Category Archives: Life

pylons for change electricity supplier

How You Can Change Electricity Supplier and Save The Planet

pylons for change electricity supplier

As I sit here, tapping away at my Apple extended keyboard, it’s late October 2017 in Ramsgate. We enjoyed a short Indian Summer, the clocks have just turned back, and there’s a faint smell of burning in the air. Autumn is here, the time the British generally think we should change electricity supplier.
For the first time in my life, I’ve gone and done it myself (change electricity supplier, that is).
It’s a bold move and I feel very proud of myself.
It wasn’t that long ago that British Prime Minister David Cameron declared that the Labour leader at the time, Ed Miliband, wanted us all to live in a “Marxist universe” because he’d advocated a cap on energy prices. Turn the clocks forward two years and the idea has become so mainstream, the current Conservative leader, Theresa May, announces that she’s all for the idea. Britain still has food-banks with people in extreme poverty, which indicates we are not yet living in a Marxist universe.
My experience of electricity and gas suppliers since Margaret Thatcher privatised them in the late 1980s has not been entirely positive, to say the least.
Up until now, I couldn’t see any point in changing my supplier because I was sure they are all pretty much the same. And anyway, a Labour Government was likely to win a snap election and re-nationalise electric and gas companies pretty damn quick. All I had to do was wait…
Following Labour’s general election defeat in June 2017, I realised a quick-fix solution might not immediately be on the cards. Basically, I knew it was up to me to act decisively.

Why I Wanted to Change Electricity Supplier

First of all, I don’t have gas, so changing my energy company just meant just changing the firm supplying my electricity. To be honest, they were pretty terrible, kept hiking up the prices and were constantly sending me bills for debts built up by previous tenants.
And now the Plus Points
I’ve always thought renewable energy was the way to go. When it comes to the environment, I’ve always been an idealist. For example, although I’d driven a tractor on the family farm since the age of 12, I’d never gone in for driving tests and the idea of owning a car. I lived in London and, quite frankly, there was never any need to have a vehicle of my own. I still can’t drive but now I live in Ramsgate, where public transport is more haphazard. Even so…
I was first attracted to Bulb because they only sell renewable electricity. They also seemed quite “fresh” – if that’s even a thing.
The comedian Richard Herring first put the idea in my head.
I listened to his Leicester Square Theatre podcast where he said he’d switched to this new company called Bulb, who (so far, at least) was better than his previous supplier. I read a blog he’s written about. To summarise, he said:
  • Bulb have just reduced their prices (British Gas have admitted electricity is cheaper but are putting up prices anyway).
  • They only use renewable electricity and 10% renewable gas (apparently, it’s not as easy).
  • Bulb will buy you out of any contract you may have with an existing supplier.
  • They don’t trap you in a contract and you can leave any time.
  • Bulb are almost certainly cheaper than your current provider.
It all sounded good, but there was another line. It said, “If you click on my link and change your energy supplier to Bulb:

Sounds great to me. A win/win/win/win/ situation.

My Motivation for Recommending Bulb as an Energy Supplier

I must stress that Bulb hasn’t paid me or told me to recommend them. I would be recommending them even if I didn’t get the £50. If I discover they are the worst kind of people, I promise to let you know. So far, I have to admit, they’ve been great.

Who Do You Want To Get The Money When You Change Energy Supplier?

If you want Richard Herring to get the £50 (if you sign up, you get £50 and he gets £50) click here
If you want to use Jim Driver to get the £50 (if you sign up, you get £50 and I get £50) click here
The choice is yours…

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

Sir Bruce ForsythMuch-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.

Sir Bruce 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.

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 Forsyth 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…

Sir Bruce Forsyth 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?” The trainee quietly asked. I think the lead technician must have shaken her head because they both fell into silence again. I could sense a certain amount of pointing and gesticulating at the screen.

The technician excused herself and left the room. When she returned she told me to get dressed and go and wait for the doctor, who would be with me shortly. He 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’ll 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 generations. (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.

Join the Beer Club for Real Ale (and Cheese)

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

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

When it comes to cheese, greasy supermarket cheddars and plasticine pre-packed portions just will not do. It’s got to be something great: a crumbly Hawes Wensleydale, a proper Farmhouse Double Gloucester or even a smear of Stinking Bishop. At the moment, I’m addicted to a crunchy Belton Farm Red Leicester made exclusively for Waitrose. As there’s no Waitrose supermarket within an easy gallop, it means a bit of a trek for me. The full, mellow flavour and salt crystal crunch make it a worthwhile journey.

Natural accompaniments to our meal of ale and cheese include a flavoursome red tomato, a few slithers of English onion and maybe a touch of homemade chutney. The important thing is to complement the beer, not batter it into submission.

real_ale_pint

People outside the loop simply cannot understand why so-called “real ale” – or cask-conditioned ale, to give it its proper title – is in 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.

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 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?

The very best beer can and should be compared to the finest wine. Drinks writer Oz Clarke may be known for being 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.

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. 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.

red-barrel-bar-mountWatneys’ Brewery in south-west London had developed a solution years before. 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.

He developed a premium export bitter that was then filtered and pasteurised to kill off the yeast. The name comes 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”.

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 and promoted as premium products over the few cask-conditioned ales that survived.

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. Keg provided a cheaper and more deliverable alternative.

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 “tinnies” didn’t take off until the 1980s onwards, when major supermarkets aggressively attacked the market.

One of the tactics national brewers used to promote keg bitters was to downgrade 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 commercial sense to do away with everything else.

The way big brewers downgraded cask-conditioned ales eventually led a fightback. Lovers of real ale recognised the undoubted value of their favourite tipple and, 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.

Now, many fine real ales are brewed in a legion of small independent breweries across the UK. 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 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. Property company Minerva plc, who now own the brewery site have built a microbrewery in the old lab so as to keep up the claim of the “oldest British brewery”.

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.

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

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 testament to that – but anyone who shares my vague interest in the psychology of comedy will find it fascinating.

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

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.

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):

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:

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:

Mick McManus vs Dr Death

If you heard a barely discernible phut at around 1am on Wednesday 22nd May, 2013, it was very possibly the sound of an era coming to an end. 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.

In real life, Mick McManus was shorter than you’d expect – five-foot-six (1.68 metres) – and in his prime 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 BBC News site, which the previous day had heralded the passing of former Bowie and Uriah Heap bass-player Trevor Bolder in its main headlines, 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: “Unitt to miss Euro 2013”. Whether this was lingering cross-channel rivalry (wresting was always an ITV thing), or because the teenagers in charge of 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, and 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 – at 4pm 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 progammes.

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 Naverone didn’t end with the bad guys coming out on top. Of course, in wrestling the “fix” meant that the bad guys sometimes did win. It was there to enhance the drama and tension. To make it more “showbiz’.

Even so, Mick was truculent on the subject. 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.

No one doubted that “proper” wrestlers like Mike Marino, Alan Dennison, and brothers Bert Royal and Vic Faulkner (it’s complicated) were genuinely skilful, and 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 handhakes 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_01William 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.

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 with 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.

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, producing wrestling programmes, posters and tickets. In the ring, Mick McManus soon established himself as one of the most popular unpopular wrestlers in Britain, wrestling exclusively for the Dale Martin circuit and then – from 1952 – Joint Promotions. As well as Brixton-based Dale Martin, Joint Promotions incorporated 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.

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. 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 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 saw the football. When Pallo retired, McManus continued the feud with his son, Jackie Junior.

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 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 – it has to be said – 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.

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_oldMick 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 a Kent 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.

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.”

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.

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).

How Hard Should It Be To Cancel A Contract?

Whenever something looks too good to be true, it almost certainly is. Take 1 and 1 Website Hosting, for example. Their website offers what looks like a fantastic deal: all packages FREE (their emphasis) for six months. Sounds good? Yes, and after the six months is up, the rates seem quite reasonable, too. Why not give it a go? I did.

When you sign up you are made to confirm that you will abide by their General Terms & Conditions. Just click the box. Who reads the terms and conditions anyway? After all, it’s 7,981 words: that’s over three times as long as the Magna Carta, six times as long as the U.S. Declaration of Independence or about as many words as you’ll get in a 2.5 hour movie script. Even if you do try and read it, most of what you find doesn’t apply and you can bet that no one from the Plain English Campaign has been anywhere near. This, for example, is one paragraph from section 3.4, which covers Web Hosting:

A web hosting package with unlimited web space will provide the Customer initially with 30 gigabytes of web space. Where at least 75% of the available web space is used the capacity will be automatically increased in increments of 1 gigabyte without charge until the usage reverts to less than 75%. Usage will be checked daily. Increases will be limited to once per day. 1&1 reserves the right to change the server used for this service to a server which is suitably equipped for the customer’s usage. In such cases a suspension of the service may be technically unavoidable.

All I’ve discovered from that paragraph is that an “unlimited web space” isn’t actually unlimited. Good start.

Assume you click the button and sign up. You set up a website – not the easiest thing to do for someone who, like me, is used to Dreamhost.com – and get started. Then you find you don’t like it and want out. So you try and find out how to cancel your “FREE” contract (their emphasis). Cancelling is not something that’s covered very well on the 1 and 1 website. You eventually find the FAQs (link at the bottom of the page in small type). This brings you to this screen:

1and1_01

Still not obvious? Try Billing & Contract. Clicking on this shows up another menu:

1and1_03

Shall we click on “Cancellation System”, do you think? When you do, another menu opens up. This looks like this:

1and1_02

Almost done. After clicking on the wrong link a couple of times, you eventually land on “How do I cancel an entire package”, which takes you to another page. This is the steps you have to take in order to cancel your contract with 1&1 websites:

Step 1:

You will first need to log into http://contract.1and1.co.uk/ using your Customer ID and Control Panel Password. Click the Login to log in to the cancel site.

Step 2:

A welcome page is shown after logging in. Click the Cancellation button at the top of the page.

Step 3:

Select the package that contains the domain (or other item) to cancel from the list of packages.

Step 4:

Select to cancel Entire contract and then click the Next button to proceed.

Step 5:

Select an option from the drop-down box for Cancel contract on.

Step 6:

Any remaining domains or features will also be shown on this page. Select cancellation options for these domains/features and then click the Next button.

Step 7:

A summary of the cancellation options chosen is shown. Please double-check the options chosen and click the Confirm button to submit the cancellation request. If any changes are needed, simply click the Back button.

Step 8:

To complete the cancellation, you will have to contact our service team to confirm the cancellation of the package. Without calling the service team, the cancellation will eventually void itself.

So you’ve done all that (upwards of 15 clicks!) and you’ve still not cancelled your contract. Another potential problem is that the service team only work from 9am-5pm, Monday to Friday. Whatever happened to the “24 hours a day, 7 days a week” support you were promised before you signed up? This does not apply when you are trying to cancel a contract, apparently.

If you are doing all this at night or over the weekend and forget to telephone the support team to confirm your cancellation. You have wasted your time. This happened to me and I eventually got an invoice. I didn’t pay it and it was passed on to a “collections agency” called Arvato, who slap on their own charges. I have refused to pay, citing that their cancellation system is illegal because it is so damned difficult. I’m pretty sure I have a good case. You might want to try it out for yourself.

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.

Stop Racism With A Brain Pill

With the European Football championships diverting attention from racism at home to racism in eastern Europe, it may be time to take another look at this 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, prejudice, and social conservative ideology. 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 and then reported on the Science website LiveScience.com, which is where most of my quotes come from.

It doesn’t take a genius to see that racism is invariably highest among the least well educated. Putting to one side the problem of well-educated racists (Mosley, Powell, Irving and so on), stereotypical racists include the British skinhead from the council housing estate, the American red-neck, and so on. After all, as someone much cleverer than me said (it might have been Elmore Leonard), a cliché only becomes a cliché because it’s probably true. Anyway, as previous studies also concluded that racism is more prevalent among the poorly educated, Hodson decided that studying intelligence was the logical next step.

He and his researchers turned their attention to the findings of two British studies. One has followed a group since their collective births in the spring of 1958, and another that repeated the process for babies born in April 1970. Both sets of children had their intelligence assessed at around their 11th birthdays. When they’d reached 30, another study look at their levels of racism and social conservatism.

One problem (for me) with the study is that it concentrated on what the people said their views were. I wish they’d managed to find a way to examine their unconscious levels, but they didn’t. Instead they asked questions to define how socially conservative the subjects were. The results were based on their answers to 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.”

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 (i.e. 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.

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 fictional characters the equal of vivid Victorians such as (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, of names.

I was halfway through a post about Racism in Football (hopefully following not too far behind…) when I spotted a reminder that today (February 7th) is the 200th anniversary of Dickens’ birth. How could I possibly let that pass? I have been enchanted by his work ever since I first watched those atmospheric black and white Sunday teatime adaptations on the BBC, back in the monochrome 1960s. Although I’ve nothing against full colour broadcasting, there is something about black & white telly that sprinkles even more magic dust over Dickens’ characters and storylines. The same goes for those hugely atmospheric David Lean film adaptations of Great Expectations and Oliver Twist of the 1940s. For some reason we didn’t touch Dickens for our school exams – no shortage of Chaucer and Shakespeare, though – and 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 have 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 realistic 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 odd.

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:

An old brick house, so dingy as to be all but black, standing by itself within a gateway. Before it, a square court-yard 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.

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

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 his death, 58 years, four months and two days later, Dickens 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 does come around once every year…

The BBC’s Big Read survey of Britain’s favourite novels, undertaken in 2003, contained five from Dickens in the Top 100. 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 (a clear 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.

ACTA: What Is This Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement?

ACTA, the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement is something you will probably not hear much about. Maybe a small general item at the end of the news. Chances are the tabloids will not mention it at all and it’s unlikely to be promoted to front page headlines in any broadsheet newspaper. But believe me, ACTA is something that will affect every man, woman and child using the internet right now. And not in a good way. Just when we thought the US government’s freedom-limiting legislation SOPA and PIPA had been dealt potential fatal body blows, ACTA threatens to slip in through the back door.

What Is ACTA (Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement) Anyway?

In broad terms, ACTA is an international agreement drawn up in secret by a strange hodge-podge of countries led by the USA (who else?), the European Union, South Korea, Singapore, Morocco, New Zealand and Canada. It has been heavily lobbied for around the world by the big drug, music and movie corporations and has attracted much hostility from the majority of legitimate pro-freedom groups, who consider it a dangerous threat to the internet. It’s primary stated aim is to “create international standards on intellectual property rights enforcement”. The title of the treaty might suggest that it primarily deals with counterfeit goods but in reality it has far broader scope and that’s where it gets tricky.

What most people have against ACTA is that it takes counterfeiting and piracy and makes them the same thing, much in the same way that the Christian Right in the USA talk of Communists and sexual deviants in the same breath. Two different enemies made one. In my limited experience, it’s the right-wingers who are more likely to be sexually deviant: you almost expect neo-Nazis to keep a stash of chains, whips and gimp-masks in the garage. Alternating between searching for the best place to buy gold, whilst salivating over a weird sexual fetish. But I digress…

With ACTA, the twin stated enemies are counterfeiters and pirates. But how can it be right that the owners of an organised and well-funded factory in Mexico (for example), pumping out thousands of illicit copies of the latest Hollywood blockbuster DVD or top-selling rock CD should be treated practically the same as a teenager in Perivale illicitly sharing an Amy Winehouse track?

Furthermore, ACTA authorizes the signing governments to penalise the ISPs – Internet Service Providers such as BT, Virgin and so on – for the actions of their clients. So, if I use my broadband connection to distribute pirated movies, BT can be taken to court. That’s like the local council being fined when drug dealers use their highways to transport heroin. So, obviously the ISPs are going to start snooping to see what we are up to and almost certainly limiting our access to the internet. According to the Free Software Foundation, ACTA would require ISPs not to host free software that can access copyrighted media, and it would no longer be legal for DRM-protected media to be playable with free or open source software.

ACTA’s supporters include all the big movie, drug and record corporations, including News Corporation, Viacom, GlaxoSmithKline, Sanofi-Aventis, Monsanto, Time Warner, Universal, Sony, Verizon, Walt Disney, and the Motion Picture Association of America. These are multinational corporations who are struggling to come to terms with modern life. Throughout history Big Business has been scared of new technology and has proved unable to adapt. Remember when IBM was the biggest thing in computing? And when Phillips had the whole cassette tape market sewn up?

Think back, if you’re old enough, to when photocopiers began to be commercially available to small businesses? Publishing companies tried to get them banned and at the very least metered so that they’d get a rake-off for every copy made, a “tax” still in force in many libraries around the world. Today, even though anyone can buy a new colour photocopier/ scanner/ printer from Amazon for less than £25, no sane person buys one in order to copy books they’ve borrowed for free from the library. Epson Stylus SX130 Compact All-in-One Printer (Print, Copy and Scan)  For one thing, it wouldn’t be worth anyone’s while because the cost of the materials would be approaching the retail price of the book you were making.

Remember the campaign from the music industry in the 1980s-1990s that made “home recording is killing live music” the mantra you saw every time you opened up the NME or put on a record? Well, it didn’t. What really began the death-knell for the record industry was them selling CDS that cost less than a pound to produce for upwards of £15 – and that was 10-15 years ago, the equivalent to £50-£60 in today’s currency. Greed and the inability to adapt to the modern way of life is doing for the record industry and will probably do for the major movie and pharmaceutical corporations too. It’s just a matter of time.

If the big drug companies were not pricing vital life-saving drugs out of the reach of the Third World and trying to ban generic treatments (by sledgehammer methods like ACTA), would anyone bother counterfeiting them? If Nike or Dr Martin sold their footware at prices close to what they cost to produce and not with mark-ups of 2,500 per cent and more profit, would they have a counterfeiting problem? That the top movie and rock stars are paid millions of dollars (it’s usually dollars), proves that there’s still plenty of money sloshing around. Instead of stopping teenagers from swapping their music, the music industry would be better served employing them to scrap their current business plans and working out something that will work in the Internet Age.

Nobody condones counterfeiting, which generally involves passing off inferior goods as the real thing. This is especially true of life-saving drugs. The very nature of counterfeiting involves the end-user being deceived as to the origin of what they are buying. Piracy is different. When a product is pirated, the consumer is usually aware that they are bypassing legal channels – and they don’t usually give two hoots. Although the law says differently, most people believe that when they buy a CD or DVD (usually for a relatively large amount of money), it becomes their property and if they want to run off a copy for a mate, they should be able to. ACTA would make them criminals liable to a major penalty.

ACTA (Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement) Poses A Real Problem For All Of Us

As the French campaigning website La Quadrature du Net states: “ACTA would impose new criminal sanctions forcing Internet actors to monitor and censor online communications. It is thus a major threat to freedom of expression online and creates legal uncertainty for Internet companies. In the name of trademarks and patents, it would also hamper access to generic medicines in poor countries.” Their spokesman Jérémie Zimmermann elaborates: “This element of language is known to us as part of the vocabulary of the ‘copyright Talibans’, as we call it. If you treat Chinese manufacturers who create counterfeit DVDs or medicines in the same way you treat individuals sharing not-for-profit in their homes you know that you will have problems.” Click for more about ACTA at La Quadrature du Net.

ACTA is a backdoor way for government and global corporations to restrict the internet and our freedoms. It’s up to us to resist it as forcefully as we can. Just don’t expect the media – who have a vested interest in controlling piracy – to keep you informed.

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…

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

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.

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.

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?

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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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.

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.

Total Cost of the Credit Crunch

You’ve got to feel sorry for the banks and credit card companies. They sustained us through the good times, barely taking enough profit to carpet their meagre offices and keep their executives and shareholders above the corporate poverty-line. Always willing to help those less fortunate than themselves, they tried to provide mortgages for poor Americans who couldn’t afford to pay them back. And that very act of largesse has turned around and (as Noel Coward might have said) ‘bitten them in the ass’. Shame on you, ungrateful subprime mortgagees.

Of course, the reality is very different. Banks and credit card companies have always been making millions, much of it coming from the poorest and those least able to afford their services. If you have a million in the bank and pay off your credit card every month, you’ll never have to fork out a penny. If you can’t afford to pay your mortgage, you’ll be walloped with charges until they come out of your ear-holes.

The reason European banks and investment companies invested in the US Subprime Market (don’tcha just love the jargon?) in the first place was because they suspected that the people who took out these ‘risky’ mortgages were probably too poor to be able to pay up on time. But that didn’t matter: the institutions had the security of being able to repossess the properties and keep whatever payments had already been made. (Another word for properties is ‘homes’ but that’s not something you’ll find in too many financial reports.)
What these lovely fellows hadn’t taken into account was that the value of the properties would plummet after 9-11, the Iraq War and subsequent exploits of George W Bush. And so they lost lots and lots of money.

A lot of homes were repossessed (nearly two and a half million at the last count), the banks lost zillions and, fearing a ‘run’ on their assets, used creative accounting to cover up just how much of their money had actually departed down the Suwannee. Because every bank knew they’d fudged their own figures, they refused to believe how much other institutions said they’d lost. Mistrust set in and the banking system began to wobble.

What had previously been a series of simple every-day transactions in which High Street banks advanced one another billions in short-term credit, ground to a halt. Northern Rock all but went to the wall and a couple of others almost followed. Recently the Bradford and Bingley Building Society, a British mortgaging institution, issued a profits warning. It’s not getting better, it’s getting worse. No one short of the Duke of Wellington can currently get a loan in the UK and card companies are lowering credit limits and calling in cards like there’s no tomorrow – which is exactly what they’re fearing.

My own bank, the ethically-motivated Co-operative Bank have just reduced the credit limit on my Gold card by £1,500, getting an advisor to call me to ‘explain and discuss my new credit limit’. This is all being done for my own benefit, apparently, though how the attendant rise in interest rates fits into this scheme of things passes me by. ‘Are you OK with this?’ he asked at one point. ‘No,’ I said. ‘Oh well, let’s move on…’

The American Subprime crash didn’t cause the current Credit Crunch, it was merely a catalyst. Many other factors came into play, including the slowdown in the UK housing market, and the fact that banks had few genuine assets to sustain the big losses. In the ‘good old days’, banks and building societies took in money from investors and lent it, at a higher interest rate, to those buying property. But times have changed and they got greedy, lending money they didn’t actually have, occasionally in a silly fashion, such as Together, Northern Rock’s infamous 125% mortgage.

Repossessions are becoming big news in Europe, too. Over 27,000 in the UK in 2007, a nine-year high. According to an article on the BBC website posted in February: ‘Among the biggest mainstream lenders, Britannia, Bradford & Bingley and Northern Rock were found to be using the courts the most, relative to their market share.’

The worrying thing is that no matter how badly the banks do, they will always pass on their losses to their customers. The recent legal action against them for unjust charges – which the banks are supposed to have lost, though you wouldn’t think so – has put them on the back-foot, looking for new and more interesting ways to take money off us.

The total cost of the Credit Crunch? As ever, it looks like the rich will survive and the poor will lose their homes and possibly their jobs as well. A pity Britain is ruled by a government too afraid of losing affluent middle class votes to help those who really need it.

The only vaguely optimistic note is that Gordon Brown and his post-Blair Thatcherite government has two years to improve their miserable record before they get kicked out and David Cameron’s Thatcherite Conservative government takes over. We can but hope…

Life As An Out-Of-The Loop Music Promoter (Part 1)

I’ve been a music promoter for most of my working life. It’s basically the same as being a theatrical impressario except, instead of plays, I organise rock ‘n’ roll shows. The wife likes to think of it as being something like a professional gambler, but that’s just her.

A music promoter hires a venue, finds an act people will (hopefully) pay to come and see, and sells tickets. Ideally, ticket money will exceed costs and so a profit is made. That’s the theory at least. In reality you are gambling that enough people will buy enough tickets to pay for everything. If it’s too hot, people won’t come; if it’s too cold, they won’t come either. A big sporting event on the television can ruin you. So too can another, bigger event somewhere else.

There’s a lot of money to be made in music. Problem is, 5% of the participants get to keep 90% of the loot, while the rest of us scrabble around for what’s left. I can’t deny that there have been rare occasions when I’ve made relatively big money. One such occasion was a Boomtown Rats concert in 1977. Afterwards, I couldn’t see the bed in my hotel room because it was literally covered in bank-notes – not to mention the young woman who’d come back with me from the show. But at the time I was living in a one-room office, sleeping on the floor, and I’d lost hundreds of pounds practically every gig I’d put on that year. The only secret of promoting that matters is to win more than you lose.

Generally speaking, to make serious money you’ve got to be in ‘the loop’ and I’m not. Being ‘in the loop’ means being part of the music mainstream.

I’ve always been something of an outsider and I only got to do the Rats in the first place because very few promoters back then would sully their hands with ‘punk’. I’d followed a hunch by booking this unknown Irish band for £250, largely because I rated their début single, ‘Looking After Number One’, and it paid off. It could easily have been another flop but, luckily for me, by the time the gig came around, the single was number 2 in the NME charts.

Usually putting money on bands you personally like is the kiss of death. At least it is in my case. My personal taste doesn’t often coincide with that of the general public. Big Brother, Susan Boyle, tabloid newspapers, obscure 1950s R&B, even more obscure British folk musicians and Socialism are just some of the subjects the general public and I disagree on. The big promoters, like major record company executives, never ever put money on what they personally enjoy, they “invest” their cash on what they are told other people will enjoy. Invariably it’s the lowest common denominator that comes into play. Was it Barnum (perhaps paraphrasing H L Menckne) who said: ‘No one ever lost a fortune underestimating public taste’?

Popular music is one of Britain’s leading businesses and for the last 50 years or so, the biggest players have been major corporations. Led by accountants masquerading as cool dudes, these outfits are not only in ‘the loop’ they pretty much are the loop. The players all know each other, they’ve all worked in one another’s offices at some time or other and they all go to each other’s parties. Maybe they’ve even got the same accountancy qualifications.

I first realised the situation had become critical in the early-1990s when I was a music journalist taken out to dinner to meet the big cheeses of a major British record company. Every single one of them was a lawyer or an accountant and their collective knowledge of music was woeful. A couple of the collected musos had great sport goading them with such misinformation as: Jerry Lewis had turned to rock & roll after dissolving his partnership with Dean Martin and added the “Lee” as a tribute to US General Robert E Lee; Prince Andrew is the name of a 70-year-old ska legend; and the news that Chuck Berry devoted his spare time to playing and mastering the Dixieland jazz trumpet after attending a funeral in New Orleans. These people knew how to maximise profits, they know all about downsizing and negative equity but, when it came to music, they didn’t know their Associates from their Donnie Elberts. Literally.

In my time I’ve been in on the ground floor of quite a few movements in popular music. Rock & Roll was before my time, as was the British Beat Boom of the early 1960s, but I was excited, moved and inspired by Peace, Love and Hippydom, which I was getting tired of when the Punk and New Wave movement started up in 1976. I was into punk months before the Sex Pistols signed to EMI and I desperately wanted to be part of it. And I was, in my small way. The same went for several other, smaller movements, such as pub rock, Indie Rock and the Irish/ Country-punk explosion of the early 1980s that blew the Pogues out to an unsuspecting world.

The small independent promoter has to make his or her money by selling crumbs from what the people in the loop don’t want – most likely what they don’t yet know exists. Because I have always promoted in small venues, I tend to be part of the grass-roots and I get to see new acts coming up. If I’m lucky, I’ll get a couple of shows out of them before they get snapped up by those ‘in the loop’. You’ve got to get in there quick, before the company-guys see what’s happening and kick sand in your face. But every year, it’s getting harder and harder to grab even a small slice of the pie.

The trend these days is to move acts to bigger – and more profitable venues– way too soon, before they’ve had chance to learn their craft and iron out their bumps. The Rolling Stones are the Rolling Stones today because, when they started, they were allowed to hone their craft in hundreds of small gigs before stepping up to play dancehalls, theatres, town halls, then to arenas and finally, when they were ready, into huge stadiums. The same went for all of the true greats: Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, etc, etc… That’s why witnessing an 81-year-old, arthritic, part-deaf Chuck Berry play a gig in London’s 300-capacity 100 Club, as I did recently, was an exciting, uplifting experience that totally beats going to see the latest manufactured stars play in a stadium or in a field in Somerset.

As they used to say: ‘That’s rock and roll, man.’

Boris Johnson is Mayor of London. Yippee!/The End is Nigh* (*delete as applicable)

In hindsight, it seemed inevitable that Conservative Boris Johnson would defeat Labour’s Ken Livingstone and be elected Mayor of London.

Although the Member of Parliament for Henley-on-Thames was initially perceived by some as a joke candidate, in reality Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson had everything going for him. For a start, the media was rabidly on his side.

The sole London-wide newspaper, The Evening Standard, a hot-bed of right-wing intolerance at the best of times, could never allow a week to pass without throwing up an anti-Livingstone headline or five. Two high profile journalists, Paul Waugh and Andrew Gilligan, the former BBC journalist forced to resign after the Hutton Enquiry, were put on the anti-Ken detail full time and didn’t bother to try for anything like a balanced coverage.

In April, The Standard ran the headline: ‘Suicide bomb backer runs Ken campaign’, only to reveal (in far tinier print) that the ‘backer’ in question runs an unofficial website called ‘Muslims 4 Ken’ and the suicide bombers he supposedly supports are in Palestine.

On top of the media onslaught was the backlash against Ken of what is often called ‘Middle England’ or ‘The Silent Majority’. London’s vast army of middle class and white collar workers like a few quid in their collective pockets and generally rate their own convenience above piddling matters like air or road pollution and parking restrictions. To them Ken was the man who gave them both the dreaded bendy-bus and the congestion charge and who was threatening to tax the SUV.

In the eyes of these inhabitants of Bromley, Croydon, Hamstead, Putney and Hounslow, the incumbent mayor was a threat to their standard of living and must be got rid of. Boris, on the other hand, that nice chap off the telly, knew what Suburban Man (and Woman) wanted, which was to be left alone, and he could be relied on to oblige.

When he turned up at the hustings, which was increasingly rare, Boris pledged to halt gun-crime, disband gangs and get rid of the bendy-bus. He very wisely didn’t say how any of these things could be achieved. All Ken could do was to repeat that crime had fallen under his administration but, as the Evening Standard repeatedly pooh-poohed the figures, no one believed him.

It didn’t help Ken that Gordon Brown’s Labour government was becoming more and more unpopular by the day. Although the two of them obviously didn’t see eye to eye on most things, a vote against Livingstone also served as a mid-term kick up the backside for the Labour administration.

The recent election results, coming as they do after a string of Labour PR disasters, the near collapse of the banking system and in the wake of a much-forecast recession, point to a right-wing resurgence on a par with the wave that swept Margaret Thatcher to victory in 1979. Callers to radio phone-ins are starting to come out of the closet and proclaim: ‘There’s nothing wrong with being right-wing; I’m right-wing and proud of it.’ And let’s not forget that for the first time, the neo-nazi British National Party gained over 5% of London votes and secured themselves a seat in the London Assembly.

Which brings us on to the so-called ‘race card’. For a while now, the press has been whipping up hysteria against immigrants. First came the claims that the lazy blighters didn’t work, more recently that has spun around to ‘they’re nicking our jobs’. Although born in the USA, with an immigrant Turkish grandfather, Boris neverthess managed to portray himself as a true blue Englishman and as much part of London as Trafalgar Square and Harrods.

Of course, Boris managed to get himself accused of racism although, to be fair, most of the evidence was taken from satirical articles he had written with his tongue firmly in his cheek. Even so, it would be a brave or foolish man who would send Boris Johnson into a room full of immigrants and second generation Brits and not expect him to make the odd gaff. Usually we would hope that this would count against him at election time, but not in the current climate.

Only time will tell. I’m prepared to give Boris the benefit of the doubt, but I’m not full of confidence that he’ll do a wonderful job and that everyone will live happily ever after.

The Lies Start Here…

Although I’ve never kept a diary, the idea of a blog is strangely appealing. Thanks to the European Nuclear industry’s Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau, it is now possible for just about any living person to read what you have to say about the world.

George Walker Bush.

Fidel Castro.

Gordon Brown.

Paris Hilton.

All you have to do is write it and the world will be your audience.

It is estimated that there are somewhere around 20 billion blogs currently active in our solar system, spewing out over a million words an hour, read by 26,759 people every single minute. It’s staggering. Well, it would been if I hadn’t just made those facts up. That’s one of the many great things about the web, you can make anything up you like and people will believe it. Partly because it might be true: no one really knows.

A few years ago I subsidised my interesting but less than successful independent publishing company by journalism, which mostly involved writing reviews. I was a primary contributor to many London guide books, knocking off 250 words on pubs, restaurants, cafés, bars, shops, markets, whatever, on a regular and quite monotonous basis. I once visited and reviewed 186 pubs and bars in a single week. The pay was low and frankly, there wasn’t much to say about most of them. So I made it up.

Nothing significant, and not all the time. Just occasionally I’d add an interesting ‘fact’ here, a snippet of ‘well-researched information’ there.

‘A house on this site was the regular meeting place for Lord Horatio Nelson and his mistress, Lady Emma Hamilton, the seemingly respectable wife of William Hamilton, British Ambassador to Naples.’

‘Beatles manager Brian Epstein was a regular here until his untimely suicide in August 1967.’

‘Back in the 17th Century, Welsh drovers rested their cattle here, en route to slaughter at Smithfield Market.’

Including a few genuine facts (if such a thing really does exist!), the name of Emma Hamilton’s husband, the date of Brian Epstein’s death, and the ultimate destination of the Welsh cattle, served a twin purpose: adding credibility to the lie and eating up the word-count. When you’re being chased for 150 words per review and you’ve described the furnishings to death, what beers they sell, who drinks there, the little extras are a godsend.

As Edith Piaf suggests, I have no regrets. The lies were never huge and they did brighten up some pretty dull reviews. In the final analysis, the reader won, the pubs themselves received increased cred, and the publishers got a more readable and more salable product.

The only slightly disconcerting side effect  is that much of what I made up has since been adopted as real truth. That’s how journalism, especially guide books, works: you check out the competition to make sure you’re not being left behind and you snaffle the most interesting tidbits.

In my position as creator, I feel a little cheated that I was paid peanuts for such groundbreaking and much-copied work. On the other hand, I realise that throughout history, the true originator has always been penalised. It’s just something I will have to learn to live with.

The moral of my story might well be that we have to question everything we are told. And yes, that goes for you, be it President Bush, Fidel Castro, Gordon Brown, Paris Hilton or the supermarket check-out assistant.

Of course, all I’ve just written could be a lie instead. Maybe we’ll never know.

If a tree falls down in the jungle and no one sees it, did it really fall or was it just a line in some idiot’s blog?