I’ve recently spent time writing sleeve-notes for a Balham Alligators box set. That’s exactly the kind of thing washed-up hacks like me have to do when they reach a certain age. I was researching “pub rock” when I stumbled on something surprising. It now seems accepted that the Pub Rock scene collapsed following the Punk Explosion of 1976-77. It is said that the old dinosaurs were flattened by the New Wave comet, and that clubs like The Marquee, 100 Club, Roxy, and Dingwalls took over. I was surprised, because my recollection of what happened is totally different.

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

robey_1982 The Sir George Robey in 1982, when it still had Music Hall memorabilia on the walls.

As someone who was involved as a music promoter and agent, I know that this isn’t the whole story by any means. Many older venues, such as the Nashville, Kensington and Pegasus, did close or transform into restaurants or family pubs, some victims of their own success, others just badly managed. Their place was immediately taken by dozens of new pub venues. Some of them were already putting on Irish music and so had the infrastructure (stages, lights, and often PA systems) ready to go.

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

Between not writing my novel and trying to be a manager and agent, from 1984 to 1990 I organised and booked live music for the Cricketers, at Kennington Oval, London SE11. I took over from a teacher called Joe Pearson, who’d been responsible for a series of prestige gigs – Dr John, Richard Thompson, Paul Brady – at the Half Moon, Putney. Before that, he’d promoted at the White Lion, opposite Putney Bridge (which became a Slug & Lettuce, and a Walkabout; now it’s a derelict Wahoo Sports bar). Joe replaced Gordon Hunt at the Cricketers. Gordon went on to become Sade’s guitarist and musical arranger.

I’d also promoted shows in Putney. Three promoters dominated Putney’s music scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s: myself, Joe Pearson, and an older Scotsman called Bill Knox. Bill had worked in London’s Denmark Street (aka Tin Pan Alley) back in the 1950s and ’60s, and had been quite a mover and shaker in the Folk and Jazz worlds of the time. This included the time Bob Dylan and Paul Simon had been in London, playing tiny folk clubs. Bill had a mountain of great stories he’d tell over a cider at the Duke’s Head – the only pub in Putney with no background music. Sadly, most of his stories were either unprintable or undecipherable.

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

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

Back to The Cricketers. After “crashing” there at weekends, I was eventually given a couple of rooms above the pub, which became my home and business address for six years. It was a surreal world. Ostensibly, the pub’s landlord was Roy, who operated clubs and restaurants in town. We hardly ever saw him, and the business was run by the locally-born Ken and his wife, Sheila. Ken is one of life’s gentlemen; he would come out with sayings like “You can’t educate a mug”, which is so true I still quote it nearly every day.

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

Then there was Ronnie, a natural barman who (when sober) could serve four or five people at the same time and keep them entertained with his Liverpudlian wit. His “party trick” was to confront someone – customer, band member, postman, whatever – and say, straight-faced, something along the lines of (expletives deleted): “I think you’re a total idiot. No one likes you and I can’t believe you still keep coming round here.” The victim would invariably start to break down, which would make Ronnie double up with laughter and say: “Only joking – I had you going there, didn’t I?” Great relief all round. Trouble is, people who knew Ronnie knew he’d really meant what he’d said.

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

Kenny’s past was somewhat chequered. He’d been a senior member of the gang that sold fake perfume on Oxford Street in the 1970s. He had a collection of “unusual” friends, who’d sometimes drink at the pub. Some lived very well but had no visible source of income, others ran secondhand shops, greengrocers and one a chain of tanning salons. I’ve recognised one or two since then on Donal McIntyre type programmes. They were always very sociable to me and I’m sure they treated old ladies admirably.

The annual Test Match held at the adjacent Oval Cricket Ground was big business for the pub, but aside from these three or four days each year, and occasional major cricketing and Australian Rules Footie fixtures, trade was entirely reliant on my booking the right bands. In fact, the Cricketers only opened from 8-11pm, and for Sunday lunch. These free entry lunches were hugely popular. Kenny “the governor” would provide free jacket potatoes (liberally laced with salt to encourage libation) and hundreds would turn up to eat, drink and watch bands like Zoot and the Roots, Alias Ron Kavana, and Little Sister perform until licensing laws demanded an end to the fun at 2.30pm prompt.

These fresh-faced young people were called The PoguesIn 1983, these fresh-faced young Londoners were called The Pogues

For a small venue (capacity 200), the Cricketers boxed well above its weight. Several folk-based artists lived in Putney and singer/songwriters such as Bert Jansch, Davey Graham, Ralph McTell and Roy Harper played for me fairly regularly. I’d been an early champion of The Pogues and their first major gigging success had been a series of Tuesday night gigs I’d put on in the spring and summer of 1983 at the Sir George Robey in Finsbury Park. They were called Pogue Mahone (“kiss my ass” in Gaelic) back then, and the venue sold out from week one. The band was walking out with hundreds of pounds in door money every Tuesday. I had aspirations to be their manager, but they wisely chose Frank Murray instead. As a parting gift, they played a week of gigs for me at the Cricketers. Every night we got very drunk, and earned stacks of money. None of this made it into any account of the band’s history.

It was a lively time for the British music industry. The Cricketers was only a mile or so over Lambeth Bridge from the centre of town, so it was easy to attract record company A&R men (no women back then), and music paper reviewers. As a result, new bands liked to “showcase” there, and more established acts knew they could persuade reviewers to drop in. When they were starting out, T-Pau played a residency there. Touring acts such as Flaco Jiminez, Guy Clark, The Bhundu Boys, Townes Van Zandt, Terry Allen, Butch Hancock, Joe Ely, Steve Earle, Laurel Aitken, Giant Sand, Redgum, and Birthday Party, would often end up at the dodgy end of SE11.

frank_sidebottom_sievey

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

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

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

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

“Well you’re in!” the man shouted.

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

“Wait a minute,” the man said.

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

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

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

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

I’d been agent for Desmond Dekker and manager of Geno Washington and they’d come and play for me, as would Georgie Fame and George Melly, when I could afford them. Manchester’s Happy Mondays made their first ever London gig in front of  30 people, most of them A&R on the guest-list. It must have been 1987 or possibly 1988. It’s hard to say because the event has been erased from the band’s history. I wasn’t there at the time – it was a rare night off – but next morning I was ticked off by Kenny because they’d been far too loud, had only played for 30 minutes, and had (rather ineptly) tried to steal a bottle of whiskey from behind the bar. He’d slung them out on their ears.

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

What eventually killed the Cricketers and many other pub venues was Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s insane Beer Orders, which was said to be a measure to decrease the power of the Big Brewers. It certainly did that: one of the biggest, Whitbread, stopped brewing altogether and turned into a pizza and cheap lodgings company. Its main impact was to transform pub owners from companies with a vested interest in keeping pubs open in order to sell the product they created (booze), to property developers, who quickly saw that putting rents up and selling off prime properties was more profitable than trying to sell pints to music lovers.

The Cricketers was owned by Trumans Brewery – part of Grand Metropolitan, a huge conglomerate that included Watney’s and various whiskey and gin companies – and the beer came from the then magnificent Black Eagle Brewery in Brick Lane. The Beer Orders meant Grand-Met had to set up a new company to run their pubs and this was given the ominous name Inntrepreneur. They demanded a rent increase of something like 200% which, for a venue that could only open 25 hours a week, was impossible to meet. We had a final week of gigs in September 1990 and were slung out on October 1st.

The new occupants were a gang of bikers from the South Coast (think less organised Sons of Anarchy), who immediately threw out all the fixtures and fittings and painted everything black. They soon realised they were paying far too much rent. One of their major stumbling blocks was that a gang of smelly fat blokes in leathers can appear quite intimidating to people who don’t follow their creed. I heard something about a bogus insurance claim in which a petrol bomb was supposed to have done a 90 degree turn after being thrown through a window, and they vacated the premises in a midnight flit.

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

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

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I’ve always been overweight. Although I don’t agree with how the “body mass index” works, because it takes no account of the shape or build of a person’s body, I’ve known for a long time I should drop a few pounds. But knowing isn’t doing. For years I half-heartedly tried to cut down on calories and failed to halt my ever-expanding waistline.

Earlier this year my attitude changed. After New Years’ it suddenly dawned on me I’d be sixty next birthday. I’m ten years older than Nigel Farage, for Christ’s sake! Shortly after this revelation sank in, I found myself halfway up the escalator at London Bridge rail station and I had to stop to take a breather. I was out of breath, dizzy, with slight pains in my chest. Other, less dramatic incidents followed, and I decided the time had come for me to tackle my excess weight. The weighing machine in the bathroom couldn’t cope with all my pounds, and at my peak I tipped in at almost one stone (14 lbs).

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

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

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

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

fatty_arbuckle_giphy

After reading The Hungry Years, I sat down and had a quick think. Fries were definitely out, as was toast and coffee creamer. I decided to lower my intake of processed carbohydrates and basically ignore the other stuff associated with Atkins. For example, I always start the day with an apple. I’ve done so since an Indian guru recommended it forty years ago. An apple a day may not always keep the doctor away but I’ve never spent a night in hospital or had major surgery, so it seems to work for me. Apples before breakfast are a no-no with Atkins because of the natural sugars they contain. I prefer to think of the enzymes doing me good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Healthy Hummus Recipe

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

I start with a food processor into which I tip a generous measure of tahini (around 150 grams), two raw chopped garlic cloves, a chopped chilli (red or green) and the juice of one lemon. I drain a large can (or two small 400g cans) of cooked chick peas and add them, together with a good glug of olive oil (not extra virgin, that can be too over-powering). I then replace the lid and start the machine.

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

Turks and Greeks like their hummus a little rough and grainy. Palestinians and Israelis prefer it smoother and slightly more pungent; so do I. I also add more chopped chillies once the mixing is over. I always buy Middle Eastern tahini (ground sesame seeds) in the brown plastic containers when I can get it, otherwise the Greek/ Turkish version is almost as good, if a little more pricey.

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

I found a YouTube video of William Leith talking about his addiction to food. Very interesting:

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I’m writing this as 2013 is about to give way to 2014. Not a particularly good year for me, 2013 was nevertheless a time of massive change.

The biggest change I witnessed in Britain was that money was finally confirmed as the single most important consideration. Maybe that had always been true, but now the media accepts it as fact. BBC News, for example, has subtly changed its emphasis from being generally humanitarian to financially-centric. If a hospital runs out of money, it has to close. You can’t get aid to the scene of a tragedy without first having an emergency appeal. The government has to make cuts so the poor and disabled are the first to lose out. Big business, on the other hand, has to be encouraged by tax incentives. The days of the largely benevolent state seem to be over.

A decade ago someone would have asked “Why?” and the “Why?” would have been widely reported. Not any more. Today the underlying tone is one of acceptance. The financial truth is The Truth… health, humanitarian and other concerns are now seen as largely irrelevant.

In just a few years, the Conservative government and its Lib-Dem poodles have altered the BBC out of all recognition. The top man since 2011 is old-style Tory Christopher “Lord Patten of Barnes” (the man responsible for implementing “Poll Tax”), who was put in by David Cameron to replace out-going grammar school boy, Michael Lyons. Most of the key “grass roots” contributors, Nick Robinson, Evan Davies, Sarah Montague et al have backgrounds in banking and/or the Tory party. And still the comments on the Daily Mail website are full of claims of left-wing bias. Even Conservative Chairman Grant Shapps feels the need to shoot a pre-Election warning over the BBC’s bows.

To be fair, the BBC is just catching up with the rest of the media, who’ve been ardent supporters of “the System” for a long time. There is an argument that because of the Licence Fee, the BBC should reflect the opinions and attitude of those who are paying the bills. Let’s hope that never comes to pass. Far better would be a return to a vague impartiality, fuelled by knowledge and intelligence. The direct opposite of the way the Daily Mail operates.

It’s fair to say that my politics lean slightly to the Left. I’ve recently rejoined the Labour Party after twenty years in the wilderness. I left because I wasn’t happy with Neil Kinnock’s attempts at “modernisation”. I was appalled that a Labour leader could lie about the supposed hold Militant had on Liverpool City Council, with all the nonsense about “taxis delivering redundancy notices to its own workers”. Then Tony Blair forced us into war and sold us further down the river of Privatisation, PPL (Public-Private Partnerships) and Middle England, before Gordon Brown somehow allowed the boat to catch fire and sink.

I  rejoined Labour after the 2010 election fiasco and voted for Ed Miliband as leader in the hope he’d lead the party back onto the right-track. (For “right track” read “left track”). I get the feeling poor Ed really wants to do the right thing (for “right thing” read “left thing”), but the Labour Party hierarchy is so terrified of upsetting Daily Mail and Sun readers, he’s holding back. In my book, if the weasels who run these so-called “newspapers” approve of anything the Labour Party does, then it’s a policy that should be scrapped immediately.

No one I’ve spoken to recently thinks the water and energy companies shouldn’t be renationalised. It used to be accepted that certain entities should be run for the benefit of the user, and not for profit. Gas, Electricity and Water are the three key utilities and most people in this country don’t like the way they are being distributed and sold. Prices keep rising, service falling, whilst directors, managers and shareholders take ever bigger slices of the pie.

water_02Take water as a case in point. Following privatisation we had a period of water shortages, drought and hosepipe bans, which encouraged the need for prices to rise. Now we have floods and too much water: plus calls from the foreign-owned privateers for more government subsidy and higher bills. In Paris privatisation was proved not to work and after a year of being back in public control, prices fell by between 5% and 10%.

Despite what they tell us, the system we have in Britain works for the benefit of private enterprise at the expense of public interest. I got an email on Christmas Eve to say that Co-operative Energy are no longer allowed to include what I pay them in my Co-op Group dividend share of the profits (currently one membership point for every £1 I spend). This is because of a ruling by energy regulator Ofgem, who, according to their website “work in the interests of consumers”. Interesting how they believe penalising members of a co-operative can be in the interests of consumers. More in the interests of the other energy companies, I’d say. Did you hear anything about this on the news or in the newspapers? No, though I did forward the email to the BBC’s Robert Peston, who obviously didn’t think it worth reporting on.

In the Right-leaning USA, where it’s practically legal to shoot Communists, Socialists and anyone otherwise opposed to Capitalism, most of the major airports, including JFK, O’Hare and LAX are publicly-owned. In Britain, Baroness Thatcher saw that ours, as well as the air traffic controllers, were all put into private hands. Heathrow Airport, for instance, is currently owned by a company controlled by shareholders from Spain, Singapore and Canada. This same company also owns and operates Southampton, Glasgow and Aberdeen Airports, as well as the Heathrow Express and most of the Heathrow Connect train companies.

If the Labour Party want to stand a chance of winning the next General Election, they’ve really got to be more radical and set up a positive alternative to the bland one-and-a-half party system we seem to be stuck with. No one (aside from David Cameron, George Osborne and the turncoat Vince Cable) could be happy at the profitable Royal Mail being sold off to private investors for half of its true value. This will be especially true when the inevitable job losses and service cuts are announced. And yet Labour’s response was little more than a wishy-washy “oh dear” in case anyone brought up the fact that Labour were planning to privatise Royal Mail anyway.

Something’s got to change. We can’t go on like we are. 2014 is unlikely to be the year Britain reverses its moral and ethical decline, but hopefully we’ll see a start.

Happy New Year!

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Dr Who actor William Hartnell in characterFor me, one of the most surprising aspects of the Doctor Who début of William Hartnell in 1963 was that he was only 55 years old. With his flowing white hair and frail appearance, I always assumed he must have been well into his 60s. The fact that he played grandfather to Susan Foreman, the first “Companion” reinforced this impression. I can clearly remember watching the first episode from behind the sofa – twice. This was because it was shown twice after being overshadowed first time around by the previous day’s assassination of President John F Kennedy by the *Mafia/CIA/Aliens (*delete as applicable).

Hartnell’s flowing white locks turned out to be a wig, but the rest of his premature ageing appears to have been the result of heavy drinking, smoking and general unhealthiness. Maybe it wasn’t his fault. Looking back on Britain in the 1950s and 1960s, it seems impossible that anyone could have a healthy diet. All the foods we associate with health and wellbeing in the modern age were either rationed or thought un-British. Cigarette-smoking was compulsory back then, and anything less than Capstan Full Strength or Senior Service untipped was regarded as half measures. If Fat Sick and Nearly Dead diet juicer Joe Cross had landed by T.A.R.D.I.S. [Time and Relative Dimension(s) In Space] in the London of 1963, he’d have been stuck with juicing suet pudding, bread and dripping, and corned beef hash.

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

All right, so he’d had a hard life. Appearing on BBC Radio’s Desert Island Discs in 1965, he tried to glam it up a bit and claimed he’d been born in the Dorset countryside, but in reality Hartnell was brought up without a father in the semi-slums of London’s tough St Pancras area. He left school at 14 without prospects (but possibly with the contents of the trophy cabinet) and became involved in shop-lifting. Young old Bill only got into acting because an older man took him under his wing and paid for him to go to the Italia Conte stage school. Art dealer Hugh Blaker was 51 when he discovered the 14-year old fly-weight boxer at a boy’s boxing club at Kings Cross. I’ll move swiftly on…

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

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

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

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

Interviewer: Oh, why not?

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

Hopefully, by now it’s common knowledge that William Hartnell played “The Doctor” in Doctor Who. No one has ever played the part of Doctor Who. Not Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker (my favourite), Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, Paul McCann, Christopher Ecclestone, David Tennant, or Matt Smith. Not even John Hurt or Peter Capaldi.  I could go on about the William Hartnell character being referred to as “Dr Foreman” in the first episode and him countering with “Who is he? Doctor who?”, but I won’t bother. It’s a step too far.

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

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

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

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

I’ve been cooking and eating “Indian” food for the best part of forty years. I even had the dream job of assessing Indian restaurants in London for the Time Out Eating Guide and Eating Awards. I could eat in the capital’s best Indian, Pakistani, and Sri Lankan restaurants at Time Out’s expense. Back then London’s restaurants were going through massive changes. It was starting to dawn on food snobs who ran Michelin Guides and suchlike that there was more to great food than truffade, ragout and galettes. As a result, some of the best chefs in the world descended on London to cook different foods from around the world. Even curry.

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

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

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

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

There’s a definite home cooked taste that comes from using fresh spices and grinding them yourself. Here’s a revealing YouTube clip of British chef Rick Stein watching a woman in India make culinary magic with chillies, garlic and a few other “wet and dry” ingredients:

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

Having got your grinder, you can improve the taste of your curries 100%. One way to do that is to roast and grind your own cumin and coriander seeds. Simply buy a pack of the whole seeds (check to sell-by date to be at least one year away), and roast them gently in a dry frying pan. You’ve got to constantly move them around in the pan to roast every seed individually. After a few minutes, the aroma with change slightly and become more nutty. This means they are done.

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

You can add more of that fresh taste and aroma to every curry you make by mastering the very simple technique of making a fresh paste at home. Here’s one I often make at home, and serve with perfect rice and a simple salad made from chopped onion, tomato and cucumber.

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

The (almost) Perfect Curry

You’ll need:

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

Preparation:

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

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

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

Add your main ingredient (unless you are using fish or prawns), with more tomatoes and water to cover. Throw in a little salt, and cook until the curry is cooked. You’ll have to rely on testing and experience for knowing when it’s ready. Keep adding water as necessary to maintain the curry consistency. For prawns and fish, you need to cook your sauce, and then add them at the last minute; otherwise they’ll over-cook.

Season to taste and serve hot with rice, salad and maybe a bowl of dahl.

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

I hope you enjoy my take on the perfect curry.

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Post image for Russell Brand, Revolution, and Promoting The Messiah Complex Tour


Russell Brand
has recently been splattered all over the media, advocating radical ideas by the bucket-load. He was asked by “a beautiful woman” to guest-edit the left-leaning New Statesman magazine, and gave them the subject of Revolution. Not to appear a lightweight, he waded in with a 4,500 word article of his own. He also elicited a pile of quirky contributions from friends and others he admires.

Leaving aside Noel Gallagher‘s stereotypical rant against stuff he doesn’t like or understand, there’s a mass of interesting and often surprising material. Not least is film director David Lynch‘s article on transcendental meditation and inner revolution. Brand’s own piece is intelligently argued and full of good sense. He may be a guy addicted to seven-star hotels, but he still sees himself as a man of the people. The paragraphs are longer than are normal in the Internet Age, but that’s often no bad thing. Occasionally, he sounds like a 1970s-style History Man:

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

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

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

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

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

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

This might possibly be the long-term result, but in the short- and medium-term it’s yet another boost to David Cameron’s chances of returning his disastrously right-wing Tory government to power at the next General Election, without the debatable constraints of the Lib-Dems. Although a growing number of wet teenagers are “Young Conservative and proud of it”, most young people see the injustices in the world and strive to improve on them.

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

Taking young radicals out of the equation by telling them not to vote isn’t going to help achieve that end result. The worst part is that the people most likely to heed the message are the ones most likely to vote the Tories and their turncoat Lib-Dem allies out of power.

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

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

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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:

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Glastonbury Festival Finances

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

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

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

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

VIP Package Includes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

wiley_tweet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Here is a public information film about Lewisham Hospital. Don’t worry, it’s not dry, it’s actually very funny and packs a message…

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

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

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

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

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

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

health-voting-maps-11-06-2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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 Bezo; president of the European Commission, José M. Durão Barroso; former prime ministers François Fillon (France) and Mario Monti (Italy); and the current leaders of the UK (David Cameron), and the Netherlands (Mark Rutte). David Cameron has brought along his pal George Osborne – or maybe it’s the other way around? – and there’s a surprising number of Polish, Scandinavian and Turkish delegates.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Torture At Guantánamo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

President Obama And Guantánamo Bay Detention Camps

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

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

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

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

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

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

Force Feeding

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

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

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What Does UKIP Stand For?

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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. […]

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How Hard Should It Be To Cancel A Contract?

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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 […]

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Who Needs A Human Rights Act, Anyway?

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Conservative Justice Minister, Chris Grayling (centre in picture), is quoted in the Sunday Telegraph newspaper today (March 3rd, 2013) as saying that a future Conservative government will scrap the Human Rights Act. This is intended to cheer up the Tory right after a series of “set-backs” that included the party being pushed into third place in […]

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Boris Johnson on Lewisham Hospital Scandal

A good example of how a politician can waffle on without saying anything useful. Jeremy Hunt’s scandalous decision to close crucial parts of Lewisham Hospital without any reasonable cause is indefensible. More about the campaign to keep Lewisham Hospital intact here. Save Lewisham Hospital!

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Police State

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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 […]

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Stop Racism With A Brain Pill

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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 […]

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Charles Dickens’ Characters

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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, […]

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ACTA: What Is This Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement?

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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 […]

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Top Conspiracy Theories

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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, […]

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Picasso’s Light Drawings

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

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

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Stand by for the hard facts about Charlie Sheen’s Roast: Everybody in the USA seems to be obsessing over Charlie Sheen’s Roast – or, to give it its real title, “The Comedy Central Roast of Charlie Sheen”. It’s been the biggest search on Google in the USA since early September. But what on earth is […]

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Motivational Quotes and Positive Thinking Quotes

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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 […]

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Rabbit: Chas and Dave Reunion – Gertcha! (Part 2)

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For the first part of the story, read “Rabbit: Chas and Dave Reunion – Gertcha! (Part 1)” – click here After Glastonbury 2005, all went well for a number of years. I did an average of 15-20 shows a year with Chas & Dave: most made me money but a few lost. In retrospect I […]

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Rabbit: Chas and Dave Reunion – Gertcha! (Part 1)

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When Chas and Dave got back together again in 2011 for what was billed as a “Final Farewell Tour”, thousands of people were thrilled and excited by this news. But not me. Now they’ve announced that their final ever show is to be at the 100 Club on Sunday May 15th, 2011. For six years […]

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

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

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BBC = Brainwashing British Citizens

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

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Seasick Steve and Key Lime Pie

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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 […]

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Censorship: The Compelling Case

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I hate censors. Especially the self-appointed rag-bag of philistine dim-wits who constantly picket the broadcasting authorities, complaining about stuff they’d be better off not watching. My message to them is “Switch off!” In a civilised society that would be the end of it, but these people are working on an agenda and they are backed […]

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Totally Useless

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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 […]

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Settling The Bill

London cop drama, The Bill, has been on my TV longer than the fruit bowl. First appearing in 1983, in the guise of a one-off drama called Woodentop, it became a weekly series a year later and has passed through various formats up to and including its current one hour slot every Wednesday and Thursday, […]

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Amazing Book Bargains

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

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Cooking Perfect Rice – Easily

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Rice provides one-fifth of the calories consumed in the world today. Or slightly more if you eat at the Wong Kei restaurant in London’s Soho, where servings are particularly generous. A long time ago, before even the Sex Pistols were a glint in someone’s eye, I was taught to cook “Indian” vegetarian food by a […]

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Mobile Telephony

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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 […]

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John Wayne: Big John or Big Jessie?

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Unlikely as it may sound, psychiatrists recognise a condition called “John Wayne Syndrome”. Although the Duke’s ailment has since become synonymous with battle fatigue, it was originally coined to describe someone who could not come to terms with their own perceived lack of heroism. When he wasn’t campaigning in favour of guns or against Socialism, […]

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East Europeans Cleaning Up

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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 […]

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