Thursday, March 31, 2011

today : for arts sake

Of course our government was going to decimate the arts. They hate the arts. But of course they would save the RSC, the ROH and the big London Ballet companies (from what I saw of the recent BBC documentary about the English National Ballet, it's run by a bunch of highly string incompetents). It's a bit like only saving Man Utd, Arsenal and Spurs. Or only supporting M&S and Tesco. The English National Opera has been spared because it has a business model 'still in development', They've only had since 1974. But they also have 'artistic ambition', which is shorthand for spending silly amounts of money on hand-beading 1000 custom made costumes for the chorus to wear for 8 performances.

I have nothing against opera or ballet. In fact I love both. What I do have a problem with is that things are still divided in terms of high and low culture. The old arts always win out, because to public schoolboys culture is ossified, backward looking and should only be consumed as a marker of status.

Tories always have a very good idea of the price of everything and the value of nothing. I doubt they have the mental capacity to appreciate art. After all, to have your soul stirred by an aria, an arpeggio or an aubade; first you have to have a soul.

Again, it is the ideological rather than the practical. What better example of unecessary state funding than money which supports something you don't understand and are suspicious of? The Arts, after all, deal in ambiguity, ideas and transformation. It's the opposite of Conservatism which panics if anything is less than simple, fixed and frightened of the future.

Local theatres closing, youth projects abandoned. These arty people, after all, should get proper jobs - like building million pound missiles so the politicians can act out their toy soldier fantasies in real life.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

today : I have a first world problem or two

I was reading the other day about 'First World Problems'. If it isn't a phrase dreamt up by Douglas Coupland then it should be.

For the uninitiated, the first world problem is a topic of complaint by someone so used to having not to worry or grow angry and frustrated about the fundamentals of life, that the trivial - stuff that can only be a fleeting and pretty-much meaningless annoyance - becomes worthy of these emotions.

Example from my own life: Asda didn't have any pimento stuffed olives so I had to buy plain pitted olives instead. Three aisles later, they kept their Papua New Guinea Free Trade Premium Instant Coffee on offer at 2 jars for a fiver, but also had Nescafe Alta Rica on offer at £2 per jar. The very definition of 'the horns of a dilemma, I think you'll agree.

Or today's thought: do I fill up at this Shell Station and get some Shell points, or do I drive a little way to fill up at Morrison's and get some Morrison's points? Which points are worth more?

Friday, March 25, 2011

today : I break my own code and do a rock review

I rarely feel like writing reviews. Let's face it. The world is too full of reviews. Most critics add little or nothing to the sum total knowledge of the world and its artistic endeavours. The few that I do read or follow, it's mainly about their style than their opinions. The Kermodian rant is, in itself, simply entertaining, as is the Joe Queenan essay. Clive James reviewing books old and new is mainly about the plethora of elegant sentences rather than a recommendation or rejection. Anthony Lane reviewing films holds a similar appeal. They simply use the medium of the review to write or talk pleasingly. Charlie Brooker's intelligently acerbic analyses of TV are about his bitterly romantic worldview and persona rather than the specific shows.

Much less useful than most paid critics are amateur reviewers. In line with the old adage, everybody does have an opinion about things they've read, heard and seen. There is nothing more demoralising than people who believe that their opinion is more worthy than the opinions of others. We know who these people are. The ones who clog Amazon up with their infinite and infinitely turgid opinions, the ones who blog endlessly and pointlessly their often inelegant and under-considered responses to whatever CD they've bought or film they've seen. Mostly this is to do with the fact that their reviews are written from a standpoint of blind love or blind hatred.

Sometimes it is to do with the fact that the medium of the review is a dead easy way for people to pretend they write with legitimacy. In much the same way as blogs (including my own) contain varying levels of envy. Nuggets of jealousy that someone else somehow gets to write their opinions in a newspaper column or pronounce them on TV: amateur reviewers ( like bloggers - like me) are essentially saying 'I can do that. It's not that hard'.

But the other night I saw Elbow in concert and am inclined to review it. It was a strange event for me. Elbow are my brother's band. Unlike me, he has their albums in his collection and would declare himself a fan. Possible dates coincided with the beginning of him taking a couple of weeks off work and also my neice's Easter break from University. She and her graduate student brother decided it would be a good idea to cajole him to go and see one of the shows and roped me into the role of organiser. But on the morning of the show he was knocked off his bicycle by a lunatic driver and ended up in the hospital. Thankfully the injuries. although not superficial, were also not life threatening.

But we faced the coming evening with the stress of worry and general deflation. We were gutted for my brother, whom, despite a determination to get out of A&E in time to make the trip, was clearly in no condition to travel. Broken hands require some attention and a serious bike crash can leave a person battered, bruised and traumatised. Even if the x-rays, casts, prescriptions etc could be completed in time to set off, he would be in no physical condition to attend a show for quite some days or weeks.

With the main quarter of our party incapacitated we were disinclined to go. But my bro insisted. Being the cause of our non-attendance would be, for him, much worse than not attending himself. So off we went.

Elbow are one of those bands that exist, for me, in the quite good/quite interesting category. I own none of their records and have never seen them live. But each time I've seen them on TV or heard them on the radio I felt well-disposed towards them. Like lots of people, I watched their 2009 Glastonbury show on the telly. It's widely acknowledged as their breakthrough moment. The string laden encore of 'A Day Like This' was one of those 'Glastonbury Moments' (like Orbital playing as the sun went down in 1994, Travis playing Why Does it Always Rain as the rain fell in 2004, Pulp doing Common People in 1996 and Blur's rendition of Tender in 2008). It thrust the song into the limelight and consequently it became the soundtrack of many peoples' summer.

Unfortunately, they were a bit overplayed. I didn't need to own The Seldom Seen Kid album, as it was used in every TV show and trailer for months afterwards. The aforementioned 'A Day Like This' soundtracked antiques shows, the X factor, science shows and reality shows ad infinitum. Close behind was 'Grounds for Divorce'.

And I sometimes listen to Guy Garvey on his radio show. He seems like a nice chap, and plays an interesting palette of sounds.

A couple of weeks ago, before we'd booked any tickets, I heard the band play a session on the now late lamented Radcliffe and Maconie evening show. I was struck with how restrained and elegant the music was. When we got our tickets I wondered how they could translate this mature, reflective music into an arena.

Here is my review. I needn't have wondered. The Elbow show at Sheffield Arena on March 19th 2011 was simply quite magnificent.

I came away thinking that, even not as a fanatic fan, I had witnessed a band who knew exactly what they wanted to do and executed it perfectly. These were people who had worked hard over a long time before they achieved great success, but perhaps because of their age and experience, knew how to embrace and enjoy it. What made the show so marvellous and totally engaging was the strong impression of sheer sincerity. In amongst the technical wizardry of the light and video show and the cavernous space with its giant crowd, they managed to maintain an intimate atmosphere, devoid of pomposity. It was spectacular but never flashy. A great show that didn't need to be showy to be great.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

today : both feet forward into sand

I'm inclined to think that jumping into any endeavour with both feet is unwise, unless of course you are aiming for the long or triple jump gold medal.

The recent acceleration of the 'coalition' from wait a minute to chocks away gung-ho in Libya suggests two things:

1. Either they have cobbled together a strategy on the back of an envelope or by sending faxes to each other (no emails since Wikileaks) over a few short hours and, worryingly, have engaged in a full on military action without really thinking it through.


2. The plan was already in place and now was the opportunity to enact it.

Either option is somewhat disturbing. There seem to be few answers emerging from the fog of war.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

today : a kind of miracle

Think about it. I was chatting to a friend from the car today. They were in their own car. You have a thing in your pocket that means you can talk to pretty much anyone, ANYWHERE in the world. It costs hardly anything. It's a kind of miracle.

And like lots of people, I have been watching the awesome footage of the Japan tsunami. The reason: many people have di-def video cameras that they carry around in their pockets. They film it even as it happens to them. Stuff from the other side of the world comes out of my telly either live or almost live. Many of us will never have actually seen a proper Tsunami up close before. Now we know what it looks like. It's a kind of miracle.

And I sold my beloved but little used J Busilacchio Reed organ to a very nice chap in Sardinia. He wrote to me in Italian; I wrote to him in English. A website automatically translated our words. The click of a mouse was how he paid me. It cost hardly more than the price of a take-away to send it from Northern England to a Mediterranean island. It was collected at my door in Leeds and delivered to his in Sassari. It got there in about two days. It's a kind of miracle.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

today : a rant of sorts

I'm frustrated. Indeed by having a government whose policies i entirely disagree with in almost every way you could think of. but also by the seeming inevitability of it all.

but what makes me really frustrated is that the conduit of our grievances - the opposition, are apparently so lily-livered and meek. they appear to have no fight.

i wonder if the general election of last year financially cleaned out the labour party completely. these things tend to happen, and it takes time to rebuild the war chest. but what frustrates me more and more is that it looks like the labour party wanted to be in opposition. were happy and relieved to go back to policy reviews and standing in the background.

i was sceptical from the start with their strategy leading up the election. from moment one of brown's tenure they just got it wrong. they tried selling brown as blair pt2. it was a bit like they only knew one template for success so thought they'd repeat it. only brown wasn't blair and was clearly never comfortable being the friendly pm. but they didn't have the guts to alter the strategy. brown clearly didn't have the tv charisma of blair. what's more, cameron had moved onto blair's ground.

the whole 'bigoted woman' thing during the election sprang from the notion that they should truck brown round the country meeting voters in a effort to cuddlify his image. what they should have done is let him come across as tough, impatient and brusque but talked up his competence, especially during the financial collapse when cameron and the tories stood on the sidelines dithering.

they also played perfectly into the hands of the press, who embarked on a two year long character assassination of brown. each time he attempted an uncomfortable tv smile or tried and failed to come across as soft and approachable it shored up the press's version of him as some kind of incompetent by giving them things to point and laugh at.

then they made it worse by apologising for him. the so called spin gurus, mandelson and campbell, came off as if they didn't actually believe in what they were selling, or only had one strategy that was outdated and tailored for another time. in fact it looks as if they were desperate to get it finished with so they could write their memoirs and become pundits rather than players.

at the same time labour resignedly marshalled themselves for opposition. the milibands set up for a leadership contest and some excellent senior figures began organising their political retirement into documentary making and non-executive directorships. they shrugged and accepted that their generational tranche of ministers were finished. darling, for example, should still be at the top. he'd make mincemeat out of osborne.

even after all this surrendering, they still managed not to lose outright. even with all the press backing and the momentum the country was still unsure about the tories.

but labour were resigned to losing and this meant leadership changes, policy reviews, public soul-searching and self-flagellation. following the model the tories set after 1997. too many good experienced people got out. what's more the wrong guy was elected leader. this is david miliband's fault. he bottled it at the last minute. but maybe he wasn't the right guy after all, because rather than face defeat with some backbone he took his bat home.

so when the coalition turned out to be a nightmarish blend of ultra-right wing ideology and blundering incompetence labour was this morass of jelly-spined mewling apology addicts.

last week i heard mandelson give an interview and, whilst praising cameron, he continued apologising. also last week i watched miliband give a speech in which he was still self-flagellating and positing a re-appraisal of values and policy initiatives. what happened to the ones that were already there? are these things so moveable that an election reverse can undermine them completely?

in short, a year on, they are still stuck on the back foot. word of advice: counterpunching can work, being Audley Harrison can never work.

nothing could illustrate their stance more than when miliband appointed alan johnson as shadow chancellor. johnson was a nice guy, but as lightweight as they come. he proved when in the cabinet that he was intellectually incapable of being a real threat. what Miliband needed was what he ended up with by default, someone with heft. but even ed balls seems to be being kept on a leesh. the strategy seems to be to wait until the cuts really bite and then cash in on the tory unpopularity.

but what kind of strategy is that? like waiting for AC milan to score an own goal. my only conclusion is that the labour party has convinced itself that it can no longer exist on principals - defending the poor, standing up for workers. it can now only play the game along with the others. -changing policy and presentation to try and cynically woo the few who swing elections. if you don't move forward then there is no chance of momentum, if you don't have a solid stance you will only be knocked over.

so where do we turn? for example, it seems that labour supports the alternative vote and will be generally supporting clegg and co in the referendum. but if you are going to play the game, voting against the alternative vote is the thing to do. there's a big chunk of libdems who are holding their noses in order to get to electoral reform. in fact, this is their only mission; the only reason they went into coalition. vote it down and they have no reason to shore up tory policies. the basis for coalition begins to crumble.

surely the thing about a coalition is that it is fundamentally weak. why aren't opposition politicians chipping away at vince cable, why aren't they driving every wedge they can to bring the government down?

is it that the labour party is actually culturally embarrassed about being in charge and (the current crop of senior figures at least) unable to break out of a long held habit: that the tories are the natural party of government and the best labour can do is be an intermittent interloper?

if this is the case, where do we go to register our protest and dissatisfaction? if the referendum succeeds then it will potentially be a nightmare. get ready for ukip and other bonkers idiots to put people in parliament.

but if you're a labour politician, don't come complaining to me about it. it will be your own fault for lacking the cojones to fight.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Friday, March 04, 2011

today : the habit of empire

I'm wondering why are we interfering in Libya? I say this because somehow everyone is now talking about no-fly zones with attendant air-attacks (to take out air defence capabilities). Some people are even positing a ground war to enact regime change. Of course, it's about the oil and the money, but our governments will never admit that. The same went for the recent appeasemant of Gadaffi. But now Gadaffi is losing power it seems obvious that the EU and the USA want to use the chance to turn Libya and its oil our way. Or more precisely, they want to see that it doesn't turn someone else's way. But I also think we are getting involved out of habit. Libya, after all, is yet another country that was artifically created under European colonial control. We have a long history of meddling in the regional and local politics of much of the world. And I suspect that habit plays a part. The formerly colonial powers of Europe, like Britain, just can't bring themselves to stand aside when the chance of a bit of meddling comes along. Viz Afghanistan. And it's not out some post-colonial guilt or responsibility. Look at the way the Belgians washed their hands of Rwanda, and the way the French and British helped arm the genocide.