Work

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…

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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):

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…

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:

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.”

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

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

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

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

“You’re f***ing plebs… Morons”

Mr Mitchell denies using the word “plebs”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good grief.

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

In January 2012, a little reported but major Scientific study found distinct links between low intelligence, prejudice, and social conservative ideology. The research team was led by Gordon Hodson, a psychologist at Brock University in Ontario. The main conclusions were published on January 5th, 2012 in the journal Psychological Science and then reported on the Science website LiveScience.com, which is where most of my quotes come from.

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

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

One problem (for me) with the study is that it concentrated on what the people said their views were. I wish they’d managed to find a way to examine their unconscious levels, but they didn’t. Instead they asked questions to define how socially conservative the subjects were. The results were based on their answers to whether they agreed with vaguely right-wing statements such as ” Schools should teach children to obey authority” and “Family life suffers if mum is working full-time.” Attitudes toward other races were captured by measuring agreement with statements such as “I wouldn’t mind working with people from other races.”

In practically every case, low intelligence in childhood matched up with racism in adulthood. Surprise, surprise. The most interesting finding was a link with political thought. Basically they found that people socially aligned to the right (i.e. Republicans in the USA and Conservatives in the UK) are more likely to be racist than the left-leaning. That’s something I’ve known since I was in my teens. I’m grateful that someone has finally found scientific backing for my gut feeling.

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

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

It’s finally starting to get me down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sorry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ho. Ho. Ho.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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