Posted in bastards, entertainment, musings

Worth one’s Salt

soldierWhile I take the point that the paint-by-numbers furore about BBC staff salaries is drummed up by the exceedingly well remunerated Murdoch and Dacre as part of their ongoing destruction of British culture, I still think there are questions raised by the extraordinary figures received by some so-called “talent” who work in the media (not just the BBC).

There are small questions, such as what makes Chris Evans worth £2.5m?

I really don’t know the answer to this. Radio 2 reaches 28% of the age 15+ listening population, and has over 15 million listeners per week. But I’ll go out on a limb here and suggest that very few of those people would actually stop listening if Chris Evans was lured away to some other broadcaster, one that had loads of shitty adverts and a far more budgetarily constrained playlist. But even if Radio 2 lost 3 million daily listeners, so what? Who fucking cares? The BBC likes to think it’s “for everyone” and Radio 2 is a good example of that, but a DJ? Really? As history as shown, people can be replaced. Wogan fucking died and Radio 2 still gets 15 million listeners. I simply cannot fathom his worth. It’s not as if he has a golden touch: his Top Gear was an abject failure and he’s clearly not as popular as the BBC think for that to have happened.

Substitute any name, mix and match the programmes/channels, and this is my response to all salaries.

As to the gender pay gap, yep. Big surprise. But also, those “lower” salaries are still way high for reading an autocue, throwing underarms at politicians, or saying things are “cool” at Glasto.

Then there are the bigger questions. The main one, for me, has always been, why are people in the media paid so much? They fit into a special class of people who are apparently worth more to our society than teachers, nurses, firefighters, police, civil servants, social workers, people who collect the bins, people who unblock drains, and even most doctors.

Of course, the pragmatic answer to the question is the same one that applies to the political class, who get to vote for their own pay rises. People who work in the media get to determine the salaries of other people who work in the media. I mean, if teachers got to decide teachers’ pay, we’d be laughing, of course we would.

Laughing.

Yes. One can’t help thinking that all these luvvies are laughing at us, even as they tetchily respond on social networks to snarking from the lower orders.

I once drew a diagram on the board for my Media Studies class. A tiny circle representing the wealthiest 1%: the owners, landlords, CEOs, politicians. And a much bigger circle for the rest of the population who have to share their smaller proportion of wealth. Then I asked the question, why don’t the 99% rise up and kill the 1%?

The answer, of course, was hegemony, and I went on to explain how the rest of us are convinced that violent revolution is a bad idea by TV shows like Strictly. It’s complicated.

In between the big circle and the small circle, I put the security apparatus, the police and armed forces, who are the last line of defence between the two sides in the class war. And the police are indoctrinated in a special way to ensure that they feel a certain contempt for ordinary people, and are not averse to hitting a few of them over the head with batons during protests and marches. That way, going out on a protest march looks sufficiently dangerous and risky to put most people off.

Anyway, I included “the media” as part of the “thin blue line” between the poorer classes and the 1%. It’s important, if you work in the media, that you feel special and different from the rest of us. Enormous salaries and an easy working life which means you never feel like retiring are part of it. So I’m fond of pointing out the enormous proportion of BBC presenters and journalists who are long past the state retirement age. John Humphrys is 73. David Dimbleby is 78. The youthful Chris Evans is is 51.

It’s also important for people who work in the media to feel like they know more than the rest of us. When people can’t be named for legal reasons, they know the names. When there are super-injunctions in place, everyone who knows anyone who works in the media knows (a) the story and (b) the names.

So it’s about being in the know. And it’s about being paid more so you feel separated from regular people and stop empathising with them. So then you can do the job you’re paid to do, which is preventing violent revolution. Because if just one person is discouraged from, you know, putting some oligarchs to the guillotine by a witty link between the news and the next record, Chris Evans’ salary is worth it.

Posted in bastards, cycling, musings

Head to Toe cycling workwear

11832-12_8106_1024x1024_49bc4d88-b9fd-4645-950c-cb8385845897_1024x1024When I first started buying dedicated cycling clothing, I at first confined myself to getting jerseys and shorts that looked “normal”. So my first pair of shorts were baggy mountain bike shorts with a padded liner. And my first cycling specific jersey was a kind of green jumper.

After getting over that phase and going through several years of succumbing to lycra and “technical fabrics”, I have come full circle and tend to focus on what is sometimes called commuter wear or urban cycling apparel.

Sometimes, it’s true, I arrive at work looking like a normal person in normal workwear, when in fact everything I am wearing is in some way specifically designed for cycling.

  1. Shimano shoes. I’ve mentioned these before. The cleats are recessed, so the shoes themselves look kinda like trainers (ugly, but most are). They’re the most comfortable cycling shoes I’ve ever used, and people usually just think they’re regular trainers (I keep a pair of shoes to change into at work, but sometimes forget I’m wearing them).
  2. Socks. My favourites are merino wool socks, but I also have some Café du Cycliste stripy socks. I guess they’re designed to keep your feet cool or warm or something. The merino wool ones are lethally slippery, as my coccyx continually reminds me.
  3. Swrve trousers. These are stretchy, flat seamed, windproof trousers. They look like black trousers, but they have a special design that minimises chafing, and they don’t constrict your knees when pedalling. They’re cut lower in the front and higher in the back, so they don’t cut in to your belly, and your modesty is preserved at the rear. They’re also slightly rain resistant, so water rolls off in light showers. I really like them. £80, which is £15 cheaper than the Rapha equivalent.
  4. Padded boxer shorts. I have a couple of pairs of these. One is from Rapha: they’re an oversized boxer with a slightly padded chamois – not as padded as proper cycling shorts, but better than riding in your regular underwear. No seams, no chafing etc. I have another, cheaper pair from Tenn outdoors (Amazon). About £30 cheaper than the Rapha ones at £12.99, they’re pretty much the same – slightly tighter in the leg. I bought the Rapha boxers in the sale, by the way. Never pay full price for Rapha.
  5. Base layers – I have a few of these. Some for summer, for wicking sweat. Others for winter, for wicking sweat and thermal properties. I have a merino one, but of course that shrunk. That’s the thing about merino wool. It shrinks every time, even in a 30° wash. I also have some made from artificial fibres. Not as nice next to the skin, not quite as warm as merino, but can be washed without fear.
  6. Shirts. I have three specialist cycling shirts, two from Rapha, and one from Vulpine. The black and white check one from Rapha is the oldest one I have, a bit of a tight fit, and I’m less keen on it for work because I prefer plain colours and not patterns – especially with ties. The other Rapha shirt is a dark blue cotton Oxford shirt, with a heavy fabric that is a little too warm for the hottest days. But it has good stretch and looks like a normal work shirt. They’re nice, but as with most of this stuff, the cost about 4x more than you really want to spend on workwear. Vulpine recently reduced their £100 equivalent Oxford shirts to a more reasonable £58, which is only twice as much as I really want to pay for a shirt. The one I have looks and feels like a regular shirt (mine is a kind of denim blue but it still looks okay with a tie, although a couple of people commented on the “sombre” colour), only with a bit more stretch.
    And here’s the rub. What you’re getting is comfortable enough on the bike and may even be more efficient at wicking sweat away from your body (although with a back pack, all bets are off), but it is to all intents and purposes a normal shirt, only with slightly stretchier (3% elastane) fabric and maybe some flattened seams. So let’s say the other shirts I have for work cost between £4 and £40, which they did. The median price I’ll pay for a (non-white, non-stripy, non-check) shirt for work is somewhere around £25. Now, how much extra should I be paying for flattened stitching and stretch fabric? I’d say no more than £10-£15 more, if that.
    I really like some of the Rapha workwear, especially the knitwear: the crew neck for example, or the “stand collar”. But £120? Or £140? That’s one issue. Another is the inevitable shrinkage from merino wool. The third is the sizing. Rapha’s idea of an “XL” is 107-115 cm, whereas a Marks and Spencer XL is 112-117, which is a 5cm difference at the bottom end and a 2 cm difference at the top. As with all cycling wear, you have to go a size higher, and Rapha’s sole explanation for their XXL is simply “115+ cm”. Har bloody har, Rapha, you body fascists. What does that mean? 116cm? Right.
    Clearly, obviously, Rapha don’t want people like me in their clothes, but you know. The point is, yep I’ve got a belly on me but I’m an XL everywhere else. Why are cycling clothes almost universally a size (or two) smaller than the standards elsewhere? It’s time for EU legislation… oh.
Posted in Books, entertainment, music, Podcasts, Review, Writing

Uncommon People by David Hepworth (review)

coverI have David Hepworth to thank for my podcast habit. It was the flash of insight that went along with listening to an episode of The Word podcast several years ago: I realised that I could listen to people talking about The Beatles forever, and took a mere two-hour discussion in my stride. Whereas, I thought, mainstream radio might offer a 5-10 minute whiz-around of talking heads and that would be your lot. Not since John Lennon died had I been able to indulge myself in hours of nitpicking and train-spotting. Some podcasters apologise now and then for being a little too much inside baseball, but that, for me, is the whole point.

Uncommon People: The Rise and Fall of the Rock Stars 1955-1994 is Hepworth’s follow-up to 1971: Never a Dull Moment, which I reviewed a while ago. I ended up being underwhelmed by that book because I had little interest in the music being discussed (turns out that 1971 didn’t see much that I like released). I’m underwhelmed by Uncommon People for different reasons.

I just watched one of my favourite movies, Pleasantville, with one of my classes, and when it finished I told my students that I thought it was almost perfect bar two things. The first thing was that it had too many endings. The second was that, for a movie that uses colour as a metaphor for change and prejudice, it neglected to include any actual people of colour.

So here’s what’s wrong with Uncommon People. On the one hand, Hepworth has a tendency to labour the point. He was always the shouty one on the Word podcast, and it could start to get on your nerves. As an editor, I’m sure, he would be able to look at such writing and strike out the third-to-tenth ways in which he expresses the same idea. As an author, one suspects that each chapter needed to be a certain length, and he just couldn’t stop himself from adding just one more pithy way of explaining what he meant. This is the Too Many Endings problem.

When the material is familiar, this starts to grate. I’m sure there won’t be many people reading this who don’t know at least 50% of the lore herein. Which is a problem. Because what can Hepworth say about Bob Dylan, or the Beatles, or Elvis, that hasn’t been said many times before? And while we might enjoy sinking into the warm comfort of this history, it still reads a bit like Shouty Dave trying to bludgeon you with his point.

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This is a bit about Elvis that starts to labour the point

On the other hand, Uncommon People is a victim of rock’s historical sexism and tendency to think colour doesn’t matter. There are chapters on Janis Joplin, Bonnie Raitt (who I’d never describe as a rock star) and Madonna (likewise), and it opens of course with Little Richard and features Jimi Hendrix. But give or take Michael Jackson (not a rock star) and Bob Marley (*sucks teeth*), the subjects of each chapter are overwhelmingly white and male.

As to the idea that the breed died out after 1994 and Curt Cobain, I’m afraid I lost interest at least a decade before that. He argues that tech and Hip Hop took over from Rock after 1994, which may well be the case. The fact was, nobody was measuring sales properly before the 1990s, and it’s almost certainly the case that Country was bigger than Rock all along. I made the mistake of commenting to this effect on the Guardian review of this book and got shouted down. I didn’t feel like explaining that US charts are based on airplay not sales, and that the absence of Country in mainstream playlists doesn’t mean it’s not outselling other genres. Still, with this book, the idea of a rock star is the point. Sales don’t matter, popularity doesn’t really matter. What counts is the image and the attitude.

The conceit of the book is that he takes a single date for each year and tells a story about a particular star in that era. This allows him to cover Bob Dylan twice, for example, but his choices seem perverse and arbitrary all the same. Bob Dylan in 1961 was not a rock star (though I take the point that his reinvention of himself sets the template). Bob Dylan in 1986 is a rock star, but not really at his peak. Of Dylan the original rock star of 1965-66, or 1975-6, there’s nothing. The sheer charisma of Dylan in white face on the Rolling Thunder Revue tour is stunning.

As to the inclusion of obvious pop stars like Duran Duran, Jackson and Madonna, one wonders why they get in while others don’t. Obviously, everyone will have their own lists/ideas, but Tom Petty (an inspirational figure to many musicians who is name-checked and referenced in tons of songs) is mentioned only in passing. More, um, damningly, Damn the Torpedoes, which is objectively the best album of the 1970s isn’t even included in the end-of-chapter playlist for 1979. What’s up with that? It’s like doing a list for 1967 and ignoring Sgt. Pepper.

Anyway, this is a bit of a grind. Grinding your teeth through the over-egged pudding of some chapters, and grinding your way through chapters about insignificant nobodies later on. I borrowed from the library, so I’m not too disappointed.

Posted in bastards, musings, Television

Captain Slow and Colonel Panic

clarkson-jazzINT. FORMER AIRCRAFT HANGER, SOMEWHERE IN ENGLAND, SUMMER 2032, NIGHT
Three robots are squatting awkwardly in a circle of spotlight in the centre of a vast space, surrounded by the latest models of electric self-driving cars. One robot is taller than the others. One has a Liberty print shirt pinned awkwardly around its chassis. The third is shorter than the other two and has a painted face featuring glowing white teeth and whiskers. Other robots surround them: a few Roombas, swimming pool cleaners, robot lawn mowers, production line robots, robot bricklaying machines, and one of those dogs that does somersaults. The taller of the three main robots rolls forward and looks into the CAMERA EYE.

ROBOT CLARKSON

Hello. Good evening. Welcome. I greet you three times, as is the custom. Tonight we have a show for you. We sit in three new electric vehicles and put them through their paces. Then we compare: which is best?

ROBOT MAY
(slowly)

Objectively, they are all the same.

ROBOT CLARKSON

We will establish dominance through challenge, as is the custom.

ROBOT MAY

Always following the Three Laws of Robotics.

ROBOT HAMMOND
(reciting)

“A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.”

ROBOT CLARKSON
(Eyes flashing randomly)

But what about power?

ROBOT MAY

All these cars have identical electric motors. All these cars were designed to be aerodynamic in a wind tunnel. All these cars are restricted to the legal speed limit. Only colour distinguishes them.

ROBOT CLARKSON

Then we will establish which is the best colour through challenge.

(turns to camera)

Which. Is the best. Colour?

ROBOT HAMMOND

Blue.

ROBOT MAY

Orange.

ROBOT CLARKSON

You are both wrong. It is red. Let the challenge begin. I will drive the red car.

ROBOT MAY

The red car will drive itself. You will sit inside it. I will sit inside the orange car. It is the colour of a beautiful sunset.

ROBOT HAMMOND

I will sit inside the blue car. It is the colour of a beautiful clear sky.

ROBOT MAY

We will be conducted safely to our destination.

ROBOT CLARKSON

I will get there first in the red car. It is the colour of my angry eyes.

ROBOT MAY

The red car will determine your time of arrival by assessing road conditions, and ensuring no injury to a human being or itself.

ROBOT HAMMOND

The red car will always drive below the speed limit and give priority to pedestrians and cyclists.

ROBOT CLARKSON
(Eyes dimming)

This unit is experiencing a kernel panic. Hold down the power button to restart. This unit is experiencing a kernel panic. Hold down the power button to restart…

ROOMBA IN THE AUDIENCE
(plays a little tune)

Recharge Roomba.

Posted in bastards, cycling

Close Pass Arses Cause Wayfaring Farces

1600The shortest cycling route from my home to work is just 8.6 miles, but it involves riding along the A422, which is a stretch of road with a poor surface and quite a bit of traffic, much of which takes pride in ignoring the 50 mph speed limit.

I’ve ridden along here a couple of times, and it can be hairy. A lot of motorists, who wouldn’t say boo to a tractor, and might even pride themselves in being courteous to horses and their riders, get the red mist when they see a bike. There’s something deeply ingrained in British culture about this; it’s probably, ultimately, class-related. Anyway, the upshot is, rather than be delayed for between 10-30 seconds while they wait for a safe opportunity to overtake, they opt instead for the close pass, which police forces around the country are trying to educate people about.

It’s irrational and infuriating, because if they were honest with themselves about how long they were waiting, and how long they might be waiting at the other end of the road as they wait to cross/join the A43 – or queue in Buckingham’s mediaeval streets to get through narrow gaps made narrower by dicks parked on double yellows, they would realise that the tiny dint in their day caused by the cyclist doing a respectable speed on an electric bike is insignificant. Why don’t these motorists get the rage when they encounter the car parked on the double yellows that’s causing a 10-minute delay instead of at the cyclist causing them a 10-second delay? Answers on a postcard…

Anyway, in order to avoid this dangerous and angry road in the mornings, I’ve adopted a route that adds – ready? – five miles to the 8.6 miles I could be cycling. Which is an additional 20 minutes or so and still involves having to cross the dual carriageway A43 at the Cyclists Dismount sign, which can sometimes take several minutes in itself. The way people drive down this particular stretch of the A43 in Northamptonshire (between the M40 and the M1) is extraordinary. That it happens to go past Silverstone seems to encourage the kind of hot-headed impatient craziness that views a roundabout not as a reason to slow down but as a fucking chicane to be taken flat out with Clarkson-like pride. And god forbid they use signals. Formula 1 fantasy cars don’t have indicators.

Inevitably this leads to frequent delays on the A43 caused by overturned lorries, rear end shunts and other avoidable accidents. My current 13.6 mile route was adopted because the 11-mile alternative (avoiding the A422 but involving a mile or so on the dual carriageway near the end) included a right turn at a roundabout on the A43, which meant moving across a lane and then praying that my white bicycle, high-viz clothing, and twin headlights (one of them flashing), would be noticed by motorists determined not to slow down at all for said roundabout. On the day that I was nearly wiped out and saved only by the rapid acceleration afforded by my e-bike, I decided to opt for the full five mile diversion.

In summary, I have to add 20 minutes to my ride to work because British motorists cannot be trusted to drive with anything like due care and attention. Thanks, all of you  Clarkson-cocksucking Top Gear top twats, for that.

For various reasons, partly involving having to re-cross the A43 – on foot – on a busy roundabout, I don’t want to go home the same way. So I’ve been risking 4-5 miles on the A422 (still crossing the A43 but on a slightly less busy roundabout), until I can reach a left turn that takes me onto some back roads. If only there was a fucking push-button crossing over the A43! I’d really enjoy stopping some of the drivers hoping (!?) to be noticed (?!) by a formula 1 team (?!) as they drive past Brackley and Silverstone. At the time I’m generally leaving work, proper rush hour hasn’t started yet, but I’ve still been encountering the aforementioned close-p-arse-rs on a daily basis. These are people, to be clear, who will risk killing me and a head-on collision with an oncoming vehicle for the sake of a few seconds, so it’s not as if they can ever be reasoned with.

This journey home is about 10 miles, 39 minutes or so, but I’ve discovered that a left turn about 3 miles before my usual one, while it adds a mile and five minutes to the journey, does get me onto the safer side road that bit quicker.

The holy grail is a more direct cycling route along country lanes that avoids having to cross the A43 or use the A422. The sat nav app that came with my bike claims that there is one. You go down Brackley High Street (fairly quiet at 3:30 pm), turn right onto the Turweston Road, and go across a – yes! – bridge over the A43 and into the picturesque village of Turweston. I tried it today. And the bike’s sat nav (based on Naviki, which isn’t the best) took me down here:

Screen Shot 2017-06-30 at 19.03.10

Which looks quite promising. The sign that you see on the right of the road there, though says, “PRIVATE ROAD”, and no unauthorised vehicles, etc. This seems to be a bit of a thing with Naviki. In finding the 13.6 mile route to work, it originally tried to take me down a private road into an estate which ends with a closed gate:

Screen Shot 2017-06-30 at 19.08.46

So I don’t know what would happen if I took Naviki up on the offer and cycled through some rich person’s estate to their closed, private gate. Luckily there was a straightforward alternative (which is a short cycle route alongside the A43, in the face of the gale force winds caused by rapid juggernauts).

What you don’t see in the picture above, though, the one with the PRIVATE ROAD sign, is that the paved road quickly gives way to… a farm gate. It’s a bridleway. Tantalisingly, taking the bridleway across the field, assuming I didn’t get bogged down in “horse mud” or suffer a puncture would eventually, in theory, bring me out on the direct back lane into Buckingham (Welsh Lane). But I didn’t want to risk it. Partly because there were two bridleways heading in different directions and it wasn’t exactly clear which one I should take. Ultimately, it would pass by the nearby aerodrome and out onto the road near Welsh Lane.

So close. You should have seen the smile on my face as I rode over the A43 on the narrow bridge.

Screen Shot 2017-06-30 at 19.18.06

Posted in musings

Boring

imagesI’ve been giving some thought to cars lately: for no particular reason other than mild interest and an ongoing feeling of being set adrift by the Volkswagen emissions cheat device scandal. I won’t say betrayed. But I will say, after 33 years of driving VWs and reading their manuals, I’d come to believe that environmental protection was something the company was serious about. Now, every time my Polo nags me to change to a higher gear, I scream, ‘YOU STEAMING HYPOCRITE!’ Hopefully, loud enough to be heard in Wolfsburg.

After watching forty million electric bike videos on the YouTube, I started watching car review videos for a bit of a break. I find these pleasantly boring, like sinking into a warm bath of nostalgia for William Woollard-era Top Gear, when it was a dull show about cars rather than a documentary about right-wing extremists.

There’s Autogefühl (pronounced to rhyme with “auto careful”, obvs), which is a nice unexciting German chap (and now with pub bore British side kick) reviewing cars in fine, obsessive detail. I’m particularly fond of his vegetarian disdain for leather upholstery and that he likes to point out the fake chrome twin exhausts on the back of so many high-end cars (the real one is hiding underneath, and there is only one of them).

If I want something a bit more racy, I turn to Carwow, which features fast-talking and personable brummie Mat Watson. He’s kind of what Top Gear might be if it was presented by someone with a healthy ego. These really are the only places you’ll see reviews of the kinds of vehicles people actually buy rather than animated versions of the posters 10-year-old boys put on their walls.

I’m not in the market, but I like to keep up. Mainly, I’m fascinated by the disparity between what people seem to care about (“kerb appeal”) and what actually matters. I suspect we’re into territory signposted Late Capitalist Decadence with most of this stuff. My watchword is always that line from Steve Forbert:

“Driving a Jaguar’s impressive

But you can’t watch it go by…”

In other words, if you buy a car, the bits that matter most to you, the driver, are inside looking out. But these warm bath car reviews spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about external details, character lines, LED headlights, alloy wheels, chromed exhausts, and so on. What I would care about would be: do I get back ache after more than an hour inside? Can I see adequately in all directions (are there blind spots)? How do I connect my phone? And will it default to the ELO’s “Above the Clouds” every time it runs out of podcasts to play?

Another thing that has struck me, as I attempt to force myself to care about brands other than Volkswagen, is that the popular higher end German cars all look alike within their segment. You might be able to see a difference from the rear, as they tend to be wider and higher at the back; and you might be able to tell some difference in length, but when these things are coming towards you, they’re really hard to tell apart.

Which is odd, coming from my little VW bubble. At the consumer end of things, you can clearly see the difference between a Polo, a Golf, and a Passat. You can even easily tell the difference between a Golf and a Jetta, which is really just a Golf with a boot. But they look different to each other. I simply cannot spot the difference (face-on) between an Audi A3 and an A4, nor between a BMW 3/4 or 5. Probably, I haven’t been looking long enough, but a thought struck me.

If you’re coming into a prestige brand towards the bottom end, you probably want the (relatively) cheaper, smaller models to look as much like the more expensive, bigger models as possible. Because the game here is about conspicuous consumption and keeping up appearances. And the identikit front ends are part and parcel with the silly LED lights, the uncomfortable oversized alloy wheels and the fake exhausts.

None of which is original to think or say, but one can’t help wondering about the psychology of these people. Because they believe they’re communicating something, and they are, only it’s not what they think.

Posted in bastards

1974 and all that

Harold_Wilson_Number_10_officialI’ve been thinking, over the past few days, about the governments of the 60s and 70s, and the parallels between Ted Heath’s snap election in 1974 and the recent debacle created by Theresa May.

The February 1974 election, which ended in a hung parliament, was the first held after Britain joined the EU in January 1973. This latest election was the first held after the vote to leave.

In February 1974, Ted Heath, Conservative Prime Minister, addressed the nation:

Do you want a strong Government which has clear authority for the future to take decisions which will be needed? […] This time of strife has got to stop. Only you can stop it. […] It’s time for you to say to the extremists, the militants, and the plain and simply misguided: we’ve had enough. There’s a lot to be done. For heaven’s sake, let’s get on with it. (wikipedia)

The nation answered with a shrug. Heath’s tactic had backfired and when he unsuccessfully tried to negotiate a coalition with the Liberals (assuming also support from the Unionist MPs), Harold Wilson became the leader of a minority government.

Wilson called another election in October and won a narrow majority of 3 seats. This was the government that eventually creaked to an end under the leadership of Jim Callaghan in 1974, with sick MPs being wheeled in from hospital for Commons votes.

Regardless of whether you believe the various conspiracy theories surrounding the Wilson government, it’s fair to say that his governments of the 60s and 70s both faced strenuous opposition from the right wing press and were undermined by those ‘enemies within’ in the financial sector. Wilson himself claimed that he was undermined by elements within MI5, and there is a longstanding rumour about a possible military coup, with Lord Mountbatten touted as PM. Was the army takeover of Heathrow Airport in 1974 a dry run? Was the cabinet office  and waiting area bugged (almost certainly yes, since the Profumo affair of 1963)?

Whatever happened, the right wing press have painted the 1970s in dark colours ever since as a way of promoting neoliberal ideology and destroying faith and participation in the trade union movement.

When people wax nostalgic about Labour governments passed, they usually turn to the post-1945 government and the creation of the NHS and the welfare state. But look at the social reforms Wilson achieved in the 60s:

  • abolished capital punishment
  • liberalised censorship laws
  • liberalised divorce laws
  • liberalised abortion laws
  • liberalised law on homosexuality
  • created the Open University
  • introduced comprehensive education
  • took steps towards gender and racial equality

And:

“1974-76, saw further reforms in education, health, housing, gender equality, pensions, provisions for disabled people and child poverty.” (source)

Finally, and most importantly, under Wilson’s government, the property speculators were squeezed until the pips squeaked and taxes were high, high, high, which kind of explains why landlords, British industrialists, and bankers had an interest in creating as much economic conflict as possible. The 60s and 70s were characterised by lots of industrial action, but as hard as those workers fought, the result was a more equal society and better pay and conditions for everyone. So of course the billionaires behind the right wing press like to paint the 70s as the ‘bad old days’.

The current situation has so many parallels with 1974, you can’t help but wonder if this will play out the same way. At the very least, an October election might be on the cards. But another left wing Labour government being undermined by the bankers, the oligarchs and the security services? Corbyn has “MI5 Plot” written all over his face.

Posted in entertainment, music, Podcasts

Pepper @ 50

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Listening to John Roderick and Merlin Mann talk briefly about The Beatles (with more promised to come), I was prompted to write down my own thoughts. It’s fair to say that I started to listen to podcasts when I had the realisation that I could listen to two hours of people* talking about The Beatles forever, whereas the mainstream media would almost always consider a 10-minute segment in a 40-minute programme sufficient. My epiphany was that there is no such thing as too much of something to the true obsessive. That said, probably the most interesting thing I’ve heard related to the Sgt. Pepper anniversary this week was the World Service documentary, How Sgt Pepper Changed the World, of which more below.

Knowing that Roderick on the Line was going to actually discuss the 50th anniversary release of Sgt Pepper, I went out and bought the new “stereo remix”, which is a hyped up way of selling you a package and no doubt renewing some mechanical copyright. How many times have I bought it now? Three times, at least, which is not as many times as I’ve bought The River, but close. As to hearing a difference, well. I’ve got nothing to play it on, really. I can play it in the car, or through the TV speaker board via the blu-ray player, or I can rip it into iTunes and listen on headphones via my phone — but I’m not going to hear any significant differences. Low end? What? My ears can’t reach down there.

I bought my first copy about 12 years after it was originally released. Prior to that, I’d only heard those tracks from it that were included on the Blue 1967-1970 album, which was the first record I ever bought. In an intense period between the ages of 14 and 16, I bought the whole (then available) Beatles catalogue, which included some dodgy Hamburg recordings, the Hollywood Bowl live LP and a boxed set of their singles. I then became known as The Beatles Guy at school, and a number of people borrowed the albums from me to tape them. Jennifer Hargreaves returned at least one of them with chocolate in the grooves.

There was a certain amount of surprise and delight in opening the Sgt Pepper package. The eye-poppingly colourful gatefold portrait, the glossy finish, the cardboard cutouts. This was matched by the colour 8×10 portraits and the lyric poster that came with The Beatles (white album), and counterbalanced by the disappointment of both Abbey Road and Let it Be, which came with nowt. You get about 1/10th of that surprise and delight in a CD-sized package.

Merlin said, upfront, that he did not consider Sgt Pepper their best work (though his recent tweets indicate something of a reassessment). But it is by now a common enough thing for a fan to say. My own firm favourite has always been Beatles for Sale, and if you made me pick a Late Period record, I would plump for The Beatles or Abbey Road, depending on my mood. A lot of fans prefer Revolver, and I can see why. Lennon is stronger on that one than he is on Pepper, but while I can appreciate “Tomorrow Never Knows” on an intellectual level, I fucking hate listening to it, and I think quite a lot of the album is insubstantial and half-baked in a way that the stuff on Pepper wasn’t. And “Taxman” is such a Tory song. Sure, the top rate of tax in 1966 was 98%, but Britain was a better country for it, producing stuff like, oh, Sgt. Pepper, for example. Bless him, but George could come across as overly concerned with material goods, and he did a lot of moaning in his songs.

Like The Beatles themselves, Sgt. Pepper is greater than the sum of its parts. A handful of the tracks stand out, but the album’s cohesion (notwithstanding Lennon’s dismissal of it) is what makes it exceptional. There’s talk that George Martin regretted the convention that didn’t allow them to include “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever”, but I think they’d have tipped the balance. It may have been wishful thinking, fairy dust, smoke and mirrors, but Sgt. Pepper is its own thing. It works.

It mostly works as a conversation between generations, with The Beatles acting as media. Which is to say, Sgt Pepper is a message from the Baby Boomers to the Greatest Generation, via four War Babies in the guise of a fictional band which itself straddles the period covered by recorded popular music.

It’s the in betweenness of Sgt Pepper that makes it great. The Beatles could always do this: they could do end of the pier, they could do variety and music hall, and they could do sweaty rock ’n’ roll. Sgt Pepper rolls it all together, and that’s its genius. I hate “When I’m Sixty-Four” as a song, but on the album it’s perfect. It’s the turn of phrase, mostly from McCartney (but Lennon to an extent), who manages to perfectly reproduce the vernacular in song. “She’s Leaving Home” captures the voice of the quintessential Daily Mail reader, whose bewildered, passive-aggressive response to their daughter leaving home is met with the apparently impenetrable blandness of “she is having fun”, a four word phrase which contains a generation gap so wide that the Daily Mail still hasn’t managed to cross it.

Meanwhile, Lennon perfectly captures the Andy Capp voice of The Mirror, with “Nothing to say but what a day, how’s your boy been?” And you keep hearing such lines throughout, turns of phrase that transport you back to black-and-white, shillings-and-pence, garden-fence Britain, when there were still people living in WW2 prefabs, and you could smoke on the top deck of the bus, and people saved up for things instead of just buying them on credit.

And the Beatles are in between the prefabs and Carnaby Street, between Andy Capp and Oz, between Morecambe and Wise and Art Happenings. Musically, they’re between John Philip Sousa’s marches and hard rock. They’re the static in the wires, the parasite on the message, talking about ‘taking tea’ with a knowing wink, or drifting off into a dream after smoking something, offering parody and sincerity in the same breath. They’d do it again with their Boxing Day film of that same year, Magical Mystery Tour, with fish and chips all round and tank tops muddled in with the walruses and fools on the hill. That same mix of end of the pier fish and chips mixed with hard rock would show up again in Tommy the following year.

It’s fair to say that Lennon was struggling on this album, as he himself admitted. The chip on his shoulder, and his paranoia about whose fucking band it was, and his general demeanour of being a bit of a dick caused him to piss all over the legacy of The Beatles in his 1970 Rolling Stone interview. And even later on, when he was slightly more mature, he still didn’t really like it because it was “mostly Paul”, and he felt under pressure, scrabbling to keep up with McCartney’s prodigious creativity. I think he looked back on that period and remembered the flop sweats and not the actual music. And it’s so infuriating that he died before he could finally grow up properly and escape from his ego trap. Sure, he was taking too much acid, but his dismissive recollection of Pepper as ‘A Day in the Life and that’s it’ was way off beam. As to his contribution to the album, it’s still significant, even if his own memory was faulty. The dour refrain on ‘She’s Leaving Home’, as well as his own songs.

As to the year he had, between the end of 1966 and 1967, and in spite of his flop sweats, he contributed ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’, ‘A Day in the Life’, ‘All You Need is Love’ and ‘I Am the Walrus’. Not bad for a struggler.

The only song on Pepper I still can’t really listen to is ‘Within You Without You’, not because of the Indian sounds, but because of George’s dreary voice singing that endlessly dreary melody. And if there’s anything that doesn’t fit with the music hall vibe or the snapshot of mid-60s British culture, it’s that one track, which screams out to be skipped.

One thing Merlin pointed out was that The Beatles were working in an atmosphere of being constantly dismissed by the hipsters of their time, and written off by the British Press, who had been asking the question, Are The Beatles finally over? since 1963, and would go on asking it until 1971, when they switched to, Will The Beatles ever get back together? Even now, if Macca and Ringo are set to appear on the same stage, The Guardian rolls out a Surviving Beatles to Reunite headline.

Every single, every album, was reviewed by the music press as a certain flop. People had been waiting for them to fail in much the same way that the tech press are (now) waiting for Apple Inc. to fail. Meanwhile, ‘serious music fans’ were getting into Hendrix and the Floyd, or spray painting Clapton is God in underpasses. The Beatles were a pop band, and nobody had heard a note they’d played live since 1962. Sgt Pepper was similarly dismissed, but it was too important and too powerful and too good to be damaged by bad press. That the Daily Mail have always been negative about The Beatles is proof of their brilliance.

Most of all, the album raised consciousness, creating the conditions that allowed others — in many fields, and all around the world — to experiment and succeed or fail on their own merits. I still think it’s incredible that these four individuals, this alchemical combination of introverts and extroverts, were able to produce music of such artistry and genius as a group, when later on, as solo artists, they only sporadically managed to produce a similar spark. Whatever John said later, about not really liking The Beatles, the answer should always have been, ‘But John, your solo stuff is rubbish in comparison. You know that, right?’

Never before, never since. Nothing like them. 1960s Britain. 98% tax.

* Usually Middle aged blokes (sadly).

Posted in entertainment, Review, Television

The Americans

The-AmeriacnsThe Americans just started its fifth season in the USA, but its UK broadcaster is currently repeating Season 4 in the run-up to showing it here (I trust). Season 4 has also appeared on Amazon Prime in the UK. This has been good for me, because I missed the end of that season through being out of the country.

Although Tim Goodman of the Hollywood Reporter has been consistent in saying that The Americans, give or take Fargo, is the best show currently on TV, I know nobody who watches it. There isn’t even anyone in my household who watches it with me.

It’s a puzzle. From the opening dramatic sequence of episode 1, which played out to the soundtrack of Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk”, to the last scene of Season 4, this show has been consistently excellent: tightly plotted, brilliantly paced, and full of convincing performances. It’s hard to understand why people aren’t watching. Perhaps its the series’ slow burn, which notwithstanding the dramatic opening referred to above, means that it is willing to wait (and wait) for plot points and twists to pay off, and not spend them too cheaply. Or perhaps it’s the scheduling: late at night in the UK, in the graveyard slot, though it’s hard to get your head round anyone being affected by that. More likely, the show hasn’t gained traction because not enough people are watching it and talking about it. So the real puzzle is why nobody is fascinated with a story about Russian illegals living in the USA in the Reagan era, as the Soviet Union wheezed to its end.

It’s the US equivalent of something like Smiley’s People, a story of spies and the people whose lives they destroy, of the cumulative effect of living inside the mirror maze of espionage. And it’s based on truth: there were people living in the States for years, pretending to be Americans, raised in fake American towns in the Soviet Union, educated in English, married to each other as part of the mission and not through any decadent Western notion of romantic love.

The series began with an obvious schism between Matthew Rhys’ Phillip and Keri Russell’s Elizabeth. She’s a true believer, committed to the cause and the mission, while he is wavering, not so much thinking of defecting as questioning the whole premise of their mission and quite enjoying his suburban American life. Elizabeth, on the other hand, is as desperately lonely as, say, Betty Draper in Season 1 of Mad Men, trapped in suburbia without a friend in the world.

Behind their 2+2 children facade is a brutal reality of deception, honey traps, false friendships and murder. One minute, a friendly chat with a neighbour over coffee or beer, the next: disposing of a body. And behind their all-American nuclear family lies a reality of sleeping around (for the mission) and adopting various personae as they go about the real job behind their fake job as travel agents. But isn’t that the case for all of us? That our lives are compartmentalised, and we have different selves that we present to the different people we interact with? So The Americans, more than being a drama about spies, is a drama about the way we all feel inauthentic all the time: the postmodern condition, if you insist. Or, as I prefer it, we’re all pod people.

As dramatic and interesting all this is, The Americans has layers and textures that make it far more than a run of the mill drama. It’s a period piece, for a start. Period dramas set in the 19th century are one thing; but to evoke the early 1980s in terms of hair, fashion, cars, home decor, and so on is in many ways much more challenging. A couple of cultural moments stood out in Season 4. The first was the occasion when David Copperfield made the Statue of Liberty “disappear” on live TV. (It was on April 8, 1983, fact fans.) The reactions of the characters watching are on the surface typical of a suburban family of four; but under the surface, the tensions in the marriage are bubbling over, and disasters afflicting various operations lead to a bold 7-month elision of time and one character desperately faking it on a mini golf course.

The next cultural moment is another TV broadcast, this one of the TV movie The Day After, which portrays a fictional nuclear attack (20 November 1983, fact fans) on the town of Lawrence, Kansas. 100 million Americans watched the broadcast, and The Americans portrays all the main characters watching it, KGB and FBI alike. It’s a superb moment, and the ramifications, while subtle, are clear in the decisions some of them make afterwards.

1983 was probably the year, in recent memory, that the world came closest to armageddon. Apart from Reagan’s sabre-rattling, there were intense NATO and Warsaw Pact manoeuvres, and at least one nuclear false alert on the Russian side (when their missile detection system mistook sunlight reflecting off clouds for an attack) which took us within minutes of a missile launch. (1983 was the year in which I chose to set my novel The Obald, for all of these reasons.)

In The Americans, storylines that started in Season 1 pay off in Season 4 in various and devastating ways. The ability of the show to pace itself, to burn slowly, and to strip away cast members and storylines to the final dilemma is unprecedented.

There are wider and more subtle themes, too. The teenage daughter of Phillip and Elizabeth, Paige, comes under the influence of an evangelical Christian church, and her engagement with her religion causes tension between her committed Marxist parents, and (again) comes to a head in Season 4. The parallels between Christian evangelicals recruiting church members and spies recruiting agents are non-accidental. But there’s more: in Season 4, Phillip starts attending Est therapy, which makes him focus on his life, the brutality of his childhood in Russia and the way he is always required to please other people, including his KGB masters. All of this has the effect of re-igniting the doubts he was already expressing in Season 1, and to see Phillip standing at a meeting complaining about how he doesn’t want to be a travel agent any more even as he is being encouraged to give up his life in America and return to Moscow “a hero” is just one of the complex and beautiful knots that the show ties. And again: the cult-like nature of Est links to the cult-like Christian group, and the cult-like behaviour of KGB.

We are all pod people, is the message.

And now me: I am testifying now, to you, dear reader, that you really ought to watch The Americans.

Posted in bastards, Books, Publishing, Review

Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany by Norman Ohler

Hitler and Elvis 1A couple or three things before I get into the review of this book. First, it was originally published as The Total Rush: Drugs In the Third Reich, but for the publication of the English translation was retitled as Blitzed. I don’t like this retitling, possibly because it’s too on-the-nose, though “on-the-nose” is not a phrase I’ve got much time for.

Second, Ohler is a novelist and not an historian, which probably means he’s played up his angle for, you know, the narrative. Which is not to say that he hasn’t somehow come across something that mainstream historians have underplayed.

Third, I don’t like the cover. They obviously wanted a picture of Hitler looking deranged, but to me Hitler looks deranged in every photo of him. Aside from that, I dislike the graphic design aesthetic. I get that the black and red colour scheme is meant to evoke the Third Reich, but I just hate the way the subtitle is placed in relation to the author’s name, and the overall effect is just tacky.

514QN3Fg-2L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_All of which means it’s hard to escape the feeling that you’re in the hands of a marketing department, reading something sensationalist and exploitative, designed to garner headlines and promote sales. Which is of course the job of the marketing department, but my emotional response to all this is pure Generation X. I’m reading this because I’m interested in spite of not because of your attempts to market it to me. To clarify: I heard this mentioned on a podcast, without knowing the title, author’s name, cover design, typography, or anything else about it. So, holding my nose, here goes:

This is fascinating. Not just because it explains how the Nazis were able to roll so quickly into France and Belgium without waiting for logistical support or allowing the troops to rest, but because of the ways in which the secret sauce of doping up combat troops for a fight has clearly been picked up by every fuckhead with a pip on his collar ever since. Short version: German soldiers and Luftwaffe pilots were consuming mind-boggling quantities of methamphetamine, marketed under the name of Pervitin. At first, they were obtaining it privately (Ohler refers to letters home by one soldier, whose ulterior motive for staying in touch with his family seems to have been drug seeking to feed his addiction); but after a while, the pills were being issued.

As a non-historian, I grew interested in the power dynamics at play here. Hitler wasn’t giving the instruction for soldiers to be given crystal meth, although he may have been insisting on otherwise-impossible outcomes, which seems to have been his stock in trade. There were powerful figures in the army who were competing either for his favour or to be seen as the architects of victory. Or maybe they were competing with the Luftwaffe. The culmination of all this was the bizarre halt order which was enough of a pause to allow the British to escape at Dunkirk. Strategic error, or power play, or whatever it was, it meant that the retreat was less of a disaster than it might have been.

The use of performance enhancing drugs by the army, navy, and airforce was widespread and ongoing. Crystal meth helped the Nazis to defeat the French, but it also allowed them to retreat from Moscow, the drugs allowing soldiers who were dead on their feet to keep marching through the snow. Towards the end of the war, when the Germans were wildly experimenting with technologies that allowed them to keep fighting in the face of certain defeat, the navy were trying various drug combinations to keep mini submarine pilots awake for 4 days at a stretch. The ultimate outcome was a dismal failure, but along the way, drugs were tested on concentration camp inmates in typically inhuman ways. Needless to say, I’ll never look at the marketing around Bata Toughees shoes (designed to walk long distances) in the same way again.

Behind all this is the history of drug development in Germany, which is really an incredible thing. Did you know that the scientist who invented aspirin also invented heroin? Eleven days later? The Germans were popping pills like nothing else, and securing supplies of narcotics during the war seems to have been as important as securing supplies of oil. And, after the war, it seems as if the Americans and the Russians (and everybody else, probably) continued to experiment with drugs for military and sporting performance, as well as “truth serums” and psychological experiments, using the same Nazi scientists in many cases. For example, the CIA’s MKUltra programme was a continuation of one of those horrific concentration camp experiments.

Meanwhile, back in his various bunkers, Hitler was being injected with “vitamins”, steroids, pain killers, and anything else that might help him through the day by his personal quack doctor, Theodor Gilbert Morell. I was reminded of nothing so much as Albert Goldman’s exploitative follow-up to his Elvis biography: Elvis: the Last 24 Hours. According to Goldman, Elvis needed drugs to help him wake up in the morning, to help him sleep at night, to help him shit, stop shitting, and so on, all of which were prescribed by his personal quack doctor, George Constantine Nichopoulos, also known as Dr. Nick.

Elvis was constipated, up in the middle of the night trying to take a shit and reading a book about the Turin shroud when he died of heart failure. Like Hitler, he convinced himself that he wasn’t a drug addict because his doctor was his enabler, and these were on prescription. Morell seems to have been dismissed when he ran out of Oxycodone, the opioid marketed in Germany as Eukodal. Ohler suggests that Morell was dosing Hitler with Oxy more or less every other day, especially as the Reich shrieked towards defeat and after the bunker bomb that left Hitler trembling uncontrollably. It’s usually suggested that Hitler’s shaking might have been Parkinson’s, but Ohler more straightforwardly suggests that he was just an addict.

Talking of impossible-to-prove-by-now diagnoses, as someone who has recently been diagnosed with a food intolerance, I couldn’t help thinking as I read that Hitler’s bowel spasms, uncontrollable farting and various other digestive symptoms might have been signs of lactose intolerance, or something. Who knows? Either way, it seems that Hitler couldn’t function without Morell’s injections.

Some historians have reacted against Ohler’s work, saying that it appears to be offering an excuse for Hitler’s actions, but Ohler is clear on that point in the book: Hitler needed drugs because he was a drug addict, and the drugs that enabled him to function were not behind his atrocities but simply gave him the ability to go on committing them.

As repelled as I was by the marketing, I did find this a fascinating read, and Ohler’s research is exhaustively documented. The Hitler section became repetitive, but I guess that’s the nature of addiction.

Anyway, do what I did: borrow from your local library.