syria the ruling clique and their allies are, quite literally, fighting for their lives. Frankly, what else was expected? Oh and Libya was an apparently “necessary” western intervention to prevent a massacre in one city that helped to destroy an already weak state and replace it with the anarchy of multifarious militias. Good decision, western and Gulf leaders. 

No, none of that makes me “hope for a better year” in 2014. If “all politics is local” then all of my preoccupations are personal. I don’t have a runner in the Mid-East race, but I do have some family left in England. Some of it has, tragically, gone belly up over the last 15 months, but a lot of it remains, and some of it is even renewed, revisited and meaningful. So here’s to them (they know who they are), and here’s also to that small, diminishing, but valued, group of friends I have actually seen this year. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Wreckless Eric live at the Prince Albert, Brighton

When Wreckless Eric walked on to the tiny stage upstairs at the Prince Albert pub in Trafalgar Street on Monday night no one seemed to recognise him.  At first I wondered if he was an ageing roadie. As he stepped up to the microphone there was no audible acknowledgement from the half filled room. Seeing the smattering of chairs occupied in front of him, Eric observed that he had advised the pub not to put more out as his audience would be better off standing up in order to avoid getting haemorrhoids.

Storming into his first number, which was unknown to me, Eric thrashed his acoustic and sung with angst about a seemingly monotonous childhood. His voice was never technically brilliant, but it is still high up on the emotional register. Everything is intensely personal with Eric. As he explained to the Sussex audience, he is a local boy. He grew up in Newhaven and went to school in Lewes. Despite currently residing in New York where he paints and performs, after many years spent living in France, Eric’s youth obviously still resonates with him and with his writing. Droll humour runs through lyrics stuffed full of personal reminiscences, some of which he sparred about with members of the audience. The upstairs room at the Prince Albert pub is as intimate as a gig can get for both performer and audience. Several times Eric only part jokingly asked people to stop staring at him. 

Eric is best known for his Stiff Records material from the late 70s. Many numbers from that period were played on the night. These included “Reconnez Cherie”, and his biggest hit “Whole Wide World”. Always an intense experience, it lost little by being played solo. Not that Eric Goulden is the kind of performer who could have considered a cosy “Unplugged” groove. On the night many of his songs ended up as a thrashy, noise fest. Playing his acoustic through an array of effects peddles, Eric at times threatened to outbid “Metal Machine Music”, Lou Reed’s “pioneering” four sides of feedback released in the early 70s.

On “Joe Meek” Eric sung the praises of the man he called the inventor of British pop music. Meek is most famous for creating “Telstar” at a recording studio he constructed in his tiny Holloway Road flat in North London. That was just round the corner from a car boot sale where my wife experienced an epiphany after spending 50p on a CD copy of “12 o’clock Stereo” by The Hitsville House Band, Eric’s Americana-sounding, largely French, mid-90s combo. From that album, he performed a powerful version of “Can’t See the Woods (For the Trees)”. Sticking around for a chat afterwards, Eric told us that he is planning to record some songs from that period with The Len Bright Combo, a mid-80s garagey-sounding outfit that he has recently been gigging with again.

Eric’s lyrical references and banter suggest a man whose quest for love and happiness has been a rocky one. Yet he declared to his audience his happiness at being married to his sometime song-writing partner and co-performer, Amy Rigby. He ended his set with one of Amy’s songs somehow spliced together with one of his own, “33s and 45s”. This was largely comprised of lyrics based on classic song titles. It proved a suitable closer for a performer who obviously attracts the older fan keen to reconnect with a much earlier period in British music. Yet there is nothing nostalgic about Eric’s musical shtick, even if his between songs banter at one point found him talking about green double-decker buses.  

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Mandela is dead and so is debate

Nelson Mandela is dead. I feel relieved for him and his family. Nauseated at the often absurd coverage of the event in the UK media. Sad at yet another confirmation that the era of great men has given way to the almost universal reign of the indifferent, the ordinary, the petty-minded administrators of tax revenue.

He was to come to prominence in a very different age. His cause, long before it was made fashionable by pop stars and simple-minded sloganisers, obliged both Conservative and Labour governments in Britain to look to what they thought was a higher national interest than majoritarian politics in Africa. The 1980s version of this debate was used by the left of centre Channel 4 News in Britain to settle party political scores with those, mostly dead or irrelevant, in the Conservative Party who did not worship at the shrine of Mandela. Smug, self-righteous, sanctimoniousness abounds, a chance for people to feel good about what records they bought, what stickers they wore, what demos they went on thirty years ago.

The sin of having equated him with terrorism is once again ritually trotted out, as if it is only a term of abuse and not ever a tactic of politics and of war. To target or threaten civilians or civilian life, to seek to wreck or undermine public stability in order to realise a political objective, this is the stuff of armed struggle. It is what the Royal Air Force did against German cities during World War Two and it is what the armed wing of the ANC began to undertake under Mr Mandela’s command before he was incarcerated. It may well be the action of freedom fighters too. The French Resistance killed not just for revenge but to achieve political goals by spreading fear. That is what terrorists do.

Nelson did not agree with the targeting of civilians. He was arrested before the shedding of civilian blood became more acceptable in ANC circles and before he would either have had to resign or accept responsibility for it. I have heard no debate in the last 24 hours about these issues nor any serious assessment of the wisdom of Mr Mandela in going as far as he did in reassuring business and, effectively, white interests that in office neither he or the ANC would rock the boat that much. The legacy of that “pact” continues to this day.

It is ironic perhaps that people all over the world are so ready to deify Nelson as a secular saint when in their own country they bemoan the fact that democracy is “merely” about one person one vote every 4 to 5 years. Twenty two years after his release South Africa struggles to be even that, given the lawlessness and violence that is the stuff of daily life in some cities and the treatment that can be meted out to striking trade unionists.

If Nelson has one simple and yet rare political legacy to be applauded it is his promotion of inclusion and reconciliation. This from a man who could so easily have pursued narrow, sectional and vindictive interests. He is still revered by regimes and militant groups who have every interest in the slogans of liberation but who usually fail to understand that inclusion is not achieved by the denial of the humanity of the other. Just as he did not dress his cause in a racial colour, so Mandela had no sympathy with the communal politics of many of his sympathisers in the Middle East. These are attributes worth remembering and worth revering.         

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Simple Minds Take Us To The Waterfront

Attending a 20,000 capacity music arena is not really my thing. Last night at the O2 however promised to be a special event. Simple Minds supported by Ultravox. I don’t have a single record in my collection by these bands. I liked “Vienna” at the time, although I usually effect the argument that they were better before Midge Ure took over and the “experimental” John Foxx quit to work things out in his “Underpass”. Simple Minds? I was aware of the earlier stuff being a bit “experimental” too, but by the time they had become the all-conquering stadia behemoth circa their very 80s album “Once Upon A Time”, I was almost violently opposed to them. I actually recall gleefully burning a copy of this album with a friend while its owner looked on horrified. Looking back I feel revulsion at my Nazi-like act and self-righteous assumption that I somehow knew what was “correct”, musically or otherwise.

The three of us arrived at the O2 shortly after Ultravox had hit the stage. Located up in the Gods or, more accurately in arena terms, a long, long way from the stage and with only a sideways view of the band, my normal reservations about such venues were affirmed. Many of the songs were unrecognisable and, although played well, they struggled to fill out the enormity of the venue. When “Vienna” kicked in and Midge sang “This means nothing to me,” it took on a very contemporary meaning. His voice though held up to the song’s challenging chorus and the band performed their best known number with feeling. Apart that is from a rather rushed instrumental passage due seemingly to the fact that the violinist was doubling up on keyboards and literally had to run between the two.

The O2 is a very organised place. There are plenty of places to eat at before the gig and, once inside the arena, punters are well served with bars and toilets. Many fans availed themselves of both in equal, mutually dependent measure, throughout the performances. By the time the Minds came on however I began to shift my attitude to the place and to the gig. The light show was improved several notches, the volume was turned up, and the, yes, stadium sound of the band worked well in this environment. Their opener, “Waterfront”, was very tight and was just the kind of sonic boost needed to get everyone in the mood. There was not an empty seat in the place and you had to admire the crown-pulling power of a band that for far more than two decades have abandoned a strong showing in the singles and albums charts. As Jim and the boys cranked out a pretty broad selection from their back catalogue, the audience genuinely seemed to come together as one (aside from those perpetually off to the bar n’ bogs). “Promised You a Miracle” reminded me of how cleverly the band combined the synth pop of that era with rock swagger. Mr Kerr still has a fair amount of the latter, and from where I was sitting at least (aided by glasses) liked fit and healthy and moved in a pretty sprightly fashion for a man of 54. “Someone Somewhere in Summertime”, new to me, was another standout performance on the night.

However, if truth be told, we were really only there for one thing and for one thing only. To hear “Don’t You Forget About Me” as a belated but highly appropriate epitaph to a lost brother in law, brother, and son, respectively. It had been his favourite and was played to the many, many mourners at the funeral. We had wanted to hear a mass crowd sing it, and sing it at the O2 they duly did. We stood up, arm in arm, and sang along to an anthem that has recently taken on a very personal resonance. My objectivity was out of the window, but who’s isn’t at any time?

The band followed the high passion of that number with a much more subtle and sober, but still emotional, song, “Let It All Come Down”, which captured perfectly our mood and, I think, that of many present. Convenience led us to depart during the first encore as “Alive and Kicking” was very much affirming that both the band and us are. The Minds apparently closed with a medley that took in covers of “Take Me To The River” and “Gloria”.

I am still not sold on rock stadia, but the O2 does it well, and Simple Minds did it very well on the night. I guess we have all come a long way since the mid-80s.  

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Bryan Ferry and Tatabánya

Three return tickets to Tata offered the inviting prospect of an exploration of the industrial landscape and countryside outside of Budapest. Tata, Wikitravel told us, was located less than an hour from the imposing beauty of the Keletti Station in Hungary’s capital.

Situated between mountains and containing much picturesque beauty, the arrival and the journey were both bound to enthrall. The station stop identified on the board at Keletti Station was Tatabanya, of which we assumed Tata was the diminutive. Disembarking nearly an hour later, we found the station a splendid homage to communist brutalist architecture, and no less attractive for that. 

For anyone familiar with Kőbánya-Kispest in Budapest, this was a special treat. No sign yet in Tatabanya station of the gentrification that has begun to afflict Kőbánya, or at least its adjacent shops. Water poured down on the inside of Tatabánya station as we took the bridge across the tracks to the station entrance. Deciding, sensibly, to see what time the trains back were, I realised that Tatabánya was in fact a distant cousin of the Tata we had planned to see. As the next train would not be along for another 45 minutes we decided to explore the station complex further. The ubiquitous “Relay” proffered soft drinks and snacks, however the station’s toilets offered essential relief. Tightly guarded by a man whose life appeared to alternate between them and the bar next door, they were, at 100 Forints, arguably overpriced. That said, the provision of two sheets of toilet paper was a kindness that helped offset the olfactory onslaught contained in the Gents’ section. From a vantage point outside we gazed over the lines of empty tables below, suggesting a flea market that today hadn’t quite hit its stride. One table had a selection of cheap clothing on offer, looking lonely alongside the banks of unoccupied green trestle tables that dominated the scene. Walking down below to the car park I stared at the town below, caught in a time warp that the range of international names in the adjacent mall could not detract from.

We were delighted to see “Roxxy Music (and Café)” ahead of us. I only wished that we had taken the time to explore the venue. Perhaps it would have been a wall to wall tribute to Britain’s finest exponents of art rock, necessarily adding an “X” in order to avoid a law suit from a passing Bryan Ferry, unable, no doubt, to appreciate the joke. 

A while later we caught the train to Tata. We passed the International Spar and rows of bungalows with more than a hint of the shtetl about them, each one growing their own vegetables and quite a few had animals in tow. Tata itself was more in keeping with the advanced billing. A notice outside told of the weekend’s entertainment back up the line at The Roxxy. “AB/CD” looked enticing, although perhaps not as much as “Elfsong”. I wondered if a Roxy Music tribute band had ever trod the boards there, featuring, perhaps, Ryan Fairy on vocals.

Tata itself was almost inevitably bound to disappoint given what was available further on back down the road. The rain set in as we ignored the bus stop outside Tata station. We headed to what we hoped was the centre of town, past attractive new build and the curiously named Hotel Kiss. “Csókolom” is the traditional greeting all Hungarians make to each other, literally meaning “kiss it”….the hand, that is. We got more and more drenched before deciding on an about turn in order to catch the next train back to Budapest. I still wish we had stayed longer in Tatabánya. AB/CD are on tonight.     

Friday, September 13, 2013

Manfred Mann Live at the Jazz Cafe (September 10th 2013)

Manfred Mann’s Earth Band (MMEB) were the first band I ever saw live, when, 33 years ago, I went with my elder brother to see them at the Brighton Dome. Seeing a line up of the Earth Band with only two surviving members from the 1970s was never going to match a 16 year old’s rock rite of passage. Back then they were a band that, while far from hip, had had some success only a few months earlier with a consistently good album “Angel Station”. Then, only in their mid to late 30s, they had toured the album extensively. They also had a mixing desk at The Dome. And, they had Chris Thompson on vocals. His is the voice on the most highly rated MMEB albums, all of which, unsurprisingly, were released in the 1970s. He was never especially mellifluous or highly dextrous in the vocal department, but Thompson could do subtlety, and gritty, as required.

Tuesday night’s man in the vocal spotlight was one Robert Hart. He doesn’t play much guitar, leaving himself free to pose with the mic stand like he was Rod Stewart in the 1970s. Close-up, in an intimately small venue like the Jazz Café, this is not a pretty sight. Hart is a competent but uninspiring member of the rock belter school of vocals. It was little surprise to discover later that he was Bad Company’s singer long after Paul Rogers had moved on.

MMEB have a great bass player, Steve Kinch, almost a veteran himself as he joined way back in 1986; a solid and slightly more youthful drummer, Jimmy Copley; and of course an almost undimmed 72 year old Manfred Mann on trademark keyboards together with original member Mick Rogers (no relation) on lead guitar and occasional vocals.

This was a relatively short performance; the night’s entertainment was partly filled with 45 minutes of Lesley Mendelson, a painfully sincere and wholly inappropriate 20-something female singer-songwriter from New York. The Earth Band themselves managed just eleven, admittedly not short, numbers, most of which would have figured on any “Best of” compilation. Subtler, but, for fans, highly popular numbers were probably out of Hart’s technical and emotional range. In some cases they would probably be too musically challenging for the rest of the band too, at least without that mixing desk and more time spent in rehearsal. The atmospheric quality found on numbers like “Waiting for the Rain” (from “Angel Station”, 1979); “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” (a brave Dylan cover from 1972); or “Drowning on Dry Land” and “Circles” (from their most commercially and critically successful LP, “Watch” (1978)) was nowhere to be heard. The performance of “Martha’s Madman”, taken from “Watch”, failed to get remotely close to the drama of the original.

“Blinded by the Light” (originally a Springsteen song) was both obligatory and, as it turned out, well performed on the night. Hart, for once, did not overdo the vocals, while he and Kinche provided a solid, but not overly dominating, chorus to accompany Manfred’s verse part (as per the band’s original version). MMEB are renowned for their covers; detractors would, a little unfairly, say not for much else. In most cases in the 1970s their interpretations actually complemented, even, in the above Springsteen example at least, arguably enhancing the original, in the process of often changing songs beyond recognition. “For You”, also performed, proved a far, far less satisfying cover of a Springsteen original. It wasn’t totally absurd though that a third should be added to the night’s repertoire. “Dancing in the Dark” though proved to be just about the worst cover I can remember having had the displeasure of hearing a name act do. (And I heard Westlife do “Matthew and Son” on a rainy morning in London in 1996). This was embarrassing, even, it seemed, to some of the members of the Earth Band. Total cabaret, and not particularly well done. Unlike “Blinded by The Light”, and the welter of Dylan covers for which they’re famous, it was made all the worse for being more or less a straight reproduction, at least until Manfred tried to rescue it with another blast of what, live, sometimes became an excess of keyboard noodling.

Things picked up when Robert disappeared and Mick Rogers took over vocal duties. He is weaker in volume but more in keeping with the style for which the band is renowned. He sang lead on “Father of Night”, a relatively obscure Dylan song first recorded by MMEB in 1973, and made it one of the highlights of the evening. When most of the rest of the band then exited for a well-earned comfort break, Rogers dusted off another gem, this time from an even earlier Manfred incarnation: “Doo Wah Diddy”. Singing with only his guitar and the drummer for accompaniment, Rogers alternated between the pace of the mid-60s original and a bold, rockabilly-style, reinterpretation.

A fairly decent fist was made of “Davy’s on the Road Again”, written by Robbie Robertson and John Simon, a live version of which MMEB are as equally renowned for as “Blinded by the Light”. For the encore yet another song from “Watch” was chosen, Dylan’s “Mighty Quinn”, which soon relapsed into a pub-style sing along.

It has to be said that there was a lot of emotion on the stage. The band, very friendly, upbeat and engaging with the many apparently recognisable faces in the audience, were plainly having a good time, including even the irascible old anti-star himself, Manfred Mann. At times he would delight his long time followers by emerging from behind his fixed and rather defensive bank of keyboards and strut his stuff with a strap-on “keytar”.

When the band linked arms for one of several bows, you wondered how much longer there would be as many as two original members still doing this routine. “For as long as people want to pay,” he recently commented, and there is a very hard core of devotees who will no doubt go on doing so for as long as he is still able to play. 

Friday, August 16, 2013

Shaw’s Major Barbara at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin

“Major Barbara”, currently showing at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, is not a must-see performance. However it has some very good performances, and, despite being over 100 years old, many still relevant themes.

In a moment of almost childlike Marxist didacticism, Paul McGann, playing the splendidly saturnine arms manufacturer Mr Undershaft, tells the audience that European governments do his bidding. Written less than 10 years before World War 1, the play’s author, Irishman George Bernard Shaw, is celebrated for his apparent power of prophecy.

Yet GBS’ more telling, and more pertinent observations for today's audience, concerns liberals self-righteously raging at the world’s many inequities. Undershaft, a man born of East End poverty who married into an Earl’s family, is the play’s only morally uncompromised character. GBS enjoys giving him many of the play’s wittiest and most perceptive lines. Undershaft’s morality is based on a gospel of material salvation that only money can bring. Socialists of the time scared this businessman by also preaching material solutions to soulless drudgery. However his daughter, “Major” Barbara, played by Claire Dunn, is rather less threatening. She sees the Salvation Army as the surest solution to want: bread and treacle in exchange for a (declared) devotion to God.

The least satisfying part of the play is Barbara’s naive, soul-searching, purity amidst more worldly compromises. At times hammy in actualisation, the difficulties of her role are only compounded. Sadly, but inevitably, it is Barbara’s declamations that end the play. Her “realism” has led her to embrace the pragmatic (or cynical) Adolpus, her fiancé, in his apparently reluctant decision to agree to run (and one day inherit) Undershaft’s business. Her reasoning is that she can then focus on converting less materially-needy souls at his factory. This version of changing the system from within smacks of the same simple-minded wisdom that Lady Britomart (Barbara’s mother, wonderfully played by Eleanor Methven)  elsewhere dismisses as typifying the insights of The Times newspaper.

The most witty, incisive, and electric dialogue is that between Undershaft and Adolphus in the second act. The former, ironically perhaps, often carries the audience in his deployment of well-informed cynicism against the almost puritan pleadings of his soon to be son in law whose version of changing the system from within leads him to imagine that he can make the arms trade more moral. The final line of the play is Undershaft saying to Adolphus, a man of normally more leisurely hours, that he will see him at the factory at 6 am.

Undershaft’s signature claim that only a willingness to kill can change anything, whereas voting only changes the names of cabinet members, suggests a utilitarian use for arms. Eleven years after this play was written, WB Yeats observed that in Ireland a terrible beauty had been born. In Egypt a willingness to kill, or more likely be killed, is convulsing that country, although the most likely outcome is regressive.

This is an antidote, perhaps, to Undershaft’s contempt for the naïve parliamentarianism expressed by his son, Stephen. Either way, “Major Barbara” speaks straightforwardly and often entertainingly to many complex and still contemporary issues.

Friday, August 2, 2013

The E17 Summer Art Show - Penny Fielding’s Interiors, Walthamstow, London

More than 100 pictures from over 80 artists, this show has a lot of material and some of it is actually rather good. However attending the opening in a shop in Walthamstow Village was an arduous experience. Popularity is no bad thing of course. Penny Fielding has managed to cram in a lot of new work alongside the clothes, ornaments, cards et al that her shop ordinarily features. However somehow the heat, the sheer volume (in all senses) of Village people, and £4 quid for a glass of average plonk somewhat put me off of proceedings.

If you peer carefully among the vast quantity of stuff housed in such a small space, you will see some very good work among the sometimes quite ordinary stuff. A striking painted image (see above) of a literary figure (?), a new Anna Allcock, impressive wood block prints, distressed photographs (whatever they are), and straight ahead middle brow work that would suit the unthinking home maker. It’s all here. If the exhibition gets its informational side together – the guide is part catalogue, part builder’s floor plan – the experience will no doubt be enhanced.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Live in Lau Land

I sat down not knowing quite what to expect from a gig at the Union Chapel in Highbury & Islington by Lau, a band I had only heard the name of before. I fiddled impatiently with the free lapel badge they’d kindly left me and other members of the assembled throng. The gig began with support act, State of the Union: a couple of great acoustic guitar players who could not lift this enormous and formerly sacred space. Pleasant, but essentially dull. So it was with some relief, my part at least, when Lau hit the stage.

Lau are a three piece, largely Scottish, ensemble who play acoustic instruments. Accordion player Martin Green was aided by a box of computer tricks that made it hard for me to differentiate between a manipulated delay effect and the possibility that he was sometimes using pre-recorded tapes. The fiddle player Aidan O’Rourke deployed an array of effects pedals, but these at least told me he was manipulating his own sound. The possible use of taped sounds isn’t necessarily a sin of course, even for a band that regularly wins or gets nominated for Folk Music awards, but the quantity of artificially generated musical effects is surely an issue, not least for a band whose website emphasises their shared love of “hardcore traditional music”.

Having not heard a note by them before, it was perhaps inevitable that it would take a while for me to get their particular blend of what I can only call folk electronica (I may of course be blissfully unaware that this is the name of an established musical genre).

However there were points in the first half or more of their performance that I got tired of the incessant endless climaxes of instrumentation generated by Martin, Aidan, and Kris Drever, who was genuinely, I think, playing an acoustic guitar.  In the latter part of the gig I began though to be converted to what some apparently call the republic of Lau-land (sic). This was helped by the fact that we heard more of Kris Drever’s splendid vocals as part of a perceptible shift in emphasis toward a more recognisably song based performance. 

In particular I noted “Torsa”, a tribute to a Scottish isle of that name from where I think Aidan hails. This deployed Lau’s intense and layered "folk electronica" to great effect, but, as it was held together with Kris’ vocals, it didn’t lapse too much into the orgiastic noodling that had prefigured so far. A triumph, in fact, of substance over form. I do wish they’d stand up though. How, I wondered, can you perform such uplifting and upbeat music from a sitting position? Perhaps this is all some kind of non "band" schtick.

A cover of “Ghosts”, this one apparently by Niall Waterson (I assume from the singing folk family), came straight afterwards. It also proved a major highlight. 

The hearty demand for an encore led to Lau deploying an inspired back to basics approach as they brought on other musicians - State of the Union and a couple of women from the apparently excellent band that performed in the bar in the interval - for a more traditional sing song in the form of a cover of “Goodnight Irene”. For partly personal reasons this brought tears to my eyes, but also because Mr Drever and the band gave a wonderful song such a splendid treatment. Less is sometimes very much more.

I am now wearing the badge.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Bowie at the V&A

“The Church of Man, love, is such a holy place to be,” sung the boy David when he was on a very different planet to the rest of us mere earth-bound mortals. The “David Bowie Is Inside” exhibition currently running at the V&A in London has at its physical and spiritual heart an enormous shrine to the Starman himself, never mind the supposed holiness of the masses.

Vast screens beam down to the worshippers projections from the astral plane of mega rock stardom as David struts his stuff in a variety of legendary and not so legendary live performances. Frankly, I was happy to be one the massed ranks of the faithful, making obeisance to a secular God who not only hasn’t failed but actually seems to have more power with every new rubbing of his relics.
 Throughout the exhibition there is an enormity of wardrobe function and malfunction reverently on display, encased in protective glass, thereby lending them all an air of holy object. The most fascinating section of the loosely themed displays for me was (naturally) the Berlin period. Covering arguably four albums but usually obsessed about as just two – Low and Heroes – this era fascinates me more than the cartoon spaceman that is the behemoth called Ziggy. “Berlin” is like a kind of side altar at the Holy Sepulchre, not the focal point for most of the devotees, but that special space where you can cross yourself semi privately and be grateful that you at least got close to the main act.

Speaking of bits of the true cross, the funniest item in the whole exhibition for me was a discarded tissue stained with lipstick. This, a printed card factitiously informed us, was used by David in 1975 during his Young Americans tour. I recall a relative keeping a similar cast-off from Anita Dobson’s handbag outside a London theatre. Of course I would have done the same; maybe not Anita’s though.
Exit stage right for the most important item in the V&A catalogue: The Gift Shop. This was nearly as popular as the central video shrine. £280 for a reprint of Aladdin Sane on card encased in cellophane anyone? I bought myself a fridge magnet of Bowie’s brogues and exited. I had been, to my surprise, uplifted, entertained, and, less surprisingly, reminded of his greatness. Not much had been displayed inside relating to David’s latest incarnation, The Next Day, nor that much about his often unfairly maligned 1980s product (the album Let’s Dance is allowed to sneak in as a good quality dalliance signposting supposed spiritual wastelands to come). 

Quibbles aside, and plenty can be made, this was actually a good value bit of sound and vision that gave this middle aged thin white dude plenty to still get thrilled about.    

Saturday, January 12, 2013

A quiet weekend in Amman

I have been in Jordan for just over 24 hours now. My first proper visit here since 1999. I don’t count the total of 16 hours in Queen Alia airport in 2008 on my way to and from a Jerusalem wedding (I was living in the UAE at the time; direct flights are not available), nor a couple of nights in 2007 chewing the cud with some colleagues with little focus on Jordan other than its hospitality).  

In Amman snow still lies on the ground, while I walk around in little more than my clothes for the Saudi leg of the trip plus a woolly cardigan purchased in Jeddah. There are times when this trip to the region has reminded me of being stuck for three months in the California Hotel in Dubai (see March-May 2007 entries). Staying in middling hotels, pounding my laptop, trying to make sense of barely legible notes, perpetually on the outside of things, never hitting a stride, speaking bad Arabic. At least in Jordan my bad Arabic has a point – for one thing it is actually spoken to Arabs, and they appreciate it, but mostly speak back to me in English. I arrived at the Jordanian weekend – being exhausted I was delighted to take Friday off, and after a desultory nap I headed by taxi to the Downtown area. A sweet laid back old guy (probably my age) drove me there. He told me the upcoming elections were important and a duty to take part in (an East Banker taxi driver?).

After dark the wet, cold streets should perhaps have been full of foreboding but were strangely welcoming after the stultifying blandness of Saudi (aside from Batta’ – see below). Downtown Amman feels like Ramallah pre “peace process”, but writ large. An incredible warren of life where probably anything can be bought, even if it mostly appears to be mobile phones, cheap clothes and cigarettes. I found a hole in the wall and enjoyed a great meal of kebab, homous and salad where, despite being the only Inglayze in the place, nobody gave a tom tit about me (which is how I like it). Washing hands afterwards – an obligation that I often don’t feel in London – was the Deira/Bur Dubai recognisable fair of cold tap and grease-proof paper to dry your hands. To the streets and a ride with a younger driver whose surname, Abu Ghosh, spoke to his family’s roots in a pretty Jerusalem village that he will never see. He, however, is more desperate to get a visa to the west. He has never voted, and won’t be doing so this time.

Back at the hotel I relaxed, enjoying the warmth and a well-fed and pleasantly tired feeling, at least until I muffed it and started stressing about the next day and ended up speaking to an old contact with whom I then made a cocked up arrangement that I spent the subsequent half an hour trying to rectify.

Today has been a damp squib – a pleasant time in the gym, although talking to an Iraqi about the war is not an easy thing to do (his second home is Australia, he told me, although most of his family escaped Iraq for Jordan after the war and he is studying in Amman). Nothing has come through this afternoon by way of a meeting. A walk to a local shop for an alternative to the tap water allowed me to take in a street full of car show rooms. My repeated calls to a local Muslim Brotherhood official have unsurprisingly not been picked up or returned. Tomorrow will be a more structured day, in sha-Allah.    

The state is moi

"I am the state; the state is moi," so, apparently, said Louis 14th. The state in Saudi Arabia is orientated toward the royal family, the al-Saud, but it has a life beyond the ruling family, or so says a well placed observer of the Saudi scene. The state has taken on the patronage role of the tribal sheikhs who once used their loyalty purchasing power to mark out their territorial domain. If the Saudi state can send security forces into every home and to operate on its extremely long and sometimes insecure borders, then it is a state and not just a family business, goes the rationale of those close to official sentiment. Yet take away a budget surplus, that according to genuinely modest official projections will be $1bn in 2013, then the Saudi state would seem a lot weaker. In neighbouring Jordan an IMF aid package requiring the slashing of domestic fuel subsidies resulted in riots and calls for the king’s head. While the government in Amman managed to retain much of its intended cut, aided by the restoration of cheap gas from Egypt, its tight fiscal situation makes it dependent on Saudi and other Gulf largesse. 

The Jordanian state, a frail entity born of a British strategic adjustment 90 years ago, and vulnerable to successive refugee influxes since the creation of Israel 65 years ago, is more than the sum of its Hashemite masters and their patronage games. However the key reason it looks vulnerable in the face of the Arab Spring and the latest refugee crisis, this time from Syria, is its lack of cash. As Abdulrahman al-Rashed, the head of Saudi satellite news channel Al-Arabiya, put it in his latest column in Al-Sharq al-Awsat, the Saudi state receives in a week from its oil what Jordan earns from its meager mineral industry in a year. This breeds complacency, or the so-called curse of the black gold.

Corruption is the virtual talk of the town in Saudi Arabia; the exact details do not have to be understood for most people to believe that it has a disproportionate hold on the top. The political impetus for change is not there among the business elite however, whose interests are intertwined with the royal family. However corruption could corrode a state legitimacy that, while about more than the Al-Saud, is bound up with their historic role as providers and territorial unifiers.

Unemployment is a real problem, yet the perceptibly progressive labour minister says 80% of the jobs in the country aren’t “suitable” for Saudis. The current succession crisis shows signs of being resolved by a switch to the next generation of competing relatives; this time it will shared between cousins not brothers, which could be a more fragile arrangement. The need for an institutional and rule-bound basis for determining the royal leadership – beyond personalities – is increasingly discussed among the non-royal elite, but such “solutions” look very far off indeed.       

I hired a bedu driver from Batta'

I hired a bedu driver from the the Batta’ area of Riyadh to take me 500kms to Qateef and Dammam on the Gulf. I haggled hard to ensure that this last minute change of plan for Friday did not rip a gaping hole in my budget. Begrudgingly agreeing to my price, Abu Abdullah has hardly gone 200 metres before he’s trying to up the price again. Halas, I shout, indicating that the journey was over. OK habeebi, ok, he reasons. But there will be an additional price to be paid. First it’s breakfast for us both, squatting on the floor eating foul (pronounced fool) as members of that amorphous genre rarely known as the Saudi working class file in and out, accompanied by the occasional Pakistani. The beans are damn good, as is the hot, sweet, milky tea. I relax, a little, despite the acute discomfort that an apparently fit middle aged guy feels adopting a seating position that Abu Abdullah, who I think is older than me but I really have no idea, finds effortless, even though he struggles to get his leg and his gut in and out of his own car. We then spend the next half an hour circling the area for other passengers so he can recoup his perceived losses from my hard bargaining.
Batta’ is a poor area of Saudis and Asian labourers notorious for some westerners and quite a few Saudis as the place that was hot with militant Islamism that occasionally fed acts of terror ten years ago. It is where BBC journalist Frank Gardener was shot. 

As we circle an abandoned car park and a series of abandoned buildings I get a frisson of excitement mixed with not a little dread as my understanding of the success of Saudi security forces in crushing Al Qaida at home gives way to the notion of a sudden revival in their capabilities. Abu Abdullah eventually gives up the ghost however and we are finally on our way to the capital of Saudi Arabia’s alternative reality: Qateef, an almost solely Shia city in a vast peninsula that, while peppered with different communities, is overwhelmingly Sunni, quite a few of whom embrace a highly conservative variant of it. If Abu Abdullah realised where he was driving me, I don’t think he would have agreed. I note later his comment that there is no where for him to pray.

Conversation is difficult as we begin to pick up the pace. He speaks Arabic, badly. I don’t really speak it all beyond very basic conversation. However Abu Abdullah’s version is so guttural that I can’t even understand the simplest of phrases – a bit like an American trying to get directions from a barely coherent Glaswegian. A series of entreaties are made, some genuine curiosity, others, I think, intended to encourage benevolence. However what really gets me is his attempt to get all the money up front. My worst side is brought out as I assume that he won’t wait the three hours required in Qateef as I conduct a series of meetings, and I have the possible prospect of hiring another driver or seeking a flight back. He gives way and accepts half up front.

In Dammam, a bustling and not especially prosperous looking Saudi city, even compared to much of Qateef and its surrounding villages, I meet with an old acquaintance, the brother of an influential cleric. Abu Abdullah is waiting for me as I take my leave of our meeting in the husseiniya. There then, inevitably, follows a long period trawling the bus station for extra passengers. Abu Abdullah strikes a hit, eventually, with two guys needing to get to Riyadh. He is hell bent on a third before I put my foot down, or rather suggest that he does. He obliges and we wend our way in what proves to be the wrong direction. Four exhausting hours later we are back in Riyadh. Of course he won’t be dropping me off where I am based, although he would for an inflated price. However the advantages of the anarchy that sits alongside conservatism in this part of the world is that he absolutely no qualms about forcing another taxi driver to stop his car in order to get me a more reasonable deal for the journey to my hotel.