Thursday, December 4, 2014

PJ Proby pisses all over Gary Numan

Death disco
I was partying with myself in the new vinyl room last night when the news broke that Bobby Keys was dead, and then it was Ian Maclagan. Both men were around 70, and may not have been in the best of health. Keys was the 5th or 6th Rolling Stone, playing rock sax, but with feeling, on their most memorable albums including ‘Exile on Main Street’ and 'Sticky Fingers’. Maclagan, a  keyboardist, was one of the Small Faces before joining the Faces with Rod Stewart. Songs were played in his honour on BBC 6 Music. The Small Faces never sounded better, in part because the DJ avoided the kitsch singles in favour of maturer album tracks.

Pensioner rock
At the Congress Theatre, Eastbourne last month I had a great seat among the wrinklies to witness the spectacle of a ‘60s Gold Night’. We had got tickets primarily because Gerry and the Pacemakers were headlining. Gerry can do no wrong in my book for his take on ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ and for writing and singing ‘Ferry Across the Mersey’. Gerry was ill. Fortunately his Pacemakers actually did live up to their name and were a comparatively spritely house band for much of the evening. Spencer Davis was there. He was without Stevie or Muff (a-huh) Winwood, but, backed by the Pacemakers, the old guy almost sounded urgent at times. The Searchers were in great form. Altogether now… “Needles and Pinzzahh…”  Yeah.
PJ Proby stole the show though. 76 and looking and sounding every bit like a performer in a club scene from a John Walters or David Lynch film. His hit version of ‘Somewhere’ became alt-cabaret as he strained to stay in tune but was no less moving for it. What a star.

Gazza’s glitter fades
I attended an alternative disco for overgrown school kids at Hammersmith Odeon last Friday. It was billed as a Gary Numan gig. Gaza was ill. After a few numbers I wished he had cancelled. Middle-aged women tousled their hair, Gazza fashion, and routinely pointed at the bewildering object of their desires. One particularly bovine fan shunted me aside in her desperate urge to shake her ass in time to the flu-stunted posturing of her diminutive idol. His routine, if I can call it that, was a one-trick affair of one hand on mic stand, incline head and shake vigorously. 

Gazza has been recording with Nine Inch Nails apparently. They have if anything compounded the cabaret feel. A succession of indistinguishable alt-dance numbers were pumped out by his bland band. At times he didn’t need to be on the stage. From the seat that I eventually retired to he was barely visible anyway. I only came for the hits. ‘Cars’ was OK, but, like everything else, was somehow made soulless on the night. Perhaps my experience would have been improved if his male fans weren’t essentially balding overweight morons with more interest in beer and bogs that Gary’s collected oeuvre. Thank God I left before the ‘Are Friends Electric?’ encore and the nauseating spectacle of Gary parading his kids like a winner of Sports ‘Personality’ of the Year.

The support was Gang of Four. Now they were good. Roy Jenkins was always more interesting than Tubeway Army anyway. They looked and sounded great; and by playing first they could be enjoyed before the army of beer spillers and would-be groupies moved in. 

Monday, November 24, 2014

Joan Armatrading live at Bexhill's De La Warr Pavilion, England

Rock’s Charlie Pride is a born-again black artist.

I lost touch with Joan Armatrading nearly three decades ago. In 1985 she seemed firmly planted in the white musical bombast of the time. Me Myself I, the last number by her that I paid any attention to, was a brilliant piece of overproduced pop-rock stomp. Last night at Bexhill's dlwp her devotees and enthusiasts were treated to a one woman seminar on Joan as major league black performer with a rightful, but not sufficiently acknowledged, place in the international music hall of fame.

She gave us the photos to prove it.

She did raw and accomplished blues, and subtler jazz, guitar. She sat at the piano and emoted like a latter day Nina Simone.

Joan's voice is as powerful as when she started but is now possessed of a richer, maturer tone. 

There were some occasional lyrical lapses. However Joan gave a flawless performance of numbers that ranged from the very good to the quite exquisite.

If there is one complaint, it is that Joan’s self-styled “last major world tour”, and first solo one, is evidently a low-budget affair. If she had been genuinely unplugged, the rawness that worked so well on her blues and balladeer numbers would only have enhanced her performance of the now classic Love and Affection.

It was still a barnstormer, but the pre-recorded synth strings and cheesy sax could have ruined it were it not for the sheer emotional heft and powerful hook lines that inevitably made it a winner. More or less devoid of “enhancements”, Down to Zero and The Weakness in Me, two comparably powerful torch ballads, were better performances on the night.  

Joan does great dead-pan too. She joked, self-effacingly, about pics of herself with better known performers, and introduced her encore so that she could get off the stage according to her schedule.

Joan closed the concert with an early favourite, Willow, and, oddly, gave the audience the last word as she played along to the few who felt confident enough to sing it back to her.

This gig though was an object lesson by Joan in “why I matter”.

She is of course preaching to the converted. 

Let’s hope she once again gets the attention she deserves from national and international media.    

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Yellowmen raise the roof in Crowhurst

‘Raising the Roof’ was a late October musical celebration in a Sussex village in aid of the Yellowmen of Kadongdong. Loosely a folk night, it was a joyous and mostly very entertaining evening. 

The standard of performance was initially quite varied, but the second half was almost faultless, and this in a village hall in the south of England. A world away from the UKIP froth at nearby coastal towns, the cause was to aid local men bringing relief to a part of Kenya where death from diarrhoea is not uncommon. The performers were a mix of folk-based musicians, solo singers, performance poets, an Andrew Sisters-style act, and a relatively youthful rock cabaret act with attitude. Two threads ran through the evening: retired teacher Chris Fisher and members of the family Moses: Brian and his daughter Karen.

Chris, MC and the evening’s co-organiser with Brian, is possessed of an impressive traditional singing voice; Carthy-esque but not derivative. Brian opened proceedings with a spoken tale of winter gloom before Chris joined in, walking from the back of the hall while singing an acapella version of the traditional ‘January Man’.

The next act, Robson, a self-styled exile from Northumbria, sported a white jacket and shades and looked like a cross between Roy Orbison and Los Lobos, but was sadly possessed of the vocal charms of neither. He also fell guilty to the mistake of many an intimate, unplugged type event, whether in village or city centre: too much between song schpiel. When he lifted his singing focus beyond the childlike to a reworking of ‘Raggle Taggle Gypsy’, things improved no end.

Next up was a bit of a surprise. ‘JC and the All-Stars’ were fronted by a young man with real rock star swagger, a Liam Gallagher stance, and Ryan Gosling looks. Unfortunately it soon became rock star stagger as his back pocket quart of Scotch dominated more than his stage act, and a voice relatively well attuned to doing an Oasis cover struggled with (the perhaps inevitable) ‘Whisky in The Jar’. The band, led by Mark Cole, played well enough, with some nice lead guitar touches by ‘JC’ (Joshua Cole). Follow that.

Well, Roger Stevens, doing a comedy set, certainly did. I don’t know if he writes his own jokes, but every one was a winner, and I’d had less than a pint of a very local brew at this point. Most are unrepeatable here, but suffice it to say that gags about onanism are still funny.

Dave Roberts was billed as an ‘Old Hippy Sings Old Hippy Songs’. He did what it said on the tin, and he did it very well. ‘All Along the Watchtower’ was not just a straight cover, and its climax, segueing into the last line of ‘Stairway to Heaven’, was a hilarious exercise in self-deprecation. He was followed by a tasteful and highly accomplished instrumental acoustic guitar set performed by Fionn Johnson, not bad for a 13 year old.

Among the stand-out performances of the second half were Steve Royston, whose ‘Play for England’  juxtaposed British men serving in Afghanistan with millionaire footballers whose patriotic duty and failings usually preoccupies the nation more. Chris Fisher’s take on a Ralph McTell song was performed with a large remembrance candle and poppy as a prop. His performance likewise successfully trod a careful line between necessary scepticism and undue cynicism.  

The Victory Sisters were performing their wartime favourites routine for the first time ever. They have fine voices and definitely looked the part. Their set finished with ‘White Cliffs of Dover’; some of its more idealistic lyrics somehow sounding more ironic than ever amidst the political notes others were striking.

Brian Moses has the style and air of one of the Liverpool Poets. His almost aggressive telling of the kind of name he wished his street was called– Paradise Lane not Meadow Road - was powerful and funny. Roger Stevens then returned with Victory Sister Karen Moses to help him out on vocals. The Crowhurst News gave me the impression that he might be singing with the pulp fiction writer and husband of a Blair babe, Ken Follett, and the black Tory activist and ‘Play Away’ presenter, Floella Benjamin. Now they would make for an interesting duo.

The Collins boys, father and son, did one of the greatest versions of ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ I have ever heard – a very smart accompaniment to the passing round of Al Collins’ Bob Dylan hat to raise extra funds for the Yellowmen. Son Rory was less inspiring on his own as he, by his own admission, went for the lowest common denominator and regaled us, albeit in fine voice, with some sing-along Beatles’ and Kinks’ tunes.

Many of the performers were then brought out for one last time as Chris Fisher led them in finale that featured a funny take on the ol’ Macca standard, ‘Mull of Kintyre’; and, more stirringly, the Shire Horses’ ‘Sit You Down’. A very moving end to an excellent evening.


Friday, October 3, 2014

The White Light White Heat of The Oysterband & June Tabor

I don’t know if folk-grunge is a musical sub-genre, but on hearing The Oyster Band interpret “The Bells of Rhymney” at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill, Sussex on Saturday night, I am thinking it should be. Apparently John Jones and the rest of the Oysters are happy to be termed folk-rock (perhaps in a knowing kinda fashion). However this was more the Fairports circa “A Sailor’s Life” (from ‘UnHalfBricking’), and with knobs on. If only The Oyster Band/June Tabor cover of the Velvet Underground’s “All Tomorrow’s Parties”, with June as Nico, had rocked like this. On that number you got the feeling that the boys wanted to rock out, but were holding back because of June's more measured, mannered, style.

"The Bells of Rhymney" was introduced by John as a tribute to the recently departed Pete Seeger, the American socialist folk troubadour. I had not realised that he was the first to put the original poem to music; many cover versions followed. On the night I thought I heard the repeated line “Who Killed The Miners?”. June’s earlier domestic political musings put the idea into my head that this surely inserted lyric was intended to be as much about 1980s Britain as a Seeger-type reference to unscrupulous US profiteer mine-owners of yore. Or maybe both.

(A note of criticism of the venue, or perhaps the band’s roadies and lighting crew. For much of the performance those in the balcony were treated to a "White Light White Heat" experience of a less pleasing kind than the Velvets produced. A naked back stage white light was beamed straight into our eyes, although this had stopped before the end of the gig.)

June Tabor brought a subtlety, not to mention vocal dexterity, to proceedings. Her confidence as lead vocalist contrasted with John Jones’ sometimes awkward but endearingly unassuming stage manner. I was pleased though that on the night she was only performing under the auspices of The Oyster Band, as too much of her between song banter and sometimes over earnest solo performances can grate. But when she is good, she is darn good. Their combined take on Jefferson Airplane's 'White Rabbit' captured something of the original's power but without adding too much. By contrast her and the band's interpretation of Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart" was almost a different song altogether, but no less powerful for that.

She led the whole band on a sublime acappella version of what I assume is a traditional gospel number. “Morning Star Rising” was, more or less, the title of this the penultimate song of the gig, and was for me the best performance of the evening. Perhaps it is being of a certain age, but hearing such exquisitely performed, but ambiguous-sounding, lines as “your mother is in heaven”, “your father is in heaven” made me struggle to hold it together.

The band gave an ample outing of their new LP ‘Diamonds in The Water’, which if its studio version sounds as good as the many outtakes performed on the night, will be well worth checking out. The whole ensemble, plus the youthful and very earnest opener Sam Carter, were on stage for “Put Out The Lights”, the evening’s closer. This I think is an Oyster Band number; although it was firmly and pleasingly in Richard Thompson/Fairports/Fotheringey territory (and might in fact have been "Shoot Out The Lights", the Richard & Linda Thompson number). This was an excellent gig from some very on-form folk troopers. Long may they rock.   

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Destruction of the UK State: Betrayed by Ignorance and Miscalculation

The seeds were sown in 1978 when the SNP and Welsh Nats blackmailed Jim Callaghan and his minority Labour government to hold a referendum on devolution. Those in favour couldn't muster 40% of registered voters in Scotland, so it fell by the wayside. Devolution was clearly rejected in Wales. The SNP's representation collapsed in the May 1979 UK General Election, but the idea of home rule for Scotland was there.

If the Labour Gov't ('74-'79) had given two fingers to the petit tribalists of the British Isles (including trying to please both Ulster Unionist and SDLP MPs at the same time) and gone to the country in 1978, they would have won with a workable majority. We all know what happened next. Perhaps the decline of the post war UK political, economic and social order, and specifically of subsidised Scottish steel mills and coal mines, was inevitable, and would have fed deep frustrations north of the border. However the personality and ideology of Margaret Thatcher, and limited Scottish support for the Conservatives under her, helped bolster the SNP. Then comes wise Mr Blair and devolution for Scotland and Wales, arrogantly thinking that a semi- federal arrangement eternally steered by Labour politicians on the ground, buoyed by grateful celtic clients, would keep the UK settlement intact.

In 24 hours a bunch of kids and some older political illiterates will probably break up the UK state. A tribal war has been successfully waged, as if Westminster was the headquarters of the English Colonial Administration. Westminster is so loathed - by all quarters of the UK - that the fact that its MPs were elected by us, including Scottish residents, seems somehow to not be understood. A "democratic deficit" is one of Salmond's rallying cries, yet every UK subject determines who forms the UK Government. Unless they can't be arsed. 

The trouble is that if there is a narrow "No" vote tomorrow then a belated attempt to fire up enthusiasm for the political process in all parts of the UK will see devolution across its countries and regions. Scotland's nationalists may not be satisfied. The English rejected regional governments in the late 1990s (except in London). If they're offered their own national parliament then they will probably secede from the Union themselves, after the UK (possibly minus Scottish votes) comes out of the EU in 2017. We're doomed...

Monday, July 14, 2014

Truckstop Cowboys at the Ex-Servicemen's Club

Don Gallardo and Stuart Bond opened What’s Cookin’ on July 9. It was my 50th birthday. A prime seat in the middle of a large room with a stage at one end and a bar at the other, what was there not to like? The stage was bathed in bordello pink and bedecked with what looked like old illuminated plastic Christmas trees. Polystyrene tiles topped off the ceiling. It was my kind of place.

The venue was upstairs at The Leytonstone Ex-Servicemen’s Club in East London. The gig was part of What’s Cookin’, a bi-weekly showcase of acts often labouring under the moniker “Americana”. It often means country, but not necessarily. At What’s Cookin’ it could equally mean swamp boogie or rock ‘n soul. To be fair, the organisers don’t call it Americana. It’s one of those annoying, catch-all, meaningless labels, just like “World Music”. (Have you ever heard a World Music dj play The Beatles or Bob Marley? Yet they were truly global acts whose songs reflected their (and others’) “roots”.)

Don, and his sidekick for this particular gig Stuart, were strong-voiced, emotionally engaging and played well. This was country straight out of Nashville, minus the western; although they were sporting 10 gallon hats. I was seriously impressed, with the music and the hats.

After a suitable break for more liquid refreshment - the birthday pints were piling up - a married Kansas-based duo, Truckstop Honeymoon, took to the stage. Originally from New Orleans, when Hurricane Katrina hit they relocated. At first the skinny, hippy-haired, dude on banjo and his bespectacled double bass-playing wife didn’t lift the audience like the previous act. But then, somehow, his spoken routine, and the quality of their performance, made me and assorted other revelers warm to them….a lot.

Perhaps these gigs are hard to judge objectively. They take place in a bar and there is no price of admittance (although a bucket is, rightly, passed around).

This though was my fourth outing to a What’s Cookin’ event. I have not yet been disappointed with the quality of the North American or North American-style acts that Stephen Ferguson, the organiser, attracts.

This Sunday (20 July) from midday he’ll be showcasing a whole day of it in Henry Reynolds Gardens as part of the Leytonstone Festival. I’ll be there.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Partrick's adventures in Pepperland

Our "Magical Mystery Tour" was hosted by Holly Johnson’s kid brother, Jay. He suggested that we kick off with some Frankie tunes. We thought that would be fab, falling for the famous Scouse humour. This tourist coach trip could have simply been a mindless milking of the sites memorialised by the Beatles to an endless accompaniment of their sometimes over familiar tunes. Yet Jay Johnson’s humour and knowledge, and our felt connection with at least some parts of the four lads’ back-story, turned the experience into something quite unexpected and, well, magical.

We visited George's two up two down terraced house (see pic below), glimpsed Ringo's place in Toxteth due for demolition along with 400 others, saw Paul's up-market council house run by the National Trust, and marvelled at just how smart and suburban John's home for 17 years actually was. Aunt Mimmie’s middle class mock Tudor pile was brilliantly introduced by Jay after he played a few bars of Lennon’s “Working Class Hero”. Jay’s was a well-honed act. We told him afterwards that he should have stuck on “Two Tribes”. That would be sackable offence, he said, not in jest.

The coach tour had been much more than a Beatles’ nostalgia trip. The gulf between the image and the actual home life of John, the most socially conscious member of the Beatles, was a sociological trip in itself, as was the sight of the boarded-up houses of Ringo’s manor. They have apparently stood in that condition for 15 years as the council dithers over what to do with the only one that they consider has heritage (and potential monetary) value, and believes it cheaper to destroy the rest and build new ones but lacks the funds to do it. Ringo used his local boozer, which still stands at the end of his old street, on the cover of a solo album, "Sentimental Journey", inserting family members into the windows.

As the bus pulled away we heard a snatch of Ringo's cover of the Doris Day song performed in his inimitable tone deaf fashion. Ringo hasn't found enough spare cash to even save his former home, let alone the rest of the area that he was once so sentimental about. Why not fund a tax-deductable refurbishment of the 400 plus homes and hand it over to a housing association, Mr Starkey?

Mathew Street’s Cavern Club is the premier pilgrimage site for many of course. Yet, try as the publicity does to convince you that this is more or less the real thing, it does not succeed, despite being a similarly brick built subterranean venue. Located a few doors down from the original, whose entrance is marked by a life-sized photographic replica, it claims to stand on 75% of the original site and to have been built using many of the original bricks. This is perhaps true in the dryly technical sense, but not even the various displays and the wee stage on which acts perform can quite give it the air of authenticity.

Strangely the Cavern Pub over the road, a fairly recently opened enterprise owned by the same company that owns the club and the Magical Mystery Tours, was a more satisfactory experience. It isn’t pretending to be something it wasn’t, has more interesting displays, and, on the night we visited, the advantage of a first class Beatles tribute act, Two of Us. This sibling duo have so imbibed their John and Paul shtick that they do it as a kind of method act, sounding a lot like, and even looking a bit like, their respective icons, albeit carrying rather more weight than appropriate for a couple of mop-tops (see pic of "John" below). Their version of “Don’t Let Me Down”, performed, like all their Beatles’ covers, to the accompaniment of  just their two acoustic guitars, was a tour de force. And I don’t normally like cover bands.

At the corner of Mathew Street and Whitechapel is an enormous and rather hideous souvenir shop, unimaginatively entitled “The Hard Day’s Night Shop" (to go with the adjacent “Hard Day’s Night Hotel” (sic). The balding, surly looking, bloke behind the counter repeatedly drummed the counter with a pen in a manner bordering on malevolent. He didn’t manage even a grunt when I wished him good morning. Mind you, if you’re not a fan of the Beatles, or even if you are, working in a supermarket selling stuffed Blue Meanies and Ticket to Ride pencil sharpeners, with Beatles’ documentaries playing on endless loop, would almost inevitably render you pretty humourless.

Our hotel was the Britannia Adelphi. Now in its third incarnation and sharing its centenary with World War One, this is a magnificent building located in the very heart of Liverpool and a short stroll from the neo classical late Victorian glory of St George’s Hall. The splendour of some of the hotel rooms is though more fading than others. Our bathroom door had recently been shouldered. However this incredible hotel features superb sitting and conference rooms. When I return to Liverpool I am going to try and book the Sir Harold Wilson Suite, which the former PM and local MP used for constituency business. I don’t know which floor John’s mother Julia worked on as chambermaid.

The Metropolitan (Catholic) Cathedral – this city has two – was stunning. This ultra-modernist wonder was built in 1967, relying in part on local fund raising. The spire depicts a kind of medieval crown, while inside an enormous crown of thorns iron work hangs over the huge central altar. An imaginative use of stain glass in the spire and in several chapels is mesmerising. The Anglican cathedral on the other hand is a routine mock gothic affair dating back 70 odd years. These days it seems to function as a kind of kindergarten cum shopping centre. At least the catholics keep their money changers outside the temple. The two cathedrals face each other at opposite ends of Hope Street

On our final day we inevitably took the Ferry Cross the Mersey. Gerry Marsden (the song’s author and singer) was our tour guide on this occasion, albeit pre-recorded. I am quite a fan of the modest man whose Pacemakers (also managed by Brian Epstein) have two of the greatest pop performances of the 20th century to their name. Their version of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” is quite simply the definitive interpretation. Yet no “serious” pop or rock historian ever deems to give them much consideration. We sat on deck, drank in the sun and marvelled at the stories about the former resort of New Brighton and admired the £27bn development at Seaport – a container port and wind farm just down from the city. The latter was a reminder of how this city was once and could yet be again a strategically vital trading hub – the gateway to America, as Gerry called it. As the legend has it, local bands in the 1950s got their hands on US blues and rock n roll records weeks before Londoners as they sourced them straight off the inbound ships.  

Only half a million people live in Liverpool, and it is a relatively compact and therefore quite handlable city. Yet it has over 2000 buildings deemed to be of historic interest, a contributory factor in UNESCO declaring it a city of world heritage in 2008, placing it alongside the Taj Mahal and the Pyramids. Even just at the pop level there is much more to it than the Beatles (or Frankie). Measured by the number of No 1 hit singles it is apparently the most successful city in the world. Its other big name acts are depicted on an Albert Dock sculpture, part of a huge and actually quite tasteful renovation scheme that began after the 1980s riots (take a bow Mr Heseltine). Their names can also be glimpsed alongside non Liverpudlian artists and writers named in stone on the entrance to the beautiful central library.

There was so much more that we never had time to see. A return trip is very much in order. 

Friday, March 14, 2014

Tony Benn - messiah or devil?

Ed Miliband said that Tony Benn was a champion of the powerless, a conviction politician, and somebody of deep principle. In other words all the things that Ed isn’t.

I am sad at Mr Benn’s death. He was the reason why, in 1981, at just 17 years of age, I joined the Labour Party. I was electrified when I heard him speak alongside the open-shirted dockers’ leader, and communist, Jack Dash at the National Museum of Labour Party History.

I also heard him at a Tribune fringe meeting in Brighton shortly after he lost the deputy Labour leadership contest to Dennis Healey. A Bennite sitting two rows behind us shouted “Judas” at Neil Kinnock who had voted for Healey. “Is Benn Christ then?” responded a guy sitting right behind me. That was the atmosphere of the time. He was for some a messianic figure, and if you were young and idealistic this was especially beguiling. For others he was the devil incarnate. I remember a Daily Express cartoon depicting him in a Gestapo uniform. This was a man who served during the war as an RAF pilot. This was not something he ever particularly emphasised, but not because he was ashamed of it. He was a patriot but of a different kind. His pride in British parliamentary democracy made him opposed to the EU, NATO and the influence of the US over UK foreign policy. Like Benn said of the Labour Party, he was "more Methodist than Marxist." 

He had begun his political life as a fan of the then Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell, who, whilst a socialist to my mind, was subsequently seen by the hard left as the Tony Blair of his day. Benn’s commitment to democratic socialism hardened in office in the 1970s under Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan. He never resigned his cabinet post. After 1979 he wielded the knife against the government in which he had just served, and intoned about the great betrayal he had apparently witnessed from the inside.

His followers would demonise anyone insufficiently left-wing and would fellow travel with the enemies of democratic socialism. He does have some responsibility for the departure from the Labour Party of some very able politicians (and Gaitskellites) who founded the SDP in 1981, and especially for the 1983 election manifesto. Despite that devastating electoral defeat, the strength of the Labour left, of whom he remained the unofficial leader, made it hard for Kinnock to criticise what had to be criticised about violence and intimidation in the 1984-5 miners’ strike. After the loss of the 1987 general election, Benn largely became irrelevant to the party’s fortunes.

He could though still be powerful critic of the realism that so many of us went along with. I met him in February 1998 on the eve of an aborted US/UK military build up in the Gulf aimed at Iraq. I muttered what I thought was a relatively inoffensive comment about how the Blair Government was just helping to "shore up" containment. Benn rebuked me sharply with a statement about the moral bankruptcy of what then had been seven years of containment.

Harold Wilson once said that Tony Benn immatured as he grew older. As Benn’s socialism became more and more unfashionable, he ironically became something of a national treasure. However Benn’s radical opposition to the anti-democratic whims of the free market and his criticism of the closeness of some UK governments to Washington have arguably more relevance than ever.  

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Meet Ukraine's New Bosses (more or less..) the Same as the Old Bosses

The celebrated, if rather pompous, UK professor of history, Timothy Garton Ash, repeated a now sorrily familiar canard on the BBC World Service on Sunday when he said that what had happened in Ukraine is “definitely a revolution”. The next day I read in the International New York Times that the revolution in Ukraine may need to be “better represented” in the about to be formed interim government.

When analysts comment about Yemen it is sometimes said that the Gulf Arab-backed interim deal that changed the president, and consequently the government, did not represent the “revolutionary forces”. That is perhaps a better formulation.

The “revolution” in Ukraine hasn’t really affected the apparatus of the Ukranian state, even if it has weakened the state’s writ. Despite Yanokovich having something akin to a democratic mandate, the revolution obliged him to depart and has aided the chances that his nemesis Tymoshenko, a failed premier, will take over. In the meantime the speaker of the old parliament keeps the presidential chair warm.

The revolution hasn’t affected the structure and membership of the police, intelligence services and the military, but it has succeeded in giving the interior and defence ministers the sack.

The revolution has seen self-appointed groups enforcing popular justice on the streets of Kiev, but is being actively resisted in the east of the country.

Egypt is going through a comparable (non) revolution. In either case was it the popular will or the shadow state that wrought the change? In Ukraine the oligarchs didn’t like the former president’s method of crowd control, in Egypt the military initiated two changes of president in two years and are about to finish the job by once again assuming the country’s political leadership. However perhaps one of several differences is that, while Egypt cannot control the Sinai, it doesn’t any longer fear the loss of part of itself to a powerful neighbour. 

Friday, February 21, 2014

1984 at the Almeida... but where are the proles?

Without poring over every word of George Orwell’s dystopian novel it is hard to be sure of how far the theatrical interpretation of 1984 currently showing at the Almeida in London has gone in updating the message. However the word “prole” has definitely been expunged from the contemporary NewSpeak dictionary used by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan in putting this production together. Orwell, I recall, wasn’t afraid to liberally pepper his text with it, mindful that “The Party” that he was partly satirising would alternately ideologically deify the working class, and exploit them as revolutionary cannon fodder. It was the Soviet Union after all that gave us that wonderful Newspeak neologism “Proletkult”: the term for the state’s promotion of what they imagined to be “true” working class culture.

In one of the most telling moments in the book, Orwell, through his anti-hero Winston Smith, says on hearing a woman sing an old East End pre-revolutionary tune, “if there is any hope, it lies with the proles.” In this attitude Orwell partly betrays the superior attitude of what he famously defined as his lower upper middle class roots. But he was also underlining the disconnect between the particular class in whose name the totalitarianism of the left was enforced, and that class “in and of itself” (as Marx famously prophesied it would one day become).

The Almeida version of 1984 has Smith talking rather more than I recall his original self doing about the common bonds between us all, and the need to end the suffering imposed across a global system. This was a more liberal internationalist message than Orwell was making when he wrote the book in 1948. He was, it is true, warning of the dangers of the illiberal trends with which he was personally familiar in a post-war Britain that was rebuilding the state machine and constructing a new (Soviet) enemy at breakneck speed, and, as this production also underlines, he was warning of our unthinking complicity in the destruction of freedom. However his particular venom in his later years was directed at the central model of the book: the Soviet system and its international fellow travellers, including those in the UK then were very prominent in literary circles, who would merrily trot out the latest Moscow line. This play begins where the book ends, a meeting of a book club set way into the future, who, cleverly, are talking rather more about the fate of Orwell and his warnings than they are the diary of Winston Smith that Orwell actually has them discussing. What use was it if it didn’t change anything, and, anyway, it was the vision of a dying man, they lament.

Women don’t fare too well in this production (contrast the indifferent Julia as played by Hara Yannas at the Almeida with the powerful performance by Suzanna Hamilton in the 1980s film version), but  in practically the final lines of the play, a woman member of the reading group fumbles her way to the opinion that the reason they don’t know when The Party lost power was because …maybe …it hadn’t.

Trite, but that’s the update I guess, and one, whilst not irrelevant to Orwell’s worldview, that is, ironically, a little too devoid of historical context. It was Smith after all who spent his days helping to destroy history to suit The Party. O’Brien, the high party official played by Tim Dutton, in the best scene in the play and of the book, says to a gruesomely tortured Smith (played by Mark Arends) that you think your idea of truth can save the world, but we control what is true because we control the past and, therefore, the future.

There are perhaps parallels to be made with the fast changing received wisdom of the contemporary era. History is not so much made by the victors as systematically disregarded in the pursuit of an understanding forged through the equality of instant exchange on social media. Orwell could not foresee this. For him what was in real life only the nascent technology of the “telescreen” was likely to become an instrument of state control. In a loaded contemporary media spin the play has us watching Winston and Julia in bed – we are all Big Brother. On social media we are the complicit destroyers of history, instantly creating new realities, all of us equally worthy of our say. We are now global citizens, fighting for freedom against the global Big Brother. 

Orwell had a word for that. Doublethink.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Muscat's Matra marina - into and out of the blue

Matra, or Mutra, is a 20 minute drive from the centre of Muscat, Oman. Being there just for an afternoon made me feel like a tourist in the Middle East again for the first time since we spent New Year’s Eve 1999 in Tunis. 

Bright blue sky in early February, like an imagined perfect European summer’s day. I strolled along the corniche, stopping periodically to drink in the view. The best part was climbing up coastal watchtowers, or just gazing, transcendent, into the milky white foam as the waves lapped at the shore. Behind me were the dark hills that dominate Muscat, reminiscent, in part, of the Northern Emirates, which used to be Oman anyway, but I have never seen a coastline like this in the Gulf. I mused on past ship journeys as a luxury cruise liner came into view. 

My first ever ship’s journey was more an open-top ferry, carrying me to the overly promised land. My first entry to the region was through the prism of Israel before I hitched to Syria, or at least, unbeknownst to me at the time, that Israeli occupied strip of Syria otherwise known as the Golan Heights. Bowie and Pat Metheny were performing their then current smash, “This is Not America”, on Israel Army Radio in the first vehicle I got into in Haifa. "Nir?" a woman I got chatting to hoped my name was. Her son’s name apparently. No, sorry, its Nee-illl. Oh, she said, disappointed that I was obviously just another goy boy, washed up on any Mediterranean shore that would serve me cheap booze and free love. I certainly went on to drink the kibbutz’ subsidised booze.

My mind blanked again, I wish it had stayed that way, just gazing at the white Omani foam, as the preoccupations of a research trip ebbed away and I felt able to experience the environment. Not the scribbling down of other people’s wisdom, or the aroma of hotel coffee, or the nervous plotting of taxi journeys, or the haggling over fares, or even, sometimes, the renegotiation of apparently agreed fares. Just experiencing; alone, but for the water and the rocks. 

I didn’t want to walk back along the corniche because I knew that that mean the end of the escape. One crow, then several, perched themselves right next to me as I was looking out to sea. One eyed me cautiously, as I did I it. All I could think of was "The Omen" and other tales of the demon bird’s love of eye balls. Obviously a sought after delicacy in the avian world. I decided to meander a bit further long before turning back to town. What I had presumed from a distance to be stray cats playing ahead of me were in fact stray puppies. I had hoped to get among their "unclean" ambiance but they backed away, resentfully.

Back along the path into town I spotted some more of the dying butterflies I had seen earlier. I strange and depressing sight. I do not know what constitutes a butterfly season in Oman, but this one seemed over a little early to me.

A busy day of meetings today after a night of fitful sleep, partly affected by car park revelers as the nightly disco here goes on to 3am. I asked for a room far away from the disco, so I shouldn’t complain. Maybe I should have been at the disco. I get the feeling it would largely be populated by Asian prostitutes, German tourists and the odd curious local. I have seen this movie before. Tomorrow it’s back to storm-damaged Blighty. A mixed bag to contemplate.

Friday, February 7, 2014

The UAE highway to heaven and to hell

This time round, returning to the UAE, our former home, has been an emotional experience, redolent of both the torpor and the pleasure I felt when living here. My research-related meetings have mostly been very useful; and reacquainting myself with some familiar local faces has been very enjoyable. I have also made one key break with the past: I finally took to the road under my own steam. Viewing a fairly large swathe of the northern Emirates when you are driving is a wholly different experience to that of the usual visitor. Normally I bottle it when it comes to driving anywhere in the Gulf, having become inured but not insensitive to the hair-raising escapades of taxi drivers in this part of the world. Did I want really want these guys up my arse (as it were), lights-a-flashing? What is still heavily frowned upon in the UK is perfectly normal driving practice out here. In the end hiring a car became a test of my mettle.

A planned day in Al-Ain at the UAE University had in any case fallen through as a member of the academic staff there apparently decided that he no longer wished to see me but somehow could not summon up the good grace to tell me. Two emails, an attempted phone call and a text seeking to confirm our provisional arrangement brought exactly zero response. I sincerely hope that the next time he tries to arrange a meeting with someone in Britain that they go out of their way to show him the same level of respect.

However Al-Ain’s loss was eastern Sharjah and Fujeirah’s gain. After a while I entered the appropriately named "Wadi Helo", or rather it would be appropriate if the sign writer thought this place was called “Greetings Gorge”. 

The Arabic actually, more or less, means “beautiful gorge” and beautiful it is. This place is a minor (almost) undiscovered gem on the Sharjah-Kalba road. It did lack the more obvious tourist-friendly feature of a cafĂ©. In fact the only shop in a brand new building designed to house three units did not seem to be used to visitors of any kind. 

Leaving the wadi I drove along incredible twisting roads and, literally, through dark, foreboding, mountains. Going through a tunnel I was reminded both of Dartford and of a transcendent scene from Tarkovsky’s film “Solaris”. From relative darkness and monotony, I emerged into a different world. The damp, shadowy rocks had been turned black by the storm-heavy clouds that in seconds had dominated the horizon.

Soon I was in the emirate of Fujeirah, where one very early summer morning we had once hiked up the mountains. However I had always wanted to know that Fujeirah the city was like. I wasn’t disappointed. It really is as awful as I’d imagined, a bit like the less appealing parts of Sharjah proper. One central drag, and, on either side, one tacky-looking poor apology for a Dubai sky scraper after another. The corniche, while not long, is nice enough. It was there that I encountered two guys from the Damascus suburbs, one of whom had had trained in Fujeirah to be a pilot (civilian), but, as he reminded me, this modest emirate lacks an airline to go with its international airport.

On my way back into Dubai in the rush hour, the absurdly false sense of security I had begun to acquire about driving in the UAE hit me like a sledgehammer. This was the most adult driving experience I had ever had. Overtaken on all sides and having to take serious risks in a relatively small and slow car to get on to exits because people not only don’t let you in, but they accelerate toward you when you’re trying to get into their lane. Part of me really enjoyed the thrill of dodgems for grown ups, part of me assumed that my opting for only third party insurance (let alone no health insurance) had been a definite mistake.           

The next day it was with considerable sadness that I left my friends and their beautiful beach-side villa in Dubai to get on the plane to Doha. Whilst this time not slumming it, as is my usual want, my middling but good value Mercure hotel in Musherib is conveniently located next to an enormous building site (of which there are many in a Qatar fast tracking diversification on the back of gas riches). A room with a view indeed. This was sunset as seen from my balcony on Wednesday evening.

My meetings (the actual purpose of my visit) have been pretty thin here, in part as Qataris seem to have taken an informal (and out of character) vow of silence in the face of increasing intra-Gulf tensions over events in Egypt.

A visit to the branch of Georgetown University in Doha reminded me of a sight I had seen when teaching a few years back in Sharjah (see picture below). It seem as if Israeli penetration of the Gulf states really is as deep as some of their Arab detractors claim.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

A loft full of yesteryear

I have spent a good part of the day in my loft disinterring old memories by sorting through carrier bags of paperwork, slightly damp books, and yellowing photo copies. This was a difficult exercise. A good deal of it I am putting aside to trash, give away, or in some cases to offer to specialist scholars with a penchant for copies of UK and US Government documents relating to Kuwait in the 1960s and early ‘70s. Sad. Aside from the Kuwait documents, this was a difficult and often emotional exercise.

I am a hoarder. Why else would I have found boxes quite literally containing nothing but newspapers from the 1990s? However when the items I find are Christmas cards from long lost friends, a receipt for studio time in 1985, and heavily annotated 20 year old articles about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they stir up memories difficult to simply dispose of in the waste pile. A box of photos from the 1980s and 1990s mostly brought me cheer, especially those of my wife and I. Thinking of her does not invoke pain. A copy of a Sunday supplement magazine with Dylan on the cover, and with “For Neil” in my mother’s hand-writing, does.

I found an old cigar box with letters and cards. Some were from a slightly eccentric Edinburgh Quaker who many years ago would send me clippings apparently affirming unmitigated Israeli evil. He himself would not set foot in the Holy Land…on principle. However many were from my now deceased mother and father. I had long forgotten that my father had actually expressed in writing his “pride” in what he thought I had “achieved”. I don’t recall him ever clearly saying such a thing mind you. Rereading a note from my mother expressing similar sentiments was difficult, not because I don’t recall her ever verbalising such sentiments, but because in the end isolation and the disappointment she felt with her life made her love of her sons insufficient to want to keep on living.

Another dimension to the afternoon of half-remembered enthusiasms and distant echoes of longings once felt, and often discarded, were the piles and piles of rock magazines and newspaper clippings. Musicians’ obituaries, gig and album reviews, band profiles. Even a copy of Paul Yates’ execrable “Rock Stars in Their Underpants”.  The Middle East somehow took over from, but never entirely replaced, my youthful love of pop. The latter had rendered Tommy Docherty’s Man Utd pretty irrelevant for me when I was a mere 12 or 13. Pop has been a constant. It is a profession that I vaguely flirted with once as a would-be manager (briefly) and periodically ever since as an amateur critic.
The stuff I was going through was overwhelming, partly by virtue of its sheer quantity as it began to merge with the piles and piles of old books and magazines that already clutter our landing. However it also began to make me feel hopeless. Of course your life isn’t defined by old newspaper articles you’ll never read again and notebooks filled with scrawl. However they can say something about what your life was about, and, by now being old, what your life has become. Memories, past enthusiasms, hand-written notes suggesting real concern for the conflicts of far-away places. My notes from the present will not later be discoverable in box files or cardboard boxes. They will be on hard drives and memory sticks. Some will be included here, at least for as long as this blog exists. Their concerns, aside from what I need to do to earn money, will often be personal, whether I am writing about myself or an old band I have seen.   

Right now I just want to cleanse myself in all senses of the dust of yesteryear, but the boxes surround me, awaiting collection or council recycling. I am going out tonight and perhaps the booze will wash away some of the cloying sense of the past. At least until the morning when I will sit at this screen again, switching awkwardly between sad musings and professional assignments. 

Friday, January 17, 2014

The sad demise of Barry's Bench

A Dubai source has given me the very sad news that “Barry’s Bench” is no more. The Mexican-style restaurant that sat inside the very pleasant Arabian Courtyard Hotel (located opposite the Dubai Museum) has closed. This was my favourite restaurant in the whole wide world. I once considered holding our anniversary party there (after we had already moved back to London). I am totally gutted. It has, I am told, become a pizzeria.

Now, my sense of what is good in the world has been circumscribed by too much time spent in the Middle East. When we lived in the UAE, finding any restaurant with character, aside from de facto male-only joints rejoicing in such names as “Pak Express”, was a difficult exercise. Barry’s managed to utilise the advantage of being within a hotel (booze was on the menu) without actually seeming like you were. In fact you could enter and exit directly from or onto the bustle of Bur Dubai in the old Creek area of town. Location was very much part of Barry’s charm.

Seating was mostly in spacious booths. This modest-sized restaurant was designed for comfort, not to cram as many punters in as possible.  An undoubted factor in the particular appeal of “Barry’s Bench” was the almost obligatory Margaritas. These we enjoyed whilst waiting for our mains, with our mains, and as desert. They were lovingly prepared at the enticing restaurant bar where the odd punter would sit. I, for one, have not tasted better.

The food? Oh yes…that was always superb (I did once eat there sober). The burritos and tacos tasted as authentically Mexican as anything I ever had on the west coast of the US, and I never (knowingly) saw a Mexican in Dubai. The staff who served you in the restaurant were south Asian men and a Filipino woman. They were friendly and attentive, but not overly so. Unlike most waiters in 4 or 5 star hotels in Dubai, they respected your space and your need to take your time. Perhaps that is why it closed. However it was always busy when we were there.

I never did find out who Barry was, and exactly what or where his bench was either.

“Time Out Dubai” lists a “Barry’s Bench Express” as located within the Times Square shopping centre on Sheikh Zayyed Road. It seems the legend continues. However a fast food version located in a mall without being able to savour Margarita Time would really not be the same. Not at all.   

Friday, January 10, 2014

Family duties

It’s a New Year and in a few months time it will be my 50th. Yet I am not sure what will have changed by the time I reach that particular milestone. Too much time on my own to think, perhaps. For when I am not writing about the Gulf from the vantage point of Walthamstow, I am wondering what the point of any of it is. The book will provide something different for those who are so inclined. In the context of recent family events, and an inability to believe the future will be profoundly different, my enthusiasm sometimes wanes. If I don’t have a runner in the Mid-East race, and if I don’t feel a desperate desire or ability to reveal some hitherto unrevealed truth about it, then it is perhaps unsurprising if I am not always totally fired-up about my professional duties.  

Aside from that, the great escape (to where?) has been indefinitely postponed. I am childless, yet tied to family. Without family, yet performing family duties. What a strange state to be in. My mother died 15 months ago and I am still waiting for the headstone. Without parents I have no one to cry to. As a child I cried to my parents. As an adolescent I needed to cry to someone else about my parents… I found Jesus. As a young man I turned away from fathers, holy and unholy. As a middle aged man my parents began to need me to cry to…about themselves, about each other. In the last five years I have buried them both. I may never see my brother again. I am happily married to the woman who has been my closest friend for more than two decades. I am lucky. This is narcissistic, attention-seeking, nonsense.  

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Cheesecloth rock in the New Year in the Stow

Cheesecloth are an East London/Essex band who specialise in highly competent covers of mildly obscure ‘70s songs. Fans of the band helped to fill out the Ye Olde Rose n’ Crown pub in Walthamstow this New Year’s Eve. However many of the revellers turned up before tickets were required for entry and were plainly content to just drink, regardless of what was going down on stage.

This band of middle aged males and a young female keyboardist are passionate and engaged, and some of the songs they covered were bold if not borderline ambitious. Bowie’s “Drive in Saturday” was a notably entry in the latter category. Even that did not faze them. More typical pub rock fodder were their faithful versions of the Stones’ “Dead Flowers”, McGuiness Flint’s “When I’m Dead and Gone” and Ronnie Lane’s “How Come?” 

The problem, at least for those who lacked the dedication of those, like me, who were dancing down the front, was that many of the numbers required a minimum age of at least 50, and a functioning memory, to mean very much. That, the fact that some of the songs are relatively laid-back, and the understandable desire of many to just booze on an occasion traditionally dedicated to the same, meant that, however hard Cheesecloth worked, they were often, inevitably perhaps, falling on deaf ears. However, as the pace and revelry built up toward midnight, the number of those dancing steadily increased. After the cheers for the New Year rang out, and the band took another well-earned break, “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” was played over the PA. It’s never sounded so good…(hic)….

Consisting, on New Year's Eve at least, of Ian on lead vocals and guitar, Danny (bass), Holly (keyboards), Pete (drums), John (guitar), and Huw (harmonica), Cheesecloth are well worth checking out if this kind of music and pubs in the East and North East London area are your bag. Their manager, and such was the enthusiasm down the front, bouncer, is Ian Blowes. In the latter capacity he was working pretty hard, so much that he performed the only on-stage wardrobe change of the night.

If I have any criticism it is the of the band’s name, which used to make me imagine that they do covers of Brotherhood of Man songs. However it’s memorable and they’ve had it for a while, so, like their material, why bother changing a good thing?