Friday, September 13, 2019

DSEI: Arms not for hugging

The first thing that I noticed upon arriving at DSEI was a young mother and baby protesting one of the world’s biggest defence and security exhibitions, or ‘arms fairs’, depending on your point of view. The Excel Centre in London’s Docklands – Newham if you actually live there - played host this week to the biennial defence industry jamboree. The mother and a friend – there were surely many more at a safer distance – chanted ‘arms are for hugging,’ which made the policemen and security guards standing nearby smile.

Taking the fight to DSEI (note also the baby's t-shirt)

I entered DSEI in record time, thanks to a very efficient media registration operation, and soon settled in to my usual people and kit-watching mode. It wasn’t long before I wondered what the hell I was doing at this almost absurd spectacle. This was my fourth time of attending; I’ve also been to IDEX in Abu Dhabi and similar events. At the latter, some 20 years ago, I was however speaking at an associated Gulf security conference. At DSEI I was, as ever, unsure of what my role was.

The Excel Centre - care of ADNEC, a UAE exhibitions company
I typically wander around either trying to hook up with existing contacts or just talking to stall-holders about their wares. However there were some undoubted sights to marvel at too. Whether the classic British Centurion tank (see below) or a chance for the boys (me included) to play with some guns (see below), there was much spectacle.

Rear-end of a Centurion tank replete with cacti

Admiring the hardware
I noted that past in-theatre deployments of Russian ultra-babes had been forsaken for more conventional ways of promoting the goods. I gawped at the sheer scale of the UK’s state of the art ‘Tempest’ aircraft (see picture below), which had a steady queue of both men and women wishing to clamber aboard. I stepped outside and admired the huge naval ships in the former London canal-way and the small aircraft or unmanned drones taking to the skies above Docklands. Across the way two huge abandoned warehouses stood as stark reminders of what the area used to be.

Dockland dereliction


'Team Tempest'

Ship's inspection


Having a Gulf interest, I scoured in vain the DSEI guide for any sign that the Saudis’ much-vaunted planned expansion of their limited defence production capacity was reflected at DSEI. The DSEI website did have a brief about SAMI: the ‘Saudi Arabian Military Industries’ company set up as part of the Kingdom’s ambitious Saudi Vision 2030 (SV2030). But there was no DSEI stall number. SAMI, in partnership with GAMI, the overarching ‘General Authority’ for Saudi military industries is tasked with ensuring that 50% of all new Saudi arms are produced in-country within 11 years and that SAMI becomes a significant arms exporter.

More prosaically, earlier this year a former UK official told me that SAMI was making progress because it was producing small and, he admitted, basic engineering components. ‘Widgets’ was the word that came to my mind. Either way, this is seemingly not enough to warrant hiring a DSEI stand.

The contrast with the UAE was striking. Perhaps having a ‘UAE Pavilion’ wasn’t that surprising as the Emiratis own the Excel Centre in which DSEI is held. However the UAE seems more serious than the Saudis about developing a domestic defence industry. This effort essentially revolves around Tawazun, the state-founded company that since the early 1990s has been promoting in-country defence industry capacity. EDIC, the ‘Emirates Defence Industry Company’, was founded more recently as the country’s overall defence industry platform, but Tawazun has the majority stake in it. Someone on the Tawazun Economic Council (TEC) stall told me that TEC’s focus since 2017 has been on using ‘offsets’ (a de facto Gulf tax on western defence companies who commit to developing local know-how as part of an arms deal) to assist defence and non-defence industry development. TEC is also using its remit to develop local capacity in order to shepherd ostensibly private Emirati companies such as Halcon (part of the Al-Yas Group), who were right next door in the Pavilion. In February 2019 Halcon got a large TEC soft loan as part of the TEC policy to either fund or co-opt local defence businesses[i]. I was told that Halcon employs about 150 people, over half of whom are Emirati and are typically engineers who come to the UK for a post-graduate education. About 30-40% of the components in Halcon’s missile guidance and control systems are imported apparently. This is the all-important electronics component; the rest is done in-country. 

On the other side of Halcon’s stand was one belonging to ‘Al-Hamra’, whose smart promo publication boasted of them “Addressing Tomorrow’s Threats, Today”. Their emphasis it seems is on assisting private and public organisations with counter-terrorism and ‘intelligence’ work, something they do across the Middle East and Africa according to their glossy brochure. Sadly there was no one on the Al-Hamra stall to comment further. In fact this was a depressingly familiar experience from past such encounters of mine. It belies the UAE's go-ahead attitude that seeks to match its regional and extra-regional military ambitions with a greatly expanded supply of domestically produced kit that by definition isn't beholden to western political sensitivities or technology embargoes. I spoke to the former Tawazun press spokesman who told me that his successor, Mohammed Ahmed, was the only one who could make any comment to me, whether on or off the record. However Mohammed Ahmed had been called away from DSEI on business and would, I was assured, contact me when he returned. He didn’t.

I am ambiguous about missiles. However one that caught my eye was QinetiQ’s ‘Banshee’, which is actually an aerial practice target. Perhaps it was the name that appealed to me, making me think of Siouxsie Sioux’s band, or perhaps it was its attractively bright red colour-scheme (see below) and the free key ring.
A Banshee minus Siouxsie

Oxford space miniaturists
I wandered into a talk by a representative of Oxford Space Systems who addressed punters on her company's contribution to the 'miniaturisation' of space communication (see above). She mentioned that her company had a UK Ministry of Defence contract for aspects of this work. On my way out I noted that the use of canines in war zones was taking on a very hi-tech dimension (see below).


A dog of war
Oman was out in force at DSEI, commanded by Sheikh Badr bin Saud Al-Busaidi, officially known as ‘the minister responsible for defence affairs’. When I spotted him and his large retinue of uniformed Sultanate officers, they were surrounded by UK military and defence industry people. He went on after DSEI to meet with the UK’s new defence secretary Ben Wallace, and to visit Britain’s National Cyber Security Centre.

Oman hosts a new UK naval base and, separately, an army training base. The former, located on the Arabian Sea, is designed to accommodate the UK’s one and only aircraft carrier which is still undergoing operational trials before being scheduled to form a ‘carrier group’, with a still to be trialled second carrier, sometime in 2021[ii]. This intimate British role in Oman’s security was arguably unaffected by our ‘pull-out’ East of Suez in 1971. However its stepping up in recent years has made the UK even more central to the Sultanate’s security, including the highly tense Gulf littoral [i].

Before leaving DSEI, I met with an ex-British military friend. He told me that coming in to DSEI on the DLR that morning he had felt disconcerted by a  man who sat right next to him. The man in question started wheezing before my friend asked if he was ok. He noted that the man was wearing a ‘Veterans for Peace’ t-shirt and was obviously about to join a protest outside DSEI. An understanding passed between them. ‘Have a peaceful day,’ my friend said at their parting.





[i] February 19 2019, Dania Saadi, https://www.thenational.ae/business/tawazun-to-invest-up-to-dh193m-in-uae-defence-company-halcon-1.827609
[ii] ‘UK carrier begins ‘Westlant 19’ operational trials’, Richard Scott, Jane’s Defence Weekly, September 4, 2019.
[i] See my article for the University of Kingston's History Department blog contrasting Harold Wilson’s decision to end the UK’s formal defence presence in the Gulf and commitment to defend the Gulf rulers, with the so-called return ‘East of Suez’ under PMs Cameron and May 

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Are Corbyn and some of his allies anti-Semites?


n     I wrote this as a private email on 27 February 2019 when Chris Williamson MP first had the Labour Party whip withdrawn from him in the UK House of Commons:

      Anti-Semitism is not as big a problem in the Labour Party as it may, at times, appear to be given the amount of media coverage, nor is it as widespread as some allege. It is true that the accusation of it that is made against some on the pro-Corbyn left of the Labour Party, coming most strongly from the Party's anti-Corbyn wing and by those Labour MPs who’ve just joined 'The Independent Group', is in part a politically-motivated attempt to damage Mr Corbyn and his leadership. This can have the effect on the Corbynite Left of encouraging them to defensively kick against the hostility of the Labour ‘Right’, and maybe, just maybe....repeat, maybe....this explains the comments of pro-Corbyn MP Chris Williamson, for which he has today partially apologised. Maybe. 

      To some it might seem that anti-Semitism is simply being confused with anti-Zionism. Sometimes it is, and that I too have a problem with. However it is actually, and increasingly, hard to separate the two issues. If Zionism is always unacceptable, in any form, to some on the Left, then it should be no more a concern to them than any kind of nationalism/national aspiration that is ethnically or religiously exclusive e.g. the aspiration for ethnic Kurdish nationhood (very popular among Kurds in parts of Iraq, Syria and Turkey, and supported by some in the west); the agitation for, creation of and maintenance of Pakistan, a self-defined exclusivist Muslim state. Or Arab nationalism, a banner that Nasser and others got behind in the ambition to mobilise one ethnicity, ostensibly on behalf of the Palestinians, against Israel (or rather ‘the Jews’ as their propaganda referred to) and in the process disregarding a whole host of Middle Eastern, non-Arab, minorities. The same could be said of the official 'Arab Ba'ath’ ideology of present day Syria and of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq: Arab chauvinism expressed via an ethnically exclusivist politics i.e. ethno-nationalism. The Muslim Brotherhood – recently in power in Egypt and still popular throughout the Middle East and North Africa, including in Palestine – is committed solely to establishing a form of political rule that unites Muslims under Islamic law (regardless of Christian Arabs et al). However I never hear people on the Far Left, or Jeremy Corbyn specifically, talk critically about them. In fact he has praised and shared platforms with the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas (whose charter still contains reference to the widely recognised anti-Semitic forgery, ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion’), and shared platforms and praised Hizbollah (a Lebanese pro-Iranian group solely interested in advancing the interests of Shia Muslims, in Lebanon, Syria etc).   

      OK maybe this is just inconsistency, or (wilful) ignorance, or both. Maybe this isn’t cast iron proof of anti-Semitism. I really cannot see Jeremy Corbyn going home at night and sticking pins in a doll depicting a pot-bellied, bespectacled, gold chain-wearing, big-bearded, big-nosed, archetypal ‘Yid’. Yet he praised and defended an infamous mural with more or less this exact depiction of a Jew on it, even when this specific aspect was pointed out to him. In response to criticism of some young Leftist Labour activists who had referred to the power of ‘Jewish capitalists’/’Jewish capital’, he said that they’d let their anti-capitalist enthusiasm run away with them. Perhaps he would be as indulgent of Ernst Rohm and his anti-capitalist Nazi Brownshirts whom Hitler had purged. In a fairly recently unearthed clip of Jeremy speaking (prior to him becoming party leader) on a pro-Palestinian platform about Israel, he was found to respond to a critical question put to him by a British Jew, whom he presumably recognised, by saying that ‘they’ should have more of a sense of humour, and that ‘by now’ ‘they’ should know this country better. When some his followers in the party target anti-Corbyn Labour Jewish MPs and councillors with strongly pro-Palestinian messages on social media, they are choosing to focus on their ethnicity and to link that to a foreign issue. In doing so they are in effect portraying these British politicians as foreigners in their own country, just as Corbyn did when responding to an audience member in the clip I refer to above. Would they - do they - ever target non-Jewish political opponents (who’ve sympathised with Israel) in this manner?

      The hostility to Israel easily overlaps on the left with hostility to US foreign policy and perceived disproportionate US armed action on Arab/Muslim states/targets. If Israel and the US are deemed to be wrong, then some on the Left find it hard to be critical of a Middle Eastern enemy of Israel and the US, Iran (which institutionalises in one office the exclusive exercise of Shia political and spiritual authority) even when the Iranian working class are striking over pay and conditions. It should also be noted that the Labour Party has long had significant representation among Muslim Asians in the UK, usually, but not exclusively, those of Pakistani heritage, among whom strong and sometimes highly conservative Islamic assertions can sometimes be found that hardly fit with the politics of middle class socialists enthused about Corbyn.

      Anti-Semitism, perhaps ironically, literally means to be an anti-Semite, a loose ethnic term, using perhaps spurious ethno-genetic classifications, that includes Arabs as well as Jews. In common and widespread parlance however, it means to be anti-Jewish. What is it to be ‘Jewish’? It is ostensibly an adherent of a particular monotheistic religion. However Jewishness plainly has a wide set of cultural identifiers, and to some extent ethnic identifiers, that apply to Jewish atheists too. It obviously isn’t the same thing as being ‘Israeli’, which is actually not a totally ethnically exclusive nationality, even if political and constitutional realities mean that it comes pretty close to being so.

      So, are Jeremy Corbyn and some of his allies anti-Semites? Well, the blithe and knowing disregard for causing collective offence, the prioritisation of factional political advantage over addressing any such offence, and hostility to any territorial expression of Jewish national identity, but acceptance of other ethno or religious nationalisms, comes pretty close.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Tom Cole Live at The King’s Head in Battle


I have raved about this singer-songwriter before and will no doubt do so again. Tom Cole recently played to a mostly disinterested bunch of revellers and eaters in The King’s Head pub in Battle in East Sussex. You had to strain a bit to hear Tom, who sings confidently but was only accompanied by himself on acoustic guitar. But if you got up close (by propping up the bar nearest to him, as we did), there were thrills aplenty.


The first part of his two-set show had some intended crowd-pleasers: ‘Cecilia’ (Simon and Garfunkel) for example, and more surprisingly, the excellent ‘Piano Man’ by Billy Joel. Tom’s performance of the Joel song was doubly ironic as it's about the kind of gig that Tom would have been playing if the punters were more interested (or drunk enough), while the song’s knowing take on what it’s like to be the man behind the mic applies whether people are ‘in the mood for a melody’ or not.

Mr Cole is a deft purveyor of Americana but without the preciousness that some performers of the 'genre' have (especially when they’re from the UK-side of the pond). He includes pre-'Americana' Americana in his repertoire and performed a nice version of ‘Early Morning Rain’ by the God-like genius that is Gordon Lightfoot (a Canadian). Tom went on to splice a Dylan song with one of his own. I cannot read my notes which were scrawled the morning after, but I think the Dylan number was‘Tomorrow is a Long Time’. Regardless, Tom’s part blended well with His Bobness.

To cover the tortured Jackson C Frank - ‘Blues Runs The Game’ - emphasises Tom’s confidence and musical maturity. Tom's latest EP, ‘Ramblin’ Man’, contains only self-penned songs (on sale via his website www.tomcolemusic.co.uk). The title track went down well live but, like all of the versions on the EP, benefits from a deft fiddle accompaniment.

Tom did a stellar cover of a Townes Van Zandt song, whose title I cannot remember either. (Suggestions on a postcard please). My friend and me were impressed enough that Tom would cover an artist whose songs deal in pain without having to shout about his suffering. The fact that Tom did one so well was a wonderful bonus.


One of the best things I have ever heard Tom do is ‘In My Time of Dyin’’, which he performs closer to its original Gospel style than Led Zeppelin shooting their bolt all over it. This was the undoubted highlight of the night (as it was the first time I saw him play). I don’t know if he’s considered getting the tapes rolling for a live release of this and other numbers, but he certainly should.

‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’ isn’t perhaps an obvious choice for the beery boys of Battle, but its time-honoured folk protest verities have their place. By this point the ale was kicking in with me too and we (I think) danced a bit to something Tom played before his finale: ‘Oh Lord Won’t You Buy Me a Mercedes Benz’ (co-written, and made famous, by Janis Joplin). This did entice the revellers from the other side of the bar into the gig. Or at least one of them. A lady stepped up, grabbed the mic and performed a more than passable interpretation. (I hope she doesn't mind me including this shot (below) of her enjoying the applause). 

Way to go Tom Cole. And hats off to The King’s Head in Battle for hosting this talented performer.




Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Labour's class coalition coming unstuck over Europe

Labour’s pragmatism (or waffle/procrastination) over Brexit, argues writer Nick Cohen, is both psephologically illiterate and ideologically motivated. Of course trying to bridge different interests has a very long tradition in the party. A compromise among Labour’s class and ideological broad church brought majority Labour governments for at least some of the period from 1945-2010. On Europe, Labour has never been enthusiastic, preferring to try on this, as on many other major issues, to manage (or obfuscate) the deep divisions within its electoral and parliamentary coalition.

Gaitskell feigned ‘little Englander’ anger at a prospective ‘end of a thousand years of history,’ while Wilson only tentatively sought to get beyond De Gaulle’s ‘Non’ in response to Macmillan's speculative application. It was Tory PM Heath who forced through the UK’s membership of the then Common Market (with the backing of some dissident Labour MPs) in an exercise in executive chutzpah. Three years later Wilson foreshadowed Cameron by putting political convenience before national interest and held the UK’s first referendum on whether to leave the European project. In the 1950s and early 1960s Jim Callaghan had reflected the Labourite conservatism of the Party’s trade union base in being instinctively unenthusiastic about the Common Market. However, as foreign secretary and then Prime Minister in the 1970s, Callaghan understood that as a middle-ranking post-imperial power, the UK was either in the club or it was irrelevant. 

Labour leader Michael Foot had to swallow many of the ideological stances of a hard left that - as a parliamentary socialist, intellect and pragmatist - he usually had little time for. However Foot tried his best to manage the then intra-party coalition that was rupturing over Europe – and over much else. Kinnock and Smith took Labour back to its broad church position on Europe, defence, and the economy. Blair in turn maintained that traditional Labour pragmatism on Europe. However the desperation of party that, in Austin Mitchell’s famous words, was ‘prepared to eat shit to get a Labour government,’ meant that Blair and Brown could get away with upholding the neo-liberal abdication of national interest they inherited from Margaret Thatcher, even if much of the country baulked at their unprecedentedly supine and ill-considered Iraq policy. Blair was arguably an outlier in Labour’s tradition, although on much social and welfare policy, and on Europe, he was pragmatic. 

Corbyn though is the first ever Labour leader who's not a genuine managerial pragmatist. He’s also the first Labour leader since George Lansbury to have little interest in leading. Corbyn is rooted in the late 1970s and early 1980s hard left Labour ‘activist’ myopia that favoured ideological correctness over class compromise. Back in the day, a half-baked perversion of cod Marxist theory led the polytechnocrats and bourgeois militants of the Bennite left to believe that, from the ashes of the dialectical clash of the differing class interests that have characterised the Party from birth to government, a truly socialist (ruling) class could emerge to finally deliver socialism.

The spectacle of a Labour Party, a Labour Party, run by middle class activists purporting, Leninist-style, to lead the proletariat into the light, didn’t convince many of the working class, then or now. Nor did it attract many of the middle class: the support of sufficient white-collar workers has always been a necessary and important part of Labour’s coalition. 

Today, the ideological heirs of Labour’s early 1980s deviation into political irrelevance are prioritising their own version of the party’s historic pragmatic alliance. In their case however it’s a very unholy union of bourgeois leftist disdain for a ‘capitalist club’ (the EU) with the appeasement of Labour’s disappearing white working class voting base who are angry over immigration and the loss of national sovereignty.  

Labour might now decide that the middle class electoral swing to the pro-EU Lib-Dem centre (and the Green left) is so out-stripping the loss of (white) working class Labour voters to the Brexit Party, that it can no longer maintain the party’s historic fudge on Europe. However a firm Labour embrace of another referendum – because Tories aren’t going to vote for an early electoral Christmas, to paraphrase aspirant Labour Party leader McDonnell – could mean JC jettisoning his misguided version of Labour class pragmatism in favour of a stance that hardly convinces anybody.

Corbyn cannot seek to persuade 'decent moderate Tories' (to paraphrase Baroness Chakrabarti on the ‘Marr’ show) to back another national referendum if he doesn’t make clear how he wants actual or prospective Labour voters to vote. Likewise, he cannot present himself as the nation’s prospective PM in the event of a short-notice general election if he can’t say whether he wants Britain to be in or out of the EU. So, unless Corbyn intends to approach the next fork in the road with the response he’s maintained ever since the last EU referendum, he will be forced to break the Party’s historic class coalition and to prioritise the winning back of liberal middle class voters. However unless they are convinced by Corbyn's 11th hour decisiveness, then Labour might have kissed goodbye to the white working class and to the prospect of ever returning to power.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

'My Favourite Things'


Is a musically weak and lyrically inane take by Ariane Grande on the Rogers and Hammerstein original anything to be concerned about?

A billion streams cannot be wrong

She has released a (legal) update on an admittedly saccharine sentiment and a tune whose beauty was understood by John Coltrane among others…

and converted it into a putrid paean to materialism with a lame urban vibe and a trite melodic appropriation.

Is she to be applauded because those from yesteryear with a tad more talent are, as a consequence, being talked about?

Is the woman whose career, through no fault of her own, was boosted by evil murderers driven by ideological-based hatred, guilty of offering the world her tears and a tribute to gross consumption?

Or is she being ironic, like other pop commentators at the top of their game from decades past who’ve used their platforms to preach anti-material morals whilst creaming in the dosh?

Does pop do irony anymore?

Just how rich is this vacuous, soulless, to my, no doubt malign ear, production-line muzak babe with an average voice and very average tunes, going to be made by celebrating ‘bubbles’ and other of her favourite things?

I find it funny that everybody seemingly hates politicians; there all in it for what they can get, aren’t they; they betray the people; climbing the greasy poll and stabbing us and each other in the back. Yet none of them are paid more than £100,000 a year to represent our often squalid and prejudiced world views.

But millions will worship a singer who, to her credit, has the honesty to tell you about what she is more than able to afford, make a virtue of it, and take your money in the process. These are the people we like, aren’t they? They don’t exploit people or their position, do they? They don’t have power, right? They don’t look after themselves at the expense of others. They connect with those less fortunate than themselves. They (often) come from humble beginnings... whatever that means. They’re not glorying in the globally-sanctioned excess that makes a few rich and many poor……

I have never (except for maybe a few months when I was 19) favoured revolution. But honestly, if you forced me to say the kind of people who should be candidates for elimination – because that’s what happens in revolutions - then I wouldn’t hesitate …… and nor of course would those who killed the innocents at her Manchester concert. So we cannot go there.

But Ariane Grande is not an innocent; she is a fellow traveller in unbridled exploitation and a singer of some of its worst tunes. For which she is popular. So who is innocent then?


Thursday, February 14, 2019

Control


Control.
Who has it?
Not me.
Though I could
If I chose
But I choose not to.
I choose to forfeit
My right to be myself
To determine my future
Because I am fearful of the consequences
Of doing so
Even though I know
In my heart of hearts
That I could be happier
If I did.

It’s the little things
That indicate the person who
Cannot choose to be themselves
Who almost wants to suffer
To be a prisoner
Of the one who tried to imprison him
All those years ago.
The prisoner who therapists said
Could take control
Because everyone is entitled
To be free
To be themselves.
But if I was myself
I would murder and maim
I would cut out the tongues
Of those who might disrespect me
Or remove their legs in case they might
Move close to me.

I have been let down
By my parents
By myself
By hope
By faith
But not by love.

I have not been betrayed by love
(Outside of the family)
But each morning I rise
And wonder how to fill
Another meaningless day
Until I die
In 20-30 years.
That’s less than the time since
We first met.
In less than that time
I will be dead
And I am told
That that time will be
What I make it
And if I breathe from my stomach
And focus on the positive
And connect with the unborn self
And am alive to the present
Then…
But this is the fucking present
Right now
As I type this
This is the present
Where I am centred
And want to weep
Because I will never have control
I have forfeited that
To all the other people I encounter
Who determine my life
And I let them
And I seem to be happy with that
Don’t I?

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Joyce, the Cavern and the Pool

I felt very disrespectful as I tried to tread Joyce off from the soles of my hiking boots onto the floor of the Cavern Club. Mind you this is no regular musical shrine. It's the almost original venue of the Beatles and other assorted beat combos from the ‘Pool. In fact it's the one over the road from the original, but it does go back to 1966 when, although the Beatles had long since left town, a local MP, Harold Wilson, was on hand to mark the opening of the new venue.

There had been quite a lot of Joyce spillage in the process of disbursing some of her ashes in as discrete a fashion as possible. We both then tried to cover up the evidence by plonking our backpacks on top of what stubbornly looked like a very bright, white, pile of powder. The whole point was to leave Joyce in a place she connected with. And in this shrine to the greatest pop band of all time, you could connect. I had been feeling a tad awkward about the total tourist excess of the venue, but, after some Theakston’s and a local singer offering ‘Norwegian Wood’ to some Scandinavian tourists, I had begun to feel better. As we prepared to climb the stairs out of the Cavern we trod heavily on the stone slabbed floor in the hope of leaving more of Joyce behind on this hallowed ground. Outside in Mathew Street, a middle aged bloke and his mother were about to go downstairs; he was telling security that ‘all this lot was her stuff’, and that he’d only come to Liverpool to remember ‘A Flock of Seagulls’. V and me laughed as this connected with our last trip to Liverpool with Joyce in 2015, although I’ve been a Beatles’ fan since I was a boy. We inspected the entrance to the renowned (upstairs at) ‘Eric’s’, a small venue where a good friend had seen John Martyn in 1979, and admired a new tribute to Submarine-era Fabs.


Downstairs at Eric's

Repairing to one of Liverpool’s oldest and most famous pubs, Thomas Rigby’s, V prepared a Cavern postcard as a memento of what we had just done; silver gel penning her Mum’s name to the photographed roster of performers who’d played there, and writing some words to her niece. Lunchtime drinking is a tricky exercise, though it’s one made easier when you’re on holiday. A very drunk woman held court at the bar, engaging with every man who entered, and we mused on the reality of her relationship to the silent, bearded, ‘guardian’ who kept her company with tall glasses of lager alongside her tacky-looking cocktails. I started trying to write some of these words into a newly-purchased diary before switching to doing it on my phone in the delusion that this would make me seem less of a middle class tourist desperately trying to be less self-conscious. Her rantings partly made me envious of her (drunken) honesty, and partly chilled me to the bone as I was reminded of past acquaintances. Her excess made me question what we were all doing in a pub at 3 o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon? Getting pissed in order exorcise some personal demons or to just blot out some fucking anxieties or other. Walking off my pint of ‘Quagmire’, running-in at a not immodest 6% and supplied, appropriately enough, by ‘The Big Bog’, a local microbrewery, V and I departed from the street and headed to the Docks via a car park. A blind man looked in danger of walking into a lot of traffic so I offered him a slightly awkward helping hand, fearful of patronising him or compromising his independence. He though was grateful. 


On the waterfront; the revamped Albert Dock on such a winter's day

We walked to the embarkation point where the legendary Ferry still crosses the Mersey, where Joyce, V and me had laid out on stone benches in the unexpected heat of a spring day, waiting for our ship to come in. We had then crossed, in time-honoured fashion, to the other side of the River to Birkenhead and a vision of hundreds of new cars from Ellesmere Port ready for export. This time V and me just walked around Albert Dock and felt the intense, icy Atlantic blast. Nick and Joyce were to be fused together in the second ritual disbursal of the day, as V distributed the contents of a tiny jam jar down the side of the wharf, most of the ash falling in to the Mersey itself. We walked around some of the waterfront’s iconic buildings, new and old, and examined some of the newer iconic sculptures: oversized Fabs and a more impressive Billy Fury whose stone figure had fresh flowers laid under it, marking perhaps the great man’s birthday or his tragic departure at 43.


Billy Fury under a brilliant Mersey skyline
Around the city of Liverpool and on Albert Dock you can enjoy the wacky art installations, the Superlambbananas (see below). Images from the city’s musical heritage, its natural beauty, the local community or from a lamb’s world (a wolf) are depicted on their side. Walking around the gentrified warehousing that contains the Tate Liverpool, we mused on how the development of Liverpool seemed to lack the crass social engineering of London even if these riverside apartments were out of most people’s reach.

A Superlambbanana featuring The Real Thing, China Crisis and The Mighty Wah

A Superlambanana featuring Echo & The Bunnymen (and The Mersey)

Detouring back to the city centre, The Central pub on Ranelagh Street beckoned as I had hankered after going into it ever since that earlier trip to the ‘Pool’. A glory of mirrors and wooden cubicles; steady drinking but nothing too excessive. At least not until a female customer got into a telephone barnie with her boyfriend. Considerate-like, she conducted it outside the pub. Valerie surmised that she’d been let down just one time too many by some scally and wasn’t prepared to put up with his shite any longer. When the woman came back into the pub, this verbose and somewhat tired and emotional lady was refused another drink. On her way out, the disgruntled customer repaid the compliment with the ‘cunt’ epithet. ‘I don’t think she likes me,’ the barmaid mused afterwards.

The telescreen does nothing to spoil the view in The Central pub
Two pints each were sunk before we decided to find some food, having read that the bar Tess Riley’s was just around the corner, which it was but we had unintentionally diverted via the shopping mall and Radio City’s iconic tower until we eventually found the huge pub. It was absolutely rammed; folks even older than us were doing a kind of line dance in the bar area. No food was on offer so we quickly exited, deciding that we should bow to the inevitable, ‘The Richard John Blackler’ in Charlotte Row, otherwise known as Wetherspoon’s. Friendly service, easy to find a seat, adequate burgers with a complimentary pint; what’s not to like? We were then drawn to ‘Smokie Mo’s – JR’s’ next door, a music pub that featured a soul-based duo, Jo and Jake, who were performing on a stage in the window as we stood watching from the street. After a few moments we hurried in, only to find that their storming set had just climaxed with Jo’s powerful interpretation of ‘You’re My World’, a song made famous by local lass Cilla Black. We exited immediately and Jay, the other half of this excellent duo, gave us a wave from the window, appreciating our conclusion that there was obviously no point sticking around any longer.

What now? Other bars seemed tame after that, while an Irish pub, the one next to.. eh… ‘The Irish House’, was stuck in its seeming never-ending and pretty anodyne solo acoustic set mode. We stomped about before deciding to return to Smokie Mo’s when we heard another performer take the window stage. Though possessed of a powerful and impressive voice, overall Joanne Wenton (see picture below) didn’t quite make the impact of Jo and Jay, largely because Joanne’s uncanny ability to deploy original backing musicians came care of her laptop. But, hey, that’s the deal. How else are you going to hear a version of ‘Let’s Stay Together’ comparable to Tina Turner’s take on Al Green’s original just for the price of a pint and only minutes from Lime Street Station Liverpool? We danced to Joanna doing a cover of a song by a local act, The Real Thing, ‘You to Me are Everything (the Sweetest Song that I can Sing, oh Baby…oh Baby)’. Joyce would definitely have wanted it that way.

Joanne Wenton, 'The Queen of Soul', performs at 'Smokie Mo's -JR's'  
It had been an emotional day. We had made the pilgrimage to Liverpool’s most famous musical venue (and a few other haunts besides). For all the probable power of a cleaner’s hoover, it is quite possible that some of Joyce will remain in The Cavern Club, secreted between the cracks where the stone floor meets the old brickwork walls. Our work was done.

Don't stop the dance (@'Smokie Mo's - JR's')