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How to get gigs for your band

Let me show you how to get gigs for your band. At the time of writing (July 8th, 2020), England is supposedly coming to the end of Coronavirus lockdown. But live music is still not allowed anywhere, even outdoors. I’m sure gigs will return one day and, in anticipation, I’m sharing the benefit of almost 50 years of experience at the coalface of the music industry. Well, on the outer edges of it, if I’m being totally honest. The music business establishment never really took to me.

How to Book a Gig (part 1)

This is a YouTube video I made a few days ago. Called, ‘How To Get Gigs’, it obviously contains similar information. But I’m sure I’ll manage to include unique information both here and in the video. The format may be different but the message is basically the same.

These strategies and tips apply to just about every type of act within the world of entertainment. From solo singer-songwriters and comedians to theatrical troupes and heavy metal bands. It’s up to you to use your common sense to make my experience as a music promoter and booking agent work for you.

In the course of putting on gigs and festivals in London and beyond, I’ve received quite a lot of emails, letters, and suchlike, from acts wanting me to put them on. It must add up to tens of thousands over the years but sadly, I can count on very few hands the few who inspired me to give them a gig. Being musically good or even great is simply not enough.

Although cream has a tendency to rise to the top, being the best is not a guarantee of success. If it was, we’d only drink the best champagne and eat the finest foods, instead of the fizzy sugar-water and junk food the human race seems to prefer.

How to Get Gigs: The Basics

If there’s one secret to getting gigs, it’s this: look at things from the point of view if the venues you are approaching. Ask yourself a simple question: Why should they give me a gig? To answer that, you might need to ask yourself some more pertinent questions. Top of the check-list must be to make sure the venue is a suitable fit for your particular act.

Unless they run a specialist Folk night, singers of traditional whaling songs might not stand much chance of getting gigs at a Jazz or Reggae club. Similarly, a comedian who’s just starting out cannot expect a major theatre or concert hall to grant them headlining status

It all comes down to money. There are basically two types of venue:

  • Commercial (the vast majority of venues, who rely on income from ticket sales and subsidiary sources, such as bar and food sales to survive).
  • Subsidised (e,g, arts centre or community theatre),

What Males Commercial Venues tick?

To get a gig at a commercial venue you either need to be able to sell a lot of tickets (i.e. already have a following) or else be good enough, or unique enough to entertain people another act has attracted. This is basically, being a support band.

The more entertaining your act is, the more chance you stand of getting gigs. To be brutally honest, whenever I was looking for (say) a Blues act to support a bigger name, I’d give the gig to anyone who stood out from the dozens of (usually all-male) bands, who all seemed to dress in denim and play as if rooted to the spot. The same went for Indie acts, Folk, Punk, Ska, or whatever…

Try and be as original and as entertaining as possible. Being just another member of a large and largely identical herd is not a great way to get gigs, even if you’re the very best of them. To use yet another analogy, no one looks at a herd of cows and picks out the best and the worst, They just see cows.

About Arts Centres and Community Venues

Venues that independently-funded by local councils and arts organisations are getting rarer. But they do still exist in certain parts of the world, including the UK. Selling tickets and beer is not their sole source of income and so they are freer to book acts on artistic merit. Having said that, if you can bring large numbers of people into their venue, as well as being artistically-relevant that would certainly help get you a gig!

The one thing all this type of venue has in common is the need to be relevant to their communities. This can help you but it can also be a hinderance. If you are local to the area, great! Make that very clear. If not, maybe look for a connection, no matter how tenuous.

In my experience, the person reading your email just wants to “tick a box” when it comes to local relevance. They are unlikely to employ a team of private detectives to check out your claim that your family came from that particular town or that you were born there. Just make sure that nothing on your website or any publicity materials contradicts anything you might tell people in order to get a gig. That’s why it’s generally good policy not to lie or make stuff up.

How To Book Shows

Do your research first. Never write a generic email saying how great your band is and send it to as many venues and promoters as you can find. This is the booking agent’s equivalent of junk mail and it’s pointless. None of them will get back to you.

Punk Band London

I suggest you look for 10-12 venues you really want to play at and send each one an individually-written email. Pick venues that you know and think you are a good fit. By all means include a couple of ‘aspirational gigs’, such as a major festival or as a support to a band you love. You never know…

Do as much research for each venue as you possibly can. Look at their website, try and find a booking policy, look at the line-up of past and future gigs. Be honest: would you fit in with what they are doing. If not, move on to find one that is more suitable. If you think it would work, look for a name and email address.

Even if the name and address you find is not exactly right for you — say, only the general manager of a venue is listed — write by name to that person and ask them to forward your email to the right person. You are demonstrating that you care, that you’re professional and that you have done research.

If at all possible, buy tickets and go to at least one show at the venue to get a feel for the place. Never ask the venue for free tickets just because you are an act. It doesn’t work like that. But if you know someone who’s playing there, you could ask to be put on the guestlist.

Writing The Email

Before you start writing, think what the person you are writing to is looking for.

Almost all the letters and emails I still get from bands are written entirely from their point of view. They tell me how good they are. That they’re planning a tour and want to play in my town. How they’re getting airplay on their local radio station, blah, blah, blah. Usually, it goes on and on, paragraph after paragraph…

It’s all stuff I don’t care about. Multiply that by 5-10 a day and you get some idea how little chance they’ve got of getting a gig from me…

Make Your Email Stand Out (for the right reasons)

Your email will be different. You are going to keep it short and address me by name, maybe adding a sentence that says something like, “If you’re not the right person, could you please forward to the relevant booker?” The next line could introduce yourself. Maybe something like:

  • The Beatles are Liverpool’s most dynamic live pop group.
  • “Happy Mondays are the best live band to emerge from Manchester in the last decade”.
  • Adele is a mesmerising British singer-songwriter, known for captivating her audiences.

These aren’t perfect. I don’t have a band to sell and I just made them up off-the-cuff. You know your act. The aim is to attract attention for your act in as few words as possible.

The quote marks around the Happy Mondays sentence is an old trick to be used sparingly. Make up your dream descriptive quote that you’d love to see in print and add quotes to it. Do not be tempted to add a name. Making up a quote for someone is essentially cheating and no one likes a cheat. Plus, it cheapens your ‘brand’.

Getting a Gig: Second Paragraph

Then start a new paragraph (people have short attention spans) and write a sentence or two showing that you’re done your research and know what the venue’s all about. Something like: “I came to see The Beatles play and I was knocked out by what a great venue you have. The Stones would be a great fit and we’d love to play there. I’m sure we could bring some like-minded people.”

If you’ve not actually been, you could say, “I’ve studied your gig guide and I’m knocked out by the quality of acts you have playing there, especially Oasis and Stone Roses. My band would fit in really well and I’m sure we could bring you some new customers.”

A little flattery can go a long way to getting you a gig. Everyone likes to be appreciated and, again, it shows you’ve spent some time checking the venue out. It’s also good to say that you will bring some ‘new customers’ as selling tickets and beer is how most venues survive. Just don’t go over the top and make promises you can’t keep.

Make sure your email includes your objective in clear, easy to understand terms. You want a gig, so say so. You’d be surprised how many bands have sent me letters and emails over the years that don’t say why they are contacting me. A ‘call to action’, as it’s called, is important.

Finishing the Email

Add a quick line about where they can check out your music and/or videos (and the links) and leave it at that. It helps if the videos and music are stunning but that’s a completely different topic.

Some acts sign off using the name of the band. That’s OK but I think it sounds better coming from a single, identifiable person, whether it’s a member of the band or a manager. You can invent a ‘manager’, provided you make it obvious by giving them a name that’s completely OTT. Provided everyone knows it’s done for comic effect and that you’re not trying to trick them, you should be OK.

Before you sign off, ask them to contact you. This will create a reason for you to get back to them if they don’t reply within a week or so. And close with another compliment, plus a reminder of what you can do for them.

I’d suggest the best way to finish an email of this kind would be to say something like this:

I look forward to hearing from you with an opportunity to perform at your great venue. It really would be an honour and I’m sure we could bring you some new people.
All the best
Rick Parfitt
Lead guitarist/vocalist
07885 9020
www.statusquo.com

Adding a cell-phone number always helps. Some promoters (not me) like to book shows on the phone and adding an alternative method of contact is always good. And include your website URL. Just make sure your site is as good as you can possibly make it.

Avoid These Common Mistakes

Avoid copying and pasting, as the vagaries of the email system, means that when it’s received, some text might appear in different fonts and that’s a dead giveaway that you tried to cut corners. Keep the email brief and to the point.

When you’re writing emails to prospective promoters and venue owners, concentrate on your live show. That’s what the venue is in business for. Too many acts think I’m there to sell their records or downloads, which may be part of the plan, just don’t make it so obvious.

How Can I Help You?

The ultimate goal is not just to get a single gig but to build a relationship with individual venues and venue-owners. One of the best ways to start on that road is to offer to help. Everybody needs help, right?

“Do you need someone to take your gig-guide around local record shops and cafés?”

If you have a specific skill within the band, such as a web designer or sound-engineer, offer to help them. But don’t make it look like you’re criticising what they already have or touting for work. You are offering to help in order to build up a relationship.

So, best of luck! If these tactics help you find more gigs, please let me know by leaving a comment. And please tell me if you have any better ideas or if something I suggested didn’t work for you and why.

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Stay at Home

Coronavirus Lockdown UK. Boris Johnson, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom told me to stay at home on March 23rd, 2020. I’m writing this on June 24th, so that makes it a sliver over three months stuck inside. In the past ninety-one days, I’ve not left Ramsgate; not been on a bus or train; not sat in any pubs or restaurants. No even a Nando’s. Problem is, I’m quite enjoying it.

As I lay in bed this morning, listening to Nick Robinson on the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme (you’ve got to take your excitement where you can get it), I realised that I’ve not physically touched another human being in more than three months. The last contact was probably a handshake or a hug, I really can’t remember, probably following the last of Keith’s Pub Quizzes at the Artillery Arms. I’m not even going to try and think when sex last reared its ugly head, so to speak. I’ll leave that for another day…

The local branch of Waitrose supplies most of my culinary and bacchanalian needs and deliver it efficiently and “contact-free” every Saturday morning. Aside from that, I may pick up the odd white bloomer at the Modern Boulangerie and occasional meat-free schnitzels and aloe-vera triple action toothpaste from the Harvest Health Shop. But that’s about it. I have simple tastes and the more I stay at home, the simpler they seem to be getting.

Can I Stay at Home Forever?

I’ll be honest, my lifestyle before the lockdown wasn’t very different to how it is now. The only big difference is that before I could go to a pub or a club or watch a band if I wanted to. Now, I don’t have that option. Just about everything else I want to do, I can, including cooking perfect rice and putting on weight.

While I’ve been writing, the very same Boris Johnson has announced that pubs, bars and restaurants will be able to open again in just ten days, subject to restrictions, of course. Should I be pleased? Is this good news?

I’m starting to notice a vague feeling of panic seeping into my consciousness. Where is that coming from?

Don’t I want to be free?

Or do I want to stay at home for ever?

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How I Very Nearly Became Sir Bruce Forsyth CBE (Deceased)

Sir Bruce Forsyth

Much-loved British entertainer Sir Bruce Forsyth died in August 2017. He passed away a few months after he’d undergone key-hole surgery to repair a couple of aneurysms. In case you’re hazy on aneurysms, they are bulges in an artery that could burst and kill you.

I know because I had one that almost killed me.

Sir Bruce Forsyth (aka Sir Bruce Joseph Forsyth-Johnson CBE): Song & Dance Man

Before I get on to my own tale of cardiac misfortune, let’s concentrate on Brucie. I must confess, I’ve never been a huge fan. Don’t get me wrong, I can acknowledge that he was talented, thought on his feet, and I fully realise he oozed charisma out of every pore. Song and dance is an art form. I can appreciate that as much as the next person. Especially if the next in line is a tone-deaf builder who only listens to Brummie Metal.

Without spending any more time watching ‘song and dance’ and ‘all-round entertainers’ than I have to, I can see that the top of the league was Sammy Davis Junior. Sammy was a polished entertainer and his journey to the top was fraught with prejudice and hard-won. To me, Brucie was never quite as at ease and polished.

Brucie and Sammy appeared together on a British television show. Although Mr Davis did his best not to upstage his British host, it’s obvious who was the boss (just look at the jewellery):

When I was growing up, Bruce Forsyth was hard to avoid. My father was a Yorkshire farmer who transformed himself into the manager of a pub company. He didn’t get to where he was by being a Bruce Forsyth fan. He also refused to have any truck with programmes featuring Sir Jimmy Savile or Rolf Harris either. Not that I’m suggesting anything. Valerie Singleton, Dickie Henderson, and Frank Bough were on his hit-list, as well.

Little Brucie Forsyth: The Early Years

Back then, Brucie seemed to be everywhere. I was too young to remember the very early days of ‘Boy Bruce, the Mighty Atom’ or even when he shot to fame as the replacement host to Tommy Trinder on ITV’s top variety show, Sunday Night at the London Palladium. Aside from anything else, my family was more inclined to watch What’s My Line and Sunday Night Play on the BBC.

Bruce Forsyth as The Mighty Atom

By the time I was ready to go to college, Bruce had extended his Beat The Clock game show skills to compete with Hughie Green and Michael Miles for the title of ‘Britan’s favourite TV host’. I can admit it now: I quite enjoyed watching The Generation Game when I saw it. Nevertheless, it wasn’t the kind of TV an eighteen-year-old faux-radical student would set the clock not to miss.

Sir Bruce Forsyth CBE: The Traveling Music Show and beyond

When Brucie announced he was taking a break from television in 1977, to go on the road with the musical, The Travelling Music Show, I don’t think I noticed. But the show closed early and he was enticed back to the goggle box by a huge slab of ITV cash. Bruce Forsyth’s Big Night became essential viewing for British students but for the wrong reasons. I think it was dated even then. Having a short episode of Jimmy Edwards’s 1950s radio sitcom, The Glums, every week didn’t help in an era when Britain was undergoing the Punk revolution.

To me, it was like watching a live two-hour car crash live on peak hour TV. Here’s a video of the first episode:

As far as I am concerned, it was downhill from there on for Sir Brucie. The comedian Frank Skinner tells a story about him. Whilst Frank was interviewing Bruce for his TV chat show, he noticed he was constantly referring to notes written on his thumb. Afterwards, Frank asked him how could he read such small writing. Bruce’s proud reply was, “I’ve never read a book in my life!”

After the Generation Game, I lost touch with Bruce Forsyth. I avoided the likes of The Price is Right, Play Your Cards Right, You Bet!, and Strictly Come Dancing, though I did encounter the man himself on three-and-a-half ‘real life’ occasions.

My First Public Appearance With Sir Bruce Forsyth CBE

The first time Sir Bruce Forsyth stumbled into my life was outside the National Westminster Bank in Stamford Street, on London’s South Bank. My recollection is that he parked illegally outside the bank and strode in, chequebook in hand. He was taller and thinner than I was expecting from black & white TV, wearing his customary toupee, a salt-and-pepper jacket and dark trousers.  It would have been in the mid-to-late 1980s. I had nothing better to do, so I followed him into the bank.

There wasn’t much of a queue so he was served almost immediately. I couldn’t see exactly how much cash he was drawing out, but it wasn’t more than a few notes that went straight into his wallet. You could tell that people knew who he was but no one (least of all me) was going to accost him. Unmolested, he climbed back into his vehicle and drove away. I seem to think it was a red Jaguar, but I might be making that up.

Sir Bruce and I Meet Again (Almost!)

The second occasion our paths crossed was a decade or so later. I was on the top deck of a London bus on my way back to south-east London. I’d been reviewing Indian restaurants for Time Out magazine and I was full of curry. It must have been a Saturday or Sunday evening, around 9 pm.

We were sitting in traffic in Whitehall, when someone on the bus said, “Look, it’s Brucie!” We followed the pointing finger and saw the man himself marching around the corner, surrounded by a small squad of scurrying army officers in red and gold dress uniform. Bruce was wearing a dinner jacket/tuxedo, and he seemed to be giving the officers some kind of instruction. He was taller than any of them.

Someone yelled out a version of “Nice to see you,” which ended on a swear word. Another voice almost immediately shouted: “Piss off!”. This may or may not have been Sir Bruce. It all happened so fast. The squad then disappeared into the building, which was guarded by two police officers.

Sir Bruce Forsyth CBE: Live on Stage

On Saturday 30th June 2012, I found myself at the Hop Farm Festival in Kent. Organiser, Vince Power, allowed me to advertise my own Rhythm Festival to his assembled masses and I was handing out flyers to anyone who would take them. Sir Bruce Forsyth was sharing the main stage with Bob Dylan, Patti Smyth and Randy Crawford. This was to be Brucie’s first festival appearance.

The following year he played Glastonbury Festival, which claimed the same honour. The Glastonbury folk also said he was the oldest performer ever to appear there, which I doubt. He may have been 85 at the time, but I have a sneaking suspicion some of those Jazz, Blues and Reggae players were older. Many of the Skatalites were in their eighties and I remember seeing Pinetop Perkins play at London’s Jazz Café when he was 94. I’m pretty sure he’d performed at Glastonbury around the same time. By the way, Perkins was the last surviving Blues performer to have known Robert Johnson, but that’s another story…

Brucie at Hop Farm Festival

By the time he appeared at Hop Farm, Brucie had become Sir Bruce Forsyth, having been knighted by the Queen the previous year. He was appearing with what he called ‘His Orchestra’ and he’d brought along a couple of guest singers. To be honest, Bruce’s 90-minute set didn’t really rock my boat or even float my dinghy. It just came as a disruption to my promotional activities.

Having said that, the majority of the audience seemed to lap it up. I wonder what they would have thought had it been an unknown Ted Hopkins from Barnet, doing exactly the same set.

To me, the highlight of the show was when Sir Brucie handed over to the guest female vocalist near the end. She could sing, but I’m not sure there’s much of a market for unknown lounge singers in the UK in the 21st Century.

The ‘half a meeting’ happened something like five years before Hop Farm, when I was visiting Brucie’s manager’s office in Battersea. Ian Wilson also looked after musical comedian Mitch Benn and I was promoting a show with him at London’s semi-fabulous 100 Club. We were drinking tea and talking when the assistant rushed in to announce that Bruce was on the telephone. Ian shot to his feet and said, “I’ve got to take this,” before leaving the room to pick up the call on another extension. I’m not sure if Bruce asked about me or not…

About Aneurysms

Although it has since been revealed that Sir Bruce Forsyth died from pneumonia, it was brought on after he’d undergone heart surgery to repair his aneurysms. The pesky blighters were discovered after he’d a fall at his home the previous year.

Something similar happened to me.

I went to see my doctor, complaining about always feeling tired and occasionally breathless. My fairly high blood pressure was on the suspect list and Dr Cardwell booked me in for various tests. The final one was a heart scan at QEQM Hospital in Margate. The technician was training a junior. After roughly five minutes of rubbing a paddle over my chest, their cheery banter drifted into uneasy silence.

“Is it supposed to look like that?”

“Is it supposed to look like that?” the trainee quietly asked. The lead technician must have shaken her head and they fell into silence. I could sense a certain amount of pointing and gesticulating at the screen.

The technician excused herself and the two of them left the room. When she returned she was alone. She put on a cheery voice and told me to get dressed and that the consultant would be with me shortly.

Dr Ward arrived a few minutes later, dressed theatrically (no pun intended) in green scrubs. He explained what was wrong and told me it was vital I be admitted to hospital straight away. No time to lose, any delay could be fatal, etc…

I’d previously arranged an appointment to have my eyes tested immediately afterwards.  I’ve still got the optician’s bill for the “no show” somewhere.

That was just the start of my crazy adventure in cardiology. I might write about the whole incident in greater detail in a forthcoming post.

In the meantime, RIP Sir Bruce Forsyth. You may not have been my cup of tea as far as entertainers go, but you stole the hearts of many in every generation. (I’m sure there’s a joke in there somewhere…)

Note: the picture at the top of this page is of the actor Gus Brown impersonating Sir Bruce Forsyth in the pilot episode of Matt Berry sitcom, Toast of London. It comes highly recommend.

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Pub Rock Revisited: No Sleep Till Kennington Oval

I’ve recently spent time writing sleeve-notes for a Balham Alligators box set. That’s exactly the kind of thing washed-up old hacks like me have to do when they reach a certain age. I was researching “pub rock” when I stumbled on something surprising.

It’s seemingly now accepted that the Pub Rock scene collapsed following the Punk Explosion of 1976-77. Legend has it that the old dinosaurs were flattened by the New Wave comet, and that clubs like The Marquee, 100 Club, Roxy, and Dingwalls took over. My recollection of what really happened is totally different.

No Sleep Till Canvey Island: The Great Pub Rock Revolution

Will Birch’s extensive reference book, No Sleep Till Canvey Island: The Great Pub Rock Revolution is great as far as it goes. But it ends in 1977 with most of the main players in the game signing to Stiff Records and touring on the Stiff’s Greatest Stiffs Live tour. Birch’s contention is that the Pub Rock heroes were promoted within the Rock mainstream. That they moved from playing the Hope & Anchor to the college circuit and larger venues like the Rainbow and Hammersmith Odeon.

The Robey in 1982: Pub Rock bastion
The Sir George Robey in 1982, when it still had Music Hall memorabilia on the walls.

As someone who was heavily involved as a music promoter and agent, I know that this isn’t the whole story. Many older venues, such as the Nashville, Kensington, and Pegasus, did close or transform into restaurants or family pubs.

Some were victims of their own success, others just badly managed. Their place was immediately taken by dozens of new pub venues. Some of them had already been putting on Irish music and so had the infrastructure (stages, lights, and often PA systems) ready to go.

Pub Rock 2.0

Off the top of my head, I can recall great nights at The Bull & Gate in Kentish Town. The Cricketers at Kennington Oval. The Robey at Finsbury Park. Bridge House, Canning Town. Hare & Hounds, Upper Street. Half Moon, Putney. The Weavers at Newington Green. So many more. My memory is hazy. Like the man said, “If you remember the ’60s, you weren’t there.” The same goes for the 1970s and ’80s.

Between not writing my novel and trying to be a music manager and agent, from 1984 to 1990 I organised and booked live music for the Cricketers, at Kennington Oval, London SE11. I took over from Joe Pearson, a teacher who’d been responsible for a series of prestige gigs at the Half Moon, Putney. Joe replaced Gordon Hunt at the Cricketers. Gordon went on to become Sade’s guitarist and musical arranger.

Pub Rock in Putney

Three promoters dominated Putney’s music scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Myself, Joe Pearson, and an older Scotsman called Bill Knox. Bill had worked in London’s Denmark Street (aka Tin Pan Alley) back in the 1950s and ’60s. Apparently, he’d been quite a mover and shaker in the Folk and Jazz worlds of the time.

Bob Dylan and Paul Simon had been in London at the time, playing tiny folk clubs. Bill had a mountain of great stories he’d tell over a cider at the Duke’s Head. It was the only pub in Putney with no background music and so local people engaged in the music business flocked there. Sadly, most of Bill’s stories were either unprintable or undecipherable.

Second Wave of Pub Rock

The second wave of Pub Rock had much in common with the American Wild West. Venues would sprout up and disappear all the time. At the time, audiences often comprised individual and very distinct tribes. You’d get Skinheads, Punks, Mods, Teddy Boys (yes, really!), Psychobillies, Folkies and more. I particularly remember a night at the White Lion when Anarchist Punk band Conflict was attacked by BNP thugs with pickaxes as they unloaded their gear. It was a Thursday, and the attackers were beaten off with the help of Irish labourers drinking in the public bar.

Then there was the Friday in 1982 or ’83 when the police closed down the White Lion for good. A line of bizarrely dressed Rock ‘n’ Rollers had queued almost the entire length of Putney High Street and brought traffic to a standstill. Over a thousand people were waiting to get into a venue that couldn’t hold many more than 300, and would probably have been licensed for 200. If it ever had a licence, which it turned out, it didn’t!

The Cricketers, Kennington Oval, London SE11 5LG

Back to The Cricketers. After “crashing” in an upstairs room at weekends, I was eventually given a couple of rooms above the pub. This became my home and business address for six years. Looking back, it was a surreal little world.

Ostensibly, the pub’s landlord was Roy, who operated clubs and restaurants in town. We hardly ever saw him, and the business was run by the locally-born Ken and his wife, Sheila. Ken is one of life’s natural gentlemen. He would say things like “You can’t educate a mug”, which is so true I still quote it nearly every day.

pearly_couple

Kenny’s dad, also called Ken, was a local character who used to occasionally wobble up on his push-bike after a day’s drinking. He’d demand money and free drinks. After a few pints, he’d turn on anyone within spitting distance and give them an earful. Luckily, no one could understand what he was saying most of the time. What with his South London accent, rhyming slang, and slurred words.

Ronnie!

Then there was ‘Ronnie’. His real name was John but everybody knew him as Ronnie. No one knew why. A natural barman who (when sober) could serve four or five people at once and keep them entertained with his Liverpudlian wit. His “party trick” was to confront someone. It didn’t matter if it was a customer, a band member, the postman, whatever. He’d look them in the eye and say, straight-faced, something along the lines of (expletives deleted): “You are an absolute total idiot. No one likes you and I can’t believe you still keep coming round here.”

The victim would invariably start to crumple, which would make Ronnie double up with laughter. Then he’d say: “Only joking! I had you going there, didn’t I?” Great relief all round. Trouble is people who knew Ronnie knew he’d really meant what he’d said in the first place.

Footballing Royalty

Every Saturday Ronnie and his mate, Moody, would dress up in their best suits and head off to the footie. Somehow, they’d talk themselves all the way into the Directors’ Box at whatever football match they fancied seeing. Preferably Liverpool (Ronnie’s team) or Chelsea (Moody’s). They hardly ever failed and would return at 6 pm, full of free champagne, canapes, and juicy footballing gossip.

Kenny’s past was somewhat chequered. He’d been a senior member of the gang who’d sold fake perfume on Oxford Street in the 1970s. He had a collection of “unusual” friends, who’d sometimes arrive at the pub.

Some lived very well but had no visible source of income. Others ran secondhand shops, greengrocers and one had a chain of tanning salons. I’ve recognised one or two since on Donal McIntyre type programmes. They were always very friendly to me and I’m sure they treated old ladies admirably.

Testing Times

The annual Test Match held at the adjacent Oval Cricket Ground was big business for the pub. But, aside from these three or four days each year, and occasional major cricketing and Australian Rules Footie fixtures, trade was entirely reliant on me booking the right bands. In fact, the Cricketers only opened from 8-11pm, and on Sunday lunchtime.

These free entry lunches were hugely popular. Kenny “the governor” would provide free jacket potatoes, liberally laced with salt to encourage libation. Hundreds of music-lovers would turn up to eat, drink and watch bands like Zoot and the Roots, Alias Ron Kavana, and Little Sister. They’d get two sets until licensing laws demanded an end to the fun at 2.30pm prompt.

These fresh-faced young people were called The Pogues / Pub rock at its finest
In 1983, these fresh-faced young Londoners were called Pogue Mahone

Folk On Pub Rock

For a small venue (capacity 200), the Cricketers boxed well above its weight. I kept up the Putney connection. Several folk-based artists lived there and singer/songwriters such as Bert Jansch, Davey Graham, Ralph McTell and Roy Harper would regularly play for me. I’d been an early champion of The Pogues. Their first major gigging success had been a series of Tuesday night gigs I’d put on in the spring and summer of 1983 at the Sir George Robey pub in Finsbury Park.

Pogue Mahone

They were called Pogue Mahone (“kiss my ass” in Gaelic) back then, and the venue sold out from week one. They were walking out with hundreds of pounds in door-money every Tuesday. I saw myself as the band’s manager, but it seems they never thought the same way. A proper manager from Dublin called Frank Murray got the job instead. As a parting gift, The Pogues played a week of gigs for me at the Cricketers. Every night we got very drunk and earned stacks of money. Not a word of my early involvement made it into any account of the band’s history. It was as if I never existed.

Who Played at The Cricketers?

Despite perceived wisdom, the 1980s were a lively time for the British music industry. The Cricketers was only one of dozens of music pubs that continued to thrive. It was a couple of miles over Lambeth Bridge from the centre of town. This meant record company A&R men (no women back then), and music paper reviewers could get there without too much bother. As a result, new bands liked to “showcase” there, and more established acts knew they could persuade reviewers to drop in.

T-Pau played a residency there when they were starting out. South London had thriving local ska and “billy” movements, and Rough Trade records used us a showcase venue for many acts. International performers such as Flaco Jiminez, Guy Clark, The Bhundu Boys, Townes Van Zandt, Terry Allen, Butch Hancock, Joe Ely, Steve Earle, Laurel Aitken, Giant Sand, Redgum, The Scientists, and Birthday Party would often end up at the dodgy end of SE11.

PUb rocking gero Frank Sidebottom, aka Chris Sievey
Frank Sidebottom

London Base for Frank Sidebottom

Frank Sidebottom was a Cricketers regular. Guardian columnist and broadcaster Jon Ronson recounts how he was recruited to join Frank’s Oh Blimey Big Band:

In 1987 I was 20 and the student union entertainments officer for the Polytechnic of Central London. One day I was sitting in the office when the telephone rang. I picked it up.

“So Frank’s playing tonight and our keyboard player can’t make it and so we’re going to have to cancel unless you know any keyboard players,” said a frantic voice.

I cleared my throat. “I play keyboards,” I said.

“Well you’re in!” the man shouted.

“But I don’t know any of your songs,” I said.

“Wait a minute,” the man said.

I heard muffled voices. He came back to the phone. “Can you play C, F and G?” he said.

The man on the phone said I should meet them at the soundcheck at 5pm. He added that his name was Mike, and Frank Sidebottom’s real name was Chris. Then he hung up.

When I got to the bar it was empty except for a few men fiddling with equipment.

I was one of those fiddling men and the venue was The Cricketers. I could go on to reveal how Frank (or rather Chris) “slept with” a fetching young woman I was trying to romance, but I won’t. Nor how I felt when I discovered that Mike The Manager had also “slept with” her — and with her 16-year-old sister.

Jim Driver: Agent for the Stars

Aside from my work as a “Pub Rock legend”, I’d been the agent for many acts including Desmond Dekker, Wilko Johnson, and The Groundhogs, and manager of Geno Washington. All of them would come and play for me, as would Georgie Fame and George Melly, when I could afford them.

Manchester’s Happy Mondays made their first-ever London gig in front of  30 people, most of them A&R on the guest-list. It must have been 1987 or possibly 1988. It’s hard to say because the event has been erased from the band’s history. I wasn’t there at the time. It was a rare night off. But next morning I was ticked off by Kenny because they’d been far too loud and had only played for 30 minutes. More importantly, they’d (rather ineptly) tried to steal a bottle of whiskey from behind the bar. He’d slung them out on their ears.

Captains of Industry (featuring Wreckless Eric) at Cricketers in 1985.

Captains of Industry (featuring Wreckless Eric) at Cricketers in 1985.

What eventually killed the Cricketers and many other pub rock venues was Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s insane Beer Orders. This was a new rule meant to decrease the power of the Big Brewers. It certainly did that: one of the biggest, Whitbread, stopped brewing altogether and turned into a pizza and cheap lodgings company.

The main impact of the BO was to transform pub owners from breweries with a vested interest in keeping pubs open in order to sell their beer, to property developers. The business of property involves putting up rents and selling off prime properties. This strategy becomes more profitable than trying to sell pints to music lovers.

Black Eagle Brewery

The Cricketers was owned by Trumans Brewery – part of Grand Metropolitan, a huge conglomerate that included Watney’s and various whiskey and gin companies – and the beer came from the then magnificent Black Eagle Brewery in Brick Lane.

The Beer Orders meant Grand-Met had to set up a new company to run their pubs and this was given the ominous name Inntrepreneur. They demanded a rent increase of something like 200% which, for a venue that could only open 25 hours a week, was impossible to meet. We had a final week of gigs in September 1990 and were gone by the morning of October 1st.

Low-Rent Sons of Anarchy Try Pub Rock

The new occupants were a gang of bikers from the South Coast (think low-rent Sons of Anarchy). Their first act was to throw out all the fixtures and fittings. Then they painted everything black.

It didn’t take them long to work out they were paying way too much rent. Apart from anything else, no one was coming to watch the new breed of biker bands they were putting on. One of the major stumbling blocks to attracting ordinary customers was that a gang of smelly fat blokes in leathers can appear quite intimidating to people who don’t follow their creed.

Eventually, the bikers got in touch with me and gave me some money to help them book some of the bands I used to put on. But it was no good. People just weren’t coming in the same numbers. Most of the acts didn’t like the new atmosphere, so they gave up. Was this finally the end of pub rock in SE11?

Insurance Claims…

After I’d gone, I heard a rumour about a bogus insurance claim in which a petrol bomb was supposed to have done a 90-degree turn after being thrown through a window. They vacated the premises in a midnight flit.

“The Rats” (as they liked to be known) were followed by a retired policeman from Jamaica. The poor man thought he was buying into a piece of cricketing history. He lost his entire life savings in less than a year and was plunged into debt. Then came a four year period as a Portuguese restaurant that could only afford to pay £1 a year rent. By this time, Inntrepreneur had realised the Cricketers was more a liability than an asset. Eventually, it was sold for development and has been boarded up for nearly 20 years. See the main photograph, taken by me in March 2014.

And so to bed…

I found a video on YouTube of Diesel Park West, a regular act at the Cricketers during my 1980s tenure. I was amazed to see the video features photographs taken at the Cricketers (from 0:27 to 2:06). I’d totally forgotten about the great jazz players mural, which was painted on board (I wonder what happened to that?!) and the Hovis sign.

Ah, memories…

There’s an update (thanks for letting me know):

I don’t know what Ronnie would make of it…

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Losing Weight Wasn’t As Tough As I Thought

I’ve always been overweight. The “body mass index” seems fraudulent to me because it takes no account of the shape or build of a person’s body. But despite the prevarication, I’ve known for some time I need to drop a few pounds. Losing weight would make me more healthy, I know that.

But knowing isn’t doing. For years I half-heartedly tried to cut down on calories and failed to halt my ever-expanding waistline.

“Losing Weight is for Losers.”

Earlier this year my attitude changed. After New Years’ it suddenly dawned on me I’d be sixty next birthday. I’m ten years older than Nigel Farage, for Christ’s sake! Shortly after this revelation sank in, I found myself halfway up the escalator at London Bridge rail station. I’d been walking up but I had to stop to take a breather. Out of breath, I became dizzy, with slight pains in my chest.

Other, less dramatic incidents followed, and I decided the time had come for me to tackle my excess weight. The weighing machine in the bathroom couldn’t cope with all my pounds, and at my peak, I tipped in at almost one stone (14 lbs).

hungry_years_cover

Around the same time, I read a blurb written by author Jon Ronson for a book by William Leith called The Hungry Years: Confessions of a Food Addict. Ronson blurbed: “This hilarious, self-lacerating memoir of a compulsive eater is a superb book … this is his crowning achievement.” I waddled straight over to the iMac and bought it.

Losing Weight Book Arrives

Before Leith’s book arrived, I only had a vague idea about how obesity worked. As far as I could tell, the process of losing weight involved eating less and exercising more. Large comedian Phill Jupitus summed it up when he said: “You’ve got to shit more than you eat.”

The Hungry Years is not a manual about how to lose weight. It’s more a memoir of someone addicted to food. Leith was putting on weight and simultaneously interviewing people like Dr Robert Atkins for magazine and newspaper articles. He binged on toast, spooned coffee-creamer straight into his mouth, and couldn’t pass a fast food restaurant without ordering fries.

Although I was getting tired of (and disturbed by) his accounts of repeated binges and plummeting self-esteem, I laughed as much as I squirmed. Slowly I began to realise that “Leith the Eater” was an extreme, slightly younger (isn’t everyone?), version of me. He was eventually lured to the Atkins low-carb diet and was amazed to find himself losing weight. While the pounds dropped off him, he looked into the health issues associated with a high protein diet. That was starting to look scary, too.

Losing weight with Fatty Arbuckle
Fatty Arbuckle eats spaghetti with no thought of losing weight…

More fries, please…

After reading The Hungry Years, I sat down and had a quick think. Fries were definitely out, as was toast and coffee creamer. I decided to lower my intake of processed carbohydrates and basically ignore the other stuff associated with Atkins.

For example, I always start the day with an apple. I’ve done so since an Indian guru recommended it forty years ago. An apple a day may not always keep the doctor away but I’ve never spent a night in hospital or had major surgery, so it seems to work for me. Apples before breakfast are a no-no with Atkins because of the natural sugars they contain. I prefer to think of the enzymes doing me good.

After the apple, I’d have a “proper” breakfast, only without carbs. Because I’m a pescetarian, there’d be no bacon or meaty sausage, instead I’d lightly fry up the Quorn equivalent in a little olive oil, with an egg, mushrooms, and/or tomatoes. Or I might have scrambled eggs with cheese. Because there’d be no toast for it to sit on, I’d scramble two eggs instead of one. Sometimes I’d treat myself to a stinky kipper or two. All washed down with mugs of green tea.

Lunchtime at the Oasis

That’d keep me going until lunchtime. I deliberately never worry about calories. My lunch might be a bag of raw almonds or cashew nuts (over 1,000 calories in itself!) or more likely a salad of home-made hummus with raw carrot, tomatoes, cucumber, olives and green salad. Quorn make some yummy Mini Savoury Eggs, which are like scotch eggs but surrounded in Quorn. They’re almost pure protein and cheap: £1.20-£1.50 for 12. Believe me, a couple of those babies, sliced in half and spread with English mustard, make a good salad even better.

For my final meal of the day, I’d stay pretty normal. Curry with rice, pasta, jacket potatoes, risotto, whatever. I’d always try and use wholegrain rice or pasta whenever possible, but aside from that, the evening meal would be pretty much what I’d have eaten before.

Walking is the New Jogging

To complement the new diet I decided to walk more. Nothing too dramatic, just making myself aware that a shortish walk was better than a short bus journey. After four days I began to notice the difference. I’d already dropped a couple of pounds and it was staying dropped. After a month I was weighing in at zero (19 stone in real terms), and now, two months down the line, I weigh 18 stone 4lbs (256 lbs). I’ve lost a lot of weight, but I don’t feel like I’ve been dieting. My energy levels are definitely higher than they were. In fact, I feel about ten years younger; possibly even younger than Nigel “Beer and Bensons” Farage. My walks are enjoyable and I’ve not felt tired or dizzy after “exercising” since all this began.

The Occasional Slice of Cake

Occasionally, I will eat a slice of cake or a chocolate bar, but not every day. As far as I can tell, these divergences have not had any noticeable effect on my weight. The secret is not to be obsessive and not to binge. Sandwiches and pasta for lunch were what kept my weight on. If I’m out and I want a cheap, tasty lunch, I buy a packed salad and a small container of supermarket hummus or a dollop of cottage cheese, mix them up with a generous splash of chilli sauce and nosh the lot. A big, filling lunch and it costs around £3.

Strangely, I don’t look a lot different to how I did when I was nearly two stone (28 lbs) heavier. Maybe it’s a question of relativity. I can feel the difference, I’m not carrying the equivalent of a sack of spuds around with me any more, my feet are half a size smaller, and my bum has definitely shrunk – which means I probably am half-assed, as many people suspected. This just tells me it wouldn’t hurt for me to lose some more weight. My new target is now 16 stone (224 lbs). Let’s see how that looks.

My Healthy Hummus Recipe

I started making my own hummus, not because it was cheaper – it costs about the same – but because it tastes better and contains higher quality ingredients than the shop-bought stuff. Here’s the recipe I think I’ve almost perfected:

Start with a food processor into which you tip a generous measure of tahini (around 150 grams), two raw chopped garlic cloves, a chopped chilli (red or green) and the juice of one lemon. Drain a large 454g can (or two small cans) of cooked chickpeas and add them, together with a good glug of olive oil (not extra virgin, that can be too over-powering). Replace the lid and start the machine.

It’ll be slow at first and the hummus will look lumpy and plaster-like: but don’t worry. Pour in a tablespoon of cold water, then a tablespoon of olive oil (you can use extra virgin at this stage), and alternate these until suddenly, the magic happens. The humus will come alive and start to turn itself from chopped chickpeas and stuff into a smooth paste. When you like the consistency, stop adding liquid, turn off the machine and taste. Add salt, ground pepper and maybe more lemon juice until you’re happy.

How the Greeks & Turks Like it

Turks and Greeks like their hummus a little rough and grainy. Palestinians and Israelis prefer it smoother and slightly more pungent. I’m with the Palestinians and the Israelis.

I also add more chopped chillies once the mixing is over. I always buy Middle Eastern tahini (ground sesame seeds) in the brown plastic containers when I can get it. Otherwise, the Greek/ Turkish version is almost as good, if a little more pricey.

Enjoy your hummus, whether you want to lose weight or not.

Up until recently, I used to finish with a YouTube video of William Leith talking about his addiction to food. It was very interesting, but since I posted it, William seems to have wiped the internet of all trace of his shame. Instead, we have to make do with a review of the book. It’s almost as good…

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William Hartnell: Doctor Who Actor

One of the most surprising aspects of the Doctor Who début of William Hartnell in 1963 was that he was only 55 years old. With his flowing white hair and frail appearance, I always assumed he must have been well into his 60s. The fact that he played grandfather to Susan Foreman, the first “Companion” reinforced this impression.

I can clearly remember watching the first episode from behind the sofa. Twice. This was because it was shown twice after being overshadowed first time around by the previous day’s assassination of President John F Kennedy by the *Mafia/CIA/Aliens (*delete as applicable).

William Hartnell as Young Stud

Hartnell’s flowing white locks turned out to be a wig. But the rest of his premature ageing appears to have been the result of heavy drinking, smoking and general unhealthiness. Maybe it wasn’t his fault.

Looking back on Britain in the 1950s and 1960s, it seems impossible that anyone could have a healthy diet. All the foods we associate with health and wellbeing in the modern age were either rationed or distinctly un-British. Gyms were only for boxers and wrestlers and even jogging hadn’t yet been invented as a middle-class pastime. Cigarette-smoking was compulsory and anything less than Capstan Full Strength was regarded as half measures.

As a result, if diet juicer Joe Cross had landed by T.A.R.D.I.S. [Time and Relative Dimension(s) In Space] in the London of 1963, he’d have been stuck with juicing suet pudding, bread and dripping, and corned beef hash.

william_hartnell_dr_who_actor

Hartnell always looked older than his years. He was one of those guys, like Clive Dunn, who had an inner old geezer fighting to get out. The shot of Hartnell (right) is from the 1947 John Boulting-directed film version of Brighton Rock, his first great screen part. The second was the title role in Carry On, Sergeant, 1958. When this picture was taken, Hartnell would only have been 39 years old. Not even 40.

Country Boy from St Pancras

All right, so he’d had a hard life. Appearing on BBC Radio’s Desert Island Discs in 1965, he tried to glam it up a bit and claimed he’d been born in the Dorset countryside. But in reality, Hartnell was brought up without a father in the semi-slums of London’s tough St Pancras area.

He left school at 14 without prospects but possibly with the contents of the trophy cabinet. Soon he was mixed up in shop-lifting and other unsavoury habits, like boxing. Young old Bill only got into acting because an older man took him under his wing. Art dealer Hugh Blaker paid for Just William to go to the Italia Conte stage school. His benefactor was 51 when he discovered the 14-year old fly-weight at a boy’s boxing club at Kings Cross. I think I’ll move on…

As a recent BBC drama penned by Mark Gatiss asserted, Hartnell was something of a grumpy old git. He liked his whisky and his women, both equally strong. One of the many contradictions of Bill’s life was that he was a devoted husband, father and grandfather, but couldn’t help womanising. The year he left Dr Who, Hartnell appeared in pantomime at Taunton. His affair with one of his co-stars almost broke up the Hartnell marriage.

The Greatest Living Actor in Carry on Sergeant

It seems William Hartnell always saw himself as a great actor. In a regional interview for the BBC’s Points West that was unearthed recently, Hartnell is quite dismissive of his pantomime role.

Interviewer: Is pantomime something you’d like to continue doing in the future?

Hartnell: Ooh, no, no, no, no, no.

Interviewer: Oh, why not?

Hartnell: Well, I’m a legitimate actor. Pantomime is for the sort of person who is used to variety and going on the front of the stage, but I’m a legitimate actor. I do legitimate things.

Hopefully, by now it’s common knowledge that William Hartnell played The Doctor in Doctor Who. No one has ever played the part of Doctor Who. Not Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker (my favourite), Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, Paul McCann, Christopher Ecclestone, David Tennant, or even Matt Smith.

Not John Hurt or Peter Capaldi.  I could go on about the William Hartnell character being referred to as “Dr Foreman” in the first episode and him countering with “Who is he? Doctor who?”, but I won’t. It’s a step too far.

Here’s William Hartnell’s last ever public appearance. He appears with Patrick Troughton and John Petwee playing the original Doctor in the Dr Who episode, ‘The Three Doctors’:

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The Perfect Curry

Anyone seeking out the “authentic curry experience” is on a fool’s errand. Leaving definition aside, everybody’s got a different idea of what makes for a Perfect Curry. There are so many variations it’s easy to boggle the mind as well as the palate. Even narrowing it down to just dishes from the Indian Sub-Continent, there are almost as many individual cuisines to sample as there are corpses bobbing around in the Ganges.

Ingredients and cooking techniques vary wildly, depending on the region and the ethnic background of the person cooking. The rich and densely reduced sauces of the Punjab have little in common with the rasam (“pepper soup”) and dosas (“savoury pancakes”) of the south. Both of these are as far removed from the Keralan fish mollie as the piquant fish dishes of Bengal, cooked in pungent mustard oil for added bite. It almost goes without saying that the glutinous splurge masquerading as supermarket “curry sauce” is about as authentic and tasty as liquidised Pot Noodle®.

Indian Street Food

In large Indian cities, the way a dish is prepared, spiced, and cooked, can vary from street-corner to street corner. A dish served one way in a restaurant will be prepared totally differently in another, and different again when it comes from a home kitchen. The recipe and techniques used can depend on whether the cook is from a Moslem, Buddhist, Parsee, Christian or Hindu background. Also on the caste they were brought up in. Some say there’s no such thing as an authentic Indian curry. I prefer to think there are thousands.

I’ve been cooking and eating “Indian” food for the best part of forty years. I even had the dream job of assessing Indian restaurants in London for the Time Out Eating Guide and Eating Awards. I could eat in the capital’s best Indian, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, and Sri Lankan restaurants at Time Out’s expense.

Back then London’s restaurants were going through massive changes. It was starting to dawn on food snobs who ran Michelin Guides and suchlike that there was more to great food than truffade, ragout and galettes. As a result, some of the best chefs in the world descended on London to cook different foods from around the world. Even curry.

The Perfect Curry in London, circa 1810?

I was noshing divine food every day, but generally, the best Indian meals I ever had were eaten in the homes of ordinary people. The time, care, and attention of the skilled home cook adds an extra dimension to multi-dimensional spiced food that’s almost impossible to recreate in a commercial kitchen.

British Indian Restaurant (BIR) Techniques

Most people have become aware that Britain’s “Indian” restaurants are almost entirely Bangladeshi-owned and run. Only the best of them feature dishes from their home country. The rest are content to serve “curry house” staples, a mish-mash of Sub-Continental dishes that evolved in the UK’s Indian restaurants from the late 1950s onwards. Dishes were reinvented, partly to appeal to more conservative British taste-buds, partly to knock out the need for long cooking times and adapt to the constraints of the restaurant environment. Very often authentic ingredients were unavailable at the time, and so substitutions had to be made.

The results were dishes with names familiar to Indian food lovers, but describing dishes that were as alien as haggis and jambalaya. The likes of prawn vindaloo, chicken tikka masala and lamb korma were streets away from the original dishes whose names they had purloined. Although most diners didn’t know it, they were eating uniquely British meals rather than authentic versions of original Indian dishes. In India, a korma might well contain a handful of chillies but never so much as a splash of cream. Vindaloo was a Portuguese pork dish from Goa rather than a hot curry with potato, which was included simply because “aloo” is potato in Hindi and Urdu. Good guess, but no coconut (which is reserved for the so-called “Sri Lankan” style).

Travel India

The best way to sample authentic Indian food is either to travel to the Sub-Continent or else to cook it yourself. Even if you do go down the DIY route, chances are you’ll be following a recipe that’s been adapted for European tastes. Most Indian home cooks work from memory and only measure ingredients very approximately. That’s why I think it’s best to learn authentic techniques, rather than try and master individual recipes.

Mutton Curry

There’s a definite home-cooked taste that comes from using fresh spices and grinding them yourself. I originally linked to a revealing YouTube clip of British chef Rick Stein watching a woman in India make culinary magic with chillies, garlic and a few other “wet and dry” ingredients. But sadly this was taken down. In it, Rick is very huffy about the quality of electric Indian spice-grinders.

Rick is wrong about the grinders. I’ve had one for some time – admittedly bought online from India – but now you can get them from Amazon. Here’s a link to the one I use:

https://amzn.to/3gAI3DU

Grind Your Own Indian Spices

Having got your grinder, you can improve the taste of your curries 100%. One way to do that is to roast and grind your own cumin and coriander seeds. Simply buy a pack of the whole seeds but check to sell-by date to be at least one year away. Roast them gently in a dry frying pan. Constantly move them around in the pan to roast every seed individually. The aroma will subtly change after a couple of minutes and become nuttier. This means they are done.

Quickly plunge the base of the pan into a little cold water, to stop the roasting process. But don’t let the seeds get wet. When they are cool, pour them into the container of your wet & dry grinder. Pulse several times until ground. You’ll probably have to do this in 2-3 batches. Smell the resulting powder and compare it to the much more muted ready-ground type. You’ll never go back.

Add more of that fresh taste and aroma to every curry you make by easily making a fresh paste at home. Here’s one I often make. Serve it with plain live yoghurt (curd) and perfect rice. Add a dollop of pickle and a simple salad made from chopped onion, tomato, and cucumber and you’ll be transported to curry heaven.

The exact spices and the ingredients of the curry vary. And I might decide to mix and match. Sometimes I make it with peas and potato. Other times I might crave boiled eggs (as below), mixed vegetables, Quorn pieces, or prawns. I’m a Pescetarian, but you could easily use chicken, beef or lamb if you absolutely must. Quantities are given as a rough guide only. Feel free to experiment.

My Perfect curry

The (Almost) Perfect Curry

You’ll need:

  • 1 fairly large onion (or 2 smaller ones)
  • 3-6 garlic cloves
  • 1-2 cm piece of fresh ginger root chopped into smaller pieces
  • 1 or 2 fresh green chillies (de-seeded if you don’t like it too hot)
  • a handful of black peppercorns. 3-4 for mild, 12-14 for something really flavoursome.
  • 2 bay leaves (Indian bay leaves from a packet, if possible)
  • 1 sprig of curry leaves (optional)
  • fresh or tinned chopped tomatoes

Preparation:

Slice the onion and fry in a little oil over a medium heat. Stir frequently to prevent burning.

While you’re doing that, fill your grinder receptacle with the peeled garlic, ginger, chillies, peppercorns, bay leaves and curry leaves (without the stalks), or indeed any other curry spices you fancy. Add a dollop of tomato and/or a tiny bit of water to make a paste. Grind down using the pulse feature, rather than a long grind.

When the onion is soft and turning golden, add a small amount of cold water to cool it down and add the ground cumin and turmeric. Cook over a slow heat until the oil starts to rise. When it does, add the spice paste from the grinder. Stir until the spices are tempered. The smell will change from “raw” to “curry”, and the oil will rise again.

Your Perfect Curry is Almost Cooked…

Now add your tomatoes and return the heat to medium. I find half a can (around 225 gms) or a couple of medium fresh tomatoes chopped up is about right. Let the tomatoes break down and become soft and amalgamated into the onion, garlic, ginger, and spice mixture.

Unless you are using fish or prawns or boiled eggs, it’s time to add your main ingredient, with more water to cover, if necessary. Throw in a little salt, and cook until the curry is cooked. You’ll have to rely on testing and experience for knowing when it’s ready. Keep stirring from time to time and adding water as necessary to maintain the curry consistency.

For prawns and fish, you need to cook your sauce, and then add the sea-going blighters nearer the end; otherwise, they’ll overcook. Boil your eggs for 5 minutes, then cool, shell, and halve lengthways. Immerse them in the cooked curry sauce for 5-10 minutes to allow the whites to take on the turmeric, curry and tomato colours and lovely flavours.

Season to taste and serve hot with rice, pickle, live plain yoghurt, salad, and maybe a bowl of dahl or vegetable side dishes, as the fancy takes you.

Keep experimenting and mix and match the spices and ingredients to find what works best for you. You’ll be amazed at the fresh taste this method gives the curry, In all probability, you will never be able to go back to curry powder or cook-in sauces again.

It’s a big moment.

I hope you enjoy my take on the perfect curry and enjoy it as much (and as often) as I do.

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Russell Brand, Revolution, and Promoting The Messiah Complex Tour


Russell Brand has recently been splattered all over the media. He’s advocating radical ideas by the bucket-load. Asked by “a beautiful woman” to guest-edit the left-leaning New Statesman magazine, he gave them the subject of Revolution.

Not to appear a lightweight, he waded in with a 4,500-word article of his own. And a pile of quirky contributions were elicited from friends and others he admires.

Leaving aside Noel Gallagher‘s stereotypical rant against stuff he doesn’t like or understand, there’s a mass of interesting and often surprising material. Not least is film director David Lynch‘s article on transcendental meditation and inner revolution. Brand’s own piece is intelligently argued and full of good sense. He may be a guy addicted to seven-star hotels, but he’s still a man of the people. At least in his own mind.

Russell Brand Speaks!

The paragraphs are longer than are normal in the Internet Age. But that’s often no bad thing. Occasionally, he sounds like a 1970s-style History Man:

The model of pre-Christian man has fulfilled its simian objectives. We have survived, we have created agriculture and cities. Now this version of man must be sacrificed that we can evolve beyond the reaches of the ape. These stories contain great clues to our survival when we release ourselves from literalism and superstition. What are ideologies other than a guide for life? Throughout paganism one finds stories that integrate our species with our environment to the benefit of both. The function and benefits of these belief matrixes have been lost, with good reason. They were socialist, egalitarian and integrated. If like the Celtic people we revered the rivers we would prioritise this sacred knowledge and curtail the attempts of any that sought to pollute the rivers. If like the Nordic people we believed the souls of our ancestors lived in the trees, this connection would make mass deforestation anathema. If like the native people of America we believed God was in the soil what would our intuitive response be to the implementation of fracking?

Russell on Revolution

Russell has much to say on the subject of revolution, including:

We British seem to be a bit embarrassed about revolution, like the passion is uncouth or that some tea might get spilled on our cuffs in the uprising. That revolution is a bit French or worse still American. Well, the alternative is extinction so now might be a good time to re-evaluate. The apathy is in fact a transmission problem, when we are given the correct information in an engaging fashion, we will stir.

Brand’s politics are generally left-wing, although he dismisses the Labour Party as irrelevant. He lumps the Milibands in with Cameron, Clegg and Boris, for instance. In an interview with BBC Newsnight‘s Jeremy Paxman, he explains his ideas to people unlikely to buy the New Statesman.

Russell Brand vs Jeremy Paxman

The interview is a staged set-piece with both actors playing their parts to perfection. Jezza spluttering with outrage like a Victorian Bill Grundy whenever Russ says anything vaguely outrageous. Russell snorts, waves his hands and leans towards Paxman like a young stag taking on the tired old codger. As a result, it makes mesmerising television. You can watch it here:

Russell Brand’s over-riding message to the young is “don’t vote”. This is a fine piece of anarchy that’s surely destined to be heard, approved of, and acted on by many young people. What a fantastic jape, Russell. Let’s bring down the government by not voting for it!

This could be a long-term result. But in the short- and medium-term it’s another boost to David Cameron’s chances of returning his disastrously right-wing Tory government to power at the next General Election. Although a growing number of wet teenagers are “Young Conservative and proud of it”, most youngsters see the injustices in the world and strive to improve them.

The best chance for this to happen is to have a Labour Government in power. Not New Labour, scared to upset the Daily Mail and willing to privatise and chop and turn a blind eye to corporate piracy and tax evasion. But a genuine Labour government dedicated to advance the interests of the people of the United Kingdom over and above those of the bankers.

Calling Young Radicals

Taking young radicals out of the equation by telling them not to vote isn’t going to help. The worst part is that the people most likely to heed the message are the ones most able to vote out the Tories and their turncoat Lib-Dem allies. As a result, it could tip the balance the wrong way.

I’d be less angry about Russell venting his views if it wasn’t for the fact that he is only in Britain to sell tickets for his forthcoming Messiah Complex Tour. His guest editorship of the New Statesman. His appearance on Newsnight. And all the other radio and television interviews are simply to promote the tour.

Russell Brand may be sincere about his views, and I have no reason to doubt him. But surely this exercise in salesmanship has to fall into the same category as those he is condemning.

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Join the Beer Club for Real Ale (and Cheese)

Britain’s position in northern Europe makes it natural beer, real ale and cider country. It’s all to do with the weather. Southern English vineyards like Nyetimber, Ridgeview, and Rathfinney have recently achieved spectacular success. But our climate is better suited to growing barley and hops. That’s why the UK, Belgium, Holland, Germany, and Poland brew the world’s best beers. And why France, Italy, Australia and South Africa are better known for wine.

Ode to Real Ale

A good beer is a wonderful thing. I can’t think of a better meal than a pint of spectacularly good real ale. Something like Harvey’s Sussex Best, Timothy Taylor Landlord, or Caledonian Deuchars IPA. Preferably served with slices hewn from a crusty freshly-baked cob. Also, a chunk of proper farmhouse cheese. The thing cheese has over other sources of protein is that it’s gentle on the teeth. No bones. No hard seeds. And so no need to visit the dentist.

When it comes to cheese, greasy supermarket cheddars and plasticine pre-packed portions will not do. It’s got to be something great. For instance, a crumbly Hawes Wensleydale. Maybe a proper Farmhouse Double Gloucester, or even a smear of Stinking Bishop. Right now, I’m addicted to crunchy Belton Farm Red Leicester, made exclusively for Waitrose. But, as there’s no Waitrose supermarket within an easy gallop, it does mean a bit of a trek. Nevertheless, the full, mellow flavour and salt crystal crunch make the journey worthwhile.

Say Cheese!

The natural accompaniment to our meal of ale and cheese is a flavoursome blood-red tomato. Add a few slithers of potent English onion. Maybe a touch of homemade chutney. The important thing is to complement the beer, not batter it into submission.

real_ale_pint

Being something of a ditherer doesn’t help me decide what I’d choose for my last meal. A pint of real ale and a crusty cheese roll sounds great. But what about the perfect curry? I’d have to say both. But leave room for a pasta course.

People outside the loop simply can’t understand why real ale is a class apart from keg bitters and mass-produced lagers. Unfortunately, these people usually include the accountants and strivers who make decisions for breweries, pub companies, and eating establishments.

Jim Driver: The Time Out Years (pt 97)

Up to a decade ago, I used to write about beer and pubs for London’s Time Out magazine. It was a great part-time job, even if it didn’t pay enough to get drunk on. It was quite usual in those days for me to visit a bar relaunching itself as a gastropub, to find a range of beers similar to those in a boozer on a failing housing estate. Sometimes there’d be an expensive European lager to help boost the bottom line and appease the trendies.

Wine lists would invariably be out of this world and contain rare delights from every continent. The food was usually prepared with care and skill, but at the bar you’d be limited to the usual range of keg lagers and bitters. If you were lucky, there might be a single pump serving “bog standard” house bitter. It was like going to a restaurant striving for a Michelin Star who’d sourced their vegetables from cans in the Tesco Value Range.

What Is Real Ale?

Another name for real ale is ‘cask-conditioned beer’. This just means the ale is allowed to continue fermenting in the barrel. It tastes better that way. To make their life easier, brewery managers developed a technique that killed off the yeast. This made the resulting ‘keg beer’ easier to store and deal with.

The very best beer can and should be compared to the finest wine. Drinks writer Oz Clarke is known as a wine expert. But I happen to know that when given the choice, he’s happiest sitting in a corner of a quiet British pub, sampling the local real ales.

Bottle-conditioned is Real Ale, too…

Real ale comes in two forms: as a pint of living, breathing draught beer in a pub, and as bottle-conditioned. In both cases, the beer contains live yeast. Up to around 1960, nearly every British pub sold only real ale. But the problem is this: good beer requires a little knowledge, care and attention. The best of them can easily be ruined by not being properly cared for. It’s not surprising that business-orientated breweries sought to standardise the quality of their beers. Above all, brewery people like to make money.

red-barrel-bar-mount

But years before, Watneys’ Brewery in south-west London had developed a solution. Back in the hot summer of 1936,  members of the East Sheen Lawn Tennis Club had a major problem. Most players used the club at the weekend, and in the intervening five days the beer in the bar was going off. Luckily for them, one of their members was Bert Hussey, the Watneys’ Master Brewer.

Watneys Red Barrel

Bert developed a premium export bitter that was then filtered and pasteurised to kill off the yeast. The name Red Barrel came about because workers at the brewery  painted the special barrels red to differentiate them from those containing lesser liquids. To replace the yeast’s sparkle, Bert came up with the idea of connecting the barrels to a small tank of carbon dioxide. This provided the fizz, and propelled the beer from cellar to the bar, meaning there was no need for traditional beer pumps. The result was a great-looking pint, served cold and fizzy.

Red Barrel was a great hit with the members of the East Sheen Lawn Tennis Club, and it became available elsewhere as a premium product. Because the gas kept escaping from wooden barrels, this type of beer was soon shipped out in metal kegs. It’s thought that Flowers’ Brewery – later to be swallowed up by Whitbread – were the first to market the new, more expensive product as “keg bitter”.

“It’s better in a keg!”

Keg bitter took hold in the UK in the 1960s. The rise of commercial television and the need for a uniform product was too tempting a prospect for brewery accountants to ignore. Perversely, the likes of Red Barrel, Double Diamond, Worthing E, Youngers Tartan, Ben Truman, Whitbread Tankard, and Courage Tavern, were brewed with more expensive ingredients.

As a result, they were promoted as premium products over the few cask-conditioned ales that survived. In addition, a fortune was spent advertising them.

The poor quality of pub beer at the time had led to a general trend towards bottled beers after the Second World War. By 1958, bottled beers amounted for 37% of the revenue of pubs operated by English brewers. By now, Keg provided a cheaper and more deliverable alternative.

Canned Beer is Here!

Canned beer had existed in the USA since the end of Prohibition, and in Britain since December 1935, when Llanelli brewers, Felinfoel, launched their own beer in a can. Despite the general availability of huge cans of beer like Watney’s Party Seven, the trend for smaller “tinnies” didn’t take off until the 1980s onwards, when major supermarkets aggressively attacked the market.

In addition, national brewers downgraded the quality of the ingredients and strengths of cask-conditioned versions. The desire for standardisation, combined with the rise of lager served in the same manner as keg bitters, made I commercial sense to do away with everything else.

CAMRA

But the way big brewers downgraded cask-conditioned ales led a fightback. Lovers of real ale recognised the value of their favourite tipple. And so, in 1971, CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, was founded. From small beginnings, do mighty acorns grow. What started out as a small pressure group snowballed. And now almost every pub in Britain worth its salt sells at least one cask-conditioned ale.

Today, many fine real ales are brewed by a legion of small independent breweries across the UK. In addition, the major brewers effectively accounted themselves out of business, and the one or two that still exist mostly brew just lager. There are some sad stories.

Whitbread, who began brewing in 1742, stopped producing beer altogether in 2001 and is now in the cut-price hotel and pizza business. Young’s, whose Ram Brewery at Wandsworth was claimed to be Britain’s oldest continuous brewing centre is now just a pub company. All their beers are now brewed in Bedford by Charles Wells. Although property company Minerva plc, who now owns the Young’s brewery site, has built a microbrewery in the old lab so as to keep up the claim of the “oldest British brewery”.

Return of the Breweries

There are now estimated to be 800 breweries in the UK, most of which are small, independently-owned microbreweries. That’s more than twice as many as existed when CAMRA was formed.

Several long-established regional breweries have survived repeated rounds of corporate pass the parcel. The best of these include Charles Wells (now called Wells & Young’s, of Bedford, 1876); Fuller’s Brewery (Grifin Brewery at Chiswick in London, 1845); Timothy Taylor, (Keighley, 1858); and Hall & Woodhouse, (Badger Brewery at Blandford St. Mary in Dorset, 1777). Long may these and all the others continue producing unique British ales we can be proud of.

In conclusion, anyone who thinks that lager is better for Britain that real ale should watch this video from the regional news on BBC North:

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Stewart Lee on “Not Writing”

Comedy is subjective. So is writing. I’ve just come across a 45-minute video I felt I had to share. It skirts around both subjects and comes up with some savoury little insights. The video will not please everybody. The comments below it are a testament to that. But anyone who shares my vague interest in the psychology of comedy and love of Stewart Lee should find it fascinating.

Like him or love him, Stewart Lee is a man who knows his allium from his Elba.

I’ll just explain that he started his comedy life in a double-act and writing partnership with Richard Herring. Although their BBC-2 TV shows that aired from 1992-2000 didn’t propel them to the heights of Morecambe and Wise (or even Fry and Laurie), they became cult favourites.

After the split, Stewart gave up performing stand-up comedy for several years, choosing to write instead. He came back with a stronger stand-up act and found himself portrayed within the business as the ‘comedian’s comedian’. Among his writing credits are several books and the controversial play, Jerry Springer The Opera.

Stewart Lee: “On Not Writing”

The talk begins slowly and in a slightly rambling, self-conscious manner. Stick with it and your patience will be rewarded. Writer, comedian and (dare I say it?) intellectual Stewart Lee gives a very interesting talk to Oxford University students about his comedy and the writing of it. It’s a reprise of a talk he gave on a writers’ day in February at the University that wasn’t recorded first time around. The recording is straightforward and low-tech, with some gooey fades.

Lee is entirely open and reveals much about his stand-up technique. There’s a fantastic sequence in which he opens up the box and explains how he puts together a stand-up show: character, mood and how the “flip” comes about at the end. I’ll never be a comedian, I’ll never be much of a writer, but I can admire the technique.

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Separated at birth?

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Glastonbury on the BBC

bbc_news_glasto_02This morning I awoke and switched on the Radio 4 Today programme, as I do most days. I was surprised to hear that 69-year old mainstream journalist John Humphrys was at the Glastonbury music festival. I don’t why I should be surprised because every year the BBC turns itself into a massive PR machine for what is, when all’s said and done, a commercial enterprise. At around 8:45am, immediately after John had interviewed Sir Mick Jagger, Justin Webb read out an email from writer Ian Martin (Thick of It, Veep) that asked: “Is the BBC going to manage one, just one, remotely critical comment on Glastonbury?” John said that there’d been no water in his cabin that morning.

bbc_news_glasto_01Now I love the BBC and I am a keen supporter of music festivals – even “Big Mama” Glastonbury – but I have to admit that I find the relentlessly positive publicity Glastonbury receives a little nauseating. It’s getting to the stage where it’s starting to look satirical.

This morning, one of the main headlines on the BBC News website was “Arctic Monkeys headline Glastonbury”… er, news? I think we knew quite a long time ago that Arctic Monkeys would be there on Friday. Several links to other Glastonbury stories follow, then, further down the page, we see that Glastonbury has its own section on the BBC Entertainment website.

I suppose I could be accused of sour grapes. I ran a music festival for six years that finally collapsed in 2012. Since 2008 we couldn’t get so much as a mention on the local BBC Three Counties website – “for Beds, Herts & Bucks” (Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire). The staff there, when they answered my requests at all, told me the first year that the BBC had cut the website’s resources and that there was no one to write anything; the next year someone else said that it wasn’t BBC policy to promote private events (ha!); and by the time the next year came around, it was too late, we’d gone bust. Although it was no Glastonbury Festival, Rhythm had been the biggest annual entertainment event in Bedfordshire.

Even though it is obviously privately organised and financed, Glastonbury doesn’t seem to be treated the same as everyone else. Aside from national coverage and the really exceptional television exposure (which I love), the local BBC Somerset website is practically on Glasto Alert all year round.

Elsewhere on the BBC, phrases like “the biggest music news story of the week is that the Rolling Stones are headlining Glastonbury” abound. Is this “news” regarded as “big news” because of the Rolling Stones or because it’s about Glastonbury? Didn’t the Stones play the Isle of Wight Festival in 2007 with a lot less publicity? And aren’t they also appearing over two nights in Hyde Park, London, next month? Surely that should be given more prominence because it comes 44 years after their iconic free concert that followed Brian Jones’ death in 1969? Apparently not.

stones-set-listWhat I’ve not heard a word about – certainly not on the BBC – is the genuine news that the Stones didn’t want their set broadcast at all on the otherwise wall-to-wall blanket television coverage. Eventually they agreed to four songs, then a maximum of 15 minutes and, after a lot of lobbying from both the Corporation and the festival-organising farmer/ daughter Eavis team, the rumour is that the Regal Rock Royalty have graciously consented to a full hour of their set being live-streamed. We’ll see… [In the end the BBC joined the Rolling Stones set an hour in, starting with Miss You.]

Glastonbury Festival Finances

Of course, Glastonbury is a fantastic festival and very likely the finest event of its kind in the world but it’s not perfect. So why don’t we ever hear anything but the good stuff? Is it because the BBC’s deal depends on a positive spin, and the same goes for their other “media partners” like The Guardian? Elsewhere in the media, I’m told that any broadcaster or journalist who does not toe the official “happy” line is denied free access forever afterwards. And what newspaper, magazine or radio station would want that?

So, who, apart from BBC staff, get to go to Glastonbury? There are the multitudes who pay £216 (including compulsory booking fee and postage) for their weekend ticket – generally known in the business as the “mug punters”. In return for their money and jumping through hoops to get special identity cards, they get to live for a week knee-deep in cow-slurry and mud. Another, less trumpeted group of festival goers, are the VIPS. Many of these higher beings are connected to the media and the higher echelons of the music industry, but not all.

VIPs are looked after very well and get to use facilities generally untainted by mud, body odours and human/ animal waste. Some even receive access to luxury camping (referred to as “glamping”) in powered and plumbed yurts, Winnebagos and caravans. Some of these top dogs don’t even have to pay for their gourmet food or drink. It’s not widely trumpeted but, provided you have a few spare grand, it’s possible to buy VIP access. For £5,000-£11,000 a ticket, you too can experience the luxurious side of Glasto and mix with the performers, media and many other hip celebs. In the past your fellow VIP revellers would have included – aside from the staff of various banks and multinational corporations – rock ‘n’ roll icons such as Tony Blair, David Cameron and members of the Royal Family.

Don’t believe it? Here’s a post that appeared on the eFestivals festival forum on April 30th, 2013:

VIP Package Includes:

  • Festival ticket with camping in the hospitality campsite (better toilet/washing facilities and in close proximity to the pyramid stage). Guests must provide their own tent.
  • Access to the “inner circle” the VIP backstage areas of Glastonbury
  • Access to backstage VIP toilet /shower facilities
  • Access to backstage hospitality areas/ undercover seating /bars and food stands
  • The opportunity to mingle with the media, press, celeb’s and Artists

I paid £2,500 for them and am looking for the same – LET ME KNOW SOON!!!

You obviously don’t get much for £2,500 a head. According to the Metro website, Wayne Rooney spent £2,000 on a Tesco “home” delivery to the festival VIP area (the price of crisps, cheese-strings and Pot Noodle these days!) and:

Coleen and her footballer hubby have spared no expense this time around. They arrived by helicopter and, along with their pals, are bedding down in three huge Winnebagos costing £15,000 for the weekend.

Living on the other side of the festival tracks are the mug punters and many of those providing entertainment or working at the festival. I know of a “name” band from the USA who played Glastonbury and ended up having to camp in a public campsite, next to over-flowing toilets, over a mile away from the stage on which they had to perform. Their van was only allowed to park two miles further on, in the opposite direction. They had to hump their instruments and gear in and out by hand, through the crowds, without any help or transport. They were less than impressed by West Country hospitality.

Most people who work at Glastonbury don’t get paid much, if at all. This includes more performers than you’d think. And those who do get paid, receive a fraction of what they’d normally charge: even the big names. Before he pulled out, East London rapper Wiley tweeted: “I’m going to tell all the promoters how much Glastonbury get away with paying people and the other festivals will think wtf…”

wiley_tweet

In an article in The Daily Telegraph, Neil McCormick goes as far as to say:

Glastonbury Festival is not known for its financial largesse. With hundreds of bands performing, and a large portion of profits going to charities, Glastonbury has never been in a position to pay out the million pound fees offered by other more commercial festivals. “We get headliners for a tenth of their normal price,” Eavis has claimed. “They’re not being paid very much.” Paul McCartney appeared at Glastonbury in 2004 for £200,000, although his normal festival fee is rumoured to be £4 million. Coldplay received the same fee in 2011 – with the implication that the Stones are likely to receive the same.

I doubt if McCartney would normally get £4 million per gig, but let’s not split hairs. It’s a widely held belief that, as Neil says, the festival donates “a large portion of profits” to charities. The only figures I can find are that (according to Wikipedia) in 2005, Glastonbury gave £200,000 to Oxfam who, in return, provided 2,000 stewards. A cynic might say that this works out at £100 a steward, which for very nearly a week’s work (Tuesday-Monday) is much less than the minimum wage. Nice for Oxfam, nice too for the festival finances. Luckily, I’m not a cynic.

Another cynic – not me either – might also do a simple calculation of 135,000 (the stated number of tickets sold) x £170.83 (£205 less VAT) = £23,062,499. Then there are the added bonuses of having 150,000 captives on your festival site for 3-7 days. The bar at a small music club on a single evening, say 8pm-11pm would expect to take £8-£10 a head on bar takings: make that 24 hours, add in food on top and you’re talking big money, some (most?) of which will certainly filter down to the festival organisers. Then there are other income streams, such as sponsorship, selling space for trade stands, facility fees for TV, radio, and so on…

If a festival always sells out, if your biggest paid act is only receiving £200,000 and most of your staff are working for nothing, it seems inevitable that you’ll make money. How much of it they donate to charity is the business of the Eavis family and I’m sure they’re sincere about what they’re doing. Obviously other charities than Oxfam do benefit from Glastonbury: Greenpeace and Water Aid are two major recipients. Plus, the internet is packed with stories about schools, village halls and other worthy causes in Somerset receiving money for various projects.

I suspect that the Eavis family and Worthy Farm get to keep some of the profits – and rightly so – but that’s never mentioned in any media coverage I’ve ever seen. Like the curate’s egg, Glastonbury isn’t all good. I feel it would be much more healthy if the BBC and others admitted that Pilton isn’t the site of the Second Coming and that there’s more to festivals than simply the Gospel according to St Michael.

Having got rid of the cynics, let’s get back to enjoying the UK’s “most loved music festival” (it’s official – I just heard it said on Radio 2). There’s really nothing quite like Glastonbury anywhere else in the world and we should be proud as Punch about it being a British institution, like the BBC. I’ll finish with a video in which Julien Temple talks about the very first Glastonbury Festival (and plugs his documentary movie about it):

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Shocking Early Death Rates In England

I was browsing the BBC News website this morning when I came across a piece about avoidable early deaths. In the UK a premature death is now regarded as one under the age of 75, which is nice to know – unless you happen to be 74, I suppose. Apparently, a child born in England today has a 1-in-3 chance of dying prematurely. Location has been determined as one of the most important aspects determining our fate.

In a bizarre piece of spin, the sub-heading tells us:

The local variation in early death rates revealed in a new league table for England is “shocking” and must drive action to improve health, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has said.

Nice of Mr Hunt to show concern. (This is the same Jeremy Hunt, of course, who wants to penalise high-performing Lewisham Hospital for the financial irregularities of a neighbouring health care trust. He’s also leading a program of Accident & Emergency Unit closures at a time when their ability to cope is at its lowest ebb for a generation.) But I digress…

The BBC piece was reporting a story over on Public Health England’s website that proved even more revealing. Their headline screamed: “In 2011, one in three deaths in England was under the age of 75.” If they’d been more “my cup is half full”, they’d have pushed the good news that 66.67% of people live longer than the magic age. Apparently the biggest early killers are cancer, stroke, and diseases of the heart, liver and lungs.

Maps showing areas with the most risk reminded me of another map I’d seen recently. I dug that out and put the two side by side:

health-voting-maps-11-06-2013

The conclusions that can be drawn from studying these maps are:

  • Voting Labour is bad for your health.
  • Poor people tend to vote Labour more than rich people (“Champagne Socialists” excluded, of course).
  • Living in cities and urban areas makes you more likely to die early than if you live in the countryside.
  • People in cities are more likely to vote Labour than those in rural areas.
  • There are more branches of McDonald’s in cities than there are in the country (but they’re working on that).
  • Poverty is bad for your health.
  • Poor people should stop being poor as soon as possible.

This morning, the BBC Today programme highlighted a North-South Divide aspect to the story, which doesn’t make a lot of sense. The map clearly shows that most of Yorkshire is green on the “health” map and blue (Tory) on the “Parliamentary” map. The same goes for Cheshire and the majority of what we’d call northern England, excluding the built-up areas of Lancashire, Merseyside, Cumbria and the North-East. London is predominantly red on both maps.

Maybe a diet of e-numbers, factory-farmed chicken and horse-burgers makes you more likely to vote left-of-centre, which seems unlikely. As a healthy-living pescetarian, I can be smug in the knowledge that I’m voting Labour out of conscience rather than from any chemical impulse.

When you dig deeper, you see that the worst place for liver disease is Blackpool, and the best is Wiltshire. Blackpool also scores scores highest when it comes to lung disease (so much for bracing sea air!), and Bromley on the south-eastern edge of London has England’s lowest rate. For heart disease and stroke, the inhabitants of Manchester come out worst and they should definitely consider a move to Wokingham in Berkshire, which has around a third of the Manc’s early death rate. Manchester also fares worst for cancer; this time Harrow comes out on top (well, bottom, if you see what I mean).

Overall the best places to live were Wokingham, Richmond upon Thames, Dorset, Surrey, South Gloucestershire, Rutland, Harrow, Bromley Kensington & Chelsea and Hampshire. All of them had rates of between 200-214 of premature deaths per 100,000 of their population. The bottom ten (with their premature death rates) are:

  1. Manchester | 455
  2. Blackpool | 432.4
  3. Liverpool | 389
  4. Salford | 382
  5. Kingston upon Hull, City of | 375.3
  6. Middlesbrough | 370.9
  7. Knowsley | 359.6
  8. Blackburn with Darwen | 354.4
  9. Tameside | 351.7
  10. Nottingham | 351.4

Here’s the official video from Public Health England. Funny he doesn’t mention anything about not voting Labour or visiting Blackpool for your health:

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Bilderberg, Blair and the New World Order?

Here’s a conspiracy theory for you: type the word “Bilderberg” into Google search and see what comes up. Although the Bilderberg Group is one of the world’s most mistrusted organisations, all the results on page one when I did it were supportive, informative or – at the most – mildly questioning. You really have to persevere to dig up any real vitriol against this secretive group of Western capitalists and politicians. Has this got anything to do with the attendance at 2013’s meeting of American businessman, Eric Schmidt? In case you didn’t know, Herr Schmidt happens to be Google’s executive chairman.

Eric is joined at the invitation-only weekend conference by a reasonably diverse bunch of around 145 businessmen and politicians. These include Amazon founder and chief executive, Jeff Bezos; president of the European Commission, José M. Durão Barroso; former prime ministers François Fillon (France) and Mario Monti (Italy); and the current leaders of the UK (David Cameron), and the Netherlands (Mark Rutte). David Cameron has brought along his pal George Osborne – or maybe it’s the other way around? – and there’s a surprising number of Polish, Scandinavian and Turkish delegates.

People you might not expect to see on the list are António José Seguro, leader of the Portuguese Socialist Party, Lib-Dem peer Dame Shirley Williams, Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, and Peter Mandelson, who is billed as “Chairman, Global Counsel; Chairman, Lazard International”. Please note, David Icke, that’s not “Lizard International”. Only a handful of women are invited to attend. Bilderberg – like Conspiracy Theories in general – is mainly a boys’ club. The four founders were male to a man.

Surprisingly perhaps, one of them was the then fast-rising Labour politician, Denis Healey, who went on to become one of Britain’s most memorable Chancellors. This was mainly due to his annoying habit of doing whatever the International Monetary Fund demanded, however damaging it was for the country. Healey has always supported his co-creation and denied that it harbours any sinister motives. In 2005, Lord Healey, as he became, told BBC News that such allegations were total “crap”. He continued: “There’s absolutely nothing in it. We never sought to reach a consensus on the big issues at Bilderberg. It’s simply a place for discussion.” Yeah, right: so, 150 of the richest, most powerful people in the world give up a weekend for friendly discussion, with no possibility of gain. Totally believable.

At the time of writing, Healey’s Wikipedia entry covers his involvement with Bilderberg in just ten words: “Denis Healey is a founder member of the Bilderberg Group”.

Until now, Bilderberg – named after the Dutch hotel that hosted the first meeting in 1954 – was ignored by the mainstream media and its very existence was denied by those who may have been in attendance. This year, for whatever reason, things are  less secretive. For the first time, a PR company has been engaged and a list of attendees has been published – though few people are expecting this to be 100% complete. It has been remarked that several official VIP cars arrived on the first day with the occupants’ identity obscured by copies of British right-wing tabloid “newspaper”, The Daily Mail (see photograph, below right).

According to the official website, “Bilderberg Meetings” are “an annual conference designed to foster dialogue between Europe and North America”. In 2013 the event takes place at the unlikely location of Watford, in the north London suburbs. There is absolutely no mention of the phrase New World Order anywhere on their website. The official take on proceedings is this:

Every year, between 120-150 political leaders and experts from industry, finance, academia and the media are invited to take part in the conference. About two thirds of the participants come from Europe and the rest from North America; one third from politics and government and the rest from other fields.
The conference is a forum for informal, off-the-record discussions about megatrends and the major issues facing the world.
Thanks to the private nature of the conference, the participants are not bound by the conventions of office or by pre-agreed positions. As such, they can take time to listen, reflect and gather insights.
There is no detailed agenda, no resolutions are proposed, no votes are taken, and no policy statements are issued.

??? arriving at Bilderberg 2013The opposing viewpoint – such as that expressed by journalist Daniel Estulin, author of The True Story of the Bilderberg Group, Britain’s own David Icke and Tony Gosling, and Texan Conspiracy Theorist Alex Jones – is basically that the world is really organised and run by the Bilderberg Group. They are portrayed as a shadowy, evil power working behind the scenes of world politics.

The background to this is that many future political leaders attend Bilderberg a year or two before they suddenly, and often unexpectedly, rise to power. Four fairly recent examples of this were Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. It is said that the unexpected and rapid demise of Thatcher was a direct result of her declared intention not to take Britain into the Euro Zone. The Bilderberg Group are very pro-European Union, at least according to their largely anti-European opposition.

When confronted with the allegation that the Group are “kingmakers in secret”, former Bilderberg chairman Viscount Davignon said that his steering committee – by the way, a current member is veteran UK Conservative grandee Kenneth Clarke – were just good at talent-spotting. The committee “does its best assessment of who are the bright new boys or girls in the beginning phase of their career who would like to get known,” he told the BBC News Website back in 2005. Let’s hope that this isn’t the case with Messrs Osborne, Balls or – God forbid – Lord Peter Mandelson. [Incidentally, a mole at Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation tells me that Michael Gove is the candidate in waiting as next Conservative leader and possible Prime Minister. Let’s hope not.]

Critics also claim that Bilderberg initiates, or at the very least, sanctions wars and invasions. All part of their role in the New World Order, presumably. Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan have all been cited; and, in the former Yugoslavia, it is widely held that the conflict that ripped that country apart was sanctioned at an assembly of the “great and the bad”. The attendance of key figures in these conflicts at conveniently-timed Bilderberg meetings is either another coincidence or else confirmation that they’re very good at “aggressor-spotting”. Good luck to the people of Syria…

Most conspiracy theorists and others who look at Bilderberg and don’t like what they see, agree that the make-up of the guest-list points to a largely financial agenda. That the banks can over-extend, crash and be bailed out, suffer no sanctions, and never have to replace the money they are given, does indicate that something very fishy is going on. That this happens on a global level simply adds to that suspicion.

That this year’s meeting is a little less secretive than the previous ones is interesting. We’ve gone from flat denial to a jokey piece on BBC-1’s early evening mainstream magazine programme, The One Show. No one’s telling us what they’re talking about or even given us a good reason why they’re even talking but, from 2013 onwards, Bilderberg are bringing in spin-doctors. Should we be relieved – or worried?

I end with three very interesting videos. The first is an interview with former BBC journalist Tony Gosling. He is one of the most vocal opponents of Bilderberg and puts the “case against” in a clear and non-sensational manner:

Secondly, here’s an attempted travelogue about the (very plush) Grove Hotel/golfing resort, which is hosting the 2013 Bilderberg Meeting. The Guardian‘s Charlie Skelton discovered that a high level security operation has been on-going for 18 months. the official word is that it’s being funded by merchant bankers Goldman Sachs, via the Bilderberg Group’s own legally registered charity. More here. The local BBC website for “Beds, Herts & Bucks” takes a slightly different view.

The video that follows was shot three-and-a-bit weeks before the delegates arrived. Check out the interaction with the plainclothes policeman dressed in Rider Cup golfing fleece around a third of the way in. “Sam” continues his walk, shadowed by a police helicopter. Then a police car arrives containing two armed officers. You really couldn’t make it up…

Finally, here’s Alex Jones, mad/ manic (you can take your pick) American conspiracy theorist being interviewed by the BBC. Alex also turns up in Idiot Watch. In this video he sounds almost reasonable and the frightening part is, he’s probably 75% right about Bilderberg. Interesting talk with the police after the BBC interview finishes:

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Mick McManus vs Dr Death

If you heard a barely discernible phut at around 1 am on Wednesday 22nd May 2013, it was very possibly the sound of an era ending. The death of Mick McManus, baddest bad man of British wrestling, closed a chapter in British history that encompassed Morecambe and Wise, frozen orange juice, and the Boston crab.

Mick McManus (1921-2013)

In real life, Mick McManus was shorter than you’d expect. Five-foot-six (1.68 metres). And in his prime, he weighed 175 lbs (barely twelve-and-a-half stone, 79 kg). His trademark Dracula hairstyle remained to the end, black as a raven’s bible, though thinning. As wrestling promoter Max Crabtree said in the 1990s: “Believe me, when the wind blows there’s not much there.”

The media barely acknowledged Mick’s death. I found out via an email from the Wrestling Heritage website. The previous day, the BBC News site had heralded the passing of former Bowie and Uriah Heap bass-player Trevor Bolder in its main headlines. But they relegated Mick’s demise to the Sports section.

It was tucked away between reports on cycling – “Visconti takes second Giro stage win” – and women’s football. Whether this was lingering cross-channel rivalry (wresting was always an ITV thing), or because the teenagers running the BBC website didn’t have a clue who Mick McManus was, we’ll probably never know.

Forty years ago, everyone in Britain knew about Mick McManus. He and his contemporaries, including Jackie Pallo, Giant Haystacks, Les Kellett, Big Daddy, Kendo Nagasaki and Catweazle, were national stars. For a while, he had a ghost-written column in The Sun newspaper. He was photographed with The Beatles, Stones and Royalty. He even had his own brand of “pep pills”.

Saturday afternoon wrestling had become a British institution. Millions of us eschewed “proper” sport like rugby league, horse racing and snooker on the BBC’s Grandstand, to watch World of Sport‘s hour of professional wrestling. At its peak in 1970, as many as 8.5 million people would tune in. This was 4 pm on a Saturday, don’t forget. “Grappling”, as slightly camp Canadian commentator Kent Walton insisted on calling it, was regularly high in the top 10 of the week’s most-watched ITV programmes.

“It’s Fixed, Granny!”

Everyone knew deep down that British wrestling was fixed. But not in a “bad way”. It was a similar arrangement to the one that ensured contemporary movies like The Magnificent Seven, Dirty Harry, and The Guns of Navarone didn’t end with the bad guys coming out on top. Of course, in wrestling, the “fix” meant that the bad guys often did win. It was there to enhance the drama and tension. To make it more “showbiz”.

Even so, Mick was truculent. Quoted in Simon Garfield’s essential book, The Wrestling, he said:

People used to say it was fixed, but you should have seen the injuries. Sometimes it was impossible to get out of bed the next day, because you were battered so badly. I didn’t enjoy that and I didn’t enjoy waiting on railway platforms at Crewe, like at one o’clock in the morning, waiting to catch the train to King’s Cross or Euston. I used to get knocks and torn ligaments, shoulders and ankles. You’d have to take a week off but you knew you’d recover.
I broke my collar-bone and my wrist falling out of the ring. And the cauliflower ears were so painful, people don’t realize.

“Proper Wrestlers?”

No one doubted that “proper” wrestlers like Mike Marino, Alan Dennison, and brothers Bert Royal and Vic Faulkner (it’s complicated) were genuinely skilful. Their matches served as an appetizer for the showbiz spectacles that were to follow. Mick was in the same class, despite his dirty tricks, phoney handshakes and frequent (but genuine) cries of “Not the ears! Not the ears!”

Few of us knew that Mick was one of the bosses of wrestling and its chief matchmaker. But then, there were a lot of things we didn’t know about Mick McManus.

mick_mcmanus_poster_01

William George Matthews was born just off the Old Kent Road in south-east London, on Wednesday January 11th, 1920. His father was a Walworth docker and amateur boxer. Until the age of 16, young Bill attended Walworth Central School in Mina Road, where he showed an aptitude in art and drawing. He was apprenticed into the printing trade, but by night he trained at the John Ruskin Wrestling Club at the Elephant & Castle. Being a sporty youth, he combined this with rowing, weightlifting at Fred Unwin’s club in Peckham, and running with the South London Harriers.

Mick McManus, Airman

When the Second World War arrived, Mick signed up to the Royal Air Force as a physical training instructor. He combined this with performing wrestling exhibitions around the UK with fellow airman, Wigan professional Jimmy Rudd. When he was posted to Australia in 1945, Mick appeared in his first pro wrestling bout in Sydney, against a young local called Tommy Steele (no relation).

Once the war was over and he’d returned to “civvy street”, Mick set up a dockland haulage business with a friend from the John Ruskin Club, Percy Pitman. Percy introduced McManus to former commercial artist Les Martin, who ran Dale Martin Promotions. Martin’s partners were the three “Dale” brothers whose surname was really Abbey (it’s complicated). Mick was given his chance and made his UK professional début against Chopper Howlett at Greenwich Baths in 1946.

Whatever Happened to Chopper Howlett?

When it became obvious that Mick’s future lay in wrestling, he and Pitman sold the trucks and opened a small printing works in Peckham. They produced wrestling programmes, posters and tickets.

In the ring, Mick McManus soon established himself as one of the most popular unpopular wrestlers in Britain. He wrestled exclusively on the Dale Martin circuit and from 1952, Joint Promotions. This incorporated Dale Martin’s south of England events with promoters further north. Yorkshire’s Ted Beresford and Norman Morell, Arthur Wright in Manchester. Billy Best in Liverpool, and George de Relywyskow in Scotland.

That McManus was a skilful wrestler was never in doubt. In 1949 he defeated Eddie Capelli to win the vacant British Welterweight Championship. In 1967 he secured the British Middleweight Championship, and a year later the European Middleweight title, which he won and lost on several occasions before Mal Sanders relieved him of it for good in 1979. By then, don’t forget, McManus was 59 years-old.

Wrestling on the Telly

British wrestling was first televised on November 9th, 1955 and McManus was quick to see the opportunity. He made his first appearance just ten weeks later, on January 17th, fighting Chic Povey at Lime Grove Baths in Shepherd’s Bush. By 1961 he was appearing up to 18 times a year, on his way to becoming Britain’s most televised wrestler. By now, McManus was working for Dale Martin as a matchmaker, a powerful role that did no harm to his career.

McManus was a skilled self-marketer. He formed a tag partnership will fellow south London “hard man” Steve Logan and engineered a grudge with wrestling’s “Mr TV”, Jackie Pallo that was to play out in high profile encounters for years. Although they didn’t actually fight very often, on both the 1963 and ’65 FA Cup Final days, their televised spat was rumoured to have been watched by more people (certainly more women) than the football. When Pallo retired, McManus continued the feud with his son, Jackie Junior.

Who killed William George Matthews?

In December 1965, William George Matthews changed his name by deed poll to Mick McManus.

McManus built up a reputation of never having been beaten on TV. On January 14th, 1967, he turned up for a televised bout at Lime Grove Baths in west London. It has been said that the promoter Norman Morrell had a beef with McManus. Possibly it was to do with his purchase of the printing business the south Londoner had founded with Percy Pitman. And the Bradford-based promoter had sworn revenge.

McManus was billed to fight up-and-coming Yorkshireman Peter Preston. When Preston didn’t take his agreed dive, McManus deliberately got himself disqualified as the only way to prevent losing to his heavier, younger and fitter, opponent. This was McManus’s only televised “defeat” until he was eventually beaten by Tony St Clair a decade later. The drama of the event was not lost on the crowd. Commentator Kent Walton remarked several times how quiet they were during the following bout between Tony Charles and Jamaican Ezzard Hart.

Peter Preston picked a peck of pickled problems…

There’s an urban myth that says McManus made sure Preston never worked on TV again. Untrue. Records show that Preston appeared five times more in 1967 alone and a similar number of times in subsequent years. McManus wasn’t generally liked by his contemporaries but, despite the professional jealousy, other wrestlers had to agree that Mick wasn’t one to let personal animosity get in the way of his wrestling.

In the ring, the McManus style included complaining at every possible occasion and interfering with his opponent whenever the ref’s back was turned. To keep his trademark cropped jet-black hair in check, he’d constantly stop to smooth it down with the palm of his hand. On the way to and from the dressing room McManus became adept at dodging angry old ladies with furled umbrellas.

mick_mcmanus_old

Mick McManus Retires

Mick McManus finally retired from the ring on May 5th, 1982, at the age of 62. His final bout  was at Bedworth Civic Hall against Catweazle – whose real name he shared with American film star, Gary Cooper. The bout was televised three days later and was one of the most watched wrestling matches on TV. In retirement, McManus kept himself busy. He was invariably to be found at the annual British Wrestlers’ Reunion, held at the Kent pub of fellow grappler Wayne Bridges. Mick played golf (off an 18 handicap) and was a sucker for a charitable cause. He was also employed part-time as a PR meeter and greeter for a company that distributed wiring and cables.

He and his wife, Barbara, lived for many years in a small flat near Denmark Hill station, south-east London. It was packed with the porcelain Mick had become an avid collector of, and which had taken him on to the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow as an expert. Sadly, Barbara died in January 2013. Mick was to follow within a few months, leaving a son, Tony, by now no spring chicken himself.

Mick spent his final weeks at an outer London retirement home that specialized in theatrical and celebrity types. To emphasise Mick’s showbiz credentials, one of the last visitors, before he died, was film director, Lord “Dickie” Attenborough.

Peter Blake draws a picture

The artist Peter Blake summed up what many of us felt:

I felt a kind of affinity with McManus, and after one fight, when everyone was screaming at him, as he walked back from the ring I said, “Nice fight, Mick!” and he said to me, “How you going, son?” as though he knew me. I remember it now, so I think I must have been quite touched.
I liked to support someone who was always a villain, never anyone else’s favourite. McManus had a lot of arrogance and there was something genuine about him, certainly a strong wrestler. You felt that if it genuinely turned into a fight, he’d win.”

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Obama, Guantanamo, Torture

Obama, Guantánamo and torture. Three words guaranteed to start an argument when used individually… together they’re like a 50-megaton nuclear warhead. On January 22, 2009 President Obama vowed to close Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp “within the year”. As of May 2013, “Gitmo” is still operational, with 166 men still detained without charge or trial. Most of them have been there for over ten years.

Ironically, the sign on the gate concludes with the motto of the Joint Task Force Guantánamo (JTF-GTMO), which is: “Honor Bound To Defend Freedom”.

Those who defend the camp say that supporters of  al-Qaeda and the Taliban do not warrant the “civilised” treatment afforded to prisoners of war by the Geneva Convention. The guards and torturers at Hitler’s concentration camps were given this protection, as were the  Serbians who killed and raped in the name of ethnic cleansing.

This unique US Naval base on the edge of Castro’s Cuba became a caged prison camp for suspected terrorists because President George W Bush believed it was beyond Federal Law. This meant inmates could be tortured and interrogated without interference. Several judicial battles since have concluded that he was wrong and Gitmo does indeed lie within the jurisdiction of the United States Judicial system. This was before the more right-wing (and government appointed) Supreme Court stepped in with decisions blocking releases and imposing restrictions on what evidence could be presented.

The existence of the camps at Guantánamo Bay is a travesty of everything civilised people hold dear. Every John Wayne movie and classic American adventure features strong men fighting for a “decent society”. Surely the essence of this is somewhere where human beings cannot be imprisoned without charge or trial. And certainly not tortured, sexually and religiously humiliated or force-fed.

No one is suggesting that convicted terrorists should be allowed to wander free. They should be treated like every other major criminal, and dealt with by just, lawful means. Even the most heinous murderer and terrorist remains a human being who should be treated as such. President Obama said over four years ago:

Instead of serving as a tool to counter terrorism, Guantánamo became a symbol that helped al-Qaeda recruit terrorists to its cause. Indeed, the existence of Guantánamo likely created more terrorists around the world than it ever detained.

That’s as true today as it was then: maybe more so. Human Rights campaigners Amnesty International are just one independent organisation who call for the closure of Guantánamo. Others include the European Union, United Nations and the International Red Cross.

Torture At Guantánamo

JTF_GITMOThere is little doubt inmates have been tortured at Guantánamo. After all, wasn’t that the original reason for its location on foreign soil?  Numerous accounts exist of beatings, water-boarding and intimidation by dogs; sleep deprivation; men being forced to soil themselves, being smeared with fake menstrual blood and sexually taunted.

Then there’s the suspected existence of Camp No – or  Camp Seven, as it’s also called – a secret detention and interrogation facility at which (according to testimony from former Marine guards), the three men who supposedly “committed suicide” in 2006, actually met their end. Suicide bombings aside, it is highly unlikely that devout Moslems would take their own lives, even when treated in such abominable ways. “And do not kill yourselves, surely God is most Merciful to you.” – Qur’an, Sura 4(An-Nisa), ayat 29

In 2006, British judge Mr Justice Collins declared during a court hearing over the refusal by Tony Blair’s UK government to request the release of three British residents held at Guantánamo Bay:

“America’s idea of what is torture is not the same as ours and does not appear to coincide with that of most civilised nations.”

Of the remaining 166 detainees still held as of the end of March 2013, 86 have been cleared for release, but will not be for set free for the foreseeable future. One of the men still detained is Shawali Khan, an uneducated Afghan farmer. According to an article by Chicago human rights lawyer Len Goodman on the closeguantanamo.org website, in 2002 Khan was forced to move to Kandahar after a severe drought ruined his crops. He set up as a shopkeeper. Then came 9/11:

In November of 2002, Khan was captured by Afghan warlords and sold to the Americans. At this time, the Americans were paying bounties of about $10,000 to Afghans who turned in al-Qaeda fighters. No actual evidence or corroboration was required.

Khan was subsequently sent to Gitmo based on the word of a single informant that he was an al-Qaeda fighter. The fact that Kandahar in 2002 was considered “Taliban Central” and had no known al-Qaeda presence was overlooked or ignored by American intelligence officials who were eager to fill empty cages at Gitmo.

Khan was finally granted a habeas corpus hearing in the spring of 2010, his eighth year of captivity. The government called no witnesses but merely introduced “intelligence reports” which indicated that an unidentified Afghan informant had told an unidentified American intelligence officer that Khan was an al-Qaeda-linked insurgent.

The federal appellate courts have ruled in the Gitmo cases that the government’s evidence must be presumed accurate. To try and refute this evidence, my co-counsel and I demanded the informant’s file to determine how much cash he was paid and what kind of track record and reputation he had for truth telling. Government counsel declared that the file was “not reasonably available.” We then asked for the name of the informant so that we could conduct our own investigation. But the government refused to declassify the informant’s name, thus prohibiting us from speaking it to our Afghan investigator, who was then in Kandahar interviewing Khan’s family and neighbors, or even to our client.

There is also no doubt that many of the detained men were innocent. Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, who served as an aide to US Secretary of State Colin Powell, made an affidavit for a 2010 US court case, in which he stated that US leaders, including President George W Bush, Vice-President Dick Cheney, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, had been aware that the majority of the detainees initially sent to Guantánamo were innocent. Despite this knowledge, the men had been detained because of “political expedience”.

President Obama And Guantánamo Bay Detention Camps

So why hasn’t Obama closed the facility as he has promised on several occasions? In 2008, remember, he called Guantánamo a “sad chapter in American history”. As you might expect, it’s complicated. Several obstacles have been placed in his way by those within his Administration and beyond. A fuller list of events can be found at the Wikipedia Guantanamo Bay page.

The first main obstacle to closure back in 2009 appears to have been the legal problem that ongoing human rights abuse legal actions that were still pending. Then, when that was partly resolved, several potential alternate sites were nixed by their respective State and county officials. Under the US political climate, Obama seems keener on transferring prisoners to other facilities in the USA than implementing a closure and blanket release.

Then more bizarre elements prevented the shutting down of Gitmo. When Obama was finally able to sign off a move to a new site in Illinois, for example, the lawyer for a group of Yemeni detainees objected because the area was “too bleak”. This type of to-ing and fro-ing continued until November 2012, when the United States Senate voted 54–41 to stop detainees being transferred to facilities in the United States.

According to Red Cross spokesman Simon Schorno, the US Congress is the main obstacle to closing Guantánamo Bay prison camp. A significant factor appears to be the misinformed and yet rabid anti-Islamic stance of much of the American media.

On the closeguantanamo.org website, author and campaigner Andy Worthington lists other problems that need to be overcome:

Even though 86 of the 166 men still held were cleared for release by an inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force established by President Obama in 2009, the U.S. government has turned its back on them. Although two-thirds of the cleared prisoners are Yemenis, President Obama issued a blanket ban on releasing any Yemenis after the failed underwear bomb plot on Christmas Day 2009 (perpetrated by a Nigerian man recruited in Yemen).

Force Feeding

On May 1st, 2013, it was reported that at least 130 of the 166 remaining Guantánamo inmates are refusing to eat and that medical personnel had been dispatched to the base to force feed them. Here (from the UK Guardian newspaper website) is a video about this:

The American Constitution clearly states that no one should be imprisoned without charge or trial or be tortured. Whether this applies to citizens of foreign countries who are kidnapped on the word of an unknown informer appears open to debate.

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What Does UKIP Stand For?

UKIP, or the United Kingdom Independence Party as they’re known to their friends and carers, is currently the hottest political topic in the United Kingdom. Well, probably just in England, but let’s not split hairs.

UKIP’s leader is a likeable, middle-aged, middle-class gent called Nigel Farage, often pictured with a beer, occasionally sporting a cigarillo. He’s not a professional politician like the others, more an ordinary chap like you and me. He began as an ardent Conservative in his youth and a big fan of Margaret Thatcher. When the wretches in the Tory party booted her out in 1990, it angered him. He was clearly still hurting in 2010 when he told the Daily Telegraph :

The way those gutless, spineless people got rid of the woman they owed everything to made me so angry. I was a monster fan of Mrs Thatcher. Monster. Hers was the age of aspiration, it wasn’t about class.

Significantly, Farage’s last straw with the Tories came when Prime Minister John Major signed the Maastricht Treaty in 1992. A year later Nigel founded UKIP and became its leader.

Looking something like a thoroughly-decent chap on the sidelines of a PG Wodehouse novel, Nigel Farage has become hugely popular with almost everyone not called Cameron or Clegg. He received the ultimate right-wing bloke’s accolade earlier this year when Boris Johnson described him as “a rather engaging geezer”.

As leader of his party, Nigel has a huge approval rating. Something like Nick Clegg’s before the last general election. This rather suggests that to be popular, it helps if people don’t know what you stand for – or what you don’t stand for.

If you ask anyone in Britain what UKIP’s policies are, they’ll know. At least the headlines. “Get us out of Europe!” would be the cry, perhaps with the addendum, “and put a stop to all these foreign scroungers coming over here and *nicking our jobs/ *living on benefits” (delete as applicable).

All people seem to know about UKIP has to do with getting out of Europe and banning immigration. What else do they propose to do when they assume power, as they surely must now that media giant Des Lynam is backing them?

What We Want To Know About UKIP

Based on what’s being searched for on Google.co.uk (see screenshot above), these are the 10 burning questions the British public want answered about Britain’s most popular fringe party (well, England’s… but let’s not split hairs):

  • Is UKIP racist? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “a racist is a person who believes that a particular race is superior to another”. Their website may state: “UKIP is a patriotic party that believes in putting Britain first” but as the British are not a race, it would clearly be libellous to accuse UKIP of racism. Their policies on immigration and Europe may attract some “clowns and nutters” with racist opinions, but that’s clearly not UKIP’s fault, just as you can’t blame armaments manufacturers if their products are used to bash people over the head.
  • Is UKIP Fascist? Again we must turn to the OED, which tells us:

    “Fascism tends to include a belief in the supremacy of one national or ethnic group, a contempt for democracy, an insistence on obedience to a powerful leader, and a strong demagogic approach”.

    Nothing like UKUP, right? Right.

  • Is UKIP Libertarian? OED to the rescue again. It tells us that libertarianism is defined as:

    An extreme laissez-faire political philosophy advocating only minimal state intervention in the lives of citizens. The adherents of libertarianism believe that private morality is not the state’s affair and that therefore activities such as drug use and prostitution, which arguably harm no one but the participants, should not be illegal. Libertarianism shares elements with anarchism, although it is generally associated more with the political right, chiefly in the US.

    Nigel Farage, UKIP leaderIn the 2010 Daily Telegraph interview Farage further stated:

    I am also a libertarian. I think prostitution, for instance, should be decriminalised and regulated. I feel that about drugs, too. I don’t do them myself but I think the war on drugs does more harm than the drugs themselves. I am opposed to the hunting ban and the smoking ban, too. What have they got to do with government?

  • Is UKIP far right? Not as far right as some of its more ardent supporters would like it to be.
  • Is UKIP a party of bigots? Obviously not. That’s like saying the Conservative Party is full of toffs and Labour stuffed with wishy-washy liberals (with a small “L”).
  • Is UKIP right wing? See above.
  • Is UKIP BNP? Clearly not. BNP stands for the British National Party, which is an extremist right-wing party strongly opposed to immigration and membership of the European Union.
  • Is UKIP racist yahoo? Isn’t that just the same question as #1 with a yahoo on the end?
  • Is UKIP on the rise? Definitely. In the 2013 local government elections they polled 23% of the popular vote (plus 96% of the unpopular vote).
  • Is UKIP Liberal? Not very.

The Other UKIP Policies…

I checked out the official UKIP website to see what policies they hold on less important topics, such as the economy, defence and health. Here are the “Lucky 7” best UKIP policies I found:

  • “Double prison places to enforce zero tolerance on crime”. Lots of jobs going for G4S prison guards at minimum wage. A good way to kickstart the economy once we lose our trade links with Europe.
  • “End the ban on smoking in allocated rooms in public houses, clubs and hotels”. That should get the vote of every smoker in the nation. It’s a pity UKIP’s immigration policies will exclude East Europeans, many of whom have been known to enjoy a crafty smoke with their vodkas and tonic. If only stalwart British actor Alfie Bass were alive to front the campaign…
  • “We must leave the electorate with more of their own money.  Government is only a facilitator for growth.  Low tax, few regulations and small government are the recipe for a successful economy. ” A personal allowance of £13,000, a flat rate of tax at 25%, abolishing VAT and National Insurance and (presumably) cutting services drastically to pay for it all. Sound very fair – especially for those who are earning lots of money. Yahoo!
  • churchill_smokingukip“Hold country wide referenda on the hunting ban”. Yes, that should be a definite priority. Why should those pesky foxes – many of whom I suspect arrived in this country illegally – get away with lounging around all day doing nothing? A bit of exercise will do them the world of good.
  • “Global warming is not proven – wind power is futile. Scrap all green taxes, wind turbine subsidies and adopt nuclear power to free us from dependence on fossil fuels and foreign oil and gas.” It’ll come as a relief to many of us affected by the recent long winters, wet summers and flooding that it’s all in our imagination and nothing to do with so-called “Global Warming” after all. Thanks to the learned scientists at UKIP for that welcome news. And how typical of the BBC to try and keep it quiet.
  • “UKIP would like to offer people a choice of how they wish their health care to be delivered. Patient choice in a monolithic government funded system is one of the greatest challenges now facing the NHS and we believe that other models are worth considering to see whether lessons can be learned from abroad.” Er, does that sound a little like privatising the National Health Service? More work for G4S (Health Services) me thinks…
  • “As the UK regains its place as an independent global trading nation, we will need to ensure that we can defend our trade, and our independence… UKIP would re-establish the UK’s defence capabilities at viable levels.” Quick, put everything you’ve got into British Gun Boats PLC!

So there we are: UKIP in a nutshell. Who in their right nicotine-stimulated mind wouldn’t want to return to a time when the United Kingdom was truly great, before those pesky Europeans pushed their human rights and employment regulation nonsense onto us and spoilt everything?

Hang on… it’s just occurred to me… Maybe I misunderstood the question. The answer to “What does UKIP stand for?” might just be “United Kingdom Independence Party”. Sorry, Little Britain… er, England (but let’s not split hairs).

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Who Needs A Human Rights Act, Anyway?

Conservative Justice Minister, Chris Grayling (centre in picture), is quoted in the Sunday Telegraph newspaper today (March 3rd, 2013) as saying that a future Conservative government will scrap the Human Rights Act. This is intended to cheer up the Tory right after a series of “set-backs” that included the party being pushed into third place in the Eastleigh by-election by Nigel Farage’s rightwing, anti-EU United Kingdom Independence Party. I decline to comment on the under-reported fact that Mr Grayling is the first Lord Chancellor since 1558 to have no legal training.

Abolishing the Human Rights Act has been a constant theme from the Conservative Right since legislation was proposed by the Labour government in 1998. At the centre of the opposition is the assertion that the Act is the implementation in UK law of the European Convention on Human Rights. The Right’s opposition to the legislation seems to stem from the way the act gives rights to people it does not approve of  – including gypsies, terrorists, criminals and the poor – and asserts that they are actually human beings with families and needs. As a result the gutter press – most particularly the Daily Mail and The Sun – have been bombarding its readers with examples of “political correctness gone mad”. Usually the examples they cite are spurious or, at best, tell only half the story.

During the 2005 General Election the then Conservative leader, Michael Howard, got in on the act (ahem), citing his own examples. Wikipedia quotes him (taken from the Daily Telegraph of August 10, 2005) as showcasing these examples:

“The schoolboy arsonist allowed back into the classroom because enforcing discipline apparently denied his right to education; the convicted rapist given £4,000 compensation because his second appeal was delayed; the burglar given taxpayers’ money to sue the man whose house he broke into; travellers who thumb their nose at the law allowed to stay on green belt sites they have occupied in defiance of planning laws…”

In the cases he quoted, the schoolboy was suing not to be allowed back into the classroom (he was already a university student by the time case came to court) but for compensation. In fact he lost his case in court. Similarly, the “convicted rapist” was not “given” £4,000 but this was the amount of his recovered legal fees; and the burglar was in fact ruled to be entitled to Legal Aid.

The Act came into force in the year 2000 and greatly changed the balance of power from “Big Brother” to the individual via the Courts. It is now possible for the UK legal system to challenge unjust laws passed by Parliament – and it has. Establishing a new act in Common Law always involves a series of messy legal cases (in this case, many of them involving terrorist suspects) and the last thirteen years have helped build a workable definition of an individual’s Human Rights.

Thanks to the Act, it became harder to evict or sack someone without showing good cause, and the freedom of the media to report on matters of public interest has its basis in human rights law. The Editor in Chief of the Daily Mail, Paul Dacre does not share this view. In a 2008 speech to the Society of Editors (reproduced in full here), he lambasts what he calls the “wretched Human Rights Act”. This is perhaps the most telling paragraph:

“…if mass-circulation newspapers, which also devote considerable space to reporting and analysis of public affairs, don’t have the freedom to write about scandal, I doubt whether they will retain their mass circulations with the obvious worrying implications for the democratic process.”

That’s a great argument. We have to get rid of an Act of Parliament that protects the human rights of a nation’s citizens because, if we do not, newspapers will not be able to delve into scandal and so their circulations might fall! No doubt Rupert Murdoch shares similar sentiments.

So why do the Tory Right want to scrap the Act? Hard to say. Maybe it’s because it comes from Europe and places the European Court of Human Rights above our piss-poor selection of rulers? Maybe they do not like being reigned back from infringing the Human Rights of the electors? Perhaps the law is preventing them from tabling draconian but vote-winning legislation against immigrants or gypsies? Who knows?

I don’t want to lose the Act and I am sure that if people were told the absolute truth, they would want to keep it too.

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Police State

It now appears that the story behind this exchange is not all it appears and that some of the “witnesses” were in fact not witnesses at all. The article remains here purely as an historical record. You can draw your own conclusions from what is said (or not said).

The day after two unarmed women police officers were shot dead in Manchester, it seemed somehow insensitive for a government minister to shout insults at police in Downing Street who refused to let him ride his bike through the main gates. Hardly a den of left-wing vipers, the Sun newspaper reported that the recently appointed Tory chief whip Andrew Mitchell launched an “F-word rant at armed police officers”. What he is alleged to have shouted include the phrases:

“Open this gate, I’m the Chief Whip. I’m telling you — I’m the Chief Whip and I’m coming through these gates.”

“Best you learn your f***ing place. You don’t run this f***ing government.”

“You’re f***ing plebs… Morons”

Mr Mitchell denies using the word “plebs”.

The problem here is not what was shouted but the attitude behind the tirade. Although grocer’s daughter Maggie Thatcher and “pants man” John Major bucked the trend, the Conservative party has long been synonymous with Britain’s “ruling class”. These are people who send their children to Eton, Oxbridge and then enveigle them into well-paid jobs in the City. Perks include being able to park your Range Rover on double-yellows because you can afford to pay the odd fine.

The rich see themselves as the social and economic elite, above the general rules and laws that keep the rest of us in line. If you want to see the effects of this in action simply spend an afternoon in London’s Knightsbridge or Belgravia and see how traffic wardens, shop staff and even police officers are spoken to when they try and enforce laws, rules and regulations.

Before the last general election, you’d be hard-pressed to find a cop in Britain who wouldn’t have voted Conservative. Maybe the odd dippy Lib-Dem, but the Police Federation is, and always has been, blatantly Conservative-supporting and Right-leaning. But not any more. They may still be Right-leaning, but now there’s a hatred of this government that’s surprising ferocious.

Even more surprising is that it’s been brought about by the words and actions of government ministers. Andrew Mitchell’s comments are just the latest in a long line of attitude-revealing gaffes. Now the rank and file police state that they are “fed-up to the back teeth with the anti-police policies of the current government” (Police Federation spokesman). They say that Theresa May’s ‘police reforms’ consist merely of cutting pay, axing resources and imposing political control over them in the form of elected police commissioners.

There is little denying that, despite the banter and “man of the people” positioning, David Cameron, Boris Johnson and their fellows are from a privileged class. Aped and admired by the self-made nouveau riche, these people are the essence of British nostalgia. It was thanks to their good governance that the sun used to shine every day, strikes were virtually unheard of and Bertie Wooster was able to pop down to Totleigh Towers for a weekend’s smooching.

The traditional hierarchy was that the Lord of the Manor acted as law-giver and local magistrate and the primarily role of the village constable was to ensure that poachers didn’t get away with too many of his Lordship’s rabbits, trout and upstairs maids. The attitude persists that the police are there to look after their interests and not to tell them what they can and cannot do.

One of their own, maverick Tory MP Nadine Dorries said in the Spring of 2012:

Not only are Cameron and Osborne two posh boys who don’t know the price of milk, but they are two arrogant posh boys who show no remorse, no contrition, and no passion to want to understand the lives of others – and that is their real crime.

Problem is, this is exactly what British voters seem to want. In the South and East, where UK general elections are won and lost, there are two types of Tory voter and there are lots of each. To wildly generalise, there’s the middle class and rich who consider themselves part of the Tory ruling classes; then there’s the rest, who “know their place” and would rather be governed by people who “know how to rule”. All right, they may moan and vote in Alternative Tories like Tony Blair on occasion, but the status quo in Britain is to have a Tory government.

You want proof? The “people’s favourite” to replace David Cameron as Conservative Party leader is not a self-made man or even woman, but fellow Bullingdon Club member, self-styled buffoon and current London Mayor, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson. And if Boris wants to be Prime Minister, I am afraid he has the will-power and the connections to do it.

Good grief.

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Stop Racism With A Brain Pill

With the European Football championships diverting attention from racism at home to racism in eastern Europe, is it time to take another look at racism? It has to be the most illogical of human prejudices. The bad news is that it might not be as easy to stop racism as we thought.

In January 2012, a little-reported but major Scientific study found distinct links between low intelligence and racial prejudice. The research team was led by Gordon Hodson, a psychologist at Brock University in Ontario. The main conclusions were published on January 5th, 2012 in the journal Psychological Science. Most of my quotes from the subsequent report on the Science website LiveScience.com.

“Racism is generally highest among the least-educated.”

As you might expect, racism is generally highest among the least well-educated. Stereotypical racists include the British skinhead from the council housing estate and the American redneck. As someone cleverer than me (possibly Elmore Leonard) once said, a cliché only becomes a cliché because it’s probably true. As previous studies concluded that racism is more prevalent among the poorly educated, Professor Hodson decided that looking at intelligence was the logical next step.

Steve Bell on David Irving’s Libel Trial verdict 12/04/2000 (©The Guardian)

He and his researchers studied the findings of two earlier British studies. One followed a group born in 1958. The other at babies born in April 1970. Both sets of children had their intelligence assessed when they reached 11 years old. Another study 19 years later looked at their levels of racism and social conservatism.

For me, one problem with the study is that it relies on people saying what their views were. It would have been better to find a way to examine their unconscious minds. Alas, that wasn’t possible.

The subjects were asked whether they agreed with vaguely right-wing statements such as:

“Schools should teach children to obey authority”

and:

“Family life suffers if mum is working full-time.”

Attitudes toward other races were captured by measuring agreement with statements such as:

“I wouldn’t mind working with people from other races.”

Is it Possible to Stop Racism?

In practically every case, low intelligence in childhood matched up with racism in adulthood. Surprise, surprise. The most interesting finding was a link with political thought. Basically they found that people socially aligned to the right (Republicans in the USA and Conservatives in the UK) are more likely to be racist than the left-leaning.

That’s something I’ve known since I was in my teens. I’m grateful that someone has finally found scientific backing for my gut feeling.

The dilemma of well-educated racists such as Sir Oswald Mosley, Enoch Powell, and David Irving is an entirely different matter. It’s barely possible that Powell was unaware he was being racist when he made his infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech.

His defenders will say he wasn’t saying people who aren’t white are in any way inferior, just that the races don’t mix easily. But that is inherently racist. It’s putting forward the theory that skin colour somehow determines someone’s character, which is absurd. Even to the most poorly-educated skinhead.

Are UKIP Racist?

Many followers of Nigel Farage’s UKIP, seem to put great store in localism. To them, people born on this side of the English Channel are somehow good. By extension, this means anyone coming from elsewhere is bad, unwanted, a danger.

Despite being able to roll out examples of Black and Asian people who support them, many UKIP followers still believe that ‘true’ British people are White. At best, those who are Black and Mixed Race are ‘guests in our country’. They must always speak English and do things ‘the British way’ or else suffer the consequences.

In my experience, most people who think this way are poorly-educated and generally in demeaning, repetitive work. Quite a few are unemployed, which they can blame on “all these immigrants”.

There’s an old saying: “Tuppence ha’penny looking down on tuppence.” In Britain’s pre-decimal days, tuppence ha’penny (2.5d) was code for “not very much”. It means that someone who has very wants to think there’s someone lower in the social scale than they are. It’s probably why the poor and middle-class alike are the most suseptable to be racist.

I’d really like to stop racism. But it seems it’s a lot easier said than done.

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Charles Dickens Characters

Charles Dickens‘ characters fall into two main categories: the memorable and the totally unforgettable.

I can think of no other author who has created such vivid fictional characters. In no particular order: The Artful Dodger, Smike, Joe Gargery, Fagin, Scrooge. Wilkins Micawber, Sam Weller, Daniel Quilp, Mr Dick, Bill Sykes. Magwitch, Frederick Dorrit, Mr Merdle, Mrs Gamp, and, of course, all the title characters. And that’s just from memory. If I had a crib-sheet in front of me, the list would run to dozens, if not hundreds.

Charles John Huffam Dickens, 1812-1870

Bill Sikes from Oliver Twist: one of Charles Dickens most memorable characters
Bill Sikes from Oliver Twist (note: incorrect spelling)
A memorable Charles Dickens character!

I was halfway through a post about Racism in Football when I spotted a reminder that today (February 7th) is the 200th anniversary of Dickens’ birth. How could I possibly let that pass? The world of Dickens has enchanted me ever since I first watched those atmospheric BBC black and white Sunday teatime adaptations in the 1960s. Although I’ve nothing against full-colour broadcasting, there is something about black & white telly that sprinkles even more magic dust over his characters and storylines.

The same goes for those hugely atmospheric David Lean film adaptations of Great Expectations and Oliver Twist. Here was a man who understood the inherent power of Charles Dickens characters. For some reason, we didn’t touch Dickens for school exams. There was no shortage of Chaucer and Shakespeare, great as they are. I had to discover Dickens’ writing because I wanted to, not because I had to.

For the past couple of months, the British media has been on Dickens overload. Every celebrity from Armando Iannucci and Sue Perkins to Mariella Frostrup and Aled Jones has offered up their praise and opinions on the greatest novelist of the Victorian era. There’s a genuine risk of over-kill and a sad realisation that in a year’s time there’ll probably be no Dickens at all.

That’s the way media people think. No one has ever given me a proper explanation as to why newspapers, magazines, radio and TV don’t ‘do’ something unless they have an event to ‘hang it on’. I’d find Charles Dicken just as interesting 199-and-a-half years after his birth as exactly 200, but maybe I’m the odd one out.

Charles Dickens as Storyteller

There’s a theory that suggests that Charles Dickens’ characters and brilliant – if occasionally over-convoluted – plots were so well-crafted because he had to write them in instalments. The theory falls down when you realise that many other authors wrote to the same constraints and (sadly, perhaps) their work has grown ivy and perished over the years. I think we just have to admit that Dickens’s survived is because they were so extraordinary to start with. Take this extract from Little Dorrit:

Little Dorrit (1855-1857)

BBC Adaptation of Little Dorrit, 2008

An old brick house, so dingy as to be all but black, standing by itself within a gateway. Before it, a square courtyard where a shrub or two and a patch of grass were as rank (which is saying much) as the iron railings enclosing them were rusty; behind it, a jumble of roots. It was a double house, with long, narrow, heavily-framed windows. Many years ago, it had had it in its mind to slide down sideways; it had been propped up, however, and was leaning on some half-dozen gigantic crutches: which gymnasium for the neighbouring cats, weather-stained, smoke-blackened, and overgrown with weeds, appeared in these latter days to be no very sure reliance.

‘Nothing changed,’ said the traveller, stopping to look round. ‘Dark and miserable as ever. A light in my mother’s window, which seems never to have been extinguished since I came home twice a year from school, and dragged my box over this pavement. Well, well, well!’

He went up to the door, which had a projecting canopy in carved work of festooned jack-towels and children’s heads with water on the brain, designed after a once-popular monumental pattern, and knocked. A shuffling step was soon heard on the stone floor of the hall, and the door was opened by an old man, bent and dried, but with keen eyes.

He had a candle in his hand, and he held it up for a moment to assist his keen eyes. ‘Ah, Mr Arthur?’ he said, without any emotion, ‘you are come at last? Step in.’

Mr Arthur stepped in and shut the door.

Charles Dickens: Brief Biography

There’s no room for a complete Charles Dickens biography, but enough space not to ignore the basic facts.

Mr Micawber from David Copperfield

Charles John Huffam Dickens was born in Landport, Hampshire on February 7th, 1812. It was a memorable year all round: poet Robert Browning and the architect Augustus Pugin shared the same birth-year. The metric system was first adopted in France.

Napoleon invaded Russia (later commemorated by Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture), and Britain went to war with the United States. By the time of Dickens’ death, 58 years, four months and two days later, he had written 15-and-a-half novels, 6 novellas and numerous shorter pieces.

The biggest selling of all his novels is A Tale of Two Cities. Don’t ask me why. The book with the most adaptations is A Christmas Carol, possible because Christmas comes around every year. There’s nothing like a bit of sentiment to start the cash registers ringing.

Britain’s Favourite

The BBC’s Big Read survey of Britain’s 100 favourite novels, undertaken in 2003, contained five from Dickens. They were: Great Expectations (17), David Copperfield (34), A Christmas Carol (47), A Tale of Two Cities (63) and Bleak House (79).

Dickens and Terry Pratchett shared the distinction of having the most works in the first 100. I wonder if that would be repeated in even 20 years from now.

For me, the big surprises were that Bleak House did so well. It was two years before the ground-breaking BBC adaptation with Gillian Anderson and Charles Dance. And that Oliver Twist did so badly, only managing to scrape in at number 182.

You would have thought that with all the adaptations, in particular Lionel Bart’s spirited musical would have propelled Oliver Twist into the top 150 at the very least. It’s not as if the storyline – including the memorable line: “Please sir, I want some more!” – isn’t well known. Or that Charles Dickens’ characters in Oliver Twist are not up to standard. My theory is that we prefer our Dickens a little darker… preferably in black and white.

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Top Conspiracy Theories

Top conspiracy theories? How a run-of-the-mill conspiracy theory gets the “top” tag is interesting enough in itself. Just what makes one conspiracy theory better than all the rest?

Can it be because it is true (surely some of them must be, just according to the law of averages?), or maybe because it is totally outrageous, along the lines of: the Queen is a lizard; 9-11 was an inside job engineered by US government agencies; and Jimmy Savile was a peodophile? Being totally bizarre and true would seem to be a desirable double whammy and there are plenty of people who say that all those examples are 100% correct. That’s why I’ve included two of them in my list of Top Conspiracy Theories.

The Jimmy Savile allegations became an candidate for Top Conspiracy Theory (well, maybe not Top Conspiracy Theory), after it was revealed that a well-researched and ready to air BBC Newsnight piece on allegations that the British DJ and charity marathon-runner had molested schoolgirls at a school at which he had volunteered to do “charity work” in the 1970s, was shelved at the last minute on orders from a very senior executive. This was in mid-December  2011. A fawning tribute featuring Shane Ritchie was aired on BBC-1 on December 26th. The internet is saturated with reports that Savile used his charity and volunteer work as a cover for more illicit activities, including necrophilia, underage sex and procuring male children for former British Prime Minister Ted Heath to “play with” on his yacht, Morning Cloud.

I don’t know the truth of any of these specific allegations, but I once spoke to a woman who said she’d had “semi-consensual” sex with Savile when she was fifteen, and that the police have investigated similar claims on at least two publicly-documented occasions. Savile’s supporters deny any wrong-doing on the part of the tracksuit-wearing DJ (“Now then, now then…”), admitting that he was a bit of an oddball but adding that he did raise a lot of money for charity. If you want to find out more about the Anti-Sir Jimmy Savile point of view – bearing in mind that he is in no position to answer back – then you can check out David Icke’s forum (which is dedicated to “free speech”), and perhaps take a peek at this extract from an ITV documentary on the Nolan Sisters made in 2009: Top Conspiracy Theories – click here to view.

My Top Conspiracy Theories:

The Queen (And Most Other World Rulers) Is A Lizard

When it comes to Top Conspiracy Theories, this one is a “humdinger” and potentially the biggest of them all. The writer and former BBC football reporter and Green Party spokesman, David Icke, has devoted his life since 1991 to telling us about an ancient race from the Middle East – via Outer Space – that now runs the world. Icke refers to them as the “Babylonian Brotherhood.” Key Brotherhood bloodlines include the British Royal Family (The House of Windsor) and the allied Royal families of Europe, the Rockerfellers, the Rothschilds, and the establishment families of the USA, including the Kennedy clan and the Bush family. Among the organizations and bodies  the Brotherhood created and now control are the Illuminati, Round Table, the Bilderberg Group, Chatham House, the IMF (International Monetary Fund), the United Nations, and the Internet. The members of the Brotherhood are descended from reptile-like creatures who arrived from Outer Space a few thousand years ago, hence “The Queen Is A Lizard” jibe.

The basis of Icke’s theories is that the “few ” have created a series of secret societies that rule the world and control the “many”. The Brotherhood are dedicated to their “Great Work of Ages” of world domination and the eventual goal of a population that is micro-chipped in order to control us. Icke has been almost universally ridiculed for his theories, but individual research by the likes of British journalist Jon Ronson show that certain aspects of his claims do have substance. I find it impossible to take on board most of David Icke’s ideas, but I find aspects of them get less bizarre with every passing year. Who knows, maybe the Queen is a lizard?

Top Of All Top Conspiracy Theories: 9-11 Was An Inside Job

Maybe not as implausible as I first thought. After checking out a few of the “facts” and a few of the conspiracy theory websites, the official version – that Osama Bin Laden orchestrated this from a cave in Afghanistan – sounds less likely than many of the versions peddled online. The general consensus among conspirators is that 9-11 was orchestrated by the US Government, or possibly the Babylonian Brotherhood, as an excuse to invade Afghanistan and Iraq. They say that only the CIA and other US government agencies had the facilities and expertise to pull off such a major coup.

Much is made of the New York firefighter’s reaction to the way the Twin Towers collapsed and various architects have said that the buildings would not have reacted as they appeared to as the result of a fire after being hit by a plane. Many experts and people who should know have said that the collapses had more of the look a controlled demolition rather than of a structural failure after being engulfed by fire.

Here’s a film made in 2006 by “MI5 whistle-blower” (as he seems destined to forever be called) David Shayler, that covers much of this, with an emphasis on Britain’s involvement and its own terrorist attacks on the 7/7 London Bombings:


[NOTE: this video seems to have been removed from the internet, together with all traces of it! – June 8, 2013]

It seems to me that the official version is even more far-fetched than the conspiracy theory. This is what we are expected to believe: 20 Arabs decide to hijack a bunch of planes and crash them into prominent US buildings, but one hijacker gets arrested before he is able to start his job. The FBI seizes his laptop but decide not to do anything with it until their superiors give them permission. In the meantime, the remaining nineteen terrorists are allowed to board four planes, despite the fact that several of them were under FBI surveillance and on “no fly” lists.

After managing to get on board the aircraft, the unarmed terrorists were then able to over-power ex-military pilots as well as an Israeli anti hijacking agent (who just happened to be on board one of the planes), and seize control of all four. They then were able to fly them off course for long periods of times, seemingly unnoticed by NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command), even though one of the planes managed to get out a call saying that the plane had been hijacked and that a passenger had been shot. Then these guys, who it was “revealed” had been given barely enough flying lessons to take off and land, had flown those planes into buildings at high speeds and after performing several difficult turns, dives and other manoeuvres. This then caused robustly-built steel-framed buildings to collapse after being set on fire many floors above the ground.

Sounds to me like something only the descendent of reptiles from Outer Space could dream up. Top Conspiracy Theories?

You bet your sweet ass…

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Picasso’s Light Drawings

Never has an artist been so loved and so loathed. Picasso has been described as the Marmite of the art world. Picasso’s Light Drawings are perfect examples of what I mean.

Translation for readers living outside the United Kingdom: it means you either love him or you hate him. This comes from the leading brand of yeast extract called Marmite, which has this no-compromising reputation. For the record, I am both a Marmite and a Picasso lover.

It may be an age thing, because as I mature like a plump old Cheddar cheese, I find myself more and more and more drawn to Picasso’s work. One aspect of his art I was unaware of are the Light Paintings. Captured by Life photographer, Gjon Mili, in 1949, they are almost accidental.

Mili was a photographer famous for his highly dramatic use of light sources to illuminate whatever he aimed his lenses at. The pictures he took are worth spending a few moments examining. (Here I had a link to the images at the Life website, but they took the images down!)

Light Painting in History

The first known attempt at Light Painting Photography was not for artistic but for commercial use. Almost 100 years ago, back in 1914, Frank Gilbreth and his wife Lillian Moller Gilbreth were conducting an early prototype time-and-motion study. They were using an open-shutter camera and small lights to track the movements of manufacturing and clerical workers.

The first known artistic use of the technique was in 1935 when Man Ray created the series he called Space Writing. It wasn’t until 2009 that photographer Ellen Carey discovered Man Ray’s signature in light.

It was Gjon Mili who got Picasso interested in Light Painting when he showed him photographs of skaters taken with small lights attached to their ice-skates. Mili reports that straight away, Picasso began to play with his flashlight in a darkened room. At this first session, Picasso gave the photographer fifteen minutes in which to take pictures, but the results were so spectacular that he allowed a total of five sessions. The most famous image is universally known as ‘Picasso draws a centaur in the air’.

To me, Picasso’s light drawings, simple as they are, demonstrate the artist’s true and inherent greatness. Anyone one could get similar results accidentally, or after many hours practising. Picasso just did it.

My favourite Picasso anecdote is the one in which he finds himself talking to an American GI, who admits that he can’t stand abstract paintings because they are so “unrealistic”. The conversation moved on to the soldier’s girlfriend and a photograph is proudly produced to show the artist.

“My word,” exclaims Picasso, examining the snapshot, “is she really that small?”

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Charlie Sheen’s Roast (or What’s Going on in New York? Part 87)

Stand by for the hard facts about Charlie Sheen’s Roast:

Everybody in the USA seems to be obsessing over Charlie Sheen’s Roast – or, to give it its real title, “The Comedy Central Roast of Charlie Sheen”. It’s been the biggest search on Google in the USA since early September. But what on earth is it? When I first saw the term I honestly thought it was some elaborate joke centred around the Sunday “joint” with all its drug references.

What was or is Charlie Sheen’s Roast?

When I actually looked into it, I saw that Charlie Sheen’s Roast was a two hour TV programme (including ads, so probably only around 25 minutes of actual insults), broadcast on the US Comedy Central network in September, that follows a tried and tested formula on American TV. The format began in 1949 with Maurice Chevalier, was famously hosted in the 1970s by Dean Martin and the latest edition was the recently screened Charlie Sheen’s Roast. It’s been attempted on British TV by Channel 4, but didn’t catch on. More about that later…

For those who, like me, haven’t a clue what a “roast” is – other than something British cooks cremate on a Sunday lunchtime – here’s a quick run-down… A “celebrity roast” is an event in which someone in the public eye (the “roastee”) is subjected to a barrage of  mostly scripted comic insults and tributes from a panel of comedians and other well known faces, presided over by a “roastmaster”.

It works because the “roastee”  takes the insults and jokes in good humor and does not see them as serious criticism. In a bizarre twist on the concept of “This Is Your Life”, many regard being roasted as a great honour. Watching Charlie Sheen’s Roast, it seemed more like a lynching with jokes.

Charlie Sheen’s Roast was scheduled for the very same Monday that Two And A Half Men aired for the first time with Ashton Kutcher in Charlie’s long-time role. It all started going wrong for Charlie – in public, at least– on May 20, 1998, when CS was hospitalized after overdosing on cocaine. Various problems surfaced over the years and on October 26, 2010, the police escorted him from his New York hotel suite. According to the New York Police Department, Sheen admitted to being drunk and taking cocaine. Warner Brothers took the opportunity to fire him from the sit-com.

Since then, drug-taking and drinking to excess have been linked to the actor. There’s even a website called charliesheenjokes.com, featuring barbed attacks on the actor, most of which aren’t particularly funny. Here are five typically unfunny examples:

  • Saint Pat gets drunk on Charlie Sheen day.
  • Charlie Sheen won American idol using sign language.
  • Remember that time Charlie Sheen lost, me neither. Winning!
  • If NASA wants to put a man on Mars , just ask Charlie Sheen how he got here and reverse engineer it!
  • You do not drug test Charlie Sheen, however Charlie Sheen does test drugs.

Back to Charlie Sheen’s Roast. I’ve seen most of it online and it’s a pretty embarrassing two hours worth. The six (and a half) best Charlie Sheen’s Roast gags (at least the ones that weren’t too rude or cruel) are:

  1. Charlie Sheen: “It’s true, I’ve hung around with a lot of shady people over the years… losers, drug addicts, dealers, desperate whores. But to have you all here on one night is really special.”
  2. Amy Schumer: “Your marriage to Denise Richards, it was kind of like her Vietnam because she was constantly afraid of being killed by Charlie.”
  3. Jeff Ross: “Charlie if you’re winning, this must not be a child custody hearing. Only time your kids get to see you is in re-runs. Charlie, don’t you want to live to see their first 12 steps?”
  4. Jon Lovitz: “How much blow can Charlie Sheen do? Enough to kill two and a half men.”
  5. William Shatner: “Prostitutes cost a lot of money, Charlie. Hasn’t anyone told you that actresses will sleep with you for free?” and “First off Charlie, I’m eighty-years-old. You’re what, forty-seven?…” [Sheen says: “Forty-six.”] “…Then how come we look like we went to high school together?”
  6. Kate Walsh: “Despite all those years of abusing your lungs, your kidney, your liver, the only thing you’ve had removed are your kids!”

Will Charlie Sheen’s Roast kickstart a new TV trend?

The British attempts at Comedy Roasts came in 2010 when Channel 4 recruited Jimmy Carr to be “roastmaster” for a short series in which Bruce Forsyth, Sharon Osbourne, Chris Tarrant, Davina McCall and finally Barbara Windsor were roasted by the likes of…  Jack Dee, Sean Lock (who summed up the mood when he ad-libbed: “If the money’s right, I’ll slag off anyone”), Gok Wan, Patrick Kielty, Keith Lemon and Chris Moyles.

Channel 4’s tag-line to the series takes an optimistic upbeat view of it all: “A host of comedians and celebrities pay fond – and irreverent – tribute to some TV legends in these star-studded Comedy Roasts.” Yes, we don’t really have the same skills as our American cousins (these were not in the same class of vileness as Charlie’s Sheen’s Roast) … or the same tastes.

I’m pretty sure that Channel 4 have now dropped the idea of any more UK Celebrity Roasts and the chances of Charlie Sheen’s Roast making it on to mainstream British TV are (thankfully) remote.

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Featured Lead Story Life Motivational Quotes Positive Thinking Quotes

Motivational Quotes and Positive Thinking Quotes

Have you ever searched the web for motivational quotes or positive thinking quotes? If so, you are not alone. Tens of thousands of us do it every day. It’s grown into something of an online business, as people around the world look for a single phrase or saying that will kick-start their lives.

It seems to be yet another by-product of the celebrity culture that has been thrust upon us. Famous people know best because, er, well… they are famous. Obviously.

Most of us who are not yet famous yearn to be famous. To be stalked by the press, have affairs with sporting stars in five star knocking shops and be able to wear sun-glasses when it’s not even sunny. Maybe even get to cry on television. Maybe.

Thirty years ago, when given the choice of being rich or famous, most school-leavers chose rich. Now the position is reversed. And if we are not yet famous – maybe we don’t have the guts to go on a killing spree or the equipment to marry a celebrity sports or movie star – then we have not yet reached our full potential. It goes without saying that the most popular motivational quotes come from those who are already household names.

The likes of Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King, Samuel Johnson and even Samuel L Jackson obviously know lots more about greatness than we do. And, because we live in a soundbite culture, where a single sentence or phrase has more power than a book, a single motivational phrase must have the power to make us better people. In the business, this is called the “magic bullet”.

We need that kick-start but we don’t have the time or the energy to spend more than a few minutes doing it. The days of finding and nurturing a talent and working hard for several years are gone. Who needs the hassle of becoming a world-famous writer or actor through hard work and talent? That’s so 20th Century.

No. We just enough time to plough through a list of motivational quotes (see below), maybe try another google search for positive thinking quotes, pick one that doesn’t involve any real effort, print it out and stick it on the wall.

Done.

Only a matter of time now.

Here are a few that might work for you:

Who dares wins!
Winston Churchill

If we did all the things we are capable of, we would literally astound ourselves.
Thomas Edison

The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.
Winston Churchill

Once you replace negative thoughts with positive ones, you’ll start having positive results.
Willie Nelson

Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.
Winston Churchill

Whether you think you can or can’t, you’re right.
Henry Ford

For myself I am an optimist; it does not seem to be much use being anything else.
Winston Churchill

Try not to be a man of success, but rather to be a man of value.
Albert Einstein

It doesn’t matter that Winston Churchill spent most of his adult life zonked out of his brains on brandy or that he was quite keen that Gandhi should die on a hunger strike, the important thing is that he – and his team of speech writers – had an eye and an ear for a good soundbite. I’ll leave the last word to the celebrity who is perhaps Winston’s modern-day equivalent. Of all the motivational quotes I have ever seen, this is the king of the positive thinking quotes for me:

War is a dangerous place.
George W Bush

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Blogs & Podcasts Class Featured Lead Story People Royal Family

Royal Wedding Invite List: Prince William and Kate Middleton’s Glaring Omissions

So, Prince William and Catherine (“Kate”) Middleton have been married at Westminster Abbey and their Royal Wedding Invitation List has become an historic document. Though not quite up there with Magna Carta or the Abdication Speech, it is revealing more for who is excluded from it than who made it to the “Wedding of the Decade”.

First of all, the happy news. Among those who received invitations – aside from family and a smattering of old school chums – were Elton John and David Furnish; David and Victoria Beckham; another former England footballer, Sir Trevor Brooking and ex-England rugby coach Clive Woodward; jockey Sam Waley-Cohen, a few villagers from the Middleton’s home of Buckleburry; TV adventurer Ben Fogle; comedian and writer Rowan Atkinson; mockney film director Guy Ritchie, Julia Samuel, the head of the Child Bereavement Charity; and Help for Heroes founders Bryn and Emma Parry.

Assorted others were invited, including a few wounded servicemen, Tara Palmer-Tomkinson and singer Joss Stone. Former Prime Ministers Lady Margaret Thatcher and Sir John Major also received invitations (though Maggie was too ill to attend – mental illness didn’t stop her sinking the Belgrano, though, did it?). But, as has been noted elsewhere, the last two Prime Ministers, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair were not included in the party.

Royal spokespersons gave two reasons for this: one was that Margaret Thatcher and John Major had personal connections with Prince William. (Major was apparently appointed a guardian after the death of  Princess Diana – though why the two Princes would need guardians when they had a living father is anybody’s guess.) And the other was that Thatcher and Major are both Knights of the Garter and Blair and Brown are not.

In a somewhat parallel situation, former Etonian Boris Johnson, Conservative Mayor of London, was invited, but not his Labour predecessor, Ken Livingstone. (To be honest, no one really expected Ken to get an invite, except maybe Ken.) There was enough room in the Abbey to include influential Tories William Hague, Theresa May, George Osborne, Ken Clarke, Jeremy Hunt and their spouses, all of whom received invitations.

The right-wing historian – now billed on Channel 4 News as “Britain’s leading historian”, presumably because he’s  on the telly a lot – put his finger on the truth of the Blair/ Brown “snub”. Not when he said on Sky News on the evening of the wedding: “I think the plain truth is that for all sorts of reasons, (Prince) William developed a powerful dislike of Mr Blair. Particularly the way in which he intervened at his mother’s funeral service. These are not political at all, they are personal choices.” Presumably Gordon is perceived in Royal circles as another pea from the same interfering pod.

But rather when Dr Starkey told Channel 4 News (again that same evening – historians do get around when there’s a fee on offer) that the wedding was a “typical public school wedding” and he implied though did not say, that “nice people” like William and Kate do not invite beastly people like Blair and Brown to their social occasions.

Let’s face it, former Etonian David Cameron and Westminster old boy Nick Clegg (not to mention political colleagues William Hague, Jeremy Hunt, Boris Johnson et al) are much more the Duke and Duchesses’ kind of people than those terrible Socialist oiks. Labour Party leader Ed Miliband (Haverstock Comprehensive) had to be invited but once he’d arrived and sat down, he was forgotten by the BBC, who spent far more time focussing on the mating head-dresses worn by a couple of Royal Princesses. After having the BBC Licence Fee frozen by the new Tory-Lib-dib government (not to mention saddled with all kinds of new financial burdens such as the Welsh S4C channel and the BBC World Service budget), they want to head off accusations of left-wing bias by swinging to the careful right.

It’s all getting very 1980s, isn’t it?

You can tell William and Kate never travel by proper train otherwise, they would have had to exclude Major merely on the grounds of his having privatised the trains in 2004, against all advice and reason. Surely being a Tory knight can’t be enough to erase that legacy? And if space was at a premium – maybe that’s why they couldn’t include any old riff-raff such as road-sweepers, dustmen and former Labour prime ministers – couldn’t Gordon Brown have been given Maggie’s vacant seat?

Among the many (including 99.99% of Labour Party members) who didn’t get invites were Lady Diana’s friend Sarah Ferguson, The Obamas and Mohamed Al-Fayed. When you think back to his connections with William’s late  Mum, you’d have thought Mr Al-Fayad would have been a shoe-in. Just goes to show how wrong you can be.

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Featured Lead Story Liberty TV & Radio

BBC = Brainwashing British Citizens

I would stress that I do not share the sentiments of the headline. It comes from an online forum dedicated to exposing the BBC’s “left-wing bias”. Because of my own left-wing bias, I won’t be naming it or providing a link. Their other suggestions for what BBC stands for include “Big Brother Coverage” and “Blatantly Biased Corruption”.

The moderator, Teddy Bear, and his rabid chums cite examples of how the BBC is mounting a virtual Communist attack on Good Old Blighty, financed by the unwitting licence-payer. It won’t surprise you to learn that the most quoted sources of “evidence” are The Sun, Mail On Sunday and Daily Telegraph‘.

These part-time Beeb-bashers – as opposed to full-time Beeb-bashers like Rupert Murdoch and the owners of the Mail group of “newspapers” – see the BBC as an ultra radical organisation that’s on the side of the extreme left, Islamic militants, the European Union, and on a crusade to replace experienced broadcasters with unkempt yoof.

Examples include how back in the 1980s, Dr Who was nothing more than  a thinly disguised attack on the Thatcher government (proof: “a spin-off Doctor Who children’s novel called Turlough and the Earthlink Dilemma, which was published under licence by the BBC in 1987, featured a despotic villain called Rehctaht – Thatcher spelt backwards”); that the Archers is a hotbed of radicalism (“During the first Countryside March, the Archers managed not to mention it at all, but mentioned the Gay Pride March instead”); that only pro-EU propaganda makes BBC news; and getting rid of jazz programmes on Radio 2 in favour of “soft rock”: “Only a few days since a Newsnight editor attacks the BBC for their ageist and youth obsessed policies – a Radio 2 presenter has quit and done the same.”

Most sinister of all is their belief that the BBC is pro-Islamic and anti-Christian. A whole thread on this theme is illustrated by a BBC logo in which the “C” becomes an Islamic crescent. Here are a couple of examples:

“How is it The Telegraph with resources far less than the BBC is able to cover this story from Bangladesh (“Rape victim receives 101 lashes for becoming pregnant”), yet no mention of it on the BBC site? Can it be that the BBC prefers to hide stories that show the real depraved mentality of these extremist Sharia law Muslim states? Of course it is! Same as it has done with the numerous other similar type stories mentioned on this forum, and the many many more covered by Jihad Watch or Religion of Peace.

“Is there really any doubt about the insidious immoral nature of the BBC?”

and…

“Why is it that whenever a Palestinian is supposedly shot or killed by Israeli troops, and certainly when by an Israeli civilian, it receives instant headline status on the BBC website, but when, as in this case, a Christian is murdered in Pakistan by Muslims for refusing to convert, there’s not even a mention of it?

“This is not a rhetorical question – How do YOU explain it?

“If you really want a glimpse of how many atrocities are committed globally by extremist or fundamental Islamics without any mention on the BBC website, check out this site. See if after you have any doubt about the bias of the BBC in this domain.”

You’d think that Teddy Bear and his crew could be dismissed as part of a lunatic fringe, but it seems that a significant number of Brits feel the same way. Newspapers bash on about it endlessly and there are dozens of similar websites. A quick Google search for “BBC bias” came up with 1,500,000 hits.

Through reading their comments, you can build up a profile of who these people are. Almost without exception they are white, middle-class, middle-aged  – or older – Tory Christians. (A significant number appear to like Trad Jazz and warm light ale, and fancy Joan Bakewell). What their house newspaper (The Daily Mail) likes to call The Silent Majority.

Although members of the Silent Majority tend to do very-nicely-thank you, they and their mouth-pieces like to paint themselves as victims. Victims of the loony left local councils who won’t let them call rubbish sacks “black bags” any more, and who have seemingly turned “man-hole covers” into “person-hole covers”. These are people who actually say “It’s political correctness gone mad!” with no sense of irony.

They see themselves as victims of a mass immigration that’s threatening to overwhelm their tiny homeland and change our way of life forever. Of “bogus asylum-seekers” (sic) who are either taking our British jobs or else scrounging off the dole… depending on what the angle is.

Most of all, they are victims of a left-wing BBC who continually pumps Socialist propaganda into all our homes. “And what I object to most of all,” foams one correspondent, “is that I’m paying for it through stealth lefty tax”. Or what sane people call the BBC Licence Fee.

I can’t help but be amazed that these people really do think that those in charge of the BBC (the “commissars”, as they are often termed!), really do have a secret agenda. That they meet in their marbled halls to scheme new ways to corrupt our naturally-Thatcherite white-skinned nation with their honey-coloured, left-wing filth.

Of course, the reality is that the BBC is run by predominantly middle-class, middle-aged white people. The staff and freelance payrolls are made up of thousands of individuals: Labour-voters, Lib-Dems, Greens, SWP, UKIPs – maybe even a few Tories. I’ll bet that a few of them don’t possess strong political views at all.

The BBC Licence Fee is a bargain. For £139 a year (a smidgeon over £2.67 a week), I get access to six television channels and a mass of radio stations. When compared to what Sky satellite TV costs or the daily cost of “The Mail”, it’s a double-bargain. Don’t tell anybody, but I’d gladly pay £2.67 a week just for BBC Radio 4, BBC 4 TV and BBC 6 Music alone.

I don’t listen to Radio One very often, if at all. The same goes for BBC3, Eastenders, National Lottery Live, Strictly Come Dancing, Women’s Hour, Moneybox Live, The Eurovision Song Contest, BBC Radio London, The Organist Entertains, BBC 5 Live, and a whole load more. But do I think they should be banned and taken off the air? Do I heckers like.

The Silent Majority, on the other hand, only considers the negative. To them, it’s all about what they don’t like. How terrible that their licence fee goes to fund the lifestyle of some lefty comedian or long-haired radio DJ. The SMs insist that everything should be how they want it. Anything that’s not to their taste must be eradicated. The scary thing is, politicians of all persuasions now feel that they have to cosy up to them. Even the BBC concedes more and more to their demands.

The Jonathan Ross/ Russell Brand “debacle” is a case in point. People who listened to the programme as it went out didn’t think to object to what they heard, but once the Mail On Sunday had highlighted the issue, a week later, hundreds of thousands of people who wouldn’t know Russell Brand from Russell Grant, suddenly decided that he and Jonathan Ross should lose their jobs. Now they’ve both gone, and the BBC is poorer as a result.

Anyone with half a brain can see that the BBC isn’t overtly left-wing or pro-Islamic Fundamentalist. I don’t remember a BBC announcer ever suggesting we assassinate a Tory MP, or Eastenders hatching a storyline involved with bringing down the financial establishment. Very few sitcoms centre around the desire for Sharia Law and you’ll hear more about “saving our bangers” and how crazy the EU is than how we must join the Euro-Zone.

Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme, often cited by ‘The Silent Majority’ as a hotbed of socialism, spends a good quarter of its air-time on Business News. This involves financial moguls and City barrow-boys celebrating capitalism and denouncing the likes of the Minimum Wage, paid maternity leave and the prospect of tax rises. My leftwing perspective is that the rest of the programme seems to consist of interviewers sneering at the naivety of Labour politicians and not interrupting Tory toffs half as much as they deserve.

But that’s just my view. I don’t advocate sacking John Humphrys or Evan Davies or dismantling the BBC. I might shoot off an email giving my views, but my ultimate sanction is the “off” button. I’ll just stop listening.

I wish the Silent Majority would shut the fcuk up.

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Featured Lead Story Music

Rhythm Festival: “the inside story”

Mentioning “Rhythm Festival” within my earshot is guaranteed to make me cringe.

Starting a music festival from scratch was definitely one of my wilder projects. It’s up there with starting The Do-Not Press, even though I knew nothing about book publishing. And promoting two tours for Jerry Lee Lewis. Not to mention writing a textbook on how to write novels, without first having written a novel myself.

My advice to anyone thinking of getting a music festival off the ground is “Don’t.” With a capital D and a few exclamation marks behind it.

Rhythm Festival 2006 @ Twinwood Arena

I began Rhythm Festival in 2006. At least, that’s when the first one took place, though the serious planning started three years before that. My motivation was that I simply couldn’t find a music festival I wanted to go to.

The Rhythm Festival Experience

Glastonbury was way too big and I wasn’t keen on the hypocrisy that portrays it as a benevolent, almost charitable event, rather than the money-generating machine it really is. Cambridge Folk Festival was OK, if a little too, er, “folky”. There just wasn’t enough happening for me at Fairport’s Cropredy Convention: one stage in a relatively small field and if you didn’t think the sun shone out of “The Greatest Folk-Rock Band in the World’s” arias, you were stuffed. Reading, Leeds, V and suchlike were too regimented and aimed at a far younger audience. And back then, that was about it .

I was at the scrag-end of my forties and I knew that a lot of people like me wanted to spend a pleasant weekend away, listening to good music in relative comfort, munching on decent grub and supping pints of better than average real ale at prices that wouldn’t make Donald Trump wince. As the Dragons have it, I perceived a gap in the market. Maybe I could fill it. (That was my first big mistake).

The Perfect Festival Site?

The main thing a great festival needs is a great festival site. I was lucky. One of my first Google searches came up with Twinwood Arena in Bedfordshire, purpose-built around the wartime airfield out of which Glenn Miller took his final flight in 1944. The owners, the Wooding family, had been putting on a relatively small festival commemorating the wartime bandleader estival since 2002 and so knew about outdoor events and what it needed.

After a few meetings, David Wooding and I realised that if we weren’t exactly singing out of the same hymn-sheet we were at least in roughly the same congregation. We agreed terms around Christmas 2005. I’m not sure if the name came before the dates or the other way round, but eventually Rhythm Festival was booked at Twinwood Arena for the weekend of August 4th, 5th, 6th, 2006.

Best Rhythm Festival Acts

The second main thing is music festival needs is acts: bands, comedians, solo performers and DJs. Getting the right acts can make or break a festival. So can getting the wrong acts – though usually it’s just break. The music industry and agents, in particular, have a schizophrenic attitude towards festival organisers.

On the one hand, they treat you as one step up from a con-man, fully expecting you to go bust at any moment and so demand that you pay them in advance for all their acts. On the other hand, they act as if you’re making a fortune out of exploiting musicians and so ask for hugely inflated sums, often many times their normal fee. As an example, a band perfectly happy getting £2,000 for playing the 100 Club wants £5,000 to play Rhythm Festival.

Rup-off Britain

After a series of email and telephone negotiations, I arrived at a bill headlined by Jerry Lee Lewis, Ike Turner & His Kings of Rhythm, Donovan, Arlo Guthrie, Seth Lakeman and, most importantly, Roy Harper who had secured agreement from Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page to appear with him. We had the site, we had the bill, we had the Festival. All we had to do was sell 2,500 tickets to break even.

What could possibly go wrong?

Find out in the next thrilling instalment of “Rhythm Festival: “the best small outdoor music festival in Britain”…

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Featured Food Lead Story Life Music People

Seasick Steve and Key Lime Pie

I’ve just been watching Seasick Steve on a Sunday morning cookery programme on BBC Two television called Something For The Weekend. In it he sang a song, drank a cocktail and grated cheese into a bowl in order to make it look like he was making a key lime pie. The presenters oo-ed and aw-ed his every word, particularly astounded at his admission that he’d never had cocktails before –  aside from harvey wallbangers and martinis, of course. These are the lengths it seems you have to go to in order to “make it big” in the modern age.

It could be said that Seasick Steve got off lightly compared to those fame-addicted minor celebs encouraged to eat whole chillis on Big Brother and live grubs and kangaroo penises for I’m An Idiot Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here!. Once you’ve answered and re-answered spurious questions about being arrested for vagrancy and hopping freight cars on the Paul O’Grady Show and Richard & Judy, pretending to make a key lime pie must be small potatoes.

Let me say right here and now that Seasick Steve is a wonderful artist and, by all accounts, a very fine fellow. In no way do I want to take anything away from him. His rise from itinerant labourer and sometime musician to headlining at London’s Royal Albert Hall was fairly rapid (only 40 years), utterly deserved and the stuff of fairytales. In an interview in March 2006 for Blues In London he admitted that his main goals were cash and fame: “I’m motivated by money! I wanna be one of the stars! Man you know I aint got that much.” Can’t blame him for that… at least he has the talent to go with it.

If you don’t know Seasick Steve from Seasick Stephen Hawking, here’s his life in 156 words: At the age of 14, Steve Wold left the family home in Oakland, California, hopping freights across the USA, his only constant companion a battered, customised guitar. He’d been taught a few chords by Delta bluesman KC Douglas, who worked in his grandfather’s auto-shop. After spending part of the Flower Power era in San Francisco, Steve hopped a cheap flight to Paris and travelled through France and the UK, before being drawn back to the States. When he wasn’t picking fruit or digging potatoes, he’d busk and play the odd support slot. By the 1990s, he was married, settled down, raising five children, playing with bluesman RL Burnside and producing albums for the likes of US indie-rockers Modest Mouse. A decade ago, he and his Norwegian wife relocated to Norway, where he made a solo album in their kitchen. It landed on the desk of London DJ Joe Cushley, and the rest is history. Or very nearly.

Appearances on Hootenanny and Later With Jools Holland secured Steve’s status as the hobo we all could love. The nearest we’ll get to Woody Guthrie and with fewer rough edges. A new agent trounced on to the scene and Steve and was plucked out of the clubs and the independently-run music festivals that had fuelled his career thus far and propelled into the big-time, playing the Royal Albert Hall and similarly large concert venues. Exclusive contracts were signed with a big time music corporation for exclusive festival appearances at Latitude and Glastonbury 2008.

Many of us would rather see Seasick Steve in a sweaty club that a fully-seated municipal theatre smelling of faux-marigolds and popcorn, but that’s the way it goes. That’s his choice – or at least the choice of his manager, agent and their financial advisers. You lose the atmosphere in the bigger venues but the money’s better and the seats are clean.

I was giving out leaflets outside the Royal Albert Hall the night Steve played there. The people who were emerging from taxis weren’t the type I would regularly see at the 100 Club, where I promote most of my blues-tinged shows. In fact, most had never heard of the place. I’ll also bet that the majority of the City workers and Notting Hillbillies who seemed to make up Steve’s Albert Hall audience had never heard of Woody Guthrie. After all, Woody never got to appear on Later With Jools Holland and be accorded the attendant honour of the loveable tinkler jamming along to “This Land Is Your Land”. Pity. I can see the freshly-repainted slogan, “This Machine Kills Pub Pianists”.

If you’re wondering how the key lime pie turned out, sorry, I can’t help you. I was so embarrassed for Steve that I was forced to wipe the recording then and there. I hear they’ve got Chuck Berry on next week, preparing individual black forest gateaux.

UPDATE (21/01/09):

Since I posted this, Seasick Steve has just been nominated for a Brit Award. He’s competing with Neil Diamond for the Meals On Wheels Award for Best International Artist or somefink.

I’ve also learned that the female presenter of Something For The Weekend was former Spice Girl Emma Bunting. And I just thought she was just an unknown incompetent who’d slept with the producer.

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Featured Lead Story Liberty TV & Radio

Censorship: The Compelling Case

I hate censors. Especially the self-appointed rag-bag of philistine dim-wits who constantly picket the broadcasting authorities, complaining about stuff they’d be better off not watching. My message to them is “Switch off!”

In a civilised society that would be the end of it, but these people are working on an agenda and they are backed by sections of the media who would love to see the BBC toppled. Although the talents of these complainers are distinctly limited, and their collective artistry woeful, they set themselves up as judges and arbiters of what the rest of us can see and hear. These morons would feel no embarrassment in asking Michaelangelo to cover up David’s genitals, Botticelli to banish his bottoms or Chaucer to omit the sauciness from the Canterbury Tales.

The lead letter in our “local” newspaper, the scarily-rightwing News Shopper (you can certainly shop around and get better local news), is a rant from one Miranda Suit (“Address supplied”) headlined “Take bad language off our TV screens”. It speaks of the “controversy surrounding the obscene telephone messages made to Andrew Sachs by Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross” and goes on to urge that we sign a petition to the Prime Minister, “an opportunity for everyone to make a real difference and benefit society.”

This same Miranda Suit turns out to be a leading light in Media March, a Christian protest group with links to mediawatch-uk, the successor to Mary Whitehouse’s Viewers & Listeners’ Association. In 2004 Ms Suit was quoted on the BBC website as saying: “We do need swear words, they are a useful expression of anger, but they need to be used sparingly. The only real swear word there is now is the c-word, and we don’t want that to become normalised. If people have no swear words left, who knows – they might not be able to express their anger and might end up hitting someone.”

She seems to have changed her views since then. Perhaps God told her she was being too liberal; who knows. The Media March website features a letter currently being sent by supporters to the BBC Chairman, which includes the chilling line: “However, while there is much to be justly proud of, the BBC is still not listening to me in a number of important areas.”

I’ve got news for you, Miranda… they’re not listening to me, either.

The letter goes on: “I strongly object to my licence fee being used to fund the following” and lists many of the usual suspects, including “vulgar ‘celebrity’ presenters, obsessed with sex, bad language and insulting behaviour, who are paid millions of pounds in salaries” and “Sleazy, violent soap storylines”, plus:

  • Expansion of digital channels and services
  • Programmes that can be downloaded from the internet by non-licence fee payers for free
  • Continued depictions of violence, sex, bad language, drug taking, etc. which can in no way be described as appropriate for a public service broadcaster

If put into practice, this last objection would mean an end to dramas such as Casualty, which is fuelled by violence and drug-taking. Is Ms Suit and her followers suggesting that violence, bad language and drug taking are not features of life in Britain today? If that’s the case, she should go out more.

The main worry here is that the BBC is on the defensive. Its capitulation in the face of a few thousand people who protested at the Brand/ Ross affair was pathetic. Claims that 40,000 protested is rubbish: this includes thousands and thousands of people like me who voiced support for Brand and Ross and whose contribution was treated as if we had been on the reverse of the argument. Even if you count the entire 40,000 as being against the foul-mouthed duo, it’s not even 0.07% of the UK population of 60,943,912.

And yet things have changed. Even minor swearwords are banned on the BBC and anything regarded as vaguely offensive is now strictly verboeten. Although I don’t advocate the use of the “C” and “F” words on CBBC, there is such a thing as a 9pm watershed and after that it should be purely a matter of artistic control.

I do not have huge confidence that BBC Director General Mark Thompson is the man suited to be the final arbiter in such matters. He was educated by Jesuits and, according to Wikipedia, worships at a Catholic church near Oxford, which hardly makes him impartial deciding events that may send his soul to eternal damnation! Plus, his background in TV is purely factual – Watchdog, Breakfast Time, Panorama, Newsnight – and so he may not always be on the side of art… especially with Old Nick prodding him in the arse with a toasting fork.

Why can’t dominating idiots like Miranda Suit stick to watching the Disney Channel and leave the rest of us to watch what we want– be it Storyville on BBC 4 or Celebrity Arse-Wiggling on Bravo? I may not personally choose to watch Celebrity Arse-Wiggling on Bravo but I’ll defend your right to watch it – provided it’s on after the watershed, of course.

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Featured Lead Story Life London People Work

Totally Useless

Is it me, or has there been a sudden outbreak of incompetence in the world? An epidemic of uselessness, a plague of purposelessness. Has the world ceased to function correctly?

Everywhere I look, people seem incapable of, or unwilling to do their jobs. From the tele-clerk who won’t believe you are who you say you are and not the person their screen tells them you are, to the London minicab driver who doesn’t know his way from Camden Town to Oxford Street. What can you say to the N.H.S. clinic that takes three months (and counting) to order a pair of insoles you can get online for next-day delivery? And how can you chastise the Internet mail order company that answers the email sent to their online support address asking where your goods are, with a reply that says: “This is an automated response. We appreciate your feedback and look forward to your next order”?

It’s finally starting to get me down.

“They” are turning me into a hybrid of Victor Meldrew, Archie Bunker and Basil Fawlty, all rolled into one grumpy middle-aged tosser. Perhaps it’s an age thing? Would I have shrugged it all off ten years ago, or is true that the world is suddenly being run by useless idiots?

The bigger the business, the worst the incompetence. Take my bank: a caring, sharing kind of organisation and by no means the worst of their type, but even they let me down – constantly. Here’s the most recent example: exactly 22 days ago, I wrote two separate letters, asking them (a) to close down one account and (b) open an internet account for another. Not a word back about either. Except that on Saturday I received a sniffy letter from them acting all surprised that the company whose account I wanted to close, is being wound down. They received the information from Companies House they say, and add that they would “appreciate a reply within 14 days”. I would have too, but unfortunately for them, their deadline has already passed.

On a wider scale, the idiocy of politicians still has the power to astound me. As a long-suffering Labour supporter, I’m getting used to starting the day feeling depressed after hearing what “our” politicians have to say on early morning BBC Radio 4. But sometimes they really do reduce me to tears by their unbridled stupidity.

For example, when our current Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, entertained his Tory predecessor, Baroness (Margaret) Thatcher, to tea in September 2007, it was hailed by the media as something of a coup, a slap in the face for Conservative leader, David Cameron, and an endorsement of New Labour, etc. Rubbish! Not only does this show that Gordon is a moron, it also highlights the inadequacy of the British media, because that meeting signalled the start of most of Gordon Brown’s political troubles.

In case you didn’t know, Old Labour types like me, hate Margaret Thatcher with a vengeance. (Even worse than we loathe Tony Blair, Jim Davidson and Cocoa Cola.) Single-handedly she changed the face of British life forever. Deliberate unemployment, “Loads of Money”, the decimation of the mining industry, privatisations… Do I need to go on? After the disappointment of Blair, we were hoping that Gordon Brown would wipe something (anything!) off New Labour’s gleam. Back then Gordon was still in his honeymoon period, but the second he kissed the Thatcher ring, it went up in a puff of smoke. The Left were immediately alienated.

The Right immediately sniffed blood. The fact that a Labour Prime Minister felt he had to “seek Lady Thatcher’s approval” proved that the “Reds” were on the run. It boosted Tory confidence that Gordon was as vulnerable to attack as Tony Blair had been and it led to a string of Labour by-election defeats and to Ken Livingstone’s replacement as London Mayor by bumbling Boris Johnson.

I’m no expert on politics but even I saw the pitfalls in the Brown-Thatcher Love-In. So how come the media and Labour advisors allowed it to slip by? Prime Minister Brown can count himself lucky that a Global Financial Crisis came along to deflect attention from his personal and political shortcomings.

On a private level, my own incompetence stands out like a sore member. Just over a week ago, I promised to write a blog every single day. After only seven successive blogs, I failed. As a result of this abject inadequacy, I have decided to modify my original goal to produce only a blog every few days…

I am obviously no Richard Herring. For that I can only apologise.

Sorry.

Categories
Featured Lead Story London TV & Radio

Settling The Bill

London cop drama, The Bill, has been on my TV longer than the fruit bowl. First appearing in 1983, in the guise of a one-off drama called Woodentop, it became a weekly series a year later and has passed through various formats up to and including its current one hour slot every Wednesday and Thursday, football fixtures permitting. (To be honest, it’s only 42 minutes if you don’t count the recap of what’s already happened, the ads and very annoying parodies plugging the sponsorship product).

There’s no doubt that, during its 25 year run, The Bill has had its moments. Sad that most of them occurred during the golden years when Burnside, “Tosh” Lines, and Sergeant Bob Cryer ran the roost in the late-1980s to mid-’90s. Although, to be fair, the later stories featuring Bill Murray as Don Beech did set the pulses racing.

In later years, The Bill turned into something of a soap opera in uniform, sharing a small pool of actors with BBC undercover rival, Eastenders. A seeming shortage of actors who can pretend to be vaguely comfortable in an east London setting, means that the same ones keep turning up in different roles. Roberta Taylor, one of the Walford exiles, appeared as three separate Bill characters, before surfacing in 2002 as Inspector Gina Gold. And she’s not alone.

Bruce Byron, who plays cocky cockney DC Terry Perkins, had previously appeared on the other side of the Thin Blue Line, as Mr Smee in October 1994, Paul Archer in 1997 and John Shaw in 1998. Then, in 2000, he was introduced as Detective Inspector Lomax before being demoted and reappearing as Terry. Then, blow me, if in the interim he didn’t turn up in Eastenders as Gary Bolton. And there are dozens more.

Imagine my confusion a while back, when watching a rerun on UK Gold – as it was then. Superintendent Adam Okaro appeared in the undercover role of an African war criminal. Any minute now, he’s going to whip out his warrant-card and nick everybody, I thought. We reached the end of the episode and his deportation before I realised that actor Cyril Nri was there merely as a representative of the approved actor’s pool.

You can’t really blame the producers and casting directors. After all, there are only 200 living actors in the whole of Britain. I’ll check online: no, it appears that there are estimated to be 10,000 British actors, 95% of whom are said to be regularly out of professional work at any one time. They must be pretty crappy if the ones who appear on The Bill and Eastenders are the pick of the crop. Or perhaps the casting directors find it easier just to keep calling the same couple of agents over and over again. Surely, that can’t be true…

I’ve been off The Bill for a while. A period of melodrama and totally unlikely domestic plot lines made me look elsewhere for my TV thrills. Plus the cops unrealistically referring to witnesses and criminals alike by their first names (as in, “So, looks like Terry killed Carla in a fit of rage and Mick, Colin and Darren all lied when they said they were with Mel and Kim?”) grated. It had all got so fantastic – in the unreal sense. A while ago, I dreamt that Star Trek Deep Space Nine type aliens were scattered among the cast and I woke up believing it had actually happened.

Although Sun Hill is supposed to be somewhere around Tower Hamlets in East London, most of the filming takes place in south-west London, as near to the studios in the old Triang factory in Morden as they can get. A thesp who worked on The Bill in its early years told me in confidence that, because actors tend to be significantly smaller than real-life policemen, Thames TV had constructed scaled-down sets, with reduced sized doors, filing cabinets and chairs to make the characters appear “proper sized” and suitably imposing.

For some unfathomable reason, last night I drifted into the first episode of a new Bill story, “Forgotten Child”. Despite the predictability an 8pm ITV drama demands, it was far better than I was expecting and I got to the end without feeling I’d been cheated. I even wanted to find out what happens next. Praise indeed…

The story centred around an underage girl runaway from Leeds, whose drug-scarred body had been found behind a strip-pub in Sun Hill. Investigations pointed to a nationwide ring trapping underage girls and luring them into prostitution and drug-dependency. Just another story of life in the present-day version of Dock Green, you’d think.

Although the story was multi-dimensional, a couple of aspects of “Forgotten Child” were mildly annoying, including a character who was supposed to be from Leeds having a definite Liverpool accent. You can almost hear the assistant chief producer saying: “But it still says ‘Northern’, dahling”  – assuming anyone on-set even noticed. Then there’s the clever but unrealistic plot device by which minor characters impart important information (“We’ve found the pub landlord’s DNA all over the dead girl’s body”) as the investigating DC and Superintendent amble down the corridor, recapping the main points of the plot for slower viewers. In my limited experience of the real Bill, Superintendents and DCs don’t tend to mix too much, never mind stroll down corridors, practically arm-in-arm.

To be fair, it isn’t meant to be real life, it’s The Bill. And when one of your main characters attempts to commit suicide in his dressing room because he’s been axed from the programme as Reg Hollis, er actor Jeff Stewart did in 2007, it’s possible to regard aliens showing up on screen as quite normal. Even in a dream.

Note: The Bill finally came to an end on ITV-1 in August 2010.

Categories
Books Featured Lead Story

Amazing Book Bargains

I used to be a publisher. Not someone who worked for a big international corporation, mixing with bestselling authors, famous film, TV and sports personalities and their less glamorous ghostwriters, but an important part – or at least I liked to think so – of a one-man operation.

Aside from an army of authors, artists, freelance proof-readers, designers, printing and binding workers, packagers and distributors, independent sales reps and PR prats, I was The Do-Not Press. I battled fearlessly against the publishing and bookselling establishments for ten years before I finally fell, fatally wounded, in 2004. My Waterloo was the Compass Spring Sales Conference. (Don’t ask).

I only mention this, not because I’m about to relate a whole series of publishing horror stories, but because the experience scarred me and changed my book-buying habits for life. Even now, four years, four months and six days after our last book hit the shelves (or not) of Britain’s major bookshops, I cannot bring myself to buy a book from W.H. Smiths or Waterstone’s. (I’m a bit iffy about Blackwell’s, but that’s only because in 1966 Sir Basil Blackwell tried to prevent the UK publication of Last Exit to Brooklyn. I have a long memory).

Whenever I need a book and I’m in central London, I’ll walk past all the fancy Borders, Waterstone’s and whatever and head for Foyle’s in the Charing Cross Road. Disorganised, badly laid out and ineffecient as they might have been back then, (they’ve improved now), at least they stocked almost all of our books – and even sold a few.

Being an independent publisher of some panache, you’d have thought independent bookshops would have been keener than the chains to stock our toothsome output of contemporary fiction and suchlike. Not a bit of it. With a handful of notable exceptions – Newham Bookshop, Murder One, Foyle’s, Housman’s and Bookseller Crow, being the only ones that spring to mind – smaller bookshops tended to avoid us entirely. One even went as far as invoicing me for the fax paper I’d used up notifying him of an impending publication by a local author.

In my experience, most independent booksellers are pompous middle-class twits who are dead keen to stock mountains of what’s on the top of the bestseller charts but will not risk upsetting their clientele by having anything vaguely “interesting” in the building. “Oh, that’s very hard to get,” is a common put-down.

Buying online is even trickier for me. Amazon have everything I need, it’s usually cheaper there than anywhere else, and the service is invariably second to none. And yet I feel guilty about feeding money into a US corporation with a virtual worldwide monopoly. Silly, isn’t it?

I get around this by buying from The Book Depository, whenever I can. An independent British operation (sorry international readers), The Book Depository offers free delivery and prices that undercut even their obese American rival. Plus they push the product of independent British pubishing at every opportunity. Well done, I say.

The Do-Not Press website still gets 100 hits a day and is at http://www.thedonotpress.com

The Book Depository can be found at: http://www.thebookdepository.co.uk

Categories
Featured Food Lead Story People

Cooking Perfect Rice – Easily

Cooking perfect rice is a skill that can mark you out from the rest of the herd. Either you can. Or you can’t. There is no middle ground.

Rice provides one-fifth of the calories consumed in the world today. Or slightly more if you eat at the Wong Kei restaurant in London’s Soho, where servings are particularly generous.

A long time ago, before even the Sex Pistols were a glint in someone else’s eye, I was taught to cook Indian vegetarian food by a Pakistani chef called Mr Murzer. He was a friendly man from a family of great chefs and a strict teacher. One of his many rules was that I must promise to only ever cook with genuine basmati rice. Grown in the Punjab region of India and Pakistan, its grains are long and slender and the flavours and aromas it releases when correctly cooked are unmistakable. The name “basmati” comes from a mixture of the Hindi and Sanskrit words for “fragrance” and “perfume”.

Cooking Curry & Rice in Pakistan

I have not seen Mr Murzer for over thirty years and, as he must have been in his mid-to late-fifties then, I assume he’ll be dead by now. Or, at the very least, incapable of boxing my ears as hard as he used to. His cue was whenever I made s stupid mistake. These heinous crimes included not tempering my spices properly or allowing the yoghurt to curdle.

On that understanding, I can reveal that in the subsequent years I have been known to occasionally summon up the odd risotto with arborio or carnaroli rice, but generally speaking, it’s been basmati all the way.

1st Steps on the Road to Cooking Perfect Rice

Cooking perfect rice is easier than you think. Provided you follow the simple rules. The first thing to be sure of is that the rice you buy is really basmati.

The high cost of producing and ageing genuine basmati grains makes it lucrative for unscrupulous fellows to repackage any old long-grain rubbish as the “prince of rices”. Those garish packets you sometimes find in Indian supermarkets at half the price of all other rice is unlikely to be the genuine article. Although this is not something I ever apply to other products, the only sure way your rice is really basmati is to buy a recognised brand, such as Tilda, Veetee or TRS.

Basmati rice comes in two forms: white and brown (wholegrain). Each of them requires a simple but entirely different cooking process. In both cases, you will need a fairly small pan with a tight-fitting lid. You’ll find that anally-retentive types will almost certainly employ a special rice pan. Mine holds two pints and comes with two small metal handles instead of a single long plastic one. This is so you can stick it in the oven without melting the handle and stinking out the kitchen.

White Basmati vs Brown Basmati

White basmati is milled and polished and is what is served as “plain boiled rice” in most Indian restaurants. You’ll need a handy measure. I use a green plastic half-pint beaker and know that dry rice almost up to the top will provide four generous portions. You simply measure out the amount of dry rice you need.

Cooking perfect rice: brown basmati
A single grain of brown (wholegrain) basmati rice

Then wash it in a sieve under running water to get rid of all the powdered starch. Empty it into the rice pan together with one-and-a-half times the amount (by volume) of fresh, cold water. Bring to the boil, add a pinch of salt, stir quickly, slam on the lid and turn down the heat to its absolute lowest.

After exactly eight minutes, remove your pan from the heat and leave to stand. The longer you leave it, the fluffier the rice will be. Try and manage fifteen minutes. If you can afford to wait longer, stick your unopened pan inside a very low oven.

Do not be tempted to take off the lid before you are ready to serve. In Indian restaurants, they make the rice in huge lidded pans at lunchtimes. One for plain, another with food colourings, oil and spices, for pilau. They leave them in a barely warm oven all afternoon to let the grains separate and the flavours intensify.

Cooking Wholegrain or Brown Basmati

Brown rice contains the whole grain and needs 25 minutes to cook. You don’t have to wash it, but you can if you like. Simply plonk unto your rice pan a cupful of rice and enough boiling water to cover it plus a centimetre or so extra. Boil rapidly for fifteen minutes. During that time you may have to filter off the ‘scum’ (that’s the dark brown powered starch) or top up with hot water from the kettle, as needed.

At the end of fifteen minutes, you need to set your timer for another ten. You’ll ideally have water a tiny way above the grains, if not, add more from the kettle or boil rapidly until what’s in there has evaporated to the correct level. Add a pinch of salt, stir once and plonk on the lid, simmering on the lowest heat for whatever remains of the ten minutes. Leave to stand for at least another ten minutes.

After a while, the amounts of water, rice and salt you use will become second nature and you’ll rarely have to do anything other than plonk on the lid and turn down the heat. At the end of your resting period, you will have perfect Basmati rice.

If not, Mr Murzer will come and box your ears.

Categories
Featured Lead Story Life

Mobile Telephony

One way to discern a person’s real age is to discover how they feel about mobile phones. If they regard them as an extension of themselves, as an add-on that continues everyday conversation, then they are probably under forty. If, on the other hand, they see them as an intrusion, something that keeps bothering them at inconvenient moments, then they are probably me.

It was revealed on the TV news last night that there are currently 65 million of the blighters active in the United Kingdom today. As the U.K.’s population is under 61 million, and as a large swathe of people – babies, toddlers, “living vegetables” and the like – are not likely to have one, that means that some drug-dealers must be walking around with 476 stuffed into their combat trouser pockets. No wonder they walk funny.

My job is primarily a concert promoter (doesn’t that sound grand?) and I have an office telephone, which is manned during so-called “office hours” and an iPhone, the chief purpose of which is to play podcasts and check how far it is from Helsinki to Swindon. (Not for any work reason, just because I get curious) As far as I’m concerned, the calls coming in are a nuisance, rather than a function I approve of. I’m just grateful that the iPhone fades in the ringing tone gently.

I haven’t given the iPhone number to more than a dozen people and yet I get more calls on it than I do on the landline, which is displayed on the website and printed on all my stationery. I even have an old cellphone – the one before the iPhone – they let me keep on for a fiver a month all-in that gets 5-10 calls a day and I’ve been telling people not to use it for eight friggin’ months.

I much prefer email, which you can respond to when you have time. Not like a mobile telephone, which is like someone screaming into your ear: “Stop what you’re doing now and speak to ME, no matter how trivial my reason for calling is! Speak to me NOW!”.

Why is it that people ring me at exactly the most inconvenient moment? Like when I’m just about to be served after queuing for 40 minutes. When I’m trying to sneak out of somewhere without being noticed (is that just me?). And ten seconds after everyone in the chapel of rest has been asked to turn off their mobiles.

I hate them. Do me a favour: only ring me when it’s absolutely necessary, OK?

Categories
Featured Lead Story Movies People

John Wayne: Big John or Big Jessie?

Unlikely as it may sound, psychiatrists recognise a condition called “John Wayne Syndrome”. Although the Duke’s ailment has since become synonymous with battle fatigue, it was originally coined to describe someone who could not come to terms with their own perceived lack of heroism.

When he wasn’t campaigning in favour of guns or against Socialism, Wayne was tormented by the realisation that the tough, macho figure he portrayed on the screen was entirely fictional. In his own eyes he was a “fag actor”. Though not likely to have engaged in oral or anal sex with men himself, the characters Wayne portrayed would have regarded actors as “fags” and in his own twisted reality, that’s how he sometimes thought of himself.

Leaving aside the negative aspects of being given a girl’s name, the young Marion Morrison was rejected by the U.S. Naval Academy and later was accused of purposely avoiding enlistment after Pearl Harbour in December, 1941. In his defence, it is said he did his best to sign-up but was rejected due to an old football injury. It has also been said that the U.S. Government was keen that famous actors stayed home to make propaganda films and boost morale.

The truth is that Wayne only made his name in John Ford’s 1939 western Stagecoach. By December 1941, he had yet to become a big enough draw to be given the star treatment. Equally or better known Hollywood names who were allowed to enlist include James Stewart, Henry Fonda, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Clark Gable. With them out of the way, Wayne became much bigger during the war and the years immediately following it.

By sticking around in Hollywood, in 1943, he was able to help found the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, together with Mickey Mouse creator Walt Disney, and movie directors Leo “Duck Soup” McCarey and Sam “A Night At The Opera, A Day At The Races” Wood. (What is it with these Marx Brothers directors?) Wayne was elected president of the snappily-titled M.P.A.P.A.I. in 1947; fellow members included frequent co-star Ward Bond, and pals Gary Cooper and Ronald Reagan. Its statement of principles includes the line: “In our special field of motion pictures, we resent the growing impression that this industry is made of, and dominated by, Communists, radicals, and crackpots.” Just so.

Wayne was an ardent anti-Communist, and prominent supporter of the House Un-American Activities Committee. In 1951, he made the appalling movie Big Jim McLain, in which he and James Arness play H.U.A.C. investigators battling commies in Hawaii. Wayne openly boasted of being instrumental in having Carl Foreman blacklisted from Hollywood after the release of the anti-McCarthy High Noon. The 1959 movie, Rio Bravo, was intended by Wayne and director Howard Hawks as a right-wing response.

His rabid anti-Communism made the “Duke” a loud and proud supporter of the Vietnam War, and 1969’s The Green Berets  which he starred in, produced and co-directed – is the only vaguely big budget movie in its defence. Funny that. Odd too that all the main Vietnamese characters in the movie are played by Japanese-American actors.

Movie-mad Stalin was so pissed off with Wayne’s anti-Communist views, he ordered his assassination. Luckily for all concerned, the Great Dictator died before the order could be implemented and Kruschev boasted to Wayne in 1958 that he recalled the hit squad before it could put the plan into operation.

An individual is never all bad and John Wayne is certainly no exception. He had tremendous charisma as an actor and his on-screen presence was immense. The John Ford- and Howard Hawks-directed westerns of the 1940s and 1950s produced some classic Wayne performances. His 1956 movie, The Searchers, is possibly the finest and most complex ever made in the genre (sorry, Clint). Only director John Ford could ever have persuaded Wayne to play Ethan Edwards, the racist Civil War veteran who hates practically everyone, but Indians in particular. Wayne was famous for turning down roles that didn’t show him in heroic light, but he could see the potential of the movie and how it furthered his view that Native Americans had received a bad deal at the white invader’s hand.

Yes, the Duke was pro-Indian. Even more surprising is that he occasionally voiced the opinion that Black America was getting a pretty rough deal, too. All three of his wives were of Hispanic origin and, just before he died, he gave support to the free Patty Hearst Campaign. Go figure.

Above all, Wayne was a “character”. Larger than life and a star in the true sense of the word. There is the famous story of how British film critic Barry Norman and Wayne almost came to blows on a promotional train journey to promote True Grit in 1969. At 11.30am,  Norman was presented to Wayne, who by this time, had already disposed of seventeen miniature bottles of bourbon. The subject of the Vietnam war came up and Wayne declared that he could put a stop to hostilities at a stroke, simply by phoning Kosygin and threatening to bomb Moscow. Norman laughed. “He got up, literally growling,” recounted Norman, “obviously intent on smiting me, and he was a very big man.” Fortunately for one or both of the prospective combatants, Wayne was restrained by a posse of Paramount publicity people.

Big Jessie indeed.

Categories
Class Featured Lead Story Life People Work

East Europeans Cleaning Up

We have a Polish cleaner. There, I’ve admitted it.

For a liberal, woolly-minded Old Labour person like me, that’s a big admission. Or, at least, it used to be. Now it’s perfectly normal to have ‘help around the house’, and to justify my actions I’d just say that if I didn’t employ her, she’d be out of work somewhere, living on bread and margarine. At least, from 1pm to 5pm on Wednesdays.

Poland’s entry into the European Union signalled a huge change-around in the British way of life. Once Irish builders had returned home and had been retrained in computer software design, our homes and roads began to fall apart. Then the East European miracle occurred. A whole breed of supermen appeared, who were prepared to work twice as hard as we Brits for half the money and who didn’t insist on filling our pubs with fiddle-playing, painted bohrans and pictures of Limerick ALA Teams of 1976.

At roughly the same time, the New British Mother was stirring. Egged on by Grrrl Power and post-feminist agitators such as Nadine Strossen, Carol J. Adams and Jeremy Kyle, she was began to think it unfair that she should be singlehandedly tasked with keeping the family home free of cobwebs and mildew. As the British male was too lazy and addled with football and cheap supermarket lager to help, family guidance clinics began to burst at the seams a good job we had the Polish builders around.

Luckily the Polish builders brought their wives and girlfriends with them. The better-looking ones became models and/ or worked in All Bar Ones, the rest who weren’t averse to getting their hands dirty and being horribly patronised for £6 an hour, became domestic sanitators.

Around this time, following a leaflet through the door and a meeting with the Major from Fawlty Towers, ominika appeared in our lives. How she and her like can clean away a whole week’s mess in three hours is beyond me. Just be grateful she can. We did attempt to recruit a traditional British Mrs Mop from the Isle of Dogs, but she wanted  £45 a morning, two days a week, and insisted on being picked up and taken home by car or taxi every time. Frankly, out of our price-range (she didn’t like the look of me anyway, she told the friend who recommended her). A lucky break.

We now have a new Dominika – the old one is now pregnant and running a successful cleaning agency – called Kasha. We pay her a little more than the asking price, so as to salve my woolly-liberal, left-wing Old Labour conscience, but that’s a small price to pay for being able to sleep smugly at nights. And an even smaller price to pay for getting your hob polished.

There’s an issue about Kasha’s reluctance to abandon the nuclear-powered cleaning products for Green-friendly detergents that probably make her job twice as difficult, but we are currently working hard to resolve that. A small price to pay for…

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Blogs & Podcasts Featured Lead Story Media People

My Blog Shame

It’s all Richard Herring’s fault.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I’ll start at the beginning…

One major benefit of owning an iPhone is, instead of listening to other people speaking rubbish to each other via their own handsets, you can inflict podcasts on yourself. I subscribe to 63 at last count, ranging from Lord Melvyn Bragg proving how intellectual he is by prodding patient academics about Neuroscience, to Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo arguing about films and pronunciation on BBC Radio 5 Live. I was particularly partial to the Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross podcasts from the BBC but that pleasure was recently snatched away from me by readers of the ‘Mail On Sunday’. Grrrr.

Deprived of my weekly dose of BBC presenters fucking actors’ granddaughters on air (Was that it? my recollection is hazy), my current favourite is a pod by comedian Richard Herring and his journalist “colleague”, Andrew Collins. One of the attractions of these things is the way the podcasters reveal themselves over 35 or more hours of conversation. Try as they might to present a favourable if slightly skewed image of themselves, time, conversation and caffeine will tell.

Collins has a thing about wheat, wants to kiss a duck (but only once – he’s not a pervert), and cooks his own mince-and-onion lunches, transporting them around in Tupperware containers. He’s also a regular in the Waitrose wholefoods sections, though Richard Herring seems to snaffle most of his nuts and trail mix during the course of their podcast. Andrew is apparently married, but we never hear a word about the Mrs or even know her name. He’s also a self-confessed bird-fancier and travels to Norfolk with a friend on bird-watching missions. His minor-key pomposity coupled with a low resistance to caffeine often results in a revealing rant or two.

Richard Herring is a different kettle of podcaster. Over 40 and an Oxford graduate, so no intellectual slouch, he comes over as a cross between Peter Pan and Che Guevara. Living alone on Marks & Spencer ‘ready meals’ in a large house in Shepherd’s Bush, west London, Herring veers between drinking too much beer or none at all, and reveals a concern for his podginess. He and Collins record the podcast in the attic of his house, amongst the remnants of Fortnum and Mason hampers sent over by his manager. It is a recurring theme of recent podcasts that Herring doesn’t have to worry too much about the credit crunch. In fact he enjoys the recession because it means he doesn’t have to queue at all at Marks & Spencer.

The point of all this is that, for a year now, Richard Herring has written a daily blog. Yes, a blog entry every single day.

This morning, after listening to an old podcast – I’m currently catching up with ones I missed – I took a peak at my own blog and saw to my horror that I’d not written anything here for almost two months.Two months. Although I can’t claim that this omission has had much effect on the low mood of the nation, it’s obviously not very good.

Richard Herring’s Blog can be found at his website: richardherring.com
Andrew Collins’ website: wherediditallgoright.com
Your can download “The Collings and Herrin Podcast” from iTunes or from here: Collings & Herrin Podcast

Categories
Class Featured Life People

Interesting Facts About Europe (Can You Trust The Truth?)

The title ‘Interesting Facts About Europe’ is misleading, but that’s the problem with facts. One person’s truth is another’s lie. As it’s not in my nature to disappoint anyone, I kick off with 5 very Interesting Facts About Europe:

1. The World’s 14 Most Charitable Countries are in Europe. (Official Development Assistance by country as a percentage of GNI, 2006), source Wikipedia). Sweden, Norway, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Denmark, Ireland, UK, Belgium, Austria, France, Finland, Switzerland, Germany, Spain.

2. The largest City in Europe is Moscow, with a population of 10,425,075. If you discount Istanbul (part of which is in Asia), the next largest is London 7,517,700, followed by Paris with 2,153,600.

3. The official religion of Denmark, Iceland and Norway is Lutheran.

4. Two of the world’s top 10 oil-producing countries are in Europe. (Russia, number 2 with 9.67 million barrels; and Norway, number 10, with 2.79m barrels.) Number 11 is Kuwait.

5. Romany gypsies are Europe’s largest ethnic minority.

Dictionary.com defines fact as: ‘Something that actually exist; reality; truth.’ Similarly truth is: ‘the true or actual state of a matter’. Unfortunately, as every politician knows, facts and the truth can be manipulated to mean whatever you want them to.

Take, for example, Interesting Fact #1, which states that the top 14 ‘most charitable countries’ are in Europe. This is worked out on percentage of GDN (each country’s Gross National Product); if you look at it in pure monetary terms, the USA gives the world the most aid. If you take out military funding and defence costs, then it’s Norway. All facts.

All the truth.

Fact number 2 cites London as ‘Europe’s second-largest city’. That’s odd, London isn’t even a city. It is made up of 2 cities (the Cities of London and Westminster) plus 31 other London Boroughs. The area governed by the Mayor of London is sometimes referred to as ‘Greater London’ and that’s what is being counted here. Surely it’s only a matter of boundaries? If politicians decide to move the Greater London boundary out 30 miles, it becomes the world’s largest city. If they reduce it by the same you’ve got London competing with St David’s for Britain’s smallest.

On the Wikipedia site there are several versions of London’s population. Here are the first five I found: 7,517,700; 8,278,251; 7,512,400; 7,581,052; 7,517,700. It’s possible that they were all right at one time or another and it’s more than likely that none of them are actually as of now. Yet these are ‘facts’. The same fact, five different answers.

The truth is subjective. And that’s a fact.

The shape-shifting nature of truth is at its most dangerous when it comes to Justice. Two witnesses watching the same scene unfold will perceive two entirely separate events. Take two men fighting: miss the initial punch and the man retaliating is seen as the aggressor.

As for eye-witness testimony, that’s when things really go wrong. I would find it virtually impossible to recognise a waitress a few hours after leaving a restaurant, never mind identifying a man seen briefly running away from a crime scene months or even years afterwards.

Invariably misinformation will come in the form of Facts and The Truth. In 2003, the usually reliable Observer reported: ‘One in every 100 black British adults is now in prison, according to the latest Home Office figures.’ Right-wing ‘newspapers’ The Sun and The Daily Mail made more of the story, but that’s irrelevant. Aside from the happier implication that this means that 99% of black British adults are not in prison (which is not news apparently), the better and truer story might have been, ‘82% of worse-off British adults are now in gaol’. Black people are more likely to be poor, poorer people are more likely to commit crime and so are more likely to go to prison. The false implication was that black people are more likely to commit crime, which is obviously rubbish, but I wonder how many people took that away with them after reading the article – even in the liberal Observer?

Beware of the truth: it’s almost all lies anyway.

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Complaint: From Minor Moans to Principled Protests

Profile have just published a book called Complaint by Julian Baggini.

It is claimed that this 224-page paperback is the first to be devoted to the subject and all I can say is: It’s about bloody time! Call yourself a publishing industry, making us wait 568 years for a book we obviously need? Idiots.

Complaining is a popular subject, especially I’ve noticed, with Americans and the British. The only difference appears to be that Americans do it more vocally and prefer everyone to share their disappointment, whereas we Brits try and keep it ‘in the family’. To actually let the person you are complaining about know that you are dissatisfied is traditionally thought rather rude. Things are changing, Starbucks are taking over the High Streets of Britain, but it’s a slow process.

To quote Theodore Dalrymple’s review of  Complaint in The Guardian: “Only Homo sapiens can conceive of a world different from the one in which he currently finds himself. The inevitable gulf between things as they are and as they ought to be is what gives rise to complaint.”

I, for one, really do try not to complain. I fervently hope that all of life’s little encounters will be tranquil and that everyone will meet my modest expectation. But that’s seldom the case. No matter how hard I try to appreciate the other person’s point of view, people let me down. I am often forced to complain against my will.

Take last week, for example. I booked into a hotel via the Internet. (I originally did name the hotel, but it has recently changed hands and I don’t want to mess up their new business). We arrived, after 2pm as directed, to be greeted by a sign in reception asking us to go to the bar. There was a funeral “party” in full swing and we had to wait 13 minutes until everyone present had been served – some of them several times – before we could check-in.

A pleasant young lady gave us the keys to two rather unpleasant little rooms and confirmed that the funeral guests had taken all the hotel’s parking spaces, so we’d have to park on the road and feed a meter for three hours. The rooms were short, thin and grubby. Although it was a hot summer’s day, the heating was on full and the radiator in one room was locked on maximum. The nice girl in reception promised that someone would see to it. I won’t spoil the suspense by revealing whether or not anyone did – you can probably guess.

Although the building is impressive – late Victorian with 1930s art deco influences? – it seems neglected and it’s pretty obvious that the people at the helm have given up. The lack of care is obvious everywhere. At this point I was going to include a list of all our complaints, from no marmalade at breakfast to the stink of tobacco (and an ashtray!) in the room of a no-smoking hotel, but then I realised it would be futile. And it would take too long.

I was going to complain at the hotel, before we left. Honest. But there was no one at reception when we checked out – and the bar was shut.

It seems unfair to single out De Parys Hotel for individual criticism. I’ve stayed in worse hotels and, to be honest, the Fawlty Towers Experience in family-run establishments is commoner than the English Tourist Board would have us believe. And not just in Britain: the worst hotels I’ve ever stayed in were in New York and Antwerp. Don’t get me started on them…

In my average week, three or four more major complainable issues occur. Sometimes you shout about it, at other times you keep quiet. Some people do not take criticism in the right way and I’ve learned to avoid anything that might backfire on me. Experience of the ‘hospitality trade’ means I never voice my concerns in a restaurant whilst there’s still an opportunity for the chef or waitress to add a little something to my next course.

Maybe more companies should follow BT’s lead in solving their quite significant complaints problem. British Telecoms messes everything up on a regular basis – including in our case disconnecting lines because we’re moving (we weren’t), charging for reconnection, penalty fees for not paying reconnection charges, not taking direct debits, penalties because they didn’t take direct debits, disconnection for non-payment of reconnection and non- direct debit payment charges, more charges for further reconnections, etc, etc – and then making it impossible to complain. Well, you can complain but the person you’re complaining to is never the right person and unless you want to spend the rest of your life holding on and transfering to various call centres around the world (with the regular return journey), you do the sensible thing, give up and pay up.

It has taken me over 50 years of life to discover life’s ultimate truth: it’s practically impossible to get anything done properly unless you do it yourself. Everyone, from the tax authorities to public utilities to the computer departments of major government agencies, to the check-out girl at the supermarket, to the window-cleaner and the guy who comes round to fix your computer, will screw up. Sometimes it’s on purpose, usually it’s because they don’t know what they’re doing or because they don’t care what they are doing.

The good news is that you can complain all you like.

The bad news is, a fat lot of good it’s going to do you.